PEOPLE HAVE COME TO THINK of Rudrakshapalem as a bit of a forbidden village this side of the Godavari. Ever since that affair of the six dead children came out in 2002, it has become worse. The daily tour buses that carry curious travellers that way from Dhavaleshwaram insist on returning well before sunset. Palem comes alive at night, they say; not knowing that evil does not concern itself with such niceties.
Mandiramma Banda. Ellamma Cheruvu. The old shivalayam, the disused well that is now a reeking garbage pit. Guide boys who were not even born in that fateful year tell tourists tales of the ghosts that reside in every grain of Palem’s sand: Avadhani still chews paan in his old cobweb-ridden hovel; Lachi floats along the glassy surface of the lake; Mahender Reddy still minds the counter of his general store, and tells everyone who listens that he intends to fix the flickering of the tubelight that he’d mounted on the porch; Sreenivas, Seenu, is laying out his hairdressing and shaving set out on his front yard to dry; and if you closed your eyes and said the word ‘Kanakangi’ three times at the entrance to the village, you will still hear the gurgle of a just-born infant.
They speak of Rama Shastri too – yes, me, though it seems the Rama Shastri of Palem was an altogether different man – and how his was the most innocent of all the lives that the village wrecked. They say he was a good man. He did not deserve what came to him, the guides tell starry-eyed visitors, but if there was one thing that evil did without fail, it was to mangle all that was good.
I do not know who lives in Palem now, whether it has become one of those villages that breathe the dead air of the past, a clutch of empty huts with broken front doors and dust-layered window panes. Sometimes I think I should go to Dhavaleshwaram and take the old road along Arthur Cotton Dam. Taking the bus would be easier. But it would also be more tiresome. If I went at all, I would walk.
This impulse is stronger on some days than on others. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to visit the house that Saraswatamma had given us next to the old temple, in which Bhoomi took her first steps? It wouldn’t hurt, would it, to step into the compound of the new shivalayam (which must be rather old itself, now) and see what had become of the brick-and-mud cottage in which Bhoomi had grown into a young woman?
All these years, I had been stymied by Arundhati’s staunch refusal to even speak of Palem, but now, she is at a place from which she cannot stop me, and yet I do not act. I sit here and write of what Palem used to be, what it was and wasn’t, what they tell you it is but isn’t, but I do not make the journey down to Dhavaleshwaram even though it won’t take me longer than a few hours.
Why? I will not admit this to a real person, but a page does not laugh at the follies of an old man. In a word, I am afraid.
Not afraid in the way the guide boys of the tour buses seek to scare their tourist clients. Not afraid of the evil that is said to have immersed itself deep within Palem’s cracked earth and turned it fallow. Not afraid of the ghosts of Ellamma Cheruvu. Such things might scare little children who have their lives ahead of them, but what is the worst a ghost can do to a person who is already half-dead?
No, what scares me is something more real than shadows and shapes. What scares me is that the searing memories of the people of Palem might return with a force too overwhelming to handle. What scares me is that I will come face to face with the past I have been recounting, and find that it is different, that it still exists, that it still throbs with life. What scares me is that if I find this is so, I might lose the one crutch I have to lean on as I limp to my grave: the ability to write about it.
It is hard enough writing about a dead monster; how does one write about a living one?
So whenever a pinch to visit Palem comes over me, I lie down on my bed and wait until it passes. (It always does.) And I convince myself that all those people – the television presenters, the guide boys, the gaggles of tourists – are wrong; the evil of Palem did not arise from its air or its dust or the bark of its trees or the water of its lakes, it rose from the hearts of its people. It is always so. Evil is a human precept; a place without men can no more be evil than a hive without bees can secrete honey.
It is also not true that Rama Shastri was a pious man who had done nothing but good deeds. He lived his life carefully cultivating that image, of course; he earned his livelihood as a priest, and when did you last encounter a priest that confessed to wrongdoing? An admission of sin damaged any man’s life – those who judge are not keen to forgive – but for a proclaimed man of god, the results can be nothing short of disastrous. So it made certain sense for Rama Shastri to exude an air of stern purity wherever he went.
