The leaves of the Mahalaxmi Banyan tree left a buzz in the late evening summer air. Venkat Reddy sat on the second step of the temple and broke a piece of coconut in two. He offered the bigger piece, damp and marked with a spot of turmeric, to Seetaraamaiah, who crossed his legs and leaned back against the stone pillar bearing the figure of Menaka.
Or one of the other Apsaras. Venkat Reddy had no way of knowing. Might even have been Mohini.
‘The Krishna is louder on evenings like this,’ said the headman, looking out toward the West. ‘It’s almost like she’s hungry.’ He bit off a piece of the coconut and chewed on it, his large eyes vacant. Venkat Reddy’s relationship with him had cooled somewhat for a period after the arrest of his son in the Padmavati case, but it did not pay for the Sarpanch of a village to foster enmity with the local police. Krishna Shastri had told him that Seetaraamaiah had not come to the temple either for a few months afterward, in apparent protest, but how could a village head hope to preserve his people’s favour and pick a fight with the priest of the temple?
Mother Goddess Kali would not allow it.
Lord Amareshwara, who presided over the larger temple down the river, would have frowned upon it.
And if Seetaraamaiah had kept up his petulant charade, he would not have been elected for another term.
So by and by, as they’d approached the anniversary of his son’s arrest, the Sarpanch began to mend his relationships – first with Krishna Shastri and then with Venkat Reddy. Now it had become a bit of a ritual for the three of them to sit on the temple steps on Saturday evenings, listening to the gurgle of the Krishna and trying to fathom from it her deepest intentions.
‘So, S.I.,’ said Seetaraamaiah, ‘Shastri gaaru tells me that there have been a lot of killings around the mandal recently.’
‘There have been, yes,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Regrettable.’
‘Do you know we never saw a single suspicious death in all our lives, until you came by on your cycle that morning?’ A hard shadow flickered on Seetaraamaiah’s pock-marked face. ‘It is as if you’ve brought them along with you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Venkat Reddy, maintaining a light tone. ‘But for all these cases, how will I get my promotions?’
‘Was it the Padmavati case that made you a sub-inspector?’
‘That and another case.’
‘Did Shastri gaaru help you with that too?’
‘No, sir. He doesn’t know of it.’
Just at that moment, Krishna Shastri stepped out from the inner chamber, bathed in orange perspiration, holding in front of him a silver plate with a live flame. His eyes met Venkat Reddy’s, and he nodded, even as his lips kept moving. With his free hand he waved the black smoke from the fire onto the temple pillars.
‘Why don’t you tell us about it?’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘And to make it more interesting, don’t tell us how you solved it. Maybe Shastri gaaru and I can figure it out ourselves.’
Venkat Reddy raised his hand to twirl the tip of his moustache, but realized he had shaved it off just that morning. He scratched his nose instead. ‘I don’t think you will be able to,’ he said. ‘I stumbled upon it only by the purest luck, months after the incident happened.’
Seetaraamaiah took no notice of the policeman’s words. He craned his neck sideways and called out to Krishna Shastri. ‘Shastri gaaru, finish off your chores and come quickly. The S.I. is telling a story.’
* * *
This happened in Vaikunthapuram (said Venkat Reddy) in the year 1994. It had been no more than three months since the incident of Padmavati happened over here, and I thought that was a strange event. But as you say, Seetaraamaiah gaaru, death seems to follow me closely wherever I go, or maybe it is the good priest here that passed it on to me.
Vaikunthapuram is a small village even today, but it was smaller back then. If you take the main road from Amaravati going toward Guntur, after you pass Nemalikollu, you needed to take a half-kilometre detour through a muddy road to reach the village. Now a jeep shuttles up and down twice a day, but back then you made your way about on an ox cart. I had my bicycle, of course.
I went there for Dusshera that year. My wife’s first cousin was given to a boy from that village, and they had a baby girl that summer. The husband was not too enamoured, I should say, but the rest of his clan consoled him. Told him that having a daughter first up was like inviting Lakshmi into the house. A couple of years later they had another baby girl, and this time they told him that he must have lied a lot in his past life to deserve such a fate in this one.
Forget that, though. This is not about him.
