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Padma Viswanathan

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The Toss of a Lemon

The Toss of a Lemon

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The year of the marriage proposal, Sivakami is ten. She is neither tall nor short for her age, but she will not grow much more. Her shoulders are narrow but appear solid, as though the blades are fused to protect her heart from the back. She carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.

She and her family live in Samanthibakkam, some hours away by bullock cart from Cholapatti, which had been her mother’s place before marriage. Every year, they return to Cholapatti for a pilgrimage. They fill a pot at the Kaveri River and trudge it up to the hilltop temple to offer for the abhishekham. These are pleasant, responsible, God-fearing folk who seek the blessings of their gods on any undertaking and any lack thereof. They maintain awe toward those potentially wiser or richer than they — like the young man of Cholapatti, who is blessed with the ability to heal.

No one in their family is sick, but still they go to the healer. They may be less than totally healthy and simply not know. One can always use a preventative, and it never hurts to receive the blessings of a blessed person. This has always been the stated purpose of the trip, and Sivakami has no reason to think this one is any different.

Hanumarathnam, the healer, puts his palms together in a friendly namaskaram, asks how they have been and whether they need anything specific. They shyly shake their heads, and he queries, with a penetrating squint, “Nothing?” Sivakami is embarrassed by her parents, who are acting like impoverished peasants. They owe this man their respect, but they are Brahmins too, and literate, like him. They can hold up their heads. She’s smiling to herself at his strange name: a hybrid of “Hanuman,” the monkey god, and rathnam, gem. The suffix she understands; it’s attached to the name of every man in the region. But no one is named for the monkey!

Her mother and father cast glances at each other; then her father clears his throat. “Ah, our daughter here has just entered gurubalam. We are about to start searching for a groom.”

“Oh, well,” Hanumarathnam responds with a wink, “I deal in medicine, not charms.”

Sivakami’s parents giggle immoderately. Their daughter stares at the packed dust of the Brahmin-quarter street. Her three older brothers fidget.

“But you have my blessings,” Hanumarathnam continues, making a small package of some powder. “And this, dissolved in milk and drunk each day, this will give you strength. Just generally. It will help.”

Then he looks at Sivakami. She doesn’t look up. When he asks her parents, “Have you done the star chart yet?” his voice sounds different. They haven’t. “Come at dusk. I’ll do it for you.”

What could be better? The humble folk trip back to their relatives’, four doors down the street, for snacks and happy anticipation of their consultation with the auspicious young man, who also has some fame as an astrologer.

At that strange hour that gives the impression of light even though each figure is masked by darkness, Sivakami’s father, with two of the male relatives, finds Hanumarathnam on his veranda. He cannot make out the young man’s features, but the slant of his chest and head suggests wisdom and peace. So young and a widower, by a freak accident: his wife drowned in the Kaveri River before she ever came to live with him. His parents were already dead. He lives with relatives while his own house — his parents’ home, the second to last on the Brahmin-quarter — stays locked, dark and still.

Hanumarathnam stands to greet them; they take their seats; they make brief small talk as his aunt brings tumblers of yogourt churned with lemon water and salt.

He examines the chart by a kerosene lamp while the men finger their shoulder towels. He makes some calculations. He purses his lips and takes in a sharp breath before speaking. “I, well, I must say it. I have just entered gurubalam myself.”

Sivakami’s father hesitates. “Oh?”

“I will make more detailed calculations, but this is my reasoned guess . . . Your daughter’s horoscope is compatible with mine.”

The young man licks his lips, no longer the astrological authority but instead the nervous suitor. He speaks too quickly. “I am obliged to mention, of course, or perhaps you have already heard: the weakest quadrant of my horoscope has a small shadow . . . It . . . it faintly suggests I will die in my tenth year of marriage. But, as that prediction is contained in the weakest quadrant, it holds no weight, as you know, though ignorant people let it scare them.”

The men do not know but are not ignorant enough to say so, and anyway, Hanumarathnam has not paused in his speech.

“And most often, the birth of a son changes the configuration, as you know. I understand it must be difficult for you to consider giving your daughter as a second wife. My first wife, she drowned to death in her tenth year. Only three years after our marriage, you see, and it was not I who died, you see? It was her. Quite contrary to the negative quadrant of the horoscope. An, an unfortunate, accident. So I have no children, and I am still young. I have money and manage well. I am speaking on my own behalf only because I have no father and I know the horoscopes better than anyone.”

He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty­one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father.

“I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please . . . consider me.”

That night, Sivakami’s father relates his impressions to her mother. They are positively disposed toward the young man and feel they trust his astrology and his good intentions. They ask their relatives in the morning: have they heard anything against Hanumarathnam or his kin? The relatives assure them that they have heard only good things: fine, upstanding Brahmins all. The young man not only has special talents but has just come into his inheritance, some very good parcels of land. They think it could be a good match, more: a shame to waste the opportunity.

