Fiction | ‘Fireflies’ by Kavitha Yaga Buggana | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

The wind carried the smell of rain falling in the distance. It shook the leaves of the jackfruit tree outside the kitchen window. Standing at the counter, Rukmini crumbled cool feta cheese onto slices of orange and cucumber. 

Dan picked up a piece of cheese. “We never had feta growing up, now we can’t stop.” 

Dan had grown up on a hill station in the Western Ghats as the only child of two schoolteachers of modest means. Standing tall and large-shouldered, he still viewed the world with the open gaze of mountain people.

“Ma should be here soon.” Rukmini felt her shoulders droop.

“Are you tired, Rukmini? We should have ordered in. You shouldn’t be on your feet. Not in your state.” 

“Which state is that? The state of Karnataka?” 

 “Very funny.” 

“I’m fine.” Rukmini gently patted her stomach. “We’re both fine. 

Dan placed his hands on her belly. “We’re all going to be just fine.”

She took a step back. “Who knows how anything will turn out, Dan? Who knows the future? Do you know the future?”

“Of course not.” 

Dan leaned against the doorframe, chewing on his lower lip. Rukmini stirred the pot of meat korma with smooth movements. Her straight black hair cascaded down her back. It was not a special occasion, but she had dressed up. She wore a loose bottle green silk kurta against which her pale, thin arms glowed. Around her neck, a filigreed silver necklace dangled a coral pendant. 

She raised her eyebrows at Dan. “Watching a movie or something?”

“Just watching my wife.” 

“Nothing ever got done that way.” 

“Guess I’ll put the drinks out then,” he said, and strode out.  

Rukmini was whisking the salad dressing when the lights blinked twice. Everything went dark.

A chair scraped in the living room, something toppled over. 

“Damn!” Dan’s voice rang out. “Rukmini? Are you okay?”

“It’s all fine, Dan.” She wiped her hands on a towel. She felt around inside the cabinet for the flashlight and turned it on him as he entered. “Are you hurt?” 

“It’s nothing.” He was rubbing his elbow. 

“You’re the one who should be careful, Dan.”

“What the bloody hell happened to the inverter? Why does everything stop working just when you need it?”

“We need light. The mango pie is done. And the fridge should keep the salad cool for a while. But we need more light.” 

“Here.” Dan took the flashlight from her. “There should be two more of these upstairs. I’ll be back in a minute.” 

“Also, there’s a couple of boxes of candles in the bedroom downstairs, in the closet.”

“I’ll get them.” 

Rukmini switched off the stove. 

It was too late to cancel. Her mother had started out over an hour before and would be arriving soon. Ma lived in a small apartment in a gated community on the other side of town. It was near the new airport. People hired the adjoining empty lot for concerts. On those nights, Ma invited her friends over to sip white wine on her rooftop and watch the bands play. Rukmini had to hand it to her mother, she could create a party out of anything.

Dan returned to the kitchen and placed a glowing flashlight on the counter. “We have three of these now. Your Ma should be fine.”

Dan’s parents had died in a car crash when he turned fourteen, and he was usually the one who invited Ma to dinner. Tonight wasn’t his fault, though.

“Did you get the candles?” she asked.

“Where are they again?” 

“Closet. Downstairs. Bedroom.”

“Right.”

 When he left, Rukmini switched off her flashlight, immersing herself in the darkness. Softly, she began to hum a song she had written years before. 

“These candles smell great,” Dan called from the living room. 

Rukmini opened her eyes. “If I remember right, they’re apple and lavender and I think, green tea.” She inhaled deeply. “Yes. Apple, lavender, green tea.”

“Delicious! Can I eat them?” He laughed.

Rukmini rolled her eyes. She began to sing again. She had recorded the song for her first album, Saaras. The album, a fusion of Jazz and Indian Pop, had been a major hit and had helped pay for the house. The two albums that followed over the years were disappointments, but she still had some devoted fans. A week before, Rukmini had received a letter from a blind woman from Shillong. The woman said she played Rukmini’s songs in the evenings, opened her windows and imagined the mountains outside. 

