Story 15: The Sitarist of Palem


Even in mid-monsoon, even under heavy early-morning mist, Rudrakshapalem was a parched place. Sister Agnes, one of the elderly matrons at the church of Dhavaleshwaram, here on assignment, looked out of the side window and saw a woman walking toward the building from the direction of the village. She appeared only as a smudge in the fog, but her step was slow, and the way she wrapped her arms around herself as she walked made Sister Agnes certain that she was headed for the centre.

For a moment Sister Agnes thought that one of the centre’s ladies was returning after a stealthy night out. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, and Sister Agnes was practical enough to ignore such incidents – after all, the centre was no church; women who lived here were not required to live like nuns. They lived lives that required them to stay out of doors for most of the day. It was only understandable that they met young men from the village now and then, sometimes during the day, sometimes after the day was gone. As long as they took enough ‘care’ not to get ‘physical complications’ from one of their nightly visits, Sister Agnes did not care. She had once even pretended not to notice one of her wards paying a covert visit to the big hospital in Dhavaleshwaram with a hundred-rupee note tucked under her blouse.

The figure had come closer now, into sharper view. Once or twice she stopped and turned around to glance at the tar road that came out of Palem. The women’s wellness centre stood on a dry plot of land behind two paddy fields in which Sister Agnes had never seen sign of crop, and which were now being taken over by rather large tufts of greenish yellow bushes. Between the two fields a path wove its way from the centre’s entrance, connecting it to the Palem main road. It was on the fag end of this path that the woman stopped and hesitated.

Sister Agnes cleaned her glasses with the edge of her tunic and slid them on. Now she saw that the approaching woman was not really a woman but an overgrown girl. While her chest and hips looked like those of a woman nearing twenty, the freckles on the cheeks, the frazzled hair, the pimples on the forehead, and the callous disproportion of her nose with respect to other parts of her face – all hinted at a girl of thirteen. A sudden wave of tenderness washed over Sister Agnes. Yes, she thought, she could guess what a girl like this would have gone through in a village like Palem. It was for women such as this that the church of Dhavaleshwaram had set up the wellness centre. Father Abraham had once said to her that Palem ‘needed cleansing’. Sister Agnes had not had the need to ask what he meant by that.

It was not an easy place to live, even for nuns. The centre was set up in an old barnyard bought off a farmer whose fields nearby had stopped yielding. The asbestos roof made Palem’s already dry and hot weather unbearable, and when it rained water seeped in through the termite-infested wood and made the interior a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The window panes were half-broken. Food, water and habitation were at least two kilometers away whichever direction one looked. This was why Father Abraham had asked the nuns at his church to rotate shifts at the centre so that no one person needed to stay there for longer than a month. This was Sister Agnes’s third week.

For a fleeting moment she tasted the cool, pure water of the church-tap at Dhavaleshwaram, and felt it slide down her throat. She thought of the fragrance-sprayed pulpit where she said her daily prayers, the finely made bed on which she would sleep in a week, the steaming hot Idli-sambaar the hotel boy opposite brought for her every morning; she missed even Father Abraham’s disapproving frown, the kind he wore whenever he saw one of the new girls giggling at mass.

She suppressed a smile, then quietly chided herself. She knew that the church was actively trying to get a foothold within the boundaries of the village, and this rotation business was only temporary – until Father Abraham negotiated the terms with the village elders to set up a permanent centre there. Maybe then the church could take some proactive steps; try and get at the disease rather than limply offering shelter to the victims. Palem certainly needed cleansing; Father Abraham was right. The last time she had gone back to the church he had given her a bundle of papers to read when she was in Palem. He had said reading it would give her a ‘better understanding of the Palem affair’. She crinkled her nose; with all the experience she’d had with the girls, did she need any more understanding? 

She craned her neck. The girl had come to the door and pushed it open. Sister Agnes had expected to see a timid face peering out from behind the door, but the girl stood with her legs apart, her expression defiant, as if she was daring the older woman to do her worst. Sister Agnes smiled at her and said in her softest tone, ‘Come in, child. What is your name?’

