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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Kuttiyamma and the Boy Who Smelled of Fish

Kuttiyamma and the Boy Who Smelled of Fish

by Praveena Shivram 2

       The baby lay at the doorstep of the orphanage like a newspaper carelessly thrown by a delivery boy. The thin cotton blanket covering the baby was bunched up at the baby’s feet, naked arms and legs were up in the air with the effort of screaming, and there was a pool of pee on the cement. Kuttiyamma opened the door like she was escaping a fire.

       “Aiyyo! Every time, same story, every time. Have sex, have sex, all the time, and then abandon baby at Kuttiyamma’s doorstep. Abandon always at the dead of night, because who cares about Kuttiyamma’s sleep? Who cares that Kuttiyamma is up before the crack of dawn and has a house full of children—fifty boys, I swear to Jesus—fifty mouths to feed and here is one more. Chi. Smells of rotten fish too. I tell you, no one cares, no one cares about Kuttiyamma, because, why should they, why should they I ask you…” And like a song that trails into nothingness, Kuttiyamma’s voice faded into the recesses of the house. She cleaned the baby, gave him some milk, quietened the crying and rocked him to sleep.

       Three hours later, amidst a babble of noises—chairs scraping the floor, doors creaking on their hinges, water running in the bathroom, pressure cooker whistling in the kitchen, feet running, a lone window with a faulty stopper banging in the distance, and the chatter of young voices—the orphanage comes to life. Kuttiyamma was busy in the kitchen, frequently complaining to Jesus about the one domestic help she had who was late again, while shouting instructions to the children to clean behind their ears, to flush, to brush, to oil their hair, to close that goddamn window, and to come for breakfast before it got cold because Kuttiyamma had other things to do.

       Once the children, aged 5 to 15, had settled on the floor—snaking from one end of the kitchen to the other, all around the 400 square feet like a circle that had lost its shape—Kuttiyamma asked two of the older boys to set the plates and tumblers, and then asked them to serve steaming hot idlis (“Only two per plate, two per plate, I said two!”), thick coconut chutney, a layer of oil still on top with mustard peeking out like shy eyes, and thin sambar that had more onions than lentils in it (“Stop complaining, little wretches, eat up and wash up and leave, leave Kuttiyamma with some blessed silence, and oh, here she comes, the Maharani of Brother of Arms Orphanage to help me when all the work is already done.”) The children ate through Kuttiyamma’s flood of words, barely listening, as if she were a TV perpetually on in the background—but no one dared press the mute button.

       “What are you laughing at? What is so funny? Haven’t seen this face before? You have seen this face since you were this high, so don’t you go starting again. No one appreciates all that this Kuttiyamma does, waking in the morning and cooking for all you ill-mannered boys like I am your servant…” Self-consciously, she ran her tongue over her buck teeth, adjusted her nun’s habit and the cotton head-piece, and continued “and last night, middle of the night….”

       When the baby started to cry, the sound bouncing off the long ceiling, all fifty heads looked up, noticing for the first time the wicker basket with the white cloth peeking out from the sides on the kitchen counter from where these sounds were coming.

Illustration by Shamanthi Rajasingham

Illustration by
Shamanthi Rajasingham

       “Aiyyo! This one only, cannot forget even for a moment. You there, Kanaka, put that bottle of milk in its mouth. And clean him. He stinks of fish. A good bath with that sandal soap please. What are you all looking at? Haven’t heard a baby cry before? Finish up, quickly. Father Thommen won’t be waiting all day for you. Come on, quick, quick.”

       The children snapped into action as if someone had pushed the play button and the gaggle of voices rose again, mouths worked, food disappeared and the new entrant was momentarily forgotten. Kuttiyamma surveyed her kitchen like a prairie dog surveying her coterie, noticing everything: the crack on the ceiling and cobwebs in the corner, the dirty dishes in the large sink, the containers of spices with their open heads, the blue plastic vegetable basket on the floor with an assortment of potatoes, beans, carrots. She sighed loudly and sat down on a white plastic chair, her large bottom spilling over from the sides, sweat leaving ugly trails on her dark powdered face, and she sighed again.

       Kuttiyamma was tired.

       She watched the children wash their plates outside—the backyard was attached to the kitchen, an extra finger jutting out but trying hard to fit into the fist of the orphanage—and then hurry on through the gate that opened out onto the church premises, where they would study the Bible for an hour, then exercise for another hour, and then resume their classes in English, Math, Science and Languages, with a break for lunch. By the time they were done for the day, it would be five in the evening, after which they would have a wash, eat their dinner, sing some hymns accompanied by David, a Brother from the church, on the guitar, help Kuttiyamma with some chores, and then off to bed. On Fridays and Sundays alone, the children would watch TV—songs from popular movies on Friday evening on Doordarshan, and a movie on Sunday.

