‘SHASTRI,’ SAID AZGHER to Rama Shastri as the two of them sat on the granite floor of the shivalayam, under the biggest of the five bells hanging from the roof just outside the inner sanctum. The February sun was about to set, and a steady breeze blew their way from the direction of Ellamma Cheruvu. It had been a hot and cloudless day, one on which Azgher had had to cycle his way around Palem to fulfil his agarbathi orders. On such days his thighs ached, his knees clicked, and his lower back felt like someone had driven a wedge through it. On such days the dream bothered him more. On such days he found solace in speaking to Rama Shastri, with the shivalingam looking on silently.
‘What do you think it means?’ Azgher asked the priest, who sat cross-legged, erect, hands cradling knees with the light touch of a sadhu. Azgher himself had to slouch a little to rest his poor back, and found himself looking up at Rama Shastri with a craned neck.
‘Azgher miyan,’ said Rama Shastri gently. ‘You say that the lingam spoke to you in Urdu.’
Azgher squeezed tighter on the folded and smudged skull cap between his fingers. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But I could not make out what. Just the sounds.’
‘And you were on the bank of the lake.’
‘And you saw this – being – was it an animal? What did it look like?’
‘It looked like something I’d never seen,’ said Azgher, even as his memory served up the dreadful image and made him blanch. ‘It is – it looked like a woman of some sort, but she had no arms, no legs – she sort of floated about – hairy as a gorilla – very ugly.’
Rama Shastri smiled. ‘And where was the lingam?’
‘I could not see the lingam,’ said Azgher. ‘I could only hear it. He seemed to give me instructions of some sort. Every now and then he would punctuate his sentences with my name. Azgher, he would say. And follow up with a lot of incoherent phrases.’
‘These phrases are not Sanskrit, you’re sure,’ said Rama Shastri.
‘Positive,’ said Azgher. ‘He was speaking in Urdu.’
‘Was there anyone else there besides you and the – monster, can I call it?’
‘You know, she didn’t feel like a monster to me,’ said Azgher. ‘She was hideous to look at, of course, and she lumbered around like this giant ball of moss – I cannot explain it – but she did not seem malicious in any way.’
‘Did she have eyes? Was she looking at you?’
‘She had no eyes.’
‘Then how could you tell she was a woman?’
Azgher shook his head despairingly. ‘Just a feeling. I have heard that a spirit guards the lake. People tell stories at the market. The ghost of Ellamma, is it?’
‘The ghost of Ellamma,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘But she has never been described the way you saw her.’
‘You think it’s real, then? The spirit actually exists? The lake is really possessed.’
‘Some people say that.’ Rama Shastri’s triangular face turned toward Azgher a touch. And his placid brown eyes narrowed. ‘Some say it’s all poppycock. No one has seen this spirit in flesh and blood. Just dreams – stories – and dreams birthed by stories. Stories birthed by dreams.’
‘What about the lingam, though?’ said Azgher. ‘What is it trying to tell me?’
‘The lord never speaks to me in Urdu,’ said Rama Shastri, smiling. ‘The next time you hear him, pay attention.’
* * *
Bhaskaran Naidu finished off his buttermilk and placed the brass glass on Devender Reddy’s rosewood coffee table with a thump. There were meetings that went well, meetings that went poorly, and meetings that you could not tell either way. Most of Mr Naidu’s meetings fell into the third category, a certain forgettable number occupied the second basket, and less than five percent – because Mr Naidu measured everything – could be reliably placed in the first.
As he beamed at Devender Reddy in his armchair and Rama Shastri in the upholstered sofa, Bhaskaran Naidu felt that this was one of those rarities. And he felt he could down another glass of this beautiful buttermilk in one swig. Easy.
‘Let me see if I have this right, Mr Naidu,’ said Devender Reddy, a man Bhaskaran Naidu had met just that afternoon. His first impression had been that he was a bit of a hen-pecked husband – he had heard that it was Saraswatamma who made all the calls in Palem – but as he had accompanied the sarpanch on a tour of his fields, and after he had seen the depth and breadth of the man’s general hold on things, he had changed his mind. If this man was hen-pecked, he thought, it was only because he liked giving people that impression.
