Until about a year before the mountain disappeared, my world was simple. There were lessons and chores, as for any nine-year-old girl. There was my family, and the house we lived in, in the Brahmin colony next to the temple. There was play, and there were the stories my grandmother told me.
Then, one afternoon, not a week after he and his mother, Aunt Mehrunnisa, had returned to our village for good, Ashraf muddled it all up.
It all started innocently enough. I was up in a tree, pretending to be the warrior-goddess Chamundi, when I saw seven-year-old Ashraf, in a purple kurta-pyjama and a white cap, climbing up.
“Halt!” I yelled. “Who goes there? Are you a henchman of the terrible demon Mahishasura?”
“N-no,” said Ashraf, looking all around for the voice. “Who are you?”
“I am Chamundi!”
Ashraf finally looked up and found me. “Oh, it’s you, Soujanya. Can I be on the good side?”
It turned out that, just like me, he did not like to sleep in the afternoons. To be sure, I had no idea why anyone would. These were enchanted hours, when the sun burned the dust under our feet, when the trees themselves looked thirsty and even the flies looked for shade.
So together we fought the mighty demon Mahishasura and, after a tremendous battle, annihilated him.
We sat panting under the tamarind tree, wondering what to play next, and Ashraf said, “Let me be Khwaja Naseeruddin and you can be a Rani, coming to ask him for advice ruling her kingdom.” He straightened up into a cross-legged pose.
“Isn’t a Khwaja like a sage? Someone who meditates for magical powers?”
“Well, for wisdom, really. But yes, they get magical powers too.”
Playing at sages was the most boring thing on earth, something grown-ups liked to get us to do and we always resisted. But Ashraf looked so eager and excited that it seemed possible he knew how to make it fun.
“Oh. All right.”
I bowed to him and said, “Great Khwaja, our north borders are being attacked—”
“No! No attacks. Come on, Soujanya, think of something else.”
“Good god. Fine! Let’s see. I know. Great Khwaja, the rains have disappointed us this year. Crops are failing across the land. What do we do?”
“Please be patient, Your Majesty, as I meditate on this problem.”
And Ashraf was gone, just like that. He closed his eyes and had them closed so long that I thought he had fallen asleep. Disgusted, I moved away a little and resumed fighting – a whole army of asuras this time. While I was lobbing cannon-balls at a particularly nasty fellow, with scaly silver skin, blazing red eyes, and wickedly sharp talons, Ashraf woke up.
“It has been taken care of, Rani,” he said.
“What do you mean? How has it been taken care of?”
“I worked a miracle, you ninny. Dark clouds are gathering over your people’s lands as we speak.”
“All right ... so what do we do now?”
“Nothing, the problem is solved.”
This was why I hated playing at sages. Not that they weren’t every bit as stupendous as warriors were: Durvasa-muni could curse the very gods themselves; Vishwamitra-muni could create a whole new heaven just to spite them. But where was the fun in sitting in one place with your eyes closed?
That evening, as I sat with my grandmother in the courtyard of our house in the Brahmin colony—a string of terracotta-roofed, variously-sized, stuck-together houses on each side of our dusty street—I told her about Ashraf and the day’s play.
“Be kind to him, Soujanya,” she said, as she oiled and plaited my hair before tiffin. “His family has not been.”
“Who, Ajji? Aunt Mehr and her father?”
“Oh no, not them. But Ashraf’s paternal grandparents turned him and Aunt Mehr out after his father passed away. That’s why they’ve returned here, to live with Uncle Ahmed.”
“But why would someone turn out their own grand-child?”
Ajji sighed. “They have plenty of grand-children, Soujanya. Perhaps they decided simply not to care about this one.”
Then I remembered that Ajji lived with us even though she was my mother’s mother and old people generally lived with their eldest son. And that we didn’t ever see my uncle, my mother’s only brother, who lived just a few villages away.
Ajji practiced as she preached. She befriended Aunt Mehr, and soon Ashraf, Aunt Mehr and Uncle Ahmed were dividing their time between their tailor shop, the mosque in the next village, and our colony.
