It was a warm day. There was a large area near the river which the children had earmarked for their playground. The girls had marked one corner for their own and the boys another. There was a common area, where both together had planted a garden. The children had marked the area for their own using stones, and since the area was mostly sand and grass, and bounding the woods, the adults did not object. The entire area was circular and the boys had a semi circle and the girls another with a strip of land in between where the plants grew.
The boys’ area had a fence made of planks, and a small gate opening to the garden. The girls’ area had a fence too, but flowering creepers were planted along its length. The boys’ wrestled, played with balls, stones, ran races and when they got tired of all that, went to swim in the river. The open part of their area led to the woods on one side, and sometimes, they went into the woods, though they never went far. The playground that day was full of the shouts of children. A wrestling match was about to begin in the boys’ area. Some soldiers were also standing there, a whole troop of them, taking a lot of interest in the proceedings.
The two opponents were circling each other warily. Both were tall, around eight, but one was better proportioned than the other.
“Vasushena shall win,” predicted one toddler.
“You say that because he’s your brother,” said an older boy, aged around nine. “Veera will pound him to the ground!”
“No, bhrata Vasushena will certainly win!” Chirped the toddler again, looking mulish. He was around three.
“I hope so, Sangrama,” said another older boy aged around eight standing near him. “All my money is on your brother.”
“Be prepared to lose it then, Asmita!” Laughed another boy, who was around ten. “Vasushena may be large, but he won’t be able to move Veera.”
“It’s not about size, Vahika” said another boy who was also around ten. “Vasushena is a novice whereas Veera is more experienced. That’s why my money is on Veera. ” he smirked at Asmita. “Loyalty is all very well, but you need to use your brains, too.”
“Shut up, Bhadra,” said Asmita scowling.
The soldiers surged forward. They wanted to watch up close, and the boys parted way grudgingly.
“Hey you,” said one of them to Bhadra. “Are you the one collecting money for bets?”
Bhadra nodded cautiously.
“Okay, I want to put some money on the larger one. He’s Atiradha’s son, isn’t he?”
“Yes sir, but it is better to bet on Veera. He’s experienced-”
“You do as I say,” the soldier scowled.
The other soldiers too wanted to bet on Vasushena, and Bhadra made no more attempts to change their minds.
In the meantime the two boys were still circling each other, their gazes shrewd and sharp. Veera moved suddenly, trying to grasp Vasushena around the middle, but Vasushena evaded the grab and his hands met Veera’s. They both exerted pressure on their hands that their muscles bunched. Veera kicked out with his leg and tripped Vasushena, but Vasushena rolled away, and jumped up in one smooth motion. They again circled each other. Veera mopped his brow with his arm, Vasushena shook his head to shake away the beads of sweat that clung to him. Both boys had hair that was long, and both had tied them back, so as to avoid it getting in the way.
Vasushena moved in with a punch to Veera’s gut, and Veera countered with one to Vasushena’s cheek. Vasushena shook his head again, and Veera rubbed his middle and drew deep breaths. Vasushena again made the first move, trying to punch Veera in the face, but Veera sidestepped, and the back of his hand grazed Veera’s shoulder. But Veera’s blow caught Vasushena on the temple and Vasushena jumped back and kicked out. Veera avoided the leg and moved in with another blow, this time to Vasushena’s gut. Vasushena was winded and Veera moved in to grab him by the middle, and throw him to the ground. Vasushena brought his elbow down on Veera as he grabbed him, but Veera did not let go, squeezing him instead so hard Vasushena could not breath.
“Let him go! You’ll break his ribs!” Shouted one of the other boys, and Veera lifted Vasushena and threw him on the ground, on his stomach, placing his knee on his back, and twisting his arms behind.
“Do you surrender?” He shouted. Vasushena squirmed, but could not budge the solid bulk of his opponent.
“Do you surrender?” Veera asked again.
“Yes!” Gasped Vasushena, and Veera rose, pulling the other boy to his feet.
The soldiers made angry noises as they threw some money at Bhadra and left. Veera grinned at Vasushena.
“Good fight,” he said.
“For you,” Vasushena laughed. “My whole body feels like someone has driven a heavy chariot over it!”
They both went to the river, to wash themselves. Vasushena had a bruise on his temple and another one on his cheek.
“That can happen in the beginning,” said Veera. “But honestly, you can be better. You’ve speed and strength. All you need is experience, and knowledge.”
Vasushena grinned, “I’ll come to you daily for lessons,”
They had finished their baths and were dressing by now.
“You’ll need to give me Dakshina,” winked Veera as they started back towards the group.
“All right,” said Vasushena, laughing now. “What is it you want?”
A sly expression came over Veera’s face. “You’ll take me with you when you go deep into the woods.”
“It’s dangerous there,” said Vasushena seriously.
“Why do you go there then?”
Vasushena hesitated. “It’s a secret.”
“I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
Vasushena beckoned him closer, and whispered in his ear, “I go there to practice archery.”
“Wow!” Said Veera, impressed. “Can you show me sometime? Is it difficult?”
“I’ve just started, and yes, it is difficult. But as my father says, we can’t let anyone know because the soldiers may not like it if they learn a Suta is learning archery.”
“That’s why you go inside the forest,” guessed Veera. “Speaking of soldiers, where are they? Normally they wouldn’t have left so soon.”
“It is the coronation, today,” said Vasushena grinning. “So, they’re all busy. They’ve to get back to the palace before someone realizes they’ve left.”
“Good thing too. They would have been furious and would have taken away the little money we had gathered too since they lost. As it is, we have their money.”
“Does your father know you are practicing archery?” Veera asked suddenly.
“No, he doesn’t.”
“But you said-”
“It’s the gist of what he says about Sutas and Kshatriyas and what we are supposed to do and all.”
Veera chuckled. They joined the crowd of boys where Asmita, Sangrama and a few others joined to commiserate with Vasushena while Bhadra, Vahika and others were around Veera, congratulating him. Soon, Bhadra was gathering money from the losers, and having placed it all in a pouch, he said,
“Thank you all, for this. We have enough money now to pay a Vaidya to come here and treat Visakha’s father, and Mala jyeshta’s baby. And we should all thank Asmita who came up with the idea. The soldiers all gave generously once we told them we were having a wrestling match.”
The boys all laughed, though one or two looked nervously around. They had to be careful that no soldier was around to hear them.
“What if they’d bet on Veera?” Asked Vasushena.
Bhadra shrugged. “I would have told them they made a good bet, and they would have changed their bets. You see, they think we are trying to cheat them, so if we disagree with their bet, they’ll stick to it, and if we agree, they’ll change it.”
The boys snickered again. Bhadra brought the money to Asmita, handing it over to him. Asmita’s father had undertaken to bring a good Vaidya if the money could be arranged. This done, they went to the garden to call the girls and share the good news. The girls had arranged a puppet show for the soldiers earlier, but that had not brought in much money. The children started walking around the garden, looking for weeds, and watering the plants. Soon, the garden was ringing with their laughter and voices.