Story 51: Two of a Kind

WHEN WE FIRST ARRIVED in Palem in 1988, Daanayya was already the guardian of the cemetery that stood leaning against the shivalayam. Arundhati was aghast when she came to know that the house of god and the house of the dead were neighbours in this village. We had come by ox-cart all the way from Dhavaleshwaram, and in those days the mud road was paved with loose gravel. It gave you a catch in the back to ride a cart for as little as ten minutes along that path, and Arundhati was feeding Bhoomi off her breast too. But that did not stop her from asking if there was any way to go back to Lakkavaram, where they made sure that the cemetery was right on the far side of the village from the temple.

Now I wish I had heard her out, of course. But back then, we had no money. The amount Saraswatamma, the headwoman of Palem, had promised to pay me for what were meagre duties would tide us over all the bad times. What harm did it do to have a cemetery standing next to a temple, I asked. The dead belonged to the lord as much as did the living, and wasn’t Shiva the destroyer, the yogi who had unlocked all the truths of life? And wasn’t death the truest of those truths?

Arundhati did not seem convinced by my argument; neither was I, but the man who drove us down from town said it would be a further five rupees to take us back, and we only had three rupees and eighty paise between us, and we weren’t going to walk back, so that was that. Arundhati said uncertainly that it would not be the end of the world if we stayed for a month – until my first salary came – to see how things went.

As it turned out, we stayed for nineteen years. But once we left, we never went back.

That is the thing with some places. When you’re living in them, they cast a spell on you. But when you leave, you leave for good.

Anyway, this is not about our life in Palem, though I suppose all my stories, in some way or another, are about that. This is about Daanayya, the man who was guarding Palem’s cemetery when we arrived, and who was still doing it the day we left, nineteen years later. If you ask me, half my mind tells me that he is still there, stick in hand, pacing outside the high metal gate, chewing on his betel leaves, humming an NTR song loud enough for everyone to hear.

Daanayya was a grey man; grey hair, grey eyes, grey lips, grey shawl wrapped around a withering frame that was all bone. He wore a dhoti, but you could never see it because he folded it right up to his thighs, and from under the shawl sprouted two naked dark brown legs, tanned and hardened by the sun. His feet always carried a coat of dried dust on them, and his toes were flat and splayed apart; the toes of a man who had never worn shoes.

No one knew what Daanayya did to earn money; as far as I know, no one had employed him to guard the cemetery. But whenever he came to the temple – after sunset every Thursday, always, just as I was about to shut the door to the sanctum – I gave him a rupee or two from that day’s donations. Once or twice I spotted Saraswatamma’s man hand him a sack that jangled with coins. And of course, when someone died, it was Daanayya’s job to collect firewood, mount the body on the heap, light fire to it, collect the ashes and charred bone after it was all done, give the remains to the bereaving family members, and take whatever they gave without murmur.

On the Friday of every week, he would disappear during the morning and return to his position at the cemetery gate at only about 3 p.m. or so. When I asked him about it he told me – rather shamefacedly – that he went to Dhavaleshwaram to catch the morning show of whatever movie had happened to come out, and that he used my two rupees to buy for himself a ticket in the front row.

‘Are you a Chiranjeevi fan?’ I asked him.

He shook his head as if disgusted. ‘Nothing like the old days of NTR and ANR, Rama Shastri,’ he said. He was the only man in the village who called me by name. I told everyone that it did not bother me, but I’d be lying if I denied that was one of the reasons why I could never warm to the man.

In my younger days I was a big fan of NTR myself; indeed, I voted for him in 1983, in 1987 and in 1994. When he became Chief Minister, I was one of the thousands who garlanded his effigy on Dhavaleshwaram’s main chowrastha. Knowing that Daanayya and I shared this love should have made it easier for me to like him, and it did, but had it been anyone else, he would have become a friend. But you take clues from the other people in the village. You notice that none of the big people – Avadhani, Chander babu, Saraswatamma – spoke to him directly, not even when they had chores for him. And if he was guarding the cemetery, it meant only one thing: he was an untouchable.

