THIS WAS THE YEAR that we set up the swing in the backyard for Bhoomi. Arundhati had heard on that radio programme (‘How to Raise Kids with Confidence – by Dr. Anjali Sinha’) that at eleven months, children had enough of a sense of adventure to ride a swing with glee, so she got me to borrow some old chains from Avadhani and hang them about one of our mango tree’s lower branches.
The seat itself was two flat pieces of old, whitened timber wedged together by means of six or seven nails. I was no sure hand with the hammer, so the wood splintered at places. It was not the best sight to the eye, and Arundhati said as much (‘I told you to take Nandeesh’s help. He would have done it for ten rupees.’) but it did the job. You could feel the points prick your buttocks if you sat all the way back, and the chains creaked heavily on the downswing, but otherwise it was fine.
Bhoomi did not like it, though. I suggested to Arundhati that perhaps Dr. Anjali did not know the minds of eleven-month-old kids as well as she claimed, but that only drew a cold ‘hmph’, and a retort that perhaps I did not know the difference between the job of a priest and that of a carpenter.
Just to prove her wrong, I took Bhoomi at the approach of sunset that day to the backyard, and sat her down on the swing. I made faces at her. I sang to her. I poked at her sides. These made her smile at all times in the house, even when she was hungry or when Arundhati was out of sight, but here, as soon as her little fingers touched the cold metal links of the chain, she whimpered and bit her lip in fright.
‘What is it, baby?’ I asked, taking her into my arms, and examining the surface of the wood. She just yelled louder and kicked her legs, and wouldn’t stop until I brought her back into the house. Later that evening, after dark had set in, I carried the hurricane lantern over to the back window, and held it against the grill. It was a moonless, unmoving night. The leaves on the mango tree appeared to have been made of tough wood themselves; but for the faraway chirring of crickets that came from the direction of the old shivalayam, and the faintest whisper of the Godavari’s crashing against the walls of Arthur Cotton dam, one had to strain one’s ears to hear anything.
I did not know what had brought me to the window; Bhoomi was playing in the living room with an upturned empty plastic jar which had once held lemon pickle, and Arundhati sat under the hundred-watt bulb to separate insects from rice grains. I was narrating a verse out of the tandava stotram, but a distinct sound had interrupted me. A heave, a swish, a creak. As if someone had pulled the swing all the way back and let it go.
But now, there it stood, lifeless. Hard, half-eaten raw mangoes littered the dirt around it.
‘Swami?’ said Arundhati from the other room. Bhoomi went tap-tap-tap on the floor with the jar.
‘Yes,’ I said, and looked over my shoulder for just a moment. When I turned around, something cool and wet touched my face. I inhaled, and became aware of a sweet, earthy scent, one that reminded me of Ranganayaki’s thighs. It made me stiffen between the legs, even as a prayer that begged for forgiveness rose to my lips.
I lowered the wick on the lantern, intending to turn back to my wife and daughter. But for some reason I gave the swing one parting glance, and saw that it was swaying.
And a shadow of something was crouched on top of it.
* * *
The headman of Palem in those days was a portly woman with a kind face called Saraswatamma. When I had first met her about the job of head priest at the shivalayam, she had seemed cautious, and prone to long silences. She asked me if I was married. I said yes. Did I have children? Yes, one daughter. Five months old. Did I know why the previous priest of Palem had left the village? I told her that it didn’t matter. Either she liked me or she didn’t.
‘The question is not whether I like you or not, Rama Shastri gaaru,’ I remember her saying. ‘But you should know before you begin that strange things happen in our village.’
A smile began on my lips. I was a priest, I believed in God. But I had lived enough of life by then to be scared away by such warnings. I had two mouths to feed, and the temple at Dhavaleshwaram – which I had hoped would make my career – had kicked me out after a generous donation from a patron allowed them to lure some priests all the way from Tirupati. ‘Strange things’ were not going to deter me.
I told her that as long as she paid me on time, I was willing to put up with any number of strange things. There was a touch of youthful bravado to my voice – I was twenty seven, after all – even a touch of arrogance, as if to ask what sort of dark energies dared to touch the family of so pious a priest.
