/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary,

The Toss of a Lemon

Padma Viswanathan

"The Toss of a Lemon joins the company of the great novels on India." – Yann Martel *** In a fiction debut to rival The God of Small Things, Padma Viswanathan gives us a richly detailed and intimate vision of an India we've never seen. Inspired by her family history, Padma Viswanathan brings us deep inside the private lives of a Brahmin family as the subcontinent moves through sixty years of intense social and political change. At the novel's heart is Sivakami, a captivating girl-child married at ten to an astrologer and village healer who is drawn to her despite his horoscope, which foretells an early death-depending on how the stars align when their children are born. All is safe with their daughter's birth, but their second child, a son named Vairum, fulfills the prophecy: by eighteen, the child bride Sivakami is a widow with two young children. According to the dictates of her caste, her head is shaved and she must don the widow's white sari. From dawn to dusk, she is not allowed to contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her small children. She dutifully follows custom, except for one act of rebellion: she insists on a secular education for her troubled son. While her choice ensures that Vairum fulfills his promise in a modernizing India, it also sets Sivakami on a collision course with him. Vairum, fatherless in childhood, childless as an adult, rejects the caste identity that is his mother's mainstay, twisting their fates in fascinating and unbearable ways. The Toss of a Lemon is heartbreaking and exhilarating, profoundly exotic and yet utterly recognizable in evoking the tensions that change brings to every family's doorstep. It is also the debut of a major new voice in world fiction.

Padma Viswanathan

The Toss of a Lemon

© 2008


Bhuvana and S. P. Viswanathan

and for

Dhanam Kochoi

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence: but I seem to have found from somewhere the trick of filling in the gaps in my knowledge…

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children




1. Thangam 1896

THE YEAR OF THE MARRIAGE PROPOSAL, Sivakami is ten. She is neither tall nor short for her age, but she will not grow much more. Her shoulders are narrow but appear solid, as though the blades are fused to protect her heart from the back. She carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.

She and her family live in Samanthibakkam, some hours away by bullock cart from Cholapatti, which had been her mother’s place before marriage. Every year, they return to Cholapatti for a pilgrimage. They fill a pot at the Kaveri River and trudge it up to the hilltop temple to offer for the abhishekham. These are pleasant, responsible, God-fearing folk who seek the blessings of their gods on any undertaking and any lack thereof. They maintain awe toward those potentially wiser or richer than they-like the young man of Cholapatti, who is blessed with the ability to heal.

No one in their family is sick, but still they go to the healer. They may be less than totally healthy and simply not know. One can always use a preventative, and it never hurts to receive the blessings of a blessed person. This has always been the stated purpose of the trip, and Sivakami has no reason to think this one is any different.

Hanumarathnam, the healer, puts his palms together in a friendly namaskaram, asks how they have been and whether they need anything specific. They shyly shake their heads, and he queries, with a penetrating squint, “Nothing?” Sivakami is embarrassed by her parents, who are acting like impoverished peasants. They owe this man their respect, but they are Brahmins too, and literate, like him. They can hold up their heads. She’s smiling to herself at his strange name: a hybrid of “Hanuman,” the monkey god, and rathnam, gem. The suffix she understands; it’s attached to the name of every man in the region. But no one is named for the monkey!

Her mother and father cast glances at each other; then her father clears his throat. “Ah, our daughter here has just entered gurubalam. We are about to start searching for a groom.”

“Oh, well,” Hanumarathnam responds with a wink, “I deal in medicine, not charms.”

Sivakami’s parents giggle immoderately. Their daughter stares at the packed dust of the Brahmin-quarter street. Her three older brothers fidget.

“But you have my blessings,” Hanumarathnam continues, making a small package of some powder. “And this, dissolved in milk and drunk each day, this will give you strength. Just generally. It will help.”

Then he looks at Sivakami. She doesn’t look up. When he asks her parents, “Have you done the star chart yet?” his voice sounds different. They haven’t. “Come at dusk. I’ll do it for you.”

What could be better? The humble folk trip back to their relatives’, four doors down the street, for snacks and happy anticipation of their consultation with the auspicious young man, who also has some fame as an astrologer.

At that strange hour that gives the impression of light even though each figure is masked by darkness, Sivakami’s father, with two of the male relatives, finds Hanumarathnam on his veranda. He cannot make out the young man’s features, but the slant of his chest and head suggests wisdom and peace. So young and a widower, by a freak accident: his wife drowned in the Kaveri River before she ever came to live with him. His parents were already dead. He lives with relatives while his own house-his parents’ home, the second to last on the Brahmin-quarter-stays locked, dark and still.

Hanumarathnam stands to greet them; they take their seats; they make brief small talk as his aunt brings tumblers of yogourt churned with lemon water and salt.

He examines the chart by a kerosene lamp while the men finger their shoulder towels. He makes some calculations. He purses his lips and takes in a sharp breath before speaking. “I, well, I must say it. I have just entered gurubalam myself.”

Sivakami’s father hesitates. “Oh?”

“I will make more detailed calculations, but this is my reasoned guess… Your daughter’s horoscope is compatible with mine.”

The young man licks his lips, no longer the astrological authority but instead the nervous suitor. He speaks too quickly. “I am obliged to mention, of course, or perhaps you have already heard: the weakest quadrant of my horoscope has a small shadow… It… it faintly suggests I will die in my ninth year of marriage. But, as that prediction is contained in the weakest quadrant, it holds no weight, as you know, though ignorant people let it scare them.”

The men do not know but are not ignorant enough to say so, and anyway, Hanumarathnam has not paused in his speech.

“And most often, the birth of a son changes the configuration, as you know. I understand it must be difficult for you to consider giving your daughter as a second wife. My first wife, she drowned to death in her tenth year. Only three years after our marriage, you see, and it was not I who died, you see? It was her. Quite contrary to the negative quadrant of the horoscope. An, an unfortunate, accident. So I have no children, and I am still young. I have money and manage well. I am speaking on my own behalf only because I have no father and I know the horoscopes better than anyone.”

He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father.

“I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please… consider me.”

That night, Sivakami’s father relates his impressions to her mother. They are positively disposed toward the young man and feel they trust his astrology and his good intentions. They ask their relatives in the morning: have they heard anything against Hanumarathnam or his kin? The relatives assure them that they have heard only good things: fine, upstanding Brahmins all. The young man not only has special talents but has just come into his inheritance, some very good parcels of land. They think it could be a good match, more: a shame to waste the opportunity.

In the morning, Sivakami’s father bathes and prays. Then he picks up quill and ink and writes a gracious note, pretending they, the girl’s family, are taking the initiative, as is right and conventional, and inviting Hanumarathnam for a girl-seeing as if his already having seen the girl had nothing to do with any of this.

Most Esteemed Sir, Village Healer and Knowing One,

The humble man who Writes this Missive to your

Gracious Self invokes the Blessings of the Gods and

Stars on his intentions. The writer would be Honoured

above Reasonable Expectation, ifhe were to have the

Pleasure of Welcoming Your Good Self to the

Samanthibakkam home of his family, where his Revered

Ancestors have Bestowed their Blessings Through the

Ages. With the Wisdom and Learning You have

acquired through Great Sacrifice and Effort, please

Choose an Auspicious Time, and send word that Your

good Relatives will Accompany you to Grace the

Threshold of our Poor but Pious Dwelling. We will be

Eagerly awaiting your Word. And the Opportunity to

shower our Hospitality on Your Presence.

I remain, Yours humbly,

The note is in Tamil, a script without capital letters, but this is the idea-inconsistently the most flowery and archaic Sivakami’s father can muster.

The note is delivered by Sivakami’s brothers after they also have bathed and prayed. With a great sense of accomplishment puffing his modest chest and head, Sivakami’s father leads his wife and children on the trek back home.

Word from Hanumarathnam follows. He comes to Samanthibakkam accompanied by a distant uncle and a male cousin. Sivakami’s family offers the stiffest, most formal reception they are able to raise above the brim of their excitement and happiness. Sivakami is ushered in. She keeps her head bowed and her eyes down, since, by unspoken convention, this is behaviour appropriate to prospective brides. She serves sweets she has made herself, the solidity of her upper back giving her movements a linear grace. Asked to sing a couple of devotional songs, she does so with gusto, closing her eyes.

By the time he leaves, the observant young man is even more smitten than that day, short weeks before, when he had seen the pride flash in Sivakami’s eyes.

They are married, like everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month. After her marriage, she continues to live with her parents, like everyone else who has parents, though she is escorted to her husband’s village several times a year for festivals, at which times she is feted, and brings gifts for her new relatives. In Cholapatti, she stays with her parents, at their relatives’ house up the street from where her husband lives with his relatives. They are present at the same functions, where she participates in the ceremonies, but her husband remains for her a person known only in public and in glimpses.

After three years, she comes of age, like everyone else lucky enough to survive childhood, and finally the great change is upon them. Her family readies her to join her husband for good.

When Hanumarathnam, now twenty-four, learns he will receive his thirteen-year-old bride, he unlocks his parents’ house. The aunt and uncle who raised him (double relatives: his mother’s sister married his father’s brother) make a ceremonial fuss at his declaration of departure; their house is just next door, after all, and their son Murthy’s bride may also arrive soon.

Hanumarathnam’s own house has not been opened for a full generation. Generations are short in this time when girls marry as children and have children as soon as they are able, but still, the house has not been opened for a while. Hanumarathnam has brought the servants with him who will make the house ready to receive a new bride. These are servants his inheritance has supported in rice and lentils, year in, year out. Generations of their families have served generations of his. While his parents were alive, these people had worked around the house. Hanumarathnam’s mother died before his second birthday, his father less than a year later, and since then, whenever the servants have met him on the street, they have wept noisily for his dead parents. Eventually, they also wept for his dead little wife. When they learn that they will once more have domestic employment, they express great joy. One then becomes untraceable for some weeks. He will later be rounded up sternly by Hanumarathnam, with his uncle, who will come along to lend authority. But the others come immediately, and these two are with Hanumarathnam as he gently tries to open the great, rusty padlock.

The key turns suddenly, and he’s afraid that it has broken along its collar of rust. But the lock is opening and the thick door of grey-weathered wooden boards is swinging to. They are in the vestibule, a narrow passageway with a high ledge on either side-too high to be a seat, too low for storage. The next lock has not been so exposed and opens more easily. A buttery smell of bats wings over them while the creatures themselves flutter farther back into the dark. Hanumarathnam already has the next key ready-for the tall, narrow double doors into the garden that runs the length of the house. There are two such doorways, about five paces apart, in the wall of the main hall.

The servants with Hanumarathnam are old enough to remember his first steps in that garden. They shuffle, atypically quiet, in the silent dust of the house. Maybe they are letting him alone in case he is mourning those early years, just a few months, really, possibly before memory, when he was not an orphan. Maybe they are mourning their own lost time. Or maybe they are just thinking of all the work to be done, and the happy times to come for Hanumarathnam, as a family man and householder at last.

Hanumarathnam opens the doors from the main hall to the pantry, from the pantry to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the back courtyard, where an extended family of monkeys screeches and leaps at his appearance. Hanumarathnam screeches and leaps back into the house. The monkeys have been eating from the fruit trees in the garden: the courtyard stinks of rotting fruit, including half-eaten mangoes and overripe bananas evidently used as missiles in monkey food fights. Several bananas are still stuck on the walls where they were smashed. The monkeys must have been attracted to the courtyard by the shade afforded under the partial roof.

Hanumarathnam, like his servants, who are tucked safely behind him, stands with the tail of his jasmine-white dhoti held over his nose and mouth against the rancid smell and his horror at the colonizers’ aggression. The courtyard is crawling with their clan. Fifteen, perhaps twenty, mothers, babies, adolescents. There are two dominant bull monkeys. One is a patriarch with a silvery thatch of hair, his muscles a bit stringy. His manner, as he bares his teeth and boxes a yearling’s ears to show off, is defensive. The up-and-comer, who has probably defeated every bull but the old one, is sleek and barrel-chested. He squats, shaking his head and puffing his cheeks, inches behind the old fellow.

Now, all the monkeys are looking their way, except one, about two years old, who has caught a little bird and is absorbed in plucking it. The bird squawks ambivalently. The monkey rubs the bird’s head on the courtyard bricks, then inspects it as though this might reveal the source of the protest. Hanumarathnam, to the relief of his employees, gently shuts the courtyard door and bolts it.

Seconds later, there is a pounding against the wood, a single fist, then a multitude, then the monkeys start to squabble and scrabble among themselves and forget the interlopers. The door from the courtyard to the garden is still locked; the monkeys have been going over the wall to get the fruit. Hanumarathnam, back in the main hall, shuts the garden doors and sends the servants to their homes. The house cannot be cleaned without water, and the well is at the centre of the jealously guarded courtyard. The water at least is probably safe: the well has no bucket right now and, unlike the big agricultural wells, no ladder.

Three hours before dawn, Hanumarathnam returns. He opens a garden door, straining his senses to perceive life or movement. Detecting nothing, he slowly swings a kerosene lamp out in front of him. Still nothing. With increasing boldness, he creeps, then stalks through the garden. There are no monkeys sleeping here.

He returns to the main hall, closes the door and proceeds to the back of the house, which splits into the pantry and kitchen to the right and a small room, beneath the stairs, adjoining another small back room, on the left. He takes the left passage this time and tries the bolt. It is a little sticky. He rotates it up, down, up, down, pulling steadily on the handle. It opens with a bang. He pulls it shut again just as quickly and sets his ear against the door, his heart pounding. He can almost feel the old monkey’s overdeveloped canines penetrating his soft, scholarly flesh. When Hanumarathnam was a child, one of the Brahmin-quarter children died of a monkey bite. She had been a beautiful girl; the enraged monkey tore off half her face.

There is no sound from the courtyard: as he suspected, his house is just one stop on the monkeys’ circuit. They don’t sleep here, cramped quarters, but rather in some forest glade, on grooved branches above leaf-padded floors.

Monkeys, like cows, cobras, peacocks and mice, are sacred-their mythological associations give them immunity from harm. So Hanumarathnam, as a good Brahmin, must find some means of reclaiming his house without violence toward the invaders. At three the next morning, he and three of his servants return. Illuminating the garden section by section with the gaseous glare of kerosene, they strip every tree of its ripe fruit. It is not a large garden, but severely overgrown, and it takes them until six before all the fruit is stacked neatly in the pantry.

As Hanumarathnam locks the garden doors, a female servant prepares several platters: two of fruit and a third heaped with cooked rice mixed with fatty yogourt, mustard seeds, curry leaves. Hanumarathnam carries the rice, two others the fruits. They place these ceremoniously at the bottom of the steps into the wasteland behind the house, just outside the courtyard door.

That day, Hanumarathnam opens the front doors of the house so neighbours from up and down the street can come and help themselves to fruits. He monitors the sounds of the monkeys over the course of the day and hears them discover the plates. They feast, and waste food, and waste time and then come over the walls into the courtyard and garden. Their chattering grows progressively more outraged as they discover nothing but hard green fruits. These function well as weapons, or toys, and they batter the walls and doors for a time. But they are still hungry and soon scuffle off to other locales.

Hanumarathnam has reserved a portion of the ripe fruit. This, with a plate of yogourt rice, becomes the next morning’s offering, half as large as the day previous, but still generous. It is placed four paces away from the back wall, four times farther than the day before. The next day he halves the offering again, and doubles the distance. By the end of the week, the monkeys lackadaisically lap up the token offering left by the side of the canal a furlong from the courtyard door. They have stopped coming to Hanumarathnam’s garden.

On a day deemed favourable by the religious almanacs, all the doors are flung open, and the cleaning is done in earnest. Hanumarathnam, with the servants, works to clear the garden, uprooting dead trees and installing seedlings. Two female servants use a new bucket to haul up well water, which they sluice top to bottom and side to side, from the very front of the house to the back. They scrub the courtyard thoroughly with coconut coir to remove all stains and traces of the monkey invasion, then scour it with cow dung. Hanumarathnam himself perfumes the corners with sandal paste and incense.

Hanumarathnam hires a Brahmin lady to do a final cleaning, to bring the house up to caste standards so his wife will have to do only a few small things for ceremony’s sake, such as hanging bundles of mango leaves and spiny cactus above the door, against the evil eye. Their first act, on her arrival, will be a puja for the black stone Ramar installed in the main hall, the Ramar that was the object of his mother’s devotion and that has stood neglected, though still noble, since her death.

Three weeks after she comes of age, Sivakami is escorted to her husband’s home. Before she mounts the bullock cart, she falls at her elders’ feet. All of their blessings are the same: Bear your husband many children. May your first child be male. Always be modest. A family’s honour is a woman’s responsibility. The blessings cut through the wonder and fear of departure: she is confident these accomplishments can and will be hers.

She alights in Cholapatti, feeling elegant in a silk sari of red and yellow checks, ornamented with less gold than on her wedding day but still quite brilliant in thick gold bangles and dangling jimiki earrings. A gold chain threads the sides of her sternum; her wedding pendants fit snugly between her small breasts, hidden beneath sari and blouse from any jealous glance. Hanumarathnam greets her in front of their home, together with his aunt, his uncle and his cousin Murthy. This is the only time when it is proper for a groom’s family to show hospitality to a bride’s. Sivakami’s parents and uncles will be put up next door.

The party goes there first, to socialize until the sunset, when the young couple are seated side by side and served a meal with much banter. Tonight, they say, is the night of “Rudra Shanti Muhurtam,” the pacification of the bride’s passions. Sivakami is not sure yet what her passions are, but supposes it is good they will be calmed. After they drink cups of sweetened saffron milk, the couple are escorted to the chamber on the second floor of Hanumarathnam’s house, where the bed has been made with the new quilts Sivakami has brought, and strewn with flowers. The couple are seated there, blushing so that sweat beads attractively on their foreheads and upper lips. After singing to them, the party closes the door, going to make merry and leaving the newlyweds to do the same.

SIVAKAMI’S TERRORS AND SORROWS in the early months of her marriage are much the same as any new bride’s. It hardly seems worth troubling the imagination to find pity for her, so common are her woes. At first, she tries constantly to please her husband, but he is easily pleased. Sivakami has no mother-in-law, so her own mother comes twice in six months to ensure standards of household management and nutrition are not being thrown to the four winds. Hanumarathnam’s aunt, Annam, who raised him and lives next door, might have done the honours, but her own new daughter-in-law, Rukmini, is using up all her attention.

Essentially, Sivakami is alone with her husband. She appreciates this but will appreciate it even more in retrospect. Each morning, she bathes at the Kaveri River and does the kolam, the design a girl or woman of a house draws daily in rice flour on a freshly swept threshold. Then she does a puja for the Ramar. Before sunrise, she lays out fruit and rice beside the canal for the monkeys. She cooks. Each afternoon, while her husband naps, she cries a little in a corner of the pantry. She cooks. Each evening at sunset, she watches the parrots swooping low over the roof. At night, she and her husband have sex. They talk, mostly about the village and religion and the daily matters of their shared life. She likes her husband and comes quickly to rely on him.

She comes also to know the Brahmin quarter and her neighbours. Hanumarathnam’s aunt Annam, who apparently looks and sounds just like her late sister, Hanumarathnam’s mother, and her husband, Vicchu, are kind and helpful, even while they are preoccupied with training their daughter-in-law. Rukmini arrived six months before Sivakami, and Sivakami alternates between feeling sorry for her, having to accommodate her parents-in-laws in exactly the way Sivakami herself has been spared, and feeling envious of the extended family and parental surrogates she has been denied. Rukmini and Sivakami see each other daily to exchange cooking or gossip, and so Sivakami hears the older girl’s mild complaints about her mother-in-law, which are never venomous or even very specific. Rukmini’s complexion is uneven, marked by evidence of some childhood malady, measles or chicken pox, but she is tall, with broad shoulders, and an exceptionally good cook, which her in-laws appreciate, though they’re more likely to tell others this than tell her. She has frizzy hair that won’t grow past the shoulders, and irritates Sivakami with excessive attention to her glossy, waist-long tresses-What does it matter, really? she thinks, though she knows she is proud of her hair.

Murthy is slightly shorter than his wife and has a high-pitched voice. He chiefly endears himself to Sivakami with his pride in Hanumarathnam’s abilities. Since a mother’s sister is considered a second mother, and a father’s brother another father, Murthy considers Hanumarathnam to be his own brother and takes personal credit for his accomplishments. He himself barely made it through eighth standard before stopping. He nominally assists in looking after the family lands, which have been split now that Hanumarathnam has received his share, but mostly spends his days snoozing on the veranda and occasionally holding forth on some article he has read, say on recent advances in science and technology. Hanumarathnam commented once to Sivakami that Murthy always mangles the details of these reports, and she has never since been able to respect Murthy, though she is fond of him nonetheless.

They live in the house to the left. Sivakami never meets the people to the right. She hears their story from Hanumarathnam’s aunt, though when she repeats it, wide-eyed, to her husband, he tells her not to take all the details so literally. No one ever sees the wife of that household, because she is ashamed, knowing everyone on the Brahmin quarter fears her. Her mother-in-law was a witch, and bribed the young woman to become one too. She accepted a necklace of gold coins, along with her mother-in-law’s hellish, itchy craving to periodically cast a spell. When, every so often, some old, weak or retarded person snaps and becomes crazy, the village understands the young witch has satisfied her demonic urge upon this victim. The craving tormented the elder woman; she died soon after passing it on and now rests, supposedly in peace, not knowing the real tragedy of her family: one of the young witch’s early spells was misdirected at her husband’s sister, a beautiful, bitter woman, who now crouches and gibbers, incontinent, in a corner of their house. Sivakami hears the sister-in-law sometimes-howling for food, chuckling eerily or delivering obscene diatribes-and shudders.

Cholapatti’s Brahmin quarter is a single street of some fourteen houses, ending in a Krishna temple. At the other end, closest to where Sivakami lives, the road curves out past a small Shiva temple and joins the main road into the nearest town, Kulithalai, the Taluk seat, where there is a sizable market, a courthouse, a club, even a small train station. Although Samanthibakkam, the village where she grew up, is larger than Cholapatti, it is much farther from any town of size, and she enjoys the sense of proximity to bustle and importance, even if she rarely sees it herself. Cholapatti’s Brahmin quarter is surrounded by fields, but there are small settlements of other castes, agricultural workers mostly, tenant farmers on the properties owned either by Cholapatti Brahmins or by the better-off residents of Kulithalai.

Once in the early months of her marriage, she goes to a wedding in Kulithalai: the Brahmin quarter there consists of two streets whose mix of prosperity and humility is similar to that on the street where she now lives. It is bordered on one side by a large quarter of Chettiars, whose opulent homes rise above their shops: jewellery, fabric, pawn and moneylending. When Sivakami goes shopping with Murthy and Rukmini, she sees there is variation in the Chettiars’ prosperity, but this doesn’t alter her perception of that caste as uniformly money-grubbing and flashy. Streets of other castes: Reddiars-she’s not sure what they do, business of some kind; a few families of Marwaris, with their fair, sharp features and gold hoop earrings, competing with the Chettiars for moneylending business; others she cannot name, including members of the agricultural classes wealthy enough, by wile or inheritance, to live in town; these streets bow out to enclose the circular stone bench at the market square, petering out beyond the train station, or at the river, which runs alongside the main road from Cholapatti. The untouchables’ neighbourhoods are in the hinterlands, though she has never seen them, nor even thought of them: the barbers, the funeral workers and so on, who all have their own traditions and hierarchies.

Once Sivakami saw a white man alighting from a horse cart in front of the train station. She asked Murthy if white people lived in Kulithalai, and he laughed, “No, no!” Hanumarathnam told her that might have been a circuit-court magistrate, paying a bi-monthly call, or a revenue supervisor visiting from Thiruchinapalli, the city, some hours away by train. He has promised her they will visit someday.

As to the rest of the Cholapatti Brahmins, Sivakami made their acquaintance when she and Hanumarathnam paid their post-wedding calls. There are three grand households. Hanumarathnam is great friends with the husband of one, at the far end. The other is a duplex, five doors down, brothers who built across from their father’s more modest house. And there are three very poor households, including that of the woman Hanumarathnam hired to clean his house. Her husband is a cook-for-hire, the lowest profession available to Brahmins. At their house, Hanumarathnam and Sivakami did not take a meal but, with cordial remove, accepted tumblers of churned yogourt and stale snacks that Sivakami supposed the husband brought home from weddings where he worked.

In other words, for all that this life is so new to her, she has a profound sense of order: everyone in their places, easily found when needed, otherwise comfortably unseen.

Then this.

It is strange. Even if all of Cholapatti insists it is normal, she will refuse to believe it. But what if it is normal? Will she live with this for the rest of her life?

She sits on her haunches and rocks back and forth while she adds up, in two separate mental columns, the factors that make her marriage normal and the factors that make it strange. Before now, reflections on her marriage were either smug or self-righteous, depending on how she felt toward her husband in the moment. At present, alone-she has never been alone before, she’s barely got used to being alone in a room once in a while, and now the whole house balloons empty around her-she is terrified.

The long list of normal factors gives her some satisfaction, and thus a little calm. She wants to demonstrate to herself that, on balance, her marriage is not materially different from any other Brahmin union. Next, she tackles the strange.

1. She is the second wife of a widower. Widowers with children marry their deceased wives’ sisters, if they can, because such women have maternal feelings toward their nieces and nephews. Widowers without children marry girls no one else will have. Neither condition applied to Sivakami, a fair-skinned, able-bodied, obviously intelligent girl of good family. But her parents offered her no explanation and she had come to see it as of little significance: he never even met his first wife, after the wedding. That long-ago girl must seem as unreal to him as she does to Sivakami. Sivakami edges this factor, in her mind, toward the normal column-Hanumarathnam, so young, barely qualified as a widower.

2. It is a little unusual that he is a healer, but there are others who divine people’s ills and offer remedies of holy ashes, each-each unique but looking each-each the same. Also, he doesn’t consult any priest for astrological advice but goes straight to the stars and makes the calculations himself. Though unusual, these are at least activities appropriate to Brahmins with a paadasaalai education-natural extensions of his training.

Sivakami takes a breath.

3. Her husband has just wandered off into the forest with a small band of itinerant ascetics, siddhas, naked but for their hair and some holy ash, or maybe dirt, smeared in patterns on their blue-black or mud-brown skin, stretched taut on bony bodies…

She shudders. Her husband, a young, healthy, even slightly flabby Brahmin man, has walked off in a jolly manner with three siddhas, men who know no caste boundaries, whose origins are obscured by their membership in this mystic cult, who have no right, as far as she is concerned, to come in contact with respectable caste householders.

The fiends had come to the front door. She had heard Hanumarathnam’s brisk step behind her and stepped back, gaping at their audacity, to allow him to chastise them. He passed through the door, said, “I’m going out,” and then she was watching him disappear. She had looked around, hoping, at least, that the neighbours hadn’t seen, but they all had. She had closed the door, something never done in daylight, too shocked to resume what the siddhas had interrupted: her afternoon cry.

She enjoys this cry, as she enjoys the parrots at sunset, and sex, and being mistress of her own home. She is only thirteen years old and misses her mother’s hands in her hair each morning, and the little puppy her brothers had found a few weeks before she left, and so she weeps a little each day. A little less each day, but still she weeps because she is on her own with her husband-even though he is handsome and gentle and is teaching her the ways of love.

Sometimes, during the day, she thinks about what happened the night before, in the dark of the closed house. He’s always giving her some instruction or another, which often makes her giggle. When she finally manages to do what he is telling her, however, he is usually correct about the result. (You may imagine him as a young scientist in his first laboratory-many theories and, finally, the opportunity to try them.) Last night’s was challenging, but she is slim and supple…

Sivakami snaps herself from her reverie. He is gone! He has disappeared into the forest and here she sits idly beneath a window with a stupid smile on her face. She walks briskly to the well in the back, draws a bucket of water, cool even now in the hot season, and roughly washes her face. Stalking back into the main hall, she falls on her knees in front of the large black stone Ramar that dominates the room.

That morning, she ground fresh sandalwood pulp to anoint it, the figures of noble Rama, who stands in the centre, chest out, holding his signature bow; chaste Sita, to his left, her palms together, head modestly inclined; warriorlike Lakshmana, to his brother’s right; and faithful Hanuman, the monkey god and Rama’s deputy in the war on Lanka, who kneels before them. Every day Sivakami decorates them with sandalwood and vermilion, ornaments them with blossoms of marigold and jasmine and then proves the gods’ beauty by burnishing their features with chips of lighted camphor, held aloft. Her mother-in-law’s devotion to this statue had been legendary. She called her son after Hanuman, the monkey, Rama’s most ardent devotee, and appended it with “rathnam,” a common suffix for boys’ names in this region, in honour of the hill temple in whose shadow they live, the founding myth of which concerned a gem lost then found.

Hanumarathnam’s name is a constant reminder to Sivakami (whenever she hears it; she herself would never say her husband’s name) of the legacy she has inherited. The statue is the household embodied.

She prays, but on this dark afternoon when their home has been seemingly sundered by prehistoric wraith-men, she feels she must do more. She plucks flowers from her garden, weaves fragrant garlands, drapes them on her gods and falls again before them in supplication.

It’s still not enough. She needs not cold stone but warm eyes. The neighbours have all seen anyway. She goes out her back courtyard and next door, to see her husband’s aunt, Annam. Sitting on the step behind her kitchen, she pours out her heart.

Annam laughs, then stops at Sivakami’s expression and pats her knee. “He has always done that, ever since he was a small boy. They come and look for him, he spends a few days with them. He used to ask me to prepare a packet of food to give them when they returned. That will be your job now. No one knows what they do, what they tell. One very naughty boy, you know, Jagganathan, he tried to spy on Hanumarathnam once, some fifteen or twenty years back.”

“Mute Jagganathan, up the road?” Sivakami frowns.

Rukmini comes into the kitchen from their main hall, rubbing her eyes, her sari dishevelled as she wakes from her afternoon rest.

“The last time he spoke was to boast that he was going to find out the secrets of the siddhas, whatever they share with your husband. ‘Why not me?’ he said. ‘I’m as good as him.’ Stupid boy. We never found out what he saw. Swagger on his face, he opened his mouth to tell us what he had learned. No sound came out.”

“Can’t he write things on a slate?” Sivakami lets herself be drawn into the story.

“He has never written what he saw. Your husband was only a boy. He went and spoke to Jagganathan’s mother, tried giving cures, but nothing worked. I think he was not the one who did it. I suspect he could cure Jagganathan now, if he wanted. But maybe he thinks…”

She pauses until Sivakami prompts her. “Thinks…?”

“Maybe he thinks it is better if Jagganathan has no chance to speak.”

Sivakami looks away, pouting, and wonders if she has betrayed him by coming here.

“Go home. Have your supper, lock the door, go to sleep. Hanumarathnam will wake you if he comes in the night. If he doesn’t, he will come soon.”

“Is he safe?” Sivakami asks finally, betraying a little anger that this was not her first concern.

“Was he safe all those times before you were his wife?” Annam snorts and gets up. “How many people have what he has? It is a gift and you are very lucky. I’ll send my servant’s daughter to sleep in your house tonight so you won’t be afraid.”

As soon as it is cool enough, Sivakami goes up on the roof to scan the countryside. Dusk finds her numbly watching the parrots as they take their low sunset swoops. Shortly after dark, the servant girl arrives and silently sleeps in the main hall as Sivakami lies awake. Nearly two days pass in long hours. The elderly servants come at their usual times, to sweep, bring vegetables and kerosene from the market, sort the rice for stones, shape cow dung into patties and slap them onto the courtyard walls to dry into fuel chips. They give no indication that they think anything is wrong, as Sivakami sits half willing them to notice her fuming in a corner of the main hall.

She is the cherished only daughter of a not unknown family. She was not raised to be left alone. She didn’t marry to be left alone. She reviews again the details of her marriage, which echo in her mind like her footfalls in the empty house.

When Hanumarathnam returns, Sivakami is haggard. Though thinner, he seems renewed, vigorous, faintly glowing even. He asks her if she has cooked. She has, as she has three times every day of his absence, anticipating his return.

“Pack four meals, my dear. Large meals,” he says, his eyes dancing with hidden thoughts, new knowledge, non-Brahmin fascinations of which she is no part.

He knows things he has no right to know.

But he is her husband and he has asked for food, so she packages rice with sambar and vegetables into plantain leaves and binds them neatly with long fibres pulled from palm leaf stems. The yogourt rice course she wraps separately with tidy daubs of pickles. She is numb. She is packing food for her husband’s abductors, his friends, his mentors, who are just the sort of people she has been taught are dirty-which anyone can verify by looking at them. By smelling them.

They are not only smelly, they are sarcastic. Sarcastic to the point of blasphemy: as they saunter along the Brahmin quarter in the direction of the Krishna temple, no doubt savouring the pollution their naked, non-Brahmin forms are bestowing on the sanctified land, they cry, “Here is a body, feed it!”

It is the cry that distinguishes mendicants from beggars. In the old days, before Brahmins secured land and, thus, income, when they were strictly priests and scholars, living in righteous poverty, they would gather their daily sustenance by walking the street, carrying nothing but a brass jug and a walking stick. Hearing their cry, “Here is a body, feed it!” villagers would run after them and press upon them paddy and lentils. Now this drama is being re-enacted before Sivakami’s own house, except that those offering are Brahmins and the criers are non-Brahmins and Sivakami’s husband, a Brahmin, is the non-Brahmins’ great friend.

So now that he’s back, she asks herself, Who is he, her husband? Is marriage not a known quantity, a thousand and one inconsequential variations on fixed roles and results?

Sivakami becomes pregnant the night her husband returns.

Which is to say that things go a little differently from usual. After it happens, her husband explains that this is the required conclusion if they are to create children, but that it has not happened before because the philosophy in which he is receiving instruction teaches that men must learn to conserve their life force, to keep it within them and not jet it from their bodies at the first hint of pleasure. This night, though, for him, it was not possible. Perhaps he was weak from three days without food, perhaps exhilarated by his learning, perhaps just a little too glad at holding her again. Sivakami was at first frightened by seeing his eyes roll, his body tense and spasm. She had thought for a moment that he was having a seizure-could this be one more thing about him she hadn’t been told? Following his explanation, she is relieved, and testifies also to her happiness at his return, though she is a little disappointed by the brevity of their fun.

Now that they are together again, in the pre-dawn, post-coital calm and commonality, she is emboldened to ask about these siddhas, suddenly so central to her marriage. Her husband replies, “They are men. Men concerned with perfection.”

“What perfection?” She tries not to scoff.

“Lower metals can be made into gold,” he says, and his tone makes her wonder for a moment if he means this literally. “Have you heard of that? The siddhas are teaching me how. And, by an analogous process, the body can attain spiritual freedom. Perfection, like gold, but while still in life, not after, you see?”

He is not really asking and so she just allows him to continue.

“But it is a very, very long process. These men, the siddhas, how old do you think they are?”

“I don’t know.” She doesn’t want to show too much interest.

“Guess.” He smiles.

She sits up, her arms wrapped around her knees. “I can’t see them very well, their hair snakes to their knees, they’re all dusty, and I didn’t look, sort of, directly.”


“They wear no clothes, am I supposed to inspect them?” Hanumarathnam begins laughing and her irritation increases as she continues. “Go up and stare at these naked men up and down to determine the depth of wrinkles beneath their coat of mud and ash?” She stops and waits, sulking, until he answers his own question.

“They are some hundreds of years old.”


Hanumarathnam looks a little taken aback at her vehemence, and she is both scared and glad.

“Truly I am saying,” he continues a bit cautiously, “they extend their lives. It takes so much time to transform the soul, and since the body is the soul’s vessel, its life, too, must be extended. And their practices increase vigour and so naturally extend the life. They must live long, else how to learn and practise sufficiently? How to find time?”

“Is that what you are doing?”

“I am not a siddha.” He stretches and yawns.

“I thought they hated Brahmins.”

“They do,” he says lightly. “They mock Brahmins.”

“Then how have they come to call on you?”

“Brahmins have knowledge too.”

“They want to learn… what? Astrology? Healing arts?” This, at least, is something in which she can take satisfaction: they are interested in his scholarship.

“We sometimes debate.”

This is less welcome: a debate implies he treats them as his equals. “And you are learning their… to… extend your life? You are going to live for hundreds of years?”

“I said, I am not a siddha.”

“But you are doing their practice, philosophy, whatever you call it.” What, exactly, is his relationship with them?

Hanumarathnam sighs. “I am living here with you in the Brahmin quarter,” he says, his mouth a bit tight as he speaks in the minor-key singsong reserved for unnecessary explanations. “Once or twice in a year I go with them, then I come back to my nice house and I try some experiments. There are forces at work in my life which do not enter into theirs.”

“Is it true that they write obscene poetry?” Surely this, she thinks, should cap her case.

“It has other meanings also…”

“Anti-Brahmin messages and so on.”

“Yes, yes. Anti-Brahmin messages. Is this what the neighbours have been telling you while I was away?” He doesn’t wait for a reply. “The poetry is satirical. It is critical of the idea of caste.”

“I should hope you debate this, at the least.”

“Yes… but the poetry is more. It is also about spiritual life. Transformation. The perfection of base matter…”

“Like base metals into gold.”

“Quite.” He pats her knee. “They have means.”

Sivakami maintains what she thinks is a look of resolute skepticism, though she feels a little reluctant excitement at the idea that her husband may be learning a means of prolonging his life.

HANUMARATHNAM IS HAPPY about the pregnancy, though worried because his wife is so small. Sivakami’s confidence and self-assurance grow with the itty-bitty body within her own, and she reassures him. They have created a child, they are carrying on an important work, one he cannot undertake without her, and one for which she is fully equipped. The unmarried Sivakami was passionate but reserved; the newly married Sivakami was determined yet unsure; the pregnant Sivakami sits on a solid sense of her worth in the material and spiritual universe.

By the third month, though she is not getting large at all, she is getting a little uncomfortable. Her belly is becoming heavy. Not swollen, not churning-this is not a fictional sensation nor is it gas. She is bearing a significant wombal weight. She continues to be active and cheerful, but as the fourth and fifth months pass, the slight roundness grows and distends downward, slung in her pliant skin. By the end of the sixth month, though no one would even know to look at her that she is pregnant, she can barely stand. When she does, she must lift her middle against her interlaced fingers. She finds ways to manage.

Her nervous husband makes sure she is never without household help, instructing the two old woman-servants never to go home. They have five betel-stained teeth between them and have suffered a significant loss of memory with age, especially memory for all difficult tasks. But they enjoy the status conferred by age, and most days, Sivakami finds one of their nieces or granddaughters washing the pots and clothes, pounding the paddy and sorting for stones. The wise old women wisely confine themselves to the sedentary tasks of stripping leaves for thatch and cracking jokes, chewing betel in the courtyard or on the step out back. Newsmongers stop by to ply them with frequent gossip.

Hanumarathnam also arranges for a penurious Brahmin lady to come in to cook. She slips quietly in and slips out, so as not to have to acknowledge the humiliation of labour. Sivakami, who is a snob but not cruel, tactfully ignores her. It’s easy because most of her concentration is taken up with sitting, walking or lying down. She cannot turn over once she lies down but has to grasp her middle, sit up and steadily descend onto the other side.

As the nine-month mark nears, Hanumarathnam and one of the old women-servants escort her to her mother’s home, as is customary and expected. They leave her there to be doted on for a few weeks before the birth. She is fed sweets; her nieces sing to her; her sisters-in-law loop strings of fragrant jasmine into her hair. Though she never complains, her brothers’ wives watch her heaving her wee belly around and dryly wonder what she will do when she has a pregnancy of substance.

One day, with the unexpected prescience of some fathers-to-be, Hanumarathnam departs in a rush for his wife’s village. He arrives to find Sivakami in the concluding hard stages of labour. A barber’s scrubbed wife has been working with Sivakami for some eight hours. Sivakami’s mother can’t stand the sight of blood and is dithering around the well in the back. Hanumarathnam’s father-in-law is pacing the street and veranda, a wreck, trying to think nice things to block out his daughter’s groans and cries. He attempts to smile at the arrival of his son-in-law, but there is an undercurrent of blame. He blames Hanumarathnam, who is directly responsible for Sivakami’s present trials, but he also blames himself, because he would have ensured that Sivakami be put in this position eventually, if not with Hanumarathnam, then with someone else. (He wants but cannot quite bring himself to blame society, which insists it must always be so: women marrying men, bearing their children. If they are at all able, it must always be so.)

Hanumarathnam can see how he feels. He feels rather the same. He touches his father-in-law’s feet. This makes the older man feel worse, even as he twinges with pride, a vestige of the wedding. Hanumarathnam proceeds into the house and finds himself ushered straight out the other end. He walks into the garden and along the side of the house, until he finds a window in the vicinity of the birthing room. He calls out, “Ayah! Ho, ayah!”

The exasperated barber’s wife finally appears at the window and asks, “What do you want?”

“How is she?”

“You have ears.”

“Here.” He holds out a lemon.

She stares at it and grunts distractedly, “Huh.”

“You must throw it out the window the second the child’s head appears.”


“The exact moment, you…”

She has caught the lemon and vanished back into the birthing room. He imagines her tucking it into one of the hundreds of secret pockets created by the random wrapping of the saris their class wears and finding it three days later. He gives himself over to fate. He sits and paces and prays for his little wife and baby.

But she is good, the barber’s wife, a very cool head, and the second the golden orb makes an appearance, she extracts the lemon with a flick of her hand in the region of her waist and tosses it to a niece who is seated on the threshold of the birthing room, a little girl whose curiosity far outweighs the smack and reiterated forbiddance whenever someone notices that she is still there. There is one in every household. “Run, run. Throw this out the window to that ayya. I have seen his baby’s head.”

The ecstatic child (who loves work as only children can) runs and hurls the lemon as hard as she can out the window, which is far above her height. So intent is Hanumarathnam on watching his hourglass and repeating a mantra that he doesn’t see the fruit’s flight, and only looks up when he hears a slap. He sees the lemon rolling toward him from the roots of the coconut tree it hit. Fortunately, he noted the time, the moment he heard the sound. He has a figure he can use to make his calculations.

Sivakami is up on her elbows, panting and sweating. The barber’s wife, though intent on her task, wordlessly conveys her boredom at this act that never was and never will be new.

Finally, it’s a push and a rush, a new mother nearly lifting off the cot with relief, and a baby girl sliding into the midwife’s hands, nearly pulling her to the floor because this is one heavy baby. Small to average size, but heavier than an iron skillet. As they gently wipe her with a warm, damp cloth, like a cow’s tongue on its calf, they notice this child is exceptionally beautiful.

“Jaundice,” says the barber’s wife at the child’s colour. But Sivakami, who doesn’t have the age or experience to question the ayah aloud, knows she is wrong. Though the baby will formally be given her paternal grandmother’s name, she will be called Thangam-gold.

Six weeks later, the small family returns home. Sivakami is relieved to see how her husband dotes on the little girl. Everyone prefers a boy, but this is just the first child. You can still hope.

Sivakami cannot lift the baby. Her middle is still a little weak and the baby heavy as a sack of bricks. Hanumarathnam lifts Thangam to the breast or lays her in her little cloth hammock so Sivakami can rock her. He even regularly puts his daughter in the crossed legs of his own lap to dandle her, something Sivakami has rarely seen fathers do. But Thangam is unusually good and calm. Everyone says so. Everyone loves to hold her. They need to hold her, even if their arms fall asleep and they stagger and sway and give themselves backaches. The baby doesn’t cry or even coo. Sometimes she smiles a faraway smile, and all around her are transported, stroking her golden skin, looking into her golden eyes.

2. Vairum 1902

THANGAM GROWS INTO A SOLEMN, obedient child. Even if she were not so heavy, one would have to say gravity is her chief characteristic. Sivakami recalls the feisty, fightingish child she was herself, battling three elder brothers and winning. It was hard for her as a girl: she was required to grow out of this and even now she is not sure she succeeded in leaving this part of herself behind. She is glad to see her daughter is not like her.

Sivakami is pregnant, again, four months along. But this new life is not heavy, neither is it soft. When Sivakami, curious, palpates her tummy, she feels a hard centre, like a coin, or a marble, or a gem.

One morning finds her in the kitchen, as usual, grinding rice and lentils into idli batter. Her left hand rotates the huge black obelisk of the pestle into the pit of the black stone mortar, polishing the pestle with her palm. As each rotation swings away, her right hand guides escaping batter back into the black stone pit. Thangam watches. Sivakami herself finds the motion mesmerizing and enjoys even more seeing her child engrossed.

Suddenly Thangam looks to the front of the house, where her father is holding his healer’s court on the veranda. She pushes herself to her feet and toddles forward with intent. Her weight grounds her. It enabled her to balance early, so walking soon followed. Sivakami calls her name, but Thangam doesn’t stop. Sivakami quickly wipes her hands and follows, but she is fearful of running, and so doesn’t catch Thangam before the little girl exits the front hall to the vestibule. She is confident, though, that her watchful father will keep her from leaving the veranda. When Sivakami arrives at the doorway, she sees Thangam framed in sunlight and, beyond her, three siddhas. The men return Thangam’s gaze, neither stare the more innocent or knowing, each curious and mildly calculating.

The trio is led by a tall man whose grey hair, yellowing at the temples, winds into smoothly matted locks that hit the backs of his knees. He has sharp, sculpted features and an imperious bearing. The others are younger and shorter. One appears to be in his forties, his wide face filled with sunny-looking, upturned features. The third, in his early twenties, has a surly, rebellious manner. He projects active defiance, while the others give off an air of amused inevitability about their Brahmin-quarter invasion.

Sivakami tries to lift Thangam into her arms, but of course the little girl is too heavy. She does succeed in turning her damply glowing child around and hustling her into the house, where she kneels and clutches her to her breast. She is furious: Hanumarathnam is telling the crowd of supplicants to come back another time, which means that, once more, with no notice, no thought for her feelings or preferences, he is off. He looks around the door at her and-without even a note of apology in his voice!-says he will not be away long.

The next day, they are to attend a wedding in Kulithalai, twenty minutes from Cholapatti by bullock cart. All Cholapatti Brahmins of stature are invited; the groom is one of their own. When Hanumarathnam’s aunt, Annam, calls from the road that they are ready to depart, Sivakami bustles out sullenly and pretends she will be able to lift Thangam onto the bullock cart alone, until Murthy is signalled by his mother to help. Rukmini, innocent and unobservant, asks after Hanumarathnam. Sivakami responds with a shrug, then feels shame at her own rudeness, which in turn prods her to cheer up and pretend to enjoy the day

At the bride’s house, a sea of primped matrons seethe round and among the festivities, cords of jasmine and roses tucked in their hair. Their husbands hover or sit, contented or nervous; their children race around. Girls twirl and squat, so their stiff silk paavaadais pouf out in bells that they pop like inflated cheeks; the boys twist and tweak the girls’ plaits and upper arms. In one corner is a sacred fire and around it are gathered the parties required to be relatively attentive-bride and groom, parents, bride’s brother, groom’s sister, priest. To satisfy a need for spectacle, puffed rice and ghee are sacrificed to the fire; any kind of animal sacrifice would admittedly command more attention, but at some point, for some reason, this came to be shunned in favour of things that don’t squeal or bleed. Once in a while, the priest intones the Sanskritic phrase that signals those gathered in witness to hurl rice or flowers to bless the union, which they do while hardly pausing for breath from their chattling-prattling.

The groom is from the last house on Sivakami’s street in Cholapatti, one of the grandest families on the Brahmin quarter. His father, Chinnarathnam, comes almost daily to exchange the news of the world with Hanumarathnam. The son, at thirteen, has already earned an English nickname, “Minister,” owing to his anglophilia and oft-declared political ambitions. Sivakami has met the boy often, since Minister accompanies his father whenever possible, interrupting pompously with opinions his father affectionately challenges him to refine. Sivakami has the impression that Chinnarathnam is more intelligent than his son, but skeptical in his essence and so unmotivated to join public life. Hanumarathnam also prefers the father but doesn’t hesitate to say it is Minister who will be remembered.

The bride is seven. Sivakami’s first glimpse of her is in the bride-and-groom games, keepaway coconut, which she wins, and the one in which the couple are put on a swing and sung songs with teasing, sometimes even lewd, lyrics. The little girl shouts to her mother from the swing, a question about a word she doesn’t understand. She elbows her groom until he looks cowed, half hanging off the end of the swing. Sivakami recalls her own marriage, so long ago already. She defensively feigned uninterest in Hanumarathnam-at least, she thinks she was pretending. She had enjoyed the games and new clothes, but when, on the second day, she told her mother she had had enough and tried to ignore the priest’s instructions, she was reprimanded sharply by a half a dozen people she didn’t know.

Chinnarathnam greets Sivakami, one eye straying to look for Hanumarathnam. Unlike the many other people who have asked after him, Chinnarathnam is tactful enough not to confirm what he knows. Sivakami cannot guess whether he is offended by Hanumarathnam’s absence, though she feels it must be a serious gaffe.

This, the second day of the celebration, is the most important. The couple will be made to walk seven steps together in imitation of their future life, with the fire as witness. They will swear eternal fidelity on the unwavering pole star. They will exchange garlands like exiled royalty in myths, those who have no family but the forest to help bind their fates. The bride will be collared with the saffron-threaded thirumangalyam, the emblem of her new state: two graven gold pendants that tell the world, in symbols neither she nor anyone else can decipher, whose family she has married. Vermilion is rubbed into the parting of her hair and the gold medals hung at her throat, so she becomes warm colour and wealth-everything good to look on.

Any of these ceremonies is individually sufficient to declare a man and woman one. But then the whole thing would be over so quickly, and how to choose among them? Bride and groom are jostled upon the shoulders of maternal uncles for the exchange of garlands; they feed each other bananas in sweetened milk; they pray, together and individually.

Three times a day, roughly corresponding to the ending of each ceremony, the gathering is fed. This does not include the many-early, late or simply hungry-who are fed in between. But three times daily, talk goes up a decibel as the gathering seats itself at rows of banana leaves laid out on the floor of the dining hall with the narrow end to the left. Each diner sprinkles the leaf with water, wipes it off with a hand, waits. The servers-hired help mixed with relatives-begin with a dollop of a gooey sweet onto the lower right corner of the leaf. The eaters lick this up: the first flavour to touch celebrants’ tongues must be sweet. Then along the half of the leaf above the bisecting vein, in order from left to right, are dished vegetables in dry and wet curries, pacchadis of yogourt and cucumber, of sun-cured mango with palm sugar or, in more fashionable homes, of shredded beet flavoured with essence of rose. The arrangement ends with vadai, deep-fried patties of lentil and chili, and a spicy pickle, say of lemon or baby mango, in the top right corner. Some sweet in the form of a square or ball goes on the lower left side of the leaf, along with pappadum to offset the mushy main item: rice, lower centre, without which this is not a real meal.

The first course is rice mixed with sambar, a thick lentil sauce; the second is rice with rasam, and thin lentil broth, which the diner must chase continually until it is eaten to keep it from running off the leaf. Next, another helping of the first sweet, warm and runny or sticky. Last, more rice, with home-brewed yogourt: “Scrubs the teeth and tongue!” Sivakami always overhears some pompous uncle saying to an uninterested youngster. “And aids the stomach in digestion!”

Flavours and textures and the order of a meal are arranged according to the Shastras that proclaim that if a meal is taken as prescribed, it will settle happily. Those who violate the prescriptions take their stomachs into their own hands.

In the afternoons, the corners of the hall, the small rooms adjacent to it, even the veranda, are heaped with sated, sleeping guests.

For days, it will continue: a ceremony peaking every few hours, every chant and gesture worn smooth as pebbles on the Kaveri riverbed by repeated practice since the Aryans first entered the south, bringing with them new gods and myths, pushing into the forests the fierce deities they found the darker natives worshipping; bringing with them a system for dividing people according to function, which the Portuguese, thousands of years later, would call caste. In halls such as these, they gather, the Brahmins, hardly newcomers now, yet slightly apart from this place where they have lived for millennia. The marriage fire forges another link in the chainmail of caste; every sound, sight and smell is a celebration of the clan.

When Sivakami and the others return from the wedding, Hanumarathnam still is not back. The next night, she lies awake, angry, though unsure whether she will say so. She has already wrapped packets of food to send the siddhas on their way, the third night she has done this, just in case they return. She doesn’t like their audacity and she doesn’t like their taking her husband, but she is never sure how to put that, or to whom. She hears him at the front, hurries to unlock the doors and fetches the food.

He has followed her, takes up the packets and goes back outside. Sivakami hears a musical voice mutter, “Where is the golden child? The transformation of your seed, your soul-breath?”

Hanumarathnam laughs a little and answers ruefully, “Yes, the only alchemy I have ever effected.”

“No less miraculous, brother. And she will grow, flesh upon bone, to face the trials of this well-worn cycle.”

“You are kind.”

“Blessings on her, and the next, and on your home,” replies the voice.

Her husband enters their house once more and locks the locks against the night and the moon’s glow, and all is as it should be. From deep down the Brahmin-quarter path, the cry floats back at them, “Here is a body, feed it!”

Hanumarathnam chuckles.

Sivakami’s objections are at a standstill. From anyone else, she would have had suspicions of dhrishti, evil eye, from such a compliment. Still, she goes and waves a fistful of salt over her daughter; it doesn’t hurt to take precautions. Siddhas don’t want family or home, so why would he put the evil eye on them? It’s not logical, not likely. She doesn’t let Hanumarathnam see her with the salt-he has no patience with superstition. She flushes the salt along the drain out the back of the courtyard and feels cleaner than she has for days.

Sivakami is much more mobile than she was with her first pregnancy, and keeps a closer eye on the hired help. The servants are a little resentful but do not take her too seriously.

Every pregnancy has its peculiar discomforts, though. This time, Sivakami finds it hardest when the baby kicks or she squats. His swimming within her is like being prodded with an iddikki, an iron pot-tongs, all angles and edges.

She says “him” because she knows-and her knowledge is bordered with single-minded wishing-that this baby will be a boy. If you have a girl and a boy, it doesn’t so much matter what the others are after that. Everyone says you raise a girl for someone else-you pay for her wedding and then the fruits of your investment are enjoyed by others. She is the wealth that leaves your family. A boy is the wealth that stays. Still, you must have a girl and a boy, a girl, then a boy, or a boy and then a girl, but she already has a girl… Everything is going so well, it would be very hard to have a disappointment now.

She has seen couples who seem very happy for the early years of their marriages. Then, if they have no children, they enter a state of suspension. If they have girl after girl, they enter a state of constant worry. The ones with boy after boy, though, say, “Oh, yes, shame, isn’t it, seven sons, we would have liked a girl, but at least we will have grandchildren and our boys to live with in our old age!”

And the parents of five girls say nothing but wonder if one of their daughters will be tending these idiots in their dotage, and make a mental note not to let it happen.

Disappointment and lack of change wear down the life of a couple, she concludes. It should not happen. In her last trimester, she takes some quasi-medical advice from old ladies to ensure it does not: rubbing holy ash on her belly and using compresses of fresh herbs they gather for her at specific times of day.

Finally, she is off to her mother’s house for the delivery. Her husband comes just before the birth. He hands the lemon to the barber’s wife and reminds her, “As soon as you see the top of the baby’s head.”

She nods, she nods, she waves him away. He says over his shoulder, finger wagging in the air as he is shunted out the door, “It’s very important!”

May as well be shouting to the trees. The trees, in fact, nod at him condescendingly as he enters the garden, and then they, too, ignore him. No choice but to take up his position, to pace and fret.

No one pays him much mind because he is behaving like any expectant father. He wishes his concerns were those of any expectant father. He wishes he were just concerned for the health of his wife and baby. Instead, he is concerned for himself-a concern that has pursued him ever since he first pursued Sivakami.

A man must marry. A man must have children. But what if a man’s horoscope-the weakest quadrant, but nonetheless-says he will die in the ninth year of his marriage? Because of its placement, this really is not likely to happen, but it is difficult not to feel qualms. But say a son is born at an auspicious moment: the conflagration of father’s and son’s stars, the conflation of their horoscopes, could change destiny. A son has the ability, with his birth, to assure his father’s longevity. Some people think of children as a means to immortality; Hanumarathnam doesn’t want to live forever but wouldn’t mind just a few more years. Then, the boy’s birth might make no difference at all, in which case he will live with the same uncertainty as everyone else.

With Thangam, he had no such worry, because he had a strong feeling the first would be a daughter. He was not ready for a boy, then. He was not ready to know. This time he does not know even if this child is a boy. He might be pacing and fretting for another girl.

Nothing to do but wait.

Hanumarathnam stomps the garden to a pulp while, within, Sivakami concentrates on the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“Oh,” says the barber’s wife. “Hmm… well… don’t worry,” she mutters, as though encouraging herself.

“What?” Sivakami pants.

“Bum first. No matter.” She nods at Sivakami. “We’re going to have to do this fast, all right? It’s your second time at this, you know what you’re doing…”

Sivakami feels another contraction coming on and the barber’s wife commands, “Get it out!”

A few moments later, Hanumarathnam hears a squalling. He throws his arms up in frustration, notes the time, goes to the window and yells, “Lemon!”

It is hurled out the window at him, but he pays no attention. “Girl or boy?” he shouts.


A boy. The barber’s wife finishes wiping the child and hands him to Sivakami with the suppressed satisfaction of one who has accomplished a feat much more difficult than those around her appreciate. Sivakami doesn’t even look at her as she receives her son. He’s a little skinny, and darker than his parents, though she doesn’t notice either of these qualities until her sisters-in-law point them out. The baby calms as she rocks him and starts to sing a nursery rhyme that was one of her own favourites as a child. He opens his eyes to gaze at her, his irises nearly black yet strangely brilliant, diamond sharp.

3. Only one, as an eye 1902

“Onnay onnu, Kannay kannu.”

“Only one, one, as an eye, an eye.”

When there is only one, how precious is that son.

SIVAKAMI IS AT ONCE PROUD AND COMPLACENT-complacent because she knew she would deliver a boy, and proud that she took every available measure to ensure it. When she emerges from her dive into her new baby’s eyes, she asks about Thangam. Since no good wife can say her husband’s name, everyone understands she’s asking after her husband. She expects to hear his voice responding. Instead, her youngest sister-in-law walks Thangam to the door of the birth room and tells Sivakami, obviously curious to see her reaction, “He’s gone already.”

Sivakami feels an unjustifiable pang.

At Thangam’s birth, Hanumarathnam had called to his wife, “I hear she’s a beauty-won’t tell a soul. I’ll return. Send word if you want anything.”

His presence at his children’s births was highly unconventional, after all. He attended only because he trusted no one else to record their birth times and make the consequent calculations.

Sivakami tells herself if he hadn’t said those few words to her after Thangam’s birth she wouldn’t be feeling this disappointment; she tells herself it is far more proper for him to leave, saying nothing, and return for the eleventh-day ceremonies as though he’d never come before; she tells herself he was too excited the first time and couldn’t restrain himself, but now he’s more mature. She tells herself he’s overwhelmed with emotion because she delivered a boy. She doesn’t tell herself that none of these excuses suffices.

Hanumarathnam is fleeing. He speeds, to the degree that he can in a bullock cart, toward his home and his instruments: his home, where he can think straight, and his instruments, which will tell him, finally, his fate.

He reaches Cholapatti as the sun is setting, at that time of day when what is known appears unknown. A sickened feeling in the pit of his stomach has nothing to do with village roads and the swaying cart. He says nothing about it to himself because that would be fatalism: a person irresponsibly deciding, on some caprice, that a terrible fate awaits him. Such a man will be continually preoccupied with his doom until something, anything, happens so he can say, “Aha! You see! I am doomed, it was not my imagination!”

Hanumarathnam has no patience with such whimsy. Destiny can be read precisely, scientifically, and this is precisely, scientifically, what he intends to do. Only after that, if necessary, will he fall into despair. Or sink into relief: he keeps himself optimistic.

On the Cholapatti rooftop, he works through the night. He notes his son’s birth time and birth location in tables, then creates other tables to repeat the calculations from different angles and starting points, checking them one against another, consulting charts and books. Every equation takes him back in time, so changed is the sky already from the moment whose influences he is enumerating as the night moves past the moon.

Every so often, he peers through his telescope, scavenged by a distant relative from the house of a dying British surveyor and bon vivant, and brought to Hanumarathnam in recognition of his talents. Where his ancestors relied on handed-down documents, he, always interested in other traditions’ teachings, supplements his Vedic calculations with measurements he has learned to make using telescopic observations.

He brings the stars close, through the lenses; he looks in their eyes. To those who merely admire the heavens, as they admire a new building in the city or another man’s wife, alterations in the sky are mere degrees of difference. They are interesting to observe, chart, identify. They are fine to forget. But, as all experiences, however fleeting or superficial, leave residues, so the moment-by-moment turning of heavenly bodies has momentous repercussions.

Hanumarathnam, all too fully aware of the ability of the heavens to sustain life, bring death and cause all the ups and downs in between, cannot simply stare in dumbfounded awe for a couple of seconds at the beauty of the skies and then go down to supper and sleep. What he sees writ is destinies untold.

Dawn breaks upon him. He has been sitting still a long time. Dew trickles down his neck, as if the morning sees he’s not sweating and thinks he should.

He has read that he will die.

Sooner, that is, rather than later. His weak quadrant has an astrological alignment with his son’s birth time, and this has darkened the shadow of death. The discus of the little boy’s stars will cut Hanumarathnam’s lifeline within three years.

At the eleventh-day naming ceremonies, Hanumarathnam goes through the motions. It’s not conspicuous: everyone is just going through the motions, as people do at these things. But Sivakami notices and is concerned: Hanumarathnam has not tried to get close to his son. With his daughter, he is still all fond smiles and lifting and swinging, though Sivakami perceives a sadness there too.

Why not the boy? Why not the boy? Sivakami wonders as she waits out the remainder of the thirty-one days’ seclusion. After a girl baby, seclusion lasts forty-one days, so Sivakami has another reason to be grateful for a boy: she couldn’t have borne this strange worry as long as that. Finally, Hanumarathnam comes to escort her home.

He makes his wife comfortable with the baby, who is a bit of a fusser, in the back of the bullock cart. Maybe that’s it, she thinks, the whimpering and whinging. It doesn’t bother her, but maybe that’s why his father keeps his distance. Or the baby’s looks: they don’t make her feel strange, but maybe they do his father? Sivakami is feeling sensitive: her eldest and youngest sisters-in-law had made a few remarks-the sort that sound kind-hearted but sting. “He’s obviously so alert, must be very intelligent, and what do good looks really matter for anyway?” and, with a little shudder, “Oh! Those eyes just look right through a person, don’t they?”

Hanumarathnam sits up front with his lovely daughter, showing her the sights, until her eyes are heavy. Then she leaves him to come and lie in back with her mother, where she insists on keeping one hand on the baby, as though the cart were a big cradle for both of them. Thangam has said nothing about her new little brother, but it is clear that she doesn’t share the world’s repulsion. Daily, since his birth, she has brought him gifts, sweets Sivakami pretends to feed him, for Thangam’s sake, and pretty leaves he crushes in a fist. She would squat on small haunches watching him almost without blinking, for half an hour at a time, until an aunt startled her by calling her name. If anyone asked her about him, though, she gave no answer but her vague, incurious gaze, and since the questions rarely needed answers-“You must be so proud, a big sister, eh, Thangam?”-the asker just pinched her cheek and turned away.

When Hanumarathnam brings Thangam to the back, he looks at the baby without speaking, and then returns to the front to sit with the servant who has come along as driver. Sivakami’s mind keeps running on in speculation: maybe he thinks the boy doesn’t look like him? But who can tell with a mashed-up barely one-month-old? She is feeling ill now, much as Hanumarathnam did on this journey just after his son’s birth. It is a variety of motion sickness, caused not by the rock-bump-sway of the animals and cart, but by the ringing and ricocheting of her thoughts as they tumble along and drag her behind.

They reach home by nightfall. That night, he sleeps, she doesn’t.

In the morning, they go through more motions. Sivakami watches Hanumarathnam: his movements look stiff, his face unnatural. She can feel the pressure of whatever he is thinking on her temples, on her chest, but she cannot guess at it and finally cannot bear it any longer. When he comes into the main hall for his mid-morning meal, the baby is napping and Thangam has gone next door to play with the still-childless Rukmini. Sivakami crumples to the floor and cracks out a plea through clenched teeth and tears, “Oh, my lord, my lord. What is happening? What is wrong?”

He immediately drops to his own knees, lifting Sivakami’s face to his and thinking how he loves her.

“Little one… I…” Where should he begin? With which small fact or hope? “I’m sorry, I…”

Sivakami is watching his face, her lips parted, trying to read what he is not telling her. He turns away so as to be able to tell her himself.

“I told your father when I proposed that…” He glances back and away again. “Let me explain. You know that if something is written in the weakest quadrant of one’s horoscope, it is extremely unlikely, yes?”

