Jangal Mahal 2: Buti Bazaar
Jangal Mahal 2: Buti Bazaar
“Show off”, grunted the old man with exhaustion. “Stop for a while and let my old bones rest,” he said while wiping the shiny pate between his exaggerated crow’s peak.
The dog raised his brows and chuffed back with obvious amusement. The old man smiled and trotted towards a Katkal tree. He carried a tanned leather satchel, lined on the inside with soft cotton. The satchel had many ribbon flaps inside. They could be tied off to make separate inner compartments and many small and large pockets on the outside. The satchel itself could be carried in a variety of ways due to the many straps on it. It was one of the few things that marked him as a healer. He wore clay coloured ankle-length pants with full-sleeved green button-less Kaftan. Well-used calf-length shoes and mottled brown scarf completed his dress. Nothing extravagant but everything efficient.
The Katkal tree was a few strides off the road and offered good shade, and if they were lucky enough maybe a meal. “We will rest there”, he pointed his staff towards the tree. The old man was approaching his sixties but the gnarled staff looked ancient. On hearing this, the dog ran ahead and was back moments later emerging from the forest on the other side of the road. It did not stop but crossed the road and entered the forest on the old man’s side and disappeared in the foliage. The dog came back again from down the road at a slow walk and sat down under the tree. The dog had covered nearly a kilometre in a few moments and was not even panting. The old man knew that the dog had just scouted the area and found it safe to rest.
This was a safe road, mostly. The old man and the dog had left the Katukaras forest in the morning and hoped to reach home by sundown. The old man very carefully laid down his satchel near the dog. He did not want to bruise the herbs they had collected and he especially did not want to break the Palash leaves wrapped mud-ball which had a very special worm in it.This was their last foray into Katukaras as rains were coming soon. The forest would become too dangerous in the rains as the trees proliferated and the buried animals woke up after their summer hibernation.
He stretched his weary muscles and went into the bushes behind the tree to relieve himself. He had a Katkal fruit with him when he returned.“Look what I found,” he showed it to the dog. “Praise Dhara, the forest provides,” he muttered a prayer and smacked the fruit on a nearby rock. It was the best way to open a Katkal fruit while avoiding its juice and judging by the red stains on the rock, it had been used many times to do the same. The watermelon sized fruit split open with blood-red juice oozing out of its thorny skin. On the inside were many flesh coloured pulpy oblongs encasing a single large seed. The old man collected the split fruit, took two parts for himself and presented the rest to the dog.
The dog barked once questioningly.
“Yeah, yes. I did wash my hand. What are you, some snotty royal pooch”?
The dog chuffed and started eating the fruit using his teeth and claws to render the pulp aside to get to the bony seed. The dog loved the seeds as they tasted just like bone. The dog was in his prime and had an appetite to match. The seeds were gone in a matter of minutes.
The old man collected the left over fruit and tied it inside the big leaves of the Katkal tree. “Never let anything go waste,” he told the dog. He kept his staff within easy reach and stretched down besides the dog and was soon snoring.
The old man felt something wet and rough probing his ear and startled awake. “That is not funny, dog. You know we have worms here who can devour your brain if they get in through the ear.”
He looked up and the sun was setting.
“Let’s go but stay close”. He picked up the satchel and staff and they started along the road with urgent strides.
With the last rays of the sun they reached the wooden bridge over the Rathi river. The river marked the boundary of Katuki village. The last documented village on the map of Upchur. It was one of the farthest you would get from anywhere civilized in Idaa which was also one of the reasons why the old man lived here.
Once across the bridge, the dog gave a joyous bark towards the village, which was answered by a chorus of barks, mewls, brays and chitters from the village. A pack of dogs rushed ahead from the village proper and he ran to meet them. This was their way of saying hello. After a bit of friendly nips and growls the whole pack ran away following the curve of the river.
“How I wish, I could run like them,” sighed someone.
Still looking at the dogs, the old man replied, “Oh I don’t know, Thyndee, you still look robust enough to outrun Bardha”.
“This old thing,” replied Thyndee and slapped his Goru bull, who brayed in indignation evoking laughter from Thyndee and the old man.
“I was waiting for you, everybody else is already back”.
“Everything went fine?” asked Thyndee “What did you find?”
“Oh the usual, Vatsi, dreamwort, darkshade and such."
‘Good, good,” grunted Thyndee pulling on the rope from the pulley which worked the bridge.
The bridge across Rathi was actually a drawbridge with the pulley on the side of the village. Before the bridge was made, many-a-times in the night, animals and other foul beings from the forest wandered out. They could never cross the Rathi as her current was too fast around the village, but would come over the bridge. So, the village council requested the king for a drawbridge. The king agreed on the condition that the village would be responsible for its operation and maintenance. So the work of lowering and raising the bridge was assigned to each household weekly.
Thyndee was the only man in the village and probably the kingdom who could do it with just a single Goru. He was an ex- wrestler, some said, but had lost a fight and retired to this village. The old man and Thyndee were quite close, as both were not originally from the village and were clearly running away from something in their past. Neither questioned the other and both were happy.Thyndee attached the draw-ropes to both the far-edges of the ramp and attached the hooks on the end to rings on the harness of the Goru.
“You sure you don’t need a hand?” asked the old man.
Thyndee laughed. “Let’s show this old man how it’s done”, he told Bardha.
“Ho,” he grunted and the bull walked ahead. The ropes became tight and the draw bridge rose with a creak and locked onto the first gear. The gears were designed to stop the draw-bridge from free rolling while opening and closing. Then Thyndee moved in between the ropes. Facing the village he caught both ropes over his shoulder and started pulling.
“Ho,” and the bridge rose a little. “Ho” and it was halfway up. “Ho” and it was straight up. In the cities, people would pay to see such feats of strength but in Katuki it was a normal event. “Upp,” he grunted and Bardha stopped. He ran back towards the bridge and locked the gears in the place. Next he unhitched the rope from the Bardha and reversed the pulley. The same process could be performed in reverse for lowering the bridge.