In the morning, Sivakami’s father bathes and prays. Then he picks up quill and ink and writes a gracious note, pretending they, the girl’s family, are taking the initiative, as is right and conventional, and inviting Hanumarathnam for a girl­seeing as if his already having seen the girl had nothing to do with any of this.
Most Esteemed Sir, Village Healer and Knowing One,
The humble man who Writes this Missive to your Gracious Self invokes the Blessings of the Gods and Stars on his intentions. The writer would be Honoured above Reasonable Expectation, if he were to have the Pleasure of Welcoming Your Good Self to the Samanthibakkam home of his family, where his Revered Ancestors have Bestowed their Blessings Through the Ages. With the Wisdom and Learning You have acquired through Great Sacrifice and Effort, please Choose an Auspicious Time, and send word that Your good Relatives will Accompany you to Grace the Threshold of our Poor but Pious Dwelling. We will be Eagerly awaiting your Word. And the Opportunity to shower our Hospitality on Your Presence.
I remain, Yours humbly,
The note is in Tamil, a script without capital letters, but this is the idea — inconsistently the most flowery and archaic Sivakami’s father can muster.

The note is delivered by Sivakami’s brothers after they also have bathed and prayed. With a great sense of accomplishment puffing his modest chest and head, Sivakami’s father leads his wife and children on the trek back home.

Word from Hanumarathnam follows. He comes to Samanthibakkam accompanied by a distant uncle and a male cousin. Sivakami’s family offers the stiffest, most formal reception they are able to raise above the brim of their excitement and happiness. Sivakami is ushered in. She keeps her head bowed and her eyes down, since, by unspoken convention, this is behaviour appropriate to prospective brides. She serves sweets she has made herself, the solidity of her upper back giving her movements a linear grace. Asked to sing a couple of devotional songs, she does so with gusto, closing her eyes.

By the time he leaves, the observant young man is even more smitten than that day, short weeks before, when he had seen the pride flash in Sivakami’s eyes.

They are married, like everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month. After her marriage, she continues to live with her parents, like everyone else who has parents, though she is escorted to her husband’s village several times a year for festivals, at which times she is feted, and brings gifts for her new relatives. In Cholapatti, she stays with her parents, at their relatives’ house up the street from where her husband lives with his relatives. They are present at the same functions, where she participates in the ceremonies, but her husband remains for her a person known only in public and in glimpses.

After three years, she comes of age, like everyone else lucky enough to survive childhood, and finally the great change is upon them. Her family readies her to join her husband for good.

When Hanumarathnam, now twenty-four, learns he will receive his thirteen-year-old bride, he unlocks his parents’ house. The aunt and uncle who raised him (double relatives: his mother’s sister married his father’s brother) make a ceremonial fuss at his declaration of departure; their house is just next door, after all, and their son Murthy’s bride may also arrive soon.

Hanumarathnam’s own house has not been opened for a full generation. Generations are short in this time when girls marry as children and have children as soon as they are able, but still, the house has not been opened for a while. Hanumarathnam has brought the servants with him who will make the house ready to receive a new bride. These are servants his inheritance has supported in rice and lentils, year in, year out. Generations of their families have served generations of his. While his parents were alive, these people had worked around the house. Hanumarathnam’s mother died before his second birthday, his father less than a year later, and since then, whenever the servants have met him on the street, they have wept noisily for his dead parents. Eventually, they also wept for his dead little wife. When they learn that they will once more have domestic employment, they express great joy. One then becomes untraceable for some weeks. He will later be rounded up sternly by Hanumarathnam, with his uncle, who will come along to lend authority. But the others come immediately, and these two are with Hanumarathnam as he gently tries to open the great, rusty padlock.

The key turns suddenly, and he’s afraid that it has broken along its collar of rust. But the lock is opening and the thick door of grey-weathered wooden boards is swinging to. They are in the vestibule, a narrow passageway with a high ledge on either side — too high to be a seat, too low for storage. The next lock has not been so exposed and opens more easily. A buttery smell of bats wings over them while the creatures themselves flutter farther back into the dark. Hanumarathnam already has the next key ready — for the tall, narrow double doors into the garden that runs the length of the house. There are two such doorways, about five paces apart, in the wall of the main hall.

The servants with Hanumarathnam are old enough to remember his first steps in that garden. They shuffle, atypically quiet, in the silent dust of the house. Maybe they are letting him alone in case he is mourning those early years, just a few months, really, possibly before memory, when he was not an orphan. Maybe they are mourning their own lost time. Or maybe they are just thinking of all the work to be done, and the happy times to come for Hanumarathnam, as a family man and householder at last.

Hanumarathnam opens the doors from the main hall to the pantry, from the pantry to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the back courtyard, where an extended family of monkeys screeches and leaps at his appearance. Hanumarathnam screeches and leaps back into the house. The monkeys have been eating from the fruit trees in the garden: the courtyard stinks of rotting fruit, including half­eaten mangoes and overripe bananas evidently used as missiles in monkey food fights. Several bananas are still stuck on the walls where they were smashed. The monkeys must have been attracted to the courtyard by the shade afforded under the partial roof.

Hanumarathnam, like his servants, who are tucked safely behind him, stands with the tail of his jasmine-white dhoti held over his nose and mouth against the rancid smell and his horror at the colonizers’ aggression. The courtyard is crawling with their clan. Fifteen, perhaps twenty, mothers, babies, adolescents. There are two dominant bull monkeys. One is a patriarch with a silvery thatch of hair, his muscles a bit stringy. His manner, as he bares his teeth and boxes a yearling’s ears to show off, is defensive. The up­and-comer, who has probably defeated every bull but the old one, is sleek and barrel-chested. He squats, shaking his head and puffing his cheeks, inches behind the old ­fellow.

Now, all the monkeys are looking their way, except one, about two years old, who has caught a little bird and is absorbed in plucking it. The bird squawks ambivalently. The monkey rubs the bird’s head on the courtyard bricks, then inspects it as though this might reveal the source of the protest. Hanumarathnam, to the relief of his employees, gently shuts the courtyard door and bolts ­it.

