A translation of the Tamil short story ‘தேவகி சித்தியின் டயரி’ (1999) by B.Jeyamohan.
Amma, my mother, sent me to find out whether Devaki Chithi was coming downstairs to get her coffee or not. I pushed against the door of the room where Chithappa and Chithi, my uncle and aunt, usually sleep; it was locked. So, I marched out of the front door, climbed up the drumstick tree on the right side of the yard, and peeped into the room through the open ventilator above the window. I was filled with a strange mix of fear and exhilaration. It almost felt like surreptitiously drinking raw, stolen eggs. Chithi was not changing. She had the electric light on; she sat on the floor against the wall writing something. From time to time, a bashful smile would flit across her face. She scratched her neck and feet once or twice, as if she had been stung by mosquitoes. On the clothesline lay the yellow saree that she had been wearing earlier that day. The cupboard was open, I could see the silverware and sarees in it. On the huge double bed, Chithappa’s discarded lungi lay askew. When the saree swayed in the breeze, Chithi looked up with a start. She closed her notebook. I gasped; I thought that she had seen me. However, Chithi took up her notebook and started writing again. I could hear my mother on the other side of the door calling my name. Then, she was calling Chithi. “Devaki! Devaki!” Chithi closed her notebook again and looked at the door. She tucked her hair behind her ears and smoothed it into place. But still she did not get up. Amma hammered on the door. Chithi got up in a hurry. She put the diary in a safe-box inside the cupboard and locked it up. Then she piled the sarees on the safe-box, locked the cupboard, and placed both sets of keys in her handbag. Dabbing at the dots of perspiration of her forehead, she opened the door.
Amma had Vini’s underwear in her hands. “What were you doing?” she asked, knitting her eyebrows.
“I was changing.”
“All this time? Didn’t you hear me call you?”
Chithi said nothing and walked out. I shinned down the tree and went to the backyard. She was already there doing the dishes. She smiled fondly at me. “Mani was looking for you, did you see him?” she asked.
“Who? Tall Mani?”
Chithi laughed. It was like someone had turned the light on. “So, he’s Tall Mani? Who is Short Mani then?”
“K. Thapasimani. Ninth standard.”
“And who is that?”
“Anthony sir’s son. He’s a bad boy.”
When I was trying to think why exactly he was a bad boy, Vini came out. “Chithi, I’ll do my homework tomorrow. It’s a holiday tomorrow,” she said.
“Thiruvalluvar Day,” I eagerly butted in. “Chithi, Thiruvalluvar is dead.”
“Oh no! Not that old man with a long beard?” asked Chithi.
Amma called from inside the house, “Vini, you donkey, where’s the tumbler? What a brat, never listens to a word I say…Vini” she shrieked. Vini ran inside. I signaled to Chithi that I was leaving and ran out to the street where the temple car stood.
The next day, when our neighbour Rani Athai, Amma and Paati, my grandmother, were sitting around picking the greens, they started talking about Chithi. Chithi had gone to work. Thiruvalluvar Day did not exist for her workplace, possibly because there was no picture of Thiruvalluvar on their walls.
“So…looks like Queen Elizabeth has bought herself a new saree?” said Rani Athai.
“She earns, she buys, she wears,” said Amma. “Is she like the rest of us? Resigned to the kitchen and coal-dust forever?”
“Well, why don’t you go out and work if you like?” said my grandmother. “Who’s stopping you?”
“In my family we don’t do such shameless things. Imagine — sitting and gossiping in front of strangers, getting told off by all and sundry…”
“That’s a day-night saree. You can wear it all day long, flip it over and wear it again at night. It stays fresh. Gnanam teacher’s wife has one in green. Four hundred rupees, she says. You can’t get one under three hundred,” said Rani Athai.
“It looks nice on young women,” said Paati.
Rani Athai looked at my mother out of the corner of her eye and smiled. “Paati, no, even some older women wear it. The other day at the temple I saw a lady from the East Street wearing it.”
“Emerald green will look good on athai,” said Amma, referring to her mother-in-law. Rani Athai and Amma smiled.
“Whatever…at this age, where will I go wearing something like that?” Patti pushed back her glasses. She brought a drumstick leaf close to her eyes to examine it.
“Why? You can wear it when you go to Subha’s house,” said Rani Athai.
“As if my son gets me everything I ask for.” Paati threw an angry look at the bunch of drumstick stalks in my fist. “What’s that?”
“A broom,” I said.
“Look at you. You are a boy, what do you need a broom for? Go away,” she grabbed the greens from my hand and flung it away.
I felt that if I wanted to stay there a little longer, I had to say something about Devaki Chithi as well. The diary came to my mind. “Amma, Chithi writes in a diary,” I said.
“What’s that?” asked Rani Athai.
“A diary. With a red cover. The other day when Amma was calling for her, she had locked her room and was writing in it.”
