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Posts from the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Missing Syllable

Veena Narayan

Lathae, listen to this! You’ve got to! I’m so upset. What’s the use of having a sister if you can’t even tell her how you’ve been insulted by your own family? Listen now, let’s sit here at the dining table and no one will disturb us. Breakfast is done, and lunch is cooked and ready, so we have an hour. Didn’t I tell you about Seema? Yes, exactly, that Seema. Sreedevi’s friend. I still remember the day Sreedevi brought her home for the first time all those months ago. Oh, I didn’t know then that it would turn out like this. Okay, okay, I won’t talk in riddles. I’ll tell you from the beginning.  

So, Sreedevi brought home this lovely girl and said, “Ammae, Seema’s my friend and we’re doing our final semester project together. So, you’re going to see her every other day.” And I looked at this girl and I liked her at once. I’m like that. You know that. I’m able to make out if a person is good or bad the moment I see them. And I’ve been right most times. Now, don’t smile. I know I’ve been wrong. But don’t start talking about all the times I was wrong. We only have an hour and they’ll all be coming down and we’ll have to serve lunch and then I won’t be able to talk to you alone.  

So, this girl, I liked her very much the moment I saw her. Tall and lissom. And everything about her was so graceful, and when she walked, it looked as though she was floating around.  “Ammae, Seema’s a dancer,” said that daughter of mine. You wait, I’m going to teach her that I’m not to be trifled with. Hanh, so she said, “Seema’s learnt Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Mohiniyattam.” 

I liked this girl and all, but I was thinking too much eye make-up. So, this dancer thing explained it. But I thought that’s alright. She has such lovely eyes. Now, anyone would want to draw attention to them. No harm in that. And she was wearing a large pottu in the middle of her forehead and, you know, the mark of sandalwood paste was almost disappearing from above the pottu. And her long hair was open, done only in a kuli pinnal, and there was a twig of tulsi caught in it. She must’ve had a bath early in the morning and gone to the temple, I thought. And she had on nice jimikkis in her ears. I looked at this tall girl and I loved her. And I looked at my own daughter, and Lathae, I couldn’t help frowning. 

 

You know how much I’ve tried to get her to behave but she’s one stubborn girl. She’s just like Kuttan, so headstrong and wilful. What’s the use of blaming the girl, I sometimes think. It’s in her genes. She’s inherited it from her uncle. How many times I’ve told her to pay attention to her dress. No, she won’t even wear the tiniest earring. I’m sure the piercing must be closed by now. Use a little turmeric paste before your bath, I tell her, and she won’t. And I don’t know from where she’s got that spring-like hair. Someone in Unniettan’s family must’ve had it. Nowadays, all these girls go to the beauty parlour and getting it ironed. And they look so nice. No, she won’t do that. She’s proud of her hair, it seems. Oh, I know it will grow again and look the same, but we can get it done again, no? At least until she gets married. It’s not that Unniettan won’t give her money for that. But she won’t ask him, you know. She’s got all these fancy ideas. She won’t ask her own father for money. Lathae, you don’t know how much I worry about her. From the moment she was born, I’ve been worrying about her. And when I tell her that she says, “How’s your worrying going to help me, Ammae? It’s only going to make you sick. So, stop worrying.” And that makes me smile because it makes sense, no. We should find a suitable boy for this girl, Lathae. It’s not going to be easy. I’ve known that from the moment she was born.  

Yes, yes, she’s very good in studies. Always been top of her class. Even Devan asks her to clear his doubts about how to do some things on the computer. And Devan’s five years older. But what’s the use, Lathae? Which man wants a brilliant wife?  

Ayyo, sorry! If I talk about Sreedevi, I go on and on. So that day, when Seema came home, I’d made mampazha pulisseri, and I invited them in to have lunch. When Unniettan’s mother was alive, you know how strict she was. She wouldn’t allow that. And you know how they are. Whether they’re chuvappu or not, they obey their mothers. Yes, and our mother also. How she used to make us stand out after coming from school if we didn’t have a dip in the house pond! Remember? No compromise, no matter how hungry we were. But now times have changed a lot, and this is a city, not like our village.  

So, Seema liked my mampazha pulisseri so much, she finished most of it. And she was so unselfconscious. She called me Ammae and I felt instantly connected to that girl, as though she’d been born from my own womb. After lunch she helped me clean up—Sreedevi never does that—she washed all the vessels. And she’s a very talkative girl. Her language is like ours. She doesn’t have a trace of that northern accent though she’s been brought up there. Listening to her, I felt she might turn out to be someone from the extended family. I wanted to ask her what her family name was, but then Sreedevi hustled her upstairs and then they were shut up in the study room working on their project together. I peeped in when I went to take down the dried clothes from the terrace and they were deep in discussion. My daughter didn’t pay me any attention, but Seema looked up and smiled and nodded respectfully. She is so well-behaved, that girl.  

That was how it started. And somehow Lathae, after this Seema started coming home, I worried less about my Sreedevi. See, she was friends with such a normal, temple-going, jewelery-loving girl. She would come around by and by, I thought. And they were very good friends, I could see that. So that month, when I paid my usual visit to Divakara Panikkar, I didn’t show him Sreedevi’s horoscope. Oh, Divakara Panikkar is such a soothing person! And his predictions are so accurate! Even Muktedathi goes to him, I know that for a fact. She might be a chuvappu, but Lathae, when it comes to one’s own children, everyone is anxious, chuvappu or not. Whenever I get too worried, I just pick up the horoscopes and go to consult Divakara Panikkar. He’s a gem.  

So that month when I went, I was totally surprised when he said, “How old is your son?” I gave him Devan’s horoscope, and he smiled and asked, “Are you going to take out his horoscope? I think it’s time to get him married.” And I said, “He’s only twenty-six. Isn’t that a bit too early? He’s just got a new job, lot better than the old one.” 

Lathae, he’s an expert, this Divakara Panikkar. Sometimes I feel it’s because of the blessing of elders that I got to know him. He took one look at Devan’s horoscope and said, “It would be better to start looking out for a bride now itself. It might take some time.” “Why,” I asked, “Is there anything wrong with the horoscope? Any dosham?” “No, no, no,” Panikkar said. “He has a very unique yogam in his horoscope and getting him married will prove difficult—he has the sanyasa yogam.”  

Oh God! All these years, I used to be so worried about Sreedevi, I never paid much attention to Devan’s horoscope. He’s never been any trouble, Lathae, you know that. Such a sweet, mild-mannered boy he is. And now this sanyasa yogam. Just when I was beginning to be a little less worried about Sreedevi because of Seema, see what came up. There has to be something always. Mothers can never be free of worries. Something or the other always keeps cropping up. So, I asked Panikkar, “Isn’t there any solution to this? Any puja I could do? Any vratam I could keep?” I was prepared to do anything for my Devan. So, Panikkar said, “If there is a problem, there is always a solution.” He’s such a relief, this Panikkar. He wrote down a puja for me to perform in Devan’s name. He said it has to be done every month on his star birthday, for nine months straight. And I’d have to get it done at a Krishna temple. I looked at the chit of paper he gave and thought I would get it done even if Unniettan was going to be cross with me about the cost. I’d carried him in my womb for nine months, why wouldn’t I do a puja for nine months. And I thought, there’s our Krishna temple, no? Just a fifteen minute walk. It would be so convenient. So, on each of his star birthdays every month, I woke up early and was at the temple for the morning prayers and had the chief priest perform the svayamvara puja that Panikkar had advised.  

And I thought, let’s be practical. So, I called our Nanu Nair, yes, the very person who brought Babu’s alliance for you, Lathae. No, he’s not dead, very much alive and up to date with a new smartphone to do his business. What a strange feeling you have that anyone you’ve not been in touch with is dead. I’ve kept in touch with Nanu Nair all these years. You know, I have my Sreedevi and I knew it was going to be difficult. Nanu Nair is very sarcastic about all those families who only remember him when it is time to take out the horoscope of a girl or boy in their family. But all through these years I’ve been in touch. Every Onam and Vishu, and on all other festival days, I’ve ‘remembered’ him. Every time he was in a financial crisis, I’ve helped out the best I could. I got his youngest daughter a job through Muktedathi’s contacts. I’ve never asked for any personal favours from Muktedathi though she’s my Unniettan’s own sister and her husband is a bigwig in the Party.  

