DOCTOR ANNAMALAI HID his contempt with practiced ease. The man sitting across his consultation desk, Lingababu, was a near stranger. Besides the fact that he ran the ladies’ hostel on third cross road in Palem West, Annamalai knew little about him.
He was a squat, square-shaped man with a round head. He sported two silver-coloured rings: one around his nose and one at the top of his left ear. His thick mop of hair was black and ringed with curls. He had a nervous, fidgety way of looking about him when he spoke. And he kept squeezing his fingers together. He wore a lemon-yellow shirt with black buttons, the first of which was hanging by a thread.
Annamalai, as a rule, did not like seeing patients after five. He had just been about to instruct Maria to bring in the waiting chairs from the front yard when Lingababu had shown up.
Maria had tried her best, poor thing, to get the man to return tomorrow. But patients who arrived after closing time were often the most insistent. Now Maria was standing at the door, behind Lingababu’s shoulder, folding her large arms across her ample chest and muttering curses under her breath.
‘I come here not because I am sick,’ said Lingababu at last. ‘It is one of my girls.’
Something about the way he said that made Annamalai look up from his prescription pad. One of my girls. He wondered if he should tell Maria to go and lock up the dispensary. But he just nodded and said, ‘Hmm?’
‘I bet it is that fellow Ritesh, Saraswatamma’s son.’
Her instinct for gossip piqued, Maria barged into the room, and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. ‘Who?’ she asked Lingababu. ‘That boy who came from America? What about him?’
Lingababu seemed flustered by this sudden intrusion, and he turned his ferrety eyes to Annamalai.
‘Go on,’ said Annamalai. ‘Nurse can be trusted.’
‘Trusted with diseases, perhaps!’ said Lingababu. ‘Can she be trusted with secrets?’
‘Aye, man!’ said Maria, clicking her finger and pointing it at Lingababu. ‘You come in here this late and take so long to come to the point. Either you tell Doctor saab what the problem is or I throw you out. Understand?’
Lingababu’s face became pained. ‘One of my girls,’ he said. ‘She is pregnant.’
Maria stopped in her tracks and gave Annamalai a look. Annamalai nodded in her direction and said, ‘Maybe go and check if the windows of the lab are all properly bolted, Maria.’
‘Yes,’ said Lingababu. ‘Why don’t you do that?’
‘This is a girl’s matter, you know,’ said Maria, curling her mouth into a pout. ‘But if you think I’d better not listen, then I will go.’
‘I think it might be best,’ said Annamalai. ‘I will fill you in on everything later.’
Maria went, but before she did she clicked his finger at Lingababu once again. ‘Oye. The parents of these girls – they give you all this money to take good care of them, no? And this is what you do? Useless fellow!’
Annamalai waited a few moments after the nurse had left. He found himself strangely alert to Lingababu’s face now, those micro-movements, the trembling fingertips. The glint of the tube light on the man’s nose ring.
In order not to give anything away, he reached for the paperweight, an ivory bust of Hippocrates, with some Latin phrase inscribed underneath. Annamalai had never found out what it said. Maybe after Lingababu went away tonight, he would finally look it up.
He allowed his fingers to come to rest around the base of the weight. Did he catch any suspicion on the man’s face? It did not appear so.
‘I am pretty sure it’s that fellow,’ Lingababu was saying. ‘The whole time he was here, he would hang around the hostel on some pretext or the other. He would bring Sarita a notebook. A textbook. This book. That book. Rascal.’
‘Now,’ said Annamalai. ‘First things first. How do you know the girl is pregnant?’
‘Well, I am not an idiot,’ said Lingababu. ‘We have a couple of female wardens at the hostel – and they have told me that the girl has missed her period.’
‘That can happen due to other reasons,’ said Annamalai. His grip on the paperweight tightened just a touch.
‘And she has begun to vomit,’ said Lingababu.
‘I see. Have you asked the girl who it is?’
Lingababu smiled, quite crookedly from under his bushy moustache. ‘She is seventeen. Rather innocent. I don’t think she knows yet that she’s pregnant.’
‘No girl is that innocent.’