The doorbell rang twice. She heard a door opening, voices, shoes squeaking on hardwood floors. Rukmini switched on the flashlight.

“Rukmini!” Dan called out. 

“I’ll be there in a sec!” She began to chop spinach loudly.

She heard Ma say, “Sounds like there’s some serious cooking going on.”

After a few minutes, Dan leaned into the kitchen. “She’s here.”

“I know.” She threw some garlic in a stone pestle and began pounding it. 

“Would it be faster if I helped?” Dan shouted over the noise. “Anything I can do?” 

Rukmini scooped out the garlic. “You’ve done enough already.”

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Look, why don’t you get started on the drinks?”

“She wants to wait for you.”

“Why? Never mind.” She handed him two bowls heaped with cashew pakodas and peanuts. “Start on these at least?”

He shook his head as he carried them out.

Rukmini plopped mayonnaise into the spinach and swirled in the spices. She tasted it. Perfect. The spice, creaminess and crunch were just perfect. It was her father’s recipe. 

Dad had been many things: a cook, an adventurer, a photographer, an amateur singer. Her parents had met at a Ravi Shankar concert when Dad was twenty and Ma was twenty-five. A month later, they were married. She was rich; he was handsome. For the first few years they lived like kings. But her parents had no sense for money and Ma’s inheritance soon dwindled. Ma left him when Rukmini was seven. She saw her father a few times till he died in an accident a year later. Rukmini inherited everything: his music collection, his photographs, his recipes. 

“How’s it going in there?” Dan called from the living room.

“Almost done!”

“Your cooking is great, but it’s you we’re waiting for!” 

“So shall I tear off my shirt, smear spinach on my bra and mayonnaise in my hair? Shall I just walk out like that, and say Starters, anyone?

The silence stretched. 

Finally, Dan said, “We’re just waiting, that’s all.”

Dan could barely boil an egg, but Dad had loved to cook. As a child, Rukmini would sit on the counter watching him peeling potatoes, thickening sauces or frying fish, chopping, grinding, sautéing. All the time he explained, slice the onions the same size, slowly sprinkle the spices, keep stirring, keep stirring.

Rukmini arranged the chips and dip and carried the tray. 

The living room had been transformed. Rows of candles glowed on tables and ledges and on the floor. The black lacquered Japanese screen receded into near invisibility and its gold-painted lotus flowers seemed to float. Silver flecks shone in the antique ceramic vase. Unexpected shapes emerged from paintings – glowing streaks of water, bright eyes in a pale face, an enigmatic red blob. 

Ma and Dan sat across from each other, their flashlights half-sunk between sofa cushions. On the centre table, a large candle cast shadows on cheekbones.

 “Hello, Ma,” Rukmini said.

 Her mother rose in her an orange dress, the seams hanging down her shoulders. She was small, with an upturned nose and her mass of curly, hennaed hair was tied into a loose ponytail. 

“Rukmini! How are you feeling?” 

“I’m fine. How are you? Was the traffic awful?”

“No more than usual.” Ma lifted her head to the ceiling light. “So, I see the electricity’s gone. What happened, Dan? Didn’t pay the bill?”

Dan laughed too loudly for too long. The two women turned to stare at him. 

Rukmini sat down. “New dress, Ma? Looks expensive.” 

“This?” Ma smoothed down the layered chiffon. “It’s just something a friend gave me when it got too tight for her.” 

 “Lucky you.” 

 “Dhananjay?” Ma dragged out his full name. “You said something earlier about a drink?”

“Yes, Aunty. What can I get you?” 

“What do you have?”

 “Pretty much everything. There are two fine whites. Gin and tonic. I can make a Martini. What’s your poison?”

“Trying to poison me, Dan?” 

“Not yet. Give me some time.” He laughed. 

