On the edge by Salma

Their journey had been under planning for a long time. Now it is about to begin. She is standing by the stone threshold, putting on her burqa as she chats with her mother.


‘My golden child, so much patience Allah has given you! Stay well for a hundred years.’  Amma’s eyes grow moist as she blesses her daughter.


‘Why say all this, Amma,’ she demurs.


‘Is it so easy to look after these old hags? It’s been my lot, and it is you who must suffer. Couldn’t Allah have given me the patience he has given you – I get angry before I even get up in the morning?’ Amma sits on the grinding-stone placed near the entrance.


‘Of course you get angry! It’s just that the place where you must show your anger keeps changing, right?’ Her barbed tone must have saddened Amma. Like a touch-me-not plant her face grows small. Then, she seems anxious to make her daughter understand her rationale. Pretending to wipe her face with the end of her sari, she says, ‘What do you want me to do? Don’t you see what the old woman gets up to?’


‘Why just her? Why don’t you show your anger with him too? Instead you trail behind him, carrying his spittoon….’ When she becomes aware of the resentment in her voice, she calms down. Scolding herself inwardly, she says, ‘All right, leave it. I was only teasing you. I’ll be going, then?’ With a smile on her face, she emerges from the house, casting nervous glances behind to check if her mother is following.


Near the car, which stands in front of the house in the early morning sun, Nanni is waiting, her bag of pills wedged in the crook of her armpit.


‘Um, get in quick … the sun is beating down.’ She begins to wonder if the voice dripping with concern is really hers. How did her voice, which had sounded so sharp and biting to her mother just minutes ago, acquire this fawning lilt? Guilty over how she behaved with her mother, she reaches forward to open the passenger door. She is about get in, when Nanni stops her. ‘You come and sit here. I’ll get in after you.’ She collects herself and peers intently at Nanni, using her eyes to ask why. Nanni’s old face, fraught with anxiety, responds that she must fulfil the wish without question.


Not wanting to accept, she mutters, ‘Why, the front seat here is empty, isn’t it?’


‘Cha. Come here, I’m telling you!’ Nanni rebukes, irritably. Because of the harsh tone, she does not reply. Closing the passenger door, she moves to the back of the car and sits next to Raadhi who is already inside. As though she has been waiting only for her niece to be seated, Nanni climbs quickly into the car and sits beside her. Her face wears a triumphant smile.


She realises from that smile what a tangle she has got herself into, but she ignores it.


Chacha, who has been standing in a corner of the veranda waiting for them to board the car, says, ‘Shall we start, then?’ and without expecting a reply, gets into the driver’s seat and starts the car. She feels bad that Amma hasn’t come out of the house to see them off. That her words might have wounded Amma.


The car glides smoothly on the tarmac. Very uncomfortable in her seat between Raadhi and Nanni, she gazes at the empty seat in front.


Raadhi is very obese. She sits with her swollen legs spread apart, occupying half the space on the backseat. Squeezed between, she begins to worry seriously about how she is going to manage them both for a whole day.


She knew how complicated it would be, taking them anywhere together, but it is her fault, she thinks, that she has failed to judge just how bad it  can get. She begins to reproach herself. Thinking of herself as a rat caught in a trap does not feel agreeable.


Yesterday, as soon as the plans for the trip were firmed up, Nanni had said, ‘Look here. Don’t let that woman babble on inside the car. Also, you must never let her sit next to me. Her whole body stinks because she never bathes. And never put on the air-conditioner. That woman will keep on farting. If you keep the windows rolled up, the stink will make my stomach turn.’ Nanni must have been anxious about it for so many days that it pained her to even think about it. Even so, because she was aware of Nanni’s own traits, the instructions didn’t strike her as odd.


It was a miracle if Raadhi bathed more often than twice in a week. She believed that a person would catch cold if she bathed often. All efforts made by everyone at home to dispel her belief proved futile. Nanni, however, is the exact opposite. She can make anyone around feel completely unclean – if they can stand the horror of watching her spend three-quarters of every day in the bathroom. When she could not bear it, Raadhi would whine to her, ‘If I ever wasted water like this, your mother will shoot me dead. That’s just my luck.’


It was true, though. Nanni needed half an hour just to clean her teeth and wash her face in the morning; then, if she started bathing at nine, another two-and-a-half hours to do that; and an hour each for her ablutions before each prayer of the day.


For the past few years, all her time was spent like this in the company of water. Once, when she suggested that they could consult a doctor, Nanni had rebuffed her, ‘Why, are you saying I am crazy? Nothing doing. If you want, you can take your Raadhi and show her to a “loose” doctor.’


