Story 20: Kinnara

Slut. Wench. Goddess.

Upendar willed himself to remain sitting in his rocking chair. He had ordered the windows shut to keep out the chilly draft, but it still seeped into the room through cracks and holes in the wood, and left the marble floor icy cold to the balls of his feet. The teak armrests of his chair froze his fingertips. A sudden urge came upon him, to rub his palms together, to warm some of the frost in his veins. But he restrained himself.

For while there was cold from without, there was heat from within.

‘I have known you would come,’ he said to the woman who stood by the bolted front door. On the four-legged black table that stood between him and her, six bundles of crisp five-hundreds were laid out, end to end, each held in place with a yellow satin ribbon. The woman’s eyes never once rested on them. They rested on nothing in that room.

More than anything, Upendar wanted her to look at him.

‘Well?’ he said. ‘What are we waiting for?’

The coal-black eyes focused then, and filled with an old, familiar fire. She had worn the sari he had asked her to wear; the same one that he had gifted her all those years ago by the shivalayam’s shadow. If she did not love him, why had she kept it? If she did not want him, why had she come tonight?

He found himself sweating under the silk shirt, and the rose he had carefully set in place with a safety pin on his chest bent to one side. His heart began to race, and a strange fear gripped him, like it had on that faraway dusty April day by the temple, on which he had presented her with the sari. This sari.

She could reject you again, said a voice. And the heart began to beat faster.

But a laugh echoed in his mind. Loud. Defiant. Not this time. She wouldn’t reject him this time.

He looked again, for the second time since she’d arrived, at the bundle of notes. They crackled with the night’s frigid energy, and fed him with courage.

‘Come!’ he said, in a voice that cracked around the edges. ‘We haven’t all night.’

Kinnara made her way, in slow, assured steps, toward the bed. Her eyes had left his, and were now fastened on the floor. The hurricane lantern threw her shadow onto the bare white wall, quiet and crouching, in the manner of a beast waiting for prey. Upendar shook that thought out of his head; it was he who was the beast tonight. And she the prey.

He got to his feet. He sent his hands behind his back. He took slow, purposeful steps toward the seating figure. He wanted to see her flinch. She didn’t.

When he reached the foot of the bed, he noted with satisfaction that his own shadow now loomed over hers, overpowered it.

Before he could revel in it, however, she looked up at him. She had her hands clasped together, tight, on her lap. Her ankles were bare. The soles of her feet were bordered around the edges with a line of black, crusted grime.

That old fear pulsed again within Upendar’s heart, and he beat it down savagely. She cannot reject me. Not tonight.

She turned around and opened the top button of her blouse, giving him a peek at the coin-sized birthmark under the neck, between the shoulder blades.

‘Shall I undress by myself,’ she said, ‘or do you wish to do it?’

* * *

That brought a wide smile to his face. The ice dropped away from his fingers and toes. The sweat disappeared. A warm glow of triumph claimed him, pumped his muscles with strength.

In the renewed power of his senses he saw the silver of her sari glisten as if it had been dusted with moonlight. The red border was almost lifelessly black, but the slivers of gold thread that ran through it gave it life, and each time the air in the room moved, it wriggled and swam over the jasmine-strewn bed, like a snake.

Upendar was struck by a desire to grab hold of it, tug at it with all his might, watch it unravel in his hands, drink her nakedness with his eyes first, then his hands, then his mouth, and then –

But he shook his head. He buttoned up her blouse. ‘You have got me wrong, Kinnara. I do not wish to sleep with you.’

The first stirrings of uncertainty in that calm, serene face. Upendar smiled and held the silence.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said at length, frowning, and glanced at the money on the table. But just for a moment. ‘I thought you said –’

‘I said it,’ said Upendar, ‘to see how much you love your husband. And I asked you to wear this sari to see how much you loved me.’

‘I don’t love you.’

‘But you kept this sari, Kinnara, all these years. What was it that he had that I didn’t? Not wealth, surely.’

‘No. Not wealth.’

‘Not looks either,’ said Upendar, facing his shadow on the wall as if it were a mirror. ‘You know what they said in the village that year? That Kinnara and Upendar are made for each other. How lucky is that girl, they said, that someone like Upendar was wooing her. You were the envy of all the girls of Palem. You –’

He stopped to consume the anger that had begun to simmer at the base of his throat. He forced a smile onto his lips. Quiet, now.

‘Tell me, now that you are here,’ he said, in a calmer voice. ‘Let’s talk.’

