Poetry | ‘Tomato Plant’ & ‘Sea Urchins’ by Tom Paine | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

Tomato Plant

There is a sexual pleasure
in stripping the tomato
to a solo lime-green stalk,
razoring stray, opining
leaf suckers. I condemn
it to stand tall, not crawl.
No loafing the summer;
basking like a pharaoh,
drifting the magnetic sea
of timeless. This training
to tallness is my training.
I take my revenge on life,
handcuff it with tightness
to javelins of rusted rebar,
thrust into the unseen soil.
Ripe breasts, skinned flesh:
I bite with canine incisors;
rip into the seeded caves,
tumble into the vegetable,
and like a sick snow angel,
tangle myself in green vines.


Sea Urchins

But those spiny marauders everywhere,
bird-beaked rapists, sea urchins scouring
the reefs, scraping at life like old paint,
leaving a greenish snot on the bleached
sea-skeleton of a cocktail hallucination
of the lightning in life– hard to fathom
we let such beauty die—floral reefs,
starved of breath— now face jellyfish,
parachuting in, glutinous paratroopers,
bag ghosts drifting over the battlefield,
lording over our pitted phantasmagoria


Tom Paine’s poetry is upcoming or published in more than seventy international journals, including: The Nation, The Moth (Ireland), The Rialto (UK), New Contrast (South Africa), Poetry Salzburg (Austria), Bangalore Review (India), Volt, Vallum (Canada), Paris Lit Up (France), Glasgow Review of Books (Scotland), Blackbox Manifold (Cambridge), Fence, The Common, Epiphany, Green Mountain Review, Galway Review (Ireland), Forklift, Tinderbox, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, Hobart, Tampa Review and elsewhere.

Stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope, Boston Review, The New England Review, The O. Henry Awards and twice in the Pushcart Prize. His first collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Pen/Hemingway finalist. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.

Essay | ‘Of Liars’ by Michel de Montaigne | Classical Archives

In this wonderfully long and meandering essay, Montaigne presents an intimate look into his mind, writing about his poor memory, talkative people, and liars.

There is not a man living whom it would so little become to speak from memory as myself, for I have scarcely any at all, and do not think that the world has another so marvellously treacherous as mine. My other faculties are all sufficiently ordinary and mean; but in this I think myself very rare and singular, and deserving to be thought famous. Besides the natural inconvenience I suffer by it (for, certes, the necessary use of memory considered, Plato had reason when he called it a great and powerful goddess), in my country, when they would say a man has no sense, they say, such an one has no memory; and when I complain of the defect of mine, they do not believe me, and reprove me, as though I accused myself for a fool: not discerning the difference betwixt memory and understanding, which is to make matters still worse for me. But they do me wrong; for experience, rather, daily shows us, on the contrary, that a strong memory is commonly coupled with infirm judgment. They do, me, moreover (who am so perfect in nothing as in friendship), a great wrong in this, that they make the same words which accuse my infirmity, represent me for an ungrateful person; they bring my affections into question upon the account of my memory, and from a natural imperfection, make out a defect of conscience. “He has forgot,” says one, “this request, or that promise; he no more remembers his friends; he has forgot to say or do, or conceal such and such a thing, for my sake.” And, truly, I am apt enough to forget many things, but to neglect anything my friend has given me in charge, I never do it. And it should be enough, methinks, that I feel the misery and inconvenience of it, without branding me with malice, a vice so contrary to my humour.

However, I derive these comforts from my infirmity: first, that it is an evil from which principally I have found reason to correct a worse, that would easily enough have grown upon me, namely, ambition; the defect being intolerable in those who take upon them public affairs. That, like examples in the progress of nature demonstrate to us, she has fortified me in my other faculties proportionably as she has left me unfurnished in this; I should otherwise have been apt implicitly to have reposed my mind and judgment upon the bare report of other men, without ever setting them to work upon their own force, had the inventions and opinions of others been ever been present with me by the benefit of memory. That by this means I am not so talkative, for the magazine of the memory is ever better furnished with matter than that of the invention. Had mine been faithful to me, I had ere this deafened all my friends with my babble, the subjects themselves arousing and stirring up the little faculty I have of handling and employing them, heating and distending my discourse, which were a pity: as I have observed in several of my intimate friends, who, as their memories supply them with an entire and full view of things, begin their narrative so far back, and crowd it with so many impertinent circumstances, that though the story be good in itself, they make a shift to spoil it; and if otherwise, you are either to curse the strength of their memory or the weakness of their judgment: and it is a hard thing to close up a discourse, and to cut it short, when you have once started; there is nothing wherein the force of a horse is so much seen as in a round and sudden stop. I see even those who are pertinent enough, who would, but cannot stop short in their career; for whilst they are seeking out a handsome period to conclude with, they go on at random, straggling about upon impertinent trivialities, as men staggering upon weak legs. But, above all, old men who retain the memory of things past, and forget how often they have told them, are dangerous company; and I have known stories from the mouth of a man of very great quality, otherwise very pleasant in themselves, become very wearisome by being repeated a hundred times over and over again to the same people.

Secondly, that, by this means, I the less remember the injuries I have received; insomuch that, as the ancient said,—[Cicero, Pro Ligar. c. 12.]—I should have a register of injuries, or a prompter, as Darius, who, that he might not forget the offence he had received from those of Athens, so oft as he sat down to dinner, ordered one of his pages three times to repeat in his ear, “Sir, remember the Athenians”;—[Herod., v. 105.]—and then, again, the places which I revisit, and the books I read over again, still smile upon me with a fresh novelty.

It is not without good reason said “that he who has not a good memory should never take upon him the trade of lying.” I know very well that the grammarians—[Nigidius, Aulus Gellius, xi. ii; Nonius, v. 80.]—distinguish betwixt an untruth and a lie, and say that to tell an untruth is to tell a thing that is false, but that we ourselves believe to be true; and that the definition of the word to lie in Latin, from which our French is taken, is to tell a thing which we know in our conscience to be untrue; and it is of this last sort of liars only that I now speak. Now, these do either wholly contrive and invent the untruths they utter, or so alter and disguise a true story that it ends in a lie. When they disguise and often alter the same story, according to their own fancy, ‘tis very hard for them, at one time or another, to escape being trapped, by reason that the real truth of the thing, having first taken possession of the memory, and being there lodged impressed by the medium of knowledge and science, it will be difficult that it should not represent itself to the imagination, and shoulder out falsehood, which cannot there have so sure and settled footing as the other; and the circumstances of the first true knowledge evermore running in their minds, will be apt to make them forget those that are illegitimate, and only, forged by their own fancy. In what they, wholly invent, forasmuch as there is no contrary impression to jostle their invention there seems to be less danger of tripping; and yet even this by reason it is a vain body and without any hold, is very apt to escape the memory, if it be not well assured. Of which I had very pleasant experience, at the expense of such as profess only to form and accommodate their speech to the affair they have in hand, or to humour of the great folks to whom they are speaking; for the circumstances to which these men stick not to enslave their faith and conscience being subject to several changes, their language must vary accordingly: whence it happens that of the same thing they tell one man that it is this, and another that it is that, giving it several colours; which men, if they once come to confer notes, and find out the cheat, what becomes of this fine art? To which may be added, that they must of necessity very often ridiculously trap themselves; for what memory can be sufficient to retain so many different shapes as they have forged upon one and the same subject? I have known many in my time very ambitious of the repute of this fine wit; but they do not see that if they have the reputation of it, the effect can no longer be.

In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes. I see that parents commonly, and with indiscretion enough, correct their children for little innocent faults, and torment them for wanton tricks, that have neither impression nor consequence; whereas, in my opinion, lying only, and, which is of something a lower form, obstinacy, are the faults which are to be severely whipped out of them, both in their infancy and in their progress, otherwise they grow up and increase with them; and after a tongue has once got the knack of lying, ‘tis not to be imagined how impossible it is to reclaim it whence it comes to pass that we see some, who are otherwise very honest men, so subject and enslaved to this vice. I have an honest lad to my tailor, whom I never knew guilty of one truth, no, not when it had been to his advantage. If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit. The Pythagoreans make good to be certain and finite, and evil, infinite and uncertain. There are a thousand ways to miss the white, there is only one to hit it. For my own part, I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie. An ancient father says “that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand.”

Ut externus alieno pene non sit hominis vice.

