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Runanubandha

Chapter Text

“Maa, I can’t.” Devasena gasped, hunching down as she clutched her abdomen in pain.
Sivagami looked around desperately, hoping beyond hope for some assistance. But the three of them were alone in the dark, at the base of the mighty waterfalls with Bhallaladeva’s soldiers seconds away from reaching them.
“You cannot give up, Devasena.” Sivagami urged, gripping Devasena’s shoulder tightly. As Mahendra’s cries increased, Sivagami gestured to the baby in her arms. “Mahendra needs you. You cannot give up. Mahismathi’s daughter never gives up.”
“I am not.” Devasena gasped, closing her eyes in pain. “I’m not giving up. I’m giving in. Take him away. Please, you have to save him!”
“And I will.” Sivagami words rang with resolve. Despite the arrow sticking from her back, despite being saddled with an infant and an woman who’d just given birth, Sivagami knew her words to be true. “He will live, Devasena. So will you.”
Devasena’s desperate eyes met Sivagami’s steely ones.
“For Amarendra,” Sivagami whispered.
Devasena’s face hardened, the familiar determination locking her jaw as she struggled to her feet.
“For Amarendra.” she repeated, forcing her body to move. Swallowing down the pain, she followed Sivagami as the older woman etched her bloody footprints on the rocks to mislead the soldiers. When the time came to fight, the daughters in-law of the great kingdom fought back to back to fend off the attackers.
“There,” Devasena gestured weakly towards the mountains where they could see traces of a human settlement. “We need to go there.”
Sivagami nodded, leading the way with Mahendra in her arms.
“Be careful-” No sooner were the words out of her mouth that Sivagami slipped, falling into the mighty river with Mahendra in his arms.
In one heartbreaking second, Devasena saw her mother in-law and son being carried away by the rushing water before she too fell into the river, not entirely sure if she’d jumped instinctively or if she’d slipped. But what did it matter, when they were all going to die? The temptation to surrender was too much. She could be reunited with her husband again but-
But her son…
He had to live. Mahendra had to live.
“Krishna!” she called desperately, struggling against the tide of the river. “I beg you, save my son! Take me instead. Save him. Save Mahendra…”
And then she knew no more.

Chapter Text

“Any improvement?”

Someone’s warm hands touched her cheeks and felt her forehead before they were quickly withdrawn.

“Her fever has not broken.” It was a woman who spoke this time, sounding much closer than the man who'd spoken first. “I worry if she’ll make it through.”

“Is there anything I can do?” the man asked.

There must have been some non-verbal reply and the footsteps retreated.

A wet cloth was pressed to Devasena's forehead, helping her overcome the last cobwebs of unconsciousness.

“Mahendra,” she whispered, struggling to open her heavy lids. She needed to know if her son was safe.

“Amma?”

“My son,” Devasena whispered, finally able to open her eyes. She blinked rapidly and sat up, desperate for her son. “Where’s my son? He’s here, isn’t he?”

The woman sitting with her was older than her but not by many years. She had a kind face that was currently scrunched up with worry. She hastily pushed Devasena back into the bed, soothing her with the words: “Your son is safe. Don’t worry, Amma. He’s perfectly fine.”

“And…” Devasena swallowed, looking around the rundown hut for any sign of her baby. She was thankful that her mind was clearing rapidly. It allowed her to assess possible escape routes, just in case. “The woman with him? My mother?”

The tribal woman sighed and shook her head. “We could not save her.”

Devasena closed her eyes, bracing herself against the pain.

One more death.

One more hole in her heart.

Was there anything left of it anymore?

But she couldn’t afford to wallow in grief. She needed to take stock of the situation.

“My son.” Devasena sat up against despite the woman’s fussing. “Where is he?”

“I’ll bring him to you,” Sanga promised and retreated, recognizing that the only way to keep her patient calm was to bring her child to her.

When they’d found the baby, Sanga had been delighted; ecstatic to have been granted a shot at motherhood. But when her men had found this young woman unconscious, clinging to a small rock in the river, Sanga knew that her dream was not to be. But she had taken care of the child for the past few days, treated the baby like her own and it pained her to have to surrender him.

