Daughters of Kali
by Neesha Meminger
The mother grasped her daughter’s hands tightly. “Rein it in, my love. You know not your own power.” And here she looked at the ground, searching, searching. “I will not be there to guide you the entire path, but promise me—your urge will be strong. Do not give in.”
The girl looked deep into her mother’s eyes and saw a kind of pleading she’d never seen before. She nodded, not knowing to what her mother was referring—only that it was of the utmost importance.
And then she stepped into the doli, to leave everyone and everything she’d ever known behind. To be carried to her new husband’s village. She would see his face for the first time that night.
They were a family of men. Her husband and his brother had lost their father a year ago and their mother had died some years back. Now, the only woman among them was a distant cousin who had gone blind in her old age.
The day the girl arrived, the sky was the blue of a peacock’s neck.
The blind old cousin examined the girl’s dowry. The girl knew it was adequate. Her family was not excessively wealthy, but her parents had bought the best of everything. Besides, the old woman couldn’t see her own nose.
The old woman grunted her acceptance. And then, “You’ll not sleep in the same quarters as your husband tonight.”
The girl looked up. “But… we are married.”
“I decide what is to be done,” the woman said. Her voice was soft and deadly. “I decide what is custom, what is tradition, and what is religion. I also decide punishment. If you are sent home, your entire family will lose face. They’ll not marry off any of the others.” She looked the girl in the eye. “Word spreads quickly when a family has raised wild girls who will one day become unmanageable wives.”
The girl’s throat felt as if it were lined with grains of sand.
That night, she slept in a narrow cot, the bells of her anklets tinkling for her ears alone.
The next day, her husband met her outside her door. How long he’d been waiting, she didn’t know. She wore one of the lovely salwaar suits she’d brought. It was a pale blue chiffon that made her feel like she was wrapped in the sky, its breezes caressing her limbs whenever she moved.
He’d been sitting, leaning against the wall when she opened the door. He scrambled up. “Did you sleep well?”
She smiled and looked into his eyes. She was not raised to be demure. “Well enough. And you?”
He smiled too, relaxing his shoulders just a little. “I was worried about you. Auntie can be harsh sometimes, but she loves us. She’s always looking out for us since Mother died.”
“I understand,” the girl said. She would not speak ill of her husband’s family. She wanted to know more about his mother, but didn’t want to pry should it be a painful topic.
An awkward moment of silence stretched between them. The girl wondered if he expected her to touch his feet in wifely respect. She remained standing. Her mother had said she needn’t lower herself for any but the Greatest of all Forces.
And that certainly isn’t this young man, handsome though he might be, she thought, wanting to giggle.
When the old woman began shouting instructions downstairs, he indicated silently that they should descend.
She followed him down the narrow steps, noting his broad shoulders and the play of light and shadow as the silk of his kurta slipped and slid over his muscles.
The old woman’s nostrils flared when the two stepped into the courtyard. “Finally awake, are you?” she said, facing the girl.
Nothing seemed to get by the old goat, blind or not. The girl looked at her husband.
He stared at the ground.
Coward. She ground her teeth.
“There’s work to be done,” the old woman said. “Let’s see your rotis, girl. The boys need three each, two for me, and several to have on hand.”
“But…” the girl protested, “my mehndi has not yet faded.”
The woman laughed. “There is no one here to see your mehndi.”
The girl looked again at her husband. Tell her YOU are here to see my mehndi.
Thunder rumbled in the distance and he looked toward the sound. “I’ll go cover the grain in the courtyard,” he muttered, and hurried out.
“Yes,” the old woman said, following him. “Better do it now, lest we’re caught unawares by a downpour.”
The girl stared at her hands. The intricate swirls and curls of mehndi had deepened into the darkest of maroons. A stain most brides would envy.
“It will take years for this mehndi to fade,” her girlfriends had teased. “You’ll lounge in your in-laws’ courtyard while the servants bustle around you.”
“Yes,” laughed another, “no chores for our princess!”
Then they’d kissed her cheeks.
The stain on her hands darkened in the spots where tears fell, mingling with the rain that had opened the skies.
She ran to take cover. Was this what Mother was referring to when she advised her to rein it in?
She began adding water to flour.
The rotis were not perfectly round.
The old woman was livid. “Did no one teach you to make proper rotis?”
But you are blind, the girl thought. You cannot even see what you are eating, you old bat. But she bit her tongue.
The men ate her buttered, hot rotis and gobi subzi with cumin seeds that had been roasted until the entire alley was fragrant, the way her grandmother had taught her.
Her husband flicked shy glances her way as he ate.