[“As a foreigner cannot be said to supply us the place of a man.” —Pliny, Nat. Hist. vii. I]

And how much less sociable is false speaking than silence?

King Francis I. vaunted that he had by this means nonplussed Francesco Taverna, ambassador of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, a man very famous for his science in talking in those days. This gentleman had been sent to excuse his master to his Majesty about a thing of very great consequence, which was this: the King, still to maintain some intelligence with Italy, out of which he had lately been driven, and particularly with the duchy of Milan, had thought it convenient to have a gentleman on his behalf to be with that Duke: an ambassador in effect, but in outward appearance a private person who pretended to reside there upon his own particular affairs; for the Duke, much more depending upon the Emperor, especially at a time when he was in a treaty of marriage with his niece, daughter to the King of Denmark, who is now dowager of Lorraine, could not manifest any practice and conference with us without his great interest. For this commission one Merveille, a Milanese gentleman, and an equerry to the King, being thought very fit, was accordingly despatched thither with private credentials, and instructions as ambassador, and with other letters of recommendation to the Duke about his own private concerns, the better to mask and colour the business; and was so long in that court, that the Emperor at last had some inkling of his real employment there; which was the occasion of what followed after, as we suppose; which was, that under pretence of some murder, his trial was in two days despatched, and his head in the night struck off in prison. Messire Francesco being come, and prepared with a long counterfeit history of the affair (for the King had applied himself to all the princes of Christendom, as well as to the Duke himself, to demand satisfaction), had his audience at the morning council; where, after he had for the support of his cause laid open several plausible justifications of the fact, that his master had never looked upon this Merveille for other than a private gentleman and his own subject, who was there only in order to his own business, neither had he ever lived under any other aspect; absolutely disowning that he had ever heard he was one of the King’s household or that his Majesty so much as knew him, so far was he from taking him for an ambassador: the King, in his turn, pressing him with several objections and demands, and challenging him on all sides, tripped him up at last by asking, why, then, the execution was performed by night, and as it were by stealth? At which the poor confounded ambassador, the more handsomely to disengage himself, made answer, that the Duke would have been very lothe, out of respect to his Majesty, that such an execution should have been performed by day. Any one may guess if he was not well rated when he came home, for having so grossly tripped in the presence of a prince of so delicate a nostril as King Francis.

Pope Julius II having sent an ambassador to the King of England to animate him against King Francis, the ambassador having had his audience, and the King, before he would give an answer, insisting upon the difficulties he should find in setting on foot so great a preparation as would be necessary to attack so potent a King, and urging some reasons to that effect, the ambassador very unseasonably replied that he had also himself considered the same difficulties, and had represented them to the Pope. From which saying of his, so directly opposite to the thing propounded and the business he came about, which was immediately to incite him to war, the King of England first derived the argument (which he afterward found to be true), that this ambassador, in his own mind, was on the side of the French; of which having advertised his master, his estate at his return home was confiscated, and he himself very narrowly escaped the losing of his head.

Poetry | ”Of Lipstick and Labels’ & 1 more poem by Anureet Watta | LGBTQ+ (Vol 1) – Issue 35

Of Lipstick and Labels

What they do not tell you,
when you finally kiss a girl is,
that it may not feel right the first time,
it may not feel right ever.
sometimes walking out of the closet
is like walking into a new one.
The labels you choose
after years of rummaging,
through leftovers
from past revolutions,
and all the sneers thrown at school,
the labels
might still not fit as perfectly,
as you thought they would,
but you’re allowed to get them wrong again
and again.
When this confusion becomes the most familiar part of my day,
I think
I’ve spent too long in the closet,
for all these ill-fitting sizes,
and too awkward shoulders,
by now,
I should’ve figured what to do with a black eye,
how to stitch torsos to fit like armour,
what do you mean all this lace and satin wasn’t meant for me?
When you kiss a girl,
you will still not know
what to do with your hands,
they’re too wobbly for this business,
the parts of her,
you thought you knew your way around
would still feel alien,
and unfamiliar,
like going back to where you once lived,
where everything is the same, but nothing really is;

but you’ve practised
for this unfamiliarity,
your hands on her stomach,
might make you hate yourself a little less,
for her soft belly, is just soft belly,
not disappointments measured out in tacos,
after all,
you might not crave the sharp edges,
you thought you always needed,
you wouldn’t have to fold yourself so small
to fit in little pockets of love
love is Marine Drive, huge, and salty,
but waiting,
and it doesn’t care what shape you are.

when you kiss a girl,
maybe all the flowers in all the poems will make sense,
maybe you’ll want to melt all the words,
that shuffle through your mind
as her face fits perfectly
between your chin and your shoulder
and melt them with the sweetest of lies,
and pour into the cracked edges of the world,
just so it heals.

what they do not tell you,
about kissing a girl is
even when you like it
is that your eyes will always stay open
on the lookout for fire,
but there might be lipstick
and hers might wear on yours
like a swatch
Make a colour you can’t name,
and when you get home
your mother might say
this shade
this shade makes you glow.


We Swallow the Sun to Keep from Stuttering

coming out

as a person, a gender, an orientation, a heartbeat,

was never a one-time thing,

but we keep longing for it to be,

maybe soon,

it will be our last time around.

You tell me,

what it’s like to dream,

a body for yourself,

heights and hair and hands and parts,

that match your heart,

you want to pick a name,

so much softer than all the things you’ve been through,

maybe one day,

these longings will just be the memoirs and reminder,

which come after new dawns.

You have never longed to be understood,

just acknowledged,

under kinder skies and with undoubtful eyes,

but until then,

I’m here,

and I’m not really a hug person,

but I think we can both use one,

it is hard to carry so much hurt,

in chests that have never quite felt like your own,

in hearts that have learnt to love,

in ways, they weren’t taught,

in hands that still have to prove

their actuality.

friend,

longings are soft,

but it’s the soft things that destroy us in the end,

that turn fights into revolutions,

it always hurts to become,

what you’ve intended to,

no one is looking,

blossoming is still blossoming;

we are, after all,

the truest reporters of ourselves,

no matter how many times we got it wrong before.

the moon does not have to ask,

before it changes,

the moon has never learnt to apologise,

when it shines greater than the sun.


Anureet Watta is a 19 year old poet from Delhi. She writes of queerness, girlhood and the overwhelming anguish of being alive. Performing across open mics in Delhi, she believes spoken word poetry is the perfect amalgamation of poetry and theatre.



Submissions open for

LGBTQ + Vol 2 (January, 2021)

Solicited entries paid.

The Bombay Review

Essay | ‘The Art of the Essayist’ by A.C. Benson | Classical Archives

According to Benson in ‘Art of the Essayist,’ the essay has been a comfortable mixture of the personal and the subjective, and in fact has been the most personal of all genres.

There is a pleasant story of an itinerant sign-painter who in going his rounds came to a village inn upon whose sign-board he had had his eye for some months and had watched with increasing hope and delight its rapid progress to blurred and faded dimness. To his horror he found a brand-new varnished sign. He surveyed it with disgust, and said to the inn-keeper, who stood nervously by hoping for a professional compliment, “This looks as if someone had been doing it himself.”

That sentence holds within it the key to the whole mystery of essay-writing. An essay is a thing which someone does himself; and the point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality. It must concern itself with something “jolly,” as the school-boy says, something smelt, heard, seen, perceived, invented, thought; but the essential thing is that the writer shall have formed his own impression, and that it shall have taken shape in his own mind; and the charm of the essay depends upon the charm of the mind that has conceived and recorded the impression. It will be seen, then, that the essay need not concern itself with anything definite; it need not have an intellectual or a philosophical or a religious or a humorous motif; but equally none of these subjects are ruled out. The only thing necessary is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto. It need conform to no particular rules. All literature answers to something in life, some habitual form of human expression. The stage imitates life, calling in the services of the eye and the ear; there is the narrative of the teller of tales or the minstrel; the song, the letter, the talk—all forms of human expression and communication have their antitypes in literature. The essay is the reverie, the frame of mind in which a man says, in the words of the old song, “Says I to myself, says I.”