I called Nanu Nair home and personally handed over a copy of Devan’s horoscope and a nice photo to him, and told him that yes, we’d formally taken out his horoscope and were on the lookout for a bride. And I didn’t breathe a word about the sanyasa yogam. Nanu Nair promised me he’d do his best. I was sure he would. And he did bring in loads of matches, Lathae. All from good families too. But when I took the horoscopes to Divakara Panikkar, many of them didn’t match. And even with those that matched, Devan didn’t show a spark of interest when I showed him the girls’ photos. “Nice, Ammae,” he’d say. “You needn’t even show me the photos; you just go ahead and fix a girl you like.” He wouldn’t agree to go and see any girl. He said that if he went to see a girl, he’d marry her. When I scolded him, he said, “How’d we feel, Ammae, if someone came to see our Sreedevi and rejected her?” I’d no answer to that. And he wouldn’t look at a single photo. But Divakara Panikkar said that the puja would definitely have its effects, that I just have to be patient and get it done for nine months.   

Finally, the ninth star birthday came, and I knew that something significant would happen that day. I was sure Krishna would be kind. I’d prayed so hard. I’d done my best for my child. So as usual, I had a bath and dressed in yellow, Krishna’s favourite colour, and was at the temple for the morning prayers. Lathae, you won’t believe what favourable omens there were, when I started out. Two cows were standing just in front of our gate, and they were on their way to the grazing grounds. Normally, Shanta takes them out much later, I’ve seen that. And when I turned the lane and reached the main road a beautiful lady was walking my way and she had a vessel filled with milk in her hands. Lathae, I’ve never seen that lady in our neighborhood before. Oh, I felt so happy! All the omens were good. I reached the temple, met the chief priest, he’s our uncle’s old friend—you know they went to the same school—and paid him to perform the puja. It is an elaborate puja, Lathae, and so after he had gone into the sanctum sanctorum and shut the door, I stood outside praying. After some time, I thought it would be a good idea to do some pradakshinams while I waited. So, I started going around the outer temple. I finished twenty-one pradakshinams and stood in front of the closed doors praying with all my heart. Krishna, I thought, you were a premavatara. Women lost their hearts to you. Please show me that one woman who will be the perfect match for my son. Just then, the bells rang and the chief priest called me, and I opened my eyes. Lathae, even now you can see how I tear up when I think of that moment. It was as if I’d asked Krishna and he’d answered. As if he’d said here’s the girl you’re looking for. When I opened my eyes, the first person I saw was Seema. She was standing there right beside me waiting patiently after finishing her prayers. It was as though I was seeing Seema for the first time. Here was my son’s bride, I thought. Seema called me but I couldn’t speak, I was crying. Her eyes too filled with tears, she’s such an empathetic girl you see, “Ammae, whatever it is that’s been causing you worry,” she said gently, “may that problem be resolved.” I nodded and held her hands. She offered me a lift in her car, but I declined. I should have gone, Lathae. Then, I would have known the truth. 

But let me continue. I started to see Seema in a new light. Krishna had shown her to me. So, I thought now I should help speed up what the lord has decreed. I tried to ask Sreedevi about Seema’s family, her parents, what her father did and all that. And the girls were so busy with their project, Sreedevi never answered me properly. She always kept saying that Seema’s mother was not like me. She allowed her to follow her heart.  I couldn’t ask Seema directly because by now she was so close to me, it would be embarrassing. I hadn’t asked her about her father and her family the first time she had come. How could I ask her now, after all these months? But, I thought, those were minor things. We could enquire when the time came. Look at how the girl behaved. There was no doubt she came from a good family. The important thing was to get Devan interested in her.  

Lathae, you know how these boys are when they are growing up, how they look at girls. Of course, I’d noticed that Devan would not look at any of them in that way, you know. That was the sanyasa yogam in his horoscope. Why hadn’t I given it some thought? If I’d asked Divakara Panikkar early on, he’d have spotted it right then. But I was concentrating on Sreedevi all the time. But now, I thought, it would be easy. Seema was a beautiful girl. And he was very good to his little sister’s closest friend. There was an easy friendship between them. I thought I’d build on it. And I thought I’d keep my secret till the girls had finished submitting their project and the final exams done. I wanted them both to do well in their exams. No point in throwing in any distractions. But I always made sure Devan dropped Seema back home if she stayed late. She always insisted on going back home. And I didn’t want her to go alone. Oh, I’d feel so responsible if something bad happened to her! Unniettan used to drop her, but I started making excuses for Devan to drop her. There’s nothing like a quiet night drive along empty roads to bring two people closer.  

Lathae, you should have seen how the boy changed. You should have seen the smile on his face whenever Seema came home. You should’ve heard the warmth in his voice. You should have seen how he brought the girls some silly little gifts; how he insisted that we sometimes order food from outside, of course from acceptable restaurants only, how he changed from being a quiet boy to someone who laughed as loudly as Sreedevi. I was so happy.  

Sreedevi was as irritating as ever. Now whenever I praised Seema, she had this stupid teasing smile on her face. “Ammae, I see you have your dream daughter. I’m sure you want to sell me at the daughter’s market for some sacks of straw,” she’d tease. And I’d say, “I’m sure you always wanted to sell me at the mother’s market for free” and leave it at that. I thought it was nothing but jealousy. That girl doesn’t like me being nice to other girls. I didn’t know then what it was all about. But Lathae, during those days I was so happy. I had nothing to worry about.  

Finally, the project was submitted and the exams were done. I thought it was a good time to tell them about my secret plans for Devan. Lathae, what all plans I made! I took out my palakka necklace, the one which Unniettan’s mother had given me on my wedding day, and I had it polished at the goldsmith’s. I thought it would look so good on Seema’s slender neck. I started planning for a summer wedding. I thought it would be easier for you to come over if the wedding took place during the summer break. Otherwise, you’d make all kinds of excuses about the children missing classes. I even made small little guest lists, thinking that if anybody was forgotten, it wouldn’t be nice. But it was all in vain.  

I thought I’d make it a little dramatic. So, I told them all I had something to reveal at supper that night and now when I think about it, I feel I was the one most excited about my secret. I made Devan’s favourite chana bhatura—he likes all these north Indian foods—for the evening and when all of us were seated at the table, I told them everything. About the sanyasa yogam, the pujas, and how Krishna had revealed Seema to me.          

There was an awkward silence.  

“Take leave on Thursday, Unnietta,” I told him brightly, “and we’ll go and speak to her parents. May be we can hold the wedding during the summer holidays. Then all our relatives will be able to attend.” 

Still, no one responded. Something was wrong, I thought. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing. And Devan smiled mischievously, I’d never seen him look so cheeky, and said, “So that was why you were asking me to drop her back home on all those days!” 

They guffawed again. I couldn’t understand.  

Then Sreedevi said, “Ammae will you still want Seema as your daughter-in-law when you know her real name?”  

“So Seema is not her real name?” 

“No. But it is close. There is only a syllable missing. Her name is Naseema.” 

“A Muslim! She lied to me. The insolent girl. How dare she!” 

“No Ammae it was me. I lied to you. We needed to do the project together. Would you have allowed her as much freedom in the house, if you’d known she was Naseema?”  

I should have given my daughter one tight slap right there, but I didn’t. How strict our mother was! God alone knows how many rules we’d followed. Don’t step out there, don’t step in here. We’ve been brought up like that. But I’ve never raised my hand at either of my children. Maybe I’ve been too lenient.   

Lathae, it was me. I was blinded. There must’ve been other girls in the temple that day. But I was so blinded by Seema—no, Naseema—that I didn’t notice any of them. It’s my fault, it is. And maybe if I’d prayed harder, maybe she’d have remained Seema.  

Veena Narayan is an author who quit her teaching job to be able to devote more time to her writing. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Bengaluru Review, Scroll, and Desi Books Review. She is currently working on her second novel about a feisty woman of indeterminate age and her many misadventures. Veena lives in Kochi, a coastal city in the south-western Indian state of Kerala, and blogs at Pencraft. When not reading and writing she enjoys traveling by city buses, tuning into and out of conversations, and enjoying the sense of being alone in a crowd.

Proper Perspective

Paromita Goswami

Sitting on a wooden stool outside the roadside shop, I sip a cold drink and watch overloaded trucks go by. This is Mul, a nondescript taluka in central India which has the look of a small rural town struggling to catch up with urbanity. The afternoon is getting hotter by the moment and I wipe my face with lemon-scented moist wipes. Viju, my contact person, finally arrives and offers a bunch of excuses. He parks his motorcycle and buys several bottles of chilled Bisleri. The white car I have hired for the trip has already turned a dusty beige. The driver helps Viju load the bottles in the backs of seat covers and we manage to set off. I know Viju from my previous trips and by now I have a fair idea of the area too. This time we are going to a village which, he informs, is ‘just nearby’. We drive on a narrow, tarred road pockmarked with deep ditches. On either side I see parched fields and crops dying of thirst; mostly paddy with fewer plots of cotton and soyabean. After a few good early showers, the monsoons have failed in large parts of the country. It is mid-September and yes, the paddy should have been a lush green and not dirty brown.  

