Father’s dusty, old, black Ambassador burped to a halt in front of Grandmother’s house. I wanted to meet Ammini, my friend, the old woman who lived across the street, but I didn’t want to face the dragon yet. Ammini was also Grandmother’s childhood friend. Two summers ago, when I was twelve, Ammini’s husband, a bad-tempered man whom I secretly called the dragon, had caught me and Ammini in the kitchen playing house. He flung the miniature vessels, making her cry. I had stuck my tongue out instinctively, making my Goddess Kali face, scraping feet on the floor, imitating the shuffly way he walked. I heard Ammini howl. The dragon turned; I froze. By the time I realised he’d left the house, Ammini was gone. I found her in the garden, muttering to her toes, squashing black ants. I retraced my steps and picked up the broken toys, stiff arms of tiny ladles, and a cracked kadai. Climbing on a wooden stool, I put the toy basket back. The dragon said nothing to Ammini, his wife. He told Grandfather I was a high-strung, spoilt child.
I peeked into a window of Ammini’s house. The dragon lay on a bare wooden cot, snoring like a speeding scooter. An English mahogany grandfather clock tick-tocked in the background, an absurd accompaniment to the grating sound. I stifled my giggles with the large cotton handkerchief I’d brought to collect gooseberries. A detour through the back, I decided. The dilapidated house had a wild, overgrown garden. This garden was of particular interest to me. Every summer, I collected gooseberries from the bushes in the back so Grandmother could make my favourite pickles. I loved sucking the tart fruit till goose bumps raced down my spine. Then I would rush to drink a glass of water to savour the sweet taste.
Before the dragon caught us, Ammini and I had spent hours together, playing house. High on a granite shelf, she hid a cushion-like bamboo basket filled with miniature sandstone replicas of cooking utensils: woks, saucepans, tureens, griddles and minuscule ladles. We prepared elaborate gourmet feasts. Thick lentil sauces mixed with ground coconut and chillies, roasted baby potatoes, deep-fried vadais sprinkled with tangy red onions, jaggery dosai sizzling in ghee, yoghurt so thick and rich you could cut it with a knife.
When it came to picking the dishes we made, Ammini had no discrimination. Except for kadalai urundai, what I thought of in my Bombay English as peanut brittle, like chikki. That was mandatory. “Yes, let’s,” she’d say, pouncing on every suggestion I made, her glazed eyes doing a dance of desire. Then she divided the unseen portions, one fourth for me, three fourths for herself.
It was the summer after my ninth birthday, when I’d received a new doll.
“Ammini, what about the children?” I asked, glancing at my doll, pink and plastic, decked out in a frilly frock. I adjusted the shoulder folds of a faded checked towel that substituted for a sari. Ammini’s face filled with the benign expression that endeared her to the women in my family, especially my grandmother. I marvelled at how her oiled, slicked back hair seemed to stick to her scalp like latex paint. Her skin had a permanent yellow tinge from vigorous use of turmeric. The eyes, with their slightly out-of-focus pupils, wore a filmy, milky sheath. She had a bad case of cataracts. “But, Ammini, what about the children?” I repeated impatiently.
“No children, no, no, no, it’s all for me. I’m the child,” she smiled, baring her receding gums.
“You’re too old to be a child. You’ve got to be a grown-up,” I wailed. She was just a shrunken old woman, all doubled over, always muttering to her toes. I couldn’t picture her deformed body, her webbed flat feet and the sheer curtain-covered eyes belonging to a child.
“Grown-up? Oh, I play that all the time. Wife, husband…pretending for the best… I want to throw a tantrum; kadalai urundai for dinner, sugarcane juice at tiffin time. Like her,” Ammini said. She pointed to her lumpy rag doll, no separate fingers or toes, barely wrapped in a filthy sari, half-torn woollen eyes. She plucked the kitchen towel tucked into her sari pleats and blanketed the doll, lifting it gently, pressing it to her chest. I stared as she rocked back and forth, patting the doll’s back as if burping a child.
