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.

When the doctor looked at his latest report and told him he had about six months to live, Akaash Didwania stared at the red bird in the calendar on the wall. It was an ordinary-looking bird in an ordinary-looking calendar that suddenly looked strange; its colours seemed to scream out of the letters and numbers. OCTOBER 29. The car horns outside seemed to have stopped suddenly, replaced by the slow sound of something falling as the doctor muttered through the AC purr. ‘I feel obliged to tell you the truth.’  Truth. A word Akaash had never quite liked for it had mostly caused him a great deal of trouble. And loss. The doctor rattled on. Akaash kept staring at the October bird.

Walking out of the doctor’s chamber, Akaash wandered aimlessly till he came by a massive open drain that stunk of human waste and sewage. The sun was setting above the rusty iron drain pipe which extended onto a track of train lines. The railway crossing was closed and a goods train was chugging in, cutting into an orange sky. Blending with the shit smell and the sunset spreading across car tops, the brown bogies became the slow sound of something falling in Akaash’s mind, for the second time. He walked off the main road and went down to the drain to smell it more fully, to see what waste looks like when it floats freely, waiting to be decomposed by sunlight and slow time. He leant close enough to the drain to see his own reflection. A pair of round glasses on a scared face; swimming with shit. Blending with waste. For twenty minutes, more or less, then his reflection was suddenly smashed to smithereens by a stream of water gurgling into the pool. A middle-aged man stood beside him, pissing into the drain. Akaash got up and smiled at the stranger. The bogie sounds were coming to an end.

 

Akaash worked in a chartered accountancy firm in South Kolkata that advised people on how to store and invest money. Rich men and women with hidden assets and accounts that suddenly became ticking bombs. Like when the Government of India suddenly declared that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would become useless. Demonetization Day. Akaash remembers seeing a brawl in his neighbourhood grocery store that night where a crowd of people had gathered to change their 500 rupee notes on the pretext of buying biscuits, stale bread loaves and cheap toothbrushes. Almost everyone looked confused, angry and helpless as the government ordered to go cashless. The local grocery shopkeeper didn’t have a TV in his shop. He hadn’t seen the news and had happily accepted 500 Rupee notes until he overheard someone speak about the change. Then he panicked and stopped giving change. But by then a crowd of people had gathered demanding grocery goods. Even as the shutters were being quickly pulled down the angry mob stepped in, breaking in the cash box. Some local policemen who had come earlier in the evening to buy cigarettes and had got rid of their notes turned up to beat the mob. Akaash had stood and watched it all. He remembers the Demonetization Declaration Day viscerally as that night in bed he first felt the sickness in his lungs that would gradually grow into a grotesque body with cells. A growth that now left less than six month’s life in him. Next morning on his way to office he saw a man being beaten up by another mob. In front of the greying Greek Church in Kalighat. Apparently, he was a pickpocket who had nicked someone’s wallet the night before, a wallet that supposedly contained a pile of hundred rupee notes that were now missing. The man began to cry and said a friend of his had exchanged the 100s for four 500s which he was ready to return. Nobody listened to him. Everyone wanted 100 rupee notes. Walking to the Kalighat metro, Akaash heard a beggar woman wail for food and money. He stopped and gave her the only two 100 rupee notes from his wallet. His sickness was growing into something solid, dropping heavily, invading his lungs by then.

That day, in Aakash’s office everyone talked about demonetization; the keywords in those conversations – cashless, corruption, UP election – started banging against Akaash’s brain by afternoon. The office phones and mobiles kept ringing. Panicky clients called, seeking advice on the cash that was suddenly declared illegal. Nobody knew anything so there were lots of names and noises. The sounds were sonorous, the syllables slow, the pitches low. Akaash sat listening to the word bombs that exploded in the empty space in his brain where his attention had spread earlier. He felt like a sound magnet numbed by the noise, unable to attend to addresses. There was a greater strangeness in the air – the country had been suddenly directed to become cashless, nobody paid attention to Akaash’s behaviour. Until he fell. Akaash collapsed on his way to the gents’ washroom, swinging and smashing against the little litter bin where the waste waited to be thrown away. That too was the sound of something falling, but Akaash had long since passed out by then to listen. The last sound he had heard was one of nervous laughter. As somebody tried to explain to a client over the phone what could happen thereafter.

