The Warrior and the Sage
by Shweta Sundararajan
A year before the mountain disappeared, my life was simple.There were lessons and
chores, as for any nine-year-old girl. There was my family, and the house we lived in, in the
Brahmin colony next to the temple.There was play, and there were the stories my grandmother
Then, one afternoon, Ashraf muddled it all up.
It started innocently enough. I was on the mountain, up in a tree, pretending to be the
warrior-goddess Chamundi, when I saw seven-year-old Ashraf, in a purple kurta-pyjama and a
white cap, climbing up.
"Halt!" I yelled. "Who goes there? Are you a henchman of the terrible demon
"N-no," said Ashraf, looking all around for the voice. "Who are you?"
"I am Chamundi the terrible!"
Ashraf finally looked up and found me. "Oh, it's you, Soujanya. Can I be on the good
It turned out that, just like me, he did not like to sleep in the afternoons. After weeks of
wheedling, he had finally been allowed to go out and play.
I was glad of the company. These were enchanted hours, when the sun burned the dust
under our feet, when the trees themselves looked thirsty and even the flies looked for shade. It
always seemed such a shame that everyone else chose to sleep them away.
So together we fought the mighty demon Mahishasura and, after a tremendous battle,
Wesat panting under the tamarind tree, wondering what to play next,and Ashraf said, "Let
me be a khwaja and you can be a rani, coming to ask him for advice ruling her kingdom." He
straightened up into a cross-legged pose.
"Isn't a khwaja like a sage? Someone who meditates for magical powers?"
"Well, for wisdom, really. But yes, they get magical powers too."
Playing at sages was the most boring thing on earth, something grown-ups liked to get us
to do,something we always resisted. But Ashraf looked so eager and excited that it seemed
possible he knew how to make it fun.
"Oh. All right."
I bowed to him and said, "Great khwaja, our north borders are being attacked--"
"No! No attacks. Come on, Soujanya, think of something else."
"Good god. Fine! Let's see. I know. Great khwaja, the rains have disappointed us this
year. Crops are failing across the land. What do we do?"
"Please be patient, Your Majesty, as I meditate on this problem."
And Ashraf was gone, just like that. He closed his eyes and had them closed so long that I
thought he had fallen asleep. Disgusted, I moved away a little and resumed fighting--a whole
army of asuras this time. While I was lobbing cannon-balls at a particularly nasty fellow, with
scaly silver skin, blazing red eyes, and wickedly sharp talons, Ashraf woke up.
"It has been taken care of, rani," he said.
"But you haven't done anything, silly. How has it been taken care of?"
"I worked a miracle, you ninny. Dark clouds are gathering over your people's lands as we
speak. The problem is solved."
This was why I hated playing at sages. Not that they weren't every bit as stupendous as
warriors were: Durvasa-muni could curse the very gods themselves; Vishwamitra-muni could
create a whole new heaven just to spite them. But where was the fun in sitting in one place with
your eyes closed?
That evening, as my grandmother combed and plaited my hair in the courtyard of our
house in the Brahmin colony--astring of terracotta-roofed, variously-sized, stuck-together houses
on each side of our dusty street--Itold her about Ashraf and the day's play.
"Hrm," she grunted. "Aren't you getting a little old to be wasting your afternoons like
this? What about all your work?"
"But I've finished everything, Ajji," I said, stung, especially because Ajji had always been
my champion whenever my parents complained I wasn't doing enough.
"Take on more then," she said. "You only see a sliver of the whole, you know."
"She sounds like my mother and grandfather," said Ashraf, when I relayed this
conversation to him the next day. "It's always, 'Well, why don't you do the hem on this one,
then?' or 'How about five more sums?' when I say I'm bored in the afternoons."
Ashraf's grandfather, Uncle Ahmed, was a tailor and his mother, Aunt Mehr, helped out
in his shop.
Wealready spent plenty of time on chores and lessons, we decided;we weren't going to
volunteer for more. Our excursions to the mountain became extra important.
