LISTEN. I AM TELLING you this story exactly as I saw it. Exactly how I heard it. I am not attaching an eye here, or an ear there, or a nose in the middle. I am giving it to you exactly how it unfolded.
To be honest, I do not know where to start this story. Do I start from the very beginning? But then, when does a story begin, really? When does a story become a story?
Anyway, I will start here: Kali’s house stood on one of the largest plots of land in our village of a hundred or fewer people. Her father left it to her. Only her, not her brothers.
It is strange for fathers to leave their assets to their daughters. That is what sons are for: to take over your tilled land, your brick house, your shoemaking business, your tea shop, and double it all, triple it all. Daughters are not meant for that. Daughters are meant to be given away in marriage. You give them so much already: you bundle them with money, gold, silver, so they can bring prosperity to another family.
In our village, it was more than strange. It was sacrilege. Especially when you had four strapping sons, the proper thing to do was to distribute your wealth among them. They would decide what was right for their sister.
Kali’s father had been sick for a few years. He died the day she turned twenty. He asked to be alone with her when he died. No one knows what his last words were. When Kali exited his room, everyone else rushed in, but he had already breathed his last.
He left her the house and plenty of money. When the will was read, Kali’s aunt turned on her. “You made my brother do this!” she screamed from the central courtyard at Kali, who sought camouflage in the shadows of dusk. “You controlled his limp body and forced his thumbprint on these papers. My nephews have families, wives to take care of, children to feed. What do you have? You don’t deserve this money!”
Kali only said, “Leave. This is my house now.”
Kali was the youngest in her family. Rumor has it that when she arrived into the world with her twin, she was not crying. She was healthy, her long lashes curling on her pink cheeks. However, the other baby she had shared her mother’s womb with, her twin, came out emaciated, a cold, sharp mass of bones and organs that did not pulse with life.
Kali weighed enough for both of them. Kali ate both their shares of food. Kali’s lungs were strong enough for both of them, and her shrieks almost shook the house’s roof off above her family’s heads.
Kali’s mother steadily lost weight and her desire to live. She said often that she wanted to be with her daughter, but she meant the one who did not get to see the world.
Even as a baby, Kali did not seem to need anyone. Her mother seemed to be aware of this. Before Kali turned one, the woman died. Kali learned to speak quite early even though she had no one talking to her. No one knew when Kali started walking. One day she was sitting on the floor, the next she was just walking as if she was in possession of a map. She had an unfeminine firmness to her gait. Her footsteps made a straight, unwavering line of sharp marks on sand.
Kali did not go to school. At school, we heard that people ran into her near Mariam’s chicken farm, or Hameed’s biryani and tea stall, gingerly carrying home a carton of eggs or a set of steaming glasses of hot tea for her father and brothers.
Once, Manickam tripped her when she was carrying the eggs, and laughed at her sprawled form on the ground. She didn’t say a word, just saw through him like he was nothing but a strong gust of wind that pushed her off balance. The following week, he slipped on the mossy steps of the well at his friend’s backyard and fell into it.
Ever since the “accident,” his fingers clenching around the crutches, he called her a witch every time she walked past him. He asked her, loudly, if she put a curse on him. His friends echoed his words, carefully, making sure their voices blended into a chorus, so that she could not single out one of them.
But Manickam was not her only casualty. Her reputation was only cemented by this incident.
Kali was the reason the midwife got a stroke and lay in bed motionlessly. The old woman was the first to comment on how Kali sucked the life out of everything around her. Starting with her twin, ending with her garden, where all the plants were withered and brown and the leaves crunched under your feet now.
Kali was why Chithra got polio and her legs rapidly thinned. Chithra was fine until she started playing with the other girl when she was three. Now, her parents wept every day that they could walk and stand, but their daughter was entirely dependent on a wheelchair to move about.
The year Kali started bleeding every month, we heard her cry out in pain. That year, the monsoon eluded us and all the crops died.
Everyone in the village had had a run-in with the dreaded one at some point. I was one of the few lucky ones who remained unscathed. As a young boy, I used to walk past her house every day on my way to school and back. Sometimes, I walked alone. One evening, I saw her sitting on a large rock right outside her house. She had an unopened pack of milk biscuits in her hand, the wrapper crinkling every time she moved her fingers.
“Muthu,” she called out. I stopped. I had never spoken to her before. “You go this way every day, don’t you?”
