by Sindhu Rajasekaran
Genre: General Fiction Format: Extract
Content warning: sexual assault, mental illness
Suggi watched crows pick at a dying dog’s flesh. One pulled at the skin to stretch it while another pecked to cut. The dog’s guts spilled. Blood oozed. Nerves and clots pulsed outside Suggi’s cage.
“They hate you,” she heard a tremulous feminine voice whisper.
She looked around the dark corner where she sat. Houseflies hovered over soiled rags, uneaten plates of rice and rotting rats. The cloying sweet smell of decay tickled her nostrils. Shadows and light played hopscotch on the muddy floor.
Suggi slowly realised, yet again, that metal bars separated her from the outside. She wasn’t allowed to leave. But could she move?
She rocked her torso back and forth into a discordant rhythm. Messy black hair hung over her face as she swayed. It hid the redness of her eyes.
The villagers hated her. Or why would they tie her up in chains?
“You dirty, dirty bitch,” a thrilled second voice swore.
Suggi rocked harder. She didn’t want to hear those voices or see their degenerate faces. They’d whip her up into an incoherent frenzy and make her act against her will.
She shut her eyes and started to wail.
But the voices didn’t stop. “You’ll die,” predicted the first. “Dirty, dirty bitch,” repeated the second, and another reminded: “You tried to kill your father with a knife.”
Their voices incensed her. She rolled her octopus eyes round and round as the unearthly voices spoke in unison of her crimes, reminding her of all that she had done to be locked away.
Suggi pulled at her hair, “Away, away!” she begged.
Desperate to divert her mind from their cruel words, she dug her nails into her face. Even as she did so she was furious with her reflexive self. It was her lack of control that got her locked up in the first place. She was to blame for it all.
“Stop it!” warned the gangly caretaker who sat outside her cage.
He rammed his iron rod against the bars.
Recollections came pouring in along with the clanging noise of the rod, of the many beatings she received at the hands of the caretaker. Even while he jabbed his foot in her stomach and his hands pulled her long hair, his grisly eyes preyed on her body. Every time.
“Lies!” she screamed.
“Bitch, quiet!” the caretaker cussed and scratched his armpits.
She had heard him tell other villagers terrible things about her. That she liked to strip herself naked, that she stretched her arms out to every man who passed by, that she was a filthy whore. All lies.
Suggi watched him. His small eyes, his inflated nose, his face, all exuded disgust. He reviled her. She would never seduce someone as base as him.
Bile in her stomach, Suggi rolled up her torn purple sari and crouched.
Who was he to her? Who was he to tell her what to do? She was livid. Why was there a barrier between her and the village?
Laughing like a hyena, her sari rolled all the way up to her hips, she urinated, for all the world to see, the crows, the caretaker, all that there ever was and ever will be.
When she was done, “Lies,” she cried, softly.
The familiarity of her own voice made her sad.
“Sleep my little one,” she whispered, lied down on the wetness she’d created and let consciousness sink.
“Wake up,” he ordered.
And she did.
Despite doing what he asked her to do, he prodded her body with a spiked stick. It made her aware of the damp clothes that stuck to her skin. The stench of shit overwhelmed her raw senses.
She was irritated with the caretaker, and the sun. It was vanishing. Soon her dark corner will get darker and the voices louder.
She wondered why they never left her alone. They put her in a cage only to watch her every movement, to drive her insane.
The caretaker unhooked the chains from the wall and pulled her towards the door. Suggi’s wrists burned where the chains held.
“Fire, fire, they’ll burn you today,” murmured the thrilled second voice.
Suggi sat heavily on the muddy floor and refused to go. But the caretaker seemed prepared for her antics. He had two men drag her while he hit her with a stick. Together they dragged her to the village pond.
Petrified people backed away on the streets when they saw her.
“Tonhi!” a woman called out and spat at Suggi, accusing her of being a witch.
Suggi’s reputation always preceded her.
True, Suggi practiced black magic. Everyone in her village did. Except, her magic had come true. The black goddess granted her wishes. None had complained when she mediated with the daughter of darkness for rains, but when she sought the ruin of her stepmother – all she’d really done was wrap a red cloth around a voodoo doll, poke nails in it and pray – and her stepmother fell sick, Suggi was sold out. Her stepmother accused her of sorcery and the villagers pounded on her, branded her a witch, and locked her away.
