There is something wrong with Amma.
With one hand, Sanjay waved a green plastic hand-fan over Swati. With the other, he tried to smooth the cotton sheets on which she lay. Amma had placed her on top of the old asbestos trunk, so that the ceiling fan’s air would reach her more easily.
But it was now past seven in the morning. The fan had already stopped moving. It would not move till it was dark again.
Swati was hungry. Sanjay could see it in the frantic way in which her little puffed arms reached for his fan at the beginning of each swish. The anklets that Amma had tied to her legs jingled with every kick. Drops of sweat started on her forehead and dripped down to the corners of her eyes, in spite of his waving. The black spot in the middle of her forehead, so crisp and sharp the night before, now had become smudged.
The milk is sour.
Voices in the kitchen, over the crackle of burning coal. Sanjay wiped Swati’s brow with his dirty fingers, stained her forehead a bit more, and listened. He smelled omelettes in the air. But no butter. Amma never made omelettes without butter.
‘Has the girl’s body cooled down?’ their father was asking. ‘Or shall I take her to Upender Rao tonight?’
‘She became better during the night,’ said Amma. ‘I put a piece of garlic under her armpit. That seemed to have helped.’
‘Is the boy up?’
‘Yes. He is watching her.’
The stained white cloth that covered the doorway parted a little. Sanjay looked up at his father, and they smiled at each other. The smell of frying eggs became stronger.
‘What are you doing, Sanjay?’ asked Nanna. ‘Are you making sure your little sister gets enough air?’
‘Good boy. I will get you a packet of Gems on my way back, okay?’
‘And then we can milk Gowri together.’
‘Can we, Nanna? Tonight?’
‘Yes, tonight, after I get back home. You will be a good boy until then, won’t you?’
‘Help Amma out with whatever she needs.’
‘And take care of Swati. It gets hot in the afternoons.’
The curtain closed. Sanjay heard his father’s steps recede towards the front of the house. The clank of the bicycle’s stand as it dismounted. The tring-tring of the bell as he rode away to the post office.
Now Sanjay realized he was hungry too. A rumble began in his stomach. He rubbed it with his free hand, smearing his shirt with Swati’s kohl. Amma would scold him for that.
Swati chortled and pointed at the rattle, on a stool in the corner. Sanjay felt like getting it for her, but he knew that she would chew on it, and then Amma would scold him for that too. So he said, ‘Wait for a few minutes. Amma will come and feed you.’
The crackling of the coal stopped. Sanjay heard the sound of pans and pots. Amma was putting the omelettes onto a plate. But they did not have butter. They did not make his mouth water. Amma used to seat him on her lap and tell him stories while feeding him. Every now and then she would run her finger on a spot of mango pickle and apply it to his tongue, laughing when he shut his eyes and shuddered at the sour taste.
But this Amma was different. This one forgot to put butter on omelettes. This one no longer fed him, no longer played with him.
He looked at Swati, and Swati gazed back, wide-eyed.
The milk is sour. As sour as the mango pickle.
* * *
Radha held the plate of omelettes in one hand, the glass of milk in another, and stopped outside the door. Her toes curled inward and dug into the earth. Last night’s rain had made the morning sultry, but even she knew that it was not the heat that was causing her armpits to sweat. Her throat had gone dry. It now began to itch near the base; a deep itch that she knew could not scratch.
This was ridiculous, she thought, steeling herself. Why should I be scared of him?
And yet, she could tell that Sanjay had changed. Rama Shastri had consoled her at the Shivalayam, and said that boys weaned themselves off their mothers at around the age of five and became closer to their fathers. Upender Rao had said that his brooding and anger – was it anger? – was understandable because it had only been a few months since the arrival of a new sibling.
‘He will adjust,’ he had said. ‘Just make sure you don’t treat him any differently.’
Radha had tried. But Swati needed care too. She woke up in the middle of the night. She had to be fed.
The boy had been a dear with caring for his sister, and it was impossible to tell from the way he smoothed her hair that he carried resentment towards her. In fact, he did not resent Swati at all. All his anger seemed to be directed towards her, his mother.