Ashraf and I pretended our way through story after story: of warriors who had braved the unknown to fight evil; of sages who had renounced the world to reach the gods and learn from them the secrets of creation; of the troubles and triumphs of those gods themselves; of the demons who constantly sought more than was reasonable and made the rest of the world pay for it until a warrior or a sage or a god came along to destroy them.
Other times, Ashraf was the Khwaja and would be very vexing. I would remember Ajji’s words and try to be patient with him.
“What would you ask him if Allah were to appear before you right now?” he asked once.
“For magical weapons, obviously.”
“It isn’t obvious at all,” said Ashraf, annoyed.
“What else is worth asking for?”
“Don’t you want to know why bad things happen, for example? Or why we are stuck with ourselves, why we can’t become other people, other things?”
Or he might say, “What is everyone searching for?”
“Whatever they’ve lost, I imagine. If they’ve lost something.”
“No, I mean, in life.”
“Oh. Glory, of course.”
“Yes,” he said, thoughtfully. “I would like to find glory.” Which was surprising, because Ashraf never wanted to play the hero; he was always happy being a side-character in my stories.
Once, he said, “Don’t you sometimes feel that being like the trees, or the rocks, would be nice?”
“I cannot think of anything more boring.”
“But it would be so peaceful.”
On exactly none of those occasions could I make out what Ashraf was really thinking.
When I was fed up, I would distract us: calling an end to the day’s play because it was nearly tiffin time, or talking about a battle idea that had popped into my head, or pointing out a squirrel digging through the tamarind pieces we’d thrown away.
On the day the mountain disappeared, I woke with every expectation of a normal day: lessons, chores, lunch, tiffin, afternoons with Ashraf, stories with Ajji. But when I entered the kitchen rubbing my eyes, it was empty.
This was surprising because it could generally be relied upon to contain a family member or two at this time of day: Amma or Ajji cooking and Appa or one of my two paternal uncles hovering for coffee and breakfast.
I stepped out into the central inner courtyard, intending to holler for someone, when I knew by the stillness of the house that it was entirely empty.
The only other time this had happened was the day that Aunt Mehr and Ashraf had returned to our village for good, so I knew right away that something interesting was afoot.
Sure enough, every resident of our Brahmin colony was gathered before the house of Uncle Jaganmohana, head priest at the temple, all talking at the tops of their voices.
The temple itself, right next to Uncle Jagan’s house, capping one end of the street, was unusually quiet. At this time of the morning, there ought to have been dozens of people milling about, ringing the bell so hard one wondered how the stone gods, demons and animals that covered the tall trapezoidal gopura did not come alive and run away.
And then I saw it. Or rather, I didn’t see it. Vikashagiri, our mountain, ordinarily visible at the other end of our street, was gone.
Even during the monsoons, when thick thunderclouds struck its vast side and brought blessed rain to our sugarcane and paddy fields, from our street we could see the slopes of the mountain, if not its summit, it was that close. Now the blue sky just hung, naked and bereft, showing us a portion of itself it never intended to.
“A great evil has befallen us,” Aunt Poorna was wailing, clutching an end of her sari, as I reached the crowd. “Somebody has cursed us—we are doomed!”
“Or else,” said Aunt Ambuja, ominously, “it might be an asura. Just like when Hiranyaksha stole Mother Earth. Only this is a hundred times worse.”
An asura?! I could barely breathe. Were my fantasies coming true?
“All right, all right,” said Uncle Jagan, yelling to make himself heard over the cacophony. “Whatever it is, there is only the one thing to be done. We will need to propitiate the gods. Let us meet at the temple hall in one hour to decide what poojas need to be performed. I’ll inform the headman that the temple will be closed for normal worship until further notice.”