But the village’s exorcist, the baiga, had other theories. She not only knew blood magic, the baiga diagnosed, she also had a morbid imagination that lent itself to evil. He said she was possessed.
“They hate you, they’ll drown you,” the first voice told her, the first voice she had ever heard, that of the shifting and treacherous hawk-faced woman with ebony wings and red eyes. She called herself Kadru.
Five men shoved Suggi into the temple pond. It was as though her skin was suddenly set ablaze.
Kadru writhed in terror. She hated water and its furtive fluidity.
For a second Suggi deliberated whether water could purify and save her. After all, the pond was the holiest site in the village. Could the water rid her body of evil, of voices?
But it was not Suggi’s body alone that was thrown in the pond with no lotuses. It was Kadru’s, too. Kadru moaned dreadfully one moment, spilled wrath the next. “Enna vidoo,” she screamed in tongues and scratched those who held her.
The villagers slapped her face and forced her head underwater. Her arms and legs thrashing about, she gasped for breath.
“Don’t tell them. Don’t you dare,” red-eyed Kadru cautioned against revealing her identity.
Suggi strained her eyes open underwater. In its greyness she saw Kadru flapping her razor-sharp wings while her white hair floated around. Kadru was the worst of all the voices. She was the queen of the djinns of birds and beasts.
Kadru could tear into Suggi’s skin and peck on her head till it bled. She could torture. She had done so in the past.
Suggi swallowed a mouthful of water in the chaos. With it came coils of Kadru’s white hair.
She retched in fear.
Kadru’d found another way to invade her body.
When the men were done immersing Suggi in holy water, they made her walk up to a large banyan tree. Its roots hung downwards like dead bodies suspended. Between them stood the baiga, ready to exorcise the phantasms of her mind.
There was no moon that night. It was the night of amavasya, when dark energies were stronger, and spirits could be conjured up.
The air was still. There was no breeze, no respite.
The baiga’s body was covered in ash. He stood tall and intimidating.
Suggi hung her head. She didn’t want to look him in his milky white eyes or answer his intrusive questions. The sight of him made her mad.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Suggi stood silent, brewing her thoughts. Who was she? An irrelevant question, three years ago she was a daughter, a secret dancer, a friend. A lover. But everything had changed.
He continued with the interrogation.
“Who are you?” he asked a second time, throwing handfuls of turmeric and mustard on her face.
She shut her eyes tight.
“It’s burning, it’s burning. Don’t let him!” shouted the second voice, that of the serpentine woman, Nagini.
A small crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle. They stood hushed as the exorcist threw a volley of sacred objects at her, pieces of pepper, red kumkum and pebbles, all the while asking the same question over and over.
She clenched her teeth and made a fist with her fingers. She didn’t like it when people stared at her.
The exorcist hurled a bucket of holy water at Suggi and asked her yet again, “Who are you?”
Acids churned in Suggi’s stomach. She felt her nerves pull.
Kadru had risen in fury in the world outside her body. Her wings outstretched, Kadru floated above the baiga’s head. Realities were merging. Her hawkish gaze held Suggi’s, threatening her not to speak her name.
Exhausted and unable to contain herself, Suggi’s anger redoubled. She swung into a frenzy of curses and punched her elbows into the men who held her. Battered their faces.
The exorcist moved closer to her. With a sure look in his eyes that he was the gods’ representative on earth, out to destroy all evil, he struck her with a brass totem so hard it punctured her molten skin.
But she didn’t have the courage to reveal Kadru’s identity. She felt the hair in her stomach turn, a sign that Kadru was monitoring her every move, from inside and out.
Women in the crowd ululated.
While the caretaker heated an iron rod in a fire that blazed by the deity, “Om hring kshraum urga viram mahavishnum…” the baiga chanted.
They stripped her clothes away, the last trace of dignity, and left her utterly bare. The women’s tongue trilling pierced the motionless air. The caretaker brought a rod of flaming iron towards Suggi as the mantras got louder.
