Sarika was her name—I found that out later, after my eyes had examined every inch of her body and her face from where I was sitting. A mad wave of desire swept over me and I felt as though I was possessed. Have you ever felt like that? I hope not. It was something which had no hint of romance in it. I had to have her. The last vestiges of propriety and polite behaviour that had been long back instilled into me were cast off, like winter clothes at the beach.
The crew was of mixed nationality. Our Chief was from Bangladesh. The other engineers from China, the Captain was from Russia, and the crew, from the Philippines. The voyage was from Mumbai to London over the Arabian sea and through the scenic Suez Canal. It was a day in the month of December when we were calling at the port of Tilbury docks near London. It was the last port of our voyage. Tilbury, at the time was a small, shoddy town whose only claim to fame was the newly built port. Also, ours was the very first ship to enter this new port and, as most of it was still under construction, the area around it still seemed like a muddy wasteland.
Strictly speaking, I am dead too – inanimate so to say, but people don’t care much about trees – neither for the ones standing in the woods nor for those chopped. In fact, at times, rather most of the times, they don’t probably care for each other – even for the living ones, leave aside the dead. I don’t care about the dead either. Because I don’t see the point in caring for them, and besides, they don’t need your care — they are dead. But this is not about any random dead person, it is about the one that is about to be brought here in some time. Ah! There she comes.
Patuki has no inkling about who killed Chhabi. Although it is not unknown to him that this is not a natural death, he is yet to discover that the man he spotted approaching Chhabi’s house early in the morning was the killer. But the very next night Patuki would come to know who killed Chhabila. The one who would be his source of information is the most reliable of all. The rich and the poor, thieves and thugs, the good and the bad, all have respect for him. It is only Patuki who he speaks with. But the day is still young and he has to wait long for nightfall. How long will he have to cope with this hubble-bubble in his stomach, with this uncanny sensation running through his veins?
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.”
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.
It was the spring of 1818, as the British would come to document it.
Ilaa belonged to a family of simple cotton farmers. Harvest season was here; and it was time to pick cotton from the fields. Traders from Paithan would be here in just a few weeks; bringing goods for barter. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time. While Ilaa’s family toiled away in the fields, she was sitting by herself, on the banks of Godavari.
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.
Recently, Fai had got more interested in her studies. She was a loner. Her mother used to do daily chores for neighbours against a sum of money. Her father had a small shop that sold second hand goods and knick-knacks that he got from the dealer — some of them were antiques – more like trinkets. The merchandise in his shop fascinated Fai. Her father narrated to her stories about these strange objects. He unraveled the mysteries of the town and wove stories around them to try and sell the objects to his clients. The dealer provided him with goods sold in auctions by museums and by abandoned high schools and tour groups. Rusty sleeping bags, mountaineering gears and all kinds of skiing stick– even golf clubs, a tiara discarded by someone who did not understand its value — such merchandise were the focal points of his stories.
A city is emitting fragrance without a reason — such a sweet, soothing smell! People living in this city behave like bees. They go hurriedly, work fast, eat quickly, sleep less, do not gamble, quarrel less, and laugh a lot. The city is very beautiful and splendid. It has spacious parks, tall trees, perfect housing, clean air and is plastic free. The residents enjoy their lives to the fullest. Children can play happily at all times and everywhere lost in wonder — as if they were in a perpetual Disneyland. Peace and harmony reigns supreme. The city is charming and stately. Even big cities like Paris, New York, Venice, Sidney or Tokyo cannot compete in beauty and grandeur to the fragrant city.
Two floors down, I see a lady at her dining table. She drinks a glass of wine by herself. I scan her flat for heartbeats and I locate her son’s in his own room. I try to read her mind, capturing her scattered thought streams. From the pieces I put together, she married young to a Korean man she met at a conference. They bumped into each other in an elevator which malfunctioned halfway. They struck up a conversation while they waited for the repairman to get their lives going again. However, years into the marriage, they found their fiery temperaments too incompatible and they decided to live apart. He would fly back to Singapore, or she would fly to him in Korea, on occasions to keep the marriage alive. This arrangement allowed them to maintain their bond, and the semblance of a family for their son, who rarely speaks to her. Right now, she wonders what would happen if she had taken another elevator instead. She feels that it would have been the better path.
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.
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.”
