Simhachalam arrived at the temple by the time the sun rose one foot above from the horizon and was blazing fully on the world. Simhachalam is hardly ten. If his father were alive and put him in school, he would’ve been in the 6th grade by now. But Simhachalam was not that fortunate. He was five when his father drank twice a day upto his neck and killed himself. At an age he should be walking to school with a slate in his hand, he had to hit the road with an empty stomach. The only property he had inherited from his father was a sick mother and a young sister who could not speak. Mother’s name was Kanakam; the sister’s name was Lakshmi.
At first, Kanakam worked as domestic help, washing dishes, etc., and was able to feed the two kids with rice broth. Then she was down with malaria, looked like a corpse, and was forced to quit her work at some houses. That meant lower income and more starving mouths. It was at that time Simhachalam came into this world. He was taken by the people on their way to a nearby temple. He began to wonder, “Who’s god?” He asked his mother.
“God means not a person; he is a Great Being,” she replied.
Then Simhachalam had another doubt. “If so, why do we do namaskaram to him?”
“We just do it, we have to. That’s it,” she said. She also added that, if we prayed to him, he would give us whatever we wanted. Then he understood for the first time that the God will give us whatever we wanted only after we do namaskaaram. He also thought all these people have everything and yet are going to the temple to pray to the god; why shouldn’t I do the same and went to the temple at once. He folded both his hands and prayed that his hunger be satisfied. As he walked out of the temple a woman called out for him. She was beautiful and rich; and she was about to get into her car. Up until then, everybody said go away but nobody said come here to him. So, Simhachalam responded to her call and ran to her. She gave him a half coconut, one banana, gestured to take them, got into her car and shut the door.
Simhachalam was surprised. He wondered if God had heard his prayer and sent her to him. Precisely beginning that day, there was a marked change in his behavior. The belief there is a being called god to take care of us set in his mind. He started spending half his time near the temple. He would eat part of the prasadam he received and take the rest to home every day.
It was not sweltering hot yet. Simhachalam sat near the temple like a crane on the lake shore. The children walking to the English medium school on the street looked like baby cranes yet to develop wings. They chatter in English. His heart would groan pensively at the sight of those kids. He was frustrated not because they were looking good but because he was not. There are two kinds of people in the world—those who whimper because they didn’t have … Well, Simhachalam belonged in the first group. He turned away and saw Peddiraju. Peddiraju also is a prasadam devotee. He came with four more young men; they were his competition.
Simhachalam kept staring at the temple entrance. The devotees started coming out one by one. Sun was rising; the entrails in his stomach also were pricking the same way as the sunbeams. The rice broth he had last night was long gone.
Ever since his mother fell sick and could not go to work, she had to take a cut in her pay, and as a result, they could not have even the rice broth, not enough to fill their stomachs. Therefore, when Peddiraju called out and said he had a chore, Simhachalam jumped to his feet and went running to Peddiraju. They all had a rule that whoever received the prasadam the first time on any given day must share with the rest of them. Simhachalam ate his share of banana and filled the rest of his stomach with tap water, and felt a renewed vigor as never before.
Then Veerasamy appeared at the entrance with a club like Yama and shouted, “Hey, rogues, is it already time for you? Move, move away from the entrance.”
Veerasamy is temple watchman. He is six feet tall and looks scary with his bushy moustache. He is capable of keeping the people in line just using his voice. Although all the people are equal in the eyes of God, he has the knack to identify their status and respect those who come in cars and those who arrive on foot accordingly. He would drive away the street kids who swarm around like the flies on a lump of brown sugar. He is the Yama as far as they are concerned.
Simhachalam walked down the steps and stopped on the street. Just in that very moment, a car came by and stopped. It did not look like a car; it was more like a huge mythological bird. It could be the transportation of Kubera, the lord of wealth. The people who got out of it did not look like humans, nor demons; they were like gods. They wore clothes which were like divine garments. They did not look like ordinary couple but adi dampathulu to him. A five-year old girl, who was walking next to them, looked like an ivory doll in a gold-colored frock. Simhachalam looked at her; his own sister came to his mind. He could see the difference between the two girls in spite of their equal age but he could not figure out the underlying reason for that difference. He did not have the faculty to scrutinize the difference between the haves and the have-nots, the existing walls between those classes, the lives that are crushed by those walls, and the brewing hatred and the spite behind those walls. He was not old enough to comprehend that.
