Vangisa: “I burn with sexual desire. My mind is in flames. Tell me, out of pity, how to extinguish them.”
Ananda: “Your mind is inflamed by distorted perception. Shun the idea of beauty accompanied by lust. Contemplate foulness. Devote your mind to your body, and be disgusted by it.”
Vangisa, Ananda Sutta
Ram’s lessons with Upagupta were going well, and I was helping as much as I could with his exercises in reading, writing and arithmetic. My own course also started off well, with an introductory background to the Buddha’s life story: how, some four hundred years ago, he was miraculously conceived in northern India, born a prince, entered an arranged marriage, and fathered a son. But, shocked by all the suffering he encountered, he adopted a life of extreme asceticism that nearly killed him. Then he discovered meditation, which led him eventually to enlightenment and the ultimate state of nirvana, freed from all the delusions of the world. Thereafter, as the Enlightened One, he spent the rest of his life with his band of disciples, travelling and preaching. After his death at the age of eighty, his ashes were distributed between a large number of stupas or memorials across much of the land.
This biographical introduction was given to us by an assistant. So far, so straightforward. It was only then that Dipankar himself took over to teach us what the Buddha had actually taught. All of it is generally known and need not be spelled out. Much of it is widely accepted and, to me, made very good sense. It says, in brief, that we are bound to the wheel, the relentless cycle of rebirth from one life to another, endlessly and fruitlessly repeated unless we free ourselves from it to achieve enlightenment and nirvana. It insists that our hearts should be filled with compassion. It guides, it comforts, it uplifts, it offers directions to a beneficial and rewarding route through the shoals of life just as a chart does to a mariner. All this I shared with Ram. But a few parts gave rise to much soul-searching. These problems I also shared.
“The Buddha insisted we have to strike a balance. Listen to this — it’s what he said, in his own words, in one of his early sermons.” I read from my notes.
“‘There are two extremes that should not to be practised by one who has gone into the world. One is the pursuit of delight in sensual pleasures, which is base, vulgar, common, ignoble and unprofitable; the other is the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble and unprofitable. The Perfect One avoids both extremes by adopting the Middle Way, which gives vision and knowledge and which leads to peace, insight, enlightenment and unbinding.’
“So we shouldn’t go too far in either direction, whether in how much we eat or in how much we do in bed. That’s the crucial point, to follow the Middle Way. Dipankar gave us a good analogy from the Mahavagga. Think of a three-stringed lute. One string’s loose — such as when you give in to every desire — and it makes a poor sound when you pluck it. One string’s over-tight — such as when you torture your mind and body unreasonably — and it makes a poor sound too, as well as being in danger of breaking. Only the middle string is neither too loose nor too tight, and it makes a pleasant sound. In the same sort of way, anyone who follows the Middle Way will find peace of mind and enlightenment.”
“I see the point,” said Ram. “But what does going too far mean?”
“Well, when I was in Bactria I was miserable. On my journey here I was in torment, physical torment at first, then mental torment after Datis died. I went too far one way, and it was dreadful. And after I was safe home and had got to know you, I reckon I went too far the other way. I’m not talking about over-eating. All right, I started off by scoffing simply because I needed all that food to build my body up; but now I stop when I’ve had enough. I ration myself, if you like, just as you do. The real question is what we do in bed. We don’t ration ourselves there, do we? We just let rip till we’re exhausted. Do you remember when the king was here, he said he had no doubt I was self-controlled? Well, I don’t feel that I am.”
“All right, it was dreadful for you then, when you tortured yourself. But is it dreadful now, in bed?”
“Well, no.” I had to be honest. “Or it doesn’t feel it. But Dipankar says that the more you have, the more you want. If you aren’t controlled in eating, you get addicted and keep shovelling food in, and you grow more and more obese. That’s easy to see and easy to understand. And likewise if you aren’t controlled in bed, you get addicted. The result may not be so obvious, but he says it’s just as bad. And when you think about it” — as I was currently doing, contemplating our bedtime activities in all their minute details — “it is rather gross, isn’t it?”