Those of our fathers and uncles who did not work at the temple sent word to their employers that an emergency demanded their attention. Some helped the priests—our grandfathers, some fathers—scour scripture for the right rituals, others joined the cooks starting up the kitchen to prepare the massive amounts of food that would be needed. Our mothers and grandmothers busied themselves with cutting vegetables, stringing garlands of the mounds of flowers picked from the temple courtyard, sweeping and watering the temple’s stone floors, drawing rangoli at various spots, and any other chores that women were allowed to do.
This only meant one thing for me and all the other children in the community: when on another day we would have to be studying or working, this morning we were utterly and completely free.
The world was ours. We ran around and vaulted over each other; shinnied up scrubby neem trees to clamber across the roofs of our houses; petted the mangy dog we had been forbidden to approach. We smeared red earth on a tree trunk, pretended it was the asura who’d stolen our mountain and pelted stones at it.
I was winning the stone-throwing competition, as usual, when Narayana and Koustubha started whining about how I was cheating, how I always cheated. As if I ever would! There never were such a pair of babies.
I was fuming and careless and my next stone bounced off the tree and hit Narayana. He ran crying to his mother, and we were all promptly told to stop playing and summoned inside for an early lunch—which portended an early nap, of course.
My disgust abated somewhat over lunch, which was delicious, a full festival feast that we ate from banana leaves on the dining hall’s stone floor. We learnt that the consensus was to conduct a yagna, a sacrificial ritual, to Lord Vayu, the wind god. We would pray that he of unparalleled strength defeat the asura and carry our lost mountain back to us. It would begin that evening; there was an auspicious hour that very day.
I grew more certain than ever that Lord Vayu would answer our prayers, and that I would go with him. He sees all and would know that I had just won the morning’s stone-pelting tournament. I could torment the asura and perhaps maim it during a crucial moment, turning the battle in Lord Vayu’s favour, and then everyone would hail me as a heroine. I could already hear the cries: “Veera Soujanya! Veera Soujanya!” Narayana and Koustubha would be so jealous.
After everyone else wandered away for their afternoon naps, I walked to where the mountain should have been. There was nothing, of course, just earth and rocks as far as the eye could see. It was like looking out over a rough, brown sea, one that would skin your knees if you ran across it and tripped.
I sat on a small rock and stared out over the barren expanse and waited for Ashraf.
He did not show up.
Annoyed, I decided I would play by myself. I climbed a banyan and willed the stories—of Chamundi, of Rama, of Arjuna—to life.
But it was no use. Nothing felt right.
In the end, I just went home early.
The village was already up, getting ready for the poojas. If it hadn’t been utterly inauspicious to do so, no doubt they would have continued the rituals through the day.
As I neared the temple, I recognised a slight figure in a black niqab. Aunt Mehr was standing anxiously outside. She hailed me as I neared.
“Soujanya, have you seen Ashraf?”
“No, Aunt Mehr, I haven’t. Didn’t he come home for lunch?”
“I haven’t seen him since last evening, dear. He had dinner and went to sleep as usual. This morning I was out delivering clothes and only expected to see him at lunch. My father went into his room to wake him up and found him gone.”
“He wasn’t playing with the rest of us this morning.” And he hadn’t come to the mountain in the afternoon.
“Do you have any idea where he could be?”
Slowly, horrifyingly, it dawned on me that of course I did. Ashraf must have been on the mountain when the asura stole it.
Aunt Mehr read my expression correctly. Pure terror appeared on her face.
“No,” she whispered. “This cannot be. Soujanya, tell your grandmother, tell everyone else. They must pray for my son, too! They must have him brought back safely! They must!” Her last words ended in a shriek.
The days went by in a haze.
In the stories I had been told, the deity being prayed to would emerge from the fire when they were pleased enough. They would then proceed to grant boons. In our case, I imagined that Lord Vayu would appear and take off to fight the demon. (And take me along, I still fervently hoped.)
My village had turned into a land of wishes and dreams, where everyone wished so hard for the mountain and Ashraf to be back that they woke having dreamt it would happen this day, today, and when it didn’t, they went back home a shade more determined, a shade less hopeful.
