Saturday, December 23, 2023

Wooden Doll

This was my entry to this year's Mozhi translation prize. It did not make the longlist which means I am free to post it here. You can read the original story titled Marappachi by Uma Maheswari in Tamil here.


Appa, who went up looking for something in the attic came down holding something else in his hand. Dust from the past had settled a dull patina on him. His face had the tired grace of someone who’d tumbled over memories along with old things. Appa called out to Anu - he’d found a rare child-like moment within him that stood on the precipice of a rushed life threatening to break into pieces at any given moment and it needed to be gathered and planted in her immediately. He held it out to Anu with a magical smile. A small parcel carefully wrapped in an old yellow cloth bag. Anu flipped it around enjoying the fascinating mystery of an unopened parcel. What was inside? A stack of tubers? A pencil box? A rolled up picture story book? Eight-year old Anu could not stand the suspense of the puzzle. Her dad however was keen that she should like it. When it was unwrapped urgently, out came a small figure of a woman made out of dark wood. Its age alone seemed novel to Anu. It lacked the unsullied beauty of temple idols and the dumb smoothness of plastic dolls spat out by machines. It had a uniform rough texture that wasn’t abrasive. Its small body was ideal for an easy grip. Long folded arms, legs that stood on a pedestal, eyes that brimmed with sadness of living in its curves, frozen lips. “It’s even got a plait, Appa!”. Anu caressed it one by one with growing wonder. 

“Each atom contains its sculptor’s language of touch, echoes of the chisel”, said Appa as he pointed to fine lines etched along the elbow, legs and face. Having noticed her astonishment with satisfaction, he left to allow her to play alone with her new friend. 

In her small hands lay miniature wood chips, a small stove, a pot, a pan, a spatula, a pitcher and a ladle that mimicked her future kitchen. The array tired her. A shadow of sadness like the hum of a small train running on a circular track spreads across her heart. The language of parrots, myna, pigeons and bird puppets is constantly stirring the clouds. The plastic girls are too slim to bear the weight of her imagination. 

Amma is forever busy cooking, rinsing, washing clothes and sweeping. Once done, she anoints the baby sister’s tender hands and legs with oil before placing the baby face down on her legs to give her a bath. She dries the baby, warms her in sambrani smoke, swaddles her in a saree, holds her close to her chest and sits in a corner for a long time. 

“Amma, shall I rest my head on your lap?”

“Are you still a baby?”. With her pregnant belly coming right up to her chest, Amma is panting even as she speaks. Anu is weighed down by the inadequacy of love that her mother partakes with her. 

Appa leans on a mattress, and cradles baby sister on his raised and folded legs. He shakes the rattle and amuses her. He talks in baby language to her, babbling ‘nnggu, akku…’. 

And if Anu were to ask about “this king” or “in that story”, he would scold her saying, “what questions you have like a grown up, stop being a nag.”

“So, who am I? Am I a grown up or a little girl, you tell me” Anu's questions to the wooden doll would be met with silent stares. 

“Who do I have? I’m all alone.”, Anu’s entreaties would be listened to attentively. When she rubbed a dried gourd on the ground, and placed the scorching kernel on its cheek, the doll would grimace, saying “oh, it stings!”. Anu’s belief that if you hull the black husk of a tamarind seed without damaging its inner brown skin and placed it on top, even your wildest dreams would come true, found a ‘yes man’ in the doll. It became the student in the school that Anu managed, the baby in her cradle, at times her mother, and a dream angel who remained at Anu’s side all the time. 

When the wooden doll would narrate new stories to her, its eyes would emit a blue light. Stories that the doll knew from when it was the heart of a tree, delightful stories that were kissed by the scent of the tree, rainbow stories that spread under rain drops…every day, she slept in the lap of a different story. 

The years melted her and cast her anew. Long, shimmering arms, rolling shoulders, pliant, folding waist, and once whilst having a bath, when her fingers brushed against her budding breasts for the first time, she ran terrified to the wooden doll and confessed to it. In turn, the doll showed her its own cone-shaped breasts. 

Amma was worried when she locked herself alone behind bathroom doors. “Let me wash your hair”, she would say. 

“No need”, says Anu moving away. Amma is mystified at the burgeoning, billowing screens between the two of them which only multiply each time she tries to progress by pushing them aside. She longed to run her hands along the shape of her daughter visible behind a thin but permanent screen. 

At nights when everyone was asleep, Amma would sit on a corner of Anu’s bed.  Amma’s wakefulness would penetrate Anu’s sleep and rankle her. Amma’s palms would seek something as she gently patted Anu’s body. If she were to wake up and ask, “What is it, Amma?”, she would murmur “nothing”, and turn to lie with her back to her. Anu would sense eyes and questions pouring at her from her mother’s back. 

These days it is Amma who straightens her top as she leaves for school. And if she were to be late by even ten minutes returning home, Amma would wait for her at the door anxiously. Wherever she went. Amma’s eyes guard her with warmth and tenderness. 

