The Baahubali universe expands in Anand Neelakantan’s ‘Queen of Mahishmathi’

Epics are usually about heroes. But despite the usual ensemble cast, it is a heroine who dominates this story.

From the prolific pen of bestselling mythological fiction author, Anand Neelakantan, comes Queen of Mahishmathi, a 550-odd-page blockbuster, with 84 chapters and a cast of 47 characters: kings, queens, princes, rebels, slaves, a dwarf here, a eunuch there, a spiritual guru, a devadasi, a madman, a pirate, villains galore and a particularly terrifying species of predatory bird known as ‘Garuda pakshi’.

What makes this work even more awesome is that it is the concluding book of a trilogy (The Rise of Sivagami and Chaturanga were the first two titles) that was a by-product generated by the epic action films, Baahubali: 1 and 2.

The books thus expand the universe of the films by creating backstories for some important characters. There are no impediments in this marriage of true minds as SS Rajamouli, the director, clearly saw in Neelakantan the ideal candidate for a fruitful relationship.

Think about it: How often does a film director’s magnum opus procreate triplets in a novelist’s imagination?

So, a prequel is what this trilogy must be called. Though the term is 20th century, the concept is as old as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both epics have a galaxy of strong, popular characters whose individual story arcs, interpolated and interconnected, have seeded forests of local versions. Neelakantan, known for his ingenuity and atypical storytelling, has centred his earlier books (Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, the Ajaya series, Vanara: The Legend of Vali, Sugreeva and Tara) around some of these characters—with consummate success. This prequel trilogy draws its strength from the epic narrative structure, pooled with the author’s experience in screenplay writing for TV serials. Indeed, in true episodic style, it reads more like an assembly of well-written dramatic scenes from future screen versions.

Mahishmathi could be Hastinapur, but it isn’t. Instead, it is the appropriation of a name—from an ancient kingdom believed to have been on the banks of the Narmada. It is undefined, almost fantastical, sitting somewhere in the southern part of the subcontinent, replete with forests, waterfalls, secret caves, heavily guarded mines packed with rare gems, a dress code that vaguely belongs to 8th-9th century, as well as story tropes that are eternal and totally familiar, such as a powerful king with two sons who are rivals for a girl.

In time, the underlying rivalry between princes Bijjaladeva and Mahadeva will pass on to their sons who will fight an epic war for the throne and display the derring-do of epic heroes. Times change, but the stories that enthral us don’t. As befitting epic characters, the people in these pages are larger than life, neither good nor evil, but having shades of both. Jealousy, lust, revenge, greed, a hunger for power, drive them through a labyrinthine plot that seems to grow organically.

However, there are differences.Epics are usually about heroes. But despite the usual ensemble cast, it is a heroine who dominates this story. Sivagami, who, as we saw in the movies, is a powerful character, married to the disabled, side-lined older prince, Bijjaladeva.

Though he could pass for Dhritarashtra, she is no dutiful Gandhari. In this book, that goes into Sivagami’s  origins, we learn more about the experiences that have shaped her into a strong, respected regent who can also be a vengeful mother-in-law. A second character with a compelling on-screen presence, whose story is elucidated here, is Katappa, the Bhishma-like loyal protector of the Mahishmathi throne.

Indeed, Neelakantan’s writing has added interesting, contemporary layers to the portrayals of all characters. Sample these words from a spiritual guru.

‘We are all immortals. Only the body withers away. I am not this body. You are not your body. You are deeper than that, I am deeper than that. In another plane there is neither you nor me.’ In this plane, however, there is the Baahubali franchise and its continuing success, which this work happily assures.

‘Moustache’ book review: Stunning tales of the tash

A struggle for identity, the courage to stand up to the oppressor, violence and more pepper the pages of this unique story.

Malayalam author S Hareesh’s oeuvre, comprising three short story collections and two screenplays, has earned him several prestigious awards. However, Moustache, his first novel, is a tour de force of jaw-dropping authenticity. In page after page, the word becomes the world. The language creates a magnetic field that pulls everything in—the landscape, its stories and the reader. Set in Kuttanad, a low-lying delta region formed by five rivers that flow into the longest lake in India, the story is about the strange otherworldliness of a watery panorama and all that breathes within. This includes humans, of every ilk, and the power play that governs their lives.

Yes, caste tension is central to the story. It is, in fact, the story.In the first half of the 20th century, at the time the events unfold, there is a hereditary ruler in place, presiding over a feudal society. Brahmins at the top. Then come, with varying degrees of social power, landowners, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, woodworkers, oil sellers, barbers, fisherfolk—each possessive about their ways of living. Way, way down are the utterly powerless, the Dalits—the Pulayans and the Chovans. Landless labourers, toddy tappers, in the large numbers needed for farming, they are not paid in wages but given a paltry share of the crop. It’s never enough and Vavachan, the hero of the novel, a Pulayan- Christian lad from a family of six children, spends daylight foraging, sleeps hungry, dreams of a full stomach. There is nothing else.

Vavachan’s life changes when a drama company, staging a play, looks around for someone with a moustache for the part of a policeman and finds no one suitable other than Vavachan. ‘Like all men of the Pulayan caste, he was coal-black, as though he would turn water black if he entered the river, as though, if like a dark spirit, he jumped up and touched the sky, black rain would fall.’ Despite fears that the audience will boo if a low caste is made a policeman, the role becomes his and the thick, strong facial hair is reshaped to create the moustache. The scene requires no dialogue, but when the policeman appears the audience is electrified. ‘Those who sat in the front rows felt that their age-old fear of mythical, discarnate beings of darkness, such as the Rakshas and the Makkan, had finally taken physical form and appeared before them.’ He utters just one word, ‘Da…!’ and they flee en masse.

