“Do you want to play with us?”
He looked at them warily. He was used to being ignored. This was one of those playgrounds for rich kids after all. The ones who came in fancy limousines and who carried their own smartphones and credit cards even before they had sprouted pimples on their faces.
And yet, here they were. Three of them, two boys and a girl, staring at him with frank, appraising eyes. The girl was pretty. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, exactly his own age, with strawberry curls and dimpled cheeks. The boys were similarly good looking, blond, fine boned with firm jaws. They would grow up to be dashing young men. Arrogant and entitled.
Maharathi Debdutt saw the hennaed foot, dainty, as the passenger stepped off the palanquin. Then the wheel went over it. His deed was done. He did not hear the shrieks that rent the air. From the beautiful princess who was to be wed, she became the hobbling one, the unwanted one.
Ever since Maharathi Debdutt had set eyes on the little one, Rajkumari Heeramoti, she had fascinated him. Her absolute milk white skin, the fragility of her limbs, her big black eyes and tumbling black curls, were a delight. He would watch her at play from a distance. He was a horse rider and a charioteer, and he was not allowed within the palace.
The sulphur gas hissed and smoke was issuing every few metres from the porous rocks. The clouds churned in the sky with lightning in ugly shades of grey black. The landscape lay broken and crying from the third cataclysm.
But what scared Rangar the most wasn’t the dangers on the land but what lay ahead.
The road, once upon a time it may have been a road, was broken. It was littered with potholes, rocks lining hot mud pools that steamed and an occasional geyser of magma. His blistered feet hurt, even wrapped in multiple layers of clothes. He looked up at the path he was following up to the mountain which was still spewing smoke and gases into the air.
How did the witch Manap survive here, he thought?
They said the fog was made of the tears of the old soldiers, those who left the town to make long journeys to god-knew-where. The soldiers grieved, those who stayed back said, for the homes they had left behind, and for the memories that were forced to linger. After all, if you left the fog behind you, there was nothing left of your past. You left your memories at the brink of the cliff, and started anew.
The fog covered the town in its entirety. There were days the thumb-shaped hill across the river would disappear in the mist, then there were days when the fog sneaked into bedrooms. It had a peculiar taste which everybody said was the taste of longing—a taste of the tears of the men who had left.
Husbands and wives had learnt to use their other senses than their sight. The children would play with the mist, sometimes twirling it around their fingers as they did with fireflies that ventured into the town, drawing shapes as one would on a fogged-out glass pane. Or they would play hide and seek in the fog, even though everybody warned them not to trust it as they would their dogs, or their cows, or the goats. The fog was not a pet, the women whose faces had wrinkles of sadness said, it had been here since forever, even before they settled in this bowl near the river.
By Mitali Chakravarty
Shweta Taneja’s story named as pre-finalist in French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire
The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) is like a rebellious shout to change the world with its threat of futuristic dark stories. Many award-winning and well-known writers like Kiran Manral, Vrinda Baliga, Rochelle Potkar, Park- Chan Soon, Tunku Halim and Eldar Sattarov, have contributed to the anthology. The stories have covered different areas of the genre called speculative which the editor, Rajat Chaudhuri, an established voice in this field, calls, “our adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature”.
Zafar Anjum, the series editor of the Best Asian series and publisher, explained how the Speculative fiction anthology came about and the editor was chosen: “It was an idea suggested by one of our authors, Anuradha Kumar, and when we got in touch with Rajat to work on an anthology of speculative fiction, he readily agreed. Rajat had done reviews for us before and we always admired his writing, so it was a natural choice.”
Chaudhuri picked Shweta Taneja’s story, ‘The Daughter That Bleeds’, for the Editor’s Choice Award. And now, it has been picked as a pre-finalist in the prestigious French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. This French award was first given in 1974 for science fiction and later stretched to the emerging genre of speculative. Winners include Ursula Le Guin (2008), Ken Liu (2016) and Carolyn Ives Gilman (2019). The French Ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, has tweeted about this, tagging Kitaab and Chaudhuri.
