Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India Kindle Edition

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Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India Kindle Edition

 

A Forgotten Hero. An Unforgettable Battle.

India, 1025 AD.

Repeated attacks by Mahmud of Ghazni and his barbaric Turkic hordes have weakened India’s northern regions. The invaders lay waste to vast swathes of the subcontinent—plundering, killing, raping, pillaging. Many of the old Indian kingdoms, tired and divided, fall to them. Those who do fight, battle with old codes of chivalry, and are unable to stop the savage Turkic army which repeatedly breaks all rules to win. Then the Turks raid and destroy one of the holiest temples in the land: the magnificent Lord Shiva temple at Somnath.

At this most desperate of times, a warrior rises to defend the nation.

King Suheldev.

The ruler of a small kingdom, he sees what must be done for his motherland, and is willing to sacrifice his all for it.

A fierce rebel. A charismatic leader. An inclusive patriot.

Read this blockbuster epic adventure of courage and heroism, a fictional tale based on true events, that recounts the story of that lionhearted warrior and the magnificent Battle of Bahraich. 

 

 

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Legend of Suheldev

Amish is a 1974-born, IIM (Kolkata)-educated, boring banker turned happy author. The success of his debut book, The Immortals of Meluha (Book 1 of the Shiva Trilogy), encouraged him to give up a fourteen-year-old career in financial services to focus on writing. He is passionate about history, mythology and philosophy, finding beauty and meaning in all world religions. Amish’s books have sold more than 5.5 million copies and have been translated into over 19 languages.

www.authoramish.com

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Other Titles by Amish

SHIVA TRILOGY

The fastest-selling book series in the history of Indian publishing

The Immortals of Meluha (Book 1 of the Trilogy)

The Secret of the Nagas (Book 2 of the Trilogy)

The Oath of the Vayuputras (Book 3 of the Trilogy)

RAM CHANDRA SERIES

The second fastest-selling book series in the history of Indian publishing

Ram – Scion of Ikshvaku (Book 1 of the Series)

Sita – Warrior of Mithila (Book 2 of the Series)

Raavan – Enemy of Aryavarta (Book 3 of the Series)

NON-FICTION

Immortal India: Young Country, Timeless Civilisation


‘{Amish’s} writings have generated immense curiosity about India’s rich past and culture.’

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(Honourable Prime Minister of India)

‘{Amish’s} writing introduces the youth to ancient value systems while pricking and satisfying their curiosity …’

– Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

(Spiritual Leader & Founder of the Art of Living Foundation)

‘{Amish’s book is} riveting, absorbing and informative.’

– Amitabh Bachchan

(Actor & Living Legend)

‘Amish is India’s biggest literary rockstar.’

– Shekhar Kapur

(Award-Winning Film Director)

‘Thoughtful and deep, Amish, more than any author, represents the New India.’

– Vir Sanghvi

(Senior Journalist & Columnist)

‘{Amish is} one of the most original thinkers of his generation.’

– Arnab Goswami

(Senior Journalist & MD, Republic TV)

‘Amish has a fine eye for detail and a compelling narrative style.’

– Dr. Shashi Tharoor

(Member of Parliament & Author)

‘{Amish is} a deeply thoughtful mind with an unusual, original, and fascinating view of the past.’

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(Senior Journalist & Columnist)

‘To understand the New India, you need to read Amish.’

– Swapan Dasgupta

(Member of Parliament & Senior Journalist)

‘Through all of Amish’s books flows a current of liberal progressive ideology: about gender, about caste, about discrimination of any kind … He is the only Indian bestselling writer with true philosophical depth—his books are all backed by tremendous research and deep thought.’

– Sandipan Deb

(Senior Journalist & Editorial Director, Swarajya)

‘Amish’s influence goes beyond his books, his books go beyond literature, his literature is steeped in philosophy, which is anchored in bhakti, which powers his love for India.’

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(Senior Journalist & Author)

‘Amish is a literary phenomenon.’

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(Senior Journalist & Author)



First published by Westland Publications Private Limited in 2020

1st Floor, A Block, East Wing, Plot No. 40, SP Infocity, Dr MGR Salai, Perungudi, Kandanchavadi, Chennai 600096

Westland and the Westland logo are the trademarks of Westland Publications Private Limited, or its affiliates.

Copyright © Amish Tripathi, 2020

Amish Tripathi asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

ISBN: 9789387894037

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations, places, events and incidents are either products of the authors’ imagination or used fictitiously.

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.


Om Namah Shivāya

The universe bows to Lord Shiva.

I bow to Lord Shiva.


Nāsti me jātih nāsti me dharmapanthāh

Nāsti vā bhāsā nāsti me rājyam

Eko’yam paricayah ekaiva vyaktitā

bhāratamātuh sutā bhāratamātuh sutā

Jīvanam mama ātmā vā

Karmam mama śraddhā vā

Bhāratamātre khalu bhāratamātre khalu

Yadi moksaprāptih yadi vā sampraśnam

Ekā pratyuktih ko’si praśnasya

prcchet adhyaksah yadi vā parameśah

Ekā pratyuktih bhāratamātuh sutā

Eko’yam paricayah ekaiva vyaktitā

bhāratamātuh sutā bhāratamātuh sutā

Neither caste, nor religion,

Neither language, nor kingdom (state),

Only one identity I bear,

I am a child of Mother India.

My life, my soul,

My work, my faith,

Is all for Mother India.

Whether I attain Moksha,

or I stand on Judgement Day,

When asked who I am,

By the One Most High,

There will be only one answer:

I am a child of Mother India.

Only one identity I bear,

I am a child of Mother India.


To the late Himanshu Roy,

My brother-in-law.

There is no person that I have admired more. Ever.

You were the shade that protected me.

The light that guided me.

There is no fear of death now.

For you are on the other side, my brother.

I will keep breathing. I will keep walking.

For you would expect that of me, my brother.

But the feet will stop someday …

And that will be a good day.

For you will be on the other side.

Till we meet again …

Till we meet again, my brother.


Contents

Acknowledgements

Foreword

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Other Titles by Amish


Acknowledgements

Professionally, the last few years have been fabulous. Personally, they have been terrible beyond imagination. There was a time when I was so exhausted by the repeated blows of fate, that in one of my morning prayers, I looked up and screamed at Lord Shiva to stop testing me further. How this phase of my life will end, I don’t know. Our ancients said that grief is the path to personal growth. I hope they were right … But I know what has kept me going these last few years: my writing. It has been my refuge. It stops me from giving up. I’d like to thank all those who help me live, by helping me write.

My father-in-law the late Manoj Vyas, and my brother-in-law the late Himanshu Roy. Two men I have admired deeply. Their sense of honour, grace and dignity continues to inspire me.

