When she was a child, she had read and been told stories about worlds existing below the reflective, round mirror-tops of wells. Stories of adventurers going down to a water-world where men and women lived as people did above: in brick houses with thatched roofs that were surrounded by trees filled with birds’ nests. The worlds in these wells had dry skies, chickens, goats and cows. Well-world chickens, well-world goats and well-world cows.
As Maya peered into the well now, at the age of twenty-nine, she could see the blue dome of the central Kerala summer sky and the swaying bodies of coconut palms. Behind her, in the cool dark of the kitchen with its black floor, grey walls and air heavy with soot, rice cooked in an aluminium pot with blackened skin. She could hear the wood fire in the stove crackle, the falling coconut shells and palm leaves sending up sparks. She looked at her hand, where small marks had gathered over the years from flying sparks – a crowd of relatives and friends increasing with time. The darkest, biggest mark she’d named Zohara, after a friend from high school she’d last seen at a wedding in Guruvayoor two years ago. She’d fattened, Zohara: a force-fed broiler chicken gaining adipose in layers. Her tiny feet had been unable to take her girth so she’d sat down panting, her round moon face poking out of a grey headscarf that matched her printed silk sari. Everyone in the marriage hall that day had poured with sweat. Maya had felt her armpits melt and drops of sweat trickle ant-like down the length of her spine.
She remembered Zohara’s questions as they ate lunch sitting next to each other at long steel tables: Where’s Anil now? Still in Dubai? When is he coming back? How are the children?
Two years later, Anil was here, in the house, asleep on the bed, his face buried in the pillow, his legs spread out, his brown skin cool below the angry fan. He’d come back, a month ago, breathless. He’d returned from the cafeteria where he served sloppy shawarmas, rushing through Dubai airport with its gold plated palm trees, tiers of duty free shops and crowds of men like him buying Nido milk powder tins, Tang bottles and Yardley two for one soap and talcum powder sets. He hadn’t stopped to buy stereo systems or packs of mini Snickers. He’d run onto the plane that hopped from hot dusty city to hotter, dustier cities in the Gulf before finally landing, relieved, in the humidity of Cochin. He’d jumped into a taxi and reached the house in the early hours of the morning while Maya watered the red rose bushes she loved.
She’d dropped the watering can, the water flowing out, wetting the red earth.
He’d run to her and said, ‘I am home.’
And she, dressed in a mauve housecoat with frayed ribbons on the chest and her hair wet from her bath, had asked, ‘Why?’
The boys, getting ready for school, had peered out from the inner gloom of the house to see their father standing beside Maya with a small bag in his hand. Hari, ten, and Gopal, three years younger, came out, socks pulled up and bags on their backs.
Anil smiled at them. ‘Ready for school?’ Hari, dark and evasive, didn’t reply. Gopal, a fairer child, full of light but sullen now, stabbed at a passing line of red ants with his foot.
Maya watched the two silent and unsmiling boys refuse to look at Anil whose mouth had a tremor where it used to be firm and hard.
He reached out to pat their heads, but they dodged his outstretched palm and ran off, banging the gate behind them. Anil watched them both run and stood there, for a long time, unable to look away even though they had disappeared round the bend in the road.
Maya skinned and cut a gourd and thought of the ten years that had passed since they had married on a cool October morning after seeing each other for a few seconds in a room crowded with strangers. Anil had agreed to the marriage quickly since he had to leave for Dubai. The date was fixed, the sari bought second-hand from a house where her mother worked as a maid, and her father gave her a thin gold chain. Even as the ceremony took place, the thought came to her that no one had asked her whether she wanted this – her father had done everything, answered everything in positives. Yes, she’d marry Anil. Yes, July fifteenth was a good day. Yes, we’ll book the marriage hall.
Anil remained a stranger to her for a long time afterward. She’d known him for only a week after their marriage before he went off to Dubai, not staying around for the birth of Hari on a stormy Friday the following April.
She had never wanted him around – she was happier when he was away, when he came to Kerala every two years. He rarely called. She watched the boys grow, she kept the house clean and when Anil sent money enough to buy a fridge, she went into Thrissur town with her elder brother and bought a pale green Videocon refrigerator which hummed and stuttered behind her as she worked in the kitchen.
She enjoyed the quiet of the house without anyone in it but herself. A childhood shared with seven other siblings all crawling and running into each other in a one room hut had given way to this, solitude, in a house with solid walls and a working toilet.
And a water filter that was a reminder and a rebuke. She saw her face in the steel body of the filter and thought she saw a shadow behind her – a tall form with a beautiful head. She had turned, startled, but there was no one there.
Since his return, she’d watched Anil, sitting out on the verandah in the evenings as the boys played cricket with their friends in the garden of the house next door. What was he seeing? Hari’s broad brow and mouth that was a reproduction of his own? Or was he thinking of Gopal, who seemed to glow, fair and sweet, so different from the three of them?
She felt her stomach turn, her bile come up as she wondered if he knew. Would he see it now that he was here for longer than a month, now that he would not go back leaving her alone in this squat house with its four rooms and tiny bathroom?
