More about “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”!

These forgotten people in my collection – they experience joy and pain. And they have NAMES, IDENTITIES!

The cleaning woman whose name remains unknown, whose shadow does not fall on her employers: her name is Raasamma. We buy vegetables from a vendor, but never address her by name: Sundari. And those widows, young and old, who await death on the banks of the Ganges? They had names once upon a time, they had lives that society now denies them. When we complain about clogged toilets, we don’t notice th Kaavanna and Kondamma who are condemned to removing night soil. And list goes on and on – so many lives discredited and dishonored. I just want to make them visible so that they may regain their dignity, so that my readers may challenge these socially constructed divides!

“Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”

Here’s a story for all of you who are interested in protecting the lives of female children who are sold into lifelong bondage. The title of this short story is “The fate of a child widow”:

The old man cradled the frail lifeless body of fifteen-year-old Shankar.

“My karma! What sins did I commit in my previous life to deserve this?” he lamented. After six girls from a previous wife who had died while giving birth the sixth child, his second wife had finally given him a son.

He cried out:

“Ananta,[1] who should have adorned your body as the sacred thread, has taken you back to his holy abode. You will be unable to light my funeral pyre and perform Śrāddha[2] so that I may go to paradise and not be reborn as a lower-caste being. Raama, Raama! Shiva, Shiva!”

Five-year-old Sundari sat in a corner, trying not to sleep. She wanted to take off the heavy wedding sari. She looked at her mother for a sign, any sign. The women were crying, the men were smoking bidis. She wriggled and tried to scratch her back. The sari’s gold border chafed her skin.

“Come, child,” her older aunt said, holding out her hand. “It is time.”

“Time for what, Doddamma?”[3]

“Don’t ask questions.”

Doddamma led her into the bedroom where she helped her take off her sari.

“You will wear this from now on,” Doddamma said, showing her a white sari.

“But … but Doddamma, it is so … so … no color! I love colors. Why can’t I …”

“Quiet, child! Your husband is dead. It is tradition. As a widow you are not allowed to wear any colors. And … come here!”

Doddamma wiped the red bottu off Sundari’s forehead, removed the red and gold bangles she had chosen before the ceremony. Sundari’s mother entered the room as Doddamma was helping her tie the white sari.

“Raama, Raama! What have I done to deserve such a daughter?” she wailed. “Even before the sky is stained red, you have been robbed of your life!”[4]

She knelt before Sundari and held her tiny hands.

“My little baby, my Sundari, it is your karma that has brought this fate on you.”

“But Amma, what have I done? I didn’t kill my husband. A snake did it – I heard Doddamma telling the others. They killed the snake, didn’t they? So …”

Manikyam kept quiet, silently wiping the tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Can I go play, Amma? The others are playing paandi[5] outside.”

“No, my little one. You have to stay inside the house.”

“But this sari, it is … it keeps falling down. And … and I don’t like white, Amma! Can’t I wear the pretty red one I was wearing for the wedding?”

“No, my child,” Manikyam said, fiercely hugging the child to her breasts, willing her own strength to enter her daughter’s trembling body. She remembered an elderly aunt, a child widow, slaving away in the kitchen, hiding her face, abhorred by the community for daring to outlive her husband. They called her ‘Picchavva’ or mad mother. She remembered the wisps of grey hair that sneaked out from under the white sari that covered her head. And she remembered the barber coming into the courtyard where the women bathed and shaving Picchavva’s head. The children would run up to her and mock her baldness.

“Not yet!” she murmured to herself.

She looked at her daughter’s luxuriant black braids. The door opened again.

Her brother’s voice whispered:

“No time to waste, Manikyam Akka! Washerman Veeranna is waiting with his bullock cart behind the grain stores. You know what to do, Akka?”

She nodded dumbly.  Her brother’s strong arms picked up Sundari’s slight figure.

“Are you going to play with me, Raju Mama?” Sundari asked as they slipped through the door. Manikyam waited a couple of minutes, picked up a pair of scissors, and cut herself in the arm. Then she rushed to the window leading to the side of the house and opened it. She took a deep breath and screamed:

“Help! Help! They threatened me with a knife! Help, help!”

