Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

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.

Lose Yourself

Sept. 1, 2015
Sita opened her eyes. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’m here.” Sunlight filtered through the curtains. She eventually got off the carpet. We went to work.

Sept. 2, 2015
Sita still likes to read, even at the supermarket.
“Didn’t you already finish Parable of the Sower?” I asked.
She shrugged.
There isn’t much to do. The supermarket is like a convenience store. It’s inside a strip mall. Like all the other businesses in East Brunswick.
Sita continues to live a few blocks away with her boyfriend. We don’t talk about him when we’re outside the apartment.
Customers appear, mostly teenagers buying packs of potato chips and oversized bottles of soda. Stuff that can give you diabetes.
Sita punches in the purchase, and hands them their change. During our break, she chews on a turkey sandwich.

Sept. 3, 2015
He made coffee, and asked if we’d like some. I told him “No,” and he raised an eyebrow. Sita quickly answered, “I can take it in the thermos.” He beamed. Sita held a smile.

Sept. 10, 2015
Mr. Singh told Sita she needed to work an extra shift. He hung up before Sita could reply.
Sita stopped eating her sandwich, and took a deep breath.
When there were customers, I’d help manage the register, and even speak to them, making jokes about the weather, like how the rain was warm like piss. Often, they wouldn’t know how to react. Some would pause and chuckle.
Later that evening, as we returned to the apartment, Sita walked to the closet to get her sleeping bag. The lights were switched off, and she had trouble finding it, even as we dug deeper.
Suddenly, there were footsteps. Sita turned around and froze.
He asked why she was late.
She began to explain, and he interrupted.
Before I could say anything, he edged forward, and muttered how Sita was looking down on him, and putting her job before them. His voice grew louder and louder, until, he stopped, like a switch was flipped off. There was a lull. We held our breath.
I did my best to calm her down, as we lay on the living room floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Sept. 15, 2015
Supermarket.

Oct. 15, 2015
It was cloudy, and Sita was drinking her third cup of coffee. Customers bought lotto tickets.
Hours plodded on.
A young girl was in the store too. She wore thick-rimmed glasses, and avoided eye contact, but commented that Octavia Butler was her favorite.
At first, Sita didn’t react.
The girl, however, was purchasing a copy of every major newspaper we had. Sita looked up. The girl lowered her gaze.
Soon, more people hovered about, pointing to the tickets. The girl left, getting back into her car and driving away.

Oct. 19, 2015
The girl bought more newspapers. As Sita popped open the register, the girl asked Sita if she had a favorite part in the book.
The girl was smiling but not looking up.
Sita told her the  part she liked, and the girl exclaimed it was her favorite too.
She realized how loud she’d gotten, and became quiet.
Sita didn’t know what else to say. The girl thanked Sita, and rushed out.
“Looks like she’s a student,” Sita said, which wasn’t far-fetched since Rutgers was a few miles away.
“She’s weird,” was my assessment. “As if she can’t speak her mind the way she needs to.”
“She’s young,” Sita said, and went back to reading.

Oct. 20, 2015
The girl’s name is Afeni. And as Sita guessed, she is a freshman. Her major is in engineering.
She’s originally from Virginia.
Afeni knows plenty about Butler and sci-fi and comic books in general. She even has Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.
Sita asked how Afeni got interested, and Afeni explained that although her parents are computer programmers, they’d always take her to the library as a little girl. Her mom, who now stays and takes care of Afeni’s younger brother, would read bedtime stories every night. Afeni became transfixed by the plots and characters, and oftentimes opted to stay indoors and devour page after page.
Afeni sometimes speaks at a fast pace. She catches herself doing this, and apologizes. Eventually, Afeni also had a series of questions, and Sita answered what she could. For instance, Sita explained that she grew up in East Brunswick, but her parents were from Bangladesh.
At one point, Afeni asked if Sita went to Rutgers too. Sita was hesitant. Afeni saw this, and apologized.
Sita cut her off, however, saying that she had also been to college. In Connecticut. Sita was just a few years older.
I could tell Afeni wanted to know more. Fortunately, Sita said she needed to focus on work.
“She’s a weirdo,” I whispered once Afeni was gone. “Probably doesn’t have any friends.”
Sita didn’t respond.

Oct. 22-23, 2015
Afeni’s favorite Marvel character is Peter Parker. She explained that Parker was nerdy but cool, in his own way. Sita agreed, although adding that Miles Morales was more accessible as a person. Even though there were many who were angry at the change. Afeni joked it was only racists who were upset, and that she probably knew some in her class who were like that.
Sita asked Afeni how she was getting along with other students.
Afeni admitted it was strange to be in settings that were mostly white and Asian, and that even though she was getting the best grades, she continued to feel distant.
Sita encouraged her to be engaged with the curriculum.
Afeni appreciated the advice, and after a short pause, said she didn’t mean to assume Sita had never left East Brunswick.
Sita was cautious. But, she didn’t want Afeni to feel like she did anything too horrible. Sita told Afeni that she attended classes at UConn sometime ago.
I left in my freshman year, Sita said.
I stared. Why was she saying all this? I wondered.
Afeni also looked at Sita’s face.
The next day, they continued their conversation, with Sita standing by the register and Afeni sitting on a stool.
All I know is that my parents think engineering is the best option, she said.
And is that you want too? Sita questioned.
I like work that’s useful, she answered.
“That’s dumb…” I muttered.
Sita made clear that Afeni should keep reading.
Afeni said she didn’t know of any comic book stores in the area, and made do with the campus library’s selection.
Afeni was grateful for the perspective, and said, You’re so wise.
Sita chuckled.

Oct. 31, 2015
Red and orange leaves were scattered along the road. We discussed which movies to watch for our annual movie marathon.
Customers bought bags of candy. Afeni wore a tweed jacket and had a glowing pen.
I couldn’t find a TARDIS in time, Afeni joked. I’ll be going to a party tonight to show off what I have, she added.
Sita smiled. They went to the Chinese restaurant next door for some General Tso’s.
While in the apartment, Sita kept smiling as she undressed. Even when brushing our teeth, she couldn’t stop.
However, the voice boomed.
The bedroom was shrouded in shadows.
Immediately, her throat was dry.
She closed her eyes. But could feel him next to her, his body pushing hers against the wall.
Do you even care about me? he said, If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.
She dropped her brush, and went to the living room, where she slid into her sleeping bag, and zipped up.
“Let’s pick a movie,” I said.
Her fists were clenched. Her breathing was shallow.
I offered some choices on what we could watch.

Nov. 1, 2015
Every time, he’d apologize. Every time, he’d place a hand on her back, and rub counterclockwise.
“No one knows me like you do,” he’d say, which was true to an extent. After all, Sita and he were friends since elementary school and after what happened to Sita at UConn and when she returned, he was there, ready to welcome her.
I was always mixed-up about him. Sometimes, he was entertaining. In other moments, he was lost in his own swamp of thoughts, angry at his parents, his friends, at everyone he said he couldn’t trust anymore.
“I need you, babe,” he whispered, his hand feeling warm and moist. “I need you…”
In the afternoon, we were in the supermarket.

Nov. 2, 2015
Went to supermarket. Later came back to the apartment.

Nov. 3, 2015
Went to the supermarket. No Afeni.

Nov. 4, 2015
No Afeni.

Nov. 5, 2015
It was our day off.
“Want to stay in and watch a movie?”
Sita rolled up the sleeping bag, and proceeded to wash dishes and clean the apartment.
She took a break at noon. Dust bunnies were everywhere, to be honest, but I didn’t utter a word, as Sita sat on the couch and clasped her hands on her lap. She yawned.
I repeated we should watch something.
“Why?” Sita murmured.
“Why what?”
“Why did I stay?”
“Let’s not. You had a bad experience, and no one believed you, and this was just expected.”
“But…it was the same thing…”
“Not exactly.”
“It was.”
“We should definitely watch Star Wars. That should be fun!”
Sita was quiet.
Star Wars! Star Wars! Star Wars!” I chanted and put it on, with the volume turned low.
I was relieved we could relax. For the first time in a while, though, I couldn’t tell what was on Sita’s mind. I asked her half-way through the movie if she was hungry, and she suggested I get some rest.
“Besides,” Sita said, “you’ve done plenty.”

Nov. 6, 2015
No Afeni.

