Saraswatamma lay in bed, dying.
Dinesh sat to her left. Legs crossed, tips of fingers held together in front. Two identical emerald rings on each accent finger. A gold chain dangled around his neck, lopsided. A tiger’s claw by his chest, half-concealed by the ironed pink shirt’s lapel. Set under thick brows, his eyes were two marbles of granite. His clean-shaven face was set in a smile that carried all outward marks of kindness. Even love.
Vinayak on her right. A fidgety, bristling cat of a man. Bony frame. Ragged, old-fashioned clothes, plain colours. No ornaments anywhere on his body. The metal rim of his spectacles was scratch-free, but the left lens showed a crack – top left to bottom right – that split his eye in two. He sat on the edge of the upholstered teak chair. Licking his lips. Legs bouncing up and down, now in rhythm, now not.
A third chair that should have been but wasn’t. A third son that should have been but wasn’t.
‘You can of course do what you want, Mother,’ said Dinesh, holding up his fingers to examine them, and then chewing off a hangnail and spitting it off to the side. ‘It is your house. Vinayak and I will never do anything against your wishes.’
‘Yes,’ said Vinayak. ‘Yes, yes.’ He looked around himself, as if he heard a shadow swish by.
It was not the time of the day for shadows; the afternoon sun beat down with ferocity outside, and a searing breeze heaved at the white window curtains of the house. The room itself received enough natural light to allow Saraswatamma, even with her tired eyes, to make out both her sons without the need for her glasses. But Vinayak – he had always been the timid one; didn’t need it to be dark to jump up and tremble.
‘In any case,’ Dinesh was saying, more to Vinayak than to her, ‘the house is not worth much. Now if we talk about the fields –’
‘I will give you all the fields,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘Just leave this house to me.’
Dinesh looked about the room. ‘There is this nice furniture that you will no longer need,’ he said, eyeing the frame of her bed. ‘And you must have jewellery?’
‘When I say the house,’ said Saraswatamma, ‘I include everything in it.’
‘Oh,’ said Dinesh. He and Vinayak traded a glance over her prostrate form. ‘You don’t have a treasure locked up in one of these rooms, do you?’ He kept his tone light, but he could not keep the edge of anger from appearing – just for a moment – on his face.
‘I don’t have to tell you,’ said Saraswatamma, her own spirit rising. ‘If you don’t let up, I will give away everything I have to Rama Shastri, and he will use it for the good of the village.’
‘Good of the village!’ said Vinayak.
‘Shh,’ said Dinesh to his brother with sudden fury, and turned to face her again, with a smile. ‘Who else will you tell but your own sons, Mother? Who else have you got but us? Who else have we got but you?’
Again that icy blip of blackness passed through the room, and this time Dinesh noticed it too. He turned and looked out of the window, up at the spotless summer sky, with a frown on his face. No clouds.
‘I am touched by your love, Dinesh,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘But you can grant your old mother her secrets, can’t you?’
‘Is that why you called us here? To tell us that we cannot have the house?’
‘If you grant me my secrets, Dinesh, I will grant you some of yours.’
Dinesh began to turn his wrist to look at his clunky watch, but stopped mid-way. ‘What?’
Saraswatamma’s eyes pinched around the edges, but she held his gaze without blinking. To her right, Vinayak’s foot tapped harder on the floor.
‘Do you have a secret that you have not told me about, son?’ she said.
For a moment, Dinesh’s hefty body held its pose, as if frozen. Then it relaxed, and his smooth face lit up in a grin. ‘So many,’ he said. ‘Where do I begin?’
‘Perhaps with the biggest one,’ said Saraswatamma, ‘and we’ll work down the list.’
Dinesh shrugged good-naturedly and stretched his arms, as if he were humouring a senile old woman. It occurred to Saraswatamma while watching the strength in his arms that he could, if he wanted, shatter the bones in her greying hands with little effort, just by holding them in his log-like fingers. And who would save her? Vinayak?
But Dinesh looked way too calm for such thoughts. He stood up and placed his hand on her forehead, stroking it, smoothing her thinning hair. ‘You look tired, Mother,’ he said. ‘You should rest. Vinayak and I will return in the evening – and I shall tell you my secret.’
