Taxila was about as big as Nineveh, reasonably well fortified in the Greek manner, and here was the royal residence … The city was divided into narrow streets as irregular as in Athens, and the houses so built that from outside they seemed to have only one storey, while inside you found rooms as deep beneath the ground as the upper rooms were above it … In the palace they saw no magnificent chambers, nor any bodyguards or sentinels, but a few servants and three or four people who presumably wanted to speak with the king. They admired this arrangement more than the pompous splendour of Babylon; and their opinion rose when they went inside, for the men’s quarters and porticoes and the whole courtyard were restrained in style.
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana
“Ram …” I said. I had misgivings about asking, but I needed to know. “Ram, why do you like me?”
He screwed up his nose in thought. “Oh, lots of reasons. You’re a Yona …”
“Only half a Yona.”
“All right. And your bappa was a king. I’ve never met anyone like you before. Well, there’s the Rani, but you can never forget that she is the Rani. So I thought you’d be snooty. But you aren’t — you’re fun, as well as serious. In fact you’re interesting … more interesting than anyone I’ve ever come across. My friends are all right, and my family … well, I love them of course, but they’re just my family. The only really interesting person I knew before you came was Aditya, and the trouble with him is that he’s such an impossible windbag. I needed someone like you. Then another thing — when you arrived you needed help. Not just with your injuries, but in your head. And when I tried to help, you thanked me, and it was obvious you meant it. I wasn’t used to being thanked, by anyone. And … well … you and me … we often think of the same thing at the same time, don’t we? We seem,” he ended simply, “to fit. Why do you like me?”
So it was not for my rank that he liked me, but for what I was. Datis, come to think of it, had also liked me. When in Bactria I had felt utterly inadequate. But, I wondered now, was I really so inadequate after all? As I tried to put my thoughts in order, Ram added a further reason, accompanied by his usual wide grin. “Oh, and I love your body.”
“And I love yours,” I said. “And your mind too — you’re right, we do fit. And you’re warm and thoughtful and kind. The moment you took charge of me you made yourself my friend. My first friend for nine years, apart from Datis, but he was so much older. You’re not just the first person I met who could be a friend, but the first person who was. I needed you too. Gods, how I needed you! Thank you, Ram.”
We kissed again.
The idyll continued. We were still boys — or rather Ram was still a boy and I was a boy once more — and we enjoyed ourselves as boys, revelling in our freedom. We loved and laughed and lazed and loafed and loved again. Lightheartedly we raided more peaches from the orchard. We bumped by chance into an ancient greybeard and smiled behind our hands as he rambled implausibly about his grandfather’s exploits while fighting alongside Sikandar. We watched the brilliant blue-and-orange halcyons diving for fish in the nearby lake, and ourselves swam and splashed and inexpertly paddled a boat. We borrowed horses from the domestic stable and cantered hither and yon across the plain. Ram had not been a horseman before, but under my tuition he showed all the makings of one; and it reminded me to tell him of Leucon who had been the first real love of my life, if of a different kind for whom he need feel no jealousy. When weary, we would set up the board for a game of chaturanga in the dwindling evening light. And Ram’s fifteenth birthday arrived and was celebrated in bed with a session yet more energetic than usual.
The summer drew all too quickly to a close. News trickled through in dribs and drabs, that Eucratides’ invasion was under way, that he had established a foothold on the eastern slopes of the Paropamisadai, that he had control of small parts of western Gandhara, that a few of his troops had even made it to our side of the Indus; and then that Menander had halted him and pushed him back across the river and back across Gandhara. The king was acting decisively and effectively, which was no surprise. My grandfather had always been good at choosing his officers.
Given the far more important business which Menander had currently afoot, it was entirely understandable that he had not yet summoned me. He had, however, issued his first coins, his face with its long sharp nose looking much as I remembered it, but older.
