The Chosen

                                         Chapter 14
                                      Pages 283-288

‘Amma, must I come to Nallikai Swami’s?’ Nagaratna pleaded half-heartedly one last time. ‘I will have to miss my computer class.’

Sarojamma looked up at her daughter and checked the sharp retort that rose to her lips. Nagaratna’s pallor and her dry lips had begun to worry her. More than that her listlessness and her sudden pliability. For the whole of that year she had steadily refused to see Nallikai Swami, laughing at the idea. And now, with uncharacteristic meekness, she had agreed to come not just to Nallikai Swami’s house but even to meet Owner. As if she had suddenly become powerless to resist things and didn’t care either about what happened to her.

‘Have you got the flowers?’ she asked, feeling Nagaratna’s forehead. ‘No, no fever… Jasmine… it must be the fragrant jasmine, not the Ambur variety. And the coconut, did you tap it properly? Did it make a hollow sound?’

‘Amma…’ Nagaratna sighed.

‘Yes you must. He hasn’t seen you at all. You can miss your class for one day.’ What really irked Sarojamma was not the class but the fact that Nagaratna was expected to pay for it out of her own salary. The school had refused to sponsor her.

‘Hurry up and change, you’ve been in that sari all day. Indramma will be coming any minute.’

Nallikai Swami lived in the dip of Vitthala Colony in what would have been the bottom of the lake if the Colony had not filled it up. It would take them fifteen minutes to get there, Sarojamma announced, looking at her watch in a self-conscious gesture and Nagaratna noted with surprise her mother’s air of subdued excitement. The watch was new, borrowed from her daughter-in-law. Her dark coloured sari suited her and Nagaratna was glad her mother had not totally given up vermilion with widowhood. She wore a discreet red dot between her brows which Indramma frowned upon, because she herself groomed a dramatically bare vast forehead.

Indramma appeared, as if on cue, with her large basket. ‘Have you put in some money?’ her hectoring tone indicated her disapproval of Sarojamma’s appearance. ‘How much?’

Sarojamma told her and Indramma was appeased, a little. ‘Not that he expects it, but we, his bhaktas must give something… as a mark of respect. After all, he too has a family to feed… Did you hear that, I believe he predicted wonderful things about Janaki’s relative by dangling a pendulum over a strand of her hair.’

The house was set back from the road and had a bit of decent garden in which stood the eponymous nallikai trees. As they approached the house they could see a few children rooting under the trees for fallen gooseberries and as soon as they heard the gate creak, they ran off noisily into the house. The three women walked down the path solemnly and Nagaratna was seized by a sudden fit of nervousness. What if Nallikai Swami was really clairvoyant as Indramma claimed he was? Would he read her mind and her heart? What would he find out about her?

Barely had they rung the bell than Nagaratna fell back in fright for a pack of dogs started baying from within.

‘Swamiji’s son,’ her mother said reassuringly.

‘What?!!’

‘He breeds dogs. It’s all right, he keeps them on the terrace. They mean no harm. Won’t do anything.’

Nagaratna looked up to see several monstrous animal heads peering over the terrace wall – long faces, long ears and dripping tongues.

‘It’s your first time so they seem strange. Never mind, you’ll get used to them…’

‘Swamiji’s son,’ Indramma lowered her voice, ‘is over-intelligent, so a bit off. But I believe he makes good money with this dog breeding business.’

Just then the door opened and Nallikai Swami’s wife, a reassuring housewifely type, led them in. The children who had just been in the garden were sitting on the sofa watching a pop music show on television. And just as they had run off from the garden when they saw the visitors, they slid off the sofa and went inside, leaving the television on.

‘It’s been quite some time…’ Swamiji’s wife and Indramma had become friends.

‘Yes. You remember my tenant… from Gubbigudu… she has come here to meet Swamiji a couple of times…’

‘Sit down for a bit.’