They pressed the iron to Suggi’s thighs, and it burned through her soft flesh.
“Don’t let them, don’t,” cried Nagini, “They’ll hurt the baby!”
Three years ago, before the drought, Suggi was a different woman. She loved watching movies at the village fair. Spellbound by the beauty of heroines, she spent much time dressing up. She’d observe herself in the mirror, apply kohl around her eyes, let her silver jewellery glimmer in the light of the lumen lamps, and she’d smile.
She didn’t understand how everything changed. A simple life of spells and dreams and love turned into a macabre fest of madness.
What was lost will be incredibly hard to get back, she knew.
Was it her fault? Kadru and Nagini said it was. On most days she believed them. But on rare occasions she caught herself thinking like how she used to. About simple, everyday things, about the dirt on her skin, the lice in her hair. She wondered why she didn’t wash herself. Wondered why her family disowned her.
She looked at the villagers, globules and sticks of right and wrong and such idiots. They waited patiently like jackals for her to show some form of vulnerability. As though they didn’t suffer in their own little loops of misery.
And when she did break down in public, tore at her hair and cried copious tears, they called her names, mocked her, and spoke of her difference, her absurdity.
Suggi could only laugh at them.
But when she was done laughing, she realised she was crazed to be in such a situation. Comedy quickly turned to tragedy and she pitied herself.
Then the tormenting thought took hold: Was she a victim of her own doing?
True, she practiced black magic. But the scorched village earth was not her doing. Once they branded her a witch, the villagers pinned the blame for all their sorrows on her. If she possessed the power to cause drought and disease, wouldn’t she have razed the villagers to a muck of blood and nerves by now?
Where was the black goddess? Why did She forsake her?
Whatever else she hadn’t done, Suggi did try to stab her father. That was true. The sight of him made her manic. How could he believe the words of his new wife over his own daughter’s? Egged on by the parrot-nosed woman, he not only accused his daughter of casting spells on the village, he also blamed her for the blight on his mustard crops.
But was Suggi horrifying to such a degree that they had to lock her away?
She felt the gaps between her teeth and smelled her sour breath. She was so dirty and so self-centred. So pathetic. She deduced she must be some sort of evil vermin that caused the plague.
She pitied herself.
And now there was another being to feel pity for, her baby.
Her baby? Whose baby?
Suggi lay by the metal bars drooling. She watched dry neem leaves fall from a vague and dreamy tree. She put out her fingers to catch a ball of light, but soon enough Kadru’s voice echoed: “You know how I hate the light.”
Suggi shrivelled up and rolled away from the bars.
In her dark corner she felt comfortable. She snuggled into the earth, stuck her face in its bacterial moistness and thought of the baby in her tummy.
“It’s a nemesis,” Kadru denounced the baby.
Nagini disagreed: “Let the baby be.”
“Baby be,” repeated Suggi, in her dolorous voice.
Then a third voice came to the fore, and then a fourth. They rarely spoke of their own accord. Kadru usually got them to do her bidding. But when they did speak out of turn, the voices warned Suggi of things to come. They were ominous, the two.
“Don’t you remember how it happened? Stupid,” said the third.
“Why will she?” asked the fourth.
They were twins, Tata and Ka. Sometimes they spoke in the same voice. But mostly, they quarrelled.
“He raped her, that asshole,” reminisced Tata.
“But she let him,” pointed out Ka.
“No, she didn’t,” argued Tata, but,
“She’s a temptress and a whore,” concluded Ka.
Suggi thought of that day in the catacomb. One foot first and then the other, it was dark in the burial chamber. He had taken her there for something, she couldn’t remember why. But she did distinctly remember how her insides melted and stuck like hot slime to her body when he touched her.
Why hadn’t she stopped him?
She did try, a wave of memory reassured her, she’d pushed him away, bit into him with her sharp teeth and spat on his face.
But, had she done all she could?
Why wasn’t he dead?
“She was no virgin. What can you expect of her?” roared Kadru and laughed her high-pitched laugh.
Suggi’s eyes filled with hot tears. She was polluted, impure, and gave in to lust and greed and all forms of immorality.
