Srividya Tadepalli’s “Funeral for a Demon” was awarded the 2023 Deodar Prize. It is easy to understand why the judges were impressed. In collaboration with The Deodar Prize, we are delighted to present Srividya Tadepalli’s story for our readers.
Though the story is set in southern India, it could be set anywhere, for its true domain is where the wild things are, namely, the Jungian realm of the unsaid and the unsayable. There is a demon, yes, and there is a funeral for a demon, but these facts are simply ejecta of the forest that encircles this tale. There are ghosts but this is not a ghost story. There are karmic accounts to be settled but this is not a mythic take either. Perhaps one could think of this story as belonging to the tradition of the Indian Gothic, but such categorisations are at best, mental bookshelves. Let’s not distract ourselves with labels. There is a demon. There is a funeral. Join the celebration.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
There was not a cloud in sight on the afternoon they found Sarasu’s body, though the rain lashed around them. They had found her about a kilometre from her house, close to a small pond bursting with water for the first time in years. Despite the rain, her body was bone dry. Three men, her sons, stepped carefully around that observation and then around her body as they picked her up and took her home.
They had grown up hearing the rumours about their mother, and they learned to ignore as much as they could. The blind priestess at their village temple told the story of the ibuyi to all the children who bothered to visit—the ibuyi were twelve warrior demons who each served as patron saints of the hungry, the wronged, the persecuted, the battered, the neglected, the displaced, the homeless, the itinerant, the mad, the silenced, the unfree, and the labouring. The priestess had declared a long time ago with certainty that Sarasu was the twelfth of these demons, a protector of the worker.
Sarasu’s sons walked together in silence now, carrying their mother as they mourned her, demon or not.
Sarasu had given her children strict instructions a week before she died. Four villages had to be fed on the twelfth day from the afternoon her body was carried through her village. She wanted to be buried only after this feast. They expected the body to decay and smell, but Sarasu smelled only of chamanthis for twelve days after her death.
The food was to be prepared inside the dead woman’s house, as custom required. Outside, three buffaloes, three goats, three pigs, and three chickens were waiting to be slaughtered and cooked by three daughters of the house, all three daughters-in-law.
Preparations began in the dark hours just past midnight on the morning of the twelfth day. Relatives had already started arriving and moving towards the kitchen. Children were woken up and sent to play. Sleepy festivity surrounded the house though it was death that had summoned everyone.
Inside, Sasi and Paapa, the middle and youngest daughters-in-law, sat with other women from their family, grinding, peeling, cutting, and kneading. The oldest daughter-in-law, Jeyanthi, made phone calls and arrangements from outside the house. Their husbands sat under a tree behind the house with other men from the family, drinking late into the night and then early into the morning.
As the sky got pinker, the women made their way outside to watch Sasi slice into twelve necks one after the other with her sickle. The animals were cleaned and prepared, and the women went back to their tasks.
A few minutes later, everyone, men included, hurried outside to the sound of Paapa’s scream. All twelve animals looked back at them, untouched and alive.
The men laughed. Babu, Sasi’s husband, picked up the sickle, still wet with blood, and slaughtered all the animals again. This time, the men cleaned and cut and picked and prepared, laughing through the grief at this unexpected bounty of flesh.
But then it happened again. And again. And by the fifth set of animals, Jeya, Sasi, and Paapa declared it a miracle. “The gods smile down on us,” Ravi agreed. Paapa rapped her husband on his head with her knuckles. “Gods? Ha! This is the work of our demon.”
As the women cooked, they told stories about Sarasu’s generosity. Indira recalled how she regularly cooked for people around the village, taking oily, tasty treats to women who had just given birth or had just lost their mother. She would sometimes include some of her homemade medicinal teas and pastes accompanied by elaborate, specific instructions.
Paapa’s seven-year-old son, Billa, cut in, “I saw her spit into the medicines she made! No, really, once I saw her crying into the mortar too!” The women laughed at sweet Billa, refusing to wonder aloud whether or not the story was true.
Outside, the men were laying out bedsheets for people to sit on so the feast could begin. Velu said, as he set out the banana leaves for the first row, “Sarasamma gave me money to take Muthu to Vizag and pay his college fees. The day we got news of his admission, we were arguing about whether he could go or not, and she showed up with some food, handed my wife the money, and insisted she was only paying her back for a loan she took from us.” The others didn’t bother asking how poor Velu could have ever lent anyone any money.