Why do I speak of him in the third person? As I said, it is as if I am a different man now. The murk of Palem no longer clings to my dhoti. I have grown older, weaker, closer to death, and – perhaps mostly due to the last – wiser. I can admit to my blemishes now, because I have come to realize that there are no sinless men, only those who fail to hide their deeds from seeing eyes.
The sin that I committed, not long after I had taken the hammer to the shiva linga in the old temple, concerned a gentleman by name Chander, who summoned me before the sun had yet arisen on a misty monsoon morning, just as I was laying out my angavastram to dry on the steps leading up to the inner sanctum.
* * *
About the only thing that the people of the village knew about Chander was that he smoked about five packets of small Gold Flake cigarettes a day. He walked about Palem with a certain regal air, shaded by a black umbrella held by a doddering secretary. In the time I had known him, he changed secretaries at the rate of roughly two a year, but they all looked and walked and talked the same. I now remember none of their names.
One of them was said to have questioned Chander’s habit. If he was going to chain-smoke them anyway, said this man, why not buy big Gold Flakes instead? That way Chander would save about three hundred rupees a month (a princely sum in those days), and it would cut down on efforts required to store the damned things in cartons all over the house. Chander saw the logic of this suggestion and tried it for a week, but went right back upon realizing that the big Gold Flakes left a bitter aftertaste.
For good measure, he fired the secretary without a bonus.
On the day he summoned me, when I arrived at his bungalow with the night’s lights still on in all of the rooms, he received me in his hall, sitting, surrounded by burnt orange stubs, some of which were releasing thin lines of smoke toward the roof. He held one cigarette at his mouth between the index and middle finger, and I saw that the back of his hand was an intricate web of fine wrinkles. Chander was not a young man – he must have turned thirty five that year, no more – but he was not old enough for his hands to have aged so, either.
When he saw me enter, he signalled to his man to leave us alone. In no time, I was sitting on an upholstered rosewood chair with a straight back opposite him, just the two of us as far as I could see. I held my hands between my thighs. That seemed to be the appropriate posture when a priest visited a powerful man.
‘Shastri gaaru,’ he said, feigning nonchalance, but his eyes seemed to shine with an alert, violet light. The tips of his fingers, those holding the cigarette, twitched a little under the lone mercury bulb that illuminated the room. The house was planned in the old style, with a large square hall opening into the kitchen, a dining room and a bedroom via three separate doors. A flight of stairs started to the western corner and disappeared up into a hole in the ceiling.
‘Yes, Chander babu,’ I said.
‘Saraswatamma came to meet me yesterday,’ he said, without preamble. ‘She told me of your unfortunate incident with the shiva linga.’
I lowered my gaze in shame. ‘I told her all that she needed to know, Chander babu,’ I said. ‘I thought the temple was haunted. I saw it with my own eyes.’ If I was being fully honest, I would have added that the ghoul came in the form of my one-year-old daughter, Bhoomi. But I did not. People did not need to know everything.
Chander nodded, glanced furtively at the varnished teak door left half-ajar at the bedroom. ‘She told me,’ he said. ‘But that kind of story tends to attract attention in a place like this, Shastri gaaru.’ He made a motion with his free hand, the left, the fingers of which gleamed with rings. ‘Uneducated, uncultured folks. Silly.’
‘What do you want?’
He broke into a smile, and I noted then that he had a double canine on the right, one sharp tooth on top of the other. There had been a period during my fourteenth year when I had two canines just like that, and it had made my mother ecstatic because she said that it meant I would make a lot of money. When one of them fell off a month or so after, she was disconsolate enough to go without dinner for two straight days.
‘Do I make it so obvious,’ he said, ‘or are you a good reader of men?’
‘How does it matter?’
‘It does not,’ he said. ‘If you ask me, I do not believe in your god. Or any god. Life is difficult, is it not, Shastri gaaru? Shall we say that you have some personal problems? Maybe your wife does not see how hard you work to provide for her and your daughter.’
‘My wife and I are very happy.’
He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, looked at it in disgust, and threw it against the wall. He shrugged. ‘Then there must be something else. Something that made you angry enough to lock yourself up with the shiva linga, and then smash it with the hammer.’
‘I am not angry at anything.’
