Story 61: Hero

‘REKHA, WILL YOU take this up?’ Ravi asks me. And I immediately say yes. For the smallest of moments I offer a private apology to Monali, whose story this is and whose byline it deserves to appear under. But it has been a month since she has handed in her leave of absence, and Shekhar Babu’s birthday is fast approaching. ‘It is all there,’ says Ravi. ‘You just need to go down to the place, get some local flavour, talk to the people about old memories – that sort of thing.’

So it is that I find myself on the front seat of an early morning bus out of Vizag going toward Dhavaleshwaram. I arrived in Vizag late the previous evening, but armed with a prepaid booking at a three-star hotel, all my needs were taken care of. Before I set out in the morning, I partook of the excellent complimentary breakfast.

My name is Rekha Sharma. I am twenty six years old, an assistant sub-editor at the English monthly magazine, Voice. Our main office is in Hyderabad, but we break stories all around the state. Our special offering in every issue is a monthly feature around a prominent personality; for the last few months, Monali has been building a file on Shekhar Babu, the forty one year old superstar of the Telugu film industry.

Rudrakshapalem is not a village that is easy to find. When the conductor raps at the rod in front of him with his ticket machine and says to me, ‘Madam, your stop,’ I look around to spot signs of habitation but find none. ‘Are you sure?’ I ask him. He grins and nods at the yellow signboard with half of its black letters erased with age. All I can read is ‘P’ , ‘L’ and ‘M’. The Telugu signage is more intact, but of course I cannot read it.

I collect from the conductor the change I am due, and as I am getting off, he tells me that I am to cross the road and take the mud path next to the General Store.

* * *

Mr Devender Reddy is considered the headman of Rudrakshapalem. He smiles at me when I say the name in full. ‘There is only one Palem around here,’ he says, and gestures at the piping hot glass of tea that his manservant Sambayya has brought for us. As I take a sip and make an appreciative noise, he asks, ‘I hope you didn’t have trouble finding my house?’

‘No, no,’ I assure him. ‘Someone called Mahender Reddy – who minds the General store? I asked him for directions to your place, and he said, “Oh, you want Saraswatamma’s house!” I said no, Devender Reddy, And he says, oh, same thing.’

‘My wife is more involved in the day to day aspects of the village.’ As far as I can see there is no rancour in him as he makes this admission. He is a portly man with heavy black glasses around his eyes. His thick hair is an even mixture of grey and black, and he seems to like combing it to the side, close to the scalp. I notice that he has big hands, and his fingernails are flat and yellowish, the kind you see on farmers.

He notices me noticing him, and revels in the attention. ‘How can I help you, Madam?’

‘I am doing a story on the film star, Shekhar Babu?’ I tell him. ‘We have come to know that he grew up here.’

‘Ah, Shekhar Babu,’ says Devender Reddy. ‘Every year or so, when his birthday approaches, someone or the other comes to talk to me about him. Last time a young fellow came with a cameraman in tow.’

‘I am from a magazine. I will just take some photos with this while we talk, if you don’t mind?’ I show him my iPhone, and he shrugs good-naturedly.

‘He changed his name when he entered films, of course,’ Devender Reddy tells me, as I turn the recorder on. ‘Back when he was here they used to call him Suri. He was young, of course, so we used to call him Suri gaadu.’ He looks away into the distance, and chuckles at a memory. ‘He was such a rascal, Suri. When I meet him again I intend to ask him when he is going to return my ten thousand rupees.’

‘He borrowed money from you?’

‘Borrowed, yes,’ says Devender Reddy. ‘Some may say borrowed without my knowledge.’

I take another sip of my tea, and lean forward in the chair. ‘So he stole money from you.’

‘Oh, I don’t know if I would use the word stole. One of my friends, a fellow named Karunakar, used to work as a sound engineer in Annapurna Studios, and this boy wanted to go there. I had some financial settlement to be taken care of with Karunakar, so I sent the money along with Suri. I received no word from Karunakar for a long time after that, so I naturally assumed that the money was handed over. Only after a couple of years, Karunakar came here on some errand or the other, and with great tact he approached me and asked about the ten thousand rupees.’

‘Ah,’ I say, making sure that the recorder is getting all this. ‘You don’t mind if I referred to you by name in the story, do you?’