“There she is,” Suggi heard his voice pronounce.
“That’s him, the asshole,” confirmed Tata.
“He’s coming for you,” informed Ka.
“Shut up, you two, run, run!”
“Run!” shrieked Suggi, “Run!”
“Shut up, bitch,” the caretaker warned, his rod held high.
“Tie her hands together,” directed the baiga.
The baiga removed some camphor from his jute bag and placed it on Suggi’s outstretched hands. Chanting, he lit the camphor and let it burn bright in her palms.
“Leave her body,” ordered the baiga, “Whoever you are!”
Maybe, thought Suggi, she should tell the exorcist about Kadru. Perhaps he’d make her go away. But in that very second, red marks appeared on her bare shoulder, blood stagnated under her skin and something tore into her insides.
Her white hair flying all about her face, Kadru stood behind Suggi and held Suggi by her neck, strangled it. “I will never leave you,” she whispered in Suggi’s ear in a trill tone.
Suggi knew she couldn’t escape Kadru and her sharp wings. Kadru would gnaw her life out of her. Kadru would never leave her alone. Never let her run.
Camphor burned into Suggi’s fingers and peeled her skin away. The only feeling worse than what she underwent inside, was that of fire liquefying her flesh.
Suggi begged to be left alone.
“Don’t ask for favours you demon, leave her body,” demanded the baiga.
“Burns, no. No!” cried Suggi.
And as she howled in pain, she vomited on the caretaker. He bit his thick lower lip, grunted like a pig, and whacked her. He had done the same the other night in the catacomb. By the walls where water met stone, he forced himself on her. Leaked his evil seed in her body and left his demonic baby in her.
“She sat in a corner, coiling her body, that shameless woman,” Tata reminded.
Tata and Ka prided themselves for their chastity. Kadru was too arrogant to care. Suggi only slept with men she chose to seduce. Nagini was the only one who didn’t resist him that night. She wanted to spawn life in her womb. It was her baby, a snake baby.
Ka sighed. “Now you see.”
The village’s medicine-man came, rubbed some herb juice on her wounds, took her pulse, told the others that she was pregnant, and speculated on who the father could be. Why would any sane man want to sleep with a possessed woman, a witch?
People came to see the strange sight. They peered into her cage hoping she’d act out, but to their disappointment Suggi only stared, her eyes pasted to the ground. She was in no mood to move her crumbling body.
She sat listening to the four voices argue. They crowded her mind. Should she let the diabolic baby live in her pestilent womb or should she kill it?
She sat thinking, listening and thirsty for water, when she saw a couple outside her cage. They stood with their child, a little girl who smiled and laughed.
“That’s how the child will be,” Kadru provoked.
“A hypocrite,” Tata revealed.
“Yes,” Ka concurred.
Suggi squeezed her stomach to see if she could feel it. There were bumps, small and thick lumps of knotted tissue.
“It has eyes like a tadpole. It can see everything,” Tata muttered.
It will judge her and despise her. It will drive her to the brink with its cheery baby face. It’d laugh and smile with no sarcastic connotation. And that sort of innocent happiness was sure to destroy Suggi’s brittle bundle of nerves.
Suggi strained and rolled her eyes to see all she possibly could around her, hoping images would blur out her thoughts. But in the end, she focused her pupil on the little girl who stood with her parents.
The girl snuggled up to safety behind her mother’s legs and cast a severe look at the demented, drooling Suggi.
“That little girl once had tadpole eyes too,” Tata told Ka.
Suggi picked up a stone that lay by her side. She had spotted a flicker of recognition in the little girl’s eye. Was it that the girl was capable of madness, or was it that Suggi remembered how it was to be young? Why did the little girl bother her so much?
The tadpole-eyed little devil must be stopped.
Suggi felt the rough edges of the stone in her palm.
The devil child will eat her up from within. It will grow nails and claws of steel. It will kick and breathe.
“So, what are you going to do?” taunted Kadru.
Suggi threw the stone at the little girl.
The piece of hardened earth hit the child’s head. She fell, her ponytails flailing in the air for a second, and cried helplessly as only a child could.