She cut her eyes away from him.
After breakfast, she was ordered to do the dishes. She heard the women outside in the alley. “She’s a new bride, for god’s sake, Anmol. She shouldn’t be soiling her hands with housework!”
“Then who will do what needs to be done?” came the old woman’s retort.
Another woman harrumphed. “Call the servant girl back. You got rid of her days before the bride came.”
“She’s a new mouth to feed,” the old woman said. “Soon she’ll have screaming children that will need to be fed. We don’t have money trees for servants.”
“Your boy has a good government job, Anmol. Your farm yields plenty of mustard and wheat. You have more than enough for servants.”
“You know nothing,” the old woman snapped.
The girl’s husband did have a job with the government, in Bombay. He worked at the silk board and was gone for months at a time. Whenever he returned, his trunks were packed with luxurious bolts of fabric and saris for her. She would dump them all on their bed and lie in them, savoring their smell and the way they flowed around her skin.
They made love during his short visits home. They were clumsy and awkward in the beginning, neither having known another before. But they learned, going immediately to where they’d left off the time before—studying the curves and mounds of one another’s bodies.
He’d begun to speak up more when his aunt the berated the girl—insulting her cooking, cleaning, or appearance. But still… not as ardently as the girl would have liked. And yet, he was endearing. The way his eyes grew round and glittered whenever she entered a room, the dimple in his left cheek, the way he listened so carefully for the colors she loved and brought home fabric or saris in those exact shades upon his next visit.
She held those weekends close while he was gone. The memory of being with him was the only thing that made the rest of the days tolerable.
Their joy brought a glint of evil in the eye of her husband’s brother. Her husband never saw it because his eyes and heart were trained on her. But she saw it, plain as the sun in the sky.
Her brother-in-law did not have a wife. She found it odd that no one talked about why, particularly since he was the elder of the two boys. She heard the whispers of the women in the village.
He was married once, but he killed his wife…
Their mother went the same way, you know.
The girls of this family are ill-fated. Let the young bride take care…
She paid them no mind. She was used to gossip. Her mother was an unconventional woman who caused the village women to whisper like leaves in a storm. Her mother was a woman who’d never bowed to touch her father’s feet as custom dictated. She wore what she wished. She had two girls and refused to “try for a boy.” She adored and educated her daughters, and she did so with aplomb, often showing her affection in public.
The only reason Mother was never sent packing was that Father stood directly in the line of fire whenever anyone had anything to say. “My wife does all she does with my blessing. If anyone takes issue, let him come to me.”
And come to him, they did. All the husbands and fathers and uncles regularly harassed him for setting a poor example and allowing his wife and girls far too much freedom. “You’ll have all the women of the village wanting the same treatment, Harbir! What will become of our traditions and way of life?”
But her father never budged. And while the other women in the village set their feet on prescribed paths, they did so with a hint of mischief. Just a small sidestep every now and then, much to Mother’s secret delight.
But the girl’s brother-in-law was not like the men of her family. Nor was he like the men of her village. Her husband was more so, but even he lacked the thread of steel she’d always known in her kinsmen.
Still, she had faith in her mother’s choice. They’d chosen this family carefully, had met the boy, had consulted with family members who were more familiar with the lineage of her husband’s family. The astrologer had said it was a good match.
And yet the days were long. Her rotis became fluffy and perfectly round with so much practice. The marble floors gleamed, even in the courtyard. She swallowed the old woman’s threats and scoldings. She avoided her brother-in-law at every turn.
And then she was with child. Her body rounded like the plump spheres of roti dough. Her breasts began to spill out of her suit necklines. Her skin shone with a buttery glow, brushed in various spots with a dusting of rose. Her husband brought home sweets from Bombay, and more luxurious silks. He couldn’t keep his hands and eyes off her. And she discovered she enjoyed this even more as her body filled and grew.
Their partings were insufferable now. What she had managed to tolerate before, cut into her now. She was tormented by bad dreams and, like a petulant child, she wanted to yell back at the old woman and spit into the food before serving it.
But worst of all, she began to fear her brother-in law.
His gaze seemed to zero in on her breasts and settle there for far longer than ever before, and a kind of rage sizzled just underneath. She’d mentioned it to her husband the last time, but he’d dismissed her concerns. “He can be unreasonable and domineering, yes, but he won’t bother you.”
“No, this is not like when you were children,” she’d said firmly, “when you took one another’s toys. This… this is different. You have a wife and he does not.”
He’d turned on her. “He won’t bother you. Now leave it be.”
She wouldn’t. “Why isn’t he married?”