‘Oh, you would be surprised,’ said Lingababu. Suddenly he lurched forward in his seat, and gripped the edge of the consultation table. ‘I say, Doctor saab, will you give her a check-up? Maybe she will tell you who it is if you ask her properly? I am not as educated as you are – you seem to have the – the skill for it.’
Annamalai did not allow his face to change from its state of calm repose. ‘I can examine her, yes. Whom have you told about this?’
‘No one,’ said Lingababu. ‘No one but I and the wardens know.’
‘Now,’ said Annamalai, making his voice rather stern. ‘I want you to know that you’re probably mistaken. A missed period and a bout of vomiting. That can happen due to a thousand other reasons. Do you have any other evidence?’
‘The boy! He has been hovering around the hostel the whole time!’
‘Not that,’ said Annamalai. ‘Did you spot her going away to meet him? Where did they find the privacy to – you know.’
‘Oh,’ said Lingababu. ‘Oh.’
‘Are the girls in your hostel allowed to go out anywhere?’
‘Well, they go to college in Dhavaleshwaram,’ said Lingababu. ‘If you’re sneaky enough, there’s opportunity.’
‘Did any of her friends see her? Maybe they told you?’
‘No,’ said Lingababu.
‘Well, then, maybe you’re overreacting a little. Why don’t you bring the girl along tomorrow and I will examine her.’
Lingababu scratched the back of his head. ‘There is a chance, then, that she is not pregnant?’
‘Of course,’ said Annamalai. ‘Happens all the time. What did you say the name of the girl was?’ He uncapped his pen and touched the tip to the prescription pad.
‘Sa-ri-ta. Have I seen her before?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Lingababu. ‘She is the girl who had typhoid last year, remember? You said that she’d almost died and came back.’
‘Ah,’ said Annamalai, writing repeatedly on the ‘S’ of Sarita. ‘I remember now. Strong girl. Good head on her shoulders. Now I am even more certain that this is all about nothing.’
‘Heh,’ said Lingababu. ‘I hope so. Shall I bring her tomorrow?’
‘Yes, first thing in the morning. Let’s say eight?’
* * *
Annamalai rode his bicycle down from Dhavaleshwaram at dawn the next morning. He had taken the key to the clinic from Maria the night before. Eight a.m. was a good time to see Sarita and Lingababu. Maria was usually not in until half past nine or so.
He rode the bicycle around to the back of the building and parked it against the disused well. When he came around to the front with his lunchbox in hand, and his stethoscope around his neck, he saw that Lingababu and Sarita were already sitting on the solitary bench that Maria liked to leave out in the waiting area overnight.
Annamalai switched on the light of the porch, and immediately saw that the girl had been crying.
Lingababu got to his feet and raised his hand to his chin. ‘Namaste, sir.’
‘Hmm,’ said Annamalai. When he inserted the key in the lock, he tried to catch Sarita’s eye, in the hope that he could glean something from her expression. But she steadfastly kept her chin pressed to her chest.
No matter. Plenty of time to make her talk.
He took his time opening the windows of his office, whistling a tune loudly enough for them to hear. Then he came to sit behind the desk. ‘Lingababu,’ he called. ‘Send the girl in.’
Both of them appeared at the doorway. As they were about to come in, Annamalai said, ‘Just the girl please. I need to examine her.’
Sarita seemed flustered by this request, and she looked beseechingly at Lingababu. The man gave her a comforting nod and thrust her ahead. ‘Yes, sir, of course. I will sit right outside, if you need me.’
‘Of course. Please close the door.’
Annamalai waited for Sarita to sit. She had shrunken a bit since he had seen her last – which was about a month ago, he remembered. He had met her in a deluxe room of Celebrations Hotel in Dhavaleshwaram, and of course he had given her some money afterward. She had refused it thinking it was payment. He had assured her it was a gift.
She was in a tight green blouse that hugged her just-blossoming breasts. Although she kept her eyes averted, she had lined them with kohl. The mark of vermillion on her forehead had been crafted with a skilful finger. She wouldn’t admit it, but she had wanted to look good for him. Even today.
