‘There’s no yellow in my rainbow,’ said Mariamma. ‘There’s no yellow in my rainbow.’
Every morning, on our walk to school, we would pass by her house. Those days she lived in the now rundown hovel near Mahender Reddy’s general store, and they said that by six in the morning, the sounds of crackling fire and the smell of burning coal came from her house. It would be closer to eight by the time we passed it, and the sun would be out already. We would peek in the hope that the lithe, wrinkled form of the old woman would appear and shout at us, so that we could giggle and run away.
She always seemed to be looking for something, did Mariamma, and whenever someone would ask, she would stop for a moment, say, ‘There is no yellow in my rainbow’, and keep right on searching. No matter what time of the day it was, you would see her stealing along mud walls, or knee deep in gutter water, her fingers blackened by wet dirt.
‘Mad woman,’ said my mother. ‘Take the other path to school. If you pass by that house too often, you will lose your mind too, one day.’
We did not listen to my mother. Mad she may have been, but Mariamma did not harm us in any way. Even when she thought we were going to steal her mangoes, she only hurled the smallest stones at us, and as we fled the scene, I would always look over her shoulder and see her giving us one of her toothless grins.
One of my friends, Ramchander, once told me that Mariamma did not look for a thing on her daily search routines. She looked for a person; a person that had gone missing from Palem the year before; a six-year-old girl named Anupama.
No one knew who Anupama was, but ever since Mariamma moved from Rameshwaram to this village, she and the little girl stayed together. Mariamma earned money by sweeping the temple steps under Rama Shastri’s employ. They say that out of the rupee and a half that Rama Shastri paid her every day, Mariamma would place ten paise into the donations box in the inner sanctum. Not one evening would pass without her presenting a bunch of chrysanthemums to the lord, and getting Rama Shastri to narrate some verses in Anupama’s name.
Before she left the temple compound for the day, she would feed Sarama, the stray bitch that loitered around the temple, with a piece of chapatti torn from her portion of the food that Rama Shastri gave her.
The girl, Anupama, called her Ammamma, which meant maternal grandmother, but no one in the village knew who Mariamma’s daughter was, and where the rest of their family was. Rama Shastri, like any other dutiful priest, made some enquiries with some of his relatives in Rameshwaram. None of them had heard of either the name Mariamma or Anupama, and no one recognized her from descriptions either.
The villagers expressed outrage for a while, but soon, they forgave both the old woman and the girl. Mariamma was kind to everyone she met, and she had a placid pair of eyes that always appeared on the verge of breaking into tears. Anupama went to the same school as us, and though for the first few days she got teased for her exceptionally pale and flawless skin, before the week was out, she had made friends. Like her grandmother, she too had a personable nature, and she was a bright student.
The transition from elderly matron to mad woman for Mariamma took place in reasonably quick time, over the course of two days.
On the morning of the first day, Anupama left as usual in the morning but did not turn up at school. Teachers noted the girl’s absence but did not think much of it, since kids falling sick was not uncommon in Palem. It was only when Anupama did not return home at her usual time of 3:30 did Mariamma become worried.
When she went to the school, they told her that Anupama had not come at all.
Then she went to Rama Shastri and pleaded with him to search for the girl. The priest was reluctant, but after waiting for a further hour with no news, he organized a search party and they began to scour the grounds. They went as far as the riverbank to the East and to Rayalapalli on the West. They went as far as Arthur Cotton Dam and called out her name. They got no answer.
That night, Mariamma went to bed, praying for the welfare of her granddaughter. News began to spread within the village, and someone said something about seeing a girl with pigtails and a red water bottle following a haggard man that that looked a lot like one of Girisham’s men. Girisham, in those days, was Palem’s biggest landlord, and rumours in the village abounded with his lust for female flesh. They said that maids that worked at Girisham’s house got two payments at the end of the month; one for the cleaning work they did in the house, and one for the work they did in the bedroom.
Until then, though, no one had thought that his tastes extended to little girls as well.
The mothers in the village went up in arms, and forced the men to bring a Police Patel from Dhavaleshwaram so that a proper investigation could be started. The inspector was a rotund bald man by the name of Mallareddy, and as soon as he arrived, the villagers could smell the stink of bribery on his uniform. Just by the way he looked around the village, as though we were all mosquitoes that ought to be swatted away, and the way he bent over with joined hands at the sight of Girisham, we could tell that this was not the man who would put the child molester in handcuffs and drag him away.
‘We need evidence,’ Mallareddy said that morning, smiling sweetly at the crowd. ‘Do you have any evidence that it was definitely Girisham babu that you saw?’
The boy who had seen Girisham stepped forward and said yes.
‘How far away were you when you saw him walk away with the girl?’
The boy didn’t know. Perhaps a few meters, a few tens of yards.
‘And they were walking away from you, right?’
Yes, they were.
‘Can you say for sure, then, that the only person that you could have seen is Girisham babu? Of all the people in the village, can it be no one else?’
The boy hesitated.
‘You seem to be unsure.’
Yes, said the boy. He was unsure.
‘If you’re unsure, even if there is the slightest sliver of doubt, we have to investigate further. In our system, we cannot let an innocent be punished for something he has not done.’
