Tuesday 10 August 2021

Anusha Lakkavalli, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Witch

Does anything happen to us that is not our own fault?

Summer was only starting when we first spotted Ranjan, Kasaiyya’s youngest boy outside the village headmaster’s house. He and his friends stood under the shade of the flowering mango trees, guffawing, the way teenage boys often did. A few years ago, you could have found the same group of boys by the river channel at dawn, their scrawny brown bodies lined up to leap into the cold waters, their hair shorn from the last visit to the temple, splashing each other and laughing about whose underwear had the most holes in them. Not anymore. Manhood was slowly possessing them. Their boyish faces were now covered by sparse mustaches and beards that seemed too shy to fully show themselves. Thick oiled waves of brown-black hair now danced across their pimpled foreheads, waiting to be pushed back with flair in the presence of young females. Of this lot, Ranjan was the most handsome.

He had always been the good-looking kind, even as a boy. As a young man, he was broad-shouldered and muscled from working in his father’s fields, his physique just as good if not better than any of the heroes on the fading movie posters that adorned the brick walls outside the cinema theatre. His skin was as fair as milk, a bit unnecessarily fair for a boy, and his face was well proportioned. We all often wondered who he would grow up to marry. Surely, his bride would have to be a rare beauty. Kasaiyya was a rich man; he owned several plots of farmland in the village, and a few houses in the city as well, so obviously the girl would have to come from some wealth. Not more than Kasaiyya’s family, of course. Marry your daughter to a rich man’s son and bring your son a wife from a poor man’s house. Everyone knew this. It was common sense.

Nobody would have guessed it would be the village headmaster’s daughter.

The headmaster’s daughter was short and stocky; she resembled a gundakallu, a large stone pestle used to grind spices and pastes. Her skin was as dark as the black cotton soil of the north, and discolored patches the size of coins covered her entire neck. Her large russet lips sat prominently on her face, barely concealing her shiny white gap teeth. On a child, her features might have passed for cute, but we all knew she was not going to grow into an attractive woman. She was a sharp student, but what use is cleverness in a girl? But then again, if a girl looked like her, it was probably smart to not bank on the prospect of a comfortable marriage. The only pleasing bits on her face were her eyes. Large, soulful, and framed with thick and long lashes. Too bad that by the time she was twelve, she had spent so much time peering over books that, soon she needed to wear thick glasses.

Nobody suspected there might have been anything between these two. Even after noticing him find several excuses to walk past her house, everyone thought he must be there for one of the neighbor girls. Perhaps it was Leelamma’s oldest daughter? She was a year or two older than him and had always played with him as a younger brother, but maybe adolescence had ushered in different feelings? Or perhaps he was there for Kariyappa’s city-bred niece who had just come in for the summer vacations. The milkman said that when he went in to deliver milk one morning, the girl was walking around in nothing but some shorts and a tank top, even in front of her uncle and older cousin brothers. Someone must have given her a strict talking to because the next time she was seen, strolling around in the market with her cousins and neighbors, she was limping slightly, but was covered from head to toe, as demure as a widow. Around the time when the fat ripe mangoes started disappearing from the markets, Kariappa’s niece went back to the city. The two neighbor girls must have become thick friends over the summer since, within a few months, the headmaster’s daughter followed. Her father was heard telling everyone about the big city exam that she was going to take. It was a big piece of gossip, and in a few months, it was official. The headmaster’s daughter would go to the city to study to be a doctor. We were all amazed to hear that this seventeen-year-old girl would be living in the city by herself. Ranjan stopped walking by her house soon after. And that appeared to be that.

When Rukuma returned to the village five years later, the fisherwomen saw her first.

It was a fine Sunday morning, and the marketplace was abuzz with customers haggling for the freshest batch of vegetables. Live chicken roosted inside their cages, only squawking when one of them was dragged out to have their throats sliced, quickly skinned, and chopped into equally sized chunks of meat. Black catfish circled each other inside small tubs, swimming faster as the tub gradually emptied. A couple of goats tied to a nail on the ground calmly grazed on the bundle of grass near them, unmindful of the flayed carcass of their former companions that hung above them. Rukuma had changed beyond recognition. She was just as short as before but leaner now. Her mouth was smaller, her nose sharp like a knife. She no longer wore spectacles. Instead, her eyes were adorned with a thick layer of kajal and highlighted with silvery powder on the eyelids. If it were not for her uniquely patterned neck, we might have thought it to be a different girl. It was the biggest transformation story of the decade. She was by no means beautiful but gone was the human equivalent of the grinding stone pestle.