“Well done Bardha,” said the old man patting the bull’s shoulder which came an arm’s length above his head. The Goru bull brayed in response.
The old man dropped the remaining Katkal fruit in the gunny sack hanging from Bardha’s harness.
“Here’s a prize for the good work.”
“Hey, I did all the work, where’s my prize?” snorted Thyndee.
“Well you can have some if Bardha agrees,” snickered the old man.
The next morning Thyndee got up early and finished his chores. He took a cold bath and dressed in his work cloths; a full sleeved dark green kurta which went under his Chudidar pants. His broad belt held a hidden pouch for money and loops for his riding crop and hunting knife. A four pocketed dark brown jacket went over the Kurta with matching ankle length boots. Leather braces on both wrists and a straw hat completed his dress. He looked once in his cracked mirror before latching on his curved Talwar and hiding the punch daggers in his boots. Once outside he locked his doors and hitched Bardha to his four-wheeled cart and started towards the old man’s house. He was greeted by bark as he reached the house.
“Good morning dog, Where’s the corpse?”
“Still very much alive and ready to kick your fat ass,” replied the old man from the terrace.
“Ha,” Thyndee laughed. “Good morning your grumpiness. Is everything ready”?
“It will be once you give me a hand,” beckoned the old man.
Thyndee entered the house from the front door and saw everything arranged as meticulously as ever. The old man’s house was a typical apothecary structure. The hall served as the living, bedroom and kitchen all in one. Thyndee could smell the aroma of freshly prepared Roti and potato Sabji permeating through the bamboo curtain separating the kitchen area from the hall. As always, the old man had made enough food to last them the first day at the market. From the second day onwards they would visit any of the makeshift taverns that sprung in the market. The door leading to the basement was locked shut. The medicines and raw materials requiring colder temperature were stored there. He could hear the clucking of the hen and ducks through the backyard door. The small garden for fresh herbs had already been watered.
The door leading to the examination room was bolted. He took the adjacent staircase and reached the store room. He had to walk gingerly around the rows and rows of labeled glass jars filled with pills, potions, powders and paste of various colours. He had to use both his hands to move the various roots and herbs hanging from the ceiling. He walked around the large rounds of muslin and cotton bandages and between the two large bales of unwashed cotton standing sentry to the entrance of the old man’s laboratory. Foul smelling vinegar and a hundred other vile smells assaulted him as he entered. Thyndee wrinkled his nose and walked past the wine-filled jars holding specimens of various animals and plants. The old man said these were for easy identification in case he forgot what something looked like. Although Thyndee had never seen him use one. He checked the knots of the six gunny bags kept separately. These were filled with smaller pouches of dried leaves, flowers, barks, seeds and roots for selling in the Bazaar. On a work-table was the healer’s kit. It was open and he could see the many needles, shalakas, looking glass and other tools of a Vaidya. He knew well enough to avoid touching the table altogether. The old man was very peculiar about his kit and always carried it himself. Another sturdier iron box contained the more valuable and volatile of the healer’s merchandise like poisons. Thyndee squirmed past the glass jar with holes in the lid that contained live leeches. He had faced Diggchus armed with only a Lathi but the thought of handling a leech made him squeamish.
He sneezed loudly on reaching the open terrace. The old man was packing the last of the red Palash leaves in a sack. These broad leaves were used to store poultices and could also be used as bandages. The old man called them Monk leaves because just as a monk they never reacted to any outside stimulus. They acted as an inert and neutral barrier. The medicines did not affect the leaves and neither did the leaves affect them.
“Ah, Thyndee, could you close the spigot?”, the old man pointed towards the water-trough.
Thyndee reached the water-trough and closed off the spigot. The water was supplied by an enormous water-wheel through a complicated system of pipes. It was worked by a team of four Gorus and each house-hold paid a small fee for it. The water drained away to reveal a two finger wide and 6 feet long worm. Its slimy skin reflecting rainbow hues quite in contrast with its beady milky eyes.
“Is this what I think it is?” he asked with just a hint of trepidation mixed with excitement.
“Yes, Thyndee that is a Vishkhopda.”
The old man raised a hand, “Let’s milk out the poison first”.
“And would you like me to carry it to the table?”
The old man only raised an eyebrow and threw something towards Thyndee.
Thyndee caught the oiled leather gloves and sighed deeply before wearing them. He reached inside the trough and gingerly cupped the head and body and lifted it up. All the while taking care that it did not touch his clothes or skin. He carried it at arm’s length and laid it down gently on the table besides the staircase. The old man wearing another set of gloves picked up the tail and they laid it down on the table.
“The head please,” gestured the old man.
Thyndee secured the worm tightly just behind its head. The old man picked a hollow needle and carefully probed the worms head. He found the small depression he was looking for and very slowly inserted the needle until he felt something give away. It was the worm’s skull. He quickly opened the Sheetla lined bottle and inverted it over the other end of the needle. Thyndee rotated the worm’s head and a shiny viscous black liquid flowed out of it into the bottle. The finger sized bottle filled about half away before the flow stopped and the healer quickly closed it.
“Praise Dhara, the forest provides,” said the old man. ““Praise Dhara,” Thyndee repeated.
“Now to your questions. I found this one nearly dried out in the jungle. See these bite marks on its tail, it died in the mating dance. I was able to carry it back in a mud-ball and then place it in the trough to keep its temperature low. And yes, it will fetch a good price, enough to last 2 years’ worth of supplies and maybe a new Kharshan proof saddle for Bardha and leather armor for you”.
“Any more questions”?
“Just one more,” asked Thyndee with a big grin. “Can I have lime pickles with the Rotis?”
After having a hearty breakfast and packing a heartier one they were ready to leave for the market. Bardha was nibbling some fresh grass while the dog still lazed on the porch as they came out. Thyndee brought out the bags and started packing his cart. Just like Bardha it was one of the biggest cart around.
