Story 70: A Lesser Temple

MANDIRAMMA BANDA IS EITHER the first or the last thing you will see in Palem, depending on which way you approach the village. It is a rather grotesque, odd-shaped rock about five feet high that leans back against the main trunk of a banyan tree, pushed off to one corner of the old shivalayam compound. If you stand next to Mandiramma Banda, with a palm placed on her rough granite surface, and look to your left, you will see the seated Nandi, in profile, in front of the temple, and to your right stands the disused cobblestoned well, on whose moss-ridden headwall sparrows skip lightly and titter at one another.

Once upon a time, the villagers say, the well used to have a name. People came to it at sunrise to fill their vessels and speak of things. The shivalayam was operational. When the well dried up – no one remembers when or why – the then President, Manmadha Rao, got a new limestone-and-concrete temple built in the middle of the village, and pulled the necessary strings at the municipal office to have a well dug up next to it.

By and by, the people of Palem moved inward for their water-filling, gossiping and deity-worshipping needs. The old shivalayam began to be referred to as ‘the outskirts’, and the well became one of those things you recalled existed only when it happened to cross your path.

On one side of the rock that is Mandiramma Banda, there is a crude sculpture of a woman standing with her feet splayed apart. When you look closely, you see that she is stamping down on the face of a man. Her fingers are shaped like claws, and fangs protrude from under her lips. Some people in Dhavaleshwaram think that Mandiramma was once a girl who lived in Palem, and that it was her suicide that angered the lord Shiva so much that he dried up the well and necessitated the move to a new compound.

When a woman is wronged, these people say, it is a blot on the entire village.

At around nine in the morning, Mandiramma gets her first visitors of the day. A gaggle of kids, three boys and one girl, all holding water guns. They run barefooted around the banyan tree pretending to shoot at one another. One of the boys is older than the other kids, perhaps seven, and the girl is the youngest of them all. She appears no more than four. Her coal-black hair has been braided by careful, loving hands. A bright yellow marigold sticks out of the back of her head, and it bounces as she laughs and leaps amid fallen leaves.

The older boy takes her by the arm and pulls her to one side. He says in mock cruelty: ‘I am going to take Lalli away, and you can do nothing about it!’

Lalli closes her mouth and giggles. The older boy says, ‘Shh.’

The other fellows point their guns to the air and make sounds of shots with their mouths. ‘Dishum,’ they say. ‘Dishum, dishum! We’re not going to let you!’

‘I will first kill you two donkeys,’ says the boy. ‘You clearly have no idea who I am, ha-ha-ha.’ He points his gun at the two younger boys and closes one eye. ‘Run while you still can. Lalli is mine.’

Lalli plays her part now, wrenching herself free and escaping from her captor to hide behind Mandiramma Banda. She feels the coolness of the rock against her sweating back. The rustle of the banyan’s leaves seems, to her at that moment, kind. When she peeks out the side to see what the boys are doing, the sight makes her chuckle.

Her two rescuers are giving a good account of themselves, but they are alas no match to Ishwar, the bigger boy. After a few minutes of jostling together in the dirt, they emerge with their shirts smudged and their faces powdered with dust. As she sees Ishwar approach her with his gun carelessly straddled in his palm, Lalli screams and giggles at the same time.

‘Oh no!’ she says. ‘Someone save me.’

‘No one can save you now,’ says Ishwar. ‘Ha-ha-ha.’

He grabs Lalli by the wrist and pulls her to her feet, even as the other two boys plot their next move. He points his gun at Lalli’s nose and says, ‘You’re mine, understand?’ And when Lalli nods, the barrel of Ishwar’s gun pokes her in the eye.

Ishwar does not notice it, and goes off to play with the other two boys. They have tired of the Lalli game now, and are marching around the well in some sort of a military formation.

Lalli covers her eye, her one hand resting on the face of Mandiramma. For a long time she is disoriented, and she wonders if she has gone blind. She calls out Ishwar’s name, then the names of the other two boys. None of them come to her. Hot tears scald her cheeks. She sobs quietly, part pained, part humiliated.

She wedges herself in between the rock and the trunk of the tree. It is comforting here, almost as though she were being held by her mother. She checks for blood around the hurt eye. There is none.

