By Mehreen Ahmed
Blood oranges were endowed with a certain pigmentation. I called it the fruit’s pizzazz, because of its lustre, which defined it and gave it the distinctive characteristics of dark flesh. I wanted it to grow in mother’s orchard. But the gardener said it wouldn’t grow here, because the climate wouldn’t allow it. If the blood orange didn’t flourish in this soil, then neither did many things in this culture. All these nefarious old customs and habits that had become fossilised, resisting change, inhibiting growth.
One afternoon, I sat in the balcony of mother’s house. A brilliant midday sun shone yet another monsoon day. I took a sip of lemonade my mother made with the orchard’s freshly squeezed lemons. Lemons, which grew in our orchard. I was recovering at her place, from an illness. Lemons and limes were not the only citrus that grew in this orchard, oranges too. Except, the blood orange.
The monsoon winds whipped up my spirits. The orchard revitalised as the winds touched it to a new glow. The wet fern unfurled along the mossy edges on the orchard’s brick fence. Nature’s drama ensued. These were months of recapitulations. They always were. Recapping past events that happened not only in my life, but also in the lives of the others. A maid once worked in our house some years now. I don’t know, I found myself thinking about her without a reason. Her loyalty had far surpassed that of any other who worked for us then. Her name was Lily. She was our loving Lily of the Valley. She possessed an exceptional quality of gritty honesty.
Reviewed by Amalia Clarice Mora
Title: The Delicate Balance of Little Lives
Author: Jessica Faleiro
Self-Published, 2018 (supported through a grant from the Government of Goa’s Directorate of Art and Culture)
The Delicate Balance of Little Lives is a short story collection by Jessica Faleiro, the award-winning Goan author of the Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa.
This collection offers a glimpse into defining moments of five women whose lives intersect. The proximity of defeat is a central theme in all the stories; the women are close to falling off the edge of their lives but, somehow, never do. Instead, they navigate through the solemn and unexpected and even the catastrophic (rather than overcoming “triumphantly”). They enjoy the small mercies and secrets that prevent them from losing their hold on stability, but which are also the reason they have to cling so desperately to this stability in the first place.
There is Suzanne, a once well-known concert pianist whose fame and musical confidence have waned with age. Alcoholism is her stealth, insidious disease, but alcohol is also an elixir that provides her with the confidence to play at her only gig as a hotel lobby musician. Liquor dulls “the sharp edges of her feelings”, the cruelty of a lover who keeps her at bay, and the memory of a past lover, Rohan, who had asked her to quit the drinking — and the piano playing that necessitated it — but who was unwilling to give up a vice of his own.
Assessor Shendge had visited Dreamland Heights before, but never to investigate a murder, that too a particularly gruesome one of a lizard, no less.
He received the call from Deepak a little after eleven, but it was no later than noon when he reached the apartment complex. He had had to make haste—after all, it was a particularly gruesome murder. A lizard had been found killed and its head smashed in. Deepak had even mentioned its tail had been snipped off.
He gathered two assistants and himself drove to the venue. The assistants had to be risen from their Sunday morning stupor. They had hoped to stay away from the office, he knew. They must have imagined dialling into a thirty-minute video-conference to chime in their status and then snoozing the rest of the day, or better yet enjoying it with their families.
Assessor Shendge did not let them drive. They did not know how to, having come to depend on driverless cars too much. They relied on them like a clutch. The good Assessor was not like that. He needed to feel the steering wheel at his hands, the heft of the gear by his side, and the spring of the clutch at his feet. His subordinates would have been content to snore in the backseat, but his presence forbade them. They sat up straight, Bhonsale beside him and Tendulkar at the back.
Translated by Cho Yoon-jung
I had been walking back and forth in front of the house for an hour already. But still I couldn’t knock on the door. Nothing conclusive had been found. With things turning out this way, even I found it hard to understand myself. Why was I so hung up on this unsolved case that I’d taken a day off to come here. Like a real estate agent, I was scouting the houses in the neighbourhood, as if I had nothing better to do. In this high-tech age, when most families relied on AI robots to play not only housemaid and babysitter but even lawyer, judge, doctor and fund manager, the lives of the people on the fringes continued to be as dismal as ever.