Nov. 23, 2015
Sita and I handled the customers, and a new shipment of eggs. Sita even arranged the bags of potato chips, so that the list of ingredients would be facing the aisle.
During lunch, as we made plans about which movie was next on our list, Sita noticed someone sitting on the curb.
It was Afeni.
Without hesitation, Sita rushed outside, and asked Afeni how long she’d been there.
Afeni murmured. I repeated the question and instead of speaking with clarity, she looked up, her face wet.
Sita led Afeni into the store, and locked the door. She gave Afeni bottled water and wanted to know exactly what happened.
Afeni’s hands trembled.
At the Halloween party, she said, a friend grabbed her. He was someone she’d been studying with all semester. He wanted her to dance, and placed his hands on her hips, despite her telling him not to. He laughed, and got closer.
“I told him that I wasn’t interested, and he started to curse at me,” Afeni said, stammering. He called her a black bitch, and she pushed him away. Everyone blamed her for making a scene.
Sita clenched her fists, and told Afeni she could stay with us.
At the apartment, Sita gave Afeni the sleeping bag, and Afeni lay down, and shut her eyes. She woke up in the middle of the night, and saw Sita also on the ground.
Afeni asked why she wasn’t in her own bed.
Sita didn’t reply and Afeni stopped asking questions.

Nov. 27, 2015
Afeni is in Virginia.
Sita cleaned the hallway, and bathroom.

Dec. 1, 2015
We drove through East Brunswick.
Central New Jersey, Sita described, as diverse but can feel like one giant suburb with random racists sprinkled in.
Afeni laughed, as Sita pointed out the nicer parts where one can find a decent Afghan or Jamaican spot to eat at. Most of the county, however, were boxed houses, shopping malls, and strip clubs. Fortunately, Sita knew where we were.
“Turn here,” she said, as Afeni drove onto a narrow road.
Even I didn’t know where we were heading, although the mobile homes looked familiar.
We reached an empty parking-lot, where there were hardware stores and laundromats nearby.
It was Afeni who squealed and made me realize there was also a comic book store tucked between them. Afeni ran inside.
We spent the remainder of our day perusing the aisles, carefully picking up comic books wrapped in plastic sheets.
Personally, I was losing interest and was ready to leave, but I suppose it was nice to see Sita and Afeni in their element.
Sita asked Afeni, who was grabbing every new Miss Marvel she could find, if there was anything in particular they should look for.
Afeni said she had got most of what she wanted but she was interested to know if the graphic novelization of Kindred was available.
Sita went to the front desk to ask.
The person at the register was a man on his laptop.
“I don’t know what that is…” he said, clicking on his mouse.
Sita arched an eyebrow, and waited, as if maybe the rest of what she said hadn’t yet sunk in.
“So…can you look it up?” she eventually said.
“Look what up?” the man replied, eyelids half-open.
“What’s happening?” Afeni said in a low voice. The man looked up from his screen.
Afeni clutched the comics to her chest. He stared and smirked.
Sita stepped between them.
I moved to the side to give her more room.
“We would like to speak to your manager,” Sita said.
The man chuckled and returned to his laptop.
I wanted to tell Sita to be calm.
I wanted her to be happy, wear a smile, and remember that she was on an outing.
Sita’s veins throbbed, as she started to walk away. Afeni decided to place the comic books on the counter. Once she got close enough, the man placed his hand on hers.
Sita’s eyes widened. She punched him in the nose.
He tumbled.
Sita and Afeni hopped into the car and drove off. Sita glanced in the rearview, spotting the man staggering after them. He dwindled into the distance.
They stopped at a Dunkin Donuts and remained inside the car, watching trucks and vans along Route 18, buzzing past like brushstrokes.
Sita was the first to speak.
“You can’t let anyone push you around,” she said. “If you let one person get the better of you, it never ends.”
Afeni didn’t speak. The sky was peppered with stars.
Afeni dropped Sita off at her apartment, and Sita invited her in.
Afeni politely refused and said she’d see her soon anyway, and left.
Sita didn’t talk to me the entire evening.

Dec. 2, 2015
Afeni showed up today, even though I said she wouldn’t.
She didn’t say much but spent time sitting and watching Sita work the register.
When day turned to night, Afeni simply went to her car and drove away.

Dec. 4, 2015
Sita told me to stay home and rest today.
She went to the store and met Afeni.
For the first few hours, it was the same as usual.
Afeni on her stool. Sita at the counter.
Right before lunch, when the store was crowded, Afeni asked Sita how she was feeling.
That isn’t true. It wasn’t before lunch, and the store was empty.
I didn’t know what she meant.
Afeni said I had bags under my eyes all the time and that I looked skinnier each day. She said my sweaters hung from me.
I still didn’t know what to say.
So I resumed counting the nickels and dimes.

Dec. 5, 2015
Afeni said she got to know students at an organization dealing in social justice.
I was glad. I told her to be careful though.
In the afternoon, Afeni asked if I was getting enough rest.
I said I was okay, and that my shift was almost over.
Afeni paused.
“I’m worried about you,” she said.
I chuckled.

Dec. 6, 2015
Afeni was finished with her final exams, and was going back to Virginia.
She said she’d return mid-January.
I told her to drive safe.
She hugged me while we were in the parking-lot.
I watched her disappear into the traffic and a few minutes later, I too left.

Dec. 7, 2015
I took the day off and cleaned some more.

Dec. 8, 2015
The bed felt hard.

Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral student in Political Science at Rutgers University, where he researches on race, class and gender and social justice. With also a Master’s in Journalism from Georgetown University, he has written for CNN Politics, the Washington City Paper, Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, The Jersey Journal, The Aerogram, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, The New Engagement, and AsAm News. Finally, he is a democratic socialist, a believer in having hope (but not in an annoying way), and an activist/organizer learning from the amazing people around him.

 

Zahida

Zahida Begum of Sohnipat, Haryana, Hindustan, remembered distinctly her name, even recognized faces as well as anyone could, but sometimes forgot that her husband was dead. Other times, she forgot she ever even had a husband. Last summer, when she began waking up before the sun and the muezzin-and certainly not to pray Fajr-one could not tell if, on any particular day, Zahida had woken up with the memory of a dead or alive husband, or whether there was any memory of him at all.

It was Zahida’s caretaker who was perhaps the most adept at identifying what the deceased husband’s status would be on a chosen day; nights of staying awake with the old lady and arguing in the early mornings over cups of chai had honed her skills to perfection. Still, it was not purely a guessing game-Zahida was quite generous with hints. On days the husband had been resurrected by Zahida, she would ask for breakfast to be served to two people instead of one. All went as normal on the mornings that the husband was understood to be laid to rest. But the worst mornings befell the four walls of Sarwar Road 305, Lahore, Pakistan, 56000, when Zahida remembered neither the life nor death of a husband, and instead thought of herself as an eligible, single woman. On these occasions, the breakfast was instructed to be served to the suitors who had come with the intent of asking Zahida’s hand in marriage and whom Zahida greatly wished to please.

Even though the old lady really tested her patience sometimes, especially when she woke up at 3 a.m. and asked for chai, the young caretaker tried not to complain. She liked her job; it was better than any other place she had worked before. There was plenty of free time for her to watch TV and talk on the phone when Zahida was knocked out on sleeping pills. Zahida’s daughter, who was the actual employer, was good to her for the most part. She was also allowed to sleep till late in the daytime following Zahida’s hard nights. It was a good situation, for the most part, and the caretaker was bent on making it work.

Zahida, however, was often irked by how little the young woman understood or cared about the differences in their respective positions in the household. A mere servant-girl telling Zahida she was wrong was too strong a blow to be endured by anyone of her stature. After all, her father had been a jailer, who knew how to put these chotay log in their place, and she was a jailer-ki-beti with enough experience to not be fooled by the likes of the young woman.

The caretaker had been with Zahida for four years when Zaheeda’s husband, Hassan first began to slip from her memory. It was she who had first noticed that forgetting the husband was becoming a frequent occurrence. When Zahida asked if the husband was fed breakfast the first few times, the caretaker thought she was alluding to the daughter’s husband, and answered in the affirmative. It was only when she asked the caretaker to leave the room for the night to give Zahida and her husband some privacy, that the caretaker realized what was going on.

