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Chapter 3 — A glimpse of the past
Year 62, Kali yuga
Malasāra bent his head and entered. Anāmaka followed, and closed the door behind them. The inside of the house was dark, no lamps were lit.
Malasāra snapped his fingers and a small lamp sparked above them. It sputtered for a moment, and then the wick caught the flame, and slowly rose high. The room filled with the wavering light. They seemed to be in a small anteroom, filled with cobwebs, sparsely furnished. A mortar bench was built into the wall, covered in a thick layer of dust. A heavy wooden step-ladder in the corner lead to a latched door on the floor of the room above.
Malasāra picked up the lamp and continued in. The house was built with the entrances to the rooms in a straight line, and Anāmaka could see the dull moonlight through the open door at the far end of the house.
“Malasāra.” A dry voice startled them both. It had come from further inside. They continued in. The fourth room started as a narrow corridor, but opened up on the right, into a spacious room. It was piled high with manuscripts, palm leaves, and parchment, in tall stacks that almost touched the ceiling.
A frail old man sat on the floor, eyes closed. He sat cross-legged, motionless in meditation, but Anāmaka could tell that he was aware of them both. A small fire-altar lay before him, made of bricks and smeared with sandalwood paste. The fire was out, the twigs inside burned low, almost ashes.
The man himself was very old, his skin covered in deep wrinkles. He was clad in silk, an orange antariya and a thin shawl draped around his otherwise bare torso. His forehead was covered in lines of sacred ash, and a single line of sandalwood paste. In the centre was a large dot of crimson sindhuram. His white hair was long, but cropped close in the front and the rest pulled back tight in a sizeable knot that fell on the back of his neck. Though simply attired, Kannanār had an unmistakable air of erudite regality about him.
“Kannanār!” Malasāra called.
Kannanār opened his eyes. Under thick brows, they shone with an uncanny light, and seemed to glow brighter than the embers in the altar before him. They seemed to see everything, even the things that happened elsewhere.
“I see you have succeeded in your endeavour, dūta.” said the seer. His voice was deep and spoke slowly. He looked at Anāmaka. “Come, sit, son.” Anāmaka bowed and sat before the altar, facing Kannanār. The seer’s gaze seemed to pierce him to the bone.
“As you foresaw, O sage,” said Malasāra.
“I am no sage, Malasāra. You do not have to flatter me.” Kannanār replied, adjusting the cloth across his chest. He turned to Anāmaka. “He is much younger than I imagined. He has aged very slowly under the spell.”
“Indeed. The incantation was strong, and I spent much of my power in reviving him.”
“You wish now to find out about his past.” said Kannanār, again adjusting his shawl. Anāmaka looked up.
“Indeed. We are curious, O seer. The boy, even more so.”
Kannanār extended his palm. “Naturally. Give me your arm, son.”
Anāmaka did so, and Kannanār gripped it tight with his long bony fingers. Quick as a flash, he slit Anāmaka’s palm with a sharp piece of wood. Anāmaka pulled back in reflex, but Kannanār’s grip was surprisingly strong. “Fret not, I need but a few drops of your blood, if I am to see into your past.”
Anāmaka complied, and the seer squeezed his palm, letting the blood drip into the altar. The embers fizzled, and Kannanār started to mutter under his breath. The embers caught fire, and the flames leapt up, licking their clasped palms above it. His other hand, Kannanār placed his fingers on the base of the altar. He closed his eyes, and continued to whisper incantations, often changing in pace. Every few moments, the flames would grow, and then die down again. Anāmaka watched, as the old seer became silent and his head started to lull. Every now and then, Kannanār’s body tensed, and gripped Anāmaka’s hand tighter. Anāmaka looked at Malasāra, who sat patiently and seemed to be no stranger to this ritual. Anāmaka waited, and Kannanār bowed head snapped up, his eyes wide open. “A past like no other!” he said at length, with a curious twinkle in his eyes.
“You were able to see my past?” asked Anāmaka, his breath quickened.
“I would not be much of a seer if I did not, would I, son?” Kannanār smiled.
“What did you see?” asked Malasāra.
“As Malasāra has already told you, your soul was the result of Brahma’s inept beginnings, many thousands of years ago. In this present form, your soul was born as the son of Hemachandra and Pramati, in a small village in the forests of Dandaka. They gave you a name—Ripunjaya.”
Anāmaka stared blankly back at Kannanār. The names evoked no memories. Disheartened, but still hopeful, he waited for the seer to say more.
Kannanār continued: “Brahma did not realise that His mistake had taken mortal form on Bhūloka for a moment. In what was a moment for Him, you had already grown up to be a young lad. He sent for Yamā, and bade him to retrieve you and your soul. But this time, word had gotten out, and the Devas were displeased with Brahma’s repeated blunders. They confronted Him, unmindful that it was Brahma himself who had created them, and that they themselves were the mere products of the Creator’s Will. But much like a kind father dealing with an ill-tempered child, Brahma pacified them. And Yamā, loyal as ever to the Creator, sent his emissaries to retrieve your soul.
