By Iain Marlow Controversial politicians. Celebrity cricket players. Spiritual gurus. India’s publishing industry, like the country’s broader economic story, […]
NEW YORK, 1982
The first time we met, you were wearing borrowed clothes. You sat there in your too big platforms, bell sleeves and a neckline that plunged sharply to the right. Your yellow jumper hung loose over your thin frame. Your head was defiantly uncovered, your frizzy hair as rebellious as your nature, your heart-shaped mouth stubbornly set. Later you told me that your friend Yasmin had lent you the clothes because your mother stopped your monthly allowance. She thought it would make you give up politics.
Your mother didn’t know you well.
Looking deceptively sunny in that blinding yellow, you smoked as Yasmin stood behind you, searching through a high bookshelf. I had never seen a girl of your stature smoke. Or sit publicly without a veil.
‘Ashtray,’ you ordered and Yasmin came running up with one. To avoid staring, I looked up at the highest shelf, my neck craning as I tilted my head all the way up, then bending as I looked down to the last. I wondered if you had read all those books.
Perhaps it was my head bobbing up and down like a duck in water that caught your attention. Sit, you gestured, and I nervously looked around for a chair to park myself on. I noticed your forehead crease in a frown as you crossed your legs like men do. You leaned back, stretching your hand over your knee and it was then I knew. With downcast eyes, I settled on the floor.
‘What’s your name?’ you asked at the exact moment I opened my mouth to say, ‘I want to be in politics.’
You pretended you hadn’t heard and I knew from then on not to speak unless spoken to. Nobody can say I wasn’t a good learner.
That much, at least, is true.
Yasmin brought tea and as she handed around the cups, you asked me again what my name was.
‘Nazneen Khan,’ I said. ‘But everyone calls me Nazo.’
You smiled and I said, ‘Madam, I am working in Aijaz Sahib’s dry cleaners. You know Aijaz Sahib from Jackson Heights? He sent me to you. He said you help people fleeing the General’s regime. My whole family was murdered in the coup. My father was a doorman at the Parliament. He resisted when they tried to break in. Later the General’s men came to our house and killed everyone. I hid under the bed … survived somehow…’ I could not carry on talking.
You didn’t offer me any condolence. Instead you said, ‘Can you type?’
And that was how it all began.
Bailiff: All rise!
Clerk: Judge Muzzamdar will be presiding over this case. Bailiff: The court is now in session. Please be seated.
Judge: Good Morning. Calling the case of Mr Omar Bin Omar versus Miss Nazneen Khan on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rani Shah. Are both sides ready?
Prosecutor: Ready for the prosecution, Your Honour. Defending Counsel: Ready for the defence, Your Honour.
Clerk: Your Honour, the plaintiff Mr Omar accuses the defendant of premeditated murder and of espionage against the state. The defendant is represented by the able and veteran lawyer Mr Hamidi while the plaintiff, being a known human rights lawyer, has decided to prosecute the case himself. Given his knowledge of law, and his closeness to the murdered politician, the court requests that his lack of criminal practice be overlooked and Mr Omar be allowed to prosecute.
Judge: Permission granted. Prosecutor Mr Omar and Counsel Mr Hamidi, please present your opening statements.
Prosecutor: Your Honour, Miss Nazneen Khan, commonly known as Nazo, has been accused of conspiring to assassinate the country’s first female Prime Minister, Madam Rani Shah. Although the body was charred in the explosion, new evidence has revealed that her death was not due to the suicide bombing as was previously believed, but by a bullet shot at close range. Almost as if by someone seated right next to her…
Counsel: Objection! Judge: Sustained.
Prosecutor: Very well. Let me start by asking a very simple and straightforward question. Miss Khan must answer why it is that she, who sat right next to Madam Shah at the time of the assassination, managed to escape unscathed, while Madam Shah lost her life. Now, Miss Khan, tell the court who sat where…
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Vineetha Mokkil is a fiction writer based in New Delhi, India. Her short stories have been published in Santa Fe Writers Project Journal and Why We Don’t Talk, an anthology of contemporary Indian short fiction (Rupa and Co, New Delhi, August 2010) and in the Asia Writes Project. Poems translated by her have appeared in Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 2005). A Happy Place (HarperCollins India, 2014) is her first collection of short stories (read the Kitaab review of this book here).
Here is an interview with the author:
A Happy Place and Other Stories is your debut collection of short stories. How did you conceive of this collection? Did you have a theme in mind?
These stories were written at different points of time and not specifically with a collection in mind. I would send out a story at a time to literary journals and magazines once I finished work on them. Some got published. Every time I got an acceptance letter, it felt like a small victory. It made me work harder on my writing. It made me consider the possibility of a collection. I am grateful to all the good souls out there who devote their time to bringing out small publications which value quality writing and edgy themes. They do it for the love of literature, not to rake in revenue. I owe a great deal to them as a writer.
The stories in “A Happy Place” are not interlinked in the strict sense of the term. But the backdrop of all of them (except for one which is set in Kashmir) is Delhi. The city is as much a character as the people whose lives the stories trace. The larger theme that binds all the stories together is the complexity of urban life and our search for an ideal “happy” place.
Dr. Usha Bande reviews Vineetha Mokkil’s A Happy Place and Other Stories (New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2014. Pp. 202. Rs. 275)
Two things about Vineetha Mokkil’s book under review attracted me at the outset: the title, A Happy Place and the cover design – a rich and pleasant mix of browns and yellows and grayish-blue. Both are evocative. The cover has a faint facsimile of a car on the move, the street is deserted and the high-rising buildings are upside down, may be reflecting the mood of the era or just symbolic of the life that is lived in them. The title A Happy Place exudes joie de vivre but then, the stories are about life and life does not offer happiness on a platter. Mokkil is a careful artist who would not diminish the value of her literary work by presenting self-improvement book-like facile solutions. The stories have plots and sub-plots, convincing characters and denouements that are twisted but not dismal. Each story offers a kind of release and hope. And herein lies the success of the writer, a novice in the field, as she likes to call herself.