But there was no way she would ever begrudge a mother of her child.

In fact, the way Sanga saw it, she’d been granted a chance to play mother to both the baby and the baby’s mother who seemed to be the same age as her youngest sister. It was a gift from God and she would treat it as such.

Devasena, on the other hand, couldn’t bring herself to relax. She eyed the long knife on the far end of the hut, wondering if she could grab it before Sanga returned. She was jittery and weak and she needed to hold her baby in her arms, she needed to see him to calm her rapidly increasing heartbeat-

“Amma, do you need anything?” the younger woman in the room who’d been skulking near the door when Devasena woke up, entered the hut hesitantly.

Devasena forced a smile. “Could I get a glass of water, please?”

The young woman smiled and left quickly.

Devasena felt a flash of guilt as she nicked the knife and returned to the bed. These people seemed to have saved their lives-

-but a little caution never hurt anybody. Especially after everything she’d been through.

When she heard approaching footsteps, Devasena hid the knife beneath the blankets and craned her neck to peak outside.

It was the older woman and she had a bundle in her arms.

Mahendra.

Tears pooled in her eyes when Mahendra was handled to her. She exhaled with relief as she clutched her son tightly to her chest, pressing kisses onto his little face. He was safe.

Her baby was safe.

Mahendra cooed, grabbing a lock of her hair that had fallen on her face. She choked back a cry that was both delighted and relieved and kissed his little nose. Mahendra squirmed in delight as she laughed, never wanting to let go of him.

When she looked up, the older woman was watching them with tears in her eyes.

Any mistrust that Devasena had harbored melted away as she read the affection in the woman’s eyes. She was beyond grateful to this woman.

“I’m in your debt,” Devasena told her solemnly, wishing there was something she could give her.

“Please,” Sanga shook her head. “Don’t say that.”

“You saved my son,” Devasena said, setting Mahendra down on the bed beside her to fold her hands before this woman who’d given them a second chance. “I am-”

“No,” Sanga cut her off by grasping Devasena’s folded hands in hers. “The two of you were saved by the Lord’s mercy. He’s brought you to our doorstep and I, for one, have never been more happier than when I first held your son in my arms. It is the Lord’s will that we provide you shelter.”

Devasena bit her lip. “I want that. I do. But danger follows us-”

“-and who better to protect you than us?” Sanga said, patting her hand. “Where better to hide than here, in the middle of nowhere?”

Devasena bowed her head. “Thank you.”

“If you say that one more time, I shall be cross with you.”

Devasena chuckled for the first time after the disaster had hit. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Devasena picked up her son and placed him in Sanga’s arms. “Consider him your son as well.” Devasena told her, correctly recognizing Sanga’s love for Mahendra. She did not know if the other woman had children of her own but she knew, beyond a doubt, that Sanga already considered Mahendra as her own.

If Krishna willed it to be so, it would be so.

Chapter Text

“Amma! Amma! Amamamama…”

Devasena laughed, watching her one year old boy chant the word that was his very first. Mahendra waved his arms around as Sanga lifted him into the air, still murmuring the word that seemed to fascinate him so.

Amma.

“Sanga,” The older woman enunciated, setting the baby down on the mat beside Devasena. “Mahi, say ‘sanga’.”

Mahendra spared her a glance and clamored onto Devasena’s lap, away from Sanga’s coaxing.

“Akka, give it time.” Devasena told her when the older woman huffed. “He’ll say it soon, won’t you Mahendra?”

Mahendra, now sitting contently in his mother’s lap, looked up at Sanga with a cheeky smile.

“You little devil,” Sanga teased, poking his stomach.

Devasena’s heart melted when he threw his head back and laughed in delight. She pressed a kiss to his head, inhaling his sweet scent.

Her son. Her world.

Mahendra was the reason for her living. He was the light of her life, pushing back the darkness stubbornly. On the days where she wanted to give up, he kept her going. Devasena didn’t know what she would do if she ever lost him and every day, she thanked the two women that helped her keep him: Sivagami and Sanga.

