“Thankam, are you listening?”
Iyer dipped a piece of thosai in hot vegetable stew and popped it into his mouth.
“Our son will land at Kochi by noon…he will be home for dinner…”
An orange sarong hugged Iyer’s ample stomach. A thin white thread — which hung vertically across his bare body — whispered his religious status.
Iyer and his wife belonged to the Brahmin village of Kalpathy in central Kerala where the mythical black serpent of sorrow thrived.
“Will he even remember the way to his house?”asked Thankam.
She mixed the thosai batter with a ladle and pushed the long end of her dull blue kanjeevaram sari into her underskirt.
“The black serpent will show him the way,”said Iyer.
Thankam looked at the surrounding hillside from the slatted window of her kitchen.
“There is no such thing…the black serpent is just a myth,”she said.
Iyer rubbed his bald head and laughed.
“Is that why you light a lamp every evening on that wall in the yard?”
“Everyone here does it…so I do it too…I have never seen a serpent anywhere in this village…or on the hillside.”
Thankam’s earrings shone in the faint light that fell through the bricked ceiling. Her gold bangles tinkled as she pulled a big red sticker bindi from the refrigerator door and stuck it on her wrinkled forehead.
“He is bringing Aisha too,”said Iyer. “Remember…his friend…in America.”
“Make some of that spicy sambar saadam…along with yam fry and milk pudding,”said Iyer.
“Will the girl like it?”
“Her name is Aisha…”
Thankam pursed her lips.
“Will she like it?”
“I think so,”he said. “Shall I cut some banana leaves for the night?”
“Will she eat from a leaf?”
“Aisha is a nice girl…you should talk to her once.”
Iyer drank some water.
“He wants to marry her.”
Thankam stopped breathing for a second. Iyer continued to speak…a little faster than before.
“How she turned him around, no?”
“Why didn’t he tell ME that he wants to marry her?”
“He wanted you to meet her first.”
Iyer watched her turn slowly, like a ghost. She didn’t say anything.
“I heard he hasn’t touched alcohol in a very long time…Thankam…are you listening?”
Thankam’s voice sliced the air.
“Yes, yes…everything that girl only did…what was I doing then… swatting flies?”
Iyer stopped eating.
“U also tried, Thankam.”
Thankam switched off the stove and flung the ladle on the floor.
Their dog fled the kitchen and whined in the yard. Thankam marched to the back door and threw a matchbox at the dog.
“Get out, you mongrel. Find a girl and go away…and tell everyone how great she is and how she transformed you…go!”
She picked up the ladle and hurled it into the sink. It made a clattering sound.
“You are overreacting, Thankam…”
The rickety wooden bench on which Iyer sat creaked as Thankam sat next to him.
“I gave my life for us…for our son…my whole life…grinding and cleaning and washing…”
Iyer glanced at the dark corridor that led to the verandah of their home.
“Do you have to shout?”he asked.
“All my life…and you say i TRIED?”
Iyer played with a piece of thosai. It had lost its crispness.
Thankam shook him by the arm and shouted.
“I took him to school and tuition class. I arranged music teachers and violin sessions.”
She wheezed as she spoke.
“I taught him how to swim and I taught him how to walk and I taught him how to eat and I showed him how to put on his pants…and comb his hair and wear his shoes and slip down from a slide…and…I only tried?”
She squeezed his arm.
“I failed, didn’t I?”
“And…this girl…he has been with her for a year maybe?”
Her eyes were misty.
“This girl from nowhere…with hair like boys…she changed him?”
“She loves him…”
Thankam ignored Iyer.
“She changed him from what…to what…beast to Buddha?”
Iyer closed his eyes.
“Are you even listening, Thankam?”
She cracked her knuckles and mumbled.
“He learned how to sleep here…in my palms…I taught him how to laugh and cry…and…”
Thankam choked back a sob.
“…and I knew of his struggles too…and…”
Iyer shook his head.
“Thankam…not today…not now. Leave it.”
She pulled out the long end of her sari and covered her face with it.
“I knew what he fought against…every single day. Yet…”
“Why do you blame only yourself all the time…as if I don’t matter? I was here too…”
“…because everyone questions only ME all the time…”
Iyer got up and rinsed his plate.
“Shall i cut some banana leaves?”he asked.
“If you matter so much…why does everyone look at me — and only me — when they talk abt his alcoholism?”
“You aren’t listening, Thankam…shall I cut the leaves?”
Thankam’s hand gripped the table.
“Their eyes are full of accusations — Where were YOU? What did YOU do? How did YOU not see?”
“They ask me too, Thankam.”
“But you have an answer. You were working and travelling…and I was at home.”
She caught his sleeve when he tried to leave.
“God knows I tried…I took him to temples and doctors and priests and astrologers…and…and…I tried to find a girl for him…but…he wanted to leave.”
“He left…and he found a girl…and he is fine now…”
Iyer sat again. She left his sleeve and stared at a spot on the table.
“The first night he came home drunk…you weren’t home. I let him be…I didn’t scold him.”
“I didn’t trust you,”she said. “I didn’t tell you anything because…”
He let out a false laugh.
“You trusted no one with him, Thankam. Not even me.”
She scratched the table with a broken nail.
“So now it’s my problem.”
“You did what you thought was right. It just didn’t turn out well for him…he didn’t want your constant intervention. It made him feel weak. It made him look small.”
Thankam’s eyes flashed about and her nostrils flared.
“I know I went wrong somewhere…but…that girl…”
Iyer caught her cold, bony hands.
“That girl has a name — Aisha.”
Thankam looked away.
“I won’t call her anything at all.”
Iyer left her hands and held his head.