‘No,’ Saraswatamma began to say, but her tongue fell like a brick against the base of her mouth. A cool weight settled on her eyelids and shut them close. From deep within, a voice protested that she should ask Dinesh to sit back and tell her his secret right now, but another voice – smaller, calmer, foreign – told her that it was going to be all right, that Dinesh was right, that she must sleep.
* * *
‘Mother hates us,’ said Vinayak.
Dinesh took a considered sip of his Blue Label. They were sitting in their old bedroom, the one he and Vinayak had shared as kids. The paint on the walls had been redone a few times since, and the beds had long been replaced by a coffee table and a couple of cane chairs. But you could change everything about a place and still fail to remove the horrible stench it carried. So it was here.
‘You know I don’t like that word, little brother,’ he said. ‘The woman has a name, doesn’t she?’
‘Fine,’ said Vinayak, and looked around stealthily. ‘Do you sense that there is something about this place?’
‘You mean the smell?’
‘No, not the smell, the smell has always been there. But do you – do you feel like you’re being watched?’
Dinesh looked at the open window. The calves were bleating in the shed, and two of the many servants Saraswatamma – not Mother! – maintained were herding the cows back to their young. Vinayak had always been the sentimental fool, never able to see the practical side of things. Well, look how far that got him in life!
‘Finish your drink,’ said Dinesh. ‘That will calm your nerves.’
Vinayak picked up his glass thoughtfully, and in one quick motion downed its contents and grimaced. ‘I – I think she knows.’
‘Come on, little brother, how could she possibly know?’ Dinesh paused a moment. ‘Did you tell her?’
‘No! Why would I?’
‘Why would you indeed? And if you didn’t tell her and I didn’t tell her, how could she know?’
‘I – I don’t know,’ said Vinayak, ‘just the way she was talking about secrets and all.’
‘Just a regular mother-son conversation in this house,’ said Dinesh bitterly. ‘And you let your crazy mind spin all sorts of theories. It’s getting dark, won’t you switch on the light?’
Vinayak got up, but stopped in the fading purple light. ‘See?’ he said. ‘Did you feel that?’
Dinesh did. He had had the same queasy sense in his stomach that afternoon as well, when he thought a cloud had passed them overhead. But this one was more pronounced. Like a small black object flickered for a moment in his peripheral vision but scurried away out of sight when he turned to look at it.
‘Must have been a rat,’ he said, with more courage than he felt. ‘Turn on the light and we’ll see what it was. This is a closed room, where can it go?’
Vinayak turned on the switch.
The darkness stayed.
Off the switch went, and back on. Off. On. Off on off on.
‘What is going on here?’ said Vinayak.
‘What else, a power outage,’ said Dinesh. ‘This damned village is still living in the twentieth century.’ He went to the window, expecting to see the main gate shrouded in the gathering murk of dusk. Instead he saw the live street lamp, burning bright.
‘I am telling you,’ said Vinayak. ‘She knows. She knows! I am going to get out of here.’
‘Where will you go?’ said Dinesh harshly. ‘The last bus must have left already. The only place open now will be Sivayya’s shack, and if you’re going to spend the night drinking, let it be Blue Label rather than cheap arrack.’
Vinayak sat back down, but he was still muttering under his breath. ‘She hates us. I tell you she hates us. I should never have come. Has she ever called us here on her own? In all these years? Why now? Why today?’
‘Because she is dying, you idiot,’ said Dinesh. ‘Don’t you know, when a person is standing at death’s door, they wish to see their loved ones one last time. I am not as smart as you are, Vinayak, and even I know that.’
Vinayak said, sneering under his breath: ‘Yeah. Loved ones.’
The commotion at the cowshed had died down by now, and one by one the servants began to leave the premises. The last of them, a wiry old man, staggered over to the shed, bolted the door, turned the key in the heavy padlock, tested it once, and made his way to the main gate. Dinesh smiled at the simplicity of these folk – come here, clean, tend to the old woman, get paid, drink a little at the end of the day, go home, sleep. And do the same thing over tomorrow.