That turned him on.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Have you been taking the tablets I gave you last time?’
‘Yes, Doctor,’ she said. She was always so proper – calling him Doctor.
‘You have not missed any days, have you? Maybe it slipped your mind now and then?’
‘No, Doctor,’ she said, and hesitated. ‘I don’t know if I took them every single day. But most days, yes.’
‘Now, Sarita,’ he said, not bothering to lower his voice. Not yet. Lingababu could hear all of this if he wanted. ‘Your warden is worried that you may have – slipped a little bit. They tell me you’ve missed your period.’
‘I have, Doctor.’ She kept her head in the same lowered position, but her eyes rose to meet his.
Annamalai gave her a smile. ‘And you have been vomiting.’
‘That does not mean you’re pregnant, does it?’
‘That’s what I have been telling Uncle,’ she said. ‘Any day now my period will come, and all will be fine. This is all such a waste of time.’
‘Right,’ said Annamalai. He stood up and pushed his chair back. He opened the door to the examination room and said, ‘Step in here please and I will take a look.’
* * *
Annamalai lowered the girl’s skirt as she lay on the examination table. He had allowed his gloved fingers to wander just once, over her inner thighs, when the smell of her sex became too intoxicating to bear. But overall, he had been professional.
She had not minded the touch. But she had not welcomed it either.
‘You’re not pregnant,’ he said, peeling the gloves off his hands and tossing them into the washing basket.
She frowned up at him, confused.
Annamalai grinned at her. ‘You seem disappointed.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No, I am not disappointed. Of course. This is a relief!’
‘Yes, rather,’ said Annamalai. ‘Now tell me – have you been seeing this boy, this Ritesh?’
‘As a friend, yes,’ said Sarita.
‘Hmm. Hmm. A friend, yes. Am I your friend too?’
She giggled like a schoolgirl. Annamalai reminded himself she was a schoolgirl. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You’re my doctor.’ Her smiling face intensified just for a second. ‘Aren’t you?’ she asked, and brought a warm hand to touch his wrist.
‘I am asking you about Ritesh,’ said Annamalai, drawing back. ‘If you and that boy slept together, I should know about it.’
‘But why, Doctor? You just said I am not pregnant.’
‘You’re a smart one, aren’t you? I need to know about it so that I can have a word with Saraswatamma. If her boy is going around town gallivanting with young women who are not old enough to –’
‘Old enough to what, Doctor?’ asked Sarita. She twirled a lock of her hair around the forefinger, eyeing him.
‘I ask the questions, all right? Did you or did you not sleep with that boy?’
‘I have been taking your tablets the whole time, Doctor,’ said Sarita.
‘That is not the question I asked.’
‘They’re tablets for my typhoid, aren’t they?’ she asked. ‘They’re not meant to do anything else to me. Right?’
Annamalai watched the girl, and was suddenly aware of his quickening breath. Just to gather himself he paced around the room, pretended to look out of the closed glass window. The door to the outer office was open, but the hum of the ceiling fan was loud enough to muffle their voices to anyone sitting outside.
‘I need to know two things – have you been taking the tablets or not? And have you slept with Ritesh or not?’
‘Do you want to know if I have been taking the tablets when I met you?’ said Sarita. ‘Is that what you really want to know?’
Annamalai smiled inwardly. I already know, he thought to himself. These girls who were on the cusp of adulthood, they had this false bravado about them, this image of being oh-so-comfortable with their sexuality. For a moment he wondered if it was worth telling her the truth just to see that smile get struck off her face.
Then he thought: no.
‘You have been very lucky,’ he said. ‘I am going to assume that you’ve slept with Ritesh, since you’re not denying it.’
‘And if I deny not having slept with you, will it make that true as well?’
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Annamalai. ‘You and I never slept together.’
Her eyes became bigger as he said those words, and for a moment she was caught off-guard. Annamalai enjoyed that.
She recovered admirably, though. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘I forgot.’
Annamalai covered the distance between them in three purposeful steps. He was a tall man, and he had a strong, slender frame that could – if he wished – intimidate a seventeen-year-old girl.
Standing over her, he held the opposite ends of his stethoscope around his neck.
