She Spoke in Tongues - 4

Glory Sasikala

Serialized novel, by Glory Sasikala

'tis your love, that's all I need; for the rest I am mute-
basking in your Moonlight, my own life silhouette

The flats were a ‘double deluxe’ or so the agent declared: two bedrooms, marble flooring, plenty of shelves, and a spacious, well-fitted kitchen. Perfect for a nuclear family. Theirs was on the second floor.
As they stood across the street, surveying the building, they noticed that on the ground floor, two women were seated at their doorsteps, plucking the leaves off the stems of greens. Tharani knew one of them and her eyes brightened. Karishma, a lady she had often seen at the temple but had never spoken to. Indeed, she did not have the courage to do so. The haughty looking and extremely beautiful woman was the daughter of the Zamindar of Kayakote Village, a village well known for upholding its traditions and caste system even while allowing progressive times to prevail. Thus, even while the rich possessed the latest models in cars and phones and knew how to use the Internet, the village was still divided into sections according to caste, with the lower most castes living outside a wire fence that formed the border of the village. The village was famous for the quality of rice produce as well as for mangoes, which were a hybrid variety and extremely delicious and big. And this lady sitting there at her doorstep was the only daughter of the Zamindar. Upper caste, money, and beauty: God had indeed blessed her abundantly! She looked proud and arrogant, but when someone was blessed with so much, a little arrogance seemed justified. And now, Tharani was going to live in the same building as this woman. What an opportunity to forge a friendship! This time, however, Tharani’s calculations were not monetary. Respectability and acceptance, those so elusive qualities, especially by those she considered bourgeois, was high on the list of her dreams. Money was just a means towards that end. In her mind, she liked to think she belonged to the upper circle.
Meanwhile, the two women had not noticed the family. They continued to clean the greens they had bought that morning. They each had placed the greens in a ‘morom,’ a kind of tray made by weaving wood slakes. The morom is closed on three sides and open and flat on the fourth side. It also slants slighted towards the open side. The morom dons several roles through the day in the hands of the efficient housewife. Farmers too use this to separate grain from chaff. They hold the grains to the wind and shake the morom from side to side, and the chaff flies away, leaving the grains. The housewife uses the morom to clean rice, vegetables, etc. At the end of the day, the morom would possibly hold the ingredients for next day’s cooking.
“I am going to mash the greens,” said Karishma. She was married to a businessman and now lived in Madras.
“I’m not going to do that. I’m going to cut them thin and nice and cook them and add grated coconut,” said Rashmi. Rashmi was a very pretty young Christian woman, newly married. Her parents lived in Mumbai. She belonged to a middle-class family, and her husband was a techie.
“The coconut for this should never be grated in a mixer.”
They both agreed.
“Yes, the brown part of the coconut gets grated too and that takes away from the presentation. I love the contrast of perfect white against perfect green.”
“Not just that. The coconut gets kind of mashed up too much in a mixer. You need it to look flower-like or snowflake-like for the greens. Best grated with a manual grater.”
They discussed the merits of the manual grater versus the electrical mixer.
“I’m making eggplant curry.”
“Full ones?”
“Yes. I’ve slit the eggplants from the narrow end to the broad part both ways, like a cross. That keeps them whole and allows the spices in at the same time.”
“Isn’t it done from the broad part to the narrow?”
“No!” That’s the wrong way to do it.”
“My mom used to make it from broad to narrow.”
Rashmi giggled. “What?” asked Karishma.
“What does it matter which way? It all goes into the stomach.”
They giggled like schoolgirls.
“You know that old hag upstairs?”
“The old accountant’s wife?”
“Yes, that one. Well, she was asking me about condoms.”
Rashmi looked wide-eyed, “Whatever for? And what did you say?”
 “Asked me to show her. Said she’d never seen one, didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t there in her generation.”
Rashmi giggled. “That’s true. That’s why they had so many kids. Four kids.”
“That’s rubbish! Contraceptive can’t be everything. You’ve got to have self-control!’
“Do you have self-control?”
“Yes. We’re very self-controlled. Except on days when he comes home with halwa and jasmine flowers.”