Had they no ambition? No drive? Did they not know what they could achieve if they just opened their eyes and saw the world?
He took out his cell phone, turned on the torch. He swung to his right to catch Vinayak’s face. But the flashlight fell on an empty chair, and it threw a black-striped shadow onto the wall behind it. ‘Vinayak?’ he said, softly.
No answer came, just a shuffling sound in the musty corner, as if a clutch of bats had just been stirred awake.
Dinesh took a cautious step toward the door. His feet touched something damp and slimy, but when he turned the torch on it he found nothing but the dry, warm marble floor. Did he believe what he had so bravely told Vinayak? Did Saraswatamma call them here just because she wanted to see them one last time before she kicked the bucket? Or did the old woman somehow, somehow come to know?
‘Dinesh?’ said Vinayak’s voice.
Dinesh swirled the torch back to the chair and saw his brother huddled in it, knees scrunched up and hands wedged in between his thighs. ‘Where did you go just now, you nitwit?’
‘Where did I – where did you go?’ said Vinayak. ‘I was sitting here all along. You disappeared into the darkness.’
‘Come now, it is not that dark in here that I would vanish –’ But even as he said this, Dinesh looked around him and noticed how black – how much blacker than black – the room was in the spots where the light from the window could not reach. He wanted to ask if Vinayak had heard the shuffle of wings too, but something told him that it would not be the best idea.
If there were such things as ghosts, it was said that they fed on fear. And every bone in Vinayak’s body was forged in fear. All two hundred and six of them. Best to let him be.
He kept the torch fastened on Vinayak so that he wouldn’t slip away again. This was not the time to wonder how he had just a moment ago seen this very chair unoccupied; maybe it was a trick of the light. Maybe he had allowed himself to be influenced by Vinayak’s blathering so that his own mind was showing him things. Maybe it was the long bus journey in the afternoon (he had become used to driving around in the car these days) coupled with the two pegs of whiskey.
As for Vinayak, perhaps this was the first time he had drunk something good. No wonder it was planting images in his head.
Dinesh shook his head to settle himself. The room returned to sharp focus, and the corners did not seem that dark anymore. While this period of clarity persisted, he thought, they must go and speak to the woman. Why had she called them here? If she had nothing of business to speak to them, perhaps Vinayak was right; perhaps they would be better off at Sivayya’s shack – anywhere but here!
‘Come!’ he said, bounding out of the room and dragging the wailing figure of Vinayak along by the wrist. ‘Even if I have to kill that woman I shall get to the bottom of this.’
* * *
Saraswatamma had just finished lighting the second candle on the study table of her bedroom when Dinesh marched in, followed by a whimpering Vinayak. A rasping cough threatened to break open from her throat, but she swallowed it behind pursed lips, and gathered the woollen shawl around her shoulders.
Dinesh pointed the torch at her face. She closed and averted her eyes.
‘Mother, what is going on here?’ he said.
‘I don’t know what you mean, dear,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘It looks as though there is something wrong with the main switchboard. When Narasimha comes in the morning, I will ask him to take a look at it, get it repaired –’
‘Don’t call me “dear”,’ said Dinesh, snarling. ‘You have never loved us as you loved your own son. You know it. We know it. The whole village knows it. Why do we still act?’
‘This afternoon, it was you who was doing all the acting.’ Saraswatamma pointed them to the chairs opposite her table. There were three of them, arranged in a neat semicircle. ‘Would you care to sit? He is here tonight too.’
Vinayak squirmed under Dinesh’s grip. But Dinesh strode out into the light, dragging him along, and said, ‘He? He who?’
Saraswatamma smiled. She thought she heard a thin tremor in that voice, but how could she be certain? Her hearing had been failing for years. She coughed a couple of times, taking care to turn her head away from the candles as she did so. Then she said, ‘It is his birthday today. Do neither of you remember? Ah, I see that you do, Vinayak.’
Vinayak kept turning his wrist in an attempt to free himself of Dinesh’s grasp. His left eyeball began to fall off toward his temple, which meant that the stress was beginning to get to him. The first time it had happened, when he was five, Saraswatamma had worried herself sick and thought that the boy had gone blind. But the doctor had reassured her that it would be all right. What name had he given the condition? Oh, she no longer remembered.