The girl walked in, and the door closed behind her. In the light of the mercury tube Sister Agnes saw uncertainty creep into the girl’s face. ‘Do you – have women here?’ The strong voice was nervous; even a little frightened.

Sister Agnes nodded.

‘Women with – no home? No family?’

Sister Agnes nodded again.

‘I have no home. And no family.’

‘That is perfectly all right, child. I have no home or a family either.’

The girl looked up hopefully, almost in joy. ‘Really?’ she asked.

‘Yes, really. Now, tell me, what is your name?’


‘Is that why you’re so thin, because you’re named after a creeper?’ The girl was big-boned, but her face was drawn with hunger. Sister Agnes wrote down her name in the register and paused for a moment. Then she asked, ‘Are you coming from Palem?’

‘Yes, madam.’

After another pause, Sister Agnes asked softly, ‘And what did you do there?’

‘I – I worked at the headman’s house, madam.’

Worked at the headman’s house. Sister Agnes wrote it down verbatim, closed the book and looked at the girl with a wide smile. ‘Nobody here calls me madam. They call me sister.’

The girl’s voice was disbelieving. ‘You want me to call you sister?’

‘I insist on you calling me sister. Will you?’

The girl nodded brightly.

‘Good. Now, if you stay here, you will have to work. Okay?’


‘All of us work here. There is no freeloading. But at the end of each day, after all the work is done, we play.’

The girl’s eyes shone. ‘What do you play?’

Sister Agnes said, ‘Different things, my child. Some of us sing, and some of us dance. Some of us tell stories. What would you like to do?’

‘I – I am not very talented.’

‘Child,’ said Sister Agnes very gently, ‘God gives us talent in one thing or the other. It just takes us time to find it, that’s all.’

‘Really? You think I will find it here?’

‘Of course you will.’ Sister Agnes leant forward in her seat and patted the girl on her cheek. Raising her voice just a little she called to the maid. ‘Vijaya, please show Lata to the kitchen.’ To Lata she said, ‘Go, child. Go and eat and take some rest. You have walked for long.’

* * *


The portly figure of Subramanya Shastri, Head Priest at Palem’s Shivalayam, stretched out languidly on Komati Satyam’s front porch. Across the steps that led to the front door and into the house, Komati Satyam sat huddled in his easy chair, his stick-like arms hugging the arm-rests, and his fingers wrapped around the edges. He sat with his feet both planted on the ground, not resting back but slouching forward, as though preparing to spring to his feet any moment. Shastri knew from their long association that this meant Satyam was thinking hard about something. He felt around with his hand behind him and found the empty glass. Reaching out for the mud vase that stood between them on the floor, Shastri said, ‘More?’

Satyam nodded and pushed his glass an inch or two in Shastri’s direction. Shastri filled it, spilling half of it on the floor. ‘Damn,’ he cursed. ‘Turn the lamp on brighter, why don’t you? Can’t see a damned thing.’

‘No oil.’ Satyam pressed the brim of his glass to his mouth and closed his eyes. After he downed a gulp he said, ‘She is pregnant, Shastri-gaaru.’

‘Hmm? What?’

‘Did you not see her today at the old Banyan tree? She has a belly this big.’

‘Ah, you mean Lachi.’ Shastri’s tone became relaxed. ‘Why does it bother you so much, Satyam, as long as you are not the – are you the –?’

‘Don’t be foolish, Shastri-gaaru! What is her age, and what is mine?’

‘Oh, my friend, believe me, these things do not care about your respective ages – merely genders.’ He hiccupped and broke into a long giggle. At the end of it he said, ‘Nice, heavenly thing, toddy – almost as heavenly as a woman’s –’

‘Who do you think is the father?’

‘Eh? Why do we care?’

‘Because she is a woman of our village. Tomorrow she will give birth to the boy, and what if she points at one of the young men and say he is the father?’

‘What if –’ Shastri stopped himself and hiccupped again. He said in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘You are afraid that your son may have – eh?’

