BOOK EXCERPT

A mighty kingdom wages war on nomadic forest dwellers in this novel set in 120 CE

It falls upon one woman to broker peace between the city of Virinara and the Gontu people in Usha Alexander’s novel about love, war and myth.

When I arrived at Guruji’s ashram to meet Narun, my heart was in my throat. I hurriedly ushered away the guardsmen who’d escorted me, expecting Narun to emerge from the shadows of the banyan the moment they left. But he didn’t. Guruji said, “It’s become too dangerous for the Gontu to come so near to Virinara. We must go to them. It’s a long day’s walk.”

We started out under morning’s long shadows. I’d removed my ancestor beads, leaving them in a box in my hut and wore only the plainest white antariya that I owned, though even that was trimmed with gold threads. But I hadn’t imagined the real hardships of the journey, especially for this crooked body of mine. Even Guruji hadn’t realised how slow would be my fastest progress, which soon fell behind that of the sun flickering through the canopy above. Beyond the frontier lands, no pathways were detectable in the varying brush. And as I loped along the uneven terrain, ever deeper into the jungle, pain began to gather in my hips and back, under my feet. Unaccustomed to this kind of strain, I kept on as long as I could, but Guruji said we weren’t halfway to our destination when I collapsed in tearful agony, uncertain whether I could continue.

“But you must, child! Lives depend upon it!”

“What can I do, Guruji? My body is useless. We’ve always known this.”

“This is no time for self-pity, child. Look at me. I’m older than everyone and yet I can make this journey.”

“Your body is whole, Guruji,” I bawled in shame. “You’ve walked every day of your life. Not so for me. I’ve been a captive – of my body, of my station.”

Guruji sighed patiently and settled beside me on the ground of low grasses, fallen leaves and moss. “We’ll rest now and continue when the sun drops a bit. If you push with all your heart, we can reach a village by nightfall, though not yet Narun’s village. But we can send word to him from there.”

It was only then I realised the weight of our undertaking, for we hadn’t come prepared to spend a night in the open forest, exposed to tigers, jackals and leopards.

Although in that moment of despair I nearly felt low enough to let myself succumb to whatever fate the jungle held for me, I’d suffer any pain before being the cause of Guruji’s demise. “If it comes to it, Guruji, you must leave me and go on,” I said.

“Nonsense!” he barked. “This isn’t one of your dramas being played out. This is real life and you will get up and walk.”

“Give me a sip of water. It may be easier to go without shoes, as you do.”

By the time dusk embraced us, no village was yet in sight. We moved ever slower, with me leaning heavily upon Guruji’s shoulder. Together, we ploughed forward through my pain and exhaustion, having no thought but the way forward and the placement of our feet into the next step. Left, breathe; right, breathe. Guruji began to chant a rhythmic song, a child’s walking song with outlandish rhymes in a most unfamiliar dialect, comical to my ears. I let it soothe me, fill my mind.

Then suddenly a boy stood before us, naked but for a braided cord tied loosely around his waist like we tie on newborns, though this boy must have been seven or eight years old. Guruji and I both stopped in our tracks. The child gaped at us for a moment and then broke into a smile as he happily took up the very song Guruji had dropped. “Young boy!” said Guruji emphatically, the strain now evident in his voice, “I need some help. Is your village nearby?”

“It’s far,” said the boy, “but I can run there very fast!”

“You see this lady cannot walk,” Guruji explained, his accent matching that of the child, “and night will soon fall. Please run fast and bring some men who can carry her.”

We weren’t much further along when four men arrived, carrying torches, brandishing bows, arrows and bone clubs. The men wore intricately tooled leather flaps across their loins, similar to what Narun had been wearing. Two of them lifted me, forming a seat with their arms, and together they marched forward at a brisk pace. Well after darkness descended, we approached a cluster of bamboo, wood and thatch dwellings arranged roughly in a circle around a small yard lit only by the moon.

“A Gontu village,” Guruji told me, when my bearers had placed me upon the ground.

A crowd immediately encircled us, men, women and children staring at me with some unsettling mix of fascination, fear and loathing in their eyes.