By now my mother had told me of what ensued after Demetrius and Antimachus were assassinated. Their sons — including my father Pantaleon — tried to take over, but Eucratides’ agents infiltrated their territories and murdered them too. In this dire crisis, with Bactria clearly lost, with Gandhara kingless and under serious threat, it fell to the royal council to take the next step. By tradition the throne should have been mine, and the council could have acknowledged me as nominal king and appointed a regent. But I was only a child, in the enemy’s hands, and for all practical purposes out of the running. Very sensibly, therefore, it took the pragmatic course and without a dissenting voice it elected Apollodotus instead, who proved an outstanding success. Likewise when Apollodotus died childless it unanimously elected Menander, who looked set to prove another success. In no way, when I heard of all this, did I begrudge either of them the throne. All I felt was relief that I was out of the hurly burly.
At this point, appropriately, the Brahmin festival of Diwali fell due, which celebrates the victory of good over evil, of the inner light over spiritual darkness, and of knowledge over ignorance. This was an occasion observed by the whole household with music and candles and lanterns, and it was fun. The sight of flotillas of lamps drifting across the smooth waters of the lake revived cheering memories of the Diwalis of my carefree boyhood. It illustrated my return: how good and light and new-found knowledge had prevailed over the darkness of my Bactrian days. But Srinagari was only a staging-post — albeit a necessary and pleasant one — in my journey back to normality. The real future still lay ahead.
Shortly afterwards the first snows fell in the Paropamisadai, from which Eucratides had not yet been wholly expelled, and put a halt to campaigning there. At much the same time, with the temperature at Srinagari dropping below the level of comfort, the whole household laboriously packed itself into countless carts and onto countless horses, and equally laboriously migrated to Taxila and the familiarity of my mother’s home.
Long ago it had also been my home. Yet this was hardly a homecoming. Taxila, like my mother, welcomed me back with sympathy but no particular warmth. Here too I was a half-forgotten piece of history, of no relevance to the present age. My mother’s society friends did remember me, after a fashion. Ah yes, when last we saw you, they would irritatingly exclaim, you were so high; and their downturned palm would measure the height of an infant of three. Those of my own friends who were still around were now, after the hiatus of the years, effectively strangers. Much of my time, therefore, I spent with Ram and his relatives, for he still had no duties other than attending on me.
His was a complex family, all crammed into a single small house in the next block to ours, which was typical of the lack of segregation here. There were his parents, two grandparents, two or three aunts, an about-to-be-married older sister, and two older brothers — one already married and one not — who were being trained up to step into their father’s shoes. Although the carpentry business was flourishing, three pairs of working hands were all that it needed, which was why Ram as the youngest had been found a different job. All of them treated me without subservience and, like Ram, they were refreshingly direct. The father insisted that I address him not by his real name but as Bappa. It was a warmer and livelier home, more intriguingly diverse, than my own. My mother, who showed little interest in my doings, seemed to be unaware of how I spent my time. Had she known, her snobbish nose might well have wrinkled.
We went, early on, to the royal mausoleum where Pantaleon’s remains were enshrined. He had been cremated in Indian fashion and his ashes placed in a stupa alongside those of his brother and cousin. There, had things turned out otherwise, my own ashes too might even now repose. I bowed my head in thanks to the gods that that had not happened; and, mixed with the thanks, in sorrow that I had known my father for all too short a time.
That duty done, we re-explored the capital. Whereas Srinagari was a summer resort, quiet, sprawling, spacious and overhung by mountains, Taxila was a dense-packed city, crowned by an acropolis, girdled by a bastioned stone wall thirty stades in circuit, and set in a fertile plain backed by gentle hills. Unlike Alexandria, it boasted no palaestra or gymnasium let alone a theatre, and few Greek temples but many Brahmin ones. Its caravanserais teemed with noisy northern folk tending tethered horses and kneeling camels, loading and unloading bales or bundles, drawing water at the creaking well-windlasses, paying off drivers, taking on grooms, swearing, shouting, arguing. Its alleys and bazaars were another babel, gaudier but just as raucous, festooned with fabrics and carpets and copperware, lined with shops of potters and weavers and shoemakers busy at wheels and looms and lasts, and thronged with what seemed like half the population of India fingering, haggling, buying, chewing paan and spitting red gobs on the pavement.
