‘Rajamma’s Box’ by Meghna Sukumar

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology


The young doctors took off their coats and left their consultation rooms. After five hours of duty, it was finally lunch time. As they slowly ambled out on to the corridors, Rajamma briskly walked past them. Her work had just begun. She went into Consultation Room no.5 and turned off the fan. As usual it was a mess. Bloody cotton and dirty bandages were strewn about carelessly. She mechanically went about her work, piling up the patient files, putting away the boxes of medicines and disposing off the cotton and bandages into a large plastic garbage bag. She was wiping the rickety wooden table when she knocked over a small white plastic container.

As it fell to the floor, Rajamma was startled to find a severed finger. She was quite used to the blood and gore having worked in the hospital for so long now but she had never seen anything like this outside an operation theatre. On closer inspection she realised that it was in fact the top portion of a thumb with the nail still intact. She picked it up with a piece of cotton and put it back in the container and placed it on the shelf next to the door.

As Rajamma resumed her sweeping and swabbing duties, her mind wandered. Mostly, this would mean worry about her son and her own deteriorating health. But sometimes, she would allow herself to think about her younger days. When her husband left her more than a decade ago just after she gave birth to their son, she was forced to fend for herself. It was not easy to survive in a community that had subtle but wicked ways of displaying contempt and disregard for single women. Just this morning, she had filled out a form to receive Rs.1000 each month from the government. She had cringed when she checked the “deserted/abandoned” woman box as she knew fully well that her less sympathetic neighbours would gossip when the postman came to give her the money each month.

When they had fallen in love in their village, her husband had promised her that the differences in their caste would not matter when they go to the city. They would escape their stifling rural existence and would be free. He would get a good, stable job and they would spend their evenings eating sundal on Marina beach, watch movies in the big theatres and shop for vessels and clothes in T Nagar. There would be weekend getaways to Mahabalipuram.  They may even manage to build a small house within a few years. Once the children were born, their parents would come around and accept their union. They would all be one big happy family.

Rajamma could only smile when she thought of her husband, Ravi. Many of her friends would always curse him for abandoning her. But deep down she knew that it was the seemingly insurmountable circumstances that led him to alcohol abuse and worsened his depression. After they ran away from their village close to Madurai, Ravi’s classmate from the polytechnic who lived in Madras found them a small house in Ambedkar Nagar in the heart of the city. They settled comfortably into their small one room residence, dreaming about a better life.  But the freedom and bliss was short lived. It took only a few months for both to realise that things were not going to be as easy as they had thought. Unable to find a job despite his diploma, Ravi was forced to work as a server in a small hotel. He would often argue with the supervisors and would come back home broken and defeated. Rajamma tried to stay supportive, but she knew that her husband was disillusioned when he came back each day with stories of disrespect, scorn and abuse that he faced from his employers. She quickly realised that she would have to find work to support their family. As Ravi retreated in to a shell and spent most days sleeping and drinking, Rajamma managed to find work as a sweeper at the government hospital.

Rajamma snapped back to reality as a nurse ran into the room and frantically began searching for something on the table. Despite offers to help, the nurse ignored her. Nobody would talk to the sweepers unless it was to complain about their lack of efficiency. The young nurse ran out panicking and spoke to a doctor in loud whispers outside the door. She could not find it, it was gone! Third time this year! It did not take long for Rajamma to figure out that they were talking about the severed finger, but she kept silent. When nurse and the doctor went away, Rajamma walked to the table to took a closer look at the finger. She noticed the chipped red nail polish and wondered who the poor woman was. On closer examination she saw that most the nerves at the part where it was severed were crushed and she knew that it would be futile to attempt to re attach it.