“Is it any grosser than eating?” Ram asked cynically. “Is it really grosser than shoving bits of chicken into your mouth? The chicken doesn’t get any pleasure out of it. Not like you do when you shove your bits into my mouth.” He used, for that, a coarse vernacular word. “Or me when I shove mine into yours.”
Never, normally, did he talk such crudities. But I ignored the warning signs and pressed on.
“That’s irrelevant. Some followers of the Buddha don’t eat chicken anyway, or any other animal. The simple fact is that we need to cut back.”
“Cut back to what? To only twice a night? Each?”
“I was going to suggest once a night. To start with.”
There was a long pause. “Well,” he said dubiously, “if you insist, we’ll try. But it won’t help our togetherness. Dipankar must be a killjoy.”
We tried once a night. Although I would not openly admit it, Ram was right. It did not help our togetherness. And a few days later Dipankar, who was an eminently persuasive teacher, took a further step along the road. Fired with all the crusading zeal of the simple-minded convert, I passed the new information on to Ram.
“He explained another of the Buddha’s teachings, that at the root of suffering there are three principal delusions, and that all of them should be avoided. They’re ignorance, and hatred, and attachment, which are personified as the hog, the snake and the dove. There’s no argument that ignorance and hatred should be avoided — everyone would agree on that. But attachment’s more difficult. As Dipankar defined it, it doesn’t just mean excessive desire or greed, which we’re already trying to cut back on. It includes passion and love as well.”
“But the other day you said the Buddha taught that we should fill our hearts with love.”
“That’s a different sort of love. That’s compassion, loving-kindness, like being considerate to everyone, or not being cruel to animals. It isn’t erotic love. I mean, I love Leucon, but not erotically.”
“But according to Aditya, all the Buddha laid down in the Third Precept was ‘no sexual misbehaviour.’ And that’s taken to mean that what we do isn’t forbidden.”
“I’m afraid Dipankar doesn’t agree with Aditya. According to him, the love we’re talking about comes in two sorts. There’s selfish or physical love with attachment, which means a desire for the body, and it enslaves you. And there’s unselfish and lasting love without attachment, which involves only the mind, and it sets you free. I love you for your mind, Ram, and I’ve been selfish in wanting your body too. It’s bad karma. Because everything we do has an effect, doesn’t it? It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. We can’t tell where the ripples are going to spread, or how far. So best not to throw stones at all, because they might have a bad effect. Bad intent and bad deeds lead to suffering in the current life, and they affect future lives too. Yours as well as mine. The Brahmins say pretty well the same. Dipankar quoted the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” — again I read from my notes.
“They say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.”
Ram pulled a long face. “I don’t for a moment believe your desires are bad. Or your deeds. Or mine either.”
“But they might be. We might be dragging each other down.”
“Why do anything at all, then, if it might be bad? And the other day you were going on about avoiding the extremes, about not going too far in either direction. That made us cut down to what you call the Middle Way. But now you’re saying we should do absolutely nothing. If that isn’t an extreme I don’t know what is.”
“Well, it’s what Dipankar says.”
“You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am.”
“It won’t set us free. It’ll just set us apart,” said Ram bitterly. He sighed. “Have it your way, then. It’s my fault for suggesting you go to that man.”
“But I still love you, Ram.”
I spoke too late. He had stalked out. No longer thereafter did he share my bed or even my room. A corner of me groaned at his absence. Most of me took self-righteous and misguided pride in upholding what I thought was the Buddha’s message. Looking back, I am profoundly ashamed. And the next year and a half were so painful that I will say little about them.
I continued with Dipankar, studying the Most Excellent Law, reading the sutras, trying to absorb such profundities as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence. Ram continued with his tutor, and we saw each other only intermittently. I suspected he now shared a bed with Pranesh or Hemal or both, but I did not probe.
