Every Tuesday afternoon, Bakya would visit the farmer’s market to buy vegetables that were on clearance sale. She haggled with the vendors until she wore them down, and bought the spoils of her win with great satisfaction. She carried those vegetables to gift them to her sister as if she was bearing a blessing from Lord Shiva himself.
“No one should visit their dear sister empty handed,” she said to her sister after handing over those plastic bags full of listless okras and withered broad beans.
“You needn’t have,” her sister Kala would reply, inspecting the contents with the usual indifference and slight disgust. Then, in Kala’s kitchen with a steel tumbler full of weak tea, they gossiped.
This Tuesday was no different, the vegetable of the day being peas which Bakya thought she got for a steal.
“Not even in season and I got them for half the price,” she said, her loud excitement startling a lazy lizard on the wall. She, then, emptied a bag full of the smelly vegetables on the kitchen table. Surprisingly, Kala’s eyes widened with glee when she saw the peapods, each one green and pregnant like envy. Kala’s son loved peas cutlets. She could make some for him this evening. That was if he decided to come home straight from his tuition classes. He never returned before eight in the evening, whiling away his time with a bunch of no-goods whom Kala blamed for her son’s failure to clear his board exams.
The sisters settled down comfortably, facing each other, with the smell of tea and mischief between them.
“Chinnu not home?” Bakya asked, knowing very well that Kala did not like talking about her son. Kala shrugged, not trying to hide the irritation at using her son as a launching pad for the afternoon small talk. With that, Bakya was denied a chance to gloat about her saint-like daughter, which would usually start with ‘when she was born, I cursed my luck for bringing another girl into the world to suffer. But look at her now.’ She was proud that her daughter was working as a sales assistant in a cell phone showroom. Soon, it would be time to get her married. But who would want to get married to a girl who could not take a few sovereigns of gold with her when she stepped into her marital home?
A powdery frostiness settled around the sisters. Kala took a handful of peapods and began to shell them. Plump and perfectly round green pearls rolled into her palms, making her happy, almost forgiving. “Say, did you notice Ganesan at Vasu mama’s funeral? He kept staring into the air, eyes dilated like an owl,” she said. Their brother Ganesan was the sisters’ favourite topic. They shared a common contempt for their much younger brother, who was born after their parents performed years of penance, praying for a male heir. Before Ganesan was born, they had often overheard their father lamenting to their mother, “A man is not a man until he sires a boy.” They felt that they were a mere aberration, a missed opportunity that had to be endured for the birth of a male child.
Bakhya nodded and replied, “Cheeks flushed red, eyes fixated, twitching lips. He looked like how he was a year ago when he was in the hospital. You think he is getting back into the habit again?” She carefully let the pearls roll into a plastic bowl.
A year ago, Ganesan was admitted to the government hospital after he was found overdosed and sprawled on the railway platform. When Bakya went to visit him with her daughter, she was taken aback by the repulsive stick figure, head too large, eyes bulging out of the socket, and thin, dry lips peeling into a smile. Bakya stood at the foot of the hospital bed, watching Ganesan struggle to keep his eyes open, and whispered to her daughter, “This is what happens when you usurp another’s property.” Bakya never missed a chance to teach the morals of life to her fatherless daughter and took pride in it.
Bakya looked up at Kala, shelling peas with a smile on her face and felt sorry for her, acting happy, when in fact she had a wayward son who had failed his board exams for the second time. Kala’s husband had a temper as menacing as a vat of hot oil. All it needed was a drop of water to burst and blister everything around it.
“Will brother-in-law come home soon?” Bakya asked, not wanting to be around her sister’s husband when he came home.
“Not today,” Kala said, as her nails dug into a shiny-looking peapod. What looked perfect on the outside spewed brown goo when Kala’s nail ruptured it.
“Chee…rotten,” she said, her nose crinkling with repulsion.
“Drop it down on the floor. We can sweep it up later,” Bakya suggested, her mind still mulling over her brother, Ganesan. He, now, stayed alone in a derelict house he had inherited from their parents, a share of which rightfully belonged to the sisters as well. When their father was alive, Bakya had asked him for her share of the property. Her husband’s meagre pension barely covered her expenses.
“You girls are always greedy. Didn’t I give you enough gold when I got you married off?” her father had shouted at her.
“But how can you write off a house against a few pieces of jewellery? Can’t you at least give me some money for giving up my right to the property?”
“How jealous and selfish you are,” her mother reprimanded Bakya, rushing out from the kitchen, “Wanting to hog everything for yourself. When your brother was born, you refused to even hold him.” Bakya wanted to shout back at their stupidity for equating childish envy to deliberate injustice. But she knew it would be futile. In her parent’s eyes, the sisters could never aspire to be in the place their brother was. He was the son they had longed for, while the sisters were born without much fuss and wanting.
