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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

Obedience

Abi La

Croydon, UK

A map of the world was spread across the wall opposite me with, “Where I Come From,” written across the top in chunky green felt tip pen. The pins crowded around Southern England were so numerous that many had taken refuge in the Atlantic Ocean or fallen into the English Channel. There were a few dotted around continental Europe, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I squinted, two in Tamil Nadu. It was always a bit strange being in a different school on a Saturday, as though we were weekend ghosts invading the space of students who normally filled the classrooms and corridors.

The gym door opened, and timid winter sunlight streamed over us in ribbons. The gym smelt of rubber and sweat. We put down our backpacks and water bottles, pulled off our shoes and socks, and arranged ourselves into rows. Our teacher, Ms. Anjali, was battling a CD player in the corner of the room. Chatter broke out, someone gasped, a kolusu on someone’s ankle jiggled energetically. The CD sputtered to life, skipping a couple of thayum thakka beats and then settled into its rhythm. Ms. Anjali hurried to the front of the class, wisps of long black hair trailing after her like tentacles, trying to avoid a diffusion of our concentration.

“Namaskar, everyone. Welcome,” she said, performing the introduction to the class. It starts with gratitude: to the earth, to the guru, to the audience. She lowered her eyes to the ground and stood up, hands in prayer.

“Namaskar, miss,” we chanted, mirroring her movements in response.

Back straight, bend more at the knees, express with your eyes, left then right then left then right, slower, faster and that’s it. Perfect.

Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

Thakka jimmi thakka junnu thakka jimmi thakka junnu, the tabla and sitar players sweated as they beat out their rhythms.

Off-white ceiling fans, faded from use, whirred as hard as they could, engaged in Olympic activity of their own. They were no match for the Coimbatore summer heat, which could reach forty degrees Celsius, exhausting even the flies hovering lethargically around piles of cow dung outside.

“AC?”

“No AC.”

“No AC?”

“No. No AC.”

News murmured through the crowd, of at least a hundred and fifty people, that there was no AC.

Aunties and mamas, periammas and chithis, ammammas and thathas flapped and fanned themselves with just about anything – saris, handkerchiefs, the elaborate paper invitations, an embossed Shiva on thick cream card nestled underneath sheaths of red tissue paper.

Little girls, in their itchy, brightly-colored pattu pavadais trailing to their ankles and jangly jhumkis dangling from their ears and gold kolusus, squirmed in their plastic grey seats, and tried to escape. They hoped to find respite from the heat on the tiled floor. Their mothers dragged them back up and scolded to sit down and stay still.

A tiny baby in a yellow kurta hid in the folds of his mother’s green and white sari, as she switched him from one hip to another to air out her yawning sweat patches.

All of this just made everyone feel hotter.

The occasion was an arangetram for a cousin of a cousin. A graduation ceremony signaling the end of formal Bharatanatyam training and an opportunity to vigorously flaunt social status. I’d lost track of the exact lineage.

Thakka jimmi thakka junnu thakka jimmi thakka junnu.

Sweat between my thighs had mixed with the talcum powder I’d liberally patted down my legs before leaving my grandmother, my ammamma’s house, forming a gloopy paste in the heat.

I’d stopped dancing Bharatanatyam the year before when I turned fourteen. After we moved to Essex, it wasn’t convenient to drive an hour each way to Eastham on a Saturday. I could have fought for it, but didn’t, not wanting to weigh down my new life with an activity that no longer carried cultural capital. Each minute of that hour-long drive pulling me further away from the requirements and customs of a different society. I started by skipping a Saturday here and there, and fell behind, forgot routines, became frustrated as my movements no longer flowed. The final straw came when I was asked to move down a level. I didn’t attend class after that.

When I’d been surrounded by Anjalis and Gayathris and Archanas in Croydon, I’d been at the front of the gym hall, thumping away. Saturday Tamil class, then Tamil dance. Tamil friends. Tamil food shopping for chow chow and vendakka and fresh coconut, then Saravana Bhavan for masala dosa and sweet mango lassi as a treat. Maybe a packet of Hubba Bubba for the car ride back, consumed rapidly one after the other, which left me with an aching jaw by the time we got home. In Croydon, it sometimes felt like half the population was Tamil. It was a Tamil life, I was just another brown girl in a brown world. In Essex, I was surrounded by Lucys and Sarahs and Katies, who placed zero cultural value on Bharatanatyam.

But now that I was here, a year after giving up, in this hot, itchy, palatial grandeur, I wished it was my turn on the stage, performing the dance of Lord Shiva himself.

Bharatanatyam heaves with emotion and feeling, story through movement, prayer and thanks; the mouth, hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, but most of all the eyes (and eyebrows) are used to communicate two thousand years of history. You dance millennia, you dance planets, you dance as Krishna with his flute, you dance as a universal quivering supreme being. The comment sections of Bharatanatyam videos on YouTube may just be one of the most sacred places on the Internet; such are the outpourings of love and adulation in multiple languages.

Ly Stanley from Panama writes: “I’m from Panama, I admire this culture so much! Deeply in love with India! God bless you all! I will soon start practicing this.”

A slight boy who was barely four feet tall expertly weaved between rows of seats handing out plastic bottles of cold water.

“Nundri,” I said. Thank you.

The boy dropped a bottle and an overweight woman with thinning hair in a beaded red sari nudged him out of the way with her swollen sandaled foot. These are the tiny butterfly gestures of Indian casteism flitting around. The sense of God-endorsed superiority packed tightly into the protons and neutrons of every atom of Brahmins. Class may broadly be about ownership and relationship, or lack thereof to the means of production, and the exploitation of your labor. Caste is about your soul. The purity of your blood. The blood that courses through your veins is considered contaminated, in this lifetime, potentially in the next, if that is the way it goes in the lottery of your birth. The boy, with a blank expression of terror, bowed and bowed and then ran away.

Thakka jimmi thakka junnu thakka jimmi thakka junnu.

The sitar and tabla stopped, but the audience continuously fanned and groaned, craning their necks to see whether that was the maami whose son married a white woman in the US or the athai who’d had a nose job.

The dancer walked out onto the stage and the crowd hushed.

She wore a bright red blouse and mustard yellow silk sari, long black hair augmented with fake hair interwoven with fresh jasmine flowers. You could smell the jasmine, mixed with the crowd’s sweat. The aroma of a giant, sweet armpit, hovering in a layer above us. Bright red henna feet and hands with big red circles on her palms. Thick leather salangai with bells around her ankles, that’s how you know that your thakka jimmi’s and thakka junnu’s are in time, and are divine. The nethi chutti on her forehead glittered with gems, her oddiyanam waist belt cinched the sari pleats in place, the ones that she would open up to transform into Durga or a lotus. A heavy maalai hung around her slender neck, her gold nose ring was a perfect O stretching back to her ear. Thick black kohl ringed her brown eyes.

Thum, thay, they, they, tha they, tha tha tha, tha they.

We were off. She started by giving thanks, and her eyes widened, searching the crowd. Everyone finally stopped scratching, itching, swatting, and sat still. She was a goddess, she was thousands of them. She washed her red painted hands in a small bronze tumbler of water and placed it on her head. She was so expressive that she looked in pain at points, real tears welling in her huge eyes. She cajoled and coaxed the audience, and wrapped us in the circles she created with her arms. It reminded me of water flowing through a structure designed to mathematically precise specifications.

The pace picked up as the dance went on, thay, thay, thum thum, thay thay, thumthumthumthumthumTHUM. The dancer ended on one knee, hands clasped in prayer. Her body trembled, and she begged or rejoiced with us, maybe both.

Afterwards we queued for five minutes, maybe more, to pay our compliments and praise the performance. My silver and blue pavadai was sticky with sweat making each step forward more uncomfortable than the last.

We reached the front of the line. The dancer was at the back of the stage changing out of her sari and accessories.

“Beautiful, so beautiful,” ma said. “What a stunning performance. Congratulations.”

“Oh ya, thank you, ya. My daughter practiced so hard her feet bled. There’s blood on the stage even, look,” the aunty pointed at the stage with her elbow, encouraging us to search for blood. We were too far away to see.

“Mmmhmm,” ma said. “Very impressive.”

“We told her even, you are best in class, no need no need, but still. She did. On top of all extra tuition, sports and all. Good girl this one.”

This was a lie. They made her practice until her feet bled. A lobotomized donkey could have told you that.

“And you? London isn’t it?”

Ma didn’t have the patience to explain the difference between London and Essex, so she nodded, yes yes.

“And this,” she said, turning to me. “Is your eldest?”

“Yes,” ma said, “she’s fifteen now, in secondary school.”

“Oh, is it? Do you like it, the schooling and all?”

‘Yes, aunty,” I said, it was my turn to lie now.

“Top of your class, is it?”

“No, aunty,” I said.

“Konju karupaa illayaa? Paavamae,” she said, turning to my Mum.

“Bit dark isn’t she, poor thing.”

Ma glared at her. I went outside, where it’d cooled down a bit. I breathed in, you know, that India smell. Ash and flowers, exhaust fumes and jasmine, cow dung and human sweat, rickshaw dust and oil. There is no smell in the world like the India smell. A lizard approached my foot, as though it were a tourist looking for a prominent landmark. It bumped up against my toe and spun around twice, disorientated, before jerkily shooting off across the concrete.

A host of Ambassador cars waited outside to take us to the reception. The drivers leant on the bonnets, and wore vaishtees or frayed pant-suits, as they tried to stay out of the sun while on alert for when their Brahmin masters called upon them.

***

Tamils are a dramatic group. Weekly threats of death by a matriarch here and there by dousing herself in kerosene and setting the house on fire are interspersed with forensically detailed conversations about whether the local tailor is over-charging, or the dhobi is cleaning one’s clothes properly.

The two primary dynamics in ammamma’s house were obedience at all costs, and terror at insubordination. One summer in the 90s we took a couple of jars of Skippy crunchy peanut butter as part of The Gift. The Gift packages were assembled throughout the year; ma put excruciating amounts of effort into them,. She found the best buy-one-get-one-free deals on nail polishes and soaps, underwear and travel games, like portable Connect 4. And chocolate. Indian chocolate back in the day had an almost anodyne quality to it; like it was manufactured in the same factory as detergent or soap. So, we took boxes and bags of chocolates, tins and assortments. The Gift(s) occupied at least one suitcase: check in, not hand luggage.

Distribution and analysis of The Gifts was a post-arrival ritual. That year, everyone tasted peanut butter, and compared it to different Indian condiments in texture and taste. Then the jars were put in the fridge, which was guarded like a fortress. Children were not allowed to open the fridge, and ma, in her mid-thirties at the time, had restricted access. These were the rules, and they stayed the same every summer.

On one heavy monsoon evening, the rain lashed down with such force that thatha ran out and clipped the outdoor wooden swing in place to stop it thrashing. Afterwards, moisture clung to the air and it smelled like wet mud outside. We ran out into the compound and watched squiggly, engorged leeches surfacing, looking for a blood-sucking meal, and got bitten in neat rows by angry mosquitoes that’d hurriedly laid fresh eggs in the shallow puddles.

Coimbatore chithi, ma’s youngest sister, went home. Her only son was going through a phase where he chased his cousins with a tennis racket to beat us. We usually had to sprint, scream and lock ourselves in the bathroom or the one bedroom with a lock. After he lopped my sister on the head and gave her a big bump, he’d been dragged away as punishment.

Some combination of those that remained were playing carrom board, a sit-down version of pool with plastic discs instead of balls and a striker piece instead of cues, when ammamma strode into the living room and quaked with rage.

For a woman under five feet three inches, she had a presence that could not be contained by anything as feeble as walls and concrete, it overflowed out into the street. The back of her sari had come untucked and flayed with the fan’s breeze. Her mouth was a straight line, her eyes shone brightly like dark brown marbles. Strands of hair danced around her face, which looked funny, but we didn’t dare laugh.

“Who,” she said, in a deathly quiet voice, “opened the fridge and ate the peanut butter?”

She held up the jar, it looked full. There was no response.

Tension mounted, it was palpable. Someone would have to take the blame.

Ma stepped forward.

“I took it,” she said.

Ammamma walked out of the room and ma followed for the inevitable scolding. As she left, she looked at us anxiously over her shoulder.

Ammamma had her tender moments though, she was sometimes able to love despite the fierce currents that ravaged her mind, especially with me. We’d lie down together for an afternoon nap on the hard wooden bed which hurt at the beginning of the summer but felt welcoming by the end. I’d drape the end of her sari across me as a blanket and bury my head in the blissful softness of her upper arm folds, better than any pillow, and pretend to sleep while listening to the sounds in the street.

Whole summers would pass that way. Once it cooled down, Coimbatore chithi would sit us all in a row on the outdoor wooden swing and plait our hair in single or double French plaits with jasmine flowers looped through and we’d beg to go out, just for a while, on my uncle’s motorbike or for a rickshaw ride. Four of us crammed in the back of a rickshaw, lean forward, lean back, lean forward, squeeze in, the dust and hot air, the onion bonda cooking on the streets, the endless stalls of unimaginable commodities; plastic buckets and watches, Rebok trainers and Adidos bags, incense and bodies folded within bodies, everywhere, in the street, on the buses, hanging off buses, five to a motorcycle with the baby balanced on a lap, smacking the bullock from the cart, sitting on the street, lounging on the street, squatting in the street, brown bodies everywhere, same same but everyone could tell, ours were a little bit different, they’d absorbed some English quality. In our own way all aching for India.

The obedience Olympics were conducted all summer in various competitions. Who finished their food fastest, who volunteered to go first for a bucket bath, who never ever went near the fridge, who wanted to go to the temple, who woke up at 5am to help with drawing kolam outside the house for festivals, but most of all, of prime importance, who patiently listened and groaned and moaned and ummed and ahhed at all the right moments, when ammamma told us how terrible, wretched, completely unbearable her life was.

The biggest thrill of the summer was when Coimbatore chithi bundled us into her Maruti van and we’d go to her apartment and sneak past her in-laws’ apartment next door (wives in South India are obsessed with hiding everything from their in-laws, despite everyone living in the same building and no one having anything interesting to hide), where we’d lie on mats on the floor with our feet in the air and watch movies like Die Hard, eating jalebi and pal payasam.

Going to the cinema was a big deal. Most movies are at least three hours long. My cousins, siblings and I bustled around her grabbing beverages and snacks like baby monkeys.

During the intermission, vendors walked the aisles and sold vanilla, chocolate and pistachio ice-cream and samosas. People shouted, cried, laughed, jumped and frequently moved around during the screening.

“Aiyoo, enough,” Coimbatore chithi moaned, handing over a stack of rupee notes to the stall vendor.

Years later, when I showed a Scandinavian boyfriend one of my favourite Tamil movie songs, he remarked that it was seventy percent repressed sexuality and thirty percent soft porn.

Coimbatore chithi handed dupattas around the group to protect us from the AC onslaught and we held hands in a human chain and took our seats. This wasn’t just any movie trip, we were here to see Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. A level up from just a Tamil movie. My sister and I felt a mix of pressure and pride, as if our other identity was on display and needed to live up to the hype. A ringing testimony to American hegemony.

The opening score started, the curtains swished back, excitement rippled through the crowd, but wait. Oh no. The opening words about the future not being written yet were in Tamil, with English subtitles. For a movie not famed for the dialogue, dubbing took matters into the stratosphere of terrible. My sister and I snorted, unable to hold back our laughs. John Connor was a caricature, and the war between man and machine a pantomime. By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger came on screen, demanding “antha vundee kondu vaa,” (bring me that car), we were laughing so much we couldn’t breathe. We gulped in mouthfuls of salty, fried-food air and clutched our stomachs while Coimbatore chithi looked confused and our cousin slept on her lap, his face illuminated by the explosions on the screen.

***

Essex, UK

I woke up to the sound of rain slamming against the window and waited a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust. 3pm, the clock next to my bed blinked brightly. It was dark gray outside. Jet lag hung from my eyelids like a curtain. I went to find ma. The door to her bedroom was wide open and she was sleeping, too.

I turned on the heating and went to inspect the fridge. Half a rotting onion stood proudly on the middle shelf and there were a couple of cartons of soy milk.

For reasons I can’t remember, ma and I had come back before my brother, sister and father. We lived in temporary accommodation, in a semi-permanent state of transition. The carpets were green and curled at the edges as though repulsed by the walls they were bound to. It was a Saturday, and I would be back at school on Monday, but time felt elastic and controllable, like Monday could be pushed away just by willing it so. The memory of landing at Heathrow at 7am had already faded and Coimbatore, Chennai and Tamil Nadu felt as distant as the seven thousand miles between us. In the days after we got back, I’d hear the ghost of a motorcycle revving or taste the road dust from a rickshaw ride. It was so quiet. The silence was a heavy blanket that smothered our surroundings.

“Kanna,” ma said.

I jumped.

We stood in front of the fridge, side-by-side, looking in like detectives analyzing a crime scene. Ma didn’t have to cook; we had some freedom, it was just the two of us. We sat at the small kitchen table and discussed our options.

