29 Sep 2009
An eerie calm prevailed at dusk as the last rays of Sun reflected on the edge of the sword. Abhimanyu, the supreme warrior, had been holding and examining it with care, for he sensed a difference. The sword that severed many a head with infallible rigor refused to obey the hand that never faltered. The hand that moved with inimitable grace forgot the craft. The grip was destitute of the erstwhile resolve and the arm was wanting in strength. The invincible warrior in him was suddenly vulnerable.
As he looked at the sword with care and pondered, he remembered his master's words. "For a warrior who has mastered his craft, the sword is an extension of his hand. The day he feels the weapon is distinct from his hand, he is dead". He realised what has befallen, and smiled. It had an element of sadness, but the element of surrender overpowered. He heard someone walking toward his chamber.
Abhimanyu turned around and noticed Siddha who walked with measured steps as he approached the door. "Come in, Siddha", Abhimanyu greeted him. Siddha bowed down in respect. "The master wants to see you, sir", he said. As he sought the persmission to leave, Abhimanyu said, "stay for a while, Siddha. I would like to give you something".
Siddha obeyed and was pleased. He always admired Abhimanyu and cherished the dream of becoming as great a warrior one day. Abhimanyu, with the sword in his hand, walked toward Siddha. "When I see you, I am reminded of myself when young. I believe you will be a great warrior soon. That warrior for whom battle is a game, fighting is an art and victory is irrelevant. This sword is everything I have, and I find it befitting to give it to you this day".
Siddha was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that Abhimanyu considered him worthy of this benediction. A master warrior never bequeaths his sword; it is buried along with him. It didn't occur to him to ask Abhimanyu the reason behind this surprising decision.
As Abhimanyu handed Siddha the sword, he was content, for he was sure it went into the right hands. He did not let Siddha touch his feet. He never let anyone do that. Instead, he embraced Siddha. And before going to meet the master Vikrama, he told Siddha, "and never forget this: the battle is always with yourself; never with the enemy". Siddha will understand the meaning only after many years. At this moment, he just remembered the words.
As Abhimanyu walked through the corridors, he remembered his master's words again.
Master Vikrama's chamber was quiet. Abhimanyu touched his feet and Vikrama blessed his fond disciple.
"Master, I was told you wanted to see me".
"Indeed. You have fought many a battle and made me proud. Prepare for one at the stroke of dawn. This is yet another test of our might. The enemy has challenged us for a duel with their best swordsman. If we win, their army will be ours. I'm not even thinking of a loss. To win, however, we must send our best, for this isn't going to be any easy duel. And that's you".
Abhimanyu spoke after a pause. "Master, I thank you for having shown unflinching faith in me thus far. And it's by your grace and blessings that I have won all our battles. But, master, I cannot fight any more. I apologise but I cannot challenge the duel".
Vikrama was surprised. "Insanity! What devil has possessed you, Abhimanyu!?"
"Master, it's a realisation. My craft has betrayed me, and the sword obeys no more".
"Is it you? Is it the same man who the world knows as invincible, who plays with the sword with the grace of an expert dancer, who slays enemies at will, who is feared by foes, respected by friends and worshipped by disciples for his matchless skill? The supreme warrior who commands entire armies! And you say you cannot command your sword today! What a shame!"
"I fail to feel the sword as my hand any more. Sadly, master, I confess I cannot fight hence".
"What has conquered the unconquerable, I wonder!"
"I know not, master!"
"You are dead not when you cannot control the sword. You are dead when you think you cannot. Get over the delusion, Abhimanyu. You are invincible. Your craft will never betray you till your death. Prepare for the duel".
"I cannot, master!"
Vikrama became furious. "I ordain you, Abhimanyu!"
"Your word means an order to me, master. But I cannot let you down, of all people. I cannot fight any more. I apologise".
"Abhimanyu! If you cannot fight, you don't deserve to be alive. Either head for the duel or be beheaded".
"I owe everything to you, master. If death be, so be it!"
"I'm just being truthful, master".
"Then let your craft too be truthful to you! Watch your own head being slayed". Vikrama summoned Siddha without a moment of delay. "Siddha, this man has chosen martyrdom for self. I confer on you the honour of beheading this great warrior who has gone insane too soon".
Siddha was struck with utter disbelief. What a merciless turn of fate! He was in tears as he looked at Abhimanyu. "Being a disciple is not easy. You must walk the rough terrain. Take the sword, Siddha. This is your first test", Abhimanyu said.
Vikrama advised Siddha, "unshakeable grip, unwavering gaze, and one swift cut. On the neck. Should sever the head before he can blink".
Abhimanyu bowed down and touched the feet of Vikrama who refused to look. Four despondent guards led Abhimanyu and Siddha to the execution chamber. As they walked out of his chamber, Vikrama turned around and looked out through the window. Hesitantly, tears filled his eyes.
Moments later, a loud clang of the sword was heard.
