Ellamma cheruvu bore the look of a vast basin of black ink. It became that way every day after sundown, until the moon came out to coat it in a silvery shimmer. Raji sat on the dusty bank with her legs stretched out, and ran her fingers over Moti’s sparse fur, behind the ear. The dog had his chin and one paw resting on her thigh. His body was punctuated with marks, some dry, others fresh and pink. Whenever Raji accidentally brushed a wound, he flinched.
‘I told you not to bring him,’ said Chander, standing a few feet away from them, by the guava tree. Raji looked over her shoulder. All she could see in the shadows was the lit tip of Chander’s cigarette. He had his cigarettes brought in bright yellow cartons from the city. Not for him the beedis that Sivayya rolled in his paan shop by the big gutter.
‘The dog is nothing but trouble,’ he said. ‘There’s a reason why they don’t allow him anywhere near the temple.’
Moti looked up at Chander, just with the eyes.
‘You can come closer,’ said Raji. ‘If you’re nice to me, he will be nice to you.’
Chander stepped out of the shadow, took a deep puff, and let a ring of smoke float up into the evening air. Raji caught the strong whiff of jasmine on his milky white kurta and pajama. That and the smell of cigarette ash. A gold chain around the neck. Each finger sporting a ring fashioned out of a different stone.
He will fulfil all your wishes, her mother had said.
‘Do I have to ask for his permission to touch you as well?’
‘Well, Chander babu,’ said Raji, ‘I am not one of those city girls you’re used to. In Palem, a woman lets a man touch her only on the night of their wedding.’
‘In Palem, a woman does not come alone to Ellamma cheruvu to meet a man if she does not intend to marry him.’
Raji laughed, and held her hair down against the breeze that came running over the paddy fields that lay beyond the lake. ‘I did not come alone, Chander babu. I came with Moti. And I think you’re right. We must get back now. My mother says that men’s wiles become stronger as the night wears on.’
‘Oh, does she now?’
Raji pushed Moti onto his feet and got up. Dusting her hands, she said, ‘I have been warned of you. Father says that one cannot trust people with money. You have a lot of money, don’t you, Chander babu?’
They began to walk away from the lake, Chander keeping at least a meter between him and Raji at all times. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, the lighted cigarette wedged between the fingers. He had wrinkled hands. Brown, flat fingernails. His skin was the colour of dusty bronze.
‘Come, Moti. What’s the matter?’
Moti had begun to chase his own tail, his tongue hanging out, panting.
‘I have enough money to look after you like a queen,’ said Chander.
‘But is there a king who is happy with one queen, Chander babu?’
‘You will be the only queen of my castle. Whatever you want – saris, jewels, even a car – it will be yours.’
Raji looked around her. They had taken the path leading from the lake to the village, and yet they had not come upon Ibrahim Bhai’s house, no more than a two-minute walk from the guava tree. Instead, they were walking among babul bushes and chirring crickets.
She looked up for the moon to re-orient herself, but all she saw were deep, dark clouds. Only a tiny circular patch of purple sky was open, straight overhead, and a lone white star glittered at its centre.
‘Where have we come?’ she said, as the bushes became denser and closed in on them.
‘Just as you said,’ said Chander, his leather sandals crackling on the parched earth. ‘We’re going home.’
‘But we’re not going home.’ Every few steps, Moti was stopping and chasing his tail. ‘We’re back at the lake.’
They reached the end of the path. When they stepped out of the thicket, the smell of wet paddy fields hit Raji full in the face again. In front of them, now with its branches set against a jet black sky, stood the guava tree that they had just left, and beyond it, the poison-black water of Ellamma cheruvu rippled in the breeze.
* * *
Raji thought of all those nights she had woken up with sweaty hands, after dreaming of getting lost in her own house. There were three rooms laid out end to end; one in the front where her father entertained guests and ironed clothes, one behind it, where her mother sewed matching buttons onto shirts of schoolboys, and the last one, which had the kerosene stove and the dining table. In her dream Raji would find herself in the kitchen, and her father would call to her from the front room, and she would start running. But she would run and run and run, through dark alleys and wet caves and muddy wells, only to end up back in the kitchen, by the stove.
