It would be a short walk. One just had to step out the door, walk past the busy sounds of prayer, and find oneself in full presence of the divine, so Mr. Gopal Rajan told himself that he’d take a detour. He wanted to enjoy the early morning breeze rustling the peepal trees as he crossed the neighborhood over to the Santhome Cathedral, from where he would walk briskly along the sea, all the way to the Adyar Estuary, and back.
Before he set out, his wife told him that he was a good man with a good heart. She said that, although she knew that when he returned, she would smell not piety upon his person but sea and salt, and the sachet of sacred ash he’d offer her would be from a vendor and not from the temple. But nevertheless, she told herself that she would ask him, upon his return, like she always did, “Did the priest do the ritual in Latha’s name?”, to which he’d reply yes. They both would then look towards the dark corridor at the back of the house, to an old room where one probably stored dusty furniture or defunct appliances that one didn’t have the heart to throw away. She would sigh and say that someday she would join him on his walk, but for now someone had to be home at all times, for Latha’s sake.
There’d been a storm the night before, and the sea was a study in contrasts. The breakers were stirring, while the Bay of Bengal, extending to a far horizon, was a sheet of glass. The fisherfolk were up and about later than usual. Mr. Rajan watched the strong, dark men arranging nets, dragging their catamarans, muscles straining with effort, pulling wet ropes and hauling heavy sails as they prepared themselves to go out onto the watery expanse. Mr. Rajan found himself wondering why Rama summoned monkeys to cross to Lanka when he could have done just as well with these fisher-people who looked like they could swim the Palk Strait with Rama’s entire army on their backs.
When the men and their boats had gone, he walked some more and thought of how wonderful it would be to walk in the Theosophical gardens that ran along the banks of the estuary, to see how the mangroves, short and hardy like the fisherfolk, had withstood the storm of the night before. In his youth, he’d swum across the narrow bay where the Adyar river met the sea. In more recent years, a narrow sandbar had formed, bridging this stretch at low-tide. But he had little hope. After a storm such as this, it was likely the tide was high, the breakers restless, and he had little chance of wading or swimming across. He thought of his wife at home, and Latha, and wondered what would happen to them should he be pulled out on a rip tide and forever lost to the sea, or flushed into the river by the waves and drowned in the sluggish waters, heavy with sewage, of the Adyar river.
His plan was to walk to the end of the beach, look across the bay at the mangroves growing on the other side, at the continuation of the sands beckoning to him like in a dream, then turn back. But to his surprise he saw a strip of the sandbar, a soon-to-disappear island, water lapping at it from all sides. And there was something on it. Someone had been there that very morning, earlier than him, for there, deposited in a heap was something bright and colorful, not trash but a prized possession, perhaps a ladies’ bag or a shawl that had been forgotten there by its owner. Mr. Rajan was feeling brave. He loved the world then and wanted to rescue this left item from the mercy of the waves, and return the object to the rightful person.
The sea was deeper than he expected. Before he knew it, the water was up to his thighs, and although he hitched the cuff of his trousers as high as was decently possible, he felt the garment become heavy as he waded across, and he worried about a sudden shelf appearing on the seafloor. He traveled inch by inch to the sandbar, growing steadily more ashamed at the thought of the hardy fishermen who were by then probably a mile away from solid ground, bracing themselves against the elements, while he couldn’t even keep his fear of danger at bay when there was a mere 20 feet of thigh-deep water to traverse.
He was so focused on the crossing, and on his fear, that he failed to look up at the object that had beckoned him over in the first place. When he finally planted his feet on the sand above water, he saw staring up at him a young girl crouching on the sand, her elbows on her knees. She was dressed in cheap bright colors, which was why he’d mistaken her for an item of clothing, and she had a smirk on her face as if she’d read his humiliation, his self-hatred at the cowardly way in which he’d crossed the short strip of shallow sea.
