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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

Maachér Jhol (Fish Stew)

Atreyee Gupta 

The smashing of the mustard seeds against the bowl transports you to that sub-basement kitchen of long ago. Your mother grinds spices. Oil sizzles in her pan. Fists of smoke unravel themselves through the damp rooms. You play with your best friend Rachel in the dim hall.  

“What’s that weird smell?” she asks.  

You sniff, catching whiffs of holüd, cardamom, aniseed.  

“What weird smell?” you counter, puzzled.  

“Ick, how do you not notice it?” She pretends to gag.  

The embarrassment cuts into your bone. 

The list of mortifications will grow: your mother’s saris, baba’s belligerent English pronunciation, the Ganesh photos… your parents’ culture mutates into a source of shame, a chasm between who you are and who you wish to be. Even your mother as housewife humiliates you.  

“Why can’t she work at a job,” you fret, “like other American moms?”  

You want a mother who drives, bakes chocolate chip cookies, dresses in smart pantsuits. You realize your skin, your taste buds, and your kitchen are repugnant to the society you live in. Home feels backwards and uncomfortable. You avoid it and your parents as much as possible. 

You hurdle into teenager-ship creating a barrier of contempt between you and ma. She’s not worth listening to. What does she know about strong, modern women? She never leaves the house, alone. Her sphere is domestic, a competence to be despised. There’s more to you than the sewing of buttons and the preparing of dinner. You swear you will never be like her. 

In college, you discover the necessity of the very tasks you dodged. Muddling through laundry, vacuuming, and washing dishes, you gripe about a mother who never taught you these skills, a mother who failed to educate you in independence. Brooding over limp pasta, charred egg, or burnt rice, you are bewildered that your dorm mates can concoct japchae, hóngshao, and cháo gà. You wish you had their mothers: tough, wily women who instilled in their daughters how to be loud and proud.  

At your first job, you incite curiosity from your white colleagues.  

“What’s the best Indian restaurant? What is Diwali? Do you make tikka masala at home? How do you wear a sari? Where can I get one? How do you say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘please’ in Indian?”  

You laugh under the weight of representing an entire country — guilty about your lack of cultural knowledge, angry over their oblivious othering. You decipher that despite eschewing your parents’ heritage, you will always be an encyclopedia of manners in America. 

You meet him. He likes you darker, not paler. He indulges your passion for Jane Austen. He praises your work ethic. He doesn’t mind the Shiva lingam garlanded in flowers above your parents’ mantelpiece. He doesn’t object to the odor of asafetida pervading their walls. He pronounces your mother a talented chef. You’re shocked. Can someone exist with whom you are safe to be you? Can someone in this landscape allow your confusion as you navigate between two unfamiliar realms?  

When you introduce him to your parents, your mom gasps, “but, he’s not Indian,” then murmurs, “his parents are mere shopkeepers,” as she fries eggplants. Rage and grief mingle with the bégun bhaja. You find it difficult to swallow this complicated recipe. 

History progresses. Everyone yogas. The organic grocery store in your neighborhood starts selling mango chutney. Turmeric develops into a fad. You achieve a measure of confidence in your identity. Your culinary repertoire expands from fettuccine Alfredo to flan. Yet, you resist learning any of ma’s dishes. You center your ethnic cravings around tandoor, samosa, naan, aloo gobi — never kitchüri or dal. Those meals still remind you of the childhood shame of being Indian.  

You haven’t known your lover long, but you love her painfully. Because of this, you believe fate is punishing you when she reveals she has a malignant stomach tumor. You sit beside her hospital bed watching the machine hooked up to the tube inserted in her throat. You observe her frame shrink under the sheets as the months pass. You bring her home when she pleads to be taken away. You sigh.  

“What is it?” she croaks.  

“I wish I could do something for you.”  

“Make me one of your favorite dishes from your mum,” she requests. 

 ~~~

Ma,” you ask over the phone, “how do you make your mächér jhol?” 

 “Oh, Want to make îlish? Ok, I’ll tell you,” she replies, excited.  

It’s the first time you’ve sought advice from her, shown any interest in her cooking. You brace yourself, knowing she doesn’t have formulas. This will be retold from memory with vague ingredient amounts and uncertain directions.  

“Acha…first wash fish steaks, then grind mustard, turmeric, salt, cumin, and coriander…” 

How much?” 

Oh, mmm…chota…a little bit…” 

You roll your eyes, already frustrated. “How much is ‘a little bit’, ma?” 

Enough to coat fish.” 

So…teaspoon? Tablespoon?” 

Oh, you’ll know as you’re rubbing.” 

Yeah, but that comes after. What if I haven’t got enough when I grind them?” 

So, grind more.”  

I need numbers, ma…this is my first time and if I don’t use specific quantities how can I know when I’ve got it right?” 

You taste as you go.” 

Fine! I’ll taste it as I go, but can you make a guess?” 

“Acha, mmm… okay… two teaspoons… no half tablespoon… no…” 

You scribble furiously, attempting to translate her disjointed instructions into a tactical prescription. You interrupt each other, break into a squabble; a simple conversation turns into agony.  

“This,” you muse, “is why we don’t speak more often.”  

It’s an improvement, however, to the usual awkward pauses: chasms between your islands of comprehension. You feel warm, optimistic. The desire to tell ma about her surges through you.  

These immigrants nowadays,” she announces, having diverted from fish-talk to evening news, “all the wrong sort. No values.” 

You congratulate yourself on having held your tongue. “Don’t be stupid. Keep things easy.”  

Eta banachish for someone?” she asks. 

A friend,” you reply. 

 ~~~

Now here you are: fillets set upon the cutting board like floppy sponges, spices arranged at attention on the countertop. The galley kitchen looks like you’re prepping for a YouTube video. You’ve propped up your makeshift notes. Your breath comes fast, you’re sweating. The result means more than anything you’ve accomplished before this. What if you haven’t deboned properly? What if you can’t achieve ma’s flavor profile? What if?  

“Next time,” you promise, “I’ll thank her for her culinary prowess.”  

A drop of perspiration runs off your nose. You begin mashing the mustard seeds. 

Atreyee Gupta explores the liminal spaces of nature, culture, and identity. Atreyee writes about travel and its transformative experiences at Bespoke Traveler. Arc Poetry, Blue Cubicle Press, Rigorous, Shanghai Literary Review, and Shooter Lit have published Atreyee’s work.  

Insignificant Man

Niranjana Hariharanandanan 

It was the summer of 1998 – the hottest one in the last few years of northern Kerala, and I remembered it vividly by the dozens of extra mangoes that were heaped on the porch of Valliama’s ancestral house.  

We called her Valliama or greataunt. She was a pudgy woman who always dressed immaculately in neatly pleated saris, with distinctive fine facial fuzz that bristled with anger when our muddy paws trailed across her red peroxide flooring or one of us snuck our fish  under a mound of rice. She was a stern woman and the matriarch of the family, but her heart was always open to us kids through  the year. Memories of Valliama were reserved for our summer vacations. With the first hint of the mango ripening by the eastern verandah, all of us maternal  cousins would flock from different parts of the country to her ancestral house – our tharavadu. This is where the story begins.

The leaves on the jackfruit tree by the garden wall burnt a deep amber, and we could smell the intoxicating scent of jackfruits and ripening mangoes when we traipsed outside for long, afternoon games of hide and seek. By the end of summer, Valliama would gather the ladies in the house for the famous family  pickling of jackfruit preserves or chakkavaratti 

Summer was when Valliama kept the family cool with glasses of spiced buttermilk; when the rumble of the old wooden fan offered constant background music to whispered afternoon gossip. A summer of scorching afternoons, where the older men of the family spent many long afternoons, snoozing on the tiled porch, mouths agape. But one of them didn’t and that was Valliachan or my great uncle. This scrawny unassuming man with his deep chuckle and reticence did not sleep during afternoons. Instead, hsat on the porch, his bony legs hardly touching the ground, a blue faux leather diary in hand and a supply of bespoke ink pens lined up beside him. He spent the better part of the afternoon writing away solemnly, his puffy grey brows furrowed in concentration – a common enough sight to most of the family, but one that caught my child’s eyes 

Valliachan was the actual head of the family, considering my greatgrandfather had passed away when we were toddlers. Traditional Malayalee houses in the nineties looked up to their kudumbhanathan or head of the family to make decisions- even the most insignificant ones like what vegetables to source from the local markets or the auspicious  time to schedule monthly temple visits. But my greatuncle wasn’t like that. He didn’t fancy himself standing tall above my aunts and uncles, thundering at the workers to do their job. Neither did he tell the women what to cook. He sat  awkwardly in the spot allotted to him at the head of the table, head held low as he chewed his way through his insipid rice without ghee, or dal and a side of coconut sauteed cabbage,his favorite vegetable. He loved cabbage and asked for it almost every other day; my aunt grudgingly obliged- sometimes frying it with shallots, coconut and spices,  or just boiling them in salty water when she didn’t have the time. Valliachan never complained; he was happy just at the sight of the bright shards of yellow vegetables mounted high on his plate. Then, he retired to his usual place by the porch, muttering  poetry under his breath, blue diary tucked under his  armpit.  

Valliachan spent a considerable amount of time, sucking in his teeth, writing long diary entries meticulously. No one knew what he wrote considering nothing significant happened during his days, except for the occasional walk to the milkman’s house or relatives dropping in to invite the family for housewarmings or weddings. He had no friends with whom he could go on long evening strolls, who sat about the verandah eating paan and swapping stories. So, it was a matter of curiosity to me what this 70-year-old man wrote about, page after page in his blue diary. When asked, he smiled secretively at my indulgent inquisitiveness and proudly murmured that he’d been keeping a diary since 1970!  

“That’s a lot of diaries, isn’t it? Where can I find them?” 

“Oh, I make it a point to burn them in the back yard every 31st  December– no, I wouldn’t want anyone reading them.” A vehement nod of the head followed. 

The curiosity of what this insignificant man wrote in his diary drove me into a frenzy. This combined with the fact that my other cousins were much older than me and of late  spent the summery afternoons whispering to each other rather than playing rough and tumblemade me long for a new ally. Valliachan seemed a potential candidate, and the added temptation of peeking into the blue diary and uncovering “secrets” made me wait no further. I resolved to spend my days tailing him around the house, to win over his friendship – who knowsPerhaps one day he would bend his head over, hook pinkies with me and show me his secret diary, just like Anjali, my best friend back in school, had!  

And so, began an implausible friendship. Valliachan, a perpetually wary person who didn’t initially fancy the inquisitive eagerness of a nine-year-old confidante, eventually relented soft-soaped on the inside, he acknowledged that he was finally the object of someone’s awe and interest. So began our morning ritual:. I sat by his side, slurping Bournvita, eyeing him as he sat at the farthest corner of our living room,a glass of milky coffee in hand. Once seated, he opened the newspaper to the obituary section. It was always this page that caught his fancy. Whether India won a game of cricket against Pakistan or a space shuttle scaled the moon, Valliachan’s eyes were glued to the grainy black and white pictures of morose looking people. He scoured them meticulously once, twice, and then a third time as he sipped the last dregs of his coffee, a smile playing on his lips.  

“But why, do you know these people? They all look so solemn. Didn’t anyone click them smiling?”  

“No,” the mildly irritated mutter, “They are gone, and it is the custom that the picture be of this kind.”  

 “Who made the ‘custom’?  Do you know any of them?” 

 “Who knows, I might have. I’ve seen many of my classmates’ pictures here over the past 10 years! There was Seetha and Manu and Ramankutty and even my dear friend Mohanan, last month.”  

 (A little awestruck that Valliachan went to school too!) 

 “Does that make you sad?” 

 “Well, no… no.” 

 “Then why do you look at it?” 

No answer, just the rustle of the newspaper as Valliachan folds the pages neatly over, and looks at me with a smile.  

Now who wants to listen to some riddles? 

Whether I liked listening to those riddles or not, Valliachan would start on them, sometimes messing them up, recycling ones he’d already told me, or making up puerile ones on the go! Hwas a repository of jokes and riddles and had a few tricks up his sleeve, which he revealed over time as our camaraderie ripened like the mangoes heaped in our kitchen. We’d spend late mornings by the porch overlooking the pond, me carrying my coloring book in case things got too dreary – and Valliachan with a pack of matches, some sticks and a notepad where he tried his riddles and tricks on me. The coloring book was never opened as I sat squealing with laughter while he walked me through jokes or dared me to answer tests he set for me.  

“Who told you these riddles?”  I’d probe. 

Well, it was a professor who used to teach him mathematics in secondary school. Was it secondary, or high school? He doesn’t quite remember. But he remembers other things. the professor was a witty man, just a few years older than them. He knew all these tricks and he’d spend lunchtime showing the boys how to do them. He even knew how to mimic the voices of popular Malayalam and Tamil actors. See, this was how he did it” a poor rendition followed, and I laughed glibly, not really finding it funny since I had no context to who these people were, the actor or the professor for that matter.  

Context or not,” Mashu became a permanent character in most of our chatter. Mashu allegedly was a jack of all trades; he was a poet who could compose verses off the top of his head; some that Valliachan recited were from those sonnets. He could sing ghazals better than the most popular singers on radio, or reality shows, and Valliachan would sneer at the contestants on television and look meaningfully at me, as though both of us knew who the better singer was.  

Mashu was seemingly a good cook too. Valliachan raved on and on about the tamarind chutneys, coconut curries and cabbage pickles he used to make. He remembered their texture to the minutest detailmemories seared into his palette of long afternoons after school watching Mashu cook spiced fish curry and tapioca. But he’d stopped eating spices, hadn’t he? I’d known Valliachan all of nine years, and his staples now consisted of dosa with a drizzle of weak chutneys, and rice, curds or the favoured cabbage.  

“Oh, it was a harsh case of ulcers. It had to stop anyway, someday,” a downturned glance, a furrow of the brow, the grinding of the denturesLet’s look at some more riddles?”  

My nine-year-old mind equated Valliachan’s increasingly bland taste in food with his relationships with the family members, mainly Valliama. In hindsight, it was hard to tell that they were married – that these two contrasting people had once found joy in each other  or maybe not. Relationships back in Valliachan’s time probably did not believe in compatibility more so than they did in convenience. As long as he received his 11 O clock coffee by the porch and the side of cabbage for his afternoon meal, and she got her way in the kitchen, their relationship was pretty much a tuneless rhyme of monosyllabic mumbles, suppressed sighs of frustration and perhaps regret. All I knew was that fuzzy memories of his childhood professor from fifty years back brought more of a sparkle to Valliachan’s eyes than the sight of his wife bearing a bowl of  sauteed cabbage.  

The riddles continued as did the long summer afternoons under the jackfruit tree as Valliachan wrote away in his diary or pored over newspapers, but my nine-year-old mind did fathom that there was more to Valliachan than what met the eye. All I knew was that under the staid 70-yearold, who stuck to his diary entries and memorized poetry, was a solitary man who struggled with social disquiet.  

He wore firm blinkers that he set for himself; for instance, he didn’t appreciate a woman or child – an” inferior being to the lofty Malayalee man — interrupting his conversations. His amicable face crumpled in distaste at the sound of my sister’s anklets when she walked the corridors. He despised it if Valliama made an occasional omelet on a Saturday the day of purity that meant serving only vegetarian fare in Malayalee houses back then. His lips would fade into a thin line, and he’d disappear behind the foliage with his treasured pack of cigarettes in a cloud of smoke. Smoking was his only vice, sometimes two or three packs a day. A stealthy affair that caught only Valliama’s and now my keen eyes.  

Maybe if I been older and nosier, I could’ve probed him more on his childhood. Did he have friends? It seemed odd that all of his friends had died or skipped town. If he cared so much for them to go to the lengths of checking the obituary, why didn’t he meet them, considering he lived in the same village all of his 70 years? Did he have a long-lost girlfriend, who had betrayed him? Did this deep-rooted disdain towards women stem from that, or was it him upholding the family tradition  of the male Malayalee privilege? I didn’t know. I was nine that summer and all I cared about back then was that there were enough mangoes to last till my visit ended and that Valliachan would eventually give me the blue diary and some secrets to go with it 

Summer was coming to end, and we kids were reluctantly planning on packing our suitcases to head back to the city. Valliama went easy on us and let us snack on the fragrant jackfruit sweets she’d prepared over the last month, while we spent afternoons watching rented superhero movies.  

The first splatter of the summer showers arrived during our last week in the village. Valliama scurried around rubbing our locks dry, and passing around brass cups of spiced tomato and lentils to ward off the sniffles. The coconut groves smelt of wet earth and promise, and Valliachan instructed the gardener to cut off banana stems we could use as umbrellas as we scurried in and out of the house.  

The sweltering month of summer also spelled the onset of mandatory power cuts or load shedding in Kerala those days. Valliama ensured the kids were in a tight-knit huddle during this dreaded 30-minute patch, keeping us busy with games of monopoly or carrom.  

One such night, I watched, whilst munching on a mouthful of sticky sweet pudding, Valliachan sitting at his usual corner with a lantern by his side, poring over his diary, a smile playing on his lips. I crept up behind him, and he snapped it shut, laughing at my sneakiness.  

“What do you write in thisNothing happens in your day, does it? You don’t even watch movies with us, which you can write about… or do you have a secret friend you converse with when we’ve gone to bed?”  

A chuckle. “Yes, you are my secret friend, right, Ammu?” 

A beaming round face, and a tiny chest puffed up with pride.  

“But won’t you be lonely once I go back to the city?” 

“Why should I? I have 70 years of memories to live with. Mashu used to say that we don’t need the actual person in our lives to feel their presenceThere are other ways to stay connected.   

“Like phone? You don’t even own a phone!” 

“No…” a pause. “Sometimes, you cannot be with some people in the conventional way because your forefathers do not allow it. So, we respect our elders, do the right thing and come up with other ways to stay connected.”  

The nine -year- old in me is puzzled 

“But you can always call me in the city. I’m sure Valliama would allow it.”  

Valliachan chuckles and ruffles my hair. 

“I wasn’t talking about you… well, I will not call. But we will stay in touch. Here, take this ink pen. It was the one Mashu gifted me when I passed my tenth standard. I want you to start practicing writing with ink pens now. Enough of those pencils.” My chubby, awestruck hands examine the pen and fiddle with the nib.  

“Now don’t break it, keep it safe and do your sums using this. And maybe occasionally, you can write me a letter.”  

“I’ll write to you every day, Valliachan” 

In the shifting light of the lantern, the beady eyes furrowed by bushy brows have melted into pools of black, and Valliachan kept dabbing at them.  

 “That’s what we all say, Ammu, but we forget. Only those who have everything to lose, remember.”  

I have suddenly realized that my hands are making interesting puppet shapes in the spool of light on the wall.  

“Look, Valliachan, I’ve made a deer head! Can you do this? 

The last day of summer dawned stormy and grey, and we were forbidden to go outdoors. I woke up early to the sound of the raindrops falling on the tiled roofs and sat sleepily beside Valliachan, toying with my new prized possession as he waited for his morning paper and his caffeine fix. He seemed in good spirits and promised to buy me a bottle of purple ink to go with my new pen — if the rains ceased by afternoon.  

The papers came in and Valliachan opened them, sifting straight to the obituary section. I perched on his armchair, eager to see the faces of his dead acquaintances. A surprisingly large number had come up over the summer. A few pages rustled as Valliama brought over the coffee cup.  

They were out of milk and would need a few packets more. Would he request the gardener to head over to the milkman?  

There was silence as Valliachan’s eyes stayed glued to the paper, at a picture of a grainylooking man on the bottom right corner of the picture tile.  

Valliama clicks her tongue irritably and bustles away. 

A few moments have passed and creamy froth form on Valliachan’s now cold cup. I flick at it with my pinkie and lift it under Valliachan’s nose to get his attention.  

He smiles at me vacantly, as I follow his gaze to the photo. 

Is this your friend, Valliachan? 

No, and a long pause.  He’s staring at the photo so intently. The man in it isn’t smiling as per Valliachan’s “custom”; he’s got puffy hair on either side of his forehead and a pouty mouth. Nothing significant about him. Just another old man who has become momentarily famous by dying.  

Valliachan seems to have lost the trail of thought, and the vision of Valliama bottling pickled amlas for us to take back to the city has got my interest.  

I don’t see Valliachan for most of that day; he stuck to his chair, sitting pensively watching the raindrops fall. At lunch when Valliama brought out a bowl of grated sautéed cabbage to go with his rice and lentils, Valliachan pushed it aside, almost vehemently. Eyes downcast, focusing on his rice, a fervent shake of his head.  

Valliama inwardly muttered a sigh of relief. She hated cooking that vegetable for almost half of her life.  

That afternoon, while I played hopscotch on the porch of the house, for the first time in my nine years, I saw Valliachan retire indoors for a nap. His blue diary and a rack of pens lie neatly by the side of his chair, forgotten. I rush up to it, finally excited that I could pry into his cherished secret. I open a page at whim and discover, in neatly scrawled Malayalam, words of longing and belonging – for summery afternoons behind the school wall, of the taste of cabbage that still lingered, for lyrics of the poetry that seemed unforgettable and the sound of melodies that rung in the ears deep into the nights . My young self couldn’t fathom the meaning behind those words. But I was sure of one thing; I knew Valliachan would never write a diary entry after today.  

I don’t remember much of that day from that summer, except that the rains came down heavily, and Valliachan took to his bed and his promise of buying me the ink remained what it was – just a promise. I left the village, and our summer was forgotten just like the last bunch of mangoes that had disappeared from Valliama’s kitchen.  

Fin

Niranjana Hariharanandanan is a writer/ documentary filmmaker and works as Executive Producer with Discovery Networks Asia Pacific. When she’s not working on a piece of fiction or on a documentary film, she’s traveling back and forth to run her heritage homestay in Cochin, Kerala. Niranjana is a scuba diving enthusiast, a Murakami maniac and loves all things Japanese.  Her work has been published by Indulge, The Book Smugglers Den and The Punch Magazine. She is an alumnus of the Dum Pukht writers workshop and is working on her first novel. 

Broken Dolls

Kasturi Patra

Sinjini would do anything to make her mother happy. She’d go for hours without food; smiling, she’d accompany Ma in crowded trains and rickety buses reeking of pee and littered with paan spit; she’d even wait in the huge living room of a white bungalow, which was surrounded by pink bougainvillea and guarded by a snarly Rottweiler, while her mother went into the bedroom with a man whom Sinjini had to call uncle. The man’s nose resembled a parrot’s beak and he used baby talk with Sinjini even though she was soon to turn 11. 

“If Baba asks, what do we say?” Ma would question her after the visit, while thrusting an icecream cone in her hand. Sinjini had sensitive teeth and found it painful to eat icecream. Santanu used to love icecream. Maybe, like everything else, Ma remembered her brother’s preferences, and assumed that Sinjini liked the same things 

“You went to meet with your sari suppliers,” Sinjini had memorized the line. Ma needn’t have worried; Baba hardly spoke to her, or to Ma for that matter.  

 Ma ran a sari boutique on the ground floor of their apartment building. Sinjini had learned words like authentictraditional, and vintage from the ladies who gushed over the saris. Even though Sinjini claimed to love saris, in reality, she was a bit jealous of how they took Ma’s attention away from her. It reminded her of her elder brother, Santanu.  

Ma didn’t run the sari business when Santanu was alive. Neither did she drag Sinjini to the house with the Rottweiler and the parrot-nosed man.  

Ma worshipped Santanu.  

Sinjini’s skin still prickled at the memories of the scratches and bruises that Santanu used to leave on her body. Once, when he pushed her down the stairs for not letting him cut her hair, her head spilt open and she needed six stitches. He had to change three schools in five years for jabbing a pencil in a classmate’s eye, for pulling down a girl’s skirt in the morning assembly, and for slapping a younger kid so hard that he lost part of his hearing in one ear. Still, Ma insisted that he was just a hyperactive boy who was misunderstood by an insensitive world. Baba didn’t care for any of thatwhenever a complaint reached him, he’d whip out his leather belt and drag Santanu to his study. Sinjini and Ma would keep banging on the closed door as Santanu’s muffled cries gradually subsided to resigned whimpers.  

Those days, Ma’s life revolved around taking Santanu to counsellors, therapists and football classes to better channel his energy.  

Sinjini was five when Santanu died. He was nine. 

* 

Ma got a phone call from the hospital that day. Sinjini’s grandmother, who was 70 and lived alone, had fallen in the bathroom and displaced her hip. The schools were closed due to the summer vacations.  

