Sampul and Ram, from The Middle Way by Mihangel

Chapter 5. On the go

The king, who loved prestige, persuaded him to divert something of his skill from abstract notions to material things and, by somehow applying his philosophy to visibly practical needs, to make it more accessible to ordinary people.

Plutarch, Marcellus, on Archimedes

Once we had resettled ourselves at Sagala and nudged the new household into effective life, the question had still to be answered of what to do with ourselves in the long term; and from this point my story must become both more episodic and more technical.

My land agent, who collected rents from the tenants and made sure that they were fulfilling their obligations, was an Indian named Geet, a man of undoubted competence but perhaps limited imagination. Since my father’s demise he had been answerable only to Aditya, whose unexpected death therefore left me in a state of profound ignorance, with no idea of exactly where the estates lay, or who the tenants were, or what kind of land they farmed. Geet’s duties, moreover, meant that he spent most of his time travelling, and there was no quick way of contacting him. All we could do was leave word at Taxila that when he next turned up he should come on to Sagala and find us there; and that, several months later, was what he did.

We spent days with him, learning the ins and outs of our property — ours, because no longer did I regard it as mine alone. In the Sagala house we had set up a new office and transferred to it all the records rescued from the old one. Geet took us through them and added his latest accounts, and at the same time we kept Upagupta in the picture in so far as it concerned him. The upshot was that Ram and I arranged to go with Geet on his next trip to Kaspiria and embark on a further round of our education. After the brief responsibility of marriage and the on-going responsibility of fatherhood, now came the responsibility of landownership. And that, as it transpired, set the wheel turning again.

It was from our base in Srinagari that we started. Kaspiria is not the most fertile of regions because it consists almost entirely of mountains and in winter is largely snow-bound. The settlements are strung far apart. Our first stop was a village named Labokla, spectacularly sited but remote, which we owned in its entirety. There we stayed with the headman, who welcomed us as the first landlords on whom he had set eyes since my father’s younger days, and he took us on a conducted tour. The land seemed to be worked as effectively as the available manpower allowed; but there were simply not enough people to take full advantage of it.

From the onset of spring there is no shortage of water melting off the mountains, and on the narrow valley floors vegetables are grown, and nuts and fruit and sugar cane, leaving the lower slopes for rice as well as some barley, millet and wheat. These slopes are commonly formed into terraces, but there can be problems over feeding water to them. If a rocky crag stands in the way of bringing a channel from a stream, there is no obvious solution beyond laboriously lifting water with a tula; and potentially useful land thus goes uncultivated. In one case we pointed out how a new high-level channel along the contour could bring water past the top of a large outcrop to drop down to a promising hillside. Yes, the headman agreed, it could be highly productive if there were people enough to cultivate it; which there were not. It seemed to me a fair comment, but Ram brooded.

“Isn’t the way round that,” he asked, “to release labour from time-consuming jobs like hulling rice and crushing sugar cane?”

“Then who,” the headman asked pointedly, “is going to hull the rice and crush the cane?”

To extract the juice from cane, which was much in demand for medicines and as a sweetener, the stems were chopped into short lengths, then crushed in a mortar by women lifting and dropping heavy pestles, and finally pressed in much the same way as grapes are in a winepress. An equally tedious and wearying chore was hulling rice with pestle and mortar to remove the husks from the grains, and pounding it again if rice flour was needed. It was many years before we found a better way of pressing the cane. But it was there and then that Ram revealed an unexpectedly inventive side to his nature by lighting on an alternative to the traditional hand pestle.

That evening, tired after an energetic day clambering around the hillsides, we were sitting with Geet and the headman near his house and watching the village children at play. They had dragged in the felled trunk of a small tree and placed it across a rock to make a seesaw. Two boys of much the same size balanced each other nicely, and they bobbed happily up and down until a smaller boy demanded his turn. One boy got off, and the vacant end of the seesaw went up in the air. The infant being unable to climb on, Ram went over to lift him into place. He was too light to make it descend and Ram, rather than telling the bigger boy to move, simply shifted the trunk across the pivot so that the ends were unequal in length. The infant on the longer end duly bobbed up and down, squealing with delight. Then the mothers called the boys in for their meal.

We were chuckling. But Ram did not come back to us. Instead he stood thoughtfully beside the seesaw, his head on one side. He put a foot on the shorter end to bring it down, stepped off to let it rise, and repeated the process over and over again. Geet and the headman watched his juvenile antics with bewilderment; but, knowing Ram, I suddenly realised what he was — quite literally — playing at.

“It needs more weight on the long end!” I called.