We went to the supermarket and bought ingredients: vegetables, rice, yoghurt. Then, in a reckless move, we drove to the local shopping-centre and went to the food court. I ordered a jacket potato with cheese and baked beans and ate it so quickly it burned my mouth. This place was a purgatory where sedate people drifted around expressionless, carrying shopping bags, talking to each other in whispers. A kingdom of muted sounds.

There was no frenzy, chaos, or mass of thronging humans, no hint of the several thousand different noises at once creating the opera of India.

I fell asleep in the car and once we got back, I slept solidly through to the next morning. The rain had continued. Ma was chopping vegetables and preparing meals for the week ahead.

***

London, UK

“What do you want to drink?” My friend screamed at me, a couple of frothy spit balls landed on my cheeks.

“Gin and tonic,” I screamed back. I felt an accelerated motion behind me and turned around to find a blonde man on his back, legs in the air, a smashed iPhone clutched in one hand. His friend stood over him and poured a beer into his mouth. It was 9.30pm.

I pushed my way through the Friday night crowd and into the wire cage at the back. A view of a landfill site glimmered in the distance. My friend appeared a few minutes later, his face red in that patchy English way that reminded me of marble and thrust a drink at me.

“Fucking nightmare,” he said. He dropped his backpack and kicked it out of the way.

“Have you got them?”

“Yeah, one for each of us.”

This was exciting because he was a relatively new friend. We’d met at a house party and went on a date where he tried his best to relate to me. This involved sharing a rehearsed story about his cousin’s honeymoon in Goa. I tried to imagine having sex with him but footage from a documentary about how concrete is made kept flashing in my head as if some misfiring advertising algorithm had penetrated my neocortex. We’d decided to be friends.

As we were leaving, I saw an unmistakably South Indian woman sat on the floor clutching her foot. Someone was crouched next to her. I changed course, dipped my head, and surged towards her.

Crouching next to her, I said, “Are you okay?”

“I’ve cut my foot on glass,” she said and held up a foot cocooned in a blue sock soaked through with blood.

She put an arm around each of our shoulders and her friend and I carried her out of the bar.

Outside, she sat down on the curb and carefully pulled off the bloody sock. We leant forward to examine her foot, the cut was long, and stretched from under her little toe back to a few inches above her heel.

“Fuck. It looks like there’s still glass in there,” I said.

My friend walked over, “there you are!” he yelled, “we’re leaving, cab’s here.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

“What? Why? Who’s this?” He said, his pupils dense as black holes.

“She’s hurt and I just feel that I should stay…make sure she’s okay.”

“We can manage now, it’s totally fine,” the woman with the cut foot said. She had long wavy black hair and expressive brown eyes ringed with black eyeliner, which had smudged with all the excitement.

I got up and nearly toppled over with the force of my own momentum, as I landed sideways on a bin.

“I know this sounds mad,” I said to my friend. He reached over and pulled off a piece of lettuce off my jacket.

“But, I have this strong feeling that I need to go with her. It’s something…cosmic.”

“Are you sure this ‘strong feeling’ isn’t because you’re off your face?”

“No one uses air quotes anymore. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I flagged down a taxi and we helped her in. I clambered in last and sat in the awkward seat facing the rear window. I needed to vomit and shit in that urgent way specific only to pills. The way that doesn’t listen to reason and can’t be told to go away through gritted teeth.

“Is everything okay?”

I realized I’d been talking to myself out loud, encouraging words, so I didn’t defecate in the back of this taxi.

“Yeah…yeah, I just….I just feel like I know you, you know?” I said, reaching across the car and taking her one free hand.

“Are you…high?” Her friend asked.

“Erm, possibly.”

“Brilliant,” the woman with the bleeding foot said, “that’s hilarious. It’ll make the trip to the hospital a lot more fun.”

“I think I might shit myself.”

A God of urban planning intervened. Five minutes later, I walked out of the petrol station toilet feeling like a goddess.

I bought a liter of water and chewing gum, and hopped back in, “the cab is totally on me,” I sang.

“So, tell me everything about you,” I took her hand again, leant back against the seat and watched tiny balls of light ping around behind my eyelids.

She was Tamil. She was a dancer. She worked in marketing and taught Bharatanatyam at the weekends to high school students. I stabilized by the time we got to A&E. A man lurched in and promptly collapsed, he was loaded onto a stretcher and rushed away. A woman clutched a baby with a vivid red rash close to her chest and rocked back and forth. A teenager with his arm in a makeshift sling scrolled aggressively on his phone. His green t-shirt looked like it was straining to get away from him, and curled up at the edges. The smell of sanitation and bleach hit the back of my throat, but I was somewhere else. I climbed up onto the stage and checked to see if there was any blood smeared on it. I floated to the changing room and watched as the dancer sat down, tears mixed with black kohl. I flew outside and circled the hall a couple of times looking down on the Ambassador cars. I zoomed all the way to the ground and landed with a thud next to the lizard.

I opened my eyes with a jolt, several people in the waiting room were staring at me.

The Bharatanatyam teacher took my hand, “I think you should go home.”

“What happened?”

“You screamed ‘NO’ really loudly.”

The red baby started to cry.

We exchanged numbers and I left, clumsily kissing her eyelid on my way out. It was half-past midnight. I took the night bus, sat at the front, opened the window fully and let the cold air blast my face while I drifted between worlds.

***

I tried not to slam the front door when I got back. I drank water from the tap in the kitchen and went to my room carrying a carton of orange juice, with a vague notion that I’d go back downstairs later to make baked beans on toast. I put on the wireless headphones I used for the gym and searched on YouTube for Bharatanatyam videos. It had been years since I’d even thought about the dance. Rivulets of movements and expressions exploded like an ecosystem in my addled brain.

I played one video, the thakka jimmi thakka junnu’s confronted me, challenged me, encouraged me to join them. I watched a couple more, and paused if an expression was too much to comprehend in a half-second, rewound to understand technique.

Then, in the darkness and dampness of my room in South London, I expressed gratitude, and thanked the earth, the guru, the audience, I touched the carpet to my eyes, and started to dance.

She practiced so hard her feet bled.

Who opened the fridge and ate the peanut butter?

Namaskar, miss.

Abi La was born in South India, raised in the U.K and now lives in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in Vice, The New Statesman and The San Francisco Chronicle. A social entrepreneur, she co-founded Papi’s Pickles, a food social enterprise providing fresh and tasty Tamil food made by women from these communities who relocated to the UK during the civil war in Sri Lanka, and ImpactVision, an imaging and machine learning technology startup tackling supply chain food waste. Today, she is a tech worker and active organizer, and is writing her first novel.

Boat to Battambang

Alex Tzelnic

On the walls of a Buddhist monastery in Siem Reap, Chuck had seen them, the images of hungry ghosts; ghouls with distended bellies doomed to roam the hell realms, forever yearning and forever unfulfilled. Now, in the smoke-choked light of dawn, he saw them in the flesh. There were the ghouls. They wandered from one burning pile of trash to another, picking at scraps, searching for a morsel, their ribs visible beneath coarse patches of fur. Occasionally, one ghoul snarled at another, and a brief wrestling match – a dust up in the dust – ensued. The dust and the smoke would swirl and dance in the sunrise in such a way to as to make Chuck yearn for his camera, which, he hoped, was safely tied down on top of the boat.

Chuck was the only person on the boat. His hotel had told him it was essential to leave Siem Reap at 6 for the 7 AM departure. Now, his watch told him it was 6:41. The taxi had pulled up to a faded blue, bobbing wooden rig;, a man had thrown his pack on top, and he’d been ushered under the veranda, where two planks of wood acted as benches. It was a lovely four-hour cruise to Battambang, noted the guidebook, along the Tonle Sap River, past stilted floating villages on the vast Tonle Sap Lake, and onto the river again for the home stretch. Perhaps Chuck would be the only passenger on the boat, floating idly down the river, laying on the bench and using his shirt as a pillow as he napped in the morning sun.

Perhaps not. A van wound its way along the rutted dirt road, scattering the ghouls with exaggerated honking. It stopped in front of the boat and disgorged a dozen supremely pale people – pale save for the patches of skin roasted to a deep maroon by the Cambodian sun. The people shuffled silently aboard as the driver of the van and the boatman huddled away from the morning chill and smoking cigarettes. The boat quickly filled up, leaving a few white people on shore shrugging.

“It’s full,” said a pale man with sagging cheeks, far too old to be wearing one of the travel fedoras that seemed to be all the rage on the tourist circuit, “There is nowhere to sit.”

“No problem,” said the boatman, and he swung his arm toward the deck in windmill fashion, mesmerizing the pale people until, as if hypnotized, they began to file obediently on board, squeezing onto the boat’s wooden benches while blinking at one another, too tired to protest. Immediately the man shouted orders, and his two-man crew jumped into action, pushing the boat from the shore and hopping on before any of the pale people got any bright ideas and hopped off. The Tonle Sap carried them languidly away from the smoke, from the hungry ghosts, from the grit and grime of land, and out onto the water; a change of scenery that seemed to placate all. Chuck’s watch showed 7:00 on the dot.

~~~

On the plank across from Chuck, wedged in at an angle, was a large man with a walrus mustache. Or perhaps it was just a small walrus. German, thought Chuck, or Austrian. He eyed all the passengers under the cover of his sunglasses, and wagered a guess as to their nationality. Few people spoke, so there were no spoilers, save for the Spanish couple that canoodled at the end of his bench, whispering to one another in between delicate Spanish kisses. Could kisses be Spanish as opposed to French, Chuck wondered? In this case the answer seemed to be a resounding “.”

When he was finished with the guessing game Chuck turned his gaze to the shoreline, to the dilapidated shacks that lined the river. On the bank stood a naked, little boy urinating into the shallows, inches away from his sister, who was busy scrubbing her arms and shoulders, ostensibly bathing. The boy’s little prick didn’t have enough weight to succumb to gravity, so the urine arced through the air in a perfect half circle. Chuck longed for his camera. Shack after shack presented a photo opportunity so ripe with authentic life that Chuck could hardly believe it. This was nothing like the “authentic” tourist villages he’d been whisked to in Siem Reap. These were real Cambodians authentically crouching down over authentic pots of steaming food. The kids waved and splashed. The parents looked on with crow-like eyes, their expressions unreadable.

“Breaks your heart,” said the thin, blond girl with cornrows, the tannest of the pale people, with a vaguely European accent (French, Chuck guessed). And suddenly the boat was alive with chatter, with descriptions of all the ways Cambodia had broken their hearts, and what sight had specifically caused the breaking. Having a broken heart seemed as essential as having a guidebook. Chuck remained quiet throughout the animated flutter of conversation, embarrassed because his heart was still, unfortunately, intact.

~~~

“The problem remains one of trust,” the man in the fedora was saying. The hat was off now, and he was using it to fan himself, his cheeks jiggling from the exertion. He was British. Chuck had nailed this one.

“If you are alive, and you have all your appendages, well, there is a good chance you were Khmer Rouge. So, when you look around at the people in power, there is a good chance that many of them perpetrated the atrocities – or helped to perpetrate them – that resulted in the Cambodian genocide.”

The man with the walrus mustache nodded gravely, very gravely, too gravely, Chuck thought, as if he wasn’t listening to the actual words but only recognizing that the topic was the problem of Cambodia and the proper facial expression was to convey gravity.

A woman chimed in, her accent either South African or Australian, Chuck could never quite catch the difference: “Trust is the problem, but it is also the solution. You can’t move forward without trusting one another. Trust is the key to repairing, to healing.”

With her accent, the way the woman said trust, it sounded not like the word “trust” that Chuck knew. It sounded instead like a nation-healing elixir, a bottle that could be purchased and passed around to the lips of each thirsty Cambodian, resulting in peace and harmony, a wonder drug, this truss.

Photo by author.

The boat sailed out of the river and into the lake. The sun was alive now, hot to the point that Chuck wondered if the lake might start bubbling – a giant fish stew. The guidebook had mentioned something about the importance of this ecosystem, the water sustaining the lakeshore villages and cities, as well as the villages it islanded – the floating ones. In the distance, wooden structures emerged from the water like partially exposed shipwrecks. It was here, Chuck had heard, that generations had lived rather peacefully – relatively speaking, a couple lost now and again to alligators, some to disease – through centuries of strife. Maybe lifetimes had passed here, on the water, under the hot sun, in the fish stew. This thought delighted Chuck to the point of wanting to share it with his fellow passengers. He was about to speak, to establish ties, camaraderie. Then the boat got stuck.

It happened so slowly it was hard to notice. There was no lurch, no sudden jolt. There was simply a complete lack of movement. One second they had been at the center of the lake. The next second, they were still at the center, only a boatman was stabbing the water with a long oar, and another was removing his shirt and sandals and preparing to leap into the water. The muted conversations amongst the passengers ceased and a hubbub began to arise, the general theme being, “Crap.”

~~~

Like a magician, the shirtless, shoeless boatman leapt into the water and walked on it. Not entirely – he was half-sunk, up to his thighs. Which also meant he half-floated. It seemed magical because prior to his jump everyone had assumed the Tonle Sap possessed depth; a lake, after all, seems to suggest that there is an actual “beneath” beneath the surface. His jump revealed that the surface was all there was.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” muttered Chuck, his first words of the journey.

A second splash caused Chuck to veer around and see another shirtless Cambodian thigh -deep in the water. Both men waded to the back of the boat, and along with the boatman working the oar, began to push. The passengers craned their necks, bumping into one another, trying to get the best view of the action. Some took pictures. Chuck could not, for the life of him, believe his camera was tied down with the luggage on the roof of the boat. He resolved to ask for it, just as soon as he had the opportunity. Then the man who’d been working the oar appeared below deck, presenting that very opportunity, and Chuck chickened out. His camera did not seem quite as pressing as the fact that they were stuck in the middle of the Tonle Sap Lake.

“No problem,” said the oarsman, which Chuck thought was a wonderful opener. “Water low. Boat trouble.”

“We’ll need a tow,” muttered the mustachioed man, shaking his head, as if this was his daily commute and he’d suffered a flat tire. His wife nodded enthusiastically. The two sat there, sweat shining on their shaking and bobbing brows.

“Please,” continued the boatman. “Push.”

Overall, this was a terrific observation, thought Chuck. After listening to his fellow passengers wax gravely on the problem of Cambodia, such brevity seemed a higher form of communication.

The reaction to the man’s request ranged from indignant to excited. A couple of young dudes in Beerlao tank tops – American or Aussie – acted as if they had been waiting for this precise moment all along, whipping off their tanks and flipping off their sandals in one motion, leaping into the water, muscles glistening. Next came eyebrow raising and laughter. Excitement seemed to win out.

Chuck unstrapped his sandals and began to unbutton his shirt. A couple others stood, some begrudgingly, some eager to seem as heroic as the first responders, and began to prep for Tonle Sap immersion. The blonde, corn-rowed girl lifted a tanned leg over the side of the boat and looked back. Chuck chivalrously offered his hand and helped ease her into the lake. “Oooh!” she squeaked, upon touch down. “It’s muddy.”

Chuck climbed over the edge and plopped on the water. His feet immediately sank into what felt like cool, wet peanut butter.

“It is muddy!”

He and the girl smiled at each another. The half-dozen pale folks in the water returned to the boat and lined up with the Cambodian men, exchanging raised eyebrows. The people on the boat snapped photos, which Chuck could only assume were poorly focused and improperly framed.

“Are there snakes in here?” someone asked.

“Ya, ya,” answered the boatman to Chuck’s left. No one was sure if he understood the question, so the response was nervous laughter and more raised eyebrows. Never had Chuck seen such consistent eyebrow communication. His mirror neurons firing, it seemed the only way to respond to an eyebrow raise. He and his fellow travelers half-floated on the Tonle Sap, eyebrows dancing at one another, trying to get the boat unstuck.

Everyone pushed, the boat began to slide, and with each step, one sank into a new patch of mud. Hidden in the mud were rocks and reeds – at least Chuck hoped they were rocks and reeds and not something more sinister – and they were surprisingly sharp.

“I’m getting all cut up,” said one of the first responders – American, definitely.

“Baby snakes,” said his pal. “Nibbling your legs.”

The third boatman, still on deck with the oar, peered ahead into the sun, pointing in various directions, the group pushing in those directions until shouts went up in Khmer, resulting in a full stop and a new direction. Chuck worked alongside the blonde. During a break in the pushing, he splashed water on his brow, and, clearing his eyes, found them face to face.

“My name is Chuck.” he said.

“Jana,” she said. Czech? Croatian?

Jana had her hands on her forehead, shielding from the sun and squinting at Chuck, her eyes turning to pinpricks of green. Her navy t-shirt was soaked and plastered to her torso, revealing an alluring shape. Chuck had heard stories of travelers finding each other on the road, spending weeks together in casual bliss, a couple of rolling stones bounding down the banana pancake trail in perfect harmony. Perhaps the Spaniards entangled on the end of the bench were just such a couple. It had not happened to him, however. Not yet.

~~~

After twenty minutes of pushing, whispers came down from those on board that the problem was in fact electrical. The pushing was just a diversion. There was no way to confirm this rumor, and it sure seemed like an extravagant diversion, since two-thirds of the crew had been pushing along with the tourists. But soon after the rumors began the crew scampered back up the side of the boat, and so the pale people, mirror neurons firing, did the same.

