Kausambi, India – Late Summer
In the Reign of Kumara Gupta I (5th century CE)
Sarama followed her mistress along the perimeter of the easterly open-air courtyard, bounded by wooden pillars that supported the roof. The aromatic scent of tulsi filled her nostrils, as a few slave women tended the clustered purple flowers and watered the plants’ roots.
In the eastern quadrant, Mistress Chandi stopped and offered her devotion, whispered in fervent prayers. Sarama held the tray at waist level, while Mistress selected a cup of plant extract mixed with honey and laid it before the four-armed god Indra, among the pots of fragrance and flower petals already scattered at his shrine.
Vatsyayana’s sharp intake of breath rippled through the air. He hovered at her shoulder. Sarama rolled her eyes heavenward before she acknowledged him with a deferential nod. When their gazes met, his narrowed with contempt.
“An offering of soma juice should be made at the temple, if she intends to ask Indra for rain.” His withering stare swept through the courtyard. “A brothel is hardly a sacred place.”
Her hand itched for the dagger, bloodless in its leather sheath. Mistress would never forgive her if she drew it against the boy. His superior tone vexed her more than anyone else ever had. What difference did it make where her mistress worshipped, at a shrine or in the great temples of Kausambi? Who was he to decide?
She returned her attention to her mistress but directed a response at him. “Here, we are guided by our beliefs alone, not what other people say is right or wrong.”
At his harsh intake of breath, she whirled and faced him. “And who are you to judge? You’ve studied at the great monastery of Nalanda, but all you’ve shown us is arrogance. Did the monks teach you to ridicule others at the Mahavihara?”
His fists jerked at his side before he lowered them, concealing the long, folded fingers behind his back. She met his baleful stare without flinching, though her heart hammered inside her chest. The dark mask of anger on his face warned her she had gone too far, stirring something inside her, buried deep in her memories. The scar on her hip twitched reflexively. She waited, lips trembling, for the blow that would strike her down. It never came.
For the first time, she recognized this man was different from any other she had ever known. Tremors coursed the length of him, visible beneath the angular contours of copper brown skin. His shudders betrayed the tenuous control he struggled for, as he kept his rage at bay. So many tangible emotions inside him, she could scarce comprehend how he controlled it. But she sympathized, for she understood blind fury too well. She had experienced its brutal power countless times.
Mistress touched her arm and she jerked, caught unawares. She glanced at her and found the usual sympathy in those dark, sparkling eyes. “Don’t provoke him, Sarama. The passing of his father has changed Vatsyayana’s life forever. It influences all our lives.”
She expelled a ragged breath she did not know she had been holding, and nodded curtly. Only a fool tangled with a tiger.
Mistress bowed before Vatsyayana. “Though you will despise me for it, I wish to make offerings of panda at the temple in your father’s memory.”
Sarama recalled the little rice balls prepared and set aside for the remembrance of her deceased mother. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.
“Do as you please. I cannot stop you,” Vatsyayana muttered. “But one day soon, you will explain these devotions to my father. I shall not be satisfied until I have your answer.”
Mistress nodded. “One day, I will explain all.”
Sarama’s heart fluttered anew. She almost dropped the tray in her hand. Mistress Chandi’s gaze flew to her face and flashed a warning. She bowed her head and murmured an apology.
Vatsyayana edged closer, scrutinizing both their faces. By the powerful mercy of the gods, he withheld the inquiry shining in his eyes. She could have sighed with relief, but kept her face impassive. His attention lingered on her longer than necessary. Still, when she glanced at him again, he sneered and avoided her stare.
Mistress broke the tension-filled mood with a laugh. “This is a poor way to begin your lessons in pleasure, Vatsyayana. Let us walk to the Yumana River.”
“But, surely, you have already had your bath? How else could you perform ritual worship at the shrine?” He gazed down his long nose at her.
Sarama’s hand itched for the dagger again. She could not help it. This pompous, arrogant fool spoke as if her mistress tempted the wrath of the gods.
“In truth, I washed in waters drawn from the Yumana at dawn,” Mistress quickly corrected his foolish assumption, “but bathing is more than just a rite of purification. It is also a sensuous delight.”