Then came the Brahmin festival of Holi, which marks renewal, the end of winter, the arrival of spring, the triumph of good. It is a time to play and laugh, to forget and forgive, and to repair ruptured relationships. Bonfires are lit, songs sung, drums beaten, coloured water thrown over all and sundry. It is also a time for bawdy language and provocative pranks, because Holi is a celebration of Kamadeva, the god of sexual passions. Once again the household took part; but if Ram was hoping for reconciliation with me, he was disappointed. I stayed austerely aloof, and with a resigned sneer endured the music and laughter that percolated into my room.
With the new campaigning season under way, there was the very welcome news that Menander had decisively driven Eucratides out of his foothold in the Paropamisadai and had strengthened the frontier. In doing so, he had taken Eucratides’ younger son prisoner and was holding him as hostage for his father’s good behaviour, just as I had been held hostage myself.
There was also, however, for me, a personal change which was far less welcome. While my mother must have known that I no longer saw much of Ram, she never mentioned it. She felt, presumably, that his days of usefulness were over, although he would not be dismissed — Aditya would make quite sure of that. But I turned eighteen, which is when boys are deemed to have reached full manhood, and as Ram had foretold she flatly decreed, as a matter beyond contradiction, that it was time for me to marry. She had already found me a bride, Aruna by name, the daughter of a friend, aged fifteen, a demure and pretty little thing. That is how these things are almost always done, among Indians and Greeks alike. For sons as for daughters it is their duty to obey, and obedience to my parents had been drummed into me in boyhood. And if, I comforted myself, an arranged marriage was good enough for the Buddha, it was good enough for me. I did feel some affection for my bride, but only as one does for a child. I did feel some pity that she had no more enthusiasm for marriage than me. I did feel frustration that she was totally unassertive and incapable of interacting or arguing or laughing or teasing as Ram had done. What I did not feel, and at this stage was hardly expected to feel, was any love for her.
The wedding was colourful, protracted, and wholly in Sanskrit. Ram was present, as was the entire household, and several times I caught his questioning eye on me. Was he, I wondered, contemplating and fearing the time when an arranged marriage might be forced on him as well? Was he supposing that I would let rip with Aruna as I had once let rip with him? But when in bed with her I did no more than the bare minimum that duty demanded.
There followed the summer migration to Srinagari, which had somehow lost its magic. It was there that Aruna found she was pregnant. I was relieved to return to Taxila, and early next year she gave birth to a boy. He was healthy, and my mother was ecstatic. While I expected to be indifferent about him as the necessary outcome of an unwanted process, to my surprise I found myself proud and intrigued. Being three-quarters Indian, his skin was quite dark, and I therefore felt it right to recognise the Greek part of his ancestry by giving him a Greek name. I did go through the motions of consulting Aruna but, as in all else, she left it entirely to me. So, because her name means sunrise, I sought to please her by calling him Heliodorus, gift of the sun.
Only a few months after his birth I was invited to the palace, and what resulted — the next turn of the wheel — deserves a fuller record because of its impact on my later career. I had not seen Menander for a long time, but his opening courtesies seemed less cordial than usual. He congratulated me on becoming a father; yet, without actually saying so, he implied his disappointment that Ram was wholly out of my life. How he had heard I cannot be sure; possibly through my mother. Then he got down to business.
Anourogrammon, he reminded me, was the great and flourishing capital of the island of Taprobane, enlarged and adorned over many generations, and its current king Dutthagamani was about to inaugurate the Great Stupa there. He had written to Menander as a fellow monarch who followed the Buddha, inviting him to send a delegation to attend the foundation ceremony. Menander would have liked to go in person, but an absence of several months was out of the question. It was also out of the question for his son Antialcidas, who was being groomed as his successor. Menander was however eager to gratify Dutthagamani, and asked if I, as the son of a sympathetic former king of Gandhara, would head the mission instead. With me would go a bevy of twenty bikkhus from the large monastery at Bukephala not far from Taxila, who would be under the wing of a Greek monk who had taken the complicated name of Mahadharmaraksita. The whole expedition would be arranged and funded by the king.
