1921. I AM ARTHUR COTTON. People in these parts call me Cotton dora. Twenty two years after my death, the villagers of Palem decided that it was time to commemorate my work in this way: by erecting a seven-foot bronze statue of me on top of a five-foot stone pedestal.
I look nothing like the real Arthur Cotton, of course. After the resolution was passed under the banyan tree at the shivalayam, and after the sarpanch, Veerasimha Naidu, secured the funds necessary for my forging from the collector Mr Thomas Alderidge, someone raised the concern that none of them knew what Arthur Cotton looked like.
Only one photograph of his has survived, one that depicts him as a frail old man who was exhausted with the world, and the people of Palem, in their good sense, decided that it would not do. Someone took that photograph to Dhavaleshwaram; an enterprising sculptor by name Machiraju went to work with his imagination as guide, and I am the result. They gave me a bowler-type hat which Cotton never wore. They thrust a cigar into my mouth. They dressed me in a shirt whose top buttons were undone and whose sleeves were folded all the way up to the elbow. The face they wanted me to have was rugged and hard and rebellious. In their minds, I was one of the coolies who built the Dhavaleshwaram Barrage. If they could assign me a voice, it would be one strange to the ways of culture; a gruff voice, a voice hardened by alcohol and tobacco. If they could make me speak, it would be in Telugu: not the refined language of the books and the poems, no; but the crass, cussed tongue of the unread.
Veerasimha Naidu liked the look of me at the very first glance, and he gave Mr Alderidge a glowing testimonial for Machiraju, who went on to make more statues of my kind for other villages of the region.
They mounted me at the entrance of the village, by the side of the mud path that connected Palem to Dhavaleshwaram on the South and Bejawada on the north. The letters inscribed on the stone pedestal were written by Veerasimha Naidu himself, who considers himself a bit of a poet. ‘Cotton Dora,’ it says, crudely translated to English, ‘who feeds us the water of the Godavari every single day.’
I stand, proud and tall, watching the occasional ox-cart come and go. Mr Thomas Alderidge arrives every month in his brougham, to meet with Veerasimha Naidu and discuss important matters such as revenue and income and cash flow. A fifteen-year-old boy named Ramudu visits me on the morning of Alderidge’s visit, before it’s still light, balancing a ladder on one shoulder, a garland of fresh chrysanthemums dangling from his scrawny wrist. He climbs up to my face from the front, and places the flowers around my neck. Then, before he leaves, he salutes me.
Veerasimha Naidu pays him an anna for the garlanding. The salute, I think, is free.
* * *
1948. I am Jawaharlal Nehru. Independent India’s first Prime Minister. Narasimha Naidu, the son of Veerasimha Naidu, who came to power as Sarpanch under the new government, has suggested to the people of Palem that we must remove all traces of colonial power from the village’s monuments. ‘They held us captive for two hundred years,’ he said, in a stirring speech at Mandiramma Banda, ‘and all these years we tolerated that statue here because we had to put up appearances. Now? We’re no longer slaves of any dora, Cotton or otherwise!’
A frightened peasant in the crowd asked his neighbour in a whisper if that meant that they would tear down the barrage. But to his relief, Narasimha Naidu clarified that he was only referring to the statue. The barrage belonged to all of Palem, he said. No, all of Andhra Pradesh, to all of India. He said ‘India’ even though he was speaking in Telugu. But that didn’t bother his people; Narasimha Naidu went to the convent in Dhavaleshwaram, of course he would say India.
Some old villagers grumbled that Arthur Cotton had done more for Palem than Nehru could ever hope to do, but they were outvoted by the younger people, who had fresh memories still of the Quit India movement and the Dandi March.
I was taken down one night by a team of fifteen burly men wielding spades and crowbars. They transported me in the back of a van over the cement road to Dhavaleshwaram, where Machiraju, who now runs a metalworking shed just off the main chowrastha in town, got to work on me.
He melted the bronze and sculpted me back in shape, this time with numerous photographs to guide him. The granite on which I had stood all these years, he said, had to be thrown away, and a new pulpit erected. This one would be made of sandstone, with black English lettering. It would look classy, he told Narasimha Naidu, who agreed that class was an absolute necessity.
This new sculpture was more elaborate than the old one – the cap, the rose, the rings, the detailing of the face – so Machiraju added more bronze to my person. Narasimha Naidu was only too pleased to pay for it.
