When they woke up after the sun had risen, dew was spread over their cloths, cooling them in the semi-warm morning. The dew reminded Sati of the monsoons that were to come soon—they always had enjoyed the rain as a gift from God. In Vatsala, the livelihood of families relied on the presence of monsoon rains. But now, it was not for their livelihood—rather, they needed to be protected from it in order to not get a cold on their trip—which would undoubtedly stall their progress.
Sati cooked shira over a small fire, a sweet dish of grains that would give them energy for the ride ahead. While Sati was making her son’s favorite breakfast food, Ishan tried to feed the bulls dry grass that he had collected, but they didn’t seem interested; unknown to him, they had been eating the grass around their encampment for a quite some time while their masters were asleep. Their dull eyes peered at Ishan, waiting for nothing.
As they ate shira carefully by hand, Ishan noticed a man with less fat on his body than he had ever witnessed. He carried a stick that looked both fragile and firm; his hair was slick back with coconut oil and he carried a tin water container—the sign of Shiva shown on his forehead.
When he reached them, Ishan gave his formal greetings out of precaution. The man also provided welcoming words, but seemed busy and not in a mood for disturbance. Despite noticing his character, Ishan wanted to get information on the villages that were going to come their way.
“Sir, in the villages ahead, is there a chance that we could purchase an umbrella?”
The overly-slender man’s face tightened, agitated by the trivial nature of Ishan’s words. The man didn’t have the desire to answer Ishan, but eventually did out of the demanded politeness and duty of his Brahmin class.
“Yes—about two villages away you can probably find a way to buy some umbrellas.”
The Brahmin shifted his feet swiftly from Ishan and went in the direction of where he would give his libations.
After the Brahmin left, they finished the shira quickly, impatient in the comfort of eating. The bulls were loaded up to the cart, satisfied to have eaten so much grass. Sati once again sat in the back and Ishan took hold of the steering.
Crows were circling above and were also scattered on the branches of neem trees. As the cart passed a grove of trees that sparsely provided shade, Ishan leaned over and snapped off a thin branch. The neem tree was notorious for its medicinal properties—it was used to brush teeth, to cure illnesses, and seen as a holy plant. Ishan grounded the stems’ insides against his teeth and gums. He handed some twigs to his mother, who seemed more awake today.
They entered a village by the name of Madhuri after several hours of trucking across the large pebbles of the market road. Apparently, by the accounts that Ishan collected from people walking the streets, there had been a long drought in the village and there seemed to be no end to it. Most people looked frail. Occasionally as they rode, some citizens pleaded for their rescue, to get out of their village by the sanctuary of Ishan’s and Sati’s cart. They refused many people, but after a while, it wore on them. A teenage boy, not much younger than Ishan, begged to come along. At last, their ability to stomach desperation came to an end. Ishan called back to him.
“If you really want to come with us, gather your belongings as soon as you can and we will meet you up ahead.”
Ishan pointed to one of the last houses in Madhuri. He didn’t want to wait near the center of the village, or else more people might continue to approach them for a lift.
The boy shot over to a residence no bigger than a shack used for tools. He soon joined the cart with a small rucksack around his waist.
“That’s all you are going to carry?” Ishan was surprised that people could have less material wealth than he had.
“Yes. A pair of clothes and some grain.”
Sati looked over at the boy with sympathy mixed with dread. How must these people live that this boy can only carry this to go traveling with us.
Ishan took the boy’s hand and lifted him up to the wood-paneled partition where the materials lay. The boy was ecstatic and hugged Sati, smelling of many days without a shower or rinse. But Sati did not hold back and embraced the boy with as much care as she would give her own son.
“What is your name and where are your parents?”
The mention on the word “parents” seemed cross to the boy. Sati repeated the question without reference to his guardians.
“My name is Mohan.”
He appeared too shy to say anything else. Sati’s concern could not be satiated just by knowing his name. “When was the last time you ate?”
Mohan’s face showed no sign of remembrance, as if he had forgotten about that aspect of life. Seeing his reaction, Sati handed him leftover shira and promised him more food if he wished. After Mohan finished his shira, he passed out atop the pile of goods on the side of the holding pen. Sati took in the scenery with a now-tranquil face.
It was almost night when they entered the next village, its street torches spotted almost two miles away. Comparatively, the village of Tilak Kamod was more in bounty. The houses were well built with courtyards that spelled out their luxury. It didn’t seem fair that a village close to Madhuri had such riches. Greed was the only answer to this perplexity. Though it would take half a day to come upon Madhuri from Tilak Kamod, how far should one go to aid in saving someone’s life? But it seemed there was more than distance to pull the villages apart.
Though the village was stunning in its architecture and the people were pleasant enough, Ishan carried on into a field beyond the confines of civilized clamor. The vast grass pastures were dotted with sugarcane. Strangely, at that moment, the emotion of homesickness spread through his mind, as if it had been lost to him for uncountable years. Maybe it was the extended time ahead he was to be gone from his place of birth. On his business trips, he had never missed home and often dreamed of leaving. But now that he had left for a time that was uncertain, the images of his home sprung up in his mind and kept him restless.
Sati was more concerned about Mohan, who still was in a poor condition. His eyes were red and there was a distant glow in them. His skin was peeling and the remains of his emotions were scattered. Food and motherly care didn’t seem like the complete remedy. Sati inquired about his health and a surprising, if not coarse response came from his chapped, rarely used mouth.
“I want to get as far away from Tilak Kamod as I can—that’s the best thing for my health.”
Sati realized that a severe tragedy must have struck his family, including himself. She laid him down and provided an extra cloth to rest on while she began cooking dinner and Ishan collected firewood.
Though there were signs that the monsoons were coming soon, the dry season was still apparent in the ample amount of ready firewood around. Soon, Sati had some daal and rice prepared. Mohan ate so quickly that Sati didn’t know if he was swallowing. Then, abruptly after finishing the meal, he laid back on the cloth and closed his eyes in sleep.
Now that Mohan had once again succumbed to weariness, Ishan wanted to discuss with his mother about Mohan being on the trip and what their future plans could be.
“He seems like a sweet boy. I know you want to take care of him, and I do too, but I don’t know that the amount of money I have saved will be enough for him to be on our trip. But I agree that we can’t just leave him behind. We may have to make a stop sooner than expected to work in a village for some money and supplies.”
Mohan was half asleep, picking up on some of the conversation—but soon his fatigue got the better of him and he settled into his dreams.
Sati tried to calm her son’s thoughts. “We can think about these things some other day. I know that it will work out. Instead, let’s look at the notes that Shyam wrote for us.”
Ishan complied with his mother’s wishes and discontinued his thoughts of worry, pulling out the sturdy piece of paper that Shyam had scrawled on. They would be reaching Ayodhya in approximately three days, and from there it would take close to a month at the rate they were going to reach the Vindhya Mountains—skipping meals for the sake of distance. Crossing the incomprehensible number of villages covering the long stretch of farming land, they needed to wade through the Ganges River in about five days from Ayodhya into the more barren life where the Vindhya Mountains began its country. Ishan realized that treacherous conditions lay ahead: monsoons, traveling without much food and water, entering regions vulnerable to the regulatory guard. But in a way, this was the challenge of his duty, to pass through these obstacles like the warrior he was to become.