Arpita wrapped her shawl tightly once again but the wind continued shivering through her bones. She was otherwise a strongly built girl, a regular visitor to the gym. Arpita was wondering if she had securely locked all her belongings back in her room at the guest house. Of late, ever since the arrival of her new roommate, Satarupa, things had suddenly started disappearing. Small things — but even the smallest toiletries are frightfully expensive nowadays.
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.
Even though I had been in deep sleep, I felt restless. It was not just me, but everybody felt uncomfortable during those days. How could we sleep in peace? The country was being plundered by the Pakistani Army shamelessly. They were killing people and burning homes. My situation was even worse as I had been absconding for quite some time. Basically, I had been on the run for four to five days. And then the boat I had taken was attacked by robbers. We had almost died. Even though we survived, we encountered some others who had jumped into the river to save themselves from the robbers. Actually, that was the main reason why the passengers of our boat were able to get away.
Sometimes a phone call may bridge the gap between life and death in a snap. When you announce death you don’t greet. So, my elder sister on that Sunday morning call began with “Had your breakfast?” before telling me that Baba was no more. Baba, our grandfather, was bedridden for last several weeks. Near 80, he had suffered loss of appetite and weight. Death had chosen not to afflict him with a disease, but as they say, old age itself was an ailment, big time.
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.
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.
The doorbell interrupted Kiara’s flow of thoughts. She moved towards the door and looked through the peephole. Instantly she had a smile on her face. She opened the door halfway to see Rishi in his business suit holding his laptop bag and a takeaway package which she knew contained her favourite sandwiches from a stall near his office.
It was a Sunday or maybe a holiday, I think, as all of us were at home that morning. I think I was in grade two. I still remember that day so very vividly. It involved my maternal grandmother, ammamma, as we called her. The four of us, my parents, my sister and me, were all in the living room talking. The grill gate in our home had a big lock and to knock we used to bang the gate with the lock. As soon as I heard the sound of the lock banging on the gate, I ran out to the verandah to check out our visitor. I saw ammamma, standing at our gate!
“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.”
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.
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.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Holliday sat in an open-air eatery tapping a Morse code on his temple. He wanted to tear out the throbbing vein and chop it into pieces so his head would stop pounding. His body spasmed and ached from the lack of coffee — Chinpo Coffee. There was none at home. None at the supermarket. And now he was at his third cafe of the morning hoping someone, anyone still had a spoonful of the magic powder left. Should he start invading nearby houses next? Some paranoid old lady must have a pack or two stashed about. Why did bad luck have to follow him around like a tomcat in heat?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Desert days are long, empty and lonely. Nights are short cold and dismal. Mornings just happen quickly. Evenings come on early, sudden and in stealth. Whenever trains pass through, the cottages near the railroad station shudder, the windowpanes rattle. Few seconds later, the houses become quiet again. There is no activity except the thunder of the long-distance trains passing through or a passenger train stopping by…
Ranjana, daughter of a celebrated diplomat and wife of the Honourable Commissioner Surendra Raghuvanshi, evoked similar emotions amongst her peers. The genteel curve of her brows, arched over eyes twinkling with an adamantine sheen, her high patrician nose, and her plummy, sophisticated voice made her the mascot of an aristocratic lineage. Surendra was quite a dark horse in his circle. His burning ambitions only added to his boyish charms and pushed him higher up in the ranks at a dizzying speed. Forty-three and at the top of his game already!
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.
Egg salad sandwiches are Eddie’s favourite. With lettuce, just like this. His Mom used to make them this way, with onions and chopped pickle and not too much mayonnaise. And Ellen looks better than she did earlier, nicer hair. Kind of a chestnut brown, and the soft wave suits her.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Here I am, sitting at the table polite as can be, telling myself this creepo social worker’s not too bad looking, this stuck-up loser, as I grin and nod at her old bag of a mother. “And where do you work?” she asks me. Where the hell does she think? Who’s going to give Eddie Slocum a job? I mean, who am I going to work for; you think I’ll work for some jerk-off? Gofer this, gofer that?
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.
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.
It was difficult to concentrate with all the chatter. Everyone drags their chores to the centre of the courtyard, around our holy tulsi plant, during winter months. Whatever can be done in the sun is done in the sun. My grandmother was settled comfortably on a jute charpoy in this courtyard. The shadow of a towel hanging above her, on a clothesline that ran from a nail on one wall to the water pipe in the opposite corner, fell on her face. Like a starving cat with a heavy coat, her crisp starched puffy saree didn’t give away her small-boned figure.
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.
