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Silences and Insanities

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The Everyday

The cool breeze gently caressed the leaves of the peepal tree. A mother sparrow chirruped softly somewhere in the lower branches of the tree as if singing a lullaby to her fledgelings. An owl hooted in the distance. Slowly, the small patch of brightness that was the Amburi village also dimmed. Some families laid down to sleep. Others conversed in soft voices about their day, the crops, the neighbors, and other mundane, everyday matters. 

Devayani, the young widow cleared the dinner thalis from the durree. Her boisterous seven-year-old son played with a wooden tiger in the corner. 

“Aaaaaarghhh….. Now I will eat you up,” the boy roared grandly at the non-existent hapless traveler who had wandered into the tiger’s den by mistake. His eyes sparkled with mischief and just as he was about to pounce on the imaginary traveler, his mother came and snatched the toy from him. 

“Sivudu, you must go to sleep now,” She said. “Enough playing. It is late and we have an entire day of harvest tomorrow.”

“But I don’t want to do the harvest anymore,” the child said with a pout. “And I can’t sleep right now. Singhaman has not eaten the traveler yet.”

“How many times have I told you to not play these stupid games?” Devayani scolded him. “Besides, tigers don’t eat people who just walk into their den. They will kill them but not eat them. They prefer to hunt. Anyway, you need to sleep. We have a lot of work in the fields tomorrow.”

“I’m not coming to the fields with you tomorrow,” Sivudu said gleefully. “Sanga promised me that I can start accompanying mama to the river. He will teach me to fish.”

“Doddamma Sanga,” Devayani corrected. “You have to address her as aunt. Calling a grownup by their name is disrespectful. And you’re not going fishing tomorrow. You are coming to the fields with me.”

“But doddamma said I could…”

“I am your mother or she is your mother?”

“You are,” Sivudu said, feeling ashamed of himself. “I am sorry, Ma. I will sleep now. But can you tell me a story first?”

Devayani smiled. Her son’s love for stories reminded her of someone else who had loved stories as well. 

“Katappa Mama has the same old stories… I’ve been hearing them since I was a kid… I need someone to tell me new ones now,” 

And just like that, her eyes teared up. But she couldn’t afford to cry. Not in front of Sivudu.

“Which story would you like to hear tonight?” she asked him. 

“The one about the cowardly prince who became brave after meeting a king,” Sivudu said promptly. 

Devayani was always surprised by how much her son seemed to enjoy this particular story. But then again, he was his father’s son. No wonder he was so fascinated by a seemingly ordinary, fearful prince who found courage in his heart when the time came. No wonder he was touched by the story of Kumara Varma. 

But she had other ideas. 

“How would you like it if I told you the story of the king himself?” she asked. 

“Really?” Sivudu sat up in his excitement. “I thought you said you didn’t know his story.”

“I said that?” feigned Devayani. “I made a mistake. I don’t know his entire story but I know the good parts. However, for that, you must lay back down and close your eyes so that the magic of the story can work.”

“Okay, mother,” the boy said obediently. 

“Good,” she said and launched into the story. And like her long-dead grandmother, she began with the same dramatic words that the famous bards of her country were once known for. 

“The world slumbers but the omnipresent one stays awake and watches over it. In his name, I say only what I saw. No more and no less.  A long time ago, a fool fell in love with a princess who wouldn’t give him the time of day. The fool was tall and big. The princess was like every princess-- pretty and proud. The fool couldn’t string two sentences together. The princess was both annoyed and enamored by him. She knew he was hiding something from her. But the stubborn fool was careful to keep his secret well hidden…”

A soft, rumbling snore interrupted her narration. Sivudu had fallen asleep. 

“In the end, the fool married the princess,” she added bitterly under her breath. “And they killed him because of it.”

XXXXX

Thwack… thwack… thwack….

The whip came down relentlessly on his already cut and bruised skin. 

“My lord, please have mercy,” Katappa fell at the king’s feet and begged with tears in his eyes. “He cannot take much more of this.”

Thwack...

Thwack...

Thwack...

“He can and he will,” Bhallaladeva said with a relish before kicking Katappa away ruthlessly. “That is all he is good for.”

Thwack...

Thwack...

“Scream for me, you dog! SCREAM!” Bhallaladeva shouted at the wounded man swinging helplessly from the ceiling. 

“Sire, he is unconscious,” someone pointed out. 

“Of course, he is,” the king smirked, his lips lightly coated with the specks of his victim’s blood. “Weakling… Baahubali, yeah right,” he spat at him and then turned to the guards. “Take him away.”

The guards unfastened the chains from around the prisoner’s raw, discolored wrists and he collapsed to the floor in an ungraceful heap. 

Katappa, who was openly weeping by this point scrambled to get up. 

“No need, old man,” Bhallaladeva said as he wiped his face with a washcloth. “A dog doesn’t need another dog to lick his wounds.”

Katappa stood in his place and watched as Amarendra Baahubali was dragged away from the torture chamber, leaving a trail of blood behind him. In a few minutes, he was the only one left in the room. Slowly, he walked towards the spot where Baahu had collapsed. He knelt down with great difficulty and his hands shook as he lowered his forehead into the pool of blood splattered on the floor. 

He let out an anguished cry and buried his head into his folded hands as if in prayer. He wasn’t sure what he was praying for and to whom. Did he seek forgiveness? Did he seek help? Or was he begging for mercy? And mercy for him? For the undefeatable yet beaten Amarendra Baahubali? Or for his own wretched self who was responsible for this whole unholy mess?

He did not know and a part of him perhaps understood that it did not matter either. There wasn’t much left to fight for. And there was nothing left to let go of either. 

XXXXX

The hot sun felt like fire on his open welts. He grimaced at the pain but no sound came from his lips. It wasn’t just because he no longer had the strength to scream in agony. It was also that he had nothing left except for his silence. It was all that anchored him to the world of the living, a world where he had been loved and cherished perhaps in a different lifetime-- the world that had meant everything to him before it was reduced to this 4 X 6 cage. 

Once. Only once he had given Bhallaladeva the satisfaction of hearing the sound of his pain. 

“If I scream, will you then let them go?,” he had asked him. “What have these poor villagers done to you?”

“Nothing,” Bhalla had answered. “It is the mere fact that they smile for you, cry for you, and would even die for you. But you’re a nobody. And I want them to see that. Scream for me and maybe I will let them go.”

And so, he had screamed. When the hundredth lash of the whip came down on his unprotected back. When he was forced to walk in chains over hot coals to get back to his cage. When ice-cold water was thrown on him again and again in the middle of winter on his naked, fevered flesh. And when finally, his thumbs were chopped off and the remaining stubs were cauterized with hot irons. 

He had screamed. And the villagers had screamed with him. 

After that, they had been allowed to leave. And they were never called back again. He had been forced back into his cage, never allowed to leave. Bhallaladeva had made it clear to him that he would be responsible for a genocide if he ever tried to leave. 

"They will stay safe as long as you remain in front of my eyes, right here. Attempt an escape and the people who welcomed you after your banishment will wish they'd never been born."

Baahubali-- the one with strong arms-- became balaheen; the one with no strength. But mercifully, he didn’t have to force himself to scream anymore. Silence was easier. There was simplicity in silence. It was his only refuge, the only thing that didn’t scream back at him. 

His passive acceptance of the abuse meted out to him infuriated Bhallaldeva. And he responded by treating him harsher each time. Punishments had become more and more painful and degrading over the years. His strength had left him finally. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to verbalize his suffering. 

He didn’t know why he was holding on. But an irrational, illogical part of him believed that if he gave in of his own free will, something would be lost forever. Of course, he had no idea what that was.

Maybe he was going mad. People often did after such prolonged imprisonment and torture. He was a man after all, despite all those myths that likened him to a God. Maybe madness would be his next refuge because eventually, silence would get oppressive too.

XXXXX

“Devayani, we understand that you don’t want to tell us your story but the boy should know where he came from,” Sanga said yet again. “You tell him you are his mother. But to us,  you insist he is not yours.”

This was a conversation they had had multiple times over the last few years and it always ended the same way. 

“He is mine in every way that matters,” Devayani said. “And he doesn’t need to know how he came here. It is best that my dead husband be his dead father. He has no other.”

“Please don’t take me for a fool,” Sanga said. “This cock-and-bull story will work on children and the other villagers but not me. You know where the boy came from. He deserves to know his truth.”

“He came from nowhere,” the younger woman answered in a steely voice. “Some brave woman held him above the water and brought him here. That is all I know of him. That is all you know as well. There is nothing more to tell.”

“You can lie to me all you want but you cannot lie to yourself,” Sanga said with a wistful smile. “You were hemorrhaging, delirious with a fever, still in pain from childbirth, weak, exhausted, and mad with grief. I was there when we found you half dead in the forest. And for hours, we thought you wouldn’t make it. Our priests and medicine men said they couldn’t do anything for you. They said you were dissolving within yourself. Your sorrow was literally consuming your body. But then Sivudu came along and that was all the medicine you needed. I saw you breastfeed him that first time. You really want me to believe that you took to a stranger's child so quickly after losing your own? I know he is yours. You know who that woman was.”

Devayani heard this entire monologue with the patience of a Buddhist monk. And she could have chosen to not respond. But Sanga deserved an answer. 

“For the last time,” she said. “I don’t know who that goddess was that saved Sivudu’s life. I have told you I lost my baby in childbirth. Through Sivudu, God gave me another chance. I don’t know who his biological mother was. And I am grateful that you chose to give him to me instead of keeping him for yourself.”

This cut Sanga deeply. She did not have children of her own despite having tried everything from prayers and extreme penances to the bitterest of herbs found in the forest’s deepest recesses. Nothing had worked. 

Then, twelve years ago, a miracle had come to them through the river Bhagirathi. A newborn child held in the hands of someone who was certainly of royal birth. 

A part of her had wanted to keep the infant for herself. But then she had seen the pure grief and relief on the face of the injured woman they had rescued. In that moment she had known that this was not a blessing for her. This was an answer to someone else’s prayers. 

With the will of an ultimate tyagini, she had given up Sivudu and contented herself with the role of his doddamma, his maternal aunt. She watched with delight as Sivudu grew into a strong little boy with a ready smile and the curliest hair she had ever seen on a baby. She also saw the positive changes in Devayani. She lost the pinched look to her face and her eyes brightened up. For the first few years, she genuinely believed that the bond between mother and son was like that of Yashoda and Krishna. But with the passage of time, she had come to different conclusions altogether. 