He grinned at me, shifted the trunk a little further along, and tried again, while I explained what he was up to. Then Ram asked a question of the headman, who put him in touch with a villager skilled at carpentry. It was too late to do anything now, but next morning the two were hard at work. They fixed a transverse axle to the tree trunk, set two stout posts in the ground to carry it, mortised a short pestle into the long end, and flattened the short end to make it easier on the feet. They dragged a mortar into place, filled it with unhusked rice, and invited the women to try their new device, which they called the jhula, the seesaw.

The response was wholly favourable. The women found that using their legs was much less tiring than using their arms, and reckoned that one of them could hull as much rice in a given time as two had done by hand. Further experiment showed the same to be true when crushing cane. The headman, jubilant, promised to build more. His only reservation was that he had expected this to be Labokla’s secret weapon to give it an edge over its neighbours, but here it was in the middle of the village for all to see. On this matter, however, we were adamant. We had promised the king to improve not only our own land but the kingdom’s, and the design of the jhula was to be common property. The more widely it was imitated the better we would be pleased.

A number of villages further on, much the same happened again. We were breakfasting in the early morning sun when Ram, having finished his daliya, balanced his wooden spoon on the rim of his bowl and sat looking at it with his head on one side. I recognised the signs; and this time he sent Geet and the headman and me off on our tour of inspection while he commandeered the help and the tools of the local carpenter. On our return that evening we heard a slow rhythmical thumping and saw a chattering crowd gathered round another jhula. The wonder was that this one was working without any human assistance at all. The shorter end, instead of being flat, was hollowed out like a huge spoon, and they had rigged it up alongside a small waterfall. A simple wooden trough fed water from the cascade into the bowl of the spoon, and when it was filled to a certain level the weight made it drop and thus lift the pestle. In dropping, the water automatically spilled out, the pestle fell, and the cycle repeated itself endlessly. Small wonder the villagers were chattering.

“It took some experimenting,” Ram reported modestly, picking at a splinter in his finger, “to find the best size and shape for the spoon. And it wouldn’t work, of course, if there wasn’t a handy waterfall. But where there is one …”

As at Labokla, we told the headman to encourage the cam’maca or spoon, as we called it, to be imitated as widely as possible. That village completed our tour of the Kaspirian lands, and we returned for a few days to Srinagari to catch up with the family and with each other. Then, the rainy season being over, we headed south with Geet on a very much longer journey.

First we poked our noses into the great salt desert: not as limitless or quite as hostile as the Tocharian desert, but mysterious with little walled cities. Short of whole rivers being diverted, this land must remain essentially arid for ever more. The people are mostly nomads, their cattle and sheep following what little grazing there is, but round the settlements some pulses are grown, despite the fact that half the crops regularly fail. These fields are watered from communal wells up to three hundred cubits deep and lined throughout, they say, with camel bones. The water is lifted by ordinary hand-turned windlasses and ordinary buckets into holding cisterns beside the well-heads, from which channels lead to the fields. So deep are the wells that the labour is heavy and incessant.

We owned a small plot of land where, because it was at the end of a channel, the crops were visibly struggling. Geet was recommending that we sell it for what small price it might raise. But Ram, again, looked and pondered and asked questions. Did the well ever run dry? No, was the answer, there was no limit to its capacity, only to the rate at which the water could be raised. Then why not lift it in a bigger container, in a large leather bag rather than a wretched little pot? A large bag, came the objection, would be too heavy for the well-men to lift. Yes, Ram replied; so instead of feeble men turning a feeble windlass, why not use the strength of a camel — or preferably of two yoked together — harnessed to the end of the rope and walking away with it? He organised the making of a large conical bag, its mouth held open by a rigid ring weighted on one side so that it filled easily when lowered to the water. Borrowing two camels, he attached them to the other end of the rope which passed over the well pulley.

At the first trial, as soon as the camels were led away from the well-head, the flimsy uprights carrying the pulley axle collapsed under the load. By the time they had been repaired and strengthened the farmers, having lost half a day’s irrigation, were in ugly mood. Luckily the next trial worked. The brimming bag reached the top, Ram leant precariously over to hook a short rope to its pointed lower end, and a few turns of the hand windlass tilted the thing over to empty into the cistern. The camels were led back to re-lower the bag, and a few more trials perfected the system. Great was the interest and excitement. Each cycle raised at least as much water, I reckoned, as five of the old cycles, and took no more time. When set against the benefit from the extra water, the cost of feeding and leading the camels would be insignificant. We called this invention the baiga or bag.