I approached the centre of the backyard. Away from the shade of the trees and their spreading canopies was a small vegetable patch. Ammini grew flowers in raised beds on either side for the dragon’s morning prayers. Ruby hibiscus, fiery petals drooping like dogs’ tongues in the heat, champa with their cloying scent, sweet tulsi, coral firecrackers with a single gold speck in the middle. Early in the morning, heaped high in a filigreed brass basket, Ammini carried the flowers to the main room of the house. The wall was covered with pictures of gods and goddesses. Lakshmi perched daintily on a pink lotus; pot-bellied Ganesha sat nearby. Shiva danced in blissful ecstasy. Circles of vermilion eyes and sandalwood paste adorned each picture.
From the year I learnt to cross the street by myself, I had watched the dragon pray. He chanted his mantras loudly, in typical full-throated, sing-song fashion. The tinkling of the little bell meant that others had to lower their voices, talk in hushed whispers. All of a sudden, “What’s for lunch?” he snapped at Ammini. “Has that wretch of a man delivered the two sacks of rice?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of it,” Ammini said, running to the main room, wiping the sweat off her face with the edge of her crumpled cotton sari. It wasn’t considered wifely conduct to speak from the kitchen. She walked briskly back to her cooking. In the kitchen, where it was beastly hot, Ammini threw her head back, tilting a stainless steel tumbler at least four inches from her face, pouring water into her mouth. Her throat made gurgling pigeon noises as she swallowed fast. When I tried this later in Bombay, I poured water all over myself.
“A man needs to know if rice has been delivered. A man needs to know what is going on in his own house,” the dragon muttered under his breath. The forgiving gods waited while he attended to earthly matters. Renewed by the interlude of trivial information, he plunged deeper into his mantras, his sonorous voice rising to a crescendo, reverberating in the uppermost room in the house. Ammini was frantically busy. Banana flower and jackfruit in kadais hissed and sizzled as she scraped coconut, moving frenziedly to get rice and three vegetable dishes ready for lunch. The dragon refused to wait a single minute after his prayers for lunch. The banana leaf had to be washed and placed in a corner of the main room floor, the wooden palagai seat dusted and leaning against the wall, a steaming mound of rice ready and waiting on the leaf so he could make a well for fresh ghee. If lunch was late, he yelled at Ammini, making her cry.
The well in her backyard was hidden behind pillars of banana stems. Leaning out of the kitchen window, the last time we played house, I had watched Ammini draw water from the well. Clutching the shiny brass vessel to her waist like a squirming toddler, she slipped the twisted rope around the rim of the container. It went down, deep down, as she pulled the braided jute towards her heaving chest. The dome-like vessel gurgled, drank deep of the cool liquid. I ran outside. I begged my turn; I tried hard to emulate her style. My soft city hands made the vessel a clumsy, graceless diver; the rope chafed my skin. Ammini made a chortling noise. I glared at her gums, those familiar pink-purple stripes. Then she hugged me, a gesture of consolation.
“Here.” She held out a piece of juicy sugarcane.
I shook my head.
“Mmm. Sweet and good,” she teased, tossing an imaginary piece into her mouth. “How can a mother of so many children be this stubborn? You’re the mother, remember?” I grabbed the sugarcane from her hand. The sweetness raced around my tongue. My grandmother forbade sugarcane in our house, believing it made our tonsils swell. I chewed and chewed till the fibre was a bleached, wrung-out stuck-together bunch of strings in my mouth. Squatting near the washing stone by the well, she chewed as I chewed.
“Tell me a story,” I begged. “The one about the mongoose.”
I leant against the washing stone and pressed my knees to my chest.
“Years ago,” Ammini began, “long before you were born, there was a mongoose in this garden.” The sudden gust of breeze felt good on my face. I watched banana leaves fan like elephant ears. As the story rushed out of her mouth, Ammini’s face creased and ironed itself out. I knew the plot well. I told it to myself as she told it to me.
Grandmother, her best friend, was helping her make jasmine gajra for her hair. They heard an eerie sound, a mongoose snarl. A cobra had slithered down the bamboo fence. My grandmother put her forefinger to her lips and held Ammini’s hand. The cobra swayed its raised hood; the quivering, hissing tongue darted out in a hypnotic wave-like dance. The mongoose bared its teeth with hair bristling at the nape of its neck. Eyes leaking red, he rocked, then traced a circle with his jumps, flying up – down, up – down. The cobra raced after him flinging itself – thwack here, thwack again on the ground. With liquid coral eyes, the mongoose flew and saddled the scaly back, riding wildly, being thrown about. For Ammini and grandmother, the moment became so oppressive, it had to burst. The strike was cathartic. The snake lay punched with mongoose teeth marks.
