Eklavya, the son of Hiranyadhanus, was a prince in his own right. He may have been tribal, but he was a leader’s son. His father may not be King, but he was the commander of King Jarasandha’s army. And that lineage inculcated a deep interest in the arts of wars, especially archery in the teenage boy.
In many ways, Akhil, the eldest son of the village priest, was a rebel. He gave up the profession of his ancestors and chose to do engineering instead. Ever since he could remember, he had collected nuts and bolts and all kinds of scrap people threw away to build amazing things. Everyone appreciated his talents, until the day he announced his intention of becoming an engineer and not a priest.
“Who will take care of our temple, then?” the villagers asked, especially the other Brahmins.
“I will,” Makan Sharma, Akhil’s father answered them.
“What about after you?”
“That’s a long time away. We shall see.”
With that, Makan closed the topic and ignored the murmurs. But the dreams Akhil chose to follow, were not easy to achieve in his small village school. He needed to move away to a bigger city, he needed to coach for the competitive exams. And that needed money.
Eklavya watched Guru Dronacharya from behind the clump of trees. The sixteen-year old’s feet had boils and they bled from the thorns that pierced his skin through his barefoot march across the forest. But the boy was used to these hardships. The forest was his home and his way of life. His senses currently focused on nothing but the Guru teaching his disciples. The fine quality of the cloth draped around the waists of all the students spoke of their royal status, even in their simplicity. Eklavya’s own coarse, brown cloth contrasted starkly against their soft yellow texture. Their skin glowed brightly in the gentle morning sunlight. Eklavya’s eyes gleamed against his dark skin.He stepped out of the trees and approached the group. The Guru was standing few steps away from his students.
“Guruji,” Eklavya addressed Dronacharya in a reverent manner. He bent low and touched the Guru’s feet.
“Khush raho!” the Guru blessed him albeit the sudden appearance of Eklavya surprised him. “Who are you? What do you want?” he asked.
“Guruji, my name is Eklavya, the son of Hiranyadhanus, ” saying this, Eklavya introduced himself. He stood before the Guru with his head bent low and hands folded at his chest in respect. “I desire to learn archery from you. I have traveled far to meet you.”
The Guru glanced at the headband tied around the boy’s forehead, with a leaf attached to it and the rough texture of his brown dhoti. The boy’s appearance and his introduction left no doubts about his low-caste, tribal status. Guruji grimaced, then straightened his face.
Getting into the big coaching institute wasn’t tough. All Makan had to do was pay one full year’s fees in advance. It was the amount that turned out to be the challenge for the poor village priest.
Akhil knew, even though Makan refused to tell him, that his father had run into the clutches of that one-eyed money-lender in the village. Akhil vowed to fulfill his dreams and get into the top engineering college in the country. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
Akhil didn’t mind sharing his room with eight other students; their beds just apart enough to accommodate one pair of feet. He didn’t mind the strain the low light in the room gave nor the ache in his back due to the hard mattress he sat on while studying. Nor the stench from the sewer that filled the room whenever they opened the only window in the room. The food from the catering mess was a far cry from what his mother served. But he willingly gulped it all in. He had only one goal in mind – to clear the competitive entrance exams.
“I am sorry, I cannot accept you as a student. I only teach children of Hastinapur’s royalty,” Guru Dronacharya dismissed Eklavya without another thought.
The words pierced Eklavya’s heart, but he did not let them shatter his dreams. He waited for the Guruji and the others to walk away into the Gurukul (School). Then he sat down and collected soil from the earth where the Guruji stood only moments ago.
Eklavya slipped back into the jungle and went deep inside. There, in seclusion, he used the soil to fashion an idol of Guru Dronacharya, under a large tree. In Eklavya’s mind, Dronacharya was already his Guru. Here he began a self-disciplined program to master the skill of archery. He followed a strict regimen, practicing every day and living a frugal, regimented life.
Eventually, one day, as Guru Dronacharya walked through the forest with his disciples, one of the young boys, Prince Arjuna, came across a dog that had been rendered mute by a maze of arrows binding its mouth. Although unhurt, the dog couldn’t bark. This astonished Dronacharya, and at the same time worried him. He desired to make Arjuna the greatest archer the land had ever known, and here was not just a worthy opponent, but a better one even. Eager to find the source of the arrows, the Guru began to investigate the area with his students. It took them not long to cross paths with Eklavya, now a full-grown, muscular man. A bow was slung across his shoulder and a bag of arrows graced his back.
The moment Eklavya saw Dronacharya, he stopped in his tracks and bowed low in respect with his hands folded in front of him.
“Who is your Guru?” the older man inquired.
“You, Guruji. I have learned under your tutelage.”
“Me?” the Guru was taken aback, “When have I ever taught you?”
“Please come, I want to show you something.”
Eklavya led the Guru and his entourage to the big, old tree and sitting under it, Guru Dronacharya’s statue that he created with his own hands.
The Guru turned speechless for a moment. He could not believe this low-caste, Tribal boy could be so talented as to overtake even his best student. That too, without any real teacher. Then a clever trick came to his mind. “Eklavya,” he addressed his pupil in absentia, “To be truly my disciple, you need to pay me my Guru Dakshina.” The Guru demanded his tuition fees from a student he never really taught.
Amidst the thousands of students from all across the country, Akhil found he wasn’t the brightest. Talented, yes, but when it came to scoring in the tests they appeared for every week, he stood somewhere in the middle. A lot of his time also went in helping another student in his room. Akhil felt pity for Satish. Satish struggled with even the basic of concepts. If not for Akhil, he would have been crawling at the very bottom of the pile.
Two days before the exams, a student in Akhil’s class ended his life with rat poison. The Police claimed it was a failed love affair. But students spoke in hushed voices about the unbearable academic pressure. How long could a body and mind endure the extreme academic pressures being forced on it by the curriculum the coaching institute demanded the students follow? 18 hours every day on studies, whether at the institute or at home, with only 6 hours remaining for everything else. All seven days a week.
The only thing that kept Akhil going was his dream of seeing himself in the IIT’s.
“What should I pay you with, Guruji? I don’t have any gold or silver.”
“I don’t want gold or silver, Eklavya.”
“Then what, Guruji?”
“I want the thumb of your right hand.”
The results were out. Akhil scanned the list. He scanned it again and again and yet again. He rubbed his eyes and stared at it. No, his roll number wasn’t on it.
“Hey, Akhil! Come, I’m treating everyone,” Satish tapped his shoulder. “Good luck for next time bro. And thanks a lot for helping me. I wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for you.”
Akhil stared at Satish, dumbstruck. Satish moved on to talk to another boy.
“Why are so surprised?” another boy asked Akhil, “Satish got through using the reserved quota seats. He’s from a Scheduled Caste, you see.”
Akhil dragged his feet back to his room, his mind blank, his senses numb.
Eklavya cut off his right thumb without a protest and handed over the bleeding digit to his Guru. He paid his price for belonging to a Scheduled Tribe, a low-caste.
Akhil hung himself from the ceiling fan in his room. It was a curse being born an upper-caste, you see.