Story 49: The Lord’s Room

I KNEW WHAT I WAS doing that sweaty May afternoon. In the body and in the mind.

I was praying for Arundhati’s good health. No, for her life.

My steel plate of offerings to the lord had two oval ridges in it. Half-burnt, still burning ball of camphor in one of them. Cooked grains of rice soaked in curd, sugar and honey in the other, and half-immersed in the mixture was the linga, black as sin. My mouth blurted out verse after verse; the words came out mangled, slurring one moment, strong the next. Between one muttered sentence and its neighbour I licked my sweat-dotted upper lip with a papery tongue, and tasted bitter, balmy salt; the salt of the sea.

This was the second year of our arrival in Palem; the new shivalayam that stands now in the middle of the village was but a clearing, in which a fair used to be held every Sunday, drawing balloon and trinket hawkers from as far as Dhavaleshwaram. The old temple crouched at the western corner of the village, next to the well of Mallishwari Devi. It filled all the way to the brim that year, thanks to the closing of the gates at the Dam. There was no need for ropes to draw the water out; one just had to lean over the edge and run one’s vessel along the surface.

The temple looked less worn down in those days than it does now, but not by much. Six old neem trees used to bathe the temple walls in their shade, all of which had been chopped off in subsequent years for various things. If you take a walk around the compound now, you will still find the stumps, and the people say there is gum oozing out of the bark even today.

Saraswatamma gave us a hut next door to Sreenivas, the barber, and that February his wife Kausalya gave birth to their first and only son. They brought him to the temple for the lord’s blessings, and I gave him the name Aditya. A nice city name, they said they wanted. Our houses almost leaned on one another, and we could often hear the wail of the newborn as if it were our own. Bhoomi had already turned one by then, and she no longer seemed to weep for no reason, but each time the barber boy woke up in the middle of the night and protested at the universe, our child would take up the cause too, with gusto.

Arundhati fell sick with cold and fever at the onset of every summer, but this year the disease kept striking back after subsiding for a week or so. Upender Reddy, who had just finished his graduation at the medical college in Hyderabad the previous year, would wheel down on a maroon Hero Ranger with his stethoscope dangling by his neck, and in his brown satchel he brought with him strips of Crocin and Amoxycillin. With each attack, Arundhati seemed to wilt further and further, until a day came when Upender Reddy guided me out to the porch and stared me down with a grim touch to his round, liquid eyes. ‘You are a priest, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Do something.’

* * *

The brass-lined inner sanctum of the temple housed a polished granite linga the size of a large rolling stone. The gold-coloured walls carried sculpted figures of age-old people bearing weapons on chariots. Soot stains of varying shapes and sizes covered their faces. A hundred-watt bulb hung off a twined red-and-black electric wire from the ceiling. The switch, concealed behind the chamber’s open door, was turned on; that year, we had a new Chief Minister in Andhra Pradesh (I do not remember his name, so he could not have been very good) who won the election on the promise of ‘zero tolerance to power cuts’. The promise held during the colder months, but around March, they began to speak of ‘load sharing’, and by May, we had returned to our old standard of eight daytime hours without power.

The sanctum’s only light came from the burning camphor flame, and each time the tongues licked at the air, the soot marks on the wall behind the linga moved in strange ways. Some devotees claimed that they saw Ganesha in them, now standing on one leg, now lying down, now in his customary seated position. Kausalya, on the day she brought her son for his naming ceremony, pointed up at the wall and asked me if that was not Kali dancing with her tongue open. I looked up and saw a spider’s hungry tentacles, but I told her that yes, yes, it indeed was the goddess.

On this day, as I made the offering of sweetened curd and flaming camphor to the linga, a snake slithered out of the shadows first, and a forked tongue lashed out from between pursed reptilian lips. When I narrowed my eyes a black crescent moon sharpened into being, almost touching the serpent.

At that same moment a foul smell sluiced over my face, as if I was buried neck deep in a mass of rat faeces. I heard the buzzing of hovering flies. When I rubbed my fingers together I felt something pasty and moist between them. Maybe a dead bird in some dark corner, I thought, and willed myself to focus on the verses I was uttering.

