CREATIVE FICTION | Ranjitham's Choice by Arulmozhi Kumar

‘Amma, look I can hold my breath like this', quipped an excited Kamala.
Ranjitham looked up from the fumes of her kerosene stove.
'Why would you do that?’ she asked.
'To see how long I can stay dead,’ came the prompt reply from her 8-year-old.
'If I come there now, your cheeks will be red, you naughty girl! Go do your homework,’ she spat out her irritation.

It wasn't wise to fight with her husband in front of Kamala, thought Ranjitham. Last night many things were said that the little one should not have heard. But the matter was really getting out of hand. He had returned home after three days of going astray. No contact, his cell phone switched off. He had come back reeking of alcohol and she had lost it. Especially because he had disappeared with the money she had saved to pay Kamala's fees. Now she would have to ask Mary Amma, the lady of the house she worked at, for some money again. It wouldn't look good on her part but she had no choice.

Stirring the rice in hot boiling water, she wondered how it had all come to this? She was 15 when she eloped with Rangan against the wish of her parents, 17 when Kamala was born. Her brothers and father refused to talk to her even today. Her mother would call in occasionally and give her some money each time she visited. It shamed her to take it.
“I am going to give them back every penny,” she thought each time.
Mary Amma was a kind lady. Her two sons lived abroad and hardly ever came to see her. Ranjitham was more her companion than her housemaid. Even though the two women were 40 years apart they were the best of friends. Well, as much friendship as was allowed between a maid and her employer. Sometimes Ranjitham felt that Mary Amma was the only real family she had. She was the one who spoke to her friends to get Kamala into the school she went to. She could already write in English and read a book on her own. Her daughter was smart and she was very proud of it. ‘This is not the life they both deserved,’ she thought. They were prisoners of a web she had spun for herself.
She was almost ready to leave the house, when Rangan stirred from his sleep. His hands outstretched to the packet of Bidi she had placed beside him. If it were not to be found as soon as he woke up, he would throw a fuss. Sometimes the things she said would lead him to hit her. Many a time, she had gone to work with a bruised face, chiding herself for her loose tongue. Growing up her mother always reprimanded her for talking back to her brothers and father.
“A woman must know her place to talk,” she would say.

Ranjitham cursed herself that she never knew when to shut up. She was combing her hair when the makeshift door to her thatched roof, one-room hut was forced open and three men stumbled in.
‘Ranga, you must come immediately. Anna needs you now.’
She recognized Maari quite well. He was known for peddling Marijuana in their slum and to the school children who approached him. This is the kind of company she detested Rangan for having. The last time he had fallen at her feet and promised her that all this was over. But things had only gotten worse. Anna was the local area politician and Ranjitham wondered what he had to do with her husband. Maari being involved made it so much worse, as well!
Rangan cursed as he lit his bedi. ‘You and your timing! Go tell Anna I will come immediately.’
The men left as soon as they had arrived.
‘What’s going on?’ Ranjitham asked immediately.

‘This is none of your concern, stick to doing a woman’s job.’ He spat out a reply that infuriated her.
‘I wouldn’t have to be the man of the house if you can go for a proper job and bring home food.’ She yelled in retort.
Rangan’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. For a second, she thought he was going to hit her. But something flashed in his eyes and he smiled. She was puzzled and thought her husband might be going mad from all the alcohol. He put on his shirt and left the house wordlessly.

‘You are late again.’ Mary Amma moaned as Ranjitham entered the house as fast as she could.
‘I can only come as fast as I finish my house work, Amma.’ She replied slightly irritated from her squabble back home.
‘Has he returned?’ She asked with knowing eyes.
‘Yes, Amma.’ Ranjitham felt sorry for the old woman who only had her best interest in mind. ‘I’ll make Aapam for you now.’
She headed to the clean and polished kitchen unlike the one she left back home and turned on the gas stove and overhead electric chimney.
‘I spoke to Father Mathew’, Mary Amma said as she tore into a soft Aapam.
‘Kamala is doing so well in her school that they have decided to sponsor her with the church funds.’

Ranjitham’s eyes clouded over with tears of gratitude that she did not want Mary Amma to see.
‘My daughter is really brilliant, Amma.’ She said, instead.
‘Which is why you must take good care of her, Ranjitham.’ replied Mary Amma making her sigh deeply and say a small prayer of thankfulness in her mind.
‘The gas cylinder is spoken for. I will pay for the stove that Mani will bring to your house today evening. Get help from him in setting it up and don’t come late from tomorrow.’ She quipped.
Ranjitham dropped next to her as she finished her breakfast and broke out the medicine capsule from its cover. She carefully counted the drugs and put the rest back into the medicine box and handed them to Amma with a glass of water. She was never going to be able to pay her back for all this love.
That evening Ranjitham got back home from work by 8. Kamala was colouring with the crayons she had given her for her birthday the previous month.
‘Why are you not doing your homework?’ she asked.
‘Amma, I am hungry,’ retorted the little brat. Ranjitham smiled to herself and whispered, ‘When are you not?’ She went straight into the kitchen. Mary Amma had given her an egg to take home. The stove reminded her of Mani and she called him from her cell phone.
‘Mani, where are you? Amma said you will bring the gas and stove today.’ ‘Akka, I am just around the corner. Will be there in 2 minutes.’ He said.
Mani worked on Amma’s garden two times a week. He was five years younger to Ranjitham and lived in the street right behind theirs’ with his mother and sister. He did many such errands for others and also worked at the departmental store as a delivery boy.

