Starting this week, Kitaab will bring to you excerpts from Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 and Best Speculative Fiction anthologies.

Click on the links given at the end of the excerpt and help us sustain our efforts to bring literature from across Asia to you. Read on!

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TBASS

Prologue

If you are to fall asleep while being physically transported, you will start experiencing something out of this world. To be specific, if you happen to be moving at an extraordinary pace while in deep sleep, your consciousness will not be able to catch up, and you can be separated from your physical being. You will, then, be in two different places at the same time.

When that happens, you will cease to breathe. Your brain will start to wander, and conjure up a third place to make sense of it all. This is when you wake up at The Place.

The Place is a manifestation of consciousness; being ever-evolving, it can have unlimited variations. Its eventual form is perceived differently, based on each individual’s experiences and hopes for the future. Whatever the case, if you get too attached or fail to leave The Place quickly enough, you get stuck there.

Forever.

Hailey

Hailey was staring at an oil painting. She neither understood the intense mess of the strokes, nor the utterly mismatched colours used. There was a mishmash of painting techniques and a total disregard of the colour wheel. All the disorder made her nauseous, almost seasick. Blinking hard, Hailey stepped back from the chaos and took in a deep breath.

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The curly white shavings fell in clumps onto the metal plate with each aggressive scraping. Slender hands grasped the coconut shell and with mechanical motions scraped it on the sharp edge of the grater. She sat crouched on the narrow wooden board and wiped away a stray bead of sweat from her brows. Her long thick hair was knotted into a low bun and her starched white mundu had stains of coal on it. Despite being tired from cooking since morning, Devi had a shy smile lingering on her lips as she picked up the plate of coconut shreds. The big mound of shredded coconut was set aside and she blew through a long pipe into the fireplace to get the fire started. She set the vessel of water to boil on the fire stove and dissolved two handfuls of ada in it. The preparations for the Ada Payasam had just begun.

 Vishu was the day when Devi took control of the entire kitchen. She would have wrapped up lunch with a simple milk payasam, but today was extra special.  Ada Pradhaman was his favorite. She wanted to take her time and celebrate this year’s Vishu in the most auspicious way. She had arranged a beautiful Vishukkani for herself and her three kids before the first ray of sunlight and had given each of them five paisas, which was much more their usual Vishukkaineettam (pocket money given on Vishu). It had been a whole year since she had enthusiastically taken part in the preparatory activities in her kitchen. She took the vessel off the stove when the water started boiling, set it on the slab and covered it with a small plate. The ada had to soak in it for a while. She looked down at her charcoal stained mundu and the old blouse she was wearing. It was almost noon and she needed to change. ‘Ammini, ithuonnunokkike!’ She called out to her maid who was sweeping the ground right outside the kitchen back door, asking her to keep an eye on the preparations while she changed.

She ran through the kitchen doors to the inner ara. Her henna painted feet skipped across the polished black stone floors and the clinking anklets came to an abrupt halt on the wooden boards of her bedroom. Her daughter had laid out a beautiful, cream-white settu saree with a dark green blouse for her. She held the saree on her and looked at her reflection in the oval mirror leaning against the wall. The woman standing in the mirror looked very young. Days without him were adding more years to her face than time, but today the sleepless darkness around her eyes was replaced by a heavenly glow, the gold border of the saree throwing a faint glow on her creamy skin. She closed her eyes and reminisced how she’d stood before the steps of the house for the first time, next to him, holding the lighted nilavilakku. She’d taken her first step into the threshold with her right foot, her fingers tightly entwined with his. The saree she was holding in her hands was a gift from him on their wedding day. She opened her eyes and wiped away the droplets of tears that were threatening to spill onto the spotless fabric.

‘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.

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…

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.

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.

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.

‘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?’

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.