I don’t know if either of you remember the MLA we used to have back in those days. Pendyala Narasimharaju was the name. I see that you do. He was one of the good ones, really. I cannot say he never put his hand into the jar, but he did it much less than all the other ones combined, and he always treated us right, you know? Let us be. No phone calls, no recommendations, no unnecessary transfers, nothing of that sort.
That year was election year, and after a long time there was stiff competition from the other party, so Pendyala doubled his campaign efforts. He is said to have been born in Vaikunthapuram, but ever since he left and made a name for himself, he had not needed to come back for votes. He would just send one of his cronies and they would erect big hoardings of him and tell everyone that a concrete road would be laid connecting the village to Guntur. One of them would read a speech that Pendyala supposedly wrote, and the whole village would turn up and vote for their favourite son. Just like clockwork.
But this year was different. This year, Pendyala was coming in person.
They had a bit of a festive thing going over there, and only a small part of it was because it was Dusshera. All I would hear in the first few hours of reaching my wife’s cousin’s place was Pendyala this, Pendyala that, did I hear that he was going to give a speech, did I ever meet him face to face and shake his hand – that kind of stuff.
They have a twenty-foot blue-green Hanuman statue right at the front of the village, and they got one of their men to climb all the way to the top and deck it with garlands and jewels and so on. They got a theatre troupe called in from Guntur to perform some scenes from the Ramayana. Can you believe it? All these years Dusshera passed by without so much as a blink, but now that Pendyala was coming, it all had to be tip top.
I was sitting on the front porch watching the commotion, and one of the elderly men sitting next to me – another of my wife’s many relatives, don’t know the name – said, ‘He used to be quite a firebrand in his youth, this fellow.’ He had an old Yashica camera dangling around his neck; every village had a designated photographer back then, the only person in the village who owned a camera and knew how to work it, who would traipse around from family function to family function, clicking pictures and collecting a small amount of money and gossip as fee.
I looked around myself. There was no one else but me within earshot. So I said, ‘Who? Pendyala?’
The old man nodded. His lips protruded out like a duck’s, and he seemed to have a habit of grinding his jaws together between sentences. ‘Was born here. Always getting into trouble. Never passed a year at school the first time around, you know, and now you see him strutting about in his fancy cars.’
I had a vague recollection of digging into Pendyala’s past. We’d done some routine background checks during his first term. There had been some involvement in a gang fight, some experimentation with drug trafficking, assault as well. But everything was above board by then; he had been sent to jail. He did his time, came out a reformed man, became a politician.
Funny that I just used the words ‘reformed man’ and ‘politician’ in the same sentence. But there you go.
‘He seems to be doing well now,’ I said to my wife’s uncle. ‘If all goes well, he might even get the road to the city repaired.’
‘Bah!’ said the old man, and chuckled. ‘Been hearing that all my life. And they talk about twenty four hours power. Five years later, same road, same power, same votes. Been seeing this ever since I was half your age, son.’
‘But this time they say he is serious about it,’ I said. ‘That’s why he’s coming himself.’
‘Well, we’ll see. This is the first time since the accident that he’s seen it fit to come back, so there must be some reason for it. Maybe that other guy is giving him a run for his money. What’s his name again?’
‘What accident?’ I said.
‘The accident at the temple,’ said the old man, and nodded at the front gate of the house, as if he could see the temple right there.
‘What happened? I know nothing of it.’
‘Well, there’s not much to say,’ said the man, shrugging. ‘Pendyala was a boy of seventeen, then. Quite a loose cannon. He became friends with Roshayya, who was in the employ of the then MLA, Guruprasad. Remember him? Short fellow with the big nose.’
I shook my head.
‘Too far back for you,’ said the old man. ‘I am speaking of a good twenty years ago. Roshayya was himself a young fellow, must have been twenty five or so, though he was already a father. Many thought that he was Guru’s right hand man. But then he went swimming one day in the temple well and never came back. Pendyala said he was walking by and saw the body floating. He jumped in and rescued it, but by then Roshayya was long gone.’
I made an effort to sit up in my armchair. ‘I say.’
‘That tickles your policeman’s nose, does it,’ said the man, grinning.
‘It does,’ I admitted. ‘Did no one suspect Pendyala, then?’
‘Oh there were some rumours.’ The man sniffed at the air in suspicion, then went back to chewing on his tongue. ‘But you couldn’t make them stick. No one went to the temple well in the afternoons in those days. Even today you’d find it pretty empty. A man could murder his brother there and you would not hear a thing.’