       Once the children had left and the kitchen echoed with an eerie silence, Kuttiyamma stood up, dusted her hands on the sides of her habit, and wondered if she should finish the conversation with Father Thommen right away, before she went upstairs. She listened to her breath coming in short bursts, and her pulse, running like a marathoner in her last stretch, and decided it was too much effort to talk to Thommen later. She walked out of the kitchen and traced the path the children had just taken. She could see their footprints on the rain-soaked sand and made a mental note to check that the children washed their feet thoroughly before they entered the house—what with Kanaka taking turns to clean the two floors and Father Thommen refusing to buy them chappals because who had the funds, though Kuttiyamma had seen the ad for those coloured hawai chappals just the other day on DD, and DD was a national channel, so it could never lie, and the chappals were only Rs 15 each, and promised to last for two years and wouldn’t Kuttiyamma stretch that to four, even with growing feet, yes, she would—and suddenly  Kuttiyamma found herself in front of the church doors.

       When Kuttiyamma was a young child—hard, she conceded, to imagine that there had been such a time—she thought this church was haunted. The steeple towered over them, and the cross right on top seemed like a long, uncut nail to Kuttiyamma, like an ominous talon. She would refuse to enter the church with her mother on Sundays, forcing her mother, a respectable Malayali Christian married to the village school teacher (physical education, but a teacher nonetheless), to listen to Sunday Mass while standing outside like a punished child. Her mother never let her forget the disgrace, though the sharp edges of that story eventually softened when Kuttiyamma decided to dedicate her life to Jesus and entered the nunnery at 18. Kuttiyamma, always on the heavier side, much to the embarrassment of her fit father, found the nun’s habit perfect to hide in. Once she entered the church, she threw herself into God’s work, and for
35 years, her routine did not waver—she read the Bible, she prayed, she meditated, she worked in the kitchen, she worked in the garden, she sang sometimes, she listened to the radio sometimes (replaced first by a black and white TV, and then a colour one), she knitted, she volunteered, she spent ten dutiful minutes every day with her parents till their death, she actively participated in the politics and gossip of the church, and watched the church itself change from the centre of the village, the hub of activity, to something that had been rudely pushed to the back of the line, and if she made friendships she couldn’t remember them anymore.

       All that changed, however, with the arrival of Father Thommen ten years ago. He promised to revive the church and Kuttiyamma, when in a good mood, could still recount that day down to the last detail of the dandruff shining on Father Thommen’s neatly oiled hair, of Father Thommen’s office smelling of lavender and the large cross of Jesus just behind his chair, and Father Thommen himself, shorter than Kuttiyamma and thinner than her, but filling up the room with his presence like water in a beaker full of stones.

       “So, you are Kuttiyamma. I have heard so much about the good work you have been doing.”

       “Thank you, Father.”

       “And, now, the question is, are you ready to do more? The Lord,” he looked briefly behind him, “has spoken, Kuttiyamma, and he has chosen his people. am setting up an orphanage for boys here. I have invited funds from all over the world, and you are going to help me run it.”

       Kuttiyamma had felt like a hibernating bear meeting the sun again and her life quickly became the orphanage and the orphanage became synonymous with Kuttiyamma, till meanings, as is their nature, began to change.

       If at one point she used to enter the church with enthusiasm, now it was with the dreary acceptance of a snail fated to carry its shell on its back. She found her steps had become heavier and heavier, like the ground beneath her feet was straining all its muscles to hold her up. She walked in, careful not to meet Jesus’s piercing eyes on the cross or look at who was praying at the pews, or even at the high ceiling that had once given her a sense of peace but now only made her claustrophobic, and turned left. She walked along the tree-lined path to Father Thommen’s office. She heard Brother Albus’ droning voice in the distance, reading Luke’s Psalms to the children, and was surprised she recognised it. Luke 24:44:

       These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.

       She stood outside Father Thommen’s office, wiped her hands on the sides of her habit, tucked stray strands of hair inside her headpiece, made sure her cross was hanging around her neck prominently and then double checked to see no dried sambar stains were on her, and then knocked.

       “Come in.”

       Father Thommen’s voice and face hadn’t changed all these years—no raspiness or wrinkles at sixty, making Kutiyamma wonder if it wasn’t all a trick of the Lord. She was herself nearing sixty and her skin sagged, her voice (even if overworked) had lost its timbre; age had pitched its tents in every pore of her body. Maybe Thommen was really as earnest as he seemed, and the rumours she constantly heard about him were nothing but cobwebs that needed to be routinely brushed away.