Neel, my young son, my life, the purpose of my soul. The purest joy in the world is having him run into my arms shouting, ‘Daaaaad!’

Bhavna, Anish, Meeta and Ashish, my siblings and my sister-in-law, for all that they do. They read the first draft, usually as each chapter is written. More importantly, they pick me up when I’m down. They are the souls I chose to be born with in this life. My soul chose well.

The rest of my family: Usha, Vinay, Shernaz, Preeti, Donetta, Smita, Anuj, Ruta, Mitansh, Daniel, Aiden, Keya, Anika and Ashna. For their consistent faith and love.

Gautam, the CEO of my publisher Westland, and Karthika, Shikha, Deepthi and Sanghamitra, my editors. If there are people outside of my family who are the closest to this project, it is this group. More than friends, they are like family now. Special thanks of course to Deepthi, who is in charge of the Writers’ Centre. I look forward to doing many books in the Writers’ Centre with her. The rest of the marvellous team at Westland: Arunima, Christina, Divya, Jaisankar, Krishnakumar, Madhu, Mustafa, Naveen, Neha, Nidhi, Raju, Sanyog, Sateesh, Satish, Shatrughan, Srivats, Sudha, Vipin and many others. They are the best team in the publishing business.

Aman, Vijay, Sharvika, Shubhangi, Padma, Seema and the rest of my colleagues at my office. They take care of my business work which gives me enough free time to write.

Hemal, Neha, Hitesh, Harsh, Punit, Beverly, Geetika, Prakash, Harshada and Team OktoBuzz. They have made most of the marketing material for the book, including the fantastic cover, and all the digital activities. I have worked with them for many years. Like fine wine, they get better with age.

Mayank, Deepika, Sneha, Naresh, Vishaal, Sarojini, Kirti and the Moe’s Art team, who have driven media relations and marketing alliances for the book. Calm and wise in media relations, they are among the best media managers I have ever seen.

Ashish Mankad, a brilliant designer, and more importantly, a thinker, who helps guide and drive the art for my books.

Satya and his team who have shot the new author photos that have been used on the inside cover of this book. He made a rather ordinary subject look better.

Preeti, a publishing industry wizard, who works on the international deals for my books.

Caleb, Kshitij, Sandeep, Rohini, Dharav, Heena, Mohan and their respective teams, who support my work with their business, legal and marketing advice.

Mrunalini, a Sanskrit scholar, who works with me on research.

Aditya, a passionate reader of my books, who has now become a friend and a fact-checker.

Brij, Narayan, Archana, Navin, Sandeep and Ravichandran, my team at Nehru Centre, London, for their love and support.

Rajinder Ganju, from Sürya, who has typeset this book.

And last, but certainly not the least, you, the reader. Your consistent affection, understanding and encouragement is what I deeply cherish. Thank you so much. Lord Shiva bless all of you.


Foreword

I have always said that all my stories are the blessings of Lord Shiva. How they come to me, how they develop in my imagination, how I see them, everything, is His blessing. But He has blessed me beyond my capacity. I cannot write faster than a book every one-and-a-half to two years. And at that pace, I will die before I write down all the story ideas that He has already blessed me with. I cannot carry these stories to my cremation pyre.

Hence, the idea of a Writers’ Centre. It was a suggestion from my team, and it made eminent sense to me. I work with a team of writers, to whom I relate the complete story, and the research material to be read. They then write the first draft, which I then work upon. So, the genesis of the story and the final writing is done by me, while a team drives the first draft. We have tried our best to ensure that the books from the Writers’ Centre read like any other book of mine. But we wanted to honestly state, upfront, that these books are a result of a team effort, and not just my sole work. The writers in the Writers’ Centre are paid, regardless of the fate of the book. And their names are on the cover, if they choose it. If they choose to remain anonymous, for whatever reason, then the co-credit is given to the Writers’ Centre.

Now, what is this book about?

A giant tide of history for the last 2,000 years was defined by a flood of horrific violence. It wiped out all the ancient cultures of the world: Pagan Rome, mystical Egypt and Greece, Zoroastrian Persia, idol-worshipping Central America, and too many others. But one ancient civilisation stubbornly refused to die. One proud culture refused to break or be overwritten. It retreated at times, but is one of the rare few still left standing. And that civilisation is India.

When invaders came to our land, we needed heroes and heroines to lead us. Defend us. And we had many such—brave men and women who had the courage and determination to fight. But if you read our history in detail, you will find that the biggest challenge for these heroes and heroines was to somehow unite our fissiparous society to fight those foreigners. We did have a national consciousness, as the millennia old Vishnu Purana evidences, but the default tendency in us Indians is to fight each other. Infighting is our favourite pastime, which we stop only briefly when the enemy is at our doorstep. So this was the biggest challenge that confronted all our heroes and heroines—from Harihara and Bukka Raya, to Maharana Pratap, to Chhatrapati Shivaji, to Lachit Borphukan, to Rani Abbakka, to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to Mahatma Gandhi, to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, to countless other great men and women. The challenge, always, was how to stop our constant infighting.

These leaders succeeded where others failed. They succeeded in uniting us.

Sadly, many of these heroes and heroines have been airbrushed out of our history books. And if there is one thing these great men and women demand from us, their descendants, is that we remember their tales. That we share their stories. That we celebrate them. And learn from them.

Today, more than ever, we need to hear these stories, the chronicles of these great people who united us and saved our land by making us confront the brutal foreign invaders, beat them back and survive.

This book is of one such hero, a fictional story inspired by real events. The story of the magnificent King Suheldev of the 11th century.

It is depressing that most people across modern India have not even heard of the name of this great son of India, let alone know his story.

But worse, and heartbreakingly, at present, we are a divided India. And therefore, there is dispute over which caste or community he belonged to. Many communities claim that he was one of them. British gazettes, written many centuries after the life of this remarkable warrior, can be used to support many competing claims. I don’t know what the truth is. My truth is that he was Indian. A proud son of Mother India. So, I have not taken any stand on this. I do not say which caste he belonged to.

All I say in this book is that King Suheldev was a proud Indian, who fought to protect Mother India at a time when our land was threatened by the most vicious of foreign invaders. He united all—Hindus of all castes, Buddhists and Indian Muslims—under his leadership. They fought for their motherland. And won us a glorious victory. Heady, the thought, but there also is a learning from this great son of India: when we unite, as Indians, we are unbeatable.

My patriotism and love for Mother India compels me to narrate this story. But there also is another reason.

