Story 52: An Impossible Story

THE OLD WOMAN WHO knocked on the door of my house on the June morning of 1991 had owlish eyes that peered out from behind square black spectacle frames.  They were large enough to render her button-nose insignificant. She lugged alongside her a bright red metal trunk with the words ‘Captain Bhaskar Muppidi’ written in yellow cursive next to the brass lock. It rattled and rumbled each time with each step she took, and when she saw me her eyes lit up in recognition.

‘Rama Shastri,’ she said, ‘you haven’t changed at all.’ Her voice was thick and leathery. If I had heard it on the phone, I would have bet my life that it was a man’s. ‘It’s like I’ve seen you just yesterday, and yet it has been twenty years, hasn’t it?’

That made no sense, because I had turned thirty two in 1991, and twenty years before that, I was but a boy of twelve, attending school in a small village called Nimmagadda that I doubted the woman had ever heard of. I gave her a small glance of appraisal. She wore white-and-blue Bata slippers that were at least ten years out of date. She stood with her legs bent inward at the knees, and I could tell that it was painful to make any sort of movement on those things. Loose, folded skin on the arms and cheeks, under the eyes. White, white hair.

No less than eighty, I thought.

‘Do I know you, madam?’

She adjusted her glasses, flashed a set of teeth so even that they had to be false. ‘You have forgotten your old friends, have you, Rama Shastri? How is Chander? Is he still roaming about the temple with that pendant in his hand?’

Now this was still before Chander had gone crazy, you see, so the meaning of that sentence did not sink in at the time. All I knew by then was that Chander was just fine smoking his small Gold Flakes and minting his money doing – well, doing something. No one in the village seemed to know just what he did besides walking the streets of Palem in the manner of a prince.

So I was thinking that this was a lady who had gone just a little off balance in the head. It can happen when you’re old and lonely. And poor. She looked all of that.

But here’s the thing about mad people. You don’t tell them they’re mad. That made them madder still. You speak to them as if they were saying just the right things. You nod along, you tell them you understand, you ask them no uncomfortable questions. What I wanted to know, though, was how she knew my name. And Chander’s.

‘Yes,’ I answered her, ‘he is just the same.’ Which was neither a lie nor the truth. Just a statement. Filler. ‘How did you come to know that I lived here?’

‘You were always living here, weren’t you?’ she said, looking around her in fondness. Her roving gaze swept over the cemetery, in the corner of which stood Daanayya, looking up at the sun with his arms outstretched toward it, and the vessel containing Ranganayaki’s ashes resting on his palms. ‘Who is it that Daanayya has cremated this week?’

‘A young women from the village,’ I said. ‘You would not know her.’

‘Such a pity,’ she said. ‘Death is always such a pity, isn’t it? When did it happen?’

‘Four days back.’

‘Oh. Then when does Daanayya still have her remains? Did her relatives not take them?’

‘She had no relatives,’ I told her. ‘She is – a special lady.’

The woman looked at me curiously, and then seemed to understand. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘We used to have one of those too back in the day. I don’t know if you remember. A girl called Ranganayaki. We called her Rangi.’

‘The only Ranganayaki I know,’ I said, with some asperity in my tone now, because this was getting weirder every passing minute, ‘died four days ago in an accident in her own home.’

‘Maybe it’s a different Ranganayaki,’ she said, shrugging in good humour.

‘I know just the one.’ I was standing at the front door to my house looking out onto the porch. Sreenivas the barber came out, slurping on a neem twig, and when he saw us he gave a hesitant half-wave. I made a motion just with my head. This was not a great morning for games like this; Bhoomi had been ridden with fever for two days, and all Upender Reddy did was to give her four Crocins every day. And he charged us double for each tablet, not counting his consultation. We had already paid him two visits, and Arundhati was pestering me that we ought to take the girl in for a third. Half my salary, already gone.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Lady. I don’t know who you are, but I don’t think it is me you want. I am new to this village myself, been here less than three years. If it’s all the same to you, I will send you over to Saraswatamma’s place.’ She will know what to do with crazies. I thought that last part, did not say it.