Zahida was adamant that night that the caretaker could not sleep in the room. Besharam, she called her. Why wouldn’t she leave? Baffled, the caretaker had left to give Zahida enough time to fall asleep before she could sneak in again. After the two-hour mark, and endless games of Candy Crush, the caretaker decided it was safe to return. She found Zahida sitting on her bed, fire in her eyes. It seemed as if the husband had never come. Churail! Zahida hurled her TV remote at the caretaker and missed, and continued her verbal onslaught. It seemed that Zahida suspected the caretaker had something to do with the husband standing her up-for she was young, and Zahida an old lady. The caretaker had no choice but to sleep outside that night.

No one really knew what was wrong with Zahida. The closest diagnosis the doctors gave was some form of dementia, but emphasized that her symptoms still did not quite fit the usual description since Zahida remembered everything and everyone, just no longer knew where everything was in her timeline. All anyone knew was that, one random day, Zahida had woken up and stopped praying. Then, she had claimed that one of her sons-in-law was having an affair, but did not name any names. Her daughters were all on edge that week, in fear that Zahida would name their respective husbands. It was only when Zahida slapped her assumedly favorite daughter that the realization suddenly dawned upon everyone that Zahida could not have been in the right headspace to do such a thing.

It was soon after this incident that Zahida had begun waking up before the sun and the muezzin, but still unabashedly skipped her prayers. It was only a couple of days later when the husband was brought back to life.

Her daughters tried to get Zahida to pray again for they felt, practically, that it would bring some routine back to Zahida’s life, but, secretly, that Allah would fix everything. They would subtly remind her when the azaan went off, or make it a point to announce that they were going off to pray. But, Zahida took to nothing. If she was asked whether she had offered her prayers, she would simply answer in the affirmative, and no one really knew how to respond to that. Just like no one knew how to respond to her when she said that her husband was alive. No one had it in them to break the news of death every day, not even the caretaker.

***

Zahida had not always lived with her daughter and her family. It was a few years after Hasan’s death that she was left with no choice but to move in with her eldest daughter. The new town was starkly different from the one she was accustomed to, with its neatly laid out roads and beautifully painted houses. But, Zahida barely left the house, and the four walls of a room all began to look the same if you waited long enough.

Zahida was given her own private room with an ensuite bathroom. It comforted her to know she would still be able to retain her privacy. The caretaker was hired specifically for Zahida, and slept in the room with the old lady to assist with any bathroom trips during the night-her bad knees no longer allowed her to get up or walk by herself. It was the knees that had forced Zahida to sell her quaint house in Iqbal Town, and move to her daughter’s, all the way across the city, in the first place. The doctors declared that a knee transplant would be difficult to recover from, considering her weight and age. They let the family know they were sorry they could not do more, but that these were going to be the knees Zahida died with.

Everyone knew why the house was really sold: there was no money to pay for Zahida’s cataract operations, which could be avoided no longer. Despite the grandchildren’s clamoring anger and Zahida’s breaking heart, the house was sold. After all, her eyes were more important than her heart; they allowed her to see instead of feel, and the code of conduct for widows clearly stated that feeling was a task that Zahida could no longer have the privilege of worrying about.

Right after Zahida moved out, the buyers tore down the little house with the green gate to rebuild it. It came as no surprise to anyone that the house had simply refused to exist without Zahida. Many had left before; the husband, her daughters, the servants who came and went, but the lady of the house had always been there; preparing feasts, hosting guests, fighting with her husband, and watching TV. With her finally leaving, the house had no reason to stay, and it, too, disappeared, never to be found again.

*

In the years following her husband’s death, before she had to move in with her daughter, Zahida had gone on living as usual in her little house in Iqbal Town with, of course, the companionship of a domestic servant. It was during those years as a newly-widowed woman that she once again began to lament the absence of a son; if she had a son, she would be able to live with him. She would no longer have to make ends meet. No more trips to the grocery stores on rickshaws. A widow’s pension could only afford her so much at the end of the day.

The son would, as custom quite strictly dictated, take care of his mother in her old age. And a widowed mother? There was no question of what the code of conduct for sons said about a son’s responsibility in the matter. But, Allah had given her four daughters instead, and for any son-less exceptions such as this particular instance, custom was, of course, silent.

Naturally, the son-less Zahida had to default to her daughters: when the time came, the eldest daughter took up the responsibility, and cleared out a room for Zahida in her own home. The irony of the situation was not lost on Zahida for she could never have imagined living in one of her daughters’ houses, as a dependent on any one son-in-law-whom she did indeed love more than her daughters, for they were the sons she never had. But, to live in someone else’s house! A daughter’s! An unimaginable thought! And, suddenly, Zahida’s new reality.

***

The first few years at her daughter’s were plagued by inept eyes and failing knees, slips in the bathroom, and a burning longing for her home that could never be snuffed out. Zahida was comfortable in the roles she had to play in the house. She was an excellent widow, an even better grandmother, and an appraised mother and mother-in-law. She had to admit, however, that she missed being a homemaker-not wife, never wife, but, homemaker-which she saw as the highest position of authority one could hold.

***

It was true that Zahida, in her married days, exercised a great degree of independence in running her own household, which is also why the possibility of being demoted to a secondary matriarch in one of her daughters’ houses terrified her. Her husband had never interfered in matters of the house, and she in his, and the couple had both preferred it to be that way. In fact, the couple liked to stay out of each other’s way so much that they had separate bedrooms-the husband moved upstairs-as soon as the daughters were all married off.

Zahida’s marriage itself had only been as good as any arranged marriages can be or any marriage really. They shared the usual incompatibility and divergence of interests; she was a domestic at heart who enjoyed cooking, being around her family, and having her husband come straight home from work in the evening. Her husband, on the other hand, was more a socialite than he ever was a banker. He mostly shared his evening cup of tea with high society- top Lollywood movie stars and singers among the lot-while Zahida simply took her evening cup in the comfort of her lounge. His evening cups of tea became the bane of Zahida’s existence, and hers, the only sustenance. They both knew well that the elite school educated man was rather ill-suited for his simpleton wife from Krishanagar.

Although a loyal husband, Zahida’s husband enjoyed the company of females-in a strictly platonic way, of course-and that irritated Zahida who, although perfect in all other accounts, was an inherently suspicious partner. It was for this reason that she liked for her husband to come home right after work; any later and the two were certain to fight that night. This particular side of Zahida, however, was restricted to her husband and her four daughters. And, the help, of course.

The sole financer and benefactor of his wife and four daughters, Zahida’s husband was naturally responsible for making all decisions that members of society had collectively ordained as important. So, while he was the one who chose, rather arbitrarily, eligible suitors for his four daughters, Zahida was the sole and masterful architect of the trolley of chai items that the suitor’s family would be greeted with upon their arrival.

As it happened, the chai trolley played a rather significant role in the matchmaking business, even more so than the girl in question being married. It was a known fact that the suitor’s family had only a window of time where the girl serves tea to them to confer judgment about her character, and time permitting, about her suitability-to the boy, yes. But the family she would marry into must also be a good fit. That was equally important, if not more.

The art of putting together an appropriate chai trolley for such occasions was one that was perhaps dying with Zahida’s generation, she thought. Even her daughters did not care to learn. Zahida maintained that to create a successful chai trolley, one had to have the right balance between home-cooked items, to demonstrate domestic prowess of course, and store-bought bakery items, which signified a degree of affluence. The chai itself, the indubitable showstopper, must also be the right color; enough milk to indicate an ease with use of milk, but not so much that the other person concluded that the art of chai-making was being undermined.

A great connoisseur of chai herself-devouring her morning and evening cups as promptly as clockwork, Zahida took pride in the tea ranks of her household, and, so, did not concern herself with any feelings of insecurity on that front. But, ever since her eldest daughter’s engagement broke off, Zahida knew her tea alone would no longer suffice to overcome the abiding stain of a called-off engagement. It was fortune’s blessing, and her daughters’ luck, that Zahida had her unparalleled amiability to fall back on. The husband found the matches, but it was always Zahida who sealed the deal with her pure Hindustani behaviour, the kind one could not find easily anymore.

***

Zahida found praise quickly wherever she went. Acclaim for her hospitable nature reverberated from Krishanagar to Iqbal Town; not a single person who made her acquaintance could help but acknowledge her good-natured disposition.

She had never spoken to her husband before they married, but all of her husband’s friends and family raved about her to the young groom. She has authentic Hindustani tehzeeb, they said. Zahida’s father-in-law was especially taken by her, much to the dislike of her sisters-in-law.

“Jadoo” he would endearingly call her, “Now I understand why they call you Krishanabad.” And, the new bride could not help but smile at the sound of it.

