Malli. She wiggled her toe as her brick red slipper hung from her flat foot. It cost her fifty rupees at the weekly market and her friends had bet thirty rupees over it tearing in five days. Day four and a half, look who’s losing. A shard of sunlight sliced through the clouds, and frisked the torn fabric near the zip of her bag. “If they’d bet on the bag, they would have made a fortune,” she muttered.
The buses were lining up at New Bus Stand in Vellore to relay passengers for the late noon schedule. Valli breathed through her mouth, clutching her bag and edging away from a drunk hobo. He was picking at the end of her pallu as she sat, legs closed until one fell asleep. “Amma, amma” he muttered, half asleep and moving he tongue over his teeth to pick on bits of guava scraps he found in his daily rummage.
She shifted to breathing from her nose on occasion, when she heard the temple bells from the nearby Chelliamman temple. The amalgam of temple ash, jaathimalli and saffron cavorted with the air. The scent brought with it a memory.
“Ammama, why does jaathimalli smell like an open toilet?”
“I will tell Kannan to stop giving you panjimittai if you ask questions like that,” Kumuda screamed.
“Chee, jaathimalli. Okay one more, Ammamma. Last,” she laughed.
Kumuda picked up a handful of curd rice and shoveled it into Valli’s mouth when she was still chewing the previous containment.
“YAEN,” she blurted, sputtering curd.
“This is for eating my ears. Now tell,” Kumuda pacified.
“Why did you name me a sweet potato?,” Valli asked, furrowing her eyebrows.
“Because you are sweet!”
“And you’re going to be nice and plump and fat,” Ponni, her sister, yelled.
Ponni was wronged at puberty; Valli found her fortune in quick metabolism.
“Ammaaa” the hobo screamed, pulling her pallu until her pleats almost unraveled. Valli quickly rose.
“Chee poda”, she remarked.
She sprinted to the shed, covering her mouth from the fumes of a bus leaving for Salem. “When is the bus to Chennai arriving?”
“Look behind you,” the conductor said, yawning.
The rusting MTC bus, the tyres adorned with paan spit. No one was seated except for a mother wrangling with two children while holding on to a basket of the day’s lunch.
“This bus doesn’t leave for the next hour ma. Go sit at the stop only. Otherwise the heat will trap you and those children will come for you.”
“Uh, okay,” Valli said, wiping the sweat from her forehead with her crumpled pallu.
Arul ran his fingers along the zari border of her red blouse. “Do you have to?” he asked, half dejected and half playfully.
“I have a bottle’s worth of turmeric on my face. What do you think?”
“Come with me no Valli Malli. We’ll go to the big city. Eat at fancy hotels.”
“And whose money will we eat on? My grandfather’s inheritance for one overpriced sambar vadai which we can get here?”
“Sambar Vadai,” he sniggered.
The latest issue of Kumudam with the emerging heroine Hansika Motwani on the cover fluttered in the air. Valli mindfully sipped her tea and bit into a panjumittai, wondering why her grandmother yellowed her skin instead of lightened it.
“With him, you can’t eat panjumittais after this. With me, I will stuff your face with it until you get nice and round.”
She chuckled and lightly punched him in the arm.
“Come on. You have a good job and a scooty. What’s stopping you?”
“I have to be there for Ammama no.”
Arul was losing his patience. He set his glass of tea down forcefully.
“Ey idiot. Even if your father had to pay for that glass, he couldn’t,” the shop owner yelled.
Arul clenched his fist, but restrained himself from banging the table.
“What is Ponni for di loosu? She can take care of her. She’ll get some government job and your Ammama can eat her head,” Arul muttered.
Valli couldn’t consider leaving her to Ponni’s care. Ponni was a 17-year-old brilliant but brash, tactless girl who had no idea what was going on in the house half the time. She didn’t respond to Arul and slurped her tea to irritate him.
“What is it? You want to fuck a man you don’t even know but just has the same blood as you?” he hissed.
Valli looked down and turned her back to him. Arul noticed a man chewing paan staring at the two, ready to spill his guts out to the man next to him.
“Okay okay. Let’s think logically. What will make you change your mind? Because clearly, no matter how much I love you and promise to take care of you, you don’t budge.”
