It took ten years for her to say more than two words to us, but when Pitchamani thought nobody was near, she would sing Tamil love songs in her clear, little voice. Even our dogs would wait anxiously by the heavy front door for her arrival. They could sense her presence as she floated towards our home, silver anklets tinkling. Pitchamani always brought them treats of crunchy appalams, “Seri dah. Sit down. How are my little tumbis today?”
One day as Pitchamani was peeling tiny red sambar onions in our kitchen, I asked her more about her childhood. She talked as she worked, her oval face bowed and tilted in that way of hers. Though her voice was quiet, it knew no fear.
“My grandfather was a shoemaker who later switched to selling leather. He eventually earned enough to purchase his own cows. My Appa helped him from a very young age. After Appa married my Amma, he went to work for R.S. Goundar, you know the one, that rich man who owns the movie theatre in Sillai? Back then he had a large dairy just behind the RMTC bus shed in Bodi.”
Pitchamani told me how when she had been a newborn, Appa had appointed a tabby kitten as her babysitter. He and Amma would be working in the fields nearby. Appa was a pillar of a man who would drive streams of cool water through irrigation channels each morning, then cut and haul succulent bundles of razor grass for R.S. Goundar’s cows. Amma would chop away at weeds, her head protected by a sun-faded sari piece. Together they earned just enough to buy rice, dhal, and a few green chilies for their daily kolambu. Appa dreamed of meat.
When it was baby’s naptime, Appa would hang a sari swing from a shady neem branch, put Pitchamani snug inside, and place the kitten on her chest. The doolie swayed, the kitten purred, and baby Pitchamani would sleep deeply.
“One day when I was just a little girl, I would have been two or three, my parents brought me to work in the fields since there was nobody to care for me at home. At naptime, Amma laid me down in a grassy irrigation channel and put the kitty on my chest like usual.”
A puff of wind carried the scent of plumeria in through the kitchen window. The stainless steel bowl Pitchamani was rinsing dinged lightly against the stone washbasin.
“While I was sleeping, a big cobra slithered down the channel straight for me. My kitty hissed and yowled and I started to cry. The snake rose up with its hood spread and threatened to strike. My kitty attacked the cobra and killed it right there. That’s what Appa tells me.”
Pitchamani hung the damp dish towel and moved to the courtyard where she settled onto the tiles. I sat on a granite step nearby and watched as she flipped roasted groundnuts in her winnowing basket. Now and then she would blow away the papery skins.
“That’s not the only time I almost died, you know.”
She told me how she had dropped out of school in third grade after a male teacher had repeatedly molested her and nobody had believed her story. Then her brother was born, followed by a sister and another brother. Pitchamani’s job was to care for these three so Amma could work. Appa was now in charge of R.S. Goundar’s dairy, unloading hundred kilo sacks of grain and feeding a shed full of animals their slurry of crushed groundnuts and millet. The Milk Union frequently awarded them the prize for the highest milk production in the district.
“When I was 16, my parents married me off to a 25-year old cousin of my mother’s. I didn’t really want to get married yet, but everybody said it was a good idea. Since my husband’s parents had died, we went to live with his grandmother in S.C. Colony. Her hut leaked and had rats. She was also very cold to me and I really missed my family.”
Pitchamani went on to describe how R.S. Goundar had believed the lazy lies of another worker and accused Appa of stealing. Deeply hurt after thirty years of building the man’s fortune, Appa walked out. In the coming month’s the dairy began to fail and the owner had begged him to return. He had refused. Within a year, R.S. Goundar had sold all hundred of his cows.
Pitchamani’s parents moved to Bodi to work for a generous Muslim called Bhai. Without her parents nearby, she found it difficult to cope with her husband’s frequent absences. He would labor in the mountains for 3 or 4 months at a time and upon his return, would contribute nothing to his family. He even missed the birth of their son.
Rumors began to circulate that her husband had taken another woman. Pitchamani refused to believe this gossip until the day her husband came home drunk and began to brag up and down their street about the gorgeous 40-year old woman he was seeing. Unlike Pitchamani, she was loads of fun, so he would go out drinking with her and take her to latest movies.
“It is me who is your wife,” Pitchamani said. “And this is your son. How dare you waste the family’s money on that female while we’re barely getting by! I don’t want you to go to the mountains anymore.”
The fighting became increasingly bitter. Pitchamani learned that her husband had first fallen in love with the other woman when he had been a teen-aged kid chopping weeds on a cardamom plantation. The woman had been about thirty and was unhappy, having been married off to a harsh, older man at the age of twelve.
“I don’t care how long you’ve known her and what her story is. You’re not to see her again, you hear me?”
“Don’t you dare tell me what to do.”
“Answer me this. Why did you marry me if you were planning to be with her instead?”
“My family was pestering me for months. I agreed to marry you to shut them up. Say what you want, but I’m not leaving her. Avalathaan!”
Overcome by a dreadful blackness, Pitchamani grabbed her little son and rushed from the house crying. She hurried along the weed-filled path towards the monster of an irrigation well where other young women had already hurled themselves to their deaths.