The man shrugged. ‘Came, asked a few questions, took Pendyala’s statement, and went away. They were going to arrest him for something else, but in two days, Guru swoops in and takes Pendyala away. Roshayya’s wife and child leave too. The next thing we hear is that he’s in jail somewhere in Guntur, and then a few years later he resurfaces in all white, black sunglasses on, looking like a corporator and a politician rolled into one.’
At that point, someone called us inside for snacks, and I just did not get the opportunity to press the topic again. Around sunset we all went to the temple square where they’d erected a stage. The headman gave a small speech welcoming Pendyala, and then the man himself emerged, looking exactly like my wife’s uncle described him – in all white, eyes covered by sunglasses even though there was no sun, and your usual politician smile plastered on the face.
He waved once in this direction, once in that, and then joined his hands together in front of his forehead.
‘The people of Vaikunthapuram are my people,’ he said. ‘They have suffered for long enough in the hands of inept administrators.’
Someone from the crowd muttered that the inept administration had been his, but he continued, unfazed.
‘This time, I promise, I will have a tar road laid all the way to this temple.’ He pointed to the ramshackle structure with ashen-yellow walls. ‘And I will build a new temple that will be three times as big.’
That drew a smattering of applause.
‘I was never a great student,’ he said, with a crooked smile, ‘but I will have a new school built so that the kids of Vaikunthapuram can dream big dreams.’
This time the applause was stronger.
‘And the statue of Lord Anjaneya that welcomes us at the entrance to the village? We deserve a much larger statue, my brothers and sisters. I have already instructed my engineer that we should get a new statue designed, and it will be ready before the election. Before the election! I am not doing this for votes, brothers and sisters. I am doing this because I love you all.
And just like that, with three promises, the prodigal son of Vaikunthapuram won over his people. After that the evening strolled along in a lazy sort of way, with Pendyala answering every question from the audience with some version of ‘I am doing this because I love you all.’
I must hasten to add here that in spite of this all, I reiterate my earlier statement that he was not bad for a politician. He had bluster and confidence, and he did eat more than his share, but he had not the relentless greed of other MLAs I’ve seen loot this part of the country ever since.
Anyhow, then they put a heavy pink garland around his neck – a much larger one than what went around the Hanuman statue – and guided him to his seat in the front row facing the stage. They cleared space for the troupe, and in no time at all, we were all treated to Lord Rama’s childhood stories enacted in the form of a play.
Now they began with youngish actors, you see, and they did the whole marriage and leaving for the forest thing. Then they fast-forwarded straight to the war, and this is fourteen years later, so they brought in adult actors for the final war scenes. And the first time Rama and Lakshmana enter with their bows and arrows, a loud cheer goes up all over the temple, and they chant, ‘Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.’
They mean Ravana, of course, but then, just at that moment, Rama comes to the edge of the stage. The blue light falls on his face, full and proper. He plunges into this long monologue about how much he has missed Sita, how much he loves her etc. And I see there is a bit of commotion in the front row. There are a couple of guys scrambling, and Rama has his eyes set on Pendyala in the front row.
There was this strange, silent moment then. Everything seemed to go quiet. Nothing seemed to move very much. My line of vision filled with this boy who was playing Rama.
He raises his bow, nice and unhurried, sets an arrow to the string, and says this: ‘You must die today, for you’ve taken all that is mine.’ And then he shoots at the chief guest.
I seated myself toward the back with the family; it was to be a boring evening. But when this began to happen and the moment passed, I jumped to my feet, picked up my lathi, and ran as fast as I could to the front. As I move I hear the first yell of pain, and then the second, and by the time I reach the front row, I see that the MLA’s assistants are crouching by his side, two of them rubbing his palms and the other two tending to his feet. On the stage, Rama is still standing and watching in absolute horror,
‘Hey!’ I said to him. ‘Come down here!’
‘Y – yes, sir,’
I picked up the arrow that had struck Pendyala. It was made of the softest rubber you could ever feel, Shastri gaaru, and though it had struck Pendyala on the chest, it had done so gently. I knelt by the prostrate man’s side and felt for a pulse. There was none. I whispered to the bodyguards to carry him away, and to the bumbling headman I said, ‘Announce that Pendyala is being rushed to the hospital and let the play go on.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’
I closed my hand around the wrist of the boy who shot the arrow. ‘I am going to have to arrest this fellow, but otherwise you’re good.’
