Short Story in translation

Black chinks

Print edition : June 22, 2018
Malayalam fiction has never been the same after Sarah Joseph’s assault on its patriarchal language 25 years ago. Her Ramayana stories stand out in the tradition of feminist critiques of the epic. One of them, “Karutthathulakal”(1998), translated by J. Devika as “Black chinks” appeared in “The Masculine of Virgin” (OUP, 2012). This Ramayana story is a fictitious account of the fate of Manthara, Kaikeyi’s confidant. Sarah Joseph presents the character and her intentions, revealing through them a picture of intrigue and power-hunger in Ayodhya.

Creeping close to the stable walls, hiding from the light and the spirits that guard it, the hag inched forward, slouching.

The wounds all over her body open their mouths as she moves, the sharp wind rubbing hot chilli-paste into them. The warmth that seeped from her forehead into her eyes was blood. Sneering, the old crone spat. Manthara did not become a spy to retreat at the sight of blood.

The horses saw her and neighed a warning. Manthara felt as if all of Ayodhya had heard the clatter of the hooves on the granite-paved stable floor. She uttered a curse without opening her mouth.

“Who’s there?”

A question and some light leapt out of the stable. A burning torch stretched out into the open. The old crone pressed hard against the wall, as still as a painting. They did not find her and the torch slid back into the stable.

Kneeling, crawling, creeping, she escaped the eyes of the horses and crossed the stables. The wound on her knee smarted as it scraped against the granite. And now, to reach the space in the middle where the big stone-lamp stood and the small one where Valaakan was waiting. She had no way but to crawl over the sharp gravel.

Today was Valaakan’s woman’s turn to light the lamps. She had not done it. Nor would she. To expect gratitude for food partaken is sheer greed on the part of those who offer it. Kosalam is not free of untruth and treachery and false words; it is not the Land of Maveli that once thrived somewhere in the south. Amusement lit the old crone’s face and spread as contempt.

On the other side of the stone-lamp, the forest. Where it ends, the fort. There would Valaakan have hung a ladder of jungle-vines—her escape from the fort; a ladder marked by a bunch of aattuvanchi flowers. Just right for a hunchback. Outside the fort, Valaakan’s single-ox cart will be waiting. A hundred gold coins for Valaakan to get her past the border. A gold bangle for his wife, to leave the stone-lamps unlit. Ten muzhams of silk for his daughter.

Straightening up and stealing a look, Manthara quickly crouched into the valley between two hill-like haystacks. Valaakan was not to be seen behind the stone-lamp. She waited a long time, watching intently, wondering when his bony dark form would emerge from the darkness. Not a leaf moved.

The scent of danger was in the air. Treachery? Will Valaakan betray her? Was there a smile one could trust, candid, and open in Kosalam? This would not be the first time her calculations had failed. Manthara was no stranger to making a fresh move when the first went wrong. Not for nothing did she decide against waiting where Valaakan had told her, or avoid the route he had suggested. She had crept around the stables and was now hidden in the haystacks quite deliberately.

Suddenly, a torch leapt from the stables. The haystacks glittered like hills of gold. Another torch followed. Then, some sixty more—as if preparing for battle! Manthara lost hope. She pulled the night over herself and lay flat on the ground, face down. Beneath the hills of gold, Manthara’s hump became a black rock.

Sarah Joseph is Kerala’s most famous woman writer and activist. All her novels and collections of short fiction have won prestigious State-level awards as well as the Sahitya Akademi Award. She taught Malayalam till her retirement in 2001.


Valaakan’s betrayal sears. The wounds scream. Manthara’s hand stretched towards the handle of the dagger tucked into her waist. No divine weapon, this. Those come out of secret affairs with the devas. And devas want only flawless beauties. And tapas—austerities! Where would starving folk find time for all that? But…the dagger…she knew how to wield it well.

The torches circled the stone-lamp a few times. They searched north and south, up and down, all around and settled down to gossip for a while. Then went back the way they had come.

“Not even a fly here!”

Someone exclaimed. Manthara wanted to laugh aloud. What sincerity! The soldiers are out seeking the woman who spied for kings. How smart! What useless brains, not good enough to consider the simple act of lighting the stone-lamp!

Must leave as soon as possible and reach the jungle.

