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The Hero's Walk

It was only five o'clock on a July morning in Toturpuram, and already every trace of night had disappeared. The sun swelled, molten, from the far edge of the sea. Waves shuddered against the sand and left curving lines of golden froth that dried almost instantly. All along the beach, fishermen towed their boats ashore and emptied their nets of the night's catch. Their mothers and wives, daughters and sisters, piled the prawn and the crab, the lobster and the fish, into large, damp baskets still redolent of the previous day's load, and then, leaving the shimmering scales and cracked shells for the crows to fight over, they caught the first bus to the market, laughing as other passengers hastily moved to the front and made way for them and their odorous wares.

In a few hours the heat would hang over the town in long, wet sheets, puddle behind people's knees, in their armpits and in the hollows of their necks, and drip down their foreheads. Sweaty thighs would stick to chairs and make rude sucking sounds when contact was broken. Only idiots ventured out to work and, once there, sat stunned and idle at their desks because the power had gone off and the ceiling fans were still. It was impossible to bat an eyelash without feeling faint. The more sensible folk stayed at home, clad only in underwear, with moist cloths draped over their heads and chests, drinking coconut water by the litre and fanning themselves with folded newspapers.

Even though it was the middle of July in this small town that crouched on the shores of the Bay of Bengal about three hours by bus from Madras, the southwest monsoons that provided a minor interlude between periods of heat had not appeared. So all of Toturpuram longed for December when the northeast monsoons would roar in. The memory of those cool, wet mornings was so appealing that everyone forgot that December was also the begin-ning of the cyclone season when winds blew at kilometres per hour, smashing everything that stood in their way. They did not remember the torrential rains that knocked out the power lines and plunged the town into stinking, liquid darkness. And they utterly forgot how the sea became a towering green wall of water that dissolved the beach and flooded the streets, turning roadways into drains and bringing dysentery and diarrhea in its wake. There was so much rain that septic tanks exploded all over town, and people woke suddenly in the night to find their belongings floating in sewage.

Today the morning light touched the squalid little town with a tenuous beauty. Even the dozens of angular apartment blocks that marched stolidly from the beach up to Big House on Brahmin Street were softened by the early glow. Sheaves of television anten-nae bristled up from the roofs of those apartments and caught fire as the sun rose. Big House was the only building on the street that did not flaunt one. Sripathi Rao, the owner, had reluctantly bought a television set a few years ago, but it was an old model that only had an internal antenna. His mother, Ammayya, had been disappointed.

"Nobody will even know we have a television," she protested. "What is the use of having something if nobody knows about it?"

Sripathi would not be swayed. "So long as you get your pro-grams, why does it matter who knows what we have? Besides, this is all I can afford."

"If you had listened to me and become a big doctor you wouldn't have been talking about affording and not affording at all," grumbled his mother. She never missed an opportunity to remind him how much of a disappointment he was to her

"Even if I was one of the Birlas, I would have bought only this television," Sripathi had argued. Or the Tatas or the Ambanis or, for that matter, any of India's mighty business tycoons. He did not believe in ostentatious displays--of possessions or of emotions.

When the phone rang for the first time that day, Sripathi was on the balcony of his house. As usual, he had woken at four in the morning and was now reading the newspaper, ticking off interesting items with a red marker. He stopped when he heard the high, fractured trill, but made no move to go down to the landing halfway between the first and ground floors to the phone. He waited for someone else to get it. There were enough people around, including--he thought with some annoyance--his son, Arun, asleep in the room across the corridor from his own.

Afterwards Sripathi wondered why he had felt no twinge of pre-monition. He remembered other times when tragedy had occurred: how uneasy he had been the day before his father's lifeless body was discovered on Andaal Street, and how strange the coincidence that had taken him there the next morning where he had joined the curious crowd gathered around it. And before his beloved grand-mother, Shantamma, was finally claimed by the Lord of Death, his nights had been full of restless dreams. Weren't disasters always heralded by a moment of immense clarity or a nightmare that rocked you, weeping, out of sleep? This time, however, he experi-enced nothing.

The phone continued to ring, grating on Sripathi's nerves. "Arun!" he shouted, leaning back in his chair so that he could see the length of his bedroom through the balcony door. "Get the phone! Can't you hear it?" There was no reply. "Idiot, sleeps all his life," he muttered. He pushed the chair away from the square iron table on which he had arranged his writing material, and stood up, flexing his rounded shoulders. As a youth, Sripathi had found that he was taller than all his friends and, because he hated to be differ-ent or conspicuous in any way, had developed a stoop. His thick grey hair was cut as short as possible by Shakespeare Kuppalloor, the barber on Tagore Street. An expression of permanent disap-pointment had settled on a face dominated by a beaky nose and large, moist eyes. After the softness of the eyes, the thin, austere line of his mouth came as a surprise. Once during an argument, his wife, Nirmala, had remarked that it looked like a zippered purse. He remembered being taken aback by the comparison. He had always found her to be like a bar of Lifebuoy soap--functional but devoid of all imagination.

The thought crossed his mind that the call might be from Maya, his daughter in Vancouver, and he paused in his passage across the bedroom. If it was, he didn't want to answer it. His eyes fell on a photograph of Maya, with her foreign husband and their child, on the windowsill next to Nirmala's side of the bed, and immediately his mood became tinged with bitterness. Every day, whenever he found an opportunity, he turned the picture face down on the sill and piled some books on it, feeling slightly childish, only to have it reinstated right-side-up by Nirmala. But Maya phoned on Sunday mornings, he reminded himself. At six-thirty when, as she knew, her mother would be waiting, sitting on the cold, tiled floor of the landing, right beside the phone. And every Sunday, for several years now, Sripathi had avoided that moment by setting off for a walk at six-twenty.

