‘The lies my mother told me’ by Ashita: A Malayalam short story in translation

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Ashita (1956-2019) is the author of this short story, first published in Malayalam as “Amma ennodu paranja nunakal” in “Mathrubhumi” in April 1996. Ashita’s short stories were known for their sensitive portrayal of life. She also wrote haikus and stories for children. She is the recipient of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, the Edasseri Award, the Padmarajan Award and the Lalithambika Antharjanam Smaraka Sahitya Award.

The story “The Lies My Mother Told Me” features in “Katha Prize Stories Volume 7” Edited by Geeta Dharmarajan and Meenakshi Sharma (Katha, 1998)

Indira Chandrasekhar, the translator of this story, is Publisher and Managing Editor, Tulika Books, and a founding partner of the Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives (IPDA).

MY mother told me more lies than anyone else in this world. The realisation burns through my being with the relentlessness of an unwavering flame.

Amma is reading the Ramayanam, seated in front of a glowing oil lamp in the pooja room. From the doorway where I sit, her face is clearly visible… the grey bhasmakkuri on her forehead, the spectacles that have slid down her nose, the wrinkles in her cheeks, the slight movement of her reading lips. In old age, Amma herself seems to have become one large wrinkle in the folds of memory. Her index finger, the one with the broken nail, moves slowly across the lines of the book. The very first lies I encountered in this world were the dos and don’ts born at the tip of that finger.

Ahmed Ikka of the corner shop had given me lemon-drops on my way back from school once. Amma snatched them from my hand, and flinging them to the ground, scolded me. “Ahmed Ikka indeed! What is he to you? How dare you accept things from all kinds of strangers? Just let Acchan get home!” Ants carried away each one of the lemon-drops as they lay in the courtyard.

The painful awareness that it is lemon-drops like those, ones offered by strangers, that make up the sweetness of life, came to me much later. But it seemed unjust even then that Ahmed Ikka should be called a stranger. And that a man who had neither a sweet word nor look to offer me, a man who terrorised the entire household with his weekly visits, should be my father!

The sight, on coming home from school, of rough hands stroking a bald head showing up above the back of the easy-chair. Loud after-dinner spitting sounds and clearings of the throat. Angry roars directed at the servants. The whistling sound of the punishing cane as it came down on me to the count of wrongdoings accumulated over a week. These constituted Acchan.

The only person with whom Acchan behaved less harshly was Chellamma Akkan, Amma’s close relative. If Amma was the straight fragrant line of a bhasmakkuri, Chellamma Akkan was the heady scent of a whole bunch of jasmine and the magic of laughter. Even before she started to laugh, Chellamma Akkan’s breasts would heave, the single dimple in her cheek would deepen, and her nose ring glitter and sparkle.

I don’t remember Chellamma Akkan ever coming to our house. Yet, I felt her constant presence—in Amma’s curses, in Acchan’s uncharacteristic silences, in the jasmine bud I once found in his shirt pocket. I liked Chellamma Akkan. But sometimes, when the arguments between Amma and Acchan became heated, I hid under the bed or table and prayed reluctantly, that Chellamma Akkan should die. And she did.

Chellamma Akkan committed suicide one day. I consoled myself with the thought that Amma would never again have cause to cry. Getting ready to go to the house-in-mourning, I wore my best frock. Amma handed me a faded, everyday one instead, saying “What will people say?” Unable to reconcile the contradictory thoughts that rose in my mind, I stared at her. Amma’s face was inscrutable, like a bhasmakkuri.

It was the season of falling leaves. As I walked along, kicking carelessly at withered leaves, Amma warned me, in hushed tones, “No laughing and playing once we are there. Don’t forget those people are in mourning. You must sit quietly. No fidgeting.”

“Are you happy that Chellamma Akkan is dead?” I asked her.

Amma faltered. She seemed to be at a loss. Acchan, who was walking well ahead of the two of us, stopped and turned around with an air of impatience mixed with gloom.

As if on cue, Amma picked up the edge of her veshti and blowing her nose noisily, dabbed at make-believe tears. I was amazed. Someone with a deepened dimple seemed to laugh mockingly as Amma went through the charade of wiping her tears.

On our way back, I rushed to catch up with Amma.

And I asked her the question that was bothering me. “Amme, when I grow older can I also tell lies as I please?”

Amma’s face, the bhasmakkuri on her forehead included, set itself in angry lines as though it had caught the faint smell of jasmine. “Good-for-nothing! Why do you have nothing but improper questions on your lips?” she said. “Only wicked children have wicked thoughts. And you can be sure that God will punish you for each one of them.” The light of the setting sun glinted like the remnants of someone’s laughter. I lowered my head in shame.