‘No,’ she said, dragging the trunk closer to her and raking up some dust as she did so. ‘I want to go back to my old house. It is still vacant, is it not?’

I was about to ask her where her old house was, but just at that moment, Arundhati came rushing out of the front room and tapped me on the shoulder. She had a moist piece of linen in her hands – the one she had been using to dab Bhoomi’s body to bring her temperature down – and they were trembling. ‘Swami,’ she said. ‘Swami.’


‘Bhoomi is saying – speaking – she is raising her hand, her eyes –’

‘Speak properly, woman,’ I said, my voice harsher than it should have been, but seeing Arundhati’s face drained of all life like that put the fear of God into me. She had her faults, Arundhati did, but you could count on her to stay calm even in the middle of a raging fire.

‘Swami – Bhoomi – saying that an old woman – will come – take her away –’ Then she saw our visitor and turned paler still.

‘Rama Shastri,’ said the lady, tapping her trunk. ‘It sounds like your daughter is sick.’

‘She has been, madam, for two full days now.’

‘I have something here for her,’ she said. ‘I guarantee that she will be up and about in less than an hour.’

I looked at Arundhati. Arundhati looked at me. We both knew what Upender Reddy would have said to that. Don’t take medicines from anyone who is not a doctor, he would say. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he, being a doctor? I figured that it would do no harm to try; Upender Reddy’s clinic would not open for two hours yet, and if we did nothing until then, judging by Arundhati’s frantic gestures, Bhoomi might just be lost to us.

‘Shall I?’ said the lady, and Arundhati said, ‘Yes. Yes, please, do something to save my baby.’

The decision, in that way, was taken out of my hands.

* * *

Bhoomi turned three in March of that year. She had been a devil of a child the first year, kicking and falling all over the place, but the following two years had seen a bit of a mellowing down, and by the time the trunk lady visited, she was a quiet little thing, protesting softly when hungry, crooning to herself when sleepy, and altogether giving off an air of being at peace with the world.

It did not take the promised hour for her to get better; it took a lot less. No sooner had she swallowed the woman’s pink fluid than the colour returned to her cheeks. Her eyes stopped dilating. The machine-like drone that she had emitted all night vanished, and she even managed a smile when our eyes met. She reached out with a weak, warm hand; I clutched it and sat next to her.

When she woke up, no more than ten minutes later, she felt strong enough to walk, but Arundhati made her gulp down a glassful of warm milk mixed with Horlicks. She made a face when the black residue of the last mouthful got stuck in her throat, but she swallowed gamely, and smacked her lips. The green had disappeared from the whites of her eyes. Her skin seemed to glow again. She grasped my hand with a strong grip.

‘Who is the grandmother?’ she said.

I realized then that I had not asked our guest her name. She did not let my embarrassment show. ‘My name is Surekha,’ she said. And then she repeated the lie: ‘I used to live in Palem twenty years ago.’

‘Wow,’ said Bhoomi. ‘You mean when my father was a boy.’

Surekha frowned, scratched the edge of her brow with a gnarled finger. ‘No,’ she said, as if the strangeness of the situation had just struck her. ‘No, he was just the same as he is now.’

‘You should go to sleep, Bhoomi,’ I said.

She began to protest, but Arundhati came back from the kitchen and issued a stern command, at which the girl wilted, but not before throwing me a glance that was in equal parts entreaty and accusation.

We went out back into the front room, Surekha and I. I showed her into the armchair, and took the stool for myself. For a few minutes we sat in our spots, looking at the floor, out of the window, anywhere but at each other. I wanted to tell her that I was grateful, that she had saved Bhoomi’s life, but there was also the awkwardness that came from addressing a complete stranger.

‘I – we are both very thankful to you,’ I said, at last. I could not bring myself to look into her eyes.