But by then, all sense of self had fled Mr. Rajan, who exclaimed loudly at the sight. What was a child doing there, all alone, with the waves threatening to engulf her any minute? Had her mother tragically drowned? Had God himself pulled this girl from the sea and deposited her here at an opportune moment to be found by him? He didn’t know how old she was, for that skill at guessing children’s ages was not available to him, now that his own child was grown and he was without any grandchildren to speak of. He fell to his knees, no longer worried about his wet trouser cuffs or his wife waiting at home or Latha behind the padlocked door or even of the sea carrying him away should he remain on the fast-disappearing sandbar a moment too long. He scooped the girl into his arms and, somewhere in his subconscious, registered that her body was painfully thin and weighed nothing more than a shred of thin cotton fabric flapping in the wind. As unhesitating as he’d been gingerly, he hurried back to the Foreshore Estate beach and to the fishermen’s village to return the child to its family.
All these years of beach-walking, he’d barely glanced at the settlement, keeping his face turned towards the sea, but now he noticed a row of huts punctuated by some modest dwellings and, rising behind the beach promenade which was lined with rubbish heaps and seafood stalls, towers of shabbily-built community housing, a vertical slum. There were no trees, the only green in sight being a small church painted the color of pistachio ice cream. Some of the boats were already back, owing to the choppy seas, and the women folk were mending nets, sharpening knives, preparing the catch to be sold at the market. At first no one took notice of this Brahmin running towards them, carrying a small, bright object and flailing wildly, although it was rare that men like Mr. Gopal Rajan ventured into their midst. But once they recognized him as the man who walked past their village every morning and saw the bundle in his arms for it was, they shook their heads.
None of them had laid their eyes on this girl before. The child didn’t understand Tamil, which meant she was not one of theirs. Maybe another colony would know, someone said, gesturing north, then south. The girl could be from anywhere. She could be anyone, the product of an illicit relationship, a child placed here by the beggar mafia, a burden that a poor, migrant family had cast away, a victim of sex trafficking, a runaway from abuse. There were so many reasons why a girl child would be abandoned in this country, someone said.
Mr. Rajan looked around him at the squalor, the discarded fish scales, bloody entrails, and little sea creatures writhing on fishing nets. The admiration he’d had for the hardiness of the fishermen turned not to pity, for he wasn’t so outside caste society to feel anything so alien as pity. But what he saw was the evidence of a hard life, a life different from his own. It revolted him, but then again, hadn’t Gandhi himself marched to the sea and sifted evaporated salt with his bare hands?
He imagined the fisherfolk shaking their heads, unwavering in their belief that he would exercise his birthright, passed down by ancient law and still operational in the minds of many. Wouldn’t the girl would be better off with him than she would be at any orphanage? So many girls, unwanted. Wouldn’t God punish him for sending another one to the same fate? He would continue looking for her family, but the chance to bestow upon her his home, his family, his caste even, why, that would beat a lifetime of visits to the temple. So taken he was by his plan that he didn’t consider what bringing this child into his household would mean for him and his wife, that there would be two helpless creatures in need of care. Latha was far from his worries when he, with joy in his heart and lightness in his step, walked home, the child beside him, her hand in his, ready to present to his wife not offerings from the temple this time, but their new ward, their new everything in the world.
Even Mrs. Rajan couldn’t guess the age of the girl. She was small as a whisper and seemed to have no language to call her own, so they put her down to two, maybe three years old. Yet her large, knowing eyes were the eyes of an adult, the way they quietly observed the couple as they went about their day, how they bore into Mr. Rajan as he sat and read his paper, or how they followed Mrs. Rajan as she was fixing to go for her morning bath. But it didn’t seem to matter. They’d made up their minds that they would care for her for however long they were allowed to, to not have her want for anything in the world.
But they kept some distance, if not between themselves and the girl, then between themselves and the idea that she was all theirs. Mrs. Rajan told the maid servant that it was a cousin’s granddaughter visiting for some weeks, and the old woman, who seemed to have little interest in anything beyond relieving the pain in her knees and her monthly salary, took little notice of the child. They didn’t allow the girl to leave the house even for a second. They told her it was to protect her from the sun, but actually they were fearful that neighbors might enquire about her and that the authorities would be notified. So the child spent all day indoors, where she was plied with toys and games and television—all kinds of distractions to ensure that she wouldn’t feel the need to go looking for pastime elsewhere.
