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The Symbol


Translated by Sukanya Venkataraman

Kelly Reedy, ‘Shadow in My Eye’, aquatint, embossing and assemblage on paper, 40cm x 40cm, 2012

It seemed as if someone was standing in the landing. It also seemed no one was there. The sun had never managed to penetrate the landing, which stood beyond the four front steps and the small corridor. Not since this house was built. One needed to carry a lamp to see the visitor’s face. At least until the house was electrified. A small chimney lamp used to burn in the pooja room constantly for this purpose. One could only see a person’s face after they had moved into the courtyard beyond the landing. Now, it seemed someone was definitely standing in the landing.

Soundari Ammal’s back remained  curved in her easy chair as she lifted her head and said, “Who is that?”

No one visited unannounced. Definitely not strangers. They needed a certain standing to even step into Soundari Ammal’s house. Who might this be? Could it be Chellappa? If so, why was he standing in the landing? He would have taken off his slippers and quickly entered the house. Soundari Ammal covered her shoulder with her sari with some difficulty. She wore no blouse. It was getting extremely hard to insert her hand into a blouse. Anyway, hadn’t the blouse only been introduced recently? If someone came to visit from Chennai, she would ask Sabapathy’s wife Karpagam or their daughter Mallika to help her wear a blouse. Now it seemed like someone was standing in the landing. What could she do if someone visited out of the blue?

“Hey Karpagam… Mallika… it looks like someone is standing in the landing.” The words were soundless. Soundari Ammal felt a mild panic. Why wasn’t she able to use her voice? “Mallika, Karpagam, Sabapathy.”

The words rose from the pit of her stomach and were buried in her heart. The clear bronze-like voice. The bell-like voice. The exceptional voice. What had happened to her much-acclaimed voice? Soundari Ammal struggled to say the words again and again. She could not utter a sound.

Someone in the landing… suddenly, she knew. Light spread in a circle, as if a curtain were lifting. Ah, our Dhanam. In her Benaras silk sari and traditional nose ring – her feet together, her hands outstretched, her face expressive –

Varugalaamo? May I come — tossing and dance?? The song combined with tiny cymbals resonated and flooded her. Soundari Ammal melted. Her eyes filled and her head and hands moved in rhythm to the song.

The song flooded from inside her and poured out.

“May I come to stand beside you
My Lord,
To celebrate, sing and dance
May I?”

She forgot herself. Was there any holy sanctum higher than this? Dance, Dhanam, dance. How many years has it been since I saw you dance? When she looked up after wiping her tears, Dhanam had disappeared. There were some shadowy figures in the landing.

“We’re late because the market was so crowded,” Karpagam was saying as she entered the brighter courtyard. Soundari Ammal felt like she had been hit on the head. Her heart was flooded by an inexplicable disappointment.

“Did someone come in search of me, Akka?” asked Sabapathy.

“No one came in search of you.”

“Anyone came to see you? Did Chellappa come by?”

“No, no.”

Soundari felt confused.

“What is it, Akka?”

“Nothing. I must have had a dream.”

“A dream?”

Soundari felt a slow smile spreading through her. “Yes, it seemed so real. Who do you think came in my dream? Dhanam was in my dream in her Benares silk sari and lovely nose ring! She even danced for me. She gestured beautifully for ‘Varugalaamo….Can I come…?’ Now that is what I call true art and dance!”

Sabapathy looked at Karpagam and laughed.

“Karpagam, bring some coffee. Why don’t you bring those greens? Akka and I will clean the leaves.”

Soundari Ammal, still stunned by the apparition, stared at the landing. It was pitch black there.

Had it been a dream after all?

“Here’s some coffee,” Karpagam’s voice and even her placing a bunch of greens seemed dream-like to Soundari. However, it seemed that the ecstasy she had felt on seeing Dhanam’s dance was real. Her stance, her gestures, her expressive eyes… ah, how could one call that a dream? The thrill she had felt was still apparent. Waves of music rose inside her, grew wings and took flight.