“The yamadūtas reached your village, and forcibly captured you from your home, and killed your father and mother. The villagers tried to stop the emissaries, but were unable to.” He paused for a moment. “The yamadūtas then began to make their way back to Narakā, but were waylaid by a fierce host of rākshasas, who had been waiting in ambush. It is likely that they were a band of mercenaries, having heard the rumours of your soul and its unique trait. A soul such as yours would prove valuable one way or the other, and they would have been driven by greed, to possess such an asset.
“The yamadūtas tried to retaliate, but the simple attendants of Yamā were no match for the war-hardened demons. The rākshasas seized your unconscious body, and set fire to your village. Seeing this, the Devās became furious. They mounted an attack on the unwary mercenaries, and took them by surprise. The unprepared and weary rākshasas were massacred. Your body and soul yet again changed hands.
“Triumphant, the Devās returned to Svarga. They arrived amid fresh chaos, to find out that Heaven was being assailed by an immense army of asuras, rākshasas, and other demonic creatures. This was retaliation by all things evil, after the Gods had killed Hiranyakashipu, the mighty asura ruler for his malevolent actions. This was the Great War of the First Age.
“In the ensuing mayhem, you came into the possession of one of Hiranyakashipu’s trusted generals, Vakrāsura. He took your body and hid it in the one place that Yamā or any of the Devās would never think to search—in the vast, nameless wastelands outside Pātalā, close to Yamā’s own domain. But after he had hidden you, he returned to the upper realms, and is killed by the Devas, who eventually win the War. Peace returned to all the lokas.
“The general was the only one who had known of your location, and he was no more. Yamā searched the realms for hundreds of years, but in vain. You remained unconscious, and the repercussions that the Gods feared never came to be, and they thought you no more a threat, and assumed you were most likely destroyed in the War.
“Their interest in you diminished, and they grew complacent in their victory. You remained asleep under the spell, alive but immobile, like a silkworm in its cocoon. There you remained for three Ages, and the universe changed around you. Malasāra spent much of his time searching for you, and finally succeeded, and you know the rest. This was what I was able to see in my visions.”
Anāmaka sat silently, slowly digesting the events Kannanār had just narrated. They brought no sense of familiarity, no memories or emotion. He stared deep into the dying embers, and wondered. “Where was my village?” he asked at length.
“That, I was unable to see. I was only able to discern that it was in the Dandaka forest.”
“Could we find it?”
Kannanār opened his mouth to answer, but Malasāra interjected. “Dandaka is vast and dark, boy. Finding a tiny settlement in the forest is an impossible task, and it is unlikely that the ruins remain to this day.”
Everyone remained silent for a few moments, and Malasāra broke the quiet. “We are grateful, O guru.” he stood up. “You have been most helpful.”
“The only skill I possess, Malasāra.” the seer replied, with a solemn look in his eye. “A boon and a curse.” He looked at the dūta, eyes narrowed.
Anāmaka too got up and bowed. They left the house, stepping onto the deserted streets of Thillai. Night had fallen, and a warm breeze swept through the streets. The full moon had risen high, and bathed them in a calm light. They walked past the now darkened houses to the edge of the village.
“We need shelter for the night.” said Malasāra. He turned back to the village, and peered into the dim streets. Nothing stirred. “We need to leave here,” he said, patting his pack. Anāmaka nodded, and Malasāra hauled Anāmaka on to his back, and rose up into the air. “Stay still, boy.”
They flew west, towards a line of low hills in the surrounding forests. Low clouds hung over the entire range. They descended on one of the crests, and Malasāra lead them under a small overhang hidden by long creepers. They stepped over the undergrowth, and Anāmaka saw that there was a narrow but deep cave cut into the rock, with a small fireplace made with stones and twigs in the centre.
“One of Tanvarōka hideouts.” said Malasāra, nursing the fire. It jumped up, to a small but steady flame.
“Do you not have a lot of duties as an yamadūta? It seems as though you have a lot of time on your hands.” observed Anāmaka.
“I do not bother with the mindless chores, boy. I have other yamadūtas working for me, they handle my share of responsibilities as well. To think—a war general, escorting worthless souls to the netherworld!” said Malasāra with disdain. He continued to tend to the fire, dropping broken branches into it one by one.
“Why did the yamadūtas have to kill my father and mother? Why did your people have to resort to that?” In truth, Anāmaka felt no grief at the news, but he asked nonetheless.
Malasāra glared back. “The yamadūtas are not my people. They are not my kin.” he replied annoyedly. “Yamadūtas do not wantonly take life, nor do they possess that kind of evil. They are merely minions, they only follow orders.”
“Who was Hiranyakashipu?” asked Anāmaka.
“He was Emperor of all the land, during the Age you were born. He was an asura, and a just ruler. But he was betrayed by his disloyal son, who had none of the qualities of his great father. The king of Devas, the coward Indra, attacked his palace, and the Emperor was viciously slain by the Gods. Angered by this spineless act, the Emperor’s generals assailed Svarga itself. That was what the Devas came to witness when they returned with you to heaven. It was the war that marked the end of the First Age.”
