Kudiamma had died, the children-eating widow of Thellai had died and I packed my bags immediately after Amma, my mother, called me to give the news. Amma sounded relieved. She never really liked Kudiamma but who in Thellai did anyway? She confessed that she would not have told me about her death if it was not for the after drama I would put up once I would come to know about this tragedy. Amma never understood why I liked Kudiamma so much. A window of a British man with no family to look after by, living in a murky house at the end of the street by the banyan tree, repelled everyone but me. Amma once told me that Kudiamma was actually a witch and that she ate children. Although no one exactly remembers how she came to be known so but Appa, my father, said it should be credited to Morganpillai, the merchant of sugar, whose youngest son, Dheevan, went missing years ago and was last seen to be playing near Kudiamma’s house. With the police not being able to trace him and the grief devastating Morgan’s family, no one suspected Kudiamma until one day Shoba, Morgan’s maid, saw a pair of slippers that were similar to Dheevan’s in Kudiamma’s patio. The case was reopened and a series of enquiries were done but in vain. Nobody knew how the slippers ended up in her patio but then someone claimed that he had seen Kudiamma perform unusual rituals with a bonfire in her garden and then another joined saying that she only left her house on new moon nights with her hair unbraided like a witch. Stories upon stories were piled up and Kudiamma, who was actually Kodiyana, came to be known as the child-eating witch of Thellai and was tacitly ostracized. Appa, a graduate of English Literature from The Madras University, never believed in those credulous stories but Amma on the other hand always warned me not to even go near the banyan tree by Kudiamma’s place but she does not know that the reason I like Kudiamma so much and was flying from Delhi to her funeral was she. More precisely her little secret of mango jam she revealed to me years ago.
Amma was a champion of jams and her mango jam had earned her the title of “Thellai Mankani-Rani”, the mango queen of Thellai.
“Do you know how to make a perfect bowl of jam, Vendi?” she asked me one afternoon ten years ago.
My eyes were stuck on the pulp that she was scooping out of the boiled mango. A series of items adorned her little jam room on the terrace where she allowed nobody but me, her little Vendi.
“It’s getting the right pulp out of the right mangoes”, she answered seeing me transfixed at the delicious pulp. Her eyes gleamed every time she saw the golden yellow mangoes’ pulp fall into the bowl. It was her pride that was in the process of making, her claim to be “Thellai Mankani-Rani” that was wafting in the room with the fragrance of the sweet mangoes.
“Vendi?” She slapped my hands as I was trying to scoop a bit of the pulp with my fingers to eat.
“But Amma even Sudha aunty uses the same mangoes and she also scoops the pulp like this”, I tried to distract her from getting angry at me.
“Still her jam is not as tasty as yours, why?” I flattered her but it was also the truth. Every year in the summers the Thellai Woman Association arranged for a jam competition to empower woman. It was the brain child of comrade Tutanpai who wanted to uplift himself in the eyes of people after being accused of having an association with a local Naxal gang.
Amma looked at my face and smiled. She stopped scooping the mangoes and leaned towards me.
“There is a little secret behind this, Vendi”, her face beaming with glee. She lowered her pitch further, “a secret that neither Sudha nor any of the members of the Thellai Woman Association know.”
“A secret!” I almost screamed.
“Sshh!” Amma asked me to lower my voice and looked around to see if anyone has heard them.
“A secret?! What is it Amma?” I whispered with my enthusiasm resonating in my voice.
“Okay, I will tell you. After all you are a grownup and you can keep secrets. But you should not tell this to anybody. Not even to your father, alright?” She said.
I raised my little finger and entwined it with hers and showed my other palm to prove that I was not crossing fingers. How childish of me.
“I promise Amma”, I said with my eyes gleaming.
The little secret strengthened our bond and from that day we both almost always entrusted our secrets to each other with our little fingers entwine and the other palm raised.
“Okay, come with me”, she grabbed my hand and took me to the corner of the room. She wiped her hands with a cloth and flung open the doors of a rustic cupboard. Amidst her spices, sweeteners and other jam making items was a veiled something. She pulled the cloth off it and there sat the most beautiful jar that I had ever seen. The glass jar with floral engraving on it looked precious. The lid was painted in blue and on it was written “flavors of the west”, in gothic font.