Amma’s face changed. Paati’s mouth fell open. They looked at each other. “How do you know?” asked Amma.
“I climbed up the drumstick tree and saw her,” I said. I immediately felt my stomach drop. “I climbed the tree just for fun,” I added hastily. “I saw Chithi lock the diary in a safe-box in her cupboard.”
“She writes a diary?” asked Rani Athai, looking at me keenly.
Amma laughed. “What else? She must have been writing her accounts. Making sure that the rest of us don’t eat up her salary,” she said. She turned to me. “Go see whether your father is still in the shop,” she said sharply.
“Appa?” I hesitated.
I went out. I felt like I had done something wrong. Appa was not in the shop. Varadan was there. I got a few raisins from him and popped them into my mouth. Then I went over to Nagarajan’s house and looked at his pigeons. I came home only for the midday meal. I knew there was going to be greens for lunch, so I wasn’t too keen. It was already two o’clock.
Amma was not in the kitchen. “Amma!” I called. The fan was creaking around in the hall; Paati and Vini were stretched out sleeping under it.
As I walked around the house calling out to Amma, I heard her respond from Chithi’s room. I went in. “Where’s the diary?” she asked.
“Chithi put it in the cupboard and locked it.”
“But it’s not in the cupboard!”
“There’s a safe-box under the pile of sarees.”
Amma moved the sarees aside. There was a safe-box. I took up a bra and examined it. “Where’s the key?” asked Amma.
“Chithi put the key in her handbag.”
“Oh, so she takes it with her wherever she goes? I see. Alright, come, let’s eat,” Amma snatched the bra from my grip, threw it into the cupboard, slammed the door and bolted it.
“I don’t want the greens.”
“There’s egg for you.”
“From the sambar. Come.”
As I was eating I could hear Amma and Paati conferring outside. Paati raised her voice suddenly. “I kept warning him that we don’t want a city-bred girl in the family, all fashion and fancy, but when did he ever listen to me? God know what she has written in the diary, that witch,” she said. Amma pacified her in a low voice.
I wiped my hands on my knickers and came out of the kitchen. Paati was nodding her head amicably to something that Amma was saying. Her mouth was half-open. I could see the fan rotate in her thick glasses. I wanted to go closer. Amma chased me out with a sharp rebuke. What were they saying? It’s very rare for them to be so friendly.
I went out to the street again. I didn’t know what to do. I belched; I could smell egg in my breath. I felt queasy. I felt that Chithi was going to get into trouble, and I was somehow responsible. Chithi is a good woman. She tells me lots of stories. The sight of her changing her saree shimmered before my mind’s eye. When she comes back from work, I should run ahead and tell her. I kept waiting in the street.
Appa came with Maadan. “What are you doing here?” asked Appa.
“Get yourself home, you’re always on the street,” he said, and kept walking. There was something inside the cane box that Maadan carried on his head. He flashed his big teeth at me. As soon as they were home, Maadan went to the backyard with the box. I went in. Appa stood on the raised verandah in front of the house and washed his feet. Vini was stirring some water in an ever-silver cup with a spoon. “I’m making coffee for Appa,” she said. I pulled her braid and went to the backyard, stopping at the kitchen on the way to pop a couple of cut okra pieces into my mouth. Paati was in the cowshed. In the cane box that Maadan had carried in, there was palm jaggery and a cluster of bananas.
“No school for the little one today?” asked Maadan.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the palm jaggery. It was hard. I scraped some out with a fingernail and popped it into my mouth. “Thiruvalluvar died,” I said.
“So that’s the thing?” said Maadan. “He’s the proprietor of a bus company in Nagarcoil. When I went for toddy tapping work in Cher’madevi, that’s the bus I took.”
“Is Cher’madevi very far from here?”
“Very far. You have to cross seven rivers to get there. But once you are there you can jump from one palm tree to another. Has the little one been on a bus?”
“Once, when I went to Kulasekharam. I went with Chithi then, remember?”
“That’s a town-bus. This is a city-bus. The seats are big, like mattresses. Soft and squishy like river-sand.”
I could hear Appa’s raised voice inside. I went in. Appa had just finished saying something, and Amma was replying with some heat. “What do I care, I am just saying what’s best for all. Then it’s up to you,” she said.
“So, what are you saying now?”
“Nothing! I have nothing to say any more,” she said, and huffed back into the kitchen.
Paati spoke from where she was sitting, “Narayana, there is some truth to what she says as well. Think about it. This is not like the old days. Back in our time a girl who had come of age could not be seen even by her own brother. But these days, see what they wear, what they do… it’s better to be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Okay, okay, my head hurts.”
“Ask her when she comes. And what are we asking for? Nothing much. We just want to know what she writes. If there is nothing wrong in what she writes, then what’s the harm in showing it to us?” There were bits of hay stuck to Paati’s head.