Seconds later, there is a pounding against the wood, a single fist, then a multitude, then the monkeys start to squabble and scrabble among themselves and forget the interlopers. The door from the courtyard to the garden is still locked; the monkeys have been going over the wall to get the fruit. Hanumarathnam, back in the main hall, shuts the garden doors and sends the servants to their homes. The house cannot be cleaned without water, and the well is at the centre of the jealously guarded courtyard. The water at least is probably safe: the well has no bucket right now and, unlike the big agricultural wells, no ­ladder

Three hours before dawn, Hanumarathnam returns. He opens a garden door, straining his senses to perceive life or movement. Detecting nothing, he slowly swings a kerosene lamp out in front of him. Still nothing. With increasing boldness, he creeps, then stalks through the garden. There are no monkeys sleeping here.

He returns to the main hall, closes the door and proceeds to the back of the house, which splits into the pantry and kitchen to the right and a small room, beneath the stairs, adjoining another small back room, on the left. He takes the left passage this time and tries the bolt. It is a little sticky. He rotates it up, down, up, down, pulling steadily on the handle. It opens with a bang. He pulls it shut again just as quickly and sets his ear against the door, his heart pounding. He can almost feel the old monkey’s overdeveloped canines penetrating his soft, scholarly flesh. When Hanumarathnam was a child, one of the Brahmin-quarter children died of a monkey bite. She had been a beautiful girl; the enraged monkey tore off half her face.

There is no sound from the courtyard: as he suspected, his house is just one stop on the monkeys’ circuit. They don’t sleep here, cramped quarters, but rather in some forest glade, on grooved branches above leaf-padded floors.

Monkeys, like cows, cobras, peacocks and mice, are sacred – their mythological associations give them immunity from harm. So Hanumarathnam, as a good Brahmin, must find some means of reclaiming his house without violence toward the invaders. At three the next morning, he and three of his servants return. Illuminating the garden section by section with the gaseous glare of kerosene, they strip every tree of its ripe fruit. It is not a large garden, but severely overgrown, and it takes them until six before all the fruit is stacked neatly in the pantry.

As Hanumarathnam locks the garden doors, a female servant prepares several platters: two of fruit and a third heaped with cooked rice mixed with fatty yogourt, mustard seeds, curry leaves. Hanumarathnam carries the rice, two others the fruits. They place these ceremoniously at the bottom of the steps into the wasteland behind the house, just outside the courtyard door.

That day, Hanumarathnam opens the front doors of the house so neighbours from up and down the street can come and help themselves to fruits. He monitors the sounds of the monkeys over the course of the day and hears them discover the plates. They feast, and waste food, and waste time and then come over the walls into the courtyard and garden. Their chattering grows progressively more outraged as they discover nothing but hard green fruits. These function well as weapons, or toys, and they batter the walls and doors for a time. But they are still hungry and soon scuffle off to other locales.

Hanumarathnam has reserved a portion of the ripe fruit. This, with a plate of yogourt rice, becomes the next morning’s offering, half as large as the day previous, but still generous. It is placed four paces away from the back wall, four times farther than the day before. The next day he halves the offering again, and doubles the distance. By the end of the week, the monkeys lackadaisically lap up the token offering left by the side of the canal a furlong from the courtyard door. They have stopped coming to Hanumarathnam’s garden.

On a day deemed favourable by the religious almanacs, all the doors are flung open, and the cleaning is done in earnest. Hanumarathnam, with the servants, works to clear the garden, uprooting dead trees and installing seedlings. Two female servants use a new bucket to haul up well water, which they sluice top to bottom and side to side, from the very front of the house to the back. They scrub the courtyard thoroughly with coconut coir to remove all stains and traces of the monkey invasion, then scour it with cow dung. Hanumarathnam himself perfumes the corners with sandal paste and incense.

Hanumarathnam hires a Brahmin lady to do a final cleaning, to bring the house up to caste standards so his wife will have to do only a few small things for ceremony’s sake, such as hanging bundles of mango leaves and spiny cactus above the door, against the evil eye. Their first act, on her arrival, will be a puja for the black stone Ramar installed in the main hall, the Ramar that was the object of his mother’s devotion and that has stood neglected, though still noble, since her death.

Three weeks after she comes of age, Sivakami is escorted to her husband’s home. Before she mounts the bullock cart, she falls at her elders’ feet. All of their blessings are the same: Bear your husband many children. May your first child be male. Always be modest. A family’s honour is a woman’s responsibility. The blessings cut through the wonder and fear of departure: she is confident these accomplishments can and will be hers.

She alights in Cholapatti, feeling elegant in a silk sari of red and yellow checks, ornamented with less gold than on her wedding day but still quite brilliant in thick gold bangles and dangling jimiki earrings. A gold chain threads the sides of her sternum; her wedding pendants fit snugly between her small breasts, hidden beneath sari and blouse from any jealous glance. Hanumarathnam greets her in front of their home, together with his aunt, his uncle and his cousin Murthy. This is the only time when it is proper for a groom’s family to show hospitality to a bride ’s. Sivakami’s parents and uncles will be put up next door.

