He woke with a start to her urgent touch.
For a moment Milind was nonplussed by her exotic eyes intently looking at him, shades of blue like the ocean waves, her skin the color of alabaster and her body soft, pressing against his flank. His head buzzed from too much of wine the night before. Finally, recognition dawned on him. He bought her at the auction the previous night, a new import. ‘Gliko mou’, my sweet, he murmured in Greek, his native tongue, his fingers tangled in her golden tresses. She tried to smile but her eyes betrayed fear. He wondered where he was, tried to prop himself up against the cushions, clean linen, a little rumpled though. The room was familiar, he sighed relieved. It was the gabled pavilion on the third floor terrace facing the docks, that’s where he lived. But he was too drunk to remember how he had reached home.
Then he heard, raised voices downstairs, and the door burst open.
It was Singana. He was just a Pativedak, intelligence officer in the city police. But every citizen knew him, respected him and feared him. This was the moment he was sure would arrive, for almost a month now, yet he was unbalanced by its suddenness. It was apparent from the smirk on the intruder’s face, a face he hated most, that he would be arrested.
His head thumped so loud, he had to make an effort to hear what Singana was saying. ‘Danda Nayak, the Commissioner, wants you at his offices,’ he said, ‘and I must take you there at once.’ A corner of his eye was looking at the girl cowering in bed with only a sheet to wrap around.
‘Yessesss…g g gimme a moment,’ he stuttered, his fuddled mind desperately trying to assess the situation. So … it wasn’t an arrest, yet. His poise began to return slowly. Now showing more confidence than he felt, ‘But why barge into my sleeping quarters?’ he tried to demand an explanation from Singana, but it came out poorly and garbled.
‘You may complain to the Commissioner,’ Singana laughed, ‘Get ready quick, my men are waiting at the door,’ and he strode out nonchalantly.
After his meeting…
When Milind returned from the Council Halls, he was utterly drained but happy. He was able to avoid a potential disaster.
The overseer of the club rushed up to him, ‘Sire, Master Salmala is waiting for you,’ he said, his anxiety showed. Milind pushed the door of the private rear entrance, to the Gaming House he owned, and strode into the inner corridor that bisected the counting rooms. Piles of silver were being sorted and stacked in multiples of tens, by naked men – one can’t be more careful, pilferage by staff is a disease, any number of controls and threats are ineffective against the temptation of silver.
For a foreigner with no means, he was very lucky to get a plot on Toranamagga, the main street of the city, thanks to his friend, Salmala Dutta, whose father was the richest merchant and the president of Vandanama Goshti, the supreme council of Dhanyakataka. In a way he was more powerful than any king and certainly the richest man in Andhra Desa. Salmala was his only son and heir.
It was at the school of business, he had cultivated Salmala’s friendship, both students of Vidhi, Gana and Vyavahara – law, accountancy and administration. After school, his friend was not keen on joining his father’s business though, at least not immediately, and that suited Milind who had other ideas, more glamorous.
He entered the main hall. The crowd had not picked up yet. It was early afternoon, and too early for gamblers, most of them had some work or other to do … at the docks, the markets or at the council halls.
Milind saw him, at the Chinese Mahjong table. ‘Salmala, my friend, you look upset?’ he shouted.
‘I’m no friend of yours, you cunning son of a whore,’ he screamed back. ‘What have you gone and told them?’
Milind hurried up, passing the cockpits and wrestling rings, ‘Cool off my friend,’ he tried to steer him back by the elbow to the personal offices at the end of the hall. But Salmala drew back, eyes blazing; and threw a fist which landed squarely on his face.
‘Stop,’ Milind cried at his staff, rushing in to restrain the aggressor, ‘clear off you bastards, don’t you know who he is?’ he glared at them until they fully retreated and then he turned towards Salmala, ‘Now, tell me my friend, what I have done?’ he asked dabbing his face with his sleeve.
Looking at the bloody nose calmed him a little. ‘What did you tell them?’ Salmala asked again, ‘I told you that the secret should never come out, especially now.’
‘Can I ask you to come inside?’ he pulled the door open. ‘A little privacy won’t hurt, will it?’ his attempts to mollify his friend worked. Salmala stomped into the room. Milind followed him and closed the door, ‘Now, let me explain,’ he began.