So now I stand at seven and a half feet, on top of a red sandstone podium that is about six feet tall. I can see more of Palem from this height, more than I ever have as Arthur Cotton. I can hear the roar of the Godavari, especially when they open the gates of the barrage.
Once a month, our district collector Avataram Thambe comes to visit Narasimha Naidu, to speak of important matters such as revenue and income and cash flow. He stays at the house that Mr Alderidge used as his guest quarters during his visits to Palem. Of course, the premises have been redecorated, the grounds expanded to include a garden and a fresh-water fountain.
On the morning of Mr Thambe’s visit, before it’s still light, fifteen-year-old Bheemudu comes my way, with a twelve-step ladder balanced on his shoulder. He climbs up to my face, and places a garland of roses around my neck. It has to be roses, Narasimha Naidu has warned him at the time of securing his employment. Bheemudu gives me a gaze of intense love after he has finished his ritual. He holds his palms together in front of his chest, and says, ‘Vande Mataram.’
Bheemudu is the son of Ramudu, who used to garland me in my old avatar. Bheemudu is paid five rupees a month.
* * *
1967. I am Bheemayya. The Bheemudu who used to accept five rupees a month to garland the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 grew to be a people’s leader by the year 1962. On the same night the Chinese took control of Aksai Chin and announced their retreat to the line of ‘actual’ control, Bheemudu broke into the house of Narasimha Naidu with five others and executed him, after trying him for the crime of treachery against the Palem people. The Sarpanch begged Bheemudu for forgiveness, and promised to renounce his position if only his life would be spared, but Bheemudu was not a man to be shaken from his principles. With a chant of Vande Mataram on his lips, he sliced open Narasimha Naidu’s throat, and declared that a new era of light had dawned on the Godavari belt.
The morning after this liberation (some called it murder), Bheemudu led a procession of villagers in my direction. They tied ropes around my neck, and amid choruses of ‘Down, Down,’ pulled me to the ground. With axes and hammers and ploughs they pounded me out of shape. They urinated on Nehru’s name. At last, Bheemudu knocked my head off the body, held it over his head for all his comrades to see, and said, ‘Vande Mataram! This is our land, and today we reclaim it!’
That week, some of Bheemudu’s men collected my pieces up in a jeep and took me down to Dhavaleshwaram, where the firm of Machiraju and Sons began the task of repurposing me to the requirements of the new leadership. The resulting product was half a foot taller, to be mounted atop a teak pedestal. Teak, Machiraju explained, because it symbolized Bheemudu’s rise from the earth.
Before the month was out, I was restored to my full height again, tall enough to see some of Arthur Cotton Dam in the distance, stretching lazily across the Godavari. They garlanded me every day, they worshipped gods in my name and placed broken coconuts at my feet. Women brought lamps on steel plates, children sang songs of freedom and joy. Every now and then the police would come armed with rifles, and they would take position across the road from me. On these days the men of Palem would emerge with guns of their own, and shoot from behind me. Once a policeman’s bullet ricocheted off my head and hit Bheemudu in the arm. Another time I was showered in shrapnel from a mini-grenade that exploded in a villager’s hand.
In the next Sarpanch elections, Bheemudu was unanimously chosen to lead Palem. He promised his men that nothing would change, that getting into the official corridors of power was the most effective way to achieve their goals. On the day of his inauguration, the Inspector of Dhavaleshwaram – whose men had parried with Bheemudu’s on so many occasions – attended the ceremony and repeatedly referred to him as ‘our Bheemayya’.
That was 1964.
Now the atmosphere has quietened down, somewhat. Indira Gandhi, our Prime Minister, has told us that we have won the war against China, and Bheemayya called for a fortnight of celebration in the honour of ‘our mother’. Under this brave and confident woman, he told his people, Palem will move out of darkness finally, and embrace the light of equality and brotherhood.
Once a month, our district collector Narayana Reddy arrives in his black Ambassador, accompanied by a team of twelve policemen, six each to a jeep. They stay at the guest house, which Bheemayya had renovated to include an outhouse and a servants’ quarters. The garden that surrounds the main building contains twenty seven different varieties of flowers, I am told, fed unfailingly come rain or sun by the Godavari’s water.
On the morning of Narayana Reddy’s arrival, before it is light, a fifteen-year-old boy named Saidulu visits me, a ladder mounted on his shoulder. After he has finished his adornment of me, he looks straight into my eye and says, ‘My parents think you’re a god. But I know better.’
