Men never lay aside their pride, even when they talk to themselves. Even then, their gestures are studied, like dance mudras. But Kanakam didn’t have the art of creating words in bright, many-hued solitude. Every act that a woman performs, even talking to herself, is like childbirth. Kanakam flung out words, shedding her blood, her warmth, her thoughts, her face contorted with pain. And the words, those insane utterances, emerged like newborn infants.
I never tried to eavesdrop on her. The fear that grown men have of watching a woman in labour — even as a child, perhaps I had harboured some of that fear. That’s how I rationalised it later, anyway.
The summer vacation after Amminiettathi’s marriage. She was leaving for Balettan’s home and asked me to go along. To be honest, I didn’t want to go anywhere that vacation. Raghu and his friends were organising a tournament — the Golden Arrows Cricket Tournament. First prize: a slightly used cricket ball. Nine teams were in the fray. But something in Amminiettathi’s request prompted me to go with her. Her voice trembling with tears, she said: “Unni, do come; I’ll take you to the cinema every week.”
In Balettan’s home, Amminiettathi and I were in the same position — we were both newcomers. The creaking of the front door frightened both of us. However softly you opened the door, it creaked. It surprised me to see Amminiettathi the bride manage her domestic chores. She whom Amma used to scold for not washing up her plate after lunch, now did all the dishes without anyone having to tell her. Sometimes, as she washed up by the well, she would look at me and wink — we were conspirators.
After Balettan left for work on the first day, Amminiettathi told me about Kanakam: “Balettan’s sister Kanakam is insane.” She lowered her voice. “She’ll be coming now. Don’t eat anything she gives you, okay?”
“She’s dirty. Whenever I see her, she has a finger up her nose.”
Before Amminiettathi could finish, Kanakam came in. Amminiettathi immediately pretended to be engrossed in the newspaper in her hand. I had had an image of Balettan’s insane sister in my mind: she just had to be dark and short, her forehead made shiny by greasy, untidy hair. But Kanakam…
Kanakam spread like a winding climber, her wind-blown ringlets fluttering lightly in the sea breeze; Kanakam, whose locks were like curled-up kittens; Kanakam with her light grey eyes… the saffron-pink of her toenails seemed to extend to the very flesh of her toes. Kanakam, whose body, innocent of the usual onnara, undulated beneath the single length of cloth she wore. Kanakam Kanakam Kanakam. I just sat there, staring.
“‘Hellon,” Kanakam greeted me in an affected voice.
“Hellon,” she greeted Amminiettathi: “Hellon, Puthanacchi.”
Amminiettathi began to read out loud: “In a bus accident near Muvattupuzha an unidentified…”
“Puthanacchi,” Kanakam asked in a low voice. “Have you swept the rooftop?” And then she ran out of the room.
I burst out laughing. Amminiettathi glared at me, intense hatred tinged with frustration in her eye.
“Stop it. Stop laughing.”
I ran. My male pride wouldn’t permit me to look back. I skipped about in the vast grounds of Balettan’s house, exulting in the knowledge that I was one up on Amminiettathi… I had never thought I could best her. I flew above the mounds of sand, an Arab prince. And then I saw a moovandan mango lying on the ground, nibbled and discarded by a squirrel. I picked up the rare find and ran back to Amminiettathi.
“Where did you find it?” The golden tunnel the squirrel had bored into the fruit seemed to appease her.
“Kanakam gave it to me.” I lied with the innocence that only children are capable of.
‘Throw it away.” She reached for the fruit.
“Unni, I mean it.”
“I won’t give it to you.”
“You don’t know where all she sticks her hand.”
“I don’t mind.”
“The shavam always has a finger up her nose.”
“That’s all right.”
“Or else she’s scratching her bum.”
I began to eat the mango, totally indifferent. Amminiettathi snatched it out of my hand and hit me over the head. Today, I understand…
“Podii,” I spluttered angrily, biting my lower lip to keep back the tears. “Podii, podii, podii!” Amminiettathi began to laugh.
Balettan’s mother came into the room.
“Ammini, is this how children are brought up in your house, without any discipline?”
Amminiettathi’s face fell. I had won again.
“Because of you, I caught the side of her tongue. Happy?”
For a long time afterwards, Amminiettathi continued to mutter: “That Kanakam is the cause of all this… that Kanakam…”
N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam fiction. A senior Indian civil servant, he is based in Patna