Women’s Writing – prescribed stories

The Goddess of Revenge

Lalithambika Antharjanam

IT WAS NEARLY midnight. I was sitting alone in the room where I usually did all my writing. The compassionate Goddess of Sleep stood by me, waiting to enfold in her caress the wounds that my spirit had accumulated in the course of the day’s hard work. But I knew that if I threw down the pen and paper I had taken up to write my story, I would not be able to touch them again till the same time tomorrow, when the usual obstacles would again present themselves. I sat there wrapped in thought. Silence lay deep around me, interrupted now and then by the sounds of two rats engaged in love talk in the attic above, or the snores of the children sleeping in the next room. The light from the lamp on the table crept out through the window and cast fearful shadows onto the thick darkness outside. The hooting of the many owl families that were my, neighbors sounded like a warning in my ears. I must confess: I am a coward by nature. Especially at this deceptive hour of the night.

I closed and bolted the window and raised the wick of the lamp. I checked whether any of the children were awake or whimpering, then came back to my usual place. I had to finish writing today, come what may, but what was I going to write about? How was I to begin? Now that I had sat down to write, all the attendant problems rose up to confront me. Writing stories is not a pleasant task, especially for a woman like me, for whom status and prestige and a sense of being highborn are all- important. When fictional characters come to life and argue heatedly about contemporary issues, the author has to face opposition from many quarters. If an opponent were to use the weapon of obscene language against me, would I be able to defend myself with a like weapon? And then, the subject of caste distinctions was taboo, and religious controversies were to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, we have arrived at a point when writers have perforce to consider well in advance which particular literary theorist’s recriminations they would have to face. It was all very distressing. I suddenly wanted to give it all up.

Filled with an obscure sense of anger, I threw my pen onto the table, and closed my eyes. Innumerable characters passed through my mind as I sat there: people I had seen and not seen, people who were alive and who were dead. Women and men. Creatures tormented by pain, those who had lost their voices, though their throbbing hearts thudded like thunderclouds, flashed like lightning. Were they demanding to be transcribed? I was afraid, but also inspired. Suddenly, I heard the sound of footsteps coming toward me from the next room.

What could it mean? I sat up, startled. I had closed the door, bolted it securely, and locked it. And I had not even heard it being pushed open. It was midnight. Although I did not believe in ghosts, I trembled in fear. My head began to spin. My eyes closed tight. The footsteps grew firmer and firmer. Someone came and actually stood next to me, but I could not move.

The seconds ticked by. Did five minutes pass, or a whole hour?  I couldn’t say. Time stopped for a long while. Then I heard a woman’s voice, just in front of me, a firm yet fine and delicately modulated voice. “Are you asleep? Or afraid?” she asked.

I remained very still. 1 did not have the strength to move, anyway. The voice went on, its sweetness tinged with a shade of mockery, “When I heard that you wrote stories, I did not imagine that you would be such a coward. After all, a good writer usually has to witness so many scenes of agony and terror.”

The eagerness to know the identity of this person, who knew so much about me, drove my fear away. I opened my eyes. In front of me, the figure of a woman took shape from the surrounding texture of a dream. A woman … not a young girl. Not bold or proud. Not old either. All I can say is that she seemed a wonderful manifestation of meaning itself. Sorrow, a certain austerity, disgust, disappointment all struggled to find expression in her face. The sparks of an intense fire burned fearfully in her eyes – I recognized the emotion as from the leaves of some forgotten book from the distant past. She went on in a voice powerful yet tender.

“I’ve come with a purpose. I know you are looking for a story to write, but are unable to find one. I have a first- class story, which is going to waste for want of someone to use it if you agree … if you can listen to it without being terrified …”

I had mustered my courage by now. “It’s true that I panicked. But that’s because of the time and the circumstances. Please, for heaven’s sake, tell me who you are, and how you got here at this time of the night through a locked door.”

“Who am I?” She burst out laughing. “So you want to know who I am, do you? Whether I’m a human being, or an evil spirit, a ghost, or a witch. What superb courage!”

She laughed out loud again, sounding like a forest stream that breaks its banks and overflows. Her laughter thudded against the walls of the room. But this time I did not wince.

“I confess that I am a coward,” I said. “But how can I have anything to do with you unless I know who you are? Human beings come to know the very stars in the sky by giving them names and positions of their own.”

“Human beings? For heaven’s sake, don’t count me among them, Sister:’ she interrupted, looking displeased. ‘There was a time when I loved to be known as a human being, when I expended my greatest efforts on staying as one. But I have learned- and taught others- that I never want to be called a human being again, and particularly not a woman. To be human, how deceitful it is, how cruel, what an experience of agony.”

“Maybe you are right,” I admitted. “But pain and agony are gifts that are granted only to human beings. They are links in a divine chain of gold.”

She shook her head and prevented me from going on. “Stop this foolish raving: ‘divine,’ ‘gold: What melodious descriptions! A ‘chain of gold’ indeed. Let me ask you, what advantage do golden chains have over iron ones if they are meant to be fetters? Only this: that iron shows its true colors. And gold? What a glitter. A mere coating. God! What does it prove but the difference between a human being and a demon?”

Her face, which was full of hatred for her fellow beings, seemed transformed into something nonhuman. I could not be certain whether her expression signified sorrow, hatred, pride, or revenge, but I found it a singularly attractive mixture of all these emotions, and my eyes were riveted on her. What deep despair, what grief this life must have borne!

“So you’re waiting to hear my story,” she continued, after a short silence. “All right, I’ve come for that anyway. It is an old story. It happened more than fifty years ago, and it is a true story, one that shook the world to its foundations when it happened. You had not been born then, neither had your social organizations, with their penchant for debate, nor their leaders. And yet the turmoil that this story created over a great part of Kerala still continues. Some of the characters who figured in it may still be alive. Have you heard of Tatri?”

Oh, oh, so this was she. I drew back sharply in fear. This was the woman whose name our mothers had forbidden us even to utter, the very memory of whose name awakened horror. This was- oh, what could I say?

She smiled with evident delight at my distress. “Yes, yes, you’re thinking, which namboodiri woman has not heard of that unfortunate creature, aren’t you? No one says so in so many words. But everyone knows. But, look, child! Do you know for whom, for what that ill- fated sadhanam sacrificed her life? She too was a pure and untainted young woman once, like all of you. She wove chains of sacred karuka grass. She recited her prayers with a holy thread in her hands. She performed all the ritual fasts. She was as meek as a doll; after the age of ten she never looked at a man’s face, or spoke to him. Grandmothers advised young girls who had reached puberty to learn from Tatri’s shining example. But you and I know that all this is part of an outward show. By the time we are seventeen or eighteen, we acquire an amazing capacity to keep our feelings under control. As we sit in the veranda by the light of the new moon, chanting our prayers, we hold the sighs that rise in our hearts in ourselves; no one ever hears them. Singing the “Parvathi Swayamvaram,” the “Mangalayathira,”[1] and other auspicious marriage songs, moving our feet in time to their rhythm, we learn to control the trembling in our throats. Yet, do we not listen to the sound of men’s footsteps from the living room? Even while struggling with the prickly exasperating kuvalam flowers, our hearts are full of the fragrance of mango blossoms. And we wait. Not just days and months, but years. Till at last one day our mothers come to us with henna and a silver ring. Whether our hands are placed in those of an old man or a young one, a sick man or a libertine is all a matter of destiny. We can do nothing but endure.

