Devipradesham is a small village in the interiors of Kerala. Almost all of Devipradesham is green - vast carpets of paddy fields, fresh fruit smelling banana plantations and of course the coconut trees. There are only a few inhabitants; almost all of them farmers, who tend to their fields. The people are simple with simple needs, unaffected by the nuclear deal or the economic growth or fall. Devipradesham is and has always been a fertile land, and that keeps the people happy. They have always had their steady source of income… come rain or sun. For them, life is always normal. The rich people of Devipradesham have sons and daughters in Mumbai and London and America. They never stay in Devipradesham anyway, apart from occasionally sometimes when they like to come for vacations or when they have some property dispute.
It is a small place; a happy place. The people attribute to the main deity of the region- The DevipradeshamBhagawathi (the goddess of Devipradesham) or simply Bhagawathi. It is said she is a powerful goddess. When happy, She blesses in generosity and when crossed She punishes severely. Evidently, the people of Devipradesham kept Her happy and She saw to that the people were blessed in abundance of prosperity and peace.
The priest of the Bhagawathi temple is the most respected man in Devipradesham. And then there is the oracle, the ‘Velichappadu’. With a red cloth tied around the waist, sword and anklet in hand, bells jingling as he enters a frenzied hysteria of movements in an almost mad man like dance, his long hair let loose, the Velichappadu is the messenger of Bhagawathi. He tells the people when She is angry. But things have been peaceful for a long time now.
Entertainment is maybe an old Prem Nazir or MGR movie that plays once in two weeks in the old run down ‘Nanuttan Talkies’. Everyone in Devipradesham knew and liked each other. One hardly heard of any fights or brawls except for maybe when there is a huge difference of opinion during the daily rendezvous of the males of Devipradesham at the ‘Kallu/Toddy’ hut. But they never carried grudges. They were all good people and everyone knew that.
Well, this is the case now. And has always been the case except for one time. There was one woman who the people of Devipradesham didn’t like. She had stayed on in the old tattered hut on the outskirts, far behind the temple of Bhagawathi. Mothers told their children that Lakshmi would cut off their noses if they didn’t eat their food. Lakshmi was evil; not one to mingle with.
Veena Warier was a budding psychologist. Her grandfather was from Devipradesham. Her dad had moved to the city after marriage for his job. She had only heard about Devipradesham from her grandfather but had never been to the place. She had heard of the fields and the people and the temple and its festivals. She had heard of the tales of miracles of the Goddess and the Velichappadu who slashes his forehead with the sword smearing it with his blood. A budding writer, she wanted to capture the beauty of Devipradesham in verses of her own.
She wanted to tell the world about this peaceful simple village and its many tales. She wanted to narrate to her friends, the magnificence of the idol of the Bhagawathi. And so, one day she decided, she had to go to Devipradesham. And so she did.
It was around 7 one morning at Devipradesham. Veena was at the tea stall or ‘chaaya kada’ after her morning walk. She was staying with Unni uncle, son of one of her grandfather’s old friend. The house she stayed in wasn’t a big one but Unni uncle and his wife Janaki aunty did their best to keep her comfortable. He had asked her not to go to the tea stall because girls of her age didn’t do so but a whiff of the early morning milky tea and parippu vada had drawn her to the place one morning and she was addicted to the place since then.
Kanaaran, the tea stall owner told her stories about the people of Devipradesham. He was a nice man, well into his late forties. But of course, no matter how sweet he was, free tea was never an option! One such morning when Veena was savouring her milky tea treat, a lady in rags crept next to her. Veena didn’t see her at first. A low, throaty voice had startled her, ‘could you please buy me some milk?’ Before she could say anything, Kanaaran shouted at the lady away from the stall. ‘Chi, naasham! Go away, shoo! You aren’t supposed to be here. Get lost.
