Story 21: Rescue

I flowed into Pravallika’s room through the rusting grill of the window, on the feathers of the night breeze yellowed with virgin moonlight. I could have passed through the wall, too, perhaps, but it would have seemed too much like I was intruding into my own home, uninvited.

Pravallika – I called her Valli, in love – lay on her back swaddled in a coarse grey blanket that stank of cheap liquor; though Sivayya did not himself drink, and he separated the shack from the house with a brick wall and a bolted door, the stench crept into everything.

Her eyes were half-closed, and from deep within her throat came a low, constant, boyish moan. I floated to her side and palmed her forehead to soothe her, but of course I touched nothing. She had been a small child throughout her life, but now she looked sucked to the bone, and her ten-year-old body looked no older than six.

Her right eye fluttered open, and a thin smile of recognition flickered on her face. ‘Amma?’ she said.

The pale power of the full moon coursed through my being; I had been coming here all of last month, and this was the first night Valli looked at me and not through me.

‘I have come, Valli,’ I said, in my old voice. ‘I have come, baby. You have nothing to fear now.’

‘But he – Father – he said –’

‘Never mind what he said, dear,’ I told her, and maybe it was a trick of the harsh white tube light in the room, but I felt that Valli’s forehead warmed to my fingers. ‘All you need to know is I am here now. Do you feel tired? Shall I remove this blanket? You’re sweating all over.’

‘No,’ said Valli, shaking her head, trying to get up. ‘Doctor Uncle said I will be all right.’

‘Of course you will, darling. There is nothing wrong with you in the first place.’

‘But Father said I have fever, that I must keep this blanket on me at all times – even if I sweat and it itches all over.’

From the other side of the bolted door, I heard voices of the first louts arriving at the shack. Sivayya insisted on calling them customers. Even when they were drunk up to their throats and were pissing and throwing up all over, they were customers. He would smile widely at their antics with his straight white teeth, help them on to their feet, back to their tables, and ask if they wanted another small.

Now the voices were soft, civilized. In two hours from now, these same people would be yelling abuses, bawling like children, singing songs in strange tongues.

‘He is not going to come in, now,’ I told Valli. ‘You can take it off.’

Valli obeyed. As she unwrapped herself, layer after layer, and wriggled out like a silkworm, I spotted the marks around her wrists and ankles. They did not surprise me, no; my own wrists had carried similar welts on the day I died. Almost by instinct I raised my hands to my face. But they were clean. They say time heals all wounds, but they forget to mention death does even better; it obliterates them.

Valli followed my gaze, and attempted to cover her scars with the sleeves of her shirt. I noticed that they had dressed her up in one of Sivayya’s worn out old shirts, not one of my saris. They wanted to wipe clean her memory of me – perhaps Sivayya had already set fire to all my clothes, or given them away to an orphanage in Dhavaleshwaram.

‘They tied me up,’ said Valli. ‘Said it was for my own good. They got rid of the rope just today, when Doctor Uncle said that I was getting better and didn’t need it anymore.’ She looked up at me with sunken eyes, stripped of life and love. ‘Where did you go all these days, Amma?’

‘I came back as soon as I could, my dear,’ I said, coughing back a catch in my throat. ‘The important thing is I am here now. I will save you from them all. I promise.’

‘Father – Father said that you killed yourself,’ said Valli. ‘Why did you, Amma?’

‘Do you really believe that I killed myself, Valli?’ I said, cupping her cheeks with both my hands. ‘Deep down?’

Valli thought for a moment, shook her head.

‘What does your heart tell you, baby? Listen to it.’

‘I – I think that Father killed you.’

Another surge of the full moon’s light filled me, and blue life pulsed through my dead veins. I had not known this last month why I still lingered here, why I did not pass on to wherever dead people were supposed to go. But now the mists cleared. I was sent back so that I could rescue Pravallika.

‘And why do you think that, dear?’ I asked.

Valli frowned, in an effort to remember. ‘I remember that they tied you up too. They said it was for your own good, that you would harm yourself otherwise.’

‘Is that what they tell you, too?’

Valli’s head went up and down, once. ‘I don’t wish to harm myself, Amma.’

‘Neither did I, darling,’ I made to smooth her hair but failed to touch it. ‘That is why I came back. For you. Do you trust me?’

‘But you left me once, Amma, when I needed you. I told you I needed you. I begged you to come back, then!’