The truth was that there wasn’t much the Rajans had to do to keep the child’s presence a secret, so used they were to this sort of thing. But they told themselves that they were not trying to hide her like one would a hostage, held under lock and key, a silent victim in a corner of the house. After all, Mr. Rajan still took his beach walk every morning looking for answers. He nodded to the fisherfolk as he passed by, in the understanding that they had been inadvertently complicit in his decision to adopt, albeit informally, the child. He dropped in at the police station and checked thoroughly the missing persons report, not only for Mylapore but for the whole of Chennai. Every morning, after he’d come home, his wife would ask him, “Did you find out anything about the child?”, and he’d reply, “No, not today.”
The girl passively accepted all that was happening to her. She was quiet and tiptoed about the house, trying to make her presence unnoticed. She didn’t utter a word, as if afraid to let the sound of her voice carry in the air. She wouldn’t even say her name when they pressed her to, so they reluctantly continued calling her “child”, superstitious as they were to not give her a name of their own choosing lest one day her real parents came looking for her and they’d have to give her up. They’d wait to name her, they agreed, till she was fully and forever theirs.
In a way, they were glad for the child’s quietness, for that meant they could keep her separate from Latha. Mrs. Rajan still entered the corridor that was kept in the dark, she still opened the Godrej lock barring the steel door and let herself in to clean or air or change the bedding, but all concern for Latha, all the fretting done all those years, faded. It was true that since the arrival of the girl, life within the four walls of their home had taken on a new meaning for them. Every morning, Mrs. Rajan bathed her in sandalwood and rose water and dressed her in fresh, sweet-smelling clothes. They worried about her thinness, so they encouraged her to drink cups of warm milk sweetened with honey and fed her almond cakes and creamed rice. They made a bed for her in their own room should she be visited by night terrors in the middle of her sleep and need a comforting touch. They wanted to right whatever wrong had been done to her in the past and hoped to erase any unpleasant memory.
By and by, the child started to change. Her eyes lost the haunted look, and when she started gaining fat around her middle, on her thighs, on the apples of her cheeks, she started resembling a chubby toddler. She also started making sounds in a language of her own. There were giggles and chortles, and soon her feet could be heard pitter-pattering around the house. Mr. and Mrs. Rajan delighted in the change, joyful to have a baby they could pull into their arms and rain their kisses upon. They were given a chance again to love a creature and mold it to their own liking, in their own image, and this time they weren’t going to let anything go wrong.
As days passed, Mr. Rajan stopped roving the beach listening for news of a missing child. He felt that if he stopped looking for the child’s parents, they would stop looking for her. Mrs. Rajan wanted to name her and had some names picked out, and once they felt comfortable enough that she wasn’t going away anywhere, he resolved to bring her out of the house, to introduce her to neighbors as a child they’d adopted, perhaps from a faraway place like Bihar or Jharkhand. Perhaps they could even make some legal documents appear, but it would probably have to be through paying some fat bureaucrat a hefty bribe so as to bury the fact that he’d actually abducted her (it was debatable whether Mr. Rajan thought of himself as a kidnapper, but he was aware that what he had done was illegal, even if his own sense of moral law had ordained him to do so). And once that was done, the girl could start school, make friends, come home with stories of how her day was as she sat with them and ate her dinner. While the road to that life lived in the open felt long, they were confident that they could achieve that with focused effort, and just from the fact that they wanted it so much.
Meanwhile the child was growing up. She became curious, feisty, like children who get a lot of care and love often are, and she started exploring the house with some gusto. She got into Mr. Rajan’s drawers and scattered paper clips all over the floor, opened Mrs. Rajan’s closet and pulled out all the saris, let herself into the bathroom and splashed water everywhere so that all the towels were found sopping wet. Her antics only brought smiles to Mr. and Mrs. Rajan’s faces, slightly teary-eyed smiles, and they told themselves to enjoy this phase, that it wouldn’t last for long.
