Story 66: Sarama

RAMA SHASTRI FINISHED his morning worship of the sun, and came into the front room of his house coated in sweat. He was a thin, almost sickened man with a triangular face, a full head of porcupine-like black hair, and gaunt cheekbones. He was not an unhealthy man by any means, but the ritual of sandhyavandanam – performed on an empty stomach, right after a bath – gave him a mild headache. On hot mornings such as this, with summer creeping up on Palem this year early in the month of March (Rama Shastri cast an angry look at the calendar that LIC agent from Dhavaleshwaram left behind as a compliment), he found himself in a surlier mood than usual.

‘Annapurna,’ he called out, ‘do you have Sarama’s food ready?’

And his wife, from inside the kitchen, said, ‘Yes, yes.’

Their kitchen benefited from being oriented toward the west, plus it had the terrace water tank right above it, so it kept cool through the summer, especially during the mornings. On his way into the room Rama Shastri muttered some admonishments to himself: if there was one thing worse than the headache that the sandhyavandanam gave him, it was the guilt that he felt this way about his practice. He was a priest; praying to a god must fill him with joy. What you need, he told himself in his father’s voice, is a sense of gratitude for how blessed your life is. Ask the all-powerful Vaikartana for forgiveness right now.

He came to the granite kitchen counter, oblivious to the sounds of the rice cooker slowly building up steam. Picking up the bowl of salted curd rice from the corner, he raised it to his nose and took a small whiff.

‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ said Annapurna, pulling out a small plastic tin of turmeric from the cabinet overhead, and twisting open the lid. ‘I made it with today’s rice only.’

Without answering his wife Rama Shastri stalked out of the kitchen. On two separate occasions in the past had Annapurna made Sarama’s meal with the previous night’s rice. Now he was not going to take her word for it.

Out by the side of his front door, he placed the bowl of rice on the earth, and chanted a verse under his breath. In the few short seconds that it took him to crouch and get back on his feet, the back of his neck had begun to burn. Amareshwara, he complained, why is it so hot at this time of the day?

Annapurna made idlis and chutney for breakfast. They had them in silence, on wooden planks laid on the kitchen floor. His hunger soothed and his headache abating, Rama Shastri found his mood lift as he put away his plate, and as he went out to collect Sarama’s bowl, he even courted pleasant thoughts of that morning’s puja scheduled at the shivalayam.

At the front door, though, he saw something that puzzled him. Sarama’s food had not been touched.

* * *

That morning passed slowly for Rama Shastri. With long training and ingrained muscle memory he went through the motions. He performed all the rituals of the puja without infractions. Rammurthy, the school principal, came to make an offering in the name of his second daughter, who had secured an engineering seat in a big college in Hyderabad. He stayed back to chat for a while about this and that, and Rama Shastri obliged the man. He broke open the coconut that the principal had brought, marked it with vermillion, and gave one half of it back to him.

‘Have that with the lord’s name on your lips,’ he said. ‘All will go well.’

After that, he sat on the stone floor of the temple, outside the inner sanctum, and leaned back on one of the pillars. He remembered Annapurna’s look of scorn from the morning, when he had brought back Sarama’s bowl with the rice uneaten.

‘Oh,’ she had said, ‘now even fresh food is not good enough for that dog.’

Rama Shastri had chosen not to reply to the woman; one of his rules was not to engage in conflicting speech early in the morning with his wife. He had walked out in the direction of the temple, and wondered if all was well with Sarama.

I need to go and look for her, he thought, but remembered that he could not leave the temple unattended. Yes, he could call for Annapurna and have her sit here just in case someone turned up, but that would spread rumours around the village that Rama Shastri was dabbling in other hobbies, and that the salary Devender Reddy was giving him was no longer enough for him – and such words were hard to quell once they took birth.

He spent the entire morning fretting thus, imagining all sorts of misfortunes that might have visited Sarama overnight. Did a lout pepper her with stones and drive her off the village? Maybe that fellow Babu Ram tied her up again to the coconut tree in his hotel’s backyard? If so, Rama Shastri would have to go down to him in the evening, after the temple had been locked up. And this time, he would not go easy on Babu Ram. Some people did not understand when you spoke politely to them.