I now realise that Amma had made me feel ashamed to escape her own guilt. And I had reason to feel guilty. Those were the days when, away from Amma’s watchful eyes, I gained access to certain hidden truths and a whole secret world of my own making.

At the borders of the ungiving world Amma had erected for me with her grey-ash marks, her dos and don’ts, her instructions and calls for obedience, I discovered another world altogether—in the homes of my friends, in Chellamma Akkan’s laughter, in proximity with the workers who laboured in our paddy fields and coconut groves. It was an unreal and unsophisticated world, one steeped in poverty. But certainly a freer world. And a happier one.

I was a confused child, caught in the dilemma of not knowing the difference between a lie and a truth. Yet I knew that I preferred the coloured beauty of lies to the ashen grey of truths. Like water seeking its natural course, I went in search of my secret world whenever I had the opportunity. I savoured the unrivalled joy I discovered in breaking Amma’s rules. In sharing mealtimes with the workers and eating off their enamel plates; in hanging on to Chellamma Akkan’s fingers as I accompanied her to the fields during the busy harvest months; and in memorising the swear words I overheard the labourers shout at each other.

The more I tasted of such forbidden pleasures, the bolder I became. I have a clear memory of one childhood evening, when I sat in front of the very lamp before which my mother sits now and, having said my prayers, uttered the word “whore” ten times over, totally unmindful of God’s wrath.

I also remember lying awake through sleepless nights, biting my nails in dread of the punishment in store from God for a wicked child with wicked thoughts. And when I did manage to fall asleep, I would hear the whistling of a cane through feverish dreams. In my worst nightmares the face of the punishing God was my father’s face.

And then one day, Acchan was carried in from the field, his face twisted and his body completely paralysed on one side. The same day, the punishing God died within me, diminished to a helpless, paralysed lie. Acchan died many years later, just before my wedding, reduced to an insignificant reality, a truth that had no value.

Amma’s gift to me on my wedding was another lie, wrapped in jewel-like radiance. Uncharacteristically, she came into my room the day I was to be married. Like any bride-to-be, I stood there, my heart laden with a sea of expectations and my entire being aflame with nervous emotions.

She looked at me searchingly. The concern in that gaze amazed me. Then, placing her hand on my shoulder, Amma said, “You can’t afford to be a dreamer any more. You’ll be going to a new home soon. Running your own household and looking after its needs is serious business, not child’s play.” She paused, and with some hesitation, added, “There is only one way to a man’s heart, don’t forget.”

I did not forget. My husband was educated as well as sophisticated; a poet and a leisure-time politician too. While he read newspapers four and five times over, either carefully assessing current trends in literature or out of concern for the future of democracy. I followed my mother’s instructions and kept myself busy at the grinding stone, or washing utensils and laundering clothes. Willingly I abandoned my secret world of dreams.

As the years passed by, journeys from the children’s room to my husband’s bedroom, and from there to the kitchen, and back again, defined the limits of my existence—journeys that I made in search of the way to my husband’s heart. But when I entered his bedroom one evening, dressed in the grime and smells of the kitchen, I found that he hankered after fleshier breasts and thighs.

I felt betrayed, as though someone had spat hard upon my integrity. The sea of expectations housed within me—when had it flown away and disappeared? There is only one way to a man’s heart—I finally learned the truth, a truth that my mother had failed to tell me, a truth that I experienced in all the intensity of the lie she had told me.

That is how I too mastered the language of my mother, and that of my grandmother, and of all the women who went before them. The language of silence. And the habit of self-denial, steeped in negations and contradictions, that accompanied the occasional forays into speech.

As I grew older, relatives and neighbours said that I had begun increasingly to resemble Amma. The truth of their observations startled me whenever I unexpectedly found myself in front of a mirror. Small, trivial lies had pieced themselves together, progressively, to turn me into one giant lie.

Lines from the Ramayanam crawl their way into my ears. Something of significance seems to have entered Amma’s reading voice—or is it my imagination? She removes her glasses and closes the book.

The door to the bedroom is thrown open suddenly. My eight-year-old daughter stands bathed in the light inside the room. She is dressed in my silk saree, a doll on her hips. She asks me, laughing, “See, Amme. Don’t I look just like you?”

My heart reels. Amma comes out into the room, smiling with satisfaction, and sits down facing me. Then, carefully assuming an everyday tone of normal curiosity, she asks me the question that has obviously been agitating her for some days now. “So, why didn’t Balu come with you? No sign of a letter from him either. The two of you… Have you…?”

A moment of trapped silence.

Then I reply with ease. “Nothing’s the matter, Amme. We’re happy together. Very happy.”

After all, I too have told more lies to my mother than to anyone else in this world.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Katha

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