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Short story: The Witch by Muddasir Ramzan

‘I believed, like everyone else, that the stories about wild creatures, particularly about Rantas and Wan-Mohneu, were only myths, created to scare children. Until I was lugged here.’

‘Would you like to share your story?’ Talib asked. ‘How did you reach here?’ asked Hamid, Talib’s master. They lowered their gazes, stealing the odd glance at the Wildman.

‘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.

‘I took my umbrella in one hand and lantern in another and went straight to the cowshed to check if the cow was fine – she was to give birth to her calf soon. She seemed fine, so I locked the cowshed and began walking back to my house, stopping a while to watch the whirling snow. What an amazing sight it was!

‘As I tried to shake off the snow from some trees, I heard a woman’s voice calling out my name. I thought it was Laalie and responded but recalled immediately that I had locked the main door of the house from outside. The voice wasn’t Laalie’s. Couldn’t be. I waited. The voice called out again. Afraid but excited, I looked around, trying to locate the voice as I walked towards the pomegranate tree. There was so much snow on the tree’s leaves and branches that the main branch had snapped and fallen on to the snow-covered ground. As I went closer, I saw what I thought was a woman dressed in white, looking at me. It was a mere illusion created by the snow, I told myself, but the lantern slipped from my trembling hands and the light went out. Was it an evil spirit or an apparition? Then, just as I began to run towards my house, which was only a few steps away, she called out, ‘Stop!’ My pounding heart, quivering legs and the deep snow made the few steps to my door seem like a thousand miles. With great effort, I managed to reach the steps and breathed deeply in relief. I had escaped her!

‘I was wrong. As soon as I tried to push open the main door, a huge hand grabbed my left shoulder; I struggled to free myself but it was no use. Even as I cried out, a hand capped my mouth and another clasped my head. I struggled; I even managed to kick the door but the powerful hands dragged me back. I could see her closely now. Her stench filled my nostrils. She had a hairy face, a huge, dirty, hairy body with heavy breasts and long nails. Her untidy hair fell over her shoulders. I noticed her feet last: they were turned backwards.

I was terrified. Rantas! She was exactly like the creature whose stories grandmother told me in my childhood, to distract me whenever I cried or wanted something that was not available. For some time, I thought she would eat me alive. I had lost all my strength and began to think she had cast a magic spell on me. Helplessly, I let her tie me to her back with her long hair. I could have cried or made some noise, asked for help, or at least struggled to escape.

‘I…

‘Yes, carry on, what happened then?’ asked Talib, listening keenly to him. When the Wildman didn’t reply, the young man looked towards his ustaad.

‘It is clear she brought him to this cave then, isn’t it?’ Hamid remarked loudly, hoping to stir the Wildman from his thoughts.

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Short story: Dearest Pyari Amma by Ayeda Husain

Dearest Pyari Amma,

As salaam alaikum. I hope this letter finds both you and Baba Jan in the best of health and spirits. Please let me begin by apologizing for not writing earlier. Pinku and Bablu have both been under the weather with recurring cold, cough and chest infection all winter. Thank God for the long winter break or they would have missed most of school the past month.

Besides being so busy with them, I…

 

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.

Ooof! The dramas in this house never end. I often think of my childhood growing up in our house with only Baba jan, you and the four of us. What a perfect life it was. Of course I am extremely grateful for you to have picked such a good family for me to marry into. Just last week at Ami and Abu’s anniversary party for 100 people I realized how lucky I was to be part of this family. All the guests were so khaandani, the women wore huge, old jewellery and everyone praised my cooking. I met three women who had once been potential prospects for Salim. They are married now. But so thin, Amma Jan, I don’t know how they do it after children.