Little by little, she recovers. The throb begins to subside. Once again she peeks out the side of the rock and sees Ishwar on top of the well, giving an impassioned speech to his two wards. Lalli catches a few words; they make her laugh.

She gathers herself up to her feet, dusts her clothes, picks up her gun, and runs off to join her friends. About half way between the banyan and the well, she turns and looks over her shoulder at Mandiramma’s claw-shaped hands.

At the stroke of noon, Subbai arrives with his sack of pakodas slung over his shoulder. Hanging off the middle finger of his right hand is a polyethene bag stuffed with paper plates. After placing the tools of his trade on the earth in front of Mandiramma, Subbai winks at her and says, ‘How much do you think I will make today, madam?’

He spreads out a yellowed and stained square bed sheet on the ground, and pins the corners down with pebbles. As he waits, Subbai reminds himself of the amount of money each member of the Gentlemen’s Club owes him.

The Gentlemen’s Club only has four participating members at the moment, not counting Subbai. ‘But all great enterprise starts small,’ he tells Mandiramma. ‘I am going to Dhavaleshwaram this Sunday, to have a small signboard made. Of course, once this becomes official, Devender Reddy is going to have his cut. But one cannot help it. We must give the king the king’s share.’

The members of the Gentlemen’s Club arrive as a group at around half past twelve. Subbai swings into action and produces two sets of slick, plastic playing cards. He hovers around the four members, fussing over their neatly ironed white shirts, serving them pakodas, giving them tips on their game, and keeping score.

‘Did you hear about what Sundarayya the corporator said to my son-in-law the other day when we met at the registrar’s office?’ says one. ‘He asked for an extra lakh for the signature on those land approvals. They see a man in trousers and t-shirt and know that they’re from the city. I told my daughter that the next time he goes, he should take me along.’

‘You should have a chat with Devender Reddy,’ says another. ‘Subbai, these pakodas are so soggy and cold. And you charge us ten rupees per plate? See, I got a joker!’

‘Abba, Mohan Reddy gaaru,’ says Subbai, hurrying over to the complainant. ‘I may have accidentally given you a wrong batch. Here – let me give you a plate for free.’

‘See?’ says Mohan Reddy. ‘Unless you ask, even Subbai is ready to fleece you.’

Subbai giggles. ‘You’re all such big people, Mohan Reddy gaaru. I am just a small time pakodas seller. You want some tomato sauce?’

‘That Devender Reddy is such an asshole,’ says the third member, sucking on the end of a tobacco roll through blackened lips, while twirling his moustache. ‘Apparently he gave forty lakhs as bribe to purchase his Sarpanch seat, do you know?’

‘Forty lakhs is nothing,’ says the fourth, a young boy with a clean, slender face. ‘The going rate is eighty.’ He has a thin smile about his lips, and when he looks up at Subbai it hardens. ‘You will not tell Devender Reddy what we say about him, will you?’

Subbai leans over to cast a quick look at the man’s cards. ‘Oh, Ravinder babu has two lives and two jokers – I am going to warn everyone else to drop right now. Mohan Reddy gaaru, especially you – you cannot afford a full count.’

‘One day will come,’ says Ravinder, picking up a fresh card, giving it a distasteful look, and casting it off with a curse on his lips. ‘Card show,’ he mutters.

‘Winner gets a free plate of pakodas, on the club!’ says Subbai, and as he moves around the circle of players his pockets jingle with coins.

At two p.m., Mandiramma gets a visit from Rangi, the washerwoman at Devender Reddy’s house. She is a browned, bent-over woman who is thirty but looks forty, with wrinkles around the cheeks, and loose flaps of skin hanging out from under her blouse. She is wrapped clumsily in a dull brown sari that was once a bright pink. There is a smell about her that is not very pleasant, but Mandiramma does not shun her.

Rangi sits with her back to the rock, her legs splayed out. She watches her feet and thinks of how Ramu used to pull her toes at night. How he used to bring jasmines for her, how he used to whisper sweet nothings into her ear as they slept on their cot in their porch and looked up at the moon…

Rangi’s eyes well up, and as she wipes her tears she is aware of just how rough and hard her hands are. Unlike that witch’s!