“Okay…” She has never heard this before, but the interpretation of horoscopes was never of particular interest to her.

“Your father and uncles knew that, and for the sake of honesty, I told them that my death in the ninth year of my marriage was written in that very weakest quadrant.”

Sivakami sits back on her haunches, no longer weeping, looking resolute and skeptical. “But…”

He will not be hurried. “Often, the birth of a son changes the relation of the stars, can even erase the shadow of death from the father’s horoscope.”

“Our son cannot have done that,” she says, sad and matter-of-fact.

“My calculations following our son’s birth show that Yama’s water buffalo has advanced from the weakest quadrant to the strongest,” he quietly agrees. “The god of death will surely come to take my soul in the third year of the boy’s life.”

“Ayoh!” Sivakami cries now. “Ayoh, Rama!”

“It is not the child’s fault…” Hanumaratham says as though it could be. “But he has killed me.”

She is now leaning on a pillar, he kneeling in front of the Ramar triptych, the glare of the street just out of sight through the front doors, reflecting into the hall along with the distant sound of daily life, but they don’t stay like that for long.

Sivakami soon pulls herself to her feet, and her feet carry her mechanically to the well. She washes her face, the face she has had and known for more than sixteen years-a long time, by some standards. She feels hard new lines drawn there by her husband and son. What will be written on those lines? Maybe they can read what she can‘t, these men who know so much. She returns to the hall and asks, “And so. What now?”

Her husband sees what she has felt on her face. He thinks, Look, two children, and no trace, now, of the girl. She has become a woman. How wonderful, how miraculous, that we go through these stages, walking the path of our lives one foot in front of the other, one in front of the other, this is how we live, this is how to live. He comforts himself with circular, cloudy thinking, the sort that makes respectable conversation in the face of grief. As if he’s rehearsing to attend his own funeral.

For now, though, he is still living, and so is Sivakami, and so are their two children, whose needs must be met, so the requirements of life put their feet one in front of the other. They eat and sleep and conduct business even though their life has been poured into a rice-sorting basket and tossed two foot, four foot, six foot in the air.

HANUMARATHNAM TELLS SIVAKAMI that he is going to teach her about household finances, administration of agricultural income, market relations and management of personnel, and that he has hired a new servant, a young boy, who will learn to assist her. If he works out well, and Hanumarathnam has good reason to believe he will, then he will be retained. If not, they will dismiss him and try quickly to find someone else. They cannot be dilly-dallying with this servant as they normally would. It is not enough that he is related to one of their old servants, not enough that he needs a favour, not even enough if he is entertaining or pitiable. He must be efficient, confident and worthy of trust. Hanumarathnam doesn’t need to say the reason: that Sivakami and the servant will be managing the lands on their own in a little more than two years and both must prove themselves capable.

A few days later, the new servant starts. Sivakami is giving the children their baths when she hears the boy call out from behind the door at the rear of their property. How can she help but hear his as one of the voices of death? Yet she herself opens the door. She forces herself, because the few times she has acted maudlin, it only made Hanumarathnam impatient.

The servant, a thirteen-year-old by the name of Muchami, accepts a cup of sugared milk and then leaves to accompany Hanumarathnam on his daily round of some portion of the properties. He walks behind Hanumarathnam out to the fields, then along the narrow hump separating paddy fields one from another and from the plots of other crops. Social imperative dictates that they cannot walk abreast on the street, agricultural imperative that they walk single file between the fields: the dividers between plots are less than a foot wide in places.

Muchami notes his new employer’s sure-footedness. It separates those who walk among the fields from those who don’t. Most landowners sit in their big fine houses and wonder lazily when to expect the rent, not giving it any more thought than that until some crisis passes the point of resolution. Hanumarathnam is obviously a landlord who likes to know what’s transpiring out among the folk, to sort out tangles while they are still small, even to anticipate them. Muchami is of the same mind. He marches proudly in step with his new employer. He decides he likes Hanumarathnam’s looks and tries to match his step to the seigneur’s.

They pause to clear fallen leaves from irrigation canals. They come slowly up beside the white herons that stand in the six inches of paddy water every morning. Only a few move away. Muchami listens patiently as Hanumarathnam tells him things he already knows, such as who the tenant is on each piece of land, his rent, his character and temperament. Muchami has always made it his business to know things. He finds knowledge more interesting than ignorance. So he doesn’t listen too closely but dreamily soaks in the sound of Hanumarathnam’s voice, which he might have likened to chocolate had he ever known chocolate. (He never comes closer to chocolate than the sound of that voice.)

When they return, he waits while his employer completes bath, prayers and meal. Hanumarathnam takes his rice meal at ten; Muchami receives the same. He ate already that morning but eats again because he is an accommodating sort of boy and, at thirteen, especially accommodating toward extra meals. Hanumarathnam sits in the main hall, Muchami in the courtyard.

As they eat, Hanumarathnam quizzes Muchami through the open doors of the pantry and kitchen.

“Shanmugham’s sesame field-what’s the northern border?” he calls.

Without missing a mouthful, Muchami calls back, “The teak stand that’s the southern border of Kantha’s turmeric field, Ayya.”

“Shanmugam’s paddy yield last year?”

“What he really got, Ayya, or what he told you?”

“Either one.”

“He paid you seventeen per cent of twenty-two bushels.”

“Other particulars?”

“Particulars you told me or other particulars?”

“Hm…” Hanumarathnam purses his lips. “The latter.”

“His brother’s wife has a cousin who went to work on a rubber plantation in Malaysia and never returned. News came on the wind that he married a beautiful village girl, but she is only a girl during the blue nights. By day, she becomes a monkey, called ‘orange-utange,’ or something.”

Hanumarathnam already has a strong feeling that he and Muchami share a point of view on relations with tenants and have a mutual appreciation of the importance of obscure if irrelevant information to everyday business. For instance, Hanumarathnam is certain that, in the past, tenants were tempted to cheat him. He thinks that he has succeeded in dissuading them by strategically mentioning “other particulars” about the party in question-giving the impression that he knew much more than he said. He’s sure Muchami also knows how to deploy such details to effect.

Next, Sivakami gives Thangam to Muchami to entertain while she begins her portion of the training.

Sivakami must also walk the fields, though she cannot actually walk the fields: were she truly to walk in public view, she would be risking their social position in an attempt to maintain their economic grip. Any respectable Brahmin matron keeps largely out of sight if her family can afford that modesty; a widow must be kept entirely hidden, so as not to expose her shame at her condition.

So Hanumarathnam has laboured to create a middle ground: a detailed map of the holdings for Sivakami to walk through with her eyes and mind. Hanumarathnam has accurately portrayed those properties: real and perceived distances, sizes, and productive capacity of each plot. It is not simply a matter of drawing a map to scale; one must choose what sort of scale: physical? psychological? This map has to show how a property relates to its owners, to itself, to tenants, to the community. This is business-not geography, not math.

Each holding is labelled with the tenant, fee and probable current and projected output. Each of these wants discussing: the age and character of the tenant, the age and character of a particular plot of soil, the problems and promise and possibilities of each. Some tenants have special agreements. They grow plantains for themselves among the coconut trees, for instance, until the coconut trees grow large and require that space. Hanumarathnam gets a slightly larger share of paddy for this, since he and Sivakami have plantains in plenty from their own garden. And what of the paddy to be sold? Selling at the market is an art and the middlemen are crafty. Sivakami and Muchami must be equipped to play this game; they must operate as a team.

Muchami is out back playing horsie, letting wee Thangam ride around on his back while Sivakami peers at the map, rotating it, biting her lip. Muchami is slight but must have considerable strength to give a horsie-ride to the world’s heaviest child, Hanumarathnam notes with satisfaction, just as the boy collapses in a pile of giggles. He had wanted a young man, someone who would be Sivakami’s legs and back, eyes and hands, throughout her life. But there are dangers, for a… a… (he does not let himself think widow). He had to find someone he could trust with his wife, who would be no more than eighteen and left alone in the world.

In the weeks between his son’s birth and his wife’s return, Hanumarathnam had found reasons to casually observe the young people of the servant class at play The rough and tumble of pubescent boys, their teasing and taunting of the girls, the girls’ half-hearted escape attempts… and he noticed a young man who didn’t participate in the taunting of the girls. He observed this young man more keenly and saw the youth was not gentle or shy. In Hanumarathnam’s opinion, this boy didn’t refrain from teasing out of an inordinate respect for females. He refrained because girls did not interest him. Hanumarathnam saw Muchami’s eyes gleam when the boys alone ran off to play kabbadi in the dust. He saw him tackling the tallest and best-looking boys and sitting on them a little longer than necessary; when he saw this, he guessed that this boy would not outgrow his boredom with girls.

Discreet inquiries revealed the boy to be called Muchami, to be the only son in a family of three children and to have a widowed mother. By way of one of the couples who work for him, Hanumarathnam summoned the widow to his house and explained his interest in employing her son. He met with the boy, who impressed him as sharp. The pact was secured, conditional on performance, the widow was eternally grateful and Muchami was instructed to show up a week or so after Hanumarathnam brought his wife from Samanthibakkam.

After the morning meal, the whole household naps, Hanumarathnam a little apart from Sivakami and the children in the main hall, Muchami on the narrow, sheltered platform that extends from the back of the house into the courtyard.

Around tiffin time, an agent comes to the house to purchase paddy. Muchami asks permission to handle the transaction on his own. Hanumarathnam complies, then watches with increasing admiration as Muchami bullies and shames and achieves a much better price for the paddy than Hanumarathnam ever has.

After the muttering and defeated middleman leaves, Muchami asks Hanumarathnam, “Ayya, why do you deal with that particular agent with your paddy?”

“I… because I have always dealt with him.”

“He’s been cheating you.”

“I know…”

“But less than the others would have.”

“I know.” Hanumarathnam wonders why he sounds defensive, given that he feels amused. “That’s why I always go to him.”

“Well, you can see he will cheat far less now. Today I did not permit any cheating at all, though I will, with your permission, Ayya, allow him to cheat now and again, just to keep him interested.” Hanumarathnam nods as Muchami continues, “The balance will still be more profitable for you than it has been.”

After this it’s market hour. Muchami will assume this not from Hanumarathnam, but from one of the other servants, a diligent man, but one for whom age is becoming an obstacle. Hanumarathnam takes Muchami to the market himself, to spare the old man the journey and to evaluate Muchami’s bargaining ability.

With the sellers of dry goods, vegetables, fruits and kerosene, Muchami uses much the same bullying and shaming techniques that were so effective with the rice agent. Hanumarathnam observes at a distance, thinking it would have made good business sense to hire such a savvy assistant much earlier. Muchami will pay for himself in no time.

Hanumarathnam has only occasionally gone to market-when he was young, and a servant was sick or perhaps away at a wedding. Every time, he wanted to bully exactly the way Muchami is doing now, especially when dealing with those merchants known to be particularly bad cheats. His caste consciousness would not permit him: such behaviour seems ungracious from Brahmins. It provokes jokes about mercenary priests, and Hanumarathnam is particularly sensitive owing to his role as village healer. If he were perceived as grasping, the villagers would still come to him for medicine, but his relationship to them would be altered by a lessening of confidence in the purity of his goodwill.

So he never tried, though sometimes he intervened on someone else’s behalf, because merchants cheat poor people even more than they cheat the rich and Brahmins. Hanumarathnam reflects momentarily that a poor person working for a middle-class household has the greatest bargaining advantages-the power to purchase in quantity and the knowledge and status of the street.

When they return from the market, Hanumarathnam comes in by the back courtyard, washes his feet, then proceeds to the veranda to sit on a jute-strung daybed and contemplate the Hindu newspaper.

Muchami enters the courtyard behind him and empties the bag of vegetables on the platform behind the kitchen. Sivakami squats to do the sorting. This was a ritual, enacted by her mother and various servants, that she had observed daily as a girl and looked forward to assuming: the mistress criticizes the servant’s choices, goes into shock at the expense, has all the fun of market banter without leaving the house.

But when, in her first week as mistress of her own house, Sivakami launched some imaginative criticisms of the produce, the old servant barely glanced at her. He just put the change down on a corner of the platform and wandered away, leaving her mumbling to fade into silence. The day following she asked him to stay while she inspected the goods, and he complied but shrugged at bruises and rot, claimed not to remember prices and was altogether no fun.

Now, unexpectedly, Muchami addresses her. “Beans are better than most. It’s not been a good season for beans. Don’t know how he gets such good beans, considering he’s such a coward.”

Sivakami is too surprised to respond. She has been silent with him till now, resenting him, hating what he represents. Now, she’s uncomfortably aware of her reluctance to risk a remark that might cause him to stop talking. He doesn’t seem to mind her silence and continues, “His wife and son are always ganging up with her sister and the sister’s husband. They ridicule him until he cries and runs away to sleep. They all live with him-he’s too scared to stop them. Must spend all his time finding these great beans.”

Sivakami, though still trying to be unfriendly, can’t help asking, “Why is he so scared?”

“Because he’s a coward, like I said. Look at these eggplants. I know they’re not gorgeous, but they were a free gift owing to my acquaintance with the seller. He used to beat up on me because I was a friend of his younger brother. Now he won’t try it because I’m working for you, Amma. Just cut off the bad parts, there’ll still be lots. Where do you want the lentils?”

He bounces the sack of lentils off one knee and then the other while waiting for her answer. She hurries to fetch the canister, and he puts away the other dry goods and the kerosene.

That night, Hanumarathnam talks to her about their newest employee. He is satisfied that he has chosen well this caretaker for his wife and children but is also aware that he may be giving this boy some power. He likes the idea that he has the power to give it and thinks Muchami will still know his place.

In those early weeks, Hanumarathnam continues the work of checking on crop yields and collecting the rent while Muchami tags along. The servant has adopted Hanumarathnam’s posture and stance, the slight stoop, the outward turn of the knees. He has found himself a walking stick, which he uses to dredge plantain leaves from irrigation tracts. He leans on it as he watches Hanumarathnam leaning on his own stick and talking to the peasant cultivators. Muchami’s dhotis become whiter, his hair smoother, and he adopts Brahmin turns of phrase and pronunciations, adding curlicues to a manner of speech that had already sounded a bit forced among his social equivalents.

Many of the tenants, along with Muchami’s uncles and mother, find his affectations silly, but the few who are impressed give him more than enough reason to continue. He begins monitoring and collecting on his own. Though he is tougher than Hanumarathnam, he never bullies the tenants. In the market, people expect to be bullied, but bullying peasant farmers in front of their homes is gauche. His family and close friends call him the landlord’s goonda, but they are only teasing. Muchami knows this and doesn’t get defensive; instead he swaggers around and pretends to be a real goonda. He knows he is successful.

Sivakami, too, senses that Muchami hopes to be something more than most among his class, and wonders if they might be of help along that path. She also finds herself, daily, looking more and more forward to his reports from his rounds, less and less inclined to hide her amusement. She has a few friends, Brahmin matrons like herself, who drop by from time to time, but they seem to tell the same few stories, about saris, deaths and slights ad nauseam. These things do interest her, in the candyfloss way of pulp novels. It is wholesome gossip, because everyone does it, and because it comes with judgments: proper versus improper, decent versus indecent. In contrast, Muchami’s tales are meaty and illicit. He tells her everything about people she knows and those she will never meet. He is more respectful when speaking about Brahmins but makes no attempt to censor himself-in fact, he is encouraged by Sivakami’s attention into increasingly outrageous mimicry.

One day a few weeks after he starts work for them, Muchami is sorting through the produce in the back courtyard by the well, entertaining Sivakami, who sits on the platform behind the kitchen with the baby in her lap, by commenting on the vegetables in the voice of their preferred kerosene merchant. The kerosene seller has a strange condition: his voice, every few phrases, shoots up briefly and involuntarily into a falsetto. Muchami maintains a deadpan monologue on the vegetables, not breaking rhythm at all for the falsetto interludes. “Okra aren’t bad, though he kept slipping these little-little rotten ones in among the good. I called him on it, picked them out and said, ‘Who’re you trying to fool?’”

Sivakami, after a brief attempt to restrain her giggles, breaks down. Muchami starts adding effeminate prancing to the high-pitched bits, still with no break in work or words, until Sivakami is nearly collapsing with laughter.

Glancing up, she sees Hanumarathnam has come to the pantry entrance, attracted by her laughter. He looks amused and curious, but Muchami stops when he notices his employer and stands with his head bowed. Sivakami, too, stops laughing, and Hanumarathnam says, “What? Why so solemn as soon as I show up?” They smile at him shyly and he withdraws with affectionate exasperation, but Sivakami feels sick with anger now, at herself, and even more, at Hanumarathnam. Muchami tries to resume clowning a little but quickly sees that she is no longer in the mood.

How dare my husband trick me into accepting this? Sivakami stomps inside and puts the baby in the cloth hammock where he sleeps, rocking it silently and a little too hard, until the baby’s wails jolt her into slowing down and beginning a lullaby. She takes a deep breath. Here I am, acting normal, after my husband has said he is going to die.

WEEKS ACCELERATE INTO MONTHS. Sivakami and Hanumarathnam’s son has come to be called Vairum, “diamond,” in contrast to Thangam’s gold. One of Hanumarathnam’s sisters created the nickname, when, holding the baby, she said with a little shiver, “Ooh-look at how his eyes glitter-so cold!” She stopped, suddenly aware of how Sivakami might take this. An elder sister-in-law didn’t really need to be concerned with Sivakami’s feelings, but she didn’t want to offend her little brother. “Your little diamond!” she added in a shrill disclaimer, and Sivakami accepted the suggestion, choosing to pretend the entire comment had been in goodwill and good taste. (The sister-in-law had not yet discovered ice, or Vairum might have been named for that chill substance.)

Vairum is a very different child from his elder sister. Unlike Thangam, he craves attention. He complains loudly until he is picked up and comforted. Fortunately, also unlike Thangam, he is the normal weight of a skinny Indian baby, and so not a great burden to his tiny mother. While Vairum’s stare contains unmistakable longing, no one but Sivakami and Thangam is tempted to carry and cuddle the boy with the pinched features and cold, dark eyes. Tempted least of all is his father. Hanumarathnam keeps very occupied with healing and agriculture, his studies, his training of Sivakami and Muchami. He always has a small joke and a cuddle for his daughter, but nothing for his son. Sivakami holds Vairum tight whenever she can, covering him with kisses and words of adoration. Where Thangam, at six months, nursed six times daily with perfect regularity, Vairum demands the breast capriciously like the little king he is and should be. Sivakami nearly always complies, stopping what she is doing to take him into the room under the stairs, holding him in her lap as he idly sucks and fiddles with her thirumangalyam, the wedding pendants that otherwise are dropped out of sight in her blouse.

On one afternoon, after Vairum finishes nursing, Sivakami is playing with him, lifting him horizontally to blow against his tummy, luxuriating in his baby skin and the rich sound of his giggles. She looks up to see Hanumarathnam, watching through the doorway as though it’s a portal between this life and the next. She holds the baby out to him, exasperated: no matter what is coming, nothing in life is denied to him now. But he takes a step back and she clasps Vairum again to her breast.

She wishes she could talk to Hanumarathnam about the despair and estrangement she sees on his face, but when she tries, she finds she pities him too much. She is grateful she doesn’t have to live with such feelings toward her children; she doesn’t know how she could talk Hanumarathnam into feeling any different. She persuades him a couple of times to hold the child, thinking he can’t help but fall in love if he does so, but Hanumarathnam looks so stiff and helpless that she takes Vairum back. And the little boy’s eyes, so often trained on his father, are full of unreciprocated desire.

Perhaps through some ineffectual cosmic attempt to remedy this injustice, Thangam is as infatuated with her little brother as the rest of the world is with her. She insists on helping her mother bathe the baby; she rocks him, pats him, sings to him, seems oblivious to any child’s existence save his, even while children on the veranda call for her daily.

When Vairum is nearly eleven months old, they shave his hair-it takes three of them, Sivakami, Murthy and Rukmini, to hold him still-and make a pilgrimage to Palani Mountain, where they offer it to the deity. On his first birthday, he is held on Sivakami’s eldest brother’s knee and his ears are pierced. He screams and thrashes so violently that Sivakami wonders if one of the demons who should be placated by these rituals has got the wrong message. Thangam stands close by-she who whimpered as her head was shaved and burbled with silent tears at her own piercing-trying to soothe the baby.

Hanumarathnam, on these days, says nothing. He always turns so as not to have to see the little boy, who watches his father as Thangam watches the baby, and Sivakami watches them all, knowing nothing can compensate for Vairum’s deprivation. None but a father can give a father’s love.

MONTHS SPEED PAST. Hanumarathnam and Sivakami have been married now for almost eight years.

She has been enjoying her new responsibilities. She has known many women who do their families’ accounting and make their financial and strategic decisions. Many wives do these jobs because their husbands are less than competent. The wives’ work is accepted but never acknowledged. She is the first she has known whose husband has trained her at these tasks, shown faith in and approval of her abilities. And with Muchami’s presence already so strong in the fields, her husband’s absence will hardly be noticed out there.

She realizes that she has begun to accept the way he has tricked her into being practical, into living with his death. She hardly recalls the resentment she first had toward Muchami.

And in the night, every night, Hanumarathnam turns to her. They might go through the movements for procreation or pleasure, but on these nights, the fire is fed on fear of death. Sometimes, as Sivakami marches tenderly through the requirements of his siddhic practices, she wonders with each movement, is this the one that will give him long life? She is a Brahmin, she cannot make him into a siddha. She supposes he could become one, if he chose. But then, that would mean renouncing caste, and if he were not a Brahmin, she could not be married to him, so what purpose would that serve?

She often rises after Hanumarathnam’s rough breathing has deepened into post-coital rest. Her sleep now is rare and slight, between her worries and Vairum’s nocturnal wakings. She lights a kerosene lamp and does beadwork by the bad light. Night after sleepless night, contrary to all her mother’s severe warnings, Sivakami finds her sight improves from the exercises. The tiny glass beads dance with the flame, sometimes they seem to her almost to sing, as she sits before the Ramar, working and praying and wondering about the future.

She wonders, if they have more children, another son, maybe things, astrological things, would shift again. But she somehow knows there will be no more children.

She recalls Savitri, that most devoted wife and daughter, whose story is told in the Mahabharata. Savitri had insisted on marrying Satyavan, in spite of all her elders’ objections that he was cursed to die within a year of their marriage. She would not be put off, and when Yama, god of death, came riding his water buffalo to claim Satyavan’s soul, Savitri went after him and, with clever arguments and bulldoggish perseverance, got her husband back.

Sivakami wonders what choice she herself would have made, given these conditions. She admits to herself in the small, bleak hours before morning that, given the choice, despite all she feels for her husband, she would not have chosen to be a widow.

But she was not given the choice. And when the time comes, will she follow Yama’s water buffalo into the netherworld, over rocks and by harsh seas, to reclaim her husband’s soul for his body? She sensibly concludes that all she can do is prepare. Her husband, bless his cursed soul, is doing everything in his power to help her do that. She falls asleep praying for strength.

4. Fever 1904

The years hurtle past them, like rain and parrots, like rice and rose petals.

VAIRUM, NOW TWO AND A HALF, is outside playing under Muchami’s watchful eye. He has grown from a complaining baby into a child who plays alone. He plays energetically and needs many people to populate his games, but since he lacks friends, he uses Muchami for every role. Vairum is fractious, bossy and tiring, but the patient servant generally does whatever the child commands, pretending perfect comprehension of Vairum’s cryptic and sometimes semi-intelligible orders. Muchami is an energetic young man, but Vairum taxes him completely.

Vairum is spoiled. Not just because he’s an only son, though this might have been enough, but because Sivakami pities him. She coddles and cuddles and feeds him extra sweets. He laps it up, going to her many times each day to bury his face in the folds of her sari and thighs.

He has begun to exhaust even Thangam, who continues to love him for reasons of her own. Vairum responds by pinching his sister, pushing her away when she tries to help with his games and then screaming and clinging when she leaves him, once kissing her so violently his tooth breaks her skin. He doesn’t seek her out, though, as if to prove he doesn’t need her the way everyone else does.

In his favour, Vairum is generous to a fault. He never eats treats without first offering others a share, even giving up his own portion if some urchin looks at it with big eyes. He can’t stand for anyone to go without. Even Thangam is never excluded, though she will never take from him. Sometimes, he approaches his father with an offering. Always, his father declines.

It is hard to say whether Vairum is doing this to win friends. If he is, it’s not working: smaller, more timid children are scared of him; larger, bolder children tease him mercilessly; small and large run at him to take whatever delicacy he has on offer, then run away. Vairum cries in a far corner of the house, goes on feeding the opportunistic children and plays with Muchami.

Thangam spends most of her time sitting in the hall or on the veranda. She doesn’t chatter, she doesn’t do handicrafts, she just sits. She is willing and prompt in completing her few chores, and Sivakami is satisfied she will make a good homemaker. If she needs no entertainment, this is an asset.

The little girl has always been quiet, but, since Vairum was born, she has become increasingly so. This could, Sivakami thinks, be owing to Vairum’s demanding nature: Sivakami knows she pays more attention to the boy, but everyone else pays so much attention to Thangam. Neither has Thangam ever shown her parents the passionate affection that Sivakami receives from her son. Once or twice, however, Sivakami thought she saw, mixed in Thangam’s adoring glances at Vairum, some shame, as she herself received from Hanumarathnam the easy fondness he has never been able to bestow on his son.

Most of the neighbourhood considers Thangam’s beauty itself to be a community service. Burnished hair, molten eyes-for Thangam’s sake, many children come to their house. They ask her to come away, to play with them. They touch her golden skin. She smiles a fleeting smile, rebuking, mischievous, skeptical and warm. The children never give up asking and Thangam never goes with them.

The world loves Thangam and does not love Vairum, because Thangam is easy to love and Vairum is not, and people, given the choice, do what is easy.

IT IS THE HOT SEASON. The children of Cholapatti lie moaning, felled by a fever and pox, in rooms all up and down the Brahmin quarter, in huts in the village and fields beyond. Sivakami prays daily to the stone Ramar, guardian of their home, for her children’s safety. She ties extra charms around the children’s necks and wrists. She prays to the goddess Mariamman, who visits houses in the guise of such sickness, by muttering welcomes, because she mustn’t make the goddess angry, and by appeasements, because this goddess is always angry. Despite her precautions, both Thangam and Vairum contract the illness, which has already taken three children in a month.

The children lie in the front room for five days with sweats and chills. Each awakens with nightmares. Thangam will be sleeping and flip suddenly onto her back. Her eyelids will shoot open and she will stare at the ceiling as though facing down her fears, lips troubled but silent. Vairum thrashes and lashes out in his sleep, hits himself and howls. He weeps from bad dreams and must be consoled.

Sivakami wipes their small bodies with warm water. When they are chilly, she covers them. When they sweat, she fans them with sprays of neem branches, kept always near sick babies, because neem gives the goddess Mariamman pleasure and so satisfies her that she feels she may depart. Muchami quietly does what Sivakami does, attending to one child when she tends the other.

Hanumarathnam is behaving very strangely. The village families have come to him for remedies, but he has told them he can do nothing for this sickness. He has never said such a thing before. He even gives his own children a wide berth, though he watches them from a distance. When Sivakami asks him if he is concerned for them, he says no.

One night, as she lies awake listening to their laboured breathing, Sivakami becomes aware that Hanumarathnam, whom she had thought asleep for some time already, is saying something. She quietly asks him to repeat himself, but he continues mumbling. She leans in close, but the phrases are nonsensical to her. She watches him with her dark-sharpened eyes for a while: he is asleep. She rises to take up her beading. She is working six scenes from the child Krishna’s life and is midway through the third.

In the morning, she asks Hanumarathnam if he recalls his dreams of the night before.

“I never dream,” he replies without looking up from his newspaper.

“You were talking in your sleep last night,” she says.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” He is already impatient with the conversation, and she reciprocates, “Why should I?”

He sighs. “Did it frighten you?”

“No.” The subject is dropped, and Sivakami goes about the morning’s chores, mystified and suspicious.

That afternoon, she is attending to the children, praying under her breath continuously. Like all the women in the village whose children are sick, Sivakami has offered a deal to Mariamman, that her children will participate in the village goddess’s annual festival if only she will remove the scourge. It has been five days, without sign of recovery, but Sivakami has faith yet.

Hanumarathnam is napping on the other side of the main hall. Sivakami starts as his lips begin moving and realizes she has been staring at him for a long time. She rises to move closer and in doing so happens to catches a glimpse beyond the open front door.

The siddhas have come.

The eldest nods as she catches his eye. She is, as always, unhappy to see them. She crosses to her husband, who is muttering softly, intense emotion working his brow, his breath fighting in his nostrils. She takes his shoulder and he startles, panting, sweating, looking around wildly.

“What, dear, what is it?” Sivakami asks. She feels she knows; she feels she is about to cry; she feels a little feverish herself, hot and cold at once.

“I dreamt…” Hanumarathnam is calming. “I dreamt… that you and the children will lead long, healthy lives.” He backs away from her to lean against the wall. “And that I will not recover from this fever.”

Sivakami stares at him. “You are not even afflicted with the fever.”

“I will not recover from it.”

“You are not stricken.” She is aware of her damp palms, twisting the folds of her sari at her waist. “It doesn’t affect adults.” In fact, two adults have contracted the pox and have suffered even more than the children did.

Hanumarathnam rises and joins the shadows blocking the light from the door. Sivakami sinks to the floor, still protesting. “You are hale and strong. You never dream. Why should I wake you just because you talk in your sleep?”

He has gone.

In the evening, Muchami comes in through the back. Seeing the main hall empty, he retreats through the rooms to the courtyard. He addresses Sivakami from outside the kitchen door.

“Where is he?”

“Out,” she says without looking up, slicing vegetables with alarming speed. The children are asleep in the pantry, where she can watch them.

“Out?” Muchami asks.

“He’s out.” She sounds as angry as she feels and feels no need to hide this from Muchami. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“Oh…” Muchami nods. “Oh. The siddhas?”

“What else?” She leans out the door to toss some peels into the courtyard. Her face is puffy.

Muchami’s eyes narrow. “You aren’t crying over this?”

In some other servant, some other household, Muchami’s manner might be considered audacious, even insolent, but his are the liberties of those lifelong servants who become closer than family, and more trusted.

“Stupid.” Sivakami sniffs wetly, wipes her face on the end of her cotton sari and starts to sob. “I just can’t stop. I’m making onion sambar, that’s why. When we stop eating onions, I’ll stop crying.”

“Onions never make you cry,” Muchami reminds her gently.

“So I’m crying because it’s about time he gave them up!” She rises, slams the blade down into the block and dumps the vegetables into the blackened iron pot on the fire. “After all, he says he’s going to die anytime, he should start getting ready for it…”

“You angry?”

“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.” She pokes another dung chip into the fire and fans it. “Can’t he do as he likes?”

“Sure, he’s the husband.” Muchami wags his head. “But he shouldn’t be taking off and leaving us alone like this.”

Sivakami cries harder.

When Hanumarathnam returns, two mornings later, he faces identical resentful glares from both of these souls who adore him.

That night, Hanumarathnam drops a pinch of veeboothi on the small gold tongue of his daughter and the small pale tongue of his son. He places his hand on the head of each. His touch on Thangam is lingering. His touch on Vairum is brief, but the little boy glows rapturous under his hand, and Hanumarathnam’s eyes become tender for a second. Then that is over.

Before going to bed, Hanumarathnam gives Sivakami a large packet of veeboothi and instructs her to distribute it among the parents of the village, for all of their children, sick and healthy.

“That should do it,” he says. She accepts the packet silently and he lies down to sleep. Siddha medicine, she thinks, and shudders, but still, she hopes it works.

That night, when he begins mumbling, she puts her hand on his arm to wake him. The arm is very warm, and she feels his forehead and stomach. A fever has taken hold of him, and there are pustules forming on his neck and arms.

5. Buried Treasure 1904

A WEEK PASSES, during which Hanumarathnam never once completely awakens. Word spreads. People drop in constantly, whispering words of pity that wear on Sivakami. Each of the visitors brings some remedy, Ayurvedic compounds from famous practitioners or family recipes, steeped green leaves or pounded buds, bitter barks or shaven twigs, the resulting broths sweetened with sugar or softened with butter. Sivakami dutifully pours them all down Hanumarathnam’s throat. The guests quarrel over their remedies, disagreeing on which is best. Each argues that the other remedies are interfering with the effectiveness of her own. They make a lot of noise and bustle in the house, whose occupants are unaccustomed to such cacophony. Sivakami summons silent endurance. Muchami enjoys the spectacle, until he recalls its cause.

Murthy is particularly aggressive with some veeboothi from the Palani temple; Sivakami lets him administer it to Hanumarathnam himself, in light of their relationship. Hanumarathnam’s sisters arrive with accusing eyes and suggestions that Sivakami try all the remedies she has already tried. She does her best not to disagree and to avoid them. She has to believe she has tried everything. She had retained a small amount of the veeboothi Hanumarathnam brought back with him from the forest and administers that too.

It certainly has been effective on the children. Thangam and Vairum are no longer ill. They have returned to their old activities: Thangam sitting out front and being fawned over, Vairum giving orders to Muchami, but they are unsettled by the crowds.

Vairum has a set of rocks he has named for their family: Appa, father, a long thin grey rock; Amma, mother, a slim oval of smooth black rock; Akka, big sister, soft, golden sandstone; Vairum, a small slab of unpolished quartz (it glints in places); Muchami, a great chunk of unfired brick. The rock family spends all its time exploring, usually places a little boy is too small to be permitted or too big to fit. They crouch in the fire under the bathwater. They take daily flights through the air to roll off the roof. Vairum, the smallest family member, once navigated a cow’s entire digestive tract. Today, they will explore a small soft spot in the foundation of the house, on the side of the garden.

“Dig,” he says to Muchami, handing him a stick. The overworked servant looks at him blankly, pretending, this time, not to understand. Comprehension is a subjective and fleeting art.

Vairum points and stamps his foot, repeating, “Dig! Dig.”

Muchami examines the stick and starts using it to pick his toenail. Vairum cuffs Muchami’s shin and grabs the stick. Muchami wrests it back. Vairum whines a little, then settles down to watching his good pal Muchami create a little tunnel home, a homey little cave, under the house.

Inside the house, Vairum’s aunts are alternately relaxing and rearranging everything. They are fifteen and thirteen years older than Hanumarathnam, and lived with him only a few years before going to their husbands’ houses, which perhaps is why they didn’t fight harder to take their little brother in when their parents died. Later, they were able to justify it, saying that he received an excellent education and upbringing with their aunt and uncle, who genuinely wanted him, as they would say to one another, and to Hanumarathnam, and to others who hadn’t even asked. And of course we soon had small children of our own to care for, the eldest would assert, with the younger parroting her, and How would we have asked our in-laws for such a favour, and Murthy got to keep his brother! It had worked out so well for all concerned. Annam and Vicchu, his aunt and uncle, had sent him to spend holidays with them from time to time. Since Hanumarathnam’s marriage, his sisters had come to visit several times, a thing they had rarely done before. It was as though they needed to assert their presence in his life a little more, now that they were in danger of displacement.

Visitors continue to arrive, even from neighbouring villages and towns, people whom Hanumarathnam has healed. Not one child in his village is now sick with the fever. Each family will carry out its pledge, to carry fire or milk to Mariamman’s temple during her annual festival, yet each grieves the imminent passing of the man who came as close to science as any they have known. Sivakami hears their remarks, floating in from the main hall to the kitchen with the tch-tch of clucking tongues.

“Such a shame…”

“Such a young man…”

“Oh, what will we do!”

“You know, his first concern was always for us…”

She stays in the kitchen, churning out delicacies to keep their mouths busy so they’ll talk less, to keep her hands busy so her heart will forget to break.

Vairum charges in from the garden, looking for his mother, wanting her to come and see how cozy the stone family is, stowed in their cave against the elements. He gallops through the main hall toward the kitchen, but his father’s eldest sister grabs his arm. It’s nearly yanked out of its socket, so intent is he on the kitchen and so abrupt is the detention.

The aunt pulls Vairum toward her large face and booms, “Hallo, my boy, taking care of your father?” and then speaks to the others over Vairum’s head. “This is the ugly one. His sister’s out on the veranda.”

Vairum wrenches away from her and barrels once more for the kitchen. Now he is intercepted by a neighbour, who wants him to eat a snack from a large tray she carries. He doesn’t want any, but her grip on his arm is tight. When he tugs the captive limb free, it flings upward, slamming into the tray and sending its contents airward. Consistent with his generous nature, Vairum has distributed the snacks equally among all persons in the room.

Silence falls with a thud and awakens Hanumarathnam, who sits bolt upright from a mumbling sleep. With calm resolve, he seeks out Sivakami’s eyes where she stands in the kitchen doorway. Across the multitude that separates them, he summons her with a slight movement of his head.

Now: no middle-class Brahmin wife with any kind of breeding walks through the main hall and talks to her husband in front of guests, and today these guests include her sisters-in-law, who would subject her to no end of criticism, both to her face and behind her back, alone and in mixed company. Though Sivakami is spirited, brave and has had reason to feel encouraged in her life, she cannot obey her husband this time.

Instead, she silently iterates the names of the gods, her children’s need for a father, Hanumarathnam’s relative youth. She cannot completely banish, though, the feeling that if his time has come, she is powerless. How can she stop the progress of Yama’s water buffalo?

Hanumarathnam looks at her a long moment, and her eyes are held in his. His sisters will later liken her to a frightened young goat, unable to move though a tiger walks toward it. A little part of them wants to hear her bawl like a captured kid, but this doesn’t happen. They never see Sivakami cry. She doesn’t permit it.

When Vairum ran into the house, Muchami had left on rounds of some landholdings. He has tried not to let the worries at the house keep him from his tasks. He goes along the canal that runs behind the houses, since he will not walk on the Brahmin street except in the company of a Brahmin, and at the end pauses a moment to spit a red stream of betel juice into the long, green grasses. As he straightens, his eyes grow wide. The largest water buffalo he has ever seen, its coat a lustrous pewter, its massive horns curving out at their tips, is strolling along the Brahmin quarter, unaccompanied by cart or driver. Muchami moves to behind the temple and, mesmerized by the water buffalo’s swaying hump, watches it until it is in front of Hanumarathnam’s house. Then the servant pivots and darts back along the narrow path behind the Brahmin-quarter houses.

Inside the house, Hanumarathnam’s head falls back, exhaling a word that sounds, to at least half the people in the room, like “podhail.”

His sisters, standing closest to him, hear the word and their eyes meet. Podhail: buried treasure. The possibilities of that word occupy the sisters’ thoughts as their younger, only, brother dies.

In that moment, Vairum, having run out to the garden in a tantrum, has kicked all the carefully cleared earth back into the hole under their house. He wets the earth with tears and stamps it and pounds it, his mouth pulled down in an ugly shape, until the place is packed flat. The child of the black-diamond eyes, his golden, oblivious sister, his tiny mother, his slim, dead father, their Muchami-buried forever. Podhail.

They will find Vairum here later, asleep with his head on the ground. They will awaken him, wipe his earth-streaked face and explain that now he is the man of the house. He will learn he has work to do.

6. Siddha Song 1904-1905

IT IS INCREDIBLE TO SIVAKAMI that Hanumarathnam spent years preparing her for his passing. She is shocked by the heat of bereavement: a pyretic pain behind her eyelids and in the unseen caverns of her body. She doesn’t cry and is aware that observers, such as her husband’s sisters, remark this. She feels she contains floods of tears, but they are boiled dry before they can spill.

And the house, too, is alight with funereal activity, the throngs of well-wishers turned chorus, ushering Hanumarathnam’s spirit forward. Sivakami is bidden to wear her best clothes, her finest jewels, during the ten days it will take for that to happen.

His body is dressed in new, unsoiled clothes such as are worn only by the dead and taken to the cremation ground. Little Vairum will light his father’s pyre. This is one reason everyone needs a son.

At the cremation ground, Sivakami does not tell her children that their father is within the blaze. This seems unnecessary. When Vairum runs ahead and picks something off the ground, Muchami slaps it from his hand. It is a bone, but no one explains this. As he throws a burning faggot on his father’s pyre, Vairum is crying because Muchami wouldn’t let him have that white stone.

A little shrine is built beside the Ramar, to house Hanumarathnam’s soul. Thangam, her hair loose, like Sivakami’s, to show their grief, learns to make rice balls, which are offered daily at the tiny shrine. This is one reason everyone needs a daughter.

Sivakami tells her children that their father has gone away, and that the little shrine is like a playhouse where his soul lives, and the rice balls are like pretend food for him. Thangam seems to like this idea. Over the thirteen days of mourning, brushing her long, unbound hair out of her face, she brings extra decorations for the shrine, some tiny play dishes and her own picture of baby Krishna. Vairum takes little interest.

Now that her husband is truly gone, Sivakami feels an odd eagerness for the ceremonies that will brand her a widow. A woman whose husband dies before her is, in some cosmic, karmic way, responsible for his death, and must be contained. The best way to do this is to make her unattractive: no vermilion dot to draw attention to the eyes, no turmeric to rub on the skin for brightness, no incense to suffuse the hair, no jasmine bunches to ornament it. No hair to suffuse, but that comes later.

Still wearing the bright colours she now loathes, she is paraded down the main street to the Kaveri, escorted by her father, her eldest brother and Vairum. On the riverbank, in a ceremony as old as men and women, her brother tears Sivakami’s blouse at the back, and she is made to remove it. She unties the saffron thread of the thirumangalyam and drops it into the pot of milk her son holds for her. She feels her bile rise and viscerally understands why her wedding pendants’ hot anger might need to be cooled.

She will never see those gold medals of wifehood again. All her bright silk saris are packed with neem and other bitter leaves against moths. Thangam will receive them someday, and the wedding gold melted down and transformed. No one wants to waste gold.

Sivakami accepts the two white cotton saris that will be her only garments and her badge.

She watches Vairum as she goes through each stage of her transformation: see, I am to blame, it is my fault-everyone thinks so. She offers her yoked shoulders for this burden: see, my son, it wasn’t you.

On an appointed night, Sivakami waits in the courtyard while the rest of the house falls asleep. She sits and looks into the dark, the cotton of the new sari still stiff. It chafes against her bare and tender breasts but will soften with many washings. She combs out her hair with her fingers. Curly and unruly, it tumbles past her waist. Not as long as some women‘s, but quite long, considering how wilful it is. She wishes her hands felt like her husband’s, stroking her hair, but one’s own touch can never have that delicious strangeness.

She has a feeling suddenly of being very, very large, twenty times larger than the average woman. Her hands, when she holds them up, look small and far away. The night is cool on her face and she feels both drowsy and unpleasantly alert.

The courtyard door opens. She jumps up and takes the kerosene lamp from the blackened wall niche. She holds it out to see: the one she waits for has come.

She motions to another doorway; beyond it is the garden. The barber follows her there.

He has brought a small wooden stool. She seats herself. The moon is scant days from its darkest phase so he needs the lamp with its flame leaping large and greasy.

He is experienced and efficient and has kept dozens of such appointments, and before he begins, he says, “Amma. I’m sorry.”

As he lifts the first hank from her neck, Sivakami’s deprived body thrills to the sensation, and the shame of this thrill makes her glad that he is cutting it off. Then he begins shearing her head, leaving only a quarter-inch pelt to protect her delicate scalp.

It is complete. She has finished the crossing from sumangali, married woman, to aamangali, widow.

The barber cleans up and departs with the dignity of those who do the work the world despises. The locks he gathered will be sold as hairpieces. Sivakami bolts the courtyard and garden doors, then douses herself with buckets of cold water. Barbers are untouchables and she has been temporarily reduced to his status. The water makes her an untouchable of another kind. From now on, she will be madi, maintain a state of preternatural purity from dark to dark, so that no one may touch her after her pre-sunrise bath until the sun sets. And she will be as invisible as any untouchable in the Brahmin quarter, going to her river bath in pre-dawn dark, returning before light so as to spare her neighbours the sight of a widow. Such a bad omen.

She drops the bucket over and over into the blue-black iris of the well, still feeling the barber’s fingers in her phantom hair. Her eyes are terribly dry.

As she finishes, she hears a sound from the sheltered corner of the courtyard where Muchami sleeps when he stays the night. She holds the lamp up. Muchami is turned to the wall, weeping. This is not the first time she has seen him thus since Hanumarathnam died. A twinge of affection shakes her head. She almost reaches out to touch him: her head has been touched by a non-Brahmin man, why should she not touch the head of one? Is there a separation any longer between Muchami and her?

Yes, there is. Muchami still has his middle-caste status, while she, now, is so pure as to be an outcaste. They never touch, not even accidentally, for the duration of their separate and inseparable lives. The barber is, she thinks with revulsion, the only man permitted now to touch her regularly: he will return, every few months, to ensure her continued ugliness.

She goes to lie beside her children. Vairum stirs and reaches for her thirumangalyam. He only occasionally still nurses, but playing with her pendants is a remnant of babyhood, and he reaches for them whenever he feels insecure. Frustrated at not finding them, he bats at her neck. Sivakami shushes him and presses him close, easing him back into sleep.

She keeps her breathing shallow so as not to disturb him, her chin lightly touching the top of his silky head, as the night slides and blurs against tears that will not free themselves.

The crowds eventually drizzle away. Sivakami’s brothers depart, after receiving Sivakami’s pledge that she will move back to their village, Samanthibakkam, to their father’s house, where they can help her manage her affairs. A woman alone is a target, they say, and she agrees. The shrine is dismantled and Sivakami tells her children that their father has sent a telegram saying that he has reached the stars and must continue travelling. He is studying the heavens and doesn’t know when his researches will be completed, when he’ll be allowed to return home. Even if the gods let him go, she tells them, we won’t recognize him because he no longer has his body. The children appear doubtful but ask no questions. They look hurt, and Sivakami tells them Hanumarathnam didn’t undertake this journey by choice, but she doesn’t sound convinced.

Sivakami’s brothers return for her three days later, weeks sooner than they had agreed. Their mother has been ruined by Sivakami’s widow-making, and is on her deathbed. At the time of the marriage, her husband had told her what Hanumarathnam had said and implied that worrying about his horoscope would be an indication of her ignorance. She felt that if Sivakami had better timed her son’s birth, none of this would have come to pass. As Sivakami’s mother, she, too, was to blame. Who knew what karmic drama was being replayed thus to punish them? For clearly they were being punished.

In her lucid periods, she tells her sons not to permit Sivakami to visit. She doesn’t want to see her daughter in white, she says, with shaven scalp, no ornament or decoration save for a streak of holy ash on her forehead. But in her sleep she cries out over and over for Sivakami, her youngest, her only girl.

Sivakami craves her mother, but she is ashamed to be seen in widow’s whites; she feels guilty for the tension in her brothers’ faces. She has failed; her family did not thrive. But she wants to kneel and put her head in her mother’s lap, just as her own little boy does in hers, to feel her mother’s hand stroking her head. She is only eighteen years old.

Thangam and Vairum go next door to stay with Annam and Vicchu, and Sivakami’s brothers escort her to Samanthibakkam for a visit.

When Sivakami arrives, her mother is awake. Shrunken and wasted, she lies on a cot while her eldest daughter-in-law, Kamu, reads to her and the youngest, Ecchu, presses her feet. At Sivakami’s appearance, her mother shuts her eyes and rolls onto her side, clutching her knees to her stomach and moaning, “Oh my daughter, oh my youngest, oh my dearest, youngest child, my golden girl.”

Behind her, Sivakami’s brothers whisper, “You see, that’s what she does. Come, bathe and eat.” Sivakami obeys, but she knows her mother is watching her. Sivakami’s father stands in the puja room. He counts off mantras on his beads, and every five rounds, he makes a mark in a book. Sivakami sees him on her left, then sees herself in the cracked shaving glass outside the kitchen on her right. She inherited the stiffness of her shoulders from him.

In the next few days, Sivakami and her mother have two or three private audiences. During one, her mother extracts a promise, then falls asleep. Sivakami slips her moist hand into her mother’s dry one, though she should be observing madi, and somehow falls asleep herself, her shaven head half-resting on her mother’s hip, the crumpled white cotton of her sari shrouding the rich maroon of her mother’s. Her face, at rest, is as pouty, self-absorbed and carefree as that of the adolescent she might, in another life, have still been. The next day, her mother dies.

The same funeral procedures that they so recently observed for her husband now follow for the mother: new clothes, a pyre, a little shrine like a dollhouse. Sivakami makes the rice balls and recalls her daughter’s small hands and the care Thangam applied to this task. She works to apply herself as her little girl did. And now, Sivakami cries. She weeps at the shrine and at night and alone in corners, expecting and receiving little comfort from her brothers and their wives, who are sensitive enough to leave her alone, nor from her father, who has his own burdens. She cries for her mother in this house where she is a child.

After nearly three weeks at her father’s house, though, she must return to Cholapatti and her children, to pack up their lives.

Back in Cholapatti, she and Muchami decide that, after she and the children have moved, he will periodically collect the paddy percentages from the tenants. He will take his own share and those of the two remaining old servant couples. He will then sell the balance, tie the cash in a cloth and toss it through one of the high windows into the front room. The house, thoroughly padlocked, will function as a giant safe, and every few months, Sivakami will return to count the income and put it in the real safe, which sits in the northwest corner of the main hall.

Annam, Hanumarathnam’s aunt, will set out the daily offering for the monkeys, which tradition Sivakami believes she inherited from her late mother-in-law, yet another expression of reverence for Hanuman, Rama’s monkey devotee. Since the house will be locked, that daily offering will have to replace Sivakami’s daily pujas for the Ramar.

Murthy is still grieving, so dramatically that Sivakami would resent it if he weren’t so sincere. “He was my brother,” she hears him sighing whenever she goes to talk to Annam or Rukmini. “Ah”-she sees him pinch the bridge of his nose and sniff loudly-“but not even he could dispute what was in the stars.” Annam and Rukmini smile consolingly at Sivakami, almost as if in apology, but she is mute.

Muchami is bearing up bravely. He avoids meeting Sivakami’s eyes because he thinks she looks like tragedy. He has had his own head shaved to a half-inch too. He has worn only white since coming into their service, so he cannot adopt white garments in mourning, but he robes himself in a look of bereavement.

Vairum now is insatiable in his need for attention. At night, Sivakami holds him. He has stopped looking for her thirumangalyam but instead plays with her index and middle finger, obsessively and rhythmically twirling them through his own until he falls asleep. During the day, though, from sunrise to sunset, he is not supposed to touch her. These are the new rules. When Vairum comes to her for the comfort of her lap, she must back away from him, offering explanations he doesn’t accept. Finally, he gets angry and slaps out at her knee or her hand, and once, her head. This is not mere violence, it is sabotage: she must bathe again and wash her sari. From time to time, she gives in and permits him the lap, since she will have to bathe anyhow. This sometimes happens twice in a day, so that her saris haven’t time to dry. Vairum gets damp, sitting in her lap and holding onto her; they both catch cold.

The day before their departure from Cholapatti, Sivakami has just finished her penultimate puja for the Ramar, asking the stalwart gods to guard their home in her absence. Her needs at her brothers’ house will be few, and she intends to return to Cholapatti every four or six months to look after the business. She is taking only a single trunk-no pots, no furniture, no jewels. She has only the two white saris, one of which she will wear, and the children’s clothes hardly fill one-third of the trunk; they have many clothes, but they are small children. She is also taking a book, the Kamba-Ramayanam, the Tamil telling of that epic story, the only book she reads.

She fetches the keys to the safe. This gesture, too, is enveloped in nostalgia. As she lifts the loose brick between the doors to the garden, revealing the keys beneath, she permits herself to wallow in memory, as in sun-warmed mud: her first week as a bride, newly come of age, learning to be mistress of her own house; her husband’s delight at showing her the Dindigul safe. Dindigul: a brand to rely on.

There are four iron keys, only two of which are key-shaped. Another is a rounded stick, like a hairpin, and the fourth is flat, a lever. Hanumarathnam had deposited the bundle of keys in her palm and pointed to the safe without a word, challenging her to figure it out. She had poked and tickled and pounded the safe, neither wholly haphazard nor exactly methodical, but determined. Finally, Hanumarathnam had wrested the keys back from her, near helpless with laughter, and shown her the way:

1. Use the flat stick to remove the screw from the trim on the top right-hand side of the door.

2. Poke the rounded stick into the hole and the “L” in the safe’s nameplate will pop loose, revealing a keyhole.

3. Insert the key with the clover-shaped end and turn it once counterclockwise. Pull open the front of the safe. Within you’ll find a second, smaller door with a keyhole in the conventional place, halfway up on the left side.

4. Turn the second key a half turn clockwise in this hole, just until you feel a soft click.

5. Slide the flat stick between the door and the wrought iron trim on its left edge. The lever will catch and the inner door pop open.

It sounds like her heart popping open. She feels her shoulder blades locking across her back. From the safe’s inner sanctum drifts the scent of sandalwood.

She takes out the bundles of ancient palm leaves on which were recorded mysteries of the universe: her husband’s treasures. She pushes their clothes aside and puts the palm-leaf bundles in the bottom of the trunk even though he didn’t give her the keys to unlock these mysteries. Now she takes out a slim sandalwood box. It contains the leaves on which the children’s astral portraits are scratched. She doesn’t open the box, just lifts it quickly from the safe and drops it in the trunk, among the children’s clothes. She shuts up the safe and the memories and the scent. She shuts the trunk lid on the little clothes, and her spare sari, and the scent. She lifts her hand to her nose. The smell of the soft, golden wood is upon her fingers.

The children play in the sun on the veranda. A familiar shadow darkens the light from the front door. Her hand falls from her face and resentment and fear rise in her throat: it is them again, the siddhas. She wonders if they know that her husband is dead. She has not allowed herself to be seen.

Before she decides whether to move to the door, the siddhas begin to sing, accompanied by a little dholak drum, finger cymbals and a rough lute. Their voices are more strident than melodic, yet everyone on the Brahmin quarter will hum this tune, without admitting it, for weeks.

Where there is onion, pepper and dry ginger

What is the use of other remedies?

Pus and filth, thick red blood and fat

Together make an ugly smelling pitcher.

A few morsels for the cremation fire am I

Like a bubble that arises on the surface of water and perishes,

So indeed perishes this unstable body.

Salt will dissolve in water

Be one with the incomparable.

The wish to master science does not halt

I wish to master powers undissolved

To transform all the three worlds into shining gold.

Use as your riding beast the horse of reason

Use as your bridle, knowledge and prudence

Mount firmly your saddle of anger and ride in bright


When there is no solace in the world

There is still solace

In the holy names of the lord who rides the bull…

The song’s undertow pulls Sivakami to the open door, but the siddhas have already begun to move off. They travel the length of the Brahmin quarter, singing.

At the end of the street, they keep walking, but one of them-which?-calls out mockingly, “Here is a body, feed it!”



7. Her Father’s House 1905

AT HER FATHER’ S HOUSE in Samanthibakkam, where her brothers live with their families, Sivakami takes on the lion’s share of household work. The cotton of her saris grows thick and soft with washing. She draws the end over her head, sheltering her scalp from the sun or stray looks: white reflects all sunlight, any incidental looks glance off her. Bad omen. Her narrow shoulder blades protect her heart from the back and her sari now protects it from the front.

Others might have dwelled or moped or made life difficult for themselves and others, but Sivakami has tucked her grief away. No one expects her to chit-chat. As part of her extra-pure madi state, she has also resolved never to eat food cooked by any other person, so she volunteers to cook for all of them. Since she cooks very well, her sisters-in-law are only too happy to give the kitchen responsibilities to her.

Kamu, her eldest brother’s wife, had childhood polio that left her with one foot shrivelled and bent so that she walks, rolling, on its callused “top.” She is a bit loud and demonstrative for Sivakami’s taste, but also very kind. Sivakami likes her a lot, and wonders if it is, in part, their temperamental differences that make Kamu so appealing. Sivakami also admires Meenu, married to her second brother, who is brisk and busy, as industrious as her husband, at least in non-domestic matters. Their considerable energy is focused at present on their burgeoning traffic in Ayurvedic remedies for new mothers. They are packaging a gripe water brewed with fennel seeds, and “Cure-All Concentrate,” garlic and sweet herbs reduced in ghee to a medicinal paste, said to shrink the womb and enhance milk production.

Sivakami is as fond of Kamu and Meenu as she is suspicious of Ecchu, Subbu’s wife. Her youngest brother is also the sweetest, a gentle and incorruptible soul who always gives in to the children’s clamouring for candy or soda pop. Ecchu is stingy, but too insecure to tell Subbu to cease his indulgences. Instead, she mutters reprimands she refuses to clarify or repeat. For Kamu, housework is strenuous; for Meenu and Ecchu, it is an inconvenient distraction. Sivakami is given full rein.

Sivakami’s concerns for her children in the aftermath of their father’s death are soon allayed. Vairum’s cousins accept and include him as the Cholapatti children never did. Vairum is thrilled and opens himself entirely to the clique. He is out of the house every day, running and playing, coming in for lunch and a nap, too hungry and tired to think of anything else, and then only returning after sunset, so he and Sivakami no longer clash over her madi state. By the time she calls him home, she is able and glad to enfold him in her embrace. Thangam seems little affected by her surroundings and indeed keeps much the same routine as she did in Cholapatti, sitting on the veranda with admirers clustered round.

One of the children’s favourite pastimes is trade. Cowries are coveted items, and the rarity of a glass soda bottle stopper with the wax rubbed off makes it valuable, though a marble is more easily utilized. Girls tend to go for long and colourful feathers, boys for unidentified metal objects. Once in a long while, the skull of a bird or mouse makes the rounds, and bidding is fierce. Vairum lets his small treasures go at bargain prices, gaining the reputation of a sucker… but everyone likes a sucker.

Most coveted of all is money, because it is the only item of currency with equal value in a child’s and an adult’s realm. Money breaks barriers, and Vairum puts this principle into effect as soon as he figures it out. When he is the one his uncle Subbu favours with a coin, Vairum runs immediately to his companions and asks how they would like him to spend it. Suggestions usually centre on a round of candy.

Vairum has also discovered a talent: he has an instinct for elementary arithmetic. He amuses himself and the other children by doing long calculations and reciting litanies of large numbers. Unlike in Cholapatti, here he is appreciated for who he is, so as he discovers his gifts, they blossom. He is becoming, in small increments, who he was born to be.

8. The House Safe 1906

WHILE SIVAKAMIIS SETTLING HER CHILDREN at her father’s house, Muchami, in Cholapatti, tends to business alone. This is the role for which he was intended-Sivakami’s right-hand man.

Every few days, he collects the rent of some tenant or other. Someone is always late, or needing to make a partial payment; schedules are flexible. He makes rounds every day and has no difficulty keeping track. The tenants pay in paddy, when they harvest paddy, and silver the rest of the time. If Muchami receives paddy, he converts it to silver, as agreed. Hanumarathnam required all his tenants to plant a variety of crops, so they would have steady incomes and continually rich soil. Some landlords encourage the planting of entire fields with single crops they consider up-and-comers, convincing tenants with promises of jackpots. Always, the tenant goes into debt within five years, and the landlord ends up profiting from a protracted legal battle. When Muchami had asked Hanumarathnam if he was interested in this, he was relieved to hear that his employer disapproved.

As he and Sivakami agreed, he bundles the collected coins in paper and tosses the packet through one of the high windows of the main hall, which are barred and shuttered, except for one. Sometimes it lands with a thud and sometimes with a ring and spinny clatter, depending on how well he has folded the packet and how strong the scrap of paper he used. Either way, all the silver morsels are safe inside the stronghold.

He makes a deposit whenever the pile of collected coins becomes too great for him to carry in the waist-roll of his dhoti, about twice a week. Before doing so, he goes to the courthouse veranda to locate the scribe Hanumarathnam retained before his death. There are men on the Brahmin quarter whom Hanumarathnam could have recruited as volunteers, friends who would have been happy to help Sivakami with business matters, but he had thought it best not to give them responsibility or information.

Though Muchami cannot read, he’s no slouch in the math department, at least for the purposes of business. Still, he has the squatting-squinting scribe double-check his tally sheet and record it in longhand, next to the place where he himself recorded it in numerals. When the sheet starts to get worn and torn, Muchami has the scribe write at the bottom, “All fine. R. Muthuswami,” and address an envelope. Muchami inks his thumbprint above his name, the paper practically refolds itself and Sivakami receives it regular as trains out of Madras station.

In the fourth week after Sivakami leaves, Muchami is rising from doing his business with the scribe and notices the customer behind him giving him an odd smile. He nods; Gopalan is from his own caste community, and they meet most evenings in the market, along with everyone else interested in the news of the day.

“Rent, is it?” Gopalan remarks casually.

Muchami gives him a vague and uncomprehending smile. After Muchami leaves, Gopalan confirms with the scribe, whose code of professional ethics includes nothing about confidentiality, that he had been writing the names of Sivakami’s tenants next to numbers that could plausibly be plot rents.

That evening, Muchami and Gopalan are both among the men clustered around the circular stone bench in the centre of the Kulithalai market.

Gopalan asks loudly, “What do you do with the silver, Muchami?”

Muchami waves at him in friendly acknowledgement and continues paying careful attention to a vendetta story being related by a man beside him.

“Hoy, Muchami! Muchami-o!” Gopalan is not to be put off, and his cronies are also intrigued, since he has, of course, told them as much as he knows, on which information they have speculated as extensively as they are able. They move over to engulf Muchami. “Where do you keep the coins? Are you putting them in one of your mother’s pots?”

It would be no good to have word get around that he is storing Sivakami’s silver in his mother’s house. It doesn’t occur to Muchami to suggest he is depositing the money with a bank or moneylender. He must decide rapidly, and so, since he thinks their system is a good one, he opts against his better instincts to tell the curious men the truth.

“No, all the money goes back in the house. It couldn’t be more secure, no one in the village has keys to the padlocks, and you know there are several doors on each side. It’s as good as a safe. Anyway, Sivakami Amma will come back from time to time and put it all in the real safe inside. A Dindigul safe. The whole thing is impenetrable.”

The men are nodding evaluatively.

“But how do you put the money in the house?”

“Oh, there is a way.” Muchami makes as if to go.

“Where there’s a way in, there’s a way out.” Gopalan prods.

“No, no, this is a way only to put the money in,” Muchami says, trying to turn away. “It can’t be taken out the same way, no.”

“A hole in the wall?”

“A chute?”

The men sound as though they are trying to offer suggestions.

“No, please, nothing so complicated. But tell me”-Muchami turns to the man whose tale of a sordid family feud had been interrupted-“ how the sisters of the dead boy took revenge.”

“An open window.” It’s Gopalan who hits on this. “There are bars-you throw the bundle in, yes, Muchami? You never said you didn’t have keys to the courtyard, right, and from there you go to the garden…”

The men need no further contribution from Muchami; they can continue debating the merits and drawbacks of the house safe system on their own.

In this discussion, one of their number thinks he recognizes an opportunity.

Cunjusamy’s father had been a ruthless usurer and had accumulated a substantial fortune. Cunjusamy inherited his father’s values but none of his skill. His debtors take advantage: they don’t pay interest; they claim early to have paid off their pawns; they carry home collateral that is not their own. His once-considerable inheritance is dwindling.

He waits a month, long after everyone in the marketplace has ceased even to think about the house safe. Then he waits for a night when the moon is half full-half light so he can see, half dark so he cannot be easily seen-and walks along the canal behind the Brahmin quarter until he reaches Sivakami’s house.

Cunjusamy tried and failed to be subtle in his inquiries regarding Muchami’s methods, and so Muchami had, for some time, been watching Cunjusamy’s house. When he sees the moneylender leave his house in the dead of night, waving an iron spike, Muchami goes to the houses of several men, including one in Cunjusamy’s close circle, he has enlisted for this purpose, wakes them and goes to Sivakami’s house, expecting to find Cunjusamy there.

He finds Cunjusamy heading out of the courtyard.

Muchami inquires solicitously, “Going somewhere?”

“Yes. Home,” Cunjusamy replies officiously and tries to push past, but the labourers are much more solid than the doors were, and he is prevented.

Muchami takes a step toward him and asks, “Find anything interesting?”

“Sure, your four policemen,” Cunjusamy retorts and turns on his supposed friend accusingly. “So no one’s guarding the house at night, is it? Muchami’s just tossing the money in and letting the locked house keep it safe, is it? Huh?”

The friend looks at him like he’s crazy. “All anyone said was what they knew. Anyway, were we talking so you could come here and steal? From a widow?”

“Oh, she’s just hoarding.”

Muchami draws himself up to his full five feet three inches and spits back, “She needs every paisa.”

“Oh, is that how it is? Then how can she afford four policemen every night? Do policemen work for free now?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The policemen looking after Sivakami Amma’s money.”

Muchami stares at him for a moment, then looks at the other men and shrugs. Cunjusamy thrusts out his iron spike and parts the human doors. “Lock up, will you?”