Thence we cut back west to near Patala in the Indus valley, traversed by the mighty river and as fertile for cotton, rice, wheat and sugar cane as anywhere in India. For most of the year, however, the rainfall is low. Irrigation is therefore essential; but while we may be adept at well-digging, we are — or were — not so skilled at bringing water to the right place. The land is flat. Except during the rains and their aftermath, water has to be lifted from the river into channels dug in the plain and, if it is to travel any distance, lifted a second time. The only lifting device already available was the tula with its pitifully small output. So we tried the baiga again, hauling it — by ox-power in this case — up a ramp from the river, with a very low lift compared to that at the desert well; and here too the improvement was spectacular.

But the worse problem was the irrigation channels themselves, which had been created piecemeal and higgledy piggledy. Sometimes their devious routes were in dire need of straightening, sometimes their gradients were simply wrong. Too steep, and the water flowed so fast that it overflowed where it was not wanted; too level, and it stagnated without reaching its destination and created a breeding-ground for mosquitoes. To reform the channels on our land alone, with all the digging required, would be a major and prolonged operation. Here my own experience in Taprobane came into play. Geet found for us an intelligent local man named Gul, and with him we worked out a scheme of improvement which he could supervise in our absence. He was to hire a work-force to dig new channels. Over their aligning he had no qualms, but over their gradients he pursed his lips. If an existing channel does not flow, he pointed out, one has only to dig the bed down until its does. With a new channel, given that the surface of the plain varies slightly in height, one can not be sure in advance that one is not trying to make water flow uphill. But here too I could help.

“This is what they told me at Anourogrammon,” I said. “Get a small table and a well-made bowl. Put the table where you want your new channel to start. Stand the bowl on the table and fill it with water, very gently and carefully, until the surface rises above the rim in a convex meniscus. On it float a thin piece of reed stalk. The water will be horizontal, and so the reed will be too. Mark out a long stick in cubits, and get someone to hold it upright where the channel is to end. Sight along the reed at the stick, and if the reed is — let’s say — three cubits above the ground and it points at the three-cubit mark on the stick, then the two positions are at the same level. If it points higher, your position is higher, and the marks will show you by how much. But it won’t work in a wind.”

After several trials, Gul acquired the hang of it. We arranged with Geet to keep an eye on him and at intervals to pay him, out of collected rents, for his and his gang’s labours.

That should have completed this first tour of inspection, and we bade farewell to Geet. But next morning, when we were due to leave, Ram fell ill with a bout of cold shivering which rapidly turned into a longer bout of high temperature and headache. Another few hours and the sweat was pouring from his brown face, until finally he dropped into an uneasy sleep. I was worried silly. Death in infancy and childhood was a fact of life. Death in youth was not rare. Our travels so far had brought Ram and myself even closer. While physical abstinence had often been forced upon us, our togetherness had been strengthened. Already I looked on him as the practical half of our partnership; he looked to me, he said, for the inspiration and the organisation. Inevitably we had our minor differences, as partners do, but we always resolved them amicably or even in fun. Visions of losing him were hideous.

As I sat fretful beside Ram’s bed the headman, with whom we were as usual staying, came in, looked, and shrugged his shoulders.

Trtiyakah,” he said. “Tertian fever. In these parts it’s common as mud.”

Because it was unknown around Taxila and Sagala, I knew of it only by repute — that it was nasty but rarely fatal. Tomorrow, the headman said, Ram would feel better if weak, but the following day the cycle would begin again, and so on for twenty-odd days. There was no cure. For a fee the village priest would say a prayer which would do no good. The only option was to let the fever take its course, although an infusion of pentaphyllon — cinquefoil — was some sort of palliative. This being readily available beside the fever-ridden Indus, I bought some, though I doubt it did any more good than the priest’s charms. Ram sweated through his days of delirium while I held his hand and tried to cool his brow; and he endured the intervening days of feebleness in frustration because he was normally a bundle of energy. At last the fever receded and he regained enough strength for gentle riding. It was not the end of it, the headman warned, because it would recur at intervals.

Arriving home well over a month later than expected, we thought the family would be beside itself with anxiety. But no.

“We were only just beginning to get concerned,” they said, “when we heard that Ram was ill, but not desperately ill. It was the king himself who sent us word, good man. And he’d like to see you as soon as you can. What have you been up to?”

Menander began by commiserating with Ram on his illness, and when we asked how on earth he had known about it, he laughed out loud at our bewilderment.