For about a year, Ashraf and I pretended our way through story after story: of warriors
who braved the unknown to fight evil; of sages who renounced the world to reach the gods and
learn the secrets of creation; of the troubles and triumphs of those gods themselves; of the
demons who constantly sought more than was reasonable and made the rest of the world pay for
it until a warrior or a sage or a god came along to destroy them.
Other times, Ashraf was a khwaja and would be very vexing. I tried to be patient with
"What would you ask him if Allah were to appear before you right now?" he asked once.
"For magical weapons, obviously."
"It isn't obvious at all," said Ashraf, annoyed.
"What else is worth asking for?"
"Don't you want to know why bad things happen, for example? Or why we are stuck with
ourselves, why we can't become other people, other things?"
Or he might say, "What is everyone searching for?"
"Whatever they've lost, I imagine. If they've lost something."
"No, I mean, in life."
"Oh. Glory, of course."
"Yes," he said, thoughtfully. "I would like to find glory." Which was surprising, because
Ashraf never wanted to play the hero; he was always happy being a side-character in my stories.
Once, he said, "Don't you sometimes feel that being like the trees, or the rocks, would be
"I cannot think of anything more boring."
"But it would be so peaceful."
On exactly none of those occasions could I make out what Ashraf was really thinking.
When I was fed up, I would distract us: calling an end to the day's play because it was
nearly tiffin time, or talking about a battle idea that had popped into my head, or pointing out a
squirrel digging through the tamarind pieces we'd thrown away.
On the day the mountain disappeared, I woke with every expectation of a normal day:
lessons, chores, lunch, tiffin, afternoons with Ashraf, stories with Ajji. But when I entered the
kitchen rubbing my eyes, it was empty.
This was surprising because it could generally be relied upon to contain a family member
or two at this time of day: Amma or Ajji cooking and Appa or one of my two paternal uncles
hovering for coffee and breakfast.
I stepped out into the central inner courtyard, intending to holler for someone, when I
knew by the stillness of the house that it was entirely empty.
It turned out that every resident of our Brahmin colony was gathered before the house of
Uncle Jaganmohana, head priest at the temple, all talking at the tops of their voices.
The temple itself, right next to Uncle Jagan's house, capping one end of the street, was
unusually quiet. At this time of the morning, there ought to have been dozens of people milling
about, ringing the bell so hard one wondered how the stone gods, demons and animals that
covered the tall trapezoidal gopura did not come alive and run away.
And then I saw it. Or rather, I didn't see it. Vikashagiri, our mountain, ordinarily visible
at the other end of our street, was gone.
Even during the monsoons, when thick thunderclouds struck its vast side and brought
blessed rain to our sugarcane and paddy fields, from our street we could see the slopes of the
mountain, if not its summit--it was that close. Now the blue sky just hung, naked and bereft,
showing us a portion of itself it never intended to show.
"A great evil has befallen us," Aunt Poorna was wailing, clutching an end of her sari, as I
reached the crowd. "Somebody has cursed us--we are doomed!"
"Or else," said Aunt Ambuja, ominously, "it might be an asura. Just like when
Hiranyaksha stole Mother Earth. Only this is a hundred times worse."
An asura?! I could barely breathe. Were my fantasies coming true?
"All right, all right," said Uncle Jagan, yelling to make himself heard over the
cacophony. "Whatever it is, there is only the one thing to be done. We will need to propitiate the
gods. Let us meet at the temple hall in one hour to decide what poojas need to be performed. I'll
inform the headman that the temple will be closed for normal worship until further notice."
Those of our fathers and uncles who did not work at the temple sent word to their
employers that an emergency demanded their attention. Some helped the priests--our
grandfathers, some fathers--scour scripture for the right rituals. Others joined the cooks, starting
up the kitchen to prepare the massive amounts of food that would be needed. Our mothers and
grandmothers busied themselves with cutting vegetables, stringing garlands of the mounds of
flowers picked from the temple courtyard, sweeping and watering the temple's stone floors,
drawing rangoli at various spots, doing any of the lowly chores that women were allowed to do.