Thyndee had already packed some dry grass for Bardha in the undercarriage hammock. He went around and opened the backdoor of the carriage which opened only from the lower half. The upper half formed a compartment of sorts, accessible only from the front of the carriage. He started packing in the dry herbs, utensils, rope and such in the back of the carriage moving the items around the hooks dangling from the roof of the upper compartment. He secured the glass jars in the netted jute bags and hung them from the hooks and packed other herbs around for safety. Closing the backdoor he entered the front of the carriage. Their beddings, tent, clothes and dry rations went into the upper compartment. The remaining bags went in from the front. The front also had a wooden tool box built in to the body of the cart. He glanced inside to make sure that his tools like saw, hammer, nails, thread and leather were stacked properly. Thyndee was the village carter and at big markets he always got business. There were many broken axles, cogs and wheels and torn leather from seats and saddle that required his services. His sword was already in another special compartment he had built attached to the tool box. He caught the pommel and with a twist drew out the sword only while the sheath caught the lip of the compartment and stayed put. A helpful attachment of a quick draw was required. He attached the front-door which also formed a nice back rest for the front seats which itself was a hollow long-box with a rug thrown over. He hitched Bardha to the cart and walked a keen-eyed circle around the wagon.
Satisfied he hollered, “Let’s go, old man.
He stored the healer’s satchel and strong box under the seat and helped him up.
“Praise Dhara,” prayed the old man.
“HO,” hollered Thyndee; “BHO,” barked dog; “GRMM” grunted Bardha and with a creak the cart started moving.
As the cart moved ahead, the party exchanged greetings with the villagers and barks with their dogs. Almost all the households in the village had at least one dog while some had more. Most of the villages here were healers or herb gatherers and living so near to Katukaras dogs were a necessity for tracking and safety. Quite a few wagons had already pulled ahead of the village and others were being hurriedly packed. All headed for the same destination. Buti-Bazaar.
The Buti-Bazaar was one of the many such quaterly markets held in the country. The market took place on the grounds of Green-cross Maidan. The place was a hard day’s ride from Katuki with a lunch stop in between. It was a large grassy plain where roads from 4 directions met and hence the junction was called Green-cross. Every quarter people from all over the region gathered to sell their goods and people from all over the world came to buy. Herbs and medicines were the main trade. The king sent a contingent of his soldiers along with tax-masters, clerks and judges to maintain law and order and of course to collect taxes and fees. The tax-masters usually decided who got what place on the ground and a little tribute could get you a good place near the entry or extra space for your wares. And if you offended the judges, then you would get placed near the garbage or the toilets.
They reached Green-cross with fading sunlight. Most of the good places were already gone, but that did not worry Thyndee or the old man. The old man's customers always searched him out because of his potent medicines and Thyndee would any how station himself at the entrance to scout any customerss. After some haggling, they got placed between a goldsmith and a cloth-merchant. The space was small but the location was good. They erected their tent and arranged the herbs for a quick set up in the morning. After a dinner of the leftover rotis and pickle for the trio and dry grass for Bardha, they settled on their mats and were asleep before the dog could complete a circuit of the ground.
The next morning passed away in a blur of activities as they set up the mobile clinic for the old man. The side-wall of the carriage was removed. Once four wooden legs were attached in the purpose made pegs, it would make a nice examination table. A wicker chair was kept for the old man with another smaller table in front of him. The carriage itself acted as the back-wall of the clinic, while thick muslin cloths formed the other three walls and the canopy. Their tent would serve as examination and procedure room if required for the shy men and the ladies. They had a quick breakfast of sun-dried biscuits with Pudina tea. Thyndee laid a bale of dried grass and a bucket of water for Bardha, who was tied at the back of the tent. The dog was nowhere to be seen.
“All set up, Grandpa. I don’t think we will have Kharshan today. Do you need anything else?", asked Thyndee.
Looking up to the sky the old man answered,“These close to rains, Kharshan is highly unlikely. Get back by mid-day for lunch and if you call me Grandpa again, I will spike your food with Dirrhu”.
“Can you do that for Bardha, he hasn’t had a decent shit in days,” laughed Thyndee and ran away. The old man scowled in mock anger. All in all it was a good start to Buti-Bazaar but somehow he dreaded that things were only going to get worst from here.
Just then a loud Conch was heard. It was a call to everyone that the Pooja was about to begin.The old man took his staff and started for the entry gate of market. People had already gathered in a loose circle around the temporary wagon-shrine to Dhara. Every Buti-Bazaar began with the ritual worship of Dhara as Shreshta, the goddess of forests and nature and ended with another closing Pooja on the fifth and final day of the Bazaar. The healers worshipped her along with Vanraj, the patron god of healers and herbs. He could hear the people singing along in small voices while punctuating the priest’s singing with loud claps. Early in his life, the old man had realized that given the right setting, most common folk would defer to someone in uniform. In this Pooja, the orange robes of the priest were the uniform and people deferred to him by singing in a lower voice. The priest’s voice reached a crescendo, the bell in his right hand matching the tempo. A boy of about 10 rushed ahead and handed over a husked coconut to the seniormost judge standing on one side with this retinue. On the priest’s cue the judge broke the coconut near the entrance of the Bazaar. The water was collected in bowl and mixed in with a concoction of milk, yogurt and rose-petals. The priest served a little of this Prasadam to the judge. The judge licked it off and extended his hand sideward. Immediately a servant ran forward and poured water on his hand and handed the judge a clean cotton handkerchief to wipe off his hands. Another servant handed him a sealed scroll. The judge showed it to the gathered persons and broke the seal with a long-nailed thumb.
