Story 62: Show Maker

HEAD CONSTABLE MANIKANTHAM whistled while he put on his red-and-blue-striped hat. He stood in front of the mirror hooked to his window sill, and lightly grazed his stubble with the fingertips of his right hand. No need to shave this morning, he said to himself. Tomorrow, Monday, was payday, though all the unofficial collections were distributed yesterday, as was tradition in Sub Inspector Maheshwar Rao’s two-town police station in Dhavaleshwaram.

On the last Saturday of every month, at seven p.m. sharp, the constables all assembled outside Mr Rao’s chamber, having first padlocked the main gate of the station from the inside. Mr Rao would have his cup of coffee, and then summon them all in to examine that month’s takings. Mr Rao’s pile, of course, would be bigger than all of theirs put together. They would all toss their contributions onto the heap; Mr Rao would set aside a certain portion of it to be sent ‘upward’; this he would lock up his safe. With the rest of it he would begin to make fair shares for those who worked at the station.

The whole operation took about forty five minutes. Mr Rao was a young man, only about thirty or so, and he had instituted the policy on his first day at the job, some eight months ago. He’d even told them that the system had worked well at his last posting. Not one of his constables had ever complained about him to anyone. Manikantham could see why; Mr Rao was so respectful, always soft-spoken, always kind – always called him Mani gaaru.

With luck, Mr Rao would stay on in this job for the next four years and two months, at which point Manikantham would be eligible for retirement with full benefits.

‘Varam, I am going out!’ he said, and twirled his staff as he stepped into the warm Palem sunshine. The time was coming to about eleven in the morning. His stomach was full, his pocket was heavy, and all seemed right with the world.

As he made his way to the library, his polished boots clacking on the earth, Manikantham allowed his mind to further fine tune the strategy he had been considering over the week. The boys at the club were learning fast; he was no longer the de facto winner every week like he used to be. Just last week it was Mateen who had raked in the pot – a full thirty rupees! – and if it reached a point where Mateen was winning a full match of syndicate Rummy, then it was certainly time for him to strategize.

Over the week he had allowed his thoughts to drift when matters at the station were slow. Without a life and a joker, he would just not play, he decided, no matter how promising his roots were. Over the months he had come to know himself rather well; his problem was that he was easily goaded by the others’ talk. He would make a show in one round, and give minimum count in the next, and then Raju would make a comment to the effect that Mani Sir is looking good today, and the rest would chime in with enthusiastic agreement, and that would be enough to puff him up. He would take a risk on a hand that looked promising, and that would be the one that ruined him for the night.

He would also not accept any cigarettes from Gopi. This was key. Around the third round of the morning, just as Mani’s mind would reach its most alert state, Gopi would bring out his Gold Flakes and pass them around. Mateen had been saying no to the cigarettes, Mani remembered; no doubt that had played a hand in his performance lately. He had to take a leaf out of that book. If he truly remembered the sequence of events well, he thought, it was usually the round immediately after the smoking of Gopi’s cigarette that Manikantham played more recklessly on. He would not be surprised even if this was Gopi’s own little tactic. He would not put it past that wily man; he owned a little tobacco farm on the outskirts of Palem, and he always managed to underreport his sales when it came time to giving the Station what it was owed.

Once or twice Mr Rao had to pass on a stern warning to set him right.

What else, he asked himself as he turned the bend in Venkayya Veedhi and climbed onto fourth cross road. The distant gurgle of the Godavari sounded like music. He patted his right trouser pocket. He had bought a new pack of plastic-coated cards at the big store in Dhavaleshwaram. Just imagining them riffle between his fingers brought him joy, and his whistling became louder. One of the great pleasures of life in Palem, he reminded himself at that moment, was to sip on warm beer off plastic glasses on Sunday mornings, and munch on Subbai’s pakodas while being immersed in a tense round.

Just then, though, his phone rang. Unusual for this time. He pulled out and saw that it was from Mr Rao. Even more unusual.

He fumbled with the screen, and brought it to his left ear. ‘Yes, sir, good morning, sir,’ he said.

‘Mani gaaru,’ said Mr Rao. He sounded irritated about something. ‘I got a call this morning from Lakshmi Madam. You know Lakshmi Madam, no?’

‘Yes, sir, I know Lakshmi Madam, sir.’

