THEORY AND ART OF TRANSLATION: TWO MALAYALAM
STORIES, "OPPOL" AND "KUTTYEDATHI"
B.A., University of Kerala, 1964
M.A., University of Kerala, 1966
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Plan III: Applied Language
This thesis for the Master of Arts
has been approved
4a ^ /%
Matthew, Sosanna (M.A. Applied Language)
Theory and Art of Translation: Two Malayalam Stories,
"Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi"
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Colleen Donnelly
The act of translation is more than the transference
of meaning or the exclusive functions of grammar. While
an emphasis on accuracy alone can result in a failure to
convey the music and poetry or intertextual allusions
inherent in the text, a free translation can lead to
license and error, no matter how exotic it might sound.
The translator who performs a word-for-word exercise can
diminish the quality of the original by presuming that
understanding resides solely in the semantic element. At
the same time, the translator does not possess the right
to usurp the role of the author of the original text, by
employing creative license either.
Translation becomes "understanding" as interpretation
combines the main rhetorical gestures of the author with
what is cognitive as well as aesthetic in the source
text. By wording and rewording, the translator, as the
sole negotiator between fidelity and freedom creates a
new aura about the original content and form. Here s/he
becomes a cross-cultural messenger, carrying
understanding across time and space, an interpretive
artist dancing to the spirit of the original text.
The thesis includes an examination of the art of
translation and the act of translation itself of two
Malayalam (a South-Indian language) stories -- "Oppol"
and "Kuttyedathi." The appendix explains the phonology
This abstract accurately represents the content of the
candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.
To Bikku, Ashwin and Chakko,
for their incredible generosity and support;
to Dr. Elizabeth Hamp-Lyons,
for her inspiration and guidance;
to Dr. Colleen Donnelly,
without whom this thesis would not have been possible.
1. THEORY AND ART OF TRANSLATION..................1
Sociolinguistic Analysis ................... 7
Literary Techniques Used by the Author . 21
Issues of Silence and Repression .... 29
Translation Techniques .................... 33
A. Phonology of Malayalam.................... 52
B. Oppol..................................... 54
C. Kuttyedathi............................... 80
THEORY AND ART OF TRANSLATION
Utter fidelity (to the original text) in translation
or free interpretation? This is a question that every
translator faces. My concern here is to show that
translation is more than the ordinary transference of
meaning from one language to another. Just as the act of
reading involves interpretive translation, the act of
translation involves an interpretive reading of the
original text. "Every translator is an interpreter,"
asserts Hans-Georg Gadamer (qtd. in Barnstone 21).
Source meanings get replaced by target meanings for the
translator as initial thoughts give way to new thoughts
through several re-readings. The justifying principle
behind the translator's final interpretation has to be
balanced by a commitment to honor the authorial intention
and to hold it sacred. Just as in the act of reading,
where the reader fills in the gaps of knowledge using
her/his individual world experience, thereby transforming
herself/himself into an interpreter/author, the
translator becomes the author of a second text of meaning
and experience. Ordinary literary translation has the
danger of ending up as a mediocre by-product of
translation whereas a clearly exuberant free
interpretation poses the danger of exceeding authorial
intention. "Originality in a given translation is untrue
in that no text is entirely original, because language
itself, in its essence, is already a translation," says
Octavio Paz (qtd. in Barnstone 5). Paz continues, "Every
translation, up to a certain point, is an invention and
as such constitutes a text" (9). But considering the
enigmas and inherent issues in translation, Barnstone
asks, "But how do we judge the translation? Are we to
limit ourselves to the linguistic possibility of
achieving equivalence, and shape our judgment to the
degree that the equivalence, ordinary or creative,
literal or free, is accomplished? Or do we consider and
judge the translated text on its own, as an autonomous
esthetic subject?" (11). Beyond a literal word-for-word
transfer of information, the translation must address
issues of meaning (sense-for-sense) in the source text as
well as issues of equivalence and difference, what should
be retained and what can be naturalized. To come to
grips with these issues of the transforming principle of
re-creation, I have divided my text into four distinct
parts. The first section focuses on a sociolinguistic
analysis of the text. The second section examines the
literary techniques employed by the author. The third
section attempts to probe the issues of silence and
repression that come through the text. The fourth
section discusses translation techniques in general and
how in my own translations I have dealt with the criteria
of judgment in translation theory. I have also added an
appendix to explain the phonology of Malayalam. The
appendix also includes the two stories I have translated.
For the purpose of this thesis, the texts I have
chosen to deal with are "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi," two
short stories written by Vasudevan Nair. I have
translated them from Malayalam, one of the four Dravidian
languages spoken in Kerala, a state at the southern most
tip of India.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David
Crystal describes the Dravidian family of languages thus:
The Dravidian family is a group of over 20 languages
most of which are found close together in the
southern and eastern areas of India -- one language
(Brahui) is curiously isolated, being spoken one
thousand miles away from the main family, in the
north of Pakistan. Through emigration, speakers of
the main Dravidian languages are today found
throughout Southeast Asia, in eastern and southern
regions of Africa, and in cities in many parts of
The name given to the family comes from the Sanskrit
word "dravida" which is used in an early text with
apparent reference to one of the languages, Tamil.
Tamil has the oldest written records of this family
dating from the third century b.c., and scholars
believe it to be close to the ancestor language,
known as Proto-Dravidian. But, despite the
historical records and associated reconstruction,
there is little agreement about the origins of the
language, or its speakers. One tradition speaks of
migration from lands to the south, now submerged;
other views suggest a movement from Asia, via the
northwest, perhaps around 4000 b.c. A relationship
has been proposed with both Uralic and the Altaic
language families, but the hypothesis is
controversial. There is, however, strong support
for the view that Dravidian languages were once
spoken in the north of India and were gradually
displaced by the arrival of the Indo-European
Because of the high percentage of Sanskrit
derivative vocabulary in Malayalam, it is widely assumed
that Malayalam is a Sanskrit-based language. However,
Malayalam is akin to Tamil in that both share a common
grammatical structure. This fact probably explains the
interesting anthropomorphic and metaphorical statement
from British philologist, Robert Caldwell, who said,
"Malayalam is the daughter of Tamil and is married to
Sanskrit" (George 5). According to recorded history, the
land of Kerala was inhabited at least twelve centuries
before Christ and that the language spoken was the Proto-
Dravidian tongue. The German linguist Dr. Gundert, who
authored the first scientific grammar of Malayalam and
the well-known, Malayalam-English dictionary has
maintained that Malayalam has a grammatical structure
independent of other Dravidian languages. But in spite of
the ongoing and unresolved conflict about the
relationship of Malayalam to other Dravidian languages or
its independence from them, most scholars agree that
Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit share a common ancestor:
the Proto-Dravidian language.
The dialect used in "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi" is a
subordinate variety of Malayalam called "Vadakkan."
Mapping the distributions of various linguistic features
around this area identifies a certain dialect boundary in
this northern region of Kerala. This particular northern
dialect is distinguished and identified both by
geographical and social boundaries to an extent and by
its particular language interaction with the intersecting
community outside of it. This norm is borne by the
evidence of the superordinate Malayalam words here and
there in the texts, when a formal occasion calls for it.
The historicity1 of this particular dialect has been
long-standing, because the villages in this area have not
experienced an influx of outsiders and consequent
These villages share a common linguistic ancestry as
the majority of the population in this protypical village
is Hindu with their hierarchial caste system and
culturally ordered lives. Knowing and naming have been
static. It is almost as if time has stood still in this
village as tradition has held its grip on people's lives
regardless of the comings and goings of generations.
Consequently this regional dialect with its own
differences in pronunciation, choices of forms of words
and syntax remains very distinct from the dialects of
other parts of Kerala.
listoricity Historicity refers to the fact that a particular group of people finds a
sense of identity through using a particular language: it belongs to them.
Social, political, religious or ethnic ties may also be important for the
group, but the bond provided by a common language may prove to be
the strongest tie of all. (Wardhaugh 35)
Social prestige, wealth, and education determine
class-based speech in Kerala. Thus there is a consistent
relationship between social class and language patterns.
Because Kerala remains caste-bound in its attitudes and
languages, social status remains static from generation
to generation. Consequently speech can distinguish
social groups on a categorical basis in Kerala, because
Malayalam encodes in its grammatical and sytactic
structures nuances of caste and social distinctions.
William Labov has defined a speech community thus:
The speech community is not defined by any
marked agreement in the use of language
elements, so much by participation in a set of
shared norms; these norms may be observed in
overt types of evaluative behavior and by the
uniformity of abstract patterns of variation
which are invariant in respect to particular
levels of usage. (120-21)
Although by this definition both lower caste (LC)
and higher caste (HC) belong to the same speech
community, LC does not speak the same standard Malayalam.
There is participation to an extent in a "shared set of
norms" and a loose adherence to the standard linguistic
criteria. The different caste groups use different verb
and noun forms. Sankaran Nayar (in "Oppol"), being a
marriage broker, uses a more commercial form of
Malayalam, spoken by a more urbane population. He has a
business to conduct -- the transfer of the "property"
Maalu to a worthy recipient/buyer. Chakkan and Karuppan
do not speak in the upperclass, genteel speech employed
by the main characters because they are LC.
Caste and social distinctions are reflected in the
speech patterns. In this society, it is very clear who
will work the paddy fields and who will enjoy the fruits
of his labor, who is property and who is owner. Chakkan
in "Oppol" does not imitate the language of the HC as he
cannot expect to partake of the food prepared within the
HC household. His utterances in the text are short, the
frequency of pauses being much greater than that of the
standard. The intonation is also different in LC speech
It is abrupt and halting and hesitant due to the
deference and psychological distance between the servant
and the master. The particular combination of forms
within each social group use, i.e., the varieties or
stylistic levels, the usage of different verb and noun
forms, etc., that together make up the group's
distinctive dialect also reflects caste distinctions.
Sometimes some of these forms in the LC speech overlap
and intermesh into adjacent forms. The conversation
between Karuppan and Govindammama in "Kuttyedathi" on
page 13 is a clear example of this overlap. Govindammama
has lost most of his power and place in the family and at
a subconscious level, Karuppan feels emboldened to use
certain verb forms allowing overlapping in LC and HC
The LC's repertoire of linguistic choices is very
limited. J. P. Platt and H. L. Platt have defined a
speech repertoire as "the range of linguistic varieties
which the speaker has at his disposal and which he may
appropriately use as a member of his speech community"
(qtd. in Wardhaugh 129) "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi" are
written in the early 1950's and as such mirror the
societal norms of the day. Education is denied to
Karuppan and Chakkan in these stories, because
conservative Hindu belief of the time stipulates such
privileges or the lack thereof as within the divine
order. Consequently, the fine gradations of social class
and the psychological differences they spawn create a
limited speech repertoire for members of the lowest
caste. That limited speech repertoire has become the
defining feature of the dialect of the LC, because it
represents the space upon which the limits of LC speech
behavior is identified and bound. For example, in
"Kuttyedathi," when Karuppan, the LC man, informs
Valliamma that he saw "Thambratti and that Appunni
talking and laughing in a not right way," the textual
complexity is challenged by the meaning behind the
sentence fragment "not right way" (24) as well by an
allusion to the implicit body language, possibly
flirtatious, between the HC woman and the LC man. In
this village, a woman and a man talking and laughing
between themselves is not approved of, let alone a HC
woman and a LC man. Maintaining language boundaries is
mandatory in this community and a breakdown of that
boundary, careless or deliberate, is considered "not the
right way." This sentence fragment is an example of LC's
limited vocabulary, because it does not articulate in
standard Malayalam how the social taboo was broken. The
sentance fragment relies on cultural assumptions and
implications to make itself understandable. The
limitations of LC vocabulary demonstrate the
powerlessness the LC labors under and the HC's control
and domination of LC's speech and life.
Inversion of normal word order is a common
characteristic of LC speech. In "Oppol" Chakkan brags,
"Thambratti gave my lowly self too!" (17). In Malayalam
the word order is represented like this: "My lowly self
Thambratti gave too!" This kind of syntactic inversion
where the subject follows the object typifies the dialect
of the LC.
Selecting the appropriate level of Malayalam for a
particular interaction involves taking into account the
relationship or the participants in context. Ervin-Tripp
has stated, "A shared language does not necessarily mean
a shared set of sociolinguistic rules" (qtd. in Fasold
21). Solidarity (i.e., how well you know each other) and
relative status (determined by such factors as age,
wealth, especially old money, descent, education and/or
occupation) play an important part in assessing the
relationship. "The principle of hierarchial ordering of
social dependencies extends beyond its home base in the
extended family to every other institution in Indian
life," says Sudhir Kakar in The Inner World: A Psvcho-
analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India (119).
This hierarchial ordering does not lend itself to a
democratic arbitrariness in linguistic choices as in some
Western languages. This ordering is most evident in the
address forms used in Malayalam. The address systems of
all the 14 Indian languages, including Malayalam, have
three second person pronouns to select from.