Ram was in his element. It was here that he had grown up; as, in a sense, I had too, but my childhood had been far more sheltered than his. As we wandered footloose through the streets he would exchange repartee — outspoken, even bawdy, but always friendly — with the sweetmeat-sellers and the barbers and the water-carriers and the harlots at their windows; and what impressed me more than anything was that he would toss small coins to the beggars.
“I’m lucky,” he said in explanation, as he smacked a cow on the nose to move it out of our way. “The Rani pays good wages, and I can afford it. Up to a point.”
Which shamed me into following suit, with something rather more than small change. I could afford it too. And I learned, though it took longer, to dispense banter as well, without I hope sounding patronising.
For a town house, ours was large, two-storeyed and occupying a whole block. Its lower rooms, half-underground against the summer heat which we had escaped, opened off small courts. But by comparison with Srinagari it was poky, too cramped to include a stable which, like the paddock, had to be outside the walls; and we found ourselves missing the garden. None the less, winters here are far from cold, and we could easily ride out into the countryside.
It was there, sitting in the shade of an old stupa in the middle of the fields while our horses quietly grazed, that we had a serious discussion which led to far-reaching results. We were side close by side, an arm around the other in comfortable togetherness.
“Did you use to sit like this in Bactria?” Ram asked lazily. “With other boys?”
“Far from it. I wasn’t allowed out without an escort, for a start. Whatever happened had to be in one bedroom or another. And you have to be really good friends to sit like this, don’t you? Well, I didn’t have any friends, still less anyone to love.”
“But you went to bed with boys, even so?”
“Oh yes. For the same reason, I’d guess, that you used to go to bed with Pranesh and Hemal. And you never sat hugging them like this, did you?”
“Oh no. Never like this.”
It was a subject, I felt, that deserved enlarging on. “What you do in bed, Ram … whether by yourself or with somebody else … it’s something you need, isn’t it? It’s something that’s aching to get out. I needed it, they needed it. So we helped each other, and it did relieve our need. But as soon as we’d finished, that was the end of that. It never led to anything further. I suppose it was rather like going to a harlot, though I’ve never been to one and never would. Nor’ve I bedded anyone who was unwilling, either, boy or girl.”
“You’ve been with girls too, then?”
“A few. To see how they compare.”
“And how do they?”
“Not at all well. There’s something different.”
“I don’t mean different in their anatomy, you clot, or different in what you do with them in bed. I’ve nothing against girls, but somehow they’re not to my taste. It’s a bit like the way that I love yogurt but I’m not much taken with the kumis they have in Bactria, even though they’re both made from milk. I’ve no idea why I prefer yogurt, but I do. Or why I prefer boys, but I do. It’s just the way I’m made.”
“Isn’t it a good thing, then, that I’m made the same way as you?”
What I really wanted to talk about, however, was not what we did in bed, over which we had no qualms, but what we did out of bed. Light-hearted boyish pastimes, we agreed, were all very well, but we had to look to the future. At seventeen I was on the verge of manhood. I was well off. Under my father’s will, I had learned, his estate, which was mostly in land, was already half my mother’s and half mine; and one day my mother’s half, together with her pension, would come to me.
“If things had turned out differently,” I said, “my future would be mapped out for me. They’d now be preparing me to rule. That hasn’t happened, thank goodness. Call me a coward, but I’d hate to have to juggle all the factors and make all the decisions that a king does. But the big question is, what am I going to do with myself instead?”
“Well,” replied Ram, who had found a stick of sugar cane and was chewing it, “you could carry on as you are now.”
“Leading a life of leisure, you mean, like in the last few months?”
As I contemplated a life of endless leisure, I was distracted by a sight a couple of fields away. There stood one of those crude and simple devices which the Greeks call a kelon and the Indians a tula, a tall frame carrying a pivoted beam with a counterweight on one end and a container hanging from the other. With it a girl was lifting water from a lower irrigation channel to a higher one, bucketful by labour-intensive bucketful. A very necessary job, but could not the wit of man devise some more efficient method? Yet the distraction was not irrelevant. While the girl’s work was not hard, it was repetitively endless.
“Yes, I could,” I replied. “But wouldn’t endless leisure soon become boring? I’m sure that girl’s bored lifting water with the tula. It can’t be exactly fulfilling. And I doubt if endless leisure would be any better. I need to do something more … let’s say more creative. Something more positive.”
