The darkness was slowly enveloping the huts in Kudikkaadu slum. In the eastern side of the slum, there was a date palm tree threatening the slum people with its long awkward branches and the shadows beneath. The birds residing at the tree now well settled for their night stay and their constant chirping sound was gently receding. The oil lamps from the huts built on either side of the dusty road was flickering. The oil lamp placed on the stone pillar was the land mark of the slum which was situated in the junction of two roads, one heading to Oorkkavalan temple and the other dusty foot path heading to the Market place.

Even that oil lamp at the junction would be lighted only on Sundays. The man working in the Panchayat would come once in a week to oil the kerosene lamp. There were days the lamp would not be lit for months together. At that time to drive the darkness, the slum people would have bonfire from the heaped garbage and the elders would gossip warming up themselves around that fire place.

dalit ladyDuring the time of pitch dark none would venture outside the slum. The huts were scattered just here and there. In total there would be around 40 huts only. Surrounding the huts there were heaps of bushes. The place where the present slum was situated was once a neglected land because of its uneven land site with thorn bushes all around. One could not say the exact period when such land was converted to present slum. To start with few huts in those days, now the slum was well known to many people as “Kudikkaadu slum”. The slum was kept unclean, flooded with snakes and bushes every where even now. One could just witness the cobra and the sir snake copulate in the bushes as a normal sight. But now the places were built with thatched sheds and huts. Many in the slum had their living by collecting cow dug from the Naicker street, herding cattles, collecting firewood from the nearby hillock.

Those left the slum for their daily livelihood in the morning were started returning except Karikkaali. Throughout the day she was battling to arrest the breakage in the stream bank with several plates of sand. When she was returning to the slum after finishing the hectic work, it was pitch dark all around. Even Chellamma who accompanied Karikkaali from Athikkaadu left in between by diverting her way to Archunan pond side. Karikkaali had to walk for two or three miles to reach Kudikkaadu slum. She preferred to walk through the dry stream, stroking her foot in the sand.

Karikkaali was not at all scared for the darkness. Even in her childhood days she learnt how to walk in darkness clutching her mother’s sari tip. Both her mother and Karikkaali would return to the slum after the sun set happily chatting and gossiping without any fear for darkness.

The habit of loitering in the darkness continued even after the demise of her mother. Even during her menstruation days she used to walk alone along the lonely Munipparai, fearfull Aiyanar temple and the lone palm tree, where the slum people still believed the bad spirit was hovering around.

Only Karikkaali had the guts to visit the temple well for a bath after dusk and to collect water in the pot wearing the wet sari. She strongly believed that only the darkness could save her from the snakes, lizards and other unknown poisonous insects.

After her mother’s death, only the darkness remained her as a true and close companion. During those sleepless nights, she loved to have a brief chat with the darkness. In those days her mother was with her, affectionately stroking her head. Soon Karikkaali become composed and would go to sleep in her mother’s lap. Even the darkness would sleep with her.

The slum elderly ladies were wondering about Karikkaali’s braveness in encountering the darkness and wondered whether she was haunted by bad spirits. There were rumors spread in the slum that Karikkaali alone had the courage to face darkness because she was haunted.

But today she left the place after dusk correcting the breakage in the stream bank after dumping the last plate of sand. She was unusually disturbed today. She was making long strides. She cursed herself for having been so late today and thought she must have left little early.

Walking through the dry river bed one could reach Nalla Thangal Temple. After that, crossing the forest bungalow one could witness some people loitering. Then with the help of electricity light in the Vadugar Street, she could easily cross narrow mud path, leading to hunch back Govindan shop. That’s all. After the market place she could reach the slum within few steps.

After calculating the distance and time, Karikkaali quickened her pace to home. She had a feeling the darkness once accompanied her all along seemed to have gone before her this time. As an uninvited guest the moon lit the deserted dusty path.

There must be some burial that should have taken place near the stream bank. The deserted decorated arches and the bamboo sticks were strewn around the place. Unworthy of burning the sticks for regular cooking purpose, she bundled few for boiling paddy.

She released the cord that struck in her waist and arranged the sticks so that she could tie it tightly to carry the bundle on her head. The load did not have much weight. She lifted that to be placed on her head where she already rolled her saree end as an absorbing cushion. Gradually she increased the speed in walking.

Unusually the darkness was pacing forward to her. Karikkaali was wondering about its advance movement. The darkness was hovering around the Elephant ghat and drifting slowly. The night beetles and insects were stroking her face and hands while walking. There were howling sound piercing the darkness ahead.