S Hareesh
Performance over, Vavachan is reluctant to part with the moustache and this the upper castes deem an insult. A manhunt is launched. Vavachan scarpers, melting into the landscape, hiding in the waterways. His moustache grows, gaining a supernatural persona of its own. ‘A school of rosy-red minnows swam through his moustache without making a single ripple in the water. Pregnant fish quietly considered the suitability of its denseness to lay their eggs, assuming that it was the tangled roots of canal-side trees.’ Like the magical moustache, the story, abandoning all notions of a conventional narrative arc, sprouts in all directions, presenting a primal world of animals, fish, plants, birds, spirits, desires. The vision has a childlike freshness to it, but that is misleading.

Beneath the lush beauty of the language lie tales of violence, of unspeakable cruelty. A woman is raped. And then gang-raped. Another dies, alone, of snake bite. Dirges flow through these pages. In the irony of it all, there is the profound loneliness of the moustache as it struggles to rescue its life, to evade oblivion. ‘Each of us is made of the stories that are told of us. If we look carefully, we can see the train of murmuring stories following each person like the royal mantle follows the advancing king. Some people are not flesh and blood, but fully made up of stories.’

Though challenging, this novel, skilfully translated by Jayasree Kalathil, is a most rewarding read.

Best Indian reads of 2020

Top 10 fiction (in order of releasing dates)

  • Low by Jeet Thayil: Arriving in Mumbai, clutching a box containing his wife’s ashes for immersion in the sea, Dominic Ullis, in search of oblivion, embarks on a weekend spree involving cocaine, meow meow and a colourful cast of characters. Though essentially a grief narrative, this is an extraordinarily alive, dynamic and a delightfully absurd read.

Read more at: Best Indian reads of 2020

Written for Deccan Herald

Season of joy

The sun is the gateway to the path of the gods Mahabharata

An enduring image from the Mahabharata is that of the mortally wounded patriarch Bhishma Pitamaha lying on a bed of arrows, waiting for precisely this date – 14th January – to die.  Blessed with the boon of selecting the time of death, he chose Makara Sankranti,  a highly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, because death on this day would grant him moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth.

On Makara Sankranti, the sun enters (Sankranti) the sign of Capricorn (Makara) and begins its northward journey, Uttarayan. For us earthlings, it means that our days will now be increasingly long and warm. While northerners celebrate the end of winter, in the south, especially Tamil Nadu, this day is marked for an important harvest festival, Pongal, when an offering of cooked rice is made to the sun.

The overflowing of the cooking pot, representing an inexhaustible vessel, is considered a sign of good luck, and it, too, finds an echo in the epic: When the Pandavas began their thirteen-year-exile, their circumstances were considerably reduced. Understanding this, Surya presented Yudhisthir with an Akshaya Patra, a cooking pot that would assure him an endless supply of food,  as he was still obligated to feed all visitors.

Yaska, a 5th BCE grammarian, classified the chief Vedic deities as three: Agni whose place is on the earth, Vayu or Indra, whose place is in the air, and Surya, who occupies the sky. While worship of the first two gods has somewhat declined, worshipping the Sun is a tradition that has continued to present times, as evidenced by the chanting of the sacred Gayatri mantra in which the deity is referred to as Savitr, ‘the one that rises and sets’.

Among the sun’s 1008 names is Bharga ( Evolver). ‘This Evolver is the soul of all that exists in the three worlds, whether animate or inanimate. There is nothing apart from it.’ As the source of life and light – physical, mental spiritual – the sun is the nearest image we have of divinity.

Mothers & Others

Your son will have your glory, but will he have your name? By what name will he be called?’

The look he sent me was full of irony. ‘Would it be wrong if he was called by your name – as Kaunteya?’

How little you know of this world!’ I said, bitterly.

(source: The Kaunteyas – pg 62)

Kaunteya (singular) is a matronymic, a personal name derived from the name of the mother, grandmother or a female ancestor. It means ‘Kunti’s son’ – just as Pandava means ‘Pandu’s son’ – and is equally applicable to the four sons born of Kunti.

We know that Kunti is the birth mother of the elder three Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bheem and Arjuna. But what these three brothers do not know is that they have another sibling by the same mother. In ancient times, a matronymic was used when referring to the son of an unwed mother (as is the case with Karna), or when the mother was a powerful figure in her own right, such as a queen. Thus, in the epic, each of the twin sons of Kunti’s co-wife, Queen Madri, is referred to as Madreya (Madreyas in plural). Likewise, the five sons of Draupadi are called Draupadeyas.

Another matronymic in the epic is Partha.Though it is used mostly for Arjun, it can apply just as well to Karna, Yudhisthira and Bheem. (In recent times, the well known Bengali author poet and playwright, Buddhadeb Bose wrote a popular play Pratham Partha, which is about Karna.) Partha means ‘Pritha’s son’, Pritha being Kunti’s birth name before she was given away in fosterage to Kuntibhoja. In those days, queens were often known by the name of the kingdom that they came from, so Pritha became Kunti.


Good Girls Don’t

“Girls in our family are taught to run a household, trained to be good, dutiful wives in the future but you have encouraged her to study the Shastras because she has a sharp mind – that was what you said. How does a sharp mind reveal itself but through a sharp tongue? In a woman is that a virtue or a vice?”

(source: pg 28-29, The Kaunteyas)

One of the criticisms made about modern TV soaps is about the regressive depiction of women – evil saas, submissive bahu – that reinforces gender stereotyping. However, screen actors act according to a script, the episode is watched by an unknown audience. Oral storytelling performances require performers to be more sensitive to their audiences. Coming from this milieu, the world as depicted in the Mahabharata, is also complex and nuanced, particularly in its depiction of women.

We know the Mahabharata as a tale of enmity between two branches of the same family that ends in a terrible war. Rivalry is a recurrent theme in the epic. For instance, the unspoken sibling rivalry between Dhritarashtra and Pandu mutates, in the next generation, into the deadly enmity between their children.

A subplot of the story is the intense competition between the two best archers of that time, Karna and Arjun. In the sweep of the narrative, it is sometimes overlooked that they, too, are half brothers. The fact that they, themselves, are unaware of the kinship adds piquancy and pathos to the tale. Until the eve of the war, the relationship is known only to their mother Kunti.

