Story 59: Pankajam

MY FATHER DIED of a cardiac arrest in March, 1990. We cremated him on the shores of Bhadrakali Lake in Warangal. My mother expected his dying wish to be laid to rest somewhere in Palem, but he did not mention it. Ever since we’d left the village – eleven years before, in 1979 – I don’t recall Father referring to it very often, and almost never with fondness.

I remember Father today, in 2020, because I am now the same age that he was when he died. We live in Rockford, Illinois now. I have a wife who dotes on me, a son and a daughter both of whom have graduated from universities here in the States, a sound retirement portfolio of stocks, bonds and real estate (no debt), health insurance, and Social Security. I eat well, drink little, take my vitamins. I exercise daily.

My doctor assures me that I will live to be ninety. I will see my children get married, have children – maybe bounce them on my knee.

My wife, Sheila, has taken recently to growing lotuses in our backyard. She has been a gardener her whole adult life, and she tends to cycle between one flower to the next every year. 1992, I remember – because that was the year we met – was the year of orchids. She took me to her terrace garden in her Hyderabad bungalow one night after we’d been going out for a few weeks, and while showing me her nursery, had said, ‘You’re the first man I am showing this to. I hope you prove yourself worthy of it.’

For some strange reason, though, she had never come around to lotuses. Just last month, as everyone in the house was fussing over my sixtieth birthday, Sheila asked Narmada and Sujay to bring some lotus seeds – which, of course, made me think of 1990, and of Father, and of Palem.

In April of that year, as we were marking the thirtieth day after Father’s passing, our family lawyer came to dine with us. The family owned four liquor shops in the Warangal area at this point, with licenses on the way for one more to be set up in Somajiguda, in Hyderabad. It had been one of Father’s long-lost dreams to have a foothold in the liquor market of the state capital. Over the years, assets had piled up around town, mostly in the form of real estate, but there was plenty of cash too, distributed among a number of bank accounts. All of these affairs needed tending, and it took me and our lawyer a good part of the month to make sense of it all. Tonight was going to be what he called a ‘wrap up session’, already the third of its kind that week.

As we sat in Father’s upstairs room in our Warangal house, with a Black Label between us, our lawyer sifted some papers on the table and said, ‘Now, there is this little property you have in Rudrakshapalem.’

‘Palem?’ I said. ‘I had no idea we owned anything there.’

‘A house, it says,’ he said. ‘But by now I’d be surprised if it’s still standing.’

‘Can we just not let it be? What difference will it make?’

He shook his head. ‘Your father says in his will that he wants that house to be disposed of. And the proceeds to be given to the temple.’

‘Odd. Not like him to perform acts of charity.’

‘It’s not an act of charity,’ said the lawyer. ‘He calls it a repayment of his debt.’

So it was that I found myself on a bus to Dhavaleshwaram the following week, with a copy of the title deed in my bag, and a few pairs of spare shirts and trousers. As the journey progressed, and as I neared the village of my birth, I found myself thinking back to the times I’d spent there as a child. I wondered about the old school, the priest at the temple – Rama Shastri, wasn’t it? – the friends that I used to play with (I did not remember their names, just their faces), the cool and sweet water of Ellamma Cheruvu, the imposing presence of the Barrage…

And of course, I thought of Pankajam.

The registration office at Dhavaleshwaram was run by a man named Yogesh, and on seeing me his round face lit up in a smile. He pushed back his chair, sprang to his feet, and wrung me by the hand. ‘Mohan!’ he said. ‘How many years has it been?’ He called for two teas.

Only on watching him closely did I remember Yogi. Back in 1979, he had been a scrawny little fellow who always had scraped knees from falling off fruit trees. He was a couple of years younger than me, but of course we sat in the same classroom, and were taught by the same teacher. The school then only had two rooms, and one of them had a leaky roof. So all the students were huddled into the good one.

‘You don’t remember me, no?’ he was saying. ‘You haven’t changed at all. Is your father not feeding you any of his stuff, huh?’

I laughed and said, ‘You know how it is. Even if you’re the son of the proprietor, you take something, you pay for it. How is your older brother? Did he make it into films, finally?’

Yogi shook his head, still smiling. He had a big fat white vertical line in the middle of his forehead, extending from his septum right up to the bottom of his hairline. ‘What movies, man,’ he said. ‘He killed himself four years back. Maybe he is the superstar up there, huh?’