“May I come… oh my lord …?”

“Akka, is Dhanam still standing there?”

Soundari, whose gaze was at the landing while cleaning the greens, turned her head and smiled. Sabapathy was intent on chopping the greens fine. She wanted to say something more about Dhanam’s dance but contained her enthusiasm. Sabapathy’s transformation amazed her. His mridangam playing when he was just eight had been stupendous. However, their father had insisted on sending him to school and killed the music in Sabapathy. A clerk’s job, marriage over 40, a school teacher for a wife, prestige, respect, and other such rubbish had suddenly taken precedence. It seemed like their very blood had changed now.

“It must be 10 years since she died?”


“I was talking about Dhanam Akka.”

“Hmmm, even longer than that. She lived like a hermit in her older years.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that.”

“A man called Rangoon Sundaram was smitten by her music and dance. He showered her with gold and diamonds. Dhanam heard that he had faced terrible losses in Rangoon and was struggling for his next meal. She bundled up all the gold, diamonds and silver vessels he had given her and handed it over. It seems his wife was astonished and fell at Dhanam’s feet in utter gratitude.”

“People like this too have lived.”

“Of course! Enlightenment, Sabapathy. Those with enlightened knowledge are also compassionate.”

“Have you finished cleaning and chopping the greens?” asked Karpagam, her voice rising.

“Mallika and Senthil will be coming in to eat soon.”

Soundari fell silent. This was Karpagam’s gesture to indicate that she had spoken enough.

“We’re done. Please take it,” said Sabapathy.

Karpagam’s toe rings tinkled as she walked towards them. The thali on her neck swung to and fro as she bent to collect the greens.

“Shall I mash the greens and make a spicy brinjal kuzhambu Akka?” asked Karpagam in a conciliatory tone.

“Do that. Make sure Mallika and Senthil like it too.”

“I’m making a potato roast just for them.”

Soundari knew that continuing in this vein would give Karpagam peace, if not satisfaction. Why are they scared to death? They fear ghosts. They fear their own shadow. Every word from my mouth seems like a ghost from the past to them. Karpagam would have chased me into the street if I did not receive a pension. The pension the State gave honouring her with a ‘kalaimamani’ award.

She relaxed in her chair now that the greens had been cleaned.

The walls, above the height of a man, were crammed with photographs. Soundari was in all of them with a big dot on her forehead, her lovely saris and jewels, and a wide smile. They were proof of the accolades she had received from VIPs, heads of princely states — from Thiruvidangoor to Baroda. Sangeetha Bhushani, Gana Soundari, Gana Saraswathy, Kalaimamani — and so many others she could not even remember. How could she forget music, her very breath? It was nearly time for her last journey. Still, she felt a thrill in her very veins when she heard music. A Hyderabad Minister had mentioned that Sangeetham and Soundari were one and the same. She could see that photo in the far-right corner. He had said the truth. These people just pocketed the pension. How could they forget? I have become a mere symbol to these callous idiots. Exhausted, Soundari closed her eyes.

“Switch on that radio, Sabapathy. There will be music now.”

There was only static. Then the music came.

“Devi… you are my refuge —
Meenalochini who lives in Madurai — ”

In a flash, all inanimate objects around Soundari ceased to exist and her thoughts stilled. She was in another world, in the presence of the divine.


Ah, what is this? This female singer has stopped already. How many more sangathis she could have sung! People have stopped singing sangathis these days… Perhaps it is laziness. Perhaps it is something else. Must mention this to Chellappa, she thought.

“Have you stopped the song, Sabapathy?”

“I switched it off, aunty. The song was not nice was it?” answered Senthil.

“The song was not bad although there was no sangathi. You don’t seem to like classical music.”

“It is not that really. A visitor is here.”


“Who knows? Father is entertaining the lady.”