He’d glared at her. “He was married.”
“His wife left him.”
She stared at him. It was a great dishonor for a woman to return to her parental home after marriage. “No woman would walk out into the world alone, without protection. What would become of her?”
He said nothing.
Her heart pounded fiercely as the village women’s gossip crowded her thoughts. “What happened to her?”
His eyes dropped to stare at the backs of his hands. “It was her choice,” he said quietly. “I begged her not to leave whenever she’d speak of it, but in the end… she did as she pleased. She left.”
The girl fought the overwhelming urge to pound her fists into his chest. “She couldn’t stand it as much as I cannot!” Her eyes flashed. “I know why she left. If I was married to him, I’d choose whatever unmentionable fate awaited me out there, too.”
He stood, clenching his fists. “Watch what you say. He is my brother. He’s looked after me since we were children. When our father came home drunk and pounded on our mother or on me, my brother was the one who stepped in. He came between Father and whomever he was aiming for. He had his nose broken, his shoulders snapped out of their sockets…”
He pressed his lips into a thin line and stalked out, leaving the next day without so much as a good-bye.
She wanted to tell him his brother was not that little boy anymore. That something ugly had taken root during those beatings, and had grown. A seed their father planted with his anger and hate had been spit into the fertile soil of a young boy’s mind, and she saw its leaves in her brother-in-law’s eyes.
She wanted to show her husband this. But she knew he would not see.
A boy. He spilled out of her with nothing more than a cough. As was customary, she’d gone back to her own village to give birth. She’d walked barefoot on the cold, cement floors for hours throughout the night. She’d moaned and rocked against her mother and the remaining girlfriends – those who had not yet been married and gone to live in their new homes. Her paternal grandmother was there, her aunts, all her female cousins. She was wrapped in joy and warmth, even as her body convulsed with the pains of labor.
Her father played cards with the men outside while the contractions came, closer together with each passing hour. She knew Father’s face would be etched deep with worry creases until she emerged, healthy and whole.
Her son was healthy. The midwife massaged him, blessed him, and handed him to his mother. He found her breast and suckled immediately. The joy of bonding with this bundle of flesh and bones imbued with a drop of her very own soul, was immeasurable.
Her father beamed, sending word right away to her husband’s family. She was miles away from them physically and in every other sense as well. She remembered carefree happiness. She remembered joy. She remembered her mother’s immoveable protection.
The khusras, men who behaved and dressed as women, surrounded the doorway to the home, clapping and singing songs until they were paid handsomely for their celebrations.
A week later, her family received a telegraph stating that her brother-in-law had the local sweet-maker produce enough laddoos to feed the entire village and distributed them himself.
Lies, the girl thought.
“I don’t want to go back,” she said to her mother.
The baby was growing fat with breastmilk. He woke only twice during the night now and someone—an aunt, a cousin, or Mother—would bring him to her when he needed feeding. Otherwise, she was left to heal and rest.
Her mother’s eyes hardened. “You must go back. This is no longer your home.”
The girl’s voice cracked. “It is my only home. They will never be my family!”
Her mother pointed one long, slender finger toward the boy that lay soundly in the rocking basket at the girl’s side. “He is your family. And he needs his father.” She turned her finger to point in the direction of the girl’s husband’s village. “That is where his father dwells, and that is where you now belong.”
The girl choked back a sob. “You have no idea what it’s like there.”
The mother’s voice softened. “Oh, but I do, my love. Trust me, I do. There are things you will learn. We do not create the path – we only navigate it. This is your path, child. In another moon you will return to your home.”
And the girl did.
With her son strapped to her back, she took the horse-drawn tanga back to the village of her husband.
He was there, waiting for her.
“They gave me leave,” he said, hefting her trunks up the steps to their room. “I am home for the next two nights.” His eyes lit upon the crown of the boy wrapped up in the fabric of the sling carrier. “This is my boy… ?”
The girl resisted the urge to recoil and shout, “No, it is my boy. It is my body he tore out of and my milk he thrives on!”
Her husband reached out a furtive hand to stroke the child’s downy head. The child stirred, as if irritated, shifted position and continued sleeping in his mother’s arms.
“So small… is he really ours?”
The girl was annoyed. “Of course he is,” she snapped. “Go now. I’m weary; I need to rest.”
She registered the hurt in his eyes, but she hadn’t the energy to stroke it away. She had seen the thunderous look on the old woman’s face when she’d arrived. And the scowl on her brother-in-law was enough to make her want to turn the tanga around right then and there.
But this was her home now, Mother had said. We do not create the path – we only navigate it.