I shuddered; Ammini chortled. “I remember getting up in the middle of the night. That was the time I bled first,” she said.
The dolls were napping.
“When I was a girl,” Ammini said, “I had kadalai urundai every month, on the lucky day before the full moon. I sat near my brother’s cradle, holding a cane tray filled with raw peanuts.”
I pictured Ammini flipping and tossing the nuts in the air, a Chinese dancer’s ribbon, going up with skin, coming down stripped clean. In front of me, her face creased and ironed itself out. Those pink purple stripes widened and came close. I smiled to myself.
“When Baby Brother fell asleep,” Ammini continued, “Mother and I slipped into the kitchen. Thick coffee-coloured molasses was boiled and seasoned with sweet-smelling cardamom. A cup of water was fetched; a bit of the syrup dropped in. When it congealed into a glistening caramel pearl, the nuts were tossed in. We shaped peanut-balls, dancing from the heat on our palms. How we joked and laughed,” Ammini said.
Her mother teased her about her husband-to-be. “Will you share your sweets with him? Will you let him ply you with store-bought confections?”
The dragon came out, breaking into my reverie, spotted me by the well. “Is that you?” His eyes widened at the way I’d grown. I adjusted my half-sari. “What are you doing here? Go home. Ammini can’t see you now.” He waved his walking stick at me. “She is tired. Lying down. Wild city child, almost fully grown, still coming and bothering my wife.” He hadn’t changed a bit. I ran back to Grandmother’s house.
Every summer, uncles, aunts and cousins, all of us skinny girls, travelled to this village in Kerala, crowding the old house. In Grandmother’s house, the noise and crowds of Bombay, where I lived with my parents, disappeared into some black hole in my adolescent mind. After our final exams, my sister and I filled our suitcases with pavadais that reached our ankles, laying aside the pinafores, skirts and dresses we wore the rest of the year. My parents crammed our boxes with educational supplies – books, blank notebooks in case we felt the urge to work.
Fat Goat, my ten-year-old male cousin and his family arrived from Madras. He followed me everywhere, refusing to leave me alone. A whole week passed before I went again to Ammini’s house. I remembered the dragon and crouched beside a hibiscus bush. The nearest window was high up, a small rectangular opening that barely lit up the pantry inside. Climbing up the uneven edges of the bricks on the outside wall, I looked inside. There were sacks of rice, wheat, coconuts, pumpkins and gourds, jaggery, tamarind, jackfruits, a row of cylindrical stainless steel containers. Like the other houses in the village, anything bought in large quantities was hidden away in the dark of the storeroom, away from the prying eyes of servants. Some households like Ammini’s and ours put away homemade sweets in steel containers.
Standing on my toes, I grabbed at one of the rusty horizontal bars that striped the window. I thought I saw someone inside. I heard the metallic click of a lid. As my eyes plunged into the darkness, I could barely make anything out. I shook my head, sweeping away the blurred coloured ripples that veiled my vision. The swirling circles dissipated, outlining the familiar hunched silhouette. Ammini was intensely examining a small object in her hands. I stared hard. It was a ball of peanut brittle, about the size of a golf ball. I watched, spellbound. She began to lick it frantically, making frenzied slurping noises. Popping it deftly into her mouth, she closed her eyes in ecstasy. Rummaging through a corner knot of her sari, she brought out the next one. The ritual began all over again. The close scrutiny, the slurping, the closing of eyes. This was not an appropriate time to meet my friend. I was intruding, watching her. The moment felt private.
From Grandmother’s house across the street, I could hear my cousin shouting my name. That idiotic fat boy. Till he was born, we girls had Grandfather to ourselves. I only minded a little that Grandmother plumped up my cousin with extra ghee and curds. Standing on my toes, I heard him call again. I was anxious to meet Ammini, give her my special gift. But I didn’t want to be caught here.