Why is this boy always so angry?

“Come in and eat. You are always angry when you are hungry,” chided Karpagam, in a low voice.

“Who has come to visit, Sabapathy?”

“Someone from Madras. They want an interview for their magazine.”

“Who do they want to interview?”



Before they could continue the conversation, Senthil rushed in again.

“There’s no need for aunty to give any interview.”

She felt a moment’s chill. The determination in his face and eyes reminded her of many other things. This boy is only 22 but his anger was old and known to her.

When she saw a lady come inside with her hands folded respectfully, Soundari felt a connection.

“Please come in,” she said, ignoring Senthil.


Chellappa felt as if shapeless specks were flitting before his eyes. His neck ached after almost two hours of scrutinising ancient books, with pages falling apart. There was not even a proper fan in the library. Only Chellappa could focus in his study despite the noise it made.

Enough for today. Chellappa carefully closed the book and placed it on a shelf. “See you,” he told Santhanam, the librarian, as if he was taking leave of his family.

“It seems like I keep this library open just for you,” said Santhanam.

“People are not interested in reading. Even those who visited libraries earlier are sitting in front of their TVs now.”

Chellappa attempted to leave on the pretext of spitting out the betel leaves and nut he had been chewing. Santhanam would not be able to stop once he got going. Chellappa felt uncomfortable when he heard Santhanam speak of his books as treasures that were being wasted.

“I will be happy if there are a few people more like you Chellappa,” Santhanam went on.  “Your father’s dream was to see you as an educated man, an academic. Today, you are a highly respected college professor…” Chellappa felt embarrassed as he heard these words. With a quick nod and shy smile, he stepped out.

Santhanam had repeated these words innumerable times. Chellappa felt a slight sense of humiliation every time they were uttered. He felt uneasy because Santhanam said this every time they met. There were layers hidden behind the words.

His unease followed Chellappa as he walked towards his house. Appa had never worn a shirt or slippers when he walked these streets. He had been a strong, well-built man. Chellappa, the last child, remembered running to keep up with him.

If a servant came by from Mettu Theru Mirasu’s house, father walked even faster. The Mirasu would be sitting on a large swing with silver fittings in the front porch of his big house, using his foot to move it to-and-fro. The swing would stop when father entered and stood at a distance. Father would almost bend double in obeisance, his big body diminishing in size.

“Did you call me, Sami?”

Seeing his father’s extreme servility made Chellappa think that it was indeed the Sami, God, sitting on that swing. ‘Sami’ would take a betel leaf from a silver box, tear off the leaf’s vein and deign to address father.

“My daughter’s wedding has been finalised. There are four or five auspicious dates in the month of ‘thai’. Let me know which date works for you. You must play the Nadhaswaram* at the wedding.”

Appa’s face would blossom as if he had received a boon.

“Where else would I play if not at our house’s wedding, Sami?”

Still, the accountant present in the room would say the dates and father would choose one.

“Very good. Let us keep the wedding on that day.”

When they were leaving, the ‘God’ would address them; “You must play the song ‘saraguna paalimpa’ during the ‘jaanavaasam’ when the groom is brought through the street to the venue.”

Appa would smile happily, showing his teeth stained with beetle juice.

“Of course, Sami.”

Appa would literally float home, smiling fondly at Chellappa now and then. From then on, he would then rehearse ‘saraguna paalimba’ every day. During the new groom’s procession, he would seem like a king when he played ‘sankara baranam’ or ‘mohanam’ in the middle of the street. At that moment, the accompanying drummers, the mirasu and the groom’s party all seemed like father’s vassals, paying obeisance to him. Chellappa would feel so proud. After the procession, father, the accompanying artists and Chellappa would sit in the stone shelter at the end of the street. Hungry and tired, he would fall asleep on his father’s lap. Finally, the food would arrive in a bucket. Father would spread the cloth hung on his shoulder. A plantain leaf with a mixture of rice, vegetables, lentil soup and other ingredients would be emptied into it. They would eat the food sitting there, dispose off the leaf in the nearby canal and clean their mouths. They would then return home, immeasurably tired.

