‘Once upon a Time in Munnar’ by VandanaKumari Jena

Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The mountain air is exhilarating. I climb up the hill covered with blue Neelakurinji flowers, running a little, skipping a little,free as a bird which sits on treetops and trills.Ahead of me stands a Nilgiri Thar, silent, curious and brooding. He does not even move when I click his photograph. He has begun to take crowds of visitors in his stride. I want to kick off my shoes and race forward and I do, till I drop on the grass. Sepia coloured images begin flooding my memory. I am  four years old and run as fast as my legs can carry me and then I fall and Di, runs towards me, cradles me in her arms and we both laugh as we roll down the grassy knoll. Di. I shake my head. Di? I have two brothers and two sisters.Then who is Di? And why did I think of her? Why has the image of Di flashed before me just now? I have no time to brood. Our Group has slowly plodded up the hill and reached the top. The local officials eye me warily.Government officials, especially women officers, are expected to behave with decorum, not loll around on a carpet of grass in public view.

I get up sheepishly, pulling down my saree hastily, brushing aside the clumps of grass which cling on to my saree like long lost friends. My ankles and legs begin to itch. Have I picked up some allergy? Poison ivy perhaps? The urge to scratch my ankles and legs is strong but I maintain a stoic silence. Some things can wait till I reach the sanctity of my own room. This is one of them. Even if it is killing me. I raise my head and see Samar standing before me, a bunch of spinach leaves in his hand.

“Here rub them wherever it is itching you, it’s an antidote,” he says. I wonder what is he?  A mind reader?

We trudge down the hill slowly.I am lost in my own thoughts.I am thrilled to be back in Munnar.I have spent the first four years of my life here. I can still remember the red brick house where I lived, with its slate roof, a tree house and a well at the back. But it is the first time that I have seen the Neelakurinji, the blue flower which blooms in the hills once in every twelve years.I have never seen them bloom before.I was last here twenty years ago, with Di.

What happened to Di? I frown.I have never seen her photographs in our house. Amma and Papa have never talked about Di. But visiting Munnar has jogged my childhood memory. I remember Amma and Papa saying that Di had fallen off the hill a month after our  family outing there.

Once we climb down the hill, the local officials  accompanying us tell us  that before returning to our hotel, we would visit the Christian Home and Centre in Munnar which is run by Roman Catholic nuns. It is an excellent Centre for Girls Education.

“You will be interested to see what they do for the Mentally Challenged,” say the officials. I  wonder why this visit figures on  our itinerary.We are a group of Indian Audit and Account Service officers and the visit to Munnar is a part of our `Bharat Darshan.’ This visit seems to be unscheduled, but I relish the prospect of being here as I realize that I can visit the restroom to rub the spinach leaves on my ankles. I have no idea that destiny has brought me here. When I stand outside the building I am spellbound.I seem to be transported to another country, in another era. The building is made of gray stone and has beautiful stained glass windows. I feel I am entering a cathedral. The building is half covered by creeper vine. We stand before an ornately carved door in ebony and press the bell. The door is opened and we are ushered in. The classrooms are empty as the classes are over.The girls have gone to their dormitories. We are then taken to the drawing room. Tea is served to us in style, complete with bone china cups,  a sliver tea service, slivers of lemon  for those who want black tea, as well as milk for  regular tea drinkers like me.Tomy delight we are served soft, flaky and crisp croissants, which seem like layered perfection and simply melt in the mouth, along with red velvet cupcakes. I dig my teeth into one, savour the chocolate flavour, roll it around my mouth, give a loud sigh of delight and shamelessly pick another one.

This institution, tucked into the back of beyond, boasts of a confectionary which can compare to the best in Delhi, Le Meridien, Sugar nSpice, Angels in my Kitchen, and Wenger’s.

Soon the girls begin to troop in, five or six of them. Padmini is the first one to enter and she is an ethereal beauty, her hair, naturallycurly, flows down her back in beautiful ringlets. She looks like a big Barbie doll. But her eyes are a dead giveaway. She stares ahead vacuously with no glimmer of recognition in her eyes. Roli walks in next. She is tall, dark and slightly intimidating. She sits ramrod straight in her chair staring into nothingness. Lata follows Roli and sits down, touching her face and smiling. She is a Down’s Syndrome child, a child trapped in the body of a young woman.She keeps smiling, as all Down’s Syndrome children do and occasionally claps her hand and laughs with childish delight. Amisha who walks in next is clearly autistic.She avoids all eye contact and begins banging her head against the wall, while we all watch anxiously, wondering if the headbanging will result in some grievous injury. Smita arrives in a wheel chair as she is spastic. Her hand keeps shaking uncontrollably. She is clearly helpless without her assistant. Five girls, nearly all of them delusional and some of them mentally challenged as well.

Sister Angela, who heads the Institution, enters the room and smiles at us. “The cakes and croissants you ate were made by these girls, “she says. That sounds impossible but Sister Angela could not be lying.