I had no hesitation in agreeing. It was an honour and a sign of Menander’s trust, and it was good to be in a position to repay some of his kindness. This would be very different from my previous mission under Heliocles and, Tabrobane being the whole length of India away, it would be a protracted one. I begged leave of absence from Dipankar and made my way to Bukephala to join the bikkhus.
It took us twenty days in a river boat down the Indus to Patala, where we transferred to a specially-chartered ship. Never before had I set eyes on the sea, and I was duly impressed by its vast expanse and by how, twice a day, it rose and fell. I was less impressed once we set sail, even though it was spring and the winds gentle, and it was several days before my stomach grew accustomed. This voyage lasted another twenty days as we followed the coast southwards, putting in overnight at ports small and large. Finally we reached Taprobane and, after a day’s journey overland, the imposing city of Anourogrammon. Dutthagamani welcomed us with every courtesy but, because my presence was purely decorative and required only at the main ceremonies, I spent much of the time sightseeing. I admired the grand assemblage of palaces, monasteries and stupas — grander by far than anything Gandhara had to offer — and a bodhi tree propagated from the original under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment. But what particularly caught my attention was the great irrigation works in the plains outside the city.
I had some limited experience of such things from the flat terrain of the Oxus valley in Bactria and from the region around Taxila. Here in Taprobane were huge reservoirs impounded by dams and interconnected by an intricate network of canals and even underground conduits, so that excess water from one flowed automatically into another. They were laid out on a neatly logical system, and on a scale and with a technical skill I had never seen before. The simple irrigation works in my home territory seemed, by comparison, woefully haphazard and primitive and in need of improvement. I talked at some length to the superintendent of the water works and committed to memory as much of the detail as I could.
After seven days at Anourogrammon we began the long journey home. It lacked the novelty of the voyage out, and the earnest debates of my fellow-passengers grew ever more wearisome. My mind turned, as I watched the distant palm-dotted shoreline sidling past, to nostalgia and introspection. I was unhappy and growing unhappier. Abstinence irked. It was belatedly sinking in that ever since Ram had slipped away from me — or more accurately since I had pushed him away — my life had been incomplete. There was nothing to fill the gnawing vacuum because I could not now go back to him, or not on the old footing. I had returned, almost, to where I had been during my exile.
I could not even put my problem to Mahadharmaraksita and his bikkhus, who were lifelong celibates. Neither they nor Brahmin priests would know anything about bodily togetherness. Dipankar, for that matter, was a bikkhu too. His experience and his wisdom might range wide, but not in this direction. The theory was one thing, and I could begin to understand it. It was when the theory was translated into practice that I found myself rebelling. Why not use Dipankar’s own techniques to further my rebellion? Hitherto my attempts at meditation had seemed artificial. But now I sat absolutely still, emptying my mind of thought. I closed my eyes to shut out the sun and the sea and the whole present and past. And into the emptiness the answer came welling up.
It was perverse that, in this realm, followers of the Buddha and Brahma alike should have to look for guidance to priests and monks who claimed to have risen above the urges of the flesh. Because most of them had been dedicated to abstinence since childhood, they had wholly bypassed what to ordinary folk is an everyday need and an everyday activity. It is all very well to transcend an emotion in pursuit of something higher, but can one transcend it satisfactorily without experiencing it? For advice on sailing, one does not consult a man who has never been in a ship. For instruction on cooking, one does not ask someone who is forbidden to enter the kitchen. Dipankar’s message about love was simply wrong. Even if, arguably, it applied to bikkhus, it could not reasonably apply to laymen like me. He had misled me. As Ram had pointed out, I was guilty once again of straying from the Middle Way into an excess of self-mortification. There and then I decided not to go back to Dipankar’s course.
But it was too late to mend my — or his — mistake. I was tied to Aruna. For me, infidelity was as unthinkable as it was for any proper adherent of Brahma or the Buddha. Ram was irrevocably out of my life.
The holiday I hoped for had turned into a darkness of despair. It was in disgruntled frame of mind that I took the monks back to Bukephala, where we were welcomed by the king’s governor. He lent me a horse and I rode to Taxila. Three months had elapsed since I left, and any day now the household would be setting off for Srinagari. When I arrived the evening was closing in fast and few people were on the streets. I passed an acquaintance who, when he saw who I was, showed deep embarrassment, as if he would much rather have avoided me.
