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Chapter One

Madurai, India, 1992

Almost two months before her conception

She does not exist even in thought.

Janani knew, the minute the midwife placed her naked, squalling, soft-as-silk daughter in her arms, that she couldn’t lose this one.

An image came to her mind, burying a bundle gone cold and still in the dirt by the young coconut palm. Her hands drew the hated little body closer. 

Tiny limbs moved in fitful pumps as Janani looked down into a face as round and purple as mangosteen. The baby’s mouth shifted over the swollen skin of her breast, and her plaintive wail died as she found the nipple and began to feed. Her minute fingers rested against the skin over Janani’s heart.

Janani watched her in the light of the oil lamp, her eyes trailing along each line of her body, trying to find something that made her less than perfect.

‘Rock, my little peacock.’ The lullaby escaped through her lips, the first words she’d managed since that last, pain-riddled push.

Hands were fussing around her, tender and papery – Kamala, the old, strong midwife who had delivered most of the rest of Usilampatti district, over what seemed like centuries. Janani barely noticed, until someone spoke.

‘Give her to me.’ Pain and weariness turned what should have been a familiar voice into a half-recognised echo. 

No, Janani tried to say. It stayed a tired whisper in her mind. She wanted to hold this new life for as long as she could.

There was a rough fumble, nails scratching against her forearms, and the warmth of new-born, new-drawn skin was gone. Her daughter began to cry again. Th e noise stuttered into existence like a steam engine’s chugs. Th e door closed, muffling the sound.

Was it Shubha? No, no it couldn’t be. Her friend was gone, pushed out, a long time ago, before the pains became so strong Janani forgot what was around her.

Get up, you idiot, she thought. She raised herself onto one elbow, then rolled onto the other.

Kamala loomed over her, hands on Janani’s shoulders, gently urging her down onto the thin pallet. Her wrinkles had reshaped themselves into grim worry. ‘Rest now, child.’

Janani’s arms were shaking beneath her. She collapsed back on the bed. One hand came down on the mat with an angry thump. She’d lost track of the hours she’d lain here, but exhaustion was drifting over her like fog.

Sleep dragged her down, blanketing the echo of the baby’s cries.

Janani woke.

The shutters had been opened, letting bright sunlight and the heat of the day pour through the bars on the window. Light extended in strips over the room, reaching up onto the bed and over her ankles. Her feet were as warm as though they’d been lying on coals. She lifted them, drawing them up into the shade. The smell of blood and must had dissipated, carried away by fresh air laced with the familiar aromas of the village – chickens, the tamarind and tomatoes in simmering rasam, ground rice, cow dung, motorbike fuel.

For a moment, she lay staring at the roof thatching, disoriented by dreams, blinking in the broken darkness. There was a plastic pitcher of water on the tiny round table by the bed, crowned by an upside-down steel tumbler. It woke her thirst.

She sat up, tensed for the sharp shoot of pain she remembered even from that first birth, Lavanika’s, five years ago. When there was nothing but a dull ache, she shifted her legs over the side of the bed, the cement floor cool against her feet.

The water was already warm. She drank anyway, cup after cup, until she became aware of the low hum of voices beyond the door.

The tumbler abandoned, she pushed her fists against the pallet to lever herself to her feet. A fresh sheet had been laid under her as she slept, and she noticed for the first time that her nightdress, sticky with the wetness of fluid and blood and piss, had been changed.

Kamala’s bag, with its lotions and powdered herbs and roots, had disappeared. The tiny room which held everything Janani owned was as cramped but as tidy as ever. She had managed to finish folding her fading saris during the earliest pangs of her labour pains. They were stacked as she’d left them, on top of the squat, splintering cupboard that housed her husband’s clean lunghis. Her ancient sewing machine sat nestled in a

The straw mat that Lavanika sometimes slept on when the heat was unbearable was rolled and leaned against the wall, and Janani felt a deep, desperate yearning for her, to bury her face in her soft curls. But she’d sent Lavanika away with Shubha, away from the pain and blood of birth.

And the room was empty, but for her.

The baby.

A memory, of that petal-soft skin.

She staggered forward.

A glint in the sunlight caught her eye, drawing it to the gold-framed picture of the goddess Meenakshi Amman that had been her mother-in-law’s wedding gift. Janani stopped, her hand on the door latch and her womb throbbing, and stared at the perfect, peaceful face. It’s all OK, it seemed to promise her. She fought the urge to kick it to the floor, feeling sick.

She took a half-step and, when the pain didn’t increase, continued towards the door. Pushing it open, she found herself facing her husband and mother-in-law.