Karikkaali did not notice anything. She was chasing the darkness that went ahead to her. Chiding the darkness she was increasing her stride to catch it at anytime. The darkness that slowly enveloped the path simply smiled at Karikkaali by drifting forward ignoring her pet anger.

After crossing the elephant ghat, Karikkaali reached the Nalla Thangal Temple. The temple lamp that was flickering gave her some strength. The light was just an evident dot in the shrouded darkness. She was tired and thirsty. Perspiring heavily she did not even stop a while. But this time without moving her eyes on the temple light, she continued walking.

Her neck was paining. Under the tamarind tree at the temple site she dropped the bundle of sticks to ease herself. Again she looked at the temple light. There were bushes all around with cactus and aloe veera. In between there was a tomb stone erected by Subbiah Konar where the light was glowing.

On the left side of the tomb stone, there was a dead well where the legendary Nallathangal was believed to have jumped with her children. Karikkaali was brooding about her mother and the short nap she took on her lap during sultry afternoon under the tamarind tree. Karikkaali vacantly stared at the burning light again. The thought of her mother grew and engrossed her mind completely.

Karikkaali’s mother used to smear the sand in her forehead in front of the Nalla thangal temple. There were days when her mother plucked the lice in her head, under the tamarind tree near by the temple. While narrating a folk story the darkness would swell and sweep the place completely.

Nallathangaal was the only younger sister to Nallathambi who was ruling the Archunan pond in those days. With all the wealth she was married and shifted to Mana Madurai to her husband’s house. She delivered seven children. During that time there was an acute famine in that place. The rain god did not shower mercy on those pathetic people for years. Without being able to manage the poverty,

Nallathangal moved to her brother’s place with all her children.

Her brother was away for hunting when she reached his house. The brother’s wife just banged the door. The neighbors knowing her plight and helplessness gave some raagi to make porridge for the children. The brother’s wife knowing this broke the pot and the porridge was strewn on the ground.

The children were ravenous. They all started licking the porridge on the ground. Without being able to control her emotions Nallathangal threw herself along with all the seven children in the well that was situated near Archunan Pond.

Whenever Karikkaali’s mother told the story of Nallathangaal she was brimmed with sorrow and the tears uncontrollably dribbling down her cheeks. The tongue would become dry. Inspite of that she would continue telling the story with all the sorrow on the earth.

The light was gently dying down and settled. Karikkaali resurrected from the memories and stroked the tamarind tree with all the warm in her heart. She took the sickle that struck in her waist and stroked it which was bought just yesterday from Muthu Aasaari from Sethur. She resumed her walk and leaped forward.

No one could be seen around. It was the first session of night. She encountered none till she reached her cottage. The silence was spread and the darkness sneaked all around. She threw the stick bundle she was carrying. By moving her neck side wards in quick strokes she could hear the knuckle sound now and then. Sweeping her face with the saree end she saw the stone pillar where the light was burning. Two or three people were basking around the stone pillar. Karikkaali peeped inside the hut by removing the gunny sack that hangs like a door.

The darkness that frightened her when she was returning home now started playing with her in the hut. She held the pot with a broken neck kept in the corner and rose to above her mouth and drank the water greedily. After the thirst being quenched she felt the pain in her neck was receding.

 “where the Karikkaali gone without even lighting the lamp?”

“Who is that. Oh, Sundaram grand ma. I am sitting in front of the house only. Can’t you see?” Karikkaali retorted.

“Curse my vision child. How can I see you in this darkness? Why do you sit in the darkness like a demon without light?” the old woman whipped.

“Just now returned from the work grand ma” Karikkaali replied.

“Now itself it was very late. When will you finish your dinner then? When will you go to sleep? Your mother left us all without arranging for your marriage. At least she could have been more intelligent and arranged your marriage in time. She simply passed away without settling your score” the old lady lamented and left the hut.

Karikkaali knew that the old lady cursed only her mother. How many nights had been spent staying alone in that hut without her mother but with her memories around. Never at any time Karikkaali did cry thinking of her departed mother. She was not that type of girl.

How many nights passed when Karikkaali buried her face in the torn out saree of her mother. The mere thought of her mother choked her breath leaving a heavy lump in her throat. Never did she sleep any one night without thinking of her mother. Nor did she ever curse her mother for having been left her suffers alone in this world.