A cool breeze blew from the Godavari into the temple and lulled him into a nap. He dreamt of Sarama climbing onto his lap and licking him on the earlobe. ‘Stop it, you silly dog,’ he said to her, laughing. ‘You will get your filthy slobber all over me.’ And she woofed at him and wagged her tail and stuck her tongue out.

Then he awoke with a start and found himself all alone. He prayed to the lord to take good care of Sarama, wherever she was. ‘It is not like her to not visit our house in the morning, Lord,’ he told the shivalingam. ‘I am sure that something has happened to her.’

In the evening, just as he was making preparations to leave for the night, and rehearsing the speech he was going to give Babu Ram, he heard a familiar scuffling sound, and his heart leapt in joy. At the entrance, Sarama stood on all fours and looked up at him. Rama Shastri surveyed the animal’s body at once, and ascertained that nothing had happened to her. Then he went over to her and whacked her on the side.

‘Where did you go, huh?’ he asked.

In reply she licked his feet.

* * *

The next morning, when he found the bowl again untouched, Rama Shastri decided that enough was enough. ‘Annapurna,’ he said, ‘I am going out for a while,’ and stepped out in the direction of Venkayya Veedhi. He needed to give that uncouth wretch Babu Ram a piece of his mind in order to prevent shenanigans of this sort.

He found Babu Ram dusting the sign of his hotel with a muddy brown cloth. ‘Oh, Rama Shastri gaaru, come, come,’ he said. ‘Early in the morning today – some strong coffee and idli-sambaar?’ He pulled out a chair and hurriedly wiped some grime off the seat. ‘Or would you like a masala dosa?’

‘I have not come to eat your food, Babu Ram,’ Rama Shastri said frostily, pulling his angavastram about himself. ‘I have come to ask you where you have tied up Sarama.’

The man blinked up at him a couple of times before he understood. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘The dog? No, Shastri-gaaru, I don’t have him with me. After that day – well, I never knew then that he was such a good friend of yours.’

‘Her,’ Rama Shastri corrected Babu Ram. ‘And I don’t think you’re speaking the truth. If you haven’t tied her up, where else could she be? You should be ashamed of yourself, using a dumb animal like that for your own gains. Why can’t you buy a watchdog, huh, just leave Sarama alone.’

‘Arey, sir!’ said Babu Ram. ‘You can come and look anywhere you want. I don’t have him. What am I, an idiot to tie him up after the scene you made in front of my customers that time? No, no, if you’ve not come to eat my food, go elsewhere because I have work to do.’

Rama Shastri debated with himself whether to barge into Babu Ram’s hotel and stride out to the backyard. But it would be too much of an invasion; besides, if Babu Ram indeed had Sarama anywhere nearby, she would have barked at the sound of his voice.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘If I discover you’ve been lying, I will take you straight to the Sarpanch –’

‘Arey, what is this early in the morning?’ said Babu Ram. ‘I have nothing to hide, and I am not lying. If you want to know where your dog really went, cross the road and look near the church. That lady has been feeding him some biscuits every now and then.’

Rama Shastri irritatedly began to correct Babu Ram again about Sarama’s gender, but then he stopped himself and asked, ‘What lady?’

‘That lady who looks after the church, who else?’

* * *

Cloaked in a grey-and-white cassock, Sister Agnes lit the sixth and final candle on the pulpit and crossed herself, thanking the lord Christ, their saviour and their shepherd, for guiding that month’s Missionaries of the Poor money order safely to her deposit box. One heard of many scams taking place these days; Sister Agnes did not understand the intricacies of how these robbers worked, but she read the news religiously, and almost every day she saw one or the other report of funds being intercepted between a sender and a recipient. Sometimes even the postmen were involved; and why not? Satan was inside us all, luring us with his poisoned fruit.

‘Make it so that we’re all blessed with temperance,’ she said to the image of the Christ above her. ‘Amen.’ She knew she must ask for forgiveness for those who sin by siphoning off the lord’s money, but she could not find it in her heart to do so. Of all thefts, surely this was the most deplorable – how could a man take for himself wealth set aside for the spread of the lord’s word? Such a man deserved all the punishments of hell.

