Read time: 18 mins

Thambi, Thambi

by Bharath Kumar
2 July 2024

When I stepped out of our home to move to the new school in the city and choked on the dampness in the air, I saw Kamala. I saw her in the same way I registered the neem tree, Appa’s slightly yellowed white dhoti and the shirt he was wearing, the dark green Bullet that was ready to take me to the railway station, Amma’s frayed red cotton saree, the way she tried to wipe her tears with the end of the saree, the colourful walls of the houses around me, in the space of a single deep breath—a physical exertion I thought was necessary to capture all of it in a snapshot in my head.

I did not see her as Kamala. I saw her only as a thing that decorated the landscape of my leaving. An element of the past that had to be put to rest because it was too much of a burden to carry.

Things changed that summer in our village. The dirt road that gave me allergies transformed into a tar road that gave me terrible bruises. The clay walls of our house, painted parakeet-green, became chunnambu-white on a not-very-particularly-important Purattasi. The gooseberry grove nearby turned into the village’s first concrete building. Many farmers, who’d had it with bad monsoons, packed their meals to pray at temples and churches far away. Muthu, who used to play kittipullu with me, moved to the city to work welding jobs. More strangers passed through our streets every day selling toddy, bangles, korai mats and the newly arrived and coveted Rasna that was served right out of clay pots on cycle carriers.

Lifting a trunk case full of lungis, banians, two newly stitched yellow-brown combo uniforms and brand new underwear, I got onto the Bullet embracing Appa’s bouldery shoulders clumsily. I waved at Amma first and at everyone else on the street except Kamala then vanished into the horizon where the undulating lines of our street met.

Kamala disappeared from my life for the second time, but this time it was because I left her.


Three months earlier, I was on my haunches outside the house, under the blazing sun, sloppily polishing my black shoes for school with Appa’s new Kiwi brush, when I saw Kamala in a new green shirt and brown pants, with plenty of Ponds powder on her face and neck, being carried out of the house and tucked into an Ambassador by her father while her mother sobbed, hugging the door frame. Her father got in, and the car took off briskly, raising so much dust from the dirt road that I started coughing.

This was the first time Kamala disappeared.

Until the day she disappeared for the first time, she sat opposite my house, in front of hers, chained to a pole that was pitched for cows, in her colourful shirts and underskirts beside her only true companion: the neem tree which protected her from the sun. Her clothes would be smeared with dirt, lumped in folds from rolling around in the soil. Crushed neem fruits would stick to her skirt like sequins. She had a crop haircut that was convenient for her parents to maintain. Her shirt would be buttoned down her back so she would not unbutton it herself, to save her breasts from prying eyes.

She would lift her skirt and pee right where she stood. The first time I saw her peeing, I was about eight. I hid my face in my palms. That was when I learned that she was a girl. Later I learned she was already a woman because I saw hair before I covered my face. Muthu had told me only grownups have hair on their genitals.

The first time I saw her, the first time ever, I saw her as an evil spirit. Amma had scared me into eating mashed podi idlis by telling me that Kamala liked to eat little children. Whenever I protested, she would take me outside and say Kamala, come, come; please take this chubby boy, and eat him. He doesn’t eat. I would immediately start crying. And then, I would eat.

Years later, when I would play outside the house shirtless, wearing only khaki shorts, and would get too close to her by mistake, Kamala would grab and hit me until someone—usually her mother, sometimes her father, rarely my parents—rescued me. Other times, when she saw me playing outside, she would miraculously unchain herself and chase me across the streets. We would cover most of the village in an evening. I don’t know what gets into her when she sees Thambi, the old thatha next door—who only ever wore a dhoti tied with a green nylon belt and a green towel to just about cover his neck, constantly smoking beedis—would tell his wife. These chases would end with imprints of Kamala’s palm on my back.

