A gray-tailed hawk had been swiveling in a circle around an encampment of cows, gliding on the colder winds of an oncoming monsoon. Ishan watched its feather tips keenly as they swayed in and out of air currents, curious at the grace of such an imposing predatory bird. He didn’t want to come too close, or else the bird might dare to demonstrate its dominance over its newly chosen territory. Ishan was content in being at a distance—he had seen more troubles in the past month than he was willing to accept.
His father, Raghu, was a lumber trader with a mind drawn magnetically to words. He wrote songs inspired by what came naturally to living a rural life, though some songs of his could be considered dangerous. His compositions were not inherently seen as a weapon, but the regulatory soldiers of King Pradyota could hand out their suspicions.
His wife, Sati, was nervous from morning to evening—though she tried not to hint at her anxiety to her family or neighbors. Raghu, at times, could hear the strain in her voice, but he believed that his wife’s worries were not enough justification for ending his subtle revolt.
Ishan feared the repercussions of King Pradyota’s mandate, but he was proud of his father for being bold enough to write his politically-inspired songs. People in Vatsala, their home village, called Raghu a great soul. They cherished his courage and fidelity to the ancient ways of the land of Magadha.
With his songs being sung by distant villages, maybe, he thought, people could form on substantial rebellion against the King. The sentiment about Pradyota had changed in Vatsala and other surrounding towns since his songs had spread for the past few years. But he could only guess as to their physical effect—would whole villages reform over a foray a songs?
But, was there a choice? The citizens of Vatsala, and almost all of Magadha, lived in a state of suffocating poverty. People had to make a choice to either die of slow starvation, or die with the honor of living out their last days for the cause of righteousness. Many chose the seemingly-easier route, surrendering to the desolate existence that they were born in and bound to die in. But Raghu decided not to fear Pradyota. He followed a way of life that wouldn’t lead to desperation—a path that would at least guide Vatsala out of its present turmoil.
The hawk had drifted off to another hut nearby, initiating the same gentle circling. Ishan had finished his writing lesson for the day, a mathematics overview, and heard the Vedas read aloud by his teacher, the local priest. The man was so old that his lower lip now covered his upper lip, as if he had talked enough in his life and now only wanted to listen, with his ears overgrown with black stems of hair. Though what he spoke was mumbled, it was with a sweetness that had a quiet, mesmerizing power to it. Ishan found rest from tending cows and chopping wood when he visited the priest for his daily studies.
“Ishan!” Raghu called with a slight impatience in his voice. Ishan sprinted towards the back of the hut, leaping past the kitchen pots hung by straw, where his mother was grinding turmeric. When Ishan reached his father, his face was lit with apparent reluctance.
“Come on, Ishan, it’s your turn now—I’ve got to tend to the cows.”
Raghu entreated his son to pick up the ax with a subtle wave of his hand. Without speaking, Ishan forced his unwilling feet to the ax fresh with the smell of teak wood and grasped its sticky handle. Raghu backed off into the cooler shade of the hut, catching a glimpse of his son at work. Ishan glanced at his father before raising the ax, then unflinchingly he hauled the ax back and lunged the blade into the core of a teak wood block. Not reaching the bottom of the stump, Raghu made a head signal as if to say, “Do better next time.”
Raghu entered the relative darkness of the hut with a slow tread. Even though Ishan knew his father had the whole of Magadha on his mind, he seemed composed in self-made relaxation.
When Raghu trailed out of view and seemed to be caught in other duties, Ishan turned to the row of logs that needed to be cut before sunset. Between strikes, he heard his mother grinding plants with relentless force or spinning the grain wheel continuously. Occasionally, he could listen in on his father singing a folk song—full-throated with a voice that seemed weighted by years of experience that Ishan couldn’t relate to.
That boy needs to be disciplined more, Raghu thought. He contemplated the possibility of the regulatory guard coming and dealing out whatever they deemed fit. Raghu knew Ishan wasn’t ready to handle the family without his absence. There was no imagining what Sati would endure. But these types of thoughts only disturb a man, he told himself, and he wrestled his mind to focus on the present moment.
Before long, Ishan was engrossed in his work, wielding the ax to a self-made rhythm. As he was nearing the completion of the day’s work, he heard his mother’s shrill voice. He wasn’t sure if she was calling to him in alarm or expressing her disapproval of a daily nuisance that she had expanded to an unreasonable proportion. Setting his ax into a piece of wood, he walked with cautious steps inside the hut. He could see that his father was talking to some men and his mother was close behind, looking on from the partial cover of the front door.
As Ishan got closer, he could tell the men’s voices were strained, though his father seemed to keep his tone calm. But as soon as he was able to peer through the front door, held by his mother’s hand, he was alarmed to see that the men, three of them, had short swords in sheaths by their sides.
“Ishan,” Sati whispered, “stay back… father will be alright.”
Reluctantly, Ishan stepped into the familiar scents and sounds of the hut, watching the jagged figures of the men slowly dissipate. The resonance of the men’s voices permeated his thoughts. Hiding where his mother prepared his daily meals, spread with the smells of comforting memories, Ishan tried his best to forget the anxiety of danger. But as the intruders’ shadows crept inside the vestiges of the hut, Ishan felt that something should be done.
He hurried towards the semi-opened door. But before he could reach his mother, she let out a cry of desperation. She rushed to hold her husband, now choking on his own blood. A short sword was lodged in his stomach—Raghu’s eyes stricken with shock, his pupils unsteady.
Ishan stood at the edge of the door, not believing the sight of his father in a state only his fears could imagine. Dismissing his denial enough to move, he fell to his father’s side—Raghu’s stone-like hands held Ishan’s face.
A regulatory guard raised his mouth into a smirk, and Ishan was overcome by rage.
“How can you smile at a time like this!” No response.
Ishan fired his sight into the eyes of the guard. “I swear, by my father and my ancestors, that you will be punished for…. “
“Ishan!” his mother shouted, “Don’t talk to him like that!”
Sati’s face became more strained with the thought of her son dying at the guards’ blood-stained hands.
“Quit your banter,” said one of the guards, stone-faced.
The soldier with the smirk joined, “It’s not like this boy could harm us—he only knows how to make wood split—killing a man is different.”
Ishan, delirious with the thought of his father’s death and the guards’ prodding remarks, gave up his obedience to his mother, if for a moment.
“When I am a man, I will be strong enough to kill all of you and many more. The body of each guard will be broken like the teak wood I split….”
Ishan’s boast was cut off by a feeble voice, calling from the distance of death.
“Ishan, violence won’t solve this.”
He wanted to believe the words, but the dimming light of his father’s eyes charged him with a new vigor.
“Father, I will change Magadha even more than your songs have.”
As Ishan locked eyes with his father to catch what life he had left in him, his head was laid back in Sati’s hand and his skin had turned white as the insides of sugarcane.