The voices of our fathers and grandfathers quivered as they chanted mantras, pouring ghee and puffed rice into the sacrificial fire. Our mothers and grandmothers did not speak as they strung long lines of garlands.
Aunt Mehr was reduced to a ghost of her former self. She did not eat very much, even when pressed by Ajji. Her eyes developed moats of dark circles. She spent every day outside the temple, probably afraid to hear too much of the chants and straining towards them at the same time. Her mouth moved in constant prayer to Allah. Every day, Uncle Ahmed drove his bullock-cart to the next village, where the nearest mosque was.
And us children? With the adults so occupied, so utterly unconcerned of how we spent our time? We sat quietly around the sacred fire, did not fidget when the smoke stung our eyes and chanted along when we knew a shloka or two. It was all we could do, though we all wished we could help more.
On the evening of the fourteenth day, our shoulders sagged and our eyes took in nothing. I could see the adults were contemplating going home, resigning themselves to the absence of the mountain, knowing they had done all they could for Ashraf.
Then the holy fire shot out white hot sparks and there stood before us, hovering over the flames, a being of divine beauty.
He looked as if he was made of the very wind itself, attired in silk garments and sparse but glittering jewellery. A gasp went up in the crowd. It dawned on me that no one, not even our grandparents, for all their detailed descriptions on what to expect, actually had seen such a sight before.
As we gaped at the newcomer, I wondered: what did Aunt Mehr make of this unexpected stop in the chanting?
Uncle Jagan was the first one of us to gather his wits.
“Oh great Vayu, we salute you!”
“I shall carry your salutations back to Lord Vayu,” said the being, “but I am only one of his henchmen. You may address me as Vayudasa.”
“Sir,” said Uncle Jagan, suddenly lost for words, “Mister Vayudasa, we ... er ... we have lost a mountain and a boy. We ... er ...”
“I know all about your troubles, uncle. I looked for the boy and the mountain before I came here.”
“And?” said a voice nobody had expected to hear.
Aunt Mehr, holding up an end of her niqab against the strong temple smell of broken coconuts and burnt camphor, stood there, looking at Vayudasa as if he were Allah himself, arrived in answer to her prayers.
“And ...” Vayudasa frowned, but not unpleasantly. It was closer to confusion, as if he were trying to find the right words.
“Is he all right? Is my Ashraf all right? He isn’t, is he? That is why you’re silent! Tell me!”
Aunt Mehr rushed towards him; Ajji caught her just before she reached the flames. She collapsed in Ajji’s arms, sobbing.
“Your god holds his hand, madam,” said Vayudasa. “Your son is not in danger.”
“Then bring him home! Why haven’t you brought him home already?”
“I cannot bring him back just now, but I can take ...” he looked at the sobbing woman and then around at the rest of the gathering, “... one of you to him, to the mountain.”
“I am ready,” Aunt Mehr tried to stand up, to break free of Ajji’s arms. “Let’s go now!”
“No,” said Vayudasa, “madam, you are too distraught. Who else can go? Someone who knows and loves the boy.”
“I’ll go,” said Ajji.
Vayudasa looked at her regretfully. “No, madam, you are too old. The journey may be too much for you.”
“I’ll go,” I said, my voice thinner and shakier than I remembered it.
Not that there was much of an option. No one else was half as close to Ashraf as I was.
Vayudasa turned to me and looked me up and down. “Excellent,” he said.
“But no!” cried my mother. “She is just a little girl.”
“I turned ten last week, Amma!” I said, mortified.
“Let her go, Mala,” said Ajji, still holding Aunt Mehr, looking at me with an odd expression.
As I stepped up to the fire, my eyes fell upon Narayana and Koustubha. They looked about one step away from tears. Truth be told, I quite felt that way myself.
Vayudasa scooped me up in his arms as if I were a small child. I clung to his neck and we took off.
We rose up over the temple grounds until it was smaller than an ant-hill and the people there, looking up at us, were as small as ants. My ears hurt more and more until there was a pop and they didn’t. My stomach seemed to rise up and lodge itself near my throat.