There were only a few words that people had heard her speak. Amma and Appa were the most common. She would accost those who walked the street, stretch her arms towards them and would cry, Anji kasu and Pathu kasu. Some would throw five paisas at her out of pity; the coins would later slip out of her hands and get buried in the sand. On rare occasions when she was chained inside the house, some of us would dig into the sand hoping to find the coins to buy honey mittais and supari paks. We even made games out of digging for those coins, and I would always win. Once, I collected twenty-five paisas, enough to buy a spinning top.

Other people would throw broken pieces of clay pots and glass at her and watch her collect them excitedly, only to be disappointed. When she threw the counterfeit back at them, they would chortle and dance.

She also spoke another word. It was a secret only I knew. Sometimes, when her eyes seemed rested, she scratched her head and beckoned, Thambi, Thambi. Other times, she combined everything she could say and shouted, Thambi, anji kasu, Thambi, pathu kasu, which always made me feel special.

But I was also subjected to her predatory gaze every time I stepped out of the house. I, the prey, had to be careful. When Amma overcooked the rice and fed it to the street dogs under a gleaming moon, she told me that Kamala had gone mad on a full moon. Her parents had put up black and white pictures in golden frames on their veranda of Kamala when she was younger, in which she looked clean and happy, in front of temple ponds and fairs. Her father once told me calmly that she never grew up. She is just a child, he would say when Kamala made a scene. It’s someone else, her mother would tell me while stuffing the rolled ends of her saree into her mouth as if to prevent herself from sobbing.

I did not know the Kamala in the pictures. I knew only the Kamala under the neem tree and did not let my guard down.

At the same time, I did not take her beatings lying down. When she was securely fastened to the pole, I would make faces at her, displaying my perfectly symmetrical teeth opposite her rotten ones, imitating the crazy way she jerked her neck—a small gesture to exact revenge. From the way she would look back at me, I was sure she was not done wreaking havoc on my body. Ours was always unfinished business.

But this was before she disappeared in the Ambassador without a warning.


Kamala was a constant presence, but we also had visitors from worlds so different from ours.

During that year we had plenty of rain, and everyone in the village was happy; Kitti the mute dwarf roamed our streets begging for food. When he came around to our house, Appa shooed him away saying, You are a sly one, aren’t you? I saw you receiving food from my brother’s house today. Go away.

Kitti smiled, bobbed his head from left to right and saluted Appa as he ran off. He was nothing like Kamala. He bathed in the temple pond, wore a clean white dhoti and a banian and meticulously applied three streaks of ash on his forehead every day. He made soft unintelligible noises when someone spoke to him and always smiled, even when someone shouted at him. He slept on the stony floor in the local Shiva temple in exchange for cleaning the temple premises and procuring korai grass or pond water requisitioned by the Brahmin priest. Yet, he was never allowed into the innermost sanctuary where Shiva resided. After a year, he disappeared. Some said he drowned in the temple pond. Poor thing could not cry for help when his tiny legs were entangled in the stems of water lilies, said Priya akka, who sold jasmine flowers outside the temple. Others said he drowned himself. The priest maintained that he stole money from the alms box and went on to find another temple in another village.

There was also the man who appeared stark naked on our street one summer day when I went to pick cucumber fruits from the rice fields. The village was scandalised. He would appear out of nowhere, turning heads, and then disappear. He never spoke, had no name, and his matted hair ran down to his shoulders. He terrorised the streets by getting too close to anyone who passed by. Chi! everyone around him screamed, unanimously, when he tried to touch someone. He repeatedly frolicked on our streets until a group of men thrashed and dumped him outside the village. I wish I could get hold of the culprit who brought him to our streets, one of the men shrieked while slapping his forehead. Still, he reappeared now and then until the end of summer when one day he was found beaten to death, covered in a rug sack outside the village.