“Stop thinking only you have the right to know him, to heal him.”
“I am his mother…I looked after him…and…”
Iyer banged the table with his fist.
“Can’t another woman help him out? Does it always have to be you? Can’t she love him like you do?”
“Like I do?”
“I am his…”
“You are his mother…so?”
Thankam’s eyes welled up as she glared at Iyer.
“Where is she from…what is her caste?”
“I don’t care about all that. She could help him because he let her.”
“I was ready to help him too,”she said.
“He didn’t want your help.”
Iyer looked at his wife’s tired eyes.
“Because it came with expectations…you expect him to be just the way you want him to be…”
“I want him to be a good boy…to pray daily, to not drink, to not eat meat…to be a good Brahmin boy…is that too much to ask of a child I gave life to?”
“You gave him life?”
Iyer stood up and sat down again.
“Did you make him…with your own hands…did you make your own womb…the umbilical cord that held him to you…his blood vessels and organs and his little hands and feet…did YOU make them?”
Thankam felt a twitch in her gut. She noticed the sudden shift in her breath as Iyer continued to talk.
“Life makes life. It also destroys. We don’t make or unmake anything.”
Thankam blinked furiously.
“Oh…you and your philosophy…only I know the pain I suffered…”
“You didn’t command that pain…you only suffered it. It came to you when the time was right. You couldn’t have stopped it even if you wanted to.”
Thankam exhaled like a sick animal. She heard her stomach hiss.
“You don’t own his soul, Thankam.”
She saw the dog’s food bowl lying in a corner. Her son had found the mongrel swimming in the flood waters that had wrecked the village several years ago.
She still remembered her son’s thick eyelashes, his big black eyes. They brimmed with love for the little dog.
Thankam stood up and filled the bowl with rice and butter. Iyer spoke again.
“You made him feel guilty of who he was, Thankam. You held him responsible for what you have let yourself be — a controlling, resentful mother…are you even listening?”
“I am not deaf.”
Iyer stood up and shouted.
“You talk of his childhood as if you were never happy he was around, as if he gave you no joy. All your help — your so-called love — stands on your anxieties. It doesn’t rise from any genuine desire to understand your son or accept him the way he is.”
She shot an angry look at him but Iyer continued.
“You spent your life minding him because YOU wanted to do it. All your effort rises from YOUR desire to support him…in YOUR way. You don’t even know what he needs from you.”
Thankam ran out to the yard, spread her arms out and moaned.
“Is this what I get for worshipping you every single day of my despicable life?”
“Yes…first your son, now that serpent.”
She walked in to her kitchen again but Iyer babbled on like a mad man.
“YOU wanted a marriage. YOU wanted a child. YOU lit a lamp for this nonsensical serpent.”
Thankam had never seen her husband like this. He trembled with rage.
“YOU chose to do what you did…and now you blame us all for it.”
Iyer’s breath came in ragged spurts as he walked away. Thankam wanted to stop him but the mongrel in the yard whined again.
A warm tear made its way down Thankam’s face.
The dog came running into the house carrying something in its mouth.
“What is this?”she asked.
It dropped the matchbox she had flung at it and looked at her with a love that was absolute and limitless.
Thankam’s throat tightened and her heart sank.
A wave of sorrow slithered up her spine as her gut coiled into itself. She clutched her stomach and stared at the blazing brown hillside.
“The serpent,”she mumbled.
It stung her hard, the black serpent of sorrow.
She sat on the floor with her arms around her stomach and howled like an animal. Her pain crushed her soul and cleansed her of all the venom she had carried all along. It churned her breath as she fell to her side – like a fetus – with her legs pulled up and her fists on her chest.She slept till her body relaxed and woke to feel a feathery lightness of heart that enlivened her.
The dog was still by her side.
Thankam got up and squinted through the window again to see the hill staring back at her. She kept the dog’s food bowl down on the floor. It raised its head for a minute as her fingers caressed its ears.
“What happened?”she asked.
It scanned her face with its probing eyes, as if it recognised something that wasn’t there before.
“Do you believe in the black serpent?”
The dog wagged its tail. She held its furry face in her palms and kissed it.
“I do too.”
And as the sun dived down to spread its golden glow over Kalpathy’s many little homes, Iyer smelled the sugary fragrance of rice pudding.
He peered into the kitchen to see Thankam in a bright red pattu saree.
“Shall I cut some banana leaves?”he asked.
Thankam stirred the pudding and spoke.
“Is there anything I have done right with him?”
Her voice was soft, like the sweet pudding on the stove.
“Aisha was born to Muslim parents in Iran,”said Iyer.
“She came to America as an immigrant and grew to embrace a culture our son knows nothing about.”
Thankam looked at him. Her eyes were grim yet peaceful.
“That he could accept her as she is and love her without conditions…that is your gift to him, Thankam…your constant need to change him gave him a deeper wisdom perhaps.”
Thankam opened her mouth to say something but Iyer stopped her.
“Life works in mysterious ways, Thankam…it’s okay to not understand everything.”
He went to the backyard for fresh green banana leaves to cut and wash.
Thankam soon followed. She carried an earthen lamp that filled the air with the smell of gingelly oil.
“Ah…”said Iyer. “…for the black serpent of sorrow.”
“It will show them the way, won’t it?”
“Who?”asked Iyer, as if he didn’t know.
Thankam noticed her breath rise and fall — as smooth as the wings of a flying sea gull.
“It’s a mythical creature, Thankam…probably a metaphor for…”
Thankam put a finger to her lips.
“Life works in mysterious ways…It’s okay to not understand everything.”
Iyer stood with his mouth open.
“For once…you were listening, Thankam!”