‘But he has been informed about your great victory, Lord Kartik,’ said Maatali. ‘He is very proud of you.’
Kartik frowned. ‘It’s not my victory, Your Highness. It’s our victory. And it would not have been possible without my elder brother, who destroyed the northern end of the Magadhan navy.’
‘That he did,’ said Maatali.
‘My Lord!’ hailed Divodas, crossing over from the dense forest to the sands of the Bal-Atibal Kund. Still weak from injuries and bandaged across his shoulder, he was being assisted by five men as they together dragged something with ropes.
It took Kartik a moment to recognise what they were dragging. ‘Divodas! Treat him with respect!’
Divodas stopped at once. Kartik ran towards them, followed by Bhagirath and Maatali. The corpse they had been dragging was that of a tall, well-built, swarthy man. His clothes and armour were soaked dark with blood, and his body was covered with wounds, some dried and black, others still fresh, red and wet. His skull had been split open near his temple, showing how he had died. His injuries were too numerous to be counted, clearly indicating the valour of this combatant. All the wounds were in the front, not one on the back. It had been an honourable death.
‘Surapadman...’ whispered Bhagirath.
‘He was on the southern front, My Lord,’ said Divodas.
Kartik pulled out his knife, bent down to cut the ropes tied around Surapadman’s shoulders, and then gently lowered the fallen prince back onto the ground. He noticed Surapadman’s right hand, still tightly gripping his sword. He touched the sword, its blade caked with dried blood. Divodas tried to pry open Surapadman’s fingers.
‘Stop,’ commanded Kartik. ‘Surapadman will carry his sword into the other world.’
Divodas immediately withdrew his hand and fell back.
Surapadman’s mouth was half open. The ancient Vedic hymns on death claim that the soul leaves the body along with the last breath. Therefore, the mouth is open at the point of death. But there is a superstition that the mouth should be closed quickly after death, lest an evil spirit enters the soulless body.
Kartik closed Surapadman’s mouth gently.
‘Find the chief Brahmin,’ said Kartik. ‘Prepare Surapadman’s body. He shall be cremated like the prince that he was.’
Kartik turned to Bhagirath. ‘We shall wait till my brother returns. Surapadman will then be cremated with full state honours.’
Ganesh stood at the ramparts of the Magadhan fort, watching the great Sarayu merge into the mighty Ganga. The setting sun had tinged the waters a brilliant orange. King Mahendra and the citizens of Magadh, stunned by the complete annihilation of their army and the death of their Prince Surapadman, had surrendered meekly when Ganesh’s forces had entered the city. He did not expect any rebellion, since there were practically no soldiers left in Magadh. Ganesh planned to leave a small force of ten thousand soldiers to man the fort and blockade any Ayodhya ships. He would sail out with his other soldiers to meet with his father’s army in Meluha. They were to leave the next day.
The war in Swadweep had worked perfectly for Ganesh. He was now able to block the movements of the Ayodhyan army with far less soldiers than would have been required if he was besieging Ayodhya itself.
‘What are you thinking, dada?’ asked Kartik.
Ganesh smiled at his brother as he pointed at the confluence. ‘Look at the sangam, where the Sarayu meets the Ganga.’
Even before he turned his gaze, Kartik could hear the swirling waters of the sangam. What he saw was a young, impetuous Sarayu crashing into the mature, tranquil Ganga, jostling for space within her banks. Though she sometimes relented, the Ganga would often push aside the waters of the Sarayu with surprising ease, creating eddies and currents in its wake. This jostling continued till Ganga, the eternal mother, eventually drew the ebullient tributary into her bosom till they could be distinguished no more in the calm flow.
‘There is always unity at the end,’ said Ganesh, ‘and it brings a new tranquillity. But the meeting of two worlds causes a lot of temporary chaos.’
Kartik smiled, bemused.
‘This could not have been avoided,’ said Ganesh. ‘But the stricken visage of King Mahendra was heartbreaking. Every single house in Magadh has lost a son or a daughter in the Battle of Bal-Atibal.’
‘But King Mahendra was the one who had forced Prince Surapadman to attack. He can only blame himself,’ said Kartik. ‘I’ve heard reports that Prince Surapadman had really wanted to remain neutral.’
‘That may be true, Kartik. But that still doesn’t take away from the fact that we have killed half the adult population of Magadh.’
‘We had no choice, dada,’ said Kartik.
‘I know that,’ said Ganesh, turning back to look at the sangam of the Ganga and the Sarayu. ‘The rivers fight with each other with the only currency that they know: water. We humans fight with the only currency that we know in this age: violence.’
‘But how else does one establish one’s standpoint, dada?’ asked Kartik. ‘There are times when reason does not work, and peaceful efforts prove inadequate. Violence is ultimately the last resort. This is the way it has always been. The world will, perhaps, never be any different.’
Ganesh shook his head. ‘It will be, one day. We live in the age of the Kshatriya. That’s why we think that the only currency to bring about change is violence.’
‘Age of the Kshatriya? I’ve never heard of that.’
‘You would have heard of the four yugs, cyclical eras that time traverses repeatedly through a never-ending loop: the Sat yug, Treta yug, Dwapar yug and Kali yug.’
‘Within each of these yugs there are smaller cycles dominated by different caste-professions. There is the age of the Brahmin, of the Kshatriya, of the Vaishya and of the Shudra.’
‘Age of the Brahmin, dada? I haven’t heard of that either.’
‘Sure you have. All of us have been told stories of the Prajapati; of a time of magic.’
Kartik smiled. ‘Of course! Knowledge seems like magic to the ignorant.’
‘Yes. The main currency of the age of the Brahmin was knowledge. And in our age, it is violence. Some philosophers believe that after our epoch will be the age of the Vaishya.’
‘And the people in that age will not use violence to establish their writ?’
‘Violence will never die, Kartik. Neither will knowledge. But they will not be the determining factors, since it will be an age dominated by the way of the Vaishya, which is profit. They will use money.’
‘I can’t imagine a world like that, dada.’
‘It will come. I pray that it doesn’t take too long. Not that I’m afraid of violence, but it leaves too many grieving hearts in its wake.’
‘Dada, even if I do believe that such a time will come, are you saying that money will cause less devastation than violence? Will there not be winners and losers even then? Will sadness disappear?’
Ganesh raised his eyebrows, surprised. He smiled and patted his brother on his back. ‘You are right. There will always be winners and losers. For that is the way of the world.’
Kartik put his arm around his brother’s waist as Ganesh put his around Kartik’s shoulders. ‘But that still doesn’t take away from the grief of knowing that we have caused suffering to others.’