Tightening her arms around her son, Devasena pulled herself together and looked around the little cottage that she called home. Sanga and her husband lived in the cottage next to theirs and left no stone unturned in making her comfortable. Sometimes, she wondered about her brother and atthige* and her beloved Kuntala but Mahendra took up so much of her time that she couldn’t, wouldn’t, spend time thinking too much.

“Why do you still wear it?” Sanga’s gentle voice brought her out of her musings.

“Hmm?”

Sanga nodded to the chain she’d been subconsciously playing with.

Her thaali.

Devasena sighed heavily. “I’d rather not-”

“-talk about it, I know.” Sanga finished, looking troubled. “But Devasena, someday you have to. Someday, Mahendra will want to know.”

The younger woman rested her cheek on top of Mahendra’s head, shutting herself down. Protecting herself the way she always did when anything remotely related to her husband came up.

Late husband, Sanga corrected herself mentally.

“Would it not be better…” Sanga hesitated, wondering if she was overstepping but she needed to say it. She couldn’t bear to watch the dark clouds that passed over Devasena’s face from time to time, couldn’t watch the way she slipped into brooding if Mahendra was away from her for any amount of time, couldn’t bear to hear the quiet crying in the night when everyone was asleep. Sanga knew she needed to say her piece. “You need to move on, dear. You need to try.”

Devasena’s eyes flashed at the words.

“Listen to me,” Sanga appealed. “If not for yourself, at least for Mahendra. Do you think he’ll ever be happy if he sees that you’re not?”

“It does not-”

“He needs a father,” Sanga said firmly. “And you need someone to look after you-”

Rather than being offended like she’d expected of herself, Devasena felt herself smiling. “You already do that. And Mahendra has a father. He has parents in you and anna. He won’t ask for anything more.”

“But-”

“No, akka.” Devasena’s voice hardened. “I’m afraid I can’t do more than that for him. As for this-” she held out her thaali. “-it’ll only ever be dedicated to one man. He’s not…he can never be replaced. Not for me and not for Mahendra if I have anything to say about it.”

Mahendra, who’d been silent so far as if he sensed the solemn mood, chose that moment to stand up on his mother’s lap and tug on the thaali with interest. Without warning, he put the chain into his mouth.

“I know you worry,” Devasena continued with a smile, untangling the chain from her son's grip and picking up the bowl of manni* to spoon a mouthful into the baby. “I’m grateful to you for that. But Amarendra Baahubali is not a name that can ever be erased. Not from the world and definitely not from my heart.”

Chapter Text

Devasena stared at the torrential water as it came rushing down the mountains, shimmering in the midmorning sun and crashing down on the huge boulders below. The spray was light and refreshing on her skin and though her clothes were steadily getting wet, she didn’t want to walk away just yet.

Usually her mornings would be spent with Sanga, assisting her in her tasks while her three year old boy accompanied the fishermen down the river. When he returned, they’d sit down together for his studies.

But today was different…

It was amavasya*, falling in the month of maagha*.

The day he had abandoned her three years ago.

Devasena knew she’d been particularly difficult for the past few days, short of temper and patience as she tried to quell the storm brewing within her. Distracted as she was, she’d hurt herself while peeling arecanuts and Sanga had finally had enough, banishing her to Mahendra’s company and his alone.

Only her son could soothe her turmoil…

As she stood staring at the falls, she pondered over the path her life had taken. From being the daughter of the mountains, she was now at the foot of the mountains, looking up at her former life. As much as she missed it, traveling to Kuntala had never been an option. She would never endanger her home by hiding there. As for life in Mahismathi- even if she and Mahendra somehow evaded the king’s evil eye, would she have survived the constant reminders of her husband?

“Amma?” called a small voice from near her knee, tugging on her pallu insistently.

Mahendra’s eyes were worried as he squinted up up at his mother. His friend Mahesha had told him that his mother had been standing still for hours, never looking away from the waterfalls.