The girl slept, waking only to feed her son and eat. She heard the raging words outside her closed door:
Who will make the rotis?
She can’t lie around forever; this is not her mother’s house!
These were countered by the soft-spoken pleas of her husband. She knew once he was gone, she would have no buffer. Soon she would have to return to her chores. And now she would have to do them whilst tending to an infant.
She didn’t have to tend to the child for long. As soon as the boy began toddling around, her in-laws swept him up, and away from her. They bounced him on their knees, the old woman cooed to him, the brother-in-law had cricket bats hand-carved for the child.
Whenever the boy was ill or needed changing, they brought him to her. Whenever he was irritable or ill-tempered, he was dropped in her lap without so much as a word. They fed him things she did not want him eating, filling his belly with the airplane-shaped candy from the sweet-maker’s hut.
The child adored them, his uncle and Dadi.
The girl told him over and over, in hushed tones, that the old woman was not his Dadi. His Dadi had died years ago. But it was no use.
The old woman loved the term and reinforced it at every opportunity. “Come to your Dadi, beta!”
The girl stewed silently. She sent letters home to her girlfriends. She complained to her husband when he was home. But there was nothing she could do other than watch as her son was gradually sifted out of her grasp.
“Why do you fret?” her husband would say. “Our son has a strong relationship with his uncle and grandmother. This is good. They dote on him.”
“She is not his grandmother,” the girl snapped.
“She’s the closest he’ll ever have to a Dadi,” he countered, frowning in annoyance. “Would you rob him of what you’ve enjoyed so thoroughly throughout your own life?”
She wanted to spit fire at him. That old woman was nothing like her own Dadi! But the girl bit her tongue.
The child was at least a diversion. The attention of her brother-in-law and the old woman was not focused solely on her now. They paraded the boy around the village, as if they had, themselves, created him by hand.
The girl was astonished by her fervent desire to claw out their eyes and rip out their tongues. But she reined it in. She held back the words, the shower of bullets she wanted to let loose, and focused, instead, on cherishing the moments she had with her son. When she was rubbing coconut oil on his limbs after a bath, when she was combing his hair and coiling it into a top knot, when she was boiling herbs and honey for a cough, holding his desperate and needy body against hers. She was his mother. It was the one thing none of her in-laws would ever be, regardless of how hard they pulled at her boy.
The skies had been menacing lately, with only fleeting glimpses of blue here and there. Downpours swept regularly across the land and lightning sliced the heavens. The villagers worried for their crops, wondering what on earth the gods were upset about.
The temples held prayers for days on end, pleading with the Great Forces to stop the flooding of their fields.
The girl, who was now a mother, looked at the gentle swell of her belly. This one would be a girl. She knew it without having to ask the midwife or astrologer. She had seen the child in a dream that was not a dream. The seedling in her belly would grow up to be a fierce young woman. Her son would marry a woman he would worship. The girl, who was now a mother, knew she would have three more boys after this girl. One would never marry and one would become a religious zealot, preaching the opposite of Truth to the masses. She scowled at this.
We do not create the path – we only navigate it.
Still, for now there was this kernel of truth in her belly. And she made the mistake of uttering it.
“I’ll have Mother stitch me a new sling carrier for the girl,” she’d muttered, looking at the loose thread of the one she’d used for her son.
Her brother-in-law’s eyes narrowed. “What girl?”
She turned to face him and, without thinking, proclaimed, “I shall have a daughter.”
“There will be no daughters under this roof.” His voice held a growl.
“There will certainly be one.”
He grabbed her wrist and dragged her up the stairs.
She stumbled and fell, clutching her belly, shouting and screaming. “Stop! You’ll force me to release her!”
“Get rid of her, then! She’ll not poison this home. We need boys to tend to the land and safeguard the accomplishments of our forefathers. Girls are useless.”
He opened the door to a small, musty room and flung her onto the floor. “I’m going to find Seeto. She will give you a concoction. If you don’t drink it, I will force it down your throat.” Then he shut the door.
The girl heard a padlock slide and click into place as she stood and ran to the door. She banged on it, yelling for someone—anyone—to let her free. To help her. “Bachao!” she screamed. “Help!”
Hot tears fell onto the floor. The skies rumbled above, drowning her words.
No one came.
She leaned heavily against the door, her knuckles raw and shredded from pounding, and placed a hand on her belly. There was a small movement. The first of her daughter’s kicks from the womb. Slowly, she raised her other hand to the wildly thudding heart in her chest.
NO, she thought. No, no, no, no, no!
And, little by little, something began to shift inside her.