What compels her to maintain this secret almost right to the bitter end? Why does she choose to reveal it at a critical point in the story? What are the lifelong consequences that she suffers for keeping this secret? Finally, what role does the secret play in shaping the larger events of the Mahabharata? These are intriguing questions that lead us towards insights into the feminine world of the epic, as well as to a deeper understanding of patriarchal society. Most of all, the questions allow us to enter the mind of an important but elusive character from the epic and see its events from her perspective.


Family Sagas: Our Never Ending Love

“Men’s stories are the bones of a bygone age, sanctified as relics, preserved in stone. Women’s stories are written in water. Passed in silence from mother to daughter. About things perishable: flesh, blood, feelings, tears. Suffering. Endurance is a sign of womanliness. But what men overlook is that endurance is a crucible, it changes the existing state.”

(source: Prologue, The Kaunteyas)

The serial Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai just aired its 2,267th episode. Dallas and Dynasty may have inspired Indian screenwriters to script convoluted family sagas, but our own indigenous tradition for such fare is very old.

Long before the writing of the Mahabharata began, over 2000 years ago, it was already a well-known tale that had thrived for centuries. Storytellers performed it before audiences, but it was probably a talking point in every household. Why? Because it is about family. One of the methods used to keep multiple generations of listeners engaged was to constantly re-frame the narrative; every possible character, situation and plot twist was included in the mix so that eventually a famous (tag) line said: What is here may be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.

The Mahabharata is regarded as itihasa, that some translate as ‘history’. But history, strictly speaking, has no lessons to offer; it is for the student of history to decide what s/he wants to make of it. An epic like the Mahabharata is a different matter: the concept of time that applies to history is irrelevant. Also, its sheer size and variety, offering profit and pleasure, makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

Oral storytelling is more nuanced because it is sensitive to a ‘live’ audience. The Mahabharata, originating in this tradition, carries within it multiple meanings, stories and ways of telling them. It has, and it will for generations to come, inspire us to seek or renew these meanings, stories and storytelling styles. That is the secret of its enduring appeal.


USNE KAHA THA / She Had Said It

[Note: On the eve of World War 1, the Indian Army expanded from 155,000 men to around 1.27 million, providing 10 percent of the British Empire’s total military strength. Of these, 827,000 served as combatants and more than 74,000 lost their lives. Their contribution to decisive early battles led to the failure of Germany’s plan for a quick thrust into France, ensuring instead that the war became a long-drawn affair which the superior material resources of the Anglo-American and French powers could eventually win. These battles were mostly fought in the Ypres Salient and at Neuve Chapelle.

About 60 per cent of those recruited came from Punjab, both Muslims and Sikhs. They were paid a monthly salary ofImg 3 11 rupees. Most separated their political duty to serve the Empire from their personal feelings, aware that they were treated less-than-fairly by a colonial regime that paid little attention to their religious sensitivities. What was deeply traumatic for them, however, was the surreal experience of industrial-age warfare. Their more erudite Anglophone counterparts left behind moving testimonies of the powerlessness that soldiers would experience when coming under artillery fire from an unseen enemy. For the simple jawan, recruited from hardy peasant stock in another climate, however, the combination of cultural disorientation and physical danger posed on the battlefields of Belgium and northern France must have numbed the senses. In spite of tremendous hardship, the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 12 Victoria Crosses.]

USNE KAHA THA (She had said it)

(Originally by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri. Translated from Hindi by Madhavi Mahadevan)

Residents of big cities who have been blistered from the tongue lashings and hardened by the abuses from ekka drivers should apply the balm that is the sweet speech of the bamboo- cart drivers of Amritsar – this is our appeal.   Whereas an  ekka driver on the city’s wide roads thrashes the horse  with his whip and, with his insults, establishes his intimate knowledge of the animal’s grandmother, or, pitying the pedestrians for not having eyes in their heads, rides roughshod over their toes, all the while bemoaning his fate, the man of his fraternity in Amritsar will negotiate the narrow, convoluted  alleys with endless patience. He will politely address those on foot:  save yourself, khalsaji; move aside bhai ji;  just hold on, lalaji; watch out, Badshah. All this in the thick of a crowd made up of white turbans, mules, ducks, hawkers, sugarcane sellers and porters.  It would be a wonder if anybody had to shift an inch without being respectfully addressed as ji or sahib.  If an old lady totters while crossing his path, the bamboo- cart driver will speak to her thus: You deserve to live long. You are fortunate that your children and grandchildren love you.  Why do you want to die under the wheels of my cart? Let me pass!

In the midst of these bamboo- cart drivers, a boy and a girl first met at a shop in the chowk. From his long hair and her loose fitting pyjamas, it appeared that they were both Sikh. He had come to buy fresh curd for his uncle’s hair wash and she was there to purchase wadi, sundried lentil paste balls, for the kitchen. They waited while the shopkeeper wrangled with a customer who insisted on counting every piece of raw papad in the one seer he had just bought.

-Where’s your home?

-In Maghre. And yours?

-In Manjhe. Where do you live here?

-At Attar Singh’s. He’s my maternal uncle.

-I’m also staying with my maternal uncle. His house is in Guru Bazaar.

The shopkeeper then attended to these two. Collecting their purchases they set out together. After a while, the boy asked her, ‘Teri kudhmai  ho gayi?’  Is your engagement ceremony over?

The girl frowned. ‘Dhatt!’ she said and ran off, leaving the boy to stare after her.

They would run into each other every second or third day at the vegetable shop or at the milkman’s. This went on for a month. On two or three occasions, the boy asked her the same question: Teri kudhmai ho gayi? And she gave the same answer. Dhatt! Then one day, he teasingly asked her again, and this time, she said, Yes, it’s over.


-Yesterday. Don’t you see this silk embroidered shawl?

The boy headed home. En route he pushed another boy into the gutter, destroyed a hawker’s day’s worth of earnings, hurled a stone at a dog, poured milk over a vegetable seller’s cauliflowers and jostled an old vaishnav woman  just returning from a purifying bath – she called him blind – before he finally made it home.


