When the Horse Spoke

Fear gripped her voice, when the ceramic horse smiled and said ‘hello. Ma, the horse is talking! She began to wail aloud. Maragatham rushed to hug her daughter. Sobs quivered in the folds of her sari. My dear, oh my dear, …

The Mother’s world dissolved. Her picture-perfect daughter. Was it only beauty? What was wrong with her brains? How appropriate was her name Kalaivani – Goddess of Arts! Wasn’t she a genius? ‘She grasps everything like a camphor set aflame’ the near and dear praised her intelligence. And today, this miserable condition! Amma, the horse smiled at me. It spoke to me. I am scared.

The mother’s gaze rose to the photograph on the wall above the toy horse Hardly two years old. He was the angel, who had come out of Kalaivani’s worn after five years of marriage — shining like the morning sun. When Parthihan bought this ceramic horse for him, Maragatham had complained loftily: Can’t you buy him something unbreakable? Muthu is still very small. If it slips, won’t it break? Even if you love your son so much, should you waste money like this? But little Muthu did not drop the horse at all. He hugged it close and cuddled it. My lichil ‘orsy! as if he was a big man! When Kalaivani bathed him, she had to first pour a mug of water on the horse. While giving him milk, she had to feed a mouthful to the horse. While putting him to sleep, she had to put the horse by his side.

Kalaivani would pour out endearments. My little Muthu! My darling! My precious!


Muthu Dear


Muthu (pearl) in my hands, horse on Muthu’s, isn’t that so my dear?

Can we go for a horse ride on the beach?

On my lichil ‘orsy?

Naughty boy, will you ride on the little horsey! Right Muthu, what will you become when you grow up? A Doctor? The child would laugh and shake his head from side to side.

Or, an engineer? He would nod against that as well.

Or will you study C.A.?

The child’s bee-like eyes would dilate, He would nod ‘Yes.’

No dear, study Computer Science. Only that has value today. You’ll have to prove yourself in the 21 century. Will you study Computer Science? He would nod ‘Yes’ and kiss his mother and then his horse. The lichil ‘orsy will also study. Smart Alec! My Muthu darling!

Amma, he would hug his mother.


Muthu dear


After you grow up,… He did not grow up. Only two days of fever and he remained a child, eternally. Kalaivani’s sharp mind switched off.

If we were to say mental illness, well, she didn’t beat or bite anybody. She didn’t tear her clothes and run on the streets. Her outward appearance was normal. On the surface, there was no change. Seated beside the table, she would keep staring at her son’s photo on the wall without a sense of time passing and with a heaving heart and a contented face. When they had visitors, heeding her mother’s call, she would quietly sit with them. That silence would seem normal. Aren’t there quiet people in the world?

When new visitors asked,’ What does your husband do?’ she would reply correctly, ‘Bank Officer.’ Her mind seemed clear. It was hard to believe her mother’s statement that she had lost her balance after she lost her son. When a group was talking, she would suddenly break her silence and say, ‘Yesterday, it was raining heavily.’ Curious: Why this contextless information? But the information was true. It had rained the previous day. So, we could answer with a smile. ‘Yes, but we do need rain now. We shouldn’t have water shortage, you see. Apparently the water level in the Puzhaleri reservoir has sunk to half its capacity. We are going to struggle for water this year. Even now; we can see rows of empty pots on the streets.’

In this heavy rain, he took the child to the office yesterday. If he catches fever?

A sudden jolt. A quick step aside and a glance at the watch.

`So, we’ll make a move, Maragatham. It’s getting late. The servant maid hasn’t come today. I’ll have to go back and wash. Shall I leave, Kalaivani?’ If my son catches fever?

She is taking treatment from Parthiban’s acquaintance, psychiatrist Dayanandan. Parthiban is Maragatham’s nephew. Her elder brother’s son. Widowed Maragatham had only one child, Kalaivani. Parthiban is the one who had stood by her as son and son-in-law. Both shared the sorrow of losing the child and the misery of Kalaivani’s plight.

But, this shock is all set to overtake the others. So far, haven’t seen her shaken with tears. The face buried in the sari folds looked alternately at the horse and the photo on the wall. The beautiful face quivered in sorrow. Her eyes shed tears.


Amma, I am scared,… The horse is talking, is saying hello. With a heavy heart, Maragatham looked at her grandson’s photo. It had been a month before the fever, The laughing child within the confines of the wooden frame — in a blue romper, with bright inquisitive eyes, rosy wet lips, dimpled cheeks and thick black wavy hair….

`Wow, what a beauty your grandson is Akka? Shouldn’t I collect it all in my camera?’ These were the words of her younger brother on his arrival. Even then, Maragatham felt a pang. Won’t the evil eye fall on the young child? That too, her brother’s wife, she has a ghoulish gaze.

`No need for photos. We’ll have them during his birthday,’ she tried to prevent him.

`I don’t know if I’ll be able to come then. Do you think leave without photographing this gold mine?’

Did the Konika camera ‘shoot’ the child like a gun? Ten days after going back, he sent the photo by post. ‘How beautiful! Chittappa is a genius at photographing’ — So praising, Parthiban enlarged the photo and laminated it.