“Sunny, look after Jini till I’m back,” Ma had ruffled Santanu’s spiky hair and kissed his forehead. He promptly wiped off the imprint of the kiss with the back of his hand 

Sinjini was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bedroom that she shared with her brother, preparing lunch for her mutilated dolls—some had clumps of hair torn off, some missed a couple of limbs, while grotesque smiles were drawn across some of their faces with red markers. These deformities were Santanu’s handiwork but Sinjini knew better than to complain because that meant an argument between her parents, which would lead to Santanu being punished and thereby seeking even more violent revenge on her. Instead, she treated her injured dolls with medicines till they stopped complaining about their pain.  

“Jini, listen to your brother and be a good girl, okay?” Ma kneeled and kissed her chubby cheeks. Unlike Santanu, she didn’t rub it off. She rather wished that she could nestle a bit longer inside her mother’s sandalwoodandclovescented chest 

Before she left, Ma requested the aunty in the upstairs flat to keep an eye on them. 

Santanu kicked her make-believe kitchen into disarray the moment Ma left the house.  

“Dumb game,” he scoffed. 

Sinjini looked up at her brother’s lanky form towering above her. The twisted smirk on his face challenged her to argueor, worse stillcollapse into a crying heap. Tears  welled in her soft, brown eyes and her chin quivered, but she bit the inside of her cheeks till the urge to cry went away.  

Sitting across her on the carpet, Santanu started banging her Barbie’s head against the side of the bed. She took a deep breath to control the urge to snatch the doll away. Provoking him might result in suffering Barbie’s fate.  

He stood up after a while, and said, “I am going to New Market.” 

Sinjini didn’t understand how that was possible. It took 20 minutes to reach by car. Ma was supposed to take them to New Market that evening to buy school supplies.  

“How?” She rose to her feet, clutching the damaged Barbie behind her back 

“I know the way… you keep an eye on Ghosh kakima. I’ll be back soon and get you chocolates.” 

“But…” Sinjini gulped, afraid to voice her concerns. She’d never been left alone. What if those kidnappers who lured children with toffees came and rang their bell? 

“Don’t be a baby,” Santanu flicked at her forehead.  

 Sinjini nodded. She wasn’t brave enough to snitch on him. The plumcolored bruise on her thigh was still fresh  

He changed into his He-Man t-shirt and put on the cap that he insisted on wearing everywhere those days. Before disappearing at the turn of the lane, he waved goodbye without turning back.  

 *

Sinjini realized that she’d fallen asleep when Ma shook her awake. “Jini, Jini! Where is Sunny? Wake up.”  

“He…” Sinjini wiped off the saliva dribbling from the corner of her mouth. “He said he was going to New Market.” She blinked, adjusting to the light.  

“What!” Ma shrieked and leaped up, “Why didn’t you inform Ghosh aunty?” 

Sinjini staggered to her feet, still unsteady from the nap. She was alarmed at how pink Ma’s face had become.  

You should’ve stopped him, you stupid girl!” Ma yanked her by her wrist to the car. She didn’t care that Sinjini was still wearing her faded green frock with an ink stain near the chest. At the parking lot, Ma sprang out of the car even before Sinjini could unbuckle herself.   

They jostled through the crowds that were haggling over bags, shoes, junk jewellery, and umbrellasThey visited the toy stores, bakeries, even the pet shops. People glared at Ma elbowing past them, but she seemed blind to everything, even the dog poop and the banana peel, which Sinjini had to hop over.  

“Sunny! Sunny!” Ma’s screams floated over the noises of hawkers fighting against one another to offer the lowest prices for their fancy hairclips and lacy underwear. Ma didn’t notice the swear words being directed at themShe rifled through clothes, shoes, and bags hanging from the circular display racks, leaving them in heaps of disarray. The salesmen hollered their protests, but she seemed to have lost her capability for hearing.  

Sinjini’s little feet struggled to keep up with Ma and her arm throbbed in pain. The smell of eggrolls made her mouth water, but looking at Ma—her hair plastered all over her sweaty face, her sari coming undone, her forehead crumpled like the discarded paper cones strewn around the bhelpuri stall, her lips muttering prayers—all she wished for was to see Santanu materialize from a store with his toothy grin and the cap pulled low over his face.  

The police were informed after Baba returned. While they searched the city’s hospitals, morgues and other places where missing children might end up, Sinjini’s family spent the night driving in circles from their house to New Market.  

When the police arrived the next morning, Ma was splayed on the couch, her face buried in the grey t-shirt that Santanu was wearing before he left. Baba went to answer the door and Sinjini trailed behind him. The moustachioed man took off his cap and muttered something too fast for Sinjini to catch. She could only hear snatches of words. “Identification”, “hit and run”, “morgue”.  

Ma almost threw Sinjini to the ground to reach the officer. “Did you find him? Did you?” Her breath was ragged, as if someone had scraped the inside of her throat with sandpaper. Baba pulled her close and whispered something. “No!” She collapsed on the floor, raising her face to the ceiling and screaming like someone was stabbing her. Sinjini remembered hearing a similar bloodcurdling yowl only once before, when they passed a dingy slum near Sealdah where pigs were slaughtered behind small stalls and chunks of their meat hung from hooks.  

When they finally received his body from the morgue, they allowed Sinjini to take a last look at her brother’s face—only because she threw an ugly tantrum and no one had the energy to deal with her at that pointShe couldn’t recognize him at first. The top of his skull had been fastened to the rest of his head with rough crisscross sutures made by thick, black thread. The placement wasn’t precise and his face looked like a reflection on a distorted mirror. A fly hovered near the starfish shaped bruise on his cheek; his lips were chapped and swollen with a coinsized rusty wound in one corner; his slightly agape mouth revealed two missing teethSinjini couldn’t remember if he was already missing those teeth when he left the house that day. This was the face of her brother that would stay with her for the rest of her life. She’d flip through his photos and memorize what he really looked like, but the moment she’d close her eyes and try forming the image of his face, his lips, cheeks, and eyes would start shifting shapes until this lifeless, brutalized face would loom before her.  

She wanted to see his body underneath to check if he was more broken than her dollsThey wouldn’t let her. She screamed in protest till someone pulled her up and took her away, her arms and legs punching and kicking the air. They gave her some medicine and put her to sleep in the bedroom that she shared with her brother. When she woke up late in evening, she walked up to his bed and put her head on his pillow. It still smelled of him—sweat, wet grass, chewing gums and the vanillascented baby cream that Ma  rubbed on his chapped elbows and knees. From the wardrobe she shared with Santanu, she pulled out her maimed dolls and spread them out on the bedroom floor. None of them was as broken as her brother. She kicked her dolls and stomped on them and pulled out their hair. Yet, nothing could assuage her anger. During moments of helplessness, when Santanu would be defacing her dolls or physically abusing her, Sinjini would wish for the same to happen to Santanu. Did she somehow cause this to happen to her brother?  

When a neighbour found her yanking the blonde hair off a doll’s scalp, she put Sinjini on her lap. Throw them away. I don’t want them, she wailed. The neighbour promised to get rid of the dolls. 

 

For days after Santanu’s death, Ma and Baba stayed slouched on the living room sofastaring straight ahead without really looking at anything. Relatives and neighbours thronged their house. She’d hear them talk about a boy named Santanu, but she doubted if it was the same boy who used to be her brother. They reminisced about his excellent goalkeeping skills, his kindness towards the neighbourhood strays, his hilarious mimicry of friends and neighbours. They seemed to have forgotten about their constant complaints against him when he was alive. Sinjini figured that, perhaps, when a person is no longer present to bother you, you only spoke nicely about him.  

She felt Santanu’s absence when no one pinched her awake, locked her inside the dark bathroom, or threw her favorite teddy bear into the garbage dump. Thfeeling was one of momentary relief before it curdled into dread and distress as Santanu’s badly stitched face with its ghoulish grin flashed before her. Her parents’ faces creased with grief, their frigid silence, and the way they stopped noticing Sinjini even more than before, made her wish that Santanu was back in their lives.    

When Ma sobbed holding onto one of Santanu’s action figures or his Here Comes Trouble mugSinjini would also cry. Initially, her tears would be borne out of a helplessness of not knowing how to comfort her mother. Slowly, like a sea leaving behind lost things on the shore, Santanu’s absence brought back some not-so-unpleasant memories. She missed his sweaty afterschool face, eager to tell her about his day, his mischievous smile as he shared a stolen dessert with her, his stories about the planet of aliens, and his latenight tears muffled into the pillow while Sinjini pretended to sleep 

When they’d ordered restaurant food for almost a month and the layers of dust on the furniture and windowsills were too thick to ignore, Baba hired a maid.  

After school, Sinjini would rush to her mother’s bedside. She’d run her fingers through Ma’s long hair to untangle the knots that appeared from going days without washing or running a comb through it. She massaged Ma’s forehead with her little fingers. Ma didn’t smell nice anymore—her room held the ripe smell of sweat and unwashed clothes. The chilling blast from the a/c made Sinjini shiver. The strong menthol scent of the balm that Ma applied on her forehead stung her eyes, but she still cherished the moments when her mother held her little body close to her chest and dipped her nose into her hair and neck. Every time Ma did that, Sinjini would pray to God to not let those warm raindrops fall on her head. But sooner or later, her curly hair would be damp. Her mother would end up hiccupping and covering her face with her hands; the groans coming out of her made Sinjini wish that she could make her pain vanish by treating her the way she used to treat her broken dolls. After some time, Ma would take a few pills from the nightstand and doze off. Sinjini would sit with a picture book and crayons next to her. She didn’t want to leave Ma’s bedside because she feared that, one day, her mother would dissolve into that dirty, ochre bedsheet. Then, she too would disappear.  

The only change that Sinjini didn’t mind was that her life wasn’t governed by the fear of violence anymore. She expected her mother to stop crying after a while and maybe, love her the way she loved Santanu—dedicating all her time to her, taking her to music classes and art lessons, making her favorite snack (which Sinjini would tell her was prawn chowmein), chatting about her day at school.  

Instead, Ma’s condition kept getting worse till it became necessary to admit her to a hospital.  

Two years after Santanu’s death, when Ma seemed a little better, Ma opened her sari boutique to get a fresh start.  

* 

The first couple of years of Ma’s sari business held some of the best memories for Sinjini. After school, she’d wait for Ma to zoom over in her bright red Maruti 800, her sunglasses perched on top of her head, beads of sweat dotting her nose. Sinjini would rush to help her unload the polythenewrapped saris. She soon learned all their namesbaluchari, katha, jamdani, tant, pure silk—each word felt like a powdery winged, colourful butterfly taking flight from her tongue. The ladies—mothers and teachers from her school—would flock around, feeling the fabric between their fingers, negotiating prices, grinning like children when they bagged a sari that Ma said looked perfect on them.  

During the school holidays, Sinjini would eagerly accompany her mother to the villages in West Bengal. She’d run around with the local children, delighted at the sight of a cow being milked or cow dung cakes being dried on the walls, while her mother sat with the weavers, giving them directions for the next set of saris. She would be Ma’s proud little assistant at the exhibitions and fairs, neatly jotting down the price tags, keeping an eye out for shoplifters. She’d study in a corner of the garage of their apartment building, while carpenters and interior decorators worked to convert it into a sari boutique.  

Slowly, as the business grew and her mother got busier, her mother hired assistants. The trips where she accompanied her mother kept declining, till, one day, Ma told her to stop being a baby and focus on her studies.  

Sinjini wasn’t a baby. She was nine years old and she knew about periods. She’d seen people kiss on TV and knew that man and woman had to be naked together to produce a baby. No, she simply loved Ma’s familiar presence around—the way her voice turned excited and squeaky with a customer, the way she jotted down the day’s sales in her notebook, chewing the end of the pencil while making calculations inside her head, the way she smelled of sandalwood and the white tuberoses that she decorated in vases around the boutique.  

Baba became busier withis work trips, and even when he was around, Sinjini wished their paths didn’t cross. 

One morning, when she woke up at dawn to revise for a class test, she noticed Baba curled up on the living room divan. Over the next few mornings, she realized that Baba now slept there. She hardly found Ma and Baba in the same room and for most of the month, one of them traveled. Their maid, Kobita Didi, was the only permanent fixture in their house, beside her. 

Her interactions with Baba happened at breakfastsometimes. “So, how’s school?” He never grew tired of asking the same question. Then, after speaking for a bit about her studies and his office trips, Baba would hide his face behind the business section of the newspaper and Sinjini would gobble up her toast and eggs, speeding up the process by gulping down milk, so that she could excuse herself from the table at the earliest. 

With Ma, it was different. In the afternoons, when there was no customer at the boutique, they’d join Kobita Didi in watching one of the Bengali soap operaand together they’d make up the backstory for the overly dramatic acting onscreen.  

“Oh, now she’s crying because her husband hated the payesh she made!” Ma would exclaim. Sinjini would roll with laughter, falling all over her mother, “And he is angry because she forgot that he didn’t like cashews in his payesh!” 

On some weekends, Ma would take her for plays at Rabindra Sadan or to art exhibitions at the Academy of Fine Arts. Sinjini didn’t understand it all; being around Ma was enough for her. 

Yet, she was afraid of demanding anything of her mother. Once, when she wouldn’t stop crying because Ma was leaving for a three-day exhibition to Shantiniketan, Ma had shouted, “I’m tired of you all. First, Sunny’s constant demands and now you. I just wish I could leave all this and go away, forever.” From then on, Sinjini never gave Ma a chance to complain. She was a good student and fitted well in classHer experience with Santanu had taught her to gauge other people’s emotions and act in a way that pleased them. She never caused any trouble that would make her mother regret having her. 

When Ma introduced her to Ratul uncle, 10-yearold Sinjini didn’t quite like the parrot-nosed manAfter Ratul came into Ma’s life, their mother-daughter fun times became few and far between. Ma still wanted to take her out for movies or dinners sometimes, but Sinjini knew that Ratul (she never called him uncle in her head) would be therehence, she’d make study related excuses and decline those invitations 

* 

Ma was away, attending a sari expo during Sinjini’s twelfth birthday and Baba most probably forgot.  

Right after she returned from her trip, Ma came to pick her up from school. “Surprise! Belated happy birthday!” Ma hugged her. The smell of her rose perfume and the light chiffon sari engulfed Sinjini in a cloud of warm delight. 

Ma took her to a grand five-star hotel where a live band played classic rock. “Let’s order something while we wait,” Ma touched up her makeup even though she looked perfect. Her coral lips and the perfect arch of her eyebrows made her look even more stunning than she already was. Sinjini wished she would look like her mother when she grew up, but she’d heard her grandmother regret that she didn’t inherit her mother’s milky complexion. 

“Are we waiting for Baba to join us?” Sinjini pretended to check out the menu to hide her curiosity. Ma lifted a heavy paper bag from underneath the table. “Your birthday gifts!”  

She tore open the first package to find the complete Sherlock Holmes collection. The second package contained a pair of high-waisted jeans that her current favorite, Kajol, wore in the latest Bollywood blockbuster. The smallest package contained a set of sparkly nail polishes and lip glosses. 

“Yes, you can finally put on some makeup now,” her mother smiled indulgently. 

She bounced out of her seat and hugged her mother. As she kissed Ma’s cheeks, a shadow fell upon their faces. Her spirits dropped like someone had pushed her down a tall building. She gritted her teeth even while her lips stretched into a smile while Ratul took her limp hand in his own. 

As they settled down, the waiter presented them with the menu. Sinjini looked at the cluster of happy faces around hereating dinner, celebrating milestones, creating memories to cherish laterThe tinkle of wine glasses, the soft bursts of laughter, the subdued conversations. The fountains, the chandeliers, the expensive gifts lying in a messy heap on a chair beside her. She inhaled the gentle lavender room freshener and absorbed the mellow guitar notes played by the bandNothing seemed to conjure up the happiness that she’d felt a moment ago.  

“Wheres Baba?” Before she could stop herself, the words slid down her head and landed on her tongue. 

Ratul cleared his throat, “Um, shall we order?” 

 “Yes, I’ll have the Peking duck and a glass of white wine, please?” Ma said from behind the menu. Ratul summoned the waiter by clicking his fingers like he was a king and the waiter was his lowly subject. Sinjini’s jaws hurt from clenching. 

“What will you have, Jini?” 

How dare he called her by the name that was reserved for her parents? 

Sinjini pointed a finger at random on the menu. 

“Just a tomato soup?” 

Sinjini shrugged and looked down at the spotless tablecloth. She remembered the times she used to hide her tears from Santanu to avoid further torture and humiliation. She glanced at the two adults in front of her exchanging furtive but happy glances, holding their hands below the table (as if she was a child and didn’t understand what was going on), talking about how their day had been. Crying would only mean messing up this picture and drawing attention to herself. It was apparently a celebration in honour of her birthday, but the clinking of their glasses and their inside jokes made her feel like she was the least important person at the table.  

When the food arrived, Ma served her some pasta and tomato soup. Sinjini tried a spoonful of soup because she wanted to remain as invisible as possible, but it scalded the inside of her mouth.  

 “So, Jini, how has school been?” Ratul put his fork and spoon down and set his face to a serious expression as if he really cared about her academic performance.  

Sinjini shrugged, not looking at him. 

“Answer him,” Ma’s voice had an edge of annoyance as she dropped her cutlery on the plate with a clatter. “Tell him about the prize you received for the essay competition.” Ma touched her arm across the table. The not-so-gentle pinch seemed like a subtle warning. 

“I received a prize for an interschool essay competition.” Sinjini sounded like a bored newsreader but, thankfully, her words helped in smoothening out the creases from Ma’s face. 

“That’s impressive!” Ratul sounded excited though his gaze was stuck on Ma, as if she was the one who wrote the essay. 

“YesThe topic was, what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jini wrote how she wanted to open her own bookstore, someday. The judges thought it was far more original than the essays about doctors and engineers. I never tell her what she should do with her life. I want my daughter to be independent!” Ma bestowed a generous smile in her direction. 

Sinjini stabbed her pasta with renewed vengeance. It was oddly satisfying how the splattering of red sauce looked like blood 

My daughter is very mature for her age,” she announced, before clearing her throat and holding Sinjini’s gaze. “That’s why I feel you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you. You know how Baba and I haven’t been close over the last few yearsThat house… Sunny’s memories…” Her voice choked. “I’m moving in with Ratul uncle for a fresh start.”  

Under the table, Sinjini pricked her thumb with the fork but that still didn’t hurt as much as her mother’s wordsShe imagined ripping apart the gifts and stomping on them like she did to her dolls after her brother died. Instead, she pressed her bloodied thumb to the napkin on her lap so that it went unnoticed. 

Wasn’t the sari business her mother’s fresh start, and didn’t Sinjini help with it? 

Baba and I have decided to separate,” her mother was still talking, “But I will always be there for you even if we’re not living together. I’ll visit youYou will also stay with us during the holidays.” 

 * 

Sinjini chewed on her pencil and stared at the numbers and letters that floated around her. She had a maths test tomorrow but nothing made sense. There was a knock on the door. Before she could respond, Baba entered. 

She dug her toenails into the flesh of her ankle to remain calm.  

Her father sat on the bed next to her study table. “How was school today?” 

She gave a vague nod while Baba looked down at the algebra problem. He pointed to the “x”, “You need to multiply this with the two on the other side of the equation…” 

“I know!” she lied, before shutting the book. It was difficult to carry on a casual conversation when her insides were bursting with the words that she’d practised for days in front of the mirror.  

She pretended to remember something and pulled open the desk drawer. “Found this in Ma’s dressing table,” she held the black tube of lipstick on her palm like an offering to her father.  

Baba took the lipstick and slowly rolled the tube. The silver ring encircling the black tube looked like the ring that sat on his finger, until a few weeks ago. The base of his finger bore the angry, pink welt from where the ring had previously gripped it. 

Please, please can you call her? She wanted to plead with him, Why didn’t you stop her? It’s not too late! You aren’t divorced yet! The lines she’d rehearsed crowded inside her head, each wanting to be the first to come out.  

“Maybe, call her…” she swallowed, and stared at the coral lipstick as if half expecting it to nod in agreement. 

“Tell her how you return early from work nowadays… tell her I miss her…” Her voice cracked. She didn’t know the phone number of the place where her mother now lived. Her parents had decided that that would help her get better adjusted to the “current changes”. “Can we talk to her now?” The words came out like a desperate plea and the tears didn’t help. She was ashamed of this blubbering display before the man who hardly knew her, but one small part of her also hoped that this rare outburst might convince him to try reconciling with her mother. It was unfathomable in her 12-year-old mind why her parents simply couldn’t make up, considering that they didn’t even quarrel ever since her brother passed away.  

He placed the lipstick in her palm and held her hand between his. His skin felt hard and cold, like a metal bench on a winter morning. “Things don’t work like that…” he whispered, and left the lipstick in her grasp. 

Sinjini wanted to shake him out of his placidity. but there was something in her father’s eyes, a bottomless hopelessness, or a plea to not make it even more difficult for him, or maybe, it was what she feared the most—he too was tired of the burden that Sinjini was, just like her mother had been till she gave up.  

She scraped her chair noisily against the marble floor and stood up. The realization that you couldn’t make people love you punched her hard on the face. It was far more vicious than any blow she’d ever received from her brother.  

“Can I study for tomorrow’s test?” Her voice was hoarse but the tears had dried up.  

Baba lowered his head and turned to leave. His hunched form looked like a droopy plant that hadn’t been watered for days. 

This time she made sure to bolt the door from inside. 

THE END     

Kasturi Patra worked as a market research analyst, strategy consultant, and equity analyst till she found her true calling and opted to write full time over the last two years. She is currently pursuing an online MFA degree in Fiction from Writers’ Village University. Her interest lies in writing literary short stories exploring the complexities of being a woman in India. Her work has appeared in Bengal Write Ahead (Rupa Publications), Escape Velocity—an anthology of thirteen contemporary Indian short stories, and anthologies published by Womens Web. Her short story, “The Atlas” is forthcoming in Litbreak Magazine in April 2020. She lives in New Delhi with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. 

Auspicious

Abhijith Ravinutala

I am 34, finally feeling fortunate, when I see her envelope atop the mail. I move to the brown Victorian chair; and the stand lamp attempts to brighten the study. My shaking hands hold the ornate invitation (on gold-trimmed cardstock) from Shilpa. I close the door, even though no one is at home. 

I was eight when Shilpa Aunty moved into our hilly West Lake neighborhood. Our house had just been robbed. Some of our friends’ houses, too. I was just glad no one had stolen my Yu-Gi-Oh cards. The thief had realized Indians kept collections of jewelry at home; necessary for not-so-subtle indications of wealth at parties. More people were paying attention to Indians then, because it was 2002 and people who looked like us, or at least had the same shade of skin, had done bad things in 2001. That same year, I became an only child. We didn’t talk about that, even when I tried, so I kept my memories quiet. 

My mother, whom I called Amma, but everyone else called Savi, became suspicious. She started working from home every day, and in the lulls between muted conference calls, she stared out of our den window, adjudicating the trustworthiness of passersby. She opened the blinds at a slant, just enough for her to survey the street, without being seen. When I was home from school, I used to watch her watching others. She wore thin, black sweatpants that didn’t match her Indian blouses, full of patterned, colored sequins shimmering in the light. Pulling at the hems of those blouses, I would ask for sweets. Sometimes the sequins fell off. I saved them in a box for a good reason. Amma never wore t-shirts after 2001 because she was praying a lot more. 

She was staring out of the window on a Sunday afternoon when she spotted Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle walking, holding hands. She trusted their Indian features and scampered outside to invite them in. My father, whom I called Nana, but everyone else called Rajesh, observed from the living room, holding a yellowed copy of Waiting for the Mahatma. 

Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle walked in, a tad reluctantlybehind my mother. “Mani, come here,” my mother ordered me to the door. “This is Shilpa Aunty and Pavan Uncle. They live on the next street. Say hello.” 

“Hello,” I said, waving both hands, one holding G.I. Joe and the other a hand-me-down G.I. Jane. 

“Mm” My mother warned. 

“Hello, aunty and uncle.” 

Shilpa Aunty lowered herself until her eyes met mine. “Aww, so cute.” She tousled my hair. She wore a red V-neck t-shirt, red lipstick. Red was, and remains, my favorite color. She was so fair-skinned compared to me – fair as my mother wished I was – and younger than any Aunty I knew. The four adults had tea at the dining table. I eavesdropped, lying on the fuzzy, mauve rug that covered our living room floor, pretending to play while translating their Telugu conversation to English in my head. Shilpa Aunty’s hair flowed down her shoulders like black waterfall. She even made my father chuckle. 

