One of the top three entries of Bound’s Short Story Contest 2019

For the next few years, as they flitted in and out of hospitals and multiple surgeries, Kadambari would stop speaking completely. No matter how much Lalitha tried to explain to her, and no matter how nice she was to Kadambari, her words remained unborn in her body.

She stood on the shore, the waves clasping her feet like weightless anklets. She held the urn in her hand a little bit harder, a part of her willing for it to break, the grey ash – or was it powdered bone? – spilling from between her fingers like a shapeless, irreconcilable reality.

She could hear a faraway voice: “Kadambari, don’t!” and she wondered if death of the physical body also meant death of the voice and the words the person had uttered in their lifetime. Surely they lingered, creeping into the everydayness of life, mixing with your breath when you least expected it, so you falter and stutter, trip and fall, clench and unclench, till you become bereft like unresolved thoughts floating in infinite space, knowing even then that you hold that space in the centre of your palm.

 

“Kadambari, don’t!”

 

She shook her head and brushed it away, taking a deep breath instead, allowing the midday sun to burn her face some more. She was immune to fire, like Sita, she liked to tell herself. Except, unlike Sita, the fire left its ugly paw marks on her body.

 

She was six years old when she first heard the story of Rama and Sita. Her sister, Lalitha, was seven. “Actually I am six years and eleven months old,” Lalitha would declare, in her voice dripping with self-importance stuck in a small-made thin-framed body.

 

Their grandmother, in whose red-tiled house with high-ceilinged teak-wood beams – jailors of the sun, Lalitha and Kadambari would call them – they would spend their summers in, would chuckle and chew her paaku at the same time. “Srinivasa Iyer’s blood in my son’s body, and my grandfather, minister to the great Maharaja of Mysore’s hunting precision. The shot never wavers.”

 

And she would match it with an action of poking her finger into her palm shaped like a cone and chuckle again, while their mother would mutter about the inappropriateness of it all, and their father, hovering around the house like a restless cat would smile awkwardly. Lalitha and Kadambari never understood the joke, but they memorised the action and would use it to full effect in all their games. When their grandmother told them the story of Rama and Sita one lazy summer afternoon as they unconsciously swatted the flies settling on their legs, they imagined Rama and Sita too, with their fingers poking in and out of cone shaped palms. By the time their grandmother got to the part about Sita having to walk through the fire of truth, they would sit up in rapt attention, the impossibility of it all making them believe even more.

 

That is, till one summer, when Kadambari was ten years old and Lalitha just a month away from turning eleven, the story jumped out of their grandmother’s carefully contained words and claimed them.

 

“So silly this Sita is,” Lalitha would say. “Why would she walk through fire and then leave, when she was going to leave anyway?” Their grandmother chuckled at that and patted Lalitha on her head and Kadambari silently bristled with envy. Why hadn’t she thought of that first? This always happened to her, she would tell herself, but Kadambari, never the one to earn chuckles or a pat, kept it all inside.

 

“And anyway, fire burns everything. My teacher told me in school. So you are making this up, Paati,” Lalitha declared and flounced away, mostly to the kitchen to see if she could charm her way into getting some snacks from Malliamma, the housekeeper, cook and caretaker of the ancestral home in Coimbatore.

 

Kadambari then sidled up to her grandmother, a little self-conscious but also unbidden like a flower blowing in the wind, adjusted her skirt around her legs, kept her back straight and looked up with earnestness spilling out of her eyes like rain, “And then what happened, Paati?”

 

And her Paati, surprised that someone was still there, and disappointed it was the staid Kadambari and not the feisty Lalitha, gave her a watered down narration for the rest of the story. Kadambari, not the one to be fooled by appearances and sensitive to the merest hint of contempt, never complained. Mostly, because, she never realised she could till Lalitha spoke up and then it was too late.

 

A week later, their parents and grandmother announced a trip to the local Mariamman temple. Their mother was going to walk on fire. Two years ago, when their father had been diagnosed with typhoid, their mother had promised to walk on fire during the annual temple festival in exchange for her husband’s long health. Their father had been fully cured, and therefore, the godly price was now being paid.