Chaudhuri has remarked that Taneja’s story fits into Margaret Atwood’s formulation of this genre. In his introduction he tells us, “Atwood’s test for the speculative is on the touchstone of possibility … Marking a clear break from some of the improbabilities of science fiction, her formulation stresses on this aspect of possibility as the sine qua non of the speculative.” Shweta’s story is “about a market for fertile women who have become rare in a post-apocalyptic India”.
Tia’s eyes fluttered open. She looked about herself— blinking at the bright blue sky. Where was she?
A town square of some sort. The landscaped roundabout at the centre had a marble fountain that spouted water energetically in the air, and wrought iron benches arranged just out of spraying range, but there was nobody around. There were shops all around, their awnings fluttering gently. An ice-cream shop, a café, a tattoo studio, a garments shop, a salon and spa, a gym … all empty and shuttered.
Even as she took it all in, she felt a growing sense of familiarity. The other question in her mind—where had she been all this time?—began to fade. She had a vague sense of a long incarceration, but where, by whom, and for what, evinced no ready recall in her consciousness. She looked down at herself. Did she imagine it, or had the pale grey of her incarceration changed before her very eyes to the red top and embroidered denim cut-offs that were familiar and comforting so that she knew immediately that they had always been hers? Had that bracelet on her wrist with those particular charms, the red polish on her nails, the auburn highlights in her hair and the sequined heels on her feet appeared just now, or had they always been there? With every passing moment it was getting harder to know. Or to care.
When she walked into the room, every eye in that place rested on her, as though she was a magnet and we were all iron filings.
Sarika was her name—I found that out later, after my eyes had examined every inch of her body and her face from where I was sitting. A mad wave of desire swept over me and I felt as though I was possessed. Have you ever felt like that? I hope not. It was something which had no hint of romance in it. I had to have her. The last vestiges of propriety and polite behaviour that had been long back instilled into me were cast off, like winter clothes at the beach.
The club was noisy, filled with nameless faceless people, gyrating in time to the dull droning of one hip hop song after another. I walked over to her, drink in hand, a salacious smile on my lips. I looked around to make sure that she was alone.
Anuradha Kumar, the author of Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty
Anuradha Kumar has been writing for two decades and in that span of time has authored eight novels, including Letters for Paul (2006), It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.in, Economic and Political Weekly, thewire.in, theaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in. Recently, she has brought out a novel, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories. In this exclusive, she tells us more about her journey as a writer.
You have written eight novels and children’s stories/books. How many years of your journey as a writer does that span?
About two decades. I’d my first collection of short stories out from Writers’ Workshop in 2002. What I remember is the lovely handwritten note Prof. Lal (who set up the workshop) sent me in acceptance of my manuscript; that, and a translated copy of his Avyakta Upanishad. I sort of remember what he wrote in that note. For a long time, those words encouraged me. I forgot them at times, but early words of encouragement and support stand by you, especially in not so good times.
Can you tell us about your latest book, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories? How did it come about? You have been living overseas, did you return to Mumbai and then write it?
Translated by Abhisek Sarkar
Chhabi has expired.
Chhabila died close to day break. She had been choked to death. Her one year old child Etim, following his usual morning practice, is trying quite hard to suck some milk out of one of her breasts.
Patuki has no inkling about who killed Chhabi. Although it is not unknown to him that this is not a natural death, he is yet to discover that the man he spotted approaching Chhabi’s house early in the morning was the killer. But the very next night Patuki would come to know who killed Chhabila. The one who would be his source of information is the most reliable of all. The rich and the poor, thieves and thugs, the good and the bad, all have respect for him. It is only Patuki who he speaks with. But the day is still young and he has to wait long for nightfall. How long will he have to cope with this hubble-bubble in his stomach, with this uncanny sensation running through his veins?
The man who visited Chhabila at dawn had also been seen coming out of her house late in the night. Patuki spends the whole of the night at the southern bank of the pond behind dense bushes, fishing pole in hand. Long aerial roots of a great banyan tree surround this place. These bushes entice him. The night has its own allure. Only Allah knows why people waste these hours sleeping. Patuki does not sleep; he cannot. The long fishing line of Patuki does not have a hook hence the float also is redundant. He has seen people climbing up his fishing thread from the water— many of them. They climb throughout the night and bless Patuki. Then they climb up those roots of the banyan tree. Now they turn into fireflies and fly around the Banyan pir.