There was Nondi, the limp, whose actual name no one knew—who appeared on our street after Kitti the dwarf and the naked man had disappeared—and who walked our streets wearing the shirt buttoned down her back like Kamala. But she had a head full of good hair, looked relatively clean and had features like Amma who I thought was beautiful. When I walked to school, I would see her sitting cross-legged, playing with little yellow flowers that sprung up between blades of bright green grass on the sides of the street after a monsoon rain. The only thing that bothered me about her was that she also peed in front of everyone by lifting her skirt. And when I saw her hair, I was not fooled. I knew Nondi and Kamala were only children with hair on their genitals.

When Nondi disappeared, Muthu and I thought that was the end of her. But she reappeared almost a year later with her belly button tearing out of her shirt.

She spent her days by the side of the road twisting and turning, unable to move around easily. When Amma and the other women wore their new silk sarees and walked by her to the Shiva temple for special pujas, they screamed, Ayyo! What a shame! and slapped themselves on their cheeks. Muthu told me that it was one of our drunkard uncles that got her pregnant. Then Nondi disappeared again for a long time, long enough for me to move on to more interesting things. When she reappeared, she had a little girl with her, about two years old, who followed her everywhere like a chick following a mother hen. A few months later, they disappeared for the last time.

When these visitors appeared and disappeared on our streets, I wondered where they went afterwards. When all that was said about them by my uncles, aunties and friends was not satisfactory, I made up stories for them: Kitti had found a small vent under the pond only big enough for a dwarf or a child to pass through and found a new village underwater where everyone was short, and the houses were made of korai grass. Or he had found God and vanished into thin air, as God does in movies on K TV. The naked man was a sage who had renounced everything. Nondi was the caretaker of flowers and moved from one village to another inspecting the flowers for wounds and healing them. When the number of flowers grew after a good monsoon, she made little babies for help.

But I did not make up stories about Kamala’s disappearance. Her disappearance was of a quieter kind. The kind of quietness that hangs over a lake on a winter morning, when like a magic trick, all its beings—the fishes, the birds and the reptiles—are hidden away in the deepest recesses. But they were there—the affection, the anger, the loss I felt about Kamala—hidden, inarticulate.


After she was gone, I exited our home to find that there was nobody to greet me. I looked around for cues: for the old thatha or the fat aunty next door to notice me or maybe for a reassuring sway of the leaves on the neem tree. The neem fruits under the tree looked pristine. Muthu and I tried to take over the newfound land for our games and were disgusted by the smashed neem fruits that stuck onto our feet. We gave up her spot.

The old thatha while smoking beedi on his jute charpai told me that she would not be returning from Erwadi anytime soon. She will come back cured; you will see. Those saints will heal her, he wanted to reassure me. But I was not sure if I wanted her cured. I did not know what a cure for mad ones like Kamala looked like. But I knew enough to know it could not be like the buttery ointment I applied on my wounds or the sharp injections the doctor gave me for fever when I squeezed Appa’s belly in pain.

Amma cooked extra mutton one day and served it to the street dogs on a dirty plate. She looked at the neem tree that had started to shed its leaves and turned towards me sadly, She was not always chained, you know. She was a well-behaved child once. I learnt that when she was small, Kamala carried around a small ever-silver jug filled to the rim with water which she offered to people on the street, asking for ten paisas in return. When the women of our village filled their rainbow-coloured plastic pots at the hand-pumped spout at the end of the street, she pumped the water for them. In return, she would accept whatever money the old women and aunties could spare. When Amma got married and reached our home in an Ambassador with Appa, Kamala ran at her and hugged her with all her might. Amma’s slender body was squeezed out of air before the wedding party separated them. Amma was terrified, and the chunky booger that had hardened under Kamala’s eyes got etched in her mind forever.

After I came back from school each day, I would toss my bag into the house and run to Kamala’s house. When will she come back? I would ask her mother. Soon, she would reply and add, Have some water, extending a goglet of water to me with one hand, squeezing the ends of her saree with another. I would quench my thirst and wonder if Kamala had got the habit from her.