Chellappa felt amazed when he thought back. Father had not complained even once. However, he had some firm convictions. He did not know if they were the result of something lacking in father’s life or because of some longing.

It was unbearably hot. Chellappa reminded himself to buy a new umbrella. He had forgotten his old one in the library and someone had made off with it. “You were feeling bad that no one except me visited this library. Someone else has come and stolen my umbrella,” he had told Santhanam and they had laughed. It was only in the heat that Chellappa missed his umbrella and realised that it was a symbol of prestige, something his father had never possessed.

He walked along, using a hand to shade his eyes. Thank God he had good slippers to protect his feet. They were a symbol. His shirt and the cloth over his shoulder were symbols too. Father had felt that his identity had been stripped because he had been refused these.

He saw the woman as he was crossing the North Masi Street. She appeared to be from Madras or Bombay — city bred, certainly not from this part. She wore dark glasses and had covered her head with her sari as protection against the sun. “Excuse me,” she addressed him. “Could you tell me where Soundari Ammal’s house is?”

“Of course,” he responded.

“Turn left at the end of the street and go straight. It is the last house in that row.”

“Thank you,” she replied with a smile.

“Will she be at home?”

“Where else will she go? She’s 82.”

“Thanks,” she said and started walking in the direction he indicated. He always addressed Soundari Ammal as athai, though she was not his father’s sister. His heart blossomed when he thought of her and he smiled even without realising. He felt that there was not much difference between his father and athai.


Mandakini thought she should have brought an umbrella. She knew it would be hot in southern India, but no one had told her that it would be boiling. It seemed like there was not much difference between the seething hot Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu in high summer. The heat was blinding, bleached white. Still, just as there seemed to be a connection between sun and colour, there seemed to be a link with art, music, sound and rhythm. Just like the link between, lust, love, rage and humiliation…

The streets seemed to have wrapped up all the colours and verve she had imagined in a shroud of silence. Would someone talk to her if she knocked on a door? “They will chase you out,” her mother had warned. “Don’t you have anything else to write about?” There was a lot to write about, but this seemed to have a deep emotional connection. She had burned with the desire to write about it someday. She somehow had to see grandmother’s friend Soundari Ammal even if no one else spoke to her.

She saw the temple tower in the distance. “That was where it all started,” her grandmother had told her. Her mother lacked her grandmother’s intensity. As if she had purposely screened it from the world. This was unnecessary for mother’s profession as a doctor. She had never even visited this place.

This was grandmother’s birthplace. A place where, even today, there was not even a proper hotel to greet visitors. Yet, this was the place that had sparked a revolution half a century ago. A revolution spearheaded by her grandmother.

“How was this possible, grandma?” she would ask. Her grandmother would gaze into the distance. Her facial tissues would tighten. “Some day you must go to my birthplace and see a house called Ranga Vilas in North Masi Street. The revolution was sparked in the cowshed there.”

She had gone in search of that house as soon as she had reached this place yesterday. It had been locked. She had knocked on the neighbouring house and a man had stuck his head out. “Is there no one in the next house?”

“No,” he had responded.

“No one has lived there for several years. It belonged to a mirasu called Rangam Iyer. He had no children.”

“What do you mean, no children?” his wife asked as she came to join him.

“I meant his wife had no children.”

“I would very much like to see that house,” said Mandakini.“Who might have the key to that house?”

“Why, do you want to buy that house?”

She replied spontaneously, without thought.

“I’m writing a book about old houses in Tamil Nadu. It seems as if this house will look good inside.”

“Oh, it is a lovely house. All teakwood and marble even at that time but there is no one to buy it. I have the keys and will show it to you.”