“You do what feels right to you,” she said at last. “You are his mother.”

“I am,” Devayani answered and continued to uproot weeds mercilessly as if they had personally done something to offend her. 

XXXXX

“Ma, tell me about my father,” Sivudu said as he shoveled the last bit of rice into his mouth. “You tell me about everyone else in your family. But you have never told me much about my father or his family.”

“Did doddamma say something to you?” Devayani asked. 

“No, why would she say anything to me? I was a pretty good boy today.”

“Hmmm….” she had dismissed Sanga’s advice earlier in the day but it had made her think. Should she tell Sivudu more about his father. She had always hoped that she would find it in herself to tell him the truth when he was older. Was it wise to begin so much earlier than she had planned? 

She looked at her son carefully. 

The same deep set eyes, the same easygoing smile, the same dimple on the right cheek, the same strong jaw, the same glossy hair-- Sivudu was the very image of Sivu-- the simpleton who had won her heart all those years ago.

But did she want to introduce her Amarendra as a simpleton to their son? Won’t that be an insult to his memory and to the love they had shared?

“What do you want to know about him?” she asked Sivudu.

“Everything,” the child said. “Was he big and strong? Did he know more stories than the ones you have told me? Did he like eating fish like me?”

Devayani couldn’t suppress a chuckle. 

“Well, do you want the short answer or the long answer?” 

“The long answer.”

“Okay,” she said fondly. “Come, lay down in my lap as I tell you all about your father.”

Sivudu did as he was told. His mother’s rough, calloused hand felt good on his hair as she gently patted his forehead in a steady, lulling rhythm. 

“Did I ever tell you that you were named after your father?” she began rhetorically. “When he first met me, he said his name was Sivu. And that’s why I call you Sivudu. Your father… he was perfect. In every way. One time when I was pregnant with you, your father was out working with the other men in the village. They were mining iron. It is a very difficult job and that was a very hot day. One of the older men cut off his toe by accident with his pickaxe. Your father acted immediately. He tore off his shirt and made a makeshift bandage out of it for him. He then rushed the man to our cottage as fast as he could so that I could give him medicine, clean his injury, and see if I could sew his toe back. I wasn’t able to do that. But from that day onwards, your father mined for himself and for him. He believed no family should have to suffer starvation because of an injury.”

“Mother, I know father was a good man,” Sivudu said, somewhat bored. “You’ve told me things like this about him. I want to know what else he did? Was he naughty when he was a kid? Were there any vegetables that he hated? Was there a song he loved to sing?”

Devayani nodded. She wasn’t sure she could talk about those straightforward but intimate details of her Baahu’s life without losing her fleeting control. And yet she knew Sivudu had a right to know more about his father even if he couldn’t know who he was. 

“Right,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ll tell you other things about him. Yes, he hated some vegetables. He could not tolerate the sight of pumpkins. He said they reminded him of the gluttonous brahmins from the Hitopadesha stories. Hmmm… he liked fish alright but he much preferred simple food mostly without meat. He didn't really eat sweets and such either. Although he did allow himself one indulgence every now and then. He loved payasam. I made it for him when I told him I was pregnant with you. It is auspicious to share good news with something sweet.”

“What is payasam? You never make it for me,” Sivudu quipped. 

“It is a pudding made with vermicelli,” she said. “Maybe I can make it for you tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes yes,” he answered excitedly. “But first, tell me something more, ma,” Sivudu said eagerly. 

Devayani smiled at her son and nodded. 

“Your father was a brilliant artist. He loved to draw things. Often, in between his work, I would catch him scratching away with a bottle of dye and a quill, drawing motifs on leaves, on the earth, the edges of our hut’s walls. Just a few days before you were born, he painted henna on my hands. Do you know what he painted?”

“A lotus?” Sivudu guessed.

“No, try again,” said Devayani. 

“Erm… an eagle?” 

“No, try again.”

“Huh… a rakshasam.”

“What did you say?” Devayani asked, completely stunned. 

“A rakshasam,” Sivudu answered innocently. “Ghatotakach. The rakshasam who was the son of Hidimbi and Bheem.”

“How do you know this?” she asked, completely caught off-guard by her son’s accurate guess. 

“Because when you are angry, you are like a Rakshasi,” he answered with mock seriousness. “As your son, am I less than any rakshasam? But because you are a good Rakshasi and father was a good man, I would be a good rakshasam too. Hence, Ghatotakach.”

Devayani  laughed out loud and had to hold her stomach to keep herself from doubling over. Sivudu was glad to have made his mother laugh but he hadn’t thought the joke was so funny. But before he could speculate more about his mother’s humor, he noticed the moisture on her cheeks.

She had to exercise an immense amount of control to keep herself from dissolving into a flood of tears. How uncanny that this was the exact reason her Baahubali had given to her after playfully drawing a scary-looking baby rakshasam on her hand merely days before the birth of their son. 

“Tell me more, mother,” Sivudu begged.

“Maybe tomorrow son,” she said, not quite feeling upto talking any more about her dead husband. Her son’s extremely perceptive answer had thrown her off-balance and she didn’t think she was capable of talking about him any more. 

XXXXX

It was late at night. 

Murugunashekharan’s heart thudded loudly in his chest. He knew this was the wrong thing to do. But he didn’t know who else to go to. The soldiers who usually guarded Baahubali’s cage would be back in less than an hour. They didn’t have to be. Everyone knew Baahubali would never escape but still, they were being paid to guard him so they did. Except, they were rather lax about it. It was a godsent opportunity but he knew he would not be able to escape if he was found out. 

Even then, he took the risk. 

Using the best of his stealth capabilities, he made his way to Baahubali’s cell. 

As soon as he reached the cage, he had to force himself to swallow down the urge to vomit. The smell of fresh and stale blood was revolting. The stench of unwashed nakedness and dried sweat was almost physically painful to his nose. 

But he had no choice. 

Carefully, he knelt down and whispered. 

“Maharaj,” he said. 

No response came from the crumpled figure on the ground. 

“Maharaj,” he said a little louder.

The wounded man in the cage stirred slightly. 

“Maharaj, I need your help,” Murugunashekharan whispered desperately. “It is I, Murugunashekharan. I served as the chief of your swordsmen for years when you were still our Yuvaraj. I don’t have long. The soldiers who guard your cage will be back any minute. If I am caught, I will be killed along with my entire family. But I must speak to you. Please, Maharaj, I need your help.”

This time, with painstaking slowness, with great effort that cost him every breath he took, Baahubali raised his head. 

“Mu… mu…” he blinked his eyes, wondering how he knew this soldier and why he had come to him. “M.. Mu...Muruguna? Is that who you said you were?” 

“Yes, my lord, it is indeed me,” the soldier answered. “I fought beside you against the Kalakeya. I will never forget how you saved Mahishmati from certain doom… and how you saved my youngest daughter from slaughter when the enemy soldiers put her in front of their army as a hostage. I know I have no right to ask anything of you but I did not know who else to go to. Master, my lord, I am in need yet again and my daughter's life will be ruined if I don’t do something soon.”

Baahubali gave him a long, hard look before bursting into a raspy, wet laughter which ended in a bloody coughing fit. 

“I wish I could take you away from this hell, my lord,” Murugunashekharan almost wept at the condition of his old saviour. 

“No need,” Baahubali said after his cough subsided. “How can I help you?”

“Maharajadhiraja,” the soldier said. “I am a father of two daughters. My elder daughter, Kannagi, married into a family of greedy landlords who have the favor of Maharaj Bhallaladeva. At her wedding, my wife and I gifted her in-laws with two cows, two calves, and a platterful of jewelry. They said it was not enough. They wanted us to give them 10,000 rupiahs along with the gifts. So we promised to give it to them over the course of the next four years. But now, my younger daughter, Sarvapriya, has been betrothed to another family in our village. But until and unless I pay the full amount of what Kannagi’s in-laws want, they will not allow Sarvapriya’s wedding to take place. So far I have only been able to give them 6,000 rupiahs. I don’t have any more. What should I do, my lord? What should I do? I am an old man. I do not like what I am forced to do as a part of Mahishmati’s army. It hurts my soul when I am forced to beat common people because they are too poor to pay the taxes. It tears a hole in my heart when I am forced to witness your humiliation and torment at the hands of the king. But my hands are completely tied, my lord. What should I do?”

Baahubali’s senses were still a little sluggish. He had been given no food and no water in days. His wounds from his last beating had not been treated. And he was running a fever. 

But he heard everything Murugunashekharan had said to him. He felt pity and compassion for the man. But he wasn’t sure how he could help. 

“Brother, I am touched immensely that you sought me out,” he began in his weak voice, hoarse from disuse. “However, I don’t know how I can help you.”

“My lord, please, I beg you,” the soldier said, overcome by emotion. “Please do not turn me away. You are my last hope.”

Baahubali again looked at the man for a long moment before finally moving from his spot. It was excruciating to try and even turn his head to a more comfortable position. It took ten times the effort to sit up. 

“I do not know what… what… what exactly you are looking for,” he said. “But if you are looking for money, I think you know I have none.”

“I am aware of that but I don’t know why I couldn’t resist coming to you,” the soldier answered. “You must think I am a horrible, selfish person for coming to you when I have nothing to offer to you in your hour of need. But I still think of you as my king. If you cannot help me, even God cannot help me. You were there for us even in exile. Even as a common man, you helped us in every way you could.”

Baahubali shook his head. Much good it did him to try and help the people as a common man. These years spent under the cruel fist of Bhallaladeva had embittered him, disillusioned him. But still, he couldn’t find it in himself to turn this man away. 

“I don’t have anything to give to you but one thing,” he said after thinking for a few minutes. “I don’t know if it will help you but I pray it will.”

With great difficulty, clenching his teeth against the waves of agony rolling through him, he reached for his left ankle. He still had the solid gold anklet of warriors, tailor-made for him to signify his merit as one of the greatest nayaks in Mahishmati’s history. Sivagami had had it made for him soon after his victory over the Kalakeya. 

Miraculously, it had not been taken from him. Perhaps it had been overlooked. Or maybe, it gave some sort of perverse pleasure to Bhallaladeva to see him wear the anklet while being subjected to such abject dehumanization. He couldn’t tell. And while he had hated that anklet for years now, he now understood why it had not been taken from him. 

