My eleven-year-old is now twelve years old! This is chapter three of “Lalli goes out on a limb.”

Birthdays are for the birds!

A pair of strong arms did declare

“We can fly with one leg, without care!

The impossible dream isn’t far

To reach the unreachable star

We’ll conquer the world if you dare!”

Sally Benson was about to help Lalli down the steps of the school bus when her twelve-year-old charge grabbed her crutches and hurried as quickly as she could into the house. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. In two hours, she would be crossing the road to celebrate the birthdays of two very dear friends, Mi-hi and Kumuda. But first she had to wrap the gifts she had bought after weeks of searching for the perfect gifts. She had finally had to consult the birthday girls’ dads. And now she knew she had the most perfect gifts ever!

Amma helped Lalli into an outfit she had bought for the party: dark blue chinos that would actually go over her PROSTHETIC leg, and a navy floral print tee. At exactly 5:29 Lalli and Nitin were ready to leave. They could hear sounds of music from across the street. Lalli wasn’t too happy about her kid brother tagging along.

“Does he have to?” she had grumbled to their parents. “They are my friends! And he’ll just …”

But Nanna and Amma[1] had INSISTED. Grown-ups always insisted.

“Learn to be more RESPONSIBLE, Lalli! You’re not a baby anymore!”

Lalli had sulked for a minute, then relented. She suddenly remembered how Nitin had been EXTRAORDINARILY supportive during those first awful weeks after the ACCIDENT. Well, not that he wasn’t a brat now.

“But he’ll just …”

Nitin had stuck his tongue out at her. Lalli had grinned and stopped whining.

They crossed the street to their friends’ home. There was no way Lalli could keep up with Nitin. He and his two legs! He bolted across the street. But she was pretty quick with her crutches too. Dr. Sandburne had given her a whole list of exercises to increase her mobility. She had to admit that she had been very scared of returning to school, but her classmates’ super enthusiastic welcome had chased away all her fears. Her homeroom teacher Ms. Gatsby had called her a second Jessica Cox.

Jessica Cox

“Jessica was born without arms. She does everything using her feet as you children would use your hands: she flies planes, drives cars, does all the normal, everyday things you and I would do using our hands and feet. And today, Jessica holds the titles of the first person without arms in the American Tae Kwon-Do Association to get a black belt, and the first woman pilot in aviation history to fly using her feet.”

“Awesome!” the class had gasped.

At home Amma and Nanna had found a different name for her: Rabiya.


Nanna had shown her a photograph of Rabiya receiving a National Youth Award in 1993:

“Her name is Kariveppil Rabiya. Polio crippled both her legs when she was only seventeen. But that has not prevented her from becoming a social worker. She has been tirelessly campaigning to educate more adults, especially women in her home state of Kerala, and elsewhere in India.”

“She is bound to her wheelchair, but she is one of the most amazing women I have known,” Amma had added. “I met her a few years ago in Kerala – you know where Kerala is, right?”

“Yes, Amma! It’s in South India!” Lalli said in a resigned voice.

“Just checking! So – I visited schools funded by a volunteer organization that Rabiya started in Kerala. The school is for physically and mentally challenged children.”

“That’s so cool! I’ll do something like that too, right, Amma? You know what? I’ll make PROSTHETICS for all the poor kids all over the world who can’t afford them. I’ll study science and invent something, and have pots and pots of money, and …”

Her parents’ grins had stopped her in her tracks.

“You think that’s funny?”

Her Nanna had quickly placed an apologetic hand on her head.

“We weren’t laughing at you, Lalli kanna. We love your passion, your Amma and I. It just makes us smile to hear you describe your ambitious plans.”

“I know, I know,” Lalli had admitted. “I talk too much. But …” Her face had brightened again. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could create a new kind of PROSTHETIC leg that would look exactly like a real leg, with nerves and veins and all?”

She had looked down at her shiny new leg and had stroked it lovingly:

“Not that this leg isn’t awesome.”

