Aditya led the way and Pandi followed; eyes and ears peeled for signs of danger. Thick, green foliage crowded in from all sides as ancient trees of peepal and banyan towered above them. They were in the dense sub-tropical forests outside Takshashila.
Crisp, early morning freshness hung in the air and the indescribable scents of wood, moss, flowers, mud, and wet leaves mingled in Aditya’s nostrils. He inhaled deeply of the cool forest air and shivered with excitement. All around them, the forest was alive, reverberating to the chirping of birds, the shrill cries of peacocks, and the chattering of monkeys.
Not a word was spoken. Now and again, Aditya pointed out something interesting to Pandi, who grinned with delight and then nodded for them to continue. Deeper and deeper into the jungle they went, till finally, Aditya held up his hand and got down on all fours. Pandi nodded. He too, went into a low crouch as they slowly crept forward.
They had come to the edge of a ravine. From here, the rocky land sloped steeply down. Odd-looking stunted bushes and trees, curving into the most fantastic shapes, grew along the sides of the ravine, disappearing into pitch darkness at the bottom.
Both held absolutely still, straining all their senses, running their gaze over the bushes, rocks, and trees growing along both sides and staring deep into the distance, over the edge of the ravine opposite. Finally, deciding that all was well, they made their way down the treacherous slope to the bottom.
At the bottom it was dark, cool, and silent. Far above them, they saw the skyline, a patch of blue sky framed by dark rock walls, and the silhouettes of trees. On the ground, tangled bushes and rocks gave way to clear, muddy land, through which flowed a thin trickle of water. A dead tree lay right next to this water channel, its trunk half-submerged in mud and its white, lifeless branches sticking out awkwardly. Aditya squatted down beside the tree and pointed to something in the mud.
There, in the soft clay on one side of the tree, could be seen the paw prints of a tigress and her three cubs. They had emerged from the brush, and then crossing the nala, had followed its course for some time.
“It is two days old, at least,” Aditya whispered, pointing to one of the tigress’s pugmarks. The sides were already crumbling, and ants traversed all along the depression. With a jerk, he stood up, “We should get out of here.”
Pandi nodded. It was dark and cramped, the perfect place to be ambushed by a tiger. He gripped his javelin tightly in both hands and they made their way up the opposite bank of the ravine in silence.
On the other side, the forest was less dense. Stray sunbeams pierced through the forest canopy, lighting up dust particles and insects swirling in the air, and creating a mosaic of light and shade on the forest floor.
Through the trees, they could make out an open glade, which was covered in waist-high grass that had been burnt yellow by the sun. Here and there, a number of bushes and small trees stood out, breaking the monotony. As they crept slowly up to this clearing, Pandi now squeezed Aditya’s shoulder in glee. They were in luck.
A herd of cheetal was browsing contentedly near the opposite end of the clearing. Aditya picked up a pinch of dust, and lifting it to eye level, he let it go to see which way the dust would blow. They circled over to their left. The wind, little as it was, was blowing into their faces now. Rather than take their scent to the animals, it would do the opposite.
Aditya signalled with his fingers. There were twenty-five in all, including seven young ones. Pandi gestured towards one of the bigger ones, which had its back towards them, and strung his bow with one of the heavier arrows.
Crouching low, they waded into the tall grass. Every time a number of cheetal looked up, they would duck and keep absolutely still, and only when the cheetal went back to grazing, would they move again. At one point, Aditya squeezed Pandi’s shoulder and pointed up towards a tree.
A silver, grey-backed langur looked down curiously at them. Pandi clenched his jaw. If this blasted monkey let out an alarm call, he would personally spear it alive. Both held their breath as the langur let out a few quizzical noises towards them. Finally, not receiving any reply, it ambled off, swinging idly through the branches.
Meanwhile, some of the small cheetal had gamboled off into the dense jungle on the other side, and their mothers suddenly broke into loud grunts of disapproval. The little ones immediately came running back into the open, but the herd had become more nervous. A number of them looked up, jerking their heads this way and that, sniffing suspiciously at the air. Pandi drew his bow and waited, praying for the target to turn a little and show its neck. Aditya bit down on his lower lip and squeezed the shaft of the spear hard. Adrenaline pumped through his body; every muscle was tense and ready to explode into action.
Unaware of the coming danger, their target continued grazing contentedly, slowly moving forward, as it searched for the juiciest, most tender leaves. Pandi anticipated the direction of movement and pre-sighted a point at which its neck would appear. One of his eyes was shut. The cheetal now turned around just a fraction and in that split second, its life was already over.
The arrow was released, the bow gave a mighty twang and in the blink of an eye, the calm forest scene exploded into chaos and noise. Everything happened at once. All manner of birds took off from the tree tops with the deafening flutter of hundreds of wings; the langurs started screeching maniacally and the entire herd bolted for the forest, even as the arrow lodged itself and sank deep into the soft flesh by the side of the cheetal’s shoulder. The hapless animal staggered for a moment, and then bounded away towards the safety of the dense forest, close behind its already vanishing compatriots.
It would seem that even before the arrow hit home, Aditya was already on his feet. Building up into an all-out sprint, he let the spear fly before the cheetal could reach the safety of the trees. The spear flew long and true, but glanced the hind quarters of the unfortunate animal and bounced off.
“Got him,” Aditya yelled as he sprinted all out in rapid pursuit. An uncontrollable, uncontainable burst of incandescent energy surged through his veins. Every pore of his being was alive. The exhilarating, heady feeling of the hunt was upon him.
“Come on,” he yelled again.
Pandi was running behind him, already stringing another arrow on his bow. The deer might be quicker, but they would follow its trail till they got him today. He increased his pace, for Aditya had already picked up his spear and disappeared into the forest.
Excerpted from ‘The Boy from Pataliputra’ written by Rahul Mitra, published by Finger Print.
It is 326 BC, and Alexander, the barbarian king of Macedonia, has descended upon Bharatvarsha with a multinational horde of Yavanas, Pahlavas, Shakas, and Bahlikas.
As the invader advances relentlessly and wins bloody battles in quick succession, as local rulers fall over each other to shake hands with the enemy, and as the students of Takshashila University break into open revolt, one young man is faced with a terrifying choice, a choice that threatens to tear his carefully constructed world apart. For Aditya is the boy from Pataliputra, the boy who was once a reckless and carefree aristocrat, but who has now been forced to become a man with a purpose—to fight for honour and love.
With a sweeping narrative and interesting everyday characters like the smelly, old dhaba owner Tanku; Philotas, the unlucky Greek soldier; the no-nonsense medical student Radha; Pandi, the hard drinking mercenary; and the lovely Devika, The Boy from Pataliputra is not just the mesmerizing story of a young man’s growth to maturity, but also, equally, a story about the rise of a nation.
About the Author:
Rahul Mitra grew up in Delhi and is currently working as an IT Marketing Professional with a multinational company in Mumbai. Passionately interested in all things Indian, Rahul is vociferous in his opinions about India, its people, and its culture. Like many others before him, he believes he can change the world and influence people though his writing.