The party goes there first, to socialize until the sunset, when the young couple are seated side by side and served a meal with much banter. Tonight, they say, is the night of “Rudra Shanti Muhurtam,” the pacification of the bride ’s passions. Sivakami is not sure yet what her passions are, but supposes it is good they will be calmed. After they drink cups of sweetened saffron milk, the couple are escorted to the chamber on the second floor of Hanumarathnam’s house, where the bed has been made with the new quilts Sivakami has brought, and strewn with flowers. The couple are seated there, blushing so that sweat beads attractively on their foreheads and upper lips. After singing to them, the party closes the door, going to make merry and leaving the newlyweds to do the same.

Sivakami’s terrors and sorrows in the early months of her marriage are much the same as any new bride ’s. It hardly seems worth troubling the imagination to find pity for her, so common are her woes. At first, she tries constantly to please her husband, but he is easily pleased. Sivakami has no mother-in-law, so her own mother comes twice in six months to ensure standards of household management and nutrition are not being thrown to the four winds. Hanumarathnam’s aunt, Annam, who raised him and lives next door, might have done the honours, but her own new daughter-in-law, Rukmini, is using up all her attention.

Essentially, Sivakami is alone with her husband. She appreciates this but will appreciate it even more in retrospect. Each morning, she bathes at the Kaveri River and does the kolam, the design a girl or woman of a house draws daily in rice flour on a freshly swept threshold. Then she does a puja for the Ramar. Before sunrise, she lays out fruit and rice beside the canal for the monkeys. She cooks. Each afternoon, while her husband naps, she cries a little in a corner of the pantry. She cooks. Each evening at sunset, she watches the parrots swooping low over the roof. At night, she and her husband have sex. They talk, mostly about the village and religion and the daily matters of their shared life. She likes her husband and comes quickly to rely on him.

She comes also to know the Brahmin quarter and her neighbours. Hanumarathnam’s aunt Annam, who apparently looks and sounds just like her late sister, Hanumarathnam’s mother, and her husband, Vicchu, are kind and helpful, even while they are preoccupied with training their daughter-in-law. Rukmini arrived six months before Sivakami, and Sivakami alternates between feeling sorry for her, having to accommodate her parents-in-laws in exactly the way Sivakami herself has been spared, and feeling envious of the extended family and parental surrogates she has been denied. Rukmini and Sivakami see each other daily to exchange cooking or gossip, and so Sivakami hears the older girl’s mild complaints about her mother-in-law, which are never venomous or even very specific. Rukmini’s complexion is uneven, marked by evidence of some childhood malady, measles or chicken pox, but she is tall, with broad shoulders, and an exceptionally good cook, which her in-laws appreciate, though they’re more likely to tell others this than tell her. She has frizzy hair that won’t grow past the shoulders, and irritates Sivakami with excessive attention to her glossy, waist-long tresses–What does it matter, really? she thinks, though she knows she is proud of her hair.

Murthy is slightly shorter than his wife and has a high-pitched voice. He chiefly endears himself to Sivakami with his pride in Hanumarathnam’s abilities. Since a mother’s sister is considered a second mother, and a father’s brother another father, Murthy considers Hanumarathnam to be his own brother and takes personal credit for his accomplishments. He himself barely made it through eighth standard before stopping. He nominally assists in looking after the family lands, which have been split now that Hanumarathnam has received his share, but mostly spends his days snoozing on the veranda and occasionally holding forth on some article he has read, say on recent advances in science and technology. Hanumarathnam commented once to Sivakami that Murthy always mangles the details of these reports, and she has never since been able to respect Murthy, though she is fond of him nonetheless.

They live in the house to the left. Sivakami never meets the people to the right. She hears their story from Hanumarathnam’s aunt, though when she repeats it, wide-eyed, to her husband, he tells her not to take all the details so literally. No one ever sees the wife of that household, because she is ashamed, knowing everyone on the Brahmin quarter fears her. Her mother-in-law was a witch, and bribed the young woman to become one too. She accepted a necklace of gold coins, along with her mother-in-law’s hellish, itchy craving to periodically cast a spell. When, every so often, some old, weak or retarded person snaps and becomes crazy, the village understands the young witch has satisfied her demonic urge upon this victim. The craving tormented the elder woman; she died soon after passing it on and now rests, supposedly in peace, not knowing the real tragedy of her family: one of the young witch’s early spells was misdirected at her husband’s sister, a beautiful, bitter woman, who now crouches and gibbers, incontinent, in a corner of their house. Sivakami hears the sister-in-law sometimes–howling for food, chuckling eerily or delivering obscene diatribes–and shudders.

Cholapatti’s Brahmin quarter is a single street of some fourteen houses, ending in a Krishna temple. At the other end, closest to where Sivakami lives, the road curves out past a small Shiva temple and joins the main road into the nearest town, Kulithalai, the Taluk seat, where there is a sizable market, a courthouse, a club, even a small train station. Although Samanthibakkam, the village where she grew up, is larger than Cholapatti, it is much farther from any town of size, and she enjoys the sense of proximity to bustle and importance, even if she rarely sees it herself. Cholapatti’s Brahmin quarter is surrounded by fields, but there are small settlements of other castes, agricultural workers mostly, tenant farmers on the properties owned either by Cholapatti Brahmins or by the better-off residents of Kulithalai.

