The sun was a ball of fire shooting white-hot needles over the limitless stretches of Jornada Del Muerto. The dead man’s desert.
It was a terrain of sand and salt with causeways that lead to a kind of nothingness only dead men know of. The salt-washed mountains surrounding it used to be volcanoes, raging and spewing streams of lava into the desert sand thousands of years ago, carving out canyons and arroyos in the ash-brown malpaise that interspersed the sandy stretches. The hills are silent now, their jagged peaks sandpapered away by dust and brine flung on their faces by the relentless winds.
‘My name’s Bashir. It was sometime in the winter of 1998 or 1997, no, 1999. No! I don’t remember the exact date. I awoke in the middle of a night. My wife Laalie and my little son Aalim were fast asleep. I didn’t bother to wake them and went outside to check the cow. Snow fell heavily, making the trees arch. There was a thick white blanket of snow in my lawn.
As salaam alaikum again. I am sorry it took me two whole days to get back to writing this letter. There was a loud crash in the kitchen followed by some screaming and I was sure the new cook had done something to anger the old territorial dragon Ami and Abu are trying to replace. Luckily, it was just a frying pan which had fallen down and scared Bashiraan the cleaning woman who had screamed so loudly that the old man had told her off in his usual, extremely vocal fashion. Thank God I arrived in the nick of time to diffuse the tension. By the time Ami and Abu came back from the Club, all was peaceful. Just the way they like it.
‘Are the rice plants flooded?’ Lucia called out when she reached the ladder of the house whose elevated foundations, abetted by sturdy culms of bamboo, sank into squares of concrete. Her feet landed on the soil, soft and wet – the crunching of her bones drowned out by the squawks of hens and roosters and the squeals of pigs penned behind the sty. The roosters and fowls and the dog and her puppies scrambled to circle her, their heads aloft and alert for an early meal. She felt the cold air circling pockets of mist toward her skin; the weight of humidity that blanketed them the night before had simmered out.
If you ever asked Ruchita and Sharath what they had in common, you would find none of the usual suspects in terms of common backgrounds, shared hobbies, or synergistic traits. Ruchita is a Marwari, Sharath a Malayali. Ruchita is a vegetarian, frowning upon even the consumption of egg; when Sharath heard of the beef ban, he began to consider emigrating from India. Ruchita has no head for business or taste for numbers; she’s a painter. Sharath, the son of chefs, is a financial analyst.
So what brought them together, you might ask, and rightly so.
Ask them, and they will give you a surprising answer. Onam Sadhya!
The Dog Catchers (2018)
The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.
His dreams were still nascent. Titi told Mama that he wanted to be a zoologist. He elicited quiet fulfilment from watching chameleons catching stick insects with their tongues and gulping them whole and ostriches campily gorging star fruits. Mama said that he should stow his dreams for later and wait for the dough to leaven; for the yeast in his mind to breathe and bloom, for him to turn plump, ready to be baked. He chuckled.
The old man chuckled. ‘Such idiocy! Where have you heard all that rubbish? The lake is full of fish. Not just at the neck, they are everywhere, but they keep on moving. The trick is to know their track. Everything else they say is just a pile of horse shit.’
‘But that is how everybody else catches the fish.’
‘Anyone who fishes like that is a moron.’
Coming Home (2018)
Ranjit dressed in clothes that he’d carefully ironed and told his father, ‘I’ll be back in a while.’
His father would drape a napkin on his shoulder and sit in an armchair on the front porch all day; his loss of vision had bestowed a certain grace to his posture. If he heard a vehicle pass by or footsteps approaching, he would smile in expectation and his smile would last even after the footsteps had faded away. Ranjit was at a loss as to how to fill in the vacuum of unending time even on Sundays, so he’d pick any direction and begin to walk, enjoying whatever he encountered along the way. His vision had been sharpened, so everything that he saw sprang to life.
Now we’re walking on this empty street and you tell me how we’re very much the same, how much our thoughts and choices match.
‘It has been just a month since I met you,’ you say, ‘and already I feel like I’ve known you for years.’
You said that on this same night five years ago and I laughed out loud then. I told you what a cheesy sentimentalist you are.
You looked straight into my eyes and said quietly, ‘You feel like home.’
Maybe that was the moment you sealed our fates together; I put a stamp on that seal when I kissed you in the next moment. Now I just nod and tell you I that I feel the same way. I wish you would not say such things tonight. It will make what I am going to do so much more difficult.
This is one of the rare times when I have come back into a reality I have already been to, except for a few details of course; no two realities can ever be exactly the same. In a way, I am happy to be here – this is the reality, or dimension, whatever you may call it, where we first met.