It is generally supposed that Montaigne is the first writer who wrote what may technically be called essays. His pieces are partly autobiographical, partly speculative, and to a great extent ethical. But the roots of his writing lie far back in literary history. He owed a great part of his inspiration to Cicero, who treated of abstract topics in a conversational way with a romantic background; and this he owed to Plato, whose dialogues undoubtedly contain the germ of both the novel and the essay. Plato is in truth far more the forerunner of the novelist than of the philosopher. He made a background of life, he peopled his scenes with bright boys and amiable elders—oh that all scenes were so peopled!—and he discussed ethical and speculative problems of life and character with a vital rather than with a philosophical interest. Plato’s dialogues would be essays but for the fact that they have a dramatic colouring, while the essence of the essay is soliloquy. But in the writings of Cicero, such as the De Senectute, the dramatic interest is but slight, and the whole thing approaches far more nearly to the essay than to the novel. Probably Cicero supplied to his readers the function both of the essayist and the preacher, and fed the needs of so-called thoughtful readers by dallying, in a fashion which it is hardly unjust to call twaddling, with familiar ethical problems of conduct and character. The charm of Montaigne is the charm of personality—frankness, gusto, acute observation, lively acquaintance with men and manners. He is ashamed of recording nothing that interested him; and a certain discreet shamelessness must always be the characteristic of the essayist, for the essence of his art is to say what has pleased him without too prudently considering whether it is worthy of the attention of the well-informed mind.

I doubt if the English temperament is wholly favourable to the development of the essayist. In the first place, an Anglo-Saxon likes doing things better than thinking about them; and in his memories, he is apt to recall how a thing was done rather than why it was done. In the next place, we are naturally rather prudent and secretive; we say that a man must not wear his heart upon his sleeve, and that is just what the essayist must do. We have a horror of giving ourselves away, and we like to keep ourselves to ourselves. “The Englishman’s home is his castle,” says another proverb. But the essayist must not have a castle, or if he does, both the grounds and the living-rooms must be open to the inspection of the public.

Lord Brougham, who reveled in advertisement, used to allow his house to be seen by visitors, and the butler had orders that if a party of people came to see the house, Lord Brougham was to be informed of the fact. He used to hurry to the library and take up a book, in order that the tourists might nudge each other and say in whispers, “There is the Lord Chancellor.” That is the right frame of mind for the essayist. He may enjoy privacy, but he is no less delighted that people should see him enjoying it.

The essay has taken very various forms in England. Sir Thomas Browne, in such books as Religio Medici and Urn-Burial, wrote essays of an elaborate rhetorical style, the long fine sentences winding themselves out in delicate weft-like trails of smoke on a still air, hanging in translucent veils. Addison, in the Spectator, treated with delicate humour of life and its problems, and created what was practically a new form in the essay of emotional sentiment evoked by solemn scenes and fine associations. Charles Lamb treated romantically the homeliest stuff of life, and showed how the simplest and commonest experiences were rich in emotion and humour. The beauty and dignity of common life were his theme. De Quincey wrote what may be called impassioned autobiography, and brought to his task a magical control of long-drawn and musical cadences. And then we come to such a writer as Pater, who used the essay for the expression of exquisite artistic sensation. These are only a few instances of the way in which the essay has been used in English literature. But the essence is throughout the same; it is personal sensation, personal impression, evoked by something strange or beautiful or curious or interesting or amusing. It has thus a good deal in common with the art of the lyrical poet and the writer of sonnets, but it has all the freedom of prose, its more extended range, its use of less strictly poetical effects, such as humour in particular. Humour is alien to poetical effect, because poetry demands a certain sacredness and solemnity of mood. The poet is emotional in a reverential way; he is thrilled, he loves, he worships, he sorrows; but it is all essentially grave, because he wishes to recognize the sublime and up-lifted elements of life; he wishes to free himself from all discordant, absurd, fantastic, undignified contrasts, as he would extrude laughter and chatter and comfortable ease from some stately act of ceremonial worship. It is quite true that the essayist has a full right to such a mood if he chooses; and such essays as Pater’s are all conceived in a sort of rapture of holiness, in a region from which all that is common and homely is carefully fenced out. But the essayist may have a larger range, and the strength of a writer like Charles Lamb is that he condescends to use the very commonest materials, and transfigures the simplest experiences with a fairy-like delicacy and a romantic glow. A poet who has more in common with the range of the essayist Robert Browning, and there are many of his poems, though not perhaps his best, where his frank amassing of grotesque detail, his desire to include rather than exclude the homelier sorts of emotion, of robust and not very humorous humour, make him an impressionist rather than a lyrist. As literature develops, the distinction between poetry and prose will no doubt become harder to maintain. Coleridge said in a very fruitful maxim: “The opposite of poetry is not prose but science; the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse.” That is to say poetry has as its object the kindling of emotion and science is its opposite, because science is the dispassionate statement of fact; but prose can equally be used as a vehicle for the kindling of emotion, and therefore may be in its essence poetical: but when it is a technical description of a certain kind of structure its opposite is verse—that is to say, language arranged in metrical and rhythmical form. We shall probably come to think that the essayist is more of a poet than the writer of epics, and that the divisions of literature will tend to be on the one hand the art of clear and logical statement, and on the other the art of emotional and imaginative expression.

We must remember in all this that the nomenclature of literature, the attempt to classify the forms of literary expression, is a confusing and a bewildering thing unless it is used merely for convenience. It is the merest pedantry to say that literature must conform to established usages and types. The essence of it is that it is a large force flowing in any channel that it can, and the classification of art is a mere classification of channels. What lies behind all art is the principle of wonder and of arrested attention. It need not be only the sense of beauty; it may be the sense of fitness, of strangeness, of completeness, of effective effort. The amazement of the savage at the sight of a civilized town is not the sense of beauty, it is the sense of force, of mysterious resources, of incredible pro-ducts, of things unintelligibly and even magically made; and then too there is the instinct for perceiving all that is grotesque, absurd, amusing and jocose, which one sees exhibited in children at the sight of the parrot’s crafty and solemn eye and his exaggerated imitation of human speech, at the unusual dress and demeanour of the clown, at the grotesque simulation by the gnarled and contorted tree of something human or reptile. And then, too, there is the strange property in human beings which makes disaster amusing, if its effects are not prejudicial to oneself; that sense which makes the waiter on the pantomime stage, who falls headlong with a tray of crockery, an object to provoke the loudest and most spontaneous mirth of which the ordinary human being is capable. The moralist who would be sympathetically shocked at the rueful abrasions of the waiter, or mournful over the waste of human skill and endeavour involved in the breakage, would be felt by all human beings to have something priggish in his composition and to be too good, as they say, to live.

It is with these rudimentary and inexplicable emotions that the essayist may concern himself, even though the poet be forbidden to do so; and the appeal of the essayist to the world at large will depend upon the extent to which he experiences some common emotion, sees it in all its bearings, catches the salient features of the scene, and records it in vivid and impressive speech.

The essayist is therefore, to a certain extent, bound to be a spectator of life; he must be like the man in Browning’s fine poem “How it Strikes a Contemporary,” who walked about, took note of everything, looked at the new house building, poked his stick into the mortar.

He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch;
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall;
He took such cognizance of men and things!
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note,
Yet stared at nobody—they stared at him,
And found less to their pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know them, and expect as much.

That is the essayist’s material; he may choose the scene, he may select the sort of life he is interested in, whether it is the street or the countryside or the sea-beach or the picture-gallery; but once there, wherever he may be, he must devote himself to seeing and realizing and getting it all by heart. The writer must not be too much interested in the action and conduct of life. If he is a politician, or a soldier, or an emperor, or a plough-boy, or a thief, and is absorbed in what he is doing, with a vital anxiety to make profit or position or influence out of it; if he hates his opponents and rewards his friends; if he condemns, despises, disapproves, he at once forfeits sympathy and largeness of view. He must believe with all his might in the interest of what he enjoys, to the extent at all events of believing it worth recording and representing, but he must not believe too solemnly or urgently in the importance and necessity of any one sort of business or occupation. The eminent banker, the social reformer, the forensic pleader, the fanatic, the crank, the puritan—these are not the stuff out of which the essayist is made; he may have ethical preferences, but he must not indulge in moral indignation; he must be essentially tolerant, and he must discern quality rather than solidity. He must be concerned with the pageant of life, as it weaves itself with a moving tapestry of scenes and figures rather than with the aims and purposes of life. He must, in fact, be preoccupied with things as they appear, rather than with their significance or their ethical example.