This was an unexpected stroke of luck. Even the door was impressive — the shining wood was intricately carved, with tiny bells hung on it. As the door was unlocked with some noise, the bells tinkled. She felt her stomach sinking as she stepped inside. As if she was intruding on the privacy of another’s life. The house was clean although it smelled slightly musty.

“I clean it every fortnight,” the man said.

The hall and walls whispered the history of a century ago. The wooden swing had brass fittings. A hazy image of the person who had used it started forming in her mind. “That is Rangam Iyer’s photo,” the man said.

She was startled at the resemblance between that face and her mother’s. The same eyebrows. The same nose. The same mouth. There were many photos on the walls. Mandakini scanned them eagerly. Finally, she saw it. Her grandmother as a graduate. In the customary black dress as a graduate, holding her rolled-up certificate in her hand. Something overflowed inside her. There was also a photo of her grandmother along with her siblings. She wiped off the dust on that picture with her handkerchief.

“Who is this?” she asked.

“Rangam Iyer’s children. That is, the children of the woman he ‘kept’, a devadasi,” he whispered as if it was a forbidden word.

“Did they grow up here?”

“No way. They were not allowed to step inside the house. He was extremely orthodox, they say. He used to go to that dasi’s house, but it was said that he never even drank water there.”

Mandakini looked at Rangam Iyer’s photo. She wondered how that ‘dasi’ birthed children for him.

The man opened the doors to different rooms. It was a large house. A house with sleek mosaic floors that had not felt the pattering feet of children. Walls that had not heard laughter. There were dark pillars standing like ghosts around the courtyard. The sun’s rays shone like a band through the chimney, casting inexplicable shadows in the kitchen and the rear of the house.

“The cooking for dasi’s house too happened here but no one would go give the food to her. She would come and stand in the backyard to collect it.”

“I know.”


“Strange, I said.”

“What’s strange about it? That was how it was. As soon as he returned from her house, Rangam Iyer would go straight to the well, have a bath, and only then enter this house. But he did not neglect his wife. Many men those days ruined themselves and their families smitten by women of that community. This Dasi was also different. She sent all her children to a hostel and educated them using the money he gave her.”

“Let’s look at the backyard.”

“What is there? Just a ruined cowshed.”

“That’s alright. Let us see it.”

“As you wish.”

The big wooden door opened with a loud creak. Her heart palpitated as she stepped on the uneven stone steps and placed her foot in the backyard. A ruined, roofless cowshed with overgrown plants. A mango tree.

They must have stood underneath it. The ‘’Dasi’ and her children. It was then that a tempest must have blown inside the heart of a six-year-old girl. It was then that a revolution must have been sparked in the breast of the little girl watching the humiliation.


Mandakini carefully read the name of the street, letter by letter. North Masi Street. Who would direct her to Soundari Ammal’s house?

She saw a man coming towards her. He had shaded his eyes with his right hand to protect them against the blazing sun.

“Could you tell me where Soundari Ammal’s house is?” she asked him.


Chellappa decided to visit Soundari Athai that evening. Soundari Ammal had been famous four decades ago and was now almost forgotten. Why would a city girl want to see her? He should have warned that girl about Soundari Ammal’s extreme pride. She is far more courageous than any of you city girls, he should have told her.

“No one can take advantage of this Soundari! My pride and dignity are most important to me! I stopped singing on stage for that reason.” How many had that clarity, knowledge and pride these days?

His heart skipped a beat when he saw Mallika standing in front of him. She was wiping her sweaty, red face. Soundari athai must have looked like Mallika at this age, he thought.

“Is a cool breeze blowing just for you?”

“No other choice. It is Saturday and college is over. I am returning home. Are you returning from the library? Couldn’t you take an umbrella?”

Chellappa narrated the story of his umbrella and Mallika had a good laugh. She looked at her watch and bit her lip.

