Ravi is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Chengdu, China. He is also the managing editor of MaLa – the China Bookworm Literary Journal. When he is not teaching English, travelling, or acting like he understands Chinese, he writes short stories. The Curtain is his first published story.
The Lion Man
My father was never a dreamer. He was always practical and mechanical in his movements and thoughts, deeply rooted in logic and mathematics. He was a man of few words, but he wouldn’t describe himself as such. Rather, his rationale was to speak only when necessary. Small talk was a waste of energy. Yet, there were particular mornings when he would talk even less than usual; his cheeks would look gaunt, his horsehide skin a little darker than usual around the eyes, lips scrunched tighter, sips of coffee evenly spaced with his Adam’s apple throbbing, trying to force coffee down his throat.
When I was young and asked what was wrong, I would receive a biting excuse, followed by the cold shoulder. Only after he left the room would my mother come close to my right ear—as she would for anything concerning my father, her warmth easing the tension my father’s iciness had brought upon me—to say that he had had a dream about his father.
Years later, I left California. I went to college hundreds of miles north. There, I wasted days in a cloudy haze, wandering the streets and alleyways in flannel shirts that began to hang loose day by day as the fat disappeared pound by pound from around my arms, legs and stomach. I barely ate. I didn’t sleep much either. I wandered in and out of classes I found intriguing.
I had always felt a bit lost, always wondering who I was, where I came from and where I belonged in the world. When I wandered the streets, lost in the city, these questions about myself escaped me. For the first time, I felt free. Yet, without these questions, I felt empty, as though my life had no meaning at all.
Cold starlit nights on scarred park benches would begin with a bottle of cheap bourbon, and end with the shatter of glass on concrete; the air even colder than it had been when the night began, the frost settling on the weeds that grew through the cracks on the pavement. On one of these nights, my body splayed on wet ground, I dreamt of my grandfather, Ramarajan Narashima, for the first time. He was seated on his exalted throne—a gold-leaf chair with red cushions—his forefingers on his chin, his hardened eyes staring back at me. His mustache was a dense forest. He brushed it with his thumb and forefinger. I glimpsed his fiery red eyes and immediately averted my gaze, completely overwhelmed.
Startled, I awoke sweating. An icy wind slapped my face. Torrents of the sun’s rays rained down on my static body and through my soiled clothes.
My relatives liked to say that my grandfather’s name was given to him by the stars. After that night, I began to believe them.
Night after night, my grandfather reappeared in my dreams, sitting in the same gold-leaf chair with red cushions, dressed entirely in white, a gold chain hanging around his neck. His fiery gaze grew more and more intense with each appearance, which emanated tremendous power. When he was alive, he was known as a very powerful man. A single look from him could make your heart stop beating. Whenever I asked my father or a relative the reason for his fame, the only answer I received was: “He was very powerful”.
In my twenty-three years, all I had learned of my grandfather was that he was powerful and had red eyes, as well as two stories from his childhood.
One was the story of his birth. He told it to me once when I was six or seven. We were in his living room in Bangalore. He sat on an armchair, tapping his fingers on the armrest like a metronome. I sat at his feet, my toy cars scattered before me, abandoned. His voice was low, effortless, yet held incredible gravitas, enough to make my bones pulsate. A fly circled and landed on his cheek. But he didn’t budge; as if nothing in the world was more important than the words he uttered that morning.
My grandfather was born under an awning in the entryway of a stranger’s house. His mother, my great-grandmother, was returning from the temple. Small stones cut into her hardened toes. But by now she was used to wearing thin shoes unlike her two sisters-in-law walking beside her, talking of the moving pictures, wearing soft leather soles purchased in a large store in Trivandrum. My great-grandmother was a humble woman. She didn’t need gold-threaded saris, dangling earrings, or even decent shoes.
About halfway home, she felt the burst and cursed the heavens for such an inopportune time—not during the day, not at night, but in the evening when the yellow sun was dipping into the earth behind her. Her sisters-in-law, on the contrary, rose to action and knocked on the nearest stranger’s door. The man who emerged ran down the street to the doctor. The doctor—a drunkard—asked for a fee. My great-grandmother was distressed.
“Lie down,” the elder sister-in-law said, pointing to the unbounded cement porch.