As she turned away from the pulpit and faced the front door of the cathedral, a smile came to her face.

‘Why, Sarah, naughty girl,’ she said to the dog sitting on the step, ‘have I not told you that you’re not to come in with those dirty paws of yours?’ She walked past the pews with firm, strong strides. Sister Agnes was a woman of twenty six who managed the church of Palem on her own; at the beginning she had feared that she did not know enough to hold the Sunday Service by herself. But a few months in, with the encouragement of Father Augustine in Dhavaleshwaram, she had become quite an expert at interpreting the Bible for the sake of Palem’s villagers.

She descended on one knee and took Sarah’s front paw in her hand. ‘Have you eaten?’ she asked, and thought that the dog nodded back at her. ‘Good. You’re shrunken to the bone, poor baby. Don’t worry, I will make sure you become nice and fit. Okay?’

She threw open the front doors of the church and walked into the morning sunlight. Sure enough, Sarah’s bowl was almost clean. But Sister Agnes called out, ‘Sarah?’

The dog came running behind her and said, ‘Woof.’

‘There are still some morsels of food left over in our bowl,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘You must know that there are millions of dogs out there in the world that have nothing to eat this morning. Don’t you think you should be more grateful for the food you receive?’

Sister Agnes stared down at the dog with reproach in her eyes, and wilting under the gaze, Sarah went over to the bowl and began to shamefully lick it clean.

‘Good girl,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘Very good girl.’

As she stood there proudly watching the dog finish her breakfast, Sister Agnes thought she sensed some movement at the edge of the peripheral vision, somewhere at the bottom of the twelve-step staircase that led up to the church’s front door. Did she have a visitor, this early in the day? She turned to see who it was.

‘Sarama!’ shouted the man, whom Sister Agnes recognized as the priest of the shivalayam on the other side of the road. They had never spoken, but there had been some social nodding as they passed each other at the vegetable market. What was his name again? Rama Shastri? What was he doing here? And who was Sarama?’

‘Sarama!’ said the man again. ‘Come here!’

‘Oh, do be quiet,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘You’re alarming Sarah.’ To the dog she said soothingly, ‘Don’t worry, baby. The man is going away.’

‘No,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘I am not going away without my dog.’

Sister Agnes immediately understood who Sarama was. What a silly thing to call a dog. She gave herself a moment to appraise the priest: she ran through a checklist of items in her mind – a cloth around the chest, a thread around the shoulder, red-and-white marks on the forehead, brass ear studs… the more she saw of him, the more she was convinced that she knew his type.

‘What do you mean your dog?’ she asked him, not budging from her position at the top of the staircase. ‘If she is yours, why have you been taking such bad care of her?’

‘Bad care?’ asked Rama Shastri. ‘Bad care? Sarama! Will you or will you not come here right this instant!’

That seemed to startle Sarah. She whimpered and began to run down the stairs. ‘Sarah,’ said Sister Agnes gently. ‘You can stay here if you wish.’

But Sarah went over to Rama Shastri’s feet and began to lick them. He looked at Sister Agnes in triumph. ‘See? She is mine.’

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘She will come here again tomorrow morning when she’s hungry.’

‘No, she won’t,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘I give her curd rice every morning. She has been having it every day for a year until you – you came along.’

‘Curd rice?’ said Sister Agnes with a short laugh. ‘Do you not know that dogs are carnivorous?’

‘My Sarama will eat whatever I eat in my house,’ said Rama Shastri.

‘Indeed,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘Now I know why Sarah is so unhealthy. You’ve been feeding her curd rice every morning. Leave her with me for a month, and you will see how a dog is to be reared.’

‘No one is leaving anyone with you for a month,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘Come, Sarama!’

Sister Agnes waved goodbye at the dog as they walked away. Sarah kept looking in her direction over her shoulder.

* * *

Sister Agnes stood outside the front door of the church at eight a.m. the next morning, holding in her two hands a bowl of curried chicken mixed with rice. She had spent an extra hour the night before perfecting her preparation, making sure that the meat was tender, and that the spices had all seeped into it properly. All these days she had been giving Sarah whatever was left after she had eaten; last night she had cooked just for her.