On the night I saw Bhoomi’s swing wave in the absence of a breeze, Saraswatamma’s words came back to me as I laid down to sleep. A part of me wanted to go and investigate straight away, certain that the shadow I had seen was a mere trick of the light. But before I could make up my mind whether or not to carry a staff for protection, another voice gathered strength in my mind. The lantern had been put off, it reasoned; you will have to relight it. There are all sorts of insects and pests out in the yard at this time of the night, so you might get bitten. Why not wait till the morning? A night’s sleep will do you good.
Arundhati and Bhoomi’s breathing had steadied by then. I tried to heed the warnings of the voice of reason, but after about an hour or so of uneasy tossing, I got up, exasperated, and reached for my dhoti. As I was lighting the hurricane lamp I thought I heard a squeak from the direction of the mango tree, as if the swing were calling out to me. I raised the wick to its full length, and just as I was unlatching the main door the sound of rain came to my ears, and my slippers were already soaking wet.
That did not deter me, though, for I only had to peer out toward the tree to see that the shadow I had seen earlier that night had returned. It had shrunken in size; where in the evening it had appeared as though it were a swelling blob of jelly plopped on the seat, now it was composed of straight lines and angles, slender, controlled, waiting.
My feet splashed water all around me as I stepped toward this figure, an intense curiosity banishing all fear to the back of the mind. The night was still singularly devoid of breeze despite the rain, and yet the swing rocked to and fro. From where I was, I could not see if the shadow had hands to hold the chain by; it certainly had no legs. Or, as I realized on approaching it further, he had his legs crossed under him, and his hands cupped over his knees in a meditative posture. He wore a triangular head on a wobbling neck, and when I came to within an arm’s length of him and held up the lantern, he opened his eyes and smiled sagely up at me.
Rain dripped off his hair, his eyelashes, his fingertips. A puddle of water had accumulated under him. Three raw mangoes were floating in it, their green flesh dotted with yellow-white crow-bites.
It should have come as a shock, but it seemed the most natural thing in the world that the man on the swing resembled me. No, he did not resemble me. He was me. Not just the triangular head, the stubble on the chin, the long arms, but he was also wearing the same dhoti, and in his lap was sitting an extinguished hurricane lantern, the same one that I held.
I reached out with my free hand and touched him on the arm, half-expecting it to pass through him, but my fingers came into contact with warm, wet flesh. He grinned, shook his head in a sad kind of way.
‘Who are you?’ I said.
‘Who am I?’ he said. ‘Who are you?’
I told him my name. He told me his. The introduction did not help matters.
‘I am coming from Ranganayaki’s house,’ he said. ‘She has a warm, inviting bed just for nights such as these, Rama Shastri.’
‘I know,’ I said, angrily. ‘But I cannot do this. I am a priest.’
‘You were a priest last Sunday too. Did you not remember your profession when you were drowned in her kisses?’
‘I did. Every single moment. That was the first time.’
The man nodded, as if he knew.
‘And the last time,’ I added hastily, the words muffled by the rain. ‘I swore to the lord that I shall never go to her again.’
‘I am a deprived man, Rama Shastri,’ said the man on the swing. ‘The lord Amareshwara knows that my wife has not given me sex in over a year.’
‘Longer than a year,’ I said. ‘Ever since she fell pregnant, in fact.’
‘That is so. Too long for a man to be denied that which is his.’
I found myself nodding to his words. ‘I told her that. But she is always tired. She is always doing some chore or the other for the girl. What am I to do?’
‘You could have borne it with good grace,’ he said, caressing the soot marks on the lantern’s dome. ‘After all, you were not born knowing the pleasures of a woman. Where was your devotion?’
‘I spoke to the lord about it! He said that there is no sin in seeking the company of a woman who belongs to the profession.’
‘The lord spoke to you, did he?’
‘The same way I am speaking to you now?’
‘Yes. Wait, you said you are coming from Ranganayaki’s house.’
