“Shoo, shoo, go away. Away, I said.”
The young dogs were the first to push their noses where they did not belong, but, unlike the people who came later, they were decent enough to heed the words of the lady, who was demanding her space. They heeded, because she had been good to them these past few days, feeding them when no one else had. They took care not to come too close, but they also knew that going away would mean no dinner. So, they paced.
“Will you go, or should I open your head with this stick? Go. GO.”
The dogs knew that the lady will not flinch from her position. They remained alert, however, to the possibility that she might throw something at them. Each time she reached for a pebble on the ground, the dogs arched their bodies and backed up a bit. Of course, she hadn’t launched anything, yet— she did not have enough pebbles for sending all eight of them away — but there was no harm in exercising caution. So, they paced, never for once taking their eyes off her. They knew that one false move and the lady would hit them with the stick and run indoors, shutting the grill behind her. That would serve no purpose. So, with eyes on the lady and paws ten feet away, they paced.
The woman was clearly bothered by the dogs, but not so much that she would stop rocking her body or bobbing her head. She was sitting crosslegged, holding a bundle close to her bosom, on the verandah of her solitary house that stood at the end of the village. This house was slightly away from the Brahmin line, as had been ordained by the Gods, for she was the one responsible for dealing with dung, and toilet-tanks and the dead animals, after all. It would have been unclean of her to live with the Brahmins and cast a shadow on their piety. She would have gone to the seventh hell for that, if God had mercy.
She was a woman of prayers — nobody would call her ‘pious’, of course, but people knew that she had knowledge of the scriptures. She had been born as the only daughter to a Brahmin family two and a half decades ago. Her father had taught her the ways of the world as put down in the holy books, hoping one day she would grow up to be the ideal wife of a village leader. She had been a good student too, sometimes earning furrowed frowns and nasty nose-twists for correcting the words of the Brahmins at the temple. But, why she ever loved a base-born, or bore his son, no one knew. Some said it was God’s reminder to all mankind that women were not supposed to learn the holy words. Others said that the base-born was a disciple of the dark magicians and had placed a curse on her to mock the Brahmins. It was common knowledge that he had hated his birth and had run away as a child to the land of the Kamachandi, where he spent four years working in the tea gardens by day and conjuring spells in cremation grounds by night. When he had returned after the death of his mother, he had been a man full grown, with something slightly odd about him. She had been the only one who had spoken kindly to him and he seemed the only man who did not desire her. Is that why she loved him? And chose to marry him? No matter what the reason, she had abandoned the privilege of her birth and, in return, her village had abandoned her for it.
She had not let go of the holy words, though. She believed in her God’s mercy and hoped he would not be wroth at her for reading out his praise. Even at that very moment, she was mouthing something, saying some mantra under the breath, counting the couplets with every bob of the head and cycling back again each time she completed one rocking of her body. All the while she patted the little bundle she held to her breast.
The sniffs of the dogs were drowned momentarily under the low drone of a motorbike. The drone had come from her right, but it did not go to her left. It stayed, while the man on top of it considered his words.
“Have you been sitting with it all night? God help you, Amma! Just let it go. Throw that thing into the fire before it takes you with it.”
She took care not to meet the eyes that said these words. The words had been said almost kindly, but she knew that the eyes would not have been as generous as the tongue. The eyes would have had the blade; they would have punctured her resolve. She could not allow that, not before the Gods listen to her. She carried on, choosing not to respond.
“Should I get someone from the other village? They will help you, if you don’t feel up to it.”
The drone finally left her, after waiting for a response that never seemed to come. Who from the other village could help her? No one. Not even their shapeless god. Their god had not helped them when the heat was taking their men. Their god had not helped them when their women were losing blood at childbirth. Their god was as silent as her god, or just as loud with his punishment, if you wanted to see it that way. She did not know their god or his words anyway. She did not know their language. She stuck to her lines, counting them with the bob of the head and the rocking of the body.
The low drone returned after a while. It had brought with it the silent footsteps of a covered woman and the restless barking of the dogs, who did not know her.
“Give that to me, sister. You no longer have to bear that burden. Here, I will take it. Come now, please.”
The covered woman reached for bundle, gently. The moment she almost touched it, she got pushed away with a force that she had not expected from the frail leaf of a lady sitting and rocking on an autumn morning.
“Shoo. Shoo. Stay away. Go. GO. Don’t touch me. No. Go. GO.”
She can’t help me. Not her. She is not the one I am waiting for. She must understand and go.
“Sister, look at me for a moment. Look at me. You know me. I am your littleaambachor, your mango thief.”
The eyes have the blade, she knew it. She could not let them puncture her resolve. Not now, not yet. “Go. Go, steal mangoes. Go. Away.”