Suggi watched without batting an eyelid. She sensed the little girl’s vulnerability and remembered her own. She was not strong enough to take all the beatings. She, too, wanted to cry helplessly and have others comfort her. She missed her dead mother.
The villagers cursed Suggi and unleashed a torrent of slurs at her. Some were so angry that they also threw stones and burning cigarettes into the cage. Others spat. A few stood and stared.
While the little girl was taken away, the caretaker entered, fuming.
Suggi’s throat was dry. There was no water left in her bowl.
“Water,” she grumbled.
“Whore! I’m going to starve you. You deserve nothing,” he hollered, making sure the villagers heard his words clearly.
“Get out,” begged Suggi, “Jao.”
Kadru burst into peals of laughter, but it could not drown Suggi’s thoughts. Of the little girl and the pain she caused her. When did Suggi become so cruel?
Three years ago, there were no voices. She’d wanted to be like the heroines in the movies. She wanted to dance and sing and see faraway cities.
“Get out,” she said again softly, slowly, to check if she could still hear her voice. She did. It was hers, hers alone.
“You want the demon baby, don’t you?” asked Tata, “You want to keep his dirty seed.”
“But it breathes. It’s a baby,” implored Nagini.
But all she’d wanted was to be like the heroines, to act. When did she forget her goal and step into the void?
Voices saturated in Suggi’s head. They deformed into beastly sounds of hawks, snakes, hyenas, and owls. They were not human. They had no business possessing her mind and body.
But then, the villagers had no right to lock her away. But…
She thought of the time it hurt when she pricked her finger with a needle, years ago, a time when her existence was obscure but felt more real.
Now, she felt nothing.
All the burning of her flesh and tearing of her skin didn’t affect her anymore. Her body was a wasteland, numb and useless.
Her mind was a dump yard for those voices. There was no space left for her own thoughts.
She could no longer go on living the way she did.
They had to get out of her head.
Or, she would.
She pulled at the chains till they broke loose. She kicked at the door till the rusted lock gave way.
“Where was all this strength that day at the tunnel?”
She ran like a lunatic till she reached the village pond.
“There’s a baby in you, don’t do it!”
Suggi jumped into the pond, into the depths of its emptiness. She knew it would kill her, but she longed for silence. An eternity without Kadru’s fiery red eyes, eyes that burned into her very soul.
Underwater, Kadru writhed in agony, her pangs of pain almost mortal.
Suggi knew the baby would die, too.
But her body was not hers alone. She was fragmented. Inside, the demons and the gods were in control. Outside, the men were in charge. Her physicality was a burden. If her body did not exist, how could her mind?
It all had to go.
She opened her mouth and tasted the water.
She felt the numbing cold pierce her body. She’d not resist death. Come, she welcomed, sweet delirious death.
That had to be it. The heaviness in her head would vanish when she opened her eyes. It would be day and the sky would be blue. She could already hear the birds sing and hoot. It was over. Heaven or hell, she didn’t know, but it wasn’t earth.
She must have slept a long time. She found it hard to move her eyelids. They were stuck together as though with glue. She had to batter them open.
Everything around her seemed to be a hazy white.
She heard no voices. None.
Was she liberated?
Suggi smiled. Ah, peaceful death.
Except, the luminous clouds of joy soon parted when Suggi saw her father’s sodden face. It loomed over hers, and so did a woman’s who listened to Suggi’s heartbeat with a stethoscope.
A trail of anaesthetics lingered in the air. Suggi shut her eyes and slipped away. She didn’t want to see her father.
‘Suggi?’ called her father.
Sindhu Rajasekaran‘s first novel Kaleidoscopic Reflections was nominated for the Crossword Book Award. It chronicled the travails of an inter-caste Tamil family trying to navigate its identity in a caste-ridden India. Her second book is a collection of edgy short stories about women titled So I Let It Be, published by Pegasus Publishers, UK. Her other work can be found at Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, Bella Caledonia, and Medium. She’s currently working on a non-fiction book about Indian feminism, to be published by Aleph Book Company in 2020. Sindhu also works as a communications strategist and a filmmaker, producing the critically acclaimed Indo-British feature film Ramanujan. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.