‘Maybe.’ Satyam lifted the glass to his lips and downed its contents in one large gulp.

‘I do not know why, Satyam – eh? – I do not know why this is bothering you so much. She is a crazy loon, that girl. Who is going to believe her word over yours, eh?’

‘They might not believe her now,’ Satyam said acidly, ‘but if the boy grows up with my son’s eyes and nose, it won’t take long for them to crow about it.’

‘Ah, yes, that could be a problem. But you know what, my friend? I think the boy will grow up with that schoolmaster’s eyes and nose.’ The priest tried winking at Satyam a couple of times, failed, and gave up. ‘Eh?’ he said, and stretched out on the porch, looking up at the stars.

‘It will all be so neat and nice if that happens. But you know what they say about Avadhani. He’s – you know.’


‘Why do you think his wife left him?’

‘Eh? Oh – oh!’ Shastri broke into another long giggle. ‘Any man in the village could have had Lachi. She is always out by herself in the night, is she not? Out by the old Shivalayam, under the Banyan…I have heard of people talk of seeing her by Ellamma cheruvu in the moonlight…if a girl like that walks by you in the night when the full moon runs in your loins, what red-blooded man would resist picking her up and pinning her to the nearest tree and –’ His voice abruptly stopped, and his eyes glazed over, his tongue moistening his lips. ‘Such a heavenly thing is toddy, and a woman.’

* * *

Lata plucked at the strings of the sitar and cocked her head, her eyes focused on some far away, invisible point. Somebody in the gathering of women called out for her to play a movie song. Lata smiled indulgently and continued plucking, listening – she ran her fingers along the length of the strings once, one by one, and then strummed them, allowing them to catch in her longest fingernails at the very end of the stroke. She bided her time, allowing her fingers to play idly and yet with enough rhythm to entertain the ladies sitting in front of her. Her hands then changed tack as though with a mind of their own, and her ears perked up in anticipation, following the notes, knowing where they would lead. Her mind, conscious of what had happened on the three previous nights, told her that the first tabla note would hit just about – now!


She lifted her eyes and looked around the room once, to make sure no one had heard it this time as well. On the first occasion, three nights ago, she had sat up and stared all around her when the note appeared; much to the ladies’ annoyance. Only after she had heard it a couple more times did she realize she was the only one to hear it. She had resolved to tell Sister Agnes about it that night, but the notes on the accompanying instrument had been so precise, their combination with her own had been so delectable, that she had not had the heart.

The tabla was also speaking to her in some strange way. Yesterday in the middle of her performance she had begun to see flashes of Palem – now here, now there, flicking into her mind and out of it with such rapidity that she could not tell for certain what it was that she saw. She could make out Avadhanayya’s house amid the slew of images; of that she was sure, and there had been the Shivalayam too…no, not the new Shivalayam in the middle of the village, but the old, decrepit one, in the shade of the big Banyan tree.

Now, without her knowledge, her mind was being taken over by these notes, and it was floating away, borne by them, into Palem, and this time she was taken into Avadhanayya’s field behind his shack and the irrigation well next to it. Unlike the images of the previous day these were sharp and fluid, as though an old movie was playing in front of her eyes. She went to the well, peeped inside, then went around it to the back; and there she stopped.

She opened her eyes with a start, in cold sweat, suddenly aware that her fingers had been playing of their own volition on the sitar; that control of her fingers was only now gradually being returned to her. She could hear the notes of the tabla recede, and it seemed like tendrils that had wrapped around her mind were loosening their hold…she looked around the room once again just to make sure that she hadn’t attracted notice…and her eyes fell on Sister Agnes, who was watching her with a curious expression in her eyes…yes, she would have to tell her tonight. She had to tell her that she had to go back to Palem, though she did not know why or for what.

No, she corrected herself, aware of it only as she was doing so, not for what, but for whom.

* * *

13 September, 1970

Dear Brother Abraham,

Thank you for your kind words. Whatever I feared for in my previous letter, I think, has come to pass, though I am still not sure if we were the victors or the vanquished.

