I love riding to work on my Atlas cycle, shielded from the northeast monsoon by my big black umbrella. My cycle has double bars, extra heavy wheels, and a carrier strong enough to carry a young cow. An Atlas is a farmer’s vehicle that can haul eight-foot loads of freshly cut corn stalks, cement bags, and wives.
The long driveway from our house to the main road is churned and muddy orange this morning. My wheels slip sideways through the goo, searching for the firm red gravel between the ruts. At least the main road is shiny and black from today’s predawn rains. It doesn’t matter that my tires draw muddy magic marker lines across the surface of the road. Soon enough, the rains will wash away all memory of my having passed this way.
The clouds from the Bay of Bengal have infiltrated the coast and traversed Pandiya Nadu’s rice plains. They are churning around the mountains of Kurinji in slow motion waves that will not stop.
Our air is thick and moist. Where once scorched fields reminded us how precarious we are, now the entire world is green. The weeds are flourishing along the roadsides. I try to avoid the spreading beds of nerinjan mullu whose devilish thorns love to pop my tires. Adorned with feathered finery and happy yellow stars, the nerinjan have no clue what is weed or jasmine or pampered rose.
I pass the empty lots of Lakshiminagar housing development. No longer a verdant field of high-yielding chollam, no longer the site of a prosperous dairy, the land has now been cut into a hundred plots, each marked with painted stones. Three lumpen streets of the future lead off to the interior. Two model houses stand unfinished. Ornate golden arches and golden street lamps are losing their luster. The most prestigious suburb of Bodi is still but a photo-shopped dream and a waterless concrete tank.
I pause at the bridge that crosses our creek. Yes. The water has been flowing. That means Meenakshipuram dam is finally getting some inflow. Maybe, just maybe, our water table will be recharged and our bore wells will yield as they once did when old- fashioned monsoons delivered as promised. It has been so long.
The billboard just past the bridge has been spread with new vinyl, advertising Deepavali clothes for the entire family. The models look sleek.
Today the brick makers are nowhere to be seen. Their long stacks of unbaked bricks have been carefully wrapped with blue tarpaulins and topped with Mangalore tiles.
The mud flats where ladies fill the molds with clay are sprouting grass like miniature rice paddies. In the kiln, the half sold bricks are laying in wait for tractors that won’t be coming till after the rains abate. Forgotten bricks like chunks of chocolate are melting into mud. Theirs was not to be the red fire.
I pass the soggy petrol bunk, the bore well lorry on the side of the road, the plastic litter under the tamarind trees, Oondiveerappa temple with its painted guardian horses, and Nagappa Goundar’s yard that is filled with mud-smeared cows. Next comes a line of petty shops that sell sweet biscuits from large-mouthed bottles, mutton masala powder packets, Clinique shampoo, long green bananas, and little red onions.
By the bus stop under the old arasu tree, Vasakar’s tea kadai is in full swing. Men lounge and smoke and read and talk like men.
Kids in purple and peach uniforms are getting shoved into share autos to Bodi. Other children in white uniforms with striped green ties are climbing into a private yellow school bus.
The little boys have had their faces washed and powdered. The schoolgirls all wear twin braids adorned with jasmine and marigolds. One waves to me and smiles, her front teeth missing, her expressive eyes outlined in black. Amma has placed a dot on her cheek to ward off evil.
On this fine monsoon morning, all the children of our village are on their way, all except for Nagajothi. They say she still passes her days shut away inside a nondescript room down a nondescript lane, not more than fifty feet from where the school children suck on chocolates.
Nagajothi’s one-eyed old mother still scowls down the street. There she is now, carrying a green plastic water pot with a broken rim, looking at her feet so as to avoid greeting anybody. She stops at a shop and pays for a handful of onions with a damp ten rupee note.
I think back to the first time I noticed Nagajothi as a skinny pre-adolescent sitting on the side of her alley as if waiting for happiness. Housework done, the neighbor ladies were clinking long silver dayakattai dice, advancing pebbles down the chalk grid they had drawn on the pavement. Nagajothi wasn’t playing; she was just sitting there staring out. When I waved at her, a flicker of a smile crossed her lips, then she looked away as if she had risked too much.
Some days as I drove by and all the other kids were rushing off to school, I would hear Nagajothi’s mother screaming at her in a voice that sours milk. Though I couldn’t understand a word of her Kannada dialect, the tone needed no translation: ‘What sin did I commit that God afflicted me with such an ugly, lazy, worthless daughter. Would that you had withered in my womb and spared us both.’
I inquired with the locals and discovered that Nagajothi’s mother supported their little household by cleaning cowsheds, scrubbing pots, and washing the clothes of neighbors. She had two sullen sons who had fled the village in their early teens and were never seen, not even on Pongal and Deepavalli. Though Nagajothi’s father had lived with them in their modest house, her mother had not spoken a single word to him in over ten years. He finally took another wife, sold the house, and abandoned them.
Nagajothi had never been allowed to go to school. Instead, her mother kept her home to wash and scrub and when there was no work, the little girl was made to sit in the alley near their rented room. She was not allowed to play. Ever.
