My brother kneels, so saith Kabir,
To stone and brass in heathen wise,
But in my brother’s voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his fates assign,
His prayer is all the world’s — and mine.
Rudyard Kipling, The Prayer
I became aware of voices, and of the motion changing as the camel stopped. By lifting my head from its shag-haired flank I could see an Indian with the appearance of a servant, persuading it to kneel. Beside him was another Indian, turbaned and well-dressed, on horseback.
“I fear you are injured,” he said in Gandhari, dismounting. “Bandits?”
“No,” I managed. “Rocks. On the pass. Which killed my friend.”
“My sympathies. Where are you hurt?”
“My thigh, broken. My chest. My head.”
“Then you had best stay on your camel until we get you to the town. It is only ten stades away.”
“But would you help me sit up, please? Minding my right leg.”
Between them they manoeuvred me vertical and swung my left leg over the front hump. The world was no longer upside down, but thigh and chest hurt fiendishly, and I was still dizzy.
“There,” said the well-dressed man, “that looks better. My name is Deepak, governor of Batanagra.” He waved his servant to move out of earshot. “The master of the caravan that came through yesterday told me you were on your way, and I felt I ought to come to meet you. At least I presume it is you he meant. What, may I ask, is your name?”
“Son of …?”
Deepak gave me a deep namaste. “Then welcome, sir.” Through my pain, his words relieved me. I really was welcome. “I am sorry to see you in this plight. You say your companion is dead? His body is still on the pass?”
I shuddered. “Yes. He was a Bactrian and doesn’t need burial. But …” From the throbbing depths of my head I recalled a pressing duty, and this man was surely to be trusted. “I’ve got urgent news which must go to King Apollodotus.”
Deepak gave me a curious look. “You are out of touch, sir. Apollodotus is dead.”
“Already!” I stared at him aghast. “Killed? When?”
“Not killed,” said Deepak, puzzled. “He died of consumption. Three months ago.”
“Three months? Oh, I see. That explains it.” I was thinking, or trying to think, aloud. “Eucratides will have heard the news long since, but he hasn’t made it public in Bactria, or hadn’t when I left. But already he’s planning to take advantage. By invading India.”
Deepak instantly absorbed the implications. “How do you know?”
I told him briefly of our mission to the Tocharoi and what Datis had overheard.
“This must go straight to the king. I will send a dispatch by courier, post-haste.”
“Who is king?”
“Menander,” he said. I remembered him, another of my grandfather’s officers, and a good man. “It may be that he will want to speak with you.”
In my present condition, as I held grimly on to the camel’s front hump, the thought of a journey to Taxila, another journey against time, was hateful. But into my mind it brought a further need, almost as urgent.
“And there’s my mother. I must get in touch with her.”
“That is easily done. I hear that the passes are now clear of snow, so I will have my courier return from Taxila by way of Srinagari and inform the Lady Vasanti of your arrival. And now my servant will take you to the vihara where there is a bikkhu skilled at healing. In a few days, I hope, you will be in a better state to travel, and then we can consider sending you on. Meanwhile, if you will pardon me, I must see to that dispatch. I shall look in on you later today.”
Deepak beckoned his servant, gave him instructions, and trotted off as fast as the rough path allowed. The servant, leading my camel by the remains of its halter, walked me down to the vihara. As a boy I had heard of such places but never seen them: communities of followers of the Buddha who lived together to meditate, far enough from a town for quiet but close enough to beg alms of the inhabitants, and often, as here, beside a trade route where passing merchants might be generous. Bikkhus with shaven heads and dark red robes lifted me, at the cost of much agony, from the camel and onto a pallet in a cell off an open court. There the doctor-bikkhu examined my wounds. Luckily my thick felt coat and trousers had saved the flesh from laceration, but the bruising went deep. He set and splinted my thigh — at the cost of yet greater agony — and strapped my chest where, he thought, some ribs had been cracked. He dosed me with a vile brew and brought me food.
When I thanked him, he smiled gently. “The Enlightened One taught that life is characterised by impermanence and suffering. And he enjoined us, in so far as we are able, to reduce suffering. ‘He who would care for me,’ he said, ‘should care for the sick.’ Now eat and sleep.”
