An extract from Rajasree Variyar’s debut novel, The Daughters of Madurai, published Orion Fiction in April 2023.
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 a 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. The noise stuttered into existence like a steam engine’s chugs. The door closed, muffling the sound.
Get up, you idiot, she thought. She raised herself on to one elbow, then rolled on to 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.
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 leverage 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 corner.
And the room was empty, but for her.
A memory, of that petal-soft skin.
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.