Darkness was spilling across the night sky when Satya finally looked up from her work. I'm late, she thought with a start.
Cursing at her own folly, she threw all her study materials back into her straw basket. She had been sitting in one of the deserted classrooms, engrossed in a new book on ayurveda. Originally, she planned to set off for home before sunset. But the book had been so fascinating that she never realised when the sun dropped below the horizon. Now, she hurried out of the classroom and into the lawn outside, certain that she would be scolded for her tardiness.
“Still here, Satya,” a kind, rumbling voice stopped her. She turned to look at the speaker. A tall, aged man in the uniform-like, saffron-coloured, common attire of the university, moved towards her from one end of the lawn. She joined her palms, bowed her head, and addressed him with the standard, respectful greeting.
“Pranam, Acharya,” she said.
“My blessings are always with you,” the smiling, old teacher raised his right palm, facing forward, to bless her as he stopped before her. Acharya Dhanwantari was a shrivelled old man with sawdust-coloured dreadlocks, a voluminous white beard, and similar moustache. In spite of his sickly appearance, he walked energetically. Clear-blue eyes shone from under bushy white eyebrows. “Studying late again, are we?”
“Sorry, Acharya, I didn’t hear the last gong.”
“Hmm! Making excuses again? What does your uncle say? I remember the last time he came to this school looking for you. He was not happy about you studying so late.”
She bit her tongue, sheepishly. “I promise you I was just about to head home.”
Acharya’s kind smile grew sombre. “I heard your poultice healed another patient at the hospital today.”
Her face lit up. “Did it really? Do you mean that child with the skin infection who was admitted yesterday? Is he healed already?”
He nodded. “Discharged already! This evening his parents came to collect him. They are most grateful for your treatment.”
Satya tried in vain to contain her excitement. Her face beamed with pride in spite of her efforts. The old teacher continued. “Satya, you are my best student. I am proud of your commitment to your studies and your work at the hospital. But I am sorry to see you make your uncle and aunt worry in this manner. Come! I will take you home now. I will personally apologise to your uncle today.”
“No, Acharya,” she cried. “I promise you it won’t happen again. Please don’t apologise to Uncle. He’ll be so disappointed if you do that. It’s my mistake. I won’t ever study late in school again.”
“Very well! I won’t apologise to him this time. But it’s the last time, mind you! Come, let’s take you home.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself, Acharya, I can go home on my own.” She bowed to him again and sprinted down the lawn towards the school gates.
“Wait! Satya-,” the old teacher called but she had already slipped out of the gate. She turned on the pavement outside, waved her hand to him and hurried down the road towards the hamlet. During the long walk, she relished the conversation. Acharya did not give compliments to everyone. He had called her ‘his best student’. To top it all, her patient had recovered in one single day with her own special treatment. This day couldn’t get any better. She dreaded to think what would have happened had she listened to Aunt Sulochana and stayed at home. Excited about her progress, she began making a mental note of the ingredients and preparation method of her poultice for the school medical records.
The path home was easy for her to traverse, despite the absence of street lamps in the western suburbs. A tree or two, standing in the gap between the houses, swayed gently in the night breeze, as though welcoming her arrival. The pale moonlight brought some respite from the looming darkness. Occasionally, a lamp or two, hanging in the porch of the houses on either side of the road, threw a welcome spotlight to dispel the gloom. The western road was mostly deserted now. The students, following a strict daily routine, had already retired to their dormitories at sunset. The staff had also returned to their eastern quarters. The temporary contractors would work at the construction sites in the south and the north until nine o’clock before returning home. People of the hamlet, especially Uncle Madhava, would be lounging at the village square enjoying a smoke. If she was lucky, she could persuade Aunt Sulochana not to tell him how late she was.
Such thoughts occupied her mind as she turned a corner and froze, unprepared for the sight that met her eyes. Exactly at that moment, the moon hid behind an ominously large cloud. However, it failed to hide the gravity of the situation before her. Not ten feet away, two young maidens, close in age to Satya, were being dragged roughly by the arms towards a curtained palanquin. Five strange men walked next to them, their faces shrouded in black masks. Satya recognised the girls instantly. They were from the hamlet. Bound and gagged, muffled squeaks of terror escaped their covered lips. Their tear-stained, frightened faces were focused on their kidnappers in plain horror.
Uncle Madhava's teachings came in handy. Satya ducked behind a tree on the roadside and watched the party. All alone, she knew she could do nothing to stop these men. Screaming for help was futile. The hamlet was still far away and the houses around were empty. No one, except the kidnappers, would hear her. If she was caught too, then she would not be able to help her friends. Instead, it would be better to follow them discreetly. As she watched the girls being pushed into the palanquin, she felt a sudden movement behind her. Alarm gripped her senses. She swirled around on the spot. Too late! To her dismay, she came face-to-face with another masked kidnapper. In the darkness, the first thing she saw were his murderous, gleaming eyes.
Run, Satya’s mind screamed in vain. Her body wouldn’t move. As pure fear froze her limbs, she saw him raise his hands above his head, aiming a deadly-looking wooden cane at her doomed head. In the next very instant, it collided sharply with her left temple. Her basket dropped from her hands. Clutching her throbbing head, Satya took a couple of halting steps away from her assailant. Her vision blurred. Her ears were ringing like temple bells. Everything was twisting into oblivion. Within seconds, she dropped to the ground face-down. As she lay there, her mind fighting against the fast spreading blackout, she heard one of the kidnappers from the palanquin run towards her. “Who’s that?” he called.
“I found her spying on us,” she heard her assailant speak.
A short pause followed. Just before she fell into unconsciousness, she heard the first voice again. “Put her in the palanquin.”