Ma said, “I think I’ll have a vodka. With ice. Thanks.” 

“Sure, sure. No problem.” Dan opened a bottle of Russian vodka he had bought a year before. He had paid a small fortune for it. He hovered as Ma sipped her drink.

“Not bad,” She said.

Dan’s face fell. Rukmini shifted deeper into the sofa.

Ma eyed Rukmini. “You’re looking tired. Nausea? Not sleeping well?” 

“I’m fine, Ma. Like I keep saying, I’m fine.”

“You’d be better if you hadn’t let go of that fancy cook.” 

Rukmini shrugged. “Like I told you, we didn’t need him.

“So, Aunty,” Dan asked, “how was your Mumbai trip last week?” 

“Oh, Mumbai. That was really something! The Arabian Sea, the culture, beautiful people, the parties. The whole package.” 

“Where’d you stay?” Rukmini asked.

“Katherine’s Juhu flat.”

“Katherine Aunty’s this time, Ma? Wasn’t it Jaya Aunty’s last time, and Kiki Chopra’s the time before?”

“Looks like you’re keeping track, Rukmini.”

“It’s just that you’re such a lucky woman, Ma. I mean your friends, they’re so kind, so rich. So charitable.”

Ma’s lips tightened. “Those are my childhood friends, Rukmini.”

Rukmini reached for the pakodas. “I’m just saying you’re lucky, Ma. In fact, I envy you. I wish I had friends with money. Old money, like you.” She wiped her hands on a tissue. “I mean, like you had been.”

Dan glared at his wife. 

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Rukmini mumbled. She thrust the plate of chips and dip at her mother. “Have some more, Ma.” 

Dan held up a chip heavy with dip. “Rukmini’s dip is the best.” 

“It’s her father’s recipe. Cooking is one of the few things he did well.”

Rukmini turned her face away. 

 “So,” Dan said, rubbing his hands, “what else is going on with you, Aunty? Are you hearing about the election? What do you think?”

“Can you believe these netas? Let me tell you what I read the other day.” Ma held strong views and dispensed them with cutting gestures. As Ma wandered from one topic to another, Dan nodded politely. Rukmini tapped her fingers on her armrest. 

Six years ago, when Rukmini had told Ma that she and Dan were getting married, Ma had asked her, “Are you serious? Him?” 

“Ma,” Rukmini said, “you’re really something else. You clap at readings by your leftist poet-friends. You argue for caste rights, gender rights, all kinds of rights. We’re all connected, isn’t that your motto? What about Dan, isn’t he connected?”

“But, Rukmini, his flashy suits, my god! And does he even read? And his views, his opinions – they’re just off.”

“He’s funny, he’s exciting, he loves to travel. We’re perfect for each other.”

“That’s not why you marry someone.” 

“I like the way he looks at me. Like I’m porcelain. Or honey.”

Ma had looked at her for a long time and said, “I suppose you and I are more alike than we realise.”

The spoon clinked against the porcelain bowl as Dan scooped up some peanuts. Rukmini stifled a yawn. Finally, Ma’s voice trailed off. In the silence, Rukmini shook her foot, her black sandal tapping against the couch. 

Ma said, “Well, anyway, what’s happening with you both? How about you, Dan? How’s everything with you?”

“Umm, fine. Fine.” 

She pointed her glass at him. “You seem a little—”

“Ma! He said he’s fine.” 

Ma swirled her glass a few times and took a sip. “Actually, this is very nice vodka, I must say.”

Dan perked up. “It’s from a special batch made in Russia. It’s crazy hard to get.”

“It must have cost a bundle.” 

“Well, Aunty.” Dan chuckled. “You can’t put a price on these things.” 

Ma placed her glass on the table. “But maybe the bank can.”  

 Dan’s smile froze.

Rukmini half-rose from her chair. “The bank?” 

“Everything has a price these days, right? It’s all about money, all profit and loss, right?”

