The man trudged up the red mud lane carrying a rucksack on his back and a tin trunk in one hand. He mounted the three steps from the lane and stepped over a metal stile flanked by gateposts. An elderly woman sat on the concrete platform in front of the big white house; she seemed to be waiting for him.
“Bayool Maami?” the man asked, joining his palms in formal greeting while introducing himself, “Shyam Kulkarni.”
“I was expecting you two hours ago, Painter Saheb,” Bayool said, rising slowly from the cement platform and hobbling into the sitting room, “Come, come. Sit,” gesturing to the sling back armchair.
Bayool was an elderly woman who wore dentures. Shyam noticed that when she smiled there were gaps in her dentures that made her teeth look natural.
“The bus broke down,” he said simply. “Bayool Maami, please call me Shyam.”
He sat in the armchair and looked around. Through the floor-to-ceiling bars that made up one wall of the sitting room, he observed a cottage nearby.
“You will live there,” Bayool said, pointing to the cottage.
The property adjoining Bayool’s seemed impenetrable with trees, briars and tangled creepers, but Shyam saw outlines of a roof and walls and broken down windows of a house through those trees.
Gopuji tore away the blanket. His shirt was drenched in sweat. He dragged himself out of bed. When he foamed toothpaste in his mouth, he heard it again. It seemed to be a classical tune of great melancholy, of Western origin rather than a Hindustani one. It flooded his ears. His temples throbbed. Sudden chills in the forty-degree Mumbai heat and humidity. He remembered last night’s dream of feathered attacks. Yes, that was what it was. Wet wings slapping at him as if they would murder him in a pond or lake … hard forceps-like things clutching his neck … a thick fleecy rope winding around his neck … tighter and tighter, claws gripping him and tearing his flesh.
Even the memory of it sent streams of sweat down his body as he showered and got ready for work. The lilt lingered into his hearing.
Gopuji was accustomed to background music. In fact, he was more used to it than most average people. He was a filmmaker. How many times, while making films, had he ardently wished for a personal background score? A score that would act like lyrical second thoughts, drizzling around him, making his life more meaningful and understood by those around. Was it this wish that followed him now? This principle that if you wished for something strongly into the Universe it was bestowed upon you?
The only thing I could do for him was take his picture. So I heaved my DSLR up—it had to be bulky, to give that touch of authenticity—and peered through the viewfinder, focusing on his face.
Not that I needed to. The camera was perfectly capable of capturing the shot on its own. But this was art, and I, the artist. I had to at least appear to work for my fee.
Through the unforgiving lens, Harun Shamsuddin looked even worse. Despite being powdered over with makeup, his pale, papery skin seemed like it would shred at the slightest touch. The luxuriant wig perched on his scalp made the deep furrows on his forehead look more pronounced. He was dressed in his old lawyer’s robes, now billowing over his shrunken frame.
“You can Photoshop the tubes out, right?” his daughter Mimi asked over my shoulder. I lowered the camera and studied the tubes affixed to him intently, giving the impression of great concentration. There were fewer than most of my other subjects: just one going into his nose, and another dangling out of his arm. The others were all concealed beneath the robe.
Irati had green fingers. A darker green than most gardeners’ fingers. She could twist and fix and grow and stunt. Better than the new sacks of pesticides and fertilisers that flew off the dealership godown in Manjeri. The old ones smelled of sweet distilled poison or dusty, desiccated old warehouses. The new ones burnt your nostril hairs if you got too close and melted stony warts if you didn’t have time to go to the clinic. They also killed all the beetles and the grasshoppers, the aphids and the worms, the moles and the rats and if taken carefully they killed humans. If not taken carefully, they just left the unsuccessful souls at the threshold of death with the world outside pitying them and the family inside cursing them. Irati had no use for fertilisers or poisons. Nothing living dared to crawl, step, slither or fly into her plot unless she wanted them to. On that five cents of strange ground, she grew bananas and nutmeg, coconuts and moringa, areca and cashew. The harvests were always more than she could eat or preserve and nobody in the village bought or borrowed anything from her. So once a month, she took a bus to Kozhikode with sacks full of the sweetest smelling nutmeg, strangely heavy coconuts, banana stalks that had perfectly symmetrical bunches or moringa that curved up to the sky.
It had become a pastime for the neighbours to look carefully at the local reports in the newspapers the week after her market trips. A Yemeni trader had grown a beautiful set of breasts overnight. The priest’s wife burped every time someone told a lie near her. Scores of people who ate the unbelievably sweet banana pradhaman during a baby’s 28’th Day celebration were compelled to buy the child innumerable gifts of gold and silver. The moringa sambar made a shy young wife seduced every man in her old husband’s areca nut factory. Some women tried to bring up the stories at the river bank and Irati, without glancing up from her washing would grunt a reply that she never read newspapers.
Kemban came from Tiruvannamalai to climb coconut trees but ended up climbing into Irati’s bed. A few days after the November thunderstorms ended and the winter mists invaded the mornings, she came to buy broken rice from Meleparambu House with a gold leaf strung on a black thread resting in the hollow of her throat. The women from the river reported an extra mundu and towel that she brought to wash every day. Kemban was now her man. They watched curiously for an entire year but nothing strange happened to him.