“People told me that I had been singled out for a very special destiny. I was his first wife. And he was not an old man either. He had enough to live on at home. So I started married life with a boundless sense of happiness. He was a passionate man. I nurtured my desires to suit his. I did my utmost to satisfy him in bed, with the same attention with which I prepared food to please his palate. After all, a husband is considered to be a god. It was to give pleasure to this god that I learned a harlot’s ways, those talents that were to become so notorious later. It was he who taught them t me. If it had been otherwise, my sister! If I too had become a meek wife, ignored by her husband, like countless women in our society I wonder whether this cursed happening would have been blown so much out of proportion. I don’t know. Maybe the intoxication of physical pleasure crept insidiously into my mind and lingered there as a fragrance. But he was the only person enclosed within that fragrance, I swear it. That is why I was so upset when we began to drift apart gradually. He began to stay away from home for many nights in succession. Occasionally, it was to perform a religious rite, or to attend a temple festival. He would stay in rich princely homes then. When we met, more and more rarely, I would weep before him, find fault with him. To whom could I unburden my sorrows, except to him?

“He would laugh, indifferent to the pleas of a broken heart. Man is free. He lives for pleasure. Just because he was married – – – and to an uninteresting namboodiri woman – – – it did not mean that he had to waste his youth on her.

“Anger and fury sharpened within me. I wanted to batter myself.  I wanted to die. I even cursed myself for having been born. Why had I been born a namboodiri woman? Couldn’t I have been born into some other caste in Kerala, some caste that would have given me the right to pay this arrogant man back in his own coin?

“And yet, on his every birthday, I bathed and prayed for a long and happy married life. I offered ghee lamps and garlands of thumba flowers in the temple. All I wanted now was to see him sometimes so that I could fill my eyes with his presence. Just as when I had reached puberty I had begun to pray for a husband, I longed now for my husband’s love.

“Thanks to the generosity of our karyasthan we did not starve. But emotions and sensations have their own hunger, don’t they?  Greed. Thirst. Once brought to life, they cannot be quelled. They creep into the bloodstream, into the veins, they melt in them and simmer there. That was what happened to him too. But then, he was a man and I a woman, a woman born into a cursed society.

“Like all anterjanams, I too endured, kept my feelings in check, and carried on. It happened, without any warning: one evening, he came home with his new wife. They slept in the very room where I had slept with him. I did not mind serving food to that harlot. But though I had read Shilavathi’s[2] story a hundred times, making their bed was – Although I was a namboodiri woman, I was a human being too. Maybe I had accused her of being a prostitute. Maybe I had cursed her for being a slut and a harlot. This was the first time I thought of men as monsters, the first time my husband became a murderer in my eyes. I could’ have borne the torture for myself. But when he, my husband, used the same words – – ‘I brought her home deliberately, knowing she’s a harlot. I like harlots. Why don’t you become one yourself?’- what a cruel blow that was.

“Even to think of it petrifies me. Imagine a husband telling his chaste highborn wife a woman who worships him, ‘If you want me to love you, you must become a prostitute.’ An irrational, uncontrollable desire for revenge took hold of me. But only for an instant. My faith stood in the way. “No, I can’t remain here, even for a single day.’

“After that I never spoke to him again. I never spoke to anyone. The days went by somehow, empty of events, empty of love. If only something would move in this hell of darkness! I went back to the house where I was born, my heart full of limitless grief, a burden of sorrow that it could hardly bear. I thought I would find comfort and relief at home, but I was wrong. In truth, are not all namboodiri households a kind of prison? There is little to choose between them. My father was dead, but all his five wives were still alive. My elder brother was looking for a wife to replace his fourth one who had just died. Two of my older sisters, both widowed, were living at home. The third one had gone mad because her namboodiri husband had tortured her, and she wandered about here and there. Two unmarried younger sisters had become a burden on the house, a continual source of worry to their mother. I joined them, going from the frying pan into the fire. Amid such grief, who would not long for whatever comfort society permitted? I was still young. My body bloomed with health. I knew I could afford the arrogance of being certain that I was more beautiful than the prostitutes who kept my husband company. And yet, when I combed my hair, placed the bright red sinduram between my eyebrows, and peered out through the barred door, all I felt was a desire to see the world, or, at most, an innocent longing that someone should notice how beautiful I was. There were men who met my eyes, returned my smile. After all, people tend to smile if you smile at them. It soon became a habit. Were not those highborn brahmins susceptible precisely because they knew I was a namboodiri woman? They were aware of the consequences. But as long as nobody was aware of what they did, they indulged in the basest actions.

“Scandalous reports began to spread. And meaningful looks. I heard murmurs. The women’s quarters turned into a fifth column. Amma cursed whenever she caught sight of me. ‘You sinner, born to ruin the family’s honor! Why were you ever born in my womb?’

“My brothers wife said one day, ‘Tatri, don’t come into the kitchen anymore. I’d rather you didn’t touch anything there.’

“I did not understand the nature of the crime for which I was being punished. I had touched no man except my husband. I had not even dared to think of another man that way. If I peered out of the window, if someone saw me and was attracted to me, how could that be my fault? But the world does not concern itself with such questions. My heart hardened as stones of mockery were hurled at me. My mind whirled with the fear of disgrace. Then suddenly I knew that I could take anything that came to me. I had reached a point where I could bear anything. Darkness surrounded me on all sides. My enemies hissed at me like poisonous serpents in a smoke- filled darkness. They stung me, bit me. To defend myself in this battle unto death, I had to become a poisonous serpent too. The desire for revenge and the hatred that had lain dormant within me blazed high. If I tell you about the decision they forced me to, you will draw back in fear. You will tremble and drive me out of here. Oh, my sister, what I did was as much for your sake as for mine. For the sake of all namboodiri women who endure agonies. So that the world would realize that we too have our pride. I wanted to prove that we have strength and desire and life in us too. I delighted in the sorrow each man had to bear, for not a single tear shed by a namboodiri woman has value. But alas, all of you, for whom I did this, despised me. My very name was uttered with disgust m my lifetime. I was feared more than a demon. Even in the fashionable world of today, Tatri remains despicable; even you look upon me as a fallen and disgraced woman.”

Her voice trembled at this point. Her eyes filled. Weighed down by an unbearable sadness, she put her head down on the table. Silently, without moving, I watched that personification of hopelessness. The destiny of a woman like her, placed in such a situation, could take so many directions. If that broken life were to disintegrate completely, if its shattered remnants were to be scattered on the roadside like fragments of broken glass, surely it could not be her fault. Only the base tenets that had made her what she was could be blamed. For a namboodiri woman who feels the heat of emotion, who feels proud to be alive, there is only one of two ways possible: she must go mad, or fall from grace. Both ways are hard.

Maybe she had no tears left to shed. She sat up. A flame that would have burned up even the fires of hell blazed in her eyes.

“No, child! I will not cry anymore. This is my last moment of weakness. I knew I would never be terrified again, not even if the seas swept over me or the skies fell down. Fear ceases to exist when life and death seem no different from each other. I had made my decision. If this was to be my ultimate destiny, I would transform it into an act of revenge. I would avenge my mothers, my sisters, countless women who had been weak and helpless. I laid my life, my soul, everything I possessed, at this sacrificial altar of revenge and sought the blessings of the gods. Let everyone see and learn – that not only man but also woman could bring herself down to the lowest level. My capacity to err would have to be strong enough: if I were to be cast out of society, if I were to be ostracized, I wanted to make sure that I was not innocent. No one was going to punish me for a crime that I had not committed. If I were going to be pushed aside, others who were mean and cruel were going to fall with me. I wanted people to learn a lesson. If there was true justice, would it not be necessary to cast out more namboodiri men than women?

“From that night onward, a new face was seen at all the temple festivals, the face of a fascinating courtesan. She was passionate and beautiful. But more than her loveliness, it was a bewitching air of shyness, a gentleness of nature, that attracted men to her. Princes, titled chiefs, and many other well- known men crowded around her. I told them all that I was a married woman and not a prostitute. I told them I had a husband, I told them everything offering them a chance to break free. The only thing I hid from them was that I was a namboodiri woman. But the answer that they gave never varied: that bondage to a husband was not stipulated in this land of Parasurama, and that all women, except few namboodiris, were free here. They could do what they liked. This was the pattern of their comforting excuses. Oh, the minds of these men, who pretended to be self- respecting, pure, and saintly, even ascetic. If only men who insisted that their wives remain chaste did not deliberately seduce other men’s wives.