To her, each time Nanni emerges from the bathroom is an occasion for wonder. Although Nanni does glance at the clock before entering the bathroom, it is amazing how she estimates the time when she comes out? How is it possible for her to calculate the duration of her stay inside so precisely, neither more nor less, each time?


Whenever she is in the bathroom, Nanni doesn’t close the door fully, but keeps it slightly ajar. People moving about outside the door can see her quite clearly. Nanni is not in the least bothered about it. When Amma had once muttered, ‘Why can’t you close the door and bolt it from inside?’ Nanni replied with disdain, “Why should I do that? Won’t I feel suffocated?”’


She had long wished to monitor Nanni’s bath from outside, but found she lacked the patience. So she thought she would at least watch her perform her ablutions. One day she sat on the grinding-stone, in front of the bathroom door with a pile of plucked flowers on her lap, well in advance of the appointed time when Nanni was expected to arrive there. The late afternoon sun was sliding down the wall in the backyard.


Nanni arrives precisely at four o’ clock to enter the bathroom. Seeing her sitting there, an unusual sight, Nanni throws a faint smile her way. ‘I am going to perform Olu for Azar.’ So saying, Nanni shuts the door, leaving it ajar. Even the angle at which she leaves it ajar is always the same. Nanni brushes her teeth once before the Azar prayer. She will come out at four-fifty – not a minute earlier or later.


Stringing the flowers on her lap, she glances furtively around. Even as the bucket is filling with water, Nanni upends it to let the water flow out. She guesses that Nanni is cleaning the bucket. As the water pouring from the tap begins to fill the bucket again, Nanni sits on her haunches to pee. As the cheeks of Nanni’s bottom become visible through the half open door, she lowers her head in embarrassment.


The sound of water flowing from the tap is persistent. As Nanni fills a mug with water and begins to wash between her thighs, she begins to count. One, two, three … Nanni is indefatigable. 58, 59, 60 … at last, Nanni stands up.


Again, she hears the sound of the plastic mug colliding with the steel bucket. Nanni begins to perform Olu. She hears the sound of Nanni scooping water and slapping her face and hands. The sound of bangles colliding suggests that she is scrubbing her hands hard. As she begins to wonder what filth there can be in that body to warrant so much scrubbing, instead of feeling angry at Nanni, she feels pity and compassion. She is filled with love for this woman who spends nearly all the hours of her day inside a bathroom. Through it all, the sound of flowing water is relentless.


Unstrung jasmine flowers are wilting between her fingers. When Nanni emerges from the bathroom, her face looks slack as an overripe fruit. Smiling gently at her, Nanni goes towards her room, planting her feet, pale from soaking in water, softly on the floor, without setting off any tremors, light as a bird’s treads. No one is allowed in Nanni’s room. She recalls how anxious Nanni had been, unable to either welcome her or turn her away when she had deliberately entered Nanni’s room one day.


‘Come, Jassi,’ Nanni greets her half-heartedly, ‘sit on this chair.’ Hurriedly, she places a wire-knit chair in front of her. Her voice betrays her fear that her guest might sit on the bed.


It is the smallest room in the entire house. A bed, a cupboard and a chair – the bit of remaining space is enough only for laying out her prayer mat. The washing line has been tied at one end to the iron ring above the bed and at the other, to the window rod above her head. A voile sari has been torn into several pieces, and the rags have been rolled up and stuffed into the different gaps between the window rods. She knows that each rag is meant to serve a different purpose: one rag is used to blow her nose into; another to wipe her ears with; one to wipe her hands in; and one meant solely to wipe her feet. Each rag is stuffed into a different gap.


Although it is over five years since this house was built, the walls and the floor sparkle as if it was completed only yesterday. Nanni, who meets her eye awkwardly, is growing increasingly restive and anxious. As one end of the thin Coutraalam towel, hung up to dry on the washing line above her head, sways in the breeze from the fan, Nanni moves forward, her face full of the apprehension that it might graze her guest’s head, slides it away to the far end of the washing line and then smiles at her.

In order to appear as though she has not noticed, she casts a glance around the room, surveying its arrangements.


‘Why are you looking as if all this is new to you? This is indeed your house,’ Nanni says, and laughs, exposing most of her betel-stained teeth. Nanni’s eyes fix on her feet which are planted firmly on the floor. She too peers at them to dispel the anxiety that they may be dirty and is distressed that she cannot tell. Reflecting on the way Nanni seems to be waiting for the moment she will leave this room and how, in the space of a couple of minutes, Nanni has made her feel like a filthy tramp, she is not sure if it is pity or anger that she feels now. ‘Why is it a problem if I look around?’ she mumbles casually to try and ease the situation.


