Kavitha murmured the second lesson of her Malayalam Textbook titled the “The journey of a brave kid.” It spoke in over four pages a fictional story about a boy and his adventurous journey in search of his mother. Kavitha’s wide, beautiful eyes, resembling her mother’s awaited someone. They often wandered away from the book towards the porch. In the distance, a playful sun hid behind the wavering plantain leaves. The blazing yellow coloured incandescent lamp on the porch attracted the pestering insects, the rain flies born from the evening drizzle and the omnipresent mosquitoes. They buzzed behind her neck, humming their irritating, yet mysterious anthems that bothered her.
“Amma (Mom), light the mosquito coil, no. I am unable to study!” She shouted out while her hands frantically shooed away the air near her neck and ears. “When is Achan returning?” She added in the same breath.
“Girl, within an hour… Mosquito coils are over. Call Achan and remind him to get some. Also, ask him where he has reached”. Kavitha’s mom replied.
“For now, I will burn some coconut husk and the roots which we brought from the village.” Her mom added.
“Acha, where have you reached?” Her sweet voice asked inquired over the mobile phone.
“Kavithoo, I am nearing the temple bus stop. What are you doing?” Her dad inquired.
“About to study. Don’t forget mosquito coils. And…(pause) Did you buy it?”
“Of course. I have got both. Ok? Ask you mom to lock the grille till I come.”
“Fine. I will tell mom. I am impatient to see the gift. Ciao.” She reported the matter to Mom and settled back at her table.
The front door of their three room rented house on the outskirts of the town remained open but the grille on the exterior was safely locked. Her mom would often repeat, “To close the front door during the late evenings is considered inauspicious”.
Kavitha sat watching the setting sun snacked by the hills in the distance. The scattering light soon painted the sky in an “Orangish” hue on a canvas of floating clouds and a faint moon. Light was fading fast and the street lights flickered to life somewhere in the distance. It was nearing half past six and she thought that the clock face with its outstretched needles made a sad face.
Meanwhile, Mom emerged clean and fresh from the bathroom and proceeded to light the greasy oil-lamp in front of the glass-framed pictures. There were a dozen different gods precariously perched on the shelf inside their kitchen. After applying Tilak above her Kumkum, she decorated the pictures with a shoe flower on top of each of the wooden frames and placed a garland strung out of jasmines near the lamp. Its fragrance immediately filled the room. Then she lit a few incense sticks and stuck it in to an empty nail hole in the wall. Closing her eyes, she prayed silently for a few minutes.
Kavitha joined Mom without the usual invitation. She silently thanked the gods for reminding her dad about the doll. Returning to the dinner table that doubled as her study table, Kavitha resumed her lessons.
“Meow… Meow…” A black cat trotted on the porch. It was a bad omen. Her grandmother used to tell her that if a black cat crossed the path then something terrible was about to happen. She signaled her Mom to shoo it away immediately. Mom quietly took the broom, turned it upside down and drove it off the porch into the vegetable garden. The cat sped away, its tail upright! A few more agitated Meows and then its sound died.
Mom kept another lit oil-lamp outside the front door on the verandah and switched on the Vedic chants on her mobile phone. Meanwhile, she had found enough time to burn a couple of coconut husks with some medicinal herbs and place it near the entrance. Winds toyed with the flame creating shadows of many kinds. Kavitha despised shadows, all of them. The dancing, waving, flickering, shapeless ones, those resembling animals, birds, dancing serpents, the ones with human-like heads devilishly laughing on formless bodies like genies emerging out of its bottle of entrapment, or those with headless bodies, sharp, moving, approaching, mocking, running, faint, fading, limping and the like; all of those frightened her.