‘I hope you will help me find the old house,’ she said.

‘Do you know where it is?’

‘If you take the left after you pass Mandiramma Banda, it’s the first house. We used to live next door to a man called Polayya. Do you remember him?’

I nodded. ‘Polayya has his arrack shop on the other side of the village, toward the back, away from the road. But his shack stands next to an empty plot of land. I have asked around, and they say it has been empty for as long as they can remember.’

‘Empty?’ she said, bending forward in concern. ‘That cannot be so.’

‘If you had not come here in the last twenty years,’ I asked, ‘how do you know Polayya? He came here only eight years ago, didn’t he?’

‘And you?’

‘I – just two years.’

‘And Ranganayaki?’

I began to answer, but stopped. ‘Perhaps we should not speak of the dead.’

‘She was missing when we left the village.’ The deep frown returned to her face. From inside the house, Arundhati sang Bhoomi’s favourite lullaby in sweet, dulcet tones. I kept an ear cocked for that hoarse whine again, but all I heard, to my relief, was the child’s steady breathing. ‘They said that someone killed her to get hold of her son. And then they buried her. Tell me something,’ she said, and she made clawing gestures with her fingers bent in the shape of hooks, as if she were trying to grapple with some faraway image of her past. ‘Have you ever seen lilies in the plot of land next to Polayya’s shack?’

‘Lilies,’ I repeated, and shook my head at how absurd this all sounded. If she had not given my Bhoomi the medicine, I would have sent this woman to Saraswatamma’s house. She would have known how to handle such cases. ‘I don’t remember seeing lilies.’

‘Too bad,’ she said, smiling. ‘They used to say that Ranganayaki was buried in the ditch under the lilies.’

‘Ranganayaki was cremated under my very watch no more than two days ago –’ As I said those words, something stirred in my memory. Lilies bending to the side in response to the breeze that came from the river. Polayya sitting on his armchair out in his front yard, an unopened packet of hooch balanced on his paunch, a dreamy look in his eyes as he looked upon them.

‘If we dug it up,’ said Surekha, ‘and if we found the bones of a woman, will you believe my story?’

I got up and pushed my stool back. ‘Listen, lady,’ I said, with more irritation than I intended, ‘I am grateful and all to you for what you did for my daughter, but you come here with a fantastic story, a story that simply cannot be true. Twenty years ago I was no more than a boy of eleven. Polayya’s shack was not where it is today. Ranganayaki would have been a mere girl of seven. Are you saying that we will find the bones of a seven-year-old if we dig up that ditch?’

She looked up at me. ‘You seem to have worked yourself into a frenzy, Rama Shastri,’ she said, in the familiar way of addressing an old acquaintance. ‘Maybe we should talk about this later.’

‘What is there to talk about when you come here with ideas that are impossible?’ My voice must have risen at this point because Arundhati appeared at the door and admonished me with a shush. She gave me my angavastram and motioned to the door. I tapped my wrist to ask what time it was. She replied with a quick, soundless movement of the lips.

‘It is time for you to go to the temple,’ said Surekha, in a soft voice. ‘Don’t worry, I will look after your two girls as if they were my own.’

Arundhati gave our visitor a smile, and motioned me away again. A part of me wondered if I could find a reason to stay back home, but Saraswatamma had wanted to make a special offering today for her two boys in town – both of them adopted, but you couldn’t tell, said the villagers – and she had asked me to be ready at the temple by nine in the morning. And it was already half past eight.

Well, I told myself, what could an old crone like her do? If my fears did not abate by the time I reached the temple, I could always send Daanayya back to check if everything was all right. Maybe Surekha was right. Maybe I was working myself into a needless frenzy.

I spread the damp cloth over my chest and made to go. I told the old woman that our conversation was not done, that we would resume it later that afternoon. She said, ‘Of course. I look forward to it.’