Would it have done for the priest of the village to entertain a man of no caste? I would like to say yes, but the world was different in 1988. Maybe not all that different, come to think of it; what we used to do with caste back then, now we do with money. Back then you could have all the money in the world and you would not rise above a certain station defined by your caste. Now it is just the other way round. If you live as long as I have, you will realize too that nothing really changes; nothing important anyway, not deep down.

So I kept my distance from Daanayya; yes, when he came to the temple I nodded in his direction without quite making eye contact. When he stood by the sanctum’s entrance with roses in hand, I gestured at him to drop them into my plate of offerings. I gave him the prasad, my hand hovering over his, never touching.

But I did not make small talk. When he tried, I cut him down.

So it took a rather neat trick on his part to get my attention on this foggy winter morning in 1990. (I remember the year for reasons you will know soon enough.) He came running up the steps before the first light, his hands clapped together. I had just finished lighting the lamp and cleaning the bell of oil spots, and before I could ask him in irritation what he was doing, he opened his hands and let out into the semi-dark room a flurry of fireflies.

* * *

That in itself was no great feat. Anyone with quick hands could catch a bunch of these things; yes, I did not associate Daanayya with the alacrity that the task required, but I was not yet impressed. He was looking at me with his big grey eyes – which I often thought looked like those of an exhausted hound – and smiling lips. He waited for two or three seconds, in the manner of a street performer knowing just how long he could string his audience along. And just as I was about to lose my temper, he said, ‘Rama Shastri, watch.’

I stood in the doorway to the sanctum, not knowing whether to go back in or come out to where he was standing. In my indecision a quiet moment passed. Into this moment Daanayya clapped his hands once.

The fireflies, which had been fluttering all about him, paused in midflight, as if in careful thought. I had heard that these things had to keep flapping their wings to generate the energy required to keep the light alive in their bodies; here they seemed like small stars suspended off invisible threads tied to Daanayya’s fingers. The idea makes me laugh even now, of course, because it’s such an impossible one, but that was how they looked, and the pale yellow light – almost white – did not flicker. It glowed steady and quiet, brighter than the lamp I’d lit for the lord, and from between the seven bright spots, Daanayya was shooting at me one of his silly smiles.

For a moment I thought the fellow was an incarnation of Shiva. I looked over my shoulder in wild anticipation, half-expecting the linga to be absent. But it was where it had to be, and that dulled the effect of the trick, somewhat. I gathered myself and cleared my throat.

‘What is this, Daanayya? Some trick you learnt over in Dhavaleshwaram?’

‘These flies, Rama Shastri,’ he said, moving his fingers, and dragging the suspended insects along in careless patterns, as if they were tied to invisible leashes. ‘These flies tell me who is going to die next in Palem.’ The spots of light left white trails in their wake, and before I knew it Daanayya was wielding a swirling mass of stars. I had heard it said before that death never flustered Daanayya, never caught him by surprise. Whenever the family of a dead person went to him, he received them as if he had known they would come. When they told him of what had happened, he nodded as if he had heard the tale before.

I had always thought that reaction to be one of acceptance. Of resignation that came with the job.

‘Why are you telling me this?’ I said.

‘I have to tell someone, don’t I?’ he said, shrugging. ‘Besides, I think you would like to know who it is going to be next.’

Something of a chill took hold of me at his words, and it must have shown in my eyes, because he said consolingly, ‘No, it is not your daughter or your wife. Not this time.’ Just as I was about let out a breath of relief, though, he said, ‘It is that woman.’

I knew who he meant by that woman, of course. All of Palem called her that.

‘Rubbish,’ I said. ‘Ranganayaki is in fine health. No doctor has ever been to see her in all these years.’ I thought about that. ‘At least not to cure her of a disease.’

‘She will not die of a disease,’ said Daanayya. ‘My flies have been humming and buzzing into my ear, and they speak of an injury to the back. There is blood too, they say. Someone – or some thing.’

That did not seem altogether implausible. Ranganayaki lived alone, and if a shameful man or a jealous woman were to take it upon themselves to see to her in the dead of the night, they could slip in and out without a whisper. But Ranganayaki had servants – some called them bodyguards – and she lived in a house walled on all four sides. Her doors were made of heavy oak. The locks on her safe boxes were larger than the ones on my main door. Who could dare?