He was nodding now, Vinayak, with his free hand clapped over his mouth.
‘What craziness is this?’ said Dinesh, half-laughing, but rubbing his free hand dry on his outer thigh. He did not notice that he had dropped the phone. ‘Our brother died thirty years ago, we both know it. There isn’t a day on which I do not remember him. Good friends, he and I were – you know, Mother, don’t you?’
‘I did,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘All these years I believed you, Dinesh. Thirty years is a long time to be lying to your mother, isn’t it? Am I your mother now, or am I not?’
‘Put the candles out, woman,’ said Dinesh. ‘And let us get the electricity back in the house. Is this why you called us here, to inconvenience us like this?’
Saraswatamma sighed a long sigh, and motioned them again to their chairs. ‘Inconvenience is perhaps the right word,’ she said. ‘But it will be over soon, my child. Come and sit. There is nothing else to do but sit.’
They did not respond at once. Dinesh stood where he was and furrowed his big brow at the open window, but Vinayak – good old Vinayak – had stopped wriggling and was walking to the middle chair. After a few short breaths, Dinesh too made his way to his seat, to Vinayak’s left.
‘Not there,’ said Saraswatamma, vaguely. ‘That is his seat.’
‘Crazy,’ muttered Dinesh, but sprang away from the chair he had first picked as though it had a viper coiled around it. After he took the other empty chair and sat with his legs crossed over one another, Saraswatamma entwined her hands over the table and leaned forward.
‘And now we shall wait for him.’
Dinesh and Vinayak looked at each other. Saraswatamma knew, somewhere deep in her heart, that she should fear for her life right about now, that these two men would not think twice about pouncing for her throat if it meant getting out of the house alive. But a more certain knowledge overpowered this feeling, the knowledge that neither of them would be able to so much as touch a hair on her body. He would not let them.
‘I should tell you while we wait,’ she said, ‘that I did not call you here. He did.’
* * *
Dinesh did not yet know what to make of it all. One part of him wanted to kick the chairs away, blow off the candles, and teach this old woman a lesson she wouldn’t forget for the rest of her life. But there was another part, a crouching shadow that lurked deep within his soul, that kept his feet pinned to the warm marble slab. This shade grew in strength with each passing second, and he found himself thinking that perhaps it was all true – he had truly returned and spoken to his mother about what they had done. But why now? Why after all these years?
‘That is simple,’ said Saraswatamma, as if she had heard him think. ‘He said that it had taken him this long to gather enough strength.’
‘Enough strength for what?’ asked Vinayak.
‘He wants revenge.’ Saraswatamma looked around the room, and in serene anticipation wrapped the shawl tighter around her frail body. Dinesh expected a howling breeze to take birth in the walls of the house and blow them away to smithereens; or perhaps the chair would levitate in mid-air, he thought, and begin speaking to them in that old, forgotten voice. His feet began to tingle between the toes, as though he were standing at the edge of a precipice and leaning over.
He waited, for all this and more.
But nothing happened. Just a couple of moments of silence, where Saraswatamma stared at the table like a statue. Then she looked up. ‘He is here.’
Vinayak gave out a sudden yelp, but he, too, seemed transfixed to his seat by some unknown magic. Dinesh stared at the chair; the gold-and-red upholstery, the varnished heavy teak, the white stopper under each foot, the curve of the front legs – it all looked the same.
‘Will he,’ said Dinesh, ‘speak to us?’
‘I am speaking to you,’ said Saraswatamma, but the voice in which she said these words curdled the blood in Dinesh’s veins. His voice.
Vinayak just said, ‘Oh, no. No no.’
‘My brothers,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘I just have one question for you. Why did you do it?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Dinesh.
‘Looks like Vinayak does,’ said Saraswatamma.
‘Forgive me!’ said Vinayak, and dropped to his knees. ‘Forgive me, Arun! I never wanted to do it. It was all him. He said Mother does not love us anymore now that she had you. He said that she would give everything to you. He said that if we got rid of you, we could have Mother all for ourselves, all of Mother’s things for ourselves!’