When Devasena blinked down at him, Mahendra caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes. His heart broke at the sight of her sadness, tears automatically filling his eyes at her distress.

“Oh no, Mahi!” Devasena crouched down and lifted her son in her arms, wiping away his tears. “I am fine, kandha*. I’m not crying. There was something in my eyes, that’s all.”

“Lying is bad,” Mahendra pointed out with a sniffle.

Devasena chuckled, lightening her son’s mood immediately. “Of course it is.”

“Why were you crying?” Mahendra asked insistently, turning in her arms to look at her face.

Devasena sighed, casting one last glance at the waterfall before walking away with her son in her arms. Sunlight glinted off her nose ring and Mahendra was again struck by how different his mother was from the people around him.

She didn’t dress like them, she didn’t talk like them, she didn’t conduct herself like them. She was so different that Mahendra often wondered if he was supposed to be different as well or was he a part of this place?

Mahendra didn’t like the thought of the two of them being dissimilar to each other. He wanted to be just like her; brave and strong and so good! He wanted her to always be happy but she wasn’t. She’d been crying...

“Amma!”

“Insistent as always,” Devasena replied with a fond smile, not wanting to betray even a sliver of her burdens but not knowing how to answer her son.

As though sensing her dilemma, Mahendra put a hand to her cheek and whispered, “are you sad because you miss Father?”

Devasena shouldn’t really be surprised that her son was so perceptive. Even discounting genetics, she and Mahendra seemed to have a connection, an empathy link of sorts. If he could read her emotions at such a young age, she was a little scared to imagine how perceptive he would be as an adult.

With a sigh, Devasena decided to tell him the truth. “Yes, Mahendra. I miss your father.”

Mahendra was silent for a moment. Blinking up at his mother, he hesitantly pointed out, “you have me.”

Devasena laughed even as her eyes burned. Blinking away the tears, she kissed Mahendra’s forehead and enveloped his little body in her arms. “I do have you and I thank Krishna every day for allowing me to keep you.”

Mahendra hugged her back just as tightly, as if trying to take away her pain. She might not have her Amarendra but she did have his son with her.

Feeling guilty for allowing her dark thoughts to dampen her mood and consequently Mahendra’s, Devasena forced a smile and poked Mahendra’s stomach. “So, did you catch the boothayi* fish today or did you let it slip from your fingers as always?”

“It wasn’t my fault! If appa hadn’t…” Attention successfully diverted, Mahendra launched into a detailed explanation of how he’d almost caught the fish but appa made him let go because it just so huge and-

Devasena nodded, making sympathetic noises at the right places as Mahendra talked, marveling at how he could soothe her shattered soul.

After his lessons, Mahendra ran off to play and Devasena resisted the urge to return to the waterfall. It wouldn’t do her any good and she didn’t want Mahendra to see her like that again. She worried enough about him without him worrying about her at such a young age…

“Amma!” Mahendra’s excited shout from outside their cottage pulled her out of her thoughts. “Look what I brought for you! Amma!”

Shaking her head at her son’s loud yell, Devasena snuffed out the stove and wiped her hands. Making her way to the door, Devasena said, “Hold your horses, I’m coming- Mahendra!”

Standing outside the cottage was her son. Only, it didn’t really look like him.

Mahendra was covered head to toe in blackish brown mud, his hair tangled and clothes torn. He was wearing a large grin, the white of his teeth flashing against the muddy brown. He also looked very pleased with himself as he clutched a bunch of purple lotus flowers in his arms.

“For you,” he said sweetly, smiling that crooked little cheeky smile that was so similar yet so different from her husband’s.

Devasena’s heart melted when she realized that it was her son’s attempt to cheer her up. Choking back a cry, she sank to her knees and pulled him to her, not caring about the mud caking his body or his indignant cry that she was crushing the flowers. She knew, beyond doubt that Mahendra was Krishna’s healing salve to glue together the shattered pieces of her heart.

It would never truly mend but it would hold.

It would heal. She would heal.

Chapter Text

“I will climb the waterfall, Sanga ma.”

