Assessor Shendge had visited Dreamland Heights before, but never to investigate a murder, that too a particularly gruesome one of a lizard, no less.
He received the call from Deepak a little after eleven, but it was no later than noon when he reached the apartment complex. He had had to make haste—after all, it was a particularly gruesome murder. A lizard had been found killed and its head smashed in. Deepak had even mentioned its tail had been snipped off.
He gathered two assistants and himself drove to the venue. The assistants had to be risen from their Sunday morning stupor. They had hoped to stay away from the office, he knew. They must have imagined dialling into a thirty-minute video-conference to chime in their status and then snoozing the rest of the day, or better yet enjoying it with their families.
Assessor Shendge did not let them drive. They did not know how to, having come to depend on driverless cars too much. They relied on them like a clutch. The good Assessor was not like that. He needed to feel the steering wheel at his hands, the heft of the gear by his side, and the spring of the clutch at his feet. His subordinates would have been content to snore in the backseat, but his presence forbade them. They sat up straight, Bhonsale beside him and Tendulkar at the back.
I had been walking back and forth in front of the house for an hour already. But still I couldn’t knock on the door. Nothing conclusive had been found. With things turning out this way, even I found it hard to understand myself. Why was I so hung up on this unsolved case that I’d taken a day off to come here. Like a real estate agent, I was scouting the houses in the neighbourhood, as if I had nothing better to do. In this high-tech age, when most families relied on AI robots to play not only housemaid and babysitter but even lawyer, judge, doctor and fund manager, the lives of the people on the fringes continued to be as dismal as ever.
At the pocket park inside the neighbourhood hung a banner that reads: “Making Mt. Bukhan a global park.” The residents had responded by pulling down the walls. All the houses had been built so close together in the first place that even with the walls gone, a garden only the size of a picnic mat was left. But the clustered pots of marigolds, geraniums, and cyclamens were more than enough to wipe away the gloomy air of the neighbourhood. That small excess of loveliness, however, could not wipe away the uneasiness in my heart. This was one of those rare places in Seoul inhabited by people who tore down walls. Until recently K had been living here among them.
It was early on a Sunday morning, when I was fast asleep, that the discovery of someone’s SG was reported. It was after a night of tussling in bed with J and my body was limp. But when the phone sounded, shattering the dawn time peace, instinctively I reached for the SG lying next to the pillow. My tiredness vanished. A young girl shaking with fright was caught on the remote surveillance camera attached to the SG.
One of the attendees caught the excitement of the event. Upcoming writer Elaine Chiew, who just released her debut collection of short stories called The Heartsick Diaspora with Penguin, had a lot to say: “I caught Marlon James’ Festival Prologue and Roxanne Gay’s Lecture: ‘Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture’, and lots of programming in between, including catching the exhibition on Eurasian Singaporean writer Rex Shelley (which I loved, especially Brian Gothong Tan’s stunning multi-media display), ‘Literature and Pioneer Women’, ‘First Dates and So Many Feelings’, ‘What Being Brown In The World Means’, ‘Language and the Body’, ‘Writing in Dialect’, and ‘What’s the Most Versatile Singlish Word’.” Elaine Chiew has been attending the festival since 2016. This year she attended as an author and a panelist.
Aysha Baqir, writer and social activists explained: “This is my first time as a featured author in Singapore Writers Festival. My novel, Beyond the Fields, a fiction about a young village girl (in Pakistan) on a quest for justice, was published earlier this year by Marshall Cavendish. I have attended the last two Festivals and like the previous years I am delighted to listen to and meet the wide diversity of authors and panelists. This year I am particularly enjoying the relevance of the sessions to current life events and issues — migration, special needs, mental health, and diversity.”
Kitaab also launched three books during this festival: a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal’s Masala Chai, a collection of poems and the Best Asian Short Stories (2019).