I laid the plate down on the edge of the linga. I dabbed my thumb into the vermillion, my index finger into the turmeric, and drew two lines at once across the head of the lord. Then I joined my hands at the chest, shut my eyes. I prayed, even as warm sweat drenched my body so that the angavastram stuck to my back and chest. Another lick of the upper lip. Another cringe as the salt worked its way down my tongue and got stuck in the throat.

It was then that a stumbling shade darkened the entrance to the sanctum behind me. With each advancing step the shape made a sound of anklets, and as the light dimmed, the crescent moon acquired a silver sheen at the edges, with the snake wrapping itself around it.

I dared not look what had come to haunt me at this hour, and for a whole minute we waited, all of us – me, the intruder, the moon, the snake, the other swirling black figures, the flickering camphor flame, the granite vermillion-smeared linga – in hope that the moment would dissolve and pass on its own, like all moments did, and that sunlight would come streaming in again, driving off this horrible rotten stench that made me want to turn my insides out.

But it did not. None of it did. The air began to churn my gut. I wanted nothing more than to run out of the sanctum at that very moment, and feel Palem’s summer sun on my back, even if it were to leave the flesh ridden with scorching red welts. If there was irony in a priest feeling claustrophobic inside the lord’s chamber, I was in no state to notice it.

I turned around, intending to flee out into the outer hall. But it brought me face to face, eye to eye, with my visitor of the unsteady gait and the jangling anklets. She was lit from behind, so I could not see her face, but I did not have to. I had held that body in my arms on numerous nights this past year. I had cradled that perfectly round head. I had peered into those eyes, found my god in them.

She spread the fingers of both hands wide and clapped them together, quietly.

* * *

She stumbled into view, and I saw that the muscles of her little neck were stretched, and there was a grin on her mouth, showing the four teeth she had acquired last month. She hobbled over to where I stood, hugged my leg, looked up at me. This meant that I had to lift her up.

But I just stood transfixed, watching. This was Bhoomi, no doubt, but her dark brown eyes were now just hollow black holes, through which I could peer at her brain. And her brain was a hissing shade of red. Arundhati was back in the hut, looking after Bhoomi. She could not have walked all the way from there to here, not in the smouldering sun, without a drop of sweat upon her face. And her body would not be so cold to the touch, as if it had been immersed in the Godavari at first dawn.

I shook my leg once, with a whimper of half-effort, half-disgust.

She held on tight, dug her fingernails into my calf.

‘Go back to your mother,’ I said. ‘I have work to do.’

‘Mother?’ she said, in her slurring infant voice, but the syllables coming out right, as if an adult had spoken them. It ought to have surprised me to hear her speak, because until that morning she had uttered nothing but a cacophony of unintelligible sounds. ‘What mother? Amma is dead.’

I turned to look at the shiva linga, for was it not said that the safest place in the world from forces of evil was the lord’s inner sanctum? And yet here I was, being accosted by a gremlin that had assumed the form of my daughter. But the linga stood mute, and the shadow of the snake wrapped itself tighter around the moon, as if it meant to squeeze it of all life.

‘You lie,’ I told Bhoomi. ‘Leave my leg and go home.’

‘I bit Amma on her arm,’ she said instead, and the lines on her neck stiffened as the grin became wider. We had had her head shaved at Sreenivas’s shop just the week before, so she was just about bald as an egg, with tiny black hair roots riddling her yellow scalp. In this light it reminded me of the raised hood of a venom-filled serpent. ‘Then I bit her on the shoulder-blade, and she cried out and said that it hurts. Then I held her eye in my hands, and plucked it out, and to keep her from yelling I bit off her nose.’

Upender Reddy had told us on our previous visit that teething babies tended to nibble and pluck at things, that if it became too much of a nuisance, we could start pinching her on the thigh as punishment. ‘But softly, huh?’ he had said. ‘Just with the nails.’

Arundhati had tried it once or twice, but had since given up. She said she could not bring herself to look into Bhoomi’s tear-filled eyes. I had been more successful with it – they say fathers are more heartless; I say they’re more practical – but the first two times I had twisted too hard, and left pink marks on the girl’s skin.

‘No,’ I said. ‘You are lying. You are not Bhoomi. Bhoomi is in my hut. Sleeping.’