Sanga wrung her hands, desperate to take his mind away from the wretched waterfall. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred time. No more climbing the waterfall.”

But her son never listened. Not when she told him horror stories to scare him away from the waterfalls, not when she cried and threw a fit to distract him, not when she made him promise to never climb again. Mahendra only smiled and promised her he wouldn’t but soon, he’d be back at it again.

Sanga tried to enlist Devasena’s help but the younger woman was just as frustrating.

“It’s just a phase, akka. It’ll pass.”

It certainly didn’t help that Devasena too was subject to staring up the waterfall longingly.

“Are you not worried that he’ll injure himself in his attempts?”

Devasena had simply smiled. “Not all injuries are bad.”

Therein lay the difference between their parenting styles. Sanga had never before encountered a mother who didn’t seem to mind the thought of their child hurting themselves. That was not to say that Sanga doubted the love that Devasena had for her son. But it was hard for Sanga to let Mahendra do as he pleased. She was always worrying, always fretting. Even over Devasena, who was a grown woman. When Devasena had declared for the first time that she wanted to go on a hunt with the men, Sanga nearly had a heart attack.

She was certain the mother-son duo were responsible for her rapidly graying hair.

“If I hear any more words about trying to climb the waterfalls, young man…” Sanga trailed off at the sight of Mahendra’s puppy dog eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said with so much sincerity that Sanga’s heart melted.

“My beautiful boy,” she sighed, smoothing back Mahendra’s wet hair away from his face. “You won’t climb the waterfalls again, will you?”

Mahendra shook his head with a small smile.

Sanga pressed a kiss to his head. “I think I heard your father say something about harvesting arecanuts today-”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Mahendra ran towards the village, eager as he was to watch the men pluck the arecanut bunches from trees.

“Put on some dry clothes first!” Sanga shouted after Mahendra, laughing when he waved to her.

Looking up at the clear blue sky, she sent a prayer to the almighty for blessing her with the sense to shut the tunnel on the very same day that they’d found Mahendra.

If he ever found out that there was a way to reach the top of the waterfall, Sanga was certain she’d not just lose her son, she’d lose his mother as well.

Chapter Text

“Mahendra!” Devasena called loudly, her voice echoing through the chasm between the mountains and reflecting off the tree tops, scaring away the birds perched on the branches. “Mahi, where are you?”

There was no answer.

“Mahendra! Mahendra, where are you? Mahendra!”

Silence.

“Mahendra…” Devasena whispered helplessly, her throat clogging up with tears. She stumbled against a tree, her fingernails digging into the bark of the trunk as she fought to stay afloat in the raging ocean of panic that threatened to drown her.

Desperately her eyes roved over the landscape again, hoping that her little boy would materialize from behind a tree or emerge from a thicket of bushes. His face would be muddy but ecstatic, eyes bright and curls bouncing as he raced to her side, full of stories and questions. She would then fall to her knees and embrace him to her heart’s content- the boy who was her only hope, her only happiness.

But her Mukunda didn’t seem to be in a mood to oblige her.

A voice in her head cackled gleefully, seeing in her dark future a hope of ending her misery and reuniting with her beloved. If she did lose Mahendra the same way that she’d lost her Amarendra, there would be no point in living at all.

It would all end.

Finally.

It was with great determination that Devasena pushed aside the tantalizing thought. She had never been one to give up and she wasn’t about to start anytime soon.

“Mahendra!” she called one final time before nodding to herself and closing her eyes, looking within herself to find that instinct, that connection that bound her son to her.

There was a faint tug at her navel, the anchor for the lifeline that had physically tied her baby to her for nine long months. Giving into the pull, she walked through the dense forest and soon reached a small clearing with tall deciduous trees that directly faced the waterfalls.

“Mahendra!” She looked around, certain that he was close by. “Show yourself right now.”

There was a faint rustle before a face peeked out from between the branches of a large sal tree.

Devasena exhaled in relief, the weight on her shoulders lifting at the sight of her son unharmed. Composing herself quickly, she eyed his position and the petulant expression on his face.