There are mythic creatures known as nagas, ancient vegetarian cobras from the netherworld who emerge through the mysterious holes in termite mounds. Decades of unused venom have coalesced into a massive jewel which they guard carefully in their hoods. At night a naga places its jewel, its naga rathinam, on the ground and searches for food by the light of this gem. The ethereal glow is known as naga jothi or cobra light.
I would often muse about little Nagajothi, this jewel created by the poison of a bitter woman. Indeed as the years passed, Nagajothi’s eyes seemed to shine in a serpentine way that frightened me.
When Nagajothi was sixteen and adolescence had worked its magic, the mother scraped together a dowry and married the girl off to a distant relative. Nagajothi wore her new sari proudly and went to live in her husband’s home, about twenty kilometers away. I hoped that her time of happiness had come, that she was now free to grow into motherhood, to sink roots into moist black soil and have babies, little bundles that would flap their chubby arms and smile up at her.
One morning about a year later, I was cycling home through the suffocating air that was rising from the tar road at noon. As I passed the brick kilns, I noticed Nagajothi’s mother dragging Nagajothi by the wrist. Each time the girl tried to pull free, her mother would slap her and screech. The girl’s hair was unkempt, she was wearing a filthy nighty, and her eyes were beyond wild.
The next morning at work, I requested our head nurse to find out what had happened. Alumelu made a home visit and discovered that Nagajothi was being kept in their stuffy rented room. She was talking to herself and rocking, unresponsive to questions. The air smelled of excrement.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Apparently, the husband and mother-in-law kicked her out. They didn’t want this poor specimen of a wife and were going to look for a better one. That was about two months ago.”
I asked Alumela to get the mother to bring Nagajothi to our clinic.
A week later I saw the pair waiting under the neem tree outside the clinic. I pulled them in ahead of the others in the queue. Nagajothi was poorly nourished, but at least the mother had washed her and dressed her in a clean if rather tattered nightie. When I addressed the girl, she looked away.
“Answer the doctor when he talks to you!” The mother raised her hand as if to strike. Nagajothi recoiled.
“Please,” I said. “Don’t. She’s afraid.”
“It’s not fear. She’s just stubborn and insolent.”
Nagajothi covered her mouth and began to giggle. When I asked her what was so funny, she answered in complete gibberish.
“See, this is what I have to put up with. She talks to herself all night and laughs at nothing. She hasn’t slept for two months. Not during the night, not during the day, not even for a minute. The little ingrate won’t help with housework. She won’t eat what I prepare for her. She doesn’t even have the courtesy to go outside to relieve herself. Just does it in her clothes and looks at me with angry eyes. Who wouldn’t want to slap her?”
“Have you brought her to see a mental health doctor?”
“Of course. At Theni Medical College they gave her injections and tablets, but nothing changed. Then I had her exorcised by three different mandiravathis. That cost a bunch of money, but didn’t work either. All she talks about is going back to her husband. Day and night. I keep telling her that the marriage is over, that they won’t take her back, but she won’t hear of it. ‘I’m going back to my husband. I’m going back to my husband.’ She’s tried to run back there five times now, even at 2:00 in the morning. That day you saw us by the brick makers, she had made it as far as Rasingapuram when the bus conductor found she couldn’t pay the fare. He kicked her off and somebody called a relative. Guess who had to go all the way over there to pick her up. I had just enough money to take the bus one-way, so I was forced walk home, dragging her behind me. Eight km in this heat is no joke.”
While the woman was talking, Nagajothi had turned away and was pointing to something invisible on the ceiling, her wispy arms floating. I asked the mother to step outside so I could talk to Nagajothi in private.
“I have a few questions for you, just to see how your mind is working and see how we can help. Is that OK?”
She smiled shyly and nodded.
“Do you know where we are?”
“And what day is it?”
She shook her head.
She shook her head again.
“Where does your husband live?”
“And he sent you home?”
Tears filled her eyes. She nodded. “But I’m going to go back soon.”
“Your mother says that you tried to hang yourself with your sari last week.”
She looked down, her head cocked at an angle.
“But you’re a beautiful young woman. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“My husband’s expecting me. I need to go to him.”
“Is it true you can’t sleep? What happens when you lie down?”
“Sleep just won’t come so I get…up and think about going…back.”
Her voice was quiet, flighty.
“Do you think about other things?”
“About my mother, how I hate her.” Her face became hard. “I wish I could kill her.”
“Have you ever tried?”
She shook her head. “Or course not.”
“Do you ever hear voices telling you to do things?”
“Not like that.”
“What do you think about when you laugh to yourself?”
“I don’t know. Just…things.”
“I’d like to try some medicines to help you sleep and to help your thoughts work better and you can figure things out. Is that alright?”
“My tummy hurts.” She pressed both hands over her lower abdomen. “Right here.”
“Come back tomorrow. We’ll do some tests, OK?”
She and her mother agreed to medication, so we tried various combinations of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and sedatives. We saw her frequently, arranged a gynecology exam and an ultrasound and found that her husband had left her with a pelvic infection before sending her off. Though we gave effective antibiotics and the infection cleared, she continued to complain of pain in her lower abdomen.