Mrs. Prakash opened her eyes and began to sit up in bed, picturing her aging joints as rusty bolts creaking with every movement. She looked out of the window where the tender rays of the sun reached the corner of her garden. There was the young mango tree, robust and flowering, ready to bear its first fruit that summer. The jasmine, its small white flowers scenting the fresh morning air, was right next to it, leaning on the compound wall for support.

This image had also been part of a dream that had floated away just as she woke up. Avin was there. The young man, sitting on one of the lower branches of the tree was looking down at her.

‘Idlis’, he said.

Having prepared the batter the night before, she planned to steam them that morning.

‘Don’t eat all of them!’ He told her in the dream.

Mrs. Prakash got up, thinking of all the packing she had to do. In a week, she would be moving in with her brother’s family. She was going to miss her home as well as the neighbourhood, which had become an extension of herself, like limbs fused to the body.

*

Mrs. Prakash first met Avin soon after moving into her house, back when he was a chubby 10-year-old. His mother probed Mrs. Prakash on how many children she had, her eyes lingering on the streaks of grey that had begun to show in Mrs. Prakash’s hair.

‘None,’ Mrs. Prakash replied in an even voice, trying not to show the disappointment that had lessened but never disappeared over the years.

Then she changed the subject before Avin’s mother had a chance to make sympathetic noises about her being widowed and childless.

‘I’ve often seen your son playing outside. Aren’t we lucky to have at least some space around our houses in this crowded neighborhood?’

Soon Mrs. Prakash had transformed the bare and scruffy-looking area around her house into a blooming garden. Working outside on her plants, she would call out to Avin’s talkative mother. Both women would stand on either side of the low compound wall and chat while Avin flitted around them like a hummingbird.

On Saturday mornings, she would make him steaming hot idlis for breakfast. He passed freely in and out of her house, dipping his hand into a box of sweets here and savouries there. He helped bring books to her from the library and began to take an interest in reading. She began to involve him in the upkeep of her garden. They planted a mango sapling and he would get excited about it growing into a large tree.

‘What can we do to make it grow faster?’ He kept badgering her.

‘We do the best we can with water and manure. Protect it from pests, remove dead leaves and give it all the love we have.’

‘Love?’

‘Yes, my dear. All living things need it. And love can be between anyone, even this tree and you.’

‘Well then, here is some of it,’ he said, throwing his arms around its frail stem as she looked on with amusement. He began to come over to water it and unfailingly embraced it every single time.

All the labels are yellow-bright like the setting sun. It bothers Akbar. Not the colour but the memories. These labels are everywhere. On the refrigerator. Inside the refrigerator. TV, washing machine, dish washer, plates, cups, shoes, shoe rack, bed, switches – anything that can have a label on it has a label on it. The whole house is plastered with them. One fine day, there was even a label on his forehead. It read Akbar. The label on the refrigerator says, refrigerator (cooling device). On the shoe rack it says shoes and on the shoes it either says mine or not mine.

The wind rattles the window panes. Dark, grey clouds hover above the skies of Derby. He sits up on the edge of the bed, staring at a point just in front of his toes. He doesn’t move, just the occasional blink of an eye. An eerie silence that has crept inside his soul since Noori’s departure haunts the house. Last night he broke three ceramic plates, a cup, and a glass just after he had washed them. It was no vent to any frustration. He did not smash them against the wall. He is too old, too tired for that.

He walks into the kitchen and opens a container with a label on it – Lisinopril. His blood pressure has gone haywire since he had taken the terrible decision of sending the love of his life away. He pops the pill and washes it down with a glass of water.