‘She seemed to be angry about something – something to do with her daughter. Can you take a look at it right away? She insisted that I send someone over to her house.’

‘Right now, sir?’ asked Manikantham, swallowing the disappointment at having to miss his date at the library. ‘Or can it wait until lunchtime?’

‘No, no, right now,’ said Mr Rao. ‘She wanted me to come to her house right now, can you imagine? It was with great difficulty that I pacified her with assurances that you are as good as I am. Please don’t let me down. If something goes wrong, I will have to answer on your behalf.’

‘Sir, yes sir. I am going right now.’

‘Thanks, Mani gaaru.’

* * *

Lakshmi Madam lived in a four-roomed bungalow on first cross road, right next to Saraswatamma and Devender Reddy’s compound. When Manikantham opened the four-feet-high iron gate and went in, he adopted the slightly bent stance that he found communicated submissiveness well. As a long-serving policeman, he knew the importance of body language. He held his staff in front of him with both hands, and approached the red-sari-clad, seated figure of Lakshmi Madam with trepidation.

She was in her easy chair, with one leg hoisted upon the other. At her feet, a servant girl sat, threading a needle through a clump of jasmines.

‘Mm, mm!’ she said to the girl authoritatively. The girl seemed to know what her mistress meant, because she said, ‘Haan, ammagaaru.’

Lakshmi Madam was the wife of the building contractor who had secured the deal to develop Palem across the main highway to the west. Right now, Palem was a semicircle hugging the road to the east. Vignesh Reddy’s dream was to see Palem become a full circle, with the road cutting through it. The Palem that exists now would become Palem East, he liked to say, and the Palem that I build will become Palem West.

That meant, of course, that government land had to be acquired, levelled, broken down into a main street and cross streets – much work needed to be done. So Vignesh Reddy had come to live here in Palem, with his wife. Rumour had it that they had a daughter who attended college in Rajahmundry.

Lakshmi Madam spotted Manikantham approach, and made no gestures or movements. Only after he had bowed and said, ‘Good morning, Madam, how are Sir and Baby?’ she raised an eyebrow at him in acknowledgement.

‘Did your boss call you?’

‘Yes, Madam, he did. What is the problem, Madam?’

‘Did your boss not tell you?’

‘No, Madam. Anything you told my boss, you can tell me also Madam. I have been around for years, Madam. I know everyone.’

‘Mm, mm!’ she said, and Manikantham fell silent. ‘If you were really that good, you would not have allowed this to happen in the first place.’

‘Madam,’ said Manikantham in agreement. ‘Horrible place, Madam, this is. Tell me what has happened and I will make it right immediately.’

‘My daughter, Navya, has come from Rajahmundry on a study break.’

‘Madam,’ said Manikantham. He did not know why this was a problem, but he had a feeling that Lakshmi Madam was just getting started.

‘She has two weeks off,’ said the woman, keeping one cautious eye on the erring servant girl braiding the flowers. ‘On the fifteenth she is writing the entrance exam for the medical college.’


‘This morning she went to the library to study. Do you know what happens around the library in the mornings?’

Manikantham’s heart began to sink. He thought of all the answers he could honestly give to that question, but decided against it. His rummy strategy was evolving, but his instinct for conversing with people superior to him had been honed to a point. So he put on his most wooden expression, and said, ‘Madam?’

‘They’re playing cards at the library, right in front,’ said Lakshmi Madam. ‘I cannot believe that I have to tell the Head Constable what happens in his own village. Or do you know already and they give you a certain something every week?’

‘Oh, Madam,’ said Manikantham, laughing nervously. ‘Not at all, not at all. Who are these men that are playing cards at the library?’

‘They use the reading room, no less,’ said Lakshmi Madam. ‘I don’t know who all are there, but I intend to go with you right now and bust them in the act.’

‘Did these men,’ said Manikantham, ‘did they disturb Baby in some way? Did they misbehave with her or something?’

‘Misbehave?’ Lakshmi Madam asked. ‘What do you mean by misbehave? Are you saying I have to wait until one of them catches hold of Navya’s hand?’

‘No, no, Madam, I was just –’

‘They were making quite a ruckus, she told me. Perfect louts, all of them. Using a public space for their own little shenanigans. Don’t they know it’s illegal to gamble in this town? Have you not told them?’