The fisherwomen said she acted differently too. Her English was now polished, all hints of her ties to the village gone. It sounded even better than the nuns’ who ran the small convent in the village and often came down to preach to the poor and hungry. She wore a well-fitted Kurti that stopped over her knees without a dupatta. But all this seemed to have turned her arrogant: they say she smiled at no one the entire time she was in the market. Except for Ranjan.

Nobody suspected anything even then. Not when Ranjan suddenly decided to take up contract work in the city with his brother. After all, who doubts their own children? But everything was to become clear soon enough. The next year, when Rukuma came back to the village, she held her doctor’s degree in one hand and Ranjan’s hand in the other. They wanted to marry.

The gossip was unbelievable. How could this be? A boy like Kasaiyya’s son married to a girl like Rukuma? What a joke! The headmaster’s family was a decent one, and of the same caste as Kasaiyya’s, but surely there is a limit to ambition? The girl was too educated, cunning, and arrogant. It was clear to us all that she had somehow trapped him. The boy’s aunts strongly felt that there was black magic involved.

“Sure, she is a doctor, but it is not a good match for our son,” they were heard saying. “He has been taken in. These girls can do anything to trap innocent boys. Oh, just think of the children, what if they get her complexion? Dear God, what was the point of getting such a fair wife for our brother, if this was what was to happen to his son?”

Both families met out of courtesy. The headmaster and his wife accompanied their daughter to Kasaiyya’s home. The servants sniggered and joked about how the groom had come to see the bride.

Kasaiyya’s wife made it very clear at the outset that she was firmly opposed to the union.

“See, Headmaster,” she said, after looking to her husband and getting his nonverbal permission to speak. “We have agreed to see the girl because of how much we respect you. Both our sons studied under your tutelage. But surely you must understand why we do not approve of this match?”

“Please tell.” Rukuma challenged, like the rude girl she had become.

Kasaiyya’s wife ignored her.

“You remember my older son,” she spoke to the Headmaster, gesturing towards the man sitting next to Ranjan. “He is now an engineer in the city. We married him two years ago and that’s his wife.” She now pointed to a wedding photo that hung below the tube light.

“We brought such a beautiful girl for my older son. It would be so unfair if my younger son didn't get the same.”

“My daughter is a doctor, Akka, whereas your son is only a contractor.” the Headmaster said. “We only came here because the children want to marry each other. My child makes three times what your son does. She is worth her weight in gold.”

Kasaiyya’s wife smirked.

“Even a golden needle cannot be pricked into one’s eye, Anna. You keep your gold, let us keep our son.”

“Ask your son what he wants,” Rukuma spoke again.

“Look here, girl. When two elders are speaking, the young ones must not butt in. Ranjan is only a boy. He does not know what he wants.”

“If he is old enough to marry, he is old enough to have a say in who…”

At this point, it was too much. Such insolence before elders was intolerable. Nobody blamed Kasaiyya’s wife when she raised a good-natured hand to knock some manners into the girl. But what nobody expected, and maybe we were fools to not have expected it was when Rukuma pushed her hand away.

The headmaster and his family left without drinking the coffee.

And soon it was all anybody could talk about.

“Taken in! Kasaiyya’s boy has obviously been taken in. These city doctors,” the owner of the tea stall said, as he poured sweet sugary tea out of the steaming kettle into transparent grooved glasses, “There is no telling what kind of drugs she might be slipping him.”.

“She slapped his mother! Can you believe it?” the vegetable hawkers whispered to each other.

“I heard that it was Kasaiyya’s wife who tried to slap…”

“Then she should have taken the beating. Unthinkable! This is not our culture!”

“Although, I wish I could slap my mother-in-law.”

“It’s black magic, definitely. My uncle’s wife’s cousin had a similar thing happen to him with his first wife. She would make this strange yellow pickle for him and would feed it to him every day. Never told anyone what it was made of. Turned out she had made it out of her own...”

All interest in the ingredients of the mystery pickle was soon abandoned, as the latest update on the story came out. Rukuma had already married Kasaiyya’s boy in the city and was pregnant!

Kasaiyya’s family relented on hearing this. It was one thing to not want a girl like Rukuma to come into the family, but to have an illegitimate grandchild was out of the question. The wedding was a small ceremony in the village temple. Kasaiyya’s boy looked handsome in his crisp white kurta and gold-lined panche. Next to him, short and dark Rukuma looked like a sacrificial buffalo dressed in red. At least that is what his mother told the milkman’s wife. No one saw the wedding as only the immediate family was invited. They served a single dish at the wedding over paper plates. Spiced curd rice with pomegranate.

