The Musical ‘Wail-Box’…!!

Hassankutty had every reason to be cross—it had all to do with his wife.

What a miserable piece of God’s work she was, he couldn’t help thinking! He cursed himself for having agreed to marry her. All she would do was to sob and scream all day at all the wrongs, real and imagined. If this was just once in a while, he wouldn’t mind: but to have to put up with this day after day, year after year, it was more than he could bear.

There she was at it again, curled up in bed from morning, howling her heart out at the top of her voice, beating her breast at times for added effect!

‘Hell,’ he had to shout to make himself heard above the din, ‘Why don’t you just shut up? You start this every morning! Can’t a man have some peace of mind? The neighbours would think I have beaten you up! And just as I was trying to get some useful work done ’

Beepathu sat up in bed—she was feeling very sorry for herself.

The pounding in her head had begun all over again. The hammering inside was so bad it seemed a thousand carpenters were at work together! But every time she had wanted to tell her husband about her fears, he seemed to be so busy and pre-occupied. And seeing his face darken with anger and disgust, she would forget what she had wanted to tell him. She would end up with more tears—and he would storm out of the house.

Today when he walked out without even bothering to find out why she was crying, her unhappiness doubled and her cries grew louder.

Her son had added his mite, ‘Mum, you should be ashamed of yourself. Auntie next door is watching you. I saw her peep out of her window. And if this is for Dad’s benefit, he’s left long ago; he must have got to work now ’

This had made her wails louder—he watched her for a few minutes and then he also left . . . .

Beepathu felt very lonely and very bitter, mostly with herself.

Even as a young girl, this had bothered her—whether she was happy or sad, she would cry.

And then she could not stop.

Every day, her mom had chastised her—there would always be something to upset her, right from the time she opened her eyes in the morning. Small demands, minor issues, but no one seemed to understand or even take notice: ‘Mom should lie in bed with her for some more time’; ‘mom should carry her down the stairs’, and so on It was true mom

had work in the kitchen; she was trying to get food ready and the house in order, the servants to do some work. And where was the time on a busy morning to pamper and cuddle her youngest?

‘Get down here this minute, or else !’

Beepathu would respond by screaming louder.

mom would be shivering with rage—‘Why don’t you just stop this racket ,’ her words would be lost in the louder wails.

Beepathu could do nothing other than accept defeat—she would come down the stairs very slowly, exasperating her mom even further; on and on the wails would continue; and she would roll on the kitchen floor beating her breast with her little hands . . . .

Grandma was the one who would come to her rescue.

‘Did you beat up the poor girl? Why is she so unhappy in the morning itself?’

‘Does she need a reason? She has nothing else to do from morning till night.’

‘The girl looks ill. Her tummy looks bloated up. Maybe you ought to take her to Vasu Vaidyan—his medicines should help.’

‘Vaidyar tells me there is nothing the matter with her. What do you expect if she screams like this all day? It is all wind, and he thinks it is caused by all the constant crying.’

‘You better stop it this minute. Or I’ll shut you up in that little dark


That was indeed a very serious threat—this little dark room! How

that little room could be so intensely dark, she wondered. Broken chairs, creaky furniture, old boxes, discarded vessels; noisy rats scurrying around; a black cat whose eyes glowed in the dark. Lizards on the wall— that creature Beepathu detested the most. The very sight of them made her ill. And the cockroaches; that smell made her sick. Not to mention the dust and the cobwebs . . . .

And it was hot as a furnace; she would steam in it. That was the ultimate threat.

Only once had mom locked her up inside. It had all happened so suddenly. Her howls, mom picking her up by the scuff; she remembers being transported through the air and being thrown in there: a lizard came and landed on her face almost immediately. In her terror, she forgot to cream! And then out of nowhere two bright lights shone out, the eyes of the cat. Beepathu was petrified. That was an experience she would never forget!

