The river Dhonnya was gurgling along. Some of the ground alongside was clear, covered in grass and small shrubs; beyond them lay the forest. Flowers bloomed. Flowers wilted. But at night? Nights were very dangerous. People were not safe during the day either. A variety of animals lay in wait. Just the other day a wolf had nabbed the mud-spattered baby named Shukko. But still they weren’t afraid. The threats were always there. Those who were taken away in the jaws of animals, or by the current, or by rain or fire, became silent and invisible. It was right to accept this. The forest was a little less dense at this spot; the light flashed on the currents, and the scent of water was discernible from a distance. Beasts, birds and humans all came here from wherever they lived to drink water. Their feet raised dust. The grass and shrubs were flattened; water dripping from their hands and feet and mouths on the way back soaked the earth. Tiny flowers sprung up among the blades of grass overnight, like stars. No one gave them any consideration – they were crushed underfoot again. This sprouting and being flattened went on constantly, unceasingly. Amidst all this the Dhonnya gurgled along. It was unmoved.
Ranka…a, Ranka…a – the cry came suddenly, breaking through the barrier of the forest. Ranka…a! The caller had cupped her hands around her mouth. Her voice was as powerful as a horn’s. Matangi. Matangi was calling. The cry held an urgency, perhaps anger too? There would well have been anger. A swamp of disobedience always lay between Matangi and Ranka, where rage could burst to life like the light of a will of the wisp. But why the anger? Was there anxiety too? They knew very indistinctly what anxiety was. When Shukko could not be found, it occurred to Matangi after three suns and three moons – where’s Shukko? I haven’t seen Shukko anywhere. Who’s giving him his milk?
Arjya had said very calmly – A wolf has taken Shukko away.
– What? You saw? And you didn’t do anything?
– I was guarding the field of grains. I had gone to the river for a drink of water. A herd of deer was grazing in the distance. I couldn’t even catch my breath. The deer are so cunning. He was playing in the dust. A wolf picked him up by the scruff of his neck. He didn’t get a chance to scream. His neck snapped instantly.
– One human less – Matangi had sighed angrily – all these grains fall to earth and then spring up again, they grow so quickly, the lovely white milk gathers in their golden tips. Don’t we need more humans to take care of these grains, to guard them, to observe their ways, to sow seeds, to harvest the tips, to clean and store them? We need many, ma…any people. Even the children can do so much; we need lots and lots more humans. And yet a wolf takes away a simple little human and you, Arjya, are telling me… three moons later. Shame! Matangi roared… and then a wordless murmuring sound emerged from her lips. ‘Matangi’s weeping, Matangi’s weeping,’ rose a cry. The small children nearby leapt on her at once. One of them tried to clamber up her knees into her arms, another one lowered its head on her shoulder, some were rubbing their lips on her hands and feet, a few had jumped on her huge, firm, mountainous breasts, sucking her nipples. This was how they wanted to calm Matangi down. She looked like a lioness surrounded by her cubs. ‘Go to Arjya,’ Matangi had told them hoarsely. ‘Go to Adri, Ranka. Adri will give you milk.’
Ranka was experiencing an unknown sensation. Her body was smarting, her heart was rebelling. An ache in her belly, an emptiness in her breast. She had screamed – I shan’t go to Adri. Nor to Arjya, I want Shukko, I’m going to Chhando. The obliteration of Shukko, Matangi weeping for the first time, and all the strange changes within her had overwhelmed her, making her unintelligible. Chhando had held her close – I’ll give you a Shukko, Ranka, I’ll bring milk to your nipples, Ranka.
They had gone off fearlessly into the dense forest. They had not been afraid of wolves or foxes or bears. They had watched the lovemaking of deer with great pleasure, the copulation of doves too. And Chhando had wrapped his arms around her from the back in the same way. Since then, Ranka didn’t go anywhere near Matangi. The distance between them kept widening – on both sides. Chhando and she always moved about in a pair. No one disturbed then. Only Sham said sometimes with a smile – when you no longer like Chhando come to me. I’ll give you a Shukko too, milk too.
Matangi was calling. Her cry wafted in, bouncing off the wall of green. Their leader, the gargantuan, large-eyed, unique Matangi – so adept with weapons – was calling. Ranka ran in the direction of the call. As swiftly as a deer. Leaping over bushes, sidestepping the rabbits and monkeys and the civets, she sprang along. For Matangi was calling. After a long time. Calling Ranka.