“By the orders of King Jalan, I proclaim the last Buti-Bazaar of Pushpa-Varshas open. By the agreed upon decree of the Tapas-Mandal, all beings irrespective of caste, creed, nationality and species are welcome to this Bazaar. This ground had been consecrated in the name of Dhara under the blessings of Vanraj. There will be no violence here. All who come for Upchaar are welcome in Upchur. Praise Dhara, the forest provides”.
“Praise Dhara”, echoed the old man along with the crowd.
“No violence,” smirked a Milta Brewer from the crowd .“Let a few barrels of beer flow and then we will see”. His Miltan brethren chuckled softly in affirmation.
This was enough to draw the ire of the judge.
“It seems that a lesson is in order on the history and significance of Tapas-Mandal for all gathered,” the judge smirked with lips drawn up, simultaneously angry and disgusted.
He smiled and cleared his throat, looked around, again gave a wry smile and started to speak.
“The Tapas-Mandal was formed towards the end of the Sankat-kal. It is a formal council made up of the kings, high mages, seers and other prominent members of society”. He sneered at the gathering as if teaching a particularly nasty class.
“They,” he gestured towards the sky “advise and guide on the various laws for the Jambu-dvipa. They had decreed long ago that nobody shall be denied treatment and harmed while being treated, so hospitals, healer tents, shaman groves and such like became”... he stopped as if thinking of the proper word“… automatic neutral ground. Even criminals would not be harmed while being treated, at least in Upchur. A lesson learned the hard way during the Moonga wars."
“And that is why entry is allowed to even the nastiest scum,” he said loudly, walking right up to the Miltans. Everyone liked this arrangement and it subsequently came to apply to such markets as well where healing and herbs were the main commodity.The judge looked around with a furrowed brow as if daring someone to object.
When nobody said anything, he continued, now clearly enjoying himself, “The Moonga wars were...” One of the junior judge poked him on the shoulder. He turned back clearly agitated at being disturbed. The junior judge handed him a sealed letter and murmured in his ear. The judge said nothing, glowered to the crowd once and left with a haughty puff. His retinue in followed. There were one or two smirks from the crowd but the judge did not look back.
The priest rolled his eyes and started distributing the prasadam to all present. The remaining was kept before the shrine in the wagon which would be tended by the priest and his single miserable looking young student. The old man took some prasadam and then walked back to his tent-cum-stall-cum clinic and thus began the first day of the Buti-Bazaar.
Like all such seasonal markets, the Buti-Bazaar lasted for 5 days, usually starting on Monday and ending by Friday. And like all such markets, it attracted a variety of traders and goods. As the old man walked back to his tent he could see all variety of crude herbs, animal, animal parts, potions and powders lined up for sale. A Kabuki trader in flowing robes was showing off shiny instruments like golden shalakas, copper pipettes and iron knifes. Besides him sat merchants with jewelry and fabric. On the opposite side were rows of tables and benches, arranged in lines behind which had sprung a number of taverns and hotels. Already he could smell the rising bread and roasting chicken. By the evening, Khopdi, Arrack, Tadi and other type of Madiras would start flowing inevitably followed by a broken head or two. Music could be heard from the instrument being tuned and there would be dance and magic shows as well.
“Old man,” purred a voice from behind along with an assault of strong perfumes.
“You still have some life left in you. Want to see heaven before you die?” asked a pair of blue kohl lined eyes from behind a veil.
“Thank you for the offer ladies,” bowed the old man as much as he could. “Come see me if you or your friends need treatment or if your patrons need some help. I am always at your service”, he bowed again and winked.
The ladies giggled and entered their Shamiyana, which was one of the few to have its own guards. The Roop-jivanas had arrived to the market. This usually meant a lot of people would develop the feeling of inadequacy and flock to Vaidyas like him for treatment.
Markets such as these also meant a lot of chance for illicit trades and attracted smugglers and thieves. Not to mention wizards, mages and assassins looking for poison and anti-dotes as well. He had no doubt that his Vishkhopda poison would fetch him a good price.
He turned the corner towards his tent and heard a loud woof. Just a friendly warning from the dog. He tightened his grip on the staff and moved ahead. On the opposite side of his tent, but not directly in front, a hunter had set up his wares. A short-statured, almond eyed Palee was displaying his animals to a squealing crowd of wide-eyed children not much younger than him.
“Theeze here iz a claw-tailed zcorpion,” he pointed to a large black scorpion. “Very dangerouz, it tingz through its pincerz but catchez the prey by itz tail”. He had three-banded Dhaaman and spectacled Cobra, singing mices and cloaked lizards and various other animals for sale. Some dead but most alive. He also had bones, teeth, fur and pelts. All for sale and all potentially dangerous.
The dog gave a slow bark from his haunches as the old man trudged in. “I see him,” groaned the old man as he settled down in his wicker chair. “Thanks for the warning,” he stroked the dog's head. The dog snorted and got up. He stretched once on his hind-legs and again and sprawled down besides his chair.
By the end of the first day, the old man had managed to sell large amount of his dry herbs. Two of his bags containing herbs for cold, fever, rashes and Atisar were almost empty. The rainy season was approaching fast and people were stocking up on the raw materials. As always, folks would try to treat such maladies at home and when the disease got worse, only then would seek out professional help. It did not matter how many times they were advised against such treatment, the cycle repeated every year. By the evening, he had delivered most of his pre-ordered medicines for the regular customers. Some of them came themselves for re-examination and others sent servants with a list of their symptoms. He would diagnose and give medicines as per those list and advice rather mildly that next time the patient themselves should come and that this was not the correct way of treatment. Although, he never turned away any, after all a man had to make a living.
Thyndee returned after sun-down with a frown.
“No luck?” asked the old man.
“Hmmm,” Thyndee grunted and dropped his tool-box and unbuckled his sword. He went straight to the water-barrel. A lot of grunts, trumps, hem and haws were heard for a few minutes. Thyndee returned and the water seemed to have washed off his foul mood as well.
“You know, a herd of Gorus would make less noise than you.”
“Your tongue will get you in trouble one day old man”.