Manthara chided her wounds to be silent and tied the bundle close to her chest. She pulled the dagger out and gripped it. The new moon sheltered her. Her eyes, like a wild cat’s, found light slowly in the dark.

When dawn breaks, Manthara would not be in Ayodhya. Not much time left now for deeply guarded secrets to become street songs in Ayodhya. Dasarathan’s lust and betrayal, Aswapathy’s greed, ambition, and anger, all these will fall upon Ayodhya like a flaming comet, an evil omen. She, this hunchback, would be the one who ignites its tail. This woman will tear off Ayodhya’s veils of falsehood before the eyes of its people. And then the people will know what kings driven by lust and anger are capable of.

Burning with spite, Manthara remembered the early-dawn assault she had suffered. The sound of her teeth gnashing was like that of twigs breaking in the forest.

She had stepped into the royal courtyard after her morning bath, body smeared with red sandalwood paste and silvery hair loosened, to meet Valaakan. His limp made it easy to spot him in a crowd. Suddenly someone charged at her, bellowing like a wild bull. She lost balance and before she could trick her attacker and escape, he had begun to drag her away. Thrashing wildly to escape his clutches had been a mistake. Her body splintered, smashing against the granite paving of the courtyard. She was dragged all the way and flung at Shatrughnan’s feet.

“She’s the source of all ruin,” her captor roared. “This hunch-backed spy!”

She wanted to look up to see who he was. But he stood with foot leg pressed hard on her hump. And when she raised her head, there he was, Shatrughnan, his face blazing like a furnace ready to explode with rage. When their eyes met, he attacked, ripping her to pieces like a wild elephant tearing apart a wilting banana sapling. When he seized her by the arm, twirled her in the air, and threw her down, she saw death waiting. Her last memory was of her sandalwood chain snapping and the beads scattering along with drops of her blood….

J. Devika is a feminist historian and an acclaimed translator of contemporary Malayalam writers such as Sarah Joseph, K.R. Meera, Lalithambika Antharjanam, K. Saraswati Amma, Ambikasutan Mangad and Nalini Jameela. She works as a teacher and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Something moved in the dark. Agile as a wild cat, Manthara slipped behind a rock. A flash of white clothes. Valaakan? Manthara’s feline eyes grew sharp and glistened.

Her forehead crinkled as she recognised the gait in between the trees: Bharathan! In this forest, alone in the dark! What was stirring? That too, on this night, in this forest, so far from the palace where the women continued to wail, the music was still playing long melancholy notes, and the bards still sang till their throats were hoarse—to proclaim that sorrow had not abated even though the funeral rites were over? Bharathan walked with his head bowed, weighed down with anxiety. He did not possess a nose to sniff Manthara out. Silly child, who could make neither head nor tail of the drama enacted so ingeniously by all the others on the stage! The scent of breast-milk about him! Did no one teach this boy, Mathrdevobhava: Honour your mother as God? The sword he brandished at his mother must be piercing his own heart now. This world of fathers who decree that power must be guarded, even if that meant raising sword and axe at Mother! Oohh!

For sure Ayodhya is a fine stage! The strange continuous drama in which every player is also a sutradharan. All actors, male and female, wear the make-up of innocence and purity. And dress in white hiding fangs and bestial horns.

I am the sutradharan, I pull the strings. The Dasarathan-character dances holding the curtain, his face dripping compassion. Oh gentle, sweet words. The noble tradition of the House of Raghu must thrive. For that, the eldest son, Raman, and Raman alone, must be crowned....

Aswapathy, King of the Kekayas, prepares to rush on stage from the green room.

“I am the sutradharan!” In this scene, Dasarathan is a traitorous old man, blinded by lust. “I bestowed my youthful daughter on him because he promised me his country as bride-price. Ayodhya belongs to Bharathan. Breach your word, and bring about war.”

Another character stands between the stage and the green-room, holding the curtain. Vasishthan’s role as string-puller is to protect Ayodhya’s honour! Indeed! Aswapathy must never step on the stage. Therefore, Vasishthan fills the space of the entrance as he dances.

As the thumping show by these false characters unfolds, Bharathan leaps onstage shaking his sword, and unaware of how the goodness of his heart is being exploited and milked dry, utters the lines assigned to him aloud.

