‘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.

Chennai, July 2020

Our eyes met. His shifted away. I forced him to look at me, and my persistence won. He did. They were blank. No answer to the dreaded question: am I about to depart? 

I smiled. He didn’t. It aggravated me. 

I looked around the place. The corridors were crowded with young doctors and nurses out of medical school, risking their lives to save us. Two young nurses were competing for my husband’s attention. I couldn’t help feeling jealous. I wanted to scream at the nurses: I’m not gone as yet. Leave my husband alone. 

The final act of Rajkumar’s life opened to neither cheers nor applause. 

He looked down at the gentle, placid Rapti flowing fifty feet below. It should have been a raging torrent at this time of year, but the river had no sense of occasion. He held the bridge’s railing tight with his left hand, the other inspecting the iron weight tied to his ankle. 

He had no choice. All his life, Rajkumar had only wanted to be a jadugar. Unfortunately, he was a very bad one. He could never distract an audience, so his illusions never worked. Tea sets shattered when he pulled tablecloths from under them. His white pigeons defecated liberally into his turban. The rabbits bit him. Card decks flew out of his hand, prrrrrrr-uh! and scattered on the stage. 

Tan Kaiyi reviews Tunku Halim’s latest work, Scream to Shadows calling it a collection of tales full of shocks and gore!

Scream to the Shadows is a retrospective collection of Tunku Halim’s career. These 20 spine chilling tales give a great introduction to one of the leading horror writers in Asia. Over a span of two decades, Tunku has written dark stories in the form of novels and short stories—most notably Dark Demon Rising and the Rape of Martha Teoh & Other Chilling Stories

The tall handsome man got down from the Jaguar convertible. His sunburnt face and bleached blond hair was as sleek and shining as the surface of the car he was driving. He bent his head to open the door on the passenger side of his car. His companion, a tall brunette with a mass of curly black hair, did not appear to think that a figure-hugging Dior dress teamed with blood-red stilettos was an incongruous selection of attire for the Australian outback.

The Jaguar, a flashy yellow, infused some color into the bleak vistas of land, which stretched to the horizon in all directions. Andrea, who had been busy feeding the horses, wiped her dirty hands on her jeans, smoothed her hair and started to contemplate how to get inside the farm without being seen.

I find myself awakened by a sudden jerk and the ratchet of a handbrake. I look around the dark to find my colleagues sound asleep, still, snuggled up in their leather seats serving as make-shift beds. From my periphery, I sense Lakmal’s silhouette navigating his way towards me, past the heaps of camera bags dumped along the narrow aisle, the nimbleness of his feet matching his dexterity on the wheel. Both of us gesture for a smoke. He grins – milky teeth illuminating in the darkness like saltwater pearls. 

A glimpse from the ‘slice of life’ stories penned by Manjula Pal from her book Who wants to marry a mamma’s boy and other stories. (Published by Rupa Publications, 2019)

When Krishna Came to My House

Delhi experienced its first monsoon showers. It came as a big relief after days of sweltering heat.

It was evening. Streets that had been deserted were now abuzz with people coming out of their homes, seeking the fresh air, much relieved after their claustrophobic, air-conditioned confinement. The smoky smell of freshly picked soft corns roasting over charcoal and smeared with salt and lime, filled the air. Right from children to the adults, everyone was enjoying the roasted corn pods. The hawkers selling corns on pavements and on pulling carts were doing good business.

Image Source: Unsplash

Delonix Regia or the royal Poinciana or what we popularly call the krishnachura is perhaps the only tropical tree that bears flowers and gives shade.” Parasuram looked around with an air of pride. The boys appeared bored. Only Sreeja pretended to be interested. She was the lone girl from her class who had travelled this far on a day-long educational excursion. “A tree lives for an average of five to ten years,” continued Parasuram unperturbed, “But this one has been here for over seventeen!” Parasuram was no student of botany. He taught Bengali in a renowned city college and had brought his students to see his native village, its hundred year old Shiva temple and the ruins of an adjoining haveli that belonged to an indigo planter. Sreeja had a crush on Parasuram and his thick hair and moustache. 

Noted actress Shabana Azmi, reads a short-story ‘River of No Return‘ written by Tabish Khair.

In words of the author,

“The story she reads out here is a story of violence and despair, but the fact that she found the time to make this brilliant recording is also illustrative of the other side of our human crisis: we are not just prisoners in the cells of our devastation. Not during the pandemic, and not afterward. There are ways to connect. There are ways to organize. There are ways to hope.