‘Vinayak,’ said Dinesh, sprawling on all fours next to his brother and whispering into his ear. ‘Have you lost your mind? Do you not see this is all just a ruse? This old woman cannot touch us if we remain together. Just a bit of mimicry and you believe a man dead for thirty years has come back?’
‘Get off me!’ said Vinayak, and adjusted his glasses. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, holding up his entwined hands to Saraswatamma. ‘Forgive me, please. I will do whatever you say, just spare me.’
‘Grab hold of yourself, man!’ Dinesh slapped Vinayak full on the face, sending his spectacles clattering on the floor. Then he held the younger man by his shoulders and shook him, their noses almost touching. ‘Look at me, Vinayak!’ he said. ‘Look at me!’
‘No, no,’ Vinayak was saying. ‘Get off me, you son of the devil. Get off me and taint me no more with your touch.’
‘You have failed me once, Vinayak,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘Will you earn my trust tonight?’
Dinesh sprang to his feet and lunged at the old woman, over the table. He seized her throat with both hands and lifted her off the chair. ‘I wished it would not come to this, Mother,’ he said, boring into her eyes with his. ‘But you leave me with no choice.’ He squeezed with all the might of his fingers, and he felt the powdery neck muscles yield with a faint crack. Her eyes popped out, and the breathless gags came in her own voice, not that of her son.
‘What happened to Arun, Mother?’ said Dinesh. ‘Did he run away already? Just like him to flee a fight, isn’t it? Isn’t it!’ With mad fury he shook her by the throat, mouthing curse after curse under his breath, livid that the neck still stayed tethered to the rest of the body, that he had not been able yet to snap it off. He dug his fingernails deep into her skin, with a vague intent to tear out her insides, and the eyes started to dilate.
‘Yes, the lights go out, don’t they, Mother? Just a few seconds now, and your whole elaborate trick to get us here and con us – con your own sons, how could you, you bitch – is history! You are history! Just like your son!’
She was like a rag doll in his hands, blue in the cheeks, pale in the lips, her own hands wound around his wrists, her shawl lying in a heap by the floor. He felt another snap under his fingers and knew he was close – a few more seconds, that was all, and it would all be over. He and Vinayak would be free – free forever from all this bullshit. Yes, just a few more seconds – five, four, three –
He never got to two.
When he woke up he was huddled up in the corner of the room, next to Vinayak’s spectacles. The left side of his head hurt like hell. He tried to sit up, but the room lurched this way and that, and he could make out only the blurred image of Vinayak, holding a chair over his head.
Dinesh could spot him just clearly enough to see that he was advancing again. There was no sign of the old woman. That didn’t matter. He would see to her later. First, Vinayak had to be handled. He was turning on his side now, winding up so that he could bring the chair down on Dinesh, with the whole weight of his body behind the blow.
Dinesh counted the steps. Three, two – if this blow landed, the lights would indeed go out. For him.
He slunk back, taking refuge in the darkness of the corner. With his right hand he fumbled for – and found – the tiger claw at his chest.
* * *
The doctor on duty at the hospital – a young man whose name no one in Palem knew – declared the two men dead on arrival. The old woman had a weak but erratic pulse, so he called for the nurses to attend to her. As she was wheeled out of sight, he stopped to speak to Rama Shastri, the temple priest.
‘Nasty business,’ he said. ‘We will need a police report.’
‘I have phoned the inspector, sir,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘They are on their way.’
‘Do you know what happened?’
‘It looks like the two men had a bit to drink, and began to fight.’
‘The old woman got in the way too, it seems.’
‘Must have tried to break them up.’
The doctor nodded, looking at the room where the bodies lay. ‘One man has had his head broken in, and the other his neck slit. The weapons are still there?’
‘Yes, sir. A large wooden chair and a tiger claw.’
‘Know why they may have fought?’
Rama Shastri sighed. ‘She is a rich woman. The sons are adopted. You know how it is.’
‘Ah,’ said the doctor. ‘Does she not have sons of her own?’
‘She did, sir,’ said the priest. ‘One. After she adopted these fellows. Died thirty years ago. Drowning accident.’