A sharp pang went through my heart, and my voice threatened to break. But I held it together and said, ‘I have come back now, dear. I promise that I shall not forsake you again. Will you trust me, this once? Because you need to escape the clutches of this man. Of this life.’

The voices in the other room became louder, more boisterous. Sivayya would be going around the shack now, making small talk, collecting coins and other trinkets as payment for the first round. And then he would return to the counter and open up another big box of packets.

I turned back to face Valli, who was squirming. The boyish whine was back, and her teeth chattered. ‘Well?’ I said. ‘Do you?’

* * *

It was a hot summer night, and the breeze from the direction of Arthur Cotton Dam withered me down to a wisp each time it passed through me. But Pravallika shivered with each cautious step we took away from the shack, more from fear than from cold. She looked over her shoulder at the broken lock of the back door, as if expecting Sivayya to emerge from the shadows, rope in hand, giving chase.

‘Come,’ I said, floating by her side. ‘We need not run. He will not notice your absence for an hour yet. And you will be safe by then.’

‘Where are you taking me?’ she asked.

‘We will go to the old shivalayam,’ I told her. ‘A bus leaves from there to Dhavaleshwaram at nine ’o clock. You will be on it, and when you reach the city, I will tell you whom to seek out. My cousin lives there with his wife and children, dear; he will take good care of you.’

‘And I never come back to Palem?’


There were two paths that you could take to the old shivalayam from Sivayya’s shack. One was along the main road, past Mahender Reddy’s general store, the school, and Sister Agnes’s working women’s hostel. You travelled half a kilometre around the village and cut in next to Avadhanayya’s house, through the cricket-ridden babul bushes and arrived at the shivalingam, situated at the front of the moth-eaten temple door.

The other path was to get off the road right next to the shack and make for Saraswatamma’s fields – half of Palem’s fields belonged to Saraswatamma – so that you could walk past Ellamma Cheruvu, skirting the backyards of all the big people – Chander babu, Upendar Reddy, Pakoda Subbarao, Rama Shastri – and reach the temple from the back, where stood the old well, still bearing on its stone slabs markings of secret lovers from down the years.

It was this second path that I intended Valli to take.

‘By the old shivalayam?’ she said, shuddering. ‘But that place scares me, Amma.’

I took her by the hand and squeezed it. She seemed to calm down, and the yellows of her eyes turned a touch whiter. ‘I am here with you, my dear,’ I told her. ‘The only place you need to fear is the house of your father. Remember: he killed me, and he intends to kill you too.’

‘But why, Amma?’ she said. ‘Why does Father want to kill me?’ We moved off the road, out of earshot of the shack now, and a certain ease entered Pravallika’s breathing. We turned the bend and entered Saraswatamma’s fields: they had planted cotton for this part of the year, so acre upon acre of white waving tufts stretched out before us as far as we could see, and the water of Ellamma Cheruvu sparkled in the distance.

‘There are matters that a girl of your age does not quite understand, Pravallika,’ I said. ‘Is it really important you know why he hates you?’

‘It is!’ said Valli. ‘And I am a big girl. I understand everything.’

‘Well, then. Among other things, he suspects that you are not his daughter.’

It took a moment for her shrunken face to change from confusion to faint comprehension. ‘But – is that true? Am I not your daughter?’

‘He knows that you are my daughter, dear. He thinks that you may not be his.’

‘How is that possible? When two people get married, they have a child that belongs to both of them. Don’t they? Isn’t that what you told me?’

‘Yes, darling,’ I said. ‘But sometimes, it is possible for a child of a married couple to belong to just one of them.’

‘And – and I belong just to you?’

I looked on either side of us, to ensure we had caught the attention of none of Saraswatamma’s many watchmen. From the direction of the lake, sometimes hordes of monkeys came bounding along the plains to attack the fields, especially in groundnut season. This was just cotton; it needed no guarding from monkeys, but it did need guarding from other men.

Wherever I looked, though, I saw no sign of humans.

‘You belong to both of us, dear, I swear,’ I said, trying to protect her from yet another blast of scorching wind that hit us full on our faces. ‘But Sivayya thinks otherwise, and no one can persuade a man who doubts. You will do well to remember this.’