“Out here? In the open?” my great-grandmother said, worried about the lack of decency and of becoming the talk of the village.
The younger sister-in-law forced my great-grandmother down.
“Stay here. Don’t say a word,” she said.
The elder sister-in-law was experienced. She had given birth to three children. She understood the pain, the process, and the necessities. The younger one couldn’t bear to watch. Instead, she pushed away the onlookers with a steel rod that lay collecting dust against the house.
“Look! It’s coming,” the elder one said.
By now, my great-grandmother, who was drenched in sweat and suffocated by pain, couldn’t be bothered by who saw her. She had her eyes closed tightly. The younger sister-in-law was eager to look, but became distracted by a middle-aged man who had slowed down to watch. She brandished the steel rod at him, almost running him out of town.
When my grandfather first appeared, glazed in amniotic fluid, his head full of hair, what caught the elder sister-in-law’s attention were the long, thick, white nails, slightly curled, resembling claws. The sight made her heart momentarily stop. My great-grandmother wiped him, brushed away the hair, and saw his deep crimson eyes. Her heart stopped too. The youngest, having returned from punishing the middle-aged man, cradled my grandfather, cooed him, nuzzled him, rocked him back and forth, and tickled his toes. He giggled and she saw two little white pointed fangs starting to emerge from the roof of his mouth. Her heart also briefly stopped beating. She handed the baby back to my great-grandmother.
“There must be an evil spirit within him,” the younger one said.
“Surely this is inauspicious,” the eldest said.
However, my great-grandmother had arrived at another conclusion.
“His name will be Narashima. The eyes, the nails, the teeth, the time he was born, all of these things are God’s blessings. He will grow strong. He will become great,” she said.
I cherished this story in my memories. This story was the only insight I had about my family history. No one in my family liked to revisit the past.
When I was young, I recalled my father saying that we didn’t belong in America. He showed me all the racist caricatures of Indians that existed at the time — drawings of turbans, television characters with exaggerated accents. People asked where I was from and waited for an explanation for why my skin was a coffee brown color unlike their own. I thought my father was right. I felt disconnected, living in a land I didn’t belong in. But at the same time, I felt estranged from the past and from my homeland. And so, when I looked into my future, I saw only nothingness.
Then, the dreams of my grandfather came and I realized the past had never cut me off. The past was always within me. But why did the past reveal itself in the image of my grandfather? Why now?
His name was peculiar. As the legend goes, Narashima—part human, part lion, and the embodiment of the spirit of Vishnu the protector—was a creation made to outwit demons and to act beyond the abilities of man to annihilate evil. Yet, Narashima was guised in the likeness of malevolence. My grandfather, Ramarajan Narashima, was bestowed a name by the deities, by logic, and chance.
The more information I found, the more reputed (and notorious) his name became, and the more he tried to shirk the limelight.
I reached out to a historian at Madras University via email. He never responded. After spending several nights scanning the university’s website, calling people in almost every department, I finally managed to get his phone number.
The first time I called, he said he had seen my email and would respond to it in due time. His accent was heavy, his tone brusque, and his voice a monotone. I imagined a thin old man with wispy white hair, hunched over a desk, straining his eyes on ledgers whose yellow paper crackled with every turn of the page.
The second time I called, he did not answer.
He did not answer the third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh time.
By then, I should have given up. However, I needed to know why my grandfather, who died more than twenty years ago, was now frequenting my dreams. I needed to know more about him.
I called him for the eighth time, four months after the first. He answered. At this point, I couldn’t recall his name. In my mind, he was simply “sir”.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, pretending to remember. “Work has given such tension. Always there is this, and that, and there is always tension. Yes, yes.”
I nodded—a bad habit of mine during any conversation that I found annoying.
“Again, what was his name?” he said.
“Ramarajan Narashima,” I said.
He said nothing. Six minutes passed. I thought the line had been cut or he had hung up. Just as I was about to hang up and contemplate calling him for the ninth time, he began talking hastily.