‘Do you know what she said this morning when I was leaving home?’ she tells Mandiramma. ‘She tells me that I should get a new sari. She is very sweet with her words – very clever. She went to school, no? Ramu tells me that she is able to read English words as well. I wanted to ask her what is wrong with this sari – Saraswatamma gave this to me, you know – does she have any sari that Saraswatamma used to wear? And Ramu laughs and says don’t worry, Rangi likes wearing old saris. And they laugh together as if I am this old crone – I wanted to remind her that if it was not for me, she would not even be in this house. Well, that’s how the world goes, isn’t it? One day you are the mistress of your life, you have a husband and you have a house – and then you make a stupid decision, stupid, stupid! How was I to know? She was so meek and soft before the wedding. She called me akka and everything.’

Rangi is holding the corner of her sari in both hands and squeezing it between her fingers. The more she speaks of Chukka the more she is aware of this deep pain in her chest. Ramu and Chukka are always talking to each other, always laughing together – the cot is definitely not big enough for three, and Rangi has taken to sleeping on the mat inside the kitchen, so as not to disturb them – and have they once stopped her? When did Ramu last bring her flowers?

‘What if I told him that he could marry again – he should have said no, no? He seemed so miserable for a child, you know how men get about that. I thought this would be good for us. I thought Chukka would be the same girl I’ve always known. But ever since she missed her period, you have to see what a servant Ramu has become. Always behind her, asking her if she has eaten, telling her she should not work too hard, telling me that I should take care of her. Me! I have to cook in the house, all the chores, all the work in Devenderayya’s house – and come back and take care of this woman?’

Rangi’s face hardens. She begins to crack her knuckles together. She turns to face Mandiramma.

‘Oye,’ she says to the rock. ‘I heard that you are a goddess of death. Is that true? When that fellow Polayya’s wife got that terrible disease and died, and when he married that bitch before the month was out, people said that he had been praying to you – giving you offerings and such. Is that true?’ She pauses, bites her lower lip, and allows herself to stare blankly for a moment at Mandiramma’s feet. ‘If I gave you some salted curd and some rice, will you see to it that Chukka’s stomach lightens?’

Rangi licks her lips as she imagines her wish coming true. She places a tender hand on Mandiramma’s forehead, and thinks that the goddess’s eyes are coming alive. But when she sees Chukka in them, she breaks out of her daze and slaps herself on the cheek. With both hands.

‘No!’ she says. ‘Forget I said that. Chi chi, what is wrong with me? If Chukka has a child, if Ramu has a child, is he not mine too? Will I not be his mother too? What kind of mother am I to ask for her own child to be killed?’

Her eyes become rounder, tenderer. ‘You know,’ she tells Mandiramma, ‘Chukka has told me that she is a young little thing. She doesn’t know anything about raising children. She has made me promise that I should help her care for the baby. Will you sit with me when I nurse him, Akka, she asked. And I said yes. Of course I said yes. So don’t take anything I say about Chukka to heart, okay? She is really a dear little girl. And don’t you dare do anything to our baby! If something happens to him you will have to answer me. Do you understand?’

She does not look at Mandiramma as she issues her threat. She is wiping her eyes with the corner of her sari.

‘Okay, I have to return to the lake now, the clothes must have dried,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if you’re capable of blessing people, or whether I should take this to the shivalayam – but please bless my Chukka and Ramu. Please, please, please. Even if you have to curse me to do it!’

At four p.m., after Ramu has left for the evening shift at the farm, Chukka comes and sits by Mandiramma Banda. She is a tiny, fragile little thing with a deep baritone of a voice. One of the first things that attracted Ramu to her was her recital of the Durga stotram at the shivalayam during Navaratri celebrations two years ago. The whole village had lost power that evening, and they asked Chukka to perform without a microphone. She stepped up to the dais and just threw her voice as far out as she could. Ramu, who was standing to one corner, way to the back of the crowd, perked up and asked Rangi, ‘Who is that girl?’

Now Chukka throws her booming words at Mandiramma.

‘They treat me like a child!’ she tells the rock, as the evening summer breeze from the Godavari twirls around her and tugs persistently at her yellow sari. ‘Ramu, akka, amma, nanna – everyone! First they get me married to a man who is already married. And now they think that I know nothing. They speak to me as if I am the first woman in the world that has ever gotten pregnant!