Since there was no explanation, and since asking about her was forbidden, we didn’t know who she was. In fact, it was necessary we didn’t know. Still, we had a vague idea. The long, whispered phone calls. The morose, distracted look common to those harbouring secrets, which we glimpsed on the faces of our uncles and aunts. The furtive conversations lasting for hours behind closed doors to decide the fate of one woman. It wasn’t through their words but through their expressions, attitudes, and secretive, restrained behavior that we learned Kyeong-hui was related to us by blood, and that it was only right to describe her as a relative.
Life had fallen into an easy routine. A couple of months later, I realized that we had not seen Sal for the past three days. My husband looked glum, “I spoke to the management. Sal quit the job a couple of days ago. He didn’t give any reason or details.” He looked as disappointed as I felt. But, I also felt a strange sense of relief at Sal’s departure. Perhaps he had left Singapore for good. I didn’t want to admit anything to myself or explore my innermost thoughts.
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.
The laughing face of Moriom surfaced in her mind; Moriom, who did so well at SSC and was aspiring to do better. But unlike Reba, Moriom was outspoken and had dared to stand against the community. Reba still often dreamt of her. She laughed like nobody else in Shokhipur. It rang like bells; she did not bother to muffle the sound of her laughter like the others did. She attracted the eyes of Monir, the local hooligan and the son of Moinuddin Talukdar. Initially, Monir just disturbed Moriom with stupid things like cat calls. As Moriom ignored him pointedly, he started to follow her on way to school. Then Moriom complained to the village elders and they ordered that Monir to marry the girl. Moriom was horrified and flatly refused to accept their solution. Monir and his family felt insulted and one summer night they took revenge by throwing acid on sleeping Moriom through the window.
Relieved, Dennis Quek spoke into his car’s auto-drive speaker, instructing it to take him to the Excelsior Mall parking lot. Although he had the car on auto-drive from the moment he approached the Singapore side of the causeway, Dennis kept his hands pressed tightly on the steering wheel, a way of dealing with his nervousness. As the first identification station had said, Dennis had never before had a violation of the law; now he was set to engage in a serious criminal activity.
There were some mothers who had not known. Like Kartar Kaur, Bibi Baljit had been clueless about her son Hazara Singh’s whereabouts. But ten years after his disappearance, she had learnt from the formal investigations ordered by the Supreme Court into these disappearances, that he had been cremated by the police at the Durgiana mandir crematorium in Amritsar — his name identifiable in black and white in the crematorium records.
The light outside the verandah was on. Didimoni was home. Often when she wasn’t, he would rest his cycle on the gnarled banyan tree next to the gate of her beautiful bungalow. On the other side of the tree, its roots and branches entwined to make a natural seat. He would sit there and often doze off, waking up when he heard Didimoni’s office car turn around the corner. There had been times when, tired from a day’s work, he had fallen fully asleep under the tree. He had woken to Didimoni’s gentle, steady voice and her hand ruffling his hair as she called to him to wake up. Even as he thought of her touch, he felt the heat rise in him.
Even though you see me as a thief, have I stolen solely for my own pleasure? If someone gets to eat, do they turn into thieves? Those who act great and pure, those who get infuriated by the slightest mention of thieves, they’re actually far worse than thieves. They don’t steal because they don’t have to. Despite having surplus amounts of wealth, they don’t care to even look once at the thieves. This is why the thieves steal. The fault isn’t the thief’s — the fact that thieves steal points out how the fault is actually that of the stingy rich. A thief is blamable, but a penny-pinching, wealthy person is one hundred times more to be blamed. A thief gets punished, but the stingy person who is the root cause of thievery, why doesn’t he get punished?
It’s just you and me, on the counter stools, enjoying our ice cream as the buzzing, shuddering air conditioner labours to tame the exuberant heat of sunlight, blazing through the windows. Just another one of our summertime visits to Harfu’s Creamery. Until in strolls who you could be, all seersucker and gabardine in assured motion. With the charisma of a star actress on break during a movie shoot, she orders two scoops, one sweet cream, the other ginger, all topped with crushed pistachios—clearly a superior selection to our picks: my blueberry single scoop and your mango double with coconut shreds.
After watching the movie, Moe felt that Myanmar women were fortunate in the kind of marriages they had, mostly monogamous. When Moe confided this to his friend, he nodded his head, and listened engrossed. For Moe’s friend too, traditional Myanmar marriage laws were new and seemed liberal. A Myanmar national, in terms of customary laws, gets married witnessed by seven neighbouring families in front of and in the rear of the would-be couple’s home. If one spouse is away for six months from his wife, the marriage is seen as broken. Still, in a civic court, legal divorces were carried out by existing laws unless the case could be settled by the customary ones.