Back in our house, I cheated and let Fat Goat win at Ludo to shut his bleating mouth. When I beat him at board games, he ran whining to Grandfather. I was sorry half an hour later, when Grandfather suggested he give Fat Goat swimming lessons. “Grown-up girls from our family don’t swim here, you know that,” Grandfather said when I joined them at the village pond. I watched coconut husks bob up and down, help float chubby arms and legs. I made a face and walked around, enjoying the cool breeze. If I stood facing Grandmother’s house, the village temple was on the east. To the west was the village pond with murky green water edged with hyacinths and lilies. Elephants, buffaloes and cows bathed here in harmony with village folk. Young men bicycled around the pond hoping to catch sight of a bare-breasted woman. This rarely happened. Most young women were modest and discreet, they bathed with snug-fitting midriff length blouses and ankle length skirts. The water made the cotton blouses and skirts cling like a second skin; the men pedalled harder. The veiled view was erotic; glimpses of outlines of shapes; your imagination filled in the rest.
Grandmother waved to me from the porch. She went to the temple at this time. I waved back and lingered by the pond, watching a baby elephant. By the time I remembered Grandmother and the temple, she had gone ahead. I ended up walking with my aunts, the ones who loved to talk and laugh. They were talking about a plate of barfis they had sent Ammini. “That awful man and that dirty squirrel,” they said, “I hope she doesn’t share any of it with them.” They were talking about the squirrel I had seen last year in a basket.
I had gone to Ammini’s backyard, hoping to spend time with her. She was there with the dragon, both of them fussing over something in a basket. I was reluctant to join them but Ammini insisted I come and see what they had. An abandoned baby squirrel nestled in a basket layered with leaves and straw. The dragon fed it milk with an ink dropper, the kind I used at school to fill my fountain pen with Quink ink. Ammini covered her mouth and laughed as the baby drank the milk. She then took the basket from the dragon and rocked it gently, singing a Malayalam lullaby. The dragon helped Ammini hang the basket on a branch that ran across the kitchen window. Ammini promised to share her peanut brittle as the baby grew big and strong. This was the only time I had seen Ammini and the dragon together that way. I stared at him open-mouthed. But soon he turned away and said to Ammini, “Coffee! Where’s my coffee, woman? I want it now.”
The temple saw a daily gathering of the faithful, young and old who came there for some air, gossip, and a brief respite from their daily chores. Elderly women like Grandmother, heads bowed in reverence, carried small jars of ghee, flowers wrapped in starkly veined leaves and tied with banana fibre. Visitors like me were greeted with curiosity and interest. Village women asked, “Where are you from? Whose child are you? Have you begun menstruating?” I shrank back from them, then glared in defiance.
I came out of the temple and walked back to the pond.
Fat Goat was swallowing water and struggling. I saw a shuffling figure proceed towards Grandfather. Dressed in a filthy dhoti, the dragon’s eyes darted everywhere. Aside from his nasty temper, there was this strange walk. He transferred his weight from side to side, reminding me of one of our pre-badminton exercises at school.
The dragon’s obsession with bodily functions was common knowledge. Some fateful mornings, he could be seen swaying back and forth along the front porch, stroking his hairy belly. He agonized loudly over his inability to experience a satisfactory “motion”. Bowel movement was, absolutely, the first order of the day. The urge to first defecate was considered supreme; the day could not proceed in disorder. He would not shave, he would not bathe. He cursed Ammini; he fumed. Passersby on the street were informed of the problem; they commiserated. This compulsion for evacuation was transferred to neighbours and their descendants. He asked the mothers in our house: “Have they gone today? Have they done their job?” The women never answered him.
The front door of Ammini’s house was open. In spite of the light outside, the inside was cave-like. On the stone shelf in the kitchen, I left a Cadbury’s chocolate “Nuts and Raisins” arranged in a fancy tin. A squirrel was racing around an open dish of rice. The tin of chocolates was sealed shut, I consoled myself. I glanced up at the topmost shelf. There was the cushion-like bamboo basket with the minuscule cooking utensils. From this angle, it formed the base of a triangle, cobweb lines growing on the sides, crisscrossing, travelling up to wooden ceiling beams.
I found Ammini way back in the garden, leaning into the well, covering her mouth with her sari, pointing to something inside. “What is it?” I asked, hugging her, then peering into the water. Pink boxes floated everywhere.
