Now that Shyam had provided his answer and proposal for compensation, Ishan was anxious to leave for the Vindhya Mountains. Before mother and son left to collect their belongings at their hut, Shyam insisted that they should have gifts to make their journey more comfortable. Besides supplying a detailed written description of where Balraj resided, he handed both Sati and Ishan wool shawls for the cold, a stack of tulsi leaves for tea, and a small batch of torches. Though he spoke forcefully, he gave the gifts with a gentle release.
Sati was reluctant to take the gifts, as Shyam had already graciously helped them in compensation. But Shyam’s amiable character did not wear thin—he demanded that the travelers take the alms on account of the harsh conditions they were to endure.
Ishan and Sati left Shyam’s residence with more hope than they had anticipated. The ascetic didn’t seem as lizard-skinned now that he was known as the future father-in-law. They headed to Vatsala knowing that when they would return, a life enhanced by experience would set them on a fortunate course.
The hot wind that usually scorched the skin of travelers on the merchant roads was becoming more subtle as the evening began its rise. Mother and son scarcely spoke during the ride back in light of their contentedness.
Ishan, instead of acting on the impulse to have occasional conversation, calculated the magnitude of their expedition through facts: from the city of Ayodhya, it would take nearly a month to reach the base of the Vindhya Mountains by bullock cart. And to get to Ayodhya itself, it would take about six days.
The idea of departing from Vatsala was at once uplifting and melancholic. They were leaving the village that had anchored their family through the tumults of life. Though they did not possess much, each item was intrinsically important. Ishan, on intuition, gave his father’s collected book of songs with his best friend in the village, Vijay, to look after.
Ishan and Vijay had been playmates since either could speak. They acted out famous battles and pretended to be famous warriors in the Mahabharata War. Ishan never knew that he himself would try to become a warrior in reality. He had been attracted to the martial arts since long, but never thought about acting upon the inclination. Now, he felt distant from Vijay when he handed over his father’s songs. Vijay had been helping his father in gathering timber for many years and it seemed like that was what he was going to do for the rest of life—while Ishan set out to develop into a warrior against the regulatory guard. Vijay added his best wishes to the customary parting words and even expressed his desire to come along, but it was hard not to mistake most of Vijay’s enthusiasm for disbelief. It seemed like folklore to him. How could the boy that he had played so many make-believe games of warfare go out to become a slayer of the regulatory guard?
At their hut, Sati and Ishan collected what was essential first. The correct amount of clothes for their warmth with little thought to comfort, as much dried and sustainable food they could carry at a reasonable weight, the gifts they had received from Shyam, and practical tools such as a knife and flint for starting a fire. Both mother and son dryly gathered their belongings. There was no emotional backing to their movements: only necessity carrying their limbs to their task.
The most important item they needed to acquire was a bullock cart, and of course the bullocks. Ishan wasn’t sure if he could convince Kishan the weaver to let them borrow his cart and bulls for their trip. Though he was a wealthy man in comparison to other citizens of Vatsala, it would be by no means an easy detachment.
Ishan and Sati tread with thoughtful steps to Kishan’s expansive house, teeming with chickens and a copious amount of cows and bulls. Kishan was lounging on his porch, spinning his weaving wheel with his right foot and threading with his nimble, slender fingers that moved with unconscious twirls. In the shrill noises of the sewing wheel, he didn’t hear them approach. He was singing a devotional tune to the god Krishna, humming against the dissonant tones of his work.
“Hello, Kishan,” Ishan said with some vivacity to cut through the noise of the weaving wheel.
Kishan set his thread down and turned his neck in their direction. Coconut oil that was supposed to stay in his hair drifted down his forehead due to the heat, leaving a smear of white paste in his wrinkles below his hairline. His face, typically serious, showed small signs of brightness.
“Ishan, nice to see you… and Sati. You have taken good care of my bullock cart.” The weaver winked at Ishan with fatherly reassurance.
Ishan stalled before saying anything—he knew that he had to sculpt the words right in his mind before he spoke them. Sati covered for him before he sputtered his chosen phrases out.
“Thank you so much for letting us use the cart—we really couldn’t have done the trip to Saraswati in time without it.”
“Oh, you are welcome—anytime you want to use it again, just ask.”
Nice one mother—you might have set me up for a good chance of borrowing the cart, Ishan thought.
“Well, sir, I don’t know if you know this already, but my mother and I are going on a trip to the Vindhya Mountains, and….”
Kishan interrupted Ishan in a bolt of shock. “The Vindhya Mountains! That will be a grueling journey—and dangerous too. I can’t imagine you two going there… really, you both are leaving? And for what?”
The weaver’s usually calm demeanor shifted to showing troubled lines on his face, looking fresh as if years had passed since he made that expression.
Sati once again came to Ishan’s rescue. “Yes. It is decided that we will leave for the Vindhya Mountains as soon as possible.”
She edged her face slightly towards Ishan, supplying a comforting smile. “My son has chosen to learn the art of warfare. He believes it is his duty.”
Ishan interjected, “But please, Kishan, don’t spill this information to anyone else in the village, or to anybody at all. The regulatory guard has been following my activities for a while now and if they learn that I am leaving to become a warrior, they might hunt me down.”
