Shadowed Prayers

“Shoo, shoo, go away. Away, I said.”

The young dogs were the first to push their noses where they did not belong, but, unlike the people who came later, they were decent enough to heed the words of the lady, who was demanding her space. They heeded, because she had been good to them these past few days, feeding them when no one else had. They took care not to come too close, but they also knew that going away would mean no dinner. So, they paced.

Continue reading

Hi – 5, Naveen Babu

“Oye, you listening? We seem to have run out of rice. Could you get some from the street store?”

And thus started my Sunday morning. I had happily put on my headphones and searched for Byomkesh Bakshy OST, prepping for a nice two hours of writing, when I heard this coming straight out of the kitchen. The thing about noise-cancellation headphones is that they can save your ears from the perpetual droning of the marble cutter running all day in your neighbour’s backyard, but they haven’t yet been built to defend you against the deadly chore-calls of your mother. Continue reading

The Dancer on the Sill

“Is it true that you can steal portraits from nature as well?”

She did not immediately acknowledge the question, but continued to stare intently at the raindrops breaking off the window sill. I had the unsettling feeling that she could see something that I was clearly missing. I followed her gaze, resting my eyes on the very edge of the window. The rain was breaking into a hundred different miniscule rubies and sapphires where it touched the concrete, shining in the light borrowed from the low flame of the hurricane lamp. Indeed, there seemed to be a fatalistic beauty in it all, with just a sheen of hope to delude the unsuspecting daydreamer.

Continue reading

The Doomsday Conundrum

It was one of those conversations in which one finds oneself faced with that philosophical question – What is the motivation behind any particular action? It had started as one that is quite common among friends –we exchanged pleasantries, asked of each other how life was going on, and slowly drifted to more personal matters. At no point was there any indication that the conversation would take such a turn. I am pretty confident she blames me for starting it; I would have done the same, were I in her place. Later on, she did point out that I asked a lot of questions, that each answer she furnished seemed to be the root of yet another question and that it was tiresome on her part to entertain my insatiable curiosity. To this I replied in my own way that an honest, clear and complete answer would have sufficed and would not have driven me to ask supplementary questions. She still insisted on my insatiability. But, I digress. This article is not about what she thinks of me, or whether she is justified in doing so. No, no, the objective of this article is to explore a little deeper into the actual question that brought about all the fuss. She had just asked me how much time I would permit her for a particular piece of work that I expected of her. I replied with a careless flourish of my arms, “You have all the time in the world. Today, tomorrow or the day before the final doom, it does not matter. Just don’t disturb me on the doomsday. I will be busy running for my life.”

“Oh don’t worry, I’ll be busy myself on that day, but of course, in saving someone else’s life.”

 And it was now that the question popped up in my mind. What is she thinking? It was the way she said it, simply as something that did not warrant a second thought. She said it like she would be doing it as a duty to that someone else.

 Clearly, I am not very deft at handling such situations. It was much later that I realized that her statement was just a clever response to my intended wit and as such was not one to be pursued seriously. However, at that very moment I tossed back at her, the inevitable, “Why? And whose life, by the way?”

 “Come on, is it not obvious. Leave it.”

“No, it is not obvious, far from it actually. And why should I leave it?”

 The answer to my question had dawned on me even before I had uttered the words – she did not want to discuss this. And to be very honest, it was pretty obvious that she would be trying to save the life of the person she loved the most. I mean, it is quite the cliché these days, isn’t it? The whole act of self-immolation for the sake of one’s beloved. Total hogwash, I say, but I concluded that to know her motivation behind such an action would be an amusing exercise. It turned out it was, though not so much for her.

 “You are serious about continuing this? Well, leave it because you won’t be able to understand.”

“I just might. So, there is no harm in giving it a try, is there?”

“Alright, I would save the life of that person who means the world to me, the one I love more than I love anyone else.”

“But why? I mean, why save his life and not your own?”

“I would save his life because his life is more precious to me than my own.”