“Can’t eat like before. Hurts,” she said, pointing to her gums. “Let it make the water smell sweet.”
“What is it? What’s going to make the water smell sweet?”
From inside the house, I heard the dragon’s voice. “What’s this?” I heard him shout. “Who brought this?” Ammini crossed her eyes and mimicked, “Who brought this?” Her fingers pinched a banana stem, then gestured urgently at me to leave. I ran without looking back, taking the roundabout way to our crowded house.
Grandmother sat spread-eagled on the floor, slicing raw plantains to be made into banana chips. “Tell me about Ammini,” I said. Grandmother sighed. “Now that you’re grown-up, almost fourteen, I suppose it’s time for you to know. If I tell you, you must promise not to bother her. She hasn’t been feeling well.”
“What’s wrong with her? She’s all right?” I asked.
“She’s getting old, she tires easily. You understand, don’t you?”
I nodded yes. Grandmother sighed again and began to reminisce. Ammini had been a cheerful child. “She was sure to make a great wife,” her family said. Married at nine, she came to the dragon’s house in the village with festive pomp and fanfare. She chattered and laughed with abandon, played pranks on her doting father-in-law. They played hide and seek in the garden, the old man gasping for breath as he ran. He slipped coins into her palm for shaved ice and syrup. At mealtimes, he placed her little palagai next to his. His wife wanted a Calcutta handloom sari like her friend in the next village. His son begged for a cricket set. Father-in-law scolded them both. He said there was no money for their whims. Others in the house watched with pursed mouths, shook their heads. Mother and son cornered Ammini in the garden. Was this proper behaviour for a wife? A Hindu daughter-in-law? Grandmother’s eyes turned liquid; she dipped her fingers into a bowl of coconut oil to remove the dark stains the peels left behind.
“And then what happened?” I whispered.
“After a year, the old man died. With her father-in-law gone, the elders in the house unleashed their pent-up anger. They snatched her toys; they took away all privileges. They drummed wifely sense through a routine of penance. No sweets. No kadalai urundai for you, they said. A Hindu wife learns to shed attachments from her past. She learns to please, prepares to be a mother. Show respect when we talk, bow your head, drop your eyes. Scared and nervous, Ammini ran to her husband for help. ‘What’s a sixteen-year-old boy to do? He was nicer to you than he ever was to me or my mother,’ her husband said, and went to join friends waiting by the pond.”
I don’t know what my face looked like, but Grandmother was silent for a while.
“Months later,” Grandmother continued, “Ammini came running to me one day, teary-eyed. They were not feeding her properly in that house. All she had was a bit of squash, a piece of pumpkin, watery rasam, rice. After that, I saved treats for her, sweets Ammini knotted into the edge of her sari. She learned to be sly, to eat in secret.” Grandmother smiled. “When others slept in the afternoon, she sneaked into the pantry. If they saw her, she said she had to clean the rice, wipe the shelves, the tamarind pulp had to be dried in the sun. Even later, when she no longer had to, Ammini continued to eat in secret. The pattern could not be broken.” I remembered what I had seen, Ammini eating in the dark.
So the years passed with Ammini plotting and deceiving, running to Grandmother for an hour of friendship on the rare evenings when the elders went out. I pictured Grandmother and Ammini stringing jasmine gajra, holding hands while the mongoose and cobra fought.
“That was then. We weren’t like you city children are now,” Grandmother said. She turned purposeful; slicing, dipping fingers into oil, dropping a pinch of salt and turmeric into the smoking kadai. “Grandfather will be returning soon,” she said, meaning later – this was no time to talk. Looking at Grandmother’s face, I guessed the reason was something else. Perhaps she felt I wasn’t ready to hear it all. She looked at my determined face, raised her eyebrows, realising I would pester her relentlessly till I found out.
“I was pregnant with your father at the time,” Grandmother continued. “Grandfather brought me green mangoes from the fruit vendor. I’d been craving them, you know,” she said. Embarrassed, I smiled and bit my nail. “I was rubbing mango slices with chilli and salt in the kitchen when Grandfather said Ammini’s husband had not turned up at school. We heard from neighbours he was ill. Grandfather wanted to see for himself but visitors were shooed away. Weeks later, Grandfather said his friend had recovered and was back at school. Ammini came to visit me one afternoon. We were seeing each other after a long time. She laughed and placed her palms on my hardening, round stomach. How thin and tired she looked, as if she was the one who was ill. She smiled coyly and said the mother-in-law had given them more time.”