When Mistress’ sandals slapped against the stone floor, he fell into step behind her. They bypassed slave girls who traced designs in rice flour at the entrance. They emerged outside the walls of the brothel. Sarama trailed them, admiring the glint of the midmorning sun on Vatsyayana’s narrow shoulders
Abruptly, he cast a glare over his shoulder, and caught her look. “What can be so amusing, woman?”
“It would not please you if I told you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because nothing I would say could ever please you. Isn’t that right?”
“Sarama, stop your teasing.” Mistress Chandi’s voice on the morning breeze echoed another warning for her.
Sarama nodded to him. “I humbly ask forgiveness.”
“I doubt you know how to be humble.” He continued after her mistress, but not before another darting glance over his shoulder.
Dust billowed along the avenue of margosa trees. Sarama and her mistress draped their hair with white shawls, while Vatsyayana walked bareheaded. Sarama coughed, tugging her shawl over her face with one hand, while balancing the tray in the other.
Mistress led the way across a well-worn track, which they took every week toward the river, shielding her eyes against the harsh sunlight. Birds soared overhead, screeching. Dry haze hugged the sandstone cliffs in the north and obscured the near barren landscape below in waves of shimmering heat. In the west, the village bustled with noisy activity.
Their route took them on its outskirts, though a narrow and winding road connecting the village course with the brothel. Arid wind whistled through the remnants of desiccated trees and stunted brush, blowing clouds of dust toward the bamboo huts of the villagers. Behind her thin shawl, Sarama tasted the grit carried on currents of air.
She wished the two summer months would linger, despite the torrid heat and the dried, cracked earth cutting the soles of her bare feet. In the summer, she would not be stuck indoors, unlike later during the monsoon season, which would bar her from pursuing her own lovers while her mistress entertained in the evenings.
She chided herself, having already forgotten her vow of circumspection. Hard to deny oneself the pleasures of a man, but if the rains ever came and kept her at the brothel, the only available man would be Vatsyayana.
Once the idea entered her thoughts, the image of the petulant Brahmin student remained. His lean body was certainly more appealing than that of the pot-bellied cowherd who had crushed her beneath his ponderous weight on the previous night. Her mistress had rightly advised against seeing him again, for he tired too quickly. Her own hands gave her the pleasure the cowherd had not.
Now, she wondered how it might feel if Vatsyayana’s copper-colored fingers stroked her head to toe. He had spoken little more than arrogant words since his arrival, but she could imagine other infinitely pleasurable uses for his lips. None of them required one word. Her mind conjured his dark head of curls between her thighs. Her belly knotted and she sighed as if in the throes of a delightful dream. He looked over his shoulder at the sound. His dark glare hastened the warmth coursing through her belly. If she had seduced him earlier, would passion have furrowed his brow, lust firing his eyes? She mused on such delights during the course of the morning walk, pleasurable thoughts sustaining her against the heat and wind.
They reached the left bank of the Yumana after midday, through a clearing of shisham trees at the edge of the rich alluvium. Sarama paused bedside her mistress, grateful for the shelter a crown of leaves offered.
A sheen of sunlight glimmered on the water. The river bustled with activity and noise. Boatmen called or cursed each other. A ferryman transported two Brahmin priests across a narrow place in the river, a long pole sliding between his nimble fingers. Gulls and cormorants skimmed the surface of the water, ever on the lookout for the golden mahseer swimming upriver. The land sloped unobstructed toward the water’s edge, but on the opposite bank, a continuous line of ghats swarmed with people.
Mistress sighed. “We’ll wait for a ferryman.”
When the boatman arrived, they clambered into his craft and crossed the river in silence. Nearing the right bank, Sarama spotted a merchant plying brassware. If any of it seemed of good quality, she might make a purchase. Others sold ritual offerings for the temples. Servants shaded the silk-clad nobles and rich guild merchants under bound palm leaves.
Some of the men waved to Mistress. She acknowledged their greetings with more than a little smile or nod. They strolled between elevated funeral pyres billowing white smoke, which made Sarama rub her eyes. Those who cremated their dead gave alms and food to the beggars lining the stairs of each ghat. With little show of reverence, three girls splashed each other in the water until a stern matron ordered them away.
When Sarama set the tray on the third step from the edge, Mistress removed her shawl and fingered her black curls. Vatsyayana stood apart from them, looking out on the embankment, his arms folded across his bronzed chest.