This only meant one thing for me and all the other children in the community: When on
another day we would have to be studying or working, this morning we were utterly and
The world was ours. We ran around and vaulted over each other; shinnied up scrubby
neem trees to clamber across the roofs of our houses; petted the mangy dog we had been
forbidden to approach. We smeared red earth on a tree trunk, pretended it was the asura who'd
stolen our mountain and pelted stones at it.
I was winning the stone-throwing competition, as usual, when Narayana and Koustubha
started whining about how I was cheating, how I always cheated. As if I ever would! There never
was such a pair of babies.
I was fuming and careless and my next stone bounced off the tree and hit Narayana. He
ran crying to his mother, and we were all promptly told to stop playing and summoned inside for
an early lunch--which portended an early nap, of course.
My disgust abated somewhat over lunch, which was delicious, a full festival feast that we
ate from banana leaves on the dining hall's stone floor. We learnt that the consensus was to
conduct a yagna, a sacrificial ritual, to Lord Vayu, the wind god. We would pray that he of
unparalleled strength defeat the asura and carry our lost mountain back to us. It would begin that
evening; there was an auspicious hour that very day.
An excitement grew in me. Lord Vayu would answer our prayers, I was certain.And then
perhaps I could go with him. He sees all and would know that I had just won the morning's
stone-pelting tournament. I could torment the asura and perhaps maim it during a crucial
moment, turning the battle in Lord Vayu's favour, and then everyone would hail me as a heroine.
I could already hear the cries: "Veera Soujanya! Veera Soujanya!" Narayana and Koustubha
would be so jealous.
After everyone else wandered away for their afternoon naps, I walked to where the
mountain should have been. There was nothing, of course, just earth and rocks as far as the eye
could see. It was like looking out over a rough, brown sea, one that would skin your knees if you
ran across it and tripped.
I sat on a small rock and stared out over the barren expanse and waited for Ashraf.
He did not show up.
Annoyed, I decided I would play by myself. I climbed a banyan and willed the stories--of
Chamundi, of Rama, of Arjuna--to life.
But it was no use. Nothing felt right.
In the end, I just went home early.
The village was already up, getting ready for the poojas. If it hadn't been utterly
inauspicious to do so, no doubt they would have continued the rituals through the day.
As I neared the temple, I recognised a slight figure in a black niqab. Aunt Mehr was
standing anxiously outside. She hailed me as I neared.
"Soujanya, have you seen Ashraf?"
"No, Aunt Mehr, I haven't. Didn't he come home for lunch?"
"I haven't seen him since last evening, dear. He had dinner and went to sleep as usual.
This morning I was out delivering clothes and only expected to see him at lunch. My father went
into his room to wake him up and found him gone."
"He wasn't playing with the rest of us this morning." And he hadn't come to the
mountain in the afternoon.
"Do you have any idea where he could be?"
Slowly, horrifyingly, it dawned on me that of course I did. Ashraf must have been on the
mountain when the asura stole it.
Aunt Mehr read my expression correctly. Pure terror appeared on her face.
"No," she whispered. "This cannot be. Soujanya, tell your grandmother, tell everyone
else. They must pray for my son, too! They must have him brought back safely! They must!" Her
last words ended in a shriek.
The days went by in a haze.
In the stories I had been told, the deity being prayed to would emerge from the fire when
they were pleased enough, and proceed to grant boons. In our case, I imagined that Lord Vayu
would appear and take off to fight the demon. (And take me along, I still fervently hoped.)
My village had turned into a land of wishes and dreams, where everyone wished so hard
for the mountain and Ashraf to be back that they woke having dreamt it would happen this day,
today, and when it didn't, they went back home a shade more determined, a shade less hopeful.
The voices of our fathers and grandfathers quivered as they chanted mantras, pouring
ghee and puffed rice into the sacrificial fire. Our mothers and grandmothers did not speak as they
strung long lines of garlands.