“You better get down at this very instant, young man.” She commanded, trying to sound stern.

Mahendra’s expression didn’t change but he didn’t, couldn’t, disobey a direct order from his mother. Slowly, he climbed down the tree to stand in front of her, meeting her eyes stubbornly.

“Why the tantrum?” Devasena asked, crossing her arms to prevent herself from hugging her son in relief and forgiving him instantly.

Mahendra shuffled his right foot and mumbled something.

Devasena cocked her head. “What have I told you about mumbling, Mahendra?”

“You made me eat bitter guard,” Mahendra said sourly, deliberately pitching his voice higher than usual. “You know how much I hate but you made me eat it anyway!”

Devasena frowned. “Do you know how much you scared me, Mahendra? All because I made you eat something that you didn’t like?”

A cloud of guilt passed over Mahendra’s face before being buried under petulance. “You’re not scared of anything!”

“Of course I am.” Devasena revealed quietly.

“But-” Mahendra’s forehead scrunched up. “But you’re so brave!”

She laughed, finally giving into the urge to pick him up and hold him close.

“Being brave does not mean that you’re not scared.” She told him, making her way back to the village with her son in her arms. “It simply means that you find a way to battle your fear and defeat it.”

Mahendra nodded thoughtfully.

Devasena hesitated before adding in a lighter tone, “Which is why it took me so long to find you. I had a battle to win, Mahi.”

Like she’d expected, her son relaxed at the reappearance of the nickname. She knew he took her words seriously and would no doubt ponder over them later. For now, she wanted to let it go.

“But you didn’t find me!” Mahendra grinned when she narrowed her eyes playfully. “Amma, you cheated. You ordered me to stop hiding.”

“Are you saying that I wouldn’t have found you otherwise?”

Mahendra wiggled out from her arms, jumping away from her. “Maybe!”

Devasena rested her hands on her hips playfully. “Is that a challenge, Mahi?”

Krishna help her, she knew the the glint in her son’s eyes could mean nothing good. She was very familiar with that particular look, having seen it staring back at her through a mirror for years.

“Catch me, Amma!” Mahendra shouted gleefully, taking off without waiting for her response.

Devasena felt the stirrings of adrenaline in her blood, an echo of her younger days. Pausing for a moment to fasten her saree securely, Devasena walked in her son’s footsteps, her stride lengthening gradually before she broke into a run. Her feet danced over the ground, the wind fierce against her face and her heartbeat drumming loudly in her ears. Laughter bubbled out involuntarily, as though it had been trapped in her chest for ages and had longed to escape.

When Mahendra turned mid-stride to catch a glimpse of her with his eyes bright and a smile too big for his face, Devasena felt a rush of gratitude and love so powerful that it spurred her on to catch up with her son, taking him in her arms and spinning him round and round and round…their laughter mingling in glorious harmony to become the song of their hearts.

Together, they would be alright.

Together, they would be happy.

Chapter Text

“Wassat?” Mahendra asked with a pronounced lisp.

Devasena looked at her son sharply. “Speak properly, Mahendra.”

Mahendra pouted and Devasena ignored the sharp flare of exasperation with Sanga akka for tolerating, sometimes even cooing over this bad habit of Mahendra’s. Sanga was prone to let Mahendra get away with almost anything, adding to the already considerable burden of disciplining him on Devasena’s shoulders.

She had promised, promised that she would share her son with the woman who had saved both of them but it was just so hard sometimes.

Most of the time, Devasena was glad to share the responsibility of raising Mahendra. Krishna knew how difficult her son could be. But sometimes, in those dark moments that crept up on her, she was not fine with it at all.

Sometimes, she did not want to be.

Feeling her face heat up in shame for indulging in such ungrateful thoughts, Devasena firmly pushed aside her qualms with Sanga’s parenting style in favor of correcting her son when necessary. "Mahendra?"

“What is that?” Mahendra corrected himself primly, pointing down to the river and smiling in that smug way that said he knew he was right. She swore he'd inherited from the demon king of Mahishmathi himself.