I did not know much about her, but I was still somehow scared of her. Maybe it bothered me that she knew my name. Maybe it was her posture, how comfortably she had positioned herself on that rock. As if that rock was her throne. I still remember very well – she sat with her right leg bent, her foot firmly on the rock, her arm lazily draped over her knee. She did not seem to care that her skirt had hiked up a little. I could see the insides of her thighs. Even at that age, I knew to turn away.
“Want some bikis?” she asked with a smile.
I did not answer her. Her smile died a little, but she persisted. “If I give you the whole pack, will you play with me?”
I wanted the biscuits, but I did not want to play with her. Milk biscuits were expensive. I could not possibly afford them with my meager allowance. What was the catch, I wondered.
After a couple of minutes, she sighed and beckoned me closer. “You can take the biscuits. We don’t have to play together.”
I snatched the pack from her and ran. I did not turn to look at her.
When I reached home, I told my sister about the encounter. She seemed distressed.
“Do you know how many lives she has ruined?” my sister asked. She grabbed the biscuits from me and threw them into the trash. “You have seen Chithra, right? You know about all the boys and girls who no longer go past her house? She has wounded all the children who ever dared to play with her. Did you say anything to provoke her?”
“I never said a word,” I said.
“That is good. Do not say or do anything to make her angry. She will bear a grudge on you and do something nasty to you.”
And it continued, the trail of disaster that Kali left in her wake.
Valli vomited everything she ever dared to put in her mouth for an entire week because she called Kali stupid.
Kali unleashed her wrath on Ramu’s family simply because he pinched her. The entire family of eight had an attack of chickenpox at the same time.
Kali made Mari lose his arm to the lathe machine at the factory. He hit her in the back of her head when she was nine, and she held on to the grudge for a whole decade before punishing him for it.
Kali hypnotized her dying father into bequeathing the house and the land it stood on to her and not to his sons.
If you stared long enough into Kali’s eyes, you would get turned to stone.
If Kali ever got her hands on even a strand of your hair, she would put a curse on you so vicious that your family would reel from it for generations and generations.
Word spread around, first at the lone, barebones schoolhouse building with its eerie chimes and its dead clock tower, and then outside, that Kali was a witch.
We accepted this without question; after all, we had all seen what happened to every person who ever had the misfortune to cross her. The marks she sometimes carried on her arms, the bruises, the welts, the burns, the scars she tugged ineffectually at her short sleeves to hide, the cuts on her face and god knows where else, all of that only made her look all the more sinister. Like she could take any number of us boys down in a fight.
Kali looked like a praying mantis when she was younger. Tall, thin, her breasts like puny pimples on her chest and yet defiantly pushing at her thin cotton blouse. When she sat in the sun, looking at people walking past her house, sometimes licking slush that turned her lips and tongue a deep, dark red, the sweat that rolled down her back made the bones jut out in sharp, poky relief.
But as she grew older, we men were quick to take note of her bulging breasts and her generous hips. My mother once saw me looking at her and told me that not everything that looked beautiful was good for us. “Like a snake,” she said. “A cobra looks beautiful when it rears its head, magnificent even, but would you stand there waiting for it to attack you?”
We learned to avert our eyes. We also learned to glance cautiously at her without others knowing. If there were a cobra around you, would you take your eyes off of it even for a second?
Manickam said – aloud so she could hear – that her arms looked even, like plantain stems. That he would love to pin her wrists against the bed. That when he took her lips, she would surrender completely to him and like it. He said he would like to hold tightly her hips – hips that swayed proudly when she walked past them – against his body as he made her bear his child. The rest of us admired him for being so manly and brave.
“She has the perfect childbearing hips,” the older women always commented with envy at her full figure, her long, thick braid that swayed from side to side as she walked, her round kohl-lined eyes and her fat lips that were all too big, too dangerous for this little village.
When she looked at your face as if you were not a man but a mere tree, when she did not look away coyly like the other women did, when her lips moved ever so slightly, who knew what curses she muttered? When she held your gaze, who knew how she was mutilating you in her head?
When some good things took place in the village, it was as if some luck escaped past her watchful guard and trickled down to us. Vijaya married her cousin Senthil. Hameed’s daughter Shabana was given away in marriage to a very wealthy man from town. These were our biggest celebrations. For days, we could smell on our fingers the tangy, rich sambar that was served at Vijaya’s wedding, and the aromatic, meaty biryani that Hameed served at his daughter’s.
Senthil was the village’s only graduate. He was tall, owned a motorbike, and worked at the post office in the town. He could introduce himself in English. His plump-millipede mustache and his broad and angular coat-hanger shoulders were the talk of all the girls in town. Vijaya told us all that every evening, he gently pinned the long string of flowers to her braided hair and fed her the sticky sweet, bite by bite, with his own fingers, fingers that were left greasy with ghee when he was done.