They giggled.
“Did you show her?”
“Yes. She wanted me to open the packet and show her.”
They giggled some more.
“She wanted to know how it worked.”
“For God’s sake! She has four children!”
“Aha. And she has never used a condom.”
“And you’re the expert.”
They giggled some more.
Then Rashmi exclaimed, looking across the street.
“Hey, look! What a beautiful family!”
And indeed they were! Sushanth and Tharani and the three girls stood across the road.
“She is so beautiful! Like some Hindu Goddess.”
“Yes, I know. Looks can be so deceptive.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know that old banker who committed suicide? The one who lived in Mulla Street?”
“Yes. They said his family left him after he had an affair with some…oh!!”
“Oh!” Rashmi looked with interest across the road. “But she really looks so lovely! And look at the kids! So beautiful, all of them!”
“Beauty with purpose.”
“But it can’t be, Karishma. The man was to blame too. And how do you know all this?”
“She comes to the temple every Tuesday. Barefeet. She does some strenuous poojas, like rolling on the ground. Likes to associate with people like me.”
“You? Rich people.”
“Yes, that too, but mainly people of upper caste. Likes to think she’s one of us, upper caste and all. She always says, “We people…”
“You’ve spoken to her?”
“Nah! Some of my friends told me.”
“What caste is she?”
“Who knows? She’s a castaway from Burma.”
They giggled.
“It’s going to be interesting, hey?”
“Be careful.”
“What do you mean? Why should I be careful?”
“A man is dead, a family broken. Sounds ruthless to me.”
Karishma snorted, “She’d better not try any tricks with me. I’m likely to download a cartload of pure blood upper caste thugs on her from my village. And then she’d be running for her life.”
“People like these, they don’t stab you directly. They stab you, and you won’t even know you’re stabbed.”
“That’s a bit true, I guess. They say she has powers.”
“Powers? Like through penances?”
“Maybe those, but more like spells and chants.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? You’re a city-born person. Come to our village. You’d know all about black magic.”
“Anyways, I’m going to enjoy this.”
“Like I said, be careful. The children look so adorable. Do you think they know?”
“They would, of course. Children always sense things. I had a friend whose husband was a sex maniac. He used to lock up the kids and then abuse his wife. The kids knew. One of the boys raped a girl and is locked up.”
“Such things happen in this world. Why can’t thing be simpler?”
“There’s only one reason, isn’t it?”
“What’s that?”
The next day was ‘shifting day,’ and Yamini, Sitara, and Sheila were excited. They helped enthusiastically to carry things to the second floor. Most of it went via the lift. Some of it had to be manually taken up. Sheila and Sitara ran up and down, getting in the way of the men, but quite sure in their minds that they were helping. “Hey! What’s your name?” asked Karishma, as Sheila traipsed past.
“Sheila,” she replied, looked back and smiled and ran up the stairs.
“Beautiful children.”
“Yes,” agreed Karishma.
Finally, it was all done. Sushanth was upstairs, unloading and putting things in their place. Tharani walked in at the ground floor landing. She smiled at Karishma, who smiled back, but with evident reserve. Rashmi’s smile was open and welcoming. “Hi,” she said. Tharani looked at her and smiled. “If you need anything, do let us know.”
“Thank you! I will. I have to go up and see what the situation is like. Shifting is so difficult.”
“Yes,” Rashmi agreed politely.
Karishma smiled too. “Would you like some tea?”
Tharani brightened up. The lady had spoken, she was offering tea!
“If you don’t mind, yes. Tea would be good.”
“Please go up and continue with your unpacking. I’ll bring up some tea.”
“Thank you!”
After Tharani had gone, Rashmi turned to Karishma in surprise, “You offered tea? I thought you didn’t like her.”
“Oh don’t be such an innocent. Of course I like her.”
“No you don’t. You’re just curious.”
Karishma shrugged, “All for good purpose.”
Rashmi got up and shook the greens off her nightie. “You’re a jobless curious cat.”
Karishma smiled but said nothing.