The front door of their friends’ home was wide open. As they entered the living room clutching gifts for Mi-hi and Kumuda, Lalli saw hundreds of balloons that had floated up to the ceiling, declaring in bold red letters:


The girls’ parents Ronald Armstrong and Anuraag Kulkarni were really cool. Of course, her own parents were okay, too. But Ronald and Anuraag – they were something else. For Halloween they had transformed their house into a haunted mansion with screeches and howls and rattling skeletons. And the four of them had dressed up as the Addams Family. They were definitely Lalli’s most favorite neighbors. No, that wasn’t quite true. Old Mr. Steave in the house bang opposite to theirs was wonderful too. He was a MENNONITE. She remembered how after the ACCIDENT (this word had been life-changing for her) when she was confined to a wheelchair, she had begun seeing the old man, really seeing him. She had not only helped distract him from grieving over his dead wife, but had uncovered a mystery that had allowed him to keep his house and even gain a new family.[3]

 Lalli was curious about her friends having two men for parents. But Amma and Nanna had explained what gay meant. A man could love another man, just like Amma and Nanna loved each other. It was called HOMOSEXUALITY (homo meant genus – she had learned all about AUSTRALOPITHECINE, HOMO HABILIS, HOMO ERECTUS, AND HOMO SAPIENS in science class). But because only a woman was BIOLOGICALLY equipped to give birth to a baby, Ronald and Anuraag had adopted Mi-hi and Kumuda. They had also exchanged MARITAL vows the previous year. In fact, Lalli’s friend Sharon knew all about it. Her dad, a JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, had performed the ceremony.

“How come they have a birthday, like, on the same day? Are they, like, twins or something?” Nitin had asked her the previous evening.

“No, silly! Mi-hi is Korean, and Kumuda is from South-Asia. They were ABANDONED by their mothers. That means, their mothers couldn’t look after them,” Lalli explained, an ‘I-am-your-older-sister-I –know-so-much-more’ tone tingeing her voice. “Ronald found Mi-hi at a local hospital in Seoul when working as an interpreter for the US army in Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. And Anuraag discovered Kumuda in New Delhi when someone took her from the auto-rickshaw where her mom had left her to an ORPHANAGE.”

“So they were, like, born on the same day? That’s so COOL!!!”

‘No, Dumbo! Since Anuraag and Ronald didn’t know when exactly Mi-hi and Kumuda were born, they just chose a day – RANDOMLY.”

“Wow! Wish I could, like, choose my birthday rand… what you said!” Nitin had exclaimed. “My birthday nobody’s, like, around! A summer birthday sucks!”

They heard excited voices. Kumuda and Mi-hi rushed in from the kitchen to greet them. Kumuda ripped open the gift that Lalli’s dad Sastri Mantha had wrapped so carefully.

“Wow!” Kumuda cried out. “A set of Nancy Drew mysteries! Cool! Thank you, guys!”

She looked over at her sister.

“What’d you get? Come on, sis, hurry up!”

Mi-hi glared at her sister. She placed her ear against the wrapped box and listened intently. Frowning, she sat down on the carpet, tenderly untied the bow, and carefully peeled off the tape that kept the wrapping paper together. Kumuda hid her face in her hands, unable to bear the suspense. Lalli’s face tightened as Mi-hi removed what looked like an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. She jumped up and clapped her hands delightedly.

“COOL! The best gift ever!”

She ran up to Lalli and hugged her tightly.

Kumuda and Nitin shouted as one:

“What is it?”

“It’s an En…”

Ronald and Anuraag came into the room at this moment.

“… Enigma Machine!” Anuraag exclaimed. “You did it, Lalli! Give me five!”

They excitedly raised their hands.

Nitin grumbled:

“The enig… machine … what, like, what does it do?”

Mi-hi lovingly touched the keys and said, all the while looking at her parents for confirmation:

“Enigma Machine, Nitin. It looks like a typewriter, but it’s a very so-phis-ti-ca-ted device. The Germans made it during the Second World War, right dad?”

She looked at Anuraag who nodded encouragingly.

“So how, like, how does it work?” Nitin persisted impatiently.

