Story 16: Peaceful Are the Dead

Rama Shastri had just finished his evening prayer and sat down on the fibre mat in front of his plate when a knock appeared on the door.

Arundhati, his wife, looked up and said, ‘Who could it be?’

With a sigh, Rama Shastri got to his feet. He spread his shoulder cloth around himself and went to the door. Someone or the other always came to the temple in the evening in search of stray pieces of coconut the devotees left behind, but today, Rama Shastri had brought them all home because Arundhati had wanted to make pickle.

‘Must be a beggar,’ he said, ‘looking for a bite to eat.’

The man at the door was dressed in a tattered grey dhoti stained with mud. He was barefooted, and stood with a hunch. From experience Rama Shastri knew that all beggars at the temple assumed that position to garner sympathy from devotees. The light from inside fell on the man from the chest down, leaving his face in darkness.

‘Yes?’ said Rama Shastri.

‘Ayya,’ said the man, ‘I have not eaten anything the whole day, and they told me that you would not turn me out.’ He stepped into the light and crinkled his eyes at the sudden brightness. Rama Shastri had never seen him before. Was he even from Palem?

‘I come from Rayalapalli, ayya, further up along the river.’

Rama Shastri wondered who had sent him to his house. Once or twice in the past he had taken the temple beggars into his house, and he had eaten with them, but he had no intention of making it a habit. He also did not want to acquire such a reputation in the village. They might even have a word with the temple president and ask for a more ‘upright’ priest.

He had to keep his distance. And if he were to close the door in this stranger’s face now, no one would know or care.

‘I don’t eat much, ayya, and you don’t have to give me any curry. A bit of rice and a spoon of pickle will do.’ The man rubbed his stomach. He had a haggard beard and a dusty mop of hair on his head.

Rama Shastri looked across the temple grounds in the direction of the shivalayam. He murmured a prayer under his breath. The lord himself was a beggar, an untouchable. Would he not have taken this poor man in? Would he have decreed that one of his own men – another beggar – should starve on the steps of his temple?

Rama Shastri sighed. Arundhati would not like this. Neither would Bhoomi. But he had to obey the lord’s command.

‘We only have tamarind pickle, and we can only spare a fistful of rice. Will that do?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the man. ‘Yes, yes.’

* * *

If she had felt any displeasure at the unexpected guest, Arundhati did not show it. She unrolled another mat in the corner, and because the tube light was not strong enough to reach that far, she lit a candle and placed it next to the empty plate. Then she brought a mug of water and asked the man to stand in the doorway and hold out his hands.

The night was a pleasant one, neither cold nor hot, neither humid nor dry. Arundhati had turned off the table fan to keep the candle burning, and it left a thin coat of sweat over Rama Shastri’s forehead, which he mopped with his shoulder cloth.

From inside the bedroom, Bhoomi came out wielding her phone, wearing one of those pajamas that she no doubt bought in the city. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Rama Shastri had insisted that Bhoomi wore just half-saris. Now one year in the city, and in the name of higher education and modernity, she had begun to preen herself in all these tight clothes. She smiled at the phone, and as her fingers moved on the screen, Rama Shastri caught the glint of just-applied nail polish.

Where did this girl get the money to buy all of this, Rama Shastri wanted to know. And he would have asked Arundhati too, if the beggar had not been present.

‘Put the phone aside, Bhoomi,’ he said, sprinkling a circle of water around his plate.

‘Just a second,’ said Bhoomi to the phone.

Arundhati took a vessel of rice over to the corner and served the guest first. Though he had said he did not want curry or ghee, he did not say no when Arundhati offered them to him. As soon as his plate was full, he grinned with his dirty teeth and began to eat.

After the vessels returned, Rama Shastri served himself some rice and a spoonful of ghee. He joined his hands at the food. From the corner of his eye he saw that Arundhati was mixing rice grains with brinjal curry for their daughter.

He had to talk to Arundhati about this. They were spoiling her enough already.