Aunt Mehr was reduced to a ghost of her former self. She did not eat very much, even
when pressed by Ajji. Her eyes developed moats of dark circles. She spent every day outside the
temple, probably afraid to hear too much of the chants, and straining towards them at the same
time. Her mouth moved in constant prayer to Allah. Every day, Uncle Ahmed drove his bullock-cart to the next village, where the nearest mosque was.
And us children? With the adults so occupied, so utterly unconcerned of how we spent
our time? We sat quietly around the sacred fire, did not fidget when the smoke stung our eyes
and chanted along when we knew a shloka or two. It was all we could do, though we wished we
could do more.
On the evening of the fourteenth day, our shoulders sagged and our eyes took in nothing. I
could see the adults were contemplating going home, resigning themselves to the absence of the
mountain, knowing they had done all they could for Ashraf.
Then the holy fire shot out white hot sparks and there stood before us, hovering over the
flames, a being of divine beauty.
He looked as if he were made of the very wind itself, attired in silk garments and sparse
but glittering jewellery. A gasp went up in the crowd. It dawned on me that no one, not even our
grandparents, for all their detailed descriptions on what to expect, actually had seen such a sight
As we gaped at the newcomer, I wondered: what did Aunt Mehr make of this unexpected
stop in the chanting?
Uncle Jagan was the first one of us to gather his wits.
"Oh great Vayu, we salute you!"
"I shall carry your salutations back to Lord Vayu," said the being, "but I am only one of
his henchmen. You may address me as Vayudasa."
"Sir," said Uncle Jagan, suddenly lost for words, "Mister Vayudasa, we ... er ... we have
lost a mountain and a boy. We ... er ..."
"I know all about your troubles, uncle. I looked for the boy and the mountain before I
"And?" said a voice nobody had expected to hear.
Aunt Mehr, holding her niqab to her nose, against the strong temple smell of broken
coconuts and burnt camphor, stood there, looking at Vayudasa as if he were Allah himself,
arrived in answer to her prayers.
"And ..."Vayudasa frowned, but not unpleasantly. It was closer to confusion, as if he were
trying to find the right words.
"Is he all right? Is my Ashraf all right? He isn't, is he? That is why you're silent! Tell
Aunt Mehr rushed towards him. Ajji caught her just before she reached the flames. She
collapsed in Ajji's arms, sobbing.
"Your god holds his hand, madam," said Vayudasa. "Your son is not in danger."
"Then bring him home! Why haven't you brought him home already?"
"I cannot bring him back just now, but I can take ..." he looked at the sobbing woman and
then around at the rest of the gathering, "... one of you to him, to the mountain."
"I am ready," Aunt Mehr tried to stand up, to break free of Ajji's arms. "Let's go now!"
"No," said Vayudasa, "madam, you are too distraught. Who else can go? Someone who
knows and loves the boy."
"I'll go," said Ajji.
Vayudasa looked at her regretfully. "No, madam, you are too old. The journey may be too
much for you."
"I'll go," I said, my voice thinner and shakier than I remembered it.
Not that there was much of an option. No one else was half as close to Ashraf as I was.
Vayudasa turned to me and looked me up and down. "Excellent," he said.
"But no!" cried my mother. "She is just a little girl."
"I turned ten last week, Amma!" I said, mortified.
"Let her go, Mala," said Ajji, still holding Aunt Mehr, looking at me with an odd
As I stepped up to the fire, my eyes fell upon Narayana and Koustubha. They looked
about one step away from tears. Truth be told, I quite felt that way myself.
Vayudasa scooped me up in his arms as if I were a small child. I clung to his neck and we
We rose up over the temple grounds until it was smaller than an ant-hill and the people
there, looking up at us, were as small as ants. My ears hurt more and more until there was a pop
and they didn't. My stomach seemed to rise up and lodge itself near my throat.
I stopped craning my neck to look at the ground as it fell further and further away. What
mercy that no one from the village was around to see my fear.
We flew west. I looked downwards again. The few villages that stood between ours and
the sea passed below. Those people were probably just going about their daily lives, as we once
had, preparing for evening pooja and dinner and sleep.