He nodded. From nowhere a bolt of lightning appeared, illuminated his visage in blinding flash of white light.
‘That means you have already lain with her tonight,’ I said, shivering against the cold. ‘Why do you say, then, that I will go to her?’
‘You speak as if you and I are different people.’ The swing resumed its gentle swaying. He fingered the chain to his left. ‘The lord has given you permission to go to her as many times as you want. Then why do you wish to stop at once?’
‘Once is all I can take,’ I said. Ranganayaki’s laughter echoed in my ear at that moment, louder than the thundering clouds and falling rain. And her words, kind, intended to soothe: don’t worry, Shastri gaaru, I won’t tell anyone.
‘Tell anyone what?’ he asked.
‘If you’re me as you claim,’ I said, ‘you would know.’
‘I do know,’ he said, smiling. ‘What about her shames you so, Rama Shastri? That she was kind to you, or that you fear that she might not keep her promise?’
‘What if she doesn’t keep her promise?’ I asked, defiantly. ‘The lord gave me permission.’
‘Maybe Arundhati will not see it the same way.’
‘She will,’ I said. ‘She is my wife. Even if she doesn’t, what choice does she have?’
‘No choice,’ agreed the man. ‘But what will the villagers think? Rama Shastri, priest of the temple, who makes such a big show of not ever being present in the inner sanctum along with Ranganayaki, who makes such open declarations about the woman, has seen it fit to visit her at night?’
‘I visited her as a man,’ I said, ‘not a priest.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Did you remove your sacred thread?’
A wave of shame drenched me from head to toe. Ranganayaki straddling my body on her jasmine-strewn bed. Rangayaki moaning my name. Ranganayaki taking my sacred thread into her mouth, throwing her neck back, digging her nails into my chest.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘You did not.’
‘That is why!’ I thrust the lantern out at him. He swung back and forth, from shadow into light and back again. ‘That is why I say that it cannot happen again.’
‘It cannot,’ he said, ‘but it will. As I told you, I have just come from there.’
‘Then you have had your share of pleasure for the night,’ I told him. ‘Surely we cannot visit her twice in one night.’
‘We?’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘There is only one of us.’
‘But I haven’t visited her.’
‘But I have.’
‘That doesn’t mean that I have to too,’ I said. ‘I promised the lord that I won’t.’
‘I did too.’
‘But I don’t break my promises like you.’
The man did not say anything for one swing, two swings. He seemed to be lost in thought. Then: ‘You make the same mistake again. You speak as if you and I are different people.’
* * *
I went to Ranganayaki that night.
Or I sat on the swing in the rain and dreamt of it all. I don’t know which. Maybe both. Maybe neither.
She was not awake when I arrived at her door. I rattled her latch, roused her from sleep. She came holding a black umbrella and a torch, and when she saw it was me, she asked if everything was all right.
I did not answer her. One did not make small talk with such women.
I gripped her wrist. She did not protest. She began to lead me to the guest room, but I said I wanted to sleep with her on her own bed. She smiled coyly and said, ‘Okay. Come.’
She drowned me in desire. I went over there fully intending to make her scream, but it did not turn out that way. Ten minutes were all it took – ten glorious minutes – and I sank my teeth into her pillow and groaned. I thought of Arundhati and Bhoomi sleeping in our hut; she would not say anything, but she would know. She had known the last time. She would know this time too. There would be no words spoken; no questions asked, no answers given. I thought of the swing rocking in the rain, now empty, now filled with a shadow of myself.
I have no memory of beginning to cry, but a few moments later I was sobbing.
Then there was that laugh again, short and kind. And those words. ‘Don’t worry, Shastri gaaru,’ she said, ‘I won’t tell anyone.’ And then she sprinkled kisses over my face, my chest. I was aflame again.
Later, after my breathing had returned to normal, I asked her what must have been a strange question. ‘How many times did I visit you tonight?’ I said.
She smiled. ‘When I said I won’t tell anyone, Shastri gaaru,’ she said, ‘I meant anyone.’