Those attending the feast, regardless of how long they were travelling, merely had to tell their employers that Sarasu had died. Any further explanation was neither given nor sought. Though some employers grumbled and muttered under their breaths, Sarasu was feared widely enough by those of their classes and castes that no one complained.
There was one poor soul who had either not heard or not heeded this unspoken warning. A moneylender, not poor by any definition other than with regard to the fate that awaited him, decided it was a good day to harass Ravi about the money he owed. The moneylender arrived with his band of men outside Sarasu’s house just as people began to sit down to eat. Conversations came to an end abruptly as people ecognized the man who managed to make the worst periods of their lives somehow worse. He bellowed, “Ravi! You bastard! You have money to feed all these morons but you don’t have money to pay me back? Why don’t you come here and we can arrange some entertainment for your guests, hmm?” The air was thick with fear and the moneylender revelled in it, not understanding whom the fear was for. Some of the older women tried to intervene, asking him to come back another day, but they were mocked and pushed around. Ravi hid inside the house with his furious wife. Paapa couldn’t believe her husband was allowing that arrogant man to threaten her family while her mother-in-law’s body lay less than 20 feet away.
As Paapa decided enough was enough and tore her way out of the house, violent coughs filled the air. The moneylender began to vomit: bile at first, then blood, then blood clots, looking soft as butter but blacker than the night. Paapa reached the moneylender just as the coughing man’s mouth opened wider and wider, held ajar now by two hands emerging from inside his body. The thugs who had accompanied him scattered in terror. The moneylender’s jaw cracked, allowing it to open wide enough for a man with a sunken face to climb out. As the man stepped into the puddle of bile and blood, the moneylender fell to the ground, the skin around his throat sagging like a giant pelican’s beak.
The new man, covered in saliva and other body fluids, looked around him, taking in the place of his birth. He made his way slowly towards Sarasu as the crowd parted for him. On reaching Sarasu, he bowed and then removed the bedsheet covering her body (Babu slapped a hand to Sasi’s mouth to stop her from saying anything), using it to cover himself as he walked away from the village gathering.
As Sasi managed to slap Babu’s hand away from her mouth, her own mother held her arm firmly in warning. “Don’t, foolish girl. That’s a dhurindu, let it go on its way. A demon like that is born from the flesh of greed once every eighty-seven years, your grandmother saw one too as a child.”
Sasi and her co-sisters had always believed the rumours about Sarasu. During Sasi’s wedding to Babu, the old priestess, who was actually her grand-aunt, told her she was the luckiest woman in the world to have an ibuyi as her mother-in-law.
She and Paapa stood together now looking at the moneylender, both unsure about whether they felt anger, pity, or relief. His eyes were missing, as were his gums and teeth. Only black, gaping holes remained in their place.
As guests began to eat, they talked amongst each other about how fiercely Sarasu protected people, even strangers. But she loved the children the most. Sai was eight years old when she felt the full force of Sarasu’s love. In between mouthfuls now, 15 years later, she told her story. “I hated going to school, and my parents could never understand why. I didn’t tell them how I was made to wash the toilets and sweep the floors as the rest of my classmates sat in the classroom. The teacher was nice to me sometimes, but the principal would slap me even when I answered his questions correctly.
“One afternoon, on my way back from school, Sarasammamma saw me crying and held me tight without asking any questions. The next day, when I got to school, everyone was standing outside the toilet, watching as a woman wound her snake-like arms around the principal so tightly that we could hear the bones crack. She had climbed out of the toilet, it seemed, and once she was satisfied with how many bones had been broken, she descended slowly back into the toilet with the principal still in her arms. I could see the principal’s toes moving frantically as his body disappeared headfirst into that small hole. A new principal joined us later and he was shocked when he saw me sweeping the floor. He told me I would never have to do that again.” Sai’s mother ate beside her and listened to this story for the first time with wet eyes.
On the other side of the house, a group of women began washing the cooking vessels. Mangamma from two streets away recalled the time a Reddy from the neighbouring village had tried to strike her in the middle of his paddy field during a harvest. Sarasu, who was working next to her at the time, somehow made her way in the blink of an eye to the space between Mangamma and the Reddy. She yelled an obscenity at the man (the recounting of which made Mangamma and everyone else laugh), and the Reddy froze. Mangamma swore that he literally stopped moving. They rushed away then, and heard the next day that he had died of a heart attack in his sleep.