That was just what Radha saw but did not admit to anyone. Not to Upender Rao. Not to Avadhanayya. Not to Gopalam. Once or twice, on returning from the kitchen after feeding Swati, she had chanced to look at Sanjay’s eyes, and they would be burning with hate. Earlier, before Swati came, he would pester her for a story every night, and before she would narrate but two sentences he would fall asleep, clutching her thumb in his hand. Now, he slept to the other side of Gopalam.
She sighed and closed her eyes.
All the women at the temple would laugh if they could see her now. Even that crazy girl Mallamma had managed to raise two children with no trouble at all. And here was Radha, dreading going into the same room as her son and to look him in the eye. What made it harder was that he neither had Gopalam’s eyes nor hers. They were a light shade of grey, with black irises, like a cat’s.
Radha had never been fond of cats. Now she had begun to fear them as well.
She parted the curtain and went in. Sanjay did not look back over his shoulder. He sat by the trunk, leaning in so close to Swati’s face that for a moment, Radha wondered whether the boy had been kissing her. He kept the hand-fan waving. Swati said ‘Ga! Ga!’ and kicked the air twice, sending tinkles into the air.
Radha walked around to the other side of the trunk and sat down. She had to make an effort to look into Sanjay’s eyes. ‘Omelette,’ she said.
‘Does it have butter on it?’
‘No. Doctor Uncle said you should not have butter. Remember?’
He did not say anything. Just gave her that look again, and dragged the plate closer to himself. Tore off a piece and put it in his mouth. As he chewed, he stared at the stool, at Swati’s rattle.
‘Swati must be hungry,’ said Radha.
‘Yes, she is.’
‘I’m going to take her to the other room, okay?’
He did not answer, did not look at her. He just tore off another piece of the omelette, folded it with both hands, and placed it into his mouth.
Radha stood up and left the room as quietly as she could. She wished that Gopalam hadn’t gone to work that day.
* * *
This is not our Amma.
Sanjay listened to the oil bubbling on the coal stove in the kitchen. Swati lay on the trunk on her back, with her legs up in the air. Her eyelids were beginning to droop. She clasped her hands together near her chest, and just as her thumbs slid up toward her mouth, Sanjay pulled them away.
She protested, but just for a moment. His hand began to ache from all the waving, and he was covered in a layer of sweat. He had taken a cold water bath right after Amma took Swati away for feeding in the morning, and he had felt clean and fresh after that, but in no more than ten minutes he had found himself drenched again.
Now he tried to make each wave of the fan wide enough for both of them. He tried to forget the twinge in his wrist by remembering a story.
A story Amma used to tell him.
A story of a demon that came to a village disguised as a mother, gave poisoned milk to all the little children, and killed them. When she tried to suckle Lord Krishna, he squeezed her nipples so hard that she writhed in pain and died.
Sanjay wondered if the children had known something had been wrong when they tasted the milk. Did they feel, in their own small, undeveloped minds, that the milk tasted different that day? Or did they die in peace, with their hungers sated, in their sleep?
The milk is sour.
The woman sitting in the kitchen behind them was a demon too. She had come disguised as Amma, but she had none of Amma’s beauty, her kindness, her love. Her breasts carried sour milk. Her omelettes were salty, had no butter in them. She did not tell him stories that Amma used to. She did not look at him in the eye. Every time he heard her step, it sent cold slivers of fear up his back.
Not just for his safety. He was old enough to see through the demon’s ruse. But Swati – she was just a baby. Thrust a nipple into her mouth and she would suck it without asking whose it was. She would not know if the milk was poisoned.
And Amma had to be saved too. Wherever she was, Sanjay would search for her. Perhaps the demon had imprisoned her in the barn. Suddenly it occurred to him that he could already be too late. Amma could be dead.
The hand-fan slipped from his hand at the thought. His mouth went dry.
If that were true, he would not spare this woman. He would tell everything to Nanna; he would understand. But before that, he had to somehow prevent her from giving Swati milk again this evening.
Yes. Stop her.
‘Come, we will eat.’