“Oh, I must go, annachi. Senthil will get mad if I return even a little late after college. Father and aunt will not say anything but Senthil will shout at me.”


“He seems to think he is the man of the house! Mother will dance to his tune. A real pain. They do not even allow me to learn music. There’s a lot I need to talk to you…”

Chellappa was unable to find an appropriate response.

“He hates it if I even hum a song. What shall I do — I feel like singing all the time. It seems like my breath.”

Mallika laughed.

“I will come by and cry to you one day. Is your wife well?”

“I think so. She has gone to her mother’s house in Thiruvaroor.”

“Why don’t you come to our place to eat?”

“No need. I am going to the lodge. It seems like you already have a visitor.”

“Who is that?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps someone from Madras.”

“How do you know?”

“It is just a guess.”

“I see. Man or woman?”


“Then your guess must be right.”

Mallika gave a sudden laugh and started walking home. Chellappa thought that Senthil was as idiotic as his father Sabapathy. The thought made him angry.

His thoughts returned to his father again. A music performance had just concluded at a wedding in Thiruvaroor. Two men were debating the nuances of Dikshithar’s song. Father interrupted and voiced some opinion.

“Keep quiet,” said one man.

“You are just a drummer. What do you know? Shut up,” said the other.

Father did not utter a word until he returned home. That night, he lay on a mat in the terrace, staring at the moon. “Chellappa, you should not take up my profession,” he said.

“You must study. Study Sanskrit. Don’t study Tamil.”

“My son must become an educated man. It is my wish. No, it is a burning desire. His education is my redemption.”

“Who might the visitor be?” Mallika walked briskly, making myriad guesses as she raced home. None of them seemed interesting. Suddenly, her legs seemed to bind together. Maybe someone had come asking for her hand? Mother was very eager to get her married. She felt irritated that Senthil was even more eager to do so. He was only four years older than her. Yet, he tried to dominate her.

Let anyone come asking for my hand. I do not want to get married. I want to study. I want to learn music, she muttered to herself.

It seemed definite in her imagination that someone had come asking for her hand and Senthil was guarding her in the wedding dais. She felt her temper rise. Who did Senthil think he was? He goes to movies and music performances, but I must not. I am not even allowed to sing.

“Who are you to stop me? I will sing,” she had told him one day. Mother and Senthil had become extremely agitated, as if they had seen a ghost.

“We should get her married immediately,” Senthil had said, as if a man was waiting outside the house to marry her. “Then let her husband handle her.”

Amma had been angry too. “Taken after her father’s sister,” she had burst out.

“Please keep quiet, Karpagam,” father had chided. It was a rare occurrence. Amma had subsided after that. In her anger, mother must have forgotten about aunt’s monthly pension of a thousand rupees.

She did not know if aunt had heard all this. What she did know was that aunt was beyond all such pettiness. She had been an indispensable part of the household ever since Mallika could remember. She had never heard aunt speak about cooking, food, relationships or giving it all up. She would listen constantly to songs on the radio. She would sometimes sing to herself. Her clear, bell-like voice would make Mallika’s heart overflow with joy. The photographs on the wall were proof that aunt had been a famous singer in her day. It seemed to Mallika that aunt was the queen of some kingdom although she hadn’t left the house for two decades and remained seated in her reclining chair.

Aunt had no husband or children. “Her husband died,” mother said by way of explanation. However, aunt still put a big red dot on her forehead. The diamonds in her nose and ears sparkled even in the pathetic light of the 40-watt bulb in the living room.

Aunt addressed her one-day without considering that Mallika was only 12 years old.

“No one married me, my dear,” she said.

“Maybe men were afraid of your talent.”

Aunt laughed.

“I said no. I was determined to not give up my singing even if I got married. No man wanted that. No prestige in having all that knowledge if you are born in that particular community. Why, even the men of that community will bury the women they are born with.”

“Did they try to bury you?”

