Atiratha made his way home, feeling more tired than usual. He was longing to see his family again. The streets of Hastinapura were deserted. The city was in mourning. Atiratha had feared that he would never be able to see his family again. But fortunately, such a situation did not come to pass. The Sutas and soldiers were all sent back. The muffled sobs of the dasis who had to stay behind had made Atiratha thank his stars that his Radha was a Suta and hence not suitable to be a dasi.
He wondered how Vasu was doing. His health had improved a lot this last year, Radha had told him. Vasu had not fallen ill even a single time. It was difficult to keep him indoors these days, Radha had told him, hovering between laughter and exasperation. She still worried about him, he could see. And when Vasu came in at the evening, Atiratha was astounded. In place of the frail, sickly child he’d left behind, he was faced with a sturdy lad, who looked like he’d never had a day’s illness.
Atiratha rued the days he’d spent away from his family, accompanying the Maharaja on his Dig Vijaya. There was not even any certainty that he would return alive. Sutas were often targeted by enemy warriors though the rules of Dharma Yuddha clearly prohibited it. The death of a Suta would cause the chariot to run amok since there was no one to control the horses, unless the Kshatriya warrior took the reins themselves. Apart from those of royal birth, most warriors were fairly inept at handling the reins.
Atiratha had been lucky. He was injured in the war, but he had survived. And when he’d come back after the long campaign, he’d been hoping for some rest and some time with his family. But it was not to be. The King had wanted to go on a hunting trip and all the Sutas who could still hold the reins had been forced to go as well. But now, he was back, and though he had no idea what the future was going to bring, he could hope it would be better.
His left shoulder still twinged painfully. It was with great difficulty that he could hold the reins or wield the whip. In the evenings, it had felt as if his arm was on fire. Even now it felt like it could fall off any moment. The physicians who attended to the ordinary soldiers and the Sutas were not very skilled. Nor were they much interested in seeing them fully recovered, since they were all expendable.
He had survived anyway due to God’s grace. And now he was back home too. He did not know if the new King would accept him into his service or would pension him off, but either way he did not mind. He was not concerned about who might be the next King. That was for the Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas to decide.
Radha was in the kitchen when he reached home. She came running when he called out to her. He brought water for him to wash his feet and then spread the mat for him to sit. She brought food and water and sat near him while he ate. Once the food was eaten and the plates cleared, he asked. “Where’s Vasu?”
“He’s gone to play with the other boys.”
“It is not good for the boys to be out today. What if the soldiers saw them? The city is in mourning.”
“The soldiers were boys once too,” said Radha comfortingly. “They know what children are like. I didn’t have the heart to make him stay indoors when the sun is shining so bright. Let him play. I had prayed for a day when he could…” her voice choked with tears.
Atiratha placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, what is this? You should be happy he’s such a strong healthy boy now.” He wiped away her tears. “There’s nothing to cry for now.”
“Is it true what they say?” asked Radha in a hushed voice. “About the Maharaja?”
Atiratha rose and went to the door, looking outside to make sure no one was listening before closing the door and coming back. He sat down on the mat and said heavily, “Yes.”
Radha clapped a hand to her mouth, horrified. “And they say… they say Mala and Jayanti are not coming back.” her voice was a whisper.
“I don’t know,” said Atiratha. “Some… some had to stay back… It is the lot of the dasi.”
“But their children!” whispered Radha. “What will come of them? Who will take care of them? Mala’s baby is but six months old!”
“Their grandmothers will take care of them,” said Atiratha wincing as he tried to support himself using his left hand. “It is how things are. What are we to do?”
“I know,” said Radha as she brought a pillow and eased him to lay his back on it. She started massaging his left arm, but it only increased the pain and he pulled it free.
“Perhaps you should go to the Vaidya here,” said Radha. “I’m sure he might be able to lessen the pain.”
Atiratha nodded. “I shall go to him tomorrow. I’m exhausted today. “
There was a banging on the door and Radha went to open it. Two soldiers barged in, holding a young boy of six by his arms. They checked on seeing Atiratha.
“Is this your son, Atiratha?” asked one.
“Yes, Srutasena,” replied Atiratha, rising, feeling alarmed. “What has he done?”
“He was out playing and when we told him to go home because we are mourning for the Maharaja, he said he did not care. He wanted to play, and if we want to mourn the Maharaja, we can go and mourn him!”
“Vasu?” Radha’s voice was shocked. The boy hung his head. Vasu had changed a lot in appearance. He was no longer pale though he was still thin, though it might have been in part because he was tall for his age. His skin seemed to be golden in colour in the sunshine that was streaming inside. His dark hair was thick and no longer straggly. There was a sullen expression in the black eyes.
“Keep him inside, and I would give him a good hiding if he were mine.” said Srutasena as he released Vasu with a shove. Radha caught him from stumbling. The soldiers marched out, slamming the door behind them.
“What possessed you to be rude to the King’s soldiers?” demanded Atiratha. “Don’t you know who they are?”
“I don’t care. They were the ones who were rude first!” said Vasu defiantly. “They could have just told us, instead they were pushing us and calling us brats and other names.”
“Be that as it may,” said Atiratha. “They are Kshatriyas, and they can do whatever they want. It is for us to avoid trouble.”
Radha had her arm around the child. “You won’t do anything like that again, will you?”
He sighed. “I won’t,” he muttered sullenly.
Atiratha heaved a sigh of relief.