* * *
They ate in silence for the most part. Radha noticed that Sanjay did not look up from his plate even once, not even when she told him that she had fried potatoes into golden-brown discs, just the way he liked them. She also made dal for him, cooked with spinach, tomatoes and cumin seeds.
He was just five, but he sat with his left hand anchored on his thigh as he ate, just like his father. His tiny fingers struggled to collect all the rice grains on his plate to one side, but how well he tried!
Radha felt like scooping him up and showering him with kisses.
But those eyes stopped her.
She served him a scoop of curd, and a spoonful of ground peanut powder. ‘Did you like the potatoes, Sanjay?’ she said. Her voice came out cold and formal, as though she was speaking to a guest who had come to her house for the first time.
‘You’re going to have fun today with Nanna when he comes back, aren’t you? You have always wanted to milk Gowri.’
Another nod. He had still not looked up.
Radha felt her eyes brimming up. It could not go on like this, surely. She was going to talk to Gopalam tonight. Something had to be done about the boy, before things got out of hand.
She did not ask herself what she meant by ‘out of hand’. She just had a vague feeling that she did not want to find out. This had to be nipped right here, right now. Gopalam would not listen, of course; he would say that it is normal. But Sanjay was normal with Gopalam. It was like he had this personal battle to fight against her.
And Swati. No matter what happened, she could not let anything happen to her. Upender Rao said that it was all about sibling rivalry. What if, god forbid, Sanjay got so angry at Swati that he –
Well. She couldn’t allow that.
* * *
The demon was washing the dishes. Everything about the food was wrong. The potato chips were too soggy. The daldid not have enough salt in it. The peanut powder had no spice. The curd left a sour aftertaste. He had gulped down three full glasses of water to get rid of it.
Don’t worry, Swati, he thought, as the swishes of the hand-fan became more determined. I will save you with all my life. I will save Amma too. I will not let this demon poison our family. I will squeeze her breasts until she dies.
Use the knife.
Up went Swati’s arms as she clapped. Down came her feet against the top of the trunk. She gurgled and laughed, reached for the waving fan, even as Sanjay pulled it away from her. She had black eyes, unlike Sanjay’s, but he thought that they were deeper than his, and they carried secrets that she could not yet speak. He had seen himself in the mirror many times, but he had not seen the same knowing look in his eyes.
She would grow up to be as beautiful as Amma, he thought.
Yes, I will save you.
He got up and tiptoed to the kitchen. The sound of running water in the backyard. The demon was still washing dishes. Sanjay looked up at the knives hanging off the nails on the wall opposite. There were six in all, with white blades and little holes drilled through the black handles so that they could be mounted. Amma had bought them at the village fair a few months back, and Nanna had chafed that evening at how much they cost.
The biggest one. Yes. A big knife for a big demon.
Sanjay dragged a stool from the corner of the room and set it against the wall. He climbed on it, and without making a sound, slid the knife out, away from the nail. It was heavier than he’d thought it would be, and he needed to use both hands to hold it steadily. He tested the smoothness of the blade with his thumb, and then the sharpness too. A faint smell of onion clung to the knife, perhaps from this morning’s cooking.
The water stopped running outside.
Sanjay jumped off the stool, stumbled onto the floor, but picked himself up and ran back into Swati’s room. There he sat by the trunk, waiting for the demon to arrive.
* * *
The first thing Radha noticed on stepping into the kitchen, her garment and hands dripping with water, was the stool set against the wall. Then she looked up and saw that the biggest knife, the cleaver, was missing.
Oh, no, she thought.
She ran to the door and brushed the curtain aside. What she saw in the room chilled her.
Sanjay sat next to the trunk, facing her. In both his hands he held the cleaver, the blade hanging over Swati’s stomach, pointing towards Radha. His eyes were trained on her, and burned with the same white hatred that she had seen before.
‘Sanjay?’ she said. Her voice came out garbled, like that of a child.
‘You will not feed her,’ he said.
Radha took a step closer to them. She was still too far away to lunge at her son and wrench the knife out of his hands. Keep him talking, she thought. Upender Rao had said that envy was the biggest symptom of sibling rivalry. Sanjay must have seen her feeding Swati, and he must have felt jealous that she no longer fed him the same way.