This has been a year of contradictions: massive floods in Mumbai followed by a severe drought across Vidarbha. Only two months back I was in a local train when the city was flooded. My regular ride home was overcrowded even for a Mumbai local. Everyone was drenched in sweat, desperate to reach home. It had been raining incessantly throughout the day. Suddenly, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. We waited for it to move but soon it was clear that things were out of control. Frustration and anger were replaced by fear while the rains continued to pour down like dark ink. Instead of moving ahead, the train rolled back and came to a grinding halt at the station we had left behind hours ago. The debris-filled water that had been collecting on the platform made its way into the compartment, wetting first our toes, then our ankles, and soon it rose above the seats. Insects, rodents and dark beings slithered out of nowhere and disappeared in this water. People shrieked, panicked and pushed each other while trying to hang on to their belongings. To this day, the memory of stepping out of the train into chest deep water fills me with waves of panic; I force myself out of this chain of thoughts.  

 The driver honks angrily at the scraggly goats that have crowded in front of the car and seem reluctant to move. The goatherd has a disinterested look and feigns to prod the animals aside. We slow down to a snail’s pace for the next few minutes. Thankfully, Viju signals the driver to stop at a tiny village square.  

Where is Anand’s house?” Viju climbs out and asks an old man sitting on a log.  

The man takes a puff at his beedi, touches his thin cotton turban and points to a narrow lane on his right. There are a couple of small shacks in the square selling ‘paan’ and grocery. The few people hanging around the shops look at me in silent curiosity. A group of children appear out of nowhere; they are bare feet; they stare at the car and minutes later they are chasing down a puppy. They are oblivious to the dusty, dry heat that stings every bit of exposed skin. Following Viju, I cross several homes that have locks hanging on the wooden doors. As agriculture fails in rural areas, families of landless labourers are the first to leave in search of work. Sometimes entire families migrate; at times the children are left behind with the grandparents. 

Anand, thirty-something lives in a tiny hut with a tiled roof. He talks, as his wife Vaishali packs a couple of clothes and toiletries into a cloth bag and wraps thick rotis with pickles in a separate small polythene bag. She contributes a word or two every now and then but the family seems tense. Anand and his younger brother are part of a ‘gang’ of labourers recruited by a contractor to work in a factory in Pune, nine hundred kilometres away. The thekedar’s van is expected later that night. Soon Anand’s home fills up with grim-faced villagers; a few of whom are willing to speak. 

I untied the bullocks today, to graze on the stalks,” a man says. 

Feed them as long as you can then sell them cheap in the auction,” grumbles another.  

This is the region where agricultural debt and lack of livelihood drives many farmers to migration and some to suicide. They discuss how the distress sale of cattle is affecting them not just economically but psychologically. It is like losing a family member. 

Suddenly, a young man moves forward. What do you want from us? What is the use of writing down all this?” he demands. 

Arey, Pradeep, good you are here,” Viju says with a look of recognition in his eyes. Madam is a journalist, from Mumbai. She is writing about the sukha dushkaal…”  

I know that,” Pradeep cuts him short, city people are best at writing and taking pictures. They get money out of it. What do we get?”  

I am startled into an unfamiliar guilt. I feel like saying, Yes, we write and take pictures. We are the vultures that stalk starving children across the world.” 

Instead, I ask, What do you want from me?” 

Your car … lend me your car for an hour.”  

I try to hide my discomfort. All eyes in the room turn towards me. His tone challenges me to turn him down but they look surprised when I agree.  

We visit a few more homes in this small village. An old woman whom everybody calls Mavshi aunty insists we should eat dinner and serves us hot rice with dal and bitter brinjals cooked in a thin gravy.  

Is it true that these boys are taking your car?” she asks, heaping my plate with another spoonful of spicy dal. 

Hmmm” I answer, but Mavshi doesn’t look convinced. 

Madam, do you think it was the right thing to do?” asks Viju, pouring water into his mouth from a brass glass without letting the glass touch his lips. 

May be not…but find out where they are going.” I decide it would be worthwhile to find out where the car was being taken.

Vehicles enter the village throughout the night. We watch the vans, tractors and SUVs as they roll in; some of which are already packed with people. Women and men scramble in with their ragged bundles to join the others who crouch and huddle, and make place for newcomers muttering curses under their breath. We see Anand and his younger brother hop onto the back of one such van and leave. The heat is unbearable even this late at night. I am glad for the Bisleri bottles. 

 Viju comes back after making some enquiries. Madam, they will be going towards their fields,” he says, and they should be okay with us coming along.”  

It is nearly midnight when Pradeep calls us. We need the gari now,” he says. 

Both of us are coming along,” says Viju, keeping in step with our decision. 

Madam too?” asks Pradeep. 

Yes, I would like to come,” I reply. 

Just don’t write about it,” he says, almost as a request. 

Much to the chagrin of the driver, five or six men armed with sabbals – iron rods – get into the car and slam the door shut. Pradeep provides the directions when there is an urgent tap on my window. It is Vaishali, Anand’s wife. 

Mala pan ghya sobat- take me along too,” she says. I realise that I am sitting alone in the middle seat of the SUV with five men at the back and two up-front next to the driver. There is plenty of space for Vaishali and I let her settle in next to me as we set off into moonlit night. 

Did you bring the chavi?” The man in front asks. 

Yes, of course,” comes the reply from the back. 

Chavi is a rod, a crank,” translates Viju for my benefit. Yes, for city people like me, chavi is merely the key used to unlock locks, not a crank. 

How come the chavi is with you?” I ask. 

I am the secretary of the village water distribution committee,” replies the chavi man, in a manner that is matter of fact. There are only two chavis. One with the engineer saheb and one with me,” he adds.  

The bright moonlight lights up the landscape – the tarred road, the tall teak trees, the bamboo undergrowth. We reach a place where a dirt track forks off from the road turning steeply upwards. We stop here and momentarily I regret getting out of the cool air conditioning of the car. The farmers climb up swiftly while I struggle to keep pace with them. I hold on to Vaishali’s arm as she guides me with ease. At a height, the track flattens and turns left. We continue to walk. Then I hear the beautiful soft sound of flowing water. We are walking on the crest of a canal parallel to the road below. On my right, the water glistens and shimmers like a river of mercury. On my left, the dying paddy fields are harshly foregrounded in the yellow moonlight. 

 This is Asola Mendha canal madam,” informs Viju as we stop near a sluice gate, constructed by the British in 1916.” 

 A few steps ahead Vaishali sinks to her knees. She sits facing the endless acres of miserable paddy. She looks at me and points, That is our field with the two mango trees at the end. Can you see them? And that plot on the right is our uncle’s. And behind that lies Pradeep’s land – five acres between him and his brother. Do you see the machaan over there? That plot is Jambhule’s, and beyond that lies the plot of the old grandmother, only half an acre…”. As she continues naming the fields, an indescribable sadness fills my heart. She is younger than me but infinitely more tired than I will ever be.  

 Suddenly, I am aware of the heavy blows of iron bars coming from behind us as the farmers break the chain and locks of the sluice gate. I turn to watch as the silhouetted men insert the crank into the operator and force it to turn. With every turn of the crank, the sluice gates that are underneath us, move up a notch. 

Six…five…four…three…two…one!” the men count the number of chudis or turns of the screw. 

Below us the water from the main canal flows into the branch that feeds the paddy – first in a trickle and then in a flow. Water snakes its way through crevices and furrows. Pradeep and his team smash the operator and the screw; they throw the chain and lock in the canal. It will take a long time for the irrigation officials to repair the sluice gate.  

 I turn to Vaishali. She weeps into the corner of her sari pallu and softly repeats the names of her gods. 

Vaishali,” I reassure her, Vaishali, the water will reach your fields. I am sure.”  

She wipes her tears and dusts her sari to stand up. 

We return to the village square wrapped in silence.  

Okay madam … thanks for the car,” says Pradeep, as the men disperse.  

Vaishali insists that Viju and I should eat something before we leave or at least drink a cup of tea, but we decline. Please come back,” she says before stepping back into the shadows. 

Viju settles down next to the driver and I put up my aching feet on the back seat.  

Three,” he exclaims as we drive away. 

What?”  

We watered the paddy fields of three villages tonight.” 

We committed a criminal offence tonight. We broke a sluice gate and stole water from a government canal,” I smile to myself and put things in proper perspective for him. 

A truck sputters by carrying yet another load of tired, disheartened, thirsty bodies fleeing in search of life. 