‘Shit, I am so sorry,’ I said.

‘What sorry man. Come, drink this. Best masala chai in Dhavaleshwaram.’

* * *

Our house stood in the middle of a four-hundred-square-yard plot of land, about half way along the length of Venkayya Veedhi, facing west. Yogi took me back to the village in his car, and we drove to all the memorable spots.

The house, as our lawyer had predicted, was dilapidated. ‘Rama Shastri gets it cleaned once a month or so, just in case we have surprise visitors and they need a place to sleep,’ Yogi told me. ‘But the paint is peeling off, as you can see. Won’t stand for too long.’

The plan was to level the house anyway and donate the land as is to the temple trust. For years, Yogi said on our way here, talks had been on to build a new temple in the middle of the village, to replace the old one on the outskirts. Well, how much more central could it get than the middle of Venkayya Veedhi? The west-facing aspect could be a problem, but I thought Rama Shastri would think of some ritual or the other to offset it.

‘Should not be a problem,’ said Yogi, taking me through the third cross street and around the bend so that we now faced the parcel of land behind our house. ‘This one belongs to Rama Shastri too, so if we could combine the two, it should make for a nice big compound.’

Yogi assured me that I needed to do nothing else; he would take care of all the negotiations and everything. He asked me if I could come back to Dhavaleshwaram in a month’s time. He would have all the paperwork and the counterparty ready by then. I said I could do that, yes.

We’d come to the village bang in the middle of the afternoon, around two o’clock or so. Besides the saffron clothes clinging to the statue of N.T. Ramarao at the entrance, just off the main road (which was a single twenty-feet strip of tarmac in those days), nothing seemed to stir. The breeze was forbiddingly hot and dry, and despite repeated gulps of water from my bottle, my throat was parched.

On our way back Yogi suggested that we drive the other way, past the shivalayam. I said yes, and as we passed a familiar house with a yellow-painted portico out front, I asked him, ‘Is that not Pankajam’s?’

Yogi looked in the direction where I was pointing, and said, ‘Oh yeah, would you like to meet her?’

My heart leaped in anticipation; could it be that Pankajam was here, after all these years? Memories of old came back flooding at me – how much did Yogi know, and how much could I ask him without arousing his suspicions? In order to play it safe I maintained silence, expecting him to slow down and park in front of the house. All my questions would be answered in time, after all.

But to my surprise, he kept driving along. ‘Does she not live there anymore?’

‘Oh, no no.’ He gave me a quick glance while changing into a higher gear. ‘I forgot that you haven’t been here in a while.’

And then he slid back into silence, a quite unusual silence because he had not stopped prattling ever since we began our journey in Dhavaleshwaram. It unnerved me, his grim-set mouth, but I was also intrigued by what he wasn’t telling.

Before I could arrange my thoughts, however, we’d reached the other end of the semicircle that was Palem, and on the side of the muddy path that we were on, I saw the brooding granite structure of the shivalayam.

‘Come,’ said Yogi, and led me out toward the temple steps. As soon as we entered the shade of the big banyan tree, the air became cool, and the thirst in my throat vanished. It had not changed much in the years that I had been away, except for the moss that now seemed to grow everywhere – even in this weather – and a quiet sense of desolation all about it. As we came to the top of the stairs, a thin man with a triangular face emerged from the sanctum.

‘You remember Rama Shastri gaaru,’ said Yogi.

I said, smiling, ‘Of course.’ He had a white, grainy beard, a small forehead smeared with sandal paste. He did not seem to recognize me, but I told him whose son I was and he smiled.

‘Is everything good with Ranganath?’ he asked. ‘And your name? Mohan, isn’t it?’

‘Mohan Rao, yes,’ I told him.

We spoke for a while. Yogi told him about the plan to annex our parcel of land to his in order to build a new temple, and the priest seemed enthusiastic about it. He asked me if I would be willing to donate a certain something to contribute to the construction of the place as well, and I was just thinking it over in my head when I heard a distinct sound of anklets behind my back.

I turned, and saw Pankajam. For the first time in eleven years.

* * *

The place seemed to fall apart the moment my eyes fell on her. Her hair was unkempt and grey; she wore a tattered brown sari that she had tucked into her waist, so that her shins were exposed. Her toes were splayed apart, in the manner of someone not used to footwear. She held a broom in her hand, and she pounded at the back of it with the heel of her hand as she looked at me, frowning. It took her four or five seconds, but she finally did recognize me.