“Ah, but then you would surely save me. Oh mighty Thyndee”.
“Come on, I am hungry and more than that I am thirsty”, Thyndee rolled his eyes.
“Only, if you promise to drink more like a man and less like a Goru”.
“Hmm,” was the only exasperated response.
Thyndee laid half a bale of dried grass before Bardha. “Eat, I will get you fresh grass in the morning”.
“Bardha’s all settled. Where is your stupid dog?”
A low bark was heard from outside the tent.
“Closer than you think,” said the old man. “He can guard the tent and we will bring back something for him.
Just like shops of all regions, taverns and eateries of all regions had also sprung up in the Bazaar. They walked past the only tavern of any repute in the Bazaar, the Mezwan. The carpeted entrance and the sizzling aromas wereas inviting as the mean stare and the sharp spears of the guards were repelling. This was the premium place to eat in the Bazaar and no doubt would be filled by the elite. They walked past it and then walked on some more ignoring the other cheaper but reputable taverns. Finally they reached the seedier of the taverns. The tents were grimy, the floors were dirty and the guards if any were already drunk. The old man let Thyndee lead and he took them towards a tavern resonating with raucous singing and spicy aroma. They dodged around a few tables full of drinks with folks equally full of drinks sitting at them.
“Thyndee, friend welcome. Old man, still alive, good” boomed a voice and the owner proceeded to engulf both of them in a bear hug.
“Need to breathe,” gasped the old man struggling to get free. After a few seconds the man let them free. Karaka was not only the owner of this tavern but also a friend of both Thyndee and old man. They had helped him out once with a scar or two to show for the effort and from then were always welcome at his tavern. Karaka served the strongest beer and the spiciest food. The fare was simple but filling. As Karaka always said, “My beer will sprout your chest-hair and my meat will grow bones”. He was built on the same scale as Bardha. Big as his beer barrels and strong enough to pick-up one barrel in each hand. That was one of the reasons he did not need guards. That and his family of equally big-boned brothers and their little cubs.
“Raka,” he hollered to his brother, “look who is here. Get them a seat and a beer. Squinting at Thyndee he said, “No get them 2 beers to get started. Thyndee looks thirsty”. He laughed and slapped Thyndee on his back, which was like being kicked by a mule.
“Let’s go, before he hugs out my ribs,” Thyndee said and nudged the old man towards the corner table pointed by Raka.
They were followed to the table by set of eyes sitting in the opposite corner. The man was clearly out of place in Karaka’s tavern. Apart from him only a single beer glass occupied his table.
The old man had also noticed the stranger and flicked his eyes in question towards Raka.
“He is sitting here from past 2 hours and has not finished even 1 beer,” complained Raka putting down their drinks. “He is looking for someone, talked with Karaka when he came in. Enjoy your drinks, Karaka will come once the crowd thins.”
Thyndee took a swig and let out a sigh and then remarked, “Looks like a spy.”
“No,” replied the old man, “any half-decent spy won’t be so care-less. He is trying to mix in with the crowd but is clearly standing out. Dhara help him but he is still wearing his riding gloves”.
“May be he forgot.” Thyndee smacked his lips and leaned back “or maybe he is in a hurry to leave”.
“You know, Thyndee” quipped the old man, “you actually get smarter after a few drinks”.
Thyndee raised his glass and toasted, “To a smarter and drunker me” and drained it. Raka returned by then with a big plate filled with onion fritters, dried nuts, fried garlics and a smaller plate with diced tomatoes, figs and cucumbers.
Another hour and 3 glasses of beer passed before Karaka finally appeared carrying a pitcher of beer and glasses.
“How has been the Bazaar friends?” he asked.
Thyndee was already pouring out another glass so the old man answered for both of them. “As always, Dhara provides”.
“Who is the stranger?” the old man asked.
Karaka raised a hand, “First have a drink” and then gestured towards the kitchen door. The door swung open and out came Rukkmi, the truly better half of Karaka. A small glass decanter with rusty red wine and a clean glass clutched in either hand.
“It’s good to see you both”, she beamed.
“Ahh, Rukkmi”, Thyndee tried to get up but swayed a little and sat down.
“Tell me again, how come a bear like Karaka gets married to a beauty like you while decent folk like us are still waiting?” Thyndee slurred. Rukkmi laughed at that and went back. Karaka filled the glass from the decanter and handed it over to the old man then took a swig from his own beer glass.
“Well, her father was not ready at all but you know that once Karaka takes a stand…”
“Nobody can move him,” The trio completed the sentence in chorus.
The old man again gestured towards the rider and Karaka nodded just a slight bow of the head.
“Raka,” he hollered, “Look at this filthy table, get it cleaned”. Raka came running over with a bucket and rag but instead of cleaning the table as it was, he raised the top so that it became perpendicular to the ground effectively screening them from the others in the tent.
“That man is some militia from Jangal-Mahal”.
“Which part?” asked a suddenly sober Thyndee.
“The city itself” and then raising his voice he again boomed “get the underside of the table as well”.
Again in a hushed voice he said, “He is looking for a healer. He won’t say any more but looks to be in a hurry”.
“So, there are plenty of Vaidya’s in the Bazaar,” the old man frowned.
“I told him the same. Even suggested a few names including your’s, maybe he will come to you,” shrugged Karaka.
“Somethings not right. Jangal-Mahal has its own healers, I have personally attended some lessons under their Royal-vaidya. Not to mention their Pradhan,” replied the old man. Both his hands were on the glass although he had not yet taken a sip.
“Twisted vines of Vinca,” swore Thyndee. “I hope it has nothing to do with the old Crow”.
Raka coughed and looked over the upright table and Karaka answered with 2 raised fingers.
Leaning in Karaka said, “That’s all I know, but you two take care and be wary. I have heard rumors of unrest and riots in Jangal-Mahal. In the Bazaar as well you can see more guards than before. Come to me if you need help” and then he leaned back with a finality. Raka who was observing the exchange lowered the table.