Paromita Goswami was a full-time grassroots activist till 2019, working on land, labour and women’s issues. She now teaches English to rural students and also edits a web portal called www.thevidarbhagazette.com. She lives in Chandrapur, India with her husband and daughter. She has published in academic journals such as Economic and Political Weekly, ?Indian Journal of Social Work, NUJS Law Review and Community Development Journal. This is her first short story to be published. She thanks the author Shaun Levin for his comments on the draft version of this story. 

Dirgha Ayushman Bhava

Sumitra Shankar

I’ve put it off long enough.  I pull the suitcase out from under the bed and gather the five sets of clothing I had brought with me, all freshly laundered.  They look pitiful in there. On the way here, the suitcase was full of chocolates, pistachios, Tim Tams, even a box of cherries. Manna to be distributed amongst the Malaysian relatives. Amma always throws lavish dinner parties when I am home.  My aunts and uncles exclaim “Wah! Chocolates! All the way from Australia!” 

“What do you want for lunch today, kanna?” Amma asks me.  “Rasam?  Sambar? Eggplant biriyani?”   

“Don’t worry, Amma, we can just finish the leftovers.” 

“It’s no bother,” she says, her voice growing faint. 

I don’t know how to tell her – when I eat her delicious cooking, all I taste is its absence in my adopted faraway land.  Sometimes, at the shops, or at a party, I’ll hear a voice across the room, with Amma’s bell-like timbre, and I’m home again.  It always takes me a moment to come back to myself, to let the emptiness settle. 

“I have the murukku for you,” she says, handing me a pack of the savory crispy ribbons.  They’ll get crushed on the flight, but I have hurt her already today, so I just pack it in between my t-shirts. 

She sits on the bed and watches me lay out my clothes for the flight back.  Tights, a long-sleeved t-shirt.  I hate these last few hours.  I’m always hot and sweaty in my too-warm outfit.   

“What time will you land?” she says, though she knows the answer. 

“Seven in the morning.  I’ll just get a taxi home.” 

“Do you have anything in your fridge?” she says, meaning “you look so thin.” 

“I’ll get something, Amma. Don’t worry.” 

“I could pack something for you?” 

 “It’s okay, Amma.”  I reach out for her hand; the skin is now papery, delicate. 

“After Appa drops you off, I’ll ask him to go to the shops.  We’re out of coffee,” she says. 

I nod, like she has told me a deep truth.  We never know what to say to each other in these moments.  The unspoken words stretch taut like a rubber band between us. 

I stand. “I need the toilet.” 

“Of course.” she says, leaving the room. 

In the bathroom, I splash water on my face until the thickness in my throat subsides.   

In the living room, the ceiling fan is stirring the soupy air.  Appa reads his paper, and Amma has her legs tucked under her as she watches television.  “I’m ready,” I say. 

“Now?  It’s still early,” Amma says. 

Appa sees something in my eyes and says, “Maybe we should go now, there will be traffic.” 

“Okay,” Amma says, though her face drops.  “Come, let me hug you.” 

I give her a tight hug, then genuflect for her blessing.  It is a ritual of ours. 

“Dirgha Ayushman Bhava,” she says. 

May you always be happy. 

***END*** 

Sumitra Shankar writes in Naarm/Melbourne on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. She travelled there through many other spaces, real, metaphorical, and transitional, and likes to write about those experiences pretending that it is all fiction. She works in mental health when she inhabits the real world and realises there are bills to pay. 

Another Night

Utkarsh Sharma

“Mary, what is the time?” 

Roshan was spread out on his bed, gazing blankly at the ceiling. The orgy in the building opposite had ended an hour ago.  

It’s three-thirteen A-M I-S-T 

“Alright, thank you, Mary,” he grunted. He was supposed to have fallen asleep by 11. “Mary, are there any notifications,” he spoke with an effort.  

No notifications, Rowshun 

“Mary, where is my food?” 

It is thirty-five minutes away. 

Roshan slithered out of his sheet, felt for his slippers and, jigging his feet improperly into either, towed them to the only window in the room. Moonlight sifted through gossamer clouds and lit up half the room. Roshan did not like putting on the lights at night, if only for the pretence of order and sleep.  

It had rained yesterday and the smell of wet concrete still dithered in the wind. Roshan wished to feel the breeze. The window was outwardly hinged, the new kind with a steel frame that made you wonder if the metal was ever new. He pushed it outward and dropped the latch to hold it from smashing itself against the wall. His socks, awkwardly hanging on the bars of the window, barely moved.  Only a breath or two could enter the room and ruffle the itch on Roshan’s powdered forehead and neck. He had had a bad case of prickly heat ever since the AC hissed away its coolant a couple of weeks ago. No repairman could be reached. 

It is also true that Roshan chose to bear the ordeal. He had grown hesitant about moving in proximity with wandering men and women — dhobis, deliverymen, maids and the like — which is why he did not press any repairman. “Better to scrape my skin off with a comb than die gasping for breath in air-conditioning,” he had reasoned to Mary when reminded of scheduled repairs. Although the worst was thought to be over, and people slowly emerged from their homes, hesitant yet to breathe outside air without protection, Roshan was content with living in his flat. His employers were quite content too: this way Roshan worked for longer hours without knowing any better, instead of the old nine-to-five. 

As he stood by the window, rivulets sprang from the top of his forehead. The fan whizzed but was not effective. He knew the sweat would worsen the heat on his forehead. He wished to be on the balcony. The only room in the flat with access to the balcony belonged to Mayank, who had agreed to pay a slightly higher rent for the privilege. He was better placed than Roshan, and so had the better deal after settling all monthly accounts. He had put a lock on his door when he had gone home over two months ago. They had not talked since then. 

 “Mary,” Roshan whispered. 

 Yes. 

“What is Mayank doing these days?” 

 Do you mean Mayank Gupta or Mayank Kanojia? 

 “Well, only one of them used to live here.” 

 I am sorry, I do not understand. 

Roshan dragged his forehead across his arm. His forehead singed under the curls on his arm. “Gupta, Mary. Mayank Gupta.” 

 Mayank Gupta, @maybeank. Last post one day ago. “Banging plates for frontline warriors. What are you doing?” 

 “Thank you, Mary. Where is my food?” 

 Thirty five minutes away. 

 “Hmmm. Any messages?”
 You have one-hundred-and-forty-three unread messages from two chats. 

 “Whom did I text last?”

Riyas College. 

“Any response?” 

No. 

Riyas was an old college friend of Roshan’s. There had been little contact since graduation, but these hours of leisure over the last few months often proved fruitful to discourse, which somehow always entered the plane of politics. 

Roshan walked back to the night stand and picked up his phone. Riyas’s last message at 11:34 was still unread. “But he was killed. By the very people who gatekeep the industry,” Roshan’s text read. “I cannot care if he took his own life or if someone killed him,” Riyas had written before. “He is not the only Bihari who died last week.” Roshan had virtually ignored the latter part of Riyas’s message. He recollected now that his night began in wait of Riyas’s reply. The untimely demise of an actor, with all of its fantastic potential, cloaked the news. Roshan had been scrolling through these news pieces on his phone in anticipation for a reply until some ad for food popped up. This was around the time when the party across the road had begun.  

Roshan fancied what it would have been like over there. He had been able to make out some movement through the glass screen door of their balcony. The room was dimly lit with string lights, consistent with the new metropolitan vogues. There had seemed to be no more than five people there. He could make out the shapes of three women apart from the two men who used to live there. He had debated calling the police but what would he have said?

”Mary, are orgies legal in India?” 

I am not sure what you mean, Rowshun. 

“Ah, nevermind. You are too innocent. You don’t know enough.” 

…. 

“Maybe you can learn it on your own. I won’t teach you.” 

Please specify what you want me to learn about, Rowshun.

“Okay. Learn about the legality of orgies in India.” 

Just a second. 

“Take your time, my dear.” 

There is no law against orgies in India. Although it may be subsumed under other penal codes and considered an offence. 

“See, I wouldn’t have known that.” 

I am glad I could be of help. 

“Yeah, at least you could do this. Let the rascals have their fun.” 

Roshan had continued to stare out of the window, the languid night uninhibited in carrying gossip across the road. After the quintet had drooped and sprawled on the floor and scattered around the sofas, Roshan walked to his dresser and produced a bottle of talcum from a drawer. He shook a little onto his hand and dabbled it around his throat and forehead. 

“Mary.” 

Yes. 

“What is Nikita doing?” 

No recent updates. 

“Okay.” 

Roshan missed her in that instant. He had not met her since the lockdown began.  After a few weeks of life inside their homes, they had decided to end their acquaintance. They lived three blocks away. He saw her briskly walking past his building twice every day; possibly to get cigarettes at the society’s gate, but who knew? Roshan had been suspicious of her liaisons with that factory owner’s son in the next block. Watching her go by from his window, he would inevitably postpone their encounter to the next day. 

