Sharada died on a day when everyone in the village was sleeping late after the ballet performance by a local troupe as a part of the annual temple festivals that lasted till 3 in the morning. Because of this, the landlady of the house where she stayed as a tenant, who incidentally was also her longtime friend, did not concern herself with her absence until late in the afternoon when Sharada still had not showed up for lunch. Consequently, by the time the door to the single room where she lived was wrenched off the hinges, Sharada was dead for over seven good hours.
It was a known fact that Sharada had been ill for a long time, though no one knew the specifics of the illness and besides she was old for as long as anyone could remember. She was penniless except for the unmarried women’s paltry monthly pension of Rs 300 from the government that enabled her to pay a token rent to her friend and hence her death warranted no troublesome suspicions. The doctor who worked in the public health care center was summoned from his siesta, Sharada’s pulse and heartbeat were duly examined and she was declared medically dead.
“Heart attack,” the doctor announced, and no one was about to question the diagnosis.
“Has someone called Raji?” asked one of the mourners who was apparently unrelated to Sharada, but clearly, the best days of her life were when someone at an accessible distance became dearer to God. Sharada was a gentle soul who was certain to occupy one of the balcony seats of heaven, and crying over her death was certainly a noble cause.
“Mmm,” replied Ammukutty – the landlady, on whose portico Sharada’s body now rested, wrapped in fresh white sheets that smelled of cheap detergents, her nostrils stuffed with cotton and the thumbs of the feet tied together.
“Oh, the poor girl must have broken down, after all Sharada was like a mother to her!” exclaimed the mourner.
Ammukutty said nothing in response to the query, she was worried how long the dead body would remain in her house and she was engrossed in her thoughts about Raji.
Those who did not know Sharada well enough might presume that she remained a spinster for life because of her relatively unattractive appearance that included a height slightly above what might ordinarily be termed as midget, skin as dark as palm jaggery and a face with a nose too round, eyes too small and teeth too large, which could have rendered her unworthy as a prospective bride in her ripe years. But women who were darker and shorter have found grooms, so obviously the above speculation was erroneous. Ammukutty, who was Sharada’s friend even before they jointly discovered the mysteries behind menstrual cycles and child birth, could recall at least half a dozen instances when Sharada disregarded the interested advances of men from their village and the neighboring ones, such advances attributable to the facts that Sharada was a gem of a girl, capable, healthy and a member of a family that owned several acres of paddy fields. Above all, it was a known to everyone that she already had a house to her name, a generous act by her father who aimed to strengthen her marital prospects by making her wealthier. `
The reason for Sharada’s reticence and reluctance in getting married was a 3-month old child.
The infant was born to a distant relative of Sharada’s mother, who brought disgrace to the family by getting herself impregnated outside a wedlock, but more importantly, by a man of a lower caste. She was exiled from the city to the distant village where Sharada and her family resided, so that she could live in hiding for a few months, give birth to the bastard child discretely and get rid of it. No one could really elaborate the ‘getting rid’ part of it, and so the woman and the child remained in the house as her family did not call her back and Sharada’s did not sent her away. With a large family and numerous household chores to take care of, an additional pair of hands was always welcome and the woman made herself useful in the kitchen, the cowsheds and at the washing stone the whole day to assert her gratitude to the family that had granted her asylum. This left the wailing infant in the corner of the large dining room of the house, slashing her tiny feet and pudgy arms at an imaginary foe who had stolen her mother away from her.
For Sharada who was then 16 and marriage-ready, the child was a living doll. With her school education terminated over a year ago, primarily due to her own lack of interest and the entire day extended across her without a hobby or other interests, Sharada was lured towards the little form who laid abandoned on an old mattress and adopted the child as her own, and fed, bathed and pampered her, talked to her, sang and put her to sleep, almost like a mother would.
“Sharada is getting trained to be a good mother, a fortunate incident that this child came here now,” remarked her mother and aunts in a joyous manner, observing how adept she had become in taking care of the child.
What they had not anticipated was that the woman who had labored the child would die of ill-health owing to the lack of care given to her during and after the pregnancy, and that the child, who was barely one, would be left an orphan, not knowing who her father is, and completely unwanted by her mother’s family. Consequently, she continued living in the house, with Sharada refusing to let go of the child she had named as Raji.
“Raji would reach tomorrow. Bombay is far, you see. And the tickets are difficult to procure at such a short notice,” explained Ammukutty to the mourner.
“Of course, and with her husband working in such a large company in such a high post, getting leave must also be difficult,” agreed the mourner.
Ammukutty recalled Raji’s wedding.
It was quite an affair, as Raji was the only post graduate from the village and her groom was a senior manager in a famed business firm in Bombay.
Finding a boy for Raji was not easy. In spite of her impeccable beauty, pleasant countenance and educational qualifications, she was still a bastard and an orphan, and Sharada prayed to every God she could think of to see her married; she burned lemon lamps in the temple of Goddess every Friday for over a year, made garlands of Tulsi and geraniums on Saturdays for Lord Ayyappa and simultaneously consulted every astrologer and marriage broker on the land. Finally, it was an astrologer who helped her find a suitable alliance for Raji. The groom, slightly older, slightly darker and slightly divergent was still a member of a reputed family, and earned a handsome salary. His parents regularly consulted the astrologer on all matters and were increasingly getting worried about their son. Would Sharada be interested?