Perhaps more important then our medications, Alumelu arranged for her to come to the clinic’s garden everyday, to talk, to get out of the house, to push out into the flow of life again.
Over the next few months, her mental state improved enough that the mother decided to send her to a seedy spinning mill as a live-in worker. The plan was that Nagajothi would work for three years with no wages, then get a lump sum of 30,000 rupees. Knowing how many young women are mistreated by men in the mill, not to mention how many never see a rupee of that money, we intervened. We finally convinced her mother to send Nagajothi to Blue Mango, the training center for women that my wife Tamar runs. At Blue Mango, she would learn a skill as well as be socialized in a safe and supportive environment.
Two days later, washed and dressed in a clean sari, Nagajothi rode the Blue Mango bus to her first day of work.
She joined the beading department and surprised everybody by how quickly she learned to make jewelry. Though her demeanor was always a bit strange, she made a few friends, earned money, and got a bank account in her own name.
Alumelu continued to counsel Nagajothi. As their relationship grew, Nagajothi confided that her mother had extracted a settlement of 50,000 rupees from her ex-husband’s family to annul the marriage. Nagajothi had no idea where that money, her money, had gone. What was worse, the mother stopped working and would force Nagajothi to do all the housework after coming home from Blue Mango. She would take all the girl’s earnings and not allow her to spend anything on herself. To combat this, Rajakumari, the supervisor in Blue Mango, opened up a secret savings account for Nagajothi that her mother couldn’t touch.
Three years passed. Other than being assaulted by her older brother, and persistent problems with abdominal pain and insomnia, Nagajothi seemed to be making a good adjustment to her new life. She even stopped insisting that one day her husband would come and bring her home with him.
When every evening’s cozy hush of rain falls on the tented leaves of chollam, it is so easy to forget that just months ago we were crying for water. Now everywhere one looks, chollam stalks are pushing up through sheaths bursting into broom-like blossoms. It’s as if there had never been a drought, as though there will always be plenty of grain and growing will always be so effortless.
Perhaps that is why at first we didn’t notice when Nagajothi began to slip. She would wander away during work hours without telling anybody and show up at home. Sometimes she would take sick days without leave, and without going to see the doctor. When Alumelu made a home visit, she found that Nagajothi hadn’t been taking her medications for over a month.
“I don’t like those pills. They make my stomach hurt.”
“But your stomach was hurting before these medicines. And why are you skipping work? Doesn’t it feel so nice to earn money and have someplace to go every day?”
“I’m going back to my husband. He’s calling for me.”
Alumelu turned to Nagajothi’s mother, her eyebrows raised.
The old lady waved a bony finger by her temple. “Nagajothi’s thinking is going off again. It’s been three weeks since she’s slept. And she’s been laughing to herself like before.”
“It’s your responsibility to make sure she takes her pills. If you can’t afford them, we’ll help you. You can pay half.”
The mother agreed and brought her to the clinic the next morning. Nagajothi appeared closed but she did agree to try the medications again.
She returned to work, but now it would take her all day to make a single pair of earrings when before she could make ten. And her work was sloppy, unsellable. One morning she curled up in the corner of the bead room and lay in fetal position, staring at the wall.
“My tummy hurts.”
We did blood work. Another pelvic exam by the nurse practitioner. Another abdominal scan. Nothing to explain her pain. It was as if her young womb had been broken.
“Make sure you bring her to us regularly,” I told her mother. “The abdominal pain will slowly go away. Her thinking will improve, but she may need these medications for the rest of her life.”
“Do you realize how much I’ve spent on this girl already? And how do you think I feel, people talking about me and my crazy daughter? She should just die.”
Nagajothi stopped going to work. Though we tried to convince her mother to come for refills, she refused.
“Is there nothing we can do?” I asked Alumelu. “Nobody in the police to contact?”
She shook her head. “Maybe if there were a rape or attempted murder or suicide the police would come. But not for an unhappy mentally ill girl who laughs in the dark.”
“What about government social services to bring her to a women’s shelter?”
“There are women’s shelters in Madurai, but they don’t take girls with mental problems.”
“Nobody else in her family? Relatives from out of town?”
She looked at me with a touch of pity.
“These people in her community, they don’t want to spend anything more for Nagajothi. It’s hard enough for a healthy girl to make it, let alone a divorced mental one. Her life is finished.”
Her words felt like a kick to the gut.
From time to time, I would see Nagajothi in her nightie, sitting near a shop and absently watching buses go by. I would wave and she would smile, just a little, then look quickly away as if she had risked too much. Shortly thereafter, she disappeared from public view.
Though it’s been two years since anybody has seen Nagajothi, they say she is still alive. Her mother avoids eye contact with me as I ride to work. I try not to imagine what it must be like for them in that little airless hut, day and night, year after year, a young woman dissolving. I wonder where her imagination spends its time, what it’s like in that place we cannot visit, her long alley of pain.
The afternoon rain melts closed the tops of the termite mounds. New mouths from within the earth form at night.
Though we stole her away for a time, it appears that the dark naga has found her. It has reclaimed its own, its light, its Nagajothi.