Raji! Her father would scream.
Yes, Nanna, coming, Nanna.
But she would never find the way.
Her heart began to quicken, just enough for her to feel it thump within her chest. She licked her lips, and from the salt she tasted on her upper lip she knew she was sweating. Rubbing her palms together made a slurping noise, as if they had been bathed in oil.
‘Is this your doing?’ she asked Chander. ‘You distracted me with all your words, and now you brought me back to the lake.’
Chander reached into the pocket of his kurta and brought out a small black torch. Raji heard it click once or twice, but no light came. ‘Crap,’ he said. ‘I checked the batteries just this morning.’
Moti came strutting by from behind them, and emitted a questioning grunt at the sight of the lake.
‘It must be this damned dog,’ said Chander. ‘Why did you have to bring him along? Do you think if I wanted to do something to you, this dog is going to stop me?’
‘His name is Moti.’
‘Keep him away from me.’ Chander stepped out into the clearing and made his way to the tree. Raji followed him. As they approached, she saw the still burning stub of cigarette that Chander had cast away a few minutes back. Everything looked the same. Polayya’s fenced groundnut fields to the far north-west. Avadhanayya’s row of palm trees swaying as one to the wind. The rustle of the guava leaves. The dust that stuck to the tip of her toes in spite of her plastic slippers. Lizards scurrying underneath pebbles. Crickets calling.
They stared at the lake for a while, as though assuring themselves.
Then Chander said, ‘Let’s go.’
* * *
This time they took the other route that went to the Shivalayam. They would cut across the main road, wave at Narender Reddy – who would be sitting behind the desk of his candy and cool drink store, reading the newspaper – and make their way past Sivayya’s paan shop. It was the longer way, Raji knew, but she did not care. Neither did Chander, from the shot look on his face.
They walked. The bushes converged. The crickets fell silent. Moti began to mewl weakly, in the manner of a fever-ridden child. The circular patch of clear sky remained over their heads. The lone star would guide them home, thought Raji.
But her breath refused to slow down.
‘Shut up that dog,’ said Chander. ‘Why is he crying like that?’
‘He is just afraid. He will be fine once we get to the main road.’
Chander pulled out his torch. Click went the switch. No light. Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and yet they could see only in faint shapes and smudges. Raji remembered that just a few months back, Chander’s first wife had been found in bushes just like these, with her head beaten in, a gold pendant around her neck. They had said that she had gone for a walk by the lake, and robbers had killed her for her jewels and thrown her to the crows.
Somebody had asked why the robbers had left the pendant behind. Everyone pretended to have not heard him.
All the jewels you can have. Wasn’t that what he had said?
They turned a bend in the path, and Raji once again recognized the bushes. They stepped out into the same clearing they had left moments ago. There was Ellamma cheruvu, serene and quiet. Whenever the breeze came and tickled her, she gurgled in response.
They went to the tree, the three of them, this time Moti leading the way. Chander’s cigarette still burned red in the grass. Raji wanted to run to it, hold it up to her nose, and inhale its ashen warmth. Let the soot enter her and fill up her lungs. Then perhaps she could touch the burning tip to her chest, to loosen the grip of the chilly black fingers that had wrapped around her heart.
Chander looked at her. He licked his lips. In the light of the star she saw his wide forehead glisten with drops of sweat. ‘Where are we?’ he said.
* * *
Where are we?
Raji could answer that quite easily to her own mind. They were on the bank of Ellamma cheruvu. The same lake where the people of Palem immerse their Ganesh idols every year. The same lake in which she had learned to swim, without telling her parents. The same lake by which young men and women of Palem meet, under the moon, to profess love for one another. The same lake.
And yet it was not. Just like the house in her dream – one in which she got lost on her way from the kitchen to the front room – was not her house. It was some other thing pretending to be her house. That thing had holes and dark rooms to entrap her, just like this thing pretending to be Ellamma cheruvu had bushes and crickets, and clouds and a silver star.
‘It’s either the dog or you. You must be a witch.’
‘Such a charming man you are, Chander babu.’
‘The dog. That stupid dog. Keep him away from me. You hear?’