His mother had seen it, almost at once. A month after the birth, while they bathed the baby with care.
She was sharp, ‘This fellow is so fair.’ She tickled him as he lay naked, fair and rosy, on a mat, enjoying the early morning sun. He wriggled his toes, he giggled. He smiled up at Maya and she remembered his father’s smile, when he first showed her how the water filter worked.
Seven years ago, in a hot and humid March, jaundice cases increased around the district and the Panchayat workers asked residents to install water filters. She called Anil, from the phone booth near the market, at the cafeteria where he worked. It was only the second time she had ever done so – and asked him for the money. He sent it to her as a cheque, which she deposited at the bank. She looked up ads in the newspaper for water filters and finding one, called them up from a phone booth near the market.
On a quiet Tuesday not long afterwards, Feroze had stood before her, tall and fair and handsome, his face red from the heat of the burning asphalt of roads he travelled every day. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun beat down turning the red earth orange, the world around was silent and Hari was asleep in his small bed in the front room. The two of them stood regarding the blue and silver water filter fitted on a wall in the cool dark of the kitchen. He touched her, his face close, his clean smell of soap and powder wafting towards her.
That evening, she’d ripped the sheets off the bed and hauled them to the back of the house where she furiously beat them on the stone. The thwack of the wet sheets, the rush of water and the angry cawing of crows disturbed by the echoing beatings, formed a wall of sound around the house. She scrubbed the sheets, she scrubbed her skin and in the night she slept with a pillow clenched between her thighs, weeping and wanting at the same time.
The next afternoon, he was there again and his arms were around her, her waist, her breasts and in her hair.
In the evening, the same ritual – she washed the sheets, drawing water from the well and pouring the water on the stone as well.
The next day, he didn’t turn up. Nor the next. She stopped weeping after a day, and hacked at the coconuts with greater force, watched pots bubble with greater intensity and cleaned the house twice. She thought of going to the phone booth and calling the water filter company. Instead, she took the paper where she’d written their phone number and burned it.
A week later, Anil had come home after an absence of two years, with a brand new suitcase and a box of soaps. They slept together, his fingers running lightly over her body while she tried to fight off memories of another pair of hands. In the mornings he played with Hari and one Sunday he took them to the zoo in Thrissur where mangy lions panted in the heat and monkeys threw stones at the visitors. A month passed quickly and he returned to Dubai.
In February, Anil’s mother rebuked her: he’s so fair.
Anil, dark as soot and she brown as nut, could not have had this child. She prayed for the little boy’s skin to darken, to take on a shade like that of his brother’s. When Anil’s mother said again, on the boy’s second birthday for which Anil was present, that the fellow was so fair, she replied, ill-tempered, ‘So is my father.’
Anil’s mother no longer asked or talked of the boy’s fair skin, his rosy countenance. Anil gave Gopal a toy train and called him a sweet child. But it seemed to Maya for the remainder of Anil’s stay that year, he’d watched Gopal closely, as the little boy ran around the house, chased cats and hens, tumbled with Hari under the mango tree and ate toffees with the neighbour’s children.
Three months had passed and Anil was still there, silent and solid, rarely going out of the house.
A week after he’d arrived, he’d tried to reach for her but she pushed him away and the next morning, seeing him sprawled on the bed, she’d asked, ‘Aren’t you going back?’
He, confused and disoriented by the bare room and its rafters and tiled roof, asked,
‘There’s nothing there.’
‘There’s no money.’
He’d turned over and slept.
There was hardly any money in the bank. There was very little in the strong box in the cupboard, a few hundred rupees that she checked and counted every day. Each Saturday the pile diminished when she went to the market and bought rations.
When it finally ran out, she asked him, ‘Give me some money.’
He sat in the verandah in the front, in a cane chair, staring at the rose bushes which were wilting in the strong sunlight and said, ‘I’ll give it tomorrow.’
He reached for her that night too and when she pushed him away, he caught her by the neck and slapped her.
The mark of his fingers were on her cheek the next day. The boys saw it, when they entered the kitchen to drink their morning glasses of milk. Hari seemed to grow angrier and straightened up to go to the bedroom where his father lay on his back staring at the rafters. But she caught him by his wrist, ‘Don’t.’
The boys left for school, simmering.
The sun was high and bright in the sky when Anil walked out. She watched him go, dark and thin and needy, out the gate. He had muttered, as he drank weak tea that she’d served him on the verandah, that he had to meet someone near the market.
She returned to the kitchen where three plantains, which she’d borrowed from a neighbour, sat on a plate. She emptied a cup of rice into the aluminium pot and took up the long, newly sharpened knife.
Once she finished slicing and frying the plantains, she went into the bedroom with her knife in her hand, and stood in front of the mirror. The marks of his fingers were on her face, growing darker. The soreness echoed through her body. She turned around and looked at the plain bed with its rough sheets and thin mattress. He hadn’t folded the blanket, the pillows were half out of their covers. She turned the knife in her hand and felt that anger again; forcing its way up, melting all resistance. She took the knife and ripped up the mattress and the pillows. Foam and motes of dust flew through the air, caught in the shafts of sunlight slanting through the window.