I stopped craning my neck to look at the ground as it fell further and further away. What mercy that no one from the village was around to see my fear.
We flew west. I looked downwards again. The few villages that stood between ours and the sea passed below. Those people were probably just going about their daily lives, as we once had, preparing for evening pooja and dinner and sleep.
I tightened my grip on Vayudasa’s neck, not that his iron hands would have let me go.
Dear Lord Rama, if flying scared me so, how was I going to be any help at all with the asura?
We had been flying out over the sea for a long time. Which asura had carried our mountain out that far, I wondered.
When there were no shores visible, Vayudasa started to descend. A tiny island appeared below us. Perhaps he wanted to rest before carrying on.
“Well,” said Vayudasa, as he set me down. “Here we are.”
“Here? But where’s Vikashagiri?”
“You’re standing on it.”
I gaped at him; then it struck me. Of course, islands must extend all the way underwater until they touched earth again.
“Really?” I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. “Is the asura around then? And where’s Ashraf?”
Vayudasa’s face again took on that inexplicable look.
“Call for the boy. There is no need to fear an asura,” he said, his voice soft, kind.
I had my doubts, but trusted the divine being.
“A-Ashraf? Are you here? Are you hiding? It’s all right to come out. This brave warrior will not allow any harm to come to us.”
“Soujanya? Is that you?” came Ashraf’s voice, but I couldn’t see him.
“Yes, can you see me? Where are you?”
“I can feel you,” came the reply. “You’re standing on me. And so is someone else.”
I looked down and saw nothing but brown earth.
“Where are you?” I asked. “Are you buried underground? Should we dig you up?”
“No, silly. I am the mountain now.”
“The asura turned you into the mountain? No matter, This Uncle Vayudasa here should be able to kill the asura and turn you back. Speaking of which, where is the evil creature?” I looked around, expecting a golden-hued creature with red eyes and sharp teeth to appear.
“Soujanya, there’s no asura. I did this myself.”
Oh, Ashraf was going to be difficult again.
Still, this was new. He was annoying and trying in so many different ways, and yet, I’d never known him to speak falsehoods before—especially not those that wildly exaggerated his abilities.
“Don’t lie, Ashraf,” I said, still looking for the asura. “How could you possibly have done this yourself?”
“I wished that I were the mountain, and in the middle of the sea, and we began to move.”
“How could that be?” I said, sitting down on a rock with my back towards Vayudasa. That way one of us would see the demon when it arrived. “It’s not a wish-granting mountain, or the village would have known by now.”
“I don’t know,” said Ashraf. “I was sitting on it that night as usual and wishing for it to—”
“Ashraf,” I said, my temper rising at these extended untruths, “what do you mean you were there at night ‘as usual’? There are spirits about at night, and poisonous snakes. Don’t tell me you aren’t afraid of them.”
“I suppose, but I’m always thinking about Allah and praying to him as I sit there, so perhaps he protected me.”
I sighed. “Then did Allah move the mountain?”
“No, but he taught me how to. I was praying, as I do every night, that I might escape my human body and be something greater, transcendent, invulnerable, and last night, the mountain was Allah and it opened up and took me in. It knew me, knew my heart and I knew it. I spoke to it and it moved. We flew through the night, Soujanya, you should have seen the glory! The stars twinkling, the moon shining, the waters sparkling, as if just for me.”
If the mountain had been in its usual place, this would have been my cue to end the day’s play and run home for tiffin. As it was, I looked around wildly, not sure where to go or what to do.
How much of all this was the truth and how much fabrication? Had there really been no asura? What was it in Ashraf’s voice that jabbed me in the ribs? How I wished Ajji were near!
And my eyes fell on Vayudasa. He was sitting under a tree and watching me. I was not alone! A god-sent messenger was present. He would help, surely.
I met his eyes and asked desperately, “Uncle, what do we do now?”
He shook his head. “Young lady, I cannot tell you that. My orders are to let your village, its representative—you—decide and then merely carry out your decision.”