The seven year old mind of hers did not have the courage to inspect the source of those strange shadows. She would rather run away and hide under Mom’s sari, or cover her face with Dad’s large reassuring palms. She forced her thoughts back to the story of the lone boy sitting under a tree by the side of an empty road. “As he sat weeping underneath the small banyan tree, the tree quietly grew behind him. The branches morphed into wicked hands and the leaves turned blood red. Branches swayed menacingly and the shadow danced like a witch. From the monstrous tree emerged a “vicious looking” lady. The setting sun bounced off her silvery white hair and the edges of the protruded teeth shone devilishly. Her blood colored makeup with the fearsome figure grew to an enormous size in no time. She grabbed the boy and flew up on to the top branches.”
Kavitha’s heart palpitated and a sweat drop wet the text book. From the corner of her eyes she checked out the shadows. This time it was a woman dancing with her hair locks open. The spectre reminded her of the frightening Mudiyettu kolams, an eerie figure with a blood colored makeup spinning wildly to the tunes of the percussions, her hairs loosely bound, with a sword in her hand, performing in the nearby Bhadrakali temple.
“Meow… Meow…” She cowered startled by the noise. She was about to blame the cat when she noticed that it was just the SMS ringtone on Mom’s mobile. She opened the message. It was Dad. He had got down from the bus and was near the temple.
Her dilated eyes returned back to the text book, to the boy under the tree and the terrifying witch. “Surprisingly the small boy was not the least bit scared. Neither the tree nor the witch bothered him. He looked at her unperturbed. The witch hissed, ‘Aren’t you scared? ‘No’, the boy managed a reply. ‘Then why are you here?’ she questioned. The boy bravely responded, ‘You see the past, the present and the future? You have the answer to my question. Where is my mother? What happened to her?’ The witch grinned revealing her long bloody canines. ‘I won’t tell you. I shall show you some signs to find her.’ The witch added”.
“Kavithoo… Dad’s baritone voice echoed in her ears. She instantly looked towards the front door. There was none, not even a shadow. The conspicuous absence of shadow felt mysterious.
“Amma, is Achan home?” asked a perplexed Kavitha.
“No. I told you, right? He is on his way.” Mom sounded a bit terse and angry.
“But I guess I heard him…” Kavitha was unsure.
“Do you want to eat dinner or not? Let me cook. You read something for tomorrow’s class and do not disturb me.” Her mother responded from the kitchen.
A few slow minutes unwound and she heard it again – “Kavithoo…” This time it was louder. She was sure. As she turned her head towards the entrance, the familiar shadow of Dad holding a doll in his hands approached the front door. She fleeted towards the grill door, shouting “Amma, Achan is here. Open the door.”, only to be disappointed upon reaching the door.
There wasn’t anyone outside. It was just the shadows of the plantain leaves and the flame, she thought.
Her mother came with the key to find no one in the verandah. “Kavitha, don’t play with me. I have many a chores to complete and it is already late.” Mom rebuked her.
The little girl was confused and dejected. She settled down at the desk and grabbed the mobile phone to play the snake game. She could hardly concentrate on her lesson. She ran inside the kitchen to check on her mom. Kavitha’s mom was tidying up the kitchen. Kavitha pestered, “Amma, I saw Achan’s shadow on the porch. I am not fooling around. He might have gone upstairs to check the water level in the tank.”
Her frustrated mom scolded her and dragged her out of the kitchen to the table and sat with her.
“Where did you stop reading?” Mom asked. Switching off the mobile she started out reading the lesson to Kavitha.
“Amma, he might be there on the terrace watering the flower pots on the low roof. Let us check it out.” Realizing that she was getting cranky, Mom grabbed the phone and followed her upstairs to the open terrace.
It was empty!
Then they inspected the backyard vegetable garden and outside the main gate of the compound. There wasn’t anyone around. Not a single soul in sight. Not even that spooky cat.
“Kavithoo…” Her dad’s voice again floated into her ears with the evening breeze as she started walking back from the gate. Kavitha became uneasy. Her thoughts ran wild. She was not able to comprehend the events? Was it just the story playing on her mind or was it her imagination? Whatever it was, she couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on! The black cat, the eerie shadows, the strange story in the text and the voices in her head frightened her.