I have little doubt in my own mind that the charm of the familiar essayist depends upon his power of giving the sense of a good-humoured, gracious and reasonable personality and establishing a sort of pleasant friendship with his reader. One does not go to an essayist with a desire for information, or with an expectation of finding a clear statement of a complicated subject; that is not the mood in which one takes up a volume of essays. What one rather expects to find is a companionable treatment of that vast mass of little problems and floating ideas which are aroused and evoked by our passage through the world, our daily employment, our leisure hours, our amusements and diversions, and above all by our relations with other people—all the unexpected, inconsistent, various simple stuff of life; the essayist ought to be able to impart a certain beauty and order into it, to delineate, let us say, the vague emotions aroused in solitude or in company by the sight of scenery, the aspect of towns, the impressions of art and books, the interplay of human qualities and characteristics, the half-formed hopes and desires and fears and joys that form so large a part of our daily thoughts. The essayist ought to be able to indicate a case or a problem that is apt to occur in ordinary life and suggest the theory of it, to guess what it is that makes our moods resolute or fitful, why we act consistently or inconsistently, what it is that repels or attracts us in our dealings with other people, what our private fancies are. The good essayist is the man who makes a reader say: “Well, I have often thought all those things, but I never discerned before any connection between them, nor got so far as to put them into words.” And thus the essayist must have a great and far-reaching curiosity; he must be interested rather than displeased by the differences of human beings and by their varied theories. He must recognize the fact that most people’s convictions are not the result of reason, but a mass of associations, traditions, things half-understood, phrases, examples, loyalties, whims. He must care more about the inconsistency of humanity than about its dignity; and he must study more what people actually do think about than what they ought to think about. He must not be ashamed of human weaknesses or shocked by them, and still less disgusted by them; but at the same time he must keep in mind the flashes of fine idealism, the passionate visions, the irresponsible humours, the salient peculiarities, that shoot like sunrays through the dull cloudiness of so many human minds, and make one realize that humanity is at once above itself and in itself, and that we are greater than we know; for the interest of the world to the ardent student of it is that we most of us seem to have got hold of something that is bigger than we quite know how to deal with; something remote and far off, which we have seen in a distant vision, which we cannot always remember or keep clear in our minds. The supreme fact of human nature is its duality, its tendency to pull different ways, the tug-of-war between Devil and Baker which lies inside our restless brains. And the confessed aim of the essayist is to make people interested in life and in themselves and in the part they can take in life; and he does that best if he convinces men and women that life is a fine sort of a game, in which they can take a hand; and that every existence, however confined or restricted, is full of outlets and pulsing channels, and that the interest and joy of it is not confined to the politician or the millionaire, but is pretty fairly distributed, so long as one has time to attend to it, and is not preoccupied in some concrete aim or vulgar ambition.

Because the great secret which the true essayist whispers in our ears is that the worth of experience is not measured by what is called success, but rather resides in a fullness of life: that success tends rather to obscure and to diminish experience, and that we may miss the point of life by being too important, and that the end of it all is the degree in which we give rather than receive.

The poet perhaps is the man who sees the greatness of life best, because he lives most in its beauty and fineness. But my point is that the essayist is really a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials, more in the glow of life perhaps than in the glory of it, and not finding anything common or unclean.

The essayist is the opposite of the romancer, because his one and continuous aim is to keep the homely materials in view; to face actual conditions, not to fly from them. We think meanly of life if we believe that it has no sublime moments; but we think sentimentally of it if we believe that it has nothing but sublime moments. The essayist wants to hold the balance; and if he is apt to neglect the sublimities of life, it is because he is apt to think that they can take care of themselves; and that if there is the joy of adventure, the thrill of the start in the fresh air of the morning, the rapture of ardent companionship, the gladness of the arrival, yet there must be long spaces in between, when the pilgrim jogs steadily along, and seems to come no nearer to the spire on the horizon or to the shining embanked cloudland of the West. He has nothing then but his own thoughts to help him, unless he is alert to see what is happening in hedgerow and copse, and the work of the essayist is to make some-thing rich and strange of those seemingly monotonous spaces, those lengths of level road.

Is, then, the Essay in literature a thing which simply stands outside classification, like Argon among the elements, of which the only thing which can be predicated is that it is there? Or like Justice in Plato’s Republic, a thing which the talkers set out to define, and which ends by being the one thing left in a state when the definable qualities are taken away? No, it is not that. It is rather like what is called an organ prelude, a little piece with a theme, not very strict perhaps in form, but which can be fancifully treated, modulated from, and coloured at will. It is a little criticism of life at some one point clearly enough defined.

We may follow any mood, we may look at life in fifty different ways—the only thing we must not do is to despise or deride, out of ignorance or prejudice, the influences which affect others; because the essence of all experience is that we should perceive something which we do not begin by knowing, and learn that life has a fullness and a richness in all sorts of diverse ways which we do not at first even dream of suspecting.

The essayist, then, is in his particular fashion an interpreter of life, a critic of life. He does not see life as the historian, or as the philosopher, or as the poet, or as the novelist, and yet he has a touch of all these. He is not concerned with discovering a theory of it all, or fitting the various parts of it into each other. He works rather on what is called the analytic method, observing, recording, interpreting, just as things strike him, and letting his fancy play over their beauty and significance; the end of it all being this: that he is deeply concerned with the charm and quality of things, and desires to put it all in the clearest and gentlest light, so that at least he may make others love life a little better, and prepare them for its infinite variety and alike for its joyful and mournful surprises.

Poetry | By Tom Paine | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Strawberry Moon

Sitting on the shore at dusk on a stranger’s dock,
the skies and trees fiercer in reflection than above,
I was remembering how one winter day my friend’s
crumpled pants lay broken as a violin on the floor,
and how I felt those pants might just stroll away.
Their owner made me jealous in have living pants.
I knew their owner carried sun in his pocket, and I,
at best then, some moon? I say this with a smile.
The clothes in my closet are hanging less dead today.
A god on a Greek cliff once said there is no death.
You will awaken scared and angry in your own flesh,
and know you have been scared and angry all along.
The best thing is to scream. It is like water on a fire.
It is weird to write about those pants, but the world
is probably wrong at how sure it is about everything,
and to me, there was something about those pants.
I have come a long way since those pants on the floor.
I can tell you this: respect all the strange signposts.
Signposts are way more important than the road.
There was an orchid in bloom leaning over the river;
no one planted it there and I had no role to play.
I ate a wild strawberry I had found in a field earlier,
twirling it first it in my fingers like an orbiting moon.


The Anthology of Poetry

My feet crunched in a threat of dark frozen trees.
Was it winter roses? I was reading “The Last Duchess”.
The Duke killed her as she liked whate’er she looked on,
as tonight I suddenly liked breathing in winter.
She liked looking; I liked breathing. Dukes kill
those who they discover like to breathe and look.
I was brand new tonight to this breath pleasure.
I was alone save the bus driver. The anthology
of poetry lay in my lap and I saw the angry Duke.
He has his dagger at my throat. It was a big night:
I looked down again at she liked whate’er she looked on,
and a curtain was pulled aside, and I saw salmon
fluttering over white eggs in the sand, tasting water.


Tom Paine’s poetry is upcoming or published in more than seventy international journals, including: The Nation, The Moth (Ireland), The Rialto (UK), New Contrast (South Africa), Poetry Salzburg (Austria), Bangalore Review (India), Volt, Vallum (Canada), Paris Lit Up (France), Glasgow Review of Books (Scotland), Blackbox Manifold (Cambridge), Fence, The Common, Epiphany, Green Mountain Review, Galway Review (Ireland), Forklift, Tinderbox, Hunger Mountain, Hotel Amerika, Hobart, Tampa Review and elsewhere.

Stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope, Boston Review, The New England Review, The O. Henry Awards and twice in the Pushcart Prize. His first collection, Scar Vegas (Harcourt), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Pen/Hemingway finalist. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is a professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.

20 + 1 Canadian Literary Magazines to submit your Creative Writing to.