I tried to go on a popular diet a fancy nutritionist gave me but…

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Short story: A Feast of Love by Anurag Bakhshi

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 first time Ruchita and Sharath met was at an Onam Sadhya, or feast, at Sharath’s place. Ruchita was 15 years old, Sharath 16. His family had just moved to Chembur from Kerala, and since this was their first Onam away from their extended family and friends, Sharath’s mother had invited their entire building to the Onam Sadhya at their place. It was Swastik Society’s first introduction to the delectable delights of Kerala food, and it led to two long-term consequences for our protagonists: It inculcated a life-long love for Kerala food in Ruchita, who could not imagine what her life had been before she had sampled those heavenly dishes.

It heralded the start of two sets of beautiful friendships – between Ruchita’s Maa and Sharath’s Mom, and, of course, between Ruchita and Sharath!

 

When Sharath saw Ruchita licking her fingers after the feast, he immediately fell in love with the North Indian who could show so much love for what he believed was the best food in the world. He approached her boldly and started explaining the name of each dish, the history and significance of everything, and even the recipes involved in preparing them. Ruchita found herself getting impressed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge about food, as well as his apparent passion when he spoke about it.

The rest, as they say, is history… till the time their relationship almost became history.

They began to meet outside school, made trips to different Kerala restaurants each week, then graduated to bunking school in order to meet, and finally found themselves in the same college for their graduation. Even after he went away to Hyderabad for his CFA and she left for UK to study painting at the Royal College of Art, they made it a point to return to Swastik Society in Chembur for Onam, for the legendary Sadhya at Sharath’s home, feasting their hearts along with the entire building.

After their studies got over, they began to work in Mumbai, and their weekly meetings over Kerala food continued seamlessly, as if it had never been interrupted by life.

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Short story: The Dog Catchers by Mir Arif

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.

The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.

Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.

There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.

A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.

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Short story: Parcelled, Ripe for the Picking by Kar Yern Chin

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.

And he watched, quietly (well not really), as she plucked the fruits of her dreams. His hands hovered over the preheating oven, despite his mother’s constant reproach. She kneaded cottony dough with her gnarled but tender hands and folded it into itself. The furrow blended seamlessly and disappeared, before she wrung the dough to fold it again. The scattered flour he tried to swipe surreptitiously with his finger. Powdered sugar, he thought as he sneaked a pinch into his mouth. It exploded in his mouth as he puckered his lips, never to permit flour onto his sensitive taste buds again.

Beads of sweat lingered on Mama’s skin as she kneaded and kneaded in the kitchen, with its windows open to the sun-baked outside. Cracked streets and faded sign paints littered about as Aunty Norma, her head covered in a batik tudung of teal and navy blue, doled out nasi lemak, wrapped in newspaper, to passers-by on their way to the bus stop hidden in the far corner of the road. The oven emanated even more heat waves, preparing for the dough’s entrance. Soon, the dough, coated with glistening egg yolk, would bloom. It would turn crisp and fluffy, like a pillow waiting to be pinched and pulled. The boy salivated as he thought about the savoury patches of salt and butter that would soon linger on his tongue. The yolk sheen reminded him of lumps of peanut cookies with their brown egg coats on top, baked by Mama during Chinese New Year; the pasty lumps that crumbled in the boy’s mouth, unlocking sweet, savoury and a child’s gaiety. The boy could not wait for Mama to fire up the ovens for the next batch of CNY cookies again. Few more weeks and he would have school off, with nothing but he and the food.

Mama looked at the little plump 7-year old and smiled as she wiped off her sweat with the apron. Her smile faded as she considered her son’s dreams. She turned to start the laundry.

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Short story: Anti-Pygmalion by Shabir Ahmad Mir

‘Boy you are late, I told you to be here at dawn.’

The boy rubbed his eyes and said in a stifled moan. ‘It is sill dark, what difference does it make?’The old man glared at the boy, ‘Now watch your tongue, that tone does not work with me. If you are here to learn you must do as I say. Otherwise there are a dozen other fishermen at this ghat, you better be with them at your own time and mood.’

The boy lowered his gaze. A taut twitch worked across his clenched jaw. Only if any other fisherman would take him, he would have spat then and there at the old man. Fishing at the ghat remained by and large a family trade. The fishermen chose their sons or nephews or cousins as help-hands or apprentices. The boy was an orphan and the old man was a loner, they were both stuck with each other.