Krishanabad roughly translated to ‘cultivator of Krishan’, and was used to say, in a more poetic yet complicated way, that, growing up, Zahida was the soul of Krishanagar, her hometown. Her mother despised the title, for she thought it brought too much attention to the young, beautiful girl, but Zahida wore it proudly, just as she wore her thick hair in a meticulously done braid that reached all the way down to her hips.

When, a few years after the Great Partition, her hometown was officially renamed Islampura, for reasons beyond Zahida’s comprehension, it was thought, at least in her household and especially in Zahida’s mind, that Zahida’s nickname alone kept the town’s essence alive.

Following the name change, there were some, like Zahida, for whom it was still the land of Krishna, the Hindu God, just as Hindustan was still the homeland for those, who like Zahida’s family, had migrated to the other side. Others did not seem to care what the town was called, but some cared too much, and were intent on calling it Islampura-the city of Islam- as a reminder to everyone that all the land on this side of the border had converted, willingly or not, to a new religion. Zahida’s uncle, who was a poet and an intellectual-which was just another way of saying unemployed-laughed uncontrollably when they announced the name change:

“They wanted to get rid of the Hindu-ness of the town, but little do they know that ‘pura’ is of Vedic origin too.”
He laughed and laughed, all the while penning some vulgar couplets about it that he would divulge to the shopkeepers at his evening strolls through the Bazaar. He let Zahida in on the ones most appropriate for young girls, and Zahida laughed with him-on the couplets, of course-even though she neither knew what pura was nor understood what Vedic meant.

Zahida only knew that the old man, who appeared on the corner of Bheem Road a year before the name change and had stayed there since, told the story of the name change better than anyone else; gesticulating with his arms stretched, he narrated the story of giant masses of people reciting the Kalamah and declaring their faith in one God and His prophet. Zahida had once seen him tell the story on her trip to the bazaar.

When he spoke of the weeping Hindu Gods who, betrayed by their own newly-converted lands, had to leave behind everything and migrate to the other side-the Hindu side-the storyteller attempted an exaggerated, thunderous wail that made the neighborhood kids laugh so much they let him have their daily allowance, a few coins in total. Zahida liked that the storyteller had no qualms accepting the children’s money, for storytelling was his bread and butter, and she liked that he acknowledged her with a slight nod of the head every time they crossed paths.

The story of the weeping Hindu Gods always took place in the temple that was rumored to have existed all the way down on Pando Street, but which no one had ever found any evidence for. According to the storyteller, the temple had collapsed under the burgeoning grief of the Gods, never to be found again.

One day, the storyteller died. No one had even noticed he was missing until, one day, in the children of the neighborhood had set out in search of him , their coins clunking against each other in their drenched muslin pockets, ready to be exchanged for stories.

The storyteller was eventually found dead in an alley, soaking and unbothered, not too far away from Zahida’s house. It was after his death that a lot of people found out that he had no family; stories about the storyteller’s origin were all anyone talked about for exactly one week. Some suggested he had been separated from his family during the partition, and had slept and eaten at a nearby shrine of a saint. Someone who referred to himself as the storyteller’s friend, whom no one had ever seen before the funeral, maintained that the storyteller was, in fact, from a very rich and reputable family of Lahore, but no one believed him. Even Zahida didn’t believe this when she heard it, for everyone knew that men who told stories on the streets could not be from reputable families.

The storyteller’s funeral was held at Baba Ground and was well-attended. The kids-his faithful audience-showed up. Zahida did not go, for young women were not allowed to frequent funerals. That, too, of strange, story-telling men. Her older brothers went. She wanted to know if the Hindu Gods had attended the funeral but was too embarrassed to ask them.

Soon, the town moved on; the kids were on to newer acts and antics-there was a magician who made a coin appear from their noses, and the town stopped caring about the origins of the storyteller. It was during those days that Zahida became certain there were some things she knew better than others, and this was definitely one of them: the shelf-life of the dead was shorter than any other item in this world, and would not last, even a single day, on her chai trolley. It expired immediately, and Zahida knew that if it was not thrown out, it would quickly begin to stink up the place.

***

Even decades after the Partition, when Zahida had gone from a young girl to a grandmother, she would often narrate the story of the weeping Gods to her grandchildren-without the wail, of course-who, fascinated, spent hot summer evenings on the streets of Krishanagar in search of the hidden temple. Zahida indulged them even though she knew the temple was never to be found again. And, every time Zahida told the story, she thought of the poor storyteller who had died quietly, under the pelting monsoon downpour of Lahore. Zahida was amenable to the idea of dying quietly, but feared the possibility of being remembered only fleetingly.

This was why every time someone in her life passed away-the first significant loss being that of her mother-Zahida always thought of the storyteller who was only mourned for one short week. It terrified her to think that mourning adequately, too, was an art that would eventually die with her. Throughout her life, Zahida mourned each loss with relentless grief. She was only fourteen when her mother passed away, but, even then, Zahida made sure her the memory of her death was an oil lamp that never went out. Especially in her old age, Zahida had had to mourn a significant amount as people around her passed onto the next life, and, truthfully, sometimes she got tired of it.

When her husband died, Zahida did not feel the magnitude of loss that people wanted her to feel. Still, she mourned in the manner that best suited a wife. Zahida made sure all rites of death were honored. She made certain that she was following all the widow laws of mourning. She cried at every mention of the husband, even if she did not want to. In fact, sometimes, she even wailed, if the occasion demanded it. She remained in the house to complete the required period of iddat. She wore dull colors, and no lipstick. She visited the graveyard every week, and fulfilled all the religious requirements for death anniversaries.

***

Now, in her husband-forgetting days, seventy years had passed since the Partition. Zahida remembered Sohnipat more than Krishanagar on some days and Krishanagar more than Sohnipat on others, and often reversed and un-reversed the Partition as per her whim. It was these places she would ask to be taken to in her phases of outburst. The daughters drove her around aimlessly, making excuse one after another, about why it was taking so long. They waited until the medicine kicked in and drove her back to Sarwar Road.

Zahida had little sense of time now; she would ask to eat breakfast at three in the morning, sleep through the day, and stay up all night talking to a growing list of dead visitors- many whose funerals Zahida had attended, many of whom she had appropriately mourned. Of course, she still retained her second-nature hospitality, and asked for an impressive breakfast to be served to her empty room of guests.

The caretaker indulged Zahida as much she possibly could, but everything spiraled out of control when, one day, in the middle of the night, Zahida flung the AC remote at the caretaker. The caretaker thought maybe Zahida needed to go to the bathroom, and quickly got up to put on the lights. When she turned around, she witnessed Zahida’s face rabid with anger. ‘Randi aurat’ were the first words Zahida spoke before the glass of water came straight at the caretaker, but only made it halfway through the room before it splattered on the carpet.

Zahida was arguing with someone that the caretaker obviously could not see; it seemed that the husband was alive on this particular day. It turned out that Zahida was angry at her husband because she, once again, suspected him of cheating on her with the caretaker. She maligned the caretaker’s character in words that rung in the mind of anyone who heard them.

Fights with the husband, and, consequently, attacks on the caretaker became a regular feat in the house. The caretaker was barred from entering the room when her suspicions flared up. The husband was screamed at; she spoke through gritted teeth, always directing her anger at the ceiling as if the husband still lived upstairs, and talked about all the women she had, in the course of their marriage, suspected of having an affair with her husband. Sometimes, to make headway in her fight, Zahida would even start hitting herself.

Zahida’s daughter tried to calm her down during her episodes, but nothing worked in her phases of rage-filled outbursts. If she was offered medicine, she would accuse the offered, no matter who it was, of trying to kill her. She took the pills and tossed them across the room. The caretaker was left with no choice but to dissolve the medicine in Zahida’s chai. Soon, Zahida picked up on that as well, and refused all food and drink. The family eventually realized there was nothing they could do but wait for her to tire herself out.

Naturally, the caretaker got tired of the everyday hassle, packed her bags, and left. Zahida’s daughter begged her to stay; she offered to double her salary, give her longer vacations, whatever she needed, but the caretaker could not be persuaded. . She knew Zahida’s situation would only get worse from here on. She expressed how selfish and sorry she felt, but that she could not retract her decision and that it was best for all parties involved that someone else be hired for Zahida.

