Balettan laughed again… Amminiettathi’s sob; Kanakam’s feet running out of the room… Kanakam, who didn’t forget to pinch my cheek on her way out.
Kanakam began to go to the river every evening. She sat under the tamarind tree. I had a friend by that time, Geetha. We made the paruthi tree that leaned into the river our car — number-plate TCR555. I was MGR, she P. Bhanumathi. I was Madhuraiveeran, I was Malaikkallan…
Leaning against the roots of the tamarind tree, Kanakam talked to herself. Her frenzied gestures sometimes frightened me.
“Geetha’s good for Unni,” Amminiettathi told Balettan one day. “He was wandering around with Kanakam all day.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“One’s own sister might seem perfect to oneself but my brother…”
“Kanakam has become very neat all of a sudden. Bathing is now an obsession with her.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“And she goes and sits under the tamarind tree, talking to herself continuously.”
“Poor thing. I told them so many times not to stop her from going to school.”
“She sits under that tree for hours together.”
“We all spend some time alone, thinking about things. She talks, that’s all.”
“Personally, I don’t approve of the way she sits under the tree, with her hair open.”
Sometimes, Amminiettathi would call me up and ask: “Unni, what does Kanakam do under the tamarind tree?”
“She was sleeping today, poor thing.”
“She’s not seeing anyone, is she?”
“I don’t know.”
The summer vacation was almost over. Raghu’s tournament might not have come off, or I would have got a card, wouldn’t I? Geetha and I spent our afternoons discovering the differences that would later make our minds male and female. I used to perch myself on the outermost branch of the paruthi tree and pee into the river. Geetha would squat below, as though taken down from the cross…
“Geetha, why do you squat to pee?”
“Girls do it that way,” the learned one replied.
“We’ll do it together, standing up.”
Geetha got up slowly, hesitantly. As I tried to untie the string of her blue drawers, I heard a voice behind me: “What are you doing?”
Sinful children, we stood there wordlessly.
“I’ll tell everyone this minute!” Kanakam whirled away down the footpath. We saw her go from the corner of the eye.
The end of our childhood. The sky never opened its eyes for us again, nor have we heard the sound of a flower unfurling. We walked home, Geetha and I, hanging our heads.
Amminiettathi was waiting for me. I tried to go indoors as though I hadn’t seen her when —
I obeyed like a sleepwalker.
“Where were you?”
“By the river.”
“What was Kanakam doing?”
“Under the tamarind…”
“Under the tamarind… ?”
“She was talking to a man.”
“Do you know him?”
“Then he caught her arm.”
“Kanakam was touching him too.”
Then — how they bound Kanakam’s hands and feet, how everyone stood around her, how Balettan took up a pair of long scissors and cut Kanakam’s hair. That sound, the sound of scissors snipping off hair… that incessant, unceasing sound.
Then — how a glassy stare filled Kanakam’s eyes and the shining lice-eggs that seemed to blink as the light fell on the white scalp, suddenly bared… how everyone including Kanakam refused to cry. Finally, how Kanakam sank into the shadows in the corners of Balettan’s home…
How do I end this sentence? tlm
Translated from the Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma and TLM
Cloth worn round the hips and legs as an undergarment
N.S. Madhavan is an award-winning writer of Malayalam fiction. A senior Indian civil servant, he is based in Patna