“It is hard to find exact information about the man. Now, Ramarajan… Narashima. Industrialist, Shiva Textiles. Born: March 11, 1908. Died:1995. Cause of death: No record. Father: Ramarajan Shankarnarayan. Born: No date. Residence: Annapuram, Srirangam District. Death: Missing. Occupation: Silk trader, army officer. Last record: July 1916. France. Enlisted: April 14, 1915. Mother: No record. Wife: Laxmi Krishnan. Born: July 17, 1921. Died: June 22, 2003. Children: Velan, born 1938, Shyam, born 1941, Selvi, born 1947, Kumaraswamy, born 1953.”
Kumaraswamy was my father, born in 1953.
“Industrialist?” I said. Questions cluttered my mind. How did my grandparents meet?
“Yes, yes. Now leave me be. I must continue my work,” he said. He hung up. I called him again. No answer.
Annapuram. The birth place of my great-grandfather. I would begin there. I knew that my great-grandfather was a silk merchant. He was also a soldier who went missing in the Great War, presumed dead. His body was never found, thus never cremated. His soul never passed from this world. He was forever trapped, wandering the Earth, haunting my grandfather.
I went to India as soon as I had the chance. I worked day shifts in the library and nights behind the counter at a 24-hour donut shop on 45th Street. I saved money by sobering up. Within six months, I had enough for the round-trip travel and expenses.
“Why? What’s in India for you?” my father had said before I left.
“Answers,” I said.
“Fool. You’re wasting time and money. Go back to school. Study. Why go on this grandfather nonsense? Is it that important? Forget it. I don’t care. Go. Waste away your life,” he said.
On the train in India, talking to a greasy-haired, salt-and-pepper mustached medicine ball of a man, I mentioned that my family came from a small village outside Srirangam. He asked if I came from Robbers’ Village. I lied and said I didn’t know exactly. As a twenty-three year old American, I had the luxury of feigning ignorance.
Dusty, narrow, paved and unpaved roads connected the Srirangam train station on the edge of the small city with Robbers’ Village. The minibus was inflated with heat, which inhibited the flow of sweat from the forehead, of water down the throat, and air into the nostrils. Listless bodies swayed left, right, up, down, forward, and backward. Heat drained life, yet safely embalmed it—to the point that Robbers’ Village appeared unchanged from descriptions in the stories I had heard.
I was let out at an intersection and told by the bus driver to walk down a ragged dirt path deeper into town. Robbers’ Village was a hodgepodge of cement, mud, brick, reeds, misshapen logs, twigs, and manure fashioned into a collection of dwellings. In the middle of the town, I asked for further directions and a man pointed down a road which led to my grandfather’s house, well outside the town limits. The house, shaped like a concrete monolith, was a saffron orange color that shone brightly in the summer sun. I entered the house and took off my shoes. On the wall of the anteroom hung a modest mahogany frame, adorned with fresh garlands of marigolds, enclosing a photo of my grandparents. My grandfather stood tall, dressed in white with a gold chain. My grandmother sat beside him, her sari as blue as the eyespots of a peacock’s feathers.
“Come inside, come inside,” my aunt said at the entrance. She was a petite woman, less than five feet tall. Her skin was discolored around her cheeks and arms, creating splotches of myriad variations of brown: light brown, dark brown, coffee brown, brown to black, beer brown.
“Do you like the photo?” she said, her open mouth perforated with blanks for missing teeth. She pointed to the garlanded photo of my grandparents on the wall. My aunt was my great-grandfather’s sister’s son’s daughter. “Arul—you know him—found the original a few years ago. At the store he had it colorized. It looks nice, no?”
The house was in my grandfather’s name and she was the heir. I thought she should be about the same age as my father.
“Come in. Will you have a snack? Will you have tea?” she said, walking inside.
“No, that’s okay—,” I told her. She looked much older than my father.
“Did you see the fresh marigold blossoms? So beautiful. This morning the neighbor gave them to me. She thought they would look great on the master’s picture.”
Just like my father, she called my grandfather “master”. “Father” was too humbling for a man of my grandfather’s stature. She led me to her quaint dining table in the hall and pulled out a bench.
“Sit. You look like you’re starving. I’ll bring you food,” she said, entering the kitchen. The click of a lighter, the rush of gas pushed out of tubes.