Two girl friends charged after her and caught her just before she reached the precipice.
“Akka! No! Don’t! Pitchamani stop! We’ll help you work things out. You must choose a different way. Please! Think of your son.”
After many tears and much arguing, the two prevailed and brought her home. Somebody contacted Appa who rushed to his daughter.
“You crazy girl! You think jumping in a well with help anything?” He struck his head with both hands. “Aiyaiyoh! You think we wouldn’t want to drink poison if you were to die?”
“But Appa, I can’t take it. Everybody tells me that he’s a good man just because he doesn’t beat me. Grandmother says that wives are just supposed to bear the pain their husbands bring. I just can’t.”
“Seri, pa,” Appa said. “ Enough is enough. This is what you’re going to do. You and your son are coming home with me this minute. Then you’re going to divorce that gutter pig.”
“But how can I stand the shame? The villagers will blacken my name. My son will run wild. Those young men with jeering eyes will go behind me saying, ‘Akka, Akka, come home with us, Akka.’”
“Let those mouth dancers talk. If one of them comes anywhere near you, I will shred him like an onion and toss the pieces in the gutter.”
A few weeks later, Pitchamani was hired to help Bhai’s wife in her home. Her employers were kind, but after a few years her cousin Veeramani convinced her to join Blue Mango, a women’s income generation project run by my wife Tamar.
Though Pitchamani soon became proficient at sewing toys for export, she preferred the job of food preparation in Blue Mango’s kitchen. And coordinating celebrations like Pongal.
“How’s your son doing these days?” I asked her. She was sweeping up the swirling peanut skins.
“Some days are a struggle, especially now that he’s a teen-ager, but he’s doing alright. He’s in 8th grade. I keep telling him not to turn out like his father.”
“I hope I get the chance to meet your Appa and Amma someday.”
“You’ve already met them, but maybe you don’t remember. We brought Appa to you about his blood pressure. I keep telling him to take the medicines regularly, but he refuses, saying he feels just fine without them.”
“What’s he doing these days?”
“When he grew too old to farm, Bhai gave him a job as night watchman in his private school. But the minute he gets home, he takes care of his three cows. Appa’s so proud. One even gives 16 liters a day. Well, time for me to catch the Blue Mango bus.”
It was working out well for both of us, paying Pitchamani to work part-time while she also continued at Blue Mango, building up her savings and retirement accounts. Both Tamar and I felt that her presence in our home was the evening sun.
One morning, Pitchamani and her mother rushed Appa to see me in the clinic. He was sitting straight upright, agitated and struggling for breath. His lips were gray and he was unable to talk.
Pitchamani’s mother was crying. “He didn’t sleep the entire night. Aiyaiyoh, you have to save my husband! ”
Pitchamani showed little emotion as she adjusted her father’s pillow and wiped his brow. “I called the local doctor at 2:00 in the morning,” she said. “He gave him a few injections and he’s a little better now.”
I found his blood pressure to be twice normal at 230/120. His chest was full of crackling sounds indicating a dangerous build-up of fluid in his lungs. The nurse gave him emergency injections to lower the blood pressure and relieve his congestive heart failure. After a few hours, he was finally able to lie back and sleep.
Over the next few weeks we struggled with high doses of medicines to control Appa’s blood pressure and get him back to his cows. On one follow-up visit, I asked Appa about the story of the kitty and the cobra.
He leaned back and laughed.
“Pitchamani told me the cat actually killed the cobra? Is this true?”
He looked up at the fan and made a little face.
“Well…maybe it didn’t actually kill the snake, but don’t tell my daughter. The truth is, that cat made such a racket with hissing and growling that the snake fled. I’m convinced she saved the life of my little girl.”
Pitchamani’s mother was nodding sweetly in the background.
“The cat lived with us as a member of our family for seven years,” she said. “Then one day she was gone.”
“I’m sure it was those Nayakkar men,” Appa said. “They eat cats, you know.”
He pushed back his thinning hair with calloused hands. “So, Pitchamani tells me that she told you all about her ex-husband and all that.”
I nodded as I pumped up the pressure cuff on his right arm. “She did.”
It was as if his muscular body suddenly deflated. The man who could haul slabs of granite up three floors suddenly looked old and full of regret. It was true that by working hard, he had been able to educate Pitchamani’s other siblings. Pitchamani’s younger sister had made a good marriage. One brother had a good job in a clothing factory in Coimbatore and the other worked as an accountant in a bakery chain. However, Appa’s oldest and sweetest daughter had missed out on so much.
I deflated the cuff. “Good, it’s finally normal. Be sure not to miss even a single day of your medications. With the way your pressure jumps around, that could prove fatal.”
“Say no more, doctor. If Pitchamani hadn’t brought me here that day, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”
I bid him goodbye with palms pressed together. As I watched him rise stiffly and leave my office with his wife, I mused about the little girl and her kitty and about quiet strength.
Sometimes during the shimmering heat of noon, Pitchamani pauses to water the flowers, then unties her hair and glides down the path of trees.