There was no way that a dog would like curd rice better than chicken, she told herself as she watched the gate of the compound with apprehension. There was no way. It went against nature. Dogs were born to eat meat, not to swallow buffalo milk! Besides, she knew how to care for Sarah. How rudely had the man spoken to her yesterday, how he had made her roll at his feet, as if she were some sort of a slave. All these men were like that, she thought.

For about half an hour she waited in vain. One part of her told her that she could leave the bowl there like she did every day, that Sarah would come (of course she would!) and eat the food, and she would stop by to say thank you. Why don’t you go and attend to your daily duties, asked this voice of her, in the manner of a gentle mother. The lord’s candles need lighting. The pews need to be dusted. The cross has to be washed, the windows cleaned…

But she remained standing at the front door. Everything could wait today, she replied to the voice. Everything. All that mattered was that Sarah would come and have this food – this food that I’ve made for her. And once she eats this, there is no way that she would go back to whatever that man would make. O Lord, just bring Sarah here just this once, and from there my chicken will do the rest. Do not allow an innocent animal to fall into the clutches of a man such as that.

And sure enough, the lord answered her prayers. At about thirty five minutes past eight, Sarah sauntered in through the gate. Sister Agnes breathed a sigh of relief, and bent down to place the bowl beside the front door. Today, she thought, she would not make a fuss if Sarah did come into the church with her dirty paws. All the dirt in the world, after all, belonged to the lord as well.

* * *

Rama Shastri stood with his hands balled up and resting on the hips, staring down at the uneaten bowl of curd rice. Today he had asked Annapurna to mix some pickled mango with the rice, just so that Sarama would get some welcome change in her meal. But the ungrateful thing had not even turned up. All these months, all these months I feed you, he thought – and this is how you repay me?

He prayed to the lord to guide the dog from black forces such as that woman in the church. Amareshwara, he said under his breath, as he began to walk toward the main road, in a bid to cross it and waylay his rival, give me the strength to take back what is mine from this impostor. Do not let her malign your dog with meat and other such uncouth practices – do not let her lure Sarama away from you by tempting her with pleasures of the flesh.

At the church, he found Sarama stretched out on her side in front of the main door, in blissful sleep. Her stomach was swollen, and her breathing looked so serene even from here. Before he could gather his voice to yell out her name, the woman emerged from within and stepped out into the sunlight. She put her finger to her lips, and to his surprise Rama Shastri found himself speaking to her in a fierce whisper.

‘What have you fed her to make her sleep like that?’ he asked her.

‘What?’ said the woman. ‘I am unable to hear you.’ She came down and stood on the first step of the staircase, so that she could look eye to eye with Rama Shastri. ‘What is it that you want?’

‘I want to know what you’ve done to entice my Sarama away from me,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘You’re a temptress. Don’t think the lord is not watching all your acts from up there.’

‘Don’t think the lord is not watching all of your acts,’ whispered Sister Agnes. ‘It is why he has sent me to Sarah’s rescue.’

‘Don’t call her Sarah!’ said Rama Shastri, wincing as if someone had pierced him in the crook of his arm with a pin. ‘What a stupid name for a dog.’

‘Oh,’ said Sister Agnes, ‘as if Sarama is a perfect name.’

‘It is what she likes,’ said Rama Shastri.

‘If you knew what she likes,’ said Sister Agnes with a smile – yes, the woman actually smiled at him as she said this – ‘you would not have fed him curd rice for a year. Curd rice!’

‘Dogs that I have looked after have always eaten curd rice.’

‘Well, perhaps they had nowhere better to go,’ she said. ‘Now, Sarah has me. She will never come to you.’

‘I will make her come to me,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘She is mine.’

‘I don’t see your name written anywhere on her,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘She is a street dog. She is free to go wherever she wants.’

‘Ha!’ said Rama Shastri, still keeping his voice low so as to not wake Sarama. ‘We’ll see to that. I will see to it that all your – your arrogance – is brought down to earth.’

‘What are you talking about? Silly man.’

‘Who are you calling silly?’

‘Well, you’re the only man here that I can see.’