It was meant to serve a purpose. It would save the marriage prospects of a young, blameless girl who didn’t deserve to be punished because of the ungodly ways of the people around her. 

For a little over a minute, Baahubali pulled at the anklet, hoping to break it apart. But he hadn’t realized how much his strength had diminished in these twelve years of neglect. 

“You can have this anklet,” he said. “But I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to break it. However, when the king takes me out of this cage again, you can offer to bring me back after he is done and maybe that will give you sufficient time to take it off my foot. I wish I could do more to help you.”

But Murugunashekharan couldn’t bear to hear any more. He knew all too well that the only times they removed Baahubali from his cage was to torture him and hurt him. It was unbelievable that he not only accepted it so humbly but that he was willing to allow others to use it as an opportunity for their gain. 

“My lord, I am a sinner,” he broke down, completely ashamed of himself. 

But the old king was having none of it. 

“Feel no shame,” he said gently. “This is your dharma as a father. And mine as the protector who once took an oath to be your friend and guardian in times of need. Please do not cheapen the worth of our promises by feeling such needless guilt. Come tomorrow when the king comes for me.”

Murugunashekharan shook his head and bowed deeply with his right fist over his heart. He didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. But he knew that Amarendra Baahubali was amarendra-- invincible-- for a very divine reason. 

XXXXX

“Could father climb that waterfall?” Sivudu asked his mother. 

Devayani wondered if she should answer that honestly. Long, long ago, in another lifetime, she had believed that her Amarendra was capable of doing anything he set his heart on. But now that she knew better, would it be wise to raise her child to be exactly like his father?

“No, my son, no one can climb a waterfall,” she said. 

“But I want to climb it?” he retorted. 

“Of course you do, my little Shiva,” she teased him. “And who knows, maybe you will. But for that you need to grow big and strong. And for that, you need to drink your milk, eat your vegetables, and listen to your mother.”

“Why do I get the feeling you are not being entirely truthful?” the child asked her seriously. The question was unexpecred but she regained her bearings quickly. 

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I have a feeling I don’t necessarily need to listen to you in order to grow big and strong,” he answered cheekily. “After all, Krishna never listened to his mother that obediently. But he grew up to be a king.”

A smile of utter relief came upon Devayani’s face. 

“I should know better than to argue with you,” she chided herself. 

“You probably should,” Sivudu said. “Ma, was father like me too… with his mother? my grandmother?”

Another one of those questions Devayani didn’t like answering. But she was no coward. She was not a sati either. 

“No son, I did not know your grandmother,” she said stonily. “I don’t know what your father was like when he was a child.”

XXXXX

““ Yashoda is going to the river, o Kanha,

Won’t you help her carry her load…

You’ve played all morning with the gopis,

The peacocks must be tired now as well…

Don’t you have just a moment for your poor mother,

Your lucky, fortunate mother, blessed mother,

One whose son is her moon and stars,

Yashoda is going to the river, o Gopala,

Won’t you help her carry her load.

The sweet strains of the old lullaby rang in his ears. It felt as if he was floating in a sea of nothingness, a void-- where there was no time, no space, no pain, no fear, no joy, no hope, and no desire.

It almost sounded like a nightmare where the essence of humanity seemed lost within a singularity. And yet, here he was-- somewhat aware of who he was, of the peace he was experiencing for the first time in an eternity… and the singing… that had to be real. He was fairly certain he wasn’t imagining it. Plus, under his back, he felt the soft folds of silken cloth. And gentle hands rocking him to sleep.

“Ma…” he murmured. “Ma….”

Something warm and wet fell on his cheek. He didn’t know what it was. And he didn’t want to know either. He was in bliss. A little droplet of water from nowhere was not about to destroy his sanctuary.

“Ma…” he almost sighed contentedly.

Murugunashekharan wanted to wake him up but he didn’t have the heart to. For nearly two hours, Bhallaladeva had taken out his frustrations upon the bound, emaciated form of Baahubali. His deteriorated condition, his lack of awareness, and his raging fever were all signs that he wouldn’t last much longer.

He forced himself to remember why he was here. Unbidden, his eyes travelled down to Baahubali’s bloodied feet. There, on the left ankle, sat the anklet that would wipe away all his troubles in one stroke.

“Forgive me for doing this, my lord,” he said pitifully and quickly used his battle saw to cut through the gold in order to take it off Baahubali’s foot without causing unnecessary discomfort to him.

“Ma….” the injured man repeated again as the soldier stood up with the now broken anklet in his hands. He didn’t know what to say. Without another word, he kept the anklet safely in his pocket. Next, he gently lifted Baahubali in his arms, hating how easy it was.

It took less than five minutes to carry him back to his cage. With utmost care, Murugunashekharan laid him down and tucked an old, tattered shawl around him, trying to be careful of the new and old injuries.

Just as he was about to leave, Baahubali opened his eyes and looked at him.

“Send her off like a daughter and make sure she is treated like one,” he said in a rare display of lucidity before falling back into oblivion. But for those few seconds, he sounded like the Baahubali who had come to live with the people after his exile.

Silent tears rolled down Murugunashekharan’s face.

“My lord…. My…” he couldn’t finish the sentence. In a momentary impulse, he placed both hands on Baahubali’s feet and raised them to his forehead.

And then, he left.

No one ever figured out how Murugunashekharan married his younger daughter off with no hassle and no one ever questioned why he left Mahishmati for good soon after the wedding.

XXXXX

Sometimes, Katappa wanted to take the dagger that hung at his hip and plunge it straight through his heart. It was not the honorable thing to do. But so many before him had justified it as death over dishonor.

He rationalized his own life as Baahubali’s death over Sivagami Devi’s dishonor.

He was nothing. He had always been nothing. And he had no karma of his own. He did what was asked of him. He couldn’t be judged for the decisions of his masters, could he?

But then why did he still retain these emotions? These ideas of right and wrong? This ability to feel the sting of every blow that sent Baahubali flying into the hard stone floor that took no mercy on his battered body?

Had his ancestors developed such an iron-clad control that they could close their eyes to the consequences of their actions? Had he failed miserably in following the ways of his people? Or had they failed him by trapping him in this lifelong duty where he felt, loved, and killed like a free man-- but acted, hated, and chose to let die like a slave bound by his master’s cruel fantasies in which adversaries were never human enough to merit even an ounce of mercy.

How completely ruthless that this particular adversary should be like the beloved son he had never had. It hurt Katappa in his bones to see Baahubali die a thousand deaths every day.

And yet, he couldn’t let him go.

This confusing mass of useless thoughts often kept him awake at night and distracted him from his work during the day. He didn’t really mind it. For him, it was almost like a welcome punishment to be so assaulted by his own conscience that he could never be at peace with what he had done.

It was in this state of mind that he crushed neem leaves with turmeric and ghee to make a poultice. Then, he mixed the juice of the aloe vera plant with peppermint, honey, ginger extract, and crushed tulsi leaves to make an oral concoction that would ward off infection. More often than not, Baahubali’s injuries were left untreated. Sometimes, his body found the strength to repair itself a little. Sometimes, he slipped dangerously close to death after days of suffering and a physician was called to make sure he survived to live through yet another day of purgatory.

This time, it was the former.

But the injuries were worse than usual.

Typically, Baahu never voiced his discomfort; not even in sleep. Katappa knew this because he spent some of his own sleepless nights pacing around Baahu’s cage, watching the younger man sleep uncomfortably in that tiny, cramped space. Last night, he had done the same thing except the long hours of complete quiet had occasionally been punctuated by Baahu’s muted groans.

The sound had been unbearable for Katappa.

Tonight, he would try and ease his suffering as much as he could.

The hours passed slowly.

The day at the palace passed in an ordinary fashion. Bhallaladeva attended to matters of statecraft, taxation, foreign relations with Krumanshanagara, Devagiri, Indraprastha, and Vijayanagara. Katappa stood at his side, one hand always at the hilt of his sword, poised to leap at any potential troublemaker before they could cause mischief.

Mercifully, no such occasion presented itself. And every few hours, he allowed himself to look forward to the night when he would exchange a few words with Baahu, bandage his wounds, and maybe seek a moment or two of redemption for himself.

At last, the much awaited hour came.

He strode purposefully to the courtyard where Baahu was caged. The guards saw him coming. They bowed and greeted him though they didn’t have to. Everyone knew Katappa was a slave but some of the guards and soldiers held him in high esteem and accorded him the respect he deserved as the chief of the armory.

“What can we do for you, Katappa?” Trishankhu, the older of the two guards asked.

“I… I… I need a few moments with the prisoner,” Katappa answered honestly.

Trishankhu had to look away.

“We cannot allow you that, sir,” he said.

“It is not forbidden,” Katappa argued. “And I will not say anything if you won’t.”

After thinking for a moment, Trishankhu agreed and motioned to his fellow guard to leave as well.

“We will be back in half an hour, sir… half an hour, no more.”

Katappa nodded gratefully and watched the two guards leave.

Then, he turned to the cage. Baahubali was asleep. The old warrior’s heart squeezed painfully. Baahu seemed to sleep a lot these days. He had always slept peacefully but never beyond the hours of the night.

Katappa smiled fondly at a memory from over twenty years ago.

It was the the morning of Apara Ekadashi. The entire royal household had been preparing for months for this day-- the Mahayajna in the honor of the Adi Parashakti, the supreme Goddess of all creation.

This sacrifice was performed only once every 20 years in Mahishmati and the two princes would participate in it for the very first time. Everyone expected Baahubali to be there bright and early. But to everyone’s surprise, Bhallaladeva showed up first.

“Katappa, where is Amarendra?” the Rajmata whispered angrily as the priests arranged the wood in the agnikund.

“I don’t know, my lady,” he answered. “But I will go get him now.” And with that, he practically ran to Baahu’s room… only to see the prince stumbling out of bed and rubbing his eyes sleepily.

“Hey Bhagawan, what is the matter with you, Yuvaraj?” he said, panicking that Baahubali was going to be late to the ceremony. “Today is the Mahayajna and you haven’t even bathed yet.”

“Sorry mama, I went to bed rather late last night,” he said with a yawn. “I was so engrossed in the Devichandraguptam, I simply couldn’t put it down. But I will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Katappa held his breath and counted the minutes as Baahu quickly bathed and got dressed.