And then one day, on her way back from the river, in a really dark corner of a dark alley she usually never glanced at, Vijaya caught Senthil with Kali. He was fully clothed, but she was not. His fingers were clamped on her mouth, his body held her against the wall so her stomach was lined against the bricks, his face buried in her long, flowing curls. Her clothes lay in a heap beside them. Her neck had some purple bruises. Her eyes were wide open, wild even, as they stared straight at Vijaya.
Within a week, the post office transferred Senthil to a town ninety-three miles away, and the village did not see him and his wife again for a long, long time.
The women grew more and more restless. They asked Kali’s brothers why she was not married yet. Why was she still among them instead of with some unfortunate family many miles away? A young, unmarried woman was a temptation and could never be good news for the men of the village. The brothers just shrugged.
Hameed’s married daughter returned to her maternal home when she was six months pregnant. The village once again learned to celebrate. Hameed’s house shone with colored lights, and even the mango and coconut trees outside his house were lit up, green and red bulbs wound around them. He served the neighbors biryani every day, mutton one day, chicken the next. Everyone celebrated with him; the entire village had watched Shabana grow up and everyone had gone to her wedding that took place for three whole days. A loudspeaker stationed outside his stuccoed house sang the merciful lord’s praises all day.
But even with her mother’s care and attention, Shabana’s frame dwindled. She faded, her cheekbones more prominent, the skin on her arms loose and barely shielding her bones. She could not take two steps without stopping to catch her breath. Her middle expanded, but the rest of her shrank. The village doctor did not know what was wrong.
And then one day, we heard loud cries from Hameed’s house. We caught sight of Hameed and his wife helping their daughter out of the house and into the car, blood between her thighs, seeping through her nightdress, forming a thin, dotted trail on the ground.
She returned from the town hospital with a flat midriff. Hameed ripped the lights off the trees and the walls. The loudspeaker hung quiet, slightly lopsided, its head bent in shame.
Later that week, Jothi was walking to the doctor with her baby, when she saw Kali hunched over, her back curved like a sickle, emptying her guts on the roadside. Jothi recalled Kali’s bloodshot eyes. Jothi recalled instinctively shielding her child from Kali’s fixed gaze. Jothi recalled Kali’s hand gently resting on her belly as she continued to stare at Jothi’s baby.
For the next few days, the windows of Kali’s house were black, vacant eyes on a pale face. No one bumped into Kali at the farm or anywhere else. The neighbors said that her brothers came from the town in their milky white Ambassador and took her away. They said they heard what sounded like a fight; they heard shouts, and they heard rage and humiliation.
When Kali came back from the town, she looked viler than ever. Her infamous glare was dreaded even more, and people looked both ways for her before walking the streets. The little kids who had to cross her house to go to school took a roundabout route, because the last time they took the shorter path, she opened the door and shouted at them. No words, just loud, angry sounds.
Mothers traveled from the village to nurse their pregnant daughters. Girls were given in marriage to families in other villages, towns, and cities far, far away. Young, unmarried men, especially ones that were already spoken for, were sent to work in neighboring districts. Everything needed to be away from Kali in order to thrive. Never be happy in front of her evil eyes; never show her you had something she did not; never be someone she could never be. Hide your joy and keep it a secret.
When Parvathi finally became pregnant after eight years of marriage, we all watched with great apprehension. We urged her to go live in the town for a little. She said she hoped god would choose to be on her side. She went to the temple every day and frequently made cash contributions to the hundial. She recited all the slokam she knew and watched as the priest bathed every idol in every shrine with milk and sandal paste.
But just as we feared, despite everything she did, she was only almost a mother. She made it seven whole months before losing the baby. Even god had abandoned us all.
That same week, Kali visited the clinic. The doctor told her she was pregnant.
“That is my baby,” Parvathi whispered, as she watched Kali’s mound grow.
Kali was a greedy witch who swallowed other women’s fetuses to fill her own womb.
She was a promiscuous siren who stole other women’s men to feed her body.
And the village was slowly becoming an extension of her barren garden.
At every Panchayat meeting, Hameed, Vijaya’s mother, Mari, and a few others continually brought up the topic of Kali. Hameed’s wife became bedridden with pneumonia immediately after he started speaking up at the meetings, but he persisted. We lauded him for his loyalty to the village and hailed him a hero.
