Ghost Baby by Vishwas R. Gaitonde

For a marriage made in heaven, the wedding ceremony was maddeningly down to earth. Each guest arrived at the wedding hall in a puff of dust churned up from the street as their vehicles screeched and skidded to a halt. The ladies wore bright silk saris patterned with gold filigree; their sweat systematically destroyed their pancake makeup. Even the men, in their silk and terylene shirts and stiff dhotis, perhaps inspired by their wives and daughters, wore their own brand of cosmetics — layer upon layer of talcum powder. 

Punitha had only met Sukumar twice while the families were negotiating to arrange their marriage. From the corner of her eye she surreptitiously glanced at the man she was about to wed, her head lowered just enough to make it difficult for others to notice what she was doing. Sukumar, sitting cross-legged in front of the sacred fire, kept his handkerchief by his side to mop his face. When the cloth became a wet rag, he signaled his brother with his finger to bring a fresh hanky. He had soaked five already and stole occasional glances at his demure bride. Punitha wasn’t sweating like him. She hoped that her light sheen would be mistaken for the glare of the video camera lights playing on her skin. 

She glanced at the guests. A man in the first row of seats guffawed loudly on his cell phone, others gossiped or raked their eyes over others to critically assess their outfits, ornaments and baubles. Some nodded off, lulled by the sonorous Sanskrit mantras uttered by the portly, perspiring priests with bare, glistening torsos. Hardly anybody paid attention to the bridal couple perched before the fire on the manapandal, the raised platform with a carved wooden canopy painted with clashing, garish colors and mounted on four stout poles decorated with chrysanthemums and marigolds. Emboldened, Punitha now looked Sukumar full in the face. At almost the same moment, he glanced at her and both smiled. Unison of hearts and minds!  Their marriage was indeed made in heaven.

That’s what the astrologers had said after dissecting their horoscopes. Venus was perfectly aligned with Mars, Mercury had a broad smile instead of an angry pout, and most amazing of all, stinking Saturn for once wasn’t in a position to spoil anything. The natal charts of a bridal couple seldom intermeshed so beautifully.

The auspicious moment came suddenly upon them, and the fanfare of the drums and the oboe-like nadhaswaram galvanized the guests. Like a human tidal wave they surged forward toward the manapandal  to shower the bridal couple with turmeric-stained rice at this, the moment of all moments, when Sukumar tied the wedding necklace, the thali, around Punitha’s neck. People midway down the hall couldn’t see the couple clearly and leaned forward on toes to lob their confetti high into the air. Those behind them saw nothing at all and in reprisal, aimed their confetti at the derrieres of the ones who obstructed their view.

The excitement barely subsided when chief priest coughed loudly and announced the Sapta Padi, the Rite of the Seven Steps. Sukumar held Punitha’s hand as they slowly circled the sacred fire seven times. The chief priest recited a mantra with each circuit. Neither Sukumar nor Punitha could understand the incantation, and the priest half-mumbled it as though he didn’t understand it either. But then, this was India, where everybody winged it. Sukumar and Punitha had been brought up to strictly not talk to or hobnob with strangers, but apparently it was perfectly fine to marry one. Still, Sukumar and Punitha enjoyed the sensation of walking hand in hand, the strange slowly turning into something reassuring. They had an overall sense of the invocations. For nourishment and good health. For physical and mental strength. For spiritual vitality.  For happiness and harmony all through their married life, born of mutual love and trust.  For the sharing of their joys and sorrows, even as they shared the seasons. For a lifetime of intimate companionship. For the welfare of all living creatures, starting with their own children.

It was past eleven when Sukumar and Punitha alighted from the car in front of Sukumar’s ancestral home in the half-light of the pale moon. Rani Amma, Sukumar’s mother, who had gone ahead of them, opened the door and stepped out, hugging Punitha, a faint glimmer of tears in her eyes. She draped her arm around Punitha’s shoulder and guided her to the side of the door where a small silver urn glinted in the yellow glare of the lamp above the door.