“Let us go,” he said, putting on his jacket.

“Your hair is still wet and tangled,” Katappa said. “You will catch a cold if you wear a turban now.”

“Well,” Baahu said with that charming smile of his. “I had to choose between sleep and a cold, I chose sleep.”

“Rama, Rama, Rama, what a boy,” Katappa said to himself and followed the prince to the Yajna.

The ceremony went flawlessly. Both the princes conducted themselves very well.

But sure enough, towards the end of the Mahabhoj, Baahu sneezed loudly and caused all the heads to turn in the dining hall.

“What?… have you never heard anyone sneeze before?” he asked nonchalantly and continued to eat. But not before one of the ladies-in-waiting made a hilarious remark along the lines of how everything about the prince was adorable, even his sneezes.

Katappa teased him about it for years; until one day when Baahu threatened him with dire consequences,

“Mama, you have embarrassed me for years over that stupid remark but if you don’t shut up now, I will make sure the whole world knows about you and Mandakini.”

Katappa’s ears turned red. How did Baahu know about Mandakini, his once-betrothed who had rejected him at the tender age of eleven because she thought he looked like a goat.

Baahu grinned mischievously. “No, don’t ask me how I know. Let’s just say, a yuvaraj has his ways.”

The memory made Katappa smile every time he remembered it. It was what kept him sane on some of the more difficult days. 

Last year, Bhallaladeva had celebrated his first Mahayajna as a king, exactly 20 years after that eventful Apara Ekadashi of his youth. Baahu had not been allowed to leave his cage but he had heard the chanting of the mantras, the beating of the drums, and the din of the jaikaras.

Katappa could not even begin to imagine what that must have felt like.

But now was not the time to waste on these musings. Five of his precious thirty minutes were already gone. He knelt down to rouse Baahu from his troubled sleep.

“Baahu,” he called out softly. The prisoner slowly opened his eyes.

“Mama,” he whispered. “Why did I know you would come today?”

“Can you sit up?” Katappa asked. “I have brought you some medicine. It will ease your pain and speed up your recovery. Here, drink this.”

“You risk your life for so little,” Baahu chastised him gently but accepted the tumbler.

He took a sip and made a face.

“”Just as I remember it,” he said with a chuckle. “You still don’t add enough honey to this poison.”

“Too much honey will render it useless,” Katappa countered. “I wish it didn’t have to be so bitter.”

“It is okay… you always were a little on the sadistic side,” Baahu teased him.

He hadn’t meant to sound cruel but the words hurt the old slave anyway. Sadistic or not, he was directly responsible for all the sadism that had been visited upon the other man.

“I have also brought you a poultice to apply on your wounds,” he said. “Those cuts on your back and chest look deep. They could get worse. If you push yourself up, I can do it for you.”

“Mama, mama, mama,” Baahu shook his head fondly. "The things I do for you...."

He had to really work to push himself up. His cage was so tiny that he could not stand straight in it. He had to bend at the waist in order to avoid hitting himself against the bars. And bending in his current condition, holding himself still on his shaky, weakened legs was a herculean task in itself.

Even then, he complied.

He wasn’t sure how much Katappa’s ministrations would do for him. But he couldn’t resist the kindness of his touch and the very real concern that radiated from him. A low keening sound tore from his lips involuntarily as he leaned into the old, gnarled fingers that were gently rubbing the cool poultice on his throbbing wounds. Besides, something told him that Katappa needed this as well. Maybe it would lighten that burden of guilt that weighed him down a little more each day.

The Middle Years

Devasena

The years had been kind to Devasena, or Devayani as she was now known. There were strands of gray in her hair which was otherwise still thick and glossy. There were lines on her forehead and crow feet at the corners of her eyes when she smiled. The years had also mellowed her down.

When she first came to Amburi, she had burned for revenge, thirsted for it as she nursed Sivudu, and waited for him to grow up so she could tell him who he really was.

Now, when he was almost a grown man, she wanted something even more than revenge. She wanted him to live. She wanted Sivagami Devi’s sacrifice to not go in vain. She wanted the name of Amarendra Baahubali to continue through his son. She wanted to be a mother-in-law and a grandmother.

Revenge had no place in what she wanted now. And so, she had swallowed her anger like a sip of lava. She was beyond grateful that she refrained from telling Sivudu more about their tragic past. Mercifully, the monotonous routine of this simple tribal life had quieted the molten iron that used to run in her veins disguised as blood.

Sivudu was everything she had. And he everything she would ever need.

Amarendra Baahubali would forgive her for keeping their son safe.

She missed him still. On some nights, it felt strange to lie down on the hard, stiff floor with nothing but a coarse carpet between her clothing and the earth. She yearned to bury her head in his strong arms, to sleep comfortably on his strong chest with her long tresses fanned out all over his face. She couldn't help but feel her body burn with womanly need when some of her more vivid dreams forced her to remember his fiery touch that used to electrify the deepest recesses of her being. She couldn't control the moisture that pooled between her legs and spilled out of her eyes when she was rudely awakened to her stark reality by the roosters in the chicken coop outside.

Sometimes, she wondered if revenge would indeed soothe this emptiness, fill it with a measure of peace? But she was so scared of losing Sivudu that she prefered to deal with her pain through hard labor when she was awake and nightmares when she was asleep.

She had done well so far or so she thought. She had tried to educate her son to the best of her capabilities. He was strong, agile, and quick-witted. But he was also easygoing and relaxed. He knew a little bit about his father but not enough to ever put together the complete picture. He suspected they were not really from Amburi but didn't feel the need to ask too many questions. He sang and danced as well as his father and he freely expressed his joy much more than Amarendra Baahubali used to.

They had everything they needed-- a large field where they collectively grew rice with the other villagers, two cows of their own, some chickens, a communal pond with plenty of fish, and shared looms to weave their own clothing.

Devasena was perhaps not happy but she was comfortable. Devayani, on the other hand, had never known anything other than her present.

Sanga

Motherhood was the one thing she had always wanted. Her life as the wife Rushima, the chieftain of Amburi was good. She had been blessed with everything. The people loved her. The holy men of their community approved of her. Her husband doted on her.

Just one wish had been left unfulfilled. She had not been blessed with children. After three miscarriages and two stillbirths, she had given up. Neither she nor her husband could go through the loss of another baby. It was perhaps for the best that they had stopped trying.

She would probably always carry a certain degree of resentment in her heart because of it. When she saw Devayani’s child, she often wondered, much to her private shame, what life might have been like had she never been found.

She, Sanga, would have raised Sivudu as her own. She would have been his mother. And eventually, he would have inherited the chieftainship.

Of course, he might still inherit Amburi. After all, he and Devayani had been adopted into their clan and were considered a part of the tribe’s first family.

Sometimes, she felt disgusted with herself for feeling envious of Devayani. The poor woman had never indicated that she had a surviving family somewhere. From everything she left unsaid, it was clear that she had lost her husband in a tragic, violent way and that she had still not come to terms with it.

All these years, Sanga had tried her best to get the young woman to open up to her with no success. She was sure that had she pushed harder, Devayani would have yielded. But she had never made the effort. She knew all too well the need to keep the hurt inside.

While inside, one could tame it, suppress it, forget it. But once expressed, such unsurmountable grief could destroy everything in its path.

Sanga knew she would never lead Devayani down that road. If catharsis was meant to come, it would come naturally. These years had taught her that time was indeed a great healer.

Sivudu

Everyone knew him by his ready smile, his quick wit, and his amazing feats of strength. They also knew him by his failed attempts at climbing the waterfall. His friend Kumbha was even keeping score. This would be his 16th attempt. And from all the boys gathered on the overlooking hillock, he knew they expected him fail yet again after getting to that branch just at the edge of the 800 feet mark on the other side of Jeevanadhi. 

Unsurprisingly, there were some girls there too, including Vajayanthi, the one with the tiny mole above her upper lip and honey-colored eyes. She was betrothed to Agappa but she seemed to have a thing for him too. Well, she was definitely not the only one. Paranika, the one with the six hoops in each ear,  who recently got married had also come. As had Suvakshi, the cute, slightly chubby singer whose deep, soulful voice was like the sound of waves lapping against a shore.

They always came. And needless to say, the boys firmly believed that he did these “stunts” to show-off.

It suited him just fine that everyone believed him to be some sort of a show-off. And well, maybe, to an extent, they were right.

But his desire to climb that waterfall was not just one of vanity. Something deeper pulled him towards it. He could feel it in his bones that there was something for him beyond that wall of rushing water.

And he had never voiced this thought to his mother but he often suspected she knew more than she let on. Afterall, while doddamma often screamed herself hoarse trying to dissuade him from his climbing attempts, his mother usually said nothing.

It was almost like she knew he was doing this for a reason and that it was important to her to see him succeed. For some reason, she just couldn’t say it.

However, he did not ask her about it. Since childhood, he had seen the way she held herself rigidly as if always waiting for an ambush, how she never slept with her back to the door, and how she insisted on training him to not just defend himself but kill if he had to.

Sometimes, his mother’s fierceness scared him. What had caused her to become so jumpy and paranoid? Why did she wear a dagger at her waist even while performing mundane tasks like peeling vegetables and grinding spices? Why did she keep an altar in the hut but never made any offerings to the Gods?

Bhallaladeva

The last 18 years had been bliss. He could taste his victory in the bitter-sweet richness of his madira. He could feel it in the vibrations of the ground he walked on. Mahishmati had, for the last many years, been solely his.

No one said Baahubali’s name anymore. Even he had not uttered his own name in so long.

Bhallaladeva had always known victory to be grand, loud, and vain. He was starting to appreciate its other forms only now-- its wretched, quivering form that hobbled around in leg irons in the 8 X 10 courtyard outside his cell.

As a young man, he had incorrectly assumed that he would find happiness in owning and ruling over Mahishmati. Ah! He had never anticipated that total dominion over his haughty, undeserving brother would bring him as much joy if not more.

Baahubali. What a fanciful name for one so pathetic.

Bhallaladeva had achieved many things in these years. Mahishmati was one of the strongest kingdoms in the peninsula. He had annexed Kuntala, Devarnagar, Nandapuram, Soranjnadesh, Brahmi, and Satamara. He had destroyed the dynasties of the Huranas, the Kushwakas, the Prangyas, and the Harveeras.

He was the king of kings, the master and lord of Mahishmati’s vast, limitless empire.