The sun was blistering hot. Simhachalam sat on the ledge and was looking at the devotees expectantly. If he could get a few more coconut halves, he could go home. Then, all of a sudden, a man coming out of the temple caught his eye. It seemed like he had several wishes and broke several coconuts, one for each wish. He was carrying several coconut halves. Simhachalam got off the ledge, hoping he would get one piece, at the least. That man was probably about 40-years old. He looked like he lost something. Simhachalam kept watching him, forgetting his whereabouts for the moment. That man called out for the watchman and asked whatever it was. Watchman shook his head and called out all the kids including Simhachalam, who was watching them with curiousity. Simhachalam jumped and reached them in one huge jump.
“Hey kids! Babu garu says his new sandals are missing. Did any of you see them?”
Simhachalam’s heart sank with Veerasamy’s words. He was in a turmoil, like the sky was suddenly filled with dark clouds. All the kids said unanimously that they knew nothing about the sandals. Peddiraju looked at Simhachalam. Simhachalam saw whatever was there in those looks; his knees started shaking.
Veerasamy said, “Babu, this kind of stealing never happened near this temple, never, I am assuring you. Maybe somebody wore your sandals by mistake and walked away.” His own vote of confidence in the performance of his duty was evident; he was very devoted to his gods.
The man who lost sandals did not say a word. His face was asking, how could the sandals disappear if nobody had taken them? After seeing his face, Veerasamy had the same doubt in his mind. And he could not think of anybody else to suspect but the urchins who gathered there for prasadam.
“One of you must have picked them up. Or, must have seen them, at the least. You had better tell the truth or you’ll get it,” Veerasamy yelled, lifting his club in the air. He could act as he pleased. Last year he caught a kid while trying to take advantage of the crowd and pick a pocket. Veerasamy tied him to a lamppost for the entire day. Those who watched Veerasamy on that day, the beatings and cursing the kid took on that day, would understand the atrocities Veerasamy was capable of. Veerasamy’s specialty was he could be very nice to good people, smooth as butter, and crack up like a dry splinter in a fire when it comes to bad people. Therefore it was not a surprise that all those kids felt crushed now at the sight of Veerasamy’s present bearing.
Nukaraju suddenly blurted out, “I saw Simhachalam picking them up earlier.” Nukaraju was not only small in stature but also a coward. On hearing his words, Simhachalam’s heart wriggled like a lion in a cage.
“Yes, yes, I saw it too,” both Appi and Veerraju also confirmed it.
“You, did you take them?” Veerasamy gawked at him. His two eyes turned into not two red marbles but two burning charcoals. Simhachalam’s shirt was crumpled in Veerasamy’s fist like a rabbit in the mouth of a lion.
Simhachalam replied, “Yes, I took the sandals earlier. But I didn’t know whether they belonged to babu garu or not.”
Both of them, the gentleman who lost the sandals and Veerasamy, were stunned at those words. They did not believe that even the greatest of the great could to tell the truth like that; even more surprising was that the kid had the nerve to say so. Veerasamy let go of his shirt and said, “Wherever you hid them, bring them back and return them to the gentleman.”
“I did not hide them anywhere. I thought it was none of my business,” Simhachalam replied. The sandal-owner was even more surprised at this reply.
“Are you playing games?” Veerasamy gave him a big slap. For Simhachalam it was a death blow. His weak eyes turned yellow and were moist. With himself as the center, the entire area, including the temple, seemed to have swirled around for a second. Even the gentleman who lost the sandals could not take it—the sight of that kid at that moment was devastating. Under normal conditions in his class [he was a teacher], he would growl like a tiger. Now he softened like a kitten, stopped Veerasamy, and asked Simhachalam kindly, “Tell me, my boy. What did you do with my sandals?” Simhachalam did not cry for Veerasamy’s beating; but with those kind words from the gentleman, he burst into sobs. Tears rolled down his cheeks like pearls from their shells.
The gentleman even offered a bribe, “I’ll give you a half rupee. Go and get them.”
