Chapter 1

Gateway to the Inner Sanctum

He lit up his cigarette using the electric lighter, tied to the wooden log of a tea shop. At the intersection of two streets, under the street light, he saw a street sign which read — Station Road. It appeared that the store was built with wood and tin foil. The roof was made of a material that resembled aluminum and was sloppily perched on frail timber barrels. The store had space for one person, utmost, two could squeeze in. It was almost nightfall but the store gleamed like the moon. Slender fluorescent lamps were fastened vertically on wooden barrels, at either side of the store. Huge glass biscotti jars were propped on the counter of wooden logs in front of the store. The jars had wide mouths for easy access of different varieties of murukku, biscuits, peanut-caramel pralines, toffees, gummy candies and most-likely stale vadais’. The lids not only provided a secure seal, also produced a lovely silhouette to the otherwise dreary looking store-front. A young tea-runner was actively pacing around, delivering piping hot teas, coffees, condiments which were suspended from the store’s roof — bananas, pickles, packaged potato wafers, packaged drinking water and what-not to the store’s customers.

On a normal day, at those wee hours, the store would be frequented by nefarious folks or meager auto-rickshaw drivers or college students sneaking in for their last cigarette of the day. Surprisingly, on that gloomy December night, the neighborhood was bustling with activity and the store was overrun by families, kids and the elderly. He looked at his companion, who was sitting on a distressed bench, sipping tea and had a disgusted look on his face.

He asked, “Anbu, are you alright?”

“I am wondering if the glass has been cleaned, ever since its purchase. Hmmmm… Nevertheless, the tea tastes good”, replied Anbu.

Shakti snorted. “Anyways, are you positive about.. urmm?” inquired Shakti, raising his eyebrows. “Is the temple even open at this odd hour? It’s past midnight.”

His companion replied, “Shakti ’Na, aren’t you noticing how busy the street is? It’s Vaikunta Ekadashi and I am confident that she will be waiting in line for the temple doors to open. I overheard the conversation with her neighbor. She will show up at the temple celebrations along with her friend.”

Shakti raised his cigarette, drew on it and savored its taste, “Hmmmm… Anbu, I suppose we will need to…”

Anbu shook his head in refusal and took a last sip of his tea, crawled slowly towards the storefront, placed his finished glass of tea on the counter of jars. He back-kicked his left leg, caught the tip of his lungi using his hands and rolled up the garment, shortening its length, and tied up its ends in the front.

He replied, “Not necessary ’Na. I checked her friend out, she lives near the temple.” Shakti nodded in approval and finished his cigarette. He gestured to the young tea-runner and hurried down the street. Anbu followed him after grabbing a murukku from the jar.

The street was swarming with people — flower hawkers, ice cream vendors, cart shops which supply offerings to Hindu Gods, fruit peddlers and people — of course haggling with the vendors. Shakti and Anbu reached the next block and saw city police patrolling around the temple premises. They crossed the intersection of Srinivasa Street and Thambaiya Road, walked down to a cart-snack peddler who was diagonally across the temple and gestured for two plates of food. They could hear the crowd chanting Om Namo Narayanaya… Om Namo Narayanaya… Om Namo Narayanaya… Beginning at the huge iron doors of the temple, people were queued up in a single file, which extended to adjacent streets and intersections. Shakti was trying to find someone in particular amongst the crowd and he noticed that adults, presumably parents, were relaying stories of Vaikunta Ekadashi to their kids, grandparents were teaching their grandkids religious hymns, teenagers were flirting with each other, young priests were shouting at the crowd to maintain decorum. He felt a soft nudge at his elbow. Anbu signaled Shakti in the direction of an olive colored middle-aged woman. She was clad in a blue and yellow chungudi saree, holding a platter of offerings for her God and was talking vividly to another woman of similar age, possibly a friend. Her hair was well-oiled, parted in the middle and plaited into a single long braid. Her nose was pierced with a 5-stone diamond stud which enhanced her beautiful innocent face, forehead completely bare in comparison to her stout friend, wrists adorned with few bangles and her feet with thin silver anklets. Mrs. Mythili Ranganathan, was chanting her God’s name, nodded in acknowledgement when people greeted her and stood there, unaware of the fact that two men were watching her. Mythili Maami, as she is often called, was a manager at the local branch of a nationalized bank. She was well respected, educated, held in high regard for her singing capabilities and a devout Vaishnavite.