Recently, a review of Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) appeared in Southeast Asian Review of English positioning it as a unique collection groomed by editor, writer Rajat Chaudhuri, and series editor, Zafar Anjum, and set to mark a milestone within the genre. Read here a part of the review…
Anthologies of Asian speculative fiction are relatively few and far between and when one does get published, it marks a significant milestone in the genre itself. In addition, writers, editors and commentators tacitly recognize the importance of underscoring the source of and inspiration for such works, namely Asia. This, in turn, immediately prompts some questioning. Apart from its cultural and geographical setting, what distinguishes Asian speculative fiction from the rest? How different are the works in terms of themes, style, tropes, idiom compared with those from Europe or Africa or any other continent? Why Asian? Why now? Is there a tradition of speculative storytelling in Asia? What counts as speculative fiction in the Asian context?
These questions demand theoretical and critical responses, and this collection of speculative tales with its bold claim of being the best Asian speculative fiction for 2018 presents a singular opportunity for both the casual reader and the academic scholar to begin scrutinizing the text and, more importantly, enjoying the sheer diversity of voices and imaginings emanating from the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia and East Asia as well as the Asian diasporas. Both established and emerging writers regardless of whether they identify with the genre are represented in this carefully curated collection, and almost all the works were written specially for the volume.
The result is a collection that encompasses a wide repertoire of voices and tales and which is potentially at the cutting edge of the genre. In his helpful introduction to the volume, editor Rajat Chaudhuri describes speculative fiction as an “adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature” (xiv), and true to this broad and inclusive characterization, this collection does not disappoint with its selection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopia and the various offshoots and permutations of these forms. It is apparent that beyond the term’s provenance associated with and manifested in the works of Robert Heinlein and Margaret Atwood, that is, speculative seen in terms of ‘what if’ hypothetical situations and of what could happen in the future based on the technology that already exists ‘speculative’ has become a catch all term for works which challenge or extend our notions of reality and truth.
“Sometimes,” said Sternmeyer, “I get into that gym and I just sweat.” And then he shone his successful face at them. Everything about Sternmeyer was successful—the titanium watch, the oiled trekking shoes, the clear tan skin; everything shouted—I have never lost!
“What does he want with the likes of us?” Willet wondered.
“He’s bored,” was Hudson’s explanation. “You get these people with trust funds, and they’ve got all the stuff.”
Sternmeyer, then, was bored of stuff. Incredibly to Willet, he was bored of his condo-with-a-pool and his Italian clothes and his German car. He wanted experience.
The day before, sitting on plastic stools drawn up to a noodle cart, Hudson had waved his chopsticks at the fragility and squalor of the small border settlement—the semi-naked children heedless in the mud, the haze of flies worrying at the fish heads and banana skins rotting in the open drains, the pats of buffalo dung hardening in the road, and waiting in the gathering clouds, the tropical rain that would whisper down all night, making more red mud that would have dried into red dust by late afternoon. He said, “To him all this is exotic.”
She patted the baby to sleep. The baby was restless and so was she. It was the patter of the incessant rain on the tin roof of their shanty that kept breaking into the little one’s half formed dreams, bringing him wailing back into the discomfort of the world outside the womb. It was almost past midnight now, her husband wasn’t home yet. It worried her, the odd hours he kept. This morning he’d walked off towards the main road where his taxi was parked, saying he’d be back home early. “Make lauki ke koftey,” he’d yelled, without turning his head back. She’d left the baby with a neighbour that morning, and run out to buy the lauki he’d demanded. Dudhi it was called here, in Mumbai. It took some getting used to, the different terms that were used for common vegetables. Alu pyaaz was kaanda batata. She’d begun to make do by pointing out to things with her finger, and then negotiating the rate.
It was a regular day, he would drive to Pune and come back. He was normally back by nine in the night most days, and would want his dinner immediately—piping hot rotis rolled out as he ate, sitting on the squat wooden plank on the floor of the little shanty. He’d finally managed to put together the funds for the rent deposit. This was his castle, she knew, and she was his queen.
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.
“Brother, you’re the man of the hour!” Sardar Singh whacked Asim on his shoulder, making him stagger and cough. “What luck, yaar. Seven daughters I’ve had, seven expensive bitches. My Lalli is one fertile mare but no, not even one has taken on her and shed a drop of blood, but you, bull’s eye with the first one, eh? You lucky rogue!” Sardar winked. Asim looked around suspiciously, desperately hoping no one had heard. Just when his luck had turned he managed to bump into the biggest gossip from his district.
“How did you—” Asim stopped himself. He took out his neatly folded, embroidered handkerchief and wiped off his sweaty brow, fingering his hair back into their gelled shape and inching away from his boisterous districter. “Look, not here, please.”
Sardar pulled Asim in a corner, taking them out of the gurgling sea of humanity that lined up to enter the fertility market.
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.