‘No, nothing for us, don’t bother…’

‘No, no… I’m just making some tiffin for the children…’

Swamiji’s wife got up and went in. From within came familiar domestic sounds. The children had resumed their noisy game in the backyard. They heard the hiss of batter being poured on a griddle and the smell of frying dosas wafted through. Soon they were eating dosas and chutney and while Nagaratna bemusedly munched through hers, her mother and Indramma made small talk with Swamiji’s wife.

‘You’ve had your necklace recast?’ Indramma’s eagle eye had spotted the sheen of new gold.

‘So you noticed? He insisted… And I’ve had a pair of red stone bangles made too. Let me show you.’

Indramma caressed the large glittering red stones embedded in gold. ‘They’re not rubies, are they?’

‘No, rubies are not my stones, he says…’

After they had drunk coffee, Swamiji’s wife mentioned casually that her husband was in the basement, deep in dhyana, but it was time for him to come out of it. He had an appointment with a Sindhi businessman later in the evening.

They followed her down a steep staircase into the basement. There seemed to be no sign of Nallikai Swami. Much of the basement was taken up by a large blue car with steel-tipped wings.

‘A gift from one of his devotees,’ Swamiji’s wife whispered. ‘Such a pity we can’t use it. Swamiji doesn’t drive…’

Other than serving as Nallikai Swami’s meditation space, the basement also was used to store odds and ends. There were cardboard boxes with tins of paint, brushes and rags stiff with dried paint. A bicycle stood next to the car. A stack of old newspapers reached for the ceiling.

Then they saw him on the other side of the room, on an elevated cement platform, seated on a deer skin. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. Even in repose his face seemed pugnacious and he was abundantly hairy. Much like one of the dogs his son bred, Nagaratna thought. Around him were the tools of his trade, a kamandala, a T shaped staff, some books, a few engraved boxes. He was wearing a red silken dhoti and was bare chested.

They squeezed past the stationary car and as they were negotiating a difficult stretch between the wall and some rusted iron rods that were piled haphazardly, Indramma’s pallu got caught in one of the rods and the whole lot came crashing down. No one was hurt but Swamiji came out of his dhyana with a start.

His eyes, Nagaratna had to concede, had almost the same power as Panditji’s. Light grey with darker flecks, they were as penetrative, and when he smiled, genial; eyes that had a sense of humour.

He motioned to them to sit down on the aluminium chairs in front of him. Nagaratna’s mother and Indramma bent down and touched his feet, which Nagaratna could not bring herself to do, despite her mother’s frantic signals. But he did not seem to notice. Indramma discreetly put their basket of offerings to one side.

‘So did your son take the bhasma I gave you last time? And did he complete the twenty-one day cycle at the Naga temple?’ His voice was deep with a phlegmy twang as if he needed to clear his throat.

Sarojamma started visibly with pleasure. ‘So you remember Swamiji… yes, and my daughter-in-law

‘I remember, I had given you a root… I hope you knotted it together with a bit of turmeric and tied it on her upper arm. Her strength should return.’

‘Both of them are helping me now. Swamiji, I have started a mess in the house…’

‘A mess? You mean feeding people? That is a noble thing to do,’ he said with feeling and Nagaratna saw her mother blush.

‘Actually Swamiji’ Indramma prompted, motioning fiercely with her eyes.

‘Oh yes,’ Sarojamma recollected, ‘actually Swamiji, I have come today about my daughter.’ She pushed Nagaratna forward. ‘She has stopped eating… has become so quiet and lifeless… seems tired all the time

‘Amma!’ Nagaratna protested, unprepared for such a frontal attack.

‘And stubborn too, doesn’t listen to anybody

‘Why don’t you tell me yourself what the matter is?’ he turned to Nagaratna.

‘Nothing’ she said, backing off, ‘Nothing!’

‘Nothing?’ He reached forward and held both her hands firmly in his. She looked into his face and shrank from his eyes and his hair and the ash flaking off his forehead. He looked at her steadily for a few seconds and then shifted his gaze from her face to the lines on her palms. ‘Hmnn…’ Though her hands lay inert in his, Nagaratna felt as if the bottom of her stomach had suddenly fallen out.