I did not eat or sleep. I could not. I had time and leisure at last to mourn my friend, to remember, to lament what I had done or failed to do. Datis had passed responsibility to me, and I had misused it. He was a hillman and I was not, but I had overruled his expert judgment. Tears flowed.
“Are you in much pain?” It was Deepak, on his promised visit.
The bikkhu’s brew had already done good and my long-suffering head was suffering no more. “Some pain of body. Much pain of mind.” I tried to explain the reason for my guilt.
“I know the place. Datis was right that the middle way is the best. But neither of you could have known that for sure. It may have been ordained that rocks should fall on you whichever path you took. You must not blame yourself.”
He was kind, but did not convince me.
“I have sent to the king,” he went on, “with the essential news of imminent invasion. The dispatch will take several days to reach him. The information he will want now is the strength of Eucratides’ forces and where they are stationed. Would you tell me what you know?”
“I don’t know much,” I replied, unexpectedly relieved to have something different to think about. “I was never in their confidence. But I did pick up a little from soldiers at Alexandria.”
That had been in bed, mostly, although I did not like to say so. But I told what I could, and Deepak made notes.
“Thank you,” he said. “I will send this to the king in another dispatch, and tell him that you are likely to move on to Srinagari soon. At least, when there, you will be much closer to Taxila, should he wish to see you. And now we must wait until you are fit enough to go. Your camel is in my care, but with your injuries and the great distance you would be most unwise to ride it. I suggest you travel by litter.”
“But I don’t have the money to pay the bearers. A little, but not much. And I must recompense the good bikkhus for their care.”
“Shall I sell your camel for you, then? That will give you plenty enough.”
It did not worry me one whit that the camel was not really mine to sell. I agreed, and he went, leaving me to return to my recriminations. I wondered if I should pray. But when last I had prayed, at the time I was taken hostage, it had done no good to me or to anyone. And to whom should I pray now? Datis had venerated Mazda — but what did I know of Mazda beyond the name? The Brahmins worshipped countless gods — but was I really an Indian? So too did the Greeks — but did I owe any duty to those remote formalities on Olympus? Followers of the Buddha, as I understood it, recognised no gods — what did it matter? With gods or without, should not everyone’s goal be the same, to foster good and confound evil?
But I did pray, to gods unnamed. I prayed not for Datis, but selfishly for myself. I prayed for a friend to replace him.
So half a dozen days passed. Despite my shortage of sleep and poor appetite, the bikkhu was pleased with my progress.
“You are young,” he said, “and you are strong. Or you were.” He glanced disapprovingly at my almost untouched bowl. “True, the Blessed One enjoined moderation in eating. But food is like medicine. It is necessary to save the body from wasting away. Is it pain that keeps you from sleep and food?”
My answer was the same as to Deepak: residual pain of body, deep pain of mind.
“Don’t agonise,” he said. “Your mind is full of what your senses tell you. It is swarming with thoughts and emotions. It is aflame with passion, aversion, delusion and suffering. Those contents are intrusive and impermanent. Banish them all, and you vanquish suffering. What remains is like the sky, which is eternal. Senses and emotions are like passing clouds, which come and go. All you need for peace, wherever you are or whatever you’re doing, is to empty your mind.”
I hardly understood.
At last Deepak came back. “My first courier has returned. He called on the Rani, who is delighted at the news and is sending a litter for you. But the bikkhu tells me you are now ready for gentle travel. What I suggest is that you set off from here in another litter to meet your mother’s along the road, and there transfer. That will save several days in your homecoming. Meanwhile I have sold your camel, and here are the proceeds.”
He handed me a purse; quite a heavy one.
“After I last saw you I went up to the pass, if only because you had come down empty-handed and with an empty scabbard.” More probably, I thought, he had gone to check on this reported death within his own domain. “Your baggage did not seem worth salvaging, but I found the sword you had dropped, and of course the remains of your companion. The birds have already started their work. But since Bactrians need no worldly possessions for their journey to the hereafter, I took the liberty of removing a few items from him which are better not in the hands of robbers. Had he any heirs?”
“Then you should take them. He had little money, but here it is, and an amulet he was wearing. I also took his sword. The bikkhus would not welcome weapons within these walls, so I will give them to you tomorrow. I have arranged your litter for first light, when I shall be here to see you off.”