Regardless of community claims, one thing almost everyone agrees on is that King Suheldev was a Shiva bhakt—a devotee of Lord Shiva. And as I said earlier, I believe that my storytelling skill is a blessing from the Mahadev too. One day I will leave this mortal body, and before I enter my next life, I may get an opportunity to stand before Lord Shiva. And then, the Lord may demand an answer from me. He had given me a talent: I could tell stories; then why did I not tell the story of one of His greatest devotees, King Suheldev? I will not hang my head in shame before my God. I must write. I will tell you the story of the time when, led by this great hero, India stood up, united, and defeated an army made of the fiercest and most brutal warrior-race that the world has ever seen, the Turkic hordes from Central Asia. We had not invited them. We had not picked a fight. They came. They plundered. We fought. We won. We saved our culture. When we Indians stand together, shoulder to shoulder, we are undefeatable.

If only we can be united.

If only …

I dream of the day when we will all say in one voice:

Jai Suheldev! Jai Maa Bhaarati!

Glory to King Suheldev. Glory to Mother India.


Chapter 1

Somnath, India, 1025 AD

The Indian warrior snarled, the veins on his forehead standing out starkly, his powerful biceps straining with effort, as his large, calloused hands squeezed the life out of his Turkic opponent. His foe hammered desperately on his broad chest, then clawed at his eyes. But the Turk’s strength was almost spent and his feeble efforts made little impact on the grim warrior, who continued to ruthlessly strangulate the man he straddled.

The Turk’s face turned red and his eyes bulged. Then his tongue protruded and he lay motionless. The Indian warrior continued to press down on his enemy’s neck for a little while longer, then raised the head and banged it down hard on the rocky ground, cracking the skull. Just to be certain. Suddenly overcome with weariness, he let go of the dead man and staggered to his feet.

The warrior stood tall, with taut muscles that rippled across his lean frame, broad at the shoulders and chest, narrowing down to a slim waist and muscular legs. Innumerable scars criss-crossed his dark skin. Several new wounds had been added to his body today. He gingerly stretched his battered limbs, trying to ease the exhaustion and pain pervading his body.

A wounded Turk, a short distance away, saw his opportunity. With massive effort, he got up, grabbed a sword and swung hard at the Indian warrior. Despite his tiredness, the warrior’s innate agility and battle-honed reflexes saved him. He swayed back, the sword narrowly missing him. The momentum of the swing carried the sword safely past the warrior and left his attacker’s right side exposed. The warrior punched him hard on the jaw, knocking him down. The sword slipped out of the Turk’s hand.

The stunned Turk slowly tried to get up again. He managed to get into a kneeling position. The warrior scooped up the sword that had clattered to the ground, raised it high and thrust it down vertically into the back of the Turk’s neck, right up to his heart. An instant kill.

The warrior rested on the sword. Exhausted. Bleeding. But he knew that there was no respite to be had. He was the crown prince of Shravasti, in the north of India. His soldiers and he had come rushing to Somnath, in the western coastal land of Gujarat, to join the Indians gathered there to protect the legendary Shaivite temple from the Turkic invader, Mahmud of Ghazni. They had just battled the advance guard and skirmishers of the Turks. They knew that the main Turkic army was yet to arrive. They had to rally. Once again.

The Indian warrior from Shravasti spoke to himself. Come on, Malladev. Straighten up. Get moving. Regroup.

But he continued to stand there. Leaning on the sword that was buried into the kneeling Turk. Breathing hard. Pumping oxygen into his lungs. Giving his fatigued body some more time.

‘My prince …’

Malladev turned towards the sound. He saw his loyal comrades all around him. All lying prone on the ground. All dead. All except one. One look at the man’s wounds and Malladev knew that it was only a matter of time before he would join the others. But he tried not to let it show on his face.

‘Come on, Wasim,’ Malladev said, his voice hoarse and tired. ‘Are you going to let a few scratches like those slow you down?’

Wasim smiled weakly, then grimaced as his body was wracked by a bout of coughing, phlegm and blood coming to his lips. Malladev gently held him, massaging his back.

As his coughing subsided, Wasim spoke softly. ‘We showed those Turkic bastards … didn’t we?’

‘We sure did,’ Malladev said and smiled.

‘But … there will be more …’ said Wasim.

Malladev kept quiet. He knew Wasim was right.

‘Great prince … You need to fall back … into the sanctum sanctorum. … It’s the last line … of defence.’ Wasim’s words came out in an agonised whisper. Then his body spasmed, and he lay still.

Malladev embraced Wasim’s body, then gently laid him down. ‘May our Mother India bless you, my friend. May she always honour your sacrifice.’

Then Malladev rose slowly, whispering the words that always gave him strength. ‘Om Namah Shivaya.’

The universe bows to Lord Shiva. I bow to Lord Shiva.

Then he limped slowly. Towards the main temple. Wasim was right. There was no time for rest. His job was not done. His life was not done. Not yet.

Outside, the ocean waves lazily washed the land as they did every day, oblivious to the human tragedy taking place on the seashore. As the water swallowed more of the evening sun, the nearly cloudless sky glowed with vibrant shades of red, orange and purple. It was a surreal, beautiful sight, which may have been admired in a different time. But, at this point, the world seemed to be surrendering to vicious savagery. For at one of the holiest sites of probably the oldest surviving religion of the world, bodies of over-civilised people, and the temples of their Gods, were being laid to waste by foreign barbarians.

The Turkic forces were spreading rapidly through the huge temple complex, moving inexorably towards the main structure at the heart of the massive compound; the great shrine to Lord Shiva, in His form as the Lord of the Moon God, the SomNath. To the Indians, the Turks looked like the Chinese, with their round faces and slit-like eyes. But the actual Chinese knew the Turks as barbaric warrior nomads from Central Asia, and considered it wise to be afraid of them. For the Turks were people who were trained for one art alone: the art of killing.

Columns of smoke rose from various buildings of the temple complex. The corpses littered the ground. Statues of silver and gold lay strewn across the floors—broken, damaged, defiled. A group of Turkic soldiers laughed as they yanked at the golden horns on a massive statue of Lord Shiva’s bull, Nandi. As the horns finally came loose, the men roared with glee and shouted obscenities.

As reverberations of the Turkic victory grew, so did the desperate pleas of the injured Indians barricaded in the sanctum sanctorum, the inner refuge of this, one of the greatest temples on the planet.

‘Save us, great Mahadev …’

‘Show your power …’

‘Strike down those fanatics …’

‘Why are you testing us like this?’

There did come a response—just one.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

A loud, menacing hammering at the doors of the sanctum sanctorum.

Malladev, who had remained silent till now, looked up at the barricaded door. His tears mingled with the blood that trickled down his face. The viscous mixture seeped into his mouth.

Bitter.

Like the destiny of his land. Of his faith. Of his people.

He looked up at the great Shiva Linga, the symbol of Lord Shiva, the Mahadev, the God of Gods.