For Chiki’s Sake
I am the buffer between my parents. The buoy that keeps their marriage from drowning. The only child propping up two unhappy adults. The memory of my childhood is spotted with their irate silences. There are no normal meals, no calm weekends, and no decent holidays there. I am the Babel fish that translates their silences. In through the ear, out through the mouth. Their silences have circulated through me for so long that my most elemental self knows exactly how they will play out. Even now, when I am almost a subcontinent away from them.
Gus’s grandparents decided that India was too toxic to bring up their children in the trying years of the early twentieth century when mob rule, violence, injustice and uncertainty were the order of the day. Their gamble brought his parents to a fresh green land called Malaya. Like a chameleon changing its hue to the surroundings, the new nation became their land. The challenges meeting its population became their own. Their souls became embroiled in that of their new found motherland. It was not a case of abandoning a biological mother to find a stepmother but to relieve instead a grieving Mrs Hubbard of feeding her hungry offspring while living in a shoe.
Dante stood alone in the dark wood. Which way should he turn? Instinct told him that stepping forward would surely lead somewhere of consequence. Midway in his life, he thought how he might never achieve the goals he had set for himself as a public figure, a secular Church scholar, and laurel-wreathed poet of his city. None of it would happen. Banned from his city and society destiny was a messenger pigeon with a broken wing. His life shifted in flux. A squadron of soldiers had not set out to find his hiding place beyond the city gates this fine spring morning, no Guelph guards from his White faction or Black Guelph supporters of Pope Boniface VIII.
The growing interest didn’t faze Cycle Rama and he barely looked at anybody. Between his acts, he continued to pedal, going around in rough circles—and then, without a warning, he built up his momentum and became a stuntman again. There were whoops from the swelling crowd, but his poker face remained unchanged. As the news spread, a cricket match on the other side of Church Square broke up and Cycle Rama became the only draw in the area. The routines he performed were varied and he did them without stopping the bike or slowing it down drastically. On that first day, his ride ended only after it became dark and the crowd dispersed.
There is very little light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired, I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here, and people are staring at her.
My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.
She looked away and took a deep breath — but she just got a strong fishy odour in her nostrils. She rubbed her nose, and convinced herself by saying: “It’s someone’s food, it’s someone’s food and you need to respect that.” She brisked to the kitchen door and opened it. She inhaled the air in the garden. It was snowing.
In April 1942, our independence movement took on a new vigour. That month, Mahatma Gandhi in his article in the magazine, Harijan, demanded the Imperial government grant India a ‘sovereign’ status and withdraw peacefully. On 7th August, when the All India Congress Committee convened in Bombay, they decided to launch the ‘Quit India’ movement, forcing the colonials to leave India without resorting to violence. When on 9th August all the leaders including Gandhi were arrested, Indians were inflamed with outrage and anger. On 11th August, while I was sorting letters in the office of the AIG-Police, I could hear distant strains of “Van-de-ey Maa-ta-ram! I bow to thee O Mother”; “Bharat mata ki jai— Victory to Mother India” and “May the British rule perish”.
“No harm done.”
“I see you started cooking.”
Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?
“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”
“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”
I was setting up the livestream on the living room’s television when Ma called. “Ah Boon, hand me the gift packs on the table.” I ignored her for the moment, playing around with the video settings. Finally, the words “The Parade Will Start In…” appeared on screen, followed by a countdown timer below them. There was an ongoing discussion to call the parade ‘a ceremony’. I remember a member of the opposition questioning a minister of the ruling party on the choice of words. “It’s a show of power, of our strength,” the minister had said. “Is it? Many performances seem more like acts of reverence, not deterrence,” his opponent had fired back. She had a point though. The parade usually began with protective blessings from the leaders of our four major religions
“Is the trip going okay, Ma? You sound tired,” she’d said on the phone, from her hotel room in Kochi.
“Yes, yes, everything is fine. The weather’s been acting up a little. And the helicopter rides were not available. We had to take mules, instead, for the climb to Kedarnath. It was drizzling throughout. But we’re here now.”
“Have you found accommodation?”
“Oh, yes, yes, everything has been arranged by the tour company. We’re staying at a comfortable guesthouse. It’s not far from the shrine. We will go for the darshan in the morning. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine. How is your dance tour coming along?”
