His curiosity piqued, Bheema sat with several groups of men. He paid for their drinks, and they readily accepted him into their confidence.

“Tell me, my friend, Vallabha, you’re generous with your coin, but why do you not drink?” said a man. He swayed as he spoke.

“I’m observing a fast,” said Bheema, who had introduced himself as Vallabha.

“You introduced yourself as a culinary vidhuan,” said a second man, also inebriated.

“He’s a cook,” said the first man.

“A cook,” said his companions in unison.

“Well, in that case I’m a cultivation vidhuan,” said the second man.

“He’s a farmer,” said the first man, and his friends laughed. “I’m a fire vidhuan.”

“A firelighter.” The group of men said as one.

“It’s true,” said the farmer. “With one strike of the flint, he lights a fire. Tell him.”

“Maybe later, when I’m drunk,” said the firelighter.

“I’m drunk. Come close and I’ll share a secret,” said the farmer. Bheema leaned close. The circle of men brought their heads together in a conspiratorial circle. The farmer said, “King Virata is not ill. He’s afraid.”

“Terrified,” said the firelighter. His friends repeated. “Terrified.”

“Do you know what has terrified the king?” said the farmer. Bheema shook his head.

“Vallabha does not know,” said the firelighter.

“My dear friend, Vallabha, does not know? Why does he not know?” said the farmer. He had difficulty keeping his eyes open.

“Why?” said the men.

“Because he’s new to the city,” said the firelighter.

“New to the city.” The men chorused. The farmer reached for another drink but Bheema stopped him and said,

“Tell me, why is the king terrified?”

“Another drink and I’ll tell you,” said the drunken farmer.

“That’s true,” said the firelighter. “The more he drinks, the more he remembers and the more truthful his words.”

“More truthful his words.” Repeated the men.

“The last time, he went home dead drunk. His wife asked if he visited the harlots. He said yes. That’s how truthful he is, when drunk.”

“Very truthful.” His companions looked grave as they nodded as one.

“The wife broke the cooking pot on his head and knocked him out for two days,” said the farmer’s companion.

“Two days.” Agreed the men.

Bheema grew exasperated. The banter went on and on, and the Pandava stood up. He wondered whether he had wasted his time and money.

“Are you drunk enough?” said the farmer.

“Yes,” said the firelighter.

“He’s drunk enough.” His friends chorused in one voice.

“Vallabha, my dear friend, do you wish to hear his secret?” said the farmer. The circle of men stopped drinking and, eyebrows raised, watched the Pandava.

“Very well, if he’ll get right to it,” said Bheema. The farmer invited the Pandava to reclaim his seat. He said, “First, buy us another drink each.”

“Each.” Repeated the drunkards.

Bheema sighed and ordered the stallholder to refill their clay pots. He waited and watched as the men gulped down their drinks. The men, as if choreographed, belched one after another and wiped their moustaches with the backs of their hands. They stroked their beards; again, in unison. The big Pandava waited; determined not to part with more of his coins.

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