But something worried them about the child’s adventurous mind, her roving feet. It was the fear that one day she would discover the dark corner of the house. Although Mrs. Rajan kept the steel door under lock and key, she worried that the child might slip into the room during unguarded minutes. Mr. Rajan once caught her wandering alone in the corridor that they deliberately kept unlit, to ward off any spying eyes. He gave a start to hear a sound behind him, thinking the worst, but it was only the girl, feeling her way by touching the walls around her and inching towards the locked door. He swooped quickly towards the child, picked her up in his arms and nearly gave her a smack to warn her of the danger. He shuddered to think what would happen to their precious little girl.
Children being what they are, the girl’s curiosity only increased with this admonishment. Mrs. Rajan caught her the following week back in that corridor. This time, the girl had made it to the door and was fingering the latch. She lifted the heavy brass Godrej padlock and let it fall back onto the door, and Mrs. Rajan jumped from the unearthly clang of metal upon metal, and felt her soul escaping her body. She fell upon the girl, placed her onto her hip and ran into the main, well-lit part of the house, happy that there had been no reaction to the sound, yet her pulse racing like the devil itself had been chasing after her.
The child, clever to the reactions of these two people, caught on to the game. She ventured into the dark part of the house whenever she had the chance, for in her mind, the richest of sweets, the prettiest of silks, the most coveted toys were all stashed in there. She learned that Latha was in possession of these precious things and felt mounting resentment to the person who lived behind that door and was given the most delectable things in life. Perhaps Latha got laddoos and halwa for every meal whereas she was only allowed boring things like rice and vegetables and lentils, and Latha was presented with a new sequined silk dress every day while she wore simple cotton. Why, couldn’t she start calling herself Latha? That ought to make the people understand that she deserved no less than Latha, that they were equal and should be treated the same, fair’s fair.
Imagine Mr. and Mrs. Rajan’s distress when the girl started referring to herself as Latha! They wondered how she got that name into her head and panicked, thinking that at some unsupervised moment, the two girls might somehow have communicated through the closed door. They wondered what had been said. They blamed themselves for not having named her much sooner, and started calling her Shanti, peace, for that’s what they wished for her. But the little girl’s mind was set. She refused to take to this unasked-for name, for now she was Latha. “Latha wants ice cream”, she said, leaving her lunch untouched on her plate and fixing her eyes upon the two adults. “Latha wants the party dress,” she insisted when Mrs. Rajan tried to put a cotton frock over her head. “Latha wants to watch more TV,” was her response when they tried to coax her to go to bed. How horrifying they found this appellation! Did that mean that nothing in their life had changed? To avoid feelings of discomfort, they let her have whatever she wanted, and that reinforced the girl’s conviction that whoever was named Latha got everything good in life, whereas the unnamed were cheated out of what was their due.
No one knew how it happened. Perhaps it was a moment of forgetfulness, a misplaced key, a loose screw in the latch. Mr. Rajan was out that day buying a new toy for the child Latha, for by now the girl’s chosen name had more or less stuck, and a box of the buttery almond squares she liked so much. Mrs. Rajan was alone at home, the servant having left after her chores, and she hummed to herself as she prepared the morning meal. Latha, she knew, was splayed out on the living room floor practicing her ABC’s that Mrs. Rajan had started teaching her. She felt that since Latha had started getting what she wanted whenever she asked for it, the girl’s fascination with the dark corner of the house had waned. Mrs. Rajan was starting to relax and let the child be on her own for short but regular times during the day to instill a sense of confidence and self-worth, all of which she felt would serve her well when she started school.
She kept telling herself that it was only a matter of time before they could venture out with Latha, take her to the cinemas, sit with her at a restaurant and order tomato soup with fresh cream for her, even bring her to all the famous music recitals and tell their friends of the precious gift God had bestowed upon them in their middle age. But until then, the girl, like her predecessor, had to remain indoors, just as they themselves were forced to.
