This historical novel goes back to Alexander’s invasion of Bharat

An off-beat adventure about a young man who took on Sikandar’s army.

Dawn had not yet broken over Pataliputra, and a thick curtain of mist shrouded everything in white. Outside the city walls, orange needle points of light pierced through the haze, dotting the open grounds next to the river. These were the campfires of merchants and farmers who had arrived overnight and were waiting to get into the city to sell their wares. Passing them by, the group of horse riders turned right, riding along the ghats in the direction of the old Pataligrama docks.

Their company consisted of some of the richest merchants of Pataliputra and their officers, representatives, and servants. No one had suspected the ragged-looking shudra boy who accompanied them, and they had been let through, as soon as the main gates were thrown open.

They rode along the ghats in complete silence, till at last the noise and activity ahead indicated that they had reached their destination. The smell of the river was now accompanied by the sounds of water lapping against boats; there was the creaking of timber, and the loud shouts and curses that accompanied orders being given and goods being loaded. The entire party dismounted; servants tied the horses against the fencing, and everyone made their way inside.

At the docks, indistinct outlines of people stood huddled together in the cold and fog. Some were clearly family groups, giving last minute advice or talking in excited voices. Like the many ghats dotting Pataliputra, the sides of the dock were built of rock. From here, a number of wooden quays extended outwards, like outstretched fingers of land protruding into the waters.

It was Aditya’s first time here.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he drifted off towards the shoreline. The ghostly shape of a huge ship, sitting at anchor beside the first quay, loomed up through the fog. It was floating low in the water, weighed down with fresh cargo. Porters carried goods up and down the gangplank, which groaned and creaked under their feet as shouts and instructions rained down on them from the ship.

Meanwhile, a fat, waddling man standing on the quay was calling out ferocious swear words and colourful oaths, up towards the ship, from where a number of heads peered down. Back on the dock, Navinda was surrounded by a number of the caravaneers. One of them was explaining how the goods had been allocated between the four different ships, and how the loading of the last ship had gone on throughout the night.

“. . . but five of the students still haven’t turned up,” he concluded with an air of seriousness. He was a young man with remarkably smooth skin and a grave, dignified expression on his face. His name was Katyayana and he was the ‘supercargo’ – the man in charge of all the goods belonging to the caravan.

The fat, waddling man who had been shouting obscenities on quay number one, now joined the group. He was red-faced and sweating, inspite of the chill in the air.

“Come on, Arya, there is still time to change your mind,” he boomed at Navinda. “Come on board. Everything is better on the river.”

Navinda went over to hug him. “Not today, Capada. But you must be very happy, eh?”

“Yup, we’re finally leaving,” he said, and then a cloud passed over his face and he scratched his beard, “just as soon as this dratted fog lifts, though.”

This was Capada – captain of the first ship, and leader of the caravan, for the riverine portion of their journey.

By and by, the sun rose in the east, and like a clingy lover reluctant to leave, the fog slowly dissolved. Capada gave the orders and these were shouted out by men up and down the docks. The travellers and merchants walked up the gangplank, and stood crowding along the sides of their ships. The missing students had all turned up at the last moment, and a number of emotional scenes were being played out at the docks. Some of the mothers were crying, while the young men they hugged, looked embarrassed, wanting to get away at the earliest. This caused immense amusement among the hardened sailors already on the boats. There were catcalls and jeers, and one comedian in particular, reduced everyone to laughter with his imitation of a popular dialogue from the Pataliputra theatre.

Navinda was having a last-minute conversation with Aditya.

“There are fifty panas here. Be careful with them. When you get to Takshashila, my cousin Mahinda will give you the two hundred panas that Acharya Vishwa gave you. I have sent a message for him with Pandi, and it’s about your employment, so be sure to go along with Pandi, to visit him the very moment you get to Takshashila, understood?”

“And be careful with the money. If you have any problems, talk to Pandi. He will help.”

Aditya suddenly shivered and hugged himself. It was a completely new world. His brother’s words came back to him, echoing in his thoughts.

“Arre, what will become of you? What will you do in life?”

As long as his brother was alive, no one could touch him. He had lived like a king – his brother had indulged his every whim, and now the one person who had loved him so deeply and supported him in everything, was dead. Executed like a common criminal. His entire life had been turned upside down – he had no home, no family, and no friends to call his own. He was all alone and adrift in the world.

A thick gob of self-pity rose up inside him and stuck in his throat. Tears welled up in his eyes, and stood poised at the edge of his eyelashes. Yet, they refused to fall. Some vestigial pride still remained and it prevented him from breaking down in front of the others. Instead, he hugged Navinda tightly, as he waited for the tears to subside.

“Remember this day, Aditya. This is the day that your childhood ends. From now on, you are no longer a boy, but a man and remember: a man never blames others for his situation or circumstances. The road may be long and dangerous, there may be storms, or rain, or sun outside, but the one in the saddle will always be you. That’s what it means to be a man – that you are now in charge of your own life.”

Something in those words got through to him and soundlessly, he picked up his cloth bag and made his way up the gangplank of his first ship. There, standing on the deck, he looked back for the last time upon the city of his birth. His eyes swept across the entire place, desperately trying to commit each and every detail to memory. Back on the docks, he could see Navinda talking to Pandi.

“I am handing him to you, Pandi. Get him safe to Takshashila, even at the cost of your own life.”

“It will be done Shreeman, even if I have to give up my life.”

“And make a man of him. Do whatever you think is right, but turn him into a man that his brother would have been proud of. His brother was my best friend.”

Navinda’s voice trembled, and Pandi hesitated, sensing the weight and feeling, with which those words were spoken.

Finally, he said, “I promise Shreeman, it will be done.”

Meanwhile, Capada gave orders to lift anchor, and the men shouted out final warnings for those still lingering on the shore. The last of the stragglers jostled their way up the gangplank, and everyone crowded around the sides of the ship to wave off their family and friends. A number of last-minute messages were shouted out from the docks, and these covered matters both serious and mundane.

“Remember, keep the gud in a cool and dry place, don’t keep it in the sun,” advised a doting sister.

“Don’t forget son, send us a letter as soon as you reach Takshashila. I will wait for it,” a mother called out.

Finally, with a number of loud hurrahs and much waving from both sides, the first ship lifted anchor, men pushed it off the quay and then with oars lowered, it set off. One by one, the other three vessels followed, gliding smoothly onto the water.

Excerpted with permission from The Boy from Pataliputra, Rahul Mitra, FiNGERPRINT!

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.