Rukuma started her practice in the village. She had rented a small room near the market, but Kasaiyya’s family, being a respectable one, refused to have their daughter-in-law sitting alone in the market. They tried to dissuade her from working altogether, but they should have known better. She threatened to leave for the city, taking their son with her, so they agreed to let her practice in the small room on the terrace.

The young couple seemed happy for a while. We did not know what was more baffling: the love Ranjan had for his ugly wife or the respect Rukuma had for her meek husband.

Although this was supposed to have been a shotgun wedding, there was no child in sight for years.

“Aah, this is why he married her.” sniggered a fisherwoman, her yellow tobacco-stained teeth in full display, as she gutted a large black catfish. “His pipes must not be working.”

“Maybe they stopped working the minute they saw her.” Kariyappa’s sister-in-law, a large balding woman, giggled as she opened her purse to pay.

“Or perhaps he likes boys. My son says, whenever the boys went swimming in the channel, Ranjan always came,” another woman said, conveniently ignoring the fact that her son was also present in every such swim meet.

The rumors quickly quieted once Rukuma’s pregnancy was announced. As time passed, we learned she was carrying twins. On the day of her baby shower, Kasaiyya’s wife was heard loudly promising a hundred coconuts to Balaji if the children looked like their father. Perhaps the family god did not need that many coconuts. The baby girl who was born first had her father’s milky complexion and sweet face, but the boy who came quickly after was Rukuma in miniature.

The grandmother was inconsolable.

“It is not ideal,” we said when we comforted Kasaiyya’s wife, “but at least it is the boy who got his mother’s looks. Imagine, if it had been the girl.”

Kasaiyya’s wife stopped lamenting after that.

The children grew quickly, and it was clear that they followed their parents not just in looks but also in personality. The girl was as sweet-natured as her father, and the boy as ambitious and smart as his mother. The grandparents could not have been prouder.

It was sometime around the twins’ fifth birthday that Rukuma announced that she would have to go to the city for a month for a training program. The servants said that the couple argued loudly and often about it.

“I have stayed in this hell hole with these animals for seven years for you!” she was heard shouting, by the maid who was sweeping the verandah outside their bedroom. “I just want out for a month.”

“This hell hole is your home! Those animals are my family! They are our children’s family. Your family.”

Rukuma laughed, derisively.

“They are not my family. They have never accepted me. Not once.”

“How can you think of packing up and leaving me with two children?”

“There is an entire army of housewives and servants here to care for the kids. And do not pretend like you take care of them! I am the one who has single-handedly cared for them!”

“And you have to stay and continue to do that. That is what good mothers do!”

“And what do good fathers do, Ranjan? Leave their children to the care of their wives? How about what good husbands do? Never say a word when their wives are being constantly taunted? Put roadblocks in their wives’ careers while expecting them to earn most of the income?”

“Good husbands refrain from reminding their wives of what they look like.”

What was said after that we do not know, as the verandah was not dirty enough to warrant more cleaning, but Rukuma left the village shortly after. One foggy morning, she packed her bags and dragged them to the bus station alone. Dressed in a shapeless grey cardigan, her head wrapped in an ugly green muffler, she hoisted them into the luggage space on her own. Her children cried for a week. Her husband, probably longer.

“Did you hear?” the milkman’s wife asked us. “About Kasaiyya’s youngest boy?”

“What? That his wife left him?”

“She hasn’t left him. She is in the city for some training. No, no. What I am talking about is that Kasaiyya’s boy has taken up with a mistress.”

“What who?”

“Some laborer woman in his contract business. She is very beautiful, I hear.”

“We all knew it was only a matter of time. After all, men are men.”

“Poor Rukuma.”

“Yeah, but she should have known better than to marry him. In the end, they all need a beautiful woman.”

The children grew used to their mother’s absence soon enough. As there were so many children in the house, the women in the joint household did not bother differentiating between their children and the rest. The responsibility of the twins was collectively shared and soon the two were back to their old selves. The servants said that the twins’ father, however, was a completely different story. He continued to go to the construction site for some time, and then one morning he stopped completely, complaining of burning pain in his stomach.

“Acidity,” his mother told him. “It’s because you drink too much coffee.”

He drank cold milk that night and the next morning he vomited what looked like coffee grounds.

“I don’t think I drank that much coffee,” Ranjan said, confused.

The doctor said it was a stress ulcer. His stomach lining was eating itself. The coffee grounds were dried blood.

“It is because his wife isn't here!” Kasaiyya’s wife fretted. “We have a doctor in the house, and where is she when you need her? She should be here caring for him, but she is out in the city doing god knows what with god knows whom…”

Kasaiyya’s wife fell silent at the look Ranjan gave her.