All that remained now was this photograph. But, her daughter’s new depression has certainly pushed back that sorrow. Ma, the horse is talking. So far, she would sit still or talk out of context. But she had never said that horses and elephants spoke. Has the mental illness worsened? That too, when the treatment is on? What a waste! Should the treatment be intensified? Her worsening condition … Should we give shock therapy?

Oh! My dear! My Kalaivani!

Ma, the horse is talking! It shouldn’t talk. How can horses talk like human beings? It is talking, I am scared….

Maragatham’s mind shivered as if a bright spark had shot into her. Even if we suppose that it is mental illness to say that horses spoke, isn’t it the clarity of the mind to know that horses shouldn’t talk?

With a new hope, Maragatham looked at the tear-stained face of her daughter. Isn’t this a good sign? Even if it looks like a setback, is it the first sign of good progress? Could that be the case? Surely, the diagnosis of the US educated doctor can’t go wrong? When Parthiban returns in the evening, Kalaivani has to be taken to the clinic.

`Kalaivani, my treasure, no wrong will come to you. Everything will be alright.’ She patted the shoulders that were heaving with sighs.’ Look everything will be alright for you.’

Dr. Dayanandan spoke with a lot of hope. It is possible she has not lost her mental faculty entirely, because she realises that a particular action is odd. There is a bright chance for curing this type of malady, he consoled them.

The different types of pills continued. With fear in her gaze, Kalaivani stared at the doll. The vacant gaze stared at her child in the photo.

Without losing faith in God and doctor, Maragatham continued to visit the clinic with her daughter. The only foothold in her misery was prayer. Goddess of Samayapuram! Cure my daughter. come to your temple and carry the fire pot on my head. Lord of the Seven Hills! Cure my child, walk up your hills and roll through the sanctum sanctorum. She was willing to receive alms from any God, who would bestow Grace.

Enveloping dark spots. In them, the waves of fear that struck the face in patches. Will my child get well? will she? The illness is not as bad as before? The treatment is helping, is it not? If she gets well and runs a home, like earlier, I’ll bring her to your temple, Lord Nataraja. If she has another child, she can preserve this child’s memory like a precious jewel in the casket of her mind and continue her life normally. Gods, will that good fate befall my precious dear?

There was a streak of dawn in that darkness. Swinging between black and white, it slowly moved towards light. The cloudy whiteness of dawn. In it, the streaks of light slowly pushed its way out and peeped. The clouds disperse and there is a glimpse of the sun’s light in Kalaivani’s face.

Is this real — seeing her so lucid and happy? Initially, the mother and husband were too nervous to believe it. But it was true — the transformation wrought by penance.

There is no relationship between this face and the one with tears crying, Amma, the horse talks! I am scared! When asked, ‘Does the horse speak now?’ in an astonished silence, her head goes side to side. It looks like the doctor’s treatment has brought improvement. Now, gradually, there will be complete cure. Goddess of Samayapuram! Thanks. I’ll come and carry the pot of fire. Lord Venkateswara! Thanks. I’ll come and do penance at your temple. Lord of the Dances! Thanks. I’ll bring her to your temple. If she has a son, I’ll name him `Natarajan.’ While standing near Kaldivani and pressing her shoulders with the soft touch of petals, Maragatham’s fingers shook. With tears gushing, Parthiban stood looking at his wife.

`She is getting better, isn’t she, Aththai?’

`Yes dear. She is getting better. Should and will get better.’

Eight o’clock at night. Maragatham served her son-in-law his meal. Then, she mixed rice and dhal with ghee and sprinkled some sugar. In another bowl, she mixed sambar rice and took some spicy brinjal curry. She put all these, a spoon and a cup of curd on a plate and took it to her daughter. Fed her every mouthful and cleaned her and gave her water to drink. Her daughter will do all these things by herself but someone has to stay near her-and remind her about every mouthful. She will take an hour to finish eating. Let it be. Once she gets well, she can do things herself. Now, it is better to feed her before Kalaivani sits beside the table. Once she sat there, she wouldn’t get up that easily. Won’t even open her mouth to eat.

Kalaivani was sitting quietly on a chair beside the table, her eyes in a state of bliss. The target of that bliss was laughing in a frame on the wall.

Muthu dear


Only now, I am happy. I got scared when the horse-spoke.


Horses shouldn’t talk, should they? Till it spoke, you never spoke, my prince. I suffered without hearing your voice. Only after it has stopped talking are you talking to me, like before.


You know how happy I am, right now? Muthu dear, if you don’t talk t me, I’ll become mad. Talk my love.


Muthu Dear


My Darling Muthu


Translated from Tamil by V. Bharati Harishankar

Translator’s Note

The translator wishes to thank Ms. Mini Krishnan (Publishing Consultant Editor – Translations, Oxford University Press) for her perceptive comments which have enhanced this translation.

Publication Details of the Tamil Original:

Chudamani, R. “Kuthirai Pesi.ya Pothu” in M. Nithiyanandam et al Eds. Kannil Theriyuthu Vaanam. Coimbatore: Vidiyal Pathippagam, 2001.

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