Bheemayya pays him twenty rupees a month.
* * *
1973. I am Indira Gandhi. Empress of New India. I am shorter than before, but I am no longer made of bronze. My entire body, along with the pedestal on which I stand, is hewn of marble imported from Agra. Saidulu, Palem’s Sarpanch, has seen to the project of my construction personally. After I was unveiled, in the spring of 1972, he arranged for a picture to be taken of him touching his forehead to my feet, so that it could be enlarged to wall-size and sent as a gift to Delhi.
Bheemayya’s rise as a landlord correlated with his fall in popularity among the people of Palem. It was Saidulu who raised the first objections about some details regarding Bheemayya’s personal property: how did he on a sarpanch’s salary, asked the young man, manage to purchase so many acres of land outside Dhavaleshwaram? How did he come to own a fleet of Fiats? Just how much of Palem’s taxes was he siphoning, and just how many of Palem’s farmers were better off today after Bheemayya’s appointment as headman?
For a long while no one paid attention to Saidulu, and if Bheemayya had let him alone nothing would have come of all the noise. But Bheemayya was raised on values of quick and decisive action; he made his life on first spotting his adversary and then ruthlessly destroying him. He applied the same rule to the Saidulu problem, only that the men he employed for the task were not up to it, and Saidulu managed to escape with a broken arm and some bruises to the head.
This incident raised Saidulu’s stock in Palem to fresh heights, and it did not help Bheemayya’s cause that the 1971 Sarpanch elections were just around the corner. Saidulu appropriated Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao for his own purposes, pointing out how more and more land was being squeezed into fewer and fewer pairs of hands. ‘If this continues,’ he told a large gathering of people outside the shivalayam on one of his campaign speeches, ‘we will all be paying someone else to till our own lands.’
The first thing he did on winning the election of 1971 was to order Bheemayya’s statue – me – to be demolished. ‘Why should we have a traitor in our midst?’ he asked everyone he saw. ‘He used our trust to become our leader, and then he forgot all about us to enrich himself.’ The people of Palem largely agreed, and voted that in his place should rise the idol of the woman who was proposing to give them the land they had always deserved to own.
Marble from Agra. Silk from Mysore. Weavers from Kanchivaram. They all came together in Machiraju’s factory and moulded me into shape. On the nineteenth of November, 1972, Saidulu arranged for the unveiling of the statue at the entrance of Palem, and paid out of his own pocket for a videographer to be present as well.
Bheemayya has left the village. Some people say he has gone to Dhavaleshwaram, and is planning to contest in the municipal elections. Others say that he has made enough money to buy half of Hyderabad. Some rumours place him in Madras, producing a film starring NTR and ANR in the lead. Nowadays he calls himself Bheema Rao.
* * *
1983. I am Nandamuri Taraka Ramarao. NTR. The Sarpanch of Palem is Bheemayya, who has returned last year to contest and win against Saidulu. During his campaign he never mentioned his previous alliance with the village, nor did he answer questions about where had gone all these years. He merely said, ‘I have come to restore the self-respect of the people of Palem.’
The people of Palem liked the sound of him, though some of them wondered what he meant by self-respect. Did he mean more money? Lower taxes? Better policies? Again and again Bheemayya would point out that the rule of Indira Gandhi and the Indian National Congress was getting intolerable, and that it was time for Telugu people to awaken, and to take back what was theirs. They needed a Chief Minister who was not a puppet in Gandhi’s hands; they needed a tiger who knew how to stand up to authority, who knew the necessity for Telugu people to stand up and say no. No to exploitation. No to corruption. No to sycophancy. No to everything.
It would be fair to say that Palem did not understand much of what Bheemayya was running on. They voted for him because he appeared down the ticket from NTR. They had grown up seeing the actor on the screen; he had played Rama and Krishna and Karna and Arjuna, and then he had become one of them in later films. Not only did he stand up to crooked politicians and wealthy factory owners but also romanced and married their daughters. If anyone could change the system, they thought, it would be NTR. And who knew more about the self-respect of Telugu people than he did? If they could imagine anyone looking Indira Gandhi in the eye and telling her she was wrong, it was him.
So Saidulu went out. Bheemayya came back in.
Early on in his first term, Bheemayya called for a meeting at the shivalayam and told everyone that the governing committee of the village board has decided to replace Indira Gandhi’s statue with NTR’s. ‘We do not need to pay homage to our Prime Minister here while she sits in Delhi and cavorts with white people,’ he said. ‘If we have a god, he has to live among us. And we all know who our god is.’
