“Mahabhali”, a term that indicates one of the following:

1. The demon King who, as per the legend, ruled the current Kerala and was sent by Vishnu to rule the Underworld by Vishnu

2. The city of Mahabalipuram, located close to Chennai and is famous for its archealogical and sculptural wonders

3. A great sacrifice – Maha meaning great and Bhali meaning sacrifice, typically with a life

A trip home is usually a trip down the memory lane and this time I came face to face with a Mahabhali, the short story by Writer Sujatha, a very powerful story; one of the handful that ever moved me to tears when I first read it.

The story starts with a young man, in his 20s, in the coastal tourist town of Mahabalipuram, walking oblivious to and rather scornful of the crowds having fun and clicking pictures near the sculptures. He approaches a History professor who is living there to research and write a book on Pallava Architecture. The young man, Ajay, has applied for the job of Personal Assistant to the Professor.

Ajay is a unique young man, travelling with just a back pack filled with books like Machiavelli’s Prince and no other possessions. He is good at his work, plays chess in the evenings with the professor letting the professor win every time, reads poetry, does not smoke..The Professor is in awe of him and considers the possibility of influencing his daughter to marry him.

Professor’s daughter comes down for a visit and is totally unimpressed by Ajay. She doesn’t think he is capable of having fun. “Reading poetry?”, she mocks. But then, gradually they get along.

All seems to be going well when police arrives at the Professor’s door, looking for Kiran, a terrorist. Kiran is no one else but Ajay, living under a pseudonym under the Professor’s roof. Professor stares with disbelief as the Police recover gun and explosive parts from his room. Ajay, who had gone out that evening with Professor’s daughter comes back in the meantime and understands what’s going on by looking at the Police jeep and tire tracks. He immediately takes the girl hostage and disappears. A chase ensues and police shoot him down on the shores of Mahabalipuram.

The girl runs towards her father. “He did not intend to harm me. He just wanted to see the Shore temple one last time during sunset. Did they kill him?”

The professor, an erstwhile freedom fighter who worked under leaders like Gandhi, sees Ajay’s lifeless body and breaks down.

“Where did we go wrong?”, he asks, “We had the right intentions. What did we not get right so as to shoot down our own youngsters on our soil?”. The policeman responds, “We don’t ask such questions”.

That last bit had me choking. Ajay is portrayed as the ideal young man, intellectual, disciplined. But then he is involved in activities that lead up to the chase and shoot. My teen mind gasped at the possibility of such duality. This was long before Sep 2001, in the 90’s.  India knew of its naxalites and marxists, few and existing in pockets across the country. World was still a safer place where you could walk through airport gates to meet your loved ones and security checks were light.

But since then, our world has changed. Terrorism is not a far away concept any longer. Sadly, I realise, this story still has relevance. As we float along with days getting stuffier and stuffier with restrictions, it is worth it to take a pause and think, “Where are we going wrong?”

On a literary note, what a great choice of a name for the story by the author? There is a reason Sujatha still remains my favourite.

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