Karikkaali’s mother taught her everything. To weed the plants, to remove the husk, to plant the seedlings, to harvest, to carry the harvested product and the list was endless. Her mother was very courageous not to let her daughter pick the cow dug in the Vadugar street like other girls of her age for living. she taught her daughter to seek her daily food with dignity by chopping fire wood in the hill however it seemed to be difficult, instead of collecting cow dug in the Vadugar street

Everything seemed to have happened just now in front of her eyes. Her mother was dead on one Tuesday when it was early morning before two days when the Muppudari amman temple festival was likely to commence. She was admitted to Thirupachur Hospital where they informed the she was suffering due to chronic tuberculosis. The treatment could not make her better. Karukkaali mother was brought back to her hut where she breathed her last. Those were the days, the whole slum would be awakened by her incessant cough. The pillow stuffed with torn out clothes would become wet due to the oozing of saliva with excess mucus when she coughed uncontrollably. She became lean and lanky due to the disease that became severe day by day.

Her mother lost her husband in her prime age. The only mistake her mother did was to have visited the circus held at Thirupachur. Karikkaali and his father accompanied her. Her husband became addicted to visit the circus continuously for a period of sixty days without a single day break. No one could stop him going. All the efforts taken by Karikkaali’s mother to stop her husband visiting the circus thwarted miserably. Even the village leader advice had gone unheeded.

There was a rumor in the slum that Karikkaali father had an illicit affair with a malayalee girl who was employed in the circus as a cook. That was the last day Karikkaali father left to circus with an excuse of visiting just once and he did not return home finally. Karikkaali’s mother was waiting till mid night to receive him as usual. She was sitting nearby the stone pillar searching for her husband.

Only Muniyandi informed her mother that her husband left by lorry with the circus people. He did not return home even after one week. Karikkaali’s mother was in search of her husband in all the places wherever the circus was camped. Everytime she returned to the slum without a trace of his where about. She was being humiliated by the slum people and her efforts to trace her husband were criticized.

Karikkaali was grown to her mother’s shoulder. One day her mother received a letter from her husband from Kerala. She sold her ear ring and took the proceeds to meet her husband with Karikkaali. The address led them no where. Her mother returned home as usual losing her last ray of hope.

From there on her mother did not oil her hair. Even threw her blouse. Once the hair duly pleated now just heaped awkwardly to a knot. She started worrying about her daughter which was slowly eating her left over strength.

She started toiling night and day without a break. Her whole life was in search of a suitable match for her daughter. But all in vein.

Her health condition started deteriorating gradually. The only asset that she could save for her daughter was just an ordinary ear ring with a hanging and a silver anklet.

She was planning to dispose the dilapidated hut and a meager land to conduct Karikkaali’s marriage.

She had imposed full faith on her daughter that she would take care of her after the marriage.

All her dreams had gone with the wind. No one came to marry Karkkaali till her mother was alive. Even her distant brother at Veerampattinam did not come forward to take her proposal for her daughter’s marriage to his sons.

Karikkaali was wondering her youth drifting away without a notice. Her hope for marriage was slowly melting down from her mind. Who would have dared to marry an orphan, Karikkaali asked herself many times.

The unusual duck walk. The protruded teeth. The unkept hair like a thrown out Palmyra hard seed. The elongated face structure. Karikkaali thought those were the handicaps for her marriage. Even the Kudikaadu slum people were spreading rumors that Karikkaali did not attain puberty and hence she could not marry till date.

The mindless rumors forced her to prefer to solitary living.

Karikkaali removed the gunny sack that stood as a door and groped for the lamp in the hut. She was very careful for the objects that kept on the floor by gently hitting by her foot. She stretched her hands in the darkness but the lamp that was kept on the kitchen fell down and the kerosene was seeping on the floor. She hurriedly took the lamp and found it without any drop of oil.

It was already late. The hunch back Govindhan shop would be closed at any time. That was the only shop in the slum. He was so lenient to his customers by allowing delayed payments for the slum people. He was very well known to be honest in handling the customer’s account.

Long back Govindhan came from the nearby village Somiyapuram. It was almost twenty years since he came to the slum. The slum people kept their meager savings in his custody.

Karikkaali replaced the gunny sack to its original position and hurried to the shop. The lamps in the huts were twinkling. In both side of the dusty road the hey stocks were piled and heaped which resembled like a small mountain on either side. She crossed the market place to reach the shop at the stone pillar where the lamp was lit. She took the coins and verified again in the light. After a turn she could see the Govindhan shop where she could see a man standing.

She clutched the lamp in her mouth and quickly managed her unkept hair to a clumsy heap by both of her hand. The sickle which she kept in her waist was disturbing. She again removed that sickly and slide again to a comfortable position in her waist.