 I allowed myself a silent chuckle. She did not have a clue about what she was saying. She had just stated two contradicting statements and she did not even realize it. It was not her fault entirely, either. She was not accustomed to contemplate very deeply about the concepts of love and value. She trusted her feelings to settle any matter in this accord. And if you are wondering how these feelings are defined, I would urge you to watch all those television soaps where-in the leading character is always a woman, who saves her family from all troubles armed with nothing but her Love. These soaps have a pretty clever way of dealing with the whole matter. They never define love, emotions, feelings or any other term of this sort. They just portray these as those things that the villain never understands. By doing so, they achieve a double benefit. One, the audience is left with a sense of awe, the kind that is inspired from the inexplicable; they have a really good score playing in the back to push the point home. And two, the audience never questions what love, emotions or feelings really mean. To question these concepts would be tantamount to a deliberate attempt to side with the villain. If you ever question the motivations of the heroine, you get this rather annoying response, “But of course, she did it out of her love for the family. Clearly, you don’t suggest that you did not understand this, do you?” To question is to declare moral bankruptcy – this is the order of the day.

 I was pulled out of my little reverie by her rather loud protest, “Hey, I know that look of condescension. It is typical of you. You act like you know it all, and yet I know for sure that when it comes to the stuff that really matters in life, you have no clue. You are too selfish to understand the meaning of my statement and for that matter, the meaning of love.”

 I suppressed my urge to laugh out loud. I will never understand the meaning of love. I was already the villain. I said plainly, “You are right about that. I do act as a know-it-all and I hardly have a clue about what you mean by the stuff that really matters in life. And yes, I am selfish, though I do not see how that is an impediment to the understanding of love.”

“Isn’t it obvious? You just said it. You are selfish. To love, you will have to see beyond yourself.”

“So, you mean to say, in love we have to hold the life of the beloved as more precious than our own.”

“Yes.”

“But, why?”

“You are impossible. It is so difficult for me to talk to you these days. Why do you ask all these questions? Do you question the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west? Do you question the fact that the sky is blue and that birds can fly? No, but when it comes to the realities of life, you start firing your mouth with a magazine-full of Whys and Hows and such other silly questions.”

 All I did now was to look into her eyes. How I wanted to retort – the sun does not always rise in the east and set in the west, and depending on the time of the year, it rises anywhere between east-north-east to east-south-east and sets similarly between west-north-west and west-south-west; the sky is blue only on a clear day; and some birds don’t fly. You might consider me a slight pedantic, but she had much better examples she could have stated as fact: the fact that we exist, the fact that we think, the fact that this discussion is happening. No, she chose the sun, the sky and the birds, particularly because they are always the ones being used on the television.

 She did not seem to notice my silence. She threw up her hands and said, “I will answer that question on one condition: you won’t follow it up with more questions”

 I kept my silence, only shrugging my shoulders to indicate that I wished neither to accept her condition nor to decline it outright.

She continued, “See, I love him. If he dies, my life will have no meaning left. So, what is the use of such a life that cannot save the life of the one I love most?”

She was supposed to give me an answer. Although, she thought that her question was rhetoric, it was not. It was a genuine question. Her response had set my mind running. “You have barred me from asking any questions, but can I at least comment on your answer.”

 “Why yes, sure. Knock yourself out.” Her eyes did not have the sparkle of one engaged in a philosophical debate. She was just indifferent. She did not attach any value to this discussion, and very much did not care what assessment I made of her answer. She was continuing just for the sake of entertaining me; she considered it one of the duties of friendship. I saw all this. I could have stopped. There was no point in continuing a discussion when the mind across you had just switched the channel. However, I continued. I wanted to be the great teacher to her who unveils the secrets of life by dispelling the existing misconceptions. I am arrogant in that way.

