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Seven Stories

Story 3: Kamala

by Anna Hiebert

"Madam, there is something I want to tell you." Sugnanama, whom our children privately called "Fat Ayama," stood beside me on the veranda, concern written on her round face. An older Christian widow, she had been with us for some time as the children's nursemaid. She was a pleasant person, kind and gentle with the children and motherly towards my husband and me.

"Yes--what is it?"

"It is about Kamala, the little orphan in our hostel."

"Kamala? She isn't sick, is she?"

"No, madam, she is well," she assured me. "It is only that she has so many lice in her hair. The older girls and I have tried to help her. Each night we hold her head above the glowing coals of the fire and try to shake the lice out of her hair. But--" she shook her head sadly, "there are so many. Something will have to be done. Washing her hair in kerosene might help. Or we might have to cut off her hair."

I stared at Sugnanama, horrified. Of course I knew that many of our poorer Indian people were plagued with head lice--I had often seen them sitting one behind another or in a circle, each deftly cleaning the head of the one in front of her. Once I had seen a louse crawling quite openly on the blouse of a woman sitting near me in church. And occasionally, to my consternation, I had even discovered one or two of the ugly creatures trying to hide in the hair of one or another of my own children. But the thought of poor Kamala standing with bent head while the lice dropped down into the fire was dismaying.

"It is too late to do anything tonight, Sugnanama. Bring her to the bungalow tomorrow right after school and we'll take care of it."

My glance followed Fat Ayama's plump figure swaying clumsily as she walked towards the boarding, but my thoughts were with Kamala, her head bobbing as brown hands shook her streaming black locks over the fire.

The afternoon sun was warm on the stones of the veranda when I saw them coming along the path the next day, the kindly old ayah and the child. "Don't be afraid," the woman said gently as she urged the child towards the veranda steps.

Kamala raised shy eyes to mine, her lovely brown face delicate as a flower. She sat without moving as strand by strand I parted her hair, eyes alert to spot the quick-moving pests and their white eggs anchored firmly at the base of the hair. Fat Ayama stood by, ready to do away with each little beast in the usual manner by cracking it between the nails of her thumbs. The eggs she disposed of by the same effective method.

At last we were satisfied we had found them all. The ayah picked up a tin in which broken soap nuts had been soaking in boiling water, and straining the cooled liquid through her fingers, she proceeded to pour it onto the girl's head. Kamala sat, her eyes closed against the strong shampoo. Nor did she let out a whimper when we combed out the tangled tresses. At last she stood before us, a bright ribbon in her shining, newly-oiled black hair, a timid but happy smile on her lips--lively little Kamala.

Days, perhaps weeks, went by. Then one day a group of villagers came to our compound. It appeared they were relatives of Kamala and that they had come to take her back to their village. We were puzzled. For years they had neglected the child. Why this sudden interest?

"Sir, they want to marry Kamala to a heathen relative of hers, a man much too old for her," the preacher from Kamala's village explained to my husband. "I came as soon as I heard. We must not let them take her from the compound. Her parents became Christians and she should be married to a Christian man."

"Kamala? The little girl studying in second standard? Why, she cannot be more than nine or ten years old! I didn't know she had relatives. The mission has supplied her clothes and food ever since she came to school two years ago. No one has ever come to see her or inquire about her," my husband replied indignantly.

"That is true, sir. They haven't bothered about her until now. But they will tell you that it is their obligation to see to the future welfare of their brother's child. Don't listen to them. They don't really care about the girl. The wife of one of the family died recently and they are looking for a suitable girl for the widower to marry. Kamala is one of the family, and since she is an orphan there would be little expense and they could take care of their obligation at the same time."

Snatching up his topee, my husband strode out to the tennis court where the delegation was waiting. In their festive garb--white panchas, long white shirts, full turbans and heavy leather sandals--they looked impressive. Though not a word reached me where I was watching by the window, it was soon evident by their excited faces and animated gestures that a lively discussion was in progress. Aaron, the headmaster, and Joseph, an older teacher, were called in for consultation. The argument flew back and forth, back and forth.

Perhaps the outcome was never really in question. Turbans, homespun panchas and heavy sandals were pitted against a white face, a topee and two pantulus in trousers, spats and foreign boots. In the end the topee and boots won out. Grumbling among themselves, the relatives turned and headed for the gate and home. Kamala, for the time being at least, was safe. And judging by the length of the discussion that followed on the tennis court, Kamala would remain safe.

The Man in the Topee

Years passed by. Upon our return to India from our first furlough we were stationed elsewhere. New faces replaced the old familiar ones. Other schools demanded our attention. Other orphans needed care.

Finally, however, we had an opportunity to visit our former home. We had not prepared ourselves for the change that time had brought about. The headmaster and his friend Joseph, the teacher, had aged visibly--their hair was grey and lines furrowed their faces. Former students were now the teachers and nurses. Fat Ayama's pleasant face was missing--she had died. And Kamala? We were told that she had been married to one of our students, a fine Christian young man. They had moved away and found work in a distant area. With regret we realized it was unlikely we should see her again.

Then, quite unexpectedly some years later, we saw her. While visiting friends at a remote mission station, we were strolling about the compound towards sundown, admiring the new hospital buildings. The nurse introduced us to her compounder. "I am sure you know Isaak. He grew up in Wanaparty during the years you lived there--Pullama's son--remember?"

Of course we remembered. Was he married? Did he have a family?

"Of yes, I have a wife and four children. Come with me to the house and meet them."

Reminiscing happily about the past, we walked the short distance to his house.

"Amma!" he called. "Please come. Someone is here to see you."

His wife, graceful and slim, with a baby on her arm and several older ones hanging onto her skirt, stepped through the doorway and stood before us. It was Kamala! A changed Kamala to be sure, but with the same big brown eyes and timid ways. Isaak's beaming face revealed what he did not put into words.

We never saw her again, but I shall always remember her as she stood there with her children, secure in the love of a good man.