‘Why not? Look around all you want. It’s your house, after all,’ says Nanni and sits on the bed. The dainty way Nanni sits betrays her fear that she might hurt the bed. The whiteness of the bedcover, which has been spread without a single wrinkle, is intended to please the heart. In the middle of the bed, the monthly magazine, Nargis is lying open and face down. While Raadhi doesn’t like to read, Nanni reads voraciously. Along with several Islamist publications, she reads Rani, Kalkandu and children’s books, not leaving anything out.


She notices the sheet of paper that has been spread next to the pillow and the bit of cloth which has been folded and kept on that sheet of paper. As she gazes intently at the cloth, wondering why it has been placed there, Nanni volunteers an explanation. ‘I use that cloth to wipe my sweat. Not wanting to keep it on the bed, I’ve kept it on the paper. Otherwise, the sheet will get dirty, no?’


She lacks the fortitude to continue and gets out of the room. Her younger brother asked her that evening, ‘Why do you get up to such foolishness? After you left the room, did you see how she poured water over the chair you sat on and washed it for an hour? Does anyone go into that room? Why do you go there and humiliate yourself?’ His derision had dismayed her. The next day she went to her mother while she was cutting vegetables and said, ‘Amma, we must definitely show her to a doctor. How to do it?’


‘I don’t know about such things. You can look after this mess yourself. Because of this woman, we get an electricity bill of one thousand rupees every month. If she is like this, it’s rare for that old woman, Raadhi, to bathe even one day in a week. She stinks up wherever she is. It’s my good fortune, it seems. On top of that, the racket your Raadhi makes the moment this woman gets into the bathroom, whining every five minutes, “Allah, I badly need to pee, what can I do?” She paces up and down between the bathroom and the hall, and kills me in the process. Half the time, they seem to do this deliberately.’


Released from her memories, she notices, through the car’s open window, the trees rushing past and the wind that blows steadily on her face. Fed up of brushing back the hair falling across her face, she worries that when they finally return home, her hair will be in a mess and her appearance changed completely. ‘Roll up the windows and turn on the AC, Chacha,’ she says.


‘What did you say – turn on the AC?’ As he glances back, Chacha looks concerned and he asks, ‘Why are you sitting there, in such discomfort? The front seat is empty, no?’


‘No, it’s quite comfortable for me here.’ She wishes that there was some justification for her refusal.


Out of the corner of her eye, she notices how Nanni’s displeasure at having her elaborate instructions about the AC contradicted shows on her face, and laughs inwardly. While Raadhi clearly begins to experience the coolness of the AC within a minute or two of it being turned on, Nanni looks anxious. Because Nanni is upset, she emphasises the need for the air-conditioning, saying, ‘The sun is really hot today, isn’t it? Even though it is late October, the heat is killing.’ Not knowing whom to address these words to, she ends up throwing them out into the car. The moment her voice fades, Raadhi, who has remained silent with her eyes closed, opens them quickly and says, ‘Yes, yes. These are bad times now. When it should rain and when the sun should shine – all these calculations have changed. Everything has turned topsy-turvy. Maybe the time of qayamat – apocalypse – is nearing. How that sun is tormenting this poor old woman!’


Raadhi’s words flow and inundate the car’s interior. Anxiety that she must stop the torrent seizes her. She wants to check the expressions on Nanni’s old, oblong face but is not brave enough to turn. She tries to remain calm. Again, she remembers her mother.


She wonders if she’s been too harsh to her mother in the morning. Poor thing, how can she express her anger to her husband? Won’t it be a sin before Allah? That’s why she takes out her anger on others. Most of her rages end up being directed at Raadhi.


There are fair reasons for that. From as far back as she can remember Father came home to eat right after the luha prayer. She has always seen him ask, ‘Are you ready to serve food?’ the moment he entered the house.


Amma rushing from the hall to the kitchen, would dash here and there like a child to get everything done. On some days, the kerosene stove wouldn’t light and she’d look at her husband who’d started eating in haste and plead, ‘Please. Why don’t you eat a little slowly? The eggs are still cooking.’ Just when he’d be about to comply, Raadhi would intervene, ‘Can’t a woman be mindful of when a man will return home? She doesn’t keep the food ready, that’s how much she cares!’


That would be it. Father takes his plate full of food and tosses it deftly down the hall. ‘A woman should have some fear in her!’ Gnashing his teeth, he marches out of the house; Amma runs after him up to the pyol on the front veranda, pleading, and then returns inside, disappointed. After that, her entire rage turns on Raadhi.


‘Old, widowed hag! You’ve chased the man out of the house without letting him eat in peace. May you stay well and fill your wretched stomach.’


‘What did I do? Did I ask him not to eat?’ Raadhi would begin whining.


As the burden of memories becomes unbearable, she opens her eyes and, raising her wrist, looks at her watch. They must travel another two hours at least. She is exhausted. They have an appointment with the doctor, so they will not have to wait. But her anxiety that they should reach home without encountering any major problem keeps growing. The minutes crawl by. She thinks they could increase the driving speed, although who knows what obstacle might come in way of their trying.