Deepak had been extraordinarily kind. When he had gone I stirred myself to look at the amulet, which I had often seen hanging from Datis’ neck but had never inspected at close quarters. It was a small smooth oval of brilliant blue lapis lazuli from the mountains behind Alexandria, carved with the portrait of a boy and, in Greek letters, the name Dion. Deepak was right: it was too precious to leave to robbers, too precious for reasons he did not know. Tears trickling anew, I put the string round my own neck.
Then I opened the purse. It contained a number of Greek silver tetradrachms and plenty of small change in bronze. The portraits on the silver caught my eye. Two were familiar from my childhood days: my grandfather Demetrius wearing an elephant headdress as conqueror of India, and my great-uncle Antimachus in his trademark sunhat. The third, depicting a youngish man bareheaded but for a headband, I had not seen before. But I could hardly mistake the face. My throat tightening again, I turned it over. Yes, Pantaleon my father, another victim of brutally misguided in-fighting.
Most of the bronze coins were square and without portraits, as India prefers. Some bore the name of Pantaleon and some of Apollodotus, on one side in Greek, on the other in Prakrit which, by dredging the memories of my youth, I could read. On one the symbols were an elephant — was that a reference to the Buddha story? — and a bull which seemed to be sexually aroused — was it Shiva, for the Brahmins? I had never seen the like before. Here were coins that reflected not the glory of minority masters but the faiths of their myriad subjects; unimaginable in authoritarian Bactria but in tune with the inclusive philosophy of Gandhara, in much the same way as the king’s governor here was an Indian rather than a Greek.
In the morning at first light, having rewarded the bikkhus for their care and skill, I was lifted onto a simple dooli. Deepak handed over the two swords and, pursued by his good wishes, I was borne away. Srinagari must be nearly as far from Batanagra as Batanagra is from the desert, and the track is not much better. The terrain, however, is somewhat kinder: if the passes are as stark, the valleys between are greener, and there are staging posts which offer simple facilities for eating and sleeping. But I paid little attention to the scenery. While the bodily hurt was now less, the mental anguish remained ever-present, especially when I fingered the amulet.
We met Deepak’s second courier as he returned, bringing a message from the king in the form of his thanks and the courteous promise to have a chat when pressures of state allowed. After four days we also met my mother’s litter, which was no mere dooli but her personal palanquin, canopied round with embroidered curtains and accompanied by an escort of no fewer than eight. There were the four bearers, two burly hillmen wearing rusty swords and masquerading as bodyguards, a boy of perhaps fourteen, and a horseman who turned out, to my delight, to be white-bearded and white-turbaned old Aditya, my mother’s steward of countless years’ standing. His was the first face from my childhood I had seen in nine years, and we fell on each other’s necks; or rather he fell on mine. I had always been a favourite of his, and for a while we wept, and reminisced, and asked questions which could hardly be answered then and there, until my former bearers grew impatient. I paid them off and was transferred to the palanquin. And we were on the road again.
Wherever the track was wide enough, Aditya rode on one side, chattering like a fruit-wife at her market stall but never waiting for a reply. On the other side walked the boy, gazing at me silently but compassionately and from time to time reaching in to adjust my cushions. When I thanked him he smiled a wide and almost cheeky grin, as if mischief was lurking not far behind. I asked his name.
“Ram,” he replied in a husky voice.
But his presence somehow disturbed me, and I wanted to return to my self-torment. It would be too uncivil to close the curtains. Uneasily aware that it was only slightly less uncivil, and hating myself for it, I shut my eyes and pretended to sleep, which cut off Aditya’s gossip in mid-flow.
The bikkhu had said that life is characterised by impermanence and suffering. That was beyond dispute. He had also said that the mind is like the sky, and thoughts and emotions like passing clouds. I opened my eyes to find that we were on a narrow section of the road and nobody was beside me. But above was the sky. There were clouds, and they came and went. They were impermanent, but the sky remained. I tried to empty my head, and for a brief moment caught a glimpse of peace. Then the track widened, my companions took up position again, and I hurriedly closed my eyes. There was a jolt as a bearer stumbled. The spell was broken and the suffering resumed. I gave up. These were matters that lay frustratingly beyond my grasp.
