Short Story

Of the Three, Which One?

Print edition : August 19, 2016

“Amma, Amma, Vedu was peeling the banana stem and now she’s cut her hand,” said a boy, running towards the kitchen.

“What is this, can’t keep quiet even for a minute. Why did you allow her to pick up the kitchen-blade? Aren’t you old enough to know that?” said the mother. Vedu herself came running in, crying loudly.

Kamalambal picked up the child. “Show me, where did you hurt yourself? Such a fuss for such a small thing! Just a little scratch, that’s all.” She picked up a bit of paper, wiped the blood off Vedu’s left thumb and said, “Don’t cry, here is some sugar.” She then looked at her son and said, “And you, Seema, you look after the baby carefully. I have some work to do.”

Kamalambal was about twenty-four. Seema and Vedu were her children; Seema was seven years old, and Vedu, not yet three. Her husband Sundaramayar was a clerk in the railways. He had got transferred to Kumbakonam four months ago; ever since, the family of four were living there by themselves. Kamalambal had never lived alone; either her mother-in-law or her aunt was always around. So Kamalambal found it very difficult to manage both the housework and the children all by herself.

That night Vedu groaned and moaned and didn’t sleep at all. By the morning her finger had swollen up and reddened, and she kept crying in pain. Before leaving for office Sundaramayar said, “Just grind and boil some turmeric and ripe chilli and smear it on the finger, it will be all right.” Concerned that Kamalambal might find it difficult to cope with the child, he returned home at two in the afternoon. Vedu had high fever. The entire palm had swollen. The child was crying non-stop in pain.

“Just a scratch. It didn’t even bleed much. Why should it swell up like this? I’m scared. Nowadays they say that the poison enters even the blood. Shall we take her to a doctor? What do you think?” asked Kamalambal.

“Okay, there’s a Dr Menon who has come newly to the next street. Studied abroad it seems. Capable man I believe. I’ll go and bring him,” said Sundaramayar and left.

Dr Menon came. He was only twenty-eight. He was an FRCS from England. So he didn’t believe too much in the power of medicine. He believed that chopping off troublesome organs was the answer. His opinion: the kitchen-blade may have been rusty; since they hadn’t put any “poison stopper” (antiseptic) immediately, the poison had spread to the entire hand. It would be better to chop off the hand at the wrist. Otherwise her life itself might be in danger. Saying that he would bring a few medicines in an hour, he left. Sundaramayar too left for the “shop” to buy a few other medicines the doctor had prescribed.

Poor thing. Kamalambal didn’t know what to do. If the child’s life itself was in danger, it would be better to chop off the hand, she thought. She stood there dazed.

“Andi pandaram! I pray to you!” sang a mendicant on the street. Seema pulled his mother’s hand to give the mendicant some alms. Tormented by the threat to her child, and hence not knowing what she was really doing, Kamalambal went to the front of the house and related the entire predicament to the mendicant. He gave her some vibhuti and medicinal leaves. Saying, “Just smear the vibhuti on the forehead, crush the leaves and apply on the hand. Everything will disappear like magic. Don’t worry, ammini, Lord of Palani will protect you,” he left, taking the coins Kamalambal gave him. She smeared both the vibhuti and the juice from the crushed leaves on the child and sat restlessly next to her. She hugged the child’s hand to her cheek. She moaned, “Ayyo, the hand is so nice and plump. I wanted to make a bracelet. Now they are saying they are going to chop it off! Ayyo, Goddess Mangalambigai! I can’t turn to anyone but you. I will make a gold bracelet for you. Please save my child!” Copious tears flowed from her eyes and wet the child’s hand. In an hour, Sundaramayar and the doctor returned.

“What is this, ’ma! What are you doing! If your tears fall, won’t it turn more ‘septic’?” said the doctor. He gave some medicine for the night and left saying he would get all the things for the operation in the morning. The next day he brought along with him an anaesthetist and a helper.

“The child slept well. The fever has come down,” said Kamalambal eagerly. Not hearing a word, the doctor got everything ready for the operation. He felt the child’s pulse. With a surprised look, he placed a thermometer. He unwound the bandage. The swelling had come down, and so had the fever; Vedu had recovered almost seventy-five per cent. “What is this miracle! Yesterday it was difficult to tell if the child would be alive; I was sure I would have to cut off the hand; today everything is fine. I’ve never seen a case like this,” exclaimed Dr Menon, FRCS.

“Amma! Mangalambige! My goddess above! Cure her completely and I will perform the milk abhishegam,” said Kamalambal.

Seema, who had been shooed away and forbidden from entering the room, tiptoed inside when no one was looking. He wanted the dapper doctor, dressed in boots and hat, to know that he could read; so he picked up a Tamil magazine and read in a loud, booming voice: “Tears—it is well known that diseases that people suffer from are caused by poisonous creatures not visible to the human eye. One of the things that can suppress these creatures is human tears. A drop is believed to kill millions of creatures. But these creatures have not yet been isolated from tears. Once that is done, it will become one of the most potent things to destroy the poisonous germs.”

“That is it! Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Mr Sundaram,” exclaimed the doctor. “Yesterday, her tears that wet the child’s hands must have killed the poisonous creatures, ‘bacteria’, and cured the hand. Otherwise I’ve never seen a case like this. An American doctor has written about tears as ‘antiseptic’, but I never believed it. Nature is really amazing. I am going to write about this in the magazine Lancet.” He left with his things and the men he had brought.

“Do you think it could have been those mendicant’s medicinal leaves that did it? Perhaps these mendicants with medicinal leaves know something that the doctors don’t. Why shouldn’t that have cured it?” said Sundaramayar.

“Tears it seems! And medicinal leaves! That cured it! If the child’s hand is fine, it is because I prayed to Goddess Mangalambigai and said that I would make a gold bracelet. It is all because of her grace. Go, fetch that goldsmith Chokkalingam in the evening,” replied Kamalambal, tears of joy flowing down.

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy), an antholoy, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.

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