       “Good morning, Father. May the Lord be with you.”

       “And with you, Kuttiyamma. Come, come in and sit down. Children are in school?”

       “Yes, Father.”

       “They said their prayers in the morning?”

       “Yes, Father.” Here Kuttiyamma mentally did the sign of the cross, asking for forgiveness.

       “I heard there was a new baby abandoned last night.”

       “Yes, Father. That is what I came to talk to you about.

       Father Thommen sighed. A dramatic sigh, Kuttiyamma thought, and she braced herself for what she knew was coming. “All these years, all those campaigns and sermons on birth control and pre-marital sex… I am sometimes so tired, Kuttiyamma.”

       Kuttiyamma felt quite strongly that Father Thommen did not know the first thing about being tired, but she kept quiet, as she was meant to.

       “You know as well as I do, Kuttiyamma, that funds are low. I have written for donations, have sent countless letters, but nothing has come in yet. We can’t afford another baby in the orphanage, and I am wondering how we are going to manage in the next few months if funds don’t come in… growing children, boys no less, growing needs… And I heard this one stinks of fish?”


       “I know. I know everything, Kuttiyamma. Through the Lord, I know the world. His Word is my command. You remember this from John’s book? ‘This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child’.”

       “He just needs a good bath, regularly, and good food. I am sure it will go away.”

       “Kuttiyamma, you are not understanding what I am trying to tell you. Maybe it is not in you to understand. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Have the child cleaned and fed and sent to me. I will take this responsibility. There are three important people coming later today and I think they just might be interested in this one.”

       “But, Father Thommen…”

       “Kuttiyamma… Do you remember when we set up the orphanage, what did we promise? To look after children to the best of our ability, to give the boys good food and education, to keep them clean and to teach them the ways of the Lord. Have we not done that? Have we not taken in children unconditionally, except those we knew wouldn’t fit into this space, and do you think I am not working hard to keep this going, for the sake of the children?”

       “Yes, Father.”

       “Then leave this to me. Bring the child. And rest. You look tired.”

       “Yes, Father.”

       “And Kuttiyamma, the placemats for
Nitya’s wedding, are they ready? We need them next week—so many things to plan, my head is bursting.”

       “Yes, Father. They will be ready next week. The children have been helping me after school.”

       “Good, good. You do good work, Kuttiyamma.”

       “Thank you, Father.”

       When Kuttiyamma left Father Thommen’s office, Kuttiyamma was unusually silent. She didn’t realise she had walked back to the orphanage already, till she entered the kitchen and noticed that a cat had jumped in through the window. She shooed it away, a part of her afraid that it would claw out her eyes and a part of her determined to save the food. When she picked up the broom, the cat jumped outside and Kuttiyamma shut the window with a bang. “Where is that idiot of a Kanaka? Don’t tell me she is still with the baby. What does she think? That I pay her to babysit or to do the work in the kitchen? Already I am overworked, and then this cat and Father Thommen and I have no need, no need, I tell you…” She crossed the kitchen and stepped into the long corridor that opened out into a circular living room with mats and cushions on the floor, a TV in one corner, a rocking chair next to the large window, also opening out to the church, and a staircase leading to the dormitory above. The dorm had bunk beds lined up against the walls. She found Kanaka singing a soft lullaby and bathing the baby in one of the shower rooms.

       “There you are. How long is this taking? You think this is a holiday? Finish quickly, Kanaka, and clean the kitchen, and the living room. We can leave the dorm for tomorrow—though God knows these children are filthy, but what can Kuttiyamma do with just one house help, you tell me. I have asked and asked Father Thommen, but he only says no more funds, no more money, can’t keep another baby—this small one, where will it go?—and I see those smiling foreigners with their white faces and blue eyes walk in and out of his office and the boys who disappear and appear, and I am thinking this Thommen has become quite fat, and his niece Nitya’s wedding next month is sounding quite lavish, but who am I to say anything about God’s work, so I won’t. But you bring this baby to me, Kanaka, after you are done. I am in my room for a little rest, because who worries about Kuttiyamma, at this age going up and down these steps and cooking for the children.”