I tightened my grip on Vayudasa's neck, not that his iron hands would have let me go.
Dear Lord Rama, if flying scared me so, how was I going to be any help at all with the
We had been flying out over the sea for a long time. Which asura had carried our
mountain out that far, I wondered.
When there were no shores visible, Vayudasa started to descend. A tiny island appeared
below us. Perhaps he wanted to rest before carrying on.
"Well," said Vayudasa, as he set me down. "Here we are."
"Here? But where's Vikashagiri?"
"You're standing on it."
I gaped at him; then it struck me. Of course, islands must extend all the way underwater
until they touched earth again.
"Really?" I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. "Is the asura around, then? And
Vayudasa's face again took on that inexplicable look.
"Call for the boy. There is no need to fear an asura," he said, his voice soft, kind.
I had my doubts, but trusted the divine being.
"A-Ashraf? Are you here? Are you hiding? It's all right to come out. This brave warrior
will not allow any harm to come to us."
"Soujanya? Is that you?" came Ashraf's voice, but I couldn't see him.
"Yes, can you see me? Where are you?"
"I can feel you," came the reply. "You're standing on me. And so is someone else."
I looked down and saw nothing but brown earth.
"Where are you?" I asked. "Are you buried underground? Should we dig you up?"
"No, silly. I am the mountain now."
"The asura turned you into the mountain? No matter, this Uncle Vayudasa here should be
able to kill the asura and turn you back. Speaking of which, where is the evil creature?" I looked
around, expecting a golden-hued creature with red eyes and sharp teeth to appear.
"Soujanya, there's no asura. I did this myself."
Oh, Ashraf was going to be difficult again.
Still, this was new. He was annoying and trying in so many different ways, and yet, I'd
never known him to speak falsehoods before--especially not those that wildly exaggerated his
"Don't lie, Ashraf," I said, still looking for the asura. "How could you possibly have done
"I wished that I were the mountain, and in the middle of the sea, and we began to move."
"How could that be?" I said, sitting down on a rock with my back towards Vayudasa.
That way one of us would see the demon when it arrived. "It's not a wish-granting mountain, or
the village would have known by now."
"I don't know," said Ashraf. "I was sitting on it that night as usual and wishing for it
"Ashraf," I said, my temper rising at these extended untruths, "what do you mean you
were there at night 'as usual'? There are spirits about at night, and poisonous snakes. Don't tell
me you aren't afraid of them."
"I suppose, but I'm always thinking about Allah and praying to him as I sit there, so
perhaps he protects me."
I sighed. "So Allah moved the mountain?"
"No, Soujanya, but he taught me how to." Ashraf's voice contained more than usual
earnestness."I was praying, as I do every night, that I might escape my human body and be
something greater, transcendent, invulnerable, and one night, the mountain was Allah and it
opened up and took me in. It knew me, knew my heart and I knew it. I spoke to it and it moved.
We flew through the night, Soujanya, you should have seen the glory! The stars twinkling, the
moon shining, the waters sparkling, as if just for me."
If the mountain had been in its usual place, this would have been my cue to end the day's
play and run home for tiffin. As it was, I looked around wildly, not sure where to go or what to
How much of all this was the truth and how much fabrication? Had there really been no
asura? What was it in Ashraf's voice that jabbed me in the ribs? How I wished Ajji were near!
And my eyes fell on Vayudasa. He was sitting under a tree and watching me. I was not
alone! A god-sent messenger was present. He would help, surely.
I met his eyes and asked desperately, "Uncle, what do we do now?"
He shook his head. "Young lady, I cannot tell you that. My orders are to let your village,
its representative--you--decide, and then to merely carry out your decision."
"But ... but I have no idea! I don't even know how much of what Ashraf is saying is the
"That I can tell you: It all is."
The world went quiet. I hadn't noticed it before, but there had been wind rustling through
the trees, waves lapping at the mountain, the sounds of sea-birds in the distance.