Every cell membrane in her body began to dissolve, spilling its contents into the next cell. The smallest ripple began in the very center of her being—where her breath began, and grew.
She held her hands out in front of her, fingers spread wide, and saw them disintegrate and disappear before her. Her eyes grew large and round as her feet and legs disappeared, turning into dark wisps of air that curled up, toward the small window near the ceiling.
She would rein it in no longer.
She closed her eyes and willed it—whatever it was—to take hold of her, to roar to life, and it did. The girl-child in her belly stirred, but the woman wrapped the dark mist around the child, who was a gleaming nugget now, and the entire mist swept up and out, through the window.
Once outside, the woman held fast to the nugget, but she reveled in the freedom. She spread and joined with the darkening clouds. She took hold of a bolt of lightning and speared a large pippal tree. She gurgled with abandon, twirling and somersaulting with her nugget of gold.
On the ground, she saw her brother-in-law walking along a path, getting drenched in the rain that had begun to soak the ground. She formed herself into the face he knew high and above him as a dark storm cloud.
He stared at her in horror, falling backward. “Churail! Witch!”
She laughed in sheer delight. No words would come forth in this form, but she grabbed another bolt of lightning and aimed it at him.
He brought his hands up to shield his face and she laughed again, dropping the bolt to the ground.
A clap of thunder boomed above her and she stared up into the darkness from whence she had emerged, longing to return into its folds.
She took one look back at her terror-stricken brother-in-law, laughed, then flew across the land, flowing in and out of the great expanse that formed her, and that she, in return, helped form.
She stopped in Bombay. There, in a tiny office, was her husband, his back bent as he worked furiously in the heat. Her heart softened. This was what he did all that time away, to bring her luxurious silks, to bring money home for the old woman and his brother.
She reached in, shaping herself into an arm, and grabbed him.
He widened his eyes in alarm.
She smiled, gurgling in pleasure as she formed another part of herself into a mouth and began to sip at the soul of him. She was completely immersed in feasting. He was delectable, her husband, sweet like a rose-scented lassi.
But then she saw his eyes. They were filled with horror.
She promptly dropped him and withdrew, pained by the expression on his face. He lay, trembling, his body jerking in fits on the floor—pale and near death. No. This was not what she wanted at all. She wanted him to join her. She did not want that look in his eyes or to be the cause of his death.
She blew onto him, a warm waft of air filled with the love in her heart. I shall not harm you, my husband, she whispered into the breeze.
His eyes filled with understanding and he nodded, smiling weakly as color slowly returned to his face.
She spread, then, and drew back up into the skies—black now with thunder and crackling with bolts of light—and allowed herself to be swept along, wondering. There was confusion. She did not know what she was, nor how she had become this.
She cradled the nugget at her center.
And then she saw her mother’s village. She saw her mother, shielding her eyes with one hand as she raised her face to the skies. Just as when the woman was a child, high within the arms of a tall tree, her mother gestured scornfully for her to come down now.
The dark mist curled down to the ground, filling what looked like an invisible bottle shaped in the woman’s physical form and then fleshing her out. She poured into this invisible vessel like sand in an hourglass, and stood, breathless and triumphant, before her mother.
Her eyes sparkled and she couldn’t keep the grin from her face. She felt like she was five-years-old again.
“And so you’ve found your path,” her mother said.
“What is it, Mother?” the woman asked. “Who am I? What am I?”
Her mother smiled. “You are a daughter of Kali, my child. As am I, and my mother before me and her mother before her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We all must find our own path. I did not know if this would be yours, my love.” Then she added, almost with disappointment, “It has not been your sister’s.”
“Kali…” the girl repeated, her eyes growing large. “But she is the destroyer!”
“In the name of creation,” her mother corrected. Her voice grew fierce with the import of her words and she placed her hands on her daughter’s belly. “Only in the name of creation.”
The woman nodded, taking one of her mother’s hands and holding it against her cheek. “And how will I learn to use it? I nearly killed my husband!”
The mother laughed. “Oh, my darling, we’ve all done that at least once before we learned to rein it in.” Her eyes sparkled. “You will be guided, my sweet.” She swept her arm toward the heavens. “You are not alone.”
The girl whispered, “How many of us walk the earth and heavens?”
Her mother did not answer the question; giving in, instead, to a secret smile. As she turned to leave, she said, “The urge to destroy will be strong. You are the divine combination of love and rage. Trust your instincts, my heart. Now go. Back to your path.”More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Characters of color, Desi authors, Hindu mythology, India, Indian authors, South Asia, South Asian speculative fiction, Women authors