“A jar, Amma?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Yes, but it is not an ordinary jar, Vendi. It is a magical jar”, she said.
“A magical jar!” I looked at it in amazement.
“But who gave you this Amma, this magical jar”. I wanted to touch it but I was afraid the magic would wear off.
The malaise aroused by my question discomforted her and a sigh escaped her lips. She looked at me and my beaming eyes made her tell me a secret that she had held inside her for fifteen years now.
“Kudiamma did. She had many”, she said.
“But Kudiamma is….” I stopped midway.
“She gave it to me fifteen years back when she wasn’t a child eating witch. She was a nice woman. But when Jasonappa died, she became mad”.
A ray of light from a slit in the roof fell on the jar and it glinted like a piece of diamond.
“A magical jar”, I awed.
“Yes”, she said holding the jar as a prized possession.
“My jam tastes the best because I keep it in this jar. It adds the magical taste to it. Sudha doesn’t know about it and that’s why she is not the “Thellai Mankani-Rani””, she smirked.
“Okay you go and play now. Do not tell about this little secret of ours to anybody”, she said resuming her work.
The beauty of the jar was engraved on my psyche and the floral designs made it look so transcendental that if I had a chance I would have never parted from it. I rushed to tell about this to Valli, my dearest friend from the other lane.
I bragged about it endlessly and told her how divine the jar looked. I told her that the flowers had fragrance and if one cared to look closely, one could see fairies sleeping on the petals. I of course read a lot of fairytales and Valli was herself a credulous lady. She believed every word of mine and we both resonated with enthusiasm. She said that she wanted to see the jar and would show all the gifts her father had bought from Hyderabad only after I had showed her the jar. She had the best collection of dresses and the most beautiful dolls in whole of Thellai and I knew that her father must have brought something really special for she was the only child and he loved her the best.
“Okay, but promise you won’t tell anybody about it. It will be our little secret” I said.
Little fingers entwined and palms were raised to show that no one was crossing fingers. I ran to the house and knowing that Amma had left for the temple, I rushed upstairs into her little jam room. I flung open the door and stopped in front of the cupboard. The knob was cold and the door squeaked when I opened it. Amidst her huge bottles of spices, boxes of sweeteners, bowl of pulp, there was no jar. It was missing and the voice of Valli echoed in my ears, “show me the jar or I will not show you my gifts”.
I shut the doors and looked around in the room. Calendar hung up on the wall with the day of Thellai Jam Competition marked on it was the only thing beside her tall cupboard, a chair and a stool in the room. My eyes moved from calendar to chair to stool to the little slit in the roof and finally fell on a veiled jar over the cupboard. I quickly pulled the chair against the cupboard and climbed upon it to grab the jar. I fell short of few inches and for the first time ever I realized how short I was for a twelve years girl and kuttan, my cousin, was not wrong in calling me a dwarf. I placed the stool over the chair and tried again. It was in reach but I could not have a strong grip on it. The stool rocked and the jar slipped from my hands. It crashed on the floor and broke into pieces. Sunrays danced on the pieces and the jar glinted like many magical diamonds.
But now the broken pieces were staring at me and I could hear them question me relentlessly.
“What are you going to tell your mother, Vendi?”
“What if she loses the competition because of you?”
“What if she stops loving you anymore?”
Tears rolled down my cheeks and I cursed Valli for asking me to show the jar.
“What will you do now?” The pieces whispered again.
“Kudiamma”, I remembered Amma telling me that she had many jars.
“But she eats children. Amma herself told”, I could hear the pieces whisper to each other.
The thought that Amma might be devastated knowing that I broke her magical jar and she would eventually lose her title, filled me with guilt. But the fear that she would stop loving me gave birth to an unfathomable courage to face Kudiamma.
I gathered the pieces together and dumped them far away from the colony and walked straight to Kudiamma’s house.
