Translated by Janet Hong
“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.
“I think I played on the swing.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.
“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”
“I think the same will happen to you.”
“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”
Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.
Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.
The first time Arun and I go out after I lose my voice is to Niti and Kevin’s house. The evening of December tenth, their wedding anniversary. Eight years they’ve been married, eight years we’ve been friends. If I skip their party, they won’t hold it against me. Our friendship is stronger than that, but Arun won’t let me test it.
“You’ve got to get out of the house” —his answer to everything I say.
When the argument tires me out, I give in. The other guests have already filled up their lawn when we arrive. I peer at the crowd from inside the car. Panic pins me to my seat. I can’t breathe, can’t stretch my arm out and reach for the door. An avalanche of sympathy is about to hit me. Condolences are the last thing I want, but condolences will bury me alive when I go out there.
It had happened again. He could hear it in the flatness of her voice. He felt that familiar rage taking shape inside his head, but forced himself to concentrate on her voice. “Yes,” he said, “I have noted down the list. Shall I repeat it, Didimoni?”
“No, no need, just bring it over when you have the time,” she replied, her voice flat and exhausted.
If he could, he would have rushed over with the groceries right away. But that would not help. Making a tremendous effort, he kept his mind on his work, on Barun da’s endless chit chat and instructions. He even managed to smile at one or two of his jokes. As they shut down the shop, Barun da helped him to load the three or four grocery bags, for the home deliveries Rongon would make before he went home. And, as every day, Barun da called after him—“Go home straight after the deliveries, Rongon—those boys are not good for you! And come on time tomorrow.”
As Rongon cycled away, he thanked the Universe for bringing him to Barun da’s doorstep, and as he did unfailingly, as he thanked the Universe, he remembered to register his complaint against it. But there was no time— here was the Banerjee house, and he got off his cycle to deliver the bag of groceries. As he completed the next three deliveries, his heart began to quicken. He slowed down as always, his emotions slowly spooling away from his control, slowing his cycle, tightening his voice, clamping down on his soul.
It’s just you and me, on the counter stools, enjoying our ice cream as the buzzing, shuddering air conditioner labours to tame the exuberant heat of sunlight, blazing through the windows. Just another one of our summertime visits to Harfu’s Creamery. Until in strolls who you could be, all seersucker and gabardine in assured motion. With the charisma of a star actress on break during a movie shoot, she orders two scoops, one sweet cream, the other ginger, all topped with crushed pistachios—clearly a superior selection to our picks: my blueberry single scoop and your mango double with coconut shreds.
You, as usual, pay her no attention and carry on like she’s not even there. I, however, become that much more enamoured with her. As she stands mere steps from me, my senses gather delightful nuggets of detail.
A short story from Myanmar by San Lin Tun
Roughcut Bar, Myanmar;Photocredit: Roughcut Bar FaceBook page
Roughcut Bar; Photocredit: Roughcut Bar FaceBook page
Moe did not know what he could do while he sat in his chair and his mind drifted like a kite floating with the free flow of wind. Something dampened his strength and he felt frayed. He had been feeling this way for a couple of days. It started gradually till it took concrete shape in his mind, tending to block his mental processes. That is why he could not focus on his job. He decided to try to deal with it…
Though he felt it, he could not name the sensation. He picked up the pen from the rectangular lacquer pen holder in front of him on the table, unconsciously. He did not intend to use the pen but his laptop. He sighed at his confusion and looked at his watch — fifteen past four in the afternoon. He stood up, pushed his laptop away and picked up his shoulder bag that lay in a slant against the foot of the table.
Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai
Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab, 2018
Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.
Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass. We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.
By Farouk Gulsara
Malaysia National Day Special
Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.
He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!
The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.
“No harm done.”
“I see you started cooking.”
Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?
“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”
“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”
“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”
“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”
“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.
The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.
For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.
By Rinita Banerjee
It was the rainy season. July, Some Year, Some Place.
Against the serenely cool breeze of the after-rains, Tuli’s little face stood still, warm, a throbbing circle of fire and smoke. She had a little round face, very big eyes, a pug-like nose set right in the centre of her face, and small lips — like one fine petal of a red tulip. Her eyelashes were wet. The before-tears had run their course. She breathed in rapid, short gasps – each lasting less than a second – the gasps, moving somewhere behind the throat and the nose. They came in groups of three and sometimes two. She blinked from time to time, looking out through the window facing which she sat, cross-legged, on the chair that Baaboo, her father, had built for her so that she could see the world outside the window of her room.
A wooden chair with tall legs and a round seating space with a pillow on it. On the lower portion of the chair was a small box-like structure with three steps carved into it. Baaboo had made it for Tuli to be able to climb to and down from the high chair.
The inside of the back-rest of the chair had an engraving that said ‘Baaboo’s Tuli’. Baaboo had engraved it for his little Tuli two years ago; she was six then. She had sat on it many a time. In fact, before she went to bed at night, most nights, Baaboo had read her stories while she would sit on that high chair dangling her legs, leaning a little on her Baaboo with her lips stuck into a small pout. The pout was the measure of Tuli’s concentration. Much before he finished reading her the stories, the dangling of the legs would stop, and the weight of her little body would gather on Baaboo like the many bubbles from the ‘bugbugi’ settling on one. The many flurries of bubble from soapy water blown through the circular ring on streetsides? Tuli called those bugbugi. Like she called her father ‘Baaboo’, not Baba or Papa or Dad or Daddy or Bapi.