‘All right, all right.
After they had gone around the path two more times, only to return to the tree, they buckled down in its shadow and drew nearer to the trunk, as if it would conceal them in its hollow. They just had to get through the night, somehow; because right at the crack of dawn the washermen would come with bundles of grimy clothes hoisted on their heads.
Where are we?
Such an easy question to answer, and yet tonight she could not find the words.
The patch of clouds above the Western horizon broke up, just enough for a sliver of the gibbous moon to break through. The colour of Ellamma’s water changed, as though a thousand silverfish had just swum to the surface from deep below. Even Moti ran up to the lake’s edge and barked happily, his tail flapping at the ground.
Chander sat on a rock, so that the dust wouldn’t ruin his kurta. He kept a wary eye on Moti still, but his gaze toward her had softened. Raji untied a piece of jaggery off her half-sari, broke it in two with her teeth, and gave Chander a piece.
‘We’re stuck here,’ she said. ‘No point worrying yourself sick over it.’
Chander looked at her for a moment, then came over to sit by her side.
* * *
‘People say you’re a womaniser,’ Raji said, looking at the lake. ‘Every city he goes to, says my father, he has a woman to sleep with.’
‘That is not true. Ever since I lost Annapurna, I’ve not known the touch of a woman.’
‘I am not a woman, though. Just a girl. Not yet seventeen.’
‘But you have the fullness of a woman in you, Raji. I saw you dance on the night of Navaratri, and I’ve not been able to sleep properly since.’
Raji’s giggle rang into the night. ‘You know how to speak to a girl, Chander babu. But a marriage is not built on just words and dreams, is it?’
‘No,’ agreed Chander. ‘It is not.’
‘The village people will say that I have trapped you. Poor Chander fell to the charms of that girl Raji, they will say. If only you hadn’t been so wealthy, perhaps it would have been easier.’
‘If I had not been as wealthy as I am, Raji, would you even look at a man my age?’
Raji turned to face him. The forehead was no longer covered in sweat. How many times had she not heard the words, he is old enough to be your father? True, it would be nice to have a smooth-muscled young man for a husband, but of what use is a man who could not feed his wife?
It was a big tragedy of life in Palem that the strongest, handsomest, most rugged men were also the poorest.
‘You’re right,’ she said at last. ‘But women grow up quickly, don’t they, Chander babu? Before you know it, they will be looking at us and saying what a suitable couple we make.’
Chander straightened up. ‘Does that mean you’re saying yes?’
‘Only if you will announce to the whole village that it is you who wanted me for a wife,’ said Raji. ‘And you should treat my parents with respect.’
‘Yes, yes. I accept!’
‘And if you wish to go and sleep with another woman, Chander babu, go and do so. Just don’t tell me, and don’t get it into your head that you want to marry her. I shall be your only wife.’
‘Yes, oh, Raji, why would I want to marry anyone else?’ Chander took both Raji’s hands in his and kissed them. ‘You have given me the world tonight, Raji. You have made me the happiest man in the world.’
Raji pulled her hands away, coyly. ‘Remember, Chander babu, no touching until the wedding night.’
He smiled too, and a fresh gust of wind blew from over the lake, making the thin hair on his scalp stand on end and dance.
* * *
Moti’s wail struck the grins off their faces.
The dog crouched low to the ground by the edge of the lake, and howled pitifully at the silver ripples. The thump in Raji’s heart returned, and once more she saw herself running within dark lanes reeking of dead fish, trying, trying her best to get from the kitchen to the front room as her father’s calls rang in her ear.
She clutched her chest. ‘Moti!’ she said. ‘Stop it!’
Somewhere she had heard that dogs could see long dead spirits, and that their yowls and moans were their way of conversing with them. She wanted to ask Chander if that was true, but when she looked at him, his face appeared to be as lifeless as the yellow-white surface of the lake.
In a whisper he said, ‘That horrible animal. I’m going to –’ He picked up a pebble in his right hand and hurled it at Moti. It hit him in the side, right on one of the pink scabs, with enough force to peel off a fresh layer of spotted skin and leave a trickle of blood dripping onto the earth.
