Something had changed. The night air thickened. His breathing slowed. The temperature dropped to freezing, and he felt the unmistakable presence of something otherworldly.
“Swami Ji, is it over?” Karthik asked, eyes closed and hands folded tightly. There was no response. An echoing silence pressed on his eardrums as he strained to see with his ears. Suddenly, an ear-splitting scream rang out and his eyes flew open of their own accord.
“Pazhi ku pazhi, pazhi ku pazhi! (revenge for revenge)! Ha ha ha ha!”
A young woman stood in front of him. With eyes as red as fire and her long tresses strewn all over her shoulders, she looked wild. An electric energy shrouded her figure and grey mist billowed from the red saree she wore. Anger radiated off her in waves. In her right hand, she held a thick silver anklet.
That anklet jolted something in his memory; distant thoughts of an angry woman and fire.
Karthik scooted away, dragging the aasan with him. “Who? What?” Oh, Amman! How did I land here?
The sequence of events that had led him to this point, didn’t seem remotely like divine intervention now. More like a sick joke.
Karthik was trying to slip outside unnoticed when the door creaked and Kanaka, his wife, came stomping out of the kitchen.
“Off to play cards again?” She glared at him.
“N..No, I was just…” he began, but Kanaka jabbed a threatening finger at him. “You’ve been lounging at home for three months, mister. We have bills to pay and you gamble away all our savings! If you don’t find another job soon, we are going to starve!”
“I am the man of the house! I don’t have to take this nonsense.”
“E??a? Why don’t you come here and say that again?” Kanaka beckoned imperiously.
He waved a hand in dismissal and stepped out the door quickly. As it banged shut, the stack of mail in the letter holder got dislodged, and fell to the floor. Cursing, he picked them up. A glossy black business card caught his eye. Tiny gold lettering on the card proclaimed:
One-stop solution for all your worries
Specialist in horoscope reading, Nava Graha Shanti, Connecting with your ancestors.
Contact Add: Thalaipattam, Kovai
Karthik had never been much of a believer but one meeting couldn’t hurt. Maybe this Swami could do some voodoo and help him gain untold fortunes! He noted the address and hailed a rickshaw.
Swami ji’s ‘office’ was a faded blue tarpaulin, pitched precariously on two sticks, in an abandoned warehouse. Assorted knick-knacks of puja karma lay strewn about the place. There was a cast-iron havankund in the centre of the clearing, with wicker mats placed on either side of the smouldering pyre. Swami ji was seated cross-legged on one of them, eyes closed. He was dressed in the attire of sadhus; bhagwa uttariya and dhoti.
“Namaskaram, Swami Ji,” Karthik said softly.
Swami ji opened his eyes and smiled benignly. “Come. You’ve come to the right place.” He instructed Karthik to sit on the other mat.
“Swami ji, I am Karthik. I received your card in the mail.”
“Say no more,” Swami ji boomed. “Tell me, what is your relation to the woman who troubles you?”
Karthik suppressed a cry of astonishment. “H… How?”
“Nothing is hidden from me.”
“Yes, Swami ji. You are right! It’s my wife. She won’t leave me alone. Always asking for money; always ordering me to get a job. We… our finances are a bit weak.”
“Not to worry, my child!” Swami boomed. “I have the exact mantra for you. But it is extremely strong, and I will be taking a risk. It may backfire on me! So you will have to compensate for it. Drop in your donations in the hundiyal.”
“But, I have nothing to offer,” Karthik said, apprehensively.
“Oh, but you do,” Swami ji glanced pointedly at the gold chain lying in the folds of Karthik’s coffee brown neck. When Karthik hesitated, he continued, “I will call upon a spirit so potent that all your difficulties will melt away!” He winked, and Karthik felt the stirrings of new hope. Obediently, he dropped his chain into the donation pot.
Swami ji stuffed the pot in his jhola. Then he stoked the pyre and began the puja. He started chanting a mantra and his words echoed in the silence; the reverberation of his chanting speeding up exponentially.
He peeked at Karthik, who had his eyes closed.
He stole a glance at the pages of the book under his thigh, where the enchantments were scribbled in hand. The worn-out volume had once belonged to a ‘real’ Swami, learned in the lore. It had been a stroke of genius on his part to steal it during a samagam. The book was full of complicated spell work and incantations.
