Piyali had long pictured herself to be draped in a blue benarasi silk on her wedding reception. Ever since she had seen the photographs of her neighbour Tumpa di, she fell in love with the rich colour of the weave the bride wore. The fine meena work in scarlet and teal and gold had intrigued her. So, when given a choice, she had not dithered a bit in opting for blue. She specified it to be royal blue. Just like Tumpa di’s, she had recalled studiously. Her mother-in-law had other plans though. Driven by mores, the sexagenarian chose a hue two shades darker than Piyali’s wedding saree, a vermilion red, not blue.
Motifs of boughs in gold twined through the length of the weave. Blossoms hung at the end of each twig, so intricate in detail that guests could not stop gushing how resplendent the bride looked. But it was red. Not blue. Much to Piyali’s consternation.
The faces, hair, and bodies in the humid metro train capsule are all a blur. But Arijit is here somewhere, according to the app.
My ears register the wails of two distinct babies, and the soft cooing of a third. I move forward, keeping my right hand firmly inside my bag’s front pocket where my phone and wallet are lodged. The metro is notorious for its pickpockets.
All the babies I can spot look at least a couple of months old. Arijit was stolen from Pinewood hospital in Kolkata right after he was born, so he would be less than three weeks old now, and just beginning to pack on some pounds, if his newborn photos are anything to go by.
Arijit’s parents are understandably distraught. Pinewood is a private hospital with high-resolution CCTVs and door locks linked to individual iris scans. But sophisticated technology needs sophisticated maintenance. You would expect Pinewood’s inflated hospital bills to pay for the security upkeep, but that the money funds only its board members’ pockets is a public secret.
Face tense, hands frantic, Mariam tried to cleanse her flesh and her soul by scrubbing at the warm stickiness contaminating her thighs.
As she did, the truth struck her: she was no longer a virgin.
The man she had been forced to recognize as her husband had mounted her for the fourth time that night, before she could recover her breath or dignity. He had ravished her body and spirit in a depraved assault that splintered the remains of her purity.
During the ordeal, she had felt like nothing more than a concubine at the mercy of a lustful man who only cared about exploiting her for his carnal pleasure. It disgusted her to see him behave as if it were his first and last night with a woman; however, this wasn’t Ghalib’s first marriage.
In this short story, Smitha Murthy explores the fragile and tenuous relationship that develops between a lonely woman and the cleaner at the restaurant she frequents.
There’s nothing glamorous about this restaurant. It’s a regular highway restaurant you might find on many an Indian road, serving cheap food. You are meant to walk in and walk out fast. No romantic lingering, and asking for a menu is unheard of. The tables are granite, and the plastic chairs squeak when you pull them out. But the place is busy. At all hours. Every day, hundreds of people pile in and out of its open doors. As you enter, on the left is a chaat and juice shop. The watery juices it makes are only for desperate times. The chaat stall only opens up in the evening, and the food there is no better than the beverages.
But considering where I stay – in Bangalore’s “emerging” suburbs – this restaurant is all I have. It meets my needs just fine. A quick bite or two. A sip of coffee. Maybe, chapatis for takeaway once in a while. It is enough.
I have a habit of staring at horizontal lines. Railway tracks always fascinate me.
These railway lines which align trains, crisscrossing and bisecting each other in their paths, are made of the metal – iron. It seems to be yesterday my father had tutored me on the need for a man to be made of iron, so as to overcome the pitfalls that life brings in its wake.
“You’ll never know the truth, son of mine! But when you’ll reach an age, when reflection and contemplation become your only activities, then you’ll realize that you’ve indeed come a long way.”
A long way. But how long is l-o-n-g? This conversation was held many years ago, when I had gone home for my vacations. My parents had decided that a boarding school education and discipline would smooth away the rough edges of my youth. But however much they tried, the edges had remained rough till I had maturity!
The rain had been beating on the glass window for hours now, but that was normal for an evening in July. The white lights inside the office shone brightly against the gloom outside. The thunder that rumbled into the room did not disrupt the four people working there. Aniket’s fingers darted across the keyboard, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Vishal’s foot tapped against the floor as he navigated the numerous tabs on his screen. Javed’s movements were slow and precise, his hand resting under his chin as he considered the program in front of him. Indu kept flicking her hair out of her face as she read email after email. Research was done, articles submitted and light chatter exchanged across the small room in a seamless fashion. Then, at ten past six, the ten story building was plunged into darkness.