At the pocket park inside the neighbourhood hung a banner that reads: “Making Mt. Bukhan a global park.” The residents had responded by pulling down the walls. All the houses had been built so close together in the first place that even with the walls gone, a garden only the size of a picnic mat was left. But the clustered pots of marigolds, geraniums, and cyclamens were more than enough to wipe away the gloomy air of the neighbourhood. That small excess of loveliness, however, could not wipe away the uneasiness in my heart. This was one of those rare places in Seoul inhabited by people who tore down walls. Until recently K had been living here among them.
It was early on a Sunday morning, when I was fast asleep, that the discovery of someone’s SG was reported. It was after a night of tussling in bed with J and my body was limp. But when the phone sounded, shattering the dawn time peace, instinctively I reached for the SG lying next to the pillow. My tiredness vanished. A young girl shaking with fright was caught on the remote surveillance camera attached to the SG.
Nobody with his head screwed on would consider visiting a tiger reserve with family and friends on his honeymoon. I know. But my husband-to-be is a man with a difference. As they say, you get to know the guy after it’s too late to wriggle out of the commitment. I should have known; this is my second go at matrimony.
Until last month, things were cruising along perfectly. Pun intended. We were debating between an Alaskan and a Mediterranean cruise for our romantic getaway. You get the picture—why I want to hitch my wagon to his, that is—DK is loaded, and my mission is to help him make the best use of his money. Then he drops the bomb, over lobster thermidor at the Otters’ Club.
“Darling, did I tell you Mahee is coming for our big day? Although the poor child is burdened with coursework, she requested the school to give her a fortnight off for her grandfather’s wedding, and guess what, they agreed!”
From the hills that surround the town it indifferently drifts. Upon bare soil and barren rocks, upon the base of trees, it sweeps. From my window this morning, the trees were grey, feathery and clinging like ghostly hands to the low clouds but now, in the wintry breathe of evening, they are like conquering warriors marching down shadowy slopes. My boots, hard and heavy, follow empty pavements. A car, a van, a bus, occasionally passes through our slushy streets. There is hardly a sound except for the click, click, click from the pedestrian crossing.
I’ve walked here all my life. I know every crack in the pavement, every blemish on the shop walls, every angle of the stooping buildings, every flutter of the koinobori, the carp-shaped wind-socks that now colourfully flutter high up over the gorge to mark the change of season. Hundreds there are, strung up on lines, but one has fallen far below and is stuck between two jagged rocks, one end flapping like a useless flag as the river tries to drag it away.
I’ve never left this place, this hot spring town where tourists flock like hungry gulls during the holiday season. There are better jobs elsewhere but I choose to remain a janitor at the high school. That’s all I’ve been these thirty- eight years. I’ll retire next month. They’ve kept me well past retirement age as I do a pleasing job. Now I have to go though as I’m too old.
Book Review by Koi Kye Lee
Title: The Mad Man and Other Stories
Author: A. Jessie Michael
Publisher : Maya Press Sdn Bhd
The Mad Man and Other Stories is a collection of short stories written by A. Jessie Michael, a retired Associate Professor of English. No stranger to writing short stories since the 1980s, Michael has also received honourable mentions for the Asiaweek Short Story Competition. Her stories have appeared in The Gombak Review, The New Straits Times, Malaysian Short Stories, Her World, Snapshots,and 22 Asian Short Stories (2015).
The Mad Man and Other Stories contain 13 short stories she has written over the last 30 years, and it involves events she remembers during old and contemporary Malaysia. The book was launched in 2016 at the sixth installment of the Georgetown Literary Festival.
In the volume’s titular story, “The Mad Man”, four children observe Govindasamy paying obeisance to Hindu gods. One of the children, Joe, says that he is mad, while Pauline dismisses her cousin and claims that Govindasamy is just “a little crazy when it is full moon”. Inviting them into the outhouse after his prayers, Pauline notices the statues of Hindu deities and comments that Govindasamy is praying to the wrong God. Irritated, he responds:
“Your god, my god, it’s all the same.”
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.