‘Not at all, not at all,’ Devender Reddy says. ‘We’re small people. It’s an honour that a magazine such as yours – English, isn’t it? – is interested in our village. Name as many of us as you want. It won’t make a difference.’

‘Thank you. So you were saying, sir, that Suri took the money?’

‘Well, that’s the only explanation, isn’t it? Of course, Karunakar could have played a double-game on me, but he is not that sort. As for Suri, he is definitely that sort.’

‘Did you ask him about it?’

‘I wrote to him, two or three times,’ says Devender Reddy, with a shamefaced smile. ‘But one does not feel nice asking for money, does one? Especially when you know that the other party has no intention of returning it?’

I agree with him that it can be awkward, and ask if he has any hopes that the money will be ever returned.

‘Oh, I don’t care all that much about money.’ The headman looks around him, waves his arms as if to show me all that he has amassed. ‘God has given us enough. We have money, we have respect in the village… what more can we ask? But ten thousand rupees twenty five years ago – it was not a small sum, you know. I took it out of the district development fund.’

He brings his hands back to wrap around the armrests of his rocking chair. ‘He has repaid his debt many times over by becoming a famous personality. Now everyone in the state knows him, and he does not shy away from telling people that he is from here.’ Devender Reddy pauses at this point, as if unsure. He looks at me. ‘He does not. Does he?’

‘I am yet to interview him,’ I say. ‘But as far as I know it’s common knowledge. Many of his stories begin with his arrival at Hyderabad, though. It’s as if he has dropped off the sky, fully formed at the age of sixteen. He had to struggle for ten years before he got his first break, you remember –’

‘Yes, yes,’ says Devender Reddy. ‘A small part in Intiki Deepam. We all watched that movie, first day, first show. I arranged for a jeep from here to Dhavaleshwaram. It played in Bhavani Talkies.’

‘Right,’ I say. ‘His two autobiographies focus primarily on the ten years of struggle. He likes to say he came from nowhere, with nothing, with no contacts.’

A tinge of sadness comes to Devender Reddy’s smile when he hears my words. ‘No one comes from nowhere,’ he says, good-humouredly still. ‘Will you have some breakfast? I will ask Sambayya to give you a tour of the farm after you’ve eaten.’

‘No, no,’ I say.

Saraswatamma comes out onto the porch and insists that I stay. ‘You must eat,’ she tells me. ‘And come back in the evening, before you leave. They have nothing but junk in the hotels and on buses. Very bad oil, very bad for health.’

* * *

‘He gave me a rose on the day he left.’

I am sitting on the bank of Ellamma Cheruvu, the largest freshwater lake in the region. There is a guava tree a few metres inland from the shore, teeming with ripe fruit. Surabhi, a washerwoman who goes from door to door collecting soiled clothes, and then cleans them here, is in the process of dissolving a handful of Surf Excel in a bucket of water when I ask her whether she knew Suri.

She blushes at the name, and tells me that I must not call him that. His name now is Shekhar Babu.

Surabhi is married to a day labourer in the village, whose name I am unable to extract from her. She says I should ask Rama Shastri or one of the other prominent men.

‘Why can you not tell me?’

The blush becomes deeper. ‘Oh, how can I refer to my husband by name? In any case you didn’t come all the way here to speak of him, did you?’

I confess that I didn’t. So did she have a little thing in her heart for Suri, even after all these years?

‘Oh, some people you don’t forget.’ She works up a thick lather in the water, and then dumps a small heap of clothes into it. ‘Chandranna’s clothes first,’ she muttered to herself. ‘The man gets livid even if there’s a small stain anywhere!’ The smile returns to her face then, and the tone of her voice changes. ‘You could tell that he was not going to be one of us, you know. I always understood that he would go away, become somebody. Palem is too small a place for a man like Suri.’

I ask her what she means by that, and she smiles more widely.

‘You just know with some people. No? Look at me, for instance. No one really ever thought that I would be anything but this. With that fellow, he was so – restless – always up to something or the other.’ She chuckles, much in the same way as Devender Reddy. ‘You cannot hold such people. You can only let them go. And watch them run.’

‘Tell me more – how did you feel when he gave you the flower?’ I try to imagine Surabhi as a girl of fourteen or fifteen, with two pigtails, in a school uniform, perhaps with a book clutched to her chest. Now she has aged at twice the rate of time, of course; she is younger than Shekhar Babu, most likely, but looks the part of his aunt or mother.