‘Ram, Ram! What kind of a war is this!  The bones are stiff from being cooped for days and nights in the trenches. It is ten times colder than Ludhiana, rains and snows constantly. Up to our calves in the slush. Can’t see the enemy, but Img 2every hour or so, there’s an ear drum shattering explosion, the trench shakes, the ground beneath our feet shifts.  If we can manage to save ourselves from these bombs, we might even be able to fight. Had heard of the earthquakes in Nagarkot, but there are at least twenty-five such upheavals here every day. If the tip of a turban or an elbow emerges from the bunker, it is shot off. No one knows whether the blighters are – in the mud or hiding behind the grass.’

‘Lahna Singh, just three more days to go. We’ve already spent four in the trenches. When relief arrives there’s a seven-day break for you. We’ll kill a goat, eat our belly’s fill and get a sound sleep in that French lady’s garden, on the velvety green lawn. She showers us with fruit and milk; even though we say it a thousand times, she will not take money from us; tells us that we are kings who have come to save her country.’

‘For the last four days, I have not had a wink of sleep. Without exercise, a horse suffers, as does a soldier –without a fight.  I wish they would tell me to fix a bayonet on my rifle and march ahead. If I don’t return without killing six or seven Germans, let me never have the good fortune of bowing my head before Darbar Sahib. These scoundrels, seeing our tanks and bayonets, beg for mercy, but after dark, they fire shells, each weighing at least thirty munn. Remember our last attack? Did  not leave a single German alive within a four mile- radius. The general ordered us to return, or else…’

‘Or else you would have reached Berlin, eh?’ Subedar Hazara Singh smiled. ‘Wars are not overseen by jamadars and naiks. The senior officers have to think ahead. The front is three miles long. If we break through on one side what will happen to the rest of it?’

‘You are right, Subedar ji,’ Lahna Singh said. ‘But what does one do? This cold has entered our bones, the sun doesn’t show up and water keeps on seeping in from the sides of the bunker as if the streams of the pond in Chamba are flowing into it.  One attack would warm us up.’

‘Restless fellow, get up and add some coal to the sigri. Vazira, take four men and  tip the water out of the bunker with buckets. Maha Singh, it is evening now, time to change the guard at the entrance.’ After giving instructions, the subedar went on his rounds of the trench.

Vazira was the comedian of the unit. Pouring out the muddy water, he said, ‘Look, I’ve become a padha. Here’s a libation to the dead king of Germany.’ Everyone laughed; the clouds of depression vanished.

Lahna Singh said: ‘Imagine that you are watering the melons in your fields. Nowhere in Punjab will you get water so rich in nutrients.’

‘Yes, what a great country this is. Sheer  heaven. After the war, I’m going to ask the government to grant me ten gunas of land here so that I can plant an orchard.’

‘Will your wife join you, or is that white mem who gives you milk…?’

‘Shut up. The people here have no shame.’

‘Different countries have differing customs. I have never been able to make her understand that Sikhs do not smoke. She insists on offering me a cigarette. Tries to place  it on my lips, when I refuse she thinks that that the king is annoyed and will not fight for her country.

‘How is Bodh Singh now?’ Vazira asked.

‘Better,’ replied Lahna.

‘As if I don’t know what’s going on! Every night, you give him your blankets and sit by the sigri. You also do his guard duty. You give him the wooden planks to sleep on, while you lie in the wet mud. Don’t you fall ill now. This isn’t cold, it’s death. And those who die of pneumonia are not given lands next to the canal by the government.’

‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll die by the channel in Bulel. My head will be on my brother Keerat Singh’s lap and the shade of the mango tree I planted will be over me.’Img 1

Vazir Singh scowled. ‘Why this talk of death and dying? Let the Germans and Turks die
… What do you say, brothers?’ He burst into song.

Who would have imagined that those upright Sikhs, bearded and married, would sing such a bawdy song? The entire
bunker resounded with their singing. The soldiers felt refreshed as if they had enjoyed four days of rest and recreation.


It is late night. Total silence.  Bodh Singh is asleep on a bed made of three biscuit tins placed end- to- end. Two blankets below him and two of Lahna Singh’s blankets and an overcoat to cover him. Lahna Singh is on guard duty. His eyes shift from the opening of the bunker to Bodh Singh’s thin frame. Bodh Singh groans.

‘What is it? What do you want, Bodha?’


Lahna Singh held up the cup of water to Bodha’s mouth. ‘How are you feeling now?’ he asked.

Bodh Singh sipped a little water. ‘I’m shivering. It feels as if an electric current is running through my entire body. My teeth are rattling.’

‘Wear my jersey.’

‘What about you?’

‘I have the sigri. It’s so warm that I’m sweating.’

‘I’m not going to wear it. For the last four days, you’ve…’

‘Oh, I’ve just remembered that I have another woolen jersey. It came just today. The memsahibs are knitting pullovers in Vilayat and sending them to us. May the Guru bless them.’ Saying this, Lahna removed his great coat and started taking of his jersey.

‘Are you telling the truth?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Bodha protested, but Lahna insisted and helped him slip on the jersey. Wearing only a coarse shirt and and the overcoat he stood guard near the entrance. The story about the knitted pullover from England was just that, a story.

Half an hour later, some called from outside the bunker, ‘Subedar Hazara Singh!’

‘Who? Oh, Lieutenant  sahib!  Yes,  sir!’ The subedar stood to attention and saluted his superior officer.

‘Look, we have to attack immediately. About a mile away in the eastern corner, there is a German bunker. No more than fifty Germans. Move under the trees. There will be two or three turnings. I have placed fifteen soldiers at one of them. Leave ten men here. Seize the trench and stay there till further orders. I will remain here.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Everyone got ready in silence. Bodha threw off his blanket, but Lahna Singh stopped him. However, when he stepped forward, the subedar, Bodh Singh’s father, pointed a finger towards his son. Lahna understood, he did not protest. An argument started about who would be staying back; no one wanted to. The subedar managed to persuade ten men to remain in the bunker and marched off with the rest.