‘You,’ she said. She began to say something more, but she shrank back, as if pulled away by an invisible restraint.

‘Yes, me,’ I said, and went out of the sanctum to meet her at the head of the stairs. ‘You – what happened?’ I’d never thought I’d meet her again, much less ask her that question, but it seemed the most appropriate. Pankajam’s father was Vardhanna, one of the two richest men in Palem. Back when we were children, I had been the dishevelled one, and Pankajam would change her silken outfits three times a day.

‘I am all right,’ she said, and rubbed her face with a sweaty palm. She put on a bright smile for me. ‘Look, I am the same!’

I smiled with her, not finding the heart to disagree. ‘Of course, you look beautiful.’

‘No, I know I don’t. But what of it? Nothing ever stays the same forever, does it?’

I forgot all about Yogi and Rama Shastri, and went on to walk down the temple stairs with Pankajam. The last time we did this was a long time ago, and we’d shared a ripe guava. Someone had told me that if a woman shares a ripe guava with a man, it means that she consents to be his wife.

‘I remember too,’ she said, and her smile now was wider, less self-conscious. I noticed that her teeth were stained brown.

What did we have to say to each other, now? We went down the steps, and walked to the edge of the compound, near the well. The banyan tree had thrown down more roots, and it looked more formidable than ever. If there was one thing in Palem that had grown and not withered, it was this. At the bottom of its main trunk, the blue-black shivalingam sat amid fallen leaves, gathering dust.

She leaned back against the well, and closed her eyes. She was meditating – no, remembering. Was there a difference?

‘How is Sanga?’ I asked her.

She did not answer for long enough to make me wonder if she had heard me. I was just about to repeat the question when she opened her eyes at me, and shook her head sadly.

I understood. ‘How?’

‘You have your vice, he had his,’ she said. ‘Do you still smoke beedis?’

‘No,’ I said, grinning. ‘After we went to Warangal, Father found out. He told me that if I ever smoked another, he will disown me and give away the business to an orphanage.’

She laughed. ‘And that was enough to stop you?’

I shrugged. ‘I was thinking of quitting anyway.’

‘I wish someone had made a deal of that sort with Sanga,’ said Pankajam. ‘Don’t think he would have listened, though. You know how stubborn he was.’

‘Yes. How long ago?’

‘Oh, it has been rather long.’ She stared at the trunk of the Banyan tree. ‘Wasn’t that where you asked me to marry you?’

I followed her gaze, and nodded, a little embarrassed. ‘It was a long time ago.’

‘You know, it is one of those choices a woman wishes she never has to make.’

‘I know.’

‘You must have been very hurt.’

‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Between Sanga and me? Who else would any woman have chosen?’

Those words tumbled out of me now, and only a part of me felt pity for Pankajam. The other part felt a rush of triumph – of vindication – I imagined myself slapping Sanga across the face (something I had never done in reality) and shouting at him, See? I am alive, and you’re dead. She regrets having chosen you. How does that feel, you piece of filth?

‘I don’t know about any woman,’ said Pankajam. ‘I should have been wiser. But they don’t give wisdom to eighteen-year-old girls, do they, Mohan?’

‘Come, now. All of us were kids.’

She shook her head. ‘They told me. Father wanted us to get married, you and me. You knew that, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, my father did too.’

Back in 1970, when I was ten and Pankajam nine, my father and hers went into business together. Vardhanna was a big landlord. Father had only a small piece of land that his father had given him, but he supplied the brains of the operation. He told Vardhanna that there was no money in farming anymore; from now on, the country was going to be run on liquor. All the gold of the future will be mined by men who controlled the flow of alcohol. ‘Leave the river to the suckers, Vardhanna,’ he is supposed to have said. ‘Let us go into arrack. I will make you a king!’

By 1973, the two men controlled a network of forty three arrack shops scattered over the East Godavari region. All their shops were small, motley affairs: a Kelvinator fridge, four or five wooden benches, a nondescript shed without a sign. They operated without licenses, by greasing the palms of head constables, and where necessary, sub inspectors.

Vardhanna brought in the capital, sometimes mortgaging and at other times selling tracts of the land he owned around the state. And why not? Father was doubling their money every year, whereas in farming he would have been lucky to realize a measly eight per cent.

