She was known as the travelling witch. You know, the one who goes from village to village collecting souls? She was called, simply, Karuppu. It means black...for death, of course. My paati, that old woman with papery skin full of lines and curves, used to hiss Karuppu’s name into my ears at bedtime, forcing me to quickly close my eyes as the stories of exaggerated blood and gore became frighteningly real in my head. Looking back, it is a wonder that no one thought it was inappropriate to take stories of Karuppu into our dreams. But now, of course, I know why.
So, when Karuppu came to our village, everyone knew somebody would die soon. And everyone knew it would be me. No, I didn’t mind that – both the dying and the people expecting me to. I mean, I have known for a long time that I would die at some point. Not in a philosophical way, but in quite a physical way.
You see, when I was born, I came out backwards. Bum first, head last. The women in the village thought it was a bad omen and wanted to get rid of me. Yes, yes, kill me, that is what I mean. But just at that moment, or so the story goes, our village received its first rain of the season. There was a lot of rejoicing, and my “death” was postponed to another day. And so it continued – one year it was because of an exceptionally good harvest, another because of the thiruvizha, the temple festival for Goddess Kali celebrated once every three years, and another because our village leader had a grandson. Then I turned fourteen and Karuppu visited our village once more.
Karuppu’s arrival was always announced by a storm. Not an ordinary storm, but one that felt like the underworld had opened its doors and let out a gigantic gust of wind that screamed in agony. Sometimes, you could even make out human voices, but we could never be sure if that was paati’s over-the-top imagination or our own minds playing tricks on us.
“She is coming,” people would whisper and look sideways at the person closest to them. That’s the curious thing about death. It would come, yes, but never for us. Always for the “other”. So, there I was, a glorious “other” dressed in a faded skirt and shirt. The skirt was my mother’s in-skirt, cut and stitched to my size, and the shirt was my father’s and hung over my bones like rain. Once when it rained and I ran into the street to get drenched, my mother yanked me back into the house and towelled me dry with all her pent-up frustration at my father’s recent disappearance...I could still feel the drops of water clinging to my skin.
Anyway, when Karuppu arrived the next morning after the storm, in the middle of summer no less, no one was surprised. She walked in like she owned the village – no eye contact, looking straight ahead, with her back erect like a seasoned dancer, and leaving behind deep footprints that wouldn’t fade till she left the village. Really.
Once, Karuppu came when I was around seven, but no one expected me to die then because there was this anna next door who had been in a fire accident the previous day and was lying like a burnt piece of mutton on his bed, his breath coming like wisps of smoke from an agarbatti...but, I digress.
So, like I was saying, Karuppu came when I was seven and really took her time to take that anna’s soul – one whole week – and her footprints didn’t fade the entire time. It was the rainy season then, yet her footprints remained like a stubborn stain. When the adults weren’t looking, I even tried to pour sand into one, but the footprint simply sucked all that sand in, like it was air. I wanted to walk over it to see what happens, but that was forbidden and I was too afraid.
I had heard enough bedtime stories from paati about how a dog stepped into Karuppu’s footprint accidentally and how, right in front of their eyes, it disintegrated like ash. And when Karuppu left, she actually took some of that ash and added it to the black box.
Ah, the black box.
The one that was said to contain our dead souls. It was tiny, probably the size of my father’s thumb, and had strange cuts on the sides, like a flash of lightening had come too close to the box and found itself strangely stuck, unable to leave. I had seen Karuppu three times before I turned fourteen – once for the anna I told you about, once for my neighbour Shanti’s grandfather, and a month later for her grandmother.
And now, here she was again.
Excerpted with permission from Karuppu, Praveena Shivram, Zubaan.