And in a few decades, he would pass it on to  Bhadradeva, his son from Vaidehi, the daughter of the slain Hurana king.

Bhadra was now almost seventeen years old himself. But Vaidehi had still not fully accepted her husband. Oh, she tolerated him and made no secret of her disdain for him. In another lifetime, he would have had her head for such an infraction. But it didn't matter here.

When he took her, he liked to pretend she was Devasena. It wasn’t her fault that her face reminded him so much of the bitch. The same big, dark eyes, the same rosy lips, the same long black hair rippling past her hips.

Her delicious screams of pain when he pulled her hair, when he choked her-- oh, how he would have liked to punish Devasena like that, to show her what she was really  worth.

Poor Vaidehi had no idea who this cursed Devasena was but she pitied her nonetheless. She had never dared to ask Bhalla or Katappa or even one of the ladies-in-waiting but she guessed it had something to do with the prisoner chained in the courtyard.

She knew it almost for certain because of how Bhalla acted sometimes. On most nights, he found his comfort in abusing her… but on others, his anger shifted back to the man who had stolen it all from him, the man who had stolen Devasena from him.

On those occasions, Amarendra Baahubali’s nights were filled with blood.

But like an dog that knew its place, he accepted the mistreatment quietly. But the bastard never screamed.

Amarendra

The years had not been kind to him. But while his journey to hell had begun with a single step into a cage, it often ended with 14 steps to the north-- at the empty flower bed where nothing was planted, lest he have something to look at when the spring came.

With feet that refused to cooperate with him and leg irons weighing 100 pounds apiece, he shuffled slowly towards it and walked back multiple times each day. He collected twigs and sticks and feathers and dried leaves-- a mysterious treasure whose purpose was not yet clear to even him.

A part of him was readying the funeral pyre of Bhallaladeva. But a deeper, stronger part of him was doing this simply to keep him sane. For all of his old fierceness in battle, Baahubali was not going to commit fratricide even if he wanted to-- not even in his darkest fantasies that kept him company during the long, unending nights marked only by the number of times he shifted around to try and get comfortable despite his numerous injuries.

It wasn't just the injuries that kept him awake. He had learned to deal with those. He had even learned to manage the depression and the loneliness. But he had been unable to master something very basic. Hunger and thirst. Withholding food and water from a prisoner was cruel but it was also one of the oldest tricks in the book to break someone completely. If that had been Bhallaladeva's intention, he had succeeded to a great extent. Baahubali struggled to ignore the cramps in his belly, the dryness of his lips and throat, the overpowering lethargy that made his brain seem like cotton wool. 

Then, there were the other indignities he was too ashamed to even mention. It sufficed to say that there was no such thing as privacy in that cage, not even for his plainest needs as a human being. The guards usually tried to look away when he relieved himself but it was still mortifying and demeaning. He hated it with every fiber of his being but he was powerless. 

It had also been too long since he had washed. The water he was given infrequently was never enough. He often had to make the difficult choice between drinking and washing. He reeked to high heaven. His hair was grimy. His beard was scratchy. Every once in a while, some guard or soldier took pity on him and trimmed his hair and beard late at night. But such opportunities were few and far between. His gums bled incessantly due to scurvy and thanks to a recent beating, he had lost two molars and almost all hearing in his left ear. 

His cage offered him no protection from the rain. Monsoons were especially hard on him. But sometimes, he was grateful for those natural showers. They cleansed him and the little space he occupied. It was a mercy freely given to him by the Gods and Bhallaladeva could not punish anyone for it. 

On most days, his body exhausted itself trying to keep him alive but on the better days, memories came back to haunt him. He often thought about how Devasena had sung him a lullaby disguised as a Krishna bhajan. He remembered trying to teach Katappa about love only to remind him of dinner. He missed feeling the wind in his hair when he rode through the vast, open fields of the kingdom. 

He felt the devastation of not being able to say goodbye.

Lately, he had been dreaming of his wife and his child more than usual. 

He didn’t quite know why he refused to believe Bhallaladeva or even Katappa. They had told him a thousand times that Mahendra Baahubali drowned in the Bhagirathi along with Rajmata Sivagami Devi. Devasena had managed to escape but in her weakened state after childbirth, she would not have made it far. Not even her body was recovered from the forest.

Intellectually, he knew they were dead. But why did a voice in his heart say otherwise? Why then, did he hear the laughter of his grown son in his dreams, the frustrations of some unknown woman who tried to dissuade him from climbing a waterfall, the sounds and smells of payasam flavored with cardamom and cashews, and the loneliness of his wife as she laid down to sleep every night.

Often, he tried to reason with himself that these were nothing but his innermost yearnings brought to life by his mind’s imaginative power. But mostly, he clung to the hope that they were alive and well somewhere, far away from Mahishmati, and never returning to this pit of danger and despair.

Katappa

Dog. That is how most of the royal family addressed him these days. Gone were the days of being called mama, of sharing the simple fare of soldiers with the prince, of following a commander who genuinely loved the people he was fighting to protect.

Katappa felt more like a dog with each passing year-- a dog whose loyalty was something to ashamed of.

At the ripe old age of 78, he was still one of the finest warriors in the kingdom. No one could match his speed, his strength, or his agility. But he would gladly trade these if he could go back in time and find the courage to tell the Rajmata she was wrong before she could give that terrible order whose consequences were crushing the entire populace of Mahishmati under their weight.

As for himself, he wanted to fall at the feet of Baahubali and stay there till his dying day, begging for redemption and forgiveness, knowing that none will be given.

Over the last few years, his opportunities to interact with Baahu had been severely limited. No one was allowed to talk to the prisoner. No one was allowed to offer him food or water or medicine outside of what was sporadically allowed to him by the king.

Ten years ago, Katappa would not have thought things could worsen anymore. But to his complete astonishment, they had.

Now, there was no one in the palace he could share his pain with, except for the queen, Vaidehi Devi who had not been given the honor of being the Rajmata. But he could not be too open with her either.

Everyone knew how Bhallaladeva treated the queen. Katappa did not want to add to her problems.

But sometimes, he saw her looking at him oddly, as if perpetually wondering how to approach him and say a kind word of understanding and solidarity. On two occasions, he had also caught her watching Baahu’s cage from her bedroom window with heartbreak written all over her lovely face. Later, a maid servant had surreptitiously come and left a few pieces of fruit and bread in the cage. Katappa had watched from a distance and never told anyone.

The Last of Kuntala’s Guardians

Kuntala. The heaven-like kingdom of peace and abundance. That’s how their bards had always described it. Now, she was little more than memory and a little less than ash.

The memory was in their minds. The ash had been swept away by the waters of Jeevanadhi.

Soon after the ill-fated fall of Sivagami Devi and the alleged murder of Baahubali and his wife and child, the already aggrieved Kuntaladesh had been attacked by Mahishmati’s forces. No one had been spared and every standing structure, from the grandest of temples to the humblest of huts had been reduced to cinders.

With his tiny band of survivors, Jaya Varma, the erstwhile king of Kuntala now lives in the caves of Neganikumbhini, the highest mountains outside of Mahishmati where  no one ever comes because of the difficult, treacherous terrain.

The initial group of people he had escaped with had been an odd, assorted bunch. 13 miners, a craftsman, two blacksmiths, three tailors, sixteen soldiers, four charioteers, 39 marksmen, one royal footman, a royal chef, a dance instructor, and about 20 peasant families including pregnant women, small children, and old people.

For the longest time, their collective goal had been to get to Pataliputra in the north and seek refuge there. But Swamipala, a foolish, brave man from among them had had other ideas. Along with his best friend Vikraman, he had gone after Bhallaladeva to take revenge.

But what had he found?

Their true monarch, Maharaj Amarendra Baahubali had not been killed. He had instead been imprisoned.

In his effort to free the king, Swamipala lost his life and became a martyr. Vikraman managed to get away and after weeks of wandering, caught up with the weary refugees from Kuntala.

And that changed everything.

Amarendra Baahubali was alive. He was suffering under the cruel fist of Bhallaladeva but he was still alive. His his famous words in another battle echoed in their ears.

“Turn your hands into your weapons. Turn every breath you take into a hurricane. Our blood alone will lead us to victory.”

There was hope yet.

They would find him and free him. They would follow him into battle and crush Bhallaladeva. Then, they would conduct the last rites of their dead loved ones including Princess Devasena and her infant son, Mahendra Baahubali.

The Beginning of the End

Avanthika did not know what it meant to be beautiful. She was born in the mountains of Neganikumbhini. And her first toys had been a dagger and a shield. Beads, rattles and dolls had no place when one was born a soldier irrespective of their caste.

“Vaishali,” she called to her closest friend softly. “How did you know you were in love with Dhiraja?”

Vaishali smiled at her. “I just did.”

But Avanthika wanted to know more.

“How did you know you wanted to fight for Maharaj Baahubali’s freedom instead of running away with Dhiraja?”

“Shhhh…,” Vaishali placed her on hand on Avanthika’s lips before she could say anything more. Her utterances were bordering on sacrilege. But she was torn. Avanthika was younger than her and had only recently been allowed to join the inner circle. It was understandable that she was struggling with these questions.

“Where will I run to?” Vaishali asked, not really expecting an answer. “With the freedom of Baahubali, we will all be free to lead our lives. But till then, like our king, we are all captives-- of our own fears, tragedies, and experiences.”

“Don’t you sometimes wish that you could have escaped to Pataliputra like it had been originally planned?”

“I will not lie to you. I sometimes do wish we didn’t have this battle, this constant resistance to worry about. But it is what it is. We were born into this situation. Our king has been kept alive for a reason. We have not been discovered all these years for a reason. We are meant to live like free men and women in our own land. We will fight for it and win or we will die trying. I long to build a home with Dhiraja, raise a family with him. But what world will I bring children into if it is not free and peaceful?”

Avanthika hung her head in shame. Vaishali was right. She was here because she was meant to be. If she did her job well, they would all be able to go home. Nothing would go back to how it used to be. But they will have a new place to start from.

“Have you ever been to Mahishmati?” she asked.

“Once, when I was a little girl… and I have no desire to go back there,” Vaishali said. “I have heard stories of that kingdom’s splendor, its riches, its might… but now I can only think of its barabrity, its greed, and what it did to our people. Honestly, this wouldn’t have been our fight if our Princess Devasena hadn’t fallen in love with Maharaj Baahubali.”

