Story 11: Malli

They had burned Malli’s body on a pile of firewood two days ago, on Godavari’s bank. Yenki had stood a few meters away and stared at the orange flames. She had smelled the camphor that burned along with Malli, had touched the ashes after Ranga had gathered them. She had gone with Ranga to the riverbed, and had held his arm while he let the garlanded earthen pot float away with the current. They had stood together, him sobbing, her relieved, as it became smaller and smaller, bobbing this way and that in response to the water, until it disappeared out of sight with the bend in the river.

When they got back to the pyre, Ranga fell to his knees next to the charred wood and sobbed some more.

Yenki had seen all of that. Malli was dead.

So the woman sitting right now next to the stove could not be her. ‘You should not be here,’ she told her. ‘You died three days back.’

Malli wrapped herself tighter in her red sari, in spite of the summer heat. The sun had gone down, and the grey darkness of the night had begun to gather. But Malli looked as if she had swallowed the moon. Her skin glowed with a ripe yellow light, and she clasped her left hand forcefully in her right, like she used to when she was alive.

When she opened her mouth to smile, Yenki saw the chip on her left incisor.

‘Crazy,’ she muttered to herself. ‘This crazy lady is not leaving me even in her death.’ Her hand fumbled with the matchbox. ‘Can you not leave us at least now in peace?’ she asked.

Malli did not reply. She did not appear to have heard.

Yenki lit the lamp, covered it with the screen, and turned up the knob until the flame spat out thick black wisps of smoke into the air. Yenki coughed, but felt better now; she went to the other end of the room and sat on the floor, with her back to the warm mud wall of the hut. She kept her eyes on her visitor.

‘You saw how Ranga cried at the river,’ she said. ‘Satti has not eaten a morsel of food all these three days. They both love you.’ Her leg tapped the ground, and she rubbed her hands on her sides. They felt wet, for some reason.

Malli raised her head and looked away into the distance, in the direction of the big well.

‘They love you,’ said Yenki. ‘More than they will ever love me. Is that not enough? Do you still have to come between me and them? Do I still have to fight with you for the love of my son?’

When Malli did not reply, Yenki said, ‘Answer me!’

The front door of the house opened and closed. Yenki heard Ranga leave his slippers by the door. She got up, picked up the lantern, and left the kitchen. On her way out, she saw Malli follow her with her kind eyes.

Ranga gave Yenki his umbrella and lunch box. ‘Where is Satti?’ he asked, taking off his turban and hanging it on the nail.

‘He’s out by the well. I told him to come back by dinnertime.’

Ranga nodded and sank into the easy chair. In the light of the lantern Yenki saw those deep, moist eyes rest on Malli’s sewing machine in the corner. She would have to get rid of it. Otherwise Malli’s ghost would never leave them.

He looked up and said, ‘Whom were you talking to?’

* * *

Satti spat out the milk. ‘This is horrible.’

‘You will have it whether it is horrible or not,’ said Yenki, hurrying to give Ranga his cup of coffee. Out on the street, Sanga and Lachi laughed about something on their way to the lake. Everyone in the village had been talking about these two; Yenki felt a pang of envy. Sanga had that granite-like, chiselled body and starry eyes that quickened the breath of every woman in Palem. If only she had been a few years younger…

‘I need some more sugar in this,’ said Ranga, and off Yenki went into the kitchen to get the sugar tin. On her way back she saw that Satti had pushed away the glass of milk and was busy tying his shoelaces.

‘Satti,’ she said, ‘drink the milk.’

‘Peddamma used to call me Satish.’

Satish. Yes. A nice city name. When he had been born, Ranga had said that they would choose a big name for their body, a name that would suit a doctor or an engineer. Many of the village kids went to town and changed their names. They were ashamed of what their parents called them. He had not wanted that for his son.

‘Satish,’ said Yenki, with effort. ‘Drink the milk or I will come to school and tell your teacher.’

The boy made a face. ‘Tell me a story.’

‘A story? Now?’ He wanted stories for everything. Before going to sleep, after waking up, while eating, while playing, while wearing his shoes… Malli had spoiled him rotten. ‘I don’t know any stories. And we don’t have time for stories. Just finish your milk, wear your shoes and leave. The bell will go off any minute. Do you want to be punished again for being late?’

Ranga set his glass on the table with a clang and got up. ‘Drink your milk, Satish,’ he said gently, rumpling the boy’s hair. ‘I will get you a five star on my way back.’

‘I want Peddamma,’ said Satish, folding his arms. ‘I don’t like the milk, it tastes like poison.’

