The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

But I won’t give this up for I have worked tirelessly for months to become a Patangi. Because I have come to believe in their war. Because I need the money.

Night after night I have scrubbed my Jashn with neem laced fireflies, said a prayer over her tiny head and bundled her off into the Sleep Shield which I smuggled in when we moved here—my secret within the whole secret of The Tower where anything with extreme cryogenics is forbidden. Our early days here were overwhelming. We found an empty flat in one extreme corner of the thirty-fourth floor. The windows were broken. I slept on the floor. Jashn slept inside the Shield. I kept her there for as long as possible, sometimes waking her up only for the sparse meals. What else was there to do? Other than wait and survive in this cold, torn up and seemingly hostile place. New refugees came in droves. The stench of homelessness grew. Yet in the thrum of humanity and suffering I kept warm. And there was hope in those early days. That he would come.

By Mohd Salman

 

Everyone was happy when the Thief died.

It was the postman who had found her, sitting in her armchair behind the unlatched main door, eyes closed as if asleep. In that peaceful tableau, a reign of terror had come to an end.

For sixty years, the Thief held sway over Bijliya, a little hamlet of barely a hundred houses. Over the greater part of three generations, shopkeepers learned to put locks on their cashboxes, dhaba (roadside eatery) owners chained their plates and tumblers to the tables, landlords prowled the orchards, and families took care to not let on that they had money and valuables to spare.

This was not easy. The Thief operated in broad daylight, her identity known to all. Secondly, you couldn’t keep her out. In a place as tiny as Bijliya, she was practically family.

Her name, though, was not thief-like. Shehzadi. Princess. But wasn’t it thieving, plunder, pillage and murder that made people kings, queens, princes and princesses in the first place?

Generations came and went as Shehzadi pilfered money, food and valuables. The world outside changed over those sixty years. So did the façade of the village and the interiors of the houses. But out on the street, the Thief was a constant. At the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947, as the world slept, Bijliya awoke to picked pockets. In 1962, when China crossed the border into India, the first sethh (rich businessman) of Independent Bijliya noticed a rupee missing from his day’s earnings. When Bangladesh was born in 1971, so too were new grudges for the travelling Kashmiri salesman who found a rug missing from his cart. When men, women and children in Bijliya cheered the World Cup win in 1983, they didn’t notice the vanishing cartons of mangoes from the local market, the mandi, as they huddled round the Seth’s radio. When the villagers tuned into the Indian version of ‘Who wants be a Millionaire?’ — Kaun Banega Crorepati — in 2000, Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone masked the sounds of chickens being stolen, umbrellas disappearing, and plates of drying chillies and papads vanishing into the night. Every few years, the clergy of every religion practised in the village would be at each other’s throats. But in their hatred of the Thief, they were all united.

By Dr Naina Dey

Lucy Villa was a beautiful house almost palatial in grandeur and standoffishness. Built on a large patch of sloping land it was surrounded by a once lush garden of myriad fruit trees and exotic flowering plants. Now with years of neglect, the fruit trees had gone wild and the plants that had managed to survive, were smothered by weeds and brambles. No shears trimmed the wayward shoots, no one watered the plants that stood under the scorching sun and waited for merciful rain. The only fountain had run dry, its water trough sickly yellow and green with slime, its stone fairy now decrepit. At night however, Lucy Villa was an elfin realm. Its colourless walls, broad balustrades, wide balconies and layered terraces, gleamed in the moonlight though its tall elegant windows looked dark and forbidding.

Lucy Villa was named after the wife of a sahib who had it built with the intention of enjoying the quiet of this far-flung town and to entertain the occasional guest. Unable to bear the death of his beloved collie and then of his childless wife, the sahib had returned to England leaving the house under the care of a friend who lived in the city. That was more than two decades ago. At present it was under the supervision of an attorney, a little bald sly-eyed man.

When we entered the house, it was still furnished with whatever Hamilton sahib had left behind. Moth-eaten carpets and teak furniture inlaid with delicate floral motifs in brass adorned the living room. The rest of the rooms were bare their dusty floors emanating a suffocating musty smell. The house itself was still in excellent condition despite the neglect barring a few damp patches. The walls had been white-washed for the new tenants. It was a pity that a house fit for a prince was in disuse for this long. It also became evident shortly after we had moved in that this was a house of disrepute.