* * *
I did not go back to sleep in the same bed as Arundhati that night. It was still raining. I had to wash off Ranganayaki’s smell. My hurricane lantern had given up half-way through my return journey, but I knew the path well enough. When I came to the mango tree, I found that the swing was again rocking, and this time the man who sat in it held a live lantern.
‘You are still here,’ I said.
‘Do you want me to get up?’ he said. ‘Would you like to sit?’
‘Yes. Your lantern has begun working again.’
‘It never stopped,’ he said. ‘Yours was the dead one.’
I did the same thing as I did earlier that night; I reached out and touched the man’s arm, shook off the water droplets covering it, watched them drop into the puddle below, leave ripples that made the raw mangoes bob up and down.
‘Your turn to touch me now?’ he said.
‘I was the one who touched you before as well,’ I said.
He shrugged. The rain stopped as if someone had turned off a switch. ‘Now you are speaking as if we are different people.’
‘You told me I would go to Ranganayaki tonight,’ I said, ‘and I did.’
‘I did not tell you. You told me. Then you went in search of her and I sat here, waiting.’ He pointed at the working lantern. ‘This is the proof. See?’ With a twist of the knob, the wick on the lantern lowered, and the light grew dimmer. Then he twisted it the other way, and all was bright again.
‘How many times did I visit Ranganayaki tonight?’ I asked.
‘If I said twice,’ he said, ‘will you feel twice the shame as you do now?’
I shook my head. ‘This is the last time. I promised the lord. Never again. Not as long as Bhoomi lives.’
‘Keep your promises to yourself,’ said the man on the swing. ‘I did not visit Ranganayaki even once tonight. It was all you. I came out of the house, took your place on the swing. Now if you take your spot back, I will go and sleep next to my wife.’
I found myself looking over my shoulder, at the darkened house. Then a smirk spread on my lips. ‘Why don’t you continue to sit here? I will go and sleep next to your wife.’
‘She is your wife too, isn’t she?’ said the man.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘why must I not sleep with her, then?’
‘Not on the same night, Rama Chari,’ he said, with sadness in his eyes. ‘She will know.’
‘What if she does?’ My voice came out shrill, defiant. ‘What choice does she have but to accept me?’
‘Indeed,’ he said, ‘what choice do you have but to accept yourself?’
‘I shall offer flowers to the lord tomorrow,’ I said, my head at once hanging. ‘I shall see to it that no one ever goes to Ranganayaki ever again. I shall make her life in the village a living hell.’
‘No one but you, you mean?’
‘No one full stop! I will talk to Saraswatamma first thing in the morning.’ My head swelled as I drank in my words, and I thought of Ranganayaki’s laughs, her kind assurances that she would not tell anyone. She would keep her promise, of course; I trusted her honour. I could use that against her, see if I could gather the support of the village’s women and drive her out. ‘I shall speak to all the wives of Palem’s men, ask them if they would like to see the back of the prostitute.’
The man on the swing frowned. He clutched the lantern to his chest, as if it were a baby. ‘Must you destroy her for the shame you feel in your heart?’
‘The shame she causes me to feel every day.’
‘Must you destroy her for the desire in your loins?’
‘The desire she stirs in my loins every day.’
‘You do not,’ I told him. ‘She is the embodiment of evil, the wrecker of homes. She teases all of us married men into her home, and she spins a web around us, a web from which there is no escape. If I – with all my training as a priest – could not resist going to her twice despite my vows, what chance do the other men of Palem have?’
The man on the swing thought for a second. ‘None,’ he said.
‘So the only way out is to remove her from the village,’ I told him. ‘Otherwise there is no freedom. No, no freedom.’
‘You could speak to Arundhati,’ he said. ‘It is perhaps only a matter of time before she rediscovers her desire for you.’
‘A matter of time, you say,’ I said. ‘How long will this “matter” last? How long? It has been two years already. Do you expect me to grovel at her feet?’
‘Well,’ said the man, ‘you grovelled at Ranganayaki’s.’