It was exactly thirteen days after Lachi disappeared. She was just – gone. Without a trace left behind. Her son and daughter did not know where she had gone. Avadhani denied having anything to do with her. No one in the village remembered when they had seen her last.

That started it. Things started to disappear from the village: Komati Satyam’s langur, which he tied to the corner of his peanut field to scare monkeys away, was gone one night, taken with the rope that tethered him. Avadhani’s own Jersey cow also vanished, and later half its torso was found floating in the Godavari a few miles up north. A couple of stray dogs went missing; so did a pig and six of its piglets.

All this while, Lachi’s son and daughter were getting bigger and bigger, while Avadhani got thinner and thinner…

One evening I was sitting with Komati Satyam on his verandah and suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt that same feeling of ice down my back. Why it should have come at that time I do not know. Perhaps it is because at six o’clock every evening, Avadhani went to Ellamma cheruvu and washed his legs. It was a routine he did not miss in all these years, not even when he had that fracture in his arm when he fell off his father’s bicycle. But today, today, sir, he was nowhere to be seen. I knew almost immediately that something was wrong, and I told Satyam that we should go. He got up and picked up a spade, handing me one as we left. ‘You might need this,’ he said.

When we went to Avadhani’s house the first thing that struck us was the smell. For long periods now his house has been locked up with no outsider ever entering. When we approached the windows we saw that they were all papered up. There was a soft whirr of a machine coming from inside the house, with an occasional jarring rumble. We exchanged a glance, Satyam and I, and decided to barge through the front door. The wood was rather weak, and it was half-eaten by termites, so it gave in on our very first push.

The view inside – god, it still churns my stomach, sir – they were at least partly human, that much I can vouch for, with human legs, arms and faces. But their chests were tough and rubbery, of a dark green colour that one would see on toads. Lined on their waist on each side were three blinking sockets that I could discern were eyes of some fashion. Their backs were scaly, not unlike that of garden lizards, and little beady structures clicked and clucked under the skin. From what ought to be their stomach there slithered out a hose-like tube, and as we stood over them, brother and sister both had their hoses wrapped together, lying on their sides facing each other. Their eyes were dilated, and their paws – no, I cannot call them feet – clawed at the air.

Beside them sat a contraption made half of fleshy, biological material and half of hard metal. Jutting out of one corner of the machine were Avadhani’s legs and half of his torso. The upper part of his body was already embedded within the machine, and the rest was slowly getting sucked in with each whirr, as if into a mire.

I do not know how long we stood there looking at the scene, sir, but it was Satyam who sprang to life first. It must have been when the boy turned a lazy eye to look at us that Satyam realized it was time to strike. With a yelp he leapt at the sprawled bodies and hacked repeatedly at their tentacles, and a white pasty substance squeezed out onto the floor. I entered the fray then as well; I closed my eyes and stabbed like a madman, not knowing where and what I was hitting, but every now and then the point of my spade drove further down than other times, and made them squirm that little bit harder, so I know I’d hit a tender spot.

They put up no resistance to us, sir, though I would say we gave them no chance. After it was all done Satyam and I carried them over to Avadhani’s well and buried them there. We also pulled out Avadhani from the thing – his face was all bloodied, and he was dead of course – and laid him to rest. It was then that I looked around the room and found the sitar.

‘Let’s burn it,’ Satyam said. And I almost agreed to it too, but then I remembered what sweet notes it used to make under the girl’s hands, and I just could not bring myself to burn it. So I told Satyam that I would take it home, and here it is, right in front of me as I write this.

In these seven days since we’ve killed – those things – all our bad omens have stopped, sir. The feeling on my back is no longer present, and everything seems to have settled down. But you can never tell with these things, can you? I would still like it if you came and gave Palem a thorough cleansing. Maybe you can take the sitar away with you to keep in a place where evil cannot reach.