‘You propose to reclaim three thousand square feet of land from the lake,’ Devender Reddy was saying, speaking from memory, without needing to refer to Bhaskaran Naidu’s papers on the table. ‘You will set up a family restaurant with water views, surrounded by fields and nature. And you say this restaurant will serve not the people of Palem but tourists. Is that right?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Bhaskaran Naidu. ‘That lake you have is a wonderful source of revenue if you develop it carefully. It’s just the right size for boating, for instance.’
‘And you say this restaurant of yours will not compete with Babu Ram’s hotel.’
‘It will not,’ said Bhaskaran Naidu, knowing that this was a lie. ‘Mr Babu Ram’s establishment serves the Palem market. Our menu will be different; our price points; our target market – it will be nothing like Mr Babu Ram’s business. We will serve our patrons an experience. It is not about the food.’
‘Yes,’ said Devender Reddy. He held his spectacles in his hand, and waved them at Bhaskaran Naidu’s papers. ‘I saw some of your numbers,’ he said. ‘They seem a little – on the ambitious side.’
‘If anything, sir, they are very conservative,’ said Naidu. ‘Last year, our Dhavaleshwaram tour business did numbers that are four times these estimates. And there is no risk for you, is there? You don’t have to acquire the land. I will acquire it for you. You don’t have to develop it. I will develop it for you. And I am asking for a ten-year lease. No perpetuities and forevers that you need to worry about in our contract.’
‘And you propose that you will give us a five percent cut on top of the lease.’
‘That’s right,’ said Bhaskaran Naidu.
Devender Reddy and Rama Shastri exchanged with each other a glance. Then the headman turned to Naidu and smiled.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What is the catch?’
Bhaskaran Naidu did not immediately answer. He sighed, as if worn out by the ways of the world. He rested his elbow on the right armrest of the chair he was sitting on, and scratched at his just-greying stubble. ‘You know, President gaaru,’ he said, ‘people get a little testy when you reclaim land from a lake.’
‘I know,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘That is why we have him here.’ He waved in the direction of the priest.
‘And that is why the deal is built the way it is,’ said Bhaskaran Naidu. ‘If Shastri gaaru performs the Bhumi Puja for our development work, and if the entire village attends the function, I know that there is future in this.’
Devender Reddy looked at Rama Shastri and nodded.
The priest cleared his throat. ‘Ellamma Cheruvu is Palem’s only lake,’ he said. ‘If we are to touch it, the only way is if Lord Shiva himself passes the order.’ He raised his eyes and met Bhaskaran Naidu’s. He held his green-bordered yellow angavastram about him with minimum fuss, his arms hidden beneath it. ‘And the lord doesn’t speak to me unless it’s Shiva Ratri.’
‘Shiva Ratri,’ said Bhaskaran Naidu. He looked away, made a few calculations. ‘We will schedule our Bhumi Puja for the day after, then?’
‘Three days after,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘We will wait until Shani leaves the fourth quadrant.’
* * *
Azgher rode up to Ellamma Cheruvu on his bicycle, with a silky crescent moon hanging high above the western horizon. But when he saw that the creature of the lake was out on the shore, he dismounted and pushed the cycle away, sending it crashing to the earth. On his two feet he stood, with his toes disappearing under mud browned by the lake’s water and silvered by the moon’s light.
There was a man on the shore with him, twenty or so feet away. Azgher did not recognize him, but he thought he should. A middle-aged fellow. A face that one found hard to trust. Hairy arms. Impeccably ironed shirt and trousers and shoes, as if he were attending a felicitation ceremony.
He had a locket around his neck which, from even this distance, Azgher knew had a shivalingam tied to it. The man and the creature were moving toward one another, one walking, one floating – warily, as if sizing each other up.
