Irati had green fingers. A darker green than most gardeners’ fingers. She could twist and fix and grow and stunt. Better than the new sacks of pesticides and fertilisers that flew off the dealership godown in Manjeri. The old ones smelled of sweet distilled poison or dusty, desiccated old warehouses. The new ones burnt your nostril hairs if you got too close and melted stony warts if you didn’t have time to go to the clinic. They also killed all the beetles and the grasshoppers, the aphids and the worms, the moles and the rats and if taken carefully they killed humans. If not taken carefully, they just left the unsuccessful souls at the threshold of death with the world outside pitying them and the family inside cursing them. Irati had no use for fertilisers or poisons. Nothing living dared to crawl, step, slither or fly into her plot unless she wanted them to. On that five cents of strange ground, she grew bananas and nutmeg, coconuts and moringa, areca and cashew. The harvests were always more than she could eat or preserve and nobody in the village bought or borrowed anything from her. So once a month, she took a bus to Kozhikode with sacks full of the sweetest smelling nutmeg, strangely heavy coconuts, banana stalks that had perfectly symmetrical bunches or moringa that curved up to the sky.
It had become a pastime for the neighbours to look carefully at the local reports in the newspapers the week after her market trips. A Yemeni trader had grown a beautiful set of breasts overnight. The priest’s wife burped every time someone told a lie near her. Scores of people who ate the unbelievably sweet banana pradhaman during a baby’s 28’th Day celebration were compelled to buy the child innumerable gifts of gold and silver. The moringa sambar made a shy young wife seduced every man in her old husband’s areca nut factory. Some women tried to bring up the stories at the river bank and Irati, without glancing up from her washing would grunt a reply that she never read newspapers.
Kemban came from Tiruvannamalai to climb coconut trees but ended up climbing into Irati’s bed. A few days after the November thunderstorms ended and the winter mists invaded the mornings, she came to buy broken rice from Meleparambu House with a gold leaf strung on a black thread resting in the hollow of her throat. The women from the river reported an extra mundu and towel that she brought to wash every day. Kemban was now her man. They watched curiously for an entire year but nothing strange happened to him.
Recently, a review of Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) appeared in Southeast Asian Review of English positioning it as a unique collection groomed by editor, writer Rajat Chaudhuri, and series editor, Zafar Anjum, and set to mark a milestone within the genre. Read here a part of the review…
Anthologies of Asian speculative fiction are relatively few and far between and when one does get published, it marks a significant milestone in the genre itself. In addition, writers, editors and commentators tacitly recognize the importance of underscoring the source of and inspiration for such works, namely Asia. This, in turn, immediately prompts some questioning. Apart from its cultural and geographical setting, what distinguishes Asian speculative fiction from the rest? How different are the works in terms of themes, style, tropes, idiom compared with those from Europe or Africa or any other continent? Why Asian? Why now? Is there a tradition of speculative storytelling in Asia? What counts as speculative fiction in the Asian context?
These questions demand theoretical and critical responses, and this collection of speculative tales with its bold claim of being the best Asian speculative fiction for 2018 presents a singular opportunity for both the casual reader and the academic scholar to begin scrutinizing the text and, more importantly, enjoying the sheer diversity of voices and imaginings emanating from the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia and East Asia as well as the Asian diasporas. Both established and emerging writers regardless of whether they identify with the genre are represented in this carefully curated collection, and almost all the works were written specially for the volume.
The result is a collection that encompasses a wide repertoire of voices and tales and which is potentially at the cutting edge of the genre. In his helpful introduction to the volume, editor Rajat Chaudhuri describes speculative fiction as an “adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature” (xiv), and true to this broad and inclusive characterization, this collection does not disappoint with its selection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopia and the various offshoots and permutations of these forms. It is apparent that beyond the term’s provenance associated with and manifested in the works of Robert Heinlein and Margaret Atwood, that is, speculative seen in terms of ‘what if’ hypothetical situations and of what could happen in the future based on the technology that already exists ‘speculative’ has become a catch all term for works which challenge or extend our notions of reality and truth.