Perhaps the most obvious point where social factors
influence language is in the selection of address
forms. In many languages and in English at an
earlier time in its history, there arose two (or
more) words for "you." One of these is used for
people you are close to, or who have a lower
position than you do. The other is used for people
you are less well acquainted with or who are
socially superior. (Fasold 35)
In Malayalam the word for 'you' for the lowest
status group is nee. The equivalent word for the
urbanized, educated person is "ningal" and for someone in
the priestly, Brahmin class or in the socially highest
group, it is "thangal." Consequently, each word
facilitates an appropriate set of vocabulary and
grammatical structure. The deferential pronoun "ningal"
is grammatically a plural form, but it can be used for
someone who deserves deference in place of the common
singular. However, since the 1960's the 100% literacy-
rate and the intermittent socialist and communist
governments have threatened the social order and the
culturally-bound traditions in Kerala. The words "nee,"
for LC, and "thangal," for HC, are gradually
disappearing, and "ningal," which has been used mainly to
address an urban professional is employed more and more
to denote "you."
The strict rules of hierarchy laid down by the caste
system have spilled over even into usage of the personal
pronoun "I." In Malayalam the "I" has different shades
of self-reference unlike in English where the self-
reference "I" is undifferentiated and lacks the nuances
of status or a context of intimacy. Jnan ('I') is an
undifferentiated self reference used by members of the
same caste. Nammal has the connotation of a royal 'we'
and is used by the oldest male member of the family or
clan. Ritualized gestures of courtesy and deferential
behavior towards men and older people have accommodated
these usages. A HC "I" (which is nammal) is used in an
interaction with the LC as a reminder of the HC's
divinely ordered superiority and social distance.
Whenever Chakkan and Karuppan, who belong to the LC,
speak to someone in the HC, they are not allowed to use
the personal pronoun "I." Since the LC is considered
subhuman, Chakkan and Kuruppan must only say adivan which
means 'my humble self' or 'my lowly self.' Just as a LC
is not allowed to use the personal pronoun "I," a LC is
not allowed to address a HC as "you" either. The HC must
be addressed only as a 'thambran' or a 'thambratti'
meaning 'your highness.'
A village wife never refers to her husband by name,
because she is considered subordinate to him. She
addresses him with terms such as "By the way . ?" or
"Do you hear . ?" or "But then again . ?" which
are circumlocutions. Her metaphorical references to him
as "children's father," "the One of this house," "my
mother-in-law's son," etc., are about his roles in her
life, and they reflect the distance and the lack of
intimacy between husband and wife. These speech forms
are an indication of the hierarchially ordered, gender-
exclusive social roles. In the patriarchal, male-
dominated world of Kerala, the traditional mother raises
her sons "for" the supposed continuation of the genetic
line of the father and for his approval. So the title
"my children's father" indicates honor for the patriarch
and denial of the mother's importance in her sons' lives.
Since he reigns supreme in the family, he becomes almost
God-like, "the One of the house," the visible God.
The age and role of the addressee exert great
influence on the style. In India, the degree of social
distance is determined by such issues as relative age,
sex, and whether people are part of the same family, etc.
Age of the addressee is a very relevant factor in Indian
speech communities. An older person, even if so by a
couple of years, is never addressed by name in
traditional Kerala families. In the interconnected world
of extended family life in India, everyone except the
youngest child has a suffix. "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi"
serving as grammatical subjects or as predicate
nominatives throughout the stories are not just names;
they are content words conveying a lexical meaning.
Qpool is the traditional moniker for an 'older sister.'
Kuttvedathi is a traditional form of address reserved for
an 'older cousin.' Valliamma is an "older aunt"; ammama
is a 'maternal uncle.' The "ascending generation" Janet
Holmes speaks about in An Introduction to
Sociolinguistics (299) (i.e., "the generation above the
speaker -- parents and parents' sisters, brothers and
cousins, for instance") holds true in this community, and
therefore the traditional forms of address become
The hierarchial ordering in the Malayali society has
led to pervasive linguistic differences in the speech of
women and men in Kerala. Although gender generally
interacts with other social factors such as status,
class, the role of the speaker in an interaction, and the
formality of the context, there are cases where the
gender of the speaker seems to be the most important
factor in accounting for speech patterns. In the
Malayali community the woman's social status and her
gender interact to establish differential speech patterns
between men and women. Since women are expected to be
deferential towards men, their speech is characterized
not only by indirection but also by distinct subordinate
speech forms. Whereas men can say avaal for 'he,' women
are allowed to say "ayaal" only to a LC man; women must
say addheham to denote 'he.' "Addheham" denotes more
expressive deference, whereas "ayaal" denotes more
In Kerala, social roles are clearly defined on the
basis of gender, unlike some Western communities where
social roles of men and women overlap leading to an
overlap in speech forms as well. This clear distinction
dictates specific gender-exclusive speech patterns.
Men's speech in Malayalam include more vernacular forms
than women's. Whereas women are supposed to observe
decorum and meet the linguistic standards set by the
society, men can dare to flout them. At the same time LC
women, since they are considered subhuman, only use
Malayalam has a special set of grammatical contrasts
for expressing politeness and respect for others.
Clusters of particular verb forms are used to denote
deference in Malayalam. For example,
povittundavirikkumallo means 'I presume you would have
gone there already.' The choice of appropriate style
involves not only pronunciation, but word forms and
syntax as well. The appropriate form of the verb, for
instance, varies in different contexts. For example, in
"Kuttyedathi," Valliamma requests her visiting uncle
Govindammama his familial involvement: "It is. possible
that you will be present, right, Oppa?" (16). The
politeness of the copula in this sentence contrasts with
the basic, straightforward, matter-of-fact utterance, "I
am asking you whether you will be present when they
come." Power and solidarity issues are handled
effectively using specific sentence types and employing
Ronald Wardhaugh has defined "code" to mean "a
language or a variety of languages. Code is a neutral
term as opposed to dialect, pidgin, etc. and can be used
to refer to any kind of system that two or more people
employ for communication" (89). Functional differences
have governed the choice of a code in both texts. But
there are instances in the text when codeswitching
happens. "Codeswitching is a conversational strategy
used to establish, cross or destroy group boundaries, to
create, evoke or change interpersonal relations with
their rights and obligations" (S. Gal qtd. in Wardhaugh
103). In both texts, the older women (Valliamma) switch
codes to employ a formal Malayalam to transact the
business of marriage. By drawing on their associations
of both codes, which represent individual social
meanings, they are able to manipulate the system to gain
their ends. Valliamma's unfailing awareness of her
economic circumstance as well as her lack of autonomy,
have made her a shrewd and determined negotiator in the
marriage business, because she knows that the ultimate
responsibility to see her daughter married rests upon
her. Valliamma in "Oppol" uses a formal code to transact
business with Sankaran Nayar (15). Valliamma in
"Kuttyedathi" uses a formal code to talk to her uncle
Govindamamma, because they are strictly talking business
which is the marriage of Maalukutty (16). Superordinate
Malayalam words are abundant in both instances because
the occasion calls for formal speech. The restrictive
usage of codes for women mirrors the restricted world
they live in.
That brings us to the subject of "key," that is the
tone and manner used in the communicative act. Key-
switching happens quite often in the texts primarily
because of social reasons. Switches made by and because
of the identity and relationship between participants
seem to bring out a certain solidarity or social distance
inherent in the language. For example, in "Oppol,"
Valliamma's key switches from rude and offensive (towards
Maalu) to pleading and desperate (towards her visiting
son) and to matter-of-fact with the marriage broker
Sankaran Nayar. She can get away with the rude language
towards the powerless Maalu and the "illigitimate" Appu.
She knows, however, that she has to cajole the male heir
into being part of the family again and for that she
resorts to the most obsequious language. The son's
return would re-legitimize the mother's existence and
restore some of the honor she lost because of her
daughter. So when she pleads with him to return to the
ancestral home, her language takes on a deferential tone
with the man-child and some of the words chosen are those
in the superordinate Malayalam.
Another example of the effective usage of key is
Valliamma's coversations with Govindammama in
"Kuttyedathi" (16). Govindammama's concern not only
about Maalukutty but about the other members of the
family/clan comes through in his conversation with
Valliamma. The sense of collective responsibility is
bred on shared assumptions and obligations towards the
family. The equal status relationship has enabled both of
them to use the appropriate key to discuss the marriage
prospects for both Maalukutty and Jaanu. By switching
her key, Valliamma effectively draws on the different
associations of her responsibilities to achieve her goal.
She evokes the different emotional tones and values
associated with the language system throughout the story.
She exploits her victim status, and using the appropriate
key in her interactions with her male relatives, she is
fully able to manipulate the system to realize her
The patterns of linguistic interactions in the two
texts, "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi," belie the solidarity as
well as distance issues. The interactions in the texts
open the door to a world of collective responsibilities,
of power and powerlessness, of victimization and
manipulation. The caste-defined speech patterns as well
as the code and the key activate an understanding within
the reader of an intricate world of relationships and
Literary Techniques Used by the Author
"Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi" are about two women who
have to pay dearly for stepping out of the boundaries of
societal norms. In a world of arranged marriages and
ordered lives, they have broken a supposedly inviolate
code: women as property/object must know their place.
They must know it for their own good. Maalu in "Oppol"
has borne a child out of wedlock and is ostracized by
society at large. The only solution her mother can find
for her is through the brash act of marriage to a total
stranger, thus legitimizing her daughter's life, even if
it means Maalu's banishment from her son's life.
Kuttyedathi is driven to suicide by the pressures exerted
upon her by her family's determination to treat her as
devalued property in the marriage market. These
pressures as well as societal expectations to behave
deferentially are expressed by techniques of narration
and ellipses, of speech and silence by the author.
The agglutinative nature of the Malayalam language
renders it possible to have the normative omission of
subject or agent in a sentence. Embedded in it will be a
verb, indicating not only tense, but also the gender of
the implied subject. While in the English language the
omission of subject indicates the imperative mood, in the
Malayalam language, both in poetry and in prose, in
literary as well as in vernacular language, the subject
is often implied or it is left unspecified. For example,
povittundavirikkumallo means '(I) presume (you) would
have gone there already,' or oaraniukanumallo in "Oppol"
means 'Amma must have told (you) everything, (I) presume'
(14). The employment of this quasi-impersonal verb form
with the tense and the person unstated is highly
effective in the original text in portraying the intense
subjectivities of a culture where subtlety and indirect
speech forms are the norm.
The syntactic omission of the subject in the
Malayalam language does not necessarily mean that there
is a semantic omission as well. The author wants to show
that in an Indian village a woman's place is very-
stringent ly defined within the patriarchal norms of the
society. For this he uses not only an elliptical style,
(e.g., "When it is your own ..." "Oppol" page 2)
attesting to this reluctance on the part of women to
assert themselves, let alone determine their destinies.
But these syntactic omissions and gaps serve to make a
powerful statement about these Kerala women. Maalukutty
in "Oppol" would like to protest the verbal abuse heaped
on her son, but she knows she does not have that right as
a woman living in shame. When Valliamma in "Oppol" tries
to placate Sankaran Nayar the marriage broker into having
the wedding arrangements made with precaution, she is
actually showing more self-effacing restraint rather than
obsequiousness. Verbal restraint becomes the most
efficient linguistic tool in this situation.
The author employs a child narrator in both stories.
The vocabulary is simple. When there are longer
sentences, they are simply linked by conjunctions (and,
but, etc). The simplicity and explicit language of the
narrator are in stark contrast to the emotionally
multilayered content. Vasu in "Kuttyedathi" is older and
more cognizant of the culture as is revealed by his
observations. He knows that Kuttyedathi should not be
wandering about, that she should not be messing around in
the attic, because women are not allowed there and that
she should not be talking to men. Appu in "Oppol" is
younger and whenever he cannot fathom what is going on,
his perplexities culminate in the helpless observation
that "this Oppol is crazy." Seen through the startled
and uncomprehending eyes of both these child narrators,
and their child language, we become privy to the private
grief of the central characters pulsating ominously in
The author, Vasudevan Nair, has used "double-voiced
discourse" (a phrase formulated by King-Kok Cheung in
Articulate Silences) as a technique to bring to the
forefront a reality that is usually submerged by the
dominant discourse of the Indian patriarchal language
system. King-Kok Cheung, writing about the subject of
minority literature and social history and using as
example the works of Japanese- and Chinese-American
writers, says in Articulate Silences;
I use the term (double-voiced discourse) to subsume
the various methods by which the three authors
circumvent authoritarian narration and signify the
instability of "truth" and "history"; these methods
include the juxtaposition of juvenile and adult
perspectives. . (15)
The use of double-voiced discourse is distinct from
the employment of a conjoined main text and sub-text in
that the author's voice is completely absent in double-
voiced discourse. The rhetorical power of the narration
lies in the seeming unreliability of the child's
perception. But using the child's perception also
accords multiple meanings to the text. For example, in
"Oppol," Appu is baffled by Maalu's "crying," for which
he cannot find a reason. But a secondary point of view
is obvious to the adult reader who is aware of the
communal censure and the consequent distress and
disapproval it has wrought within the primary caretaker-
grandmother's heart, which in turn has caused Maalu's
"crying." We become aware of the expectations of a
tradition-bound society, and Maalu's suffering and shame
for breaking that tradition spill out in elliptical style
in subsequent paragraphs. Thus there is a constant
interplay between the primary and the secondary point of
view, through which we are able to see the multiple
layers of meaning embedded in this kind of indirect
narration. By interlocking the story and the culture,
art and life, the author in a manner of double telling
lays out a powerful commentary on the plight of the
Indian woman in a village.