He squinted at the page and absently dug his nose with a finger. What was that word? He tripped over several syllables and carried on unfalteringly; surreptitiously wiping his finger on his shawl. It wasn’t as if he was actually going to summon anything. He just wanted this Karthik to believe he was.
After reciting the mantra for thirty minutes, with increasing fervour and dramatic hand gestures, he gave a final theatrical offering of ghee to the pyre and instantly realized that he’d spoken too soon.
The spectre swooped through the air and grabbed Karthik’s shirt collar with her left hand. “Yen kanavana kalvan? Neethi kaatha maaperum Pandiya manan neeya? (Is my husband a thief? Are you the Pandiya King; the custodian of justice?”
“Madam! I am no one!” Karthik wailed.
Abruptly, the woman’s ice-cold fingers tightened on his neck. His eyes bugged out in horror. He shuddered violently and prised her fingers off his neck. Then, he turned tail and ran for his life.
“Nil, yenga odugiraay. Unn ootathai paarthu Tamilagame sirikiradhu, nil (Wait! Where are you running? The whole Tamil world is laughing at you now, looking at you running. Stop)!”
Karthik did not stop. He kept murmuring the Kanda sashti kavasam (prayer to lord Muruga) under his lips. As he turned into the street that led to his house, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He screamed. The woman laughed. She didn’t seem to need feet, or even basic physics to follow him.
“Who are you?!” He cried.
“Don’t you know who I am, Oh, King? I am Kannagi, wife of Kovalan from Pumpughar.”
“What?” Kannagi? THE Kannaki amman? He shook his head and looked wildly around.
“Look, lady,” he raised his hands in a placatory gesture. “I don’t know who you are. See here.” He pulled out his pitifully thin wallet and offered it to her. “That’s all I have left. But, please stop playing tricks with me!”
“Money? You are offering me money, oh, foolish King! Will this money bring back my husband?” She let out a deafening roar, and Karthik hurtled through the air.
“No!” He screamed. “Please let me down! Okay, I believe you. You are indeed Kannagi. But I am not who you think I am!”
“Then who are you, O fool?”
“Yes, I am a fool. I am Karthik, wife name – Kanaka and from Kovai (Coimbatore), not from Madurai.”
“No! This is Kovai. You are in the wrong location.”
Suddenly, Karthik dropped to the ground with a sickening thud. He stood up gingerly and without a backward glance hurried over the threshold of his house, quickly closing the door behind him.
But even before he could breathe a sigh of relief, he found the spirit sitting comfortably on the living room couch.
“Please leave me alone!”
“Leave alone?” Kanaka called from the kitchen. “Karthik?”
“Yes… Kanna,” he added lest Kanaka get suspicious.
“Kanna? Someone is in a romantic mood,” she said sarcastically.
“You will take me to Madurai,” Kannagi said at the same time, nodding assertively.
“Why should I take you to Madurai? You are a spirit! Why can’t you just… just fly there?”
“Madurai, ya?” Kanaka came into the living room, wiping her hands on the pallu of her saree.
“Nothing…” said Karthik, turning to face his wife and foolishly placing himself in front of Kannagi. Then he realized Kanaka could not even see her. “Just… just a job prospect,” he cottoned on.
Kanaka frowned. “You didn’t tell me about any prospect.”
“Kanna, I asked around after I left here. Got to know about it from… a friend. You won’t know him. He has referred me to the CEO of the company.”
Two screeches rang out in the small living room, but only Karthik heard both. He stood rooted to the spot, unable to decide whether to answer Kanaka or Kannagi?
“Err… Pumpughar Enterprises Pvt. Ltd., in Madurai,” he invented wildly.
“What kind of name is that?” Kanaka snorted and dropped to the couch, missing the intangible Kannagi by centimetres.
“I would like to meet this fool of Pumpughar,” Kanaka said, and stood up, posing dramatically; one hand loose and the other fist clenched, high in the air.
Shocked, Karthik realized she was mimicking Kannagi’s pose from the many drawings and statues they’d seen.
“Enna sonne? Fool aaa? (What did you say? A fool, is it?)” Kannagi loomed over the unsuspecting Kanaka in a blinding fury, her cold hand creeping uncomfortably closer to her neck. Terrified, Karthik pulled Kanaka to him, and Kannagi’s wispy hand passed harmlessly through the air.
