7/16/10

A Special Lunch

The newspapers were full of grim news about unseasonal rain that could ruin Kerala’s mango crop and a string of murders of lonely, senile women by their caretakers.

Devi hadn’t read a newspaper since leaving her house after her husband’s death. Her son and his wife had decided that they needed all the rooms and couldn’t spare space for the grieving widow. For two years she roamed, Bedouin-like, from one relative’s kitchen to another. One day, breaking routine, she walked into the living room in a cousin’s house and met Mohammad. He liked her calm manner and asked her to take care of Amina Kutty, his mother, who lived all alone. He promised a good wage, good food and a proper bed.

Taking care of the old woman had meant five long years of staying awake half the night, helping her squat on the toilet, cleaning her stinking spittoon and washing her urine stained clothes. Devi, in this house, had become filthy.

She had also forgotten things. Songs praising the Goddess Mookambika that she’d sung as a child, the names of months and stars. Time was now divided according to the five calls for prayer — Fajr, Zohar, Asar, Maghrib and Isha’a. When the muezzin’s voice came to her from across fields of rice and coconut palms, she went into the small bedroom where Amina Kutty, milky-eyed and wrinkled, lay on the bed. Devi woke her saying, “Umma, it’s time for your prayers.”

Amina Kutty struggled to get up and go to the bathroom to do her ablutions. She accepted Devi’s arm while going in. But when coming out, having cleansed her face, her ears, her hands, and her feet, she refused to let Devi touch her. “I am pure now,” she said, “if you touch me, I’ll become unclean.”

Amina Kutty limped back to her bed, climbed on it, adjusted her veil and started muttering her prayers.

Devi left the room and went into the kitchen garden. Her grey hair glinted beneath the strong March sun as she walked to the mango trees by the outhouse. She knew her quarry was hiding there, the only cool place near the house.

She heard a rustle at the foot of the giant mango tree. She crept up to a shaking pile of leaves. There it was, white as Amina Kutty’s veil and just as soft. She pounced and caught it. There was a hard struggle and Devi remembered when she’d let go of the old woman in the bath. Devi had let her thrash and scream for a few seconds before catching her and saying, “Calm down Umma, you’re not drowning.” Amina Kutty had clawed her arm and whispered, “You infidel bitch.”

Devi felt the quickening heartbeat, the flutter of fear in the warm bundle of flesh and stroked the nervous creature just as she had stroked Amina Kutty’s fragile, brittle neck that day. Their fear melted; they became quiet and submissive.

Impure. Infidel. Filth. She twisted and snapped the long neck.


At lunch that day, Amina Kutty sniffed the delicious smell wafting towards her and asked, “What’s this?”

“A treat.”

“Fried duck?”

“Yes. Mohammad bought it last week.”

“But—”

“Yes, umma?”

Devi knew what the old woman was thinking: the duck was not halal. Prayers had not been said when it was slaughtered.

And yet it smelled so good.

Amina Kutty picked a piece of fried duck and put it into her mouth. As she chewed it, her face relaxed and a smile flickered on it.

Outside, the muezzin was calling for afternoon prayers. The two women ate on.