Akbar is sixty years of age; he has unkempt hair and a bushy beard. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes are like little cracks on an arid piece of land. He stares at her handwriting, the slant in the R’s and her upright T’s. It has been more than a month since she left for the old age home in Belper, a quaint village on the outskirts of Derby. Last month, when she was still home, they had a spat. With nothing left to label, she had wanted to label herself; it set him off like a firecracker. And in that moment, he knew that Noori, his loving wife, had to go. In the beginning, she sometimes forgot if she had taken her pills or if she had locked the door – banal things, it hardly affected them. Heck, they even laughed about it. They could laugh at just about anything. Loud farts and sudden sneezes. Jokes of unknown comedians on TV, the accent of an old Scottish lady living right next to them. But dementia is like cancer; it grows worse with age. Her mind stopped retaining important things. The kettle on the stove, the food in the pan. One day, while she was out for grocery, she forgot her address. Akbar found her in the parking lot, crying like a kid separated from her mom.

She stopped cooking, doing dishes, washing clothes, dusting and wiping tables – all the things she had loved, all the things she considered her duty. Instead, she started labelling everything. She rummaged through the drawers and turned the house into one big exhibition of yellow labels. Why don’t you take her to an old age home? A friend suggested. Akbar never talked to him again.

He opens the refrigerator, licks his parched lower lip. There is no food. He closes the door and the label stares at him. He presses it with his fingertips. A rumbling sound emanates from his stomach. He orders a meal and seats himself on the couch, twiddling his thumbs, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Outside, the dreaded rain has arrived.

His mind wanders to his first day in England. It was raining that day too. And almost every day since. He was a boy of twenty-five, with bubbles in his stomach and a giant smile on his face.  Glad to have left Kashmir, glad to be in an ‘evolved’ country, glad to be among the company of women of different races –white and black and brown.  Compared to back home, everything was in high definition. The streets of London, the famous telephone booths, parks, houses – everything was crisp and refreshing. He had enrolled in Derby University for a course in analog systems (an excuse to get inside the country). In truth, he would have even chosen a course in shit hauling to come here. The first thing he wanted to do in the new country was have sex. Like every student he knew from the subcontinent, he wanted to hook up with a white girl. He wanted a brand new start to his life with no interference from his relatives, from people he hardly knew, from the suffocating society in general.  Where he came from, even the sight of a ‘white’ female forearm titillates horny men more than the native breast. White, English speaking women, dressed in short skirts and cleavage revealing tops gave him a painful erection. His first few days were spent in a state of constant erection. He masturbated every day, sometimes even twice or three times. Teeth clenched and with pants down, he would plunge into libido land. But when he was around girls, he grew conscious – about his skin colour, his hair style, his body odour. Would they want to have sex with him? The question plagued him.

Back in India, he had a plan for wooing British girls. Gandhi was all the rage in the western world; he decided to casually slip in his name when talking to white girls. His march towards erotica was backed by such lines. Little did he know it was a congregational line of all Indians looking for a fuck. Youthful Gandhis obsessed with puritanical sex.

He was never going to sweep a white girl off her feet; he understood that pretty quickly, so he did what all desperate, horny losers do – visit whore houses in neon lit establishments in dark alleys full of scantily clad women and choose the whitest girl, all the while his heart about to burst through his chest. He would gulp and point to the girl of his fantasy. Alone with her, he would smile and greet her, try to make small talk and in about two minutes, he would run out of words. The room would descend into complete silence. Just the sound of his heavy breathing and his heart pumping blood.

By Abha Iyengar

Big Daddy always sat on the big reclining chair with its long arms opened, his legs splayed across the arms, wide. He was a short man, but big and sturdy, and somehow his thick, muscular, hairy legs across those long arms seemed just right. At least to my thirteen-year-old eyes, for I had seen him reclined in this position, chewing his tobacco and scratching his chest, which, surprisingly, had no hair, ever since I was a child.

