Growing Up by Sathya Saran

Nagammaa woke Leela from her trance, her half sleep, by placing a gentle hand on her arm. ‘Amma is calling you for food,’ she said. Leela smiled at Nagamma.


Since Leela had came back this year, torn from her beloved, Nagamma had been her only real friend. Leela could trust her not to look judgmental. Not to say things that used one word to mean another.


Nagamma is less than a year older than Leela.


When there was no one else to play with, Leela had in past years recruited Nagamma to play with her. They would sit on the red stone steps of the portico with cowrie shells, and of course, Nagamma would win each time. Leela never minded. Her fingers were more adept at stringing a bow … and losing or winning was immaterial as long as she had company. At other times they played hopscotch; the carefully drawn chalk lines making the squares they had to hop through and back while they kicked the stone. They made a quaint picture, the dark girl and the fair, their plaits flying, with every hop, and their laughter made the elders smile indulgently.


Being the middle child with no other girls in the family her age meant she had no real playmates. The others were either two or three years older, or a few years younger. And tended to stick together. So Nagamma, a few months older, was precious.


Leela followed her friend down the curving staircase. She watched the girl’s plait swinging on her back, a black snake that was strangely enticing. Her own hair was twisted into two tight plaits, and smelled dankly of coconut oil.


She had recently been noticing how Nagamma had changed. Her body was softer, rounder, her ghagra flared around her hips, and the half sari she still wore, curved around her chest. In the past year, Nagamma had become a woman.


Perhaps it was the new nose ring she wore, but Leela noticed too that Nagamma’s dark face gleamed like polished stone, and the curve of her cheek and perfect brows made her beautiful in a strange sculptural way.


‘Isn’t she pretty?’ she had once asked Vijay, and Vijay, whose eyes spared no woman, had looked at her aghast. ‘Chee,’ he had said, ‘she is a shudra. They cannot be pretty.’ And then he had given her that look, that told her she of all people should know what shudras were capable of …


So there it is, she had thought to herself. Nagamma is a servant, a servant’s daughter, and a servants’ granddaughter. And nothing, not even beauty, can change that. Not in this house at least.




In her heart of hearts, Leela also envied Nagamma. True, she had nothing that Leela had. Her father milked the buffaloes every evening under watchful eyes, letting the warm milk spurt into the containers of gleaming silver that Patti provided; Patti made sure that all the grandchildren drank it every evening and morning. He tended the garden, and stalked snakes when called upon to do so, but mostly was regarded by all as a layabout, living on the mercy of Patti and his own wife, Kalpakkam.


If Nagamma had nice clothes to wear sometimes, it was thanks to Kalpakam’s careful saving; more often than not, Leela’s ghagras would be passed on, and Leela would sometimes see herself reflected in her friend. For Nagamma’s coming of age ceremony, Patti, had given Kalpakam a new set of silk clothes for her daughter to wear, as well as the money for the red and white semi precious stone and gold nose ring that would be fitted into her nostril as a signal of her puberty.


And perhaps thanks to the rite of passage or to the nose ring, Nagamma seemed to gleam with a new maturity  that Leela could not quite fathom.


Till last year Leela often saw the girl on the edge of the house, sitting with her grandfather. The man was infirm, and toothless, and watery-eyed. His son ignored him, and only Kalpakkam’s tender mercies in providing him with a meal twice a day, kept him alive. Sometimes, Patti or Chitti would send some of the leftovers from the day’s meals to him and the old man would sit crosslegged under the lamp near the mango tree on a little cloth he would spread on the ground to partake of his banquet.


At such times, Nagamma would be his special guest. Leela had watched the little tableau over the years. The old man leaning forward taking each shaking morsel to his mouth, the young girl, her plait outlined on her back, sitting cross-legged in front of him, sometimes eating from the little leaf he filled now and then for her, other times talking animatedly as she watched her grandfather chew slowly.


There was in that small circle of light everything Leela yearned for. The older man was the symbol of special, uninhibited caring, which she herself had never ever known. Of course there was Patti who loved her with all the love of a grandmother, but there were so many Patti had to tend to in the summer vacations that the attention was never enough. Never quite like what Nagamma had. How Leela envied her those evenings.




Nagamma was beginning to find Leela boring. Of course they had been friends for years, one month per year, year after year. And when Leela came down, Nagamma often found she was given time off from her own chores. But since 'the incident', Leela was not quite the Leela of old. The long silences, the missing giggles, and now, this watchfulness that seemed to have entered her gaze when she looked at her friend; it disturbed Nagamma. Made her believe there was something that Leela knew that Nagamma herself did not know about herself.


Then there was Sunil. Nagamma spent a lot of time thinking of Sunil. She had met him only once, when he had come with his parents to ‘see’ her. For a possible engagement.