* * *

It was a distance of exactly a kilometre from my house to the old temple, and on most days it took me ten minutes each way. But on this day, I finished the offering for Saraswatamma’s boys at twelve-oh-five, and it was twelve-ten by the time I’d locked the sanctum and set out. It would perhaps be a mistake to say I ran, but I walked with enough of a hurry to reach home before the minutes hand had come to settle on the number three.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see on my return; I do recall that my heart was thumping, and a voice deep in my head yelled out that something bad had happened to Bhoomi. We tend to think of death as the pinnacle of bad fortune, but there are many worse fates, so many…

When I swung the door to the living room open, I saw Bhoomi sitting on Surekha’s lap, and they seemed to be engrossed in telling each other a story. Bhoomi had begun this thing around the same time where she would pipe up for a story and then interrupt you every sentence of the way until the end. She was doing a bit of that with the old lady now, I saw, who was smiling down with her spotted face, a child-like glint in the eye. To the side, the red trunk was thrown open, and some of its contents were strewn upon the floor. I spotted a photograph, yellowed with age but preserved well within its frame. From this distance all I could see was that it contained two boys, who each sat on the thigh of a young mother.

Arundhati was nowhere to be seen. A frantic thought came to me, and it must have shown in my eyes, because Surekha nodded at the inner room and said, ‘I told the child to take a nap. She has been up all night with the baby, and now she is all fine. Aren’t you?’ She puckered her lips and blew hard into Bhoomi’s stomach, drawing a nervous chuckle. ‘You can go sleep too, if you want. I will keep watch.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, thank you.’

‘Nanna,’ said Bhoomi, ‘did you know that Grandmother had two sons who looked exactly like each other? They’re called tins.’

‘Twins,’ corrected Surekha. ‘You knew them, of course,’ she said to me. ‘Unnat and Uttam.’

I’d never seen them nor heard their names before that moment. I took a step closer into the room, and at once I felt like I had walked into a furnace. The windows had been bolted shut, and for some strange reason a candle was burning in the corner. In its light I saw that the boys had round, innocent faces with chunky limbs. There was something of an imp in their smiles. Surekha wore a pale, washed expression on her face in the picture, as if the cameraman’s click had caught her by surprise.

‘How old are they now?’ I asked.

‘Oh, come now,’ she said, ‘must you be so cruel?’ She was dandling Bhoomi on her knee, even as the child struggled to break free and come to me. ‘What happens after you die? Do you stop aging? If so, they are still ten.’

‘I am sorry.’

‘It happened here, in Palem’ she said. ‘In the house by Polayya’s shack.’

‘What about your husband?’

‘Bhaskar?’ she said, frowning at the wall, as if that one word erected a life in front of her eyes. ‘What about him?’

‘Where is he now?’

‘With the boys,’ she said. ‘But he died in Dhavaleshwaram. I wrote letters to the house here. And none of them came back undelivered. Did no one tell you about them?’

‘I don’t think anyone here got them, madam,’ I said. I thought of a curious postman in town tearing open one of her letters in the hope of finding stray notes, finding a mad woman writing to a house, and laughing his head off. ‘Maybe Saraswatamma would know of them.’

‘No,’ said Surekha, shaking her head at the photograph. She leaned over to pick it up, caressed her dead boys’ faces. ‘There was another one,’ she said. ‘The three of them came together.’ She turned her head just enough to look at Bhoomi, who had busied herself with thumbing a spool of thread that had fallen out of the trunk. ‘She was a girl.’

‘What happened to her?’

The woman shrugged. ‘The doctors do not tell you, do they? No, that’s not quite true. They tell you what happened, they tell you how it happened, if you ask, but they never tell you why, do they?’

‘I suppose not.’ A naked hunger arose in her gaze now, and I was gripped with a desire to run to Bhoomi and snatch her away from her. I took a hesitant step in their direction, but the moment passed, and now she smiled with all the benevolence of a grandmother. ‘Don’t worry, Rama Shastri,’ she said, ‘I shall do nothing to harm your daughter. She just reminds me of my own, that’s all. She was three when she – you know.’