“You’re in a state tonight!” Kanaka nudged him on the cheek, almost playfully. But, Karthik was still staring at Kannagi in a silent plea.
“What’re you looking at?”
“Oh, nothing.” He steered her to the other side of the room.
“Do you know much about Pumpughar? About this… ah, Kannagi?” He asked, as the spectre let out a snort of derision and settled on the couch again.
Kanaka was watching Karthik with concern. “Are you okay, Karthik? You seem… worried.”
Karthik swallowed the lump in his throat. “No, no. Nothing like that. Tell me,” He asked again, forcing his features into a smile.
Kanaka sighed, “Well, Kannagi lived in Pumpughar. She was the epitome of muliebrity. Her husband, Kovalan, fell for a dancer, Madhavi, and completely forgot about his wife! Kannagi was distraught. Yet, when he realised his mistake, she accepted him with an open heart.
Then they moved to Madurai. But, they didn’t have any money, because Kovalan had squandered it all on his concubine! So, Kannagi gave him one of her cilambam (round hollow anklets) to sell.
But, fate was waiting for Kannagi with another test. Over in the palace, the Pandiya Queen’s cilambam went missing. When Kovalan walked into a pawn shop, the royal guards apprehended him, mistaking Kannagi’s cilambam with the Queen’s. The King sentenced him to death.
When Kannagi heard of this, she inquired about the missing anklet, only to realise that the queen’s anklet was filled with pearls while Kannagi’s anklet was filled with rubies. And, the King had murdered Kovalan without even bothering to investigate! She was furious at the injustice.”
Kanaka shrugged, “You know this story. It is the stuff of legends. Why are you making me repeat it?”
“Just curious,” he said evasively. “So, this is just a story then? Something to scare the children, no?” Karthik couldn’t hide the anticipation in his voice. Please, let this be a story.
“Illai, it is real,” Kanaka said simply, and Karthik’s world came shattering down again. The Kannagi of the legends was sitting in his living room.
“I should leave right away,” he murmured, and Kannagi nodded as if to say, you better.
“Enanga, saapadu? (Mister? food?)” Kanaka objected.
“Illai, Kanna, I’ll reach there by morning if I leave now. Otherwise, I’ll be late for the interview.”
He hastily packed a bag and left, his invisible companion in tow.
“What is this thing?”
“It’s a train.”
“A vehicle to take people from one place to another.”
“Where’re the oxen?”
“It runs on the horsepower of the engines…”
“Oh, horses pull it? Mighty vehicle,” Kannagi stared in awe.
Karthik shook his head incredulously and bought his ticket.
“Where is my token?”
“But, nobody can see you.”
“So? I will not take advantage of honest working people! It’s dishonourable!”
Deciding to avoid any further argument, Karthik bought a second ticket and they boarded the train.
The journey was the most gruelling five hours of his life. Kannagi kept up a running commentary of how different the world looked from her window, and Karthik muttered responses under his breath, lest someone see him talking to himself and throw him bodily off the train.
“Kannagi Amman,” he ventured, “We’re going to Madurai, but there is no king there.”
Kannagi’s eyebrows contracted. “Are you misleading me? Are you the King’s spy?”
“No, no. I am not a spy! You saw where I live. I am jobless, truly inefficient, talentless. If there was a King, he wouldn’t even appoint me to clean his shoes. But, that’s not the point,” he added hastily. “I’m aware of only Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal in Madurai, and trust me, it is nothing like a palace.”
“Enough!” Kannagi bellowed. “Take me to Madurai and prove your innocence.”
Karthik sighed. “Okay. We’ll go to this palace. But afterwards, you will leave me alone, yes?”
Kannagi stared at him for a long moment before she nodded.
They reached Madurai just as day was breaking. Karthik’s stomach rumbled loudly and he made his way to an eatery.
“Anna orru jigarthanda (Brother, one jigarthanda). Fast please.”
“Jigarthanda?” Kannagi’s eyes alighted with a new spark, “What is that? I’ll also have,” she said.
Karthik couldn’t believe his ears. Could spirits eat? He ordered another round of the same drink anyway.