Mrs. Rajan, thinking of the two Lathas, suddenly noticed that no sound was coming from the living room. A slow sickness came upon her and she raced through the house, entering the corridor that looked like a long, musty canal in the dead of the night. The worst had come to pass. She saw that the steel bars were opened, the door ajar. A slim sliver of pale light shone forth, illuminating the shadows around her. She didn’t know whether to run and barge into the room or to creep forward noiselessly, both seemed impossible in this situation, but she somehow made it across to the other side, and, for a split second, an unexplained second, the curiosity of a bystander overwhelmed her human concern for the safety of the child. She peered in, unnoticed, into the room, and the terror of what she saw would stay with her for the rest of her life.
When Mr. Rajan came home later that morning, he saw the child Latha on the floor, still with her pencils and papers. She sat tracing out the outlines of the alphabets and he felt proud of her abilities. There was a sense of delight in his heart as he bent down in front of her, about to share the presents he’d brought home, when he saw the ashen face of his wife confront him from across the room. Just looking at her, he saw what she’d seen, he knew what had happened, and an unspoken exchange coursed between them, and he knew what he had to do.
The beach in the mid-day sun is not a place where anyone wants to be. Mr. Rajan, though, kept walking, determined to make it past the fishing village, to the end of the strand where land met the waters of the estuary. None of the fisherfolk were in sight, and he imagined that the men at this late hour had come back with their wares, that the women had sold whatever they would sell for that morning and then had closed up shop. He dragged the girl along, and she ran behind him breathless and confused as to why she was pulled out of the cool, comfortable home to go wandering about in the heat under a cloudless sky. If she recognized anything about the place, she gave no clue of it, and simply said, “Where are we going, Appa? Why are we here?” That was the first time she’d called him father, and Mr. Rajan’s heart broke. He wanted more than anything to wrap her in his arms and tell her that it would all be alright.
When they reached the edge of the beach, he picked the girl up and waded with her across to the sandbar. The water barely tickled his ankles and he felt they had some time to figure things out before the tide rolled in. He set the girl down where he’d found her all those months ago and wondered with astonishment how she seemed to have no recollection of the spot, no memories whatsoever of anything except of the life she’d been leading with him and his wife, and of the dark corner of their home where the other Latha was kept. How was that possible, even in such a young child, that she would not remember?
He got down on his knees and held her by the shoulders, marveling at how much they had fleshed out since he’d felt them, bird-like, under his hands, at this very place. He looked into her eyes and said, “Latha, tell me. Where do you come from? Is your home that way?” He pointed north-west, to the fishermen’s colony, and she nodded and pointed in the same direction. He breathed a sigh of relief. So, she was one of them after all. He’d solved the mystery. But he felt he had to try something else. “Is your home that way?” he asked again, pointing, this time, south, towards Besant Nagar beach, and Latha nodded again and pointed there along with him. “Is it there?” he asked, pointing to the mangroves, and he got the same reaction. “Is it there?” he pointed back to where they’d come from. “Is your home there?” and she nodded. “Yes.” Finally, he pointed towards the wide waters of the Bay of Bengal. “Is that your home?” and she laughed, said yes, and held her hands out to the sea.
She soon grew tired of the game, as children tend to do. She shrugged from his grasp, sat on her haunches and started digging in the sand, taking great wet handfuls and piling mounds upon mounds to make some towering structure—a wasted effort, he thought looking at her. It would soon dissolve when the waters moved in. A great weariness coursed through him just then and he straightened. He knew that they’d have to leave this place soon, leave before everything from all corners of the world came crashing at their feet.
Vidya Ravi is a writer. Her work has appeared in Slow Trains, in the Bangalore Review, and, most recently, in the Spring 2020 issue of Out of Print magazine. She spoke at an event organized by the Bangalore International Centre on writing sexuality in contemporary India, and her story in Out of Print will appear as part of a short story anthology later this year. She has a doctorate in English literature from Cambridge and worked in academia for several years; however, she is currently training to teach high school English. Vidya is from Chennai, India, but is based in Bern, Switzerland.