‘Mmm,’ said the beggar. ‘This is heavenly food, ammagaaru. The lord will bless your kind hands.’

* * *

Later, as Bhoomi was picking up fallen morsels of food from the ground, Rama Shastri walked the beggar to the front door. ‘I hope you had better food than you normally do, my man,’ he said.

‘Yes, ayya, so much better. The priest in Rayalapalli doesn’t even look at us in the eye. He says that our sight maligns the very air in the temple.’

Rama Shastri nodded. He had a lot to say about such practices, but he kept quiet. He did not want this man to take the opportunity to knock on his door every night. The lord knew that he could not feed four mouths every day. He walked a couple of steps into the night with the man.

‘I shall be going now, ayya,’ he said.

‘Yes. You can sleep on the temple steps if it is too dark to find your way to Rayalapalli.’

‘No, no, sir. It’s all right. After that sumptuous meal, a long walk will do me good.’ He began to walk away, but hesitated.


‘I feel like I should give you something, ayya. As a way of saying thank you.’

What could this beggar have to give him? Rama Shastri smiled in the darkness. ‘Do not worry, my man. I did what any servant of the lord would do.’

‘You’re a kind man,’ said the beggar. ‘A kind, kind man. Please let me give you something – a little something that has come my way just this morning.’

In spite of himself, Rama Shastri listened, his curiosity piqued.

‘Happy are the mad,’ said the beggar, ‘and peaceful are the dead.’


The man’s grubby hands took his, and dropped into his palm a thread tied to something heavy and cold, something the size of a key. Feeling it, Rama Shastri could make out the shape of the shivalingam. He closed his eyes and murmured a prayer. When someone gave you a lingam, you did not say no.

‘I got this from a wandering black magician who comes to Rayalapalli,’ said the beggar. ‘He said that it gives the owner’s family three wishes that will come true. Only catch is that you cannot take back a wish that you’ve already made.’

‘Is that so?’ said Rama Shastri. ‘Then you must have wished for something.’

The beggar laughed nervously. ‘I – I do not think it works, ayya. These people tell all kinds of stories to sell you things.’

‘How much did you pay for it?’

‘Have you not heard, sir?’ said the lout. ‘You should never ask the price of God’s idols.’

Shadows darkened the white light of the house. Rama Shastri looked back at Arundhati and Bhoomi crowding the doorway. ‘What are you doing out there, Nanna, all alone?’ asked Bhoomi, her phone’s torch pointed at him.

‘Why, I was –’ And Rama Shastri pointed toward the beggar, to realize he was gone. All he could see was the black silhouette of the temple set against the purple night sky. The shivalingam weighed down on his palm.

He retraced his steps toward the house, making a mental note to himself to get some lights installed in the temple courtyard.

* * *

‘Three wishes?’ said Bhoomi, wide-eyed, looking at the tiny lingam sitting between the three of them. ‘Any three wishes you want?’

Rama Shastri noticed that his daughter had kept her phone away for the last five minutes, throughout the time he had narrated the story of the beggar. Anything that kept her away from her phone was a good thing.

‘It’s an old wives’ tale,’ said Arundhati from inside the kitchen. ‘These beggars are always so full of them.’

Bhoomi piped up. ‘But – but – there is no harm in trying, is there?’

‘Did you not hear your mother?’ Rama Shastri’s voice carried an angry edge. ‘Wishes are for people who are not happy with their lives. Besides, it is all just a story. Just lies.’

‘So if it’s all just a story,’ said Bhoomi, looking at the lingam, ‘then what is the harm in trying? If it is real, we will have our wishes come true, and if it is not, we will not have lost anything. Right?’ When Rama Shastri did not respond, she looked at Arundhati, who had come to stand at the kitchen door, her hand on hip. ‘Right?’

The night was absolutely still. Looking out of the window at the temple grounds, Rama Shastri felt as though he were gazing at a painting. Not one leaf of the Peepal tree moved. No rustle of the leaves. No howl of the wind. Just the hum of the rotating table fan. And the rising smoke from the extinguished candle that Arundhati had lit for their guest.