And then, even as they watched, Nallikai Swami shuddered convulsively as if thrown by an electric shock. His lips drew back in a snarl, his eyes shut tight, gouging into the back of his head and beads of sweat stood on his face. As his grip on her hands tightened, Nagaratna turned in panic to her mother but both Sarojamma and Indramma had prostrated themselves at his feet. Just as his grip seemed to be relaxing, another spasm sucked him in, he drew his breath in with a rattling wheeze and the loose flesh on his chest shook.

‘Ugra Narasimha has come over him,’ Indramma whispered with a thrill of horror. ‘That terrible terrible avatar of Vishnu has seized him… He is in great pain… as if he’s being pricked by needles all over. Don’t get scared. This is the price he pays for taking on our troubles.’

‘It happens,’ she continued in an accusing undertone, ‘when his devotees have too many problems. The intensity of his pain is in direct proportion to theirs.’

It must have lasted for a few seconds, not more. The fit passed. Swamiji’s face relaxed, though his eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. When he opened his eyes they were clear and pain-free. There was no sign that he had been in intense agony just a few seconds back. Later on Nagaratna recalled that though her hands were clasped tightly in his, she herself had been quite calm and unmoved.

‘But it will pass child,’ he growled, gently returning her hands to her, ‘whatever it is that is troubling you will pass… as all things do, this too will...’

The three of them walked home in silence, too shaken to say anything. Indramma eyed Nagaratna with new respect. She had seen Nallikai Swami in the throes of Ugra Narasimha before, in fact it happened quite regularly, but never had it been so intense.

‘But what did he mean?’ Sarojamma pleaded with Indramma, ‘he never gave her anything, no potions, no bhasmas, not even a root talisman…’

‘Sarojamma,’ her friend said gravely, ‘I think he means you should get her married soon.’

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                                       Chapter 9

                                     Pages 182-185

When a man departs from his habits, even for the better, it worries his women. The minor signs are the culprits; they give him away eventually. When Satya announced that someone had stolen his watch, she clicked her tongue in commiseration and thought nothing of it. His father-in-law would buy him a new one. But when she realised that her son did not smell the same, Sarojamma sat up. The Satya smell, that particular rich combination of sweat and ‘scent’, of skin trapped in synthetic clothing, unable to breathe, was gone. And then it struck her that he no longer wore his shiny shirts, the shirts that his wife scrubbed at the collar and armpits every night and put out to dry on a metal hanger. At first Satya had been cleverer at concealing it, staggering his going outs and coming ins, so that his explanation of split hours would hold water. But then perhaps the effort became too much for him, of inventing new stories, of thinking of new places to linger in, new things to do which would eat into his time and not his money. Finally he just gave up and dressed in his undervest, he stayed at home all morning, living on the rexine sofa, alternately sleeping and watching TV.

And so when she saw his employer Taranath making his arthritic way up her narrow staircase, she knew what to expect.

‘Amma,’ he began theatrically, ‘Do you know why I have come?’

Taranath was small and fair complexioned and his eyes glittered moistly behind his spectacles, as if his tears could no longer be contained/ he could no longer contain his tears.

She quelled her quaking heart and readied herself for the ensuing cat and mouse game  of words, of wit and ultimately of nerves. And for Taranath, given the way he had clawed his way up from the dregs to acquire his petty empire, using every mean trick in the book, debasing himself to the point of extinction, the common language, the language of day to day currency, had lost all meaning. He could only speak in platitudes and insinuations.

‘That you have graced our house is enough. I am sure you have come with good reason…’ Sarojamma matched him expression for fulsome expression. ‘Even though Satya has been serving you for so many years, this is the first time you have thought about us...’

Quickly he dismissed the words of circumlocutory piety which he had begun to thread together, and came to the point. Above all, he could not afford to look small. If there were any grand postures to be struck, he would strike them.

‘Yes, you say Satya has been serving me for the past so many years. It is that that I have come to talk about. I chose this time because I wanted to speak to you alone. Your daughter-in-law... her condition...’ he paused delicately, ‘I did not want to worry her...’

‘Some tea or coffee... buttermilk perhaps…’

‘No, no,’ he cut her off before she could side track him. ‘Satya has not been coming to work for the past few weeks. Do you know why?’