‘Go back, you horrendous thing,’ said the man, and the blob of flesh throbbed a couple of times, as if it had just seen the locket that the man was holding up. ‘Go back to the hell you came from, and leave us alone!’
Azgher ran over to where the altercation was happening, hoping – for what? He did not know yet. Just that he was running, and the creature and the man loomed larger and larger in his field of vision. Each facing the other. The first much taller and heavier than the second, and yet more fearful.
‘Hey!’ said Azgher. ‘Wait!’
They took no notice of him. The man was now reeling off verses in Sanskrit while tracing arcs in the air with his locket. ‘By the power of Lord Shiva who looks after Palem, by the will of the First Father, I command you gone! Gone forever from this lake, from this village – turn around and run, and never return. You vile beast.’
A part of Azgher wanted to ask the man who this creature was, where she had come from – he thought of her as ‘she’ quite naturally; the energy she exuded, the way she moved – it all suggested a woman. But before he could formulate these words in his mind he became aware of a deeper, more omnipresent voice: it belonged to the lingam and it was speaking to him in Urdu.
He tried to catch the words. ‘What are you saying?’ he said. ‘What are you saying to me?’
But the more he spoke to it, the louder it spoke to him, only that its words were empty sounds, filled with the cadence of language and none of its sense. Azgher wondered if he could tease out the emotional content of the message, but the tone was formal, just a passing of instructions, with the stresses on syllables calm and assured.
Somewhere, way behind him, he heard his bicycle chain going whirr, whirr, whirr – round and round.
The spirit of Ellamama Cheruvu was retreating to the power of the man’s shivalingam, and Azgher thought it was just as well – after all, what power did Ellamma possess over the mighty Shiva? She slipped back into the water with the man following her, his own voice getting louder and more confident with each inch the creature ceded to him.
‘I am going to destroy you tonight,’ the man said. ‘Even if I have to stay here the whole night.’
‘Hey!’ said Azgher, raising his arm – the spirit has agreed to go back into the water, he wanted to tell the man; why do you still want to kill it? – but the scene in front of him began to dissolve, and before he knew it the whirr of his bicycle chain was nothing more than a buzz of a hungry mosquito flapping its wings against the crook of his sweaty neck.
He slapped himself once on it, and looked around at the walls of his room. He had fallen asleep on the cot after his morning delivery of agarbathis; Ellamma Cheruvu had called to him on his return, when he had been cycling along Venkayya Veedhi, but he had resisted stubbornly. He had felt a touch of remorse after lunch – was that the kernel that had fed this dream? Or was the lake finding some desperate way or another to reach out to him?
He laughed at himself. Azgher, he thought. Can you hear yourself? You’re saying the lake called out to you. That the lake wants to talk to you. Good thing that you haven’t admitted this to Dr Annamalai. He would smile at you in that queer way of his and put a friendly hand on your arm.
Azgher looked out of the window, thought that it might be six p.m. or so. He got off the bed, filled up his agarbathi bag, and went out for his evening round, telling himself that he would stop by at the shivalayam on his way back. Just in case Shastri could make sense of any of it.
* * *
The man’s name was Bhaskaran Naidu.
Azgher knew this because as he stood at the top of the staircase leading up to the inner sanctum, he saw the man ringing the big bell with a wave of the hairy hand. And he saw Rama Shastri putting a shivalingam locket around the man’s neck. And he heard him say, ‘Keep this with you and none of the spirits will dare come in the way.’
Azgher must have made a sound right then, because both Rama Shastri and Bhaskaran Naidu turned to look at him. Rama Shastri smiled. ‘Azgher miyan,’ he said. ‘What good fortune that you’re here. I am out of agarbathis for tomorrow’s puja. Do you have those cedar ones you sold me last time?’
Azgher took a step back. He had the cedar ones. He had the musk ones and the cinnamon ones too. What he needed to say right then was what his Cycle Brand distributor had told him at training – one cinnamon free with one cedar – but he opened his mouth only to sense his breath turn into air.
‘Miyan?’ said Rama Shastri. ‘Is everything okay?’