One of the flies suddenly shook itself out of the stupor and made a beeline for the dark spaces, but Daanayya twisted one finger just a touch, and the insect combusted with a bhagg! as if it were doused in petrol. It flapped its wings a couple of times and tried to regain its flight, but they turned to dust and fell off. When it hit the ground it was a speck of cinder.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Daanayya, in his humming voice, and for a moment I could not tell whether he was talking to me or to the charred fly. ‘The lord will make it so that everything comes right in the end.’

‘If you know that she is going to die,’ I said, ‘why can you not save her?’

‘You are a priest, are you not?’ he said, frowning.

‘I am.’

‘Then you must not be a very good one,’ he said, ‘because if you were, you would know that seeing one’s destiny and changing it are two different things.’ He pointed at the dead fly, which was now beginning to smell like a rotten egg. ‘I knew, for instance, that that fly was going to die. Did I save it? Could I save it? I am just a guardian of a cemetery.’

‘Then why are you telling me this?’

‘I told you. I had to tell someone. Every few years or so, I tell one person in Palem. And that person dies.’ He watched me as he said this, his eyes very still. ‘And I become lonely once again.’

‘But that is not your only reason.’

He shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Not the only reason. I got the feeling that you would somehow like to know about the woman dying.’

‘Why would I?’ I said. I wanted to add that in all of Palem, I was the only man who had not made use of Ranganayaki’s services. But something about the moving points of light around Daanayya’s waving fingers made me hesitant to lie. So I said instead, ‘What is Ranganayaki to me?’

‘She is nothing to anyone,’ said Daanayya. ‘But you are a man of god, Rama Shastri. You will see to it that she gets a proper farewell from this land of the living, won’t you?’

‘That is not my concern,’ I said. ‘The lord will see to it.’

‘But you need to chant the right verses, don’t you?’ He bent his lanky head to one side, exposing one side of a sweat-soaked neck. ‘Without your involvement, no soul would ever reach Kailasa.’

‘But why me?’ I said. ‘You know everything that needs to be done. Her people will come, I am certain –’

‘She has no people,’ said Daanayya. ‘She has come alone. She has to go alone.’

‘We will not allow that,’ I said. ‘If she indeed dies as you said she will, there will be a police case. Questions will be asked.’ The first glimmer of suspicion came to me at that moment, when I mentioned the police. ‘When did the flies tell you that Ranganayaki is going to die?’

A deathly smile spread on the man’s mouth, and he showed me his broken teeth. No one in Palem ever remembered a time when Daanayya’s teeth were not half-decayed, browned and yellowed. ‘Yesterday,’ he said.

‘And when is Ranganayaki going to die?’

The smile widened, and he gave a bit of a half-cough, half-splutter, as if I had asked the stupidest question of the morning. ‘Did I not tell you, Rama Shastri?’ he said. ‘She died this morning, two hours ago.’

* * *

I don’t quite remember how that scene with Daanayya at the temple ended, but I suspect he might have trapped his flies back in between his hands and walked away. I also don’t remember feeling anything akin to sadness at Ranganayaki’s death. A rather shameful part of me felt some relief, even, because I hoped, rather like all the other men of Palem, that my secret would die with her.

But was it a secret at all? The success of Ranganayaki’s business lay in her overflowing safe boxes – the police found five, one in each room of her house – her jewellery sets, and her collection of Mysore Silk saris. If you lined up all the men of Palem and asked them straight if they ever visited that house, they would react with righteous disgust. Some would even pretend to deny knowing who Ranganayaki was. But the proof, if we needed it, was there in the kind of life she led, and the kind of death she got.

Sreenivas told me later that day, when we sat together on his porch after lunch drinking some tea, that there was one man indeed in Palem that Ranganayaki had refused to see in all these years. I expected him to name me as the man, and prepared to make the right kind of modest noises, but he said with a straight face, ‘Everyone knows that Daanayya never got to touch her.’

‘Really?’ I said, sitting up. It was a hot day, and the angavastram stuck to my back through a film of sweat. I peeled it off and held it crumpled in my fist.

Sreenivas nodded. ‘She has always said that all men of Palem are welcome at her house. All women too. All but one. She told her bodyguards that Daanayya was never to be entertained, that he should be driven out at sight.’