“Right, right, the problem with capitalism and all that.” Rukmini pressed her palms on her knees. “So, shall I put on some music? I think this dinner could use some music.” 

She picked up the remote and pressed Play. Khora kaza tha ay man mera, likhe liya naam uspe tera, Kishore Kumar’s voice poured out of the speakers. Rukmini was flooded with a memory so old the colours had seeped into each other. Her father was standing at the stove. She and Ma watched him cook. This song started playing. Just as the first line ended, he turned to them with eyebrows raised, head cocked. Like Rajesh Khanna in the film. Rukmini sometimes wondered whether she borrowed memories of her father from films and books because she didn’t have enough of her own. She switched off the music and turned to her mother. Ma was watching her, elbows on knees. Rukmini wanted to ask: if Ma hadn’t walked out on Dad, would he still be alive? 

“What?” Ma raised her eyebrows.

Rukmini gazed at her for a few moments, then shook her head.

Ma said, “So, you’ll never guess who I ran into a couple of days ago.” 

“I’ll never guess.”

“Sashi Rao. Remember her?”

“Our old neighbour?”

“She remembers you fondly. And she was telling me about her son. Remember him? He owns Mahadhan Bank.”

Dan snorted.

“Do you know him?” 

“Shom Rao’s bank gave us the first loan for the business. He got a share in the business later. Through another company.”

“Really?” Ma said. “Isn’t that iffy?”

Dan shrugged. “The company is legitimate. Anyway, Shom Rao was a very happy guy. With every one of the properties that I bought, I built, I slaved over, Shom made a lot of money. And we paid his bank right on time.”

Rukmini said as lightly as she could, “What did Sashi Rao have to say, anyway?”

“Oh, you know.” Ma waved her hands and looked at her daughter. 

Rukmini turned to Dan. He seemed to be searching for words. Each waited for the other to speak. 

“I remember Shom as a kid,” Rukmini said finally. “Smart kid, nose in books. But kind of, I don’t know—ratty.”

Dan drained his drink. “He’s still a rat.” 

“What did Sashi Rao have to say?” Rukmini asked again. 

“She had a lot to say. About her son, his bank. There was a lot of information.”

 Rukmini stiffened. “We could bloody well sue her. Who does she think she is, telling the whole world? Financial information is meant to be confidential.”

Ma glanced at her. “What makes you think it was financial?” 

“What else could she have told you?”

Dan shifted to the edge of his seat, “Actually, we wanted to talk to you ourselves—”

 Heat flooded Rukmini’s face. “Really, Ma, who does Shashi Rao think she is?”

 “She’s my childhood friend,” Ma said, “and she’s known you since you were a baby. She cares about you.” 

Rukmini forced out a laugh. “Did she care when we had to sell our house and move to that run-down place in that old building? Did she visit us even once? Did any of our so-called friends care? All they had to give us were those sidelong glances and stage whispers. Such unfortunate circumstances, such a sad slide. All of them. Just who do they think they are?

 Ma looked at her. “It was a long time ago. And without some of those friends, I don’t know how we would have made it through. But it’s behind us, Rukmini. Let it go. It’s high time you got over it.”

“Got over it?” Rukmini stood up. “Maybe you should take a look at the mess you’ve made of your own life before you tell me what to do.”

Dan scrambled off his chair and held Rukmini’s shoulders. “It’s okay, Rukmini. You’re upset, I know. Who can blame you? But your mother and I are here for you.”

“That’s exactly the problem.”

He flashed an apologetic smile at her mother. “Sorry, Aunty, she’s just not herself.”

Rukmini pushed his hands away. Dan’s mouth narrowed and something flickered in his eyes. He turned abruptly and hurried to the bar. He poured himself another peg of whiskey and stood hunched for a few moments before striding back. 

“Aunty,” he said, as he handed her the glass, “I don’t know what your friend has told you and I don’t care. I want to tell you myself.”

“You have my undivided attention,” Ma said.