The door was flung open. Her sister rushed in, followed by her husband and other male members of the family.

“What … what happened?”

“A man! He rushed in, struck me with a knife, grabbed Sundari!”

She collapsed onto the floor, making sure the others saw the wound in her arm.

“Raama, Raama!” husband Avadhani cried out. “She’s hurt.”

“I’ll look after her,” Manikyam’s sister Rukmini said. “Go! Get our child back!”

They turned to the door.

“Wait!” Manikyam cried out. “He escaped through that window,” she said, pointing to a window that led to the side of the house, away from the back road. Avadhani raced to the window and climbed out, followed by his three sons.

“Where are we going, Raju Mama?” Sundari asked, as he lifted up her tiny five-year-old body and placed it in the bullock cart.

“Somewhere safe, Chitti Thalli[6],” he said with a smile. “A place called Sweden.”

“Sweden, Sweden,” she repeated, letting the unfamiliar word roll down her tongue. “In Sweden, will I be able to put on my red sari?”

“You can wear whatever you want, little one. You have to try to sleep. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

She closed her eyes, then opened them at once.

“That voice, Raju Mama. It’s Washerman Veeranna’s. But I don’t hear anybody else. I’m scared, Raju Mama.”

Raju laughed as his niece hid her face under his shirt.

“Look at me,” he urged lovingly. “It is not a ghost. Veeranna is talking to his beloved bullocks Suri and Shiva, just like his father did.”

Sundari perked up and smiled.

“Really? He can talk bullock? And do they talk back? I can’t hear their voices.” she asked.

He smiled.

“Well, only those who love them and feed them and care for them can understand their language.”

“Then I will do that too, when I’m older. Raju Mama, does Sweden … does Sweden have bullocks?”

“I am sure it has. They’ll look a bit different, of course! But you will learn not just bullock, but lots of other things as well, at your new school.”

“New school?”

Sundari fell silent. Her tiny face puckered up, and tears filled her eyes.

“But Raju Mama, I can’t! What about my friends here? I don’t want to make new friends!”

“But you must understand that it is good to meet other people.”

He wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“And you do want to wear your red sari, don’t you? And other nice colored saris and skirts.”

Sundari looked at him.

“No … no white sari?”

“No, Chitti thalli.[7] In Sweden. That is where your Prakash Mama lives. And you will be staying with him.”

“Oh! I’ll get to see my cousins Vasu and Neelu.”

She lapsed into silence, then burst out:

“Vasu and Neelu didn’t want to play with me when they visited us. Why didn’t they want to play with me, Raju mama?”

Raju sighed. His niece and nephew from Sweden had been obnoxiously intolerant of the ways of Bandilanka. They had laughed at Sundari’s long skirt, pretended to puke at the Indian style toilets, and wasted the food their grandmother had lovingly prepared. His brother Prakash had waited a full day before taking them into their bedroom. A half hour later, the kids had come out visibly chastened. Raju had asked Prakash:

“How did you perform this miracle, brother?”

“Well, I … I described my own childhood here. Then I talked about how I had to adjust to Swedish ways, all the problems I encountered, my own prejudices, the way I laughed at what I perceived to be ‘those barbaric Western ways.’ I think the kids got the message. They are old enough to spell big words like prejudice and bigotry and narrow-mindedness, but understanding just what they mean? Perhaps not. Perhaps the only way is to make them walk through similar experiences.”

  Sundari’s voice brought him back to the present.

“Raju mama, what about my friends here … Papayee, Ammadu … and Suramma, my very best friend … she’ll come too, won’t she?”

“Perhaps later, Chitti thalli! Now, close your eyes and go to sleep.”

Raju was to remember this conversation sixteen years later.

It was graduation day. Proudly displaying the vibrant colors of the Swedish Red Cross University College, Sundari marched up to the podium and received the Bachelor of Science in Public Health. Vice Chancellor Allison Robbinson smiled warmly. As she handed over the degree, she said:

“Summa cum laude! Congratulations, Ms. Kalluri Sundari! You are a credit and an honor to your country and ours.”


