Story 10: The Ace of Clubs

Subbarao groped in his kurta and brought out the black ace of clubs. He held it up to his eyes and squinted at it. The blurry black clover came into focus, then receded again. He did not bother to reach for his glasses. He knew well enough what it looked like. He had lived his whole life with it – at least for eighteen of the thirty years he had been alive.

Longer than he had been married. Longer than any association he had had with any other thing, living or dead.

The mercury tube light flickered down to a dimmer shade. Subbarao heard the sound of rain hitting the asbestos roof of the cowshed in the front yard. They had mounted a new transformer on the electric pole next to Shivayya’s paan shop by the main road, and now, every time it rained, some fuse or the other blew inside it, and plunged Palem into darkness for a few days.

Subbarao had gotten power backup installed in his three-bedroom house, big enough to run two lights and two fans for a good eight hours. Farmers in the village had stood outside the gate and stared the first night. ‘Don’t you know, it’s a battery,’ they said to one another, ‘and I’ve heard it cost him seven thousand rupees to install.’

‘Seven thousand rupees!’ said someone else. ‘Not even Shubhalakshmamma has this in her house. He must be so rich.’

Today, though, Subbarao wished that the lights would go out. He wanted to spread his arms wide and welcome this dark wetness that covered the land outside. His kurta was a spotless cream. It kept him dry and warm, in spite of the chill wind that came rushing in through the windows.

Subbarao turned the card toward the light, and watched the white part of it glow, as if it had been sprinkled with diamond dust. But the black parts, the ‘A’ on the top left and the bottom right corners, and the four leaves of clover in the dead centre, reminded him of the dark hollow of the old guava tree that stood on the bank of Ellamma cheruvu. Even on the brightest of afternoons, people dared not gaze into the depths of that hole; the darkness assumed shapes, they said, after a minute or so of staring, shapes that were long dead and buried in the grey mists of the past, shapes that fingered their minds and charred their souls.

It is time, thought Subbarao. Oh, yes. How weary one grew of time.

In the midst of the dark clover, he thought he saw the stirring of a silver streak. He did not fight the vision, nor did he stop to ask if was real, or whether it would remain if he were to bring out his glasses and look at it more closely. It reminded him of lightning; not just any lightning, but the lightning that accompanied the storm on that distant August afternoon, when he and this card had first set eyes on each other…

* * *

When he was twelve, Subbai’s day began after lunch, under the banyan tree in the middle of the village that shaded Mandiramma banda. At two o’clock every day, just as the bell in the school went off, signalling the end of mid-day recess, six or seven men would appear from different directions, all wearing dhotis, all nibbling on betel leaves, some carrying flasks of tea, others bringing with them small packets of arrack.

They would lay out a cotton bed sheet on the other side of Mandiramma banda – after having taken the blessings of the goddess for good luck – and then someone would bring out the pack of playing cards. A notebook and pen would make an appearance before long, and soon, the air filled with words such as ‘joker!’, ‘full count’ and ‘show!’

Subbai did not remember the names of all of them – it had been eighteen years, after all – but he did still know them by their faces. There was the toothy one who shuffled and dealt like a dream, as though he had magic in his fingers. There was the one with the black marks under his cheek who always insisted on checking everyone’s count. There was the one with the bent right arm. There was the squint-eyed fellow who always won, and the shabby drunkard with the black fingernails who always lost.

Subbai timed his arrival at the banyan for the second round, with his basket of pakodas in one hand, and the three tins of different chutneys in the other. He hovered around the circle of men so that the smell of the snacks hit them full in the noses. ‘Pakodas,’ he would say, ‘tasty, soft and spicy. Just what you need on a day like this.’

He tried to change what he said depending on the type of day. If it was hot and sweaty, he said that the pakodas had been coated with cool butter. If it was about to rain or if it was a pleasant day, he said that the chillies in the snacks had been brought in all the way from Dhavaleshwaram. ‘Special green chillies,’ he said. ‘Will leave a warm sizzle on your tongue. Perfect for a day like this.’

As the basket grew lighter, Subbai would sit behind the men and watch their game. ‘Not that card, sir,’ he would say, ‘go for a fresh one. I am sure you will get a joker. A free plate of pakodas if you win this game.’

