‘Oil of the Earth’ by Sheila Samanta Mathai

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The first faint streaks of dawn had just burst through the clouds when Parul got up, tucked the end of her pallu in at her waist, twisted her hair into a knot and washed her face. She searched for the match box and began to light the stove. The wicks did not seem to catch fire and she pumped up the oil before trying again. A faint flame flickered momentarily before petering out. She cursed silently and reached behind the small wooden box for the can of mitti ka tel to refill the stove. It was practically empty and she poured the last few drops into the reservoir before lighting another match. She knew that there would not be enough oil for cooking food   today.

Parul sighed and put on the saucepan. She covered it and placed the milk saved for the baby on top to be heated by the steam. Her husband, Ganesh, worked at a nearby factory as the night watchman.  They lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a sprawling slum of Mumbai, near the airport. Life had been intolerable before the baby came. Now she felt differently. Little Babu was growing so fast! Already a year old, he was moving everywhere, grabbing at things to put into his mouth! He was so well grown and strong, quite the envy of the neighbours! Parul smiled and continued her chores.  She was proud of her first-born. He made life bearable. The sounds of the planes taking off and landing did not disturb her anymore; the inhumanely tiny living space was tolerable. Even the sacrifices in food to feed the baby did not hurt.  Everything was bathed in the rosy glow of motherhood.

Parul kept pav and tea for her husband after eating a little herself. She knew that they had run out of their monthly quota of kerosene from the government ration shop. At Rs 30 per litre in the open market, that option was closed to them. She resolved to wheedle the bhaiyya at the ration shop to give her two extra litres at government sanctioned price. She would bear his curses and foul language. If she went early she might even find some kind soul who would let her have a couple of  litres from their card…The baby stirred and Parul quickly lifted him onto her lap making cooing, soothing sounds. She put the cup to the baby’s lips and he lapped at the milk hungrily.

When they got back from the outdoor lavatory, Ganesh was already home. He got up to cradle his son and bounced him on his lap. Parul told him that she was going down to the ration shop to buy kerosene as they had run out of it. He grumbled something under his breath about ‘wasting ’. Parul had made kheer on their son’s first birthday a few days ago and she knew that it was the reason why the oil had finished. But she had to celebrate- everyone expected that! She felt angry because she knew her husband spent money on the illicit liquor shop on the way to work every day. She ignored him and picked up her purse and empty can, took the child and went out.

At the ration store the line was already serpentine. Parul stood resignedly at the end, slowly inching her way forward. She recognized some of the women in the line but she knew that none of them would be willing to spare two litres of precious oil. She was lost in her thoughts when she suddenly realized that a commotion had ensued. People had gathered around a woman who had fainted. She was one of the women staying in her slum, in the advanced stages of pregnancy. People were trying to lift her and take her to the hospital. Parul watched from behind. The line had become disorderly and there was a lot of running about and shouting.

She noticed it suddenly from the periphery of her vision- a white can very similar to her own, filled with kerosene, lying unattended by the sidewalk. She moved towards it like a predator towards its prey. The owner was probably one of the people trying to get the sick woman to the hospital. Parul stood near the can and placed her own can next to it. She began to participate in the action, talking animatedly to the people next to her. Soon the crowd began to disperse. Parul picked up the full can leaving her empty one behind and moved off. Once out of the crowd she hurried home, her heart beating rapidly. She had never done something like this before! Despite being poor there was some element of decency   in her. Though she felt elated, inwardly she was ashamed. She convinced herself that it was for her child- God would understand…

Once home she saw that her husband was asleep. She did not want Ganesh to see the full can of kerosene or he might start asking questions. She decided to empty some of it into an old Pepsi bottle and hide it behind the box. That way when she needed it there would be a secret stock. She went through her cooking with a song on her lips. Babu played with an empty bowl and spoon, making baby noises. He was getting bored and started cruising around, holding on to whatever he could, taking a few unsure steps and then dropping back into crawling.  After a while Ganesh got up and went outside to use the lavatory. A neighbour dropped by to say that the woman who had fainted had delivered a baby boy at the nearby big hospital. She had been lucky that people took her there as there were complications which could not have been tackled in the small government hospital. Now both mother and child were stable. Parul went outside to talk to her and discretely find out if there was some fuss about a stolen can of kerosene. There did not seem to be any talk of this at all and she began to feel relieved. She continued to chat desultorily with the neighbour for some time.