“Well then, turn into a soldier. Offer your services to the king.”
“I don’t see myself as a man of might, do you? And my limp might be a hindrance. Worst of all, it would take us away from each other.”
“That’s true. Forget that.” Ram spat out a piece of cane. “Go back to school, then. Well, not school. At a higher level. There are umpteen courses on offer here.”
There were indeed. Taxila was a famous centre of learning, encouraged by Demetrius and Apollodotus, I had heard, and now even more enthusiastically by Menander. I had had my bellyful of Greek learning at Alexandria; but here the curriculums were Indian, with most of the teachers expounding Brahmin theologies and philosophies.
“I’m not sure the Three Vedas and the Eighteen Accomplishments are really up my street.”
“But there are people who teach the Buddha’s message too. They say Dipankar is brilliant.”
That was a much better bet. The words of the bikkhu at the vihara still haunted me. I might not really understand them, but somehow I felt I ought to.
“That is a thought. Yes, Dipankar’s well worth considering, provided he caters for beginners — I’m nowhere near ready for an advanced course. But what would I do afterwards? I can’t be a student for ever more. And I certainly won’t become a bikkhu, because that would mean giving you up. That’s the last thing I’d want.”
He grinned. “Same here. Well, take it one step at a time. You don’t have to decide the distant future here and now.”
“True. And what about you, Ram?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re essential to me. If you don’t know that, you ought. The trouble is that in the domestic hierarchy you’re near the bottom. You’re far too bright to stay there. Far too valuable. You ought to have a more responsible role.”
“Looking after you is plenty enough responsibility already.” He grinned at me again. “Only teasing. Well, all right. But what can I do about it?
“Improve your education too. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Yes. Yes, I would. But how?”
“Oh, that’s easy. I’ll pay. Well … I suppose that it isn’t actually me who employs you. It’s really my mother. We’ll have to consult her. But I’m fairly sure she’ll go along with us. You’re still in her good books for making me happy. Let’s go and see her now.”
We rode home and I begged a moment of her time, asking Aditya to join us because he was in charge of the household and its finances. He had a soft spot for Ram as well as for me, and he came up with a more ambitious suggestion. If Ram was taught, at our expense, to read and write and calculate to a competent standard, he could work with Aditya. If he proved himself capable, he might eventually step into his shoes, for Aditya was growing old and would not be steward for ever. My mother had nothing against it. Ram was enthusiastic, not only at the challenge but because our basic togetherness would not be affected.
“But one day,” he pointed out more soberly when we were alone, “the Rani will start badgering you to marry and preserve your line. And hers.”
Yes, she would. She might have no objection to our current liaison, but surely only as the temporary measure which had lifted me out of my misery. In the long term, as her only surviving son, I had hereditary duties. It was an unwelcome thought. Still, that bridge need not be crossed until we came to it. We began to ask around for a good tutor for Ram, and I enrolled on Dipankar’s course.
Menander issued further coins. We looked at a silver drachma. On one side was the king in heroically military guise, brandishing a spear.
“What does the writing say?” Ram asked.
“It’s in Yona. Menandrou basileos soteros, Menander king and saviour.”
“Turn it over.”
There was a goddess —Athena, I thought — with a thunderbolt and shield.
“This side it’s in Prakrit, but it says exactly the same thing. Maharajasa tratarasa Menandrasa. So the king’s sending a bilingual message to the Indians, just like Apollodotus did. And Apollodotus was following my father’s lead.”
“What’s behind it, though?” Ram asked. “What’s the message he’s sending?”
“I think it boils down to the difference between Bactria and Gandhara. In both of them the Yona are foreigners …”
“But you aren’t a foreigner.”
“Oh, but I am, strictly speaking. Well, half a foreigner. Anyway, let’s face it, the Yona are intruders here. The difference is that in Bactria they’ve always played the conqueror and overlord, and the Bactrians resent them for it. There, every single official is a Yona. But here in Gandhara, ever since Demetrius, the distance between rulers and ruled has been far less. All right, in central parts, where people are more accustomed to us, quite a few of the officials are Yona. But in remoter parts like Kaspiria, where people might still be suspicious of us, they’re almost all Indians. So my mother says.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that too.”