My mother talked at night of Aunty and Uncle again. Love marriage, she said, not arranged. She deemed it auspicious, having a young couple move to the neighborhood after the bad luck we’d had. She hoped they’d have a baby girl, soon. 

 ~~~

I was 14 when I started music classes with Shilpa Aunty. By then, I had refused to practice for the school marching band and weaseled out of extra math classes at Kumon. My agitated mother met with the school counselor and declared that extracurriculars were mandatory to attend college and become a doctor. She pronounced it “eg-is-tra-curriculars.” 

One night, at an Indian party, the kind of party where the kids snuck soda upstairs and played gory video games, Shilpa Aunty appeared from nowhere and grabbed my hand while standing in the buffet line. I became intensely aware of paneer curry and burnt chapati flakes in my fingernails. Her fingers were willowy and soft, like touching marshmallow. I glanced at my friend Atul, who stood nearby. 

“Your fingers are amazing! You should learn an instrument,” Aunty declared. She let go of my hand and it fell limply between us. 

“Me? Come on, Aunty.” I laughed nervously. 

“I’m serious. Come over on Monday after school. You can try a few instruments.” 

“Okay, sure.” 

Amma approved, provided I would become good enough to win an award or host a concert to list on my college application. She worried about why Aunty hadn’t had a child yet despite crossing 30. 

On Monday, during lunch, I relayed my excitement to Atul. My parents liked to say he was a typical jolly Punjabi, minus the turban, but I didn’t know what they meant. At 14, I was forsaking Friday night Bollywood movies with them for porn time. Atul sat across from me at the cafeteria table, eating ground beef and cheese nachos. 

“Dude, nicely played.” Atul nodded. “She’s so fine. Such a MILF.” 

“She’s not a mom yet.” 

“Right. Even better.” 

“AILF. Aunty I’d Like to—” I trailed off.

“Fuck. I love it, new word. AILF!” 

I had started hearing my sister’s voice in my head by then. She said our conversation was gross. “Since when did you start eating beef?” I asked Atul. 

“Since it was delicious. Try it.” He nudged the basket. 

“Nah, I’m good.” 

 ~~~

I was 18 when I packed my bags to attend UT Austin. I had given five sold-out sitar concerts around the city. Maybe I practiced as an excuse to linger at Aunty’s home, make her laugh with my Jay Leno impression until she leaned closer and her shoulder brushed mine. Maybe it was for Aunty’s cooking, too. We became friends, I suppose, and because we were friends, I knew she was sad. I didn’t know what to do about it. Aunty’s despair, like mine, was the kind that seeped into her music and bounced off her silent, suburban walls.  

Once, during a lesson, when Pavan Uncle was out of town, Aunty let me use their master bathroom. I saw a lacy, pink bra with a black outline. I can still remember it, dangling off the opaque glass of the standing shower, beckoning. 

College wasn’t even 30 minutes from home, but Mom cried when she saw me tear down my Lord of the Rings posters and shove my bags in the car trunk. I entrusted my sitar to Aunty’s instrument collection and bid her farewell. There was no point in carrying my West Lake memories to downtown Austin. 

On the drive to campus, Amma turned to Nana. “Did you hear about Shilpa? Divorce. Filed today.” 

“What? Aunty didn’t tell me.” In high school, nothing was true if your friend hadn’t shared it with you first. 

Po ra,” my mother dismissed me in Telugu. “Never got pregnant. Pavan did the right thing.” 

I fumed, squirming against the grip of my seat belt and my place in the world. “Whatever.” I heard my sister’s voice in my head, mocking. “Shilpa and Mani, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” 

“Shit.” My father stopped at a red light. “Too bad.” 

“Inauspicious,” my mother replied. “Won’t be calling her home anytime soon.” 

 ~~~

I was a miserable 22 when I returned home. I hadn’t been accepted by any medical schools. “Taking some time,” Amma told relatives, when they asked if I was a doctor yet. I yelled at her once to just admit that I’d failed. I spent my time back home browsing through medical school forums, spiraling through webs of anguish or promise with each new post. I hesitated to venture outside and see someone I knew, fearful of being the face of our suburb’s lost potential.

I asked my parents for an unearned graduation trip to Europe. They granted it, pitying me. I went to Rome and Amsterdam. I ate alone and ambled through the red light district, tempting myself and resisting, wondering if my morals made up for my low MCAT score. My boots clomped on the brick paths while a discarded pizza box floated neatly down the canal. 

After the trip, I asked for Atul’s advice since he gained admission at Dell Medical. While he directed, I trained as an ER technician and started a graduate school application. In January of 2017, which was the January I started to feel like myself again, my parents hosted a large puja at home to pray for my admission to graduate biology programs. We had held a similar ritual when I applied to medical school. After the prayers, the afternoon was all gossip and boredom. I stood, aloof, at the foot of the stairs, scrolling through my Facebook feed, of friends in elite medical schools protesting the presidential inauguration as if they had a stake in it. I heard the door open. 

A hand grabbed mine. Purple sari, gold trim, tiny golden peacocks dancing in intersecting triangles. Shilpa Aunty. She rubbed my index finger and then my middle finger with the bottom of her thumb. She peered at me. No red bottu on her forehead, so still single. Close to 40, I calculated, but her creamy skin still didn’t show wrinkles. 

“These fingers miss their sitar,” she said. Something new lurked in her eyes.

“I think you’re right, Aunty.” She dropped my hand.

“Come over sometime and I’ll cook for you. You’re too skinny, Manu. Miss college?” 

“Sure, sure. I’d like that.” 

“I still have the same number.” She gave me a hug. She smelled of alcohol, not fully masked by her perfume. She turned, picked an apple from the puja altar, folded her hands in front of the deity, waved to my parents, and left. A sea of whispers surged through the crowd. I hadn’t seen her in five years. She’d been shunned by our community after the divorce. Superstitions gave us an excuse to kick women while they were down.

My mother hastened over to me and asked what she’d said.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Invited me over to play sitar.”

She whispered, a fierce arch in her brow, “You cannot go there, understand? Radha Aunty said Shilpa is all into black magic now. I didn’t even invite her today.” 

“That’s gotta be made up.” 

“Don’t go.” 

“Okay,” I affirmed with a nod. 

I texted Shilpa Aunty after my next shift in the ER. She told me she was free on Monday and sent her new address. I lied to my parents that I was meeting Atul and left the house, borrowing one of the family cars. From behind the blinds, my mom watched me pull out of the driveway. 

I was dressed in a cardigan, jeans, and suede boots. It wasn’t a date, I told Maya’s voice in my head. But I hadn’t had a date since college, so close enough, she said. I told Maya to shut up. I took two deep breaths outside Shilpa Aunty’s house and knocked on the door. She welcomed me in a sleeveless maroon top and gave me a tour of her single-story house. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, view of the Greenbelt, tiled kitchen, washer and dryer. Aunties were always concerned with washers and dryers. She could bike to work, she said, to stay fit. I imagined her legs were toned under her tight white jeans. 

She invited me to play the sitar. I tossed aside my cardigan and sat with the instrument, attuning my ears to the individual strings once again. My fingers fumbled. Shilpa Aunty sat behind me, curled the tips of her fingers in between the gaps of my hand and held on, bending my hand to better form, activating dormant muscle memory. The music rushed back. I felt her bare arms slide over my skin as she rose and sat before a mridangam. Drum and sitar, we played the tone she directed. The sound mixed notes of nostalgia with the clanging present, the rhythm of the future. When we stopped, we were both sweating. 

“Wine?” she asked. 

“Of course.” 

She poured two glasses and we clinked them, without words, feeling the tension of the moment. 

“You cook meat now?” I asked, putting my nose to a steaming mutton curry on the table. 

“Ah, ah!” She tapped my nose to bat it away. “Yes, we have fish fry, mutton curry, dal, grain.” 

We feasted. I didn’t know how she knew my favorite dishes since she only made vegetarian before the divorce, and I didn’t question her repeated pouring of wine. We giggled. It felt easy. I liked the way she tucked her hair behind her ear before attacking a piece of meat. She taught me how to suck the marrow out of the lamb bones, and it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. We moved to the couch afterwards, pausing before dessert.

Her bare feet matched the light suede of the couch. They had perfect arches, unlike mine: flat, brute. In the course of our smiling, flirting, reminiscing, we inched closer until our feet touched. The next joke brought our heads closer. Then, all I could see was her face. Her skin was light enough to glow, her lips pink enough to be stained blood-red by the wine. I don’t remember who kissed who, but we stuck together for an entire minute, running out of breath. She pushed me away. 

“Oh, my god. Savi. Rajesh. What are we doing?” 

Emboldened by the feel of her tongue in my mouth, I pulled her close again. “I don’t know.” 

She gulped her drink, finished mine too, and set the glass down. We made out on her couch. She wore a red bra. I was entranced by her, unaware of my own body. She slid her hand into my pants and I finished almost instantly. Awareness rushed back along with embarrassment.

I apologized profusely, gathering my clothes and shoes, even though I wasn’t sober enough to drive yet. Aunty told me to relax and it made me panic even more, even made me angry. 

My breathing finally slowed down when I reached my bed. We both wanted it, we were consenting adults. No big deal. Sure, I couldn’t tell anyone, but I couldn’t tell my parents about seeing girls my age, anyway. I texted Aunty that I was sorry for the way I left, that I wanted to see her again. She responded promptly. 

“You should probably just call me Shilpa now.” Shit, she was mad. 

Another text. “Don’t worry, I understand. I enjoyed it too. Free Thursday night?” 

Hell yes. The next morning, I informed my parents I would be restarting sitar classes. Amma tried to discourage me, but I played up the lost soul angle. Classes would be free this time, I mentioned. 

 ~~~

I was a happier 22 when Shilpa and I started fucking twice a week. We didn’t just have sex, and we weren’t quite making love, yet. But we did fuck. We couldn’t do much else, either, for fear of being seen in public by Pooja or Purva Aunty, who sought pleasure in spreading secrets. On Valentine’s Day, Shilpa stopped me from wearing a condom. She had started taking birth control, she said; there was no need. Shilpa contorted her body in ways I’d never seen. She placed my hands and feet as she pleased, specific 45- or 90-degree angles, and dictated acrobatic rhythms. I assumed this was the benefit of dating older women. She told me otherwise, propped up against her creaky, teak headboard, after we finished.  

 “Have you heard of Kama Sutra?” 

“Those positions tonight?” I ran a finger down the curve of her hip, rubbing the redness left by my own body. 

 “No. Kama Sutra is the ‘lite’ version. Good for white people and movies. I do Tantra.” 

“Isn’t that black magic?” She seemed annoyed. My body went cold, feeling naked beside a near-stranger when we weren’t in sync. 

“The problem with your generation is you can’t decide what you want to believe. Religion is outdated but call yourself spiritual and it makes you ‘deep.’ Give me a break.” 

“What do you believe?” 

She sat up straight on the bed. I tried nuzzling her neck, but she remained stiff. She told me about worshipping the 5 Ms, which only started with M in Sanskrit. Meat, Wine, Fish, Grains, and Sex. A more potent, ritual sex. “When someone says it’s bad,” she said, “you either listen, or you find a way to make it good for you.” 

“That’s why you cook meat now!” 

She winked. “It’s getting late. Your parents will worry.” 

I hated it when she mentioned my parents, especially in bed. I rose to leave, and she headed to her prayer room as she always did after sex. She lay there in the flickering light of one diya, a clay lamp, with her face pointed towards the Kali poster on her ceiling. Others call her the Goddess of Destruction, Shilpa had told me, but Hindus know destruction is just another name for rebirth. Seeing a part of her head from the bedroom, her hair disheveled about her wide-open eyes, I shivered. I slipped out and drove home. resolved to confess to my parents. I didn’t. 

Instead, I took Shilpa on proper dates, to places where aunties didn’t roam. We drank beers and played minigolf. She kissed me in the open daylight, by hole number 12 with the replica of 360 bridge. We visited cocktail bars on South Congress and held hands across small, wooden tables. Any Desis we passed stared at us. I was glad to leave behind questions without answers in their minds. Curiosity, suspicion, they lingered in the air in Texas, stuffed behind the pleasantries  but Shilpa and I stayed immune. Our attraction was an escape from answers, failure, and unwritten rules, so it demanded distance from the relationships we had. That’s how she phrased it at least. I stopped seeing my friends, all but Atul. Two months in, I told him. 

“Are you serious right now?” His eyes bulged, which made starker the thinning wisps of hair on the peak of his forehead. His time in medical school had made him stressed and made me jealous. 

“Serious, bro.” We had barbecue brisket and beer, and I felt like a man. 

“Mani and the AILF.” 

“When you say it like that, sounds like I’m on a journey.” 

“Shit, this is mythical, though. I mean, black magic and all.” 

“Not black magic.” I bit off some beef brisket. “How’s Mandy?” 

“She’s good. Great. We don’t get enough time together. Hey, is what you’re doing even right?” 

He caught me off guard. “What’s wrong? We’re both adults.” 

“Yeah, but, that’s like your mom’s friend.” 

“No way. She was more my friend. My mom barely has friends since You know.” 

“Long as you’ve convinced yourself, man. I just wonder what Maya would think.” He took a long drink and ordered another Dos Equis. 

I drove to Shilpa’s and raged against Atul in my head. Screw him. Shilpa and I did as we pleased, made ourselves more human. I slept over that night at Shilpa’s without a care for returning my parents’ car, despite her goading me to return. That was how they finally found out about us. 

A certain Jaya or Jyoti Aunty reported the overnight presence of our family car at Shilpa’s place. Histrionics ensued. My mother was distraught. She couldn’t believe I’d take the family car for doing “God knows what.” She knew, I thought. She doesn’t need to ask God. 

I sat still on our worn, black leather couch and endured Amma’s curses and abuse. She bemoaned the whole town, considering us inauspicious.  

“All our prayers for your admission are wasted!” she shouted. 

My father was aloof, peering above his bifocals from the edge of his armchair, grunting approval of my mother’s harangue. “Everything has consequences, Mani,” he said. “Reputation.” 

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

He yelled, finally, angry because I’d spoken with disrespect. I delighted in his rare show of emotion and smirked, which was another affront. He stormed into his room and I stormed out the door, taking one of the car keys. My mother chased me out the door yelling, her feet thudding on the cold cement driveway, and in the rear-view mirror, I saw her watching me, her paisley patterned top glinting in the orange sunset. I considered turning back to collect any fallen sequins. Maya’s voice in my head was silent, as if it had moved on. 

The day was Holi, festival of new beginnings. When I arrived at Shilpa’s, mini Ziploc bags of dappled powders littered the coffee table. There were suitcases packed for her work trip to Sunnyvale. I huffed about my parents and their paranoia. Shilpa seemed in better mood than I’d ever seen her. 

“They’re not wrong, you know,” Shilpa said. “What goes around, comes around.”

I thought of Maya and me riding bicycles. “You gotta be joking.” 

“No. You just have to decide whether you believe this, us,” she drew me close, “is good or bad.” 

“Of course it’s not bad, who is anyone to tell us what to do with our damn lives

“Shh, shh.” She put a finger on my lips, and brushed her other hand across my cheek, leaving a dash of red powder. “Let’s play,” she muttered. 

“Wine?” 

“Not tonight. Bhang instead.” Milk with cannabis paste, a Holi tradition. 

She led my hand to her bedroom, picking up the mini Ziploc bags. She’d laid out all-white sheets on the bed and across the carpet. Out of her dresser, she procured another larger Ziploc, containing grey ash. She smeared it on my forehead in three lines and uttered a mantra. “Strip,” she ordered. I obeyed. She followed. Shilpa opened all the bags and placed them at the edge of the bed. We stood face-to-face and smeared powder on each other’s bodies. Red for her plump cheeks, yellow around her breasts, torso and hips, orange for her thighs and feet. She smeared me all over in blue, and I turned her around and squeezed her tight. I threw her on the bed and we scattered powder over the sheets. We made love. Our rubbing bodies sent flashes of powder floating into the air. Collisions of blue and orange, red and yellow. There, in union with her, I had hope for myself again. 

The bed resembled a Jackson Pollock when we finished. Lying exhausted, panting, she turned to me. “Do you know why I call you Manu?” 

“Nickname for Mani?” I raised an eyebrow. Sweat flowed into the powder on my face. 

“Manu was the first man. Like Adam. You know what they had in common?” she asked. “Desire. Desire is the root of everything. People like your parents, most people, they’ve made life opposite to desire. Tantra says embrace it, harness it. And you get what you need.” 

I wasn’t in the mood. “Why you gotta bring up my parents to bed?” 

She threw a damp, sultry leg over my scrawny hips, pulled me in. She kissed me like our lips were made to stick together. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispered.

“Me too.” I beamed. “Just two weeks though.”

In the morning, when I returned, Amma fussed over what I wanted for breakfast. It infuriated me. Even after all her disapproval, she insisted on making me eggs and dosa, with the coconut chutney I liked so much. I wanted her to neglect me. I went to my room and cried, locked myself in. She left the plate outside my door. My mother’s unconditional love led me to unconditional guilt. I thought of diving over the edge of a dry, grassy cliff. 

 ~~~

I was a few days shy of 23 when I received my acceptance letter to a one-year master’s program at Columbia. 60% off tuition, like it was a blowout sale for second chances. Amma insisted we visit the temple, and I couldn’t refuse. Nana even looked happy, patted me on the back. I called Shilpa, who gushed with pride. So did Atul. He planned drinks for the next week with our friends from the hospital, on the same day Shilpa was scheduled to return from California.

The rooftop bar downtown, on 6th Street, was the sort of place I frequented on nights out in college. Seeing it in the daylight exposed all the grunge. Grimy pipes jutted out of every corner, like its insides were slowly consuming the bar. We sat at a wooden table and said cheers to my accomplishment. People passed banal remarks, asking me not to forget them in New York, and sang happy birthday. When I felt like a failure, life was urgent, moving scene to scene. Success made life slow. 

Atul and I walked up to the bar and he told me he was breaking up with Mandy. He couldn’t balance everything. I told him he needs hair plugs if he’s on the market again, hoping he would laugh. If two people are close, it felt, their lives operate like a seesaw: when mine was finally up, Atul’s went down.

I left Atul and the others, anticipating Shilpa’s goat curry and fish fry. Navigation routed me towards the Congress Ave bridge. It was sunset; eager tourists lined the sidewalk. I stopped for a red light, and the bats flew out from under the bridge. Hundreds appeared, darkening the sky with tiny gaps of light. Maya adored Batwoman. She wanted to glide like her. We used to ride around the neighborhood and dream of flying our bikes over the limestone hills. Once, we snuck our bikes outside a safety fence and rode the steep part of the hill. Maya was too fast. Her bike disappeared. I peered over the dried, grassy cliff’s edge, and wanted to believe I saw nothing but red poppy flowers and dried riverbed. I almost dived after her, unsure how to return without her. They recovered the body several yards from the mangled bike. 

At the cremation, the priest told us death was just a part of life, before another life. My parents prayed for her to be reborn, soon. Death was indeed a part of life, I learned – it hung like a heavy cloak on the living, dampening the way we walked through the world. Amma became religious and paranoid while Nana became silent. I inherited Maya’s G.I. Jane, and her dream of becoming a doctor, and we donated the rest, tried to be a different family with different memories. But we couldn’t shed those cloaks. I grew resentful of the past, all pasts, in which I didn’t stop Maya from falling. 

Three cars honked at me. I slammed the accelerator and kept driving to Shilpa’s house. I decided to speak to her about Maya, but she didn’t answer at the first ring of the doorbell or the second. I called, hoping she was in the bath and that I could join her. No response. I sat on her stoop to wait for her and noticed something in the lawn, sticking out of the unkempt grass. I sauntered up to the sign. “For Sale,” it read. 

Standing alone, on her lawn, I realized I knew little about Shilpa. I called again that day and the next, left voicemails and texts. She’d only needed two weeks to clear everything out, including my place in her life. I felt nauseous for a few days, as I often did when my parents were proven right. 

 ~~~

I am 34 now. Doctor, house in New York, married. The comfort of family practice shines on my clean-shaven face. My wife, Danielle, is visiting her wealthy relatives in the French Alps. When she returns, we have decided we will try for a baby, who will not know its parents met on Tinder. I fish out a pair of scissors from my desk drawer to open the invitation from Shilpa. If I could just steady my hand against the flood of memories. 

The invitation contains a picture of a young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old. Looks just like Maya. Can’t be. My heart wants to leave my body and splash into the picture. 

I turn the picture around. A line in Shilpa’s measured handwriting, with the stubbornly large capitals: 

“Did you decide? Was what we did Good, or Bad, or in between?” 

Behind the picture is a generic invitation to a Telugu coming-of-age party, when a girl wears her first half-sari. “Please join me for the occasion of celebrating Mangala’s Voni function. She will be giving a sitar concert…” Her name, Mangala, means auspicious. It had to be so. She’s our child, the outcome of two unlucky people unifying to wish better for themselves. 

The party invitation reads Edison, New Jersey. Shilpa and our daughter are just two hours away from me, tucked into the anonymity of a large Indian population. There, Shilpa could weave any story she wanted: the brave widow, raising an only child; the abandoned single mother, toughing it out. She’d become a mother. In a way, she’d given me hope just when I needed it. Perhaps we all attained what we needed, as she believed we would by living outside the usual rules. Even my parents might’ve been granted their wish for Maya, but I’m reluctant to tell them. They might be consumed with investigating rebirth, hiring swamis to match astrology charts. Faith, when rewarded, can be frightening. I can’t tell Danielle or Atul either. This hope, or question, will be mine, will replace my guilt, tucked into my heart in a place which aches to believe. 

From under my desk, I pull out the box where I’d saved my mother’s fallen sequins. Inside is a kaleidoscopic mound of reflective colors. All the sequins, from all the dresses I thought Maya would never wear. There is also a tattered G.I. Jane. I stick the photo of Mangala and the invitation in the box and tuck it away. I will wrap it later for Mangala, for future that’s possible through the past. 

Abhijith Ravinutala was born in India and grew up in Dallas, TX. He studied History and Business in undergrad and recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on Hindu Studies. Now, he is reluctantly a corporate strategy consultant based in Atlanta. He spends most of his free time consuming or creating stories, as well as managing a mental health nonprofit named MannMukti. He is currently finishing a short story collection and starting a debut novel. Visit him online at abhijithr.com. 

Road to Gede

Satyaki Kanjilal

12 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Kamurpur Village
West Bengal,
India.

Dear Mr. S.K. Das, 

You don’t know me. I want to make sure you’ll get this letter in time. It will cost me over five hundred rupees to send you this letter through speed post. I write this letter because I believe that you must know a girl. Maybe you’re even related to her. Her name was Kaberi Das. I don’t know how old she was, but I guess she was in her twenties. She is dead. I don’t know when she died, but she is dead. I know that for sure. It is urgent that you get to the provincial town of Barrackpore. Her body is in the district morgue. It will be there for fourteen days. If no one claims her body, it will be cremated without proper funeral rites. Those bodies are burnt in the district incinerators without priests reciting the final hymns over the dead. No one deserves that. Not even prostitutes. Yes, I know that she used to work in Natihati’s red light quarters. Even prostitutes deserve proper cremation when they die. So please claim her body and see to it that she gets proper cremation. 

Yours faithfully,
A good wisher 

 

15 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Kamurpur
Village
West Bengal,

India.
 

 

Dear Mr. S.K. Das, 

I heard that you haven’t claimed the body yet. I sent you the letter three days ago, and I spent good money on that postage. Do you really want her body to stay in that awful morgue? I’ve heard that no matter how many disinfectants you use, you can’t get rid of the smell of the rotting corpses. The dead bodies there are either bruised, or burned, or bloated, or stitched up. No one deserves to rot in a morgue like that.  Don’t you know a stranger can’t cremate her? Her soul would keep wandering and won’t find peace, if a relative does not cremate her. I’m sure you must know this. If you don’t claim her body, you’ll regret that for the rest of your life. Trust me, I know it.   

 If you are wondering who I am, it won’t do you any good to know my identity. Just so that you know, I think it was 5 am in the morning on January 11. Maybe it was 4 am. I’m not sure about the time. The time doesn’t matter anyways. I was out on my morning walk by the river Ganges. I like watching the sun rise behind the highrises of town Chinsurah. That’s on the side of the river Ganges. I like to walk before the din and bustle of the town picks up. Before hawkers start to peddle their wares in the streets and commuters rush to take a ferry, a train or a bus to get to their office. Before laborers curse at those who get in their way while they heave and huff with heavy loads on their back. I love to just walk by the river and breathe the air before I start my day. My day is full, listening to nagging customers at my grocery store who keep asking for more credit.  