 “The statement you made does not address the question I asked. I simply asked why the value of someone else’s life is more than your own. You never answered this. You said your life would be meaningless without him. To prevent this state of zero, that is a life that has nothing more to offer, you choose to channel your efforts to save him. Up to this point, I followed. Beyond this I have understood nothing of your answer. You asked what use a lover’s life is, if it cannot the save the life of the beloved. It is a profound question in its own right. To answer that would take much thought and much skill at explanation. However, it is in no manner an answer to my question. At no point have you made a comparison between the values of the two lives. Your answer requires only the axiom that you value your own life greatly. That is why you did not want to lead the meaningless life. When you questioned the use of your life, if it could not save the life of your beloved, you have expressed your fear that your life will lose value in your own esteem. In both cases, you are concerned only with the value of your life.”

 “It is only by his life that my life has value. Without him, in your words, it is a zero.”

“Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to say. We have agreed that it is only to preserve the value of your life that you are willing to save his. At no point are we making any comparison. So, how can you say that his life is more precious than yours? And by extension, how can you say that you love him more than you love yourself?”

 Not until I had finished speaking did I notice her face. The countenance that had been bubbling with friendly enthusiasm a quarter of an hour ago had now become taut with effort – the effort to not burst out into a terrible, uncontrollable rage, the effort of restraint. When she spoke again after a pause of over one minute, her voice was calm, but her nostrils were flaring and her hands betrayed a slight shiver. “No one thinks like you do. I had always admired that in you. I am happy that you want all things to be crystal clear in your mind. However, I do not encourage you to take liberties with my personal beliefs again. Do not try to put me in the same category as yourself, you didactic, selfish, arrogant, pedantic egoist.”

 I looked at her intently, trying to figure her out. She was not angry at me for saying something wrong. She was angry at the fact that I was right – right by logic and right by reason. She did not want to accept this right, because for all she knew everyone else would denounce it as wrong. She knew I was right but she doubted her own judgment. How could so many people be wrong? This is a world that upholds heroes for their selfless sacrifice for those they love. It preaches a code that one must sacrifice oneself for the greater good of humanity. She chose, in this moment of doubt, to side with the world and not with me. She figured that the best way to do so was to shut her mind and have faith in what she has been taught all her life. She was angry at herself for having doubted it even for a moment. She blamed me for that and so she levied upon me all the profanities she could muster.

 She called me didactic; I did want to lecture her on her misconceptions. She called me selfish; I have never committed to any action that returned me no value. She called me arrogant; I do have an over-bearing self-worth. She called me pedantic; why should I want anything less than perfect? She called me an egoist; yes, I am, and I am proud to be one. I wanted to thank her for recognizing me for my own worth, but I knew she didn’t. She used these words only as an insult, not as a tribute. I just kept looking into her eyes with nothing more than pity for the fear she held in hers.

 She rose to leave, fumbling with her bag and umbrella; she grunted the pleasantries of goodbye careful not to make eye contact. In that moment, I could not resist myself. I shot at her one last volley of questions, “So, you value his life more than your own, to the extent that you wish to suffer but not let him come to any harm. Then, by giving away your life why are you escaping your responsibility? Why are you taking the easy way out? Why are you subjecting him to the zero that you yourself dread so much to live with? Why should he suffer by outliving you, while you escape to your heavenly bliss?”

 She stopped half-turned away from me. With her head bent low enough for her chin to touch the collar of her shirt, she let out a loud sigh. When she turned again to face me, the frustration and anger that had contorted her face were gone. Her eyes were no longer burning; they were calm with pity. “For the sake of the friendship we have shared for so many years and for the sake of it to continue as such in the years ahead, I solemnly pray that the Lord deliver you from yourself.”

 I rose up quietly. I had nothing further to add. She was lost to my thinking. I fished my cell phone from my hip pocket and gave my driver a call. He was to drop my esteemed guest at her residence. I could not do so myself, not today. I grumbled my goodbye and started towards my balcony. I needed air.