Double-voiced discourse is made up of a "dominant"
as well as a "muted" story. In both "Oppol" and
"Kuttyedathi" the central story is about solving the
problem in ways acceptable to the dominant society. The
muted story is about their plight revealing the story of
this repressed and silenced "class" -- women. Elaine
Showalter says in Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness
(qtd. in Cheung 15):
The Orthodox plot recedes, and another plot,
hitherto submerged in the anonymity of the
background, stands out in bold relief like a
The author, Nair, is an expert at "coding through
muted plots and innocent disguise" (Cheung 28). The
authorial hesitations employed in the stories are marked
by ellipses. For example, whenever Appu says, "This
Oppol is crazy . he is taking flight from the
inexplicable circumstances he is living under. The plot,
that revolves around Maalu being whisked out of town
before anyone, especially Appu, comes to know about it,
thickens with the child's innocent language and
superficial observations. Throughout the two stories
Nair uses textual disguises to expose the moribund twists
the lives of the two central women characters take,
making disguise and exposure the dual motifs of the
texts. In "Oppol," when Valiamma entreats Maalu to "keep
quiet," the native reader knows that it is her motherhood
that must be kept secret. When Maalu responds, "but this
is cheating!" (13) the reader knows that she is referring
to the fact that knowingly, deliberately, she, who is
required to present her virginhood to her future husband,
is "cheating" him by leading him to believe that she is a
virgin. Sankaran Nayar, the marriage broker, will take
care of "everything" Valliamma assures, and you know that
the marriage will take place and that secrecy will be
assured. This means not only that Maalu's future is
secure, but for Valliamma, the other victim on whom so
much pressure is placed by society to keep her daughter
in place, some relief is in sight. Appu's individual
drama is played out in some sort of linguistic anxiety
("This Oppol is crazy . !"). While the reader is
privy to the machinations of the hostile dominant
culture, Appu is not. The seemingly trivial details
coalesce in sudden tension; Maalu is whisked away
overnight and there ends her quandary. The great drama
of the ending is achieved through nonverbal interaction
and narrative double-voicing.
Nair uses, once again, his narrative strategies, and
an elliptical style and the child's narration to bring
forth Maalukutty's involvement with the low caste man
Appunni in "Kuttyedathi." Through the isolated incidents
furnished by the naive narrator, we are able to connect
the key events in the stories, especially the burgeoning
relationship between the HC, Maalu, and the LC, Appunni,
casting a spell of doom on the text. Actually, it is
that verbal economy that challenges the reader to search
and find those events that have not been explicitly
stated. The pregnant silence about Maalu's out-of-town
wedding or the failed attempts to find someone to marry
Maalukutty is conveyed by double-voicing, making explicit
the anxieties and agonies that lie buried beneath the
surface of the language. The silence speaks volumes
about the shame that has accompanied these events, while
adroitly melding childhood innocence and adult plots.
Issues of Silence and Repression
The issues of silence that are explored in these two
stories are brought forth through the rhetorical method
of "doubletelling," discussed in the last section. There
is the voice-over narration by the little boy, the
innocent and therefore seemingly unreliable chronicler of
events. The cultural and psychological pathologies
spawned by the societal alienation have rendered Maalu
and Maalukutty silent in different ways. Maalu has been
shamed into silence because of the out-of-wedlock
childbirth of her son. Maalukutty's wordless defiance
and in-your-face sassiness have sprung from the
despairing knowledge that because of her homely looks,
her ticket to the future, a marriage, will not be
forthcoming. Her rowdy behavior is absolutely
unacceptable in the community. But she pretends not to
care, because she does not have the power to use
language as defense. Whether it is externally demanded
as in Maalu's case or self-imposed like in Maalukutty's,
the shame each experiences is debilitating, cutting
language off at the root. The implicit narrative becomes
a psychological text bestowing meaning on what is unsaid
beneath the main text. Then the explicit narrative voice
and the implicit narrative action merge, to expose the
theme of repression.
Analyzing the language in "Oppol" and "Kuttyedathi,"
one thing becomes clear: tradition and patriarchal
ideologies have colluded to keep women as well as LC in
place. Women's realities are seen through maternities
and mortalities. Not only gender, but culture and
religion have demanded the silencing of women in Indian
society. Speechlessness articulated only as an
elliptical silence conveys the misery and anguish
inherent in the lives of the women in these stories. The
elliptical style lends itself to the theme of repression
that runs throughout the two texts. We hear very little
of Maalu's voice in "Oppol." In "Kuttyedathi," an
overdetermined, monotonous tone is used to signal
Maalukutty's choked back anger and her hopeless
resolution of the problem that has come to be her life:
"I saw Kuttyedathi holding on to the door, tearless, eyes
closed, muttering, 'I will kill myself'" (26). Her
repressed yet defiant silence reverberates in the next
sentence: "That night in that house there was absolutely
no noise. Nobody spoke. There was total silence". The
language of her repression and defiance is silence, and
that silence is shattered by the wail of the women
witnessing Maalukutty's resolution to her life. In
"Oppol," Maalu's psychological suffering keeps her
notably silent, almost insensate most of the time: "Oppol
wasn't saying anything. All he could hear was her sobs"
(13) and her absence in the end is an expression of her
language of despair -- a devastating silence, multiplied,
tormenting in its climax.
Feminist scholar Susan Stanford Friedman has said:
Operating within the dialectic of speech and
silence, women or (women's texts) often consciously
or unconsciously negotiate a compromise
betweenrevelation and concealment of the forbidden
through textual disguise, (qtd. in Cheung 27)
Accommodation, misery or degradation, if not all
three are the options available to the women of the
texts. Oppol seeks refuge in desolate silence.
Kuttyedathi shifts back and forth between textual
repression and angry, frustrated verbal exchanges. The
emotionally violent journey of the older women
(Valliamma) in both stories throws light on the
repressive society of the day which erases any vestige of
power from the archetypal feminine. These women are
witch-like, shrewish and spiteful throughout the course
of the stories. Their language changes back and forth as
they plead their case, as they cajole or coax a man into
some action which will alleviate some of their
desolation. What comes across as a deliberate attempt on
the part of the author to denigrate these women in the
eyes of the reader is not that at all. What the author
wants to show is that these women move between complete
obsequiousness (to the men in power) and total
subjugation (of the women under their care), for no
margin of negotiation or middle ground is available to
them. Compliance with the dominant authority means
survival for these women. Oppol and Kuttyedathi become
inconvenient fixtures in the village and their removal
from the village somehow is expected of the two older
women. The older women have no choice other than comply
if they are to find some peace in their lives. Silence
and verbal explosion collide throughout the text shoving
the women into a corner from where there is no escape.
When we compare two languages with the purpose of
translating one into another we search for the empirical
meaning, we lay out the verbiage and try to crack the
code. Ironically enough, the nature of meaning changes
when we are comparing totally unrelated languages like
Malayalam and English. An insider/informant's (a native
speaker of the source language supplying information to
the outside world) knowledge of the two languages will
have to determine the kinship and difference between
them. "To translate is to descend beneath the exterior
disparities of two languages in order to bring into vital
play their analogous and, at the final depths, common
principles of being" (Steiner 73). The "stimulus
meaning" (the superficial/obvious meaning of a word
generated by a specific stimulus situation), a factor
that is inherent in all written texts, affirms the
sameness of universal applicability in a word. Yet,
while the stimulus meaning for "rabbit" remains the same
in all languages, a word "bachelor" is likely to mean
different things to different peoples. "Intrasubjective
synonymy" which refers to the sameness of stimulus
meaning will treat "bachelor" and "unmarried man" as
synonymous for translation purposes. But the meaning
will still be different in different cultural contexts,
because synonymy and identity between languages is
impossible. An "unmarried man" in Kerala is one who
happens to be unmarried; a "bachelor" remains so by
choice. The implication is that the ideal marriage for
the "unmarried man" has not come by as yet; it will come
sooner or later. As for a bachelor, the assumption is
that he is not interested in a state of marriage. An
ideal semantic correlation of sentences can more or less
be achieved by any acceptable standard of intrasubjective
synonymy. But when we talk about synonymy, we must also
bear in mind that stimulus situations and therefore
stimulus meanings always differ. For example, "crying"
has the same universal meaning given the same stimulus
situation. But in a stimulus situation prompted by-
despair and powerlessness, a word that transliterates as
"crying" has to be translated as "crying out." Meanings
are context dependent as absolute, essential meaning is
an ellusive concept. "Translation by stimulus meaning
will then deliver no wrong result, but simply nothing"
(Quine 157). Here the translator has to be aided by
intuition based on "a ready reference to the environment"
(Quine 149). Therefore, strategies of contextualization
and structuration should go hand-in-hand in any
translation work. For example, the role of the
caretaker-guardian grandmother in these stories is
different from that of the traditional nurturer
grandmother concept accepted universally. Consequently
her words and her pleas and her cajolings take on a
meaning that can be adequately represented in translation
only by querying and combining native sentences.
This is why synonymy -- "the property of words to be
mutually interchangeable in all contexts" (Beaugrande 96)
-- is not considered an acceptable standard in
translation theory, because it is not considered a
possible attribute of most language systems. Reality is
represented differently by different cultural groups
psychologically and therefore linguistically. The
translator has to be cognizant of the fact that even
though the original text is one single content, the art
of translation is about dealing with the dialectical
complexity of numerous images. Renato Poggioli says in
The Added Artificer;
The translator who aims solely at reproducing
the web or shell of an alien poem through his
own technical skill should be considered an
imitator, and treated as if he were an
unconscious parodist (not a plagarist, because
to plagiarize means to copy, and the very
necessity of re-creating a foreign original
into another set of verbal norms prevents the
translator from copying, even if he wants to).
At any rate what moves the genuine translator
is not a mimetic urge, but an elective
affinity: the attraction of a content so
appealing that he can identify it with a
content of his own, thus enabling him to
control the latter through a form which, though
not inborn, is at least congenial to it. (qtd.
in Brower 141)
Mere literalism becomes burdensome for the
translator when the target language lacks a word because
its culture lacks the experience which had created the
word in the source language.
According to George Steiner, the process of
translation, which he has dubbed "hermeneutic motion"
(296) consists of four acts of. meaning from one language
and culture to another: trust/faith based on the
assumption that there is a sense of meaning to be
extracted; aggression/penetration an act by which "the
translator invades, extracts and brings home" (198) the
text from the foreign language; then comes
incorporation/embodiment for the purpose of bringing
meaning home without losing the import of meaning and of
form, the embodiment of the work in and into a context
that is both linguistically and culturally faithful; and
restitution/compensation (reciprocity) based on artistic
fidelity to the original" (296-300). Here Steiner seems
to come close to the Russian linguist Jiri Livy's
assumption that translation is an art of indirectness --
form does not equal form. George Steiner goes on to say,
"the paradigm of translation remains incomplete until
reciprocity has been achieved, until the original has
regained as much as it has lost" (297). In other words,
Steiner is saying that, even if the meaning is retrieved
in its correct context, the art and the flavor that are
lost in the translation must be recreated.
That brings us to the question of flavor. An
element that is often lost in translations is something
that can be characterized intuitively as "flavor." This
concept is especially important in rendering compounds
that have a sense that is more than the sum total of
meanings of each individual word. The agglutinative
compound povittundavirikkumallo means 'I presume you
would have gone there already' in a literal sense; but it
also signals pensiveness, grace and a woman's way of
knowing. This is the flavor that needs to be kept intact
as much as possible to maintain cross-cultural
effectiveness. In "Oppol," Appu's reactions to the cow
(personalizing it as Karambi Cow), or the butterfly as
"that butterfly fellow with his silk loincloth," or the
snake as "that tricky snake fellow," etc., demonstrate
the psychological depth of the social relations with
other-than-human-beings as a consequence of the cognitive
"set" induced by the simple, rural culture of the Kerala
village. But the cadence and multisyllabic onomatopoeia
in certain Malayalam sentences sometimes prove too hard
to capture in the English language. Sometimes
"relexification," a fairly new concept in translation
theory formulated by Loretto Todd -- that is, using
English vocabulary, but retaining indigenous structures
and rhythms -- seems to be a very efficient instrument in
guarding the flavor of the original text. "Who are you
people be? If you are coming-in people be, then come in"
is an example of the West African writer Gabriel Okara
attempting to simulate the character of African speech in
a Europhone text (qtd. in Ashcroft, Griffith, Tiffin
314). But I feel that notions of relexification must be
balanced by an acceptable correlation between grammar and
This leads to the question of rhetoric and sentiment
in the Indian/Malayali literary style in general.
