‘Scent of a Bird’: A Malayalam story in translation

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Translated from Malayalam by A.J. Thomas.

After her arrival in Calcutta, she saw an advertisement in the paper. “Wanted: An intelligent young woman to be in-charge of our wholesale business. Must possess working knowledge of new designs and colour schemes of fabrics. Hand-written applications only.

The office building was on a busy street. At eleven o’clock she reached the building dressed in a pale yellow silk sari, carrying a white handbag. The building had seven storeys, more than two hundred rooms, an equal number of balconies and four lifts. She saw crowds of fat merchants and office workers but not a single woman. Her courage ebbed. She began to wonder if she had made the right decision disregarding her husband’s advice and applying for the job. She spotted a peon in front of the lift and asked him, “… Textile Industries?”

“I think it is on the first floor,” he said.

She felt the eyes of all the men on her face. Chhe, I needn’t have come. All these perspiring males? Even if I were to get a thousand rupees as salary, I would not work here…. But she couldn’t turn back.

Struggling not to touch others’ bodies, she pushed herself to one corner of the lift.

She got off at the first floor and looked at the big doors leading to different rooms with name plates outside.

“Export, Import.”

“Wine Business.”

She passed by many doors, but no sign of “Textile Business”. Her palms were clammy with perspiration. She asked someone who emerged from one of the rooms: “The… textile company?”

His reddened, narrow eyes swept over her and said: “I don’t know. But if you come along with me, I will ask the peon and tell you about the office you are looking for.”

He was short and middle-aged with dirt under his fingernails. Perhaps having noticed that, she didn’t feel like going along with him. She said, “Thanks, I will make enquiries myself.”

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She walked away quickly towards the other side of the lobby. She saw big doors there too. “Dying”—a nameplate read. She laughed at the typo. Anyhow, she pushed the door open. The big room was empty except for a couple of chairs and a glass-topped table. She called out, “Is anybody here?”

A fan was whirring overhead as the curtains rustled lightly. Gathering courage, she sat down. She felt she couldn’t move any further without catching her breath. What kind of an office is this, she wondered. Where have the workers gone, leaving the door open, and the fan on?

Since these people were connected with dyeing fabric, they would certainly know where the textile department was. She opened her handbag, took out a small mirror, and examined her face. She decided she had passed the requisite descriptions in the ad. Shall I ask for eight hundred rupees as salary? They would be lucky to get a candidate like me, she thought. She was well-educated, widely travelled and of some social standing.

She dozed off, and was startled when a bottle was popped open. Chhe, what a fool I am, falling asleep in a strange place! A tall, young man, sitting opposite her, was pouring whisky into a glass of soda. His white bush shirt was made of terylene. Thick hair grew on the backs of his fingers. Watching those powerful fingers, she panicked. Why did I enter this devil’s residence?

He raised his head. A real horse face. “Did you sleep comfortably?”

Without waiting for her reply, he drank the whisky in a single draught.

“Are you thirsty?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you know where the textile department is? I thought you people would know. Aren’t you the ones who deal in fabric dyes,” she smiled.

He didn’t smile. He poured himself another drink. His face seemed to say, “There’s so much time for conversation and all that.”

“So, you don’t know?” she asked. She was growing impatient and wanted to get out of this place and go home.

His chiselled lips stretched in a grotesque smile.

“What’s the hurry?” he asked. “It’s only 11.45.”

She walked towards the door.

“I thought you knew where that office is,” she said. “You are also connected to the textile business.”

“What connection. We are not into dyeing fabrics. Didn’t you read the signboard? It’s Dying.”


“It means what is. Haven’t you heard about dying? We are the ones who arrange comfortable deaths.”

Leaning back, he blinked and smiled. Her legs quivered. Her palms were sweaty, and her eyes brimmed.

She ran towards the door and tried to open it.

“Please open the door!” she said, “I have to go home. My children are waiting for me.”

She hoped that her plea would somehow move this man. But he continued to sip his whisky. He looked at her and laughed grotesquely.