[1] In the Bhagavad-Gita (‘Song of the Lord,’ part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata) Lord Krishna says, ‘Among the serpents I am Ananta.’ Ananta or the Adisesha is the infinite divine snake with its endless coils floating in the waters of creation, upon which Narayana (Brahman) rests. Ananta represents the infinite eternal materiality or primal energy.

[2] A ritual performed to pay homage to one’s ‘ancestors,’ especially to one’s dead parents.

[3] Mother’s older sister.

[4] “Stained in red” implies menarche.

[5] Hopscotch

[6] Literally “little mother.” Used as a term of affection, usually for young girls.

[7].

Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives

What happens to those in our communities who have been silenced? “She belongs to a lower caste!” or “He cleans sewers!” or perhaps “They don’t even know whether they are men or women! Disgusting!” Such comments, hateful as they are, diminish our humanity. Bandilanka, my fictional village in South India, is no exception! As a child, I spent many summers in my maternal grandparents’ home in a village much like Bandilanka, and never never questioned how hard life was for the washerman, the sweeper, the cook, the coal-miner, the Hijra, the vegetable vendor, … Now, almost seven decades later, I attempt to honor these lives and return some semblance of dignity to them.

Here is one of the stories from my collection:

A widow reborn

Small-pox was ravaging Bandilanka. The grounds were covered with bodies waiting to be cremated.

“Send the untreatable cases home!” the local doctor directed the two nurses on call. “There is no room for them here.”

Venkateshwara Rao whispered:

“Just one glimpse – one glimpse of our daughter!”

Gayatri shook her head.

“The doctor says it is too dangerous – the infection.”
Venkateshwara Rao tried to nod. The sores were rapidly closing his eyes. He could make out the faint form of his wife.

“From the door, perhaps?” he whispered again, every word hurting his throat.
Gayatri ran into the next room and returned with a tiny bundle in her arms.
“May God bless and keep you, my daughter,” he murmured. His eyes closed. The room became very still. Gayatri bent her head as her tears bathed the tiny body of daughter Sarada.

“Come, daughter!” Her father’s voice softly brought her back to the unforgiving path of the living. Your mother-in-law wants to see you.”

She drew back. What would the in-laws think? That it was her fault? That it was because of her sins from a previous birth? She felt the baby in her arms – sound asleep. Would they, would she want to take her child away?

She stepped into the drawing room, followed by her father. The father-in-law was sitting in the most comfortable armchair. His wife stood behind him like a sentinel.

“Brother-in-law,” she heard him address her father, “Once the cremation is over, we will return to Guntur – with our daughter-in-law.”

The mother-in-law stepped out from behind the armchair.

“You need not bring anything for yourself. Just get the child’s clothes and anything else you need for her.”

“Yes, Atha,” Gayatri murmured, keeping her eyes lowered to the floor. Why doesn’t she look at my child, at her granddaughter? Does she think this innocent child is responsible for her father’s death? Baby Sarada opened her eyes as if sensing her mother’s distress. She pushed her mouth against her mother’s breast, and made loud sucking sounds.

“If you will excuse me, Atha, I have to …”

“Yes, yes,” the mother-in-law said impatiently. “Go!”

She sat on the cot, released the buttons on her wet blouse, and felt her child’s mouth unerringly find the nipple. The tears from her eyes mingled with the milk that fed Sarada. A little later she lovingly placed the sleeping child in the cradle. As she straightened up, she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder.

“Gayatri! Listen to me, daughter!”

“Nanna! What if … what if … “

“That is what I have come to tell you. I will not allow them to take you away, Gayatri. We, your mother and I, have decided …”

She said, disbelief tingeing her voice:

“Can you do that? Can you really do that?”

“Tradition might dictate otherwise, daughter. But a tradition that tells us that a daughter is less important than a son needs to be questioned.”

Gayatri stared at her father. He never ceased to astonish her.

“What if the in-laws create trouble? I don’t want to …”

Her father sat down and sighed.