Leaves from the banyan tree had enveloped her garden and the rusting gate made squeaking noises. Unkempt hedges grew as tall as her boundary walls and the house was shedding plaster. Moss had engulfed the pipe lines and a pile of bricks lay at one corner of her patio. A layer of dust sat on her broken Ambassador car and window panes were broken by the pelting of stones by Morganpillai and others, many years ago. The windshield of the car had cracks and the bonnet housed rodents which ran from corner to corner the moment I opened the rusting gate. I tiptoed in her patio avoiding any ungodly creature that might spring up. The façade of her wooden door was eaten by termites and it reeked a foul smell. Lizards watched me knock the door. Moths flew off the flowers and the birds on the tree chippered relentlessly.
I knocked again. This time harder.
“Who is it? Go away”, came a hoarse voice.
“It is me”, I squeaked.
“Who me? Just go away”, she screamed
“Vendi”, I soon realized that there was no way I could tell her who I was and what I came for. But I anyway tried.
“Kudiamma”, I shouted.
“I am not Kudiamma. You stupid girl. Stop bothering me and go away”.
“I am Mridhula’s daughter, the Thellai Mankani-Rani”, I screamed hoping that she would at least know who my mother was like everybody else in Thellai did.
Locks rattled and the door squeaked open. A woman in her late sixties with wizened face and unbraided hair stood in front of me. Her skin was layered like a toad’s and her graying hair and little eyes made her look like one of those witches from Amma’s folklores. Her eyes stared at me and my voice died in my throat. I wanted to run away but Amma’s face flashed in front of me and I swallowed a lump of saliva to speak.
“Kudiamma, I want a magical jar”, I spoke without circumlocution.
She looked at me and with a frowned look said, “What magical jar?”
“The one that you gave Amma long time back. Amma says you have many magical jars”, I spoke looking down at her steps which were painted green and yellow by the growing weed by them.
“I don’t have any magical jar. Go away”, she said.
With tears whelming up in my eyes I said, “I broke her jar and the competition is in few days. If she doesn’t put the jam in the jar, she will lose. She will stop loving me Kudiamma”, I broke into tears and sobbed at her door.
Something about not being loved strung cords at her heart and she bent down to wipe my tears. She felt my pain as if it was hers and her eyes whelmed up. She took me inside and in the disheveled house with broken furniture, soiled curtains and broken tiles, I ate coconut ladoos from one of her magical jars. She had many magical jars just like Amma said. All with floral designs engraved and blue lids with words, “flavors of the west”, written on them. Photos of Jasonappa, her husband, along with her two sons, who god knows were where, sat on her mantle. Kudiamma told me that she wished her kids would come back and that she always wanted a daughter. She did not eat me and she was nothing like what Morgan uncle had once described her to me. She was what a forgotten mother deity would be like; an embracing, forgiving woman who was pushed to oblivion. She was sweet like her ladoos which were delicious like Amma’s jam. If the Thellai Woman Association could arrange for ladoos competition, Kudiamma would have won it and become the ladoo-Rani instead of the witch of Thellai. She cleaned me a jar and asked if I would come again. I nodded a yes and gulped another of her ladoos. A smile on her face made her wrinkles look like ripples in a lake that died at her eyes and made them look even smaller. In her hoarse voice which now melted like a song in my ears, she said she would make me a jar of coconut ladoos the next time I came to meet her.
Ten years have gone since I met her and today Kudiamma lay in her coffin. The priest is reading verses from the bible and a series of seven jars were lined up by her coffin to be buried with her, according to her last wish that she had written on a paper in her bedroom. A grave digger came up to me and asked if I was Vendi. I nodded a yes and he handed a jar to me. He said Kudiamma wanted me to have it. Amma, who was still the “Thellai Mankani-Rani” and whose jam was now being sent to other states, stood far away and waited for the ceremony to end. Kudiamma, the child eating witch of Thellai, the maker of ladoos, the owner of magical jars was no more and I stood by her silently thanking for the jar and the sweetest coconut ladoos in them.
Abhishek Kumar has been writing fiction and jotting down poems for the past six years. His work has appeared in The Fiction Magazine and The Madras Mag.