I noticed these things, because I have always been observant since my childhood, and this has stood me in good stead and in bad stead, depending on the situation. Like when I noticed how extra low my aunt would bend to light Big Daddy’s fire, exposing her breasts, which, compared to my mother’s non-existent ones, would attract anyone’s attention, and Big Daddy’s eyes were always drawn there. Aunt did little to hide them, and enjoyed his eyes on them. He would bend forward from his reclining position, chuck her under the chin, and smile, his fat lips widening across his protruding teeth, and his legs would twitch on the arms of the chair. Mother would be busy inside and I somehow knew I should not bring such things to her attention. But I saw all this. I did mention this to Sirish, my friend, who was a year younger than me, but much wiser. He knew about things. He had once sucked the blood out of my foot, when a snake had bitten it, and people said he had saved my life. So he was also my blood brother because, after all, as he said, some of that blood would have been sucked in, even if he had kept spitting it out because of the poison. Maybe some of the poison had also entered his blood, without harming him, but making him less innocent, more aware, at least that’s what I thought.

But I am scurrying forward, as I am known to do. Noticing the interaction between my aunt and Big Daddy was just one thing. There were some other things that I observed. I had also seen my aunt stealing from the kitchen, taking food to her home just across the road that weaved in and out of our huge plantation area. She was my mother’s sister, who had married a rich man, but he had squandered his money on drinks and drugs, and she had come home, asking for shelter from my mother. My mother, out of the largeness of her heart, as large as her beautiful big eyes which perhaps saw nothing, had requested Big Daddy to allow her to stay. Big Daddy had agreed, his eyes straying over my aunt’s face and body. As he said, she was after all, his wife’s sister, and so, she was welcome to stay. So how come I could see things my mother could not? I told you, I was born observant, and maybe I had more of my father, Big Daddy, in me, I always saw more than was visible up front.

So it was that I had begun to tighten the cloth over my breasts to stop them from growing, and ate little to stop myself from becoming a woman, for I knew the danger there. But I could not really do much, for however hard I tried, I had begun to see the way men glanced my way. So I began to stick closer and closer to Sirish, till one day mother told me that I was to be married to Venkaiyah, and would have to stay inside for the next month, in preparation for the wedding. I would have to say goodbye to Sirish, for now I was to be betrothed to another man. So perhaps my parents had also seen the danger of my growing body, or it could be my growing affection for Sirish. Sirish was an orphan child and a labourer; the lowest of the low. As far as my parents were concerned, he was nobody.

Venkaiyah was Big Daddy’s right-hand man. He was tall, dark and silent, with hair that curled down to his shoulders. He wore a full-sleeved tight terycot black shirt and tight black pants that emphasized his crotch, everyday, without fail. Everyone noticed, and everyone consciously ignored it.

JhumpaAccording to this interview in the New York Times, the author of the forthcoming novel “The Lowland” is into many things Italian

Jhumpa Lahiri say: “Almost all the books I have on my shelves now are in Italian. I have been reading predominantly in Italian for over a year. I read more slowly as a result. But also more carefully, less passively.”

“I’m reading the poems of Patrizia Cavalli, whom I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting in Rome. I adore her personally and I love her poems.”

“I’m also reading the letters of Cesare Pavese and Pasolini’s “Teorema,” which was conceived both as a novel and a film.”

1
When Ivan Seow saw a hand-sized bag on the side table he couldn’t resist grabbing it. There was a camera inside. Conscience told him to hand it in, but the tag attached read: Journey beyond your expectations. Use me and upload to freecamera.blogspot.com. Afterwards, relinquish me at any airport. ‘Timesparks’ was written on the flipside. Ivan accessed the site on his phone. Yes, there was a blog and this was the password.
Now his flight was being called. He quickly popped the camera into his bag, intending to use and pass it on, honouring the instructions.