Chuck gave Jana both hands to ease her transition aboard, and then accepted her hand and awkwardly raised himself over the side, flopping down on the bench like a fish that had leapt straight out of the stew. He self-consciously straightened up, the boat’s engine rumbled to life, and the rig put-putted its way back into mechanically produced motion.

There were exaggerated claps on backs, a few high fives. Those that had gone in the water accepted the towels offered by those that had stayed behind, so that they could wipe their mud-caked feet, revealing the scrapes, the wounds of the operation, deemed by all a success despite the rumors of electrical failure. If anything, the whole event had acted as a social lubricant, the lubrication coming from the muddy water of the Tonle Sap. The previously stiff demeanor of everyone aboard gave way to a more social vibe, as if the trip had ceased being a commute and was now a cruise. A few of the pale people remained standing, or sat on their backpacks, creating more space on the benches. Chuck, emboldened, sat next to Jana, who was busy rooting through her own pack.

“Do you think I need to cleanse these cuts?” she asked, pausing and thrusting a bronze leg in Chuck’s direction.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” said Chuck, “Though there is alcohol in that stuff. It might hurt.”

Jana pulled out a bottle of handsanitizer. She began to rub the gel on her leg and fake-winced. It was so incredibly sexy that Chuck had to distract himself by strapping on his sandals. While doing so he began to fantasize about their course through Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia together. Perhaps they’d become one of those rolling stone couples, bounding along in perfect harmony.

He finished strapping his sandals and leaned back on the bench. “I’m a photographer,” he said.

“Oh!” said Jana, rubbing sanitizer on her other leg now. “What do you photograph?”

“Oh, you know,” answered Chuck, “the real, the authentic, daily life.” He looked away, the sight still too sexy to take in. He hoped it gave him an air of cool detachment, this looking away, and not an air of easily aroused.

“Very neat,” answered Jana. “Can I see your camera?”

“Um.” said Chuck.

~~~

The boat found its way back to the river.

“How do they do that?” wondered one of the first responders. “There were no landmarks, and that lake was as big as a fucking ocean.”

“Ever heard of a compass?” replied his companion, and they chortled. These were the kinds of dudes that chortled often, that punched each other in the arm in good fun.

The surrounding country was unpopulated. Or, if it was populated, it was impossible to tell – the river was so low that all anyone could see from the boat were deep, sandy banks. Jana wrote in a notebook. Chuck conceived of ways to retrieve his camera that didn’t involve actually asking for it. With the camera in his hands, he knew he and Jana would have talking points.

Out of the blue – literally, out of a bright blue sky – dark clouds appeared, and then, like inflating balloons, grew. A rain shower commenced, sending the tourists on the other side of the boat to hunker down.

“What’s next? A plague of locusts?” asked the Australian/South African woman.

The first responders, addicted now to their heroic tendencies, tied several articles of clothing together in an attempt to block the rain, which of course meant removing their tank tops again, muscles glistening in the downpour. Then the shower was gone as quickly as it had come, and the general feeling persisted that it had actually been quite refreshing. Group think had an amazing capacity for turning near-disaster into triumph, thought Chuck.

“How long has it been?” asked Jana.

The bald Russian, who had since ten been silent, looked at his watch. “Four hours.”

Up ahead a wooden structure appeared in the middle the river. Instead of veering around it, the boat aimed right at it. A new hubbub arose, though it wasn’t a collision people were fearful of – the speed and scale of the situation was more bumper boats than Titanic – rather, the hubbub concerned the time taken for the journey already, and why a stop was necessary. Group think has an amazing capacity for indignation, thought Chuck.

“This must be the last stop before Battambang,” he assured everyone. “It can’t be far.” He didn’t mind stopping anyhow. It would give him a chance to use his camera.

The structure was raised twenty feet above the river on wooden stilts. The head boatman appeared.

“Bathroom,” he said.

“This guy gives great speeches.” Chuck whispered to Jana.

They climbed a ladder up to the stilted bathroom island. There was a shop, selling Pringles and Coke, a couple of outhouses, and a room with a mattress.

“Do you think someone lives here?” Jana whispered to Chuck.

“Looks like it.” Chuck whispered back, excited to be on whispering terms.

The passengers lined up outside the outhouses. It became clear, as the first people went in, that the houses did not take the waste “out” to anywhere. It simply dropped through an opening down into the river below. The reaction to this was disbelief, displayed, of course, with raised eyebrows. When it was Chuck’s turn, the American, tank top secured around his skull like a bandana, clapped him on the back and said, “Don’t fall in.”

When Chuck emerged, he found one of the crew. “How long until Battambang?” he asked. The man held up three fingers.

~~~

Returning to the boat, Chuck dug out his backpack and removed his camera. He slung it around his neck and ducked below the veranda, ready for conversation. He found Jana sitting near the Americans. The one with the tank top bandana was showing her something, which, upon closer inspection, was a pamphlet about the place in Siem Reap, where he had donated blood, the fucking hero. His friend, tank top back on and functioning more or less like a bra, looked wistfully off in the distance, eyes hidden by large Aviator shades.

Chuck sat across from Jana and immediately began to snap photos – of the receding water rest-stop, of the sandy banks of the Tonle Sap, of Jana. When the blood donation conversation ran dry, Chuck showed her the pictures he’d taken. If the other dudes were going to play hardball, donating blood and looking all wistful, so was Chuck.

“Whoa!” said Jana, genuinely impressed. “That is very neat! What kind of camera is that?”

“It’s a Nikon D200,” said Chuck, and he began to rattle off its functions the way a car buff rattles off engine specs.

“Can I try?” asked Jana.

Chuck showed her how to use it. It was like one of those movie scenes he always found so unrealistic: the leading man teaching a naive beauty to play pool, his body cradling hers, tenderly maneuvering her limbs, mimicking the act of making love. And yet, here he was, not quite cradling Jana, not quite mimicking lovemaking, but tenderly maneuvering her fingers over the controls of his most prized possession. Click! Jana snapped several photos, marveling at the clarity of life framed on a tiny screen. “Very neat,” she said.

Chuck took the camera back and went through her pictures. “You know,” he said, taking on a grave tone, the one typically reserved for discussions on the problem of Cambodia, “You’re a natural. You’ve got a great eye. With a bit of technique, I think you could really shine at this.” The implication being, of course, that Chuck could tutor her on the technique.

“Yeah?” asked Jana excitedly, green eyes flashing. “I’ve always liked photographs.”

They talked photography. Actually, Chuck talked photography. But Jana was actively listening, her interest piqued. Please God, thought Chuck, even as he spoke, let the boat berth. The time was ripe for the casual “where-are-you-staying” conversation, leading to “oh-you-don’t-have-a place-booked-yet?” followed by the joint scouring of the guide-book, the decision to check out a place together, have a beer together. Before they knew it, Chuck and Jana would be volunteering at an elephant orphanage in the hills of Thailand, taking the train down to a remote coastal island, perfecting their photography techniques, as well as other, more sensual techniques.

The boat, however, would not arrive at the dock. After an unfortunately mundane conversation that seemed lifted from a basic guide to English (“Do you have any siblings?””Do you like the weather?”). Jana turned to a book. Chuck thought of the three fingers the boatman had flashed. How long could this trip possibly take?

~~~

As the afternoon dragged on, the passengers began to look more and more bedraggled, like the dehydrated survivors of a shipwreck, stranded now on a makeshift lifeboat. The bald Russian seemed to have developed a sweat-induced salt lick on his dome. The Australian/South African woman was asleep, but for all intents and purposes she looked dead. Gone was the easy camaraderie that had developed in the wake of the two near-disasters: getting stuck, and what everyone now referred to as “the monsoon.” The disasters, it turned out, were the highlights of the trip. The languid floating, on the other hand, hour after hour, seemed to sap the life from everyone. Floating along the Tonle Sap was pure hell. Only the Spanish couple seemed to have any life left, attacking one another’s mouths like famished woodpeckers, sucking the last drops of moisture from their withered lips.

With an exaggerated sigh, the darker of the first responders, the wistful one, whipped out a pack of cigarettes.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the group. “I was trying to wait, but this boat ride is so long! Does anyone mind if I smoke?”

The group, impressed with his courteousness, grateful for something to break the monotony, offered their general consent. Jana, meanwhile, snapped her book shut.

The wistful American stood and stuck his legs over the side of the boat, propping himself on the edge. Jana knelt on the bench next to him and coyly leaned over. “May I borrow one?” she asked, green eyes flashing a sparkling shade the camera conversation had failed to tease out:emerald, perhaps, or jade.

“Of course.” said the American. And like the chivalrous prick that he was, Chuck watched him fish out a cigarette, light it in his own mouth, take a puff, and then hand it to Jana; a metaphor for a kiss.

Chuck had never smoked. He hated smoking. Not because of the health concerns; not because of its addictive qualities or the scourge it was to society; not because lung cancer had claimed a favorite college professor. Chuck hated smoking because a fifty-cent pack of cigarettes could be more appealing than his $700 camera. He hated smoking because smoking always united smokers and left him out. Jana and the wistful one puffed in blissful silence, watching the river, sharing a moment that was so connected it required no talking. The other American meanwhile, looked at Chuck and did something that made Chuck want to punch him, and not on the arm: he raised his eyebrows.

~~~

As they approached Battambang, seven hours after setting off from Siem Reap, signs of civilization began to appear. First there was trash, then there were dogs, mangy dogs, picking at the trash. Then there were children, waving and pissing and splashing, clothing optional. Chuck’s Nikon hung limply around his neck. The Spaniards continued to canoodle, had not stopped canoodling, for seven solid hours. The walrus consulted his guidebook, muttering suggestions to his wife, whose blond curls now hung as limply as Chuck’s camera. The Australian/South African woman, arisen from her coma, did yoga-esque stretches, groaning with the satisfaction of the born-again. The bald Russian, as soon as the American had set the precedent, had begun chain-smoking at the backend of the boat and hadn’t let up.

The ramshackle wooden huts turned into rough concrete buildings. The boat was eased onto the bank, where more dogs lurked, sniffing, fighting, fucking. The tourists, pink and weary, filed off, grabbing their packs above deck and descending planks to the stairs ascending to Battambang. Chuck grabbed his backpack and watched Jana and the American bound up the stairs together, no doubt on their way to a beer, a meal, a kiss, and an elephant orphanage.

A couple of nearby dogs, a small white one and a larger, tan one, began to scrap. It was hard to tell whether they were playing or fighting. It seemed, in fact, like a combination of both; fangs bared, yelps emitted, followed by breaks in the action, during which both dogs sat in whatever grotesque tangle they had paused in, panting frantically. Chuck turned on the camera and aimed it at these two yearning souls, attempting to catch them in the frame, in all their entangled panting glory. Yet as soon as the camera was trained on them, they leapt into action again, snarling, playing, fighting, the dust rising all around them and shimmering in the dusk, the picture, in the end, just a blur.

Alex Tzelnic is a teacher and writer living in Cambridge, MA. He spent several years studying Buddhism, teaching, and traveling in South Asia and his journals from that time are his most prized possessions. He is currently pursuing an MA in Mindfulness Studies from Lesley University. Follow him on social media @atz840.

The Best Medicine

Priyank Mathur

Gopi’s father was yelling at Gopi’s mother again. Something about the pickle, at dinner tonight. Why did she serve it when it clearly wasn’t ripe? Of course, he would have been angry either way. Gopi’s father, like all angry people, periodically felt the urge to yell at someone. Gopi knew all about angry people. His village was full of them.

The village of Hastinapur did not have much going for it except for a few acres of fertile farmland. Yet, millions of Hindus across India were familiar with its name. For Hastinapur was the setting of the Mahabharata, an epic centered on a mythological war between rival clans. The war was believed to have occurred 5,000 years ago on the dusty plains where Gopi and his friends now played tag. The great war of the Mahabharata was truly epic – it featured magic weapons, a solar eclipse, transvestite spies, brothers killing brothers, a woman seeking revenge by soaking her hair in blood and many other dramatic episodes that shaped its legendary mystique. To the people of Hastinapur though, the most significant story of all came at the very end of the saga, when the heartbroken Queen of the losing side cursed the people of this once gilded city, dooming their descendants to remain angry and quarrelsome – forever.

Gopi did not believe in the curse, but his mother did. Whenever she’d see a fresh bruise on a dalit girl’s face or walk past the school and hear the smack of a ruler on a young boy’s wrist or smell the stench of cheap alcohol on a disgruntled farmer’s shawl, she’d shake her head and whisper “Jai Shree Krishna,” her humble attempt to try and offset as much of the curse as she could. The curse, she’d tell Gopi (though he never asked), is why everyone there was so angry all the time. Not her, though. She was a happy person. She always had a tune on her lips and a sparkle in her eye. She even moved as though she were moving to the beat of a secret song, audible only to the happy people of the world.

The secret song would stop, however, on those terrible days (and nights) when Gopi’s father would begin his dark dance of fury. It would usually begin with him yelling at her for something trivial. The veins in his gaunt neck would spring out like knives; his voice would become fiercer with each insult, like a dust storm spewing chaos out of nothing. He’d fix his piercing gaze on her and she would morph into a completely different person. Eyes pointed straight down at her feet, head still as a grasshopper, her slender fingers trembling uncontrollably. Her heart would beat so fast, her chest heaving in and out; her eyes growing bigger, like the eyes of Lord Krishna, pictured in the calendar hung up on the wall. When she’d sense her husband’s hand rising to hit her, she’d finally look up, her pupils would dilate, her hands would stop shaking and she’d breathe a sigh of relief. The pain she could handle, the anticipation she could not.

Gopi’s father was still yelling about the unripe pickle. “You should have left this out in the sun for at least three more days! Look at it! It’s green! What kind of thoughtless woman serves a jar of half sun-dried green…crap!”

His hands were flapping about wildly, his face looked more scrunched up than a freshly washed turban, and the pitch of his father’s voice rose to a comically absurd tenor. Suddenly, Gopi felt a powerful force take over – a force that had been bubbling inside him, seemingly forever. As his father raised his right hand and his mother looked up, Gopi cleared his throat and gave in to the force. “This isn’t pickle! Its green crap! What kind of green woman serves green pickle to her husband? Woman! Have you lost your damn green, er… I mean, mind?”

For the next 30 seconds, Gopi paced the length of their hut, swinging his hands and shouting at the top of his lungs like an over-the-top incarnation of his father, imitating every detail of the man’s rage, exposing its absurdity, and having a surprising amount of fun in the process.

“Gopi!” His mother was terrified.

Gopi looked at his father who, mouth ajar, stared right back at him. At that moment, Gopi returned to his body, became aware of what he had just done and felt a wave of panic sweep over him. He closed his eyes and waited for his comeuppance.

The Laughing Clowns. Photo by Bernard Spragg.

Silence. Then a chuckle. Not from his mother but… from his father! A chuckle that became a roaring laugh. A laugh that spread to his relieved mother, then infected Gopi himself. The three of them sat laughing for what seemed an eternity.

“You little rascal! Do that again! Here take my laathi.” Gopi’s father handed his wooden cane to the boy and without hesitation, Gopi incorporated it into his act.

“Woman! Where the hell is my laathi – I swear if I don’t find it soon, I’ll…”

“You’re holding it, my Lord.”

“Oh… yes, I knew that!”

Gopi’s father was on the floor laughing. His mother gave Gopi a playful pat on the back of his head. “Shaitaan!”

Gopi was on a roll. He mimicked his neighbors bickering about a missing goat, much to his father’s delight. Then he imitated his paternal grandmother, much to his mother’s delight. The schoolteacher, the white man who came with the camera last winter, the gypsy singers who passed through the village every year, Chacha Nehru, Bapu, even the white king Mountbatten…Gopi mimicked every voice he had ever heard on the radio. Each laugh from his parents was a new wave of energy, propelling him to be bolder, funnier, happier. His mother and father stayed up till dawn watching Gopi perform until, finally, their hearts fed with enough laughter to last a lifetime, they fell asleep in each other’s arms. Gopi, his voice hoarse and his heart racing, snuggled himself between them. Before he drifted off to sleep, Gopi looked up at the calendar. Suddenly, Lord Krishna’s mischievous smile made sense.

Word spread quickly. First, the neighbors gossiped about the “performance” they had overheard last night, then the schoolteacher heard about it and asked Gopi to “do him” in the yard. All the children laughed and, fortunately for them, so did the schoolteacher. Before long, the old men who smoked beedis on their chaupais all day, started asking Gopi to sit with them in the evenings. They tossed him a coin each time he made them laugh, until they ran out of coins and their angrier-than-usual wives dragged them away. From farmers to laborers, classmates to housewives, Gopi was soon regaling one and all with his mimicry of politicians, movie stars and of course, the angry people of Hastinapur themselves. He started playing games within his game – giving his characters backstories and context, expanding cute imitations into proper scenes, even one-act comedic plays.

Every afternoon, while the other kids played tag or fought with one another, Gopi could be seen pacing back and forth on the porch of his hut, muttering dialogues to himself, crafting witty scripts and occasionally sending himself into uncontrollable fits of laughter.

Every evening, villagers would excitedly gather outside Gopi’s hut after dinner, waiting for him to burst through the door, dressed in a new costume, acting out a new scene, spurring new laughs from familiar faces.