“He was captured by the Devās, and tortured for many years. But loyal to his clan, Vakrāsura resisted, and died in the dungeons of Narakā.” said Malasāra, staring into the distance. He then put his hand up. “I know what you are thinking. More questions than answers, more doubts than explanations. But do not worry. I promised I would help you with your search, and help I shall.”
Anāmaka turned away to look at the small town that lay before them. The air was still, thin stems of smoke from a few the chimneys rose high into the night sky. “What now, dūta? What do we do now? What do I do now?”
Malasāra grinned. He walked up to a tree, and broke two straight branches and stripped away the leaves. He threw one to Anāmaka. “Defend yourself, boy.”
Anāmaka caught the branch and looked at the yamadūta, confused. Before he could say anything, Malasāra swung the branch at Anāmaka. Anāmaka ducked in reflex, but the wood caught him on his shoulder, and pushed him to the side.
“Dūta!” he exclaimed, regaining his balance. But Malasāra didn’t seem to hear him, he reached forward and took another swipe. Anāmaka jumped back, and the branch narrowly missed his chest.
Anāmaka looked up at Malasāra. The emissary was smiling, waiting for Anāmaka to make a move. Anāmaka took a deep breath, and held his branch with both hands. There was a small sense of familiarity in the grip, an impossibly tiny realisation of having done this before. Narrowing his brows, he took a stance, right foot ahead of the left, torso turned sideways. Malasāra charged, with his branch coming down from his shoulder. Anāmaka stepped to back and parried, careful not to lose balance. Malasāra quickly shifted his weight and moved to his left, exposing his torso. Anāmaka took the chance, and followed with a thrust, lunging. Malasāra blocked, and grabbed Anāmaka’s sword hand. His grip was powerful, Anāmaka could not move now. Malasāra twisted his grip, and Anāmaka dropped his branch, wincing in pain. Malasāra pushed, and Anāmaka staggered a few steps, and fell on his back, panting.
But quick as a flash, Anāmaka grabbed his fallen branch, and still on the ground, swung wildly at the massive form before him. Malasāra easily blocked, and their branches struck each other’s, and the flimsy wood bent slightly. Malasāra swung hard again, moving closer to Anāmaka on the grass before him. Anāmaka parried a little too much, pushing Malasāra’s branch downward, opening up his defences. He riposted, and struck Malasāra on his right knee.
Malasāra tried to move away, but was unable to move his large, bulky form in time. He tried to step to the side, but lost his balance, and teetered on one leg. He grinned, and shifted his weight forward, and chose instead to fall on Anāmaka’s thin body. Anāmaka’s eyes went wide, and curled up into a foetal position, bringing his knees up to his chest. Malasāra’s weight knocked the wind out of Anāmaka, and Malasāra heaved himself away. Anāmaka coughed and gasped, and rolled to his side. He got up, breathless and took a couple of steps towards the cliff, drawing deep breaths to steady his breathing.
Malasāra looked up, still grinning. “You have good reflexes. You don’t lack the spirit, merely the skill. I have no skill with a sword, but I can see that you will make a good swordsman. You have the speed, and with enough training, you should do quite well.”
Anāmaka wiped his brow. “You will teach me?”
“Me? No. There are those who would do a far better job.”
“Who would that be?”
“Patience. You will see in Karkōttai tomorrow.” Malasāra said, getting up. He had already chosen an apt teacher for the young man.
“Ripunjaya.” he said, walking up to stand beside Anāmaka. “Do you know what it means?”
Anāmaka shook his head.
“A conqueror of enemies, the subduer of adversaries.” said Malasāra, with a pleased expression on his face. He almost seemed proud. “You are Anāmaka no more.”
“Amusing, to be called by a name I cannot remember.”
“You will get used to it. It is not just a name. It is who you were, who you are. It is who you will be. He paused. “But now, you are a puny weakling. We need put some meat on those frail bones, boy, and make you a warrior worthy of your name. We go to Karkōttai at first light tomorrow. I know a few people there who could help us.”
They both stood on the rocky ledge, staring into the darkness stretching to the horizon. The gentle night wind washed over them, and the night deepened. Malasāra began to talk about the world and how it had changed since Satya yuga. Ripunjaya never ceased with the questions, and Malasāra answered all of them patiently. They talked for a while, about the events in the Treta yuga and Dwapara yuga, the story of Rāma and Rāvanā, and the saga of the Mahabharatha, the enmity of the Kuru clan and the Pāndavas, whose terrible war had just ended, ushering in the Kali yuga.
The emissary proved to be a good story-teller, and his listener’s curiosity knew no bounds. Malasāra’s narration awed Ripunjaya, and his mind, dormant for millennia, soaked in all the tales of heroes and villains, their lives and exploits. He asked question after question, and Malasāra answered them all as best as he could. Then, he put up his hand. “No more, boy. We need to sleep, let us rest a few hours.” said Malasāra, looking up at the sky.
The moon had risen high, it was a little after midnight. They retired, laying down on either side of the fire on the soft grass under the overhang. Lying on his back, Malasāra smiled inwardly, for the adolescent human had begun to trust him, and that was a good sign. The boy was Anāmaka no longer, his transformation into Ripunjaya had begun. Great things awaited him in the future.
They slept, and the fire burned low.
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