“Mary.” 

Yes, Rowshun. 

“What do you think will happen tomorrow?”

You have a meeting at 10 am. You have told me nothing else on the matter. 

“Not that, Mary. You can be idiotic sometimes.” 

…. 

“Yeah, yeah. Now I need to talk politely to you too. Did you get a new bug now?” 

I don’t know what you are talking about. 

“Let it be. You’re just a toy.”

I am— 

Roshan’s phone rang. The night stand shuddered. 

“Hello,” Roshan answered. 

“Hello, sirji, you had an order?” The man’s words ran into each other such that his sentence sounded like one long word. 

“Yes. Where are you?” 

“Sir, my motorcycle has a puncture so I am trying to find someone for help. It is hard to find help at this time.” 

“Then why did you accept the order if you had a flat tyre?” 

“Sirji, I was bringing the order to you when I got the puncture. There is nobody to help at this time. You must understand, sirji.” 

Roshan had nothing to add. “Oh, okay,” he said and hung up. 

He sat down on the bed and felt his stomach curl around him. “Mary, what did I weigh a month ago?” 

You weighed 155 pounds. 

“Mary, can you express that in kilograms, please?” 

70.3 kilograms. 

“And a month before that?” 

66  kilograms. 

“Thank you, Mary. Can I ask another favour of you?” 

Yes, Rowshun. 

“What was that video I was looking at an hour ago?” 

At 2:12 am? 

“Yeah, yeah whenever.” 

You were watching an age-restricted video. I cannot say its title. 

“Ah, shit. I mean the exercise one.” 

Lose 10 kilos in two months by Fitness Freak? 

Yes, yes, that one. Could you download it for me? 

In what resolution? 

“I don’t know, 4k?” 

Your phone does not have enough storage. 

“Make some.” 

From where? 

“You ask too many questions.” 

I wouldn’t want to delete anything important. I can delete unused apps if you want. 

“Yeah, okay. Maybe some of the newer videos from ‘xyz’.” 

I cannot say a lot of the words these titles have. 

“It’s alright.” 

Roshan turned and looked outside the window again. His body seemed to be shuddering with an urgency, like at the sound of approaching footsteps that never really materialize. He thought about the time left to fill with sleep. He still had to wake up at 8 for his shift. With the home office having lasted for a few months, Roshan found his joys at the prospect of it consistently diminishing. While it meant more time for himself on the first day and a few days after that, the long days teeming with possibilities would spin their promise away and leave Roshan feeling slow. He tried to practice the guitar, left abandoned since high school, but felt the urge to give in just minutes into it.  

“Mary, where is my food?” he almost started as the thought finally jerked him out of his reverie.

It is thirty minutes away. 

“Mary, why don’t you play something for me?” 

 What would you like to hear, Rowshun? 

“I don’t know. What do people in Britain listen to these days? Americans don’t really have a culture.” 

I could look up the UK charts for you— 

“Just play something for me, please.” 

At number one is— 

“Mary.” 

Yes, Rowshun. 

”Where is my food?” 

Twenty eight minutes away. 

“Where is this guy?” 

He seems to be near the Secretariat. 

“How long would it take to get from there?” 

Around 15 minutes. 

“Then why is he so slow?” 

Should I call him? 

“No, let it be.” 

Okay. Can I do something else for you? 

Roshan still looked outside the window. He turned and went back to the night stand and sat at the edge of the bed. His phone lay there. “Good night, Mary.” 

Good night, Rowshun. 

After the screen went blank, Roshan picked up his phone and switched it off. He looked at the pulsating lights as the animations played out, chiming with a robotic timbre, and then there was darkness and silence again. Roshan stayed there for a moment; he felt an irresistible pull towards the bed but sleep meant inactivity. He felt too enlivened, too nervous to sleep. He would have to sleep some time but he could not do it now, not yet. He walked back to the window, peered out sidelong, and waited to make out the figure of a man on a motorcycle, making the unlit turn from the slums and approaching the society’s gate. 

Utkarsh Sharma is a Master’s student of literature at the University of Hyderabad. Fascinated by the role of literature in peoples’ movements, he can be found reading, writing or working for the campus community. He has had his work published in The Hindu, Kitaab and The Alipore Post. 

The Descent

Varadharajan Ramesh

I feel my mobile phone vibrating and wake up with a start. The caller’s name displayed in the tiny screen of my cheap phone makes me groan. Inspector Devadas! The clock on the wall opposite my bed shows the time as 3 AM. Another early start. My partners will be furious when I go banging their doors. I do not answer the call. I know he’d call me back – the Inspector is persistent if not anything else.

I switch the mobile to loud, get out of my bed, and walk naked into the kitchen for a glass of water. As expected, the mobile starts ringing again, and this time it’s followed by a shriek. Again, as expected. I grin and return to the bedroom where Rani is scrambling to cover her modesty. I wink at her, open my wallet, retrieve a five hundred rupee note, and fling it towards her.

She mutters a curse, drops the blanket covering her body, and goes to pick the note. Money – the antidote to all inhibitions. I stare at her for a few seconds before gathering her clothes and dumping them in her hands. Unadulterated hate glows in her eyes as I tell her to leave my place in a rather brusque tone. We both know that this will happen again, this iniquitous tango was nothing new. She’ll be back, I know that. I needed her company, and she needed the money. Our relationship has been strictly professional till date, demarcated somewhere between the boundaries of lust, want, and need. Yet somewhere, in the remote corners of our warped minds, I guess we like each other. Well, if like is too strong a word to define the feeling between Rani and I, maybe “tolerate” works just as fine.

I look at her retreating figure, sigh and make the calls to my partners. They are not happy, but they are not unhappy either. After all, our business did demand us to be ready at all sorts of weird hours. We agree to meet at the Suicide Point in half an hour’s time. Our clients would be waiting for us there, well, not exactly there but a few thousand feet below. That’s what we do for a living – we retrieve dead bodies of the idiots who commit suicide by jumping off the famous Peace Valley View Point, more commonly known as the Suicide Point.

I lock my doors, though there is nothing worth stealing inside, light a cigarette and start walking. Tony joins me after half a kilometre. He is wiry and has an exuberance that comes with being young. Unlike my other partners and I, Tony is not from around here. He was a city boy who went astray. He told us that he used to peddle drugs and smuggle electronics from Singapore and Taiwan. After his boss sold him out to the police, he rotted for a few years in the jail, and it was there he discovered Jesus, or so he claims. Somehow, he made his way to our idyllic town atop the mountains six years ago, and due to a complete lack of knowledge in any other trade, he joined us soon after.

I take a deep drag of my cigarette and pass it over to Tony who accepts it gratefully.

‘Jesus! What a cold night, eh?’

I shrug and walk ahead, ‘I’ve seen worse, city boy!’

Tony takes a drag of the cigarette and blows the smoke out in a perfect circle, ‘Still, look at this fog. It looks quite unnatural.’

I have to agree, the fog looks unusually dense, like a miasma of despair. I don’t share this with Tony, he was already looking scared anyway.

Anna,” Tony says with hesitation laced over his voice, “I told you about my friend na? I have asked him to come to the suicide point. Shall we take him along today?”

I shrug again. “I don’t mind. But can he withstand the descent?”

For first timers, the descent into the looming valley beneath Suicide Point is a daunting task. Climbing down into the yawning void with its multiple rows of jagged rock teeth and crevasses that are not easy to spot has made many aspirants give up after half an hour. Tony had developed a serious case of the jitters half an hour into the descent. We had to take a break to calm him down; the arrack helped, obviously. But credit to Tony, he didn’t give up and, now, is a vital part of our team.

“Sure, Anna,” Tony passes me the cigarette. “He used to clean windows of high-rise buildings. He’s not scared of heights – you might have seen in the foreign movies na? They stand on steel platforms that are hanging several hundred feet above the ground and clean the windows. Poor fellow lost his job due to Corona. People are not going to offices these days na? So, the cleaning company that employed him dismissed him without notice. His mother is old and there’s a sister waiting for marriage.”

“It’s not just the climb,” I say, taking a drag of the cigarette. “Will he be okay once we reach down?”

“Hopefully, yes. We have seen a lot of blood, anna.”

“Okay, then. But whatever we earn this time will still be split into four,” I say. “Your friend gets paid from your share, alright?”

Tony nods, and we share the cigarette as we make jokes about the gutless cravens who decide to end their lives by jumping off cliffs. I have no respect for these losers, even though they put food on my plate. We walk at a brisk pace, the chillness is invigorating, towards Suicide Point.

“I think the spirits of those who meet their untimely deaths hover around here in the fog,” Tony mutters sagely, “They sometimes moan about their wishes which remain eternally unfulfilled.”