“This is that lady who commands the rapacious clan of Settlers?” asked an old woman, studying me carefully. “She’s weak and afflicted.” She made a face as if to spit and then turned away.

Though her meaning was clear, I strained somewhat to understand her words; like the others, she spoke as though her mouth was full of stones, flattening and blending vowels, exaggerating the retroflex consonants, in the way Guruji had sung his walking song.

Some villagers brought water and after some time served us hot food in a shadowy hut, illuminated by a single tallow lamp. I was grateful to eat the stew of unfamiliar greens and boar shank, even a strip of dried deer. Guruji explained that this was a meal to honour a guest. “You can be sure they don’t eat like this every day.”

I did my best to convey my gratitude, despite my exhaustion and pain. But I’m sure I ate too greedily and made a poor impression on my hosts. After the meal, they gave me a dusty tasting drink they said was medicine, and I slept senselessly until morning.

I awoke when sunlight gleamed through the slats of the bamboo walls. Guruji was gone. A girl crouched patiently in one corner, as though she was there to watch over me. Seeing me stir, she stood up and said in a way not inviting of conversation, “Come. I’ll take you to relieve yourself and wash.” When we returned to the hut, Guruji was sitting beside small bowls of palm pith porridge which had been placed for us.

Guruji explained that this village was called Omi and these people belonged to the Gonara clan of the Gontu people. As we ate, villagers freely entered and left by lifting one of the hanging walls of the hut that faced the central yard; they looked in on us one by one or in groups, and it was clear that many among them had almost violent misgivings about my presence among them.

“Her warriors will come looking for her! She must go!” hissed one of our visitors. “A Settler hunter might see her!”

“No,” Guruji tried to placate them, “her warriors won’t look for her – they never come this deep into the woodlands. If they did, you wouldn’t be here. Besides, she’s been entrusted to my care for a month. No one will even imagine she might be away from my ashram. Nor do Settler hunters venture this far.”

Still, Guruji promised my detractors that I’d remain hidden within the dwelling where I was housed, until Narun arrived to take us to his village. I found it curious the way Guruji spoke so familiarly with the village Elders, as though he held a place among them; they called him Keekar. While he spoke to them, I stayed quiet, feeling uneasy about my status among them.

I could see from the way they regarded me, rarely addressed me, and never called me “Brilliance”, that my titles held little meaning for the people of Omi.

As we rinsed our fingers of porridge, the wall of the hut was thrust open, admitting a whitegold shaft of midmorning light. A tall figure stood in the beam, his earlobes stretched and falling nearly upon his shoulders. Fat rings of tiny cowries dangled from each ear. His narrow chest heaved with strings upon strings of rudraksha beads. His head was shorn to a grey stubble. Stepping closer to me, he didn’t conceal his disgust as he studied my face. Then he announced, “She’s surely from that lost clan of the river, whose name we no longer speak!” He held up a warning finger. “The Old Stories say the clan who betrayed us is known by their yellowy eyes! But just see here now – see this yellow-eyed woman! Yellow as the eyes of the crocodiles who spawned her!”

“Nonsense!” retorted Guruji, turning to face my accuser. “Her eyes are greenbrown with light flecks. Even among the Gonara – even among my own relations there are those with flecked eyes!”

“Flecks, maybe – but not this crocodilian yellowy green! Observe carefully, if you don’t wish to delude yourself.”

Several people of all ages had gathered in the room behind the old man and they all turned to look into my eyes. Reflexively, I opened my eyes wider, as if to proclaim my innocence. But it might’ve been the wrong strategy. At home, Palli had always encouraged me to wear more gold and emerald jewellery, “To bring out the sparkly colours of your eyes,” she said. Did she mean my eyes are yellowgreen? My judges seemed divided on the verdict.

“You’re fooling yourselves!” insisted the cantankerous man in his slurry dialect. “You don’t wish to see what’s plain before you!” He looked back at me and shook his head. “Poor girl,” he said, pitilessly. “You can’t help it, can you? You’re only the messenger. The alignment of forces precedes you and it’s larger than any one of us.” So saying, he turned and left the hut with the same ferocity with which he’d entered.

Excerpted with permission from The Legend of Virinara, Usha Alexander, Penguin Random House India.

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