Kiswah kicked off the start of the Kitaab launches with Isa Kamari explaining how he conceived the novel as a reaction to the needs of the times. Kamari said in answer to moderator Mitali Chakravarty’s query that he was getting the translations done to be read more widely. Earlier he had been translated even to Urdu by Kitaab. Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab, explained: “Isa’s Intercession was translated into Urdu — the first work of Singaporean and Malay fiction to be translated into Urdu. The plan is also to get it translated into Hindi and we are working on it.”
Thapliyal’s Masala Chai came next. Thapliyal was accompanied by Singapore writer Robert Yeo on stage. Yeo had mentored her collection. Moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, the poetry launch was vibrant and interesting.
Nobody with his head screwed on would consider visiting a tiger reserve with family and friends on his honeymoon. I know. But my husband-to-be is a man with a difference. As they say, you get to know the guy after it’s too late to wriggle out of the commitment. I should have known; this is my second go at matrimony.
Until last month, things were cruising along perfectly. Pun intended. We were debating between an Alaskan and a Mediterranean cruise for our romantic getaway. You get the picture—why I want to hitch my wagon to his, that is—DK is loaded, and my mission is to help him make the best use of his money. Then he drops the bomb, over lobster thermidor at the Otters’ Club.
“Darling, did I tell you Mahee is coming for our big day? Although the poor child is burdened with coursework, she requested the school to give her a fortnight off for her grandfather’s wedding, and guess what, they agreed!”
From the hills that surround the town it indifferently drifts. Upon bare soil and barren rocks, upon the base of trees, it sweeps. From my window this morning, the trees were grey, feathery and clinging like ghostly hands to the low clouds but now, in the wintry breathe of evening, they are like conquering warriors marching down shadowy slopes. My boots, hard and heavy, follow empty pavements. A car, a van, a bus, occasionally passes through our slushy streets. There is hardly a sound except for the click, click, click from the pedestrian crossing.
I’ve walked here all my life. I know every crack in the pavement, every blemish on the shop walls, every angle of the stooping buildings, every flutter of the koinobori, the carp-shaped wind-socks that now colourfully flutter high up over the gorge to mark the change of season. Hundreds there are, strung up on lines, but one has fallen far below and is stuck between two jagged rocks, one end flapping like a useless flag as the river tries to drag it away.
I’ve never left this place, this hot spring town where tourists flock like hungry gulls during the holiday season. There are better jobs elsewhere but I choose to remain a janitor at the high school. That’s all I’ve been these thirty- eight years. I’ll retire next month. They’ve kept me well past retirement age as I do a pleasing job. Now I have to go though as I’m too old.
Zafar Anjum writes about his Shanghai trip in 2011
Initially I was not sure if I was going to Shanghai at all, but the visa came through. I had tried once before but was not lucky enough to get the visa (in that instance, the paperwork was not complete and so on; it’s a long story). I was totally unprepared for the journey this time. This was one of those rare journeys which I undertook without reading anything about the city that I was visiting. I think there was some innocence about this unpreparedness, this ignorance. I took Shanghai as she revealed herself to me. I didn’t go there with any fixed images, so I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed when I stepped into Shanghai.
Before going to Shanghai, one of my colleagues had shown me pictures of his visit to the city nearly ten years ago. In his collection, there were pictures of skyscrapers, the famous Bund, and some Chinese temples. In the pictures, the sky looked muddy, overcast with smog. Only that image of a smog-laden Shanghai stayed with me. Avoid the beggars in Shanghai, my colleague warned me. There will be plenty of them and they will approach foreigners like you, he said. I noted his advice. From my Indian experience I knew how to avoid beggars, so I was not worried about encountering them.
She is eyeing her cards with the smile of a sphinx.