Suddenly, Nanni’s index finger is jabbing at her waist on her right. Surfacing from her thoughts, she turns to face Nanni and asks, ‘What is it?’


‘Won’t you ask him to turn off the AC?’ After hissing secretively in her ear so that Raadhi doesn’t hear, Nanni doesn’t wait for her reply before jabbing her twice more in the waist.


She turns her head hurriedly towards Raadhi. Raadhi is leaning back with her eyes closed. She turns back towards Nanni and silences her with her eyes.


‘Chacha, we’ve had enough of the AC. Please turn it off. We can keep the windows open for some time,’ she says. She prays that Raadhi does not come to know that this was Nanni’s wish. Chacha looks back, as if to ask her what has changed, but without saying anything, turns the air-conditioning off and rolls down the windows.


Determined not to turn in Raadhi’s direction, not even absent-mindedly, she shuts her eyes tight and leans back in her seat.


‘It is quite a difficult job to take both of them together in the same car. But taking them one by one will double the expense; and the burden of travel as well. Cope with it somehow.’ Amma’s admonition sounds in her ears.


‘Uss … can’t bear this pain. At what time has the doctor asked us to come?’ Raadhi asks, spreading her swollen legs further apart. ‘Go a little faster; my stomach is heaving and the pain in my leg is taking the life out of me,’ Raadhi complains to her son.


Chacha, who empathises with her distress, accelerates. His face in the rear view mirror reveals his worry. For a few days now, Raadhi has been unable to pass urine. She has also been vomiting all night. Not only her legs, but her whole body has assumed a certain measure of stiffness. Her big, bloated belly is not a pretty sight.


As the speed increases the wind dislodges the covering from Raadhi and Nanni’s heads. Whereas Raadhi does not seem to mind it, Nanni constantly straightens her head covering, which irritates her. What will happen if she stays without her head covered for some time, she thinks, and watches the road which glitters in the forenoon sun. The trees, drenched in the heat, stand in silent rows, heads bowed. On one side of the road, a mirage is flowing like water on the rocks visible in the distance. Although she wants to go over the day’s tasks, its futility makes her weary and she drops the idea.


Nanni’s index finger jabs at her waist again. She turns to ask, what is it? Tell him not to go so fast, Nanni whispers in her ear. Anger smoulders inside her like a hot cinder. How does the car’s speed matter? It’s for Raadhi they are going fast. So, why does it bother this old woman? She thinks momentarily of silencing Nanni but buries the anger. If she utters a hasty word in rage, how is she going to cope with the consequences?


A rare wrong word from Amma was enough for Nanni. ‘Yes, because I have taken refuge in your house with no one to care for me that I must put up with all these abuses.’ ‘Allah, won’t you take this cursed head back unto yourself?’


‘Such bravado when you are staying in your nephew’s house,’ Amma would mutter. She was concerned that Amma’s words would wound Nanni further and would shush her mother down; Nanni already felt humiliated enough taking shelter in her nephew’s house.


Raadhi starts moaning about the nature of the pain in her legs. The way she punctuates her story with, ‘Know what I am saying?’ seems to be her attempt to affirm that she is not whining entirely to herself.


As Nanni’s fingertip touches her waist again, she tries to be casual as she asks Nanni what’s bothering her. Nanni’s slack face has grown red with anger. Without parting her thick, dry lips, she says, ‘Ask him to play music.’ The harshness in her voice is new. It is a ploy to indicate that her request is intended only to stop Raadhi’s moaning. But she knows that Nanni has been keen on listening to the music.


‘Chacha, why don’t you play some songs? I am getting bored,’ she says, gazing at the trees lining the side of the road. He too might have needed that; a song plays immediately. Sweeping aside the cacophony of speech, music begins to flood the car.


Even though it is a song that she does not care for, it is the only way to stop Raadhi’s grumbling which is still continuing. Because of the jerks caused by the road’s uneven surface, she is toppling, by turns, on Nanni and Raadhi. She wonders what the sari Nanni is wearing now might suffer tomorrow and laughs to herself. A sari that is beaten normally around three hundred times on the washing stone is now going to receive, for having been grazed by her and for having sat on the hospital chair, two hundred more, she reckons.


‘What kind of dirt could be there on that sari? Why should a woman who mostly keeps to herself in her room act deranged like this? One sari is worn to tatters every month. Look how she is gnashing her teeth as she beats that sari.’ Amma’s habitual lament pops up in her mind.