‘Once I catch them, Madam, I will make sure I tell them.’

‘I am going to come with you – I want to give these men a piece of my mind myself.’

‘Why, Madam, ha-ha,’ said Manikantham. ‘Why do you want to take the trouble for such a small thing? I will see to it. I will see to it that they’re punished.’

‘No, this is personal,’ said Lakshmi Madam. ‘My daughter has gone there to study, hoping for some peace and quiet – and what she finds is that a bunch of rowdies have taken over the library. The library, I ask you. Did they not find any other place in the village, huh?’

‘Madam, I… I will look after.’ Manikantham held his right hand to his chest, in the manner of a penitent sinner. ‘I will personally look into this, and come back and report to you by lunchtime. I promise.’

‘I don’t want any report veport,’ said Lakshmi Madam. With a heave of effort, she pulled herself onto her feet, and barked a command at the girl. The girl looked more stridently at the ground and said, ‘Yes, ammagaaru.’

‘Come, let’s go,’ she said to Manikantham, descending the three steps of her porch with the regality of a queen, pulling the bangles on her wrists up to her forearms. ‘I am going to teach these men a lesson. What do they think of themselves?

* * *

On their way to the library, Manikantham walked a meter or so clear of Lakshmi Madam, a step or so ahead of her, as if he were escorting her through a maze of people. He racked his brain to think of something to warn the men; if only he could find an excuse to step away for a second to make a call. But that would incense Lakshmi Madam further, not to mention rouse her suspicions.

For the first time in a long while, he placed a silent curse on the head of Maheshwar Rao. For all his politeness and courtesy, he had a rather short way of speaking on the phone. Why couldn’t he tell him what the matter was?

Manikantham turned the tables on himself; when it came to that, why couldn’t he ask Mr Rao what the issue was. If he had had even an inkling that it had something to do with the library, he would have called Gopi and let him know.

‘Are you listening?’ said Lakshmi Madam.

‘Madam, yes, Madam?’

‘I am saying that the librarian must be in on this as well. What’s his name again?’

‘Madam, I believe it is Venu.’

‘Yes, I am sure he is getting his cut for providing the premises for their activities. What next? What next, I am asking you. Will they buy out Rama Shastri and set up a brothel inside the shivalayam?’

Manikantham cringed and muttered a prayer under his breath. But out loud, he could only say, ‘Madam.’

Palem’s library sat on the end of fourth cross road, and its reading room faced the street. As they neared the worn out blue iron gate, Manikantham saw that the lights were on, and the solitary fan was turning. A gentle whiff of alcohol and cigarette smoke came to his nose, which did not escape Lakshmi Madam’s keen senses either.

‘See, they’re smoking and drinking in there too,’ she said, triumphantly.

Manikantham rapped on the gate with his staff, and at the top of his voice began to shout, ‘Oye! Who is in there? Come out, whoever you are, you rascals!’

The four of them – Raju, Mateen, Venu and Gopi – came out of the library’s main door, and on sighting him their expressions became puzzled. Manikantham kept hitting the ground with his staff, and kept tossing his eyelids toward Lakshmi Madam, hoping that his friends would understand that he had been forced by a stronger hand.

‘Haan, enough staring!’ he said, beckoning to the hapless men with his hand. ‘Come out, come out – what is going on in here? Huh?’

‘Sir,’ said Venu, stepping forward. ‘Madam. Come, sit.’

‘I have not come here to sit,’ said Lakshmi Madam. ‘Do you know how much shame my girl had to go through because of you four? What are your names? Tell me. Mmm!’

The four men told their names. And Manikantham made the introductions. ‘Mateen is the milkman, Madam,’ he said. ‘He owns five buffaloes, lives out by fifth cross street.’ Mateen held his palms together and bowed. ‘I believe Sir knows Gopi – er – he has bought cigarettes from him a few times.’ And Gopi also assumed the pose of the supplicant. ‘Yes, Madam,’ he said. ‘I have first class cigarettes, rolled just for Sir.’

‘Venu, you already know – he is the librarian.’

A sneer of gigantic proportions emerged from Lakshmi Madam, under whose weight Venu wilted like a trampled flower.

‘That last fellow is Raju – I – I don’t quite know what Raju does, Madam.’

‘Yes, a gentleman of leisure, no doubt.’