“Will you please shut up!” Appa roared.
“Alright, do what you please,” said Paati. She fished out the hay from her hair. “Dei, go throw this out,” she said.
Vini stood at the entrance of the room shaking her leg, her thumb stuck in her mouth. Appa did not call her and seat her on his lap as usual. She moved forward. Appa turned and looked at her. He kept staring at her for some time. Then with sudden anger, he said sharply, “Remove that from your mouth, you donkey.” Vini took tentative footsteps back and then ran inside to her grandmother and started sobbing into her lap. Paati caressed her head.
In some time, Thatha, my grandfather, came in. He placed his bundle of almanacs in the room where we made the offerings to the gods and went directly to the kitchen. When Paati saw him, she reflexively folded her legs from where she sat on the floor, straightening them out only when he had left the room.
Thatha had his meal. He came out drying his hands on a towel. “Did Panchabi come?” he asked Amma. “He had said that he would bring a horoscope?”
“No, no one came,” said Amma. Then, “he wants to say something,” she said, gesturing with her chin to Appa.
“I don’t know.”
Thatha went out. Amma switched on the light. “Dei, it’s time for you to study,” she said. I opened my Tamil textbook and sat down to study. My heart was not in it. What would happen when Chithi got here?
I heard the sound of the scooter. I peeped out to the entrance. Chithi walked in saying something; when she saw Appa she stopped and walked in silently, her saree rustling. She crossed us and went to her room. Chithappa parked the scooter on the small raised verandah, picked up his shoes and walked in. Appa interrupted him. “Mani, come here just a minute,” he said.
Amma noticed me peeping out at the scene. “Keep your eyes on your book, you donkey. You want a kick?” she said. “Tamils cherished love, honour and valour above all. Tamils cherished love, honour and valour above all,” I recited. All of a sudden Thatha’s voice rose. “What do you mean, her private matter? If our family’s honour is compromised then is that a private matter?” he shouted. I kept reciting in a weak voice. “There are two kinds of love — love before marriage, and love after marriage,” and then I fell silent. Appa spoke to his father, “Appa, please calm down,” he said. He turned to Chithappa. “Let’s just ask her, Mani. This is such a small thing,” he said.
“But how can I… and something like this…” said Chithappa.
“If there is no secret, then what’s the problem? If you don’t have a problem, then I won’t interfere,” said Appa.
“As if we can ignore a family affair just like that? It’s our family’s honour that’s at stake,” Thatha said in a loud voice.
Chithappa also became agitated. “Now what has happened that you talk of honour? What sort of talk is this?”
“Shut up…go hide your face in her saree. Shameless fellow.”
“Appa, can you please stop talking?”
“I am leaving. I simply cannot bear all this.”
“Do whatever you like,” said Chithappa.
“Mani, look here. What’s the problem now? If there is nothing wrong, then there’s no problem. We just want to make sure, right? If you don’t like it, then there’s no need to ask,” said Appa.
From where she stood inside the house, Amma said, “With working women things are always a bit lax, here-and-there. It’s not as if he is unaware of this?”
“Go in!” Appa shouted.
“I’ll go in, what’s in all this for me?” said Amma. “I was just saying because your mother is fretting about the whole situation. Otherwise why would I care? I have my kitchen stove and grimy pots.”
Chithi came in. She had changed her saree. Pushing her bangles up her forearm, she went to wash her face. I could smell the perspiration rising from her body. “Chithi, Appa scolded me,” said Vini, following her in. Paati got up and went to the front room. “Mani, look here, nothing wrong has happened in our family so far. Not one person has had the opportunity to say a word about us…” she said.
“Alright. What now? You want me to ask her? Fine, I’ll ask,” said Chithappa.
Chithi looked at Amma and Paati out of the corner of her eye and walked to the front room. “What is it?” she asked Chithappa in a low voice.
“Bring your handbag.”
Amma turned to me. “Go fetch it,” she said.
I ran to get it. Chithappa opened it, pulled out the little key, gave it to me and said, “Dei, bring the diary.”
Chithi was puzzled. “What diary?” she asked in apprehension.
Amma grabbed the key from me, went into Chithi’s room and got the diary. “That’s my diary,” said Chithi angrily.
“It’s still your diary. They just want to know what you write in it,” said Chithappa. “Show them, let them be satisfied.”
“No. I will not show it,” said Chithi, in a voice I had never heard from her before.
“Don’t shout. Let them see. They are saying all kinds of things.” To his sister-in-law, “Anni, please read it out loud.”
“Why would I read it? The elders in the family can read it and do what needs to be done,” said Amma, enunciating every word clearly.
“No, I will not give it to you,” said Chithi, and ran towards Amma to grab the diary. Amma lifted her arm and took a step backwards.