       Kuttiyamma walked past the dormitory, peeking inside, more out of habit than anything, and noting that the beds were made (most of them), the trunks where the children kept their clothes pushed under the beds, and wet towels hung up to dry against the sides of the beds, a lamp still burning under the altar of Jesus in the corner near the window, and the curtains drawn to let the light in. Kuttiyamma smiled in spite of herself. She walked down the narrow hallway, past the toilets, to her modest room, furnished with a single bed under the window, a chair, a desk with a well-worn Bible under a table lamp, a Godrej cupboard with eternally creaking hinges, and a circular rug at the centre on which Kuttiyamma sat to meditate. She walked straight to the bed, pulled off the covers, and sank like a stone in a pond, the soft plops of the springs rippling out to accommodate Kuttiyamma’s body. She fell into a deep sleep almost instantly, her snores loud enough to drown out the baby crying again down the hall.

       Kanaka, never known for her patience, dressed the baby, tried to shush it, and when she couldn’t, carried him straight to Kuttiyamma’s room. She often wondered why she put up with Kuttiyamma and her constant complaining and nagging, but Kanaka knew for all Kuttiyamma’s barking, she never did bite. And if Kanaka had to be really honest, she knew the perks of this job helped run her house even more than the salary she received. She held the baby firmly against her chest with one hand, and with the other she gingerly touched the sandal soap tucked precariously in her waist. It was still there, thank God. She didn’t bother to knock, she figured the wailing child was probably warning enough. Kuttiyamma’s thunderous snoring and the baby’s wailing were locked in battle. The baby won. Kuttiyama surfaced suddenly, taking in air in ragged gulps as if convinced she was about to drown. She looked at Kanaka and the baby, her eyes glazed with sleep.

       “For Jesus’ sake, Kanaka, put that baby down and come and help me up. Do I have to tell you everything? Yes, hold tight and pull. Women these days, no strength at all in their bodies. Who would believe you are 30 years younger than me? Aiyyo, not like that. Okay, leave it. Just hand me that baby. He probably just wants to sleep. There you go, little one, there you go. Kanaka, did you not use the sandal soap? The baby still stinks like a fish market. Shush, shush now, go to sleep, Kuttiyamma is here. Kuttiyamma is always here. Kanaka, after you clear the kitchen, cut the vegetables in the tray. All of them. And put the sambar away in the fridge. I can use it again for dinner. And don’t waste time talking to that good-for-nothing Michael. Tell him the tomato patch needs work today, lots of weeds there. And I will be down anyway in ten minutes. Shush, shush, sleep now, sleep, little one.”

       Half an hour later, both Kuttiyamma and the baby were fast asleep on the bed. Kanaka finished her work, and if she was surprised that Kuttiyamma did not come down to the kitchen for the two hours she was there, she didn’t show it. In fact, she had a smile on her face as she walked out at five minutes to 11, the earliest she had ever left the orphanage, a blue plastic bag filled with some carrots, beans, potatoes and a small paper packet of lentils and another of jaggery—she was going to surprise her children at dinner tonight. Michael, one of the local boys from the village and in his late 20s, grinned at Kanaka’s retreating back as her long hair bounced from side to side. If he noticed the bag, he thought nothing of it.

       The church bell struck eleven times. Michael looked at the heap of weeds next to him and decided he had done enough work. There was still no sign of Kuttiyamma, and Michael did not think it was wise to go looking for trouble, so he headed back to the village. He slipped out through the back gate, remembering to latch it with Kuttiyamma’s voice ringing in his head, and walked through the church to a broad road that opened out, lush green trees on either side like an entourage waiting only for Michael, with a carpet of leaves and flowers ready to hold his feet. He sauntered along the long road, whistling a tune and peppering his stroll with casual chats with passing cyclists. He reached the river that flowed through the village and waited for the boat to take him to the other side. He sat at the edge of the jetty, his feet playing in the water. It was mid-afternoon and Michael was the only one waiting. He was already imagining the fish curry he would eat with steamed rice for lunch. His mother’s speciality. Michael abandoned his whistling and broke into song.

       While Michael waited for the boat, Kuttiyamma woke up from her deep slumber. She saw the baby was still asleep and then turned to the alarm clock she kept on the floor next to her bed. If Kuttiyamma had younger bones, she would have leaped out of bed and rushed to the kitchen to make a hasty lunch—it was past eleven, and what in Jesus’ name was Kuttiyamma doing still sleeping. She lurched up, and swung her legs off the bed. Then she fell to her knees, got her body off the bed and walked painfully on her knees to where the chair and desk was. She held on to the chair for support and after two attempts, managed to heave herself up. She was completely out of breath, when the baby woke up and started wailing again.