It’s weird at home too. You see, my wife and I don’t talk much. Are you married, Mr. Das? If you are, you know how painful it is when a couple is married but don’t love each other. My wife and I just tolerate each other. The happiest times are when I go out for a walk in the morning.  

There are hardly any people on the street, very few solitary souls like me walk by the river that early in the morning. I hear sparrows chirp, doves coo, and maybe crows caw on my walk.  

But I heard no such thing on the morning of January 11. 

 It was a foggy morning, and even the early birds were silent that day. I could barely see what lay two yards ahead of me. You see, there is this soccer field where I used to play as a kid. I used to be quite popular in school and college as a football player. I was so good that I had a shot at becoming a professional football player for a club in the Indian super league. I tore a ligament during a college match, and that was the end of my dreams. That football field reminds me of my good times as a football player in high school. So, I was walking on the morning of January 11. I was wearing a monkey cap and a gray sweater.  

My wife hates that sweater, so I wear it whenever I get a chance. You know, just to make her mad.  

As I walked on the football field by the riverbank, I thought I saw someone lying down. It was odd because the drunks in the town usually sleep on the main street. It gets cold by the river at night. When I bent down, I could see that it was the body of a girl and she was dead. Her eyes bulged out of her sockets. Her hair was unkempt, and her red saree was disheveled. I almost screamed out loud, but I couldn’t. I found my throat dry, and my stomach churned. I had seen her last week. She was waiting for customers on the street in the redlight area.  Now she had a gold chain with a locket on it. There was a jute sack lying close to her body. I don’t know what got into me, but I searched the sack. I found a sealed transparent plastic packet that contained a bunch of unopened letters.  

I know how the police work in this town. I have to pay them “protection” money every month. They extort from all common businessfolk and are in cahoots with the politicians. I knew they wouldn’t care about a whore and would dump her body in the morgue. Someone should take care of her body. I noticed those letters. I thought if I informed someone perhaps her body would be taken care of. I looked around. No one was in sight. I took the chain from her neck and the packet of letters with me and hurried home. I kept looking back to make sure no one spotted me. The fog helped, and I didn’t hear anyone raise the alarm 

My wife and our maid servant were still sleeping when I got back. I turned on the light and slumped down in a chair. I noticed your name and address on the first letter in the packet and wrote you my letter. I haven’t read any of those letters. I will mail you the gold chain and the packet after you claim her body. Her body was found later that day by a fisherman. I heard she was strangled, and the police have written off her death as a random act of violence.  

Please, you have got to claim her body from the morgue before they dispose of her without proper funeral rites. You cannot let her soul wander in the afterlife without finding peace. 

Yours sincerely,
A good wisher 

P.S. I wonder why you didn’t open her letters. For Kaberi’s sake, I hope you open my letter. Her soul needs to find some peace. In this town, life as a prostitute is very hard.   

 

18 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Kamurpur
Village
West Bengal,

India.
 

 

Mr. Sucharan K. Das, 

Kaberi’s body is still in the district morgue. If you are wondering about me, then I’ll have you know that I am a resident of Natihati. Some of our town whores buy their supplies from me. Some of my other customers have objected and complained that I shouldn’t have them as customers. But business is business. Besides, even prostitutes are human. We can’t just treat them like dirt. Some of the prostitutes who visit my grocery store knew Kaberi. I have been able to gather bits and pieces of information. They say that Kaberi was from a village near the border town of Bongaon, and she was tricked into this business. She didn’t become a prostitute by choice. Well, none of them come to this line of work out of choice. They are either tricked or forced into whoring. 

 I was close with a prostitute once. Her name was Sneha. She was eight years older than me and was in this business for about ten years. From what I hear Kaberi was nothing like Sneha. Sneha was wise. Kaberi was impetuous. Sneha never tried to escape from the redlight quarters. She knew better. She knew they would find her. She knew that the pimps and madams pay “protection money” to the cops, so it is was no use to go to them. Kaberi used to fight with her madam, who used to beat her, but Kaberi never gave up resisting. Kaberi  tried to escape twice but never got beyond our town limits. She was brought back. She was starved for four days, was locked with shackles in some storeroom and beaten black and blue. Her friends had asked her to accept that there was no escape. From what I hear, Kaberi used to say that she was getting out somehow.  

Perhaps on the night before she died, Kaberi managed to flee again. The other two times she was caught by her madam’s enforcers before she even got to the railway station. Perhaps this time she thought that she would hide by the river side and try to sneak across the River Ganges early in the morning in some fisherman’s boat. Perhaps she planned to take a bus and keep changing buses till she got to her village. That would have been a roundabout road, but she must have thought she had a chance. But there is no escape. They only let you go when you are too old for any customer to be interested in you or when you have some incurable disease. That’s how Sneha got out. Sneha never got a proper funeral cremation. Sneha’s soul must be wandering now. She can find no peace.  

So please claim Kaberi’s body from the morgue.  

Yours sincerely,
A
good wisher 

P.S. I visited the officer in charge of our police outpost and told him what I did. He was angry that I messed with a dead body. I asked how much I needed to pay to keep those items. We settled on a price. I am sure that he was happy to take that money as he couldn’t care less about Kaberi. 

21 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Kamurpur Village
West Bengal,
India. 

 

Mr. Sucharan Kamal Das, 

This is my last letter to you. One of the girls was at my store today. She said, her madam told her that Kaberi’s body hadn’t been claimed by anyone. Aren’t you getting my letters? Aren’t you reading my letters? You may not have cared about Kaberi when she was alive, but she is dead now. I am spending my hard-earned money on all these speed posts. Don’t you care about Kaberi at all? How could you let her body rot at the morgue? If I had an option, I would have never done that to Sneha.  

You see, I never paid attention to my studies in college. I always wanted to be a football player After I had torn my ligament in that college football game, I had no hope of playing for a league team. I was never interested in studies. I flunked in my first year, and I dropped out of college. My father forced me to work for him at his grocery store. He had plans of starting another business. He wanted to get into the business of supplying potatoes. He didn’t have enough capital to start his business. So, he decided to marry me off and use the dowry to start his business.  

One of our relatives told her about a girl from some far away town. She was involved in a scandal, and no one was willing to marry her. Her father was loaded and was willing to pay a hefty dowry. You see, she had eloped with a guy to a resort and spent a week there. The guy had promised to marry her, but he just dumped her after sleeping with her. She was a college graduate, and her family wanted to marry her off. My father wanted to use that dowry to start his new business so he told me that I must marry this girl. Her name is Juhi. I objected. I didn’t want to marry a stranger. My father laughed. He said that that Juhi’s father was paying enough money to start a new business. He was also paying enough money to buy a new house in our town where I could live with her. You see, I had been staying with my parents after I dropped out of college. My father said I had no choice but to marry her. But I didn’t want to marry her. So, I ran away from home, and slept on the streets of Kolkata for two nights. I was hungry, and I soon ran out of money. I was picked up by the cops, and they beat me up because they thought I was a vagrant. They kept asking me about my address and beat me with a heavy stick. I could take it no more, so I told them my address and they called my father. My father told them to let me rot in the police lockup for a few more days. I was in police custody for five days. No charges were filed.  

Mr. Sucharan Kamal Das, have you ever been locked up by the police? There were eight of us in  a 20 feet X 30 feet cell. The inmates smelled, and there were cockroaches on the floor. Inmates had peed on the wall of the cell, and it stank. I lived in hell for five days. I prayed to goddess Kali to let me out of this cell. After five days, my father bribed those police officers to let me go. After spending my time in a police cell, I knew I didn’t want to run away again.  

But I didn’t want to marry Juhi. I hadn’t seen her in my life ever. I was supposed to meet her for the first time on my wedding night. I thought my time in the police cell would ruin this wedding. But her father was desperate to wed her off. To ruin my chances of marrying Juhi, I started visiting this brothel in our town. Sneha was the first prostitute with whom I slept. She wasn’t good looking. But Sneha used to listen to my troubles. I could talk to her about anything, and she would never judge me. My friends stopped talking to me after I started visiting Sneha. You see, Natihati is a small town and there are no secrets.  I had asked her many times if she wanted to get out of that business and she used to tell me that there was no way out. Then I started visiting her just because she would listen, and for nothing else. I just wanted someone to talk to. I told her that I was to get married to a girl in three months, and Sneha kept asking me not to visit her.  

I moved to our new house with Juhi after our wedding. I told Juhi about Sneha on my first night with her. You see, a relationship should not start with a lie. I was sure that her father must have known that I visited Sneha and that he must have told his daughter. But Juhi didn’t know, and she burst out crying. She thought she was tricked into marrying me and wanted to leave for her home the very next day. I told my wife she could leave whenever she wanted. Juhi left, but her father sent her back. He told her, now that she was married, she had to deal with her new life. I don’t know why my wife never divorced me. I never asked her why. We slept in separate rooms. She was a graduate in Maths and found a job as a clerk in a local office. She could have moved out, but she didn’t. She told me that house was bought with her father’s money, so she was going to stay there.  

My father started his new business and asked me to take over the grocery store. With my added responsibility of looking after the store, it was hard for me to make time to visit Sneha. I would visit her once a week. I noticed that she had dark circles around her eyes and she was losing weight. She coughed a lot and used to get chills. I asked her what was up with her, and she told me that she was sick. It had been over eight months since I took over the grocery store when Sneha told me that her pimp was letting her go. She told me she was dying. Mr. Das, you don’t need to know how Sneha died. You see, I wasn’t around when she died. She died alone. I didn’t even get to see her body. You still have that chance to claim Kaberi’s body. Please don’t let her rot in the morgue.  

 

Yours sincerely,
A good wisher 

P.S. I haven’t read the other letters. They are still sealed in that packet. I looked at the locket that was attached to the chain that I took from Kaberi’s neck. There’s a picture of her and a baby in that locket. I think it is her son. Are you her husband, Sucharan Kamal Das? 

 

24 January 2017
21 Atul Sen Road
Kamurpur Village
West Bengal,
India. 

 

Bastard, 

 I read those letters yesterday. I wanted to find out what kind of person would not claim a body after repeated appeals. Now I understand why you never claimed her body. You are her father, and you sold her into prostitution. She wrote those letters, but you returned them unopened. How could you do that to your own daughter? She returned to you when her husband kept her baby and dumped her. You had eight other children, and you didn’t have a steady income. So you sold her into prostitution. How could a father do that? You told her that she would be working as a maid in the city and sent her with a man to Kolkata. But you had already sold her to a pimp. That man brought her to the red-light quarters of Natihati. 

 In her letters, she pleaded with you to rescue her. But you never read them. Can you imagine how she felt when she learned that you had sold her into prostitution? In her last letter, she wrote that she understood why you sold her, and she forgave you. Now Kaberi is dead. You are no better than Sneha’s husband who sold her to a pimp. Sneha told me that her husband used to beat her. She often used to say that she was better off living in a brothel rather than sharing a roof with that abusive husband. I never knew if she meant it. Sneha’s room was damp, and her walls had mold. Her pimp never fixed her room. He was only interested in taking his cut from what Sneha made. She contracted a malignant disease, and her doctor gave her about two months to live. Her pimp thought her a liability and wanted to cut loose. I wanted to take her to a specialist, but she told me that she had already been to three physicians. They all said there was no hope for her.  

Sneha asked me if I could take her to the border town of Gede. She had saved up some money over the years and she would find a way to sneak into Bangladesh. Her village was in Bangladesh and close to the border. I said that it’s dangerous and she may get shot at by the border patrol. But she was dying and she had nothing to lose. She just wanted to get to her village and die there. I closed my grocery store that day and rented a car. I drove her to the town of Gede. On the road to Gede, she kept looking at the paddy fields, green trees and the cattle grazing on empty fields. .She had never left town after she was smuggled into India She said to me that I need to find happiness. I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. My friends don’t talk to me, my father doesn’t care about me, and I don’t get along with my wife. Where am I to find happiness?  

In our drive there, she would shiver and break into fits of coughing, and I felt helpless. There was nothing  I could do to save her life. I dropped her at the Gede bus terminus. She said she would find someone who could take her across the border. Before she got out of the car, she kissed my hand. She looked into my eyes, asked me to drive safe, and again asked me to find happiness. I lost her when she merged with the passengers in the bus terminus. I hoped she would get to her village, but I didn’t know how she would manage that.  

Two weeks after I dropped her off at Gede, an officer from the District Intelligence Bureau showed up at my store. He showed me a picture of Sneha and asked me if I knew her. When I said I knew her, he told me she was shot last week by Bangladeshi border guards as she tried to cross into that country. The officer kept on talking, but I didn’t care. All I could think of was Sneha’s lifeless body riddled with bullets lying in some ditch. She didn’t deserve to die like that. The officer wanted to know if I had helped her to cross over. I told him that I dropped her off in that town. It is wise not to lie to officers. They find out things anyway. The officer wanted to take me to his headquarters to interrogate me. I promised to pay him a large sum if he let me go and he agreed. It took me two days to gather that sum, but I did pay him off. I had asked the officer what had happened to the bodies of those who were shot. He told me he didn’t know for sure, but he thinks they were buried in some unmarked grave in Bangladesh. 

 Sneha didn’t get a proper cremation. Your daughter has that option of proper funeral rites. As you haven’t claimed her body, I don’t think you ever will. I’ll find a way to claim her body and cremate her. I’ll introduce her as my relative to the crematorium. I’ll pay off everyone I must to get Kaberi a proper burial. I know her soul will still wander around and won’t find any peace. But that’s the best I can do for her.    

I wanted to meet you in person to express my condolence. I don’t want to do that anymore. I am keeping the chain to compensate for her funeral expenses.  I am going to burn her letters because you don’t deserve them. I don’t know if you can ever find a way to forgive yourself, but I honestly hope that you rot in hell.   

Satyaki Kanjilal has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Nevada-Reno.  When he is not complaining about his writer’s block, Satyaki or Nemo, as his friends call him, likes to watch television shows and study how their plots work. He is often sad to hear people talk about the fish from Disney’s movie “Finding Nemo,” and not Jules Verne’s character “Captain Nemo,” when they hear his nickname. His works have been published in Boston Accent Lit and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. His review of Tom Abram’s historical novel Yonder Where the Road Bends is forthcoming in The Florida Book Review 

Lunch to Tea 

Ankita Athawale

On S.B. Main Road, it is the busiest hour of the day. Cyclists weave in and out of traffic jams. Vehicles groan and honk towards their destinations. Like ants making their way towardsa grain of sugar, boys and girls go towards the chocolate-toast vendor, from the college gatesto the other side of the road. On the way, they crowd around the salesmen hawkingcheap trinkets from the pavement. Because it is such a constant, no one notices the clanking of the sugarcane-juicer at the juice centre. Once in a while, when an ambulance comes wailing and the traffic jostles to make way for it, conversation at the chai-tapris ceases for a few tense moments. A school bell rings. A mendicant singer rattles his two-headed drum. A call for azaan rings out. The old man listens. From the window of his flat, in a lane off S.B. Main Road, the city is but a murmur. The ceiling fan is the loudest sound in the room in which he sits on a rocking chair, the day’s newspaper spread out,and unread, on his lap. 

Streaming in through the mango tree, the sun dapples on the words, lighting up one and then another. He has been staring at  the same sentence for a long time, the words merging, emerging, distinct and unconnected, then merging together again.  

‘It’s too early. Don’t sleep yet!’ his wife calls out to him. The old man stutters and adjusts his spectacles.  

‘Why don’t you read the newspaper?’ comes her voice. 

‘What? I can’t hear you! What are you saying?’ he calls out and hastens to straighten the newspaper. ‘Can’t a man even read his newspaper in peace!’ he adds. 

 ‘Keep the cordless phone with you’, she says. Her voice is raspy, too feeble to be heard even when she shouts. It hasn’t always been like this, like the voice of an old woman. A change so definitive,but one that came about so discreetly. The old man tries to remember her as a young woman, coy and pliable. He can only recall the face on the few photographs that survive of their youth. His memory is a blur but for the smell of oil, jasmine and sweat.  

‘Don’t just sit there. Do something! And don’t ask for one now. You will get a laddoo at tea time,’ says the old woman. She is standing at the door, holding a large bowl in one hand and rolling a fistful of a brown mixture into a ball with the other.  

‘Give me the phone. It is time’, says the old man, pulling down his spectacles and rubbing his eyes like one who has been reading for long. 

‘The heights of laziness that any man could ever ascend to. It is two steps away from you and you need me to give it to you while my hands are full of laddoos!’ she says. 

The old man looks at her cotton saree, starchless and soft with use, its folds clinging to one another. The little orange flowers on white, remind him of the paarijaat that she collects for her pooja every day. Below her waist, at exactly the height of her kitchen counter, the orange of the flowers has paled.  

In our house, we go after stains like the anti-terrorism squad, the old man likes to joke to visitors. 

His wife’s alluding cleanliness to godliness ticks him off like nothing else. They have fought over it too long to hope for a resolution.  

On days when the old woman feels well, she wakes up at four-thirty in the morning and slips out into the neighbourhood. She returns as the sun is rising, wearing what the old man reads as a self-righteous smile. Whether the morning walk past the Bhave bungalow with its paarijaat tree bending over onto the pavement is undertaken for the flowers or whether the flowers are an incentive for the exercise, he does not know. 

 He knows what she will say: ‘Laziness! One must be able to get over laziness, that’s all.’ – a general observation made for the express benefit of her husband. 

‘What kind?’ asks the old man now, his eyes brightening at sight of the laddoos. 

 ‘Find out for yourself,’ says the old woman, breaking off a piece and placing it in his mouth. 

‘Nice. But needs more velchi, no? And more sweet,’ he says. 

‘How can a man always want itsweeter?’ 

‘How can a woman be such a miser with sugar?’ 

‘If there was any more sugar in this, I would choke on it. 

‘Okay then, roll the laddoos in sugar for me. 

‘As if you would agree to go slow on the sugar if I was to suggest it. 

‘When a man has been raised on the finest, he develops fine taste for life. The laddoos my mother made…’ 

‘As if your poor mother could afford kaju and badam in those days. Fine taste you say. 

‘They were perfect because she made them with an open heart. She didn’t stop herself from putting enough of whatever was needed. 

‘She was feeding a boy of eight. It has fallen upon me to satisfy the greed of an eighty year old. 

‘A voracious appetite is a sign of vibrant health, my mother used to say. 

‘Everything in moderation, said your mother-in-law. 

‘And by the rules of dear mother-in-law – may her soul rest in peace – by her rules, I have lived for five decades, 

‘I’m going to finish making these. I’ll be here all day if I let you talk,’ she says. 

‘How come you never want to talk to me anymore?’ 

‘Ha! Easy for you to say. I can’t simply sit here and read the newspaper. My fate as a woman!’ 

‘Oh-ho-ho! No one stopped you from reading the newspaper. You just have to be more organised. 

‘Really? While you were away being the busy advocate for farmers’ rights, didn’t I organise a house and four children on my own?’ 

‘All on your own?’ 

‘Not all on my own,’ she says with a smile. 

Her eyes are brown, beginning to grey with age. In sharp relief, her smile is electric, as if the smile completes some internal circuitry to her eyes, lighting them up with ageless sparkle. In all their years together, the smile has been her charm and her armour. She has learnt to use it to forestall an argument and put off marital discord for another day. The old man has played along somewhat willingly, somewhat helplessly. He has come to recognise the smile as an offer of truce before the situation escalates into a courtroom drama. 

‘What about the rest of the laddoo?’ he asks, taking the bait. 

‘I told you, I’m saving it for you to eat at tea time,’ she says from the corridor. 

The old man presses his spectacles to his nose. A day’s stubble glistens on his chin. He scratches it and returns to the newspaper. He turns page after page without stopping long enough to read anything. At the horoscope column, he reads with interest: ‘You may feel unable to share all parts of your fascinating personality now, but the Universe is asking you to clamp down temporarily to make a point. Only a confident, professional demeanour will get you the money you desire. If you are looking for a new love interest, you won’t have to go very far. 

He folds the newspaper. ‘Done!’ he announces to himself, walks to the bed and lies down to rest his back. Within a minute though, he is standing by the window. He has heard a boy bounce his football down the street. The old man watches the boy as he walks under under the canopy of the mango tree and slowly disappears from sight; then, he walks back to the bed, lies down and turns on his side. Unable to find a comfortable position, he stretches his feet, and straightens his pillow. He decides to go to the bathroom but changes his mind. He massages his neck, lies down on his back, watches the ceiling fan, then sits up again. With the sound of an auto-rickshaw slowing, he jumps out of bed. But he is too late. Whoever came has disembarked, paid the fare and disappeared into the building. The rickshaw is pulling away already. 

Disappointed, the old man shuffles to his rocking chair. The wooden slates on the backrest have a way of poking into him through the cushion. He didn’t sleepwell the previous night. That always gives him a headache. And the aspirin for the headache makes him dizzy. 

He looks at the rust-speckled mirror on the almirah beside him. It shows him a boxer with muscled arms and a taut stomach. In place of a fragile, hollowed frame, he sees the sure and square shoulders of a young man. The sagging skin on his own hands doesn’t seem to him to be his. He gets up to turn off the fan. Too still. He puts it on again. He lies down on the bed with his head away from the fan. Too cold. He stands up, turns off the fan and walks to the window.  

He hides behind the curtain and peers into the flat that overlooks his bedroom window, but today all is quiet on the other side. The old man who lives in the other flat is dozing in his rocking chair while a muted television channel airs breaking news. The old men in both flats wear identical white pyjama-kurtas throughout the day and watch the same television shows in the evenings. They know when there is a celebration or argument or an illness on the other side. They know when each other’s grandchildren are visiting and when they have left. The two men have never met and wouldn’t know one another if they were to cross paths in the park. 

‘Pick up the phone!’ the old woman is calling from the kitchen. The phone has been ringing in his hand all the while that the old man has been watching his neighbour. 

‘Hello-o,’ he says, swinging the ‘o’ into the mouthpiece with a flamboyance that belies the lethargy of moments ago. ‘Advocate Joshi’s residence,’ he says. 

‘Daddy, it’s me. Leena,’ comes the voice of his daughter. ‘Where were you? You took so long. All well?’she asks. 

‘Fine, fine! Fine, as always,’ he says, tagging weight in his voice. 

‘Where is Mummy?’ 

‘Doing her favourite thing. Scrubbing the kitchen with industrial solvents,’ he says, laughing.  

He sinks his head into the pillows on the rocking chair. His daughter is relating something which he can’t follow because he lost her alreadyat the beginning. 

Like every other day,he asks her,‘When are you coming?’ 

As always,‘Very soon, Daddy,’ comes the reply. The old woman has picked up the receiver on the parallel line and she breaks into the conversation now. 

“I made besan laddoos. Only a few this time. No one to eat…”  

The old man closes his eyes. The voices of his wife and daughter fade as the receiver slides from his hands onto his lap, his eyes droop and he snores lightly until he hears footsteps in the corridor.  

‘You always forget to switch off the cordless phone, ,’ complains the old woman. ‘I need help cleaning the cupboards before Diwali. Will you help me?’  

‘No, no. That’s your job. 

‘And what are your jobs?’ 

‘Driving, repairing the car or getting it repaired. Going to the bank. Managing the investments…’ 

‘Okay,’ she cuts him off. 

‘Do I ask you for your help with my jobs?’ he says. 

‘Tell me which of your old clothes to give away. I will start with your cupboard,’she says. 

‘I am not giving away anything. And you don’t tell me that my cupboard is a mess. 

‘But I didn’t. 

‘Yes, you did. Why do you have to clean it now?’ 

‘How does it matter to you if I clean it? I am not asking you to help. 

‘I like to be self-sufficient. 

‘Okay then,’ she says, pursing her lips. 

‘If you wipe and dust so much, you’ll wear off the varnish,’ he says. 

‘Oh come on! Be a little reasonable. 

‘Why don’t you be reasonable for a change?’ 

‘For a change? 

‘Yes. Read the newspaper.Watch TV. 

‘When did the lady of the house come in for so much leisure?’ 

‘You work round the clock and you think the rest of us do nothing. 

‘I didn’t say that. 

‘That’s what you meant. 

‘I did not. 

‘You like to give me instructions: Read a book. Water the plants. Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep. All day, you tell me what to do. I don’t like you cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. 

‘What kind of dislike is that? What problem can anyone have with cleaning?’ 