‘I understand,’ I said, though I did not want to. Nor did I want to care about this woman, her dead children and dead husband, her red trunk. What was she to me? Now I began to suspect that the trick with the medicine was perhaps a ruse to gain entry into my house. I knew for certain that I would not have entertained her for this long if she had not given Bhoomi the pink fluid.

‘I have a picture of her,’ said Surekha. ‘Somewhere in there. Would you like to see?’

I shook my head. ‘I don’t know what that would achieve, madam. Apart from making you sadder for the past.’

‘No,’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘I think it might interest you.’

‘Perhaps later. Now you should pack your things. I will take you to Saraswatamma.’

‘I don’t want Grandmother to go,’ said Bhoomi.

‘Go inside and sleep with your mother,’ I told her.

‘But I want to play. I want to see the picture. Can we see the picture?’

‘No. Go inside.’

‘But –’

‘Bhoomi,’ I said, adopting my most ominous voice. ‘If you don’t go inside right now, I will take you myself. Do you want that?’

She lowered her head. Shook it.

‘Then go.’

After Bhoomi had left, Surekha tied the twine that had come undone back around the spool, and returned it to the trunk. ‘You should not have sent the girl inside.’

‘She did not need to hear our conversation.’

‘Why? We speak of nothing blasphemous.’

‘I don’t,’ I said. ‘But you do.’

‘Is speaking of death such a bad thing, Rama Shastri?’ With the hand that went into the trunk to leave the spool of thread, she rummaged further, and seemed to find what she was seeking. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Here it is.’

She brought out another photo frame, this one smaller, yellower than the one with the two boys. She held it out to me. I closed the distance between us with one purposeful stride, and took the frame into my right hand. It trembled a touch as my eyes scanned the image, from top to bottom. It was a man I did not recognize – which I presumed to be Bhaskar – carrying in his arms a dark-frocked girl who was closely examining the shape of her own hand. She was about three; her hair was tied in two plaits. Bangles on the tiny wrists, anklets around the heels. Bare feet, one of which was resting in the man’s hand. Mouth twisted. Eyes pinched.

‘Do you know who took that picture?’ Surekha was saying. ‘You.’

I blinked, wet my lips. Her words seemed to float at me from a distance, through heavy fog.

‘I remember this day well,’ she said. ‘It was the month before she fell sick.’

I swallowed a lungful of air. Reminded myself to breathe. Now I knew why the old woman looked at Bhoomi with such hunger just before. Before I had Bhoomi I used to think that all babies under the age of five looked alike, but this was something else. The girl in the picture – Surekha’s firstborn, her firstdead – did not just look like my girl. She was my girl.

* * *

‘You need to go,’ I told Surekha. I gathered up her things, threw them into the trunk. ‘I don’t know who you are, but you need to go.’

‘I scare you, don’t I?’ she said, quietly snapping the lock shut with her key.

‘You need to go. And please, never come back here again.’

‘Where do I go?’

‘Anywhere!’ I picked up her trunk and dragged it over to the front room. She struggled to her feet, lumbered over behind me. ‘Anywhere but here, madam, I beg of you. I thank you for saving my daughter’s life, if that is what you indeed did, but go away, and never come back.’

‘You think I am lying.’

We stood outside my front door. Everything in Palem seemed just as I had remembered it. Sreenivas was sitting on his porch, drying his assortment of shaving brushes. Some were brown, some were white, some were dripping with water that gleamed silver in the sun.

But something about it had changed. I could not tell what.

‘I do not think you’re lying,’ I said, honestly enough. ‘But you’re tricking me. This is all an elaborate con. Where did you get Bhoomi’s picture? How long have you been following us?’

Surekha smiled, showed me her perfect teeth again. ‘If you want me to go, I will,’ she said. ‘But before I do, can I tell you something?’

‘Will you stop if I say no?’