I shrug and nod. I think he is spewing crap.

We reach the Suicide Point around 5 AM. Karuppu and Mustafa, our other partners, are already there. Karuppu looks like he’s already started on the arrack. A heavy-set man with wide shoulders and a wider gut due to his fondness of the arrack and mutton biriyani, Karuppu is someone who could be described as the quintessential gentle giant. As his name implies, he is dark as the night. Karuppu grins at us and shows his backpack, which is stuffed with plastic sachets of the acrid-tasting country liquor. For doing what we do, the quick intoxication provided by the arrack is essential.

Mustafa is in deep conversation with the police inspector. Short and reedy, Mustafa is the de facto leader of our group. He is well into his fifties, but he can climb the hill like a teenager even today and knows all the safe paths into the overgrowth, the watering holes and the animals that frequent them. Even though the locals call us ponam thooki behind our backs, they respect Mustafa. Ponam thooki means carriers of corpses, though what we do is much more than just carry the dead. Mustafa turns and shows two fingers followed by a heart symbol he makes by joining the thumbs and forefingers of both hands.

I grin and nod. A failed romance and a couple who plummeted to their deaths. Couples are the best; their families tip us generously over and above the fixed rate for retrieval. Maybe, the families of the dead think that paying us to retrieve their dead relatives’ bodies would help them get a bit of closure. Maybe, they honestly believe that this would atone for their act of making the lives of those who had jumped, miserable when they were alive. At least, that’s what I like to think. I have no complaints, the more there are of such people in the world, the more money I stand to make. Like everyone else in the world, I too like to eat good food, drink liquor, and afford a warm body to keep me company in the cold nights.

I see a few people standing near the police jeep, unmoving, as if they are in a trance – the families of the fallen. Mustafa comes over and nods at me. It’s my cue to go talk to the families. We have a strict rule that the rates must be agreed before we take one step into the canyon.

I approach them and grunt, “Who’s the boy’s side, and who’s the girl’s side?”

An obese couple raises their hand as if they were answering a roll call. I stare at them. The man is clothed in a white Nike T-shirt and a blue and red chequered lungi. His pock-marked face sports a bushy, white moustache that tries to compensate for his bald pate. Gold chains of varying thickness surround his neck like a clew of worms feasting on his flesh. He doesn’t look sad; I think he’s more annoyed and a bit angry. The woman looks sullen, her mourning has started already. But she is wearing a designer saree and diamond-studded earrings. So, what the hell do I know?

The woman is the first to talk.  “Please get our son from there. We don’t want him to lie dead near that witch who snatched him away from us.”

I shrug, “Okay! We’ll get him out if possible. The rate is twenty thousand. No negotiations.”

The father’s head shoots up, “Twenty thousand? It’s too much.”

I light myself another cigarette and make a show of savouring the process. “Your problem. We have to risk our life and limb to go down there. If you are not interested in paying, we are not interested in going.”

He nods with resignation, “Alright! Here’s ten.” He hands me five crisp two thousand-rupee notes, “Get my son in one piece, and you’ll get your balance ten thousand.”

I laugh at his ignorance, “One piece? You’ll be lucky if you get a few pieces of him. The valley is two thousand plus feet in depth and is full of sharp rocks and coniferous trees. Do you know what happens to a human body when it comes into contact with those rocks? Try imagining smashing a melon against a stone, but only a thousand times worse. You look like a shifty character, no wonder your son jumped. I need the cash upfront – son or no son.”

He looks ready to strangle me, but I don’t care. I call Karuppu over and task him with extracting the rest of the money out of the fat moron’s wallet. I take a long, deep drag of the cigarette and walk over to the girl’s family. A mousy-looking woman looks at me with pain in her eyes. She seems well and truly defeated.

“Sir!” She squeaks, “We are very poor people. We don’t have the money you demand. We have only two thousand. If I give that to you, we won’t have anything to conduct my only child’s funeral.” She folds her hands in a silent plea, “Please help us. I will pay you every month, bit by bit. I don’t intend to cheat.”

I hate her for being poor. I hate her for being very dignified despite her predicament. I hate her daughter for jumping and putting the old woman in this predicament.

“Was your daughter wearing any jewellery?” The old woman nods. “The jewellery is forfeit, okay? That will be our payment, whatever the worth.”

Somewhere, I think I hate myself as well.

We start preparing for the descent. Tony comes over with his friend in tow. He introduces his friend as Stephen. Stephen looks physically fit. Whether he’s mentally fit enough for the task in hand remains to be seen. He is tall and gangly; I’m reminded of a giraffe. We apply salt on our hands and necks and spray tobacco-soaked water on our clothes.

“Why are we applying this disgusting liquid to our clothes, Anna?” Stephen asks, his eyes wide as saucers and his puckered nose crinkled in disgust.

“Leeches,” Mustafa says, and Karuppu nods.

“The valley is host to bloodsucking leeches. Tobacco water will keep them away. If you are smart and are not interested in donating your blood for the leeches ‘breakfast, you’d better start following suit.”

Stephen nods and applies the tobacco water to his clothes.

“Have you come across the bodies of accident victims?” I ask Stephen. He nods, though his eyes tell me a different story altogether.

“These bodies will be similar,” I say, lighting myself another cigarette. “We are taking you only because Tony requested. Okay? Since this is your first time, you will see a lot of unpleasant things; you will be asked to do a lot of unpleasant things. You will be asked to collect scattered body parts and tie them up. If you are ready to do that, come along. Else, you can leave right now.”

“I’m ready, Anna.” Stephen says and clenches his jaw.

We check our inventory – machetes to cut the vines and stubborn branches of trees, nylon ropes, plastic sheets and dark canvas shrouds, and wooden poles to carry the bodies – once we locate, collect and bind them.

The early morning cold bites into my skin. I zip my windbreaker up and pull the hoodie over my head. We consume copious amounts of arrack, switch on our head torches and begin our descent. The birds have started their chirping, getting ready to welcome the dawn of yet another day. The birds are lucky, I like to think. They don’t have to worry about anything other than their next meal. In a way, I’m like these birds.

We climb down the valley in silence. It is essential to set a rapid pace during the initial phase of the descent. The sun sets quite early in the hills and we would ideally prefer to wrap up our work before sunset. Otherwise, we might end up camping the night in the wilderness, a prospect none of us were looking forward. Mustafa is in the lead, walking at a brisk pace, hacking a shrub here or a thorny branch there. Karuppu is next, moving in a way that belied his considerable bulk. Stephen and Tony are walking almost side by side, murmuring between themselves and I bring up the rear.

Karuppu breaks the silence first, “Did you see the match yesterday? Dhoni has become absolutely useless. Every bloody match, I shit you not, he tries to take it to the last ball. He thinks that he’s still in 2010. I have lost count of the number of matches he has lost single handedly.”

There is no point in arguing about cricket with him. Karuppu was a fanatic, and you don’t argue with one. We talk about CSK’s heart-breaking defeat for a while and then I zone out; Frankly, I don’t have much interest in cricket. Instead, my mind wanders towards the mousy old woman and the fat guy atop the hill. Two people from completely different walks of life brought together by their dead children. Fate is funny that way.

My ruminations are broken by Tony mentioning Rani’s name. I’m sure he’d have seen her scurrying away from my place today.

“I was telling Karuppu and Mustafa that I saw Rani this morning,” Tony chuckles and continues, “She is your favourite, right?”

I show him my middle finger, and he starts laughing. Karuppu joins in, “I think you are in love with her!”

Mustafa, who is walking ahead, shakes his head. I’m sure that there’d be a grin on his face now.

“Shut up, Karuppu! I don’t love her. I just hire her professional services from time to time.”

“There are quite a few talents in the town, yet you seem to have a soft spot for Rani. I think it is love.” Tony can be an ass.

I shake my head, “The talent in our town is not up to scratch. Rani is just the best of the lot. You know what, we should petition the local MLA to get more prostitutes for our town.”

Karuppu guffaws loudly and says, “Yes! We should ask him to import some from China.”

“China?”

“Yeah! As it is, most of the stuff we use comes from there only na? Last week I bought a Ganesha statue, and that was made in China as well. Imagine that.”

“Don’t you think we’ve had enough of imports from China?” Mustafa says in his mildly amused tone. “I thought, after Corona, everyone would be wary of Chinese stuff.”

I’m inclined to agree with Karuppu. Maybe, we should get some new girls in the town. I, in particular, am tiring of seeing familiar bodies on my bed. If I wanted that, I would have married a long time ago. Still, in some deep and dark corner of my mind, there’s an image of Rani branded quite strongly. Why? I don’t know.