“No magic. If Gandhara succeeds as a kingdom it’s because I try to listen to what’s going on. The Sungas, on the other hand, can’t be bothered — when we stepped in, they had no idea there was so much discontent and were astonished that their people came flocking to us. And I listen through my provincial governors. They send me regular reports — every month, it’s supposed to be — and each of them listens through a host of local people around his province: not spies who snoop, but folk who simply keep their ear to the ground. Well, at every stage along your journey you’ve left your mark. First I heard from your friend Deepak in Kaspiria about your seesaws, then from the desert about your bags, then from Patala about your water channels and about Ram’s illness. Wherever you’ve been you’ve become the talk of the region. Small wonder that word of your doings has percolated back to the governors, and so to me.

“But the point is this. As I told you a while back, any improvements to our agriculture are to be welcomed. Your ideas for irrigation and mechanising tedious chores seem to me well worth fostering, and while you’ve naturally started on your own lands, you’ve been noble enough to allow others to imitate you. But so far, inevitably, only a tiny fraction of Gandhara knows about them. What I propose, if you’re willing, is to employ you — both of you — to disseminate those ideas as widely as possible. There’s no immediate urgency, because Ram needs to complete his recovery. But would you give a little thought to how it might best be done? And come back in a month’s time to confer with my agricultural and financial officers?”

Here at last was the answer to the question of what to do with ourselves. On the spot we agreed in principle, and after giving it thought — not a little but a great deal — we met the king’s officials. To cut another long story extremely short, a scheme was hammered out whereby we were officially appointed agricultural advisers to the realm with supervisory duties. It started off on quite a modest scale, with the potential to grow if it proved satisfactory.

Under us were two departments. Gul, whose irrigation and water-lifting works on the Indus soon proved their worth, was to train up others and to spread the message to all other parts of Gandhara — including the newly-won Ganges valley — where it was relevant. To spread the message about the jhula and cam’maca, we enlisted Ram’s older brother Kavi, who was still unmarried and, developing itchy feet, wanted to break free from Bappa’s workshop. His job was also to build up his own team and to travel the kingdom, but in his case as a carpenter to demonstrate the machines for imitation by local craftsmen. Both of them gave advice for free, but landowners were expected to have the channels dug or machines built at their own expense. Within a few years the scheme had become a major undertaking, and we ended up with a hundred people under us.

It was not easy. It never could be easy in a territory so large and where travel was so slow. In Sagala we set up a headquarters which tried to coordinate the movements of our staff, to keep tabs on who was where, and to maintain records of where they had been and what they had done. Even those records proved a headache, as they did in every branch of government. Parchment was available, but at a price. For the most part the clerks wrote on birch bark or palm leaves or wax tablets, which do not lend themselves to orderly filing. Papyrus all the way from Egypt would once have been the answer, but although there were ancient documents on papyrus in the archives, none had reached India for a century.

So the years rolled by. Our supervisory work took us the length and breadth of the newly-enlarged Gandhara, from the Paropamisadai to Kashi, from Kaspiria to Barygaza, through all manner of terrain and among all manner of peoples. For relatively rapid travel we would use the few major roads: above all the ancient Uttarapatha or North Road which ran from Kophen to the Ganges mouth, and its branch south to Barygaza. Much of it was tree-shaded, the hard middle road taking the fast traffic, left and right the rougher road for the heavy carts of grain and cotton and timber, fodder, lime and hides. Here moved all kinds of men, priests and peasants, bankers and tinkers, barbers and cobblers, pilgrims and potters, the whole world going and coming.

More often, however, we were in the middle of nowhere, picking our own way along miserable tracks, struggling to make ourselves understood in regions of different dialect or different language, meeting only minimal and local traffic, venturing heart in mouth across abysses on rickety reed-rope bridges, giving a wide berth to such hooded cobras as we might spot, fighting off village curs with our sticks, dossing down (if there was nowhere better) in barns shared with calving cows, dusting each other with tankana — borax — to keep the fleas at bay, swearing in most un-Buddha-like fashion when we stepped in a cowpat or an overgrown ditch, teasing endless thorns out of our legs, squatting interminably over noxious pits when bad food turned our bowels to water, holding hands while Ram sweated through a recurrence of his fever. We ended up knowing rural Gandhara more intimately, I venture to say, than did the king himself, who was no stay-at-home.