There doesn’t seem to be much reason to stay. Muchami does a quick inspection of the courtyard and notices a hole in the weather-smoothed planks of the kitchen door. He points to it and barks, “Are you responsible for this?”

“So small, and you are worried about it? You can hardly see it. I put a hole in each door so I could see if anyone was inside, keeping watch. Good thing I did, or I would have played right into the policemen’s hands.”

Muchami has finally had enough. “What are you talking about? She couldn’t afford policemen, to pay them and bribe them and all other costs.”

Cunjusamy, who had been lingering, reluctant to step back out into the dark alone, becomes self-righteous. “Are you calling me a liar?

“What should I call you? A thief?”

“Did I take one paisa?” Cunjusamy steps back into the centre of the courtyard, jabbing his finger at Muchami. “Not one!”

Muchami matches him, jab for jab. “You would have, except the policemen stopped you.”

“You just said there were no policemen!”

“There aren’t any policemen! Yes, I am calling you a liar! And a thief! Liar! Thief!”

Muchami had mentioned his suspicions to Murthy, asking him, also, to keep an eye out for nocturnal activity. Now that neighbour comes over, attracted by the noise, and starts shouting at Cunjusamy to cover his own negligence, alerting still other neighbours who had heard rumours of Cunjusamy’s interest through one source or another. Only the witch’s husband, who has problems of his own and therefore pays little attention to gossip, is surprised to look down from his roof into Sivakami’s courtyard and see a bulky rich fellow and a servant shouting at each other.

Finally Muchami humbly offers a decision.

“No action can really be taken, because no robbery occurred. I don’t think there are policemen guarding the house, because I would have known, and because someone would have seen them coming and going. Besides, where are they now? No one but Sivakami Amma has a key to the house. So, I don’t know what happened, but I will inform her and find out what she wants to do.”

They all file off into the night, still berating Cunjusamy, who refuses to look at anyone and instead scans the sky for owls and waves his iron spike at darting shadows.

The next morning, Muchami goes to the courthouse veranda and has the scribe write a letter to Sivakami. Murthy had offered to write it, but Muchami insisted he would get it done He need not explain much since everyone knows the story, which has circulated the village several times already, gathering momentum, dust, branches and extra leaves at every turn. If anything, he finds he has to limit the scribe to the details he himself knows. “I was there!” he yells at the man, who says he’s only trying to help. “I’m the one in charge,” Muchami replies loudly. He is worthy of this responsibility, he tells himself. He is sick over how close his mistress came to losing what was in his charge to protect.

Even as the letter is posted, Sivakami is already on her way to Cholapatti. Early that morning, during her brief sleep, she dreamt of the black stone Ramar that dominated her main hall at home. In the dream, she was doing puja for the gods. But when she anointed each of their foreheads with sandalwood paste, as she had every morning of her life in that house, each turned to sandalwood. Then she garlanded each with roses and each turned to silver. And when she held the oil lamp aloft to reveal their features more brightly, each turned to gold. But when she finished, she began to pack her trunk, to leave for her father’s house, and the Ramar turned to khaki cloth and she picked each one up, shook it out and folded it and packed it away in her trunk.

She woke, awash in guilt and homesickness. She must return and do a puja for that Ramar, she thought, she has been neglecting it, the Ramar that had been her responsibility as wife and mistress. She departed for Cholapatti the same morning, with an adolescent nephew for an escort.

It is early evening when they arrive, expecting no one since no one is expecting them. They walk in the failing light from the train station at Kulithalai, Sivakami as excited as her nephew is bored. When they pass the market stalls that proceed from the roundabout, someone calls out and runs toward them: Annam’s servant girl. She is round-eyed and panting. “Oh, Amma, Amma, you have come so quickly. You got Muchami’s letter, already?”

Sivakami bypasses puzzlement and goes straight for concern. “What’s happened?”

At this sign of trouble, her nephew looks a little more interested. The girl stretches out the drama. “Didn’t Muchami tell you?”

A few more people gather, the men hanging back a little and not acknowledging Sivakami out of respect, making Sivakami even more aware of her discomfort at being in public. She has to know what happened, though, and tries to hear the men’s loudly muttered contributions from four feet away. The servant girl holds her ground, not to be robbed of this juicy revelation. “Well…”

But then, a shout: Muchami is coming. Everyone bursts into babble and the servant girl is drowned out. She pulls back to pout silently as the crowd parts to admit Muchami to the inner circle. “Amma, you didn’t get my letter already, Amma?”

“What letter? You often send me letters. What’s going on?”

“Nothing really bad happened, Amma, it would have, but it didn’t…” Muchami would prefer she had read it. He doesn’t want to see her disappointed with him. “And what it was, was-you know Cunjusamy, the gundu, whose father was Kandan?”

“Yes, yes.”

“He… tried to get at the money, your money, that’s in the hall.”

Everyone around them begins to break in and augment. “He made holes around each window, pulled out all the windows and climbed in…”

“Muchami brought the police in through the front door, while Cunjusamy was coming in through the back.”

“Muchami and the labourers had dressed up like policemen…”

“He used witchcraft to go in through itty-bitty holes in the doors, without opening the locks…”

Muchami shushes the thousand and one well-meaning informants and asks if Sivakami wants to wait for him to get the bullock cart. When she insists on walking, he follows at a discreet distance. They encounter several Brahmin men on the cart path, but they pretend not to see her, exposed as she is by the necessities of modern travel.

At home, Muchami explains what he knows, showing her the holes by the light of kerosene lanterns. He doesn’t know how the invented story about the policemen served Cunjusamy’s motives. Maybe he heard Muchami coming and decided to make a dash but didn’t want to admit it.

Sivakami asks Muchami how Cunjusamy knew about how the money was kept. He explains fully, undefensively, the scene and what he understands, his voice wobbly with shame: Cunjusamy bored a hole in each door from the courtyard to the main hall, not knowing if Muchami or someone else might be sleeping there. Finding no one, he broke through, but stopped before he entered the main hall and effected the robbery, because, he said, Sivakami had four policemen guarding the riches. She asks how he happened to catch Cunjusamy in the act. In telling her, he regains a little pride.

The next morning at four, he is waiting, as he did before, behind Murthy and Rukmini’s house, where she and her nephew are staying, to escort her to the Kaveri River for her bath. She goes, fighting waves of nostalgia, forcing herself not to pretend she has just awoken from her late husband’s arms. On her way back to her house, she stops in at the roadside temple, as used to be her habit.

Back at the house, she does a long, sincere puja to the Ramar. At about eight o‘clock, she asks Muchami to tell her once more what happened, so she can examine the house by the light of day. She finds it essentially in order. Then she and Muchami count the money, using his letters, which she has brought. All accumulated wealth is present and accounted for, not a paisa short. Muchami isn’t looking for compliments and Sivakami doesn’t pay any, but they are in the air: Muchami can both count and be counted on. After counting out Muchami’s salary, plus a little bonus, miscellaneous retaining fees-for the scribe, for example, and the two old couples she supports-they roll the coins in rags torn from Hanumarathnam’s old dhotis and Sivakami deposits the rolls tidily in the Dindigul safe.

Just as she finishes, Chinnarathnam, Hanumarathnam’s old friend from up the road, stops in to inquire whether she needs any assistance in dealing with this intrusion. She asks Muchami-whose proximity to Sivakami is never questioned by anyone, including her-to give Chinnarathnam a storytelling tour of the house while she sequesters herself in the room under the stairs. Even were Sivakami still married, she would not talk to him directly, but now that she is widowed, her orthodoxy dictates that she not even permit this male non-relative to see her. When they have finished and gone back out to the vestibule, she emerges to stand half behind the door to the main hall, and talks to the concerned neighbour through Muchami.

Since no money was taken, Sivakami is inclined to do nothing, but Chinnarathnam advises that it would not be a bad thing to engineer a little something to discourage Cunjusamy, or others like him, from trying such a stunt again. Chinnarathnam is friends with the police commissioner at Kulithalai, and could request that someone from the police interview Cunjusamy. He doesn’t have to be charged with anything, even though what he has done can’t be particularly legal.

Sivakami accepts the advice, asking that Chinnarathnam invite Murthy to come along. Hanumarathnam’s cousin has looked in several times with stalwart offers of help, making Sivakami feel there was nothing in particular he felt he could do. Her nephew also perks up at the suggestion of police involvement and, late that afternoon, Muchami, Murthy and the nephew call on Chinnarathnam and they, under escort of a keen-looking young officer, proceed to Cunjusamy’s house. As per Chinnarathnam’s suggestion, they make themselves seen. Everyone they pass gawks and squawks. No one asks where they’re going.

The mission finds Cunjusamy on his veranda, popping peanut sweets in his mouth and staring into space. Muchami later imitates him when he re-enacts the story for Sivakami’s benefit: Cunjusamy’s eyes look nearly as empty as the sockets of the enormous deer skull on the wall above him; in fact, the long-dead deer looks more perceptive. The party is almost at his step before he jumps up and chokes. He spits the offending morsel past them onto the road and recovers a little of his dignity, the sort that owes less to character than to bulk. He hesitates a moment, before deciding on belligerence as the only available avenue. “What do you want?” he shouts.

They feel his hot, peanutty breath whoosh past them, and the nephew edges behind Muchami. Chinnarathnam replies, “The facts. Just the facts.”

The policeman steps forward and explains, “We just want to get to the bottom of this. Won’t you come along, sir?”

“I didn’t take anything!” Cunjusamy’s chins wag indignantly.

Murthy steps forward with a finger raised, saying, “Aha!” while Chinnarathnam muses, “That’s what’s so curious.”

The policeman gracefully gestures Cunjusamy to precede them into the street, also glancing pointedly at his billy stick. Cunjusamy marches out, still spluttering. All of the village is quiet before them, and noisy in their wake.

At Sivakami’s house, they come into the main hall, where Cunjusamy is waved to a bench. Sivakami positions herself in the pantry to witness. The policeman pulls a notepad from his breast pocket and paces to and fro, then stops and stoops in a single action, his nose level with Cunjusamy’s, his eyebrows beetled penetratingly. He booms, “Where were you on the night of?”

Cunjusamy’s voice is a full octave higher than normal. “Home! Asleep!”

“All night?”

“I can’t remember!”

The policeman, who is young and smartly turned out, wheels away. He walks along the bench to the end of the hall. Facing the door, he pulls out his billy stick and whacks the bench on the far end of which Cunjusamy is quivering. It cracks down the entire length of its grain. The policeman sighs, regains his composure, turns around and flips to the next page of his pad. “Can you remember yet?”

Cunjusamy starts to blubber. “I told them, I told them everything, I am not a wealthy man. I know I have a big house, but I have a big family, and so many people are not paying me, and…”

Chinnarathnam leans forward. “You made a hole in each door.”

Cunjusamy answers through boo-hoos, “Yes.”

“You picked the lock. With a pin?” the policeman asks.


“You went through three doors, then made a hole in the door to the main hall, then you didn’t go in and didn’t steal the money.”

“Yes. No! I mean, no. I mean…”

“What I said was right?” the officer says.


“Why didn’t you steal the money?”

“I told them, it was the policemen. Four policemen, posed, like a picture, three standing, one kneeling, like, like…” Cunjusamy casts around. “Like that!” He points to the Ramar.

Muchami has backed up against the eastern wall of the house so that he alone can see both Sivakami and the interrogation. He looks at her; she wags her head: the house will be safe, not because of policemen or neighbours, but because her gods are protecting her.

Muchami clears his throat. “Sir, thank you, sir. Amma is satisfied that he won’t do it again.”

The police officer frowns. “Are you sure? This blackguard…”

Muchami looks to Sivakami again, and she wags her head more definitively.

“Sir, yes, that’s enough, sir.” Muchami, too, is wagging his head vigorously. “Please, sir, keep the notes, yes, everything, but that is enough, sir. The house will be safe.”

Murthy, too, wags his head as though satisfied. Chinnarathnam, too, concedes. It seems a bit abrupt, but he can’t dispute her judgment. He glances quizzically at the Ramar and, on their way back along the Brahmin quarter, asks Muchami what he thinks happened. The servant echoes Sivakami’s thought: the policemen’s appearance is a miracle.

The nephew, who had to suppress a cheer when the billy stick broke the bench, is disappointed that the interview is so brief. He points at Cunjusamy: “And don’t you forget it, fatso.”

Cunjusamy sneers and pulls back his hand as if to strike. The nephew insolently turns and saunters after the policeman. By the time they reach the main road into Kulithalai, he has asked three times to carry the billy stick.

9. High Time 1907

WHEN THANGAM COMPLETES HER FIRST SEVEN YEARS, Sivakami’s family starts making noises on the subject of the girl’s marriage. Sivakami’s father begins and Kamu, her eldest sister-in-law, nods her lip-pursed agreement. Their strong opinion (stronger for being not at all original) is that it is high time. Kamu’s husband, Sambu, a roomy, sedentary man, is less enthusiastic than he should be-arranging a wedding is a lot of work and all that work is the brothers’. Their father, since his wife’s death, has largely withdrawn from family life and obligations. The middle son, Venketu, who is unnaturally energetic, annoys his elder brother with ambitious proclamations about the match they will make their niece.

With respectful comments on their brother-in-law’s renown as an astrologer, they request Thangam’s horoscope. Sivakami goes to her trunk, which now contains only the palm-leaf bundles and the carved sandalwood box. She had aired the clothes out on arrival, set them on their allotted shelf with her Ramayana and not opened the trunk since. Now she lifts out the long, slim box and sets it on the floor in front of her.

She bends to breathe the ancient scent-rich, antiseptic, vaguely obscene-of the sandal tree’s protected parts, the heartwood and roots. She is trembling a little with an old, familiar flush of resentment at her responsibilities: she has never opened the box, inside which are the leaves whose graven words have caused her loneliness. In the scent is every morning, when her husband ground a block of sandal against a dampened black stone to make a paste, to anoint the foreheads of their gods and each other and their children. It is the scent of her husband’s forehead when she bent over hi0.as he slept.

Sivakami exhales and straightens, and as she does so, her shoulder blades, which had spread slightly, lock back into place. The breath of good memory has steadied her to open the box. As she lifts the lid, she feels an icy breeze escape and curl around the back of her neck. Thangam’s horoscope is on top. Sivakami lifts it out and shuts the box without looking farther. She doesn’t think until later that Vairum’s would have logically been in that place, since he was born after Thangam. Hanumarathnam must have put Vairum’s beneath their daughter’s. He would have known that Thangam’s marriage would come before their son’s, and he must have realized that if Sivakami, not he, was opening the box, she would have reason not to want to see Vairum’s horoscope.

The brothers take the palm leaves to the corner astrologer. He quacks over them briefly, threads a silver stylus through the hole in his index fingernail and doodles out his pronouncements on a supplementary leaf. He slips this appendix onto a couple of pegs and stacks the original four leaves on top of it. The holes line up, but he seems to cut his leaves slightly larger than the standard two-by-eight-inches, or Hanumarathnam cut his smaller: the edge of the update leaf protrudes as though the little-known local garnished and trimmed Hanumarathnam’s predictions, readied them to be served.

The brothers return with long faces. Sivakami, scooping rice onto a plate in the kitchen, hears her eldest brother, Sambu, telling his wife, “She’s got a tough one.”

The wives are not ill-intentioned, but the eagerness of their concern is evident as they ask, “What-what does it say?”

Sivakami pauses to listen to Sambu’s reply.

“It says… whoever she marries, he’s going to die young.”

“Ayoh!” The exclamation comes from Kamu, Sambu’s wife.

Meenu, the second, echoes her, muttering, “Ayoh, ayoh.” She shakes her head and whispers, “Young widow.”

Sivakami comes out to serve lunch and they fall quiet. Ecchu raises her hands to her lips, seemingly to hide a nervous grimace. Sivakami goes back into the kitchen to fetch other items and thinks, This is also the fate that awaits my daughter?

While the men have their afternoon rest, the women discuss marriage even more than usual-and this is a much-discussed subject. With the subversiveness that compensates for but never threatens the domestic hierarchy, Sivakami’s sisters-in-law talk to her of the inaccuracy of horoscopes.

Ecchu overcomes her customary remove to tell of a boy in her family who wanted to marry his cousin. “She was a nice girl, beautiful girl, suited to him in every way except that her horoscope said her husband’s brother would die. So the boy’s elder brother’s wife objected, ‘No. If this marriage is conducted, I will be a widow!’ But the boy insisted, ‘If I do not marry this girl, I will not marry. At all.’ What could the family do? They could not leave their son unmarried. The older brother had already had children. So the cousins married, and guess what? No one died, not the brother, nobody. Thirty happy years later, the boy himself, the groom, died. Just last year. The older brother still lives, even today.”

The sisters-in-law nod and pat their babies. Meenu chips in spunkily with another story. “Yes, my sister, she had a horoscope that said her mother-in-law would die. My brothers showed it around, but no one would accept. Then they heard of a widow lady and thought she might consent, but when she saw the horoscope, she chased them out of the house with a big stick!”

The women laugh hard, startling toddlers silent and babies awake. A smile even breaks through the anxiety cobwebbing Sivakami’s face. Meenu laughs hardest of all. “They had to run pretty fast, or they would have got a nice whack. They came home crying and yelling, ‘What’s her problem? She’s a widow anyway, what does she care if she lives or dies? We’re not going to arrange this marriage any more!’ ”

“What happened?”

“Another widow. She had been a second wife, she didn’t mind.

The marriage was for her youngest son, the last of her responsibilities.

“The marriage took place, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago, and the old lady is still going strong. Sweet, mild-mannered lady, but strong as a plow-ox.”

The women wipe the laughing tears from the corners of their eyes-imagine their husbands being chased by widows with big sticks! They go back to absentmindedly joggling babies and mending clothes. “Marriages are made in heaven, that’s what. No one can say how one will turn out.”

Their chatter is cut off by the tiffin hour. Sivakami’s father wanders past in a cloud of his musings, moving toward the dining area. Sivakami and Ecchu rise to serve him his meal.

+9 The stories of wrong horoscopes serve as distraction but certainly not as consolation. Her husband’s own horoscope was accurate, and he did Thangam’s horoscope himself. Sivakami feels sick but all too confident that he got it right.

The brothers return from a day of searching with an unexpected proposition.

They have called on three families-enough, in their opinion, to take a decision. This is the report, which Sambu, the eldest brother, delivers in a slow, sonorous monologue, regularly interrupted by the impatient Venketu. Subbu, the youngest, doesn’t try to contribute but smiles comfortingly at his little sister. She smiles warily back.

“The first family asked us if we were kidding,” Sambu relates. “They have only one son, they have waited so long to marry him, until their duty was done by all his sisters. Will they marry him to a woman who is just going to kill him off? No. The second family: they hesitated because they have been searching for a long time for a bride. Their son is an ascetic, a renunciant. He has been so since a very early age and has said he can only marry a woman who accepts this lifestyle. Since he wants nothing so much as to be taken to the next world, his family thought he might take our option, but after some discussion, they finally said no, they could not be party to this union. Although any wife of his would have a more austere life during marriage than during widowhood, they need to find a girl who is already inclined to a spiritual life. We said Thangam is a very undemanding girl, but they were not sure. So we went to a third house. They were recommended to us as a great landowning family, but it was clear when we arrived that they are very much in debt. I’m sure that’s why they are having trouble finding a match for their son. We saw him-extraordinarily handsome, talkative, smiling face.”

Here Sambu pauses for even longer than usual. He normally speaks so slowly as to make it seem he is choosing each sentence from a dwindling supply. Sivakami’s face, which had been frowning in concentration, now smoothes into wariness. She looks around at her sisters-in-law, who look back inquiringly to their husbands. Their husbands look down at their food, and Sambu continues. “This is the best option. There is a catch, but this is still the best option.”

They each eat a mouthful.

“The catch is,” Sambu drones, “that the son has something in his horoscope that suggests…”

Venketu breaks in, “Well, suggests strongly…”

“Yes,” Sambu reasserts. “Strongly suggests his wife will… die married.” Here he takes one of his customary pauses, permitting Sivakami’s shock to jell. “Far preferable to being a widow, certainly.”

“Of course,” Venketu yelps, “it suggests this will happen after many, many years.”

“Yes, many years,” Sambu eventually adds.

“Yes, many,” Subbu chimes in at the last.

Sivakami waits a long time, but Sambu has nothing else to say. They resume eating, nervously.

This is a choice between frying pan and fire-and the women know, as men do not, the consequences of such choices. Sivakami’s mouth is dry and she feels a bit dizzy with tension but decides to plunge forward.

“How old a married woman?” she asks her eldest brother. “How many years will she have?”

“Many years, many years,” Sambu replies without looking up.

“How many?” Sivakami insists, feeling close to tears while knowing she will not cry.

“Well, let’s see…” Sambu frowns.

Venketu helps him. “She’s seven now, so that would make thirty-three more years. Practically a lifetime.”

“And ‘strongly suggests,’” Sivakami presses them, surprised that her voice is not shaking. “What does that mean? How ‘strongly’ does it ‘suggest’ his wife will die married?” She can’t bring herself to use “Thangam” and “die” in the same sentences.

“Hm. Well,” Sambu begins, and Venketu finishes, “More strongly than Thangam’s suggests its opposite.”

Sambu glares.

There is silence as each woman in the room compares her own lifespan with the one Thangam’s uncles want her to accept. It is a little less than twice Sivakami’s current age. More time than she wants but not nearly enough for her daughter. Venketu offers Sivakami the courtesy of a little consolation, and she sees that, despite his early proclamations, he has put all the effort he intends to into this match. “Anyway, when she has children, remember, chances are very good that their horoscopes will change all this. Children give all women a new lease on life, isn’t that right, ladies?”

The ladies pretend they haven’t heard. Sivakami does not let herself reflect on whether children are a reliable method of altering one’s destiny. She thinks instead that her brothers will not be so hasty in selecting mates for their own children: good children, but ordinary. Plain, some of them very plain, and not exactly brilliant either. Her brothers will have to work double-time to pair them off and they will too. Without looking up from his slurping-burping, Sambu concludes, “They want a girl-seeing next week.”

Sivakami retreats to the kitchen in disgust. It will be concluded at the girl-seeing. No one has ever laid eyes on Thangam without tumbling headfirst into the well of love where she dwells, a little golden frog. She is a delicacy not to be resisted, the sweetest of sweets laid over with pure, pounded gold. Thangam melts on the tongue.

She hears her father calling from the far end of the house for his bedroll. He has concerned himself with nothing about the marriage since making the demand that his sons do their duty by their niece. That was his duty, to make the demand.

If only horoscopes were less impartial, Sivakami thinks, feeling sorry for herself, since to feel sorry for her daughter, already, would break her heart. The stars strike without pity. And they collude through generations. She, her husband and Vairum were all victimized by Hanumarathnam’s and Vairum’s star charts, and now, because of Hanumarathnam’s death, Thangam’s stars have shredded her life in advance. The stars’ effects can be altered in combination-look, Thangam’s destiny was reversed by this match. Surely her father, had he lived, would have found a way to turn hers to advantage.

Had he lived. Her brothers had asked her to come here so they could look after her: a woman alone is vulnerable, they said. They are right. Clearly, no one will protect her and her children now that her husband is gone.

As Sivakami predicted (see: she, too, has such powers), the boy’s family comes, sees, consents. The groom, called Goli, is eighteen, handsome, with the sort of creamy complexion customarily called red. (A tinge of aristocracy? Romance and good fortune?) He’s all charm and dash, glib compliments and a restless eye. Sivakami’s sisters-in-law are a-titter.

Sivakami can’t deny that Goli is good-looking, but his behaviour is suspicious. Has he affected this manner or is it natural? He acts like he cannot stay still. He has no obligation to find Thangam’s family interesting, nor even to act as though he does. But is something wrong with him?

Vairum began pouting even before the interloper arrived. He has been scrubbed and oiled and made to sit still, withheld from his cousins and the grubby roaming day that calls to him in sun and dust. He sits obediently in the main hall, a sad, bored expression on his face, determinedly reciting numbers, his lips barely moving.

Thangam serves sweets to her prospective groom. Sivakami observes the pair keenly. She believes she sees the light of attraction between them, like something seen close by the window of a moving train-Goli looks at the girl as she serves; Thangam looks at him as he looks away. Sivakami knows this may be merely wishful: Thangam is only seven, after all, and not a child whose feelings are easy to read. Next Thangam turns to serve Goli’s mother and father, and when they ask the little girl to sing, she treats them to a gentle, indulgent smile and sits to one side, silent and absent-looking. Her aunts hurriedly bring out the little girl’s needlepoint, evidence of her industry and intelligence. She may not speak much, but she is clearly no dolt. The embroidery is primitive; she is still small. Anyway, the handiwork’s beauty cannot compare to the girl’s, and all is forgiven with laughter in the warmth of Thangam’s glow. The families feel themselves on the brink of an agreement, and this makes the gathering even more agreeable.

A little apart, Vairum sits as dourly as only a precocious five-year-old can, keeping one cautious eye cocked on Goli, who continues to bounce about the salon, admiring trinkets and babies and pictures of gods, peering out at the street, tossing out non-witty non sequiturs that set the aunts adrift in gales of giggles nonetheless. No matter how he moves, his clothes hang perfectly on his body. Now he stops in front of Vairum, saying jovially, “Hey, mite!” He ruffles Vairum’s hair, bats his shoulders and generally takes liberties.

“Not the prettiest kid, eh?” Goli addresses the group.

Thangam leaps up, looking alarmed and hurt, as the rest of the gathering burbles and hiccups. Vairum glitters cold scorn. Sivakami bristles, but no one notices her, or Thangam, who eventually sits without speaking but also, now, without smiling.

Throughout this sparkling exchange, Vairum has continued to recite under his breath, “Four hundred and eighty-three times four hundred and eighty-three is twenty-three lakh, three thousand, two hundred eighty-nine. Four hundred and eighty-three times four hundred and eighty-four is twenty-three lakh, three thousand, seven hundred seventy-two. Four hundred and eighty-three times four hundred and eighty-five is twenty-three lakh, four thousand, two hundred fifty-five.”

Now his sister’s intended-for that is what he clearly is, though no one has bothered to explain anything to Vairum-peers at the younger boy’s lips, which immediately still. Goli asks, “What are you saying?”

Vairum turns away, repulsed by Goli’s scent of new rice and lemons-he is nauseated by everything about Goli, by all that everyone else clearly admires. The aunts explain: “Arithmetic. He is doing arithmetic.”

They turn to Goli’s parents, still as brick compared with their son, and elaborate, “He picked it up somewhere; he does it all the time. The children ask him to name two big numbers and add them divide them we don’t know what all, but they seem to find it amusing.”

The fiance likes this. He crows, “O-ho! A smarty-pants we have here, have we? So do some. Go ahead, let’s hear your arithmetic.”

Vairum is lost in his own thoughts, and startles when Goli repeats his request: “Come on, smarty-pants. Show us your tricks. I’ll get you started. What’s seven plus five?”

Vairum fixes a squint on him and says, in order to end the conversation, “Eleven.”

Goli leaps away shuddering and addresses the crowd. “Ugh, those eyes give me the creeps. Don’t they give you all the creeps?” He starts examining the beamwork of the house and asks, “So what’s this wood holding up your house?

Vairum’s had enough. He rises and heads for the door. His aunts admonish him sharply to stay, but he keeps moving. Goli leaps in his way, the chivalrous knight, barely glancing at his quarry. “Stop right there, little man.”

Vairum ducks past him into the vestibule. Goli grabs his arm and yanks him back over the threshold. “I said stop.”

Vairum tries without success to wrest away. “I don’t have to listen to you.”

His elder uncles slide fast from sycophancy to sharp authority: “You do have to listen. He is going to be your brother-in-law.” They slide back to ask the parents with jollity, “We are assuming?”

The in-laws-to-be give hurried assurance, lest anyone change minds. “No, yes, yes, you are quite right, quite right. All very satisfactory. Must get on to details immediately!”

Vairum, under cover of everyone’s etiquette, escapes Goli’s hold and bounds outside. From there he yells, so the whole street can hear, “Don’t tell me what to do!”

Goli poses briefly as though to give chase, but Vairum is gone and the older boy really hasn’t a spark of interest in a sweat-drenched trot through the sun-drenched village. He saunters back into the salon, but there is an unhappy tilt to his mouth. Sivakami sees it as a flag. Might these boys grow to understand each other as men or has she just seen an enmity enter her family?

Her father now rises from his corner. Everyone is mildly surprised, having forgotten he was present. He shuffles out to the veranda, where he will await the next meal to punctuate his existence.

Wedding plans are amicably contracted between the responsible parties. Thangam’s uncles ask for her feelings with questions that cannot be answered, such as “All seems very suitable, doesn’t it, Thangam dear?” and “Weren’t in a mood to sing, were you? Well, it doesn’t seem to have hurt anything.” There is no way to respond, and so Thangam doesn’t. All has gone as God intended and the day waves sunnily ahead.

To his immense credit-though he might have been goaded either by his conscience or by his wife-Sambu negotiates for a dowry to be given in land instead of cash and jewels. He has concerns about Thangam’s future family’s debt status and tries for one more condition: he would like to continue to manage the land and thereby improve it for the couple. To their surprise, the in-laws agree.

Sivakami is somewhat cheered by this small proof of her brother’s concern for Thangam. She feels doubly secure because, of course, he will not manage the land-she will. She trusts her own ability and industry above his.

Despite this discussion, Thangam will still come with a large trousseau. Her sisters-in-law do the shopping. The jewels from the Cholapatti safe will be displayed on the child at the wedding and go with her to her new home. Sivakami hears, even through the cacophony of her feelings about this marriage, the voice in her head making practical arrangements. She doesn’t trust Goli and doesn’t exactly know why, other than that he acts so strangely. But she also feels some relief at having the marriage contracted: Thangam had to marry someone and, who knows, maybe another union would be worse. Maybe this one will turn out all right. Still, she wonders as she bends sleepless over her beading that night, What is on this Goli’s mind? What is Thangam in for?

10. A Woman Alone 1908

NINE MONTHS AFTER THE BETROTHAL, the days of the wedding arrive. Everyone has a role to play, in giving and receiving the gifts of silks and lands and bride. The drama begins with the procession of the bridegroom in the streets, dressed up in parasol and eyeliner and a stiff swirl of silk dhoti. As is customary, he pretends he is off to Benares to complete the Sanskritic studies with which so few modern Brahmin boys bother. Goli’s primary education was interrupted prematurely by his sense of fun. His nickname, which means “marble,” was bestowed by a tutor who left, as all Goli’s tutors did, within a year, after observing that he couldn’t teach a child who spent every session ricocheting off the walls and furniture. Goli liked the moniker and it became one of the few things he retained from his education.

Customarily, when the parade passes the bride’s house, her father intervenes in the chaste young scholar’s journey and persuades him to marry his daughter. This is a Brahmin boy’s big break from the cocoon of youth and scholarship, his chance to transform into a householder who is qualified, and indeed, obliged, to own property and produce a family.

This happy moment of intervention and invitation should have been Hanumarathnam’s. Today, his cousin Murthy, here from Cholapatti along with half a dozen of their other neighbours, fulfills the role, solemnly and with evident excitement, as the closest equivalent of a paternal uncle. Muchami has also come, at Sivakami’s request, ostensibly to help, though everyone knows it is a treat and he is given no real work.

Vairum has been instructed as to each of his obligations and is too bored, by now, even to resist. He sullenly repeats, with flat affect and eyes out to space, each scripted word fed him by the priest, flaring up the sacred fire with ghee. In the process, he accidentally sets Goli’s puffily starched silk dhoti on fire.

Goli streaks straight out back to the courtyard to plunge his leg into a brass basin as Vairum and Thangam make unexpected eye contact, a quavering beam of horror that turns instantly into suppressed laughter. Sivakami, whose widowhood confines her to the courtyard because the wedding is everywhere else, scampers through a gate in the wall, just ahead of the crowd that soon surrounds the smoking groom. In a forgotten garden, behind a scrubby old margosa, Sivakami, too, has a good laugh, and then a good cry, though she cries only from her left eye. Her right stays dry.

If she were not a widow, she and her husband would have escorted Thangam to and from her in-laws’ house for festivals in the years between the wedding and her coming-of-age, at which time she will join her husband for good. She and Hanumarathnam would have got to know Goli and his family at home-though, of course, it would not have been Goli, she reminds herself with shame, since now it is done, and to think of Thangam with anyone else is tantamount to sin. Now her brothers will escort Thangam, and she will have to glean what knowledge she can from their careless, partial reports. Oh, for a spy, someone on her side! A Muchami of the marriage, that’s what she needs, she thinks, as she watches her servant watching the now-resumed festivities. Who will tell her what she needs to know?

Her sisters-in-law approach her, interrupting her thoughts. She has not seen them since Hanumarathnam died, though she dutifully sent them letters, to which they didn’t respond, after settling at her brother’s place.

“Oh, how thrilling to have such a wonderful excuse to come and see you and the children,” the elder sister effervesces. Her jowls, which started forming in her early forties, have a strange rigidity to them now, giving her a formidable look despite her gay tone. Sivakami is cowed.

“Your brothers have done a fine job,” sniffs the second sister primly. “You must count yourself as lucky.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Sivakami replies.

“Now you must let us help you,” trills the elder, and Sivakami is alarmed, since they have never offered any help she wanted before. She has been grateful for their lack of communication since Hanumarathnam died. “Your house is standing empty and you must let us look in on it from time to time. Give us the key, there’s a good girl. We’ll wait here. You don’t seem too busy right now.”

Sivakami looks at her, trying to think quickly. Samanthibakkam is a little closer to Cholapatti than their husbands’ places, and they have never seemed inclined to inconvenience themselves for her before. “I… thank you. I do manage to go back every three or four months, and…”

“But, my dear, you really shouldn’t, and don’t need to!” says the elder sister, cocking her head impatiently. “We will look after it. Go on, fetch the key and no more objections. You shouldn’t be worrying about this, with everything else on your mind!”

Sivakami looks at the younger sister, who has been silent through the elder’s speeches. She looks nervous and guilty. Sivakami says nothing more but goes to the shelf where she and the children keep their few possessions. Beside her second sari, the children’s clothes and her Kamba-Ramayanam is a small pile of possessions Vairum has accumulated here, things he likes to look at, things he has acquired in trade or intends to give away. Among them is an old key for the Cholapatti house, which she saved for Vairum after the attempted robbery, when she had the locks changed. She’ll have to compensate him, she thinks, as she brings it back to her sisters-in-law.

“For the courtyard door padlock. It’s a little stiff, but if you work it…” she is telling them, but they are already rising to go.

“Don’t worry, Sivakami! You worry too much!” says the elder, tucking the key in her bosom. Her younger sister smiles stiffly in Sivakami’s direction but cannot hold her gaze.

Sivakami knows she has just postponed giving them whatever it is they want but knows that Muchami will tell her what happens when the sisters come to Cholapatti and that this will be enough to help her decide her next move. A woman alone is a target, she nods grimly to herself as she prepares the next meal.

11. This Is for You 1908

THE NEXT ORDER OF BUSINESS will be Vairum’s education. Several of his cousins, slightly younger, are ready to undertake the poonal ceremony-the conferring of the holy thread, which ceremony and emblem signify that a Brahmin boy is ready to begin learning. Vairum might have passed through this gate a year earlier, but Sivakami’s brothers suggested she wait until these cousins could join him, and given the confusion of resettlement, she thought it might not be a bad idea for him to wait to start school.

The family’s Brahminism is a great point of pride for Venketu, Sivakami’s second brother, and so he takes the lead on having his son and nephews initiated into the caste. He drums up a few more participants from the Brahmin quarter: the more boys the priest can do at once, the more everyone will save on fees and feast, so it’s not hard to convince a few cash-strapped parents that their four-year-olds are old enough to understand what it means to be sworn into the caste, to commit to a life of study and prayer with no remuneration. All of these parents want their caste status confirmed, and all will be disappointed if their sons actually honour the letter of this commitment. The sons will be married to Brahmin girls, live in Brahmin quarters, eat only with Brahmins-they will behave like Brahmins socially, but, the parents hope, not economically. Parents with means send their sons to secular schools. Their fond hope is that they are cultivating lawyers or administrators or earners of some white-collar sort. Only families too poor to afford a non-Brahmin education will send their child to a paadasaalai, a Vedic school, to be educated as a priest and remain both Brahminically pure and Brahminically poor.

On an auspicious day, at an auspicious hour, seven little boys gather shivering before dawn, oiled and clean, in new silk dhotis and shoulder cloths. Vairum, a few months short of his sixth birthday, is proudest of all, buddying about with his cousins, giving useless instructions to the confused younger boys. They are all told, by the wise and kindly priest heading the morning’s events, that this is the day of their birth. Anyone can be born from a mother, he tells them, but what sets us apart as Brahmins is this second birth into caste, into knowledge. Each boy huddles beneath a cloth with his parents, who reveal to him the prayer with which, each daybreak, he will petition the sun for illumination. He is given the three intertwined poonal threads that will signal to the world his special status: his right and obligation to knowledge, his right and obligation to poverty (except, not really).

Sivakami is as proud and happy as Vairum is. How nice for him to have a second birth, she thinks, given the circumstances of the first. His birth into learning will be his real birth into life. Vairum turns from the fire and flashes his crooked little smile, his narrow, uneven eyes crinkling. She smiles back shyly, proudly, from behind the kitchen door, and watches as he leans and whispers something to the cousin beside him, who smirks and passes it on, and then all seven are in an uncontrollable fit of giggles and the uncles and fathers get angry with them, but they can’t stop, the ceremony is so solemn and they so gay.

A couple of months later, the school year approaches and the household begins to prepare. There are things to be bought, uniforms, books, tiffin containers, forms to complete and documents to secure. Vairum is of an age to begin first standard and clearly ready in other ways, given his math skills. He has even received his poonal, and so is, in every way, it seems, sanctioned to commence.

Before Sivakami has a chance to ask about how to go about registering him for school, Sambu harrumphs one morning at breakfast, “Vairum is more than ready to begin his education.”

“Yes,” she rejoins. “I was going to say the same.”

“He is a bright child,” Sambu drawls. He takes longer than anyone else to eat his meals. “The math tricks, they prove his intelligence. Did you know the Vedas are highly mathematical? Not that we would know about that, but that aspect will probably hold all kinds of interest for him.”

“Yes,” Sivakami answers, more hesitant now. Do they teach Vedic mathematics in the schools? Maybe it’s an option. “We’d better find out what he needs, especially since he doesn’t have a father to testify for him on those forms.”

Sambu frowns indulgently. “Paadasaalais don’t require forms or fathers. Not much to worry about at all.”

“A paadasaalai?” she repeats. “But he’s not going to a paadasaalai.”

“It’s all fixed, Sivakami,” Venketu breaks in. He is a natural-born salesman and takes every conversation as a challenge to his powers of persuasion. “Don’t argue. He is a very intelligent boy, and if he goes to a secular school, he’ll leave you. Your only son-you don’t want that, surely? A boy educated to some English profession will need to follow his work to cities, but a priest won’t have fancy opportunities to give him ideas. Solid Sanskritic education, because you need him. Anyway, it’s good to have a priest in the family. Father says so. Someone has to respect tradition, with all these boys going the way of the big, bad modern world!”

Venketu shakes with false jollity while she stares at him. Subbu takes his brothers’ side, wheedling, “Who better than the son of Hanumarathnam, who was a one-man repository of tradition, so scholarly, mystical, so famous? Your son will carry on his father’s life work.”

Sivakami is silenced. She has carried with her, her whole life, a faint guilt with regard to her brothers. One of her earliest memories: she was four and Subbu saved her life. She had been about to jump into the family well-out of curiosity and defiance, not despair. She struggled violently against him and when he set her down in front of her mother, she turned and broke his nose. She always felt herself to be stronger than them; she has never, she thinks, fully given any of them the respect and obedience elder brothers deserve to command. Even now, she thinks with resignation, that hasn’t changed. She had no choice in the matter of Thangam’s marriage: a widow has no power to dispute such matters. But she need not let go of her son’s shoulders at this fork in his path. She’s not about to let go unless she absolutely has to.

As it happens, there is a paadasaalai conveniently up the street. It doesn’t have any sort of reputation, but her brothers would consider one paadasaalai much like another, using the same methods and the same curriculum with the same results since the beginning of time. This one is run by charity, so there is no cost. No cost for supplies, no cost for exams, no cost for extra tutoring, no cost for college afterward because Vairum won’t be going to college, that’s for sure. Any costs would have been paid from her money, of course, given to her brothers to manage while she was living in their house. A paadasaalai education would mean no work for them.

And why should they trouble themselves over her son? Any wealth he accumulates is nothing to their family. Even the dowry he will someday attract-certainly more substantial for an engineer than a priest-would only be his, or, at best, Sivakami’s. What use has she or Vairum for wealth? Sivakami wonders if they admit, in the privacy of their own minds, that they are a little jealous of Vairum, of his brains, of the possibility that he might outshine their boys.

She wouldn’t be able to endure seeing her son educated in Sanskrit to waste himself performing occasional ceremonies for the rich, demanding their gifts and gossiping and never leaving the veranda to check on the world without. Priesting is a profession for the poor, the choiceless; Sivakami is not rich, but she is too rich for her son to become a priest. She is a snob, but this is not snobbery. This is cold reason. Firstly, she fears that, because her son has an inheritance, he would grow lazy and corrupt. And then, say he wastes his inheritance and does want for money, the rewards for chanting over fires are no longer sufficient to support a family. The world has changed and shirtless priests, walking the street with nothing but a brass jar, haven’t the opportunities they once had.

Vairum is diamond needle sharp. She fears that if he is not challenged, his intelligence will turn inward and damage him. He must be educated in English to take his place in the new world. Even if he leaves her to fend for herself while he makes his way, even if she will know nothing of his values or career, she must give him this chance. Even if she will lose him by doing so. She didn’t take any such stand on behalf of her daughter because her daughter was not hers to lose. Daughters are born to be the fortunes of other families, but her son’s fortune is hers to find, for him. While she lives with her brothers, however, she cannot take any initiative that is not theirs.

Standing silent on the veranda with her brothers now imitating (badly) their father’s detached and philosophical gaze, Sivakami decides that it is not, in fact, right for her to live with them. She married into another house, and to there she will now repair.

After she serves the night meal, she announces, sounding quieter than she feels, “I’m… I have decided to move the children back to Cholapatti.”

Her brothers cease wiping their mouths, and Sivakami sees Sambu decide he must not have heard her correctly.

She repeats, too loudly this time, “We are very grateful for having had this time here. We are returning to my husband’s-to my house.”

“My dear sister,” her eldest brother says, “that is out of the question.”

She looks up from the floor and nervously at her sisters-in-law. She feels rising in her the stubbornness of the child she was, when she went and played at the river alone every day, despite slaps and warnings, or when she built nests for abandoned baby birds who then filled their courtyard with squawks and offal. When confronted, she sometimes was not able to think of a reason or response, but even when she knew exactly why she was doing what she was doing, she explained nothing.

“Talk to her!” Sambu commands the women, who commence wailing as their husbands retreat to confer. At a look from Sivakami, though, Kamu and Meenu’s weeping stops, while fragile Ecchu’s turns genuine.

Sivakami is as surprised as anyone else to find herself, a twenty-two-year-old matron, behaving just as she did when she was five. She had convinced herself that she had grown to be pliable-reliable and demure. But the next day, she sends her brothers to buy her railway tickets for early the following week, and they obey. When Venketu asks sarcastically how she will pay for her son’s education, the steadiness of her own voice surprises and reassures her, “My husband trained me to manage the lands. The income will be sufficient, and I know how to administer it.”

She has carefully considered all obstacles. In five days, she will march her children out the door and back to the household where she alone is head. It is only after she has overcome her brothers’ objections and made all arrangements that she permits herself to acknowledge-to herself, never to them-that she really would rather have stayed. Her visits back to Cholapatti have been brief, but each time, she has been overwhelmed by the loneliness of the house and glad to return to the affectionate company of her family in Samanthibakkam. Now she has closed that door, and the future sidles from sight.

On the eve of their departure, she wants the children in bed early so she can rouse them early for the train. Thangam is sitting on the veranda as always and comes in as soon as she is called. Vairum is running up and down the street with his gang, pretending to do battle on the plains of Kurukshetra. He gallops past his mother three times, once as horse, once as cart, once as charioteer, until Sivakami gets the attention of one of his elder cousins and commissions a capture. Vairum nobly resists arrest. Then he resists bedtime. They go finally to sleep, Thangam swiftly and sweetly, Vairum with much violent affection, hugging and kissing his tiny mother who is touched but not quite so athletic as to cope with his caresses.

At night’s darkest hour, Sivakami does an oblation for the gods of her father’s house as all its inhabitants sleep, save her. By tradition and by her heart, she no longer belongs here, but she is grateful to have had it as a stopping-place between grief and the rest of her life. She turns to leave the peace of the altar where she worshipped with her mother so many fond years ago and is startled by a listing white figure.

It is her father, roused from sleep, his gossamer hair leaping into the air above him as he moves. He pauses a moment to register her presence, then continues out back for his night business. Sivakami leans against the door of the puja room, thinking how he has aged-so quickly!-from the trim and prideful little man she knew. Her widowhood, and then his own, within weeks of one another: each death sparked in him a minor stroke, so now his left foot appears to be slightly more burden than support, and the left side of his jaw is slung low in the loosening skin of his face.

She hears the shufflestep of his return. He passes her and then stops and, without turning, says gruffly, “I still cannot decide if we were cheated on your behalf. I simply cannot decide.”

She says only, “He left me well provided for, in every way.”

Her father remains motionless; his hair rises and sways in unseen breezes. Their silence admits all the noises of the night beyond and the bricks cooling underfoot. He is the one who speaks: “You know a paadasaalai would be best-ah, for your son, for you. But the world is changing. Maybe the boy should be prepared to meet it when it comes to his door.”

He lurches into motion. He takes his place alone on his bamboo mat; he lays his head on the wooden pillow. The world turns beneath him, and sometimes, he thinks, he feels it move.

In the grey morning, the family bids them farewell at the veranda. Subbu will see them to the station. Sambu has wafted, for several days, an air of puzzlement, as though more concerned for Sivakami than for his own pride, though the opposite is transparently the case.

“I wish you success, little sister.” His gaze rests on her heavily, like the burden he thinks she is shouldering. “I hope, should you need help, that you will come to your brothers.”

Sivakami can see he is sincere, regardless of how slow he will be to act on any such request. And she is touched by his sincerity. She takes leave of her elders by performing oblations for them and making her children do the same, requesting and receiving blessings on this departure. Then children and baggage are bundled sleepily onto the bullock cart, she mounts beside them and they are trundled toward the train.

Mistress of my own house. On the train, her mind ticks with business. She will have to get caught up on all the tenants. Muchami had included a note in his last letter to say one of them was resisting payment and another had fallen ill. Muchami’s mother had also written her-that was a surprise-saying Muchami was acting oddly and refusing to attend his own marriage. She beseeched Sivakami, as his employer, to make him comply. She has already rehearsed what she will say to him. She feels charged with responsibility, as though it’s some species of lightning. She turns and hugs her children close as the train pulls out of the station. She cannot be madi on a train.

If Thangam is excited about a return to Cholapatti, Sivakami can’t tell. Vairum has no use for the place of his infancy, little as he remembers it. He complains but assumes they are going for a visit, as Sivakami has, every four or five months since they moved. Sivakami has not had the heart tell him he is to live out the rest of their days there, in the place where he was friendless and sad and where his father died. Children this young, she thinks, recover quickly from moves. He’ll cry for a few days, then he’ll forget he ever left.

She is saying this to herself as she watches him awaken on the train. He raises his gaze to hers, eyes like leaded-glass windows behind which his trust shines softly. She strokes his head. He takes advantage, cuddles up. She strokes his head, thinking, This is for you, this is for you, to the train’s rhythm, this is for you. She feels steel spark against steel, wheels on rails. There is no other way, she winces. Stroking his dear, quiet head, bracing herself for his misery. This is for you, this is for you.



12. Muchami Gets Married 1908

ANGAMMA, MUCHAMI’S MOTHER, stands in front of the little roadside temple, her fingers clamped around his wrist, waiting for a lizard to chirp. It has to come first from the left, next the right-the other way around would be a bad omen and would put her to a great deal of trouble, coming up with good omens to counter the bad until she felt satisfied the wedding could proceed.

Men of Muchami’s caste generally marry in late adolescence, but there has been in his case a delay. The elder of his two younger sisters took overlong to marry, owing, so people said, to her buckteeth and pointed tongue. His plump, malleable younger sister was snapped up in no time at all, liberating Muchami of his obligation to wait, but then she divorced and all was thrown into confusion. Fortunately, she remarried with equal haste and now Angamma is hustling to get him settled before anything else changes.

At least there was, in his case, almost no question of whom he would marry: the second of his mother’s five brothers has a girl of thirteen. Muchami probably would have married the girl cousin just elder to him, had his sisters not taken so long (his caste permits boys to marry older girls, though he would have had to do something to compensate, like swallowing a coin or gifting a coconut for each year of the age difference); he might have married the girl just elder to his now-intended, but she was bundled off with someone else in that brief period of uncertainty and lowered family reputation when his younger sister returned home.

Even this alliance is not without matters to be resolved, though. The birth order is not ideal, for example: both Muchami and this girl, Mari, are the eldest children in their families and Muchami’s mother forebodingly quoted the proverb that says, “The contact of two heads of family is like the clashing together of two hills.”

Mari’s father, Rasu, claimed that this was just another minor and obscure objection Angamma thought she could use as a bargaining chip. He actually accused her of inventing superstitions and conditions, which was silly because she clearly was not capable. Everyone, including him, knew Rasu would be crazy not to take Muchami as a groom-a sister’s son, employed, of sound mind and body, and appropriate height and colour. The only real question was when.

And, of course, the verdict of the omenistic lizards. “At least everyone knows we have to do this,” Angamma huffs as they wait. The lizard chirps. Muchami looks to the right of the little shrine, but his mother looks left. They look back at each other. “So far, so good,” Angamma says, and Muchami shakes his head and looks as though he’s about to say something, but his mother raises a hand to stop him.


Angamma looks to the right though he looks left. “That’s settled then!” she says and raises his hand in triumph as though this was his prize fight. He resists ineffectually. “We can choose a date. Now we just have to get that cheapskate bustard to settle on the terms.” Angamma never swears but often says things that sound close.

Mari, Muchami’s bride, is an irritating girl in many ways. Everyone agrees that her pretensions make her a perfect match for Muchami, as do her looks, which are similar to his, perhaps owing to the fact that they are cousins. She is skinnier than is considered attractive, with a wilful set to her protruding lower jaw. Her eyes, though, are quick and dark, and she cuts an energetic figure. Muchami’s mother finds Mari unbearable, but, in the lead-up to the wedding, feels more kindly toward the girl than she ever does again.

Muchami’s caste, almost without exception, pays bride-prices. Angamma had been forced to return most of what she received for her younger daughter’s first marriage because her daughter was at fault and she couldn’t pretend otherwise, though she indignantly did not pay the interest the other side implied was due.

But Mari’s fondest aspiration is to practise Brahminhood even though she can never belong to any caste other than the one into which she was born. Individuals can be robbed of caste-temporarily, by means of such brief pollutions as haircuts or funerals, or permanently, by transgressions. Or they can be exalted within their caste-as much as Mari can hope for. She is laughingly referred to as “more Brahmin than the Brahmins,” and most of her affectations involve imitating the higher caste.

Owing to her convictions, she forbids her father to accept a bride-price for her-she tells him he has to pay a dowry. There is no reason he should listen to her, and his brothers say he’s setting a bad precedent when he gives in. But there is a growing fashion these days for claiming that one’s caste is higher in the hierarchy than others think, and one way of substantiating such claims is by adopting higher caste practices. His wife is also in favour: she thinks they would gain more status from paying a token dowry than from receiving a fat fee.

Brother and sister still jockey for form’s sake. (Until movies arrive, there’s little in any village or small town that’s as much fun as fighting.) They settle on a dowry of three chickens and a sixteenth-harvest each of millet, rice and peanuts-a list more typical of a bride-price than a Brahmin dowry, but why would they give things they don’t have and don’t want? This is theatre-they get the gesture right, and the negotiations conclude to everyone’s secret satisfaction.

On the eve of his marriage, Muchami does his rounds of the fields in the morning and comes back to Angamma’s hut to eat. Late in the afternoon he goes out again. His mother calls after him, “Home early-got that? None of this gadding-about-late-night-seeing-your-friends. You have to wake up in the very early morning. All the women will be arriving to help by three o’clock and you must get dressed up…”

Her voice fades behind him as he walks away, waving his hand in what could be farewell but looks more like he wants to be left alone.

Angamma lies down at eight-thirty. She lies on her side on the mud floor, her arm tucked under her head, muttering her to-do list, along with increasingly strong, partially accurate, imprecations at her son. She gets up, lies down, gets up, rearranges clothes, jewels, betel-nut coconuts, switching them from one tray to another.

She has never asked her son where he goes when he goes out at night. She thinks it’s risky, but Muchami knows the fields better than anyone and she finds it difficult to restrain him. Too, there are in her vocabulary rude words, sexual insults, that she fears may apply to her son. No one has ever said anything like this to her, and this is one of the reasons she has never asked about his friends. But this night, of all nights, she would have thought he’d have the respect to stay home.

Eventually, she dozes, but even in sleep she mutters and twitches, and when the Kanyakumari train runs along the nearby tracks, her eyelids flip open. She leaps to the doorway and checks the time by the position of the moon. Midnight.

She fumes curses against her son. She starts to cry a little, with hurt and helplessness. Promptly at three, five women arrive to help. Angamma normally would bluff, but she feels weak. She knows a couple of these women are jealous of her: Muchami gives his mother most of his salary. He doesn’t drink. Really, he has been the ideal son before this, the women remind her, affectionately or with gloating tones. He will come soon, they say, he will come.

She accepts their reassurances, though they do nothing to assuage her nervousness. Dark drains into a hostile-looking day, and the hour arrives when she must step across to her brother’s. Angamma looks even worse than usual. She has fair skin, in contrast with her brothers, and though she is not heavy, her face is always puffy, with purple half-moons under the eyes, as though she were once prey to some terrible vice, which she never was. Today, her eyes are swollen with crying and sleep loss; her hair and clothing stick out in odd directions.

Under the canopy, the witnesses are assembled and in full gossip. The bride is bedecked and bejewelled. All wait expectantly. Finally, Angamma has no choice but to tell them that the groom has gone missing.

She so wants everyone present to think some huge and possibly violent misfortune has overtaken him. Her defiant eyes beg them to be alarmed. A tactful few react this way, even going so far as mildly to suggest a search party. To them she is forever grateful. Most, however, develop knowing expressions and ready themselves-not to depart but to witness whatever comes next. They hope it’s a fight.

Rasu demands of his sister, “Where is your son?”

Angamma is forced to reply with humility, “I… don’t… know.”

What can Rasu say? He is not going to insult his sister or call his beloved nephew bad names. The things he said before were a matter of form. He marches out to the toddy shop, shaking his head.

He has to admit he had a small worry all along. There are others like his nephew. But they all marry, have children. It is not a question of whether women interest a fellow, in general or in particular. It’s a question of what is done.

He arrives at his regular clearing and purchases a cup of cloudy amber drink from the slatternly woman who minds the brew. She pokes an escapee tuft into her matted coif and grins at him lewdly. Her husband is passed out not a quarter furlong away. Rasu doesn’t notice the woman, so taken up is he with the thoughts shadowing the backs of his eyes. She curses him; he makes a cursory reply. It’s the kind of ritual observed between men and strumpets the world over, almost obligatory, somewhat comforting. He sits by himself.

He’s not wholly unsympathetic to Muchami: he himself had to marry his uncle’s daughter. Not the prettiest nor the liveliest girl in town, but Rasu had an obligation and he fulfilled it. One gets married.

He drains his cup and gets another. The vendress of drinks is rolling in some shrubbery with one of the guests from the aborted wedding. Four or five others squat around the vat, retelling the morning’s events. They would have enjoyed a longer confrontation, and now embellish the story, for fun and to make it more plausible. Rasu ignores them all.

There is no question of calling the marriage off-he won’t leave his own sister in the lurch. Muchami must be made to face his obligations just like anyone else. Soon his brothers join him. They are slight but muscular, labourers all, dark and glossy. Squatting together, they look like a society of ravens.

The eldest says, “We will fix another date.”

They all wag their heads in assent.

The third says, “We will keep an eye on him, before the ceremony.”

They all wag. They drink.

The fourth says, “He won’t try this again.”

They drink. The youngest says, “We won’t let him.”

They all wag. They drink deeply. Rasu, the second eldest, says nothing. His lips, plum-coloured and full in the manner of that country, are pressed into a rigid frown. But he is reassured.

They had planned this as a day of relaxation and overconsumption. They decide they may as well stick to that plan. Together they drink, and when sufficiently past satiation, sleep off the day in the shade of the toddy palms. The youngest gets fresh with the bar matron. She rebuffs him good-naturedly with a lot of crude language and he passes out, smiling. The others accuse her of cutting slits in the leaves used to make the cups, to force them to drink her swill too quickly. She calls them a bunch of fucking fabulists. They show her the leaks. She punches two or three in the face, tells them to suck the outside of the cups and that’s the end of the matter.

MUCHAMI SLOUGHED OFF HIS MARITAL OBLIGATIONS, but he would never be so cavalier with his job. He doesn’t come home but still makes his daily rounds and so is easily traced. His uncles come after him one day and forcibly remove him home, soiling his blindingly white dhoti in the operation and causing him to lose his favourite walking stick. Angamma boxes his ears, which does nothing to improve his frame of mind.

A new date for the wedding is established. In the days leading up to it, one of Muchami’s five uncles accompanies him at all times. They think of their security detail as assisting their nephew to live up to his commitments. It’s the sort of thing family does. Uncles and nephew have always enjoyed one another’s company and these days in fact pass pleasantly for all of them.

The evening before the marriage, Muchami invites his uncles to the toddy palms. He never touches the stuff himself, but he knows how they enjoy it. The uncles appreciate his thoughtfulness and get drunk. They accompany Muchami back to their sister’s house. She’s disgusted with them. They tease her and prepare to share the final vigil. The youngest will watch for the first two hours while the others sleep. He will then wake the third, who will watch for two hours before passing the responsibility to the next eldest and so on. The father of the bride is exempt this evening. The three settle down to sleep and the youngest to watch. Muchami lies on his back beside this uncle and chats with him. The other three uncles approvingly fall into a peaceful sleep. After they do so, Muchami pretends to fall asleep. Soon, he hears his youngest uncle’s resistance begin to falter. Tiny snores are interrupted by snuffles and the sound of him rising and pacing in an effort to stay awake. This carries on for a mere ten minutes before he succumbs. Sometime between then and daybreak, Muchami departs.

The feast is wasted again. The uncles are angry at one another and themselves and their sister, and she is angry with them. They are all furious at Muchami. The uncles find him again and, near brutal in their embarrassment, drag him home.

Muchami’s mother decides she can’t trust her brothers any more than she can trust her son. If the only obligation he feels deeply is to his employer, then the order to marry must come from her. She marches with a couple of her brothers down to the sub-judicial court veranda, where the scribes lounge in wait, and has a letter written and posted to Sivakami.

Sivakami had just determined on her return to Cholapatti, and sent a letter informing Muchami of that, which included an assurance for Angamma that, in accordance with her dharma as his employer and patron, she will do her utmost to ensure that Muchami treads the correct path.

She arrives and Muchami meets her at the train. Though there is gladness in his aspect, there is also something fugitive.

Sivakami has no idea why Muchami is behaving in this bizarre manner, but she assumes it is some sort of fear. She herself was afraid of marriage. Who isn’t? She will just appeal to his sense of duty; wasn’t that the reason her husband hired him, after all? Because he is the most trustworthy, hardworking, intelligent boy of his class in the district?

The day they arrive, she and the children take rest. The next day is spent in reviewing with Muchami the accounts and the state of the property. Sivakami is pleased and tells him so. He accepts this as his due. They intend to finish up the next morning, but on that day, Muchami is accompanied by Angamma and a couple of uncles, so other business must be delayed.

Sivakami holds court in the courtyard at the rear of the house. The uncles stand at a respectful but firm distance while Angamma screams and wails, tears her hair and pleads. She invokes the spirits of their dead husbands-with marginal propriety, in Sivakami’s opinion. It’s all very well to invoke one’s own dead husband, but invoking another’s seems a bit bold.

These people have a different manner from ours, Sivakami thinks, as she listens patiently. They are prone to displays of emotion, which Brahmins eschew. One must accept their theatrics, of equally alarming proportions in positive and negative circumstances, without giving them undue weight. Of course she will put her foot down, she reassures them, and receives Angamma’s histrionic gratitude in response.

Sivakami would have preferred to give Muchami the dignity of a private conference, but this is not a private matter. Mother and uncles keep their eyes stonily upon the recalcitrant Muchami as Sivakami raises her eyebrows at him. He stands, hands clasped respectfully before him, looking very tired of the whole business. Sivakami instructs, “You must obey your mother and marry your uncle’s daughter.”

Muchami looks at the ground.

Sivakami continues, “Your mother and uncle are going to fix another date and then there will be no more of this nonsense. How can I have a man working for me who is not married? It is my duty, as much as a parent’s, to make sure you live in a correct way. I forbid you to persist in this behaviour. And I give my whole and hearty blessings on your marriage.”

Angamma flings herself into blessings for Sivakami and her children and her children’s children. She and the uncles and a subdued Muchami depart.

After his rounds, Muchami returns to finish going over the accounts. He gives no sign of resenting the admonishment.

Angamma brooks no more delay. Within a week, the marriage is done. Sivakami is not invited to attend the marriage-as a Brahmin, she cannot attend lower-caste weddings (and as a widow, she cannot attend Brahmin weddings)-but she hears that all has proceeded in a satisfactory way.

Now all that remains is for the bride to come of age so the happy couple can be united physically, as they already have been spiritually.

13. A Hidden Coin 1908

IT’S BEEN TEN DAYS SINCE THEIR RETURN, and Vairum is sitting in the front hall, waiting to go back to the place where he was a happy child.

He had had fun on the first day, helping to gather coins from all over the main hall. They had even let him keep one that he inched out from a crack in the base of the Ramar statue. He tied it in the waist of his dhoti and is fingering it now.

The second day, he had gone out with Thangam. She took her old place on the veranda, while he circled the gathering children from behind. Half the crowd drew near her, half approached him. He could hear them, gently asking his sister questions to which she softly replied. The children around her got quieter and gentler. When they realized they would never coax her from the veranda, they settled around her, one girl holding her hand, another patting her hair, several others calmly sunning themselves in her presence.

The children who encircled Vairum were those who could not get near Thangam, and yet they seemed a different breed entirely.

“Hey, ratface!” one boy taunted in a low voice, poking Vairum in the side experimentally.

Vairum recoiled, shaken, but then thought to distract these potential playmates by asking the question that had started so many enjoyable hours in Samanthibakkam: “What have you got to trade?”

It was a simple question, but these children seemed not to understand. Vairum tried another. “Want me to add or subtract anything?”

They had grown silent but were still peering at him, moving closer and closer, until, of a moment, one’s hand reached out to tug his hair and another cried, “Boo!”

Vairum leaped from the veranda and broke into a run.

The children gave chase, straight down the length of the Brahmin quarter and past the temple onto one of the small paths leading into the farmlands. Vairum streaked ahead of them, wondering why he was running and where he was going and how he would find his way back afterward when his ankle caught on a root and he sailed into the road with such force that he slid a couple of feet.

He rolled onto his back and propped himself by inches until he was sitting, knees bent, bum dirty, wiping dust from his lips and teeth. The children were panting and laughing. One of his knees and the opposite elbow were badly scraped. A little girl with square, tough-looking features cuffed him, hard but not unaffectionately, on the head.

He shouted at them, “Two thousand, eight hundred and thirty-five times sixty-nine is one lakh, ninety-five thousand six hundred and fifteen!” and defiantly waited for them to be impressed.

They looked at one another, trying, apparently, to see how they should react. The boy who poked him first made a “cuckoo” sign, twirling his finger against his temple; another, hiking up his dust-stained dhoti, asked Vairum, “Yeah, so?”

But they didn’t stop him from trudging home. He wiped his nose so roughly on his dhoti that his eyes stung. He felt for the silver coin knocking warm and heavy against his hip, took it out and thought about how the children back in Samanthibakkam would appreciate it, what fun it would buy them on his return.

A blur of children were clustered at the front of his house. As he passed them to enter, a few wrinkled their noses and whispered, “Ratface!” A couple laughed. Thangam softly said, “Stop that,” and the children immediately around her froze in apology, but Vairum didn’t hear her and mounted their front steps without looking at his sister. He continued whispering a multiplication table: three thousand six hundred and fifty-four times two, times three, times two thousand nine hundred and eighty-five. He turned the silver coin over in his hand. He went inside and didn’t come out.