 As her providence would have it, I had no respite there as well. The air was still, no breeze today. I leaned against the wall for support. That last sentence from her rang in my ears, refusing to damp out. The blood throbbed in my veins to cloud out the ringing. It was to no avail. The dread had consumed me thoroughly. The dread was not for my sake. I did not have one bit of self-doubt. I was right and I knew it. I did not need another person’s sanction to know that I was right. The dread was the conviction with which she had voiced those words. The dread was for that tone, which did not know guilt or fear or anger. These were the attributes of a thinking man, a rational man. To derive such confidence from the non-absolute, from the obscure, from the undefined was an act I had deemed impossible to humankind. And yet, there she was. She had challenged me with those words. She had thrown at me another conundrum to ponder over.


Originally published on an earlier (now defunct) blog in the Summer of 2011.

The Battle of Saraighat – Part 2


Read Part 1


January, 1670
Council of the Lords, Royal Palace
Garhgaon (Capital of the Ahom Kingdom)

Atan Burhagohain waited for the Lords to reach a conclusion. He had spent the last three hours trying to sway the opinion of the Lords.

The Lords had been eager to concede to Ram Singh’s diplomatic initiatives. They wanted no more bloodshed. Their king had just died of grief and the new King had trusted their opinion on how to best continue this row with the Mughals. Ram Singh had offered a Mughal payment of 300,000 rupees in return for an Ahomi evacuation of Guwahati. It was a generous option that the Rajput King had opened. However, they could not set aside the warnings of Atan Burhagohain. He was best analyst and statesman they had. He had warned them that the Mughal Emperor will not honour Ram Singh’s pact. He will press his other vassals to proceed further into the Ahomi kingdom. Who will stop him, if he wants to take the whole of Kamrup? What if he proceeds further to capture Garhgaon? Can they put their trust in an Emperor who had an ambition greater than the whole of Bharat? And was the Council of the Lords so cowardly that it would not avenge the lives of its people? Has the resources of the Kingdom been overdrawn for nothing?

Atan looked at their faces: brows burdened with the blood of 10,000 men, the once lustrous eyes dimmed by apprehension and the whole countenance turned into a shadow of defeat.

Slowly these faces turned to him. Their decision was unanimous: The Kingdom of Ahom rejects the offer made by Raja Ram Singh. There shall be no retreat. There shall be no surrender. The Ahom will not fall as long even one Ahomi can carry a sword.

The message was sent to the Rajput Raja. Another message was sent for reinforcements. Guwahati was to be guarded with life.


March, 1671
Gatehouse of Itakhuli Fort
Guwahati

Lachit Borphukan observed the clash of the navies of the Ahom and the Mughals from his sickbed. His illness had come all of a sudden, leaving him too weak to lead an assault. The admiral was also struck by disease. The Nara Raja was leading the Ahom Navy; Laluk Borgohain Phukan rallied the Ahom army.

Initially, the Ahoms had enjoyed the upper hand. The terrain was better suited to their style of warfare than that of the Mughals. However, the Mughal were no novices either. They had adjusted quickly and were gathering momentum. They had infiltrated deep into the Ahom defenses. The Ahom soldiers had panicked; breaches of command had followed. Boats had started to fall back with total disregard to the Commanders’ orders.

Lachit rose from his sickbed. He could not allow the Ahoms to fall. Not like this, not in panic. He ordered the scribe nearest at hand to send in letters of encouragement announcing his entry into the battle. With another scribe, he sent orders to gather seven war-boats under his command. With the help of Nadai of Kharangi, he got on to a boat. Those beside him pleaded him to stand down, to regard his health. In reply, he shouted back, “The King has put all the people in my hands to fight the Mughal. Shall I go back to my wife and children? If you want to flee, flee. The king has given me a task here and I will do it well. Let the Mughals take me away. You report to the king that his general fought well following his orders.” He pushed a few soldiers off the boat to drive his point through, once and for all. He had not come to war with desires of retiring when his men needed him most. He had not come here to flee for safety, condemning his people to a life of mindless, worthless servitude. The death of so many Ahoms will not be the fodder for the ego of an ambitious Mughal Emperor. This war will have a different ending.