As I stood one evening under the oleander tree just outside the walls, two Sikh boys on a scooty had screamed raucously – “Bhootiya Bungla (haunted bungalow)!” and sped away as fast as they could leaving me confused and angry. True, the house stood by itself, its high walls and garden isolating it from the rest of the neighbourhood. It was hardly unusual for houses which were once dwelling places of the rich, who preferred privacy, to be associated with strange stories once they had been abandoned.

By Sohana Manzoor

From her fifth-floor apartment window Neera could see the roof-top of the three-storied building that stood at some distance. She looked at the sun-drenched houses in the winter noon and wondered listlessly if people still used such gigantic mosquito-curtains like the one drying on the roof of the next-door. It looked like some green magic net big enough to catch a genie. And what were in those jars? Pickles, perhaps? Or maybe guava jelly? The child in her heart gave a shout of glee and, for a moment, she thought she had a whiff of her grandmother’s guava jelly emanating from the kitchen. But her grandmother had died years ago, and the house where she had lived was gone too.

IMG_0786The large pre-Pakistan era house that was her Nanabari, her maternal grandfather’s home, had been given to developers some years ago. While Neera could understand the practical reasons, her heart cried incessantly at the loss. The cluster of coconut trees standing at the bedroom-window of Neera’s apartment often made her sadder than ever even though she also considered herself luckier than most people of Dhaka where it was difficult indeed to get a breath of fresh air. But at her Nanabari, there were four such coconut trees. Images from her childhood when her uncles and aunts had made watches and spectacles for her with the tough and shiny dark green coconut leaves stood out fresh in her mind.

(Deepavali & Kali Puja Special)

By Avik Chanda

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The village had long forgotten its own name. Once, a culvert drawn from the holy river had brought water here, filling the land all around with rice-fields. Hutments came up swiftly, growing into a sizeable village along the fringe of the fields, and extended up to the edge of the forest. One day, deep inside the forest, someone discovered an ancient temple. How old it was, no one could tell. But the Goddess within, which was made of stone, was intact: fiery, naked and many-limbed, the tongue protruding like a weapon, thirsty for obedience and worship. And perhaps blood. The villagers cleared a thoroughfare through the woods. Each evening, as the moon rose, they would proceed to the temple, kneel before the idol fearfully and pray. Women washed the yard and decorated it with rows of flowers, and on the night of the feast, a goat was sacrificed, to appease the Goddess.

Then the stream dried out, and after two rainless monsoons, famine struck. For two years, the villagers relied on the forest. The trees were all cut down, wood for the fires, the leaves and berries roasted and consumed. When even that was gone, and there was still no sign of rain, they began to slowly starve to death. Those that still had strength loaded their meagre belongings onto their cattle, or their own backs, and journeyed to the big city, where it was said that the householders ate only fine rice and always had starch to spare for the beggars. No one gave any thought to the old temple they were leaving behind, and to its Goddess that for some reason would not – or could not – protect them any longer.

A phaeton clopped to a halt in front of the abandoned temple. The carved arch gateway that was supported by columns on either side had collapsed, its debris almost blocking the entry path. Over the rubble, he could see the way ahead covered with an undergrowth of brambles. On the outer walls of the temple, plaster and paint had shed away, revealing an unwelcoming structure of ribs, tanned dark by the sun. The entrance, too, was dark and opaque, so that from where he sat, he couldn’t see what lay beyond. The temple had no dome. Had the roof itself collapsed, shattering everything inside?

From the back of the carriage, Aslam leapt onto the dust-covered ground and scurried around to help his master, flapping open a stack of steps. The Rai Bahadur got down delicately, always the right foot forward, dragging the other one painfully behind him, supported by the long, stiff cane with its ivory handle. He treaded over the concrete rubble, and then, transferring the cane to his right hand, hacked a walking path as best he could through the high brambles, beating down on the thickets, wincing, as the thorns sprang back in retaliation. At the entrance, he stopped to catch his breath, but it seemed like a very long moment. His throat was parched, and he could feel his whole body trembling with trepidation. He ran a hand through his wavy white hair, sweat dripping down his temples, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dark.