“Everything was going great. Shom Rao was dancing to the sound of cash registers ringing. Our investors were thrilled, the bank was happy, I was happy. Then it hit us.” Dan stared into the distance. “As you know, as history will note, the recession crashed down on us. People stopped spending, all my real estate projects took a hit. But, still, I thought things would get better. I thought it was a temporary dip. An opportunity, in fact.” 

 “You thought! The world was in a deep dive and you thought it was a temporary dip?” 

The ice cubes clinked as Dan took a sip. “Look, Aunty, in business it’s about judgement. You don’t have the answers. You don’t have all the information. But you still have to make a call.” 

He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts and fell silent. 

Ma leaned forward. “Go on, Dan. What happened?”

“I took on more debt. So, yeah, I took a mortgage on the house. I thought the downturn would pass.” 

Ma turned to Rukmini. “When did Dan tell you?”

“What difference does it make, Ma?”

“When did he tell you?”

“Two weeks ago,” Dan replied, “I told her two weeks ago. I was hoping I could sort things out and Rukmini would never have to know.”

Ma’s hands flared. “So, she didn’t even know you had mortgaged the house! Dan, make the mortgage payments somehow. I don’t know what you’re going to do with the business, but the house is hers too.”

Dan shook his head. “I haven’t been able to pay the mortgage for a while now. Shom Rao’s bank is putting the house up for auction. We have a couple weeks to move out.”

“But the baby! The baby is due in a few weeks,” Ma said.

Rukmini’s fingers grazed the thin silver chain around her neck. “At first, I felt it all. Rage, betrayal, fear, shock. I realized I had been living all these years in a paper world. None of it was real.”

Dan touched her elbow. “Rukmini, we’ll find a way out of this, I promise.”

“I’ve already found a way. Stop thinking. Stop thinking about the baby, stop thinking about the future. Stop thinking, full-stop.”

Ma held her hands tightly. “I’m still trying to get my arms around this, Dhananjay,” Ma said, “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. Do you mean you’re completely bankrupt?” 

“Probably.” He took a shaky breath. “Not probably, I am.”

“But there’s all this—this stuff!” Ma swept a hand around the room. “I mean, frankly, I always thought your spending was excessive. But, still. These paintings, your cars, the porcelain, the antiques. Furniture. All that should get you a tidy amount.”   

“It wasn’t just the bank. I also took some money from people.” 

“Who?” 

“Moneylenders. Loan sharks. I’ll have to sell almost everything to pay them back.” 

Rukmini stared at the candle flame. It swayed, blue, yellow, orange, leaping and shrinking. 

“Look,” Dan said, running his fingers through his hair. “We wanted to tell you sooner. We were going to come to you for help. You have such good friends. They’ll help, I’m sure. They’ll give me a loan if you just ask—”

Ma shook her head. “Dan, I wouldn’t bet on anyone giving you a loan.” 

“You don’t know that,” Dan said, his eyes fixed on Ma’s.  

Rukmini turned her face away.

“Trust me, Dan. No one will give you a loan,” Ma said. 

Dan leaned in. “But, Aunty—” 

Rukmini touched his arm.

“Besides, if I did get you a loan how would you pay it off?” Ma raised her shoulders. 

Rukmini’s voice was firm. “Yes, how would we pay it off? I hated to ask you, Ma. But what choice did we have?”

Ma sipped her drink. “Look, it’s not just you. Money in is vanishing, like vapor.” 

Rukmini squeezed her hands together. “Anyway, anyway, what a mess this is!” 

Ma said, “It’s worse than anything that Sashi had hinted at. My God, I still can’t believe it. Is there nothing left, not even the house? How can I believe it?” 

Dan sprang up and began to pace. The flashlight on the sofa made a ring of light and he walked into it and out again. He stopped pacing and looked at Rukmini and at Ma and back. “Listen, you’ve got to understand, I just wanted the best for my family. And I took the loans and the mortgage because I was certain things would turn around. Absolutely certain.” His eyes were wide, his mouth stayed half open. Nobody made a move. Rukmini realized she was holding her water glass so tight it might snap into shards of glass and light. 