“They tried! But this Soundari cannot be buried so easily.”

Mallika was amused for some reason. She felt that this was a secret between aunt and her.

“Respect is different from what people believe it to be. Do you understand?”

She understood gradually. She got angry because Senthil did not understand and was trying to bury aunt’s desires.

She already stood in front of her house even as she was thinking whether to go home or not.

“Thanks so much. Thank you,” the young woman was saying as she stepped out of the house.

“This is my daughter,” Mallika’s father said.

“She is studying in Plus Two.”

“Oh, does she sing?” asked the woman.

“No, she doesn’t,” said father hurriedly.

“Mallika, come in,” ordered Senthil. She went in, burning with humiliation.

“Why is Senthil making such a ruckus, aunty?”

“No idea. That girl spoke to me cordially. She even requested me to sing.”

“What do you know about journalists?” shouted Senthil. “They’ll say one thing and write something sensational.”

“She is the granddaughter of a dear friend of mine,” said Soundari pleasantly.

“That’s exactly the point I’m making. We don’t want their acquaintance.”

She vaguely understood what he was saying. But she felt weary that a young boy was talking to her in this manner.

“Hey Senthil, why don’t you keep quiet? What is your age? What is aunt’s age?” Even Sabapathy’s scolding seemed hypocritical and ineffective to her. Sabapathy is afraid of his son. When I die, he’ll be completely dependent on Senthil.

A soft hand touched her forearm. She turned around.

“You said she was your friend’s granddaughter. Who is this friend?” whispered Mallika. Soundari smiled a little.

“I’ll tell you another day, dear.”

The landing was getting dark. Someone switched on the light. Soundari could not believe that she had just met Rathnam’s granddaughter.

It seemed as if 50 or 60 years simply dissolved as that girl spoke. She could still see Rathnam’s anger, indignation, and courage.

“A huge scam is going on in God’s name, Soundari.” When the words burst out of Rathnam, Soundari’s finger, which was tuning the tamboora, stilled.

“No other country treats its women this way in the name of God, tradition and culture. Wake up. This society is taking advantage of us, giving us diseases, and humiliating us.”

Her face would redden. The glasses she wore due to studying a lot would slip down her nose.

“You are an educated woman, Rathnam. And yet, how many people will listen to you?”

“It won’t happen if I speak alone of course. We should all raise our voices. We should stand at the crossroads and fight for our rights.”

Soundari had felt like laughing then.

“At the crossroads?”

“Yes. They threw our dignity into the crossroads. Do we have any respect in this society? You are such a famous singer. Dhanam is a fantastic dancer. They call you for music performances and weddings. Did you notice where they feed you? Somewhere in the backyard — never in the dining room with the others.”

Soundari could not respond to her. If she said, “Hasn’t it been always like this? Who gave them the right?” she would retort. “God? Did God ask us to dance in the temple before every ritual?” she would ask. “Did God tell us to get married to a stone idol after which any man can take you to bed,” she would fume. “Call yourself devadasi – servants of God, ha, it is not god that you serve but …”

Her rants could not be stopped.

“Many women have been victimised because of this. They have suffered and destroyed others as well. This should not continue, Soundari.”

There was some magic in her words. So many women came, as if bound by a spell. Like they were getting ready for a freedom fight.

That was when Dhanam stopped dancing. I could support them in every way but could not stop singing. “You have to make sacrifices during a struggle, Soundari.” I could not. My sorrow overwhelmed me when I thought about it. Rathnam left when I told her I would rather drink poison and die.

“Get married and continue singing,” she said. “As if someone was ready to marry me.”

“Aunt, why did you stop singing on stage?” asked Mallika.

Soundari felt weary suddenly. There was a desperation burning in her stomach after all these years.

Some scoundrel had asked her to sing ‘Manmatha Leelai’ an obscene song from a movie. He said something vulgar. The crowd laughed. Rathnam had been right. She could not understand if she felt sorrow or anger. Soundari had stopped performing then.