Mughal Admiral Munnawar Singh had not expected the gunshot to his back, when he sat smoking his hookah. He coughed blood and collapsed. His eyes asked one loud question before shutting down forever – How did the Ahoms breach the Mother Ship?

The Amirs fell to the river, one after the other, wounded by the instruments of war, shocked by defeat and paralysed by the fright of death. How did the Ahoms achieve such a reversal? Had they not fled like scared ducks just minutes ago?

Raja Ram Singh stared on. He could do nothing more. His stomach refused to digest the events of the past hour. Decades on the battlefield had not shown him such a sight. Seven War-boats had appeared from the shadows of defeat. Their cry was menacing – one name filled the wind. Lachit Borphukan. What powers this name had was beyond the comprehension of the Rajput Raja. The name was stronger than any victory trumpet – boats from all over the River had filed in with these seven boats. These small boats, not even the equivalent of ants before the mighty Mughal Navy had circled round the Mughal Warships. One by one, the ships were taken down. One memory kept flashing back – he had seen lions take down even the strongest of elephants.

One man, too sick to even stand without support, has this effect on the Ahom army? One man has turned the tide around, simply by the pull of his presence? Who is this Lachit Borphukan? How does he command such reverence? Why does he not fall?

Ram Singh sounded the retreat. Conquering the Ahom will not be possible with Lachit Borphukan at its head.

He wrote to Lachit, acknowledging his defeat, “Glory to the king! Glory to the counselors! Glory to the commanders! Glory to the country! One single individual leads all the forces! Even I Ram Singh, being personally on the spot, have not been able to find any loophole and an opportunity!


Dramatized history based on true events. Originally published in a student magazine in the Spring of 2011.

The Battle of Saraighat – Part 1

February, 1669
Base Camp, Mughal Army
Rangamati (in present day Bangladesh)

Raja Ram Singh of Amber had only one thing in mind: to live up to his father’s name, Mirza Raja Sawai Jai Singh. Shahenshah Aurangzeb has commissioned him to retake Guwahati into the mighty Mughal Empire. The loss of Guwahati to the Ahoms was something the Emperor had not liked. Ram Singh had vowed to himself that he will not fail the Emperor, not with the army he commands. It has been more than a year since he left Delhi with 4,000 troopers, 1,500 ahadis (elite cavalry) and 500 barqandezes. Accompanying him are two great leaders – Rashid Khan, the ex-faujdar of Guwahati and the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. The Emperor has graciously augmented his forces by an additional 30,000 infantrymen, 21 Rajput chiefs (Thakurs) with their contingents, 18,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers and shieldmen and 40 ships. The vassals from Koch Bihar have pooled in with their armies. To man the fleet, Portuguese and other European sailors have also been employed.

Yes, victory is imminent – Raja Ram Singh commanded his forces to move up the Brahmaputra from Dhaka. The Ahoms will fall.


April, 1669
Base Camp, Ahom Army
Andharubali, Guwahati

Lachit Borphukan sat sharpening the blade of his Hengdang, the gold-hafted sword that was conferred to him during his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Ahom Army. This blade had drawn blood of many Mughal soldiers when he had taken Guwahati back from their hands. He has to draw more.

His spies have brought him information about the Mughal advance up the Brahmaputra. The Mughal Army is more than what his troops can handle on open field. Definitely, he has been fortunate to have Atan Burhagohain Rajmantri Dangaria (Prime Minister of the Ahoms) at his side. Atan’s military and diplomatic foresight has enabled the Ahoms to put a strong defense around Guwahati. Atan’s scheme has been working. The initial diplomatic bouts with Ram Singh have given Ahoms enough time to assess the situation and prepare for battle. They have chosen the area around Saraighat as their field of operation. It is hilly, on the way to the heart of the Ahom kingdom and without open fields where the Mughal forces would not have sufficient mobility. The only way east is via the Brahmaputra River passing through it. The Brahmaputra at Saraighat, at its narrowest 1km width, is ideal for a naval defense. The complex system of mud embankments in Guwahati that he has set up should worry the Mughals. When the Mughals find Guwahati impregnable by land, they would be forced to use their navy, which is their weakest asset.

