Guilt is Relative

 When the sun rose over the fields, Satyabhama was already at the well.

She swiped a hand over her forehead, which dripped sweat, before pulling up the bucket. Pouring the water into her steel pot, she went into the kitchen, where she set the water aside for the day’s cooking. Her mother-in-law believed that the day’s cooking had to be done with ‘clean’ water collected only after bathing, since they would be offering the food to God before eating it themselves, so Satyabhama got up at dawn every day, performed her morning ablutions, and drew two pots of water from the well.

Taking a cup of water from the other pot of water in the kitchen, Satyabhama brewed a cup of tea. Her husband would be waking soon, and he would want to have tea in bed. Her mother-in-law had just finished her morning pooja, the older woman would be along soon to take her son his tea.

As she had from the day after her son had been married, Satyambhama’s mother-in-law came to stand by her elbow, giving her a hundred instructions on how to make tea the way her son liked it, despite the fact that Satyabhama had been making her husband’s tea every day for ten years. As always, Satyambhama ignored it all, telling herself it wouldn’t be long before her mother-in-law finally died, and then she would miss the older woman’s company when she was all alone. Sometimes it worked to keep her anger at bay.

Twenty minutes later, when Satyabhama was chopping onions for lunch (‘remember dear, nice and thin, the way my boy likes it,’) her husband sneaked into the kitchen in his uniform, hoping to steal a kiss while his mother had gone off to bathe. Satyabhama dodged his reaching hands, frowning at him and backing away. ‘Please, don’t make me bathe again!’ she begged. ‘If you touch me, atthagaru will want me to bathe again before I start cooking.’

‘Oh, she won’t know,’ Murari said, darting a quick glance into the backyard, where the outdoor bathroom and toilets were, to check that the bathroom door was still closed. ‘Come on,’ he said, drawing the last syllable out as he whined.

‘No, please—’

Making a grab for her, Murari caught hold of Satyabhama’s saree pallu, saying angrily, ‘Why do you always do this—’

As Satyabhama whirled away, trying to tug her saree out of his grasp, she turned around to meet her mother-in-law’s disapproving glare. As Satyabhama moved to take the bucket in her hand, she leaped back. ‘No, no, I don’t want you to touch my clothes, I just washed them. I wear these when I perform my pooja, you’ve become unclean now, because you touched Murari, you need to bathe again before you touch anything else.’ Setting the metal bucket down with a clang, she took out the saree inside, wringing out the extra water in the backyard, hanging the saree to dry on a long stick set up some height below the kitchen ceiling. ‘Have to do everything myself, with my poor aching back…’

‘I need to go now, Amma, or I’ll be late for office,’ Murari said, setting his peaked cap on his head, brushing some imaginary lint off his uniformed shoulder, running a thumb over the new, gleaming stars.

‘Of course, of course,’ his mother cried, as she set the bucket out in the backyard again. ‘You don’t want to be late for your first day as a Sub Inspector!’

Through it all, as she watched Murari bend to touch his mother’s feet for her blessings (from a safe distance, he followed his mother’s rules about not touching her when she needed to perform a pooja), Satyabhama didn’t say a word. Murari avoided her eyes as he left.

‘Well, what are you standing around for? You have a lot of work to do! You need to bathe again before you can start cooking, and I need to eat by one!’


‘What have you been burning in the trash dump behind the house?’ Satyabhama hissed that night as she elbowed her husband in the side.

‘Hmmm? Oh, those are…some papers I needed to get rid of.’

‘Well, the municipality trash fellows came to the house to scold me about it. Then your mother scolded me because I wasted so much time listening to them, and she didn’t want her lunch to be served late.’

‘Mmhmph,’ Murari grunted, turning onto his side, ignoring her.

‘Why did you want to arrest Babu?’


Murari sat up, no longer sleepy. ‘Why did you start reading those papers?’

‘The men gave them to me, and I wanted to see what they were so I could be sure it was our fault before they started blaming us,’ Satyabhama snapped. ‘I saw they were some police papers, so I knew it was you.’

‘You had no right to go through those papers!’

‘Babu is my nephew! Tell me what he’s done!’

Murari gave an explosive sigh, ruffling the hair on Satyabhama’s head. A long silence followed, while Satyabhama fidgeted in the dark, growing more impatient the longer Murari was silent.

‘Assault,’ Murari finally mumbled. ‘Extortion. Abduction. Maybe even murder.’

Satyabhama gasped. ‘Babu wouldn’t do that, he’s a good boy—’

‘He’s a rowdy sheeter,’ Murari hissed furiously. ‘A criminal with political connections! A farmer filed a complaint against him but the Inspector asked me to drop the case and get rid of the charge sheets.’

‘Maybe he’s being framed, and this was the only way—’

‘Stop it,’ Murari all but shouted, grabbing his wife’s wrist in the dark. His mother snorted in her sleep in the room next door, and he lowered his voice. ‘Why do you believe your nephew over your husband? I saw the reports myself! I know it’s true!’

‘I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,’ Satyabhama repeated stubbornly. She couldn’t believe that Babu could be a criminal, he’d been such a good little boy, though he had always been uninterested in studies and mischievious, even as a child.

His parents had bought a little photocopy shop for him, one of the only two in their sleepy little town; Babu made a living selling copies and stationery items.

Having no children on her own, Satyabhama loved Babu as her own son, and couldn’t believe anything bad about him.

No, there had to be some mistake. She’d go visit her sister tomorrow, and find out the truth for herself.

Want to read more?
Order the Dark Things anthology and read the full story!

Featuring cross-dressing assassins, were-snakes, gods and goddesses, demonesses and asura kings, Dark Things Between the Shadow and the Soul retells age-old tales from Indian mythology—with a twist. Rearranging myth and legend to create new plots, these short stories will delight lovers of the unusual.


Image from with thanks.

[mood|inspired by indian mythology sleepy]
[music| Someone Like You: Adele]


  1. Anonymous

    superb mix of.. let me tell in filmy style.. “waah.. iss estory mein drama hai.. emotion hai.. action hai…!!” hehe.. really good one re…

    the pooja things.. mother-in-law checking price tags.. very realistic.. unfortunately… :P

    claps claps… :)

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked this – I did try to pull in a lot of things and little details to give it a better descriptive quality.

      Re: the mother-in-law things – I tried to think of something that could cause the kind of chronic anger that could make one capable of murder!


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