20 Canadian Literary Magazines
Poetry, fiction, essays, creative non fiction, reviews, interviews, art and more.
 

 

Arc Poetry Magazine

Year established: 2004
Published from: Ottawa, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Essays, Interviews
Submission period: April 1 to July 31; September 1 to December 31
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per page


Augur Magazine

Year established: 2017
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Short fiction
Submission period: Currently September 1–30; Opens periodically each season
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $60.00 CAD per poem; $0.11 cents CAD per word for short fiction


Existere

Year established: 1978
Published from: York University, Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Poetry, Short plays, Short fiction, Critical essays, Interviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per accepted submission (maximum $250)


Screenshot 2020-08-11 at 10.08.11 PMMontréal Writes

Year established: 2018
Published from: Montréal, Québec
Genres: Short fiction (fiction and non-fiction), poetry
Submission period: July 27 – August 16 for the August Issue, August 27 – September 16 for the September Issue, and so on
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Room MagazineRoom 43.3 Neurodivergence

Year established: 2002
Published from: Vancouver, British Columbia
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 CAD for one page


cover for #85subTerrain Magazine

Year established: 2006
Published from: Vancouver, British Columbia
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essays, commentary
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per poem; $0.10 per word for prose


The Antigonish ReviewIssue # 190

Year established: 2001
Published from: Antigonish, Nova Scotia
Genres:  Poetry, fiction, essays, articles, book reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $5 per page of poetry; $50 per prose 


National Literary Magazine on Waterloo Campus |The New Quarterly

Year established: 1981
Published from: Waterloo, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $275 for prose; $50 per poem


The Temz Review

Year established: 2017
Published from: Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $20


Vallum

Year established: 2000
Published from: Montréal, Québec
Genres: Poetry, essays, reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Taddle CreekTaddle Creek No. 44 (Winter, 2019–2020)

Year established: 1997
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per page


Understory Magazine

Year established: 2013
Published from: Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $30-$60 honorarium


Untethered Magazineuntethered 5.1 (front cover)

Year established: 2014
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Websiste | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $10 honorarium


Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 2.54.35 PMThe Puritan

Year established: 2007
Published from: Ottawa, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, essays
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $100


Into the Void

Year established: 2012
Published from: Toronto, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $10 per poem, $20 per prose


filling Station Issue 74 - RitualFilling Station

Year established: 1993
Published from: Calgary, Alberta
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $25 honorarium


Hamilton Review of Books

Year established: 2016
Published from: Hamilton, Ontario
Genres: Reviews, essays, interviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $50 per review, $75 per essay or interview


PictureThe Mackinac

Year established: 2013
Published from: Canada
Genres: Poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil


Carousel

Year established: 1983
Published from: Canada
Genres: Fiction, poetry
Submission period: January and September (see dates)
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $55 for 1–4 pages


Image moduleDreamers Creative Writing

Year established: 2018
Published from: Hepworth, Ontario
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: $20 honorarium


Hello! We have another curated a list of our favorite literary magazines, this time of Canadian origin, publishing steadily for a couple of years. What about us, The Bombay Review? Well, New York is a couple of thousand miles away from Toronto, so Canada is as much a neighbor to us as Pakistan is. We have conducted literary events in many cities in Canada, and also have a special themed issue coming up in early 2021. To that end, we are always open to reading your work, publishing your work, and engaging with you. Details below.

By Team TBR

The Bombay Review
Year established: 2014
Published from: New York City & Mumbai
Genres: Fiction, Poetry, Essays, Art, Reviews, Interviews, Culture pieces
Submission period: All year
Type: Online + Print
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: None
Payment: Ranges from Nil to $50

Fiction | ‘Turquoise Secret’ by Salil Chaturvedi

Indrani is surprised that her breasts are still alert to the possibility of love, even now, when her love is permanently gone.

She stands in the centre of the room, clutching the laundry tight against her chest, feeling the hardening of her nipples against the cotton blouse while her eyes scan the skies beyond the French windows for the turquoise flash.

A pigeon with bright red eyes and a white spot at the base of its beak flies past the balcony, startling her. Almost immediately after, a cream coloured butterfly bobs past the lime tree. Just one more second to be sure, Indrani tells herself…one last second…okay, one final last second…one last ultimate second…

Has it, after all, just been a trick of light? The time is right, though. Winter is on its way out, giving way to the early buds of spring. Her husband’s words float up from somewhere deep inside her: ‘With so many species you can be sure, Indu, that an orgasm is happening on this planet at all times. Just imagine, millions of years of uninterrupted orgasm. I think the Universe might itself be one big orgasm. I mean, what else could a big bang be?’

There!

The turquoise butterfly appears over the ledge of the balcony and dips below, as if inviting Indrani for a game of hide-and-seek. Indrani rushes through the French windows into the balcony and watches the butterfly bounce up to the taller branches of a guava tree. She tracks the butterfly as it hops from one flower to another, going back to a flower it has already visited, feeling it all over, poking it softly with its proboscis.

‘Look at it, just look at it,’ Indrani whispers her husband’s favourite phrase as she traces the flight of the butterfly. The butterfly has ridden the powerful easterly wind, arriving at its destination, it seems to Indrani, almost by accident. She knows, thanks to her husband that it is a Common Banded Peacock.

How do you do it, blue one? How do you, with your paper-thin wings, take on such a mighty wind? How do you reach exactly where you want to? Or do you just pretend that that is where you’ve always wanted to go? Is that your secret? What do I do with my secret? Who do I share it with?

The butterfly floats upwards towards the Neem tree near the wall of the housing society. A flock of ten (could even be twenty) dragonflies dart around the tips of a branch. Indrani wonders what attracts them to it. Two bumblebees circle each other noisily near the hollyhocks. A smile forms at the corner of her lips. Then her expression changes and she says aloud to them, knowing that they’ll understand, ‘I’ve lost my bumblebee,’ and collapses on the balcony floor, her head resting against the sun-warmed railing.

***

It didn’t make any sense. No, it didn’t it didn’t make any…of all things, a sailboat? She had never been, nor had ever wanted to be on a sailboat. They were miles out in the sea on a dinghy with a sail. Blue dinghy, white sail. Then the dolphins had appeared, smooth, wet and purple, mystifying the waters. He must have wheezed. Or he might have tried to reach out for her in his sleep while she dreamt the crazy dream. It still bothers her. What was she doing on a sailboat? Did the dolphins mean something? It didn’t make any sense. You aren’t allowed to die in your sleep, suddenly, without warning, while your partner is dreaming of a sailboat beside you. How could he be so selfish? How could he slip away so peacefully, leaving her so unprepared? He could have at least given her some advance notice.

***

His absence is like the round muddy stain on the floor of the balcony where a flowerpot used to be. Everyone can see the outline of the missing flowerpot, but only she sees the flower that grew in it. Only she remembers the shape of the petals, the texture of the leaves, the curve of the stamens. Only she remembers the fragrance of the flower. That’s what she misses the most. The smell of his sweat in the lonely hours of the night.

***

‘But, it’s all out of focus!’ her daughter protests.

‘What is this focus-shocus? I don’t care about focus. I don’t need any focus. He’s got a nice smile in it and that’s all I care about. You take your focus and live your life with it,’ Indrani shoots back.

‘You’re not the only one who’s lost someone special,’ her daughter says under her breath.

What do you know? You’ll be going back to your man tonight, Indrani thinks, but she can’t bring herself to say it.

Mother and daughter sit looking at the photograph. It’s a special photograph, taken the day she was sworn to secrecy, but Indrani can’t tell her daughter that. In the photograph, her husband has the trademark sandal-paste tilak on his forehead and a cup of coffee in his hand. The steam from the cup curls upwards, giving his face a slightly ghostly appearance. Still, his mischievous smile sparkles through like a diamond. Over the photograph it says in capital letters: ‘C. RAGHAVIAN CHAUDHARY’, and below it, in bold type: ‘Date of Expiry – 12 October 2019.’

‘You don’t have to visit me everyday,’ Indrani breaks the silence, trying to keep it casual. ‘I’ll be re-joining office tomorrow.’

Her daughter picks up her bag and walks out of the room. ‘I will come whenever I want to, hear me?’ she shouts from the door of the flat. ‘And how many times do I have to tell you, don’t put cardamom in my tea, it tastes like payasam! If you have to put something, put ginger…I like ginger in my tea, or is that too much to remember?’ and bangs the door shut.