She set her glass down. “These flashlights, the glare is getting to me.” 

Rukmini gathered the flashlights and switched them off. The candles circled their space. Shadows shifted on wood. Ma cleared her throat and said she needed to use the powder room. As she made her way out of the room, Dan walked to the window. 

Rukmini heard the wind whirring outside. Without the hum of electronics, every sound was magnified: the tick-tick-tick of an insect, a car whooshing in the distance, the distant wailing of a dog. 

 “Can’t believe that just six months ago we had bought those little sheets and blankets with puppies,” Rukmini said, staring into the distance. “Sweet little puppies in a light yellow background. A neutral colour for a boy or a girl.”

“Those we can keep. The blankets and sheets, with those sweet puppies.” He scrunched his eyes. “Hey! Wasn’t that the name of that café? The one we met in? Sweet Puppies? Something like that.”

“Yeah.” Rukmini’s lips softened. “Sugar Pups.”

“On Brigade Road. Remember that day?”

“It was cold, I remember that. I was sipping some masala chai and working on my song. Just when I was about to leave, you asked me for a pen.”

“I didn’t need it. It was an excuse to talk to you.” 

Rukmini’s lips turned up at the edges. “Well, of course I knew that. I’m not daft.”

“I noticed you the minute I walked in. I noticed everything about you. Your hair, your face, the way you tilted your neck when you looked at me. Every single thing.”

“The first thing I noticed was the little green flecks in your eyes when you smiled at me.”

Dan grinned. “Was there a second thing?”

Rukmini looked away and shrugged, “All that seems like ages ago.” 

Dan turned back to the window.

“Do you see them, Rukmini?” Behind him, smoky cloud-wisps drifted against an almost round silver moon.

“The clouds?” 

 “Fireflies.” He cocked his head to the garden outside. “We never see them anymore, but they’re here today.” 

Rukmini walked over and stood beside him. “I see them.”

Dan stroked her cheek. She didn’t pull away. He said, “At the café, that day, we talked for hours. What did we talk about? Nothing and everything. I remember I wanted to hand you the whole world. And now, here we are. How did we get here?” 

“You tell me.”

“Miscalculations? Unscrupulous partners?” He turned abruptly to the window “Sure. And macro-economic variables and things out of my control. But there are other reasons for what I did. Who likes to admit to them? Issues with character and judgement, who wants to admit that?” 

Rukmini started to say something, then stopped. She turned back to the window. They gazed out in silence.

She said, “I feel like I’m seeing fireflies for the first time in my life. They’re glowing like mad.”

“They make the light in their abdomen. With oxygen and a chemical.”

“They’re like tiny, silent firecrackers. There’s one, and another, and another.” Rukmini laughed. “It’s all seems so random. That’s the beauty of it, that each light-burst is unhinged from all the light-bursts that came before and will come after.”

“When I was a little kid, I’d sit in the garden after dinner with my parents. The days the fireflies came out, I’d run everywhere, jumping, trying to catch them. It was a game, and they always darted just out of reach. Once, though, I caught a one. Man, was I happy! There it was, in my cupped hands, this thing of light and beauty and no one could see it because it was shining just for me. But I wonder how it felt.” Dan stared down at his cupped hands, as if he could see the firefly fluttering inside. “When it brushed against my palms, how did it feel, that flittering, glowing creature, trapped in the darkness of my hands?”

He looked at her wide-eyed, as if he had no idea what to do, what move to make. 

Rukmini slowly reached over and turned his hands around. Her thumbs traced the lines on his palm. The big curving lines, the small, thin lines like a mesh. She pressed down gently, feeling the tough skin on his palms and the soft mounds of flesh underneath, and on the other side, she felt traced the thin, straight bones running to his wrist. 