‘I don’t like it. That’s all.’ he says. 

The old woman leaves in silence. She recites a prayer before the clay figures of her gods in the kitchen. By the time she gets to the second verse, her voice stutters, trembling, and unbridledtears are flowing down her face.?The old man has not gone to the bank in three years, ever since he was found face down on the pavement. He had a concussion and a blood clot in his brain. The doctors say that the blockages in his arteries interfered with the blood supply to his brain. The old man insists that he doesn’t believe them. He maintains that he slipped on loose gravel. Nevertheless, he hesitates to go out on his own and has stopped driving entirely. 

He still snaps up the car keys when his children are visiting. ‘Any of the youngsters want to drive?’ he asks in the parking lot. Then, someone must ‘volunteer’ to drive before being handed the car keys. The old man will give them directions to the roads he remembers, and even those he has forgotten. The old woman in the backseat will poke him with her finger, fearing that he will offend the son-in-law or rile the son. And just when he has lost all credibility with his family, the old man will recall a short-cut through a bylane, making his wife and children see him with guilt-ridden admiration. 

‘What is this?’ His wife is waving a stack of envelopes at him. ‘Please stop sending these people our hard-earned money. Why do you do it? Everyone has explained to you but you just don’t listen. They are fooling you. It is a scam,’ she says, looking at him. There is no hint of a smile, no call for truce. She reads from the open letter in her hand,‘Mr Joshi, Congratulations! You are the chosen one! 

‘What if I win? Won’t you be happy to win a million dollars?’ he asks. His eyes are earnest, his defence more plea than punch. 

‘It is a scam. They’re only telling you that you won a million dollars because they want you to send them twenty dollars. They say it to thousands of people and get money from everyone. 

‘Why would they do that? They are spending money on postage and emails all the way to India from America. 

‘Because it is a big scam. Leena explained it to you the last time she was here! They don’t mean to send anyone any dollars. 

‘They said they will. It is written here. See?’ 

‘People lie! Leena says these are frauds. These days, on the Internet, they can steal your money while you are sitting at home. 

‘I know it! You think I don’t know anything. I am not so stupid. I didn’t send them any money this time. I only replied to their email. I want to understand the procedure. 

‘What do you want to understand about this? Just delete their emails, I tell you. Don’t send them email or post or anything. Okay?’ 

‘They asked me to send them twenty dollars when I won a million dollars. I requested them to deduct the twenty dollars from my million dollars and transfer the remaining amount to my account. 

Are you mad? God knows what kind of criminals they are. 

‘They haven’t even replied to my email yet. Basic professional etiquette to respond to email…’ He trails off as the old woman slams the stack of envelopes on the table and leaves. 

He turns on his desktop computer and searches the room for his spectacles. This is not a good time to ask his wife to look for them. So he gives up, turns the fan on, unfolds his blanket, wears his monkey-cap, cushions his sides with pillows and goes to sleep. 

He does not know how long it has been when he is woken by the sound of the mixer from the kitchen. He sits up in panic. ‘Sushila!’ he calls. He hates using the bell to call his wife but he must admit it is handy. Once. Twice. Three times.  

‘Yes, yes, yes. I am an old woman too, you know. Show  some patience.’ she says, walking into the room with heavy steps. 

‘What’s for lunch? I am famished,’ he says. 

The old woman sits on the corner of the bed and wipes her forehead with the end of her saree. 

‘My insides are churning because there is nothing there to digest,’ continues the old man. 

‘We had your favourite kadhi and rice. Don’t you remember?’ retorts the old woman in a huff. 

Immediately, she knows she has made a mistake. If there is one thing the old man absolutely detests, it is someone saying to him, Don’t you remember? 

He doesn’t understand why people are always asking him that.?If he can remember the names of all his school friends, their birthdays even, then it is impossible that he has forgotten what he had for lunch. He rattles his memory. He scolds himself for drawing a blank just when it is most critical. He pictures the old woman at the dining table, smiling to herself, enjoying a hearty lunch of kadhi and rice all by herself.  

 ‘Why don’t you just accept it? You forgot and I have been sitting here hungry and uncomfortable all this time!’ he shouts. 

The old woman takes a deep breath. She lowers her gaze in apology and wonders if the neighbours can hear him.  

‘It is almost five in the evening. We had lunch four hours ago,’ she says, under her breath. 

Her calm provokes him further. ‘You forgot!’ he screams. 

For a moment, she thinks of turning around and going out for a long walk.  

‘I will bring you something to eat with tea,’ she says. 

‘You will bring me lunch. Do you understand? Don’t think I cannot look after myself!’ 

She wishes it really were lunch time and they could just have lunch and be done with it. 

‘I can look after myself! Do you hear?’ she hears him shouting as she turns to wear her slippers.  

She fears his helplessness – the clenched fists, the flailing arms, the choking voice. He fears the same for himself.  

‘Listen to me!’ he is still screaming when there is a loud crash. A piece of broken glass lands on the rocking chair. There’s more on the floor.  

# 

The old man is sitting on the corner of the bed. He fidgets with the remote control but doesn’t turn on the TV. He tries to hum cheerfully. He gives up and takes his head in his hands. 

She has returned with tea, biscuits, a half laddoo along with a bowl of kadhi and rice on a tray.?His eyes are misty, whether from exertion or emotion, she does not know. He is looking at the pieces of glass from the windowpane. 

‘I’ll take care of that, she says. 

‘Sometimes, I throw things at other people and find that they have missed my wife by inches,’ he says. 

‘Other people?’ she asks. 

‘Other people who don’t leave an old man alone,’ he says. ‘Not you. Other people…’ 

‘I am an old woman too, you know,’ she says. 

‘You’re not old. Not even eighty yet,’ he says. 

For the first time since she brought in the tea, the oldman is looking up from his cup. She has closed her eyes, from him, from everything. For amoment, she is away, taking a long walk on a quiet street. 

The old man holds her hand. She opens her eyes and looks at him.  

‘Tea times are the best,’ he says searching for a smile. 

Ankita Athawale wrote software, then business plans and project proposals until her love of music, literature and theatre trumped her interest in algorithms, business strategy, and such. She now learns classical Dhrupad music from the Gundecha brothers, and teaches herself creative writing.?Ankita writes stage plays, short stories, non-fiction articles and content for businesses. Her story, “Dina’s Diwali”, was published as part of the Dino Staury illustrated book series for children. Her stage plays have been performed at venues in Mumbai, Nagpur and Hyderabad.

Snow Day

Gaurav Madan

Quickly shutting the door of his dad’s old station wagon, Kabir worked the zipper of his hoodie toward his stubbly chin. The wind tore through the parking lot burying itself in the spaces between his shoulders. The afternoon extended through layers of gray. Crossing the parking lot, he kept his eyes fixed on the cracked asphalt, aware of the always-watchful lenses. The streetlights swiveled, peering through the flurries that had already begun to fall. Instinctively, he pulled up his hood to shield him from the cameras. One of the few people outdoors, he knew he was being recorded – the unenviable star of the show.   

Despite only a handful of cars parked outside, Kabir assumed the restaurant would be crowded. Over the past year, Dhaba had become a sanctuary of sorts for the town’s immigrant population. Once a wealthy suburb of the capital, the multi-ethnic area was hit hard during the raids. As he approached, he noticed that the windows were fogged up by the mingling of heat and spice and bodies. Someone had left a handprint in the condensation on the door. Stepping inside, he lingered for a moment, allowing the smells to prick his nose. Behind the counter, the steam from the kitchen wafted between tables and booths. 

He scanned the hand-scrawled items on the blackboard above the counter and noticed that jollof rice, salted fish, and pupusas had made their way on the menu alongside Dhaba’s celebrated biryani and kebabs. Each week it seemed a new dish was being added. As businesses closed, and families like Kabir’s considered leaving the country, Dhaba was one of the few establishments that had weathered the storm. In response to its increasing popularity, the restaurant gave in to the requests of its newest patrons.  

Kabir looked around to see that most of the booths were full. In opposite corners of the crowded restaurant, two TVs noisily competed. Bollywood music videos battled live action news. Yet neither were a match for the brimming multi-lingual conversations that bounced off the walls. He smiled. The fact that this place still existed felt like a victory in itself.  

Weaving through the mix of languages, Kabir let his ears linger on the Hindustani melodies. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, remembering his mom’s cooking. It had been nine months since his parents had packed up their things and left for India. He remembered the heated arguments in the weeks leading up to their departure. The resignation that clouded the air in their house. The sadness on his dad’s face when he drove them to the airport and hurriedly said goodbye under the stony gaze of armed riot police and customs officers.  

The restaurant that had become his and so many others refuge was where he found himself that evening after seeing his parents off. With no desire to eat, he drank cup after cup of steaming chai as he wrapped himself in the surrounding aroma.  He still remembered the news report that echoed off the walls that night, blaring from the TV in the corner. The newly funded Home Defense Force was breaking down doors and rounding up families who had not registered under the America First program. In those days, the raids would only happen at night. While people pretended to be asleep, ignoring the explosions and battering rams that preceded their neighbors’ cries for help. The braver ones would peek from behind their curtains to see entire families taken away.  

Kabir had listened as a group of men argued over who was really behind the terror their neighborhoods were facing. It was widely believed that vigilante groups supported by the Administration were carrying out the raids. It was also believed at least initially – that they would be temporary; the fulfillment of campaign promises that would soon abate. But it didn’t take long for the Administration to become more emboldened. Now, checkpoints and curfews were the new norm.   

 “Kabir beta – how are your parents?” 

He opened his eyes to see Kiran Aunty, standing in front of him. Whenever they met in public, she would act like they didn’t know each other that well. As if she hadn’t been guiding him all these months.  

“They’re good Aunty, I think. Still adjusting.” 

Yes, it’s hard to change worlds like that. I’m sure they miss you.” Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the room behind him. He vaguely nodded, still contemplating the colorful buffet that lay just behind her. “But we need you here. There’s a lot of work to be done, she suddenly dropped her voice to a hush 

Kabir met her gaze, searching for some hidden message in her face. “I’m here, Aunty. You know that.” 

She sighed. Your mother would be so proud to know how much you’ve taken on.” 

His mom’s friendship with Kiran Aunty was a sudden and strange occurrence. Then again, with the raids, arguments, and plans being made to leave, nothing was normal. It was during those months of upheaval that they had become close. Kabir’s mom and Kiran Aunty would spend hours out together. And when they weren’t together, they constantly kept in touch, always texting back and forth. 

When Kabir’s parents departure was imminent, his mom made him promise to help Kiran Aunty. He was defiant. “If you want to help her so bad, why don’t you stay and do it yourself?”  

We all have to walk our own path, Kabir. Just remember we never walk alone,” she would say. 

Kiran Aunty called Kabir frequently in the weeks after his parents had left. And that’s when he started putting the puzzle pieces together. In the beginning, Kiran Aunty would simply ask him to join her for tea. During these meetings their discussion would inevitably turn to the deteriorating state of affairsas most conversations did. It was in these moments that he felt like he was being tested. He wasn’t sure what to make of Kiran Aunty, but he found himself wanting her approval. He began to look forward to their meetings. They became a reason to get out of the house and shake off the gloom that came to cloud his days. It wasn’t long before Kiran Aunty asked him to accompany her on her appointments.  

They would visit families who recently had relatives detained or deported. Kabir often stayed quiet during these meetings, listening as Kiran Aunty comforted those whose lives had been overtaken with fear. He was impressed to see the bits and pieces of various languages she had picked up. The universal signs of respect she would give that went beyond words.   

During these visits, she arranged for whatever support families needed, and was always furiously taking notes on a small spiral pad that she took in and out of her handbag. Watching her, he was surprised. He never knew the aunties and uncles he grew up with to be close with people outside of their own tight-knit community. 

After their visits, she would ask him to do some follow up with the family they had just left. Sometimes this was as simple as helping with grocery shopping when people were too afraid to step outside. But other times, he connected them with lawyers or took down their statements to be used in later campaigns. 

At first, Kabir would follow Kiran Aunty’s instructions as if he was simply going through the motions. Since his parents left, there was no one providing him with any direction. But he was quick to recognize the similarities between what had befallen his family and what was happening to others. He couldn’t help but see his parents faces in their searching eyes and nervous questions. 

More recently, Kabir had joined Kiran Aunty at a workshop to address the increasing required documentation from immigrants. At the event he witnessed a heated debate between those who said people should boycott filling out any documents part of the registry program and others who wanted volunteers to assist with the process. Since the registry was announced, there was increasingly onerous paperwork being forced upon immigrants to keep their jobs, homes, and bank accounts. That day he stayed until midnight, helping people fill out forms and plan for an uncertain future 

“They say we’re supposed to get quite a bit of snow,” Kiran Aunty continued as the restaurant buzzed around them. “Even so, we will be having our community meeting tomorrow. Same place, same time.” She nodded her head towards the kitchen. I hope you can come early and help set up.” 

“Sure thing, Aunty. But I hear it’s going to be pretty bad. I don’t know if my car will –” 

“Ah, a little snow can’t stop us, right?” she cut him off. “Anyway, I hope you stay warm.” She leaned forward. “And stay safe. I know it feels like they’re forever watching, but you may be getting some extra attention,” she whispered in his ear. Don’t worry, I have someone keeping an eye on your house. If it ever gets too dangerous, we’ll give you a sign. You’ll know what to do when the time comes,” she paused. If you can make it through the night, we will be there for you in the morning.” 

Kabir stared blankly at her as she threw her scarf around her shoulder and walked out the door. He remembered those were the same words his mom had left him with when she hugged him goodbye at the airport. At the time, he was too flustered to take note of the bizarre advice. Now he replayed that cryptic assurance  again in his mind.   

 “Thank you, Aunty,” he said to no one in particular, approaching the counter.   

*** 

Kabir’s parents left before the raids intensified. When the travel ban was announced, thousands of people had shown up at airports across the country to protest the Administration’s attempts to close the borders. For one week, they watched as people camped out demanding travelers be let through, providing hugs and legal support for those in need. The travel ban was being challenged in the courts. And despite the near-nightly reports of violence, they had hope that things would get better.  

But when the registry for all immigrants from non-essential backgrounds, countries, and heritage was announced, Mr. Chaudhary knew it was the beginning of the end. After twenty-six years, they were moving back to India.  

“This country is a sinking ship,” Mr. Chaudhary used to declare in those early days after the election. “The whole damn thing was built by immigrants, now they want to change their story?” 

“No one is asking you to leave, Baba,” Kabir would say gently. “You are citizens. Your home is here.” 

Home? They say it’s time to reclaim their home. Sure, we can stay now, but who’s to say we aren’t next? No, I’d rather walk out than be thrown out.  

It was true that even naturalized citizens like Mr. and Mrs. Chaudhry were being stopped and having their immigration status questioned. In a few instances, people were being stripped of their legal status under the Blood and Soil Act before being deported to places they hadn’t been to in decades. Mr. Chaudhry wasn’t willing to wait for that to happen. 

From his dad’s tirades, Kabir knew it was a mix of pride and fear that fueled their decision to leave. Kabir still had vague memories of his grandparents’ stories of braving riots and mobs to cross suddenly-drawn borders when the subcontinent was partitioned. While their own parents may have had to depart in the middle of the night, leaving behind their homes and possessions to pass over imaginary lines, Mr. and Mrs. Chaudhary would not wait to become refugees. 

In the end, Kabir drove his parents to the airport and told them he would visit once things settled down. But no one was sure when that would be. Despite being born in the country, it was clear that Kabir had to be extra careful. If he left, even to visit his family, would they allow him back in? Unlike his parents, he had no other home to claim as his own. India was a place of past summer vacations and scary train stations. But it was in this new world that he had found his voice, despite losing his family. He knew that no matter how bad things would get, he did not have the luxury to seek other shores. He would have to make his own way.  

*** 

Nodding to the Nigerian family coming through the door, Kabir briskly walked to his car. He placed the steaming dal, chholle, and pilau on the passenger seat. Outside, fat flakes had begun to fall. On the radio they were forecasting more than half a foot of snow. School was cancelled for the next day, and children were building snowmen and dragging sleds before darkness would usher in curfew. The generous portion Saleem Chacha had given him would save him from the madness unfolding across the street. The grocery store was mobbed with people pouring in and out to stock up on whatever limited supplies they could get the day before a storm. On the other side, he could see the line forming at the liquor store.  

Ravenous, he was eager to get home. He still had half a bottle of his dad’s favorite whiskey to see him through the snowstorm. Coaxing the engine to start, Kabir let out a sigh of anticipation. He remembered snow days when he was a kid. He and his friends would spend hours outside, immune to the cold. When they were older, they would go sledding at night with stolen beers and poorly rolled joints to accompany them down icy hills. He smiled at these thoughts before they sharpened and pricked his heart. Nowadays, most of his friends kept to themselves, too worried about their own families.  

Climbing up the incline, he thought about what Kiran Aunty had said. The cryptic message from her and his mom had been the same. Why wouldn’t he make it through the night? Who was going to be there for him? And more curiously, why was she watching his house? Kabir had quickly learned that Kiran Aunty told him only as much as she felt he could handle. He had come to expect it, and, more and more, to trust her.  

Gliding down the hill, he swerved to avoid the patches of ice that had quickly formed on the road. He remembered the checkpoint two seconds too late. The flash of light in his rearview mirror blinded him for a moment before he let out a string of curses. The speed camera had caught him. Once it flashed, the car was no longer in his control. With the motions of the wheel not responding to his hands, he let go, releasing a deep growl. The car coasted another fifty feet forward before pulling itself over on the side of the road.  

The automatic checkpoints were installed before the raids had become a regular terror. Each had the ability to connect with a communicative responder mandated to be installed in every vehicle. The fact that the checkpoints were largely concentrated in minority areas didn’t seem like a coincidence to Kabir or to most of his neighbors. Over a decade of surveillance and data collection had made it easy to track people’s movements. But with facial recognition technology, each checkpoint could identify the driver and passengers of every vehicle on the road.  

 “Kabir Chaudhary,” the automated system boomed through his car speakers, the pronunciation of his name piercing his eardrums. “You have exceeded the speed limit and are now subject to a random search. By renewing your driver’s license, you have provided your consent to this search. Please step –” 

“I don’t consent to shit,” Kabir muttered angrily.  

“By renewing your driver’s license, you have provided your consent to this search,” the robotic voice repeated. “Please step out of your car to allow for the necessary documentation. 

He grudgingly undid his seatbelt and opened the front door. The wind whipped at his face. He heard the whirring before he saw it. The winged archangel of the State appeared promptly, descending to Kabir’s shoulders. Circling the station wagon, the drone flashed, scanned, and photographed every square inch of the vehicle. Shivering, Kabir watched as the steam from his food escaped through the door.  

“Kabir Chaudhary you are being charged for speeding. As part of the America First program, you will need to report to district court within the next seven days. Failure to appear will trigger a warrant for your immediate arrest. Do you understand these notifications? 

Do you understand deez nuts?” Kabir murmured under his breath, climbing back into his car. The snow had covered it in a blanket of white.    

Forty-five minutes later than he planned, he pulled into his driveway. Grabbing his food – now cold – he slammed the car door shut. Taking one last look around in the fading light, he shook his head. The snow had accumulated significantly. What had happened to the suburban dream he had lived as a kid? It wasn’t so long ago that a day like this would be cause for celebration. Now, his parents were gone. Checkpoints marked the streets on which he had grown up. And drones were taking his picture. He watched as his breath dissipated in the freezing air.  

Walking into the house, Pangaea greeted him. “Meow to you,” Kabir cooed, momentarily forgetting his rage. Pangaea slinked between his legs, rubbing her chin alongside his calf. Kabir picked the cat up, feeling the vibrations of her purring through her abundant coat. “Someone’s hungry, isn’t she?” 

Pangaea’s unexpected appearance in Kabir’s life had eased some of the loneliness from his parents absence. It was after an Independence Day protest organized by Kiran Aunty in front of the capitol building that he had stealthily navigated the city to find old friends debating what the Fourth of July meant to them. In a cloudy room, they traded stories about a country of vanishing dreams. Sometime after three in the morning, he found himself arriving back at his house, an incessant whimpering emanating from the side gutter. Following the cries in the dark, he discovered a kitten howling in hunger, the bushy fur on her back knotted with grime. Clumsily he dropped the cat on the kitchen table in front of a bowl of milka sight that would have made his mom cringe had she been there. From then on, he was convinced that Pangaea was a sign of cosmic protection from worse things to come.  

He slipped off his shoes, and the pair made straight for the kitchen. After scooping Pangaea’s food into her bowl, he dumped his own out onto a plate. While the whirr of the microwave made assurances to bring his dinner back to life, Kabir pried open the wooden door of his parents armoire. His dad had left a few bottles of scotch at the back that Kabir had been steadily working through over the past months. The snowy night and spicy meal promised redemption from the day’s earlier disaster.  

The food was good, but he knew better. It just wasn’t the same re-heated. He preferred it straight off the fire – piping hot Polishing off the last of the chholle with the extra naan that Saleem Chacha had packed, Kabir looked around to see the clutter of his daily life. Since his parentsexodus, the house had lost a fair share of its former luster. The kitchen table had been overtaken by flyers and case files, a testament to Kiran Aunty’s determination. The stove was a color palette of spilled masala sprinkles due to Kabir’s attempts at re-creating the flavors he desperately craved.  

It wasn’t like Dhaba was his only source for spice. Most families he visited would insist he stay and eat with them. The community meetings Kiran Aunty organized would usually end with a meal brought by one family or other featuring flavors from a different corner of the world. For Kabir, there was hope in these moments.  

Returning to the armoire, Kabir reached down for the nearly empty bottle when he spied a cardboard box in the corner. He was certain he had never seen it before. He had grown up in this house and figured by now he had explored every angle of it. He dropped to his knees and opened the box.  

On top were photos from his parents’ last weeks in the country. There they stood amongst their friends, bidding final farewells at elaborate dinner parties. Digging through the pile, he found papers covered in his mom’s handwriting. Some were her notes from home visits with Kiran Aunty. Between sips of whiskey, he read the harrowing details of a mother sent to a detention center to await deportation proceedings while her children were divided up and placed in group homes run by the State. By now these accounts had become all too familiar to Kabir. But he was shocked to see how his own mother had set the groundwork for the very tasks he had taken up.  

Other entries read more like memoirs; Mrs.Chaudhary’s parting thoughts on her life as an immigrant in a land of broken promises. In page after page, she recounted her experiences of learning how to drive on the other side of the road, attend back-to-school nights, and ward off telemarketers. Kabir saw his own upbringing through his mom’s eyes. How she insisted that his teachers pronounce his name properly and accepted that her son would speak a form of English that would always sound foreign to her.  

He found one entry entitled “Immigrant Defense Fund. It was a proposal for an emergency bank account. At the end of the page were various serial numbers. Maybe that’s why she had been so focused before they had left, he thought.    

*** 

As preparations for departure were being made, Mrs. Chaudhary’s time with Kiran Mazumdar had a noticeable impact on her demeanor. While her husband railed against the reality that was ushering him out, she strode around the house with purpose, making decisions on what was to stay with Kabir, be donated, or accompany them back. She also started spending increasing time away from her family. For a few weeks, no one really knew where she was going. When asked, she simply replied, “Oh, doing social service with Kiran. After all these years here, we must give back to those less fortunate. 

“Give back? They’re trying to throw us out and you want to show charity?!” Mr. Chaudhary roared back.  

When Mrs. Chaudhary wasn’t spending time with Kiran, she busied herself with the process of saying goodbye. Weekend after weekend, their house would fill with friends. They were mostly other immigrant families, Kabir’s adopted aunties and uncles who had similarly left their homelands many years ago, embracing new accents and vocabularies in the process.  

Kabir remembered that during these parties the house would feel lighter. Mr. Chaudhary would encourage their guests to have one more drink or sing one more ghazal, and for a while, things went back to normal. With the lights dimmed, the laughter and music would soften the perpetual anxiety that had come to linger over their lives. Towards the end of these evenings, Mrs. Chaudhary would begin to have more hushed conversations with her friends. She would make the case that even though they were leaving, they had to think of the future. After all, Kabir wasn’t going anywhere. It was in these moments when she would make her pitch and start to accumulate the money to fund Kiran’s clandestine movement. Money that would eventually be used to organize rallies, circulate petitions, and bail people out of jail.   