Ponni refused to wash Nanni’s ambar sari. ‘I don’t have the strength to beat it two hundred times, amma,’ she said. Nanni has retained a woman only to wash her saris. Twenty rupees per sari, with precise specifications on how many times each side should be slapped on the stone. As soon as the servant starts her washing, Nanni stands within sight and starts counting. After beating the sari a hundred times on one side and another hundred on the other, so hard each time that the house itself shakes, the girl departs, her body drenched in sweat, panting for breath; Nanni then continues as best as she can with the remaining strokes. Her panting robs those at home of their peace. She fills the big bucket with water thirty times to rinse her sari over and over again, emptying the bucket on the floor each time and watching the water flow away.


That Nanni’s slender frame proves equal to all these labours always surprised her.


While Nanni was at it, Raadhi would hobble with her slow gait all the way to the washing place at the entrance, her fat body swaying gently with each step, and cast her eyes over the scene before going into her room.


Although it happened daily, it troubled every single person in the house.


‘Emma, how long will it take for us to reach there?’ She comes back to her senses on hearing Raadhi’s voice and raises her left wrist to look at her watch. ‘A few more hours to go.’ After replying wearily, she loses herself in the sweetness of the melody that sings in her ears. Her heart lightens and she wonders how music has such power to influence moods. As she leans back on her seat again and closes her eyes, she feels extra pleasure that Raadhi has stopped grumbling.


The finger jabs again at her waist but she does not feel like getting annoyed. Nanni brings her ripe old face close to her ear. She tries to guess what Nanni might have to say to her at this time. ‘The song that ended just now – ask him to play it one more time,’ Nanni’s voice craves softly in her ear. Nanni’s face is flushed with shame and embarrassment.


‘Which song? What is she saying?’ She collects her thoughts and recalls the song Nanni has requested. It is a love song. In order not to reveal that she has noticed Nanni’s embarrassment, she says nonchalantly, ‘Oh, you want that one…’ and then adds, ‘I like that song, too.’ Her voice sounds even more restrained than Nanni’s.


‘Don’t let on that I asked for it,’ mutters Nanni in an agitated voice.


She nods and her sincerity apparently quells Nanni’s anxiety. She casts a sideways glance to see where Raadhi’s attention is focused now. Having stopped groaning, she is reclining with her eyes closed. The hot wind is blowing across her fat, ruddy cheeks.


‘Chacha, you know the song that played just now. Play it again. It’s a fine song.’ Her words falter and break. The awkwardness of requesting your own father to play a love song is novel. ‘Which song?’ After turning to look at her, he doesn’t wait for an answer but rewinds the cassette. As the song begins again, she senses the tremors it sets off in Raadhi’s body, warning her that Raadhi is wakeful and attentive even if her eyes are closed.


Raadhi knows how besotted Nanni is with music. She is determined not to allow Raadhi to interfere, so, as a defence, begins to visibly enjoy the song. She taps the fingers of her left hand on her left thigh, exaggerating her pleasure in the melody. Even though she herself finds it excessive, she feels she has no alternative and continues her pretence.


She is relieved when the song reaches its end, but there is a jab at her waist from Nanni’s finger again. She stares angrily, but Nanni, oblivious to the cinders burning in her eyes, pleads silently for the song to be played yet again. It’s a torment.


‘Allah, won’t we reach there soon!’ she groans to herself. Looking at Nanni’s face as if to seek confirmation that this is indeed the last time, she turns immediately and says, ‘Play the same song again, let’s hear it.’ Although saying it quickly obliterates the interval between thinking and utterance, her throat shrivels in shame. Quickly, she picks up the bottle lying at her feet and pours water down her throat.


She senses a slackness in Chacha’s driving. The smile blooming on his face is totally strange. She is anxious to make him believe that she is the one who likes that song. But since she doesn’t know how to do it, she remains silent. Raadhi shakes off her state of half-asleep and, turning her fat body towards Nanni, begins to observe her closely.


Flush with the sweetness of the melody and the pleasure of triumph, Nanni is reclining elegantly on her seat. Pride that everything is happening as per her wishes has softened her features. Raadhi’s expression turns harsh. As if in a hurry to pluck that pride off Nanni’s face and disparage Nanni, Raadhi begins, ‘Won’t you stop that rubbish? Is this what we are supposed to listen to when we are travelling? Why don’t you play a cassette of prayer to Allah, so he may lighten our journey, instead of making us listen to these nonsense endearments such as doe and honey?’ She scowls, contorting her features and looks disgusted. A note of authority – since this is her son’s car – dominates her mocking tone.


It pains her to watch Nanni who has shrunk in humiliation. She feels bewildered, not knowing what to do. ‘Stop that rubbish,’ Raadhi’s voice commands again. That command is enough to frighten not only Nanni but her as well.