‘I was,’ she said. ‘But I woke up and asked Amma for milk, but she said no. She said I must drink from the bottle, that I was a big girl now. And do you know what I did after she fell dead? I crept onto her left breast and sucked all the milk out of it. The right one, I have saved for the evening.’

I peeled her arms off my leg and lifted her up to look into her face. She began to whine and wriggle, as she did whenever I carried her – but not with Arundhati – and her eyes returned to their natural colour. I realized it was the reflection of the camphor flame that made me think that they were on fire before. She bared her teeth at me, her blood-soaked gums gleaming.

A voice in my head yelled that I should hurl this monstrosity against the wall, or perhaps at the lord’s trident. And if I truly believed that it was the devil in the garb of my daughter, I would have, too. But the muscles in my arms seemed to weaken at that moment, my bones turned brittle, and I felt like an old, old man carrying a sack of sand that was too heavy for him.

I dropped her, helpless, and I cried out in concern, but I needn’t have, because she landed on her feet, with a ghal! of her anklets and she stretched out her arms to embrace my leg once more, her mouth opening hungrily.

‘No!’ I said, and leaped back out of her reach. She looked up at me with a frown, as if puzzling out in her mind what I was doing, and then she gave me that smile again, her eyes lighting up in anticipation of play. With a shrill shriek she half-turned her waist to one side and took a step forward. Another half-turn, another step.

‘No, Bhoomi,’ I said. ‘You must not bite.’

‘But I like to bite,’ she said. ‘I liked the taste of Amma’s blood. More than her milk, Nanna. I would like to see if yours is the same too.’

I remembered Upender Reddy’s suggestion, and, dropping to my knees, I clamped both of Bhoomi’s wrists in one of my hands, and while she bent forward in a desperate attempt to reach my fingers with her mouth, I held a flap of skin behind her thigh between my forefinger and thumb, and pinched as hard as I could.

She began to whimper. Her eyes became thin curved slits. Her cheeks turned a hot shade of pink. Tears flowed down her face. But she continued to reach for my hand.

‘Bhoomi,’ I said, ‘stop or I will continue to pinch.’

She had begun to shake her head to herself these last few days. She would come to the door, try to close it, and when it did not budge, would shake her head and move on to try something else. She would try to reach for a toy that Arundhati had kept on top of the radio stand, and when it became clear to her that she couldn’t, she would shake her head and play with a stray piece of string on the ground instead. Now she shook her head in exactly the same way, but this was not the good-natured, resigned manner that we had laughed at; here she seemed stubborn, wilfully pushing through the pain to get at what she wanted.

I twisted my fingers mercilessly. She whined in a deeper voice, from the bottom of her throat, but she wouldn’t let up in the effort to dig her teeth into my fingers.

The serpent and the moon had stopped dissolving into one another. Now they stood motionless, as if they were paintings. The camphor flame continued to weave and thrash against the heavy air, but the shadows held still.

I pushed Bhoomi away, with more force than I intended, and she staggered back and fell on her buttocks. For a moment she sat with a blank look on her face, examining her now free hands. Then she clicked her tongue at me and smiled. I could not help but smile back.

‘You did not want Amma to get better,’ she said, clapping her hands softly once again. ‘You wished that she would die, didn’t you, Nanna?’

‘No,’ I told her, looking at the linga as if it were a person sitting between me and Bhoomi. ‘I came here to pray for her good health. I would not have done that if I wished her dead.’

She looked about herself, at the marks on the ceiling, at the forked tongue of the snake that kept appearing and disappearing, at the grey soot that had collected around the diminishing camphor ball on the plate, at me.

‘But I hear your voice here, in this very room,’ she said. ‘I hear you praying to the lord. You’re sobbing. You’re telling him that you wish death upon Amma. That must make you happy now, Nanna, that I have fulfilled your dream. Your wife is dead. You can go to Ranganayaki and no one in the village would speak ill of you.’

A trickle of cold sweat rolled down my temple at that moment. I remembered that day myself, as if it were yesterday. But how did Bhoomi know of it? Words spoken in the sanctum, in the presence of the lord, died as soon as they left your mouth. How did these words linger here? And how did a one-year-old infant smell them out with such precision?

‘There were moments,’ I said then. ‘There are always moments.’