       “Aiyyo! What do you think Kuttiyamma is? Stop that at once. It is going to take me ten minutes at least to give you your milk, and then there is the matter of lunch to be made for fifty—fifty, I tell you—fifty hungry mouths and then you have also arrived. And look, you have wet my bed and who do you think will clean this? In Kuttiyamma’s house, cleanliness is next to godliness. Come on now, let’s get you cleaned. Already you made Kuttiyamma fall asleep like this in the middle of the day with your crying and wailing and now you will make Kuttiyamma late for lunch also.”

       Kuttiyamma carried her bulk like a sumo wrestler, allowing the weight to dictate her direction while walking. She bumped into the sides of the corridor, her hand protectively placed over the baby’s head, and went down the stairs, careful to place both her feet on each step before taking the next one. She reached the kitchen, put the baby in the basket on the counter and heated up the milk. Then she couldn’t find the bottle and cursed Kanaka a hundred times when she realised that Kanaka must have taken the bottle upstairs before giving him a bath. She slapped her forehead and looked at the baby and then the stairs and then she took a deep breath and began the climb to the first floor. The crying baby and Kuttiyamma’s broken dam of words did not help, but Kuttiyamma, wheezing with all the effort, found the bottle outside the shower room, milk dried into crusts at the bottom of the bottle and then she began her laborious descent.

       Perhaps it was the crying baby or perhaps it was Kuttiyamma’s frustration that the milk bottle would have to be cleaned, or the fact that lunch had to be made, or her conversation with Thommen that morning, but she missed placing both her feet on a step. Her body, momentarily confused, lurched to the side and Kuttiyamma lost her balance. She fell face down on the stairs, rolled uncomfortably to the bottom, the narrow stairs—14 steps in all—unable to contain her bulk, and almost soft-landed with her head on the floor, briefly becoming speechless, but not before she called out to Jesus, waving her hand, the bottle pointing to the sky.

       When Kuttiyamma called out to Jesus, a boat made its way towards Michael. Three people were already on it, two men and a woman. Michael’s eyes dropped automatically to her chest, registering disappointment before he focused his attention on the men. They were white, foreign, so Michael guessed they must be here to visit Father Thommen. He was glad his family was related—distantly—to Father Thommen and that he had got the job last year at the orphanage. Ever since Father Thommen had arrived, Michael knew the church and the village hadn’t been the same. Michael had heard stories of Thommen building a bungalow in the city, 50 kilometres from their village, and that it was near completion. Michael guessed he wouldn’t have his job
much longer.

       He grinned at Feroze, the boat man, speaking to him in Malayalam while continuing to look at the woman, enjoying watching her squirm in discomfort.

       “What, Feroze, how much do you think this one is worth?”

       “Nothing you can afford, Michael. Here, pull in the boat and tie this.”

       Michael caught the thick, wet rope and squatted on the jetty, looping the rope around the short pole at the side of the jetty, making sure his back was turned so they—she—could have a glimpse of his butt crack.

       “I am sure I can. Nothing much to speak of, nothing inside that one, eh, Feroze.”

       “Shut up, Michael. They are doctors.”

       “Aiyyoda. Then poor boys only breeding there like chickens. I wonder how many this time? And hopefully they return in one piece, like uncooked meat, eh, Feroze?”

       “Stop talking, Michael. You have a job because of Father Thommen. He does holy work, God’s work, and you know the boys get a good education and good food and a roof above their heads. ”

       “And other things, too,” he winked.

       “Chi, you have a sick mind, Michael.”

       Michael laughed, and Feroze stepped on to the jetty. He then pulled the men out, who glared at Michael, and then hurried to help pull the woman out. Michael licked his lips theatrically, and then jumped on to the boat, and leaned back, his arms supporting his head and his legs splayed.

       “Come on, Feroze, take me home. Lunch awaits.”

       Feroze ignored Michael, took the five rupees one of the men gave him, thanked him in his broken English. One of the men asked him something and Feroze pointed to Michael, but the man shook his head and asked again and Feroze shrugged. They walked away.

       “What was that?”

       “They wanted to know the way to the church, so I told them you could take them, but they didn’t want that. Because of your stupid antics. You could have made some extra money.”

       “Enough for her?”

       Feroze slapped his head, got into the boat, and Michael laughed again, scratching his crotch and looking up at the sky—black clouds loomed in the distance, moving towards the sun like a shroud or a prayer, and Michael thought it was going to be an interesting day.

coverThis piece was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.

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  1. Neha July 18, 2019 at 5:13 am - Reply

    Beautiful :)
    What happened to kutti she didn’t die na?

  2. anuj October 8, 2019 at 12:23 am - Reply

    very good story. liked the writing.

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