Zahida remained unaffected by the change. As long as someone helped her to the bathroom, she was fine without having to worry about that dirty, husband-seducing tramp. When her daughters tried to talk to her about her unacceptable behavior, Zahida knew that they would never understand. And, so, she sat there-with or without the caretaker-hosting conversations with guests that had come exclusively to see her. To drink chai with her and to keep her company. Guests she hadn’t seen in quite a while and with whom Zahida had a lot of catching up to do. In fact, with that seductress gone, there were even lesser interruptions to Zahida’s daily life. She alone could be the center of attention in her room.

The daughters kept trying to tell her about some disease that made you think certain things that were not there; that Abbu was dead, and Sohnipat was in another country now. But, no matter what anyone said, there were still some things Zahida Begum of Sohnipat was certain she knew better than others, and this was one of them: the voices were real, the voices were real, the voices were real.

Zuneera Shah, born and raised in Lahore, is an aspiring writer currently based in Cambridge, MA. A fourth-year undergraduate, Zuneera studies Political Science and Gender Studies and hopes to work in development after graduating. Apart from fiction, Zuneera pens opinion pieces on sociopolitical issues. Zuneera is currently working on her first collection of short stories.

Fiction

Lose Yourself

Every  time,  he’d  apologize.  Every  time,  he’d  place  a  hand  on  her  back,  and  rub counterclockwise. No  one  knows  me  like  you  do, he’d  say,  which  was  true  to  an  extent.  After  all,  Sita  and  he were  friends since  elementary  school  and  after  what  happened  to  Sita  at  UConn  and  when she  returned,  he  was  there, ready  to  welcome  her.

A Different Music 

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.

Zahida 

“It was during those days that Zahida became certain there were some things she knew better than others, and this was definitely one of them: the shelf-life of death was shorter than any other item in this world, and would not last, even a single day, on her Chai trolley. It expired immediately, and Zahida knew that if it was not thrown out, it would quickly begin to stink up the place.”

What Happens In India Does Not Stay In India

by Mira Jacob

But where had her father gone? Now missing for more than six hours, Thomas had sent the house into tumult in his absence. Ammachy wandered from room to room, fighting with anyone who crossed her path. Sunil, having crossed her path twice already, found a bottle of toddy and was devouring it in the rarely visited parlor. Divya had tucked herself in a corner of the verandah. Itty ran circles on the roof. Kamala, Akhil, and Amina sat on the upstairs bed, playing their fourth game of Chinese checkers.
“Your move, Mom,” Akhil said.
“Yes.” Kamala glanced down at her watch and inched a blue marble toward a yellow triangle.
“What time is it?” Amina asked.
“Nine-thirty.”
Akhil did an elaborate series of jumps, sliding one more marble into configuration.
Amina sighed. “I don’t want to play anymore.”
“That’s just because I’m winning,” Akhil countered.
“You win every game!”
“So don’t play.” Kamala rubbed her own forehead, smoothing out the lines that had settled into it.
“But there’s nothing else to do!”
“Enough of whining! Go see what Itty is up to!”
But Amina didn’t want to see Itty any more than she wanted to see the Chinese checkerboard, or the inside of her parents’ sweltering bedroom, or Akhil gloating for the millionth time in a row. She pushed off the bed, heading instead to the stifling, fanless stairway, and lay down at the top of steps, letting the marble’s momentary coolness slide into her. A whole muffled world rumbled under her ear, clicks and groans of the house, the shup-shupping of someone’s slippers, slow, whale-like moans that she imagined coming from the depths of a huge, cool ocean. Her hip bones dug into the floor, and she heard something else. Singing. Was someone singing? Amina lifted her head off the floor.
“. . . fingers in my hair, that sly come-hither stare . . .”
Music! It was coming from below. Amina peeked over the stairwell. She crept down a few steps, and then a few more, until she was able to see into the parlor.
“Witchcraft . . . ,” the record sang, and Sunil along with it, his eyes shut, his face shining. A record spun in neat circles on the turntable, and next to it, her uncle followed, arms cupping the air in front of him, knees bouncing.
Amina stared in dismay as Sunil pivoted from one foot to the other, his hips cutting the air in deft strokes. It was like watching a muskrat slip into the Rio Grande, all of its clumsiness turned to instinctual grace. His meaty upper half arced, dipping near to the floor, then back up.
“I know it’s strictly taboo . . .”
The lightness in his face was something Amina had never seen before. He was, she realized for the first time, a handsome man. Not movie-star handsome like Buck Rogers, not even tall and sharp-jawed like Thomas, but appealing all the same. He took one quick step back and twirled to the right, his hand guiding an invisible partner.
“Sunil!”
Both Sunil and Amina jumped as Ammachy appeared in the doorway, arms folded tightly over her chest, sniffing at the room. Amina turned and ran up a few stairs, so she wasn’t sure what happened next, whether her grandmother actually sent the needle skidding across the record or if Sunil had done it himself, but the quiet that followed hummed with potential disaster.
“This again,” Ammachy said.
Shuffling. The sound of liquid being poured. A glass slammed on a table.
“You’ve had enough already, Sunil. Go to bed.”
Silence. Amina leaned forward. They were switching rapidly between English and Malayalam, which always just sounded like argada-argada-argada to her, until her grandmother demanded, “And where exactly is your brother?”
“I already told you, I don’t know.”
“So? You can’t be bothered to look for him?”
A sigh, a snort. “Please, Amma.”
“He’s your brother!” Ammachy snarled.
Argada-argada.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sunil loosed another sigh, but this one was forced, feigned boredom hiding anger. “It means that Thomas is Thomas and he will go where he wants when he wants. You of all people should know that.”
“Oh, stop it with that. No one is interested in your babbling.”
“Surprise!”
“Idiot! You’re drunk. Argada-argada-argada.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Amina slid her feet over the edge of one stair, then another. She peeked around the wall to find her uncle slumped into a living room chair, all trace of music and movement sucked from him. Ammachy hovered over the chair, the bright green silk of her sari glowing.
“How dare you do this?” she hissed.
“What now?” Sunil shut his eyes, leaning his head back on the chair.
“Feeling sorry for yourself again. Today of all days!”
“I don’t know what—”
“The house! You finally got him to give it to you.”
There was a moment while this sank in, Sunil’s bid for detachment redirecting. He sat up. “You think . . . you think signing over the house was my idea?”
“All the time he is giving you things, feeling sorry for you! Poor Sunil didn’t get the same opportunities, poor Sunil doesn’t have enough! And now you’ve taken the house!”
“He gave it to me.”
“Because he is always taking care of you.”
“Because he wanted me to take it from him.” Sunil rose from the couch. “You think he wants to live here?”
“He doesn’t know what he wants yet!”
“He doesn’t . . . You believe that, Amma? That Thomas has been gone these ten years because he doesn’t know what he wants?” Sunil laughed, but underneath there was tightness in his voice. “You think he wants to sit and rot every day in this place instead of running off to America and sending checks?”
“He sends the money for you!”
“He sends it for himself, Amma! He sends it so he doesn’t have to come. My God, you must know that by now.”
If she did know it, Ammachy gave no sign, choosing instead to wrap the end of her sari tightly around her shoulders. “Go to bed!”
“You think Thomas would ever give me something he actually wanted?” Sunil shouted as she walked into the hallway, and Amina covered her ears, suddenly understanding that she had heard too much. She felt for the step behind her with one foot, then the other, hoping illogically that if she walked all the way to her parents’ room backward, she would unremember the entire conversation. The knob was cool against her palm as she twisted it and shuffled into the bedroom.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Amina turned around to find her mother frowning at her.
“Nothing.” Amina sat on the bed.
“You’re feeling sick?”
“No.”
“Did you make BM today?”
“Yes!”
Akhil rolled his eyes. “Sure you did, poo bag.”
“Akhil,” Kamala snapped. “Enough. Your move.”
“Helloooo, Mom, anyone home? I won already.”
“Fine, so do something with yourself.”
“Like what? Make Amina poo?”
Amina rushed at him, digging deep into his belly with her nails so that he shrieked, knocking over the game and the marbles, which spilled across the bed, providing an unlikely torture device as he slammed her on her back. He twisted his head to spit on her, and Amina grabbed an ear, pulling as hard as she could.
AMINAKHIL! STOP THIS BUSINESS AT ONCE!” Kamala pushed between them, sharp hands collaring their necks. She forced them apart.
“Jerkface!”
“Diaper!”
Amina kicked at him again, and her mother squeezed her throat. “Ow!”
“My God,” Thomas said from the doorway. “What is all that about?”
The family turned to him, panting, and Thomas walked into the room, a sweet and funky cloud of toddy on him. He smiled his lopsided smile, and no one knew what to say.
“You missed dinner,” Kamala finally said.
“I know, I know. Sorry.”
“Where were you?”
“Out.”
“Out where? Doing what?”
“Well . . .” Thomas looked at them, as if considering something. “Making plans, actually.”
“What plans?”
“Well . . .” He looked from Akhil to Amina to Kamala and back again. “Okay, listen. I have some big news.”
“You do?” Kamala’s hands dropped, and her voice was soft with excitement.
“We’re going on a trip!”
“What?”
“To the beach! Sundar Mukherjee’s wife is a travel agent, and she booked us rooms at the Royal Crown Suites in Kovalam!”
“What’s Kovalam?” Akhil asked.
“Rooms?” Kamala’s face darkened. “What for?”
“Kovalam is the beach on the peninsula,” Thomas told Akhil. “It’s very nice.”
“But we don’t have time, Thomas! My sisters will be—” Kamala began.
“We’ll get to Lila’s on time. We’ll just leave here a little early.”
“Early?” Kamala asked. “How early?”
“Tomorrow midday.”
What?
“We need to rest, koche. A real vacation.”
“Vacation?” Kamala’s voice dropped an octave, like she was saying drug binge or spending spree. “Thomas, what are you talking about?”
“A break! A little peace and quiet! You know, a chance for us to just relax.”
“I’m relaxed!” Kamala protested, looking anything but.
“No you’re not. And how could you be with my mother nagging you all the time?” Thomas raised his hands into the air. “Impossible! She’s made it impossible. It’s not fair to you or the children. No wonder everyone is fighting!”
“A beach like Hawaii?” Akhil asked. “Does the hotel have TV?”
“Yes, I believe it does.”
“Does it have a swimming pool?” Amina asked.
“It has a very nice pool,” Thomas informed her. “I believe there’s even a bar in the middle, where you can swim up and order a fizzy drink.”
Amina gulped, dizzy with possibility.
Thomas,” Kamala said sharply. “We can’t just go.”
“Why not?”
“You know why not!” She raised her eyebrow at the bedroom door, as though it were Ammachy herself. “Have you told her?”
“Don’t worry about that! I will explain tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Tomorrow? Understand? Have you lost your minds? Besides, what will the neighbors think? Everyone will talk!”
“Who cares what the neighbors think?” Thomas scoffed.
Everyone cares what the neighbors think!
“Kamala,” Thomas sighed, rubbing his neck. “It’s not such a big deal. We’ll be leaving a few days early to go to the coast, that’s all. Don’t make it into a federal case, okay?”
Kamala got off the bed and opened the bedroom door. She looked at the children. “Out.”
“What? No, Mom, this is a family discussion, right? We’re entitled to—” Akhil started.
OUT.
Akhil and Amina scooted off the bed as quickly as the marbles and bedsheets would allow, walking straight across the hall into their own room. They waited exactly five seconds after Kamala shut the door to slide out onto the verandah, where they could watch their parents but remain hidden in the dark.
“—can’t. It’s just not done,” Kamala was saying.
Thomas opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with the flat of her hand.
“Bad enough the son leaves for America, then he comes home and stays for all of three days only?”
Thomas sniffed. “Don’t let’s start with all that.”
“I am not starting anything! You yourself started this business!”
“Enough, Kam. I am warning you.”
“You don’t warn me when I’m warning you!”
“She lied to me!”
“So what, now you want to run away? All because Dr. Abraham came?”
“She told him I wanted a job!”
“And you told her you would come back after studies! So? You are two liars! So what?” Kamala spun toward the window and Amina ducked, but her mother wasn’t looking at her. She was scooping up loose marbles and placing them in the game box.
“I did not lie, Kamala. It’s not as though I planned this.”
“No, of course not, His Holiness of Sainthood and Angels! You would never do such a thing!” Kamala shoved the top onto the game box. “You just studied the one branch in all of medicine that would be difficult to practice here and were shocked to death to learn that you could not practice it here!”
Thomas’s mouth hung open. He blinked several times before answering. “You saw me, Kamala. I asked at Vellore. I checked in Madras. I even looked in Delhi, for the love of God!”
“Yes, you said.”
“And what? You think I’m lying to you now?”
“No,” Kamala said, uncertainty creeping onto her face.
“The technology is not here yet! What do you want? You want me to work some miserable job just so we can be here?”
“I am just saying—”
“Answer me! Is that what you want? How about if I become a dentist? We can live right here, upstairs.”
“That’s not what I—and anyway, what’s so bad? So you don’t do the surgery! You are still a doctor! We could still have a good life.”
Amina had not known, until that very moment, that her father could look so bloodless, the color draining from his face until it looked like an angry husk. “What is so wrong with your life, Kamala?”
“We are not talking about me!”
“What is it that you long for? What opportunity have you not been given?”
Kamala fumed at the floor. “Nobody is talking about that.”
“Is it the house? It’s not big enough? You don’t like your car?”
“Don’t be a silly.”
“You want to come back here, is that it? After all these years, after everything we have built for ourselves there, after all that I have tried to give you, you want to uproot the kids from their entire lives and just move back here?”
Kamala’s lips clamped shut.
“What can you have here that you can’t at home?” Thomas took a step forward. “Really, tell me! You sit here like some pained mermaid longing for her sea, but what is it, really, that you don’t have back in the States? Your sisters who live in all different towns here anyway? Your independence? Enough help around the house? Someone to—”
Myself,” Kamala said.
Thomas swayed a little bit, as if slapped.
“Myself,” Kamala said again, her eyes filling with tears she wiped away hastily, and Thomas’s arms dropped in their sockets. They did not look at each other then, but at the floor. A moment later Thomas turned and left the room, shoes heavy on the steps. Amina leaned over the verandah’s edge a few seconds later, watching him cross the yard, heading back to the gate. Akhil tugged her arm.
C’mon, he mouthed.
The lock screeched open again, letting Thomas back out to the street, and Kamala sat on the bed. Something round and hard moved from Amina’s throat to her gut, making it difficult to breathe. Akhil frowned at her.
“Let’s go, stupid,” he hissed, and she turned and followed him back inside, glad to have somewhere to go.