The lingamwas the colour of gold, with a red vermillion mark in the centre. The thread was a composite of black and red, knotted together.

‘I wonder if there are any magic words,’ Bhoomi said, picking it up and placing it on her palm. ‘Like abracadabra or something?’

‘No.’ Rama Shastri exchanged a glance with Arundhati. ‘Just keep it away, Bhoomi.’ He found himself wishing that he had sent the beggar on his way without inviting him in, or at least that he had given the pendant back. But who in his right mind would refuse an idol of the lord himself?

‘Oh, lighten up, Nanna,’ said Bhoomi. ‘I will not wish for anything big. And as you said, it is all a story anyway.’

Rama Shastri thought to himself, why not? This was the first time Bhoomi was talking to him directly in the last two days, since she had come home from college. Perhaps this was the lord’s way of bringing them closer. Perhaps he was saying that they should bond over this silly game. What harm could come from it, anyway?

Bhoomi sat bolt upright. She held the lingamin both her hands and bowed to it. Then she said, ‘I wish that he would notice me – just one time!’

* * *

Rama Shastri could not sleep. The weather had become wilder as midnight approached. The moon had come out. The breeze had picked up. Once or twice he craned his neck and looked through the window at the temple. It stood like a jagged black rock roughened by the waves of a silver sea. People had told him to get it painted a white colour, but he had said that granite grey suited the lord. Now he was not so sure.

He turned around on his mat and said, ‘Oye, are you awake?’


‘What did Bhoomi’s wish mean? Who is that ‘he’ she spoke about?’

‘Oh, some boy in her college,’ said Arundhati. ‘She likes him, but they have not yet spoken to each other.’

‘Some boy! Is that why these people go to colleges these days? Whatever happened to studying?’

‘Shh. She is a good student. She got 90 per cent in all her subjects.’

‘Still. Always with that phone, thinking about boys at her age.’

Arundhati laughed softly. ‘Swami,’ she said, ‘I was younger than her when you married me.’

‘That – those times were different.’

‘Correct. These times are different too.’

‘You don’t understand.’

‘Maybe I don’t. But I am feeling sleepy.’

‘But Arundhati, what if –’

‘If you want to worry, worry on your own. Let me sleep.’

* * *

Two days after the night on which the beggar visited Rama Shastri’s house, Bhoomi went back to college. Rama Shastri talked to the temple president and got a series of four twenty-watt energy saver bulbs installed in the temple courtyard, and got permission to keep them on through the night. A month later, at the onset of monsoon, he proposed that black was not a great colour for a temple, even if it belonged to Lord Shiva. He got an approval to get it painted a milky shade of white.

The rains that year were light but persistent, and did not stop until late August.

About the time when Rama Shastri had convinced himself that it had stopped raining for the year, so that he could begin preparations for the painting, Bhoomi came home for her semester break.

* * *

On his way home from the temple, Rama Shastri went to the backyard to wash his legs and to hang out his shoulder cloth to dry. He heard voices from inside the house, and he smiled, because he could tell that Bhoomi had come back, but as he stopped and listened, he realized that she was sobbing.

Without explanation or reason, anger welled up inside him. He thought of the phone, of that foolish wish that she had made, of how Arundhati had supported her daughter as if it were the most natural thing in the world, of how Bhoomi had been thinking of everything but her studies.

Well, the worst seemed to have happened.

It seemed from the weeping that Bhoomi had failed her semester. This would set her back a little bit, but it would also teach her some valuable lessons. College was for studying. The fun and the boys had to be kept as far away as possible. This was why he had told Arundhati that they ought to put her in a girls’ college, but had she listened? No. She had said that the world was not a girls’ college, that the real world had men in it too, that Bhoomi had to learn to mingle with them.

All hogwash.

He furiously wrapped himself in a new cloth and strode into the room, where Arundhati sat with her arm around Bhoomi. Her eyes had become dark sunken holes, and she had become thinner than he remembered her. His heart softened for a moment, but then he remembered her phone, and the anger came back.