I couldn’t help but walk about the hall, curious about how she lived. I peered into the kitchen from the doorway. The kitchen was no bigger than a closet, bound by concrete in all directions and dimly lit. The floors were cool. Oil sizzled. Mustard seeds popped and fizzed in the frying oil. Sliced green beans tumbled into the frying pan and out came a swirling cloud of white smoke and vapors.
I sauntered about the hallway. Light rushed in from the courtyard opening, but did not illuminate beyond the doorway. For the most part, I was walking about in the dark. Only one bedroom was furnished. The other two bedrooms were bare. It seemed she was the only one who lived here. The courtyard had no furnishings or plants. The place was a small, sunken-in concrete enclosure. Beyond it was the bathroom and the backyard—a small open area where I figured she hung her washing in privacy.
“Done,” she called out. I came to the table and took a seat. She set the food on the table: a bowl of green beans, and a lentil and daikon stew. She sat beside me at the table, watching me eat.
“Aunt, how did the name Robbers’ Village come to be?” I said without much thought. The question had been on my mind since the man on the train had asked me. But I knew I had to be more tactful.
“Oh that? That was all the master’s doing,” she said.
Not the answer I was looking for.
Her eyes looked into my eyes, and at my hands and feet.
“You’re just like him. You’re just like the master,” she said. She sat down at the table. “Everyone knows his fiery eyes, nails, strength and spirit. But you… you are just like him. How you carry yourself. How you walk. You’re both wanderers. You will only walk your own path. You will bend for no one.”
As a child, my grandfather would go into the paddy fields, sit in a tree, and throw pebbles at the farmers and their bulls. The farmers always carped to my great-grandmother. They would hold onto their bullwhips tightly and drive Narashima away like a bull. My great-grandmother could do nothing. She and her husband were too soft, too powerless to resist my grandfather’s spirit—or their belief in his spirit. No one could stand up to those fiery eyes.
Once, when my grandfather was seven or eight, he went out into the fields, sat up in the tree and shot a pebble straight at the forehead of a bull pulling along a plow. Somehow, he hit a nerve. The bull roared to life and broke the yoke of the plow. The farmer ended up on his back. The bull made circles within the freshly sown fields. My grandfather, laughing, almost fell out of the tree. The farmer cried out for help. The bull was on his tail. The farmer ran on all fours, stumbling on the soft soil.
Everyone working on the nearby plots dropped their tools to watch, all of them calling on each other to help the man, but none of them could initiate action. The farmer ran in the direction of the dirt wall border of the plot. The bull was closing in on him. The farmer climbed the dirt wall, reached the top and dived into the adjacent plot—a rice paddy. All the onlookers laughed at the farmer, who was now caked in mud. The bull easily ran up the dirt wall, but then stopped. The onlookers backed away from the bull. The bull sauntered away.
My grandfather watched with great interest, wondering where it was going. As the bull went past certain plots, the workers of those parcels raised their hands in prayer—some even fully kowtowed, as if the bull was holy. When he saw this, my grandfather laughed hysterically. The bull graced the fields with its presence until it left the vicinity of Robbers’ Village. My grandfather came down from the tree and walked towards town. All the way home, he laughed, thinking how dumb people must be to find the divine in an empty prank.
Every time I heard this story—and I’ve heard this story from almost every aunt, uncle and cousin—the storytellers and the people around me always laughed until tears bloomed from their eyes; the pain in their stomachs made their bodies curl inwards and hollow coughs were forced out of dry throats. Some of my relatives were enigmatic storytellers, acting out the farmer’s actions, while others stuttered through the story with chuckles, almost forgetting to tack on an ending. But the end result was always the same. For a moment, when everyone was laughing, a great energy descended upon us. A soothing, bubbly warmth from underneath the skin. We lost all inhibitions and projected our internal feelings of happiness in the form of laughs, howls, snorts, cackles and caws. For a moment—a millisecond stretched to cover an eternity—I witnessed ecstasy. In a snap, the energy was vacuumed out of the room. Smiles vanished, and I never saw my relatives smile again in that manner.
While I ate in Robbers’ Village beside my aunt, she told me the story once again. While she laughed, I only wore a faint smile. I thought of how foolish my grandfather had been. For him to be there, at that time, in that tree, with that exact pebble in hand, the way the pebble cut through the air and hit that uncanny spot on the bull, and the bull moving in that exact manner, all this was extraordinary luck and could only have been possible with nature’s invisible hand. He was the fool to think that his prank—something so precise and incredible in the way it happened—was empty of purpose or meaning.