Kishan was flabbergasted by the whole account and could sense the urgency in the young man’s voice.
“I know that your family does not have a bullock cart and still does not have one. The thought of you and your mother walking to the Vindhya Mountains with the regulatory guard possibly on your heels is not a thing I could forgive myself of if I did not act to prevent it. I have two bullock carts, one worn down a bit and a newer one that could be fitted with two fresh bulls. If I was selfish, I would keep the better one for myself, but I don’t believe myself to be that kind of man—so I will lend you my newer bullock cart with the sturdier bulls.”
Kishan was pleased with himself, having been able to lend his bullock cart twice to a family that were true servants of Magadha.
Ishan told him promptly that he wished to pay a reasonable sum later for allowing them to borrow his cart. Kishan refused the offer, and his pride grew more and more in his humility.
Aided by a bullock cart and a set of strong carriers, Sati and Ishan loaded their gear into the back of the cart’s holding pen. Ishan grabbed the reins for steering while he eased himself into the freshly-carved teak wood driving seat. Sati set herself to watch over their belongings in the back, introspecting about her son’s increasingly serious personality and the sense of responsibility that seemed to choke the ease of his previous childlike attitude.
The weaver was the only neighbor to see them off—the rest of the families in the village were inside their huts, preparing for dinner. Kishan’s wife, Gouri, sprinted out into the yard, though.
“Dear, where are Ishan and Sati going… with our cart?” Kishan kept his eyes locked on his cart while he responded. “They are leaving Vatsala for a while to visit friends in Ayodhya.”
Ishan beamed at Gouri, signaling the bulls to start. The breath of the bullocks were heavy in their first push to leave, but their pace began to even out in the first 300 meters or so, and they eventually seemed unaware of their own journey.
The roads became smooth as they got nearer towards Ayodhya, allowing the cart to pick up greater speed. Ishan had done business in most of the villages surrounding Vatsala, but when they would go out of that radius, they had to rely on Shyam’s notes. Though the notes were meticulous, Ishan was still wary of taking the wrong route. It would mean adding days, weeks, maybe months to their trip, and they didn’t have that kind of money or supplies. If they had to stay in one place and work for money, they were obligated to. But there was no going back to Vatsala, at least for Ishan, until he acquired the knowledge that he sought from Balraj. If he could, he would start training in that moment, but time had to be taken to reach his teacher—that was the reality.
Though the upcoming village Murali was a refuge for travelers, Ishan didn’t want to stop until they had rode to exhaustion. His mother’s condition was another factor to consider–he was aware of her feeling nauseous by the constant movement of the cart. He had regular, timed checks on his mother, who for most of the ride so far was sleeping by the work of some unknown fatigue.
The night came quickly for Ishan, as he was lost in contemplating the mission. It didn’t matter to him about the trip itself, but rather what he would do when he met Balraj—probably observing a spiritual act of mortification at a hermitage, deep in meditation. It wasn’t right to disturb a person observing a penance. Ishan would have to wait before Balraj awoke from his meditation if he
found him in this state. Hopefully, Balraj would be farming or eating a meal in a hut, ready to receive a traveler. But these were only wishes and only the reality of that time could tell what would happen.
When they passed the village beyond Murali, which was Kalyan, Sati was wearily awake. Ishan halted the cart and sat next to his mother.
“Are you ready to set up camp? This looks like a reasonable place.”
It was a flat land mostly composed of straw—a few cows roamed and ate dry grass, or sat in sheathes of wheat. Sati was glaring solely into the night sky above.
“Yes, Ishan, this is a decent place to settle for the night.”
For sleeping covers, they brought thick cotton cloths and goat fur. Tonight, they didn’t need the goat fur—only a small amount of extra warmth that the cloths provided. Ishan kept a short hunting knife by his side in case someone tried to steal their goods or an animal bothered them in the night.
The bulls, though not knowing Ishan and Sati long, were content to rest by their side while they prepared for sleep. After they had laid down their cloths, they could hear the bulls chewing frail grass.
Ishan remembered at that moment that they had not had any dinner—he had been too busy in the act of leaving to think about food. Maybe Sati was hungry, but she had not mentioned it to him.
“Mother, do you want to eat something?”
Sati turned around, wrapped in her cloth already, viewing her son with indifferent eyes.
“Oh, I forgot as well. Maybe that is why I was so tired and weak. It is strange that it didn’t cross my mind that my condition was poor because of not eating.”
Ishan felt remorse for his mother—giving up what necessities she was afforded to make him happy.
“Mother, I know it wasn’t an easy decision for you to come on this trip. When my mission has been fulfilled, I will see to it that you will have all that you want. It’s what you….”
Sati had to stop him from saying such things, as she was too feeble to take in his words.
“Don’t worry son—I know how much you care for me. I do what I do simply because I am your mother. I am only acting on my duty. Now, Ishan, let’s talk tomorrow—we have lots of traveling to do.”
Ishan settled into his bed—he was hungry, but couldn’t eat on the account that his mother wasn’t going to. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to forget that he was traveling, and pictured that his hut was still over his head and the pleasant smells of his mother’s kitchen permeated the air like the smell of flowers after a monsoon.