“I have heard the story,” Avanthika said. “He pretended to be an idiot and then in one moment, turned into a hero when the bandits attacked.”

“Their story is truly the stuff of legends,” Vaishali agreed. “It even ended like that. I have never heard any love story called great if the two lovers survived and lived happily ever after.”

“Is that why you are trying so hard to make sure Dhiraja and you don’t become a great love story?”

“Got it in one!” Vaishali laughed. “But our love story should not be your concern. I heard you misplaced your mask. You need to have another one made tomorrow.”

Avanthika suppressed a yawn and nodded sleepily.

The two friends went back to sleep. They had to wake up rather early to train.

XXXXX

“Sivudu, enough with your childishness,” Devayani said, exasperated. “You’re starting to worry me with your obsession over that waterfall. And worrying is really not good for me at my age.”

“You always said there was no one up there,”  Sivudu said playfully in his rich baritone. “I’m going to climb that waterwall and prove you wrong, no matter what it takes. I think a princess is waiting for me up there.”

“Those things happen in stories, son,” his mother said, unimpressed by his declaration. “And unfortunately, we don’t live in the pages of a storybook. I’m sure even your friends have lost count of how many times you've tried to climb that waterfall and failed. What number are you at anyway? This will be what? Your 79th? 80th? 81st attempt? Sometimes I think all those bumps on your head from each failed attempt have addled your brains.”

“Come on, ma, don’t be so mean,” Sivudu said as his mother continued to pick off stones from her pile of rice. “Last time, promise,” he said and stood up.

“Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep,” Devayani said without looking up.

But just as he was about to leave, Dhruva, one of his friends came running.

“Oye, Sivudu….., look what your…. what your  doddamma is doing,” he said, panting heavily from the exertion.

“What is she doing now?” he asked irritably. “Honestly all these women in my life….” but he caught his mother’s eye and wisely chose to not complete the sentence.

“She has taken an oath that if she pours a thousand pitchers on the shivalingam, Lord Shiva will dissuade you from wanting to climb that waterfall.”

Devayani looked up when she heard and put the rice aside.

“That woman has no concept of self-preservation,” she exclaimed and got up. Together with Dhruva, she and Sivudu rushed to the temple.

XXXXX

“Doddamma, are you trying to commit suicide?” Sivudu rushed to Sanga who was barely managing to stay steady on her feet while balancing her 50th pitcher of water.

“Out of my way,” she said without even glancing at him. “Since you don’t listen to me and your mother has no say in what you do, I am going to request Lord Shiva to do something.”

“Yeah but why do you have to kill yourself in the process?” he asked her and turned to the resident yogi of Amburi. “Ai, Baba, why don’t you say something?”

“I can’t come between a devotee and her devotion,” the old hermit answered coolly.

Sivudu tried to reason with Doddamma again.

“Okay, why don’t you sit and I’ll pour the remaining 950 pitchers of water on the Shivalingam,” he said.

But before Sanga could respond, the hermit intervened.

“No, you can’t do it,” he said to Sivudu with glee. “The person who has made the oath must carry it out.”

“Baba,” Sivudu retorted with a dangerous edge to his tone. “Are you and your Lord Shiva trying to kill my aunt?”

“Who knows what is in the heart of the lord,” answered the sage with a chuckle.

At this, Sivudu decided to take matters into his own hands.

He rushed past Sanga and pushed the corner of a pickaxe into a crevice located at the base of the ancient shivalingam.

“What are you doing? Stop. You will go hell for this,” Sanga pleaded with him but her pleas fell of deaf ears.

Devayani had watched quietly all this while waiting to see how the drama would unfold; was Mahendra anything like his father after all?

And to her absolute delight, he didn’t disappoint.

Within the next few minutes, he managed to dislodge the heavy stone lingam from the earth and proceeded to place it on his right shoulder. All the villagers and devotees gathered around to watch in awe as this young lad, brought to them by the mysterious currents of the Bhagirathi, lifted the spiritual cornerstone of Amburi as if it were a child’s play.

With sure and measured steps, Sivudu walked across the stream, right over the fast, gushing water of the river and towards the waterfall. As he placed the shivalingam under the waterfall, it seemed as if the world came to a standstill to salute him, to bow before him in complete obeisance.  

The old sage had nothing say. In all of his 90 years, he had never seen a sight like this. Where words failed him, his faithful shankh came to the rescue and he blew it with gusto, beckoning the world to listen and to learn. This child of the river had his destiny written in the stars.

“Doddamma, now you don’t have to bathe your Shiva just a thousand times… bathe him continuously, every moment of the day,” Sivudu said with a huge, triumphant grin on his face. “Are you happy now?”

Sanga, who would have fainted had she not held on to her husband’s arm for support, was too overwhelmed to say anything. But the pure awe and adoration on her face said far more than any words could ever have.

XXXXX

Bhallaladeva was bored. He had tamed and killed an angry, wild bull today. It had been a refreshing challenge to break the monotony of the past few days. Even sex with Vaidehi felt routine now. She was old and somewhat haggard. She had even gotten used to his rough ways. Each day as she lay passively in the bed like a dumb doll, she reminded him less and less of the fiery and beautiful Devasena.

Baahubali didn’t present any challenges either. These 25 years had broken him down to a shell of his former self.

Katappa was still loyal as ever.

His father Bijjaladeva had gotten more frail over the years and his drinking habits had worsened.

The only beacon in this torturous tedium was his son Bhadradeva… or Bhadrudu, as he was fondly called.

Bhadrudu had the iron fist of his father, the sharpness of his grandmother, and the cunning ways of his grandfather.

Bhallaladeva was proud of his son. He decided to visit him for a short while to break the dullness of the day.

His room was close to the hall of ministers. It took him less than five minutes to get there.

The door was ajar and Bhadrudu was busily writing something.

For several moments, he watched quietly. But ultimately, his curiosity got the better of him.

“What are you doing, my son?”

“Writing a love letter?” Bhadrudu answered nonchalantly. “I think I am in love with the princess of Kamakhya.”

“Hmmmm,” Bhallaladeva scoffed. “In love? Or in lust?”

“Is there a difference?” the younger man asked with a smirk.

Bhallaladeva took a minute to think before answering.

“There is,” he said. “Love turns you into Amarendra Baahubali. Lust turns you into Maharaja Bhallaladeva. Which would you rather be?”

“Is that even a question, father.”

“No, it isn’t,” the king answered. “The princess will be acquired for you and brought to Mahishmati within the week. She will be here before the sthapanam ceremony of my gold statue.”

XXXXX

Baahubali often lost track of the time. He didn’t exactly know how long he had been in captivity. For the first few years, he had tried to count. The crude frequency tables scratched all over the walls of his prison were testimony to that fact. But eventually, the walls had gotten full and his captivity had continued with no end in sight.

Perhaps, it was then that he had given up and stopped thinking about existential matters. 

But today, as he was forced out of his cage by Bhadrudu, Bhallaladeva’s son, he couldn’t help but wonder yet again why he was alive? Had he committed some truly reprehensible sin in a past life that he was forced to live this life of relentless misery?

Only once, he had dared to stare Bhadrudu in the eyes. And he had been shocked to see Sivagami staring back at him. But the moment had passed so quickly, he had been left speculating if he had only imagined it. Not to mention, he had been punished severely for daring to look Bhadrudu in the eye.

It was strange but for some reason, he did not hate the boy. He felt pity and remorse for him. Raised by a tyrannical father and a scheming, soulless grandfather, the child had been raised on a diet of poison and fire.

Lust, gluttony, entertainment, selfishness… I, me, myself. It was morbidly fascinating to Baahubali that a son of Mahishmati’s royal household could be so out of touch with the reality of his noble heritage that spanned close to 350 years by a conservative estimate.

“Oye, old man,” Bhadrudu shouted with an unholy relish as he poked his uncle again in the side. “Time for us to talk. Family time, they call it.”

Baahubali managed to stand up slowly. The effort was too much for his malnourished body and his atrophied muscles. But he had no choice. He had never begged for mercy. He wasn’t about to do so now. Besides, it would never be given even if he did debase himself in such a way.

But just as he managed to raise his head, he found himself looking into the cold eyes of his elder brother.

“Good afternoon, Baahu,” Bhallaladeva said. His use of the old term of endearment, ‘Baahu’ sounded wrong but Amarendra nodded anyway.

“Bhalla,” he acknowledged with a small, sad smile, reminiscing of a time when these pet names had carried real warmth and meaning behind them.

“Don’t you just wish I could finish you off and be done with it?” Bhallaladeva asked him. “I mean, I have heard you muttering the names of your wife and son in your sleep. Sometimes, I think you deserve this one kindness… to go where I sent Devasena and Mahendra so that you can be with them.”

Baahubali did not respond.

Bhallaladeva continued anyway.

“But then I tell myself to calm down,” he said. “I remind myself of your many, many sins and that you must pay for them in this lifetime. Also, once you’re dead, how will I kill you all over again. No… it will happen but once and I will enjoy every bit of it when that bittersweet moment arrives.”

Baahubali still did not say anything.

This was routine for him. Taunts, insults, humiliations, beatings, starvation, more taunts, more insults, and the cycle continued year after year.

XXXXX

“Babaji, I am confused,” Sanga said to the old hermit. “I completed the oath. The Shivalingam has been bathed continuously for days now, many many times more than a thousand. But technically, my nephew fulfilled the requirements of the oath. Since his desire is diametrically opposed to mine, whose prayers will be answered?”

“That’s a valid question,” the sage acknowledged. But as always, he give a diplomatic answer. “Who knows what Bholenath will do? You can only hope for the best. And leave his decisions to him.”

”Well, he has not attempted to climb that waterfall again,” Sanga conceded. “But now he is always watching that cursed mask that fell from the waterfall a few months ago. Everyone says it is nothing to worry about but Devayani is worried that this new obsession will lead him straight back to the waterfall.”

”You worry too much, little mother,” the hermit said. “Bam Bam Bhole. Bam Bam Bhole.”

She was not satisfied with the answer but she knew she wouldn’t get anything more out of him.

But the next thing she heard gave her the lord’s decision without asking the sage.

Sivudu had managed to climb the waterfall a few hours ago and hadn’t been heard from since then.