‘What is there to talk about?’ she said, and he noticed that she had begun to wrap her sari around herself. The wilder parts of him wanted to rip that sari to shreds. Behind his back his knuckles cracked, and a tiny sneer appeared on his face.

‘Look at your feet,’ he said. ‘They used to be pink.’ He held her chin by the forefinger – gently – and raised it. ‘You have lines on your face, Kinnara. And you’re not yet forty. Your skin is rough, like that of a washerwoman. There are yellow spots under your eyes, and your hair has thinned.’

Kinnara closed her eyes. Her bottom lip quivered.

‘I would have looked after you like a flower,’ he said. ‘The pinks of your feet, the blossoms of your cheeks, the suppleness of your breasts, I dare say. I would have heaped all the jewels I have on you. All my servants would have been yours. All my businesses would have borne your name. You would have been the walking queen of Palem.’

A gulp down the throat.

Upendar paused for a moment. Her lips had cracked, and the corners of her mouth now drooped down to her chin. But he still felt like kissing her.

His voice, when he spoke again, was soft, almost a whisper. ‘And I would have given you children. You chose the wrong man, Kinnara. Didn’t you?’

She opened her eyes, once again powerful, once again smouldering, so that Upendar drew back his hand from her chin.

A shake of the head. Then: ‘No.’

He chuckled at her show of defiance. ‘There is no one else here but you and me, Kinnara. You don’t need to keep up appearances.’

She gathered herself and got to her feet. She was no taller than a stump, and no stouter than a twig. He still towered over her, both in height in heft. But why did his heart churn so when she locked her eyes with his? Why did he get his overwhelming urge to look away and seek solace in the shadows?

‘Upendar babu,’ she said, ‘I came here today not as Kinnara the woman, but as Kinnara the whore.’

‘But I do not –’

‘Let me speak.’ She now looked flatly at the bundles of notes. ‘You offered me that money if I visited you alone at night. I did. I am here. For the remainder of the night, my body is yours to use as you wish.’

‘Yes,’ said Upendar, and advanced a step. Kinnara held her ground.

‘But do not think that you can win my love, Upendar babu. My love has been given to one man, and he has given his love to me. We are happy with each other, and it is only our misfortune that has forced me to come to you today.’

‘Happy with him, that impotent drunkard?’ said Upendar, sneering. ‘You would be lucky if he lasted this decade, with the kind of rotten stuff he drinks.’ He peered at her, and frowned at the scars on her forehead. ‘He doesn’t treat you well, Kinnara. Does he? Word gets around in Palem.’

Kinnara shut her eyes and took a breath. ‘Upendar babu, I am here for you tonight. If you want my body, take it. I will tell you right now that I shall never, ever, come to you willingly.’

Upendar adjusted the rose at his chest. He walked back to the rocking chair and sat in it. The room was beginning to get cold again. The branches of the trees outside scraped against the shut window panes, and a putrid smell tickled his nose, in spite of all the jasmines.

‘I have already slept with you, Kinnara,’ he said, to her shadow.

Again that faint look of puzzlement in her eyes. Upendar became aware of it even without looking at her face. He waved her to the table.

‘Take it,’ he said. ‘Take it all. Have your husband treated.’

Kinnara did not reply at once. Then, in a low voice: ‘Thank you.’

Upendar smiled with kindness at the wall, at the shadow that was now walking across the room, in the direction of the table.

After she had collected the notes in her frail fingers, she once again said, ‘Thank you.’

And then she turned and left without looking back at him. A long moment after he heard the click on the front door lock, Upendar allowed himself another smile. A broader smile. A crueller smile.

* * *

Savitramma watched her daughter come out of the doctor’s room. White-clad nurses ran this way and that with syringes in hand, yelling admonitions at one another. Very few of the patients sitting huddled together on the benches to the right were from the village; but Savitramma could spot a few familiar faces, peeping timidly out of dirty rags. When Kinnara exited the room, their gazes followed her with interest. One or two of them whispered to each other through cupped hands.

Mosquitoes buzzed around the mass of humans in the dim flickering light. Hands slapped against thighs, ankles, napes. Most of them missed.

For a whole minute after Kinnara came to sit by her, Savitramma did not say a word. Then she spotted two more people whispering something to each other while looking at them, and she could not hold herself back.

‘Know what everyone in the village is saying?’ she said.


‘They say that you got the money for Saidulu’s operation from that man.’

‘Do they, now?’

‘What do you mean by that? You didn’t? Oh, Kinnara, please tell me you didn’t.’

‘If it means so much to you, Amma, I didn’t.’