In response to the tension that has filled the car, Chacha steadies the speed as he takes out the prayer cassette and plays it. Nanni’s face has grown dark. The hurt of having her wishes denied and the grief of having her powerlessness affirmed, combine to accentuate the withered look on her face.


Raadhi enjoys the devotional song as it begins to resound in the car, as if it’s a personal victory. Intent on showing off her keen interest to her granddaughter, she says, ‘Ei, what a fine voice – hear that?’ While Raadhi’s exaggerated expressions of approbation continue to irritate her, the car is eating up the road’s black surface. Her despondency at the skirmish is reaching a climax, and her annoyance threatens to drown her. The devotional song adds to the intensity of her frustration but she is confused about the propriety of feeling as she does; gritting her teeth, she swallows her anger. The winding road creates the impression that they are searching for a way forward after having lost sight of it.


With her eyes closed, and head swaying from side to side, Raadhi is demonstrating her appreciation to her son, in keeping with the dignity of her age. Her conduct rejects and mock Nanni’s craving for music.


The long corridor at the hospital, filled to overflowing with patients, depresses her even more. With the smell of antiseptic assaulting her nose, she walks ahead to look for a seat, followed closely by Raadhi and Nanni. When she sees a few empty chairs along the wall adjacent to the doctor’s room, she walks towards them. ‘Hold my hand,’ Raadhi calls out to her as she moves her swollen legs with great difficulty.


She goes back to Raadhi, puts an arm around her and leads her to a chair. Nanni arrives, her bag tucked under an elbow, with a steady and dignified gait; her face seems to proclaim proudly to Raadhi that she does not need any help from others.


Even as she acknowledges Nanni’s pride silently and smiles to herself, she is assailed by a pang of worry. How is Nanni going to reconcile herself to sitting on that filthy plastic chair? She recognises that rather than anxiety it is a sense of anticipation of what is to come. When she chances to look at Raadhi's face, it seems lit with a sudden glow. What could have brought such lustre to a face that was twisted in agony throughout the journey? Raadhi’s glance moves between the seat lying vacant next to her and at Nanni.


With both hands on her hips, Nanni looks around imperiously. Intent that Nanni should not become wise to their expectation, she turns her eyes anxiously towards the door of the doctor’s room.


Nanni takes out the yellow cloth bag tucked under her armpit. She swiftly extracts a newspaper page folded many times over. With trembling hands, Nanni unfolds and spreads it on a seat a little away, and sits down happily. Though the oddness of what she has done is noticed not just by the two of them but by everyone in the reception hall, Nanni does not seem concerned in the least. She calmly takes out her pan box and prepares to have a round of pan-supari.


To her, the mood of dejection that a hospital and its environment normally engender seems to have intensified today. If they finish fast, they can reach home early, she thinks.


‘Why haven’t they asked you in yet? We fixed the appointment yesterday!’ Chacha arrives and strides quickly towards the receptionist. After a few words he calls out to them, ‘Um, let’s go.’ She is immensely relieved.


Not sure who she must lead in first, she looks at him. His hands are extending towards Nanni.


As if she has been waiting only for this gesture, Nanni stands up hurriedly. Chacha and she lead Nanni to the doctor’s chambers. The swagger in Nanni’s stride seems especially intended to irritate Raadhi. ‘It’s only blood pressure. Just medication will do,’ says the doctor. When they walk out within a few minutes of thanking the doctor, Raadhi stares at them, her eyes boiling over with jealousy. Nanni’s bearing has gathered even more stateliness as if to flaunt her good health as she returns to her seat.


Chacha stays on with the doctor. They had planned to seek advice on Nanni’s problems without her knowing about it. She was sceptical; she understood that they could seek every kind of consultation and advice but treatment surely cannot be effective without the patient’s co-operation. She waits for Nanni to be called back into the chamber.


The change that comes over the doctor’s face as he examines Raadhi’s swollen legs is worrying. ‘First, give us blood and urine samples for some tests. Once the results are out in the evening, we will decide on the treatment.’ The doctor’s words make it clear that, contrary to her expectation, her task here was not going to end soon.


‘You go along. I’ll be with you in a minute.’ Chacha addresses these words to both of them, but she detects a private message in his expression.


As they step out of the doctor’s room with her holding Raadhi’s hand, they are reproached rudely by a nurse, ‘Why are you standing in the way?’ As she ignores the nurse and moves towards the pathology lab, the nurse asks her again, ‘Going for tests, are you?’ Not receiving any response from her, the nurse is furious as she stalks away from there.


The ill temper and impersonality evident in the nurse’s tone evokes in her a bitter feeling. Even though the arrogance of nurses in hospitals is a routine matter these days, today it is a source of unbearable irritation.


