But now, after a few more basic tests, Purushan Vaidyan addressed her as if she were a small child: “Little girl, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with your vision. Then why do you need glasses? If you wear glasses unnecessarily, you will develop unnecessary problems. You will gradually have a permanent scar on your nose...right here. You will develop a squint because you will constantly be looking over your glasses. Then any prince would think twice before marrying you! You don’t need glasses, girl. Why not play with dolls instead?”
Humiliated and trivialised, Sarasu silently walked back home with her father. Karuthupuzha greeted the father and daughter with blooming flowers. The sides of the narrow lanes were overgrown with shrubs sprouting new leaves and wild flowers that Sarasu usually loved, but today she walked straight ahead, head bowed.
Nareshan hummed a tune very badly, making her wish he would stop. They walked through a coconut grove where men sat in circles playing cards, and a few of them called out to Nareshan to join them. Listening to her father hum, Sarasu knew that he was thinking of his business – whenever he hummed he would be thinking about which of their two cows yielded more milk, which customer owed him what, if he could mix a little more water in the milk without any difference in taste, who would sell him better and cheaper cattle feed, and so on.
Her feet sank as she walked on the powdery sand of the grove. Sarasu felt a strange melancholia creep into her, like ink threading its way through clear liquid. For the rest of the day, she spoke only when she absolutely had to.
After her visit to Purushan Vaidyan’s she began watching Chandrika with a longing she had never known before. During recess one day she sneaked into the empty classroom, opened Chandrika’s case, and tried on her glasses.
Its tightness on her temples was heavenly. It was true that her eyes began to hurt when she looked through those lenses, but she loved the heaviness on the bridge of her nose. She took it off and bit its tips thoughtfully, then cleaned it with her handkerchief, wishing there was a mirror nearby. Then she quietly placed it back in its case. She felt her life was one endless hot afternoon spent staring at leaves so still that it seemed they were printed on the glassy air.
At mid-morning the following Sunday, Sarasu was possessed by Chaathan for the first time.
Earlier that morning when her father returned from supplying milk to homes across western Karuthupuzha, he found her on the porch, deep in a daydream. When he asked, “Up early today, Sarasu?” she did not seem to hear him. A little later, Sarasu sat as if in a trance when Kalyani served a breakfast of boiled tapioca. She did not pass the pot of water when one of her brothers asked, and Nareshan muttered angrily to his wife, “Woman, you need to teach the children better. The girl is becoming rude and indifferent.”
There was an old, abandoned easy chair under a mango tree some way behind the dilapidated cowshed at the back of the house. Kalyani had never chopped it down for firewood because it belonged to her grandfather and its aspect, age, and frailty made her think of him. But over the years, far from holding too many sentiments, the chair stood forsaken, almost completely rotted by time and the changing seasons, large spiders setting up home in its crevices and mango sap staining its cloth backrest.
Imagine Kalyani’s surprise when, just before noon that day, she found her daughter sprawled on this ruin, legs comfortably resting on its long arms, the shadows of mango leaves playing on her pale face and her eyes shut, as if trying to hold another universe in.
Kalyani was to later animatedly narrate to the other women who came to wash clothes by the river that it was a miracle that the sodden chair took Sarasu’s weight. Sarasu, who had always squealed at the sight of lizards and cockroaches, now thought nothing as a giant spider crawled up her toe. Behind her closed eyelids her eyes darted this way and that, like they were following the restless run of a drop of quicksilver.
There was something palpably threatening about the scene, something vague yet portending disaster, that made one wonder on whose head lightning was about to strike. Kalyani stood for a while with a sense of dark foreboding, and then quietly walked up and placed her palm on Sarasu’s forehead to see if she was running a fever.
“Haaaaaaaarrrrgh!” Sarasu growled, her voice low and deep at first, then quickly loud and cracked, like that of a very old man. “Ooooooooo...ooouuuuu!”
Shrieking, the mother leapt away from her and watched, trembling. Just then Nareshan came out the back door, still groggy from his pre-lunch siesta.
“Ah ah ah ha ha ha!” roared Sarasu. She seemed to be crying and laughing at the same time. The most terrible aspect of the sound was that it simultaneously seemed to arise from a great distance and yet, somehow, from inside the girl. Nareshan went from sleepiness to terror so quickly that he almost swooned. The three boys, all younger than Sarasu, rushed out through the kitchen door.
Sarasu stood up at the very moment the chair broke and collapsed beneath her. They saw that the way the girl stood up was entirely unnatural, for she stood up straight without seeming to transfer her weight to her legs, without holding anything for support, as though some external power propelled her up easily and ruthlessly. The oldest of her brothers cupped his hands over the eyes of the youngest.
The next moment Sarasu went into a violent fit, shuddering and shivering. Her movements were like a dance – an irreverent, crude, and almost vulgar dance that mocked the human body with every sway.
She slowly opened her eyes and, oh! the terror of it was something they would remember till the day they drew their last breath. Her eyeballs had rolled up and their whites were turning a fiery red. Her irises had disappeared completely into her head. Tears streamed down and fell off her chin. She waved her hands at them, her fingers more like claws.
Nareshan made as if to move towards her, but Kalyani held him back.
“Aaaaaaaaarggh,” growled Sarasu in the old man’s voice, “Ooooooooffffrrrrrr...ah, ah, aaaaah!”
A few passers-by had by now gathered in the lane outside the mud wall and were staring, transfixed. One of them called to Sarasu’s father but no one seemed to have heard him. One youth, slightly drunk, rammed his bicycle into another’s but they did not fight. As more people gathered, the old woman from the neighbourhood came, saw what was happening, and began muttering prayers. She was the first to mention the name of Chaathan, the demon-god.
Everyone later claimed that there was a strong, unseasonal wind that swept through the backyard at that time. Sure enough, in a short while, the grass was almost covered in the season’s first raw mangoes and mango leaves. In the background, Nareshan’s two cows mooed.
Nareshan muttered to himself.
“What?” his wife asked without turning her head.
“G-glasses,” he said. “She wants glasses.”
“S-spectacles. She’s angry...been asking...” But then his throat dried up completely.
Excerpted with permission from The Oracle of Karuthupuzha, Manu Bhattathiri, Aleph Book Company.
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