MANY NEIGHBOURS CAME TO CALL on Sivakami in those first days, curious and condoling. With some, the most pressing business was to find out why Sivakami had returned. Others came to shed tears, the weight of which they had borne since her departure, wishing her there to cry with them.

Questions and tears were equally intolerable for Sivakami. She tried her best to respond, though everything in her resisted. She could see that her neighbours were leaving unsatisfied, thinking she was aloof. The days left her drained, with very little energy for her son, who seemed content at first, keeping his solitary counsel in the hall, or pantry, or courtyard, doing arithmetic under his breath, sometimes playing marbles or dayakkattam or tic-tac-toe against himself, chalking all the necessary grids onto the courtyard bricks, like arcane, alchemical formulas. Muchami was too preoccupied to attend to the little boy at first, busy as he was settling Sivakami’s accounts and then settling his own accounts with his uncles regarding his marriage, but after a couple of days he began to join Vairum in the occasional game.

By the sixth of these long, confined days, the courtyard bricks were covered in chalk markings, and Vairum was bored and restless. When Sivakami suggested he might go see what the neighbourhood children were up to, his response was to run from her, to the front end of the main hall and back to the courtyard, and back and back, twelve or fifteen times, until his shoulders slumped and his breath rasped. Then he walked slowly past her, dragging his hand across the back of her thighs. She didn’t have the heart to reprimand him. She went to take a second bath, after which Vairum strolled past and slapped her knee. She bathed again. An hour before sunset, he rubbed her head.

He ignored Muchami’s invitation to go on rounds with him; he kept out of sight of the children gathered round his sister on the veranda; he thrashed and screamed when Muchami and Sivakami said it was time they registered him for school. He played less; he whined more. On the tenth day, the whining, too, ceased.

When Sivakami asks him why he is sitting near the front door-still out of sight of passersby-he tells her he is waiting.

“Waiting for what, my dear one?”

“Waiting to go home to my Samanthibakkam,” he answers, impatient and helpless.

She cannot touch him and cannot help him, and so she turns away.

The next morning, as Vairum is mumbling his prayers in front of the Ramar, Sivakami notices a speckling of white from his armpit to his shoulder blade. He is shirtless following his bath, as prescribed, and wearing a fresh dhoti. She comes closer, thinking he must have spilt some holy ash, though it seems a strange place to manage to spill it. There is none on his neck or shoulder. She comes close, squints and reaches out her hand. She doesn’t care if she has to take another bath; she catches her son with her left hand and rubs the spray of white freckles, hard, with the other. They don’t come off.

Vairum, shocked at her touch, shrugs her now-trembling hand away and then tries to see what she is looking at.

“What is it, Amma?” he asks, annoyed.

“Nothing,” she murmurs with a stiff smile, though she is already muttering horrified prayers against leprosy, sotto voce. “It’s nothing. Finish your prayers.”

Some hours later, she hears a female voice, and Vairum’s in response. It couldn’t be Thangam, because Thangam hardly talks, and it couldn’t be a neighbour, because Vairum doesn’t talk to the neighbours. Sivakami moves to the pantry and looks before she is seen. A young girl, probably fifteen years old, is laughing, addressing her son. Though Vairum looks bashful, he doesn’t seem to resent her. The girl tosses her head and then notices Sivakami, who moves out toward her.

“I’m Gayatri. I’m married, up the street, you know. The big house.” She smiles, forthright, friendly, and hands over the fruit she has brought.

Ah, Minister’s bride. She had not yet come to join her husband when Sivakami left Cholapatti. A Kulithalai girl, she didn’t have far to come. “You’re married to Chinnarathnam’s son?” Sivakami eyes Gayatri’s strong shoulders and good height. Her sari is of an excellent silk.

“I used to come for holidays when you lived here-before, I mean-but I was just a kid, so you probably don’t remember me. But now I’m a proper lady of the house and all.”

“I came to your wedding,” Sivakami tells her, feeling drawn to Gayatri’s liveliness. “Do you know how indebted I am to your father-in-law, how much he helped me, when we were away, and our house was vulnerable to thieves?” She is glad for a chance to revisit this debt. “My husband had great respect for him.”

“Oh, so do I. He’s eased my homesickness so much. He’s such fun, a real father to me.” Gayatri casts around for a place to sit.

Vairum is once more gazing gloomily at the door.

“Hey, bright eyes,” Gayatri addresses him as she claims a spot against a post, waving away Sivakami’s offer of a mat. “Why don’t you get us a tumbler of water?”

Sivakami clucks and hurries to do this herself but notices that Vairum, without changing his expression, was rising to obey the newcomer.

Sivakami returns with snacks and water, for Gayatri and Vairum. She takes another plateful out to Thangam and the crowd of children that play quietly around her as though Thangam’s gravity weighs down their wildness. She returns to her guest with a bit of the usual apprehension. This girl didn’t know Hanumarathnam and so won’t try to ferret out and share Sivakami’s grief. Sivakami calculates that she’ll be one of the curious ones, and summons those of her stock responses most successful in forestalling questions.

But Gayatri doesn’t dig for the reasons Sivakami has returned to Cholapatti. She talks about her own family and married life, what she enjoys, what bothers her. Polite and interested, she asks Sivakami questions about herself for an hour or so before announcing regretfully that she must return to home and chores.

“I’ll come again tomorrow. Do you need anything?” she asks. “Anything your servant can’t get you?”

Sivakami can’t think of anything. She hasn’t had a conversation as such since she left Samanthibakkam. Her loneliness is more acute for having been briefly relieved; the sick feeling of worry over that archipelago sparkling on Vairum’s back also reintensifies.

Gayatri asks Vairum, “Do you play palanguzhi, loudmouth? Something about you makes me think you’ll be good at it. You can count, can you? Add, multiply?”

Vairum takes a second, then assents.

“I’ll bring my board tomorrow when I come,” she says. “You better be here, got that? No gallivanting with those roughnecks outside, no school, no going back wherever you were before. We have an appointment, you and me. Okay, sport?

“Bye, Akka,” she says to Sivakami, using “big sister” as an honorific, as opposed to “aunt.” Gayatri apparently has decided Sivakami is more friend than elder. “Send your man if there’s anything you need from me.”

After she leaves, Sivakami and Vairum raise their eyebrows at each other. He continues to dream by the door, and Sivakami feels a bit lighter as she goes about her chores. She determines that she will ask Gayatri’s father-in-law, Chinnarathnam, what to do about Vairum’s condition.

It is in those days that the letter from Hanumarathnam’s sisters arrives. The sisters had sent it first to Sivakami at her father’s house, and Sivakami’s brothers had sent it on.


(One always puts this assurance of well-being at the top of a letter, to avoid causing undue alarm.)

Dear Sivakami,

Hope this finds you and the children and your father and brothers and all their family members well

You must have been quite overwhelmed at Thangam Kutti’s wedding to give us the wrong house key! Silly-billy! Did you forget you had had the locks changed? Muchami told us about the nasty robbery attempt! You should have told us! How were we to know?!

As we explained, matters must be seen to! An empty house is a target!

Send to us the right key, and we’ll make sure that everything with the house is grand!

Your loving Akkas…

Sivakami folds the letter and goes out back to the courtyard where Muchami sits on the stones, taking his mid-morning meal. He is still on the first course, rice with okra sambar, and a fried plantain curry.

“More sambar?” she asks. “Curry?” She prefers to serve him, unusual as that is for a Brahmin mistress, though she keeps a decorous distance even while she does.

“Sambar,” he nods.

She fetches and serves it from a small blackened iron jar that she holds with tongs. “So tell me what happened when my sisters-in-law came to see about the house.”

“Ayoh, Rama, that’s right, we were interrupted when I started telling you about it before.” He signals that he has enough by holding his hand above his rice. “Why did you give them the old key?”

“I didn’t know why they wanted to get into the house.” She puts the sambar back in the kitchen and returns with more rice on a plate.


Sivakami straightens. “What?”

“Buried treasure. I’m sure of it.” He’s ready for more rice, which she pushes onto the now-cleared space on his banana leaf. “Remember-” He pauses, unwilling to upset her, but continues softly, “Ayya’s last word?”

Hanumarathnam’s head falls back, exhaling a word… Sivakami has thought back on that moment dozens of times in the years since it happened. If it had been night, and they had been alone, she would have been at his side. She doesn’t think he could have said anything important: he spent so long in preparation for his death and was so methodical.

“It might have been anything,” she mumbles, swiping at her left eye, which had started to tear, and going back into the kitchen with a sniff.

“A lot of people thought he said ‘podhail,’” he explains.

“Including my sisters-in-law, you think?” she asks from the kitchen.

He has carved a well in the mound of rice for ghee and rasam, and Sivakami fetches these and pours them in.

He scoops and presses his rice to mix in the lemony broth. “I’m sure of it. They tried first on their own, then sent for me when they discovered they had the wrong key. When they learned I didn’t have any key at all, they had their manservants climb into the garden. With spades. I felt really torn, because this is not their house, and I’m supposed to be keeping it from harm. So I asked, Have you come to do some gardening? ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘Gardening.’”

Sivakami squats on her haunches in the kitchen door as he continues.

“I think they must have been planning to inspect the floor of the house to see if there was any seam, you know, some place that had been dug and then bricked over. But they had only the garden. The servants were lazy buggers, pardon me, so at first they said there was nowhere to dig. But the ladies and gentlemen were so anxious, they called the servants back and had themselves helped over the wall. Can you picture it? Your sisters-in-law, with their great big-” he indicates with his hands the width of the sisters’ widest parts-“in their nine-yard saris, and, ayoh, Rama. Not to be disrespectful. Curry?”

Sivakami brings it, on a plate. “Then?”

“I went over with them, what else could one do? The garden was a mess, of course, with fallen fruit and rotting coconuts. I said it was very nice of them to take care of it. I was thinking that if you weren’t coming back, what was the point? Let it grow over, like it did after their parents died. When little Vairum returns to take his house, then is the time to clear the garden.”

“They wouldn’t have accepted such advice from you.”

“That’s why I didn’t say anything. I helped them to clear the garden.”

“Oh, I thought you had done all that in anticipation of my return,” Sivakami responds, bringing more rice and then yogourt.

“Well, I would have, when you told me you were coming back, but no, in fact, all this happened a month before. It’s when they ordered the manservants to dig that I remembered your husband’s final word. Thokku?”

Sivakami goes to fetch a dollop of the condiment and deposits it on one side of his banana leaf. She trusts Muchami absolutely, so she has no worry about discussing the possibility of buried treasure with him.

“If my husband thought there was treasure here, he would never have waited to tell us from his deathbed.”

“You’re right, I say.” Muchami takes a mouthful of food. “They would have dug up the whole garden, but I pleaded for the trees. They said what’s the point, it would be fifteen years before Vairum returned, but I begged, I’m telling you, and so they just dug around the roots and after each one I would pack the soil back in. I didn’t ask any more questions. Anyway, all the weeds got cleared.”

“Yes, it looks very tidy,” Sivakami says wryly.

“So, at the end of the day, the sisters and husbands are barking at one another, the servants are dirty and sweaty, none of them have eaten since morning, and they’re no richer. We all go back over the wall. They go to Murthy’s house to bathe and eat, and I’m sure they must have told Murthy’s mother the real reason, or she guessed. So then, my sources tell me, they hit on the idea that they should go talk to Jagganathan. About what he saw.”

This was the boy who once followed Hanumarathnam to spy on him with the siddhas, and lost his voice in the adventure.

“Did I tell you that, since your husband died, he’s got his voice back?” Muchami folds the bottom half of his now-empty banana leaf over the top, picks it up, stands and belches and goes to throw the leaf out the back door of the courtyard.

Sivakami squats against the house, under the eave. “Mm-hm, you told me. He didn’t discover it for some months, until he stubbed his toe and yelled.”

“After so many years without use, it was more of a croak. He still doesn’t talk much-he’s out of the habit. But that mother of Murthy’s was inspired to ask him. Now that your husband is gone, maybe, she thought, he wouldn’t be afraid to talk about what he saw.”

“They thought he would say he saw my husband turning lumps of clay into bricks of gold, and so our house and garden have golden bedrock?”

Muchami rinses his mouth with well water and pours a half-bucket over the spot where he just ate, a Brahmin habit he has picked up in this house, cleansing the spot not only of a little spilled rice, but of the largely theoretical contaminations of cooked food, a horror to Brahmins for obscure reasons.

“Jagganathan probably knew what they wanted, but he wasn’t talking. If he couldn’t have such a reward, he who had suffered so much, why should they? I saw them after, glum faces…”

“Don’t be gleeful,” Sivakami tut-tuts. “It’s not classy.”

He smirks. “Then they went home.”

Sivakami rests a cheek on her knee, frowning in thought. “The soil is all turned, it’s a good time to put in some new plants…”

He’s a little puzzled at the switch in topic but goes along with his mistress. “When?”

Three days later, a jack tree, two papaya trees, a banana tree and a rose bush are delivered to Sivakami’s house. Muchami had told the tree vendor that the lady of the house wanted them to come to the front, strange as that may seem. When he arrives, the whole street sees Sivakami telling the shrubbery parade that no, they are mistaken, come around the house to the back, oh, okay, come into the garden through the front hall, then. Muchami does the planting and she supervises.

That evening she calls a scribe to pen a letter to her sisters-in-law:


My dearest Akkas,

Hope this finds you and my brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews and your in-laws in the pink of health.

Oh, I am so sorry and embarrassed to have given you the old key! Where was my head? It’s not every day one’s daughter gets married, so I guess that’s my excuse! Now, as you may have heard, I have returned to live in this home, my son’s home, where I belong. I am his humble custodian, and so of course, you must come again, and see to matters which must be seen to, as such.

Thank you so much for making the effort to tidy the garden for me. I so appreciated it! Just today, I planted jack, papaya, banana and roses in the newly turned soil. But guess what? When we made the holes, we dug up more than worms: a little metal box, no lock, just a latch. Inside was a tiny kumkumum box and a note, in my late husband’s hand. The note said, “My only success at transformation, save for my two children.” With the date and his mark. He would have buried it just months before he got the final fever. In the kumkumum box: you could barely see it, a sifting ofgold dust, so fine and scarce we would have missed it inside, but outside in the Cholapatti sun, it shone.

What do you make of that? Pretty unexpected, isn’t it? He never said anything to me.

Although this has reminded me of something I had nearly forgotten. I’m sure you may not remember for grief but the moment he passed on, he said something. I myself thought he said “poonal, ” but I was all the way across the room. Some others heard “padigal” but I couldn’t think of what he might have wanted to tell me about the stairs, inside or out. I heard from others, though-who thought I should dig up the floor of the house-imagine!-that they heard “podhail.” “

I’m still not really convinced: it would have been a lot of work searching for that box, for not much return. Perhaps he wanted me to find the proof that he really did some transformations; perhaps he was too shy to tell me earlier. And I did find it! I’m sure he would have wanted you to know also.

Sivakami finishes the letter with chat, verbose as she’s never been with those two.

The scribe is suitably impressed with the information he has just learned, and Sivakami knows it will be all over the marketplace by sundown. Muchami has already been instructed to confirm and clarify rumours. Sivakami sits up with her beading long into that night, thinking how nice it would have been to find a note from her husband testifying that his son was one of his successes, how nice it would have been to show Vairum something like that.

WHILE SIVAKAMI IS WORKING UP THE NERVE to talk to Chinnarathnam about Vairum’s condition, she has been taking measures of her own. Each night before Vairum goes to sleep, she has rubbed veeboothi on the patch of white, which has become increasingly solid in only a few days. Vairum asks what she is doing, but she refuses to tell him and perhaps he senses how serious she is because this is one of the few instances in which he obeys her and submits, both to the topical application of the ash and to a pinch Sivakami makes him ingest, which she administers with more mutterings.

It is the third morning after she noticed the freckles, and Gayatri comes, as she has made a practice of doing daily, to drink a cup of coffee and play a game of palanguzhi with Vairum. The coffee-drinking is proof of her modernity; Sivakami never touches the stuff. When they sit down, Gayatri says to the little boy, “Go wipe your mouth, squirt. You left some yogourt in the corner from breakfast. I’ll set up.” She starts counting cowries into the small bowls carved into each side of the board. “Is the game of fours all right, or do you want the twelves again?”

“Twelves,” Vairum replies. He likes this game best: twelve cowries in each of the three bowls to either side of the centre bowl, which is empty at the start but accumulates cowries, round after round, like a bank. Either player-if he or she counts right-can claim either bank, even both. Vairum feels intoxicated by the sight of the cowries piling up and even overflowing a central bowl as the game progresses.

He returns and Gayatri says, “You go first.” She looks at him closely. “You missed it again. Don’t you know how to wipe your face?”

“I did it.” He swipes at his mouth with the back of his hand.

Gayatri frowns and, grasping his chin, tilts his face up. “Sivakamikka,” she calls, letting go and rubbing her hand on her sari. “Have a look at this.”

Sivakami comes from the pantry, already knowing what Gayatri is going to tell her.

Gayatri fetches her father-in-law at Sivakami’s request. He comes and has a look at the new white patch, which has appeared like the beginnings of a clown’s mouth around Vairum’s frown, as the little boy huddles defiantly in a corner of the main hall, playing palanguzhi solitaire, barely looking up when he is asked.

“I’m sure it is not what you think it is,” Chinnarathnam calls to Sivakami, who is staying decorously out of sight in the pantry. “My advice is that you have a licensed medical practitioner come and see the child.”

“What is it, Amma?” Vairum says, rising.

“It’s nothing, child,” says Chinnarathnam. “We will have it looked after. I know an LMP,” he says to Sivakami, using the English acronym. “He comes through Kulithalai once weekly. I will call for him.”

Chinnarathnam and his son (Gayatri’s husband-the man who has been called Minister since he was small, though he holds no official post yet) arrive with the LMP a few days later. Chinnarathnam will mediate because Sivakami will not come out in front of the LMP, nor speak to him directly.

The LMP examines the child. Palpating the patches, he asks, “Can you feel this? Is it numb?” Vairum looks at him with a catlike expression of defiant incomprehension until Chinnarathnam gently asks him, “Vairum. Tell him, little one-does it hurt?”

“No,” Vairum grunts, but the LMP sighs sharply and repeats,

“No-numb. Can he feel anything at all?”

“Ah, yes,” Chinnarathnam clucks with mock humility, the sound conveying the superiority landed gentry feel toward the working man. “My apologies. Child, can you feel this man’s fingers on your face?”

“Of course,” Vairum snorts.

Chinnarathnam smiles at the LMP, who is officiously not making eye contact with anyone as he continues pressing Vairum in other places and firing off further questions, interrupting their replies.

“It’s called vitiligo,” he finally grunts, repacking his black bag. “A condition of the skin: not painful, not contagious, as far as we know, and incurable. Do you understand?”

Chinnarathnam smiles. “So it is not”-he drops to a whisper-“leprosy? This is what the child’s mother fears.”

“No, no, no. Damned village superstition.” The LMP leans in to Chinnarathnam, who leans away from his overfamiliarity and smell of sweat. “My mother thinks the same way. We must impress upon these people that it is quite different.”

Chinnarathnam sees the doctor to the door and instructs Minister to walk him to the end of the Brahmin quarter and bid him farewell.

He then comes back to the rear of the main hall and asks, “Sivakami? What do you think?”

Muchami is waiting in the garden to relay her response to Chinnarathnam. Sivakami is aware of the unusual importance of re-enlisting the servant in her son’s care-she has always felt that when Muchami looks after Vairum, he is overcoming some native distaste. Now she has to persuade him that Vairum’s condition won’t affect him-before trying to persuade the entire Brahmin quarter of the same.

“I am quite satisfied,” she says, with forced authority.

Muchami conveys this to Chinnarathnam with a passable imitation of her quavery confidence.

“What do you think?”

“Yes, it confirms what I thought,” Chinnarathnam says, polite but genuinely relieved. “There is no way that a child being raised in such hygienic and sheltered surroundings could have contracted… the l-word.”

Muchami relates this to Sivakami verbatim, again bringing his skills in mimicry to bear.

“But now you must do something for the boy’s condition.”

“Mm, yes,” Sivakami hurries to agree. “I want to pledge a golden armour for the Rathnagirishwarar Lingam. Vairum can carry it up the hill to give.”

“A very good idea for skin maladies. Shall I order that for you? There is one Kulithalai goldsmith I trust to do a very good job.”

Sivakami consents.

“May I also suggest a puja to ward off possible ill effects of the planets?” Chinnarathnam continues. “One relative of mine, he had exactly the same condition, and an astrologer advised the family that it was a time of bad planetary alignments for the man. I can’t remember which… Saturn? Venus? Something not good. I can call an astrologer for you, also. There is one man here your late husband respected.”

Sivakami thinks this a very good idea.

When Chinnarathnam goes, Vairum, who, despite his theatrical displays of uninterest, has been paying close attention to these exchanges, runs straight to Muchami, who shrinks from him.

“What’s wrong with me?” the little boy demands.

“Nothing, sir.” Muchami shakes his head insistently. “Don’t you worry yourself about this. Come on, I have time for a round of dayakkattam. Come chalk the board on the courtyard. Come.”

This is a house without mirrors, and so until Vairum leaves it to go out into the world, he will have to take Muchami at his word.

THE OLD MEN AND WOMEN who had been in Hanumarathnam’s employ have, after years of pretending they were too old to work, finally grown into their pretense. Sivakami asks Muchami if his wife would like a job.

He doesn’t see why she wouldn’t. So Mari begins, only an hour or two daily at first, then staying to serve Muchami his mid-morning meal, and then staying to help with the late-afternoon cleaning. She is appropriately shy and deferential with her husband and his employer, but her strength of personality is evident. Like Gayatri, Mari is a confident young woman who did not know Hanumarathnam and who therefore comes unaccompanied by residual sadness. Unlike Gayatri, however, Mari is very strict in religious observance. One of the reasons she wants to spend time with Sivakami is to learn the practices of the caste she considers closest to God.

Mari appears determined to make herself a Brahmin woman in every way she can-which is to say, every way except birth, marriage and where she makes her home. Since everyone in Cholapatti considers Sivakami a paragon of Brahmin widowhood, Mari replicates all her habits, which are, apart from her shaven head and white sari, simply orthodox practices that any person with deep concern for his or her spiritual well-being might adopt. Most often, Brahmin men and women take on these renunciations late in life, when their children are gone and their material obligations with them. But Mari is impatient to improve her spiritual welfare and starts immediately. She maintains madi from sun-up to sundown. She takes food prepared only by her own hand, or Sivakami’s. She refuses foods such as pazhiah sadam, dosai and idli, which involve fermentation; at home, she will eat only food cooked the same day, and if it’s not available, she eats raw fruit. It’s a sacrifice but she relishes it. Visibly.

Almost all the Brahmins on Sivakami’s street who learn of Mari’s imitations are flattered; she basks in their approval. She knows many in her own community are contemptuous; she takes their contempt as proof of her success. But Gayatri, who comes over daily to keep Sivakami up to the minute on gossip and opinions, new purchases and the news of the day, is openly amused by Mari’s pretensions. She unapologetically drinks her daily cup of coffee at Sivakami’s, teasing Mari about it, pressing her to imbibe. Worse, Gayatri never once says she wishes she could be so strict with herself. It is of Gayatri alone that Mari might be jealous-not because she wants to be like Gayatri, but because Gayatri doesn’t want to be like her.

And now Vairum, in Sivakami’s opinion, is refusing to become what he already is, what he was meant to be. After all her efforts in bringing him back here, he will not attend school.

Thangam, despite being the elder, spends all her days on the veranda. She has small chores to do, a few minutes of helping her mother with food preparation, a few minutes of embroidery, which she does without resistance or engagement. Always the children await her outside, from first light to dusk. She is not likely to attend school, but Sivakami registers her, hoping this might goad Vairum into it too. When Sivakami reminds him of the ceremony of rebirth he so proudly undertook in Samanthibakkam, saying that his education commenced with that moment, he replies, “So take me back there so I can start school. I told you, that’s what I’m waiting for.”

She jabs her hand in the general direction of her brothers’ house. “If you go back to Samanthibakkam, the school you will go to will make of you nothing more than a Brahmin.”

“I am a Brahmin,” says her son.

“Yes,” she cries, “you are already a Brahmin, and I think you can become something more, if you go to a proper school.”

“Well, I don’t want to and I won’t!” He stomps upstairs, to the attic room he has begun to adopt as his refuge.

Gayatri, who arrived early in this conversation, signals to Sivakami that she will go after him. She mounts the stairs and persuades him to come down for their twice-weekly palanguzhi match, and, as usual, he does multiplication tables under his breath between turns at the cowries. Today, she casually inquires, “Do you have any idea how much more maths you will learn, how much more math there is to learn, by going to school? You can’t imagine.” For her trouble, she receives a scowl.

Muchami also makes his contributions to the campaign. Sivakami overhears him at the close of a game of courtyard tic-tac-toe, saying, “Look, I beat you. Me, your family servant. Go to school, little boy, or that is going to happen more and more.”

It is Minister, Gayatri’s husband, who makes the obvious suggestion. “Bribe the boy!” he proposes in his marvellously English-accented Tamil. Only a would-be politician would think of this, but Gayatri agrees it is a simple and brilliant solution.

She immediately conveys the suggestion to Sivakami in whispers by the well, just in case Vairum should find their conversation interesting. But with what should they bribe him?

They offer:

1. New clothes. Wouldn’t he like a bright shiny shirt and dhoti to wear to school? But Vairum, though he sits out of view of the street, can see the street quite well. He can see that every child wears a bright shiny shirt and dhoti to school. He rejects the deal.

2. Money. Wouldn’t he like a few more coins to jingle against the one at his waist, maybe to buy candy on his way to and from school? But Vairum already knows that money has no value in this place. The only way he will accept cash is if he’s going back to Samanthibakkam, where he has friends on whom to spend it. No deal.

3. Toys. Wouldn’t he like a new palanguzhi set or a top he can show off on the street? But Vairum likes palanguzhi with Gayatri just fine on the set they have-and he’s not showing anything off on the street. Forget it.

Gayatri had witnessed Vairum’s first encounters with the village children as they ran past her own veranda and can imagine that his condition would now make him even more self-conscious. Her father-in-law has gone to considerable trouble to smooth Vairum’s path into the local school, meeting with the headmaster and teachers. He succeeded in overcoming their objections to the child’s presence, though he could not persuade them against prejudices. Gayatri thinks she understands Vairum’s reactions to the bribes but cannot come up with anything better. During their afternoon rest, she asks her husband if he has any other ideas.

“No, no, you must offer him something special, something different… something more… English,” Minister muses. “Shoes. Offer him a shiny pair of brown leather shoes, foreign-made. I will take him to Trichy”-it’s one of Minister’s idiosyncrasies that he thinks the English name for the city of Thiruchinapalli, “Trichinopoly,” more attractive than the Tamil-“and buy them for him. Get him off on the right foot, so to speak.” He chortles at this last expression. It’s rendered in English, so Gayatri doesn’t understand it, but she understood what he had said before and so chortles along and pecks him impulsively on the cheek, which leads, one thing to another, on to something else. It’s early evening by the time she makes the trip to Sivakami’s house.

Wholly convinced this suggestion will work, Gayatri beckons Sivakami in from the kitchen with a call-“Hoi, Sivakamikka!”-and squats before the glum little boy whose education is their collective mission. Vairum regards her with wary curiosity.

“Okay, mister, what about this? My husband has offered to take you into Thiruchi with him tomorrow and, if you are the good little boy he thinks you are, the little boy who is going to start school and be brilliant and become rich, he wants to buy you a pair of English shoes. No one can expect to be successful and work in an office without shoes. And think about it, you will be the only child from Cholapatti who walks to school in glossy, brown, leather…” Her descriptive powers fail her for a second, and Sivakami breaks into the pause indignantly.

“Hooves! They will be like bullock hooves. What Brahmin wears the skins of killed animals? No, I’m sorry. Vairum will not be clip-clopping to and from the school smelling like a tannery worker no casted person would go near.”

Vairum pays a good deal more attention upon hearing his mother’s objections. The idea of shoes does appeal to him. He’s seen them on tax collectors and on Minister. If his mother had been enthusiastic about the idea, he might have had to reject it. Now, seeing her willingness to relinquish his education over caste objections, he stamps his foot and insists, “Yes, yes, I want English shoes to wear to school. I must have English shoes to go to school.”

Sivakami gapes at him in astonishment. “But you told me you only wanted to go to the school that would make you into a Brahmin. Now you will only go to school if you do something Brahmins do not do?”

“Oh, pish,” Gayatri interrupts with one of her husband’s favourite ejaculations. “In cities, offices are full of Brahmins, all of them wearing both sacred thread and leather shoes. Times are different. If you want your son to go to a paadasaalai, he can go barefoot. If he is going to step into the new world, he has to do it shod.”

Vairum is agreeing vigorously, and Sivakami concedes defeat with the flicker of a feeling that she has brought this upon herself-and Vairum. If she had stayed in Samanthibakkam and sent him to a paadasaalai, he wouldn’t be getting shoes, that’s for sure. What kind of Brahmin will he become, walking the path along which she has aimed him? Maybe he needs the shoes.

No more than two days later, Vairum steps proudly up the Brahmin quarter and to his front door. Sivakami hears him coming. It can’t be, not in the soft dust of the road, but she is sure she hears the soft thuds of Minister’s tread, and the smaller clip-clop of her own son’s new feet. Born into caste to begin school and now uncasted for the same reason.

She meets him at the door and sees his expression of cautious pride when confronted with all the veranda-gathered children become defiance when he sees her. She silently indicates where he is to leave his shoes, in the vestibule between the doors. He shucks them with his toes and lines them up carefully in a corner.

The next day, as per the bargain, Muchami drives Vairum, kudumi slicked and shoes buffed, in the bullock cart, to the Tamil medium school at Kulithalai, some twenty minutes away. He is wearing a new dhoti and shirt, each with a bit of vermilion kumkumum rubbed into an unseen corner, to soil it appropriately.

She watches them from the door, listens to the rustle, snap and clip-clop of her little boy’s outfitting, watches him clinging tightly, more tightly than he would ever admit, to Muchami’s hand as he mounts the bullock cart. He rides in front with Muchami since the two of them are alone. She turns away only after they turn the corner. Vairum never glances back.

In the schoolyard, though, holding Muchami’s hand again, he walks more and more slowly as they pass the other children, some recognizable from the Brahmin quarter, some from the merchants’ colony, some from Muchami’s own quarter. There are more high-caste than low-caste kids, and more Brahmins than anyone else, and none wearing shoes. Muchami feels a little uncomfortable about the freakish child hanging from his hand: there is something slightly awkward about his gait; his clothes look boxy, his eyes too intense. The effect is heightened by the spreading patch of white on his face, as well as another sprinkling on his knee beneath his dhoti and on the hand clasping Muchami’s. The servant would have felt this way even before Vairum’s condition arose, and only convinced himself to touch the child in the course of convincing his own mother that he could not catch Vairum’s malady. He gives a menacing glance toward the first giggle, and all the children along that flank fall silent. Vairum’s hand is slippery against the servant’s and the child squeezes harder to hold on.

MID-MORNING, Sivakami steps out to the front to call Thangam in. She sees one of their neighbours withdrawing a hand he seems to have placed on the child’s head in an attitude of blessing. He continues along the Brahmin quarter, not having seen Sivakami, and the blanket of children around Thangam reseals in the wake of his departure. Looking down the quarter after him, Sivakami sees Gayatri leave her own house and come toward Sivakami’s, along with another neighbour on her way back from the temple. Not in a mood to speak, she withdraws slightly. This woman, also, stops to place a hand briefly on Thangam’s bowed head. She, too, continues home. The children register no surprise. Gayatri arrives, and Sivakami speaks: “Thangam, it’s time for your food.” Sivakami backs away a little more to avoid their touch as they pass, and asks Gayatri, “Have you eaten?”

She knows that Gayatri has-it’s a formality to ask-and so gets her a cup of coffee, seats Thangam and serves her first helpings before asking Gayatri, “Is everyone on the Brahmin quarter coming daily to bless my daughter?”

Gayatri tilts her head back and raises her eyebrows. “Everyone is receiving her blessing…”

“You too?” Sivakami asks.

“Of course. Every time. She’s done wonders for the children, as you can see. There are no children yet in our house,” she says smugly, five months pregnant and finally showing, “but all the parents are saying their children have become quiet and manageable, and everyone…”

Here Gayatri pauses.


“Well, I don’t know about your husband, except what people have said. Is it true, he had friends among the siddhas? My husband said they used to come and your husband would go off with them, that he had great healing powers, and that they, the siddhas, haven’t come since he died.”

“Yes, my husband could heal.”

“Your daughter can too.” Gayatri blurts and then shuts her lips quickly as though unsure of whether she should have said this.

Sivakami is more surprised than skeptical.

“People think,” Gayatri tentatively explains, “she inherited his abilities.”

“But they haven’t been around, have they?” Sivakami asks warily.

“The siddhas-since we left?”

“Not since I got here,” Gayatri shrugs.

“I don’t want them to come.” Sivakami shakes her head, but she is recalling the words of the siddha that day when he saw her baby daughter: Brahmin flesh becoming siddhic gold. It’s impossible, preposterous anyway, that he would have given something to the child. But Hanumarathnam had gifts, to transform sickness into health, translate mystery into reality. It’s not strange that his efforts and gifts are manifest in his daughter; it would be stranger if they were not. It remains to be seen whether the father’s disciplines or lack of discipline will dominate in his son, whether Vairum will be the product more of experiments in transformation or of the blood and conditioning of caste.

Muchami escorts Vairum to and from school every day for a week or two and gradually identifies which children of his own caste community attend regularly. He visits the homes of these boys and instructs them to keep an eye out for Vairum. Any child who tries to harass him should be reminded that Muchami will hear about it. Muchami inspires awe across caste.

When Vairum realizes that these boys have begun to follow him, he makes some cautious attempts at friendship. He does some math equations, and they are very impressed, though they don’t seem inspired to familiarity. He gives them every interesting item in his tif fin case and they accept, but they still pass the lunch recess at a slight distance. He invites them to the sweet stand to buy them some treats, but Muchami stops them before they get there.

The boys confess to Muchami that they are a little afraid of Vairum’s speckles, as well as of the other Brahmin kids, who seem to want to pick on him, but he tells them they are doing a good job and keep it up.

As the weeks roll forward, Vairum trudges resignedly to and from the schoolhouse and ceases to talk of Samanthibakkam. Sivakami thinks he has forgotten the wandering-pondering fun of his gang and his pre-school years. She doesn’t see the silver coin always in his pocket, polishing itself against his school clothes, and if she did, she would not know he set it aside to trade with those left-behind cousins. She would only think, What a good and thrifty boy not to have spent that coin.

14. Festival Days 1908

SIVAKAMI RETURNS FROM HER BATH at the river and is horrified to learn that Thangam has, alone and unsupervised, drawn water at the well and taken her bath. At least she took her bath water cold; she’s not yet been taught to light the bathroom stove. It is early September, the eve of Navaratri, nine nights of feasting to celebrate goddesses and girls. The first three nights are dedicated to the goddess Durga the perfector, the next three to Lakshmi, the bringer of wealth, and the last three to Saraswati, who governs education and music. It must be that Thangam is excited.

Sivakami is not sure how to take the little girl’s enthusiasm: she has never seen Thangam show excitement about anything before, apart from her passion for her little brother, the expression of which has been muted since he grew out of infancy.

This is the first of the major festivals they have celebrated at home since Hanumarathnam’s death and their return. Sivakami is re-establishing their family in the Brahmin quarter as modest and conventional beyond reproach. Their golu will be simple, no more and no less than three shelves, displaying a good selection of dolls in conservative, indigenous attire. Thangam unpacked all the dolls the night previous, inspected them for breaks and tears and mended as required. Today, she will repaint faces. One or two dolls may get a change of costume, but the sari must still be wrapped in an orthodox manner, and jewellery and hairstyles remain consistent. Thangam takes the single liberty of grouping a few around her little flute-playing Krishna, to admire his musicianship and pectoral muscles.

Fortunately, Gayatri, who has none of Sivakami’s concerns, has invited Thangam to help her and her mother-in-law set up their golu, which will require much more time and creativity. This is Gayatri’s first Navaratri in her husband’s village, where she has no sisters, nor sisters-in-law, and so she has invited Thangam to come and help with this, the most pleasant of feminine chores, always more pleasant in a crowd. Gayatri does, at least, have an ad hoc ally in her mother-in-law, an avid and competitive collector who has decreed that their golu should be the grandest on the street. Her daughter-in-law is, for once, wholly complicit in her wishes. Sivakami is amazed as she watches Thangam gallop down the Brahmin quarter to Gayatri’s house.

She arrives as Gayatri and her mother-in-law are unpacking their collection. They greet her as servants shuffle away the boxes. Thangam stands silent until she’s impatiently beckoned.

Some of the dolls are exotic, such as a little boy figure in green felt short-pants held up by two straps. He has a mate in a green felt skirt. “Both are albino,” the mother-in-law points out. They were a gift from a man who photographed her wedding for display abroad, from “Soovisterlund,” a place the mother-in-law says, authoritatively, is “between Iroppia and Aappirikka.” Gayatri exclaims that another doll, with reddish-brown skin, looks like pictures she has seen of north Indian indigenes: tall and severe, clothed in stiff skins, beads, feathers and face paint. The mother-in-law explains condescendingly that the doll is, in fact, from “Ikanahda,” gifted to her by a British engineer.

None of the other dolls are as exotic, but they are exciting. Three are dressed like dancing girls, in cheap jewellery and cunningly wrapped costumes. One even has a torso that wobbles in its blouson and hinged legs that spread the pleats of her costume into a stiff fan. Another wears a sequined, Persianesque veil.

Thangam is most taken with four tiny, exquisite, carved figures, each all-of-a-piece: a woman bending over a grinder, a man putting his shoulder to a plow, another woman inspecting her loom, and a man cutting coconuts from the top of a tree. The mother-in-law’s face softens with pleasure at Thangam’s choice.

“These, child… the most precious. They are the only dolls I brought out from my father’s house. They were carved by our old servant. He took me everywhere. On his hip-he never let my feet touch the ground. He’s been dead now… thirty-five years? More.”

She quickly becomes all business. “So, Gayatri, what? What are we doing?”

Gayatri shrugs.

There is one thing that Thangam has not yet examined, and she goes to it now: a three-storey dollhouse, sitting on a green-painted wooden plinth. It’s taller than her waist and has a veranda spanning its front, while the back is painted in red bricks, with window frames filigreed in green and violet.

Gayatri comes over to where Thangam is conducting her inspection and explains, proud and a little possessive, “My father bought this for me in Thiruchi when I was nine, just after my first Pongal in my husband’s house. Guess you’ll have yours in a couple of months, right? I begged and begged for it, but he said no, and I cried so hard that night. I wasn’t spoiled,” she says as if warning Thangam. “My whole life, I never asked for anything but this. The next day, he came home with it.” Two little bound-straw dolls huddle over clay pots and an even smaller pair nap on tiny mats. “My sisters said I must bring it with me when I came to live here. Aren’t the dolls sweet?” She rearranges them around minuscule tin plates, but the realism is spoiled because they are too stiff to sit. “Let’s try and make some more things for them.”

(Is Thangam remembering that other wee house, long dismantled, where she served her father’s soul his last meals? She says nothing about that, but brings her own tin play dishes to Gayatri the next day and insists on an extra place setting at each meal.)

Gayatri’s mother-in-law breaks in. “How many shelves for the golu? I say eleven.”

Thangam gapes.

“Eleven, yes, and an extra platform to run the perimeter of the pool. Panju! Panjunathan!”

Their servant comes hurrying to remove the two-foot-square wooden cover that sits year-round like a trap door in the main hall, flush with the floor. It conceals the hollow whose sole purpose is to become a pond every year at this time, a fixture in homes of status. The servant clatters off the board and squats to examine the state of the square basin, much like a temple tank in miniature, its surface slippery and green from eleven months under cover. This will give the “lake” an authentic cast once the basin is filled with water and baby lotus plants, but Panjunathan’s job is to find cracks, dry them and plug them with mortar. He picks diagnostically at fissures with a long, reddish fingernail.

They work on the golu until the wee hours of the morning. It is magnificent. At eleven shelves, it is taller than anyone who will come to see it. The top shelf is crowned with pictures of gods, heavily garlanded by Gayatri, who balances precariously on a bench dragged into the main hall for this purpose. The servant guards her, no doubt praying he will not have to touch her, since to do so is forbidden in several ways: first, a male servant can’t touch a young mistress, and second, she is Brahmin and his touch would be polluting. Her pregnancy adds an extra frisson of fear and his jaw is clenched as he stands by.

Reams of new silk cascade down the shelves in bands of peacock and aubergine, so much fabric, of such good quality, that its weight holds it in place without tacks. On each shelf, a scene plays out. Thangam and Gayatri will change the dolls around each morning of the festival, so that the small figures meet one another in a variety of social settings: a concert, a party, a school, a wedding, a Dravidian religious festival, a trial, a pilgrimage, a diplomatic incident (suggested by Minister), a bridge inauguration and an exorcism. Two bars, normally used for hanging saris on, extend from the sides of the ninth shelf, and three marionettes hang from each bar.

For nine nights running, Thangam and all the other village girls run house to house after dark, admiring the golu, singing a song and accepting a treat: sweet crunchy balls of black sesame, teardrop bubbles of fried batter tossed with nuts, sugar crystals ground with toasted lentils and compressed into balls. On the ninth night, the lady of each house makes an offering to a young girl, invited for this purpose. A beautiful virgin from a good family embodies the goddess, perfect in everything-no girl is feted who is deformed or sickly, blind or bad-smelling. Not surprisingly, Sivakami has received many requests for Thangam, though she has made her available only to houses without virgins of their own.

Thangam’s enthusiasm has got Sivakami curious, and on the first night of the festival, when she’s putting Thangam to bed, she asks her about it.

“I had no idea you loved Navaratri so much, kunju. You never showed such excitement, even last year in Samanthibakkam, when your cousins and aunts got up a display.”

The girl is quiet a moment. “They had all the dolls.”

“They didn’t have that many dolls.”


“Not like Gayatri.”

“The big aunty already had so many, Amma-remember when we went, when I was small?”

This is Gayatri’s mother-in-law. Sivakami knows she and Thangam would have paid a call there together before, before everything changed, but she has no recollection of it. Clearly, it made a much greater impression on Thangam than she had realized.

“And Gayatri Mami told me she has just as many, Amma, and she does and she specially asked me to help arrange them!” Thangam’s eyes shine in the dark.

Sivakami strokes her head. What else has Thangam seen, been changed by, fallen in love with without her mother noticing? “Maybe next year you can get a couple more for our golu.”

“Puppets.” Thangam has clearly thought this through. “Not the big ones, the small ones.”

In contrast with his sister, Vairum’s joys and sorrows are all too evident: she sometimes wishes she could notice his unhappiness less, along with the way he blames her, for his exclusion, for his nostalgia, for noticing his skin problems. She knows she is to blame. She didn’t bring him back here so that he could be happy; she brought him so that he would be fulfilled. She just wishes she weren’t reminded of this every time she looks at him.

Now IT IS EARLY NOVEMBER and time for the next festival: Deepavali, the festival of lights, when oil lamps are lit and fireworks shot off, perhaps to celebrate Rama’s triumphant return from defeating the demon king of Lanka, perhaps to celebrate one of Krishna’s many victories, perhaps to celebrate a victory of the god Vishnu, of whom both Rama and Krishna are earthly incarnations. Regardless, it’s a chance to celebrate, and why should any god or incarnation be excluded?

This Deepavali is the first of Thangam’s life as a wife, Sivakami’s first great act as a mother-in-law. Custom dictates it should be half as grand as the wedding, but many make it grander than that, hoping attendees will double it in their heads and be even more impressed with the wedding in retrospect.

Sivakami’s preparations are anxious and exacting. In-laws have been known to make demands on the spot-for extra dowry items, saris or jewellery. Thangam’s in-laws don’t seem the type, but maybe she should hold something in reserve, just in case? Like what? No, she will give what is appropriate; she has never done less, nor more. If they make demands, she will meet them.

Murthy travels to the in-laws’ village to extend the invitation, thrilled to be the family envoy. He thinks of himself as fastidious and preaches this almost as a kind of morality, but he always overlooks some detail of his grooming. The day he embarks, for instance, bright with the honour of his mission, Sivakami notices a line of red betel-stained spittle marking a trail down his chin. She works hard to overlook his flaws, which are almost endearing: he is quite genuine in his affection for her family, as he was in his fondness for Hanumarathnam, and he sincerely desires to help.

Murthy returns home three days before the Deepavali celebration, gushing over Thangam’s husband’s beauty, of which he had, sadly, only a glimpse toward the end of his trip. It’s a shame, Goli’s parents had said, he must have mistaken the time. They sent someone to fetch him, but he’d been unavoidably detained. Guess Murthy would have to greet him at Deepavali in Cholapatti, with the rest of the Brahmin quarter. When Murthy was being taken to the station, the driver pointed to a tall boy crossing the street, and Murthy recognized him from the wedding-high colour, immaculate clothes. But Goli disappeared before they could catch him. “As with our Thangam,” Murthy says, “just a sight of him is enough to fill a heart with peace and gladness. What a couple they will make!”

Sivakami thinks, But that’s inexcusable! and wonders if Murthy is being honest or trying to make her feel better about her son-in-law’s rudeness. Surely guileless Murthy is not capable of dissembling?

The day before the festival, Muchami takes Vairum, Murthy and a cotillion of garland-bearers to greet the in-laws. Sivakami is so hoping that this meeting between the brothers-in-law might go better than the last. It would be so nice for Vairum to have a friend in the family. Thirty minutes later, Vairum tears into their vestibule, kicks off his shoes so hard they hit the ceiling, ducks out of the way of their descent and shoots into the farthest corner of the cowshed. Sivakami guesses he still has no such friend.

The rest of the party is half an hour behind him, slowed by the many who come out to greet them. Goli’s parents look wan and wary, but Goli is fresher, shinier and handsomer even than before. Sivakami wonders again why she cannot see his charms and resolves to try harder, if only for Thangam’s sake.

The next day, the house is crowded with feasters and gawkers who come to see the new son-in-law. Hanumarathnam’s sisters come. They ask nothing about matters related to the house. Sivakami’s brothers come. They ask nothing about matters related to the children. Sivakami greets them with affection and respect, enhanced by the feeling that she is, truly, mistress of this home.

Happily, Thangam’s in-laws make no extra demands. They meekly, mutely receive their gifts and, in turn, present Thangam with a sari. Various matrons rub it between their fingers and pronounce it, among themselves, not gorgeous, but respectable. Goli is as pleased as a child with the diamond ring he receives from Sivakami, the ring her father had presented to his own son-in-law. As Goli leaps about the room displaying it, Sivakami squints to blur the crowd and see, for a moment, only the light of the jewel, as though it were still winking from her husband’s hand.

Then Sivakami instructs Thangam to lay banana leaves for the feast. But in the brief interval between diamond and dinner, Goli vanishes. His wife and parents dine without him. Everyone is uneasy, but they proceed. He is not back for the second seating. Several packs of youngsters and a posse of men volunteer to look for him. He remains unlocated. His parents remain mum. Sivakami begs everyone to sit for the third seating, but no one will. She walks to the back of the kitchen and leans in the doorway facing the courtyard, where Mari and Muchami are nervously conferring, and Vairum, who insisted on taking his supper out back and alone, is playing palanguzhi against himself. Sivakami beckons Muchami, and after hearing what she has to say, he goes, quick and solemn, through the cowshed to the northernmost garden door.

Sivakami comes to the door of the main hall with an optimistic look at Gayatri and says, so that she can be overheard, “Please, Gayatri, make them sit. The poor boy has just gone to the chattram to lie down. Some stomach problem, it seems. Not my cooking-at least I know that! Your husband sent Muchami to tell us.” Sivakami emits a brittle laugh. Minister’s schedule is strict, including tea and a constitutional in late afternoon, and a snifter of brandy before bed, and he had departed following the first seating.

Several men look confused and protest hesitantly, “But we asked at the chattram.”

Muchami now offers the definitive version from the garden entrance. “Bah! They didn’t know anything. We asked, too, and they told us he had not returned, but luckily Minister Sahr bade them move aside so he could have a look in the room.” They can almost hear Minister’s commanding tone as Muchami continues. “He even insisted that I come too.”

This is pushing credulity, but all are too interested in the story’s outcome to challenge the servant on whether he would have been invited into this Brahmin bastion. Muchami waves his arms. “There he was, curled up in a ball, holding his… his stomach?”

Sivakami blinks confirmation, and Muchami goes on. “Holding his stomach. Don’t know how he got in without them noticing.”

“Just the way he left here without anyone noticing, I guess,” Gayatri offers, and she and Muchami look just as mystified and impressed as the gathering. Gayatri continues, encouraged, “Strange that such an eye-catching young man…” She fades out at Sivakami’s disapproving look-Gayatri is too young to be commenting on the attractiveness of others’ husbands-but the party, bewildered at its own blindness, is meekly seating itself for food.

Muchami takes two steps back into the garden where Vairum has just completed a celebratory dance, kicking his heels out and punching his fists in the air. With a fiercely cheerful grin for Muchami, he goes in search of flowers to offer Lord Krishna, child hero and perpetrator of mischief, to whom he has been praying all day for the disappearance of his brother-in-law.

Goli’s parents return at two in the morning, the prescribed hour, when Thangam’s mother-in-law is to pour oil on the bride’s and groom’s heads before they take their baths. But Goli is not with his parents. Sivakami does not ask after him. Muchami and Mari do not ask after him. Thangam bows her head for the oil. She goes to her bath, while her mother- and father-in-law stand, their heads bowed, unmoving. Gayatri runs in, breathless and excited. She’s hastily taken her own oil bath and wants to be the first to offer congratulations to the couple. Not seeing them, she waits. Thangam emerges from the bath. Gayatri’s body settles, particle by particle, in understanding, and it is she who addresses Goli’s parents in their attitudes of shame.

“Oh. I’m sorry that it seems your son’s stomach is still troubling him.” Her voice sounds as though cooled over blocks of ice, the kind one sees now in Thiruchi, glowing mysteriously beneath layers of sawdust and straw.

But what’s that sound? The ice cart, drawn by a pony? No, it’s little Vairum. He had gone to sleep content-thrilled, in fact-at his brother-in-law’s absence. Now he trots in, making pony-hoof clicking noises with his tongue, and pulls up short at the sight of Thangam’s mother-in-law and father-in-law. A quick glance around assures him that Goli has not come, and he restarts his pony with a whoop and trots into the bathroom, wide awake and wriggling with excitement at the thought of his fireworks. Two days ago, he laid them out on the roof to dry. Today, on Vairum’s command, Muchami will light them in the street. Vairum has invited his schoolyard bodyguards to come and watch from just beyond the Brahmin quarter.

Thangam sits with her back to Rukmini, Murthy’s wife, to have her hair plaited. Rukmini and Murthy have not yet had children of their own, but Rukmini, a good-natured innocent, is full of affection and care for Sivakami’s kids and Thangam goes to her daily for this small, intimate chore, which Sivakami can no longer do because she is madi.

Rukmini’s own hair is, by general agreement, the worst kind: so kinky it never grows past her shoulders. Puffs of it gather in front of each ear; a halo of frizz rises from her rectangular forehead. Her memories of daily tears, owing to her mother’s vigorous efforts to tame her curls, make her gentle with Thangam.

Sivakami remembers that Vairum should have put some oil in his hair, also. She takes the bottle of oil to the bathroom and persuades him to wrap his six-year-old modesty in a towel. Finally, he opens the door and she dribbles oil into his hair. He massages his scalp distractedly with one hand, the other clutching his towel. He closes the door and begins again to splash.

Rukmini holds Thangam’s hair in her left hand while she strokes the comb through with her right, careful to scratch the scalp healthily with each pull. Reflexively, she tilts Thangam’s head to inspect for lice; Thangam spends her days surrounded by children with their heads inclined toward her. Sivakami leans forward for a look.

They see no bugs, though there is dandruff nestling in the little girl’s part. Not much, but Thangam is a bit young for this problem. Probably Rukmini has not been scraping the scalp properly each day. Sivakami chastises herself for not monitoring Thangam’s toilet more carefully. Perhaps it’s the change in seasons. At Thangam’s next oil bath, she will have Rukmini rub extra coconut oil into her knees and elbows, with vigour for heat, and give her scalp a healthy massage. She now notices a sparkle of dust inching along the drain from the bathroom with the water from Thangam’s bath, as Vairum splashes within.

Rukmini tilts Thangam’s head toward the lamp, and the flakes glint as she extends the part down the back of Thangam’s head and makes three smooth ropes on each side. Thangam’s plaits are looped back up on themselves in the fashion of little girls from then to now, and tied behind each ear with a purple ribbon, just as the Deepavali dawn bends through a sulphur haze kicked up by the fireworks circling, shooting and trailing through the early light.

After the formalities of the bath are concluded, Thangam sits to witness the festival fun from her usual spot on the veranda, but without her crowd, because all the children who dare are busy running from their own verandas into the centre of the street with exploding devices to scatter and impress the others. Vairum makes a satisfying morning of it, watching his stash go up in smoke. Not permitted to handle fireworks himself, he stands with his group, just outside the Brahmin quarter, while Muchami juggles the sparkling, flaming or smoking cylinders and cubes.

Only one small mishap mars the morning-it wouldn’t be Deepavali without some trifling injury. Some naughty boys tie a string of crackers to a sow’s tail, intending to watch the fun from the fence post, but panic pushes the big pig over the bar and out of her pen. She tramples two of the pranksters before escaping through a paddy field and extinguishing hopes of further entertainment.

Sadly, Goli misses all the fun. No one fails to inquire after him, and each is told his stomach is keeping him indoors. All day, his parents mope from chattram to house and back again, no son and no explanation. Sivakami is not clear on how long they intend to stay, and cannot ask.

The day after Deepavali, Thangam wears royal-blue ribbons to match the borders of her silk paavaadai, which is, in the main, a salmon pink worked in gold thread with a tasteful density of flowers. Sivakami instructs Rukmini to comb Thangam’s scalp harder. The tender-hearted woman reluctantly complies, but when Thangam winces and blinks back tears, Rukmini starts crying herself. The flaking is getting worse, and not only from Thangam’s head. As the child rises, her hair pulled into braids so tight her eyebrows have lengthened, sprinkles fall from her elbows, sliding down the slippery silk paavaadai to shine in a half-sun against the courtyard bricks. She pads out to the veranda, leaving a faintly glistening trail of footprints.

Mari arrives to sweep and swab the floor, as she does daily. When she pours out the wash water, Sivakami can’t help but check the court-yard drain. This has been the worst Deepavali she has ever experienced, waiting for this boy who doesn’t seem to think any of the rules of propriety apply to him. It probably bears no relation, but, appearing when it has, she can’t help feeling as if this dust is evidence of Thangam’s humiliation. She hauls and pour bucket after bucket of water along the gutter, but the golden specks must be heavier than dirt, than skin, than flesh and blood, because they settle again to taunt her from the trough.

Goli’s parents linger for two nights after Deepavali and then take their leave. When Muchami returns from seeing them off at the train station, he reports the puzzled inquiries of a dozen townsfolk, wondering why Goli wasn’t there with them.

“I told them he had gone already and asked them, Didn’t they see him go? I said he had said goodbye to as many people as he could, and that I didn’t know how they had managed to miss him. They asked if he was recovered and I said, Well, no, but… and then I waited, but his parents didn’t say a thing, not a thing, just stood there, the mother looking at the ground and father looking at the sky. So I said he was called away on family business, that he had to go and look after some things, things to do with their land. Okay?”

“Yes, yes. What else could you say?”

Muchami responds, even more indignant than when he had started, “Right, what else could I say? Certainly not the truth.”

He is deeply alarmed and insulted by Goli’s behavior, though he chose not to share this with Sivakami until now. He made his own inquiries-he needed to know what they were in for, and planned to decide later how much Sivakami had to be told. He had found and followed Goli, who patronized several local haunts, including the relatively respectable Kulithalai Club, where, after dark, men played cards, as well as establishments of lesser repute, including one “house of gaiety” in the street of prostitutes. Muchami had ferreted out one man who appeared slightly less infatuated with Goli than others in his crowd (for Goli already had a small gang of “friends,” most of whom he met only in the course of this short festival), and learned that this man was a relative of Goli’s and that they grew up on the same Brahmin quarter in a village two hours away.

Yes, Goli is a careless person, the man said, when Muchami skilfully isolated him at the edge of the village square one morning. He is egotistical and spoiled. This Muchami could tell-but what of his parents? His parents, said the man, are melancholy, deeply melancholy; they had enough money so Goli had whatever he wanted, but they never disciplined their son and never paid him much attention. Then, in his youth, Goli fell in with a gang of petty criminals. The relative hastened to say that he didn’t think Goli had ever committed a crime, but he liked being liked by those small toughies, and they liked him for his money.

“He’s a dreamer, though,” said the man, in a tone that sounded appreciative. “Goli always has a scheme up his sleeve. One day, one of them has to come to something. I think he’ll do well.” Muchami hoped he was right. He told Sivakami none of what he had learned.

Sivakami narrows her eyes, raises her brows and replies, “That is the truth. He is a little better, though still in some pain. Where is he? He is off on family affairs.”

They fall silent for a moment as Thangam walks through the hall from the front to the back, on her way to the washroom, or to get a drink of water, or some other ordinary task for an eight-year-old who perhaps shouldn’t be worrying about the whereabouts of her vagabond husband. She passes through a shaft of sunlight and puffs of gold dust dance off her shoulders and toes.

Sivakami whispers to Muchami, “That is the truth. The end.”

They look toward the door. From without, there is a sound of celebration, some kind of parade. Goli is entering the Brahmin quarter with a small and cheerful collection of villagers in a hip-hip-hooray mood of celebration. He gives a jaunty salute, less to his mother-in-law than to the neighbourhood, calling out, “Namaskarams! My train leaves in ninety minutes.” There’s no train in the direction of his home village until dusk: apparently, he’s going somewhere else.

“You must not go without eating something,” Sivakami says from the kitchen, disconcerted at his band of friends, half a dozen Brahmin men, some of whom she knows from the Brahmin quarter, some of whom must be from Kulithalai. Clearly others had been able to find him. “You’ve eaten nothing in our house since your arrival. Come in, please, come in.”

Goli puts his arms round his new friends and extends invitations. “Come in! Have a small bite of something, but you’d better get me to the station before the nine-thirty!”

Sivakami runs to the kitchen and assembles small silver plates with a sweet and a savoury snack on each as Goli and company enter the main hall. Vairum pushes past them to the door. He needs to put on his shoes and go to school. Goli smiles hugely at his little brother-in-law, and extends a hand to ruffle his hair. Vairum ducks and scowls, which makes Goli laugh and shrug. As Vairum passes, Goli slaps the back of his head.

Thangam carries out a silver tray with seven tumblers of water while Sivakami makes polite, formal inquiries. “I trust your health has improved? And your business has gone on well?” Goli doesn’t answer, busy as he is, working the room, making sure everyone’s looked after. He receives a plate and pays attention just long enough to lift the sweet toward his mouth. A moment before it goes in, though, he exclaims, “The train! The train!” He drops his plate and dashes for the door.

Muchami has hitched the bullock cart and driven it around to the front of the house. Goli tosses his valise in the back, climbs up after it, reaches over and whacks the bullock’s buttock. It starts to trot. Muchami gives an exasperated look back at Sivakami as Goli bids his cronies farewell.

“So long! Don’t forget what we discussed-I’ll be in touch. This idea is really going to take off. Don’t tell anyone else. Just between us!” he shouts, as the cart rounds the corner to exit the Brahmin quarter.

This episode is the end of the all-important first Deepavali. Thangam spends the rest of the day on the veranda, refusing lunch, rising only at Sivakami’s insistence, around half past four. When she rises, gold falls from her paavaadai as though all its forget-me-nots were shedding their petals.

A few minutes after Thangam vacates the veranda, Vairum arrives home from school, removing his shoes before dragging his satchel over the threshold. It gathers a thin gold line of dust along the broad bricks. Muchami departs for his late-afternoon tour of the fields; Mari sorts rice; Sivakami organizes snacks for her children.

Thus, she does not see a neighbour’s disappointment at just missing a chance for Thangam’s blessing, she doesn’t see him pass close by their veranda on his way home and be arrested in his passage by the thin dusting of gold on the spot Thangam just vacated. She doesn’t see him take a pinch and stroke it across his forehead, the way he did with a pinch of ash given him once or twice a week by Sivakami’s late husband when he held his healing court on the very spot where Thangam sits daily.

Sivakami doesn’t see one or two neighbours note the glisten across this man’s forehead as he proceeds home, she doesn’t hear his wife exclaim over it, she doesn’t even hear the crackling up and down the lines of gossip as the news spreads like fires in the dry season. What she does hear is the sound of squabbling, maybe an hour after the original incident. What she sees, when she goes to investigate, is three of her neighbours trying to scrape their own small mounds of Thangam into small paper cones, while a crowd of ten or twelve others try to get a glimpse of the substance, on the veranda, or the road, or the steps, before it is all gone.

In the days following, whenever Thangam is out on the veranda, adults come one by one to receive her blessing. As before, she does nothing to offer it. Those who need must simply take. They lean across the veranda and pinch a pinch of dust from the sprinkling around her or from the small drift against the wall where she sometimes leans. Small babies have the dust rubbed on their tummies for their perpetual ailments. Some is given, folded in a bit of paper, to a servant whom caste does not permit to walk on the Brahmin quarter. Old people receive a pinch on the tongue, just as they take a daily dose of holy ash brought home from favourite temples to ease their undiagnosable internal malfunctions. The villagers remind one another that once upon a time it was said a morsel of pounded gold taken internally had great medicinal value. It was the vitamin pill of nobility. All in the village swear that they feel its invigorating effects. Their good health gains renown, and people come from elsewhere, too, just as they did for Hanumarathnam, to pay respects and receive some holy ash toward prevention or cure, just as Sivakami’s parents did all those years ago.

At first, Sivakami feels a vague indignation at her neighbours’ greed and opportunism. She can’t bring herself to think of Thangam’s dust as a gift; to her it feels like a symptom of some malady, the root of which she tells herself she cannot yet fathom.

She eschews the auric dust. The village presumes this is because of her widowhood: widows do not wear gold-her forehead should be marked by nothing but ash, the leavings after a flame goes cold. But this does not explain why neither Muchami nor Mari applies Thangam’s dust to their furrowed brows or tired limbs. Gayatri queries them. Muchami doesn’t say that he, too, is widowed, though this is how he has felt since Hanumarathnam’s death. He replies as he and Sivakami determined together in advance. He tells their young neighbour, “All who are frequently in Thangam’s presence are coated with her blessed presence at all times.” He holds out his hands for inspection; the glints beneath his purplish fingernails and in the creases of his velvet-dark knuckles prove his claim.

Vairum has overheard, though, and pipes boldly his own explanation, “I’ll never take gold from my sister. I’ll only give her gold, I will never, never take it.”

Gayatri feels inexplicably shamed by their answers and determines from that moment not to take the dust by pinches, but to feel content with whatever traces drift upon her by accident during her daily visits.

A week after Deepavali, however, it is clear that the quantity of gold Thangam is shedding is somewhat reduced. Within a month production has ceased. Thangam has returned to her previous magnetic, but not magical, self. The village resigns itself to taking her blessing as before, with a hand on her head. Straggling pilgrims who come seeking the girl who makes gold must content themselves with a sight of her. As the locals point out, and the religious travellers must agree, that sight is reasonably miraculous in and of itself. The pilgrims depart protesting their perfect contentment. And when, inevitably, a few visitors come with glints in their eyes more entrepreneurial than spiritual, all rumours are hotly denied, and the would-be capitalists turn away shrugging.

SOME MONTHS LATER, the seasons turn, and crops mature. It is Pongal time. This harvest, the big harvest, is the busiest time in Muchami’s work year. Accounting suddenly becomes more complicated. There are three growing seasons, not to mention year-round income sources such as coconuts or bananas, but in this time when every possible crop can be reaped, bushels can be lost or disguised. This year, Muchami’s sixth in this household’s employ, will be exceptionally stressful for him because he, together with Gayatri, Murthy, and Rukmini, will escort Thangam to her in-laws’ house for the holiday. There, Thangam will initiate the festival by placing the pongal pot on her in-laws’ stove to symbolize the bounty she brings them as a bride. Her escorts know that, given her in-laws’ straits, their charge is a fortune both literal and figurative.

Muchami has become silent and tense. This is not due to the stress of his work. Normally, he thrives under this kind of strain, becoming more authoritative and authoritarian with each additional demand. He is proud to be taking Thangam, and will be fiercely watchful.

