It was a Friday evening. The lamps were lit in the little altar in the nook of the passage between the kitchen and the bedroom. The divine scent of sandalwood, the incense sticks, permeated the very air of the tiny little ‘quarter’ that Radha and her family called their home.
All the houses in the colony had been built according to the same plan and as Radha stood by the kitchen sink, clearing the vessels after the evening’s cooking session in the kitchen, she got the perfect view of the ‘hall’ of the house opposite her window. The curtains were drawn together, a thin billowy fabric from some old sari that had been torn and stitched into curtains by Mahalakshmi. The dim forty-watt lamp was switched on in Mahalakshmi’s ‘hall’ and the feeble light made the red curtains all the more menacing.
Surely it would begin in a few minutes. Tholu bommalata. The shadow puppet play.
Radha grumbled to herself as she dumped the used vessels into the sink. She cleared the particles of food stuck to the vessels, for Adamma would allow them to remain intact even after scouring with Vim and Sabena powder. Radha felt especially harassed, for her family was extremely demanding. No left-overs of the morning were ever to be re-heated for the evening meal. Even if half a pot of vegetable stew was left over, it had to be given away to Adamma, the help, who came gladly twice a day to clean house. Adamma was only too happy to take away home, the left-overs in her aluminium boxes, for Radha was an excellent cook.
It was time to put the rice on the stove, for the family preferred eating steaming hot rice with pappu-lentils boiled and tempered with mustard seeds, fenugreek, red chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida in clarified butter. They were to have fresh brinjal curry cooked in a tart tamarind sauce seasoned with a special dry mix of spices, predominantly coriander seeds and red chillies, roasted dry and hand- pounded coarsely, vankaaya dhaniyaala kaaram koora. For dessert they were having paravannam, a slow cooked rice pudding that was creamy and sweet, food for the Gods.
It began. Dark shadows were now thrown by the dim light onto the blood drenched curtains. Shadows that moved awkwardly, one more menacing than the other two, slowly advancing, hand raised and two cowering, shrinking and sometimes slipping out of sight, only to reappear rather suddenly, catching Radha unawares.
A huge shadow came crashing down on the frail one and a thin scream pierced the air, jarring Radha out of her paralytic state. Wiping her hands on the pallu of her sari, she rushed down the uneven steps of her block and ran up the steps of the neighbouring block.
She stood outside the door, hesitating. What was it to her? Why interfere? A volley of yells from within the doors decided it for her. She banged on the door with both fists before she lost her nerve. There was a chilling silence. She called out Mahalakshmi garu, talupu tiyyandi-please open the door!
Mahalakshmi’s daughter Malli, opened the door. She looked dazed and tried to smile, but her face was frozen and the effort looked rather grotesque.
Malli, having fondly been named after the famed konda malli, the fragrant jasmine flower looked like anything but a flower. Thin, gaunt, emaciated, only her eyes looked alive, too huge and disproportionate to her wasted frame. How frail she looks, thought Radha.
‘Amma ekkada?’ Where is your mother? she asked stepping into the gloom. In the dim light the curtains waved and she noticed Mahalakshmi apparently sitting on her haunches trying to stand up rather unsteadily.
While Malli was asking Radha to come in, Radha saw a hand shoot out, from within the darkness and hit Mahalakshmi with so much force that she collapsed, despite her feeble efforts to stand up.
As Radha advanced, the shadowy figure melted away into the darkness of the adjoining room and Radha rushed to Mahalakshmi to help her up. She held her frail frame in her arms and asked Malli if they had had anything to eat. Malli shook her head and a fresh outburst of weeping from Mahalakshmi spurred Radha into action.
Radha helped Mahalakshmi up and led her out of the house. Mahalakshmi tried to protest feebly but Radha displayed a strength she never knew she had in her. She took her home and placed two low stools, peetalu, in the kitchen.