His companions, just a dozen of them, edged closer together and exchanged anxious glances. This motley, ragtag bunch of bruised, battered men—many of them Brahmins who had never lifted a weapon till this day—were all that was left of an army of almost fifty thousand that had gathered to protect the fabled, stupendously wealthy Somnath temple.

A Turkic officer bellowed from the other side of the door. ‘Open the door now or be tortured to death!’

Malladev drew in a deep breath. But he did not say anything. He held the Shiva Linga tight. Drawing strength from the magnificent idol.

On the other side of the door, even as the looting and the pillaging continued, one column of soldiers maintained discipline and marched resolutely towards the sanctum sanctorum. They were Sultan Mahmud’s personal guards, elite warriors handpicked to accompany him everywhere in battle. Unlike the rest of the Ghazni army, which wore green tunics, the Sultan’s guards had their own distinctive uniforms. In peacetime, they wore white. But when they went into battle, they were dressed all in black, the image of a roaring lion embroidered on their sleeves in white thread.

The marks of the long, exhausting battle were clearly visible on them, but they were in far better shape than the last defenders of the temple.

At a signal from their Turkic captain, ten men charged at the massive doors of the sanctum sanctorum with a battering ram. It crashed into the doors with a resounding bang, but barely made any headway. The doors stood resolute.

The Turks backed up. Took aim again. And charged. Heavy timber slammed into the doors with greater force this time. A minor creak escaped from the doors. The battering ram was readied again. Positioned just right. To collide with the central joint. The Turkic officer gave the order and the battering ram assaulted the door once again. Some of the doors’ mighty hinges finally gave way. A crack of light filtered through, revealing the flickering shadows of the Indians who still clung on to the hope of defending their God, of defending their land’s honour.

Malladev now touched his forehead to the idol’s base, his eyes closed. Giving his final veneration to his God. He knew that he would not get another chance.

He whispered, ‘We may die today, great Shiva … But we will return. We will return in the millions …’ Malladev turned to his fellow defenders of the noble land of India, as his voice rose louder. ‘We will return! We will rebuild! We will reclaim our Lord’s honour! I swear on the name of the holiest of them all, Lord Shiva!’

The words infused the power of the Lord into the men huddled around him. Straightening their backs. Stiffening their resolve.

Malladev raised his hand high, pointing his sword at the door. ‘Until death!’

‘Until death!’ bellowed the proud Indians alongside him.

And then, one of them shouted ancient words of immense power. Words that have electrified Indians for millennia. Words that reminded the Indians that they were Gods. That each one of them was a Mahadev.

‘Har Har Mahadev!’

We are Gods!

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The battering ram was still at it with machine-like precision. The Turkic cries of maniacal pleasure at wreaking havoc were growing louder.

‘Har Har Mahadev!’

We will die like Gods!

The huge doors of the sanctum sanctorum burst open with a loud crash.

‘Har Har Mahadev!’

We will return like Gods!

The Turks charged into the hallowed sanctum sanctorum of one of the holiest temples in the world, screeching like beasts.

‘Har Har Mahadev!’ roared Malladev, as he and his fellow Indians charged at the Turkic defilers.

The rage and defiance of the defenders stopped the advancing Turks in their tracks. The barbarians did not expect such resistance. Many Turks were killed in the initial rush. But they outnumbered the defending Indians by many multiples. They just kept coming. And coming. And coming.

Each Indian took down at least five Turks before he fell. But fall they all did.

Fall they all did.

Till the only one left standing was Malladev. Exhausted beyond measure. Injured beyond human capacity to bear. Bleeding desperately. Screaming all the time. He kept fighting. Kept fighting.

Alone.

Against too many to count.

He did not throw his sword down in surrender. He did not waver. He did not plead for mercy. He kept fighting.

Malladev thrust his sword into the belly of an attacker. As his victim fell to the ground, the sword slipped out of Malladev’s blood-soaked hand. He reached quickly to his side for his last knife. Swung it across to slash through a Turk’s throat. Some enemies pushed him hard against the wall. The knife slipped out of his hands.

There were ten people around him now. All stabbing him at the same time. Slicing blades into him. Again. And again. And again. Brutally. Without respite.

And yet, without any weapons, Malladev kept fighting. He kept fighting. Slashing his nails across the eyes of one opponent, punching another in the throat. Screaming in fury all the time.

A loud commanding voice was heard. ‘Step back!’

The Turks immediately obeyed. Their heads bowed in respect. A massive man, with an ugly, battle-scarred face, came forward.

Malladev was against the wall. Panting desperately. Bathed in blood. Drowning in agonising pain. Staring with defiance at the gigantic man standing in front of him.

The sultan. Yamin-ud-Dawla Abul-Qasim Mahmud ibn Sebuktegin. More commonly known as Mahmud of Ghazni.

Mahmud held his right hand out. His mighty war sword, dripping with blood, came into view.

Malladev kept staring into the eyes of Mahmud with pure, raw, defiance. He whispered the words he wanted to die with, ‘Om Namah Shivāya.’

The universe bows to Lord Shiva. I bow to Lord Shiva.

‘Go to hell,’ growled Mahmud, in a fearsome, gravelly voice. And he swung his sword. Beheading Malladev with one mighty blow.

‘Damn, that kafir had a lot of blood in his pathetic body,’ complained Mahmud, as he dabbed at his face to get rid of Malladev’s blood that had splattered on him.

‘Hail the sultan!’ cheered the guards.

Malladev’s killer acknowledged their cheers with a nod, then turned towards the gilded Shiva Linga at the heart of the sanctum sanctorum.

Even to the cynical eyes of Mahmud of Ghazni, it was a magnificent sight. He gazed at it for a long time. A hush fell upon the room, broken only by the crackling of fire outside as more and more of the temple complex was put to flames.

Then a fifteen-year-old boy, surrounded by bodyguards, walked in, carefully picking his way across the floor, made slippery by large patches of sticky blood congealing on it.

The boy, named Salar Maqsud, was Mahmud’s nephew. He was stocky and of medium height, but he already had broad shoulders and muscled arms that indicated long hours of work with the sword and shield. He was fair-skinned, with high cheekbones. His roundish face would have been unremarkable but for his large eyes, which were unusual for a Turk. His eyes had a hazel colour that went from appearing light-green to dark-brown, depending on the light. Most people who met the boy found themselves almost hypnotically drawn to the eyes; unless he was in a fury, when even grown men found themselves quailing at the thought of locking gazes with him.

‘This is a great moment, My Lord,’ said Salar Maqsud, bowing to his uncle. ‘My heartiest congratulations to you.’