Savitramma turned around to face Kinnara, so that she could ascertain for herself if she was lying or telling the truth. Her daughter’s face, as usual, was inscrutable. Too often nowadays, Savitramma felt like she was one of the errant children that Kinnara punished at school. The way she spoke to her, looked at her, tolerated her – no respect at all. That was what Ranganayakamma had told her too, the other day, by the well: Daughters are like that, Savitramma. Once they get educated and get a job, they think they know more than their mothers. If I were you, I’d get used to it.

‘But you’re lying, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘Am I?’

‘I don’t know! Are you?’

‘Why does it bother you so much where I got the money from, Amma?’ said Kinnara, in her teacher tone. ‘The doctor is going to operate on Saidulu. He is going to be all right, he said. Is that not the important thing?’

‘It is. It is.’ Savitramma entwined her hands, then ran one ankle over the other to drive away a persistent mosquito. ‘But people in the village are saying –’

‘Yes, what are they saying?’

You know. You always know. Dharmayya, Upendar Reddy’s watchman, says he saw you enter his building two nights ago. And he says that you left his house only after two hours.’

Did that stone of a face crumple just a little bit? Or was it Savitramma’s imagination?

‘I suppose nothing stays hidden in Palem,’ said Kinnara, with a smile.

‘But did you?’ said Savitramma, her mouth opening into a circle. ‘Did I raise you to be so loose of character, so utterly devoid of –’

‘Amma, please,’ said Kinnara. ‘Enough with the drama.’

‘But I demand to know, as your mother. Did you?’

‘Did I what?’

‘Did you go to him alone, all by yourself?’

‘I did,’ said Kinnara. ‘He gave me the money for Saidulu’s operation.’

Gave it to you?’ said Savitramma. ‘Just like that?’

Kinnara thought about the question a minute. Then she said, as if she herself couldn’t believe the words: ‘Yes. Just like that.’

Savitramma might not be as educated as her daughter, but she was more experienced in matters of men. At once she knew that Kinnara’s reluctance to speak of the subject, the offhanded way in which she brushed off the conversation, and the vacant look that had come upon her when she said that last sentence – all this pointed to just one conclusion.

The rumour was true, then. Tomorrow it would be all over the village, and before the week ended, it might even make the journey all the way to Dhavaleshwaram.

‘But Kinnara,’ she said, and that was how far she got, because an attendant came out from behind one of the green curtains and beckoned to them just at that moment.

‘Are you Saidulu’s folks?’ he said.

And Kinnara shushed Savitramma and got up.

* * *

On Saidulu’s first night back home, Kinnara cooked him a meal with fish curry and pickled brinjals. After the utensils had been washed and the courtyard had been sprinkled with water, they lay together on the nawar cot, looking up at the stars.

‘It must have cost a lot, the operation,’ said Saidulu.

‘Nothing is as precious to me as your life, baava,’ said Kinnara. ‘No price is too high to pay.’

‘They told me that I should not touch the bottle again.’

‘And that’s damned good advice too. How many years have I been telling you that you go to the arrack shop way too often for your own good?’

He pulled her closer into his arms, and began to caress her back. ‘That is where all the men of the village gather at sundown, Kinnara. Easiest way to deliver all the letters of the village without having to ride to each house. You know that.’

‘I will send word to Sivayya that he is not to serve you any arrack unless I give him permission.’

Saidulu chuckled. ‘Now that would be a new low. They already make fun of me at the shack – they say your wife speaks English and you cannot even speak Telugu properly.’

‘So what of that?’ said Kinnara. ‘Next time they say something like that, send them my way.’

‘Will you use your cane on them?’

‘I will make them kneel down on Mandiramma Banda at noon, that is what I will do,’ said Kinnara, and Saidulu laughed musically into the night.

For a while Kinnara allowed herself to melt in his arms. She breathed in his scent. Her eyes grew heavy. Just as she was about to slip into sleep, Saidulu spoke again. This time in a low, heavy voice.

‘People in the village have been talking,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘I – you saved my life,’ said Saidulu. ‘And I shouldn’t question you. You know more than I do, I know. You have studied more, seen more of the world. Perhaps you think I am not good enough for you –’

‘Baava,’ she said. ‘Do you trust me or the rumour mongers of the village?’

‘You, of course.’

‘Is it important to you that I have not sold my body for the money?’

‘It is. Very.’

‘What if I told you that I did, that I had to?’

There was silence from Saidulu. The grip of his arms around her body tightened. He was not a strong man, nor was he big-boned, but when he wanted to, he could muster enough power to leave scars on her. He never beat her, though; not when he was sober.