‘I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.’ Judy whispered to the ancient roots of the Banyan. The boiled peanut seller in front of her didn’t see her lips moving. She was careful that way.
The Banyan had been listening to such stories since ages. The oldest person who used to sit below it was Puttaraju. ‘I got 89 the day before Ganesh Chaturthi,’ he would tell everyone who cared to listen to him, ‘not a day more, not a day less. We used to hide behind this tree when we were small.’ The Banyan outlived Puttaraju. He succumbed to pneumonia last winter. The tree survived construction of the adjacent road in 1995 and that of the apartment complex in 2012.
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?
The boy, no more than four, rose when the rooster crowed. If he did not wake up immediately, his younger brother would, and Ma would say, ‘See, Khoka, your younger brother can barely walk, and yet he is so eager to go to school.’ So little Khoka had made it a habit to talk to his pillow the night before, asking it to jerk him awake as soon as he heard the rooster, and there were days when the pillow, quite like Alladin’s genie, did so even earlier.
Ma was already up roasting a fistful of flattened rice on the iron griddle, the half burnt aroma of which filled the thatched house. God knows what time she woke up, or if she got a wink of sleep at all. Khoka had only seen her working, bustling around the house, in the kitchen, in the fields, milking the cows… But mothers are like that, he thought to himself.
When the doctor looked at his latest report and told him he had about six months to live, Akaash Didwania stared at the red bird in the calendar on the wall. It was an ordinary-looking bird in an ordinary-looking calendar that suddenly looked strange; its colours seemed to scream out of the letters and numbers. OCTOBER 29. The car horns outside seemed to have stopped suddenly, replaced by the slow sound of something falling as the doctor muttered through the AC purr. ‘I feel obliged to tell you the truth.’ Truth. A word Akaash had never quite liked for it had mostly caused him a great deal of trouble. And loss. The doctor rattled on. Akaash kept staring at the October bird.
Walking out of the doctor’s chamber, Akaash wandered aimlessly till he came by a massive open drain that stunk of human waste and sewage. The sun was setting above the rusty iron drain pipe which extended onto a track of train lines. The railway crossing was closed and a goods train was chugging in, cutting into an orange sky. Blending with the shit smell and the sunset spreading across car tops, the brown bogies became the slow sound of something falling in Akaash’s mind, for the second time. He walked off the main road and went down to the drain to smell it more fully, to see what waste looks like when it floats freely, waiting to be decomposed by sunlight and slow time. He leant close enough to the drain to see his own reflection. A pair of round glasses on a scared face; swimming with shit. Blending with waste. For twenty minutes, more or less, then his reflection was suddenly smashed to smithereens by a stream of water gurgling into the pool. A middle-aged man stood beside him, pissing into the drain. Akaash got up and smiled at the stranger. The bogie sounds were coming to an end.
Idlis on a Saturday Morning (2017)
By Deepti Nalavade Mahule
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.
By Farooq Siddiqui
All the labels are yellow-bright like the setting sun. It bothers Akbar. Not the colour but the memories. These labels are everywhere. On the refrigerator. Inside the refrigerator. TV, washing machine, dish washer, plates, cups, shoes, shoe rack, bed, switches – anything that can have a label on it has a label on it. The whole house is plastered with them. One fine day, there was even a label on his forehead. It read Akbar. The label on the refrigerator says, refrigerator (cooling device). On the shoe rack it says shoes and on the shoes it either says mine or not mine.
The wind rattles the window panes. Dark, grey clouds hover above the skies of Derby. He sits up on the edge of the bed, staring at a point just in front of his toes. He doesn’t move, just the occasional blink of an eye. An eerie silence that has crept inside his soul since Noori’s departure haunts the house. Last night he broke three ceramic plates, a cup, and a glass just after he had washed them. It was no vent to any frustration. He did not smash them against the wall. He is too old, too tired for that.
He walks into the kitchen and opens a container with a label on it – Lisinopril. His blood pressure has gone haywire since he had taken the terrible decision of sending the love of his life away. He pops the pill and washes it down with a glass of water.
By Aamer Hussein
Laila’s husband said to her:
The madman has made a mockery of us. When he sang songs about you on the streets of the town, and he was told that he was insulting your name, he said, how can I insult my own name? So they gagged him and left him in the desert. He began to write your name in the sand with his forefinger. So they bound his hands. He wrote the letters of your name in the sand with his toe, and they tied his feet together.
And now the boys in their alleys, the musicians who pass in the evening with their flutes and their drums, the women fetching water from the pond, sing his songs or chant your name in public places. At night someone paints your name on the walls of people’s homes. How can we stop this contagion? The madman has made a mockery of our lives. And if only he could see you now! Dry as a withered rose and dark like a desert woman though you bathe in rose-scented water, thin as a sparrow’s skeleton though you are force-fed fresh dates and milk… you were always plain, and now you are an ugly shadow.