Mahmud’s face broke into a wide smile. He was never particularly expressive in public, but there was genuine affection in his eyes as he ruffled his nephew’s hair. ‘Maqsud, my boy!’ He gestured at the Shiva Linga. The idol was jet black, shining brightly with the precious stones embedded in it. Most strikingly, it hung suspended in mid-air. ‘What do you think of that?’

‘What evil sorcery is this?’ whispered Maqsud. ‘May Allah protect us.’

Mahmud laughed out loud. ‘There is no sorcery here. Only some clever trick by the sly idol-worshippers. Does anyone have any idea what the secret is?’

‘Perhaps there is an invisible support, My Lord?’ ventured one of the soldiers.

Mahmud ran his sword under the Shiva Linga. Nothing there.

Khwaja Hassan, the prime minister of Ghazni, who was in charge of revenues and accounts, stepped up. ‘We should remove the canopy above, My Lord.’

Hassan, being an educated Persian, had acquired a lot of knowledge about the region. He knew that the canopy above the linga was made of lodestone, which acted as a natural magnet on the linga, which also had a mix of lodestone and some metal in it.

Mahmud nodded. As the first stone was removed from the canopy, the idol swerved to one side. When the next stone was removed, the idol perceptibly shifted downwards. Bit by bit, the canopy was dismantled till the idol finally came to rest on the ground.

‘You see, my boy?’ said Mahmud to Maqsud. ‘No magic here. Just a devious trick.’ He looked once again at the linga. ‘So this is what all these imbeciles died trying to protect,’ scoffed Mahmud. ‘They will not forget this day in a hurry. But let’s make it even more memorable.’ He turned to one of his men. ‘Fetch me a hammer.’

The man immediately procured a hammer, dropped to his knees and respectfully offered the implement to the sultan.

As Mahmud hefted the hammer, Hassan’s voice interrupted him. ‘A thousand pardons, My Lord, but a delegation of businessmen has assembled outside. They are respectfully submitting that if you spare the idol, they will offer any tribute you deem fit, to be paid into the royal treasury every year.’

Mahmud smiled mockingly. ‘Hassan, my dear prime minister, always ready with your calculations! How much do you think I should ask for to leave this idol alone?’

The prime minister spoke in a soft tone. ‘These men will pay any amount you demand, My Lord. Destroyed, this statue is worthless. If kept secure, it could be a lucrative source of revenue for years to come. Think of all the things you could do with the money. The armies you could raise, the magnificent buildings you could construct, the blessings you could shower on the people of your kingdom.’

Mahmud stroked his beard thoughtfully. ‘Hmm, tempting,’ he conceded. ‘Especially if I were an effete Persian focused only on money and luxury.’ His gaze hardened. ‘But I am not Persian. I am a faithful Turk. On the day of judgement, the Creator will search for me. What will he say that day? “Where is that Mahmud who sold the greatest of the idols to the unbelievers for gold?”’

Hassan quietly slunk back. Head bowed. Outwardly penitent. The thoughts though, buried deep inside his own mind, were different. Locust-eaters … These Arabs and Turks …

Mahmud turned to his nephew Salar Maqsud. ‘Look carefully, my boy. One day, this holy mission will be yours. You must strike down your enemy without mercy, whoever they might be. Destroy everything they hold dear.’

Maqsud nodded, his eyes shining with the light of hero worship. ‘Long live the sultan!’

Mahmud rested his left foot on the base of the idol. He stretched back for maximum swing and grunted loudly as he smashed the hammer down with all his strength.

And broke the soul of India.


Chapter 2

Ballala, the massive wrestler, roared as he lunged forward, arms outstretched. But his yell faded away as his wiry opponent neatly sidestepped him, leaving Ballala’s meaty hands clutching at thin air. With a frustrated scowl, he turned to face the young man who had just made him look foolish.

The wrestler’s face was red with exhaustion and anger, his body smeared with mud from the arena. His barrel chest heaved up and down as he tried to suck some air into his lungs.

His opponent, by contrast, hardly looked like he was wrestling. He was tall and wiry. His hair, which hung till his shoulders when he left it open, was neatly tied in a bun. Like his opponent, he wore a langot, a loincloth, which showed off most of his extremely fit body.

His shoulders were unexpectedly broad for his slim frame, and his body narrowed down dramatically to a hand-span waist and washboard abs. Taut muscles rippled across his chest and arms. His legs were lean and sinewy. He moved like a big cat—languid and graceful, but with an underlying energy that suggested he could erupt into sudden, explosive action in the blink of an eye.

Though the youth was barely eighteen, his torso was already marked with several scars. His palms were callused, and the middle finger of the left hand was crooked from an old break. Just below the ribs on his right side, there was an indentation. It was an old wound that had healed but left its mark.

The young man grinned mockingly. Only a thin film of sweat on his forehead revealed that he was exerting himself in any way. But for all his apparent effortlessness, he constantly moved on his feet, alertly watching his opponent and taking care to stay out of grappling distance.

Around the arena, a raucous crowd cheered or jeered, depending on whom they were backing.

‘Move, Ballala, you fool! I’ve bet my horse on you!’ yelled one man.

‘You shouldn’t have bet a horse on a donkey, you idiot!’ called out another man.

‘I hope a million fleas from a dog permanently infest your armpits!’ growled back the first man.

‘Try putting those fleas in Ballala’s langot. That might speed him up a bit!’ came the cheerful retort.

The crowd hooted in delight.

Ballala’s face coloured as he heard the taunts. He growled at his opponent, ‘You’ve been dancing around all morning. Stand in one place and fight like a man.’

‘Catch me, if you can, old man,’ smiled his young tormentor.

The furious wrestler put his head down and charged like an enraged bull. The young man let him come, then sidestepped rapidly at the last moment, dropped to the floor and stuck out his right foot, tripping the wrestler and sending him sprawling to the ground with a crash that resounded through the noisy arena. As he lay there stunned, his opponent pounced on him, turned him around and pinned his back and shoulders to the ground.

Most of the crowd cheered, but there were also some loud groans. ‘Go to hell, Ballala, you stupid butt-face,’ yelled a corpulent man, wiping the sweat off his face with a cloth draped around his shoulders. He whirled around, irritated, as a thin man tapped him on the shoulder.

‘I’ll take my money now,’ said the thin man, grinning triumphantly from ear to ear.

‘Here, take it. I hope some prostitute steals it from you! I hope you buy bad wine that gives you a pounding headache! I hope you get rotten food that wrecks your stomach!’ shouted the fat man. He threw a bag of coins at the man. ‘Take this as well,’ he said, removing the sweat-drenched cloth from his shoulders and hurling it in disgust, exposing a pair of sagging, pendulous male breasts.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll put the money to good use,’ came the cheerful reply. ‘When I’ve spent it all, I’ll come back for another bet. And you better keep the cloth. You’ll give our women a complex.’

