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Wet mud rushed out through the gaps between his toes as he waded through the harsh swamp created by the incessant rains over the recent past. He despised the routine, since childhood, of setting up barricades all along his father’s farm every time it rained. He had removed all of the barbed wires just yesterday when the weatherman announced that the monsoons had departed. He cursed the rain as he finished fixing the fence.
He hated pigs, and weather forecasts. Vinu was a fifteen-year-old boy back then.

Viinu was now twenty five years old and had been living in the city. His visits home, once every three months, were usually brief. They started with his mother bringing out a silver plate with little specks of floating vermilion with raw rice submerged in water. The raw grains wore a brilliant deep hue until water played spoilsport. But then, his homecoming ritual had to be carried out, like always. This was followed with the many stories of his life in the big city. Vinu had moved to the city six years ago for getting an education and had subsequently landed a well paying job there.

His first days in the city were blissful. The sounds and smells were delightful. The ring of the alarm clock which failed in its purpose most days, the never-ending whistle of the pressure cooker of the room next door, the unusually loud flush tank in his toilet, and, most of all, the traffic. The furious honking added to the chaotic sounds, along with that aroma from a nearby bakery, that made the city what it was. In a few weeks, Vinu could identify a vehicle based on just the sound of its honk. He loved the movement, the absolute chaos that he saw around him.

Such a battery on his senses was a far cry from a usual day back in his childhood where he would wake up to screeching roosters.The deplorable stench of dung and rotting plants had defined the baseline for his olfactory sense in his nineteen years of growing up there. He could not detect the smell of cow dung in the air as a result.
The clock tower chimed once every hour. It was an uneventful place, his native village.

Six years, three months and twenty seven days later, he stood against the railing of this grandfather’s dilapidated house after a satisfying lunch. His mother was sitting a few yards away from him, on the ground, cutting areca nuts. The crackle of the nutcracker predominated the scene whenever a nut went under the knife. The sound of the winds blowing through the the nearby coconut grove hinted at the rain that was to follow. His hands gripped the railing and he ended up crushing a couple of chrysanthemum flowers that were stringed there. The humble chrysanthemum never imposes its fragrance on you, unlike most other haughty flowers that demand dedicated nasal attention. Yet, the modest fragrance found its way to his senses and he acknowledged it with a quaint smile, loosening his grip on the railing.

And that is when it started to rain. He could hear the hooves of pigs and their oinks. The raindrops started to splatter against the tin roof creating a din that exaggerated the magnitude of rainfall. Then it hit him, the aroma of the water droplets mingling with the earth. The petrichor emanating from the ground put him into a trance and with this, homecoming was now complete.

“So, when are you going back?” asked his mother, who was now packing the ground areca nut into a betel leaf with copious amounts of fennel seeds and cardamom.

Her question, in a moment, transported Vinu into the traffic -ridden road on the way to his office. The sounds of rising tempers that took the form of honks. The stench of the concoction of oxides that predominated the air. The  bakery close to where he stayed, that had now given way to a jewellery store. The city had changed a lot from the first time they had met. So had he.

“Soon” he said.

 

As he went out to put up the fence around the farm, he was reminded of an excerpt from a poem by C.P. Cavafy that he dreaded in his childhood. I went something like-

You shall not find new places; other seas
you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
And you shall walk the same familiar streets,
and you shall age in the same neighbourhood,
and whiten in these same houses.
Ever this place shall you arrive at.

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Duty

A dozen arrows ripped through his aged body like hot metal through candle wax. He trembled as he reached for the sides of the chariot for support. The archer released the final arrow that went right through his heart.
Devavrata, son of Shantanu, known to world as Bhishma  (The Terrible) had been defeated. In his line of sight, he could see only the eunuch shielding the archer who had showered on him these deadly arrows. Bhishma, the commander of the army, quivered and fell to his knees taking deep breaths as an eerie silence replaced the din of battle. Only then did the great-grand nephews realize the enormity of what had just transpired.  The war came to a halt, the battlefield was under the grip of fear with terror in everyone’s eyes. Not a soul rejoiced, not even the benefactors of this sordid drama. Darkness started to set in and the tenth day of the drew to a close.
Bhishma would live on for a few more days, but the greatest warrior in the world had died that day.

As the armies returned to their camps, the grey skies opened up and started to weep. The dead and the injured were pulled into the camps by the able soldiers after this day of intense battle.
Later that night, in one of the barracks that housed the foot-soldiers, a wise old soldier named Veera was fast asleep. He was woken by a sound, only to realize a man was standing right next to him. Before he could reach for his knife, he saw that it was Vajra, his son.

“What are you doing here, son? At this hour?” exclaimed Veera.

“I wanted to talk to you, father. This is important” said a calm and pensive Vajra.

“This is not the right place, let us go to the lakeside”

The lake was shimmering under the moonlight. There was an unsettling calm, the darkness enveloping around the trees. The frogs around the lake were woken up by the steps of the father-son duo walking towards them. They sat on the protruding roots of the banyan tree close to the lake. The ground was slushy due to the rain that had poured for hours until it had stopped just a few moments ago.

“Father, I saw one of the greatest warriors fall today. The Devas and Asuras feared him equally, yet, this wretched battlefield did not spare him. When such a Kshatriya can be vanquished, what about you and me? What hope do we, mere plebes, have in this battle?” asked a concerned Vajra.

“We won’t survive, Son.” said Veera, with a smile and a sense of honesty that no man talking about certain death could have. “There is no hope in this war. We are destined to die here and now. There is no doubt about that”

“Why fight this war when you know for certain that you are going to die? Isn’t it madness?”

“It’s our duty, son. It’s Dharma to serve our king” said the sage-like Father, in a platonic tone.

“This is such blind idealism” shouted Vajra. ” And what duty do I have towards my king, the so-called Dharmaraja, who gambled his kingdom and wife away? Where was his sense of Dharma then?”

“Enough” snapped Veera. “Your allegiance lies with your king. Make no mistake about that.”

“And what about your allegiance, father? Will you follow the command of your king?”

Vajra was right. Fate had played a cruel game in splitting the father-son duo in two different kingdoms which were under the rule of two different kings. The father was in the army of the King of Anga, the valiant son of Surya, the magnanimous Karna.

“Will you side with the same warrior who played an active part in outraging the modesty of a woman?” continued Vajra. “There is no nuance here, father. Neither is there righteousness nor a sense of duty that compels you to take part in the war. You don’t have to do this.”

Veera knew, the moment he saw his son in the barracks, that conversation would lead to this. The king of Anga and the firstborn of Kunti, Karna, had pledged never to step into the same battlefield as Bhishma. With the fall of the Pitamaha, Karna would be commanding the forces from the next day. Veera would be entering the battle for the first time on the eleventh day of the war.

“It’s my duty, son. My allegiance lies with my king” he muttered.

He could not look into his son’s tearful eyes. He had no answers to the boy’s questions. The sky thundered and it started to pour incessantly. The grey skies had opened up again.

It rained throughout the night, but it seemed like no amount of rain could wash away the blood from the battlefield.