‘I will feed you too,’ she said. ‘I will give you both the same amount of milk.’
‘Do you not understand? You will not feed her. I will not let you.’
His face went through a series of expressions; first a grimace, then a malicious smile, then back to cold stone. Radha took another step toward the trunk. ‘Sanjay, she is your sister. You have to take care of her.’
‘I am taking care of her.’ Did she see a flash of confusion in his eyes? ‘I am not going to let you get your hands on her.’
Radha was now four feet away from them. Swati, oblivious to it all, was sucking on her thumbs and pointing at the knife blade. ‘Okay,’ said Radha, ‘I will not touch her. Just take your knife and step away from her. Just a little bit, you see, so that you don’t hurt her?’
Sanjay took a moment to look at Swati, and then he stepped back.
At that moment, Radha pounced on Sanjay and sent him crashing back against the wall.
* * *
I am sorry, Swati. I could not save you from the demon. Oh, no, what will happen now?
When he woke up, Sanjay found himself tied to the very stool that he had used that afternoon to get at the knife. Night had fallen. Out in Swati’s room he heard his father’s voice.
‘Nanna!’ he called. ‘Nanna!’
There was silence for a moment. Then his father appeared at the door and switched on the light. ‘Yes, Sanjay?’
‘Nanna, I have to tell you something.’
Nanna closed the door and came to sit next to him. He ruffled his hair and said, ‘Yes, boy, what is it?’
‘That demon is giving Swati poisoned milk!’ said Sanjay.
‘The demon? You mean Amma?’
‘That’s not Amma! It’s a demon, which has captured Amma and taken her place. She is giving Swati poisoned milk. Please stop her, Nanna. Please don’t let her kill Swati. And then she will kill me too, and you!’
Nanna looked at him for a second. Then he said, ‘Okay.’
‘You won’t let her kill us all, will you? You will search for Amma as well, won’t you? She may be in the barn. Please search for her, and bring her back. And kill this demon with that big knife.’
‘I will.’ Nanna gathered Sanjay into a hug. ‘Leave it to me. You don’t think about it now, okay?’
Sanjay broke into tears. He clawed at his father’s sides, buried his face in his chest. ‘I don’t want to lose you, Nanna. I don’t want to lose Amma and Swati to this demon. Please. Please. Please.’
‘Shh. Leave it to me.’
‘Don’t leave me, Nanna. Don’t ever leave me alone with her.’
‘I won’t. Now go to sleep.’
* * *
Upender Rao was a large man with a black spot the size of a coin on his left cheek. He saw Gopalam emerge from the kitchen with a pale face, and said, ‘What is it, Gopalam? How is the kid?’
Radha pursed her lips. Clear tears swirled in her eyes.
Gopalam sat down and told them what Sanjay had said. For a long time, none of them spoke.
Then Upender Rao said, ‘I think it is best if the boy is sent away to the city for a while.’ He looked at Gopalam. ‘You have your younger brother there, don’t you?’
Gopalam ran his fingers through his hair.
‘Send him there. Not forever,’ he said, turning to Radha. ‘For a year or two. Until he is older. Until Swati is older. He will grow out of this fantasy.’
‘He will, won’t he?’ asked Radha.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Upender Rao. ‘He loves his sister intensely, and but he is also intensely jealous of her. So he has created this story in his mind that will allow him to starve his sister of milk while believing that he is protecting her.’
On the trunk, Swati stared at the running ceiling fan and clapped her hands in delight.
* * *
Later, when Radha and Gopalam went out to see off Upender Rao, Swati turned her head to look at the stool, and the rattle on top of it. Her fingers closed into fists. Her toes curled and uncurled. A pink shade appeared on the cheekbones, and though the fan was on full speed, sweat began to accumulate on her upper lip. Her fingertips became white and bloodless. The tendons in her neck tightened, and she clenched her gums together. The muscles in her face twitched.
Her lazy wide eyes, though, stayed fixed on the stool.
Then the rattle slowly rolled to the edge, and fell.