She snatched Mom’s mobile phone and pressed the fast dial. Irritated and angered by her actions, Mom snatched the phone back, cut the call and gave her a not-so-soft slap. Kavitha bolted into the house with tears swelling up her eyes. Immediately overwhelmed by regret, her mom followed her and tried to solace her, all in vain.
They both sat restlessly on the table, one reading the text book and the watching the clock. After 10 minutes, there was the noise of metal hitting metal. It was from the gate. They paced to the verandah. It was Kavitha’s dad. Kavitha noticed in the street light that Dad was limping a bit. As he neared them, she noticed his soiled and torn clothes’. His bag was also missing. He had only a white polythene cover with him.
As soon as he entered the house, both of them in one concerned voice asked, “What happened?”
“Get me some water, cotton and after shave lotion.” her father said, taking off his shirt and revealing a bruise in his left hand and a gash near the navel. He lifted his trousers up till his knee and a few specs of dried blood showed up near the knee cap.
Mom instantly disappeared into the house only to appear with the dressing material for the wounds. She started cleansing the wound.
Dad heaved a sigh of relief and said, “We will change this house soon. We will move back to our previous apartment inside the city.”
“Again!!!” Mom looked at him, surprised.
“It has barely been 2 months since we moved in here. And living inside city is expensive, isn’t it? But that can wait tell me what happened to you?”
“Robber.” The moment of silence pronounced by their own missing heartbeats!
Her dad took a deep breath and explained, “I was on my way from the bus stop. I couldn’t get an auto-rickshaw. So I decided to walk all the way. I took the shortcut near the temple – the road with huge temple walls on both sides. I was near the bend before the temple pond where the street lights are notoriously missing for a small stretch. Suddenly, a guy appeared with a handkerchief tied over his face.”
Kavitha tightly gripped Dad’s arm. She could feel the heightened pulse in her dad’s arms and the sweat in his palms as he narrated it. His eyes flashed the fear he had experienced.
“And, what else? He flashed a knife and asked me for my belongings.”
“Oh my God… Krishna… The next time I visit you…” Mom started.
“Enough. Now don’t you start praying a list of pujas to all the temples around?” Her dad cut her mother’s prayers short.
“Be happy and thank God that nothing much happened. We have to do some Puja and give offerings at the temple for sure.” She insisted.
“Alright. We will go this weekend.” Dad agreed.
He continued with the incident, “When I tried to resist he shoved me on to the road. I gave our wedding ring, purse and the bag. He wanted this cover thinking that it was some costly stuff. It has Kavitha’s toy packed in a gift wrap. I told him to spare this at least as it was just a toy for my daughter. He threatened to stab me and flashed the knife very close to my body, accidently cutting my arm and belly. I dropped the cover on the ground and backed off. He then asked for my mobile phone.”
“As I was giving him the phone it rang loudly. So loudly, that he panicked and darted off in the opposite direction. I am not sure what would have happened if you had not called.” he finished; his breathing returned to normal.
“But, I never…” Before she had completed that sentence it dawned on her that, Kavitha “speed dialed” his number from the terrace a few minutes back.
“Kavitha…” She had opened the gift wrap and was carefully winding the singing doll. Kavitha raised her head to find her mom and dad staring at her!
Selected words with meanings
Malayalam – A South Indian language
Amma – Mother in Malayalam
Achan – Father in Malayalam
Acha – Dad (colloquial)
Tilak – A decoration, often a white sandalwood paste, traditionally worn on the forehead of a Hindu believer.
Kumkum – A decoration, often a red dot, traditionally worn on the forehead of married Hindu women and now also by other Asian woman and girls
Mudiyettu kolams – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudiyett
Bhadrakali – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhadrakali A violent and angry form of an Indian goddess.
Krishna – Indian god
Puja – Hindu rituals