For Puja & Aadi
Western India, 13000 BC
The old hunter cursed his son for the tenth time that day. He needed help to carry back the deer he had killed, and he wanted to get back to the relative safety of their group well before the sun retired for the night.
He smiled as he skinned the deer. He had brought this one down with a single arrow. He may be an old man now, but his eyes were still sharp. It was a pity that his arms did not have the same strength they did forty summers ago, otherwise he would not have had to depend on his lazy son to help him carry the deer back.
He soon saw the boy cresting the top of the hill and coming towards him. The child seemed to be excited.
'Father, do you know what I saw?'
'I know that you certainly didn't see any other animals to hunt. So, my observant son, what did you see?'
The boy sat down on his haunches next to his father, barely able to conceal his excitement.
'Father, today I saw three vimanas fly over the coast. You know what Kalindi has been saying, right? About the Gods fighting amongst themselves, about their war across the oceans?'
The man shook his head in disapproval at his son believing the words of that accursed wandering storyteller. He knew what it was to be young and to be excited by such fantastic tales, but he also knew he needed to focus on providing for his family, and not worry about what the Gods were doing.
'My son, the Gods have been around since before my forefathers were born. They have their own ways, their own lives, and we have ours. Now, help me gather the deer and carry it back. Or do you want to repeat what happened three moons ago?'
That brought a sudden flush of fear to the boy's face. He remembered only too well how another clan had attacked them and taken all their skins and meat. They had been lucky to escape alive. The boy was just twelve summers old, but he knew well that he lived in a world where life could be brutal, and short. He started to help his father pick up the deer when they heard loud crackling noises, like that of thunder. They both looked up. There was not a cloud in the sky and no signs that the Rain God was going to vent his fury on them. The father watched the sky for some time and then started to pick up his bow when they heard three more thunderous cracks.
This time, they saw what was causing the sound. High above them in the sky, where only the birds and Gods flew, they saw three vimanas streak by. Even at this distance, the father recognized the round shapes of the vimanas that Kalindi claimed were flown by the Dark Ones. One separated from the others and dived towards the ground, like a bird of prey diving for the kill. The hunter ran to the edge of the cliff, followed by his son.
They watched as a small object separated from the vimana and sped towards the ground, with smoke and fire trailing it. The hunter had heard of the Gods firing their divine flaming bolts, but this was the first time he had witnessed the awesome power of the Gods. He watched the object fly towards the ground, almost beyond the horizon, and then there was a mighty roar that was louder than anything the hunter had ever heard. He felt his son's hand clutch his in fear, but he had no reassurance to offer. He watched in mute horror as a giant fireball covered the horizon. He stared at the light that seemed brighter than the sun on the hottest day, and then looked away as the fireball seemed to expand. His son was screaming.
'Father, I am blind!'
The hunter felt strong gusts pummeling him and his son a few moments later and they were thrown to the ground. There seemed to be ash everywhere around them, and his skin was burning. When the hunter gathered courage to look up, he saw a gigantic pillar of smoke rising above him.
The Gods had indeed gone to war, and it seemed they were going to set the world on fire.
New Delhi, India, the present day
Aaditya Ghosh watched as the enemy surface-to-air missile tracked in on him. He estimated he was no more than a few seconds away from a fiery death.
As the smoke trail got closer and closer, he was tempted to turn his jet away, but he knew that keeping a cool head was the best way to evade the missile that was racing towards him. When the missile was just a few hundred metres away, he released some flares to distract it and then put his fighter through a punishing turn. For a second, he could see very little as the world spun around him. When he was level again, he breathed a sigh of relief. There was no sign of the missile. But the battle was far from over. He was cruising at thirty thousand feet when he picked up the first enemy jet on his radar. Fifty kilometres out and ten thousand feet below him. A quick glance at the top right hand corner of his display told him that the intruders were two F-16s. He messaged his wingmen to cover him and then swooped down to intercept the enemy planes. Having chosen a Su-35 for his mission, he knew that he would likely have an edge when it came to locking on and firing his long range missiles, but with two attackers and wingmen he was not sure he could count on to cover his back, it would be tight.
He slowed down to Mach 0.8 and armed his radar homing missiles as he watched the F-16s come closer on his radar scope. The two red dots were now barely thirty kilometres away, and Aaditya noted with some dismay that his wingmen, indicated by blue dots on his display, were not quite doing much to cover him. In theory, they were to operate as a team, but in reality, he knew that he was very much on his own.