Rama Shastri breathed in, then breathed out. Sister Agnes kept looking him straight in the eye, with her arms folded across her chest, and her chin pointing up at him. He had half a mind to brush her aside, run up the staircase, and carry Sarama off in his arms. But something told him that it would not be a prudent course to adopt. For one, Sister Agnes may be a despicable woman, but she was still a woman. And Rama Shastri knew women of this type. Once you laid a hand on them, they used all their feminine wiles to turn the sentiment of the world in their favour.

Yes, he thought. No. It would be unwise indeed. If he had to win the war, he must let himself lose this battle. Let Sarama be with her – for now.

He stepped back, even as Sister Agnes glowed with a truly cruel smile. ‘You have come to your senses, I see,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’

Rama Shastri did not tell her that he intended to be back. There was no need to give her advance warning of what was to come.

* * *

That night, as Sister Agnes was preparing her chicken curry, Rama Shastri and Devender Reddy came to visit her. They sat on one of the pews in the last row of the church, the one closest to the front door. Sister Agnes had not had much interaction with Devender Reddy either, but Father Augustine had told her that he was one of the ‘key men’ of the village.

Devender Reddy had a round, clean-shaven face, and his oiled grey hair was parted neatly to the left. He cleared his throat a couple of times, while Rama Shastri stood by his side with his hands locked behind him.

‘Shastri-gaaru has told me,’ said Devender Reddy, ‘about the dog?’

‘Yes,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘Has he also told you how he has been torturing her this whole year by giving her just one vegetarian meal per day?’

‘Heh,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘What to say? Shastri-gaaru is a vegetarian.’

‘Well, Sarah is not.’

‘I understand, I understand,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘This is such a small issue, isn’t it?’

‘Well, if it’s a small issue, ask him to back off.’

Rama Shastri did not rise to the bait. He appeared to have come with the strategy of letting Devender Reddy do all the talking. He merely looked straight ahead, and avoided eye contact with Sister Agnes.

‘What is the problem, actually, Sister?’ said Devender Reddy. ‘The dog doesn’t belong to anyone. He is free to roam in the village wherever she wants.’

‘That is right,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘She likes to come and eat my food, that’s all.’

Rama Shastri pursed his lips, and broke his self-restraint to speak. ‘Do you see how crafty she’s being? Of course the dog is going to come to her. She gives her chicken.’

Devender Reddy nodded and said, ‘Hmm. Hmm.’

‘Of course I give her chicken,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘Chicken is what dogs love to have. Mr President, tell him.’

‘What will he tell me?’ said Rama Shastri. ‘I brought him here. Will he tell me what I should feed my dog?’

‘Your dog?’

‘Yes, my dog. I was the one feeding her for a whole year. It becomes my dog then, doesn’t it? You have come only last month – how dare you take my dog away from me by – by tempting her like this. Devenderayya, tell her.’

‘Hmm,’ said Devender Reddy.

‘Tell me what?’ said Sister Agnes. ‘The president has already said that the dog belongs to no one. Let Sarah decide whether she wants to come here or there for her meal. Is that not fair?’

‘What fair,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘If you feed her chicken of course she will come to eat at your place. Not because she likes you.’

‘Oh,’ said Sister Agnes, scoffing gently. ‘And she likes you?’

‘Okay,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘Okay. Listen, both of you. Shastri-gaaru. Sister. You’re both respected people in this village. Tell me – how will you feel if tomorrow the villagers of Palem come to know that you’re both fighting over a street dog?’

‘Leave fighting aside for a minute, Devenderayya,’ said Rama Shastri, ‘you have to think of logic, no? Where is the logic in what she’s saying?’

‘Oh, I am not being logical?’ said Sister Agnes. ‘And feeding a carnivore curd rice every day is logical?’

‘I was not talking to you,’ said Rama Shastri.

‘Neither was I talking to you,’ said Sister Agnes.

Devender Reddy squeezed the back-rest of the pew with both his hands, and chewed on the inside of his cheek. ‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘There seems to be only two ways out of this. One: you look after him by turns. Alternate days, alternate weeks, alternate months – something of that sort.’