She lifted her gaze and it lingered on Dan’s drooping shoulders. Her gaze rose up his throat and to his shadowed jaw, his cheeks, and up to his wide brown eyes, up again to the eyebrows, unruly and thick in the middle, and the flat forehead with one vein throbbing. His face still contained traces of his boyhood. She imagined him as a child, running up mountain paths, gazing up at the horizon. She thought of him playing, swinging the cricket bat, kicking the football, the thrill of it, the joy of being young and alive. She thought of the boy at night, the smell of dinner in the house, the feeling of his parents’ presence. She imagined him gazing down at the glowing firefly in his hands.  

Rukmini tugged at Dan’s hands and placed them on her stomach. From the other end of the room, she heard the clicking of shoes on the floor. Ma entered. A moment later, Rukmini and Dan drew apart. Ma settled herself in one corner of the couch, slipped off her shoes and sat with her legs tucked underneath. 

A few candles had burnt out and Dan brought out some more. As Rukmini lit them, she inhaled the smell of lavender and apple and green tea. She remembered Dan’s comment about the scents and began to laugh. Ma and Dan looked at her and she shook her head at the two of them. “Just remembered a joke.”

Dan poured everyone a new round of drinks. 

“Mmmm, this really is outstanding vodka, Dan,” Ma said, shaking her glass.

Dan raised his glass to her. “Enjoy!”

“Where’d you get it?” Ma asked. 

“You’ll never guess. I was in London, on business. I stopped at a glitzy new Sushi restaurant and it turned out, the owner was Russian. He’d never lived outside Russia before, never been to Japan, but he wanted a sushi place. Anyway, there I was, this small-town Desi guy, in England, in a Japanese restaurant, run by a Russian. Doesn’t that just blow your mind? The sushi wasn’t great. The vodka, though, that was a beautiful thing. I had to have it. The Russian sold me this bottle, and I won’t even tell you what I paid for it.” A rueful smile hovered on his lips. “Anyway, I guess that’s a part of the problem. I guess that’s how you get carried away.”

 “How about those vacations? Montenegro, Belize, Seychelles, places I’d dreamt about. And what about all my things? The Basra pearl necklaces, my priceless vases, my designer dresses straight off the runway. What was the point of buying them? Carried away is right.” 

“I suppose there are things we’d all do differently if we had to,” Ma said, reaching for pakodas. But the bowl was empty. Rukmini tried to get up, but Dan waved his hand and took the bowls into the kitchen. 

Rukmini cast her eyes around the room. She had designed her house to be a showpiece, with swathes of glass and pale walls. She had placed bold colours – red, magenta, black – for striking contrast. Now, with the lights and shadows flickering on the damask textured wallpaper, her house seemed like a sentient being, with its own desires and secrets and stories of love and sadness. 

“This night reminds me of when Dad was alive. It reminds me of birthdays and photographs and ghost stories.”

“I have to admit, your father would always find something to celebrate.”

“And Dad would tell me stories. And we’d make shadow puppets with our hands.” Rukmini put her hands together against the candlelight. Her fingers fluttered and a bird shadow appeared on the wall. “Everything looks so different, doesn’t it? In candlelight, everything is different, right Mummy?” 

Ma’s eyes widened. 

Rukmini straightened her fingers to make a rabbit with pointed ears.

Dan walked in with the bowls and laughed. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“I feel like I’m in a movie.” Rukmini bent her fingers to make a deer with antlers. “This night is the strangest thing I have seen in my life.” 

Ma said, “The world is full of strange things. In Mumbai I went to the park one morning, and there were a bunch of people, all laughing their heads off.  So, I went over to see what was so funny. Turns out they were laughing at nothing at all. It was a laughter club. They’d laugh and laugh and when they’d stop, somebody would start the whole thing again. They’d fling their arms in the air, they’d clutch their sides, laughing.” 