It’s just that he wishes he could take her by bullock cart: he is scared of the train. He doesn’t find it difficult to meet trains at the station. He displays a good deal of confidence when putting people on and taking them off, certain that the train is stationary while he does so. None of this leaping on and off while it is in motion, no sir. To ride on one himself? It seems an unnecessary risk.

Mari and Sivakami reassure him that frail women and little children ride them all the time. Yes, he agrees, but those passengers are literate, high caste. He is the toughest guy around when it comes to market and merchant. He can hold his own in the rowdiest toddy shop in the deepest forest. But this great big roar of metal and smoke… He hopes he can keep his dhoti clean, within and without.

Mari accompanies them to the station, counting baggage, ensuring the gifts are always in her husband’s hands. Even if he’s gripping them numbly with fear, at least he’s got them. A clutch of dishevelled children, including a couple of Vairum’s bodyguards, stand with her on the platform. They run around, chattering, helping her settle Thangam, Murthy, Rukmini and Gayatri. Finally, a couple of minutes before the 3 p.m. departure, Muchami must mount, ashen beneath his mahogany complexion. The children imitate his knees shaking and laugh until they choke. He stands to yell at them, but the train gives a preliminary lurch and his voice fails him. He sits down and feels the floor shudder up to speed.

Two hours later, it is a suave and cosmopolitan gent who swaggers from the train with his party. They have befriended a number of fellow travellers, exchanged news and opinions, and addresses. There had been, in their own compartment, a range of caste such as you would never run across in such close proximity anywhere else. Muchami is not really sure this part is such a good thing. He has heard of agitations to promote such mixing. One of the men in their compartment seemed to lean that way. Muchami is not persuaded, not at all. He knows his place and so should everyone. Else how would anyone know anything? What would be one’s occupation, one’s realm of expertise? But the conversation was lively and two hours couldn’t really harm anything. Best of all, he no longer fears the iron horse, and his compartment companions concur: it is initially harrowing, but ultimately a very agreeable and efficient way to travel.

The in-laws’ servant brings them by bullock cart to the chattram where they will be accommodated. Muchami will sleep in the courtyard out back, since the building is Brahmin-only. They tidy themselves, organize the gifts and go to take their evening meal at the in-laws’ home. Murthy, in a kurta neatly pressed except for one wrinkled sleeve, is being insufferably knowledgeable, having travelled here once before. Gayatri is so curious that she can’t get too irritated with him; Rukmini, also curious, is naturally deferential to her husband; Thangam shows no curiosity. Just before they enter the house, Gayatri inspects the girl, and absentmindedly, with her thumb, wipes a little sparkle of sweat off the child’s upper lip. But the lip is not moist, and now Gayatri’s thumb shines with a faint gold, the sort that Cholapatti has not seen in months.

No time to wonder, though, because here are Goli and his parents, and neighbours who have come to greet them, and Thangam’s maternal uncles who have come also, and there are gifts to be distributed and inquiries to be made and the evening meal to be taken, and… Goli is gone again. His parents appear utterly unsurprised and offer no explanation. Half the guests want to take the same approach, the other half are more inclined to wild speculation, until Gayatri pipes up, “Why is everyone so mystified? He had to go look after business. He’s a very responsible boy. Too responsible,” she gently chastises his parents. “He should learn to take it easy sometimes. He would be forgiven on a night like this.”

Muchami overhears her and is so grateful, because from his place in a foreign courtyard, in a foreign land, he can do nothing.

Anyway, Goli returns at noon the next day, plainly exhausted, for a meal and a nap. He is gone again by late afternoon. Thangam pathetically, exquisitely, performs her functions, stirring the pongal pot on the first day of the festival; on the second, she makes rows of seven balls each of sugared rice, yellow rice, red rice and yogourt rice. These are left as an offering for the crows, who are models for familial behaviour since the common wisdom is that they never eat without calling their fellow crows to eat with them. This is also the day women pray for the welfare of their brothers; when brothers give gifts to their sisters. Thangam is given a cash token by proxy, from Vairum, and Sivakami’s brothers give her a few rupees to take home to her mother.

Rukmini and Murthy eat and talk heartily and Muchami and Gayatri silently collude in their relief: if Rukmini and Murthy don’t find Goli’s absence suspicious, neither will anyone else. Besides, the village is distracted by a miracle: Thangam is shedding again.

When the party returns to Cholapatti after an absence of almost seventy-two hours, they are all coated in a dusting of gold. It is in the corners of their eyes and in their hair, it speckles Murthy’s shiny bald forehead so he resembles a new species of egg. As they disembark the train, all their compartment companions compete for a fingerful to smear on the foreheads of near and dear.

Rukmini and Murthy are flushed with celebrity as they arrive back on the Brahmin quarter. They excitedly relate the events of Pongal to Sivakami while Gayatri listens in uncharacteristic silence. The in-laws’ village had been so impressed to see Thangam in the full bloom of her powers. She just started a little the night before Pongal, but by the following evening, there were puffs of gold jetting from her heels with every step. The house streamed with people all wanting a bit, and Thangam satisfied them all. Oh, how Sivakami’s brothers had been amazed!

That evening and the day following, chattering hordes mill about Sivakami’s veranda, replenishing their supplies. “Thangam does look happy to be home,” Sivakami says to Muchami, who agrees. He has told her that, in those seventy-two hours, they saw Goli for perhaps two, one and a half of which he spent asleep.

Sivakami shakes her head. She is about to ask, rhetorically, “Where does he go?” but then it occurs to her that Muchami might know, and she is not ready to be told. Men disappear from time to time, and women must cope. Knowing where they go and why sometimes just makes that harder.

Three days later, the village is restive. Thangam’s glut of gold is receding once more. Where does the miracle come from? Where does it go? How to make it stay? Murthy, who likes to spend his days pacing and pondering questions of import, hits upon a theory: marriage completes a woman, does it not? It was only when Thangam found her other half that she became fully what she was meant to be, is it not so? Naturally, her capacity for magic waxes when she is near her husband, and wanes when he is far away.

The explanation is readily received by the village. But what to do? The child cannot live close to her husband until she comes of age. They would not want to lose her any sooner than necessary. When she goes, oh, that will be a sad day! Murthy’s scientific and deductive clarity has helped the townsfolk to understand what they can expect. They resolve to be satisfied with what they receive.

Sivakami hears snatches of the debates skirling in the wind down the street. She doesn’t participate. She has a strong feeling that the gold dust is a product of the marriage, and her orthodoxy compels her to believe that marriage completes the girl, but every fibre of her understanding strains against the idea that Thangam is becoming more what she was meant to be. As the gold drains from her child, Sivakami despairs that Thangam is becoming not more, but less and less and less.

15. A Coming of Age 1914

AT FOURTEEN, THANGAM SHEDS FIRST BLOOD. “Ah,” the village sighs, “how sweet that she’s survived to come of age, and how bitter, that she will now leave us!”

In the style of her mother, the celebration will be thorough but not grandiose. Sivakami believes feasts should please the tongues of the gods, not the gossips.

Thangam, dressed in red, sits in the back room, on a mat laid over grains of raw rice. Brahmin-quarter girls, those who used to cluster at the veranda, now cluster at the doors so that she won’t feel alone in her isolation. When the villagers come, they greet Sivakami, “Congratulations on your grandson!”-anticipating the required fruit of of the union to come. The married women sing songs about the games of love to make Thangam blush and the girlfriends giggle. All the women dance kummi, circling and clapping hands before the Ramar statue, and sing a song congratulating curvaceous Sita on her noble, attentive husband. Every marriage starts out as perfect as Rama and Sita’s, the matrons imply. Every marriage, like theirs, faces trials. But today we’ll sing not of battles or hardships but of rose petal beds and curtains of jasmine and milky moonlight veils concealing nothing.

For three days, Thangam languishes in peaceful isolation and the village dances around her. For the fourth-day ceremonies, Rukmini will perform the part Sivakami would have had were it not for her widowhood. On that morning, Thangam’s in-laws appear before dawn, while she is out back, bathing for the first time since her first menses began. They stand in the hall beside an immense kolam while Rukmini, blushing with the pleasure of her office, gives Thangam a dhavni, and maternal instructions for womanly comportment. Under silver vessels at strategic points on the kolam are hidden a small conch dripping milk, some cowries, a little doll and some seeds. These are whisked into Thangam’s dhavni and tied at her waist, and then she is seated at the kolam’s centre.

The matrons try to place the ritual silver pieces on Thangam’s head, shoulders, palms and feet, but the coins slip and fall. Is she trembling? Why would she be? The ladies laugh at this difficulty which in any other girl would seem ill-omened in the extreme. “Why even try? Who piles silver upon gold?” They dance more kummi and sing more songs and feast, and when the gaiety is finished and the celebrants depart, nothing is left but the wait until Thangam, too, must go.

Where will she go? Sivakami wonders. To her in-laws’, at the start, but after that? Goli, now twenty-five, has charmed his way into a revenue inspectorship and will be required to change districts every two years for the rest of his career, lest he become attached to locals and tempted into lenience and corruption. Thangam will leave a trail like a small golden snail criss-crossing the presidency. None of them, not Sivakami, not Muchami, none will be able to follow.

A few months later, when Thangam’s new family is due to come again to take her home, Sivakami takes it upon herself to explain to Thangam whatever she can imagine of what her life might be like.

“Do you know, Thangam, that your husband has secured a job?” she asks as she serves both children their supper.

Vairum breaks in. “He’s a revenue inspector.”

Thangam looks at him.

“Big deal,” he says, bent over his meal. Thangam quickly turns her head back to her own food.

“It’s a very good job,” Sivakami says, feeling obliged to sound positive, for Thangam’s sake, even while she abhors the sound of her brothers’ voices in her own, instructing Vairum on how to feel. Neither child looks up. “It will place very interesting demands on you, Thangam, as his wife. You will move to a new district every two years!” Her voice sounds brittle to her. Thangam is looking at her now, clearly alarmed. “Won’t that be interesting?”

“It will be terrible, Amma!” shouts Vairum, and Sivakami jumps. “Will her in-laws travel with her, at least? Is she going to be all alone, in a new place, every two years?”

“Well, she will be with her husband,” she says defensively.

“You can’t count on him! When he comes here, he’s never here. When Thangam Akka goes to his home, he’s never home!”

“Vairum, we need to help your sister prepare, to feel confident and ready.” She watches as he folds his banana leaf and storms to the back of the house. She looks back at Thangam, who has stopped eating and started to cry. “Oh, no, kuttima. Please, dear, everything will be fine.” It is after dark, so she reaches to stroke Thangam’s hair. She looks up to see Vairum has returned and is standing over them.

“Thangam Akka, you have to write to us and tell us if you need anything. Okay? I will come and see you.” He squats beside her. “I will make sure everything is all right.” She nods a little.

Sivakami looks at Vairum to express her gratitude, but he rises without acknowledging his mother’s presence and goes upstairs to his attic room.

The next day, Sivakami can’t help confessing her fears to Gayatri, who now takes her daily coffee accompanied by her three sons, the baby a little less than six months old.

“Oh, I know,” says Gayatri, nose to nose with her youngest, his black eyes flashing toothless delight. “When I have girls, I’ll just worry about them all the time, like my mother does about me, like your mother did about you. Won’t I worry about your sisters, little baby? Won’t I?”

Sivakami feels irritated at Gayatri’s response-what does she know of it? But later that day, as she readies her daughter’s trousseau, she reconsiders and decides Gayatri is right. What is she feeling that every mother has not undergone? She is accustomed to reading her own emotions in Muchami’s face and his dour farawayness shows her how much she has come to look like her own mother, powerless over her daughter’s fate.

Thangam’s in-laws come to fetch her. This is a strange departure from tradition, but they had written to say they wanted to spare her the bother of asking her relatives to escort the girl-since Thangam has no father, either Murthy or Sivakami’s brothers would have gone. Sivakami understands that Thangam’s in-laws cannot afford the expense of hosting the relatives properly, and she accepts their offer with outward grace and inward resignation.

They have grown thinner in the years since the marriage. Though they have the fair skin and drooping eyelids of the highly bred, their clothes are almost threadbare. This is an occasion calling for grandeur, but Thangam’s mother-in-law wears, apart from her wedding pendant, only two measly strands of gold about her neck. Her bangles, earrings and nose rings are perfunctory. Sivakami knows of their financial struggles. Every time she sees her brothers, they ask after Thangam’s in-laws, shaking their heads but heartily insisting, “Good people,” before going on to gloat-good-naturedly, publicly-over the in-laws’ financial incompetence. She hears from them that this once-wealthy family is auctioning off its real estate, taking prices far below the land’s worth. “Creditors,” the brothers speculate in self-righteous tones as they buy parcels of the in-laws’ land on Sivakami’s behalf, using the money she had set aside for Thangam’s dowry.

The departure blessings, as needed, are done. The cart arrives and is packed.

“Coffee?” Sivakami asks the in-laws, and Thangam catches her eye.

Gayatri laughs and winks at Mari. “Our girl’s become corrupt!” She means it as a joke, light-hearted.

Sivakami can’t rebuke her daughter in front of her in-laws; it would be a rebuke to them as well. But Thangam has never before drunk coffee. Mari whispers to Sivakami that she should not give her daughter any of the polluting drink, but Sivakami ignores her, thinking, I don’t have a daughter. Thangam is now someone else’s child.

Sivakami brings the coffee in flat-bottomed silver bowls and tumblers, with a half-inch lip around the top. Thangam accepts her coffee from her mother and begins pouring it, tumbler to bowl and bowl to tumbler, mixing from ever greater heights so that it curls and foams: caustic liquid gentled with sugar and milk, like a truth made palatable. Thangam relishes each tongueful as Sivakami watches her, imagining her in faraway places Sivakami will never see. Is Thangam drinking the coffee to postpone the moment of departure? Is she experimenting with this foreigners’ drink because she, too, is about to become a voyager?

When she is through, she and her in-laws take their leave. Thangam performs an obeisance for her mother, one her husband should have been there to do with her. Vairum stands to one side, watching woodenly. When Thangam rises, her eyes fill and she steps, almost jumps, suddenly toward her brother, putting her palm on his cheek. Vairum jerks his head as though to clamp her hand there, and then shakes her off. Thangam backs toward the cart, which her in-laws have already mounted. Once more, Sivakami has to shake off some petulance-so uncharitable!-at the sense that her children have an understanding that excludes her.

Muchami hovers until Thangam, too, is seated on a bench in back, then leaps up into the driver’s seat and flicks his switch. Little puffs of gold jolt from the side of the cart with each pothole and fall twirling in the sun to the thick dust of the road.

Sivakami turns to her son. “Our family grows smaller to grow bigger.”

He gazes at her skeptically. “I don’t see how you could have let her go with them.”

“You’re not talking sense,” she says, sounding sharp and liking it. “I didn’t ‘let’ her do anything. Her destiny is written by God and I am nothing but an executor.” She catches her breath against tears.

“If you’re not worried, you’re stupid. If you are worried, you should do something about it!” Vairum storms past her.

“What can I do about it, son? I am a widow.” She is shaking: how dare he speak so rudely to her?

“None of this would have happened if our father hadn’t died.” He stands at the bottom of the stairs and starts hitting his forehead with the heels of his hands. “My fault. It’s all my fault.”

Sivakami gapes. “Where on earth did you hear that?”

He stops and looks at her. “You think it too.” Then he runs up the stairs.

“I do not!” she says after him, and again, “I do not,” weakly. She can’t bring herself to follow. What can she say?

When he comes down, hours later, for his meal, she still has not thought of a way to broach the subject. She has been able to think of nothing but their exchange, but can’t think beyond what he said. She serves him silently. While he is eating, she says gently, “It’s no one’s fault, Kanna. Or, that is, it’s my fault, of course, I’m the wife, and if I…”

She is foundering, but Vairum excuses her. “Don’t talk about it, Amma. Forget it.”

She obeys, with uneasy relief, and they go about the routines of their days until they establish, in Thangam’s wake, new rhythms not unlike the old.

16. Another Coming of Age 1914

WHILE MARI HAS BEEN WORKING at Sivakami’s house and still living at her mother’s, she has passed her fourteenth, then fifteenth, then sixteenth birthday, but she has not yet gotten her period. It does happen, sometimes, everyone knows of such cases. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with her, but Muchami’s mother has spent these years glaring at her brother and sister-in-law and making comments: She should have had several grandsons from her son by now. Maybe there’s something really wrong with the girl. Maybe her brother has known all along. She might be within her rights to demand another dowry.

But neither Mari nor Muchami has shown any impatience or desire for the situation to alter. Mari works right alongside her husband at times, serves his meals, hears his problems and goes home each evening to her own mother’s house.

“How can Mari not be frustrated?” Angamma frequently demands of him. He shrugs and sucks his teeth; she jabs her hand at him. “How can you not be frustrated?”

Finally, when Mari is well past her seventeenth birthday, the miracle occurs. All are surprised, though her parents would never admit that. She’s been obediently taking herbal doses and douches for years. They throw a big celebration. Mari herself insists on staying away not only from the temple, but, Brahminically, from all of the guests. Her family finds these pretensions insufferable. But that’s Angamma’s problem now!

No one has worries like Muchami, though. For most young men, a bride’s coming of age announces imminent delights. For Muchami, it represents terror sheer as a veil or a cliff. Most young men would be thrilled to receive a wife after so long, even a thin one like Mari. Muchami gets tenser and tenser.

On the day of Mari’s procession from the house of her childhood to the new phase of her life, Muchami disappears again. No one is alarmed, really. All understand this cannot be easy for him, so let him live out his fears alone for a day. Though it would be nice for him to welcome his bride, he has to come home at some point and needn’t be present for the ceremonies.

Just as the procession is concluding in a great swirling of vermilion water and tossing of flowers, a naked panic of five young boys come running from the eucalyptus woods, shouting and crying, “Muchami! Muchami!” Out of deference to Muchami’s mother and his uncles, no one answers them. They yank the adults’ arms, wailing, “Muchami! Muchami!” and are ignored, until one child’s mother notices her son’s hair is wet. She clamps his shoulder, shakes him and yells, “You’ve been swimming, haven’t you? Huh?” He puts his thumb in his mouth and refuses to look at her, but the other boys are still weeping and shouting. Muchami’s youngest uncle has a dreadful premonition. He tears away from the crowd and runs toward the river. One by one, the uncles are swept by dread and peel from the crowd, running.

Angamma stops swirling the arathi and watches them go. The lip of the brass plate droops until she looks down and sees the vermilion water has all spilled and is running along the ground toward the river. She cries out and drops to her knees, but the water has soaked into the earth. She wipes her hands across the red-veined dust and whimpers. She hurries after her brothers.

The youngest uncle wades out into the Kaveri. Muchami, whose body moves like a river weed in the current, is anchored by an arm stuck in a crevice of rock creeping out from the opposite bank. Red radiates from his head in a pump and slap that could be caused by the water or his heart. His eyelids are purple and swollen shut.

The uncle is up to his shoulders in the deadly water, unconscious of risk, when an undertow sweeps him down and away. He fights, as he did as a boy, when the river was forbidden to him as it is to his sons now. He wrestles the river and finds the opposite bank. His brothers, one by one, do the same, except the eldest, who runs puffing to the bridge and crosses there. He arrives as his brothers are climbing out upon the stones, their hearts in their mouths. They free their nephew from the clutch of rocks, lift him from his pale ruby halo, press him to their chests and lay him on the riverbank.

But he is breathing. He coughs and some water runs from his nose and mouth. They start to laugh, in small, tense bursts, like eager dogs, barking and panting. How can this be? Muchami is unconscious, bruised and badly cut, but he is alive. The five little boys had swum the river and now climb the bank to stand beside the uncles. The eldest asks them, “What did you see?”

“He came around the bend-”

“He wasn’t moving. His face was in the water.”

“Suddenly there was a big swell-”

“Like a big wave-”

“It pushed him at the rocks-”

“It hit his head and flipped him over-”

“And then we saw his face!”

“It was Muchami Ayya!”

“And then we came running-”

“We ran! We were scared!”

The uncles, too, are still scared, since Muchami, though he is breathing, has not yet opened his eyes.

Angamma arrives, out of breath, and wails, “Does he live?” She is so relieved at the answer that she attacks him and must be pulled off, berating her unconscious son for all his rebellion, all his life. “When you were small, I forbade you to go to the river, but you defied me, you went, and went, until you became an expert swimmer, don’t deny it, I know, the proof was when you rescued Gopi Ayya’s daughter. So what’s the meaning of this? You went to take your bath this morning and forgot to stand up?”

The uncles carry Muchami to his mother’s hut, as she trots alongside, still lecturing him. They lay him down in his mother’s hut, and as Angamma argues with her brothers about whom to call to treat her son, Muchami’s eyes open to bright slits. His bride catches his glance, but he closes his eyes again. She thinks no one else has noticed, and this is proven correct when one self-appointed healer pushes through the crowd, flips Muchami over and begins pounding on his back. Muchami recovers quickly enough to escape much bruising.

Only a few days behind schedule, Muchami and Mari are installed in their hut, adjacent to his mother’s. They make their first physical acquaintance as patient and nurse.

One afternoon, while Angamma naps in her own hut, Mari speaks up. “Do you know I don’t care if I have children? Of the womb, I mean. I want you to know. Your sisters are having plenty, we can adopt one of theirs.”

Muchami laces his arms into a pillow and regards her calmly. He hasn’t gone to the fields in days; Sivakami forbade it. Nothing is expected of him as long as he is infirm. He has never taken his ease like this. Mari has just made it easier.

Beyond their thick mud walls, a chanted chorus arises, an obscene ditty with the names “Muchami” and “Mari” filling in the blanks, childish voices that then disperse in foot patter and laughter amazed at its own audacity.

“How can you not want children?” Muchami inquires wryly and Mari laughs, covering her mouth.

“I want respect. I want my husband to be clean and not shame me and not drink. My father is a good man, but I could not cope with the drinking.”

“I don’t drink.”

“I know.”

Another burst of children’s laughter comes through the window on a heat wave, from far away. Muchami knows he should be silent and grateful and never mention the subject again, but something in Mari’s manner makes him persist.

“Doesn’t everyone want children?”

“I am a religious person, I don’t fight fate. God has reasons. If I am meant not to bear children, I can be content with this.”

For the first time since his mishap, Muchami attempts to rise, but the room tilts and he wobbles down onto his knees before his wife. He casts his eyes down. “I am thankful.”

She nods.

17. Vairum Steps Up 1914

AT TWELVE YEARS OLD, Vairum thinks little of the past, much of the future. He is religious, and disdains superstition and folkways. His academic performance is exceptional. His loss of colour, too, appears to have slowed or halted: although a fresh snowy patch appears at the start of each academic year, and with each anniversary of his father’s death, and although there is still some chittering gossip about those that show on his neck and arms, most of the Brahmin quarter has accepted the truth of Chinnarathnam’s aggressive proclamations on the condition. And since Vairum has never had friends, he hasn’t lost any. He causes his mother little trouble, so she chooses not to worry about him.

For a time, she worries about Muchami instead-cautious, conscientious Muchami nearly drowned in the Kaveri on the very day he was to bring home his bride. Why is it, Sivakami wondered-and then wondered if in wondering she was tempting fate-that terrible accidents so often happen on the happiest of days? It’s obviously the evil eye, cast by some poor soul festering with loneliness, but there is also a susceptibility that comes on such days-giddy joy that renders one unable to negotiate the rivers, kitchens and roads one has managed every day of one’s life.

Sivakami forbids Muchami to work for some months, until Mari and his mother judge him recovered. Muchami will not disobey but sends a return message: who will walk the fields? He names the tenants whose rent is due, along with three separate cases of complications and exceptions. The messenger, who was, until recently, Vairum’s schoolmate, stammers the details of the cases earnestly and with thorough incomprehension. Sivakami, who still walks the fields in her imagination, with the map her husband left, and so knows enough to know what makes sense, recognizes that the ex-schoolboy’s report is garbled and illogical.

However inauspicious the precipitating event, this does seem the opportunity for young Vairum to learn the landscape and methods that support his household. They sit down with the map his father constructed ten years earlier, and she goes over the basics. A few borders have changed, families grown, crops shifted, but Hanumarathnam made the chart flexible enough in its conception to admit evolution. It is soft and creased, like Sivakami’s two white saris, but it is still the best guide an heir could have.

“I know it’s a lot to absorb,” she smiles at him, “but if I can do it…”

“No, I get it, Amma,” he says, without looking up. He’s on his hands and knees and his shadow falls across the topography of their lands like a bird’s.

“You’ll have to take it to Muchami, because of course he is the one who goes out and talks to the tenants, as you will be doing. He keeps track of the day-to-day details. I only need summaries.”

“Mm-hm. Got it.”

“I’m proud of you.”

He looks up, a little shy.

“And your father would be proud of you, on this day.”

Vairum scowls. “If he were around, I wouldn’t even be doing this.”

“Of course you would: he would have given the map straight to you. I wouldn’t have even been in the picture.” He’s listening. “All this was meant to be yours, to manage as well as he did. Very hands-on, your appa. Knew everything that was happening. Make it your business to know.”

Clutching the map to his breast, Vairum marches over to Muchami’s hut to collect the correct information. On the community’s outskirts, he pauses at the sight of a small crew of his classfellows, Muchami’s castemates. They are horsing around in a game of keep-away; Vairum recognizes the disputed object as one boy’s prized cap. He slows to a halt and watches them, these boys who are not his friends. Once or twice a year, some boys (always Brahmins) start jeering at or teasing Vairum. Though these boys of Muchami’s caste readily do the same or worse to one of their own, they come instantly to Vairum’s defence.

They notice him and the game stops as they wait for him to approach them. His attention shifts to what he will say and how he should conduct himself, and so he is distracted from thinking that he wouldn’t mind being teased as mercilessly as the boy with the cap, if it meant he belonged.

“Muchami?” says Vairum, and they point to Muchami’s hut. It’s the longest conversation he’s had with them since his earliest overtures with trades and math. In the hut, Muchami tells Vairum it’s these talents he must summon, to determine if he is cheating his tenant, if his tenant is cheating him, if a merchant is cheating him or anyone else. The acceptability of the cheating involves other sorts of skills, he explains to the solemn boy, other varieties of calculations.

“Don’t mistake me,” Muchami says. “Your father managed his lands by the code of your caste. You can see that your mother, too, is as strict as strict can be with herself. A person must have a code. Then, if any man says, ‘You have done a wrong thing,’ you will be able to stand up and say, ‘According to my principles, it was right. And I can live by the principles of no other man.’ Understand?”

Vairum had grasped all the methods of calculation using weight, cost, quality and season on first explanation, but now wags his head with deep and evident uncertainty. Calculating on the principle of caste? What kind of maths is this?

“You see, Vairum, your father was a real Brahmin. He was a scholar and a healer. He could not be taken for a fool, nor could he appear greedy. How could he one day chastise a poor man for keeping back some few extra grains, and the next, give to the same man holy ash to quell his child’s diarrhea? He couldn’t. Yet he also couldn’t make of himself a laughingstock when every Mussulman market-man is giving him half-half his lentils’ worth. So, first thing first: I do most of the negotiating. These peasants are my castefellows. I know all of what they know, and more, and I know how to make them believe I know even more than that. Until I’m better, don’t bother doing any negotiating. You are just keeping an eye on things. Secondly, I will tell you all I know-and they know this. Good?”

Vairum nods with somewhat more confidence or, at least, relief: it’s evident that until Muchami returns to work, he’ll be able to stick to familiar territory.

That evening and the next, Vairum works diligently to make his own copy of his mother’s map. On parchment the exact size of the original, he measures, draws and annotates, first in lead and then, meticulously, in ink. He returns his mother’s copy to her and tells her, “Ask me any question, any property. Go on.”

“You don’t want to be looking at your copy?”

“No need. Ask. Come on.”


“What do you want to know?”

“Crops and yields, nine months ago.”

“… Mm. No, not like that.” He waves his hand impatiently. “Ask me about now, not ancient history.”

“Oh, yes. Well, tell me who-all owns the pond and the well on Achchappan’s plot.”

He is silent for a second, then bursts out impatiently, “Why do you keep asking me things that are not even on the map? How am I supposed to know all that? I’m in school, not out gossiping with the tenants.”

“I’m sorry, dear one. I… thought all that was on the map.” She believes this because, if it weren’t, how would she know the answers?

“Well if it were, I would know it.”

“Of course, my dear,” she says, eager to keep their feeling of complicity.

“I know everything I need to know,” he reminds her. “I got all the calculations right, first time.”

“Of course.” She knows how smart he is.

He neglects to mention that this applied only to the mathematical calculations. Calculations that factor caste by profession to the power of social status, divided by wealth-these, he will have to grow into. His mother guesses at this and is pleased anyway that he has learned enough to become interested, and is interested enough to learn more.

Each day of Muchami’s absence, Vairum rises an hour earlier than usual and walks the fields before school. In the late afternoon, he walks the lands for another hour or two, beginning and ending this walk with a visit to Muchami, to discuss his findings. Several people cheat Vairum; several people who always try to cheat Muchami don’t try to cheat Vairum, perhaps out of sympathy for the fatherless child. Vairum prefers being cheated: he wants to be treated like a man.

In the first weeks of Muchami’s recovery, Vairum shares every detail of his discoveries with his mother. His evening meal sits untouched as he relates litanies of rules and exceptions in ownership, announces projections of profits and shortfalls, and even starts making tentative pronouncements on various feuds. His mother reminds him repeatedly to eat, but each time, he takes a mere mouthful and starts talking again.

Sivakami already knows much of what he tells her but enjoys his enthusiasm hugely. She delights in watching her son learn, and learn something close to what she herself knows, unlike the formulas and geography and English that fill his days at school, so far away up the road into town. She can’t walk a mile to school in his shoes, but she can shadow him through the fields. He, too, is learning that he likes these formulas better than those of math, physics and chemistry, where the laws are those of the physical world and cannot be bought or bent.

Starting from the fourth week of Muchami’s convalescence, though, Vairum grows increasingly circumspect. One day, as Sivakami serves him his morning meal and he silently eats, she asks lightly, with no trace of resentment, “Why do you not tell me any longer, of the little wars between tenants, of daily variations in monthly projected income? You have not said a word about your work, not for days.”

He looks up, a little surprised. “Are you interested?”

“Of course. I studied all this, too.”

“Yes, but only because you had to.”

“Yes, the same reason as you.” She smiles.

“But it’s different for me.” He frowns.

“How is it different?” she asks, happy to be having a conversation about their mutual interest, but curious about his silence.

“It’s different because you kept count, money in, money out, revenues, expenses, salaries and taxes.” He is impatient. “Counting is no challenge for me. Don’t worry, everything and everyone will be looked after. But land is for growing, after all, and even if Brahmins are not farmers, I am going to make ours grow.”

“Brahmins should not be acquisitive, either.” She feels it’s important to remind him, in his father’s absence, that he has a responsibility to the traditions of their caste.

“I don’t care about money!” he bleats, and she is cowed and impressed by his outrage. “I’m doing it for the challenge only.” He sounds far away. “To prove I can.”

Dreams of dominion? That’s not what he said. As Sivakami serves him his breakfast, she looks at him closely. His eyes are as dark as ever, the future too far back in them to be seen.

18. The Arrival of Children 1915

IF SIVAKAMI WERE TO BE ASKED-though who would ask her?-she might say she knows there’s a war on in the world, but when is there not? She doesn’t read the newspaper-she used to browse the headlines and advertisements, but she stopped the subscriptions after her husband died. She thought she would restart them if or when Vairum asked, but shortly after Vairum started making rounds of the fields, he also began stopping in on Minister daily, in late afternoon, where he reads the English and Tamil papers.

Gayatri tells Sivakami that Minister has told her that Vairum is indifferent to politics.

“Then what do they talk about?” Sivakami asks.


When Gayatri carries gossip from her husband she almost always repeats it verbatim-she says she doesn’t understand it well enough to paraphrase, but appears to get enough to take an interest.

“My husband is called to politics by his nature, that’s what he says, but he says Vairum is calculating, neutral, that he never expresses a preference for one party over another, never seems to have an opinion about a political gain or loss, but still wants to know all the details. You know, on days when he doesn’t have classes, he comes in the mornings, when all the other men come. If he weren’t in school, I’m sure he’d be a regular.”

Minister hosts a daily salon where local men air and contest matters of power and political control. Only privileged men attend-the language of exchange, Minister insists, is English, even though all of the attendees are Tamil. Despite their wealth and power, Sivakami disapproves of the gathering because the majority are not Brahmin.

“But why would he go if he’s not interested in politics?” Sivakami frowns, though more with curiosity than worry. She is still pleased Vairum is spending time in Chinnarathnam’s house. “Isn’t that what they… do, there? Or, talk about?”

“I suppose he is interested in the information, or the contacts, or… well, who knows, really?” Gayatri founders, and so goes on to tell in engaging if excessive detail about some mutual corruption charges between a developer and the Taluk Board on which Minister is a seat-holder; and thence to ribbon-cuttings recent and forthcoming, while Sivakami mulls vaguely on her son’s increasingly opaque facets, and what to make for tiffin and how the cowshed thatch needs replacing.

Vairum is ever laconic, about his school day, or the news, business or the war, which, for Sivakami, remains almost imaginary, much like those battles Vairum twirled through on twiggy horseback in the Samanthibakkam of a dimming childhood. Maybe mothers like Sivakami would take the far-off wars more seriously if they knew that the battles were so similar to battles they witness daily in their own villages, and that the issues fought over were so close to their own hearts: territory, status, gold.

Thangam returns home to wage a related battle in the back room where she passed the days of her maturation and whose walls will now witness the appearance of her baby.

Thangam is no howler, and there is no sound from the room but grunting and the grinding of teeth, accompanied by the incessant tinkle of glass bangles, given to every expectant mother in her seventh month. Thangam didn’t tell Sivakami she was in labour and was quite far along by the time Sivakami noticed. As soon as she did, she hustled Thangam into the back room and sent Muchami to find the old ladies who will help, as well as the astrologer. Before they arrive, though, the head has shown and Sivakami has no choice but to hold out her hands and pray. A little girl slips from the womb into Sivakami’s shaking hands, as three old ladies appear at the door, their lips moving with mantras, their eyes large.

Sivakami, holding the baby up like a magician with a rabbit, shouts to Mari to alert the astrologer, who is squatting in the garden. She turns the little one upside down, then rights her, as though the child is an hourglass with a few final grains to dislodge before she can be restarted. The baby coughs up a little goo and begins to cry primly, not too loud, nor very long. Sivakami jiggles the child gingerly and makes clucking noises, then permits the ladies to take over while she staggers forth from the gloom into the courtyard sunshine. She collapses against a wall and listens to the cows moan from the shed beside her and recalls herself as a mother at fourteen.

When the placenta emerges, Thangam is covered, her brow daubed, water dribbled between her cracked lips. The baby is wiped and bundled. Thangam’s colostrum is expressed and discarded, according to custom; the baby is fed a little castor oil to get her meconium moving, a little sugar water to hold her until she is allowed the breast.

Thangam rests for thirty-one days, confined to the back room, where she sits or lies on the cot. Sivakami leaves her food in the doorway, and while she eats, girlfriends and matrons and Gayatri, who is both and neither, sit in the doorway and chat. They bring Thangam betel-stuffed leaves smeared with calcium: wisdom has it that, in the weeks after a birth, the new mother should consume a quantity of calcium equal to the size of her child’s head. “For every child born, you lose a tooth!” Thangam is advised by half a dozen neighbours and her mother as she tucks the spicy bundle into her cheek. The visitors chew too, mouths dyed red as they jaw.

Thangam’s complexion is shockingly bright. She looks childlike and charming. She is exactly where she is supposed to be.

And all the village seems lighter of foot, knowing the golden girl is back in its midst. When she emerges from her seclusion, a horde seethes round the veranda from morning to night.

Sivakami smiles hidden smiles: she not only gained a granddaughter, she may be regaining her daughter. The birth of the child added years to Thangam’s life. The astrologer said so, in response to the secret requests Sivakami sent along with birth time. He responded yes, the birth of this girl-child had altered the relationship of her parents’ stars, that she had worked a lengthening of her mother’s years on earth. That the child had done for her mother what poor Vairum failed to do for Hanumarathnam-the note says nothing of that.

Good fortune can become a burden in its own way, though, so Sivakami hugs this knowledge to herself.

SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER THANGAM’S SECLUSION ENDS, Sivakami asks her, “You know how happy we are to have you here, kanna, but did the son-in-law say he would be coming to fetch you? I just want to make sure we’re ready.”

Thangam looks back at her with wide, soft eyes.

Sivakami continues, “You know that if your father were alive, he and I would have taken you back, but of course Murthy and Rukmini can take you.”

Thangam looks uncomfortable and non-committal.

“He didn’t say, one way or another?”

Thangam shakes her head.

“Do you want me to ask your in-laws and arrange an escort?”

Thangam nods but looks miserable.

Thangam’s in-laws write that Goli will come to get Thangam, and Sivakami writes back that they will wait for him. Another month passes, then nearly two, and she writes again, very diplomatically asking if she has misunderstood and offering to send Thangam under escort if Goli’s work prevents him from coming.

“Let her stay here, Amma,” says Vairum, though Sivakami has assiduously not raised the topic with him. They are all sparkling faintly with Thangam’s dust: the shedding began again, as soon as Sivakami broached the subject of her return to her husband, and hasn’t abated.

“Don’t worry, Thangam,” she says. “That won’t happen. You’ll be back where you belong in no time.” She won’t even acknowledge the suggestion: the shame! What is Vairum thinking?

“I don’t care,” he says. “She could stay and we would take care of her.”

“She has a husband, Vairum,” Sivakami says. “The topic is closed.” Thangam’s in-laws write accepting the offer. Murthy and Rukmini will escort Thangam to her home in the district where Goli is currently the revenue inspector in charge, some three hours away by train.

Sivakami talks to Muchami about the arrangements.

“You’ll need to buy the train tickets.”

“Of course, Amma.”

“One would have thought he’d be curious to see his child,” she says, and regrets having spoken it. It sounds like a curse on the baby.

“He’s not an ordinary sort of man, Amma,” Muchami says and purses his lips as if he, too, wants to prevent himself from speaking further.

“No, he’s not,” she agrees, but it is an acknowledgment that Muchami knows more than he is telling. She doesn’t want to know.

Two weeks later, Muchami drives Thangam, the baby, Murthy and Rukmini to the station.

“Goodbye! Goodbye!” shout the teary villagers, an expression whose literal translation is “Go and come back! Come! Come!” Children run after the bullock cart, trying to touch its sides.

The next morning, returning at four from Sivakami’s bath in the Kaveri, Sivakami and Mari are startled by someone asleep on the veranda. It is Goli. Sivakami invites him in, gives him coffee and explains that his wife has already departed for their home.

“What’s that?” he says, sounding irritable. “My parents said to come and get her, so here I am.”

“I’m very sorry.” Sivakami is full of questions she cannot ask: who will greet Thangam on her arrival at their home? Has he made any provisions at all?

Vairum descends the stairs with a towel, scratching his head sleepily, and pulls up short at the sight of his brother-in-law. “Oh, priceless. You know she waited for you for months?”

“Vairum!” Sivakami indicates the back of the house with her chin. “Go take your bath.”

Vairum gives an exaggerated sigh of disgust and turns to go as Goli replies in an ugly tone, “I’ll look after my family, imp, and you take care of yours.”

“You see that you do that,” Vairum tosses back.

“I will.”

It’s a thoroughly adolescent exchange. At least Vairum is an adolescent; Sivakami wonders if Goli is much more.



19. Keeping Faith in Kulithalai 1917

IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOW, Sivakami continues giving arm’s-length advice on agricultural business, though she more often shares her opinions with Muchami than with her son. The servant faithfully reports all matters in which he feels he needs her approval, as well as discussing with her issues in which different approaches might be entertained. Vairum tells her nothing of what he sees or learns on his rounds, but he does discuss these in detail with Muchami, either at the end of the day or when they make rounds together, and so Sivakami knows her feelings are being communicated, though in the guise of Muchami’s own opinions. In this way, then, Muchami functions as her proxy, even with her son, when it comes to matters from which the world-and Vairum in particular-thinks her better excluded. She’s not sure why Vairum doesn’t discuss these matters with her: he seems to consider it a waste of time since she has no direct involvement. Nor has he ever indulged her basic curiosity about his life and interests, or about the world that has been, for so long, beyond her witness. It never seems to occur to him that she might have a perspective of value, and in this arena, where he has the right and confidence to do well on his own, she doesn’t want to press.

Thangam returns for the birth of her second child, bringing her first. When the time comes, Sivakami births this child, as she did Thangam’s first. Why? Because she attended the first, and both children have lived. One of the principles of a superstitious society is: don’t fool with working formulas. If once a practice has a good result, it becomes a tradition; to change it would be arrogance against fate.

One day, at her usual time, Gayatri comes brimming with news and sits in the courtyard, within earshot of Thangam in the birth room, Muchami and Mari weaving thatch and sorting rice at their posts and Sivakami in the kitchen.

“I don’t know if you heard,” she says. “It’s too terrible. That woman, Madam Besant, who has been agitating for independence, was interned a couple of weeks ago. Anyway, it has made her more popular than ever!” She holds a rolled-up newspaper in her lap.

“Jail?” Muchami asks doubtfully.

“Oh, yes! Do you remember who she is, Sivakamikka? She’s the English lady, head of that theosophical society, the crackpot.”

“She’s a great friend to Brahmins,” Mari contributes without raising her eyes from the rice grains she is sorting, tossing them in a shallow three-sided basket. “One of my relatives said she thinks we should return to Manu’s laws.”

“True, but she doesn’t even know what she’s saying.” Gayatri might sound as though she’s questioning non-Brahmins who admire Brahmin principles too intensely, but in fact it’s simply that it spoils her pleasure to tell a story to anyone who disagrees with her, even by a shade. “She doesn’t know any Sanskrit, or any other Indian language, and she advocates breaking down caste and giving full voting representation to everyone.” Gayatri knows Mari can’t approve of this. She continues. “It’s of real importance that she be brought down. The talk is that she is heading for Congress leadership. She says everything those independence types want her to.” Gayatri reflexively lowers her voice as though she doesn’t want to be overheard. “There has been a rash of articles lately, mostly written by one very interesting doctor, a Nair. He started the Justice Party-you know, they are firmly against this independence nonsense. So this week, he wrote a column about the behaviour of Madam Besant’s theosophical colleague, that Mr. Charles Leadbeater. You don’t want to know the details, but he behaved very improperly, with young boys, and it’s not good for voters-well, for anyone, to forget that kind of association. And so my husband added his voice to the chorus. Look!”

She opens the paper that she has been clutching, the Madras Mail, an English-language daily aimed at the Madras Presidency’s British business class. She folds it back to the letters page and points at one item, a few paragraphs long, circled in ink. “My husband wrote it.” She holds it longer than necessary under each eager nose: Sivakami is only functionally literate in Tamil, and Mari and Muchami not even that; none of them could pick English out of a lineup. Even Gayatri knows only from the position of the masthead whether she’s holding the paper upside down.

“He signed it ‘Keeping the Faith.’ It’s mostly about the need to preserve the empire, you know, continuity, India ’s rightful place in the world.”

Vairum arrives at the salon as Minister is arranging the papers on a settee: the Madras Mail is on the top of the pile, folded to display the letters page. One letter is circled in red ink, and Vairum picks the paper up to have a closer look at it. Minister winks at him.

One reason Vairum attends the salon whenever he can is to work on his English, which is still rudimentary, though quickly improving. While some of the conversation eludes him, he finds phrases echoing in his head later and tries them on his English tutor, or on Minister himself, who has agreed, at Vairum’s request, to speak to him only in that language.

Vairum runs his eyes along the lines of print with controlled desperation.


(At least he knows that word, commonly used in Tamil for “teacher.”)

I am pleased to add my voice to the welcome cacophony which has greeted Mrs. Besant’s internment. Nothing is resolved without discussion, and I am certain this tempest will be confined in an appropriate teapot before long. I want to register my displeasure with Madam Besant’s reported increased popularity of which we, even so far away as Kulithalai Taluk, Thiruchinapalli District, have heard. Be assured that there are many in the provinces dedicated to the progressive aims of the Empire, Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike, and who understand that membership in the British family offers our motherland, India, her best chance for continuing her advance into the ranks of the world’s great nations. If there are those who now know nothing more than Madam Besant’s name and fame, and think, on that basis, to be led by her, this is but mere fad-which always shortly changes to “fade.”

Respectful regards,

Keeping Faith in Kulithalai.

“Kulithalai!” Vairum exclaims. “Was it written by one of your, um, friends?” He’s not sure what to call them, since they seem held together by something other than friendliness, a feeling he doesn’t quite understand but intends to: another reason he comes whenever he can.

“Better than that, son,” Minister says, going into his library, an adjoining room through a set of double doors. “It was written by yours truly.”

Who is mine truly? Vairum wonders, vaguely embarrassed. It sounds romantic.

Minister looks back when he doesn’t respond, and laughs. “Me! I wrote it. It’s about time they knew what we’re thinking out here about all that nonsense.”

“Oh! Quite,” Vairum says, one of his favourite English expressions of assent. “Quite.” He perches on the settee to read the papers and wait for the regulars to arrive, while Minister unwraps some new books, a package from Higginbotham’s in Madras, and another from Penguin of London, and sorts them into his already substantial collection.

Vairum regularly borrows from him, things he finds and things Minister recommends, from Sir Wm. Wedderburn’s book A. O. Hume: Father of the Indian National Congress to classical Tamil dramas, analyses of the Periya Puranam as well as Sarma’s Toward Swaraj. Minister reads all the tracts published by the Indo-British Association, such as Indian Problems: Caste in Relation to Democracy, or Indian Opposition to Home Rule: What the British Public Ought to Know, and Vairum struggles through these also, still unsure of what will be important to him as he makes his own way. Minister also takes newspapers of every political stripe, and Vairum browses the political and social pages but finds he pays most attention to business and finance. Sometimes, the same stories are covered in Tamil and English, a great help to his comprehension.

Minister doesn’t even keep track of which books Vairum borrows, trusting him to come and go as he likes, so Vairum has also groped his way through such reference works as Kissing in Theory and Practice, Pandora’s Letter Box: Being a Discourse on Fashionable Life by the Author of the Technique of the Love Affair and Marie Stopes’s Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties, which he found at least as informative as The Indian Constitution: An Introductory Study, though, again, to what end he is not sure.

He hears the first of Minister’s cronies coming up the stairwell off the veranda. Minister exits his library onto the balustraded corridor that connects all the upstairs rooms. He leans over the rail to shout through a skylight into the main hall below, “Gayatri! Snacks!” and then turns right to open another set of double doors into the salon, sliding bolts into the floor to hold them open. He checks the soil in two pots of ragged posies and adjusts the position of an occasional table as his cronies enter.

The two men arrive already arguing. They are close acquaintances and colleagues. One, whom Vairum has never heard speak below shouting volume, is N. Ranga, a Chettiar by caste, moneylender and compounder by trade, who now has several storefronts. His successes interest Vairum keenly. Ranga opened a Thiruchi branch, Ranga and Sons, some eight years back, where he stocks patent medicines and toilet products that he has test-marketed at his original location. The other is a Brahmin, Dr. C. P. Kittu Iyer, an undistinguished and lead-fingered practitioner (Vairum gathers) of the medical arts, who never ceases to criticize the compounder for pimping quack medicines. Kittu Iyer still sends his patients to Ranga to have prescriptions filled, though, because, as a medicine-maker, Ranga is skilled and honest, the best in the district. His dealings in skin-lightening lotions and tuberculosis tonics haven’t hurt his professional reputation, either because people don’t distinguish these from his legitimate trade, or because they understand the nostrums are purely a business concern.

“The man is a traitor!” Ranga hoots as though through a venom-filled whistle. “To us, and to his own people!”

“It is a victory for the right and might, but we must remain vigilant. There is no guarantee this is not a trick,” Kittu rejoins as though addressing a much larger audience.

“Do you get what they’re on about?” Minister asks Vairum, as he takes a seat beside his protégé.

Vairum shakes his head.

“Look again at the headlines. Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, made an announcement to the House of Commons, of Britain ’s intent to increase Indian representation in administration-see ?” He points to one article, and then to another: “‘… with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.’ There was no warning. Stunning.” He rearranges the papers so that the Madras Mail with his letter is once more on the top.

Vairum has heard enough about these matters in the salon, and from Minister, to have a sense of how its members will divide. Non-Brahmins such as Ranga, a Chettiar, will restate fears that granting India independence at this juncture would mean handing the country over to an elite coterie of northern Brahmins. Brahmins such as Kittu, an Iyer, believe this seems like a good idea. Minister will be the only Brahmin to oppose the move toward independence, and the one who will take the move most personally. His salon is decorated with drawings of Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament he made as a child, hung on the western wall above a row of fragile potted flowers; in one corner of the library is a stack of empty Peek Freans biscuit tins; on a shelf, his bottle of No. i McDowell’s brandy, proudly displayed. He drinks a carefully measured inch each night after supper. “I live with my mother and father,” he once told Vairum. “Loyalty. Habit. My country is a participant in-not victim of-a grand and noble scheme. The British do things better. Nothing wrong with the Indian way, but nothing to lose, wot?”

Vairum watches Minister now, one leg crossed over the other, bouncing nervously as the sportif Muthu, of the Reddiar caste, rounds the stairs. “The wires are buzzing-what a to-do!” Muthu says, puffing.

He mops his expansive brow and grins at the two first arrivals, who have taken seats as far as possible from one another, and at Minister, who smiles back paternalistically and responds, “But who are ‘they,’ dear chap?”

Vairum thinks, dear chap, dear chap, savouring the unfamiliar syllables as Minister goes on. “My impression is that much of the Commons was taken as off guard by this announcement as we. For whom does Montagu speak?”

Slim, chic K.T. Rama Sastri, another Brahmin-lawyer by training, lounger by inclination-recites from the doorway, “‘Now is God’s purpose in us perfected / Complete the work of Clive and Nicholson / When in this Empire that their swordblades won / Authority is mocked and buffeted / And England’s voice, no more the lion’s they knew / Becomes the whisper of this Wandering Jew.’ Nothing like a bit of doggerel to start the day off right.”

“Har-har!” Muthu Reddiar slaps his knee. “That was this morning’s Madras Mail, isn’t it?”

“Yes, by the editor,” says Rama, pointing a pinky out as he accepts a china teacup from a tray the cook’s daughter is bearing self-consciously around the room. “He could hold his tongue no longer.”

Vairum tries pointing a pinky out, too, but can’t keep it there as he takes the teacup. He forces himself to put his mouth to the edge and slurp. The thought that his mother would be scandalized to see him drink this way is some motivation: in his house, they hold a silver tumbler above their mouths and pour, to avoid pollution from any saliva that has ever touched the cup. Mostly, though, Vairum does it because it seems an important, cosmopolitan skill, though he overcomes a little revulsion to do so.

“It is a serious question, however,” R. V. Mani Iyer is saying. He is the salon’s most recent Brahmin addition and is politically committed-to Congress and independence, as is usual for Brahmins. Several years behind Minister at school, he did a B.A. at St. Joseph ’s College in Thiruchi, where Vairum has also decided he wants to go. “Montagu seems a man of real disinterest and integrity…” He ignores a “Pshaw!” from Ranga Chettiar, punctuated by a soaring morsel of onion budji. “But he is a Jew, and we know how deep communal loyalties run. How can we with all our hearts accept this promise from someone the English cannot truly claim as their own?”

The last of the salon regulars slinks in-S. Gopi, another Chettiar, a grain and dry goods dealer. He has a couple of rice mills and has also recently started vending “Modern Pots” in new shapes and alloys, yet his tone around Ranga, his Chettiar castemate, bespeaks a defensive sense of inferiority. Gopi has no sons, and no shop in Thiruchi. Though he employs several of his sons-in-law in his concerns, his failure to expand beyond Kulithalai district is seen by some as a reluctance to build a fortune that will simply pass out of the family line. He has been heard proclaiming that small business is good business, but his customarily sarcastic tone makes it tough for Vairum to tell when he is sincere.

“High time to organize, man!” Ranga Chettiar exhorts Gopi by way of a greeting, as though they are in the middle of a conversation. Ranga’s youngest son has initiated a Chettiar Uplift and Cultural Preservation Society in Kulithalai and Ranga appears to have made it a project to needle Gopi-either pressing him for more support, financial and otherwise, than he is inclined to give, or suggesting backhandedly that he is a potential beneficiary. Vairum thinks often about this pair: same caste background, but such different fortunes. What has caused one to succeed and the other to fail, apart from dumb luck?

“Has your son made contact with the Justice Party?” Minister asks Ranga, not changing the subject but deflecting it from his guest.

“Oh, quite,” Ranga replies, in a gay, vague tone: he clearly has no idea.

“It’s a natural fit-I’m sure other Chettiar organizations are getting behind them,” Minister presses charmingly.

The South Indian Liberal Federation, increasingly called the “Justice” Party after its English-language daily, was founded by well-educated and generally well-off non-Brahmins. It is dedicated to opposing the independence movement, whose ranks are dominated by Brahmins: while Justice Party-ites murmur that of course all Indians want independence, they are devoted to preventing its realization at present because of the fear that, under current conditions, an independently governed India means a Brahmin-governed India. They will gain an ear among Brits who, regarding the Jew Montagu with no little disapproval, understand antipathy to moneyed minorities with aspirations to govern.

Minister, ever the cross-caste campaigner, is promoting the party among his non-Brahmin associates. He’s certain Justice will make a successful run. Even though, as a Brahmin, he can’t join the party, he wants to ensure he has many fingers in their pie.

“It’s a self-destructive concept, a non-Brahmin organization!” expostulates Dr. Kittu. “Moneyed non-Brahmins have no more in common with one another than they do with Brahmins. Except in this one enterprise, you fellows are always competing, always trying to set yourselves apart from one another.” He turns on Minister, his fellow Brahmin, with gentler reproach. “You shouldn’t be encouraging them.”

Minister performs a likable shrug and offers the doctor a plate of assorted sweets. Later this year, he will stand for his first election: he hopes to make the leap from Taluk to District Board. In part, Vairum knows, these men gather here daily because they believe he will succeed-he is the best-connected man in the district and increasingly relied upon for those connections. These men connect to one another through him. Maybe someday, Vairum thinks, he, too, will be such a hub. Not for politics, though. He knows that already.

Rama Sastri, whose attention is rarely held by the conversation but seems, to Vairum, not to have anything else to do, has spotted the letters page and is frowning at the circled item.

“Special interest here, wot?” He flourishes it inquiringly, and Dr. Kittu irritably snatches it.

Mani Iyer, reading over the doctor’s shoulder, starts, hurt in his voice. “Daily there are these criticisms of Mrs. Besant-”

“Drivel!” says the doctor. “Muckrakers!”

“Oh, now, gentlemen,” Minister sighs sympathetically. “Why would we trust self-hating Britons to give us guidance? But that’s not why I circled that item. What do you think of the prose?”

Rama Sastri re-examines and reads the letter aloud with special emphases to show he has solved the puzzle. “Do we have a stylist in our midst?” He pops his monocle and moues at Minister, who giggles in response.

“What’s so special about it?” Muthu Reddiar asks thickly as the others attempt to look knowledgeably disengaged, and Vairum is reassured to see that there are others here who are trying to hide their confusion, as well as at least one person who doesn’t mind showing it.

20. Far from Home 1919

HER BROTHERS HAD BEEN RIGHT: Vairum is leaving her. Sivakami had known this, and still, boldly, baldly, made her choice.

The seventeen-year-old Vairum, though, looks indisputably happy and proud. His valise is packed, his shoes shined; Rukmini, Gayatri, Minister and their children, and Vairum’s math teacher are gathered for the send-off. Murthy will escort Vairum and get him settled in the dormitory. Sivakami has nearly finished assembling a tiffin for them to eat on the train.

Muchami comes to the kitchen entrance to say the bullock cart is ready. With little to take, Vairum could easily have walked to the station, but what sort of fare-thee-well would that have been for a young man off to attend St. Joseph ’s College in Thiruchi?

Always, Sivakami glances at Muchami’s face to gauge her own emotions, but today his expression is not her own. No one feels about her son as she does. Muchami has concern for the child, and pity, and the restrained affection that develops with proximity, but does not have Sivakami’s passionate protectiveness. His pity is reflexive: Vairum is a child without friends. He is thought so sharp and so bright as to be unassailable. Even Gayatri, despite an interest in Vairum’s welfare, feels no fear on his behalf. Thangam is not here to show affection toward her little brother, and so Sivakami alone worries for the diamond-hard boy. She knows he will succeed, at college and afterward. He will become all he was meant to be. So what is she worried about? She has the feeling that if she could see far enough into his dark eyes, she would know, but Vairum doesn’t let her look.

Sivakami speaks in tones alternately too brusque and too indulgent: Has Vairum packed twenty neem sticks for his teeth in case he couldn’t find a good tree right away? And what about the shoe polish Minister brought him from Thiruchi?

“I can buy shoe polish there!” Vairum says.

“Obviously: that’s where he bought it,” she says, peevish now. “But we have no use for it here!”

Vairum has no patience for his mother’s sentimentality. He wants to rush out, rush forward. He hears the bullock snort and stamp outside.

Sivakami is not finished. “Every mother who permits her son to leave her asks him for a promise. I am the same as every mother.”

Vairum looks away from her, toward the door.

“Look at me,” Sivakami says. He looks at her feet. “Your father’s first wife was lost in the river which connects our small village to Thiruchi. I worship our Kaveri Mata daily, the river that gives us life. I ask her to spare the precious lives of our children. Promise me.” Sivakami strains toward him. “Promise you will not swim in that river. You drink her water, your clothes are washed in her flow. That’s enough. Boys will try to tempt you…”

Fat chance, thinks Vairum. Muchami reads it on his face.

“It will look like fun, but I cannot afford this. It is sacrifice enough to send you so far.”

Vairum looks troubled. “The cost, Amma?” He thought he knew all their financial ins and outs. They can afford this.

“The cost of losing you, to the city, to the river, to…” She can’t go on.

Minister clears his throat, steps in. “Promise your mother, and then look lively. Only twenty-five minutes till the train.” He nods at Muchami, who picks up the valise.

Vairum mumbles something.

“Huh?” The volume of Sivakami’s voice startles both her son and herself.

“I promise, good?” he repeats. “Can I go?”

Sivakami is seeing two scenes at once. She watches her son mount the cart-shiny dark shoes and shiny dark head and large, slim hands dangling from thin adolescent arms, his father’s hands, but for a large white patch emerging from one sleeve and encompassing two knuckles-as she also sees a moment from their past: their family, wading into the Kaveri. She recalls the feeling of her hair ravelling its binds and floating up in the breeze cooling itself along the water. Baby Vairum, arms clasped around her knees as Muchami calls to him from farther out in the current. Hanumarathnam, helping little Thangam out of her paavaadai on the bank.

Watching Muchami help Murthy into the cart, she feels as though she is looking at and through the river’s surface, seeing her own world reflected and also seeing the otherworld of fishes and insects. The otherworld of her memory feels at least as real: Muchami is several steps out in the river, the water only as deep as his shins. Vairum lets go of Sivakami one hand at a time with Muchami’s wiry grasp around his chubby baby elbows. Delighted, he floats in the water, little-boy face to the sun, with Muchami squatting, holding him up. Hanumarathnam squats to do the same for Thangam, but she doesn’t float. He tries to lift her from the armpits, but she’s too heavy. Hanumarathnam falls, a big splash, and gets up laughing. Thangam splashes, too, slaps the water in excitement, then covers her mouth with her hands. Sivakami claps in excitement, and Vairum claps, too, laughing in the sun. Oh, those eyes.

Before her now, in the Brahmin quarter, the bullock’s back gleams, then dulls with dust up the fatty hump. The tail flicks once as the cart rocks around the corner and away. Vairum doesn’t look back. No weeping crowd, no running children. There are no rituals for bidding farewell to a son.


Vairum has read up a little on the history of the city, poring through the Trichinopoly District Gazetteer at Minister’s house. He likes the British spelling-as though Thiruchi were a transplanted Greek city. In any case, this has been universally shortened to “Trichy” or “Thiruchi”-certain names are a mouthful for Tamils and non-Tamils uniformly. Families of the region, though, call the city Kottai-fort-for the city’s most prominent feature, a small mountain fortified by the illustrious Nayaks in their reign, now the site of the city’s favoured temple.

Kottai is the last stop before Thiruchi Junction, and Vairum remembers, when he was eleven and just learning to keep track of such things, panicking when he saw that Minister, who had brought him to Thiruchi on their annual shoe-buying trip, wasn’t moving. He only knew Thiruchi by this name and naturally thought they were missing their stop. Minister laughed and patted his knee. “Kottai is Kottai, m’boy, and Trichy is Trichy. See?” he said, pointing at the sign as they pulled into the main station.

Vairum shakes his head at the memory as they pull into the big station now. He was so green! Murthy is still drowsing, his head lolling to all points of the compass, and Vairum shakes him. He waits for the two immense, slumbering barristers opposite them to wake and arrange themselves so he can extract his valise from behind their legs-brothers, they had explained in the early part of the journey, when everyone was alert and conversational. The young barristers, who were in Kulithalai doing an official and personal favour for an old friend, are also St. Joseph ’s alumni and heartily pleased to meet the young admittee. They are so obese that each occupies nearly half the wooden bench, their legs dangling forward over the below-bench storage area like mahogany pillars in some hall of justice.

As the train halts, Murthy wakes, smacking his lips, and rearranges his oily kudumi-the hairstyle, front of the head shaved, the rest in a ponytail, has not yet been thrust from fashion by British influence-so that it is equally but differently dishevelled. “We’re here.”

It seems to Vairum that the equivalent of the entire population of Kulithalai streams past on the platform. The thrill of arrival in the city never seems to diminish. And now he is to live here!

The barristers awaken with snorts, compose their linen jackets, put on their Parsi-style caps. Murthy follows them to the door with Vairum’s suitcase and they exchange addresses on the platform. The lawyers will change trains here to return home, and Murthy and Vairum are cordially invited to visit if ever they find themselves in Pandiyoor, a market town in the Madurai district.

Murthy leads Vairum along the platform, past the first- and second-class resting rooms, past the steamy tiffin stand, past the small station offices panelled in dark wood and full of uniformed men with moustaches, toward the exit, beyond which the city quivers, mirage-like and muscular.

Late that afternoon, back in Cholapatti, Sivakami has cooked a lot of food and is wondering who will eat it. She has little appetite.

She wanders into the garden. The birds are getting active in anticipation of the evening cool, and the yard seems very loud. Was it this loud when Vairum was still here? She checks on the progress of the papaya, notes the coconut palms look a bit dry. From the northeast, she can hear hoots of young male laughter-the Brahmin quarter’s youth gathering to go to Kulithalai for an evening of loitering in the market square. Muchami tells her that the ones with money play cards at the club. She imagines her Samanthibakkam nephews doing exactly the same. Nice boys, but not brilliant. What if she had stayed, and seen those boys going to secular schools, and her own son in a mediocre local paadasaalai? He would have grown bitter, sharper than any of them, but with no potential to earn. His cousins were friendly when they were small, but during ten years of living on her brothers’ goodwill, their relations would have changed. It wouldn’t have been charity; she would have paid all of her own costs and Vairum’s, but no one would have been permitted to know or acknowledge this; that would be bad form. Vairum would not have been the king of that household, the way he is here, in his own home. She imagines her nephews calling Vairum’s name and laughing.

But she is not imagining it. The boys on the other side of her garden wall, they are talking about her son. She moves closer, though there is no need, their voices are clear as well water.

“He came of age and was taken away!” one snorts, impressed at his own wit.

“Yeah, he came of age and rode away on a bullock cart!” says another, as though it was he who thought of it.

“Like a bride!” says another, as though no one had understood the joke before.

Sivakami knows, through her sources, that none of these boys made any mark, academically. There was only one other Cholapatti boy, apart from Vairum, who had done well. He had gone to Thanjavur, where one of his four sisters was married into a family of revenue officials. His parents had eight other sons, two of whom might even be in the crowd massed at her garden wall. Their brother was not being insulted.

Sivakami crouches by her wall, her face hot.

Then a neighbouring door opens: not Murthy’s, to her left, but the other, to her right, Dharnakarna, the witch.

From beyond her eastern wall, Sivakami hears the young witch’s slightly muffled voice: “Move away from my door with your dirty talk!”

The boys escape toward town, yelping with shared fear and collective bravado like skinny yellow pi-dogs.


Dear Amma,

Murthy Periappa will have told you all about our trip, so I don’t need to.

The names of the three other boys in my hostel room are K. Govindasamy, an Iyer boy, C.S. Francis Lourdesamy, a Christian, obviously, and S.K. Natarajan, a Reddiar.