“Kick, little princess, with your right foot,” Rani Amma said gently. Punitha dutifully overturned the urn and a stream of uncooked rice grains spewed out across the floor, seeds in fluid motion.

“Now step over it.” 

Punita did so, a little hop, a blush on her face, and a plump tear rolled down Rani Amma’s cheek and she blurted out, “Such joy, such joy. If only Sukumar’s father had been alive to see this. Goddess Lakshmi has finally entered this house. There will be prosperity. Abundance.  Shrieks and laughter of little children. The pattering of their feet. Such joy.”

She hugged Punitha, and whispered into her ear, “I’m your second mother now.”

Such joy, such joy. It lingered for about a year. Sukumar and Punitha got to know each other, helped by outings — to the movies, to the lush gardens beside the dam spanning the Vaigai river, and the tumbling Kumbakkarai waterfalls in the hills beside Kodaikanal.  Then the joy frayed and unraveled steadily with each successive childless year. 

“Purushan thaney?”  Sukumar’s buddies needled him about his questionable manhood, and to his anger, a couple of times when he was with Punitha. They sobered up and stopped teasing him after a couple of years. Punitha had no such respite. Friends of the family she had married into, the neighbors, and even casual acquaintances would ask when the baby was due. They didn’t ask Punitha. They asked her mother-in-law. 

“Rani Amma, any good news?”  Their smiles were perverse. They knew they had cornered the old woman.

“Rani Amma, when are you going to dandle your grandchild on your knee?”

“Sometimes the Lord makes us wait, but I hope you don’t have to wait too long, Amma.”

 “No child yet, Rani Amma? Nothing’s wrong, is it?”

“We’re praying all will be well, that your family will be blessed with a little one soon. Last week we did an archana at the Mariamman temple especially for you, and your dear son and daughter-in-law. You should take Punitha to the temple, make her tie a small cloth cradle with a stone in it on the peepal tree there, and pray.”

Punitha’s tension slowly spiraled as each day progressed, starting from the time Sukumar left for work. The queen mother had become distant. Her effusive affection and cordiality had given way to the forced politeness reserved for casual acquaintances. She took to addressing Punitha as marumagal, daughter-in-law, instead of by her name.

“Marumagal, that’s not how you slice carrots. Smaller, smaller. Didn’t your mother teach you how?”

“We did it differently at home, Mami, but I can do it however you want.”

“Good, good. My Suku is used to it this way.”

In the evenings, they sat in the living room until the sun turned bright red and dissolved into the dark shadows that slunk across the earth to embrace each other and become one with the blackness of the night. Rani Amma devoured Kumudam, Kalkandu and other Tamil magazines, many borrowed from neighbors, while she dipped Rusk biscuits into a cup of tea until they became soggy, and slowly masticated them by squashing them between her tongue and palate, savoring each morsel and every so often adjusting her dentures. Punitha sat opposite her, flipping through Femina and Eve’s Weekly, crunching crisp Marie biscuits. They ignored each other.

When Sukumar returned home from the variety store that he managed, his affected smile, more of a saccharine grimace, spoke truer than anything he said to his wife or his mother, both of whom demanded his undivided attention. Rani Amma got it until dinner, Punitha only when they retired to their bedroom. Sukumar aired his problems freely, most of them related to his work. Punitha could only complain about humdrum matters like the rising prices of rice, onions and gingelly oil, when she really wanted to tell him that his mother was a yapping bitch. She had overheard part of Rani Amma’s conversation when her sister, Kasturi, had stopped to visit.

“No child yet, Kasturi. I am at my wit’s end. What can I do? ”

Rani Amma’s voice rose to cracking point and Kasturi jumped in to soothe her, saying: “A few things, Akka. Don’t let her eat papaya. That papaya tree in your backyard, cut it down at once. Take her to the Parameswari temple in Tiruvallur, perform special pujas. Several pujas. So many barren women have conceived after praying to Parameswari. And talk to your marumagal, talk to Suku, advise them to – umm, try harder.”