She did not know how far she had run. Abruptly, she stopped. Where the clearing should have begun stood a wall of humans. Behind them the joy in the field of grains was luminescent with the light falling on it. But all this was hidden behind Sham, Adri, Arjya, Alambush, Gridhna, Arjama, Ratri, Samba, Kutil, Haban, Sarva, Jagat – all the men and women from their area. Their faces were anxious and stiff; they had bows and arrows on their shoulders, sticks and spears in their hands.
Haltingly Alambush said – we will probably have to retreat far, far behind this field of grains. Do you agree, Shingha?
– No – roared Matangi.
Shingha had roared – what a roar it was!
– Ranka! Did you see any strangers by the river? They’ve wandered in from the distant land on the other side. You’re there all the time – said Matangi in a worried but tender tone.
– Yes, just like us, but a little different. You can tell they’re foreigners. From another clan.
Adri said – imagine trusting Ranka! She floats along with the current of the Dhonnya, looking for flowers and fish and moss. She stands on the bank of the river like a crane, unblinking. She sits by herself. She sees nothing, hears nothing. Ranka is absent-minded.
And at once Ranka remembered. Nimesh, his name was Nimesh. His face had floated up like a bubble where she had been swimming, catching tiny fish amongst the marine plants and then releasing them back into the water. Small of build. His hair flowing down to his waist, a sheepskin loincloth around his waist.
– Who are you? – She had asked in surprise, perhaps with some fear.
– I… um… wh… who are you?
– You tell me first who you are, I asked first.
– Nimesh… I am Nimesh.
– I am Ranka.
– Remember my name, Ranka, I am Nimesh. Will you remember? – The man slid off just like a fish to the opposite bank as he spoke. He lifted his head briefly, his long hair plastered to his scalp, dripping water profusely. He said – but don’t tell anyone about this meeting of ours, Ranka.
Raising his head out of the water once again, he said, I’m your water-friend. We’ll meet again in the water. Secretly.
This was from seven moons ago, or even longer. Ranka was indeed forgetful. She had forgotten. Just as she had forgotten Chhando, Sham, Ari, Sudan, and Ram. None of them had had her company very long. She liked many men. But how strange! The attraction of the morning vanished in the afternoon, today’s longing vanished tomorrow. What could she do? Everyone knew that this was how she was. At that moment she felt a violent desire for Nimesh in her belly, in her nether parts. In her breasts. Falling on the earth, she screamed in sexual pleasure.
Annoyed, Matangi said – this one’s good for nothing, take her into the deep, one of you. Else she’ll be driven mad.
No one paid attention to Ranka anymore. Everyone was looking at Shingha. At Matangi. Anxiety was writ large on their faces.
Shingha said – it’s just that I’m sure they’ve come to know about our grains. We’re the only ones here to consume grain and store water in earthen pitchers; there’s no one like us. The barbarians don’t know anything. Flowers grow from the earth, the grass grows too. Still they don’t understand. But how did they find out? The Dhonnya is our frontier, it protects us. From across the Dhonnya… didn’t anyone notice?
Matangi said emphatically – why, just the same way that we came to know. Don’t you remember the dogs and mongooses running in from the direction of the river? Their noses to the wind, the clicking of the mongooses could be heard clearly amidst the barking of the dogs. Their fur was prickling. Don’t you suppose they don’t have dogs or mongooses too? And besides, the grain? Its fragrance? The wind? Don’t you think the wind blowing in their direction would have carried the scent of grain? There’s nothing more treacherous than the wind.
Shingha said – we’ve lived through so many suns and moons, Arjama. We’ve battled with barbarians, we’ve battled with bandits. They don’t fight openly. In the middle of nowhere you’ll suddenly discover an arrow embedded in your chest or your arm. That’s it. But they never touch the grain. There’s no fruit they don’t eat, they know the value of different roots. When they run out of animals to hunt and fruits, they move elsewhere. Till the land, sow the seeds, water them, harvest the crop, clean and store – they don’t care to do all this. These people must be from areas we don’t know of.
The same day, when the moon had just begun to climb up the wall of the sky, while the water of the Dhonnya glittered in the dark, the forest was filled with the cries of monkeys and jackals. A completely unknown and alien neighing, accompanied by staccato hoof beats – louder than deer – shook the area. Shingha, Matangi and their people ran towards the river in silence, their bows and arrows and spears raised. Matangi and Shingha were in the vanguard, the rest fanning out in a half-moon configuration behind them. A group of warriors appeared on the opposite bank with clacking sounds. The animals raised their heads to the sky, neighing loudly, making the heart quake.
One of them shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth – step aside, lay down your weapons, we have horses, we can cross the river on them. We won’t have to swim across. Obey us.