Anu marvels at how the wooden doll dulls and shines in sync with her own fatigue and joy. She notes how the wooden doll trembles with excitement and terror in the same way she does. She senses herself being bound by an invisible filament to the wooden doll. Its open body and eyes that shine beyond the lines, the space created by the hip and the folded arms, and lips that part as if to absorb everything in. Anu’s world would slip, slide and shrink within it. 


Other little girls invite Anu to play and then turn away making a face. As lights from television shows that ended a long time ago, wriggled and danced on the living room floor, as darkness seeped into the night, as the window doors waved about in the wind, Anu lies curled up in a corner of the cot. From the desk, the wooden doll’s eyes weave a gentle web that cradles her. Its breasts have crumbled and in its place the chest has grown a dense carpet of hair. The shapely waist straightens, the body thickens to a manly figure with a swirling moustache which is both strange and somehow attractive. Slowly it moved close to her bed. Its long shadow stretched over the bed and consumed Anu. As its dark veins spread across the entire mattress, they formed into new, new shapes; piece by piece. 

Its hands were those of a prince who gathered princesses and hoisted them on horsebacks in fairy tales. Its legs were of a lover who chased his paramour in the movies. Lips were those that kissed the cheeks of a drowsy woman on television. Its blinking eyes were those that flashed at her in crowded street corners, snapping her emotions. With a gentle likeness to her mother, and the fierce attractive movements of her father, as all the pieces of the silhouette spilled and coalesced, a rare rhythm of a man melted together. 

She’d never set eyes on him and yet he was always moving within her and how strange that she could see herself being penetrated like this! There was a blossoming cool delight to see him dominate the intimate corners that were only known to her. That night stretched uninterrupted, undisturbed even by the urgency of the morning.

Anu loved her body like never before. Her days floated from hiding secrets of the dreams. Once school was over, the wooden doll wound bound over and scoop her up; “why so late?”, it would ask with a long face; lengthy secret canoodling; kisses when Amma was not around; occupying her bed well before she got there. And if Amma were to try to snatch the wooden doll away from her from under the blanket, she would grip it tight even in her sleep. She delights in spending time burying herself in its wide hands, playing with the curly chest hair, laughing and tugging at the tips of moustache. She spins on the steps of passion. Without the will to move away but lacking the courage to dive deep, she dips her toes into the edges of desire. 

During Christmas holidays, when her aunt was visiting, Anu had gathered her skirt between legs, bent down to plant a pumpkin flower in a ball of cow dung in the kolam design in front of the house. “How you’ve grown, Anu!”, exclaimed her aunt as she scooped her in her arms. On the table were special dishes, served with care and attention by Amma. When aunt asked if Anu could go back with her for the holidays, Amma’s face broke into beads of terrified sweat. “Aiyo sister-in-law, would we eat her alive? And what’s wrong if she does come of age at our house? Do we have any other kids? Send her with me for once”, said her aunt, pulling Anu close to her with affection. 

Anu was baffled when she saw her mother in agony, as if one of her limbs were being amputated. As she was about to place the wooden doll in a suitcase packed with the rest of her clothes, her aunt said ‘there’s plenty of dolls there’ and snatched it and cast it aside. Anu felt sorry about it. But she found the trip pleasurable. Plenty of trees, joyous wind, leaning blue mountains. Everything was brand new. 

When Anu’s uncle saw her in the dark green skirt Amma had compelled her to wear, he was also surprised at how much Anu had grown. From the second her uncle saw her, Anu squirmed as she sensed something leaping from him towards her. It writhed under her uncle’s stagnating gaze below her neck as he asked her, “Which class are you in? Eighth? Ninth?”, but didn’t listen to her response. It wriggled in the heat of his breath as he coddled her saying “How you’ve grown! Are you the same little girl with a runny nose in a little dress?” and tugged at her waist while she kept pulling away. It seeped from the palms of his hands as they patted her and searched up and down asking “Is your shirt tight here?”. Anu extracted herself from her uncle's hands and ran. 

Aunt however was affectionate. She kept offering her food and practically fed her with thickly sweet jaggery appam, semolina paniyaaram and lentil fritters soaked in sweet milk. “Shall we plait your beautiful thick hair into a thousand legged braid?”. Once plaited, she threaded pichchi flower buds from the back garden on a needle, sewed them into a braid, turned her to stand in front of a long mirror and handed her a small mirror. “Look Anu, see if it’s good!”

