“Women are not born witches. Life makes them turn that way. If you want the truth of what I say, look at the facts: there are no young witches, no child witches. All the women torn or hacked to pieces in the columns of the newspapers are old. Some of them are not even witches at all. Perhaps just women like me who discovered the gift of a black tongue when everything else had failed them. I didn't know I had a black tongue until all the pieces started falling into place. And not even then.
"We are not proud of our gifts. Pride is dangerous unless you have the strong-armed power to support it. A battalion of young men with smuggled machine guns whom you can let loose at night to make your predictions of disaster come true. Men who obey your commands without question or regret. Or a rich thakur husband with izzat four centuries long who can unleash death and destruction if one of his subjects just looks at him in the wrong way. A woman with a black tongue is nothing unless she has men behind her.
"Otherwise she exercises her gift in secret, utters the dread word in anger in the dark. A black curse whispered on a black night that goes straight from her mouth to God's ear.
"You have to have the gift, of course. A gift for hatred. I know that a woman taught me how to hate. She is the one who put the black into my tongue. She lives in the city, in a tall house with a tall husband and a son. She has a red Maruti as bright and shining as a tomato - no she had a shiny red Maruti. I used to drive in it once, twice, I've forgotten how many times. Had - the Maruti is gone now. I don't mean to say that things are different in the city. The difference is only on the surface - because you have witches and witch finders in the city too, though they don't always react in the same way there.
She had everything this woman, when I had nothing at all. And she took everything from me - my home, my future. And she left me my life. In a village that would have been enough to doom her - if I had been powerful enough. I would have summoned up a witch finder and said, 'She is a witch, she has cursed me.' But in those days I didn't know any of this. I sat in my place of exile and brought her face into my mind and thought of all the things that I wished her, one by one."
And so the story begins, from the mouth of Maya, who has learned how to hate and who has grown into a woman old in wisdom though still young in years. A woman who looks back on a time when she was just sixteen, street-smart and sulky, forced to leave the bright lights of the city for a village backwater because she has been witness to the forbidden.
It was another woman who taught her to hate—an unhappily married woman, supremely self-involved and obsessed with her husband. The woman’s former lover, on the fast track to political success, but still clinging to the memory of their youthful romance, now explodes back into her life, propelled by the force of Maya’s “curse.”
And then there’s Maya’s brother, a politician in the making, who understands corruption and violence and little else. His plan is to use blackmail as a shortcut to fortune—and Maya has handed him that opportunity.
Maya looks back on her life and thinks: All those people came together in my life more than twenty years ago. If I had known when I stepped out of the train into the country village where I was being sent “for my own good” what I know now, “I would have tied a pitcher round my neck and thrown myself into the nearest pond. But I didn't know—so the ponds around our village remained flat unsympathetic bodies of water, furred over with hyacinth leaves. Like the one in the city that began it all. If I stuck my tongue out at that sheet of water it would probably reflect black at me. But I don't.”