She pounded the door. “Ayyo! Are you trapping me?” she said aloud. “What crime have I committed?”

Her sobbing stopped a few minutes later as she collapsed.

She could hear the man saying something in a soft, kind voice. She could only make sense of a few words:

“Long ago, in winter, a bird was trapped in my bedroom. It was tawny, with a mix of yellow. The same colour as your sari. It tried to break the window glass with its beak. It flapped its wings on the glass trying to break it! And finally? It dropped to the ground. I stamped on it and crushed it under my shoe.”

Then, after a prolonged silence, he asked: “Do you know what the scent of death is?”

She looked at him slowly opening her eyes but couldn’t move her tongue.

“Who else but she would know the various scents of death? The odour of oozing sores, the sweet fragrance of orchards, the heady scent of sandalwood…”

It was not that she did not have an answer for him. Death has more than one scent. Who else but she would know the various scents of death? The odour of oozing sores, the sweet fragrance of orchards, the heady scent of sandalwood… In a dark, narrow room, lying on a mattress spread on the bare floor, her Amma had said in a voice that held no trace of dignity, “I am not well, my dear…. Not that it’s painful…yet, am not well.”

In the sores on Amma’s feet, white, fat maggots squirmed. Yet, Amma had said, “It’s not painful….”

Then her father. When her diabetic father suffered a stroke, she felt as if a breeze from the orchards had arrived in his room. Thus, the scent which spread in that room was sweet…. That, too, was death….

She felt like saying all this to him. But the power of her tongue had failed.

“You don’t know, do you? Let me tell you. Death has a scent of bird feathers. You will soon experience it. Do you want it now? What is your favourite time? At a moment when this world lies naked without shame beneath the sun looking down from overhead? Or at dusk? What kind of a woman are you? Courageous? Cowardly?”

He stood up and walked towards her.

“Please let me go. I had not planned to come here.”

“You are lying. So many times, you have planned to come here. So many times, you have yearned for a very comforting death! Aren’t you like a river rushing to the sea? Tell me! Don’t you wish to experience that unending caress?”

“Who are you?”

She got up. She thought his fingers had a macabre attraction.

“Haven’t you seen me?”


“I have come near you many times. Once, when you were eleven years old, suffering from jaundice, unable to even raise your head. At that time, one day, when your mother opened the window, you said, ‘Amma! I see yellow flowers. I see yellow oleander leaves. Yellow everywhere….’ Do you remember that?”

She nodded.

“I was standing among those yellow flowers which only you could see, to hold your hand and to take you to the place you were supposed to reach….. But at that time you knew nothing about my love. You did not know that I am your guide—everyone’s, for that matter….”

“Love? Is this love?”

“Yes. Only I can show you the perfection of love. You will offer me as oblation everything you have, one after another…. Your red lips, your dancing eyes… all of your beautiful body. You will surrender each and every follicle of your hair. You will own nothing but will become everything: you will be in the roar of the sea; in the ancient trees on which new buds shoot up after winter. When seeds in labour sob underneath you, your weeping will also rise along with those sobs. You will turn into wind; you will turn into raindrops. You will become grains of mud. You will become the beauty of this world….”

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She rose and stood steady. Feeling no fatigue at all, she said with a newfound courage: “All this may be correct. But you have got the wrong person. It’s not yet time for my death. I am twenty-seven and a married woman. I am a mother. My time has not yet come. I came here in search of a job. It will be around twelve-thirty or so now. Let me return home.”

The man didn’t utter a word. He opened the door and gave her permission to leave. She hurriedly walked out of the door in search of a lift. She felt that her footsteps were reverberating all over the lobby.

She stopped when she reached the lift. The peon who operated it was not there. Yet she got into the lift, closed the door, and pressed the button. It suddenly shot up, with a crashing sound. She felt that she was in the sky and that thunder was rolling. That’s when she saw the board in the lift.

“This lift has broken down. Danger!”

Suddenly, it was dark everywhere. A resounding, roaring darkness she could never leave.

Selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Aleph Book Company

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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