Bheemayya collected funds from everyone in Palem for the construction of the ‘best statue you will ever see’. Then he ordered his men to carefully uproot Indira Gandhi from the ground, so that the marble could be reused for the new sculpture. For any reinforcements that had to be done, he told Machiraju to add granite. Who would know the difference?
Now, a permanent staircase and rampart have been built around me, so that maintenance can take place on a regular basis with little effort. Two men in their twenties – Deepak and Golu – have been assigned to my care, and their salaries are an impressive hundred rupees a month each. The road that runs past Palem to Dhavaleshwaram is now forty feet of black, smooth tar. A red bus goes one way in the morning and the other way at night. Two private jeeps regularly carry passengers to town.
I am washed once a week, decked with garlands of flowers twice a day, and worshipped almost every minute in the hearts of Palem’s people. Every national holiday, they bring out the music system and the megaphone, and play songs from my films (Adavi Ramudu, Kondaveeti Simham, Bobbili Puli…) while drunken young people dance at my feet and tear open their shirts.
Life is good.
* * *
1995. I am Chiranjeevi. When the new state government formed under Chandrababu Naidu, Palem’s Sarpanch Bheemayya declared that it was time for the statue of NTR to be brought down. When options were discussed on whom to replace it with, the people of Palem surprised everyone by voting for the megastar.
I happen to know that behind this phenomenon is the quiet working of Amarjeevi, the president of the actor’s fan association based in Dhavaleshwaram. Amarjeevi is a fourteen-year-old boy who likes to comb his hair parted to the left. At school he steadfastly remains bottom of the class when it comes to academics, but throw him on a stage and he erupts to life. Among his many talents is an ability to mimic Chiranjeevi in dance and speech.
When it came to his attention that a new statue was being erected in Palem, he descended with his colleagues and organised a screening night every Sunday near the shivalayam. They showed three Chiranjeevi films back to back, and at the end of it they had a discussion on how great the actor was. Amarjeevi took care never to speak explicitly about the statue or about other aspects of Palem’s political life; he was content to let his idol’s work speak for itself.
At the beginning he was considered with active suspicion, then as an oddity, and finally as a welcome weekly visitor. It was not long before his screening nights became a bit of a ritual in Palem; one Sunday he was running a cold and could not make it, and half the village went about wondering out loud just what they were supposed to do.
For his first few screenings he had come with a video projector mounted on his bicycle, and a friend sitting on the back carriage holding the reels. Presently he began to arrive in an autorickshaw that stayed for the duration of the screening and took him back. And then he started turning up in an old hired Maruti 800. Though he was not charging his audience for watching the films, someone had taken note of him (perhaps a bigger Chiranjeevi association in Dhavaleshwaram) and had decided to fund his efforts.
Now, of course, if it were a matter of removing NTR’s statue and installing Chiranjeevi’s in its place, the fans would have balked. All of Chiranjeevi’s fans were also either present or previous NTR fans, so breaking down one god’s picture only to set up another would have amounted to blasphemy. But if Palem was going to take NTR down anyway, it made sense that he should be replaced by another hero. There was no point ceding that space to yet another politician.
Perhaps the people of Palem felt the same way, or perhaps all this is conjecture on my part, but when it came up to a vote, they said that if anything had to go up, it had to be Chiranjeevi’s statue. Amarjeevi was present at the meeting, and he gave an impassioned speech about how their association would move even a mountain to ensure that they would bring the megastar down to Palem to attend the opening ceremony.
And move a mountain they did. On the twenty second of August, 1995, on his fortieth birthday, Chiranjeevi did come to Palem and cut the ribbon that separated him from a ten-foot-high marble statue of himself. He spoke to the people of Palem, thanked them for their generosity, and assured them that he would forever think of them fondly in his heart. ‘By giving me this honour you have made me your son,’ he said, and they clapped for him for five full minutes.
After it all, the fans danced to songs carefully pulled together from various Chiranjeevi films, and at the end they even persuaded him to do a little jig in his suit and tie.
The happiest person that day was Amarjeevi, who I hear is now heading the main fan association in Dhavaleshwaram. He is planning a succession of statue-unveiling events of his favourite actor across a network of eighty four villages in Andhra Pradesh. Palem was a successful pilot.
