There was a slight drizzle outside and a cool breeze was blowing into the room. The sweet smell of the mud soaked by the virgin rain welcomed Kannan into the new day. He looked outside wondering whether rain was going to spoil his plans for the day.
From his bed he could distinctly make out an argument that was going on in the kitchen between his grandmother and Janu. It was the usual one, regarding the disappearing quantity of milk. Every time Janaki threw accusations at her, Janu would always have a new excuse ready; it was either the neighbour’s cat, or a pack of rats. As for today, she had put the blame on the supernatural,
“It’s the kuttichatan amma, I am very sure”, she said to Janakiamma.
Janakiamma was however never fooled, “Janu I know it’s you who is stealing the milk, there is no need to cook up stories I would never believe. If you need milk why don’t you ask me for it, sure I will charge you for it but I can always offer you a discount. But if you continue to steal, be warned, I know the trick to catch this kuttichatan, remember I too can approach the supernatural for help.”
The shadow of a painful reverence cast over Janu’s face. Several years ago Janu’s distant relative Paru had come to work for Janakiamma, Janu having taken ill at the time. It was followed by a series of minor thefts that would have definitely gone unnoticed if Paru’s overconfidence and greed had not won over her, causing her to steal Janakiamma’s precious little necklace. Every attempt at making her admit to her crime was done but Paru would not concede. Finally Janakiamma used the last trick in her book, she proclaimed that she would go to the Bhagvathy temple and perform a raktha pooja after which the culprit, whoever it may be, would die coughing blood. It is most often noticed that the illiterate are never scared of the law or scientific facts but put something like the supernatural in front of them and they are game. The same happened in the case of Paru, she had heard of such poojas having been conducted before and in one case as she distinctly remembered the culprit had indeed died eventually by coughing blood, little did she know that it was nothing but a weird coincidence as the subject had succumbed to whooping cough (or was it). Anyway the threat had worked as the next day Janakiamma found her necklace lying below her bed. Paru of course stopped coming to Ullas villa as she had allegedly taken ill.
Janu had an uneasy feeling as she recollected the incident, she wondered if Janakiamma would go so far for a missing cup of milk. Even if she did, thought Janu, I have ways to counter it myself. She knew this man in town who knew some black magic, she would get herself an amulet from him, she decided.
An uncomfortable silence followed and then there was an excited murmur in the kitchen. Kannan could not make out what Janu was saying but he guessed it had to be some saucy gossip. He sneaked into the dining room and peeped into the kitchen listening intently to what Janu was saying, “Amma did you hear what happened in the Bomanchery fields yesterday?”
Janakiamma however did not reply; she was never interested in anything that happened beyond Ullas villa, for her interests in Nellur ended at the Ipparakadavu. Janu of course was never discouraged by this, she always told what she had to, it was as if she was emptying her system in order to be able to gobble up more gossip, she therefore never needed an interactive audience, just a dummy would have been good enough.
So she continued, “That old man, what is his name, yes, Pisharadi master was attacked by the ghost lovers in the Bomanchery fields yesterday. The nerve of the man to walk through those fields alone in the night, I tell you,” and she left out a satisfied sigh, having done her job for the day.
Janakiamma who had not listened to a single word that had fallen out of Janu’s mouth was relieved too, she never liked Janu much, she always talked a lot and it always gave her a headache. Presently she was beginning to get one, and she turned to go to her room when she caught Kannan peeping in.
“What are you doing here boy?” she asked.
Kannan stumbled upon words in his mind until he found the right ones,
“Looking for amma?” he lied.
“She has gone to Latha’s house to attend a phone call from Persia? Go take your bath and swallow some food and be off before any of your imbecile friends come searching for you,” she said and walked off.
Kannan made a mocking face behind her back and then ran upstairs hoping to meet O.G but the staircase door was closed.
Well I’ll meet him in the evening, I better run off now before I am late for the meeting at the fields, thought Kannan and ran off to the bathroom.
He indeed had to swallow the food his grandmother had made as it was impossible to chew such tasteless food. Taking his umbrella he ran to the kadavu where Ayappan chettan’s boat was almost arriving; getting in he displayed his usual happy smile to Ayappan and began to talk about his plans for the summer. The conversation was interrupted by a passenger who brought up the topic of the incident at the fields. Kannan felt excited as he looked forward to hearing interesting titbits of the act that had been orchestrated by him.