“When you press a letter, the cipher letter lights up on the screen. The Enigma machine has several wheels that connect letters with wires. That determines which cipher letter will light up.”

“Go ahead, Mi-hi! I know you can’t wait to try it out,” Anuraag said lovingly. “Come, kids. Gather around.”

He began:

 “The Germans used very sophisticated technology to create a machine with which they could send messages that would be practically impossible to decipher. In fact, do you know that our present-day computer is the direct descendant of the Enigma Machine?”

Lalli asked: “The Germans sent codes to spy on us?”

He bent down and gently removed the machine from Mi-hi’s unwilling hands.

“Look here. See how the wheels inside are placed? They are the key to figuring out the messages. When you know in what order the wheels are placed, you can break the code. Each wheel rotates after a certain number of letters are typed, so the cipher is continuously changing within a message. And that makes it much harder to encipher the messages.”

“Wow! You didn’t tell me all this when I asked you what Mi-hi would like for her birthday, Anuraag!” Lalli gasped. “I know you are an expert CRYPTOGRAPHER. But when you said you could get this machine from someone who collects World War II souvenirs, I really truly didn’t know what to expect!”

Anuraag plugged the machine into a wall socket.

“See how it lights up? We can play with it later on. But …”

“Dad?” Mi-hi tugged Anuraag’s sleeve impatiently.

“Yes, Mi-hi, you may take it into my study. I know you want to try it out. It’s an old machine. I’ve replaced the old frayed cord with a new one. So, we’re all set to go!”

Mi-hi smiled, unplugged and picked up the machine with Anuraag’s help, and they carried it into the study. She didn’t remove her eyes once from the machine, even as her dad gently pushed her down into a chair. He looked lovingly at this twelve-year-old girl who never ceased to amaze him with her extraordinary ability to focus on things. He planted a kiss on her head, and returned to a chaotic scene: kids were piling into the living room, Ronald was darting here and there, desperately trying to manage food, kids, and gifts.

“Anuraag, help!” he yelled. They hurried into the kitchen and carried back two cakes, one chocolate – Kumuda’s favorite – and the other a mousse cake with a caramel topping – Mi-hi’s favorite. Twelve candles graced the top of each one. Lalli looked around. The couple stood back with a sigh of relief.

“Time to get that absentee daughter of ours,” Ronald said with a smile. “I’ll go get her.”

“Wait!” Lalli cried out. “Let me! I want to see how long it’ll take her to hear me!”

“Okay, Lalli! Thanks!”

Lalli guided her crutches to the study, pushed the door open, and yelled:

“Mi-hi! Come on! Everyone’s waiting!”

There was no reply. The room was empty, the window open.

“Just like her to wander off into the garden, just to play with that new toy!”

She went up to the window.

“She must be hiding in that tree-house Ronald built for them.”

She hopped back into the living room.

“Ronald, Anuraag! She’s hiding. Has to be the tree-house, right?”

Anuraag nodded.

“I’ll get her.”

He came back a few minutes later with Mi-hi in tow:

“I had to carry her out of that tree-house!”

“Oh dad, stop!” Mi-hi protested. “But you know what? I’ve already figured out at least twenty different permutations and combinations!”

“Sure, you have, young lady!” Ronald said. “But haven’t you forgotten something?”

“Forgotten?” Mi-hi looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“Do you know why all your friends and your family are gathered here?”

“Oh, oh!” Mi-hi smiled, a dimple appearing in each cheek. “Sorry, dads! Sorry, sis!”

A few minutes later two happy faces blew out twenty-two candles. Admiringly sticky mouths and hands surrounded Mi-hi as she demonstrated the wonders of the Enigma Machine.

[1] ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ in the Telugu language of Southern India.

[2] Kariveppil Rabiya (born 1966) is a physically challenged social worker from Vellilakkadu, Malappuram, Kerala in India, who rose to prominence through her role in the Kerala State Literacy Campaign in Malappuram district in 1990. Her efforts were recognized at a national level by the Government of India on multiple occasions. (

[3] See Lalli’s Window by the same author!