The sisters continued to shell peas and the deeper they dug into the pile on the table, the more decay they found. The pearls that rolled into the plastic bowl became fewer and far between, while the rot that was discarded accumulated around their feet.
“Remember how Ganesan alone got to stay with Vasu mama in his bungalow during our school vacations?” Bakya said.
“Of course, I remember. He would always come back with new clothes and chocolates,” Kala sniggered, “I stole from his chocolate stash, which he hid in his cupboard. But I only took loose candies, scared that a missing chocolate bar would be immediately noticed and reported to Amma.”
Bakya nodded, “Funny that despite being pampered by Vasu mama, Ganesan created a ruckus every time he came to pick him up at the end of the school year. I prayed that at least once mama would select me to spend the vacation with him at his bungalow. But all through the seven years he came to take Ganesan, he hardly noticed us. A perfunctory smile is what we got.”
“Yeah. Amma and Appa would grin from ear to ear at the sight of Vasu mama’s stubby fingers flicking notes from the rupee bundle. I don’t know what I hated more. Appa putting up an act of refusing the money or mama’s ritual of forcing the wad into his palms.” Kala said, not taking her eyes off the peas she was shelling, worried that she might miss some seeds of rot. “The only time I ever saw Appa upset with Ganesan was when he refused to go with Vasu mama. ‘Why are you scared of your favourite uncle?’, he would shout at him. ”
“Yeah,” said Bakya, her hands sifting through the pile of unshelled pods. They looked plump and shiny on the outside but had fattened worms inside, gorging on the peas. “Ganesan was everybody’s favourite. He was indulged and spoilt from the start.”
“Even his drug addiction was treated as a small setback in his otherwise glorious life, while we were caned if we did not do our household chores,” Kala shook the bowl that contained the shelled peas. No wonder Bakya had got it for half the price, she thought. All they were able to salvage from the mound of peapods was a miserly amount of peas.
“I could sense that he was doing something wrong when he would come back very late and sleep through the whole of next day. What job would a teenager have during the night, if not something nefarious?”
“True. Amma would warn us not to talk about his behaviour to any of our neighbours, didn’t she? She would shamelessly lie to them that he was away for a tuition class when someone asked where he was. Can you imagine us getting away with such behaviour? We would be whipped with the belt if our skirts looked a little hitched above our ankle.”
“Yeah,” Bakya sniggered, thinking about the time Kala got scolded for buying a salwar kameez. Only loose girls wore such revealing clothes, their father had said.
“And yet, when his son came home dazed, Appa would help him to his bed. He even lied that the packet of weed I found hidden in Ganesan’s cupboard was some herbal medicine. Amma lamented that someone’s evil eyes were working on her son. They were in denial until the day Ganesan lay senseless at the railway station.”
“I often wonder what led him to drugs. Appa never drank or smoked. Both Amma and Appa treated him like a prince. Yet…”“He is just spoiled. That’s all,” Kala dismissed her brother’s behaviour. Bakya controlled the sneer that threatened to bubble up when she thought about the wayward son Kala had. The pot calling the kettle black indeed.
“I wish Appa had given us something as an inheritance. If not the house, at least some money for the part we gave up for our brother. I could very well use some money now.” Bakya said, as if apologizing for the decaying mess that she had brought for her sister.
In a rare show of vulnerability, Kala said, “Sometimes, my husband threatens to turn me out in the street if I disobey him. If I had some money, I need not have to tolerate all his nonsense.”
“And to think that Ganesan would end up selling the house to feed his drug habit…” Bakya shook her head.
“At Vasu mama’s funeral, he showed no sadness. He was the closest male kin to the dead man. He was the one mama showered all his blessings and money on, yet Ganesan looked obscenely mirthful at the funeral. I swear his eyes shone when he lit mama’s pyre.”
“Shiva, shiva,” Bakya closed her ears in an exaggerated display of shock.
“He is thankless as always.”
“That is why he is stuck with a cursed house, a house which is rotten from the inside out.”
With that, the last of the decaying peapods were discarded. The sisters peered into the bowl and looked at the amount of pea pearls they managed to collect, which was not much. The rotten mess that was strewn at their feet singed their noses, while the weak tea had already gone cold.
Sarveswari Saikrishna is a short story writer and Kolam Writer’s Workshop Alumni. Her stories are published in several literary magazines and shortstory anthologies. She was a finalist in the mentorship project offered by Writers Beyond Borders in the year 2020. She lives in Chennai with her family and dreams of a day when she can write without interruptions.