Soon her fingers will wield magic, and she will complete, with a flourish, her fourth consecutive run. Natasha will throw her hands up in surrender. Sara will curl her lips. Mrs. Sawhney, a veteran member of the Prometheus Club, will wink at her, with a rakish grin only a septuagenarian can pull off. Four decades ago, Mrs. Sawhney was pretty much like Ranjana herself, only slightly more voluptuous. The coterie of women in the club yearned to be like her, although they wouldn’t admit it even at gunpoint.
Ranjana, daughter of a celebrated diplomat and wife of the Honourable Commissioner Surendra Raghuvanshi, evoked similar emotions amongst her peers. The genteel curve of her brows, arched over eyes twinkling with an adamantine sheen, her high patrician nose, and her plummy, sophisticated voice made her the mascot of an aristocratic lineage. Surendra was quite a dark horse in his circle. His burning ambitions only added to his boyish charms and pushed him higher up in the ranks at a dizzying speed. Forty-three and at the top of his game already! Everything about him exuded a heady animal magnetism people found hard to resist. He was a connoisseur of art, music, and vintage collectibles. It was no big surprise that he chose a wife as delectable as everything else he possessed. If Surendra was a dark horse, Ranjana was a chestnut gazelle. Her slender frame moved with fluidity and grace. Her kohl-lined eyes were dark as absinthe and equally intense. So was she. Strong-minded and opinionated, men found her airs hypnotic. Women had a more visceral reaction, a melange of awe, envy, and resentment.
Ellen puts steaming bowls of soup on the table, while little May shows her granny some colouring she has done. But May really has eyes only for Eddie.
“You little coquette!” Ellen says, laughing. “Eat your soup before it gets cold.”
“So where do you work, Eddie?” asks Ellen’s mother, helping herself to an egg salad sandwich.
Egg salad sandwiches are Eddie’s favourite. With lettuce, just like this. His Mom used to make them this way, with onions and chopped pickle and not too much mayonnaise. And Ellen looks better than she did earlier, nicer hair. Kind of a chestnut brown, and the soft wave suits her.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Here I am, sitting at the table polite as can be, telling myself this creepo social worker’s not too bad looking, this stuck-up loser, as I grin and nod at her old bag of a mother. “And where do you work?” she asks me. Where the hell does she think? Who’s going to give Eddie Slocum a job? I mean, who am I going to work for; you think I’ll work for some jerk-off? Gofer this, gofer that?
A minute ago I was on my way out. For good, I mean. Jesus, I hate heights. That falling … But it doesn’t really go on all that long. You get used to it. After a few seconds everything goes black. Yeah. Nothing to it, once you get your feet wet.
“Dadi, please stop throwing methi leaves on the answer sheets.” From where I was perched, I could watch over everyone in the courtyard. I had one eye on them, the other on the open pages of my history textbook.
The Indian Renaissance:
Social Reforms and Women Empowerment
Half of these words sat in the shadow of my head. I sat on the steps that went up to the roof of the house, a few peanuts in my fist, head resting ever so slightly on the iron railing through which I could see everyone if I rolled my eyes to the left.
It was difficult to concentrate with all the chatter. Everyone drags their chores to the centre of the courtyard, around our holy tulsi plant, during winter months. Whatever can be done in the sun is done in the sun. My grandmother was settled comfortably on a jute charpoy in this courtyard. The shadow of a towel hanging above her, on a clothesline that ran from a nail on one wall to the water pipe in the opposite corner, fell on her face. Like a starving cat with a heavy coat, her crisp starched puffy saree didn’t give away her small-boned figure. From up here she looked like a bundle of clothes, her back rounded and one knee pulled close to the chest, as she craned her neck into her work. She was sifting through small heaps of coriander, dill, and fenugreek, separating fresh leaves from the thick stalks. A quick pinch —and into a large dish with tiny holes they went. The stalks were thrown into a pile on the floor right next to her; they would later be disposed, into the flowerbed in the corner, where purple periwinkles bloomed scantily.
“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.
“I think I played on the swing.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.
“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”
“I think the same will happen to you.”
“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”
Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.
Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.