from AMERICAN CANYON
When I was sixteen, Ammama made me a ring out of a set of nine jewels she had inherited from her mother. Each stone is a symbol for each of the nine planets including the sun, she said, as she pointed out their black statues at the temple in Markapur. These were the navagrahas she visited every day. Their faces radiated out, with a larger one, the sun, in the middle of the square the rest made around him. On the plane home, I tapped it on the metal armrest listening to music and bent it out of shape. The gold was pure enough to be soft. It slipped from my finger and never touched the earth. I never heard it fall.
She said the temple was born out of the earth. Five hundred years ago Krishnadevaraya built the gopram and outer structures that hid parts of town in their shadows. She likes to tell me stories about him like he was a famous actor she saw on the street.
In his court there were astadiggajalu, eight poets who are like elephants, and one of them was Vi-ka-ta-ka-vi. He would stump many with his riddles and wit as his name suggests–it is a palindrome of the word kavi, or poet.
When Vikatakavi was young he saw a Kalika Devi temple along the road and went inside. In his mind he asked her all the questions he had, which impressed her. She wrote a beeja akshatram, or letter, on his tongue. This gave him the gift of poetry and he immediately praised her. Flattered, she decided to give him another gift and held out two bowls. One bowl will give you wealth, and the other bowl will give you knowledge. Choose one. He took both bowls, mixed them together, and drank.
In response to her rage, he said that he wanted both. She laughed. Who would do such a thing. You will have your vidya and you will make money, but it will never stay with you. Since you made me laugh that is what you will be remembered by.
Amamma remembered when her husband was the rich man she had married. On either side of her stood houses they once owned that she had watched slip out of his hands. All that was left was the jewelry she wore the day she sat upon the mandapam and a rain soaked sack on the roof. Inside was a paper trail of property tax documents from the beginning of the century to independence. Each had a British stamp with the image of the sovereign, like King George or Queen Anne, and I hoped to stumble upon the first stamp ever made, the ‘penny black’. I spent the summer learning the subtle differences of their faces and the shades of color they wore. I dreamed that the hundreds of colors I saved in an album turned black. Half way through the bag I stopped searching and left it on the roof to swell with each monsoon. I let their carmine faces fade under the sun’s pressure. Let water dissolve the royal insignias that could only be seen when they were held up to the light.