“Would not a woman who was aware that so many were attracted to her succumb, finally, in spite of herself? Particularly one condemned to the inner rooms of a namboodiri household, whom other women spat on and kicked? It was an age when the greed for flesh knew no bounds. The fame of this new harlot spread far and wide. Those who came to her went away gladdened. And she did not forget to persuade them to express their satisfaction through gifts. Thus the reputation of many who swaggered as honorable men of society came into the keeping of this prostitute.

“Only one man was left to come to me. The man I had waited for unceasingly. Surely, he would not fail to come ‘when he heard of this beautiful strong- willed woman, for he loved passionate encounters. It was five years since we had met. Although I recognized him when we met at the trysting place in the temple courtyard, he did not make me out. How could he have? How could anyone have guessed that this proud and confident woman, this jewel among prostitutes, was that humble namboodiri wife of long ago?

‘That was an unforgettable night. It was the night I had lived for, for so long, the night for which I had let myself be degraded. At least I was able to delight him for once. Ever since he had said to me, ‘Go and learn to be a prostitute,’ his command had lain simmering in my consciousness. If a woman who learns the ways of a prostitute in order to delight her husband can be considered chaste, I was another Shilavathi. I think it was a blissful night for him too. For, a little while before we parted, he said to me, ‘I have never been with anyone as intelligent and as beautiful as you. I wish I could always stay with you.’

“He had trapped himself. As he slipped his ring on my finger, I asked, ‘Are you certain that you’ve never met anyone like me?’

“He lifted his sacred thread, held it high in his hand, and swore, ‘By this wealth I possess as a brahmin, this symbol of my caste, I have never seen a woman as passionate and as intelligent as you in all my life.’

“A triumphant smile was on my lips. I raised my voice a little and said, ‘That’s a lie. Remember your wife. Was she not as pleasing as I am?’

“Light dawned on him. Suddenly, he looked at my face and screamed, ‘Ayyo, my Vadakkunnathan! It is Tatri! Tatri! Tatri!’ Then he fled, I do not know where he went or when he stopped.

‘The story is nearly over. You know what happened after that. The affair provoked a smartavicharam[3] that rocked Kerala to its very foundations. From great prince to highborn brahmin, men trembled, terrified because they did not know whose names this harlot was going to betray. Some men ran away and escaped. Others performed propitiatory rites, praying that she would forget their names during the cross- examination.

“One man’s ring with his name engraved on it. Another’s gold waist chain. Yet another’s gold- bordered angavastram. The incriminating pieces of evidence were used to prove the guilt of sixty- five men, including vaidikans. I could have caused not just these sixty- five but sixty thousand men to be cast out of the community. And not I alone. In those days, any lovely and intelligent woman who practiced this profession could have brought ruin upon entire families of landlords and wealthy aristocrats. And yet I did not go that far, even though I knew the power of a namboodiri woman’s curse. That historic trial had to end there. A longstanding grievance was assuaged. Was it simply an act of revenge performed by a prostitute? Or was it also the expression of the desire for revenge experienced by all namboodiri women who are caught in the meshes of evil customs, who are tortured and made to suffer agonies? Tell me, Sister! Who is more culpable, the man who seduces a woman in order to satisfy his lust, or the woman who transgresses the dictates of society in an attempt to oppose him? Whom would you hate more? Whom would you cast out? Give me an answer at least now, after so many years have gone by.”

I had sat dazed, unable to utter a single word, while she recounted this extraordinary story. I was frozen, helpless.

Remarking on my silence, she continued with an air of profound hopelessness, “Perhaps I’ve made a mistake. Why did I come here today? Why did I try to talk to yet another of those anterjanams who are without shame or self- respect, another slave among slaves? They will never learn to improve their lot. Never.” Her voice trembled with anger and grief.

But I felt no anger toward her. I said to her softly, “My poor sister! I am not trying to find fault with you. On the contrary, I have deep sympathy for you. Truly, you are not an individual anymore; you are society itself. You are timidity and weakness weeping before strength, helpless womanhood screaming for justice, bloodstained  humanity whose desires and talents have been ground into dust.

“How can the expression of irremediable hopelessness and helplessness be identified with your own? Consider, there is another side to all this. I have been thinking about it. Fired as you were with the intoxication of revenge, why did you not try to inspire all the other weak and slavish anterjanams? Why did you shoulder the burden of revenge all alone? In such matters, Sister, individuals cannot triumph. On the other hand, they can bring disaster upon themselves. Consider, now, what good did that hurricane you set in motion do to society? Men began to torture anterjanams all the more, using that incident as a weapon. We are close now to bowing our heads once again under the same yoke. Not even the women in the families of the sixty- five who were cast out have been released from their agony.”

I too was shaken. I continued, my voice trembling, “So, forgive me, Tatri sacrificed her very soul, but in the eyes of the world her sacrifice is remembered only as a legal affair involving a prostitute – an affair that certainly created a turmoil, but did not succeed in pointing the way to anything positive. The end cannot justify the means, Sister. Even while I recognize your courage and self- respect, I disagree with you. But namboodiri society can never forget Tatri. From the heart of a great silence, you managed to throw out an explosive, a brightly burning spark. It was a brave warning, a cry of victory. In the minds of the generations to come, this cry ignited a torch that still burns high and threatening. In its radiance, all the sins of that praticaradevatha, that Goddess of Revenge, are forgiven.”

I held out my hands to that woman’s form in affection and sympathy. Its face paled. Its eyes grew lifeless. “Oh, I am a sinner. A fallen woman. An evil spirit. Even my shadow must never fall over society.”

Continuing to talk, her form faded slowly, dissolving like the morning mist. The crowing of the cock woke me from my dream.



The Nectar of the Panguru Flower



Yawning, Basavan nestled his head on the lap of his new bride. The light had unfolded. The village basked in the tender warmth of the sun.

The roof seemed to cut the sky into squares. The villagers had urged Basavan to at least mend the roof before his marriage. They would have given him the grass and the labour if he had made the effort.

Basavan had merely smiled. He was sure that Challi, his woman, would have come to him regardless of whether the roof was mended or not. She was from the next village, and though a seemingly fashionable young lady, she had found a firm niche in the heart of Basavan, whom everyone regarded a confirmed savage.

Her blue coloured chinnalapattu sari was coming undone.

Gazing deep into the clear blue sky, Basavan harkened. The limpid blueness of the sky had dripped on Challi’s eyes filling them with the same azure hue.

Basavan lay on the floor and looked into the distance, for his hut was not hampered by walls or doors. Beyond the fields, the spring had proclaimed its presence. The trees of the forest beckoned him with henna coloured fingers.

He sat up suddenly as if answering a call that he alone could hear. As his wife was about to move away, Basavan grabbed the end of her sari:

“Why do you need this blue sari?”

She was lost for an answer. It was her father’s gift. The groom did not give his bride anything. He did not believe in worldly presents.

“What colour should my sari have been?”

“You do not need a sari at all. When you drape a sari, your beauty dies.”

She covered her mouth to smother her laughter. She went to the grove of plantains to spit the juice of the betel leaves that she was chewing. The sari that had come undone trailed after her like a blue snake. As Basavan began to yawn again, a sound filtered in through the square roof.

A bee. A bee that shone like an emerald. It tore, like a saw through the languor that had wrapped the hut. Challi blocked her ears.

—“What a creature!”

—“A creature! This is the messenger sent by the panguru creeper.”

Seeing the sun rise on Basavan’s face, Challi was bemused. For two days his face had been shrouded with a fog. He yawned ever so often. Was he so bored? Bored and after just two weeks of marriage? Challi asked joyously:

“Where has the panguru bloomed?”