(From the book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. Copyright © 2014 by Mira Jacob. Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC)


Mira_photoMira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, honored by the APALA, and named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions. She is the co-founder of much-loved Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, where she spent 13 years bringing literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to the city’s sweetest stage. Her recent writing and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Vogue, the Telegraph, and Bookanista, and earlier work has appeared in various magazines (RED, Redbook, i-D, Metropolis, STEP), books (Footnotes with Kenneth Cole; Simon & Schuster; Adios Barbie, Seal Press), on television (VH-1?s Pop-Up Video), and across the web. She has appeared on national and local television and radio, and has taught writing to students of all ages in New York, New Mexico, and Barcelona. She currently teaches fiction at NYU. In September 2014, Mira was named the Emerging Novelist Honoree at Hudson Valley Writer’s Center, where she received a commendation from the U.S. Congress. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein, and their son.

Corvus

by Sharanya Manivannan

Image credit: © 2014 Sharanya Manivanan | “Corvus” | acrylic

When we went to lunch the day before the moon turned into a white crow, I slid a foot out of its slipper and found his toes with it. We were at a Chinese restaurant neither of us had been to before, a place I think was called Sunflower; or maybe that was the name of the parlour beside it, with its posters of Shanghainese beauties from another era in the window and hanzi characters above its entrance. I sat facing the door, which opened rarely. The restaurant comforted me, its small red altar in a corner some sigil of what was real amongst its own exaggerations.

The bottom of my belly thrummed pleasantly, sated and hungry at once. K?ma examined the menu.

“How do you say thank you in Chinese?”

“Xie xie.” In those days I took pleasure in knowing I could thank, swear and say “I love you” in a handful of languages—everything I thought I needed for at least one affair in a foreign land.

But he spoke to me mostly in Tamil, and I spoke to him mostly in English, and in bed the two merged: the latter for commands, jokes, smut. The former, always, for tenderness.

The waiter came and took our order. K?ma handed the menu back to him and said gravely, “Xie xie.”

I broke into an aghast laugh. He looked at me and I looked at him and I shook my head but couldn’t look away. I had let him get away with worse.

