The incandescence of 30-watt bulbs had just replaced kerosene lanterns in their house. It had been a huge occasion when the neighborhood electrician, Murugan, who doubled as the town carpenter and plumber, had installed a wire and hammered a hook into the wall of each room in their home. Then he had deftly twirled the wire around the hook and plugged the switch into the socket located midway on the wall. The naked bulb had flooded the room with light.
For the occasion, Amma had deep fried special vadais for the entire family. Murugan had eaten most of them while Sankar had surreptitiously counted the number of times he had held out his plate for another helping. Every vadai that went to Murugan had been one less to divvy among the children. That night, Murugan had set a record—eating 17 vadais. Possessed of a rail thin frame, with bones that tended to jut out of his clothes, Murugan gave the impression of being undernourished, and Amma gloried in the feeling of providing for the needy.
Sankar and his younger brother, Kovil, slept on pallets placed close to each other on the floor. Kannan’s pallet was further away and closer to the window. For a fleeting moment he wondered why it was he who got picked to go across town in the middle of the night to run errands. He shook himself free of the thought and quietly stepped over the other sleeping figure.
He thought of his mother—this was her sixth baby. Two of her children had died within the first week of their birth. Mrs. Naidu, who assisted in all the births, had assumed the position of the town midwife by virtue of the fact that she had experienced seven pregnancies and five childbirths herself. With that impressive statistic, she had inadvertently found herself as the official baby-deliverer for the entire town. She now proudly had 37 births to her credit. With this baby her tally would be up to 38. She wasn’t very old, but before she had delivered her third baby, Mrs. Naidu’s face looked like a ruled notebook. She was a short, rotund woman with a disproportionately large behind. As a result she would lumber while walking, heaving her backside like a ship in stormy weather. Her torso would be flung into the fray with every sideways movement of her behind. As is the nature of human failing, little children often followed her and imitated her while she walked down the street. That was one reason why people were always smiling when she waddled by. Poor old Mrs. Naidu didn’t realize that it was snide mockery that brought a grin to most people’s lips when she appeared. She usually responded with an innocent smile on her round lined face, rather like a sweet cherub.
Sankar heard old Mrs. Naidu’s voice in the neighboring room. There was a plastic curtain that divided the large hall into two rooms, giving privacy to his mother who lay recovering from the ordeal of childbirth. Without the curtain, it was usually one large room where the family met and co-mingled under the coveted naked bulb. He wondered if his mother would be able to get up and make dinner for them. If not, there would be rice and milk—the milk from the family cow, Lakshmi, named after the Goddess of Wealth—a sparse repast that failed to assuage the hunger for spices that was inbred in him.
His stomach growled at the image of the soft, puffy, white idlis that his mother usually made and served with the angry hued mulagapodi that was freshly ground each day. The smell of the roasted red chilies, the sesame seeds, and the dried lentils pervaded the air when his mother’s many-bangled wrists rhythmically turned the pestle as she ground in the stone mortar. The tinkling of her bangles rose to a crescendo with each burst of speed that his mother threw into the grinding. The smell was thick and piquant. His eyes smarted and his throat thickened when he was close by. But the sound and the smell were irresistible, drawing him closer each time, until his mother caught him looking with tears rolling down his grimy face. The thought of the smell of the mulagapodi brought his gnawing hunger to the fore. He imagined a feast, an array of vadais and idlis with the thick, red mulagapodi being served on his plate and the sesame oil being drizzled on top. He shook himself. It was the middle of the night, but yet there was this hunger, a sense of need that never left him.
He debated about putting on his walking slippers and decided that it would fray them since it was quite a distance away. He reverently put the slippers back on the stand and set out barefoot.
Their house was on the outskirts of Thripunithura, and the dusty road somehow defined and accentuated the lushness of the Kerala landscape. Sankar passed by tall, rubber trees that had the sap oozing into a metal bucket tied to the thick trunk. The smell of the sap was sickly sweet yet bitter and tended to overpower the fragrance of the flowering foliage. There were the tall coconut trees that he looked at longingly. Last month, Sankar had watched enviously as Kannan managed to climb one of those straight, tall trunks and break one of the coconuts that had been clustered at the very helm. It had been a feat that gained his 14-year-old brother much praise and a respite from the morning chores. At 11, Sankar had been deemed too young to be allowed to attempt the task.