The pages of love that had been hidden with Amma tumbled open with her aunt. Anu would forever cling to her aunt, curling up close to her at night near a corner of a wall, trying to fall asleep while keeping an eye on her saree edge. But in an instant the man would erase the entire distance between them as he set out for her from within the wooden doll. He would introduce himself in the narrow gap between aunt and herself settling down gracefully. He would churn and stir in her muscles and nerves as she slept. Their uninterrupted trance and everything else is ripped by the sudden entrance of alien eyes. Anu startles awake. She feels as if she desperately wants to go to the toilet. Open the back door, past the coconut trees, coral jasmine and henna plants, in the cold darkness…aiyo, it is scary. Should she wake up her aunt? Tcha, poor aunt. Dull, tired, and deep asleep. Her nosepin would glint with the rise and fall of her breath. In the jagged ends of hair by the edge of her ears, in the sprouted sweat beads on her cheek, the hidden child inside of her aunt is visible. Somehow she would go back to sleep. No, she is unable to hold. Her bladder stabs on her lower abdomen. 

Rising slowly without waking her aunt up, without letting her anklet roar, walking like a cat, banging against the dinner table but managing somehow, she feels around for the switch in the dark and turns it on. In the gentle silence, the tiny sound of keys turning in the door lock explodes loudly. Her aunt rolling over can be heard. ‘Would it be too dark?’. Scared and trembling, she removes the lower latch loudly and opens the door to be greeted by the blinking cheer of bright stars. Yellow light from the electric lamp wriggles little nails on the ground. Very beautifully, without causing fear. She is able to laugh now thinking about her fears. Billowing skirt in the wind. The fragrance of pichchi flower. The raw scent of plants. The heady pleasance of henna flowers, the low swinging string of stars. The infantile light of the moon. Even the screech of the toilet door is sweet. 

The body is supple once freed of urine. It is tempting to sit by the henna bush. Aiyo, but aunt would search for her. As she returned, Anu realised that she was not on her own. She prickled under the swarm of a hundred eyes. When she began running reflexively, she collided with something, hard hands held her tight, the same hot breath of the morning. ‘Chee, no; was she possessed or something?’ Her face is held against a dark chest with thick, grey hair. Pouring kisses - on the cheeks, on the lips, on the neck, groping fingers that seek something that has not sprouted or even taken root within her, but end up crushing and destroying it. 

She wailed when her small breasts were squeezed. With the wordless shriek her aunt was woken up. When Anu’s body was laid on a bed of dried leaves, she plunged to the depths of consciousness. Her uncle’s body pressed heavily against hers. As her aunt came rushing, her uncle quickly got away. Her aunt shaking her asks, “Anu, what happened, Anu!” but there was no sign of life in her. “Looks like she fell down when she went to the toilet”. Uncle manages an explanation. Silently, her aunt embraces her, carries her and lays her down on a bed. 

Consciousness tumbles in waves of semi-stupor. Is it this? Is it that? Like this? No, usually faces come next to each other, then suddenly a flower and another dance close together, new birds will fly in the sky. Blue skies and verdant fields meet in a close embrace, the sweet sounds of flute spreads in all directions, isn’t that how it’s shown in that song? Oh, if it had been that way, would she have liked this better? Would you like a different approach then? No. What, this uncle? Greying along the ears. Stench of cigarette in his mouth. A gnawing decrepit lust in the tight grip of frail shoulders. Chest feels acrid. Body scorches. Chest smolders in pain. Eyes burn. 

“Aiyo Anu, the skin is hot. Please at least have this tablet”, sobs her aunt covering her mouth with her saree . She runs to uncle’s room and shouts something angrily. 

‘Can I not be myself anymore? Uncle’s touch is not like my father’s. It must be at least a thousand years since Appa even touched me! Is he the first man for me? What else has been destroyed when his body collided into mine and crushed me? Can the images that have been scorched by the flames of coercion and have drooped ever be reclaimed? What had uncle squeezed and discarded out of me? Something has happened to me. What have I lost?’ Sleep falls on her eyelids like a wet gunny sack. 

Faded sounds in the morning. The click of a lighter in the kitchen, the whistle of a milk cooker, the sound of milk being frothed in a tumbler. “Drink this coffee, Anu”, says her aunt to Anu who lies awake. “Don’t want it, I want to go to Amma now”

Anu paid no mind to her aunt’s pleadings. Her uncle folds the newspaper and comes next to her. Unconcealable guilt is etched on his face, hideously. 

“Shall Uncle buy you a new frock?”. Anu pushes away the hand that touched her shoulder immediately. As aunt’s frowns, uncle moves away. How long does the journey stretch? How slowly do the wheels churn? Her aunt’s silence breaks her heart. She appears as a worn out version of Amma. ‘Amma, Amma! What do I tell you? How do I tell you about this?’

“What happened? Why have you returned so soon?”, asks Amma as she comes running with the baby on her hips. She lunges and embraces Anu with her sight. Aunt forces a smile as eyes weigh heavy. 

“Your daughter caught a fever from being away from you for just one day” she says but Amma’s eyes refuse to believe it and move to caress Anu, as if she were a porcelain object that had been dropped by mistake and then grabbed with alarm to check that it hadn’t cracked.