“Amma, if you don’t give it to her, I will have to take it from you. Amma, I am serious. Look at me.”
Not the eyes. The eyes are the blade and she could not let them puncture her resolve. Not now, not yet. “You touch me and you would know my stick. Go. Away. Both of you. You don’t belong here in the house of the damned. Away.”
“Amma, you have to let go. Look, it is attracting the dogs. Soon, they would lose patience.”
She started beating her stick to the dust, jabbing it at the dogs in between each beating. The dogs arched, stepped back, but did not leave. “Didn’t I feed you enough? Shoo. Away, you ungrateful beasts. Go. I have nothing for you today.”
“Amma, it is not the dogs that must leave. Amma…Amma…Keep the stick down, Amma. Keep it away….Amma.”
He had had enough of the farce. The next time the stick came towards him, he caught it. He did not pull at it, but the very act of having caught it seemed to take all the strength out of the woman. She gave it one last thrust with her arm and let it go. She was still looking down at the ground, keeping her head away from both of them. She now started bobbing her head again, and slowly she fell back into the rhythm of the rocking. “I must pray. You go. Go.”
“Pray? PRAY? Isn’t why this happened? You want to pray more? To whom?”
The eyes are the blade. Don’t look at them. The eyes are the blade. “To him who I could not meet yesterday. To him who has not entered that temple of yours since the day you installed him. Go away. I need silence. GO.”
“Amma! It will jump to you, Amma. The sickness will jump to you. Give it to me and I will take it to the fire.”
He came closer, grabbing at the bundle.
She held to it as fast as she could, but the man would no longer listen. His patience had become the morning breeze by now. He tugged at the bundle, but she held it tightly to herself. The mango thief tried to intervene, but she was helpless from the start. There was nothing she could have done.
With each tug, the bundle was slipping from her hands. Each tug, took a part of her strength away. She had to hold on. Hold on. She saw the hands tugging at her life. She came closer. Closer.
“AARGH, you bit me, filthy woman! How dare you? HOW DARE YOU?”
The kick to her side brought an end to the struggle. She lay on the ground, her hands clutching her belly, forgetting in the shock of the moment, the bundle which rolled out.
A hand, no bigger than a common snail, stuck out of the rags of clothes that had unbound themselves. The dogs had jumped in immediately and were about to tear out the meat they saw, when the stick fell hard on them. The man beat the dogs away as fast as he could, but eight of them were too much to contend with. He shouted at the covered woman to pick up the bundle before the dogs got to it. She stirred, but was too much in shock to deliver on that order. She just kept looking at the hand. It had become blue by now.
The man with the stick risked a moment to grab on to the bundle. He never took his eyes off the dogs, who were considering the opening but were still cautious not to take it. The bundle safe in his left hand, he waved the stick again at the dogs till they backed away, knowing they had lost the contest.
He walked over to where the woman lay still holding her belly, writhing in a pain that was more in her mind than on her body. He knelt down to pick her up, putting his free hand under her head. She looked at him finally, eyes meeting eyes, and immediately those eyes stood punctured. Dark streams of tears came oozing out, mixing with the black she had worn along the lining. He gathered her up, while she still wailed for the babe she had lost.
“Will you take care of her, while I go cremate the child? She will never do it, but it must be done before his vapours pollute the air we breathe. The babe had the summersickness, you know.”
The covered woman came closer, still visibly in shock of the events. She had never seen the death of a babe and her mind was wandering to the three-year old she had back home.
“If the summersickness took him, aren’t his vapours already in us? God help me!”
He started slipping the rags off the infant’s body, revealing first a bust of hair, that was stuck together with a black muck that seemed to have been from some rotten ditch. The muck started filling her stomach too, rising with the bile that her veil could not hold back. She bent over and retched out the milk she had had before coming here.
“The sickness didn’t take him — the fall did. His skull broke on the temple steps. She had gone there to pray for her child’s recovery. She shouldn’t have. She had polluted the god with her shadow and so the Pujari had no choice but to beat her out. She lost balance on the steps, tripping over her sari and tumbling down to meet the Lord’s judgment. You know our God is fair: he delivered the child before the sickness could have him and he punished the mother for her insolence, so that she never forgets her place again.”
As he walked towards his bike, the covered woman looked at the punished. The echoes of the agony in the wailings would not leave her heart any time soon. She put her veil back up, hoping it would save her soul from the air of this village.
In October of 2001, the police arrested three Brahmins from a village in Odisha on charges of culpable murder and violation of another’s right to religious freedom. The mother who had lost her child, was declared mentally unfit to testify before a magistrate and for the lack of witness testimony, the men were released. No newspaper carried the story, but those who know of it, still remember.
Minakhi is an LSD alumnus. He overheard this story on a bus ride in Odisha and chose to dig deeper.