She stood by the well and tried to remember the stories of the lives beneath the waters and could not recall any of them completely. They came to her in fragments: a tale about goatherds and another about a fat farmer’s wife. People had transformed into animals and back again, wandered far and wide and got blessings from strangers and talked of living for ever. Happily. As a child, living in that crowded hut, she’d wondered if the happiness these well-world beings gained included space, individual beds, clean latrines and plates that washed themselves. She supposed they did and drew pictures of the happy well-world families on the outhouse walls. Her mother caught her doing them and slapped her. That night, she’d cleaned the house thrice, as her mother stood over her and her brothers and sisters jostled to watch, to jeer. She looked up from the well and saw the hands of her neighbour, Amala, who’d given her the plantains, putting clothes up on a line. She had borrowed the plantains, not begged them. How would she pay Amala back?
She tried to think of the years ahead: the fights over the money, him being unemployed, his being here, always behind her where she would see him in the mirrors, on the silvered surface of the water filter. The boys growing angrier each day and year until they would leave the house, never to return.
She looked down at the well again. In the bright blue sky in the well, there was not a cloud, not a fault, not a scar. Her face, dark and far away, was smiling.
Months later they would talk of why they had never heard anything. Maya’s mother would ask the neighbours, ‘Did you hear?’ The neighbours, Amala and others, kindly and sympathetic, would say no. The arguments and the disagreements in that small house simmered within, nothing erupted outwards.
‘Except this,’ Maya’s mother would say.
Anil, when he walked out to the market that day, thought of his wife’s face when he’d slapped and pushed himself into her. Her pain and her anger.
What he’d done was wrong. And the fear that grew in his mind was the same fear that had tunnelled its way into his brain when the police raided the cafeteria in Dubai and arrested him as the customers, tired and dusty construction workers, watched. He’d spent the night in jail, the fear overcoming all.
The cafeteria manager – a Muslim from Kodungalloor who’d given him the job since they were from the same part of the world – had come the next day and had him released. A misunderstanding, he’d explained. Some money had gone missing. The Emirati owner had kicked up a fuss and had thought it was him. But one of the cooks had disappeared that morning – the police were suspecting him now.
Anil, shaken and afraid, had nodded. He’d been mute until he reached the room he shared with six other men who were all at work, putting in shifts at supermarkets and bakeries. He’d taken his suitcase out, had reached in to see where the bills were hidden. They were all there, concealed between the two pairs of trousers and five shirts that he owned. He went out of the room with the suitcase, walked to a travel agent nearby, and bought a ticket for Cochin.
What he thought was his home wasn’t really his home. Coming every two years for a month was different from staying here with a family that did not want him. He saw their dislike for him in the sliding away of the boys whenever he drew near, and in Maya’s coldness. The little house he’d built seemed to be more theirs than his. For them, he was a source of money, far away, out of sight. His coming back upset them all, seemed to spread a dissonance through their rhythms of living.
They didn’t know why he’d come back. No one asked. The money he’d taken from the till had been a ticket to the weekly card games he played with dock workers in a muggy flat in Sharjah. He’d dreamt of winning a jackpot, buying gold for Maya, clothes for the boys and a small car for himself. Instead, he’d run, fear dogging his steps. Now, as he walked to the market, he carried the money in his pocket. He hoped to meet the sly, self proclaimed businessman who ran an informal loan and money exchange outfit through a small stall between vegetable and poultry vendors. He would turn the Dirhams into Rupees and take Maya and the children on a trip to Cherai Beach. He’d buy his mother a good silk sari and get the boys new shoes. He’d get Maya a television. They could all watch it together in the evenings, and become more of a family.
As Anil walked past the little temple near the market, he heard the sounds of birds screaming, rising out of the trees. In the days ahead, he’d forget that moment, only to remember it as he recounted the events of that morning to Maya’s mother and siblings.
He’d tell them how he’d run back to the house from the market, feeling something was amiss. He’d describe the silence in the house, the ripped bed, the kitchen with its shuttered windows where he’d found lunch ready on three plates. How he called her name and there’d been no reply. He walked around the neighbourhood, knocked doors and asked, ‘Have you seen Maya?’
The police had come and they’d searched around the village and the neighbouring town. Her photograph would appear at the end of the Doordarshan news bulletin the next day along with those of others who had disappeared. On the third day, he’d woken up at sunrise to the sound of crows screeching. And he’d found himself leaning over and looking at a dark shadow in the well. He’d taken a long metal rod that had lain outside the kitchen for years, rusting, and he’d let it down the well and stirred the still water. He saw it then: the long black hair and the red sari. He’d fallen backwards, flat on his back, on the red earth, and stared up at the brightening sky.
Saudha Kasim studied architecture and graphic design. She wasn't very good at carving three dimensional space so chose to fool around with lines, type and Pantone colour cards. Her short stories have been published in online journals such as Eclectica and Pratilipi.