The cleaning was finally over and it was time to go home to rest and have lunch before the evening shift. She carefully took the thumb from the container, wrapped it with a piece of gauze and walked out covering her hand with her saree. She hurriedly exited the hospital compound reaching the main road where she walked for about a twenty minutes before turning into a bye-lane to go her house. It was 2 pm, she still had half an hour to herself, before her son came home from school.
Usually Rajamma would be joined by at least four or five of the women from her neighbourhood when she walked home. They would walk at a leisurely pace discussing events of the morning. Most of them worked as maids in the bungalows owned by retired government officers and would be returning home just like her to rest and await the arrival of their children. They would often swap stories about how the owners treated them and Rajamma would always advise them on how to negotiate an increase in salary or bonus. She had a reputation of being quiet but feisty when necessary. People would often tease her and her friends would sing in chorus “Rajamma has an opinion about everything.” But today was different. She ran past her friends, and when they enquired about why she was in hurry, she just rushed past them giving indiscernible and senseless excuses. They called after her, but just shrugged and continued their conversation when she did not respond.

Fifteen minutes later, she was home. As was usually the case, the street was deserted at this time except for two old women sitting on the steps of the house opposite hers. Rajamma opened the door to her dark one room house. It hadn’t been changed in any way for more than two decades since she first came here. She latched the door behind her, wiping the sweat dripping off her face and took a moment to catch her breath. She climbed on the bed and reached for the big green box at the back of the loft. It was the only thing she brought back from her parent’s house. She carefully took it down and placed it on the bed. It was one of those big green trunks that military men would use. It belonged to her father. She had spent Rs. 100 on a godrej lock to which she had the only key. As soon as she bought it several years ago, she strung they key to her thaali so that she would never lose it. Nobody could see the contents of that box. Nobody would understand.

The box

With a loud creak, the lid opened to reveal an old tattered lungi that belonged to her estranged husband. She carefully removed the cloth and inspected the contents within.
First, a severed ear. It belonged to Lalitha, a young 19 year old who grew up in her neighbourhood. Lalitha was her parent’s only child. When she heard from her friends in college that the new mobile phone factory was looking for young women to work, she was thrilled.
She knew that both her parents were in debt and were constantly worrying about her marriage. But she was always a free spirit and yearned to be independent and to take responsibility for her future. So she convinced her parents to allow her to discontinue her studies and work there.  Who would have thought that girls from their families work for an MNC. That is what the teenagers would excitedly refer to the multinational corporation as. “Lalitha got a job in a MNC” announced her mother excitedly as she distributed laddus to everyone on their street.

Along with many other girls from the area, she travelled everyday to the factory by the company bus. Nobody in the neighbourhood really understood what their daughters did at the factory and the girls would never explain. They would often joke about how the machines were like robots much. Six months back, one of these ‘robots’ had caught Lalitha’s head and refused to let go. She screamed in pain on the factory floor in full view of three hundred other young women who looked on, unable to set her free. Many fainted in shock and after the accident, most did not return to work. When the body was brought to the hospital for an autopsy, Rajamma heard from Lalitha’s co workers that the supervisors refused to let them rescue her. The machine was too expensive to be damaged they had said and waited for twenty minutes for technicians watching helplessly as much of the girl’s head was crushed to pulp. Of course none of this was ever spoken about in the media or by the government and the accident was soon forgotten.

She sighed and placed the ear back into the box. The second item was three toes that belonged to young Vijay who also grew up in the neighbourhood. A couple of years back, when Vijay’s uncle told him that the biggest car factory was looking for young men to work, he immediately applied and was hired. As a hard working student, he did well in college and was always the favourite of all his instructors. The two hour commute to the factory everyday did not matter only because the company promised all employees free transport. At work too, Vijay was sincere and efficient. He was quickly promoted from the assembly line to help train the new apprentices. While it did not mean any significant hike in his salary, Vijay was thrilled that he would interact with other youngsters. Being on the assembly line was a lonely and stressful job. On many days, he would help the apprentices finish their work after 5pm. Vijay anna as he was lovingly called would then run outside and catch the bus back home.

