Pothivelu Pandaram swayed as he got up. He steadied himself for a second by gripping the wooden frame around the bed from which the mosquito net hung. Once his dizziness passed, he groped his way along the wall to the right to fetch the matchbox he usually kept in the crescent-shaped hollow gouged into the wall, when his foot made contact with a small copper water-pot at the foot of the bed. It toppled over with a clang and rolled noisily across the floor.

Ekkiyammai woke up. “What are you doing there? It is long past midnight,” she said. Her voice was thick with spit.

“I can’t find the matchbox,” said Pandaram.

“It’s right there. As if it can sprout legs and run away . . . What do you want a matchbox for now, anyway?”

“What’s the time?”

“The time? It’d be late . . . past four maybe. Get back to bed now, will you?” Ekkiyammai rolled over and closed her eyes.

Pandaram grabbed the matchbox, struck a light and kindled a flame in the lamp. He bent down to look at the green hands of the alarm clock in the lamplight when the vaetti around his waist came loose. “It’s only three,” he said to himself, gripping the cloth tight with one hand. He came back and sat on the bed. He pulled out the snuffbox from under his pillow and, tapping out a little bit of snuff on his palm, grabbed just a pinch between his forefinger and thumb.

He flapped his hand once or twice, and then, placing the pinch right under his nostrils, inhaled sharply, tipping his head back, and held it in the same position for a few blissful moments, not sneezing, but allowing his face to make all the contortions of a good, hearty sneeze. Pandaram then relaxed. “Muruga, father, lord,” he muttered. He turned to his wife stretched out on the other side. ‘Pass me the woollen blanket, will you?’ he said.

“Where to now? At this time of the night?” said Ekkiyammai.

“I can’t sleep. I felt her belly when I left at nine. It was moving, restless . . . it’d descended, you know? Was heavy-like. And there was some water leaking too. She will birth before dawn, I’m sure. All the signs point to it.”

“Kumaresan is there with her, isn’t he?”

“That corpse-fucker? He’d be drunk to his gills. He wouldn’t know if an elephant calved in front of him. What’s it to him if a mongrel made away with the sprog? You make me a strong cup of sukku vellam. I’ll quickly go over and take a look.”

“Why, look at that! You weren’t in such a tizzy even when I was confined to the birthing bed! Mandakattamma, goddess, save us.” She sighed, pushing down heavily on the mattress as she got up from the bed.

“Do you think we’ll get power back tonight?” said Pandaram.

“Who knows? These mosquitoes will be the death of us. Poor girls. You should have seen Vadivu’s face yesterday. With little red spots all over . . .

“Well, what can you do? They don’t sell electric current in the stores.”

But Ekkiyammai had gone to the kitchen. Pandaram tucked his snuffbox into his waist and folded the rim of his vaetti around it. He looked out through the small window. He could see the dim light of the night in the street. There was a heavy mist all around. As he went out of the room, he glanced in the general direction of Velappankovil, the local Murugan temple. He reflexively slapped his cheeks lightly with his fingers; then, crossing his hands in front of his face, slapped them once again. It was a devotional gesture that was meant to convey fear, worship and self-censure, all at once; although, at the moment, Pandaram was too absent-minded to feel any of it. In the front hall, his three daughters lay on the floor, each one in a different posture, each facing a different direction. The second daughter Vadivammai’s marappu never stayed in place over her blouse.

The cloth had fluttered to one side now. Her mouth was open, her teeth large and prominent, like Ekkiyammai’s. “Crazy girl,” muttered Pandaram, as he crossed them on the way to the backyard.

“Are you going to brush your teeth?”

“I’m not sure. I just came to bed,” he said, and washed his face with water from the pot. He rinsed his mouth and spat it out in a long stream into the drain. A rat leaped out and vanished.

“I keep telling you to close the drain, you never listen,” he said.

Ekkiyammai came out holding a shallow brass boni with the end of her saree, spreading the clot broad around the hot vessel to hold it carefully. The sharp tang of ginger filled the air. Taking a sip, Pandaram said, “There’s not even a week to Thai Poosam. If the item doesn’t push it out soon, then there’s no telling whether I can go to Pazhani this year for the festival. Look how the dates got all tangled up. I couldn’t sleep for a month thinking about it. If she births today and the sprog can take to the breast in a week, then I can go without a second thought,” he said.

“The lord will grant you that,” said Ekkiyammai. “Muruga . . .”

“Last time it dragged on for four days. Do you remember? She went all soft after that. Her belly hangs loose now. She doesn’t have long, maybe one more round. After that it will be difficult. I missed the clock this year. Next year this time at Thai Poosam I’ll make sure I find a good price for her.”

“Why feed and run around with so many in the first place? Sell half of the lot, put the money in the bank, and we’ll have something to fall back on when a good turn comes around for the older girl . . .”

“What do you know about buying and selling? There is a knack to all that, you wouldn’t know. Eight out of ten of our items are golden eggs. If I sell them all, then will you pay the milkman’s bill with your lover’s loincloth?”

“Mmm. As if there’s a parade of my lovers coming our way, showing off their golden rods and loincloths . . .”

“I was just teasing you,” said Pandaram, laughing. He got to his feet with a belch. He wrapped the woollen blanket around himself and fastened his muffler high, making sure to cover his ears. Picking up a torch and a staff, he went out into the street.

The dog in the opposite house stirred and howled once. Then, catching a whiff of his scent, it settled down into a curl with a growl. The night sky had a soft glow to it. “Singaravelane, nee sindhaiyil vaaraai,” Pandaram hummed to himself. Lord Muruga of graceful form, come fill my thoughts. He reached the end of the street and, climbing up the balimandapam with the sacrificial stone and down the other side, he made his way through Konar’s grove. He waded through the stream on the other side of the grove and climbed up the bank into a vast expanse of fields. The sky above the fields glowed even brighter. A great curtain of white mist shrouded the scene. Below, the paddy rustled in the wind, unseen. On the ridges bordering the fields, the grass was dewy, exquisitely cool on his soles. Frogs leaped out of the ridges into the watery paddy field – “Plop!” “Plop!” “Plop!”

On the other side of the fields stood the dark outline of the yakshi temple, and beyond that a bamboo grove. In the areca-palm grove further beyond, a lantern swayed in front of a hut. He could make out Kumaresan sleeping outside, a huddle of blankets. He climbed up the steps and tapped the ground at his feet with the staff a few times.

Excerpted with permission from The Abyss, Jeyamohan, translated from the Tamil by Suchitra Ramachandran, Juggernaut Books.