Anu runs inside without a word. Sorrow stains every direction of the house. An inhuman silence has scabbed over it. “Where’s my wooden doll?”, searches Anu. On top of the tv set in the living room, amongst the dolls in the kitchen, inside the baby’s cradle, but it is not to be found anywhere. ‘It would have scratched and broken. Crushed into a hundred pieces. Amma would have swept it, gathered it and thrown it away.’ Tears pooled in Anu’s eyes. When she collapsed on the bed crying, the wooden doll stood on the window sill. But it didn’t see her at all. Its sight was scattered elsewhere, across everything but her. It clung to a corner seeking to avoid Anu’s touch. Her mind sobbed to think that she would never be able to reclaim their intimacy. Upon close inspection, the wooden doll had once again regained its shapely waist and a feminine body. Anu looked with disgust at its breasts which had started to sprout again. 

Monday, May 22, 2023

Amma Commits A Murder by Ambai

This was my entry to the Mozhi translation prize. It was longlisted and received excellent feedback from the jury including "it was a great attempt" and "a very strong contender in the contest".

You can read the original in Tamil by the incomparable Ambai here

At the mere mention of ‘Amma’ just a few events come flashing and strike at my heart. My older sister Kalyani used to swoon quite regularly. I was not at an age when I could understand. Four years old.  

I wake up early in the morning. I hear something like a thumping. I go near the door to have a look. Kalyani has been made to sit on a wooden plank. A strange man stands in front of her with a bunch of leaves in his hand. My baby brother of a few months who I made laugh with my ‘AAA’s and ‘OOO’s is now in a cradle in the room with me. 

“Neerajatchi, go get it”, says someone. 

I look at Amma. 

I remember the dark black saree. She’s knotted her hair loose. She enters the small room adjacent to mine. She removes her saree top. She slowly squeezes milk from her breast into a small bowl in her hand. Her eyes water. 

Every day Amma wakes up in the darkness of early morning to stack firewood under the buried metal pot to heat water. 

One day I watch her. Amma’s hair falls free from the knot. Amma sits squatting. Half her hair spreads out over her cheek and the rest of it over her ears. Once the stove is lit, the fire’s red heat flashes on one side of Amma’s face as she bends down to check on it. That day, Amma is wearing a red saree as well. As I am absorbed in her she stands up suddenly. Her hair hangs down to her knees. 

From within the saree top that’s fallen away, beneath the blouse whose hooks have come undone, her breasts, creased with green nerves appear. Standing there she seems like a daughter of fire who’s flown in from afar. Is she Amma? Is she really Amma?

Why do I remember the mantra “Kali, Kali, Maga Kali, Badrakali namosthuthey”?


Amma turns her head to look.

“What are you doing here, dee?”

I am unable to speak. I break into a sweat.

There’s a homam at home. Perhaps it’s the crimson of her lips, perhaps it’s the ferocity of the vermillion, I see her reflected in the roaring flames.

Agniyee swaa-aa-aa-aahaa…” , they elongate the ‘swaha’ as they pour ghee into the fire. With each ‘swahaaa’, my sight goes to the fire and then to Amma.

Amma rubs oil in my hair to give me a bath. She hitches her saree high and tucks it into her waist. Her fair, smooth thigh shows. When she bends and rises, I can see nerves threading through it. 

“Amma, why are you alone so fair? And why am I so dark?”


“Go dee, who has your beauty though?”

These occasions were totally unconnected. Amma was their sole queen. She was the fire that burnt and cleansed filth. With just a smile, she could make a festoon of a million smiles dance across the heart. 

Creator absolute. When I rest my head on her lap, she’d run her long, slim cool fingers over and say something so pedestrian as, “I will teach you to dance. You have an ideal body”, or “what thick hair”. Yet my heart will burst into bloom. 

I cannot recall if Amma fed me these feelings about her or if I imagined them myself. Just as many beautiful things took root within me, I do not know what she established within herself. 

I was thirteen at that time. Long skirts had started to grow short. Amma would lengthen every one of them. 

One evening when I was resting my head on her lap, I suddenly recalled a line I’d read somewhere. 

“Amma, what does adolescence mean, Amma?”


A prolonged silence.

And suddenly she says,

“I suggest you stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about, running around …” 

It seems cousin Radhu had a girl seeing ceremony. Amma went there. On that important day, Amma was not there. On Deepavali day, it was only Kalyani who rubbed oil and washed my hair. Skies which hadn’t yet shed their darkness could be seen from the bathroom window. 

“Kalloos…you’ve woken me up too early-dee, there’s no sound of firecrackers yet”

“Don’t I have to give you an oil bath and then have mine? You are thirteen. Still unable to have an oil bath yourself. Bend-dee

Kalyani has no patience. She rubs my head like she would peel husk from a coconut. 

Amma had sewn a satin long skirt in aubergine-flower purple for Deepavali. My heart was smitten as it slid down from the sewing machine as it was being sewn. On that occasion, Amma had taken my measurements before sewing the long skirt. 