What used to be infuriating became silly, what once enraged now amused. It was as if Gopi had removed a 5,000-year-old blindfold and the whole village could see light and levity for the first time. There were fewer quarrels and more giggles, fewer slaps and more claps, fewer tears and more cheers.

Within weeks, the Collector sahib in Lucknow heard about the little jester from Hastinapur. He sent word that he would like to visit the village and see this “boy wonder” perform. The last time a Collector had visited Hastinapur was during the reign of Queen Victoria, some 47 years ago.

Chaupais were borrowed, clothes were washed, and three extra lanterns were placed outside Gopi’s home for the big performance. The smell of freshly cooked pooris, pumpkin stew and rice pudding (rumored to be the Collector sahib’s favorite) filled the air. The sound of an approaching automobile sent the villagers into a tizzy. Gopi’s mother began to order the nieces, nephews, neighbors, and various good-for-nothings frantically. “You! Get the jug of water and stand near there, where he will get down. Hey, you two! Stop fooling around and help me carry this pot. Can’t you hear he’s almost here!” An out-of-breath look-out came running towards the village shouting “He’s here! He’s here!”

From inside the automobile emerged the rotund frame of a middle-aged man dressed in a three-piece grey suit and shiny black shoes. Collector sahib folded his hands in a vague gesture of respect to the star-struck crowd, waiting impatiently as a crew of nervous villagers adorned him with a garland of fresh marigold flowers. They escorted him to his seat a few feet from the makeshift stage (formerly known as Gopi’s front porch). They asked him to say a few words, but he declined, for the smell of pooris was a powerful incentive to get the show started right away.

Gopi’s father all-too-eagerly jumped up on stage, personally welcomed the Collector sahib and introduced his son, who he claimed to have coached in the art of comedy. Listening to his father’s self-aggrandizing remarks from inside the hut was little Gopi, suddenly overcome with fear. Surely, after his father’s introduction, Gopi would have no choice but to give the best show of his young life, but what if he couldn’t? What if he disappointed Collector sahib? How angry would that make his father?

“So respected Collector sahib, with great humility and for your amusement, please welcome my son, Gopi!”

Gopi timidly emerged from his hut and was greeted with roaring applause. As soon as he heard that sweetest of sounds, all his nervousness and anxiety melted away. It was as if his mind and body zeroed in on their singular purpose in life. In that moment, Gopi knew what he was here to do – and he was ready.

Within minutes, Gopi was enthralling the crowd with one of his most impassioned performances. The entire village was in splits, cheering on Gopi and hoping for the ultimate seal of approval from Collector sahib. Then it happened. Gopi heard the most important laugh in the audience. He heard it again, and again and again. At the end of the show, a beaming Collector sahib sprang to his feet and clapped his hands together furiously. “Bravo! Bravo!” The immensely satisfying chorus of applause compelled Gopi to take not one but three consecutive bows.

Collector sahib was so excited that he waived away the post-show pooris and approached Gopi’s father for a word in private. “This boy’s gift is too precious to be squandered here,” he insisted. “My brother-in-law in Delhi works at All India Radio. I’ll arrange for the boy to meet him tomorrow – make sure he’s ready.” He paused and then added in a softer voice, “This partition has broken too many hearts. We all… we all need a laugh right now.”

After a hearty meal and many more encores, Collector sahib confirmed the pick-up time for the next morning and bade everyone good night. His farewell was a lot more heartfelt and warmer than his greetings earlier that day. The automobile hadn’t even exited the village boundary when Gopi’s father excitedly started planning Gopi’s future. It was decided – the boy would go with Collector sahib to Delhi the next day, impress the important men there, become a radio star and bring back lots of money. Gopi too got swept up in the excitement. “Baba, do you think Collector sahib will let me drive the automobile? My teacher said there are no huts in Delhi, everybody lives in stone houses and some even have pet peacocks. Do you think we’ll get to see any peacocks, Ma?”

His mother looked at Gopi’s father, apprehensively. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Collector sahib but…it is not an auspicious day to travel tomorrow. See here, on the calendar, it says that it’s Parva tomorrow – not a good day to begin a journey.”

She motioned towards the calendar where, underneath the right corner of Lord Krishna’s smile, was the number 14, circled in red to denote an inauspicious lunar alignment.

“Woman, are you mad? Collector sahib said that if the boy is selected, he’ll get two rupees on the spot! Two rupees! That’s enough to feed every Brahmin in the village twice over, so don’t worry about your Lord Krishna. He’ll be well taken care of.”

“Can’t you ask Collector sahib to choose another day?”

“Ha, yes, yes that’s a great idea. I’ll just tell him that my silly wife would prefer…”

“It’s just one day, he’s such a big sahib, they’ll listen to him if he…”

“No, you listen to me, woman. My decision is final. Now shut up.”

“You can talk to Collector sahib! Just tell him it’s Parva! Tell him it is not…”

Whack.

It had been a long time since Gopi had heard the familiar sequence. The crisp, loud slap. Then another. Then another. As he saw his father reach for his laathi, Gopi ran in front of his trembling mother, still not sure quite what he was about to say. “Baba, can I… can I have your chappals for the journey? I promise I’ll take good care of them.”

Gopi’s father, his eyes still fixed on his familiar victim, paused for a moment. He looked like a statue of a revolutionary leader leading a violent mob, laathi in hand, chest swollen, eyes wide with manic determination. What a thin line it is between hero and destroyer, how similar they both appear in the fiery glow of passion.

He glanced down at Gopi and, after a moment’s hesitation, threw away the laathi which landed noisily on the clay jug, spilling water all over the floor. Then, Gopi’s father marched out of the room, still breathing heavily. Within minutes, he was passed out on the front porch, snoring soundly.

“Ma… are you okay?”

“Come here, beta.”

Her breathing slowed and her hands regained their composure as she instantly transformed from the battered to the protector, the way only a mother can.

“See how happy I am? How happy you make me?”

Gopi’s mother hugged him more tightly than usual. Maybe it wasn’t the astrological omen but the anxiety of being away from her son that was making her so uneasy. Her husband would often sneer at her. “You’re too in love with that boy. That’s why your womb went barren the minute he popped out.” Maybe he was right. Or maybe God, in his infinite compassion, had spared her the sin of bringing one more life into this cursed village.

***

Throughout the four-hour carriage ride to the city, Collector sahib was spouting English words which Gopi didn’t understand. “‘God is a comedian, playing to an audience too scared to laugh.’ That’s a famous proverb, son. You know which cheeky bugger said that? Of course, you don’t.”

Gopi did not know, nor did he care. He was too infatuated with the experience of his maiden automobile ride. The roar of the engine sounded even louder from the inside. He checked the many compartments and drawers inside the car, but he couldn’t find the source of the sound. He imagined a ferocious tiger trapped deep within the automobile, roaring thunderously, scrambling in vein to escape, propelling the car forward with each desperate motion. The scene was at once silly and sad. After he laughed at the tiger, he felt bad for it.

The carriage finally stopped outside an enormous grey building with the words “All India Radio” inscribed above the front door. Gopi noticed there were no peacocks waiting to greet them, which was a bit disappointing.

Gopi and Collector sahib entered the lobby of this magnificent structure and were greeted by two scrawny men who hurriedly led them down a wide hallway, past what must have been a dozen rooms filled with tables, typewriters, and busy-looking people. Each room was bigger than Gopi’s house.

“This way.” The scrawnier of the two men stopped outside a green door and motioned for Gopi and Collector sahib to enter. They found themselves in a cramped, windowless room, where several empty-faced children, accompanied by anxious adults, were quietly waiting. Every now and then, an elderly man in a black jacket sitting on the only stool in the room would yell out a name and a child would be ushered through a heavy green door into another room. A few minutes later, the child would walk back in through the same green door and quickly make their way towards the exit. Some children looked happy when they came out and some looked disappointed, but they all appeared equally exhausted.

The room made Gopi cough. Almost every adult there was puffing on a white tube that smelled worse than the beedis that the men in Hastinapur smoked. Between drawing puffs of the vile contraption, the old man in the black jacket shouted, “Master Gopi!” Collector sahib grabbed Gopi by the hand and marched him through a small door. Gopi found himself in a strange room with no furniture, just a large microphone behind a glass plate, surrounded by boxes with colorful buttons on them.

“Stand here, behind this and speak loudly into it. Loudly, okay? Good, now begin! Make them laugh, my boy!”

Gopi looked out into the crowd of serious-looking men. He cleared his throat and let the mischievous smile take over.

***

It was pitch dark by the time the automobile made its way back to the fields of Hastinapur. Collector sahib had been excitedly babbling throughout the ride, even as Gopi drifted in and out of sleep. Each time he thought of what had just happened, the exhilaration was too much to handle. He would drift off, only to wake up again, remembering at once that he was on the precipice of something special – clutching his two rupees with one hand and his box of laddoos with the other.

There was a large crowd gathered outside Gopi’s hut – it seemed like half the village was there! He knew he should have brought back more than one box of laddoos. This one was for his mother. Maybe he should hide it from the crowd? His mother wouldn’t like that though, she always said it was a sin to hide food. Maybe… but isn’t it also a sin to come home empty-handed?

Collector sahib excitedly hopped out of the automobile before it came to a complete halt. “A hero’s welcome! Wait till I tell them the good news, my boy!”

Gopi opened the car door, said a soft goodbye to the poor trapped tiger and jumped out behind Collector sahib. Happy as he was to be home, Gopi was a bit unnerved by the crowd. No one was saying a word. Oddly, no one was smiling. Did they think he had failed? Should he tell them? No, he would tell his mother first. Suddenly, Gopi felt a sense of urgency. Where was his mother? Lots of hands were trying to reach him, many concerned voices were beckoning for him to listen to them, to hold their hand, but right now, Gopi had eyes only for his mother. He pushed and shoved through the crowd, running the final few steps into his hut.

He heard the familiar sobbing, only it sounded different – coarser and more afraid. He hurriedly took off his slippers, washed his feet and ran into the main room. His father’s body was shaking violently as he cried like a wounded wolf, still clutching his freshly reddened laathi. Next to him, a pool of blood that led to where Gopi dared not go. The box of laddoos fell out of his hands as Gopi dropped to his knees. Somehow, Lord Krishna was still smiling.

Priyank Mathur is a writer, producer and entrepreneur who splits his time between Boston and New Delhi. He is a former Contributing Writer for The Onion and for the TV series, Onion News Network, on IFC. As Founder and CEO of Mythos Labs, Priyank has produced and co-written over a dozen short films in Asia that use humor to promote gender equality and positive narratives. Priyank previously served as a Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst at the US Department of Homeland Security and as Global Consulting Director at Ogilvy. Priyank’s work has been featured on Quartz, CNN, Hindustan Times, The Tribune, and Bangkok Post, among others. A proud alumnus of Boston University and MIT, Priyank can usually be found planning his next trip, binge-watching a political thriller, eating a whole pizza, or all of the above. Twitter: @PriyankSMathur

The Price of Goat

Prateek Nigam

Dadu pours a handful of the stinky Keo-Karpin oil on his cupped palms and dabs his nearly bald head. It glistens under the tube light. A stubborn clump of hair refuses to settle down, no matter how hard he presses it. It pokes outwards like an antennae. “Som, we must leave now!” he calls out to me.

As soon as I hear his voice, I tie my laces the best I can: into a floppy, loose knot. I run across the room and skid on the marble flooring. “Let’s go!” I announce. “Now, wait,” Dadu says, as he looks at my laces that have come undone already. He places his hands on his thighs. His bony knees crack as he slowly lowers himself into a squat. Mummy says that seven is the age when boys should start tying their laces themselves, but Dadu likes to do things for me. He puts an extra cube of sugar in my Rooh Afzah, straightens my tie before I leave for school. Once, he even finished my math homework for me. Dadu pushes against the floor and springs up like a toast. Ding! He slips his feet into his tattered sandals and extends his hand for me to hold. Mummy is going to be late from work today, so the two of us have all the time in the world.

The paved footpath has baked the fallen leaves crisp and brown. They crunch under our feet as we walk past the scorched, denuded trees. Like Mario, I jump over open sewers. I even hop over some imaginary (but devious nonetheless) goombas for some extra coin. “Careful,” Dadu cautions. He trails behind. Almost briskly. When the hot wind blows dirt all around us, and I cannot even open my eyes, he shields my face. I can still smell that hair oil of his. “Dilli ki loo!” He announces gleefully.

Dadu is proud of everything that happens in Delhi. We have the best winters without the inconvenience of snow; the hottest summers that sweeten the melons, ripen the mangoes; the wildest monsoon during which we sip on chai and gorge on hot pakoras.

The rocket in the middle of the park is empty. It’s a perfect day to play space invaders. I see Rohan at the other end of the park and decide to make a run towards the rocket to beat Rohan to the top. There is only one pilot, after all. I can see Dadu from up here. He walks with utmost urgency, as if he has medals to win. Rohan spots an asteroid hurtling towards us, and I order him to launch missiles and destroy it.

We are about to land on Jupiter. But I see Dadu waving at me. He points his fingers towards his watch as if I can see the dial from this distance, or tell time for that matter. But time’s up, so I jump from the top and land on the bristly grass. I splash dirt on my knickers. Mummy is going to be so mad!

The yellow van at the corner is selling chowmein. I can smell it as we walk past the exit. “No, Som,” Dadu says before I can say anything. “That’s junk. Not good for you at all!!” He adds. “Do you know? These hawkers put pigeon poop in it.” he tells me. I picture the cook squeezing a little bird until it relieves itself directly into the wok. “Chhee,” I say in disgust.

“You should have milk,” he suggests, “Especially after exercise!” he adds. I gag at the thought of a thick layer of fat sticking to the top of my mouth. “With a banana,” he goes on as if he is reading from a script that Mummy has prepared. “And eggs.”

“I love omelette!” I declare, hoping that my love for eggs will please him and save me from those slimy bananas.

“Shabash,” he says. “You need protein to become tall and strong. You need to eat chicken, mutton…”

“Yuck!”

I have never eaten meat. We don’t eat meat. We don’t even go to places that serve non-vegetarian food. Mummy can’t stand it. Once Arun, from school, got chicken nuggets for lunch. He begged me to try them. “It tastes like paneer.” he urged. So, I stopped eating paneer for a week. We eat eggs though because Dadu fought with Mummy over it. She had to give in. So, eggs are fine.

“You don’t eat meat!” I say, in disbelief.

“Yes, I do! Your Papa, too!” Dadu boasts. As if nibbling on animal carcass was something to be proud of.

“Really?”

“I used to cook it all the time. You won’t remember; you were just a little baby. Your mother does not want us to make it at home. That’s why we had to stop.” he says.

“Eww.”

“Don’t talk like that. It’s food. It’s nutrition. It’s delicious.” Dadu says. “The meat is so tender that it melts in your mouth. And the flavor of the curry? Don’t even get me started on that. The spices will dance at the tip of your tongue for hours,” he says, smacking his lips. “Do you want to try?”

“No!”

“Just a little?”

“I am going to vomit. I know.”

“No, you will not,” Dadu assures me. “Accha, let’s buy some mutton. And I will make it for you. It will be yummy, I am telling you. You can taste it. Just a little bit. And If you don’t like it, even better! Because I will eat it all by myself…”

“No, you won’t.”

“Yes, I will! You will see!” Dadu says.

“But what about Mummy?”

“What about her?” He challenges. Dadu looks at his watch and assures me that there is plenty of time. “Your mother does not have to find out,” he whispers. His eyes sparkle with joy. I am still unsure.

“Do you want to be a tiger, or do you want to be a goat?” he asks.

Dadu is not too fond of Mummy. It’s easy to tell. I think it’s because she does not make him aloo parathas and kachauris for breakfast. Well, she can’t make four things for four people! I explained it to Dadu, once. “See? I don’t get jam-bread every day either!” But he didn’t say anything back to me. He scoffed and kept looking at the T.V. with his big, wrinkled cheeks drooping lower than usual.

It could also be because Mummy is not Rajput like us. She is from the South, and we are from the North. I am not allowed to talk about these things. Once Mummy was asking me to finish up my homework, and I told her that Rajput princes did not have to do homework, only lead armies. She said that I was wrong, and I had to. When I told her that she wouldn’t know, because she isn’t one, she slapped me so hard that I cried for hours. Later, she asked me if princes could drink chocolate milkshakes.

Dadu takes a turn towards Shayar Bagh, the smelliest part of our neighbourhood. I have only seen it from outside. There is a half-broken stone building at the entrance of that locality. Dadu insists that it used to be an inn built by the Mughals. It’s a cowshed now. All the cows are on the streets, though. They are chewing on garbage that lies strewn all over the place. Children with muddied faces run past us. Some are without shoes, some are without knickers. I am afraid that Pooja aunty might see us and tell Mummy when she comes to clean the house tomorrow. So, I keep an eye out for her.

“How far?” I ask, pinching my nose trying to shut out the flurry of smells that invade my nose. But he doesn’t have to answer. I can smell the butcher shop before I can see it. Naked, pink bodies of animals hang from hooks. A stream of blood flows in the drain at the foot of the steps. The shop is bare. The walls are coated in glossy, pink paint. A calendar hangs behind the counter. It has squiggly green markings in Urdu and some red splatter at the edges. It could be paan or blood. I wonder which. A toothless man with a henna-dyed beard greets Dadu.