Sometimes we cannot take a word at its face value. Even
a word like "mother" speaks of a social identity for
mothers in India different from those in the West. The
mother in the extended family patriarchal system is the
primary caretaker of not only children, but the adults as
well. Men might be financial providers, but women are
expected to guard the family honor and code. The older
women in these stories feel entrapped by the predicament
of their daughters, because it is a reflection on their
inadequate mother-guardian roles. These women groan
under a weight that is proving to be unbearable. Since
this notion of an emotional burden borne by Indian women
could be alien to Western readers, a translation faced
with the task of authentically conveying the flavor of
the time will have to resort to an additional sentence at
times. When Appu gets impatient with Valliamma in
"Oppol" the original version only says, "Who does she
think she is? The village elder?" (13). The translator
has to be cognizant of, and communicate to the reader,
the stereotype the village elder in India suffers from as
well as the diplomacy required in Valliamma's speech to
keep matters confidential. Therefore the sentence "All
that gooey dewy wheeling and dealing!" has been added to
aid in understanding.
To establish a kinship with the source-text, to be
able to crack the code, one has to be an insider-
informant as well as an inhabiter of the world of the
target language. The translator has to be both the
inventor of the translated text and the realizer of the
reader's role. Eugene Chen Eoyang says in The
The translator is, therefore, Janus-faced:
looking toward the author in one direction;
looking to the reader in the other. The
translator is a reader of an original text, as
well as the author of the translation. As
such, he provides invaluable testimony both on
the text and on the reader response, for he is
an implied reader, who may be, in different
degrees, a "superreader" (translator as
scholar), an "informed reader" (translator as
student), and an "intended reader" (translator
as contemporary). (154)
Broaching an alien culture, the translator should
treat differences with sanctity and allow the reader to
make sense of "Otherness," that is the experience of
"difference," through his own knowledge of the world. As
if to confirm this, Willard Quine says in Meaning and
Perhaps the very notion of such radical
contrast of cultures is meaningless, except in
this purely privative sense: persistent failure
to find smooth and convincing native analogues
of our own familiar accessories of objective
reference, such as the articles, the identity
predicate, the plural ending. Only by such
failure can we be said to perceive that the
native language represents matters in ways not
open to our own. (qtd. in Brower 155)
Because of the mores, the language of contemporary
Western society is apt to distort the images in the
original Malayalam text. An awareness of what
constitutes frustration and despair in different
societies, what world views they hold and what emphases
prioritize their lives becomes a necessary attribute of
the reader of the target text. The context of meaning is
unique to the Indian culture; a dyadic notion of
native/foreign is central to this understanding of
Otherness. The tenor of pathos in the Malayalam language
often gets muted in translation because of this inherent
lack of understanding. The issues of silence that were
discussed earlier can be articulated by actuating those
very issues within a field of understanding, provided the
reader becomes familiar with the foreign and empathizes
with what is universal. Benjamin Whorf talks about going
"forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness,
replete with things shocking to a culture-trammeled
understanding" (246). As we travel into the linguistic
territories of foreign literature the translator should,
therefore, act as a guide of sorts bringing in meaning
and aiding in imagination. It is then, as Whorf goes on
to say, that "alienness turns into a new and often
clarifying way of looking at things" (264) Footnotes
and commentaries are of value in this process, because
they allow the translator to make explicit what is
Wolfgang Iser has elaborated on another aspect of
translation technique -- that of the "indeterminacy" of
the text. Indeterminacy deals with the gaps in the text,
the details that are deliberately withheld. These gaps
may become magnified in translation when we consider the
cultural blanks (the lack of understanding of a foreign
cultural experience) that envelop the textual blank
(ellipses). The reader's life experiences aid her or his
efforts to reconstitute the original by establishing what
Iser calls "a referential field" by which he means an
understanding of a context of causes and effects as well
as the meaning represented by the original text in the
original culture. According to Iser, the reader of any
indeterminate text resorts to her/his individual world
experience to assist in the reading process, to fill in
the gaps, so to speak. Iser says in The Act of Reading:
The concept of the implied reader thus
describes a translation process, whereby
textual structures translate themselves through
ideational acts into the reader's existing
stock of experience. (38)
What Iser is saying, essentially, is that a reader
finds meaning and experience in a text by relying on
her/his world knowledge. But I feel that expecting any
reader to have sufficient knowledge of different spaces
and times is ambitious to say the least. Therefore, I
feel that only the aid of a footnote will help remove the
cultural blank to an extent, because it elicits an
opportunity for the reader to imagine and to picture a
whole set of circumstances in the alien culture.
The syntactic omission of subject bestows on the
language a certain quality which the Soviet linguist Lev
Vygotsky has called "the inner speech." Vygotsky feels
that the omission of the subject lends itself to greater
quality and richer texture by assuming a deeper
understanding of the psychological terrain of the text.
To an informed reader, the language of the inner
speech is visible to the mind's eye. Vygotsky says in
Thought and Language:
Inner speech is not the interior aspect of
external speech -- it is a function in itself.
It still remains speech, i.e., thought
connected with words. But while in external
speech thought is embroidered in words, in
inner speech words die as they bring forth
thought. Inner speech is to a large extent
thinking in pure meanings. It is a dynamic,
shifting, unstable thing, fluttering between
word and thought. (149)
Current reading theory, made popular especially by
Stanley Fish, also contends that translation occurs not
on the page, but in the mind, "The place where sense is
made or not made is in the reader's mind rather than on
the printed page or the space between covers of a book"
This "inner speech" coming from "a place where sense
is made or not made" (Fish 36), which is available to the
translator who is also an insider-informant as well as
the reader of the original text, aids in achieving
equivalence, eschewing extreme literality or extreme
freedom in translation. For example, "Oppol" opens with
Maalu's crying. A sense of doom accompanies the trail of
tears that runs through the subsequent paragraphs and an
informed reader senses that this is going to be a tale of
woe. The author shies away from disclosure, leaving it
to the imagination of the reader to search and find the
facts. The silence of Maalukutty in "Kuttyedathi" after
the final beating is almost deafening, revealing the
depths of her misery. More effective than any angry
exchange is this silence which is tormenting in its
tragedy and the native, informed reader can trace the
heartache through the unspoken language. Vygotsky
writes, "In inner speech, the 'mutual' perception is
always there, in absolute form,- therefore a practically
wordless 'communication' of even the most complicated
thoughts is the rule" (145). Here he is talking about an
ongoing communication between the reader and the
character. When the reader becomes aware that the
reference points from which the Indian culture reckons
time, ethics and propriety are all radically different
from those of the Western world, even the silences become
powerful mediators in translation. The indeterminacy of
the text, those gaps in the text, including the omission
of the subject elicit the imaginative response of the
reader, enabling him/her to actualize a new point of
Whether we are talking about the arbitrariness of
relationships of language features to expression or the
incompatibilities between grammatical systems or the
expansion of ordinary grammar and lexicon, it is always
the equivalence, which is defined as "a valid
representative of the original in the communicative act"
(Beaugrande 14) that matters in the end. Achieving
equivalence depends on the correlation between form and
content, between what is obvious and what is implicit.
Equivalence is made possible through lexical means
as well as through a semiotic process. This semiotic
process which is called intersemiotic translation relies
on "substituting messages in one language not for
separate code-units but for entire messages in some other
language" (gtd. in Brower 233), asserts Roman Jakobson.
Vygotsky has said that:
The sense of a word is the sum of all the
psychological events aroused in a person's
consciousness by the word. It is a dynamic,
complex, fluid whole, which has several zones of
unequal stability (xxxvii).
This is why the translator has to go beyond mere
grammatical/syntactic structuring and be context-
dependent in his/her target meanings, beyond reliance on
just the formal linguistic aspects of translation to a
semiotic process in order to bring the two worlds
During the translation process, I found that
intrasubjective synonymy was not enough. Synonymy had to
be aided by a semantic correlation of sentences as well,
in order to elicit some of the potential meanings in the
original text. Footnotes and explanations had to be used
as an aid in restoring the deficiencies of thought
inherent in elliptical styles. Sound properties like
"phew," "pffa," "huh," etc., were included to add a
dimension of meaning to the text. Gradually translation
proved to be an act of progression with multiple readings
of the original text constantly forming and reformulating
the different permutations of equivalent
syntactic/grammatical arrangement combined with
reconsiderations of meaning.
What I have attempted in my translations is to
achieve a certain explanatory adequacy, a certain
familiarity of the culture of the original text through
equivalence. But then, this act of familiarization
itself, I have found, can gradually transform the
original text into a new text. Roman Jakobson has
maintained that "the meaning of any linguistic sign is
its translation into some further alternative sign,
especially a sign in which it is more fully developed"
(qtd. in Beaugrande 28) My interaction with the two
texts has led to an interplay between the complexity of
the original text and the possibility of a fine line of
flexibility in a translation. All along I was anxious
that as translator/insider-informant I must prevent
myself from being entangled in any form of uncontrolled
subjectivism and that I must consistently strive for
linguistically transmitted "truth."
The translator's task is to move information between
the source text and the target text. But during this
process, when the reader becomes an interpreter becomes a
translator, the translation ceases to be a mirror or a
mimetic copy. It becomes obvious that synonymy or
identity between the source text and the target text is
impossible, and that the merits of a translation depends
as much on its difference as well as on its similarity
with the original text. Thus, gradually, the translation
becomes a brand new creation. Willis Barnstone says in
The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory. Practice:
Translation has a mystique of living intimately
with the source, of being alone and beginning
fresh, from nothing; of remembering,
interpreting, and becoming author . . . By
passing through the night of aridity, by
absorbing the ray of darkness, the translator,
alone with sign and object, sees, and then
shapes words into an appropriate creation. At
that instant the translator becomes the
interpreting creator. (262)
The ideal translation, I believe, would be the one which
retains the flavor of the original text, yet one that
breaks loose from lexical bondage to become a fine-tuned
creation in its own right. What has become evident to me
in the encounter between interpretation and translation
is the knowledge that the ideal translator is the
interpreting creator. I feel that as the translator
walks amidst the enigmas inherent in the theory and art
of translation, this is what s/he should remember: the
multitude of aesthetic and literary transportations and
transformations carry the process onward to a new and
fabulous creation. It is this modified and transformed
creation that functions as a conduit between the two
civilizations of the two texts, combining function and
equivalence, thought and meaning. To have created this
is to have succeeded indeed.
Phonology of Malavalam
The following chart indicates roughly the phonetic value of the Malayalam
short long short long short long
LOW a a HIGH i T LOW u u
MID e e MID o o
Diphthongs: ai, au
k, kh, 9/ gh, ng,
c, cch, j/ jch, nj ,
t, tt, d, dd, n,
th, tth, d, dh, n,
P/ pph. b, bbh, m,
Y/ r, 1, v,
s, sh, ss, h
A single letter does not represent different sounds
in Malayalam whereas in English the letter can represent
more than one sound. For example, the English vowel "a"
in "dame," "dad," "father," "many," etc., sound entirely
different from each other. But a combination of letters
"kh," "tt," "dd," "pph," "bbh," "ss" and "sh" can
represent a single sound. "Kh" and "gh" are pharyngeal
implosives produced by pulling the tongue root toward the
back wall of the pharynx. All letters have a definite
sound in Malayalam, unlike in English, where there are
silent consonants as in the first letter in words like
"psychology" or "write" or "mneumatic."
Retroflexes "1" and "r" can be voiced or unvoiced
depending on the context. "R" can be a trill or a tap.
"L" can have two liquid sounds.
There are no alveolar stops in Malayalam
corresponding to English "t" and "d."
Oppol2 has been crying.
Appu doesnt like to see Oppol crying. Oppol was crying with her
forehead pressed on the wooden cross bar on the window. This is what she likes
to do all day . cry! It could be that Valliamma3 has shouted at her, as
Valliamma does, three thousand times a day. Valliamma shouts at him too.
But when she shouts, he doesnt cry, does he? All he does is get mad. If he
were as big as Oppol, he would show her! But Oppol, this Oppol, who is so big,
wont say anything. She just stands there and listens to it all. Sometimes her
face would fall. . her eyes would fill up. When he sees that, he doesnt want
to stand there anymore. He just slips out.
You see, Appu doesnt want to be around when Oppol cries. Sometimes
in the midst of all her crying, she would hold him tight. He tikes that. But
when she starts mumbling, "oh, my tittle one ..." and when she kisses him on
his forehead and head, those warm tears would fall on Appu. Somehow when
that happens, he also feels tike crying.
