“What’s it, Da? Why have you come to stand near the hearth, by the side of the stove?”

“Give me the mat.”

“There’s no mat.”

“Aren’t all the boys of the village carrying one?”

“Let them,” said Kamsalai, and began to stir the rice cooking on the stove. Murugan let out a faint whine.

Kamsalai took the pot of rice off the stove and put the vessel with the kuzhambu on it.

“Give me the mat.” Murugan began to pester her.

Unable to handle his bickering, she said, “What new nuisance is this,” and began to look for something behind the barrel.

Murugan thought she was looking for the mat and, bringing his whine to a pause, said, “Look, it’s on top of the sack.” Ignoring his words, Kamsalai thrust a sack in his hands. Matching her speed, he grabbed the sack, flung it away and began to cry, rolling on the ground. Kamsalai picked it back up and tried to stuff it in his hands.

“Give me a mat; or else a bedsheet at least.” He kept repeating his entreaties.

Unable to continue fighting with him, she said, “It is time for the relatives who went to the temple to come back and have their meal, and I haven’t yet finished cooking. I’ve no time to dilly-dally with you now; take the sack and go with some dignity. If you keep shouting, all you’ll get is whacks.”

And, dropping the sack by the side of Murugan, she went to sit in front of the stove.

Murugan, who threw the sack back at her, kept asking, “Give me the mat.”

“You’ll get a good thrashing, that’s all. Last year, when you went to see the play, you took the sack, no?”

“This year it’s not a play. It’s going to be a video movie.”

“Whether it is a video movie or a radio movie, all you’ll get is the sack. There’s only one mat in the house. If I give that to you, what will I give our relatives, who’ll go to watch the programme? Won’t they mock us, saying, ‘What kind of a house is this that doesn’t have even a mat?’”

Kamsalai put a couple of logs into the stove. “How come that girl who went to fetch water isn’t back yet? Is she digging a well to draw water from or what?” Then she turned to Murugan and asked, “Did you see akka?”

He shouted, “I saw your butt,” and continued with his wailing. Even in the middle of his crying, he was planning to run off with the mat without his mother noticing it.

“The girl who went to fetch water isn’t back yet; might she have gone to the place where they are showing the video? Isn’t it just to spoil the girls of the village that young fellows of the village run around enticing them with videos and things like that?” Kamsalai murmured, and went to the entrance of her house. There was no sign of Rani. Grumbling, she went inside and began to stir the kuzhambu again.

Rani came in with the water pot. Kamsalai asked her, “Did you dig a well and draw water, di?” Not letting Rani, who was trying to come up with some explanation, speak, she went on, “Your conduct is not proper. That’s all I will say. The boys will be after you with endearments like ‘darling’, ‘dear’ and other such words only until you’ve given birth to a baby.”

Scolding Rani, she put more wood in the stove. Seeing Murugan trying to escape with the mat, she dragged him, snatched the mat from his hand and gave him a couple of slaps on his back.

She put the mat in the loft. Murugan was beside himself with rage when he saw her do that. Since her skirt and half-sari had gotten wet while she was hauling the water pot, Rani changed into a fresh set of clothes. Kamsalai glared at her. Not minding her mother’s reaction, Rani began to comb her hair.

Murugan, who was crying, sat up with a jerk when Krishnan came into the house. Soundlessly, Rani went outside with face powder, comb and mirror. With the same speed as he had walked in, Krishnan spread out a towel and lay down on the floor. “Why have you curled up on an auspicious day like today? Get up, let me spread the mat,” said Kamsalai, and spread the mat on the floor.

Krishnan moved himself to the mat. Doubting whether he would ever be able to lay his hands on the mat now, Murugan began to sob. Krishnan turned to look at him and asked, “Why is this boy crying?”

“Just from the audacity that the food he eats gives him, what else?”

“Shut up, you daughter of a mendicant!” Krishnan gave Kamsalai a hard look and, turning to Murugan, asked, “Why are you crying, da?” Murugan didn’t open his mouth.

Kamsalai said, “If this beggar’s daughter wasn’t around, the unpleasant fact of ayya’s going off the rails would have been broadcast to the whole world, believe me. Even in those days, my mother did tell my father not to give his daughter in marriage to a man who grazes cattle. That blind man did not heed her words.” She took the kuzhambu off the stove.

“Oh sure! My life’s cart runs only with the dowry your father gave you.”

“You still wait for my father to send you cart-loads of things, even after you’ve had four children, gotten two of them married and had grandchildren as well, don’t you?”

“Keep quiet for some time, you daughter of a good-for-nothing fellow.”

“How can I be quiet? When the whole village is celebrating festivals and participating in the chariot procession, my two girls are not here. Won’t my heart pine for them?”

Even as she spoke those words, she began to cry. She sniffled and said, “It was a grave mistake, letting the sisters marry brothers. I tried telling you then, but you wouldn’t listen. Today, my children stand in abject misery. Are they sons from good clans if they don’t send their wives to their parents’ house just because they were not given new clothes at the death of a cousin?” She began to abuse her two sons-in-law.

Video Maryamman and Other Stories

Excerpted with permission from Video Maryamman and Other Stories, Imayam, translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan, Speaking Tiger.