“Nadir bhai comes from the line of royal cooks! They have a huge shop in old Delhi. It was right beside our house,” Dadu tells me. “I want the best quality mutton. Fresh, no? It’s for the kid,” Dadu requests. “It’s dirty here,” I complain as I look at an ugly slab of concrete lying next to a yellowing ceramic bath. Dadu ignores me.

I know he will buy the mutton from this shop. It is because the shop reminds him of Chandni Chowk. Dadu and Papa used to live there. I have only heard stories about it. All fascinating. Like the one where Papa boasts about leading a gang of kite-raiding kids. He would jump across rooftops in a race to get to the loot first. It is hard for me to imagine myself living there. Mummy says that Chandni Chowk is a place where poor people live poorly; a lot like Shayar Bagh, I think. It’s filthy, there is no electricity, and hardly any water. If Mummy had not made Dadu and Papa move to our new house, I could have been leading my own gang of kite pirates!

I see Nadir Bhai walking in with a headless goat in his arms and my first instinct is to scream and run away. I look at the dead goat and I gag. Its cleanly severed neck exposes the bone where the head must have been attached. I cannot look away. I hold Dadu’s hand tightly and watch Nadir Bhai make guide marks on the body. His cleaver cuts through the animal effortlessly. Not a drop of blood. Where did it all go? I squirm when he removes the guts. They fall into a bucket like runny stool. Snip. Chop. In a few minutes little pieces of goat are put into a black plastic bag. Nadir Bhai hands it to me. I recoil. I don’t even want to touch it.

As soon as we enter the house, Dadu tosses his shirt aside and begins chopping onions. He weeps uncontrollably. I don’t think he knows how to cook. He stands hunched over the stove trying to fry onions. He throws in spices at a whim. Not like Mummy at all. The goat is in the vessel and is still not done. “Stubborn little animal.” Dadu laughs. The cooker spews steam, filling the kitchen. Dadu’s head emerges from the cloud making him look like a hatless, robeless sorcerer.

“Can you smell it, Som?” he asks.

I do. It smells delicious. A bit like black chana, but I don’t tell him that. I salivate only because I am starving.

Dadu brings the thick, bright red curry in a bowl that Mummy uses to keep cut fruit. There is a shiny layer of oil along the edges; little pieces of meat float in the middle. “What do you think?” he asks. I am eager to try it. It’s only because I am hungry!

I put some gravy (only gravy) on lumpy rice that he has made. This is all I am going to eat. I greedily put a spoonful into my mouth without even blowing on it. The curry tastes like a savory rainbow. It’s all so delicious. Dadu urges me to try a morsel of meat. He does not wait for me to ask but takes a sliver of meat in his hands and slides it into my mouth. It dissolves on my tongue. Then I see him messing about with the bones. It all looks like so much fun. Barbaric, but fun. You chew one end and tap it on the plate. The gummy, meat-like substance that oozes out of it can be slurped straight from the bone.

We sit at the table satiated, with a pile of discarded bones next to our plates. Dadu has begun cleaning it all up but the doorbell rings.

Even before Mummy enters the house she asks if Dadu has made mutton curry. She flinches but enters the hall possibly to rescue her kitchen from sacrilege. I picture her wailing, screaming, weeping inconsolably. But she does not do any of those things. She is calm, and that scares me.

“It’s Tuesday. You had to make meat today?” she asks coldly. She is looking straight at Dadu. Papa and I offer a prayer to Hanuman ji on Tuesday. I had completely forgotten! How could I? I stand between the curtains, half- wishing that I were invisible.

“I don’t need your permission for anything.” Dadu replies in a stern voice.

“You have had two heart attacks. At least think about your health,” Mummy steps back, as if trying to avoid the smell. “Do you even know how expensive your treatment is?”

“Then don’t pay for it. Isn’t that what you want? Wouldn’t you be happy if I dropped dead today?” Dadu scoffs.

“Yes. Because I would get that piece of land that you signed off to your other son. Oh, no, wait. I will get the piddly cash in your bank account. What do you have?” Mummy asks. Dadu clenches his jaws so hard that I think his dentures might fall off. “You had that hole of an apartment in Chandni Chowk which could not even cover the down payment for this house!” Mummy adds.

“I gave more money to you than your dead father ever could!” Dadu spits out. “Bahus bring their weight in gold,” he says looking at me, “Not her. Not a penny to her name before my son picked her off the street. Who else would have married this low-life Tamilian otherwise?” Dadu says to me. I listen in shock.

Mummy slams the bedroom door shut. I can hear her sobbing. Dadu’s eyes seem to be popping out of his head. The veins on his forehead are taut. I have never seen him this angry, this hateful, this ugly!

As I begin to cry, I see the intensity in his eyes wear off. He looks at me guiltily, then smiles like he always does. He walks up to me and places his hand on my head. But I shrug it off. He pats me on the head and goes into his room and turns the T.V on like nothing has happened. I sit at the table. Tears roll off my cheeks.

Papa is not home yet, and Mummy is still crying. There is a big stain on the tablecloth where I have spilled the gravy. It has grown into a giant circle as if the goat has bled on it. I reach down my throat with a finger and feel the goat rising up my throat, burning it. I retch and spit it out. I am never eating the damn animal ever again. Neither am I speaking to Dadu ever. I swear.

Prateek Nigam grew up in Delhi, but lives in Bangalore. He writes code for a living, and short stories in his spare time. He is a graduate of Bangalore Writers Workshop. Some of his works have appeared in Spark magazine. His story, “Less Than Perfect,” was shortlisted for Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2019.

Cotton, Grass and Rain

Damyanti Biswas

For Melvin Lam Wee Pinn, the best part about Lee Lian is that his own affliction disappears whenever she’s around. He is stretched out on a long black sofa, his arm draped about her. They’re watching Star Trek: Into Darkness in her apartment near Orchard Road, Singapore’s main street, where they’ve moved to be near their office, and away from his mother.

Lost in the saga playing out on the screen, Lee Lian holds Melvin’s hand to her cheek, and keeps it there. It makes Melvin feel like Alexander Rembrandt—his avatar in the virtual world, Lost Paradise—adored and admired. In fact, his visits to that made-up world are now rare. Real life feels too good to be spent roaming the virtual.

When an ad break comes on, Lee Lian untangles herself and walks to the kitchen. He registers her absence on his skin. He is about to get up and find her when she returns, with cupcakes on a small tray, and coffee.

“From my baking class.” She sets the tray on the table in front of him, placing a knife and tissue parallel to the tray, just the way he liked.

Melvin takes a bite, licking off the chocolate from his lips. He tries to make the taste linger in his mouth, long after the last crumb has disappeared. She curls up, wriggling to get back to her old position.

She turns to him. “When you first saw me, did you think we’d get together?”

“Frankly, no.” He doesn’t like the path this conversation is taking.

“Why? You thought you were too good for me, huh?”

“No, the other way round, actually..” He nuzzles Lee Lian’s hair, her neck. He hopes to distract her enough to take the evening in an entirely different direction.

She smells of fresh laundry, of rain in strange lands. He knows now that her perfume is Cotton, Grass and Rain by Marc Jacobs. He likes the softness of her, because she makes him forget the hard edges of his mother, the dark corners of his loneliness, the dry scratch of his own thoughts. She may not have the most symmetrical face, or the most soulful eyes, but whenever she’s around, which is most of the time, he feels his limbs unwind, his breath come easier.

“Why?” Lee Lian scoots up against him.

“You are too good for me, that’s why.”

“Look at these muscles,” her fingers run on his arms, teasing, “that smile, what’s not to like?” She blushes. “And so eager to please! Why would I be too good for you?”

“Nothing. Just like that.”

“It can’t be nothing. You’re twenty-eight now, and a virgin when I met you. You use a little too much perfume, but other than that…”

“You choose my perfume.”

“That’s no reason for you to bathe in it, M.”

Melvin likes the way she has shortened his name, taken away the words, stripped off the syllables. He looks at her and smiles, though his heart is not in it.

“Why did you never have a girlfriend before me, Melvin?” The minute she shifts from “M” to “Melvin”, he knows she means business.

“I hate it when you frown,” she turns to kiss his brows, but the question in her eyes remains.

All these months with Lee Lian, he has known that it wouldn’t last.

***

At his work desk, headphones on, Melvin checked on Alexander Rembrandt. Being a virtual world, Lost Paradise had many of the advantages that Melvin’s real life did not. For one, Alexander had a girlfriend. He had a father as well as a mother. Both adopted, of course, but they chatted and joked over dinner at his home in LP.

As Alexander, Melvin joined a beach party going on somewhere in the LP version of California. He watched as Alexander made his moves, whispered his breathy voice into one girl’s ear, patted the waist of the next. A tag floating above Alexander’s head showed his name, and the perfume he was wearing, Nefertum. Alexander usually wore something that sounded musky, inviting. Melvin spent a lot of time imagining those fragrances.

Having checked on his virtual world, Melvin turned to the real. He was about to start work for the day when he felt a pat on his shoulder.

Melvin did not like to be touched. Everyone in his office knew that. Even the software firm’s burly project manager, Patrick, or Pat as he liked to be called, with a ponytail and a tendency to slap people on the back, held off. Melvin had never felt any touch other than the scrape of his mother’s palms, so the tap on his shoulder made him jump.

Turning around, he found a short, plump young woman wearing black-rimmed squarish spectacles.

“Sorry. I knocked and called you …I’m Tan Lee Lian, the new assistant to Mr. Patrick Sheridan. His office is locked.”

Melvin looked at her, making no effort to take her proffered hand, which dropped back to her side. The girl looked more uncertain than disgusted: she hadn’t detected his curse yet. He tried not to think about it. His nose filled with her perfume instead. He couldn’t place it; familiar yet strange, like rain on dried grass, like the musty corner in the library, all rosewood and old books, where he used to hide in school.

“Sorry. I’m Melvin. Bit zoned out, didn’t hear you.”

“That’s ok,” Tan Lee Lian’s gaze strayed around his cubicle, “Isn’t that Lost Paradise you have there?”

Melvin minimized his screen. He longed to be like Alexander Rembrandt at that moment, fresh smelling, self-assured.

“How can I help you?”

“I was just wondering if you’d show me where you get your coffee? I could use some.”

The girl sounded confident but looked unsure. Melvin didn’t know what to think of her. Soon enough it won’t matter. She would move away from him, just like everyone else. He took her to the small pantry tucked away behind the cubicles, talked her through the quirks of the coffee machine. As others trickled in, he walked back to his workspace, a windowless corner cubicle with a blank softboard and a spotless table on which piles of paper sat in neat rows beside the screen.

Once back at his space, he calmed down. He had on a fresh set of clothes, and perhaps the odor was still too faint for Lee Lian to detect– the odor that made it difficult for him not to change his underwear often. Difficult, because he wet himself on occasion. He couldn’t get the stench of urine out of his nostrils, fresh urine, stale urine. He washed his hands with scented soap every time he peed, and a few more times in between.

Before a meeting, he sprayed himself with perfume, hit the office shower if he had time. A set of fresh clothes sat in his lowest desk drawer under lock and key, an exact copy of the outfit he’d worn that day to work. He changed at lunchtime, after visiting the washroom. He had researched his problem on the internet and knew that “incontinence was a problem for the elderly, the invalid, the pregnant, and sometimes, the menopausal.”

Down the years, Melvin had had few moments of relief. Always there, like second skin, the smell of musty urine. It lurked on his bedclothes when he woke up as a boy; it flourished in big, rusty yellow patches on his bedsheet. He remembered a time when only the bed reeked, but slowly it crept up like a stealthy fog over his pants, his T-shirts, took over every stitch of his clothing. No wonder, because for seventeen long years, hardly a day passed when he did not wet his bed.

His mother kept him in diapers for as long as she could, then took to putting a rubber cloth under his sheets, waking him in the middle of the night to make him go to the bathroom, setting him alarms. Most nights he would dream of his mother waking him up, or his alarm going off. He saw himself getting up and walking to the toilet. He woke up much later, soggy and cold.

When he grew far beyond the age children wet their beds and his nightly accidents continued, his mother smacked him every morning, till it became a ritual. As the years passed, he still wet himself, woke up, went to his mother’s room. She had stopped hitting him, but would say, “Again?” The word fell on him with the impact of a hard slap.

Sometimes, she shouted as she changed his sheets. “You-ah, lam pah chai, I wish you had a father, so he can kick you out of this one. Sang koh chuk sang, hou koh sang lei. Don’t stare at me, your father looked like that– see where he ended up? Woodbridge, hah! You also want to go there-ah ? Do you know they’ll shut you up and make me pay for you also? I work day and night for what? So I can pay for you! Cannot, cannot. I need to save money for my own funeral too, you know!”

Slowly, it became a look: his mother’s look brewed in such disgust and hatred that Melvin almost peed himself when he met her eyes. As time passed, she let him sleep in soiled sheets, his dreams swathed in a stink that belonged to the drains beneath the house. When he grew old enough to change the sheets himself, he did so, but made a mess when he tried to wash them. Even after he learned to do the laundry, his mother went on about the cost of detergent. As soon as he could, he got a job and moved out.

He shuffled to and from his office, running a few errands to take care of his daily needs. He did most of his shopping online. Sometimes he longed for an offline, real-world chat, but who would like to be friends with someone who stank like a public urinal? He read books instead. Iain Banks took him to world systems far away from his own, through Gene Wolfe he met twisted people with a sort of disconnect that made his own problems look silly, and Philip Dick helped him question the very nature of reality. He could count on them. In the real world, people never stayed around unless they wanted something.

He had been at work for only an hour when Lee Lian walked in again.

“Pat wants you to look through this.”

Lee Lian smiled at him before she walked out. Patrick had become “Pat” to her as well. Not a bad guy, Patrick, as far as ang mohs go. You could hardly blame a guy for taking advantage of his skin color if the girls around him couldn’t get enough of it.

“Thanks, I’ll call Patrick if I need to ask anything.”

Lee Lian didn’t hear him. He liked the way she mouthed her words, the way her lips curled around each syllable. She didn’t have the nasal twang of his mother.

After she left, Lee Lian’s perfume lingered in the air, not a strong statement, more an insisting afterthought. Melvin stared at the screen, his hands limp. He couldn’t smell that insidious horror. He could breathe, savor the moment. He had begun to feel a little like Alexander Rembrandt. The only new thing around him was Lee Lian, but Melvin refused to think of her, of how she would never talk to him again. He let himself luxuriate in this sudden reprieve from the smell that never left him alone.

An e-mail popped up on screen, breaking his reverie. Another of the boys needed some bailing out. Melvin’s colleagues knew he could make programs do what others couldn’t. They offered to take him out on lunch or dinner from time to time, always on e-mails like this one, when they wanted something done. He figured out a quick solution, shot it back.

After work that evening, Melvin found himself smiling at all his co-passengers on the train ride home. He received puzzled or irate looks in return but didn’t mind. When he got home, he found the books he’d ordered last week waiting for him, among them a collection of Wolfe’s stories. He read past midnight, and for once he slept well. But morning brought him back to his reality: he wasn’t Alexander Rembrandt, indomitable world-conqueror. He was Melvin Lam, bed-wetter extraordinaire. The last time this happened he was back home with his mother. The odor had made a comeback. He caught the now stinking Wolfe, gloving his hand in a plastic packet, and dumped it inside the dustbin.

He toyed with the idea of skipping work, picked up his stained mattress and laid it in the balcony where it would catch the sun, threw the sheets and his bedclothes in the machine with some Dettol, washed himself, then went to the outer room and lifted a few weights. The smell of sweat refreshed him, scattering away the mist of urine. On the table beside the bare bed, he lay out in a straight line a set of two identical blue shirts, gray pants, two pairs of blue socks, all ironed last night. Once he emerged from the shower in his fresh underwear, he could still detect a faint reek under the layers of soap, shampoo and after-shave, so he sprayed himself with deodorant—under his armpits, on his underwear. He dabbed perfume on his wrist, on his throat and chest, behind his ear.

Reaching for his clothes, he remembered Lee Lian— how he could smell fresh laundry when she was around him. He dipped his face in his shirt for a moment before putting it on.

“This shirt looks good on you,” he imagined her saying, “Blue is your color.”

For the moment Melvin felt rid of the odor. He was hungry, so he went into the kitchenette. He detached the pot from the coffee machine, went to the cupboard and removed a tin. He took the knife that lay parallel to the right side of the tin, pried away the lid, took out two biscuits, and put them on a big, spotless white plate, not touching each other.

He’d got the biscuits delivered fresh from the baker’s the day before, and they had a tang of caramel. He wished he could make his apartment smell of warm food: stir-fries and bakes, simmering soups and meat cooking in spices. He often dreamt of bottling the fragrances at a bakery or a restaurant and releasing them into his kitchenette, the antiseptic little corner of his apartment that reminded him of his mother’s home of takeaway packs and pizza boxes.

He wondered if Lee Lian could cook, whether she would cook something for her husband when she got married.

