Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Ramayya rolled up the shutters of his tiny shop with an eardrum-shattering noise. He stepped in, touched the cash register and pressed his fingers to his eyes. He lit rose-scented incense sticks and waved them around the pictures of Ganesha and Lakshmi, and a garlanded, black and white picture of his late parents. His dust cloth flicked over the counter, the chair, and large glass jars full of coconut sweets, deep-fried savouries, butter biscuits and candied peanuts. He hung the bunch of bananas he had just brought from the market from a hook that dangled from the rafters. Ramayya sat down on the metal folding chair and picked up his newspaper. The shop was open for business.
Just as he reached the Crime Beat section of the newspaper, he heard a commotion in the coconut grove across the road and stood up to get a better look. Half a dozen young men waving cricket bats and stumps chased a man with a sickle in his hand. The man looked around in panic, scanned a few trees, ran to one and clambered up its long, branch-less trunk, as easily as a monkey. His pursuers came to a halt, and shouted curses at the tree.
One of them came running to Ramayya’s shop. “It’s Macchu Maada!” he told Ramayya. “Call the police!” Ramayya’s mouth fell open. He pushed his mobile phone towards the young man and watched as he called the police.
Just a week earlier, the city had been rocked by a murder. A police inspector attached to the Gopalnagar police station had been drinking tea at a tea-stall a little distance away from the police station. A middle-aged man, who had just been apparently walking past with a sickle in his hand, turned around suddenly and took a swipe at the inspector’s neck with his sickle. The inspector had collapsed immediately and died, while the man walked away and dissolved into the crowd.
There had been two or three constables at the tea stall, drinking tea or smoking beedis when this had happened. It had taken them a few seconds to recover from the shock. Then, torn between the urge to revive their fallen colleague, and to try and follow the killer, a couple of them gave a slightly procrastinated chase, but they weren’t able to catch him. The killer seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
But one of the constables later identified the killer as Mahadeva alias Maada, a construction worker who had been brought in the previous week on suspicion of a petty theft, and had been let off after questioning.
To think that a man with a weapon could walk into a huddle of policemen, commit murder and escape! Nobody knew why he wanted to kill the policeman either. Speculation grew. A huge manhunt was launched. Maada’s photos were splashed across the newspapers, and on television. He attained notoriety as “Macchu Maada” – Maada with the sickle. Attractive rewards were offered for information about him. Consequently, Macchu-Maada-sightings were reported all the time, and were entirely unreliable.
And now, if the young man calling the police from Ramayya’s phone were to be believed, Macchu Maada was right across the street on top of a coconut tree.
“Ey! Come down, you!” thundered one young man, looking up the tree.
“Do you think you are the only one who can climb trees? We are coming up now!” cried another.
But hurried discussions established that none among them could climb coconut trees.
News spread fast in those parts, and the effect of Macchu Maada’s name was such that scores of people gathered at the humble coconut grove. The Sub-Inspector arrived in a record five minutes, with a posse of constables who stationed themselves around the tree in question.
The SI looked around the crowd with satisfaction. He twirled his cane, walked around the tree, and tapped its trunk with the tip of the cane.
“So you’re saying Macchu Maada is on the tree,” he said, peering up into the fronds. “But I can’t see him.”
“He’s sitting above the fronds, sir. Watch carefully, you’ll see movement.”
“Are you sure he’s Macchu Maada?”
“What are you saying sir? Who doesn’t know his face? And he ran as soon as we called his name.”
“Hmph,” said the SI and looked upwards. “Lo Maada!” he bellowed.
It was so loud and sudden that everybody jumped. A man less hardy than Maada up the tree would’ve surely lost his balance and fallen to the ground. Yet, there was no answer from the tree.
“Lo Maada! Come down, you!”
“I won’t!” A disembodied voice came floating down.
“Ah, he’s there indeed,” said the SI. “Maada, if you don’t come down, we’ll come and get you!”
“I won’t come down!” said Maada.
“Well,” said the SI, looking around. “Who was that, bragging about knowing how to climb coconut trees?”
“Err… me sir,” said a reedy young constable, scratching his head. He stepped forward slowly.
“Lingaraju. Go up the tree and get that fellow down.”
“Sir…” Lingaraju’s fingers hadn’t left his head. “He has a sickle sir…”
The SI rolled his eyes. “What kind of policeman are you?”
Lingaraju unbuttoned his shirt with hesitation.
“I want a lungi and a rope sir….”
All eyes turned towards Ramayya’s shop.