On my asking what was wrong was he blurted out, “I’m sorry, Dion, that you’re coming back to a house of disaster and death.”
He scuttled hurriedly away. Alarmed but uncomprehending, I rode on. But when I turned the corner I understood. Our house had been burned down. Apart from one or two free-standing rooms it was a jumble of fallen mud-brick walls and charred timbers which still stank of fire. Aghast, I threaded my way in for a closer look. Nobody inside, surely, could have escaped.
Another despair engulfed me. I had lost everything: my son, my mother, my wife, my home. Ram too, but I had lost him earlier. Squatting among the sorry ruins, I put my head in my hands and wept. I do not know how long I stayed there in my emptiness before an arm came round me, a comforting arm, and a well-remembered voice spoke in my ear.
“Dion! I saw you arrive.”
I looked up. A great patch of his hair and one eyebrow were missing, his hands were in bandages, and his face was distraught. Unthinkingly, instinctively, my own arms went round him, and we hugged as we had hugged long ago, as though nothing had come between us. I needed the comfort. It felt as if he needed to give it.
“Ram!” I sobbed. “I thought you were dead! Like everyone else.”
“Not everyone, Dion. Not quite. Yes, the Rani’s dead, and Aruna, and Aditya and all the servants. But Heliodorus is alive and well.”
A wave of relief rolled over me, not that so many had perished but that the two most dear to me were alive.
“Thank the gods for that! And that you’re alive too. But my mother …”
It was proper that I should at least acknowledge the dead. But the loss was too sudden to take in fully. Despair was one thing. Personalised grief had yet to take hold. My response could only be stop-gap and inadequate.
“She was a wonderful lady …” I said mechanically. “I owed her so much. We didn’t see eye to eye over everything, but a mother is a mother. And Aditya … I never remember him not being around. And the servants … Pranesh and Hemal too?”
Ram nodded soberly. “All of them. Oh, except the stableman who of course was in the stable. And the horses there.”
“How did it happen?”
“It was in the middle of the night, a month ago. I was at my parents’ because Ashmi’s new baby had just died.” I nodded vaguely in sympathy. Ashmi was his sister, and newborn children often died. “And I looked out of the window and saw flames. So I rushed back here with Bappa and my brothers. It was well ablaze, and we thought nothing could be done. But then I heard Heliodorus crying, and waded in. The women’s quarters had already collapsed in a great heap, but by some miracle his crib was left on top. And he was still in it.”
“And you pulled him out and got burned in the process. Oh, Ram!” I squeezed him tighter. “How badly?”
“Not very. My hands are almost back to normal. And my hair’s growing again.”
“Ram, you’re a hero! Where’s Heliodorus now?”
“At home. My home. Bappa took him straight there and gave him to Ashmi to suckle — she adores him, and he’s helped to fill her loss. But after that there really wasn’t anything we could do. People were flinging water, but it was quite useless. I think the vats of oil in the kitchen must have overturned and fed the fire. It was an absolute inferno, and it was hours before anyone could get in to search properly. But the king’s been marvellous. He saw the blaze too, from the palace, and was afraid it might be us. So he sent some servants to help, and in the end they found the bodies and brought them out. The office was untouched because it stands by itself, and the king told them to take all the valuables and cash from it to the royal bank for safety, in case thieves got at them. All the records too. And next day the dead were cremated.” Ram pulled a wry face. “Well, re-cremated. It was all done properly, Dion. It was the king himself who put the torch to the pyres.”
He paused while I absorbed it.
“Dion,” he went on, much more cautiously. “You mentioned the Rani and Aditya and even Pranesh and Hemal. But you didn’t mention Aruna.”
It was belatedly dawning on me, now that everything had been turned upside down, how things stood between him and me, or how they might stand. I looked at him, and although it was almost fully dark I could tell that he was wondering the same. I began with lame excuses.