‘Dropping? Come on, sir, what happened to the fighting spirit?’

‘This sir has got a first-class game. All of you better beware.’

‘Too many big cards in your hand, sir. Cast them away, cast them away.’

‘Oh, card show! Any card now and the game is finished.’

And so on.

Every day, the man who won the match got a free round of pakodas from Subbai, without having to ask. From the rest of them, though, he insisted on getting paid immediately after handing them over their plate of snacks. Whenever someone said ‘I will pay you in five minutes,’ he smiled and said, ‘Sir, you will be immersed in the game and forget all about me. I’m just a pakoda boy, not like you big people. I need every paisa I can get.’

They groaned in protest, but they paid him. He would not let them play otherwise.

Subbai stayed back at the banyan even after his basket had emptied itself and the men had finished their game. Those who had lost would come back to the tree after a few minutes, knowing that Subbai would be there, waiting for them.

‘Subbai,’ they would say, ‘why don’t you loan me a rupee?’

‘A whole rupee!’ Subbai would reply. ‘I only made two rupees in selling pakodas today, sir. You were there.’

Haan, but give me one rupee out of that, no?’

‘That is business money, sir. I have to go in the evening today and buy flour and onions and chillies. For tomorrow’s batch.’

‘See if you can give me something. It will be a big help. I will give it back to you tomorrow, I promise!’

Subbai would sigh. He would fuss. And he would agree to lend the men fifty paise. On the condition that they would pay him back sixty paise the next day.

‘Yes, yes, anything you say.’

‘You’re a life saver, Subbai!’

‘Oh, come on, sir,’ said Subbai. ‘I am just a pakoda seller.’

* * *

One such day, Subbai came to the banyan tree before anyone else. The clouds had begun to gather, and a grey pall fell over the village. A wind came running from the direction of the Godavari, and it sent dead leaves in the dust flying around in circles. The top of the shivalayam seemed to sway, and Mandiramma Banda was icy cold to the touch.

He did not think the men would come today. He set his basket down on the floor by the main trunk of the tree, and was about to pull out his accounts book to see which of the men owed him what, when a card came floating in the wind and stuck to his thigh. When he peeled it off and turned it over, he saw that it was the ace of clubs. A high-count card. Maybe one of the losers yesterday had thrown it away in a fit of disgust.

It seemed to rest heavier on his palm than other cards. It also seemed to be larger, and thicker. He tried to bend it with his fingers, but it would not budge.

Shrugging, he tossed it into his basket, forgot all about it. He returned to his accounts.

* * *

Subbai did not ever play cards, no matter how many times the men invited him to do so. ‘You know more about the game than any of us, Subbai,’ they would say, ‘you should play with us after we finish all your pakodas.’

And always, Subbai would say, ‘I’m just a pakodaseller, sir.’

In truth, his hands itched to play, but he saw how he was now making more money on interest payments on the loans he gave to the card players than with the sales of pakodas. He also saw how the winner was not the same every day. If he got into the game, he would perhaps win once a week, but he would fall into debt on the remaining six days. If he stood outside the circle and sold the men pakodas, he could win every day.

Besides, his father had told him that he would break his legs if he ever found him with a card in his hands.

That night, after he had returned home from the banyan tree, while cleaning his basket Subbai found the card again, and hastened to the backyard to throw it down the gutter. But when he passed the kitchen, his mother, who was preparing the batter for pakodas the next day, looked up from her grinding stone and asked why he was so flustered.

‘Nothing, Amma.

‘There’s something in your hand.’

‘Nothing, Amma.’

‘Have you been playing cards with the men?’

‘No. No, Amma. I found this under the banyan tree. I have never played a game with those men, Amma.’

‘Show it to me.’

He gave it to her. She turned it over in her hand, and bent it so that it caught the light of the lamp. ‘Four leaves on the clover,’ she said. ‘It is supposed to bring you luck.’

‘I – I was going to throw it away.’

She eyed him, as if thinking. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘Keep it. But if you ever play cards with those men, I will not wait for your father to break your legs.’

‘Yes, Amma.’