I look at the TV screen in the hospital waiting room. The headlines spell gloom and doom. We are in the middle of one of the deadliest pandemic in a century after all.
As I wait to see the doctor, my past flashes in front of my eyes. It is a past filled with warmth and a never ending summer.
My life had been a succession of lazy summer days, some happy and many uneventful. Then, I met Chen Rong.
With his wire rimmed glasses and a perpetually somber expression; as if the weight of the whole world was upon his narrow shoulders; he walked into my life just as a stray cool breeze hits you on a smarmy summer day.
I fell in curiosity over the conversations we had while enjoying savory crepes in Tianjin’s night markets. I grew enamored as we sat silently by each other, immersing ourselves in Shanghai style jazz solo’s at the centuries old Astor Hotel. Then, on one of our many strolls along the Hai He river, as he confided in me his hunger to save this “dying” world, his eyes alight with both agony and hope; I realized that I was deeply in love with this man.
Somewhere deep inside inland India, a group of women wearing bright orange, yellow and red coloured sarees gossiped under an early morning summer sun. Dense groves of lush green banana trees stretched for miles around them. Rows and rows of bananas dangled from these trees, like an upside-down crown. Overhead the sky looked like a clean, light-blue canvas with not a single cloud or bird in sight.
These women had skin the colour of charcoal, sharp eyes and loud laughter. With their hair tucked behind their ears and the loose end of their sarees tied around their waist, they sit under the shade of these trees. In their daily lives full of drudgery and routine, this is perhaps the only hour they don’t resent. They share stories about their childhood, spent in their maiden homes, far this village of lush green banana trees, none of which belong to them. Now, they are just women who live in ruins, on the edges of the world, like those extra empty spaces, on the edges of manuscripts, unseen, unheard and unwanted.
‘Who can free a captive bird mourning in his cage?
You must bring your own Freedom, O, Gardner.’
Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor
“I’ll be back early tomorrow, you don’t need to worry about me,” Syeda tried to sound reassuring. “He will protect us”, she said to Tariq, as she packed the oily turmeric rice in a large steel lunch carrier. She placed the container in an empty plastic cement bag, hoisted it on her head and took Mishaal’s hand in hers. The faithful were reciting their durood in the mosque after Fajr prayers. The golden thread of dawn had just emerged in the skies, and she embarked on this perilous journey to Srinagar.
The scorching heat of the afternoon followed by the sudden downpour had made it difficult for the people to fly kites on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. But now that the deluge had stopped, the people emerged on their roofs as ants emerged from their castle. The downpour had cooled the evening and cleared the sky and brought some relief to the people. The Trikuta hills and several other hills and mountains that surrounded the plain region betrayed their dominance. As far as one could see from the rooftops, the silhouette of the giant mountains didn’t fail to mark their presence. The beautiful sunset had created an ambient atmosphere of trance. Streaks of pink golden rays ran parallel above the stretched silhouettes of mountains. Everyone was taking in the cold breeze of August evening, conscious of the rhythmic movements of inhalation and exhalation. The various plants and trees surrounding the houses had not dried yet. Drops of water remained present on the leaves as morning dew. Just as a snail glides along the path slowly, the dewdrops on the leaves glided and merged into each other and eventually fell off the leaves into the soil beneath. The aroma of the earth that arose from the merging of aqua and soil stimulated the olfactory pleasures of the beings. The people had started coming to their rooftops from every house. Some people were here to play the sport; some were to help, and others were the spectators.
Two brown sparrows perched on the parapet undisturbed took note of their surroundings, contributing their part as spectators from different species. A purple sunbird perched on a high bough of a tree sang a song to summon his comrades to witness the once-in-a-year moment. The initiation of the event started with loud music on the loudspeakers. Pieces of electrical tape were being cut and wound on the fingers lest these get severed by the ‘pucca dor'(a string of either plastic or cotton covered by powered glass) which they had specially ordered. The people made sure that the triangle of the thread (kite knots) was perfectly aligned and anchored and they rubbed the dorsal side of the kite on their head and looked assertive as if their weapon of choice was ready to hunt others’ down. When the people were immersed in tying the kite knots, a tailor bird referred to as ‘darzi’ by the locals paid a brief visit to the lawns, and gardens of the neighborhood and retreated to its niche stitching leaves to make its nest. The helpers of the kite flyers held the kite from its horizontally opposite corners in their hand hiding their face and traced some steps back making the length of string between them tighten and on the count of three, gave a little push up which was then maneuvered by the kite flyers.