Nagamma had been told to wear her new clothes, the set that Pattiamma had given, and to wear flowers in her hair. And Sunil had looked at her straight in the eyes. She had liked what she saw. Tall, oiled hair slicked into a puff, tight pants, and shoes. Nobody she knew in her family wore shoes. He worked in an office, not like her father. Or even her elder sister, Lachimi’s, husband.


The question everyone was asking was, did Sunil’s parents like her? Like her enough to ask for an engagement?


She wished she could ask someone. Her grandfather would have known if he were alive. He could read the leaves. He used to do it to tell his own future. He had told her the exact day of his death, though then she had closed her mind to his words. It had happened on that exact day, she had gone to wake him, and he was not there in his body.


Her eyes filled when she thought of that and she had to quickly think of Sunil to make herself feel better.


Maybe he would hear her need and visit her in spirit to tell her what was in the future…


When the old man beckoned to her, she thought it was him. He stood in the shadows, and held a leaf in his hand. She ran up to him to find he was not her grandfather. It was the old cook. Well, not as old perhaps, as her grandfather, but older than her father…


‘Here, take this, it’s leftovers, but very nice,’ he whispered. ‘I know you enjoy this….’ She held out her hand, took the leaf, and folded it quickly to hide the food within. She would eat it at leisure. Maybe she would lure her grandfather’s spirit with it … under the mango tree.


But of course, the spirit would not come. Food was not of any interest. She ate, thinking of the times she had sat there with the old man, and then folded the leaf and threw it into the heap that would be carried to the cow shed in the morning.


There was something reassuring and fatherly about the cook. The way he stroked her hair as she took his gift of food. The soft endearment he whispered as she smiled her thanks. In him, maybe she could find the friend she had lost. There was nothing wrong in it; Pattiamma used to do the same, give her food, at times, though from a distance. When he suggested she eat with him, so he could talk to her, she readily agreed.


She sat with him at night then, sharing his meal before he went to his bed in the outhouse. Like my grandfather almost, she thought. Not under the mango tree anymore, that was too open. But under the arches of the outhouse. Where sometimes the night owl screeched as it hunted.


At such times she did not feel all grown up and womanly, it was like being a little girl again.




Leela saw the light spilling out of the outhouse, and it rang an alarm bell. Was He coming back to claim her? Her heart gave a lurch.


When she recognised Nagamma walking past, she almost called out. A stab of jealously went through her body. Nagamma was beautiful, she looked a woman, like a dark innocence, she thought.


The night light threw eerie shadows on the ground, the owl screeched, and Chitti called out to someone in her sleep. But Leela knew what was happening: He had returned. And Nagamma had trapped him in the fine black meshes of her hair, tempting him with fruit that Leela could not give.


Fickle man, she thought, spilling your attention on her who deserves it not. But I will win you back.


She watched, through the mesh doors as Nagamma crossed the lighted square of the portico, then passed under the trees into the dark, like a shadow in a dream. Oh love, she cried, I am here, why do you seek others in my stead.


She ran in and shook Chitti, who woke up eyes wide, mouth open to scream. Chitti was eternally waiting for a calamity, that would engulf them all. It had come. ‘What is it?’ she asked voice hoarse with sleep, ‘are you ill?’


Leela motioned Chitti to follow her, and leading her to the door, pointed to the light. ‘You cannot go there,’ Chitti announced, before turning back to return to her bed. ‘I told Rajam the girl was not quite cured,’ she added under her breath.


But Leela would not be quiet. Her blood sought action, and she would have it.




They walked up to the outhouse, and caught them. Leela trembled at the memory. Not Him, as she had imagined, but Nagamma and the cook. Lying in an embrace. Child and parent? Or lovers? No one was clear about that. The debate went on, in hushed tones, for weeks.


But Kalpakkam was clear in her mind. Sunil’s parents had not answered yet, but there were others. And she was not one to waste time in waiting. Nagamma would be wed within the week. Her husband-to-be was coming to marry her, a widower with a child who needed a young wife to look after his son.


‘That is unfair,’ Leela cried to Appa, ‘why is no one saying anything to the cook. He called her there, he gave her food, he tempted her.’


But no one gave her any answers. Least of all Nagamma.




This piece is excerpted from a novel in progress.



Sathya Saran is a writer, who is also a journalist. She spent twenty-six years with Femina during twelve of which she edited the magazine. She has also launched and edited a weekly magazine for women, called ME, for DNA. The short story and poetry have been strong features in both magazines while she edited them.

Her work has appeared in Out of Print. Her publications include a collection of short stories, The Dark Side, Manjul Publishers, 2007, the biography, Ten Years with Guru Dutt, Penguin India, 2008, and the collection, From Me to You, Westland, 2009. Her book on the composer S D Burman was published in 2014, and on the musical genius of Jagjit Singh in 2015, both by Harper Collins, India. She is currently working on a book for Plan India titled My Daughter, My Shakti.

Sathya also dabbles in theatre, loves travelling (luxury style or backpacking as the occasion dictates).