Jolly Club had been the place where the richest families of Bhopal had gathered for their Sunday lunches. The club, situated in the heart of the city, housed the only restaurant that overlooked a shiny, turquoise swimming pool. During winters, the families preferred to be seated outdoor near the pool. These seats would be abandoned in summers as the affluent moved indoors to lounge in air-conditioned comfort. It was a busy place – the restaurant. The lavish menu of kebabs was deemed to be among the best in town and the most popular feature. The resplendent exhibition of the most expensive sarees worn by women dining in the restaurant was the best in town too.
After her cries subsided, the Shaman Master, clad in a black robe, took charge. A Shaman Master supposedly had the ability to communicate with the spirit world. Even though we were now in the middle of eighties and the Chinese Communist Party, all strong atheists, had been in power for almost thirty years, yet many people in our conservative mountain village were still very superstitious. They believed that when a person died young, his or her soul might remain in this earthly abode and become a “Restless Ghost” who would haunt others. Several elderly people of the village had, behind the back of the Party Secretary, raised funds to invite the Shaman Master, in order to release Little Fen’s soul from purgatory.
The parcel arrived in a postal van and James’ wife, Doris, put it aside for James to return from work and open it. It was an annual ritual — its arrival and his opening of it. This cardboard box measuring one foot by one foot by ten inches, wrapped in brown paper, with colourful stamps all over the top right hand corner and cross-tied with twine, came all the way from Mathagal, James’ home village in the Jaffna peninsula to the North of Sri Lanka, by sea-mail, to Malacca in Malaysia, and it contained his very own piece of home.
For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.
Against the serenely cool breeze of the after-rains, Tuli’s little face stood still, warm, a throbbing circle of fire and smoke. She had a little round face, very big eyes, a pug-like nose set right in the centre of her face, and small lips — like one fine petal of a red tulip. Her eyelashes were wet. The before-tears had run their course. She breathed in rapid, short gasps – each lasting less than a second – the gasps, moving somewhere behind the throat and the nose. They came in groups of three and sometimes two. She blinked from time to time, looking out through the window facing which she sat, cross-legged, on the chair that Baaboo, her father, had built for her so that she could see the world outside the window of her room.
It became easier over time. Marcus no longer blacked out. He learned to live with his condition. The key was to finish the withdrawal as fast possible and simply let the pain overcome him. There was no use biting his lip. There was no use clenching his fist. There was no use burying his nails in his palms. There was no use cutting his thigh with a blade. He just had to ride out the pain. He cried. He grunted. His toes would curl. But it would end.
In an attempt to derive some pleasure from the strange phenomena, he splurged. He bought a family-sized pizza with extra cheese and bacon, Italian sausage, a case of imported beer from Germany, several bottles of vodka for his friends, new shirts to replace those that got soaked in blood, and a couple of grams of marijuana to numb the pain.
We studied the extensive menu, which listed both international as well as local cuisine. Joe and I were fast decision makers when it came to selecting our dishes. Joe settled on rice with Crispy Catfish in Chili Paste and a side order of the ubiquitous tangy Green Mango Salad to share, while I chose rice with Red Curry of Roasted Duck, a dish Joe had suggested after describing it as a bracing Thai classic combining tender roasted duck with a perfect blend of spices, coconut milk, and pineapple. The food arrived within ten minutes of ordering, and was excellent in both presentation and taste. My duck curry surpassed Joe’s mouth-watering description. I complimented Joe on his recommendation. His quiet response was “I’m happy you liked the duck.”
Before he could finish what he was saying, they heard the whirring of an engine. For some unknown reason, the man felt the impulse to jump out onto the road to catch the attention of the oncoming car and ask for help. He managed to hold himself back. The engine was unnaturally loud even from a distance. It was in full throttle. Out of the black tunnel of shadow, a capsule of steel emerged at blinding speed. The vehicle sped past at high velocity, generating a deafening roar. Under the layered silence, it felt as if a rocket was on its way to deep space.
I had already noticed the new construction coming up where the old, German-style bungalow of the Marchons had stood amidst an assortment of chikoo, papaya, mango, guava, rose and hibiscus trees. “That’s some more of our Pushpa Colony gone!” I had sighed to myself. Though inevitable, the changing face of Bombay invariably evoked a sense of personal loss in me. Those tinted-glass verandas. Those clusters of single-storey structures. The spirited stoning down of jamuns ( black plums)and plucking of guavas off the neighbours’ gardens. Together they had formed the world we grew up in.