At twenty-seven kilometres, Aaditya's radar emitted a whistling tone that indicated that he had locked in on the first F-16. He waited for the triangle to appear over the enemy jet on his Heads Up Display that indicated he had a solid lock before he fired a missile. A second later, he fired another. It was a bit of an overkill, but he was carrying a huge load of missiles, and he had long learnt that rankings and honours were conferred based on the number of kills, not on efficiency. He watched both missiles streak across the sky towards their quarry as he switched focus to the next enemy. The range was now less than twenty kilometres and he watched as the enemy jet fired a missile at him. The red arrow shape rapidly approached on his radar display, and Aaditya reacted with no trace of panic or alarm, his reactions honed by countless hours of practice. He deployed some chaff strips to confuse the enemy radar guided missiles and put his jet through a series of punishing 9G turns. When he had stabilized, the enemy missiles were nowhere to be seen, and the first enemy jet had disappeared off his scope, having been obliterated by one of his missiles.
Without waiting to celebrate his kill, Aaditya selected his short-ranged heat-seeking missiles and turned towards the second F-16. He accelerated to over Mach 1 and at a range of less than ten kilometres, he fired two missiles at the F-16.
That was when his mission was ended abruptly by a tap on the shoulder.
'Dude, Donkey's coming this way.'
Aaditya quickly slid the PSP into his backpack as Professor D.K. Kumar, known with much mirth and little affection among his students as Donkey, walked over to his desk.
'Mr Ghosh, you seem to be preoccupied today. Perhaps you could tell the class a little more about the impact the colonial system had on the Indian economy.'
Aaditya looked at the Professor, a smile on his face, as if he were about to answer. In reality, his mind was blank. Blasting enemy fighters while playing Ace Combat 6 on his PSP was about all he could remember of his Economic History class. He kept looking at the professor, hoping he would find a new prey, but he persisted. Then someone coughed, a few notebooks were slammed shut, and Aaditya found himself being rescued by the fact that the period was over. He heaved a sigh of relief and looked at Samrat, who was sitting behind him.
'Sam, thanks for the heads up.'
Samrat smiled, but behind his eager, bespectacled eyes, Aaditya could detect a trace of disapproval. Oh well, everyone could not be a bookworm like Samrat. Aaditya was about to leave the class when the professor called him over. Fearing that he was in for a lecture, Aaditya braced himself, only to be shocked when the overweight, balding professor smiled at him.
'Play your video games all you want, just not in my class.'
Shit, he knew.
Aaditya wondered what he could possibly say in his defence when the professor continued, this time his smile taking on a sad tinge.
'I know it must be difficult for you. The principal had told us, but do try and adjust and let me know if I can help in any way.'
Aaditya mumbled his thanks and left, but was fuming inside. The last thing he wanted from anyone was sympathy. He barely noticed Samrat walk up next to him.
'Hey, what happened? Did you get into trouble?'
Aaditya looked down at Samrat who stood a good head shorter than him and was about half as wide across his shoulders. Aaditya figured that his imposing build was at least one reason why Samrat, long rumoured to be the small nerd everyone picked on, had befriended him when he joined his class. They wandered over to the basketball court where several boys were in the middle of a frenetic game. They sat down near the court, Aaditya wistfully looking on. When the ball bounced over to them, he picked it up and was about to hand it back, when an urge came over him. He looked at the basket and sent a looping shot that went cleanly through. Several of the boys on the court whistled and one of them asked Aaditya if he wanted to join them. But Aaditya mumbled an excuse and rejoined Samrat, a smile on his face.
For old times' sake.
'Man! That was some shot. Were you in your school team or something?'
'It's nothing. Come on, let's go grab a bite to eat.'
They sat down at a corner table at the cafeteria, eating their sandwiches when they were joined by another boy.
'Hey Sam. Hey Ghosh.'
The newcomer was Deepak, thin and wiry, with his customary iPod earphones plugged into his ears.
Samrat's nickname for him never failed to annoy Deepak. He grimaced and sat down. If Samrat was the bookworm, the word for Deepak, not to put too delicate a point on it, would be a lech. The unlikely couple were the best of friends, and in the two months that Aaditya had been in the college, they had become the closest things to friends he had in his new home.