“And here I thought you wanted to study, to educate yourself, to make something of

yourself. Of course, if you wish to go to Guntur and live the life of a widow, we cannot prevent …”

“No, no, Nanna!” she interrupted. “Of course not! My husband – your son – and I talked about it often. He wanted me to go back to college.”

“Well then, we will only be following his wishes.”

“Lalli’s Window” and more

Lalli is at it again! Here she is with her third limerick, heralding chapter three of “Lalli’s Window”:

There was an old woman called Steave

She moved with a walker

Her old house she never did leave

When she died, there were just two to grieve.

Yasemin and Nirmala: a tale of two teens

“Yasemin and Nirmala: A Tale of Two Teens” tells the story of Yasemin McGinty-Mahsud, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani-American teen who loses her right arm in an accident, and that of fifteen-year-old Nirmala Rao-Sumatzkuku, a South-Asian/Native-American teen who is confined to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. The story begins with the celebration of Yasemin’s fifteenth birthday, a celebration marred by her own ‘navel-gazing’, as her BFF Natalie Riccardo reminds her. Her self-hatred increases when the school plans to stage “Seussical Musical” as the end-of-the-school-year event. She assumes that her ‘unfinished’ body will automatically exclude her from participating in the play – her father’s mention of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Richard III, and the king’s “deform’d, unfinish’d” body haunts her as she indulges in even greater self-pity.
The arrival in school of Nirmala Rao-Sumatzkuku, girl challenged by cerebral palsy, transforms Yasemin’s limited perspective of the world around her. Nirmala’s South-Asian father Mahesh Rao, and Hopi mother Chu’si Sumatzkuku have home-schooled her all these years. But her strength of purpose, positive attitude towards life, and irrepressible whimsy encourage them to send her to a brick-and-mortar school. Although her cerebral palsy limits her speech and movements, Nirmala’s buoyancy of spirit immediately wins over many of her classmates. The same spirit intrigues Yasemin, who is at first suspicious of Nirmala’s lust for life. Suspicion very soon changes to gratitude and admiration as Nirmala asks for her help in writing a musical entitled “My soul for a Jelly Donut.”
Yasemin’s neighbor, an old Jewish man called Jakob Cohen, is yet another source of inspiration and comfort. Yasemin senses the depth of grief the old man feels at the loss of his wife. She discovers a new awareness of life around her, of neighbors she had hitherto ignored or was unaware of. She hears Mr. Cohen play the violin. Her own passion for singing forges an unusual bond between the two. He accompanies her on his Steinway. Mr. Cohen’s grandson Jeremy joins him on his viola, and love is in the air!
Much to Yasemin’s mixed emotions of delight and anxiety, Nirmala gives her a prominent role in the musical. Cast opposite to Ravi Beresford, a line-backer who has stolen many a heart, she has many a ‘What ifs?’. What if he rejected her? What if he were to sneer at her missing arm? These doubts are cast aside when old Mr. Cohen sends her a beautiful dress that had belonged to his wife, and Yasemin’s mother says: “Perfection is in the eyes of the beholder.”

“Veiled Murders”

My two-volumed “Veiled Murders” is for those readers of archaeological fiction that delve into ancient civilisations! Beginning 4,500 years ago in the Indus Valley Civilisation, my writing turns to the 19th century when British archaeologists discover this civilisation, and one of them is murdered before he can reveal a much older murder committed during that ancient civilisation! A third segment rushes us forward to the 21st century, when modern day archaeologists not only solve the two murders, but solve the riddle of the ancient Harappan script, an achievement that continues to elude present-day research!

My indomitable female sleuths!

This is awesome – my two 70+year-old female sleuths Leela and Meena may appear on your Netflix list! Yes, they have been approached as possible stars in a dramatised version of “Murders Most Matronly”! Do keep your combined fingers and toes crossed that this will happen very very soon!

Bandilanka once again!

Here it is – yet another story from that tiny village of Bandilanka where lives that have been crushed rise once again to new heights of empathy and love!