‘I wonder why,’ I said.

‘Can you not guess?’ Sreenivas said, smirking out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Even a prostitute cannot bring herself to touch an untouchable.’

‘Maybe he never had enough money to afford her,’ I said, averting my gaze.

‘No,’ said Sreenivas. ‘He has offered her double the price. Sometimes even triple. But she has always said no.’

On the way back to the temple after lunch, I thought about those words. I had come to believe that Ranganayaki was a wanton woman of the flesh, for whom money was the only arbiter. But even she had rules about whom she could serve and whom not. She had not seen it fit to drive me out though I was a pious man of god, even though she should have, and I would have never returned to her if she had. But she had withdrawn herself from Daanayya. She was one kind of untouchable, one that no one admitted to touching, and he another kind, whom no one touched unless they had to. I would have thought Ranganayaki of all would have understood Daanayya’s plight, and would have treated him like he was just another customer. But no.

It was scorching hot by the time I reached the temple. I arranged a clutch of chrysanthemums at the lord’s feet, and murmured a few verses in Ranganayaki’s name. Not all the words that stumbled out of my mouth that afternoon were for the peace of her soul, though; at least a few were for mine.

* * *

By early evening, as I had expected without knowing why, a dome of grey clouds covered Palem. It was not the season for storms, but it was not the season for suspicious deaths of young women either. Daanayya had come to see me at the temple not long after I’d finished my prayer, and had asked me to come to Ranganayaki’s house. ‘The body is laying there unclaimed, Rama Shastri,’ he had said. ‘No one in the village is budging out of their houses.’

‘Is it any of my concern?’ I asked him, touching my fingertips to my cheeks and murmuring a quick verse against Daanayya’s blasphemy. Did he not know that Brahmins did not touch corpses?

‘If it is not your concern,’ he said, ‘then whose is it? I have been to Saraswatamma’s house. Chander babu. Avadhani. I have knocked on every damn door in the village, asked every man who visited her when she was alive.’ There was anger in the mild grey eyes, anger in the way he pounded the stick against the stone floor. I looked around for the flies he had had brought with him in the morning. There was no sign of them.

‘Why should you worry so much about her?’ I said. ‘She didn’t even allow you to touch her.’

A slight blanching of the face; he had not anticipated that I’d know of it. But he fought it and smiled. ‘Every dead person deserves a farewell, Rama Shastri.’ A low, distant rumble accompanied his words, and I smelled rain in the dust-laden breeze. ‘And I am the keeper of the cemetery. Dead people are my business.’

‘Even those you have rejected you?’

‘Can you show me a man who has not rejected me?’

He had waded into the wind with one arm shading his face, against my protestations. That was half an hour ago. All this while I’d been sitting at the entrance to the sanctum, facing the linga, watching the flowers that I had kept at its base. I asked the lord if he knew the truth. He did not answer. I asked him if it was Daanayya, overcome by shame at being rejected by a prostitute at triple the going rate, had killed Ranganayaki in the morning and had come by the temple with that little trick with the fireflies, to cover his tracks. But would rejection sadden Daanayya of all people, he who lived in its throes every waking moment?

‘Why don’t you answer?’ I asked the linga.

It began to rain. A steady, incessant drizzle. I went to the main entrance of the temple and stood watching the cemetery. Daanayya’s hut stood in the shade of a large guava tree in the middle of the compound. He had left his light on; a sole beacon of orange in a sea of grey. At that moment we lost power, and the light went off. In ordinary times the darkness of the sanctum and the temple, with the sole light of the burning flame, would drive me to dread. But now I did not even notice it.

Because in the distance, I saw the faint shape of an approaching figure. It was a man carrying a sack on his bent shoulders. He walked in a slow, certain manner, but the rain lashed at him, beat him around the ears, dripped off his soaked shawl in streams, and splashed around his feet. It was too murky to see anything well, but I did not need light to tell that this was Daanayya, though he did not have his stick. And what he carried over his shoulder was not a sack.

Something heavier.

He paused at the gate to the cemetery, spent a studious five seconds opening the lock. I could see in my mind’s eye now how he must have walked all the way from Ranganayaki’s house to here. He would have had to cut through the village; the other way would have been too long. Long lines of huts on either side of the lone walker. All the windows bolted. All the doors shut. They would all have peeped at him through the crevices, though. Especially the men.