Anger welled up inside Yenki. ‘Poison?’ she said. ‘One day I will have poison myself and leave you all alone. Then you will know, both of you.’

‘Go!’ said Satish. ‘I don’t need you.’

‘You ungrateful –’

‘Shh,’ said Ranga. He stilled her with a hand, and bent down to pick up the glass to Satish’s mouth. ‘If you finish this off by the time I count up to five, I will get you a five star right now, on the way to school.’

‘Will you drop me off, Nanna?’

‘Yes, I will.’ Another smile at the boy, though Yenki saw fury in his eyes when he looked up at her. He counted to five slowly enough to allow the boy to finish his milk, and then he picked up Satti’s bag and said, ‘Come, we’re getting late.’

At the door Yenki asked if he would like her to make fish curry for the night.

‘Hmm,’ he said. Mounting Satti on the bicycle bar, he pedalled off, not once looking back to wave at her.

Yenki stood at the door until the bicycle disappeared around the corner. Then she went in, to find Malli regally seated in the armchair that Ranga had sat in a few minutes back.

* * *

Yenki walked to the corner and stood there, watching. Malli sat leaning back, with her hands wrapped around the armrests, one leg crossed over the other. She was wearing the same red sari as last night, but this time it seemed that her eyes had been lined with kohl.

‘Satish likes his milk warm,’ said Malli, in her gentle voice. She watched the wall opposite her. ‘Ranga likes two spoons of sugar in his tea.’

‘I know that now.’

‘I would have told you if you had ever asked me.’

In the corner, the foot pedal on the sewing machine bent on its own. The wheel began to turn.

‘Go away,’ Yenki said. ‘Why are you still here?’

‘I want you to take care of my husband and son.’

‘He is my husband too. And he is not your son. He is mine.’

Malli turned to look at Yenki, and smiled. ‘You gave birth to him, yes, but you never even gave him milk, Yenki.’

Yenki felt herself perspire under the armpits. The morning was getting hotter. ‘You never let me. You always had him tied to your little finger.’

‘You had Ranga tied to yours, so maybe it was all fair.’

The foot pedal kept moving, and the wheel turned faster. ‘Stop that,’ said Yenki.

‘Stop what?’

‘That.’ Yenki pointed at the machine, but now the wheel was quiet and the pedal unmoving. ‘What is happening to me?’

‘I saw the way you looked at Sanga this morning,’ said Malli. ‘A nice, handsome man, isn’t he? Too bad Lachi is going to have all of him.’

‘I do not know what you’re saying.’

Malli clasped her hands together, and the gold bangles on her wrist clinked. ‘You are quite good at bending men to your wiles. Ranga is now like a dog in your hands, isn’t he, doing whatever you say?’

Death has made her bitter, thought Yenki vaguely. Malli had never spoken to anyone with anything approaching harshness in all her life. Where did that angelic smile go? What had happened to the meek, submissive old woman?

‘Come tomorrow,’ said Yenki. Somebody had told her long back that if you said that to ghosts, they would leave. She hoped that she struck the required balance of docility and firmness. ‘Come tomorrow and I will give you all that you ask for.’

Malli carried on, as if Yenki had not spoken. ‘I saw Lachi and Sanga meet at Ellamma cheruvu last night. They went for a swim together in the moonlight. Muddy water, but when you’re young and in love, why would you care. Right?’

‘Go away,’ said Yenki. ‘I am not talking to you.’ She went into the kitchen, bolting the door behind her. She hurried to the back door and closed it as well. But on turning around, she saw Malli seated next to the stove.

‘You took my Ranga away from me, didn’t you, Yenki?’

Yenki said, ‘It was you who asked him to marry me. It was you who wanted a child.’

‘And you gave me a child. But you took my husband away from me. Did he have eyes for anyone but you after that first night? What spell have you cast on him, Yenki, hmm? What is it that you did to him that I could not do in all those years?’

Yenki saw a well. Green, fungus-filled water. Malli’s hand rising above the surface, even as the rest of her body was immersed. Once every two seconds or so she would emerge from within, fix her with her bloodshot eyes, and mouth something like ‘help’ before the water would claim her again. And once again her hand would be sticking out, fingers outstretched.

As life left her, little by little, the fingers began to claw at the air, and her limbs flapped harder. Her arms and legs flailed and writhed, and each time she came up for breath, she only succeeded in drawing more water into her lungs. Yenki had stood on the edge of the well, watching, until Malli’s hand disappeared.

‘You could have thrown me the rope,’ said Malli. This was the old Malli. Her eyes burned with kindness.

‘I – I was in shock,’ said Yenki. ‘I could not think.’