6 – Familial slaves

“Look, Parvathi! A letter from America! Seshadri Mama[1]wants me to join him – in that restaurant business of his. You know the one.”

Parvathi looked up from the grinding stone.

“So … what does he need youfor? Or is this part of … part of the ‘debt payment’?”

She wiped her brow with the edge of her sari.

“Husband,” she cautioned, placing her hands on her knees to help her get up from the floor. Her legs weren’t cooperating so well anymore. “We are heavily in debt as it is. We have sold off the bit of gold my mother left me …”

“Yes, wife, I am so sorry about that!”

She got up, went to the hand-pump, and washed her hands.

“Stop that, husband! You have worked those sugar-cane fields so hard all these years – you have broken your back over them, just so that we could send our children to school. And now this lack of monsoon rains – everything destroyed.  Crop failure after crop failure …”

She scooped the chutney out of the grinder into a copper-bottomed brass vessel.

“My mango pickles are selling well. Those houses in Ganti Veedhi have ordered a dozen jaadis.[2]That wealthy Saradamma wants even more for the upcoming marriage of their daughter. That should get us quite a bit of money.” 

“You will work yourself to death, wife. I wish I could …”

Parvathi interrupted him:

“What did the bank say?”

“The bank? What do you think? We do not have an account. They will not even look at me. The moneylender … he told me to come back tomorrow.”

He glanced at his uncle’s letter.

“But now I have no need for the money-lender. This – this letter means that I can buy you a new sari, it could mean sufficient dowry for our daughter, …”

“Husband, I don’t need a new sari.”

She smiled.

“I don’t mind. My old saris are as good as new. And I’m keeping a couple of the heavy silks that my grandmother gave me for our daughter.”

Ramalingam gently stroked his wife’s cheek.

“You are a blessing, my Paru! May you come back to me as my wife for seven or more rebirths!”

Parvathi tried to scowl, but couldn’t resist smiling. She remembered exactly when he had last called her ‘Paru’ – on the day he held their first-born in his arms.

“See here – Seshadri Mama has sent me some money, and …”

“When does Mama-garu[3]want you there? And does he know that we can’t afford …”

Ramalingam interrupted her.

“Here … he says he will send me a ticket. Air India! Just imagine. As soon as I get a tourist visa of course. He has also mailed documents that I have to show to the authorities, documents that promise his financial support when I’m there. He warned me not to mention that he wants me to work for him. A work permit for America is almost impossible to get nowadays.”

He looked at Uncle Seshadri’s letter.

“He says that I am to tell the visa officer that I am a visitor, that he needs me to help him in the wedding festivities.”

“Wedding festivities? The old man’s getting married? “

“No, no! That’s what I am to tellthem, that it is his son’s wedding, that he needs me to bring special items for conducting the ceremony from India, to help him with the arrangements. Americans know how elaborate our Indian weddings are!”

Parvathi stood still.

“I don’t know, husband. I have a bad feeling about this. But helping him in that restaurant – I suppose he’ll pay you well for your work, right?”

“Yes, of course! US dollars! You know how many Rupiahs you get for a single dollar? Hundreds, I think. Our Suresh knows all about the … the internet. He will find out how much. Anyway, we’ll be able to afford that dowry the boy’s parents have been demanding for our dear daughter.”

*****

Ramalingam picked up his small shiny leather suitcase from the baggage claim area at New York’s JFK Airport. His previous travel had been limited to bullock carts, buses, and trains. And there were many buses and trains connecting Bandilanka to the big cities. He had his trusty bicycle to get to the fields.. But an airplane? He tried to understand how humans had developed this almost god-like technology. The Ramayana told stories about flights, but they were always about divine beings. He had been given a seat in the middle aisle of the plane, but an elderly passenger had noticed Ramalingam’s pathetic attempts to look out of the window. 

“Come! Take my seat, brother,” the man had offered. “I have had enough of these flights and would like to sleep for a while.”

