The cab to Amaravati was on the road for nearly twenty minutes before getting stuck in an ungodly traffic jam on Pedar Road. Agni, who was sitting in the front, groaned and grunted for a good few minutes before Paroksh decided to ease his discomfort by asking him what the city of gods was like.
“Amaravati defies words Paroksh!” Agni began, “It is a glorious city made of light and music that rests on top of Mount Sumeru. In it, live gods, gandharvas, and apsaras. The city exists for them and because of them. The strength of the gods that live in it keeps it balanced atop the Sumeru. It has withstood more asura invasions than even I can recount. Mortals and immortals alike have climbed the Sumeru to be able to walk in the midst of its glories.”
Anna, who was in the back seat with Paroksh, interrupted to say, “Nobody has actually had to climb the Sumeru in a long time. We have proper roads now.”
In the rear-view mirror, Paroksh noticed that the driver’s face lit up with a smile and wondered who he was.
“I am a Gandharva sir,” said the driver, as if in response to the thought. “Yes, I can read your mind. What’s a Gandharva? Well let’s see. We are beings halfway between mortals and gods. We live in forests. Most of us look like animals. A lot of us look like goats. Some of us look like humans. We play music sir. Flutes mostly. And we fight also, some of us. We use swords and maces, but we are also great archers. In fact, most Gandharvas prefer bows and arrows. That is correct sir. We are soldiers. We serve the gods and fulfill their every need sir. Me sir? No sir. I have never fought sir. I like to play the flute but no one likes it when I play sir. Ha ha. I only drive the gods around.”
It was only when Agni placed a gentle hand on the driver’s arm that Paroksh realised he had been choking. He let out a gasp and breathlessly bent over as the storm of images in his mind ceased. Anna rubbed his back in motherly worry and glared at the driver.
“Tell him your name first,” Agni said to the driver.
“I am called Nipun sir,” he said. “This does not happen always. I am sorry for having caused you such discomfort. I just got very excited to make your acquaintance. I may never ever get to see an avatar again. I just want to be useful.”
“I don’t think I am an avatar,” Paroksh said uncertainly. Nipun looked to Agni, as if for clarification. Agni spoke after a moment’s silence, “I don’t think so either. He is not the avatar.”
“But,” Nipun protested as the traffic started to move again. “He is. He has to be. He has the face. That face.”
“What face?” Anna asked.
“The face of Ram and Krishna. The face that Parshuram had. The face that Vaman had before them, and Narasimha, and Kuruma…”
Anna held up her hand and said, “They were all different faces Nipun!”
“No they were not,” Nipun insisted. “I beg your forgiveness goddess. But they were not. They were all the same face. He has that face. He has to be the tenth avatar of Vishnu!”
“Take the next left Nipun,” said Agni, looking out of the window absent-mindedly.
Nipun stopped speaking, got his breathlessness under control, and nodded, despite his obvious enthusiasm.
The cab took the left Agni had indicated. Then it took a couple of rights and another left before passing laboriously through a crowded vegetable market. At a later point of time, it took a dive off a cliff after which it passed through a forested path that, Paroksh found, was lit only by the glow of fireflies. Anna put her head on his shoulder and dozed off. A while later, he began to hear Agni’s snoring too.
When Nipun grinned at him awkwardly through the rear-view window, Paroksh smiled back, but he was glad the driver had to be mindful of the two gods resting in his vehicle. Soon, the starless night fell behind them and a distant dawn appeared directly ahead. Anna yawned and stretched and opened her eyes to look at Paroksh once. Then she smiled and shut them again and went back to sleep. The roadsides were muddy — it had rained recently. The cab turned right. After a good twenty minutes during which Nipun’s vehicle spanned the length of an unusually clear rainbow, Anna’s phone vibrated.
She sat up, squinted at the screen with groggy eyes as her unsteady finger scrolled the length of a WhatsApp message. Paroksh noticed that it was in a group called ‘The Know’ before realising he was peeking and looked away.
“Well,” said Anna. “It seems this is where you get off.”
“I thought we were going to Amaravati,” Paroksh said.
“We are,” Anna replied. “You are not. You have somewhere else to be.”
Agni was still fast asleep. Paroksh considered waking him. As if on cue, the lord of fires opened his eyes.
“Where is he going?” Agni asked Anna.
“Check your WhatsApp,” Anna told him. “She wants Paroksh to meet a girl.”
“What girl?” Paroksh asked. “Who wants me to meet this girl?”
“I don’t know yet,” Anna said as she fixed up his hair. “All I can tell you is that it is time.”
She handed him a bag of snacks and a bottle of water while Nipun bowed low in pranam looking like he was about to break into tears.
“You wanted answers, right?” Anna asked, and kissed Paroksh on the forehead when he nodded.
“We will meet again,” Agni said to Paroksh and then shoved his phone in Anna’s face, looking shocked all of a sudden. “Yes,” Anna said to him as she got back in the cab, “You have a lot of catching up to do. Scroll upwards on the group.”
Paroksh watched the cab grow smaller and smaller as it went. A few moments after it disappeared from sight, the sound of distant thunder caused Paroksh to look up.
The rainbow faded and vanished from the sky.