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Arpanam

Ashwin Mudigonda | Updated on January 24, 2021

Gone girl: Divya watched the hubbub of activity with mild bemusement   -  ISTOCK.COM

“Amma,” Divya yelled from the bathroom. “There’s something in my teeth.”

Balakrishnan and Veena froze and stared at one other. They had just settled down after dinner. Bala had brought out the paan dabba to roll meetha paansfor everyone. Veena had pulled out her embroidery set to continue working on the beachscape. The television prattled in the background, which Bala’s elderly mother was staring at, allagog from behind thick glasses. Outside, the Madras night had just settled in, fanning the much-needed sea breeze through the house. In this languid state, Divya’s proclamation electrified everyone.

Veena dropped the needles and leapt upfrom the sofa. Bala rushed to the bathroom where little Divya was standing atop a stool, her forefinger inside her toothpaste-caked mouth.

She looked at her parents with a worry unbecoming of a six-year-old child. “Amma...”

Veena rushed to her daughter and wiped her face with the edge of her sari. “What is it, Divya?” Her voice quavered. “Wh-what happened?”

“Something’s in my teeth,” Divya said and tapped her cheek.

“Let me...,” Bala said. “Let me see. It must be nothing. Just a... drumstick piece...”

He gingerly stuck his finger into Divya’s mouth and ran it against the gums of her upper jaw. Now, his finger stopped, and his eyes ballooned.

“What?” Veena asked. “Is it...”

Bala retrieved and washed his finger. He hugged Divya tight. Veena collapsed on the floor and bawled. Her mother-in-law ambled towards the commotion. “What is it?” she asked. “Why is the entire family going mad?”

“Amma,” Bala said, his voice unsteady. “Divya’s... it... the tusks are growing.”

His mother steadied herself against the wall, careful to avoid the tear-off calendar of Lord Murugan. “Aiyo! That means... she’ll visit tonight.”

***

Even though she knew it was futile, Veena went about shutting and latching the windows. Bala locked the doors from the inside. He took deep breaths and tried to steady himself but found his sanity evaporating. His mother bathed, drew a kolam in front of the idols and lit oil lamps. She clenched her eyes and beseeched all the gods and goddesses.

Divya watched the hubbub of activity with mild bemusement.

“Amma, I’ve to pack my school bag,” she said. Veena paused and squatted next to her.

“Divya,” she said, her voice quavering. “Kanna.” She brushed her daughter’s hair back and found no words. She could not explain what was about to happen. She hugged Divya and wept.

“Why are you crying? I itself am not crying.”

Bala knelt beside his family and hugged them, his banian already stained with silent tears.

***

Divya dozed, but the others couldn’t. They sat in front of the idols, clutching their palms, praying fervently.

Around three o’clock, the first signs appeared.

The wind picked up outside and howled. This was no ordinary sea breeze any more. With each minute, it heaved, whispering hoarsely as it barrelled the house. The windows shivered, their latches straining as the panes began to crack. The front door, a big metal thing that creaked, rattled as if a madman in a cage was trying to get out. Now, there was the smell of the wet earth as rain started to pour. Ordinarily an inviting odour, the petrichor this time terrified the occupants of the house.

“I’ll go check on Divya,” Veena said and stood up.

“We’ll come,” Bala said. His mother stood up to follow.

When they entered Divya’s room, they noticed that it was bright outside like a fully lit cricket stadium. Branches beat the windowpanes as if entreating to be allowed in. Now, the door to the verandah swung open with such an explosive force that it splintered at the hinges. The easy chair started rocking furiously. Divya sat up in her bed.

“Kanna,” Veena said. “I’m here. Appa is here too. And paati.”

Divya, confused, shrugged her mother off, pointed to the verandah, and said, “Who’s that?”

Eye of the storm: It was evident that the thunderstorm had formed just over their house   -  THE HINDU/ BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

It was evident that the thunderstorm had formed just over their house. The surroundings were a picture of calm. Coconut trees waved softly behind lamp posts that sprinkled aweak, yellow light onto the streets. Stray dogs yipped and howled. But within the perimeter of their house, it was a maelstrom. And in the torrential rain, slowly approaching them, was a figure on whom not a drop fell. Despite the rain, they heard the tinny sounds of her anklets. Ching. Ching. Ching.

The family shrivelled and clung to each other, forming a cocoon around the young child. Bala’s mother recited the vishnu sahasranamam. The silhouette clarified into the form of a woman wearing a white sari. She walked towards the house in a measured gait.

She was now close to the house. They noticed that she was bedecked with the most ornate jewellery. Gold, rubies and diamonds hung from her nose and ears and snaked around her neck and waist. She walked with an equipoise befitting divinity, but her feet never touched the ground.

“Amma, who’s that aunty?” Divya asked, unperturbed by the situation.

Veena placed her palm over Divya’s mouth. “Don’t speak a word,” she hissed.

***

The night raged on. Windows cracked all around the house and doors fell apart. The very foundation of the house was under attack. The woman was in their verandah now. Her perfect lips were as red as kumguvam, and her delicate eyes laced with kohl. She smiled, revealing a glowing set of pointy teeth.

“Divya,” she said. It was a celestial voice booming from all directions at once.

Bala mewled in terror.

“Div…yah!” the woman repeated. “Such a pretty name for such a pretty child.”

“Thank you, miss,” Divya said, associating this authoritative figure with one of her teachers at school.

The woman threw her head back and cackled. “So fearless! No wonder the mami chose you.”

Veena knelt and brought her palms together. Bala and his mother immediately followed.