“I need to measure you, come here-dee…you’ve grown tall”, she says looking up from measuring. 

“This girl has grown two inches”

The aubergine-flower purple long skirt is not short like other skirts. It glides down to reach the floor. 

Kalyani shakes me awake and dries my hair. I run into the altar room wearing my inner vest. Appa reaches into the pile of new clothes on the wooden plank to give me mine. 

“Here you go, darkie…”, says Appa typically. 

Sometimes when Appa calls me that, I stand in front of the wide, hanging mirror in the lounge. It was as if I could hear Amma whisper “How beautiful are you”.

Like the fish in the glass box in Sarala’s house, my skirt keeps slipping. Velvet blouse. I wear a pottu on my forehead and go stand in front of Appa. 

“Not bad!”, remarks Appa. 

I take the firecrackers to the front room and run to climb the magnolia tree. Every morning, I am tasked with plucking flowers from the magnolia tree. Fill the flower basket with flowers and take it to Amma and she’d remark wide eyed “what a loot of flowers” as she caressed them. Her fingers would disappear.  

The satin skirt slips. I am unable to climb the tip of the branch. It’s dark still. As I climb down, bang goes a firework in someone’s house. Shivering I jump down from the tree. Run straight into the house. Breathless. 

I calm down and run to the front room and burst my share of fireworks. That’s when I remember the flower basket. Dawn has broken. I lift my skirt and bend down to retrieve the flower basket lying at the bottom of the tree. Flowers have scattered. When I bend down properly to pick them, my skirt spreads on the ground. The new skirt is stained here and there. Is it from climbing the tree?

“Kalloos…”, I call out as I come in and stand in front of her to ask, “my skirt is all dirty. Will Amma scold me?”. Kalyani stares at me for a minute and leaves yelling “Appa”.

Everything from Kalyani’s look and her running inside without even taking the flower basket from me make feel like there’s a caterpillar squiggling inside my heart. I look at the satin skirt. I run my hand on the velvet blouse. Nothing has happened, has it?

Dear God, has anything happened to me? I ask myself. But even as I do that, I know that something has happened. I hear fireworks going off everywhere. Holding the flower basket in hand, I stand there breathing fast, my body shaking, my lips trembling. I want to cry out loud. 

I want to see Amma. I want to press my head deep against her chinnalam silk clad shoulder. “I am so scared”, I want to cry unabashedly. Amma will stroke my head. Something horrible has befallen me…

From somewhere, Kalyani has managed to get the tonsured old woman who makes fried snacks. The old woman comes close.

“Girl, why are you crying-dee? What has happened now? What has happened that’s not happened elsewhere?”

I understand nothing of what the old woman says. However, my instinct had a chilling understanding of something, but my head grasped nothing of it. From deep within my heart, like an unquenchable thirst erupts a single entreaty…” Amma…”

Once again, I recall the time when I got lost once when I was five years old.  In a big park without realising the deep darkness seeping around me, I walk. Suddenly the darkness, the trees, the sounds and the silence create fear within my heart. It was Appa who searched and found me. But it was when I saw Amma that I broke down howling. 

Amma lays me down next to her. She strokes me. “Nothing has happened. Everything is okay,” she whispers gently. With her ruby lips blazing like a flicker of fire, she rests her face on mine. 

Yet again, my heart hammers as if I am lost somewhere. I sit down, rest my head on my knees and cry. It feels like something has come to an end. Like walking out of the cinema after ‘The End’ card appears on screen, I feel I have left something behind. Right now, I sense that I’m the only one in the entire history of the world to have been beset with such a tragedy. I cry as if I am carrying all the misfortune on my slender, velvet blouse-clad shoulders.  

I wonder why Amma never told me about it on evenings when it was just the two of us. My heart is occupied by just fear. It is not the common fear that hits when in new circumstances, or with new people. It’s the frightful scream at the sight of a snake that renders one speechless in terror. Even in the far corners of my mind tendrils of fear hang like a spider’s web. 

As pale lips lie split open, I recall a figure. A skull smashes on a rock. A pale pink bald head walking ahead of me suddenly becomes a cave mouth from which splutters black-red blood. In an instant, blood pours over the head. I stare at the blood. Its red appears to have spread everywhere and it flows leaping into my eyes. My mind is agog again and again. “Aiyo so much blood, so much blood” but no sound originates from my mouth. A bed of blood. The old man opened his mouth, the eyes stared vacant, the heart burst forth. 

How fearsome is blood…lips go pale…limbs inert… 

I need Amma. My heart yearns for Amma to rescue me from this fear the way she embraces and consoles me when I’m scared of the dark. Couldn’t Amma be here to touch me on my shoulder with her cold fingers to say, “this is beautiful, too.”?   

“Get up-dee, please…how long will you cry-dee?”, pleads Kalyani as she joins me in tears. 


“Amma herself is coming next week. I have just sent her a letter about it. She’ll be here once Radhu’s girl-seeing ceremony is over. You now get up-dee. You’re a right pain the head.” Kalyani is starting to get angry.

