1980 Madras

At breakfast I announced as if no one knew, ‘A new Ayah has come to stay with us.’

‘Are you not getting late for school?’ asked Appa, hurrying away to the university.

I heard the cycle rickshaw man ring the bell and ran to pick up my bag.

I am eleven years old and study in class six. Appa works as a History professor. It is not that he loves History, but he said History in college ensured that he need not have anything to do with Mathematics. Amma has in excess the sharpness he lacks.

We live in an old inherited bungalow that has a cowshed devoid of cows and a well with lots of sweet water. It is right next to the biggest arterial road, and at night, if I wake up, I tiptoe to the balcony to watch the ghost lights through the darkness and hear the even throbbing of the buses and trucks as they lumber on. The many windows that face the road are tightly shut and jammed with disuse, but still the dust seeps in through the open courtyard. Morning light comes in shafts and steady streams of dust particles prance in them.

After school I sat next to Ayah as she peeled onions. In a while I had tears in my eyes.

‘Here,’ she said, offering the free end of her sari as a handkerchief to wipe my eyes. She gave me a smile that made me wonder if there were teeth in her plump gums waiting to come out. Most of her teeth were missing and her skin was a fine mesh of wrinkles. She was fifty, but working for years in the paddy fields under the hot sun made her look older, and the tobacco she chewed had taken care of her teeth. I was fascinated by her earlobes which hung till her shoulders, weighed down by the heavy bronze earrings. I asked her about them, and she said, ‘This is the gift I got when I became mature. My earlobes were pierced, the holes were stuffed with wooden pegs, and slowly, the holes became wider as thicker pegs were inserted, till the day I could wear these earrings. They will be removed only when I die.’

‘It must have been so painful,’ I said.

She said it must have, as if talking about someone else.

I began spending my evenings at the cowshed where Ayah stayed. As her sing-song voice droned on, I would make her earrings do somersaults in her earlobes or try to frame a hanging mango in the hole. I traced the green tattoo on her right hand, beginning at the point where the palm met the wrist and extending halfway down her hand as if mapping her vein.

 ‘It has the soot of the lamp mixed with the ashes of burnt tobacco. Three very sharp needles the gypsy witch used to pierce me, and then she soothed me with the yellow of the turmeric and pungent coconut oil.’

Her words became music at times.

‘What can these random dots in the tattoo mean?’ I asked, wanting another song. 

‘They keep away the evil eye and bring good luck.’

I did have the heart not to ask if it had brought her luck.

Ayah was like no one I ever knew and Amma seemed relieved. Almost happy. She smiled more and went out with father, leaving me behind with Ayah who caught pigeons and mynahs, broke their slender necks with her bare hands, and cooked them on a makeshift mud stove in the backyard. With those brown hands showing prominent veins and bulbous knuckles, she tore open the feathers, separated feather from flesh, and washed the blood. The pink insides were revealed when she put her hand in and removed the backbone and sternum, making it flat for cooking. She then rubbed in the salt and red chilli powder that Amma had provided, assuming that it must be for flavouring the raw mangoes plucked from the backyard. She roasted the marinated bird on sticks over the fire in the mud stove. It was shrunken and charred black. She pulled out a leg and handed it to me on a freshly plucked and washed banana leaf.  

My family is vegetarian. I had not even tasted egg. She was beaming. I bit in. My tongue caught fire. Somehow, I managed to tell her that I had to do my Math homework and rushed back to the washbasin. After that, I always escaped before the tasting.

Every day at school Ayah brought me my hot lunch. She usually stood under the Neem tree, eagerly awaiting me as I sprinted to pick up the lunch, waved and rushed back to class before she could even say a word. We never spoke of this after I got back home, but outside the house, I was embarrassed by our friendship. How could I tell anyone that my best friend was a fifty-year-old woman who cooked birds in our backyard and had sagging breasts that swung without constraint?        

At home we never spoke of breasts or even acknowledged their existence, so I asked Ayah. She said that they were gifts given to women and proudly showed me her pendulous ones that reached her stomach. I was shy but, once I saw them, I wanted to know how she had grown them.

‘I had produced so much milk during childbirth, I fed my neighbours’ and my neighbours’ neighbours’ babies,’ she said, and laughed loudly.

In her village those who had milk shared with those who did not. I wished I too had fed from her breasts.

A few nights later, Amma caught me making suckling noises. I sleep with my parents, though the house has four rooms. Amma is scared of letting me sleep alone, but she should be scared of letting me sleep with her, because I know exactly when the big bed creaks and more or less what those grunts mean. I study in a girls’ school, where the nuns make us wear skirts that are two inches below our knees and fine us ten paisa for each non-English word we utter, but, along with good English, we’ve learnt that we can get away with a lot if we feign innocence. Hidden in a big fat History textbook, we passed around page number three hundred and twenty seven, torn from the book that one of the girls had got, which more or less explained what it was all about. But Amma still buys me Enid Blyton books and fancy hair bands that have baby pink ribbons on them. So, when I made suckling noises, she got me de-wormed.