Indrani sits holding the picture of her husband.  She thinks of the time before the secret had entered her life. Their life. She is standing in the driveway, next to the tulsi shrub, drying her hair with sharp strokes of the towel when the movement catches her eye. She had initially thought that it was a tiny seed rolling with the breeze, but the thing had moved in a straight line at a regular pace. She had sat down to take a closer look but even while sitting down she couldn’t make out any body parts. She had bent closer to the ground, her nose directly above the insect, and followed its journey. Soon, she had lost all sensation of herself: of her eyes, of her nose, of her wet hair sticking to her waist and of her knees that shuffled on the driveway above the insect. When the insect burrowed under a guava leaf in its path, she, too, engrossed and inseparable with the tiny life, ducked her head. As the insect emerged from the other side of the leaf, Indrani had reached for it gingerly. ‘Don’t,’ her husband had called out from behind her, but it was too late. The moment her finger touched the insect, it burst with a tiny pop. All that remained was half-a-drop of something that looked like dew.

‘Tch, you’ve ended a long story,’ her husband had said.

‘What story?’

‘A story that stretches to the beginning of time! That little thing was part of a long, unbroken narrative. Its parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents to the power of ten, had successfully added a paragraph with each generation, and now you’ve ended the story.’

‘What about our story?’ Indrani asks the photograph in her hands. ‘Why must I bear the secret alone now? Couldn’t you have just listened?’

***

‘It’s easy, Indu. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me, we’ll be like bumblebees,’ he had said, sipping the coffee.

‘No, I won’t agree to this. What’s wrong with you?’ she protested.

‘But, no one will ever know. It’ll be our secret, I promise.’

‘You don’t know how the world works. Word spreads. I’m not agreeing to this. It’s a small place, people will get to know. Are you unhappy about something?’

‘Come on, Indu, I wish you gave it some serious thought. It’s a purer way of living…imagine being a bumblebee,’ he insisted.

‘No! We’ve been married only four months. Are you unhappy with something? Is there something that I do not do which you’d like me to?’

‘Why should I be unhappy?

‘Then why do we have to do this?’

‘Because…’ he said holding her hand.

‘No don’t! I forbid you to bring it up again. What wild thoughts, and we’ve been married only four months! If you love me, you won’t bring it up again. Do you understand?’

***

He had had his way. On the way back from the Registrar’s office, immediately after they had got the divorce, he had pointed out a group of turquoise butterflies in the small park outside the office complex.

‘Look, look, look at them, Indu, just look at them! Common Banded Peacocks!’

They had stood and watched.

‘Can you see how they’re mud-puddling? Look! You’ll see them releasing jets of water from their behinds. They’re actually gathering nutrition from the mud. The males will pass on the nutrients – sodium and amino acids – to the females for healthy children. Now we are free like these butterflies.’

‘Are we like butterflies or bumblebees? Make up your mind.’

‘Like both, actually, but if you like these butterflies better, we’re like them!’

‘God help us… I hope we don’t land up in the mud,’ she said walking ahead.

‘Don’t worry, He will help us, but we’ll keep it a secret from Him, too!’ he had said with that sparkle in his eyes that she misses so much.

Sitting in the sun-soaked balcony, she clearly remembers that afternoon so many years ago. The sun had emerged after a week of constant rain. The light was pouring into a tree, lighting it up from the inside like a lantern. It was quiet and they had sat on a bench in the park and she had felt, and it was the only time in her life that she’d had that feeling, that quiet, light and soft feeling that everything always was everything else and was always so and was forever and always absolutely right.

***

Indrani reaches for the balcony railing and pulls herself up. She searches the Neem tree but can’t spot the butterfly anywhere. She leans her torso over the black metal railing, enjoying its warmth on her stomach. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Her saree’s pallu catches in the breeze and floats up towards the flat on the third floor. She feels the tug of the pallu, which has ballooned out in the breeze like a sail. Oh, okay, she thinks as she leans far out over the balcony, eyes closed and smiling, so that’s what the white sail was for.

Glossary:
Payasam
: a type of pudding made by boiling milk and sugar with rice, and flaoured with cardamom.

Salil Chaturvedi writes short fiction and poetry. He lives on the island of Chorao in Goa. He is the author of In The Sanctuary of a Poem, and Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha, an award-winning Hindi poetry collection.

Fiction | ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ by Kruti Brahmbhatt

‘Where is the purifier?’ asked the assistant commissioner.

‘The purifier?’ the junior officer responded.

‘Yes, what else?’

‘Oh, the air purifier…’

‘I told you, a week ago.’

‘Yes, sir. I didn’t forget. By tomorrow–?’

‘No, not tomorrow. By evening, in the conference room.’

‘I thought he wasn’t serious,’ said the junior officer, returning to his desk.

‘Air purifier?’ the typist responded.

‘Yes.’

‘Is there such a thing?’

‘Yes, a purifier, an air purifier, and there exists such a thing.’

Glancing towards the main door, the junior officer spotted the peon sweeping the floor as if he was aiming a fast paced ball with his broom. ‘Kanu, come with me.’ Halfway down the stairs, the assistant stopped by the office of the scientist who was calculating some numbers on a brand new computer, almost the size of a window. He tapped the scientists’ shoulder.

‘Emergency.’

‘Where to find that air purifier?’

‘You told me only last week. I thought we had some time.’

‘No, no. Need to get it by this eve-’

‘The scientist is in Chandigarh.’

‘So we go there, check the instrument and get the damn thing by evening. Okay?’

‘But I need to come up with some figures. For the meeting tomorrow.’

‘Do it in the evening. Without that purifier, both of us won’t be here tomorrow. Still on probation, remember.’

The scientist joined reluctantly but didn’t seem to care about this unplanned trip to Chandigarh. He continued to scribble something, some numbers, in his diary even when they were in an auto rickshaw going through a bumpy road. Kanu sat with the driver in the front, two of them on separate ends in the back seat.

‘Sir, why are we going to Chandigarh?’

‘To get the air purifier, Kanu.’

‘Sir, is it so big that all three of us need to go?

‘Any problem? Do you have to present a budget in the parliament?’

‘No, no, sir. I was just asking, sir.’

‘Let’s look for the Delhi-Chandigarh bus at the station.’

The station was a mile away.

‘I have to derive numbers by tonight. Mr. Aurangabadkar need them for tomorrow,’ said the scientist, scribbling something in his diary.

‘This air purifier is also for Mr. Aurangabadkar and it’s also for tomorrow,’ said the junior officer.

‘Yes, yes. I know.’

They continued their journey, the assistant looking at the giant buses, one of them read Delhi-Chandigarh. They got out of the auto rickshaw and hopped on the bus, paid for their tickets and sat in the first row. The scientist occupied the window seat. He periodically stared outside at the gray sky and as and when a giant bus passed by their bus, covered his nose with a muffler. Twice, when the junior officer had looked his way, not for any reason other than to understand the reason behind the scientist’s heightened sensitivity for pollution.

Almost an hour later, despite witnessing its many manifestations – air pollution by trucks and buses, agriculture activities and mining activities, huge factories and little chulhas – the junior assistant remained unperturbed. They saw a group of farmers gathered on their farm to sprinkle pesticides – again air pollution. The scientist pointed his finger in that direction but didn’t waste words.

‘We work in the environment department but don’t be so sensitive,’ said the junior officer. ‘At least this pollution will kill people years later. If they don’t earn with whatever means available, they’ll die now. A dog’s death, you see. I am with Mr. Aurangabadkar on this.’

‘My cousin died of cancer five years ago and he was only forty-eight and when we asked the cause, the doctor said that constant exposure to pollution was possibly the culprit. And this is only going to get worse in Delhi.’

‘Which year was this?’

‘Almost five years ago, in 1985.’

‘I’d still say,’ said the junior officer who had taken upon himself the duty of justifying development at the expense of pollution, ‘It’s lesser of the evil.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all about the short run, my brother. In the long run, we are going to be dead anyway. Then, why worry? Think about now. This worked out for the west. Hopefully, it would for us too.’

‘But this is not a sustainable model. And, why do we need to imitate?’

‘No, we don’t. But, this is how the world works. This is how the business lobby thinks. And this is how the politicians think. And this is how Mr. Aurangabadkar thinks.’

At that moment the bus stopped for a break. All three, went outside to relieve themselves.

‘Now, don’t tell me we can’t piss next to the tree. That must also add to some kind of pollution, right?’

‘No, it’s actually good for the soil, for the tree. Kanu, don’t you people use urine in the biogas plant in your village?”

‘Yes, sir. They add cow dung, and urine and all kinds of things.’

