“Do you want to play with us?”
He looked at them warily. He was used to being ignored. This was one of those playgrounds for rich kids after all. The ones who came in fancy limousines and who carried their own smartphones and credit cards even before they had sprouted pimples on their faces.
And yet, here they were. Three of them, two boys and a girl, staring at him with frank, appraising eyes. The girl was pretty. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, exactly his own age, with strawberry curls and dimpled cheeks. The boys were similarly good looking, blond, fine boned with firm jaws. They would grow up to be dashing young men. Arrogant and entitled.
Maharathi Debdutt saw the hennaed foot, dainty, as the passenger stepped off the palanquin. Then the wheel went over it. His deed was done. He did not hear the shrieks that rent the air. From the beautiful princess who was to be wed, she became the hobbling one, the unwanted one.
Ever since Maharathi Debdutt had set eyes on the little one, Rajkumari Heeramoti, she had fascinated him. Her absolute milk white skin, the fragility of her limbs, her big black eyes and tumbling black curls, were a delight. He would watch her at play from a distance. He was a horse rider and a charioteer, and he was not allowed within the palace.
The sulphur gas hissed and smoke was issuing every few metres from the porous rocks. The clouds churned in the sky with lightning in ugly shades of grey black. The landscape lay broken and crying from the third cataclysm.
But what scared Rangar the most wasn’t the dangers on the land but what lay ahead.
The road, once upon a time it may have been a road, was broken. It was littered with potholes, rocks lining hot mud pools that steamed and an occasional geyser of magma. His blistered feet hurt, even wrapped in multiple layers of clothes. He looked up at the path he was following up to the mountain which was still spewing smoke and gases into the air.
How did the witch Manap survive here, he thought?
They said the fog was made of the tears of the old soldiers, those who left the town to make long journeys to god-knew-where. The soldiers grieved, those who stayed back said, for the homes they had left behind, and for the memories that were forced to linger. After all, if you left the fog behind you, there was nothing left of your past. You left your memories at the brink of the cliff, and started anew.
The fog covered the town in its entirety. There were days the thumb-shaped hill across the river would disappear in the mist, then there were days when the fog sneaked into bedrooms. It had a peculiar taste which everybody said was the taste of longing—a taste of the tears of the men who had left.
Husbands and wives had learnt to use their other senses than their sight. The children would play with the mist, sometimes twirling it around their fingers as they did with fireflies that ventured into the town, drawing shapes as one would on a fogged-out glass pane. Or they would play hide and seek in the fog, even though everybody warned them not to trust it as they would their dogs, or their cows, or the goats. The fog was not a pet, the women whose faces had wrinkles of sadness said, it had been here since forever, even before they settled in this bowl near the river.
By Mitali Chakravarty
Shweta Taneja’s story named as pre-finalist in French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire
The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) is like a rebellious shout to change the world with its threat of futuristic dark stories. Many award-winning and well-known writers like Kiran Manral, Vrinda Baliga, Rochelle Potkar, Park- Chan Soon, Tunku Halim and Eldar Sattarov, have contributed to the anthology. The stories have covered different areas of the genre called speculative which the editor, Rajat Chaudhuri, an established voice in this field, calls, “our adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature”.
Zafar Anjum, the series editor of the Best Asian series and publisher, explained how the Speculative fiction anthology came about and the editor was chosen: “It was an idea suggested by one of our authors, Anuradha Kumar, and when we got in touch with Rajat to work on an anthology of speculative fiction, he readily agreed. Rajat had done reviews for us before and we always admired his writing, so it was a natural choice.”
Chaudhuri picked Shweta Taneja’s story, ‘The Daughter That Bleeds’, for the Editor’s Choice Award. And now, it has been picked as a pre-finalist in the prestigious French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. This French award was first given in 1974 for science fiction and later stretched to the emerging genre of speculative. Winners include Ursula Le Guin (2008), Ken Liu (2016) and Carolyn Ives Gilman (2019). The French Ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, has tweeted about this, tagging Kitaab and Chaudhuri.
Chaudhuri has remarked that Taneja’s story fits into Margaret Atwood’s formulation of this genre. In his introduction he tells us, “Atwood’s test for the speculative is on the touchstone of possibility … Marking a clear break from some of the improbabilities of science fiction, her formulation stresses on this aspect of possibility as the sine qua non of the speculative.” Shweta’s story is “about a market for fertile women who have become rare in a post-apocalyptic India”.