‘Today I was summoned by the Commissioner himself. It was Singana who came to me, you know that bastard. It appears there was an enquiry. But first, let me assure you, they know nothing of your involvement. The commissioner was only fishing for information.’ Milind rose from the couch and walked to the corner. He poured some water in a basin and washed his face, reached for the row of Roman amphorae lining the wall. ‘Want some?’ he filled two beakers without waiting for response.
‘What did you say?’ Salmala asked accepting the wine.
‘Nothing about the incident, rest assured,’ his face, bloody and swollen from the blow, broke into a twisted smile. ‘But that Singana is a real dog, I’m sure he’s sniffing, and so I threw him a bone to send him on wrong scent’
‘But, father says we’re up to something and he thinks it’s no good.’
‘True, isn’t it?’ he winked, ‘But I told the commissioner about our plans, that we’re buying river barges, floating paradises… taverns, gaming and the dancing girls… shocking enough to be believable.’
‘Will he bite?’
‘I’m sure he will, I’ve even made an application to the Nigama Sabha, the Guild Hall, but my worry is Singana,’ he rose walked to the corner and returned with refilled beakers. ‘Looks like he has some information, a witness perhaps,’ he frowned.
‘That’s a disaster … for all of us.’
The Pula Kammikas were fixing the torches dipped in scented oils to light up the street. Toranamagga takes a different look as soon as the sun sets.
What had been a market street during the day, turned into entertainment district, unparalleled in Asia, by night. More so now, the Month of Udyana Gama, is the season for hunting and picnics in the woods. The streets were decked up in floral arrays and paper lamps. Gandhikas and Malakaras, perfumers and florists, their business always good in the evenings, had the choicest stalls. After the day spent outdoors, the men and women were still ready to hit the street, in their finest silks and muslins, some walked and the others were carried on stunningly decked palanquins.
Singana rode in at a slow trot; his roving eyes were taking in every detail. But his object was the gaming house.
It was a stray incident on Mahapatham, a month ago. Some night stalkers had reported sighting a foreigner whose description matched Milind. And that’s how he began checking on him. His informants were sure that Milind had not returned home on the night it happened. But nobody seemed to know what exactly had happened. Informants and spies he had everywhere, and today, the altercation between the two men was reported verbatim to him.
He knew, from the many run-ins he had in the past, that Milind was into things shady. But how is Master Salmala mixed up? He raked his brains if he had missed some detail.
Is there a connection?
Milind’s fairytale story about the floating taverns is just a cover. Even if Master Salmala is into it, there is nothing in it to hide from his father.
Something happened and he’s unable to put his finger on.
To be continued next week…
Amaravati, the name conjures up the most glorious phase in the history of India when her material and cultural life was at its peak. Xuanzang said that the city stretched on the right bank of Krishna for fifty Chinese li that is around twelve kilometers by today’s reckoning. A network of highways connected the city to other political and trading centers. Buildings, two to three floors high, crowded the waterfront. The administrative offices of various Nigamās and Gōṣtis were located on a north-south road called Mahāpatham. Another parallel road called Tōraṇamāggam was the main commercial street, and also the city’s social hub.
The television series ‘Lifestyles of Rich and Famous’ pales in comparison to the cultural milieu showcased in the literary accounts of that period, such as Sudraka’s Mricchakatia and Hāla’s Saptaśati. Kamasutra of Vātśyāyana, who lived in Andhra Desa, gives us excellent insights into the sumptuous way of life enjoyed by the men and women in the towns and cities.
For a period of five centuries (250 BC – 250 AD), Amaravati was unmatched in its prosperity by any city anywhere in the world except probably, Rome. It was variously called Śridhānya, Siritana, Dhanakaḍa, Thanakacheka and Dhānyakataka. This profusion of different names in literature and epigraphy only confirms the diversity of the people and the cultures the city had hosted. It is only natural that entrepreneurs and opportunists from all over the world are attracted to such riches. An administration elected by the citizens and stakeholders not only ensured the civic amenities for a diverse population, but also order, by keeping a close eye on aliens and miscreants through an efficient network of informants assisting the police, a system as advanced as any in the modern world.