XXXXX

When Devayani received the news that her son had finally climbed the waterfall, her heart skipped a beat. Old fears came back with a vengeance as did the desire for retribution. She knew what was behind the waterfall. For all the lies that flowed from her mouth effortlessly, she had always known deep inside, that one day, Mahendra would be drawn to his roots.

She had hoped for a miracle.

But her own advice came back to her.

Miracles happened in stories. Had this been a story, Amarendra would have lived.

She wondered if she should follow Sivudu. But then again, she wasn’t sure she could. She did not know if there was another way to the other side. Unable to deal with the mental turmoil, she poured water on the burning firewood in her chulha and decided to see if Sanga had a better idea of what to do.

It didn’t take her long to reach her hut. The atmosphere there was just as tense. But the consensus was to wait for a few days. Considering Sivudu’s immense physical prowess, it was unlikely that he had gotten into trouble. But that did not stop the two women from worrying.

“Let’s give it a few days,” Suguma, one of Sivudu’s friends said. “He has gone on excursions without informing anyone in the past also. He will come back like he always does.”

‘But he has never gone beyond that waterfall,” Sanga moaned in despair. “We don’t even know what lies behind it. We have no way of knowing if he is okay.”

“Take heart,” the hermit counseled her. “Look at Sivudu’s mother. If she can remain calm in such a situation, surely you, his aunt, can remain calm as well. This is not the time for useless speculations and suppositions. Keep faith. The blessings of Lord Shiva are with him. No harm will come to him.”

During his entire speech, the sage addressed Sanga but his eyes searched the face of Devayani. All these years, he had not questioned the origins of the helpless widow who had lost her baby in childbirth. But now that he looked more closely, maybe, the loss of the baby was a metaphor for something else, something sinister, something terrible.

XXXXX

Sivudu wished he had eight more pairs of eyes.

Such beauty, such brilliant colors, such diversity in the flora and fauna of this strange land beyond the waterfall.

And that wonderful, awe-inspiring beauty. He had seen plenty of women in Amburi but never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined this swapnasundari, this dream girl from the heavens who fought like a she-wolf and killed with the impunity of a tigress.

Of course, he couldn’t let her know who he was so he followed her from a distance-- always close to her but never close enough to be found out. But as he studied her; her movements, expressions, mutterings to herself, and the limited conversations with her companions, he gathered a great deal about her.

Clearly, she was on a mission. And she had dedicated all of herself to her mission. He could see it in her eyes that while there was no lack of focus in her, she wasn’t exactly happy. She yearned for a real life, a real chance at bliss, happiness, and the carefree routineness of the simple life where there was no mission in front of her and no enemy soldiers after her.

The first time, he dared to come close when she knelt beside a stream and put her hand in the water. He had tried hard to resist the temptation but he was unable to stop himself from communicating.

Somehow he wanted her to know that someone saw deeper into her and knew the woman behind her hard, unyielding visage. But at the same time, he didn’t want to spook her. Of course, he was a bit of a knucklehead in this department and he wouldn’t realize until much later that mysteriously acquired tattoos are spooky, no matter how alluring they looked.

When he saw her the next time, he had greater understanding of her mission. Some king called Amarendra Baahubali was imprisoned in a place called Mahishmati. This exquisite goddess was being sent to attempt another rescue after multiple failed attempts by others before her. He did feel a little bad for causing her leader to doubt her because of the tattoo on her hand. However, he was glad that she was able to hold her own and convince the chief of her complete devotion to the cause.

He didn’t immediately register it but something also stirred within him at the name of the king. Baahubali. Why did it sound so familiar? He would have mulled over that question longer but he was distracted by thoughts of  the warrior woman.

His next encounter with her was unbelievable and dramatic in a quiet, enthralling sort of way. He didn’t fully understand how he did it but he managed to keep her still by manipulating a brilliantly colored grass snake. By the time she managed to get rid of the snake, he was at a safe distance from her and his latest masterpiece glistened on her shoulder in the warm afternoon sun.

He would have liked to prolong this game of hide and seek a little longer but she had decided that she would have no more of his tomfoolery. And that’s how, despite his best efforts at hiding, dodging, and even impeding her, she persisted and now had him pinned to a tree with the tip of her sword digging into his chest.

“Who are you?” She asked angrily.

“I am the one who rouses love in…” Sivudu tried his famous charm on her but she was having none of it.”

“Answer what has been asked.” she reiterated, digging her sword into his flesh, wounding him slightly to let him know she meant business.

But Sivudu had other ideas and fast as lightning, he managed to pull himself away from the tree and her sword, thereby regaining the upper hand. Of course, it only made her angrier.

But then, in Sivudu’s eyes, this only made her more beautiful. And just like that, he allowed his instincts to lead him. Before long, he managed to calm her down enough to explain who he was and why he was following her around. 

“Okay, I will tell you who I am,” he said at last. “My name is Shiva. My mother calls me Sivudu. I have wanted to climb that great waterfall since I was a child…”

“Don’t lie to me,” she interjected. “Only the Lord himself can accomplish such a feat.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. “But I climbed that waterfall only for you. This mask… it led me to you. Now tell me if this isn’t divinely fated.” He handed over the mask to her.

“I lost this during training many days ago. It fell of a cliff. Wow… you really did climb the waterfall for me.” And with that, tears welled up in her eyes and she pulled him into a tight embrace. 

The next half hour was filled with absolute jubilation. He told her of his life in Amburi, of how he obsessed for weeks about her mask, and of how he knew she was waiting for him. He even asked her about herself and her mission but she did not want to ruin the perfection of these precious, untainted moments of joy. And she told him she did not want to talk about it. But she did make a strange request of him. 

"Will you sing with me?" she asked him. She had often heard Dhiraja and Vaishali singing with each other and in her mind, that was a beautiful expression of love. She too had a lovely voice and she longed to hear Sivu's deep, sonorous baritone joined with hers in melody. 

It was silly, stupid even in her mind but just the fact that this stranger had climbed a waterfall for her validated everything she had wondered about herself. Even without knowing who she was or her life’s story, he had somehow known that there was more to her than the ungendered battle-hardened soldier. And as they reached the last diminuendo of their song's final verse, she longed for something more. 

She knew it was a mistake to take this any further. Sivudu was not from Kuntala. He did not belong in her life because her life belonged only to her goal. And yet, she wanted to have something of him, maybe just one, one memory to keep her company in the lonely nights of her potentially doomed future.

Swallowing the knot in her throat, she reached behind to unhook her blouse.

XXXXX

“He is probably not coming back,” Rushima said to Sanga and Devayani. “I know we loved him like our own son but he was never ours.” Then he turned to his wife. “Sanga, you cannot afford to fall apart like this. As the chieftainess of the tribe, you have some duties towards the people. I cannot ask the same of Devayani Devi because she is still our adoptive kin. You are bound to the tribe by marriage. They need to see you strong.”

“I can’t take it,” Sanga said. “And I know, as his aunt, I have no right to grieve like his mother. But I cannot control my heart, can I?”

Devayani did not say anything. For the past 15 days, they had not heard from Sivudu. All kinds of theories were floating around. Some wondered if he had run away with a girl. Some thought he had found moksha under a tree like the Buddha. Some others were of the opinion that he had found his birth family.

Each time the last possibility was mentioned, Sanga looked at Devayani with accusing eyes. And each time, she averted her gaze, unwilling to see the betrayal and chastisement reflected in them.

She was fairly certain her son had found out the truth about himself. And for all these days, she had done nothing because of that fear and trepidation, hoping against hope that he would give up his foolish quest and come back to her.

She realized with a jolt that these long years of exile had turned her into a coward. If her son had discovered who he was, if he was already out there seeking revenge, how dare she remain behind?

She stood up at last and turned to Rushima.

“Is there another way to get to the other side of the waterfall?”

Rushima looked at her as if she had lost her mind. But one glare from her was enough to make him nod affirmatively. Half-an-hour later, they unsealed the opening to the cave through which Rajmata Sivagami had delivered Mahendra Baahubali to safety 25 years ago.

XXXXX

Avanthika did not want to wake up. For once, everything felt right in her world. She was nestled comfortably in the arms of her unexpected but magnificent lover. He had taken her to the heights of physical and spiritual pleasure. Absorbed in his hot, needy touch, she had experienced bliss.

And now, she was basking in its afterglow. The steady beating of his heart provided a lulling rhythm to her own frantically racing pulse. She could stay this way forever.

But her sense of honor was too strong. She couldn’t help but think about the conversation she had had with Vaishali not too long ago.

Hadn’t Devasena and Amarendra Baahubali shared such a perfect love? But they had been cruelly torn apart by Bhallaladeva. How could she allow herself this sacred gift when she was duty-bound to avenge her imprisoned king and dead queen whose only sin had been exactly the same as her own.

Hating herself and hurting like never before, she pressed the leaves of the nidraneel plant to a sleeping Sivudu’s nose, drugging him so that she could slip away without him ever realizing where she went.

As she made her way back, a part of him stayed with Sivudu and that was her big mistake.

XXXXX

Distractions could be fatal.

Avanthika was realizing this the hard way. She struggled like a cornered dog but the two gorillas holding her were too strong for her. She braced herself for another punishing blow to the stomach as the soldier in front of her clenched his fist for a second time with his dagger at her throat. 

But the punch never came.

Lo and behold.

Sivudu stood with her assailant’s neck tuck under his arm’s iron grip. And over the course of the next few minutes, a fierce fight broke out. Ultimately, they  had to make a run for it but despite their best efforts, she lost her footing and sprained her ankle

She cursed herself aloud.

“You leave me here and go,” she said urgently. “I will only slow you down.”

But she was barking up the wrong tree. Sivudu did no such thing. He picked her up in his arms and sat her down under a tree at a safe distance from the soldiers who had again caught up with them.

And like a force of nature, he fought them all. Nothing fazed him. Nothing stopped him. She marveled at his vast strength and willingness to protect her.

But just it seemed that things were settling down, she felt the earth under her move. Avalanche! But before she could shout out the warning, Sivudu realized the peril they were in.

Moments later, he was at her side and pulling the bark off the tree to use it as a makeshift sledge. That, was the roughest ride of her life. It jostled her injured leg and cause her a tremendous amount of pain but like a true warrior, she managed to keep her lips tightly sealed. She was grateful to Sivudu for saving her life many times over in less than half a day. She would not distract him with unimportant matters like her discomfort.