He was nodding, and he reached into his kurta. Out came a lighter, and a half-finished yellow pack of cigarettes. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘All of us can relate to it. We are men, aren’t we, Shastri gaaru, hmm? Sometimes the rage escapes us without warning. Why, just the other day, I punched the wall and burst my knuckles.’ He paused, stretched out his fingers. ‘Some days you hit them harder than you mean to. Can I help it?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I understand you as a man, Shastri gaaru,’ he said. ‘There are pressures to being a man. All of us crack now and then under their weight. You did too. I see no harm in it. A stone that the villagers pray to now has a few cracks on it. Does not bother me.’
‘Then why did you call me here?’
‘But the villagers will not be as – cavalier – about it as I am, you see,’ he said, and the eyes turned a tinge of violet once again. ‘Saraswatamma is trying to keep it quiet, telling people that the stone has worn down with age and so on, but if someone were to start a rumour, say, that the cracks have a distinct look of hammer blows, and that you were seen not too long ago going into the sanctum wielding precisely such a weapon –’
‘Who will start such a rumour?’ I asked.
‘Not I, definitely,’ he said, and smiled. ‘But someone could. What do you suppose will happen then?’
‘I am more than happy to tell the people of Palem the truth,’ I said.
‘The truth,’ said Chander, ‘might just get you lynched, Shastri gaaru. Imagine a priest who destroys the very idol that he has pledged to worship and protect. They will not have seen anything like it before, and believe me, they will all want a piece of you.’ He uncrossed his legs, and sat forward. He held the new cigarette gently between two fingers, and tapped himself on the thigh with its tip. ‘I know that Saraswatamma has her doubts about you.’
‘If she does,’ I said, ‘then I must do my best to remove them.’
‘She is not important, though,’ said Chander. ‘I doubt that she cares all that much about the linga either. Have you noticed how the people that matter never believe all of this crap? It is the sheep that must be herded, and you’re our shepherd.’
‘What do you want?’
‘What I want is perhaps not as important as what I can do,’ said Chander, and lit his cigarette at the first crisp strike of the lighter. ‘That I can tell you right now. I can get you driven out of the village with nothing but your clothes on. And that is if the villagers decide to treat you mercifully.’
I blinked at the man. He had the hint of a grin on his face. The half-open door to the bedroom made a yawning sound just then. A faint smell. What was it? Full-bloom jasmines. A whiff, a blast, and then nothing.
There was sweat on the back of my neck, in my armpits. Cold. Sticky.
‘But why?’ I asked, when I found my voice. ‘What have I done to you? You don’t even believe in the lord.’
‘My secretary tells me that you have a beautiful wife,’ said Chander, and I felt chillier still. ‘And a one year old daughter.’
I sat there, not nodding, not shaking my head, not sure what either would be construed to mean.
‘Come on, Shastri gaaru,’ he said, taking the first drag of the cigarette, and letting a stream of grey smoke out through his nostrils. ‘I am not an amoral man. Your wife is like a sister to me. Your daughter is my niece. When you leave from here, you will take with you a gift I got especially for her.’
‘Thank you. But –’
‘Think of your daughter’s future!’ said Chander. ‘Think of your wife. What she will have to endure with her side of the family. Does she not complain about you to her mother when she visits?’
‘No,’ I said, though I was not certain what Arundhati did and did not tell her mother. ‘She does not.’
‘And don’t her brothers give you these unsolicited pieces of advice whenever you meet them?’
‘She has no brothers,’ I said, testily, but she did have two older sisters.
‘Well.’ Chander shrugged, took another puff at the cigarette. ‘Just think of them, that’s all. If you were to leave from this village, where will you go? The temples in Dhavaleshwaram are teeming with priests older than you. They will not allow you in.’
‘They just might.’
Chander shook his head. ‘I know the head of the priests association in that town.’ He blinked at me playfully, as if I were a child who needed consoling after his favourite toy had been snatched away. ‘I will have a word with them, just in case they find themselves thinking of being kind to you.’
We could cross the river, I thought, and try our luck at one of the West Godavari villages. If all else failed, we would have to go to Lakkavaram, Arundhati’s village. Her sisters would come visit, ‘to see what was wrong’, her mother would make two kilos of rice crisps, and the four women would sit around a giant plate, talking in forced whispers. About me.