Try harder? Punitha’s cheeks burned as though the two sisters had slapped her several times. The house became a tomb, its damp silence preventing her from reaching out to others in the bright world outside, from getting support to help her face her ignominy. There was fear, too, that if she spoke out somebody might carry the story back to Rani Amma or Sukumar, fear of the salacious twists the gossip would take as it spread from mouth to ear to mouth and turned into a dragon that engulfed her in flaming sulfur.

When her situation began to curdle, Punitha called her parents. They visited once, and spoke of how some couples had waited several years for their first baby. Sukumar laughed uneasily but politely. Not Rani Amma, who, in an unmistakably tart voice, countered that couples that stayed childless left their families without an heir. The others asked her not to fret. Rani Amma compressed her upper lip into her lower and held on to her single lip for a long time, even when the conversation wandered into and out of several other topics.

After a while Punitha stopped bringing up this issue with her parents. It had begun to gnaw on their minds too; now her mother was anxious too. Punitha spent the days contemplating on the shredded tapestry of her once beautiful dreams. What was her worth as a person?  She’d been called a goddess at her wedding. Now she was less than a mortal because she had so far been unable to bear a child to carry the family that she’d married into to their next generation. 

One night she somehow mustered the courage to bring the matter up with Sukumar. 

“Do you remember all the vows during the wedding ceremony?  At the kanyadaan, you promised my father you’d care for me as a righteous duty, satisfy my needs, love me. Dharma, Artha, Kama. Were they just words you uttered only because the priest made you repeat them?” 

“What do you mean?” Sukumar’s lips parted a little, while his eyebrows knitted and stayed that way. “Your happiness is important to me. If there’s anything lacking, tell me.”

“Your mother is — can be difficult at times. She’s unhappy we haven’t had baby yet. Look, I want — we want a baby as much as anybody else. I don’t know how to make her understand that we are really trying hard.”

Sukumar blanched and sat still for a long time. His Adams apple bobbed as he groped around in his mind for words. The color returned to his face in layers.

“Dharma,” he said. “Nice word, sounds good in the mantras, but in real life?  I have my dharma to my mother also. See, Amma nursed me when I was a baby, bathed me, fed me. Played with me, spanked me when I was naughty, hugged me when I was good, watched me grow through school and go to college.  I love her. And I love you — I don’t want to be forced to take sides so please adjust to her. 

“And there’s something I should tell you. Amma’s not been herself since Appa’s death. She thinks my father’s soul will return as her grandchild. I don’t know who or what shoved that idea into her head, so but there you have it. She’s suffering in her own way. Please leave my mother out of this. You’re not being just to her.”

For the first time Punitha encountered a hard edge in his voice. That morning, Rani Amma had launched into a long tirade and Punitha, afraid that she would blurt out a sharp repartee and escalate matters, had begun to move away but Rani Amma had grabbed her arm so hard that a bruise formed over her biceps. Punitha had decided to show Sukumar the bruise but with the turn the conversation had taken and hearing the hardness in his voice, she kept silent.

Punitha might have folded up like a thatched hut flattened by the onslaught of a monsoon rainstorm if she hadn’t found an unexpected outlet. Malini, her classmate from elementary school now living in Melbourne where her husband worked as a software engineer, had tracked her down through mutual friends and Facebook.  Punitha eagerly waited for the calls from Australia.

“You live just outside Madurai, right, Puni?”  Malini said. “There’s got to be fertility clinics in some of the Madurai hospitals. Why don’t you get a check-up? ”

“They might tell me I’ll never be able to have a baby. That would be a disaster, Malini, all my in-laws will say I’m a spectacular failure. In some ways it’s better not to know, to just keep trying and hope.”

“Puni. Listen. What’s the chance of that worst case scenario?  Pretty slim. The chances they’ll find and fix the problem? Much better. It may not be you. Sometimes it’s the husband. Take Sukumar along. Anyway, they’ll insist on seeing you together for the first consultation.”

