Nestled in the lap of the ceaselessly gurgling Krishna, idyllic tranquillity of the ancient village of Amaravati is shattered one morning by a murder most foul and unnatural. Or the murder of a trader most foul and unnatural, as the denizens of the village would have you believe.
Krishna Shastri, the stern and fastidious high priest of the village, wakes up bone-tired one morning after the late night festivities of Navratri. He feels the pinch of advancing age as he pulls out pales of water from the well to bathe himself in biting cold. Admonishing himself for wayward thoughts, he breaks into rhythmic chanting of shlokas as he proceeds to open the gates of the temple before the daybreak, as usual. He unlocks the sacred chamber praying silently, vaguely aware of the debris of celebrations of the previous night, waiting to be cleaned. Little did he know what awaited him was something much more sombre and shocking: the dead body of the young, beautiful and fresh-faced village-hostess Padmavati, carefully laid out at the feet of Goddess Kali.
Venkat Reddy, the Head Constable, who had spent the night swatting mosquitoes, fervently wished the village chief had called half an hour later so that it would have fallen to the lot of day-shift’s head constable. However, he is unable to shake off the doll-faced innocence of the victim silenced in the prime of youth. So angelic is she in her death that he regrets not having known her while she still lived. He has never investigated a murder case before. Strictly speaking, it is not his job either. All he is required to do is to issue a death certificate and the sub-inspector would do the rest. But so perturbed is he, he resolves to bring the murderer to book on his own.
Shastri is apparently a prime suspect, being in possession of the lone key to the sacred chamber where Padmavati’s corpse is discovered. But, as he points out, a duplicate key can easily be made. Also, the doctor has confirmed that Padmavati’s lungs were soaked with fresh water, indicating a possible drowning in the river. How did she come to lie under the feet of Kali after her death? Reddy quickly realizes the commanding position of the devout Brahmin in the village. Being the priest, he could address even the village sarpanch with certain authority. What is more, Shastri seems deeply disturbed by the defilement of the sanctum in this manner. Surely, he’d be willing to help by guiding him around the village and its homes. Reddy decides to be a guest at his house for the next few days. Together, they move from suspect to suspect, trying to analyse their testimonies and the probabilities of their involvement.
Padmavati, it turns out, was a much loathed woman even if she was secretly desired by many men of the village. She was known to have been close to the sarpanch who was trying to push her into a marriage with him. Did his pride get punctured by her rejection? She seems to have had some connection with Satyam, the sage-like village postman who has been leading a quiet but honourable life with his doting wife. But he seems to have succumbed to Padmavati’s charms, nonetheless. Was he scared she would spill the beans someday? Shekhar and Vaishnavi have recently come from Vizag to settle in the village, away from the din of cities. Shekhar, a paraplegic, was seen riding his motorized wheelchair towards the river that night. The dead woman’s bewitching beauty was apparently of no use to him but the impoverished man could have been after her riches. Then, his wife Vaishnavi, who had sacrificed the world to marry a cripple for the sake of love, could have been stung by the attentions the same man was now paying to Padmavati? Or was it Kishore, the grieving son of the village sarpanch, upset at the thought of his father marrying the village hostess?
It is a small book with uncovering of the criminal central to its theme. The victim is discovered quickly at the outset as the reader is settling down with the village by the river. The dead body is found rather symbolically in the temple which stands at the centre of the village like an ‘axle-groove’. Thereon, the book proceeds in the manner of a typical whodunit, inviting the reader to scan suspect after suspect over the pages. The more they are interviewed, the more complicated it gets and the amateur detective finds himself further and further from the solution. Till suddenly, in the middle of it all, he has the Eureka moment in which the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place with an audible click in his mind. But then do they?
Sharath Komarraju has evoked vivid images of tranquillity about the ancient village of Amaravati, notwithstanding the cruel act. It is the place that was once the capital of Satvahanas, we are told. It has smooth, well laid out roads and the terrain is flat and full of pleasant breeze. Temples and elevated structures have ramps along with stairs. The villagers go quietly about their business. The farmers thwack the oxen, the blacksmith strikes the red hot iron, housewives sing to themselves as they clean the porches, maids splash water and trace rangoli patterns in the front yard of the rich amidst the perennial murmur of the river. But is there a turbulence brewing just beneath the expansive calm? We hear the dissenting voice of the author through the fumbling first-time detective Venkat Reddy. The Head Constable, who has risen from the suppressed class, looks at the established structure of authority, both natural and supernatural, with a cynic’s eye. He rejects the grandeur of the imposing ‘Mahalakshmi’ banyan tree at the first sight. He finds the giant tree, one of the pride possessions of the village, an eyesore.
“He looked at the mess of branches, creepers and trunks in the middle of the clearing, and grimaced.”
The river Krishna is like mother to Amaravati. Being born in Amaravati is like being born to Krishna. The gurgling of the river is a sound the villagers cannot live without. Not so to Venkat Reddy. He is annoyed by the constant noise. Indeed, he goes much beyond that and wonders how the village must have looked when in ancient days it was the capital of the Satvahanas.
“Legends spoke of the golden age of the old kings when everyone had plenty to give; people lived free of jealousy and want; Mother earth gave freely of herself and crime was unknown and unheard of. It was a time when the Krishna and Godavari would flow all year long, neither flooding nor drying up, holding just enough water to feed all the villages that lay on the banks. What makes these once perennial rivers dry up every year in the summers? Is it rebellion against the growing poison in the hearts of people?”
Back to the present times, he is deeply skeptic about the Kali temple “built by Sitaaraamaiah in the belief that Lord Shiva would not be able to resist an occasional visit to the village to meet his wife”.
“Nobody questioned why the lord had to be bribed to enter the village, or why the village needed to be purified every now and then.”
Reddy discovers that there are people who have started challenging the entrenched values and societal mores. The younger generations have looked beyond cast, creed and age to find happiness, ignoring the inevitable suffering that came with it. People from the suppressed communities have started defying authority. Padamavati, a dalit girl, had gone about her business, charging by the hour “for her laughs, her understanding, her empathy, her advice”, without giving two hoots to what others thought of her. Long entrenched values are dying, giving way to new mores, some rejuvenating and some lamentable. And there is the inevitable pain of change and transition.
Does the book achieve what it sets out to do? As a typical ‘whodunit’, I would say, yes, to a decent extent. The author has managed to whisk up requisite suspense regarding the identity of the killer. He briefly sketches the lives of the suspects and to be sure, some of these sound far from happy. There are times when one may feel that the pasts are being scoured simply to justify the act of murder. Some characters turn out well while some remain hurried and flat, but the author has given only so much space to himself. The language is easy flowing but could have been polished at places. There are typographical errors too. Yet, there are places where Sharath Komarraju shines beyond the ordinary story he has undertaken to write. The clever mix of the social metamorphosis has added colours to an otherwise bland murder mystery.