Malli laughed with her head thrown back, and two chrysanthemums from her hair fell to the ground. It was a loud, open laugh, much like how Yenki herself laughed. Malli used to cover her mouth with her hand when she had to laugh at something. Her ghost clearly did not bother with such niceties.

‘Why are you laughing?’ asked Yenki.

Malli did not respond, nor did she stop. Her laughter screeched against the mud walls, filled the air, and crawled under Yenki’s skin. She slapped her hands against her ears to shut out the sound, but found that it only became louder.

‘Why are you laughing?’ she called out amid the din. ‘Go away! Leave us alone in peace.’

Malli kept laughing. Yenki backed away into the corner, and crumpled to the floor. The smell of rats hit her nose, and she found it comforting, though in her mind’s eye she kept seeing – again and again – Malli’s outstretched fingers clawing at the air, and her bloodshot eyes pleading for help. She curled up into a ball and said, ‘Come tomorrow, come tomorrow, come tomorrow…’

* * *

‘This fish curry is horrible.’

‘You must not say things like that, Satish.’

Yenki stirred the soup with a ladle, saying ‘come tomorrow’ to herself.

‘This tastes nothing like what Peddamma used to make.’

‘Peddamma is not coming back, Satish.’

Yenki stirred, and looked up at the sewing machine.

‘I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.’

‘Now, if you don’t eat your dinner quietly, I won’t give you your five star.’

Yenki looked at the empty armchair. Come tomorrow.

‘I want Peddamma, that’s it.’

‘Peddamma is not coming back. I told you that already.’

Something snapped within Yenki. She had felt all day like someone had been winding her up, like a toy, and now they had let her go. She felt energy course through her arms. Her fingers twitched. She looked at her son, who was still saying something about Peddamma to her father, and she threw out a hand to grab him by the wrist and drag him into the kitchen.

‘Yenki!’ said Ranga, but before he could react, she had shut the door in his face.

‘You want your Peddamma?’ she said, and slapped Satish on his face hard enough to leave four red marks. He fell to the ground and hid his face in the crook of his elbow, but she picked him up against the wall and slapped him again, this time on the left cheek, with enough venom to draw blood from the corner of the boy’s mouth.

‘You want your Peddamma?’ she said. ‘Go on, cry for her. Let’s see if she comes.’ She turned him over and struck him on the back. ‘Go on, cry!’ She tore open his shirt so that she could beat him on the sides of the arms, on the back of his neck, on his sides. Everywhere she saw skin, she pounced.

‘Amma!’ Satish was saying. ‘No, Amma. I don’t want Peddamma. Just stop hitting me, Amma.’

‘No! You said my food was horrible, right? Now call out for her. Maybe she will come and cook some nice food for you.’ When her palms burned, she reached for a soup ladle and found the heaviest one. Pinning Satish down to the floor with one hand, she began to whack him, on his calves, buttocks, and lower back. Once or twice he turned just as the blow was about to land, and she caught him plush on the bone, making him wince in pain.

And in her mind the same words kept hitting her. Come tomorrow. Come tomorrow. Come tomorrow.

And her own voice: he’s my son. You cannot take him away from me.

She thought that as she left red marks of blood and burning over his small body. She thought that amid his howls of pain and pleading. She thought that as the boy squirmed and begged for mercy. She thought that as she opened the door and flung the ladle with a cry of rage at the sewing machine.

When she saw Ranga’s blank face, she said, ‘He’s my son.’

* * *

Malli laughed in her ears again that night.

Ranga had locked himself up with Satish in the front room and had given her the middle room to sleep in. Her fingertips tingled, as though they had been immersed in boiling hot water. She ached to use the ladle some more, and make sure that the boy does not utter the word ‘peddamma’ one more time. Nothing was going to stop her from claiming her son as her own. Not some dead ghost, not some live man.

‘You’re not going to ask me why I’m laughing?’

Yenki shook her head in the darkness. She did not look around for Malli. She knew she would find her somewhere, anywhere – in the armchair, by the sewing machine, by her side, with her fingers entwined in hers.

Wet fingers. Fleshy, limp fingers.

She pushed away the slithering hands of the dead woman, but her fists met only air.

The sound of the foot pedal came to her ears, slow to begin with, but picking up pace with each second, like a speeding up train. The wheel whirred and buzzed, but she knew that if she were to turn her face to look, the machine would just be sitting there, dead and quiet. The tingling on her fingertips did not cease, and did not go away when she rubbed her hands to her sides.

Something cold and slimy gripped her feet, between the toes. She kicked, but the fingers held on. They kept touching her.

‘Do you know who I am?’ said Malli.