He doesnt pay much attention to Valliamma's bad words. He has heard
plenty of that. In fact he hears those bad words from the moment he wakes up.
"The urchin never gets up before noon! Cant you see, ever since he showed
his head, this family has come to ruin!" He could be just sitting at the edge of
Oppol -- older sister
the back verandah next to the grinding stone, brushing his teeth, and if he so
much as spills a drop of water, she will say: "You good for nothing! Do you
know I cleaned that floor breaking my back?"
If he were to drop a speck on the sand in the courtyard, or if he drops a
pebble in the well, if he thumps on the clay pot, all this is a big deal with
Valliamma. It is a good thing he has started school. It is a great relief! At
least during the day, there isnt much trouble from her.
You know what Oppol should do? She should actually whack her the
next time she talks to her like that! But Appu knows this: Oppol is more scared
of Valliamma than Appu is!
Sometimes when Oppol hears Valliamma shouting at him, like Valliamma
always does, she would say, "One day you will kill that little one with all your
"Phfffa!" Thats what Oppol would get in return for saying that. Even
then Valliamma wont stop. She will keep on screaming. "If he is all that
lickey sweet, why dont you just swallow him whole?"
"When it is your own ..." Oppol would say softly.
Then, just like the Karambi cow4 which comes shaking its horns if you
go near the calf, Valliamma would come shaking and spitting in grand style.
"Really? Is that so? If you had wanted it that way, you know what you should
have done? My, my . dont make me say something I dont want to say."
When things get to this, Appu usually slips out into the courtyard. That
has become his habit. Then hed just walk around or play in the gulch with
Chakkan. Sometimes he would make an earnest attempt to catch the red- tailed
Karambi cow the name given to this particular cow
butterfly who flutters around in the cucumber patch. To this day, he hasnt
been able to catch one. That butterfly fellow with his silk loin cloth is
something else again. He is very clever, thats for sure. Appu would go home
only after a long time. Suddenly he would remember: Oppol must be crying
with her head against the wooden bar on the window in the northern room.
Now theres another difficult matter Appu has to deal with. That is
saying the evening prayers. He has to say all this in the dark anteroom. He
has to say Nama Sivaya5 so many times. Then it is Ashwathi Bharani.6 He
never makes a mistake there . After reciting the twelve Malayalam months,
he needs Oppols help to go on. You see, every day, he is supposed to recite all
the English months and then the English numbers 1 to 10.
Oppol knows English. That calendar in the front room with baby
Krishnas picture . there are lots of English numbers and letters under
Krishnas picture. Oppol can read all that. Someone said Oppol studied up to
After all the reciting is done, hed go and sit next to Oppol. He wont
say anything; he will just sit there quietly. Oppols fingers would be travelling
through his hair. Then he would hear this music floating in from the next
house. That house is very big. He has never gone there. He has looked at it
from the fence. There are lots of people in that house.
This music that comes from that house to this house is a new thing.
Someone has brought a box that can sing and talk. But how can a box sing and
talk? Chakkan says it is because someone who can sing and talk has got into
Nama Sivaya a chant dedicated to the god Lord Siva
Ashwathi Bharani listing of the Malayalam months
that box. Well, Chakkan doesnt know anything. Otherwise he would have
gone to school, wouldnt he have? But for some mysterious reason, Karambi
cow doesnt try to ram into him.7 Appu doesnt think it is because Chakkan is
oh so smart; it is because he has this long hornlike hairdo.8 Thats for sure!
Chakkan says all that music is in the cinema. Both Yashoda and Mani
in his class have been to the cinema. Actually, he has seen a cloth bag with
pictures from the cinema on it.
When she hears music, Oppol kind of goes silly. Then she becomes very,
very quiet. No answers to questions, no smiles, nothing. She would just stare,
thats all. . like a ghost who cannot talk . Silly Oppol!
Still, he likes Oppol. Oppol always smells nice, and Oppol always smiles
nice. She is the one who bathes him in the morning before he goes to school.
He really doesnt like her scrubbing him with that hairy fruit. Then when she
rolls the edge of the thin towel, puts it into his ears to clean them, he feels
ticklish. It is Oppol who serves him his rice kanji.9 After he finishes his kanji,
she would wipe off his face and then dress him in his shirt and striped shorts.
She would have washed them the previous day. Then she combs his hair and
for one last time wipes off the oily shine from his face. Now he is all set to go
At night when he sits down to eat his meal, Oppol comes and sits next to
The ferocious Karambi cow is a tame animal with Chakkan who takes care of
long hornlike hairdo the particular way lower caste men and
boys gather up their shoulder-length hair into a horn-shape,
making it their trademark hairstyle.
kanji rice gruel
him. Actually he loves it when Oppol feeds him. But she wont do it if
Valliamma is around. Because . Appu knows this . one time, ValUamma
said, "Feeding him! Itty bitty baby, is he?!"
Once in a while, Oppol would also mouth off. When Valliamma hears
that, she would get angrier and angrier. Then comes the real circus lots of
noise, shouting and all the rest of the stuff. Some more shouting and Oppol
will start crying. Sometimes Valliamma would also cry. In fact she cries
whenever she shouts at Oppol. Why?
Funny . .
Valliamma! It doesnt matter one bit if Valliamma cries. Only one time
did he feel sad seeing Valliamma cry. That wasnt when she had a shouting
match with Oppol either.
Appu hasnt forgotten that incident, neither has he forgotten the man
who made Valliamma cry.
Appu was playing in the courtyard with the little palm leaf ball Chakkan
had made for him. All of a sudden, someone called out from the gatehouse,
"Amma . "10
When he turned around, there was this man holding onto the fence. He
had a long sleeved jubba11 on and he carried a cloth bag. And he had a curly-
cue mustache as well. Valliamma slowly walked down to the courtyard and over
to the fence. Valliamma was saying all sorts of things . .
Amma ~ mother
jubba a loose-fitted Indian shirt
"Its 1, your mother whos asking you, isnt it? You come this far and
you dont want to come in? Why Kumara?" she kept pleading.
What Valliamma said made sense, thought Appu. Who is this show-off
dandy, anyway? If he wants to talk to Valliamma, cant he come in? Why
should Valliamma beg with him to come in? Who does he think he is?
Then he says, "Its five or six years ago since I said I wont set foot in
this house again, remember? It isnt going to happen, Amme."
Actually Valliamma should really talk back to him . and talk just like
he does. Valliamma who is usually so good at barking and coming on to people
as if she is Karambi cow herself, was still pleading with the dandy. "After all I
gave birth to her. What do you want me to do? Kill her?"
The dandy mumbled something. Appu couldnt hear what he said.
"At least till the day the ashes from my dead body float across this river
and reach those rice fields, you must come," Valliamma kept pleading.
"Well, after that there wont be even this much ..."
Valliamma lowered her voice and mumbled something again.
He was still raging, "You should have said all this guru talk12 to your
daughter a long time ago."
In between all this, the dandy stared at him sideways. Not the kind of
look that makes you happy. They say theres this gosayi13 who hangs around
the school compound. Some say he likes to twist little kids heads and puts them
into his knapsack. Appu wasnt this afraid even when the gosayi stared at him
the other day. Will this man twist his neck?
guru talk moralistic talk
gosayi a wandering god-man
Appu got back on to the verandah. Oppol had gone inside. She was
standing on the doorstep outside of the kitchen, staring across the plantain
grove. Appu pulled at the edge of her mundu, hanging on to it and asked,
"Who is that man in front, Oppole?"14
It seemed as if Oppol didnt hear him. Oppol tried to say something.
But she didnt.
"Who is that Oppole . ?"
"That is. . "
"Does he twist necks?"
"You know that man over there, does he twist childrens necks?"
It seemed like Oppol was choking on something.
"That is .. that is your Ammama,15 little one."
Isnt that something! He is an Ammama and is that what he is supposed
to do? This man comes to the gatehouse, he calls for VaUiamma. Then on top
of it, he stares at Appu with that scary kind of look! He wants to scare Appu.
Thats for sure! Not a very nice Ammama, this one.
Maybe Oppol didnt mean it; maybe she just said it?
"Are you sure Oppole?"
Oppole the vowel "e" is often substituted for an existing vowel
at the end of a name (e.g., Amme for Amnia) or added on to a
consonant (e.g., Oppole for Oppol) to make it an interrogative
Ammama mothers brother who, in the traditional, ancestral
Hindu household, has the moral obligation to take care of the
women of the family. Maalus brother abandoned the family
because of the shame brought upon the family by her.
"Hmmmm . "
"Then why doesnt Ammama come in?"
"Ammama wont come in.
Appu was about to ask her something else again, when Oppol started
wiping her eyes.
This Oppol is crazy . .
Right then, Valliamma came in. Seeing her, Appu was taken aback.
Valliamma was sobbing, really sad-like. And she kept mumbling at the same
time she was crying. Even Appu felt sad. Well, after all, she is his Valliamma,
no matter those bad words she uses.
With a little bit of self-assurance, Appu came out to the verandah and
ran his eyes from one end to the other.
Ammama was gone.
It was good to have an Ammama. But then, he shouldnt stare tike this.
He shouldnt call out for Valliamma from the gatehouse and make her cry,
talking about this and that.
Jaanu who lives in the house on the western side has an Ammama. He
lives somewhere far away. You have to cross all seven seas to get to where he
lives. There they have silk jubbas and beaded umbrellas multicolored beads,
that is. When he visited last time, Jaanu got both. The beaded umbrella was so
beautiful. She takes it with her only when she goes to the temple with her
mother. The silk dress is big for her right now and so she has kept it in the
She has another Ammama who lives in the same house. He never gives
her anything, she says. She tikes the Ammama who crosses the seven seas to
come and visit. Jaanu thinks he is going to come again next year.
Appu is sad that he has such a troublemaker for an Ammama. Oppol
had said he wont come back again. Does he have the beaded umbrella where
he lives? Even if he can get one, he wasnt going to bring it, was he? That
stare, my goodness! He could make even Valliamma cry! Maybe he didnt
come in because he is mad at someone. But who?
Next time he came, Appu was going to ask him.
But Ammama never came.
Where is Ammama now? Oppol wasnt talking. Jaanu doesnt even
know there is someone like that. She cannot even believe that he has an
Ammama. Chakkan knows something.
"He has a house and land in Poyyakkara ..." Chakkan says. He had
gone that way once and the house was being reroofed.
"Why doesnt Ammama come this way?"
"He left home, didnt he? Wasnt he mad at somebody?
But even Chakkan didnt know who he was mad at.
The more he thought about it, the more he couldnt understand. He had
to, he just had to clear some doubts. But whom could he ask?
Usually it is Oppol who clears his doubts. And that happens when they
lie down to sleep. While he is eating supper, Oppol would have already gotten
the bed ready in the panelled bedroom. On top of all the bedclothes, Oppol
would put that soft, old red saree with huge white flowers on them. That is why
he likes to sleep on that bed. That is Oppols old saree.
Oppol has one more saree. She has folded it and kept it in the chest.
Appu has never seen her wear that. Theres some wonderful scent that comes
out when Oppol opens the chest. The scent of kaitha flowers. It would be such
fun to see Oppol drape that kaitha scented saree on and walk around.
Even though Appu goes to bed soon after supper, he doesnt sleep until
Oppol gets there. Oppol would come only after she had done the dishes and
tidied up the kitchen. When he lies next to her, draping his arms around her,
he will ask her all his questions. He has to know whether all those things
Jaanu said that day were lies or not.
Sometimes she cracks such big firecracker lies! She says, behind her
house on the south side, in the serpent grove at the temple, there is a snake that
has eaten nine children! Now, isnt that a firecracker lie? How can a snake
hold nine children in its belly?
Appu wasnt going to believe that. Appu hasnt seen it. Chakkan hasnt
seen it. Even Oppol hasnt seen it. Jaanu has seen it only at night, it seems.
Then she says, God has a longer beard than that of the Poojari16 who comes
every year for the big temple festival. Just to test whether she was telling the
truth, Appu asked her with all the authority he could summon, "All right,
whats on the head?"
After thinking for sometime, Jaanu said, "Hair."
"Poohpooh ... ye .. poohpooh ... ye .. Appu shouted in delight.
Then he declared, "God has a crown on his head."
That, Jaanu didnt know. And Appu thought she was truly embarrassed
that she didnt know that.
Even though she told such firecracker lies, he liked her. When she was
here, he at least had someone to play with. Now even she is gone! Her father
Poojari a priest in the Hindu temple
has taken her away! Jaanus father took her away some place where there are
hills and forests, someone said. But to go to where her Ammama lives, you
have to cross all the seven seas, she said. When she goes with her father, she
might go in a train. Jaanu says the train goes with such speed boring through
the belly of the mountain!
The day before they left, Jaanu came to Appus house with her mother.
He felt jealous when she boasted, We are going to go on the train
tomorrow!" Lucky girl! She can see so many things! Who knows, they might
have nice rubber balls and bicycles where she is going.