Like the other residents in Robber’s Village, the village elder, Sreekumar Raman, lived in a narrow pastel-blue concrete house. He was tall and lanky, clean-shaven, young—a little older than I was at the time. He spoke English better than I did, having studied it in university. We sat in his living room, and his wife brought tea. She looked about his age. They were newly married—a love marriage—and she was still shy, tightlipped; eyes avoiding contact.
When my grandfather was a child, the village elder was like everyone else, a farmer who worked in the fields like any other villager. With this particular village elder who sat before me now, who had a university degree and a love marriage under his belt, the nature of the village elder had certainly changed.
Then again, we were in Robbers’ Village, not Annapuram.
After his father died, my grandfather and his mother were kicked out of the family’s joint home. My grandfather was nine or ten years old. They slept under the baobab tree in the center of the town, and went from door to door begging for food. Unable to give a proper funeral to his father, they had been disgraced. His father’s body, lost in the battlefield, could not be properly cremated and his soul could never pass on.
Angry at the villagers, his family, and God over the way his life had unfolded, my grandfather ran away to Srirangam, 20 kilometers away, when he was eleven or twelve.
There, he heaved in the dust and dirt that rose from the ox carts stacked high with folded maroon, blue, yellow and green textiles. Squatters hugged the sides of the streets selling cheap bangles, eggplant, hand-carved trinkets and glass-bottled aphrodisiacs on blankets. Hunched-over men and women waded through the congested grubby streets, pleading for something to eat. There was no more room to run. Narashima snaked his way through people, oxen, and dogs. Everyone had something to offer. Restaurateurs called him in; so did the chaiwallas and the sari merchants from their hole-in-the-wall shops.
Walking down the commercial street in Srirangam made his stomach throb with hunger. His throat was scratchy and choked with dust. The smell of rice, spices, fried peppers, lentils and pickles shocked his brain and excited his salivary glands. The popping of oil frying in a pan lured him into a shop.
“Do you have money?” the shop owner said. My grandfather kept mum.
As he went down the street, he passed a side alley, then paused and turned around. A window was open along the wall. Inside was a tidy bed with peacock-patterned sheets. The pitter patter of water drumming the concrete made him assume the residents were in the shower or kitchen. No one was watching him. Hunger clawed at the sides of his stomach.
His shuddered as he put his hands on the sill. He willed himself to climb through the window. Usually adroit, he landed on his chest on the concrete floor. His heart was on the verge of hammering its way out of his chest. The sound of water beating the floor came from the far end of the house. He crept into the sitting room while his legs trembled.
Hinges creaked. A cold sweat ran down his back. He crouched to hide in the shadow of the coffee table. Feet knocking on the hard floor reverberated in his ears. On the coffee table was a black leather pocketbook. The knocking stopped. He flipped through the purse and yanked out a few bank notes. Carefully, he scouted the open doorways from a distance. No one was within sight. As quietly as he could, he made a dash for the bedroom window.
“Who’s there?” a woman from inside the house shouted just as he made his way out. His heart pulsed faster. He flew out the window headfirst and landed hard. He jumped onto his feet and turned back to see through the window. There, inside the bedroom, was a woman, middle-aged, dressed in yellow with a thin white towel wrapped around her head.
“Who are you? What do you want?” she said.
He froze, staring at her, panting. His jaws were shaking uncontrollably.
“What do you want? Spit it out,” she said, sounding harsher this time. Her eyes were like the village at night, when the outside world becomes an abyss that sucks in bodies and hides demons.
Adrenaline shocked him to life. He darted back to the commercial street. He burrowed through the crowd, bouncing off the bodies moving against him, paying no heed. His feet and head felt light and the burdens of his world—his father’s wandering soul, his mother’s homelessness—escaped from his consciousness. This feeling—the adrenaline high—was fantastic. He made his way to another alleyway. He dug the bills out of the pocket, counting fifteen rupees, amazed by his newfound riches and the ability to help himself when no one else, not even any higher being, had.
My grandfather stayed in Srirangam for three days. For three days he ate well. He jumped into windows and ran out with cash and gold necklaces. He picked locks and pockets. He bought his mother saris and sweets.