The bus came to an abrupt halt. The jolt woke up the baby. She had been blissfully asleep thus far, lost in the celestial world of her innocent dreams. "Careful!", the conductor, bespectacled and in his early-fifties, shouted at the driver, who didn't seem to care. The baby was displeased. She felt as if someone has forcefully pulled curtains on the beautiful world she was dreaming of and dragged her back into this infernal chaos that the people inside and outside the bus are living in. The rude intrusion into her sleep and the inexplicable end to her dreams didn't impress her. Striving hard to open her eyes, she burst out weeping. Sikandar held her close to his chest and patted on her back to put her back to sleep. The conductor held the door open for Sikandar to get down. "The baby will be fine. Don't worry", he assured Sikandar, as he alighted. "Give her medicine on time", the conductor loudly reminded. Sikandar, with his back to the conductor, smiled, waved his hand and said, "Sure, dada!"
Sikandar had been impatiently waiting for the stop, for it started getting cloudy an hour ago. He wanted to reach Saharanpur before it rains. So, when it finally stopped, he was quite relieved. He just wanted to rush to the village. He couldn't give even a moment to turn, look back and thank the conductor properly.
The roar of thunder echoed all around. The clouds were closing in with haste. Saharanpur is still 12 miles away. It's a narrow, muddy stretch through dense forest to the village. Only carts and autos bring and take people between the bus-stop and the village. As one has to wait for hours to find an auto or cart, the young usually prefer to walk the 12 miles. Sikandar hastened his walk as the baby slowly gave in to sleep. He looked at the clouds and it was gloomy. The Sun has completely disappeared behing the dark clouds and the earth smelt of rain. It's raining at a distance, certainly not far away. He quickly assessed that he must waste not even a second if he should reach the village before it rains. For, if it rains, even walking becomes quite difficult on the road. "She is down with cold and high fever. Don't let her outdoors or she'll get weaker", Sikandar remembered the doctor's words. The baby must not get wet in rain. He must rush. He had walked on this stretch many times earlier, so he knows where and how to step and pace.
As it got darker, lightning wouldn't stop. The forest stood in utter quiet. If it rains now, it will pour from the skies. There's nothing to stop by and take shelter at. Suddenly, Sikandar was possessed with apprehension. He thought, for a moment, if it was wiser to go back to the bus-stop and wait till it stops raining. But where would he wait? The barren road aside, it's just shrubs and bushes. Not any better than this stretch. He walked on. Faster. A blinding streak of lightning ran through the sky in front of him, and it appeared as if the clouds were being torn apart. A tender rain droplet fell on his forehead. And with it vanished the last element of his wish that it should not rain. Now he must find trees for shelter. He knows the route thoroughly and the nearest one is 15 minutes away. Not a faint heart that he is, he was hopeful that the huge tree will protect him and, more importantly, the baby from rain. If it rains through the tree too, he will, he hoped, hide in the groove of the trunk. But all the trees that he knows have full trunks. Or, better yet, he hoped he will find a tiny brick structure, laid overnight by strangers, with a roof. He could put the baby there. Or, how about the clouds suddenly going, by some miracle, shallow and cannot rain? It isn't raining yet, so he can still play with hope. For some more time. Just.
With every drop of rain, however, hope dwindled. He must believe in miracles now. The baby is sleeping, and hasn't felt the rain yet. Shortly, however, she will. Sikandar held the baby closer. He has walked a good distance off the road but the village is still far away. When he left for the town at morning, it was bright and sunny. It didn't occur to him if it might rain. He cursed himself. But it was more out of helplessness, for he couldn't have foreseen anyways. Nevertheless, he cursed himself. He felt he should have anticipated, however impossible it was to. He heard the faint sound of rain. It's approaching him. He must run. Inevitability looked straight in his eye. That he failed to foresee didn't appear an accident now; it appeared like a downright mistake, instead. He must pay for it now. But must the innocent baby pay for it, too? Sikandar was anrgy. Rain pelted against the still foliage, and it'll reach him in a few seconds and drench them both. He looked up at the skies. Angrily. That he was always dismissive of God didn't bother him. He prayed. He prayed that the rain should stop soon. If the baby gets drenched and stays wet for a long time, it could be fatal. She is his life and he must save her.
The sky roared loud and rain caught him. Millions of gallons pouring incessantly from above. The baby woke up with a shiver. Startled, she looked at Sikandar. He looked lovingly into her eyes. Little did he know that it is the last time she would look at him. His anger dissolved, hope surfaced, but her glance had a thousand questions. One question, repeated a thousand times, rather. "Will you save me, papa?" she seemed to ask. Tears rushed into his eyes, but he stopped. How could he tell her she means everything to him and that he will do everything to save her! He caressed her face, held her closer, and said, "It will be all right, darling". Did she understand? He thought she did. Maybe she indeed did. Or maybe she didn't. The cold rain water soaked her clothes and skin, and she could not keep her eyes open. Crying aloud, she held Sikandar's collar more firmly.
(...to be continued)