‘That means they’re not aware as yet of my escape at the Godavari,’ said Shiva. ‘Or else they would have arrested the Gunas.’
‘That is the logical conclusion.’
‘But it also means that if any Meluhan happens to check the Guna village and finds them missing, they will assume that I’m alive and am planning a confrontation.’
‘That is also a logical conclusion. But there’s nothing we can do about that, can we?’
‘No, there isn’t,’ agreed Shiva.
‘Didi!’ smiled Kali as she embraced her sister.
‘How are you doing, Kali?’ asked Sati.
‘I’m tired. My ship had to race down the Chambal and Ganga to catch up with you!’
‘Nice to meet you after so many months, Kali,’ said Shiva.
‘Likewise,’ said Kali. ‘How was Ujjain?’
‘A city that is worthy of Lord Ram,’ said Shiva.
‘Is it true that some of the Vasudevs have accompanied you here?’
‘Yes, including the chief Vasudev himself, Lord Gopal.’
Kali whistled softly. ‘I was not even aware of the chief Vasudev’s name till just the other day and now it looks like I will be meeting him soon. The scenario must be really grim for him to emerge from his seclusion like this.’
‘Change doesn’t happen easily,’ said Shiva. ‘I don’t expect the supporters of the Somras to fade into the sunset. The Vasudevs in fact believe the war has already begun, regardless of whether it has been declared or not. That it’s just a matter of time before actual hostilities break out. I agree.’
‘Is that why my ship was dragged into the Assi River?’ asked Kali. ‘I was worried that it might not make it into the harbour. This river is so small that it should actually be called a culvert!’
‘That is for the ship’s protection, Kali,’ said Shiva. ‘It was Lord Athithigva’s idea. The Kashi harbour, just like the city, is not protected by any walls. Our enemies may hesitate to attack the city itself due to their faith in Lord Rudra’s protective spirit over Kashi. But any ships anchored on the Ganga would be fair game.’
‘Hence the decision to move the ships into the Assi, which as you know, flows into the Ganga,’ said Sati. ‘The channel at the mouth of the river is narrow, thus not more than one enemy ship can come through at a time. Our ships therefore can be easily defended. Also, the Assi flows through the city of Kashi. Most Chandravanshis would not want to venture within, believing that the spirit of Lord Rudra would curse them for harming Kashi, even by mistake.’
Kali raised her eyebrows. ‘Using an enemy’s own superstition against him? I like it!’
‘Sometimes good tactics can work better than a sword edge,’ said Shiva, grinning.
‘Aah,’ said Kali, smiling. ‘You’re only saying that because you haven’t encountered my sword!’
Shiva and Sati laughed convivially.
Shiva and his core group were in the main hall of the grand Kashi Vishwanath temple. Athithigva had stepped into the inner sanctum, along with the main pandit of the temple, to offer prasad to the idols of Lord Rudra and Lady Mohini. He returned thereafter with the ritual offerings made to the gods.
‘May Lord Rudra and Lady Mohini bless our enterprise,’ said Athithigva, offering the prasad to Shiva.
Shiva took the prasad with both hands, swallowed it whole and ran his right hand over his head, thus offering his thanks to the Lord and Lady for their blessings. Meanwhile, the temple pandit distributed the prasad to everybody else. The ceremonies over, Athithigva sat down with the group to discuss the strategy for the war ahead. The pandit was led out of the temple by Kashi policemen and the entrance sealed. No one was to be allowed into the premises for the duration of the meeting.
‘My Lord, my people are forbidden any acts of violence except if it is in self-defence,’ said Athithigva. ‘So we cannot join the campaign actively with you. But all the resources of my kingdom are at your command.’
Shiva smiled. The peace-loving Kashi people would, in any case, not really make good soldiers. He had no intention of leading them into battles. ‘I know, King Athithigva. I would not ask anything of your people that they would be honour-bound to refuse. But you must be able to defend Kashi if attacked, for we intend to house many of our war resources here.’
‘We will defend it to our last breath, My Lord,’ said Athithigva.
Shiva nodded. He did not really expect the Chandravanshis to attack Kashi. He turned towards Gopal. ‘Panditji, there are many things that we need to discuss. To begin with, how do we keep the Chandravanshis out of the war theatre in Meluha? Secondly, what strategy should we adopt with Meluha?’
‘I think what Lord Ganesh and Kartik suggested is an excellent idea,’ said Gopal. ‘Let us hope we can rope in Magadh to our side.’
‘Easier said than done,’ said Kali. ‘Surapadman would be compelled by his father to seek vengeance for his stupid brother Ugrasen. And I don’t propose handing over Ganesh for what was, in fact, a just execution.’
‘So what are you suggesting, Kali?’ asked Sati.
‘Well, I’m suggesting that we either fight Magadh right away or we tell them that we will investigate and hand over the Naga culprit as soon as we lay our hands on him.’
Sati instinctively held Ganesh’s hand protectively.
Kali laughed softly. ‘Didi, all I’m suggesting is that we make Surapadman think that we are going to hand him over. That way, we can buy some time and attack Ayodhya.’
‘Are you saying that we lie to the Magadhans, Your Highness?’ asked Gopal.
Kali frowned at Gopal. ‘All I’m saying is we be economical with the truth, great Vasudev. The future of India is at stake. There are many who are counting on us. If we have to taint our souls with a sin for the sake of greater good, then so be it.’
‘I will not lie,’ said Shiva. ‘This is a war against Evil. We are on the side of Good. Our fight must reflect that.’
‘Baba,’ said Ganesh. ‘You know I would agree with you under normal circumstances. But do you think the other side has maintained the standards you are espousing? Wasn’t the attack on us at Panchavati an act of pure deception and subterfuge?’
‘I don’t believe it is wrong to attack an unprepared enemy. Yes, their using daivi astras can be considered questionable. Even so, two wrongs don’t make a right. I will not lie to win this war. We will win it the right way.’
Kartik remained silent. Whereas he agreed with the pragmatism of Ganesh’s words, he was inspired by the moral clarity in Shiva’s.
Gopal smiled at Shiva. ‘Satyam vada. Asatyam mavada.’
‘What?’ asked Shiva.
Kali spoke up. ‘It’s old Sanskrit. “Speak the truth, never speak the untruth”.’
Sati smiled. ‘I agree.’
‘Well, I know some old Sanskrit too,’ said Kali. ‘Satyam bruyat priyam bruyat, na bruyat satyam apriyam.’
Shiva raised his hands in dismay, ‘Can we cut out the old Sanskrit one-upmanship? I don’t follow what you people are saying.’
Gopal translated for Shiva. ‘What Queen Kali said means “Speak the truth in a pleasing manner, but never speak that truth which is unpleasant to others”.’