“Please,” Veena said, tears streaming down her face. “Please, spare her. She’s only six.”

The woman’s face turned into mock disappointment. “Spare? But she’s been chosen.” The room smelled of ozone now.Veena felt her hair standing up. “When the mami chooses” — she leaned forward, and her neck extended until her face was a few inches from Veena’s — “then you shall... offer.”

She returned to her form and composed herself. “The cleansing showers will be finished soon.” Her brows furrowed. “Why’re you sad? This is a gift by the mami. You’ll be rewarded. Wealth will be” — she reached for the necklace, unclasped it, and tossed it onto the bed — “... wealth will never be a problem. The mami will ensure that for the rest of your lives.” She looked at Bala’s mother. “Health, too. And when the time comes, your deaths will be peaceful.” She snapped her finger. Sparks leapt from them.

She stared at them as her torso turned until it faced the verandah. She bared her pointy teeth.

“Rama!” Bala’s mother screamed. Veena covered Divya’s eyes as she clenched hers. Only Bala stared transfixed.

“The rains will stop at dawn,” the woman said. She took a step forward. Her anklets tinkled. “The mami will expect Divya by noon.” She retraced her steps into the rain, her grin slowly fading into the downpour, leaving them shivering with cold and fright and the receding sound of her jingling anklets.

The room was filled with a sharp stench as Bala noticed that he had soiled his pants.

***

Bala’s mother, out of habit, stepped into the porch to draw a kolam when she noticed the big red stripe beside the door. It resembled a namam that some priests drew from between their foreheads upward.

“Veena,” she called out to her daughter-in-law, as she stumbled into the house, the steel container of rice flour clanging on the floor. “Last night was no dream. The sign is here.”

Veena emerged from the bathroom, towelling her hair, her face a picture of shock. “The witches...”

Now, they heard the ululations of women from outside.

“They’re here,” the elder said. “The witches are here. Don’t look them in the eye. Go wake up...” — she bit the end of her sari — “wake up Divya.” What she could not say was: for the last time.

Now, the ululating and the howls grew louder. Presently, a group of women appeared at their doorstep. They were dressed in red saris, their faces a pale yellow, the remnant of the turmeric paste applied before a ritual bath. They wore golden jewellery and a bright red namam on their foreheads. One of the women unlatched the door, and the group burst in.

“Where’s the child?” one demanded.

“The chosen one,” another cackled. “Where is she? I must touch her feet.”

They poured into the house like a blood tsunami, disturbing the furniture and muddying the floor with their bare feet and filling the house with an eerie cacophony of their anklets. They scooped up Divya and swept her into the bathroom where they undressed her and applied sandal paste all over her body, sesame oil to her hair, and other fragrant mixtures, all the while chanting and singing hymns.

In the commotion, Bala’s mother beckoned him to come with her to one of the bedrooms. She placed a packet in his hand. “This is the only thing I have any hope on,” she said.

“What’s it, ma?” Bala asked, his voice hoarse.

His mother sighed. “When I was still living with your father, a few years ago, we found a lemon in one of the cupboards. When I cut it open” — she quickly patted her cheeks — “I shouldn’t have! My mistake.” She slapped her forehead. “But when I cut it, blood flowed. Someone had placed a curse on us.”

“Then?”

“I found a powerful man who was an adept in tantra.He... he helped us.”

“Who’s this man?”

“That’s not the issue now. He’s a dentist, but also a tantric. And when he finished the exorcism, he gave me this vibhuti. He asked us to apply it daily in the pit of our throats.” She tapped her son’s fist. “Apply it on Divya just before you... you let her go.” She slipped out a serpent-shaped ring from her finger and gave it to Bala. “He gave me this too. Put it on her.”

Bala stared at the packet and the ring, unable to make a coherent thought any more.

***

The procession began from Bala’s house with a lot of pomp and show. Drummers slung their thavils and pounded on them as the nadaswaram players piped upbeat tunes. As per the tradition, Bala walked ahead with Divya holding onto his hand. The witches in red saris formed a band behind them, singing in unison to the music that emanated from behind them. Veena and her mother-in-law tried to get to Divya, but the women made sure that they couldn’t. The crowd grew behind them as people joined the parade, eager to witness the human offering to the mami. It may have been like a wedding procession for everyone but felt like a funeral to the family.

The walk to the mami’s house was only a few streets away. It was the only house that stood on the beach. The walls were high, but the scent of strange flowers poured from within. Colourful butterflies flitted about, and exotic birds filled the air with sweet sounds. The waves gently crashed nearby and retreated in whispers. The Marina Beach lighthouse was barely visible from here.

Bala stopped at the wall. There was no gate. He squatted beside Divya and ran his hand along her cheek. He kissed her forehead tenderly and hugged her. Now, he reached into his pocket, retrieved the ring, and slipped it onto her finger.

“It’s loose, appa,” Divya said.

On a prayer: Wiping away his tears, Bala said with the strongest voice he could muster: “Amma and I love you, kanna”   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

“I know. Just hold on to it as tightly as you can.” Now, Bala dabbed his finger in the packet and placed a vibhuti mark on her forehead. Wiping away his tears, he said with the strongest voice he could muster. “Amma and I love you, kanna.”

“And paati?”

Paati too.” He stood up. One of the women raised her hand. The music stopped. The ocean murmured. “It’s time for you to go.”

 

Ashwin Mudigonda lives in Oakland, and his debut horror fiction ‘The Tantric Exorcist’ will be published by Juggernaut in February

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Published on January 24, 2021
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