It was grandma who had saved her that day: she had walked in to investigate the cause of the commotion, found her in a cold sweat, nearly unconscious. The old woman had gathered her up ever so gently. Beepathu remembers how she had screamed at her daughter, ‘How can you do it to this little girl ‘

‘If you pet her like this, she will end up as a spoilt brat,’ mom had grumbled. ‘After all, she’s a girl, and must learn how to behave.’

‘Oh, as if you are not peevish: she will grow up and all will be well, won’t you, my sweetie?’

And every time, Beepathu’s screams became intolerable, the threat of the ‘little dark room’ would be raised again and again—and the thought of being lifted up and thrown in there would be enough to stop her loud wails.

And she would bite her lips and sob uncontrollably.

Mom would ignore her completely and get on with her work around the house: feeding the cows, getting good food ready, cleaning up, dusting, and managing the servants. Where was the time to spare for unreasonable girls?

Poor grandma had always been her pillar of strength. She would call out softly, ‘Beepathu . . . come here and see what I’ve for you.’

She would look at mom through the corner of her eye. Mom had forgotten her completely—she was instructing Mariyam how to clear the grime off Dad’s collar. Mom had no time for anything else, leave alone for her in the mornings. If she stayed in her corner, even grandma might forget about her completely!

The thought of the sweet that grandma had kept secretly for her made her mouth water; she wondered where grandma hid these delicacies. Maybe she should go after grandma now there was the sweet on offer. She would go into the kitchen very slowly, to find grandma presiding over the servants.

Grandma’s entry always caused a hush in the kitchen. The servants would stop their chatter and be all attention.

One of the maids was very sly, ‘I wonder why such big girls keep crying all the time ’

When they noticed that Beepathu had puckered her lips and was getting ready to set herself off again, they would change tactics: ‘After we finish the work in the kitchen, we’ll take her to pluck flowers ’

The smile would appear on her face, and they would tease, ‘Ah, naughty girl! She knows when to cry and when to smile! And what a pretty face she has when she smiles ’

Her sad thoughts would all vanish. She would trail around the house, holding on to grandma’s dress, coy and shy at the same time.

‘What fish did you get?’ Mackerel and pomfret.’

‘Get pickles made of the mackerel; mmm . . . , let’s see: and make a fried curry with the pomfret,’ grandma’s instructions to the head-cook Kadeesa were always very clear.

‘You’d better give us the coconuts for all this. We’ll also need the oil and spices. Some of the fish is very small. Today’s catch was not good…’

‘Why didn’t you ask for all this when I was in the store-room earlier? Why do you have to put off everything till the very last minute? All just to destroy my peace of mind…’

‘Oh, we forgot then. Pathumma, show her the coconut.’ Pathumma would bring in the grated coconut on a large tray;

grandma would separate it inot different heaps.

‘This much for the curry. Add some garlic – not too much, mind. Make sure you grind the coconut well. This much will do for the Dal – you don’t have to grind it too much. This is to be fried; here are the spices for it. Make sure it’s browned very well: but don’t let it burn! This girl’s father will get very upset if the colour is just not right…

It was common knowledge that her father had a short fuse that he would blow up easily. Every one, and that included her, was terrified of him. If the chillies were more or the salt was less, the entire household would tremble.

But for her, he had a soft corner, and would bring special sweets, dates or other delicacies when he came home by the 7.30 train every evening after he closed his shop.

She always waited in anticipation for his call, ‘Pathootty ’ the

moment he got home.

But the moment she set eyes on him, she would start quivering with fear. And when he came near and looked closely into her eyes, the tears would come, initially as sobs, then in great wails, making him furious!

‘What’s wrong with this girl,’ he would roar in exasperation, ‘why is she crying? Ayishummaa… ’

And her wails would get louder. Mom would come running, carry her off from Dad, but on the way out would give her slap or a smart pinch on the thigh, setting Beepathu all over again…..

‘Shut up, you silly girl!’

Being the youngest, Beepathu had her problems. Her brothers and sisters were all awake at dawn and get ready for school. This was enough for her eyes to well up.