‘The ghost of the dead woman who took my son away from me.’

‘Am I really here? Or is your mind playing tricks on you, Yenki?’

Yenki did not know. She had not asked herself that question, because the answer did not matter. She told the armchair that. Then she turned and repeated it to the sewing machine. The slime slid up her calves, fingered her inner thighs.

‘You shall not have my son,’ said Malli. ‘Yes, he is my son. And you shall not have my husband either, from now on. You did not think when you pushed me into the well that I shall return. But I have.’

‘I – I did not push you into the well.’

Again that laugh, that loud, demonic laugh. ‘You cannot lie to the dead, Yenki.’

Yenki closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. As the dead fingers ravished her body, she said out loud, just under her breath, ‘Come tomorrow, come tomorrow, come tomorrow…’ And her mind kept saying, ‘You cannot lie to the dead. You cannot lie to the dead.’

And the wheel of the sewing machine kept turning.

* * *

She woke up to bright sunshine. The first thing she saw was the gleam of the knife in Ranga’s hand. And she sat bolt upright.

Ranga was sitting in the armchair, facing her, leaning forward. He looked at the knife as he spoke. His face, like it had been the night before, carried no expression. His eyes were kind. ‘I sent Satish to school.’


‘You pushed her into the well, didn’t you?’

Those slithery fingers, dripping with pus, slid down her back. Her lips parted. Her tongue went dry.

‘I heard you this morning,’ he said. ‘You were speaking in your sleep.’

Malli’s words came back to her. Am I really here, or is your mind playing tricks on you?

‘She looked after you like a sister. She cared for you. You never loved our son, but she did. And when he loved her in return, you burned, didn’t you? You burned like a match, even though you had me.’

‘He’s my son.’

‘I was such a fool. Such a fool.’

Yenki saw his grip on the handle of the knife tighten, and she moved back on the mat by instinct.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I will not kill you. You’re the mother of my son. And I will not tell the police either, because I have no evidence except the look in your eyes right now, and I know that it will change by the time they come asking questions.’

Yenki said, ‘Ranga, you don’t understand. There is a ghost in this house –’

‘Not a ghost, Yenki. A demon. A demon we brought home. A demon that has destroyed everything in our lives.’

‘I will not leave my son here at the mercy of this ghost –’

‘Your son?’ Ranga pointed the knife at her. ‘He is not your son. He never was your son. I saw yesterday how you beat him. No mother can beat her son like that.’

‘But you don’t understand, he had to be taught a lesson –’

‘Enough. Just stop talking.’

For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Yenki sat cross-legged on the mat, watching the knife. Ranga gazed at the sewing machine. Sanga and Lachi laughed out on the street, on their way to the lake.

‘I have called for the cart,’ said Ranga at last. ‘It will take you to your mother’s house. Just never return to this village again.’

Yenki bent her head. From the corner of her vision she saw that the knife in Ranga’s hand went limp. At that moment, she leaped at her husband and closed her fingers around his throat, just under the adam’s apple.

His eyes became hard as black marbles. A muffled moan escaped his mouth as he struggled to draw breath, and Yenki wrestled him to the ground and mounted his chest so that she could pin his neck down against the mud floor.

‘He’s my son.’ Her eyes bored into his. ‘Do you understand? My son!’

Ranga’s grip on the knife loosed. Colour left his face. His eyes bulged, and his breathing became a hoarse sound. His tongue came out and flapped against his lips like a dying fish. His fingers dug into the earth. ‘Yes, my son. Nobody takes my son away from me.’

It was then that she looked, because she felt a warm touch on her forehead. A gust of wind blew in from the open window. Dust flew into her eyes, but she kept her hands fastened on Ranga’s throat. The sewing machine swayed to the breeze like it was made of cardboard, and it fell on Yenki. She freed her hands to protect herself from the falling weight, and in that one moment, Ranga pushed her off him and scrambled to the side. When he got to his knees, he had the knife in his hands.

Yenki pushed the machine away and turned to her husband. ‘No,’ she said.

But Ranga walked up to her, clutched her hair, pulled her head back to expose the neck, and in one swipe, sent her rolling to the ground.

As she fell, she suddenly knew what it was like to be short of breath. Her hand went up to him, and she clawed the air, but he just stood there and watched her die. His eyes – his eyes still seemed gentle, as though somewhere deep within them, he loved her still.

Yenki felt the darkness arise, from deep within her, and as the pain eased and her eyelids grew heavy, she turned to look at the armchair one last time.

Seated on it, in a red sari with her legs crossed, was Malli.

Tomorrow has come, thought Yenki, before she fell asleep.