Appu would like to go somewhere. But someone has to come and take
him. Isnt that right? What is he to do otherwise?
Appu has never seen beyond the mountain of Pala trees . Countries
seven seas away . Trains that go through the belly of huge mountains ... It
must be such fun for those children who live in places where they have silk
jubbas and beaded umbrellas!
Jaanus mother said good-bye to Oppol. They were classmates, it seems.
Jaanus mother has many, many sarees. She has gone many places with
Jaanus father. But then . this is funny . Jaanus mother calls Jaanus
father just that "Jaanus father!"
Oppols eyes filled up when Jaanus mother went away. Maybe she too
wants to go in the train that goes through the belly of the mountain!
Oppol doesnt go anywhere. Not even to the temple pond. She bathes at
home near the well. When there was music and fun at the Bhagawathi17
temple at carnival time, Valliamma went. Appu also went. Even then Oppol
"Wont Oppol come, ValUamme?" Then Valliamma barked, "Shut up,
you little urchin!
Appu had started school last Idavam.18 In another two months, they
will have exams. If he passes, he can go to the second grade.
Jaanu was going to go to school in the new place where her father had
taken her. Really? Maybe they have nice schools there. Wonder if they would
have Kelu Mash19 also there. Hope not. She doesnt need those canings, does
He has another friend in class, Kuttysankaran. Kuttysankarans house
was on the other side of the rice fields. They always went to school together and
came home together. Kelu Mash would sometimes call him Kuttychathan, little
devil, that is. When he does that, everyone laughs. Serves Kuttysankaran right!
Maybe . Well, maybe not. . Kelu Mashs canings are unbearable, and
nobody needs that.
Kuttysankaran once presented him with a lime. He had brought it from
his house. He had lots of limes in his house the previous day, he said. It was
his Oppols wedding.
"Dontyou know why, you dummy?" he was asking. Kuttysankaran acts
as if he has seen many, many weddings. He started describing weddings. Lots
and lots of people come home when there is a wedding. They all sit under the
Idavam ~ a month on the Malayalam calendar
Kelu Mash the teacher
canopied tents. Someone will keep spraying rosewater on them. Then everyone
will get lime and sandalwood paste.
Appu didnt believe any of this. He couldnt come out and say that these
were all lies because, then Kuttisankaran will ask, "So you have been to a
wedding?" Then he will have to admit he hasnt. As if to please Kutdsankaran
down, Appu said,
"When . when ... my Oppol gets married, I will give you a lime, all right?"
Then he says! "But you dont have an Oppol, do you?"
When he heard that, Appu became really, really angry. What he wanted
to do right away was to slap him across his face and call him Kuttychathan
four times. But Kuttysankaran was bigger than he was. So he decided against
"Then who is my Oppol?"
"You idiot, isnt she your mother?"
Appu felt like laughing, thinking what a fool Kuttysankaran was. No
wonder Kelu Mash always says Kuttysankaran doesnt have any brains!
"Get lost. You dont know anything!"
"So you know for sure, huh Appu? My mother told me, you hear?"
"Your mother knows for sure?"
Then they started fighting. Kuttysankaran asked for the lime back.
Then he threw the lime in front of Appu on to the floor and made faces at him.
Coming home after school, he thought, How can Oppol be his mother?
He has no father or mother. Only Oppol and Valliamma. Of those, he doesnt
have to count Valliamma really. Urchin, dont do that, urchin, dont do this,
urchin ... the minute your head came out, everything was ruined, you
urchin ... it goes on and on. All he needs is Oppol. And then, if
Kuttysankaran says that nice, nice Oppol is actually his mother, what is he to
He doesnt need a mother.
He has been seeing all the trouble that comes from having a mother.
Isnt Valliamma Oppols mother ? Does Oppol have any peace and quiet
because she has a mother?
For the last four or five days, Oppol has been crying day and night.
Valliamma hasnt been shouting at her. Still all this non-stop crying!
This Oppol is crazy . .
Oppol isnt angry with Appu. Appu knows that. She is never angry with
him. At night, lying next to him, holding him, Oppol said many things. Not
stories. Actually what Appu likes to hear most is stories. And Oppol knows
many, many stories too. The story of the prince who found the diamond.
Thats how Appu came to know the trick behind hiding a diamond. Actually
you have to roll the diamond inside a ball of cow dung. Then no one can see it
glistening. Then there is this story about the princess who turned into a stone.
To make her live again, they cut up a child and poured the blood on to the
stone. When he heard that, Appu cried.
Nowadays, Oppol doesnt tell stories. She just lies there, awake. After
some time, she would ask, "Are you asleep, little one?"
"My precious should study well."
"When you become big, will you look after Oppol, my little one?"
What a meaningless question was that! Appu still said "Hmmm."
"You are all what I have, my precious little one," Oppol would murmur
Oppol hasnt been well the last two or three days. She hasnt been
talking at all. Wien she is bathing him, when she is feeding him rice balls,
when she is combing his hair, all she would do is just gaze at his face.
Sometimes she would just sit there tike a gosayi.
This Oppol is crazy . .
In the afternoon, when Oppol and Valtiamma were lying down on the
floor in the central room for a nap, Appu overheard Valtiamma say, "You
shouldnt torture yourself worrying about the boy."
No sound from Oppol.
"What has happened has happened! You cant swim forever, can you?
Sooner or later you must find the shore. You cannot do that if you worry about
this and that. If this turns out well, then that means we are on our way."
Oppol doesnt have anything to say about that either.
"Sankaran Nayar20 will take care of everything. He is someone who
keeps his word."
"What are you saying, Amme?"
"You know . you . you shouldnt try anything. You must keep
quiet. If this also goes wrong, you will have to sit in this house your entire
"But this is cheating!" Oppol was saying.
"What do you mean ?"
Sankaran Nayar the name of the marriage broker from a nearby
"You dont know anything about this, so you dont worry about it either,
all right?" Valliamma said loudly.
"That means I will have to bear the curse of that also."
"Sankaran Nayar knows everything. That is enough! The man in
Vayanadu21 doesnt have to know."
"But. . Amme . Appu ..."
"Appu Sippu! I am telling you Maalu, I am trying so hard to correct
this terrible thing that has happened and you are saying all sorts of nonsense."
Oppol wasnt saying anything. All he could hear was her sobs.
Valliamma said again, "Sankaran Nayar will take care of everything".
Who is this Sankaran Nayar? Shouldnt Appu see this great and mighty
Phew! One day, word comes, Sankaran Nayar was coming to visit.
Sankaran Nayar seemed like a nice person. While he was talking to
Valliamma, sitting at the edge of the verandah, what fascinated Appu most was
the perfect round of white hair on his head almost like a pappadam fritter,
wow! Looked like he had a lot of things to talk to Valliamma about. But Appu
didnt want to hear any of that. They wanted to have some wedding in
Vayanadu. Fine! Let them! Then they were talking about some man in
Vayanadu. They were whispering why none of this should fall into the boys
ears. Ha ha! What was more important, listening to them or seeing the
pappadam hairstyle one more time? Guess what, if he put four long hairs right
in the center of the pappadam, it would be grand. It will look just as beautiful
as the horse tail plant in the middle of the garden at school.
Vayanadu the name of a neighboring village. Sankaran Nayar
as well as the prospective bridegroom live there.
Appu popped his head out and surveyed the pappadam once again.
Sankaran Nayar lowered his voice.
Valliamma turned around furtively, only to see Appu.
"Go to the courtyard and play, Appu ..."
Appu went inside instead. Who does she think she is? Some smooth
talking village elder? All that gooey dewy wheeling and dealing!
Why should he worry about some strange man? Or some wedding in
Vayanadu? He wasnt even going to get a lime! Whoever wants to can have the
wedding in Vayanadu. Why should he bother? Appu frittered about. He went
inside, opened the huge wooden chest where Valliamma keeps rice and quickly
shut it again. There it was, a small chick, its wings not even out, looking
squarely at him! Then he climbed on to the window. There was a flower basket
hanging from a nail. He peeped inside and there were mustard seeds.
Suddenly there was this noise of this brass tumbler crashing to the floor.
Oppol was in the kitchen.
Valliamma called, "Maalu!"
Was she going to shout at Oppol because the tumbler fell down?
"You Maalu ..."
Oppol came and stood next to the door to the verandah, half hiding
behind the door. Oppol would have to listen to a mouthful from Valliamma
now. Appu was afraid for her. He must listen real hard.
"Amma must have told you everything, I presume." Sankaran Nayar said
"You dont worry about anything. I will take care of everything. He is a
good man. He doesnt have anyone. None of what happened, he is going to
Not a word from Oppol.
"We will have it there, in his place," Sankaran Nayar.
"At his place? Wont people talk? It is just not done, you know, "22
VaUiamma was skeptical.
"For anyone who wants to know, you are my relatives, all right? You
see, it is like this, you dont have anybody. I have been living there close to
twenty years. So it makes sense to have the wedding there, you understand,
"You are right, Sankaran Nayar."
"Thats exactly what I am trying to make you understand. So what is so
wrong about having my nieces wedding in my place?"
"You are so right, Sankaran Nayar. You are all I have for a relative,"
VaUiamma said, heaving one of her favorite big sighs.
"Why did I work so hard to find someone for your daughter? You tell
me. You are my relative. Isnt that the reason? You just be calm about the
whole thing, Devakiamme. By the way, he says he wants to see the girl. What
are we going to do about that?"
VaUiamma kept mumbling something in reply.
"Dont worry. Ill make sure that this doesnt fall into anybodys ears"
Sankaran Nayar assured.
A Hindu wedding in Kerala is always held in the brides
hometown. It is a matter of honor.
Devakiamma the grandmothers (VaUiammas) name
"If everything turns out all right, I will give an offering at the temple.
Thats for sure. A koottupayasam,24 maybe."
"Everything is going to turn out all right, Im telling you. Your daughter
is going to be just fine. He has four acres of land. The government gave him
that, you know. If they work hard, they can live quite well off the land."
The conversation went on. Right at that time, Appu spotted this tricky
snake fellow, ail curled up inside the brass bowl kept under the water spout.
This was a brand new fellow -- all prepared to fight! And he had two fangs as
well! Ha ha! He cannot let him go off just like that, can he? Where was the
broomstick? Maybe he can just use a big cane on him.
The conversation was stiU going on. Sankaran Nayar and Valliamma
were at it still. All that silly twaddle . That must be why they were
whispering. Let them be, Appu thought. Where was that darned broomstick?
The fanged fellow was still curled up in the bowl. He must give him a good one
When he went to the kitchen looking for the broomstick, guess who was
there? Oppol! She was out there on the verandah a minute ago, listening to all
that hoity toity from that Sankaran Nayar! What was she doing here now? No
harm in asking her for the broomstick. But what does this silly, silly Oppol do?
She lifts him up, holds him tight, showers kisses on his head and forehead.
Oppols tears were falling all over his head, and also on his forehead.
Why? He didnt hear Sankaran Nayar scolding her. Valliamma wasnt
angry with her. Then why was she crying?
This Oppol is crazy . .
koottupayasam -- a sweet pudding given as an offering at a Hindu
At night, Oppol asked him, "Can you sleep with Valliamma if Oppol isnt
"But I want to sleep with you, Oppolel"
"Suppose Oppol goes away?"
"Where will you go, Oppole?"
Oppol didnt say anything. When he asked her again and again, he got a
reply, "Nowhere. Im just joking."
Phew! What a relief!
Couple of days later, when he came home from school, he got a bran
pancake. That was unusual. If he got something unusual tike that, he should
make sure that he ate it in front of Chakkan, shouldnt he? Chakkan is so-o-o
greedy and it is such great fun to see him drool. Oppol has specially told him
not to eat anything in front of Chakkan. But he is greedy, isnt he? And he
knows how to make that long hornlike hairstyle on his head. He is also the only
one Karambi cow never tries to ram down. The thing of it is, if he wants to, he
can even hug Karambi cow! Show off! So was there a better way to get even
with him? Let him drool!
Appu softly slipped out to the courtyard. The pancake was safely hidden.
Oppol didnt see him. Good! Chakkan was pulling the hay off from the loft.
For a change he didnt beg, "A little piece for my lowly self, small
thambran. "2S Instead, he bragged, "Thambratti26 gave my lowly self too!"
"Thats a lie!"
thambran title by which a lower caste person addresses a male
of a higher caste
thambratti title by which a lower caste person addresses a female
of a higher caste
"My lowly self was the one who got the tea and the sugar from the shop
when they came."
"When who came?"
"Real important guests. Look, small thambran."
Chakkan unrolled the edges of his mundu27 and showed him. Stumps
of three beedies!28
"You know that thambran who came? He had smoked these."
If the visitor is the type that smokes beedies, then he has to be someone
fancy. True, Sankaran Nayar had that excellent pappadam hairstyle. But that
was all. He couldnt smoke a beedi. Last week, when he came, all he did was
chew the beetle leaf nut, just like VaUiamma. Then he spat long and hard on to
the courtyard. How perfectly awful!