We travelled essentially by horse. My beloved Leucon died of sheer old age. No city was named after him as Bukephala had been; but then I was not Sikandar and Leucon no Bucephalus. Sometimes we had the company of Kavi or Gul or their minions, more often we were by ourselves. We inspected, suggested, cajoled, but never could we command, because such changes should take root by example and persuasion, not by decree. Slowly at first, then ever faster, our efforts paid off. One sad year the rains failed and famine stalked the land. Ganges and Indus and other great rivers of the north, fed by meltwater from the Imaus, could never wholly fail. But where water was lifted from them by the new method, and where the irrigation channels had been upgraded, the famine was markedly less dire than elsewhere.

Meanwhile our personal life reshaped itself. Just as the original barriers between us had fallen remarkably fast because we needed each other then, so now did the barrier I had foolishly constructed. We needed each other still; and this time the Middle Way of moderation was more or less forced upon us. Once we had become accustomed, it was not too irksome. When staying with a headman, or in the communal living room of some sleazy rest-house in the back of beyond, or even, if the worst came to the worst, in the house of a money-grubbing priest, we had to observe the proprieties. We tried to organise our movements so that we travelled for no more than three months at a time, followed by at least a month at home with the family and, more intimately, with each other. When the rains made the lowlands a nightmare, we escaped to Srinagari and Kaspiria. And all this time, in front of my eyes, Ram ripened from boy to youth to man; and I ripened with him.

Upagupta was still with us. Time allowed Ram’s education to be no more than spasmodic, so that while his spoken Greek was now good, his written Greek was no better than shaky. More importantly, Heliodorus was growing up. While we spent all the time with him that we could, he was shaped as much, we had to admit, by the doting care that was showered on him by Ashmi and tempered by Lavani’s kindly but sterner regime. From Upagupta he acquired at an early age, on top of his native Gandhari, both spoken and written Greek. Living in a house of craftsmen, he inevitably picked up practical skills. And of Ram he thought the world; as well he might, because he owed him his very life. How far my son was influenced by our example is hard to tell, but his inclinations turned out to be the same, and to our relief he was responsible over his affairs. As he ripened in his turn, he became a gentle giant of a lad, so dark of skin as to be indistinguishable from a pure Indian. Once he had turned fourteen we often took him with us on our journeyings, where he learned the ins and outs of our work and made himself useful by taking notes for us.


Meanwhile again, for Bactria next door, the writing was on the wall. One of Eucratides’ governors rebelled and set himself up in Arachosia, calling himself, without a particle of justification, king of the Indians. In the resulting struggle Eucratides was killed, and his body was dragged behind the victor’s chariot or run over by its wheels, depending on which account you believe. Personally I shed no tears for him whatever. Then a host of nomad Sakai from the Scythian steppes swarmed in and sacked Alexandria Oxiana. I shed no tears for that either. Heliocles, Eucratides’ odious son, abandoned the north of his realm to the invaders and moved the capital to Kophen. Thus Bactria remained hostile to us, and its centre of gravity shifted closer to our borders.

Beyond it lay Parthia, still isolationist and suspicious, which ever since its rise a century before had acted as a barrier between us and our cousin Greeks around the Middle Sea. Overland travel was not only tedious but strongly discouraged. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that we were cut off, for a little seaborne trade still crept through by way of the Persian Gulf and thence the Euphrates to Syria. A limited amount of trade also went on, coasting all the way, with Egypt, which was a Greek kingdom. But these trades were conducted neither by Greeks nor Indians but exclusively by Arab middlemen. Moreover, ever since Diodotus had taken Bactria out of their empire, the Seleucids had shown not a smidgen of interest in us. I had never set eyes on a Greek — a real live Greek from the Middle Sea — and knew nobody who had. Virtually no news flowed in either direction. For a hundred years we had had little idea of what was happening in the west, whether in politics or literature or art; and the west, presumably, had no more idea of our doings. In that sense we were indeed cut off.

Thus for eighteen years Ram and I criss-crossed Gandhara together. Kavi had made minor improvements to the design of our machines, but not since our first expedition had any fundamentally new ideas occurred to anyone. This was a sorrow that lurked permanently at the back of Ram’s mind.

Tula, baiga, jhula and cam’maca,” he would say. “They all work intermittently. All very well with pounding, which has to be intermittent. But lifting water … if only we could do that continuously, not bucket by bucket or bag by bag. But how?”

The answer to his question, another turn of the wheel, came indirectly and wholly out of the blue.

One autumn, when the rains had just come to an end, we were with Heliodorus in the south, and continued on to Barygaza. We rarely had reason to go that far, but we wanted to speak to Menander, who was also on tour. He was at Ozene, we heard, and about to head west. Thus we had a few days to cool our heels, and a little holiday was very welcome. Because it commanded a larger hinterland than Patala, Barygaza was a much more substantial port; and, as anyone would, we went to the waterfront to look at the shipping. Near the ship-building yards were moored a number of coasters of modest size.