“Only because I fear that the righteous Raman will call me a matricide. Otherwise, O evil, sinful one, you would have been … Ahhhhh!”

Aswapathy’s strategies and efforts floundered so quickly! Ayodhya slid out of his hands like a live fish! Ayodhya needed very little time to drum in the lesson of brotherly devotion, one which required the country to be delivered to the elder brother even at the cost of a mother’s life!

This is the fortnight of the new moon. She makes her way through the paths of the fireflies. It is still a long way to the walls of the fort. She must cross the clearing beyond the forest, circle the red-lotus pond, and reach the secret path that ends at the foot of the enormous peepul-tree with a trunk so thick that the arms of a hundred men outstretched and linked could not encircle it. Beyond it stood the fort.

If he is not a traitor, Valaakan would be waiting near its wall.

Would the secret have leaked by now? From the moment I set foot in Ayodhya, there were spies all around me. In everyday acts, in slumber, even at prayer. The very air was an open lashless eye. Every hour was spent looking death in the face. Instead of this game in which my heart dangled perpetually at the tip of a sword, there could be another life, a life in which I may bathe and sleep relaxed and peaceful, wake up without fear, smile at my children without unease… what would such a life be like?

Manthara grimaced. Kings!

Dolls of clay fired in the same kiln. At the slightest signal that their power is in danger, they go mad. So many embraces, such kisses, when they meet. But such readiness to stab, once the back is turned. The God of Death despairs of these men who are unwilling to die until the throne is pledged to their offspring. They roar with laughter. Brandish swords. Act out tragic plays. And in the end, before pressing their bums on violently seized thrones, they fall.… Manthara wanted to hoot and scream. I know everything. I know well each of the moves unfolding in the drama enacted here. If I shout aloud what each of the players has hidden, ah my friends, many radiant orbs will turn into blackened coals and shatter on the ground.

“Who is that?”

A question convulsed the cold and Manthara stopped. She dodged behind a thicket and shrank into it. Lowering herself slowly to the ground, she lay still. Her hump stuck out like a rock within her clothes, black as night.

“Who is that?” There was more agitation in the voice now. It came closer. Shatrughnan. In the forest, in the dark, in another path, all by himself, Shatrughnan? He walked, naked sword in hand. His footsteps faltered. He stumbled on Manthara’s hump and almost fell.

“Blasted rock!” He cursed. When the glint of his sword went past the rock and disappeared into the woods, Manthara got up cautiously. Shatrughnan was the last candidate for the throne. Is he conspiring too? Would the seat of power be undermined again?

Manthara had moved forward four feet or so when she sensed human presence on the steps of the lotus pond. By their profiles, she could make out that the one seated in the centre was Vasishthan. Why was no one in their beds in Ayodhya tonight? What was the new conspiracy? What strings were being pulled?

Anyway, what was she to gain from learning the secret moves and inner-drama of Ayodhya? The task that Aswapathy had set for her, she had fulfilled well. She had used her own wits, without his instructions. She had successfully pilfered the news of the coronation though it was guarded closely, and ten thousand spies had been put on the alert. The message, written in code language, was sent to Aswapathy through traders from Kekaya.

Raman is going to be crowned. Aswapathy will not be invited. Janakan, who rummages for morality and justice in everything, will not be invited either. Dasarathan will throw the promise of the bride-price to the winds. Be sure to arrive in Ayodhya, incognito, if necessary. Let the people of Ayodhya know that the coronation is a betrayal. It should be stopped. Get Janakan to come as well. Aswapathy can use his dharmic scruple as an effective counter. If lost now, Ayodhya will be lost forever.

Manthara had planned everything shrewdly. But the traders were turned back at the borders. Not even a fly was to leave Ayodhya. The border-gates were sealed. And this meant that Manthara had to break Dasarathan’s conspiracy directly, all by herself. A one-woman army. The army of the hunchback. She stepped into the arena with a smile.

When they came out of the Hall of Deliberation with smug faces, pleased with the shrewd moves planned, Dasarathan and Vasishthan saw Manthara’s contorted grin and blanched.

She is singing the ballads of Raghu to little children.

Her voice is clear.

Diction, perfect.

Narration, marvellous.