Subramanya Shastri

* * *

Lata opened the front door and looked up at the gibbous moon. The sound of the table thudded in her mind. These last two days the sounds had not gone away after she had stopped playing the sitar. Now they were ever-present, goading her on to the front door, then to the path leading up to the road, then along the road…


Sister Agnes. Sister Agnes was going to have her neck slit, she knew. She had seen it in one of the images the tabla notes had sent her. Somewhere deep within her she felt sad; Sister Agnes had been good to her. She did not particularly want her to come to harm. She poked herself in her waist and felt hard calluses pushing back from under her skin. These had appeared on the first day and had grown in size each day. She did not question what they were or where they had come from. It was like she knew; more or less.

‘Yes, sister?’

‘Are you going somewhere, child?’

Lata turned back to face the older lady. She did not know the answer to the question, but the thudding of the tabla inside her head continued unabated. She knew it would stop only if she were to go to that well, where that ditch was dug, where both of them were buried…

‘You’ve told me about the tabla notes,’ Sister Agnes said. ‘Do you still hear them?’

Lata nodded.

Sister Agnes came close to her and placed an arm on Lata. In her mind Lata willed the nun to stay away, to keep her distance. When her hand touched her shoulder Lata could sense a momentary twitch on the fingers – at the rubbery, scaly feel. But they relaxed soon enough.

‘I can help you, child,’ said Sister Agnes in a murmur.

The tabla notes in Lata’s head grew louder. Her fists clenched, and her face contorted into a grimace. ‘There is only one thing that can help me,’ she said, baring her teeth.

Sister Agnes paled at the sight and took a step back, but held firm with her hand. ‘No, my dear, the only person that can help you right now is Christ; he is our saviour, our lord…’

‘Enough!’ Lata stooped low, looking up at the nun with her hair falling over her face. ‘Move away, woman. I am going.’

‘You will take lives.’

‘They killed us,’ said Lata, in a voice she barely recognized herself, ‘they killed us when we – when we were –’

‘Child.’ Sister Agnes reached into her blouse and brought out a cross, fumbling.

Lata waved her arms around to knock it out of her hands to send it sliding on the floor and under the desk. She turned to the door and opened it, but Sister Agnes was behind her, both hands on her waist, and this time she immediately recoiled.

‘Who – what are you?’

Lata turned around and grinned. ‘Yes, what am I? What am I, woman? I was a woman five days ago, until you gave me that sitar to play. Now what am I?’

‘Oh, Lord. Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name –’

‘Oh, yes, very hallowed indeed. Where was the father when they killed us when we were – when we were in union? Where? Where!’ In blind fury Lata struck out with her right hand at the woman, and she saw Sister Agnes clutch at her neck in shock.

Lata held up her hands. They were the hands of a crone; the fingernails had grown long and sharp in the last few minutes. One of them – or all of them – had struck the old woman’s artery. She was whimpering now, and Lata found herself laughing with her head thrown back as the figure before her hunched, then collapsed on the floor with a groan.

Lata knelt down in front of the woman and closed her fingers around the neck and squeezed, making Sister Agnes give one final moan. The notes of the tabla in her head reached a crescendo when she heard the last breath of life leave the sister. Lata was just about to lift her hands up to her mouth when she heard a sound in the adjoining room. Lights had come on, and at least four people were approaching.

Lata moved into a crouch, and propelling herself with her forelimbs, lunged at the front door and closed it behind her. She sensed her stomach churning, her intestines transforming into tentacles, and one of them smoothening on the outside and forcing its way out through her belly-button, wrenching a groan from the depths of her throat. She staggered to her feet and tore her clothes apart, and just as she heard screams from within the house, the skin on her back gave way to sharp, triangular bumps that clicked and clicked and clicked…

She fell forward on her forelimbs again, craning her neck up at the moon and baring her teeth. The sound of the tabla still ringing in her ears, she galloped up the path and on to the main road to Palem. Her mind’s eye saw only one image now, frozen in time – that house and the field and the well and the ditch and the two of them buried in it – Well, today they would not stop her! Today they would not stop them. They had come so close forty years ago, but no matter, they had another chance now. Now she would go and awaken him. Yes, my brother, my love, I am coming for you. No one could now stop them becoming one with each other. No, not now.