“For what?” I asked. Grandmother stared as though I were slow. I continued to chew my nails. “Grandchildren. What Ammini must have felt, seeing me swell with child. Then again I did not see Ammini for a long time. I wanted to visit her but her mother-in-law shooed people away. Finally, Ammini came to see me. She was sobbing. The dragon couldn’t walk normally. He shuffled about, dragging his legs. Before the fever, they had been together a few times at night but since the illness he ignored her, refused to touch her, called her an ugly child.”
Grandmother shook her head. “What can women like us do? The word spread – something must be wrong with Ammini. No wonder the poor boy spurned his bride. Isn’t it always the woman’s fault? When Grandfather came home, I repeated what I had heard and we fought terribly, calling each other names. He said I should keep out of it. We did not speak for days. It was a whole week before we made up.”
Poor Ammini. It was so unfair. Now that I knew, I hated the dragon even more. How could Grandfather talk to him, be his friend? I needed to get out of the crowded house. My sister and cousins were such children, absorbed in tables and sums.
A fat sweetmeat vendor fanned his wares to drive away flies that travelled from the animals at the pond. On the mossy stone steps that led to the water sat the dragon. I noticed a bright pink cardboard box from the sweetmeat vendor on his lap. Holding the cheap paper packet tied with a string under his arm, he got up and began shuffling towards the temple. Watching him sway a little, I wished he’d trip and crack his skull. Running to the vendor, I plonked coins from my pocket, grabbing the banana leaf packet he handed back. I’d get to Ammini first.
“No sweets now,” Ammini said and left the packet on the kitchen counter. I’d forgotten that she’d said, peanut brittle hurt her gums. “Why do you look so sad? Want to play?” she asked, yawning, glancing at the toy vessels. I felt silly, a girl my age, still playing house. But if Ammini wanted to… I’d play along… I watched her yawn and shake her head, fiddle with the things in the toy basket, count cowrie shells for rice. I hadn’t noticed it before, but Ammini’s hair looked different, tangled and bushy. No turmeric yellow on her wrinkled face.
“You look different. Are you all right?” I asked.
“You’re the mother, I’ll be the child. It’s Baby’s nap time,” she said. Ammini lay down and covered her face with her sari, falling asleep in minutes, forgetting to pretend. I stared at her for a while, then threw a shell in the air, counting, clapping hurriedly before it came down. Could I clap fast like last summer before when I’d counted to eleven? Too bad I was so slow. My fourteen-year-old hands had grown heavy. Even my counting and clapping had not woken her up. I stared at her.
“Get up, Ammini.” Her milky eyes twitched, refused to open. I was suddenly scared. Why was my friend behaving like this?
“I want to sleep. Tired. Go home to Grandmother, your Amma and Appa.”
Behind me, Grandmother had crossed over the threshold of Ammini’s house. She spoke in an annoyed voice, “Do as she says. Leave. Go wash your hands and feet and say your prayers. It will be dinner time soon.” Grandmother bent down and pressed her palm to Ammini’s forehead. “You rest. Why don’t I send a tiffin carrier with food for you and your husband? I’ll go see to it now.”
I felt a nagging discomfort, things were not going as I had planned. Ammini and I had not laughed and talked enough this time. Of all the people in our family, I hoped Grandmother would understand. But she was adamant. Walking towards me, she hissed, “Can’t you see Ammini needs peace and quiet? No more silly games.” I followed Grandmother out of the house. I didn’t explain that it was Ammini who had suggested we play house.
Fat Goat waited outside, looking smug. So he had bleated that I was at her house. I wanted to scare the ghee and curds right out of his stomach. I watched Grandmother enter the kitchen, call the other women of the house.
I said to Fat Goat in a teasing voice, “I know something you don’t know.”
“A secret? I won’t tell,” he promised.