But where was the important guest? Who was this fancy man who
smoked beedies? Why did he come? Whom did he come to see? Appu ran
inside to ask Oppol. Oppol was in the back compound. VaUiamma was peeling
the skin off the Jcavu fruit.
"Where are the guests, Valliamme?"
"What guests, you good for nothing? Who is going to visit us?
Too bad Chakkan didnt tell him the name. Well, if it is Kaalan, then so
be it. But where in the world was that important guest? Thats what he wanted
mundu a cotton wrap
beedi a cheap type of cigarette
Kaalan god of death
"You urchin, if you come here with all that nonsense talk, I will twist
your neck and turn your head to the other side."
Fine! He doesnt have to know! Just because she had a fancy guest,
she thinks too much of herself!
He didnt ask anymore after that.
When he woke up in the middle of the night, Oppol wasnt next to him,
but the light was on. Oppol had her box open and she was packing all sorts of
things in it. There was the smell of kaitha flowers in the room. Come to think
of it, when he started sleeping, Oppol was next to him. Then why did she get
up after that? What was she doing, stuffing all her mundus and blouses into
the box in the middle of the night with the light on? He wanted to get up
slowly, tiptoe ever so softly behind her and tickle her on the neck. That would
surely scare her! But he couldnt get up . his eyes were closing . dreams
about the forest where the prince found the diamond floated around him ... so
also, the faint smell of kaitha flowers . Appu closed his eyes again.
Appu didnt get up on his own the next morning. Oppol had to wake him
up. After all the usual stuff like the bath near the well and the kanji breakfast,
Oppol put the shirt on him. While she was smoothing his hair, Oppol said
softly, "When you come home from school, you must take good care, my little
one. There are lots of cows and calves all over. "30
She says that often. Appu grunted yes.
"You must not fight with anyone ..."
this is similar to a city mothers cautionary words to her child, "watch out for
cars and bicycles when you cross the street," because Appu is crossing pastures
full of cows.
"You must listen to Valliamma my little one. You must not get into any
"Valliamma is bad. I want only you, Oppole."
"Oh, my precious ..." Breathing hard, panting, holding him tight to
her, Oppol said feebly ... My little one, my precious little one ..." Appus
biggest fear was that this would set her off crying again. No, this time Oppol
didn t cry. So this time there was no need to feel distraught.
Suddenly he felt like saying something.
"Well, you know what, Oppole . ?"
"Little one, will you call me Amina one time?"
That he didnt like.
"Nothing. Just like that."
"But where is Amma? Who is Amma?"
Oppol didnt say anything to that. Oppols hands loosened slowly. She
turned her face and stood quietly for a minute. Then she took Appus bag from
the nail on the wall, gave it to him and said, "Go on, my little one."
Appu laid his umbrella on his shoulder like a pole, hung the bag on the
painted handle, jumped on to the courtyard and set off for school. As he got
out of the gatehouse, he tripped. But he didnt fall. That was the most
important thing, wasnt it? Appu turned around to look if anyone had seen him
trip. Then at the door, who was standing there, staring after him like one of
those gosayis? Oppol! How come Oppol has to stare like the gosayis? But
when she saw him looking, she pulled her head inside. Like a turtle. Ha!
This Oppol is crazy . .
When he got to the other side of the rice field, Kuttysankaran was there,
cracking castor oil seeds and blowing through them, making weird noises. He
had two gooseberries in his bag. He gave Appu the smaller one. But even the
small one was sweet. Appu had to cross a furrow and a field of green fronds
and a small hillock to reach the school. Appu was scared crossing the hillock.
There were always lots of cows. That was all right. Sometimes the big huge
cow from the Manama temple would be grazing on that hillock, they say.
Luckily, Appu has never seen him. And he doesnt want to either, heaven
That afternoon, Appu accidentally broke Narayanans slate pencil.
Narayanan started crying. Then he said he was going to tell the Mash.31
Kuttysankaran came to talk peace. If the case went to Kelu Mash, Appu would
be in deep trouble. Finally Narayanan agreed to Kuttisankarans deal. The
next day, Appu has to give him a brand new pencil. Appu was relieved.
That was no big deal. All he had to do was ask Oppol.
In the evening, when he got home, he threw the bag on the verandah and
"Is that you, Appu?"
It wasnt Oppol who answered. It was Valliamma. Valliamma came out
of the kitchen and asked, "Why so early today Appu?"
"Why so polite today Valliamme?" That was what Appu wanted to ask
her in return. He didnt. Suppose he a got a blow in reply?
"Where is Oppol?"
"I have kanjiforyou, Appu. Take off your good shirt and come and
have your kanji." What he wanted was Oppol and not Valliammas stupid kanji.
If he didnt have a pencil by tomorrow, his honor would be lost. Kaput. Gone.
"Where is Oppol? He asked again. Appu went to the north room.
Oppol wasnt there either. A faint smell of Kaitha flowers still hung in the
"Where . where is Oppol, Valliamme?"
"Oppol. . well, she isnt here."
"Where is she?"
"She is gone somewhere ..."
"Oppol. . you know, shell come back, Im telling you, she will come
back. And when she comes, she will bring you a rubber ball."
Well, she may or may not bring the rubber ball, for all he cared. Where
did she go without him? Without even telling him? Why?
Slowly, Appu got angry. This Oppol was a terrible Oppol. How could
she do this to him? Just wait and see. He will never talk to her again. What
can he do to this Oppol?
Maybe there is a pencil in Oppols box. Maybe not just one, she might
even have two or three. Let her dare scold him, and he will show her!
But. . where was the box?
Appu felt the tears come on.
Valliamma called him again.
Appu doesnt want kanji.
He got into the courtyard. He took one of the loose stones from the
paved circle around the koovala tree and threw it against the big stone real
hard, as hard as he could and more. Then he walked to the west side of the
"Appu, Valliamma will feed you kanji, little one."
Appu doesnt want kanji and he doesnt want any of Valliammas gooey
When Oppol comes, when she brings him the rubber ball, he will just
throw it away. Thats it. He wont care. He will show her for doing this to
him. Valliamma called him again . .
Appu doesnt want anything.
He felt like crying loudly. Very, very loudly, showing the whole world
how angry he is with Oppol.
Suppose she was going to bring him sweet mithayis32 also?
So what? She went away without taking him and without even telling
him, didnt she?
The crying was coming on real strong. Something was hurting real bad
inside. He wasnt sure what.
It kept hurting. As if something was breaking inside.
And where was Oppol?
Terrible, terrible Oppol!
When is he going to see her again?
When . .
Th ... th .. Oppol. . this . Oppol... is crazy!
Valliamma33 had two daughters. Kuttyedathi34 and Januedathi.
Actually, Januedathi was the one pretty to look at. She was golden
colored. Those arms with their blue, blue veins bulging . well, those shone
with a sheen like that of the ripening bud of the plantain tree. Whenever she
came near, the air filled with the smell of the sandalwood soap. Her mundu35
and blouse were always fresh and clean, always sparkling white. But... the
one I loved more was Kuttyedathi.
Kuttyedathi was black-skinned. In Januedathis words, one could line
ones eyelids wiping off the color from Kuttyedathis skin. Even when she was
not laughing, one could see the tips of her two buckteeth. If you held her arms,
well. . they felt like rough firewood! She mostly wore that same blouse with
the black design on it. And most of the time it was dirty. There was never a
time when there was no mud or charcoal stain on her mundu. When she came
near, she stank of sweat and oil and the musty smell of wet, unaired clothes.
One felt like throwing up.
edathi a form of address for an older sister. Kuttyedathi is the
older of the two sisters and Januedathi the younger, but older than
mundu a cotton wrap
I left one thing out. There was a dangling little wart on Kuttyedathis
left ear. By warty I mean that piece of flesh that hung down. Whenever she
came by, whenever she talked, whenever she was separating her hair, all I
would be doing was looking at that wart. The only one who ever feU disgusted
whenever Kuttyedathi touched it was I.
Still... I loved Kuttyedathi.
There was no one in the family who liked Kuttyedathi. Valliamma,
whenever she saw Kuttyedathi, would scold her. The reason was the same each
and every time: no restraint, no deference. And then, she would add on some
great god-talk?6 as well, Garden will go barren when a certain weed creeps
in! If that didnt do the job, she would curse, "You know something?
Wherever you are, there wont be salt or water!
Maybe because she has heard it all the time, Kuttyedathi would laugh out
loud. Hearing that, Valliamma would get furious. She would swing one of
those huge kitchen knives or wooden spoons and scream, "Get out! Get out of
my sight! Out of my sight, I say! As soon as you came into my womb, my life
Kuttyedathi does not listen to Valliamma most of the time. Actually what
she likes to do most of the time is to saunter around with me. We would sit
behind the thatched mud fence and play jacks with smooth stones. Or she
would scratch the sand and get the tiny dirt elephant?7 for me. All this had to
god-talk moralistic talk
dirt elephant a tiny, squiggly elephant-shaped organism
be done without ValUamma seeing. Actually, my mother also shouldnt see any
of this. If they saw us, the scolding never came to me; it went straight to
"Malukutty ..." Valliamma would call. With the sound of rolling
If she did not answer, then came the next shout.
"You arrogant, disobedient you ..."
Kuttyedathi would not be too pleased.
"You are a full-size woman, you know that? Whose fault is it that a man
does not want to come and give you the marriage clothes?"
Kuttyedathi is not supposed to saunter around. It is not good, I know
that. Really. If she goes about doing things like that, no man is going to come
Valliamma never scolds me. She would only advise.
"You little Vasu, remember, you are a boy . you must not hang on to
this girls tails..."
ValUamma has her usual dose of god-talk for me as well, "Remember,
they say the courtyard where jacks is played is the courtyard where no rice grain
will bounce around.1,38
Kuttyedathi does not sit still any time. She fights with everyone.
Someone or other would have a case against her every time she goes to the
temple pond. One day she throws Anthoor Meenakshiammas silver bowl into
the pool; another time she beats the skin off Chummukuttys back; another day
she splashes water on to that water witch Mookami Amma, on and on and on.
Using metaphors, similes, and parables to make a point is common
practice in the Malayalam language.
Even if Amma and Valliamma said no to her a hundred times, she still would
use the rice measure, which must be used only to measure rice, for dipping
water from the well.
Every afternoon, Kuttyedathi goes on a circuit. She would take a spin
around the Brahmin39 mansion or around the low caste Pulaya40 Kalis hut or
around the Muslim woman Aminummas house. Yes, like they say, Kuttyedathi
is a full-size woman and she should not be sauntering around like this. Amma
has said this, Valliamma has said this. Valliamma has even beaten her till the
stick from the tamarind tree broke on her. But Kuttyedathi would not stop.
After lunch, ValUamma would nap in the bungalow next to the main
house. Amma would be in the northern room. JanuedathVs room is upstairs.
After lunch, Januedathi would chew the red beetle nut leaf till her lips were
blood red, and then would sit against the parapet wall outside her room and sing
"Sarojinis Atrocious Act.1,41 She knows how to read ever so softly. She has
gone to school. Whenever she fights with Kuttyedathi, she would remind her,
"Kuttyedathi, I have learned a thing or two from the alphabet book, you know."
Once in a rare while, I go into JanuedathVs room. Whenever she was
not reading that song book of hers, she would be sitting in front of that mirror
and trying ever so hard to make a little curl and press it hard on to her
forehead. Just in case I touched her by chance? Well. . then she would say,
"Yuk! the brat messed up my clothes!"
Brahmin the highest caste
Pulaya the lowest caste
Sarojinis Atrocious Act a tone poem about a woman who falls
in love and runs away with her lover defying her family and the
norms of the society.
One is not supposed to touch her bed. One is not supposed to touch her
song book. One is not to touch her little wooden chest or the mirror or the
bindi42 bottle or the eye-shadow box. Actually, the main reason I go in there is
to see the eye-shadow box. And what a pretty little box that is! There is a little
piece of mirror that is glued on top, covering about three fourths of the box.
But if I went in there, Januedathi would get all flustered. "You brat, keep
quiet; you brat. . dont you touch that. . you brat, you know you will knock
that down ... "on and on.
Why cant she call me by my name, I wonder. My name is not "brat", is
it? Kuttyedathi always calls me by my name. And she calls me "Vasu-0 ..."
kind of lengthening it in a sing-song fashion. I loved hearing that.
If ever Kuttyedathi came into her room, Januedathi will go into a fit.
She would call Valliamma and start crying. Whatever Kuttyedathi touched was
a problem with Januedathi and she would start crying. Everything Kuttyedathi
touched got spoilt, thats what she would say. Valliamma would then try to put
some sense into Kuttyedathi.
"Isnt she younger than you, shouldnt you remember that?"
Kuttyedathi always had an answer.
"Arent I older than her?"