* * *
(‘You’re right, Seetaraamaiah gaaru,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘The river does sound like she’s hungry.’ Then he popped a fresh piece of coconut into his mouth and resumed.)
We were just making sure that the crowd doesn’t become unruly, of course. Pendyala was already dead. An RMP we pulled out of the back row tried to get his heart going again but to no avail. He said that Pendyala had a bit of a weak heart, and it seemed that the shock of getting shot by the arrow must have pushed him over the edge.
‘So you’re sure it’s not the arrow that caused the death?’ I asked.
‘Positive. There is no wound.’
He gave me a strange look. ‘For poison to enter the body, there should be a wound.’
The boy who played Rama spoke up for the first time, in a small, tentative voice. He was a slender, gangly sort of fellow, not the way I would picture Lord Rama in any form. And his speaking voice – unlike his reciting voice, which I had heard before – was mousey and timid.
‘The headman told him that I was to shoot an arrow at him,’ he said. ‘So it was not unexpected or anything.’
I turned to him. ‘Why did you have to shoot an arrow at him?’
‘It’s a sign of respect. I was supposed to have shot it at his feet, but I hit his chest instead.’
‘Yes,’ I said sourly. ‘Missed it by a little bit, didn’t you?’
‘It’s a fake arrow,’ said the boy. I say ‘boy’ now, but he was a youth of twenty five or so, and at that time I was no more than a decade older than he was. ‘Did you not hear the doctor say it’s not the arrow that killed him?’
The town hospital confirmed what the RMP at Vaikunthapuram said. No external injuries. Just a cardiac arrest, consistent with his past medical record. I took the boy who played Rama – his name was Mohit – into custody, kept him in the police station for a couple of days, and then released him when no one pressed charges. Everyone seemed happy with the verdict of spontaneous death by heart attack.
I still made some enquiries, though. Asked around about Mohit. He lives in Guntur. No parents. He has been part of the acting troupe for a long time now, but this has been his first time in Vaikunthapuram. No criminal record. Studying to be a lawyer. Respectable fellow. I had no choice but to let him go.
(Venkat Reddy finished the story, dusted his hands and said, ‘That’s what happened. Now over to you.’)
* * *
Krishna Shastri was drawing patterns in the turmeric and vermillion smeared on the plate in front of him. The flame had long since died, and the only light in the temple came from the sixty-watt bulb swinging in the breeze. It gave Venkat Reddy an eerie sense of sitting in the company of ghosts.
‘Well,’ said Seetaraamaiah, ‘you have already given us the solution. And it’s perfectly satisfactory.’
‘It is,’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘But I ran into the old uncle a few months later, and he gave me a certain something. That is when I understood how mistaken I’d been.’
Krishna Shastri looked up. ‘Did he give you something or did he tell you something?’
Venkat Reddy smiled. ‘He gave me something. Can you guess what it is?’
‘Oh, it might be anything,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘For starters, perhaps, the discovery you made was that Mohit is not the real name of the boy who played Rama.’
‘Correct,’ said Venkat Reddy.
‘And perhaps that it was not quite the first time Mohit came to Vaikunthapuram.’
Krishna Shastri shrugged and examined the patterns on his plate. ‘This is not easy, guessing purely from imagination. But I get the feeling that Mohit – we can call him that for now – knew Pendyala. He knew that the MLA has a weak heart, and that if a jolt big enough is given to it, it might just stop functioning. So he comes into the picture, speaks his monologue, and says those words – they were supposed to be said to Ravana, I am sure – which awaken something in Pendyala’s memory. Some old memory, perhaps…’
Venkat Reddy placed a hand under his chin and said, ‘Go on.’
‘The stage was set in the temple compound, you said,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘That must bear some significance too. Did you not say Mohit was twenty five at the time?’
‘He was,’ said Venkat Reddy.
‘Then he was the same age Roshayya was when he died.’ Krishna Shastri ran the web of his thumb and forefinger along his sacred thread. ‘Maybe something about Mohit reminded Pendyala about Roshayya. Now that I think about it, did you happen to find out how old Roshayya’s child was when he was taken away by his mother?’