With passing days, it became clear to Rashmi that Karishma and Tharani had more in common. She, the city-bred girl, could not talk about rituals or fasting days or endlessly about recipes or gossip about neighbours. They talked for hours, they went out together to the market and temple. From her viewpoint, Rashmi could make out that their conversations were intimate, the way it could only be between very close friends. Rashmi, however, grew closer to the children, especially to Sitara, whose tomboyish nature appealed to her.
Finding herself slightly routed out and left out of conversations, Rashmi started going for walks and soon got to know quite a few of her other neighbours from the other apartments who were, like her, city-bred and more sophisticated. She started spending more time with them and soon they were a gang of women who did things together. Little did she know that Karishma was jealously watching the development.
It was Tuesday morning. The children had left for school. Sushanth had gone back to Bombay. He was now a partner too and owned the Chandni Supermarket along with Vineeth. He only came to Madras once in two months and stayed for three or four days. It worked out well for them that Tharani stayed in Madras with the children. It demarcated quite well the source of the capital from the investment, so to speak.
Tharani had a bath and wore a beautiful blue cotton sari that she had bought recently. She picked up her basket of flowers and prepared to go to the temple. As usual, she did not wear her slippers. She closed the door and locked it. She was just about to get into the lift, but decided to take the stairs instead for exercise. She could hear women talking. Rashmi and Karishma were there on the ground floor, at their respective doorsteps, talking. Just as she moved to the first floor, she heard Karishma say, “I can’t share what is mine with anyone. I’m a possessive woman. I don’t want you being friends with anyone else. I can’t take it.”
“But you’ve moved on too,” pointed Rashmi. “You and Tharani are such good friends now. You have more in common too.”
“Seriously? You don’t understand what’s going on?”
“No…” Rashmi’s uncertain voice.
“I’m playing a game with her. She thinks she’s at par with me. She wants to be my equal. And I’m treating her that way.”
“Why would you do that if you don’t think that way,” came Rashmi’s shocked response, “It’s not honest.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m just having some fun. When the time comes, she’ll find out on her own. She won’t be able to keep up, and then she’ll know.”
“It sounds quite cruel to me. She may be doing shady things but that’s her business. If we didn’t like her, no one is forcing us to be friends with her. Personally, I like her as a neighbour right now. I haven’t seen anything going on yet.”
“It will start. She just hasn’t found a sucker yet.”
“Be careful Karishma. These things are dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll be alright.” The tone was careless and arrogant.
Tharani bent down and removed her anklets. She then quietly made her way back upstairs and into her house. She went in and sat on a chair, allowing…not diffusing…the fury to build up within her. Her nostrils flared, her eyes burned, her hair became frizzy; it was the demonic rage of a thwarted woman. She went into the bedroom and climbed up the bed and reached to the top shelf and retrieved a small book. She dusted it and sat down with it. It was a book of various chants and black magic. She turned it to a page and read through. And she sat there in deep contemplation.
Half an hour later, having calmed down completely, she picked up her basket of flowers and closed the door and made her way downstairs again. She could hear the women still talking but they had moved to other topics. She moved slowly downstairs. When she turned down the final flight of stairs, both women looked up and smiled. Tharani’s eyes, however, were fixed on Karishma and she was staring at her in a strange manner. Then she smiled sweetly at her. “Good morning Tharani Ji,” said Rashmi. Tharani turned to her. It was a strange fact but true that Tharani had never really even looked in Rashmi’s direction before. To her, she was just another city-bred young girl, nothing very special. They had very little in common. But today, when she smiled at Rashmi, Tharani’s smile was warm and motherly. There was gratitude in her heart for being respected and accepted. Her very soul craved respect and evaluation.
“I will be coming a little later to the temple Sheila Ma,” said Karishma. She always called Tharani that. “It’s a bit crowded today I heard. The head priest is coming.”
Tharani nodded.
“Will you hold a place for me, please. I will try to be there in half an hour.”
So broken was Tharani’s spirit that when she again nodded her head, it was the servile nod of one stationed very low in life. “I will.”
She moved past them, but Rashmi stopped her. “Tharani Ji, I’m leaving for Mumbai tonight. Anil has left for the US for two months. And I think I’m pregnant.”
