Devu sits on the veranda floor, listening to her husband blowing a conch shell, a ritual that follows his evening prayers. He keeps the door of his puja room closed, but the sound finds a way out.
She grabs a fistful of roasted mussels from a plate by her side and thrusts it into her mouth, relishing the mollusk’s irresistible aroma.
She visualizes him, standing before caged pictures of deities: cheeks ballooned, balls constricted, devotion flowing into a dead mollusk’s shell.
She doesn’t want to stand between him and those gods he escapes to. Instead, she prefers to enjoy savory flavors in her mouth, mussels’ juicy flesh laced with black pepper tang and coconut oil aroma. She doesn’t suppress the noises of her gluttonous craving.
Bad manners, her husband keeps admonishing.
The smell of burning incense sticks and camphor filters through the door. The conch’s laments end, and the chanting of hymns and jingle of bells begins.
As she tries to focus on the chants, to discern their meaning, sounds from a clearing throat distract her.
Kannan, a laborer who taps toddy from their coconut farm, stands in the courtyard holding a pot. “Ma’am, your evening toddy.” He places the pot on the veranda and steps back.
“Why don’t you fetch a glass from the kitchen and pour it for me?” Smiling, she gazes at his scrawny figure.
Kannan stands silent, eyes downcast.
“Didn’t you hear me?” Devu recognizes a hint of aggression in her voice. Her first expression of emotion towards somebody who works for them.
“The master’d kill me, ma’am, if I so much as wished to enter the veranda,” he says, without looking at her.
Devu takes hold of the pot and peeks inside, inhaling a musky fragrance as bubbles break on the surface of the coconut palms’ frothing nectar.
“Ah, Kannan,” she says. “I’m enthralled. But this isn’t much.” She doesn’t bother to collect the tail of her sari. It slips from her shoulder as she raises her arms to pour the toddy into her mouth.
“Master told me to reduce the quantity I bring you,” he says, stealing a glance towards her. “Said you’re gaining weight.” He withdraws his eyes when she sees him ogling her exposed cleavage.
“Yeah, he’s right.” Devu puts the pot down, runs a hand along her flabby midriff, and laughs. “How’s your wife?” She asks.
Kannan blinks. His dusky skin grows darker as if rain clouds hovering in the sky have cast a spell of gloom over his face.
Prayers finish. Bells stop jingling. Kannan vanishes from the courtyard, seeks refuge in the palm grove.
Devu wraps the tail of her sari around her shoulders. Thick clouds of aromatic smoke burst out as the door swings open and her husband emerges, silk dhoti rustling as fluid thigh muscles ripple under the fine garment.
He pauses in front of her, naked feet almost touching her plate. “Risky indulgences,” he mumbles.
She belches, snatches another handful of mussels. “Too good to ignore…”
“Why do you have to sit on the floor?” he asks, smirking.
“They taste the same,” she says, “no matter where I choose to sit.”
“You’re getting heavier on toddy too.” He coughs, spits phlegm into the courtyard, and smacks his lips. “Life encompasses more than eating and drinking.”
Devu gobbles the mussels, picks up the pot, and leisurely pours more toddy into her mouth.
“You mean, like exploiting others’ inability to resist… to react?” She asks.
Devu perceives Kannan’s thin frame, hiding behind dark shadows of coconut palms, straining his neck and ears to steal glimpses into his master’s secrets.
Her husband stares at her. “What do you mean?”
She empties the pot on her head. Toddy froths, cascading down her cheeks, over her cotton sari, and seeps through her blouse. “Kannan and I refuse to act. Your power overrides his wife’s resistance.” Devu licks a drop of toddy, trailing down the corner of her mouth.
“Let’s stop this, there’s no point talking to you.” He walks towards the bedroom.
She holds him by the ankle. “Fear for the master makes Kannan recoil from my proximity,” she says. “Your understanding of his fear draws you closer to his wife.”
“Oh, God, this is ridiculous.” He wriggles his leg free.
Devu senses a tornado build up before she sees coconut palm fronds churn and twist skywards. She hears Kannan’s anger rustle dry leaves in the palm grove.
A gust lashes through the courtyard, storming onto the veranda.