Ramalingam had thanked him over and over again. After that, everything else on board the plane became a blur. His eyes were riveted on the images outside the craft: the ant-like people and cars as the plane soared higher and higher into the sky, the clouds through which the plane navigated before resting, it seemed to him, on white softness, and the sight of a brilliantly orange sun disappearing into the ocean.

He waited nervously in line as Customs and Immigration officials checked his passport and visa.

“How long do you intend to stay in the US?” the female official asked.

“Few weeks, sir. Only for my cousin-brother’s wedding.”

“Your cousin-brother?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you carrying any food or plants?”

“No, sir.”

The officer carefully examined his passport, checked the visa, and finally stamped the document. Ramalingam picked up his suitcase and followed the other passengers to the exit. His uncle was waiting outside.

“Come on! Come on!” Seshadri shouted. “I’ve been waiting for three hours. No relying on planes nowadays.”

“Sorry, Seshadri Mama,” Ramalingam said, bending down to touch his uncle’s feet.

“Okay, okay, enough, enough. Come on! I have a business to run.”

He opened the door of a shiny crimson BMW M4. Ramalingam was about to place his suitcase on the rear seat.

“Are you insane?” Seshadri shouted. “I have just had the car detailed. Put your stuff in the trunk.”

“Where, Seshadri Mama?”

“The boot, the luggage boot!”

The older man got in behind the steering wheel.

“What are you waiting for? Come on, come on. And stop calling me Seshadri Mama! ‘Sir’ is good enough.”

“Yes, Ma… sir!” Ramalingam responded, thinking with pride:

“He’s a man of integrity! Doesn’t want to be accused of nepotism!”

They didn’t exchange another word as Seshadri entered the JFK Expressway and navigated his way through the heavy traffic. As they neared the Bronx, Ramalingam noticed that the streets were getting dingier. Piles of garbage lay on the sidewalks.

“It is just like Bandilanka’s poorer sectors!” he thought. He looked at his uncle. It was very untypical that Seshadri Mama hadn’t asked him about the family, or about relatives, or … or anything at all. Perhaps he was exhausted, after all that waiting at the airport? Ramalingam decided to break the ice.

“Seshadri Mama, I haven’t thanked you enough for giving me this opportunity to … to come to America and …”

“Yes, yes!” Seshadri interrupted irritably. “You can thank me by working hard.”

He brought the car to a stop in front of a row of buildings. Each of them had exterior neon signs that read “Video”. He got out and beckoned to Ramalingam to follow him. 

Ramalingam followed Seshadri into an alley. The older man stopped in front of a shabby door and unlocked it. An overpowering stench of urine hit Ramalingam’s nose. He struggled with the vomit that was rising in his throat.

“Pigs!” Seshadri swore. “Come on, come on! Don’t dawdle.”

Ramalingam followed him up three flights of dingy stairs. 

“Mama … sir, where are we going?”

“To your quarters, of course, boy! You think I can afford a five-star hotel? I don’t have that kind of money to spend on my workers.”

He kicked the door open. Ramalingam saw three men sleeping in hammocks. The smell here was a mixture of spices and stale sweat.

“You’ll report for work at 5 am tomorrow. These fellows will bring you.”

Ramalingam set down his suitcase.

“Oh yes,” Seshadri held out his hand. “Before I forget – give me your passport, for safe-keeping. And your mobile as well.”

“Yes, sir.” Ramalingam obediently opened his wallet and handed his passport to his uncle. “But the mobile – I need it to call …”

Before he could say anything, Seshadri had grabbed the cell from his hand, thrust both objects into his pocket, and rushed out of the apartment.

One of the men in the hammocks opened a cautious eye.

“So! You’re the nephew! The boss mentioned you yesterday,” he said, rolling out of the hammock. “Welcome to the great United States of America, the land of the brave … and so on!”

Ramalingam set down his suitcase. 

“I … I’m not sure what this place is. Is this where I’m supposed to stay?”

“Yes, brother. This is for us ‘workers’!”

“But …”

“But you thought your uncle would take you to his palatial home! Dreams are good, brother! The only thing left to us beings who are less than animals.”

He took out a pack of cigarettes.