Devotees tied bunches of neem leaves to their mother’s wrists and she held a pot of milk on her head. Kadambari and Lalitha, standing right at the edge of the pit, watched in shock and horror. Their lives were about to change. Sita would emerge from the fire and take their mother’s place, and they would be left with nothing.

Lalitha and Kadambari, excited and nervous beyond words, hurried through their bath and breakfast and got into the Ambassador without fighting for the window seat (Kadambari gave it up without a word this time) and held their hands, clammy and cold, till they reached the temple half an hour later.

 

The temple was like a cauldron of smells and sounds and the sky a pristine blue with a slight nip in the air so typical to Coimbatore’s summers. After they finished the archanai for Amman in their father’s name and birth star, and had smeared their foreheads with ash and a dot of kumkumam at the centre and another dot of sandhanam at the throat, they walked to the back of the temple. Kadambari and Lalitha hopped and skipped to dodge the heat permeating their feet, but didn’t complain because surely the walk through fire would be much worse?

 

They stole glances at their mother, trying to read expressions of fear or anxiety in her placid black eyes and in her hands, which fell casually by her side.

 

“You know, Bari, I think Amma is like Sita. You think she will leave Appa after she walks the fire?”

 

“Of course not. That makes no sense.”

 

“But, look at her. She is so calm… she is going to run away Bari.”

 

The irrational idea took grip on them and grew to alarming proportions by the time they reached the spot where devotees were walking through the fire pit and where their mother was awaiting her turn.

 

Yen-na, my bus ticket is with you?” their mother asked their father.

 

“Yes. You can leave as soon as you finish.”

 

Kadambari and Lalitha whipped their heads in unison and Lalitha clutched her mother’s sari and looked up at her. “Where are you going, Amma?”

 

But then, someone called out her mother’s name and she was next, so she gently pried Lalitha’s hands from her sari, moved her aside and walked away, their father walking behind her.

 

“Bari, I told you! She is going away! Paati, where is Amma going?”

 

A loud ululation emerged from the group standing around the fire pit, which was full of burning coal, as their mother took her position.

 

Devotees tied bunches of neem leaves to their mother’s wrists and she held a pot of milk on her head. Kadambari and Lalitha, standing right at the edge of the pit, watched in shock and horror. Their lives were about to change. Sita would emerge from the fire and take their mother’s place, and they would be left with nothing.

 

Then, as quickly as their mother could, she half-ran across the fire pit. She would have made it without any mishap had she not lost her balance, trying to catch Kadambari who had suddenly fallen in facedown.

 

“Kadambari, don’t!” Lalitha screamed, and everyone joined in as they dragged Kadambari and her mother out of the pit. Kadambari was screaming in pain, a horrific sound that gripped them all in its long gnarled fingers.

 

Inside the car, on the way to the hospital, Lalitha sat by Kadambari’s feet, massaging them urgently, while a part of her brain registered the fact that that seemed to be the only part of her which wasn’t burned.

 

The doctor at the hospital, however, gave them a more realistic picture and explained that Kadambari suffered second degree burns on her face, neck, hands and thighs, and since she was young, they would heal naturally. The scars wouldn’t go away, but with plastic surgery, perhaps they could try.

 

For the next few years, as they flitted in and out of hospitals and multiple surgeries, Kadambari would stop speaking completely. No matter how much Lalitha tried to explain to her, and no matter how nice she was to Kadambari, her words remained unborn in her body.

Kadambari let out a loud laugh, almost letting the urn slip from her hands. How stupid Lalitha had been imagining Kadambari would ever forgive her! And to ask for her ashes to be set free by Kadambari? So utterly stupid.

 

Kadambari, herself, seemed stuck in that moment by the fire pit, replaying the sequence of events over and over again – their grandmother dragging them to the edge, her voice raised in loud prayer, Lalitha clutching her hands painfully, their mother walking through the pit, and then her own skin meeting the fierceness of fire in an embrace of death. What if their grandmother had not dragged them to the edge of the pit? What if their mother had simply told them she was going to the next town to another temple to finish her puja? What if Lalitha had still been holding her hand?