“Even, I heard that larger bands of Agargodhis have been sighted coming out from Vidarikandh”, added Thyndee.
“Old crow,” muttered the old man rubbing his bald plate.
“Thanks,” he raised his glass toward Karaka “for everything”. Rukkmi came back with their supper. A whole roasted Teetar, with onion gravy, seared brinjal in peanuts and her famous conch-fried chillies. Light lemon-wine and Bajra bread completed the menu.
“Off your hands we eat, off your body we thrive,
Thy divine mercy, all life survives”.
The old man uttered the traditional dinner prayer. Thyndee and Karaka echoed “Praise Dhara” with folded hands and then tore into the meal.
The gloved rider got up and paid his tab. He had realized that something fishy was afoot the moment Raka had raised the table-top.
“Thyndee, let’s find out more about you and your friend,” he thought. He gave a final look to the trio and then vanished into the night.
The second day of the Bazaar began with another ShreshtaPooja. Now that the commerce of the market had started it was a more subdued affair than the previous Pooja. The old man got up before Thyndee. He woke up a slightly hung-over Thyndee with a steaming cup of Dark-tree, Ginger and Saunf Kadha. Thyndee drank the vile brew silently without any noise except the crunch of the dry barley biscuits whenever he took a bite.
“You know, we should start selling this Kadha. You make them and I will sell it to the drunkards in front of the taverns,” suggested a very much sober Thyndee.
“And how many drunkards will be able to pay you if they need this?” answered the old man weighing some nasty smelling powder and making small pouches.
“Today I will go into the jungle to get fresh fodder for Bardha and I bet, I can also sell some of it. The Gasvat would be in bloom on the far side of the lake”, said Thyndee rubbing his fore-arms and wrist with Chandan powder before donning his armor and bracers.
“Yes, that bull is getting cranky, it will be good for him. You want to go, dog?”
The dog only yawned in reply and cocked his head to one side.
“I will be fine,” the old man patted the air in front of him.
“You know, old man, I can’t decide if the dog is really smart or you are getting senile”.
The dog woofed as in affirmation.
Thyndee saddled Bardha with two enormous jute bags hanging on both sides. He belted on his sword and headed out.
“I will be back by dinner, old man, don’t die by then”.
“You too, Thyndee”. The old man answered and then addressing the dog he said, “Please take care of both the stone-headed bulls”.
The dog chuffed and ran ahead of Thyndee, sniffing around and greeting other people and animals with short barks.
As Thyndee was leaving the Bazaar for the jungle, he saw the same rider standing outside the office-cum-tent of the judge. This was not usual as many people came to meet the judge with their problems, offers, bribes and sometimes threats. What he found unusual was that the judge himself coming out to welcome the rider inside. Strange thought Thyndee but he had a Bardha to feed and money to earn. Shrugging his shoulder he moved ahead with a “HO”.
The judge took the rider inside and handed him back the official letter of introduction. The same letter which had stopped him from launching into a lengthy disposition on Moonga wars. The rider stayed inside for about half an hour and came out looking a little pleased. He headed straight for the old man’s tent. There were 4 persons standing outside the tent and may be 3 more inside, judging by the sandals and slippers outside. A loud painful groan was heard followed by the old man’s voice.
“Hold him tighter and you stop squirming like a child, it’s just a boil, not a hernia,” he chided. Two more muffled screams came followed by a continuous drone of somebody who was in constant mild pain. The old man had just lanced a boil.
The rider took a seat on the small tea-betel stall beside the hunters shop. He caught the eye of another man, who nodded in response. The rider made a circle in the air with his finger and then closed his fist and pulled it down. Within moments, a 4 person team had surrounded the healer’s tent. There was an old couple waiting their turn to see the old man. The rider talked with them. The couple nodded their head in agreement and turned away. Moments later, the old man came out of the tent with a tray filled with spoiled rags and instruments. He immersed them in a copper pot containing solution of soap-water. He added a few drops of Basil-Neem juice to the solution and kept the whole over a Sigri to boil. Once the dung-cakes had caught flames he returned inside. The rider followed him in.
The old man was not surprised.
“It’s lunchtime, if it is nothing serious then please come back in 2 hours”.
The rider only eyed him intently.
After a long pause he finally spoke “Believe me, Vaidya it is serious. I was told that I would find an expert Agad over here and everyone pointed towards you.”
“I am hardly an expert. You are wasting your time here, go to Samaa. The real experts are there”.
“I have come from Jangal-Mahal and am the Owlar of the third Sthar.”
The old man shrugged as if it meant nothing to him.
“Then you will have no problem finding an expert in Samaa”.
“I am here on the command of Pradhan Kartak. He has ordered me to bring in this Vaidya on any cost”.
“I assure you Owlar, everyone here knows about the Old crow, but I am too old to be scared of any man”, the old man sat down on his chair and opened his notes.
The riders’ nostrils flared. “You fit the description, I was provided,” he replied through clenched teeth.
“There are dozens of old men, here who would fit my description,” replied the old man without looking up.
“Why do you think, it was your description, I was given”.
Now the old man was surprised. When Karaka had told him that someone from Jangal-Mahal was looking for a healer the old man had realized that they were most probably looking for him. He had long-ago decided that he would have nothing to do with the Old Crow.
“I have a fast ship waiting at Samaa. You can either come or I can drag you”.
The old-man smiled and gestured towards his staff, “I can defend myself,at least against you”.
The rider smiled as well, “Pradhan Kartak had warned me of your other talents besides medicine and that is why I am not alone”. He put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle and immediately 2 persons entered the tent. They were armed with swords and shields and one of them carried a rope. “I assure you, there are more outside”.