And then walks in another girl, small and diminutive, with wheatish complexion and eyes which appear to be too huge for her tiny face.

“Meena,” says Sister Angela loudly as she enters the room. I have to stoop to see her. Someone comes with a foot stool and she climbs on it and then leaps onto a chair. I look into  her eyes. They look dead, quite dead.  The glazed eyes of a corpse which the doctor shuts gently,once he pronounces the patient dead, or the eyes of a dead fish on a slab of ice before it is sliced.The girl before me isreally a woman who must be about thirty to thirty five years old.  She reminds me of someone.  It is the eyes that I recognize. I have seen them sparkling with mischief, and blaze with anger as well. But I have never seen them as dead as I see them now. I experience a sudden gut wrenching pain. It couldn’t be, but it is her. But twenty years is a long time. And I was only four years old at that time. Maybe I am mistaken.

“What is wrong with her?” I want to know. Sister Angela looks at me in surprise and says, “She is a midget.” She is stating the obvious. “But being a midget is not a crime,” I begin to  say, then  lapse into silence. Neither is being a Down’s Syndrome Child, Autistic, Spastic or delusional a crime.What I mean to say to is that she is not mentally challenged like the others. “There is nothing really wrong with her, is it, except that she is vertically challenged?” I say, “then why is she dumped here?”

Sister Angela’s lips tighten in response. She is a nun.To her, this home is an extension of God’s own abode. And I have dared to call it a dump.

“Her parents left her with us,” she says, her voice cold,“and we do not turn away anybody from  our doorstep.” “We should not be talking about her in her presence,”I admonish Sister Angela, “unlike the other girls she is intelligent and can understand everything.” All through this exchange Meena sits silently, not reacting at all. Is she dumb or has she perfected the art of remaining silent? I then feel the warning touch of our Group Leader, Partho Banerjee on my shoulder. This is not the time to argue with Sister Angela. We are guests here, and not an Inspection Team. In any case I have successfully broken up the meeting. It is time for our Group to retreat.

When we finally leave the other members of our group begin to explain things to me.

“Imagine the plight of the parents,” my Group Leader tells me,

“They must be having other children as well. If she had remained with them in the same house, the other children would have found it impossible to get married.So the parents had really no choice but to get rid of her.”

“What about her?” I argue indignantly, “How did she feel, being plucked from her home and dumped into the Christian Home, into a completely alien atmosphere, simply because she did not grow a few inches taller?” “It must be tough on them, making this choice. They must have done it after much deliberation. They may be having five or six children they had to think of,” my Group Leader says.

“Five,” I say automatically, remembering that Di often laughed and said, “we are six.”He looks me in surprise. I shake my head. I am in no mood to give explanations to anyone.

I am silent on the way back. Half way to our hotel I turn to Samar and say, “I need to go back.” “Why?” the words are on Samar’s lips. But he knows that I will brook no argument. The two of us return to the Christian Home. Everyone else goes back to the Sun ViewHotel. This time Sister Angela eyes us suspiciously and is reluctant to talk to me.

“I want to talk to Meena,” I say. “Why?” she asks. “I have my reasons,” I say, unwilling to say anything further. She goes inside to call her. After what seems like an eternity but in reality is only ten minutes, Meena walks into the room. “Di,” I say, running to her, “I am Madhu.” I have no doubt in my mind, I have found my Di.

Di, who Amma and Papa had claimed had fallen down the hill soon after our family outing there. Di, whose body was never found, but at four years I had not known about death in all its dimensions. Di, about whom no one ever talked in our house. Di, who had spent twenty years of her life in the  Christian Home among girls who were not all there mentally. Di, who must have longed for a normal conversation and even more, for love.  Who must have yearned to put her head on Ma’s lap, as she had often in the past.Who must have dreamt of a home and a family when she grew up. Di, who had raced me  up the hill and then dropped in a heap as though her lungs would burst, a twelve year old girl who thought that she owned the world, till her parents  discarded her  like a pair of old shoes that had outlived their utility. Di, whose hand had a long and jagged scar because I had once thrown a pair of scissors at her; Di, whose eyes had, once upon a time sparkled with laughter, but had become dead when she realized that she could only survive in this madhouse by pretending to be one of them.


Di, who had taken on the role of the Head Cook in the Home, making flaky croissants and melt in the mouth red velvet cup cakes, walnut cakes and mutton patties, spinach quiche and apple pies, just to be away from the cackle of girls who were lost in their own world. Di, who died a little everyday as she grew older because her Ma and Papa had decided that she was expendable. Had they ever visited her in the Home? Perhaps they had done so in the beginning. But a year later they had  shifted to Kolkata, after Papa had switched jobs, and after that I  am sure, Di had never seen any one of us.