The lieutenant sahib stood next to the sigri. He took out a cigarette and lit it. After ten minutes, he offered a cigarette to Lahna. ‘Go ahead, have one yourself.’

In the blinking of an eye, Lahna caught on. Keeping his face deadpan, he extended his hand.  In the glow from the sigri he saw the lieutenant’s face, his hair. He was taken aback. How had the sahib’s sideburns vanished in just one day, to be replaced by a prisoner- style close-crop? Perhaps the sahib had been drunk when he got the opportunity to have a haircut. Lahna wanted to probe further. The lieutenant had been in the regiment for five years.

‘Tell me, sahib, when will we return to Hindustan?’

‘After the war is over. Why? Don’t you like this country?’

‘No, sahib.  The hunting here isn’t the same as back home.  Don’t you remember, after the battle exercise last year we went to Jagadhari  on a shikaar?

‘Yes, I remember.’

‘The time you rode a donkey and your khansama Abdulla stayed back to offer water at a temple.’

‘Of course…The rascal!’


‘And that nilgai came out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature so big. And your bullet entered its shoulder and came out through the side. It’s a pleasure to hunt with an officer who is such a fine shot. Did the head of that nilgai come back from Shimla? You had said it would be mounted on the wall in the officers’ mess.’

‘Yes, it came back, but I had it sent to Vilayat.’

‘The antlers were huge. At least two feet?’

‘That’s right, Lahna Singh. Two feet, four inches…You haven’t smoked your cigarette?

‘I’ll just go and get a match.’

Lahna Singh entered the bunker, knocking against someone in the dark. ‘Who is it? Vazir Singh?’

‘Yes, Lahna. What’s the problem?  You could have let me doze for a little longer.’

‘Wake up.  Judgment Day has arrived, and it’s wearing the uniform of the lieutenant sahib.’


‘He’s either been killed or taken prisoner. That is a German wearing his uniform. The subedar did not see his face clearly. But I did, and I chatted with him, as well. Bastard speaks fluent Urdu, but it’s the bookish type. And he offered me a cigarette.’

‘Now what?’

‘We’re dead. It’s a hoax. The subedar and the other men will be wandering about in the slush, and this trench will be attacked. And there, they too will be attacked in the open.  Do one thing: follow the tracks of the paltan. They wouldn’t have gone too far. Tell the subedar to return immediately. The news about the enemy bunker was false. Leave from the back. Don’t make a sound. And hurry!

‘But the order was to –

‘To hell with the order! The order is what I, Jamadar Lahna Singh, the senior most officer here, am giving you. And now I’ll sort out this lieutenant sahib.’

‘But there are only eight of you here.’

‘Not eight, ten lakh. A single Akali Sikh is equal to a lakh and a quarter men. Now go.’

Lahna Singh returned to the entrance of bunker, but stayed hidden in the shadow of the wall. He watched the lieutenant sahib. The man had taken three explosives out of his pocket, each the size of a wood apple and had pushed them into the mud wall at three different places, connecting them with a wire. At the end of the wire was a ball of thread which he placed near the sigri. Moving to the bunker’s opening, he was about to set a match to the fuse when Lahna Singh fell upon him, hitting his elbow with the butt of his rifle. The sahib dropped the matchstick. Lahna Singh hit him again, this time on the neck.  Crying, ‘Ach mein gott, the officer collapsed. Lahna Singh pulled out the three bombs from the wall and flung them out of the bunker. Dragging the sahib to the sigri, he searched through his pockets, found three or four envelopes and a diary. He shoved these into his own pocket.

After a while, the sahib recovered consciousness. Lahna Singh laughed. ‘How do you feel now, lieutenant sahib? Today, I have learnt several new things. I have learnt that a Sikh smokes a cigarette, that there are nilgai in Jagadhari district that have antlers two feet four inches tall. I have also come to know that a Muslim khansama offers water at a Hindu temple and that our lieutenant sahib rides a donkey. But tell me, where did you learn to speak such good Urdu? Our lieutenant sahib cannot say five words without adding “damn.” ’

Lahna had not checked the trouser pockets of the lieutenant. Pretending that he was cold, the lieutenant pushed his hands into his pockets.

Lahna continued talking: ‘Clever though you are, Lahna of Manjha has spent several years with the lieutenant sahib. Conning him isn’t so easy. Three months ago, a Turkish maulvi came to my village. He handed out amulets and charms to the women who were desperate to have babies and medicine to the children who were unwell. He would place a cot for himself under the chaudhri’s banyan and smoke a hookah while telling us that the Germans were very knowledgeable, they had studied the Vedas and figured out how to make aircrafts. They don’t kill cows. If they were to come to Hindustan, they would stop cow slaughter. He would advise the shopkeepers to withdraw their savings from the post office; the British raj was on its way out. Even the post master, Polhuram, got frightened by the talk. I grabbed the mullah by his beard and threw him out of the village saying, Don’t  you dare step in here again.’

The sahib fired the weapon from inside his pocket. The bullet struck Lahna on his thigh. Lahna fired two shots from his Henry Martini and blew the lieutenant’s head apart. Hearing the gun shots, the others came running.

Bodha shouted, ‘What is it?’

Lahna told him that a stray dog had come into the trench and he had shot at it. To the others he told the facts. They began to prepare for the attack. Lahna tore his turban in two and tied the strips on the wound. It was a flesh wound, after a while the bleeding stopped.