‘I had work in the shop, Akka.’ He apologized as he carried in the heavy gas cylinder and placed in it the kitchen.
‘Kamala Kannu, show me what you are drawing.’ Kamala adored him and ran to him proudly carrying the piece of paper she was colouring. He lifted her off her feet and took the paper from her hand to inspect.
Rangan walked into the house at the very moment, fully drunk and slightly wobbly. His eyes immediately fell on Ranjitham’s happy face as Mani was threw a witty quip to a giggling Kamala. He was consumed by anger. He could not understand this man playing with his daughter and he certainly could not digest the way his wife was smiling at him at this hour of the night. He rushed to Mani as fast as his drunken legs could carry him and seized the child roughly from his hands and threw her on the floor.

Shocked by what had happened in a matter of seconds, Ranjitham froze till her motherly instinct kicked in and she rushed to her crying child who she wrapped her in her arms. As she was feeling the child’s body for pain or bleeding, Rangan punched on Mani on the face, injuring his nose. Blood trickled down. The puzzled boy tried to defend himself but he was failing miserably under Rangan’s hold.

‘Have you gone mad? Why are you beating up Mani?’ she screamed, trying to pry Rangan off him.
‘Is this who you are sleeping with when I am not there?’ he spat the words while trying to hurt the boy even more. Mani found an opportunity and got up and ran out through the door. Ranjitham held on to her husband who was behaving like a rabid dog.
‘Ranga, you are out of your mind with drinking. Mani was only here to install the gas cylinder for me that Amma sent.
‘You and your Amma! She is the one encouraging you to sleep around with young boys. You want a young boy at this age. Shame on you, woman.’ Rangan went on
Ranjitham could not digest what he had just spoken, the rage that had always been on slow boil built its way up to a crescendo. She slapped him across his face. It was the first time she had raised a hand against her husband in their nine years of marriage despite him bruising her many times. Rangan too had reached his edge. He kicked Ranjitham and hit her face repeatedly while Kamala cringed in a corner and cried. At the peak of his aggression he pulled out a knife from his inner shirt pocket and pointed it at Ranjitham who cowered in fear.
Kamala screeched, ‘Appa, don’t do it.’ She grasped his feet. Her voice brought him back to reality and he dropped the knife on the floor, shook the child off and once again left the house. Mother and child clung on to each other, both crying in mortal fear. As she hugged Kamala and rocked her back and forth on the ground, Ranjitham’s eyes found the discarded knife. It was already soiled with dried blood. Someone else’s blood. Fear rose in her throat and threatened to choke her. He had a knife. He had threatened to stab her. It was obviously not the first time her husband had stabbed someone. The child slept in her arms that night without food. Neither did Ranjitham move away from her. They curled up in a corner.
When she woke up early in the morning, Rangan was sprawled on the floor in the other end of the room. Everything seemed absolutely normal except for the unassembled cylinder that was the sole reminder of yesterday’s frightening events. Kamala had to get ready for school. Ranjitham made Idlis for her on her dilapidated old stove and packed them with lentil powder. She woke her daughter up and Kamala embraced her with her usual goofy smile. Children have a way of forgetting everything once they sleep. They went about their usual routine. She bathed and dressed the child, fed her a glass of porridge and sent her off to school.

Rangan was still asleep and drooling over the pillow. He looked like he had passed out. He looked like he was dead. She set the Bidi packet and Match Box next to him like she always did and took to cleaning the kitchen with a vengeance. She scrubbed and sorted all the utensils. Dismantled the kerosene-aided contraption of a stove. She hauled the 30 kg cylinder all on her own and broke the valve. She set the stove and the tubing and connected it on to a newly -polished stove. She was at least doing something right, she told herself.
When Ranjitham left for work Rangan was still asleep. She was calm and composed but the bruises from yesterday showed on her face. People were staring at her on the way to Mary Amma’s house. She kept walking resolutely. When she reached Mary Amma’s house, the old woman took one look at her battered face and went to retrieve the medicine box.
‘Amma, I need to tell you something,’ she began, showing weakness in her voice for the first time in these nine years. Mary peered into the eyes of this young woman who was almost like a daughter to her.
‘Whatever it is, we will take care of it, Ranjitham.’ she offered. The tears dropped slowly from Ranjitham’s eyes.
Suddenly there was a loud and persistent banging on Mary Amma’s door. Ranjitham cringed. ‘Amma, don’t open that.’ she wailed. Mary Amma walked to the door and pried it open. It was Mani panting from running.
‘Amma, Ranjitham’s house burst into flames half an hour ago. The fire has spread to the neighbouring wastelands as well. The fire engine is there trying to put it down. Her house is completely destroyed.’ He declared.
Ranjitham wiped away her tears as she looked up. Mary Amma turned to look at her questioningly. Ranjitham nodded. Mary Amma turned to Mani.
‘Please go be with the fire engine and police when they come. We are going to go get Kamala from the school. We will take care of this.’ She stated calmly. 

About the Writer:
Arulmozhi Kumar is a dentist by profession and a voracious reader. She has many publications in the form of books and articles on dentistry but this is her novel attempt at fiction. She is the founder of ‘The Accidental Book Club’ in Chennai and documents her reading and parenting journey through @docarulmozhi on Instagram. She continues to spread her love for books to children through book reviews at #abc_minions. 


  1. Love this! Has a very earthy feel to it... the essence has been beautifully captured! Very well written Arul!

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