At that moment the bus conductor called everyone. All three, stepped up and sat on their respective places one by one.

‘There, I see that fellow in green sweater, still drinking tea,’ the conductor shouted, pointing to an obese man drinking tea and chatting away with the tea-stall owner. He finally heard the conductor, paid money to the tea-stall guy and almost ran to catch the moving bus.

In exactly, four hours and thirty minutes, they reached Chandigarh. The greenery in the city pleased their senses. The junior officer ordered both of them to walk faster to the manufacturer’s shop.

‘Are you sure it was in sector 25?’

‘Yes. Two-minute walk from here.’

‘We have to be back to Delhi by evening.’

‘Shouldn’t be a problem, a bus is at two another one at three.’

‘Let’s aim for the first one. Leaves us an hour to close the deal.’

‘No more than thousand rupees.’

The shop owner cum scientist was cleaning some machine parts. When he saw the buyers, he left the instruments on the table and came up to the front desk to welcome them.

‘So where is the purifier?’ said the scientist.

‘Sir, here it is. The only piece I have,’ responded the shop owner. ‘It’s a futuristic invention, sir.’

‘What’s the price?’ said the scientist.

‘Only twenty five hundred rupees, sir,’ said the scientist, his back supported by the thick cushion on his chair. Everybody knew that these shops quoted double the price to begin with. But this was more than double.

‘Please quote the final price. At this price, no one will buy,’ said the junior officer.

‘Two thousand rupees for you, sir.’

‘We have no budget to go beyond nine hundred rupees.’

‘I can’t afford to sell at that price, sir. No, no. Not possible.’

‘Look, nobody knows about this damn thing. It will only rot in your shop.  It’s too early to be commercialised. You understand, right? We might be able to find ways to sell it in the future and at that time you will have an edge over others. First mover’s advantage, you know.’

‘Nine hundred and fifty, the final price.’

‘Okay, let’s see the instrument.’

‘Sir, you switch it on and it purifies the air in the room. Nothing else to do. Leave it on like you leave a cooler on in the summers.’

‘Here, take nine hundred and fifty rupees.’

The junior assistant and the scientist helped Kanu to carry the box with a shining blue ribbon around it. Kanu kept the box next to his seat in the bus. When they were getting off to Adhchini, a little girl came close to the scientist and asked if it contained a present for someone. The scientist smiled and shook his head before waving the girl goodbye.

It was close to seven in the evening. They rushed back to the office. The assistant commissioner’s office was quiet. The peons outside were moving chairs and tables to the conference room.

*

 The assistant commissioner was drawing some figures on the black board.

‘Sir, we’ve got the air purifier. It’s in the conference room.’

‘What’s the price? One thousand rupees?’ He turned around.

‘Yes, sir, one thousand rupees. We negotiated hard but it’s a rare machine so we had to pay what we had to pay.’

‘Don’t worry. Will get it reimbursed.’

‘Yes, sir. This thing will be useful to convince the NGO people. They can be stubborn.’

‘Never quite liked them. Bullshit arguments. Bring CNG, save environment, disrupt the economy. Stupid they are. You understand, stupid people.’

‘You are absolutely right, sir.’

‘Even if the boss tries to pass this bill, will he get the funding from businesses in the next election? Will he get votes from people who’d bear the inconvenience initially? People are interested to solve a problem only when it comes to their own backyard.’

‘Yes, sir, right sir.’

‘If they don’t want to pay the price, why should we?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Show that thing and finish the demo quickly.’

‘Yes, sir. I have it set up in the conference room.’ The junior assistant leads the assistant commissioner to the conference room on the top floor.

‘Sir, I will start the machine and talk about how it purifies polluted air. We can say if the situation deteriorate in the future, say in two decades from now, we can even subsidise the air purifiers for the poor.’

‘And-’

‘And that intervention will be better than disrupting the system now.’

‘What intervention and all, huh?’

‘Sir-’

‘Don’t use jargons and all.’

‘Sir, I thought it would impress the audience.’

‘Most ministers present tomorrow aren’t even matric pass, you understand.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Think of your audience first.’

‘Right, sir.’

‘You can’t hit six on every ball, you see?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But, don’t worry about the presentation. Let Ashok handle everything. You keep your focus on the air purifier. It should work. That’s all.’

‘Sure sir. I have understood it properly.’

 ‘Good. Good. Now send that Ashok in my cabin.’

‘Sir, he had also come with me. He might still be working on the numbers as he was on the way.’

‘He could have prepared the whole thing before a day, at least. Send him right away.’

*

‘Ha ha, so Ashok you went to Chandigarh as well?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where are the numbers?’

‘Sir, I am done calculating most figures. Pollution deaths per year, cost of implementing CNG, benefits of using the diesel vehicles–everything is ready.’

‘Do what you have to do. Get me numbers that can convince people. In fact, put up only those numbers which can help us maintain the status quo.’

‘Yes, sir. But I have a small objection.’

‘What?’

‘Sir, if we put up all the numbers. The decision is likely to be in favour of the CNG buses. We will save lives. We will save the environment. And, in the long run, everybody will be better off.’

‘Yes, we will save the environment. Sure. We will also save lives. But what about those lives which will be affected by this decision now?’

‘Sir, I know. CNG, unlike diesel, cannot be adulterated, cannot be siphoned off, and there is no money in its spot purchases.’

‘That’s why I got you on this job, Ashok. You are sharp. Sharp is what you are. Good. Very good. But what’s the point in backing the option which won’t get implemented?’

‘Sir, Environment Protection Act passed two years back. And it empowers the government of India to take all measures necessary for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment.’

‘Ha ha, you’ve become a textbook parrot. Academic knowledge is good but doesn’t work in the real world.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar walked upto the blackboard, scribbled something. ‘Now, read this out loud.’

‘Laws are symbols of intention and not of action,’ Ashok read without a pause.

‘See health, disease, and polluted air are not part of the public discourse right now. Convenience of commuters and transporters matter. The poor will suffer, but they’ll also have cheaper option to commute.’

‘Sir, unfortunately they are the ones who’d most adversely be affected in the long run.’

‘See, it’s not going to be that bad. The positives and the negatives cancel each other out.’

‘Sir, but what about their well-being?’

‘Look, you want your job, don’t you? Let this be somebody else’s problem twenty years from now,’ said Mr. Aurangabadkar, taking his seat. ‘It’s a shame, I have to explain this to you at this level. It’s not the world of Gandhi and Vivekananda we live in. A big animal eats the smaller one, it’s a law of the jungle. Period. Do you get it?’

‘Sir, I am only suggesting that we could get all the data to the decision makers. That way at least we will have shouldered our moral responsibility.’

‘You are single, right?’

‘What, sir, yes, sir.’

‘That’s why so much idealism.’

‘Sir, I do have a family of six to support.’

‘In that case, Mr. Bhatnagar, it’s sorted. We have only one responsibility. To save our damn jobs. Do you get it? I don’t have any more time for this.’

‘Sir, I was only suggesting.’

‘Good. That’s good. Discussion is always good. But now focus on the data to present tomorrow. These NGO people should be on board. Do you get it?’ the assistant commissioner tapped his fingers on the table.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘If you can’t explain, what do you do?’ Mr. Aurangabadkar takes off his glasses and rubs them with a white handkerchief. ‘Tell me, what would you do?’

‘I will try to simplify things, sir.’

‘No, no. Wrong answer. If you can’t explain, what you do is you confuse people. Throw more confusing options. So the indecision remains. Status quo remains. Anyway, what’s your argument?’

‘Sir, we must carry on with the diesel buses. If the air quality deteriorates in a couple of decades, we can fix the problem through masks, air purifiers and even oxygen bars. That’s going to be cheaper than disrupting the transport business at this stage. Also, will highlight the difficulties in implementation.

‘But what’s the slogan? What will you put in the posters?’

Garibi hatao, desh bachao.

‘Excellent.’ The assistant commissioner stood on his place and began packing his bag. ‘I see you are a bright young man. You have a very promising future. Keep it up.’

‘Thank you, sir. Whatever I have learnt, I have learnt only from you.’

*

When the assistant commissioner reached home that evening and stood at his door he saw two giant boxes by the shoe rack.

‘Any idea when did these arrive?’ he asked his wife when she opened the door.

‘No. Nobody rang the bell. Who sent them?’

‘Long story.’