The men who finished eating gathered under a tree to play some cards. They were the same group that had to carry the moneylender’s broken body to bury along the railway tracks. They played in silence for a while, and then Sami couldn’t help himself. He said, “she didn’t believe in letting families handle their own business. I used to hate her for it. You remember the time my first wife left me? Sarasattha walked into our home one time unannounced, and saw me beating Kala. She screamed and pinched my ear and yelled at me. I agreed in the end that I would not raise my hand anymore, and Kala cried and accepted my apology. I was young and stupid, and it happened again. But this time, Kala became frighteningly calm, packed my things, and threw me out of the house.
“Later, when Swathi and I got married, Sarasattha visited us. She brought us food and made us promise each other that we would never treat each other with unkindness or cruelty. It was a
difficult thing to swallow, this old woman telling me how I could and could not treat my wife, but I don’t plan to cross her even though she’s dead.” Sami shuddered. The older men in the circle mumbled in agreement while the younger men looked on thoughtfully in silence.
Malli, Ragul and Jeyanthi’s daughter, led a small army of children towards Sarasu’s body once they had all eaten two helpings each of the four meat dishes. The children were morbidly curious, as children often are. They wanted to see what a dead body looked like, whether it was still Sarasu, whether they could catch a small twitch of muscle or heave of chest.
Trying to convince them that death was not something to fear, Malli found herself walking with exaggerated confidence towards her grandmother’s body. Her grandmother was now barely covered by her mother’s dupatta after the bedsheet had been stolen by the strange man. She slowed as she got closer to the head of the body, and then gently pulled the dupatta off. Chamanthis were growing now from her dead grandmother’s eyes and mouth. She stood silent and unshaken as the other children ran back shrieking to report what they discovered to their parents.
The stories that the women, sitting amongst themselves, told about Sarasu were slightly different. Everyone knew Sarasu had no interest in men. She had arrived in their village for the first time some forty years ago, not speaking Telugu or any other language from the region. She found her partner in Chamanthi soon after. They raised Chamanthi’s triplets together. No one knew who the father was, and no one thought it wise to press the issue.
Chamanthi died a few years before Sarasu did, and Sarasu had arranged for a grand celebration in her memory. At the end of that night, once the men had drunk themselves to sleep, by design it seemed, the women gathered around Sarasu as she recited the story of their life together as though she was reading from a book of poetry. These stories were gentle and full of love, they were unvarnished and full of sex, and all of them were eye-opening to the young women in the circle who hadn’t yet discovered what they deserved—and could demand—in life and in love.
As the stories of that day were recounted now, Malli listened, seeing her grandmother, and herself, in a new light as things fell into place.
The family now gathered around Sarasu, with all the visitors forming a larger circle around them at a respectful distance. They planned to lay her down in her own garden, where Chamanthi was also buried. As her sons approached to carry her away, they noticed moths on her feet. They watched as moths landed gently on her face, her arms, her torso, covering her hair and her nails. They kept coming, in beautiful blurs of yellows, blues, and reds, and nobody dared move. No one could see Sarasu beneath the many-coloured wings. A cool breeze swept past everyone gathered there under the sky that day, and the moths flew up to greet it. Not a sound was heard, not a breath was taken. Sarasu’s body was gone.
The silence was broken by Malli’s giggle, shy and low at first, and then full-throated, thigh-slapping laughter. And slowly, everyone joined her. The chamanthis in the garden were in full bloom.
Basuki Dasgupta grew up in Bishnapur, West Bengal, a town famous for its terracotta temples. His work is threaded through and through with the Devi symbolism characteristic of West Bengal. Srividya Tadepalli’s story is set in South India, which like West Bengal, also has a strong feminine/shakti aspect in its Hindu ritual traditions. All this is a long-winded way of saying we were spoiled for choice when it came to selecting one of Basuki’s works for a cover image. We settled it the traditional way. An offering of coconuts and the ritual slaughter of an editor. The result, we believe, is both blessed and satisfactory.
Author | SRIVIDYA TADEPALLI
Srividya is a writer and educator based in Chennai. Her work has previously appeared in Aleph Book Company’s A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers and in Helter Skelter’s Anthology of New Writing, Vol. 5. Her featured story, “Funeral for a Demon” won The Deodar Prize in 2023.