When he did not reply, Kinnara said again, this time with a little iron in her tone, ‘Don’t think so hard, baava. I did nothing wrong. Upendar Reddy gave me the money out of the goodness of his heart. Nothing more.’

‘Hmm,’ said Saidulu.

‘You do trust me, don’t you?’

Something got lost between her question and his answer. They had not moved the entire time. He still held her in his arms. She could smell the softness of his new shirt, the tangy new rose-flavoured perfume he’d applied under his shaved armpits after dinner. But a nameless, formless shadow had come and wedged itself between them.

‘You do, don’t you?’ she asked again.

‘Hmm,’ he said.

* * *

He came home the next night with arrack in his breath.

The moment she heard his stumbling step on the front porch, Kinnara reached for the rolling pin and hid it behind her.

‘You – you said you did not sleep with him,’ he said, kicking the door close behind him.

‘I did not,’ said Kinnara. She backed up against the wall, buying a moment longer, hoping that she could assuage him with words.

‘You lie!’ He held his head with both hands and swayed to and fro, in an effort to steady himself. ‘You lie – you think you can tell me anything and I will listen to you. You think I am a blockhead.’

‘Baava,’ said Kinnara, ‘come, let’s eat. We will talk about this tomorrow.’

His words slurred out in a long string of mutterings. ‘You know that I will forget by tomorrow they said you were a bitch yes a bitch and a slut no character – yes, no character. My mother had warned me about you.’ His khakhi shirt was soaked in alcohol. His forehead was beaded in sweat.

‘You said you trusted me.’ She tightened her grip on the rolling pin, even as Saidulu advanced one heavy step toward her.

‘And what a fool I was to trust you,’ he said. He dropped his hands to the side, hunched forward, and stretched out his fingers before pulling them into closed fists. ‘He told me today everything that you did for him. Everything that you did with him.’

‘I did not –’ Kinnara stopped mid-sentence. ‘Who, baava? Who told you?’

‘Who else?’ said Saidulu, and looked up to face her in the orange light of the lantern. Kinnara did not see the eyes of her beloved husband; those scared little dark slits belonged to a crazed dog frothing at the mouth. ‘Who else but he would know that you have a birthmark on your back, under your blouse?’

‘Baava, you have to listen to me,’ said Kinnara. ‘I need you to trust me. We can fight him. We can fight them all if you’d just listen to me.’

‘No,’ said Saidulu, shaking his head. ‘It is just as they said. The time for listening to you is long gone. My mother warned me about you, oh she did –’

Kinnara tried to leap to one side, out of his reach, but with surprising alacrity for a drunk man, Saidulu seized her by the shoulder and flung her against the wall. The rolling pin dropped from her hands, but just as she gathered herself and grew aware of the soreness in her right arm, she fumbled in the darkness and found it again.

‘I saved your life,’ she heard herself mumble, in half-thought, half-speech.

He staggered to where she was, bent over her, and raised his arm. Kinnara rolled over and received the rasping blow on her lower back. His fingers stung her skin, and hot tears scalded her eyes. She bit her lip to keep herself from shrieking, but a mewling sound escaped her ground teeth, and her grip on the rolling pin hardened.

He raised his arm again, but he lost balance and weaved away toward the corner. Kinnara caught the moment to help herself onto her fours, and then to her feet. She looked at the front door. She could reach it in two lunges, three at the most, and then she could make for the fields. She could spend the night somewhere – anywhere – and tomorrow would bring in a new day. A better day.

Right now, she had to run.

But before thought became action, Saidulu was on her again. He had his bear arms wrapped around her from behind, and was shaking her with the savage ferocity of a bull. ‘Let go!’ she said. ‘Let go!’

All he said in response was ‘Hnnnhh!’

She bent her neck forward so that she could reach his wrist with her mouth. She closed her teeth around it as hard as she could, making him howl and back away in pain, muttering out sleepy abuses at her. This time Kinnara did not take the chance of turning her back to him. She followed him as he lurched around for the wall, and when he stopped, she brought down the weight of the rolling pin on his head with a thud.

Just to be sure, as Saidulu slid down the wall with a surprised sigh, she landed another blow, which he took quietly, without protest.

Blood began to trickle down his forehead, over his nose and lips.

Kinnara wondered for a moment if the man was dead, but only for a moment. Her thoughts turned almost immediately to Upendar Reddy. She walked into the kitchen, returned the rolling pin to its place by the stove, and reached for a knife – the knife that she’d used the day before to cut open the fish she cooked for Saidulu.

* * *

‘I knew you would come,’ said Upendar, as she was let into the room. ‘Dharmayya tells me that you have a knife with you. He will take that now. Thank you. We don’t want to fight, do we?’