After the waiter left, Kannagi lifted her glass and swallowed the drink in one quick gulp. “Amurtham!” She said with delight. “Kovalan never gave me tasty drinks.”
Karthik couldn’t help but smile at the naked joy in her eyes. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the owner gaping at him. He guffawed imagining how the man would justify witnessing a glass of jigarthanda levitate in the air and vanish in seconds.
To Karthik’s amusement, the owner didn’t charge him a single rupee. He just wanted him gone.
They took an autorickshaw to the Nayakkar Palace. Karthik wanted to leave Kannagi at the gates and flee. But he couldn’t. The time he’d spent with her, he had witnessed a side of Kannagi not many were aware of. She was such an innocent woman; finding joy in small things like a train ride or a drink. He felt oddly protective of her and so, against his better judgement, he accompanied her.
As soon as Kannagi stepped inside the palace, she transformed into a ball of rage and fire. She dashed across the paved driveway, screaming, “Pandia manna… engey irukiraai? Kannagi varuval enna therindu oyindhuvitaaya? (Pandiya King… where are you? Did you hide, since Kannagi has come?)”
She ran helter-skelter with the silver anklet raised high in her right hand. She searched for the unjust King, screaming for him to show his face, challenging the Royal Army. But, the Palace held no sign of royalty. Only normal people doing normal things. Boisterous families on holiday, shy couples on honeymoon, and children scampering about the place like over-enthusiastic monkeys.
Baffled, Kannagi halted in the courtyard. Anguished tears flowed freely from her eyes as she took in the happy smiles of the tourists.
“Where is the King?”
“Kannagi amma,” he said, his voice gentle. “I told you there was no palace anymore. You lived thousands of years ago. The world has moved on. Madurai has moved on.”
“But… My revenge!” Kannagi cried out, the pain inside her threatening to overwhelm her.
“You already exacted your revenge.”
“I did? How?”
“You confronted the King in his court, broke this anklet and proved Kovalan’s innocence. The King and Queen died of guilt. And…”
“And then you burnt the whole city of Madurai into ashes.”
Kannagi gasped. She looked around her in horror as some long-forgotten memory rekindled behind her red eyes.
“I killed innocent people! The King was my culprit, and I sacrificed so many in the fire of my hatred!” Kannagi wailed.
Karthik sat quietly beside her and let her cry. The intensity of her remorse was suffocating. She needed to let it all out.
“Kannagi,” he said when her sobs had died down. “You need to let go of all the anger you have kept bottled inside you. You need to leave your past behind.”
Kannagi fell silent, ruminating over his words. She looked at him thoughtfully.
“You have been inordinately kind to me, Karthik,” she said. “Even though you knew what I’d done. You are right, I cannot do anything to change the past. But, perhaps, I can do something to change the future?”
Karthik looked at her puzzled. Kannagi placed the silver anklet in his hands. “Please accept this, as a token of my gratitude. Break it open and use the rubies for your family.”
Karthik opened his mouth to protest, but she shook her head. “Once, I trusted a man and gave him its sister to sell. That trust was misplaced. But, please, let this one be in the possession of someone I know is worthy.”
She smiled and then, just as suddenly, she disappeared.
Karthik sat motionless staring at the anklet. “Thank you,” he murmured to the wind.
A bell jingled as Karthik opened the door and stepped inside the Pawn Shop. The shopkeeper glanced at him inquiringly from behind the counter and Karthik put his hand inside his pocket to withdraw the anklet, when he heard a voice.
Karthik… remember, this is Madurai.
He started. The shopkeeper furrowed his fluffy eyebrows. “Well? Are you buying or selling?”
“Neither,” he said, stepping away. “I think I need to go.” Karthik beamed and hurried over to catch a train back home.
Amman – Mother goddess
illai – no
amurtham – nectar
jigarthanda – Jigarthanda is a cold beverage that is famous in the South Indian city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, It translates to “cool heart” (jigar means heart, thanda means cold in Sanskrit. It is generally prepared and served at roadside stalls as a refreshment during the Indian summer. The basic ingredients include milk, almond gum, sarsaparilla root syrup, sugar and ice-cream
Kanna – darling
aasan – seat
Team name: Mon Reve
Members: Monica Singh and Revathi Srinivasan