“I just stopped I guess.”

“You’ll talk about it in a magazine interview, but you won’t tell me.”

“Who is interviewing?” asked Chellappa as he came in.

Soundari welcomed him.

“Malika is asking why I stopped singing.”

“You don’t know how much self-respect your aunt has,” said Chellappa.

“What’s the use of my self-respect? Talk about Rathnam’s,” said Soundari.

“How come you remembered Rathnam today?”

“Her granddaughter was here this afternoon to interview me.”

Chellappa opened his eyes wide.

“Oh, was that Rathnam’s granddaughter? What did she ask?”

“She asked me about what it was like then. Why should I hesitate to talk to my friend’s granddaughter? That is why Senthil is raging like an earthquake.”

After some time, Chellappa left, deep in thought. At the crossroads, he could still hear the shouts of the crowd Rathnam had gathered. He was amazed when his father too had joined the crowd and raised his voice in support. Those voices drowned the sound of dancing bells and the tambura and the music with it.  A law was passed abolishing the old system and put a seal on the soaring music, dancing feet. It was sad but inevitable .The entire street emptied out. They triumphed over their mental demons, lived normal lives, daughters got married, sons went to college, got white collared jobs, if lucky, and had families. The community had been granted dignity, at last. No longer dasis — not even to God. To utter the word was blasphemous.  They did not need to raise their voices anymore. This place would not witness anymore shattering earthquakes.

But the earth did shatter a fortnight later. Senthil entered the house like a hurricane and flung a magazine on the ground.

“Gone. Our dignity and prestige are gone. Look,” he raged, addressing his aunt. “We can’t face the world anymore. Mallika will never get married…”

Everyone looked terrified. Senthil then did what he had never done before. He sat down on a stool and covered his face. Then he cried, his body racked with sobs. Those sobs were even more terrifying than his anger.

Soundari felt a chill down her spine. What now?

“What, what is written in that magazine?”

“They have trumpeted all about your community, our ancestry to the world. Didn’t I tell you not to give an interview?”

The magazine still lay on the ground, like it was on fire. No one dared touch it. Mallika was shocked at Senthil’s tantrums and tears.

“Mallika, please read it,” said Soundari weakly. “Is there anything about our community, is the name mentioned?”

“Yes, there is, in the very heading.”

“Isn’t there anything else?”

Senthil hissed furiously. “So, what if there is? What if they have praised your music? Is that of any consequence?”

Soundari sat still, stunned. Sabapathy was quiet, head bowed. Karpagam stood panting, as if unable to demonstrate her anger but satisfied with Senthil’s outburst.

“What can I do, Senthil?” asked Soundari quietly. “Bring me poison if you want. I will drink it and die.”

Only Mallika felt like crying when she heard this.

There was no need for anyone to bring poison. Soundari Ammal died in her sleep the following night. At least, that is what the doctor said. When Sabapathy went to clean out his sister’s shelf of belongings ten days later, he saw emptied strips that had contained sleeping pills. The question was how they came into Soundari’s possession because she was never in the habit of taking sleeping pills.

Sabapathy never opened his mouth. Mallika’s wedding did not happen in the auspicious month of ‘thai’ that year. When Chellappa asked her if she needed his help to join a music class, Mallika’s reply was categorical: “No, thanks. I don’t want to even think about it.”

Nadhaswaram: A traditional classical double reed wind instrument, played to the accompaniment of drums on auspicious occasions.

Vaasanthi is an award winning Tamil writer. She writes in English too and her books include Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen [Juggernaut], Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars [Penguin], The Lone Empress [Penguin], and Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography [Juggernaut]. She was also the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today for nearly ten years.

Sukanya Venkataraman is an accomplished Communications Professional with more than two decades of experience. She is also a proficient writer who has written extensively as part of her international development career. She specialises in Tamil to English translations.