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Dream It, Do It

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The place: Vidishā, central India.
The time: At least 150 years to go before a messiah is born to a Jewish carpenter’s wife.
The protagonist: Heliodorus, the Greek ambassador from Takshashilā, at the court of King Bhāgabhadra of Vidishā.

Alexander was gone. Even Seleucus Nicator was no more. But the Bactrian Greeks ruled the north-western parts of India. They styled themselves kings. They reigned.

Such a king was Antialchides of Takshashilā. He had a number of lieutenants under him, one of whom was Dion.

But Dion was old. And he had a son.


Handsome and popular, with a large circle of friends, the Bactrian youth who aspired to be ‘a true Greek’, was known to all in Takshashilā. He was also a heavy spender, so much so that Dion was slowly going bankrupt. Antialchides kept levying more taxes, but his was a dry province, and ultimately it was Dion who had to pay. He had remonstrated with his son, but to no avail. Heliodorus simply refused to understand.

Then he got into trouble. Arrogant, hot-headed, and quick to pick a fight, he challenged an Indian merchant, Sumangala, to a duel following a quarrel over a dancing-girl, and killed him. The incident raised a minor uproar the news of which nevertheless reached the king’s court. Antialchides sent for Dion.

Heliodorus was sent to Vidishā, as an ambassador to king Bhāgabhadra’s court, partly as punishment and partly to save his skin. Half-repentant, half-frustrated, he began to behave himself. Soon, he earned a reputation for being a polite, generous and intelligent courtier. The king was pleased with him.

Roaming through the city one day, he came upon a beautiful garden. It did not seem to be a private one, so he went in and sat down beside the fountain. It was a hot day. The sound of the fountain playing and the shade of the trees lulled him to sleep. Suddenly, an attractive young man barely out of adolescence bent over him and shook him awake.
‘What, still asleep? Get up! Get up! Can’t you see I’m waiting for you?’ The youth was laughing.

Startled, Heliodorus woke up. He felt watchful eyes on himself, and turned around. A young girl stood a little way off and was observing him with her head cocked to one side. A pretty girl, prettier than any Greek specimen of femininity, prettier than any woman Heliodorus had ever seen. No, not just pretty; an exquisitely beautiful girl stood in front of him, watching him silently. Before she could say anything, Heliodorus managed to find his tongue.
‘I beg you pardon, my lady, I thought this was a public garden, and so I, I came in and… fell asleep,’ he finished lamely.
‘That’s all right.’ The girl smiled. She had a sweet voice. ‘You're the foreign ambassador at the court, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, my lady. How did you know?’
‘I’ve heard my father speak of you.’
‘And is your father a courtier too? What's his name? I might know him…’

They were rudely interrupted by a gaggle of young girls, all of them well-dressed, but none as expensively as the first one. One of them rushed forward and took the first girl’s hand. ‘There you are! Let’s go home, your lady mother will be worried about you.’ She was frowning at Heliodorus. The beautiful girl turned to leave. Heliodorus panicked.
‘My lady! You didn’t tell me who your father is!’
The second girl threw him a look of contempt as they left. ‘My lady is the daughter of king Bhāgabhadra of Vidishā. Happy?’
Stunned, Heliodorus sat alone in the gathering darkness. The daughter of the king! Then she must be the princess Mālavikā. He had heard of her, but never had he dreamed of such beauty. He'd never imagined that such beauty could exist…

For three months afterwards Heliodorus hung about the garden; he came everyday hoping to catch a glimpse of the princess. He prayed fervently to Apollo Belvedere, begging him to grant him a sight of that unearthly face. But nothing happened.

One day, as he returned from his daily vigil, an old beggar asked him for money. He absent-mindedly dropped a gold coin in the outstretched palm. Overjoyed at the windfall, the beggar blessed him loudly.
‘May the gods bless you, my lord! May Vāsudeva fulfill your every wish!’
Heliodorus turned back. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing much, lord. Just that, you’re so generous, Vāsudeva will fulfill your wishes, that’s all,’ the beggar took fright.
‘Yes, lord. The big temple in the middle of the city… haven't you seen it?’
Seen the temple? Yes, indeed he had. He had seen too, the thousands of devotees go in every morning, noon and night. But… ‘Why should he grant my wishes? I am from a different religion, a vidharmī. Will he grant my wish too?’
‘He fulfills the wishes of everybody, my lord, if you pray with all your heart.’