Darshan and Vandhana stood in the other room of the house, the one room that made up the kitchen, living area and the draped-off nook that was Vandhana’s bedroom. The midwife had gone.

They’d been speaking in low voices, but both looked up as Janani entered. There was no sign of a baby.
Instead, a few plates painted with the remains of idli and coconut chutney were stacked on the step of the open back door, ready to be washed. Janani felt a sudden stab of surprise that her mother-in-law had prepared breakfast. She hadn’t had a choice, of course. Vandhana’s only exception to her rule of minimal
housework was when Janani was barely able to stand.

The smells of roasted onion, ground coconut and hot, sweet tea still lingered, and Janani was suddenly aware of the new ache of hunger in her stomach. She thought of her daughter nuzzling for her breast and looked instinctively around the room. 

‘You should eat,’ Vandhana said. ‘Go and take a bath first, though. You stink.’

Janani’s mouth felt parched again. She took another step forward, craning her head around Vandhana to look in the corner of the room, searching for a small bundle of legs and cloth. ‘Where’s my baby?’ she asked.

Vandhana stepped towards her. Her husband remained where he was, head down but eyes on her like a sullen child, his mouth thin and almost hidden by the thick black forest of his moustache.

‘You stupid bitch,’ her mother-in-law said.

Tiredness had made Janani slow. She blinked. It was Vandhana’s voice she’d heard, Vandhana’s fingers she’d felt, pulling her child’s warm weight from her arms.

She raised her hands, palms open. ‘Where is she?’

Vandhana slapped them away. ‘The useless thing,’ she said, voice sharp with disgust. ‘Just like the last one. It’s not worth any more thought.’

Darshan looked down and away, and that was enough.

Is it for the best? Janani thought. It was a flash of a thought, hot and grimy and she’d heard the answer a thousand times, but . . . No. No, give her back. I want her.

She couldn’t force the words through her lips.

Through watering eyes, she saw Vandhana turn and walk towards the back door.

She couldn’t let it be too late.

Janani took a step forward and then another, her arms outstretched.

‘No!’ she said. ‘Where is she?’

A second later, Darshan was a wall in front of her, hands on her shoulders. He manoeuvred her back towards their bedroom. She scrabbled at his arms, but thin though he was, she was still so tired. Before Janani could form a thought, she was halfsitting, half-lying on the unforgiving mattress in their bedroom, Darshan standing over her.

‘It’s easier,’ he said. ‘We can’t afford another girl, you know it.’ Her placid, inert husband sounded as angry as she’d ever heard him. ‘What are we going to do? Even if we stopped eating, we couldn’t pay another damned dowry.’

Janani didn’t realise she was crying until she felt the pounding sign of too little breath in her head and the taste of salt at the corner of her mouth. Dowry. She thought of the golden jewellery she’d worn on her wedding day, locked away in the chest at the foot of the bed. 

From beyond Darshan, she could hear water being sloshed from a bucket behind the house – Vandhana, washing the plates as though nothing had happened, and she hadn’t held her new granddaughter hours ago.

Janani tried to get up, not caring if he hit her, but Darshan’s hands were on her shoulders once more, holding her down.

‘Just trust Amma,’ he said. ‘Rest and I’ll bring you some food. You need to build up your strength. Hopefully you can be back working by the end of the week.’ At the door, he turned, his face seeming softer in the dappled gold of late-morning light. ‘You’re well enough, aren’t you? Th e next one will be a boy.’

‘I don’t want the next one!’ she said, but the door had closed, muting the sound beyond it into a frustrating wasp’s hum. 

Pushing herself off the bed, Janani ran to the door, her stomach muscles groaning in protest. Hard as she pushed, it wouldn’t budge.

Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe it’s easier.

A memory filtered into her mind from another life, of sitting on her father’s lap and listening to the low rumble of his voice as he told her the story of the birth of the baby god Krishna. Krishna’s mother, Devaki, had seen her brother, the doomed king Kamsa, dash six of her newborn children against stone in front of her eyes, their little skulls smashed like pomegranates trodden underfoot. The seventh, the only girl, had slipped from his grasp as he swung her at the wall by her little feet. She had transformed into the mother Goddess in the sky above his head, and cursed Kamsa, reminding him of the prophecy that Devaki’s eighth child would kill him. There was no escaping fate.

Leaning against the door, Janani imagined her baby slipping away into the air, shining in triumph against the stars.

She burrowed her wet face into one arm as she pounded the door with the other, and her breasts cried tears of milk into her nightdress.

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