‘Oh, you know he is only playing with you,’ Surabhi tells me. ‘He promised me that he would come back, and that he would marry me. Even then I told him that he was full of shit.’ She laughs, and there is a queer wheezing in her throat. Whether it is illness or emotion I cannot tell. ‘He gives me a flower – and he tells me that when he comes back he will be a big man, bigger than Devenderayya even. I tell him that if he becomes bigger than Devenderayya, why will he bother with Palem?’

She brings out Chandranna’s vests and briefs out of the bucket, and begins to thump them on a rock. She does this with such fury that in a few seconds she is sweating, and her breath has become heavy. ‘Well,’ she asks me. ‘I was right. Wasn’t I?’

‘What flower did he give you?’

‘A rose,’ she replies. ‘That was his thing. He used to give roses to girls he liked.’

* * *

I reach Dr Annamalai’s dispensary around eleven in the morning. He welcomes me into his consulting room and closes the door. He is surprisingly handsome – thin lips, a straight nose, large, inquisitive eyes, a mop of unruly black hair, and an athletic build. He is light on his feet, and as I sit down in the hard-backed visiting chair he paces around the room, with his stethoscope dangling off his neck. He spoke stridently and to the point, but there was an air of agitation about him.

‘I cannot speak unless I am walking,’ he tells me. ‘Will you have a snack?’

‘No, thank you,’ I answer. ‘Saraswatamma has already fed me.’

‘Ah, yes, the queen of hospitality. This is a strange little village, I don’t mind admitting. I found it quite something to deal with in the early days. Still don’t like it enough to live here, though.’

‘You drive down from someplace nearby, then?’

‘I ride,’ he says. ‘Bicycle. Keeps you healthy. I live in Dhavaleshwaram. One wife, one son.’ He shrugs. ‘Happy.’

‘Did you grow up here?’

He nods warily, as if admitting it would lower him somehow in my eyes. ‘Won’t stay here much longer, though.’

I tell him that Surabhi asked me to come meet him about Shekhar Babu, and at the mention of the name Dr Annamalai shook his head with barely contained anger.

‘A snake,’ he says. ‘That is what he is. A snake! He has a tongue of silver, and all the charm of Narada, you know. No wonder he is where he is right now. God only knows how many people he has trapped with his tall tales.’

‘You think so?’ I ask him. ‘His reputation in Hyderabad is fairly good. There is the odd rumour about an affair, but that’s par for the course if you’re a star.’

‘Oh, that field is filled with robbers. You protect my reputation, I protect yours – you know?’ Dr Annamalai pauses in his walk and throws me a significant glance. ‘I know a few things by virtue of being a doctor. Let me tell you – he is nothing but trouble.’

‘Trouble for me?’ I ask, smiling.

‘Trouble for everyone!’ he says, once again shaking with passion. ‘I worked at the hospital in Dhavaleshwaram when I was a house surgeon. This was way back, probably fifteen years or so. And they still told stories about the number of women Suri brought to the hospital in the old days. He would come to the nurse, slip into her hands a few rupee notes, and ask her to take care of business. Such a snake.’

I wonder if I am only imagining the edge of envy I detect in Dr Annamalai’s voice. I ask him if I can find any of these women, if I can interview them.

He shakes his head. ‘They don’t come forward. It’s a thing of shame for them, of course. If anyone in Palem comes to know that a woman has gone to Dhavaleshwaram – for that purpose – all hell will break loose.’ Dr Annamalai’ stops facing the wall, and fiddles with the earpiece of his stethoscope for a few seconds. Then he turns around and says, ‘Off the record, I can admit something.’

He is looking at my phone, which has been recording our conversation. I nod and turn it off.

‘Surabhi was one of the girls he took there,’ he said. ‘Now, of course, you will have a tough time to get her to admit it. But I know it for certain. Remember, this is strictly off the record. I don’t want to ruin her life here for what happened such a long time ago. You’re a woman, you will understand.’

I tell him that I do, and I thank him for all that he has told me. As I am leaving, he hesitates, and asks where I am staying the night. I assure him that I have made arrangements. When we take a picture together, he puts an arm around my waist, and flashes a striking smile at the camera.

On my way out I glance at Dr Annamalai’s bicycle. It is one of those trendy hybrid bikes built of chrome steel, with eight gears and a first-class suspension system. A dark blue helmet has been tied to the handle. Out of impulse I point my phone at it and click.