‘I did happen to find out, actually,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘on my next visit to Vaikunthapuram. The boy was five when they left the village.’
A small smile lit up Krishna Shastri’s face. ‘The numbers add up, don’t they? Roshayya’s boy was five when Roshayya dies. Twenty years later, he would be twenty five, the same age as Mohit, who reminded Pendyala so much of Roshayya and his heart gave up on him in fright.’
Seetaraamaiah, who had been listening in silence all this while, said, ‘So Mohit is Roshayya’s son?’
‘Yes,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘That would be my guess.’ He looked in Venkat Reddy’s direction. ‘Well?’
‘When I went back to Vaikunthapuram,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘I met the uncle again, and he commented on how much the boy who played Rama reminded him of someone from the past. He couldn’t quite place a finger on it, but he went back home and fished around in his old albums and found an old photograph of Roshayya, his wife, and his son.’
‘Roshayya as a twenty five year old?’ said Krishna Shastri.
‘Not sure if it was exactly twenty five years old,’ said Venkat Reddy, ‘but in his mid-twenties for sure.’
‘And he is the splitting image of Mohit.’
‘They’re almost like identical twins.’
‘He must have lived with the thought of revenge all his life,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Mohit’s mother must have filled her son’s heart with it. But Pendyala left the village and never came back. Mohit never could get at him.
‘But when he came to know through his acting troupe that Pendyala was coming back to Vaikunthapuram for Dusshera that year, he must have thought that this was his chance. He knows that Pendyala has a bad heart; the politician’s health was likely in the news. So he knows that he does not need to do anything drastic. All he would do is give his weak heart a little push, and see how it handles it.
‘Much of his work is done for him, you know. He is already in Guntur. A stroke of luck meant that his own acting troupe is performing the play in Vaikunthapuram. He might have had to pull some strings to land the role of Rama, and the rest – he could just let the resemblance he bears to his father, and the atmosphere of the temple compound itself, take care of it.’
Seetaraamaiah said, ‘But how come Pendyala did not recognize him the moment he stepped on to the stage?’
‘Maybe he did,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘But then you have to remember. He would be in costume, with makeup, a wig and all the other paraphernalia. Only when he stepped to the edge of the stage, into the light and Pendyala’s line of vision – only then would the MLA have seen the resemblance. And he would have seen Roshayya, the old Roshayya, raise a bow, set an arrow to the string, and shoot an arrow straight at him. And he would have heard the words, “You took all that’s mine”, which is what Pendyala himself did to Roshayya by usurping his political career.’
Venkat Reddy considered the priest with a smile. ‘And that was enough to stop his heart.’
‘His guilty heart,’ said Krishna Shastri. ‘Only the guilty are punished in such a manner.’
Seetaraamaiah turned to Venkat Reddy. ‘Did you manage to build a case against Mohit, then?’
Venkat Reddy shook his head. ‘No. No evidence. An old photograph and a resemblance between father and son is no foundation to build a case on. Also, even if I were to prove that Mohit did all this deliberately, all he did was shoot a rubber arrow at a man. With prior permission. If the man’s heart failed, it’s surely not Mohit’s fault?’
‘I see,’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘Does it not bother you that you allow a murderer to roam free?’
‘A murderer?’ Krishna Shastri interrupted smoothly. ‘A murderer, you say, Seetaraamaiah. One perfect crime begets another, and one criminal gets his comeuppance at the hands of his victim’s son. What could be more just than this?’
This ushered in a moment of silence, and Venkat Reddy found himself thinking of Mohit (no need to reveal his real name now), who was now a renowned government defence lawyer in Guntur. The last time he’d been in that town he’d paid him a visit. The boy – a man, now, with a wife and son – had recognized him. He had offered him a cup of masala chai in his office. They had not once referred, even in passing, to that night of the play in Vaikunthapuram.
Nor to Pendyala. Or to Roshayya. Or to his long-dead mother, whose name Venkat Reddy had not come to know.
Mohit had severed all ties to the past. Did he do so justly? Who could tell?
‘Then you failed to solve the case,’ said Seetaraamaiah. ‘Why did they give you a promotion?’
‘Oh, that?’ said Venkat Reddy. ‘Pendyala’s men were impressed with the help I gave them that evening. They put in a good word.’
The gurgle of the Krishna, famished and parched, continued unabated.