In the distance, Sankar could make out the silent graveyard lying to the left of the road. There were no trees to act as sentinels against the wheezing creatures of the graveyard. As Sankar walked, the dread rose within him. He was told that there lived a ghost with a milk-white face and a black body that disappeared into the night. The ghost came out when the sickle moon was up. The ghost crept from grave to grave looking for his dead child. He had been warned by his friend Stupa, who lived in the next street, who was told by his mother’s third cousin that if you saw the ghost he could disappear into your body, and your soul would then be inhabited by a disparate creature of the night. Sankar shuddered at the thought. He wondered if there was a sickle moon that night. Too scared to look up and verify the danger inherent in the night, he kept his head focused down on each step he was taking. Through the corner of his eye, he saw something approach and simultaneously heard and felt some movement. Throwing caution to the wind, he wailed, anticipating his own ugly demise while running with his eyes tightly closed. A brutal hand touched his shoulder and clutched him hard. Cowering, he covered his eyes with his hands.
“What is wrong with you?” Kannan’s voice chided. Sankar looked up and the fertile remnants of his imagination slowly unlodged. “I called out to you twice and all you did was scream—enough to wake the neighbors! Do you want to get us both in trouble?” Kannan glared at Sankar.
Sankar looked apologetically back at Kannan, “I was scared of the graveyard.”
Kannan looked at the quiet, silent graves and laughed aloud, saying, “I should have realized your imagination would have usurped your good sense. Amma asked me to give this to you. You need to hand it over to Father and do not open it on the way,” he cautioned. He handed over a packet wrapped in old newspaper and twine. “And don’t loiter in the dark. The ghosts from the graveyard will be watching yooooooooo!” Laughing to himself, he made his way back to the house.
Sankar clutched the packet close to his chest, feeling the warmth of his brother’s body on the newspaper wrapping. He felt the package curiously; the contents felt round and squishy. There were blotches of oil stains on the newspaper covering. He put it to his face, and his senses were assaulted with the essence of his hometown—the sweetness of sugar, the tanginess of cardamom, the smell of sweat, and the pungency of the newspaper itself. It gave him fortitude, and he continued on.
Just past the graveyard was the cricket field. He imagined the wooden wickets standing straight up. He could hear the roar of the crowd as he swung the bat and the ball flew high into the cheering crowds. Lost in his dream of hitting a century and making his country proud! He would be rich and own a car. Kannan would beg him to be taken for a ride and he would disdainfully refuse!
Shaken out of this golden dream by the sound of an overhead owl, he continued on past the row of shops that lined the little center of the town. Starting with the barbershop, then came the cobbler, then the little post office with its red bell outside. The last store was a tailor’s. On the other side of the street was the police station. Right beside that was Mr. Nair’s house, and then the Lending Library.
Sankar looked at all the padlocks hanging on the doors and imagined himself a thief creeping up and, and, and …
He looked up into the sky and realized that the moon was neither sickle nor crescent, nor full—just somewhere close to half. Looking up, he kept walking and bumped into a telephone pole at the side of the street. There was a loud thunk; the police station door opened and a deep gravelly voice asked for identification. His head still reeling from the knock, Sankar turned to look at Sir Thiru, the local Sub Inspector of Police. He was a portly man given to excessive indulgences that he thought befitted his importance in the community. The local gossip claimed he was terrified of his little wife who was barely half his size but could reduce him to a puddle with just a slant of her sloe black eyes. But in the middle of the night he was a terrifying figure. His belly extended out and formed a shadow all of its own. His face, with its long curling mustache, seemed more a thug’s face than a policeman’s. But bravely, Sankar stepped into the light and announced, “It’s I, Sir, Sankar. Amma has had another baby, and I am going to get Father to come home.”
“Another baby, eh?” laughed Sir Thiru. “And won’t be the last one, I think! On your way, then, son and stay away from the fields.”
“Yes, Sir, I will,” said Sankar respectfully and continued on. He had about a mile to go.
His father worked in the Goddess Bhagavaty temple and slept there most nights. He was the temple priest, the Vadyar, and was paid by the royal family to perform religious ceremonies to keep monsters, demons, bad luck, and bad fortune at bay. Though his position depended largely on the goodwill of the townsfolk, he was an arrogant man, an arrogance bred from his station in life. Being addressed as Vadyar for most of his adult life had enabled him to appropriate that title as his last name.