Azgher nodded. Then shook his head. Some of the words that the shivalingam had spoken to him in his dream were becoming intelligible. He nodded and said, ‘Mm. Hmm.’
‘I asked if you have any of the cedar agarbathis,’ said Rama Shastri. ‘I have the money in the sanctum. I will go get it.’
‘Out of cedars,’ said Azgher. ‘Will bring them to you tomorrow – before your puja.’
‘Okay,’ said Rama Shastri, and frowned. He opened up his angavastram, and wrapped it tighter around him again. Azgher thought that it reminded him of a vulture spreading its wings. That triangular head, that beaten-up face, those black lips, that serpentine tongue… ‘Are you okay, miyan?’ he asked again. ‘If you need some water –’
‘No!’ said Azgher. ‘No. I need to go.’
And he turned and raced down the stairs to his parked bicycle.
* * *
When he climbed onto Venkayya Veedhi and came to Fifth Cross Road, he heard the call of Ellamma Cheruvu again. Perhaps heard was the wrong word, because there was no sound: no voices, no whines, no drawn out vocalization of a being in pain. This was just a light thud, a shimmer, a shifting of the sands underneath oneself.
As he approached Fifth Cross Road, he told himself that he would move straight on – like he had done that afternoon. The sun had by now long set, and only the tiniest grey wisps of day lingered in the sky. It would be almost dark by the time he would reach the lake – and – while he didn’t think she would harm him, everyone in Palem knew you were unwise to visit Ellamma Cheruvu at night.
So he said to himself, keep going, keep going, keep going…
And the thud in his heart, that roiling, became so bad that he wanted to throw up.
Keep going, keep going, keep going…
When he came up to Fifth Cross, the handle of his bicycle turned on its own, and he found himself pedalling at full speed toward the lake.
* * *
He stood on the shore of Ellamma Cheruvu, in the shade of the guava tree. He reminded himself that the tree had not been present in the vision he had seen that afternoon – which convinced him, for the first time, that it had indeed been a dream.
The surface of the lake was placid. Azgher had heard people say that if you saw Ellamma Cheruvu after dark, it resembled a pit of black poison. Unless, of course, the moon was out. Today it wasn’t.
Azgher waited – something would happen right now, wouldn’t it? After pulling him all the way here, after visiting him in a dream, after calling out to him so many times, after all this, the lake would give him some sign, some message… wouldn’t it?
A steady breeze blew from the direction of the Godavari, and set up ripples on the lake. A bottomless bowl of poison, with silver ripples on its surface. Does it want me to enter it, he thought. Perhaps I am meant to swim in her if I am to discover her secrets.
For a moment he considered undressing and flinging himself into the water. But that tiny thud returned to his heart, and he abandoned the idea.
He continued to stand there, one hand laid out against the bark of the guava tree, the other perched on his hip. Despite the cool breeze his hair began to itch under the skull cap. Must wash it this week.
He slid it off his scalp and held it in front of his face. It smelled like a rotting tomato. Yes, he had to wash the cap, and he had to do his sales tax on all the agarbathis he had sold this last month, and he had to visit the bank tomorrow to see about the cheque that shouldn’t have bounced but did – and he had to make something for himself to eat tonight but there was nothing in the kitchen, and it was too late for a visit to the general store, and he noticed that his chappals had worn themselves out to mere strips of leather.
He cast one last look at the lake. It remained silent.
‘You’re such an old fool, Azgher,’ he said to himself out loud. ‘Whiling away time on ridiculous things like these.’ He wondered if he should tell Ellamma Cheruvu that he was going, but the sane part of him laughed at the thought.
He turned around, and began to trace his steps toward the bicycle. His heart did not thud. He did not feel the lake’s roar behind him. He felt as light as a stream of agarbathi smoke.
Then, about fifteen feet or so from his bicycle, he stumbled upon something.
A conch. About the size of his palm.
‘Hain?’ he said, and looked around him. This was no place for a conch, let alone one of this size. But he picked it up, and for some reason or another, he held it up to his left ear.