Meanwhile, the young tormentor of Ballala had risen gracefully to his feet. He joined his palms in a namaste and held them above his head, acknowledging all sections of the crowd. Then he went up and touched the feet of a slim, grey-haired man who had been watching the fight intently from one side of the arena.

‘Greetings, Gurudev,’ said the young man to his teacher.

The older man patted his back fondly. ‘You did well, Prince Suheldev. But you teased Ballala for too long. You should have finished it earlier.’

Suheldev smiled the loopy grin that made so many women go weak at the knees. ‘A boy can also have some fun, Gurudev!’

As both the guru and the student laughed, some aides came forward, bearing wet towels and the prince’s clothes. Suheldev used some of the perfumed towels to wipe the mud off his face and body. Then, in practised, sweeping movements, he wrapped a dhoti around his hips, ignoring the admiring glances from many young women who still hung around, staring dreamily at their prince. Suheldev’s guru handed him a miniature Shiva Linga pendant. He reverentially touched it to both his eyes, kissed it and slipped it around his neck, whispering the holy words as he did.

‘Om Namah Shivāya.’

The universe bows to Lord Shiva. I bow to Lord Shiva.

Suddenly, a harried-looking, dark-skinned, white-haired man pushed his way through to Suheldev.

‘My prince,’ he said politely, but hurriedly.

‘Iqbal,’ said Suheldev. ‘What happened?’

Suheldev could tell that something was wrong. Iqbal, his father’s loyal aide, should have been in his afternoon namaaz at this time. Only a disaster would have caused him to miss his prayers.

Iqbal looked devastated. ‘Your presence is urgently requested at the palace, Prince.’

‘Let’s go,’ Suheldev said immediately.

‘You should have stopped Malladev dada! I had told you!’

Suheldev glared accusingly at his parents, King Mangaldhwaj and Queen Vijayalakshmi. Anger and grief bursting through every pore of his body.

When Malladev, Suheldev’s elder brother, and the crown prince of the kingdom of Shravasti, was leaving the palace to go defend Somnath temple, the younger prince had made several attempts to stop him. Pleading desperately. Malladev had tried to reassure Suheldev that victory was certain and that he would not die fighting. He had said that kings from across North India were mobilising to stop Mahmud of Ghazni. Suheldev had argued that nobody would come and that Indians were too divided to mobilise together, even against a barbarian like Mahmud. But Malladev had not listened. Then Suheldev had tried to emotionally blackmail his parents to stop their eldest son from leaving. Instead, they had proudly blessed him as he had ridden off, with a contingent of the kingdom’s finest soldiers, to Somnath.

‘Malladev is a hero,’ said Vijayalakshmi calmly. Even through the grief clouding her face, she remained a strikingly attractive woman. Her hair had a reddish hue from the henna that she used to conceal the increasing number of strands that were greying. Her waist, visible below the royal purple blouse she was wearing, was thickening slightly. But apart from that, there were no other signs that she was well into her forties. Her eyes were tinged with sadness but showed no hint of a tear; her voice remained steady.

Dada’s death is on your hands!’ bawled Suheldev, tears flowing freely from his eyes now. ‘You could have stopped him! But you didn’t!’

‘Don’t insult Malladev by crying for him, Suheldev. Be proud of him. Be proud of the way he died. This country will remember his sacrifice.’

‘You think this country will remember the sacrifice of people like us? Of our subaltern caste?’

‘Those who are true patriots will remember. I don’t care about the rest. I am proud to have given up one son for a noble cause. I would happily sacrifice more if needed.’

King Mangaldhwaj had listened silently to this exchange. A slightly shorter, much older version of Suheldev, he had a dark, weather-beaten face that was clearly the result of many hours spent in the open, under a blazing sun. An old scar ran across his left cheek, starting just under his eye and going right across till his jaw. A handlebar moustache accentuated his already imposing appearance. With age, his shoulders had stooped slightly, and his waist threatened to expand into a paunch unless constantly watched. But he still largely retained the sturdy physique of the fierce warrior that he had been in his prime. His eyes could blaze with passion and anger, just as Suheldev’s were at that moment. But he was looking at his son with tenderness and concern.

Mangaldhwaj walked up to Suheldev and put his arm around him. ‘Son, you are a prince. Act like one. You will not cry. Celebrate Malladev’s bravery. Learn from it.’

‘I don’t believe this!’ cried Suheldev. ‘Celebrate? Celebrate dada’s death?’

Without saying another word, the prince stormed out of the room.

Suheldev sat quietly next to the small lake. It was more of a pond than a lake. And yet, it was special for him. It was where Malladev had taught him how to swim. It was where they would come regularly. To talk. To wrestle. To throw stones. To argue. To gossip.

To do nothing.

To be brothers.

‘It’s in the wrist, Suhel,’ whispered Malladev.

The ten-year-old Suheldev kept marvelling at the ripples on the water. Having seen a flat pebble bounce on it six times as his sixteen-year-old brother, Malladev, had flung it on the water’s surface. Suheldev stared at his much taller elder brother, the hero. Then looked down at the pebble in his hand nervously.

He adjusted his grip, pressing his forefinger on one side. ‘Like this, dada?’

‘Yes,’ said Malladev. ‘And stop noticing the girls staring at you.’

There was a gaggle of ten-year-old girls at a distance, ogling at Suheldev. Even at this young age, Suheldev had a dashing, mischievous air about him. It made him appear exciting to many girls. Suheldev grinned at his brother and looked back towards the water. Focusing.

The pebble crashed into the water and sunk with a plop. Not even one bounce.

Suheldev wiped a tear from his eye. He still couldn’t get it right. Couldn’t even throw a pebble right. Despite all of Malladev’s attempts to teach him.

He hadn’t learnt to be as good as Malladev at anything. Not in warriorhood. Not in knowledge. Or caring for the kingdom’s citizens. Or respecting his parents.

Suheldev looked up at the sky.

Why him? He was the better one.

I was always a useless prankster.

Why him?

It should have been me … It should have been me who was dead.

A sudden noise interrupted his flow of thoughts.

Suheldev turned around. ‘Gurudev,’ he said, getting up, trying to hide his unhappiness at being disturbed.

‘Sit, sit,’ said Kashinath, sitting beside his student. He sighed. ‘Oh, it feels good to sit. Old age is a curse …’

Suheldev said nothing.

‘I will miss Malladev too,’ said Kashinath softly. He looked directly at Suheldev. ‘You will be the crown prince now.’

‘I can never take dada’s place. He was …’ Suheldev’s voice choked up.

Kashinath gently patted his shoulder.

‘He was amazing …’

Kashinath spoke gently. ‘That he was … But now he’s not here. And we have to make our peace with that, right?’