I held my head high. Something about this conversation made me uneasy, but I could not quite pinpoint what. ‘I did not grovel at Ranganayaki’s feet,’ I said properly. ‘I held her by the wrist, dragged her into the room. I took her as a man ought to take a woman of that type.’
‘You forget that you and I are the same person,’ said the man, smiling up at me. ‘I know what happened at her house.’
‘You know everything?’
‘Ranganayaki promises that she won’t tell anyone.’
‘And she won’t.’
‘Then we have all that we need to defeat her.’
‘Are you certain that it is her you wish to defeat?’
I stepped forward and held the chain of the swing. The warmth of the lantern kneaded my face. I looked into the man’s eyes, yellowed by the flame, and said, ‘It’s just me and her in this. Who else would I wish to defeat?’
The man did not answer, not straightaway, not ever. In a moment I switched places with him, and looked up into the crazed, reddened eyes of the man leaning over me. Then I was the man in the swing again. And then again I was the man holding the dead lantern, shaking the chain, demanding a reply. Switch. Switch. Switch.
There was no time for words. I had no idea how long I stood-sat there under the mango tree, my head whirling, my lips moving, the lantern burning, and an endless voice echoing in my head that me and the man in the swing were the same person, so I must not think of him and me; I should instead say me and me. There was no his wife and my wife; Arundhati belonged to both of us. Ranganayaki did not sleep with one of us; she had taken – and shamed – both of us. So we did not have to argue about whose revenge had to be exacted on the prostitute of Palem; it was both of us. But if it were so simple, why was my head spinning?
Why did I drop the lantern, if it were so simple, and lie down on the ground, under the swing, half-immersed in the puddle with the floating mangoes, and implore with the night to just leave me alone for a few hours?
* * *
Arundhati found me the morning after, asleep on the swing, the lantern in my lap. After she had woken me up and we went inside, I asked her, cautiously, whether she had seen another lantern nearby. She gave me a curious look and said, ‘But we have only one.’
The soot marks were as they should have been. There were no cracks on the transparent covering, no marks around the knob. Had I dropped it, then, or not?
For a few days after that, I kept away from the swing. I did not take Bhoomi to sit on it. Whenever Arundhati said that I should ask Nandeesh to mend the nails, I pretended as if I did not hear her.
And then, a couple of weeks after, at around eight in the evening, just as the last light of the day had left the sky glittering with stars, I finished reciting my tandava stotram for the evening and came to the kitchen for a glass of water. The house was eerily quiet; not even Bhoomi’s tapping of the jar on the floor could be heard anywhere. I called out to Arundhati once, and heard nothing but my own echo.
Driven by the lord’s whisper, I came to the window and peered out. Arundhati stood in front of the stationary swing, with Bhoomi in her arms. The baby did not wave her arms, did not gurgle, nothing. She had her head bent forward just a little, as if caught in a half-nod, and her little brow was set in a frown.
I knew I had to rush out and break them out of the spell, but it was as if a rope had bound my legs, and for a long, long time I stood by the window, waiting for the swing to rock, for another Arundhati and another Bhoomi to appear on it, but the moon rose and the night darkened without that ever happening. I don’t know how long I waited for them, but it must have been awhile, because I woke at the break of dawn, and found myself on the floor of the kitchen, below the window.
The first thing I did was look at the swing to find Arundhati and Bhoomi. They weren’t there.
I rushed to the bedroom and found them sleeping.
I stood with my back against the wall. Arundhati’s breasts rose and fell to an even rhythm. Bhoomi had a smile on her face, and her fingers twitched every two seconds or so. If she was seeing dreams, they seemed to be pleasant ones.
My breathing took a while to return, but when it did, I knew what to do. I ran out of the house, found the axe in the spare bathroom. It was an old relic, left here by the house’s previous owner, and the blade had almost reddened with rust. But it would do.
It took me just four hacks with all the might in my arms to chop the swing into pieces. I used it as fuel for that morning’s prayer at the temple. When they asked me why I had to unleash such savagery on my daughter’s toy, I gave them the only answer I could. I told them that the nails were all wrong.