“But ... but I have no idea! I don’t even know how much of what Ashraf is saying is the truth!”
“That I can tell you: it all is.”
The world went quiet. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there had been wind rustling through the trees, waves lapping at the mountain, the sounds of sea-birds in the distance.
It struck me that what I had heard in Ashraf’s voice was that he was pleading with me. To understand his happiness, his contentment.
Then I knew. There had been an asura, after all.
I stood and picked up the rock I had been sitting on. It was four times as big as my head and ten times as heavy. I swung it into the sea with strength that came from rage. It landed with a great splash that spattered water over the mountain, over me, over Vayudasa.
“S-Soujanya? What are you doing?” Ashraf’s scared voice only made me angrier.
I picked up a branch that lay on the ground and swung it at the raw spot the rock had left.
“You selfish creature!” I shrieked. “Do you know what you have done?” —Thwack!— “The temple has been closed ever since you ran away—none of the priests are earning anything.” I flailed and the branch hit a tree. “Not only that, everyone on my street is using their own provisions for a days-long sacrifice to bring the mountain back,” I aimed for a bush, unmindful that it might harbour snakes, “to bring you back safely. And do you have the slightest thought for your mother?” I raised the branch high up above my head and brought it down hard on the ground. “This is one more hardship added to all the others she already has. She has done nothing but weep since she saw you gone. Your grandfather goes all the way to the mosque every single day. And the mountain! What do you expect will happen during the monsoons?” This time I hit a rock and the stupid, flimsy branch broke into two. I threw the useless stump against the nearest tree. “The clouds will simply pass our village by, our crops will get no rain, drought will—”
“Stop, Soujanya!” The mountain shook with the words.
I stood there, empty-handed, panting, silent not because Ashraf asked me to be, but because my fury had no more words.
“I-I’m sorry,” hiccupped Ashraf, “I didn’t ... I never ...”
He stopped and in the silence was another plea for understanding. I did not give it to him.
“S-speak to me, Soujanya! Say something, please ...”
I had no more arguments to make, nothing more to say. I just wanted to go back home, with or without Ashraf; to live as if he had never been, as if the mountain had never been.
“I promise I’ll come back; I promise I’ll never do anything selfish again, please be my friend once more!”
There was the lapping of the waves. A soft breeze rustled through the trees. A bird cried in the distance.
“Uncle Vayudasa,” came Ashraf’s clear voice into the dusk, “please change me into my original form and take us back to our village. I-I seem unable to do it myself.”
“As you say, Ashraf-muni.”
Ashraf appeared and placed his little hand in mine.
The mountain lifted up into the sky.
Ashraf and I sat on Vikashagiri’s peak as Vayudasa carried the mountain back home. The sun had set, but I was wide awake. The stars came out and twinkled, just as Ashraf had described them before; the moon glittered off the water. The mountain sailed through the silent night.
I could appreciate none of it because I was utterly outraged that Vayudasa had called Ashraf a sage. Did he not realise how selfish Ashraf had been? Could he see Vasishtha or Durvasa or Vishwamitra taking what they pleased and leaving, without thought nor heed of others?
No sooner had I asked myself that question did I find I could very well see it.
Durvasa had cursed half the people he came across, for the most imagined of slights. And Vishwamitra, initially a king, had become a sage solely because he wanted a magical cow, and couldn’t take her from her owner by force alone. Even his greatest feat, the whole new heaven that he created, was borne out of anger that the gods would not give him what he wanted.
I placed my head in my hands and let the tears fall.
How had I not realised this about my heroes?
What was worse, here I was, on the adventure I had always dreamt of, having completely failed to recognise a sage. Ashraf had moved a mountain. A whole mountain. And I had treated him like he had simply been a terribly naughty child. In all my dreams, I was always the shining, spotless warrior. Never once had the notion of failure intervened.
The tears wouldn’t stop; the sobs wouldn’t stop.
I could feel Ashraf giving me distraught looks, but he had the sense to leave me alone.