* * *
2003. I am Hanuman. After the great fire of 2002 that burned everything in Palem down to ashes, the people who were rebuilding the village – under the auspices of Saraswatamma’s gentle hand – decided that it was time to seek the blessings of the wind god.
Almost no one objected to the taking down of Chiranjeevi’s statue. After that first visit in 1995, he had not visited Palem again, though word had reached the village that he did attend some events in Dhavaleshwaram. Amarjeevi is also, by now, too big for Palem. Indeed, he now lives in Hyderabad, and coordinates release promotions and publicity for all of the actor’s films. He is not quite at the head of all the fan associations yet, but he is only twenty two. He will get there.
I am made of plaster of paris, much lighter than I used to be when I was cast in stone, but I am also much bigger. Machiraju and Sons has pitched to Saraswatamma the notion that a god of Hanuman’s stature cannot be anything smaller than twenty feet high. And he had to be mounted on a teen-foot podium. It had to look like he is watching over Palem, they told her, and she had liked the idea.
Of course, she was strapped for cash, and the only material that Machiraju and Sons were able to recommend that was safely within her budget was plaster of paris. When Saraswatamma asked if it were not disrespectful to craft a god in such cheap matter while his predecessors – all of them mere human beings – were sculpted in stone, the head of marketing at the firm laughed gently at her. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘he is a god. He is above all of these petty feelings. Do you think Lord Hanuman would feel jealous of people like Chiranjeevi? Even if we construct him of paper, what matters is the love we have for him in our heart. And he can see it.’ He pulled out his Hanuman locket and showed it to Saraswatamma then, and assured her that it was made of a base metal – ‘just brass’ – and yet it has saved him on two separate occasions from certain death.
I stand now, therefore, with my paper mace mounted on my right shoulder, a garland of paper flowers hanging off my neck. The road leading to Dhavaleshwaram has expanded to a hundred feet now, and there are markings along its side. Four buses each way, at four-hourly intervals. Seven a.m., eleven a.m., three p.m., and seven p.m. If you had to go to Dhavaleshwaram after seven in the evening, you could still find transport with private autorickshaws and jeeps.
Palem is still a fishbone, a charred, emaciated one, clinging desperately to life. No one comes to wash or tend to me now; the official vehicles bearing official people, when they pass, do so with a cursory bow in my direction. But I am a god. As the marketing head at Machiraju and Sons said, I cannot be petty. So I bless them.
* * *
2013. I am still Hanuman. Palem has grown on the other side of the road. They call it Palem West. They built it as a proper housing block with laid out plots, street numbers, and brick houses. Palem East is still a fishbone, with hovels and huts dotting the landscape in irregular clumps.
Palem has a church now, on the western tip, where Sister Agnes runs the weekly service. We have a mosque, hugging the road a little to the north, a hundred metres or so away from the village. Azgher miyan says his azaan into the loudspeaker there.
Saraswatamma is still the sarpanch of the village, though there are some rumblings that there are new challengers that are beginning to make a dent in her voter base. People remember all the good work she did for the village in rebuilding it from the ground up since 2003. But it was 2003. Just a memory, now.
There is talk of a new Chief Minister who embraces the Christian faith, and who has begun to install statues of himself in villages across the state. If they come here, it will be my time again.
* * *
2019. I am YSR. Y. S. Rajasekhar Reddy. The Hanuman statue has been taken into the new shivalayam in the middle of the village. Some people asked what sense it made for Lord Hanuman and Lord Shiva to share the same premises, but Rama Shastri, the priest, said that all gods were welcome in his temple.
The elections of 2019 brought Jagan Mohan Reddy, YSR’s son, onto the Chief Minister’s seat. He did not bring in any official resolutions that his father’s statues should go up in every village, but the sarpanches knew what they had to do. Saraswatamma acted swiftly, aided by some generous campaigning by Sister Agnes, to educate the people of Palem of YSR’s greatness. In no time at all a committee was formed, a vote was cast, a decision was made, and Machiraju and Sons were commissioned for a new gold-coloured statue that was ‘bigger than anything you’d seen before’.
And so I take on another form, with Palem the village now growing into the size of a small town. As long as we’re blessed with great leaders and entertainers, and as long as people are blessed with enterprise and verve, I will keep returning, in one life after another.
And the firm of Machiraju and Sons, god bless them, will become, in the fullness of time, one of the most enduring business brands of free, modern India.