As the summer vacation wore on, I was bored stiff at Balettan’s house. Had Raghu’s cricket tournament started? Who was playing in my place? I waited eagerly for Raghu’s card: “To our dear Ramkanth Desai… without you the Golden Arrows team…”
One afternoon, I sat near the pond in the sarppakkavu in Balettan’s grounds, staring into the water.
Suddenly, Kanakam rose up from behind the prickly leaves of a pineapple thicket.
“Are you fishing?”
“I was watching the fish.”
“Come, we’ll catch fish.’
Kanakam waded into the pond. Standing knee-deep, the water maiden held the edges of her ottamundu with both hands in a cup-like hollow beneath the surface. I still remember her telling me to burst the little bubbles that rose up from the water trapped in her mundu… and the long scar on her fair thigh, the sign of a beating she had got some time before. After a long spell of stillness, several baby fish swam into the water above the improvised net. One swift pull, upward; the water drained out through the mesh of the cloth, leaving the fish stranded.
“Ramakrishnan Nair-e!” Kanakam wrapped the fish in a colocasia leaf and ran towards the kitchen. I followed. She was my new heroine. Ramakrishnan Nair looked up, his eyes streaming from blowing into the fire. “What are you up to now, you crazy girl?”
“Can you fry this fish for us?’
Balettan’s mother stormed into the kitchen. In a voice throbbing with anger, she asked: “How many times have I told you not to wade in the sarppakkulam?” Her fingers closed around Kanakam’s hair. “Wretched girl, I’ve told you so many times — don’t go there, don’t go there!”
Kanakam still held the leaf-wrapped bundle. Balettan’s mother snatched it from her hand and threw it out the door. The fish, still alive, flipped about, fighting for air, harmonium keys moving on their own without the aid of fingers.
“Those are my fish!” Kanakam started crying.
Snatching the long iron needle that Ramakrishnan Nair was picking fried pappadam out of boiling oil with, Balettan’s mother pressed it against Kanakam’s hand, singeing the fine coppery down. The sound and stench of a crematorium; a scar like a black rainbow. The flesh oozed liquid, breast-milk for the screaming pain… the skin swelled into a blister.
I ran into the house, howling. Amminiettathi sat as though she hadn’t heard a thing, a papier mache figurine, its hollow inside filled with misery.
“How many times have I told you not to go with that crazy girl?”
“But what did Kanakam do?”
“That creature doesn’t practise isolation or ritual cleansing. She has polluted the sarppakkulam, that’s all.” Then she lowered her voice: “This is what happens if children are brought up without discipline.” I smiled to please her, pretended that I understood.
The nights that followed were horrible. Amminiettathi would bed me down on the mat and say for Balettan’s benefit: “Poor thing. I hope Kanakam is exorcised.”
“She is not possessed,” Balettan would say. “She’s a bit immature, that’s all. People have blown it up.”
Through the window, I heard Kanakam’s screams rend the summer night. Tantri Bhattathiripad’s voice crashed about blindly above me like red-hot iron, like whirling bats: “I command you to leave.” Then the even, rhythmic lash of the cane. “Go-go-go — it’s wiser for you to leave.”
Kanakam’s screams grew louder and louder… When Tantri Bhattathiripad left after finishing the day’s rituals, Balettan would bring Kanakam to their room. When he put his arm around her shoulders, tears welled up in my eyes. Kanakam was still racked by sobs that came up from the depths of her soul. Amminiettathi hovered about, irrelevant.
“Can’t you keep out of mischief?”
“What did I do?”
“Don’t you know that everyone here is crazy?”
“I do know that!” Kanakam stopped crying. “Everyone except Balettan.”
Balettan laughed. Suddenly, I wanted to touch him.
“Baletta,” Kanakam called. There was a trace of madness in that call. I hearkened. “Baletta, why did you bring yet another crazy person into this house that’s already full of them?”
“Who is that?” Balettan asked.
N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam fiction. A senior Indian civil servant, he is based in Patna