More about my “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”

“Malgudi Days,” a collection of short stories by the famous Indian writer R. K. Narayan, was my inspiration forf “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” Narayan portrayed the many faces of life in the fictional town of Malgudi. My Bandilanka serves a similar purpose. However, whereas Narayan’s stories are peopled by men and dogs, mine run the gamut of caste, class, gender, and age. Here is a taste from the short story “Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma”:

Night soil removers Kaavanna and Kondamma

“If I were to be born again,

I would like to be born in the

family of a scavenger

so that I may relieve them

of the inhuman unhealthy and

hateful practice of carrying

head loads of night soil.

Mahatma Gandhi

The last rays of the sun disappeared below the western shore of the Godavari River. Kaavanna squatted at the threshold of his hut, smoking the first bidi of the night. There would be many more during the next twelve hours. Without his bidis, the stench would be overpowering. He inhaled the last bit of smoke deeply into his damaged lungs, and got up slowly, trying not to look at the blood he had just coughed up. He wondered, as he did every night, how much longer he would be able to survive. He glanced at his wife of four decades. She had inserted the lit end of the bidi into her mouth so that the smoke would go more directly into her lungs. That was the way of the Paky people. Kaavanna’s bleeding gums had stopped him from smoking this way. Kondamma finished her smoke and spat.

“Come, husband!” she whispered, tapping him gently on the shoulder. “No time to waste!”

She had given him three daughters and two sons. All of them were scavengers, just like their parents. Karma! There was no escaping one’s karma. They were Paky, the lowest of the Relli caste. The Relli thought they were so superior! They gathered fruit and sold them. And that gave them the right to steal all the Government benefits. Not that this Government does much for the likes of us. He spat as he thought of the government. It was always the same, always the same unending misery and hunger.

 If only he could get his children out of this cesspool. But how? He rubbed the small of his back. His own health was rapidly failing. He had neither the strength nor the will to live. The ‘nalla mandu’[1] that he was taking in increasing quantities was becoming more expensive. And the pain was unbearable.


His wife handed him the tools of their trade: a brush, a bucket, a metal scraper, and a wooden scoop.

“Kondamma, you should stay home today. We’ll manage. You know you are …”

“Yes, yes!”

Kondamma aggressively tucked the end of her sari around her waist.

“Listen carefully, husband! If I allowed my monthly shame to interfere with our work, you would all be starving by now.”

She called out to their children who were hastily swallowing flattened rice puffed up in a little watery milk. Kondamma handed each of them a bagful of raw peanuts that a farmer from the neighboring village had given them for cleaning his latrines.

“Don’t eat them all at once!” she cautioned. “And don’t forget those jute scarves for your faces. Did you soak them in sesame oil?”

“Yes, Amma!” came the chorus-like response from five teenage voices. Her oldest – a son – would turn nineteen in a couple of months. She sighed.

“Husband, we don’t have any kerosene left. It will be hard.”

Kerosene had become too expensive. And without it, the stench from the latrines would be like entering narakam.[2]

The group picked up the soiled gunny bags that contained their tools. Kaavanna whispered:

“Time to go! We have to get there before the early morning trains block the tracks.”

Today’s work was along the railway tracks in the Bandilanka station. The amount of human excreta along the tracks was one of the less onerous of the tasks facing them every night. They wouldn’t have to climb down into the big holes of the pig toilets. Kondamma shuddered. Her worst nightmare was imagining she was choking to death in the putrefying muck. Her sins in a previous life must have been horrific indeed for her to be reborn into this most dehumanizing of tasks.

Seven figures slunk along the side roads and back alleys to get to the railway station, avoiding the main roads. It would be safer that way. If people spotted them, they either threw garbage at them, stoned them, or came at them with lathis.[3] “Unclean pigs!” The cry never varied. “Daridram![4] Daridram! Unclean pigs! Unclean pigs!”

The tracks were glistening after an early morning shower. Kaavanna bent down to feel the ground.

“We have a few hours to work. When the station master comes out early morning at the sun’s first rays, he will not want to lay eyes on us – it would be a bad omen for him. He’s a Brahmin.”