We began to descend. I took large gulps of air to stop the crying, so nobody would see me like this.
Vayudasa returned the mountain first to its original place, then took us home. He set us down on our street, a few houses away from the temple.
“Veera Soujanya, Ashraf-muni, Vayudasa takes your leave. Your relatives and friends are waiting in the temple. Brave warrior, I trust that you will complete the task. Protect our sage. Be well, both of you.”
Having once more thrown my understanding of the world topsy-turvy, he rose into the night and was gone. The temple was illuminated by the full moon. We started walking towards it.
The quiet of the night belied the confusion in me. How could I be a warrior when I had failed so badly? And what danger could Ashraf be in now that we were home?
Just outside the temple, Ashraf stopped. He looked terrified.
Of course. What were we going to tell everyone? I had been unfair to him; others also might. Vayudasa was not here to correct them, and there was little chance anyone would listen to me.
I stopped, too, and said, “Ashraf, I am not going to tell them. We will make up a story.”
His face flooded with relief and shame. “I-I’m such a coward, Soujanya, but ... but I don’t know how to—”
I took his hand. “It’s your secret.”
The gratitude in his eyes made me horribly ashamed of myself. The words I could not find before came rumbling up from the depths of my gut and spilt out of me in fresh tears and sobs. “Ashraf, I am so sorry! I was wrong to be so violent with you. I will learn to be less hasty, I promise!”
He shook his head. There was a determined look on his face. “It did hurt me, Soujanya, but it made me see. It saved me. It saved our people.”
“But your powers—you lost them after I yelled at you.”
“They don’t matter, Soujanya. I’ve told you so before.” Ashraf’s clear brown eyes held exasperation and no trace of regret.
Only then did I understand: the powers really did mean little to him. In that moment, all our mountain-top conversations became clear to me.
“But what about your chosen life, then, Ashraf? To find your glory, to escape yourself?”
“Someday I will not have to steal it.” He squeezed my hand. “Take heart, Veera Soujanya.”
There came a shout from the temple entrance and Aunt Ambuja bore down on us. “My dears, you have returned! It is a miracle indeed!”
She was soon followed by everyone else.
Aunt Mehr rushed to Ashraf and hugged him so tight I wondered he could breathe.
Ajji appeared and took my hand. She did seem old and frail, as Vayudasa had noticed. I wondered I hadn’t seen before that I was taller than she. The rest of my family surrounded me, too, asking questions at the tops of their voices, glowing with triumph and pride.
The other villagers murmured, “The poor darling boy, the brave girl! How well it has all turned out!”
Uncle Jagan called for silence, then addressed me, “Tell us what happened, Soujanya.”
I exchanged a glance with Ashraf and launched into a story of a mountaintop-battle we had played at often.
It has been six months. The temple has seen a surge of attendance. Uncle Jagan gets requests to lead yagnas from all over, even the city. He always refuses. Ajji says he knows a real sacrifice has to be made and those are rare.
These days, when Ajji and I do chores together, I make sure to do most of the work. When she tells me my beloved stories, I do not envy Arjuna his magical weapons. Instead, my heart goes out to him for having to draw them upon his own family. I realise how Vishwamitra’s pride held him back from becoming as powerful as he wanted to be; how Rama destroyed the peerless beauty of the land of Lanka when he killed the demon-king Ravana.
When I play with my friends on the street, they always want me to be the heroine, the leader, the victor. Even Narayana and Koustubha. I make sure everybody has their chance.
My afternoons I spend at lessons. Appa never tires of marvelling that I have finally begun to apply myself.
Ashraf spends his on tailoring. Uncle Ahmed is already teaching him to design garments. In every way he is the perfect son, the perfect grandson. Everyone says how he seems much older than his nine years; some even observe that his presence seems to calm them. His mother and grandfather could not be prouder of him.
Indeed, Ashraf will care very well for them until the ends of their days. But when his duties on this earth have been discharged, he will find the way back to glory.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.