The next day at the break of dawn, the woman with the pink hair and ruby eyes was brought out to the field for the execution where the guillotines were placed on wooden platforms. Surrounding the field were walls fifteen feet high, fashioned out of grey rocks stacked upon one another. There were hanging stands and five wooden guillotines, arranged around the field at some distance from the wall. At the edge of the field was a platform with stairs on its side. There was a single red chair on the high platform which was shaded by a thick white cloth. The platform was high enough so that its occupant could observe all the execution stands.
The skyscrapers along the nameless street grew four times bigger that afternoon, like a dozen of Hulks coming to life all at once. I picked up pace, but tripped over something and fell down on the sidewalk. The result was a palpable twinge on my left arm. There was a clothesline tied across what seemed to my eight-year-old self as two gigantic green skyscrapers and on it hung my mother’s petticoats and a pair of her old red ribbons. “Slow down, it’s going to pour,” she called out to me from faraway. But I was so close to where I wanted to be; I couldn’t wait.
Here there is so much paranoia. They are angry and afraid that the colonial powers will keep coming and they will never stop. They say that the peninsula is just a puppet nation, run by the British imperialists and greedy conglomerates…In Sumatera, at least, I am far away from Jakarta. There the soldiers and the Islamists and the Communists are going to kill each other one day. But for now I am in Medan, where I can stay with people I trust.
Rosey, formerly Jameel, lived in Dhaka, a city which fumed like a truck in trouble and grew out of an old patch of fertile land. When the first rods seeded its soil, buildings bloomed like concrete flowers and native tigers ran away for dear life, their footprints erased by the tires of metallic animals. The new city with its poor infrastructure, claimed its victims on a regular basis — rivers, animals, earth, air, people. Rosey walked the streets dressed like a paste jewellery store, a shiny horse with a rose in her hair and high heeled hooves. Her hair was an undulating ocean of embers when lit by the sun’s fiery rays. She trotted on the busy roads like a cautious horse as her high heels rang in the pedestrians’ ears — thak, thak, thak.
He felt the ground for the reassuring grip of his cleaver. Once he had it in his hands, he crouched down and heard for sounds. The night was dead quiet. Not a good sign. It was a shade of absolute silence that was all too familiar to Lao Seng. He gripped his cleaver tightly. He peered over the barrier that marked out the activities area for the elderly to look at the field between the two blocks. The electric lamps had dimmed as well, creating a darkened no man’s land. Something metallic hit the floor violently and from the sound, Lao Seng knew where it was. One of the offering bins had been toppled and thrown against the pavement. The sleepers in the apartment upstairs would only hear it as a minor nuisance before they roll up their blankets to return to slumber. For Lao Seng, it would be a different story.
A white-faced uniformed man was being helped to one of the platform seats by a kind old lady. The crowd was pushed farther back by train officials who were stringing yellow tape across the front of the train. Other officials hurried down the aisle inside the train and directed the passengers to get off. Some tried to go forward and take a look, but were firmly prevented. They ambled down the platform toward the stairs, many of them dazed, others avid, talking excitedly, craning backward for a glimpse. Then, one after the other, almost all of them started to use their smartphones. That characteristic pose with neck bent, one hand holding the phone, thumb working away at the buttons, probably texting their friends about the unexpected blip in their day.
I had heard that legend of the Mountain Maid so popular among all regular mountain trekkers and climbers, venturing into the wilderness of the Alatau range. The story was one of the best hits among mountaineer groups gathering around a warming bonfire in the middle of the night. A boy and a girl from Almaty loved each other and he made her a marriage proposal here in the mountains while on a romantic walk. As if he could not find a more appropriate time and place. Whatever. And then on their way back it started snowing and the guy just disappeared into the snowfall. Neither of them returned home. Since then the girl’s ghost has been roaming these mountains calling the guy’s name.
Clad in their white judogi and black belt, he and Dennis marched to the centre of the quadrangle and cued for their background track to be played. Eric limbered up when he heard the first beat of a Mortal Kombat theme song, while Dennis approached from behind and was soon pretending to attack him. In defense, Eric swiftly turned around and grabbed Dennis’s upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. He followed through with another shoulder throw, a basic martial arts routine which nonetheless drew loud cheers. Eric carried on oblivious to the cheers, wishing he could fast-forward their number. It could have been worse—Mr. Santos had initially suggested that they perform their routine to Eye of the Tiger.