Suheldev went back to silence.

‘Everybody who is born will die one day, son. It’s what we do in between that matters.’

Suheldev remained silent.

‘I know you’re not in the mood to discuss anything, but would you care to indulge this old man in a conversation just for a bit?’

Suheldev sighed and looked away.

‘Malladev always answered my questions. No matter when I asked them.’

Suheldev turned back to look at Kashinath.

Kashinath smiled gently. ‘Thank you, my prince. Now, my question … How does our clan celebrate MahaShivaRatri?’

Suheldev stared blankly at his teacher. Not understanding the point of the question. For the answer was obvious. It was an answer every child in the clan knew.

‘Please, indulge me,’ his teacher said with a smile. ‘For Malladev’s sake.’

‘Our men show their devotion to Lord Shiva by carrying a massive Shiva Linga on their shoulders during MahaShivaRatri,’ replied Suheldev, referring to an ancient custom followed on the great night of Lord Shiva.

‘Exactly,’ nodded his teacher. ‘We worship Lord Shiva in our own way, right?’

Suheldev nodded. Yes.

‘Now my next question. Which Vishnu do we consider the most venerable?’

Suheldev held his breath in irritation, wondering why Kashinath was asking questions to which he already knew the answers. ‘The sixth Vishnu, Lord Parshu Ram,’ Suheldev said eventually. ‘Our ancestors served as a warrior group and helped him fight evil-doers. We were His sword arm.’

Kashinath smiled approvingly, ignoring the note of irritation in Suheldev’s voice. ‘And whom did Lord Parshu Ram worship?’

‘The Mahadev, of course,’ responded Suheldev.

‘Thank you. Now, tell me, our people are not considered full Kshatriyas. So how come we have a kingdom of our own?’ asked Kashinath.

‘Because my grandfather united our people and turned them into a fighting force that carved out a kingdom.’

‘Yes. And what is it that unites us?’ asked Kashinath softly. ‘What makes us one people?’

‘Devotion to Lord Shiva,’ said Suheldev, finally understanding what his guru had been leading up to.

Kashinath smiled slightly. ‘All our people are one family because Lord Shiva is our God. Malladev was your brother, but so is every boy in every household in this kingdom. Malladev understood that. He knew, deep in his soul, that we cannot say that defending our Lord’s temple is not our problem.’

Suheldev remained mute.

‘Do you know what has happened to the shattered pieces of the Somnathji Shiva Linga?’

Suheldev shook his head. No.

‘Mahmud is taking them back to Ghazni, my prince. He has announced that he intends to use these shattered pieces of the Shiva Linga to pave the steps of a new mosque that he will be building. Every day, hundreds of feet will step on and desecrate the remains of the Mahadev’s idol.’

Suheldev did not say anything, but his jaw tightened and he clenched his right fist.

His teacher sat with him silently for a while, then patted his shoulder and left.

Suheldev kept staring into the distance. Deep into the still waters of the lake. A tiny air bubble pushed up to the surface and broke through. Releasing the air it imprisoned, from the depths of the waters, into the glory of the open winds.

Words that Malladev had said before leaving came flooding back to him.

‘The Turks did not stop at Afghanistan and Balochistan. That was our land too, once. They did not stop at the holy Indus river. That was our river too, once. Even if they conquer the entire land of Mother India, they will not stop. They will not stop the humiliation. They will not stop the war. They will not stop the killing. The more we appease, the more they will demand. The more we surrender, the more they will attack. They will never, ever stop. The only way they will stop, is if some Indian dares to stand up and say: Enough is enough.’

A few soft tears started flowing down Suheldev’s cheeks. He held on tightly to the Shiva Linga pendant hanging around his neck.

He could almost hear his brother’s kind and encouraging voice.

‘You have it in you, Suhel. I know you can do it. Fight for me. Fight for Lord Shiva. Fight for the great land that cradles us. Fight for Mother India.’


Chapter 3

Ajitpal, the emperor of Kannauj, grimaced as he scratched at an insect bite on his arm. Once, in the not-so-distant past, his capital had been the shining jewel of a mighty empire. Under the great Mihira Bhoj, Ajitpal’s ancestor, Kannauj had held sway from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Narmada river in the south, from the Sutlej river in the northwest up to Bengal in the east.

But now, the kingdom had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory, though Ajitpal still clung to the title of emperor, which had been claimed by his ancestors by right. But privately, many already referred to him by his much-reduced stature: king. The whispers had become louder a few years ago, when he had tried to resist the Ghazni army and suffered a humiliating defeat that had left him with no option but to accept Mahmud as his overlord.

Ajitpal glared at his minister. ‘This lowborn upstart dares to demand a meeting with me as if we are equals. And I actually let you talk me into it.’

His minister, Vrishabh, bit back a sigh that threatened to erupt. Vrishabh was a slender old man with an unnaturally youthful face that belied his mostly grey hair. The hair on his crown was longer, and tied in a knot, signifying his Brahmin background. His neatly trimmed beard too was largely white, with only occasional strands of black. He had a dignified air and his brown eyes usually sparkled with wit and humour. At the moment, though, he was struggling to conceal his irritation. It had taken weeks of negotiations to set up the clandestine meeting in a remote forest clearing.

The rendezvous point was located close to the border of Kannauj with the neighbouring kingdom of Haridway, also known as Haridrohi, or enemy of Hari, due to the belief that it had once been ruled by Hiranyakashipu, father of the legendary hero and devotee of Lord Vishnu, Prahalad. Hiranyakashipu was so incensed by his son’s devotion to the path of the Vishnu, that he repeatedly tried to get him killed. Instead, Hiranyakashipu was himself slain by Lord Narsimha, who was recognised as the fourth Vishnu.

Ajitpal had used the pretext of a hunting trip to reach the location, keeping his meeting with Mangaldhwaj a carefully concealed secret. But that hadn’t stopped him from grumbling endlessly about it. Vrishabh tried, once again, to calm him down. ‘Your Highness, the message was clear. King Mangaldhwaj—’

‘Don’t refer to him by his trumped-up title,’ snapped Ajitpal.

‘Forgive me, great emperor. Mangaldhwaj requested a meeting and said it could be of mutual interest. One does not usually send such a request unless it is of some significance. What harm can there be in at least hearing out what he has to say?’

‘Fine, I’ll listen, though it turns my stomach to be breathing the same air as him.’ A shiver ran through Ajitpal, almost like his soul was disgusted with what he had allowed himself to be talked into. He again slapped at his wrist. ‘Uff, these bugs. They’re eating me up alive. Why the hell did I agree to come to this miserable place?’