“I should have done, shouldn’t I? She didn’t deserve to die, and of course I’m sorry she did. But to be brutally honest, Ram, Aruna was never a close part of my life. Nothing like as close as my mother and Aditya. Nothing like as close as you. I had to marry her, Ram. There was no way of escaping it.”
“Oh yes, understood. Don’t worry about that. I’d have had to do the same if I’d been told to marry. But I won’t be. Bappa knows I’m not the marrying sort.”
That was news to me, but it fitted. Bappa was an understanding man, and long ago I had guessed that he was aware of our relationship. His lack of objection, it seemed, had translated into positive approval. That was music to my ears. But I had not yet said what had to be said. I saw that, if we were to get anywhere, we had to over-ride the past and concentrate on the future. That was the point in my life, as I now recognise on looking back, when I really grew up.
“So I can’t apologise for marrying,” I went on with a huge effort. “What I am desperately sorry about is what I did to you before that … Ram … Ram … while I’ve been away I’ve been thinking, and I’ve seen that I was wildly astray. That Dipankar was wildly astray. That what he said about love … he didn’t know what he was talking about.” I tried to explain why Dipankar was astray. “And so,” I ended, “I’m not going back to him.”
“Does that mean you’re coming back to me?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask, Ram. And more than I deserve. But may I?”
“On what basis?”
“On the old basis. Forget everything Dipankar said. I still see the virtue of the Middle Way, and I wouldn’t want to go over the top. But I’ve learned my lesson. Let’s ration nothing. Let’s do what feels right for us, no more and no less.”
He released a deep breath. Ram, I can also recognise in retrospect, had grown up long before I had. “Done!” he said. I could make out the gleam of his teeth as he beamed. “I’ve never seen as much in the Buddha’s teaching as you have, Dion, but I knew you were saying what you thought was right. And I knew you’d come back, sooner or later.” It was more than I had known. “Don’t worry. Everything’s forgiven. Let’s start again.”
We were still in each other’s arms, and nobody could see us. Our mouths met. There and then we set about making up for lost time. Amid the blackened wreckage of our old life we began, awkwardly but urgently, to rebuild a new one.
Next we took the governor’s horse to our stable outside the walls, rubbed it down, and stumbled our way back through the dark streets to Ram’s crowded home. Late though it now was, I was greeted with floods of welcome and condolence and food. Heliodorus was at Ashmi’s breast, and when he lifted his face I saw recognition and a little smile; or so I liked to think. But my brain, though part-relieved, was still addled. Turning down all the offers of food and everyone’s offer to give up their own bed, I lay down in my blanket on the floor of Bappa’s workshop. It was hard, and I slept little, but it was right: a crumb of justifiable self-mortification to atone for my massive loaf of errors. And, until I blew the lamp out, Euthydemus’ gaze was on me, for he was tucked in a corner behind the pole-lathe. Someone must have rescued him from our lobby. His glare was stern and disapproving. Had he still been alive we would, I thought, have found little to agree on.
“Thank you, Dion,” said Bappa when he reclaimed his workshop in the morning. “Ram’s happier than he’s been for months if not years. I’m overjoyed that you’re back together again.”
No thanks to me. Thanks to Ram himself, and to Bappa for understanding Ram’s needs. But although I was now on a slightly more even keel, now was not the time to go into detail. Ram and I had to talk. We escaped from the bustle of the house to the privacy and relative quiet of the city wall. Ram asked how I had slept.
“Badly. Guilt and grief. I spent hours weeping for my mistakes, weeping for my mother and all the others. What finally got me off to sleep was the Buddha’s words: ‘The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly’.”
“Good. But even if you don’t have to worry about the distant future, you do need to think about what to do next.”
I gazed across at the columns of smoke going up from the burning-ghats by the river, which threatened to resurrect my grief. But I pushed it away, and we chewed over the immediate questions. Should I rebuild the house? And should I retain the property at Srinagari? They might have suited my mother’s lavish lifestyle, but both seemed far too large for my purposes. It seemed best to sell the Taxila site and the Srinagari house and buy smaller properties instead. That would be a self-financing move because one would pay for the other, with plenty to spare; not that money was a problem, with my cash in safekeeping at the bank and rents still coming in. So we began to envisage more modest establishments, big enough only for … who?