Babi ponteh is ready,” he heard Lee Lian say, “and I made some nyonya assam fish too. You like spicy, right?

“Yes, I do,” he put his arms around her, “but come here first.”

She laughed, her voice soft, and her eyes grew softer still as he took her in his arms. She melted away as he touched her, and he stood alone in his kitchenette.

He picked up the coffee pot, sniffed it, devouring its fragrance with his nose, leaving no room for any other smell. He placed a shining white cup in the middle of the plate, at equal distance from both biscuits, and poured the coffee.

While putting the jar and the tongs back, he felt himself leak. He dropped his pants, checked them for wetness, found none. He folded the pants so as not to ruin their crease and draped them on the dining chair. Made his way to the toilet, checked the underwear. Not wet either. He washed his hands, changed into fresh underwear and went back to the dining table. His coffee had grown cold, but he gulped it down anyway.

The phone squalled in the living room, but Melvin ignored it—must be his mother checking on him. Let her think he’d left already. He shuddered in disgust as he put on the pants and the stench of urine overpowered him, but he couldn’t be late for office. He walked out and climbed the steps of the Toa Payoh train station, engulfed in a cloud of urine, shrinking from the people standing there, sure they would smell him and turn away. Singapore did its best not to stink, Melvin was all too aware of that.

He cowered in a corner of the train and tried to distract himself by figuring out a piece of programming in his head so he didn’t need to wonder whether the others looked his way. The lady in the printed pink headscarf on the opposite corner stared at him, her nose slightly curled in a sniff. She could smell him all right.

As he walked down the pavement of the Orchard station to his office, he tried to think of incense at the altar, of old books unpacked, of soursop juice on sunny afternoons, of starchy bedclothes, of fresh-dried paint, of Lee Lian and her fragrance. But when he entered the office, he seemed to have carried the sewer in with him. He dived into work, hoping not to meet anyone, especially not Lee Lian.

At lunchtime, he went for his usual change of clothing. He ran into her on the way back.

“I was waiting for you.” Lee Lian eyed the bag in which he carried his clothes.

“Sorry, how can I help?”

“Here are some papers from Pat.”

“Patrick sent me more?” He rifled through the papers. “But I already have soft copies of these!”

“I know,” Lee Lian shifted from one foot to the other. “Would you like to show me where you usually have lunch?”

Melvin ate his lunch right there at his desk every day, packing his food from the stall below, but he couldn’t tell her that. Patrick wasn’t the only ang moh in the office, and the rest didn’t have Melvin’s problem. No girl in this office or anywhere else ever spoke to him, not for a second time, so he couldn’t be stupid about this. He had just changed, and Lee Lian may not be able to smell him if he sprayed something on. He could pull off a half-hour break without embarrassing himself.

“Okay, could you wait for me at your desk? I’ll be there in a minute.”

Easier said than done, because he had no idea where to take her.

***

“You mean all this time you thought…?” She shakes her head. “That’s why you were never close to anyone?”

Melvin nods.

“Have you told anyone about this? How would they know if you don’t tell them?”

Melvin is silent.

“Ah, I see. You thought they could smell you, so they knew anyway!” Her face turns red.

Melvin nods again, though he is puzzled: of course, they can smell me, only you, my Lee Lian, only you do not.

“You know it’s all in your head, don’t you? That there never was nor will be any smell, other than your storehouse of perfumes?”

Not being able to look into the future like his friends Iain Banks or Gene Wolfe, Melvin does not know what to say. That there may not be an odor at all hasn’t occurred to him. She couldn’t be right, could she? But if she can smell perfumes, she can smell things. What if she is right?

“And then it all just went away when you met me?” Lee Lian breaks into his thoughts.

“Still there when you’re not around.” He lowers his eyes.

“Six months, M.” Lee Lian sounds calmer now. “You should’ve told me.”

He knows this is it. He will move back to his old apartment, maybe even move in with his mother for a few days if his apartment is not immediately available.

“We’ll find a shrink,” Lee Lian says, and settles back in his arms for Saturday Night Live.

Melvin doesn’t know it yet, but three years later, he would wear the “real” Nefertum fragrance. Lee Lian would find it on the commercial website of Lost Paradise. It would be her wedding gift to him.

Damyanti Biswas’s short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Ambit, Puerto Del Sol, Litro, Griffith Review Australia, Pembroke Magazine and other journals in the USA and UK. She serves as one of the editors of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut literary crime novel You Beneath Your Skin was published by Simon & Schuster India in autumn 2019 and optioned for TV adaptation by Endemol Shine. 

Double X

Kanya D’Almeida

Nishu wanted a Double X for his birthday. He confided this daily to his grandmother, Bernie, who, at eighty-three, had lived through a war, and endured displacement, and knew a weapon when she saw one.

“The features, Paati,” he breathed. “The camera quality. Okay, say I take a picture of you, right?”

He pressed a button and it made that grrr-ick sound. He extended the diabolical little device across the kitchen counter. Bernie bowed obediently to examine her face on the screen: her vast, glistening forehead; the perfect Jaffna-Tamil nose that had skipped her daughter, Vindhya, but found its way to Nishu; mauve-brown lips drawn tight over all the things she didn’t say.

She was satisfied. But Nishu said, “Now with the Double X, I could erase all these lines here, and cover up this ugly thing over here. No more grey hairs, no more spots.”

Paithiamma! Keep stirring,” Bernie said. “See all those lumps in the batter? Cake will look like it has chicken pox.”

Nishu got busy with the wooden spoon. “Only one person in our class has a Double X. Lyam.”

An acid retort tickled Bernie’s tongue. She did not approve of Lyam, or any of Nishu’s classmates at the British Academy, a bright new institution that abutted an old slum in the heart of Colombo. Perhaps it was the school’s motto—The Cream of the Crop—that rankled.

“Dada said to ask Mama,” Nishu went on, “but Mama said to ask you. She said you’re a rich lady now.” He dropped his arm. “This is so tiring. Why can’t we use the Cuisinart?”

“This blessed thing?” Bernie cast her eyes over the silver stand mixer crouching on the countertop like a malevolent cat. “Looks like a spaceship. I’ll stick to my method, thank you. Go and bring the butter.”

She spoke curtly to mask her apprehension of everything in this kitchen, like the cavernous steel refrigerator that cried out for pints of milk and packs of meat, then spit out fungus-furry food because it was too much for this little family to consume. She yearned for her outdoor kitchenette with its creaking coconut scraper and grumpy old grinding stone. But that house was gone, flattened by a Chinese development project that had replaced the spidery streets and dusty Hindu temples of Old Mutwal with a shopping arcade and corporate head offices. It was why she’d come here, into this dead apartment in the sky where furniture the color of milky coffee pressed against blank white walls.

“Also, the Double X screen is shatterproof,” Nishu said. “Even if I dropped it off the balcony it wouldn’t break.”

Adey! If you fall off this balcony, you’ll break… your skull. Seventeen floors. You’re telling me this gadget is tougher than a skull?”

“And smarter than a human brain,” he said solemnly. “So, will you? Please Paati.”

Chee, you’re not shy? Going to a posh school but indulging in this shameless beggary?”

Laughter rippled out of him like a bright streamer fluttering in a breeze, enveloping them both. “Shameless beggary! You say the funniest stuff, Paati.”

She lined up the cake tins, eyeballed equal measures of batter into each, then tapped them gently on the counter until the tops were perfectly smooth. Nishu hurried to preheat the electric oven which Bernie refused to operate, holding fast to her memories of gas cylinders and matchboxes. It was precisely this division of labor that made them—to use Nishu’s phrase—“an awesome team”, she the Granny Nanny and he her navigator in this new world. Together they assembled a triple-layer cake for his party the following day. Nishu wanted to do the “spreading” of the icing using a spatula but ceded the more delicate decorating to the expert. With an expression touching adoration, he watched Bernie twist a piece of parchment into a piping cone, slip in a silver nozzle at the tip and ooze out a border of perfect ganache roses.

“That’s so cool, Paati! It never comes like that for me.”

“You have to keep practicing.”

“Urghh!” He threw his head back. “It’s just so frustrating!”

She didn’t know whether to laugh or smack him. “Enough of your nonsense, time to clean up this mess.”

He trailed his finger lazily through the dregs of batter in the bowl. “Mama said to leave everything for the servants.”

“Your Mama is a busy woman,” Bernie said. “She works hard. Do you have a job? No, no? So what for leaving for the servants? Anyway, in my kitchen I have rules, if you dirty something you wash it yourself.”

“But this isn’t your kitchen Paati.” Nishu sucked insolently on his chocolate-covered index finger. “It’s my kitchen.”

Wordlessly she began to stack soiled utensils and carry them to the deep sink embedded in a black marble countertop. She waited for Nishu to extol the virtues of the dishwasher, to pry open its maw and insert a plump sachet of detergent, teasing her all the time about her old-fashioned ways. But he said nothing. Each of them stewed in a heavy, sugary silence that was broken only by the pings and clicks from Nishu’s cellphone. Such interruptions had become the soundtrack to her life here, but she resented them all the same: the empty urgency of each incoming message set her teeth on edge.

Eventually Nishu slid off his stool and pattered down the corridor. Soon he’d be splayed on his bed with that thing in his hand. Whole hours could pass with him repeating the same motion, flicking his thumb upward on the screen over and over again. The process sapped him of vitality, turned him into a slovenly heap, an airless balloon of a boy. His mouth hung open. Sometimes he laughed a lonely laugh, shared with no one and stolen, the moment it left his lips, by that infernal screen.

You’re a rich lady now.

Nishu’s words swirled like dirty drain-water in her mind. Her whole life Bernie had regarded financial matters in much the same way as bowel movements, unpleasant but necessary functions to be tackled primly and privately behind closed doors. Afterwards, ideally, you lit an incense stick: to refresh the room and purge your soul. But her daughter Vindhya had left behind the best traditions of Tamil austerity when she joined Capital Plus Bank and later married the branch manager, Devinda. They brought home mugs and nightclothes bearing the name of their employer. They drank and dreamed Capital Plus, its special offers, credit lines, and interest rates.

“Fourteen percent,” Vindhya was fond of saying. “If you sell now, you can put the money in a fixed deposit and live off the interest. No point hanging on to a house if you can’t even pay the light bill, no?”

But Bernie did hang on, to the two-bedroom matchbox on St. Wilfred’s Lane that had been her whole world. Vindhya was born on the kitchen floor and her husband had expired on the bathroom tiles. When a gasoline-drenched mob torched the house during the searing riots of July 1983, she worked overtime at a government ministry full of leering clerks and crooked accountants until she could resurrect it. Both she and Vindhya had been devoted to its upkeep. Bernie recalled her daughter at Nishu’s age and her array of toys that weren’t so much playthings as diminutive versions of Bernie’s domestic tools. A tiny broom with which she mimicked Bernie’s expert sweeping strokes until the skin on her palms hardened into callouses; a benign old knife for pretend-chopping bitter gourd and pumpkin. A clutch of scrappy rags for mopping spills. And, most treasured of all, her chatti pots, a fleet of miniature clay vessels that mirrored Bernie’s formidable earthen cookware.

Sometimes, alone in her new bedroom, Bernie wondered why she had given it all up, stepped into an elevator that resembled the cockpit of a jet, and pressed a silver button that glowed a sickly neon orange before delivering her, in a matter of seconds, to the seventeenth floor of High Life Residencies—a place where no fishmonger would dare to venture, where she never heard the tinkle of the bombai mottai man’s bell.

What she heard instead was the sound of Vindhya returning late, alone as usual—the forlorn clip of high heels in the corridor, the thin gurgle of wine into a glass. She brought it with her into Bernie’s room but instead of flopping onto the bed as she usually did, she handed over a sleek silver bag.

Bernie crinkled back its plastic mouth to peer inside. “You’re spoiling him,” she said in Tamil.

“It was on sale,” Vindhya answered in English. “Twenty-five percent discount for Capital Plus cardholders.”

“Even so.” The Double X was smaller than she’d expected. Its cellophane wrapper felt like silk. Bernie made her palm a scale, bouncing the box the way she would a cut of fish, trying to determine its worth from its weight. “Too much for a small child.”

“Think about his face tomorrow morning,” Vindhya said. “That smile of his? I live for that.”

Bernie counted out the money into her daughter’s hand. She doubted she would ever be at ease handling these newly minted five-thousand-rupee notes. Just the sight of them—not so much a dull gold as a sick mustard color with a bemused looking bird on it—pained her. She had measured her life, her sacrifices and savings, in tens and twenties, hundreds if she was lucky. But at High Life Residencies everything was magnified, multiplied. A lakh here. A Double X there.

“How was he today?” Vindhya asked.

“We made the cake.”

“And?”

And—because she too lived for the smile on her child’s face—Bernie said, “He was very helpful.”

Vindhya’s shoulders dropped in relief. “He’s a good boy, Amma.”

“You must be careful about the people he associates with. All these Lyams and Beeyums…they come from broken homes.”

“All homes are broken in one way or another.”

Chumma eruma. Why do you talk like this? Mothers have to be strong for their children.”

Vindhya tucked the money into a red leather purse. She had lost weight, Bernie observed. Her wrists were skeletal, and her rose gold and ruby engagement ring hung loosely on her finger, the stone tilting sideways rather than standing upright.

Bernie set the Double X in her lap. “I’m not giving this to Nishu tomorrow morning.”

“Oh my God, Amma.”

“There are other ways to get smiles out of children, not only spending money.”

“So why did I sit in traffic for an hour to pick up this damn thing?”

Bernie stroked her daughter’s hair. “Eyes are looking tired. Put two cucumber slices before you sleep.”

Vindhya exhaled slowly, as though pacifying a torrent of words in her throat.

“Here.” From beneath the bed Bernie extracted a wooden box, the kind that is held together with brass hinges on one side and a silver clasp—like a bright, puckered mouth—on the other. “Open to see.”

Vindhya lifted the lid. Nestled in pleated sheets of white crepe paper were the chatti pots. Her brow unfurled, furrows softening into an almost childlike expression as confusion became recognition became nostalgia.

There were six containers arranged in descending size. Individually they were jewels; as a collection, a mosaic that you couldn’t take your eyes off. Vindhya selected the smallest pot which fit into the palm of her hand. The artist appeared to have lavished special attention on this one. Not a bit of clay was visible beneath the paint. The neck of the pot was chili red and its sloping sides were a king coconut sunset of swirling paisley patterns, ending in a spiral of ivory dots.

Photo credit: Ramblerwithoutborders. From Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd

They had bought these together in 1983, when the riots had sent them tearing through burning streets and into a makeshift refugee camp in the sports field of a big public school. Each morning as Bernie queued for water, Vindhya made kolams outside their tent by dragging a stick through the sand. They ate rotten rations and Bernie sang the girl to sleep with promises of return. Two months felt like a year. When it came time to leave Bernie had intended never to look back but as they passed through the gates, they spied a hawker squatting on her haunches on the pavement. Spread out before her was a threadbare sheet on which were stacked crooked piles of chatti pots. The woman exuded a supreme indifference to customers. She was wholly absorbed in painting a set of pots in shades of blue from sapphire to peacock and did not look up as they approached. That’s when Bernie noticed the woman was missing her right arm. In her left hand she held a spindly paintbrush, and as she worked, she cradled each pot between the soles of her feet, using her big toes to tilt the vessels this way and that. Mother and daughter watched the artisan in silence, each puzzling over their desire to purchase a souvenir from a place they had no wish to remember. At last Bernie inquired about the price.

Aimpathu,” the woman answered.

Vindhya squeezed her mother’s hand. It was more than they could spare.

“For all six?” Bernie asked.

The hawker nodded. Her rich dark skin shone with sweat. She wore—Bernie recalled this vividly—a very bright, very dirty yellow saree. When Bernie handed over the coins, she knotted them into the tail of her pallu, then deftly encased each pot in old newspaper and placed the lot of them into a roughly stitched gunny sack. Vindhya held the parcel in both hands as though it were a baby bird.

The craftswoman spoke directly to her. “Thanks to your mother my family will eat a meal after two days. You must learn to cook so you can also feed your family when you get big. Remember me when you prepare your Pongal food. My blessings go with you.”

That was nearly thirty years ago. A lifetime, Bernie thought.

“I found them when I was packing up the house,” she said. “You left them behind when you moved here.”

Vindhya returned the pot to its place. “I can’t believe the paint hasn’t faded after all these years. Look at them, they’re like new!”

“Those days you were careful,” Bernie said. “Not like now breaking a different glass every day. Worse than Nishu!”

Vindhya laughed softly, a puff of air.

“I’ll give him his silly Double Trouble after the party when all his friends have gone home. That will be my surprise. But this one,” Bernie put the lid on the box, “this one is special.”

Vindhya studied her hands. Then she inched forward and did something she hadn’t done in years, put her arms around her mother and buried the top of her head in Bernie’s neck just as she used to do as a child.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, when darkness had fully stripped away the bravado of daytime, Nishu found his way into Bernie’s bed. Dawn revealed a comic pair. She was elegant in sleep, hands folded in prayer supporting her cheek, body curved into a gentle S, legs stacked one on top of the other. Nishu was an untidy bedfellow whose limbs flung themselves into an arrogant sprawl, forcing her into a sliver against the wall while he—a child, dimly aware of manhood—claimed the bulk of the mattress. She usually disentangled herself gently at sunrise before slipping out of the room but today she wrapped him up in an embrace and kissed him awake.