‘You came here today to pray for Amma’s health,’ said Bhoomi, ‘only because you fear that if she were to die, I would be all yours to care for. And you do not want to care for me all on your own, do you, Nanna?’

‘I cannot!’ I said. ‘I cannot care for you all on my own.’

‘But do you want to?’

‘That is irrelevant. Whether I want to or not, I cannot.’

‘But whether you can or not, do you want to?’ Bhoomi let out one of her chortles. She raised both her hands to the ceiling, and said, ‘Ba, ba, ba.’

That sudden descent back into infanthood shook me awake to the absurdity of this all. I had heard it said that the first sign of madness is talking to oneself; and the second sign, answering back.

‘You are lying,’ I told her again. ‘You’re not Bhoomi. Arundhati and my daughter are back at home, and they’re as well as they could be.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘for one, you cannot speak.’

‘Maybe I was pretending all this while that I cannot,’ she said, and her face became overcome with sadness at once, as if I had pulled away her favourite toy. Through watery eyes, she nodded. ‘It is true,’ she said. ‘Amma is dead. It makes me very sad. I tried not to bite her to death. I did. But once I tasted her flesh, I could not stop, Nanna. It was – it was –’

She smacked her lips. And a wild lust arose in her eyes as she considered me, from top to toe.

I was seated on my haunches, my arms dangling over my knees, breathing heavily, as if I had run around Palem a couple of times. I shook my head at Bhoomi, but she just flashed one of her sly grins and flew at my face.

I covered my eyes, but she hit me, all seven kilos of her, full on the chest, and sent me flailing back against the wall. Something sharp dug into my neck. It sent a chill of pain to my fingertips, and they began to shiver. I gripped her by the armpits, dragged her away. As she disengaged from me with a petulant howl, I saw that she had torn off a mouthful of my flesh.

Her fingers did not end in clear nails, I saw then, but in yellowed, curved claws. She held her hands out, as though she wished to dig them into me. She nibbled on the piece of skin that she had scraped off. She licked her lips with a tongue that was half-forked, half-green.

‘You,’ I said, ‘are not my daughter.’

‘But Nanna,’ she said, ‘I am the daughter you deserve.’

‘Arundhati is not dead,’ I said, more to myself than to the little quivering lump of bones and muscles in my hands.

‘But she is,’ said Bhoomi. ‘I drank from her dead breast.’ And as she said those words, she began to smell of milk.

I closed my eyes, muttered whatever I could recollect of the lord’s prayer in that fraught instant, and begged for mercy. Then I trained my gaze upon the baby, forced myself to look into her brown, honey-drop eyes. ‘Forgive me,’ I said under my breath.

A frown covered that little, innocent brow. ‘Forgive me,’ I said again, and with one quick motion of the arms, I sent her crashing, head first, against the coupling moon and snake on the wall.

Her anklets went ghal! again. Her bones shattered on impact. A cry that had begun to escape her mouth got snuffed out. She dropped to the ground, and her left leg began to shake involuntarily. Each time it did, her anklet clinked against the muddy floor. Her eyes were open, but rolled all the way up into her sockets. Her scalp was no longer yellow but a mess of red, with black hair-shoots sticking out.

I almost ran to pick her up in my arms, but I remembered that this was not Bhoomi, just an image of the devil that decided to visit me inside the sanctum of the lord. The image of the destroyer, perhaps, who had seen it fit to test me with such ghoulish glee. The real Bhoomi – and the real Arundhati – were still back at the hut. I must go to them.

But Bhoomi was breathing at the bottom of the wall. If I hurried now, I could still save her, said a voice.

I tore myself free of it with a grunt of will, and ran out of the temple into the afternoon sun.

* * *

I’d made it as far as Mahender Reddy’s general store, outside which Sreenivas was sitting on a stool, with a masala chai in one hand, a half-finished Pepsi in the other.

He stood up as I neared him, and his face changed when he saw me. He folded the newspaper he was reading, placed his two glasses aside, and stood in his serene way, hands tucked into the pockets of his black vest coat.

Before he could ask me anything, I blurted out, ‘Arundhati is dead.’

