Looking back, Tara could see that the seeds of her life had been sown years ago, when she had first met the two brothers in the woods of Kishkindh. Seeds that finally produced love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, murder… Back then, the two brothers had seemed liked twins. And now, as they lay inert and sick in bed, they were still startlingly alike. Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room, Tara saw their faces out of a sudden urge of curiosity. It had been more than ten years since she had last seen them.

Vali and Sugriv, the two brothers. As an impressionable child, for her, Vali was her protector and Sugriv, a friend. Vali was wild; Sugriv, mild. Vali, sullen; Sugriv, soft-spoken. Tara recalled Vali as the more dominant of the two, several inches taller than his younger brother. Sugriv had always stood a few steps behind him. It seemed to be his natural position.

Tara threw a quick look at them as she moved around the dark chamber with a jug of fresh goat milk. She looked from one to the other. Both were dark, lean and extremely exhausted, with an unhealthy pallor blanching their haggard faces.

“Appa told me to give you this,” she announced loud enough to wake up the sleeping boys.

The taller of the two boys quickly sat up as he became aware that a girl had come into the room. He looked up at her with wary, unfocussed eyes and raised eyebrows, his head tilted a little to one side. His vision soon cleared up, driving the last vestige of sleep from his tired eyes. Vali held his breath; he had been waiting for her… Tara has come at last.

Tara’s heart lurched unreasonably on seeing Vali look at her. She noticed Vali had grown bigger than what he was in her imagination: more muscular, yet lean and wiry; with a hooked nose, swarthy complexion and intense, restless eyes; and, as expected, an unsmiling mouth. His lean, dark face peered suspiciously at her, and as she approached him, she could not hide her grin. He hadn’t changed but for his height, the sullen scowl pasted firmly on his face like always. Powerfully built, with his craggy looks, he looked more like a war general than a student fresh out of Rishi Gautam’s ashram.

“I am very glad that you got us our medicine, Tara ji,” said Vali politely, forcing a smile on his grave face. But his smile was surprisingly sweet, a difficult smile that made his face seem less stern. “All this time that we’ve been sick, it’s only Guru Sushen’s face we’ve seen.”

She chuckled with wry enjoyment. “He’s a stern doctor, as you well may know by now. He wouldn’t allow anyone else to nurse you –”

“But you,” interceded Sugriv, awe in his voice. “You were there each time I opened my fevered eyes.”

She barely glanced at Sugriv. He remained in the shadow of Vali, a shrunken version, shorter and slightly stouter than his tall, lean brother.

Her attention was still on Vali. “And I wish you wouldn’t call me Tara ji!” she said, “It sounds…too proper.”

It was worse than that it sounded formal, almost impersonal. “When we were kids, we used to call each other by our names, Vali,” she reminded with impish emphasis.

Vali blushed a little, and his modesty filled Tara with amusement.

“Yes, but now you are a doctor, not a girl who smacked me around.” he said, his full lips outlining a crooked smile. “Either way, you knew how to give me my dose of medicine, so, I didn’t dare call you informally.”

“Well, you may dare,” she said, laughing. “I’d much sooner call you simply Vali.”

She did not add that the word seemed to her the most beautiful in all names that ever existed, or that in the past week, since he had arrived in Kishkindh, ill and feeble, she had already repeated it to herself a thousand times.

They had been gazing into each other’s eyes, and suddenly, without any obvious reason, Vali flushed again. Tara noticed it. A strange thrill ran through her and she too reddened, her amber eyes sparkling even more brightly than before.

“It’ll be like the old days,” Sugriv interposed weakly, detecting the looks that had been exchanged, “with us together again.”

Tara had first met the two brothers at the age of three when, as tribesmates, they used to be placed side by side in school, for no more compelling reason than that they were brothers, coming one after the other on the class roll call. But it was always Vali and Sugriv, never Sugriv and Vali. Like on the list of names in the class register, the younger brother followed his elder brother devotedly.

Though the youngest in class, Tara was quick to see that the brothers were also the best of friends. As they progressed through school, nothing could divide them and their camaraderie, not even the fact that they were half-brothers. Nonetheless, they were curiously different; Vali deliberately put on a more brutal and hot-tempered representation than the other.

Yet the one who was still held strong in her memory and her heart was Vali that little boy who had saved her from a falling branch, the angry boy she had smacked hard on the face when he had thrashed his younger brother.

Excerpted with permission from Tara’s Truce, Kavita Kané, Rupa Publications.