He succumbed with a shy, sleepy smile.

“Turn that way,” she said, rolling his body away from hers. “Now put your hand under the bed.”

“My Double X!” His head dangled close to the floor as he made swiping motions for the hidden gift. “Thank you, Paati, IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!”

Bernie reached for the housecoat she always kept neatly folded at the foot of the mattress. Nishu’s nighttime antics had reduced it to a crumpled heap. She shook it out and put it on.

“Read the card first,” Bernie said.

Nishu did as he was told. A perplexed expression hardened his features as he scanned her cursive penmanship. He set the card aside and slowly unwrapped the box, taking care to peel back the strips of sellotape so they didn’t tear the balloon-patterned paper. For several moments he just stared at it; not a flicker.

“We call these chatti pots.”

“What?”

“Your mother learned to cook in these when she was your age. But see? How she has forgotten everything I taught her? Now it’s up to you, you hear? I’ll give you all my secret recipes.”

Nishu said, “Okay, Paati.”

“I won’t be here forever, no?”

“I know.”

“So, there, the family heirloom is in your hands now!”

In his bedroom across the corridor his cellphone chimed aggressively, demanding human contact, the soft imprint of Nishu’s thumb on its cold face. A stream of birthday messages, no doubt, from the many mysterious worlds he frequented, Facebook and WhatNots. Cling, tring, ching-ching, almost—Bernie thought—like the first coins falling into a clay till.

In Bernie’s book, a child’s birthday party involved homemade rainbow sandwiches and crumbly meringue kisses, musical chairs and Passing-the-Parcel. Instead, a caterer brought in a long table laden with sushi—Nishu’s favorite—and twenty boys and girls stood around staring at screens in their hands. Though it was Nishu’s birthday, it was his friend Lyam who commanded the room. If he sat on the couch a crowd coalesced around him; when he moved to the balcony, he took the center of gravity with him. It needled her to see it, though she wasn’t precisely sure why. The boy was polite enough, in a Hi-Aunty, Bye-Aunty way. Perhaps it was his assuredness that she didn’t like, the fact that he seemed utterly devoid of curiosity—as though the world itself bored him to death. Such a quality was unbecoming, she thought, in a child.

The adults were no better. Gathered in a pot-bellied circle, Devinda’s bank associates sloshed down whiskey like it was milk. Ordinarily she would have sought refuge in the kitchen with the other women but it was overrun by “waiters” and, anyway, Vindhya’s friends with their long, painted nails seemed more content to sit in gold tiffany chairs balancing plates of raw fish on their laps.

Lost, she claimed an uncontested corner of the pantry for the task of planting candles into the cake in the shape of a number eleven. She tied a ribbon to the handle of a butter knife and used a pair of dull scissors to stretch the ends of the bow into curly tails. She had just lit the candles and hoisted up the platter when Nishu appeared next to her.

“No, Paati.”

“What no?”

“Don’t bring the cake. I don’t want people to sing and all. Just…cut it here and serve it, okay?”

“Nonsense only you talk. You invite your friends for a party and won’t even cut the cake?”

He snatched the knife from her hand and blew out the candles in an angry hiss with two sharp downward strokes of his head.

Not even a wish, Bernie observed darkly.

“It’s babyish,” Nishu said and she didn’t know if he was talking about the cake, or the ritual, or the ribbon, or what. “Nobody does it anymore. Anyway, I’ll be twelve next year.”

“Twelve doesn’t mean you’re a big man,” Bernie said. “Twelve is still a child.”

“Fine, I’m a child. A baby. Okay? Just please don’t embarrass me.”

A terrible coldness enveloped her. There was a desperate ring to his voice, as though he were on the edge of some precipice, hoping to be pulled back. It struck her how small he was for his age, an imp of a boy, really, standing there with his phone in one hand and a knife in the other.

Too easy, she thought. He has it too easy.

In one quick motion she seized his wrist, twisting it inwards and upwards so sharply that he cried out. The knife clattered to the floor, but she didn’t release him, not until he raised his eyes to meet hers. He opened his mouth defiantly, but nothing came out.

She picked up the knife, set it on the stand and transported the whole affair to the table outside. There was the usual shuffling that accompanies the arrival of a cake, people got to their feet and pulled out their phones. Vindhya dimmed the lights while Nishu’s father re-lit the candles. Someone, she wasn’t sure who, pushed Nishu into place and struck up the song on a faulty key: Haaaaaa…py buuuuuurthday! Everyone joined in except Lyam and a couple of other boys who hung back in the doorway of the balcony, rolling their eyes. Two dozen screens, glowing dimly in the darkened room, swallowed the scene, reduced it to a smaller, poorer version of itself.

Bernie wondered if anyone else noticed Nishu’s wooden movements as he cut the cake and fed his parents the first slice. Their bites squashed the cake deep into his palm. Icing seeped between his fingers. He reached for a napkin, but Vindhya said, “Don’t forget Paati.”

He lifted his fist. Bernie bent her knees until their faces were level. Her lips brushed his fingers as rich sweetness filled her mouth. She felt the chocolate thickening on her tongue into a paste too thick to swallow. She coughed, putting her hand up in front of her face to shield herself from the cameras. She left the gathering in a daze and shut her bedroom door.

The Double X lay unwrapped on her bed. She carried it out onto her balcony which faced a block of government flats, a mess of grimy walls and tangled washing lines. Like her the occupants of this building lived in the sky but seemed somehow to have retained their connection to the earth. At dusk they gathered by the dozens, dragging plastic chairs onto their own balconies where, among their potted bougainvillea, they talked and laughed until night dropped like a sheet upon them. Women oiled each other’s hair, plucked lice. Men played carrom and cards. They were entwined, as they were meant to be: children, children’s children, all in one place.

Bernie dangled her arms over the railing. How quickly would the box somersault to the bottom? She marveled again at the lightness of the thing. Nishu’s face flashed before her wearing that crumpled, fallen look, the shadow that settles over a child’s features the first time someone they love truly hurts them. She must erase that look. Replace it with a smile. She would make amends, pay the bribe. That’s what you did, isn’t it? Traded in the past for the present? Sold the present for the future.

Out on the front balcony Lyam dangled his arms over the railing. Down below, on the terrace of Apt #616, a star tortoise made patient progress across the tiles towards a cardboard box full of slimy greens.

“Who the fuck keeps tortoises anymore?” he said.

One of the girls tittered. “My grandparents have one in their garden.”

“Urgh!” Another of the girls performed a full-body shudder. “They’re so gross. They’re basically, like, giant lizards. With shells.”

“God, Himaya, how dumb are you?” Lyam leaned his spine against the balcony rails. “Tortoises aren’t lizards, they’re a completely different kind of reptile species.”

“Whatever, they’re still disgusting.”

Nishu came outside, sliding the balcony door behind him.

“Aw, wook, it’s wittle Nishy-Wishy,” Lyam drawled. “Has Nishy-Wishy come to feed us cake like he did for his Mummy and Daddy?”

“Shut up, man.”

Lyam put his arm around Nishu’s shoulder and drew him into a rough embrace. “Is Nishy-Wishy getting angwy? Is the bwwirthday wuined?”

“Fuck this birthday, I just want it to be over.”

“Oh, come on bro, it could be worse. You could live in a house full of tortoise shit like your neighbors here. Seriously, look at that thing, it’s the most useless pet a person could have.”

Nishu peered down at the creature which had gone stiff and still. He happened to know it was a male tortoise named Buddy who had a particular liking for beetroot leaves. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Nishu paid daily homage to Buddy, fed him out of his own hand.

“Maybe it’s dead,” Himaya said hopefully.

“Himaya you really are the biggest ditz on the planet,” Lyam said. “You watched it crawling one second ago.”

“Well it’s not moving now.”

“It just needs a little encouragement.” Lyam plucked a tekka maki roll off Himaya’s plate and lobbed it at Buddy but missed by a foot. The seaweed wrapper split, rice and tuna escaped.

Himaya hung her upper body over the railing. “Nice going genius.”

“Damn it. I need something a little heavier. Like a glass, or a plate.”

“Are you crazy?” Nishu said. “Our stuff’s way too expensive.”

“Williams-Sonoma.” Himaya held up her plate so Lyam could read the stamp underneath.

“Fine, bring any old piece of crap, whatever’s breakable but not valuable so your mother won’t notice it’s gone.”

Nishu disappeared inside. He returned a moment later with the box of chatti pots.

“What are these?”

“Just…nothing.”

“They’re kind of cute.” Himaya lifted out the littlest pot. Chili red, king coconut sunset, dots of ivory.

“You’re not going to hurt him, are you?” one of the girls asked.

“Here.” Lyam pulled his Double X out of his jeans pocket and handed it to Nishu. “Get a video of this.”

Nishu held the phone like a piece of glass. He stroked a finger lovingly across the screen. The icons moved with him, as though reading his mind along with his touch. When he tapped the camera button the world lit up—everyone and everything looked brighter on the screen, the glossiest version of themselves.

Nishu said. “Ready? Go.”

Lyam took careful aim but the chatti pot shattered inches from the tortoise’s ancient, starry shell. With practiced fingers Nishu zoomed in on Lyam’s hand plucking a second pot from the folds of tissue—green this time, painted to resemble a sun-dappled leaf in shifting shades of dark moss and young lime. On the screen it gave off a ghostly glow. Nishu tracked its movement, an arc through the air, the landing impact that sliced it clean in two. One shard shot into the far corner of the balcony, the other lolled to a halt in front of its target.

“You suck at this,” Himaya said but Lyam’s fingers were already grasping at a third piece of cannon fodder, a pink-and-white striped vessel, the largest in the collection.

Nishu focused the camera on Buddy. Like a curious old woman peeping out of her window, he thrust his head out from under his shell. Flying fish and falling clay did not faze him. With dark steady eyes he surveyed the shrapnel, then tentatively extended one scale-encrusted foot, as though to test the waters.

Himaya shrieked. Lyam laughed a lonely laugh that was picked up and swallowed by the Double X. It thrived on laughter, on memories. Fattened off them. The phone seemed to grow heavier in Nishu’s hand. Buddy was bright on the screen. Impervious to the commotion he had resumed his journey towards sustenance. He was close to eighty years old and had survived a war. Decades of human folly had passed over him, yet he remained much the same as his ancestors, who carried memories of millennia in their DNA. A pot broke beside him. Deep purple, the color of an eggplant. He navigated the wreckage, cut a path around it, kept going.

Kanya D’Almeida is a writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. From 2010-2015 she worked for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, first as the United Nations Correspondent and then as Regional Editor for Asia and the Pacific. In 2016 she joined Rewire.News as the Race and Justice Reporter, covering reproductive justice issues across the United States. Her reporting has appeared on Al Jazeera, Truthout, and Alternet, among others.

Mustafa’s Wife

Rajni Mishra

“What has the world come to?” Mustafa throws the newspaper onto the table. His wife hands him his chai and sits on the edge of the chair. “Look at this. They are stealing laughter now.”

“Laughter? How can anyone steal laughter?” she says, sipping on her chai. “Oh, the sugar is not to your liking.” She springs to her feet and takes his cup back to the kitchen.

“They can do anything these days. Can you believe what the world has come to? Why not just kill a person?”

She returns, places the cup on the table and picks up hers. She tilts her neck, straining to read the headline: ‘Wife Steals Cheating Husband’s Laughter’.

Serves him right, she thinks.

“Why not just kill him? A person without laughter is as good as dead. Can you imagine living without the ability to laugh?”

She throws a glance at her husband’s face and shifts her gaze. She finds his knitted brows intimidating. She wraps her palms around her cup and inhales the smell of the chai infused with ginger and cardamom. “How bad can it be?” she whispers into her cup.

“How bad can it be? Are you insane, woman?” Mustafa’s eyes widen. His burning glare pierces through his wife’s skin. “Oh, of course, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to you. You lack both a sense of humour and the sense to appreciate it.” He gulps down the remaining chai and storms out of the room.

She leans back into her chair. She doesn’t like her chai when it’s piping hot, she drinks it when it’s warm. She likes to drink it slowly, feel it move through her throat down her body, leaving the tinge of ginger and cardamom on her palate. Mustafa would often remark, “Did you fall on your head just after you were born, you weird woman?” Now, he will only come out of his room when he is ready. He will eat his breakfast while watching videos on his phone and laughing with food in his mouth. If Mustafa’s wife has to eat with him, she avoids looking at him. He is always laughing as if at his existence, he laughs even while eating – his big mouth full of his dirty laughter and half-chewed food mixed with saliva. The thought is enough to nauseate her. She pulls the newspaper towards her with her finger and reads it.

Vijay Manohar Tiwari | Nagaur

The Lofar police have registered another case of laughter theft in the city. Kamal, 33, claims his laughter is stolen. He told the police that he almost died of the chest pain due to the lack of laughter when he was watching a comedy movie in his room. The police investigated Kamal’s neighbours and relatives.

Sunita, Kamal’s wife, left him last month when she found out that he had an affair with another woman. Neighbours told the police that after a huge fight, Sunita left home with their 5-year old son and hasn’t come back home. The police suspect Kamal’s wife is behind the theft but they haven’t been able to get in touch with her or her family.

The police sent the victim to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Ajmer for a detailed examination. The doctors, however, are still clueless about how the laughter theft is being carried out. Dr Shanti Prasad, the head of the neurology department told Ajmer Now, “We have never encountered anything like this before. It hasn’t happened anywhere in the world. We are trying to get in touch with bigger hospitals in other parts of the country to get the best brains together and figure out what’s happening.”

Dr Prasad says, “The loss of the ability to laugh can have serious psychological effects that can vary from social ineptness to severe depression. The stress can also translate into physical issues as the immune system may become weak with the lack of laughter and mirth.” The doctors are still trying to understand this mysterious theft and its effects on mankind.

Mustafa’s wife gets up and scurries to the kitchen as she hears Mustafa’s approaching footsteps. She scoops the food onto a plate and begins preparing his next chai, to be had with breakfast. She has grown accustomed to making two cups of chai; even on the days he is not at home, she prepares two cups. She places the plate on the table and looks at Mustafa. He wipes his glasses with the edge of his white shirt and puts them on. His rectangular glasses sit perfectly on his nose, which is bent like the beak of a giant bird and aggrandizes the smug look on his face.

“Is chai ready or what?”

She rushes to the kitchen and brings his chai. She clutches the head of the chair and taps her toe on the floor. He will finish his breakfast by the time she reaches the hundred and eightieth tap. She will then take the dishes and put them in the sink. He will holler from the veranda, “Close the door. I am leaving.”

She rushes to the door as she hears him outside. “What should I make for dinner?” she asks, closing the gate.

“Make something. Why do you ask the same question all the time?”

She watches him get onto his Bajaj scooter and ride into the next lane. His reply means he will be coming home tonight. He hasn’t visited his other wife in the last two weeks. Even if he has fought with the other wife, he might go to see his children. He loves those kids. The other wife may have gone to visit her relatives with the children – perhaps to attend a wedding. Perhaps. The lady in the opposite house is negotiating with a vegetable vendor. She’s wearing a sleeveless cotton nightdress. When she spots Mustafa’s wife, she waves at her. Mustafa’s wife adjusts her sari, raises her hand slightly and goes back in. She locks the door and pulls the curtains shut on the windows. She picks up the newspaper and walks across the hall to her bedroom, her fingertips grazing the walls. She brings out a wooden box from her cupboard, spreads out the paper on the bed and sits beside it with the box on her lap. She carefully cuts out the article on laughter theft and keeps it aside. She first read an article on stealing laughter about a month back. She found it in a magazine she had bought from the kabadi wallah who comes to buy used papers and bottles from her. He now understands the kind of books and magazines she likes.

She sells the books and magazines back to him when she’s done reading them. In the seven years of living with Mustafa, his wife has learnt of spaces where he would never look – and that’s where she hides the books. Mustafa is her mother’s cousin. He began taking care of the family after her father’s death. When her mother succumbed to an unknown illness, Mustafa married the eldest daughter of his cousin sister. Then, he worked in the post office in the city as a clerk. He allowed her to complete her schooling in the village and brought her here as soon as she finished twelfth standard.

They don’t have a television or a computer at home. Mustafa believes these are mediums that spread filth in society and ruin one’s mind. She is certain he holds the same opinion about magazines and novels. It was an awkward alchemy – her meeting with the books. Two years ago, the old kabadi wallah was replaced by a younger man. When he came to collect the papers from her, he caught her staring at the pile of books he was carrying on his bike. He extended a hand towards her. In his hand was a book. “Do you want to buy this?” he asked. She threw furtive glances in all directions and asked him how much it was. She bought that book from him. It was a book on how to make cocktails. She didn’t know what a cocktail was. She would look at the pictures and read the ingredients. When the man came the next time, she asked him for a dictionary; he got her one the very next day. She was filled with awe when she learnt they had a book for mixing alcohol. One can never know the world perhaps. Since then, her days are filled with gardening tips, sex problems, stories of heartbreak and revenge, hydraulic pumps, how to make friends, novel food recipes, and stolen laughter.