“I’m not sure he’ll come. Malini. Listen. This isn’t the usual situation ….”  Her voice tailed off. Vaarisu. The heir who would establish the bloodline, the family lineage. She picked up her sentence again.

“This isn’t the usual vaarisu situation, Mali. My mother-in-law believes her husband’s soul will return in the form of her grandson.”

“Ammadi!  A ghost baby? Who put that wild idea into her head?”

“I don’t know, some spiritual adviser, we have one on every street corner. But I must get a baby soon — a boy. If it’s a girl, who knows what peculiar twists my life might take?”

Childless days without end. Endless days without child.  Each of Punitha’s days stretched out painfully to its maximum extent. Sukumar turned cold and distant now, and his temper would often run away from him. Like the time when Punitha tried to commiserate as he blew off steam over an errant business colleague, only to be met with a glare and a shout.

“What do you know about my workplace?”  Sukumar brought his fist down on the table. “Just deal with running the house, okay?”

Punitha’s eyes filled up. She was stunned at the little smirk of satisfaction flitting across Rani Amma’s face. Now that her son had openly drawn blood, Rani Amma also slipped in the occasional cutting remark. Even when nothing was said, the silent looks they exchanged bore a sinister feel. Punitha often paused during the day, closing her eyes to regain her composure, forcing her facial muscles to arrange themselves into a deadpan look. But just when she thought the topic of divorce was going to be raised, Sukumar deflated her with a sweet remark, made her fumble about for her bearings.  

So the days passed — and then it happened. She missed a period, and another. Strange churnings from the depths of her body called out to her.  Her abdomen appeared bigger. The family was elated, but the elation Punitha felt was not the kind that lit up faces, but something undecipherable, a brightness that was streaked with gloom. 

Rani Amma hugged Punitha every morning after she applied the red kumkum and white vibhuti ash on Punitha’s forehead. But she doesn’t like me for who I am or what I am, Punitha thought. She only likes me because I am the vehicle to transport her blood to another generation.

Rani Amma wasted no time planning the seemantham ceremony. Many preferred to hold it in the seventh month, combining it with the Ceremony of the Bangles, the valai-kappu. But Rani Amma was so excited she wanted the seemantham at the earliest possible moment. She’d invite the whole town — they would never forget this shindig.

As a little girl, Punitha had eagerly attended the seemanthams of relatives and family friends. Her wide-eyed keenness guaranteed they’d choose her as one of the pre-pubertal girls who ground up newly sprouted banyan leaves in raw milk to make the paste with which the expectant mother would be anointed.  Then the priest uttered mantras and slowly drew the quill of a porcupine from her head down to her swollen belly button. 

At one seemantham an invitee brought along two strangers, American women, tourists from Louisiana he had befriended in one of the shopping malls. The tall blonde ladies, more exotic than the porcupine quill, got more attention from the other guests than the mother-to-be. Their speech made Punitha and her friends giggle their heads off, for the women painfully stretched out every word on the torture rack.

Each seemantham she attended intoxicated Punitha; she fantasized about the day when she’d be the star of the ceremony. Now the day was here, but the mystique was gone, just as the invasion of the morning light through the drapes destroyed the magic conjured by the moonlight and shadows. The whole affair was a charade. As the mother sniffed the banyan leaf paste, the scent she inhaled turned into an ethereal protective cloak around the fetus.  The pressure of the porcupine quill insured a sharp intellect for the baby, and its deft movement from head to navel similarly ensured a smooth passage down the birth canal. So they said. She had to sit through the pageant, just like she had that long wedding ceremony. But she had a new life inside her; she could put up with anything. 

Guests who attended the seemantham brought gifts of cash, gold, or items of their choosing. These days, the husband’s family had a wish list, which included the latest in electronics and household appliances, and the gifts were displayed openly in a complete break with tradition. Punitha gave a wan smile when she remembered how one of the Louisiana ladies had gasped and burst out in an admiring drawl, “Y’all, I must say: leave it to India to come up with the world’s most elaborate baby shower.”

