‘But who can that maharishi be?’
‘I don’t know. But when I go back to Ayodhya...’
‘If we are to maintain that no ships attacked us on the Godavari, My Lord, then what reason can there be for my not going back to Ayodhya? It will arouse suspicion. More importantly, I can only uncover the true identity of the master when I’m in Ayodhya. Despite my father’s best efforts, I still have eyes and ears in the impregnable city.’
Shiva considered this for a moment. He agreed with the train of thought. Moreover, now that Dilipa had chosen to align himself against Shiva, Bhagirath would be even more eager to prove his loyalty to him.
Shiva nodded. ‘All right, go to Ayodhya.’
‘But My Lord, when the time comes, I hope Ayodhya and Swadweep will be shown some kindness.’
‘We have not used the Somras excessively, My Lord. Only a few Chandravanshi nobles use it, and that too, sparingly. It is the Meluhans who have abused its usage. That is what has made Evil rise. Therefore it is only fair that when the Somras is banned, this ban be imposed only on Meluha. Swadweep has not benefited from the drink of the gods. I hope we will be allowed to use it.’
‘You didn’t choose to use less Somras, Bhagirath,’ said Shiva. ‘You just didn’t have the opportunity to do so. If you had, the situation would have been very different. You know that just as much as I do.’
‘Yes, Meluha has used more. So naturally, they will suffer more. But let me make one thing clear. If I decide the Somras is Evil, then no one will use it. No one.’
Bhagirath kept silent.
‘Is that clear?’ asked Shiva.
‘Of course, My Lord.’
The Shorter Route
A caravan of five hundred people was moving up the northern path from Panchavati towards the Vasudev city of Ujjain. Shiva and his family were in the centre, surrounded by half a brigade of joint Naga and Branga soldiers in standard defensive formations. Kali did not want to reveal this route to anyone from Shiva’s original convoy, so none of them were included. Nandi and Parshuram were the only exceptions. Brahaspati had been included for Shiva might need his advice in understanding what the Vasudevs had to say about the Somras.
Whereas Shiva persisted in his quest and questions with Brahaspati, the old brotherly love that they had shared was missing.
Parvateshwar, Ayurvati, Anandmayi and Bhagirath, along with the original convoy, had stayed back at Panchavati. They were to leave for Kashi in a few weeks, their eastern route going through the Dandak forest, onward through Branga. Vishwadyumna was to accompany them as a guide up to Branga.
‘Ganesh, does Ujjain fall on the way from Panchavati to Meluha or do we take a detour?’ asked Shiva, goading his horse forward over the path built through the forest. It was fenced by two protective hedges. The inner layer comprised the harmless Nagavalli creepers, while the outer one had poisonous vines to prevent wild animals from entering.
‘Actually, baba, Ujjain is on the way to Swadweep. It’s to the north-east. Meluha lies to the north-west.’
Sati tried to get her bearings of Meluha and Maika at the dried mouth of the Saraswati. The Meluhan city of births was not too far from the mouth of the Narmada. ‘Does the Narmada serve as your waterway? One can sail west for Meluha and east for Ujjain and Swadweep.’
‘Yes, maa,’ answered Ganesh.
Shiva turned to his son. ‘Have you ever been to Maika? How do abandoned Naga children get adopted?’
‘Maika is the one place where there is no bias against the Nagas, baba. Perhaps the sight of helpless Naga babies, shrieking in pain as a cancerous growth bursts through their bodies, melts the hearts of the authorities. The Maika governor takes personal interest in attempting to save as many Naga babies as he can in the crucial first month after their birth. A Naga ship sails down the Narmada every month, docks at Maika late at night, and the babies born in that month are handed over to us by the Maika record-keeper. Some non-Naga parents choose to stay back and move to Panchavati for the sake of their children.’
‘Don’t the Maika authorities stop them?’
‘Actually, the tenets of Meluhan law require parents to accompany their Naga children to Panchavati. In doing so, they are following their law. But others refuse to do so. They abandon their children and return to their comfortable life in Meluha. In such cases, only the child is handed over. The Maika governor pretends not to notice this breach of law.’
Sati shook her head. She had lived in Meluha for more than one hundred years, a few of which were in Maika as an infant. She had never known any of this. It was almost like she was discovering her seemingly upright nation anew. Her father had not been the only one to break the law. It appeared as if many Meluhans valued the comforts of their land more than their duty towards their children or towards observing Lord Ram’s laws.
Shiva looked ahead to see a large ship anchored in a massive lagoon. The waters were blocked on the far side by a dense grove. Having seen the grove of floating Sundari trees in Branga, Shiva assumed these trees must also have free-floating roots. The route ahead seemed obvious. ‘I guess we have reached your secret lagoon. I assume the Narmada is beyond that grove.’
‘There is a massive river beyond that grove, baba,’ said Ganesh. ‘But it is not the Narmada. It is the Tapi. We have to cross to the other side. After that it is a few more days’ journey to the Narmada.’
Shiva smiled. ‘The Lord Almighty has blessed this land with too many rivers. India can never run short of water!’
‘Not if we abuse our rivers the way we are now abusing the Saraswati.’
Shiva nodded, silently agreeing with Ganesh.
Bhrigu tore open the letter. It was exactly what he had expected. The Vayuputras had excommunicated him.
It has been brought to our attention that daivi astras were loaded onto a fleet of ships in Karachapa. Investigations have led to the regrettable conclusion that you manufactured them, using materials that were given to you strictly for research. While we understand that you would never misuse the weapons expressly banned by our God, Lord Rudra, we cannot allow the unauthorised transport of these weapons to go unpunished. You are therefore prohibited from ever entering Pariha or interacting with a Vayuputra again. We do hope you will honour the greater promise that every friend of a Vayuputra makes to Lord Rudra: that of never using the daivi astras. It is the expectation of the council that you will surrender the weapons at once to Vayuputra Security.
What surprised Bhrigu was that the note had been signed by the Mithra, leader of the council. It was rare for the Mithra to sign orders personally. Usually, it was done by one of the Amartya Shpand, the six deputies on the council. The Vayuputras were clearly taking this very seriously.
But Bhrigu believed that he had not broken the law. He had already written to the Vayuputras that they were making the institution of the Neelkanth a mockery by not acting against this self-appointed imposter. But alas, the Vayuputras had done nothing. However, he could see how they would think he had misused their research material. Ironically, he had not. Even if he had got over his qualms about using that material, Bhrigu knew there was simply not enough to make the quantity of daivi astras that were needed. He had made his own stockpile of such weapons, using materials he himself had compiled over the years. Perhaps that was the reason why they did not have the destructive potency of the Vayuputra material. They had entire laboratories, whereas Bhrigu worked alone.