The seven spaced themselves along the track. Using wooden hand scoops, each followed a segment of the track and collected waste from between the rails. An exhausting two hours later Kondamma cried out:

“We will pause here. Eat some of those peanuts! And Rangamma, go quickly to the pump …”

Older daughter Rangamma took out a brass pitcher from her bag.

“The one outside the station house? But Amma …”

“Yes, I know. We’re not allowed there. But at this time … just be careful! And try to get as much water as you can!”

Rangamma slowly walked to the water pump. Kaavanna took out a bidi, but before he could light it he collapsed on the iron rails.

“Husband!” Kondamma bent over her husband. “Talk to me! Say something!”

“Deva, deva!” she moaned, looking at her husband’s mouth. It was covered with bloody froth. She knew there was no hope for them here.

“Help me carry him home!” she ordered her trembling children. “His heart is still beating.”

Eighteen-year-old Venkatabaabu lifted his father’s frail body, and walked towards the station house.

“Amma, we need our money first! For medicines. The station master Reddy garu, we have to ask him.”

He knocked on the door. A middle-aged man clad in the  uniform of a station master emerged. He stopped at the sight of Venkatabaabu and covered his nose with a starched white handkerchief.

“Yes, what is it? Don’t tell me you have completed your job.”

“Reddy garu, our father – he is very ill, perhaps dying even. We need some money to pay for the medicines, for the Vaidya.”

“What impertinence!” Reddy screamed. “You get paid only for finished work! Go back this minute! You people, you expect us to feed and clothe you for nothing?”

“No, Reddy garu, but …”

“So! Well, you won’t get paid and that is my final word.”

The pompous station master twirled his walrus moustache, and banged the door shut in Venkatabaabu’s face. Inside the house, he grinned and counted the money he had kept from the scavengers – a hundred Rupees, but he’d be able to buy a bottle of country liquor with the money.

“It’s no use, Venkatabaabu. We have to hurry!” Kondamma whispered. “Our Vaidya[5] will help. When we visited him a month ago, he gave us free medication. No one else will touch us.”

She looked anxiously at her husband. His breathing was becoming shallower by the minute. Was that a whisper? He was trying to say something.

“Wait!” she said to her son. “Put him down! He’s trying to tell us something.”

   Kaavanna looked at his family through tear-filled eyes.

“My wife, my children, this is the end of the road. I know the moment has come for me to leave this life.”

His voice trembled as he spoke his last wish:

“You will scatter my ashes in the waters of Mother Godavari. My blessings on you all.”

His eyes closed. The breathing stopped. Quietly, his family carried him home.

A week later, the local Telugu language newspaper reported:



BREAKING NEWS, 4. April, 2018: The eleven-year-old son of our local station master Ramayya Reddy was tragically run over by the morning express from Hyderabad when he slipped on fecal matter that hadn’t been removed from the tracks. Ramayya Reddy has been arrested for gross negligence in mismanaging the cleanliness of the tracks. He has been accused of underpaying or pocketing the money owed to manual scavengers. There have been protests about fatalities resulting from scavenging. But this time a widespread strike by manual scavengers is directed at Mr. Reddy for gross abuse and exploitation. The Corporation is investigating the case.

Kondamma wiped her eyes as she read the news item.

“Come, Amma! It is time to go.”

At the shores of the Godavari, five figures jointly poured the ashes from a brass pot into the waters of the river, as their mother chanted a prayer to the gods for the souls of her husband and the boy martyred on those railway tracks.

[1] Opium

[2] Hell (in Telugu)

[3] Lathi: a heavy iron-bound bamboo stick

[4] Daridram means poverty. The word is used in a derogatory manner, as a curse.

[5] Non-codified traditional doctor.

Lalli’s story

At a recent librarian’s convention in Williamsburg, my “Lalli’s Window” generated a lot of interest (and buying power!). The appearance of a eleven-year-old South-Asian girl who loses a leg in an accident brought tears to the eyes of another eleven-year-old girl who asked me when I was signing the book for her: “Did she HAVE to lose a leg?” It broke my heart, but I felt at that moment that it changed that empathic girl’s perception of the world around her, as it did my Lalli’s!