Valli let out a deep sigh. She thought his persistence was adorable like in the movies, where the boy looks over the girl from the footboard to smell her hair even though there’s a 90 percent chance of him falling over and getting crushed under the wheels of the bus and leaving a trail of blood behind for everyone to say “tch-tch”
“Have you ever been touched before?” Ponni asks, winding a piece of string for the neem leaves that would adorn the front of the house for Nichyadhartham day.
“Maybe,” Valli said.
Ponni let out a gasp. “It’s that boy drinking tea all the time on credit no? I know.”
Valli said nothing.
“I’m going to tell Ammamma you wait. Then you have to give me your bedroom after you leave. And your marble set. And your coral necklace…,” Ponni chuckled.
“If you don’t shut up I am going to unload a bag of puffed rice over you,” Valli threatened, hiding a smirk.
“Okay okay,” Ponni laughed. “You know, I’ve been touched.”
Valli knew this was one of Ponni’s cheap thrills to elicit something out of her. But she wanted to humour her today.
“Ohoooo, who is the lucky boy?” she asked, resting her folded arms on her knee, feigning rapt attention.
“Girl,” she blushed.
Valli squinted and laughed uncomfortably. “You mean like touched while playing running and catching? Or slapping that dumb friend of yours?”
“No no, like touched under my skirt,” she smiled. “It was nice.”
Valli suppressed the urge to slap her.
“This is not okay. You keep quiet.”
“Ayyo Valli, I saw this show that opposite house uncle watched after 11:30. I saw two women were pulling each other’s saris and laughing and kissing. It’s okay.”
“Ponni if you don’t shut up right now, one tight slap is coming for you.”
Ponni quietened and went back to picking at the string and tracing the veins of the fading leaves.
“We couldn’t buy better leaves?”
“You do what you get and shut up. Don’t ever talk to me about this again. And don’t ever touch a girl.”
Valli expected her to hang her head in shame, go back to her room and cry like she does after she got a low grade in Maths class. She moved closer to Valli’s ears.
“It was nice.”
“Call the Seerkaarar!” Ammamma yelled from her cane chair. She ordered around the Pandaram and the Kammalar to get the food and ceremonial pyre ready.
Valli’s reflection in the mirror was tainted with the sticky remains of bindis at the end of their shelf life. She picked at a redding pimple at the end of her chin. She wiped it to check if it was a mark from the maroon lipstick, no it wasn’t. She thought of Arul. She thought of his fingers teasing the gooseflesh on her collarbones, the water from the toilet sloshing as he ran in for a wash so he could embrace her briefly during his work breaks. She liked his stubble, not her to be’s fat legacy mustache.
“Okay now that the fat theory didn’t work out, I have another.”
“What?” she asked, distracted by an image of her fiance’s mustache brushing her cleavage like in the old Kamal Haasan film playing on TV.
“Ammama named you sweet potato because your hunk of a husband will eat you up,” Ponni blushed.
Valli’s depression lifted a little at Ponni’s theory, choking on her laughter. “The Navidhar will come and strip him of his manhood, you wait.”
The night before her Muhurtham, she clenches her hand and inserts it into her nightie, releasing two fingers to check her panties. She closes her eyes and moves them in a circular motion, turning away from her sister’s back in order not to wake her.
Arul has quit his job for his uncle’s petty shop business in the “big city”. Clockwise.
Valli clutches his hand in the truck transporting them and lays her head on his bony shoulder. Clockwise.
He breathes into her ear while her hair flies in the evening wind. Deep sigh.
“I want a baby,” she whispers biting down on her lip and blushing. Full circle.
Arul smiles. “You want to fuck just for a baby?” Upwards.
“No…..you have what I asked you to buy?” Downwards.
“All in my pocket.” Deep sigh.
Imagine what the elders would say if we had a baby? Upstream.
“Polluted blood baby” he chuckles. Whimper.
“That they call my period also. What is the difference,” she throws her head back laughing open throated. Edge.
“Everyone is asleep, my Malllliiiii.” Upwards.
He grabs her and kisses her, their tongues fighting to dominate one another’s. Climax.