One look at the unexpected guests and Vani, Radha’s daughter, fetched two steel plates, set two steel glasses down and filled them with water.
Radha made Mahalakshmi wash her feet, hands and face. She gave her a towel and when Mahalakshmi could not use it because her hands were shaking, she dabbed her face dry.
She served them food silently. Avakaaya, pickle first and then the brinjal curry. A steaming mound of rice and ghee- clarified butter. Pappu and appadaalu, deep fried poppadums .
Malli choked on her first mouthful and hurriedly gulped down some water. Mahalakshmi ate slowly at first, mixing rice and pappu with her fingers, hesitantly put one mouthful after the other, all the while looking around the kitchen with her big, beautiful eyes.
Radha observed her quietly. How thin she seemed. Her skin appeared translucent and her green glass bangles made a gentle sound as she moved her hand. Her kohl had run, forming streaks over her cheeks. her huge bindi on her forehead made her look like a veritable Mahalakshmi, the much worshipped goddess of wealth and prosperity.
After curd had been served, the rice pudding was offered to the two guests and then they sat on the straw mat. The traditional offering to lady guests- vermillion and turmeric powder with a green blouse piece, plantains and a rupee was given in a tray to Mahalakshmi by Radha, an indication that she was a favoured guest and they intended to honour her presence.
Mahalakshmi stood up to go and looked at her home from the kitchen window. The red sari-curtains swayed in the breeze and for a moment they saw a shadow stand by the window and move away just as they looked at it. Mahalakshmi looked haunted again as she hastily bade goodbye. Radha wished she could help her and did her best by giving her a tiffin carrier laden with food to take home with her, for him.
These curtains provided the perfect backdrop to the action that continued later in Mahalakshmi’s house. Radha averted her eyes, blocked the shadow play from her mind and after dinner, as she switched off the lights in the kitchen, she noticed that the action was heightened and the shadows moved faster in a macabre dance.
Tholu bommalata. The shadow puppet play.
The next morning, when Radha opened the door to sprinkle water in front of her building and draw the rangoli pattern, she noticed a few logs of firewood burning outside Mahalakshmi’s house. Surely, it could not be that! Then a crowd gathered and in the middle, he sat, looking as lost as only he could manage to look.
Malli told her the rest. She said the burning stove tipped over from its high platform and fell on Mahalakshmi, dousing her with kerosene and the flames licked at her becoming a roaring blaze.
Malli sobbed, unable to continue. Radha relentlessly asked Mall, ‘How did the stove fall on Mahalakshmi?’ Malli looked up at her then across at him and said nothing.
Radha looked up at the windows and saw that the red sari curtains were burnt beyond recognition. All that was left was soot and charred wood of the window frame.
There was a routine enquiry and it was concluded that it was all an accident. A horrible accident. Only Radha knew the truth. And Malli. But Malli was silent. She chose to be silent.
He was transferred to another place in a month. One cold winter morning, they packed all their belongings into the minivan and climbed on board, without even a backward glance. Malli sat as still as a wooden doll on the rolled up mattress and the van rattled away.
Radha could never look at the window opposite her kitchen anymore. A new family moved in after performing the requisite rituals of ‘Gruha pravesham’ -entering a new home for the first time and boiling milk till it flowed over the stove and the same platform.
Mahalakshmi would have done that too, little knowing what awaited her.
Radha could never forget the frail frame of Mahalakshmi as she had seen her last, on that fateful Friday evening. She sometimes saw Mahalakshmi’s shadow by the konda malli chettu– the jasmine tree, when the jasmine flowers were in full bloom and the air was filled with the heady perfume of jasmine.
Mahalakshmi’s frail shadow would ask- Malli ekkada? –Where is Malli? and her hollow, unseeing eyes would brim with tears as she continued softly, Malli ekkada? Malli ekkada?
Radha had no answer. She muttered a little prayer and waited until the shadow glided away with its familiar refrain, Malli ekkada?