“Now I know, where that bitch gets her beauty from!” remarked Anbu, looking at Mythili. He turned towards the peddler to check on his food. The vendor was still frying his bajji.

Shakti replied, “I wasn’t aware that you fancied her daughter.”

“It’s not that I am into her. But… I wouldn’t mind having her,” winked Anbu.

Shakti smirked at him and patted on his back. The hawker handed down their plates of food. Meanwhile, the temple doors opened and the chanting intensity increased. Anbu and Shakti noticed that the crowd marched in with their hands above their heads, palms touching each other and fingers pointing upwards, in salutation to their God.

“We will need to cover both entrances. As soon as we are done here, head back to the side entrance, I assume it will take her at the least 20 mins in there,” said Shakti.

Anbu nodded in agreement, “Knowing her, it might take more.”

The two of them relished their bajjis, paid the vendor and departed in different directions. Shakti walked down the street, reached the intersection of Srinivasa Street and Arya Gowda Road, scanned around if stores were open and to his relief they were all closed. All he could notice were the hawkers and peddlers on Srinivasa Street, from their pit stop at the tea shop to the intersection he was currently at. He scurried his way back to Sathya Narayana Temple and noticed the first group of people exiting the temple premises. He pulled out his Samsung, sent a text ‘Ready’ to Anbu and lurked around the temple doors’ for Mythili.

Anbu wandered up the street and turned right onto an alley adjoining the temple and a public park. He paced down the alley and reached Bhaktavatchalam Street. He stood there patiently next to an unoccupied auto-rickshaw. He looked over his shoulder often. He was anxious. He rushed up the street, frisked his shirt pocket and noticed people walking down towards the temple. Within few minutes, the alleyway gained more foot traffic in both directions.

He texted Shakti — Too many people in the alleyway.

Meanwhile, Shakti and an auto-rickshaw driver were talking animatedly. He kept a constant eye on the doors of the temple. He felt his phone buzzing. He pulled his phone out and read his notification. He exhaled deeply.

“Is everything alright?” asked the auto-rickshaw driver.

Shakti replied, “Yes. Absolutely. Just my wife checking on me.” He stroked his left eyebrow with a distraught expression at the auto-rickshaw driver.

“Ever since the mobile phone invention, feels like wives are at our backs all the while. We can’t cherish a peaceful moment!”sighed the auto-rickshaw driver in exasperation.

“So true! Anyways, looks like I need to head home. I will catch up with you another time,” concluded Shakti.

He patted his shoulder, brushed past him and whispered something discernible. The auto-rickshaw driver nodded in acknowledgement, got into his vehicle and disappeared into that bustling street of Mambalam. Shakti walked across the street, removed his shoes at the entrance of the temple, and strolled in. The temple was sparsely populated compared to the crowd an hour ago. He quickly scanned the premises and found Mythili talking to an elderly man, who was in his panchakacham, bare-chested, holding a plate of flowers and a wick-lamp. They were in the midst of wrapping up their conversation, during which Shakti paid his respects to the temple deity, to avoid any suspicions. As Mythili made her way out with her friend, Shakti texted Anbu and followed her out. He halted at temple’s entrance until the two women were at a considerable distance, then buckled his shoes and started walking towards them.

The women smiled at their florist, wished her goodnight and tarried down Srinivasa Street, towards Arya Gowda Road. The street was strewn with flowers, empty dhonnais, classical concert leaflets, missing flip-flops, food crumbs and other litter. Mythili tiptoed around the squishy parts of the street, like an acrobat balancing her act, while her friend Ambujam stomped down without the slightest worry of her saree being tarnished with muck. It appeared as though a peacock and a penguin were pacing down the sidewalk.