It struck me that what I had heard in Ashraf's voice was that he was pleading with me. To
understand his happiness, his contentment.
Then I knew. There had been an asura, after all.
I stood and picked up the rock I had been sitting on. It was four times as big as my head
and ten times as heavy. I swung it into the sea with strength that came from rage. It landed with a
great splash that spattered water over the mountain, over me, over Vayudasa.
"S-Soujanya? What are you doing?" Ashraf's scared voice only made me angrier.
I picked up a branch that lay on the ground and swung it at the raw spot the rock had left.
"You selfish creature!" I shrieked. "Do you know what you have done?"--Thwack!--
"The temple has been closed ever since you ran away--none of the priests are earning anything."
I flailed and the branch hit a tree. "Not only that, everyone on my street is using their own
provisions for a days-long sacrifice to bring the mountain back," I aimed for a bush, unmindful
that it might harbour snakes, "to bring you back safely. And do you have the slightest thought for
your mother?" I raised the branch high up above my head and brought it down hard on the
ground. "This is one more hardship added to all the others she already has. She has done nothing
but weep since she saw you gone. Your grandfather goes all the way to the mosque every single
day. And the mountain! What do you expect will happen during the monsoons?" This time I hit a
rock, and the stupid, flimsy branch broke into two. I threw the useless stump against the nearest
tree. "The clouds will simply pass our village by, our crops will get no rain, drought will--"
"Stop, Soujanya!" The mountain shook with the words.
I stood there, empty-handed, panting, silent not because Ashraf asked me to be, but
because my fury had no more words.
"I-I'm sorry," hiccupped Ashraf, "I didn't ... I never ..."
He stopped, and in the silence was another plea for understanding. I did not give it to him.
"S-speak to me, Soujanya! Say something, please ..."
I had no more arguments to make, nothing more to say. I just wanted to go back home,
with or without Ashraf; to live as if he had never been, as if the mountain had never been.
"I promise I'll come back; I promise I'll never do anything selfish again, please be my
friend once more!"
There was the lapping of the waves. A soft breeze rustled through the trees. A bird cried
in the distance.
"Uncle Vayudasa," came Ashraf's clear voice into the dusk, "please change me into my
original form and take us back to our village. I-I seem unable to do it myself."
"As you say, Ashraf-muni."
Ashraf appeared and placed his little hand in mine.
The mountain lifted up into the sky.
Ashraf and I sat on Vikashagiri's peak as Vayudasa carried the mountain back home. The
sun had set, but I was wide awake. The stars came out and twinkled, just as Ashraf had described
them before; the moon glittered off the water. The mountain sailed through the silent night.
I could appreciate none of it because I was utterly outraged that Vayudasa had called
Ashraf'muni,'meaning sage. Did he not realise how selfish Ashraf had been? Could he see
Vasishtha or Durvasa or Vishwamitra taking what they pleased and leaving, without thought or
heed of others?
No sooner had I asked myself that question that I found I could very well see it.
Durvasa had cursed half the people he came across, for the most imagined of slights. And
Vishwamitra, initially a king, had become a sage solely because he wanted a magical cow, and
couldn't take her from her owner by force alone. Even his greatest feat, the whole new heaven
that he created, was borne out of anger that the gods would not give him what he wanted.
I placed my head in my hands and let the tears fall.
How had I not realised this about my heroes?
What was worse, here I was, on the adventure I had always dreamt of, having completely
failed to recognise a sage. Ashraf had moved a mountain. A whole mountain. And I had treated
him like he had simply been a terribly naughty child. In all my dreams, I was always the shining,
spotless warrior. Never once had the notion of failure intervened.
The tears wouldn't stop; the sobs wouldn't stop.
I could feel Ashraf giving me distraught looks, but he had the sense to leave me alone.
We began to descend. I took large gulps of air to stop crying, so nobody would see me
Vayudasa returned the mountain first to its original place, then took us home. He set us
down on our street, a few houses away from the temple.