Go on now.’ She wore a fading grey cotton saree, torn in places. Her hair was a tangled mess. She seemed to have a problem standing up straight. Her hands and legs trembled and she looked very frightened of something. She stood there, looking at Veena, her eyes pleading, ‘Please could you buy me some milk? It’s for my baby daughter.’ But Kanaaran shooed her away before Veena could do anything. ‘Real pain she is’, Kanaaran said after the lady had left. ‘Don’t you talk to her, she is bad omen. Brings bad luck to everyone.’
‘But she was only asking for milk for her daughter.’
‘Oh don’t believe that. She doesn’t have a daughter. I told you, she is mad. She keeps seeing things no one else can see and keeps hearing voices no one else can hear. She’ll try to meet you again. You are new here. But steer clear of her. Cha! She spoilt my morning.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Lakshmi. Now don’t ask me more questions. I have a lot of work.’
Veena left then. But something troubled her. She kept thinking about Lakshmi. Something about her eyes had deeply touched Veena. Her eyes had seemed so genuine. There was genuine despair; genuine love for a daughter; genuine concern. She seemed in real need for some milk. Veena found it hard to believe Kanaaran’s story. Somehow, to her, Lakshmi was not lying. Lost in her thoughts, Veena was walking slowly towards Unni uncle’s house when someone tapped on her shoulder. Shocked, Veena turned around to stare at Lakshmi’s face. She caught hold of Veena’s arm, her eyes wide, darting from left to right. ‘Please, do something… my daughter… she is crying… no food… crying…help…please’, Lakshmi blurted. Veena stumbled, frightened, she pushed Lakshmi and ran; Lakshmi’s voice still ringing in her ears.
Veena couldn’t sleep for a few days. Lakshmi’s distraught face kept giving her nightmares. She couldn’t write those beautiful descriptive poems she wanted to write about Devipradesham. She found it very strange, but something about Lakshmi struck her as odd. Maybe it was her degree in psychology urging her to look beyond what seemed apparent, to understand the person that Lakshmi was. Then again maybe, she was being overly obsessed with a lady who was indeed hallucinating.
At lunch the next day, Veena asked Janaki aunty about Lakshmi.
‘Lakshmi? Poor woman. The villagers banished her a long time back. Being an outcast can drive anyone mad.’
‘What about her daughter?’ asked Veena.
‘Daughter? She doesn’t have a daughter. Although she thinks she does. She had given birth to a dead baby. People say that drove her mad. Poor woman, she used to be such a beautiful girl, you know? Very pretty and a very nice lady too. Fate, what else can one say?’
‘What about her husband?’
‘She was never married. Nobody knows who did such a terrible thing to her.’
‘Didn’t anyone ask her? No one cared to find out?’
‘That’s all a long story Veena. There were many accusations made. It was all very messy. I remember the day she was banished. Bhagawathi had been so right! Few months after she was banished, she gave birth. And that too to a still born girl child! All bad signs. But Bhagawathi saw it all and warned us. We had to banish her, or else she would’ve ruined the entire village’s blessings.’
‘What?? Bhagawathi foresaw it? She told you?’ asked a baffled Veena.
‘Yes. Lakshmi was a devout Bhagawathi devotee. One could always see her at the temple in the morning and evening. You have seen the Velichappadu, haven’t you? One evening the Velichappadu of that time got very angry during his thullal. He predicted Bhagawathi was very angry. We were all very scared of course. That had never happened in a long time. All our wealth and happiness is Bhagawathi’s blessing after all. She sent the message through him that Lakshmi had sinned and that if she wasn’t removed from the village soon we all were to suffer. The priest immediately arranged for it all to be done. He was a very strict man. A lot of people were punished and ways set right during his time. And that Velichappadu was the best seer that Devipradesham has had. The priest and he were very close to Bhagawathi. We were all forewarned of the wrath to come because of them after all.’ ‘Amme… Devi… Mahamaaye’, Janaki aunty prayed.