“Do you happen to remember Pattabi — the chap whom you met the other day at my place?” needled Ambujam.

“Urrmmmm…” hesitated Mythili, “Ambujam, I understand what you are hinting at but I don’t think there is a possibility. You pretty well know why. Let’s not take this any further.”

“I understand. Don’t mind me being relentless.”

As Mythili was trying to balance herself, “Looks like you are struggling with the platter. Here, let me get that out of your hands,” replied Ambujam with a dejected look on her face.

“Thanks Ambu. I never do. I understand it’s all in good spirit. I believe it will happen in time,” responded Mythili.

She lugged her tote onto her shoulder and realized it was almost full. She promised herself to sort the bag as soon as she reached home. Srinivasa Street branched out into two, and elbowed itself to Arya Gowda Road. Mythili and Ambujam headed right, onto an alleyway of Srinivasa Street and halted in front of a dark pink house, bearing a huge emblem of Changu, Sricharanam, Chakkaram on the outer wall of its patio. Above the emblem, the year ‘1946’ was etched in black paint. The gates were made of black wrought iron and the house by itself was a landmark for people to find the alley way of Srinivasa Street.

“Ambu, you can keep the prasadham. As for my platter, I will fetch it tomorrow,” said Mythili.

Ambujam unlatched the gate, “It’s Ekadashi and your parents might expect to eat some. I suggest that you take this along with you.” She handed the platter to Mythili.

“That’s true,” replied Mythili and glanced at her watch, it was quarter to two.

“Doesn’t time fly? You should head back home,” said Ambujam, overlooking Mythili’s watch. They waved their goodbyes and Mythili started walking down the alley of Srinivasa Street towards Arya Gowda Road.

Shakti managed to keep a safe distance between him and the two ladies. He had to fall back as soon as they made a right turn into the alleyway. He saw a cart shop across the street, shielded in a blue plastic drop cloth, tethered using a yellow nylon rope. It’s wheels were battered and old, not in a condition to be steered down the road. He made his way towards it, looked over his shoulder, to assess his frame of reference. He unfastened the yellow ropes, as he dawdled to the other side of the cart and looked back again — Voila! He was able to lay eyes on both, they were musing with each other for few minutes, after which Mythili made her way home. Shakti pulled out his Samsung and the phone made consecutive swooshing tones. He knew Mythili was walking on a street parallel to his. He jostled down quickly towards Arya Gowda Road. The road was scattered with few bystanders, motorcycles and utmost a car or two. He reduced his pace, cut across the road, spotted Mythili on the other side, attempting to cross the road and he looked away.

Mythili hurried along the deserted alleyway of Srinivasa Street. Given the odd hour at night, she knew it was vital that she reached home quickly. She double checked her tote, balanced her platter and tried to pass through Arya Gowda Road. She noticed a dark complexioned man, standing across the street, in his mid-thirties, dressed in a pair of weathered grey jeans and a mismatched plaid shirt. He was wearing a dull camel colored loafers. She couldn’t recollect where she had seen him earlier. His hair was well groomed and looked like he clipped his beard few days ago. It was a familiar face. She rushed down to Vivekanandapuram 1st Street and noticed an old couple walking towards her. She heaved a sigh of relief, tugged on her tote and strode along. The street elbowed right into Vinayagam Street. Five streets impasse at Vinayagam Street, one of them being Rajagopal Chetty Street, where Mythili resides. When she reached the intersection, she realised the street was deserted except for a young man in lungi, who was standing under a street light, far left from where she was, engrossed in his texts and relentlessly smoking. His hair was frayed, face hid under his beard, shabby shirt and lungi, all indicated that he was scraping through to make a living. She immediately looked away and turned right, heading towards the intersection of Vinayagam Street and Rajagopal Chetty Street.