‘But Father – he has been looking after me, hasn’t he? He and Doctor Uncle, both have been good to me. They feed me, they smile at me –’

‘They smiled at me too, did they not?’ I asked her, at once pitying and envying her innocence. ‘They have to make it look like you succumbed to a disease, Valli. Do you not get that? Like they made it look like I killed myself.’

‘But why?’

‘For one, what would the people of the village say if there was evidence of wrongdoing? They would catch them and put them in prison, would they not? And then there is the small matter of the insurance money.’

Valli did not speak for a minute. We just walked together, her steps crunching on the dry land, mine quiet. When we passed the second field, and Ellamma Cheruvu became a huge oval disc in our vision, she said, ‘Amma, what is insurance?’

‘Just another name for fear, dear,’ I said, but my ears stood up, like they had been pricked behind the lobes with a thorn. A sound. Low and throaty, like Valli’s moans. Faraway, faint, but harried. Thudding. Definitely real.

‘Pravallika,’ I said, ‘we need to run.’

* * *

I’d forbidden her from bringing her slippers because they would make a sound while we stole out of the shack, and now her feet began to bruise against the scabbed earth. The moonlight burned her breath. Her tongue lashed at the night air with each desperate lunge of her feet. We came up to Ellamma Cheruvu and turned left in the direction of the bushes. The grimy temple-tower loomed in the distance. A black-mouthed white langur sat perched at the top, tail falling off the edge, and looked on.

The air had cooled down, somewhat, now that we’d neared the lake, but now Valli had sweat streaming down her nose. That thudding sound that had set us off was getting louder, so loud that it crawled into my head and began hammering me from within.

Valli looked over her shoulder. I saw what she saw.

About fifty feet behind us, a circled rope in one hand and folded blanket in another, was the gaunt figure of Sivayya. He looked like he had the same grin on his face that he used on his ‘customers’, but on second glance I realized he was grimacing with the effort of running after us. I had heard the tale of a langur, here in Palem, chasing down a man and chewing off his legs here by the bank of Ellamma Cheruvu. I craned my neck up at the temple-tower in manic hope; but the animal showed no signs of movement. It might have been just another of the mute figures of gods and goddesses etched onto that stone wall.

‘Run faster, Pravallika!’ I whispered into my girl’s ear.

‘Valli!’ said Sivayya from behind us. ‘Wait for me.’

I tried to gather all of the night’s energy that pulsed in my arms, and let it flow through the tips of my fingers into Valli’s body. Whether it was that or whether it was the crazed fear of the man in her own mind, with a renewed series of grunts she picked up speed, kicking up a screen of dust behind her. The temple-tower swayed from one side to the other in front of us, as if it were suspended from the sky with invisible strings. The clumps of bushes took on more defined shapes now, and a narrow path leading up to the shivalayam appeared, as if materializing out of nothing.

I did not have to tell Valli to run toward it. She knew, by pure instinct.

‘Valli!’ said Sivayya again, and with a chill I noted that his voice was now louder. That meant that in spite of his lungs bursting, the man was gaining on us. ‘Listen to me!’ he said. ‘Do not go into the bushes.’

‘We need to reach the shivalayam,’ I told Valli, my voice even and cold. ‘Once you reach the temple, he cannot touch you.’

I did not know how I knew this, but something told me that if Valli could just get past the line of bushes, make it to the end of this diamond-dusted path, she would be forever freed from the grubby hands of that man.

‘My legs hurt, Amma,’ said Valli, as we entered the path and the bushes sped back on either side of us.

I prayed to the moon for one last jolt of power, and pressed it on to the bleeding feet, the wobbling knees, the pumping lungs, the flaming mouth – and to every cell of her body that wished her to pause for rest. It worked for a while; she made it almost to the end of the path, with the well and the temple no more than twenty feet ahead of us, but at that moment, she twisted her right ankle and went sprawling into the dust.

Sivayya’s steps became louder in my ears now, and when I turned I saw the man towering over Valli’s fallen figure, quietly undoing the curls in his rope, while the poor girl kept pushing herself up to her hands and backing away.

‘Amma?’ she said.

‘I am right here, my dear,’ I said, and spread my arms and looked up to the sky. If it was the moon that had been nourishing me with energy all through the night, it would not fail me now. This was the moment that I needed it all; I did not know how to address the moon, how to speak to her, or whether indeed she would listen, but I looked up at that solid yellow orb – now silhouetting the temple-tower and the tail-waving langur – and closed my eyes.