‘What happened?’ he said. ‘Why the tears?’

Arundhati got up and led him into the inner room. She shut the door behind them, bolted it. ‘Sit down, Swami,’ she said.

‘Just tell me what happened.’

‘I will tell you only if you promise not to get angry.’

In the entire twenty years of their marriage, Arundhati had said those words five times. All five times, he had ended up blowing his fuse. ‘Just tell me what happened.’ His fingers had clenched into fists, and his eyes had begun to pinch.

‘Bhoomi got an abortion.’

The words hung in the air, between them, and after a few seconds, dropped and disappeared.

As if she had never spoken, Rama Shastri asked, ‘What?’

She told him about the boy. How he had noticed her on her first day back. How they had met. How he had told her that he wanted to marry her. How they had snuck away for a Saturday and Sunday to a hotel room. How he had spurned her afterward. How he had denied knowing her after she told him that she was pregnant. How he had made fun of her in front of his friends. How the whole college knew. How she had mustered up the courage to go to the hospital on her own. How she had gotten it done.

Rama Shastri listened, wondering if this was not all a movie story. Were mother and daughter playing a trick on him? He looked up, and saw that Arundhati’s own eyes had a sunken look to them.

No, they weren’t.

He fell onto the chair. It creaked under his weight. He covered his face with his hands. He said, ‘So the wish came true.’

* * *

That night, over dinner, Bhoomi did not once look at her phone. She did not once smile. She just stared into the distance and chewed slowly on the food that Arundhati put into her mouth. Rama Shastri thought of asking her about her exams, whether she participated in essay writing this time, whether she would again come first in class – but every time he looked at her eyes, he looked away in fright. The Bhoomi that chattered away on her phone was much better, he thought, than this one.

Well, she had come just that day. Perhaps she would sleep it off.

She didn’t. Over the next week, Bhoomi would take walks on her own in the temple compound, deep into the night. In the afternoons she would lean back against the wall and gaze at the window for hours, and then would break down and sob into her arms. In the mornings Rama Shastri would find her in the temple backyard, by the tank, tossing stones into the clear water and speaking aloud to herself.

They took her to a big doctor in Dhavaleshwaram, and he said that she was going through post abortion trauma. He said it was common among young girls, especially if the procedure had been their first. It wore itself off in a couple of weeks, on most occasions, he said, and asked them not to worry.

Was there anything they could do?

Just give her these tablets, one in the morning, one at night, and keep her in your sights at all times.

The tablets helped her sleep better. But they did not stop the weeping and moaning. If anything, she spoke aloud to herself more than before. After another week of watching his daughter waste away in front of his helpless eyes, Rama Shastri called Arundhati into the room and told her of his idea.

* * *

‘You said the lingam had no power,’ said Arundhati, looking at the amulet in his hand. ‘You said that they were all stories.’

‘They may be. But what if I was wrong? Remember? The beggar said three wishes, one for each of us.’

‘Can we ask for our old Bhoomi back?’ Arundhati’s eyes lit up with hope.

‘We cannot undo the past, Arundhati,’ Rama Shastri replied. ‘We cannot undo the abortion. We cannot undo her love affair.’

‘But we can ask for her happiness.’

Rama Shastri felt hope kindle within him too. He nodded. ‘Yes, we can ask for her happiness.’

‘Wait.’ Arundhati looked at the lingam, joined her hands at it, bowed to it. ‘What if all of this has got nothing to do with this? What if it all – just happened?’

‘If so, what are we losing by asking?’

‘But what if it comes true in a way we don’t want it to?’

Rama Shastri closed his fist around the idol. ‘What can go wrong with happiness?’

Arundhati thought for a moment, and then nodded herself. ‘Yes, what can go wrong? Yes, that is what we want for our daughter, isn’t it?’

‘It’s settled, then.’ Rama Shastri closed his eyes. Then he said, ‘I wish that our daughter, Bhoomi, is happy in her life, no matter what her troubles.’

* * *

The next morning, Bhoomi woke up laughing.