They are all in the sciences stream, like me, though

Lourdesamy really wants to be a priest.

As Minister Mama coached me, I explained about my skin condition before my roommates could ask, and they have helped to defend me against those who don’t understand. We in our cell are enlightened people, not given to old folkways.

I know you want to know about every single meal I eat, but I’m not going to write about that. I won’t lose any weight, that’s enough.

The masters really want to give us a challenge. This is a big change from Kulithalai school where the teachers were always afraid I would already know more than they did. I didn’t. (Not always) But here, I can have as much extra homework as I want. Most of the other boys don’t want extra, obviously. I am taking extra maths, physics and chemistry-won’t bore you with the details.

Your son, Vairum

Sivakami folds the letter exactly as Vairum must have, far away in Kottai, in a room she will never see. She knows he knows she is upset by the idea of his rooming with a Reddiar and can barely stomach the thought of his sleeping in the same room with a Christian, probably from a family of converted untouchables, she thinks, masses of whom were convinced by missionaries that Christians don’t have any truck with caste. He’s almost certainly descended from a lower caste, at the least. She’s amazed the other Brahmin boy’s parents permit it, but maybe they have as little control as she feels she does. When Vairum was admitted to a Christian college, she worried this would be the result, but Murthy persuaded her. St. Joseph ’s is an excellent college, even if it’s not a Hindu one.

She slips the letter back into its envelope, imagining his hands doing that, writing his sums, eating his food. She tries to imagine the food, picturing great steaming vats of rice attended by Brahmin cooks. Chinnarathnam had made discreet inquiries on her behalf and reported that there were both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dining halls and that the cooks in the vegetarian hall were Brahmin, one of a few concessions by the British administration to the Brahmin parents, whose sons make up a significant segment of the student population.

She places the letter before the Ramar. Later, she will haltingly read it aloud for Muchami and Mari since they, too, relish news of Vairum’s great adventure.

VAIRUM FOLDS THE FINE PAPER in half and in half again and slips it into a pinkish-brown envelope. He scoops a crusty gob of official-smelling mashed-rice paste from the small pot on the corner of the worktable he shares with Francis Lourdesamy and smears it across the underside of the envelope flap. He addresses the sealed envelope to Minister and Gayatri: another brief but chatty note, another promise kept. He makes a point of thanking Minister for his advice and asking after their children. He does like the idea that he has people to write to, even if there is little he really wants to tell them.

He’s alone in his room and, as he folds his jingling pouch of silver into the waist of his dhoti, he wonders where the others are. His money pouch doesn’t include the silver piece he was permitted to keep from the gathering of coins that marked his return to Cholapatti. That coin is folded into his waistband, as always, separate from his spending money. It is, after all these years, as much a part of his daily toilet as hair oil and a fresh shirt. No one knows it’s there, and he doesn’t feel dressed without it.

He leaves the hostel and passes the temple tank, nervously putting his palms together to greet two of the maths masters, who overtake him, absorbed in serious conversation. They nod back, busy, friendly. Their recognition inflates him.

Exiting the campus gate, he takes the long way around the traffic roundabout, idly browsing the knick-knacks for sale. A woman squats against the wall of the main St. Joseph ’s campus, behind an array of Ganesha statuettes. The largest is about eight inches tall, the smallest about two. They are beautiful: crude, geometric, of a wood so light as to seem made of foam. Vairum picks the little fellows up admiringly, one by one. Vermilion dots the pointed crown, the noble forehead, the trunk, hands, belly, feet-thirteen auspicious red smudges. Three grooves mark the bridge between the beady black eyes, three grooves cross the belly to imply a modest garment.

Vairum bends over the elephant-headed gods, unmindful of traffic and dust in the road, ignoring the woman grinning in fear at his white patches while unceasingly extolling her wares’ spiritual and artistic value.

He must have one-a companion to witness the commencement of this new enterprise, to help put the shoulder to unseen obstacles that may yet block his twisted road. He extracts from his pouch the price of a smart-looking fellow about three and a half inches tall.

His new purchase in one hand, his letter in the other, he waits now to cross to the post office when Govindasamy, one of his roommates, pulls up in front of him on a bicycle, and the others on another bike just behind him.

“Where were you, man?” calls Nattu, louder than necessary, as he falls off the handlebars. “We were looking for you.”

“Um, meeting with my physics tutor.” He grins back at them shyly.

Govindasamy points to his own handlebars. “Get on. We’re going swimming.”

“Ah, I-” Vairum looks at the letter in his hand, savouring their insistence.

“Get on,” Nattu yells again, already remounted. Francis wheels unsteadily through the traffic to turn left, narrowly missing a gourd vendor and his cart. They’re going to the river, the Kaveri, whose vicious seductions his mother had explicitly instructed him to resist, the only condition of his departure. This very afternoon, arriving at the physics building, his eye had caught, not for the first time, on a high-water mark memorializing one time the river had flooded the campus, running across fields to embrace the city in a morbid hug. Then there are times when one or another of the river’s dams are, without warning, released…

Govindasamy jabs his hand aggressively in the direction of his handlebars once more. “Get on!”

Oh, the sweetness of one’s company desired!

Vairum hops up on the handlebars, smiling widely as Govindasamy pushes off through the traffic.

The sun jigs on the docile water like Krishna on the defeated serpent’s hoods. Children splash and shriek, their mothers wash clothes. The city bakes. It’s the driest time of year. Vairum licks his lips; they taste of dust, of a cracked, parched road. Does the river look so wet and cool in Cholapatti? So meek? His feet rub sweatily in his shoes as he approaches the ghat with his friends.

This part of the river is three miles from the college. Vairum, looking up, sees the top edge of the Rock Fort, Malai Kottai. Here, the river looks more hospitable than agricultural, tame as an embassy party. Govindasamy, Francis and Nattu shed their clothes and descend the stairs at a point where the river is deep and narrow, dive in and swim to the opposite bank. Vairum hangs back a moment, his mouth open a little, gaping or panting, then shucks his shoes and clothes.

Ganesha sits on the bank, atop the letter addressed to Gayatri and Minister, facing the river as Vairum takes his first tentative steps down the stairs of the little ghat. The water is cool and Vairum first squats and splashes water on his dusty skin, then topples joyfully into the wet.

A cooling wind skims the water. The wooden Ganesha, light as river spume, topples onto its back and gazes at the sky. The letter lifts into the air, drops into the water and floats downstream. Cholapatti is the other way.

21. Two Blooms 1920

JUST PRIOR TO THE DEEPAVALI HOLIDAYS, in his second year of college, Vairum is required to attend a wedding. He is the family delegate to such occasions, since his mother is a widow and not invited and his sister, though invited, would be dependent on her husband to bring her. If the wedding is too far away, he can generally make an excuse, but at least three or four times a year it happens that the connection or location is too close for him to avoid it.

In this case, one of those Samanthibakkam cousins closest to him in age is marrying a girl from Thiruchi, so Vairum has no means whatever of wriggling free. He spends such occasions in a contemptuous funk, a quartz isle in what he perceives as a sea of mental poverty and ambitionlessness, and must employ elaborate means to keep himself from slumping into a puttylike pile of boredom. When he was small, he used to say multiplication tables under his breath for the entire time, three or five or, once, seven days running. The longer his attendance at the wedding the larger the final figure. These days, he occupies himself with the formulas of borders and business that will make him a big man.

His entire gang of Samanthibakkam cousins is in attendance, and Vairum vaguely recollects a great enthusiasm and warmth he had for them when he was very young, but age and time have intruded, and a shyness grown. They speak, but they don’t really know what to speak about. He avoids his aunts and uncles, who, on greeting him, all made cracks about the fact that the cousin marrying is his coeval, and isn’t it time Vairum got hitched as well? Sivakami has been asking him about this for the last six months, and he has firmly curtailed her: he is focusing on his studies; he isn’t ready.

He has not talked to her about the extreme anxiety of the prospect of a girl-seeing, given the reaction of most people to his skin condition. He would prefer to put off even thinking about it.

He stands at the back of the hall, fingering the coin at his waist under his new woollen vest. The weather has just recently grown temperate enough for him to show it off. All at once, a hushed reverence falls upon the gathering, from front to back. From the front, a veena’s lambent notes flow forward to occupy the quiet. A young girl plays, looking as if she had been born between the two gourd-resonators, her left hand maintaining the drone with rhythmic strokes while her right hand plucks the melody from the strings.

This is a new trend and the assembly is stunned. Only two kinds of music have ever been heard at weddings. The first is the nadaswaram, a six-foot horn with an obscene, nasal sound, with the thavil, a double-sided drum whose hard surfaces are staccatoed by fingertips encased in strips of cloth hardened with rice paste. Musicians are low caste-Brahmins expect them to be heard but not seen. Detached, uninterested, they play a particular song for each phase of the ceremony, and in crucial moments make a huge tootling din so as to drown out any sneeze. Sneezes are very bad omens at weddings.

The other music appropriate to weddings is religious songs, wheezed at prescribed moments by revered matrons. They know all the words, though their thin voices often disagree on tune and timing.

But now here is Vani, a young Brahmin girl, playing “Vallabha Nayakasya,” the veena’s tones breathed deep with devotion and training. Worthy of Madras concert halls (some think but do not say “brothels”), this Vani sits before them in the midst of a provincial wedding. Vairum hears the scandalized whispers start with the mridangam’s downbeat, as Vani finishes a brief but confident aalapanai like a first few raindrops against glass.

“What is this spectacle-a girl playing a concert at a wedding?”

“I have heard about such things. My son’s wife’s people are from Madras city. They have been doing such… concerts, at weddings, since two years now.”

“Who is this girl?”

“Bride’s mother’s uncle’s daughter’s daughter.”

“Oh, yes, yes, the bride’s family does try to be far too fashionable. I knew it would not be the groom’s side arranging such things…”

“Pandiyoor girl?”

“Yes, pretty, isn’t she? Different, somehow.”

“Very fair, isn’t she?”

“That skin-almost, I don’t know, something different…”

Luminous. Vani’s light draws Vairum as a moth to a cool, white flame.

He goes home to Cholapatti for the Deepavali holidays. Sivakami brings him more snacks, in greater variety, than he would ever want to eat, and begins asking him a thousand questions about the wedding. It’s bad enough, he thinks, that he has to go and represent the family because his mother is a widow and disallowed. Should he also waste his brain-space remembering sari styles and hush-hushed gossip?

He cuts his mother off, rude but not unkind; she should know by now he doesn’t pay attention to those things. Sivakami quickly reins in her only greed, the greed for details. She can understand and almost sympathize with his lack of interest: she herself was far less interested in weddings when she was free to attend them.

But Vairum is speaking.

“… I have completed eighteen years, now, Amma. It’s time for me to marry.”

Sivakami smiles cautiously at what she thinks is a concession. She had said just these words to him on his previous visit, and he had vehemently denied every part of it then, even his age.

He nods and purses his lips, businesslike. “I will marry Vani, daughter of Parthasarathy of Pandiyoor.”

“You will… who?”

“She is the only reason for speaking of this idiotic wedding I attended,” Vairum answers, already heading for the stairs to his upper refuge, picking his college satchel up on the way.

She watches it banging against his bony hip as he disappears into the upper reaches.

“Who is she?” Sivakami calls after him, a note of exasperation in her question such as she rarely employs with him.

“The one I will marry,” he calls from above.

The next time Sivakami sees him-the next meal-she protests in gentle, persistent tones. “Vairum, kanna, a boy’s family never makes the first move. You should be thinking about your studies, now. The time will come soon, and I will initiate some proceedings…”

“Enough, Amma,” he responds, though she has numerous wheedlings still to deploy. “This is my decision.”

“You cannot make such a decision, you are just a boy!”

“Throughout history men have made such decisions,” he informs her. “Nowadays boys wait for their parents to present a girl or two and they say yes I will have her or I like this one better. I have already chosen and I will not have anyone else.”

“I will speak to your uncles,” she responds weakly, because she doesn’t really believe they will make any effort to change his mind. Perhaps, perhaps the girl will be suitable.

“Do what you need to do.” Vairum speaks as though to a minion. “Just make sure I am married to her. Soon.”

When did that awkward little boy gain such confidence, such command? Maybe in his classes, where his performance has been exceptional. Perhaps it is life on his own in the city which has toughened him. Or maybe it was that moment when he, standing before the stage, caught the eye of the beautiful musician and saw her miss a note and smile a little and look away shyly, and glance back.

That night, Sivakami lies awake. This girl, Vani. She might be fine.

Venketu, Sivakami’s second brother, could object. His daughter is seven or eight, and Vairum should be hers, by rights. But Venketu has been cool to Sivakami ever since she left their house. The youngest, Subbu, has been warmer, as if to compensate, but she thinks none of them realize what a bright future Vairum is going to have.

Barring serious objections, she expects she will give in to her son. Then all she will have to worry about is the family rejecting the blotches on his skin. Perhaps Minister will find some way to finesse that. On subjects of diplomacy, he seems inexhaustible.

She rises and exits the pantry, where she sleeps, to do her beading by the moonlight in the main hall, conscious of Vairum’s breathing on the mat beside the northernmost pillar. He chose to sleep downstairs this first evening-a gesture of tenderness toward his mother? She wants to think so. The slight sound of his breath fills the room.

By discreet means, Sivakami issues a request for information.

Her mole returns from Pandiyoor: Kantha, a hustle-bustle busy-body whose nine yards of sari, given mid-region spread, suggest a spindle bundled with bright thread. Her tongue pricks like a spindle, too. She enters already wailing, “Oohh, Sivakami, Sivakami, it is all too unfortunate.”

Sivakami bids her sit and offers a tumbler of water on a tray, the minimal mark of hospitality. She asks,“What have you learned?”

Kantha pours the water down her throat, head craned back to receive the stream, completely still but for a pulse in her neck like the gills of a shark. She fixes Sivakami with a beady, knowing eye, then her face softens into a well-practised expression between pity and conspiracy.

“Such a beautiful girl,” Kantha begins in an ominous tone. “So accomplished.”

Sivakami cuts to the chase. “She is married already?”

“Oh, don’t they wish,” Kantha says as though the words are delicious. She wants to draw this out.

“They have unfounded provincial superstitions about skin conditions.”

The phrase “provincial superstitions” sounds stiff and unfamiliar, especially pronounced by one so provincial and superstitious as Sivakami, but Kantha looks interested at the possible bonus of learning more about Vairum’s troubles. She shakes her head slowly.

“I doubt it-they are hopelessly sophisticated. Practically foreign! But surely your son…”

“So what’s the trouble?” Sivakami cuts her off.

“Her horoscope is very bad.” Kantha pauses to measure Sivakami’s reaction while Sivakami works to keep her face neutral. “Very bad. It says… she will not have children, and only a very small minority of configurations could counter this. How is your son’s horoscope?”

“Don’t know,” Sivakami replies, after a significant pause, in a mechanistic murmur noted and filed by the spindle, who knows fully well the rumours about the causes of Sivakami’s widowhood.

“There’s not much chance of a match, sadly,” Kantha continues.

“Sadly for them, too: her parents are getting desperate. Two years now they have been searching.”

Sivakami tries to stay all business. “Is there anything else? They are a modern family-does the girl travel well escorted?”

“Oh, yes,” Kantha yawns. “They are all too interested in their arts-shmarts, but this girl is their precious gem. No chances taken, I’m glad to say.” She’s not glad.

“And how do they feel about horoscopes?” Sivakami asks with deliberate coolness. “Are they looking for a boy whose horoscope will counter hers?”

“But it is so rare, Sivakami Akka!” Kantha is authoritative, encouraging. “They have been searching for years! And these modern people, aristocrats-they probably don’t even follow the horoscopes. They just did it because how else to find a groom?”

When Sivakami closes the door behind Kantha, she paces the length of the main hall, feeling her cracked heels grind against the brick tiles. She is sure she can smell the sandalwood box, tucked within the safe. She can smell it from the farthest end of the hall. She doesn’t want to touch it.

It comes to her: she doesn’t have to. Vairum has made up his mind, and nothing about the horoscope will change it.

A responsible parent, though, would try to dissuade him.

“Little one,” she starts when he returns from the fields. “There is bad news on the marriage front.”

“What?” Vairum is clearly not interested in hearing objections.

“She cannot have children.”

“She is only ten years old, of course she cannot have children.”

“Don’t be obscene.” She purses her lips primly. “Her horoscope? They have been searching for a groom for two years and have found none to accept her.”

“Pah! No one believes in that stuff any more. You know what I think of horoscopes? This!” Vairum mimes setting a fire and watching it blaze. “Superstition! Folk tales and false science!”

Sivakami imagines firelight on his face and suddenly the image shifts so she is remembering him as a baby, standing by his father’s funeral pyre. Vairum had, as instructed, tossed a burning faggot onto the dried cow dung patties and was pulled back by his relatives as the fire licked through the layers of wood and warmed his father’s corpse. Had he know what he was doing? Sivakami wonders. She recalls that he was crying. Does he remember?

His horoscope consigned his father to flames, and now he’d like to set his horoscope similarly ablaze.

She says weakly, “You must have children.”

“We will have children! We will have ten children! You will see.

Horoscopes are nothing. Less than nothing. Ashes of something long dead.“ He blows imaginary ashes from his palm and dusts his hands one against the other. ”It’s a new century, Amma, science and religion have triumphed over astrology and superstition. Come. Let’s ask God.“

The next day, Sivakami and Vairum mount the hill to the Rathnagirishwarar temple. The rains have come, as they generally do around this time of year, and they use banana leaves to cover their plate of offerings-coconuts, bananas, betel, yellow and pink flowers, camphor, turmeric, cash-and two paper packets. One packet contains a small red rose and the other a large white jasmine. They are roughly the same size, indistinguishable one from another, as impartial and innocuous as most instruments of fate-lemons, for instance.

Red is auspicious, the colour of vermilion powder and wedding saris. If Vairum chooses this flower, the wedding will proceed. White is the colour of death and if he selects this flower, plans for a wedding with Vani will quietly die.

The middle-aged priest takes the plate and, without ever looking at them directly, asks brusquely their reason for coming. He gives the coconut to a junior priest who uses an iron blade set in the floor by the sanctum to cut off its fibrous hair and break it open. The older priest lights the camphor and fussily rearranges the things on the plate. He waves the plate around, muttering, professionally bad-tempered, stuffs the yellow and pink blossoms into a few niches around the bottom of the lingam, takes half the coconut, some bananas and the money, and hands back the plate. The younger priest smiles at them.

Sivakami receives the plate and nods to Vairum. His hand hovers. He chooses one packet. He untucks the first fold and unfolds the next.


The rose petals rise, freed from the paper wrapping, like a ruffled sigh.

They return home in the rain, a triumphant smile across Vairum’s face, and a resigned one on Sivakami’s.

Sivakami makes a few well-placed remarks, speaking within the hearing of others as well as encouraging Gayatri to pass along information. There is nothing wrong with Vairum’s horoscope-she makes that clear-they are simply not interested in horoscopes. Others have said such things, progressives, people like that. Vairum is in college, it is believable that he might feel this way. He cut off his kudumi last year in favour of a Western style; he looks like a modern thinker. Sivakami had been dismayed, but it is not unknown, these days. She emphasizes her son’s impeccable lineage, his stellar future. Not the future determined by the stars, but his likeliness to be a star in the future. He will be a leader of Brahmins. He will earn cash, not paddy. A good boy, from a good family.

Gossip takes its course. Soon, they receive an invitation, almost identical to the one Sivakami’s father sent Hanumarathnam a lifetime ago. Originality is praised in very few areas of life. In the matter of a wedding, it is nearly unthinkable.

Vairum attends the appointment with Sivakami’s eldest and youngest brothers. At the girl-seeing, Vani’s family plays her to advantage. She is exceptionally beautiful and Vairum is even more captivated. Vani smiles at him-without shyness or apparent distaste at his progressive bleaching-and seals the pact.

And look at this coincidence: when Vairum enters Vani’s house for the girl-seeing ceremony, he is greeted by the two young barristers he met on the train to Thiruchi when first he left home for college. They are Vani’s own uncles! It must be fate’s working, all jollily agree.

The girl’s parents are plainly thrilled. Sivakami’s brothers enjoy the food Vani serves and the song she plays. They give broad hints that everything is satisfactory, but they really don’t much care. Returning to Cholapatti, they put on concerned and condescending airs as they advise Sivakami to go ahead. She perceives that they are being cavalier, but this was expected. Vairum floats in, dreamy, blissful. This is more significant. He has been pleased. His sharp edges are momentarily cloaked in cloud, but just as fog vanishes under heat, so any objections from his mother would unsheathe his will.

Eight months later, Vairum and Vani are married.

SO LOOK AT VAIRUM, a college student, married to the girl who will become the woman of his dreams. At first glance, it would seem he is becoming exactly what his mother intended when she tore him from Samanthibakkam and reinstalled him in Cholapatti, sacrificing his happiness on his behalf. If he had known what he would receive in return for his suffering, would he himself have placed his contentment on the altar? None of us will ever know.

He lives in the carapace of a happy young man. He has routines that build on his interests and skills, that give his life the appearance of balance. At college, he works hard and is rewarded with knowledge, honours and respect. He has friends.

One of those boys is distantly related to two wealthy merchant families in Cholapatti and goes there for weekends from time to time, since his own family lives in Thanjavur, a bit far to travel for such a short break. When his friend visits, Vairum is invited to be a fourth for tennis at the Kulithalai club and finds it a pleasant diversion at the end of a long day spent in studies and land management. He begins to frequent the club whenever he is home for the weekend, becoming a regular in singles and doubles within a rotating set of sons and fathers of the landed classes. Often he stops on the way home for a lemon soda with a few of them, though never with the Brahmins.

Why not with the Brahmins? Sivakami wonders. Is he shunning his own caste or are they shunning him or is it something buried, less specific, which neither he nor the group would admit? Vairum doesn’t feel he needs to admit anything, he simply has never had friends among the Cholapatti Brahmins, and age and distance are not changing this.

Distance is begetting distance, in fact-Vairum is tethered to the village, as they all are, by his land and history. The difference is that he is shod for a great step out into the world. The barbs are beginning to fly, and from this distance, they look a lot like the stones that hailed upon him as a child in his glass house. But now his carapace of contentment is formed, and hail what may, he can retreat within it.

22. Yellow Money 1920-1921

THANGAM HAS RETURNED HOME heavily pregnant with her third child: It’s a boy, a boy! Sivakami is more assured in this birth than she has been in the last two, and her confidence grows as she hands the baby, red and screaming with good health, to his mother. Surely, thinks Sivakami, surely his chubby hands will wipe away the worry lines that have settled on his mother’s face in the years of her marriage. A boy will be active, mischievous. He will clutch and tear Thangam’s dulling mask of anxiety.

Thangam and the baby emerge for the single day of his naming ceremony and then withdraw once more. Two more weeks pass, but Sivakami cannot tell: has the mask rent? On the nineteenth day, Thangam and the baby come out into the sunlight of the courtyard. They bathe, and Thangam’s gold dust silts up the narrow courtyard gutters. She looks calmer than she did on arrival, but the sides of her tongue and the lower rim of her eyelids are tinged a bluish grey. Is she or is she not relieved to have delivered a boy?

The little girls must be relieved to have their mother back, though they might have mixed feelings about the new baby. Saradha, the older one, especially-she had immense difficulty in adjusting to Cholapatti. On arrival, her eyes the size of palm fruits, she had clung to Thangam so vehemently that twice the expectant mother had tripped and fallen, prompting Sivakami to wonder if the child wasn’t jealous and trying to endanger the coming baby. Thangam told her, though, that it was the change of place: they had moved a year earlier, and Saradha had behaved in just the same manner. Saradha is not so much attached to her mother as attached to her routine, to things familiar. It’s true: Saradha violently protested much of what was required of her the first few days, and then insisted, with equal, desperate, vehemence, on doing all the same things every day after that: prayers with her grandmother, whom she conscientiously never touches until after supper, breakfast with Mari, late-morning visit with Rukmini next door, off to Muchami’s village with him, where she takes a nap in his hut, back for tiffin and games with the children who still gather around the veranda whenever Thangam is in town, nursery rhymes on Sivakami’s lap at night, by which time this is permitted. When Thangam emerges from her childbed seclusion, Saradha schedules intervals when she will sit by her mother’s side and coo at her new baby brother. She is not difficult to tend, provided any change, anything new, is introduced only as a modification of her routine.

“Will Saradha be as upset by your return home as she was by her arrival here?” Sivakami asks.

Thangam smiles mildly and shrugs.

Sivakami persists, “When are you going to move house again?”

In eight months.

If Saradha were like her younger sister, Sivakami muses, there would be no need to worry, but the two couldn’t be more different. Where Saradha approaches everything with a seriousness beyond her years or understanding, Visalam seems to see everything as a joke. Every creature, every event makes her laugh, really laugh, good-naturedly; she is not mocking or spiteful, and she is obedient. Sivakami thinks perhaps she should be worried about her unconventional behaviour, but she has so many other more urgent matters to worry about.

Thangam’s health, for example. She looks weak, too weak even, apparently, to have any interest in her newest baby. With the first baby, Saradha, Thangam showed at least some curiosity, at the child’s tiny fingers and toes. Sivakami saw her once tickling the child’s pretty chin, though with an absent air. She didn’t see what she expected, the adoration that Thangam had shown her little brother all those years ago, that which holds most new parents in helpless thrall.

The little boy, since he was first given the breast, seems to have fed through every waking hour and Thangam has barely looked at him. Thangam’s milk flows from her breast, the roses from her cheeks, the gold from… where? Her skin, her hair? How will she have the energy to relocate three children? And the last is a boy-when they next move, he will, at eight months, need constant attention. The girls also need at least minimal supervision. Goli’s salary and status should permit a couple of servants, but Sivakami has deduced that there are none. Does he fire them, do they quit, does he forget to tell them when they move? How will Thangam cope?

Sivakami chews her lip and selects a bead, tilting her head against the moonbeam illuminating her work. She hears the baby suckling, the breathing of the little girls on their mats in the main hall. Saradha should stay here in Cholapatti, that’s what. And when the next baby comes, Visalam should stay. And with the next, this little boy, whose burgeoning belly has already earned him the nickname Laddu, “sweet ball.” Thangam need only keep her youngest two with her, need only move and tend two children. Sivakami is thirty-four but, having had only two children, feels she has the strength and energy of women half her age.

She proposes the idea to Thangam, who looks reflective and says nothing. Boarding one’s children with a relative is common enough, after all. Gayatri’s first son, whose father was determined to educate him in an English-medium school, had gone at the age of five to live with Gayatri’s second cousin in Madras city. Nor is parental authority sacrosanct: it’s Goli’s parents who have the last word on the children. She will have to wait for their response.

Six weeks after Thangam finishes her seclusion, Goli comes to Cholapatti.

He comes at tiffin time, greets Thangam briefly and pats the new baby on the head. Sivakami had no warning of his arrival and is concerned that she has been caught with nothing fancy enough to serve a son-in-law. Goli looks a little more inclined than usual to wait, though, and in fifteen minutes she has made a semolina pudding with cashews, one of the quickest sweets in the repertoire, and Thangam serves it to her husband along with idlis, steamed rice cakes, and a coconut chutney while the baby naps in his hammock in the corner of the main hall. When she comes back to fetch the mulaghapodi, a powdered chili and lentil condiment, Sivakami tells her, “You should speak to the son-in-law about my suggestion.” Goli will not stay with them-it’s not appropriate for a man to take advantage of his wife’s family to that degree-so Thangam’s only opportunities would be ones like this, and perhaps only this one, since Goli is exceptionally immobile today. He looks tired.

Thangam goes to squat by him while he eats. She says something Sivakami can’t hear. He takes a moment to look up, as though he hadn’t noticed her. “What?” he asks. Thangam speaks again as he frowns at her. “This is your mother’s idea?”

Thangam doesn’t look at him.

Goli eats for a moment without speaking. “I suppose it makes sense, doesn’t it? Chutney?”

Thangam comes to fetch the chutney. The matter is not technically concluded, Sivakami thinks, and wonders if the parents will overrule the son. She looks toward the courtyard. Muchami has finished his tiffin and observed this exchange. He looks at her but says nothing, and she knows they will speak later.

Saradha has eaten her tiffin in the back with Muchami as usual. Sivakami had asked if she didn’t want to go eat with her appa, but the little girl shook her head, looking frightened, whether of her father or of the change in routine. Visalam is still too little to feed herself, but as Goli drinks his coffee, she takes him the top she has been playing with. He obligingly spins it a couple of times as she laughs mightily, and then he appears to lose interest, though she continues playing with it, without appearing to notice he is no longer involved.

“I’m off, then,” he says, and leaves.

Sivakami, though gratified by the length and relative normalcy of his visit, is alarmed by the abrupt departure. As Thangam gets her younger daughter’s tiffin, Sivakami asks her, “Did the son-in-law say how many days he would be in town? I have to get your things ready.”

Thangam shrugs.

Later, while Thangam rests, Sivakami raises the topic with Muchami. “I’ve come up with a plan.”

“Are the babies staying here?” he asks.

“One can’t surprise you with anything, huh?” she asks, smiling a little.

“That’s my job.” He shrugs, also smiling.

“Only the eldest. When Thangam has another, we’ll keep Visalam. And so on.”

“It’s a good idea. The son-in-law has been in Cholapatti a couple of days already, trying to find investors for a business idea. I take it that one of the friends he has made here has agreed to front for it.”

Seeing Sivakami’s look of confusion, he clarifies.

“That is, the friend put up some of the initial money and his name will be on it, but he has had trouble getting others to invest, so the son-in-law has come to convince others.”

“Ah. What kind of business?”

“Hm.” He wishes she hadn’t asked. “Ah, a cigar and cigarette manufactory.”

“What?” Sivakami is scandalized. At the very least, she thought Goli was a decent sort. She’s sure he doesn’t dabble in such vices himself, but even pandering to others is hardly upstanding.

“Honestly, Amma, I don’t think it’s going to move,” he hastens to say. “There’s so much involved: you have to convince a landowner to switch over to tobacco, teach the tenant how to grow it. It’s a very particular soil type, I think, that is good for it. It’s not an easy proposition. Of course, if anyone can sell it, it’s the son-in-law,” he continues, as though to himself. Looking at Sivakami again, though, he backtracks. “But I’m sure he won’t.”

What he keeps to himself is that Goli has been spending early evenings in the club and later evenings in places of even lesser repute, spending beyond what Muchami would guess to be the means of a low-level official with three children to support, as well as losing money at cards. Friends who deal in such things have told him this is how big men do business: “You have to spend money to make money, Muchami!” But Goli’s prospects of making money on this seem to Muchami so dicey that he fears the son-in-law is just spending money to spend it. No wonder he didn’t object to the transfer of one of the children to Sivakami’s home: all the more available income for him to invest in his “outside interests.”

Sivakami instructs Mari to wash the babies’ things and Thangam’s saris, then gives them a final rinse herself, so that they are free of lower-caste pollution, throwing them over rods in the courtyard with a pole that she also uses to spread them out to dry. The next day, since Goli didn’t say when Thangam should be ready, Sivakami exhausts herself making snacks for Thangam to take with her: crunchy swirls of savory thangoril, fried patties of ghee-soaked appam, great for nursing mothers, and in honour of the new baby, a load of laddus. She packs them in aluminum tins while Rukmini folds and packs their clothes.

It’s well she does, because the next morning, Goli steps into the house long enough only to call, “Hup, hup! Come! The next train leaves in forty-five minutes! I’m having a word with an associate, then we go.” He vanishes along the Brahmin quarter.

It is only eight o’clock, more than two hours before the mid-morning meal. Mari has not arrived; Muchami is out in the fields. Sivakami is forced to go and ask Murthy to send someone to find Muchami, who must ready the bullock cart. Rukmini has Saradha over next door to play, as is their routine each day at this time.

Thirty minutes later, the cart is packed and Thangam settled in the back with Visalam and Laddu, but Goli has not returned. Fifteen minutes pass; the train will have departed. Thangam is unloaded, faint from the heat of the street. She trails her gold dust back into the house. It is the hottest season-no one with a choice ventures out from eight to four, when the day bubbles around 100 degrees. It should be forbidden to small children and women recovering from childbirth, Sivakami thinks.

She had not tried to explain to Saradha what was going to happen, though she had a feeling Thangam wouldn’t either, unless Sivakami told her to. Sivakami knew the child would be deeply alarmed but also didn’t want to prepare her too far in advance, not knowing when Goli had in mind for them to go. The little girl, seeing her mother loaded into the cart, had panicked and started screaming without moving, not wanting to get into the cart but not wanting to let her mother go. Sivakami had hesitated to pick up the child: she would merely need another bath, but she had been madi for so long that it was no longer her first response. Before she could, though, Muchami ran and scooped up the little girl, pressing her face to his shoulder, shushing and rocking her until she calmed down. He has carried her to his home village every day since her arrival-she is still too small to be contaminated by contact with the lower castes, though she is made to change her clothes in the courtyard before re-entering the house-and she is as close to him as to Sivakami now.

Once she stopped yelling, he explained to her in soft tones what was happening. She continued to cry softly on his shoulder; he carried her back through the garden to the courtyard, where she changed clothes and came back through the house to take Rukmini’s hand on the veranda. She follows her routine for the rest of the day, though from time to time hiccups rack her little chest and tears track the peach-fuzz cheeks as she doggedly helps Mari to sort the rice or Muchami to feed the cows.

The next train is now not for two hours, and they wait nervously for Goli to come, ready to spring into action again. Two hours pass, then four. Muchami has moved the bullock every hour, to try to keep it in the shade. Finally seven hours after he first hollered, Goli leaps up behind the bullock and hollers again. As Murthy makes Thangam and the two youngest children comfortable in the cart, Sivakami attempts a few civil words with her daughter’s husband.

“I understand you will next be shifting house at about the time we will celebrate my son’s first Pongal with his new bride, but perhaps it will be too much to come with the babies and return in time to take up your next posting…”

“How’s that? Preposterous!” Goli sounds as though he is addressing a crowd. “Would my wife miss her dear little brother’s first real pot of pongal?”

“Also because Thangam’s perhaps not strong enough…”

“Preposterous!” Goli snaps his shoulder towel at the bullock’s rump to punctuate his exclamation. The bullock jolts forward and lumbers the cart around the corner with Muchami looking like there must be some better way.

Sivakami expects, for a time, an indignant reaction from Goli’s parents. Indeed, she hopes for one. In her mind, she challenges them to fight for the babies. If they do, she will allow them to take the children. It is only right for children to live with paternal grandparents. Goli and Thangam are moving everywhere, helter-skelter, but strictly because Goli’s job requires it. They stay in various places. They live with Goli’s parents.

The paternal grandparents never challenge Sivakami. She assumes they don’t have the energy or interest, let alone the will, to raise a brood. Their efforts on Goli’s behalf appear to have been desultory, or ineffective: the results were not, she admits, very cheering.

They also perhaps haven’t the means to take a child or children in. Not only do they not object, they don’t offer assistance, nor do they even ask how she will keep them. But this is the question Sivakami must now confront.

She is the caretaker of her son’s property. None of this, not the house, nor trees, nor lands, nor cows, belongs to her. It is her son’s duty to support her, but his property does not belong to her, and it certainly would not be proper to use it to support a daughter of the family, or that daughter’s children. She had written to Vairum to tell him that Thangam’s daughter will now live with them, but had offered no explanations or ramifications, and he didn’t ask for any. Perhaps he didn’t want to repeat in writing the arguments they have had about Goli. She recalls his suggesting Thangam continue to live with them; he clearly would not object to her children doing so.

There is the income from the lands her brothers have been purchasing and managing on Thangam’s behalf. But who knows how many children Thangam will have? How many girls’ weddings to pay for, how many boys’ schoolings? Sivakami’s brothers are condescending, but they don’t condescend to share many details of their acquisitions, especially since Sivakami made it clear that she is fully capable of understanding anything they choose to tell her. They are not particularly shrewd or active managers. Chances are that the income from those lands would not support the day-to-day costs of Thangam’s family, which gives indications of growing large, in addition to the special costs of festivals and ceremonies. Goli’s parents’ lands would not feed their grandchildren, neither in their possession or in the hands of others. And Goli, well, it’s probably safe to say accounting is not one of his primary interests.

Since Thangam’s children will not be supported by any of the overt and respectable channels, Sivakami must gain access to a wealth whose existence depends on a measure of disrespect.

She doesn’t know if her brothers suffered pangs of loss when she bundled up her offspring and rejected their plans, but then she didn’t show them her pain at this parting, either. What was evident and accepted was that this action hurt their pride. If their relationship to her was not outwardly defined by affection, it was defined by duty, and if their duty was to carry out the responsibilities of the children’s dead father, to get the girl married and the boy educated, it was her duty to comply with their image of themselves. Sivakami broke this implied covenant, apparently without a backward glance. Now, despite her having broken one agreement, she needs them to comply with another.

Manjakkani is an inheritance customarily passed from mother to daughter to daughter. Literally, this translates as “yellow money,” as though this land, or money, or jewels, were rubbed with turmeric, as is the thread of the thirumangalyam that knots a woman into married life, as is a woman’s skin, freshened by the cut edge of that root on finishing her bath.

Many a woman does not receive her manjakkani. Many a woman, married by the time her mother dies, is convinced by her brothers that they need not give her the mother’s wealth. She is well enough provided for, they say, and her husband would get it if they gave it to her, and so better it should stay in the family. Many a woman buys this line.

Sivakami’s mother, though, on her deathbed, called to her side her only surviving daughter. There, in confidence, she told Sivakami about the battle she had fought with her own brothers, her mother’s battle against the mother’s brothers, and so on and up and down through the generations to defend the wealth of the family’s women.

“God’s grace, you will never need this money, as, God’s grace, I didn‘t,” she had croaked. “But you may. And even if, by God’s grace, you don’t, your daughter may. You must therefore fight for it, as I did, and my mother, and my mother’s mother…” Sivakami’s mother trailed off, exhausted, a jewel of spittle nestled in the skin around her mouth.

And Sivakami, though she was very young, newly widowed, not sure how she could afford to confront her brothers, not certain that the unpleasantness would be worthwhile, promised, because what else could she give her mother then? Sivakami was to blame for her husband’s death. So, too, for her mother’s, whose death proceeded from his.

She had followed her mother’s directions and obtained, from a trustee, the document stating the value of lands and gold that should be passed into Sivakami’s hands. Now she takes from her safe that yellowed parchment, written by a scribe, inscribed by a judge, stamped with a seal, listing the deeds to three plots of land, adjacent to one another, and a kaasu maalai, a necklace of coins weighing eighteen sovereigns. Accompanying the testament is a letter from her mother saying that the ownership of the land transfers to her daughter upon her death. The necklace had come to Sivakami upon her marriage and had been passed to Thangam at hers. The plots of land-large, fertile grounds with old tenants, midway between Sivakami’s native village and Cholapatti-are being managed by her brothers. All these years, the income from the plots of land has been going into the family coffers-her brothers’. Sivakami does not begrudge them the income so far. If she had continued to live with them, it would have in some way paid for her and her children.

Sivakami replaces the keys to the safe beneath the loose brick and sits on the floor by the door to the garden, in view of the back room where all her grandchildren have slipped and burst into the world. The light from the garden billows and waves like long gauzy curtains on her left. Before her is a floor desk, a foot high at the near end and sloping up to a height of sixteen inches. She pulls it toward her and smoothes the uneven yellowy paper against the jackwood surface.

Her mother and grandmother fought their battles against their brothers in British courts. Sivakami doesn’t know how their fore-mothers fought before the British; she knows only how she must wage her struggle.

She takes a slate from within the low desk and makes a few calculations based on her knowledge of crops and yields and the recent strengths and weaknesses of the regional agricultural economy. She regards these for a few moments, then lifts the lid of the desk once more and tucks the slate into a ledger within. She sends Muchami to fetch a scribe, the son of the man Hanumarathnam retained all those years ago.

Sivakami is not illiterate, but, with no formal schooling, writing is a labour for her, and her nibs are not really of a quality appropriate to matters of importance. Vairum can write fluently, and has good pens, with proper ink, not the powdered stuff, but it is some time before his next visit. In any case, this letter would take some explaining and this is her initiative alone for now.

Muchami escorts the scribe into the courtyard and enters the house to bring out the small desk. The scribe, seated on the cobblestones, pulls the desk to and arranges upon it his pen, ink and parchment. He confirms that Sivakami, who sits, almost out of view, in the kitchen, has her own wax and seal.

She begins dictating and he writes with terrific grace and fluency, in perfectly straight rows with many flourishes. Muchami watches from the side, his mouth slightly open. He is fascinated by letters and words, the ability to drop them from pen onto paper and pick them up again in recitation.

Twice the scribe makes suggestions as to wording, and Sivakami accepts his suggestions. Though young, he has a lot of experience with official correspondence. He meticulously blots the first copy and places it on the warm stones to dry while he bends to the task of preparing a duplicate.

Sivakami reads the first copy and places it in the safe along with the testament and her mother’s letter. She takes out a coin for Muchami to pay the scribe and tells him to pass on her regards to his father, who has inked letters for the town of Kulithalai for more than thirty years. She places the second copy, still slightly damp, at the feet of her gods, prostrates herself before them and sits back on her heels. After a few moments she rises and, by the light of the ghee lamps, readies the letter to go out in the morning mail. She folds it carefully into a homemade envelope and heats a stub of wax marbled with smoke. The wax liquefies and is about to drip when she notices some dusky gold motes on the paper. They must have been carried, clinging to the document, from the courtyard cobblestones. She tries to blow the motes off of the envelope, but it is too late. The wax drips and churns up the gold flecks. Taking up the brass seal engraved with her husband’s initials, she aims and presses.

The wax cools and hardens quickly. Sivakami runs her finger over the cold seal, and then presses her left thumb to it, so long and hard that her husband’s initials are depressed in the pad of her digit. She watches the impression fade by the buttery lamplight until her thumb is once again grooved only with that signature which is hers alone, flecked with the odd dot of gold, like the sign of her husband on the fateful letter.

Sivakami’s letter reads:


My beloved elder brothers:

Greetings to You and my Sisters and Father. I trust this finds You all in the best of health. We are all well here. hairum is performing well at college and I see him every month or so on those weekends when he has no Saturday classes. On this Deepavali, he will go to his in-laws in Pandiyoor. We are eagerly anticipating that you, also, might come to witness the half-wedding. Thangam, with God’s blessings, has followed her two daughters with a son.

Now I must come to the reason for which I am writing. As You know, I have been managing my own fcnancial affairs since the death of my husband and am quite conversant in the same. This income is more than sufficient for me to run our household and educate my son. [Sivakami is careful not to overstate this, lest it seem jeering or immodest. But she does state it, because she was right.] I feel I am meeting my responsibility of maintaining the property here in Cholapatti, in safekeeping for him until he comes of age and can assume management. He also is taking an increasing interest. So, I have no concerns in that regard.

I am writing to You with a concern of another nature. As you know, my son-in-law holds a very responsible and demanding position. It requires of him that he leave his parents and settle for two-two years in all manner of places and circumstances. It is my observation that although He copes up well with this situation, it is a strain which is telling on Thangam, no less because she is weakened from childbearing, and must care for the children. In light of this, I have kept her eldest child here in Cholapatti, and am planning on keeping each eldest child as another is born.

Which decision brings me to the matter at hand: How to feed and clothe these children under my son’s roof? Clearly, I cannot, in good conscience, use Vairum’s money to support his sister’s children. Although I appreciate the nobility and breeding of the family which You chose so well for Thangam, I know, no less from things You have told me, of their financial instability. It worries me not only that they seem to have little capital but that they seem to be sliding into a worse and worse financial situation, selling offproperties below value because they need more money to live than they earn from their lands, but making less and less because they have less and less income property. Please forgive my frankness. I know You will treat this as a matter of confidence. I am not confident they will be able to provide for the children. My son-in-law’s salary, also, is still that of a young man, and he has many expenses of a professional nature. [That last had been Muchami’s suggestion. Sivakami didn’t know how her servant had the vocabulary, but expressed appreciation for it.] I expect You might suggest the income from the lands You have so astutely purchased and are managing on Thangam’s behalf, but those lands were always intended to provide for her children’s weddings and schoolings, and I still think they are best suited to that use.

In light of all this, I have decided it is time for me to make my claim to the manjakkani property which our mother intended to pass to me. I did promise our mother that I would do so at some point, even had I no need, in case Thangam or her daughters should someday require a cushion to fall back upon. I know You will understand and, in memory of our mother, make this easy for me.

Quarter-annually, I will send my man, Muchami, to collect the rent from the lands. Nothing should change for the tenants. I will honour your agreements with them, trusting that you have made arrangements both fair and profitable. I will send word of the first day when he will come.

My namaskarams to all of You. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

I remain, your affectionate sister

H. Sivakami

She had signed her name herself, volunteering as the owlish young scribe penned the last words, to spare him the awkwardness of either presuming she could write her name or asking her for a thumbprint.

She feels proud and nervous about her letter: this was a hard bit of business. And when, after a month, she has received no reply, she sends another letter. It summarizes the first in brief, in case they hadn’t received it. It also says that Muchami will be coming on the seventh day of the next lunar month. She receives no reply to the second letter either.

MUCHAMI DISMOUNTS THE TRAIN and tidies himself on the platform, meticulously smoothing dhoti, towel and kudumi. Finding his way to the first of the plots, he introduces himself to the men he finds in two huts side by side, at the corners of two sub-plots, farmed by brothers.

Muchami is not surprised to be gravely informed by these men that the tenants have been told not to pay him a single paisa. Muchami doesn’t know Sivakami’s brothers, but their behaviour is predictable to him. People are very generous about such matters as hospitality, but that is because they must be. Hospitality is required, by society and religion. It often costs very little, and it gains a person cosmic points. Generosity with property inheritance is quite a different matter-especially when the inheritor is a woman. There are so many ways to justify bilking someone. Muchami frankly admits-to himself and to Sivakami-that he would challenge his own sisters in just the same way, should they ever lay a claim to his mother’s wealth. Not that she has any, but if she did, he would try to keep it. As the male issue, he was charged with the responsibility for his mother. He might someday have his own inheritors to consider. His sisters left the family when they married. They are not suffering for money. Let their husbands take care of them. He can easily imagine Sivakami’s brothers’ thoughts.

Muchami makes his rounds of the tenants, just to check the information he’s been given. They are a little suspicious of his youth and cowed by the brilliance of his dhoti and the confidence with which he wields his walking stick. He speaks their language, though his accent is a little strange, being from that country to the southeast. They do not make eye contact with him, but they answer his questions in the affirmative: yes, they have been told not to give him any money.

Muchami knows better than to try to muscle them. They are not refusing to pay rent, they are simply refusing to pay it to Muchami. Sivakami’s brothers will not cease to demand their share, and these are poor people. They cannot pay twice. Muchami does not put pressure on them that would catch them between landlords. This feudal feud is between Sivakami and her brothers. He goes home.

When he gives his report in Cholapatti, Sivakami is no more surprised than he was. This is a strategic game. She advances to the next level of play. She informs her brothers that she is legally entitled to the income from that land and that if they do not observe this entitlement, she will find some means of enforcing her right.

At least this merits a response. Sambu, her eldest and most pompous brother, reminds her on behalf of their side that she is a woman. She has no legal entitlement. Her legal identity resided in her husband and they are very regretful to have to remind her that he is no more. Poof went her legal existence, up in smoke and ash.

Sivakami, as might well be imagined, has not forgotten her legal and social status any more than she has forgotten that her mother intended for her to have that money. Her son has, as everyone knows, the right to act on her behalf in legal matters. Funny her brothers didn’t remind her of this, too, in the course of all their other reminders. Perhaps they themselves forgot.

Some months have now passed since Sivakami’s initial efforts, and Vairum’s first Pongal as a married man is impending. To her brothers’ recent disdainful volley, Sivakami replies with only a gilt-edged invitation-modern, as Vairum had insisted. Further pleading, in her solitary, feminine voice, will be of no use. Vairum must now become involved in the claim. She will consult with him over the holiday and they will draft a response together.

SIVAKAMI BUZZES AROUND HAPPILY, arranging the house. Straight from college, Vairum will go to collect Vani, her parents and seven or eight other relatives and escort them to Cholapatti. It is out of his way and protocol certainly does not require him to go, but he will miss no opportunity to pass time in the company of his young bride. His affection and regard for her are so great as to be almost improper. Sivakami doesn’t know it, but Vairum had journeyed to Vani’s village about six weeks earlier, at the halfway mark between their first Deepavali and their first Pongal. He had gone alone and on some highly flimsy pretense. His in-laws might have been suspicious, had he not won them over with his good manners and respect. He made no attempt to speak to Vani, though everyone saw him looking and smiled behind their hands. Clearly, he had been properly brought up, poor boy, he was just enraptured by the household’s well-favoured daughter.

The party arrive at an auspicious hour on Friday, late afternoon. Vairum leaves them at the Kulithalai chattram to freshen up, dashes home and can barely greet his mother through his throat-clenching excitement, then dashes back again to fetch his bride and her family.

Sivakami watches for them from her door. As they round the corner, Vairum appears so relaxed and expansive that, for a shocking moment, his own mother doesn’t recognize him. He makes some small joke. Sivakami watches his face through the dusk, laughing, lit from the pale glow that hangs round Vani’s visage, the moon shining through mist.

Vani is growing from a pretty child into an unusual-looking young woman, with a wide face, bluish-black hair and ivory skin, the legacy of some west-coast ancestor. But there is something about her that strikes the viewer as odd-her movements are not jerky but give the impression of being unconnected one to another, just as she seems unconnected to the world around her. And yet here: she is laughing at something Vairum said. She accepts him, she likes him, she puts him at his ease! For this, Sivakami murmurs a prayer of thanks, and another as they enter.

The evening passes pleasantly in chat and feasting. Vairum’s new relatives are prosperous, educated, confident in the art of gay conversation. They are modern-witness their willingness to permit their daughter to exhibit her talents publicly in such forums as weddings-and accomplished-the family not only includes several rising lawyers, but a poet, a dramatist and a member of parliament-but characterized more by their passionate eccentricities. Vani’s mother, for instance, is a collector of vintage and antique armaments. Her father had been good friends with a British Army chief of staff, who got her interested when she was a little girl. Vani’s father is developing a set of calisthenics based on theories of yoga and medieval humours. The practitioner ingests and expels liquids at different points in the exercise routine, drinking five different juices and herbal extracts, as well as spitting, sweating, crying, leeching and urinating. They and the other family members chat about their pastimes, about politics and culture, while Vani sits quietly in their midst, not appearing, really, to be listening.

She is a little like Thangam in this sense, Sivakami must admit. Unlike Thangam, however, Vani’s contented silence is regularly broken: during mealtimes, the girl unannouncedly begins to rattle on with abandon. Sivakami finds Vani’s chatter far more unnerving than her silence, not only the suddenness of it, but the volume. Streams of stories rocket forth from the child while her food goes ignored. Her family accommodates seamlessly, reducing their own output and confining their topics to those that complement hers. Evidently, Vani’s exhibition is a longstanding habit. Vairum leans forward and gapes without cease as though the words are nectar he would drink from Vani’s rosebud lips, oysters he would suck from between her pearly teeth. Sivakami can see she will need to learn to tolerate Vani’s odd habits, but this does not seem a high price for the happiness she can feel radiating from her son. She has not seen him so joyful and comfortable since… since, she thinks resignedly, before he left the house of his uncles.

And now, sometime over the holiday, she must ask him to take those uncles to court.

She doesn’t introduce the topic immediately. Several of her brothers have come to witness the celebration, and it seems neither wise nor polite to raise the topic when they are so near. They are warm and effusive toward her and avoid, with what appears to her an effort at grace, any mention of their exchange. She surmises that they think their hasty and factually incorrect letter has won them this battle. She meekly serves all, showing gracious hospitality, and lets them think what they want.

She introduces the topic with Vairum as soon as her brothers leave, immediately after the morning meal on the Sunday, the day of the dawn celebration, when first light saw Vani stir the first milk into the first pongal pot of her married life. Vairum is rather at loose ends, since Vani, her mother and the two unmarried paternal uncles, who will linger a couple of days in Cholapatti, have all gone to pay some obligatory calls. He sits before the floor desk with a slate for rough work, a copy book for fine work and an advanced physical chemistry text on the floor beside him.

He has turned the desk to face the door of the garden, ostensibly to receive a little of the breeze. Sivakami, at work cutting vegetables in the doorway of the pantry, watches him for a few moments and sees that he is staring out the garden door and not at his slate and paper. Every quarter-hour or so, he starts, as though a bubble around his head has burst, and bends with violent discipline toward the desk. But little by little, as though his chin is being lifted by an unseen finger, his head rises until his gaze again dreamily mixes with the morning sunshine, the sounds and smells of the drowsy garden. Sivakami watches him go through this cycle three times before she decides his assignments cannot be terribly urgent. She snaps the blade down into its block and goes to crouch beside him.

His instinct with his mother is always to look self-important and preoccupied, but brusqueness is, in this moment, too great a reach. He succeeds only in looking as though he just woke up.

“Do you recall your grandmother?” Sivakami asks. Her carefully chosen opening line only disorients Vairum further.

“I thought my grandmother died when my father was small,” he says cautiously.

“Oh, yes, no-that is to say, my mother.”

“No.” He is trying. “I don’t think I do.”

“You were very small when she used to come and visit us here.”

“I was very small when my father died, and I remember him.”

Sivakami was unprepared for this but tries not to show it. “You remember him?”

“Yes, of course, everything. Everything about him.”

Vairum is getting impatient. She launches more firmly toward her point.

“Well, my mother didn’t come when you and your sister fell sick with the fever, because she had visited recently, and I said we were fine here, we were managing. Then she would have come when your father took ill, she was preparing to come, but then he died and she fell sick herself. From the shock…”

She looks to see how Vairum is taking this. He doesn’t understand why she is talking about all this now.

“Even if she had come, you might not have remembered her. There were so many people around at that time, it was hard for both you children.” Sivakami shifts her position. Her knees crack. “When my mother fell ill, of course, I went to see her. Do you remember that? Murthy and Rukmini took care of you and Thangam. I meant to go for one week, but I stayed for three.”

Vairum shrugs-maybe he remembers, maybe not. Murthy and Rukmini’s house is like a second home. They always took their meals there when Sivakami was isolated with her period, for instance-who could remember whether they stayed for a few days or weeks?

“I stayed on then because she died, and, you know, there were things to be done. But before she passed on, there was something else. When I arrived, she already knew she was dying. She called me to her side, when no one else was around, especially your uncles or their wives, and she gave me an instruction. It was something I had to promise her, at her deathbed, as her only daughter.”

A person would have to be made of stone not to be interested by a promise extracted at the deathbed. Vairum’s rock-diamond eyes glitter. He is intrigued.

“Now, the time has come for me to fulfill my pledge. Do you want to know what it was?”

He nods, just a little.

“I will take them to court,” he responds, rising, even before Sivakami has proposed it. His eyes shine with ardour to be a tool for justice. “It is the only way, Amma, and you must not prevent me from fulfilling your pledge to your mother and getting my sister the money that is rightfully hers. Now you have told me, you must stand out of my way.”

Sivakami has not even told him about her worries on Thangam’s behalf, only that this was what her mother had wanted, a pledge she must fulfill and a point of justice. It appeals to Vairum’s sense of the noble, the romantic; he’s perhaps more than usually susceptible to things of this nature at the moment.

Sivakami is glad that she didn’t have to use Thangam’s neediness as a motivation. Vairum doesn’t, in her opinion, need any more reasons to despise Goli.

For his part, although Vairum says that Vani’s uncles will certainly represent the case, he doesn’t mention how he will relish being on their side, one of a team with them, his comparatively puny shoulder between their massive ones, breaking down his uncles’ door (in a legal sense) and demanding his sister’s due. Vairum knows he shouldn’t be so grateful to be part of his bride’s family, he knows he should have accepted her coolly into his household; she should be the grateful one. But that’s not how he feels.

He notices his niece, Saradha, observing him unsurely. She has come through the kitchen from the courtyard and is flushed with heat. Fair skin, shining black hair: a perfectly attractive child. Vairum beckons her.

“Come. You want to draw a picture? Come and draw a flower on my slate.”

She comes and sits and draws and smiles, as she will once a day until he leaves.

Vani’s immense uncles come the following morning, as they have made it a habit to do on this visit, to take their coffee upon the veranda. They peruse newspapers Minister has sent through Vairum as a welcome gesture. They take snuff. Occasionally, one grunts and points out an article or announcement to the other. They don’t appear to notice the children swarming the veranda’s periphery, watching them, perhaps because it is not unusual to find swarms of curious children around any visitor to a village, perhaps because the uncles know they are a curious sight, with their linen jackets and wobbling, shiny cheeks. They are the largest specimens of humanity these children have ever seen.

After three-quarters of an hour or so, they go inside, abandoning the untidily folded newspapers and leaving the tumblers and bowls with sugary traces that soon attract ants. Vairum is looking over the document his mother has given him, the yellowed parchment that confirms the legitimacy of her claim.

He scrambles to arrange bamboo mats for the uncles while they cluck absently, “Relax, son.” They beckon for the parchment and for him to open the second of the double garden doors to admit more light. Each carefully reads the text on the scroll. To Sivakami, out of sight in the kitchen, each sound-the sniff of an uncle, the low crackling of the scroll-is a word fate is writing on the taut parchment of her eardrum.

Then they begin to discuss:

Uncles: “Why is your mother pursuing the claim now?”

Vairum: “She promised her mother that she would.”

Uncles: “But why now?”

Vairum: “Because… she can, now. Because you can help her.”

Uncles: “No, we think it’s because she needs it, now.”

Vairum: “Why does she need it? I look after her.”

The uncles purse their brows.

Uncles: “Hasn’t your mother begun to care for your sister’s children? ”

Vairum: “Yes…»

Uncles: “How is she paying for them?”

Vairum: “My… well, the children’s parents, their grandparents…”

Uncles: “No, there must be some need, you understand, to convince the court. The grandparents have very little money, the father must maintain a household of his own. Your mother must need the money for the children.”

Vairum: “No. My sister’s children are not orphans. My mother is pursuing this because she promised her mother, a deathbed promise, that she would. Her dying mother. That’s enough, isn’t it?”

Uncles: “It is useful. It will give a good sentiment. But our argument is stronger. Your mother promised she would pursue this in case her daughter ever needed it. Now there is a need.”

Vairum: “But, but… I can‘t, be seen not to-not support my sister…”

Uncles: “Would your mother permit you to spend your fortune, your father’s fortune, on your sister’s children? That money belongs to your children. To Vani’s children. Think about it. We will meet again, in a few weeks, in Pandiyoor.”

Vairum is quiet. Sivakami sends the Brahmin woman she has hired for the festival shuttling forth with banana leaves to serve the mid-morning meal.

After the uncles have left to go visiting, Vairum is pensive. He steps moodily around the garden, pulling at leaves and flowers, holding them to his nose and then dropping them, staring up at the sky, until Sivakami is afraid he will get sunstroke, if he isn’t already sun-stricken.

He is not; he is guilt-stricken. He re-enters the main hall and squats with his back against the wall, his forehead against the heels of his palms, until Sivakami cries, “What, child? Tell me.”

She bends and peeps through his arms. He is muttering, “I am married. My sister is married.” He flings his bony arms out from the elbows. Sivakami jumps back, stumbling, narrowly avoiding his touch.

He looks like a marionette, waiting for a puppeteer to work his strings. “It won’t look good, will it, if Akka’s children are paid for with my money?”

He drags himself up the wall by the shoulders, arms rising, head finding its equilibrium. He holds his arms out to her in supplication, a rare open moment.

“I will cause resentment in my in-laws, won’t I? If I spend the money that should go to my children, Vani’s children, on Thangam’s.”

“I could never permit you to spend your own money on your sister’s children,” Sivakami agrees.

The defensiveness reappears. “You cannot forbid me to use my money for any purpose.”

“Correct, you are correct.” She is careful now. “I should have said it would trouble me.”

His generous nature is perturbed, but adulthood is compromise. “There is a high probability that my brother-in-law will not provide for the children,” he explains to his mother. A sense of outrage begins to flood him, curiously like relief. “There is every possibility of this. I will make sure my sister gets that property from my uncles. They, who arranged my sister’s marriage to that… that… stingy deadbeat, they had better make sure she is provided for.”

“They have been purchasing land from her in-laws and managing it,” Sivakami reminds him.

“Yes, yes, I have seen how they ‘manage.’ It is good that they know enough not to put it in my brother-in-law’s feeble hands, but it will never improve in their own. They won’t lose it, that’s the best one can say about that.” He is a fury of indignation now. “I will win the manjakkani, and I will manage it, and it will grow, so my sister’s children will never want.”

Emotional now, he runs up the stairs into the refuge of the attic. It is the result Sivakami wished for, though she wishes it weren’t balanced on Vairum’s hard feelings.

ALTHOUGH THE SUIT TAKES NEARLY TWO YEARS to work its way up a backlogged roster, it takes barely an hour to fight. If this were covered by The Hindu or another newspaper-which it won’t be, but if it were-it would be headlined “Battle of the Uncles,” Vairum thinks, as he emerges from the courtroom, flushed with victory, amid the barristers and other concerned parties. His maternal uncles trail behind, looking grey, stricken, disapproving and shrunken, especially in contrast with Vani’s hale and corpulent ones.

Vairum has never thought of becoming a lawyer and still would never consider it, unsuited as he is to semantic niggling and logical stratagems. But he wouldn’t mind being embroiled in a few more legal battles. Ayoh, it was fun! For him, the extended lead-up only added to the excitement. Then the bureaucratic elegance of the courthouse, the stuffiness of suppressed desire filling the courtroom, the judge’s wig, like a kudumi out of control-each beat drama’s drum in his young heart, athrum with blood and power.

It wasn’t only the victory, though he wouldn’t have enjoyed losing. It was the sense that he was on the side of fairness, of modernity. He had read much of the controversies of women’s rights in the papers, and feels he has entered the fray on the progressive side. He knows his mother would have a horror of any such characterization of her case. Manjakkani is a long tradition and she was fulfilling a promise to her mother-there is nothing whatsoever modern or progressive in what she is doing, she would protest when he bragged to her of his pleasure in her win. But he will insist, to her and others, on his version. He is finding his philosophical alignments, and they are far, far different from hers.

23. No Harm Done 1923-1926

IN 1923, ANOTHER GIRL IS BORN TO THANGAM. She is named Sita, at Sivakami’s request, for Rama’s wife-that most virtuous of women, who, in Sivakami’s opinion, is as much the guardian of their home as her husband. Sivakami admits Sita would be nothing without her husband, but Sivakami’s greatest challenge now is to protect the virtue and reputation of her granddaughters. In this, the goddess alone can guide her.

At her daughter Sita’s birth, Thangam’s second daughter, Visalam, comes to stay with Sivakami. The first one, Saradha, incorporates her younger sister into her schedule. She appears equally pleased with the company and with having someone to boss, demonstrating an officious side that she has not previously had the chance to express.

In this time, Vairum finishes college with high honours. He takes a job in Thiruchi as an accounting supervisor in a paper plant but decides, when Vani comes of age, to quit and live with her in Cholapatti. Sivakami is distressed: she had sent him to school and college precisely so that he would be more than a village Brahmin. Vairum brusquely assures her that his plans encompass much more than she could understand.

“It has been an informative year, Amma, but I’m destined to be more than a wage slave.”

Sivakami has no idea what this means. She asks Muchami, “Where is the slavery in a dependable salary?”

Muchami has no idea either, but Vairum will listen to nothing more from her, so she waits and observes.

The biggest change in the household, though, owes to Vani’s arrival. Her music practice transforms their home. She plays for several hours each morning and afternoon, and sometimes deep into the night. When the moon is full, she rises before the sun, fresh and energetic. If the moon is dark, she drags herself sleepily downstairs after the sun has fully risen. In either case, she bathes immediately, does a brief puja to her veena, and does namaskaram for Sivakami. Sivakami was very pleased to see that a girl raised in so modern a household would perform a daily prostration for her mother-in-law. Perhaps Vani understands that almost no other mother-in-law would be so indulgent: Sivakami expects nothing from her in the way of household assistance. For her part, Vani seems to thrive in the piety and order of the house her mother-in-law runs, and shows her respect and affection, albeit in her own, oddly detached way.

Pervasive as Thangam’s dust, Vani’s music is everywhere there is air, in the house and spilling out onto the street: between two people in a conversation, in all the cooking pots, travelling in through nostrils and out in snores. Sivakami has become accustomed to it, and now, when Vani is not playing, there is silence in all those places where before there was nothing.

One morning, Muchami finishes his milking just as Vani starts her playing, and stands in the courtyard shifting from foot to foot as Sivakami mixes yogourt rice for the little girls’ breakfast. They attend the village school together and need a substantial meal before they go, though the rest of the household adheres to traditional timings: rice meals at 10:30 and 8:00, tiffin at 3:00.