On the night of the seemantham, she and Sukumar lay side by side, listening to the hesitant call of a nightjar on the tree in their neighbor’s yard.  Sukumar had tenderly stroked her melon tummy and said with a happy sigh, “Anil is a good name for the baby.”

“We could get a daughter, you know.”  Punitha said, and thought: Could a girl still carry my father-in-law’s soul?  Be a ‘ghost baby’ as Malini put it?

“Hmm. Do you like the name Neela?” Sukumar brought her out of her trance.

“Sweet. My breasts hurt. Even before I feel any kicks. Leela and Gnani told me it’s okay, the breasts are making milk. But isn’t it too early for that?”

“You’re asking me?” Sukumar wobbled with laughter. “I’m not a doctor, dear, I’m a businessman. Maybe your body’s speeding up after waiting for so many years for a baby.”

Punitha laughed into her pillow. 

Two nights later she began to bleed violently, wide awake throughout her nightmare, terrified she was in the throes of a miscarriage, her inner pain forcing its way out through an achy sweat. They bundled her into a car along with heaps of blankets and sanitary pads, Sukumar perspiring beside her, more than he had during their wedding, fondling her head nestled in his lap. Punitha could not believe how tender his touch was, as his hands caressed her forehead. Their neighbor, crouched behind the wheel, drove them at breakneck speed to Madurai where the hospitals were bigger and better than those in their town.

The truth unfolded the next day. The doctor, who was obviously trying so hard to look kind that her face became a caricature, seated Sukumar in her office and broke the news in short bursts to the distraught man.

Punitha hadn’t been pregnant. There was a life inside her all right but it wasn’t a new life. A filament of her own life had streamed out in a way it wasn’t supposed to, looping and tightening itself inside her abdomen like a noose. She’d had an ovarian cyst that perfectly mimicked a pregnancy. This was no ghost baby but tangible flesh and blood — the spawn of the devil chomping and mauling and intent on destroying the very source that had birthed it.  

Eight years later, Malini and Punitha met for the first time since they had graduated from high school. They sat on the terraced balcony of Punitha and Sukumar’s home in the Egmore subdivision of the sprawling metropolis of Chennai, from where Punitha kept an eye on her children Anil and Neela. Fireworks went off on the streets and in the yards and on terraces of the surrounding houses. Anil and Neela let off pinwheels in their little yard along with some of their friends, punctuating their chattering with shrieks and yelps. An aunt stood by, dispensing the fireworks and keeping a close eye on the kids as they lit them, and that the embers were doused with water. Punitha called out now and then to the lady.

“I keep worrying about Anil and Neela,” she told Malini, her tone apologetic. “I think they’re too young to handle fireworks even though their aunt and the older kids are with them. My heart thumps overtime whenever I think something might happen to them.”

 It was the night after Diwali, the grand festival of lights. For the past three days the kids (and adults who had temporarily shed a few years) had set off firecrackers. The streets were littered by the cardboard shells of burnt-out squibs and the air clogged with the pall of lingering smoke and acrid fumes. After dark, the sparklers, the flaming danglers, the fiery wheels that rotated on the ground and the rockets that scooted skywards and exploded in a flurry of sparks, blazed in all directions.

“Great that you live in Chennai now. I can meet you whenever I visit. We should also catch up with our other classmates.” Malini was exuberant. 

“Lovely that you could come for Diwali. Did you enjoy the sweets?” Punitha asked.

“Oh yes, but I’ve had far too many!”

“I probably shouldn’t offer you any more. But then, it’s Diwali. I’ll give you something different.”  Punitha went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of thick light brown milkshake with pale strands floating in it like water weeds. The first mouthful won Malini over.  Its texture was far grittier than any milkshake she’d ever drunk.

 “This. What’s this?”

“Jigarthanda,” Punitha smiled at Malini’s wonder. “A Madurai specialty. The original jigarthanda is only available in a small stall in the heart of Madurai. Every day people stand in a long line that goes all the way down the street, just to get a glass. Suku and I always joined the line on our Madurai visits after we prayed at the Meenakshi temple.”