“What has happened to me-dee?”

“Your skull head has happened to you, how many times do I have to repeat?”

“Can I not climb trees again?”

Kalyani raps me sharply on the head with her knuckles. 

“You thicko! I’ve been pleading with you for the past half an hour to get up and get changed out of your skirt. You’re asking me questions on top? She’s being such a bother, Appa!”, says Kalyani calling out to Appa. 

Appa says, “You musn’t be silly. You must listen to Kalyani.”

The fried-snack-making tonsured old woman adds helpfully when Appa is out of earshot, “Why is she being difficult? This is a fate that befalls everyone”. 

Seven days. Seven more days until Amma returns. After Radhu’s girl seeing ceremony is over. Seven days of stumbling around in the dark. The maami5 from next door and the maami from across the street all land up one day. 

“Aren’t you making her wear a half-saree dee, Kalyani?”

“Everything will be after Amma returns, mami**. This one is an uncontrollable devil. It only listens to Amma.”

“From now on she will calm down. From now on she will be disciplined and obedient.”

“Why? What will happen from now on?”

Why should I wear a half-saree? Didn’t Amma say ‘stay just the way you are, letting your skirt sweep about…’? Why should I change? No one explains why.  

They sit me down like a doll and talk around me. When Appa appears, they whisper beneath their saree tops. 

On the fifth day, Kalyani hands me a bowl of hot oil saying “You rub the oil yourself.”

I weep as I struggle with my waist-length hair, then stand in front of the mirror in the lounge wearing my inner vest. 

“From now you should get dressed in the bathroom, understood?”, says Appa. 

I shut the door once Appa leaves. I remove my inner vest. The mirror reflects my dark body. I run my hands along shoulders, hands, chest, waist, smooth thighs which are only slightly less dark than my face. Am I not the same girl? What will Amma say?

I wear my school uniform. Kalyani enters once the door opens. 

“What will you say when they ask you why you’ve been absent-dee?”

I stare at Kalyani. Like a bird that had been freed I was getting ready for school joyfully, but now my pace falter. 

“You needn’t say anything. Just be quiet.”

I was unable to play at games lesson that day. I hide behind a wide tree. Once before I have abstained from playing. The next morning Miss Leela Menon asked in class, “who were the fools who didn’t play yesterday?”. I didn’t stand up. 

“Why did you not stand up?”, she asked. 

“I’m not a fool, Miss”, I replied. She noted that I was ‘impertinent’ in the progress report. 

That day my mind was not even afraid of being scolded by Miss Leela Menon. I sense that nothing could ever bother me more than what’s happened to me now. I no longer sit under the tree and read Enid Blyton like I used to. I ask the ripe leaves that have been falling in the dug-up ditch. “What the hell has happened to me?”

Like an accused in the dock watching the judge’s mouth, my heart awaits Amma’s word alone. Would she look at me with her eyes lowered and say, “this thing that has happened to you is also beautiful”? With just a scorching ember of her smile, she would cast aside that intimidating fried-snack old lady, Kalyani and all others. Amma is different. Where she stands, everything superfluous is destroyed and only beauty reigns. For her everything is beautiful. 

Amma feels very necessary. Something must be explained. Look, I break into a sweaty shiver at the mere thought of the aubergine-flower purple satin skirt. Why, my tongue thickens to a wooden block and falls flat in my mouth. It’s as if darkness envelops suddenly and before I know it, I hear a ringing sound, blood flows over and a stiffened body seems to appear in the darkness. Someone should explain this with gentle words to me. 

I feel as if there’s no one there. After the gardener wakes me up, I leave for home slowly. 

“Why are you so late-dee? Where have you been?”

“I didn’t go anywhere…was sitting under the tree”



“Still think you’re a little girl-dee? What if something had happened?”

I fling the school bag. My face becomes hot. I shut my ears with my hands and scream out loud.  

“I will sit as I please. Nothing has happened to me”

I elongate and emphasise every single word as I scream with mad shriek. Appa and Kalyani stand dumbfounded. I get angry and go up to sit on the terrace. I can remain there in the scent of the magnolia tree. Kalyani and Appa are not allowed here. Just me and the scent of magnolia tree. This unspeaking, untouching scent seems closer to me than the people in the house. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they didn’t speak? A wide-eyed smile like Amma’s. 

When Amma looks (at me) like that something happens within me. I would want to laugh out loud. I would want to sing. Amma is a creator. With a mere turn of her head and a smile, she conjures joy, energy, and beauty into existence. 

Kalyani comes upstairs.

“Come for food-dee, your little Queenship, Amma has spoilt you by indulging in you.”

I purse my lips casually and rise. 

The next morning Amma arrives. Opening the taxi door, in a dark green creased saree, she enters the house. 

“What happened?”, asks Appa. 

“Apparently, she’s too dark to be a bride. He turned her down, the wretched fellow!”