Sreenivas was a man of steel. He spoke when necessary. Nothing fazed him. He did not react in any way to my words, merely looked in the direction of our houses further down the road, stapled together by a common brick wall and a fence. Then he turned to me. He shook his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You need some water.’

I pointed frantically at the hut. ‘Arundhati is dead. The baby killed her.’

‘Shastri gaaru,’ said Sreenivas. ‘No. Kausalya is with Arundhati. They’re all taking a nap.’

‘Even the baby?’

‘Even the baby.’

‘No,’ I said, pushing him away as he approached. ‘No, you’re lying to me.’ I started at a run toward the huts, and I heard Sreenivas’s heavy steps lug behind me. ‘They’re dead, all of them!’

His haircutting and shaving items were spread out on a red linen cloth in the middle of the porch, drying. The scissor blades gleamed white in the sun. The razor blades were sharp, washed. Pristine.

I approached the door of my hut, and I was struck by the silence of it all. No sound came from within. The picture of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, hung over our front door, next to that of Shiva and Parvati sharing one half of a body each. Could anything evil enter such a pious house? But then, had it not entered the house of the lord himself?

I flung the door open, to see the three bodies laid out next to one another. Two women on their backs, on each side of Bhoomi.

My eyes went to Arundhati’s breasts. They rose and fell. Untorn. Whole. There was a hoarseness to her breath from the infection, but the face seemed peaceful, if exhausted.

Then to Bhoomi’s mouth. Pink. No blood.

Then her hands. No sign of the claws. Just clear fingernails.

I wanted to wake them up, just to make sure they were alive. Just to crush them with hugs. To drench them in tears. But I just stood there, watching Bhoomi asleep on her side, with both her hands clasped in one another, her neck craned up as if she were looking at me, her eyes closed in bliss.

I breathed in. I breathed out.

Sreenivas laid a hand on my shoulder. When I stepped back onto the porch, he asked me, ‘What happened, Shastri gaaru?’

* * *

What would I tell Sreenivas? I just said that he was right; I needed a glass of water.

It took me until the evening to muster enough courage to return to the temple. I carried with me the heaviest hammer I could find in my storeroom. I did not know what I expected to find, and whether a hammer would help in defeating whatever energy I suspected had taken over the sanctum, but the state of affairs called for a weapon, and I went with one.

Saraswatamma and a few other ladies of the village were at the well, filling their buckets. I must have cut a strange sight indeed, a priest covered in sandal paste and amulets, with a sacred thread dangling by the chest, carrying a hammer over his shoulder and scaling the stone steps.

It was one of those evenings that brought in a cool breeze from the direction of the Godavari, and if you shaded your eyes and looked out to the west, you saw floating bits of grey clouds near the horizon.

I neared the open door of the sanctum. My step slowed.

One part of me laughed it all away, thought – no, hoped – that the room would be empty, after all; that I would be greeted by nothing more than a burnt out ball of camphor and dried rice mixed with curd and sugar.

Yes, how nice that would be.

I placed my free hand on the polished wood, pushed it gently open. At that very moment, the power returned, because the hanging hundred-watt bulb sparked to life with an audible chirr, bathing the linga in yellow-white light.

What caught my gaze, though, was not the linga but the figure that sat anchored on it, cross-legged, with yellow claws scratching at the curved black stone. A string of white stuff dripped down the corner of her mouth; the plate of offerings now sat discarded in the far corner, empty of everything, and I knew somehow that the fiend had in her hunger swallowed the turmeric paste as well. Her scalp was covered in dried blood, and her left leg still twitched.

My heart turned to ice. I closed the door behind me. ‘You leave my lord alone,’ I told her.

She gave me a lopsided smile, and made that quiet clapping gesture again. ‘I think it is you that should leave the lord alone, Nanna,’ she said.

I tightened my lips. I had had my awakening. The girl in front of me was just a mirage in Bhoomi’s form. I turned around, drew both the bolts of the door shut. I lowered the hammer, allowed my arm to feel its full weight. One swing would shatter the girl’s head open. But I would not stop at one. No.

Our eyes met. Did I sense a flicker of hesitation in those eyes? Good.

‘No, Bhoomi,’ I said, in a low voice. ‘It is you that has to leave.’

She bared her fangs at me, made a hissing sound.

I closed in.