She places the article clipping in the box and returns it to its haven. She lifts the mattress a little, pulls out a book and lies down on the bed. It’s an old book, a small book with a green cover that says, An Ode to the Ridiculous. She likes the title of the book. Its pages are yellow and, on the first page, there’s a handwritten note – ‘To Olive. With love, K.’ She places the book on her chest and stares at the ceiling fan. She learnt of olives from the cocktail book. Olive must be a slender girl with an oval face and large eyes. K must be her lover. K. Iqbal. ‘Iqbal’, she murmurs. She follows the moving blades of the fan with her heavy eyes, his name running in a loop in her head.

She runs across the fields as Iqbal chases her. She laughs as she glides in the air. Iqbal runs as fast as he can but he cannot catch her. He calls out, “Amina, stop! Amina!” She turns and looks at him but doesn’t stop. The ground beneath her feet suddenly disappears and she floats in the air. She sees Iqbal’s face fade into the wind. She’s falling, her arms and legs raised towards the sky, her body being sucked in by the raging waves below. With a huge splash, she falls into the dark, thick waters. Amina thrashes her hands and feet about. She doesn’t know how to swim. She closes her eyes. She has stopped falling. She is covered in something that’s dark, thick and smells like urine. She can’t move. She looks up and sees nothing. She opens her mouth to scream but a silence whooshes by. Her body shakes violently and bursts into laughter. She is fixed at the spot but her body is convulsing with laughter. A voice echoes through her laughter, “Amina! Stop, Amina!”

She wakes up and the book falls onto her lap. She gets up with a jolt. She’s covered in sweat. She sniffs the air and lets out a deep breath. “Amina,” she whispers. “Amina. Amina. Amina.” Her mother had told her when she was young that Amina in Arabic means honest. She doesn’t understand this vulgar human need to find or ascribe meaning to everything, to be important, to be remembered. When Mustafa married her, she didn’t know what to call him; he was no more her uncle.

She asked him, “What do I call you?”

“You wouldn’t need to,” he said.

At times, she can’t remember his name. The nameplate outside the house says ‘Mustafa Muhammad’. The house belongs to Mustafa Muhammad, yet he is the visitor who comes and goes. She has come to understand these walls and they know her well, too. She sometimes reads to them, especially things that move her. The walls listen. She doesn’t have names for the walls – they are walls. They don’t seek to be significant. Yet, if even a single one of them is removed, the house would fall to the ground and Mustafa Muhammad would crumble into dust.

If she had kids, she would not give them names. She would number them – one, two, three. They tried for years. Mustafa wouldn’t have taken a second wife if she could have given him children. Her days would have been filled with their mischief, demands, cooking, sewing, and knitting. She still knits sometimes – socks and scarves and ponchos for Mustafa’s kids with the other wife. Mustafa asked her once if she would want to meet the kids. She wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it but kept mum. He brought them home after a few days. She cooked pasta and seviyan for them. They called her ‘badi ammi.’ Every time they said badi ammi, they burst into laughter. Mustafa laughed with them. She had a smile stuck to her face that day. She practised it the day before. Every time Mustafa laughed, he glared at her. She avoided looking at him.

She lifts the book and runs her fingers through the title. An Ode to the Ridiculous. She is particularly fond of this book because it doesn’t have a name on it. She has never seen a book without the author’s name on it. This is where laughter belongs – on these pages, between the words. It’s not that she cannot laugh. She used to laugh out loud, especially when Iqbal would tickle her. Whenever she would get upset, Iqbal would tickle her and her body would tremble with laughter. Before she’d know it, she would be laughing hysterically. Iqbal would guffaw, as he’d hold and tickle her. Could it be that Iqbal stole her laughter? No, no. He took away with him what he gave her when he left. She has been intrigued by laughter since she first read about the laughter heist in the magazine. It was a scientific article that explained the anatomy of laughter and conjectures on how a human can rob another human of their ability to laugh. She wouldn’t deny it, the thought did cross her mind: What if she could steal Mustafa’s laughter. And it wasn’t a mere passing thought. She pondered over it for days. If there is anything she loathes more than his laugh, it’s his desire for her to laugh along with him.

The day he brought her to this house after their marriage, he pulled her close and put his mouth over hers. His kiss smelled like urine. She stepped back, her body quivering. Mustafa held her by the shoulders and cackled in her face. “Oh, darling! Look, you’re a woman now,” he said, leering at her seventeen-year-old body. He pushed her on to the bed with a bellow of laughter. The howling laugh escaped his betel-stained mouth and pounced on her. She winced and clutched the bedspread as the slimy laugh cut through her flesh. His laughter, the colour of blood, had entered her. She used to laugh a lot those days. She would feel heavy and burst into laughter for no reason. She would laugh until it would begin to seep from her eyes. After a few months, she was emptied of his laughter. She didn’t feel heavy anymore.

She leans by the bedrest and opens the book. She has read this book a couple of times, except for the last page. She cannot part with this one; she thinks she knows the writer of this book. He has written this only for her. They talk through the book – the man without a name and she – they understand each other. And, by not knowing the ending, the spark between them keeps growing. Every time she resists the temptation to read the last page, her desire to know the man without a name grows. ‘The human life comes into existence with a cry, not a laugh or a snort but a cry,’ the book says on the first page. She flips to the page she likes to read over and over. She furrows her brow.

‘Laughter cannot exist with other emotions. Laughter is inevitably a lack of feeling, fuelled by indifference. It reverberates through that void and spreads from one man to another. Laughter is rarely a solitary activity. It fosters bonds because it calls out to certain common necessities of life that have been enforced upon us by the society,’ O says.

Oi swirls her drinks in her mouth and shakes her head. ‘Oh, I don’t agree. Laughter is an emotion. There are so many things laughter can say.’

‘Give me an example’.

‘A nervous laugh, a shy giggle.’

‘That’s a masquerade. It’s not expressing, au contraire, it’s repressing the feeling.’

Oi looks at the sky and sips on her drink quietly. O touches her hand and says, ‘You look tired. Let’s go home.’

‘No.’

‘What do you want to do then?’

‘I want to sit here and laugh.’

Amina sighs. “I want to laugh,” she whispers. She clenches her teeth and pulls on her cheeks. She straightens up as she hears a giggle coming from a distance. A soft, playful, young chuckle. She gets up from the bed and stands by the window and peeps out slowly. A young boy and girl stand in the alley below. The boy’s hand is wrapped around the girl’s waist and her hand is on his chest. The boy whispers something into the girl’s ear and she giggles. Amina watches them through one eye peeking from behind the curtain. Oh, the boy kisses the girl and she stops to giggle. Iqbal had kissed her once in the farm behind their school. They were talking and laughing when he held her face and kissed her lips. Her cheeks flushed and heart pounded. The girl giggles again as they walk out of the alley. Amina’s gaze follows them until they disappear around the corner. She loosens her grip from the curtain and stands against the wall. She closes her eyes as the cold wall presses against her back. She wants to chuckle like the young girl. It’s been more than seven years since she has seen Iqbal. They met at their usual spot behind the school building on the last day of school and she told him about her moving to the city. He said, “Let’s run away.”

“We will drown.”

“I can swim. I will save you.”

“For how long?”

It was a long time ago. Or in a previous life. He, too, would have neatly arranged his life and tucked her away in some corner where he wouldn’t have to look. She, however, lives in the corners. The walls provide her comfort. The year she moved here, she had made friends with one of the neighbours – Priya. Priya was newly married like her and used to knit. They once went out to shop for wool and threads. In the evening, when Mustafa returned, he slapped her across the face and said, “The women in our households do not go out alone. If you need anything, I will get it or I will take you with me.”

They didn’t go out together after that but Priya would sometimes come in the afternoon to Amina’s house and they would talk over chai. “I love your tea, didi,” Priya used to say. Priya’s giggle was just like the young girl’s in the alley. She died during childbirth and her husband moved out with the new-born. She had given birth to a girl. Or a boy perhaps. It was a long time ago. Amina didn’t see the baby. She felt envious of Priya. With nothing to look forward to anymore, her afternoons were filled with thoughts of death, the ultimate freedom. She imagined ways to end her life. She had no intention of ending her life, of course, she just liked to think of ways that would lead to a less painful death. Would Oi kill herself at the end of the book? If she does, Amina would feel helpless and if she doesn’t, then Amina would be sad for her. She liked Oi’s relationship with O and when O dies in an accident, her heart cried for Oi. She picks up the book and flips to the end pages. She runs her finger along the sentence, ‘Names are a vulgar need of human flesh to find something to hold onto, something to own, to find meaning in everything. Imagine you not having a name,’ O says, handing Oi her coffee mug.

‘Such rubbish! Names are important. How would I know who I am if I don’t have a name?’ Oi frowns as she blows into the coffee mug.

‘You have a name. Do you know who you are?’

‘I am Oi.’

‘No, you are not. Oi is a name given to you by someone else and who you think you are is also a mirage that others have created for you.’

‘I am Oi’, Oi looks into O’s eyes and bangs the table with her fist. ‘You’re crazy.’

Amina doesn’t think O is crazy. She understands and agrees with O. She turns to the last page.

‘The billows clash and collide and a fringe of snow-white feathery foam follows their changing outlines. The receding waves leave behind a remnant of foam on the sand. Oi picks up a handful and it slips through her fingers, leaving a salty residue on her palm. She suddenly begins to laugh, her entire being revolting against the grief. Her laughter is like the froth, it is pushed to the shore by the waves and pulled in with them, leaving a frolicsome trail behind. A faint white glow that disappears in the blink of an eye. The sand is smooth again as if nothing happened here. It is a masquerade. The froth, her laughter, everything.’

Amina shuts the book and shoves it under the mattress. She mustn’t know how it ends. The early evening sun’s rays filter in through the curtains and fall on the wall in front of her. She watches the patterns created by the light and shadow, listening to the still laughter that awaits to fill the echo in her. Something rises and crashes against the walls in her. It continues to rise and crash in successive rumblings, coursing through her body below the surface of her skin. We laugh at the disguises, we laugh at the contrasts, she thinks. Isn’t the laughter she hates her only escape from loneliness? The days when Mustafa stays at his other wife’s house, she has nothing to divide her days and nights into. They all seem the same. She reads, cooks for herself, talks to the walls and wanders from room to room chasing shadows. Mustafa will be home soon. She should start preparing dinner. She gathers her tresses and ties them into a shabby bun.

She hears the screeching of the brakes of Mustafa’s scooter. She jumps to her feet and stands in the hallway, waiting. As soon as the bell rings, she leaps to the door and opens it. Mustafa enters and hands her a bag of groceries. She goes to the kitchen and opens the bag. He has brought chicken and mutton. He’s going to be here for a couple of days. She places the meat and vegetables in the refrigerator and fetches a glass of water for Mustafa. He gulps it down and says, “I will freshen up and come.”

She nods and returns to the kitchen. She arranges the dining table and waits for him. She taps her toes gently. Around the hundred and fiftieth tap, he comes and sits at the table. She serves him food. “Come, sit. Eat with me,” he says.

She pulls a chair and sits quietly, without making a noise. She takes food on her plate and eats slowly, aware of every morsel she takes in her mouth. “You cook just like your mother,” he says through the food in his mouth. “But you don’t laugh like her.”

She swallows the food and flushes it down with water. “You know, on the way home, I had the weirdest thought.” He continues after a pause. “What if someone has stolen your laughter? I have never seen you laugh.” He thinks for a while and shakes his head. “Uh-huh. Never. I may have seen you laugh as a child but I don’t remember.”

She feels the heat of his gaze. She clears her throat and says, her eyes fixed to the plate, “How can anyone possibly steal laughter?”

“It’s happening. You’re so naïve. Anything can happen in today’s world. Possibilities are immense. And it’s scary. This world is no bed of roses.”

He uses such clichés when he talks.

“Who would want to steal my laugh?”

“You tell me, woman. You are here alone all day and those days when I am not home. How do you spend your days?”

Has he found out about the books? No, that’s not possible. He would never. “What?” she says louder than she intends to.

“Have you ventured out anytime? Is there a lover?”

Her eyeballs bulge, her face turns red and her lips quiver. She is staring at him. Something is rising in her. She feels it in her throat. She tries to swallow it but it refuses to budge. She’s choking. Her body shakes violently and she bursts into laughter. Her body sways with laughter. Mustafa watches her agape. She goes on laughing, her laughter accompanied with hiccups. He hands her some water. She holds the glass and water spills out as she continues to laugh. “Have you gone crazy, woman?” Mustafa says. The more she tries to control her laughter, the more strength it returns with. Mustafa gets up and shakes her, holding her by the shoulders. “Stop it!”

He takes his plate and goes into the other room, leaving her alone at the table, wildly shaking in a fit of laughter. Laughter is a masquerade. She doesn’t feel like eating. Once the fit dies down, she gets up and begins to clean the dishes. Emotion is laughter’s enemy. “Indifference,” she begins to murmur but stops as Mustafa puts his plate in the sink. He stands beside her, his gaze fixed on her face. “So, you can laugh, eh?” He takes the strand of hair fallen across her face and tucks it behind her ear. She shudders. “I had assumed barren women didn’t have laughter in them.” He runs his fingers down her back. “Take a shower before you come to bed. You stink.” He says and walks away. She finishes cleaning the dishes and heads to the bathroom. When she enters the bedroom, Mustafa is already in bed, reading a paper. She sits at the other end of the bed. He pushes the paper aside, removes his glasses and pulls her towards him. He turns off the light and gets on top of her. He kisses her lips and unhooks her blouse. She squirms as he bites her nipples and presses her breasts. He undoes his pyjama, lifts her saree and enters her. She taps her toes in the air as he moves on top of her. With her eyes closed, she counts. Around the sixtieth tap, he falls beside her with a loud groan. She opens her eyes and watches the streetlight falling in through the window onto the wall. She turns in Mustafa’s direction. The contour of his body moves slowly with his breathing. She clears her throat and whispers, “Can you tickle me?”

“What?” The contour shifts with a rapid movement. “What did you say?”

“Can you tickle me?”

“Have you lost your mind?”

Amina stares into the abyss of his eyes, as his silhouette merges with the darkness, and sighs, “I want to laugh.”

Rajni Mishra has been writing verses and cooking up stories for as long as she can remember. Her affair with words took a serious turn when she became a member of the Bangalore Writers’ Workshop. Her story “The Prognosis” appeared in an anthology by Roli Books, and other stories and poems in Breadcrumbs Mag and The Bangalore Review. She works as a content marketer and copywriter to support her writing habit. She lives in Bangalore in a home built of books and is a sucker for everything that involves plenty of sugar, laughter and kissing.

Maachér Jhol (Fish Stew)

Atreyee Gupta 

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

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

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

“What weird smell?” you counter, puzzled.  

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

The embarrassment cuts into your bone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” she croaks.  

“I wish I could do something for you.”  

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

How much?” 

Oh, mmm…chota…a little bit…” 

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

Enough to coat fish.” 

So…teaspoon? Tablespoon?” 

Oh, you’ll know as you’re rubbing.” 

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

So, grind more.”  

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

You taste as you go.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eta banachish for someone?” she asks. 

A friend,” you reply. 

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

Insignificant Man

Niranjana Hariharanandanan 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Does that make you sad?” 

 “Well, no… no.” 

 “Then why do you look at it?” 

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

Now who wants to listen to some riddles? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nine -year- old in me is puzzled 

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

Valliachan chuckles and ruffles my hair. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valliama clicks her tongue irritably and bustles away. 

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

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

Is this your friend, Valliachan? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fin

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

Broken Dolls

Kasturi Patra

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

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

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

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

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

Ma worshipped Santanu.  

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

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

Sinjini was five when Santanu died. He was nine. 

* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dumb game,” he scoffed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will you have, Jini?” 

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

Sinjini pointed a finger at random on the menu. 

“Just a tomato soup?” 

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

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

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

Sinjini shrugged, not looking at him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END     

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

Auspicious

Abhijith Ravinutala

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm” My mother warned. 

“Hello, aunty and uncle.” 

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

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, sure.” 

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

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

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

“She’s not a mom yet.” 

“Right. Even better.” 

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

“Fuck. I love it, new word. AILF!” 

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

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

“Nah, I’m good.” 

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, sure. I’d like that.” 

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

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

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

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

“That’s gotta be made up.” 

“Don’t go.” 

“Okay,” I affirmed with a nod. 

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

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

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

“Wine?” she asked. 

“Of course.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ~~~

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

 “Have you heard of Kama Sutra?” 

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

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

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

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

“What do you believe?” 

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

“That’s why you cook meat now!” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Mani and the AILF.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wine?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to Gede

Satyaki Kanjilal

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

Dear Mr. S.K. Das, 

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

Yours faithfully,
A good wisher 

 

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

India.
 

 

Dear Mr. S.K. Das, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,
A good wisher 

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

 

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

India.
 

 

Mr. Sucharan K. Das, 

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

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

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

So please claim Kaberi’s body from the morgue.  

Yours sincerely,
A
good wisher 

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

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

 

Mr. Sucharan Kamal Das, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yours sincerely,
A good wisher 

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

 

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

 

Bastard, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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