Life gets exceedingly painful when the metaphorical becomes literal. The average person should want the ‘actors’ in their lives to mean ‘catalysts’ and nothing more. How else could this word apply to you in an everyday setting, except through that one lexical connotation? You especially don’t want actors you barely admire to become actual catalysts.

The first time I saw his face, he was wiping the hood of his car, a dark navy sedan, with a dirty rag. I watched as he wiped for well over twenty minutes, dipping the rag in a bucket of water that was a shade of muddy brown. I couldn’t help looking at his dark, earthy, oddly square face because he was right outside my window, blocking the until-then unrestricted view of the meadow and the lake beyond. That view was mine. Yet, here was this creature, dressed only in a pair of shorts that had seen better days. What was he showing off? His car? His skinny torso? Or his lack of cleanliness?

I sat there waiting for some other resident of our enclave to handle this atrocity. No one came. After a while I went around attending to my chores. Thankfully, I had to go to work and the eyesore was soon forgotten. However, that same evening, when I got home, a shock awaited me. This man had turned that corner into a mini haunt. He had spread out a little straw mat on the beautiful green grass by the front door of the car and had invited a few friends over for a game of cards. I looked at my watch and noted the time. It was around six and the faint light from that day’s ferocious sun was still around, refracting through hesitant clouds, casting a spectacular hue over my view.

When the chai walla showed up with a tray full of cups of hot steaming tea, I just stood there and watched, appalled. One from the group looked up at me and exclaimed, ‘She is staring!’ (or something to that effect) in a Bengali that had Marxist fingerprints. I knew enough to be able to tell the difference between Tagore’s uplifting Bengali vernacular and this filth. They weren’t entirely wrong in their assumption that I wouldn’t understand their language. If the Bengali wasn’t a phrase or a sentence that matched a piece of dialogue from a Satyajit Ray movie, it might as well be gibberish.

The man, playing ‘teen patta’ (a three-card game), sitting on a mat on lush green society-maintained grass wearing a lungi and an odd crooked smile, was pointing at me and calling me an ogler.  All I could focus on was the society-fee I had to shell out each quarter for the maintenance of the ‘common area’. What I had hoped would be taken care of by the end of the day was now settling down like a season.

Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.

This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.

‘Idlis’, he said.

Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.

‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.

Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.

*

Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.

‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.

Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.

‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’

Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.

On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.

‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.

‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’

‘Love?’

‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’

‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.

 

By Shikhandin

Indira Chandrashekhar

Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.

Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’

In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.

Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?

Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.

Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.

Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.

Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?

Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.

An Unsuitable Woman

 

BIRDSONG

Jahnavi Barua

So, what have you decided?’

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare—it is almost winter—and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

‘Are you going to answer?’

Her foot snags on a jutting root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Beyond the small waterhole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree.

She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. ‘What the hell do you think you are playing at?’ He tugs at her shoulder; she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away soundlessly.

‘Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.’ His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on a holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But he too is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television: when she lay ill in bed with dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

‘Excuse me,’ she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows—she can hear him cursing—as he pants his way up slowly.