“Oh that thaali looks new!” a customer’s wife exclaims.
Valli turns from explaining the instructions for the new RO water filter to the customer. “Yes. I got married a few months ago.” The house smelt of meen kuzhambu and reminded her of the smell that lingered on Ponni’s hair after she came back from playing with the kids near the cricket ground.
“Do you miss your Amma?” she prodded.
“My Amma left this world long before my marriage, Maami.”
“Oh sorry ma. You want some coffee?” she asked. Arul called it pity kaapi. “It’ll taste of maami vambu and smell of judgment. If she goes so far as to ask how she died, throw the burning coffee on her face and run.”
“Yeah, what will happen to my sales?” she asked, chuckling.
She was shaken by her customer’s questions, less on the filter, more on the husband.
“Kumar is okay. Has a steady business in silver. Good man,” she explained reluctantly.
What she really wanted to say was – “When I fuck him, I close my eyes and think of Arul and want to steal all my wonderfully boring husband’s silver and run away.”
“I am leaving town to meet some clients in Salem Valli. You ask your boss to reduce the amount of work he gives you. I don’t like you stepping out after 6. All those black men will stare at you like you’re unclothed.”
She cocked her head in disbelief.
“What? You want to be in sales or be on sale?”
“Mmm. I’ll pack puliogare. Don’t forget your waterbottle.”
After the door slammed shut, she basked in the heat of the neon light grazing the shadow of a baby lizard. She closed her eyes and thought of the belongings to her name.
Amma’s wedding coral.
My sales bag.
My wedding gold. Easily 6 lakhs.
300 rupees. The rest is with that bastard. Has he left any silver?
She found 3 pieces of uncut silver.
“This will do”
Her pallu slapped a box on his desk, falling at her feet and biting her toe.
20 small silver rings lay scattered across the floor and Valli scampered to collect them. She dumped it in a red polyester bag between her ordinary chiffon sarees and bindi packets.
She lay out her yellow chiffon number on the cot and stared at it. Is this good for the big city? What do the big city people wear? Okay don’t waste time.
She ran a bath and let the cold water thwack her shapely back, but the fire of defiance overpowered.
“Should I tell Ponni?” she thought out loud as she ran her fingers through her oily hair.
She tore a piece of paper from the sales brochure and pasted it on the door. “Out on business.”
“All those going to Chennai, the bus leaves in 10 mins.” The conductor irritatedly looked on at a man yawning at him and stretching his arms.
“This is the last bus. If you miss it, your loss.”
Valli jogged to her seat hoping for a window, but resorting to being sandwiched by two babies.
“Have you been to Chennai before?” a girl excitedly budges in from the back.
“No,” Valli says with a reserved grin.
“I’ve heard there are shops inside one big shop….malls aa?” she asks her friend confusedly.
“Actually we are running away from our school excursion,” she giggles thrillingly.
“You should go home, your mother will be worried. Your teacher will give you a good whack in the head. You want all that?”
“Haven’t you always wanted to run away aunty? Orey thrill,” she exclaimed, exhaling through her teeth
Valli stops and turns to her bag and watches the woman next to her clean the puke of a plump baby.
Her phone rings. Ponni.
“Am I winning the bet?,” Ponni asked, the sound of pestle against mortar ringing in the background.
“You already won.”
Jaathimalli: A type of jasmine flower.
Panjumittai: Candy floss
Valli: Sweet potato.
Pallu: the end of a draped saree.
Kumudam: A Tamil gossip magazine
Arul: God’s grace.
Kumar: The chaste one.
Hansika Motwani: A Tamil actor.
Muhurtham: Wedding day
Seerkaarar: Priest in the Gounder community.
Gounder: A caste
Kammalar: Overlooks the wedding work.
Meen kuzhambu: Fish stew
Pity kaapi: Coffee offered out of hospitality or pity
Maami vambu: Gossip among older women.
Divya Karthikeyan is a journalist in Tamil Nadu at the The News Minute and a contributor at The Hindu. She’s either absorbed in an issue of Granta, sleeping, writing or getting a subject to be vulnerable. She lives in Chennai.