‘The only man you’ve slept with is Ritesh,’ he said. ‘The only man you could have gotten pregnant with is him.’
‘Right,’ said Sarita. ‘I understand.’
‘But you’re not pregnant.’ Annamalai smiled down at the girl. He placed his hand on the top of her head. ‘So either you’ve been taking your tablets properly or you’ve gotten very lucky.’ He paused as a thought struck him. ‘Did you sleep with him when you were on your period?’
Sarita flinched at the question, and slapped his hand away.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘So you did. With him you did not have pain or discomfort or anything of the sort.’
‘Is my examination complete?’
‘It is,’ said Annamalai. ‘But I will need you to stay back for a small procedure – I will speak about it with Lingababu.’
‘A cyst is developing near your labia,’ said Annamalai. ‘It has to be removed.’
Sarita looked at Annamalai, and kept her gaze locked on him for a minute. Then she blinked rapidly a few times.
‘I see,’ she said.
* * *
At half past ten, as Maria cleaned up the examination room, Annamalai sat across the table from Sarita and Lingababu.
‘So we were all worried about nothing,’ said Lingababu, wringing his hands.
‘Rather,’ said Annamalai, meeting eyes with Sarita, who lowered hers. ‘But I hope you take this opportunity to learn some lessons, Lingababu.’
‘Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir.’
‘You should have a chat with Saraswatamma about her son,’ said Annamalai. ‘If he is interested in Sarita here –’
Both Sarita and Lingababu looked shocked at the suggestion.
‘No?’ said Annamalai. ‘Okay. Well, if his intentions are innocent, I was going to suggest that he get his parents involved with her parents.’
‘No, sir,’ said Lingababu. ‘I will see to it that he will never come near the girl again.’
Annamalai watched Sarita as she heard the words. Did he detect a small tinge of sadness in her face? He couldn’t tell.
‘For that you will have to speak to Saraswatamma, of course,’ he said. ‘Or would you like me to do it?’
‘Maybe you should, sir,’ said Lingababu. ‘She will listen to you.’
Annamalai wrote a few things on his prescription pad and tore off the top page. Some painkillers. An antibiotic. And a revisit after the girl’s periods resume. ‘Maria will give you the tablets,’ he said.
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Uhm, sir – your – payment?’
Annamalai said, ‘Maria will tell you how much it has all come to. Just a routine procedure.’
‘Right, sir. Absolutely. Shall I – tell anything to her parents?’
Annamalai shook his head. ‘I would not if I were you. We didn’t do anything that needs to be reported. Just a cyst. A shallow one too. Will not leave a scar.’
Inside, Maria was wrapping up the discharged material in cotton and tissues. They heard the lid of the waste basket yawn open, and snap shut.
‘So the parents don’t have to know – is that what you’re saying?’
‘Yes, that is what I am saying,’ said Annamalai, patiently. His eyes darted over to Sarita. ‘That doesn’t mean you mustn’t tell, of course. But there isn’t anything to tell about.’
‘Right,’ said Lingababu, a smile of glee appearing on his face. ‘Nothing to tell about. Did you hear that, Sarita?’
‘I will give you a report if you want,’ said Annamalai. ‘That we did nothing except removing a skin-deep cyst in her inner thigh.’
‘No, no,’ said Lingababu. ‘That won’t be necessary. But if we want to take the report at some point – you will have it here.’
For a few moments the three of them sat around the consultation desk. Annamalai found the base of his paperweight and began to finger it. Maria finished up inside the examination room and came out, locking the door behind her, holding a white bundle in her hand.
A look passed between her and Sarita. Annamalai pretended not to notice it.
‘Anything else?’ he said, after Maria had gone out the front door.
Lingababu and Sarita stood up to go. ‘Uh – you will speak to Saraswatamma, of course?’
‘I will,’ said Annamalai. He paused for a moment, then struck out his hand for Sarita’s prescription. The girl gave it to him. He scribbled something at the bottom, just above his signature. ‘Now, Lingababu, if you’re unable to keep an eye on your girls, you could have them take these tablets –’
‘No, sir,’ said Lingababu. ‘No, no, no. I will control them, surely.’