As a writer of mystery novels, I’d love to see who reads my blog!

Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives

My latest is a collection of short stories with the title “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives.” A remote village in South India – home to my grandparents – brought back almost forgotten memories of people in the house who carried out all the unimaginably demeaning tasks that caste and class condemned them to do! My stories bring these lives into focus, listen to their voices, cherish their dreams! The loving washerman, the proud sweeper woman, the lonely widow, the child bride … these are some of the lives that lend purity to an otherwise corrupt Brahmin oligarchy!

One more tale of widowhood!

A widow reborn

Small-pox was ravaging Bandilanka. The grounds were covered with bodies waiting to be cremated.

“Send the untreatable cases home!” the local doctor directed the two nurses on call. “There is no room for them here.” 

Venkateshwara Rao whispered:

“Just one glimpse – one glimpse of our daughter!”

Gayatri shook her head.

“The doctor says it is too dangerous – the infection.”

Venkateshwara Rao tried to nod. The sores were rapidly closing his eyes. He could make out the faint form of his wife.

“From the door, perhaps?” he whispered again, every word hurting his throat.

Gayatri ran into the next room and returned with a tiny bundle in her arms. 

“May God bless and keep you, my daughter,” he murmured. His eyes closed. The room became very still. Gayatri bent her head as her tears bathed the tiny body of daughter Sarada. 

“Come, daughter!” Her father’s voice softly brought her back to the unforgiving path of the living. Your mother-in-law wants to see you.”

She drew back. What would the in-laws think? That it was her fault? That it was because of her sins from a previous birth? She felt the baby in her arms – sound asleep. Would they, would she want to take her child away?

She stepped into the drawing room, followed by her father. The father-in-law was sitting in the most comfortable armchair. His wife stood behind him like a sentinel.

“Brother-in-law,” she heard him address her father, “Once the cremation is over, we will return to Guntur – with our daughter-in-law.”

The mother-in-law stepped out from behind the armchair.

“You need not bring anything for yourself. Just get the child’s clothes and anything else you need for her.”

“Yes, atha,” Gayatri murmured, keeping her eyes lowered to the floor.  Why doesn’t she look at my child, at her granddaughter? Does she think this innocent child is responsible for her father’s death? Baby Sarada opened her eyes as if sensing her mother’s distress. She pushed her mouth against her mother’s breast, and made loud sucking sounds.

“If you will excuse me, atha, I have to …”

“Yes, yes,” the mother-in-law said impatiently. “Go!”

She sat on the cot, released the buttons on her wet blouse, and felt her child’s mouth unerringly finding the nipple. The tears from her eyes mingled with the milk that fed Sarada. A little later she lovingly placed the sleeping child in the cradle. As she straightened up, she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder.

“Gayatri! Listen to me, daughter!”

“Nanna! What if … what if … “

“That is what I have come to tell you. I will not allow them to take you away, Gayatri. We, your mother and I, have decided …”

She said, disbelief tingeing her voice:

“Can you do that? Can you really do that?”

“Tradition might dictate otherwise, daughter. But a tradition that tells us that a daughter is less important than a son needs to be questioned.”

Gayatri stared at her father. He never ceased to astonish her.

“What if the in-laws create trouble? I don’t want to …”

Her father sat down and sighed.

“And here I thought you wanted to study, to educate yourself, to make something of yourself. Of course, if you wish to go to Guntur and live the life of a widow, we cannot prevent …”

“No, no, Nanna!” she interrupted. “Of course not! My husband – your son – and I talked about it often. He wanted me to go back to college.”

“Well then, we will only be following his wishes.”

More on “Bandilanka’s Forgotten lives”

Women in the village of Bandilanka, a fictional village in South India, lose their voices along with their identities when they outlive their husbands. Listen to one of those suppressed voices!:

A husband of sixty-five years

“It is time, husband.”

He looked into her eyes, pleading for a few more minutes of life. His frail hand pressed hers. She bent over him as he gasped:

“Not … not yet!”