Ramayya ducked into his house, which was attached to his shop, and brought out a lungi and a length of rope. Lingaraju went in to the shop, and took his own time to exchange his tight-fitting trousers for the lungi, as if he were postponing the inevitable moment as much as he could. When he finally couldn’t tarry any longer, he picked up the rope and approached the tree.
He wound the rope around his waist, and tied its ends around the trunk, connecting himself to the tree in a looped embrace. Leaning backwards against the rope, he heaved himself up. The soles of his feet gripped the uneven trunk. He leaned forward, loosened the loop, and pushed it upward. He hoisted himself further, and continued until he had climbed halfway up.
Then he cautiously looked upwards. There seemed to be no movement from Maada. Encouraged, he resumed his ascent, when – Thunk! A coconut came hurtling down and hit his shoulder. With a cry of alarm and pain, Lingaraju slid down several feet. He tried again to haul himself up when another coconut came tumbling down, missing his head by inches. He’d had enough. He released his hold on the rope and slid down. Even as he reached the ground, another coconut whizzed past him.
The SI was furious. “Wait till I get my hands on you, Maada, you rascal! I’ll beat you black and blue!”
Ramayya’s phone rang. It was his cousin, from across town. “Anna? Isn’t that the coconut grove opposite your house?”
“How, what….” began Ramayya, when he noticed the television crews. There were already three of them, and a fourth van was just parking outside his shop. He flicked on his TV set– and lo. The coconut grove was already famous throughout the country.
“BREAKING NEWS!” screamed the headlines. “Killer on a Coconut Tree!” And Macchu Maada’s now-familiar mugshot was being flashed on the screen again and again. The cameras focused and zoomed in on the coconut tree, but Maada had chosen a very tall one with dense fronds, and the cameras could catch nothing of him.
As Ramayya watched all this, the seed of an idea appeared somewhere at the back of his mind. It grew and grew until he glowed with the brilliance of his monetary scheme. He sent his son Jaggu to the market, who came back with fifty cucumbers and twenty-five lemons. Ramayya borrowed a steel table from the neighbours and set it up outside his shop. His wife peeled and cut the cucumbers, and smeared the pieces with a mixture of salt, chilli powder and lemon.
As soon as the aroma of freshly cut cucumber reached the thirsty crowd, Ramayya was besieged by customers. Within an hour, they were out of cucumbers, and Jaggu had to go scurrying to buy all the cucumbers he could find.
Meanwhile, police bigwigs had assembled near the tree, and were discussing the next move.
“Shoot in the air,” said one policeman, and a warning was shouted out to Maada. The fronds trembled, but Maada did not come down. The police huddled together, and seemed to give up the idea.
It was now past evening, and the light was fading. The SI removed his hat and scratched his bald pate. He barked out instructions for a fresh set of policemen to be stationed under the tree for the night, and he left. His departure cleared the crowds and the TV crews.
Ramayya counted out his money. What he had earned just by selling spiced cucumbers that day was more than his total earnings for an entire month. He sent up a prayer to God to give that Maada fellow fortitude to stay up in the tree for at least a couple of days longer.
Two things happened that night. At about midnight, when all seemed silent at the top of the tree, Lingaraju, the tree-climbing policeman, working an extra shift in hopes of a promotion, tried to sneak up the tree once again. He was showered with a hail of coconuts. Lingaraju swore never to tell anybody ever again that he could climb coconut trees.
Just before dawn, when the policemen started nodding off, Maada tried to slink down the tree. Just then, a mosquito decided to feast on the blood of constable Shivappa. Shivappa cursed, swatted the mosquito, and opened his bleary eyes to see a monkey-like figure on the tree trunk. He shouted and aroused the rest of the policemen, and Maada immediately shinned up the tree, back to the safety of the fronds thirty feet above the ground.
The policemen, aghast at how close they’d been to losing their jobs, gave thanks to all the Gods of the pantheon, and praised Shivappa, who quietly thanked the mosquito which was now just a red squish on his palm.
The crowd was bigger on the second day. The newspapers had carried the tiniest details of the whole drama, and news had spread in every way possible. People thronged the coconut grove. Ramayya bought all the cucumbers in the market that day, and his wife had to request her neighbours to assist her.