Strangely, as if by common consent, neither of them looked at Satya who sat on the sofa digging his ear with the cap of his Reynolds pen, examining the plug of wax that adhered to it as if it were a nugget of gold.

‘He has not been well...’ Even as she said it she knew he could spot the lie.

‘Not well?’ Taranath surged forth in triumph, ‘Amma, there is money missing and he can’t account for it!’

‘How can you blame him? How can you be sure that he has taken the money?’ Sarojamma floundered, ‘There are so many people who come and go, your office is like a bazaar...’

‘I am not saying that he has taken it...’ his smile was pure honey, ‘Why have I made him manager? He is answerable for all that happens in the office and the accounts don’t tally...’

‘But how many things can one person keep track of...’ She could imagine Taranath stacking one petty trade on top of another  a video parlour, a liquid petroleum gas agency, bus tours  building his house of ill-gotten cards and dangling them all under her son’s nose, plums all for his picking.

‘Amma, amma, amma! Are you saying it was my mistake to have given him his livelihood?’

‘I haven’t stolen anybody’s money!’ Satya, high-pitched and unfamiliar, suddenly declared.

Both Sarojamma and Taranath looked at him and looked away almost immediately.

‘How much does he have to account for?’ she asked.

‘Never mind...’ Taranath waved his plump veiny hands sharply, implying that it was much more than she could ever dream of.

‘We are respectable people…’

‘I know. That is why I have come to you amma, and not gone to the… hmmm.’

‘How does he expect me to run the shop if I can’t order an occasional coffee or fruit juice for the customers...’ Satya said sullenly, his voice trailing off.

And then she knew in a flash that he must have taken the money, nothing big but small sums pilfered now and then, like he used to as a child from his father’s pockets, for the knick knacks that he was so fond of; only now a marble or a boiled sweet would have been replaced by a fancy watch or a cigarette lighter or a pair of gold-rimmed dark glasses  cheap, flashy things.

Satya, her foolish, well-meaning boy. Their Sunday outings to Lal Bagh were invariably followed by a treat at MTR and sometimes a film after that. She recalled the texture of the MTR dosa, thick, spongy and fermented just right, still sizzling freshly from the tava, the little container of pure ghee and finally, coffee in a silver tumbler. Coffee in a silver tumbler. One Sunday there had been a Rajkumar-Kalpana starrer at the matinee and after that as they walked home through the brightly lit streets it had started drizzling and the smell of the rain rising off the freshly tarred road alternating with the humid fragrance of jasmine had made her feel like a girl again. Her cup had run over. She thought of the way he had scooped them out of Gubbigudu, Nagaratna and herself, after her husband died, and brought them home  a situation that men of stature, like Taranath, would have baulked at. He had brought them home, home to the city lights, bright and warmly seductive, which made every man and woman who walked on the streets stride like a Colossus.

‘My son,’ Sarojamma said defiantly, ‘is a good boy.’

‘I am sure, amma. It would be better if you kept him at home to keep an eye on him.’

It took her some time to grasp his meaning. ‘His job...’ she ventured lamely.

‘Don’t ask me for that, amma, please don’t...’ he folded his hands as if he were the supplicant, ‘Isn’t it enough that I’ve waived aside his debts to me? And now,’ he rose to his feet wincing slightly, ‘I must take my leave… if there is anything I can do...’

Unfortunately he couldn’t resist making a grand exit, which decided things totally in Satya’s favour as far as his mother was concerned. ‘To think that you, amma, and the elders… in your wisdom… named him Satya Prakash... the light of truth... the irony of it.’

Nagaratna returned home just in time to catch Taranath’s retreating barb, and for the rest of the evening she and Pushpa were given an emotionally charged account of the meeting (punctuated by inspired imitations of Taranath) in which Satya was the sacrificial lamb and Taranath was accused of everything from ingratitude to emasculation. Pushpa declared it was all a ruse to get a new man in, probably a relative of Taranath’s and as for Satya, long back he had thrown the trowel in and was watching cartoons on television with his son.