The meeting was called under the banyan tree, and Mallareddy rapped his stick on Mandiramma banda as he spoke.
‘Besides,’ he said, ‘Girisham babu was not even in the village all of yesterday. He has witnesses that confirm that he was in Krishnapalli, on the other side of the river, and he came only last night. Is that not correct, Girisham babu?’
Girisham sat in his foldable metal chair in white trousers and shirt. He had his ray-ban glasses on. He twisted the end of his moustache, and told the man holding the umbrella over his head to block out the sun. He seemed not to have heard Mallareddy’s question, and therefore did not answer it.
The inspector turned back to the crowd and said, ‘But that’s okay. This is a serious matter, and we will investigate fully, with all the power vested in us by the government. We will find your little girl. We promise.’
That evening, people began to talk that Mallareddy had come with a battery of five policemen and raided Girisham’s house. They had found nothing. Then they had begun to search the grounds around the school. Their plan was to search every inch of the village, and move from Ellamma cheruvu down to the river. They were going to search throughout the night, so all the villagers should cooperate by letting them into their huts whenever they wanted.
The night came and went. None of the villagers heard a knock on their doors.
Mariamma spent another sleepless night, once again praying to the lord.
The morning after, at around 8 A.M., Mallareddy walked to the banyan tree at the head of a procession of four policemen. Their shirts were hanging loose, and their pants were wet up to the knees. They did not find the girl, they said, but they did find the red water bottle by the riverbank, and also some torn piece of Anupama’s school uniform. The girl must have wandered off to the Godavari in the morning, for some reason, and the strong current must have carried her away.
‘We have intimated the police stations up and down the river,’ said Mallareddy. ‘As soon as we hear from them, we will let you know what happened.’
They never came back. That was when Mariamma began to search every small nook and corner of Palem for Anupama.
* * *
It was two days to go for the shivaraatri of 1985. This was nine months or so after Anupama had gone missing. We had not seen Mallareddy or his cohort of policemen after that day. Even Girisham kept a rather low profile, choosing to leave and enter the village either early in the morning or late at night when he had to travel, and keeping to his house with the big gate shut at other times.
Whenever he ventured out to the temple, or the house of Ranganayaki, he would have his four bodyguards accompany him, armed with staffs.
Mariamma now worked at the temple for four or five hours every day, whereas when Anupama was around she had only worked for two. Someone asked what the mad woman was doing with all the extra money and food. She certainly didn’t seem to be eating any of it. In answer, someone else said that she gave all the extra money to Rama Shastri, and asked him to pray to the lord ‘in his language’, so that she and Anupama could be reunited at shivaraatri. The extra food, she distributed to the beggars on the temple steps.
But all the while she walked around, swinging her broom against the granite floor and the stone pillars, she kept saying, ‘There is no yellow in my rainbow. There is no yellow in my rainbow.’
That evening, clouds gathered. Rama Shastri said that in all the years that he had been working at the temple in Palem, it had never – not once – rained on shivaraatri. Mid-February in Palem meant a nip in the morning air and a rustle in the leaves once the sun went down. But the people gathered around Mandiramma banda and looked at the branches of the banyan set against the slate coloured clouds. They said, ‘Mariamma has been praying. Mariamma is going to make it rain.’
Mariamma, for her part, was at her home, muttering to herself, oblivious to the sound of thunder.
* * *
It rained in Palem that night. We boys ran out to the bank of Ellamma cheruvu and danced in the sodden dark. The rain whipped at our eyes, stung our arms, pinched our ears; it was a deluge, an undertow at the ankles. Who knew what snakes crawled out of which holes on nights such as these? But we were too young to care, to heed the frantic calls of our parents who held out lanterns into the dark from the warm interiors of our homes.
The rain came down in swathes, and it hacked at Avadhani’s paddy fields that lay beyond the lake. It cut into the dark bark of Girisham’s row of palm trees like scissors, and as we watched the trees sway noisily to the wind, we thought that at least one of them would be uprooted right off the ground and come flying at us, and crash into the rippling water of Ellamma cheruvu.
It was a rain to sink all rains.
Rivers flowed on the streets of Palem. Electric poles fell. Wires snapped and dropped to the ground like live snakes, and they licked at the water in white, hungry sparks, but only for a few seconds. The relentless downpour drowned them out, and threw the village into blackness. Every house, even Subbai’s, which had a backup generator, had to light candles, and they had to shut their windows tight so that the wind would not rush in and put the flames out.
Ellamma cheruvu looked like a small sea, her surface a carpet of black pelted with bullets of water. It swelled and rose in our direction as we stood in the shade of the guava tree with our arms held out and our eyes closed, the name of the lord on our lips. When we opened our eyes we saw that the water had reached the trunk of the tree, and our ankles were already immersed. We looked up at the sky just in time to catch it being torn in two by a long streak of lightning, and in that one second, I thought I saw a little girl in a school uniform standing by the lake. She had a water bottle slung over her shoulder.
The next second all was dark again, and we yelled at the top of our lungs at the raining sky. We hooted and laughed, and we ran back to our homes, knowing full well that the gutters of the village must have already flooded onto the roads.