"Veera Soujanya, Ashraf-muni, Vayudasa takes your leave. Your relatives and friends are
waiting in the temple. Brave warrior, I trust that you will complete the task. Protect our sage. Be
well, both of you."
Having once more thrown my understanding of the world topsy-turvy, he rose into the
night and was gone. The temple was illuminated by the full moon. We started walking towards it.
The quiet of the night belied my confusion. How could I be a warrior when I had failed so
badly? And what danger could Ashraf be in now that we were home?
Just outside the temple, Ashraf stopped. He looked terrified.
Of course. What were we going to tell everyone? I had been unfair to him; others also
might. Vayudasa was not here to correct them, and there was little chance anyone would listen to
I stopped, too, and said, "Ashraf, I am not going to tell them. We will make up a story."
His face flooded with relief and shame. "I-I'm such a coward, Soujanya, but ... but I don't
know how to--"
I took his hand. "It's your secret."
The gratitude in his eyes made me horribly ashamed of myself. The words I could not
find before came rumbling up from the depths of my gut and spilt out of me in fresh tears and
sobs. "Ashraf, I am so sorry! I was wrong to be so violent with you. I will learn to be less hasty, I
He shook his head. There was a determined look on his face. "It did hurt me, Soujanya,
but it made me see. It saved me. It saved our people."
"But your powers--you lost them after I yelled at you."
"They don't matter, Soujanya. I've told you so before." Ashraf's clear brown eyes held
exasperation and no trace of regret.
Only then did I understand: the powers really did mean little to him. In that moment, all
our mountain-top conversations became clear to me.
"But what about your chosen life, then, Ashraf? To find your glory, to escape yourself?"
"Someday I will not have to steal it." He squeezed my hand. "Take heart, Veera
There came a shout from the temple entrance and Aunt Ambuja bore down on us. "My
dears, you have returned! It is a miracle indeed!"
She was soon followed by everyone else.
Aunt Mehr rushed to Ashraf and hugged him so tight I wondered he could breathe.
Ajji appeared and took my hand. She did seem old and frail, as Vayudasa had noticed. I
wondered I hadn't seen before that I was taller than she. The rest of my family surrounded me,
too, asking questions at the tops of their voices, glowing with triumph and pride.
The other villagers murmured, "The poor darling boy, the brave girl! How well it has all
Uncle Jagan called for silence, then addressed me, "Tell us what happened, Soujanya."
I exchanged a glance with Ashraf and launched into a story of a mountaintop-battle we
had played at often.
It has been six months. The temple has seen a surge of attendance. Uncle Jagan is invited
to lead yagnas from all over, even the city. He always refuses. Ajji says he knows a real sacrifice
has to be made and those are rare.
I spend my afternoons learningphilosophy and arithmetic. Appa never tires of marvelling
at this miracle. But I'm beginning to see how lessons matter. No hero or heroine ever set out to
be one, they merely sought what was right. And I had just been shown how much I had to learn
on this subject.
Paradoxically, it is Ajji who cautions me against spending too much time studying. In the
evenings, she sends me out to play on the street, where my friends--even Narayana and
Koustubha--want me to be the heroine, the leader, the victor, but I make sure everyone has their
After the lamps are lit, she puts my books away to tell me my beloved stories. Instead of
speaking of Arjuna's magical weapons, however, we speak about his having to draw them upon
his uncles and cousins. We discuss how Vishwamitra's pride held him back from becoming as
powerful as he wanted to be; how Rama destroyed the peerless beauty of the land of Lanka when
he killed the demon-king Ravana. When we do chores together, I make sure to do most of the
Ashraf spends his afternoons on tailoring. Uncle Ahmed is already teaching him to design
garments. In every way he is the perfect son, the perfect grandson. Everyone says how he seems
much older than his nine years; some even observe that his presence is strangely, but powerfully,
calming. His mother and grandfather could not be prouder of him.
Only I know this: Ashraf will care for them as best as he can, as long as he can. Then,
when it can no longer hurt them, he will set off again. He will not have forgotten the glory. He
will go again, looking for it.