* * *

On the set of his latest film in Annapurna Studios, Mister Shekhar Babu receives me in his vanity van, and places me immediately at ease by remarking how much he has enjoyed reading my pieces for Voice. He mentions a couple of them by their titles, and even disagrees with some minor points I made in them.

A part of me knows that he probably has an assistant who briefs him on the people he is going to see. But I am still flattered, just knowing that I am deemed important enough to look up beforehand.

We are a week away from his birthday. I tell him about the feature we have been working on.

‘Yes,’ he says, placing his hand on his chest. ‘Honoured. Deeply.’

‘Sir, I have visited Palem,’ I say.’

‘No sir ver, please,’ he says, and bows his head. I begin to sense that his reputation as a sweet-talker is not unearned. ‘Rekha, right? Call me Shekhar. We’re friends. You’re writing about me, I am reading your writings.’ He does not mention Palem. ‘I am sure you will do a wonderful job.’

‘I hope so,’ I say. ‘I wonder if I could tell you – the headman there, Devender Reddy. Do you remember him?’

‘Yes,’ said Shekhar Babu. ‘Vaguely. It was all so long ago.’

‘He says you stole ten thousand rupees from him.’

Shekhar Babu smiles ruefully. He shakes his head. ‘The problem with our country – and I am sure you agree – is that we don’t allow our own people to progress. If I am unable to go out there and succeed, I think that no one else should be allowed to. Do you see that in your office as well?’

I nod, but I still press for a statement. ‘Do you then deny that you stole money from Devender Reddy?’

‘I try and not let such petty things bother me, Rekha,’ says Shekhar Babu. ‘Palem is a village that I happen to have taken birth in. It could have been any village – would I be any different? Palem did not give me anything. It could not.’ He held his palms together and looked up at the ceiling. ‘Many such villages in our country – so many promising young men – don’t know what to do.’

I tell him about Surabhi, and the rose he gave her. He smiled. Something of a flicker of recognition flashed across those quick eyes. ‘I remember her. I think of her often.’

‘I also heard that you paid for her abortion at a hospital in Dhavaleshwaram.’

Shekhar Babu gives me an expression of such honest puzzlement that I am convinced Dr Annamalai lied to me. ‘An abortion?’ he asks. ‘I was sixteen when I left Palem, Rekha. Twenty five years ago.’

‘So you deny that charge, that you got her pregnant and then got rid of the baby?’

‘I knew very little of the mechanics of getting a woman pregnant,’ he said, and laughed a little. ‘But you know – now that you mention it – Surabhi and I did go to Dhavaleshwaram Hospital once.’ He frowns, trying to jog his memory. ‘She told me that she had a small cyst that had to be removed. I asked her where she had the cyst, and she knocked me on the head.’

He sat up, and began to talk at a faster clip as the past began to unravel more steadily in front of him. ‘She had been going around with that Annamalai fellow. He was quite the pretty boy of our school, you know. All the girls had a thing for him. Very smart, too. Spoke in English and all that.’

I think of Dr Annamalai’s consulting room, his confession that he cannot speak unless he walks, his habit of riding a bicycle up and down from Dhavaleshwaram, his polite enquiry as to my plans for that night, his hand around my waist when we took a picture – and his insistence that details of Surabhi’s abortion should remain off the record.

Shekhar Babu is saying something else, but I stop him and ask if we can speak of something else. He tells me about the film that is releasing on his birthday, in all big theatres of the state. I ask him if Bhavani Talkies is going to show it, the Bhavani Talkies in Dhavaleshwaram.

He gives me a strange look. ‘I have to check,’ he says. ‘But I don’t see why it shouldn’t.’

‘Surabhi tells me that you were one of those people who cannot be held back,’ I say. ‘That she knew right from a young age that you would go on to big and bright things.’

Shekhar Babu shrugged with some modesty. ‘You come across kind people everywhere,’ he says. ‘Without kindness and love, what are we?’

‘She also told me that you liked to give roses to all the women you liked. This is something that is well known about you, of course. You like to woo your women with roses.’

Shekhar Babu says, ‘Well, I am not much of a poet. So a rose will have to do.’