“In the forest! Let’s go. We will leave right now.”

Basavan tied his mundu securely.

“Why don’t you put on your shirt?”

“Why should I?”

The white shirt that a friend had given him for his marriage swung on the bamboo line.

“Should we leave at once?”

“Why should we delay?”

Excitement pulsed in his every cell.

The bee, which had fluttered in the cool interior of the hut, led the way.

In the village the calves bleated. The chimes of the bells that hung around the necks of the cattle which had gone to graze in the forest, echoed still in the country lanes.

Like a young man who had come to the village to invite folk to a wedding, the breeze lingered in the village.

Basavan and Challi began their journey accompanied by the speeding clouds that were rushing towards the forest boundary.

The village watched. They had not become acquainted enough with Challi, of the neighboring village. They had not become familiar with the particular features that contributed to her distant loveliness. For that matter, they did not know Basavan too! He was born in the village but was forever making off to the forest. He was of the wild. One who did not know the conventions of the town. They thought that marriage might change him. That he would be tamed into his nest. Basavan had always been outside the range of their understanding. Once in a while he would appear at the festival fairs. A pot of honey would be balanced on his head. Selling it at whatever price he could manage, Basavan would drink away his earnings and then disappear again.

The villagers did not misunderstand Basavan’s departure to the forest. They did not find fault with Challi either. She was his woman after all. The villagers turned to their ploughs once more.

In the air, the dragonflies danced like the waves of the sea in the comfortable warmth of the sun.

On the branch of one of the trees of the village, a hawk perched and asked in a jocular voice:

“Where are you going? Where are you going?”

“To my ancestral home! Are you coming?”

“Let them go! Let them go!” another hawk intoned.

Basavan smiled. The smile never left his lips.

The trees of the forest raised their tattooed arms. Waving their henna coloured hands in the air, they welcomed Basavan and his wife. The divine music of thousands of creatures filled the cool courtyards of the forest. Basavan’s parched inner space was blessed with water like an oasis. He began to hum a song. The forest cuckoo stopped its rendering and sat still on the branch of a tree.

Traversing thread-like forest corridors and winding paths they reached the dark valley. Standing still for a minute, Basavan said:

—“It’s true! The panguru is in bloom!”

Searching for the source of the fragrance that filled the soul, Basavan walked ahead. Behind him, panting with the effort of traversing the rough road, Challi toiled. Her blue sari, caught in the sharp nails of the wild creepers, tore.

A stream pushed its way through the thick forest. On the bank on its far side, was a raised area where the sun shone. Challi’s eyes widened in amazement. On the bark of a huge thanni tree, clung a sturdy, gleaming creeper. Bunches of flowers bloomed profusely on the creeper, seeming almost to cascade to the ground. The flowers — two or three in a bunch, like the rising full moon — the panguru! The panguru creeper was not just a wild creeper. It was one that twined its way to heaven. With a heart brimming with honey, transcending the leafy green steps of the thorny undergrowth that blanketed the dark, marshy forest floor, it reached towards heaven, iridescent in the moonlight. Basavan’s mind surged. The exhilarating music of the forest that issued forth in myriad notes, to break the silence, echoed in Basavan’s ears.

“Challi, this is heaven! We will stay here. It is here that our child will be born.”

Challi stood amazed.

They bathed in the fragrance of the panguru flower. They partook of the golden honey pilfered from honeycombs; they enjoyed themselves and dozed when they were tired. They forgot the ills of mortals. They did not choose to remember the village that existed somewhere, some time.

They slept under a roof fashioned out of the arrowroot plant in the rainy season. They nestled under the blanket of mists that arose from the depths of the valley. She forgot the changing seasons. They became two sheer consciousnesses that none could lay claim to.

To the little one who played his games in Challi’s tummy, Basavan said:

“Come out soon. We will feed on nectar. Play with the moon. Travel in the clouds.…”

In the evenings, after the summer showers, they would climb up to the grasslands from the valley of the panguru. On the boundary of the sky, golden skirts of the clouds were hung out to dry. On opposite sides of the meadow, the sun and the moon gazed at each other in bemusement. Pointing to them Basavan asked:

“Which one of them should our son resemble?”

She pointed a finger at the sun’s flushed face. The sun tired out by the games hid his face in the mother’s lap. The disappointed moon reflected shyness in every aspect.

Challi said:

“Poor thing!”

Descending the grassy slopes to the dale, Challi said:

“The little one is knocking at the door!”

“If he is smart, he’ll open the door and issue forth soon.…” Basavan said.

The child born in the dung-smeared floor of the arrowroot leaf hut, roared loud enough to disturb the forest.

Black furred monkeys peered down at the baby from their safe perch on the branches of trees. How powerless is the newly born human child! How helpless! Unable even to stand up or turn on its back! The baby sucked the nectar of the panguru that his mother fed him. The forest accepted the newborn without a demur, without the slightest of changes. Nestled in the cradle fashioned out of one half of Challi’s blue sari, the baby slept. Awoke. Then slept again. He left the safety of the cradle — he crawled on the bed of dry leaves. He walked holding on to branches. When he walked alone without help, Challi’s memories awakened.



“Let’s go back.”

Basavan was startled.

He searched his wife’s eyes.

She had decided on the return. A mother’s determination.

“Where are your vessels?”

The vessels stacked, without being used, had been turned into dust by the white ants. Inside vessels made of aluminum were anthills. The palace of the ants towered in the light, aspiring to touch the sky itself.

“Never mind…” Challi said.

“Why should we go?”

“To take our baby to the temple of Malankali for his chorunu. He has to be sent to school — the school on the hillock.…”

Basavan started. He recalled the cement monstrosity that perched atop the rocky hill. Their baby would be fried alive in the heat.…

“Should we do this?”


Wasn’t it she who had given birth to the baby? Alright!

They began the descent. With the sun. They had filled bamboo flasks with honey. Pressing his feet against his father’s chest, Unni, the baby, perched on Basavan’s shoulders. He beckoned the animals of the forest. He imitated their calls. He pulled the tufts of hair on his father’s bent neck, in his excitement.

Basavan and Challi accompanied the cattle returning to the village from the day’s grazing.

A deep sigh arose from the bare fields. The birds hurrying back to their nests twittered and cried. A cowherd tired of minding the cattle was seated astride a buffalo, urging it on none too gently with a stick.

The village seemed swamped by a tide of tourists. They gathered before the shops in the village square. There were just four shops in the market place and all four seemed to stand obsequiously before the tourists. “What do you need? What do you need? What do you need?”

They needed everything. Country liquor, woman, temple visit, nature, aesthetics, cool bath, warm bed, forest nectar.

That was when Basavan and Challi entered the scene. Easing his bamboo flask from his shoulder, he gave Unni, the baby, to his mother. Basavan stood tall before Asnaar’s shop. A bit of his lungi still clung to his loins. It was a disgrace to his body that seemed to be built of polished teak.

“Hey, you… you still…” Asanaar stole a look at the figure behind Basavan. Asanaar swooned when he saw the naked Challi and the baby who clung to Challi’s breast. The boy who helped to make tea in Asanaar’s shop ran out. He did not swoon. He gazed at Challi as if he were savouring a sweet fruit. The gaze of a thousand eyes flitted to them from near and far. Like the flies that swarmed to honey pot.

The baby uncomfortable in his strange surrounding stopped suckling at his mother’s breast and began to wail.

Basavan wiped the outer side of his honey flask with what was left of his lungi. He swung the flask once more on his shoulders. Someone asked him:

—“Is the honey for sale?”


Then Asanaar woke up from his swoon. Fixing his eyes on the breast of the earth, Asanaar boldly asked:

—“Basava, you came here with the honey in order to give it to me, didn’t you?”