“Those,” I said, nodding at them, “are much the same as the one that took the bikkhus and me to …”

I tailed off, and after a moment Ram nudged me in the ribs.

“We came here to look at ships, Dion, not to stare at boys.”

“Well, he is attractive. And you’ve been staring as well.”

He laughed. “Only teasing.” Neither of us would go beyond staring, for we valued each other too highly, and we both knew it.

“But,” said Heliodorus, who had also been guilty, “all those people are staring too. What’s so interesting out there?”

There was indeed a flurry of interest among the other bystanders, who were gazing down the channel. Barygaza lies on a sinuous and shoaly estuary up which sea-going vessels are towed by local fishermen in multiple-oared boats. And there, between the low banks, we could make out a large ship creeping towards us, larger than I had ever seen before — maybe three times the size of the coasters — with a broad square sail set on a relatively low mast. We asked where it was from, but nobody could tell us.

The ship finally moored and a boat brought a man ashore, middle-aged and well-dressed. Did anyone here, he called out in Greek, speak Greek? Barygaza being so recent an addition to Menander’s kingdom, very few did; and we stepped forward. The man was delighted. His name, he told us, was Eudoxus of Cyzicus, a place of which we had never heard. He was not the ship’s captain but the merchant who had chartered it for the voyage, and he had a cargo of great value which he hoped to sell. He apologised for his ignorance, for he had never been in India before; but who, he asked, was king in these parts, and where was his capital? It was Menander, we told him, whose capital was five thousand stades or more to the north but who, by good fortune, was expected here in the next few days. Eudoxus was even more delighted. How might he obtain an audience? Easily, we said. We knew the king well and would introduce him.

Eudoxus’ delight reached yet greater heights. His wares, he enthused, were fit for a king: gold and silverware of the highest quality (which, while we did not say so, were unlikely to appeal to the frugal Menander, though the Sungas might be interested) and the finest and choicest fabrics (with which we were already well supplied from our own looms). He went into deep and tedious detail. But, we asked when we could get a word in edgeways, were the capacious holds of his ship packed with nothing but gold and silver and exotic cloth? No, he admitted, subsiding. He did have large quantities of more mundane commodities for which his country was famed, such as papyrus rolls and parchment …

That was much more useful … but … papyrus!

“Where have you sailed from?”


It was unheard of. Our mouths were no doubt agape. There was only one thing to do. We invited him to a meal at the best restaurant in the town, and he accepted straight off. No doubt he wanted to stay in the good books of those who had the king’s ear; and out loud he declared that after fifty days at sea, half of them storm-tossed, he was in dire need of good cuisine, even if it was unfamiliar. Once he had relaxed and dropped his sales talk, he proved excellent company. He confirmed that his was a pioneer venture. Greeks from Egypt had long traded down the length of the Arabian Gulf as far as Notou Keras; but such few cargoes as were destined for India were there transferred to Arab ships which carried them on. That was why Egypt knew little more about us than the fact that we existed; and the other way round as well.

A few years earlier, however, an Arab skipper had been picked up half-dead from a shipwreck in the Arabian Gulf. He told his Greek rescuers the secrets of sailing down the coast of Africa as far as a place called Rhapta where, he claimed, the midday sun lay in the northern sky; which Eudoxus found hard to believe. And, more to the point, this skipper revealed the secrets of using the summer winds which blew from the south-west to sail straight across the Erythraean Sea to India, and of using the north-eastern winds of winter to get back. Armed with this knowledge, Greeks could now reach India themselves, bypassing the middlemen and without coasting. Eudoxus, though a native of Cyzicus (which, we discovered, was in Asia Minor), was now a resident of Egypt and had been given leave by the current King Ptolemy to mount a trading expedition.

He told us something about his adopted country, and it did not sound a happy one. Like Bactria but utterly unlike Gandhara, for two centuries Egypt had been run by a privileged class of Greek origin whose policy was to milk the land for their own benefit and to keep the natives in their place. Socially, by now, there was some limited upward movement by Greek-speaking Egyptians; but it was still essentially a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Little love was lost between them and sometimes there was physical violence. Order was supposedly kept by an over-zealous and corrupt police force. Perhaps surprisingly for a Greek, Eudoxus had no time for his king. Ptolemy, the eighth of that name, was commonly known as Physcon; but emphatically not to his face, because it means sausage or pot-belly. He was a bully — Menander, I strongly suspected, would call him another thug — whose reign had not begun well. Until five years ago he had been a mere puppet, but when his older brother died Physcon married his widow who was also his sister — our heads began to reel — and murdered her son. Alexandria-in-Egypt, his capital, had famously been the home of the great Library and of the royal research institute known as the Museum which had been a fount of mechanical invention; until, that is, Physcon purged all the intellectuals. Unrest was still brewing.