Something went snap at that moment. I sat up in my chair, and a rebellious anger took hold of my mind. ‘Why should I go anywhere?’ I said. ‘This is as much my village as it is yours, Chander babu. If there is something you want me to do, tell me and I will think about it –’
‘You have a Brahmin’s knack of getting to the nub of an issue, Shastri gaaru,’ said Chander. ‘And I am afraid there is no room for thinking about it anymore. I will tell you what you must do, and you will do it. Otherwise, I will find someone else to do your task, but I will see to it that your life is ruined.’
I nodded at the man, and as if it had been swung by a strong arm, the bedroom door opened fully, and the smell of jasmines hung heavier in the air. In five or six hurried puffs, Chander finished his cigarette, and flicked at the stub with his fingers without seeing where it fell.
He stood off his chair, dusted his hands, and made for the bedroom. I followed him.
* * *
I have read somewhere that our minds remember incidents from the past as a collection of images, and we fill the gaps between one image and the next with our imaginations. As I began to write an account of this story, the image that kept flashing before my eyes is the one that greeted my eyes as I entered the room, expecting to see a bed strewn with fresh flowers but finding in their stead a corpse of a woman.
White and black sari. Black blouse. A smear of blood on the forehead. Eyes closed. But there was no rise and fall of the chest, no spark that lights up the face of the sleeping. Her arms lay limp to either side of her, her fingers half-closed into fists. A gold pendant of a tiger claw hung off her neck.
She lay on a bed of crushed jasmines. Some of the white petals were stained red.
My stomach went into a twist, and I made an audible sound of one about to retch. I had seen this woman on a few occasions at the temple. Each time she had asked for the offering to be made in Chander’s name.
The wall wore a pale yellow look, like curdled milk, like Chander’s teeth. Like Chander’s teeth it smelled of a thousand burnt rolls of tobacco, some filtered, most not.
He went to her, bent, smoothed her hair.
‘She fell on the floor last night, when we were in bed together,’ he said, looking down at the body. ‘Before I knew it, she had lost too much blood. I did not have time to even call Upender Reddy.’
‘Why don’t we call him now?’ I said.
‘What’s the use, Shastri gaaru?’ he said. ‘She’s gone. Sumati is gone.’
I remembered what he had said: some days, you hit them harder than you mean to.
And not just with your hands.
I looked around the room. An ivory flower vase stood in one corner. A brass vessel in the other. A pair of lead-cast wrestler’s maces in the third. There were enough heavy things in this room to take the place of aching, hungering hands.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I found myself asking Chander.
‘I don’t want the memory of Sumati to be tarnished with investigations and such. I don’t even want that man Upender Reddy to touch her.’
‘What do you think would be a suitable resting place for her?’ he asked. ‘Shall we throw her into the Godavari? Or shall we bury her?’
I looked out of the window. The sun was up. Half the village would now be going about their morning chores. ‘We have to wait till the evening for either of those.’
‘Or we just dump her in the babul bushes near the shivalayam.’
I shuddered. ‘Why in the bushes?’
‘Because there you can be the one who discovers the body. We can say that she was attacked by a band of robbers, perhaps, who raped and killed her.’ He held the pendant in his hand, and yanked it off the dead woman’s neck with a practiced snap of the wrist. ‘We can say that they took the necklace.’
‘Who are these robbers?’
He shrugged, almost disinterested in his own story. ‘I shall see to it that no police case is written up. This is just for the fools of Palem, those who come to worship your god.’
‘But why me?’
‘Why me, Chander babu?’ I asked, stumbling over every word. Each time I took a breath of that room’s foul air, my throat itched. ‘You could have gotten one of your men to do all that you ask of me.’
Chander smiled, shook his head. ‘That won’t do, Shastri gaaru,’ he said. ‘You are one of them. They trust you. If one of my men were to tell the same story that you will, they will say that Chander must have had something to do with it, and it becomes rather a headache to manage. On the other hand, if you were to become the witness, then they will say you’re telling the truth, because you’re a man of god.’ He chuckled under his breath, as if he had said something funny. ‘Yes, they will believe you. There is much power in being a man of god, Shastri gaaru. It’s a pity that you do not realize it.’