“What does your sister say?”

“She feels bad, poor thing.” 

“We’ve also got a daughter who’s dark”

I stand in front of Amma without any preamble. I think I should explain it to her myself in more detail than Kalyani’s letter. Gently, in the crease of her neck, with trembling lips, in a soft voice I want to wail about it all. I am raring to share the fears that are slithering in my heart. 

Like some sort of a mystery - like a feeling that blocks the throat when you lie down at night, the struggle of not recognising my own body – I keep looking at Amma expecting her to explain it to me gently. She’s going to embrace me with the long banana stem of her hands. And I am going to cry loudly. I am going to bore my fingers into Amma’s hair and with big gasping wails, I am going to cry.    

Amma looks at me. I don’t know if I’ve become Radhu in her eyes. 

“Why did you have to rush into this misery-dee? We now have to bear this burden as well”

Who is she accusing?

Soundless wails blockade my heart. 

Amma’s lips, her nose, the vermillion on her forehead, her nose ring and her eyes appear to spit blood red flames. In the fire, the divine form that had cloaked her unravels and she appears naked as a human mother. Her heartless words rise like a sharpened knife and blindly hack away all the beauties that had sprouted earlier. Interminable fears cling to the heart like a black painting. 

Agniye swaa-aa-aahaa…it wasn’t just the filth that was burnt. Buds and flowers were scorched too. 

Friday, December 10, 2021


இதுக்கெல்லாம் நேரம் காலம் பார்க்க முடியுமா? வீட்டுல எல்லாரும் தூங்குற நேரம் தான் நல்ல நேரம். என்ன செய்யவேண்டும் என்று ராஜி ஏற்கனவே நுணுக்கமாக திட்ட மிட்டிருந்தாள். எந்த கத்திரிக்கோல் இந்த காரியத்துக்கு உதவும், எங்கே போய் இதை செய்தால் குறைந்த தடயம் இருக்கும் என்றெல்லாம் ஏற்கனவே யோசித்து வைத்திருந்தாள். 

அன்று பரிட்சை முடிந்த கடைசி நாள், அரை நாள் தான் பள்ளிக்கூடம். பிரண்ட்ஸ் எல்லோருக்கும் டாடா சொல்லிவிட்டு, வீட்டுக்கு வந்து, பாட்டி செஞ்சி வெச்சிருந்த சாம்பார் சாதத்தை அவசர அவசரமாய் அள்ளி போட்டுக்கொண்டு, பாட்டியையும், அம்மாவையும், சித்தியையும் "ஏன் இன்னும் தூங்க போகலை?" என்று மறுபடியும்-மறுபடியும் நச்சரித்து, வீடு மொத்தமும் ஒரு வழியாக ஓய்ந்து அடங்கி, மதிய மயக்கம் அடைந்ததும், ராஜி அவசர-அவசரமாக தையல் பெட்டியில் இருந்த கத்திரிக்கோலை ஓசைப்படாமல் எடுத்து, பாவாடையில் ஒளித்து மொட்டை மாடிக்கு கொண்டு வந்தாள். 

கயிறு போல் தொங்கிய இரட்டைப்பின்னலை கையால் வருடி நீளம் கணக்கிட்டாள். பின் மெல்ல கத்திரியால் ரிப்பன் கட்டிய நுனியை வெட்டினாள். 'சருக்-சருக்' என்ற சத்தம் ஏனோ அவளுக்கு இனிமையாகப்பட்டது. சுட்டெரிக்கும் வெய்யில் ஏனோ சட்டென இதமாகப்பட்டது. 

இனி வரும் காலத்தில் "நீ அம்மாபாளையா? பொம்பளையா?" என்றெல்லாம் கிண்டல் அடிப்பார்கள். அதெல்லாம் அப்புறம், இன்று ராஜி மெல்ல மெல்ல தான் யார் என்ற தேடலை தொடங்கினாள்.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Running On Tough Girl

Our new house backs onto a national woodlands and for the past weeks I have got back to lacing up and jogging through the winding, tree laden roads which lead to the ancient reserve. Im all these years it has never occurred to me to listen to something while running. On the odd occasion when I tried listening to music, I found the device too fiddly, the headphones too unwieldy, the music too intrusive to my thoughts and so gave it up to instead jog to the rhythm of my own footfall and to whatever song was looping around in my head. This time however, when I discovered my decade-old iPod - a gift for one of my birthdays from my thirties - I decided to give it a whirl.

Headphone designs have significantly improved since I last tried them and I was delighted to find a pair that fit snugly in my ears. When I finally worked out how to find my way around the extremely clunky iTunes (why is so user unfriendly?), I realised that I'd downloaded a some podcasts earlier. Among them was one called Tough Girls. So one morning a couple of weeks ago, I slipped into my shoes, stuck on the iPod and got jogging. What followed was an hour of gripping story telling by women who have gone on to achieve the most unimaginable feats known to humans.