‘Now have you brought the nets?’ the old man asked without looking at the boy.

‘Yes, here they are.’ The boy let the pile of nets fall from his shoulder, ‘They were quite bad. I have mended them wherever I could, but I think you will need new ones quite soon.’

The old man hauled the nets into the boat, ‘Let me worry about them. They will do for now.’

They climbed into the boat. With the help of the oar, the old man gave a push and their boat was afloat on the lake. The old man handed over the oar to the boy, ‘Don’t use the oar till I say. Let the boat drift for now.’

‘Drift!’ cried the boy incredulously. ‘Shouldn’t we be rowing to the neck of the lake as fast as we can?’

‘Now why should we be doing that?’

‘Because that is where the most fish are caught and we should be there as early as we can, before others come cramming in. That is the whole point of getting up early at dawn, isn’t it?’

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.’

‘And you are not!’ The boy regretted as soon as he had said it. He bit his lip. Was it over!

The old man looked at him and fixed him with the depth of his eyes and voice. ‘Listen boy and listen it well. Fishing is an art – a very subtle art. Old fishmasters knew it. There was no rushing to the neck for them. They were artists, not gamblers like the ones you see at the ghat now. And that is what you are going to learn from me – fishing not gambling.’

‘Gamblers! How are they gamblers?’

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PEN Myanmar: Pushing free expression reform and revitalizing literature

…….

What is a project that you have been working on in recent months?

PEN Myanmar always strives to find a balance between revitalizing Myanmar literature, and defending and promoting freedom of expression. All of our projects fall into these two categories. In 2016, for example, we released seven statements urging the new government – specifically the News Media Council, the parliaments and the military – to respect the media freedom and to ensure free expression as a fundamental human right. Responding openly to the assassination of U Ko Ni, the senior advisor of NLD, in January of this year was another big call for justice made by PEN Myanmar.

On top of that, we have been working on a media development legal reform to the News Media Law 2014 and sent our comments and recommendation to the Citizen Fundamental Rights, Democracy and Human Rights Committee under the Upper House (the House of Nationality). The Committee is reviewing our comments and will pass it to the Bill Committee. PEN Myanmar will be involved throughout the amending process as one of the stakeholder. Also, our Publishers Circle has been working on the repeal of the Printing and Publishing Enterprises Law.

Moreover, PEN Myanmar legal review committee is working on amending country’s other repressive laws and tools that undermine free expression, which includes advocating for the abolishment, editing or amending with public consensus of the following:  the Telecommunications Law, the Electronic Transaction Act, the Privacy Law and encouraging the formation of the Right to Information law.

A free expression environment that fosters informed dialogue, protects open debate, and promotes government transparency and accountability is a crucial foundation for democratic reform. In mid-November 2016, PEN Myanmar got together with experts from partner organizations to reflect on the state of free expression in Myanmar midway through the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s first year. As a result, we produced The Freedom of Expression “scorecard” aimed to assess the progress – or lack thereof – by the new government in the key areas of free speech, media freedom, information access, and freedom of assembly. The scorecard report was released on 3 December at PEN Myanmar Annual General Conference. The one year report will be released in early May, 2017. This will be the yearly activity and PEN Myanmar will extend its networks and invite more media organizations to make the assessment report more inclusive.

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Short Story: Fifty-Nine Times but One by Aditya Gautam

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 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 turn around once to look back at the softly lit café we have come from. You were eating tiramisu and I was sitting with a glass of wine in my hand. I sipped between your pauses and watched you, trying to learn every single line and every single movement of your face. The way you pick the tiniest morsels in every spoon so that it will last longer, the way you keep the cake in your mouth a moment longer than anyone else I know, so that the taste may fade away slower.

I replied without thought, almost mechanically: it is the same conversation we had five years ago, at the same table.