* * *
And so it was that the following morning, a bunch of kids playing by the well found Sumati’s body, and at the village gathering that followed, when Saraswatamma called for witnesses, mine was the only hand that went up.
I followed Chander’s instructions in every little aspect of the story. Yes, I was at the temple when I heard the sounds. Yes, I was too scared to come out. (There were snickers at that, but I ignored them.) Yes, I think they were robbers, and from their accent I guessed they were from the other side of the river.
Chander said that his wife was wearing a gold pendant when he saw her last. It was worth at least ten thousand rupees, he said. And now it was gone.
The police came from Dhavaleshwaram, one betel-powder-chewing Inspector, and one gaunt constable with a brown face. They walked around the village for a few days, asked a few questions. They did not visit me, not at the house, not at the temple. Once or twice I came across them on the street, and though I averted my gaze I thought the Inspector threw me a knowing glance. I know who you are, he seemed to have said.
And yes, I accepted Chander’s gift for Bhoomi, a burgundy-red frock with golden patterns at the collar, and a neat little white bow at the back. She wore it until she turned four.
Some years later, Chander took a liking for a girl called Raji, and one night they went to the lake, as lovers did in Palem. No one knows what happened there, but on the following morning, they found Chander in torn clothes by the temple steps, holding on to his wife’s pendant, laughing, and eating mud. When I came to open the main door, he looked up at me with shot eyes, as if I was the incarnation of Yama himself.
White-clothed men came to take him away after a few days. We did not hear of him after that.
You would think that I rejoiced at this turn of events, that I offered gratitude to the lord for delivering justice, but ever since that day, I lived in a state of mortal fear that whatever drove Chander out of his wits would one day come for me. It did, many years later, in a different form, and that is how I lost Bhoomi, the light of my life.
But that story is for another, sadder day.
There are men who stay true to their principles in the face of debilitating toil. The history of our country is replete with tales of men who did what they thought was right even if it meant sacrificing all that they loved and held dear. Did Harischandra not sell his wife and son? Did Rama not give up the comforts of royal life – and his chance to reign as king – in order to keep his father’s promise? Did Shibi not cut into his own thigh to protect the life of a dove from a hungry eagle?
I don’t count myself among that number. I have found the hard way that principles and values do not place food on a dinner table, and if we live in a world that delights in making it nearly impossible for the ordinary man to do the right thing, so be it. We are all good people wanting to do good deeds, but collectively, we have given birth to a human organism that breathes the fire of hell.
Where does that evil come from? From the hearts of individuals? Or from the heart of this large mass of interlinked souls that we call humanity? I don’t think any of us know. So we do the easy thing; we blame the village, say there must be something in air, in the water, in the land.
Maybe, then, I will take that trip to Palem someday. Maybe I will head down to Dhavaleshwaram, get on one of those buses with the rickety gear boxes and glassless windows, and sit close to the front door so that I can hear the guide boys well enough as they tell their audience story after story of Palem’s magic. Maybe I will go to the cemetery, leave a clutch of wildflowers at the foot of Saraswatamma’s tombstone. Give my thanks. If Daanayya is still around, we will sit down and talk of the old days. Maybe I will visit the house in which Bhoomi died, the house which drove Arundhati and me so close to insanity, the house in which we spent ten thousand happy days, and a few terrible ones.
Maybe I will. But I know I won’t. Not in this life. Not again.
Palem will never again be real to me; I shall visit it only in the safe confines of my mind, or in that magical realm that springs to life when the tip of my pen meets the surface of the paper. Here, the demons that keep me awake at night come alive and give chase, yes, but they can never reach me, touch me, tear me to shreds. I can look over my shoulder, gaze at them, with fear but also with wonder. I can hope to one day get to know them. But if I do go to Palem, well – I am not so sure what would happen, but something waits for me over there. I feel its warm breath on my earlobe, like a lover’s whisper. It calls to me, and sometimes the temptation becomes almost too sweet to resist.
But as long as I live, I will. I must. That is my solace. My punishment. My reward.