It was only around 1976 or so that Father rose to the status of equal partner by Vardhanna’s side. While all these years he had felt like a junior employee, a mere clerk, now they were proper liquor barons of the region. Father had kept his promise: in six short years, he had made Vardhanna a king. All the money they made, they ploughed it back into the business, and watched their empire grow.

In 1976, I was sixteen. Pankajam fifteen. I had eyes only for her. And she had eyes only for Sanga, the washerman’s son.

Yogi came out of the temple with his hands holding an open coconut marked with vermillion. He looked in our direction once, and I sent him a nondescript wave. He nodded and went away in the direction of the car.

‘Don’t you have to go?’ Pankajam asked me.

‘I can stay for a while, maybe until the evening.’

‘Then you should come to my house.’

‘I will.’

She held her broom in one hand and led me out to the temple’s outhouse, a mere hovel with a hole in the roof. The mud walls were on the verge of breaking, and a single square window had been cut out on the front door. We walked a meter wide of each other, Pankajam and I, just like we used to. She went in and brought out a rope-cot. I sat on the edge of the frame, toward one corner.

She gave me water in a faded steel glass. It tasted of mud. I swallowed it somehow.

For a while we spoke of pleasanter things; one of our classmates had become a collector in Jangaon. Another became a vice chancellor at JNTU. Then we fell silent, each waiting for the other to again probe the wound.

‘Why do you live here, Pankajam?’ I asked her at last. ‘What happened to your house?’

‘Father had to sell it.’ She sat next to me on the cot, facing the same way, with her hands clasped in between her thighs. ‘He tried to bring Sanga into the business, teach him how to run it…’

Again that pleasant bolt of victory shot through me. I felt ashamed of it right that instant, but there it was. All I could do was to prevent her from seeing it. But she gave me a look of knowing.

‘Ah,’ I said, ‘not everyone is cut out for everything. As you said, he had his vice.’ Even as a sixteen-year-old, Sanga had a tongue that craved the sweetness of toddy. It was not surprising that he grew to like arrack, and if he had lived, would have liked the more polished brands too. His was the ideal profile of our target customer – someone who was strong of limb and weak of heart, easy to fool, stubborn, and naive. Once such men built a habit, they took it to their graves.

‘Father regretted having that fight with Ranganath mama,’ said Pankajam, digging her toes into the earth on her porch. We sat in the shade of a neem tree, but the day had cooled a little by now. ‘Your father wanted to expand into the cities with a proper license and everything. I believe they had a fight over it.’

‘They did,’ I told her. ‘It was the next logical step to take. They couldn’t run an unofficial business forever.’ I did not tell her that the relationship between the two men had frayed irretrievably with the engagement of Pankajam to Sanga. This happened in late 1978, when I was a second year Commerce student in Dhavaleshwaram, and Pankajam was finishing her twelfth standard. Sanga, of course – well, he was not the kind to go to school.

‘He never understood who tipped the Sub Inspector, though,’ said Pankajam then, and turned to look at me. She had a faraway smile on her face. ‘Your father sold his half of the business to my father. And you left the village. This was in 1979, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, three months after your wedding, we were gone.’

‘Did you come to my wedding? I don’t remember.’

‘I did come,’ I said. ‘I sat at the back. Didn’t have the gumption to bless the couple.’

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘And as soon as you left, about a month or so after, the Sub Inspector from Dhavaleshwaram made those raids on our shops. That was the blow, you know. Sanga’s alcoholism came later. It was that first hit that Father could not handle. Too much of the business went away too soon. Before he knew it, he was borrowing with his left hand to pay off what he owed with his right.’

‘Huh,’ I said. ‘A Sub Inspector, huh?’

‘Yes, I still remember the name.’

I did too. But I kept my face vacant. I shook my head.

‘Then we got to know that Ranganath mama got his first liquor license in Warangal,’ she said. ‘We got to know that a certain Inspector from Dhavaleshwaram was called as the chief guest, to open the first store. Are you sure you don’t know his name?’

‘I was young then,’ I told her. ‘I only got into the business properly five years ago or so.’

