Mad woman in the cellar
She picked up the ivory comb from the floor.
“Got you!” she screamed as she squashed a fat louse.
She ran the comb through her salt-and-pepper hair, hoping to catch more pests. Scratch, scratch, scratch. What was that? She got up, tried to cover her scrawny breasts with her torn sari. They were back, those demons. She would have to hide again.
The chant went on and on. She rammed her fingers into her ears. Nothing shut those demonic cries out. She ran and stumbled, ran and stumbled again. Where was it? Where was that place? Her safe place, near the rail tracks. The stench was overpowering. She pulled the cover off the manhole and stepped inside.
“Let the bitch go,” one of the boys said.
She looked at the ivory comb in her hand. Memories of her grandmother combing her hair – she smiled happily. It was time to go to the gates. She wrapped her torn sari carefully around her body, and cautiously peeped out of the manhole. They had gone, those horrid boys. She threw some water from the nearby hand pump on her face and sighed. The water felt good. People were staring. They always stared. Let them stare, she thought. She stumbled on, picturing those massive brass gates.
The cry paralyzed her. It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. A voice from her past.
She looked at him. The man on the sled had both arms heavily bandaged. His legs were mere stumps.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Are you going to the gates?”
“What gates?” she asked uneasily, tucking her ivory comb between her narrow breasts.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me. My manhood is gone. This wretched leprosy – wiped out all the sins I have ever committed in my past births.”
He laughed, spat on the sidewalk, and held out a pleading stump at passersby. They hurried past both of them, covering their mouths.
“Our oh so munificent Bandilanka people! They go to their temples, offer money and food to the gods … expiation of their sins against payment … and our kind starves.”
She began walking away from him. He followed her slowly, using both stumps as oars to push his cart forward.
The gates loomed ahead of them. Behind them, Malathi saw the outlines of the mansion. She quickened her pace. Finally. It was time. She stood in front of the brass bars.
Malathi looked down at the little girl.
“Here,” the girl said, as she pushed food wrapped in plantain leaves.
“Some rice, and lentils too.”
Malathi felt the tears coursing down her cheeks. She took the packet and turned to go.
“Wait, I have something else for you.”
The girl held out a bright red sari.
“This was Amma’s. But she says older women ought not to wear bright colors anymore. You can wear it, can’t you? You are young.”
Malathi thrust her hand through the bars to caress the girl’s face.
“Yes, I can wear it.”
The man on the cart smiled and nodded.
“Yes, she can wear it.”
That evening she walked down the main street of Bandilanka, proudly clad in her red sari, the ivory comb stuck in her ragged hair. She didn’t hear the cries of “Whore! Whore!” that followed her. She didn’t hear the sound of the suburban bus as it thundered up to her. The ivory comb flew through the air. The man on the cart caught it with both his stumped hands.