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Agni Natchathiram

by S. Govindarajan
(Chennai, India)

“The human brain has an annoying tendency to compartmentalize what we call ‘things’ for lack of a better word. It craves normalcy.” The voice droned on and out. Shanta sat still in the middle of the room, eyelids heavy with sleep and her back hunched in fatigue. It was a hot, sultry day, sometime in Maya time of the year reverently called the Agni Natchathiram. A day feared by many as the sun’s rays beat the earth mercilessly, probably in revenge for venturing far enough to avoid being baked, unlike her sisters, Mercury and Venus.

The ceiling fan revolved in lazy circles before spluttering and coming to an absolute standstill. The room suddenly grew at least fifteen degrees hotter. Shanta could feel the beads of perspiration form on the back of her neck as drops steadily trickled down her back, staining and soaking her blouse. Her silk saree, blue and gold, weighed like a sack of rocks; she could barely stir while her ornaments of gold and silver cut into her skin and were stuck in place with perspiration. She glanced about the room taking stock of her future family.

“Do not worry, we will take care of her like a daughter.” As long as she is subservient. Her to be mother-in-law seemed to be saying. Her father-in-law not to be outdone, boisterously burst out, “Definitely! We are very progressive. Your daughter will be cherished and loved….” Shanta lost her focus as her lower back started pounding in pain. It felt as if a fully grown elephant was tap dancing on it. She barely managed to suppress a groan when her abdomen clenched. A bolt of pain shot up her sternum, knocking her breath out of her.

There was a sudden release and she felt something warm and sticky trickle down the back of her leg. No, no! Not now! “You must be familiar with the dowry agreement we’ve drawn. It is absolutely vital, isn’t it? Of course, it must all be hush hush…” Shanta was panicking while her heart did cartwheels. She couldn’t even bear to look down. I wonder if I could slowly inch away. “Now where do you think you’re going, young woman?” It was her
father. Every eye in the room seemed to be on her. She managed a tight smile as her back and abdomen battled it out. Her innards felt diced and dissected while her spine struggled to stay erect.

Her mother -in-law rose and hobbled towards her. She was a large and voluptuous woman, clad in a gaudy pink saree with a small bhindi adorning her forehead, greying hair pulled back into a tight bun. She smiled, exposing yellowing teeth stained red with betel extracts. “You are now officially a part of our family. I couldn’t be happier. Shanta was engulfed in a humongous hug. She felt suffocated, her nostrils invaded with the stench of sweat jasmine flowers. Her breath hitched in her throat while her lungs screamed for air. The gentle trickle down her leg turned into a cascade equalling the Niagara waterfalls themselves.

The older woman suddenly released her and looked down in horror. Shanta was seated amidst a growing pool of blood. Bright red at first, it gradually turned a curious shade of brownish maroon as it kissed the oxygen in the air. The metallic aroma seemed to permeate the air.” Is it your time of the month? “came the question. Shanta blinked slowly.” IS IT YOUR TIME OF THE MONTH? “She could only give a nod. The sting of a slap was felt on her cheek before it came.” Oh, you stupid girl! Look at what you’ve done. You’ve polluted me! How can I enter my house, a holy sanctuary, now? And you, what have you taught your daughter? How is she worthy of being our daughter-in-law…?

As the woman continued yelling, Shanta slowly rose and glanced at her fiancé. He sat there, mute, watching the drama unfold. He seemed enraged, but on whose behalf, she wasn’t sure and didn’t care. As her parents scrambled over to mollify the guests, she slowly backed into her room and locked the door behind her. The windows were bolted and blinded.

She shredded off every single ornament, gold and silver clattering to the floor. She stripped to her skin and sat on the floor, bleeding freely. Suddenly, a cool gust of wind hit her exposed being. The electricity was back.

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