“Di,” I say as I hold on to her legs as I used to as a child, “I am Madhu.” She doesn’t say anything, but sits, silent and stoic, like arock on the chair on which she has to leap, with the help of afoot stool. But I just cling on to her legs as I had done when the pair of scissors I had flung in anger had hit her hand and left a deep and jagged scar.

“Di,” I say, “di.” Then five minutes later I feel something hot and wet on my head, the first tear that rolls down Di’s eyes. “Madhu,Madhulika,” she says. I cling to her tiny compact body as if it was a piece of driftwood in the river, which would take me to safety, if I hold onto it long enough. I cling to her and cry for her lost childhood and mine, for the sister who would have held me by my hand and taken me across the hills, whose only sin was that she was the innocent victim of a defective gene of my mother or father and did not grow up to be 5 ft. 6 inches tall like me but remained 3 feet 6 inches tall.

“Di,”I say, unable to carry on, leaving everything I want to say unsaid. But Di understands.She understands my bewilderment in losing her, my loneliness in growing up in a house where Ravi and Gaurav da, Smriti and Sumita di formed their own twosome, leaving me lonely and bereft. Though eight years older than me, completely mismatched in terms of age, nevertheless Di and I had made our own pair, till she vanished from our lives.

“Madhu when will you leave?” asks Di after sometime. “Whenever you are ready,” I say. “I can’t go with you,” She argues. “Why not?” I counter.

“I shall spoil your future,” she says. “I have no future without you,” Iconfess.

A few months later Amma and Papa come to Noida to meet me. This is their first visit to my house. I put their luggage in the guest room and show them my house. They dutifully admire my tiny garden as if it is the Mughal Gardens itself, with Amma admiring the aloe vera I have planted and Papa picking up the sadabahar leaves which he claims will do wonders in controlling his diabetes. Papa looks around the house with pride. He is happy that his youngest child has done well in life.

“We have come,” says Papa expansively as he sits on my newly bought Godrej sofa “with a marriage proposal for you.” I make a face. Matrimony is far from my mind. I think I need to enjoy life and discover myselfin the process. “Have tea first,” I offer, “You must be tired after your flight. We can always talk later.” Amma loves the freshly baked croissants I serve her. “Don’t tell me Madhulika that you have done a course in baking,” she jokes,“these croissants are really good.”

“The cup cakes are scrumptious,” says Papa, helping himself to a second cup cake. “No I haven’t cooked anything Ma,” I admit, “I can just boil an egg, make an omelet and cook Maggi noodles, if I am really hungry.”

“Then I would like to meet your cook,” says Ma. “With pleasure,” I say. I call out and Di walks into the drawing room, all 3 ft. 6 inches of her. There is complete silence in the room. Amma and Papa are stumped into silence.

“I am sure I can do without marriage,” I say to no one in particular, “but can’t do without Di.” Di smiles. This time her eyes are neither cold nor dead. I can see them glisten from a distance as tears begin to roll down her eyes. I have a strong urge to run and cling on to her, and let my tears mingle with hers to wash away all the pain and humiliation from her heart. But I desist from doing so. I want my father and mother to feel the burden of guilt they should have carried for years, but probably didn’t, cutting off Di from their lives like an amputated limb. I want Ma to realize that nothing she can do will ever compensate for the cold nights Di had to spent and the colder thoughts Di nurtured when she realized that for her family, she was expendable. I want Papa to realize that he could not be the judge, the jury and the executioner and decide that Di could be sacrificed so that his other children could be happy. I want him to know that he could not play God and decide that Ravi, Gaurav, Smriti, Sumita and my happiness came before Di’s. What if one of our children was born with the same defective gene? Would we rush to Munnar to hide the truth?

I see Amma looking shamefaced while Papa begins to squirm uneasily on the sofa.

“Ma,” I say, as I go to Di at last and hug her, “we cannot give Di back the last twenty years of her life, but let me spend the rest of my life making up to her.”


Glossary: Bharat Darshan- All India study tour

Vandana Jena

Author’s Bio: VandanaKumari Jena is an IAS officer belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (1979 batch).  A prolific writer of  poetry and prose, she has published over 250 middles in  newspapers  including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, the Statesman,  The Indian Express. Her short stories have appeared in more than 17  anthologies,  including  “Black White and Various Shades of Brown,”  “India Smiles,” and “Blogprint” published by Penguin India and  “A Cup of Chai,” “ The Shrinking Woman and other Stories,” “Vanilla Essence,” and “Two is Company,  published by Unisun Publications. She has also contributed to Chicken Soup for the Indian soul, A Book Of Miracles; Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul at Work, Chicken Soup for the Indian Couple’s Soul; Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul Teens Talk Growing Up; Chicken Soup for the  Indian Soul Celebrating Brothers and Sisters published by Westland. Her  novel The Dance of Death,” was published in  2008 by HarAnand Publications. A number of her short stories have won prizes. Her website is www.vandanajena.com. She can be contacted at vandana.jena(at)gmail.com.

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