One time, Kuttyedathi tried to wrap Januedathis expensive mundu with
gold thread around herself. And Januedathi couldnt stand it any longer.
bindi the red dot Indian women wear on their foreheads
"How could you smear soot on my clothes? What in the world will I
wear when I go to Aryembadam?43 Oh, my God!"
Nonchalantly, Kuttyedathi opened out both her palms and asked, "Tell
me, where is the soot on my palms?"
Januedathi would step up her ruckus, "Amme, just look at this! My
mundu has soot all over!"
"Who do you think I am, some low caste woman?" Kuttyedathi would
"How do I know?"
"Ya, sure! What a great beauty you are!"
Kuttyedathi then took off the mundu with the golden threads and threw it at her
face with aU the contempt she could show on her face. Great! I thought.
Served Januedathi right!
"Yes, I think I am a beauty. Do you mind?
"Dont try your stuff with me, you hear? 1 am going to beat your face
Januedathi quickly calmed down. If Kuttyedathi says she will beat up
someone, she will.
"Come on, Vasu-O," Kuttyedathi took my hand in hers and walked on.
Where we went straight was the upper tier of the iUam44 compound.
Every one in the illam would be napping, we knew that. Perfect time to fell the
Aryembadam a neighboring village, known for its famous
temple where ritualistic dances are held annually
illam Brahmin mansion
"How about felling some mangoes, buddy?"
"You mean, you know how to fell the mangoes?"
"Whats wrong with my felling mangoes, tell me."
"Women know how to fell mangoes?"
Wasnt that something, I thought. All this while, 1 thought only men
knew how to fell mangoes from a tree! As I started gathering the stones for
Kuttyedathi to fell the mangoes, she said, "Coming to think of it, stones are
going to make an awful lot of noise. Lets just use some sticks."
That made sense. With the slightest noise Kunju Namboodiri is likely to
jump into the courtyard and start screaming with his hands on his head. Kunju
Namboodiri was one mean fellow. Even if it is a mango that has been lying
around on the ground, he wont let anyone take it.
Kuttyedathi hacked off a piece of wood. "Move," she ordered. I stepped
aside with respect. Kuttyedathi flourished the wood in the air and threw it.
Wow, look how high she threw it! Even Thuprari45 could never throw that
high. To the best of my knowledge, Thupran was the best thrower ever.
But the mango did not fall. Kuttyedathi kept aiming again and again.
The fourth time, the piece of wood got stuck on a branch. I looked at
Kuttyedathi with sorrow. What will we do now? Bight then Kuttyedathi had this
idea, Vasu-0, climb on that tree and look out for Kunju Namboodiri. Tell me
when he jumps into the courtyard."
Thupran -- the name of the lower caste boy who is an expert at
Obediently, I climbed on to the tree and looked out. What was she up
to? She ran her eyes around, lifted the tips of her mundu, brought it up to her
knees and tied it and started climbing the mango tree.
Wow! That I didnt expect!
I stayed on top of the tree, running my eyes from the courtyard of the
mansion and the mango tree. She was climbing the tree like a squirrel.
Januedathi should see this! Well, what if she does! She doesnt know
anything, does she? Ail she knows is to primp herself up all the time with her
bindi and read that stupid stuff "Sarojinis Atrocious Act." She does not know
how to climb a tree! She doesnt at all know how to fell a mango!
Kuttyedathi was sitting on a branch, swinging her legs tike a man and
laughing. I couldnt help clapping my hands. What a feat! Kuttyedathi broke
off the mangoes and threw them into a dead pile of leaves.
Right then, laughter came up from behind the bamboo trees. I turned
around to see KuttiNarayanan roaring with laughter. Kuttyedathi pretended not
to see him.
"Girl climbing the tree! Girl climbing the tree!"
He kept shouting. What was the matter with him?
Well, he is tike that, this KuttiNarayanan. Kuttyedathi came down the
tree calmly. Calmly, she let down the tips of her mundu and gathered up the
mangoes. Even then, KuttiNarayanan was shouting, "Girl climbing tree! Girl
My God, dont let Kunju Namboodiri hear this! I kept praying. With
complete cool Kuttyedathi took a mango, wrapped it in a teak leaf, gave it to me
for safe keeping and walked over to KuttyNarayanan. Without saying a word,
she slapped him right across the face.
Serves him right! What was wrong with women climbing trees anyway?
Maybe Kuttyedathi realized that he was plotting something, some sort of a
revenge, perhaps? She quickly raised her hand once again, as if to strike and
screamed, "Stupid buffalo! Run!"
Run he did. As fast as he could.
But the case reached Valliamma. The charges were two: the first one,
tree climbing; second, KuttiNarayanan, a boy, was slapped across the face.
"Malukutty, did you climb the tree?"
"Did you, did you, climb that tree?"
"Thats right. So what?"
I became frightened. I went over to my mother and sat down next to her,
pretending to know nothing.
"You are a grown up-woman. You know that?"
Kuttyedathi was not talking.
"If there are no elders in this house, you should at least mind the four
pillars of this ancestral home,46 shouldnt you?"
No answer to that either.
"Let me see if I can teach you how to behave."
The next sound was that of a beating. One, two, three . .
The architecture of ancestral homes in Kerala is distinguished by heavy, tall
pillars in different parts of the house. Generation after generation, irrespective
of their rise or fall in fortunes, live in the same house. The house and the pillars
have borne witness to the joys and tragedies of many lives and therefore take on
metaphysical proportions in their significance in a familys life.
"Will you climb the tree again?"
One, two, three . .
"Will you ever again fight with boys?"
One, two, three . .
I put hands over my ears and stepped into the courtyard. I could not
stand it any longer. After a while, when I went inside, 1 saw Valliamma leaning
against a pillar in the inner courtyard and sobbing. As if to no one in
particular, she was saying, "How come, Guruvayoorappa,47 we got someone
like this in our clan?"
Valliamma called me to her, seeing me standing there with some
hesitancy. I was filled with some sort of a strange fear. But Valliamma hugged
me hard and cried loudly, "My precious little one, remember you are a
boy . You are the only one weve got for tomorrow."
I wiggled out of her grip and went to my mother. I saw my mother
wiping her tears as well. Why was Valliamma crying? There is not a single day
she did not cry. Amma made me understand, Valliamma has no one.
Valliamma has no one . Valliamma has no money. My mother at
least has a boy child. My father sends home money every month.
I think my mother feels sad whenever she thinks of Valliamma. She
would get all choked up whenever she talked about her. One night Amma said
many things. Valliamma was the wife of Thazhevalappil Kuttan Nayar. Kuttan
Nayar was the esteemed patriarch of that big clan. He had a good business
going. Valliamma mostly stayed at the Thazhevazhappil mansion. She used to
come home on a palanquin, it seems!
Guruvayoorappa the name of a god
Amma was little then. Amma has gone and stayed with Valliamma.
Valliamma was the one who made the elaborate gold necklace for Amma.
Valliamma never even used to come down from her upper level quarters.
Nobody went against VaUiammas wishes. Folks liked her. Whenever she went
to the bathing pond, she made sure that somebody filled the three measure oil
bowl for her to take along. She freely gave oil to anyone who wanted it.
During festival time she gave mundus to those who wanted mundus, money to
those who wanted money.
"What a giving hand was hers!" Amma would exclaim.
But, Valliammas so-called good days came to an abrupt end. One night,
Kuttan Nayar closed shop and came home, and he started hiccupping. He
started vomiting right where he sat down to have dinner. He was dead by
Kuttyedathi was three years old at that time. Januedathi was barely a
Next morning itself, the nephew got all the keys back from Valliamma.
Even before the body was cremated, she and the children were sent home. The
maid Parukutty was sent along as well. Amma still remembers Valliamma, her
children and Parukutty walking in, carrying the cloth bundle.
"What a giving hand she had! My God! All this is karma!"
I looked at Valliamma who was still sitting with her face buried between
That was when I suddenly remembered Kuttyedathi. She was nowhere
downstairs. When I went upstairs, I heard a muffled sob from the room where
we hold the Bhuvaneshwari pooja.48 That room was dark even during the day.
I tiptoed in hesitantly.
Kuttyedathi did not answer.
"Kuttyedathi... "I went closer to Kuttyedathi, held her on her
shoulders and whispered, "Did Valliamma give it to you good?"
In between her sobs, Kuttyedathi grunted a hmmm . .
"Did it hurt?"
"Then why are you crying, Kuttyedathi?"
Kuttyedathi hugged me, and pressing her cheek against my cheek,
promised this, "All right, Kuttyedathi will not cry."
As I lay next to her, pressing my face against her sweat and tear-soaked
bosom, there was a sob in my heart as well.
"Do you like Kuttyedathi, Vasu?"
"Nobody likes Kuttyedathi." Tears fell on my face.
Often times, I had thought, doesnt anyone like Kuttyedathi? Valliamma
scolds her; sometimes beats her. Amma also scolds her. Januedathi cannot
even stand her.
Maybe because Kuttyedathi was black skinned. Maybe because she had a
wart on her ear.
Bhuvaneshwari pooja a ritualistic prayer ceremony for the
Nobody scolded Januedathi. It was rumored that a fine man would come
for her pretty soon.
Valliamma liked Januedathi better. She took Januedathi with her
whenever she went to Thirunavaya49 for the holy dip in the river on the New
Moon Day or when she went to Aryembadam to see the dance at the temple.
Once Kuttyedathi wanted to go along as well. Then Valliamma scolded, "Dont
you dare! Stay quiet somewhere!"
After that, even if she was invited, she would not go. When Valliamma
went to see Parvarthy Ammas boy child, or to Cholayil aunt when she was ill, or
when Valliamma went to see the Ayyappan lamp festival50 at Kalayakkalam,
she invited Kuttyedathi to go along.
But, Kuttyedathi said, "Well, I dont think I am pretty enough for you to
When Valliamma hears things like that, her whole attitude changes. And
she will start cursing, "You godforsaken little creature, even wild grass wont
grow where you are!"
Kuttyedathi is not afraid of curses. She is not afraid of the devil or even
the brahmarakshas.51 I, the disciple of Kuttyedathi, have been a brave one as
well, having been well instructed by her as to how to take care of all this
nonsensical stuff. As far as the brahmarakshas is concerned, all that one is
supposed to do is quickly throw a stone making sure not to turn back at all.
Thirunavaya a holy place
Ayyappan lamp festival a ritualistic lamp festival held annually
Brahmarakshas a bloodsucking, bone-crushing demon-godess
How about the devil? Chant "Narayana nama"52 three times. No devil dare
stay at the sound of that!
But even I was afraid of Bhagawati.53 Bhagawati stayed in the panelled
attic, we believed. One was not supposed to walk in front of the attic. No
leftover food or clothes polluted by the touch of a lower caste was supposed to
cross it. Suppose one did something that the Bhagavathi did not like? Even the
thought was scary. What shed do was scatter the seeds on you! "Seeds"
meaning small pox!
I was the only one allowed to enter the panelled attic. The only one
allowed to light the lamp inside on Tuesdays and Fridays, the only one allowed
to bum the camphor inside. Little girls were allowed inside, so also old women.
But nobody else.
Kuttyedathi once opened the huge wooden door of the attic and went
inside. She took oil from the oil well in the huge brass lamp and smoothed it on
Valliamma saw that.
"You polluted it! A grown woman like you is not supposed to touch that!
What in the world have you done, Malukutty?"
"What, 1 could not find any oil around and that was that."
Valliamma put both her hands on her head and wailed, "You are going
to min this family with all your stupid ways. Whats the use of my saying all
this anyway? This family is going downhill, thats for sure!"
Narayana nama a mantra
Bhagawati the great Goddess
The very same day Valliamma had the Brahmin priest de-pollute the
place, by having a purification ceremony. StiU, she spent three or four days
scared out of her wits, dreading that some calamity was going to befall the
Everyone believed that Bhagawathi hid her great treasure in the attic.
Appukutta Panikkar would cast his cowrie shell54 and pronounce his forecast
like a know-it-all, "There is a satum in this ancestral home. By satum, I mean
the Bhagavathi. The Bhagavathi is an awesome being. She can change what
seems like rain into snow. There is a wealth of the satum in this place. This
ancestral home has been blessed because of its good deeds."
Rutty edathis next target was that aforesaid blessing, the treasure trove.
Ruttyedathi announced one day, "We have to dig up the stuff in the
I trembled in fear. How could anyone think of something like that! Dig
up stuff where Bhagavathi sat!
"Dont be scared! You stand guard, and then we will see if theres any
treasure, all right?"
Suppose Bhagavathi threw her so-called seeds? I felt weak.
"Well... it is Bhagavathis ..."
cowrie shell -- a smooth, polished shell used during astrological
In ancient Hindu ancestral homes, a dias is built in the attic to
keep an image of a goddess. No one other than the men in the
family are allowed to touch the image. Many of the family jewels,
money or treasures are hidden underneath the image by the men
with a warning to others that entering the attic means a curse from
the goddess, because the treasures belong to the her.