 

She played that scene in her head again by the beach as she held that urn in her hand. And then she played the scene of another morning 13 days ago, of how her phone had buzzed with news about how Lalitha had had a heart attack in the middle of her lecture at IIT Madras, where she taught aeronautical engineering, and how she had been rushed to Apollo by her beloved students. And then several frantic messages from her mother asking her where she was. She had watched those words fill her screen, one sentence going up and another taking its place, wishing she could put those words on her open palm and blow them away.

 

Kadambari thought that if she suffered a heart attack she would have been lying on the kitchen floor clutching her heart, waiting for Malliamma to find her. Her grandmother was bedridden and Malliamma had also become old, moving slowly through the sprawling house that Kadambari had made her home ever since Lalitha’s wedding three years ago. Her family felt it was probably for the best – hiding her scars in the familiarity of her childhood home than letting them fester like an open wound in the everydayness of life. Also, by then, Kadambari wanted to keep as much distance as she could from Lalitha, even though Lalitha insisted on writing to her regularly. Most of the letters Kadambari would burn without reading, her lips curling up in satisfaction as she imagined Lalitha’s words singe into nothingness. Become ash.

 

Kadambari let out a loud laugh, almost letting the urn slip from her hands. How stupid Lalitha had been imagining Kadambari would ever forgive her! And to ask for her ashes to be set free by Kadambari? So utterly stupid.

 

There was only one letter Kadambari hadn’t burnt. The one she had read and re-read many times over the years. The one that had arrived soon after Lalitha’s wedding.

 

Dear Bari,

Can I still call you that? It feels silly not to.

I am tired, Bari. I miss you. I wonder sometimes if you miss me too… and I am afraid I will be unable to bear the truth of that, either way.

It is afternoon now, and I am supposed to be in class, but I have pretended to be ill and am sitting here in my staff quarters watching the deer outside my window, writing to you. I can hear Karthik in the kitchen. The mixie is running. It feels strange to have a husband.

Do you remember the promise we made to each other in the middle of the night, when we were seven, and we pretended (or believed) we were the angels of God with hidden powers, our foreheads smeared with ash, our eyes black with kajal, the burning light of karpuram in your palm and my palm quickly slapping it down to extinguish it, worried as hell that it would hurt you, as we said the words “For eternity and evermore, Kadambari is Lalitha’s protector and Lalitha is Kadambari’s savior.”

There was always fire in our lives, no? I did what I had to do that day at the fire pit Kadambari because I really believed I was doing the right thing, but I am still ashamed of it and terribly sorry… I found some solace with Karthik, who understands, and I hope you find that too in Paati’s and Malliamma’s care.

I think we both kept our promise…but who is to judge which one was an act of kindness and which one a cruelty of fate?

I miss you, Bari. And I wish, more than ever, we could live together again.

Yours forever,

Lalitha

She had read that letter for the last time again the morning her mother’s frantic calls and messages came to her from the hospital. “She is dying, Kadambari! She wants to see you. She has been asking only for you. Have you left? Answer your phone!” By then, it had been exactly four hours and 12 minutes since Lalitha’s last grand performance, and Kadambari was in a haze of numb detachment. She remembered getting up from the chair like she would on any other day, breathing in that air of suffocating quiet.

 

She remembered slowly sipping her tea. She knew she would eventually book her flight ticket, go to the hospital and cry and grieve because she would want everyone to believe she cared, knowing that they would know even then that she did not. But what no one would know, at least not right away, was the little flower of happiness blooming in Kadambari’s heart with the arrogance of having survived a flood, of having survived that defining push by a not-yet-eleven-year-old.

 

Kadambari opened the urn, even as she felt the crust and mold of fate breaking away from her skin, and let Lalitha float away into the ocean.

Praveena Shivram

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