My grandfather went back to his mother, bearing gifts. He wore bright white clothes and a gold chain, modeling the rich people he stole from. She was lying in rags under the baobab tree in the middle of the village, unable to rise and greet him. Flies hovered over her. She reeked of rotting fruit and urine. Anger came over him at the villagers’ lack of empathy. But he kept his composure. Narashima pried open my grandmother’s jaws and poured water into her body from his hip flask. He lifted her up. She asked where he was taking her.
“Home,” he said. He carried her to a modest mud brick dwelling on the edge of town. All the while, the villagers hid in the shadows and peered between the iron bars on the windows, tracking his every step.
He fed his mother, made her wear only the finest silk saris and hired servants so she wouldn’t have to work. He bought the first radio in town. Children would stoop behind his house to listen to film songs and static through a crack in a window, until he loudly, and falsely, threatened in passing conversation to his mother that he would chop off the middle toes of any child he found near his house, just to see them panic and scatter into the fields.
His father’s family came to his home. His mother, out of a prior sense of social obligation, entertained them with tea. Having heard of my grandfather’s new-found riches, they asked for money. In response, he grabbed them by their collars and threw them out of the house.
The townspeople demonstrated on his doorstep. They said that widows were not allowed to own their own home, that he and his mother would make the Gods upset with their selfish actions, and that they were breaking the law.
Narashima reluctantly addressed the crowd.
“This is our home. If you have a problem with this, tell him,” he said, pointing to the village elder in the crowd. He looked at everyone with those red eyes and went back into the house. All of them badgered the village elder.
“What is the meaning of this?” one man yelled.
“How could you allow such a stunt to occur like this?” a woman shouted.
“Please. Wait a moment. I’ll talk to the boy. Please, he’s just a boy. He does not know of decency,” the village elder said.
“Brother, open up,” he said, knocking on the door. Narashima ignored the village elder, believing the people would disperse in time, after they grew tired of their hopeless efforts.
“Brother, let’s talk a little bit. Let’s talk some sense. Let’s be rational people,” he said, knocking again. The word “sense” roused him. Narashima opened the door. The village elder backed away from the eyes on impulse.
“You want to talk sense and be rational?” Narashima said. “My mother was lying outside under the tree, freezing at night until I came back. No one, not even you, had the sense to provide a simple blanket, and you want to talk sense? No one had the sense to feed her one meal and you want to talk sense? If you were rational, you wouldn’t leave your brother to starve. Leave us in peace before I become angry.”
The villagers had lowered their heads, unable to face his eyes. He shut the door. The demonstration disbanded. From then on, no one considered him a little boy. No one dared to cross paths with my grandfather.
For years, he lived in solitude. On weekends he would go to Srirangam, and return with sweets, gold chains and money. He bought the first refrigerator in the village. He soon became rich enough to sustain himself and his mother for the rest of their lives. But he couldn’t stop robbing. Every weekend he needed the adrenaline rush, the fear, the thrill and the elation from a successful escape. He couldn’t stop.
The drought came in waves. First the almond trees died. Then the mango and guava orchards were converted for growing wheat. Rice cultivation had to cease, as there was no rain. People needed food or money. They knew my grandfather was rich. They saw the saris his mother wore, the radio, the gold, and the refrigerator. They came to him for help, ashamed that they couldn’t take care of their families. He refused without a tick of remorse. Even the village elder had come to Narashima, pleading to him that after having sold his finest gold-threaded loincloths and his wife’s necklaces, he had nothing.
He was about to refuse, when his mother intervened.
“We are better people than they are so let’s act better,” she said.
At first he offered loans to the village elders, as well as to the villagers. However, years rolled on and the drought seemed interminable. The price of staples continuously rose until rice was worth its weight in gold, and the people in Srirangam began trading earrings for cups of rice. My grandfather couldn’t afford to give out loans anymore; he was eating one meal a day.
His mother passed in her sleep. As he set fire to her lifeless body, he grew envious of her. She was no longer subjected to be on the fringe of society, alone and disconnected. She was freed from the burdens of life and the hands of fate. She was at peace.