Some afternoons while Ayah tried to sleep, I saw tears roll down from the precipice of her mud-brown high cheek bones and pool into her sunken cheeks before sliding away. I sat quietly, trying hard not to wipe them. She would eventually wake up, touch my cheeks with her fingers, kiss her fingers and mumble, ‘my Ganga’, the one daughter amongst the four sons she had given birth to. The tears were for that one daughter, who died young, and maybe for those four sons who no longer wanted her.

She adopted a stray mongrel and Amma did not say anything because we had a huge backyard and also because she now depended on Ayah. I loved the mongrel, but named him Puppy, as I did not want Amma to find out that I was terribly fond of Puppy. Just like Ayah, though she has a real name that I don’t even remember. Ayah liked the English name for her puppy and she went around calling him, ‘Paapy, Paapy.’

Six months passed and I started hoping that we could keep Ayah forever. But trouble began when Amma decided that she had to be nice to Ayah after other relatives complained of servant problems. She bought a new sari for Ayah without any occasion and, pumped up by the sudden warmth that buying the sari gave her, she went looking for Ayah. She went to the backyard and walked beyond the mango trees that screened the shed. Just outside the shed were feathers, bones, bits of congealed blood from a recent feast. Amma couldn’t bear the stench and her pure vegetarian blood began to boil. Inside, Ayah slept under the hot asbestos sheet with her blouse open and her breasts resting sideways on her arms, leaving the valley in between to air. The site of her half naked must have been too much for Amma who was already upset; added to this, Puppy wagged his tail and licked one of the breasts. Ayah did not open her eyes or even shift, but just smiled in her sleep.   

Amma came back to the house all hot and flustered and ran into the bedroom to tell Father who was having his late afternoon nap. After crouching below the windowsill and overhearing everything, I asked her what was wrong. She said that Ayah was a dirty old woman. I must never go near her. I wanted to tell her that breasts that gave milk to so many babies could never be dirty, but I kept quiet as I did not want Ayah to leave.

Amma told her that she must get rid of Puppy. Ayah was upset, but she did not show it. All she did was ask for permission to leave the house for half a day. It was a Saturday, so I was at home when Ayah and Puppy left.  Ayah tied a jute rope around Puppy’s neck and pulled. He yelped and stubbornly refused to go along.  Puppy had never been tied before and at first, he mistook it for a game but on sensing Ayah’s distress, he became agitated. She hit him with the rope. He howled. She repeatedly hit her forehead with her right palm, as if punishing herself. Sometimes she managed to drag him a few paces forward despite his resistance, but then he would pull free and run back. Every time she hit her forehead, Puppy howled as if someone was beating him to death.  Not once did she talk to him or call him by his name. I wanted to run out and stop them, but bit back my tears and clenched my fingers. Amma watched from the hall. When it looked like it would never end, she went in and I rushed to give Ayah a packet of my cream biscuits which I used to secretly feed Puppy. Using this, she quickly got him out of the gate. After four hours, she came back. She was soaking wet. She repeatedly drew buckets of water from the well and poured them over her head. After that she never spoke of Pappy. 

Ayah did not see the reason why she was being punished, as Amma did not believe in confrontations.  Initially, she thought that Puppy must have done something to upset Amma and went all out to make amends, but soon realised that the equation had changed when other things did not add up. She was no longer given a piece of the eggless cake from what Amma had freshly baked, or the seed of the juicy hybrid mango to suck after we had eaten all the flesh. Amma stopped saying to Father, ‘Leave a few pieces of the fried cauliflower for Ayah. Poor thing.’ 

Those small things that made Ayah feel she was a part of the family were severed. Whenever she touched Amma, even accidentally, Amma acted as if she had been stung by a bee. Worse, she refused to let Ayah braid my hair and stopped leaving me alone with her.

Ayah said nothing, but just stooped some more. I contemplated telling Amma how Ayah had shown me her breasts, as that would ensure she was sent away and she would no longer have to endure Amma. But, before I could decide, Ayah disappeared. She left behind all her belongings in the shed.  Father and I searched everywhere and asked around, but there were no clues as to where she had gone. Amma’s face had ‘good riddance’ written all over it.

The previous evening Ayah had touched my cheeks and kissed her fingers. Her clear eyes clouded with tears, as I stood dry eyed and confused.

I felt something roll as I adjusted my pillow that night. I reached out and my fingers closed on the familiar smooth roundness of Ayah’s bronze earrings, their dull glow soothing and disturbing at the same time. I held them clenched in my palms, in between my breasts. They felt heavy. I muffled my sobs and let the tears soak into my pillow.

(First published in Earthen Lamp Journal)

Photo by Ullash Borah on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Hema S Raman

Hema Raman's short stories have won multiple prizes such as the 2007 CBA short story contest and 2010 Katha India Currents short story contest and have been published in magazines and anthologies. Her unpublished debut novel was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asian Prize in 2012. She has been hibernating and working on her second novel.