The food arrived and we disengaged our toes at the same moment. He scooped the fried rice onto my plate. I carved a portion of the Mandarin fish for him. I wiped two sets of cutlery with a tissue and handed his to him, feeling a pang of regret that I had never learnt how to use chopsticks, which an ex-boyfriend had called elegant. I watched him begin unhesitatingly, without waiting for me, and once again the question of what drew him to me more flickered in my mind briefly: the glamorous patchwork of my history, or the simple fact of my face, its unambiguous nativity.

I had known him for a much longer time than I had been sleeping with him, but sex has a way of setting back the clock. Everything before those few months had faded into irrelevance. He had re-entered my life like a changing season: without omen, a single door opened onto a transformed landscape, rainfall from a cloudless sky, a tree that burst into ripeness overnight. I prepared for him to leave it the same way.

What drew me to him was the same thing that has ever drawn me to any man, before or since: a latent brutality, an undisclosed yet evident vulnerability. An instinct for self-preservation, and the willingness to allow its breaching. The ability to deepen my capacity for all of these in equal measure.


Someone once told me about the sadness, a long time ago, before I would have imagined that sadness possible.

He said: “It will begin, as will all else that will follow it, already tinged with a sadness you won’t know what to do with.”

I thought he had meant the sadness of the past, the sadness I would enter a new entanglement—and all others that would follow it—carrying. But what he had meant, I understood eventually, was only the sadness of foreknowledge. Of seeing an end before it happened. Of standing at a window and looking at the sea sparkling in the afternoon sun, while inside your body something far less pacific shattered itself over and over, a tide you had come to know, recognize, call by name.

Because the man who had told me this had been neither among my lovers nor among my regrets, I could accept his words without introspection, the way one carries the fact of one’s childhood, or one’s own name. I thought of them often the season I was with Kamalesh. I would uncoil his arms from around me and go and sit at his window while he took his afternoon nap, and I would ponder those words, ponder that sadness.

It was always the same those afternoons. The leafless tree in the empty lot beside the apartment block would sway lightly in the breeze. The sea would darken. A murder of crows would flap their dark wings low across the sky. And I would think, already nostalgic, that this was what I would miss—the sound of waves and the cawing, that particular beach wind, the sense of being at a boundary and at a beginning all at once. I would go to his window so that I would always remember to keep the horizon in my sight, its approaching peril, its open, guileless face.

K?ma, he liked me to call him. The god of love expressed through lust. It wasn’t the name his parents had given him. But it wasn’t for either of us to question.

He would pick me up in his Maruti 800 from the back entrance of the Marundeeshwarar temple, which I’d walk to from the bus depot at Thiruvanmiyur. We would make love through the morning, and then we’d cook or go out for lunch. This was our routine, almost every other day, for months. I could have spent all my life that way, but the beauty of those present things was that they belonged only to their moment, their succinct and singular tempo.


We had parked right outside the restaurant. At the far end of the road was the church of the Virgin of Velankanni, and beyond that, the sea. It had not yet rained that year, and wouldn’t for months more, but this part of the city didn’t have the same suffocating quality the heat gave the rest. That would change of course, once the neighborhood had been thoroughly layered with his prints. I was trying to avert this. Emotional geography collects like plaque: a little carelessness and it’s there before you know it. He put his sunglasses on and looked at me. I smiled. He thought he was very sexy with his shades on. He was.

“My car needs to be washed,” he murmured apologetically, and pointed at the crow shit. I hadn’t even noticed. There was a lot of it, even on the front window. I had never noticed, though it now seemed clear from the dust that coated the rest of it that I must have seen his car dozens of times since he had last had it cleaned.

“Your ancestors are shitting all over your intentions,” I said, not meaning it at all.

“And yours?” Sometimes I wondered why my parents had ever left Madras when, decades later, my life was an ‘80s Tamil film anyway, all kissing on rooftops and curfews and the way P. Suheela’s voice rose with unhindered clarity from the watchman’s mini-radio downstairs during the scheduled power cuts.

Back in his flat, we spent the next two hours laughing and cuddling, with him insisting he was going to sleep, but always catching himself before he actually did. “It’s good to hold you,” he breathed into my ear. And although I knew better, I couldn’t help but recognize that what he meant was: he would rather hold me halfway, half-awake, and know it than slumber not mindful that I was in his arms at all.


That night I woke feeling like I was weightless in water, like the sea had come in through my doors and cradled me in my sleep. I let it lull me back to sleep. When I woke a second time it was 3:30am. Outside my window the sky was tenebrous, reddish. The silhouette of palm fronds wavered in the wind through the wrought-iron bars. I was thirsty. I was miles from the beach and I longed for it. I wondered if K?ma could hear the tides from his bed, if I would still be awake if I was there too.

There were crows cawing even at that hour. I got up and retied my lungi, washed my face, poured myself a small glass of cranberry juice and wished there was vodka in it. I checked my messages. A friend on the other side of the world had recorded Szymborska into his phone, and I listened to his grave and earnest reading against the landscape of what I knew of his loss and what I knew of my longing and wasn’t certain what lines to send him, to travel back to him by way of thanks and consolation.

There was no sense in going back to bed, not when the night had coaxed me awake so many times, as if to say, like a ravenous lover, I belong to you alone. I watched the sunrise bleed over the sky and when my mother came out from the bathroom, her wet hair turbaned, and touched my shoulder and said, “It’s Saturday, will you keep the rice out?” I put on my slippers and went downstairs. On the stone wall at the back of the property, I placed the handful of boiled rice and mustard seeds she had given me, stepped away, and waited for the first black bird to swoop down.


Because my grandmother’s funeral had been on a Saturday, a small black chicken was tied by its feet to the front of her bier. Because as a woman I had not been allowed into the cremation grounds, I can only surmise that it would have burnt with her on her pyre, alive but comatose. It wasn’t comatose when I knelt before her pyre though. I had placed my forehead on the cement in our driveway and closed my eyes to its squawking.

I walked back down the same driveway and went back up to our flat, listening to the sounds of the crows behind me. We had started to feed the ancestors only after my grandmother had died. That was a love that was worth generations.

Asclepius, whose mother Coronis was betrayed by a crow, was carved out of his mother’s womb as she lay on her pyre. His name meant “to cut open.” He became the god of healing. His father, Apollo, had had so many lovers—yet he had not been able to fathom the idea that he was not her only one.

When I lay in K?ma’s arms I had neither wounds nor memory of them. Only the sadness, sometimes. He was the only one who ever adored me. To adore: to worship, without fear or plea. For this and no other reason, he has my loyalty for life.


Much as well as a little later, there would be men who mimed those gestures of intimacy that only K?ma, I believed, ever rendered sincerely. And as much as I loved, or wanted to love, them, it wasn’t the same—no one else stroked my hair that way or held my feet that way or eyed me across a room quite like he did. No one else didn’t know how to lie.
There was one man who seemed to discover the eloquence of kissing the hand only when I first kissed his, because the way he then took mine and did the same suggested unfamiliarity, wonder, the simplicity of imitation. I would later grieve thinking about the other women he would confer the same upon, this tenderness I had given him. As though anything in any of us is truly new, unclaimed.

That was Martand. From him I learnt the pleasure of the licked eyelid, what it means to paint the eye with the salt of the tongue. I, too, would give that gesture away, to an intoxicated lover who kissed even my elbows as we fell asleep, only to tell me the next day that he had no memory of having initiated the encounter between us. I said nothing. How do we do this—speak with our bodies even as we swallow our voices?

The crow that betrayed Coronis was scorched by the very one he betrayed her to. Its snowlike feathers turned obsidian. Silence is its own terrible smoulder. But truth-telling lacquers a darker, richer damage.

I betrayed Martand with K?ma. Neither of them will tell you what I did. Both of them will tell you it didn’t matter. But only I know what it cost me. Only I knew that incineration.


K?ma, the god of desirousness, was also incinerated.

All things are written. The gods already knew that only the son of the meditating Shivan could kill the asura who wreaked havoc on their rites. A son with a warrior’s temperament and six perfect jewel-like faces. But Shivan was an ascetic, a widower, turned inward through the falconry hood of contemplation. His wife, Dakshayani, had immolated herself. Inconsolable, Shivan had lifted her charred body to his shoulder and tried to obliterate his consciousness—obliterate the universe—in dance. Unable to bear his unbearable suffering, the other gods had her body dismembered—each fragment of flesh and drop of blood hallowing the earth where it fell. Every sacred space begins as a theatre of grief. Out of trauma comes transformation.