“Come,” I said, walking towards the garden, a duplicate of Ammini’s backyard. Most days, only Grandfather pottered here, pruning and clearing, making sure sunlight drenched his lemony pumpkin flowers. “See there?” I pointed to the outhouse. “Behind that there is a ghost. The ghost of a cobra that never rests. It waits for someone whose flesh is juicy and plump.” I saw that his nose was beginning to sweat, he was standing very still.
“Ghosts don’t eat. I know that.” His face relaxed, he narrowed his eyes.
“That’s what you think. Grandmother says snakes don’t attack girls. They only attack boys. Everybody knows that. Haven’t you seen your mother join the women near the temple going round the big tree? She’s praying to the snake god, saying, ‘Spare my son.’ The snake ghost goes all over the village at night. Of course, it never used to come here…so many skinny girls. Until…” I stopped in mid-sentence. Pupils fattening like tamarind seeds, he hurried inside.
Fat Goat tattled; and refused to use the outhouse. My parents banned visits to Ammini. They said she was sick; it could be contagious. They consulted grandfather about a temple tour for us girls. “Culture – history,” they said to us. I told Fat Goat I was going to be a swami, grow a third eye.
“I’ll open my forehead eye, curse you, and it will all come true. Remember the Mahabharata? Everybody knows the power of a swami’s words. My special words are: ashes to enemies, Ludo boards and dice.”
“Girls can’t be swamis,” he said uncertainly, holding his stomach, putting off swimming lessons with Grandfather; too much ghee and rice.
Outside the temple in Guruvayur, the first on our itinerary, a woman was selling stuffed cloth dolls. I saw one that looked like Ammini’s, only this doll wore a shiny sari, whole buttons for eyes. “Let’s buy it for Ammini,” I said to Grandfather.
“No gifts for anybody. Your parents got them mangoes from Bombay, that’s more than enough.”
“But please,” I persisted, “She has always wanted one like that. I know her better than anybody else.”
“No. I’ve heard enough from you,” Grandfather said.
“That friend of yours, mean and nasty dragon, he will never get her one.” It was too late, I didn’t mean to say it out loud. My father squinted at me, my mother shook her head.
“Don’t call him that, you rude child,” Grandfather said. “Grandmother and you think only of Ammini. A man also suffers.” The dragon? Suffer? We walked away without buying the doll.
When we returned to the village from our temple tour, Grandmother looked teary-eyed. Ammini was ill with a burning fever. “She’s dying,” Grandmother whispered to the adults.
“I want to go to her,” I said. I promised to water the plants in the garden, shell the peas heaped in the straw basket. I even said no to my favourite tiffin.
“Tomorrow,” my parents said “First get a good night’s rest. Besides, Ammini needs to be with her husband, her family. Do you think they want a neighbour’s children around?”
“But…” I began. Father gave me that look, the one where he stared without blinking. It began like a staring contest, only this was more serious, I understood. When I played this game with my friends, I could outstare the best. But Father always made me lower my eyes. I heard my voice falter. Ammini would understand how I felt. The men in my life were almost as bad as the man in her life.
I woke to a continuous thumping on the front door, the sound of wailing from across the road. Everybody in our house was up. Grandfather opened the door. Grandmother looked terrible; hair loose, the pottu on her forehead smeared into a shapeless red stain, eyes and nose just as red.
“Ammini died in her sleep,” she said. I watched her walk to the back of the house. She sat there on the washing stone by the well. It was time for the cleansing ritual to wash away the contamination of death. The maid poured water over her head. I watched Grandmother but I was thinking of Ammini. I never got to hold her hand, slip a cowrie shell into her palm for luck. Grandmother was using a towel on her hair. Fat Goat walked up to her and said, “Grandfather says the men want coffee.”
Before I could stop myself, I shouted, “Why don’t you men jump into the well?” Everybody was silent. I yelled again, “You want coffee? Why don’t you men jump into the coffee well?” I was pounding my fists on Fat Goat’s chest, my voice shaky and quivery.
“That’s enough. Let the poor boy be,” Grandmother said.
“What’s going on here? What’s all the commotion?” Grandfather came out of the house. The women, speeding shadows, left the backyard and entered the kitchen.
The dragon had sent a messenger to the house. “They want you and the others to prepare her body for cremation,” Grandfather told Grandmother.
This time, I didn’t wait for permission. I was out of the door.