Vrishabh kept quiet, but couldn’t help looking around. Soft rugs covered every inch of the considerable ground covered by the massive tent, which was made of velvet and embroidered with golden thread. Ajitpal was comfortably seated on a throne, placed on a platform.

Once, the king had been a well-built, handsome youth. But his fine physique had long since vanished, and the person who sat in the tent was a jowly man verging on corpulence. His sallow skin and bloodshot eyes added to the general air of decadence that hung about Ajitpal.

An attendant fanned Ajitpal energetically, while others scurried to serve him food and wine and indulge his every whim. Two armed guards stood at the base of the platform, and there were another two at the entrance of the tent. Outside, a group of twenty soldiers formed a circle around the entire tent to make sure no intruder could sneak in from any point.

If it hadn’t been for the occasional chirping of a bird or sound made by a wild animal that trickled in through the tent, it would have been impossible to tell they were in a forest.

Ajitpal understood Vrishabh’s silent reproach, and it made him even more irritated. ‘Well, don’t just stand around looking glum. When is your “honoured” guest expected?’

‘He should be here any time now, great emperor,’ replied Vrishabh.

‘Well, go and find out. And get someone to take these seats away. They won’t be needed.’

‘Your Highness …’ Vrishabh began in an appalled tone, but fell silent as Ajitpal glared at him.

Ajitpal’s thoughts could almost be heard in the angry silence. He is not my equal. Mangaldhwaj will sit on the ground, exactly where he belongs.

Vrishabh, despite his deep misgivings, signalled to the king’s attendants to remove the seats, and exited from the lavishly furnished tent with a bow towards his emperor. There had been so many other royal orders that his emperor had forced him to carry out, which had disgusted him even more.

Ajitpal did not even bother to acknowledge Vrishabh’s bow. He signalled to an attendant, who hastily placed a platter filled with delicacies in front of him. Ajitpal sniffed appreciatively, then began shoving the food into his mouth.

Though Suheldev had agreed to accompany Mangaldhwaj, he remained sceptical about his father’s idea. ‘Nothing will come of this, baba.’

Suheldev and Mangaldhwaj had been riding for a few days, accompanied by a small bodyguard corps.

Mangaldhwaj adjusted the reins of his horse to keep his ride in line with Suheldev’s. ‘I am sure Ghazni’s armies will turn towards our part of India soon. We cannot possibly take him on alone. We will need allies. Yes, it’s true Ajitpal lost to Ghazni, but he still has one of the strongest armies in this region. He may just be willing to form an alliance with us. We Indians have divided ourselves on so many counts. Perhaps it will take a common threat from outside to unite us.’

Baba, do you honestly believe he’ll be able to look beyond our caste and his?’ asked Suheldev.

Mangaldhwaj shrugged. ‘I don’t know. But history can be our ally. Think of India’s greatest emperors. Chandragupta Maurya and Bindusara, Samudragupta and Vikramaditya. None of them was born Kshatriya. It wasn’t so long ago that a man was defined by his karma rather than his birth.’

Baba,’ said Suheldev, rolling his eyes, ‘that was very, very long ago …’

‘Maybe. But we need to remind ourselves of those days. Invaders did not dare attack us then. We were unconquerable.’

‘Yes, because in those days we actually fought foreigners together. Today, we are more interested in fighting each other.’

‘Then let us try to revive those days. Who knows, Ajitpal may surprise us.’

Suheldev snorted and shook his head, laughing slightly. Mangaldhwaj glared at his son, and then turned, looking ahead. Looking far ahead.

Ajitpal desultorily nibbled at the delicacies spread out in front of him. The second prahar of the day was drawing to a close. In short, it was close to noon, and lunchtime was not very far away, but Ajitpal’s stomach was already almost bursting with the food and wine he had been steadily consuming out of sheer restlessness and boredom. He burped, and felt the acidic taste in his mouth. It worsened his already sour mood.

I am from the line of the great Mihira Bhoj! These bloody countrymen of mine need to show me the respect I deserve!

Still brooding, he picked up a goblet and gulped down the wine in it. Some of the liquid dribbled down his chin. Irritated, he wiped it with the back of his hand.

‘Great emperor, your honoured guests are here,’ said Vrishabh as he entered the tent, ushering in Mangaldhwaj and Suheldev with utmost respect.

‘Welcome,’ said Ajitpal. He didn’t get up to receive his guests. Instead, he gestured towards the ground. ‘Please be seated.’

Suheldev’s eyes flashed with anger but Mangaldhwaj put a restraining hand on his shoulder and silenced him with a glance.

‘Thank you, but we would prefer to stand, Your Highness,’ Mangaldhwaj said courteously, as he noticed Vrishabh looking at him apologetically.

‘Suit yourself,’ shrugged Ajitpal. ‘You wanted to meet me. Well, here we are. Speak.’

Mangaldhwaj composed himself briefly, then began. ‘Great emperor, I am sure you will agree that Mahmud of Ghazni is the single greatest threat to the peace and integrity of our land. You have already suffered at his hands. It will not be long before he targets the rest of us. What he has done to the Somnathji temple has filled all of India with rage—’

‘That was some time ago,’ interrupted Ajitpal. ‘The vasant ritu has already passed since then and the grishma ritu too is drawing to an end. It will be forgotten soon. In any case, we can rebuild the temple later …’

Ajitpal was referring to the passage of two of the six Indian seasons, that of spring and summer. He seemed to think that it was a long period of time.

Mangaldhwaj was shocked. An insult to their God being forgotten so quickly? But he still wanted to try his best for an alliance. He wanted the support of the powerful Kannauj army. ‘Your Highness, it is a foolish man who stands by silently while his neighbour’s house burns, for the fire will surely spread to his home as well. Mahmud will not stop at Somnath. He will keep coming deeper and deeper into India. None of us will be safe.’

‘You needn’t worry for my safety,’ said Ajitpal, smirking. ‘My army can take care of anything.’

‘Your Highness, we would like to propose an alliance with you. Once you declare your intent, other kingdoms will also take heart and rally around to the cause. Say the word, and we will all stand shoulder to shoulder with you. Then we can defeat any Turk!’

Ajitpal laughed incredulously. ‘Are you serious? A few generations ago, your ancestors were raising animals and cultivating land for us higher castes. And today, you dream of standing shoulder to shoulder with me, a pure Kshatriya? I am a descendant of Mihira Bhoj! I am a descendant of our great God Lord Lakshman Himself!’

Mangaldhwaj retained his unfailingly polite tone. ‘Yes, My Lord. Mihira Bhoj was a great emperor, one who all Indians respect till today. But please remember that he treated all Indians as his own. And it is also true that you and your clan are descendants of Lord Lakshman. But do not forget that Lord Lakshman’s elder brother, Lord Ram, treated all, including subaltern-caste people, with respect.’

*
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