Sarama shook her head at him, while she opened a small pot of camphor, saffron, and musk mixed together. “Young master, don’t you think it’s as beautiful here as Varanasi?”
“It is possible every city has its charms.”
She rolled her eyes. Why had she expected anything less than his disdain?
Mistress sat down on the second step from the water. Sarama smeared the camphor, saffron, and musk down the length her hair, massaging the scalp. Mistress breathed a languid sigh and surrendered to her touch.
Then they rose together and descended into the water. Mistress disappeared beneath the swirling river, before she emerged with a radiant beam on her sweet lips. She shook beads of water from her wet hair. The folds of her dhoti clung to her thighs, outlining the plump yoni between them. Sarama joined her and plunged up to her waist.
She turned, smiled and held her hand out for Vatsyayana. “Come into the water with us, young master.”
He drew back, sneering. “I think not.”
She shrugged. “On such a hot day, only a fool might deny himself.”
“Sarama, I won’t warn you again today,” Mistress said at her shoulder.
She withdrew as Mistress approached him instead. “Bathing is a daily requirement, Vatsyayana, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it. All life is pleasurable, even a simple act of cleanliness.”
Since he only continued glaring at them, Sarama dismissed his disdainful looks and attended her duties. She cupped water in her hands and cleaned her mistress’ hair until it was soft and glistened. She washed the pale, glowing skin with a paste of soap nuts, avocado, and ghee. After a quick rinse, she followed her out of the water.
Mistress sank down next to Vatsyayana, who recoiled once more, as Sarama expected. Sighing with disgust, Sarama wound a long cotton strip around her mistress’ tresses. She kneaded her shoulders with sandalwood and aloes. The woman relaxed like a pampered cat under her ministrations and leaned back with her eyes closed. Full, firm breasts tipped with buds like betel nuts saluted the sun.
Lustful, curious stares from the men assembled on the ghats followed Sarama’s every gesture. A bronze-skinned youth, perfumed and oiled, approached them. A garland of yellow amaranth flowers encircled his neck.
Vatsyayana cleared his throat and stood, blocking Mistress from easy view. The stranger strolled on, but his eyes blazed with fury in a bold stare. Sarama giggled at his disappointment.
“You interfere with my livelihood, Vatsyayana.” Chandi spoke without opening her eyes. “Pleasure is a courtesan’s means of support. If she doesn’t attract new lovers, her old lovers will soon be unable to provide for her.”
He sputtered, “Because you will have drained them dry!”
Sarama laughed at the unintended pun. “Indeed, in many ways!”
He frowned at her. “Keep your ill-mannered tongue behind your teeth.”
Her snicker made him red in the face.
“The pleasure is just a fantasy, a trap baited with voluptuousness and desire!” he said, returning his attentions to her mistress. “You have a duty to earn well, for otherwise you cannot enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. Yet, you must feign enjoyment in its achievement. You pretend at happiness. By your own admittance, you take joy only in what a lover has to offer, not in your time spent with him.”
Mistress stared him down. “A true courtesan takes pleasure in both her lover’s gifts and the reward of his companionship. There is joy in the sexual union, but equal delight comes in earning wealth. It is the second aim of life. I pursue it with no more apologies than my pursuit of the first aim.”
“You take from your lovers until they can give no more,” Vatsyayana persisted. “Tell me, have you ever lain with someone who could not meet your price?”
Sarama stopped oiling Mistress’ skin. What foolery was this?
Chandi said, “I would be a poor courtesan if I did.”
Her gaze sparkled with mischievous delight. Sarama chuckled at her pun.
Her mistress continued, “A poor man can do nothing for me. He cannot be generous. My lovers are men of high position and power who can afford to spend freely.”
“They are preening peacocks who succumb to the illusion of your favor, when you hold no man in higher regard than any other, except the one who can pay you the most money. You have promised I would learn of the rule of love. Have you ever loved any of the men you take into your chamber?”
Sarama’s hands fell away and her mistress stood, her countenance stern. “I am a woman and have a tender heart that can love. But I’ve been trained in the art of pleasure and I live by my trade. What I provide is pure artifice, the illusion of love, the most dangerous fantasy of all.”