Once in the early months of her marriage, she goes to a wedding in Kulithalai: the Brahmin quarter there consists of two streets whose mix of prosperity and humility is similar to that on the street where she now lives. It is bordered on one side by a large quarter of Chettiars, whose opulent homes rise above their shops: jewellery, fabric, pawn and moneylending. When Sivakami goes shopping with Murthy and Rukmini, she sees there is variation in the Chettiars’ prosperity, but this doesn’t alter her perception of that caste as uniformly money-grubbing and flashy. Streets of other castes: Reddiars–she’s not sure what they do, business of some kind; a few families of Marwaris, with their fair, sharp features and gold hoop earrings, competing with the Chettiars for moneylending business; others she cannot name, including members of the agricultural classes wealthy enough, by wile or inheritance, to live in town; these streets bow out to enclose the circular stone bench at the market square, petering out beyond the train station, or at the river, which runs alongside the main road from Cholapatti. The untouchables’ neighbourhoods are in the hinterlands, though she has never seen them, nor even thought of them: the barbers, the funeral workers and so on, who all have their own traditions and hierarchies.

Once Sivakami saw a white man alighting from a horse cart in front of the train station. She asked Murthy if white people lived in Kulithalai, and he laughed, “No, no!” Hanumarathnam told her that might have been a circuit-court magistrate, paying a bi-monthly call, or a revenue supervisor visiting from Thiruchinapalli, the city, some hours away by train. He has promised her they will visit someday.

As to the rest of the Cholapatti Brahmins, Sivakami made their acquaintance when she and Hanumarathnam paid their postwedding calls. There are three grand households. Hanumarathnam is great friends with the husband of one, at the far end. The other is a duplex, five doors down, brothers who built across from their father’s more modest house. And there are three very poor households, including that of the woman Hanumarathnam hired to clean his house. Her husband is a cook-for-hire, the lowest profession available to Brahmins. At their house, Hanumarathnam and Sivakami did not take a meal but, with cordial remove, accepted tumblers of churned yogourt and stale snacks that Sivakami supposed the husband brought home from weddings where he worked.

In other words, for all that this life is so new to her, she has a profound sense of order: everyone in their places, easily found when needed, otherwise comfortably unseen.

Then this.

It is strange. Even if all of Cholapatti insists it is normal, she will refuse to believe it. But what if it is normal? Will she live with this for the rest of her life?

She sits on her haunches and rocks back and forth while she adds up, in two separate mental columns, the factors that make her marriage normal and the factors that make it strange. Before now, reflections on her marriage were either smug or self-righteous, depending on how she felt toward her husband in the moment. At present, alone–she has never been alone before, she ’s barely got used to being alone in a room once in a while, and now the whole house balloons empty around her–she is terrified.

The long list of normal factors gives her some satisfaction, and thus a little calm. She wants to demonstrate to herself that, on balance, her marriage is not materially different from any other Brahmin union. Next, she tackles the strange.

1. She is the second wife of a widower. Widowers with children marry their deceased wives’ sisters, if they can, because such women have maternal feelings toward their nieces and nephews. Widowers without children marry girls no one else will have. Neither condition applied to Sivakami, a fair-skinned, able-bodied, obviously intelligent girl of good family. But her parents offered her no explanation and she had come to see it as of little significance: he never even met his first wife, after the wedding. That long-ago girl must seem as unreal to him as she does to Sivakami. Sivakami edges this factor, in her mind, toward the normal column–Hanumarathnam, so young, barely qualified as a widower.

2. It is a little unusual that he is a healer, but there are others who divine people ’s ills and offer remedies of holy ashes, each-each unique but looking each-each the same. Also, he doesn’t consult any priest for astrological advice but goes straight to the stars and makes the calculations himself. Though unusual, these are at least activities appropriate to Brahmins with a paadasaalai education–natural extensions of his training.

Sivakami takes a breath.

3. Her husband has just wandered off into the forest with a small band of itinerant ascetics, siddhas, naked but for their hair and some holy ash, or maybe dirt, smeared in patterns on their blue-black or mud-brown skin, stretched taut on bony bodies . . .

She shudders. Her husband, a young, healthy, even slightly flabby Brahmin man, has walked off in a jolly manner with three siddhas, men who know no caste boundaries, whose origins are obscured by their membership in this mystic cult, who have no right, as far as she is concerned, to come in contact with respectable caste householders.

The fiends had come to the front door. She had heard Hanumarathnam’s brisk step behind her and stepped back, gaping at their audacity, to allow him to chastise them. He passed through the door, said, “I’m going out,” and then she was watching him disappear. She had looked around, hoping, at least, that the neighbours hadn’t seen, but they all had. She had closed the door, something never done in daylight, too shocked to resume what the siddhas had interrupted: her afternoon cry.

She enjoys this cry, as she enjoys the parrots at sunset, and sex, and being mistress of her own home. She is only thirteen years old and misses her mother’s hands in her hair each morning, and the little puppy her brothers had found a few weeks before she left, and so she weeps a little each day. A little less each day, but still she weeps because she is on her own with her husband–even though he is handsome and gentle and is teaching her the ways of love.

Sometimes, during the day, she thinks about what happened the night before, in the dark of the closed house. He’s always giving her some instruction or another, which often makes her giggle. When she finally manages to do what he is telling her, however, he is usually correct about the result. (You may imagine him as a young scientist in his first laboratory – many theories and, finally, the opportunity to try them.) Last night’s was challenging, but she is slim and supple . . .

Sivakami snaps herself from her reverie. He is gone! He has disappeared into the forest and here she sits idly beneath a window with a stupid smile on her face. She walks briskly to the well in the back, draws a bucket of water, cool even now in the hot season, and roughly washes her face. Stalking back into the main hall, she falls on her knees in front of the large black stone Ramar that dominates the room.