Seventy screaming Germans descended on the trench. The Sikhs quelled the first attack. The  second, as well. But they were only eight. Climbing over their dead comrades the Germans kept on coming. Suddenly, a cry was heard: Wahe guruji da khalsa, wahe guruji di fateh. A barrage of bullets was let loose on the Germans. At the crucial moment, they found themselves caught in the middle of fire from two sides. Hazara’s Singhs jawans rained bullets from the back. In front were Lahna Singh’s men and their bayonets. Finally, they had to deal with bayonets from both sides.Indian cavalry from the Deccan Horse during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

A final cry went up:  Here comes the army of the Akal Sikhs!  Wahe guruji da khalsa,  wahe guruji di fateh. Sat Sri Akal purush. And it was over. Sixty-three Germans dead or wounded.  Fifteen Sikhs dead. A bullet had gone through Subedar Hazara Singh’s shoulder. One had pierced Lahna Singh’s ribcage. He filled the wound with the wet mud in the bunker and tied the remaining strip of his turban very tight just below the wound. Nobody was aware that Lahna had sustained a second, more serious, injury.

The moon rose, its glow of the kind that inspired Sanskrit poets to create the word kshayee to describe it. There was a light breeze, what the poet Banabhatt would have described as dantvinopadeshacharya. Vazira was relating how huge clumps of earth had stuck to his boots as he’d run following the subedar sahib. The subedar saw the papers that Lahna had taken off the lieutenant and praised him for his quick thinking. ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we were all dead today.’

The sounds of the fighting had reached the men in a trench three miles to the right. They had called up the base in the rear. Two doctors and two ambulances from the field hospital nearby had been dispatched. The wounded were given first aid and  put in one ambulance; the other vehicle took away the dead bodies. The subedar tried to see that Lahna’s  wound , too, got medical attention, but Lahna fobbed him off saying that it was minor and could wait till the morning. Bodha Singh was delirious with high fever. He was made to lie in the ambulance. The subedar was not willing to leave Lahna behind. Seeing this, Lahna said to him: ‘For Bodha’s sake and for the subedarni, I beg you, please go in the vehicle.’

‘And you?’

‘Send another vehicle for me. Anyway, one will be coming shortly for the German dead. My condition isn’t so bad. Don’t you see that I’m on my feet? Besides, Vazira is here with me.’

‘All right, but –

‘Bodha is in the ambulance. You, too, must get in.  Oh, do listen. If you write to the subedarni, please send her my regards. And when you go home, tell her that I did as she said.’

Climbing into the vehicle, the subedar held Lahna’s hand in his own. ‘What letter? We’ll go home together. You can tell it to your subedarni in your own words.  What did she say?’

‘Now, do get in…Write my message to the subedarni. And when you meet her, say it to her.’

As soon as the ambulances left, Lahna lay down. ‘Vazira, give me a drink of water,’ he said. ‘And release my cummerbund. It’s completely soaked.’


A little before death arrives, the memory becomes crystal clear.  Episodes from  one’s life present themselves before one’s eyes, their colours sharp and bright. The mist of time vanishes.

Lahna Sigh is twelve. He is on a visit to his maternal uncle in Amritsar. At the curd seller’s, at the vegetable vendor’s, wherever he goes, he meets an eight-year-old girl. When he asks her, Is your engagement over? she replies “Dhatt” and runs away. One day, he asked her the question in the same teasing manner and she said Yes, it was over yesterday. Don’t you see this new embroidered shawl? On hearing these words Lahna  had felt a sorrow, he had felt an inexpressible anger. Why  had he felt that way?

‘Vazira Singh, give me a drink of water.’

Twenty-five years passed. Lahna Singh was a jamadaar in 77 Rifles. He no longer thought of the eight-year-old girl. Had he ever met her, or not? He had gone home on a week’s leave to attend a court case about a piece of land when he received a letter from the regiment, informing him that the troops were leaving for the front; he must return immediately. He also received a letter from the subedar saying that he and his son Bodha Singh were going to the front as well. While heading back to the regiment, come via our village, it said. We’ll go back together. The village was on his way and the subedar was very fond of him. He did as asked.

When it was time to leave, the subedar emerged from his house and said, ‘ Lahna, the subedarni knows you, she wants  to speak to you. Go in and meet her.’ Lahna went in. The subedarni knows me?  Since when? The subedar’s family had never stayed in the regimental quarters. At the threshold, he called out his greetings and heard a blessing in reply. He waited. She came to the door.

‘Do you recognize me?’


‘Teri kudhmai ho gayi? – Dhatt! – Haan, kal ho gayi. – Amritsar.’

The turmoil of conflicting emotions dragged him back to consciousness. He  turned to the other side. The wound in his ribs began to bleed again.

‘Vazira, a drink of water…. Usne kaha tha.’ She had said it.

The dream goes on… The subedarni is saying, ‘I recognized you immediately. I want you to do something for me. I am so ill-fated. The government awarded him a medal for  bravery and a plot of land in Lyallpur. Now the time has come to prove his loyalty. Why didn’t the government raise a paltan of women, so that I, too, could have gone with Subedarji? I have a son, and he joined the army a year ago. There were four sons born to me after him, but none survived.’ The subedarni began to weep. ‘How unlucky I am! Do you remember that day at the curd-seller’s when a tongawallah’s horse went berserk? You saved my life that day, braving the kicks of the horse, lifted me and placed me on the shop’s verandah. Look after these two the way you took care of me that day, I beg of you. I spread my aanchal before you.’

Still weeping, the subedarni went inside.  Lahna’s eyes were moist as well. Wiping them, he left.

‘Vazira, water… Usne kaha tha.’

Vazira sits with Lahna’s head on his lap. When Lahna asks for water, he offers it.

Lahna was quiet for a while, nearly half an hour. Then he asked, ‘Who is it? Keerat Singh?’

Vazira  understood. After a moment, he said, ‘Yes.’

‘Brother, raise my head a little. Place it on your thigh.’

Vazira did as he was told.

‘That is much better. Give me some water… This Ashadh there will be plenty of mangoes on the tree. You and your nephew must sit right here and enjoy them. Your nephew is as old as this tree. I planted it the month he was born.’

Vazir Singh’s tears flow.

A few days later, people read it in the newspapers:  France and Belgium,  68th list.  Died of wounds in the battlefield.  77 Sikh Rifles. Jamadar Lahna Singh.