It was after one of those parties that Mr. Chaudhary called his son into the garage. He was wearing a pair of dusty, worn boxing gloves. “These were from my high school days in Bombay. I brought them all the way here and they’ve sat in this garage,” he laughed. Turning to his son, suddenly serious, Boxing taught me a lot. I had to know myself when I fought. In that ring I wasn’t just facing another man. I was facing my fear, my anger. I had to be sure of every move I made.”  

Mr. Chaudhary’s face had grown steely and intense. “If you know who you are, you can be completely present. If you don’t, the past will pull you back. Don’t let these people decide for you who you are or where you belong. Whatever you do, Kabir, remember you don’t win the fight with your first attack. Stick with it and leave your mark on this world. Just like Ali did.” 

“So, what about staying and fighting here? 

Mr. Chaudhary gave his son a sad smile. You know we don’t want to leave. In so many ways, this place has become more of a home than anything else we have known. But it is not safe anymore. 

“Then why go?” Kabir’s voice raised, hot with rage. “It’s not like things are any better over there!”  

“Kabir, your Nanaji and Nanima are not getting any younger. If anything were to happen to us, who would take care of them? We all have our responsibilities. Yours are here.”  

“And what about leaving your mark?” 

My mark?” He paused, taking off the gloves. “Well, I am leaving that behind.  

*** 

It was midnight when Kabir had finished going through the box. Looking at his parents faces, reading his mom’s words, he could see they never wanted to leave. Even in her last days, she had believed this place was worth fighting for.  But when they did depart, it wasn’t because they had accepted defeat. They had left behind their chance at victory 

Warmed from within, Kabir slowly got off the living room floor, leaving behind a montage of pictures and papers strewn about. He methodically dressed for the snow. An extra sweater, boots, a woolen hat his Nanima had knitted, gloves, a scarf to cover his face, and his hoodie. Exiting the house from the back, he kneeled to loosen a jagged stone from the family’s forgotten vegetable garden.   

The streets were deserted. It had been a few hours since any truck had tried to plow. A slow and steady stream of snowflakes continued to float through the air. He couldn’t tell if this was just the wind blowing about what was already on the ground or more blessings from above. Trudging through snow that almost reached his knees, he wasn’t worried about being seen. Visibility was already low, and with the wind, even the drones wouldn’t be able to operate.  

He couldn’t see the tire marks from where the car had been previously pulled over. The snow had successfully covered up his earlier encounter. The light from the street lamps cast an orange glow which  reflected off the frozen landscape. Walking behind the metal box, Kabir was deliberate with it. In one fluid movement, he gripped the sharp stone, tore it from his pocket, and reached around to hit the camera as hard he could. The jagged edge sent shattered glass flying. Kabir furtively glanced around before he doubled back home. There wasn’t a car in sight. 

*** 

As he entered the house through the back door, Kabir could feel a dull ache creep across every muscle. His body was a tightly wound rope. Pulling off his hat, his hair damp with sweat, he collapsed to the ground, immediately shedding layers. Tearing his wet clothes off, he caught his breath. The thought of sleep couldn’t be any sweeter.  

Pangaea was already in his bed when he laid down. With a smile on his face and the echo of glass breaking in his ears, Kabir fell asleep instantly. 

*** 

It couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours when Pangaea suddenly leapt out of bed and started meowing loudly. Kabir stirred at the cat’s conversation. But as soon as he heard the thumping at the front door, he was wide awake. Three steady bangs. He hadn’t imagined it. Clearly, neither had Pangaea. His heart was pounding as he quietly got out of bed. A dull soreness clung to his muscles, while a thin film of fear suddenly covered him. The first light had begun to filter through the window, as Kabir leaned over to see who – or what – was outside.  

There were no cars other than his own. Whoever was at the door had come by foot. He hastily packed his backpack with his laptop and extra clothes. He picked up Pangaea and zipped her up in the biggest section of the bag, leaving only enough room for her head to extend. Kabir could feel the heat from her thick fur against his back.  

As he gingerly tiptoed past the front door a folded piece of paper came shooting underneath. Even upside down, he recognized the familiar font announcing new lunch specials. Leaning forward, he could barely make out the outline of a message written in thick marker over the menu. Unsure whether he should read it or run, Kabir saw the note fall open: If you can make it through the night, we will be there for you in the morning.   

His heart banged against his chest, rattling his ribs and threatening to smash through his sternum. He took a deep breath and gripped the handle of the door. His heartbeat continued to ricochet off his eardrums. Steadying himself, Kabir swiveled his head one last time to look at his parents’ home before turning the knob.  

Gaurav Madan is a writer and activist based in Washington, DC. Snow Day is his first short story. His non-fiction writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Vice, and Hindustan Times. He puts out the masala justice podcast which can be found at: https://soundcloud.com/masalajustice 

Dear Bhagya Lakshmi

Vijayalakshmi Sridhar

That day, Appa is in the center of the hall in a box and Amma is huddled in a corner, away from the leather couch she always sits on to paint and listen to music and watch TV and munch on roasted peanuts. Today no music, no painting, no TV, no peanuts. Her life with Appa has come to a skittering stop along with Appa’s battle with his failing liver 

Appa’s brother, his son and wife and a few neighbors are with us. Whoever comes, enters the hall, goes straight to Amma to pat her on her arm, listen to her prattle on about Appa then remind her of the flickering significance of life in general. Truth be told, Appa had died 3 years back when blood gushed out from his nostrils and mouth, and filled the ceramic washbasin he was leaning into.    

I wonder if my life which  is about to start with Dyan will be different  without Appa, in some way. It has been twelve long years since I moved away from the village. As I started mingling with the city folks, making new friends, the distance between Appa and me had widened. It was then that the distance between him and the bottle narrowed.   

It is a sultry evening. Hot air rises from the room and the ancient ceiling fan does little to abate the humidity. I see the coconut tree in the compound swaying but the breeze doesn’t reach us. I remember a Tamil poet’s thoughtful verse: Was the branch teased into movement by the breeze or did the movement of the branches generate the breeze? I want to ease  my butt off the wicker chair I am sitting. I get up and my hand brushes Dyan’s resting on his thigh. He is startled and rises to accompany me. Amma’s head turns, our eyes meet, her’s opaque from the tears. Her lips converge to form words. I look at her intently, but then she gives up and lets her head drop. I tap Dyan on the shoulder and he sits down.  

I walk into Appa’s bedroom where my twin brothers Baskar and Bhanu Chander are talking, with a mass of papers in front of them. Behind them on the wall hanger are Appa’s Singapore shirts. Seeing me my brothers lower their voices. But I ignore them and head  to the restroom. In my head, I open a new door and step into it.  

Twenty minutes later, I figure out Amma’s preoccupation. It strikes me too. The next time her head turns in my direction I go to her and kneel down, my ears close to her mouth.  

“Bhagya …,”she says, her breath touching me like a hot compress. “Check if Bhagya is here yet,” she mutters.  

I gesture to Dyan, who springs up like a keyed-up doll.  He crosses the hall and steps into the brick-layered compound. Dyan dares crossing the line with me even though he is aware that I do not like being intimate in public. I keep walking even after I realise  Bhagya Lakshmi with her white (once gleaming) body and sturdy girth is not there, till I am away from the palm fronds and bamboo poles and plastic chairs and reach the passage on the side that leads to a two-car garage. Where is Bhagya Lakshmi? Where has Pichai taken her this evening? What errand is he attending to?   

As I begin to piece together what I know, I hear the familiar hoot She was beautiful once, so I look forward to seeing  Bhagya’s horn and the curve of white nosing into our compound. I cant say how glad I am to see our genteel, old Ambassador car right where it belongs. I see my stepmother Swarnam and my step-brother Prahlad in the back seat. The last time I had met them was when Appa was terribly sick and made a ruckus for a glass of drink. The year Prahlad started working abroad Appa had stayed permanently with Amma. Pichai, his eyes bloodshot with last night’s drinking, gets out from the front and with a nod to me, opens the passenger door. I dig deep, my legs two iron poles. I keep looking without a muscle twitching in my face as they get out of the car. Prahlad walks toward me, then changes direction and joins his mother at the entrance. 

Alone once again and being the escapist I have always been, I open the door and snuggle into Bhagya’s hot leather comfort. 

Appa was known in our village as the ‘Treasure man.” Our house is named the treasure house. A  water fountain with a lady statue was the landmark our house is known for.  Nearly fifty years ago, Appa was said to have come across a pot of gold buried in the backyard. It was about the time when mining as an industry was flourishing in the village. He never discussed it with anyone, not even me but I am told we are richer than our ancestors and the credit belongs to Appa. He bought a white Ambassador and gave it his mother’s name, Bhagya Lakshmi, after investing in a beedi agency and setting up a kirana store in the neighborhood, which bore the same name too 

A new member of the Richie Rich league, Bhagya became his lucky mascot. He travelled in the brand new Ambassador car, dressed in a starched white shirt and dhoti to bring his stock, collect the dues from his small-time borrowers and conduct business in the store.  

Appa took care of the car like it was his own offspring. Every morning he would carry bucketfuls of water from the house to wash it. Then with a fiber-free piece torn off one of his old dhotis, he would wipe the front and back and sides so meticulously that the surface was squeaky clean. He drove it with such ease that showed he and Bhagya had a thing between them. Every Sunday he drove forty minutes to Kumbakonam to fill the tank and check the tyre pressure. Whenever he was free, he was always near Bhagya Lakshmi, running his hands along her smooth body, checking for unmindful scratches or functional fall-outs.     

On a day when I had missed my school bus, Appa offered to chauffeur me to the nearest stop. We started off already fifteen minutes late. Appa took a short-cut , avoiding the main road, and as soon as we arrived on Veerachozhan Bridge, there was a gurgling noise, a few jerks and the car stopped.  

For a moment Appa couldn’t accept the sudden incident. When he came around, he got out of the car and with a thoughtful hand on his chin, he stood on the side and talked to himself. With tension building inside me, I looked at the motorcycles, bicycles and buses that whipped by, throwing a complaining glance at our vehicle which was partially blocking the road. Whenever anyone peered in our direction, I steered away from the window and fixed my gaze on the decked elephant motif that hung from the rearview mirror or at the three measured straight lines of vibhuthi (Appa’s handiwork) with a dot of red kumkum in between on the front.  

Appa! I leaned out of the window and shouted in frenzy. “I have an exam in another half hour,” I reminded him, thinking it would break his soliloquy and push him to do something  to get the car moving.  

“Hmm ”Appa said in response and opened the bonnet. Did he know enough to fix the problem?  

When I got to the front of the car he was the same: hand on chin and inspecting the wired interiors without even touching it. Then he went back, got the coolant bottle and replenished it in the cabinet. He tried starting the car but in vain. He came back and stood there, hand back on chin. ”Is there a problem? “I threw the question about just so he would snap into action. Hopeless; I looked around for a rickshaw. Like Baskhar and Bhanu I should also have moved to the Kumaraguru boarding School in Papanasam.  

It was then that I heard those deep-throated mutterings. I looked at the open bonnet to find Appa, his hand and cheek resting on the car’s body, talking to her. Yes, talking 

Come on Bhagya, fire up. You can do it. Save my face. It is Ahalya’s exam today.  

He kept repeating it, in an appeasing tone, his hand lightly stroking and patting the car. Finally he closed the hood and came around to start the engine. A few turns of the key later, Bhagya whirred to a start. What? Speechless I got in it. Appa deposited me at the school gate five minutes ahead of time.  

After that I kept seeing Appa talking to Bhagya, in that soft, honey-coated voice. At times, his voice dropped to a caressing whisper and at other times his face was a kaleidoscope as he communicated his feelings to Bhagya as if through telepathy. But at all times Bhagya submitted to Appa’s loving commands and beseeching requests. I watched him with awe 

“Appa, is she really listening to you?” I asked him one fine day and he guffawed.  

“Of course she does. She is a fine lady. We are in love kannu. Appa winked at me and I assumed Amma was not to be told of this.  

I continued to watch him from my bedroom window besides the  gleaming Bhagya in the white moonlight, while Amma sat in the hall listening to P. Susheela songs on the radio, her hands deftly moving the paintbrush on the mounted canvas. There were paint tubes lying open about her. She was painting a woman in a lush landscape, walking to a gushing stream with a pot on her head. After each stroke and dab her hands picked the peanuts from a paper packet. Already the house was full of her paintings  in the hall, bedroom, the dressing room with her name-Kousalya scrawled on each one of them, the letters standing out like small matchsticks. She kept painting, oblivious to her husband’s love affair with another woman too.  

Years later I meet pranic healer Dyan and ask about Appa’s conversation with Bhagya. I tell him I am worried he has lost his mind.  

“Every object has some energy,” he tells me in his soft voice, his dense, masculine scent winding me tight. When the communication is in the same frequency it clicks,” he keeps it short knowing well I will not be sold on the idea yet. But his words stayed with me.       

When Swarnam chithi, daughter of one of the small-time suppliers stepped into Appa’s life, he was in his fortieth year, still full of unbridled romance and vigor. In those days rich men having a second wife was not a rarity. Appa married her but since Amma bucked at moving her into our Treasure House he bought another house for her at the edge of the village, in the adjacent town.  

Every Friday, late into the night Appa would sneak into Bhagya Lakshmi and drive over to Swarnam’s to spend the weekend leaving Amma and me back at the sprawling Treasure House. Though Amma never showed her anger and disappointment openly to Appa, she carried the wreckage with her. I kept watching Appa, weekend after weekend, losing him bit by bit to chithi, having no idea  how to subvert their relationship. My helplessness crushed me.    

That summer, when Baskar and Bhanu were home from school and Amma’s parents had come to take all of us to their house for a short stay, I had my first attack of epilepsy. I was carried to Dr. Narayanswamy’s clinic in Kuttalam in Thatha’s car. Amma later told me that Appa had been with Swarnam and her one year old son Prahlad.  

Show him more love Kausalya.” Thatha advised her instead of saying, “leave your painting and music to be with him.  

Two weeks later, I somehow gathered my wits and decided to put an end to Appa’s misbehavior. I knew Amma would spend the night with her painting and music. She had a commission from Saraswati Mudaliar to be delivered the next day. As lightning and thunder broke in the sky, I snuck into Bhagya’s boot and closed it, snuggling into its black, strong-smelling interior. I kept blinking away the darkness as the car bumped over the bridge and then slid down the narrow path beside the bamboo grove and a branch of Cauvery which got redirected to the plantain fields, the same path I crossed every day on my way to school. The light on top of farmer Chinna’s motor house came through the chink in the door confirming to me that we were near Swarnam’s house.  

Appa’s newly-appointed driver Pichai opened the door. I heard Appa’s voice dropping low, telling him something in secrecy. I couldn’t hear it in the rush of the rain but knew what it was about; Appa wanted his bottle of alcohol. He had started drinking at home after he invested in Singapore Komala Vilas and travelled by plane. I had heard Amma complaining to Thatha. When Pichai came around to get the umbrella from the boot, I sprang out, like an apparition.  

Pichai froze in his spot and Appa shouted at me from Swarnam’s verandah. “How did you get in?” 

My eyes fell on the house, a modern structure with its raised platform and a low façade with ornamental curlicues at the edge. The first thought that struck me was that there was no statue; no fountain. I thought of our old, Treasure House which was falling apart, Amma and I caught in its shadowy interiors, and I broke down. I cried my entire body turning into an irretrievable mush, in self-pity and loneliness.  

My epilepsy and all, Appa couldn’t bear to see me emotionally down too. So he  walked into the rain and led me into the house. We couldn’t get me back to Amma that rainy night because of a  power outage  Appa telephoned Amma and that night I slept beside the baby crib with the nanny, leaving Appa and Swarnam in the other room. I had made a disturbing discovery that Appa called the baby Laddoo and cuddled him so much. I had to control myself from doing the same to that sweet-smelling, plump bundle.  

With Aduthurai Seetharama Vilas’ idli-sambhar lingering on my tongue, I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I wasn’t ashamed of my behavior but after that I stopped addressing him as Appa 

The following year, Appa bought a grey Fiat leaving Bhagya and Pichai for our use. Appa had become a stranger in the house, none of us talking to him. Appa buried himself in work, travelled to Singapore often and the bottle helped him forget the reality. He still kept going away to Swarnam’s at the weekends. Since there was a second car and Pichai too, Bhagya had had a promotion. Whenever there was an emergency in the village Pichai drove the sick and the injured to Kumbakonam or Kuttalam or Mayiladuthurai in the Ambassador. From pregnant goats, calves and roosters to men and women, Bhagya helped many in the village out of a crisis. Leaving her world of painting, Amma helmed the charity operation, drawing some kind of gratification from it 

Mostly Appa was distanced from Bhagya. But whenever he drove Bhagya he was gone for hours. I imagined, he spent his time talking to her in that same wistful tone. Once back home, he was no longer energetic enough to carry bucketfuls of water to wash her; but he couldn’t stand to see her dusty and dirty. So with a cloth in hand he wiped Bhagya till there wasn’t a jot of mud or sand on her white body.        

It was a hot, windy day in October when Appa was away in Singapore that we had a call from Swarnam. She had some emergency and needed Pichai to take her to the hospital. Now in her all-new avatar, Amma was ready to help. She called Pichai to hand him the car key and asked what was wrong with Swarnam. Pichai who was Appa’s drinking partner and staunchly loyal to him wouldn’t tell her anything. Finally Amma had to guess. 

“Is she pregnant again?” 

Put in a tough spot, Pichai shook his head, grabbed the key from Amma’s hand and rushed to the garage.  

That evening Amma took her paints and brushes and smudged the walls, ceiling to floor in the living room in big, ugly strokes.  

We came to know that Swarnam had miscarried the baby and was in the hospital at Kumbakonam. Pichai had locked the house and brought Laddoo along with him. Amma threw her past out the window, fed and took care of Laddoo. Appa returned a week later to find his son in the hall, paint brush in hand, Amma teaching him to paint and me holding his hand and guiding him. Amma packed off food to Swarnam in the hospital. When Appa wasn’t looking, I kept cuddling Laddoo, pinching his still-chubby cheeks fondly, lightly and with guilt. Baskar and Bhanu stayed away from this spectacle   

All of us had turned a few dizzying corners when he had been gone. But we were not ready to take him back again. Amma and I let the wall between him and we remain.  Much  to our disappointment, by then, Appa couldn’t care less , he had taken to the bottle and lost his health   

Amma is back on the leather couch in the hall. Her hair is free from the long braid and her forehead is bare, without the coin-size red dot of kumkum.   

I cross the dining hall carefully without slipping. The house is washed thoroughly after Appa’s body was carried away. The house is suddenly empty without the teeming people and Dyan. I take a seat on the couch, a bit away from amma, thinking of the distance that has been growing between us all these years.  

I have given the green signal for Baskar and Bhanu to share the assets among you three.” She stops and looks at me. I look away. “Except Bhagya Lakshmi.” She concludes the sentence as our eyes meet, as if expecting me to object 

I want to tell her Appa has made a clear will. The agency and the stores had been long gone. Appa had deposited the money to be shared between my brothers and Prahlad. The house where Amma lives is ours and will be undisturbed till Amma is alive. But Bhagya, Bhagya Lakshmi now belongs to Prahlad. I leave the village without telling Amma about that. The others, including Prahlad decide to maintain the secret.  

“Whatever you want ..” I say, hoping the numbness will wear off and grief will kick in 

“I will retain Pichai too.” Amma adds.  

“But …” 

“He has nowhere to go and I want to continue doing what I have been doing.” She has the last word.   

Six months later when I am wrapping up with a client, Amma calls on my mobile. When I try hanging up promising to call back, she says it is urgent. I see off the client and come back to my desk. I lean on the chair, taking deep breaths and get back on the phone. 

“There has been an accident.” Amma’s voice sounds feeble.  

“What? Where? I told you…” 

“Yes the fault was very much with Pichai.” She cuts me short. “No harm to anyone. But Bhagya has suffered damage. And they are not letting Pichai take it back.” 

Oh. So it is a police matter now. I wonder if the insurance papers are still intact.  

“I have them.” Amma is quick on her defense 

In a few hours, she calls me to tell me that Prahlad has come to help her out.   

With him working out the finer details I speak to a lawyer in Kumbakonam to initiate contact with the police station and guide Prahlad 

Defiance pushing me, I email my boss a reason for my absence, and book a ticket to the village. Counting the approaching weekend I can afford to spend six to seven days. I leave after writing a note to Dyan.   

The car, having run into a truck looks severely damaged. One side needs complete reconstruction. I bring a mechanic to assess the damage and then get it towed to his workshop. I am glad there is still someone around to repair the vintage model.  

On the day I am to leave I go to the workshop to check on it. Bhagya’s exterior is now free of the dents. I call out to the mechanic who slides from under her, clear the bill and pay him some extra money too. He promises to deliver the car home in good condition in the next three weeks.  

Satisfied, I pick up my travel bag and turn to walk out of the workshop. In a heartbeat, I change direction and go back to Bhagya. Leaving my bag on the floor, I put my cheek to her, the same way Appa had done years back. My hands caress her body fondly.   

“Come on. You are not old yet. Pull yourself together,” I whisper, imitating Appa, his face filling my mind’s eye. A knot in me starts to unravel. Soon there will be tears I know. 

Since young, stories have been part of Vijayalakshmi Sridhar’s world- both telling and listening to. Mostly she writes about people and their relationship angst. 

Italy Second-Hand

illustration by Meghna Singh Bhadauria

Ripeti dopo di me. Uno.” 

Uno.” 

Due.” 

Due.” 

Tre.” 

Tre.”

Ma’am prompted us with her hands as she spoke; like a conductor to an orchestra. But to parrot someone as an adult is embarrassing so a few of us scratched our heads and, with an awkward soft-spoken mumble, trailed off in between. I was one of these people. Sitting at the back of the class, fiddling with pens and looking at the clock, I had no interest in the Italian language. But my father ran a business and dealt with Italy in various woods for furniture. He wanted me to learn Italian and work for the company. I was doing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at the time, and though I could stand in front of a classroom with graphs and statistics projected on a screen, deliver lengthy presentations on market research and finance management, somehow I failed at counting from one to ten in Italian. 

But even Hindi and English abandoned me at the dinner table when I tried to tell my father about this failing interest. He was a hulking figure, his belly pressed against the table’s edge, and his upper-lip heavy with a thick handlebar moustache. He loved to eat, and I, under the tutelage of my mother, loved to cook. My mother was sweet outside of the kitchen but with an apron around her waist she was the most stringent guru.  

I want the tomatoes in thin slices,” she used to say threatening me with a slap. Nahi toh tera gaal banega tomato jaisa,  

Her fiery temper made me a competent chef. My father took his eating seriously. If his phone rang while he ate, he answered only to unleash a torrent of insults at the caller. On most nights I swallowed all apprehension about Italian with my food. I knew he would never let me leave classes at the Centre because, sometimes, in the dinners of dal makhani, rajma, and curd, which I prepared myself, he would slip in the condiment of an Italian phrase.  

Are your classes going well,” he would ask in Italian. I would stare at him. 

Not well enough. Buck up. I want carbonara soon.” 

If I ever got a hold of the language I was to serve him a ceremonial bowl of spaghetti carbonara. But whenever my Italian teacher stood me up in class and I had nothing to say, I knew the day would never come. 

We continued parroting the numbers 

Ventisette! Ventotto! Ventinove!” 

Not all at the Centre were uninterested in Italian. Zahra was sitting at the front desk with her back straight, hand in the air, jhumkas shimmering as she shouted the numbers. We were not friends but everyone knew she loved Italian. She had often been sighted at the library, with Italian books spread out before her. If others could not answer in class, she leaned in and whispered in their stead. The Centre screened Italian films regularly and she was present for them all, the light flashing across her face, mouth agape as if to consume the sounds and images. 

Regardless, it was noon when we were dismissed and I hailed an auto-rickshaw to go home. I was thinking of Zahra with a tinge of jealousy when my phone rang. It was my college friend Prakhar. I clicked my tongue: I had forgotten all about his party; it was later that night. I could not decide if I wanted to go. Prakhar was a good friend but unbearable as a drunk.  

“What’s up,” he asked. 

“I was at the Centre.” 

 “Did they teach you ‘hello’ today?” 

“Today we learned: go to hell.”  

He laughed. “Don’t forget to bring booze tonight.”  

“Right, right. I’ll see you there.” 

I thought I would make up an excuse later if I decided against going. When I reached home I found my mama, mami, and their six-year-old daughter Archana in the living room. She was an energetic child. Perhaps this was why I found myself trudging up the stairs to my room, with her bouncing up and down ahead of me, pleading to watch television. When my mother told me Archana would be staying with us for three days, I found myself at Prakhar’s party. Everyone was chatting, drink in hand, heads bobbing to music. I was surprised to see Zahra; she was talking with Prakhar. I approached them and she smiled at me. 