He asks me if he can hear the clips of the interviews I did with the people of Palem. It is an irregular request, but I have been instructed by Ravi to say yes to everything Shekhar Babu says. Besides, it is not as if we’re journalists over here at The Voice, and the recordings I have on my phone are not classified material. Just notes of a struggling sub-editor of a lifestyle magazine. No need to be mighty about it.

While we listened, Shekhar Babu keeps about him an even, self-assured air. He asks me about my family. He tells me that I am brave to be here, so far away from Udaipur. ‘Anytime you want anything from me, just ask,’ he says, more than once.

As the recording comes to an end, there is a knock on his door. ‘Sir, shot ready,’ says a boy’s voice.

Shekhar Babu calls out, ‘Give me five minutes, please.’ And the voice outside replies, ‘Okay, sir.’

‘You can go,’ I tell him. ‘I have taken a lot of your time already.’

‘No, no,’ he tells me, looking straight into my eyes. ‘It was wonderful meeting you. Can I ask how much of that recording you will be publishing in your story?’

I give the question some thought, wondering what the right answer is. ‘I haven’t decided,’ I told him honestly. ‘It will of course have to be approved by my editor, but I was thinking – maybe an honest look at how your childhood was, with some of these stories thrown in –’

Shekhar Babu shakes his head, smiling. ‘That is not what my fans want to read. You can take some of this, of course. You can keep the honest words for what they are, but you can use your journalistic judgement to weed out the slander. The hearsay.’

Once again I take a couple of seconds to answer. I tell him that yes, the slander and the hearsay will be weeded out.

‘I can trust you to know which parts of the story are true, and which are slander,’ he says. ‘I can. Can I not?’

I lick my lips, and look down at the phone. I nod.

‘I know Ravi,’ says Shekhar Babu. ‘He is a good friend of mine. He will send the feature over to me for one last look before it goes to press. Standard procedure with these things. You know that, right?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Come, call me Shekhar.’

‘Yes – Shekhar.’

‘So if you make any mistakes – with your inexperience – in what is true and what is not, I can weed them out myself. That would make Ravi a little annoyed at you. Wouldn’t it?’


‘So what I suggest – is that you come to The Sheraton tomorrow. I have a suite there, as you know.’

‘To The Sheraton, Shekhar?’ I ask. Calling him by his first name sounds surreal, but a pleasant sensation courses through me as I catch the implication of his words. This can mean big things for me, I realize in that moment. For me, for my career, for my bank balance.

‘Yes,’ he replies evenly. ‘To The Sheraton. We will sit in our suite together, you and I, and work on this story. We will finalize everything – what goes in, what goes out.’


‘You know, Rekha,’ he says, ‘I like you. I would like to see you grow with me. For this whole year, how would you like it if I gave exclusive access to all my scoops to The Voice? All my interviews, my promos, pictures – everything goes to The Voice. Do you think Ravi will be happy?’

I blink at the future unfolding in front of me. Disbelieving. Will Ravi be happy? Ravi will be jumping up and down for joy.

‘And what if I further told you that all these stories will appear under your personal byline?’ says Shekhar Babu. ‘You will be my single point of contact at The Voice. You will handle everything. What will that do to your career?’

I want to say something, but my throat catches. I clear it. ‘What do I have to do in return?’

‘Nothing,’ Shekhar Babu says. ‘Before a story breaks, before it gets published, you and I work on it – together, privately – in my suite at The Sheraton. It will be purely professional.’

I am turning the proposal over in my mind now, examining it for chinks. ‘Will there be any records of these professional meetings?’

Shekhar Babu smiles. ‘Our phones will be turned off,’ he says. ‘There will be no cameras. I will be alone in the suite during all our meetings. No staff. No onlookers. No disturbances.’ He brings his gaze to rest upon me. I realize that his conversation is easy for him; he has not paused for thought or considerations. He has done this before. Probably very often.

But I find myself asking, so what?

‘My staff will know that we’re meeting, of course,’ he says. ‘In my schedule, you will be my official visitor. The agenda for the meeting will be to finalize the story. We will not hide anything.’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘So? Would you like to be my friend?’

For a long time I look down at my phone, the instrument with which I recorded the voices of those at Palem. For some reason the image of Surabhi floats into my mind, the image of her smiling at me while immersing soiled clothes into a bucket of soapy water. She floats in, and then floats out.

When I look up at Shekhar Babu, after a minute or so of silence, I see that he is holding out to me a white rose.