‘And akka has been so morose these days. You know, on the day Ramu told her that we have conceived, she went into this massive sulk – as if someone has died in the house. And ever since then it has been one barb after another, one snide remark after another. I am tired, oh so tired, Mandiramma!’

She is one of the few villagers that address Mandiramma by name. The rock, of course, does not stir.

‘They brought me into the house only to have children,’ says Chukka. ‘If Ramu and Rangi had had children of their own, they would never have – you know. Do they ever stop to wonder what that makes me feel like? Am I a baby factory for them? Am I just a cook for Rangi, a whore for Ramu, and a mother for their children? I want to be the mother of my children – and Ramu tells me that I will be. But do I believe him?’

Chukka takes two quiet steps closer to Mandiramma, and joins her palms in front of her chest. She lowers her voice, but it still carries a fair distance on the empty temple compound. ‘You know, Mandiramma, one of these days I wish that Rangi does not return from Ellamma Cheruvu. I have been praying – oh, I feel so disgusted with myself for saying this – I have been praying that she drowns in the lake. What need does the world have for a woman who cannot have children anyway?’

The breeze withers and dies for just a moment as those words leave her lips, and the sculpture of Mandiramma stares back at Chukka. Chukka’s sari clings to her legs limply, and she suddenly becomes aware of the yellow thread around her neck that Ramu had tied on their wedding day.

‘Why do you look at me like that?’ says Chukka. ‘Do you think I am happy? Do you think I even sleep anymore? They say a woman with child should think blissful thoughts, thoughts of love and togetherness – but as long as Rangi is alive, is anything possible for me but misery? Will I ever be more than a mere cow?’

Her eyes – eyes that Ramu had often described as teardrops – now brighten and blaze like two stars. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘people have drowned in Ellamma Cheruvu before, haven’t they?’ She pauses, as if waiting for the rock to answer her. ‘Every once in a while, someone ventures too far out into the water – and the lake swallows them up.’ She nods, as she imagines the dull yellow water of Ellamma Cheruvu awakening, engulfing the body of Rangi and spitting it out half-eaten by fishes and crabs. Chukka smiles. ‘Yes, yes. Ramu and I will live so happily, so well without her. Can you make it happen, Mandiramma?’

Mandiramma does not answer. The breeze from the Godavari picks up again, cools down Chukka’s body. For a long time the girl stands there, unmoving, staring into the distance. Then she begins to shiver and shake her head.

‘No,’ she says. ‘No, no. Akka is nice to me. She may have a sharp tongue, but she is nice to me. Even when Ramu scolds me for this and that, akka tells me that it will be all right. And I am terrified of this – this thing growing inside me – what am I going to do with it! How am I going to manage? What if I – what if I drop it? Akka will help me through it all, I know she will. She promised me – no, the lake cannot swallow akka. You will stop it if it tries, won’t you?

‘They say Ellamma and you used to be sisters. If she truly is your sister, please tell her to take good care of my sister. If anything happens to her, I will tell everyone in the village that you killed her. And they will come and shatter you to piece. Beware!’

And at once she is contrite, and drops to her knees.

‘Sorry, sorry, okay? I did not mean to sound harsh or anything. If you make it so that nothing happens to akka – to any of us – I will give you half my hair. Oh – and I will not speak for a whole month after my child is born. I will not say a word!’

At six p.m., a troop of about thirty monkeys descend upon the shivalayam. All the adult males walk about, keeping watch. The adolescents carry yet-to-be-peeled bananas in their hands. The mothers with young ones hanging off their bellies gather around Mandiramma Banda, grooming one another as the infants grab and play with their teats.

Sarama the bitch is slouching behind the banyan tree, licking itself, a hungry eye cast toward a discarded banana. After ascertaining that the monkeys have thrown it away as unneeded, she picks herself up and trots over to it.

But her panting scares two of the mother monkeys, and that chitter brings the leader of the troop bounding over from the well. He charges straight at Sarama, stopping every three or four strides to hoist himself up on his hind feet to pound himself on the chest.

Just as Sarama reaches the banana and licks its very tip, in the suspicious manner that comes naturally to street dogs, the big monkey shows her his teeth from two feet away. He growls at her. He punches the earth and kicks up a screen of dust.