By Juanita Kakoty
Sameera baji rushed down the narrow steep stairs of the building, her sandals going ‘clap clap’ with every step she descended, ignoring the pain in her knees that morning when every other day she cried out curses for the anonymous builder who planted these, what she called, ‘high rise stairs.’
She tore down the stairs of the scraggy yellow building calling out to her friend who lived in a small plot of land right across. Ameena baji! Ameena baji! Did you hear?
Ameena baji came out of the two-room humble dwelling into the courtyard and looked up. Thank God her husband had not succumbed to the lucrative temptation of selling their little plot of land to builders who have built stiff ugly buildings all over Shaheen Bagh such that if one wanted to stare at the sky, only a strip of it would peer through the mesh of buildings, or one would have to climb up to a terrace. But from Ameena baji’s house, one had the luxury to stare at a good patch of the sky from the ground – a rectangular piece of blue that soared above the pale yellow and grey buildings towering over her little plot of land.
There she saw Sameera baji at one corner of the second floor landing, leaning against the intricately carved black railing and looking down excitedly. The tenants living on that floor had tied a thick yellow synthetic rope above the railing from which hung a purple bed sheet with huge red and white flowers merging with each other, still moist. Sameera baji was so excited that she did not even push the bed sheet to the side. She stood there looking down at Ameena baji’s courtyard, the moist bed sheet clinging to her back.
What? Ameena baji cried out.
Did you get the white envelope? Sameera baji asked with a strange gleam in her eyes.
Big Daddy’s Chair (2017)
By Abha Iyengar
Big Daddy always sat on the big reclining chair with its long arms opened, his legs splayed across the arms, wide. He was a short man, but big and sturdy, and somehow his thick, muscular, hairy legs across those long arms seemed just right. At least to my thirteen-year-old eyes, for I had seen him reclined in this position, chewing his tobacco and scratching his chest, which, surprisingly, had no hair, ever since I was a child.
I noticed these things, because I have always been observant since my childhood, and this has stood me in good stead and in bad stead, depending on the situation. Like when I noticed how extra low my aunt would bend to light Big Daddy’s fire, exposing her breasts, which, compared to my mother’s non-existent ones, would attract anyone’s attention, and Big Daddy’s eyes were always drawn there. Aunt did little to hide them, and enjoyed his eyes on them. He would bend forward from his reclining position, chuck her under the chin, and smile, his fat lips widening across his protruding teeth, and his legs would twitch on the arms of the chair.
People Of The Sun (2016)
By Meghna Pant
Panchangam threw the coke can on the ground. There was a sound of crunch as the red can hit arid land. Its fizzy liquid trickled out. Sharda leaned forward and stuck her tongue out on it. Maybe she could get a drop? Quench her parched throat? But the brown bubbles had already sizzled away and she was left with her tongue on the ground, dusty and dry.
“If you sit, I’ll make you stand,” Panchangam said. “If you stand, I’ll make you walk. If you walk, I’ll make you run.”
He looked around at the gathering of villagers. They stared back at him blankly. The sun had burnt these villager’s faces to blend in with the land. Their eyes were buried under crow’s feet. Panchangam could see that their thoughts were dried out from feverishness.
The Veil (2016)
By Manu Mahajan
The girl would have been more beautiful had she not been sobbing for breath. She was attractive enough, though. Maybe it was the fear in her eyes that added to her vitality.
He had slept badly as usual. It had been almost sixty years since he had slept more than an hour at a time anyway. The nightmares tired themselves out after a few hours and faded when he awoke, finally and in the dark, heart pounding and eyes wide in fear and rage. He was used to this, so he had waited a few minutes as the images in front of his bloodshot eyes dimmed, as the veil lifted, as the other girl’s screams receded into memory again. His sister. “Prah ji, mainoo bachaa lo!”
Brother, save me.
The wine glass shatters. It’s Tuesday. It is the fifth glass shattering this week. After I Whatsapp Mom to clarify if shattering glasses bring good news or the polar opposite, I sweep the shards into the dust pan and wet a duster so that the minute particles that have escaped the broom will be absorbed by the cloth. I do it immediately for if I forget and if Kriti steps on it later, I would never forgive myself.
The tree wasn’t very tall, nor very wide, at least not as wide as these trees are known to grow. It could have been because of the little space it could draw sunlight and rain from, or because the owners of the house got it regularly pruned, to make it stay away from the walls on either sides of it. But despite the smaller frame, thin, scrawny twigs reached out like an old man’s hand holding out treats for the children. And under this tree, in the shade that it afforded and in the hope that it offered, stood the young girl, suddenly feeling those miles between here and home, and those months between today and then, fold up like a carpet. She could almost hear her mother shouting out to her to come back home before she got swollen up by wasp-bites.