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For successive days, there was this recurring dream that was troubling him. Each time, it was a female that appeared, each time in a different form. Even so, in the midst of his dream, he had the sense that they were all one and the same person, and so the experience of it was that of one single, unrelenting dream. On the first night, it was an old decrepit woman in tattered clothes, the sort one would associate with the casting and dispelling of spells, strange rituals and incantations in some alien, unknowable language. But in her eyes was a plea that went beyond the need for power.

By Sukanya Roy

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After a relaxing vacation with my parents in Shimla, I was back to my routine in Mohali.  As I sat working, suddenly the phone rang: “Tring, Tring.”

I could hear a soft-spoken lady from the other side, who introduced herself as Mrs. Dasgupta.

“Hello Nandini, I am Mrs. Dasgupta talking from Delhi, I got your contact details from Jeevansathi.com (Lifepartner.com). We are looking for a prospective bride for my younger brother, Naboneel.”

I was neutral. No excitement.  This was quite normal for me. For the past twelve months, I had put my profile on Jeevansathi.com, hoping to find my second life partner.

Every other day I received an ‘alliance’ related call and it had become an integral part of my daily existence. I had jotted down a two-page document introducing myself and had memorised it. I had also gone over the answers to a series of questions which were generally ask by the prospective. I wanted to be overprepared after my disastrous first innings.

I walked back home and started my preparations for baking cookies. Cooking for me is like stress-relief therapy after class.

As my hands neared the microwave, and I opened its door.

“Beep. Beep.” No, it was not the microwave. It was my phone.

by Geethanjali Harikumar

 

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Finally, the time had come for the vidai (farewell). It was time for Rasiya to leave her home of twenty years and to head to a new one where everything would be a novelty; even the smell of the earth and the rustle of the leaves. She no longer belonged to her father’s home, where she had learned to crawl, walk, read and write.

Rasiya heard someone calling out to the women in the house, asking them to bring the bride out. She saw Abdul, who had become her husband about a couple of hours back patiently waiting for her at the threshold. All the women in the family came and hugged her one after another. Every time the heavy bosomed aunts squeezed her tiny body, the sequins on her lehenga (a voluminous skirt, often a part of bridal gear) pricked her soft skin. The pink and orange lehenga was so special to her since it was bought by her brother, especially from Delhi.

She was taken out by a crowd of women. She looked for her mother among the sea of unfamiliar faces. Finally, she spotted her  mother, her Ammi, standing behind someone, as if she was not a part of this ceremony. Her eyes were welled up with tears and Rasiya rushed towards her. Ammi hugged her and kissed her forehead, and both of them broke into tears. Someone said, they ought to leave before midnight.

Her sister-in- law took her hand and led her towards the waiting groom. Her brother and father stood next to the groom and his party. Though her father was smiling, she noticed the shine of tears in his eyes. Yes, he was upset about his little girl leaving them. But at the same time it eased him to know that she was leaving for good. She was going to be safe in her new home where she would no longer have to wake up to the sound of firing or have soldiers banging the front door in the middle of the night. She would no longer need anyone to accompany her when she stepped out of the house, even if it was to the adjacent street.

The groom, who was no longer the groom but her husband, had a family restaurant in a town away from the border. The restaurant was founded by his grandfather back in the 30’s as a tiny tea-shop. Years later, as the town started to get filled with tourists, his father grew it and now it was one of the most sought-after eateries in town. Abdul lived with his parents in their family house, a mere stone’s throw from their restaurant. And now, Rasiya would live the rest of her life in that home, helping her husband with his business and her mother-in-law in running the house.