And she laughed and she laughed and she laughed. She laughed while brushing her teeth. She tore open her blue satin pajamas at the thighs and hurled the pieces into the air and laughed as they floated away in the breeze. She spurted over her milk, giggled over her breakfast, and sang to herself in a loud, screeching voice.

The devotees that came to the temple saw her skipping along the edge of the tank with unkempt hair, in her torn clothes, and asked one another what had happened to the priest’s daughter. She had been one of the brightest students in the village all through school, and now she was studying in the big city. She had come home three months ago, had she not, and she had been all right.

What had happened now?

Bhoomi did not hear them. Even if she had, she would have thrown something at them, pointed, and laughed.

With a lot of effort, Arundhati enticed her with a sugar cube and led her back into the house in time for lunch. When Rama Shastri entered, he saw Bhoomi sitting in a green and gold half-sari, with her legs splayed apart, minutely observing an ant, breaking into a giggle every second.

Happy are the mad, thought Rama Shastri. He looked around him. ‘Arundhati?’ he called out.

No answer.

He went into the kitchen, but she wasn’t there. On the stove were covered non-stick vessels, and the smell of fried potatoes came to his nose. ‘Arundhati!’ Something awoke deep within his mind, and made him run to the bedroom, even as his shoulder cloth fell to the ground. Bhoomi’s attention was caught by the fabric, and she crawled over to touch it with one hand, as if it was burning hot. When she found that it was smooth, she chortled in pleasure and began to slap it.

Rama Shastri kicked open the door, and found Arundhati standing in the middle of the bedroom, with the lingam in her hand.

‘Don’t!’ he said. ‘Don’t say a word! Put it aside.’

‘Swami –’

‘No, nothing.’ He went in and slammed the door behind him. ‘Don’t say anything. Just put it aside. We’ll take her to the doctor today.’ He pulled away the amulet and threw it against the brick wall. He took her by the hands, looked into those hollow eyes. ‘Okay?’ he said, slapping her cheeks. ‘It will all be all right. We will take her to the doctor, and he will give us some pills, and we’ll get her back. We’ll get our Bhoomi back.’

Arundhati listened until he had quieted down. Then she said, ‘I have already made my wish, Swami.’

Rama Shastri blinked. He thought once again that this was not happening. No, this was all a dream, or a movie. Bhoomi was in the big college in the city. She was studying. She would come to visit in a few days. She would be playing with her phone. She would crinkle her nose at whatever Arundhati made. All of this – he would wake up from all of this.

‘What did you wish for?’ he heard his own voice say.

‘I – I wished for peace,’ she said. ‘I wished that she would be at peace. Anything to stop her from giggling like a mad woman.’

‘No,’ said Rama Shastri.

‘Why, Swami?’ said Arundhati. ‘What could go wrong with peace?’

* * *

As if in answer, they heard Bhoomi’s running steps, and Rama Shastri wrenched the door open to hurry into the living room. ‘Bhoomi!’ he called. ‘Bhoomi!’ Behind him, Arundhati stumbled and hurt her head against the wooden doorway. A red smudge appeared to the side of her forehead, and when she rubbed it with her hand, it covered her fingers in blood. But she did not notice any of it. ‘Bhoomi!’ she cried.

From the kitchen came the answer, a low, weak, happy wail.

Rama Shastri wanted to run, but found that he could only walk. His legs became heavy as clubs. One laboured step followed another, as the voice from the kitchen – singing a song that he did not recognize – descended to laboured sighs, as if it was drowning.

They stopped a few feet away from the kitchen door. The sounds stopped. Only silence awaited them on the other side.

When they looked down at the floor, they saw two slender red streams, almost parallel to one another, run across the doorway and hit the opposite wall.

Peaceful are the dead.

Rama Shastri tumbled to the ground. Arundhati’s cries seemed to come from far away, from deep within a dream. He only heard the beggar’s voice, clear as the tinkle of the first temple bell.

Happy are the mad, said the voice, and peaceful are the dead.