In retrospect, I can understand my state. Some people have the in-born ability to examine their inner selves and to ponder abstract concepts. I did not then, and I do not now. I am no philosopher, and the Plato and Aristotle of my schooling have left little mark. I am content to accept life without too much questioning and without bothering any gods. For years, therefore, I had reluctantly accepted the loss of my family and the tedium of my exile. For months I had accepted the hardships of the journey. Those years and those months were now over. I was not only alive, albeit damaged, but free and safe. What my mind could not cope with was the magnitude of the change. It took refuge not in relief but in misery. It focused unwaveringly on the heaviest price I had paid for that freedom and safety, the loss of my only friend. It sought and found someone on whom to pin the blame.
And so, after another five days with little communication, we dropped down to Srinagari and another chapter of my life. The town is a paradise, watered by the benign Hydaspes, fringed with placid lakes, dotted with gardens and orchards, hemmed in by mountains, cooler in summer than Alexandria and very much cooler than torrid Taxila. It proved the haven I needed, where I could begin to shrug off the hurts of the past and the misery of the present, and return to my roots.
Over my reunion with my mother I would rather draw a veil. On my part, needless to say, it was fraught with emotion, and it was reassuring because, having married a Greek — and a prospective king at that — she was not a conventional Indian lady. Brought up by Brahmins but delightfully lax in her observance, she had a mind also open to the Buddha’s teachings, but she paid not even lip-service to the gods of Greece. It was no doubt from her that I had acquired my own uncluttered outlook on life, and it was good to have it confirmed. As an Indian wife she had deferred in public to her husband, but behind it lay a strong and independent will. As an Indian widow she should by harsh tradition have been doomed to an unenviable life of prayer and fasting, unwelcome at community celebrations and even at family occasions. But, like me in her footsteps, she rejected custom and adopted what seemed best to her from either culture. While she might pander to convention by hiding her face in public, in her own house she ruled openly and with a firm but kindly hand. She did not even wear the black bindi or the coarse white sari of a widow.
Her welcome was certainly real, and so was her concern about the physical and mental state of her only surviving son. Yet neither the welcome nor the concern were as warm as I had hoped. In my childhood we had been as close as could be. Now I came to realise what I had been too young to recognise then, that at root she had more than a touch of arrogance. It seemed almost as if she had achieved her ambition by marrying my father and thus becoming a queen; but on my failing to become king myself — and thereby robbing her of the rank of queen mother — I was reduced to something of a superfluity. It was an attitude I had half-expected from Gandhara, but not from her.
She lived in style, for she was both well off in her own right and enjoyed a pension from the royal treasury. Her summer house was large and sprawling, the gardens extensive and well-tended, and the servants many — female and male as appropriate — whether in her own quarters, in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the gardens, or in the stable. They went not merely in respect of her but in some affection, and even to her face they called her Rani, Queen. Among them were three boys with flexible duties: Pranesh who was much my age, Hemal who was only thirteen, and Ram. Ram was now assigned to me.
Until I was ready for further company, my mother decreed, I was to be left undisturbed with him to settle in, to recover, and to be made presentable. In her house, it was clear, there was no place for the morose and the scruffy. The moment I was carried off to my new room, my soul still yearning for warmth, Ram was summoned into her presence and given, as I later came to learn, a rigmarole of instructions and advice. Thereafter he was with me, or within earshot, all day and every day.
Once we were alone together his first and deferential question was “What should I call you? Sir?”
“No. My name is Dion.”
“But you’re a prince.”
“That isn’t how I see myself.” Especially after the way my mother had received me. “My father may have been a king, but I never will be. I’m just Dion, the same as you’re just Ram.”
He seemed relieved. No doubt he had been worried about how to deal with this surly young man who for five days had hardly spoken a word to him. His deference gave way to a brisk and refreshing informality which relieved me too, and helped to ease me out of my own awkward shell. While good manners had been drilled into me from infancy, my family had never stood on ceremony or demanded bowing and scraping from its servants. What it did ask for was friendly loyalty and respect, in both directions.
“And what do you want me to do for you?” Ram asked.
It was a fair question. At Alexandria I had had the shared use of Bactrian servants who brought me food and washed my clothes and groomed Leucon. Everything else I had done for myself. I told Ram so.