Eudoxus in turn asked us about Gandhara, and we painted a picture which, necessarily, contrasted strongly with his picture of Egypt. He asked about ourselves, with polite curiosity that while two of us bore Greek names, my skin was too dark for a pure Greek, Heliodorus might be taken for a pure Indian, and Ram was blatantly Indian through and through. Yet, he must have been thinking, we were of high enough standing to have access to the king. What, he enquired, were our roles? On hearing that we were agricultural advisers, he visibly blinked. In Egypt, it was clear, such advisers would be Greeks, never natives. He was not disapproving but simply astonished. He tactfully dropped his cultural questions and instead asked more about the agriculture of India.

“Oh, we’re particularly interested,” said Ram, “in irrigation and water-lifting.”

“Ah! Then you would be at home in Egypt. Without the gift of the Nile it could not exist.”

For all practical purposes, he explained, the whole population lived within a few stades of the river. Every summer and autumn a massive annual flood came down and deposited silt over the adjoining flood plain. When it receded, water was lifted from the river by machine to continue irrigation. That was why the soil was so productive. The only real geographical exceptions were the delta, where the Nile fanned out into a huge triangle of fertile land, and the basin of Lake Moeris. This lay, astonishingly, well below the level of the sea, and water was supplied to it from the Nile by an artificial cut, the Tomis, and distributed by a network of channels and lifting devices.

Ram was on the edge of his seat, bursting with questions. Why didn’t the Moeris basin simply fill with water? Because the inflow was controlled, Eudoxus supposed, and in those temperatures evaporation was high. How did the water-lifters work? Eudoxus scratched his head. Sorry, he said, he was a merchant, not a mechanic. Well, did they use the tula (the kelon, I translated), lifting bucket by bucket? Yes, there were some like that, but many were bigger, with a continuous output. So they didn’t pull the water up in big bags? No, Eudoxus thought, but in lots of little buckets, powered by oxen walking in circles, or by wheels turned by water, or even by men walking on inclined cylinders. He was sorry again — he had been to Moeris where a good friend of his was the engineer in charge of irrigation, but he had never taken any interest in the details. He simply knew no more. Once our guest, full of thanks for the evening, had left for his ship, Ram frustratedly racked his brains and tried to make sense of what little we had heard. Oxen walking in circles? Wheels turned by water? Inclined cylinders? Neither Heliodorus nor I could offer any solution either.

Next morning, as agreed, we met up with Eudoxus to show him the town. With him he had a servant carrying a heavy bag of, presumably, samples, and he insisted that he had to go through the formalities. What did he mean by that? Why, to clear himself with the immigration officials, of course, and the customs. We were flummoxed. The only official here was the governor, and for courtesy’s sake our first call would be to him anyway. As usual (but again to Eudoxus’ surprise) he was another Indian. We knew him, and he brought us up to date. The king would be staying with him, he said, was expected later that very day, and was hoping we would dine with him. Our friend would also be welcome. Would we call back at the ninth hour?

Eudoxus then raised his obsession over entry permits and import duties. The governor too was puzzled. Oh, there’s nothing like that here, was his reply. Eudoxus could hardly believe his ears. In Egypt, he whispered as we left, import duties were swingeing. His mind seemed to revolve around little else than profit. We next pointed him to the offices of the major merchants, and with relief left him to his own devices.

At the ninth hour we picked him up again from his ship. We wore our usual dhotis — we never dressed up for the king — but Eudoxus was now in a fancily embroidered Greek chiton (which drew suppressed hilarity from passers-by) and a cloud of scent. He was ecstatic. He had already found a merchant who traded with the Sungas and who, should the king not be interested, would be happy to take all his gold and silverware and fabrics. His raptures saw us to the governor’s house, where we had got no further than the entrance hall when Menander heard our voices from a nearby room.

“Dion! Ram!” he called in Gandhari. “I’m in here. Come on in. Oh good, and you’ve got Heliodorus too — I’ve brought a present for you, lad, from Ozene. Here, catch!”

He tossed over a packet of chikki, the local speciality of nut brittle, which Heliodorus, who had a notoriously sweet tooth, caught and immediately attacked. Then the king noticed Eudoxus behind us, and switched to Greek.

