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!