His body shuddered, the final breath left his body. The silence in the room was deafening.

Her brother-in-law chanted the mantra “Aum Namo Narayana” in her husband’s ear. Another relative applied holy ash on his forehead. She watched as one of her sons poured a few drops of Ganga water into his father’s mouth. All four sons placed the body on the ground at the home’s entryway, with the head facing south. Her eldest daughter-in-law lit a lamp and placed it near the head, along with burning incense. 

She stared as a cloth was tied under her husband’s chin and over the top of his head. She stared as they tied his thumbs together, then the big toes. She remembered soft hands lovingly tracing the contour of her face on their nuptial night. 

Her husband of sixty-five years. The cremation grounds – it was time for her eldest son to light the funeral pyre. He stood solemnly in the midday sun, the hot rays mercilessly bouncing off his shaven head. Her three other sons stood behind him, the youngest nervously scratching the unaccustomed stubble on his chin. Only her eldest daughter-in-law, the one who would take over the household from her, had accompanied them to the cremation grounds. The two women had sat in the privacy of the single hut on the grounds, waiting for the priest to complete the holy words.

She knew that the priest would make every attempt to stretch the proceedings as far as he possibly could – shorter prayers would earn him less money and food. Fatigue finally overcame her. Her eyes closed. The last few months had been one long nightmare. He had wanted her by his side every minute of the day and night. “Sita! Where are you? Sita! Where are you? Sita! I need you.” She couldn’t escape the cry. It haunted her everywhere, it pursued her into the fields, it dragged her away from the well, it burnt her hands in the kitchen. “Sita! Massage my head!” “Sita! Massage my legs – they are cramping!” The nights were the worst. “Sita! Lie down beside me!” The rancid breath, the bed sores all over his back and buttocks, the greasy hair – when would this torture end? What sins had she committed in previous lives to deserve this?

“Atha!” She felt her daughter-in-law shake her. “The barber.”

She wound her long grey hair into a tight bun, felt its weight on the nape of her neck for the last time, and got up. An older female relative, also a widow, came up to her.

“Come, sister. Let us go.”

She had already given away all her worldly possessions – saris and jewelry – to the married and unmarried women in the household, even before her husband had expelled a final breath from his tortured body. The barber took out razor and comb. She had no tears left as her long salt-and-pepper hair fell to the earthen floor.


Lalli goes out on a limb

Lalli goes out on a limb!

There once was a gal real cheery

Her life was never ever dreary!

For she learned to smile

In her own gutsy style

At fate and its pranks, oh so weary!

A tale of two brides

Here it is, the first few pages of another story from my collection “Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”:

A marriage is announced

Bandilanka’s Main Street was lined with festoons of flowers. Loudspeakers relentlessly blared the latest hits from Kollywood. It was once again the wedding season. And the most lavish of weddings would be celebrated this year. At the far end a colossal wedding mandap had been erected. It was made entirely of teak wood and decorated with kalashas, garlands of mango leaves, coconuts, and banana leaves. But this was no ordinary wedding. Bandilanka’s wealthiest landowner P. V. Krishnarao was celebrating the marriage of his only daughter, fourteen-year-old Nirmala. The pillars were covered with the finest silk from Varanasi, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Statuettes of gods and goddesses made of pure silver were on stage, ready to greet and bless the wedding guests.

Krishnarao had chosen Arun, the twenty-year-old son of  Sarvepalli Viswanadham, a  business magnate from the metropolitan city of Hyderabad. Both families would benefit from the alliance. Krishnarao had always wanted to be part of the urban elite. And Viswanadham would appreciate the money that his future daughter-in-law would bring. Main Street was buzzing with rumors about the amount of gold and diamonds the bride had received. Amrita’s gossipy tongue, permanently colored red with the juice of betel leaves, became longer by the day.

“Have you heard?” Amrita began today’s gossip session where a dozen other women were gathered for their weekly kitty-party. It was her turn to host the party. She licked her betel-red lips in anticipation of all the gossip she’d be able to spread. 

“Nirmala’s future mother-in-law has given her a kasulaperu[AND a diamond vanki.” “And,” she continued, “they are to have bogam-vaallu also.”