At last, the avalanche subsided and they could see no more soldiers coming at them.

Now was the time to talk.

They didn’t have the time to get into the entire story but Avanthika told him the bare bones of her mission.

“So you are on a quest to save this king who is imprisoned in Mahishmati?” Sivudu said.

“Yes,” Avanthika answered. “But I have failed even before I had a chance to begin. In my injured state, I can’t go forward. I could end up creating more problems. I think we should return, regroup, and come up with another plan.”

“No need,” Sivudu said. “I will complete your mission. What is yours is mine. That includes your joys, your sorrows, your desires and your duties. In turn, all I am is yours. I will free the king and bring him back to your people.”

From anyone else, those words would have sounded empty, unbelievable, even vulgar in their falseness. But she believed them in their entirety because this wasn’t just anyone. This was Sivudu, the man who climbed a waterfall for her, destroyed an entire army unit single-handedly, and saved her from a devastating avalanche with nothing but his hands and the bark of a tree.

“I trust you,” she said and took off her warrior’s bracelet from her wrist.

“Take this,” she said. “All that you are is mine. And all that is mine is yours.”

XXXXX

Mahishmati was grand like her name. Imposing. Intimidating.

Sivudu had never ventured out of Amburi before this. The wanderlust bug had bitten him before but knowing how much his mother worried about him, he had never travelled as far as he’d have liked.

But even if he’d had that opportunity, he probably would not have come this way.

The streets of the kingdom were lined with splendid statues, the roads were well-paved, and the architecture was stunning but there was something almost lifeless about it all.

He didn’t like how it made him feel-- as if he was at a funeral or a graveyard.

However, contrary to how he felt inside, it was obvious that the entire country was preparing for a big festival. At first, he wondered if he should stop someone and ask but then decided against it. He did not want to draw attention to himself.

For several minutes, he simply observed and determined the general direction in which people were going. They were going towards the east so followed them. From the snatches of people’s idle conversation, he gathered that today was a big celebration. A new, 100-foot high statue of the king, made out of pure gold, was going to be erected in the heart of the kingdom. Musicians and dancers from faraway had been invited to participate in the festivities. A group of 150 priests were performing a mahayajna for the wellbeing of the king, a feast for 500,000 brahmins was being prepared in the royal kitchens. Dozens of elephants, horses, and soldiers stood at attention while tens of laborers worked the pulley that would raise the statue to a vertical position on the designated platform.

No laborer was allowed to stop for a moment. Royal whipmasters made sure that any sign of tardiness was swiftly punished and corrected.

The entire scene felt and looked surreal.

That is, until one laborer’s hands slipped… and sent his entire line of fellow workers spiraling into the dust as they lost their balance, thereby setting off a chain reaction of disaster. The humongous gold statue started to fall back rapidly and would have crashed into the laborers operating the back-end of the pulley. But the mysterious man with the covered face grabbed the rope in time.

Demonstrating the strength of Mahabharata's Bheem, he pulled the statue back all by himself, thereby giving the other laborers a much needed moment of rest and helping the one who had fallen down to get up with dignity.

All through this, he made sure to keep his face covered. Avanthika had told him that that was the best way to protect himself from the prying eyes of the spies always on the lookout for rebels.

But as fate would have it, just for a moment, a strong gust of wind blew away his scarf from his face. He managed to cover himself again almost immediately but the laborers saw what they saw. Baahubali was here. How? He was imprisoned in the courtyard, weakened beyond belief. But if this wasn't him, who was he? Could it be…? They didn’t know. But it was indeed him. Certainly a Baahubali, even if not The Baahubali.

XXXXX

Sivudu realized that it would be dangerous to stick around in the vicinity of the celebrations. Also, this was the best time to search the palace for the imprisoned king. Security would be relatively lax in the inner precincts of the building especially since everyone else was busy with the big celebration.

He was right to some extent but not entirely.

Security was lax compared to the celebration area but it was by no means lax enough for him to do his job quickly and quietly.

He managed to get somewhat close to the king’s cage but he was still too far to see into it. He decided to sneak into the palace and map out its insides in order to figure out the best way to proceed.

A while later, he was able to put an unsuspecting guard out of commission to take his uniform. This proved most beneficial. It gave him direct access to the king’s chamber in the evening when he held his audience.

“Who started chanting Baahubali’s name first?” Bhallaladeva asked, menace dripping from his words. None of the soldiers had an answer for him. His trusted advisor and son Bhadradeva stepped down from his raised seat and starting walking in between the lines of the gathered soldiers to interrogate them.

Sivudu saw this as a potential for unnecessary trouble. He managed to slip out but while doing so, he gave a glimpse of his face to Bhallaladeva.

And then, all hell broke loose.

XXXXX

There was chaos all around. He could feel it. Fire. A fire had broken out in the king’s audience chamber. Earlier in the day, he had watched the sthapanam ceremony of Bhallaladeva’s statue from his cage. The sounds of the singing, the shehenai, the drums, the dancing, and the prayers had been overwhelming. 

But then, out of the blue, the statue had started to to fall back and for a terrible moment, his heart had stopped at the thought that all those people working the pulley would be crushed because Bhallaladeva would do nothing to save them. 

However, someone had stopped that catastrophe. And then, the air had charged up with chants of his name, “Baahubali,” as if it was the sthapanam of his statue and not that of the current king. He wasn’t sure what caused this to happen but he had been intrigued nonetheless.

But even before then, he had felt a surge of power inside. He had not felt like this in years. What was this mysterious force that made him feel like his old, invincible self all over again.

Or was it another symptom of the madness that had slowly but surely afflicted him in the last few years.

Just then, a soldier came running towards him with his sword raised in attack. Everything happened in an instant then. One moment he was chained to his cage. The next, the bars of his cage and his chains lay scattered on the floor in pieces.

But that was not the strangest thing to happen that night.

After 25 years of hell, Amarendra Baahubali looked at a man’s face and found himself staring into a mirror-- except, the mirror was his long-lost son, Mahendra Baahubali.

XXXXX

Adrenalin surged through him as he rushed out of the king’s audience chamber, In the space of less than an hour, he killed half a dozen men whose faces he didn’t have the time to register.

After much dodging, injuring, and killing, he managed to get back to the courtyard where the king was imprisoned. It took him no time to cut through the bars and the chains but when he looked down, he felt the world around him shatter into a million pieces.

He was looking at himself-- an older, wounded version. But how? Who could this be? The answer came back to him in a blinding flash.

Father. This could only be his father. He did not know how he knew this but he had never been more certain about anything else in life. His blood boiled as he took in the older man's impoverished condition-- the injuries, the ragged appearance, and the absolute misery in his eyes.

He would have allowed himself to take a moment to deal with this huge revelation. But there was no time. The enemy soldiers were closing in and he had a promise to keep. Without saying a word, he scooped up the older man in his arms and seated him in the spare chariot parked a few feet away.

It was time to run.

And run, they did.

XXXXX

Devayani’s heart sank as she took in the patch of land in front of her. This was where the cave opened. She remembered this spot. She remembered reaching it but nothing from that moment onwards. Her first memory after that was of waking up in Sanga’s hut. She had no recollection of how she had crossed the cave and reached the forests of Amburi.

She, Sanga, and Rushima stepped out of the cave. They were followed by a large group of other villagers as well. Somewhere in the distance, they heard fighting, the clashing of swords, the crashing of maces, and screams of agony and death.

Devayani had to force herself to stay calm. This was not the same situation. She had no control over what was happening. And she could only wait till it was safe again to venture any further.

Moments later, it started raining. Thunder and lightning lit up the sky. Several minutes later, the sounds of the fighting stopped. A loud clang of metal hitting rock punctuated the otherwise steady hum of the rain. And an eerily familiar silhouette of a balding man collapsed to its knees in front another silhouette that could only have belonged to Baahubali.

Could it be… ?

Devayani couldn’t wait any longer. Without waiting for Sanga and the others, she ran like a woman possessed but she wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted her when she got there.

The man that knelt on the ground was indeed Katappa. However, the man whose foot he placed upon his head in complete submission was not her husband but her son.

Well, of course, who else could it have been? 

But before she could go to her son, her eyes fell upon the figure huddled in the corner, supported by a rock, a shadow of his former self... but unmistakably him. 

No… no… it couldn’t be. Not after all this time. No… No...

Without conscious thought, without warning, she found her feet carrying her to him as fast as they would go. She fell into his open arms and everything went dark. She knew no more. She was home. The exile was over.

Epilogue

Vaishali still maintains that for the most part, the greatest love stories end in tragedy. But this one concludes with a miracle.

It has taken Devasena and Amarendra Baahubali months to relearn each other. The love is there still but it is now tapered with a profound consciousness of everything they have lost in these 25 years. They will never take each other for granted again.

They both have trouble adjusting to the softness of a real bed again. The elaborate cooking of the royal chefs is hard to get used to again. Baahubali likes to take long, warm baths almost everyday. Devasena gets nervous when he is away from her even for a moment. He enjoys going on long walks with her. She has to remember to walk at his pace in order to make sure he is not left behind. He asks her to sing to him every night. She often bursts into tears of joy while watching him do simple, everyday tasks like combing his hair.

The horrific scars carved all over his body trouble her. But he assures her, it is all in the past. She tells him of her life in Amburi. He finds it hard to believe that she, the fiery and proud princess of Kuntala, managed to live like a common peasant woman in an isolated tribal village for so long. The wake each other up from their nightmares. They hold each other through their panic attacks. They try not to suffer in silence but they also want to shield each other from the full weight of their individual traumas. 

They love their daughter-in-law greatly. They treat her like the daughter they never had. In her spirit, they see the reflections of Sivagami Devi. It makes them very proud.

He is also trying to acquaint himself with his son. It is awkward. The interactions are often stilted. But they try. They have sparred a few times with each other. He is nowhere as strong as he used to be and therefore, no match for his son in terms of brute strength. However, Mahendra has much to learn from him in the areas of tactics, statecraft, and foreign policy. They also play chess every other day but they seldom talk about the lost years. 

And Katappa… he is still around. Faithful, loyal, lovable Katappa. Life usually does not give second chances. But this time, it has given them all another attempt at redeeming themselves, apologizing for past mistakes, and forgiving each other for their brokenness after such a long ordeal.

Of course, not everything can be fixed. But they have come this far. They will find their way from here as well.