That morning, she ground fresh sandalwood pulp to anoint it, the figures of noble Rama, who stands in the centre, chest out, holding his signature bow; chaste Sita, to his left, her palms together, head modestly inclined; warriorlike Lakshmana, to his brother’s right; and faithful Hanuman, the monkey god and Rama’s deputy in the war on Lanka, who kneels before them. Every day Sivakami decorates them with sandalwood and vermilion, ornaments them with blossoms of marigold and jasmine and then proves the gods’ beauty by burnishing their features with chips of lighted camphor, held aloft. Her mother-inlaw’s devotion to this statue had been legendary. She called her son after Hanuman, the monkey, Rama’s most ardent devotee, and appended it with “rathnam,” a common suffix for boys’ names in this region, in honour of the hill temple in whose shadow they live, the founding myth of which concerned a gem lost then found.

Hanumarathnam’s name is a constant reminder to Sivakami (whenever she hears it; she herself would never say her husband’s name) of the legacy she has inherited. The statue is the household embodied.

She prays, but on this dark afternoon when their home has been seemingly sundered by prehistoric wraith-men, she feels she must do more. She plucks flowers from her garden, weaves fragrant garlands, drapes them on her gods and falls again before them in supplication.

It’s still not enough. She needs not cold stone but warm eyes. The neighbours have all seen anyway. She goes out her back courtyard and next door, to see her husband’s aunt, Annam. Sitting on the step behind her kitchen, she pours out her heart.

Annam laughs, then stops at Sivakami’s expression and pats her knee. “He has always done that, ever since he was a small boy. They come and look for him, he spends a few days with them. He used to ask me to prepare a packet of food to give them when they returned. That will be your job now. No one knows what they do, what they tell. One very naughty boy, you know, Jagganathan, he tried to spy on Hanumarathnam once, some fifteen or twenty years back.”

“Mute Jagganathan, up the road?” Sivakami frowns.

Rukmini comes into the kitchen from their main hall, rubbing her eyes, her sari dishevelled as she wakes from her afternoon rest.

“The last time he spoke was to boast that he was going to find out the secrets of the siddhas, whatever they share with your husband. ‘Why not me?’ he said. ‘I’m as good as him.’ Stupid boy. We never found out what he saw. Swagger on his face, he opened his mouth to tell us what he had learned. No sound came out.”

“Can’t he write things on a slate?” Sivakami lets herself be drawn into the story.

“He has never written what he saw. Your husband was only a boy. He went and spoke to Jagganathan’s mother, tried giving cures, but nothing worked. I think he was not the one who did it. I suspect he could cure Jagganathan now, if he wanted. But maybe he thinks . . .”

She pauses until Sivakami prompts her. “Thinks . . . “”

“Maybe he thinks it is better if Jagganathan has no chance to speak.”

Sivakami looks away, pouting, and wonders if she has betrayed him by coming here.

“Go home. Have your supper, lock the door, go to sleep. Hanumarathnam will wake you if he comes in the night. If he doesn’t, he will come soon.”

“Is he safe?” Sivakami asks finally, betraying a little anger that this was not her first concern.

“Was he safe all those times before you were his wife?” Annam snorts and gets up. “How many people have what he has? It is a gift and you are very lucky. I’ll send my servant’s daughter to sleep in your house tonight so you won’t be afraid.”

As soon as it is cool enough, Sivakami goes up on the roof to scan the countryside. Dusk finds her numbly watching the parrots as they take their low sunset swoops. Shortly after dark, the servant girl arrives and silently sleeps in the main hall as Sivakami lies awake. Nearly two days pass in long hours. The elderly servants come at their usual times, to sweep, bring vegetables and kerosene from the market, sort the rice for stones, shape cow dung into patties and slap them onto the courtyard walls to dry into fuel chips. They give no indication that they think anything is wrong, as Sivakami sits half willing them to notice her fuming in a corner of the main hall.

She is the cherished only daughter of a not unknown family. She was not raised to be left alone. She didn’t marry to be left alone. She reviews again the details of her marriage, which echo in her mind like her footfalls in the empty house.

When Hanumarathnam returns, Sivakami is haggard. Though thinner, he seems renewed, vigorous, faintly glowing even. He asks her if she has cooked. She has, as she has three times every day of his absence, anticipating his return.

“Pack four meals, my dear. Large meals,” he says, his eyes dancing with hidden thoughts, new knowledge, non-Brahmin fascinations of which she is no part.

He knows things he has no right to know.

But he is her husband and he has asked for food, so she packages rice with sambar and vegetables into plantain leaves and binds them neatly with long fibres pulled from palm leaf stems. The yogourt rice course she wraps separately with tidy daubs of pickles. She is numb. She is packing food for her husband’s abductors, his friends, his mentors, who are just the sort of people she has been taught are dirty – which anyone can verify by looking at them. By smelling them.

They are not only smelly, they are sarcastic. Sarcastic to the point of blasphemy: as they saunter along the Brahmin quarter in the direction of the Krishna temple, no doubt savouring the pollution their naked, non-Brahmin forms are bestowing on the sanctified land, they cry, “Here is a body, feed it!”

It is the cry that distinguishes mendicants from beggars. In the old days, before Brahmins secured land and, thus, income, when they were strictly priests and scholars, living in righteous poverty, they would gather their daily sustenance by walking the street, carrying nothing but a brass jug and a walking stick. Hearing their cry, “Here is a body, feed it!” villagers would run after them and press upon them paddy and lentils. Now this drama is being re-enacted before Sivakami’s own house, except that those offering are Brahmins and the criers are non-Brahmins and Sivakami’s husband, a Brahmin, is the non-Brahmins’ great friend.