‘Ah!’ said Sivayya, and shrank back.

The rope slipped from his hands. The blanket came unravelled.

I stood between him and Pravallika, my arms aloft. His eyes dilated for a moment, then moved from the child onto me. He could see me. But what might have surprised him further was that he could see through me at the same time.

Pravallika scrambled to her feet and ran in the direction of the well. Sivayya stood transfixed to his spot, just staring. A stream of urine flowed down his left leg onto the mud beneath his feet.

It was all that we needed, a moment of shock. I flew again to Valli’s side, and told her that she must make it to the well. ‘Hide in the well until the bus comes,’ I told her, and she nodded through bloodshot eyes.

I sensed my energy levels returning to normal; to eyes other than Valli’s, I must have disappeared again. I heard Sivayya’s steps move behind me, but it was too late. Pravallika was almost at the well. Two more strides and she would stand on top of the ledge, and before Sivayya could stop her, she would jump and hide in the well, out of sight –

But what was this?

Why did Valli stop?

On top of the ledge, about four-feet tall, waving its tail maliciously over its head, stood the langur. It bared its canines and screeched at Valli, who was now turning around to find me, in puzzlement. When I came abreast of her and tried to drive away the pest, a real, physical force slammed down on my head from above, and before I could tell what it was or where it had come from, the world was reeling. The perched figure of the ape and the fiercely lit moon chased each other in unending circles, and there was the well too, and the dust and the bitter stench of arrack, and the thudding of Sivayya’s steps, now close – ever so close –

I did not see Pravallika anywhere.

* * *

Valli – my Valli – was back in her room, wrapped in a blanket, bathed in sweat. Both her wrists were tied with a rope to the grill of the window.

I drifted in and sat by her side. Her eyes rested on me, but the face remained impassive. She could not see me now – the night of full moon had come and gone – but I supposed that she could receive my thoughts.

From the other side of the bolted door, we heard two voices, muffled, tired.

‘We almost lost her, docsaab,’ said Sivayya. ‘She went out when I was busy with the customers.’

‘Did she go for the well again?’

‘Yes. I – I don’t know what to do. She says Ratna appears to her and leads her away.’

‘She is still in shock, Sivayya. The meningitis is almost gone, but not quite. She will hallucinate for a week or so more.’

‘She – she won’t die, will she?’

‘Not as long as we keep her from walking away again.’

I looked at the rigid expression on Valli’s face. They’re just lying to you, baby. They know you’re awake and listening. It’s all an act. All of it.

‘The rope – the tying – is it necessary?’

‘I am afraid so. How do you stop her from wandering off in the middle of the night otherwise?’

‘It – leaves scars on her wrists.’

‘Then it is working as it should.’

‘She is all I have, docsaab,’ said Sivayya. ‘It’s not even been a month since Ratna left us – and now – and now this –’

‘Sivayya,’ said the doctor’s voice. ‘You need to understand that Ratna’s death was not your fault. No matter how vigilant you are, you cannot stop an adult bent on killing herself. How many times did Ratna attempt suicide?’

‘Twice – and succeeded the third time.’

Lies, I told Valli’s staring eyes. These are all lies. Sivayya and the doctor killed me. Together. And they buried me so that they would not be found out. You need to get out of this place, Pravallika. Come with me, I will not fail you. Not this time. Not this time.

‘Whenever Valli does something like this,’ Sivayya was saying, ‘I wonder if she will take after her mother.’

There was a silent pause in the conversation, and I heard only the jaded breaths of the two men.

‘If she does,’ said the doctor, ‘you cannot stop her. I hope you understand that.’

‘She is all I have, docsaab.’

‘It is not your fault. These people have voices in their heads. They start off small, but they grow louder and louder until the only way to quieten them –’ Another pause. Then: ‘It is not your fault.’

They lie, Pravallika, I said, but she just stared.

* * *

I left the shack, defeated but not dejected.

The full moon will return. So will my powers. This time I shall make sure Sivayya doesn’t give chase, and that nasty langur is not around to foil things.

It is only after you die that you grasp the futility of life. Pravallika needs to be rescued from life’s clutches – all of them – and then, she and I will be inseparable, once more and forever thereafter.

If that requires a certain bending of the truth, a certain number of lies, then so be it. She does not know what is good for her; I do.

I will come for you again, my baby. I promise.