Suddenly she heard a gurgling cry from inside the hut. Babu! Parul rushed inside and found the toddler coughing and choking. A strong smell of kerosene filled the room. The Pepsi bottle she had hidden earlier was lying next to him with the cap open and the liquid running out. Parul screamed and picked up her child. He was covered from head to toe with the oil. His lips were blue and he was making weak, whimpering noises, frothing at the mouth.

“He’s swallowed kerosene!” she shouted snatching him up and running out of the hut. A group of people began to gather trying to help. Someone was patting the baby’s back while others were wiping his face and mouth and pouring water. There was a lot of shouting of instructions and suggestions. Parul was weeping hysterically. On seeing the crowd in front of his hut, Ganesh came running. He started screaming at Parul. How did this happen? Why had she put kerosene into a Pepsi bottle? Where had she been? Parul was too distraught to explain. They rushed for a cab to the nearby big hospital. The baby was unconscious by now and having jerky movements of his legs. At the hospital the young doctor in Emergency had one look at the child and sounded the alarm. Someone was asking her what happened and she heard the words ‘police case’. The baby was being wheeled to the ICU. A tube had been placed inside his lungs and air was being pumped in with a bag. The entire room had started reeking of kerosene. Parul ran to the doctor asking if her son was alright. He just shook his head and said that they were trying their best.

The next few hours passed in a daze.  At first Parul ran to anyone who was willing to listen, begging them to save her baby. After a while she grew silent and sat curled on a bench rocking herself and moaning. The hospital staff asked Ganesh to deposit money or else they would have to transfer the case to a free government facility. Ganesh pleaded with them to let the baby stay. They could see that Babu was now hooked onto a machine to assist his breathing. They were told that his lungs were flooded with kerosene and that his chances of survival were slim. Parul pulled off her mangalsutra, the only gold ornament she possessed, and gave it to Ganesh to pawn for money. It would get them a few thousand rupees to pay for a day here.

They waited and prayed. Neighbours came to comfort her and assure her that it was not her fault. Then they went back to their daily work.  Inwardly they all rued the unfortunate incident. How could this have happened? Parul should have been more careful! Time seemed to creep by. Minutes stretched into hours.  Parul never went home. Except for sips of water she had nothing to eat. After 12 hours a doctor came to tell them that the baby had succumbed. Parul began to wail hysterically and fainted…

When she opened her eyes she was alone in her hut and there was a faint light of early morning. As she awoke the full force of the tragedy struck her. Yesterday seemed so long ago! She stared at the walls and the emptiness was unbearable. She had lost everything! She dragged herself up and picked up the can of kerosene and match box. She went outside and poured the contents over herself. The oil dripped down as she knelt and touched her forehead to the ground in salutation. Then she got up and slowly struck a match…

The flames blended with colours of the dawn and her screams were drowned by the roar of a plane touching down to earth…




Bhaiyya- form of address to an older male, meaning elder brother

Kheer- sweet dessert made of milk and sugar cooked for a prolonged time over slow fire

Mangalsutra- traditional necklace made of gold and black beads worn by married women

Mitti ka tel- Literally meaning ‘oil of the earth’ it is the local name for kerosene oil in Hindi

Pallu- end of the saree, a traditional form of attire in India

Pav- bread


About the author:

Sheila Samanta Mathai is a 51 year old doctor who works in Mumbai. She has published before in New Asian Writing (‘Mystical Music’ in Anthology 2011) and writes as a hobby for local magazines.

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

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