So now that he ’s back, she asks herself, Who is he, her husband? Is marriage not a known quantity, a thousand and one inconsequential variations on fixed roles and results?

Sivakami becomes pregnant the night her husband returns.

Which is to say that things go a little differently from usual. After it happens, her husband explains that this is the required conclusion if they are to create children, but that it has not happened before because the philosophy in which he is receiving instruction teaches that men must learn to conserve their life force, to keep it within them and not jet it from their bodies at the first hint of pleasure. This night, though, for him, it was not possible. Perhaps he was weak from three days without food, perhaps exhilarated by his learning, perhaps just a little too glad at holding her again. Sivakami was at first frightened by seeing his eyes roll, his body tense and spasm. She had thought for a moment that he was having a seizure–could this be one more thing about him she hadn’t been told? Following his explanation, she is relieved, and testifies also to her happiness at his return, though she is a little disappointed by the brevity of their fun.

Now that they are together again, in the pre-dawn, post-coital calm and commonality, she is emboldened to ask about these siddhas, suddenly so central to her marriage. Her husband replies, “They are men. Men concerned with perfection.”

“What perfection?” She tries not to scoff.

“Lower metals can be made into gold,” he says, and his tone makes her wonder for a moment if he means this literally. “Have you heard of that? The siddhas are teaching me how. And, by an analogous process, the body can attain spiritual freedom. Perfection, like gold, but while still in life, not after, you see?”

He is not really asking and so she just allows him to continue.

“But it is a very, very long process. These men, the siddhas, how old do you think they are?”

“I don’t know.” She doesn’t want to show too much interest.

“Guess.” He smiles.

She sits up, her arms wrapped around her knees. “I can’t see them very well, their hair snakes to their knees, they’re all dusty, and I didn’t look, sort of, directly.”


“They wear no clothes, am I supposed to inspect them?”

Hanumarathnam begins laughing and her irritation increases as she continues. “Go up and stare at these naked men up and down to determine the depth of wrinkles beneath their coat of mud and ash?” She stops and waits, sulking, until he answers his own question.

“They are some hundreds of years old.”


Hanumarathnam looks a little taken aback at her vehemence, and she is both scared and glad.

“Truly I am saying,” he continues a bit cautiously, “they extend their lives. It takes so much time to transform the soul, and since the body is the soul’s vessel, its life, too, must be extended. And their practices increase vigour and so naturally extend the life. They must live long, else how to learn and practise sufficiently? How to find time?”

“Is that what you are doing?”

“I am not a siddha.” He stretches and yawns.

“I thought they hated Brahmins.”

“They do,” he says lightly. “They mock Brahmins.”

“Then how have they come to call on you?”

“Brahmins have knowledge too.”

“They want to learn . . . what? Astrology? Healing arts?” This, at least, is something in which she can take satisfaction: they are interested in his scholarship.

“We sometimes debate.”

This is less welcome: a debate implies he treats them as his equals. “And you are learning their . . . to . . . extend your life? You are going to live for hundreds of years?”

“I said, I am not a siddha.”

“But you are doing their practice, philosophy, whatever you call it.” What, exactly, is his relationship with them?

Hanumarathnam sighs. “I am living here with you in the Brahmin quarter,” he says, his mouth a bit tight as he speaks in the minor-key singsong reserved for unnecessary explanations. “Once or twice in a year I go with them, then I come back to my nice house and I try some experiments. There are forces at work in my life which do not enter into theirs.”

“Is it true that they write obscene poetry?” Surely this, she thinks, should cap her case.

“It has other meanings also . . .”

“Anti-Brahmin messages and so on.”

“Yes, yes. Anti-Brahmin messages. Is this what the neighbours have been telling you while I was away?” He doesn’t wait for a reply. “The poetry is satirical. It is critical of the idea of caste.”

“I should hope you debate this, at the least.”

“Yes . . . but the poetry is more. It is also about spiritual life. Transformation. The perfection of base matter . . .”

“Like base metals into gold.”

“Quite.” He pats her knee. “They have means.”

Sivakami maintains what she thinks is a look of resolute skepticism, though she feels a little reluctant excitement at the idea that her husband may be learning a means of prolonging his life.

Hanumarathnam is happy about the pregnancy, though worried because his wife is so small. Sivakami’s confidence and self-assurance grow with the itty-bitty body within her own, and she reassures him. They have created a child, they are carrying on an important work, one he cannot undertake without her, and one for which she is fully equipped. The unmarried Sivakami was passionate but reserved; the newly married Sivakami was determined yet unsure; the pregnant Sivakami sits on a solid sense of her worth in the material and spiritual universe.

By the third month, though she is not getting large at all, she is getting a little uncomfortable. Her belly is becoming heavy. Not swollen, not churning–this is not a fictional sensation nor is it gas. She is bearing a significant wombal weight. She continues to be active and cheerful, but as the fourth and fifth months pass, the slight roundness grows and distends downward, slung in her pliant skin. By the end of the sixth month, though no one would even know to look at her that she is pregnant, she can barely stand. When she does, she must lift her middle against her interlaced fingers. She finds ways to manage.