“If it’s so popular why doesn’t everyone sell it?”

The recipe was guarded better than the top secret formula of Coca Cola — nothing could induce the stall owner to part with it, Punitha explained. Others tried to duplicate the delicacy but couldn’t quite match the original.  Punitha said she had discovered what the ingredients were: home-made ice cream just before it became rock solid, buffalo milk boiled in a clay oven (but she cut corners and used a gas stove), sarsaparilla, and seaweed.  Her jigarthanda was close enough to the original to fool everybody.

“So,” Malini paused. “Tell me what you didn’t want to over the phone.”

“About the things that happened after that night?  They removed the whole ovary. Just in case part of the cyst had turned cancerous.”  Punitha spoke matter-of-factly as though she was asking a waiter to return an unsatisfying dinner back to the kitchen. “They left the other ovary intact so that I could have a regular hormone cycle. But I never carried a baby. Suku didn’t want me to take any risks, he was firm about that, though the doctors assured him a normal pregnancy was possible. We could have had a baby if we wanted to.”

“And your mother-in-law? How did you deal with the smoke from her nostrils?”

“Oh, Malini. Any guesses about why we moved to Chennai?”  Punitha laughed. “But my fears were….it’s all worked out okay. Anil and Neela have won Rani Amma over.”

“But the vaarisu? You didn’t carry these children, so how can your mother-in-law believe that — ”

The rest of what Malini said whooshed over Punitha’s head because her mind had flown back to an altercation between Rani Amma and their next-door neighbor, Palanichamy, a pinnacle of erudition who had just retired from a professorship in philosophy at the prestigious Madura College. 

“Reincarnation doesn’t work that way.” His dour expression incensed Rani Amma.

“You are a misguided Bertrand Russell, sir,” she muttered under her breath but he heard her and shot back with injured dignity, “My specialization is in Hindu philosophy. The souls of the deceased spend time in another realm before they return to the world into a family as determined by their karma. The soul of your husband won’t return to our world so quickly, and it could be reborn in any family.”

“All book knowledge, all unproved theory,” Rani Amma was at her most caustic. Professor Palanichamy spent his whole life studying this subject, Punitha thought, and look how she is putting him down. Rani Amma went on,“My husband loved me so much I can’t even put it into words, and he will return to me and no other.”



“So the bloodline issue,” Punitha told Malini. “It wasn’t strong enough in my case, overshadowed as it was by the whole reincarnation thing. Rani Amma was devastated after her husband died, and when we’re so vulnerable, don’t we clutch at any stick that offers us support? When somebody told her that her husband could return as her grandson, the ghost baby thing as you put it, it must have been a huge comfort. She was absolutely convinced that this was meant to be. So she became a wreck when her husband came back — well, as a cyst, a tumor.”

Punitha paused, “She confined herself to her bed, kept the curtains drawn, wouldn’t eat a thing even when the food was taken to her. Suku had his hands full with the two of us in a state. But the shock was an eye-opener in some way. She adores Anil and Neela. Suku’s younger brother just got married. She lives with them now, and I hope they’ll soon have their baby.”

“And Rani Amma will be happy at your father-in-law’s return,” Malini asked. “More so if it’s a boy.”

“I think Rani Amma has given up on that idea,” Punitha replied.


A loud burst of firecrackers made Punitha pause, then she continued, “This disaster made Suku very, very supportive of me, like he’d never been before. We were physically intimate all along, but didn’t someone say a marriage is much more than four legs thrashing around between the mattress and the bed sheet?  Some days we couldn’t keep a conversation going — ”

Punitha broke off, staring into space, and Malini did not interrupt her thoughts. Punitha then turned to Malini and continued, “But during that car ride to the hospital and especially after my surgery, we became close as though we were childhood friends. His friend from college ran a business in Chennai and was looking for a partner, and we moved. So here we are. Believe it or not, Rani Amma may even move in with us eventually.”

Anil and Neela’s shrill voices along with those of their friends wafted up to the balcony. 