His younger sister, Putti, who was also downstairs somewhere, was too scared to answer the phone.

"I don't know what to talk into that thing," Putti had explained to Sripathi once, embarrassment writ large on her round, babyish face. "And anyway, it is never for me." A sad thing for her to say, he had thought then, feeling guilty that he had not done his duty as her older brother and found a husband for her. After living in Toturpu-ram for forty-two years, Putti had nobody to call a friend. Except perhaps that horrible librarian, Miss Chintamani.

Sripathi's mother claimed that she was too old to climb the stairs, but Nirmala insisted Ammayya was a fraud and that she came upstairs regularly to snoop around when she was alone in the house. "She steals my saris," Nirmala had grumbled. "And I found my comb under her mattress. Did it walk there by itself, or what?"

The phone stopped ringing, and silence draped itself around the house once more. Sripathi went back to the balcony and settled down in the faded cane chair that had survived at least twenty years of ferocious sun and rain. He picked up The Hindu again and started to read it carefully, ticking off articles that he wanted to comment on.

He could hear soft music emanating from the apartments that loomed beside the house, the thin notes drowned almost immedi-ately by the sound of the Krishna Temple bell--a clanging that com-peted for attention with the nasal call of the mullah from the Thousand Lights Mosque on a parallel street. The temple was straight up the road from Big House, which had been built eighty-two years ago by Sripathi's grandfather on what came to be called Brahmin Street for the number of people of that caste. However, when the ruling party won the state elections, it decreed that no street could have a name that indicated a particular caste; so Brah-min Street was now merely Street. As was Lingayat Street, Mudali-yar Street and half a dozen others in Toturpuram. This led to a lot of grumbling from visitors, who typically spent half the day wandering the town trying to figure out which Street was which. In addition, Brahmin Street had changed so much in the past decade that people returning to it after several years could barely recognize it. Instead of the tender smell of fresh jasmine, incense sticks and virtue, instead of the chanting of sacred hymns, the street had become loud with the haggling of cloth merchants and vegetable vendors, the strident strains of the latest film music from video parlours whose windows flaunted gaudy posters of busty, thick-thighed heroines, and beefy heroes with hair rising like puffs of smoke from their heads.

Older inhabitants of Toturpuram remembered how beautiful Big House used to be--its clean, strong walls washed pink every year before the Deepavali festival, its wide verandah and several balconies in front and along the sides, all held back by painted iron railings cast to look like fish and lotus flowers floating on stylized waves. The gigantic door of carved teak had been custom-built for the house and, in the past, had been varnished annually. The windows had stained-glass panes that Sripathi's grandfather had bought from a British family that had smelled the winds of change several years before Independence and moved back to England. Since his father's death, the house itself had slid into a sort of care-less disrepair and looked as if it was tired of the life within its belly and on the seething, restless street outside.

"If my husband was still alive, we wouldn't have descended to this state," Ammayya complained to her cronies, conveniently for-getting that Narasimha Rao had been solely and utterly responsible for their decline.

The paint had curled away from the decorative railings leaving them cratered by rust. The door had lost its gleam, and the beauti-ful carvings were now anonymous nubs of wood. Cracks ran across the tiled floors like varicose veins on an old woman's legs, and it was years since the walls had seen a fresh coat of whitewash or paint. Most of the windows could not be opened any more, so much had they swollen in the moist heat of the place, and the bril-liance of the glass was dimmed by layers of grease and dirt. The jammed windows did cut out the constant din of traffic from the road outside, as well as the devotional music that was played late into the night from various local temples, so nobody attempted to pry them open. The tall iron gates, eternally blocked by heaps of granite or gravel dumped by construction truck drivers who appeared to take a malicious pleasure in making the old home inac-cessible, leaned inwards as if slowly yielding to pressure from the aggressive new world outside.

The temple bell continued its clamour and Sripathi rustled his newspaper with irritation. A few months ago, the sound of the bell had not bothered him at all. Recently, however, a devotee had paid for a pair of loud speakers, and the bell had become deafening. Sripathi had complained to the temple trustees, but nobody had done anything about it.

"What Sripathi-orey," the head priest had said with his pious smile. "This is God's music. How can you object to it? Nobody else has complained. You should learn to be more tolerant. And may I remind you, your esteemed grandfather himself purchased this bell for our temple?"

"Yes, I know all that." Sripathi was uncomfortably aware that the priest was insinuating that he was not as generous to the temple as his grandfather and even his father, had been. In fact, Sripathi avoided the temple whenever possible and refused to contribute more than fifty paise to the aarathi plate when, on special occa-sions, Nirmala forced him to go. "All I am saying is, why do you have to make it so loud? God is not deaf, is he?"

The priest had shrugged dismissively. "What to do? The mosque has megaphones. Also the Ganesha temple. So tell me, how will our Lord Krishna hear us with all this competition?"

The bell finally ceased its tintinnabulation. A fragile peace descended. All that Sripathi could hear now was the chittering of squirrels as they raced up and down the old lime tree directly below the balcony, and the fluid trill of the lory bird from the untended garden behind the house. Sripathi remembered how neat that gar-den used to be before his daughter had left for America. Maya and Nirmala together had lovingly tended the mango and guava trees, the banana plants and coconut palms, and had been rewarded with a steady supply of fruit.

Excerpted from The Hero's Walk © Copyright 2012 by Anita Rau Badami. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.

The Hero's Walk
by by Anita Rau Badami

  • paperback: 359 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345450922
  • ISBN-13: 9780345450920