Sarama whimpers and rolls over. But the monkey is not satisfied. He snatches the banana and hurls it in the direction of Mandiramma Banda. It hits the rock on the side with a splat and falls to the ground. One of the infants leaves the safety of his mother’s breast to pick up the broken fruit.

The leader of the troop is now circling the bitch, while the mothers watch on nervously, huddling close together.

Sarama rolls over again and again, rubbing his nose in the dust. On the well’s headwall, a few of the adult monkeys stand and cheer. They want their leader to display the power of his troop to the trespassing animal. No one steals their food and escapes consequences.

But a strange and sudden quiet descends on them in that moment. The monkey leader pauses in his strutting and looks up toward the well. A lanky, frail member of their troop has clambered to the top of the wall and is making a sound with his lips gnashed together. There are some rebellious responses from the gathered group of jeerers, but overall there is silence. Grudging silence.

The monkey leader is momentarily held in limbo. He looks at the older monkey, then at Sarama, then at the clutch of mothers by the rock as if to ascertain what they think.

Then he makes his decision. He walks away from Sarama.

The bitch lets out a yelp of gratitude and runs to the back of the banyan tree again. She flops down in the dust and proceeds to lick herself.

As the leader rejoins his group, the old monkey jibbers at him a little bit. The leader peels a banana, bites into it, and listens.

The group of mothers relax now as well, and once again they gather around Mandiramma Banda to resume their grooming activities. Their children play and push one another around. Whenever they get a little hungry they return to the comfort of their mothers’ breasts.

The infant with the half-broken banana, though, ventures out to the back of the tree without telling his mother. He finds Sarama in the shade, in the gathering golden darkness of dusk, and throws the fruit at the bitch from a safe distance. It hits her full on the nose, making her growl involuntarily. But then she sees what it is and pushes at it with her nose.

The infant monkey goes back to his mother. Sarama eats half the banana, decides that she does not like it, and gets up to forage someplace else for something tastier.

At eight p.m., Rama Shastri comes to Mandiramma Banda, bearing in his hands a bowl of curd rice. He has finished the final prayer and offering at the shivalayam, and as has become customary for him to do on Thursdays, he has arrived to speak to Mandiramma of a few things weighing on his mind.

He performs the sashtanga namaskaaram in front of the rock. And with a tired sigh, he collects himself into a sitting position with his knees folded to one side. He tells Mandiramma of all the sins he has committed in the previous week, all the money that he has turned over at the President’s house, the share that he has accepted for himself over and above his salary. He tells the goddess about his daughter who is now approaching marriageable age without a prospective groom in sight. Who is going to marry a priest’s daughter? But if he can purchase some land in Dhavaleshwaram, maybe he can offer it as dowry to some up-and-coming clerk in the registrar office. Everyone knows that everyone at the registrar office makes money, from owner to cleaner.

He tells Mandiramma of the agreements he has made with Devender Reddy the President and Manikantham the Head Constable – a fourth of the collection goes to the former, a fourth to the latter, a fourth to himself, and a fourth to the temple trust. And of course, for all this to happen, a book of accounts has to be maintained. A fake book of accounts.

If anyone audits this book, they are bound to find discrepancies. But who will dare question a book of the temple’s accounts? No civilized man allows himself to speak of money inside the shivalayam. Shambho Shankara!

At around nine p.m., after Rama Shastri leaves with his heart considerably lightened, a little black cat steals into the compound and cleans off the bowl of curd rice. This is her Thursday gig. As she curls up against the trunk of the banyan and settles down to sleep, it does not strike her to be grateful to anybody for the meal that she just had.

It is said – by those villagers that still remember her – that Mandiramma watches over Palem. She has taken on herself the burden of sifting the good deeds of the village and weighing them against the bad. When it comes to a point that the balance is irretrievably lopsided, when she realizes that it can never be restored, Mandiramma will awaken. She will summon the Godavari to flow untethered upon this land, to cleanse it, to eat it up, to swallow it, to reduce it to silt and dust. She will watch over the destruction of the village that she now protects. And when the time is right, not even the shivalayam can come in her way. Not even Shiva.

But until then, until that day of reckoning comes, she is content to remain rock-like, listening, gazing upon the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, and offer up her shade to anyone who seeks it.