Chithappa got the diary from her. Chithi, contrary to her usual demeanor, ran out behind him and blocked his path.
“See. And you say I’m making vile accusations,” said Amma.
“There’s nothing in it,” said Chithi. She was in tears. “Please give it back to me. Don’t read it. I beg you, don’t read it.”
“Look here Mani, you read it. If you are satisfied, that’s enough,” said Appa. To Chithi, “Look here woman, only your husband will read it. No one else will. Okay?”
“That is my diary! No one else should read it!” shouted Chithi. She looked like a madwoman.
Thatha got up from his chair. “Why? What sort of secrets do you have that even your husband can’t read them?” he demanded.
“There is nothing like that in there,” said Chithi sobbing.
“Devu, look here. If you make a scene what will people think?”
“No, please don’t…no one should read it.”
“Why should any woman have such secrets?” asked Amma.
“I swear on my marriage. There is nothing in there against my conscience. Believe me.”
“Then? What’s the harm if we read it?” asked Amma.
“I have just written down everything that came to my mind. But nothing illicit.”
“Look here Devu. There’s nothing in here that is as bad as what they fear, yes?”
“I swear on Thiruchendur Murugan…”
“So why fear? Let me read it. Problem solved.”
“No. No one should read it.”
“Do you understand what you are saying?” asked Chithappa, his voice raising in anger.
“No, no one should read it,” said Chithi, still in tears.
Chithappa gave her a long, penetrating look. His face changed. “So that’s how you want to play it? Okay. Then you leave me no option but to read it.”
Before he could open the diary, she leaped forward and snatched it from his hands. Before Amma could block her, she ran into the kitchen and locked the door.
“Devaki! Devaki!” Amma called, banging on the door. Appa, Thatha and Paati had gathered around the door. “Devu! Devu!” shouted Chithappa, kicking at the door with all his strength. Paati’s mouth was half open, she kept waving her hands. Thatha’s head bobbed like a chameleon’s. “Break the door open!” yelled Appa.
The sharp smell of kerosene rose from within the room. Then the ‘gup’ sound of something catching fire, the searing odour of something burning.
In a strange voice, Chithappa kept saying “Devu, Devu” as he pushed against the door with his shoulder. There was a lot of yelling and screaming. Suddenly the door opened. The room was filled with smoke. Chithi walked out, her hair stuck to her face with sweat.
“Devu, you…” said Chithappa. He looked inside. “You burnt the diary? You witch…”
Amma peeped in. “All burnt to cinder now. She got what she wanted.”
Chithi was panting. A single strand of hair was stuck to her eyelid on her tear-stricken face. She was calm, as if she had just finished throwing up.
Chithappa raised his arm to hit her. When he saw her stand calmly, he lowered it. “Whore!” he said, “Bitch!”
“I swear on my marriage. I have not sinned even in my mind. There is also nothing wrong in the diary. I am not such a person. Believe me,” said Chithi. Her voice broke.
“How can we believe you?” demanded Amma. “Why did you burn it?”
“That’s my diary. No one should read it.” Chithi slid down to the floor and hugged her knees with her arms. “There was nothing in the diary that was wrong. Believe me.” Then she buried her face into her knees and burst into sobs. Bits of charred cinder were stuck to her head. Her shoulders heaved. The dried jasmine strand that dangled from her hair swayed from side to side as she cried.
Everyone looked at Chithappa. He kept standing there looking at her. Then he went to his room. Amma told me and Vini to go to bed. All of us went to our bedrooms. No one said anything after that. I could hear Chithi sob in the hall for a long time. She curled up in the hall and went to sleep.
The next day Chithappa took her back to her father’s house and left her there. For a month, Chithi’s father and uncle kept coming and going. There were lots of discussions. The patriarch from the house up the slope also came once and stayed for a long time talking to Appa and Chithappa and Thatha. Chithi never came back. I understood that Chithappa had divorced her only three years later when he got married again.
(Translated from the Tamil original by Suchitra R)
In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story, The Husband Stitch, all the women have a ribbon knotted around various parts of their body — neck, finger or toe; the narrator’s husband is incessantly curious about the ribbon and wants to undo it. A more disturbing segment comes halfway through, when the narrator’s five-year-old son grows curious about the ribbon and tries to yank it off her neck with some violence. Devaki Chithi’s Diary is narrated through the eyes of a similar young boy-child, who inflicts the first unconscious violence upon Chithi; it is suggested that although just a boy yet, her claim on her personal space disturbs him somehow. The story moves through the child’s eyes, into the world of women, and comes to a climax in an arena of men where Chithi’s fate is decided. Throughout the story, a subtle finger points out how traditional gender roles are constructed within the family space; it is worth remembering that this story was originally written in 1999, nearly 20 years ago, before such discourse became mainstream.
One part of director Vasanth’s recently screened triptych film, Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, is based on this short story.