“I’d be happy to do it again,” I added. “But in those days I was mobile. Now I’m not. Until I’m fit once more, I’ll have to ask you to do all kinds of personal things for me.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for.”
He seemed to relish the prospect, and went on to make a string of suggestions.
“We’ve got to look after your injuries. Aditya is sending for the doctor.” Good.
“And you need exercise, so I’ll make a pair of crutches for you.” I must have shown surprise. “My bappa’s a carpenter. They’ll be quite good ones.” Somehow I was sure they would be.
“And Jwala — she’s the Rani’s seamstress — is going to make new clothes for you.” My old ones, having been worn non-stop for months, were almost in rags and an utter disgrace.
“And you need a shave.” I felt my face, and the fluff was indeed too long.
“And a haircut. And your nails need trimming.” Both were also true.
“And a bath might be no bad thing.”
“Tactfully put,” I admitted. “I’m probably not exactly fragrant. I haven’t had a bath since I left Bactria.”
When I came to think of it, I had hardly even washed. Some splashing at waterholes in the desert, none whatsoever in the mountains except for icy water in my boots, some desultory wiping at the vihara. I must reek of sweat and camel and artemisia and fear and who knew what. I found I could step back and see myself as I was. For only the second time since leaving Alexandria, I actually laughed, this time a deep belly-laugh.
“Yes, you’re right. I do need a bath.”
Ram grinned delightedly. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh. And your smell’s … interesting.”
In Bactria, such words spoken in such a tone to a Greek master would earn a servant a beating. But I was not in Bactria now, and I was not a … Something else sank in. I was in India, and already I was feeling less Greek. Not that I had ever felt a master, and never in my life had it even crossed my mind to beat a servant.
“But how do we do it?” Ram went on. “It would be difficult in the bath-house, what with that leg. And you couldn’t even get in and out of a tub, could you?”
We debated, and he decided to lay me out flat on the floor while he scrubbed me — or the parts of me not hidden by bandages — with hot water and a rough cloth. He began to remove my offensive clothes, which he threw outside.
“I’ll get these burnt,” he announced. “They’re full of fleas.”
Undressing me also revealed Datis’ lapis lazuli amulet. Ram inspected it.
“What does the writing say?” he asked.
“But he doesn’t look anything like you.”
“It isn’t me.”
Perhaps he saw in my face that I was capable of saying no more, and he said no more himself. Soon he had me naked. That did not embarrass me, for Greek males are accustomed to public nudity, especially when taking exercise; but he viewed my body with interest.
“You’re far too thin,” was his only comment, and he went to work. He even washed my private parts, but nothing stirred. The whole operation, though it left a flood on the floor, was a success, and I felt much the better for it. Beside me on his knees, he looked me in the eye.
“Dion, your leg and your chest will heal. Your illness is in here.”
He tapped me on the forehead and I knew, reluctantly, that he was right. Then he slipped a lungi over my lower half and helped me sit on a chair. He fetched more hot water and a razor.
“I borrowed this from Pranesh. He’s already into shaving. Oh dear, it isn’t very sharp.” He found hone and leather to improve the edge. “That’s how my bappa sharpens his tools. But I’ve never shaved anyone. Best if you do it yourself this time.”
So, as he held a mirror and watched me closely, I did it myself. Next time, I suspected, he would offer to do it for me, though that would not be needed for a while. He produced shears and a comb and reduced my hair to competent order. With a wicked little knife he pared my finger and toe nails.
Then it was time for food. He brought in a large tray. After the basic and monotonous menu of my travels and the bland vegetarian diet of the vihara, the very smell set my mouth watering. There was mutton and chicken rich with spices and ghee and cream, tasty rice with onion and garlic and ginger, and honey-cakes, and sherbet and watered-down wine to drink. Yes, I found myself ready to sample a little of this.