* * *

In the next four years, Subbai had become known in the village as Subbayya. He was no longer a pakoda seller. He had his own pawn broking shop in the shade of the banyan tree, just behind Mandiramma banda. The men to whom he had once sold pakodas were now bankrupt, and had given their jewels to Subbayya as security for the enormous amounts of money they owed him.

People still came there to play cards. And the end of the day, every day, one or two of them came to Subayya and asked for a loan.

‘What if you don’t pay me back?’ Subbayya would ask.

‘Hey, what are you saying, Subbayya? We come here every day! We live in the same village.’

‘But this is a question of money, sir,’ Subbayya would smile sweetly and say. ‘This is a matter of my livelihood. How can I give you money without some guarantee that you will pay me back?’

‘Here, you can keep my ring until I have the money.’

‘Your ring! Are you sure your wife will like it?’

‘My wife? What has my wife got to do with it? It’s my ring. I will do as I wish.’

Subbayya would grudgingly accept.

* * *

On his seventeenth birthday, his mother crushed her fingers on the grinding stone when pressing flour for pakodas. All those years making snacks for the rest of the village, she had never hurt herself, and now, when she did not need to do it but decided to just because Subbai liked them, she lost her hand.

People in the village gathered around the hospital and said it was very unfortunate.

Some said it could happen to anybody.

The doctors in the hospital bandaged her hand, connected her up with pipes, filled her with someone else’s blood. They told Subbayya that he had nothing worry, that his mother would be back home in two weeks.

The week after that, she died due to an infection. The doctors tried to explain it to him, but there were too many English words that he did not understand.

* * *

When he was twenty, Subbayya opened another pawn shop next to Polayya’s arrack shop near the big sewer. He found that it was easier to give money to those who were drunk, and they did not need much convincing to let go of their jewels as well. Some of these men came prepared with their wives’ nose ring or a brooch. For his part, Subbayya always asked if the wife would be okay with him pawning the jewel. He did not want to be the reason for fights between a husband and wife, he said.

This did not affect business at Mandiramma banda in any way, because he needed to be at the big sewer only at night time, after sundown. He closed his shop at the banyan tree by sunset, went home to catch a few winks of sleep, and opened up at the arrack shop around eight in the evening. He stayed there until eleven or so, when the last of the drunks stumbled away.

That year, his father poked himself in the eye with a spoon when trying to open a jar of tamarind pickle. When he was brought into the hospital, the doctor attended to him with no fuss, and asked Subbayya not to worry. ‘Not much damage has been done,’ he said. ‘The worst case is that he will lose an eye.’

But when they performed the operation, they found that the old man was severely diabetic. They put him on pills and under constant observation, assuring Subbayya that they were doing all they can, that his father would pull through.

He didn’t.

People gathered, once again, around the hospital and murmured over the unfortunate nature of events.

* * *

At twenty-three, Subbayya bought a bunch of shacks, razed them to the ground, and on the plot of land built for himself a brick-and-lime house and a cow shed. He closed the compound with a seven-foot high wall, and erected a grilled iron gate at the front. It always stayed locked from the inside.

Then he bought three Jersey cows and four Jaffarbadi buffaloes, and began to sell milk to the people of Palem.

On a routine trip to a doctor in Dhavaleshwaram, he discovered that he was short-sighted. He began to wear glasses.

At around the same time, he travelled to the neighbouring village, spoke to the headman, and got married to his daughter. Her name was Padmavati, and she had passed the twelfth standard that year. Subbayya had not studied beyond the fourth. If he could marry an educated woman, he thought, she would see to it that the kids went to school and studied well. Not everyone could count on being as lucky as he.

After he moved into the house with his new bride, people in Palem began to call him Subbarao gaaru. His servants called him ‘ayyagaaru’, and joined their hands and bowed whenever they saw him. Even when he went to the shivalayam once a week to offer his prayers, the priest allowed him into the inner sanctum, and to touch the lingam with his own two hands. It was a privilege, he was told, accorded only to the most fortunate.

That year, Padmavati gave birth to their first son. She died in labour.

Standing by Padmavati’s funeral pyre on the bank of the Godavari, Subbarao reached into his pocket and pulled out the ace of clubs. In all these years, it had lost none of the sheen of that first day. Even in the flickering orange light it glowed like a white crystal fire, and the black of the clover was the colour of Padmavati’s ash.