‘If not Ritesh, there will be other men hovering about,’ said Annamalai. ‘The age is such.’
‘Even then, I will see to it that nothing happens. Nothing.’
Annamalai shrugged. ‘In case you change your mind.’ He pointed at the last entry on the prescription with his pen. ‘Maria will give them to you, no problem.’
‘I understand. Thank you, sir. Thank you, thank you.’
And Sarita also murmured, ‘Thank you, Doctor.’
* * *
‘Your blood pressure is normal, Saraswatamma gaaru,’ said Annamalai, putting away the apparatus. ‘Now, you’re taking your walk every day?’
‘And you’re saying no to sweets, as much as you can?’
Saraswatamma’s eyes twinkled, and she giggled like a schoolgirl too. The red circular mark on her forehead was as big as a two-rupee coin. She wrapped herself in a blue cotton sari and smiled warmly at him, but Annamalai could not shake off the feeling that he was speaking to a Mother Goddess. A hypertensive and diabetic mother goddess.
‘Well,’ she was saying, in a whiny, half-protesting voice, ‘I cannot stop myself when there are laddoos around. But I took your suggestion. After I have one, I walk for ten minutes.’
‘And you’re never allowed to have more than two a day.’
‘Oh. Oh, lord. I mayhave forgotten that.’
‘I was afraid you would. That is why I am reminding you.’
‘Thank you, Doctor. Thank you very much. My only wish is that I live long enough to see you get all these diseases yourself.’ She laughed and showed him all her browned teeth. ‘We can be sugar buddies, then. Slap each other’s wrists whenever laddoos are around.’
Annamalai gave her a perfunctory smile. ‘You needn’t have come, you know. I would have stopped by in the evening. I remember your dates.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ she said, her smile becoming slightly more mechanical now, more fixed on her cheeks and lips even as her eyes turned a touch cold. ‘I had a hunch that you wanted to see me. And I thought it would be a nice opportunity for a walk.’
‘Indeed,’ said Annamalai. ‘I wonder how you knew I wanted to talk.’
‘Forget that,’ said Saraswatamma, and wrapped herself anew in her sari. ‘I am at your service. What can I do for you?’
Annamalai cleared his throat and lowered his voice. Maria was nowhere to be seen; at this time of the day she would be having lunch out back. But one didn’t need to take the chance.
‘Listen, Saraswatamma gaaru,’ he began. ‘I will come right down to business and speak frankly with you. I’m the worst at beating around the bush.’
‘Don’t,’ she said.
‘Just this morning, Lingababu from the ladies hostel came to me. And he had a girl with her. You may know her name. Sarita?’
Saraswatamma’s face did not change. She said, ‘Mm hmm.’ Whether that meant yes, I know her or no, but do go on, Annamalai could not tell.
He went on. ‘She came in for a normal procedure. Just a cyst that had to be removed.’ He paused to look at Saraswatamma, to see if she’d caught his meaning. But the woman had her inscrutable mask on. She was no longer the giggling schoolgirl being chided by her doctor for cheating with laddoos. Now she was the headwoman of Palem.
‘And I got to know that she has been – seen – with your son Ritesh. There is a chance that he and she may have been involved.’
‘Ritesh hasn’t mentioned anything to me.’
‘Right,’ said Annamalai. ‘Boys of that age generally don’t think much of these things. But being a woman yourself, I am sure you know –’
‘This cyst you speak of,’ said Saraswatamma, and Annamalai felt as if he had been hit by an icy gust. ‘Where in her body was it?’
‘It was between her legs,’ said Annamalai. ‘Nothing too major. Just a normal procedure.’
‘Mm hmm,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘And you’re saying that it was my son who placed the cyst in that girl’s body.’
Annamalai averted the pointed gaze of the headwoman, and looked away at the open window for a moment. Then he sighed. ‘That is what we have surmised from what the girl told us.’
‘Mm hmm,’ said Saraswatamma, and she too sighed. Her lips pursed together. She lowered her head just a little bit, so that she could look at Annamalai out of the top of her eye sockets. ‘But nothing happened.’