Ammini lay in her lumpy bed on the floor, mouth hanging open like the flap of a purse, her eyes rolled back, staring at nothing. My aunts bathed her and sprinkled Ganga water on her body. They shut the stubborn eyelids; tucked a folded towel under her chin to close the gaping mouth. It was considered a great blessing for a Hindu woman to die a sumangali. Young wives trooped into the house and prostrated themselves before the body, asking that they too be thus blessed. Death had given Ammini special status, a status she never achieved in life.
Grandmother decided to drape Ammini in a red sari. Red was the auspicious colour for brides. I was asked to fetch the sari from a trunk in the front room. The corroded little metal box had been part of Ammini’s trousseau. Her parents had filled it with toys, rainbow-coloured skirts scattered with bits of mirror that caught the sunlight and gaudy glass bangles – a little girl’s treasures. I noticed a trail of black ants, their circuitous path starting from a small hole in the wall, curving past the dragon’s rickety old chair where he sat with his snuff box, into the once shiny suitcase. The dented lid curved out like a swollen lip, making the job easier for the little creatures. Curious, I lifted the lid. The red sari with the gold border lay on top. I tossed it aside impatiently. I was looking for something, I did not know what. I wanted to take a bit of her away from here to the city. Underneath her blouses was a suspicious brown lump, wrapped in what had once been a white cotton handkerchief. I picked the lump and untied the childish knots. Inside were two sickly looking, mouldy peanut brittle balls. Dropping the sweets back in the trunk, I grabbed the kerchief and stuffed it into my pocket.
After the usual ten-day mourning period, I entered Ammini’s house. In the main room, the gods with their pottus still hung on the wall. The flower basket was empty, the brass bell silent. On the granite shelf, the bamboo cushion squatted, cradled by cobwebs. Outside, the water lay flat in the waiting well; the pink cardboard boxes had travelled, somewhere to the depths. A creature darted in the bushes. I heard a chortle, pictured receding gum stripes.
I felt an urge to peek into the pantry window one more time. Somebody moved inside. The dragon? A muffled sound, then the figure swayed a little. My knuckles jutted like pebbles as I clasped the rusty bars. The dragon was holding something in his hand. He sensed my presence blocking the window light. For a moment, we were still. Then he walked towards me. I saw the squirrel leap onto his shoulder, holding a peanut brittle ball. Through a gap between the corroded bars, the dragon offered me one too, holding out his filthy hand.
“You loved her, didn’t you?” he whispered, eyes glistening wet. All I could do was nod my head as I took the peanut brittle from his hand.
Back at Grandmother’s, I ran upstairs to our family room. I opened the empty kerchief and saw the design. Two brown circles like the outline of a pair of spectacles from moist peanut brittle balls. I placed the dragon’s offering in one of the circles and tied the kerchief tightly, placing it behind my pile of books. At dinner, the dragon told Grandfather I was a nice young woman, not a high strung, spoiled child. Father smiled and gave me a look, a soft one this time. It was my turn to be difficult, to look away because I wanted to.
Upstairs, I watched my cousin lay out his Ludo board on the floor. My sister and he argued about who would be the first to roll the dice. Grandmother had retired early for the night. The men were spending the night with the dragon, a gesture of moral support. The women had congregated on the porch. I went downstairs and sneaked into the front room. My aunt was whispering what seemed to be an entertaining anecdote. I slouched behind Grandfather’s massive easy chair.
They were talking about the dragon. “Ever since the fever, I heard from the others, he refused to get close to his wife.” Before I could move, my aunt’s voice went on. “This is how it must have happened. After the first bout of filariasis, his scrotum, elephantine! His gait turned crooked as he shifted this way and that. Maybe Ammini cried at night because her husband turned away, refused to touch. In the morning, he gave her a box of kadalai urundai. That would keep her happy for a while.”
I remembered Ammini and the dragon laughing and conspiring like children, fussing over a tiny squirrel. Wild laughter ensued from the front porch. I’ll never forgive the women in my family for that. By the time I stumbled upstairs, my sister was doing her victory dance. I cried with Fat Goat. What did it mean to win or lose? It was but a moment. Etched forever in my mind was the memory of Ammini, child to woman, struggling all the time.