Simhachalam heard the word, money, and recalled an incident that took place a little earlier.
A young man in his twenties was sitting in front of the temple and called out for Simhachalam. He looked up, got off the ledge and started walking toward that man.
“Look, what’s your name?”
“See those sandals there, the second from the door step. Could you bring them to me?” the young man asked him softly.
Simhachalam looked confused.
“They are mine, kid. I am too tired to get up and go there,” the young man assured him and also gave him 15 paise. Simhachalam was hesitant first but could not refuse after seeing the money in his palm. In addition, the man was bare-footed, well-dressed and was accompanied by his friends. Therefore he did not think twice about it.
Simhachalam repeated the same story, as is. Veerasamy could not take it, “Chup, you son of a bitch. You sold them to somebody and telling us stories?” and he turned to the gentleman, “Sir, don’t you be fooled by this idiot’s stories. He saw one too many movies and learned to make up stories. I know how to pull the truth out of him.” He stepped forward and questioned the kid, “Why do you have to bring them when a total stranger asked you? My point is not that to whom you’ve given them. I am asking you why did you give them?”
Simhachalam could not speak one word. Veerasamy did everything necessary to make him to tell the truth. The result was nil. All the others stood there like the audience who could not save the heroine from her miseries in the movies.
“I told the truth. Beyond that, I don’t know,” Simhachalam said at last. No other word could come out of his mouth. His entire body was burning like a sore rubbed with pepper, for all the beating he took. With that, he even forgot the pangs of hunger in his stomach. Tears in his eyes dried up. The skin on his hands behind him, tied around the pole, was ruptured.
The gentleman could not keep up his appearance as a gentleman anymore. He understood that he could do nothing, bounced like a monkey that stepped on a burning coal and left the scene.
Veearasamy also decided that he had done enough and went about his own business. Soon enough, Simhachalam was left alone, like a carcass of a deer, half mauled by a lion. In that moment, Simhachalam was disgusted with himself. The temple in front of him did not look great to him, unlike in the past. He thought the ordinary man is much better than this stone sculpture that remained silent while acts of injustice were being committed right under his nose. Now he understood what a stupid belief it was–accepting the prasadam given to him by somebody out of kindness of their hearts and thinking that god gave it to him. He asked himself how could all these differences—the poverty, the injustice, and so many atrocities could be committed if God really had existed. His eyes glittered at this revelation of truth, which was eluding him up until now.
In that very moment, the eyes of a young man, Satyanandam, sparkled. He was the young man who used Simhachalam to obtain the sandals. He was blazing like a swan amidst crows, like a hero surrounded by extras, or, like a leader in the midst of a large crowd of ordinary people.
“When I say something I mean it. What a gal to say that he would see the end of me in front of the entire class,” Satyanandam uttered, with a big show off.
“Okay, you’ve shown him his place. What are you going to do now?” his best friend Appa Rao, who provoked him in the first place, asked him.
Satyanandam laughed as if he was going to accomplish something great, and said, “Well, we can turn these sandals to a tanner. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about money for our cigarettes today.”
That evening Simhachalam, looking like a baby crow hit by sunstroke, reached home. He was hoping that his mother would show up at the door, welcome him affectionately and comfort him as always. She was not there at the door. He sat down in the shade showered by the neem tree in front of his hut. His mute sister came out like a robot and signed him to go in. He went in.
His mother, lying in the broken, jute-rope cot like a shattered toy, groaned like a frog caught in the mouth of a snake. Sorrow rose like a storm at his heart. There was not one drop of tear in his eyes.
He pulled his sister close to his chest and stroked gently on her head. He wasn’t aware when his eyes closed. When he opened them, the crows on the temple were crowing. He got up, went to his mother’s cot, and felt for her heartbeat. There was no pain. No groaning. No gasping for breath. No anger either. She was motionless and cold like a frozen twig.
It was still dark.
Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net.
(The Telugu original, “ee chikati vidipoledu” was published in Bharati monthly, September 1980, and included in the anthology, “Vennello paavurallu.” Vijayawada: Sri Mahalakshmi Publishing House, 1986. )
 Satirical comment on the people who go to the temple for the food, offered to god, prasadam.
 The original divine couple, traditionally Siva and Parvati are considered the first couple.