* * *
Devender Reddy was awakened at 8 a.m. that morning by a ruckus outside his house. Sambayya, his manservant, knocked frantically at his bedroom door and said, ‘Ayya, they have all come, Ayya!’
‘Who?’ said Devender Reddy, propping himself up on the bed, searching for his glasses on the side table.
‘Babu Ram, Mahender Reddy, Annamalai, Rama Shastri – everyone, Ayya!’
Rama Shastri? ‘Tell them I am on my way,’ said Devender Reddy.
* * *
In his house, even though it was not the time for it, Azgher prayed.
He gathered himself on his knees and touched his nose to the ground. His mouth did not move. He did not chant anything, either loud or to himself. He just held the picture of the conch in his mind, and tried to see it. Every ridge. The flared lip of the shell, moist and smooth, yet hard and unyielding. It had not occurred to him to blow on it; he had never blown on a conch, he would not have known how. But he felt that this conch did not want to be blown.
He held himself steady despite the prodding pain of his lower back, and forced himself to bring his mind back to the conch – now in his hand, now breathing into his ear, untangling all those words that the shivalingam had spoken to him, and after finishing its job, hurling itself into the water. Or had he hurled it? All he remembered now was the soft plop with which it hit the water.
The moon had not come out. Ellamma Cheruvu remained a pit of poison.
Azgher made no move. He continued to see the conch.
* * *
‘Oye, Devenderayya,’ Babu Ram was saying. ‘We appoint you custodian of all our interests, and this is what you do!’
Devender Reddy considered Babu Ram with surprise. The man had never addressed him by name; in fact, in the collective memory of the people of Palem, no one ever remembered Babu Ram once losing his temper, or uttering a disrespectful word.
‘Babai,’ said Devender Reddy. ‘Will you tell me what this is about?’
Babu Ram laughed. ‘See! He doesn’t know what this is about. Now I have to tell him all the things that he does behind our backs.’ Babu Ram cast a sly look at Rama Shastri, who in turn gave Devender Reddy a little nod. As if to say: they know.
* * *
There is plenty to do, Azgher thought, while kneeling on the ground alone in his front room. This skull cap, these clothes… I need a shave… my razor is rusted… need to buy one… with money that will come after that cheque problem is sorted… chappals… vegetables, need to eat… dishes in the backyard…
He stilled his mind, and gently brought it back to rest on the conch. It had not told him what to do, just what was. The idea of leaving a note in Babu Ram’s agarbathi packet that morning, imploring him not to reveal his name come what may – that had merely come to him. Atop his bicycle. On his way back home from the lake.
He thought of Rama Shastri, the custodian of the shivalayam who had sought to speak on the lord’s behalf. He thought of himself, who thought he did speak on the lord’s behalf six times every day. He thought of Sister Agnes, who was probably lighting candles this very moment in the cathedral by the Christ’s feet. He thought of them all at once, standing in a line next to one another, proclaiming god’s will to the world at the top of their voices.
He remembered to breathe. Past the pain in his knees and his back and his hips and arms, and knuckles and fingertips and heart – he breathed.
* * *
‘I am telling you in no uncertain terms,’ said Babu Ram. ‘And don’t tell me this priest here – this Rama Shastri – doesn’t know anything about it. You’re all in cahoots, all you rich people. Now listen to what I am saying – if anyone so much as touches Ellamma Cheruvu as long as I live, I am going to stand as President for the next term, Devenderayya, and beat your sorry little ass to pulp.’
Devender Reddy pursed his lips and hung his head.
‘Do you think this is just me saying it?’ said Babu Ram. ‘What did you think, the people of Palem will let you reclaim the lake with – with what? A hotel? A hotel where you can eat noodles with chopsticks? Is that what you want to put on Ellamma Cheruvu’s bank? How the hell did you think you would get away with it, man?’
Devender Reddy watched the faces looking out at him from the crowd. Some of them had just tagged along to watch the fun. But he saw some that were grim, furious… betrayed.