“And Mother’s friends say that Menander’s amazingly easy-going and accessible. If anyone comes to the palace wanting to speak to him, he’ll see them with hardly any delay. It seems to me that’s what Gandhara’s all about. Here, the Yona don’t stand apart, and they’re popular for it. Here, they treat the Indians more as partners than subjects. They go out of their way to make them feel comfortable. And that’s the message of these coins. They’re saying that Gandhara’s not just for the Yona but for the Indians too. Look at this one.”
It was a tiny square bronze piece, also bilingual, and it showed an eight-spoked wheel.
“The dharmachakra!” cried Ram with delight. “The Wheel of Dharma! To which they say we’re all bound! That’s what the Buddha talked about. A circle, without beginning or end, like our life.”
“The king really is taking the Buddha seriously, isn’t he?” I remarked. “My father sympathised, and so did Apollodotus. But they only sympathised, whereas Menander seems to be a real follower. Next thing, he’ll be putting a portrait of the Buddha on his coins.”
“I’m not sure Indians would like that. I’ve never seen a picture of the Buddha, have you? This wheel’s about the furthest he can go.”
Shortly afterwards word came from Menander himself, not ordering me to the palace but — and it confirmed the rumours of his informality — asking if he might call on me. The household went into a flurry of preparation. Aditya conducted him first, as was proper, to pay his respects to my mother, and he stayed with her for an unexpectedly long time. Then he was brought to me, in our main reception room. Ram, who was waiting on us in his best clothes, was standing beside the wine-jar. While my confidence had grown wonderfully since I came back, I was still in some trepidation, for kings are kings. The unspeakable Eucratides apart, my only experience of ruling monarchs had been Demetrius and, much more distantly, Antimachus. But they were different, because they had been my relatives.
Menander, however, who was in his forties, keen-eyed, tall, and in workaday Indian dress, put me at instant ease. He gave me not only a namaste but a warm two-handed Greek handshake. “Dion!” he said. “How good to see you again!” He spoke, rather to my surprise, in Gandhari — and good unaccented Gandhari at that — and, equally to his credit, he did not remark on how much I had grown.
I offered him a seat, which he took, and wine and cakes, which he refused. But he asked for a cup of sherbet instead, which Ram supplied.
“Dion,” the king went on, “I have three apologies to make. One is for my failure to condole with you on the dreadful deaths of so many of your family. You’ll understand why I couldn’t, and my sympathy is no less real for being late. The second is that I’ve been so dilatory in coming here for a word with you. As you’ll also understand, I’ve been rather busy, not just in the field but with catching up on the backlog once campaigning was over. And my third apology is that, because Deepak’s dispatches concentrated on your news and not on the details of your journey, I’ve only just learnt from your mother of the state you were in when you returned. I’m sorry to hear you had to suffer so much. Tell me more about your escape.”
I did, in fair detail, from Alexandria to the desert and across the mountains. He followed closely, asking intelligent questions and especially about Bactria.
“I can well understand,” he said when I reached the end, “why you were in such distress of mind, after those long years of exile when you must have thought that Gandhara had forgotten you, and after that dreadful journey, and after your injuries and the death of your friend. Yet you’re clearly no longer in your mental pit. What hauled you out of it?”
“Gandhara,” I replied. “And above all my very good friend Ram. This is Ram here, sir.”
“Then you are fortunate in your friend,” said Menander, looking at him with interest and acknowledging him with a bow. Ram, I could see, was startled — kings, he was thinking, do not bow to their subjects, especially menial ones.
“But even before that, Dion, you must have had great strength to see you through your exile and your ordeals. What kept you going?”
I smiled ruefully. “I don’t think I had much strength. But Datis often told me a proverb, ‘Of all virtues, patience is the greatest’.”
Menander nodded. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he said. “A motto to see you through life. Any more advice that’s come your way?”
“Not much. Since I was eight there’s been nobody to give me advice, apart from Datis. But at Alexandria there’s the tomb of a man called Cineas who built the big temple there, and on it there’s an inscription which they say is copied from the temple of Apollo at Delphi.” I had to quote it in Greek.