Half a decade after the Japanese invasion, Malaya was wising up. Malayans did not believe that their colonial masters were their saviours anymore. Everyone was talking about independence and everyone was laughing a lot these days.
People seemed to be in a hurry. Office workers, in long dark baggy trousers and long sleeved starched cotton shirts, wove through pedestrians, scurrying on their shiny new bicycles, ringing their bells. The cyclists appeared to be annoyed by the slow-moving bullock cart with lethargic bulls sauntering along the tarmacadam roads swishing their tails rhythmically in the tropical heat of Penang. Honking in the background on the island’s little street were the Morris Minors and the Austin multi-purpose vehicles, the latest additions to the city landscape. Oblivious to the vexation they were causing, the pullers of the bullock cart batted their lush eyelashes, seemed to mutter something into their chest and continued to drag their load at their own leisurely pace.
The Abominable Library of Black Storm
After seeing them, I found myself suffering. For the first time in my life, I desperately wanted to be with people. But when I tried to engage in conversation with my colleagues on anything other than matters dealing with the library or its books, I found that I just did not know how to go about doing it. It made me feel awkward and uncomfortable, and I could tell that it made them feel the same. When I tried to talk to outsiders, visiting scholars or people from the town, the same thing happened. Even as I spoke to someone about the weather or local events, I wanted to get away from the situation as quickly as possible and return to my books. So I found myself in a terrible state in which I was tormented by loneliness when I was by myself, but I could not wait to be alone again when I was with people. It became so bad that I often wept at night over my predicament.
“And then … and then …”
“Then you found the book of foul magic,” General Merciless Axe thundered.
In the middle of the track was a large otter, standing on its hind legs. It was looking in their direction. John and Zoe, unable to move lest they disturb the creature, kept quiet. After some minutes, another large otter bounded from a pool to the right of the track, slowly passed across the track and into another pool on the other side. It was quickly followed by a troop of much smaller otters hastening across the track. When all the others had vanished into the pool, the guarding otter followed suit.
Sitesh Sen tried and failed one more time to fully understand what the muzzy indistinct female voice was describing about the timing of his train. It’s just the way the announcements were made at Howrah Station, with a shrill but unclear human voice trying to climb a sea of sounds across a creaking microphone. It didn’t suit his ears, ended up being just a gurgle of words that didn’t mean much. “And what was the need to have that funny jingle-sound at the end of each announcement?” Sen thought, “Like a dull doorbell taking off from the final incomplete word.”
Frustrated and flustered, Sen asked a man standing nearby about the announcement giving his train’s departure details. It didn’t help to know that it was four hours late. He was at the right place though, platform eight.
There is something about the autumn air in India, a general sense of leisureliness. The slow air touches you in a fashion that launches and fills festivity in your senses. No doubt there are so many festivals that queue up in the Indian calendar during this season.
Bidyut had joined the Durga Puja mass celebration near his ancestral home in his lane in Cuttack. There is a distinct trait to how people in old cities celebrate their festivals. The thousand-year-old city, where he had spent his childhood, was draped in a shawl dotted with countless lights. There was none in the city who was left untouched by the thrill. Everyone was soaked in the mood of the festival. But Bidyut was one who liked time alone. He preferred sombre darkness over light, which doesn’t let you hide. He knew many people in the city and was not really a shy person, but given a chance he liked to keep a distance. He enjoyed watching people celebrate but could never be a part of the party.
The doors to the metro parted. Roshan stared up and down the platform, eyeing the few stragglers that shuffled in. The train was surprisingly empty. Perhaps word hadn’t spread. Or perhaps the trains peopled by public-spirited, justice-loving citizens had hummed past earlier in the day. Feeling a stab of disappointment, he stepped in, a moment before the doors slid shut.
He contemplated the rows of empty seats – a rare luxury. Nervous energy, an unfamiliar sensation, kept him on his feet. No doubt he had expected company on this short commute, of strangers, and was annoyed to be left alone with his thoughts, but he would step into company soon. He was truly on the way. His palms prickled. Feeling one with the train as it hurtled towards his destination he allowed the significance of the moment to wash over him.
He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.
I know. I use Cooling Pods more than allowed. Cause of him I need to cool. I’m within its pistachio luminescence, enclosed by misty mucous membranes shaped like an eye, an eye with a chill lid that closes over you once you’re its pretend pupil, its twitching dark centre, its pupil being gently coaxed to calm down be composed, to glimmer less and less till Drowsy-Droopy and eyes shut.