But Moti took no notice. He just howled and wept and mewled and licked the dust.
Chander threw another stone at it. This one missed, and went into the lake with a quiet plop. ‘That miserable dog!’ he said, seething with a rage Raji did not understand. In her own body she felt spasms of fright. Every time a new breeze blew and sent her half-sari aflutter, deep within her arms and legs she felt twinges, and her fingers – without her knowledge – had balled up into fists.
Raji, Raji, called her father from the front room.
She wanted to get up and run, but she would just see babul bushes, and that lone bright star in a circular patch of sky overhead. And she would run as fast as her legs could carry her only to end up back here. So why bother?
At this moment, Chander let out a cry and clapped his mouth shut with a trembling hand. His eyes opened wide. He pointed at the lake with a shaking finger.
Something told Raji that she should not look. But she did.
* * *
The woman that came out of the lake was naked, except for a gold pendant that hung off her neck. Her wet black hair fell on her shoulders, arms and face. Her whole body carried the soaked look of a crab’s belly, and it did not seem to Raji that there was a live beating heart inside it. She appeared to be filled on the inside with soft, luminescent jelly, so that if one were to dig a knife into her flesh, it would give readily, but would not cause her pain.
She walked without hurry, and at each step she took out of the water, as she revealed more and more of her, the louder Moti snarled and barked, and the louder Chander yelled. His eyes, shot with the panic of a hunted rabbit, bled tears. His hands clawed at the air in frantic movements, and though he tried to push himself onto his feet and flee, something kept him pinned to the ground.
Raji herself found that she could not move or speak. Only watch.
The woman stood three feet away from where they were sitting, her hair still covering her face. Raji could now see the figure on the pendant; it was the dancing form of Shiva. The breeze had now turned into a wind, and Ellamma cheruvu assumed the form of an ocean, her waves lashing at the bank and sending Moti yelping back toward the guava tree.
Fallen leaves swirled in circles. The woman’s nipples glowed like white points of light.
‘How easily you give away your promises, Chander babu,’ said the woman, in a quiet, measured voice. ‘What will you do when you get bored of this girl? Will you break your promise, or will you keep it by having her killed too?’
Chander said, ‘You – you! – you!’
‘You promised me the same things, didn’t you, Chander babu? Then your eyes fell on this little girl here, and you had to get rid of me. I told you that you could sleep with whoever you wish, but that was not enough for you, was it? You wanted to own her. Like you wanted to own me.’
Chander gulped, and yelled the Hanuman Chalisa with his eyes shut, hands joined.
‘Enough,’ said the woman. Her toenails, Raji saw, were painted a bright black. ‘This is the last promise that you will ever make to a woman. Let me be the last woman to die because of you.’
A white hand rose in Raji’s direction, and her mind began to wander. She found herself running again, from kitchen to front room and front room to kitchen, but in the middle room where her mother sewed buttons on shirts, bushes had begun to grow out of the walls and chairs and cots. Moti whined again and again over the noise of crickets cleaning their wings, and when Raji looked up, she did not see the roof of her house or the ceiling fan, but a mass of dark, brooding clouds, a patch of black sky, and one white, twinkling star.
The last thing she heard was her father calling out to her. Raji, Raji.
* * *
She woke up with a start. ‘Chander babu?’
‘Hmm,’ said her mother, not looking up from the shirt on her lap. ‘Go back to sleep.’
‘Where – where am I?’
‘The question is where were you. The washermen found you on the bank of the lake this morning. Why did you fall asleep there?’
‘I went – never mind, did the washermen find Chander babu as well?’
Her father walked into the room, retying his dhoti, sucking on a neem twig. ‘They found him all right, this morning on the temple steps. He was sitting with that dog of yours, and laughing his head off about something.’
‘Yes.’ The twig moved in his mouth as he talked. ‘Torn clothes. Dishevelled hair. Eating dog food that has been thrown in the gutter. Looks like something has driven Chander out of his mind.’
Raji thought of the glowing naked lady of Ellamma cheruvu.
‘Even in craziness the man is a greedy pig,’ her father was saying. ‘He was apparently hugging a gold pendant. Kissing it. Crooning songs to it…’