“That is scandalous!” her neighbor Kaanthi exclaimed, excitement making her voice go an octave higher to a screech. “I suppose the madam will also be there.”

“Of course! Kumari madam cannot possibly be absent,” Amrita countered all-knowingly. “She still calls herself and those girls of hers devadasis! Can you believe it? What shamelessness! ‘Maid-servants of god’! Ha!”

She stopped talking as the front door was opened. The subject of all this gossip entered. Amrita got up to welcome her. “Shanta!” she sweetly cooed. “We were just talking about you!”

Nirmala’s mother cast a regal smile on the group, adjusted her Kanchipuram designer sari to show off the gold embroidery, sat down on the comfortable sofa that Amrita had vacated, and sighed: “So very exhausting to shop for my daughter! These girls nowadays – they want the most expensive clothes. For the reception, Nirmala will wear nothing less than a … what do they call it? … a sharara[made of gold brocade! Just imagine! And she insists on buying that ugly North Indian jewelry.”

The other women eagerly nodded in agreement. Some of them had already bought saris and jewelry for the wedding. It wouldn’t do to antagonize Shanta. But a lone voice offered hesitantly: “Shantakka, surely … surely she’ll observe tradition for the muhurtham!”

There were gasps all around the circle. Shanta looked disdainfully at Parvati the newcomer. Amrita jumped in: “Parvati, Parvati! Our Shanta LEADS us in observing our sacred traditions. We always look to her for advice, don’t we?” she added, looking at the other women. In unison they thought: “Parvati has just forfeited her opportunity to attend the wedding.”


Prepare to be a bride

Nirmala sat in front of a full-length rose-colored etched mirror that her grandfather had brought back from France. She fussed and pulled her hair, trying to ignore her mother. Shanta’s angry words still hung in the air: “What will people say? You have to wear a madhuparkam[– it is our tradition.”

“Tradition?” she had yelled. “Wearing white? I want to look like Aishwarya Rai,[6]I want to wear colors, Amma, not that boring white!”

Her father had intervened. “Let her be, Shanta! It is her wedding day. She should be happy.”

Nirmala grinned. Her father was her ally. She always got her way.

She looked at the mirror now. “I look horrid. Do something!” she screamed to the hairdresser her mother had acquired from Hyderabad.

The hairdresser kept quiet. She had dealt with the spoilt daughters of rich clients before. The trick was to keep busy, letting them rant and rave. They usually calmed down when she had finished doing their hair. The money was very good. A few more events like this, and she’d be able to marry her own daughter into a rich family. Shutting out intermittent screams of ‘Ouch!’ and ‘Stop yanking!” she pulled Nirmala’s hair back, backcombed it and created a puff. Spraying it to keep it in shape, she made a ponytail and rolled a bun into it. Finally, she attached a long braid to the bun, a braid that was decorated with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Nirmala’s frown gradually changed into a smile. The final step were the jasmine flowers, several garlands. She wove the flowers into the braid, being careful not to hide the jewels. Nirmala smiled at her reflection. The hairdresser heaved a sigh of relief. “The makeup won’t be that painful,” she hoped. The girl had good facial bones. Some mascara, pale lipstick, and eye-shadow with a touch of gold. She waited for a reaction. But self-absorbed Nirmala was too busy admiring her reflection to pay attention to the miracle the hairdresser had just wrought.


Prepare to be a devadasi

Fourteen-year-old Durga sat quietly in front of a cracked mirror while her mother Kumari took out her Prasādhana Petikā. She applied a special cosmetic tailam[to her daughter’s face, and colored her lips with vermilion paste. Then she opened a small bottle of coconut oil, poured some oil into the palm of her hand, and massaged it vigorously into Durga’s luxuriant black hair. After combing the hair to her satisfaction, she took a long chain of jasmine flowers and braided hair and flowers together. Finally, she applied sandalwood paste to her daughter’s feet. Against the yellow background of the sandalwood, she lined the sides of the feet and the toe nails with vermilion paste She stepped back to examine her daughter.