Wild uproar and sighs of shock engulfed the entire village. The news spread like wild fire. “A poisonous snake has touched* Shivalo, the son of Viro, the scavenger.” The scavenger street was far away from the village frontier on the eastern hillock. But as the news floated across, in no time the hillock was teeming with people. A flood of curious villagers came gushing out of their caste streets and community quarters raising urgent queries and grave concerns. Magan, the drumbeater, who was heading home after performing in the welcome procession of Mother Goddess, heard the news on the village outskirts and immediately made for the scavenger street. On the way to the hillock, he tuned his oversize drum, tugging at a clip here, tightening a string there; upon reaching the base of the hillock, he began to hysterically heave his convex drumstick, fashioned from wild native wood, on the inky eye of the drum.
Masashi didn’t think that Katsuji was special just because he was in the sixth grade. He was big, that was all—big and loud. When Masashi got fed up with Katsuji, he would call him turtle inside his stomach and pick on the turtle.
Masashi was only a year younger than Katsuji, but this difference caused him endless problems. So did being small for his age. This spring alone had shown that.
Rehearsals for the village festival had been underway for a week. Katsuji had moved to the flute section this year; meanwhile, Masashi was still playing kane, a dish-shaped bell pronounced kah-neh. That’s right—his fingers were too short to cover the holes of a horizontal bamboo flute, even if he stretched.
Bhalla sahab was a dapper little man, always in immaculate suits and peering intensely through his fashionable gold rimmed spectacles. He was very popular among the students due to his conscientious, yet slightly eccentric personality. He would walk casually into the department with his hands held behind his back and looking around as if looking for something.
His name was Asghar Bhalla and he was a lecturer in the English department of the local university. He lived with his widowed mother and never socialized. He was content with his work and the company of his mother.
There is a restless energy about Mrs Ahmed. She appears to be chewing on something all the time. Her jaws move constantly, distractedly. Her eyes, large and protuberant, are never still. Moving relentlessly, they skim the room, flitting from objects to people, seldom settling on any one for very long. And yet she herself is oddly still, sitting almost motionless for hours in that room filled with walking and talking people.
Monik despised procrastination, that sneaky little pilferer of time and opportunity. Besides, she liked a project. Her love of projects had caused her to walk down the aisle on two occasions because she couldn’t resist planning a new phase of life after the sad demise of a husband. It was time, however, to look to the needs of others.
Karthi was in love.
Whether it was right for him to be in love, being only eight years old, was a different matter.
He thought Mari was the most beautiful thing he had ever set his eyes on. And though he was trying hard to do his maths homework (the terrifying prospect of facing Varadarajan sir with a blank notebook urged him on), he just couldn’t. He had been sitting in the corner of appa’s room with his back against the wall, his books spread out around him, chewing the end of his pencil and trying to focus on the problem at hand.
‘Joseph had three dozen roses. He gave half of them to Alice. How many roses did each of them have?’
He was not a zombie. Nor was he a ghoul, mummy, wraith, ambulatory skeleton or operatic phantom. He wasn’t even geong si, a dressed-to-the-nines Qing dynasty vampire that could at least do an approximation of the Lindy Hop, transcending time and culture into the Jazz Age. However, he was clearly dead, or undead if you parsed language to its core.
If you are to fall asleep while being physically transported, you will start experiencing something out of this world. To be specific, if you happen to be moving at an extraordinary pace while in deep sleep, your consciousness will not be able to catch up, and you can be separated from your physical being. You will, then, be in two different places at the same time.
When that happens, you will cease to breathe. Your brain will start to wander, and conjure up a third place to make sense of it all. This is when you wake up at The Place.
The curly white shavings fell in clumps onto the metal plate with each aggressive scraping. Slender hands grasped the coconut shell and with mechanical motions scraped it on the sharp edge of the grater. She sat crouched on the narrow wooden board and wiped away a stray bead of sweat from her brows. Her long thick hair was knotted into a low bun and her starched white mundu had stains of coal on it. Despite being tired from cooking since morning, Devi had a shy smile lingering on her lips as she picked up the plate of coconut shreds.
My cousin catches me staring. ‘He is Ghulam Qadir, our cook and cooks the most delicious food. In the evenings, he likes to go out to meet his friends. He sings very well and dances divinely, but doesn’t often perform for us.’
Ghulam Qadir has big, kohl lined, laughing eyes. Clean white teeth gleam from behind thick lips as he gives us a big smile. He has a cap on his head that hides his hair.
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)