Shingha roared like a lion. Matangi echoed his cry, shaking the forest. A hundred arrows and spears flew through the air. Screams, agonised groans, crying, followed by arrows and spears from across the river. Matangi’s group ducked. The enemies’ weapons flew overhead. Jumping back to their feet in an instant, Matangi’s people fired their arrows again. And through this web of arrows the enemy forces began to storm across the river with big leaps, plunging their spears into bodies and severing heads with their swords. The sharp, mighty blows from the feet of the animals alone killed and maimed many in Matangi’s group.
– Tie them up with ropes – An unfamiliar voice. Heavy. Loud, like a clap of thunder.
An arrow had pierced Ranka’s right arm. She was slumped beneath the peepul tree in agony. She was not as tolerant of pain as the others in Matangi’s group. Her threshold was lower – she was rather delicate. Her complexion was the colour of a drop of blood mixed with milk fresh from a cow. Her blue eyeballs sat in the centre of oval eyes. Matangi would hesitate to assign arduous work to her. When she smeared herself with mud, bathed in the river, emerged from the water, dried her garment of bark, used the sap of trees to affix flowers to it and then put her bark garment on, Matangi would glance at her with a mixture of affection and contempt. She would say – this one isn’t ready. Ranka’s learning nothing. If someone takes this daughter of Matangi’s away against her will, there’s nothing she can do. This is what lies in store for distracted young women. But Matangi will give chase – even give up her life to save her daughter from the abductor. Even though this will harm everyone… Shingha, Sham, Adri, Arjya… for no one here is as brave, as intelligent, as Matangi. When Matangi needs advice, the only person she consults is Shingha. But that’s only for advice. Ranka had better remember this.
The sun was up. The earth was awash in a mild orange glow. Ranka opened her eyes in agony. The blackness had not left her eyes yet. She could sense the colour of the sun, but she could not see it clearly. By her arm, a man with a face covered in hair and a beard was pulling the arrow out. Her eyes were streaming with tears at the pain. A grated salve was applied to her arm, and then it was bandaged with thin leaves. Ranka’s sight returned slowly. – I am Nimesh, do you recognise me, Ranka?
– Nimesh! Nimesh! Nimesh!
Her questions went from searching to more searching. From weak to normal to strong. – How did you get here? Do you know that people from the other clan have fought with us? They have finished us.
– Yes. – Nimesh’s smile seemed to confirm the information she had provided.
– Do you know they have taken the help of an alien, hateful creature…
– Not hateful at all, but a favourite of ours. Horses, Ranka. They are called horses. As strong as they are swift and beautiful. We are the horse-riders.
– We? You too…
– Yes, I, too…
– Then you are a spy? You had sneaked in to survey our homes?
– I must do what I can to ensure food and shelter for my clan.
Nimesh picked the injured Ranka up in his arms. He walked carefully so that her injuries were not aggravated. Corpses were scattered in the clearing between the Dhonnya and the fields of grain; some of the injured were tied firmly with vines to trees. All of them were unconscious, their heads lolling. Ranka spotted Adri, dead. Shingha’s head was rolling on the ground. Sham was lying on his stomach, senseless. The horses wandered about, their riders on their back. Nimesh bore her through the battlefield. Suddenly he stopped. And shouted – friends, we have discovered this wonderful form of vegetation on the bank of the Dhonnya river. They spring up through the earth, they provide us food, strength, vigour. The prisoners will teach us how they grow, how to nurture them. I am giving these crops growing by the Dhonnya river a name, dhaannyo. We have won dhaannyo. And I have won this woman. I have not found anyone so alluring in our own clan. This is my woman. Remember this from now on, she will live in “my” cave, bear “my” children… – He kept talking, kept talking, dipped his finger in his own and in Ranka’s wounds and smeared the blood on her forehead. – here is my mark. – Ranka listened in surprise. She could not understand him clearly and at that moment she received a severe shock. Matangi lay beneath a gigantic tree, covered in blood. Her enormous eyes were pointed at the sky, but they were sightless, her breasts pointed upwards, her garment of bark was in tatters, lying bunched up nearby. Screaming ‘Matangi… Matangi… Matangi…’ Ranka leapt out of Nimesh’s arms, running up to her before anyone could react. She flung herself on the inert body. Matangi’s frame trembled, and, like a soft, very soft, breath, she whispered – Ranka…a… , the cry disappearing in the sky.
– Matangi, Matangi… don’t go, Matangi… wake up… Matangi… Ma…a…a…