You have long, brown hair in this reality and I am still not used to it. Where I was up until a month ago, you had blue spiky hair and I had nicknamed you Pixie. That was a good month. At least until the last day when we were in your apartment and the curtains caught fire.

My guts clench as I remember the last words you always say to me: ‘Until the next time, my love.’

Why do you always say that? It isn’t as if you know how true it is…

There is only one street lamp on this stretch of the road and the shadows of trees look like cobwebs around our feet. In one of the houses by the roadside somebody is playing an old song by Kishor Kumar.

Mere mehboob qayamat hogi, aaj ruswa teri galiyon mein mohabbat hogi…

My darling, there will be apocalypse today, love will be disgraced in your street

You pick up the tune and begin to hum. Everything fits together, eventually.

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Short Story: Judy and the Banyan Tree by Tapan Mozumdar

‘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.

‘Give me a packet. How much?’ Judy relished the peanuts on days the clouds appeared in flocks, or the sun shimmered through the dense foliage or the dewdrops stealthily took over the tips of the grass blades near the cast iron bench on which she always sat. George had brought her first to this spot. That was when the Outer Ring Road had only four lanes.

‘You come here daily, Madam! And daily you ask the same question. What will change in a day?’ Judy gave him a ten rupee note. The seller always filled her packet to the brim and more; it was a task for her not to let a single nut fall.

‘A lot can change in a day, dear!’ Judy breathed out the words. The seller had moved away, but the Banyan heard. The evening breeze of late October prodded the leaves to whisper to Judy, ‘What can change in a day?’ It was a daily routine, but the breeze and The Banyan never got tired of listening to the story from her.

‘A lot! George would have been sitting by my side, here, for example?’ She pressed a peanut between her index finger and thumb. Pink and moist nuts slipped out of the brown pod.

After this point, Judy never needed any prompting. The events of Sunday, March 9th, 2014 would rewind. From 5:30 till the police knocked at her door. Pa-in-law was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s then. ‘Who’s George?’ He had asked when the inspector informed them about the accident.

‘Eeeks… Who boils peanuts? I want the sand roasted ones.’ Judy was from Kolkata. George was visiting for his corporate tennis matches and was staying with his aunt in Judy’s neighbourhood at the Free School Street. There were common friends, common interests and a mutual attraction. The wedding happened within eight months of their meeting each other.

Early in the marriage, he would laugh at her reactions on touching the packet of boiled peanuts. She loved the way he laughed. Loud, unafraid, clear, it would echo across the open meadow past the water body. That was in 2007 before those apartments were built.

It was getting darker and breezier. When Judy was a new wife, the winds of August here would smell of the Cannonball flowers. The tree was at the place where the garbage dump was built by the municipality in 2011.

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Short story: Yellow Lightning by Soumi Das

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.

He rubbed his eyes and tying his thin gamchha around his waist, went to the well to draw water for his morning bath. A bath was a must, regardless of the hour of the day – no one went to school without a bath. His teeth chattering, he lowered the metal bucket into the water, the loud clang against the wall, the only sound in the silent, cold, dark morning. Hands shaking under the weight, he poured all the water on his head, then darted in, as the sky turned a slow crimson.

As usual, Ma was waiting with his brass bowl of piping hot milk and some flattened rice soaked in it. Quietly, quickly, Khoka slurped it all up, picked up his cloth bag, and started his trek to school – alone.

This was his regular routine – the long march to the government primary school at Kulunga passing through a dense sal forest adjoining his village, Sagjor. He was the only child of his age to go to school; his neighbours – children of peasants, herdsmen – were the lucky ones who got to roam around the village aimlessly the whole day, following their parents, playing, going for a swim when they felt like. If only he had been as fortunate. Somehow he liked his walk, trudging through the jungles at that unearthly hour, the sound of his solitary footsteps on the dry bed of leaves, too early even for the birds to start chirping or crows to start cawing. He walked and walked and walked. It would take him at least two hours to get anywhere close to Kulunga, a good five to six kilometres away from his village.

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