Mother and son were ensconced in the small clearing surrounded by a thicket of trees, with little jasmine flowers raining down on them with every passing breeze. The occasional shouts from the fishermen down the river was reassuring against the buzzing of the insects and chirping of birds.

Devasena lay on her stomach beside her son on the riverbed, gazing down at their reflection in the clear water. Mahendra’s focus was the design on his forehead, the black outline of the naaga* that his Appa* had drawn glimmering slightly when sunlight hit it just so.

“That’s a bottu*, kandha*.” Devasena explained, “But instead of a dot like they did in the olden days, we draw a design that appeals to us.”

Mahendra nodded thoughtfully and his finger traced a design on the mud, the outline of the bindi that Devasena had favored in her youth and occasionally used these days. “Like that?”

“Yes.” She leaned over and picked a stray flower tangled in Mahendra’s curly locks. “Anna drew you a naaga because you like your Lord Shiva so much and the naaga devatha adorns his neck.”

Mahendra grinned and sat up enthusiastically, making her smile as she flopped onto her back to keep him in sight. “Sanga Maa wears one on her arm. Can I get one on my arm as well? On both arms? Can I get a linga?”

Devasena smiled, looking up the blue sky from between the tangles of criss-crossed branches overhead. “Yes, you can get a linga. But I would advice you think carefully about it and decide on your designs. You already have this pendant.”

Mahendra’s fingers grasped the linga pendant she’d indicated, the one that Sanga and her husband had gifted Mahendra for his previous birthday. He’d loved it so much that he never took it off.

“Perhaps something other than the linga?” Devasena suggested quietly, urging Mahendra to think. Her son tended to act first and think later, much as she herself was. He took after her so much that it scared her sometimes.

Mahendra pouted, eyes roving over their surroundings as he tried to come up with his choice of design. “A parijata? They are so pretty, Amma. I think I want a parijata tattoo. Or- or bilvapatra* leaf! Oh, wait, I think that pakshi over there is pretty! Look, Amma, look!”

Despite herself, Devasena laughed. “There’s no rush, kandha. Think. Let me know when you are sure of what you want.”

Mahendra quietened at her words, hands restlessly tearing out clumps of grass around him. His silence lasted a moment or two as she knew it would.

“Amma?”

“Yes, kandha?”

“What was Father’s bottu?”

Devasena looked away and smiled, ignoring the way her heart clenched painfully. She was quite accustomed to the pain by now. “His was chanda mama*, Mahi.”

Mahendra clapped his hands in delight. “Really?”

Devasena’s smile widened and she nodded. “Yes. Like this- ” She turned a little to trace two overlapping crescents on the mud, her husband’s face still painfully clear in her memory.

Mahendra considered the drawing for a moment before firing his next question. “What about uncle Kumar?”

Devasena sighed fondly, marveling at how much Mahendra had grown attached to Kumar’s memory through her stories. She quickly drew the sun bracketed by the fiery rays to show Mahendra.

“I like it!” Mahendra dimpled. “What was Grandma’s?”

“It was a full moon, kandha.” Devasena replied, turning around to lie on her back and stare at the sky. “Hers was poorna chandra, like your father’s was ardha chandra.”

“And Kattappa thaatha’s?” Devasena pursed her lips, debating on whether she wanted to get into details of Kattappa’s slavery symbol and his history. It seems too heavy a story to be told lightly. Perhaps she should save it for another day…

“Mahendra?”

“Hmm?”

“Would you like to draw?”

“Draw?” Mahendra scrunched his forehead in confusion. “Draw what?”

“Anything,” she told him. “Everything. I could teach you.”

Mahendra clapped his hands, the idea evidently exciting him. “Yes, please! Come, Amma. Let’s start!”

“Now?”

Her son had already jumped to his feet and was tugging at her hand, nodding all the while. “Yes, now. Lets go, Amma.”

Laughing, Devasena followed her son down the river to their little hut, happy to put off the story for another day. She knew there would come a time when she would have to tell Mahendra's everything- from the truth of his origin to their family's bloody history but that time was not now.

If only Devasena could stop dreading it.