The deeper we descend, the less frequent our conversations become. Death and despair were hovering over the valley like a bilious cloud. Three hours into the descent, we spot the first body or what remained of it. It is the fat pig’s son. We find him smeared over a gigantic boulder like a perverse surrealistic art piece. His right leg was sticking out of the backside of his throat and his left leg was nowhere to be seen. Vultures had already started to sample his flesh. Stephen takes one look and pukes all over the body. We laugh and then chase the birds away with our poles and get to work.

We set a perimeter of 30 feet from the body and search for the remaining parts. Tony finds an arm dangling from a tree a few feet below the boulder. We give up after half an hour and set about parcelling the body. We mutter a small prayer and wrap the canvas shroud around the remains and hog tie it with the rope.

We have a meagre meal of bread and chicken salna prepared by Mustafa’s wife. We drink some more arrack and start our search for the girl. Five hours later, we give up. In my experience, if a body is not found after ten hours, it cannot be found at all. There are cracks and crevices all over on the mountain side into which a body might slide and vanish forever. The sun is about to settle down for the day and the birds are already shrieking. We have at least seven hours of solid climb, which would be tougher with the added weight of the body. At least, these are the justifications that we gave ourselves for abandoning the search for the girl. The mousy woman’s face flitters once again through my mind and I resolve to give the above-mentioned reasons with a tiny bit of gentleness to her.

We prepare to leave with only the boy’s body. Karuppu and Tony are disappointed. I’m sure they had plans for the money we would have got by selling the girl’s jewellery. Mustafa takes the lead once again and I bring the rear with the other two carrying the body. We switch our head torches again as the last rays of sun bid us goodbye for the day.

Anna,” Stephen whispers, “Why do young people, so full of life, decide to die in such gruesome ways?”

Mustafa says, “Sometimes, life becomes too painful that even a violent death might seem like a merciful release.”

“Really?”

Mustafa shrugs and says, “I enquired around. The boy’s father is a local politician belonging to the higher caste and the girl belongs to the lower caste. Trust me, he would have gladly hacked his son and that girl to pieces. I’m pretty sure that the man is sour that the couple managed to defy him by snatching their deaths from his hands.”

I walk in silent contemplation. This is not my first retrieval of a suicide victim. Heck, it is not even my twentieth. But something is weighing down in my heart. Is it the failure to spot the girl’s body? Is it her mother’s tears or her dignified plea amidst the pathos? I don’t know. I ruminate on Stephen’s question and Mustafa’s answer. What makes these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, jump to their gruesome deaths? What would have been running through their minds as they leap into nothingness? Don’t they think about their families? Do they even care about what they put their loved ones through? I wish Tony was correct in saying the spirits of the dead still roam these parts. I would like to talk to them, just to understand.

I turn back and spot something red down in the distance. Was it a piece of garment? Was it the girl? Will her mother understand when we return empty-handed? Will they mourn for her after a year or two? Will someone mourn for me if I slip and fall one of these days to my death? I guess it’d be good to know that you are loved.

We reach the top. As expected, no one’s waiting for us. The parents might be either at the police station or at the hospital.

I get this sudden urge to call Rani. Not for company, but to just talk. Maybe I should get her something nice.

Maybe, she’ll like that.

Glossary

Anna – Elder Brother

Salna – broth

Varadharajan Ramesh is an entrepreneur, author, aspiring saxophonist, and raconteur. His short stories have been published in multiple anthologies. Presently, he’s putting the finishing touches to his debut novel.

J Is for Joker

Gargi Mehra

Four o’clock on a sticky Sunday afternoon finds me at the table with Sultan, Prince, Shadow, and King. We are all running blind at sixty-four thousand, and the game is burning up. My fellow virtual billionaires won’t back down, but there’s one millionaire among us, and he’s thirsting for a win. Sultan pings me privately. He’s down on his luck. I ignore his pleas. The thing he needs is in short supply for me too.

The room lives only in pixels on the Internet, but the game plays out like I’m live in a gambling den. I’m in one of many game-rooms tables, playing Teen Patti, an Indian version of poker. My fate rests in three cards dealt out by the Gods.

By the time the Iyengars arrive, I have consumed my weight in chocolates.

And I’ve lost four million dollars.

#

Our first Diwali as a married couple, Rahul ushered me into the living room of his brother’s house, where an assortment of his relatives sat cross-legged in a makeshift circle on a rug. I knew nothing of the rules or the tricks, but they roped me in, probably hoping to make a clean sweep of my money. How could I claim that Delhi blood ran in my veins and its dust had settled in my lungs if I didn’t know how to play Teen Patti? Just three cards that would make my life.

Image credit: the author

The thought of us – two imbecilic newlyweds – gambling away the few crisp notes we earned every month turned my palms clammy. Unable to escape, I proposed an alternative – to play with Monopoly money.

 

Laughter rang out, loud and clear. The comments rolled forth. So young! So naïve! A typical virginal bride! Just like when you brought her home, Rahul! Is she always so shy like this (wink, wink)?

Six months had passed in a blur of monotony since Rahul and I had married. I wasn’t a bride anymore, and didn’t cower behind a veil, but the innuendos hadn’t dwindled one bit.

I curbed the retorts that rose on my tongue, and stewed in silence, swerving my focus to the game and my cards.

The stakes started low. In the first hour, I lost seven hundred rupees. Rahul folded most of his hands, but he showed me each one, and tutored me in the art of gambling. He himself lost a thousand rupees.

I gritted my teeth and watched my competitors tuck away wads of cash winnings into deceptively small cloth pouches. They tried soothing me with words:

Lucky in cards, unlucky in love

Rahul blushed. Why did a thirty-year-old man have to blush like a teenage girl? I feigned a shy smile, but beneath my grinning exterior, I yearned to throw them a punch, and stamp on Rahul’s foot. But only his foot – I couldn’t hurt the rest of him.

I built up my pot once more, accruing small but vital wins of fifty, hundred, two hundred rupees. In the beginning I almost gasped at the brilliant hands that came my way, and it cost me large boots of money as the experts folded. Soon I learned to conceal the delight in my features when the Card Gods blessed me with a trio or a straight flush. I learned to play blind, to trust in my fate that when the time came, the cards would deliver.

When my kitty blossomed and swelled, they noticed. It was their turn to watch, while I gathered mountains of crunchy notes and packed it into my little sling bag.

 

I baited them into betting higher amounts of money by playing dumb, duping them into parting higher bets each time, especially when golden cards crossed my palms.

An hour away from dawn, we rose from the cross-legged lotus positions. Our knees had stiffened, and Rahul had lost two thousand rupees.

I had won five thousand rupees, and for the first time in life, I had fallen in love.

#

2.54 pm, 53%, $71.8K

Stealing moments between meetings makes my blood boil, but there’s no other way I can earn back the dollars lost in the minutes after waking up.

Seconds before I step into the room, the options pop up on my phone. Play or fold? My virtual treasures lie at stake.

My boss assumes his seat at the head of the table.

I enter with my head down, buried in my phone, holding it between my palms in landscape mode.

“Sunaina?”

 

I switch off my phone screen in a hurry. If my colleagues glimpse the vibrant colors of the game-room, they’ll know it’s not work that has me engrossed.

My boss glares at me with that hangdog expression as he usually does. I always marvel at how his jaw resembles an ape’s.

“Yes?” I ask him, taking care not to smile, mimicking his vacuousness.

“Could you please take notes? We’ll need to send this to the senior management.”

I want to thwack him on the head. I’m not your effing secretary.

Then I realize that he had said “please.”

 

I cradle the phone on my lap. I’m wearing a skirt today, and the phone nestles upon the bowl of cloth between my widened legs. My phone remains on silent, so the jangle of each bet, the rustle of cards as players fold, the whoosh as each one is dealt – all those sounds stay confined to the phone.

My boss drones on. I bend my head to emit closed-mouth yawns every so often, while placing my bets. I dispatch a zinger of a bet, then place my pen on the page, poised as if to write down every golden word that escape his lips. I scribble some of what he says, along with a smattering of words from others and instructions that bear the ring of importance.

“What do you think, Sunaina?”

I glance at my phone.

3.09 pm, 47%, $62.6K

My turn will come next. In a flash, I press the “Fold” button, and read over the notes.

We’re good to go, I say. They nod.

Boss says, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you can think of? It’s a compliance issue, after all.”

He’s pushing back. Resisting and saying no would make me look like an idiot.

“I’ll double-check to be sure.”

This time he double-nods. Now he’s really satisfied that everything’s taken care of. Doesn’t matter if I really check things or not. Despite his directive to take notes, nothing of significance comes up. The meeting justifies his humdrum existence in the world of Excel sheets and insipid emails.