Sivakami takes the milk, the third pot he has given her, and starts skimming it. “Do you need a cup of kanji or milk before you go?”

“Oh, no. Well, all right, yes, but… I need to talk to you.” He squats against a post.

“What is it? Kanji or milk?”

“A mix?

She puts sugar in a cup, pours him some of the water strained from cooked rice, adds milk from the pot already boiling on the stove and puts the third pot on to boil. The second is cooling and almost ready for her to add the yogourt culture.


“It’s good news,” he says, pouring his drink from tumbler to bowl, either to mix in the sugar and cool the milk, or to avoid Sivakami’s eye. “The son-in-law’s next posting will be in Kulithalai. He arrived yesterday to inspect the quarters and meet with his supervisor. I saw him last night in the bazaar.”

“They’re coming here?”

“It seems so.”

Sivakami is not sure what to feel. “That’s wonderful,” she says. Why had Thangam not written to let her know? “Isn’t it?”

“Yes. Certainly. Wonderful,” Muchami echoes.

Despite her gladness at the news, Sivakami feels annoyance with Thangam for the first time she can remember. Wasn’t she raised to have better manners than this?

“I wonder how much he tells Thangam about where they are moving to, each time,” Muchami says.

“You knew what I was thinking.”

“I suspect she doesn’t get much warning or information.”

“You’re probably right.”

“And we can’t count on him to let us know.”

“No,” she agrees.

“You have her most recent address, right? I was thinking. Could you spare me for a week or two? Vairum is more than capable of handling the tenants now, and I could get a couple of my nephews to cover the milking, driving, whatever, heavy chores. I’d like you to write to Thangam-kutti and ask if she needs help with moving here. The baby is only one, and the boy is rowdy, I’m sure, a boy.”

Sivakami feels moved at his use of the diminutive in reference to Thangam-Muchami doesn’t have children of his own. He should, she thinks with sudden fervour.

“Yes, yes. You must go. I won’t ask, I will tell her you are coming. Good?”

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN INEVITABLE that Goli would eventually get a posting in Kulithalai; Sivakami has no way of telling what the likelihood was. Thangam and Goli, put up so nearby, with the youngest grandchildren! For two years. And with Vairum and Vani home-what a luxury, in these modern times, to have her family gathered about her. These years will be happy ones. Who knows: they might even see another grandchild born to this household, a son of her son.

Goli eventually manages to visit his mother-in-law and drink a cup of coffee, at which time Sivakami lets him know that they will have Muchami’s assistance with the move. Goli receives the news as though it is a confirmation of something they had already arranged.

Now Muchami brings Thangam and the babies from the train station to Sivakami’s house. Thangam greets her mother, as well as Vairum and Vani and her elder daughters, who act shy for a moment then grab their little brother by his hands and drag him into the courtyard, promising to show him a couple of crickets they have trapped with Muchami’s help. Thangam looks wan and worn, and Vairum asks his mother for a glass of water as he tells Thangam to sit.

“I hope the journey was not too taxing, Akka,” he says, and takes the water from Sivakami to give to Thangam himself.

“No, no,” his sister assures him, drinking the water and smiling as though to show she’s drinking only because he told her to.

He has been squatting and looking at her. Rising, he says, “I’ll go with Muchami to unload your things. Where’s your husband? Leaving his work to others as always?” He exits the front door.

The littlest girl, Sita, lying in her lap, yanks violently on her mother’s thirumangalyam. It has to hurt, but Thangam, mortified, sits as though frozen, the water a lump in her throat.

Vairum and Muchami ride in silence on the front seat of the cart, while Mari and one of Muchami’s nephews ride in back with the trunks. During Vairum’s years at college, his relationship with Muchami has changed in ways now cemented by his return. As a child, he took Muchami almost as much for granted as he would a parent, and Muchami filled a number of parental functions, including those of play-mate, protector and-when Vairum acquired some responsibilities for the family lands-educator. With the latter shift, Vairum began to act wary around the servant: he needed Muchami, but he, after all, was the owner of the lands they were discussing. Still, it was evident to Muchami (who never made this explicit) what Vairum knew and what he didn’t.

Since his return from Thiruchi, Vairum has set the tone clearly: he is the employer, Muchami answers to him, not his mother, and acts on his behalf, not hers. Vairum asks questions; Muchami answers them. He is to bring information to Vairum first.

Now he gives Muchami his orders. “Keep a close watch on my brother-in-law.”

Muchami wags his head sagely, his eyes on the bullock’s back.

“No one else is going to tell me what all he’s up to. I know he’s going to get into trouble and I want to know exactly how, when and what kind, preferably before he’s in too deep.”

Muchami raises his eyebrows, impressed. He has eavesdropped on conversations between college-educated men: they often seem incapable of learning anything except from books. Vairum, by contrast, may turn out to be a man he can respect. Muchami is comfortable with their dynamic, as it has settled out: though he never would have predicted it exactly, it feels natural and right. Even Sivakami appears to agree: she has taken care of these lands for her son, but they never belonged to her. She has to be glad that Vairum is willing to accept responsibility for what is his.

Muchami doesn’t even feel his relationship with Sivakami has much changed as a result: he still reports to her in matters of concern to family life, provided they aren’t of the sort he simply looks after on his own. In such matters-none have arisen in the months since Vairum’s return, but surely they will-he still might trust his own judgment above Vairum’s. Vairum is, after all, a young man, hot-headed and condemnatory, without, perhaps, the necessary subtlety and feeling for tradition that Muchami and Sivakami share.

As Thangam and Goli get settled in the government housing complex at Kulithalai, Muchami makes a point of dropping in daily. He almost always finds Thangam on the veranda, alone with the children, and offers to bring her back to her mother’s for a visit and a meal. She always accepts, and he returns her at dusk to a dark and empty house. Sivakami sends food back with her, which she always accepts, looking as vacant as her house does even months after they have moved in.

She has been shedding gold since her arrival, and people from Kulithalai and even from Cholapatti have taken to passing by their veranda with little squares of paper into which they scoop or brush these holiest of ashes, as Thangam sits there, alone or with the children. Sivakami had wondered if Thangam might ask to have the older girls come and live with her, or if they might ask, now that their parents are so close. But the girls take for granted that their home is with their grandmother, and Thangam and Goli don’t press for any changes to their arrangement.

She certainly didn’t feel as though Thangam could have handled having any more children at home with her. She has had few such chances to observe Thangam at length since she left to live with her husband, apart from times immediately before or after childbirth, when it’s not too surprising that a woman might be listless. Sivakami herself never was, but she knows such behaviour is not entirely abnormal. She does feel there is something not quite natural in the way Thangam relates to her children, though. Where is the adoration she herself felt? She remembers surprise at her abject fascination: is this how it was for her mother? Her mother said it was for the first two kids; with the third and fourth, she had less time to think about it. Maybe Thangam is overwhelmed by numbers: when her children crowd around her, competing for her attention, she gives it politely, but with a slight hesitation. Sivakami would even think distaste if that weren’t such a horrible notion. Thangam seems slightly afraid of her children, and far from enthralled.

They are all very good-looking children: fair, some with their father’s high, square forehead, some with Thangam’s shapely nose. Sivakami herself would have been proud to have borne them. I thought my fate was to have a small family, but I have a large one after all. Now all that remains is for Vairum to complete it, with children of his own.

GOLI’S PRIMARY ACTIVITY ON ARRIVAL appears to be that of using his position as a revenue inspector, which gives him access to the exact income levels and amenability to corruption of all of Kulithalai’s prominent citizens, as a springboard for his business schemes. For the first few months, he attempts to revive his proposal for a cigar and cigarette plant, and nearly succeeds, but one important backer with political ambitions withdraws late, and the idea falls through. Goli’s spirits are briefly dampened, but he rebounds with an imagined line of bottled cream sodas in innovative flavours. He convinces the would-be politician to invest-“No political liability in soda!”-and pays a dissolute young Britisher for market research and suggestions. The consultant advises Goli that for bestselling “Top Flavours!” drinks (a name Goli paid him a handsome bonus to invent), he can’t fail with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Goli pays another huge sum to have essences imported from Italy and tries them, at an exclusive event, on half a dozen interested parties, all of whom concur that these exotic tastes are, if not repulsive, not exactly sure bets. No wonder newly arrived Britishers never like our food, if this is the kind of thing their tongues are trained on! They always come around, though, with time. A few of the men say they might consider going in on a line of coconut, mango and lime-flavoured drinks, but isn’t the market saturated?

“No one wants to turn him down flat,” Muchami reports to Vairum as they walk the fields together one morning, “because he’s the revenue inspector. It doesn’t do to get him mad: he might tax them at full percentages. Apart from which, there’s something about him people like. Even when they don’t give him money-and it’s amazing how often they do-they want to stay friends with him.”

Vairum listens in silence. Nearly every meeting he has had with Goli (always accidental, never planned) has ended in a row. These have been quick but unmistakable, and usually concerned Goli’s not living up to his responsibilities. There is something about the very sight of his brother-in-law that is, to Vairum, like a torch held to his tail.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t asked you to go in with him on something,” Muchami remarks to him, a surprisingly personal incursion.

“He has no access to my finances,” Vairum responds curtly, poking a fallen bunch of banana leaves out of a canal. “I told his supervisor right away that he cannot be impartial with me, and that I will show my books only to the higher-up. My brother-in-law has no idea what I might have to give, not that he would get a paisa out of me.”

Muchami nods and they walk on.

One day, when Muchami pays his call to Thangam, he finds Goli at home. This has happened only once before: it was a Sunday, Goli had just finished his mid-morning meal and went to take a nap, so Thangam clambered onto the cart with the children, as usual.

Today, however, is a Wednesday, and Muchami dares not ask why Goli is neither at the office nor out on calls.

“What do you want?” Goli asks him, from the door. Baby Sita, learning to walk, clings to her father’s legs, the only one of the children Muchami has seen take such a liberty with their father.

Muchami has removed his shoulder towel to bare his chest, as is proper for men of lower castes with Brahmins, and holds it at his waist as he speaks. “I was out on business and wondered if Thangam Amma would like to come to visit her mother.” He has never used the honorific for Thangam, who is more like a daughter than a mistress to him, but it would feel equally strange not to use it with Goli, and risk offending him.

“She’s there all the time,” Goli says. “She’s going to be staying home a little more from now on.”

Muchami is not sure how Goli knows Thangam’s whereabouts, since he is never at home when she leaves and returns. It’s hard to imagine him asking about her day or her volunteering the information. But he respectfully takes his leave, and drives away. He returns at four-thirty that afternoon, in case Thangam is alone by then and wants to come home briefly, but she is not on the veranda. He comes every morning for the next week. The door is always shut, the veranda vacant.

Sivakami is worried; Vairum demands that Muchami tell him what is happening, but Muchami can give them nothing, other than saying that Goli bragged to his wealthier friends that he was about to embark on an unprecedented scheme: guaranteed success, no overhead. He was sorry they could have no part in it, but it might have spinoff ventures, he had mused; they would just have to wait and see.

The following Friday evening, nine days after Goli secluded his wife, Muchami hears a rumour in the bazaar that makes him go to Thangam and Goli’s house. It’s true: Goli is selling packets of Thangam’s dust in little printed paper packets. Muchami accosts one customer who has just left the line, having purchased three packets, and asks him to read what they say.

“‘Ash of Gold! Most powerful and holy cure from daughter of famous healer! Siddhic power alchemized with Brahmin wisdom! Use sparingly-only small amount needed.’”

Thangam is nowhere to be seen as Goli hawks the virtues of her dust from his veranda. “Once a week only, folks! Step up, step up! It’s exclusive, it’s rare, it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced.”

“We had heard of it,” says the man who so obligingly went over the packet’s text with Muchami. “Twice we came to Cholapatti to see if we could get some. But when we would come here sometimes, there were only traces on the veranda. We had to content ourselves with that. Now we will be first in line weekly, and buy also for our relatives!”

Muchami feels sick to his stomach during the whole journey to Sivakami’s but knows he has to tell Vairum, and immediately, not because Vairum would expect it, though he would, but for Thangam’s sake. Poor child, he repeats to himself with pity and dread as he nears Sivakami’s house. Poor child.

He would prefer to leave Sivakami entirely out of it but has to ask her to call Vairum, who is upstairs with Vani.

Out in the courtyard, Muchami tells Vairum in low tones what is happening. Sivakami stays in the kitchen, looking more frightened than curious.

Vairum explodes. “That no-good, exploitative lazy bum of a half-man…” and so on, exactly as Muchami predicted. The servant makes eye contact with Sivakami: she doesn’t need details; she knows who this is about. Within minutes, Muchami has hitched the cart again and he and Vairum depart.

They arrive along with a couple of hopeful customers, who clap at the still-open doorway and call out to Goli just as Muchami and Vairum dismount the cart. Goli comes to the entrance, looking tired and sounding cranky.

“Wish I could help you, folks, but supplies are limited. I ran out in ten minutes. Come back next…”

He trails off as Vairum bounds up the steps, making as if to close the door.

“Get in the house, you…” Vairum pushes his brother-in-law in the chest and into the gloom of the main hall.

Goli pushes Vairum back and the door shuts as he falls against it. Muchami decides against trying to listen and instead flicks his switch at the bullock’s rump, going to fetch a couple of Vairum’s friends, sons of a Kulithalai moneylender, who live just outside the government housing complex.

“You can get out of this house if you don’t know how to show respect,” Goli screams. “I have had more than enough of your-”

“Oh, it’s respect, is it?” As Vairum’s eyes adjust, he sees Thangam, the children huddled against her, sitting in a corner of the main hall as though trapped there by unseen forces. She doesn’t look up. “What kind of respect are you showing for my sister and our family by selling, you are selling her dust?”

Goli looks uncertain. “Thangam is part of my family now, and this is family business, Vairum. Butt out.”

“Let me tell you what happens now. One, you stop this venture. Two, you never try it again.” Vairum is a little surprised at the menace in his tone. He has never had to threaten someone and although he hopes he doesn’t have to again, it’s good to know he can.

“Oh, come, Vairum,” Goli wheedles. “Rumour has it you’re interested in business. Can you really see passing this up? You can have a part in it, as long as we can be clear on…”

“Don’t you ever dare suggest I would make money by using my sister…”

“All right-I’m through negotiating with you. Get out of my house.” Goli opens the door and sees Muchami standing at the bottom of the front steps with Vairum’s friends and several of their neighbours: strapping, athletic youth, their arms crossed as they wait. Vairum sees them, too.

“This is the final word: stop, ” he says, standing a little too close to Goli, who looks away. “I’ll see you at home tomorrow, Akka,” he says to Thangam. “Good night.”

Vairum joins his friends, who pat him on the shoulder as he hears the door slam behind him.

Muchami assures him, in the weeks following, that Goli has made no more mention of that scheme. Thangam resumes her daily visits with the children. When Muchami drops her at their house the Friday after the confrontation, a puzzled crowd of would-be customers is milling outside. They raise a happy buzz at Thangam’s appearance, but she smiles at them vaguely and goes inside. Muchami lingers for nearly two hours in the neighbourhood, but when dark begins to fall and Goli has not returned, he leaves, along with the remnants of the crowd, who have wiped up on their index fingers any traces of Thangam’s dust from the veranda.

Several more months pass before they hear again of Goli advertising one of his ideas. This time, he has persuaded a local importer to loan him one of two vitrines, where he has arranged a display of three stuffed deer’s heads, a blackbuck antelope in the centre, its ringed and undulating horns crossing the ramified tines of two barasinghas’ antlers. Before long, Vairum sees these heads appear above the doorways to the homes of a local lawyer and a prosperous compounder, as well as over the entryway to the import shop itself. Goli replaces them, adding an axis deer with magnificent horns. These, too, sell as soon as they arrive.

“He’s hit on a trend,” Vairum remarks, when Muchami tells him Goli has bragged he can’t keep up with demand. “Or created one.”

“Yes, if anyone can do that, he can. He says he mounted one of the heads above his own doorway, but was convinced to sell it, too!”

The next shipment comes in three weeks later, nine heads; the next, three weeks after, is twelve. Goli no longer bothers to display them in the import-shop window but just sells them out of his main hall. They never remain longer than a day, so his higher-ups do not appear to catch wind of it.

Thangam shows up for her visit to Sivakami’s one day in a rich-looking cotton-silk sari in coral, orange and pink. Her daughters finger it admiringly, and Sivakami asks, “New?”

Thangam nods, looking down and smiling. A couple of days later, wearing yet another new sari, she gives each of the little girls a small carved ivory box and presents Sivakami with a large, sandalwood representation of Rama for her puja corner.

“What is all this?” Sivakami asks.

“Gifts,” Thangam replies shyly. “From my husband.”

Sivakami is surprised, but when Gayatri comes for her daily coffee, she hears about the source of the riches.

“We finally came up on the waiting list for one of your son-in-law’s heads, Sivakamikka!” Gayatri sighs as she seats herself against a pillar in the main hall, smiling at Thangam, who smiles back before looking away and swallowing.

Sivakami is staring at Thangam’s sari, as opulent as the last one, if less gaudy, checked in three tones of violet. She can’t tell why it looks strange, apart from the fact that she has so rarely seen Thangam in new clothes since she left home, and suddenly realizes: the only gold she sees on the sari is in the jeri-work threads outlining the checks. Thangam’s shedding has significantly abated in the last month. That can only be good, she thinks, and then realizes what Gayatri has said.

“One of his heads?”

“We just had it mounted! A blackbuck, I guess it’s called.”

“I’m sorry.” She gives Gayatri her coffee, the tumbler inverted in the bowl. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Has no one told you about your son-in-law’s runaway success?” Gayatri asks.

Sivakami, feeling slightly humiliated, says nothing.

“Well, it’s very fashionable,” Gayatri tells her cautiously. “Deer heads, wall decorations.”

A Brahmin selling the heads of dead animals? Sivakami returns to the kitchen. It sounds barbaric, but she can’t very well say that to Gayatri if she and her husband bought one.

“My parents have, you know, just the horns,” Gayatri goes on, chattering a little to cover Sivakami’s obvious silence, “but Goli says this is a new thing, with this advanced science, taxi-something.”

Sivakami smiles at her and helps her to change the subject.

“All the best homes have to have them,” Muchami tells Vairum. “He has taken advance orders from some thirty more people. I think his supply has maybe slowed a little, though: he has said for the last few weeks that he’ll be getting more in, but they haven’t shown up yet.”

They are in the bullock cart, returning from looking at a rice mill that Vairum is considering buying, on the far side of Kulithalai.

“What do people love so much about them?” Vairum snorts, and Muchami shrugs, but then realizes Vairum was not asking him. “Fascinating thing, fashion. He sold so many so fast, and they have to be hunted, stuffed, sent. I’m not sure the trend will persist, but if it settles down and becomes a fixture, maybe someone should consider domesticating, starting a farm or something.”

“Now there’s an idea.” Muchami guides the bullock around a pothole.

“So what’s he doing with his winnings? Putting them into some other crazy scheme?”

“Um, no.” Muchami is quiet.

“What?” Vairum asks eventually.

Muchami would really rather not have to tell him, though there is no saying how Vairum will react. “He seems to be interested in acquiring… trophies, of a sort.” What Goli is doing is not technically wrong, but Muchami has a feeling that Vairum will not like it.

“What sort?”

If Muchami doesn’t tell him, someone else will. “He seems to have his eye on Chellamma. You know who she is?”

Vairum shakes his head.

Muchami keeps his eyes on the road. “Devadasi.”

A temple dancer-“servant of the gods”-a courtesan. Women of this caste are trained in the finer arts, given to a god in a ceremonial marriage but dependent on liaisons with wealthy men, preferably in an exclusive relationship. It’s a man of rare refinements who keeps a devadasi: he may father a line of dancers, a great contribution to the native arts.

“A devadasi?” Vairum asks. “I didn’t even know there were any around here.”

“Just one, in fact. Long story. Her mother was brought here from Madurai-side, by her patron, Chellamma’s father. She came of age some five years ago but has only had one patron, for a couple of years. No one is supporting her now, and there was no issue from the previous union.”

“He is such a fool,” Vairum says.

“Yes,” Muchami agrees.

Vairum sighs. “He can barely support his own family, and now he wants to take on another one? Besides which, he leaves in less than a year. Thank God.”

“Status,” Muchami says simply. “He’s been buying gifts for Thangam and the babies, and new furniture.”

“He’ll go into debt,” Vairum says. “Big trouble ahead.”

“Yes.” Muchami looks over. “Don’t get involved.”

“I don’t need your advice.”

Muchami, stung even though he should have expected this, falls silent.

The next morning, Sivakami draws him aside. “What’s this about the son-in-law’s business venture?”

“Yes, Amma. I didn’t think you’d like it, and haven’t told you about most of his business dealings since he arrived in Kulithalai. He has had a new one every few months. Who knew this one would be so successful?”

“Animal heads?”

Muchami shrugs, grinning a little.

Sivakami is quiet a moment. “I suppose there’s nothing wrong with him trying to supplement his income, though I wish he would live more quietly. All this flash!”

“Yes, Amma,” Muchami says.

Sivakami looks at him suspiciously and waits, but he says nothing more and she doesn’t ask.

It is two weeks before Navaratri, and Thangam comes in glowing. “Amma,” she tells her mother. “Look.”

Muchami is unloading boxes from the bullock cart, and Thangam opens them to show her mother: dolls, every size and style, perhaps two dozen of them.

“He brought them from Thiruchi!” Thangam picks each one up in turn, caressing it and setting it back in its wrapper.

Sivakami turns away from her, feeling discomfited. It is very strange. She knows Thangam loves dolls, but she’s looking at them as Sivakami feels she should her own babies.

Vairum comes in and sees the boxes. “What’s all this?”

“Dolls,” Thangam whispers. “For Navaratri.”

“You deserve to be spoiled, Akka, but surely he would be better off saving his money? Investing it in something safe?”

Thangam looks away.

“I can’t talk to him,” Vairum sighs. “Don’t know if anyone can. Can you?”

Thangam keeps her silence.

“I didn’t think so,” he says. “All this is going to blow up in his face.”

The end to Goli’s fast fortune arrives in a near-literal fulfillment of Vairum’s prediction. A rush shipment of four deer heads arrives within a month, but as he is taking the last out of its crate to hand it over to a customer, the animal’s forehead ruptures, one glass eye pops out, and maggots spill forth all over Goli, the customer and Goli’s veranda. The customer runs out screaming, and that’s the end of trade.

The customers from whom Goli accepted advance payment cancel their orders and demand refunds, and a number of people even try to return heads they had already bought and taken home, even though Goli assures them the maggot incident was an unfortunate but isolated chemical slip-up.

“I’ve been pushing the supplier too hard. They got hasty. If you will only be patient…”

He permits the others to cancel their orders but tells them that it may be some time before he receives a refund from the supplier.

Muchami believes Goli only ever paid on receipt of shipments, spending all the advance cash on frivolities and counting on future orders to pay for those already in. Vairum believes the same, but Muchami has been more laconic with him since the conversation about the devadasi and, apart from brief reports, has confined conversation to their own immediate business concerns.

Six months later, no one has received a refund. Goli has spent this time trying to convince those few remaining men who have not yet invested with him to back him in setting up a sesame oil refinery, but without success. A little jealousy may have entered their relations, and now, in the wake of his failure, a little schadenfreude. Goli’s odour of indebtedness also means his charm isn’t quite as effective as once it was.

Muchami hears things are getting rocky between Goli and his devadasi but withholds this information from Vairum, who doesn’t ask but assumes as much.

Thangam has started to shed again, copiously, and is starting to show: she is pregnant once more.

For some reason, Sivakami doesn’t dare tell Vairum about the pregnancy, but, one day, he notices.

“Ah, great,” he says, clasping his hands, glittering ill will from his diamond-black eyes as Thangam appears to shrink. “That’s just what you and your profligate husband need. Well, it doesn’t matter-you’ll pack another off to live with us. The boy is first in line, now, isn’t that right?”

“Vairum!” Sivakami says from the kitchen.

He leaves, with a dismissive gesture at his mother. Sivakami stands watching Thangam, who is curved around her stomach as though trying to make it disappear. Could that be the problem? Thangam is ashamed of her husband, ashamed of her children. Vairum should be ashamed of himself. She wonders if she should say something to him later. How can she, though, when he has been so generous toward his sister and her children, and wants children of his own so badly? Who can blame him for being a little resentful?

And now, Muchami tells Sivakami, “I understand the house is vacated.” Goli sold the furniture; all that remains are the few trunks of pots and saris with which they arrived. These will be sent along after him. Thangam will stay in Cholapatti through her delivery.

“It’s God’s will that they move on. I can’t question.”

Muchami nods.

“Are you feeling all right?” Sivakami quizzes him.

He tries to look a little more lively. He feels like he has spent two years putting out fires. It was wonderful having Thangam nearby, but he’s not sorry to see Goli go.

Sivakami’s feelings are even more mixed. She’s not sure it has even been beneficial to Saradha and Visalam to have their mother near: they seemed more confused than enriched, and always looked scared of their father. Muchami looks exhausted. She’s not sure why-surely the extra trips back and forth were not so great a strain? Vairum will certainly be more relaxed, and she will, too: she was always dreading the prospect of a confrontation between them.

But now the two years are over, and no harm done, she thinks with resolute cheer. Another grandchild on the way.

24. Two Ramayanas 1929

SIVAKAMI CONTINUES TO OBSERVE VAIRUM, without asking questions, which he does not welcome. Her tension about his professional prospects has ebbed with his increasing success. He not only managed their own lands very effectively, but purchased other parcels not thought to be productive and turned them around, quickly saving enough to buy a rice mill, whose output he has also increased, Muchami tells her, by 40 per cent. She has stopped worrying about him in this regard, but he still has no child, and it wears on him, especially as Thangam’s children continue steadily to fill their house.

Thangam has given birth to two more daughters. The manjakkani money has been put to ample use for Laddu’s poonal, and Saradha’s wedding, which was contracted four years prior, her first Deepavali and trips to her husband’s home, and her coming-of-age ceremony and departure last year. She married into a stable family in Thiruchi, distant relatives, and it is deeply satisfying to Sivakami to know she is so well settled. The relentlessly jolly Visalam has married but not yet gone to her husband’s house. Laddu is nine, a resolutely unambitious boy; Sivakami would be tearing her hair out if she had any. Vairum tutors him in math and science, and she has just hired a tutor in Sanskrit, but none of it seems to help. Sita, who came to stay late last year, is six years old and already has the black tongue of a harridan, a curse or insult always at the ready. Thangam’s first two children didn’t prepare Sivakami for the second two, and she prays daily for energy and cunning enough to raise them as she must.

It is to this that her thoughts always turn as she does her chores, as today, when she is slicing a turnip and muttering a mantra in worship of Rama. Rama Ramaya Namaha. Rama Ramaya Namaha…


The ugly word jumps like a toad across her thoughts and she hollers, “Sita!” She considers rising and finding her foul-mouthed granddaughter but decides it’s better the child learn to obey a summons. “Sita! Come here!” Sivakami is shocked by the tone of her own voice. Guiding Thangam’s first two through the maze of manners and comportment never required any but the lightest touch. Where on earth would the child have heard a word like that? What could cause her to think she could use it?

The little girl sidles into the doorway, eyes cast down.

“That word has never been spoken in this house before. You are responsible for bringing this ugliness into our home.”

Sita pouts. It’s clear she feels bad, but only because she has upset her grandmother. That she has called her older sister a shaven-headed widow-for this, she is not repentant.

“Go study and not a peep.”

Sita slinks away, her beautiful features obscured by this deep yellow rage she seems to have been born with, and which her first five years, living in God-only-knows what kind of neighbourhoods, did nothing to temper. Sivakami hasn’t tried to fathom it. Sita is here now and a good upbringing takes a small creature with all its quirks and kinks and trains it to behave like any worthy person, fulfilling duty and accepting fate.

From what she could hear, Sita was frustrated because she wanted Visalam to play a game, which Visalam cannot because she is menstruating, isolated in the back room. For the first time: Visalam came of age yesterday. Sivakami thought it a shame the child’s mother-in-law lived too far away to come for the celebration but then it might have been better that she didn’t see her son’s wife giggling throughout the most solemn parts of the ceremony and guffawing through the gay ones. Visalam finds everything funny. Sivakami tells her to watch that the crows don’t snatch the little rice flour morsels of vadam as they dry on the roof-hilarious. When, once or twice annually, they choose new clothes, Visalam must invariably be excused, laughing so hard she’s useless. School, needless to say, has been a trial, but that’s all over now that she is no longer a girl.

Anyone around her who is inclined to humour is compelled to laugh with her. Anyone not so inclined feels mocked. By some stroke of God’s grace, however, she married into a relaxed and mirthful family, perhaps the only one Sivakami has ever met which is truly so. While they generally seem capable of the modicum of sobriety Visalam is never able to summon, they are indulgent toward the girl, who is, after all, obedient and respectful.

As Sivakami stands to reach for the sambar podi, she feels a little trickle. She clenches her thighs and hobbles out along the platform behind the house and back in through the door of the back room. There, she sees a bead of red releasing a trail of smaller beads as it rounds her ankle bone and descends her instep to soak into the brick floor. She reaches under the cot for the box of rags and discreetly fixes one round her hips before shouting for Sita, muttering, as she always does, against the inconvenience of it. “Really, it’s too silly-a grandmother, widowed for how many years? Sita!” she calls again, and Sita, who had been crouched over a school book in the garden and pretending not to hear, pokes her head around the door. “Go next door and tell Rukmini that I am in the room with Visalam. Go and come, you.”

Visalam is wheezing through her knuckles. Sivakami squats in a corner and chuckles a little, too. She normally doesn’t look at her granddaughters during the days of their pollution, but must admit it is nice to have this extra time with Visalam, knowing that soon the girl will leave for her marital home.

Menstruation always makes Sivakami feel strange, though she merely trades one kind of untouchability for another. Where she is normally too pure to be touched, not to mention a potent reminder of feminine destructive power, for these three days she is too impure to be touched, and a potent reminder of feminine procreative power.

And now there is a knocking and hallooing at the front door: Laddu’s Sanskrit teacher. Sivakami shouts, “Enter, enter!” but cannot make herself heard above Vani’s playing. Thankfully, Rukmini arrives at the front door in the same moment.

“Sivakami!” Rukmini shouts from the front. She has, for thirty years now, managed Sivakami’s household during menstrual leaves of absence. “Sivakami?”

“I am here,” Sivakami replies, closing to a crack the narrow double door leading onto the main hall.

“Sivakami, young Kesavan is here to tutor Laddu in Sanskrit.”

“Is Laddu there?”

Now Rukmini starts shouting Laddu’s name.

Sivakami tries to make a suggestion. “Is… Rukmini Akka! Is Sita… Rukmini Akka!”

Rukmini stops.

Sivakami asks, “Is Sita there? Ask her to find Laddu.”

“No,” replies the other woman. “Sita stayed at my house to eat biscuits and play with the dog.”

“Oh. Young Kesavan, I’m very sorry.” Sivakami speaks through the crack between the doors. “Only the third session and Laddu is absent again. I’m so sorry. Rukmini, ask Sita to go find her brother. Or find Muchami and ask Muchami to find Laddu.”

“Yes, um, I reminded him,” the young man answers as Rukmini bustles away importantly, “right after his Sanskrit class in school.”

This does nothing to relieve Sivakami’s embarrassment.

“I’d like”-he moves nearer the door and clears his throat-“to, um… there are other boys in the class who could use the extra help. I will tell you in confidence, however”-he coughs but sounds as if he’s gaining surety-“that their parents cannot afford a tutor. Or they cannot see the necessity of Sanskrit. Though it is a necessity, as I have told you-the right colleges look very positively on those students who are familiar with the classical language. Perhaps, if you would agree, I can suggest that those boys attend, here with Laddu, to help lend more of an… atmosphere. They are boys Laddu likes. He would make sure to come home if they were coming also. He wouldn’t miss it.”

Laddu has been falling dreadfully behind in his studies, lacking aptitude, conscience and enthusiasm. Sivakami wonders, when she looks at him, whether she is seeing what Goli was like as a young chap. Pressure to play host might be just the thing.

“Certainly, Kesavan. You invite the boys. That’s good.” Sivakami feels slightly vertiginous and lifts her sari pallu off her back to her shoulders so that the cool wall is against her skin. “Is Rukmini there? Rukmini!”

Rukmini has just returned.

“Rukmini, give young Kesavan a cup of milk.”

Kesavan makes clucking noises in protest, but Sivakami speaks over him. “Find some murrukku and laddu as well.”

“If you have Laddu, I’ll teach the class!” Kesavan lamely attempts to make light of the situation. Rukmini laughs a little and Visalam as if she will never stop, but Sivakami is glad no one can see her face and lies flat on the cool floor, willing the season of cramps to pass.

Rukmini takes the vegetables that Sivakami has already sliced back to her own kitchen, where she and her mother-in-law integrate them into their sambar. Sita, Laddu, Vani and Vairum eat there that evening, as do Muchami and Mari the next day. Rukmini brings food for Visalam, and leaves the monkeys’ offering in the customary spot in the forest beyond the courtyard. Rukmini and Murthy even scold Laddu on Sivakami’s behalf, though Sivakami scolds him, too.

The next day, Vani gets her period: Sivakami had been expecting this. They have been roughly synchronized for years. The mood in the room shifts, though, with Vani’s entrance: five years, and she and Vairum have yet to produce an heir. Vairum’s evident and mounting emotion at this lack gives Sivakami one more reason to feel ashamed whenever she has her period. But of course it isn’t her menstruation that renders Vairum unable to meet anyone’s eye during his wife’s isolation, it is Vani’s. Vairum becomes visibly depressed each month, skipping meals, becoming curt with the rest of the family.

A week later, Saradha arrives in preparation for the delivery of her first child. A woman normally goes to her mother’s house, to be looked after in the comfort of the home she has known, but Thangam is setting up house in yet another part of the presidency and is in no position to pamper Saradha as she deserves. In any case, Sivakami has come to be called Amma, “mother,” by the children, who refer to their mother as Akka, “big sister.” Sivakami is not sure when this started or whether she should do something about it, but it does reflect the children’s reality at least in part. So Saradha comes to her amma’s, at seven months, for her bangle ceremony, and now, to deliver.

The day arrives, and Sivakami sends Muchami to fetch the old women who deliver babies, but, when they arrive, she and Sivakami stop short at Saradha’s look of panic. “No, Amma!” she says, gripping Sivakami’s arm, which shocks Sivakami as much as anything. Even as a small child, Saradha never violated her grandmother’s madi.

“What is it, kannama?”

“You have to deliver my baby, Amma. You have kai raasi. Just like you delivered me and my brothers and sisters. You have to do it, Amma. Please, Amma!”

Kai raasi: lucky hands. Sivakami feels like Saradha has tied them. She is scared of her own inexperience, but superstition scares her more: after Thangam had her first, Sivakami would not turn the job over to anyone else, and now it appears she may have to do the same for her granddaughter. Now that Saradha has said the words, kai raasi, it would be bad luck to say no.

The old women hang back-they will not put themselves forward now even though they all feel they have kai raasi. Sivakami has only delivered seven babies, while they have delivered hundreds, but it’s true that Thangam’s babies all lived-thrived, in fact, despite their sickly mother and the uncertainty and strangeness of their vagrant early lives. Sivakami must once more perform her magic.

Any magician will tell you, though, that magic is nine-tenths labour and one-tenth luck. After nine hours of labour, Sivakami is praying for an hour of luck. She instructs Visalam to dribble some boiled rice water between Saradha’s dry lips. Saradha has permitted the old women to sop the sweat from her thick eyebrows, but only Sivakami is allowed to massage the spasming abdomen with sesame oil. Saradha’s forearms, as she bears down, squatting, are locked in Sivakami’s, and she will be persuaded to release them only because Sivakami needs her hands to catch the baby, whose head has finally, fuzzily, shown. The lucky hour has arrived.

A girl! She’s small but screams at a pitch that would be admirable in a child twice her size. Saradha, relieved, whispers, “Kai raasi, Amma. You should never deviate from tradition. You have always birthed the babies in this house.”

All the old women say as much and more to their families when escorted home that night. “Will she do the same for her son and daughter-in-law, do you think?” they whisper. “When?”

Sivakami is thinking the same thing. Vani has begun to do a daily puja for a dark-barked tree a furlong northwest of the house, on one of whose branches she has tied a pink ribbon, circling the tree nine times each morning. She has poured milk down every snake hole in the vicinity-Muchami would inform her whenever he spied one and she would journey out with one of Thangam’s children carrying the milk jug. (Presumably, if the snake didn’t drown in her generosity, it would be so grateful as to wish a child on her.) She has pledged a pair of little golden feet for the altar of the Krishna temple- Krishna is often worshipped in the form of a baby, chubby, sunny, mischievous-on condition of her pregnancy and safe delivery of a child.

Vairum never demonstrates blame toward his wife. Does he blame himself? He is a math genius and this is the simplest of equations: one plus one equals three.

And, daily, he is taunted by the evidence of his sister and brother-in-law’s proficiency in this regard. His actions, in the main, have been gracious toward his nieces and nephew. He is not by any means affectionate with them, but it is clear he will do whatever he can to ensure their current and future material well-being. For instance, tutoring Laddu. He says he is doing this for Thangam: he said he would never take from her but only give, and if he doesn’t offer this instruction, this boy will forever be a burden on his mother, causing Vairum indirectly to rob her. Having said that, the instruction does little to lessen this probability. Laddu attends his uncle’s tutorials out of fear, opening his school books and staring at them in bewilderment as Vairum prods and ridicules him for an hour and a half.

Laddu’s attitude toward his thrice-weekly Sanskrit tutorials is different. The first day his school chums attend, he does too, clearly intending that the time be spent in ribbing and chortling. This turns out to be more difficult than it is in school, where they have the cover of serious students, and because Laddu’s companions refuse to misbehave in the home of the most respected widow on their street.

Laddu does not appear for the next session and Sivakami sends Muchami out to track him down. He finds the boy lying within a rough circle of smooth, large stones, the remains of a Jain monastery abandoned eight hundred years earlier but still outlined in stone dots and dashes like a telegraph from history. For generations, this has been one of those places where boys go to smoke and brag, boys with and boys without promising futures. Muchami knows the place well; he was never interested in smoking or bragging, but he was interested in boys and so was a regular.

“What is this?” Muchami begins haranguing Laddu from five yards away, and the boy jumps up guiltily. “How is it possible that there are four boys learning Sanskrit in your uncle’s house and you are not one of them? Are those boys smarter than you, that they can find your house and you got lost in the forest? Maybe we should send you to school with a string tied around your waist and pull you home like a flapping fish when classes are over, shouldn’t we? Can’t you feel how your grandmother is suffering? She has brought all the knowledge of the village into your home and your portion is going to waste. She would give you everything, but she cannot afford to waste, not food, not clothes, not knowledge. It will rot there and smell bad and be thrown to the dogs in the street who will eat it and be fat and then maybe get sick, too! See how you are hurting your grandmother and all the creatures of the world by not following your dharma? Move! Back to the house! Look smart!”

Laddu doesn’t look smart at all but does move fast. The tutorial has already begun, young Kesavan reciting noun inflections in a mesmerizing singsong, and his glazed-looking students singing each phrase back at him, “Ramaha Ramow Ramaaha, Ramam Ramow Ramaaha…” Laddu starts singing along while still in the courtyard and bursts over the threshold, expecting to garner a laugh on his entrance. No one even looks at him, and he creeps to a place on the floor, farthest from the tutor.

So now there are four boys learning Sanskrit. Or…?

Sivakami, peeping in to check on the group’s progress, notices Muchami, sitting in one of the doorways to the garden, agape at the proceedings. No sounds issue from him, but his lips are moving and he is hanging on each syllable as though it contains the mysteries of birth, death and cinema. Seeing him sit so wholly absorbed in the vicarious act of learning, Sivakami recalls one of her earliest impressions of him, that he aspires to be something more than most of his class. She recalls her own hope that she might assist him in realizing this aspiration. She already has-he is, at forty-two, among the most highly respected members of his caste. But here is a skill none of them has, something even she does not possess and never will, because she hasn’t time nor would she consider it decorous. But now that Vairum has taken over much of the management of the property, and Sita has entered school, Muchami has more free time, and why shouldn’t he consider some self-improvement?

The next day, Sivakami tells him to make a new slate and purchase some more chalk.

“Ayoh,” he sighs. “Has Laddu lost or broken yet another slate? Honestly, I…”

“No, Muchami, it’s for you,” Sivakami says proudly, glancing at Mari, who is washing the vessels following the mid-morning meal, squatting in the courtyard and scrubbing the pots with soap-nut powder and a puff of coconut coir, splashing them with water from the well.

“What will I do with it?” he asks, understandably confused. Mari, having overheard Sivakami conferring with young Kesavan, starts to grin.

“As long as you are chasing Laddu and making him attend the Sanskrit tutorial, you may as well attend it yourself,” Sivakami replies with mock gruffness. “I’m adding it to your responsibilities.”

Muchami feels his mouth shape into a silent “o,” much in the way he has tried, silently, to mouth the syllables of Sanskrit. He feels dismayed, as can happen when we receive something for which we did not dare hope. He is not a person who has spent time in self-definition. He is too busy, his personality too strong. It would have been a waste of his time. Now, though he would never describe it thus, his self-image is undergoing a jolt.

He is a member of what was once a warrior caste. His ancestors may have defended kings in a time before memory, which in their community is limited to a lifetime. Now their lot is with agriculture and service. They are a proud caste and, when serving, they serve fiercely. There are members of the generation after Muchami’s who attend school-those young relatives of his who were Vairum’s schoolyard defenders, for instance. One or two of his own generation may have done so, never for more than a few years. He didn’t attend. It didn’t matter.

He has altered as a result of his life in Sivakami’s household, from the time he subtly adopted Hanumarathnam’s Brahminical gait and manner. He has been further changed by his marriage to a woman who succeeds in observing Brahmin custom and prejudice more rigorously than most Brahmins-elevated, in Muchami and Mari’s opinion; estranged, in that of their families.

And now he is to sit with the children of the scholarly caste and repeat with them the sacred phrases of the ancient language, the language of the distinguished, the learned. Was it even permissible?

“Young Kesavan thought it a terrific idea,” Sivakami reassures him.

Is Muchami trembling?

Kesavan would think it a terrific idea: he is a progressive and positively delights in the idea of teaching Sanskrit to a servant in a Brahmin household. What hasn’t occurred to him, or to Sivakami, is that were Muchami to learn to read and write Tamil, he would be well qualified for some other job. He would have choice and mobility. Sanskrit, on the other hand, qualifies him for nothing.

Filled with a cautious, unfamiliar joy, Muchami finds a scrap of board, paints it black, leans it on the back of his hut, checks to make sure it’s drying smooth and gives it another coat the next day.

“Cha, chha, ja, jha, gna.”

“Cha, cha, cha, cha, gna.”

Laddu and his buddies suppress giggles as Kesavan turns to the garden door to address his newest student.

“Muchami. Try again. Cha, chha, ja, jha, gna.”

“Cha, cha, cha…”

“No, Muchami, listen. Chha.” Kesavan’s voice betrays impatience. His other students are not nearly so interested, but they can, at least, pronounce the syllables of this language they are purporting to learn.

Muchami’s brow is knit. “Cha,” he chokes out hesitantly.

“Oh, never mind.”

They move on to the next group of phonemes.

Muchami leaves his first class as dejected as he has ever been. He can hear that these syllables are distinct. But how to make them? He has no idea. How could it be as hard as this if children are doing it every day? Muchami speaks a different Tamil from the Brahmins’-one without Sanskrit inflections and terms. His tongue has not been accustomed to forming these sounds, which the sniggering boys have been instructed to use from birth, for words as common as “cooked rice” and “banana,” items for which he has either another word entirely or another pronunciation.

His inability puzzles him-he is, as he well knows, among the most perceptive men in the village, no caste barred. He is a magnet for information and he knows how to use it. These sounds, though, and the words formed from them, they seem to have no place to roost in his head. They fly at him like frantic pigeons. They make him panic. He tries to retain them but feels them flutter off.

Each of those first few days, Sivakami eagerly inquires what it’s like, to take a class. She expects his usual entertaining accounts, full of mimicry and insight. But all he says is, “It’s good! Good! The teacher is very good, smart boy. Could I have more sambar?”

How to say he has never learned a thing in a classroom and can’t figure out how to do so?

Mari does not ask him questions about his lessons. She flashes through her daily chores with defensive pride, and when Gayatri jokes that now it is not only Mari who is more Brahmin than the Brahmins, but her husband as well, Mari’s pride shrills fiercer still, daring anyone to prevent this.

As THE FIFTH YEAR OF VANI’S RESIDENCE in their home drizzles to a close, Sivakami feels pressure to perform some greater supplication on her son’s behalf than the pujas she has done daily for the Ramar. She resolves on commissioning a dramatization of the Ramayana, the story of Rama’s life and deeds. Vairum finds out for her which troupe in the region has the best reputation for flair and piety and writes a letter of request on her behalf. The troupe writes back; the dates and price are confirmed; she places their response at the feet of the four stone figures who govern her home and begs them again, be pleased with her and this re-enactment of their trials and victories. Send me a grandchild, one who will belong to this house and to you. The house drums around her with the noises of all those grandchildren who don’t belong, welcome as they are.

Now, two days before Sivakami’s dedicated Ramayana dramatization is to commence, Muchami brings unwelcome intelligence: another Ramayana will be performed in the village at the same time as hers, a different version.

Sivakami straightens from bending over a vat of oil, where eight vadais bounce and bubble. “Another Ramayana?” she repeats after him. “There are two Ramayanas: one written by Valmiki and one by Kamban, one Sanskrit and one Tamil, but they are one and the same. There is no… what did you call this?”

“It’s called the Self-Respect Movement, Amma. They call this the ‘Self-Respect Ramayana,’” Muchami reiterates shamefacedly. “I have heard it’s a version where Ravana is, well… ahem, the hero.”

Sivakami grimly squats and plunges the tongs amid the vadais to make them flip. Visalam squats beside her, patting vadai dough into sticky dumplings on a round, oil-blackened board, pressing her lips together and looking down, to keep herself from laughing.

“Will people go to see this, this… spectacle?” Sivakami demands. She lifts the crisped vadais from the vat and drops them into a vessel of yogourt, using her sari to wipe sweat from her upper lip and the corners of her eyes. Visalam slides a half-dozen more raw vadais into the pan, where they sink, begin to emit streams of bubbles and rise. Visalam starts to giggle, and when Sivakami asks, “What?” points to the pan.

“Please, Sivakamikka,” Gayatri says from the main hall, blowing on her coffee. “Don’t be discouraged.”

“Who is discouraged by these dirty, low types? Will Rama and Sita pay attention to these Brahmin-haters?” She stops herself from saying aloud the rest of her thoughts. Would my husband have gone to the “other” Ramayana? He used to go with them, the ones who said there is no caste. Did they say “Long live Ravana”? What appeal is there in a topsy-turvy world?

“I’m sure I don’t know, Amma,” Muchami solemnly replies, and Sivakami realizes she may have spoken her last question aloud, though sometimes, with Muchami, it doesn’t seem she has to.

Visalam has patted out two more batches of vadais.

“Go,” Sivakami tells her. “The kitchen is too hot.”

The girl springs out to the courtyard and douses herself with well water, guffawing with delight.

The performance troupe Sivakami invited is setting up a stage in a mango grove about two hundred paces east along the cart track that leads from the southern exit of the Brahmin quarter. A number of children lucky or devious enough to have escaped work or school are goggling at the performers, who, even without makeup or costume, display a high theatricality of bearing. Several tease the children and make them shriek with gorgeous terror.

A mile directly east of Sivakami’s back door, beyond the canal and the tracks, another stage and canopy are being erected, by performers physically indistinguishable from the first group in any significant way, though Sivakami’s supporters will claim they are crude in looks and comportment. Even if they hadn’t been so congenitally, the supporters splutter, they would have become so as a result of their crude tampering. How dare they touch the untouchable, alter the unalterable? The Ramayana is a foundation stone, a touchstone, a hero stone inscribed with the glorious events of some bygone day so they may never be erased nor forgotten, nor changed.

It’s probably coincidence that the interloping troupe has come to play in the same week as Sivakami’s scheduled performance, but both sides claim it’s deliberate. The performers Sivakami hired are silent in the face of all political questions, while the other troupe and its citified supporters proclaim their mandate loud and proud:

“While Rama is seen by the ignorant Brahmin-followers to be a valiant hero, we will show him to be a cowardly schemer!

“While the ignorant Brahmins and the uneducated masses they have duped see Ravana as a licentious demon, we will show him to be an honourable man, taking no more-and no less-revenge than he must to vouchsafe his reputation!

“While the ignorant and the duped exhort their young virgins to uphold Sita as the model of virtuous womanhood, taking no initiative, living by the word of her husband, as instructed in that vile manual, The Laws According to Manu, this drama will expose her as the wanton and lusty strumpet she really was!”

The most skilled of the criers explain and extemporize; the least skilled recite, halting but loud, from block-printed, hand-sewn booklets. They thrust their manifesto into the hands of numberless unlettered villagers, cajoling, mocking, seducing them into attending. They roam and comb every caste neighbourhood, except the Brahmins’, where they dump piles of the pamphlets at each exit.

In the hands of any other caste member, the pamphlets look like invitations. Littering the Brahmin quarter, they look like warnings. The wind blows them through the street, plastering them against the red and white stripes of the verandas. Some blow up beyond the reach of indignant reactionaries gathering them to thrust in their fires; some blow into eavestroughs and the little space between roof and walls. Perhaps they will be forgotten there for seasons on end and then discovered by an inquisitive grandchild in a time when all such conflicts are obsolete.

“Come one, come all!” the pamphleteer politicos scream.

Understand how the stinking Aryans flooded our Tamil country from the north with their weapons and their myths of our inferiority. Come and we will reveal what the Brahmins really mean when they say “all the monkeys of the southern country welcomed Rama and pledged their services to him. ” What do you think, noble citizens? These Brahmins see us real Tamilians as monkeys! And devils! Who is this Rama who is so celebrated for overcoming the rightful ruler to the “monkey” throne by devious means and waging war on the “devils ”? Ravana might have been a king from any of our luminous dynasties: any regal Pallava, valiant Pandyan, noble Chola, or high born Chera, who once ruled and battled and upheld our Tamil pride. Are we so stupid that we will continue to accept these distortions?

“Invaders out! Down with Brahmin raj! The day of the elite has ended! They don’t respect us-we have Self-Respect! Long live the real Tamil people!”

Tonight, the seven-night-long performances commence. Which will draw the larger crowd?

Vairum overhears men taking bets at the Kulithalai Club, when he goes to play tennis. Manifold factors weight the odds. As with bhajans or big temple events, only a small proportion of audience members attend Ramayana recitals or dramatizations out of religious devotion. Most come for entertainment, but devotion and diversion usually need not be separated. Tonight, the townsfolk face a strange choice: should they or should they not go to the new Ramayana, which, as a novelty, is a much surer source of entertainment than the smooth and well-worn passages and postures of the classical presentation? Will it be blasphemous? Worse, disrespectful?

And there are other concerns: Will there be violence? Riots? What does this performance signify?

The members of Minister’s political salon have, as always, an irreconcilable variety of opinions on the matter.

“It’s an insult and an affront,” foams Dr. Kittu Iyer, “and quite wholly unnecessary and-”

“False.” Mani Iyer interrupts, agreeing emphatically with the older Brahmin man. “It’s all lies.”

Vairum, since returning to Cholapatti, has been a regular attendee at the salon, though he doesn’t come daily, because he is too busy with his work and because he prefers to maintain a slight distance from these men who are nonetheless useful to him.

“It is the expression of our youth.” Muthu Reddiar sweeps the space before him good-humouredly. “They are impatient. Don’t take it so seriously.”

Vairum had chatted with Minister on arriving, before the others had come. This “Self-Respect” Ramayana seems to Minister to be the harbinger of a fate that has already begun to strike. The years have not been great for him, politically, and he is serving as Taluk Board president-again. He had stood for election last year at the urging of his numerous friends. While it was not in him to turn down any opportunity to be a figurehead, he was acutely conscious of not having held so lowly a position (the first time, it was a pinnacle!) in over ten years. Back then it was a position given by appointment. In the years since, these decisions have increasingly been made by election. Minister progressed into ever-greater circles of influence, elected to the District Board and then to the Legislative Council, but as the franchise expanded beyond the elite, his decline was drawn: he can no longer drum up a majority vote beyond the taluk. Now, Brahmins will vote for him because he is one of them, and select non-Brahmins if he can still do something for them. But he never thought to court peasants-it never occurred to him that they could have any impact on his political future.

While the Self-Respecters’ politics take something from each of Congress (they are for independence) and Justice (they advocate rule by non-Brahmins), they are resolved on overturning the elite class to which all the salon-goers belong, regardless of caste. These men enjoy debating Self-Respect politics, and even take the Dravidians’ side in the safety of their small gathering, but they are scared of the Self-Respecters and have no intention of going near that performance tonight.

Dr. Kittu Iyer’s eye softens as it lands on Vairum, who rarely speaks here, despite his frequent attendance. “You, at least, we can count on to take the right side in this debate: it’s wonderful of your mother to be doing this for you, and the whole community will benefit, especially the illiterates, who get so few such uplifting opportunities.”

Unsurprisingly, the conventional audience gets by far the greater share that first night. Vairum attends, as he is expected to, with Vani, and feels acutely self-conscious. He thinks at first that this is because those in the audience fawningly make a place for him at the front, expressing gratitude that his mother has done this for them. Perhaps he is uncomfortable because they all know the reason Sivakami has sponsored this: his and Vani’s childlessness. He realizes, however, over the course of the performance, which he finds predictably conventional and uninspiring, that, although he is religious, he has nothing in common with the Brahmins who surround him.

He unconsciously fingers the old silver coin flipped into his waistband as he thinks how he has no friends among the Brahmins here. Since returning, he has made friends mostly among upper-caste non-Brahmins in Kulithalai while his Cholapatti neighbours remain as distasteful to him as ever, in their narrowness and lack of generosity, which he thinks he sees in his mother, also: she will help anyone of the clan, but her goodwill, he thinks, stops at the exit to the Brahmin quarter. He has also heard them complaining about his generosity, of all things, he thinks, getting worked up even as he sits before the decorated stage, his mind far from the action. He has bought a number of their plots of land, which they had let go through their laziness and bad decisions, and turned them around. They got a better price from him than they would from anyone else, but then they complain to one another! Jealousy. And they can’t stand that he is friends with non-Brahmins, and that he hired a non-Brahmin manager for his rice mill: the best applicant, a born leader, even if he is from one of the peasant castes.

Why should I pretend solidarity with my caste? he is fuming, as they sit around him, smelling of holy ash and hair oil, gasping at all the familiar plot points. What have they ever done for me?

He waits out the performance, more for Vani’s sake than anything, but it is a torment.

THE NEXT MORNING, when Muthu Reddiar arrives at the salon entrance, mopping his brow with an outsized kerchief and twirling the ends of his moustaches to guard against wilting, he wheezes, “Bets are being paid out at the club.”

“The people have shown their might!” an unfamiliar voice crows in Tamil behind him. It’s Murthy, his hair oiled and slicked back with care into a kudumi, minus one lock hanging before his ear. His kurta is stained with what might be squash. He occasionally drops in at the salon to tout Brahmin uplift: communal politics have led Brahmins, too, to realize they might claim some unified identity. “Tradition offers reassurance, consolation,” Murthy puffs. “It will always win out over sensationalism. Clearly, the people’s affection for the real Ramayana will triumph over childish stunts.”

Minister always welcomes Murthy (despite the man’s disregard for the English usage rule) as a link to a constituency best cultivated via its zealots. Still, he hates having to think in communal terms and yearns for the times when he had only to fulfill promises to important individuals.

“Bah! The people are scared.” Ranga Chettiar jabs his finger aggressively at Murthy, who looks surprised and pained. “You and your ilk have cowed them for eight thousand years. But someday”-the Chettiar’s voice dives deep into his most profundo basso-“someday, he will break the chains of Aryan domination and come into the full flowering of his Dravidian manhood…”

“So breaking the chains of British domination and coming into our Indian manhood takes no place in your scheme?” Dr. Kittu Iyer’s narrow jowls quiver.

“Now, now.” Minister’s tone is more censorious than he would wish, but the doctor has hit a nerve. “If one is born and comes of age within a united empire, loyalty to it is as loyalty to parents and ancestors. If one renounces one’s heritage, one is nothing.”

Minister catches Vairum’s eye and suddenly feels fiercely annoyed with the younger man for observing all, daily, in silence, never taking a stand. Vairum clearly has no political ambitions-why is he here?

“Isn’t that right, Vairum?” Minister lobs. “Look at what your mother is doing for you-you owe her the world, isn’t it?”

Vairum wags his head noncommittally. Such statements, his gesture might imply, are self-evident and need hardly be spoken.

Vairum goes again that night to the Ramayana Sivakami sponsored but finds himself unable to bear being surrounded by Brahmins. Several of his friends told him that day that they would be attending the other Ramayana because they were interested in supporting its message of non-Brahmin liberation. He is interested in that, too, and thinks, They are my gods. Can I not worship them as well in an atmosphere I find more sympathetic?

He takes Vani home, then goes and joins his friends. He is a little shocked by what he sees: Rama and Lakshmana as comic villains, Sita as a harlot, and Ravana made to seem a hero-as though this story were written on the other side of the world from the one he knows. He isn’t sure how to reconcile this with his daily prayers to the Ramar in his home, except to think that his prayers are private. He has his convictions and can’t escape his heritage. They are the gods of my home and I am obliged to worship them, he thinks, but he is not obliged to worship them in the company of people he cannot like or respect. How can he share their religious feeling if he doesn’t share their caste sentiment?

He decides that the Self-Respect Ramayana is not an act of devotion, but it doesn’t need to be. He prays at home. This is something different.

When Sivakami serves him breakfast the next morning, she asks Vairum to report on the performance, which she will not attend until the last night. His response is predictably disappointing.

“Amma, even weddings are more unique than these Ramayana performances,” he dryly points out. “Why waste breath? Attendance was good.”

Muchami reliably gives a much more satisfying account, taking nearly an hour to describe the costumes and mimic the highlights of the evening. Gayatri, who had attended, claims she is entertained all over again by Muchami’s show, but also assures Sivakami, “It’s first-class performance, Sivakamikka, take it from me.” She repeats, with emphasis, the English phrase that has passed confidently into bourgeois Tamil. “First-class.”

Muchami also, however, brings the unwelcome wisdom that nine-year-old Laddu, who had been given permission to attend, was spotted at the wrong tent. Sivakami mentions this to Vairum, who catches Laddu up by one arm from the corner where he is napping and delivers a brief but thorough thrashing.

“You were given permission to attend the performance your grandmother sponsored. You were not given time and freedom to do whatever you want. As long as you live under this roof, you will abide by what you are told. Clear?”

Laddu drops back onto the floor, sobbing.

The next day, Sivakami doesn’t bother asking Vairum for his report but rather waits for Muchami’s, which he delivers with all the enthusiasm and verve of the days prior, though he omits one detail. Gayatri notes this omission and says nothing: Vairum was seen once more under the canvas roof of the other troupe’s performance tent.

“You all have enjoyed terrific success,” Dr. Kittu Iyer says stiffly, in a rare acknowledgement, that same morning. The night before, that of the third performance, Self-Respect’s audience equalled Sivakami’s. “With the kinds of concessions the Justice Party has achieved for the non-Brahmin sector, one can’t help but see a time when very few Brahmins would want to live in Tamil Nadu,” he mumbles tangentially. “Opportunities are becoming scarce for us.”

“Oh, pshaw!” Ranga Chettiar ejects. “The presidency’s Brahmins have had their rampant nepotism but slightly curtailed. This hardly heralds your starvation, my good fellow!”

“Well may we all starve if our country is run by an administration chock full of fellows whose ICS examination scores are deplorably below par.” Mani Iyer trembles indignantly.

“Yes, none of you fellows has been able to satisfactorily explain the continued inadequacy of performance by non-Brahmin castes on all academic and standardized measures,” Dr. Kittu Iyer accuses. “And these reserved positions in colleges and the government can hardly offer much motivation to improve.”

“Oh, come now.” Rama Sastri, the lawyer, waves an orangewood stick at them and goes back to his cuticles. “All of your nephews and cousins and the brothers of your sons-in-law have profited from your acquaintance with our host. This is why you have so consistently returned him to office.”

The remark is all too accurate, but none of them needs to be reminded. Minister, as their host and the subject of this most awkward moment, grasps for a remark which will smooth it.

“I’m sorry,” the Sastri smirks. “That was tacky.”

Young Kesavan, the Sanskrit master, attending for a second day, rises, stretches and yawns. “I agree that the administration is far too Brahminically weighted. It’s not healthy for our future. But I, too, wish that non-Brahmin lobby groups could put the energy into self-improvement that they have invested in divisiveness and political manoeuvring.”

“I… I think,” Minister begins, “I know you all have real evidence of my esteem for you and your families. You have been my constituency and will remain so. What benefit could I expect if I didn’t return your trust?”

“You are a beacon, Minister,” Muthu Reddiar rejoins with hearty ambiguity. “We are all looking to you in this difficult time.”

“I have been waiting for that boy, that traitor-where is Vairum today?” Dr. Kittu Iyer springs to his feet, then looks a little dizzy. “You all have heard that he is now attending this Self-Respect whatever-it-is-called ?” he spits.

Minister had not heard this and becomes grave. “I… he must have business in Trichy today. Are you quite sure? He didn’t attend the performance his mother sponsored for him?”

His cronies shake their heads, not sure whether they are glad or regretful to be delivering him this news.

At 3:30, Minister descends to eat his tiffin. Exiting the stairwell, he padlocks the door behind him. It’s only mid-afternoon, but with alien elements about the village, it’s best not to take chances. Crossing the veranda, he steps into the narrow hallway that opens into the great hall and pauses to let his eyes adjust to the dimness.

He’s sleepy. He’s been attending only the first portion of the performance each night, just long enough to show his support for Sivakami. Even this brief appearance, however, has meant he gets to bed later than usual. And the daily salon inevitably leaves him too stimulated to manage an afternoon rest.

Gayatri smiles at him and shoos the children from the dining room as he sits. She lays a banana leaf on the floor in front of him and goes to the kitchen to fetch a serving vessel full of freshly steamed idlis. She puts five on the leaf and returns to the kitchen for okra sambar. The oily crescent moons beneath her eyes are darker than usual-it’s been a busy week and she can’t get to sleep at night until her husband comes home.

“How is Sivakami Mami?” he commences.

“Resigned. We didn’t even speak of the other Ramayana today. Muchami gives such an entertaining-”

“Vairum has been seen at that other Ramayana.”

This is not a revelation to Gayatri. “He punished his nephew for the same transgression,” she says, though she is aware, on a level she can’t articulate, that it is not the same transgression at all. “Are you going to say something to Vairum?”

“I don’t understand his motives!” He shakes his head. “Does Sivakami Mami know he’s been seen there?”

“I would hope no one would dare tell her.” Gayatri stands to accept the baby from her mother-in-law.

“This is how big St. Joseph ’s College graduates behave?” Minister jabs the air with his eating hand, scattering beads of okra, then jabs again at his food. “What can he be thinking? He’s not a child.”

“No, yes.” Gayatri jiggles the baby vigorously on her hip. “Maybe he needs a child of his own before he feels that.”

“Hm,” Minister grunts.

“He won’t say it, but I think he thinks Cholapatti Brahmins don’t accept him,” Gayatri ventures.

“They don’t,” Minister responds pragmatically. “So what?”

“So maybe this is a kind of revenge.”

“But no one cares but his mother!” Minister expostulates. “All he will do is give food for gossip and wound her.”

Gayatri murmurs agreement, because if she didn’t, she would have to suspect that Vairum may see this all too well, that his attendance is not a youthful caprice, nor a gesture of ignorance or naivete, and Gayatri, while she is shrewd, can’t think that way about a boy she likes.

The next day, when Vairum arrives in the salon, after the other members, Minister shouts at him. “What do you think you are doing? What about your mother?”

“My mother belongs to an old order,” Vairum responds evenly. “I am interested in a new one.”

The salon is astounded. Vairum has never expressed an opinion before and they, with the exception of Rama Sastri, realize now that they have been a little afraid to find out where he stands.

“You… you are worshipping Ravana?” asks Dr. Kittu Iyer, too shocked to reprimand him.

“No-neither of these Ramayanas is an act of worship. My mother’s is supplication. The other is a political statement.” Vairum accepts a cup of tea and a biscuit from a maid. “I worship the gods of my home in my home, every morning and night. I ask them, too, for the blessing of a child, but I will worship them no matter what they choose to give me in my life. I have been fortunate in most respects, so far. And I am interested in witnessing what all these Self-Respecters have to say.”