Jaggu bunked school to watch the fun. He saw that it was good he hadn’t bothered to attend school when he saw his headmaster in the crowd. He suggested to Ramayya that they sell lemon-soda. Ramayya bestowed upon his son a look of pride and pleasure, and they dragged out crates of unsold, lukewarm soda from the back of the store, poured the soda into glasses, added crushed ice to it, and spiced it with the same set of spices that was rubbed on the cucumbers. The soda was an instant hit.
Jaggu and his friends found a vantage point on the top of Ramayya’s house, perched precariously on the slippery red tiles, and discussed Maada.
“How can he stay there for so long? How did he sleep last night?” wondered Suresha, Jaggu’s friend.
“I’m sure he didn’t sleep.”
“Isn’t he hungry?”
“Tch! Use your brains! He has a sickle, and an unending supply of coconuts. He can eat the meat, and he can drink the milk.”
Suresha was impressed. “And how will he, you know… go… you know…” Suresha raised the little finger of his right hand.
Jaggu hadn’t thought of that. They looked at each other for a moment, and they made faces of disgust. “Cheeee!” they said, and ran off to find their other friends and discuss this juicy aspect with them.
There was no action on the Maada front, and the television crews had become restless. How long could they focus on the fronds of a palm, no matter how beautiful it was, or how well it hid a law-breaker? They went around interviewing everybody they could find. NewsNow channel interviewed Ramayya. He combed his hair and brushed down his moustache, and posed in front of the shop, instructing them to make sure that they got the name of his shop, “Sri Venkateshwara Condiments” in the frame. He told the camera that it was out of his phone that the first call to the police was made, and that he’d seen the coconut tree ever since it was a sapling. He took great pains to tell them what an undistinguished, ordinary, and lawabiding tree it had been before it decided to give refuge to a murderer. He then sent messages to all his relatives to watch only NewsNow.
Suddenly, there was excitement. The fire brigade had arrived. The firemen held the pipes in place and opened the taps. Great jets of water whooshed upwards towards the apex of the coconut tree. One almost expected Maada to become airborne and fall heavily to the ground. But nothing like that happened. Maada seemed stuck to the tree. “He must’ve been a cockroach in his previous life,” Ramayya told his wife. The only advantage of the water jets was that the crowds had a cool shower in the sweltering April heat.
Next, they extended the ladder, and a fireman climbed up towards the top of the tree. He stood at the edge of the ladder, and peered into the fronds. He got down in a tearing hurry, muttering something, and a coconut followed him down. After that, not another fireman dared go up – and the fire brigade left.
That day came to a fruitless end too, and the crowd dispersed. The night was uneventful, with neither Maada nor the policemen attempting anything new.
If it was possible, the crowd on the third day was even larger. It almost seemed like everybody knew that everything would be resolved that day, and nobody wanted to miss it.
The SI arrived with the Deputy Superintendent of Police himself. A loudspeaker had been procured, and the SI cleared his throat and spoke into it.
“Maada, come down immediately, or we’ll have to shoot you. You’ve already wasted too much time and resources, and we’ll not wait any longer.”
Silence from the tree.
“Maada, what will it take for you to come down?”
“Ok, we’ll shoot at the count of three. One.. two…”
“Wait, wait!” A faint voice wafted down.
The SI smiled. “Will you come down?”
“I will saar, but there’s one condition.”
“Bark it out!”
“Pratap saar has to come and ask me to get down.”
The commotion was great. The crowds roared. The television crews went into overdrive.
“Pratap? Who – film actor Pratap?” asked the DSP, and threw his hands up in exasperation.
“Sir! Sir!” A media person ran up. “Pratap is shooting at a farmhouse in the outskirts of the city. We could easily get him here.”
“But will he come?”
“Of course he’ll come. Filmstars love publicity.”
The media person himself was dispatched to bring Pratap. Three agonizing, hot hours later, Pratap arrived in an air-conditioned car. The crowds erupted with joy seeing their beloved star in flesh and blood.
The policemen created a cordon and led Pratap to the base of the now famous coconut tree. The SI handed him the loudspeaker. Pratap flicked back his hair, took off his sunglasses and put his lips to the loudspeaker.
“Maada?” he said. A caressing, very melodramatic “Maada”. A voice he would’ve used in his movies if he’d been trying to cajole a recalcitrant heroine into giving him a kiss.
The crowds went wild.
“Silence please!” said Pratap, and started again. “Maada? Will you come down?”
The faint voice again, hoarse and weak now. “On one condition saar.”
The SI rolled his eyes. Pratap placed a comforting hand on the policeman’s shoulder and continued, “What condition, Maada?”
“Please promise me, saar… promise me that the police will not beat me.”