‘Do whatever you want to the roadside lots,’ said Babu Ram. ‘You want to allow a hotel to come up in Palem? By all means. If you want, you can put it right next to mine. I don’t care. If he brings business over from Dhavaleshwaram, we all have more.’ Here the small man paused and ominously pecked at his moustache. ‘But you leave the damn lake alone. Reclamation indeed!’
Devender Reddy cleared his throat, and found Rama Shastri’s furtive gaze. The priest shook his head at him.
Though he did not catch the meaning behind the gesture, Devender Reddy knew what was to be done in situations like this. ‘Babai,’ he said, ‘we were only prospecting for the project. Do you think I will take a decision like that without putting it to a vote at the Panchayati?’
‘I don’t care whether you were going to put it to a vote or not!’ said Babu Ram. ‘You should have had enough sense to kick that fellow – who, what’s his name? Naidu, no? – yes, Naidu! Kick that Naidu out of your house when he suggested that you do something to our lake. I am surprised – we are all surprised – that you had to prospect for this project. How much did he offer you, Devenderayya?’
Rama Shastri kept shaking his head.
Devender Reddy sighed, and made a gesture of surrender with his arms.
‘Since most of the villagers are here,’ he said, ‘I will take the vote now. How many of you are in favour of the reclamation project for Ellamma Cheruvu?’
No hand went up. Babu Ram spat on the earth and looked up defiantly at Devender Reddy.
‘And how many of you are against it?’
Not all arms – the taggers-along didn’t care – but enough of them went up. Among these, Devender Reddy noticed, was Rama Shastri’s.
On his way out, Babu Ram repeated his warning. ‘Remember, Devenderayya!’ he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘If anything of this sort ever happens again, we’re going to topple you from that perch and beat you into a pulp. Never mind all your money and police stooges and this sly little priest here. Understand?’
Devender Reddy nodded meekly. ‘Yes, Babai.’
* * *
Azgher sat cross-legged on the granite floor of the shivalayam, under the bell. He held his skull cap in his hands on his lap. His mind was not a silent place now, no; but all he heard was his own voice chattering away. That cheque had thankfully gone through, which meant that he had bought vegetables that morning at the general store, made for himself some delicious vangi-bhaath for lunch, and even took a trip down to Dhavaleshwaram during the early evening to purchase for himself a pair of chappals.
Now, his inner voice reminded him, your back is aching. Why should yours ache so much when that priest’s is so healthy?
Azgher looked at the serene pose that Rama Shastri held no more than four feet from him. He then turned to the lighted lamps in the inner sanctum, surrounding the lingam. The lord never spoke to me in Urdu, Rama Shastri had said.
‘Azgher miyan,’ said Rama Shastri softly. ‘You seem quiet today. That dream you said was troubling you – is it gone?’
‘Huh?’ said Azgher. ‘Yes. Yes, I took a walk by the lake one evening – and I found something that helped.’
‘I see,’ said Rama Shastri. His eyes opened, and they considered Azgher for a long time. Azgher swallowed a lungful of air. Again he thought of the priest as a bird of prey, but now he appeared to be in one of his kinder moods. ‘I believe that I should say this, miyan. Thank you.’
Azgher paused for a moment to consider if he had heard Rama Shastri right. To keep up the charade he would need to ask what for and the priest would cook up some excuse or the other. Or he could tell Rama Shastri that he had no idea what he was talking about. Or he could… the pretence could be sustained in a number of ways. All of them acceptable.
But Azgher faced Rama Shastri’s sharp gaze and saw that none of them would do that moment justice. If Rama Shastri had chosen to share himself – and his knowledge of what had happened – with him, it would be cruel to swat him away. Or to trivialize it with social norms.
So Azgher said, while dropping his gaze and looking down at his hands, ‘You’re welcome.’
Neither man asked the other for clarifications. None were needed. Before he left for the night, Azgher presented Rama Shastri with a free packet of cedar agarbathis for next morning’s puja.