‘He lives with his mother out by the old shivalayam, Madam, that much I know. His father used to work at the Barrage.’

A silence of some sort took birth outside the library at that moment, with all five members of the Palem Rummy Club wondering just what would happen. Lakshmi Madam seemed to be seething, but she did not do anything besides just stand and stare. Eventually she appeared to have made up her mind, and she said with a decisive note in her voice to Manikantham, ‘You will open an FIR against these four.’

‘Madam!’ said the four people who sat in line on their haunches, baking in the sunlight. Their eyes looked at Manikantham beseechingly.

‘Madam,’ said Manikantham. ‘We will give them a warning this time? They will understand, madam. I will put them in a lockup for a night, give them a good beating. And a warning.’

‘No warnings!’ thundered Lakshmi Madam. ‘Do you know how shameful my daughter felt when she came to the library, expecting to find – and instead she sees you people doing your –’ She waved her hand at them, too disgusted to speak of their sins in words. ‘Do you know how important it is for her to pass this exam?’

‘Madam,’ said Manikantham, ‘I will make sure that until Baby’s exam is finished, this library is under my control. I will take the key with me, and I will open it whenever Baby wants. I personally will stand watch at the door so that none of these idiots will come here again. I give you my guarantee, Madam.’

Lakshmi Madam looked at him.

‘My guarantee, madam.’ He turned to Venu and beat his staff on the ground. ‘Oye!’ he said. ‘Give me the key.’

Venu got up to his feet and pushed his hand into his pocket.

‘Hurry, hurry! Madam doesn’t have all day.’ He turned to Lakshmi Madam, all disciple-like once again. ‘My guarantee, Madam. You see! Baby will get first-class in the exam. You just see.’

Venu handed him the key. Dropping it into his shirt’s breast pocket, he said to the four miscreants, ‘Now chal! Disperse! What are you still doing here, staring like a bunch of monkeys? If I ever see you again here, I am going to book you under Section 302! Careful!’

As his friends cleared the place, Manikantham shook his head and said sadly, ‘Our country is like this, Madam. What to do?’

Lakshmi Madam said, ‘Do you think a warning is enough to keep them away?’

‘Madam!’ said Manikantham. ‘My responsibility. You forget about this completely now. Tell Baby that she can come here whenever she wants, and I will open the doors for her. And while she is studying, I will be here. No one else but Baby will have full use of the reading room.’

‘Mmm,’ said Lakshmi Madam, and Manikantham sighed inwardly in relief, because a small smile of approval was beginning to form on the woman’s face.

* * *

For the next fifteen days, Manikantham’s daily timetable was as follows:

He would arrive at the library at seven in the morning and throw open the front door. (He had explained the situation to the Sub Inspector, who had agreed that this problem needed such close attention.) At around nine, Baby would come wearing something that was not quite a sari and not quite a dress. She would hold her books close to her chest, and have her arms crossed over them as she walked.

She would smile at him warmly, give him a hundred-rupee tip, and say, ‘Good morning.’

At around ten o’ clock, a young man that Manikantham did not recognize would come, in sunglasses and jeans. He also would place a hundred-rupee note in Manikantham’s hands, and join Baby in the reading room. They would close the door joining the room to the library. They would also close the windows.

At around twelve o’ clock, the young man would leave, thanking Manikantham. Manikantham would touch his forehead and say, ‘Thank you, sir.’

At around one o’ clock, Manikantham would go to Lakshmi Madam’s house to bring back for Baby her lunch carrier. After Baby had eaten, he would take it back. Lakshmi Madam would give him something to eat, and a hundred-rupee note.

At around four o’ clock, Baby would leave the library for the day, after wishing him good evening.

Manikantham would lock up the library at seven o’ clock in the evening, and reach home in time for dinner. He would put his day’s earnings into the trunk that he reserved for official earnings; this money belonged to the police department, he would remind himself, and it had to be added to the pot at the end of the month. He was entitled only to a share of it.

So by the time Navya had to leave to Rajahmundry to write her exam, the two-two police station of Dhavaleshwaram was richer by some four thousand and three hundred rupees, which was not at all a bad haul, thought Manikantham, for opening a door and standing by it.