Lachit thought over the whole strategy – it was the only way he could turn the numbers game around. The Monsoon will also pitch into the battle later on. Surely, Mughal Army cannot fight in this terrain, not with the forces of nature piled against them.


July, 1669
Saraighat

Ram Singh ordered full retreat. He has had enough of this thieves’ affair. Lachit Borphukan has proved a formidable opponent – the one people worship as a hero. With him, the Southern Banks of Brahmaputra is out of Mughal’s reach. Along the Northern Banks, Atan Burhagohain has been employing his guerilla tactics, the so-called dagga juddha, all summer. The monsoon has not made life any easier. The Mughals have got bogged down in the mud, separated from each other due to flowing streams. It is not dignified for the royal army of the Mughals to indulge in such warfare. Has it all descended to trickery?

This game, then, can be played both ways. Ram Singh called out to his scribe. He ordered a letter to be written, addressed to Lachit Borphukan. It stated that Lachit had been paid one lakh to evacuate Guwahati and urged him to do so soon. He ordered that this letter be shot into the Ahom Army Camp.

The implications did not escape even the simple-minded scribe – it is sure to cause confusion. Betrayal from their hero would strike the Ahom soldiers hard. With no leadership, the Ahoms would be reduced to mere mortals united only in grief. Without Lachit’s forces, Atan’s raiding parties will not get the necessary diversion. Victory can be had with one arrow!

However, the Mughal Commander could not allow any blemishes on his character. This meant that he needed a dignified plan of action – one that can be declared in public. He ordered the scribe to draft another letter – this time to Chakradhwaja Singha, King of Ahoms. It was to be a proposal to the King for an open duel, instead of lowly guerilla raids. If Ram Singh were to be defeated by the Ahom King, Ram Singh would leave the lands of Assam with a promise of never to return.

Ram Singh pondered over his move – the Ahom King will not agree to this. However, it is certain that the King will feel humiliated. With some chance, the King may actually force Lachit to bring the battle to open grounds; he would not trust a guerilla leader, tainted with the accusation of betrayal. He would find it more convenient to test the man’s patriotism and loyalty in a battle on open fields, where his movement can be tracked by spies.

Yes, this move is convenient.


August 14, 1669
Battlefield of Alaboi Plains

Morning:
Lachit stood before his army, trying to gauge the numerical disadvantage they were at. The Mughal horses looked formidable and menacing before the Ahom ponies. This was a mistake all along. His heart grieved that the King had fallen for Ram Singh’s trickery. Now, he had to prove his patriotism at the cost of so many Ahom lives. There is no doubt this will be a massacre.

The Ahom archers and infantry were dressed like Brahmins to deter the Rajput soldiers from killing them. It was not much, but Lachit had to bank on the Rajput pride. But the bluff was easy to see through. No, this will end in disaster. Tears rolled down his eyes. He uttered, “It is a tragedy that my country is facing this dire catastrophe during my Phukanship. How will my king be saved? How will my people be saved? And how will my posterity be saved?”

Afternoon:
The casualties to the Ahom Army have crossed the mark of 10,000. All their tactics have failed. Ram Singh had cried ‘Havoc’ and let slip his dogs of war. It was the worst sight Lachit had seen in his life. The men slaughtered by swords, impaled by spears, blown to bits by cannon balls.

Taking Atan’s advice, Lachit had dug up trenches as a safe haven, in case they had to make a retreat. He has been trying for the past hour to make that retreat. Only one thing went on in his mind – he cannot give up now. The kingdom can still be saved. But today he has to live. The King will understand his move. No king wants to send his soldiers on a suicide mission for a second time. The Mughals won’t be able to follow him into those trenches. It will be suicide for them.

He trumpeted the sound of retreat and spurred his horse forward.


Read Part 2. Dramatized history based on true events. Originally published in a student magazine in the Spring of 2011.