Instead of looking at Facebook at work, perhaps flip open a paperback and have a nice diversion from the computer! You will find your eyes relax as they stop staring at a bright monitor, and your brains calm down from the buzzing of work emails and social media notifications. Forget about the terrible things local politicians say and your friends’ complaints about them.
Read Wild Animus.
Ghosts are Everywhere by Leanne Dunic (2015)
So far, it’s been a lonely journey. A shuttle takes me from Tokashiki port, down the narrow, bouncy road to the pension. We drive by homes with murals of puffers, clown fish, and parrotfish. A breeze puffs through the tall grass in the valley. The golden eyes of a goat watch our vehicle pass. As we ascend, gray sky contrasts the verdant mountainsides and the trees highlight the blue-green cove below.
Man on the Move by RK Biswas (2014)
Earlier in the day Bala had boarded a bus labelled with a placard that said “Chennai to Mahabalipuram” on its flat-topped forehead. He got in at the Koyambedu bus terminus at nine in the morning, a time he would have normally spent waiting for his office bus on any other day, along with a few other men and women like him. He was early and had a choice of seats. Instead, he chose to go right up to the last row, where the bus bounced the most. By the time passengers arrived and filled up the bus it was already a quarter to ten and he had dozed off.
Brandon pours himself a glass, and walks around the apartment. He toes the large reddish brown stain on the carpet that has been there since before you moved in, and writes his initials on the film of dust that covers the TV screen. You haven’t noticed the shabbiness of the apartment until now, when you see it through his eyes. You are scared that he will go into the bathroom and see the old, dirty vinyl that is curling up from a corner, suddenly aware that not everyone at this college has to live like you and Rahul and Radhika. There is nothing you can do in the half-hour before Dr. Drummond arrives. The boy comes back to the kitchen, and smiles at your roommates, who are sitting at the small card table in the kitchen, drinking tea before they head out to the library. Not knowing which part of you you’re supposed to be, you concentrate on the chicken curry instead, sniffing the smoke from the pot, trying to tell if you have gotten the spices right without tasting the food. You are reluctant to check the recipe you downloaded in front of everyone.
On the drive from the temple, back through Kanchanaburi town, Brightways thought of how completely Gai had been excluded. He felt as though he’d already won. And best of all, it had been Gai’s choice to stay at home. He needed the television. The airport takeover was approaching a political event horizon — the King’s birthday — and no one knew what would happen next. In some uncertain way Brightways felt the country was changing. Driving the pickup had made him feel more Thai, but now Thainess itself seemed up for grabs.
Chikna by Vikram Shah (2014)
He had almost forgotten about why he came to the city in the first place, so caught up was he in finding suitable accommodation and vocation. He was finally been able to rent a ramshackle room in a crumbling old two-storied structure (he could not even call it a building) in an area where city looked like town. There was the same jumble of electricity poles and the same red dust that settled over everything. It was only during the monsoon that it began to look like something else, when the base of the structures turned a vicious brown-black, a grimy amalgamation of sludge, sewage, bits of corroded iron from the exposed pipes and god knows what else. He found a job with the courier company, spending his days with a tote bag slung around his shoulders, delivering letters, bills, parcels, invitation cards, and financial reports of companies whose promoters lived and worked in that part of the city that looked and felt like the city.
Ivan went to Bangkok, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere. He compared present realities with the blog images’ shifting futures: some cities would thrive; others would take a dive. Headlines of acute global problems made Ivan feel both socially impotent and vicariously responsible. Did the bizarre blog mirror or orchestrate mayhem? Countries’ fortunes were on a roller coaster. The postings reminded him how one era’s wretched coolies become another age’s industry captains.
A Mistake by Akhil Sharma (The New Yorker, 2014)
Roadkill by Romesh Gunesekera (The New Yorker, Dec 2013)
The Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud (Asymptote, Oct. 2013)
Soulflight by Yoko Tawada (Asymptote, Oct. 2013)
Nawab Sahib by Banaphool (Asymptote, July 2013)
Tonight, in All the Bars by Ramo Nakajima (Asymptote, July 2013)
The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi (Asymptote, July 2013)
Me and Him and Chris on Northbound 101 by Lo Kwai Cheung (Asymptote, April 2013)
The First Memorable Poetry Festival of Dhiraj Ganj by Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi (Asymptote, Jan 2013)
Harlequin’s Butterfly by Toh EnJoe (Asymptote, Jan 2013)