Her nervous husband makes sure she is never without household help, instructing the two old woman-servants never to go home. They have five betel-stained teeth between them and have suffered a significant loss of memory with age, especially memory for all difficult tasks. But they enjoy the status conferred by age, and most days, Sivakami finds one of their nieces or granddaughters washing the pots and clothes, pounding the paddy and sorting for stones. The wise old women wisely confine themselves to the sedentary tasks of stripping leaves for thatch and cracking jokes, chewing betel in the courtyard or on the step out back. Newsmongers stop by to ply them with frequent gossip.

Hanumarathnam also arranges for a penurious Brahmin lady to come in to cook. She slips quietly in and slips out, so as not to have to acknowledge the humiliation of labour. Sivakami, who is a snob but not cruel, tactfully ignores her. It’s easy because most of her concentration is taken up with sitting, walking or lying down. She cannot turn over once she lies down but has to grasp her middle, sit up and steadily descend onto the other side.

As the nine-month mark nears, Hanumarathnam and one of the old women-servants escort her to her mother’s home, as is customary and expected. They leave her there to be doted on for a few weeks before the birth. She is fed sweets; her nieces sing to her; her sisters-in-law loop strings of fragrant jasmine into her hair. Though she never complains, her brothers’ wives watch her heaving her wee belly around and dryly wonder what she will do when she has a pregnancy of substance.

One day, with the unexpected prescience of some fathers-to-be, Hanumarathnam departs in a rush for his wife ’s village. He arrives to find Sivakami in the concluding hard stages of labour. A barber’s scrubbed wife has been working with Sivakami for some eight hours. Sivakami’s mother can’t stand the sight of blood and is dithering around the well in the back. Hanumarathnam’s father-in-law is pacing the street and veranda, a wreck, trying to think nice things to block out his daughter’s groans and cries. He attempts to smile at the arrival of his son-in-law, but there is an undercurrent of blame. He blames Hanumarathnam, who is directly responsible for Sivakami’s present trials, but he also blames himself, because he would have ensured that Sivakami be put in this position eventually, if not with Hanumarathnam, then with someone else. (He wants but cannot quite bring himself to blame society, which insists it must always be so: women marrying men, bearing their children. If they are at all able, it must always be so.)

Hanumarathnam can see how he feels. He feels rather the same. He touches his father-in-law’s feet. This makes the older man feel worse, even as he twinges with pride, a vestige of the wedding. Hanumarathnam proceeds into the house and finds himself ushered straight out the other end. He walks into the garden and along the side of the house, until he finds a window in the vicinity of the birthing room. He calls out, “Ayah! Ho, ayah!”

The exasperated barber’s wife finally appears at the window and asks, “What do you want?”

“How is she?”

“You have ears.”

“Here.” He holds out a lemon.

She stares at it and grunts distractedly, “Huh.”

“You must throw it out the window the second the child’s head appears.”


“The exact moment, you . . .”

She has caught the lemon and vanished back into the birthing room. He imagines her tucking it into one of the hundreds of secret pockets created by the random wrapping of the saris their class wears and finding it three days later. He gives himself over to fate. He sits and paces and prays for his little wife and baby.

But she is good, the barber’s wife, a very cool head, and the second the golden orb makes an appearance, she extracts the lemon with a flick of her hand in the region of her waist and tosses it to a niece who is seated on the threshold of the birthing room, a little girl whose curiosity far outweighs the smack and reiterated forbiddance whenever someone notices that she is still there. There is one in every household. “Run, run. Throw this out the window to that ayya. I have seen his baby’s head.”

The ecstatic child (who loves work as only children can) runs and hurls the lemon as hard as she can out the window, which is far above her height. So intent is Hanumarathnam on watching his hourglass and repeating a mantra that he doesn’t see the fruit’s flight, and only looks up when he hears a slap. He sees the lemon rolling toward him from the roots of the coconut tree it hit. Fortunately, he noted the time, the moment he heard the sound. He has a figure he can use to make his calculations.

Sivakami is up on her elbows, panting and sweating. The barber’s wife, though intent on her task, wordlessly conveys her boredom at this act that never was and never will be new.

Finally, it’s a push and a rush, a new mother nearly lifting off the cot with relief, and a baby girl sliding into the midwife ’s hands, nearly pulling her to the floor because this is one heavy baby. Small to average size, but heavier than an iron skillet. As they gently wipe her with a warm, damp cloth, like a cow’s tongue on its calf, they notice this child is exceptionally beautiful.

“Jaundice,” says the barber’s wife at the child’s colour. But Sivakami, who doesn’t have the age or experience to question the ayah aloud, knows she is wrong. Though the baby will formally be given her paternal grandmother’s name, she will be called Thangam–gold.

Six weeks later, the small family returns home. Sivakami is relieved to see how her husband dotes on the little girl. Everyone prefers a boy, but this is just the first child. You can still hope.

Sivakami cannot lift the baby. Her middle is still a little weak and the baby heavy as a sack of bricks. Hanumarathnam lifts Thangam to the breast or lays her in her little cloth hammock so Sivakami can rock her. He even regularly puts his daughter in the crossed legs of his own lap to dandle her, something Sivakami has rarely seen fathers do. But Thangam is unusually good and calm. Everyone says so. Everyone loves to hold her. They need to hold her, even if their arms fall asleep and they stagger and sway and give themselves backaches. The baby doesn’t cry or even coo. Sometimes she smiles a faraway smile, and all around her are transported, stroking her golden skin, looking into her golden eyes.

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