The dismembered goddess was reborn: comely, wiser, her heart cleansed by a different lifetime of tears, she laughed more freely and lived more fiercely. She was a deepened furrow. Emancipated this time from shame and obligation, having seen beyond the illusion of that which binds into the truth of that which is, she longed to once again be Shivan’s companion. And the gods longed for the son she would then bring into being. And so she stood there before Shivan in her dancing anklets, her pulse thrumming even in her throat, and watched as K?ma, parrot-rider, manifested an untimely spring in the cosmos. He moved in the spiral of a southern breeze, a hum of fragrant sweetness. He poised an arrow of flowers strung on a bow of sugarcane and took aim at the meditating god.

At the moment of piercing, a furious Shivan opened his third eye and the fire of his wrath turned K?ma to ashes instantly.

And then he noticed Parvati, her turmeric limbs and luminescent eyes.

For his righteous intent, for the six-faceted son and the consort of variegated personae, for love itself, in its manifold dimensions, K?ma was revived. He was allowed to prevail. But formlessly.

Which is why the spirit of love is bodiless; only its performance is corporeal.

At that time, in those days when I would thirst for the sea because something was always burning, K?ma was my only lover. I was not his only girlfriend, though. She was nowhere in the vicinity, not truly, that other woman on a distant continent. We said her name between us sometimes in conversation, in order to put distance between ourselves.

Not long after it was over with Martand, K?ma and I went to the beach on a new moon night. Valmiki Nagar. The ocean sulking, holding her secrets closer than usual. We sat on the shore and he let me cry, holding my hand as I did. An aravani came to us and clapped in K?ma’s face for the rupee notes he promptly fished out of his breast pocket.

“You’ ve come with your girl, mapillai,” she said. “Don’t you want a good long life together?” She thought we were newlyweds. I giggled. In less than three years, he would be someone else’s husband. I was sure I was not meant to be anybody’s bride.


The sighting of a white crow is said, I would learn later on, to be an omen of a blessing that would come to be lost through greed. The white crow says: Look within. The white crow says: See, ahead, what you will be without.

I rarely spent the night at K?ma’s. It was too difficult to do often—the question of what I would tell my parents was one worth risking only with discretion. In my twenties and for a long time afterward, the city was still that sort of place. This didn’t mean it never happened. The first time I slept over had been impulsive: there are moons over Madras sometimes that eclipse everything else, all semblance of pretense or pragmatism. There had been one such moon that night, orange-flamed and balsamic. There had been no question of going home.

That Saturday, however, as I took the lift back up to my apartment after feeding the ancestors there was a definite whirr of plan-making in my mind. I intended to spend the weekend with him, to arrive a little before sunset and stay until after dinner the following evening. Somewhere there was a suggestion of a long drive, later that day or the following morning. We would trace the hem of the sea southwards, from his house on the border of the city to as far as we felt we could go without losing ourselves.

And then we would park the car in some semi-private enclave, behind a stone wall someone built to stake and divide land, and run into one of the hundred casuarina groves, through the trees, not stopping until our feet were in the water and our heads were in the clouds.


The casuarina beach was somewhere between the artists’ village and the temple of the eternal bridegroom. We had done this enough times before: turning off the road when the desire to seized us. Always a different beach along the coast. We were not always alone – in the near distance we could usually see others like us, pairs and sometimes small groups. We veered away from loners. They always scared us back to the car in some uninterrogated anxiety.

It was a full moon night: a perfect moon, gravid and gorgeous, already high enough in the sky to be an immaculate alabaster circle.

“In my mother’s country,” I said, “days of the full moon are public holidays.”

He kissed my hand as we stepped into the water. “When are we going there?” he asked, and I smiled at the moon because I’d already given away too much.


How small a crow can seem when it is still and how large when it takes flight toward you.

The moon was a coin. The moon was a compass rose. The moon was a crow: quickfire light, quills of ivory. She swooped right down toward us, mouth open, pink as modesty. Grandmother eyes. Primordial voice.

We’d been holding hands, lying on our backs with our feet in the foam and our hair full of drying sand. We both leapt up, gasping. We’d seen her, feathered like salt, heard that unmistakable cry. But when we looked up again, the words desiccating on our tongues, there she still was. Calmly unblinking, still brooched to the sky. Not a wisp of a feather, not an echo. Occulted moon, more enigmatic than ever before.


Because we had both seen it, neither one could correct the other, could say: trick of light, trompe-l’œil. K?ma was quiet on the drive back. It was I who, in the absence of all other sound, filled it with singing.


For a while, we were lucky. For a while, we were happy.

Beautiful K?ma, with his godlike body and his childlike folly. Beautiful K?ma who set all the rules he thought he lived beyond. Who tested the waters not knowing—poor baby—that water is volatile. That you cannot measure a depth. You can only measure a distance.


At the time, it had ended painlessly enough. I had walked away from that apartment, with its sea view and its sun-cartridged afternoons, and hailed an auto—I will never forget this—driven by a man who wore a pendant around his neck that was shaped like the skeleton of a fish.

Most of the pain, that sadness that had tinged everything (I came to realise later), had been in the effort of keeping it from meeting its denouement, but once I allowed it to happen it slipped away cleanly, without residual rawness. Amputation is simple, a question of the correct knife. Resurrection requires more subtle energies.

I would return to that apartment in so many guises. Adulterous, armed to the teeth, my body an arcana of alibis. I don’t know what it is about infidelity that makes it so damn hot. I don’t know how it was ever worth it. No, that is not true. The problem is that, in my most profoundly honest moments, naked of spirit and windswept of heart, I do.

But that evening, willful and self-possessed, I walked out believing it was over, that I had seen the last of those seaward windows. They were over, those days of rhythmically uncomplicated pleasure. What I didn’t know was that there would still be other kinds. Of complications. Of pleasures. I took flight with such certitude.

And like a winged creature blotting itself out onto the sun, I scorched right into Martand.


The one thing I know to be true is not that love is all there is, or that everything dies. It is that everybody has want. It’s a tiny nerve, a vein of gypsum, that runs through everything—everyone—and sometimes I see someone else’s so clearly that it catches me by the throat. In every place I have been in the world I have looked at people and seen right through into their lives, into the one true thing for which this wretched bittersweet is worth enduring, and I have broken into pieces at the recognition of it. It’s the smallest thing. The smallest, smallest, smallest thing.


K?ma brings his children to me for my foreign folktales and the seer fish curry I must stop making for them when they become old enough to decipher the recipe from taste. The boy comes up to my hip, the place on my body where a phoenix would be inked onto my skin, if I were capable of that kind of lifelong allegiance. The girl, like her father, presses herself to my breast when she hugs me, and always needs to be coaxed to let go.


It is astonishing how strong you become, when you’ve spent a lot of time being other people’s weaknesses. I could never find the kind of responsible love that most people had, if they had it at all. I fell hopelessly for maladroit men who took the ‘cage’ in ‘ribcage’ to heart, and admired women who had never known what long-married love was like. I was always the object of desire, the souvenir, the receptacle of memories of wildness, a parenthesis in their experience of an unexceptional world.

Because I could not find slow love, love that could age, I grew into the evanescence that others sought me for. After a point, I could no longer withhold—and I could no longer amputate. So I began to adore simply, not loudly, and always in the awareness that those like me must live like flowering trees. We are who we are, prosperously or otherwise. And our lives are crowned, now and then, with moments of exaltation—each held and breathed in deeply, and then let go.

Some nights I still wake to the sound of crows crying. And I think of Kakabhujandi, the raven in the tree of life, who listens to the ancient stories and tells them again. Always adding his watermark, his song that is also the first syllable in the old alphabet—Ka. The same word as the question Why.

And depending on where I am, I will stay in bed and look at the bruise-bitten night through the skylight or the undraped window. Always, this sky. And I’ll sigh, calm my breath and listen, and wonder.

Why why why


SharanyaManivannanBio-pixSharanya Manivannan’s first book of poems, Witchcraft, was described by The Straits Times (Singapore) as “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife.” She has received a Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship and an ELLE Fiction Award, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. She wrote a column, The Venus Flytrap, between 2008 and 2011 in The New Indian Express, and her fiction, poetry and essays have been widely published internationally, including in Drunken Boat, Wasafiri, Hobart, Killing The Buddha, and Superstition Review. Twitter: @ranyamanivannan