Deepak immediately began scanning the cafeteria for likely objects of his attention. Aaditya heard him whisper, 'She's looking at me!'
The 'she' referred to Surpiya, resident heartthrob of most boys. Supriya of the long legs. Supriya of the impish smile. Supriya of the cute accent. And also, Supriya of the impossibly rich father and expensive tastes. That was a combination which put her firmly out of the league of her many admirers.
'In your dreams, iPod. She's looking at our own Mister Tall, Dark and Handsome here', said Samrat, gesturing towards Aaditya. Embarrassed, Aaditya tried to change the topic. The last thing he wanted to do was flirt with some girl in college. But then when Samrat nudged Aaditya again, he couldn't resist looking at the three girls sitting about a dozen feet away. Supriya was sipping a cup of coffee, but over the rim of the cup, she was definitely looking at him. Aaditya stared right back. Their eyes locked for a few seconds, then she turned away. Aaditya smiled to himself. Flirting was almost the last thing on his mind, but certainly not at the absolute bottom of the list. As on the basketball court, memories came flooding back. Memories he did not want to deal with right now. Standing well over six feet tall, with the physique of an athlete, he had always had more than his fair share of female admirers in school. The one thing he hated with a vengeance about his appearance, his mop of unruly hair, somehow seemed to only enhance his appeal, and so over time, he had learnt to make peace with the fact that he could never keep his hair in place.
But that had been seemingly a different life. He had never imagined then that he would be studying Economics at a Delhi college, with not the foggiest idea of what he was going to do with his degree, if indeed he finally managed to get one. Life back then had seemed so certain, so simple. But now he knew, just when you thought you had things totally under control, life threw you a curveball you couldn't possibly have anticipated.
'Dude, you lost in thinking about her or what? Come on, we need to hurry otherwise we'll be late for Macro class again. I do hope you've done your assignment.'
Just a few months earlier, Aaditya would have laughed at the thought of rushing from class to class, being harangued for not doing homework. No, his place was in the sky, soaring above mere mortals, kissing the clouds. The only uniform that he had considered worthy of wearing was that of a fighter pilot, the only worthy assignment being a sortie with a fighter jet at his command. But for now, he would have to settle for not being chewed up by the professor for not having bothered to read up about the Reserve Bank of India's monetary policy.
Aaditya was still thanking his stars that the professor had not picked on him and did not notice Supriya standing in the corridor till he almost bumped into her.
'Hi. Aaditya, isn't it?'
Aaditya had never seen her this close before, and he quickly saw that both her reputation and her legion of admirers were well deserved.
'Hi. My friends call me Aadi, and you must be the Supriya half the college tries to impress.'
'Only half?' she said, jokingly.
'I was referring to the half that is made up of every boy in college.'
She smiled, and Aaditya could sense Samrat shuffling behind him.
'Supriya, this is Sam. He's in my class.'
'You're the one who came first or something, right? I've heard of you, Sam.'
Aaditya was beginning to wonder what Supriya wanted with him when two more girls joined them.
'Aadi, this is Anu and this is Suchi. Girls, this is Aaditya. I guess you've just been here for a couple of months, right?'
Aaditya nodded and smiled at the two girls as Supriya continued.
'Hey, we were going to grab some coffee. I figured since you're new in college, you may want to join us and get to meet some of the gang.'
Aaditya was thinking of what to say when he heard Samrat hissing in his ear, 'Say yes, you moron.'
Ten minutes later, they were in front of a nearby coffee shop and as they entered, Aaditya looked at Samrat and Deepak. Both had wide grins plastered on their faces.
'Sam, you look like you've won a lottery.'
'Dude, she knows who I am!'
Deepak scowled and playfully punched Samrat on the shoulder. 'Dork'.
When they entered and joined Supriya and her friends, Aaditya saw Sam and Deepak's expressions change to one of dismay. He realized that his friends had perhaps imagined this to be a date with Supriya and her friends. Instead there were four boys already with the girls.
Samrat and Deepak had been planning all through the short walk to the café how they would be at their charming and witty best. They had no idea of just how much their new friend could turn on the charm. Having grown up among officers and gentlemen, Aaditya knew well how to charm the pants off someone. Right from the time he stood up to pull the chairs back so the ladies could sit, to the way he ensured the waitress got the girls' orders before he asked the others. When Supriya heard of Aaditya's background, she leaned over and smiled.