The old man sat down on his chair. It seemed he would have to fight and try to escape or go with them. Both the options were not looking good. Fortunately it would not be his decision as the dog appeared in the tent suddenly. Growling menacingly and bleeding from a dozen cuts. Everybody froze for an instant and then the tent erupted in a cacophony of motion. The old man flung a small muslin bag in an arc towards the rider and his companion. They instinctively closed their eyes, but the powder still got on their face, neck and hands.
“Owlar, this is a mix of Kuili and red-horned beetle. Please do not open your eyes or mouth until you have washed it off in hot-areca-infusion”. The old man instructed before he picked up his staff and rushing out the back.
The rider muffled a scream in frustration. One of the Owlar’s man stationed outside the back entrance was alert enough to point his spear towards the rushing old man. The old man reversed his direction and scrambled toward Karaka’s tent. The man charged in pursuit only to be who tripped by the dog in mid-stride. The dog caught up with old man while the man screamed clutching his sprained ankle.
“I am not as fast as you when old. Karaka will have a horse,” gasped the old man.
The back of Karaka’s tavern had a pack of horses. The old man started saddling a grey mare.
“The red one is the fastest,” Rukkmi said appearing from the kitchen. “Let me saddle, it will be faster”.
“Dhara blesses you,” panted the old man. He was already winded.
“Karaka,” yelled Rukmi.
Karaka came out running, saw the scene and growled in question.
“Thyndee or Bardha, I don’t know but the dog will lead us to them. They were headed towards the lake to gather Gaswat”.
“The dog is hurt,” answered Karaka saddling another horse.
“He has seen worse,” replied the old man.
“My gada,” he growled again and Rukkmi rushed inside to get his mace.
“Wait,” the old man replied.
“I am coming with all the family and you can’t…”
“Yes, I want you to come, those cuts are clean and that means swords at least, but first you must stall the Owlar.
Karaka cocked his head.
“The rider is an Owlar, third Sthar and I think the Crow has his talons in this. We may have to vanish for some time”.
“You be careful, old man and don’t take any chances. Soldiers and dacoits both carry swords. He looked around as if thinking and then said, “The Owlar will have men posted on the entrance and exits. Go past two more tents and there is an inclined spot where men go to piss, hopefully nobody would be there. Get down the incline and to the road”.
“I will…” pleaded the old man and then added, “please hurry”.
Karaka almost lifted him up to the saddle. The old man secured his staff on the horse and took off. The dog scared away a peeing teenager with a loud bark. The old-man guided the horse slowly down the stinking incline. They reached the road in moments. The dog stopped and barked twice in a very peculiar way, a short guttural bark and a louder snarl. “Not yet, too many eyes” the old man shook his head and sped down the road. The dog kept pace in spite of his wounds, while the old man seemed to grow wearier although he was just riding the horse.
Karaka found the Owlar and his men being tended by a healer.
“You” screamed the Owlar “where is the old man?”
“I can ask you the same, what did you do with him?”
The Owlar grunted in frustration. Just then one of his men, jostled in from the ever increasing crowd gathering outside the tent and whispered in his ear.
The Owlar nodded and pointed to one of his men who was vigorously scratching his arm and told him to stay put in the tent with the man with the sprained ankle.
“Gather the horses,” he commanded pulling on his riding gloves.
Karaka’s giant frame blocked his way, his Gada resting on the ground, the shaft within easy reach of his thigh.
“You know, I can have you arrested for obstructing the law,” threatened Owlar.
Karaka smiled and cracked his knuckles, “What law, only the law of Upchur stands here and it says no violence in Buti-Bazaar”.
“We did not lift a finger on anyone,” shouted the Owlar.
“Then where is the Vaidya?” shouted an equally loud Karaka.
“You don’t know what you are…”
The crowd added their own loud drone to the shouting match between Karaka and the Owlar.
“In the name of Dhara, what is going on here?” thundered a visibly upset voice from outside the tent.
Somebody had fetched the judge and the King’s soldiers had surrounded the tent.
“Owlar. Karaka. Care to explain?” glowered the judge.
The old man slowed down as the lake came in sight. Once it had been a stone quarry and one bank of the lake was the stone wall of the small mountain from which the gravelwas cut. The walls sloped down gently to embrace the lake from three sides. The lake itself was not visible as the mountain was between the road and the lake. The dog lifted his paw, pointed towards the hill and took off. The old man dismounted and trundled after the dog. Around halfway to the top he started hearing the agitated grunts of Bardha. He wanted to rush forward but saw the dog slinking forwards. He followed suit. The old man slowly inched forwards, the grass cushioning him and his sounds until the emerald-blue waters of the lake came in sight. He saw 3 bales of freshly cut Gaswat on the other side along with 4 men trying to subdue a madly squirming Thyndee. Bardha had retreated into the waters of the lake and another dozen men were trying to catch him with ropes and a net. Bardha could not go deeper in the lake as Gorus were not good swimmer and could not get out of the water as the way was blocked by a magea spinning a lasso of fire. The dog looked at the old man. “The magea is the main problem, once she is down, we can try to get Bardha out. On solid ground, even bound with ropes, he will toss these man around like leaves. It’s time dear friend”. The old man replied.
The magea’s brow furrowed deeper as the lasso got thicker and longer. Bardha roared again stomping and churning the water muddy. The beast was moving but not going anywhere. A deftly thrown rope snagged one of his horn. Both the men on other side heaved trying to Bardha down. They were not able to move his neck even an inch but this gave ample time for the other three men to throw a net over Bardha. The five of them were able to hold him to a standstill until one of the men suddenly disappeared underwater. The pressure on the rope lessened and Bardha’s strength was enough to toss one of man towards the Magea. The Magea was alert enough to dart out of the flying body,retracting her lasso to a fist-sized marble. It saved the flames from the splash but she had to start stretching it again in a rope while Bardha tried to pull the men out of the water. “Need more men on the net,” she yelled and two of the men holding Thyndee down rushed over and started pulling back on the net. The Magea cracked her fire-whip causing Bardha bellow in pain and rear back. The next crack came soon but this time the Magea bellowed clutching her broken wrist. The men turned and saw a wet figure rising with the staff that had broken the Magea’s wrist. The man had shoulder length wavy hair. Although not muscular but he had the solid build of someone who worked outdoors. The greying hairs around his temple gave him an air of confidence and worldliness, while his stout green staff spoke of hidden strength.