Buongiorno,” she said. 

Buongiorno.” 

Oh,” Prakhar said. “He’s the one from the Centre. The guy I was talking about.” 

Yeah I know. He’s in my class.” 

Great. Maybe you can teach him some Italian. He doesn’t know any.” 

Don’t mind him,” Zahra said as he stumbled off to speak with others. “It’s great to see you here. You know, I never really got the chance to speak with you. What got you into Italian?” 

My father runs a furniture business that deals with Italy. He wants me to learn Italian. What about you?” 

Oh I’ve always loved Italy. I’ve read too many translated books so I figured it’s time to learn the language.” 

That’s great. You’re learning quick too.” 

Thanks. Let’s sit down? I’ll get another drink.” 

She got a beer and we sat on a sofa-bed which had been opened up for everyone. 

What about the Centre itself? Are you having fun?” she asked. 

It’s a great place but I’m not really enjoying the classes. Italian isn’t a passion of mine. I wouldn’t be learning if my father didn’t insist.” 

Oh come on,” she said waving her hand as if at a fly, an annoyance. “Italy has so much to offer: such great theatre, food, architecture, music. You wouldn’t say that if you had a good experience of Italian culture.” 

Have you been there? I asked. 

I haven’t.” 

I went there with my father, once. But I didn’t see any of those things. What if it’s all just in your head? What if Italy turns out to be different? Would you still love it?” 

You know,” she took a sip of her beer, “I think places are invented.” 

What do you mean?” 

When I was a child I would visit my grandparents in Dehradun and going there meant walks in the hills with my nani and eating cookies with my nana. That’s what Dehradun meant to me. Walks and cookies. Now my nananani aren’t there and Dehradun doesn’t feel the same. But not everyone shared my walks and cookies. They saw something else in Dehradun. Those memories are only in my head but that doesn’t make them any less real. It only means my Dehradun is different from other Dehraduns. So why can’t I have my own Italy? I love Italian plays. If I can put Dehradun in a cookie jar then a play is good enough for Rome.” 

I laughed.  

And sure there are things to be discovered in places,” she continued. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel; these are things to be discovered, taken in. But places have to be invented too, you know, to be made one’s own. And I have a healthy imagination. Someday I’ll visit Italy. But till then I have my own Italy here,” she tapped her temple. “Reading the plays of Pirandello and Fo in my balcony, ordering pasta late at night, even the time spent at the Centre. Right now, these things are more Italian than Italy itself.” 

Well that’s very convenient,” I said, and she laughed. “But what do I know? All I know about Italian culture is The Godfather. 

Chuckling, she said, “I’ll tell you what. Spend some time at the library with me. I’ll help you revise and lend you some plays. Give Italy a chance.” 

Give your Italy a chance,” I corrected her. She smiled and I smiled back. “Okay.” 

*** 

We sat in the library, revising what had been taught in class. It was well into the afternoon and our table was next to a window. A beam of sunlight lit Zahra’s face. There were soft, erratic thuds on the window as a wasp buzzed around outside. Several months had passed as we sat together at the library, whispering in Italian to each other. I accompanied Zahra to the films screened at the Centre, too. With her the language seemed less daunting. Even my father seemed less formidable. Most Italian questions asked of me with mouthfuls of aloo and saag were answered to his satisfaction. Even my mother broke into mera Italy ka tukda,” on seeing my test papers from the Centre come bearing good marks. And when the likes of my relatives came visiting, my father talked of my keen interest in Italian. 

My mind had shifted from the lectures and presentations at college to the Centre. No longer was I among the otherwise interested sitting at the back of the class. I was with Zahra, up front, my hand raised in the air. While my Italian was illformed and broken, the numbers were child’s play. It was all because of Zahra, sitting in front of me, reading in the sunlight, wasp mindlessly thumping on the window. There can be no pretense: I had fallen in love with her. My determination to learn Italian was just an urgency to impress her. I am convinced that Italian words are incantations in disguise because somehow, along the way, she fell in love with me too. In hindsight it seems like our love for each other was only natural, and like all natural things it grew unbeknownst to us, like a sapling tended to everyday till a bud pops into a flower, and all change becomes apparent. 

But even though we were best friends—despite her giggling when I mispronounced words—I was nervous as we sat at the library. 

My father wants me to cook carbonara tonight,” I whispered. 

While spaghetti carbonara is quite difficult to cook, the cause of my anxiety was what the occasion really meant: my graduation was approaching fast and I was to be initiated into wood trade. But above all, it was because Zahra and I had decided to tell our parents about each other while things were going well. 

We should get it over with fast,” Zahra had said. “The problem will only fester if we don’t. They should have the chance to adjust.” The problem being religion. Spaghetti and Parmesan made for a delightful combination for my parents but a Hindu and Muslim were best kept apart. I was lost in thought as we got up to leave the library. 

Don’t worry about what they’ll say. Be done with it,” Zahra said. We walked out of the Centre and she hailed a rickshaw. “I’ll tell my parents tonight too.” 

Are you sure?” 

She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. 

Quite,” she said, grinning and I grinned back like a fool. She got on to the rickshaw. “We’ll talk once it’s done. Bye.” 

The rickshaw cycled away, bell ringing. 

*** 

Later that night my father, mother, and I sat at the dinner table with a portion of carbonara on our plates. My father, smiling from ear to ear, put a hand on my shoulder. 

Let’s begin.” 

They began eating and my mother beamed at me from across the table, giving me a thumbs-up. I looked at my father just in time to see a noodle being sucked into his still smiling mouth. 

Bellissimo! Appena belissimo! Kya baat hai! 

Grazie, papa.” 

Such a worthy cook,” my mother said, with a smile. 

Yes. He is doing well all round. When is your graduation, beta?” 

It’s in May.” 

Very well. Graduate, then it’s time to join the business.” 

Yes, papa.” 

They continued smiling and resumed eating. I steeled myself. 

Listen, there is something you should know.” 

They looked up, still smiling. But I saw the slightest arch in my mother’s brow. She knew something unsavory was to follow. 

It’s about the Centre,” I continued. 

Yes?” 

I met someone there. Her name is Zahra.” 

The smiles still clung to their faces but had been knocked askew, like a tilted picture frame after a door is slammed shut. 

So what,” my mother said. “Is she the first girl you’ve met?” 

She is my girlfriend.” 

My father laughed but my mother was angry. Arrey don’t fume. It’s alright, beta,” he said. “These things happen at your age. You will grow out of it.” 

What do you mean,” I asked. 

You have young blood. Once you graduate and start working you will enter the real world. There is no space for such things in the real world.” 

I just wanted to let both of you know.” 

Thank you,” my mother snapped. 

The rest of the meal was eaten in silence. Once it was over, I washed my hands and went upstairs to call Zahra. 

How did it go,” I asked. 

You first, she replied. 

Not well,” I said. Mom was angry but dad just laughed it off. I guess they’re hoping it won’t last. I’ll hear about it a lot but they won’t really interfere.” 

It’s worse with me. They want me to leave you.” 

Oh.” 

I’ll just lie to them. Both of them were angry but I made them promise not to pull me from the Centre. I said it was nothing serious and I’ll break it off if they want.” 

Hmm.” 

Don’t worry about it too much. All this won’t matter when we’re having carbonara in Rome.” 

In truth I was quite afraid for what was to come. But I refrained from speaking. 

Yeah,” I said,things will be good.” 

*** 

A few years later, with no one but Prakhar in attendance, Zahra and I got married in court. Our families abandoned us. Her parents disowned her when they realised she had gone against their will. They were well into discussions about marriage with another family when she told them the truth. My father, on the other hand, tried to tempt me out of the ordeal with the bribe of a secure future. 

Don’t jump into this ditch. You’ve been working well for the company. You are my son,” he pleaded. I only want what’s best for you.” 

Even my mother had stopped speaking with me. It was years before I heard from her again. But alas be it oak, mahogany, spruce, or ebony, furniture could not entice me to leave Zahra. My father would not have me in the company if I married a Muslim, so I packed my bags, walked out of my parents home, and into a one bedroom flat; into uncertainty. I worked as a salesman for a small firm and Zahra worked as a content writer. Spending time together only at night, silent, in stuffy heat under a clacking fan, our relationship was maimed. We hardly saw each other, had little money and even lesser time to entertain thoughts of Italy. Italian was decaying in our minds because we had no use for it; there was no room for it in our cramped apartment. Zahra had stopped reading Italian plays too. All we did was work, eat, watch TV in silence, and sleep. We could no longer afford to think about Italy. Going there seemed like a childish idea. 

But each night as I stared at the fan, with Zahra sleeping next to me, facing away, I thought about how I could improve things. Knowing that Italy was too expensive a pursuit, an idea took shape in my mind: if we could not go to Italy, I would bring it to our one bedroom flat. I would invent a cheaper Italy. I decided to cook us a dinner of spaghetti carbonara. Being on a minuscule budget, I replaced pancetta and guanciale with simple sausage. I filled our flat with candles and borrowed an old music system and candelabra from Prakhar. Zahra and I only had a coffee table, so I threw a sheet over it and put the candelabra on top. From the nearest liquor shop I bought cheap red wine. Once the creamy pasta was on the table and the candles lit I played Italian jazz on the music system and waited for Zahra to return from work. 

I was going to attempt speaking in Italian for the entire night even though I had not truly mastered it. But it had to be done. Soon enough I heard footsteps outside. The door opened and Zahra stood in the frame, assessing what was happening. She walked towards the table, with a smile. I pulled out her chair. 

Welcome to Italy,” I said. “I made dinner.” 

I unveiled the carbonara and she clutched my hand. 

Exquisite, she said. 

It is?” 

Truly.” 

I try best.” 

I heaped a good portion of the spaghetti onto her plate and poured the wine. She picked up the fork, prodded the food around, and laughed. 

Hmm, no pancetta.” 

I accuse environment.” 

Accuse environment? Do you mean circumstance?” 

Yes, yes. I accuse circumstance.” 

We ate our dinner with the music playing and talked as the candle flames flickered around us. It was quite hot and we had to switch on the fan and lights soon enough. Zahra and I laughed together, and as she held my clammy palm all felt right again. We made love that night after ages and I woke up the next morning feeling like a richer man. Such a success was the venture that we dedicated all Friday nights to Italy: Italian Night. On Italian Night, of course, there was only Italian to be spoken. The food too was never ordered; I cooked it at home. I added lasagna, cannoli, ravioli, and others to the cuisine of our one-bedroom Italy. If the day at work was forgiving we had energy enough to waltz to Italian music too. Sometimes, if I spent a week persuading her, we watched The Godfather on her laptop. But we enacted scenes from Zahra’s favorite Italian plays more often. She would take her favorite lines from Pirandello’s plays and scribble them in Italian because we only had them in English. Then we would jump onto our bed and shout out the dialogues, sometimes to our neighbors’ dismay. 

You know nature is an instrument of the imagination to chase creation at a higher level!” 

“Okay but where does all this get us?” 

“Nowhere! It only means that one can be born as many things: a tree, a stone, water, a butterfly, a human. But also a fictional character.” 

“And so you and those around you are fictional? Only characters?” 

“Yes, sir. But no less real.” 

*** 

One night, while we were in bed, I heard Zahra sigh and turn toward me. 

Listen, she said. 

Yes, I replied. 

Promise to hear me out?” 

Okay?” 

Things are getting better now but I’m sick of content writing. I have an idea.” 

What is it?” 

Let’s open an Italian restaurant.” 

There was silence as I took this in. We were indeed improving: the fridge was full of food and the mind empty of anxiety. But why put it all at risk? As I thought about it, I remember wondering what I was most excited about that week. All I could think of was spaghetti carbonara. Italian Night. 

I think we should do it.” 

*** 

I had come to think of spaghetti carbonara as an old friend. The kitchen was bustling as usual and I was cooking carbonara, my face hot from the day spent in front of the stove, my old backache stinging. Regardless, in the boiling water, the raw spoke-like spaghetti had curled into noodles, and I had already beaten the egg yolks with salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan, into a creamy yellow concoction. I cooked the pasta with sausage and turned off the heat. Soon, I added the creamy sauce to the pasta and put it all into the crockery. 

Have it sent.”  

An Italian man had placed the order. He was not the first Italian in our restaurant, and I knew what would happen. I folded my arms and waited. Soon a waiter came into the kitchen, smiling. 

The man would like to see you, sahib.” 

I walked out the swinging doors and into the restaurant. It was full and there was a queue outside. Chet Baker’s Romas was playing; a fine choice. I walked towards the Italian man, passing all the posters of Italian architecture, Pirandello, and of course, The Godfather. Zahra and I had hung those posters ourselves when we opened the restaurant. 

The Italian was sitting alone at a table for two, right next to a wall; a bright yellow filament bulb was hanging above him. His meal was untouched.  

You asked for the chef, Sir. How may I assist?” 

He looked up, smiled, and gestured to the empty seat. If at all possible I would like a word.”  

I sat down. 

I am a chef too,” he said, “from Roma. We are mad for carbonara. So when I saw this on the menu,” he gestured to the food, “Zahra’s Carbonara, I was intrigued. 

No pancetta? No guanciale? I would be fired for doing this in Roma.” 

I laughed. 

Do not get me wrong,” he continued. “This is a fine establishment. But why not serve it the real way?” 

Because it is Zahra’s Carbonara, Sir. Zahra is the name of my wife. We were poor when we started the restaurant and could not afford pancetta or guanciale. Only sausage. Soon she would not have it any other way.” 

Ah,” he said. “A tragedy in my opinion. It is to be had with pork. But I understand. Perhaps that is where the restaurant’s name comes from: Italy Second Hand?” 

Quite right, Sir,” I said, as he chuckled. “On some nights we serve it the traditional way as a special.” 

Hmm. Is your wife here?” 

No, sir. She died a few years ago.” 

My apologies. But tell me, have you ever been to Italy? To Roma?” 

Yes. I went with my wife many times. Now my daughter has settled in Sicily.” 

Bellisimo. Maybe you can visit my restaurant in Roma next time.” 

It would have been my pleasure, Sir. But when I go to Italy now I feel like I have left it behind. I don’t think I can go there without my wife.  

Allow me, Sir. I served him the carbonara. He twirled his fork in the noodles and brought them to his mouth. Looking up at the bulb, he chewed with a thoughtful countenance, and swallowed. 

Hmm,” he said smiling. “Remarkable. Tastes Italian to me.” 

Sidharth Singh is a postgraduate student of English literature at Shiv Nadar University. He was a participant at the DumPukht Writers’ Workshop. This is his first publication. 

The Boy Who Will Cure Everything

The evening before the Chief Minister comes to the village, the Wonderboy wants to be a normal boy. He is tired of being a Wonderboy. He doesn’t want to sit on a wooden chair, legs dangling because he is too little and the chair too high, a garland of marigold flowers hanging from his neck and a red lotus on his right hand. First, he used to hold a real red lotus. He liked that. About a month ago, a devotee gifted him a beautiful rubber lotus that doesn’t dry out in the heat. He misses the smell of fresh, red lotuses. He hates the smell of crushed marigold petals from his garland because the garland of real marigold flowers is changed every two days. He is tired of instructing his devotees to eat this and eat that, and pray to God by facing the east with wet clothes on to heal diseases. That evening, when the devotees leave, he tells his mother that he wants to jump into the cool pool behind his house and swim like he used to six months ago when things changed in his life. He wants to go fishing. Then he wants to go up the hill in search of pomelos.

His mother says he can’t do that because the Chief Minister is coming the next day to meet him. His father locks the door and his mother threatens to break his legs if he leaves. The village headman is on his way to tell him what to ask from the Chief Minister when he comes to ask for the Wonderboy’s blessings. They will go over the questions together. He will have to remember those questions. When the Chief Minister hears those questions, he will listen to him because he is the Wonderboy.

The Wonderboy doesn’t want to meet the Chief Minister. The entire village is waiting to meet the Chief Minister.

***

Six months ago, the Wonderboy has a dream. A man with four arms appears in that dream. One of his hands carries a serrated disk that rests on his index finger. The disk spins nonstop in a scary but fascinating way. He is wearing beautiful yellow clothes and lots of jewelry. He also carries a lotus in his other hand but the Wonderboy is just curious about the things he is carrying in his other two hands: a white conch and a gold mace.

“What do you want?” he asks him.

The man with the four hands says, “I want to give you something.”

“I will take it if you tell me how you scratch your back,” he asks the man.

“Like this,” he scratches his hand, passing the lotus from one of his hands to the other that was holding the conch.

The Wonderboy, who is not yet a wonderboy but just a regular boy, protests, “That’s cheating. I asked how you scratch your back.”

He scratches his back. It makes a loud sound, and the room vibrates. That is when the boy knows that this man is really powerful.

Now that his curiosities are quenched, he stares at the serrated spinning disk and feels sleepy in his sleep. He remembers that he is dreaming. The man wakes him up and says, “You have forgotten, I am here to give you a special power.”

“Okay,” the Wonderboy says, and accepts the power. That’s how he is transformed from a regular boy to a Wonderboy who is able to perform miracles : heal diseases, predict the future, but not narrate the past.

When he wakes up, it is late morning and the sun is overhead. His mother is getting ready to work in the fields of the Village Chief. The Chief has a potbelly and he wears a wife-beater. When it is too hot, he pulls the wife- beater to his chest, airing the skin over his rotund belly and walks around scratching it, scolding his employees for being lazy.

The Chief hires a lot of people to work in his endless rice fields. The Wonderboy doesn’t like him at all. His mother gets a basketful of rice in return, for working in the fields for twelve hours, and if his father works, he earns two baskets. Women are paid less than men. She stores the rice in a plastic drum that was used to store plastic colors. She had collected it when the Chief painted his house red a few springs ago. He didn’t want to give it to her at first, but she begged him because she knew she needed an airtight container to store her rice away from cockroaches.

The Wonderboy tells his mother about the dream and his mother starts to cry. She holds his feet, presses her head against them and asks him to wait until she returns and, because she is screaming so much, she attracts a bunch of curious onlookers.

By noon, he is on a wooden chair with arms, a garland of marigold hanging from his neck and a real lotus on his hand. His father tells him that they are playing God-God since God arrived in his dream. If he plays God-God for a few days, he will get to eat porridge and grapes. The boy doesn’t know how that will happen but he trusts his father. The people dress him in a yellow dhoti like the man in the dream. There are several people from the village who come to meet him. They ask him about the dream, but he says, as instructed by his mother and father, that he can’t speak about it. They ask about the medicine he found in the dream and he says, it will cure every disease but he can’t speak about that, either.

He loves the game. Unlike other days, he doesn’t ask his mother to let him go play in the fields with friends where he plays with a large elephant apple because none of them can afford to buy a real rubber ball to kick around. He enjoys the attention of the people who come to meet him every day. He loves to bless them with his right hand just like the priest in the village who usually behaves rudely with him when he asks for a second spoon of porridge. His father tells him it is because they are lower on the caste rung. They will just receive one spoonful of porridge. He has asked him several times not to go to the local prayer hall and beg for porridge. We will eat well here, even if we don’t have enough milk to make porridge, his father says.

But it is too tempting not to go.

Now, he doesn’t have to go in search of porridge. That afternoon, when the same priest comes with his wife with a large pot of porridge, the Wonderboy is startled. They bow to him. They make an offering of fifty rupees and the pot of porridge. As soon as they leave, the Wonderboy looks around for the pot of porridge. He wants the entire pot for himself. He can’t see his mother. He asks for his father. Even he isn’t around. There is a line of people waiting to meet him but he runs to the kitchen, finds the pot, and starts eating from there. When his mother returns, she is angry. She snatches the pot from him and calls him greedy and slaps him hard. He starts to cry. He is loud and won’t stop. It is so awkward.

“The Lord tried to steal porridge!” a devotee announces.

“Did he also try to steal butter?” another woman asks, joining her hands in respect. “The Lord also has human problems because this is his human incarnation.”

His mother is still angry but she controls herself. She can’t lie in front of God and she confesses, “We don’t have butter. We really can’t afford it.”

“Someone please get a bit of butter for the Lord!” a man instructs another man.

The rest of the people gasp in surprise and awe. They are waiting to touch his feet, offer more food, more fruits; the type of grapes he has only ever seen in movies and sweets that he has only seen in the market but has never been able to afford. An old woman says that only the Mother can hit or scold him. This is God’s human drama. He comes to the earth to get love and affection from a mother. Though the mother is human, the God will forgive her because he has chosen her as his mother. She must have fed a lot of poor people in her previous birth, to have this chance to raise a God, slap a God, snatch the pot of porridge from him; another woman remarks, and starts to weep in happiness.

The Wonderboy is angry. Upset, he runs to the bedroom and locks himself in. He thinks he deserves all the porridge—he has earned it for playing God-God all day. It was very boring. Why should he share it with his brother? Why should he share it with the guests who have come uninvited? His mother pleads.

Finally, she says, she will jump in the well if he doesn’t come out. She will also tie a steel pot around her neck before jumping so that she drowns for sure. He unlatches the door, steps out, howling and crying asking her not to die and hugs her. He throws away the steel pot, the only one, in the house. A devotee picks it up to place it in his altar and pray. The steel pot will bring him wealth and good fortune. All the women and men in the courtyard start to sing hymns about the Lord’s mysterious ways and his Human Drama.

“When you don’t obey me, I feel like killing myself,” she says.

Terrified, the boy cries more.

***

At first, only the locals come for the secret medicine. The Wonderboy climbs the tree in the morning. The tree is in the backyard so he doesn’t have to go far. He chops a bunch and then further chops them into smaller pieces: each of them two inches long. Then he arranges them in groups of four and binds them together with a red thread. The people watch him. They conclude, and spread the news, that the medicine has to be prepared by the God incarnate, otherwise it won’t work.

A man comes from a village that is a bit far away. He asks, will this cure my cancer?

The Wonderboy says it will, because his parents have asked him never to say no. If he believes in it, it will cure cancer. If he wraps it in a cotton cloth with red borders, and wears it around his waist, making sure the chopped wood grazes his skin, it will work. It will cure cancer and diabetes and migraines and infertility because this is what the God has told him. A day later, more people from that village arrive. More people from the neighboring villages arrive. In less than fourteen days, the word spreads to the city and even officers who chase thieves, and teachers who draw government salaries arrive with sick patients. He blesses them all.

The specialty of the Wonderboy is that he doesn’t charge. However, people are free to donate. There is a donation box right in front of his humble abode—a cottage made of bamboo. A man from Dibrugarh, who is fighting many corruption cases associated with his construction company, says that he will donate money for a house and a temple because the Wonderboy cured his mother’s diabetes. He writes a fat cheque. In a day, a politician from far away Dhubri comes for his blessings, and says he will provide all the bricks and cement and iron required to build the house. A few feet away from their house there is a thicket of slim bamboos used to make flutes and hibiscus flowers and other poisonous shrubs that give you rashes. They clear it to construct a new house.

By the end of the month, so many people arrive that the local authorities have to take charge of law and order. They create barricades and employ constables to ensure the people are maintaining the queue. Several unemployed boys from the village set up tea-stalls and betel-nut shops for people standing in the queue for six to seven hours. They tell people about the supernatural powers of the Wonderboy. How on the day of his birthday a massive storm razed the village, blew away every roof of every house, but left his house intact. How they found him playing with a large python one day. How a woman who refused to stop dancing, refused to comb her clothes, refused to stop smearing soil on her body calmed down and fell at his feet asking for forgiveness when she was brought around his energy field.

***

The Wonderboy is growing tired. Every day, he tells his mother that he won’t play God-God anymore. He has eaten enough porridge and sweets. His mother is horrified. His father is dismayed. She threatens to hit him. She is his mother, and that’s why she can hit him, and punish him, and the real God who has four hands will not punish her. Every night, the Wonderboy cries to sleep because he is tired of this game that his parents are making him play. They had promised that it will get over in a few days and now it has been months. He has to stay home and can’t go out at all.

The Wonderboy has a name. His name is Pitlu Deka and if an eleven-year-old boy may have a girlfriend, her name is Purki Das. She is called Purki because when she was an infant she used to fart a lot after breastfeeding. She is eleven now. She doesn’t fart anymore. But the sound she used to make white farting, purk-purk, has continued to be her name of endearment and shame. Her good name, as in the official name, is Indrani. It is a beautiful name. Indrani is the wife of Indra who is the King of all Gods. He is like an administrator but actually he follows the orders of the Big Gods. There are three Big Gods. One of the Big Gods is that God with four hands and a serrated spinning disk who showed our Wonderboy how he scratches his back.