‘No,’ replied Annamalai. ‘Nothing happened.’
‘And no one will know about this – not the girl’s parents, not anyone else.’
‘No one. The hospital record says that a cyst has been removed.’
‘And the nurse – she knows the nature of this cyst?’
‘By necessity, she does,’ said Annamalai. ‘But she can be trusted.’
‘Hmm,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘Hmm. This is very interesting. Now what would you have me do, Doctor?’
‘There is nothing to do,’ said Annamalai. ‘Lingababu was hesitating to speak to you about your son. I told him that I’d do it.’
‘You want me to tell my son to stay away from the girl. Is that it?’
‘Yes. Unless, of course, he is truly interested in her and –’
Saraswatamma laughed. ‘No,’ she said, ‘he isn’t.’
‘You just said that he’s never mentioned her to you.’
‘That is how I know he isn’t. I will talk to him about it, of course. Right this evening. But this whole thing – I find it very interesting. Don’t you?’
Annamalai looked at Saraswatamma and tried to decipher her expression. The mark on her forehead appeared to have gotten redder now, silly as that sounded.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he said. ‘Interesting how?’
‘Do you know that certain businesses in Palem pay us – Devender sir and I – a certain amount of money every month? For services rendered?’
Annamalai frowned. ‘What kind of services?’
‘We have a list,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘One of these days I will show you. And Lingababu’s Ladies Hostel is one of these businesses. Every month he pays us ten percent of his revenue.’
‘And what does he get in return?’
‘This is a bit of an insurance operation,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘You have fourteen or fifteen young girls staying at the hostel. They all go to Dhavaleshwaram – some to school, some to college – and you know how it is. Men’s eyes are everywhere.’ She was watching him directly now. ‘We insure the girls’ chastity, if you will.’
Cold sweat collected under Annamalai’s armpits. He cleared his throat. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I can tell you,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘It’s not that complicated. We have a bunch of people who keep an eye on the girls. These men follow the girls around, wherever they go. And if there’s trouble, the men are equipped to attend to it.’
‘Okay,’ said Annamalai. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘I think you know why. Every now and then a girl does slip through our cracks and does something stupid. More often it’s because the man she has decided to do something stupid with is craftier, more cunning than we are. For instance, we could not have expected that you would seduce Sarita in here, while treating her for typhoid.’
Annamalai swallowed a mouthful of air.
‘We could not have predicted the sophisticated manner in which you arranged your meetings in Dhavaleshwaram. It took us a while to catch on, and even when my men told me, I didn’t believe them. They had to be mistaken. Not our doctor!’
‘I think your men were mistaken,’ said Annamalai. ‘Who knows whom they saw and who they thought they saw.’
‘Yes,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘That was exactly what I told them. But then they brought pictures.’
‘This is illegal,’ said Annamalai. ‘Accusing a doctor of malpractice. Unless you have evidence –’
‘I think I am accusing you of much more than malpractice, Doctor,’ said Saraswatamma, smiling woodenly. ‘And I was not even about to bring it up, until you happened to insinuate that it was my son who got the girl pregnant.’ She paused and leaned back in the chair, quite at ease. ‘As for evidence, I have enough, let me tell you. I have a whole file in my house.’
‘You’re – you’re –’
‘Lying?’ asked Saraswatamma. ‘You could call my bluff, then. I will just have the contents of the file photocopied and taken to your house in Dhavaleshwaram. Your wife may be interested in seeing what’s in it.’
‘No,’ said Annamalai. ‘No, please.’
‘And of course, if I contacted the health department – I happen to know people there. When you’re the wife of the sarpanch, you happen to know people everywhere.’ She chuckled, and shook her head helplessly. ‘If they took a look at the file, I believe they will have something to say about your license.’
‘No,’ said Annamalai. He placed his hands over his face. ‘No.’ For a long time he just breathed in and out, and listened to the creaking of the ceiling fan. It was bad what Saraswatamma told him, yes. But if she was still here talking to him, maybe something could be done. He let his hands drop, and forced himself to look back at her.
Her eyes were cool, level. She was the mother goddess.