Ranganayaki’s arm hung off the side; he held the bangled wrist and walked among the tombs, in a straight line leading up to his hut. I went into the sanctum to find my umbrella; by the time I found it and brought it out, the rain had eased, and by the time I got into my slippers and tiptoed my way to where he was sitting, it had stopped altogether. He was kneeling by her, wiping the water droplets off her arms with a warm white cloth. He wore a smile on his face, and he hummed an old song, something about a newlywed wife complaining to the moon about her husband.

He looked up at me as I approached, but the smile did not leave his face. The clouds parted, allowed a few evening sunbeams through. They caught him full on the face, and his wet hair glistened as if it held a thousand firefly eggs. He dried Ranganayaki fully, and covered her in a blanket made of fresh linen.

‘People generally ask me to cremate their loved ones at dawn,’ he said, swatting off some gathering mosquitoes. ‘But if you tell me there is a better time between now and tomorrow morning, I will do it then.’

I did not answer for a long time. It was as if the man was speaking out of a deep well. A part of me expected to see Ranganayaki open her eyes right that moment, sit up and rub her face, smile up at the sun, and then turn to palm the cheek of the man who had carried her here. The man she had, in life, refused to touch.

She did none of that, of course. She was dead, as much as it looked as if she were sleeping.

I told Danayya that the next morning would be fine. There was no other auspicious moment between now and then.

* * *

The next morning, by the time I reached the temple, Daanayya was already gathering Ranganayaki’s ashes into an earthen vessel in the cemetery’s eastern corner. He kept them safe in his hut for a full six months after that day, in the expectation that someone would come asking after the dead woman. After all, he said, no one could be so utterly alone in the world, could they?

I happened to know that on the third day after Ranganayaki’s passing, Saraswatamma, as the village headwoman, took possession of the house and all its contents. On the fifth day, a portly silk-turbaned lawyer came from Dhavaleshwaram in a white Ambassador, with a yellow file folder under his arm. Someone in town had staked a claim to all that Ranganayaki owned, and no, they did not wish to see the remains. Over the next six months, little by little, what had once been Ranganayaki’s left Palem never to return; the oxen that pulled her cart, the jewels and cash in the safe boxes, the saris, the pots and pans, the furniture, the beds on which all the men of the village had lain at some point or the other.

I did not tell Daanayya about all this. Sometimes, you just let a man’s hope die on its own. Every evening those six months, he would come to the temple after dark, like on that first day, but he would not perform any trick with the fireflies. He would just give me a rose to place at the foot of the linga, and ask me to say something nice in her name.

They took away the last of Ranganayaki’s belongings – her refrigerator – on the day that Daanayya – after having realized the futility of his wait – left for the Godavari to sink her remains in it. He got nothing out of it all; not even his fee. The people who inherited all that Ranganayaki owned never came to Palem; the lawyer took care of it all. He did not see it fit to visit the cemetery. I don’t think he even knew of Daanayya.

That evening, when he came to give me his daily rose, I rummaged into the donations box and gave him sixteen one-rupee coins. ‘On behalf of the village,’ I told him.

He began to shake his head, but I shushed him before he could say anything. ‘You were doing your job, and you deserved to be paid for it.’

He smiled, the way he did when he showed me his fireflies. He pocketed the coins, joined his hands. ‘You’re a good man,’ he said.

‘Not as good as I could be.’

‘Isn’t that true of all of us?’

He held up his hands then, clasped together, and when he opened them I saw little points of light spring out and dance in the darkness between us. He pulled his fingers back, and the insects stopped in mid-flight.

‘Do you want to know who is next?’ he said.




He grinned at me for a long moment, with his head bent to one side. Then he shrugged and pulled his sparkling minions back into the cave formed with his hands. He made a show of returning them into his pocket, and with the exaggerated manner of a magician, showed me his empty hands after it was all over.

‘Did you kill her?’ I asked him at last.

But he did not answer. He just placed his finger to his lips, as if saying that it was an inappropriate thing to ask inside the lord’s house. And he turned and left for the cemetery, loudly humming an old NTR song.