“And you must be the merchant from Egypt! The governor told me you were here. Oh, please …”

Eudoxus had literally prostrated himself on the floor, which was a practice unknown even in Bactria.

“We don’t do that here. But a warm welcome to you. I know you’ll have much to tell us.” And to sell us, I thought wearily. “Pardon my undress. I’m only just out of the bath.” He was clad in no more than his underwear. “Excuse me while I throw some clothes on. Help yourselves to wine.”

It was obvious from Eudoxus’ expression as we sipped our wine that Menander and Physcon were kings of utterly different kinds. Over the meal, Menander asked much about Egypt but heard little in return. Eudoxus’ salesmanship kept breaking through, until the king surrendered to it. He gave a firm ‘no’ to the gold and silver and cloth, but demanded and was given many details about the quantity and price of the parchment and papyrus.

“If your majesty would have a word with your secretariat …”

“No need to consult the secretariat. I’ll take all your papyrus and parchment at the prices you quote; we’ve long been in need of it. See my chief clerk tomorrow about payment and warehousing. And should you return on another venture, I’ll gladly take a second cargo of papyrus; and indeed an annual cargo.”

Eudoxus, showering gratitude and beaming from ear to ear — he had, after all, sold the whole of his wares in a day, and no doubt at a fat profit — applied himself to his food. The king, with a discreet wink at us, changed the subject.

“And what news of irrigation?”

Ram, forgetting the Indus valley which had been the original purpose of this meeting, poured out everything that Eudoxus had told us about water-lifting on the Nile.

“So there are machines that give a continuous flow,” he ended, “which is what we need. But we just don’t know how they work.”

“In that case,” said Menander, “why not go and see for yourselves?”

There was a long silence. Eudoxus finally broke it.

“One good turn deserves another,” he said helpfully, looking up from his now-empty plate. “May I offer you the hospitality of my ship? A few passengers will cost me nothing. Though I will have to charge you for food.”

“But what about getting back?”

“His majesty has graciously requested another cargo of papyrus. My ship will be back here in a year’s time.”

There was never any real doubt about it, but the magnitude of the plan took time to sink in. I had been to Bactria and Taprobane. The others had been no further than Barygaza here, which was a good twenty days from home. Egypt was … what? Five or six times further away?

“How long would we have in Egypt?”

Eudoxus considered. “I sail from here in early December when the north-easterlies begin. It will take about forty days at sea. I will set you ashore at Myos Hormos to travel overland to the Nile at Koptos, which will take six days or so. Thence by boat to the Moeris district, another month and a half, arriving in early March. Returning up the Nile will be rather quicker with the wind behind you. You will have to leave Moeris in late May, because I must sail from Myos Hormos in early July. So you would be back here in mid-September, having had” — he counted on his fingers — “some two and a half months at Moeris.”

That should be adequate. We chewed over the immediate future. Since we would be away for the best part of a year, there was a great deal to do and little more than two months to do it in before the ship sailed. Eudoxus would spend the time collecting his return cargo. Much of it, he said, would be bales of silk brought by caravan from the land of the Seres either over the Emodon and Imaus, as I had come, or over the Komedai and down through Bactria. He had been told there was already a good supply in the warehouses of Barygaza. He would also be buying perfumes in bulk, and spices (especially nard, of which we recommended the Kaspirian variety), and precious stones, ivory, and pepper. For our part we had to return to Sagala to brief the family and Geet and our headquarters. We had to take plenty of money with us because, while the royal bank had branches in the main centres of Gandhara which we regularly used, drafts on it would be useless in Egypt. And we had to find Gul and Kavi who, as our practical channel and carpentry specialists, must at least be invited.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Kavi’s in Kaspiria, I think, and Gul somewhere down Methora way.”

Both, however, would probably say no because both were married — Gul for many years, Kavi newly-wed — and neither knew any significant amount of Greek.

“What about you, Heliodorus? I hope you’ll come.”

He hesitated so long that I knew he was torn. He was seventeen. At that age, a year out of his life, a year away from his bedfellows in Sagala, would be a very long time. But the lure of the unknown won.

“Yes please.”

We rode to Sagala as fast as we could. Headquarters sent search parties to find Gul and Kavi and ask if they would join us, but as expected both said no. We left what instructions we could for the coming year. We packed our baggage, as light as possible, and, not wanting to appear too bizarre to foreign eyes, very deliberately took only plain Greek clothes rather than Indian. We rode back to Barygaza where we left our horses in the governor’s stable, and early in December we presented our three selves at the good ship Ammon.