* * *

That month-end, on the last Saturday, after the outside gate had been padlocked and after all the constables had assembled in Sub Inspector Maheshwar Rao’s chamber, he pointed to the bundles of notes that had been set up in an orderly manner on his table. Manikantham’s mouth watered at the sight of them; he could already feel his wallet get heavier.

‘We have a bit of a bonus this month, Mani gaaru,’ Mr Rao said, sticking to his custom of addressing only him even though all the rest of the constables were present. ‘We did some work for that contractor – Vignesh Reddy.’


‘He had some papers made that he bought the forest land from the government at this price,’ said Mr Rao, gesturing with his hand. ‘The actual price he paid is this.’ Another gesture. Then he showed him a tiny gap between his forefinger and thumb. ‘We get this much for ignoring all the irregularities in the deal. I got a call from up there this morning. All of this is ours to keep.’

A gasp went around the room, despite the knowledge that this meeting had to be kept professional. But Manikantham forgave his subordinates the excitement. They were all planning, as he was, about all the things they could do with the money. Paying off a loan, buying a new television, getting the missus some gold and a sari for the upcoming festival, saving up for a daughter or sister’s wedding…

Mr Rao allowed them a few moments to digest the news. ‘All our regular rules apply, Mani gaaru,’ he said. ‘If all of us stay quiet, all of us benefit. If you decide to become a hero and talk – well, we all know the consequence of that, don’t we?’

Manikantham allowed himself a smile. What was Mr Rao saying? Why would any man in his senses talk of this? And even if they wanted to talk, whom would they talk to? The whole idea was laughable; and Mr Rao only mentioned it, Manikantham was sure, because he was young and naive. In a few years he would have gained the experience to leave this little speech left unsaid. Some things deserved to remain that way.

‘And of course,’ said Mr Rao, as an afterthought, nodding at Manikantham, ‘ten per cent of this goes to Lord Amareshwara, who oversees all things. Will you pick up the amount and put it in the temple in Palem on your way back today, Mani gaaru?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Manikantham. ‘With pleasure.’

* * *

A month later it came to be known in Palem that Navya had secured a seat in Rajahmundry’s Medical College. Lakshmi Madam called Manikantham to her house and gave him a set of new clothes. She also gifted a Mysore Silk sari to Varam, with gold bangles and earrings placed on top of it.

‘All because of what you did, Mani gaaru,’ she said.

‘Madam!’ said Manikantham. ‘Did I or did not tell you that Baby will get first class seat? My word, Madam. My word.’

Vignesh Reddy commemorated the occasion by calling the whole village to a feast outside the library. He gave a speech that the reading room will forever hold a special place in his heart, because that was where his Baby put in all the hard work to earn a medical seat.

In parting, he announced he was giving a sum of one lakh, one thousand, one hundred and sixteen rupees as a donation to the library. ‘To fund its development so that more students like my baby can make use of its facilities.’

The check for the total amount was given to Venu. About a month after the commotion had died down, Manikantham arranged for quiet resumptions in the activities of Palem Rummy Club. This time they gave up the services of the reading room; instead they congregated around a table in the new Documentary Hall, which Venu got built behind the main building, well out of sight.

He had equipped it, on Manikantham’s urging, with an air cooler, a dealing table, six foam-cushioned chairs, a portable refrigerator, and twenty five sets of club-quality playing cards. The entire setup came up to about a lakh and twenty five thousand rupees. Manikantham funded the balance from his own share of Vignesh Reddy’s benevolence.

On their first meeting back, as they were easing into the third round of the morning, Manikantham accepted Gopi’s cigarette and took a nice long puff. A comfortable breeze was blowing from the Godavari, through the open windows of the Documentary Hall. His strategy – of not playing any hand unless it contained a life and a joker – was going well; in this current match he was the player with the least score. Mateen had brought with him a batch of Subbai’s hot pakodas. The beer in their plastic glasses was chilled, and there was more cooling off in the fridge.

He leaned back in the chair and fanned out thirteen cards in his right hand. He cast a quick glance at what the joker was, and smiled to himself. A few quick rearrangements later, he noted with satisfaction that his count was already under twenty five. A couple of favourable rounds, and he would be the show maker.

Life was good.

‘Are you playing, Mani gaaru?’ asked Mateen nervously.

‘Oh yes,’ said Manikantham, pulling out a fresh card. ‘I am most definitely playing.’