Compiled by Mitali Chakravarty
And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns,1788
It is that time of the year again when we bid adieu to the old and party to welcome the new. And this year it is not just an old year but the old decade that ends – this new year we start the third decade of the second millennia. With much goodwill, as the poet Burns says, we asked some writers who have featured on our pages to contribute two of their favourite reads from this year and they obliged… A huge thanks to all these fantastic writers who share what their favourite books have been this year.
We start with Suzanne Kamata, an award winning writer from Japan, who has been a part of our magazine and the first Best Asian Short Stories in 2017. This is what Suzanne wrote: “One book which particularly impressed me was Under the Broken Sky, a novel-in-verse by Mariko Nagai, about a Japanese girl stranded in Soviet-occupied Manchuria. Although we often hear and read about the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in Asia, we rarely hear the voices of the innocent bystanders, like children. Nagai manages to distill complicated and difficult events into crystalline free verse. Although this book was written with middle grade readers in mind, I would recommend it to adults as well.
“Sometimes,” said Sternmeyer, “I get into that gym and I just sweat.” And then he shone his successful face at them. Everything about Sternmeyer was successful—the titanium watch, the oiled trekking shoes, the clear tan skin; everything shouted—I have never lost!
“What does he want with the likes of us?” Willet wondered.
“He’s bored,” was Hudson’s explanation. “You get these people with trust funds, and they’ve got all the stuff.”
Sternmeyer, then, was bored of stuff. Incredibly to Willet, he was bored of his condo-with-a-pool and his Italian clothes and his German car. He wanted experience.
The day before, sitting on plastic stools drawn up to a noodle cart, Hudson had waved his chopsticks at the fragility and squalor of the small border settlement—the semi-naked children heedless in the mud, the haze of flies worrying at the fish heads and banana skins rotting in the open drains, the pats of buffalo dung hardening in the road, and waiting in the gathering clouds, the tropical rain that would whisper down all night, making more red mud that would have dried into red dust by late afternoon. He said, “To him all this is exotic.”
She patted the baby to sleep. The baby was restless and so was she. It was the patter of the incessant rain on the tin roof of their shanty that kept breaking into the little one’s half formed dreams, bringing him wailing back into the discomfort of the world outside the womb. It was almost past midnight now, her husband wasn’t home yet. It worried her, the odd hours he kept. This morning he’d walked off towards the main road where his taxi was parked, saying he’d be back home early. “Make lauki ke koftey,” he’d yelled, without turning his head back. She’d left the baby with a neighbour that morning, and run out to buy the lauki he’d demanded. Dudhi it was called here, in Mumbai. It took some getting used to, the different terms that were used for common vegetables. Alu pyaaz was kaanda batata. She’d begun to make do by pointing out to things with her finger, and then negotiating the rate.
It was a regular day, he would drive to Pune and come back. He was normally back by nine in the night most days, and would want his dinner immediately—piping hot rotis rolled out as he ate, sitting on the squat wooden plank on the floor of the little shanty. He’d finally managed to put together the funds for the rent deposit. This was his castle, she knew, and she was his queen.
But I won’t give this up for I have worked tirelessly for months to become a Patangi. Because I have come to believe in their war. Because I need the money.
Night after night I have scrubbed my Jashn with neem laced fireflies, said a prayer over her tiny head and bundled her off into the Sleep Shield which I smuggled in when we moved here—my secret within the whole secret of The Tower where anything with extreme cryogenics is forbidden. Our early days here were overwhelming. We found an empty flat in one extreme corner of the thirty-fourth floor. The windows were broken. I slept on the floor. Jashn slept inside the Shield. I kept her there for as long as possible, sometimes waking her up only for the sparse meals. What else was there to do? Other than wait and survive in this cold, torn up and seemingly hostile place. New refugees came in droves. The stench of homelessness grew. Yet in the thrum of humanity and suffering I kept warm. And there was hope in those early days. That he would come.
