The Best Asian Speculative Fiction
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.”

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TBASS

“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

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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.

TBASS

Eric looked up from his music player and realized that the series of speeches was over. He removed his earphones and handed them, along with his music player, to one of his classmates. Clad in their white judogi and black belt, he and Dennis marched to the centre of the quadrangle and cued for their background track to be played. Eric limbered up when he heard the first beat of a Mortal Kombat theme song, while Dennis approached from behind and was soon pretending to attack him. In defense, Eric swiftly turned around and grabbed Dennis’s upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. He followed through with another shoulder throw, a basic martial arts routine which nonetheless drew loud cheers. Eric carried on oblivious to the cheers, wishing he could fast-forward their number. It could have been worse—Mr. Santos had initially suggested that they perform their routine to Eye of the Tiger.

After their performance, Eric and Dennis dashed to the farthest bleacher. Eric put his earphones back on. A few minutes later, the emcee announced the exhibition game line-up: Warriors versus Tigers, billed as THE basketball match between the strongest teams. “How did basketball become so popular here? These guys are half the height of NBA players,” Eric whispered to Dennis, who rolled his eyes in response.

Just then the Warriors’ cheering squad, in orange costumes, emerged chanting, “We are the Warriors, never the worriers! Warriors mean victory and Tigers will soon be sorry!”

 

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“I have always loved books,” the head librarian confessed, “and my love of books led me to the love of scholarship. After reading so many books, studying so hard throughout my youth, it was a dream come true when I was appointed as a librarian here. What better place for me to have ended up than in the greatest library in the world, among so many books, so many treasures of scholarship. So I read and studied, until no one could match my erudition, not even the librarians who were older and had been here longer. So it was inevitable that I ultimately became the head librarian.

“But then, in the midpoint of my life, I was overcome by a terrible loneliness. I had spent so much time among books that I had lost touch with everyone I had known, including my family. I knew that both of my parents had died at some point, but I was too busy with my studies to attend their funerals. I know that they loved me, and I vaguely remembered loving them, but all that seemed like a story I read in book a long time ago.

“One day, while I was perusing a newly acquired work in my study, I heard some voices outside the window. When I looked out, I saw one of the younger librarians speaking with a girl from the town who worked as a cook at the library. They were holding hands, smiling at each other, and saying things that made them blush with happiness. The way the sun was illuminating them, they looked so fresh and beautiful that it caused a terrific pain in my heart. Perhaps it was a vision of what I missed out in my life, or perhaps it was the awakening of a feeling that lay dormant in my heart.

TBASS

Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.

Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.

As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
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The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.

Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.

“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.

The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.

Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.

Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai

“You will have known almost
every knowledgeable thing about
the charms and the temptations
that touch could hold.

But, you will never have known
that touch – the taboo
to your transcendence,
when crystallized in caste
was a paraphernalia of
undeserving hate.”

-Meena Kandasamy, Touch (2006)


Wild uproar and sighs of shock engulfed the entire village. The news spread like wild fire. “A poisonous snake has touched* Shivalo, the son of Viro, the scavenger.” The scavenger street was far away from the village frontier on the eastern hillock. But as the news floated across, in no time the hillock was teeming with people. A flood of curious villagers came gushing out of their caste streets and community quarters raising urgent queries and grave concerns. Magan, the drumbeater, who was heading home after performing in the welcome procession of Mother Goddess, heard the news on the village outskirts and immediately made for the scavenger street. On the way to the hillock, he tuned his oversize drum, tugging at a clip here, tightening a string there; upon reaching the base of the hillock, he began to hysterically heave his convex drumstick, fashioned from wild native wood, on the inky eye of the drum. The resounding slap-bang drummed up quite a frenzy amongst men, women and kids who were trudging their way up the hillock. Today Viro, the scavenger and his son were the talk of the town, thanks to the strike of the adventitious misfortune that was far crueller than what was their daily lot.

“The scavengers’ street is so far away from the village, almost in the middle of the forest. What would touch the poor kid if not a snake? Shucks, fate is so harsh on the bhangis**.”

“This is all a play of karma. Or else why would they be born as scavengers? Whatever it is, that’s how our society has been for ages. They can’t be allowed to put up residence in the village. They are better off outside the village, you see. If his son is bitten today, don’t our people get stung by venomous reptiles on our farms? May Goga, the cobra-god bless all.”

“All that is fine. But how did this happen?”

“I don’t know. We’ll come to know once we reach there. But people say, the kid was playing in the backyard and god knows why but he thrust his hand in the hedge and the cobra lying coiled-up in ambush there snapped at the poor thing.”

“Whatever it is, but if something happens to the kid, Viro will die of shock. He was born of holy Mother’s blessings… that too after years of entreaties and fasts… God forbid.”

Suddenly, the entire village had begun to sympathize with Viro. A few even went out to put on record their approval for the way in which he conducted himself in the village, with selfless devotion and sense of obligation uncharacteristic of a scavenger.

“He may be a scavenger by caste, but he is a righteous, conscientious fellow. He has never said no to anybody for any work, be it drumming rain or gaining heat. That much due has to be given to the devil.”

“Ask him for running an errand of fifteen kilometres and he would set aside his personal household work to carry it out. Don’t they say, it’s always the righteous whose house gets burgled. Poor man!”

“You said it, brother. Pure gold. Convoluted are the ways of the world in the era of Kali.”

Judging Viro by their personal experience or received wisdom, the village folks headed for the eastern hillock. The scavenger street was extremely small and sparsely populated. On second thought, it wouldn’t qualify for the designation of a street at all. A huddle of two huts made of tightly-packed mud walls with doors facing the east. Not wooden doors but makeshift shutters forged out of crisscrossed twigs, reed and bamboo stalks that hung precariously from the clay walls and a sloping roof set with broken, straggly roof-tiles of native make without anything that may pass for rafters. Opposite the stumpy pair, at some distance, stood a third squat hut in condition no better than its neighbours’ except that its door faced the west. Right in the centre of the narrow triangle drawn by the three huts towered a hoary neem tree planted by Viro’s forefathers, its form sprawling and serene. On the winding dirt tracks leading to the huts, squatted four clay shrines for various presiding deities like Mother Shikotar and other folk gods. The bang and boom of the drum wafted the news as far as the quarters of the rabaris, a community of cattle-keepers and cowherds.