The Wonderboy is tired of being venerated. He wants to play with Purki. He wants Purki to call him “Hey silly, catch me” and chase her across the field. He wants Purki to appear from nowhere and kick his ass and shout “catch me if you can, stupid” and play catch-me-catch-me for hours, running across the dusty lanes of the village. He is over with porridge and fruits and red grapes and black grapes and apples.

He has put on weight. He is now double the size. When he walks fast, he huffs and puffs. Purki likes him. She plays with him and shares her Mango-bite candy and ripe peaches with him because he doesn’t call her Purki, the name she is ashamed of. He calls her Indrani. One day, in school, he had fought one of his friends who called Purki, purki in front of him. He misses her. He misses going to school. He misses chasing her in the field and then rolling on the hay and stealing mangoes and jackfruits and peaches and myrobalan with her. He doesn’t want these foreign fruits anymore. He wants to swim with her in the Tamulidobha River and catch fish together and wince his face eating raw myrobalan without salt, and then run to drink cold water to feel the sweetness in the mouth.

***

Perhaps that’s why, on the day the Chief Minister of the state is supposed to visit, he vanishes. The Chief Minister waits; he is so patient and devoted. He is sweating, though it is not really hot. He is used to air-conditioned rooms. He has come with a fleet of cars and an army of soldiers with modern weapons. The cars have sirens and blinking red lights. He is such a faithful believer of God. The entire village is busy with him, Sir-siring him: “Sir this”, “Sir that.”

The night before, the village headman tutors the Wonderboy to talk about building the road, more funds for the school, more money for the prayer hall. Wonderboy, who is tired and upset that his mother has just threatened to break his legs, nods. He is so overwhelmed. His mind wanders off to the plan he has made with Purki the next day.

He isn’t found anywhere in the village, not even in the shallow Tamulidobha River. They find him with Purki in the deep lake in the middle of the forest where no one goes because it is too dangerous. The water in that lake is green. The forest around is full of witches who cook their dinner on the skulls of unmarried men. The village elders suspect he is in the lake’s bed, fighting snakes, to save the village and the world from disaster because that’s what the Lord is supposed to do according to the ancient scriptures. Expert men in the village dive and bring up the bodies. Men suck their teeth and the women weep in a singsong voice, “He was trying to save us from snakes living in the lake.”

Some others suck their teeth and comment that this tragedy is the sign that the apocalypse would come; that the Wonderboy and Purki must have come here so that no one would find them fishing, swimming. The creel and the fishing rod, are on the bank, just next to the German grass that smells terrible when crushed but is a good antiseptic.

When the men in the village lay down the bodies on the flat stone, the women cry. The lake is still dripping away from their sleeping bodies.

God is dead, the Chief Minister exclaims.

Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He is the author of the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking, 2013). He has also translated from Assamese and introduced Indian writer Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (2013). He won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh in 2009. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared or forthcoming in The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, the Hindu, Evergreen Review, Karthika Review, Juked, Sin Fronteras Journal, Stonecoast Review, The Atticus Review, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Fiction – Fall 2019

Road to Gede

Don’t you know a stranger can’t cremate her? Her soul would keep wandering and won’t find peace, if a relative does not cremate her. I’m sure you must know this. If you don’t claim her body, you’ll regret that for the rest of your life. Trust me, I know it.

Lunch to Tea

“Don’t you remember?” He doesn’t understand why people are always asking him that.?He rattles his memory. He scolds himself for drawing a blank just when it is most critical. He pictures the old woman at the dining table, smiling to herself, enjoying a hearty lunch of kadhi and rice all by herself.

Snow Day

Kabir had listened as a group of men argued over who was really behind the terror their neighborhoods were facing. It was widely believed that vigilante groups supported by the Administration were carrying out the raids.

Dear Bhagya Lakshmi

As I begin to piece my guess together, I hear the familiar hoot – Bhagya’s horn and the curve of white that is nosing into our compound. I can’t say how glad I am to see our genteel, age-old Ambassador car right where it belongs.

A Different Music

Saira hated Pakistani music. It reminded her of all that was wrong with her country. The male singers were too loud, the women too shrill. But worst of all, it was full of allusions to things she had no clue about – mainly history and literature she had not been taught in school but was expected to know, just because she lived in Pakistan.

Every time she heard dasht-i-tanhaee, she felt inadequate, uneducated. All those Persian words, how was she, being an Urdu-speaking teenager, supposed to understand them? She didn’t even know what her own national anthem meant. She had grown up singing it, thinking it was the high-level Urdu that her parents spoke. It was only recently that she learned it was another language altogether.

Night after night, she watched her parents as they sat with their friends in their living room, listening to ghazals, rewinding them, replaying them, discussing the lyrics into the wee hours of the night. How could they possibly get so much out of something she did not even understand? And this “wah” thing? Whatever.

She wanted to be one of those teenagers she saw on MTV, unburdened by traditional culture. She dreamed of standing on one of those raised platforms in short shorts, dancing to a song she did not know, gyrating to a beat she had never heard.

She longed to be lost in a crowd in which no one recognized her, where her family name meant nothing, where all was acceptable and there was no concept of shame. For in her world everything inevitably came down to honor. What will they think? What will they say? Do you know how many generations we have known their family?

Saira came from an old Lahori family. She had grown up in a house in which her parents, both professors, hosted the city’s literati at regular poetry readings and ghazal mehfils. She remembered their friends sitting beneath the yellow ceiling fan that creaked rhythmically, like an old typewriter clicking away, unnoticed, at its own speed. She could hear their carefully articulated words, the sounds of papers being shuffled as the smell of the motia flowers on the console mingled with the smell of cigar.

When she was younger, she had enjoyed these evenings. Everyone was friendly; if she ever wandered into the living room, she was showered with gifts – books, pens, calligraphy – and attention. She enjoyed the way they all turned to her, listening to her stories and reading her poems. She always said she wanted to be an American rock star; they always smiled.

As the years passed, however, she grew tired of the same routine. It was predictable. It was stagnant. And she just couldn’t understand how they could remain so content in it. She did not want to be like her parents’ friends, in their white chooridars and dupattas. She did not want to spend her life discussing history and politics – political parties without names, just a bunch of initials that all sounded the same. The more time went by, the more it all exasperated her.

Each day, with each milli naghma she watched on PTV, she was convinced that she did not really belong here, that she had been put here by some freak accident and it was a matter of time before she escaped. Her solace came in American music. She listened to Tracy Chapman: “She’s got her ticket, I think she gonna use it, I think she gonna fly away.”

She would sit for hours and transcribe songs like “It’s My Life” and “I Will Survive,” writing down their lyrics so she could sing along with them, standing before the bathroom mirror, using a hairbrush as a mike. And doing so, she would close her eyes and sway – far away from her life, her home and her history.

Saira loved the concerts on MTV. They lifted her spirits. But when she turned to PTV, she saw  lifeless women with make-up plastered onto their faces swaying robotically to the beat of an electric organ as the audience looked on with equally vacant looks. She knew that there was just no common ground between the two ways of life. She had to leave.

Maybe if there had been one person, one Pakistani role model she could have looked up to, to want to be like, she would have been motivated to stay. But there was no one. No one Pakistani, that is. On her walls were posters of Tracy Chapman, Cher and Madonna. In the magazines scattered across her room were photo shoots of Caucasian models. On her shelves were books written by Western authors. And in her video player were movies made in Hollywood.

Yes, she admitted to her shell-shocked parents’ friends one evening: she liked John Denver more than Iqbal Bano. She understood him; the lyrics made sense. But more importantly, his songs made her happy. She had heard them call it “hippie music” but she didn’t care. She wanted it, she needed it, she craved it. When everything around her was so intense, so emotionally charged and so tied into history, when she felt the burden of her culture oppressive, it was this music that liberated her.

She started dreaming of the day when she could drive down an American highway in a convertible, the wind blowing in her hair as she listened to “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” She pictured herself, again and again, driving to the nearest McDonald’s and then to a self-serve gas station. How free she would be! She would drink coffee in a paper mug and place it in one of those coffee-mug holders that American cars came with. She would learn to parallel park, she would even put on her safety belt – something her friends had laughed at her for doing in Lahore the first and last time she had ever attempted to do so.

As Saira drove around Lahore in her little gray Cultus, swerving around the potholes and the rickshaws, playing “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” she was convinced that home was elsewhere, certain that she was a traveler who had been away for too long and it was now time to return.

***

Saira’s infatuation with all things American started a few years earlier during a trip to Orlando. Her cousin Ali, had put her in touch with his sister-in-law who had graciously agreed to host her for the summer. It was her first exposure to America. And she loved it. The roads were so wide, so clean, the people so friendly.

She felt that if she ate American food, drank American water and breathed American air, she would become American. The Doritos, the Lays, the Pringles – this is what gave the Americans their rosy cheeks, their perfectly round buttocks and soft spongy skin. How perfect were their lives, how spotless were their homes. And how much she wanted to be one of them.

On the Fourth of July, Saira had attended a pool party at a neighbor’s house. And she had been mesmerized by the huge, white gleaming kitchen. It had one of those counters in the center, full of fruit so big and juicy she had to touch it to make sure it was real.

There were platters of chips and quiches and mini-pizzas. There were stacks of Styrofoam cups and mammoth-sized bottles of soft drinks, large glass bowls full of punch, and giant tubs overflowing with ice and beer. And the cupboards? They were stocked with more canned goods than many grocery stores back home.

Saira came back to Lahore, after that summer, and, for the first time in her life, noticed her own kitchen. With a gray chips-ka floor and a sticky can of Dalda oil sitting next to an equally sticky gas stove with yet stickier knobs,she felt nauseous. She noticed the shriveled up bananas and the sickly looking apples on her parents’ dining table. She watched the cleaning woman sweep the house with a jharoo made out of tillis, the dust  just flying up and resettling on a different object.

More and more, she longed to live in a wooden house with vacuum cleaners and wall-to-wall carpeting. More and more, the cement square she lived in seemed like a prison. She would leave. She would cut her hair, maybe even get bangs. She would chew Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. And she would never come back.

***

The first thing Saira noticed about America was the radio. She loved the way it played songs at random. She was so used to playing her tapes in the car that the very idea of listening to music picked by somebody else made her feel free. All of a sudden, something that had always been so planned, so deliberate, became effortless. With each song that came on the radio, Saira was convinced that the universe was speaking to her, giving her messages, hope and advice. She felt important. She felt acknowledged. She felt welcomed.

Less than a year ago, Saira had walked into her parents’ bedroom and found them propped up in their old, four-poster bed, reading their respective newspapers through their professorial specs as the old Sehgal song, Humein to shaam i gham mein kaatni hai zindigi apni, played on the radio. This is the moment that changed her life. Spending her life in a perpetual shaam-i-gham was not what she wanted. And she finally told them so.

Saira’s parents could never have expected the deluge of complaints that followed. She was social, she had topped at the National College of Arts in Interior Design and was now interning with one of the most well-respected architects in the city. Why would she possibly want to leave?

They disagreed with her rationale. But they did not try to stop her. They gave her the money they had saved for her, pulled as many strings as they could to get her a visa and bought her a round-trip ticket, in the hope that she would come back.

And yet the more supportive they became, the more resilient became her resolve. With each friend who came over to wish her luck, with each farewell gift and each “contact number” she was given, she felt she was being guilt-tripped. When her parents’ friends pooled in and bought her a guitar, she cried. But the day she got her visa, she left, not attending  the farewell dinner they had spent days arranging. It was simple: the longer she stayed, the more difficult leaving became.

***

Back in Orlando, the radio was still welcoming, its songs familiar. The streets were as wide and clean as Saira remembered, the homes just as palatial. But Ali’s sister-in-law was a lot less cheery. She had been through a messy divorce in-between. When she learned that Saira was here indefinitely, politely she suggested that Orlando may not be the right place for her.

She had a good friend in New York called Emily, she said, who could help her find a cheap apartment. Saira was taken aback. This is not what she had expected. But there was no other option. She looked at all the “contacts” her family and friends had given her – the last thing she wanted was to get stuck with some old aunty. So she called Emily.

“I have a great studio available immediately,” said Emily. Saira had no idea what a studio was. But it sounded kind of artistic. So she took it. It was only when she reached New York that she learned that a “studio” was a little room with a bed in one corner and a sofa at the other. The kitchen was so tiny, only one person could stand in it at a time, and the bathroom, which faced the inner side of the SoHo buildings, a tiny rectangle of yet tinier white tiles outlined by thin lines of green mold.

Still, she was determined to be positive. Fate had brought her to New York and it was here that she would make her dreams come true. So she started exploring. She liked walking down the streets of the city. She liked the manicure places, the sweet smell of nail polish remover when she walked in. How serenely the women sat as others sculpted their nails. She found a little bagel place in her neighborhood; even the man at the newspaper stand started to recognize her.

New York was not like Orlando. It was crowded, and everyone lived and walked very closely to each other. One day as she sat perched atop a public toilet (one of those stalls separated by plastic walls) this proximity hit her.

She had not seen anyone come in and did not realize how close the women on either side of her were, until they started urinating. It was so loud, she nearly fell off her seat. Back home, she often ran the tap just in case anyone was outside. The thought of anyone hearing her was simply mortifying. But here in America nobody cared. Here, no one was shy. The women peed loudly. Then they walked out, confidently, totally unaffected by the fact that a stranger had just heard their most intimate of bodily functions.

****

It was one summer morning as Saira stood in front of an ATM machine, squinting her eyes at the balance she saw on the screen, that she realized her lifestyle was not sustainable. She would have to find a job.

She remembered Mark, an under-staffed architect she had met at Emily’s place. She phoned him; he still needed help and agreed to hire her, paying her under the table.

In less than a year, he was willing to sponsor her for a Green Card. How proud her parents would be! She worked hard. She was quiet and polite, pleasant and willing to help others. Everyone at the office adored her. But she couldn’t wait to leave.

For it was in the evenings that she came alive. Saira had learned about the underground music scene through the Village Voice. It was a difficult world to break into, but there was something about her appearance that night – her dark skin, her nose ring and the electric guitar slung around her shoulder as elegantly as a pashmina – that drew Billy to her.

He was buying beer for his friends. She stood at the bar with a club soda in her hand.

“Nice guitar,” he said.

She smiled. “I can sing too.”

They walked over to his friends. And before long, they were practicing together.

Saira loved the smoky rooms, the beat of the drums. She felt at home with these people. They too had rejected the mainstream. They too were trying to express themselves through music. There was Lisa, a tall dark-haired girl with milky white skin; there was Billy, the redhead who played the drums and lived two blocks down from Sara; there was Susan, a 5’10’ Scandinavian photographer with a deep voice and a nose ring, and there was Jay.

Jay was a graphic designer. He had come from Texas six years ago to attend an art school in New York, and had stayed on. He had sandy brown hair, twinkling green eyes and a smile that made her feel special. Like her, he had turned away from his parents’ world. He prided himself on his diverse group of friends and his knowledge of other cultures. He was soft-spoken and reminded Saira of her father, the way he would wrap a shawl around her mother when she was sick.

After their second meeting, the two found themselves completing each other’s sentences. For Jay, Saira was a goddess, dark-skinned and exotic, representing a world that had always fascinated him. For Saira, Jay was an anchor in her new world. He was not like the people at work with their country clubs and houses in the Hamptons. Despite their repeated invitations, Saira had kept her distance – she had not left one stifling community to become part of another. Instead, with Jay she attended foreign film festivals. Together the two composed music and ate Pakistani food with their fingers.

***

They named their five-member band “The Melting Pot.” The first time they landed a gig, Jay asked his parents to fly down. Billy had negotiated relentlessly for this Friday night slot at the Corner, a trendy club in Greenwich Village where many famous bands had made their first appearance.

That night, the club was  abuzz with energy, its low-key façade transformed into a fluorescent entity. Out of the three bands, the Melting Pot was the only newcomer. The music was original, written by Saira and Jay. Between them, they had plotted a throbbing baseline, the sitar twanging and the tambourine adding an effervescent edge which was then picked up by the electric guitar. Their lead song was a composition called the American Dream, a fusion of East and West.

After their second roaring encore, the five of them finally took their bows. Though exhausted, they couldn’t stop smiling. But more excited than them were Jay’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sommers, who discussed the evening with as much detail and animation as them, telling Saira again and again in their Southern accents, how precious she was and how she must visit them in Texas. By the end of the night they hugged and kissed everyone like they were long-lost friends.

Saira went home that night, glowing. It was at times like this that she missed her parents the most. She wanted to share her successes with them. She had come so far and made a whole new life for herself; she wanted them to know. But she stopped herself, for she did not know how they would react. Whenever she spoke to them, they sounded subdued on the phone. She was not sure whether she was the cause. So she never asked.

She found out later that her father had developed a serious heart condition and had been confined to bed rest. When he died of a heart attack, Saira was informed immediately. But she could not go back. Her Green Card had not come through. And going back would deny her re-entry into the United States.

Saira locked herself in her apartment. She stopped going to work. She stopped answering phone calls. She felt disoriented, suspended between two worlds. Why was she trying to fit into this world when she already belonged to another one? Why was she trying to leave behind those who had loved her and supported her all her life? She thought of the white sheets that must now cover the floor of her house in Lahore, under the yellow creaking fan. She imagined the incense, the gitaks, the people dressed in white praying on their tasbeehs. She closed her eyes and smelled her mother’s motia on the wooden console. Was it still there?

Sometimes she would wake up and think it was all a dream. She would call her mother to ask her if it was really true? Her mother would cry; Saira would hang up.

Jay began to worry about her. Six weeks passed but she was not snapping out of it. With Thanksgiving coming up, he did not want to leave her alone like this. So he asked her to go with him to Texas. Saira was touched by his offer, and accepted. He was so caring; she would make a special effort, she decided, to be positive. Her regrets were going to have to be something she learned to carry on her own.

***

At the Sommers’ home in Texas, Saira felt like she had been hit by a whirlwind. There were so many people, so much food and everyone talked so loudly. Being there was overwhelming in every way.

It was an old Victorian home which smelled of cinnamon. There were lace doilies, crystal platters and a kitchen with red gingham curtains trimmed with crochet. The house was filled with baskets of home-baked cookies and every few hours some neighbor would drop by with even more baskets of  cookies – it was like something out of an old movie.

She was already worlds away from home. But here she felt even further. Was her mother all alone? Did her friends still come over in the evenings? Did she still listen to her music? Was the old gramophone still in the living room? Stop! She had to snap out of it.

For the first time, since she had landed in America, Saira felt like she was in another country. She watched Jay playfully wrestle with his younger sisters, one in high school and the other at a local community college. It was uncanny how much they resembled each other. Jay rarely spoke about them and yet here they were, almost carbon copies of him, except blonder.

Saira felt like an outsider, looking at somebody else’s life, one that she had believed she was a part of. As she saw him interact with his sisters, his parents and the neighbors who kept dropping in, she noticed the change in his accent. “Y’all jus puhlin’ ma leg!” Was this the real him?

She had always considered him to be an anomaly – detached and independent, a rebel living life on his own terms. Here she realized that he came from a very traditional background. And he was still a part of it.

As per family tradition, Jay carved the Thanksgiving turkey. At the dining table, Jay’s father gave the first toast, and Jay gave the second, thanking and praising his mother for the lavish feast she had prepared. Martha beamed with joy at her son’s toast; she waited all year for such occasions.

Jay must have noticed that Saira had been quiet all evening so, before ending his toast, he did something nobody expected. He added, “And I want to thank Saira, the love of my life, for being here.”

Jay’s mother looked like she had been hit on the head with a steel pipe. She did not finish her food, nor did she smile for the rest of the evening. And when Jay held Saira’s hand at the table, she excused herself and headed for the bathroom.

Weeks later, Saira learned that Martha had cried that night and said to Jay, “There is nothing wrong with her. But she is not like us. Why can’t you find a nice Christian girl instead?”

***

The day after Thanksgiving, was a day of football and barbeque. Once again, Saira was taken aback when she learned that “football” had nothing to do with kicking a ball around – it was about pushing each other down.

She kept a smile on her face. She listened with amusement to words such as  “dead ball” and “drop kick”. What a strange game. It made everyone so aggressive. In between, there was loud hooting and drinking and spitting of beer.

But there was something else going on that Saira did not understand. Jay’s mother, who had been so bubbly and friendly in New York, inviting Sara to Texas, again and again, was different in her own home – polite, at best. She felt the same iciness she had sensed when she had shown up at her cousin’s sister-in-law’s house in Orlando for the second time. The first time, she had been warm and welcoming; the next time, it was almost as if she had a territory to protect.

All of a sudden, Saira felt that her Pakistani-ness was no longer exotic. Jay’s family had accepted her – as a foreigner. And she was okay as long as she was content to remain one. It was when she ventured too close to the heart of the family, the inner circle, that people became uncomfortable. She belonged to another world, one that was nothing like theirs. And no matter how charming or talented she was, at the end of the day she was simply the wrong color.

The day of the barbeque, Martha refused to make eye contact with Saira. When Jay commented on Saira’s cooking skills, Martha smiled, swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Then she mentioned that she had run into Missy, Jay’s high school sweetheart, at the grocery store that morning and invited her for lunch.

When Saira tried to have a conversation with Jay’s family friends, they strained their ears to understand her accent and then spoke back ve-rrry slow-llly, as if talking to a child. When she explained that she was from Pakistan, they smiled politely and blankly, a combination of “uh oh” and “poor you.”

After lunch, Jay’s sisters played country music to which everyone sang along. For the first time since Saira had landed in America, the music felt unfamiliar. As she watched Jay put his arm around his father’s shoulders and passionately belt out songs that she had never heard of, she realized that America was not the cultureless land that she had imagined; it had a very distinct, and in many ways, closed, culture. And she was not a part of it.

Luckily for everyone, Saira’s trip was cut short by a phone call from her office. Mark had received a huge contract and needed her help drafting plans for a 12-story building in five days. Saira was relieved and hopped on the next available flight to New York. Jay was relieved too. He could finally be himself with his family.

***

When Saira and Jay broke up, so did the Melting Pot. The performances simply did not have the passion and the chemistry they had displayed at the Corner. Saira was irritable; Jay was defensive. She wanted to change some lyrics; he disagreed. Billy tried to hold everyone together but Susan got a modeling contract she was more interested in and Lisa just ran out of patience.

Saira and Billy, still neighbors, remained friends. When he got Saira a contract for her single, the American Dream, she tried to get everybody back on board but nobody was interested. Eventually, she recorded on her own.

Months later, she learned that her single had been released. She was so excited, she called up everyone, wanting to celebrate. But Lisa had a doctor’s appointment. Susan did not answer her phone. And Jay said he had a friend from high school visiting him.

She did not hear from them for the rest of the week. That Friday, Billy brought over some Chinese food. And they sat in her studio, overlooking the dark alley, and ate from the boxes.

“So, what are you going to do now?” asked Billy.

“I’m not sure,” replied Saira.

“Are you going home for New Year’s Eve?”

“Can’t – Green Card still hasn’t come through.”

“How’s work?”

“The usual.”

She was obviously not in a very talkative mood. Billy finished up his lo mein, picked up his fortune cookie and tossed the other one to her.

“Open it!” he smiled.

“Maybe later,” she mumbled.

He shrugged. “I gotta go. Catch you later.”

“Later,” said Saira absentmindedly without getting up. “And, oh, Billy, thanks, for everything.”

The door closed with a thud.

Saira sat transfixed, staring at  the window, the fortune cookie in her hand. She was thinking of the farewell party her family friends had planned for her, the one that she had decided to skip. She never even asked if it was ever held.

She looked at the fortune cookie, and then dropped it to the floor, bending down and picking up her guitar.

She held it like a child. And then, with her head resting on the window-pane, her eyes barely open, she started strumming. And she sang, “American dream, you’re not what you seemed.”

Saira had always wanted to be a singer in America. Here she was – with her first single. But no copies had sold here. It was her family and friends back home, her parents’ friends in their white chooridars and their gray cement kitchens, who had gone out and bought the CD.

Ayeda Husain is a longtime journalist (Masters from NYU many a moon ago) who spends her free time writing short stories about Pakistani women, composing and recording meditational music and running a Sufi Center where she teaches Sufi meditation and philosophy.She has lived and worked in Lahore, New York, Vancouver, Dubai and now Oakville, near Toronto, where she is watching her children grow up way too fast.