9/11 has always been a date to dread ever since 2001 when the New York twin Towers were bombed down by a terror attack. This year too, 9/11 left a feeling of dread in the hearts of many as the Supreme Court gave a verdict on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue… In this article, Zafar Anjum traces the Ayodhya movement from the 1990s to pause on a pertinent question he had asked in his short story published in 2015, ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ — “…what is more pleasing to God? Your temple after destroying a mosque or the suffering of those whose place of worship you destroyed?”
While TV journalists and anchors dissected the verdict and its fallout, my mind briefly traveled back to 1992, the year the Babri Masjid was demolished. I was studying at Aligarh Muslim University then. The Ayodhya movement was at its peak and we knew that something sinister and violent was going to erupt, so we made our way to our hometown in Bihar in late November. I was at my maternal grandfather’s place when the news came of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We saw the then Prime Minister of India Narasimha Rao appear on TV and offer apologies and shed some tears. Later on, we learnt that Rao could have done more to stop the demolition but he chose not to. Through Rajiv Gandhi and later through Rao, the Congress Party had, wittingly or unwittingly, made its own contributions to the Ram Temple movement.
“Brother, you’re the man of the hour!” Sardar Singh whacked Asim on his shoulder, making him stagger and cough. “What luck, yaar. Seven daughters I’ve had, seven expensive bitches. My Lalli is one fertile mare but no, not even one has taken on her and shed a drop of blood, but you, bull’s eye with the first one, eh? You lucky rogue!” Sardar winked. Asim looked around suspiciously, desperately hoping no one had heard. Just when his luck had turned he managed to bump into the biggest gossip from his district.
“How did you—” Asim stopped himself. He took out his neatly folded, embroidered handkerchief and wiped off his sweaty brow, fingering his hair back into their gelled shape and inching away from his boisterous districter. “Look, not here, please.”
Sardar pulled Asim in a corner, taking them out of the gurgling sea of humanity that lined up to enter the fertility market.
Title: The Best Asian Short Stories, 2019
Editors: Hisham Bustani (Series Editor: Zafar Anjum)
Year of publication: 2019
Links: Kitaab Bookstore
About: War, loss, love, compassion, nightmares, dreams, hopes and catastrophes; this is literary Asia at its best. From a wide range of geographies spanning from Palestine to Japan, from Kazakhstan to the Malaysia, mobilizing a wide array of innovative narrative styles and writing techniques, the short stories of this anthology, carefully curated by one of Asia’s prominent and daring writers, will take you on a power trip of deep exploration of local (yet global) pains and hopes, a celebration (and contemplation) of humanity and its impact, as explored by 24 writers and 6 translators, many of whom identify with many homes, giving Asia what it truly represents across (and beyond) its vast territory, expansive history, and many traditions and languages. This book is an open celebration of multi-faceted creativity and plurality.
Contributors:JOEL DONATO JACOB (Philippines); LANA ABDEL RAHMAN (Lebanon): RAZIA SULTANA KHAN (Bangladesh); DEENA DAJANI (Palestine); ALAN IRID FENDI (Syria); SAMIDHA KALIA (India); SCOTT PLATT-SALCEDO (Philippines); ANITHA DEVI PILLAI (Singapore); ANGELO WONG (Hong Kong); ODAI AL ZOUBI (Syria); SIMON ROWE (New Zealand / Japan); SEEMA PUNWANI (Singapore); VRINDA BALIGA (India); NAMRATA PODDAR (India / USA); T.A. MORTON (Ireland / Hong Kong); HAMID ISMAILOV (Uzbekistan); SUCHI GOVINDARAJAN (India); YD CHANG (China / Malaysia); JOLIN KWOK (Malaysia); IMRAN KHAN (Bangladesh); YAN TI (Taiwan); ZIRA NAURZBAYEVA (Kazakhstan); KAISA AQUINO (Philippines); JOSE VARGHESE (India)
Title: Scream to the Shadows
Author: Tunku Halim
Publisher: Penguin SEA
Year of publication: 2019
Price: SGD 14.50
Links if any: Penguin Random House
About: Unconfined to a single theme, this new collection of twenty short stories by Tunku Halim offers five distinct worlds—the paranormal mysteries from ‘The occult world’, with its dark settings reveal supernatural existences in the characteristic Halim style.