“Personally, I’ve always found those laughter yoga clubs so odd. Wouldn’t people feel self-conscious?” Rukmini said.

 “You should have seen their faces. They didn’t care who saw what, they were fully into it.”

Dan raised his glass again. “Here’s to strange people, strange times.” 

Ma sat bolt upright. “We should try it tonight. We should try it. A laughter club of three!” 

“Really?” Dan said.

“Yes!” Ma’s eyes glittered. She let out a deep laugh. 

Dan gave a surprised chortle. Ma pointed at him and laughed even louder. He burst out. 

Rukmini sank into her seat. “This is weird, even for you two.”

“You should see your face!” Ma pointed at her and laughed even more. 

Rukmini found herself standing up. Dan hooted and slapped his hand on the armrest. Ma roared. 

“You’re both enjoying yourselves!” Rukmini grinned. 

Ma clapped and thew her head back.

Rukmini placed her hand on her stomach. She thought she felt the baby move. Was her baby laughing? Was it kicking in her belly, howling, rolling over with yogic laughter in amniotic fluid? She began to chuckle, then burst into laughter. Dan and her mother sprang up and began to laugh with her. Soon, Rukmini couldn’t stop laughing. She stamped her feet. Her breath came in gasps. She laughed harder than either of them, harder than she could ever remember laughing. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her sides hurt and she clutched her stomach. She thought again about her baby laughing and kicking and she laughed some more. Dan’s body shook, Ma’s arms flew up. 

“It’s all a big joke! What jokes we are!” Rukmini hollered. 

They were laughing at diapers that cost the earth when all they did was catch baby poo. And baby clothes – the less cloth they used, the more they cost. And money, those rectangles of printed paper, coloured paper, paper with words and numbers and faces of important men. Paper that you could burn or tear or use as toilet paper. They were all jokes: she and her mother, fighting over ghosts. And Dan. Her Dan, little Dan, big Dan, trying, failing and always trying again. All this was a joke, a joke was this. Rukmini grew dizzy with laughter. 

It was late when they carried candles into the kitchen. Rukmini slid the salad out of the fridge. They passed around the can opener and emptied the contents of the cans and bottles into blue ceramic bowls. Almond-stuffed olives, mussels escabeche, white peaches, macadamia nuts—delicacies she and Dan had been saving for months. Dan parodied famous chefs as they scooped the meat into a large glass bowl, piled the naan into a basket, and arranged grilled eggplant, carrots and beets on a plate.

They placed everything on the counter, Ma arranged the candles. Rukmini brought out forks and spoons, and bone china plates with patterns of thin green vines and rosebuds. They ate standing up. They dropped orange pieces into their mouths, they speared mussels, they razed through lines of vegetables. Sauce oozed down their cheeks and chins. 

Rukmini pulled the mango pie out of the oven. It was still warm, with stray sugar crystals shining on the crust. The smell of mango and cinnamon clung to her clothes as Dan carried the pie out to the garden. The moon glowed under moving clouds like it was a reflection. Yellow cassia flowers lay scattered on the ground, their worn, bright petals glowing in the moonlight. 

They sat under the Gulmohar tree on wrought iron chairs. They scooped pie straight from the baking dish. Rukmini dropped a piece onto the grass and left it for the insects. Moist winds tangled their hair. They declared that their stomachs felt fit to burst and set aside their forks. They slumped on the garden chairs, arms draped over foreheads. All around, fireflies glowed like tiny stars on earth, the lights flaring and dying and flaring and dying.


Kavitha Yaga Buggana is an American writer living in Hyderabad, India with her husband. They have two children and a very excitable golden retriever. Her essays and short fiction have been published in The Hindu, River Teeth Journal, Tehelka, Out of Print Magazine, JaggeryLit, and Muse India Magazine. Her travel memoir, Walking in Clouds was released in December 2018 by HarperCollins, India. 

​In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economist doing field work in Angallu village, South India. www.KavithaYagaBuggana.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s