The room appears very small. On a wooden bench near the table sits a girl. Her physique is so thin as to fit the description, ‘not a bit of flesh there to pinch’. On seeing them, she rises, neither hurriedly nor slowly but with just the required degree of haste. ‘Tests? Give me the chit,’ she says.


Her face is dried up like a paper flower; and her white uniform, brown from overuse, might turn yellow very soon. The girl motions Raadhi to sit on the chair in front of her. Then she prepares to begin her task.


Seated on the chair, Raadhi pulls her sari back up to the knees and, by jabbing into her swollen thighs with her fingers, tries to assess the degree of swelling. To her, Raadhi’s expression, free now from worrying about waiting, is filled with the satisfaction that they are making Nanni wait.


When they return to their seats after giving blood and urine samples, Nanni greets them angrily.

‘What’s the matter? Aren’t we starting yet?’ The loud, high-pitched tone seems to set off tremors of shock in the nursing home’s environment. With the attention of everyone focussing on them, she feels humiliated. ‘We will, shortly. Give me your prescription first,’ she tells Nanni. ‘We’ve bought all the pills. First, tell me when we are going to start. Had I known that we were going to tarry like this, I wouldn’t have come.’


Savouring Nanni’s agitation, Raadhi asks, with an air of false anxiety, ‘When do we get the results – only in the evening?’ Then, she picks up her chain of prayer beads and starts counting.


She moves away, searching for Chacha with her eyes. She fears she might blurt out something to Nanni in anger if she lingers. She knows that it is that one word that she is going to hurl angrily at Nanni that Raadhi has been waiting for, for a long, long time.


‘Ya Allah! For how much longer will I have to keep sitting here, waiting? So naively have I trapped myself among these bacteria and phenyl smells.’ Nanni throws both hands in the air and begins her lament like someone bereaved. She ignores her and walks towards the reception room. Chacha, who has been speaking to someone, comes over to her and says, ‘Shall we go and have lunch? It’s already half-past-twelve.’ He looks extremely tired.


The sun is beating down the length of that hospital compound where human bustle and traffic have thinned. The doctor might leave in a few minutes. To the thought that they have to wait till he returns are added worries over how they are going to cope with Nanni’s tantrums. ‘All right. Let’s go and eat.’ When she returns to collect them, the curiosity evident on the faces of the remaining patients embarrasses her. She says, urgently, ‘Come. Let’s go and have lunch.’


‘Lunch can wait. Tell me when we are going to reach home,’ says Nanni with a scowl. Recalling how Raadhi is waiting for her to lose her temper with Nanni, she replies calmly, ‘Later this evening.’ ‘I can’t stand this hospital stench. I feel like fainting. Don’t even want to swallow, my throat’s run dry. Awful, awful….’


Nanni still pleads weakly. ‘All right, come and eat first. We will see about the rest later.’ Nanni gets up from her chair and goes out of the room. Taking Raadhi by the hand, she helps her up and brings her to the car.


Worried that problems may arise during lunch, she asks, ‘Want to go to the bathroom?’


‘Bathroom? Here?’ She responds to Nanni’s jibe by staring her down into silence; then she turns to Raadhi and says, ‘What about you?’ After Nanni’s contemptuous comment, Raadhi says, ‘I don’t want to, either.’ She looks at Raadhi in dismay.


‘I have to wash my hands. Take me.’ When they come back, the table is filled with items ordered for them. Raadhi has already started eating as she sits down wondering if so much food is really necessary.


Raadhi eats like a child. The way she has piled her plate high seems to betray an apprehension that the restaurant may run out of food. She watches, smiling at how she is devouring chicken and fish without looking up from the table. Nanni’s expression, however, is twisted, as if she is watching a disgusting animal eat. She takes out the newspaper from the bag under her arm, spreads it over her seat and then sits down. Serving herself just one ladle of rice, she says, ‘If they have curd, order some – so I can mix it myself and drink it.’


Surprised, she asks Nanni, ‘Why aren’t you eating any of this food?’ Nanni replies, ‘Am I of an age to eat such food? How can I digest it? What will happen to my body?’ The scorn in her voice is meant to insult Raadhi.


Nanni’s comment makes her feel sad.


Unmindful of the people around her, Raadhi is tucking into the food with gusto. She has forgotten that she was vomiting all day yesterday. It would do her some good if she at least remembered the long list of her ailments. The unease she senses in Chacha, who has talked to the doctor, worries her too.


Determined to stretch their eating time somehow, she eats as slowly as possible.  There is the danger that Nanni’s whining will resume as soon as they finish. Because of her anxiety about how she is going to deal with it when it happens, the food refuses to go down. Whereas Nanni has finished her curd rice in genteel fashion, Raadhi is still eating with undiminished zeal. Unmindful of the fact that they are in a restaurant, Raadhi is sucking hard at each piece of bone.