By Rashid Askari

The rusty old bus skidded to a halt with a screech of brakes. The engine stopped with an ear-splitting sound. Exhaust fumes were winding into dark clouds. It was a routine picture. There was, however, plenty of room for controversy as to whether it could be called a bus. It was little bigger than a minibus and much smaller than an ordinary one. It looked like a tin-can with a turtle neck. People would call it murir tin. This grotesque shape was made by a local carpenter-cum- bus mechanic who went by the name of Dilu Mistry. Rumour had it that he was capable of making a jet engine only out of the motor accessories. However, the proof of the pudding was never in the eating in Dilu Mistry’s case. If ever asked, clever Dilu would wear a mysterious smile on his face that left a cryptic message that his hidden worth was one of the unsolved mysteries of the locality.  Dilu Mistry’s name was so strikingly inscribed on the turtle-neck’s body that it would tickle your fancy on sight. But the optical attraction would fly out of the windows after you had squeezed into it through the narrow door. Jam-packed with passengers the motor turtle used to move so sluggishly that it would take the whole day to cover the distance of about fifty miles between Rangpur and Gaibandha suffering at least a couple of engine failures. It might have amused people to call it a buffalo-cart, but they were left with no second choice.

Haripada would travel between his home in Mithapukur and workplace in Rangpur once a week. Every Thursday he would come home in the evening, stay one day and two nights and the next Saturday go back to his workplace. He was a lecturer in English at a non-government college on the outskirts of Rangpur town. He joined the college immediately after he had completed his Master’s from Dhaka University. He could have got a much better job in Dhaka, but he missed it for no fault of his own. Dhaka on and after 25thMarch (1971) was blazing. The horrific Operation Searchlight was stalking through the city. Mujib had declared independence of Bangladesh and been taken prisoner. The marauding Pakistani armed forces had overrun the capital and unleashed a reign of terror upon the defenceless people. A mighty eagle swooped on the innocent chicks.

When the buffalo cart driver with a stubbly beard braked hard, the passengers dozing fitfully woke up with a start. But Haripada was not one of them. Nor was he wide awake. Seated by a window he was brooding over his life. How things had been out of joint over a few days! The son of Kalipada Master and the grandson of Bishnupada Master had to be Haripada Master. People would call him Professor. Lecturers of non-government colleges were professors in the eye of the common people. But Haripada was not happy with his position. He was not willing to take up his ancestral profession. He had rather a mind to serve in the civil service and had the ability too. But a violent storm from the western sky had dashed all his dreams.

“Get off the bus. You, the bloody Bengali. Get cracking.” A throaty voice boomed like a rumble of thunder.

by Aishwarya Ganesh

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My paternal grandpa was nearly bald. He did, however, have some hair to call his own until his last breath! This vision of my grandpa is etched in my mind to eternity and, that is why, I manage to crackup a smile when my heart weeps without his reciprocation.

“Remember me, as long as this life as a human still cares to remind you” — these words of his echo even today and render tranquility. The chapter of thata-thati* and me stopped being drafted when the relationship transcended beyond corporeal pages. The love, affection and care that is bestowed upon us is irreplaceable and truly defies the life-death continuum.

I am now twenty-one. My grandparents had been around me for two whole decades. I was cosseted beyond limits by the love they showered, their pampering and their pardoning. We used to all eat together, laugh and make merry at the dinner table, solve problems and discuss issues over a crumb of bread, tickle our funny bone while sipping a cup of coffee. The memories are endless, and the joy, the tears that well up are priceless.

By Padmini Krishnan

I closed my eyes for a minute, exhausted. The train huffed into Eunos. We had five more stops to reach our destination. I opened my eyes to some unknown fear and confusion. My hand felt empty. Had I missed my handbag?

“Vikas!” my inner voice said.

“Vikas! Where is Vikas?” I screamed.

My husband raised his head from his mobile in confusion.

As the train doors closed, I could catch a glimpse of Vikas running in the platform, his little head bobbing up and down.

I stood near the train doors, shaking; my body soaked despite the chill.

I vaguely heard a woman assuring me that my child would be found soon. As soon as we got down in the next stop, we hurried over to the passenger service center. My husband calmly reported the particulars of our child.

“How old is your son?”

“Five.”

“He knows his name and address, of course?”

“He knows nothing. He has the Down syndrome.” replied my husband, looking at me, irritably, as if it was my fault.

It was evident from the guy’s expression that they did not come across missing cases frequently.

He seemed sure that Vikas would be found. The authorities concerned had been notified.

We sat in the platform, waiting, as the trains rolled across, spilling out a few passengers and taking in a lot of them.