“Smoke?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’m Krishna,” the man said, inhaling the smoke, “And those sinful brothers are Raghava Rao and Mallikarjuna Rao. Where are you from?”

“Bandilanka. I am a farmer.”

“Oh ho! So that’s where the boss-man trapped you. His own birth-place, East Godavari delta. He ‘recruited’ us in Hyderabad. We were working in the Parle Biscuit Factory. My college degree was of no use to my family. No jobs for educated people like us.”

He looked at Ramalingam.

“Oh! Where are my manners? Here, let me show you around our Taj Mahal.”

He led Ramalingam to a pokey bathroom with a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The sink was cracked. The floor of the shower stall was in worse shape, slick with green soap scum.

“Do excuse the mess,” Krishna said bitterly. “The maids resigned today, Mr. Ramalingam, sir.”

He stepped into a small balcony and opened a trunk.

“Here! Catch!”

He threw a hammock at Ramalingam.

“Your five-star hotel bed.”

He laughed raucously, then began violently coughing. Ramalingam noticed blood in the spittle. 

Raghava Rao groaned. Mallikarjuna Rao yelled:

“Shut up or get out!”

Almost immediately, the sound of snoring filled the air.

Ramalingam took out the hand towel wife Parvati had thoughtfully packed and tried to wash away some of the grime and disgust he felt. At least the tap water was clean. Krishna helped him put up the hammock. He had hardly eased himself into it when he felt somebody violently shaking him awake. 

“Time to go, brother!”

“But I haven’t … is it morning already? I haven’t had a bath, and …”

“No time, no time. Hurry up! You can do all of that there. Come on!”

They ran out of the apartment and down the stairs. Ramalingam almost knocked over an old homeless man sleeping on one of the landings as he followed the others.

“Hey!” the man shouted drunkenly, “wa… watch it, buddy!”

Down the alley they went, and onto the main road. A few cars roared past them. Ramalingam looked at his HMT watch. It showed 7 pm. Of course! He had forgotten to change Indian Standard Time to EST. He stopped to reset his watch, but heard Krishna yell: “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Hurry up, you fool!”

*****

“One Alu Gobhi, twoAlu Methi, two Alu Parathaand … and … two plates of pakoras! Quick, quick, yaar! Those pakoras won’t fry themselves!”

Ramalingam wiped the sweat off his forehead and turned over the sizzling pakoras, trying to ignore the drops of scalding oil that landed on his unprotected hands. For the past six days he had been placed in front of the industrial size wok for eight to nine hours, his only job deep-frying pakorasand puris. The ten-minute break he was allowed to snatch was just enough to go to the loo and grab a drink of water. Today, the grimy walls of the windowless kitchen seemed to cave in on him. He had not been able to contact his family since his arrival. Without a mobile he was helpless. There was an internet café nearby, but he had spent the little money he had brought with him on linen and toiletries, assuming that he would he paid for his work. When he asked Krishna about their wages, the latter grinned.

“You’ll be paid soon enough, brother! Your work isn’t done yet!”

Ramalingam occasionally spotted Seshadri mingling with the restaurant guests. The day before he had seen the uncle with his arm across the shoulder of a white teenage girl.

“Who’s the girl?” he asked Krishna.

“She’s …”

Krishna looked at Ramalingam and hesitated.

“She’s his … a friend. You want to stay out of jail? Don’t ask any questions.”

Ramalingam felt panic strike his heart. Jail? Was there no end to the indignities he was suffering? He cursed his previous lives, the sins he must have committed in them. He looked at Krishna.

“Brother, you said that my work was not yet done. What did you mean?”

“Wait till Sunday! You’ll see.”

Krishna placed a sympathetic hand on Ramalingam’s shoulder. He looked around furtively, rolled a joint, and quickly smoked it.

“You want one?” he offered Ramalingam.

“Why do you do this?” the latter asked sternly.

“Survival, brother, survival. We are locked in this damn kitchen the whole day, slaving for that monster, afraid to go out into the streets for fear of being rounded up by the cops. We don’t have any papers, he has even threatened our families …”

“Wait! Threatened your families? But that is monstrous!”