On hearing that Malankali in person, had appeared on the street of the village, the villagers flocked to the square. The square filled up. The streets filled up. Clinging to the horizon, the clouds also peeped into the village.

Basavan measured the earth and the sky. Challi clung to his arm like the panguru creeper and bloomed. She bewitched them like a daydream.

Basavan turned his back on the village.

Translated from Malayalam by Hema Nair R.

 is one of the foremost short story writers in Malayalam. She has also written novels, which have received considerable popularity. Among her important works are Nellu, Pokkuveyil Ponveyil, Annamariye Neridan, Chamundikuzhi and Pazhaya Puthiya Nagaram. She is the recipient of several awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. She writes mostly about adivasi lives in Wyanad and distinct feminist impulses can be discerned in her writing.




Independence Day

Shashi Deshpande


They have all gone leaving me alone here. This is how I had wanted it; nevertheless, I am surprised that they went away so easily. I had expected them to demur, to urge a little, to try and make me change my mind. Perhaps they were being tactful, leaving me to grieve over my father’s death by myself. But there’s no grief; how can you sorrow for someone who looked death steadily in the face, a person to whom it was but the next step of a journey? I realize now that he’d been preparing for this for some time. Each time I came home in the last few years, I found the house denuded of a few more things. I never asked him where they had gone; reticence has always been part of our relationship, indeed, of his personality. And living alone, in the years after my mother’s death, he had retreated even more into silence. It is his silence and solitude that seem to enclose me now; they are both welcome and comforting. And there are the memories. Is that why he cleared the house so thoroughly to make more room for memories? I can feel them thronging around me, I can see my mother at the sewing machine, her face lowered, her hand caressing the wheel, her small bare feet going up and down on the treadle. But how can this be his memory? No, it’s my memory that I am foisting on him. You can never get at another’s memories, can you?

The absolute quiet in the house makes me strangely restless, and it is a long time before I finally go to sleep. And wake up with a startling abruptness when I hear voices, the disjointed conversation of a group of people all talking together. It takes me a moment to realize it was a dream, a dream in which people were speaking a language I don’t know. How strange! Are we not then the authors of our own dreams? Or were the voices real? I go to the window and look over the wall into the yard next door, as if I expect to see the people I’d heard talking there, sitting under the tree. But there is nothing, only the darkness and the emptiness of the night. Even the tree has gone. It was a dream, of course, a dream that came to me out of my past. I wonder what it is that had tugged these people out of my past to this time. Is it the emptiness of this house which reminds me of Padma’s words “they’ve lost everything”? But nothing was taken from my father; it was he who voluntarily gave up everything. Whereas, those people Padma had been speaking of, the people who came back to me in my dream…

Refugees was the word for them, though it was a word never used in Padma’s house, where they were spoken of as “our family”. In any case, to us in the south, so far away from where the brutal division of the country was taking place, the steady stream of traffic that went through Padma’s house those months before Independence and after, was only a curious phenomenon. The bloodshed and the tragedy were happening too far away to register with us. But the sight of the men and women sitting on the string beds under the neem tree in Padma’s house was a spectacle to be gaped at. In a while I’d have lost interest in them. Except for Padma’s words which made them suddenly interesting and dramatic figures. “They’ve lost everything.” Padma said to me dramatically repeating, I knew even then, words that were not her own. Recently, I saw a shot of the partition refugees – – miles and miles of hopeless trudging humanity moving in two opposite directions, two independent lines, each unaware, it seems, of the other. A rare picture, now that I think of it. It’s as if we’ve stashed away all the ugliness – – the uprooting, the killing, the raping in some dusty forgotten archives, retaining only the sanitized pictures we are more comfortable with. Khadi- clad men and women moving forward in a non- violent surge. Gandhi lifting his fistful of salt at Dandi. The Congress leaders leaning against fat, overstuffed bolsters. It sometimes seems to me that we store our personal memories in old files, putting them away so that we can move on more easily. But memories are not records; they refuse to stay enclosed within covers. They choose their time and spring out at you. Like my own personal memory now does, rushing at me through the dark tunnel of the years. And I can see the woman I have not thought of for years, I can hear the indescribable sounds emerging from her open mouth, her hands flat on her thighs, rocking herself violently faster and faster….

“A flock of birds,” my father had said, speaking of the refugees once, in the early days. An unusual way for him to speak; he was not a fanciful man. Inaccurate word as well, for there was none of the joyousness of birds about the tired- looking, dishevelled, bewildered groups with their shabby bags and bundles. The first time we saw them, getting out of the tonga that stopped before Padma’s house, we had stared in amazement at the hugging and sobbing that went on. But soon the sight became a familiar one and the people themselves were quickly absorbed in Padma’s house, becoming part of it, like ordinary guests. Which is why, when Padma said to me, “They’ve lost everything,” it conveyed no more than a kind of monumental carelessness. It was hard to associate tragedy with that house, bursting at the seams and so full of bustle and noise. And yet, my mother always referred to them as “poor things”. Even my father, who so rarely spoke to any neighbours, got into conversation with Padma’s father one day; such an unusual sight that I stood and stared. Padma’s father, excited perhaps by my father’s taking notice of him, kept respectfully addressing my father as “Principal saab”, something my father would normally have corrected with an emphatic “headmaster, not principal”. But that day he let it pass. And when he came home he said, “A very generous man, our neighbour”. It was the first time in my memory that I had heard him speaking of someone else. Like his talking to Padma’s father, this was such an extraordinary phenomenon that I knew something had shaken up my father’s usual self. Do I give the impression of a cold and callous man when I speak of my father? But he was not that. Shy, I think, not easy with people. Distanced from most by his reputation as a learned man and a strict teacher. Often I had a feeling, specially when he was with my mother and me, that there was something he wanted to say but couldn’t. Now, years later, I remember the way his fingers moved at such times, like a shadow artist creating shadow pictures on the wall.

But, yes, my father was right. Padma’s father was a generous man, for, though he was only the owner of a sweetmeat shop. He took them in unhesitatingly, all the people who arrived with such regularity. Not everyone who came stayed on, though; many went away in a while, specially the young ones, and others took their place, so quickly that I forgot those that had gone. But I still remember a young pair, a sister and brother I think from their resemblance, who enchanted me with their beauty. With their fair complexions and sharp features, they had the chiselled look of marble statues. But now, when I think of them, it is not their beauty that I remember, but their eyes. Empty. As vacant as the eyes of a statue.

It was the older people who sat on the string beds under the neem tree, some in loud and animated discussion, one or two always lying on the beds, staring at the sky through the branches of the neem tree. And often, in the evenings, a group of them played cards. I had never seen adults playing cards before. To me, it was a game children played during their holidays. But the way these people played, with desperation and a kind of silent passion, made it into something that was not a game at all. And, what seemed even more odd to me was that even the women joined in this game.

But everything about these people was odd to us, actually. Not just their language, but their clothes, for example; the women wore huge baggy salwars and kameezes. “Punjabi dress” as we called it then, something we had never seen adult women wearing. Grown women, according to us, wore saris. It was the dress that made them “Punjabis” to us, something that Padma energetically refuted and never tired of correcting. “We’re not Punjabis,”  she would say. “We’re Sindhis.” I remember her exasperation in school when, one day, a girl again spoke of her family as Punjabis. “We’re not Punjabis, we’re Sindhis”, Padma began, then suddenly stopped and grabbed the girl by her hand. “Come, she said, come I’ll show you.’ I followed the two of them into the assembly hall which was a hive of activity that day. It was only a few days before the first Independence Day and the school was preparing to celebrate. The hall looked like a house a few days before a wedding, there was the same joyous buzz of excitement in it. A sense of chaos, yet each one knew what she was doing. Padma went straight to the group of girls who were drawing a map of India – a huge one which would be the backdrop for the stage on the day. The girls had an old map by their side to look into. Compared to the old one, the new map seemed incomplete. As if someone had clipped its wings. And the proportions too, were, somehow, not quite right; it looked elongated, as if the whole country was standing on tiptoe. Padma stood with her victim firmly in her grasp before the map and said, “I’ll show you, I’ll show you Sind…” And then she stopped. Her hand hovered over the map, moved up and down searchingly and then fell to her side. She looked bewildered as if she had lost something. “It’s gone,” she said, turning to me, as if accusing me of having taken it away, “It’s not there.”