“In childhood, good manners;
in youth, self-control;
in middle age, fairness;
in old age, good advice;
in death, no regret.”
Menander’s eyebrows rose. “I’ve never been to Alexandria Oxiana, and those words are new to me. But they’re good too. I recall that you were well-mannered as a child. I’ve no doubt that you’re self-controlled now. And while you’re not yet middle-aged, I am, and I hope I’m fair. As for old age and death, we’ll both of us have to wait and see. Any other pointers to guide you through the pitfalls of life?”
“Well …” I hesitated, unsure of my ground. “This is something a bikkhu told me in the vihara at Batanagra. He said, ‘All you need for peace, wherever you are or whatever you’re doing, is to empty your mind.’ I did actually manage that once, for a very short time, and it did give me peace. I suspect it’s important, but I don’t understand it.”
Menander was looking at me consideringly. “Yes. The Buddha himself said, ‘Peace comes from within; do not seek it without.’ You are not a Seeker yourself, then?”
“After enlightenment? No, you couldn’t call me that, though I am curious. I know very little of what the Buddha taught. If my father told me anything, I was too young to understand, and it’s too long ago to remember. Otherwise all I know is what I’ve heard more recently from the bikkhu and from Ram.”
“And are you a Seeker?” he asked Ram.
“No, sir.” Ram, while not overawed, was surprised again, this time at a king chatting so freely to one so far beneath him. “All I know is what the steward’s told me. I was brought up as a Brahmin, after a fashion.”
“And what do the Brahmins have to say about these deep matters?”
A glint of mischief came into Ram’s eyes.
“Sir, that the gods love the mysterious and dislike the obvious.”
Menander burst into laughter. “Where’s that from?”
“One of the Upanishads, I think. It’s what the priest said when I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer.”
Menander laughed again. “Oh dear! There’s the closed fist of the teacher who keeps things back! My reply, Ram, would be that the Brahmins worship images of their gods, just as the Yona worship images of theirs, and that’s all very well. But follow the Buddha and you can do without gods, and therefore without their images and without their mysteriousness.”
It seemed a good opportunity to raise our question of a few days before. “We’ve been looking at your new coins, sir,” I said, “and especially the one with the Wheel of Dharma. I wondered if you’d ever use an image of the Buddha himself. But Ram thought that Indians wouldn’t stand for that.”
“You’re quite right, Ram. They wouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. I use images like Athena to please the more traditionalist of the Yona, and images like the bull and the elephant to please the Indians. The Buddha’s different. His symbols are acceptable, yes, but not his actual image. Not on public statements like coins. But in private it’s a different matter. Have you ever seen an image of the Buddha?”
We shook our heads.
“In that case you must come to the palace, both of you. I’ll send word when it’s convenient. Meanwhile, time’s getting on and I must tear myself away. My thanks, Dion, for your hospitality as well as for all your labours in getting your news to me. And my thanks to you, Ram, for what you are doing for Dion. Our talk has been most interesting.”
As we went out he noticed my limp. “A reminder of your ordeal?” he asked. “Is it still painful? And likely to be permanent?”
“There’s no pain now. But the doctor thinks it’ll be with me to the end of my days.”
“That’s a pity. All credit to you for not mentioning it before and claiming further sympathy.”
I blushed. And as we passed the marble bust of my great-grandfather which presided over the entrance lobby, Menander looked at it and chuckled. “Brutally realistic! That can only be Euthydemus.”
“That’s right, sir,” I said. “He died long before I was born, but I’ve always thought he must have been a bit of a thug. Did you ever meet him?”
“Not to say meet. I grew up in the Paropamisadai, not at Baktra, and I was only a boy when he died, though I did see him once when he was passing through. But yes, from all I’ve heard, you’re right. I think you have to be a bit of a thug to overthrow a well-loved king as he did, and to grab an established kingdom. But your grandfather and father were emphatically not thugs.”