‘No,’ said Rama Shastri and Sister Agnes in unison.

‘Why?’ asked Devender Reddy.

‘Once she spends a month in her company,’ said Rama Shastri, ‘Sarama will never come back to me.’

‘There you go,’ said Sister Agnes, smiling. ‘That’s an admission that Sarah wants to live with me.’

‘But what is your objection to looking after the dog by turns?’ Devender Reddy asked Sister Agnes.

‘I will not willingly tolerate abuse of the animal just to satisfy his ego.’

‘My ego?’ said Rama Shastri. ‘My ego?’ He asked Devender Reddy, ‘Devenderayya, am I showing any ego here?’

‘No, Shastri-gaaru, of course not,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘Neither are you, Sister. Right. So if both of you refuse to take care of the dog together, then the only other option is that neither of you take care of her.’

Rama Shastri and Sister Agnes looked at each other for a moment. Then the priest said, ‘Forget it. Let her take the dog.’

Sister Agnes shook her head. ‘No. No, no, no. Mr President, if it comes down to that, then it is only right that this man cares for Sarah. He is better than nothing.’

‘I don’t want the dog anymore,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘Let her take it.’

Sister Agnes chuckled, and shook her head. ‘I am not here to accept your charity,’ she said. ‘All this time you said you’ve been feeding it for a year, it’s your dog and so on, no? Take her, then.’

‘All this time you said you know exactly how to care for her and so on, no?’ said Rama Shastri. ‘You take her. And keep feeding her that unholy meat!’

‘Okay,’ said Devender Reddy, raising his arms. ‘Okay. So can I take it that neither of you want the dog?’

Once again Rama Shastri and Sister Agnes looked at each other. First Rama Shastri shook his head. Then Sister Agnes did.

‘Right,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘In that case nothing changes. The dog is free to go wherever she wants. But the only rule is that neither you nor you will feed it. Is that understood?’

‘Yes,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘I won’t feed her as long as that woman doesn’t.’

‘And I won’t feed her as long as that man doesn’t.’

‘And if I come to know that either of you is feeding the dog,’ said Devender Reddy, ‘I will give it away to the other person. Understood?’

‘Yes,’ said Rama Shastri. Sister Agnes nodded too.

‘Then it’s settled,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘The dog is free, as it has always been. But you two – both of you – are forbidden from feeding it ever again in the village. Okay?’

Rama Shastri and Sister Agnes nodded, watching each other suspiciously.

Devender Reddy got to his feet with the support of his walking stick. ‘Amareshwara,’ he said, as his knees clicked. ‘Let me go home now and eat something,’ he said. ‘I am famished.’

* * *

Mohammad Azgher finished his evening prayer and stepped out onto the porch of his mosque. The mosque was an old single-storeyed brick building with a ten-foot-square room on the terrace. Azgher used the ground floor as a place of worship, and the upstairs room for his accommodation. During the days Azgher sat outside his house by the main road and spread his wares – fragrant oil, wicks, incense sticks, earthen lamps, pocket crosses, pictures of the Christ in the arms of his mother – in front of him on a blue tarpaulin sheet. During the evenings, after the evening prayer was said and done, he ran a broom over the front yard before retiring into the house to make for himself something to eat.

Today, as he was about to pack up his things, he spotted a dog sniffing at the ground nearby. It looked up at him warily, ready to dodge or run if Azgher happened to reach for a stone.

Azgher took no notice of it, but it followed him back into his house. ‘Hey, where are you coming?’ he asked, and it only mewled in response. ‘Feeling hungry, are you? Well, that makes two of us.’

He opened the gate to his compound and let the dog go in first. He carried the bundle of his stuff on his shoulders, and put it in the corner in the front room. Then he came out and stood with his hands on his hips, looking at his new visitor. He plucked at his beard.

‘Hain,’ he said. ‘You’re a girl, huh? I will call you Salima.’

Salima did not seem to take notice of him, but Azgher thought he felt a certain kind of comfort just to have her around. Every now and then the poor thing would cast a beseeching look at him.

‘All right, all right,’ he said. ‘I will go in and make something for us.’ Again he plucked at his beard. Then he asked the dog, ‘You like mutton?’