About the author

Pandit Chandradhar Sharma Guleri ( 1883- 1922) was born on 7th July in Jaipur, into a family of scholars originally hailing from the village Guler in Kangra.  His father was the royal astrologer in the court of the Maharaja of Jaipur. He graduated from Allahabad University and, for 15 years, headed the department of Sanskrit at Mayo College, Ajmer. Later he was on the faculty of the Banaras Hindu University.  He was fluent in several languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Hindi.  Usne Kaha tha  was written in 1915. In 1960 it was made into a film, produced by Bimal Roy, starring Sunil Dutt, Nanda, Durga Khote and Indrani Mukherji.

Visthapit Vinayak / Displacement

(Originally in Hindi as Visthapit Vinayak by Viky Arya. Displacement translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan.)

Setting foot in this office for the first time, one gets the feeling of having arrived at some ultra modern place of work in an European or American metropolis. Fully AC with spacious well-appointed interiors, sleek stylish furniture, walls in pleasing shades and tasteful artwork on those walls. 30389b94842aaada29ffc713d8aad8a3The passages are brightly lit, the cabins are airy, the atmosphere is open and cheerful. Conversation is mostly in English.

In all this one’s glance may suddenly fall on a large grey stone Ganesha placed in a corner. A closer look at the carving may lead one to conclude that it is the work of master craftsmen from South India. Like all such statues, this particular Ganeshji is beautiful. A faint smile plays on his lips suggesting that he is pleased to acknowledge the offering of fresh blooms –white jasmine and yellow marigold –placed respectfully at his feet. There is also a lit incense stick gently dissolving its sandalwood fragrance in the air. It’s clear Ganeshji is worshipped every day. It’s also clear that he is completely out of place here.

Fig17I sometimes get the feeling that, notwithstanding the benign smile, there is a slightly frozen quality in his expression, as if Ganeshji were suffering from a ‘culture shock’. Undoubtedly, I am wrong. We happen to be Indians, after all: one thing on the surface, and something altogether different within. For instance, just take a look at that young man approaching Ganeshji. Skinny tight, low waist blue denim jeans, a tight navy blue tee shirt, hair gelled into a rising wave, a tiny goatee adorns his chin and a cloud of aftershave trails behind him. Yet, he never fails to stop before Ganeshji, join his palms in a prayerful gesture, shut his eyes and address the deity for a full five minutes before heading to his desk.

There are many others like him, not the least being our Accountant sahib. While entering the threshold itself, this gentleman bows low as if our office were hallowed space. He does the same before Ganeshji. Only then does he enter his cabin. It was at his insistence at the Board Meeting that the idol was given a prime location inside the office. When he first arrived Ganeshji was the cynosure of all eyes and every passerby stopped to greet him. I am not an idol worshipper but the sight of Ganeshji there gladdened me, as well. I liked to imagine that his gentle smile was a sign that he was pleased at the high regard we held him in. One evening, however, I thought that the smile seemed rather fixed. I understood why the next day. When I arrived at the office, the place seemed different. The prime spot was vacant. Where was Ganeshji?

I searched for him everywhere and found him fixed on to a back wall.

God-Ganesh-HD-wallpaper‘What’s this?’ I asked him. ‘You’ve shifted…Did some Feng shui or Vaastu expert advise this transfer?’

He did not reply, but continued to smile bravely.

I couldn’t contain myself and barged straight into Accountant sahib’s cabin.

‘What can I say?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That Kapur sahib, you know…Well, he just got a promotion.’

‘But what does that have to with displacing our Ganpati?’

‘Promotion means a larger cabin.’ He shrugged. ‘ Everyone has to adjust…What else is one to do? The order came from above.’

He turned back to his paper work.

Ganesh_sits_affectionately_with_his_vahana,_Mushika_another_versionMonths went by. It was all work, work, work. Once in a while my eyes would search out Ganpati and I’d say to him: ‘They’ve pushed you around,too, haven’t they? And now you’ve been allotted this obscure corner. Yet you continue to smile. You are truly great, O merciful one!’

Then one day he was missing from that spot as well. It took me a while to discover his new location, it was even more remote than the last one. Every time there was a rearrangement of space in the office, Ganpati would be moved to yet another little known spot. Isn’t it strange that as a man moves up, he occupies a larger office and the god, by whose grace, this progress occurs, finds his space being diminished? Thoughts such as this came to me, and I’d feel a little sad, but Ganeshji continued to wear his smile, as if saying. ‘Keep on watching…There’s more to come. The story’s not yet over for me.’ Just one tiny reassurance made me feel that it wasn’t downhill all the way for our beloved Ganpati. That was the sight of the fresh flower garland around his neck, and the incense burning at his feet.

1-garden-ganesh-statueA year had passed since I joined the organization. In that time, everyone in the office had maintained his original position in the hierarchy, there had been no major shifts in our situation. Only Ganeshji had moved – some five or six times. These moves marked a continuous decline in his accommodation. It became smaller and increasingly humble. Till the day finally arrived when in this bright, hi-tech office there was no space for him. None at all.

Now he’s been plunked outside the office door. It reminds me of the manner in which some well-to-do folks pack off old decrepit parents to a distant corner of their lives. But Ganeshji continues to raise his palm in blessing, the smile stays on. Or am I wrong? Is it a grimace of pain? Hard to say what that expression means. It could be the grime that hasn’t been dusted off his face for days.



(Originally in Hindi as Tulsi ke Bahane by Vipin Choudhary. Translated by Madhavi S. Mahadevan.)

I was the one who opened the door. It could have been around one-thirty in the afternoon. Generally, the doorbell does not ring at this hour in our flat 101 of the paying guest hostel, because no one is in at that time. It just so happened that I was at home that day as I had some work in connection with that evening’s program at the Press Club. Who could it be, I wondered. Pressing the Save button on the laptop, I made a dash for the door. Before me stood a slim, short young woman. Going by the make up on her face, she appeared to be newly-wed. She stood there clasping her hands, clearly a bit nervous.