Sure, there are stories of endurance runs and biking through hostile terrain and much more. But the ones that strike me are the ones with unlikely heroes who overcome demons that lurk within. Of the ones that I have listened to so far, the podcast that stands out the most is the one about Paula McGuire.

Paula suffered from severe anxiety and had tried and failed various therapies to overcome her crippling condition after years of living with it. Until one day, a switch went off and she decided to believe in herself and in true hero-redemption route, set herself a challenge of trying every Olympic sport in a space of two years. Never mind if she did not how to cycle and never mind if she was aqua phobic. In the podcast, Paula documents her trials and tribulations throughout her attempts at various sports. How she felt when she rode a bicycle for the first time or how she completed a triathlon while wearing a float, each experience reinforced Paula's belief in what she was capable of doing.

Having done the first challenge she set for herself, Paula then attempted to swim around Britain. But when her old fears returned and it got too much, she had to give the attempt up and turned her attention instead to other experiences. She has since gone on to write about her in a book called (what else?) Paula Must Try Harder.

Tough Girl podcast follows an interview format with the host Sarah Williams (herself an adventurer) asking intelligent questions steering the conversation with a firm but friendly hand. These days, despite the colder weather and the shorter days, I eagerly look forward to going on runs with the rickety old iPod. The other day, without intending to, I ran a comfortable 23 kilometres fuelled entirely by the podcasts. I'm not about to start running the Sahara any time soon, it is enough that I can experience it vicariously.

Listen to the Tough Girl podcast here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

After The After

Years ago, when I was a member of the Rajeshwari Lending Library on Kutcheri Road in what was then still called Madras, I would pick up Mad magazines and one such edition had a series called After The After. There would be an image titled 'Before' followed by an image titled 'After' and a third image titled 'After The After'. Typically, the images would be like this - a large woman in the first, a thin woman in the second and a larger woman in the third. The whole series would roughly follow the same pattern where the 'After The After' would be significantly worse than the 'Before'. Bald man - full head of hair - balder man with no eyebrows, and so on.

I was reminded of this series following the several 'coming out' stories of historical sexual assault in India. It must feel terribly empowering to all the women and men who have shared their own stories in public, both anonymously and while fully disclosing their identities. How must it feel to have the oppressive weight of their own secrets finally set free into the sunlit world of the living! Fly away truth! You no longer hold the power to pin me down and suffocate me! The disclosers may even feel a moment of hope and freedom and believe that fairness and righteousness will prevail after all. They may even want to chastise themselves for holding their tongues for so long. Why had I not spoken up earlier? What had I feared? How could I have not trusted this kind and supportive world? How could I have feared demons around the corners which only hold friends?

The disclosers will be hailed as 'brave', 'truth seekers' and 'path breakers'. Their stories will be held up as shining examples for all to follow. There will be meaningless words like 'closure' bandied about. They may as well call it 'band aid'. As if, speaking up aloud is going to be some kind of retribution and payment for all the suffering. As if we could burst into applause, draw some curtains around it and disperse while noisily analysing the movie. 

But once the initial burst of excitement following the disclosure dies down, the fangs begin to come out. Don't expect support or kudos from those closest to the situation. There will be a lot of scepticism, lot more denial and incessant doubting. What took you so long? What did you do to provoke? What proof have you got? I cannot believe this happened in such a respectable family as yours. Are you sure you are not imagining it? (True! The last from a classmate.) You may be prepared for bile and rancour of the sourest sort but what will surprise you is the silence. Stone cold betrayals and helpless shrugs from those whose support you had banked on. 

Following my own disclosure, I sought my father's assistance to see if there was any legal recourse that I could seek. But his reaction was one of cowardice. He did not wish to be drawn into it (I see him cowering behind his hands begging to be left out of it). My mother may have shown more anger if a stranger had reported a lost handbag. "Why did you not say anything then?", she demanded," "your father would have hit him with slippers." No Amma, even if I had found words to describe my ordeal as I did 32 years after the incident, Appa would have done nothing about it. 

No, After The After is often not the rosy picture we believe it to be. It is sometimes a lot worse than the Before. But wait, there is an After The After The After where eventually, once the debris from the disclosure and the ugliness that spurts in the immediate aftermath has cleared up and the heady rush has given way to a kinder way of dealing with things. There are no hushed conversations or embarrassed euphemisms - a friend who found her way to my blog once remarked, 'you know, your incident' to which I asked, 'which one? The one about my sexual assault?'. 

After The After The After, there are only loud acknowledgments and hearty, bold stories of strength. From the bitterness that once clogged the mind now flows a gentler, calmer spring. Where there was once heaviness, now a briskness. A vivid, thrilling anger that knows what it can achieve. An anger that singes and can burn if it wants to. It knows its power and it is within.

Click on image to watch a short animated video I worked to document my own sexual assault.

Also you can read the 'Voicing Silence' series of blog posts here