Veena was amused by the superstitions of the people. She didn’t like what she heard of the priest and the Velichappadu. But the people believed so strongly in them and their Goddess! ‘Isn’t all this a bit too difficult to believe aunty?’ she risked the question.
‘You townsfolk will never understand. DevipradeshamBhagawathi is very powerful. She knows everything, sees everything. It is She who gives us in plenty so we all obey her. She talks to us through the Velichappadu so we obey him and the priest of course.’
‘And so you banished Lakshmi which is what drove her into madness.’
‘I’m not arguing with you. Lakshmi was banished because she was a sinner. Her punishment is her madness.’
But Veena had a strange intuition. She somehow wanted to prove her wrong. For some reason unknown to her, she wanted to see justice on Lakshmi’s side. What was wrong with her? Who was Lakshmi? Why did she feel so attached to her?
The next day morning she was at Kanaaran’s chaaya kada again, asking him about Lakshmi’s tale. He seemed a bit annoyed, as though he was reminded of a personal tragedy but obliged nevertheless. ‘The priest and Velichappadu then, were staunch believers. No one has known Bhagawathi the way they have.’
Veena couldn’t get much more out of him. She couldn’t believe him and neither could she completely believe in the Bhagawathi being such a visible power. Blind superstitions, she thought. She was about to leave when he said, ‘but it is queer how they died a very strange death. The priest tripped inside the temple and fell on Bhagawathi’s sword. Freak accident you might say. We found him at her feet, his head drenched in blood. And the Velichappadu died from the wounds on his forehead. That never happens. A Velichappadu always slashes his forehead with the sword in his hand. That’s the ritual.Nothing ever happens to them but for a wound. No one knows how that could’ve happened to him. It’s as though, Bhagawathi had punished both of them for something… but that’s unlikely, they followed her every command and were very pious.’
She got some milk from Kanaaran. She had to meet someone on her way home.
Lakshmi’s tattered hut was behind the Bhagawathi temple. Veena had an eerie feeling going to the place, crushing thick bushes and wild grass under her feet. The place looked every bit neglected. ‘Lakshmi?’ she called. ‘Lakshmi I have got milk’ and as an after thought added, ‘for your daughter’.
She heard something fall inside the hut and then Lakshmi appeared at the door, or what was once a door. She peeped outside first. Veena didn’t miss the mixed emotions on Lakshmi’s face. She looked confused first, then her eyes shot up in amazement, then there was fear in them and then tears.
‘Here, take it.’
Lakshmi hurried towards Veena, snatched the bottle from her hand and rushed back in. Veena followed.
There was nothing inside. Veena saw four or five old utensils, a few spoons and a jug. She saw a mud plate with a burnt wick and a form made of clay in front of it. What sort of mad woman worshipped God and lit lamps for idols? And then she saw a cradle. Hung from the ceiling with a pair of coir, the cradle was an old lungi tied at both ends. Lakshmi was standing in front of the cradle; Veena couldn’t see properly as she had just come in from the sun. As her sight adjusted to the dark room, Lakshmi returned the empty bottle to her and smiled. The smile looked out of place on her rugged appearance but Veena could see what Janaki aunty meant when she said Lakshmi was once a beautiful girl.
‘The baby stopped crying. Thank you’, she said.
Veena smiled. ‘Let her sleep then’. Veena didn’t know what else to say. She wondered why she came there. She felt stupid. What was she thinking? This is a mad woman! What if she just stabs her then? Or hurt her in some way? She was about to leave when Lakshmi spoke, ‘Bhagawathi Herself sent you to me’. No one has spoken to me in 23 years.’
Veena didn’t know what to say. Up close, Lakshmi hardly seemed mad. Tears welled up in her eyes.
‘You are the first one who stands so close to me. I am not mad you know. After the priest banished me, I have been called mad. But I am not. I have not sinned. He did. Why would Bhagawathi punish me for what he did? But she punished him! She took his life didn’t she?’ and she laughed; a strange mad woman like laughter. Veena was beginning to see why people avoided Lakshmi. If she wasn’t mentally deranged, solitary confinement had upset her for sure. She felt scared.