“No more are you, sir,” I ventured, feeling I ought to clear the air of possible misunderstandings. “You were elected, and you’ve grabbed nothing. Nor have I, come to that, and never will. I may be of royal descent” — I nodded at my great-grand-thug — “but if I ever had any claim to this kingdom I’ve long since given it up.”
“I don’t doubt it, Dion. If you’d had any designs on it, you’d have ingratiated yourself with Eucratides — who beyond argument is another thug — on the off-chance of him insinuating you onto the throne of Gandhara to rule as his minion. No, you have my trust, as well as my thanks for your timely warning. Had it not been for you we’d have been caught entirely on the wrong foot.”
Once again I blushed, and went with him to the gate. Outside, his mounted bodyguard was awaiting him. I cast it a casual glance, followed by an incredulous stare and a gasp.
“What is it?” asked Menander at my side.
“That white horse there! Just like my Leucon!”
The horse whinnied and pawed the ground.
“Leucon?” I cried, running haltingly up. As I reached out to him he nuzzled my face. “Oh, Leucon!”
“Friends reunited, it seems,” observed the king. “How,” he asked the rider, “did you come by him?”
“Sir, he was captured, as I understand, in that last skirmish with Eucratides, when his owner was killed. And he was brought here for your stables.”
“So he is mine, then, not yours? In that case, trooper, I must trouble you to walk back to the palace. Leave the saddle and bridle on. Claim another mount from the master of the stables, and tell him why. Because it looks, Dion, as if Heliocles and his mission found Leucon in the desert and returned him to Bactria. So now he is yours again.”
I was torn between thanking him and making a fuss of Leucon. Only two good things, only two good friends, had come out of Bactria. One was gone for ever; but the other was back with me, and made it abundantly plain that he was glad to be back. As soon as the king left, I rode out of the city gate to the stable, with Ram pillion behind me, and introduced Leucon to our stableman and our other horses. Ram saddled one and together we went for a canter. Leucon seemed in fine fettle.
“But somebody’s stolen your lovely saddlecloth, boy,” I told him, patting his neck.
“What was it like?” Ram enquired.
I described its tapestried figure of a Greek. “Very handsome, he was. Datis said he looked like me. But he was only trying to build up my confidence. I didn’t have much of that, not then. Nothing like as much as you do.”
“Don’t believe it. Right now I’m terrified of what Aditya will say if he catches me on horseback in my best clothes.”
On our return Aditya did catch us. He was riding out of the stable on some errand, spotted Ram’s clothes, and launched into a tirade.
“But I’m equally guilty, Aditya,” I butted in. “So I need ticking off too.”
The old man smiled and shook his head. He would never tick me off. Nor, now, would he punish Ram for the offence. Was I taking advantage of my position? Maybe, but at least it was not on my own account.
Two days later came the promised invitation to the palace. We walked, for it was only a few blocks away. It was by no means my first visit. I had often been there back in my grandfather’s day, but had forgotten how modest and restrained it was compared to the grandiose ostentation of the palace at Baktra. There, as a small and terrified hostage, I had been sneered at by an arrogant thug surrounded by a retinue of laconic soldiers and toadying courtiers. Here we were greeted, with a minimum of formality and an absence of any attendants whatever, by a paragon of cultured civility. The difference, once again, lay in the natures of Bactria and Gandhara, which in turn reflected the characters of their rulers. Menander, as Ram and I had agreed when discussing our first meeting, was a good man and an enlightened king, worthy of every ounce of our loyalty.
“Come and look at this,” was all he now said.
He led us into a small room, its floor strewn with cushions. Against one wall stood a statue which transfixed us. It was in a fusion of styles. The head, backed by a large nimbus, was Indian and enigmatic, almost an amalgam of male and female, young, serene, aloof. In contrast, the folds of the drapery, and behind it the curvature of the belly and knee, were realistic and wholly Greek, a far cry from the stilted convention of Indian sculpture. This could only be the Buddha himself.