An old travelling fortune teller had once told him that there was only a certain amount of good luck in the world, and that if one person took more than his share, it must come at the cost of spreading misfortune to the people around him. Then Subbarao had dismissed it as nonsense.

But now, staring into the yellow flames licking Padmavati’s body, as the smell of burning flesh assaulted his nose, he asked himself again. Was it nonsense?

* * *

With the arrival of a son, whom he named Vishnu, Subbarao’s charity activities in Palem grew. He made a generous donation on Vishnu’s first birthday to the school, and ordered that a library ought to be built in the place of the ramshackle barn that stood near the compound’s south end. He also offered to get the Gandhi statue in the front repaired – or if it came to it – rebuilt with new granite imported from Hyderabad.

For Vishnu’s second birthday, Subbarao gave to the temple a new diamond-studded gold necklace. The priest, Rama Shastri, protested gently that Lord Shiva was a beggar and had no use for such fine jewellery, but took it anyway and kept it in his house for ‘safekeeping’.

The following year Subbarao contested the elections and became the headman, taking over from Shubhalakshmamma. One of the first things he did was to build under the banyan tree a small temple for Mandiramma, and transport the stone into the sanctum. ‘Mandiramma has looked after us for years,’ he said. ‘The least we can give her is a roof over her head.’

On Vishnu’s fourth birthday, Subbarao took him in his new Ambassador car to the banks of Ellamma cheruvu. It had been cloudy all day, and just as father and son finished their baths, it began to rain, and they heard the first sounds of thunder. Subbarao got away from the water and said to Vishnu, who was sitting on the bank and paddling his feet, ‘Get off the water, Vishnu. There is a thunderstorm coming.’

‘Yes, Nanna.’

Subbarao then turned away for a moment, drying himself with towel, when behind him he heard his boy yell in surprise. ‘Look, Nanna!’ he said, ‘Up in the sky!’

Subbarao turned to look. That very moment, a deep white line of lightning slapped the water of the lake, sending an electric buzz into the air, making his hair stand on end. And then it came again, this time splashing the water and pushing a wave toward the bank.

Subbarao ran to Vishnu. He picked him up in his hands and rushed back to the shade of the guava tree. He rubbed his hands. He rubbed his feet. He blew into his mouth. He used his fingers to wrench open the boy’s closed eyelids. Nothing helped.

His breath already frantic, he placed his ear at the boy’s chest. Nothing.

He searched Vishnu’s wrists for a pulse. Nothing.

‘No,’ he said weakly. ‘No.’

* * *

That was a year ago, to the day.

A gust of wind blew the windows against their frames, and Subbarao became aware of the flickering tube light once again. If Vishnu had been alive he would be on his lap now, playing with his toy car, or perhaps he would be pestering him for a story. The silver streak in the black clover was gone. Now it just stared at him like an abyss, and the more he looked at it, the more it reminded him of Vishnu’s hair.

All nonsense, he thought. It was just a card. A playing card that had lost its way. It did not have the power to give and take luck, like that old fortune teller had said. If he had wished it, he could have torn this up long ago; why, he could tear it up right now into pieces, and leave them flying into the rain.

Then do it.

He should have done it on the day he had found it. Perhaps if mother had not seen him going to the gutter, perhaps if she had not asked him to keep it, maybe they would have all been alive today.

You’re crazy, he thought.

And maybe he would not have made all this money. He would have been a pakoda seller still.

With purpose he got to his feet and went to the kitchen. He turned on the stove to high, and held the card above it. The blue heat warmed his hand. I must do this, he thought. I should have done it years ago. Well, no matter. Better late than never, right?

But what if it had all been true? What if he burned the card and he would lose everything he had? People would call him Subbai again. The car would go. The cattle would catch some disease and die. The house would collapse. All the wealth and gold he had earned these last ten years would leave him, in some way or the other.

Amma, Nanna, Padmavati and Vishnu were gone. Nothing would bring them back. Now why should he take a chance at losing what he had?

He licked his lips. He swallowed. He turned off the stove.

He put the card back in his pocket.