Tia’s eyes fluttered open. She looked about herself— blinking at the bright blue sky. Where was she?
A town square of some sort. The landscaped roundabout at the centre had a marble fountain that spouted water energetically in the air, and wrought iron benches arranged just out of spraying range, but there was nobody around. There were shops all around, their awnings fluttering gently. An ice-cream shop, a café, a tattoo studio, a garments shop, a salon and spa, a gym … all empty and shuttered.
Even as she took it all in, she felt a growing sense of familiarity. The other question in her mind—where had she been all this time?—began to fade. She had a vague sense of a long incarceration, but where, by whom, and for what, evinced no ready recall in her consciousness. She looked down at herself. Did she imagine it, or had the pale grey of her incarceration changed before her very eyes to the red top and embroidered denim cut-offs that were familiar and comforting so that she knew immediately that they had always been hers? Had that bracelet on her wrist with those particular charms, the red polish on her nails, the auburn highlights in her hair and the sequined heels on her feet appeared just now, or had they always been there? With every passing moment it was getting harder to know. Or to care.
When she walked into the room, every eye in that place rested on her, as though she was a magnet and we were all iron filings.
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 club was noisy, filled with nameless faceless people, gyrating in time to the dull droning of one hip hop song after another. I walked over to her, drink in hand, a salacious smile on my lips. I looked around to make sure that she was alone.
Translated by Abhisek Sarkar
Chhabi has expired.
Chhabila died close to day break. She had been choked to death. Her one year old child Etim, following his usual morning practice, is trying quite hard to suck some milk out of one of her breasts.
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 who visited Chhabila at dawn had also been seen coming out of her house late in the night. Patuki spends the whole of the night at the southern bank of the pond behind dense bushes, fishing pole in hand. Long aerial roots of a great banyan tree surround this place. These bushes entice him. The night has its own allure. Only Allah knows why people waste these hours sleeping. Patuki does not sleep; he cannot. The long fishing line of Patuki does not have a hook hence the float also is redundant. He has seen people climbing up his fishing thread from the water— many of them. They climb throughout the night and bless Patuki. Then they climb up those roots of the banyan tree. Now they turn into fireflies and fly around the Banyan pir.
The man trudged up the red mud lane carrying a rucksack on his back and a tin trunk in one hand. He mounted the three steps from the lane and stepped over a metal stile flanked by gateposts. An elderly woman sat on the concrete platform in front of the big white house; she seemed to be waiting for him.
“Bayool Maami?” the man asked, joining his palms in formal greeting while introducing himself, “Shyam Kulkarni.”
“I was expecting you two hours ago, Painter Saheb,” Bayool said, rising slowly from the cement platform and hobbling into the sitting room, “Come, come. Sit,” gesturing to the sling back armchair.
Bayool was an elderly woman who wore dentures. Shyam noticed that when she smiled there were gaps in her dentures that made her teeth look natural.
“The bus broke down,” he said simply. “Bayool Maami, please call me Shyam.”
He sat in the armchair and looked around. Through the floor-to-ceiling bars that made up one wall of the sitting room, he observed a cottage nearby.
“You will live there,” Bayool said, pointing to the cottage.
The property adjoining Bayool’s seemed impenetrable with trees, briars and tangled creepers, but Shyam saw outlines of a roof and walls and broken down windows of a house through those trees.
Gopuji tore away the blanket. His shirt was drenched in sweat. He dragged himself out of bed. When he foamed toothpaste in his mouth, he heard it again. It seemed to be a classical tune of great melancholy, of Western origin rather than a Hindustani one. It flooded his ears. His temples throbbed. Sudden chills in the forty-degree Mumbai heat and humidity. He remembered last night’s dream of feathered attacks. Yes, that was what it was. Wet wings slapping at him as if they would murder him in a pond or lake … hard forceps-like things clutching his neck … a thick fleecy rope winding around his neck … tighter and tighter, claws gripping him and tearing his flesh.
Even the memory of it sent streams of sweat down his body as he showered and got ready for work. The lilt lingered into his hearing.
Gopuji was accustomed to background music. In fact, he was more used to it than most average people. He was a filmmaker. How many times, while making films, had he ardently wished for a personal background score? A score that would act like lyrical second thoughts, drizzling around him, making his life more meaningful and understood by those around. Was it this wish that followed him now? This principle that if you wished for something strongly into the Universe it was bestowed upon you?