‘I too want to go to school….’

‘Stop crying. They won’t take you into school until you stop crying,’ the eldest brother would declare. More tears, and in torrents.

The rebel in her had learnt to use the only weapon she had – tears

– to the best advantage!

‘Don’t bother to speak to her. She’ll never stop. And it gives me a splitting headache….’

For everything, she would cry. Her brothers and sisters refused to include her in their games or pranks: if she started sniffing or sobbing, mom would come down heavily on them. Why should they run the risk? ‘Today I will nit cry….,’ this daily resolve was taken every morning when she woke up. But she could not sustain it. And any slight thing that upset her would make her heart bleed.

‘Where did you get this cry-baby, mom,’ the brothers and sisters would ask, ‘did she come out of your tummy or did you pick her up from somewhere?’

‘Didn’t you know? Actually I traded her for half a pound of bran and four annas.’

There was no stopping her then. Maybe mom had bought her off some gypsy tradeswoman. Her brothers and sisters never cried; that must explain why she was so different from them. Her sorrow knew no bounds.

‘Why did I alone become like this?’

The more she thought about this, the more unhappy she became. ‘Why are you sniffing and wailing again?’ her elder sister would

ask, giving her a knock on her head.

‘She’s quite a determined character,’ she had heard mom and dad discuss her.

Grandma always maintained there was something wrong with her tummy.

‘She must have been frightened by the calls of the muezzin,’ their care-taker Moidu had not the slightest doubt.

‘Don’t be silly, Moidu. There are some spirits in the loft here. One of them has caught hold of her. Get someone to exorcise it from her,’ Kadeesa had very definite opinions.

This same opinion was voiced recently by her mother-in-law. Her husband and son had tried hard to suppress a giggle.

Here is this little girl, No one wants her; Neither mom nor dad Will have her.

The best we can do

Is to put her on a raft, We’ll make some holes And float her off

Into the sunset. ’

Her eldest brother had started singing this one day, her other brothers and sisters had all joined in with great enthusiasm….The song was still fresh in her ears.

‘Oh, keep quiet,’ mom it was who would put an end to this.

Though she was bursting, she suppressed her stifle and got up from her bed.

Her husband would be back for lunch, the children from school. They would all be upset if food was not ready on the table. Seeing their

sullen faces, she would want to cry. Why does that have to happen? Why should the tears come so easily? She could not explain.

She mopped her eyes and got into the kitchen.

“Karachappetti” (Karachappetti. Kottayam: SPCS, 2008: 11-16), translated by R. Krishnan.


B.M. ZUHRA. She is the most popular Muslim woman writer in Malayalam. The humour and brevity that characterize her stories are noteworthy. She won the Lalithambika Antharjanam Award for young women writers for her novel Kinavu (Dream) in 1992. Mozhi (Divorce), Iruttu (Darkness) and Nilavu (Moonlight) are her other famous novels. She has to her credit acclaimed short story collections such as Choyichi and Bhranthu (Madness). Malamukalile Appooppan (Grandpa of the Hills),Thankamothiram (Gold Ring), Kuttikalude Arabikkathakal (Arabian Tales for Children) are her contribution to Children’s Literature. She has also translated Arabic novels into Malayalam.

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She is the most popular Muslim woman writer in Malayalam. The humour and brevity that characterize her stories are noteworthy. She won the Lalithambika Antharjanam Award for young women writers for her novel Kinavu (Dream) in 1992. Mozhi (Divorce), Iruttu (Darkness) and Nilavu (Moonlight) are her other famous novels. She has to her credit acclaimed short story collections such as Choyichi and Bhranthu (Madness). Malamukalile Appooppan (Grandpa of the Hills),Thankamothiram (Gold Ring), Kuttikalude Arabikkathakal (Arabian Tales for Children) are her contribution to Children’s Literature. She has also translated Arabic novels into Malayalam.

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