‘What can we do about this?’ he asked her.
‘This little incident with Sarita has led to us paying out her policy to Lingababu,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘It’s not a hefty amount by any means. But it’s uncomfortable, you know. When you offer a service to a client, and when you have to pay compensation for not doing a good job. It’s a loss of face, if you know what I mean.’
‘Lingababu is not an idiot,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘He came last night to our house to collect what we owe him. I did not ask him for evidence, of course. I just thought you’d be more discreet, that’s all. More careful. If you were going to sleep with the girl, I’d have thought you would be wise enough to use protection.’
‘I was. But the girl –’
Saraswatamma’s smile broadened. ‘The man brings protection. Always. I keep forgetting how young you are. Girls of that age – they tend to get a little crazy about it all. Wouldn’t surprise me if she convinced herself that she was in love with you. That she wanted to bear your child. She probably thought you’d jump for joy when you found out, I don’t know.’
Annamalai fingered his paperweight, the Latin inscription that he had never looked up. Tonight, he promised himself. Tonight!
‘You will reimburse us the amount we had to pay Lingababu, of course,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘With some interest, as compensation for the damage done to our relationship. Now, Lingababu sees this practically. He has retained our services. But contracts can break over silliness such as this.’
‘I understand,’ said Annamalai.
‘One of my men will bring a piece of paper with the total amount you owe us,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘I don’t like speaking of money.’
‘Will that be all?’
‘That would have been all, Doctor,’ said Saraswatamma, ‘if you had not tried to pin the whole thing on Ritesh. I want you to remember one thing.’ And now Saraswatamma leaned forward in her chair, lowered her own voice. ‘No one touches my children.’
Again Annamalai swallowed some air. And nodded.
‘I will keep your file safely with me,’ Saraswatamma said. ‘I don’t know how you will do it, but you will undo the lie you’ve told. Oh, don’t argue that it’s not a lie just because you’ve hinted at it and not told it. To every single soul that thinks it is my son who played hanky with that girl, you will correct their impression.’
Annamalai nodded again. He was thirsty, very thirsty.
‘And I keep tabs on what people are saying. If it ever reaches my ear that Sarita and Ritesh this and Sarita and Ritesh that, if my son’s name is ever mentioned along with that girl’s again – if even a small rumour takes birth and I hear of it, you understand, I will see to it that your file reaches the appropriate places. Truth, as they say, will set you free.’
‘Yes,’ said Annamalai. ‘Will that be all?’
‘From this day onward, on the first of every month, you will send a certain amount of money to our house. Whether you carry it yourself or whether you send it with Maria, it is none of my concern. If you miss a month, I will understand. We all forget sometimes, don’t we?’
‘If you miss two months in a row, or if you make a habit of it, the file goes out. Do you understand now why some businesses in Palem pay us?’
Annamalai nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘And if you’re going to play these games with the women of the village, Doctor,’ said Saraswatamma, ‘for God’s sake don’t be such a boy about it. You’re a grown man! You’re a doctor! Figure it out. This – this whole trick you tried to pull – is not it. Okay?’
‘I don’t judge. But if you darken my door, by god, I will destroy you.’
That final sentence was delivered with utter calm and poise. She had said those words to other men before him. And she had seen it through. Annamalai was sure. He kept looking into her eyes, nodding, and looking away. Mercilessly she watched him crumble.
‘You need some water,’ she said.
‘Shall I ask for Maria to get some?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘No. I am good. Thank you.’
‘Come, now,’ said Saraswatamma. ‘You’re always telling me to take dehydration seriously. This is your first summer in Palem, isn’t it?’
Annamalai nodded, licked his crusted lips.
‘You will get used to it. Slowly.’
Then, after asking about the welfare of his wife and son, and making some small talk about Vijayawada – where his parents lived – Saraswatamma joined her palms together in front of her face and took Annamalai’s leave.
That night, just as they were closing up, a burly moustachioed man arrived with a sheet of paper, on which an itemized list of numbers was written. Accompanying it was a one-kilo box of laddoos.
And a hand-written note from Saraswatamma that said: at your service, always.