Because Ram was eating with me, and because already I felt comfortable in his presence, I asked about himself and the other servants. Between mouthfuls he told me that, as I had guessed, he was fourteen. He had been employed by my mother for the last two years. He was the son of a carpenter in Taxila and was therefore technically of Vaishya rank, along with the farmers and the merchants; but rank seemed to bother him no more than it did me. He spoke nothing but Gandhari and could read and write little beyond his own name which, having only three letters, was hardly difficult. Although brought up in loosely Brahmin ways and introduced by old Aditya — who behind his garrulous tongue kept an enquiring head — to snippets of the teachings of the Buddha, he was no more tied to any beliefs or inclined to philosophising than I was; yet he clearly had his principles. He told me of his friends at home whom he still saw in the winter. He brought me up to date with the changes at Taxila since last I was there. He told me about this household, and who did what in it, and how contented a place it was.
Thinking back, I saw that he had been deliberately holding my interest so that I failed to notice how much was going into my mouth, and he had been unobtrusively edging dishes in my direction. When I looked, everything was empty. He had lured me into eating more than I had eaten at a sitting for months, and had done it very cleverly. Full to the brim, I was fighting down a belch when he uttered his own, loudly. It was his permission — his encouragement — to release mine, which I did with relief. He grinned again, it seemed in triumph.
In return, Ram asked about my life story. He already knew the outline. But I filled him in by describing Bactria, that kingdom of starkness interspersed with pockets of high fertility, renowned for its harvests and its horses. I told him something of my drearily lonely life there, and he nodded in sympathy. When he asked about the Yona — which is what the Indians call the Greeks — and how they had got to Bactria, I gave him a potted history of Sikandar — which is what the Indians call Alexander — and his successors. He asked about Greece, but I could tell him little.
“Haven’t you ever been there?”
“No, never. I doubt if even my great-grandfather Euthydemus had. Perhaps not even his great-grandfather. It’s a very long way from here to the Middle Sea, you know, and there’s Parthia in between. To walk it — I’m guessing — might take half a year, or even a year.”
His eyes grew wide, and he asked about my escape. I told him of the mission and the desert and the mountains, at which his eyes grew wider still. I pulled out Datis’ amulet and explained it. I told him finally, with tears back on my face, of my friend’s death and my burden of guilt.
Ram took my hand in his. “Dion, it wasn’t your fault.” He said it again. “It wasn’t your fault.”
And for the first time I began to think that perhaps it hadn’t been entirely my fault after all.
“And now,” he said, “it’s high time you got some sleep. But first I’ll bring a stick for your teeth, and the pot.”
I cleaned my teeth. He held the pot as I urinated and then, without hesitation or apology, used it himself. It was a sign that already he was as easy in my presence as I was in his, and it did not offend me one whit. But he did, as he urinated, turn a modest back. That was only to be expected. I remembered from my childhood that while Greeks are generally comfortable at being seen unclothed, Indians are not. Once in bed I thanked him for all that he had done. Already my inner self was feeling better than it had done for years, and he was responsible.
It turned out that he was sleeping with me too, not in my bed but on a pallet alongside, and I was glad of his presence. Making up for lost time, I slept like a log, and for a few days I did not leave my room. Ram was my only companion, cheerful or thoughtful as occasion demanded, and bursting with a practical common sense which helped to banish my spectres. Alluring meals were brought in and my appetite grew. From Jwala came, one by one, my new clothes, of fine fabric and beautifully made, and it was good to feel smart again. The doctor tut-tutted as doctors do; but he had little useful to suggest, for only time could tell how the bones had knitted. Deciding that I needed purging, he dosed me with a potion that smelt pestilently and tasted worse. He stood over me until it went down, and enquired exhaustively after it had come up. He too told me to eat, and not only to replace what he had evicted. More constructively, he gave his approval to crutches.
To judge by the skills Ram had acquired, I was sure that his bappa was a good carpenter. With minimal equipment his son manufactured an admirable pair of crutches, complete with handles and padded armrests mortised in place. It took much experiment to find the right length, but finally I ventured forth on them, putting weight only on my good leg. I was now free to haltingly explore the house and chat with Aditya and the servants. At midday and in the evening I would now eat with my mother, while Ram waited on me and her maid on her, and we slowly caught up on nine years’ worth of news; but because it focused largely on Taxila’s high society it was much less my own news than hers. Next I ventured into the garden. Srinagari did not suffer the torrential summer rains and the sweltering heat I recalled from Taxila, but basked in a pleasant moderation in which it was a delight to stroll. More than once I tumbled, but the grass was soft, no harm was done, and I joined in Ram’s laughter.