In the five-storied building that is our hostel mostly single women stay, but there are a few apartments for families as well. We don’t have much to do with them. The young women who live here are from small towns, studying in one of the city’s colleges, or in some cases, working, like myself. We are all, usually, short of time, and when we do manage to grab a break, some of us spend it with our boyfriends while others choose to head home to their families. That’s why, with just a glance at the young woman, I guessed that she was probably the new neighbor in the next apartment.

Before I could ask what she wanted, she smiled a smile of great sweetness and said, ‘We’ve only just moved in. We have to go out of the city for a few days. Could you take care of my tulsi plant for me?’

Taking my silence for a Yes, she disappeared into her own flat, returning after a few minutess with a pretty flower pot that she handed to me. I held it gingerly, as if it was a living creature – a soft white rabbit .

‘Sure,’ I said, like a good neighbor. ‘I’ll be happy to take care of it.’

I placed the flower pot on the balcony and kept looking at it for a while.

In the busy, knotted lives we single women led, that tulsi plant was like a new guest. While admiring it, I was reminded of the tulsi in my own home. In an instant, I had crossed the distance, leapt over the four walls that separated my house from the world and was standing before that plant. Despite all efforts to keep it going, it would wither and die. My mother would always worry about this. Hindus believe that the tulsi plant brings good luck and it is invariably present in every home. Whenever my mother transplanted a fresh flourishing plant at that spot, it would become lifeless in a few days. Advice and suggestions to solve this problem flowed in from all directions. Someone said that the tulsi should always be planted in a pair; it enables the roots to grip the soil more strongly. Those days, I was a student of Economic Botany, very interested in increasing my knowledge about the usefulness of different plants. I tried very hard to bridge the distance between the dying tulsi plant in the house’s courtyard and the one flourishing in my text book, but despite all my effort that did not happen. Finally, my grandmother came to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the soil in the garden, or perhaps something inauspicious had happened at some time in the past of that house. At this my mother admitted defeat and gave up.

Now, after all these many years, here was a tulsi plant once again in my care.
That evening, when I returned from the Press Club, I gave my three flat mates clear guidelines and instructions on how to look after the tulsi plant. And all the while I was thinking that , Of course, these three aren’t going to bother with so much as a glance at the plant. But in the next few days that assumption was completely over turned. I had not imagined that these girls would show so much care and attention toward the plant. Whenever I opened the door to the balcony to have a look at the tulsi, I’d find it, well-watered, standing proud and tall. One of the girls had moved it to a shady spot where it was protected from the sun’s glare. Wah! There’s hope for them yet, I thought.

In the beginning I used to be baffled at the renaissance in my flat mates. However, even bewilderment, spread over a period of days, gets dreary.

There were four of us in the apartment: myself, Manasi, Gunjan and Ipshita. All four had emerged from mofussil towns and headed straight to the big city, New Delhi. The three girls, all students of Fashion Technology, had immersed themselves fully in the razzle- dazzle of city life. It was as if their small town values and mores were a skin that had now been shed. Why, talk of them alone, I, too, had not remained immune to its vibrant attractions. The first thing that I had abandoned were the daily rituals that I had followed at home. While speaking on the phone to my mother, I’d reassure her: Yes, I was still performing those little daily rituals she had taught me. Indeed, I had tried to for a while, lighting the wick in the oil lamp. But I had, before long, given up keeping the prescribed fasts and even lighting the lamp.

The city was rapidly pulling us towards itself, altering us in the process. My flat mates would appear in new avatars every day. Once, I noticed a small dark carton of something lying on Gunjan Raina’s study table, and assuming that it was a pack of playing cards, lifted it. To my surprise, it turned out to be a pack of cigarettes. Which of these three girls, I wondered. Or are all three …?

When I brought up the matter, rather cautiously, with her the next day, Gunjan sheepishly admitted that it was Manasi’s pack.

Do you smoke as well?

I didn’t earlier, she said, but now in Manasi’s company, I do smoke now and then.

After that day, I made a conscious decision not to ask questions that might imply that I was prying in their personal lives. Live and let live, I told myself. Since then, this loony bin of ours has remained a happy, cheerful place. One of them even stuck a big bold notice on the door: MADHOUSE.

Seeing it, I said, Agreed you all are a special sorority, but don’t include me in that.

No, didi, said Manasi, you are the superintendent.

Oh really, I laughed. Fine. We’ll keep it that way.

Yes, in the beginning I was astonished at the antics of my flat mates, but by and by, I got used to them. As a result, the girls, too, became more free and easy. In a few weeks, besides smoking, they were drinking as well. They’d get up in the morning and head off to the neighbourhood temple cupping an offering of flowers in their hands. The pub and the temple were comfortably ensconced side by side in their lives, however I was quite uncomfortable about this juxtaposition. The strange mix-and-match of their lives would frequently catch me by surprise. The deep rift between Indian culture and Western modernism that lay in me, never seemed to bother these girls. And now, the tulsi plant had forged another link to tradition.

All those days that the tulsi plant was in the apartment, I felt a bracing glow in me, as though an elixir of some kind was flowing through my arteries. And one day, when the tulsi plant was not at its usual spot I immediately asked Manasi about it. She said that the next door neighbor had taken it back early that morning.

Oh, I said. A sad acquiescence.

These days, the most significant change is the one I see in myself. After a long time, I picked up the small brass diya that had been lying neglected in a corner of the kitchen. I wiped the dust off it. With great concentration, I fashioned a wick. Then I poured ghee in the diya and lit the wick. As the glow grew stronger, of their own volition, my palms came together and that mantra, which I used to chant so frequently in my childhood, came to my lips.

Om namo Bhagavate vasudevaya namah.


download (1)Vipin Choudhary spent her childhood in Kharkhari Makwan, a village in Haryana, and her poetry displays a blend of both rural and city influences. Her collections include Andhere ke Madhya se (2008) and Ek Baar Phir ( Haryana Sahitya Academy 2008). She publishes poems, articles and stories regularly in various literary magazines, and also writes for the radio, drama, theatre and films. She is the co-ordinator of an NGO Manav Adhikar Sangh . She lives in New Delhi.