[Content warning: domestic abuse/violence]
Lalita does not know where the babies disappear to.
Amma is pregnant again. Her faded cotton sari rustles against the skin of her swollen stomach, and the glass bangles she wears have clearly become too tight on her arms. Lalita watches her as she eats her rice in the kitchen. She doesn’t know if this baby will die too, like the past two--they were twins, Amma told her--did. Her grandmother says people go to Heaven when they die if they are good. Lalita hopes she’ll go to Heaven someday too, a heaven filled with sweetmeats, fried fish and chicken curry.
Amma looks pretty in the mornings, fresh as a jasmine flower bedecked with dew drops. By dusk, she is usually withered and weary: food staining her clothes, flour and ash smearing her skin, hair slithering down her sweaty back. She bustles efficiently around the kitchen, kneading dough, collecting firewood, stirring the lentils, apparently unaware of the huge bulge in her abdomen.
There’s something about Amma working even when she’s pregnant that’s strangely unsettling to Lalita, almost like it’s wrong. Lalita knows wrong. Wrong is serving herself food before her little brother. Wrong is going to the building in the main street, the one that’s a school, the one her brothers go to, but is out of bounds for her.
But surely it can’t be wrong if Appa doesn’t beat Amma for it? Lalita gets up and washes her plate and puts it in the tin box. It’s been five hours since she woke up, and since then she’s mechanically done all the chores she does every day: cleaning the bathing room, scrubbing the walls, helping Amma make breakfast for her brothers, serving her brothers and Appa food, cleaning the wheat for grinding. The sky is filled with drowsy white clouds, and she wants to rest her head on one and fall asleep. Sleep and rest, however, are not for mothers and daughters.
Lalita jolts awake when she hears a muffled bang as the front door slams shut. Appa must be home. She runs towards the table in the next room, and frantically begins polishing it with a rag.
Appa enters the room, re-tying his mundu around his waist. Her father is always impeccably dressed in white--the starched cotton white shirts and dhotis Lalita and her mother spend hours washing and ironing. His hair is oiled, and he has a newspaper tucked under his arm. His face is already set into a scowl, and as he peers about the room with his bulbous fish-like eyes, it seems to Lalita like he’s looking for a reason to beat her. Any little thing is enough to set him off--a speck of dust on the mirror, a crease in a cushion cover. She cowers in a corner, legs trembling, hoping he’ll ignore her.
Appa’s lips curl into a sneer when he sees her, and she remembers he’s never needed a reason for hating her. The fact that she exists is enough.
Lalita is only seven, but even she can read the look in Appa’s eyes. She knows he never wanted her. She knows the fact that she sits in his house, breathes his air, drinks his water, practically causes him physical pain. She knows on the days he lurches home smelling stale and yelling slurred abuse at her and Amma, the word that stumbles out of his mouth most often is mistake. Last time, when he’d thrown his shoe at her head, he’d added, “It’s all that hospital’s fault!"
Luckily, this time Appa walks away without a word towards his room. She relaxes, and continues wiping the table. There is work to do--there always is--and she can’t slack off for long.
Her mother’s voice is high and filled with pain. Lalita runs.
When she gets to the plantain grove behind the house, Amma is leaning against a wall, gasping, eyes wide, clutching her stomach like it will be seized from her soon. She tells her to call her grandmother, as quickly as possible, hurry now, the baby’s coming.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. Amma is moved to her room--noon--lunch is cooked for Appa--her brothers return from school--sunset--dinner, with her brothers and Appa chatting while she stands silently by in the corner like a doll. She moves only when they nod at her, to pour water or serve curry.
The sky has darkened, like an old bruise, and there is not a sliver of silver moon in it tonight. Lalita is supposed to be asleep now, but she can’t sit still until she knows Amma is alright. Especially since Appa has been prowling outside the closed bedroom door, watching and waiting so quietly it disturbs her. He glances at the closed door every now and then, like he’s about to knock it down.
Occasionally, she hears moans and cries coming from the closed bedroom door. She peers into the corridor again, careful to keep out of Appa’s sight. She’s not sure how many hours it’s been since Amma went into labor--she can’t decipher the clock--but it’s night now. It’s been a long time. A solitary firefly twinkles before her, dancing tantalizingly. Her eyes follow it as it swoops in circles over her head before falling to the ground.
Just as she’s rubbing sleep out of her eyes, the door creaks open.
The baby’s here!
Lalita crawls inside the hous , keeping to the walls. Appa has gone inside the room. She ducks into the kitchen and peeks through a gap in the door. She’s never seen a baby being born before--she had been sick with lung fever when Amma had gone into labor with the twins.
Amma is lying on an old mattress--sweaty, hair disheveled, sari wound loosely around her torso. Her grandmother is sitting in a corner, holding a baby in her arms. Lalita peers closer--it’s a tiny thing, stained with blood, writhing slightly and mewling. It’s a girl!
Appa reaches his hands out for the baby. His back is to her. He probably wants to hold his new child .
He turns away from the women, baby in hand. His fingers cradle her neck.
Lalita watches, agonizingly aware that for some reason her heart is beating fast, like it wants to run out of her body, far away, to a place where she can’t ever find it. Her muscles tense.
In one sudden, fluid movement, Appa’s fingers curl around the baby’s neck, and she stops crying.
The sound echoes in Lalita’s mind: a crack, a gunshot, a whip Appa has brought down on her shoulders. The room seems to be spinning, and she looks desperately at her mother, expecting her to scream in protest, to hurl herself at Appa’s feet, to strangle him for killing her daughter.
Amma sits still.
Lalita’s legs give away, and she falls down. She wants to scream, but it feels like her voice has been snuffed out too. Her entire body is quivering. Her eyes and cheeks are wet and she wants to burn the walls of her house down.
Her mother is looking at the floor, head bowed in submission, like a child who has done wrong and been caught.
Do something! she thinks. Stop him!
Her silence is terrifying.
Amma does not move when Appa lumbers out of the room, dead baby in hand. She doesn’t even close her eyes. His footsteps feel like blows to Lalita’s face, and she gags in the dark, the very air nauseating her.
She knows now, where those babies go--those three dead baby sisters. They lie buried in the plantain grove--three daughters Appa punished for daring to exist. She knows now that she was the one who accidentally survived. She knows why she must sneak back to her cot in the storeroom and pretend she saw nothing, but sleep is not for girls, and so she lies awake and numb.
The next morning, when Amma walks into the kitchen, she finds that Lalita is already there, and has peeled the potatoes and boiled the rice and made tea. Amma smiles at her, the good little girl! She walks away, not seeing the dull, vacant eyes, not realizing that she now has four dead daughters.
Appa: ‘father’ in Tamil, a South Indian language
Amma: ‘ mother’ in Tamil, a South Indian language
Mundu: a garment like a long skirt, worn by men in South India