About three months after Kamala disappeared, a few weeks before I had to leave, the same Ambassador that carried her away arrived on our streets. It came fast, but I did not cough again because the dirt road had transformed into a tar road. This time, both her mother and father got out first. Her father lifted Kamala from the backseat. She had lost a lot of weight and was clad in a saffron robe. Her eyes were open but empty. The rolled end of her mother’s saree was soaked in tears and spittle as they rushed into the house and locked the doors.

She is my daughter, and her place is here, her mother moaned to Amma.

For the many days she was chained inside, I looked at her house and imagined her lying on the cold cement floor, thinking about her anji kasu and pathu kasu. Thinking about all the ways she could grab, smother and hit me. I waited right outside.

Two weeks before I left, when the neem tree barely had any leaves on it, she reappeared under it, back in her old body, in a new orange shirt and the same brown pants, only now she looked dirtier because of the orange that accentuated it. She pressed her fingers into the soil and swayed in all directions as if she were probing for the coins once lost. How could she remember? Was she really cured? I wondered.

I went dangerously close to her and yelled, KAMALA. When she looked up at me disoriented, I said, It’s me, pointing my index finger to my chest. She did not flinch and drove her fingers deeper into the earth. She isn’t the same, her mother cried again, watching me.

Deepavali arrived, and it was celebrated grandly at home because it was the last one before I left. Kamala was frightened by the crackers that were bursting on the street and the ones that were thrown at her by people. She sealed her ears with her palms and only occasionally, between the explosions, extended one of them to ask, Anji kasu, and Pathu kasu. I was happy to see her come back to herself. I threw the ten paisas I received for Deepavali from Appa at her, and she happily picked it up and eased the coin into her waist where her skirt caught it.

The day before I left, I sat outside the house and soiled my fingers with shoe polish butter, getting my shoes ready for the new school. Kamala stared at me curiously, and when I got up to go inside the house, she opened her own dirty palms towards me and called me again: Thambi, Thambi.

That night, I tumbled out of the house half-asleep to my pee spot and struggled to delicately remove the safety pin that held together my broken zipper. Unlike the night, Kamala enveloped me almost instantly and squeezed my face with her calloused palms. I was disgusted by the cold abrasiveness of the soil on her hands and the soft stickiness of the neem milk on my face. I wriggled out of her hold and pushed her back. When she fell on the tar road and grazed her elbow and palm, I was stunned because I had not hurt anyone before.

Hearing the commotion, Appa burst out of the house like a drunk elephant, grabbed Kamala by the hair with one hand and punched her guts with the other. Kamala’s mother sprinted out of her house and held Appa’s legs, begging him, That’s my daughter, Kumara; that’s my daughter, as if to remind him of something he’d forgotten. His belly trembling with anger, Appa shouted, He is leaving for his new school tomorrow; how dare she hit him, as if it was okay for her to hit me otherwise. That’s my daughter, Kumara, her mother wailed again, taking Kamala back inside the house. For the first time, I realised I had the strength to fight her back.


The next morning when I came out of the house to leave, I knew things were about to change, but I was only thinking of myself. I must have half-expected everything and everyone else to stay in the same places they had always been—the way they were in my head. The way Amma rolled rice into small balls and fed me, the way the old thatha slept sideways, like Vishnu on his serpent, and smoked beedis, the way shirtless children flocked the streets throwing things at other things and the way Kamala sat under her neem tree, looking, always calling my name twice—Thambi, Thambi—for reasons only she knew. So, when I came out of the house with a trunk full of lungis, banians and two new pairs of uniforms and took a mental picture of everything that surrounded me, I did not give her a second thought.

Maybe I did not see her because there was still anger inside me from what she did to me the previous night. Maybe it was the shame of hurting someone for the first time. Or maybe I was so hopeful for a future of high scores, medals and well-paying jobs that this hope had muffled the voices of anger, shame and loss. There was a loss, but I did not feel it yet.