Sharada certainly was. The next week, the horoscopes were cross matched and found to be passable fits. The boy’s family visited the girl, followed by the boy (or more appropriately the man) himself, the engagement which was a subdued affair happened a week later and finally a pompous wedding was planned. Sharada sold off the 3 acres of land she had got as a family share from her enraged, yet benevolent father who could not let his daughter live an impoverished life and with the money, bought Raji more than 100 thulas of gold. She invited everyone she knew and many others she didn’t, to attend the wedding. Raji looked resplendent in the deep purple saree that Sharada has specially commissioned from Kancheepuram for a handsome amount, and because the worth of a groom was measured solely based on his monthly salary, the couple were oohed and aahed at, and the general consensus was that Raji was a lucky girl.
Ammukutty disregarded the hateful glances that her husband threw at her for laying the body of an unrelated human on their floor and switched her attention back to the mourner who was still engrossed in a conversation with her, enumerating the several virtues of Raji’s husband.
After Raji left to Bombay with her husband, Sharada spent her long and vacant days roaming around the village, entering the houses at random or stopping people on the roads and speaking about Raji, her husband and her apartment in Bombay where only rich people lived, until the listeners ignored her and walked away or concocted some reason to end the conversation. Ammukutty herself found Sharada chasing her even to the toilet door on several instances, continuing to speak even when the tap was turned on and her relentless extolling of the qualities of her son-in-law drowned in the flow of water.
“Why don’t you go and join them there Sharada?” many asked her.
“How do you think I can leave this village and the temple and go to the city? Raji has been asking me almost every day to go and be with her, but I tell the girl that I cannot,” Sharada gave a practiced reply every time.
Ammukutty knew, that Sharada longed to be with Raji; that she was waiting for a single call from her and that the call never came.
Three months after her wedding, Raji returned to the village in glory and pride. She was already pregnant and made no secret of the fact. The woman and the foster daughter did not miss a single function in the village where more than three people assembled, Raji floundering one of the many silk sarees from her large trunk, Sharada basking in the glory of the girl she had perfectly brought up and married off.
Towards the final months of her pregnancy, Sharada scoured the village for wireweed plants early in the morning, which she crushed on the grinding stone every day and extracted its juice for Raji to drink so that her delivery would be smooth. Instead of the government owned hospital, the facilities of which the rest of the villagers availed for every simple and serious ailments,
Raji was admitted to a privately owned, expensive hospital in the town, where she gave birth to a boy.
A week before her scheduled date of departure with the baby, Raji informed Sharada of her decision to take the older woman with her to Bombay.
“But what could be more important to her than attending this funeral?” the mourner was livid.
“It seems her husband cannot relieve himself from the office even for a day, something critical is going on in the business. Besides her son has his exams going on,” explained Ammukutty, though she did not sound convincing enough, even to her own ears.
“The boy is in class 2 or 3, it is not as if he is preparing for the IAS examination!” retorted the mourner.
Ammukutty was now desperate. She was in the unenviable position of being a mediator here, elaborating the conversation that she had with Raji a while ago, when she informed that she would not be arriving home for the funeral of the woman who brought her up, so they could burn her body whenever they wanted to.
There were responses, varying responses from the few people who had assembled in the house.
“Perhaps it is the husband who refused, what is this old woman to him after all.”
“Can’t really blame her now, can we? It is not her real mother who died anyways!”
“And to think that poor Sharada even sold her house to be with this thankless creature”
It was the last comment that made Ammukutty sit up with a start. Only if the stupid old woman had not sold off her house to join her daughter in Bombay! At least she, Ammukutty, would have been spared the pain of having to spread the white cloth, light the incense sticks and bathe the dead in her house.
Every one asked Sharada why she had to sell her house, which was her sole asset, to live with Raji in the city.
“You could just close it and leave it or even give it out for rent. It could be a source of income for you.”
“But why would I need any income when I am with my Raji? I will spend the rest of my life taking care of little Unni and helping Raji run the house. What more can I ask for?”
Ammukutty had sensed it then that the real pressure for liquidating the house came from Raji herself. The couple were planning to buy a new apartment in the city and the money was useful. That they had to accommodate Sharada with them might have appeared a minor problem then.
But not later, apparently, as Sharada came back to the village and knocked on Ammukutty’s door one fine day, and little Unni was certainly not even one.
If her only friend has closed the door on her, Sharada might have sought asylum in some temple or lived in the streets, and that was why Ammukutty opened the single room upstairs and allowed her friend live with her for as long as she wanted. That was why Ammukutty patiently listened to Sharada’s endless rantings on how her daughter had changed after they reached Bombay, how she had to sleep in the kitchen, how Raji’s husband pushed her down once and how she got the burn on her right wrist.
But the permission Ammukutty gave her was to live in her house, not die.
Sharada’s pyre was prepared from the cheapest kind of wood that they could find in the large compound, of course, even that was charity and one do not measure the generousness of charity.
Four able bodied young men were identified to lift the body to the pyre.
The mourners finally began their chore, hitting their chests and crying out rehearsed lines in unison.
Amidst all the noise, Sharada’s dead body opened its eyes and sat on the floor, its hands leveraged on either sides for support. The cloth on its torso fell down in a heap on the lap, revealing the bosom covered in a fading, red jumper on which three hooks had snapped open.
All the noise subsided in an instant, as everyone watched the pallid faced corpse scanning the crowd around it, not missing anyone or anything.
“Hasn’t Raji arrived yet?” it asked, the question almost a whisper.
No one said anything, but the silence was answer enough.
Sharada’s dead body ran its hands through its matted hair and laid back on the floor. It pulled the cloth over itself, arranged its stiff hands on the sides, closed its eyes, and dreamed of a little girl with long pigtails and tinkling anklets on her feet, who was once a daughter to a dead woman named Sharada.
Vidya Panicker, based in Kerala, has her stories published in several journals and magazines, including Himal South Asian, munyori literary journal, Animal literary journal, Muse India, efiction India, The fem literary magazine and others. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree in management from the Indian institute of management.