The village elder came to Narashima’s door. The village elder couldn’t calm the people any longer. Hunger was rampant. Neighbors were stealing from neighbors, and even inside the house, younger generations were taking away food from the elders.
By now, Narashima had a thin mustache he oiled heavily every morning to make the hairs grow thicker and longer. He brushed it with his forefinger and thumb. The red in his eyes was smaller but bright, like stars.
“Are you willing to steal?” he said.
“I’m willing to do anything,” the village elder said.
My grandfather organized the villagers in front of his home. He taught them how to endure when the world was unforgiving. He taught them how to sneak into houses, pick locks, seek out the most wealth in seconds, pilfer pockets, shop-lift, scam, and escape. In a matter of days, driven by growling stomachs and their children’s weary faces, the villagers became masters. They went out into the world—to Srirangam, Trivandrum, Madurai, Madras, Coimbatore, Cochin and Bangalore—and came back prosperous. Most importantly, they came back with food: burlap sacks of rice and vegetables, bottles of oil, spices, tea, coffee, milk.
The people paid my grandfather back, plus interest. With that money in hand, my grandfather left for the big city. He left without pleasantries. One night he was there and the next morning the house on the edge of Annapuram was cleaned out and abandoned.
Sreekumar Raman explained that by the time the drought ended, a decade had passed. After the first two years of the drought, however, the people had become accustomed to their changed circumstance. When the monsoon showers brought the end of the drought, people didn’t celebrate. Annapuram wasn’t a village of farmers anymore. Life simply continued as it had during the drought.
Finding more success as migrant thieves, the people of the village passed on their way of life to the generations that followed. In school, children learned basic arithmetic and basic lock-picking. The next generation grew up, went out into the big cities for weeks at a time and returned to the village with riches.
As time passed, technology improved. More robbers and thieves were caught than ever before by using fingerprint records, closed circuit monitors, cell phones and other detectors. When the apprehended robbers were asked where they were from, they said “Annapuram” or that they were connected to someone from Annapuram. The police and journalists noticed the trend. They created the term “Robbers’ Village”. The notoriety spread in all directions. The more times the words “Robbers’ Village” was reprinted, the less “Annapuram” appeared in the article, and in due time, “Annapuram” wasn’t mentioned at all. To even find directions to Annapuram, one must ask for Robbers’ Village. Except on old birth records, the word Annapuram has completely disappeared from the consciousness of the world.
The days that followed were filled with more mysteries lost in other people’s memories and record books, decaying into dust, and I had to continue digging. I was going against my grandfather’s wishes, I knew. But I wouldn’t allow him to completely disappear from this world. If I lost his memory, or whatever fragment of it I was clinging to, I would lose my sense of self.
I tried calling the historian at Madras University when I was in India. He didn’t pick up. Maybe he was trying to hide some unsavory detail. Maybe he was reprimanded for sharing with me information he shouldn’t have. Maybe that was all he knew of my grandfather. I didn’t know. At the moment, his story cut off from when he left Robbers’ Village.
I returned home to California with more questions than answers. My mother welcomed me with open arms. My father remained quiet. I couldn’t sleep the entire flight back, as the plane kept shaking and my mind ran an endless reel of possibilities of how my grandfather’s life had played out in the village. In my old room, on my bed, I closed my eyes and freefell into space until I opened my eyes 12 hours later.
In the morning, I found my father downstairs, sitting at the table with his lips pursed, drinking coffee and struggling to swallow.
Narashima Ramaraj had entered my father’s head once again.
“Bad dream?” I said, taking a seat beside him. Without meaning to, I sounded snarky. I shouldn’t have said a word. Now he would raise his temper. I would apologize. He wouldn’t accept it. We would remain silent. In the evening he would say I had ruined his day. I shouldn’t have said a word.
“What’s your deal? Please, go, get out,” he said, pointing to the door.
His shoulders were slump. His face was parallel to the table. He rubbed his eyes with his palms and tried to drink more coffee, only to put the mug down after a second, unable to drink.
He looked me straight in the eye for a moment. But he couldn’t sustain eye contact. He shut his eyes, sighed and returned to staring at the table.
“I see him at night and see you in the morning, and I cannot tell the difference. How you walk—how you carry yourselves—is the exact same. I fear you will always be lost in this world,” my father said.