The SI bristled. But before he could get in a word, Pratap had spoken and snatched from him the policeman’s apparent birthright to torture suspects.
“You have my word of honour,” Pratap said. He even placed his hand theatrically on his heart to seal his words.
The SI now snatched the loudspeaker from Pratap. “Maada, drop your sickle.”
There was a pause, after which the heavy iron object came clanking down the tree and hit the ground with a thud. It was confiscated.
“Now you come down.”
The crowds watched breathlessly. The policeman watched breathlessly. The camera crews filmed breathlessly. All around the nation, millions of people glued to the television watched breathlessly.
Maada appeared from behind the fronds, on to the trunk. With a practiced air, he slithered down. The moment he reached the ground, he lunged towards Pratap and grabbed his feet, dripping snot and salty tears all over Pratap’s expensive export leather shoes.
Pratap had almost fainted with terror at the way the man lunged at him. But once he realized what was happening, he revelled in the situation and preened in front of the cameras.
“It seems impossible,” Ramayya told his wife, “that this grovelling fellow is the same one who walked so boldly up to the policeman and delivered the deadly cut. Who could say? It cannot possibly be the same person.”
“Well, it’s not,” said his wife, who was blessed with excellent eyesight.
“It’s not Macchu Maada. Look for yourself.”
He looked for himself.
The policemen were gaping. The crowds were gaping. The camera crews were gaping. All around the country, millions of people glued to their TV sets were gaping.
This tired, dirty, unshaven fellow with the bloodshot eyes hardly looked human, but it was clear that he was not Macchu Maada.
Pratap was the first to find his voice. “Who are you?” he asked.
The wretched man bawled. He sat on his haunches, buried his face in his hands and shook his head frantically.
The SI lost his patience. “Ey!” he shouted and gave the man a shove.
Maada howled louder, and fell at Pratap’s feet again. Pratap shook the man. “Tell us who you are, dear man.”
“My name is Mahadeva, saar. They call me Maada. I come from Chikkarayanahalli saar. I came to the city just three days ago saar. And from then on I’ve been on this tree saar..”
And he wailed again.
Pratap exchanged looks with the SI, and patted Maada’s back. “Ok, tell me, why did you climb this tree?”
“Those boys, saar, they saw me picking mangoes from a tree, saar, and they chased me saar. I didn’t know, saar, I really didn’t know it was such a big crime saar or I would never have done it saar I was so hungry saar I’d come to the city just hours before and my money got stolen saar I’m sorry saar please don’t beat me saar.….”
Pratap looked at the SI, who threw up his hands in despair.
Pratap asked Maada, “Who gave you the sickle?”
“I borrowed it from a coconut vendor saar when he wasn’t looking saar... I am sorry saar... I would’ve returned it saar.. I’m not a thief saar….. ”
The police took this Maada to the police station. They established his identity, and checked out his whereabouts during the time of the murder. As it happened, this Maada had been gorging on food at his niece’s wedding when Macchu Maada had been killing the policeman, and there were hundreds of witnesses who could vouch for it.
It turned out well for Maada, anyway. Pratap gave him a generous gift of ten thousand rupees, and Maada tucked the money carefully into a small pocket in his striped drawstring underwear, took the next bus to Chikkarayanahalli and never came back to the city again. He has also installed a framed photograph of Pratap next to the Gods in his home, and bows down to the picture every morning.
Anyway, this episode was good for Ramayya too. From just another of the thousand nondescript shops in the city, his shop became the most sought after spiced cucumber and lemon soda centre in the city. He regularly included Maada in his morning prayers, and occasionally glanced reverentially at the newspaper cutting of Maada’s picture that he kept under his counter.
And as for the real murderer? Macchu Maada was never caught.
chee – an expression of disgust
Ey – An informal way of calling someone, like “hey”
Lo – An informal way of addressing an equal, or someone inferior to one in status.
Lungi – a long cloth wrapped around the waist and extending to the ankles, like a sarong, worn mainly by men in India
Macchu – Sickle
saar – corruption of Sir
Tch – an expression of impatience
Author’s Bio: Shruthi Rao is a 35-year-old Indian writer of short fiction and non-fiction. Her work has won several awards, most recently the DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction award, and a prizewinning children’s story has been converted into a picture book. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in DNA, Papercuts, Earthen Lamp Journal, Open Road Review and Helter Skelter among others. She has written for Mint Lounge, The Hindu, Deccan Herald and Complete Wellbeing.