‘Are you scared child? Don’t be! You helped me. You are from Bhagawathi. I won’t hurt you! In fact, I won’t hurt anybody. I never could. But he banished me for fear that I would ruin his good name. And Bhagawathi punished him! People think I am mad because I tell them I have a daughter. But they pretend not to see my child. Wouldn’t I have gone mad if I didn’t have my baby? They told me my baby was dead when she was born. I cried so much that night! I had no one. They had banished me. My parents didn’t want me. He didn’t want me. And now my baby was dead! I cried all night. I asked Bhagawathi what I had done wrong. Did I not pray everyday? Did I not do everything to keep her happy? Did I not go to the temple everyday? I did! Did I not believe in her? I did! Was I not nice to everyone? I was! And yet she took everything away fro me… she took my baby away from me!’
Veena wanted to run away from there then. Lakshmi seemed to be talking to someone after a long time and she had a flurry of emotions coming out of her. Unable to contain her fury and her agony, her feelings that had been bottled up for over two decades came rushing out. Veena didn’t know why she came there, what strange feeling had brought her here? What queer sense of attachment had she felt for Lakshmi? Was it all just the qualms of the psychologist inside her? Or was there some power beyond her controlling her then? What rubbish! Devipradesham and its people have made me superstitious too, she thought. But then, she did feel a weird sense of belonging, didn’t she? What was it all? She tried to edge away from the place but Lakshmi caught hold of her arm.
‘No don’t leave yet! Don’t you want to see my baby?’
‘But you don’t have a baby!’ Veena shouted. ‘For god’s sake woman wake up! Your baby is dead. It always has been!’
Lakshmi stopped abruptly. Her lips quivered. Her eyes darted. Veena thought she was going to either break down or faint.
But suddenly her face hardened. She closed her eyes and spoke, ‘no. they told me it was dead. And they all left that night. I cried all night. I pleaded to Bhagawathi. What sin had I committed? And you know what happened? She told me my baby was not dead. She told me to sleep and I did. I woke up next morning to find my baby fast asleep in that cradle. They had lied to me. My baby was alive. She told me.’
Veena had had enough of this craziness. She was mad enough to come to the woman’s hut let alone listen to her tales of hallucination. She felt stupid to have come. The woman was evidently mad.
‘Ok I’m leaving’, she said.
But Lakshmi tugged at her arm, ‘please come and see my baby before you go. She had been crying for two days. You quietened her today. Please bless her before you go.’
And Veena decided to oblige. She could see herself smiling stupidly and blessing an empty cradle but she thought she might as well do this one last thing before she left Devipradesham the next morning. And as she walked towards the cradle she noticed the bulge in the cloth. She could see the dim silhouette of something inside. There was something heavy inside. The lady must’ve placed bricks in the cradle, Veena thought. And then, to her shock and horror, she saw it and she felt like she was hit by a bolt of thunder. The cradle was empty. There were no bricks; there was no baby- just an empty cradle that weighed down. She gaped, tried to speak but nothing came out. Lakshmi stood by her side, smiling, ‘isn’t she beautiful? She is Bhagawathi’s blessing; her miracle.’
Indeed thought Veena, as she stood there unable to comprehend the situation.There was something in the cradle that apparently only Lakshmi could see. Was she turning superstitious? Was she hallucinating now? No, she knew she wasn’t. Then? What was the possible explanation?
‘If it weren’t for my baby, I would’ve gone mad, I would’ve died. So Bhagawathi sent her to me’, said Lakshmi.
Had She? Had She indeed punished the priest and the Velichappadu? Had She indeed blessed Lakshmi with the sole purpose of her being? Then why couldn’t anyone else see it?And what was Veena to do with all this?
‘Wha… what's her name?’ asked Veena in a barely audible croak.