The village chief invited Kali’s brothers to a private meeting. The chief’s wife told Parvathi later that the brothers had been just as ill-treated as the entire village was. Kali had stolen their fortunes from them and was now bringing dishonor upon them with her callous actions.
At the next Panchayat meeting, the chief summoned Kali.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” he asked her.
“I don’t understand the charges against me,” she said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Everyone gasped. Such impudence! She did not even respect the chief.
“You have brought failure, famine, and devastation upon this village. You have been practicing witchcraft, and it has made the life of every single one of us miserable.”
“I’ve done no such thing,” she said, her hand resting on the smooth rounded curve of her stomach. “I’m the one who’s been wronged by everyone here. Your men have destroyed my life.”
“Oh, we have not even started, trust me,” Manickam said furiously and advanced towards her. We managed to hold him back.
“You seem to be doing fine,” Parvathi said. “You have taken all joy from us. Are you happy now?” Her husband held her as she sobbed.
The chief held his hand up when the crowd started clamoring. He said that we should banish Kali from the village. Seize her house and land from her and hand it to the rightful owners, her brothers, and send her away.
The crowd did not seem ready to accept this decision. There was a general unease, as if they were being asked to rescue baby rats from a house and leave them on the terrace instead of killing them; the little beasts were surely going to find their way right back into the house.
But then Vijaya’s mother said, “But that is not what we should do with witches.” When everyone looked to her for an explanation, she said, “I spoke to a very powerful astrologer in town. He said that we must soothe the gods with a sacrifice. It is time.”
Manickam and Appasamy held onto Kali when she flinched away from the crowd, and towed her forcefully to the central banyan tree.
Appasamy asked Vijaya’s mother if Kali could kill him for what he was doing. Vijaya’s mother said that where Kali was going, she would not have such powers.
When Kali tried to wriggle out of their grip, Manickam slapped her hard across her face. He snatched her sari and said that a she-devil like her did not even deserve to be clothed.
Her blouse missed a hook, and she tried to cover her breasts with her free arm. Vijaya’s mother ordered everyone to surround Kali in case she tried to escape. On the older woman’s orders, Manickam proceeded to strip the witch completely.
Kali screamed. It was a horrific sound. No natural woman would ever make such a sound. It was positively vulgar, the way she drew attention to herself even in such a situation.
Velu—who did not even have the temerity to collect money from her for the milk and asked her to leave it on the porch—was now standing within arm’s distance, eyeing her with patent disapproval. Hameed’s wife, who usually hid behind a telephone pole or pillar whenever Kali passed by, was now standing directly in front of her.
Manickam yanked at whatever was left of Kali’s blouse. A hook or two went flying. When she protested a bit too much, Appasamy held her hands behind her. Mari joined in to beat her with his one good hand. Vijaya’s mother and Hameed’s wife collected everyone’s shoes and strung them together. When Kali was completely naked, they garlanded her with the shoes.
The villagers led her through every street in a procession. When she asked for water, someone put a bag of rocks atop her head. Her breasts were still defiant, not at all crushed by the insults, the shoes, and the stones heaped on her.
Everyone agreed that it was incredibly satisfying to see her crying for the first time. Her normally stony expression gave way to loud wails. She swiped at her eyes with her hands. There seemed to be some vengeance in her movements and channeled wrath; we wondered what she was scheming.
When they were done walking her through the maze of streets, they brought her back to the center of the village. By now, someone had erected a stake, and it stood there, proud and intimidating, in wait for the witch.
By the time Vijaya’s mother pushed her towards the stake roughly and started tying her up, Kali had learned to stop fighting. But she did not beg; she never begged or submitted fully, which infuriated us. Vijaya’s mother slapped her twice or thrice and called her a whore.
It was an unforgettable sight: the cause of all our collective woes, trapped once and for all, but still shimmering as the sun was reflected on every drop of sweat on her body. We were finally taking a step for the sake of our village.
The wind carried Kali’s frightful cries intermingled with the smoke and the smell of burning skin and singed hair to the neighboring villages. Vijaya’s mother stood there crying, and people went up to her to congratulate her.
In the gradually enveloping darkness, it looked like Kali’s head was turned towards me and her eyes were firmly fixed on me. Later, more people told me that was how they felt too, that her eyes were on them. But as I watched her go up in flames, I could only think of how grateful I was that I did not have to go through any of the pain and anguish the others did. I was fortunate.
Neeru Nagarajan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hypertext Magazine, Adirondack Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Kitaab, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she is at work on her first novel.