Heliodorus went to the temple that night. He excited a few curious glances, but nobody forbade him to enter. In the innermost sanctum he saw, above the flowers and garlands and chanting of mantras, above the smoke of burning incense, the beautiful, remote, yet familiar face of the god, lips curved into a knowing smile. It seemed to the Greek that the god was gazing right into his soul. He folded his hands and prayed to the strange god. Lord, you know who I am. I am Heliodorus the Greek. But they say you don’t care what land, what religion your devotee is from. They say you grant everybody’s wishes. Please, grant mine. You know what I want. If you grant my wish, I will give you something too. Something beautiful for you, Vāsudeva.

Heliodorus went to the temple a few more times, and offered pūjā. Then he was called back to Takshashilā. White Huns were invading the borders of the Bactrian kingdoms. All able-bodied men were to offer themselves as soldiers. Heliodorus was caught up in the fray which went on for three years. In the third year he was taken prisoner by the Huns.

Bound hand and foot, exhausted, and expecting to be killed, Heliodorus lay in the smelly tent that served as the Hun's prison, and fell asleep, and dreamt…

…of a lithe and handsome youth, not quite past his adolescence, beckoning to him.
‘Come this way,’ he whispered. ‘Follow me.’
Heliodorus did as he was told. The youth showed him a path that led to the mountain stream, and pointed to a tree that served as a landmark. Then he disappeared, leaving Heliodorus to wake up and consider his vision.

That night, Heliodorus managed to escape, following the route the unknown youth had shown him.

When Heliodorus went back to Vidishā, he realized that three years had passed. He had changed; the city was the same though. The garden too stood at the same spot. He went in for old times’ sake and sat down as before, beside the merry fountain. The princess, he thought sadly, will have married by now, and moved off. Vāsudeva, you too didn’t listen to my prayers. And I prayed with all my heart, too.

A shadow fell on him. Heliodorus looked up to see the princess Mālavikā standing in front of him, with her lady-in-waiting beside her, and a smile on her lips.
‘I thought you’d never come back, my lord,’ said the lady-in-waiting. ‘My little lady here has been worrying her head off for you. Do you know, she would come and sit here, thinking you would come by?’
‘Vishākhā!’ murmured the princess in mock-consternation. Vishākhā simply grinned.

They usually met in the garden. In the afternoons, when the entire city took their siesta, the lovers held their tryst while Vishākhā stood guard. One evening, Heliodorus told Mālavikā about his agreement with Vāsudeva. Mālavikā sat up in surprise.
‘You mean you actually said that you’ll give Vāsudeva a gift if he grants your wish?’
‘Yes. Why? Is that wrong?’
‘Not wrong, no. It’s just that…’ Mālavikā did not know what to say. His ignorance and innocence made her heart ache. Poor Heliodor! As if Vāsudeva expected gifts from men in return for fulfilling their wishes.
Mālavikā said, ‘Heliodor, you should ask father now.’
Heliodorus felt butterflies in his stomach.

King Bhāgabhadra was not quite happy with the idea at first. However, his Queen made him see the point. After all, one of her cousin's cousins had married a Greek landlord, had she not? What was wrong with Heliodorus marrying Mālavikā?

And thus they were married.

A couple of nights after the wedding, Heliodorus was fast asleep when he felt someone prodding him in the ribs. He opened his eyes to find the same sweet youth that had helped him escape from the Hun camp, standing before him. Before Heliodorus could say anything, the young man pouted in mock-annoyance, and said, ‘Where’s my gift? You said you’d give me a gift; when will you give it to me? Eh?’

A frisson of fear and wonder ran up Heliodorus’ spine even in his sleep. He had finally recognized the face; it was the face of the stone god in the temple. It was Vāsudeva.

Heliodorus woke up. Vāsudeva! You did not forget Heliodorus; Heliodorus will not forget you.

Heliodorus erected a commemorative pillar of stone, the Garuda Dhvaja, in Vidishā in honour of the great god Vāsudeva. It is still there.