The stranger in the Govindhan shop was just staring at Karikkaali. However she tried to recollect who he must be, the stranger just disappeared at the opposite direction.

The male folks at the slum dare to visit the shop which was situated in the Vadugar street.

“is it Karikkaali, what brought you here at this odd hour” Govindan enquired.

“I was just returning from work sir. It was almost late when I left that place. No kerosene at home”

“Always get kerosene extra Karikkaali. Sometimes it was not even available for ready supply”

Govindhan took her lamp and asked her how much to fill.

“Just pour for fifty paise sir”

Govindhan asked Karikkaali about her uncle and his visit after her mother demise.

“Who else will come to see this poor soul”

“I knew Karikkaali, he was such a stone hearted fellow. How many times he took your mother’s meager savings. Next to your mother he is solely responsible for you. Curse that leech”.

Very rarely Govindan would chat like this. That too because there was none at the shop. He was having soft corner for Karikkaali always.

Govindan would financially help Karikkaali whenever she felt sick and could not go to work.

“Give me some pea nuts for fifty paise”

Govindhan liberally heaped the pea nuts in her hand.

It was the time the siren sound was heard from Paganur cotton mill. The surrounding villages would know it was nearing mid night after hearing the siren sound.

 “It was eleven o clock, Karikkaali. Go home early” Govindan ushered her.

She lit the lamp. Govindan advised her to be careful while walking because of insects and creepers on the road.

She reduced that lamp little. Her shadow became like a demon accompanied her all along. Her shadow was crossing the hey stock pilings. She ate the pea nut one by one puffing the outer layer and the inner pith. Govindan was about to leave home. Holding the bag of today collection he closed the shop. Karikkaali forgot to ask Govindan who was that stranger she met at the shop.

She could feel the ruffle while crossing the hey stock pilings on either side of the road. She was suspecting someone was hiding there and lifted the lamp to see the stock.

“Who is there hiding?”

Karikkaali again asked.

“Who is that hiding”

She could find none. But she could still hear the rustle from the hey stock. She reached close and found none. Her inner mind confirmed that someone must be there hiding. She hurried her steps back home. The lamp went off. The darkness all around. Krikkaali added strength to keep her pace fast.

She could hear the sound that someone was following her. Hardly two steps ahead. The man gagged her mouth with his palm and lifted her aloof. She struggled to relive from the clutches. She tossed her both legs. The man took her finally to the hey stock pile and dumped her.

The man was in his forties. Slowly the man started removing her saree. He stood in front of her like a dump and stout tree. She could not identify the man. But was sure someone from the Vadugar street only.

Karikkaali struggled to get released from him. Like a wild cat she pranced at his face. Just with a stroke he tore her blouse. She bounced back from the resistance. She could not manage to cover her breast with her folded hand. He lifted her both leg and tried to keep her wide. He gave enough pressure to her by pressing both his knee joints on her.

However she tried, she could not come out from his clutches. The pain was crucifying. She could not lift her head nor her clamped legs. Her skirt rolled above like a thread and she could not hide him anything. The tears were brimming. The shame annoyed her and made her weak. The thought of her mother fully filled her distressed mind.

“Leave me” “leave me” Karikkaali voice was weak and limping. She could not resist his brutal handling of her breast. He was like a beast fully engaged in his brutal errand. She could feel some wooden stick piercing her mercilessly. The bones were crushing down to pieces. The pain was horrible. The gushing sound of heavy breath was evidently noticeable.

She could feel something was disturbing in her waist. She got it now. She sprang back with all her strength regained.

“You dirty dog, now count your time” She retrieved her sickle and pressed it to his back with all her strength. It ripped from his back to his stomach at a stretch.

He screamed with agonizing pain. Abruptly he removed his clutches. Karikkaali lifted like an angered snake. She held his neck. She could feel his erected penis slithered in her hand while lifting her off from him. Without a second thought she raised the sickle and chopped his penis and threw it off.

He was howling in severe pain piercing the darkness. Karikkaali searched her dresses and left the place holding the lamp in her hand. She broke in to running.

The darkness gave way for Karikkaali. No one in the slum ever heard such a sound of a man in such crushing pain.

Finally she entered her hut. Placing the lamp in the kitchen she covered her bare body with the saree. Her heart pumping fast she sat at the corner sobbing uncontrollably. Her mother came in to her mind again. Karikkaali was lamenting her fate. Coughing non stop she swooned staring at the darkness.

The darkness got scarred first time in the hut and stood petrified.

(Painting courtesy: Dr. Sylvia Karpagam)

- Yakkan, translated by Prema Prabha


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