“One leg,” he then said, becoming serious, “isn’t enough to walk with.”
His meaning, other than the obvious, escaped me at the time.
Time flowed by. The doctor removed the strapping from my chest and pronounced the ribs mended. A month and a half after the rock came down, I first tried putting weight on my injured leg. Another month, and I was walking without the splints and crutches, but with stick in hand and Ram standing by. Strength took time to return, and the limp will be with me for ever, but healing of body was well under way. So too, if more tentatively, was healing of mind. I was over my worst self-hate and recriminations. If I still mourned for Datis, I was no longer obsessed with his death. Some areas, however, remained stubbornly numb; until they too crept back to life.
We would wander around the sunny gardens and eat ripe fruit straight from the trees. One day, when I bit into a white-fleshed peach, juice dribbled down my chin. Ram reached out a finger to wipe it off, and licked the finger. He grinned at me as if some meaning lay behind it. He bit into another peach, and juice dribbled down his own chin. In turn, I wiped with my finger and licked it. Ram grinned again, a grin which seemed to include a question. Since leaving Alexandria I had been through months of mortification; not self-inflicted, and lightened by the friendship of Datis. Since his death I had been through months of unfettered self-mortification. Never once in all that time had a carnal thought even entered my head. But now …
Although Ram had often seen my nakedness, I had still not seen his. Then early one morning, just as day was breaking, I woke up. I could not tell why: I remembered no noise, and these days it usually took full sunshine to stir me. Everything seemed normal, until my eye fell on Ram on his pallet beside my bed. He was deep asleep, half on his back, coverlet thrown aside on this warm night, and the loincloth which was all he wore had come unknotted and fallen free. His body was slender and supple. The signs of his emerging manhood were there, not far advanced but well on their way. For the rest, his brown skin was smooth: not smooth in the sense of shiny, but with the soft bloom of a peach. He was beautiful. The sight so aroused me that I turned my back to it and rearranged the lungi around my waist. I was not ready for him to see my state when he awoke.
The next hour I spent in thought. I saw that I had reached a turning point. From the very day of my return home Ram had become the friend I needed, the friend I had prayed for to nameless gods while agonising in the vihara. He was considerably younger than me, as his body showed. But mentally he was older than his years, just as I was younger than mine; we met half-way. We came from very different backgrounds, as our accents showed. But he had the confidence to make rank irrelevant, just as I had learnt by experience how thin a veneer it really is; here too we met half-way. Any barriers between us had fallen remarkably fast. We understood and respected one another, we were wholly at ease in each other’s company, we argued amicably, we laughed, we teased. He supplied the warmth I had lacked in Bactria and had failed to find elsewhere in India. Happy the chance that had allocated him to me, rather than Pranesh who was none too bright, or Hemal who was little more than a flighty child. I had reached the point where I could not imagine life without Ram.
And now I desired him physically. For the first time since leaving Alexandria I wanted a boy in my bed. But did he want me? I had no idea. And what rules applied in Gandhara? What was the accepted custom here? I could make no move until I found out. I dared not risk repelling him by clumsy advances, as Eucratides had repelled the other Dion.
The following night we were lying on our beds but had not yet put out the lamp. From the garden came homely sounds of nature — the whisper of a breeze in the trees, the busy croaking of frogs, the call of some night-bird. From somewhere nearby in the house came different noises — a higher-pitched giggle, a deeper groan as if of ecstasy. There was no doubt in my mind about what was going on. Boys the world over, I imagine, make much the same noises when they are enjoying each other so much that caution is thrown to the winds. Ram’s eyes met mine, and I saw no doubt there either; but there was an anxiety. Was he worried about what my reaction might be? I raised my eyebrows at him in question.
“Pranesh and Hemal,” he said apologetically. He seemed of a sudden to have lost all his confidence.
“Does it bother you?”
He shook his head. “It’s only musti,” he muttered, meaning fun or mischief. “Everybody does it. Well, all boys.”
“And do you do it?”
“I used to,” he admitted with a bashful hint of a smile.
“So brahmacharya is not for you.”