Ayappan chettan was now speaking in a grave tone to the man
“It’s very strange and sad what happened to Pisharadi master. They say he was scared by something he saw in the fields, the daaktar says it has affected him somewhere in the head, he is now totally incapable of speaking, or even moving.”
Kannan felt his chest tighten and become really heavy as these words poured from Ayappan’s mouth. No these are just rumours they cannot be true, he just fainted that’s all, he kept reassuring himself. But the look on Chinnan’s face, who was waiting for him at the kadavu, underlined his worst fears.
The cousins walked in over bearing silence to the fields each afraid that another word spoken would dismember the thin line of forbearance they possessed. Kannan was anything but prepared for what lay ahead for him at the fields; each of his gang members who had been party to the act now threw accusations one after another at him, it was to be his fault alone.
He kept saying, “But I did not intend to do this, please don’t put the blame on me,” but all he got was hatred and rejection. Perhaps the only soul who stood by him was Chinnan who without uttering a single word took his cousin’s hand and led him away from what seemed like a nest of traitors.
Once they reached back at the kadavu, Chinnan pressed his cousin’s hand as if to assure him of his support and understanding. There was so much loyalty and warmth in his touch that Kannan found himself crying. They did not exchange any words even as Kannan got into the boat but so much had been said and done already. The boat moved away to the Ipparakadavu while Kannan stared at his cousin who stood at the kadavu; his image growing smaller and smaller until it merged with the horizon.
“Mother, please open the door, it’s me Kannan,” cried Kannan.
He had been knocking on the door for a while now. The lack of any response from the other end had aggravated his dilemma. All the way back from apparakadavu, he had been lost in a trance, a most painful one. He only wished for the journey to end sooner, the sooner it did the sooner he could shed his woes in front of his mother. She would certainly understand. But to his dismay, Saraswathi had not come out in spite of his repeated pleas. She stayed inside her room permitting entry or conversation to no one, not even Kannan.
Kannan had begun to knock frantically now, hoping to convey his desperation to see her.
“Please open the door, mother, please” he cried.
“Don’t waste your energy boy” said Janakiamma, lying on her easy chair as she lazily chewed on her paan, adding scornfully,
“It seems your loving father won’t be coming this year either and your foolish mother is too embarrassed to come out and face any one.”
She stopped her tirade of further sarcasm but not until she muttered under her breath, “Must be keeping a Persian woman” which Kannan could not help overhearing. He felt himself going red at his grandmother’s remarks. He wanted to choke the little mouth from which such cruelty and sarcasm was oozing. He was not in a state to listen to such rubbish and he was not sure how long he would be able to maintain his composure.
It obviously did not take long…he began to cry kneeling down outside the door, his face buried in his hands. Seeing the child’s plight, Janakiamma took sympathy wondering if her comments had been the reason. She however made no attempt to apologize or console the boy; she instead decided it wise to keep silent for a while.
The sound of the unbolting of the door from within made Kannan look up hopefully. The doors opened and Kannan stared, uncomprehending what his senses had just perceived.
Saraswathi looked different, extremely different; it was as if she had gone through a magical transformation. Her hair was done up in a beautiful bun and she had donned on a red sari that pronounced her complexion explicitly, with the stone necklace around her slender neck drawing attention to its perfectness, the large beautiful eyes lined with kajal, a slight dash of rose on the marble cheeks, the round bindhi on the forehead that emphasized the perfect symmetry of her face; yes, she looked different, she looked stupefying, yet distant, very distant. And now as she gazed down at her son, her face bore the coldness of a colossal statue. There was a strange emptiness, a void that seemed to be engulfing everything around. Worse, there was a total lack of concern for her son who was looking up at her for some form of consolation. No one dared to question her, not even Shankaran Nair or O.G, who had come down on hearing the turmoil, nor Janakiamma, as Saraswathi walked off without casting another look at her desolate son. It was as if they feared something, as if they would be triggering a dormant volcano.
Kannan stared stupidly after her, his cries having been reduced to whimpers before he finally passed out. O.G quickly came forward raised the boy in his arms and laid him on the bed.
He gently stroked Kannan’s head as he wondered what could have brought about the sudden change in Saraswathi’s demeanour that she should walk away so heartlessly from her very upset child. There was also the taunting curiosity to find out the cause of the child’s sorrow.
There was that deep stinging pang in his heart, something seemed to be grievously wrong, that disturbing premonition of bad days to come.
Fate in its black cape was casting a shadow on all of their lives.