Thyndee felt the pressure abate on his legs as he saw two of the men holding him down rush away. His head was still ringing from a blow and the arrow stuck through his thigh was still throbbing. But this was his chance and he took it. Pulling in his legs he twisted on his side and his knee crashed into something squishy. One of the thugs holding him fell back with a crushed nose. His partner got a matching nose but the work this time was done by Thyndee’s fist. Thyndee got up with a grunt and hobbled towards Bardha, his thigh squirting blood with each step.
Bardha was still trying to pull away but was slipping in the mud. Thyndee staggered towards the shore and started shouting Hraa. Bardha’s head perked up on hearing his voice and the man with the staff ran out of the water. Another Hraa and Bardha instead of pulling turned back and charged straight towards the men. The men screamed and Bardha grunted. Three bodies flew in air, another was trampled underfoot while one managed to avoid the horn, basically a visual definition of getting bull-dozed. The unhurt man ran straight out of the water and got a staff in the stomach for his efforts.
Thyndee’s vision was getting increasingly blurry and the last thing he saw was the staff-wielding man hurrying towards him before he fell down. The first thing the man did on reaching him was to examine his eyes. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he moved Thyndee to take the pressure of the arrow. Before, he could do anything more, he heard the low guttural grunt of Bardha. He immediately got up and moved back, while Bardha hunched his shoulder.
“You know me,” he said to Bardha. He inched forwards slowly, eyes down and palm out. Bardha shook his head but did not charge. He moved even closer until his palm was below Bardha’s nose. Bardha smelled it for a few moments. When the Goru-bull did not charge, he moved closer and started stroking his neck trying to calm him down. The animal was still distressed but sat down as the man tapped his knee.
“We need to get the arrow out,” he said to Bardha. He broke the tail of the arrow and pulled the head out. He tore out a piece from Thyndee’s scarf and tied out the wound. The bleeding stopped and only then he realized that he was stinging all over with many cuts. He cleaned out his cuts with the water but did not bandage any. Just then he heard a howl. He immediately ran towards the lake and dove in. By the time he crossed the lake and got out the other side, around a dozen riders had reached the far shore. He got up and quietly slipped inside the high Gaswat. He crouched their and waited. In a few moments a frail old dog reached him and sat down.
“We did good, dog. It’s time to change, as always I am sorry for the pain”. He put his hand on the dog’s forehead gripped his staff with the other. The next instant his body started to flow like sand. The dog started getting younger and healthier, while the man got older and weak as if his Ooj was somehow being transmogrified into the dog. A few moments later, the old healer and the dog came out of the same Gaswat. The old man had his gnarled staff while the dog his dozen cuts. They started walking towards Thyndee who was finally coming awake.
Karaka, Owlar, one of the junior judges and around two dozen men had reached the lake by then. A few men fanned out in wide protective circle while the others started securing the dazed attackers.
“Let him in,” rumbled Karaka as the old man and dog got closer. The old man directly went towards Thyndee and started examining him. Karaka and the Owlar gathered near him with questions on their face.
“I heard fighting as I got near,” replied the old man, while dressing Thyndee’s head wound. “I went up the hillock to observe and saw that everyone was down, except Bardha."
“Bardha and another man” croaked Thyndee. “The cattle-bandits ambushed me but that man helped me. He had a staff”. He looked around and asked, “Where is he?”
The Owlar scowled, “You mean, one man helped defeat all of these bandits and the fire Magea”. The old man merely shrugged.
“You came from the top of the hillock? The Owlar asked the old man.
“As fast as I could”.
“Then why are your clothes wet”.
“I slipped on the shore…
“And went head first in the lake,” shouted Owlar eyeing the old man suspiciously.
“Enough, Owlar! Is this the man you are looking for?” the judge pointed towards the Old man.
“Then, I believe you will have ample time to question him on your way back to Jangal-Mahal”.
“Yes, Sir”. The Owlar smiled but thinly.
“But, Sir”….Karaka tried to intervene but the judge stopped with a raised hand.
“Principal Judge has already examined his case and found it to be lawful, you can take it up with him in the Bazaar”.
The Owlar gestured to his men and a score of arrows, swords and spears closed in on the old man. The dog growled menacingly and got an arrow in reply on his snout.
The old man cried out but was relieved to see that the arrow had bounced off.
“The next one won’t be a blunt arrow, no more tricks healer”.
The old man stroked the dog and let himself be bound in ropes.
“Will he come in peace?” the Owlar pointed towards the dog.
The old man nodded in reply.
A heavy hand fell on the Owlar’s shoulder. It was Karaka.
“Remember Owlar, the old man is my friend,” the threat was evident in his voice.
“Although, I don’t care much for your threats,” Owlar replied jerking Karaka’s hand away, “But I already promised the Principal that I won’t let any harm come to him until he behaves honorably. He is a Vaidya after all”.
They returned to the Bazaar. While the old man was gathering his things, Karaka came with his family with Thyndee hobbling along. He gave the Old man a look but the old man shook his head in denial.
“Take care, old man”.
“You too and don’t let Thyndee get up until his wounds are healed. He has a thick head, knock him out if required”.
“Stay safe,” Thyndee smiled glumly.
“Praise Dhara,” the old man murmured as the men escorted him out.
“I am coming with you but not before your leg is healed,” asked Karaka.
Thyndee tried to look confused but failed miserably.
“I am not…”
Karaka stopped him in mid-sentence, “I know you are going after Ramas, let’sjust hope that no harm comes to him”.
Thyndee just smiled and murmured “We are coming Ramas”.