I was trying to keep the tone light, and Ram’s little smile strengthened into a muted grin as he shook his head. One of the few things I did know was that Brahmin priests, and those aiming for a spiritual life, have to abstain from voluntary emission of seed.
“You say you used to,” I pressed on. “But not now?”
“Not since you came.”
It is difficult, for obvious reasons, to tell when an Indian is blushing, more difficult than with a Greek. But in this case it was unmistakable. He looked as if he could bite his tongue off. Not since I came, eh? It was time to dig deeper.
“Well, it doesn’t bother me either,” I assured him, and his face showed relief. “But how far do they go? How far did you go? You used hand and mouth, I presume. But anything more?”
“You mean, er …?”
“No, we never did that.” Was I imagining a note of wistful regret?
The distant noises had changed. Now it was Hemal who was squealing. And both of us were sitting up to disguise what was still not ready to be seen; or at least it was so in my case.
“Look, Ram, I’m in the dark. When I left Gandhara I was only eight, which was too young to know about these things. In Bactria, where they follow Zoroaster, it’s strictly forbidden for a boy to, er, enter a boy. But what about here? What do the Brahmins say about it?”
He blushed again. “Well, when I … began to grow up I asked the priest. He’s much more friendly than you’d expect. And he said we all have different needs and different duties. He spouted something from the Rigveda.” Ram screwed up his eyes, trying to remember. “Vikruti evam prakriti, I think. He said it means that nature’s all about diversity. That what seems unnatural can really be natural after all. Priests have to abstain, of course. And husbands and wives must be faithful. But otherwise there’s nothing that’s forbidden.”
“And what did the Buddha say?”
“Hardly anything. I asked Aditya. That monks have to abstain, again. But for ordinary people there’s only the Third Precept, which says ‘no sexual misbehaviour.’ The Buddha didn’t spell out exactly what that means. But most people think that even, um, entering a boy doesn’t count as misbehaviour. So long as it’s done with consent and affection and respect. So long as nobody’s harmed. So long as no marriage vows are broken. So it’s much the same there too.”
The time had come to be blunt.
“Ram, you say you haven’t done anything with Pranesh and Hemal since I came. Is that because you haven’t had the chance? Because you’ve been too busy looking after me? But I wouldn’t have stood in your way. I hope you know that.”
I also hoped that his reason was a different one.
“I do know that,” he muttered in a tiny voice. “But when you came, I … I … sort of dedicated myself to you. A bit like a novice to a god’s service.”
“You mean,” I said, my heart leaping, “you’ve been hoping to do it with me?”
With a face as imploring as a puppy’s when food is around, he gave a little nod.
“And I’ve been hoping to do it with you. Come on, then!”
As expected, as hoped, he jumped straight into bed with me. I tweaked his loincloth and pulled it off. He loosened my lungi and pulled it down. Naked, we hugged, and I caressed his body.
“Just like a peach,” I murmured.
With equal suddenness his confidence had returned, and he giggled wildly. “And the thing about peaches is that they have juice!”
I laughed and, daringly, I found his mouth with mine. He twitched in surprise, for Indians do not kiss, or hardly ever. I had learnt the art in Bactria, where Greeks and even Bactrians practise it. So I demonstrated it to Ram and, moaning with the new-found pleasure, he tried it out on me.
Over the rest of the night I must draw another veil. The lamp ran out of oil, but it did not matter. If two can make an orgy, an orgy it was. It had never crossed my mind that the body could crave so much — and accomplish so much — in so short a space of time; but the peach juice was sweet. At last, utterly spent, we fell asleep in each other’s arms. In Bactria my cavortings had been in lust. This time, for the first time, they were in love.
At the midday meal my mother inspected my face, which was no doubt aglow, and Ram’s, which certainly was. She said nothing, but I fancied that behind her lips a smile was hovering.
“Thank the gods for that,” I remarked when we were back in my room. “I think she’s guessed what we’ve been up to, and doesn’t mind.”
“Not just that. She’s relieved.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she suggested it. Well, she didn’t spell it out in words. But she told me to make you happy.”
“The day you arrived. You were so miserable.”
“Well, you’ve done it. I was miserable then, and you’ve made me happy now.”
As always, he grinned. “Show me how happy,” he said.
We went back to bed and made each other happier still.
The healing of my mind was complete.