They’ve lost everything. Was this part of it? Was it possible to misplace a piece of land as well? Did I think of this then? I don’t remember. But I can remember Padma’s face as it was then, the look of total bewilderment on it. It meant nothing to me at that moment. After all, what did a blank space on a map mean at that time and in that place of joyous excitement?

Memories don’t come in sequential order. I have to fit them together. And when I do this, it seems to me that it was the morning after Padma’s futile search for her homeland that we heard the cry. There had been the usual sounds of arrival, the clip- clop of the horse’s hooves as the tonga arrived, the jingle of bells round the horse’s neck, all the sounds loud and clear in the silence of the early morning. Then the bustle of arrival with a jumble of voices speaking all at once. Doors banged, voices receded and the morning quiet enveloped us once more. Until it was shattered by a cry. A cry? It was a long- drawn- out mournful wail, like the howling of a dog in the night. It sent a shiver up my spine, the goosebumps came out on my arms and even my mother rushed out, a startled look on her face. But there was nothing after that cry. As if a spell had been cast on the house, its inhabitants remained cloaked in silence and invisibility.

But news, bad news specially, can never be sealed in. We soon heard what had happened. One of the women, she whom we called the “fat aunt”, had come to know that her only surviving daughter who had been missing all these months, was dead. Dead, it seemed, in some terrible way, from the manner in which the adults who spoke of it looked and whispered.

My mother went next door in the afternoon. And when she returned she wept aloud, so rare a thing that I was frightened. Even my father hovered around her as if he wanted to do something, to say something. I felt the weight of the woman’s loss through my mother’s weeping. Still, it was hard to connect the woman, who to us was a figure of fun because of her bulk, to this enormous tragedy. Tragedy receded anyway, put into the shade by my own moment of glory which now arrived. The two are connected in my memory by Padma’s absence, for Padma was away from school the day I was chosen to be Bharat Mata in the finale of the Independence Day pageant. I was walking out of the schoolroom, I remember, when someone came and told me I was wanted in the assembly hall. There was a group of girls there gathered around the teacher, a group that parted to make way for me, so that I was facing Pushpa teacher, one of the youngest and the most popular among the teachers. She looked gravely at me for a moment when I stood before her and then suddenly smiled and said, “You’ll do.” And then, turning to the girls, “She’s right, isn’t she?” The girls looking at me questioningly, doubtfully, as if assessing me and finding me wanting. Pushpa teacher then picked up my plait and said, “Look at her hair, just look at that.” The girls were still silent, but as if that sealed the matter she let my plait drop and told me what it was: I was to be Bharat Mata on Independence Day.

I can see myself, bursting with pride, rushed home to tell my mother about it. But her response was not as I had expected it to be. Her face was doubting, questioning, almost like the girls, yet not quite.

“Why you?” she asked me, suspiciously I thought.

Because, I told her, the girl who was supposed to play the role had suddenly fallen ill.

“Yes, but why you? Is it because your father is the headmaster?

“No.” I exclaimed indignantly. “It’s because of my long hair. Pushpa teacher said so.”

Not only did this not satisfy her, she seemed even more displeased. I heard her speaking to my father in the evening. I was terrified she would say something that would take my glory away from me. But I heard my father say “Nonsense!” And then, “She knows what she is doing”? She. Did he mean me?

My mother’s displeasure was even more obvious when Pushpa teacher came home the next day to choose a sari for me to wear on the day. Her face closed up, she brought out some saris of hers for Pushpa teacher’s choosing. Pushpa teacher, unaffected by my mother’s silence, went on talking and picked up the saris one by one. Finally, holding one against me, she said, “This one, I think. Sir, don’t you think so?”

Yes, my father was home that day. How strange it was to find him taking interest in any of my activities apart from my studies. He spoke little, was almost as silent as my mother, but Pushpa teacher included him in the discussion, calling him “Sir” at the beginning of each sentence. I remember the enormous emphasis with which she said the word and even today, when I hear someone say the word, I think of her, I think of that day.

“Yes,” my father said, realizing some response was expected of him. “Yes, it’s good”.

Pushpa teacher wanted to try out the sari on me right away. I could sense my mother’s reluctance, but she did it nevertheless, her fingers deftly making the pleats, tucking them, in arranging the edge over my shoulder. I felt a kind of anger in the roughness with which she did these things, but when it was done and I looked at her face I knew she was not angry. Not with me, anyway. She was amused. And no wonder. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked like a pincushion. But Pushpa teacher was not amused; she chewed her lip, looking worried, “Well,’ she said finally, “I think you will have to cut the sari.”

“No,” my mother said. “No! It’s my wedding sari.”

And she held me close as if it was I who was being threatened.

I heard my parents arguing again that night and the next day, I saw my mother sewing the cut edge of the sari, her head lowered over her sewing. Memory comes to me now spiked with insight and I know that she was concealing her face so that I should not see that her eyes were red. And I know too now that it was not always the wood- fire smoke that inflamed her eyes, as she said. And even then I knew that her moods had much to do with my father. I can see so clearly her curious under- her- lashes look following my father’s retreating back. An only child, I was too close to the pulse of my parents’ marriage, too linked to my mother’s emotional being. There was something about the manner in which she got my dress ready that made me uneasy and subdued my joy.

It was Padma who restored it. Even the shadowy memory of that joy is stronger than any happiness I have known since. She listened silently, her eyes and mouth three “ohs” of amazement when I told her I was to wear a sari, a grand Banaras sari, a crown, jewels, and yes, make- up too. No one had said this to me. But I knew that you never went on stage without lipstick and two spots of rouge high on the cheeks.

Padma was there, watching with awe when my mother made me try on the sari and blouse, she walked around me in silent admiration, like a devotee circumambulating in a temple. And then, stopped before me and exclaimed. “Let’s go and show my mother”.

I hesitated, I remember that, I drew back when we came to the yard, as I draw back now from the memory of what was waiting for me there. They were all there in the yard under the tree, but silent now, wordlessly working together. I must have noticed it then, though my mind was full of myself and of the effect I would have on them, for I seem to know now that they had two baskets in their midst, one piled with sweets, the other with some fried stuff. They were busy packing small paper bags with these two sweets and a fistful of savoury in each bag. These were for us I knew this when they were distributed to us in school the next day.

It was Padma’s mother who saw us first. “Look who’s here,” she said with a smile. “Bharat Mata herself.”

As if a breeze had rippled through them, there was sudden movement. Heads were raised, faces turned to me. Words flew about, incomprehensible yet familiar sounds to me by now and I knew I was being admired. And then suddenly, as if cut by a knife, the voices ceased. They turned away from me to the woman who’d made a queer sound. Somehow, I could no longer call her the “fat aunt”.

“She wants you to go to her,” Padma’s mother said. I had loved being the centre of attention, but this was not the same. Her blank fixed stare made me uneasy. Nobody spoke. And when, finally she did, her voice was hoarse as if it had been unused for a long time.

“Bharat Mata,’ she said. And laughed, laughter that changed in an instant into a cry the same cry we had heard that morning.

Padma’s mother moved swiftly, she put her arms round the woman, saying, “Padma, go away both of you, go, just go.”