“Do Anil and Neela know they’re adopted?” Malini asked.

“I don’t want to tell them until I have to. Malini, that cyst sort of gave me the feeling of pregnancy. I had nausea. I vomited. My breasts became raw and tender. And though I did not experience childbirth or nurse the children, still, I feel I bore both Anil and Neela. They’re my own, not adopted.”

A pause, then Punitha brought out a chilled jug and said, as she poured out a glass of Madurai’s own specialty beverage, jigarthanda, “That long line of people outside the stall in Madurai that introduced the original jigarthanda — everybody wants the authentic drink and not the imitations sold by the copycats.  What they don’t know is that the stall doesn’t sell the original. This drink’s been around for over five hundred years.”


“Really. Can you translate jigarthanda into English for me?”

“Never heard that word before.”

“Right. Because it’s not a Tamil word. It’s either Hindi or Urdu.”

It took Punitha time to reconcile with her discovery that her nemesis, her mother-in-law, was veering to her side. On yet another visit from her sister, Kasturi, the two sisters sparred in an animated tête-à-tête loud enough to carry to Punitha in the adjoining room. 

“Adoption? Shocking! Can you stand for it? Can you?” Kasturi demanded.

“Better than remaining childless.” Rani Amma’s tone was mild, soothing.

“Hahn? Do you really mean that?” Kasturi’s tone indicated that she was caught off-guard but Rani Amma’s reply cut her off, “I do mean it ─ if it is clear that you can’t have children. Think it over while I get you our usual refreshment.”

Punitha heard the sounds of Rani Amma shuffling to the kitchem, the door of the refrigerator opening and shutting, and knew she was getting chilled jigarthanda. As the sisters sipped it, Rani Amma asked, “Do you know why it’s called jigarthanda?

“What a strange question!”

“That means you don’t know.” Rani Amma proceeded to explain. Jigar meant liver, thanda meant cool, Punitha explained. Jigarthanda was a favorite of the Mughal emperors, a popular summer drink in Mughal Delhi to cool down the liver, considered the most important organ in the body. The Mughals also believed the liver gave rise to emotions and feelings, but the British came along and said, oh no, it’s the heart that’s the seat of feelings. 

“So jigar now meant heart as well as liver. I’m glad I wasn’t a doctor in that era! Even today they call a friend of the heart jigari-dost.You must have heard that expression in Hindi movies.”

Punitha smothered a laugh; Kasturi was so anti-Hindi and would favor suicide over watching Hindi movies. 

“And somehow, somewhere,” Rani Amma continued, “our Madurai adopted this centuries-old North Indian drink and made it its own. Mention “jil jil” jigarthanda and people always think of Madurai — never the Mughals. If Suku and Puni adopt, those children will be theirs, and we think of them as theirs, whatever our initial thoughts may be.”

A car rolled into the yard, its headlamps raking the front of the house. Sukumar had returned after running a few errands. Anil and Neela raced behind the car shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!”  As Sukumar got out of the car Punitha leaned over the balcony to wave at them. 

At that moment, from the terraces of different houses, three firework rockets shot up into the atmosphere and exploded in the sky close to each other, fusing to make one giant ball of sparkling fire, lighting up the world sprawled below. And for that one moment, Punitha thought the sun had chosen to shine at night.

Contributor Notes

Vishwas Gaitonde spent his formative years in India, has lived in Britain and the United States, and has been published widely. His writings have appeared in Mid-American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Iowa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other publications. One of his short stories was cited as a Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2016 guest edited by Junot Diaz. Distinctions include two fellowships in fiction at The Anderson Center, Red Wing, MN (2012, 2018), the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers Conference (2017), scholarships to the Tin House (OR, 2012) and Summer Literary Seminar (Montreal, Canada, 2015), and an Hawthornden International Fellowship (Scotland, 2017). He is the author of the book A Thief in the Night: Understanding AIDS, published by East-West Books, Chennai, India (2001). He is on Twitter at @weareji.