Kinnara gave the knife up without apparent complaint. Upendar tried to read the look in her eyes. There was some animal fear in them; but there were also faint stirrings of – desire? Could it be?

‘I used the knife to defend myself against Saidulu,’ said Kinnara. ‘You were right. You were right about everything. I – I married the wrong man.’

‘You did,’ said Upendar. He waved Dharmayya away. ‘Close the door behind you!’ Then he said to Kinnara, ‘Now, my dear, come and tell me. What has happened? Why do you have marks on your face? Did – did that man hit you again?’

‘He did,’ said Kinnara, barely catching her breath. ‘I thought he would change – after the operation – after all that I have done to get the money –’

‘You saw how cruel the villagers are.’ Upendar gave her his hand, and guided her to the edge of the bed. He sat two feet away from her, squeezing her palm. ‘If it were not for you, he would not be alive today. What if you had to sleep with someone to get the money? Is a woman’s character more important than a man’s life?

‘And I didn’t even touch you! Just the appearance – you coming to my house at night, stayed for an hour or two, and left with a wad of notes hidden under your blouse. That is enough to get tongues wagging. Do you not feel like spitting on these lowly folk, Kinnara? You, who can have any man she wanted – you are now being called a whore by men who are not worthy of kissing the dust you walk on.’

‘You are right,’ said Kinnara. She made no attempt to pull away from him. When Upendar shifted closer to her, she did not gripe. ‘I thought he would understand. I thought he would change. I thought he loved me.’

‘The only person in this village who loves you, Kinnara,’ said Upendar, ‘is me. You came to me, did you not? You offered yourself to me, did you not? Did I take advantage of you? I did not. Because it is not your body I want, Kinnara. It is you. And for that I had to show you how false your love is, how false these people are that you thought loved you.’

‘I – I may have killed him.’

Upendar threw his head back and laughed. Again that warm, liquid light of triumph washed over him. ‘Good riddance!’ he said. ‘You have me on your side now. Just watch what these same villagers will say of you once they know that I am making you my wife. You will be the queen of Palem, Kinnara. All these people – all of them! – who are now whispering your name behind your back will bow to you. I will see to it that they do.’

Kinnara looked up at him, and blinked. ‘You – you would do that?’

Upendar gave her his broadest smile. ‘Of course, my dear. I love you. I have always loved you.’

He shifted one last time on the bed, and closed the distance between them. She turned her back to him, so that he could undo the clasps of her blouse. When his hands cupped her bare shoulders, she tensed, but at the same time she looked at him over her shoulder, hair draped on one side. He closed her thumb over the birthmark, and rubbed it.

The shadows on the wall melded into one.

* * *

At daybreak, Kinnara awoke.

She found her way to the kitchen of Upendar Reddy’s house. She picked up a cleaving knife from the shelf, and tiptoed back to the bedroom.

In the first dim light of the morning, Upendar Reddy’s chest rose and fell to an even rhythm. It was true that some men could be subdued by force, but with some you had to use other ways. She had heard it said that a man was at his most vulnerable with a woman after he had slept with her.

She placed the knife at the base of Upendar Reddy’s neck, barely touching it. She had never cut into living flesh before. But how different could it be to slicing a potato? And how much harder?

With a practiced snap of the wrist, the knife dug into the man’s neck. His eyes shot open, and when he saw her in the shadows he looked about to say something, but the breath caught at his throat, and his clawing fingertips were already drenched in blackish red.

Kinnara stepped back, out of reach, and stood with her back to the door. She watched him die.

* * *

‘Killed two men in one night, sir’ said the constable as he eased the jeep into second gear. ‘One of them’s the husband, the other’s the lover.’

‘You don’t say,’ said the Inspector, throwing a mouthful of betel powder into his mouth.

‘Respectable sort of woman too, sir. Educated. Been teaching kids all these years in Palem.’

‘Uh huh.’

At the back of the jeep, Kinnara sat with her hands in cuffs, gazing into the darkness, listening only with her ears to the men’s words.

‘Just goes to show you never know with people, do you, sir?’


‘One moment she’s the perfect wife, nursing her husband back to health and all that. And just like that, poof! Something snaps in the upper portion.’

‘Yup.’ The Inspector tore open another packet of betel powder, threw in another mouthful.

‘Exactly as my father used to say, sir’ said the constable, wrenching the gear handle to climb onto the road out of Palem to Dhavaleshwaram. ‘Keep your distance from women, he used to say. Dirty whores, every single one of them.’