Sudha giggled to herself, as the siblings sat in comfortable silence watching the babbling waters of the Godavari flow past. Suddenly, turning to her brother, eyes gleaming with mischief, she exclaimed, “Paithan! Let us go to Paithan, Dada! Just for a day?”
Gurunath – all of sixteen, older by two years and her best friend – grinned as the idea began to appeal to him.
Neither had been to Paithan before, the city that lay upriver from their village. Sudha had heard wondrous stories of the place – its marketplaces, their ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji’s visits, its temples, the courtesans, its exquisite silks and fine cottons….
By next afternoon, the gigantic gates of Paithan stood open before them. They joined the crowds in the bazaar. Several tongues and dialects were vying for the ears of the ever-shifting crowds. Even their own language Marathi was being spoken with different intonations. Such commotion!
“Hey, you two!” someone shouted at them from behind. Turning around, they saw a tall boy a little older than Gurunath, approach. “Where are you from?”
“Apegaon”, Gurunath replied warily.
“Was born there,” the stranger replied. “I am Pandurang; my father has a shop here.” He smilingly took Gurunath by the arm. “Tired? Why don’t you come home with me? The least I can do for my native villagers. We have room. Tomorrow you can head back to your village after breakfast.”
They had had a tiring day and nodded gratefully. Pandurang shut shop, and the three of them made their way on foot through narrow streets, stopping at a modest, nondescript house. Sudha wondered why nobody was home, as their host unlocked the door.
“Where is..?” Gurunath’s query was cut short by a hard shove, causing him to stumble. As he fell, Pandurang jumped on him and pinned him down, choking him. Sudha screamed. A large man appeared from nowhere and slapped her hard.
“Now you two listen quietly,” the man growled. “If you make a noise, you will suffer. You’ll stay here for the night. Tomorrow some people want to meet you. Especially you, my pretty one,” he smiled lasciviously at Sudha.
Father and son walked out, bolting and locking the door. The sound of footsteps leaving the compound faded. The two siblings sat huddled on the floor in the dark, stunned by the sudden turn of events.
“I think they are slave traders, Sudha,” Gurunath said quietly. “We were their targets the minute that Pandurang saw us in the bazaar.” His throat ached from the chokehold. But he tried to be brave for his young sister.
“We will be sold as slaves, Dada?” Sudha asked him tearfully. “I’m so sorry I got you into this mess!”
“It is all right, Chikuli. But we have to get out of here!.” Gurunath said, sounding more confident than he felt.
As twilight fell, the boy looked up at the faint grey light coming from the large open vent above. A plan began to form in his mind….
Photo by Ivy Barn