When Sankar reached the temple, he knocked on the door. After a few seconds, he heard shuffling footsteps in the inner recesses of the building and heard the lever being slid open. His father stood at the door, clad in a simple white undershirt and loose white veshti—a nine-meter long, white rectangular cotton garment that draped loosely around the legs and was tied into a double knot at the waist. Sometimes Sankar had seen other men pick up the same veshti end-to-end, fold it halfway and tuck into the waistband, while running, playing cricket, or any of the other innumerable tasks that required free use of the legs. Not that his father indulged in anything even closely resembling free play. He was broadly built with a hairy chest and back. When he took off his upper garment, as he usually did when he came home, Sankar would always marvel at the profusion of hair that could crowd a man’s body. There was hair growing out of his ears, a thick mustache, hair on his shoulders and hair on his chest that arrowed down.
True to his appearance, his personality, too, bore a close resemblance to a bear. He growled when he spoke and rarely had Sankar ever seen him smiling. The ritualistic nature of his work had lent him an air of authority and respect, and he made every effort to engender that feeling. He lived and worked in the temple two weeks at a time without break. Then he would come home for a week’s break before heading back to the temple. This unrelenting schedule worked well for the family, for all the three boys heaved a sigh of relief when they saw him pick up his gunnysack filled with underwear, one undershirt, and one extra veshti.
When he was home, the sound of his bellow could be heard down the street. While he was not a typically violent man, he still had the temper of the devil and often a little incident would send him off into one of his tirades. Usually it was when one of the boys forgot a line of the Hindu slokas that he made them repeat morning and evening. Any mistake or hesitancy would be attended to in the typical manner. Vadyar would give the boy five minutes to go outside and hand pick a branch from one of the trees. This would then be used to thrash the delinquent child. More often than not, it was Sankar who got the brunt of the stick, and with a dexterity born of frequency he had learnt to twist his palm sideways in time to avoid the blow falling flat on his hand.
Filled with the anticipation of delivering good news, Sankar imagined his father smiling at him when he realized his son had walked barefoot two miles to give him the delightful news of a new baby, and a girl this time! The last time, Kovil had gone and he had come back with the tale that his father had actually handed him some of the temple prasadam in addition to a pat on the back. He swallowed at the thought of the treat that awaited him.
Sankar stood at the temple door, holding the doorjamb. He looked at his father and said excitedly, “Father, Father …”
“Take your hand off, boy!”
“But Father, Amma has had a baby … “
“Do NOT TOUCH the TEMPLE!”
“… a baby girl!”
There was a single, flawless moment. A moment filled with the evenness of a melodic note that was just about to violently surge. That moment was in perfect balance. Then, Sankar’s immediate world disintegrated. His father’s face filled with terrible anger. He swung his palm and gave Sankar a resounding slap. “How dare you!” he cried. “How dare you!” Crack! Crack! Again and again his father’s open palm delivered blow upon blow. Sankar’s head fell back with the force of each strike. The carefully wrapped parcel that Kannan had given him fell to the earth. The twine snaking out, trying to find its shape on the dusty moonlit ground. Sankar’s eyes filled with tears that he tried to hold back as he stared aghast at his father’s angry face and bloodshot eyes. He slowly took a step back and waited for the ringing in his ears to stop. The tears were perilously close to the surface. By sheer dint of stubbornness he held them back poised at the precipice of a deluge.
The baleful glare of his father wrapped around him and he took another step back. “You have despoiled the sanctity of this holy institution,” he pronounced with a deep and somber intonation. “I am now unclean!” Gathering up the folds of his veshti, he stepped behind the doors of the temple and shut the door in his son’s face.
Sankar stared at the white columns ahead of him. Each individual frieze above the columns that flanked the door seemed to him to resemble a snake. The concrete floors outside the doors had a multitude of cracks on them, and there was an ancient bell that stood sentry in front of the door. Sankar looked at it all in a daze. His eye fell on the newspaper-wrapped parcel lying on the dusty floor. One side of the paper had ripped and he could see the neyyappams, sweetened rice cakes fried in ghee, gleaming like rich brown jewels, luminous within the dirty, stained and torn newspaper covering. As though driven by an unknown force, Sankar bent down and picked up the packet of neyyappams and popped one into his mouth.
Jaya Padmanabhan ran a media company, inMedya Productions, until 2007. She is currently in the process of writing a novel, from which this short story is extracted.