“Yes, monstrous. I did call him a monster, didn’t I? But you are lucky, brother. He hasn’t got you in the kind of bind in which he has put us.”

He rolled himself another joint, smoked it, and continued:

“The three of us – Raghava, Mallika, and I – we robbed a grocery store near the factory. Unfortunately, one of the customers decided to be heroic and was killed for it.”

“You killed … you took somebody’s life?”

“Well, Raghava shoved him aside when the man tried to stop us. The guy banged his head against the stone counter. Couldn’t be revived. Your uncle was in the store at the time. He went to the owner and persuaded him to let us go in exchange for some big hush money! I don’t know how big the pay-off was, but it must have been very satisfactory. The owner didn’t press charges.”

“But the dead customer? What about his family? What about …”

“You know how it is in India, brother. Seshadri was desperate to get more workers for his filth here. Our cops back home are the most corruptible.”

His hands trembled as he stood up. Ramalingam felt his heart sink. The moment he had entered that filthy building, he had tried to ignore his uncle’s real purpose in bringing him here. Without his passport, he was paralyzed. His wife, his family – they must be worried sick. Paru … would she think that he had abandoned them, worse still, gone off with some white woman? Everybody in Bandilanka spoke so highly of Seshadri:

“That Seshadri is doing really well there – business is excellent, he has a flourishing restaurant. The Americans love our food. Have you seen the photographs he has sent to his family here? The house – it is like a palace.”

Ramalingam smiled miserably at the thought of his hovel. The sight of the hammocks alone would destroy them. What was Krishna trying to warn him against? What could be worse than this?He had to somehow get out of this hellhole. 

*****

“Where are we going?”

His three roommates were entering a different building today. Ramalingam remembered that he had said Sundays were different. He looked up at the sign. Hair and Nail Salon.

“What are we doing in such a place?” he wondered. They went up two flights of stairs. Fancy glass doors automatically opened as they neared them. The woman at the reception looked Chinese. For Ramalingam, anyone with Mongoloid features was Chinese. The woman got up.

“Welcome to Hair and Nail Spa! You have appointment?”

Krishna went up to her and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and waved them toward a flight of spiral stairs that led to a higher floor. The front room on this floor was discreetly lit with tiny lamps hung from the ceiling that shed a purplish glow across the walls and floor. Ramalingam saw several doors in the rear wall. As his eyes got used to the dim light, he made out the figures of several girls sitting on a couch to the left. They were almost naked, just like the women on the billboards that advertised all those Bollywood movies. He looked away in shame. Krishna nudged him.

“Come on, brother! We have to get to work.”

“No! What? What is this?”

Ramalingam glanced at them. The girls looked underage, younger than his daughter. He noticed that they were mostly brown-skinned. Krishna whispered:

“You’ll get used to it. Think of the money – it’s good money, brother, very good money.”

“But I don’t understand! What is this?”

“We prepare the girls for their customers, brother. We tell them how to perform, how to satisfy the needs of our customers. They are very wealthy.”

“What do you mean ‘prepare’?”

“Brother, I can’t believe you’re related to Seshadri! You mean to tell me that you’ve never gone to a brothel?”

“No,” Ramalingam said truthfully. “That is a paapam![4]My wife is everything to me. But I still don’t …”

“Look, brother Ramalingam, it is simple. These girls are chosen for their virginity. Nowdo you understand?”

Ramalingam felt the bile rising in his throat. He screamed: “Shiva, Shiva! Never!” He took a step back and felt a figure pushing against him. The blade slid smoothly through his heart. He whispered a single word before darkness descended on him: “Paru!”


[1]Uncle

[2]Ceramic jars for pickles.

[3]Honorific

[4]Sin.

More on Leela/Meena, my beloved sleuths!

Amazon has just published some more of the cousins’ adventures! “Mummified Murders” will take you to Egypt, “Murder in the Coconut Groves” exposes you to the dark side of village life in South India, and “Murders in the Ivory Tower” will remind you of those (un?)-forgettable days in college!