When they set out from the restaurant, it is past two. Nanni seems tired, as if she is reconciled to having to wait longer. She begins to hope that getting through the rest of the journey may not be that stressful. The reception room in the hospital is empty, without a patient in sight. On seeing them, the receptionist says, ‘Big Doctor has asked you collect your result and see Junior Doctor immediately. It’s urgent, he said.’ It is funny how the receptionist’s voice screeches like that of a rat with its tail caught in a door jamb. She must surely have a nickname, she thinks, and wonders why she has such thoughts now, unrelated in any way to time or place. She makes Raadhi sit on a chair. Nanni is nowhere to be found. What’s she doing, standing outside? Oh, never mind what she is doing, she tells herself, and walks towards the pathology lab.


‘Go alone to see the doctor. Don’t take the patient along,’ warns the girl in the pathology lab. Her face looks more wilted than it did in the morning.


At the word, ‘alone’, she stops and thinks, then walks towards the reception area. Chacha and Nanni are showing the receptionist some pills and asking for some explanation from her.


‘Chacha, will you come with me for a minute?’ she calls him in a soft, tension-filled voice and walks towards the doctor’s room. From the way he does, it is clear that he knows something.


When they come out of the doctor’s room, Raadhi is nowhere to be seen. ‘Where could she have gone?’ she wonders and looks around. Nanni’s reply that Raadhi has gone to the bathroom takes her by surprise.


Nanni looks intently at her impassive face as well as Chacha’s. Determined that Nanni must not be allowed to infer anything, she averts her face and approaches Chacha. Swallowing the grief that is rising in her from the pit of her stomach, she says, ‘Let us start immediately. After we go home, discuss and come to a decision, we can come again tomorrow and admit her.’


Wanting desperately to find out more, Nanni keeps looking at both of them in turn. With dread gathering in the pit of her stomach, she goes to the bathroom in search of Raadhi.


The very thought of having to face the difficulties of the journey again is enough to make her feel dejected. On the road, the faces of people returning to their homes in the evening look tired. It will be dark by the time they reach home. Raadhi mumbles on constantly, and she responds by nodding her head inattentively. She feels like folding Raadhi’s obese body in a tight embrace.


To her son, who asks hesitantly if the air-conditioning is to be turned on, Raadhi says, ‘Yes. Also, play that cassette of devotional songs.’


She is waiting for the fingers to poke her waist. Raadhi’s noisy chatter and her farts begin to fill the car. She is surprised that Nanni’s fingers haven’t jabbed her yet. She turns to look at Nanni. Her forehead is wrinkled in thought. Though she knows what Nanni may be thinking, it is impossible to stop her, so she leans back and closes her eyes. If her eyes were open, she would have had to witness the look of pity on Nanni’s face. It’s not something she needs right now.



Translated by N Kalyan Raman from the Tamil short story, Vilimbu by Salma, published in the monthly, Kalachuvadu, Nagercoil, Tamilnadu, March 2006, pp 50-61.


Salma: Born Rasaathi aka Rokkaiah, Salma is a leading exponent of contemporary Tamil poetry and fiction. Educated up to class nine, Salma has served as President of the Ponnampatti Panchayat Council and Chairman of Tamilnadu’s Social Welfare Board. She has two collections of poetry, Oru Malaiyum Innoru Malaiyum (One Evening and Another Evening), 2000, and Pacchai Devadai (Green Angel), 2001, and one novel, Irandam Jaamangalin Kadai (The Hour Past Midnight), 2004, published by  Kalachuvadu, as well as occasional reviews and essays. Her first collection of short stories, Saabam (The Curse) was published by the same press this year.

Salma has won recognition in India and abroad as an important contemporary feminist voice. She has been part of the national delegation of writers to The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, The London Book Fair in 2009 and The Beijing Book Fair in 2010. In May 2007, the Norman Cutler Memorial Seminar focussing on Salma’s creative works was held in the University of Chicago. A documentary on Salma, made by BBC’s Channel 4, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Toronto earlier this year.

Salma’s poems have been widely translated. Her novel has been translated into English, Malayalam, German and Catalan.

Salma lives with her family in Chennai.


N Kalyan Raman has been active as a translator for more than twenty years, with five volumes of Tamil fiction in translation to his credit. A sixth volume is to be published in June this year. Manasarovar,his translation of Ashokamitran’s novel, was shortlisted for the Vodafone-Crossword Prize in 2011. His translations of Tamil fiction and poetry have been published in important journals and anthologies of literature in Indian languages. Besides translation, he contributes the occasional book review or essay on literary subjects. With a career in technology and management behind him, he also writes on matters of technology and public policy for national newspapers and magazines.

Kalyan Raman lives and works in Chennai.