Rama Sastri takes him up. “Come now, Vairum: you know very well you are making a political statement by attending one and not the other.”

“Fair enough. By that reasoning, staying home would also be a political statement.” Vairum watches the men watching him hold his own. “These are political times. The Self-Respecters offer an amusing spectacle. And they have a good point: the caste system is unfair.”

Murthy, returning from a trip to the outhouse, hollers from the door. “I have been waiting for you! How could you betray your mother and your people in this fashion?” he berates Vairum in Tamil.

Although most of the other salon members would have said the same thing, they find Murthy somewhat distasteful and hearing him speak their thoughts makes them wish, a little, to take some other side.

“Your father was like a brother to me and I am as a father to you. I forbid you to return. You will attend the real Ramayana from tonight forward, yes? Good boy.”

Vairum gives his father’s cousin a hard look, shrewd and not unaffectionate. “I am not as confident as you of how my father would have advised me in this situation. But I have my reasons, and I will attend the performance of my choice. Excuse me.”

Vairum rises and departs the salon before Murthy has a chance to react. Several seconds later, though, Murthy toddles stiffly down the stairs to give chase. He sees Vairum heading toward their houses at the other end of the Brahmin quarter and scurries after his swiftly striding form. At the end of the street, however, Vairum doesn’t go into his house but continues on as the road turns left-toward town, toward the river, who knows. Murthy stops, panting, at his own veranda, the other salon members looking on, down the street, from Minister’s door.

The next morning, Vairum comes back to the salon and, as always, peruses the newspapers, not speaking because he is not spoken to. Murthy is not in attendance, and the others hash things out among themselves. In a lull, Gopi Chettiar, who is also more observer than participant, asks Vairum’s opinion on a newly formed cereals-processing unit going up in Thiruchi.

“It will do well. I have invested,” Vairum responds, his fingertips joined, so his hands form a loose cage at his mouth.

The men are clearly surprised.

“Ah,” Gopi Chettiar clears his throat nervously. “They asked me… ”

“Get in now,” nods Vairum. “It will soon get expensive.”

“While we’re on the subject of investment,” Muthu Reddiar breaks in, smiling, “I wanted to let you know, Vairum-well, let all of you know,” he expands graciously, “my man, the Sikh, has telegraphed me that our shipment of Australian horses has arrived in Madras harbour. I wanted to thank you for your support in this project, Vairum. They are evidently sturdier than our Indian breeds, and the stallions should stud nicely with my line of carriage horses.”

“Glad to know it,” Vairum says, poker-faced. “Clearly a winning proposal.”

Minister is taken aback. Business matters are often referred to in the salon, since they are inseparable from the workings of politics and power, but this discussion verges uncomfortably on transaction. He thinks, though, that he may now understand how Vairum has been benefiting from these years in attendance. Now he quickly starts to feel pride in having drawn the boy in: Minister’s not a minister at present, his political fortunes may be at a low ebb, but he is still an influence peddler. The boy knows which way the wind is blowing, Minister thinks. And he is my friend.

Vairum catches his eye and they exchange a slight smile.

The morning after the sixth performance, Rama Sastri treats them to a recitation of the concluding stanzas of each of the performances. Both showed the episode in which Ravana is slain in battle by Rama. The Sastri has sent his reluctant servant to the performance each night, and the man has turned out to be an excellent reporter.

“This is our performance, close to Kamban’s words, if not quite,” says the Sastri, clearing his throat and proclaiming:

“With Ravana’s death, the fceld grows still

At such long last, the end.

Sita and Rama, reunited with dignity,

Paid respects by each foe, each friend.

And this is theirs-rather innovative,“ he smiles, shifting position, dropping his right hand and lifting his left:

“Ravana’s noble head and body

Rejoined on the funeral pyre.

Dravidian pride and sorrow now

But battlefield’s bloody mire.

The flames of truth and purity

Must in your eyes leap higher.

Ravana’s children! Avenge this death!

Unite in the name ofyour sire!

Loose the blindfold of Aryan deception,

Every Shastri, lyengar, Iyer

Is a manufacturer of illusions

Yet these are the ones you hire

For your weddings, your blessings, your babies and homes

Whether you be Panchama or Nair

Self Respect, man! Do it yourself!

Beneath Ravana’s flag: the lyre!“

The Sastri concludes with a flourish.

“It’s not a lyre, it’s a veena,” Dr. Kittu Iyer snorts.

“Poetic licence, dear chap,” Rama Sastri responds.

“You can only take poetic licence with poetry,” the doctor explodes. “This is drivel.”

“Does anyone know why the so-called Self-Respecters ended one night early?” Mani Iyer deepens his ever-present brow wrinkles. “Surely not to actually enable the populace to celebrate Rama’s return and recoronation in peace.”

“Surely not.” Muthu Reddiar strokes his upwardly waxed moustaches. “I passed their tent on my way here-they’re readying for performance, not packing up.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” remarks Minister, and the others frown in agreement or perplexity.

“My foot!” Murthy, who had held his tongue till then, screams in English. He has leapt up, fists and eyes clenched, face flushing from pomegranate to mangosteen. “Day after day this talktalktalk and no action. These fellows cannot fling about insults and expect best citizens would accept simply! Though they must think so because of you!” he spits at Vairum, who looks away, mild and skeptical.

“Have you… a… proposal?” Minister asks, though his tone makes it sound more like “Sit down… you’re… embarrassing yourself.”

“Yes!” Murthy cries, returning to his native tongue, ablaze with inspiration. There is a patch of dirty grey stubble on his dewlap, missed while shaving. It wobbles at the men as he reveals his idea. “I will lie down! I will lie across the path that these asses of the audience must take to attend the debacle, and prevent them from entering.”

“Bravo!” Rama Sastri starts to clap. “Take a stand, man-lying down! The show must not go on!”

Murthy heaves for the door, muttering and crying, “Must not go on, the show!”

“The peasants will never step over him,” Mani Iyer offers.

“No-they will go around him,” says Ranga Chettiar with exasperation.

Minister tries to intervene. “Please, dear man. Don’t be rash”-and he grabs for Murthy’s hand, but it is slippery and Murthy, inflamed by his vision, descends the stairs.

“Well, thank God that’s taken care of,” snorts Muthurunga Chettiar, half-reclined on a divan.

After some moments, Minister speaks. “I shan’t let him go to that place, alone-I shall try again, this evening, to dissuade him, and if he won’t be dissuaded, I will follow him. He is my good friend, like all of you, one of my constituency, and I owe him a debt of good faith.”

There follows a silence in which it seems several of the men mean to speak and change their minds. Rama Sastri finally breaks it.

“Ah-I had thoughts of slinking over there myself. Curiosity, don’t you know, the last night. Theatre is hardly theatre when performed by my man.”

“I am not curious-I am interested by this message of non-Brahmin uplift,” declares Ranga Chettiar.

“Tsk, let us join!” Muthu Reddiar waves dismissively. “It’s a spectacle!”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Gopi Chettiar offers in response to Ranga Chettiar’s expectant look.

“We are not to be outnumbered,” Dr. Kittu Iyer says with stiff and evident reluctance. “There may be those still amenable to the Congress message. ”

“Quite,” whimpers Mani Iyer. “Oh, quite.”

Vairum clears his throat. “I’ll see you all there, then.” He smiles, templing his fingers, lowers his head and can’t help starting to chuckle, then laugh. Rama Sastri joins in, and then Minister, and the Reddiar. The others are not so compelled but smile perplexedly at their solidarity. It seems almost fated.

“Ho, ho, what is this?” the actor playing Rama exclaims jocularly.

“Hoi! Jambu, Bala, come, quickly! See what I have found!”

Ordinarily, Murthy would bow before an actor dressed as Rama, but this is not a Rama he recognizes: painted-on leer, unimpressive profile, sloppy clothes. Rage and hurt start to pump him full again with bravado. Anyway, he can’t bow: he’s flat on his back.

Two more heads bend over him: Lakshmana and Sita, they can be none else, but, again, what perversions!

“Brahmin,” says Lakshmana with glee, drawing a line from his own shoulder to hip to indicate the holy thread visible beneath Murthy’s rumpled kurta.

“What do you want?” Sita demands. Stubble pokes through “her” rice flour face powder and kohl beauty marks.

“The show,” Murthy squeaks, “must not go on!”

Rama turns to the others incredulously and Lakshmana starts a high-pitched giggle.

“Oh, come, let us get ready.” Sita turns away. “Leave him until big boss comes and we have an audience.”

“We have an audience!” Lakshmana jumps up and down a few times at Murthy’s head, to make him wince, then follows the others.

Murthy can tell from their nasal voices and funny gaits that they are comic actors-what sort of Ramayana features comic actors in the lead roles? What was the English expression Minister Iyer was using, some months back… cave of inequity? Lair of inquiety? It means something very sinful. He was talking about opium smokers in Calcutta: white people, women. Shocking. Murthy sighs and looks at his hands, folded on his chest, chubby fingers and stubby nails, and up again at the sky. It’s still blue, though each cloud blares orange off its western slope, heralding the dusk. He hears voices from around a bend in the path and tightens his bearing so he looks like a toy soldier at attention-knocked down.

“Ayoh! Enn’ idhu?” It’s a woman’s voice, accompanied by running feet. A family group looks down on him.

“Who is it?”

“An Iyer!”

“Is the Iyer hurt? Does he need assistance?”

They do not make eye contact with him, and stand at a respectful and non-polluting distance, slightly bowed, rigid.

“No, you silly people, the Iyer doesn’t need help,” Murthy bellows. “As long as he knows you dolts are not participating in this scandalous and disrespectful so-called Ramayana, he will be fine.” He returns his attention to the sky.

A crowd has dribbled in behind the first family. As they grasp Murthy’s intentions, some begin to look guilty. Others begin to smile behind raised hands. Yet others appear worried. None, however, passes him by and the crowd grows as fast and thick as the darkness, bottlenecking some four feet from Murthy’s prone form. A continual murmuring passes the message back and along.

A familiar voice rings out above the hum-Rama Sastri. “By Jove, it’s working!”

Murthy straightens still further. The next voice, Dr. Kittu Iyer, sounds pleased and pompous. “Well done. Well done, I say. Move aside! Step aside, here. At once!”

In the instant before they achieve the front of the crowd, however, something transpires to Murthy’s other side.

Rama! Sita! Lakshmana! Hanuman! Each springs from the bushes and takes his pose until they form a grotesque caricature of the classic formation, the very one that graces Sivakami’s main hall. Murthy is lying at their feet. As one, they glance down and their faces light up with exaggerated pleasure. They present Murthy to the crowd with a sweeping gesture, as though his is one more body on the battlefield of Lanka, and a great cheer rises up. Minister and the members of his salon emerge and break this sound bubble; at their appearance, a nervous hush falls like soap film upon the masses.

Now another shout is heard from behind the crowd, and all turn and crane to see: it is Ravana-tall, handsome, noble-looking, as he would not be in the conventional Ramayana-who at the end of the previous performance was borne away, cold and ashen, on a funeral bier. Now he brandishes a sword atop a silk-jacketed steed, which capers and snorts as vigorously as his master.

“He lives!” shouts the shrimpy Rama, and cowers, the heel of his hand pressed to his mouth. Lakshmana hides behind his brother; Sita bats her eyelashes at her former captor; Hanuman, a large-cheeked fellow with a tail, yawns and scratches.

Vairum approaches through a group of not only lower-caste labourers, but Panchamas (as untouchables are coming to be called), Christians, even Muslims, though each sub-group has clustered and holds itself subtly apart from the others.

“He lives! He lives! He lives!” The chant begins in the crowd.

But which crowd? For Ravana not only faces a crowd but leads one. Which is composed of… strangers. Vairum will later learn that the 05:40 Thiruchi local pulled in and deposited them-mostly young, many urban, some from as far away as Madras, all chanting Self-Respect slogans-on the Kulithalai platform, where this Ravana had met them.

The local crowd pulls back to form a ring with more of their own numbers, who have continued to appear at the rear of Ravana’s guard. Murthy has not moved, though he lifts his head and strains to see.

“How charming,” sneers Ravana, and suddenly turns his horse’s flank toward the salon members and sweeps his sword downward. The sun reflects red off the blade and they cringe into one another. “Nay, how convenient. The Brahmins and Brahmin-lovers have come to us.” Ravana looks beyond them, toward the tent, and they turn, also, to see the rest of the cast-some twenty actors-assembled behind Rama.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana booms. “The moment of justice’s proof has arrived!” Three of the actors take hold of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, three others snap them into leg irons. In the same moment, Minister’s arms are pulled roughly back and his wrists tied. He looks back wildly to see a fiendish young face with huge white teeth and snapping black eyes.

“Release me at once!” Vairum hears from Ranga Chettiar, though he can’t see exactly what is happening.

“Brute!” This is Rama Sastri. All the salon members have been apprehended, except Vairum, who is not with them.

“As a rightful and invincible monarch of the Dravidian people, I declare the trial of our oppressors, betrayers and false prophets open. Lead the prisoners to the dock!”

Ravana wheels his charge and then stops with a puzzled frown, as though he’s heard something but can’t place the source. His glance breasts the crowd and then descends to a form at his feet.

“Halt,” Vairum hears Murthy squeak.

“Naptime?” asks Ravana.

“Sabotage, my liege,” offers an actor with a gaudy band around his arm reading “bailiff.” “He thought he could prevent the audience from coming in if he lay across the path.”

Ravana dismounts with a jangle and clank-earrings, chains, bangles, belt, hilt, scabbard, anklets-and steps up to Murthy, whose features contract in fright as he draws his hands to his breast like a dog showing its belly.

“How you Aryans under-esteem us,” Ravana tut-tuts. He takes a great stride, led by an immense foot clad in a gold-embroidered, curved-toe slipper with a stamped-leather sole, across and over Murthy’s sunken chest-a gesture of magnificent disrespect. Ravana’s horse follows suit and Ravana remounts.

“On with the show!” he cries, and gallops toward the tent.

Murthy is hauled to his feet by a couple of bailiffs and dragged along with the crowd toward the tent.

The painted backdrop, which, for the last week, has displayed scenes of palaces, forests and rocky beaches-Rama’s castle was mysteriously identical to Ravana’s, down to the personnel-now provides the atmosphere of a courtroom, with a ragged St. George flapping forlornly off the same flagpole as Ravana’s flag, which stands out straight, starched with rice paste. On a podium stands a statuette, dangling scales from one hand; instead of classical Greek garb, however, the female figure is wrapped in the manner of a Tamil country tribal.

As Vairum surges forward with the crowd, he realizes that his salon-fellows are not the only detainees. There are others who must have been frog-marched in with the crowd from points distant. But-that one, with the wire-rimmed spectacles and bald head-is he supposed to be…? If he were reduced by about three stone, perhaps he could pass. And why is that other prisoner clad in the jaunty cap and buttoned-up jacket of…? But the hat is tied on with string, and that dark visage, with teeth poking out in all directions, hardly cuts the profile on which so many hearts are said to have been dashed. The men of the salon don’t look up often, but when they do, they are even more frightened to find themselves surrounded by characters whom they recognize from newspapers and books, but whose likenesses here are to those photos as the Self-Respect Ramayana is to the original. Vairum is concerned for the salon members and glad to be out in the crowd, should anything untoward happen. But until it does, he has to admit this Ramayana is far more entertaining than the other.

“And now, who is our judge?” demands Ravana of the crowd. “Who will sit in judgment on all those who, in weakness and greed, have downtrodden the rightful people of Dravida Nadu?”

“You, Ravana!” several young men chorus back. “You judge!”

Ravana blushes and fawns. “No, no, I really couldn’t.”

Uproarious laughter rises from the crowds and Ravana turns serious.

“No, I refuse to judge because I myself must be judged. I want to submit to trial along with all the others who have purported to rule and lead you. Let us put a halt to blackmail and subterfuge, and let the people judge who is to rule them!”


“But someone must guide and order the proceedings, at least, and for this task I propose our Mariamman, never bent nor bowed.” He kicks off his slippers and makes an elaborate prostration to the tribal goddess. All those present do the same, though the salon members must be rolled into and lifted out of the position, unable to help themselves with their hands.

Ravana settles himself on a bamboo mat. Two curvaceous young women fan him. “I declare the proceedings open,” he announces lightly.

This is the night Sivakami is to attend the Ramayana she sponsored. Muchami has minimized the degree of attrition it has suffered, so she is shocked, when she approaches the pandal, to find no more than twenty people in attendance, made up of a few neighbours, with some Kulithalai Brahmins she doesn’t know, even though the coronation of Rama has already begun. She has brought Vani, and had called for Murthy and Rukmini before leaving. Rukmini came but said it seemed her husband was already at the performance. Gayatri, sitting on her veranda with her children as they passed, said the same thing.

Now Sivakami turns to Muchami, who is following with Mari at a respectful distance. “Muchami! Where are Murthy Anna and Minister Anna?” she whispers loudly.

Muchami, miserable and mortified on her behalf, looks around. “I can’t imagine, Amma.”

Sivakami takes a place on a mat to one side of the stage and says to Vani, “I suppose Vairum was meeting some associate and will come when he’s done?”

Vani doesn’t answer. Sivakami looks at her hard and looks for Muchami again, but he has taken a place with the non-Brahmins, too far away to ask him the same question.

Back at the Self-Respect Ramayana, each of the characters is tried, one by one. Vairum, caught up in the mood of the crowd, finds the hearings eerily convincing. It never would have occurred to him to fault Rama and Sita for behaving as they do in the story, but it’s really quite arguable. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to see his gods as he did before. Perhaps this is what it means to be a Hindu in the new age. Mother and father are to be worshipped as gods, and they have their limitations, as Vairum increasingly can see. Why shouldn’t the gods, too, admit their faults?

Next, the politicians are tried: the chubby Gandhi, the buck-toothed Nehru, a host of others, found short-sighted-nay, blind; neglectful; unwilling to face their own prejudices. The crowd is in a frenzy.

Finally, the men of the salon: Brahmin and non-Brahmin but all clearly elite, marked unmistakably by their fine clothes, soft hands, softer bellies. They are given no chance to speak because they are clearly guilty, guilty, guilty.

Vairum recalls his euphoria at that long-ago courtroom victory when he won his sister her due. Here it is again, the triumph of right over might. The excitement of the crowd, unbelievably, is still mounting. Their clamour coalesces into a chant: “Parade! Parade!”

Like a snake with a belly full of squirming mice, the throng surges out along the path where, so recently, Murthy stretched his now defiled body, and heads toward the other tent.

“There’s another Brahmin!” shouts one of the hired goons. “Take him!”

Vairum is alarmed as two of the bailiffs reach for him.

“Ugh!” The one to reach him first pulls back. “Stop! Leper!”

The thugs surround Vairum but none is willing to touch him. One throws him a rope. “Tie your own wrists, leper.”

“No!” Two of Muchami’s nephews push through the crowd and shove them aside, defending Vairum against attack as they had when they were all lads in school. “He doesn’t count. He has attended every night of your Ramayana.”

“It’s lascivious curiosity, just as they like our women,” sneers the roughest-looking bailiff.

“Yeah, take advantage, but don’t take it home,” says another.

“Really, he is different. Even the Brahmins know it,” says the older nephew gently. By then, several of Vairum’s friends, who were willing to defend him but, unlike the nephews, unused to having to, have advanced with similar protests.

The mass has continued to flow around them, and now Ravana comes past on his horse, with the prisoners of the salon, roped together, trudging abjectly behind.

“What’s this, a stray?” Ravana trumpets from far above, then squints at him. “Leper?”

“They say he’s an exception, sire,” the tubby bailiff explains.

“Oh, they say so, do they?” Ravana glances from one nephew to another. “Well then, it must be so. We must trust the locals, fellows, or how will they ever trust us? Hop to, my nasties,” he calls to the salon cortege. “There’s more than one way to conquer,” he nods to the foiled vigilantes. “In making war, as in making love, you must use your head as well as your hands.”

He gallops on with a laugh and wink.

VAIRUM IS SWEPT ALONG in the crowd to “The Coronation of Rama,” the grand finale of the conventional Ramayana.

Thus it is that Sivakami witnesses her gods arrested and tried, in a monkey court where the only monkey is found innocent, and the enemy of her gods, whose painted demon face revealed little intelligence and much vanity, is surprised but gratified to find himself revered as a hero. She sees her gods and her neighbours pelted with shoes (no one should have been wearing shoes on ground that had been consecrated for the performance, she thinks-did they bring them in bags?) and thus turned into untouchables. Rama is defiled, hit with the very sandals-his own-that his younger brother had placed on the throne when the god was sent into exile.

From her vantage point, backed safely by Muchami and Mari into a corner of the clearing, along with Vani and Rukmini, Sivakami feels curiously unsurprised to see Vairum arrive with the crowd from the other Ramayana, more surprised to see Murthy and Minister arrive as prisoners.

She had been wondering whether all this was her fault, whether she attracted the other Ramayana with her extravagant gesture. Gayatri and Muchami had assured her, no, no, this could never be the case. It’s not the kind of thing she would say to Vairum. She and he make eye contact now, across the crowd, but she can’t tell what he is thinking. From her protected corner, she tries but can’t tell if he is wearing shoes, as has been his habit since Minister bought him his first pair.

Hours later, the hoopla shows no sign of abating, and in fact feels as though it might turn ugly. Muchami edges Sivakami, Rukmini, Vani and Mari along the clearing to the path and signals to Vairum to join them. Vairum says a word of farewell to a couple of friends and comes to them. He is barefooted, but as they make their way along the path, he dives for a moment into the brush and recovers his shoes.

They are all silent as they walk and Sivakami soon realizes she is the only one who can break the quiet. None of the others will speak before she or Vairum does, and Vairum never feels the need to account for his actions.

“If you didn’t want the Ramayana, I never would have commissioned it,” she says, not trying to keep the reproach out of her voice.

“I never said I didn’t want it,” he replies, aware that this doesn’t begin to explain his behaviour.

“How could you humiliate me so?” she whispers.

“I had no intention to humiliate you. My convictions are different from yours, that is all.”

It’s true that he attended the other Ramayana because he couldn’t stand to attend Sivakami’s, and yet, even as he says he didn’t mean to humiliate her, he feels the statement turning into a lie. Could he have borne his neighbours’ company for her sake? Another son might have, but what other son is subjected to all he must endure, for the sake of caste?

“I can’t stand to be a Brahmin sometimes. If you weren’t a Brahmin, you wouldn’t be in white, with your head shaved, hiding in the house, living constantly in a state of victimhood while thinking yourself better than everyone else.”

“We are better,” Sivakami says simply, bewildered. “Why are you not proud?”

“I just can’t stand it!” he roars at her, turning backward along the path to face her, and the others, arrayed behind. “That there is no escape. Can’t you… I want to see things differently sometimes!”

He stalks ahead, and they follow him home.

The next morning, he feels moody and stays in the house. As the older children leave for school, he puts a mat to one side of the main hall, where he can listen to Vani play. He lies, his elbow on a bolster, letting the music ebb around him as though he is lying in a few inches of warm ocean at the beach.

One little grandchild is creeping around the house still: Sita. She comes in from the garden but stops when she sees him, and backs away again. Unpleasant-looking child, he thinks, and then is overcome by throbbing, choking, desirous sadness. He turns back to watch his wife. Why haven’t we had a child, my love?

I killed my father, he killed his father. He doesn’t remember when he first heard the chorus in his brain, sounding as though it has murmured there since he was born. Vani, without ceasing her music, looks at him suddenly, and he, feeling her glance, looks back. Even to him she speaks little, but she can still, as she did from that first day, drown out the deathly chatter with her music and her eyes.

She completes me, he thinks, breathing shallowly with gratitude, grasping at this as though at a branch overhanging a now-swollen river, but marriage is not marriage without children.

To escape his origins; to embrace them.

I just want a baby to raise. It may be possible that I am worthy of this.



25. JanakiStartsSchool 1931

MUCHAMI HAS CARED FOR ALL of Thangam’s children with as much tenderness as their personalities and his station permitted, but he has never grown so attached to one as he has to Janaki in the months since she arrived. He tried with all of the children to distract them from their grief at losing their mother, tried to compensate with games and amusement for the affection Sivakami was unable to give them during the day. Only with Janaki, though, has he formed such a bond. She shines with a brighter light than her siblings, he often thinks, as she trots along beside him, helping with his chores and chattering.

Janaki considers the calves to be her special responsibility and helps especially by coaching the calves in comportment, telling them to stop licking the wall, for instance, where their craving for lime has worn a smudgy brick border into the whitewash. Muchami does the tending and milking. It’s a very particular procedure. A calf is unroped and led to his mother. He roughly butts and nudges her udders before he clamps on. After a few moments, he’s pulled off her belly and tied so that she can reach him but he can no longer reach the udders, and then she is milked while she licks her calf’s back and shoulders. The very young calves stay close by their mothers even after they are untied. They’re allowed more milk. But a slightly older calf, once untied, will dash straight to the water trough. The mother cow will look on for a few moments, then turn her face toward her feed. This calf is not really hers to mother, anyhow. He was born on someone else’s account.

When the milk is handed to Sivakami, that is Janaki’s cue to rouse her sleepy-faced siblings. She gleefully taps heads and shakes shoulders, saying officiously, “Hoi! Hoi, lazybones, what do you think this is, a hospital?” She has heard hospitals are places with cots where everyone stays in bed all day. “Get up!”

Each child sips a cup of boiled milk flavoured with sugar and the scents of cow and woodsmoke. Chores and baths follow and last urgent sums of homework. Janaki usually gets a piece of chalk and makes marks on the floor as her siblings do on their slates, her markings as incomprehensible to them as theirs are to her.

More important than any of these activities, though, is listening to Vani play. After Laddu and Sita have departed for school, Janaki creeps close to listen to her aunt. She’s not sure if Vani sees her; sometimes Vani smiles, but it’s a mysterious smile and could as easily be a response to a moment in the music or some fleeting sensation as to Janaki. From all around, from street and kitchen come the sounds of people working, talking, solving problems and creating new ones, but Vani responds to none of it. She is not startled by loud noises, not disturbed by shouting.

As Janaki listens, she pretends to tap out the beat structure, the taalam, of the song on her lap. She has seen knowledgeable listeners do this, tapping the front and back of their hands, and each of their fingers, in arcane and particular orders.

When Vani has finished playing in the morning, she eats her meal. Janaki eats hers at the same time, not least because Vani talks while she eats. She never talks at any other time, and even at this time, no one-except, now, Janaki-really listens. Sivakami comes in and out with food, but not appearing to pay attention to the daily discourse.

Vani’s method is to tell, on average, a different story each week, repeating it daily with small variations. She often draws from her childhood, telling tales of grandeur and aristocracy. Her uncles are lawyers and ministers; her father is rich. Their house in Pandiyoor is full of music, culture, the latest fashions in clothes, slang, comportment. Most of the time, since Vani doesn’t speak, it’s difficult to tell that she is the product of such a home, but when she does, the influences are obvious.

After a week or so, however, Vani will change the story-fundamentally, but not superficially: most of the details will remain the same, but the moral import or the conclusion will be entirely different, all the pleasant people might become rude and the mean ones heroic. Once, for instance, it was a story of how a wedding was almost stopped by a death; in the variant, the death was almost stopped by the wedding. After delivering this reversal, she stops telling that story, and goes on to another one.

Janaki is as often confused by Vani’s stories as by her music, but she never asks questions. She knows that questioning will get her nowhere with her aunt. She must find other ways.

As Janaki is currently the pre-school-age child in Sivakami’s house, she is looked after by Muchami for much of the day. After his morning chores and mid-morning meal, he goes to his own small house and neighbourhood. Janaki goes with him, as the youngest child in Sivakami’s care always has, and runs through dust and groves while he naps, gossips and has a cup of ragi porridge with his mother.

Sivakami’s grandchildren will each have a very different memory of his or her pre-school months in Muchami’s care. Saradha will remember organizing Muchami’s nieces and nephews into games whose rules they continually broke or forgot-deliberately, she felt. Visalam will remember the whole time as a series of unbelievably funny mishaps. Laddu will forget most things about this epoch, though he will retain the rudiments of gambling, acquired while practically losing his shirt to Muchami’s young nephews day after day. (Muchami made them return to him whatever they won.) Laddu will also never forget the most effective ways of tormenting chickens, though he will not remember having learned them. Sita will recall Muchami’s small relatives as snotty-nosed, insipid, illmannered, repulsive, his neighbourhood as offensive.

Janaki will forever regard this epoch as the happiest of her childhood. In the late morning, each day, Muchami finds her squatting in one of the garden doorways, listening to or thinking about Vani’s story. If the story is not finished, he waits; if it is, he whistles from the courtyard and Janaki comes trotting out to meet him. As they walk, they ask each other questions about things they see or have been thinking about.

“Janaki-baby, why is it that the dust of our Cholapatti roads is so red?” he might ask as they exit the Brahmin quarter, the big houses falling away, replaced by mud huts with thatched roofs.

“I don’t know,” Janaki might reply, trotting to keep up. “Do you think it’s because the sun stains it when it comes up in the morning?”

“Never thought of that.” Muchami squints penetratingly at a field-one of Sivakami’s tenants.

“Yeah, and the night stains it black, did you ever look?” Janaki is starting to pant.

“Ah, yes.” Muchami crouches so that she can put her arms around his neck and he can piggyback her the rest of the way.

“And, Muchami, what happens to notes of music when they disappear ?” she asks from his back.

“I can’t say I ever thought about it,” he admits. “Did you ever try following one?”

“I… don’t think so.” She wishes she could see his face-is he serious?

So they agreeably pass the journey, stopping if he has work he must do en route from her home to his, whereupon she is released to her recreation, and he to his rest. After an hour or so, she creeps into his hut and lies down beside him to take a nap herself. At the afternoon’s end, they make a return journey.

By then, Janaki’s siblings are returning from school, ravenous. They pluck tiny bananas from the stalk that always leans, drooling sap, in the pantry corner, the ripening bananas winding up it like stairs. Sivakami gives each child a cup of milk and a globe of thaingai maavu, coconut ground with palm sugar and lentil flour and formed into a ball with the adhesive of a little milk. Fortified, the children go about their business until nightfall.

Vani, who rests upstairs for some time after her morning meal, comes down to wash her face and comb her hair about the same time the children and Janaki return. She then has Muchami carry her veena up onto the roof, where Vairum has erected an awning for her, and there plays hot and vigorous afternoon ragas until the sun goes down.

While Vani conducts her afternoon session, Janaki sits in the chalky-smelling cool at the top of the stairwell. Sometimes she’s permitted to remain there, sometimes lured or forced away by other happenings in the house. This is the hour when Laddu has his tutorials, for example. If Vairum is tutoring him, Janaki stays away. She tried, once, to take part, but it didn’t go well.

Vairum and Laddu had been sitting down to work in the main hall, Vairum glaring dismissively at Laddu, who fidgeted nervously with his books and slate.

Vairum lobbed an opening, his mind clearly already on his tennis. “What’s news, Laddu? Fail any tests today?”

Janaki had already figured out that whatever school is, Laddu is not very good at it. The boy made no attempt to return the volley. Vairum served a few more, underhanded. “What if your parents never have another boy? You’ll have to support them all alone. You must feel very ashamed and frightened, being the first boy and not having a future. Well, there is always your grandmother’s money, and my help, of course.”

Janaki, listening to this from one of the doorways to the garden, felt a response was merited and looked to her older brother to see what he would say. Laddu scratched at a peeling patch on his slate. He didn’t even look worried, just dull and patient.

Janaki piped up. “Actually, Laddu Anna’s going to do a big job and be very rich.”

Vairum had started to laugh and Janaki felt encouraged.

“Laddu Anna’s pockets will be so full of gold,” she improvised, “that his shorts will always be falling down and his bum will show, but no one will laugh because they’ll all be sad because he’s so much richer than they are. Yep. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Vairum had laughed harder, then stopped on a single snort and fixed her with a look. “Oh, ho, is that how it will be? Good. Very glad to hear that.”

Janaki looked to her brother for approval.

“What nonsense is this?” Laddu snarled. “Get out of here before I beat you!”

He shoved her toward the garden while Vairum said to him in much the same tone, “And I want to see some sums before I beat them out of you, get it?”

The episode left a bad taste in Janaki’s mouth, and she treated herself to a mouthful of dirt from the garden. She passed Muchami, wrestling with a rogue plaintain tree. Pretending to examine the rose-bush, she scooped a rich, moist handful from among the roots and swallowed quickly, barely bothering to chew. Licking morsels of earth from her baby molars, she went from there to visit with the calves.

Janaki never tried to get near one of Vairum’s tutorial sessions again.

During Sanskrit lessons, however, Janaki sits with Muchami, in one of the garden doorways. The teacher sings out the slokas and she sings out her version of them-Laddu has told her she’s yelling gibberish, but she thinks she sounds pleasing and accurate. Muchami is far less assertive in his responses, and one would suppose Janaki’s high-volume participation wouldn’t help him, but he never objects to her presence and always compliments her afterward on the subtlety of her pronunciation. Sometimes Sanskrit even enters their midday to and fro.

“That last sloka, Janaki: how does it affect the meaning that it’s on an upward instead of a downward tilt, at the end?” he puzzles one day. “I keep wanting to do it downward.”

“I was thinking about the very same thing.” Janaki purses her lips. “It sounds more like birdsong the way it is.”

“Quite right and well put, but is that the point?” Muchami challenges, smiling.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Janaki’s brow is furrowed. “We’ll have to ask Kesavan Master tomorrow.”

A few times, she really did try to ask Kesavan. That was another mistake. Kesavan is willing to put up with Janaki’s participation because her presence has injected Muchami with some greater degree of commitment, if no greater competence. But he’ll not stoop to ridiculing the ancient tongue because the granddaughter of the house sees it as a lark. After a couple of barked responses, Janaki learns quickly to confine her questioning-on Sanskrit, on nature, on anything, really-to Muchami, the only person in the household who sees her questions as worthwhile.

She has also learned to confine her questions to times and places when her elder sister Sita will not overhear her. It had happened once, that, in a good mood, Janaki had called out to Muchami as he ate his tiffin, “Muchami, when a bunch of stick insects get together, do they make a tree?”

Before Muchami could answer, Sita, walking past, had supplied a response. “Sure, the same tree your wooden head fell off of.”

Seeing Janaki absorbed in Vani’s music, Sita chitters from the bottom of the stairs or the pantry until Janaki can’t help but look.

“Janaki, this is you,” Sita says, and makes an expression like a monkey sunk, drunk, in a pile of rotting fruit, batting her hand idiotically against her knee.

While Janaki earnestly sits by Muchami’s side, singing out her phrases of “Sanskrit,” Sita parades past in the garden and yodels perfect imitations.

So now, when Sivakami tells Janaki she must come back early from Muchami’s because the tailor is coming to measure her for a school uniform, Sita clarifies, “Amma wants to make sure you have a uniform because then you’ll blend in even though you don’t know anything.”

“Blend in to what?” Janaki frowns.

“The rest of the know-nothing babies, what do you think?” Sita smiles her perverse smile and leaves for school.

“What happens at school, Muchami?” she asks that afternoon.

“Well, you know I’ve never got past the door, Janaki-baby,” he explains, “but I imagine it’s all the things you like, writing and reading and learning, only more and you can do it all day and all the other children are doing the same.”

That sounds all right. Janaki likes the idea of the uniform, also. And Muchami is making her a new slate.

She goes to tell the calves her news. From the cowshed, Janaki hears Sivakami talking to Vairum in the courtyard. Vairum is washing his hands at the well following his own morning meal.

“Have you given it any more thought, kanna?” asks Sivakami. “I think we must pledge another-”

“I never said we shouldn’t,” he cuts her off efficiently.

“I… okay, I’ll look up which is a good day.” Sivakami goes to take the almanac down from the ledge in the hall where it is kept, about six feet off the ground, so she must stand on a small stool to reach it. Janaki watches from the kitchen doorway.

“I want to do the puja at home, for our Ramar,” Vairum says, slowly now.

“Good, kanna.” Sivakami squints through the thick, wavy-paged book. “Next Friday is auspicious.” She spots Janaki. “That would also be a good day for Janaki to start school. Janaki-baby, we’ll do a puja for you to start school, next Friday.”

The tailor comes to take Janaki’s measurements. She starts to feel important.

Preparations begin for the puja. Supplies are bought for sweets, for example, and their manufacture begun.

The tailor returns to fit the uniform.

“Will I wear the uniform for my puja?” Janaki asks her grandmother.

“No, kanna, we do the puja for your uniform, your slate, your books, put it all in front of goddess Saraswati, right? Ask for her blessings so you will study well. You can wear your usual paavaadai, and then put on your uniform afterward.”

“Can I wear a silk paavaadai?”

“If you like, yes. You feel like wearing something special?”


Janaki was pretty sure she had heard her uncle and grandmother discussing a puja for the Ramar, not Saraswati. Things sometimes, often, change out of her hearing, hard as she tries to keep on top of all household developments. They must have decided it’s more appropriate to do the puja for Saraswati, the goddess of learning, all things considered. Yes, that must be it.

Friday morning arrives. As her grandmother returns from the Kaveri, Janaki awakens and informs Muchami she didn’t sleep a wink all night for excitement. She bathes and puts on a paavaadai, teal silk bordered in yellow. She hears her grandmother instructing Sita to bathe and dress, and reminding Vani, also, that today is the day of the puja. Vairum has gone to bathe at the river, something he does only on big occasions. This school matter is even bigger than she had realized, thinks Janaki. The uniform had been delivered the day before and is ready to be blessed, together with her slate, ink powder, writing stick and nib, paper, books and a new tiffin box engraved with her name, G. Janaki.

Sivakami sees her come in from her bath and asks, “All ready, Janaki? Come, the raahu kaalam, the inauspicious hour, has just ended and the good hours begun. Let us do your puja now, before the priest arrives.”

Janaki follows but doesn’t understand. “How can we do the puja before the priest comes and everyone is ready, Amma?”

“No, kanna.” Sivakami moves briskly into the hall. “Your puja, for school.”

Vairum is already before the gods, doing his regular morning prostrations and prayers, clothes and hair still wet from his bath.

Sivakami takes the brass plate on which Janaki’s small pile awaits, and dots a little vermilion powder on each item. Janaki shifts foot to foot, chewing on her lip, looking anxiously at the door where Sita has emerged from her bath. “Hurry up, Sita, my puja is starting.”

Sita slows down to a insolent saunter. “So?”

A look from Sivakami speeds her along.

Sivakami is lighting camphor and offering Janaki’s things along with flowers, sugar rock-candy, a coconut and a piece of turmeric. She prays to goddess Saraswati that Janaki will work hard, appreciate this great privilege and succeed. When they think the goddess has had enough time to grant them the blessing, the plate is set down and Janaki prostrates for the gods, her grandmother and uncle, and Sita, because she’s older than Janaki and happens to be present. From the gods, Janaki believes she receives benevolent approval. From her grandmother, she receives solid encouragement. Her uncle looks uninterested and skeptical but tells her to make the best of this and sounds like he expects to be obeyed. Sita lets Janaki get close before she whispers, “You’ll be a disaster.” She beams at her little sister, saccharine and malign.

Then Vani arrives to do her morning prayers, after which she sits and begins playing.

Laddu comes and sits to one side, morning-befuddled, but clean and dressed for a special occasion, and everyone else is clearly waiting for something more. Janaki sees Muchami in the garden and goes to the door. “My puja is over,” she tells him. “What is everyone waiting for?”

She spoke her question a little too loud. Everyone turns a puzzled look on her, except Sita, who hoots and cackles, “She thought everyone was dressing up because they were so excited that the little dimwit’s off to learn some learning!”

“Sita, stop that.” Sivakami turns toward the little girl. “We’re doing a puja for the Ramar, today, Kanna. Vairum Mama and Vani Mami are asking to be blessed with children. You forgot?”

Had Janaki known, she surely would not have forgotten. She has participated in many rituals already to this end and was especially enthusiastic about the one where Vani poured milk down snake holes.

A priest arrives as Janaki sulks in the garden door. The priest begins to set up the fire. He needs to start the puja within this hour and a quarter: one of the auspicious times that checkerboard the day. Sivakami bustles back and forth from the kitchen with things the priest needs as Vani plays on, more intensely and virtuosically than usual, though all Janaki can tell for sure is that it seems louder.

The priest does the preliminary incantations. Vairum comes and sits where he is directed to by the priest. Sita is sitting beside Laddu, looking disgusted. She whispers something to him and he shrinks like he’s been jabbed with a hot poker. Vani still plays. Janaki decides to go change into her uniform, but when she rises, Sivakami shakes her head. The priest looks at Sivakami and at Vairum; he’s done all he can do without Vani’s participation. They look back at him as though they don’t understand what he wants.

The priest turns to Vani but senses something about her that makes him unwilling to address her directly. So he casts another, more obviously plaintive glance at Vairum, who sighs and raises his eyebrows back. The priest points at the hourglass. They don’t have much time to get on with it. All the household watches with eyes narrowed as Vairum approaches the woman who should regard him as her lord.

As he crouches beside her, she gives no indication that she is aware of him. Finally, in a natural pause in the music, he says tentatively, “Ma?”

She launches passionately into the next movement of the improvisation, her left hand, above one gourd, strumming and plucking the melody, right hand, at the frets above the other gourd, stroking out the accompanying drone. Sita and Laddu break into vicious chuckles and don’t stop despite Vairum’s withering stare. Vairum flushes. He rises to standing, like a hawk poised in the air before a dive. Janaki, from her vantage point, sees his lips seal into a tiny knot.

Fwoosh-he stoops and catches Vani’s left wrist, arresting the melody.

Without breaking the drone sound, Vani’s right hand forms a fist and knocks him in the forehead. He falls, stunned, onto his bottom as he releases her wrist. She resumes her virtuosic swells. Now every eye in the room is open very wide, except Vairum’s, which are screwed shut. He keeps them that way as he rises and stumbles through Janaki’s doorway into the garden. She tucks her legs in so as not to trip him.

Only Janaki can see him as he leans his desecrated forehead against a young papaya tree. He stays that way for a very long time, while the notes climax and come to rest. Vani places her hands on her knees and takes one breath, staring at her instrument. Upon exhaling, she raises her head and her eyes come into focus. She gets up and seats herself in place for the puja. The priest awakens in a fluster from his own reverie, finds his place in the sloka book and begins to chant.

Vairum detaches himself from the lacy, leafy papaya tree and returns to the doorway. The sun is behind him and Janaki cannot see his face. He turns to take his place beside his wife. On his forehead is the deeply imprinted double X of the papaya trunk’s bark-a wavy diamond with a half reflection on each side. The hourglass runs out as they complete the puja for a child. The papaya skin diamond melts from his forehead, as his diamond-dark eyes, too, melted briefly into something soft and hurt.

As the auspicious time dribbles to an end, Janaki jumps up and runs off to change into her uniform before her grandmother can object.

Her white shirt and blue skirt are starched as stiff, it seems, as her books. The buttons of the shirt are at the back, so she has to ask Sita for help doing them up. Sita deliberately buttons her wrong; Sivakami notices and makes her do it again, and then squats in the kitchen with a brass pot of yogourt rice. The children seat themselves in a semicircle around her and she feeds them their breakfast, dropping a mouthful of the mixture into each of their palms in turn as they eat.

When they finish, they run to the well to wash their hands, rinse their mouths and gather their things. Muchami secures Janaki’s books in their strap as she picks up her slate, writing stick and ink, and they run for the door.

He lifts her onto the cart. “Janaki-baby, go to the centre, away from the edge.”

He points and then stands, twisting his shoulder towel around a finger as Janaki crawls to the centre, moving her things in two trips. As the cart lurches around the corner, she seats herself in a puff of relief, and then looks up to see Muchami watching her from the veranda. She suddenly realizes he needs to do all his regular things today: go to his home, take a nap-how is he going to do all that without her? She had gotten so excited about going to school that she hadn’t considered the fact that she wouldn’t be at home.

She tries to stand but stumbles on a couple of other children. The last sight she has of her home is Muchami gesturing impatiently and yelling, “Sit! Sit!”

Muchami enters the garden (he had run through the house to help Janaki but, as a matter of course, doesn’t walk through the main hall), walks through the cowshed and into the courtyard.

“I suppose I’ll get the marketing done, Amma,” he calls to Sivakami. “Anything particular I should look for?”

“No. Whatever’s good.” She doesn’t look up from preparing the mid-morning meal. He doesn’t go, however, but continues standing in the courtyard, half out of sight, beyond the kitchen door. Sivakami stands to dump out the water in which she has been rinsing okra, and sees him. “I said, whatever’s good.”

He looks at the ground. He doesn’t understand how Sivakami could not feel as he does, bereft, though the course of her day is relatively unaltered by Janaki’s departure.

“You know, Mari and I have talked, sometimes, about adopting a child,” he tells her.

She slices the okra against the blade, tossing it into a pan. “I think that’s a good idea. No one should be without a child.”

“I think, maybe a little girl.”

“A girl? Why would you do that?” She doesn’t think she has ever heard of anyone adopting a girl. Childless Brahmins generally adopt some poor relative’s son, so that they themselves will have a son to perform their death rites. Muchami’s community’s customs are unknown to her, though. She suspects they may not have annual death rites; they barely even observe time the same way as Brahmins.

“You’re right,” he says hastily, unwinding his shoulder towel yet again from his sweaty palm. “I don’t know. I’ll go to market now.”

Sivakami shrugs. She has no idea what’s on his mind, but expects either he will tell her, or she will guess, in good time.

At the entrance to the schoolyard, Sita jumps off the cart and walks toward the school without looking back. Janaki finally figures out a way to pile everything on her slate and balance it as she walks, but she has to stop every few steps to look up and check where Sita is going.

They enter the school, a long mud building with six classrooms, their doors opening directly onto the yard. At one end are three offices, occupied by the headmistress and some lesser functionaries. Their doors open onto a hallway that traverses the width of the school, and opens onto the schoolyard at either end. There are only sixty girls in the school, so the first-, second- and third-standard students are together. Sita and Janaki will be in the same class.

“Miss, this is Janaki, Miss, my sister,” Sita mumbles to the teacher for form’s sake as she crosses to deposit her tiffin box in the coolest corner of the room.

It’s then that Janaki notices she is without her own lunch. Did she leave it in the cart? But no, it took her two trips to move her things, one for books and pen, a second for slate and ink. It must still be in the kitchen, where her grandmother leaves Laddu’s and Sita’s lunches after packing them. But she cannot take any more time to think about it. Sita has already taken her seat on the floor among the other third-standard girls. Janaki pivots from one side to another on her heels, trying not to upset her little stack of supplies, unsure as to where she should go. The teacher, Miss Mathanghi, points her toward the opposite side of the room, where eleven girls of roughly Janaki’s size and level of uncertainty are sitting. They all started school this month; three are starting today.

Miss Mathanghi, an ancient and dour twenty-five, waits for the shuffling and gossip to peak. The last girls are just entering as she launches into the morning’s prayer, some twelve couplets from the Bhagavad-Gita, which she bellows line by line, and which the girls yell back. She does this once through with the entire classroom in some semblance of chorus. She then sings out each line a second time, looking at the ceiling or out the window. At the end of the line, she points to a student, who must repeat it alone. Sita is among the first; she gets perhaps half of her line right. That is typical for her, but today she has an additional distraction: she is smiling a calculating smile at her sister, implying that Janaki will be chosen and that she should be scared.

Janaki is scared. One of her standard-mates is selected, a little girl like her, who has only begun school that day. She just gapes at the teacher, who stares back a second before rolling her eyes and pointing to a second-standard. Janaki feels herself petrifying and turning red; perhaps, she thinks, perhaps she can blend into the brick floor. Perhaps the teacher will see only an empty space, an empty uniform starched stiff enough to stand alone.

But there is the pointer, aimed at Janaki.

And Janaki responds, repeating the entire line perfectly. Or so it sounds to her, but then it always does. But yes, it’s true: the teacher is nodding, surprised, approving. She sings out the next line and the next, the final line of the prayer. She indicates Janaki for both of them. Janaki repeats them. She looks cautiously at Sita, expecting her sister to be shaking in triumphant hilarity while Janaki makes a fool of herself, but Sita is gaping at her jealously and looks away when Janaki turns to her.

The first class of the day for the youngest girls is arithmetic; the first exercise is writing the numerals one through ten. The teacher props a slate near the front of the classroom and writes, “1, 2, 3.” “Those of you who can, copy this. Those of you who can‘t, well, then we will know you can’t!”

Janaki thinks she can do this. The first figure on the board looks like a walking stick, the next an ear, with a dangling earring blowing out in the wind, the last like a bird, tipped sideways to round a corner in flight. She thinks the teacher has been too hasty in making the drawings and does her best to make each figure more realistic and accurate.

If only she could stop the tears that keep blurring the image in front of her, the job would be much simpler. She can’t seem to stop herself from thinking about the calves and cows, who must be feeling lost without her there to instruct and reassure them. And Vani-will she even bother to change her story when no one at all is listening? Worst of all, Muchami is walking home alone. He’ll be leaving any time now, his head heavy with questions he can ask no one. Three tears plink onto her new slate and she wipes them off with her skirt quickly before anyone can see. But when she blinks, swallows and blinks again, the design she worked so hard to produce is also gone, and she has a smear of chalk on her navy blue skirt.

Meanwhile the teacher has given a reading assignment to the second-standards. The third-standard girls have been asked to write out multiplication tables.

“I’m so looking forward to reading Sita’s times table-three days ago she wrote all the figures so small no one but she could make them out. I’m sure they were all absolutely correct,” Miss Mathanghi says in a tone implying the opposite. Her face is grim as concrete.

Sita, already seeing red due to Janaki’s recent triumph, bends to her work with a grimness bordering on the teacher’s own. It’s not the only way she resembles the teacher. Sita has a talent for hurting people, but she has learned a lot in Miss Mathanghi’s classroom.

Miss Mathanghi is making her way back to the first-standard girls. She has a small waist and low hips behind which clings a flat bottom. Her skin is greyish and her shoulders so rounded that her trunklike arms give the impression of emerging more from the front than from the sides of her torso. She has taught these classes for eight years, more than long enough to know that, in this tender phase, she need do little more than look at the first-standards to set them aquiver with fear and self-consciousness. Janaki, though, is a harder nut. She is not, as most of her classmates are, fixed desperately on the teacher, searching her in vain for signs of approval or affection. She is weeping, which is common, but, despite the tears, seems fully absorbed in the scene she is elaborating on her slate.

Janaki’s slate shows a small flock of 3’s, headed by a fantastic bird of prey. She is sitting back from the slate so that her tears drop onto her skirt and don’t interfere.

Miss Mathangi chooses her approach instinctively. “You don’t turn the world, Janaki.”

The little girl sits up, as though the currents running between her brain and spinal cord have suddenly increased in voltage.

“Either you do as you please,” the teacher continues deliberately, “which is to say, the wrong thing, or you do what I have instructed you to do, that is, the same thing as every other girl in this classroom.”

It hadn’t occurred to Janaki to look at what the other girls were doing. Now she looks around. Most of the children have done a passable job. Janaki looks at the brief and unattractive marks on their slates, and the detailed, dramatic tableau on her own. She’s confused. She automatically looks to her sister. She knows, though she doesn’t realize it until she’s already turned her head, that she will see the usual cruel gloat. Even that, however, is reassuringly familiar at the moment.

But then a far more reassuring figure appears. Could it be? Muchami is silhouetted in the doorway. He stands and doesn’t say anything, just moves a little, side to side, to draw attention.

All the girls crane to see him, tipping forward onto the knees of their crossed legs, though not rising. Miss Mathanghi glances at him and asks, “What?”

He holds out his right hand, a string tied into a loop hooked across his palm. At the other end of the string dangles Janaki’s shiny new tiffin box.

“It’s Janaki’s lunch,” he explains gruffly and looks furtively into the classroom, searching for her face.

Janaki is frozen, fixed on him, but her eyes dart to her teacher and back.

“Mmh!” Miss Mathanghi grunts and jerks her head toward the door to indicate Janaki should go take her lunch.

Janaki slowly rises and goes to the door, uncertain of how she should take her lunch from him. Why is he carrying it like that? She holds her left hand out as if to take the string, but he holds the tiffin box up and frowns to indicate she’d better take hold of it. She carries the box to the lunch corner as Sita starts to laugh, and soon the whole classroom is in gales, hysterical from the tension of the classroom.

When Janaki sets the tiffin box down, Sita yells, “Touch the water, touch the water!”

There is a jug of water in the corner by the tiffin boxes, and Janaki tips it with her left hand so that she moistens the fingers of her right, a ceremonial washing of the hand polluted by contact with cooked rice. As she does so, she looks over to Muchami.

Who is not there.

She drops the neck of the jug but catches it by the lip before it falls too far. The girls who see this gasp and then start laughing again as Janaki runs out the door and after Muchami. She throws her arms around his legs and clasps her face to his hip, clinging with the strength of immature fruit to the stem. Muchami pries her off: fruit drops away when it’s ready, but unripe fruit can also be plucked and ripen on its own.

“Oh, Janaki-baby.” He stoops toward her. “Don’t you love school? What did you learn today?”

Janaki doesn’t answer. Her small body strains toward him so that the second his elbows relax, she sticks herself again to his leg.

“Have you had enough for today already?” He knows he probably shouldn’t even be asking, but he, too, had been wondering how he would get through his day without her. “Okay, just today. You can come with me.”

She lifts her arms to him and he picks her up and starts to walk, her arms around his neck, her face in his shoulder. He can feel her calming, or is that him?

Her face in his neck, she asks, “Muchami, why did you carry my food with the string-because of cooked-rice pollution?”

“Um, no, Janaki-baby,” he replies, feeling an unaccustomed sting of humiliation. “Because you are Brahmin and I cannot touch your food.”

Vairum had left already to look after business in Thiruchi when they noticed the forgotten tiffin box in the corner, and they were about to send for one of the layabout sons of one of the Brahmin quarter’s poorer families, but then Mari had proposed that, just as she used a stick to move the family’s clean laundry and detangle the girls’ hair, Muchami should be able to carry the food if there was some instrument intervening. Sivakami produced the twine.

Janaki raises her head. “How come you can carry me like this but not my food?”

“Because you can take a bath or change your clothes, but your food can’t? Or maybe because you would be uncomfortable if I tied you up with string?” he suggests.

“Yes,” Janaki smiles. “I’m too big for you to carry me that way.”

“That must be it,” he smiles back.

They return to the house. It’s still early; Muchami has not yet had his morning meal. Even before reaching the little temple halfway along the road into the Brahmin quarter, they can hear Vani’s music. She had resumed right after the puja. Does this mean the day has continued in Janaki’s absence? Or is it now picking up where she left off? She would have believed the latter, were it not for the seed of doubt Miss Mathanghi had so accurately sown.

Janaki and Muchami enter through the courtyard door. As he washes his hands and feet, Janaki changes her clothes as her grandmother instructed her to do whenever she returns from her outings with Muchami. If she were older, she would have to bathe.

When she emerges from the bathroom, Mari, serving Muchami his meal, yells, “Ayoh! Janaki?”

Janaki runs through the kitchen, past her grandmother, into the main hall and drops herself into her doorway niche. She is sore all over. The music surrounds her and she starts to relax.

Vani raises her left hand and beckons in the child’s direction. Janaki looks behind her to her right, into the garden, to her left, into the back of the hall, but she is the only one around. Vani looks directly at Janaki, something she’s never done, her pale face solemn, her eyes canny and expectant. She beckons once more.

Janaki leaves her niche and seats herself, facing Vani and slightly to her right. Vani strokes the drone strings, upward, with her right pinky, leaving the melody for a moment. As she does, she taps the front of her left hand on her lap. Then she taps the back, then the front again, and as she does, strokes the drone. Then again the front of the hand, with a drone stroke, and she counts off, pinky, ring, middle finger. She repeats: front of hand, back, front, back, front, pinky, ring, middle, with the drone struck each time she taps with the front of her hand, and Janaki understands: this is how you count off the rhythm.

As Vani resumes playing, continuing to stroke the drone with her pinky on the taalam’s downbeat, playing the melody with her ring and middle fingers and working the frets with her left hand, Janaki taps out the taalam.

“Adhi Taalam,” Vani names it for her with a smile, and Janaki is elated because she hears it and doesn’t have to pretend any more.

As she listens to the song, though, which has grown sleepy and tense, like the lull before an episode in a long-running quarrel, Janaki’s teacher’s words return to her. She blushes and happens to look to her right, where she sees Vairum standing on the spiral stairs leading down from his and Vani’s quarters. He is watching Janaki with a look she will never forget, though she won’t understand it for years: the remnants of that morning’s humiliation, scattered against years of disappointment.

Janaki circles with her hands the space her aunt and the veena inhabit and cracks her baby knuckles against her own temples-a customary gesture of affection. Vairum charges.

“All you children, all of you think you own this place, don’t you? This is your inheritance from your father-the belief that you have the right to a good life without working for it! How long did you last, a half-hour? The school uniform is a joke to you? This is not your veena! This is not your place! You do not decide, do you hear?”

Vairum advances six steps toward her with his speech and Janaki has to flee. She scoots back an equal distance on her bottom, then stumbles to her feet and backs away, around the veena and her aunt, both of whom continue as before. As her uncle reaches the spot where Janaki herself had been sitting, Janaki reaches the garden door. As Sivakami yells, “Stop! Stop, my son!” Janaki runs out into the green and embraces from behind the young papaya whose succour Vairum had taken earlier.

The earth in the pockets between the tree’s roots tempts her. With one hand still fast round the tree, Janaki flips into her mouth a lump of dirt the size of the thaingai maavu balls the children have for their after-school snack. The soil is crunchy and damply acrid, and contains a couple of jasmine petals. Its dark comfort spreads in her mouth. She sighs and leans her forehead on the tree, both arms clasped round it, its parasol of leaves nodding above. Despite having her forehead pressed to the tree, Janaki can see her grandmother approaching from the main hall and Muchami from the cowshed.

Sivakami says from the door, “Tch-tch, Janaki-baby. Vairum Mama didn’t mean what he said. He knows you are a good girl, a smart girl. But why are you home from school now? You were so excited to go.”

But Muchami reaches her, turns her small shoulders from the tree and puts his arms around her. Janaki knows Vairum meant every word of what he said and now she has learned something else on her first day of school: to be afraid of her uncle.

She starts to cry on Muchami’s shoulder and a dribble of black drool escapes the downpulled corner of her mouth and falls onto his bicep. He wipes it with his shoulder towel and frowns at its colour. “Ah, Janaki-baby,” he sighs. “How many times do you have to be told?”

Mari, who had joined them by now, choruses, “Ayoh! Dirty girl! So much good food you get in this house! Don’t eat dirt! Don’t, don’t eat dirt!”

Janaki’s sobs, which had been pulling at her small form with increasing intensity, cease with a great inward yank, as though a line around her has been pulled taut. She fixes on Mari a look of weariness. Mari, who means well, clamps shut her lips. Janaki whips around and vomits on the roots of the young papaya.

Muchami takes her by the hand and leads her to the courtyard, where he washes her face and tells her to rinse her mouth. Vani finishes playing in the meantime, and Muchami sends Janaki back inside to listen to the day’s story while he has his meal. This week, Vani has been telling the story of a mysterious reliquary that seemed always to appear during times of crisis in the family, and disappear when the crisis had passed. A box in the shape of a parrot, encrusted with a filigree of unidentifiable metals, it contained a rosewood bowl as big as half a hen’s egg, still bearing faint traces of some pearly unguent; two coins, the smaller with a stamp of fruits and the other of two figures entwined in erotic counterpoise; and a wooden statuette that offended everyone who saw it: a dog with vermilion stains that indicated it was an object of worship. No one could hold on to the box, and no one could agree on whether it was bringing or banishing the family’s episodes of ill fortune.

Janaki checks the vestibule and sees that Vairum’s shoes are gone: he’s out on rounds or wherever he goes. She sits across from Vani and sinks into the story as into a down-filled comforter, wondering where it will go today. In the last four tellings, the story has turned on Vani’s uncle noticing the reliquary, in a time when he had been asking many pointed questions and receiving no answers. His suspicions of some misfortune afoot had been confirmed by the parrot box’s appearance. Janaki wonders if the story will change today and hopes not. She’s in the mood for continuity.

Maybe Vani senses this, because the story stays the same, with only the smallest additions or subtractions of detail. When the story is done, Janaki looks over to see if Muchami is ready and waiting. He is, and the two of them set off for his home. En route, Janaki asks the questions she had prepared. Muchami has a couple of his own. They are quieter than usual. At Muchami’s house, Janaki falls promptly asleep and remains so for the entire afternoon. When she awakens, it is to find herself in Muchami’s arms, and half of the homeward journey completed.

Back at home, Laddu and Sita have already arrived. Janaki tenses for a barrage of Sita’s barbs, but Sivakami must have spoken to her because Sita says nothing.

An hour later, she and Muchami sit in their usual spot for the Sanskrit tutorial. Janaki sings out her responses with confidence and without expression, as though already taking for granted what the teacher notes with a congratulatory smile: she has had a breakthrough.

In a pause, while young Kesavan drills the other pupils in a phrase Janaki had gotten right the first time, Muchami leans over. “You are the smartest and the best, Janaki-baby.” She smiles, embarrassed, and butts her forehead into his shoulder.

The next morning, Janaki rises, as usual, well ahead of the other children, and commences her morning routine. When Sita and Laddu sit to do their homework, she sits with them, bent over the slate Sita brought home for her the day before.

Sita is too sleepy and grumpy to be properly cruel and so only asks, “Where’s your uniform, twerp?”

Janaki looks up from her slate as though irritated at the interruption and asks defiantly, “What do I need it for?”

“To go to school?” Sita yawns loudly.

“I went yesterday.” Janaki bends again to her slate.

Even Sita is given pause by this, though she recovers quickly. “What, you think you’re finished?”

“Yep. I’m needed here,” Janaki confides with a return of her old assurance. She understands now that she can’t be both at school and at home. People need to make choices in life; this is hers.

“Amma!” Sita bellows, and Sivakami comes running. “Amma, Janaki thinks she’s not going to school any more.”

“Janaki-baby, shouldn’t you put on your uniform?” Sivakami asks kindly, and all Janaki’s confidence deserts her.

She sits like a crumpled paper cut-out of herself. Sivakami doesn’t say more. She tells the children to come to breakfast. Janaki doesn’t come. The bullock cart arrives. Janaki stays in her hall-door niche. Vani invites her to beat the taalam on the final number. Janaki does- Vairum left on business early that morning, and she doesn’t need to worry about him.

Today Vani’s story changes: now the uncle is the one on the brink of misfortune and trying to keep it secret from the rest of the family, and the family guesses, from the reliquary’s appearance, that someone is hiding something, though not what or who.

And now Muchami is ready to depart and Janaki to depart with him.

On the road, she starts in with the day’s questions.

“Muchami, how come rice and lentils get soft when they’re cooked, but idlis and dosai get hard?” she asks in a let’-forget-the-past tone.

Muchami smiles at her sadly. “I don’t know, Janaki-baby. Maybe you should ask your teacher that one.”

Janaki slides him a wary look. “What teacher, Muchami?”

“Your teacher at school.” He looks at her and back at the road.

“I’m finished school, Muchami,” she explains. “It was spreading me too thin.”

“But you have so many questions, Janaki, that you and I can’t answer alone. We need your teacher.”

Janaki is silent, wondering how Muchami could be so wrong in his judgment.

“Janaki-baby.” Muchami clears his throat. “Did you learn Sanskrit in school?”

“No,” replies Janaki, and it’s the truth. She didn’t learn it, she discovered she already knew it. “You can’t learn Sanskrit at school, Muchami, that’s why Laddu Anna needs to learn it at home.”

“Laddu is being taught at home because he’s not learning in school, but he’s not learning at home, either,” Muchami points out, and a little of Janaki’s faith in him is restored. “But you could learn so much, Janaki-baby. Trust me: so much that you can’t learn at home, that I can’t learn unless you go and do it for me. Then you can teach me. Please go back to school, Janaki-baby. Do it for me.”

Janaki is starting to see his point of view in spite of herself. Her practical mind begins rearranging her days. She could look after the cows before and after school. She and Muchami, too, can convene at other times to do what they must do. And she only need attend school a half day on Saturday, and Sunday not at all.

But what about Vani? Vani cannot be rearranged. Well-if Janaki is to be Muchami’s eyes and ears at school, he can be hers at home. Janaki will spend as much time as ever she is able listening to Vani’s music; he cannot help her with that. But he can listen to and relate the day’s stories. If he promises this, she will go back to school.

He can offer this. “Done.”


Janaki returns to school the next day, opening some doors, closing others. Muchami and she save their questions for the end of the day and weekends, but there are more and more questions never asked and never answered, and eventually, more and more she doesn’t think to seek answers for.