“Oh!” said Tharani, genuinely pleased. She came back to Rashmi. “You will be blessed, I’m sure. You’re a very good person. God Bless you.”
“Why, thank you, Tharani Ji! I’ll be back in a couple of months and I’m depending on you to take care of me.”
“I will,” Tharani promised. “You take care meanwhile.”
Later that day, once she returned from the temple, Tharani locked her door and once again picked up the book. ‘Make a star with a chalk piece,’ it read. She did that. ‘Place a lime at the centre.’ She placed the lime. ‘Now, get something that has been touched by the victim…’
She made her way quietly downstairs and knocked on Karishma’s door. “Yes, Sheila Ma, what is it?”
“Karishma, could you please give me back the small dish I gave you? I’m expecting some guests, so…”
“Oh, yes, of course! So sorry! I forgot.” And Karishma went into the kitchen and came back with a small stainless steel dish with some cooked vegetable in it. “I tried out a new recipe with pumpkin today. Please taste it and tell me how it is. It’s okay to eat pumpkin today. It’s just the first Tuesday. You can’t eat pumpkin on the second and fourth Tuesdays.”
“Thank you,” said Tharani, taking the dish from her. “I’ll let you know for sure.”
She then made her way upstairs, while Karishma looked after her thoughtfully. She sensed that Tharani was not being very forthcoming. Tharani suddenly turned back as she reached the top of the stairs. “Karishma, what ingredients did you use?”
Thus assured, Karishma told her the ingredients and the process, and the women stood there talking, to all appearances the best of friends.
Tharani went back upstairs and closed and locked the door. She then placed the dish with the cooked vegetable at the centre of the star. And then she performed a most diabolic ritual.
The next day, Tharani went downstairs by the lift and was leaving to go shopping. She sniffed. The odour was faint. “Leaking gas,” she surmised. There were only two houses in the ground floor and Rashmi’s house was locked as she had left for Mumbai the previous night. Karishma’s door was open, and she sat there on the sofa, peeling peas. The odour came from her house. Tharani opened her mouth to warn her, then suddenly stopped. She remembered that Karishma had anosmia, the inability to perceive odour. She could not smell the gas. Tharani could not believe this was happening. Surely, it could not be this easy? Surely, her rituals were not working?
“Hello, Karishma. Feeling lonely?”
“Yes, Sheila Ma. Rashmi has left for Mumbai. My husband has gone to Bangalore too. His sister lives there. She has some problems, and he’s gone to be with her.”
“And Madan has gone to school.”
“Yes.” Madan was Karishma’s ten-year-old son.
“All my kids are in school too. Some peace,” smiled Tharani.
“Yes, that’s true!” Karishma laughed. “We miss them when they’re not there, and when they’re here, they trouble us so much.”
“Yes,” smiled Tharani. And all the while, the gas odour was increasing.
“Well, I’d better be going. I’m going shopping with some friends from Burma.”
“Okay, Sheila Ma. Have a great time.”
When she reached the end of the landing, Tharani stopped, humanity prevailing. She turned back to look at the woman sitting innocently on the sofa, all alone, peeling peas. A small aluminium plate was placed near the door. She looked curiously at the plate.
“What is that plate for?” she asked.
“Oh, a field worker is coming from my village today. My parents are sending me some rice and other things through him, harvests from our own fields. He is of a lower caste and cannot come into the house or eat from our vessels. This is for him. I am cooking separately for him.”
Tharani looked at the plate and then at Karishma. “Don’t you think that’s inhuman? We treat animals better.”
“Oh, they don’t mind. They know and accept it. They are pretty much like animals.”
Tharani could not help but stare at the arrogant woman. She then shook herself as if out of a reverie. “Well, I’ll be going.”
“Yes, see you in the evening, Sheila Ma.”
Tharani nodded her head, turned and left, muttering to herself, “I don’t think.”
After shopping, she made her way to the temple, unwilling to go home. And that is where she found groups of women standing outside and talking in shocked tones, “She died on the spot. Not much left of her. The blast was terrible. Quite a leak, I heard….”

[To be continued ...]

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