Hallucinogens, two women living together, and ghosts from the past mark this deeply disturbing debut

An excerpt from Sangeetha Sreenivasan’s own English translation of her Malayalam novel.

Aadi opened his eyes to the yellowness of the lamps and the remnants of a weary night. The lotus pool, the two women, the heaviness of the vapour, all had disappeared. Half asleep, he gingerly walked towards Shiva’s room.

Upstairs, Kamala was fighting with Shaly. There was nothing new or surprising about this – they fought constantly, with a minimum of two hours’ and a maximum of two days’ intermission in between. The house had two storeys. Kamala lived with Shaly on the upper floor and the boys, Kamala’s biological children, Aadi and Shiva, lived on the lower floor. All of them, both the women and the boys, shared the sitting rooms, bookshelves and the kitchen on the lower floor. The women were free to come down whenever they wanted. But the boys were not allowed on the upper floor.

Aadi heard Kamala scream across the room and the sound of something being knocked to the wooden floor. The room shook, and somewhere at the back of the house plaster came off the walls. Weighed down with confusions, he stood for a while and listened to the voices from above: there was something out of the way and tragic about their conversations. He could hear his mother shout, scream, hurling maddening abuses at Shaly, and he felt nervous. When Shaly spoke, finally, he understood how profoundly the severity of the morning had scraped away her voice, into shreds of whispers. He looked at the plastic flowers in the Japanese vase as he heard her say: “Kamala, please calm yourself. Let us manage this together. You could take Aadi with you. I will take care of Shiva. Please Kamala, it’s already getting late. Shall I book the flight?”

Something shattered on the upper floor. Was it the glass vase or Kamala’s iPhone?

Shaly almost knocked Aadi down as she climbed hurriedly down the stairway like a blind cat, shouting, “Do what works for you guys. I am leaving once and for all.”

It must have been a hard blow, Aadi thought, as he noticed the finger marks on her left arm. He stood in the doorway, bemused and sad. As she stormed out of the house, her eyes welled up with tears and she said to him, “Kamala’s mother passed away last night, your grandmother.”

In the kitchen Aadi set some milk to boil, his heart pounding all the while and his lips trembling. He did not remember much about his grandmother, though. He was worried about his mother, now an orphan bereft of someone to guide her.

By the time Shaly came back, she had regained her composure and she cautioned Aadi in a carefree manner to watch the coffee, which was boiling over. She shut the flame off and accidentally knocked the lighter down, but let it remain there. The bright red polish still shone on her nails, especially on her toes. After Aadi had gone to Shiva’s room with the tray of coffee and biscuits, she picked up the lighter and lit the stove again and prepared some tea.

She had to push the door open with her leg as she was holding a tray laden with a teapot, cups, biscuits, toast and marmalade. Kamala stood beside the table, unmindful of her shouts or reluctant to open the door. She took no notice of the tray Shaly placed on the table. Instead, she stood there listening to some lone voices from within. Shaly should have been bitter about this, but her poise betrayed only signs of suppressed anger, shrouded in grace. When Shaly noticed Kamala’s eyes closed in rapture she pulled her up by the hair and hit her hard across the face, anyway. “What the hell!” said Shaly.

Kamala stepped back and carelessly knocked the teapot over with her hand, spilling the hot tea onto the floor.

“I’m going to kill you, you bitch!” Shaly tried to thrust her fingers into Kamala’s mouth, with a force sufficient to scoop out the insides – the tongue, uvula, teeth and everything – but anticipating the worst, Kamala pursed her lips disgustedly and forced them out, so that Shaly had to give up.

In consequence, acid took the reins.

It designed the maps of convulsed ecstasy under Kamala’s tongue. Soon it would travel, numbing whatever it touched on the way until Kamala was numb to the world outside her eyes. Red kangaroos wearing lucky horseshoes would race up to her brain, making her forget her present, past and future in the haze of dust their hooves would raise. Neurons would mount on camels obscured by clouds to take her for a short pleasure ride.

“Bastard! What do you think of yourself? You stupid slut!” Shaly shook her hard; slapped her harder still. Kamala didn’t seem to be in pain. Yet she covered her face in her hands and squatted on the floor. “Everything happens because of you, Kamala! How many times have I warned you against taking those dumb godforsaken pills? But you don’t listen. You are on medication. Do you hear me?” Tea pooled in the wooden depression on the floor.

Shaly went out to fetch a mop, saw Aadi on the stairs and yelled, “What the hell do you want? Get out of here.”

It was not easy for Shaly to compose herself this time. After a while, she tried to fake a sympathetic look and walked to the children’s room, pretending everything was under control. Before she knocked on the door she said to herself, “Kams is a horrible woman. Everything here is garbage,” and smiled.

Still smiling, she asked the boys, “Shall I get you breakfast?’

The boys looked at each other and then at her. “What about grandma? Are we not going to see her?” Shiva asked solemnly.

Shaly was about to say something but suddenly the sound of the saxophone shook her up and her face turned pale and bare. Music came floating down the stairway.

On the upper floor, Kamala closed the windows, drew the curtains shut and sat on the floor in the corner of her room. She thought she was safe, no harm could ever find her. She stared at the innards of her stereo and laughed thoughtfully.

“I will bring you toast, please wait,” Shaly called out from the kitchen, as if the boys were impatient and enthusiastically waiting for something to munch on.

The first two pieces of toast got burned on the frying pan. Shaly wondered from where Kamala had got hold of the hallucinogen again. She had taken it on an empty stomach, in addition to the sleeping pills she had had the night before. Shaly recollected the faces of each and every peddler on the road. Bastards.

Two tiny pieces of eggshell flopped on to the yolks in the pan. White pyramids on yellow balls. She removed the pieces with the edge of a spatula. “I should not have left her,” she said to herself.

No one knew how long a bad trip would last.

Kamala’s mother, frozen, white and pale, waited for her daughter in uncertainty while Kamala shut herself up in a room too far away from her mother and mused on something that would never be useful in life. She moved the gears on an unbridled, hysterical ride, on a magic journey some people mistook as life.

On top of her worries, Kamala had a pet dog called Depru. Monsieur Depression. An impalpable ghost of her esteemed hypotheses. It accompanied her wherever she went. A huge bulk, a mass of comfort. A cushioned bundle of sadness. It showed no interest in playing with a ball or a toy, no interest in going out for a walk. Instead, it would mount her shoulders, its weight crushing her. They say dogs make eye contact. It looked straight into Kamala’s eyes like other dogs. But in the mauve shadow of its eyes, a child drowned every second. And Kamala wept, looking at the dying child. Lifting one of its eyebrows, the dog would sigh; place its heavy paw on her forehead. “Do you think that man has any right to stop me?” Kamala asked it. She was talking about Madhavan’s father, her father-in-law. There was anger in her voice, but mostly, there was fatigue. The dog gave her a cold nod that said “No’.

Aadi piled the pillows one on top of the other and helped Shiva sit up against the headboard. Then he sat beside him on the bed, took his hand and pressed it gently.

“Do you remember our grandmother?’

“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” Shiva shook his head. “But, why doesn’t she cry? I mean our mother?” “You will cry when our mother dies, won’t you?’

Excerpted with permission from Acid, Sangeetha Sreenivasan, translated from the Malayalam by the author.

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