I hit New Game, and live to play another day.

#

 

From the living room in Gurgaon, I leapt to the gambling dens of Pamposh Enclave and Tilak Nagar. There, in the seedy bellies of crumbling brick buildings, soaking in the stink of sweat and smoke and homegrown local beer, I played, I won, and I lost. I surrendered my faith and life in the hands of my fellow players.

The dens glorified democracy more than elections did. They banded together all sections of society. Truck drivers tested their luck alongside suited businessmen and heiresses wearing Levi jeans and Chanel perfume.

Wedged between their sweaty middles was the middle class – people like me, stuffed into impossible positions, forever crouched upon the cusp of glory and immense wealth, but that remained elusive. Even one victory would propel us to the top. When we did win, we beat our chests with pride, only to return deflated in ensuing deals.

Rahul never discovered my clandestine trips to the dens, and neither did his family. Even the next Diwali when I swept the board and cleaned out their houses with my winnings, they furrowed their brows and strained harder, as if trying to dump aces on the floor, but they asked where I had gained so much practice.

When all else failed, they demanded babies. I didn’t bother to tell them that patting my stomach wouldn’t conjure up a baby inside it, no more than they could convert their twos into kings. Rahul and I hardly met these days. He slogged at his father’s boutique on the weekends, and I staggered home late every day on the other five days. He never guessed that my “late working” stemmed from my hours in the dens. He never complained too much about my hours after the first few weeks. We quarrelled over it a few times, but soon he gave up. In retrospect it should have warned me that something was amiss.

Rahul and my family didn’t find me out, but my friends from the dens did.

 

I took my Diwali winnings to the dens and bet all of it. I was invincible now. Everyone knew about that. I told them the whole story as soon as I strode in carrying the cash in a haversack.

Everyone knew what the haversack meant. On that day that I met the Iyengars.

They looked like such a homely couple. He with a crew-cut and a moustache ripe for twirling, she in a salwar-kameez and walking shoes, her thick hair in a plait down to her waist. I couldn’t but think of a horse’s tail when her plait swished every time she shot a bet.

They cleaned house faster and better than I did. My cash winnings, which I had scraped together after more than six hours of play, evaporated in minutes.

The Iyengars bore down upon me. I owed them money. They wanted it back, and they wanted it quick. They did not shy away from skirting the law to get what they desired.

I had to find a way to return it. In desperation, I turned to my art.

#

11.24 am, 92%, $91.9K

The call comes from reception – visitors from some infernal agency. I don’t even know what they want.

I click the bet button and rush downstairs.

Inside a small meeting room shielded from the world by frosted-glass doors, I shake hands with them. One man and one woman, both bespectacled, serious-looking and utterly without humour. They’re dressed in business suits, and suddenly I feel naked in plain jeans and a t-shirt on Friday.

Everyone folds. I bag a virtual fifty thousand in my kitty without a sweat. Looks like a good day.

 

The duo hurl terms at me that whoosh over my head. It sounds all very official. I’m wondering if I should tell my boss right now, but I picture his face contorting in rage for disturbing him and shelve the idea.

I’ve lost twenty of the fifty thousand already. But this hand looks promising. I hit Check.

They haul out their laptops and thrust the screen in my face. Graphs, charts and spreadsheets float before my eyes – together they narrate a woeful tale of our non-compliance.

Another forty thou in the kitty. The balance is beginning to swell.

They hand me their business cards. If I don’t send them the data they need, I can expect another call from them.

It’s a bank after all, and it dawns on me they know what they’re talking about. The evidence is damning.

I drag myself back to my seat. Over the next few hours, in a flurry of bets that I win and lose almost alternately, I compile and consolidate the data they had demanded.

A ten-thousand-dollar loss doesn’t sting any more.

Should I talk to my boss once before I dispatch it?

I lean over to check through his glass doors if he’s in his cabin, but I can spot only an empty chair.

The chat tool shows him away for an hour. That means he’s at an important meeting for the higher-ups.

How do I consult him?

A brilliant idea strikes me. When I email the data, I mark him in the email, so at least he’s aware of it.

 

Around six when I’m stuffing things into my bag, boss calls me to his cabin. His suit shines bright and clean, so I know he’s come to the office after nodding off during a conference rather than at his desk.

I follow him inside and he closes the glass door.

That’s my first sign of trouble. I shut off my phone temporarily, something I haven’t done the whole day.

“What’s that email you sent today?”

That was easy. “We were facing compliance issues.”

“Why didn’t you check with me about it first?”

“You weren’t at your desk, so I thought – “

“Do you have my number?”

“Yes, but I – “

His voice drops dangerously low. “You have committed a grade A violation.”

His chin crumples so much it looks like an orange peel.

I don’t survive to play another day.

 

#

The Iyengars arrive at six. The hues of twilight steal into our room when they ring the bell.

Rahul opens the door to them. His scowl disappears when he sees how homely they look, just as I had reported to him. They own businesses with millions of rupees in turnover, and they don’t have to pretend otherwise. I have simply not divulged to Rahul the exact nature of their business.

I serve them cold drinks and juices. Rahul offers Mr. Iyengar a drink, but our guest refuses. I don’t know why, because I’ve seen him chug them down by the gallon during the den parties. His abstinence impresses Rahul, more so when Mrs. Iyengar chimes in to say that he does it of his own accord. There’s no religious flavour to it – he simply abstains when he “feels like it.” This amazes Rahul, and he promises to join in on the next spree. Rahul hardly drinks anyway, but who am I to sever the ties of a premature bond?

I can’t gobble up chocolates in front of them, and I can’t pull up my poker game either. So, I do what I do best – bite my nails down to their cuticles.

Rahul says, “I don’t remember – where exactly is it that you people met?”

“Oh, that’s easy – in the Connaught Place den.”

Mrs. Iyengar’s face turns ashen. My insides turn to ice.

Suspicion and doubt ring through quite clear as Rahul enunciates each word. “The Connaught Place den?”

He turns to me. I sip my mango juice and shrug, as nonchalantly as I can.

Mrs. Iyengar addresses her husband. “I believe you are thinking of someone else, Mr. Iyengar. We met Sunaina at Indian Art Gallery, the day she took the decision to quit her job and pursue art as a career.”

It bears the ring of sincerity because it’s true, though that hadn’t been the first time we had met.

Mr. Iyengar shakes his head. “Oh, I am getting old, Rahul. My missus is right as usual. I am very bad at remembering dates, and names and faces.”

Rahul chuckles. “That’s ok, I am the same. But I do remember the important dates!”

“You are lucky, my dear.” Mrs. Iyengar says. “He doesn’t remember our anniversary ever.” She scoffs at her husband in disdain. He remains unperturbed.

I wear my finest fake blush and sip my juice. “I think this is an appropriate time to reveal my gift.”

 

Rahul smiles at me, the kind that reaches his eyes. It must be the news I whispered into his ears last night. I was late, too late for it to be anything else except what he and our relatives craved.

“Good idea. Get it now.”

Mr. Iyengar says, “What? What is it? Please! You should not go to so much trouble.”

“It’s just a little something I made for you. I’m sure you’ll like it!”

I skip inside to fetch it. The conversation drones on in my absence. Rahul’s remonstrations and Mr. Iyengar’s appreciative murmurs mingle into a pleasant hum of harmony and balance.

The canvas wrapped in newspaper weighs my arms down.

Everyone rises to their feet.

“Tear it off,” I offer Mr. Iyengar.

He and his wife rip off the packaging, revealing my magnum opus masterpiece – a reproduction of the “Glow of Hope” by S L Haldankar. An innocent young being, clad in a pink saree, stands with a lamp in her hand, her palm shielding its glow.

The look on their faces gratify me. I’ve captured the delicate colors and refined hues of the original painting better than I had hoped to.

“It is beautiful.”

“Really, Sunaina. You are a brilliant artist!”

“She has worked on it day and night, especially to present it to you two.”

They grin. The deal between the three of us hangs like an invisible thread in the air – Rahul, an outsider, who would never catch it even if he could.

“Well, you just have to wrap it again, Sunaina!”

I grab the canvas from them. “It won’t take me more than five minutes.”

 

They watch, spellbound. Such an expert forgery will fetch more than eighty thousand dollars on the open market, seventy-nine of which will clear my debt. The rest they’d pocket as their commission, the price I’m paying them to leave my teeth and face intact.

When they leave, I trudge to my studio, knowing what I’ll paint next.

I turn on my phone, shut off the light and click “New Game.”

Gargi Mehra works as a Project Manager in the IT arm of an international bank. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print, including The Forge Literary Magazine, The Temz Review, The Writer, and others. She lives in Pune, India with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.gargimehra.com.

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.