I could not move. Mouth open, I watched the woman still uttering that cry, her hands on her dough- like thighs, rocking herself, violently, faster and faster. And then she fell, face down, right there on those two baskets, spilling all the stuff out on the ground. I began to retreat at last, backwards, and my last sight was of her being lifted and dragged away, the huge breasts we had found so funny almost touching the ground.

I suppose everything happened on Independence Day as it should
have – – the flag hoisting, the games, the songs, the fireworks. But all that I can remember is the rain on my face as the tricolor went up and the quiver that went through me when I saw the packets of sweets, piled in those same baskets.

As for the evening, which should have been my time of glory, I remember that the sari was too heavy, the pedestal seemed to rock under me and the crown and armlets had been tied on so tight that the string cut cruelly into my skin. I had thought I would dazzle by the spotlights. Standing against the truncated map edged by glittering little lights, when I looked down into the audience, I could see none of those I wanted to see. Instead, in the darkness I saw the woman lying face down among the baskets. And when, as the grand finale, the girls marched in singing “Jhendaooncha rahe hamara”, I thought I heard above all the girls’ voices, the woman’s scarcely human cries, the sound of her keening.




“No Witchcraft for Sale” by Doris Lessing


The Farquars had been childless for years when little Teddy was born; and they were touched by the pleasure of their servants, who brought presents of fowls and eggs and flowers to the homestead when they came to rejoice over the baby, exclaiming with delight over his downy golden head and his blue eyes. They congratulated Mrs. Farquar as if she had achieved a very great thing, and she felt that she had—her smile for the lingering, admiring natives was warm and grateful.

Later, when Teddy had his first haircut, Gideon the cook picked up the soft gold tufts from the ground, and held them reverently in his hand. Then he smiled at the little boy and said: “Little Yellow Head.” That became the native name for the child. Gideon and Teddy were great friends from the first. When Gideon had finished his work, he would lift Teddy on his shoulders to the shade of a big tree, and play with him there, forming curious little toys from twigs and leaves and grass, or shaping animals from wetted soil. When Teddy learned to walk it was often Gideon who crouched before him, clucking encouragement, finally catching him when he fell, tossing him up in the air till they both became breathless with laughter. Mrs. Farquar was fond of the old cook because of his love for her child.

There was no second baby; and one day Gideon said: “Ah, missus, missus, the Lord above sent this one; Little Yellow Head is the most good thing we have in our house.” Because of that “we” Mrs. Farquar felt a warm impulse toward her cook; and at the end of the month she raised his wages. He had been with her now for several years; he was one of the few natives who had his wife and children in the compound and never wanted to go home to his kraal, which was some hundreds of miles away. Sometimes a small piccanin who had been born the same time as Teddy, could be seen peering from the edge of the bush, staring in awe at the little white boy with his miraculous fair hair and Northern blue eyes. The two little children would gaze at each other with a wide, interested gaze, and once Teddy put out his hand curiously to touch the black child’s cheeks and hair.

Gideon, who was watching, shook his head wonderingly, and said: “Ah, missus, these are both children, and one will grow up to be a baas, and one will be a servant”; and Mrs. Farquar smiled and said sadly, “Yes, Gideon, I was thinking the same.” She sighed. “It is God’s will,” said Gideon, who was a mission boy. The Farquars were very religious people; and this shared feeling about God bound servant and masters even closer together.

Teddy was about six years old when he was given a scooter, and discovered the intoxications of speed. All day he would fly around the homestead, in and out of flowerbeds, scattering squawking chickens and irritated dogs, finishing with a wide dizzying arc into the kitchen door. There he would cry: “Gideon, look at me!” And Gideon would laugh and say: “Very clever, Little Yellow Head.” Gideon’s youngest son, who was now a herdsboy, came especially up from the compound to see the scooter. He was afraid to come near it, but Teddy showed off in front of him. “Piccanin,” shouted Teddy, “get out of my way!” And he raced in circles around the black child until he was frightened, and fled back to the bush.

“ Why did you frighten him?” asked Gideon, gravely reproachful.

Teddy said defiantly: “He’s only a black boy,” and laughed. Then, when Gideon turned away from him without speaking, his face fell. Very soon he slipped into the house and found an orange and brought it to Gideon, saying: “This is for you.” He could not bring himself to say he was sorry; but he could not bear to lose Gideon’s affection either. Gideon took the orange unwillingly and sighed. “Soon you will be going away to school, Little Yellow Head,” he said wonderingly, “and then you will be grown up.” He shook his head gently and said, “And that is how our lives go.” He seemed to be putting a distance between himself and Teddy, not because of resentment, but in the way a person accepts something inevitable. The baby had lain in his arms and smiled up into his face: The tiny boy had swung from his shoulders and played with him by the hour. Now Gideon would not let his flesh touch the flesh of the white child. He was kind, but there was a grave formality in his voice that made Teddy pout and sulk away. Also, it made 2 him into a man: With Gideon he was polite, and carried himself formally, and if he came into the kitchen to ask for something, it was in the way a white man uses toward a servant, expecting to be obeyed.

But on the day that Teddy came staggering into the kitchen with his fists to his eyes, shrieking with pain, Gideon dropped the pot full of hot soup that he was holding, rushed to the child, and forced aside his fingers. “A snake!” he exclaimed. Teddy had been on his scooter, and had come to a rest with his foot on the side of a big tub of plants. A tree snake, hanging by its tail from the roof, had spat full into his eyes. Mrs. Farquar came running when she heard the commotion. “He’ll go blind,” she sobbed, holding Teddy close against her. “Gideon, he’ll go blind!” Already the eyes, with perhaps half an hour’s sight left in them, were swollen up to the size of fists: Teddy’s small white face was distorted by great purple oozing protuberances. Gideon said: “Wait a minute, missus, I’ll get some medicine.” He ran off into the bush.

Mrs. Farquar lifted the child into the house and bathed his eyes with permanganate. She had scarcely heard Gideon’s words; but when she saw that her remedies had no effect at all, and remembered how she had seen natives with no sight in their eyes, because of the spitting of a snake, she began to look for the return of her cook, remembering what she heard of the efficacy of native herbs. She stood by the window, holding the terrified, sobbing little boy in her arms, and peered helplessly into the bush. It was not more than a few minutes before she saw Gideon come bounding back, and in his hand he held a plant.

“Do not be afraid, missus,” said Gideon, “this will cure Little Yellow Head’s eyes.” He stripped the leaves from the plant, leaving a small white fleshy root. Without even washing it, he put the root in his mouth, chewed it vigorously, and then held the spittle there while he took the child forcibly from Mrs. Farquar. He gripped Teddy down between his knees, and pressed the balls of his thumbs into the swollen eyes, so that the child screamed and Mrs. Farquar cried out in protest: “Gideon, Gideon!” But Gideon took no notice. He knelt over the writhing child, pushing back the puffy lids till chinks of eyeball showed, and then he spat hard, again and again, into first one eye, and then the other. He finally lifted Teddy gently into his mother’s arms, and said: “His eyes will get better.” But Mrs. Farquar was weeping with terror, and she could hardly thank him: It was impossible to believe that Teddy could keep his sight. In a couple of hours the swellings were gone: The eyes were inflamed and tender but Teddy could see. Mr. and Mrs. Farquar went to Gideon in the kitchen and thanked him over and over again. They felt helpless because of their gratitude: It seemed they could do nothing to express it. They gave Gideon presents for his wife and children, and a big increase in wages, but these things could not pay for Teddy’s now completely cured eyes. Mrs. Farquar said: “Gideon, God chose you as an instrument for His goodness,” and Gideon said: “Yes, missus, God is very good.”

Now, when such a thing happens on a farm, it cannot be long before everyone hears of it. Mr. and Mrs. Farquar told their neighbors and the story was discussed from one end of the district to the other. The bush is full of secrets. No one can live in Africa, or at least on the veld, without learning very soon that there is an ancient wisdom of leaf and soil and season—and, too, perhaps most important of all, of the darker tracts of the human mind—which is the black man’s heritage. Up and down the district people were telling anecdotes, reminding each other of things that had happened to them.