‘I will, but I think what I tell you will help you ascertain whether I have been tricking you or whether I am as puzzled about all this as you are.’

‘What is it?’

‘In that plot of land next to Polayya’s shed,’ she said, ‘we buried our three children.’

‘You did not cremate them.’

‘No. We buried them. The two boys are in the northern corner, hands linked. They died within two hours of each other.’


She shook her head. ‘Not important. See if you can find them there, still. And Mohini – that’s my daughter – we put her into the western corner. And if you dig up the lily patch, you might still find a few bones of Ranganayaki.’

‘You’re crazy.’

‘I might be,’ she said, looking out at the road. ‘You will think that I am a mad old woman, driven out of her mind with the deaths of her family members.’

‘Well? Aren’t you?’

Her tired shoulders rose and fell. ‘I think we are all out of our minds to some extent, Rama Shastri.’ A chuckle, then; one that belonged to a much younger, more vigorous woman. ‘You told me that on the day we left.’

‘Enough,’ I said, joining my hands. ‘Please. Go.’


‘Anywhere you want. But Saraswatamma’s house is that way, if you wish to see her.’

She began to shake her head, but then she seemed to make up her mind. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think it might be good to pay her a visit.’ And she dragged her trunk out on her wobbly legs and went away in the direction of the village, leaving a screen of dust in her wake.

I did not help her though I saw that she was struggling. You’d think I’d be relieved that she had left, but I was conscious of no such feeling. I watched her until I could see her no more, and then sent out a prayer to the lord, for the good of us all.

Two days later an ambulance came from Dhavaleshwaram. I heard its siren early in the morning, while I was still picking flowers in the temple yard. They told me that the crazy woman had been cuffed and bundled into the van along with her trunk, that Saraswatamma wanted her to be taken to the town’s mental hospital. A few years later, Chander would join her there, and for a long time I wondered if the two of them ever had occasion to speak to each other in the facility, or indeed if their minds were sane enough to allow them to talk instead of just point like monkeys and giggle.

A month or so later, on my say-so, Saraswatamma had the empty plot next to Polayya’s shack dug up in the corners. Two small coffins turned up, just as Surekha had said they would. One was small and housed a three-year-old skeleton dressed in a deep red frock. Anklets and bracelets. Small hands. The other was a bigger box, rectangular, wide enough for two ten-year-old bodies, and just as the woman had said, their hands were linked. Both boxes carried the musty smell of half-rotten wood.

We did not have the courage, I do not mind admitting, to dig up the ground under the lilies. We did not have the courage to send the skeletons to town for examination, to see if they really were what our minds were telling us they were. I asked Saraswatamma what we should do with them, and she said, ‘We should put them back where we found them.’

And you know what I did? I said yes. We locked the boxes. We lowered them back into the pits. We covered them with mud. Saraswatamma got a five-foot-wall erected around the compound, and word spread in the village about the place. They called it ‘Big House’ for reasons I don’t remember now, and by the following year, it had become a Palem landmark in its own right. Go to Mandiramma Banda, turn left until you get to Big House, and you will find Polayya’s shack right next to it – that kind of thing.

To this day I do not know how much of Surekha’s story was true, how any of it could be true, how sometimes a shadow of another realm could leave behind unmistakable signs of having visited ours. I think now of multiple worlds that exist in parallel; maybe in one of them, all that Surekha had said was true. Rama Shastri did take that picture. The twins did die holding hands. The girl who died at three did have the face of Bhoomi. There was a Big House in that empty plot of land. Ranganayaki was buried under the lilies, killed by people who wanted to take her son.

But all that just messes with my head. So much easier to repeat what Surekha had said: there is a certain amount of madness in all of us. So perhaps it is not a stretch to think that there is madness in the world, too. It bends to sobriety and logic most of the time; most of the time it makes sense to the methodical way of thought, where effect follows cause, reason triumphs experience.

Most of the time. But sometimes it does not. And we just have to live with that.