“Nobody will tell anything about this to Rukuma,” he said in an uncharacteristically strict voice, and we all knew he was dead serious. “My wife is in the city, training to be a better doctor for our village, and I will not tolerate anybody talking ill of her.”

He withdrew to rest and requested that his brother be informed that he would be unable to join him for a while.

When Rukuma came back a few months later, she looked very different. Her skin was much lighter, the color of newly harvested wheat. If you saw it closely, even the fine hair on her face had turned golden. When asked, she shrugged and said it was the water in the city. She made a few more trips to the city, and each time the water turned her lighter. She was finally beautiful.

The servants always maintained that after Rukuma returned, the couple became closer than ever. After initial shock and hesitation, Ranjan was delighted with this new version of his wife, and the pair stole glances at each other like a couple of newlyweds at every temple function. They held hands when they thought no one was looking and the servants walked in on them sitting too close many times. Ranjan could not take his eyes off his wife and would gawk at her with the same love and fondness he had shown at the beginning of their marriage, only this time we all understood why. How come we had not noticed how lush Rukuma’s hair was before? Or the aristocratic upturn of her nose? The soft rise and fall of her full lips. When had the gap between her teeth disappeared?

Kasaiyya’s wife was right about one thing though. It did take Rukuma’s return from the city for Ranjan’s ulcer to start healing. It was almost as if every minute he spent looking into her large soulful eyes, his stress vanished and he became a healthier man. Soon, he could drink coffee again.

And then one rainy September afternoon, as everyone sat in the verandah, sipping hot coffee in the cold and the fragrance of onion fritters being fried in sizzling hot oil wafted tantalizingly from the kitchens, a fair-skinned laborer woman showed up on Kasaiyya’s doorstep asking for Ranjan.

Rukuma did not come out of her room for a week. When she finally opened the door, it was with bags in both hands. Ranjan held her feet and begged her to stay. She agreed but moved into separate rooms the very same day.

The children slept next to their mother in her room. Kasaiyya’s wife initially complained a lot about it. Said Rukuma was trying to turn the children against their father.

“If only you had fixed your problem early on, none of this would have happened,” she told Rukuma in a motherly voice. “I understand your pain, daughter. Listen, child, men are weak. It is in their nature to slip. That is why, as wives, we must be here to support them.”

She became very angry and confused when Rukuma shut the door in her face.

“I mean, was it really so unexpected what my son did? If anything, I am surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” she told the milkman’s wife spitefully, one morning.

“It is a good thing if you ask me.” the milkman’s wife said, as she plunged the aluminum measuring jug into the canister. “It would be too difficult for you to control her otherwise. My son is his wife’s slave. He does whatever she asks for. Last month, she told him she wants Jhumki earrings, and off he ran to buy her some. She brought only one golden chain from her father’s house, barely ten grams, and she has the audacity to ask for Jhumki earrings! His mother wears false gold bangles, but my son doesn’t care about that.”

She tilted the jug into the small vessel by its vertical handle.

“My son still listens to me. And is this milk or is this water?” Kasaiyya’s wife grumbled, looking into the vessel. “It is too thin.”

“I swear on my buffalo, it is pure milk! But, you would complain of foul play, sister, even if I squeezed her udders into your mouth. Anyway,” the milkman’s wife looked at the window of the room in the terrace where Rukuma stayed holed up for most of the time, “Now she knows her place.”

But maybe even that room was cursed. Last year, sometime in March, Rukuma started getting sick. A large brownish spot with black speckles showed up on her cheek. Some of the last patients she saw, said that she had lost a lot of weight and seemed very tired. She would not say what it was, but the other doctor in the village said it sounded like skin cancer. He said the thing she did in the city that changed her skin was the reason for it. His business is booming now that Rukuma no longer practices. Whatever was in that city water, it was black magic. She sold her soul for beauty, and now it had come back to collect its due.

The children are now ten years old. The girl grows more and more beautiful every day. She is as fair as milk, and her slender frame resembles that of a peacock. Her long black hair shines just like her father’s did when he was younger. She will light up some lucky man’s home one day. The boy is a confident young chap, with his mother’s bright white smile. He is sharp, ambitious, a born leader. His teachers say he will bring great laurels to our little village when he grows up.

Nobody has seen Rukuma for a while now, and her family does not give straight answers. Even the servants have not seen her. The women say she is resting inside the bedroom, the children say she is in the city, and her husband always has somewhere to be if someone even broaches the topic of his wife. His ulcers are worse than ever, apparently. He might have to go to the city for surgery soon. It is all very sad, we know, but she has only herself to blame.

After all, does anything happen to us that really is not our own fault?

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