She heard footsteps behind her and realized the young fellow must be a feet or two away from her. She rummaged her bag, clenched her palm around it, she turned towards the racing young man, saw his eyes in front her, dropped her platter and without a slightest hesitation, sprayed her can of pepper-spray on his eyes. Anbu hissed, screamed and turned away. She dropped her can and her bag, saw him crouching and holding his eyes, scoured her bag frantically, mumbling Narayana… Narayana…, she felt the smooth handle, gripped on it, pulled it out, quickly checked if her device was loaded and cocked, applied pressure on her grip safety, and clasped her left hand beneath her right arm, steadying her grip. She was about to query the dowdy-looking young man in front of her and sensed sudden movement behind her. Not thinking twice, she shot the young man on his knee and upper left part of his torso, in panic. Before she could realize what had happened, she felt an excruciating pain on her knee. She succumbed to it, dropped down hitting both her knees hard, screaming in agony and let go of her Springfield XD. She tried to crawl to reach her semi-automatic, but someone else got to it first. She had just spotted him across the road while crossing the intersection. She rolled over to grasp a better look at his face. She still couldn’t recall where she had seen his face. Shakti looked around to see if lights turned on in any of the houses. None.

“Well.. Well.. Well.. What do we have here? I must say, you are really good for a Maami.” Mythili tried to roll over. “You flinch, I shoot !” remarked Shakti.

He caressed the 9mm semi-automatic in his hands and made a sturgeon face. Turned around and walked towards his friend. He bent down to check for Anbu’s pulse. Very weak. Hardly minutes, before he succumbs to death. Shakti clenched his jaws.

“Looks like you hit one of his arteries, real good,” said Shakti with a disappointed tone. He walked towards her. Knelt near her bag, probed into it.

“Who are you? What do you need from me? Gold? Money? What is it?” asked a short-winded Mythili.

“To answer your question, you should think what made you carry a concealed weapon? Probably that is where the answer lies.”

Mythili was sweating profusely. She blamed herself for not spring cleaning her bag. Her daughter’s words kept ringing in her ears. “Mom listen, it doesn’t matter if you don’t carry a bottle of water or your lunch. There are only four things this bag needs, your gun, pepper spray, some cash, a credit card or two. Always! Always travel light! You shouldn’t be fiddling with your bag when you can take advantage of those few extra seconds.

He walked around her, helped her conceal herself with her saree, stood near her crown, flipped her head using his right foot. Pointed the gun at her neck.

“I suggest you don’t make any significant movements. And oh, please stop being nervous. I am being very generous here.” And he shot her. She started bleeding profusely. He collected her things that he deemed might be helpful, dropped the ones he didn’t and looked over to see his friend. He cleaned the gun for any fingerprints, transferred the gun to the dead man’s arm, pulled the trigger again, so that gun residue transferred to the oblique arch of his friend’s palm.

“Let’s get out of here, Arul,” said Shakti. He got into the auto which just pulled up and the two drove down Rajagopal Chetty Street. They teared down the street to 5th Ave.

“Glad you actually improvised on my cue, near the temple,” smiled Shakti.

“I figured you would have observed someone sizing us up. Hope I didn’t overdo it,” replied a shy Arul.

“I expected you to be surprised when I mentioned my wife, thankfully you did not,” said Shakti.

Lights turned on the porch of a house on Vinayagam St. A frail looking old man, opened his front door. He scratched his bald head, slipped on his spectacles which was harnessed around his neck with a black string. He was wearing a white veshti and was bare-chested except for his poonal. He walked down to his front yard, looked around, stood there for a minute, listening in. He wanted to be certain that no one was lurking behind the bushes in his front yard. He switched on his flashlight. He was positive that he heard a loud noise and then an auto tearing down the street, but he couldn’t associate the loud noise with anything that he had heard before. He walked slowly towards his front gate, unlocked it, stepped out and waved his flash around. The lights fell on a dark silhouette that looked like a carcass. He walked towards it and couldn’t believe his eyes, there was a cadaver of a young man wearing a lungi. He collapsed on the street, dropping his light, crawled back frantically and cried out loud — “Narayana!”. He got back on his feet, picked up his flashlight, scuttled to his house, switched on his hallway lights, grabbed his phone and dialed 100.

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