“I find it helpful,” said Menander after we had gazed a while, “to be able to visualise those we look up to. Agesilas created this for me — he has a sensitivity to cultures. We’re brought up to know what our own gods look like — Yona gods, that is,” he added apologetically to Ram. “And you’re brought up to what Brahmin gods look like. So why not the Buddha too? Not of course to worship, but for inspiration. To me, this image conveys the inner peace that results from following his teaching, which is what we should aim for. Just as important, it portrays someone who was essentially a mortal, who walked and talked and slept exactly as we do. It reminds me that mortals like us can reach that goal if we try. So this is where I come to meditate, in front of the Enlightened One. As he said himself, ‘He who is established in meditation knows things as they really are;’ and that is something that is well worth knowing. Neither of you meditate, I take it?”
“Not yet, sir,” I said. “But I’ve just enrolled on a beginners’ course with Dipankar, and no doubt he’ll be introducing me to it.”
“A good choice of study, and a good choice of teacher. I was wondering what you would find to occupy yourself. And what about you, Ram? What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to work with the Rani’s steward, sir. But first I’ve got to learn to read and write properly, and do sums.”
“And have you a tutor?”
“Then perhaps I may be able to help. My son Antialcidas has just finished his studies, and his tutor Upagupta is looking for another position. He can teach all the basic skills like writing and accounting, and he’s fluent in both Gandhari and Yona. I can recommend him highly.”
Once outside his gate we stopped to discuss it. We were surer than ever, despite our limited experience, that just as the Buddha had been a mortal out of the ordinary, so Menander was a king out of the ordinary.
“But why,” I asked, “is he doing so much to help us?”
“Well, I think he’s worked out our relationship and doesn’t object to it. And he obviously respected your father and grandfather. And one reason he came to see you was to size you up, and he decided you could be trusted. On top of all that, he obviously likes you.”
“He likes you too, or he wouldn’t have invited you today.”
“Do you think it’s because he approves of Yona and Indians in partnership together?”
“But am I really Yona?”
If I had formerly felt Greek, I felt much more Indian now. I was even beginning to think and to dream in Gandhari.
“Well, you look more Yona than Indian. Your name’s Yona. Your father was Yona, and a king.”
“Plenty of other Yona have married Indians, though.”
“But not at the top. Not until your father. Now, not even Menander himself. After all, Queen Agathocleia is Yona.”
Yes, she was; a stodgy woman, I had heard, without any visible sparkle, most unlike her husband.
“You mean,” I said, “that of the mixed couples around, we have the highest profile? Not that I feel high-profile, and don’t want to be. But you think he approves of us because we’re a public advertisement for his policy?”
“Something like that.”
On the way home we dropped in on Ram’s family. Bappa was in his workshop adzing a plank, and we did not stay for long. But we did tell him what we thought of the king, and asked his own opinion.
“The same as you. And he’s not just friendly and no-nonsense and sympathetic to our beliefs. He’s out to help us ordinary folk. I remember when I was a boy and we were ruled by Brihadratha” — who had been the last Maurya king — “and then Pusyamitra” — the first Sunga one. “In those days Taxila wasn’t much more than a market town, and trade was none too brisk. All the work that came my father’s way he could manage single-handed. But about the same time that he died, Demetrius and the Yona took over and Taxila became a capital city.”
Bappa squinted along the plank to check its trueness.
“Since then, my trade’s tripled. Even commissions from the palace, even from Menander himself, though he’s been there less than a year. It’s the same all round. He’s made work for the smiths and the weavers and the road-workers. He’s trying to help the farmers by lowering taxes. So yes, Menander’s a blessing. So was Apollodotus. So are all the Yona, come to that. And I’m not saying that, young man, just because you’re half Yona and the son of Pantaleon — and he’d have been another blessing too if he’d been given the time. It’s the whole atmosphere. These days you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder, not like you did when the Sungas were in charge. The way you traipse around with this scallywag servant of yours,” and he wagged a finger at his son, who was grinning again, “well … can you imagine that happening under the Sungas? I can’t. Now hop it and let me get on with my work.”
He clapped us both on the shoulder and picked up his adze. I was left with the impression that Bappa too had worked out our relationship, and had no objection.
We acted on the king’s offer and hired Upagupta, and Ram now spent his days studying under him. I started on my course and now spent my days at Dipankar’s academy. Our nights remained our own, and remained as busy as ever. After all, we loved each other, and frequently said so.
But it was from that point that things began to go wrong.