On one such day, Vijay was delayed by 15 minutes and he knew that if he missed the company bus, it would mean a 4 km walk to the nearest bus stand and 3 bus rides. As he ran, he tripped and fell down. The bus behind him ran over his foot. Rajamma was on a tea break when Vijay was brought to the hospital by his co workers. She was squatting under a tree outside the main hospital building and drinking tea when he was brought on a stretcher, screaming in pain. He had a towel wrapped around his foot that was covered with blood. Rajamma quietly picked up her broom and ran towards the emergency room and began to sweep the corridor outside. After about an hour, she heard from the ward boy that the doctors were forced to amputate his foot. Another hour later, a supervisor came to the hospital and shoved a bundle of money into Vijay’s mother’s trembling hands and left.

And now, the severed thumb. Rajamma sighed as she unwrapped what would be the latest addition to this box. Every day at the hospital, she hoped she would not find anything that would require her to open this dreaded box. But earlier this morning when she was sweeping the corridors she had seen the woman screaming in pain, blood dripping through the pallu of her saree with which she had wrapped her hand. She was quickly ushered into the emergency room. The man accompanying her was the manager of the tailoring company where she worked and spoke to the doctors, telling them he did not want trouble, admitting that it was an accident and begged them not to involve the police. He handed the severed thumb to the doctor and left, asking one of his underlings to “take care” of the matter.

Everything she witnessed at the hospital only lead her to believe that lives of people like her literally ceased to have value when it became inconvenient for someone else. Rajamma realised very early that she would not allow herself worth to be determined by the Rs.1500 she earned for the eight hours of back breaking work at the hospital but everyone was not as thick skinned as her.

Lalitha’s parents never fully recovered from their daughter’s loss and went back to their village. She heard conflicting reports of how much money the “MNC company” had given them during the funeral. There was even a rumour, that the factory named a conference room in their premises after Lalitha and that her parents along with the local politician had inaugurated it just before they left. After Vijay was sent home from the hospital, he was so overcome with anger that he plotted with his friends to assault his supervisor. While thrashing the supervisor temporarily assuaged his anger, the thrashing that he received from the police was far more damaging. He was now a pick pocket and drug addict, constantly getting into trouble with the police. And as for the woman who lost her thumb today, Rajamma would have to wait until this evening to find out her fate.

She placed the thumb in the box, closed the lid and locked it. Just as she was putting it up on the loft, the door opened. “Ammmmmaaaa” shouted her son, dropping his huge school bag on the floor. Rajamma smiled as she went to the kitchen and dished out some rice and sambar on a plate. As he plonked himself on the floor and began to devour his meal, she glanced up at the green box on her loft. She wondered if her son would ever understand what those severed body parts in that box meant to her. Each was a possibility. A possibility of a promising, perhaps even happy life that would never be. It was her duty to preserve those possibilities. Waving goodbye to her son, she walked out of the door with the sad smile. It would not be long before Lalitha’s ear, Vijay’s toes and the thumb found company in her green box. It was 4pm and time to go back to work.

Amma – tamil word for mother
Anna – tamil word for elder brother
Laddu- ball shaped sweets made of sugar,dough,nuts and dry fruits
Lungi – A traditional garment worn around the waist by men similar to a sarong.
Mahabalipuram – A costal town south of Chennai frequented by many from the city.
Pallu – The loose end of a saree
Sambar – dish made of lentils and vegetables served with rice.
Saree – Traditional Indian garment worn by women.
Sundal – Boiled chickpeas. A snack usually eaten at the beach.
Thaali – A chain worn by married women, considered sacred and holy.
T.Nagar – Theyagaraya Nagar, a market place in the heart of Chennai where many budget clothing stores are located.


Author’s Bio: Meghna Sukumar is a researcher and trade union activist from Chennai, India. Inspired by her experiences of organising women workers in the city, she hopes to tell the stories of working people through her writing. One of her short stories has been published in an online literary magazine called Indian Short Fiction. She also has a poetry blog.

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