* * *
We were woken up in the middle of the night, with the sound of rain still howling in our ears. ‘To the shivalayam!’ said someone, and we went, bleary-eyed and following an adult, wading past running water, as frogs and earthworms and slithery things clung to our ankles and heels. We shook them off. We cried out when we thought we were bitten by a snake or a scorpion, but we walked on.
The village went as one large huddle, guided by hurricane lanterns held by three or four men at the front. The temple and Rama Shastri’s house stood on higher, firmer ground, but the water only seemed to rise. Now it came to our waists, and my uncle hoisted me on top of his shoulders. ‘I will swim!’ I said in the noise.
‘Shut up and sit on top of my shoulders,’ said my uncle.
The rain kept coming down, beating on the back of my neck, slashing at my calves, rapping at my knuckles. Water streamed down my forehead onto my eyes. I could not wipe my face clean fast enough. I closed my eyes, and trusted my uncle to know his way.
‘The dam has flooded,’ shouted someone, over the din of women barking orders to frightened, weeping children.
‘They won’t open the gates until tomorrow!’
‘If the rain doesn’t stop, we will all sink!’
But the blob of human masses stuck together and rolled on. The water receded as we scaled the hill, and as the shivalayamapproached, Rama Shastri raised his lantern and said, ‘Fear not! The lord will protect us!’
‘Hara Hara Mahadeva!’
Drenched limbs and faces wherever I looked. Dripping hair. Quaking voices.
One step at a time. Hands clawed at whatever was within reach; other hands, garments, sticks, ropes. On the way to the school we must have passed Mariamma’s house, but I did not look for her. I did not pause even for a moment to glance at the mango tree in her compound. The rain came so hard that I could not breathe right. Every time I opened my mouth I swallowed water. Sweet, fresh, fragrant water, as if it had been dipped by the essence of the lord, but drink enough of it and your lungs would drown.
Only when we entered the temple courtyard did the mass of humanity disengage. They scattered like sprinkled water from a fountain, to different parts. Some stood by the edges and watched the torrent in the light of the lantern. Some sat cross-legged in front of the lingam and began to chant. Mothers dragged their kids by their arms to the middle of the floor. They dried our hair with their soaked saris, and ordered us to sleep.
But where would sleep come from? The drumming of the clouds filled our heads, even as our mothers clapped our ears. It seemed that the sea was swelling toward us from all four sides, and here we were, entrapped in the temple of the lord, with nowhere to turn but to the inner sanctum, with no hope but that the rain would stop.
* * *
By the time we woke up, the air was clear. There was no sunlight, but the clouds had lifted. I heard someone ask where Mariamma was, and I listened for the mutter of the old woman. I heard nothing. Then someone asked where Girisham was. Last night’s flood had come unexpectedly, and there hadn’t been enough time to wake up Girisham’s household and get them to the temple.
‘Would they have survived?’
No one answered the speaker. I knew what the crowd was hoping.
Some people – those who had held the lanterns last night – had gone into the village, and now they came back. Rama Shastri was one of them. He lumbered up the steps, as if his legs weighed ten kilos each. In his hand he waved the dead lantern, blackened by soot. He came to the main corridor, bowed in the direction of the lingam. ‘Gangadhara hara namo namo,’ he said.
We all gathered around him. ‘What happened? What happened?’
‘I found Girisham’s body in the well of his house. His eyes had come out, and his body had swollen beyond recognition.’
Silence nibbled its way through the gathering. I thought I heard someone behind me say, ‘Serves him right, the asshole.’
‘What about Mariamma?’ I asked.
Rama Shastri shook his head. ‘I searched for her in the house. All her things were ruined by the water. But I did not find her body.’
‘Who else?’ said someone else. ‘Who else is missing?’
Rama Shastri shot his hand up. ‘We counted everybody this morning. Everyone is accounted for. Only the two of them.’
In the corner, I saw Subbai in the corner, standing all by himself, staring at a large black card. The mad Chander was skipping along the edge of the temple on his haunches, playing with the golden necklace around his neck. The first wisps of sunlight sneaked through from between the clouds, and everyone went up in unison.
‘Hara hara Mahadeva!’
‘Hey!’ said Chander, pointing up at the sky and giggling. ‘Look!’
‘Someone shut up that mad fellow.’
‘But wait, look, up in the sky!’
We all went to the Western edge and peered out. Water dripped from the eaves and made splashes on the granite rocks below. ‘Wow,’ people said. ‘That’s beautiful.’
A rainbow covered the sky. It disappeared behind the trees on one end and behind the temple wall on the other, but what little of it we could see was resplendent, bright, sharp. Each of the seven colours was visible in its own majestic curve, as though the lord had filled it in himself, with his own hand.
No – wait. Not all seven colours. One of them was missing. My eyes squinted at the sight. I counted from the top. Yes, six. Then I counted from the bottom. Yes, again six. ‘Hey!’ I said. ‘Hey…’
Then Mariamma’s words came to my ear, softly floating by. There is no yellow in my rainbow. There is no yellow in my rainbow.