‘Annapurna Devi’ by Abha Iyengar (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Annapurna Devi. Goddess of Plenty. My parents had been ecstatic with the name chosen by the pundit for me. I would want for nothing.

The pundit was my mother’s father. He had looked at my mother and smiled, and tears had come to my mother’s eyes. She had had no child before me, and I had been born after ten years of waiting. She felt that she lacked a certain kind of plenty.

“She will have children, many of them,” she had whispered to my father, who had patted her shoulder reassuringly. He was a simple man who earned enough for his family, and spent most of his time with books. We did not have plenty, we only had enough. Indeed, it was said that fortunes changed after my birth. Selling our farmland, we transferred to live in Kolkata, and my father’s knowledge and learning stood him in good stead there. Children of rich parents came to him for private tuitions, and I began to be considered as true to my name, the bringer of plenty.

I was married at eighteen. My husband, Manik Chattopadhyay, was an industrialist, and fourteen years my senior. I soon learnt that he was wedded to his work. I was Annapurna, and I had comfort in plenty. I bore three sons and this made his family happy, reassuring them that they had made the right decision in choosing me as a bride for their son. After the children came, Manik lost interest in me. I became involved in taking care of his parents and children and household, the reason for my being there was evident enough.

I, Annapurna Devi, did not get any of his time. I craved that so much for a while. I craved that so much for a very long time. I immersed myself in the house, but a nagging emptiness gnawed away. I filled it up with reading, as much as I could, in the lonely hours after the house slept.

I possessed everything except my husband’s time. My name had become my nemesis.

***

Maya, the maid, stood there, waiting. She always did this, as if I had more to say and she knew it.

I needed to be left alone, and I looked above my book to momentarily connect with her, specifically regarding what she needed to know. I also made it obvious that I did not want to be disturbed.

All this was lost on her, so I had to spell it out.

“Leave me alone, Maya ,” I said. “I have told you to go and ask the kids which one of them ate the fish you had kept for their grandmother.” I told her that the issue was over, one of the kids had obviously eaten the fish. My mother-in-law would accept this. She was willing to forgive her grandchildren anything, so this card could be happily played without repercussions.

Maya leaned on the wooden roshandaan, the one which was originally used in the kitchen to store things many moons ago, when I had come as a young bride to this family. Now it stored my diaries and journals, my rants and raves over time, which needed the air that this particular structure let through its fine chicken-wire-netted doors. My thoughts, stored in the books inside, had to breathe, otherwise I would have died long ago.

I also needed to be left alone, not to be disturbed, but she insisted on pulling me into the household affairs. These little intrusions occurred every day, some small questions, some trite observations.

Maya had been working with us for some years now, yet it had not entered her thought process that women can think of other things. Family life to her meant that the women in the household understood and knew all things relating to the kitchen.

I met her eye to eye. “That will be enough, Maya, I am reading and need to concentrate. Please leave. You know what to do.” I always had to fight for my time, even grasp it from the hands of servants who would continue to ask me for information and guidance as though I was a Kitchen Goddess. The days of Annapurna Devi were long gone, I thought to myself, as I looked in the mirror opposite the bed and saw a gaunt and withered face. Quite unlike the chattering bird that had alighted once in this house, clinging on to the keys of the pantry and the almirahs and everything that went into the makings of a home. This lasted till her wings became so heavy with responsibility that she felt completely immobilized.

I heard my mother-in-law calling out for Maya, and then, immediately after, calling out my name. “Maya… Annapurna… Maya… kothaaey? The words shook with age but the voice carried across the hallway. The hallway reverberated and echoed with the question. Kothaaey?, kothaaey?…

“I am going then, boudi,” said Maya, hurrying out.

She had completely broken my concentration and snatched those few moments of solitude from me once again. I put my head in my hands before I got off the bed and followed her to solve the mystery of the missing fish. Otherwise I, Goddess of Plenty, would be quick and prepare another replacement. Maya would run and serve it and suffer no complaints.

The day wound down to another domestic one and I withered a bit more.

I had everything. Except that which I craved so desperately now. Time for myself.

My name was my nemesis.

***

Maya left long ago, I don’t know when. I think it was a few days after my mother-in-law died. When my mother-in-law died, Maya could not take the sudden lack of demand on her time nor the silence in the house, for the kids had also gone away by then.

None of the boys remained with me. They came and went, checking on me when it suited them to do so. Their wives smiled, touched my toes, and made themselves scarce. These visits were only due to the fact that I had inherited everything. Manik left it all to me; he was dead too, and I don’t remember when he went either.

I sometimes confused my daughters-in-law with each other, who was who? I did not know. They tittered behind their palms when I addressed them wrong, then sidled away quietly. But I always knew my mistake when they had gone.

I didn’t have anyone in the house except a small village girl who took care of me. I would leave everything to her if she treated me well, though I had not told her this, for I was suspicious of everyone. The only thing I had to offer was the wealth around me. I had never lacked that.

My eyes wandered to the clock on the wall. It was an old heirloom, waiting to be carted away and sold for a few pieces of gold. “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” it went. The pendulum swayed to strike the hour.

I had all the time, it was there to call my own. I did not know what to do with it. My roshandaan was destroyed by termites within a year after Maya had left. My diaries and journals could not be saved. After that, I was just this carcass that walked around and did what was necessary. I breathed, but my breath had become foul. I felt like the termites had eaten my flesh too.

“Maya, remove this ring that is eating into my finger,” I told the girl, pointing at the ruby and gold ring.

She looked confused. “Maya…? I am Nirmala…” She was from the North, her voice lacked the sweetness of our tongue. Maya had also been from the North. She was the one who had taught me the word ‘roshandaan’. I had used it since then to refer to my special cupboard, my roshandaan. It was no more. Maya had learnt our language well and spoke it fluently. This girl would take longer to learn. This girl, what was her name… why did it bother her if I called her Maya? Why did she give so much importance to her name?

I closed my eyes and lay back, holding out my hand that hung heavy with the ring. Then I sat up again, to make sure she removed the ring gently. She reached for the hand and tried hard, pulling with concentrated care, her eyes squinting to focus. I could sense her impatience though, after all she was just a young girl.

The skin came away from my finger, almost falling away from the bone, but the ring stayed. I was wedded to plenty.

Annapurna Devi. My name and my nemesis.

Glossary:

almirahs: cupboards
boudi :
elder brother’s wife; a term of respect by servants to the lady of the house in India
kothaaey:
where?
pundit:
religious man
roshandaan:
wooden cupboard with wire net doors used in Indian kitchens for storage

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Abha Iyengar is an Indian poet and writer. Her work has appeared in Doorknobs and Bodypaint, Bewildering Stories, Dead Drunk Dublin, Danse Macabre, The Fabulist, and others. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology Contest winner. Her story, The High Stool, was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. Her poem-film, Parwaaz, has won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece. Yearnings, her collection of poems, was published in 2010. Flash Bites, her flash fiction collection, is published as an e-book. Her stories have most recently been selected for A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories, The Asian Writer, Vaani and The Unisun-Reliance Time Out anthologies. She has received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship for 2009-2010. Vist her website at www.abhaiyengar.com.

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2 comments for “‘Annapurna Devi’ by Abha Iyengar (India)

  1. 30/07/2011 at 12:39 pm

    Very touching story Abhai. Congratulations! I am happy for you! Take care.

    Peace, Nico

  2. 07/03/2012 at 5:35 am

    Sabbhash, Abha!

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