Later, during the preparations for the coronation ceremony, she moved briskly among those who were sweating away at work, singing of Dilipan’s and Sudakshina’s sacrifices. But only when her eyes locked with Vasishthan’s, a smile dripping with sarcasm spreads from her face to her hump. And from the hump, it reached Dasarathan’s chest.

When she announced to him that Kaikeyi was unwell and that she had entered the House of Wrath and flung herself upon the floor, rolling on the bare ground, hair loosened and garments torn, Manthara read from Dasarathan’s face the shock of knowledge that what had been expected had indeed come to pass. She suppressed a savage laugh at the court-jester’s declaration that the king languished from his immense love for the Daughter of the Kekaya.

But when Raman came out with a smile as cool as moonlight, she was overcome with limitless hatred and contempt for Kaikeyi, for Dasarathan, for Aswapathy, for kingly powers of all sorts. When the boy caressed her hump gently as he always did and walked past, she loathed her insect-like existence as well! How many counterfeit roles they had to play, lowly folk like her, to ensure three square meals a day! The reddening pustules of power-hunger that sprouted on Kaikeyi’s face as she took in the hints, the sick pallor on Dasarathan’s sagging old face when he knew that the game was up, the obscene greed on Aswapathy’s face as he savoured the prospect of expanding the borders of Kekaya with Bharathan on the throne of Ayodhya. She loathed it all. Relentless vengefulness filled her.

Must escape. Must be over the border before dawn breaks. She measured every foot, not even a dry leaf crackling beneath. Won’t let them catch me. Should submit to nothing, aim for nothing less than escape. She inched forward, keeping to the shade of the leaves, tightening her hold on the dagger.

Manthara reached the foot of the massive peepul tree at the end of the secret path sooner than she had expected. Namaskaram! On the far side of the tree, the ramparts of the fort pierced the sky, rising up like mountains. Calculating by sight and mentally marking the spot where Valaakan would be waiting if he was not a traitor, Manthara moved a foot forward.

In the dark, someone sobbed! Like a hunting dog, Manthara sharpened her ears. Ghouls and ghosts did not scare her. But—a human being! Raising her dagger, Manthara looked around. To her utter shock, she saw Kaikeyi standing beneath the peepul tree, holding on to its roots and weeping.

“I am coming with you to Kekaya.” Kaikeyi said. Manthara felt a rush of intense hatred. Was the last chance of escape fading? How did this princess slink out, dodging the eyes of the guards and spies who guarded her bedroom and the palace grounds?

“Why are you silent? I am coming with you?”

“Where to? To your ‘loving’ father Aswapathy? Do you think he will welcome you with a hundred open arms, you who have lost Ayodhya? Who needs you anymore?”

“Take me to my mother.” Kaikeyi wailed aloud.

Manthara’s face hardened. Her words smouldered red-hot. Raising both her arms like an evil prophetess, Manthara said: Saketam was always your prison. Now it is your grave. Never, never will you escape this place.

Kaikeyi shuddered. She cried aloud. Pain, irritation, and the feeling that she might not escape loosened Manthara’s tongue.

“I will leave. I will get out of here. Your father has promised my hunchbacked son a job in the palace. I will be rewarded with as much land as I choose. I will take that. And then…”

Manthara lost control. Madness surged in her. Grinding her teeth, she said, "And then for a while we will live like human beings. Not like worms. Like human beings."

Kaikeyi was frightened. Seeing in the eyes of the old servant standing before her with dagger raised, the very demoness who was sealing her fate, she had to fall back. Manthara did not stop.

“I am not loyal to you, or Aswapathy, or Raman, or Dasarathan. My loyalty is only to my reward.”

“You demon!” Kaikeyi raised her hand to strike Manthara. She slipped away expertly.

“A demon now, a goddess, earlier! Hear, O Daughter of the Kekaya, royal thrones are consecrated with the blood of innocent people. Only murderous howls will arise from them. Who else knows it better than I? May Dasarathan’s ghost save you in this horrid night, in this terrifying jungle, in these shadows in which beasts lie in wait for prey!”

A moment later, Manthara disappeared into the dark. Like the ghoul escaping, she swung away on a jungle-vine.

“Take me with you!”

Kaikeyi’s pleading cries were crushed beneath the creaking wheels of a single-ox cart.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

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