“Ram, how’s your education been going?”
“Very well. I’m fine at reading and writing, but so far only in Prakrit. Upagupta’s going to start me off with Yona next.”
“I wonder if that’s top priority. There’s no question now of you stepping into Aditya’s shoes, because the household won’t be big enough to need a steward. You’re still being paid your wages, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes. Or I was until the fire.”
“Well, I’m not going to pay you any more, because you aren’t my servant any more. You’re my companion. My money’s yours. Help yourself to whatever you want. I trust you, just as you trust me.”
For my part, I was now sole owner of the whole of my father’s estate. The agent who managed it was a competent man, but as head of the family it was my duty to inspect my own land and get to know it. That would involve much travelling, for I knew that some was in Kaspiria and much was down, even far down, the Indus valley. But it must be my next task, after dealing with the properties, and Ram must come with me. For the time being, there was no alternative to Heliodorus remaining with Ashmi, and I must talk to her and to Ram’s family about caring for him, at least until he was weaned, and recompense them for it.
We next called at the palace and after the shortest of waits were taken in to Menander, who gave us an unfathomable look. I thanked him for his help over the fire. He offered his condolence on my losses and paid handsome tribute to my mother. He was concerned about Ram’s burns. He asked about my future plans.
“We’re not intending to rebuild the house. It would be much too big for the two of us. We’re going to buy a smaller one.”
“Ram and I, sir. We’re now … let’s call it companions.”
“Now that,” he said, his face clearing into a smile, “is very good news indeed … So you’re after a smaller house. In Taxila, I take it?”
“Well, don’t be too hasty. There’s something you ought to know that’s been brewing in my mind for a while. You may pass this on to your family, Ram, but otherwise keep it under your hat. The background is this. Here in Gandhara we’re squeezed between the Bactrians and the Sungas, neither of them friendly, and the kingdom needs strengthening. I don’t foresee any immediate trouble from Eucratides, now that I’m holding his son, because he can’t do any more than glower sulkily across the frontier. My next business isn’t with him or the west, but with Pusyamitra in the east. The Mauryan empire was great in its day; after all, under Ashoka it ruled virtually all India. But now it’s derelict. Already the Sungas have lost a third of their territories and let the rest run down, and they’re still persecuting those who revere the Buddha.
“Now I can’t bid for everything they control, but I’ve set my sights on reconstructing its north-western parts, down the Ganges valley and as far south as Ozene. It’ll mean war. Not full-blown war, I hope, but at least a show of force. It should be no harder than when Demetrius took over Gandhara, because what I’m after — as he was — is partnership with the Indians, and I think they’ll find that as welcome there as they did here. The iron hand of empire appeals to me no more than it did to him.
“So, to come to the point, I’m going to move the capital to Sagala, which is so much more central. The decree will be issued in about ten days’ time. If you’re minded to move too — as I hope you will — I suggest you buy your new property not in Taxila but in Sagala, and before prices there rocket.”
Almost as an afterthought he listened to my report on the mission to Taprobane and to my praise of the water systems I had seen. I added that before long we would be inspecting our own estates and judging how their irrigation might be improved. The king was interested.
“I’ve been coming to much the same conclusion myself. A lot of our land’s not as productive as it could be. Keep me posted, please, of anything that occurs to you to make it better.”
I told him nothing about the crisis of my faith. That was personal to me and Ram. Menander would no doubt have been disappointed again. But he was a man who worked by example rather than by persuasion, let alone by command; and, after the disaster of Dipankar, Ram and I had to sort out our own life in our own way, not by the advice of others.
We took the king’s news straight to Bappa who, without a moment’s hesitation, declared that he must move his business to Sagala. Not to follow the trade would be commercial suicide. And his decision decided us. Both of us wanted to be near Ram’s family. Heliodorus needed to be with Ashmi. Somehow we wanted to be within reach of Menander. And for the summer migration Sagala was little further from Srinagari than Taxila was.