‘Right, of course,’ said Pankajam. ‘Some people here – mean people – said that Ranganath mama was behind it all. He took his half of the business, and traded information on the illegal liquor operation in East Godavari for a legal liquor license in Warangal. They said that the Sub Inspector got fines in the bargain, a promotion – and then pulled enough strings to give Ranganath mama what he wanted.’ She paused, swallowed a mouthful of air, and turned to look at me. ‘That is not true, is it?’

I did not bat an eyelid. ‘Not at all.’

‘Just rumours from evil men.’

‘Worse. Father has always considered Vardhanna mama his benefactor. Our first liquor store in Warangal, in fact, is called Vardhan Wines. If he had any idea that you had fallen on bad times –’

‘Yes, I am sure he had no idea.’ She gave me a sad smile. ‘You know what else some of these evil people say? They say that Vardhanna was an honest farmer once, who trusted the land. It was Ranganath mama who fed him tales of greed, and extracted from him all the money he had. That’s not true either, is it?’

‘Well,’ I said, shifting away from her a little bit, ‘it’s partly true. They were business partners. They had mutually agreeable terms as to how to divide the profits. Listen, Pankajam, my father didn’t force your father into anything. Whatever Vardhanna mama did, he did it of his own free will.’

‘Yes.’ Pankajam nodded. ‘Yes, of course.’ She sighed. ‘You know, I should have married you.’

I looked away at the temple, silhouetted against the reddening west sky, and grimaced. ‘Yes,’ I managed to say. ‘You should have.’

‘Are you married now?’

I shook my head.

She did not say anything for a moment. Then she asked, ‘Will you stay the night?’

* * *

We had pickled rice for dinner. We spoke of many things. For the rest of the evening she was the old Pankajam, the Pankajam that had turned my head in the streets of Palem all those years ago. Her eyes regained all of their lost lustre, and from her trunk she brought out a white sari that she claimed she had never worn.

We shared her cot that night. While making love to her, I could not help but see her as the eighteen year old girl that had rejected me in favour of that dead alcoholic washerman. Now she was twenty nine and looked forty nine. But in my arms, she became a nubile young thing again.

Afterward, with her cheek laid on my sweat-soaked chest, she said, ‘Will you take me away, Mohan? If you don’t want to marry me, don’t. I will be your servant. I will cook for you. I will clean your house. I will look after your mother. If you want me in your bed, I will come there too. For your whole life. Even if you get for yourself a wife. All I ask is take me away from here.’

And then she was sobbing. ‘If it is true what you said, if my father was your father’s benefactor, can you not repay that favour by becoming my benefactor today? I am far beneath your station in life, I know. You’re a big man now. I ask for nothing but your pity. I deserve nothing more than your alms. Whatever you can find within your heart to give me – whatever it is – I will take it.’

‘Shh,’ I told her. ‘Go to sleep.’

‘You will take me, won’t you?’

‘I will. I will.’

I kissed her on her forehead, and caressed her hair as she fell asleep.

The next morning, I awoke at four a.m., collected my things, and left without waking her.

I wrote her a short letter, thanking her for the evening. I enfolded a bundle of ten ten-rupee notes in it. I caught the first bus out to Vishakhapatnam, and later in the morning called Yogi from an STD booth to thank him for his time. He did not ask me – and I did not tell him – anything about Pankajam.

After I reached Warangal, I spent the first few days in a state of nervous agitation, afraid that Pankajam would find out from Yogi where I lived and that she would turn up at my doorstep. But with each passing day, the fear receded until it vanished completely.

It took Yogi a couple of months to finalize everything with regards to the title transfer. When he called me I was in the middle of a meeting to finalize our first Hyderabad license. I forwarded him to our lawyer, who took care of everything. I did not have to visit Dhavaleshwaram again, after all; the deeds got mailed to me, and I signed them and sent them back.

This was January, 1991. We named our Hyderabad store Pankaja Wines. The man who facilitated our licensing process was a close friend of the Circle Inspector of Police, Somajiguda. By Diwali of that year, we’d opened seven Pankajas across the city, and at the opening party of the eighth, I met the daughter of the C.I., who was quite taken in by the ambitious young man who wanted to be the state’s liquor tycoon. Her name, of course, was Sheila.

I never returned to Palem. The way my life is set up now, it is unlikely that I ever will. Someone once told me that the villages of India only held good people, because all bad people have long left them for cities and other countries, in search of wealth, renown and power. I don’t know if this is true everywhere, but it is certainly so of Palem – and of Pankajam and me.