As I stood there on the tar road on that blazing summer day, I did not see her as Kamala. The picture of her sitting there with her sharp eyes whooshed past me like a motorcycle on the road between us. I got onto Appa’s bike and rode off into the horizon. And she disappeared again, temporarily at first and permanently a little later.


I stayed with a relative of ours in the city, on a street that was wider and longer than the one in the village and whose soil was so red it felt magical. My uniform turned yellow-brown from the boring white-green of my school in the village. The shorts got upgraded into pants, which I was very thrilled about because I was not a boy anymore (I had grown hair in my nether regions). I did not wear a tie as I had done before, which, although it was very useful for wiping my mouth, was a nuisance when I played, impeding the movement of my arms. The school was beautiful; its arches and tall concrete buildings seemed majestic. There were statues everywhere, populating the lush green lawns. There was a library, and the playground was the biggest I had ever seen.

But the magic and allure of the red soil and the school soon faded when I found out that, on the new street, no one came out of their houses. For the first few days, as soon as I came back from school, I would hurl my bag into the house, as I had done in the village, and come out to see the weight of the closed doors crush my excitement. The streets in the city belonged to no one, unlike in my village where they belonged to everyone and, more importantly, to me. At school, I was being bullied because I did not have a moustache and could not speak English as well as the others. I missed my friends in the village, especially Muthu, who was busy welding T-joints in another part of the city. I missed Appa and Amma.

Amma and Appa came to visit me frequently because they missed me too. But I learnt little about what was happening in the village, which to me only existed in the form of pictures I had taken all through my childhood.


A year later, when I came back to the village for the summer vacation, I did not see Kamala. The neem tree had lost all its leaves and fruits for the first time. Its barren branches seemed to stretch out to the sky like begging arms.

Neem doesn’t shed; the old thatha was shocked. Appa’s friend at the newly opened agricultural department said that it was the pests. Others in the village thought it was a bad omen and tied yellow saffron strings of cloth around the tree and washed it down with turmeric during festivals.

When Amma told me that Kamala had passed away, I felt a lump in my throat. Why did you not tell me? I asked her. I don’t know, she replied without a pause. Kamala had died in her sleep, chained to the pole under her neem tree.

I had not thought about her since I left. On the street where I grew up, I moved forward and backwards—revisiting the hole I dug to trap a frog every evening during monsoons to see if I had caught the fattest one, sharing the gossip the old thatha gave my Amma with my friends, conspiring with Muthu to climb trees and throw coconut shells onto terracotta roofs, delivering pails of milk that Amma had milked from the cow herself, collecting tamarind fruit from the fat aunty and distributing it to my neighbours, weeping at the spot our dog died many years ago. But the trip I took to the city was a one-way trip. And when I heard about Kamala’s death, I could not forgive myself.


I went back to the city, slowly getting used to the closed doors, the moustached boys who bullied me and being inside the house. But I did not know how to get used to Kamala’s disappearance.

As long as I did not go back to my village, she could exist in my head, the way everything else from my village, everything else from my childhood, existed as pictures in my head.

As long as I did not go back to my village, I could make up stories about her disappearance: Kamala moved to another village where there were plenty of healthy neem trees, where there was no drought, and she helped the women of that village by pumping water into their many-coloured pots.

And I could imagine myself as the only one Kamala enjoyed beating. She never did hit others as much. Nor did she unchain herself for some other inferior back.

I could imagine myself as the one she liked to play with. The one she knew by name. The only person she knew by name other than her parents. The one whose Amma she hugged knowing I would come out of her one day. The one who was her closest friend. Partners who played around the neem tree. The one she patiently waited for and looked on every day with her sweet unmoving eyes.

About the Author

Bharath Kumar

Bharath Kumar is a writer and translator from Tamil Nadu, India. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. He was one of the editors of the Oxford University Press’s English-Tamil bilingual dictionary project. His works have appeared in the Usawa Literary Review, Out of Print Magazine‘s blog, and the book I, […]