The next few days were hectic, which also helped to keep the grief at bay. I went to the bank to withdraw a very sizeable sum of money, and together with Bappa we rode to Sagala, three days to the south-east. The town was somewhat run-down, rather as Taxila had been, I imagine, before Demetrius. And there we found a very suitable house for sale. It was not modestly-sized after all, but occupied, as ours had done at Taxila, a whole block; for as we rode we had discussed the whole matter and decided to combine our establishments into one. Ram’s family, extended though it was, was smaller than my mother’s bloated household, but its members could easily keep the new place running. There was plentiful storage for timber, a large room ideal for a workshop, and even a stable on the premises. I paid the delighted vendor cash down, and we hurried back to Taxila to sell Bappa’s house and the site of mine before Menander made his announcement and prices there plummeted.
Our new household almost created itself. Ashmi, who after a difficult time in giving birth to her ill-fated baby had been warned never to have another, leapt at the offer to serve as Heliodorus’ proxy mother. Bappa’s wife Lavani, who had ruled her Taxila home with a rod of iron, would be our housekeeper. Ram persuaded Upagupta to join us in a dual role: partly as resident tutor to teach him Greek when opportunity offered and to teach my son when the time was ripe, and partly as the household accountant to handle the day-to-day finances. Our old stableman came with us. We hired a fleet of carts and moved — so the fates uncomfortably decreed — at the same time as the rains began. Over the next few months half of Taxila, it seemed, followed, as well of course as the royal household. Settling in took time, but Bappa was delighted by the orders that came his way, and had to hire another worker. We did not after all sell the Srinagari property, for its spaciousness would still be needed.
Ram and I finally set out on the first leg of our tour of inspection, as I will shortly recount. But, to continue the political story, the king launched his assault. We watched the army march out in long troops of infantry and cavalry and war elephants. The first season of campaigning saw it move south, where the great trading port of Barygaza fell with little resistance, followed by the major centre of Ozene. Next season we heard of the army sweeping down the Ganges valley and taking over Methora, Panchala and Saketa. Finally it reached Pataliputra, the Mauryan capital of old and still the Sunga capital now, which lay far down the river. The city was large and strong, but after the shortest of sieges it fell. Menander had no intention of keeping it; he had captured it for no other reason than to demonstrate the length of his arm. He pulled back to the holy city of Kashi and there established his new frontier. At little cost he had more than doubled the size of his territories, and was hailed by his new subjects as a liberator.
King Pusyamitra promptly died, it is said of shame. His successor Agnimitra, chastened, absorbed the lessons. From their defeat the Sungas had acquired a deep admiration of Menander and, as a direct result, they stopped their persecution of followers of the Buddha. When next we saw our own king we congratulated him on the outcomes.
“Thank you,” he said. “It was easier than I dared hope. Our reputation had gone before us: the example of how Indians and Yona can work together and prosper. Which is precisely” — and he was referring to our recent activities which I am about to relate — “what you two demonstrate.”
Menander was of pure Greek descent without, as far as we knew, a drop in him of Indian or even Bactrian blood. He sounded almost envious of us. Afterwards we talked about it, Ram and I, and not for the first time. The ruler of a state the size of Gandhara, and especially a ruler so deeply involved with his subjects, cannot help but lead a busy life. Much of the business, no doubt, is routine and unexciting. Menander’s gang of clerks surely worked their fingers to the bone, and when he toured his kingdom they went with him, for affairs of state never cease. And whether at home or away he had streams of visitors — advisers and secretaries, lawyers and military men, priests and bikkhus, ordinary folk with their little problems and requests. He spoke to them all; how he found the time was a mystery. Yet we seemed to have priority. Whenever we requested an audience he saw us almost straight away. Favouritism, you may say. As Ram had pointed out, he trusted us and clearly liked us, just as we liked him, and by now we were positively friends. Yet he had very many friends. Why were we favoured friends? We never really found out.