“But I saw it myself, I tell you. It was a puff-adder bite. The kaffir’s arm was swollen to the elbow, like a great shiny black bladder. He was groggy after a half a minute. He was dying. Then suddenly a kaffir walked out of the bush with his hands full of green stuff. He smeared something on the place, and next day my boy was back at work, and all you could see was two small punctures in the skin.”

This was the kind of tale they told. And, as always, with a certain amount of exasperation, because while all of them knew that in the bush of Africa are waiting valuable drugs locked in bark, in simple-looking leaves, in roots, it was impossible to ever get the truth about them from the natives themselves.

The story eventually reached town; and perhaps it was at a sundowner party, or some such function, that a doctor, who happened to be there, challenged it. “Nonsense,” he said. “These things get exaggerated in the telling. We are always checking up on this kind of story, and we draw a blank every time.”

Anyway, one morning there arrived a strange car at the homestead, and out stepped one of the workers from the laboratory in town, with cases full of test tubes and chemicals.

Mr. and Mrs. Farquar were flustered and pleased and flattered. They asked the scientist to lunch, and they told the story all over again, for the hundredth time. Little Teddy was there too, his blue eyes sparkling with health, to prove the truth of it. The scientist explained how humanity might benefit if this new drug could be offered for sale; and the Farquars were even more pleased: They were kind, simple people, who liked to think of something good coming about because of them. But when the scientist began talking of the money that might result, their manner showed discomfort. Their feelings over the miracle (that was how they thought of it) were so strong and deep and religious, that it was distasteful to them to think of money. The scientist, seeing their faces, went back to his first point, which was the advancement of humanity. He was perhaps a trifle perfunctory: It was not the first time he had come salting the tail of a fabulous bush secret.

Eventually, when the meal was over, the Farquars called Gideon into their living room and explained to him that this baas, here, was a Big Doctor from the Big City, and he had come all that way to see Gideon. At this Gideon seemed afraid; he did not understand; and Mrs. Farquar explained quickly that it was because of the wonderful thing he had done with Teddy’s eyes that the Big Baas had come.

Gideon looked from Mrs. Farquar to Mr. Farquar, and then at the little boy, who was showing great importance because of the occasion. At last he said grudgingly: “The Big Baas want to know what medicine I used?” He spoke incredulously, as if he could not believe his old friends could so betray him. Mr. Farquar began explaining how a useful medicine could be made out of the root, and how it could be put on sale, and how thousands of people, black and white, up and down the continent of Africa, could be saved by the medicine when that spitting snake filled their eyes with poison. Gideon listened, his eyes bent on the ground, the skin of his forehead puckering in discomfort. When Mr. Farquar had finished he did not reply. The scientist, who all this time had been leaning back in a big chair, sipping his coffee and smiling with skeptical good humor, chipped in and explained all over again, in different words, about the making of drugs and the progress of science. Also, he offered Gideon a present.

There was silence after this further explanation, and then Gideon remarked indifferently that he could not remember the root. His face was sullen and hostile, even when he looked at the Farquars, whom he usually treated like old friends. They were beginning to feel annoyed; and this feeling annulled the guilt that had been sprung into life by Gideon’s accusing manner. They were beginning to feel that he was unreasonable. But it was at that moment that they all realized he would never give in. The magical drug would remain where it was, unknown and useless except for the tiny scattering of Africans who had the knowledge, natives who might be digging a ditch for the municipality in a ragged shirt and a pair of patched shorts, but who were still born to healing, hereditary healers, being the nephews or sons of the old witch doctors whose ugly masks and bits of bone and all the uncouth properties of magic were the outward signs of real power and wisdom.

The Farquars might tread on that plant fifty times a day as they passed from house to garden, from cow kraal to mealie field, but they would never know it.

But they went on persuading and arguing, with all the force of their exasperation; and Gideon continued to say that he could not remember, or that there was no such root, or that it was the wrong season of the year, or that it wasn’t the root itself, but the spit from his mouth that had cured Teddy’s eyes. He said all these things one after another, and seemed not to care they were contradictory. He was rude and stubborn. The Farquars could hardly recognize their gentle, lovable old servant in this ignorant, perversely obstinate African, standing there in front of them with lowered eyes, his hands twitching his cook’s apron, repeating over and over whichever one of the stupid refusals that first entered his head.

And suddenly he appeared to give in. He lifted his head, gave a long, blank angry look at the circle of whites, who seemed to him like a circle of yelping dogs pressing around him, and said: “I will show you the root.”

They walked single file away from the homestead down a kaffir path. It was a blazing December afternoon, with the sky full of hot rain clouds. Everything was hot: The sun was like a bronze tray whirling overhead, there was a heat shimmer over the fields, the soil was scorching underfoot, the dusty wind blew gritty and thick and warm in their faces. It was a terrible day, fit only for reclining on a veranda with iced drinks, which is where they would normally have been at that hour.

From time to time, remembering that on the day of the snake it had taken ten minutes to find the root, someone asked: “Is it much further, Gideon?” And Gideon would answer over his shoulder, with angry politeness: “I’m looking for the root, baas.” And indeed, he would frequently bend sideways and trail his hand among the grasses with a gesture that was insulting in its perfunctoriness. He walked them through the bush along unknown paths for two hours, in that melting destroying heat, so that the sweat trickled coldly down them and their heads ached. They were all quite silent: the Farquars because they were angry, the scientist because he was being proved right again; there was no such plant. His was a tactful silence.

At last, six miles from the house, Gideon suddenly decided they had had enough; or perhaps his anger evaporated at that moment. He picked up, without an attempt at looking anything but casual, a handful of blue flowers from the grass, flowers that had been growing plentifully all down the paths they had come.

He handed them to the scientist without looking at him, and marched off by himself on the way home, leaving them to follow him if they chose.

When they got back to the house, the scientist went to the kitchen to thank Gideon: He was being very polite, even though there was an amused look in his eyes. Gideon was not there. Throwing the flowers casually into the back of his car, the eminent visitor departed on his way back to his laboratory.

Gideon was back in his kitchen in time to prepare dinner, but he was sulking. He spoke to Mr. Farquar like an unwilling servant. It was days before they liked each other again.

The Farquars made inquiries about the root from their laborers. Sometimes they were answered with distrustful stares. Sometimes the natives said: “We do not know. We have never heard of the root.” One, the cattle boy, who had been with them a long time, and had grown to trust them a little, said: “Ask your boy in the kitchen. Now, there’s a doctor for you. He’s the son of a famous medicine man who used to be in these parts, and there’s nothing he cannot cure.” Then he added politely: “Of course, he’s not as good as the white man’s doctor, we know that, but he’s good for us.”

After some time, when the soreness had gone from between the Farquars and Gideon, they began to joke: “When are you going to show us the snake root, Gideon?” And he would laugh and shake his head, saying, a little uncomfortably: “But I did show you, missus, have you forgotten?”

Much later, Teddy, as a schoolboy, would come into the kitchen and say: “You old rascal, Gideon! Do you remember that time you tricked us all by making us walk miles all over the veld for nothing? It was so far my father had to carry me!”

And Gideon would double up with polite laughter. After much laughing, he would suddenly straighten himself up, wipe his old eyes, and look sadly at Teddy, who was grinning mischievously at him across the kitchen: “Ah, Little Yellow Head, how you have grown! Soon you will be grown up with a farm of your own. . . .”


[1] Traditional songs that women sing and dance to, in seeking the blessings of Siva and Pparvathi for long and happy married lives.

[2] The archetypal figure of a selfless woman whose life is given to pleasing her husband.

[3] Trial.


One thought on “Women’s Writing – prescribed stories

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