‘Let’s take them inside first.’

‘Tell me, is it a surprise gift for me?’

‘No.’

‘You are always busy on the phone, be aware of these things.  Such huge boxes they are. They were lying outside god knows for how long.’

‘But who sent them?’

‘They must be from Mr. Agarwal or Mr. Rana or maybe the Patel brothers.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know. Must be for tomorrow.’

Both of them uncovered the gift boxes and found a TV set and a music system. Mr. Aurangabadkar saw a card inside and it was from Mr. Agarwal and it said the gift was for their wedding anniversary next week.

‘How do they know these things?’

‘They know. They always do.’

‘What do they want from you?’

‘I know what they want.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar busied himself in setting up the music system in the drawing room. ‘I know very well what they want. Good, I like smart people.’

‘They were the ones who sent twenty boxes of Soan Papdi on Diwali last year. Didn’t they?’

‘Yes. Prepare an envelope with your calendar tomorrow. Those handmade ones made by the orphans in your organization. It would look good. Will give it when I see him tomorrow.’

Before Mr. Aurangabadkar could open the box of TV fully, their daughter scuttled down the stairs. The blue ribbons, extricated stapled pins and thermacol pieces scattered in the entire drawing room. When his daughter came running towards him, she got hurt by the stapled pins on the way. Mr. Aurangabadkar immediately got the first aid kit and put a Dettol on her toe. Before she let out a cry, he showed her the new TV set and the music system. The child forgot about the wound and began experimenting with the remote control buttons.

*

The scientist, was looking out of the window and saw a ragpicker collecting plastic bags, plastic bottles and other junk on the road side. He walked at a leisurely pace with his oversized jute bag, picking things on the way. After a few minutes, two beggar kids appeared out of nowhere and asked him for something. Before asking them to wait under a banyan tree, he placed his bag by their side and kept walking in an opposite direction, towards a shop. He came out with a packet of Parle G biscuits and distributed between them. The scientist kept staring the ragpicker until he disappeared with his jute bag. Somebody knocked at the time.

The peon asked if posters were ready to be put up. The scientists said that they’d be ready early morning tomorrow. He picked up posters, began filling them up with data and charts, compelling pictures and quotes.

‘Ashok sir, do you need tea before I leave?’ asked a peon.

‘No, you go.’

‘Sir, I have closed all doors. The watchman will close the building after you leave.’

The peon was certain that the scientist would not complain to the assistant director if he left the office before he did. He could not imagine leaving the premise when the assistant commissioner sat in the office working till late sometimes.

 ‘Ashok sir.’

‘Huh…What is it?’

‘Nothing…Sir, is it a very important meeting tomorrow?

‘Who said?’

‘I was just asking. I saw other peons running around with tables and chairs so I thought–’

‘Some people are coming, yes.’

‘I have been asked to serve fresh orange juice tomorrow along with tea, coffee and biscuits. That’s why I wondered if–.’

‘You’ll know tomorrow, if that’s the case,’ Ashok continued writing on the poster with a marker.

*

The junior officer was at the office early morning. The scientist came upto him and made a request to help him putting up the posters on the conference walls which he did, but his focus was on rehearsing dialogues he’d exchange with the assistant commissioner in the evening while talking about his permanent employment.

When the peon saw the pot-bellied man coming out of a white ambassador, he did not even wait for him to climb all the stairs. He alerted the scientist and the junior officer first and then went straight to the office kitchen to bring refreshments.

‘Mr. Aurangabadkar is not in,’ the scientist said, though he had entered the building and he could be seen heading towards the fourth floor. The junior officer and the scientist sat with the minister in the guest room. First came water, then tea, followed by crème rolls and wafer biscuits. The peon had standing instructions. More ministers, NGO heads and transport business tycoons joined in, and at last when the media representatives joined in, Mr. Aurangabadkar requested everybody to shift to the conference room.

The agriculture minister walked at a slower pace, left hand on his round belly, chewing tobacco on the way. Dressed in white kurta and pyjama, his gold rings shone in the sun light. The transport minister, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, caught up with him.

‘What is happening in this country? It’s unimaginable.’

‘Sad, truly sad.’

‘These foreigners have no respect for our values. And we are talking about liberalization, privatization, globalization. Don’t know how far it can help.’

‘We need policies that can help our farmers. Look at the number of farmers’ suicides?’

‘But the economy. You see the economy. It’s in distress.’

‘What were we doing till now? Sleeping, snoring away?’

‘Ha ha, I hope you are not referring to my nap during the parliament session. Are you?’

‘No, no, what are you saying?’

 ‘These media people are after me. You see, I had a high fever, was on medication that day. So-’

‘No, no. I was saying in general.’

‘But you can’t also ignore the deplorable state of our foreign reserves.’

‘Yes, yes. That’s also an important issue.’

Mr. Aurangabadkar requested the group of ministers to sit in the middle of the conference room, the NGO people on the left side, businessmen on the right side, the media officials all the way in the back.

After wasting few minutes on the introduction of guests and their achievements, Mr. Aurangabadkar said that his team had worked day and night to bring the most pertinent data for them. He carried on with his rehearsed speech until he was reading out facts and points from the posters. His tone changed when he read out points he hadn’t approved.

Mr. Aurangabadkar looked in Ashok’s direction, he wore a mischievous half smile. There were no words exchanged the whole day between the two men. That day Mr. Aurangabadkar tried to turn around the situation and played a card of being an unbiased presenter who genuinely thought status quo was the best possible option.

At the end of the meeting, neither did he acknowledge the scientist’s contribution, nor presence. He shook hands with the entire team, including the peons and watchmen on special duty but not with the scientist.

By the evening, when the scientists had packed his bag, he had also stuffed his parents’ photo stuck on his desk, the Bhagawad Gita and a box of pencils he had brought on the first day of the job. A day later, when a newspaper headline read, ‘Whose interest CNG is stepping on?’ the scientist chuckled sitting in a reclining chair at home, at that moment he knew that in the tussle between the positives and the negatives, at least now they won’t cancel each other out.


Kruti Brahmbhatt is educated in the U.S. and India and currently lives in Ahmedabad. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Forge Literary Magazine, the Stockholm Review of Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Canyon Voices, the Pangolin Review and others. She has also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is a 2014 Young India Fellow.

Fiction | ‘The Faber House’ by Peter Alterman

Allison stared at the screen of her cell phone, black letters on gray background. Buddy Faber dead? But she’d seen him only a few months ago. A reading from the new novel, Tock, at the Barnes & Noble in Holyoke. Then dinner along with the Chair of the English Department, her dissertation director and women from the bookstore. After that, just the two of them back to his hotel for a nightcap, sex and catching up.

He’d looked and sounded the same. Slight, sixty-ish, Southern. Still pounding back the Irish pretty good. And the sex was pretty good, too, a pleasant surprise after all the whiskey he’d put away. He’d said to her after their second time, stroking her inner thigh: “You know, when I was an undergraduate, gentlemen of a certain age weren’t allowed to entertain young women in their hotel rooms.” Not that she was, technically, a young woman any more. Not at 32.

Despite his hand’s promise she knew he was only a two shot man. So she slid his hand up to the warm place where she wanted it, guiding his fingers where she wanted them to go, do what she wanted them to do. “Then I’d say this is a real improvement,” she’d said.

Remembered: face flushed, pulse pounded.

In the morning he was up early packing, limo coming to drive him to Logan for an early flight to Atlanta. The next stop on his book tour. Still, he’d taken the time to make them both coffee from the in-suite machine. They’d sat on the edge of the bed together. “Come back to Richmond, stay with me this summer,” he’d said.

“Maybe I will,” she’d said.

And now this. Allison re-read the email from Buddy’s lawyer. He’d left her his house. The one on Strawberry Street next to the flower shop and across the street from Joe and Savannah’s bar. The lawyers could mail her the papers or meet with her after the funeral. Which was Tuesday. Of course she had to attend.

Why would he do that? What the hell did she need with his house?

It was almost summer and now she was going back to Richmond. But not to stay with Buddy. To bury him. It was cloudy and cold. The last of the dogwood blossoms blew in the air like reluctant snow. Allison looked at the mug in her hand and remembered the bitter K-pod coffee he’d made for her.

Buddy was gone. A spasm of grief filled her chest and overflowed in her eyes.

Her cell buzzed in her hand and she almost dropped it. It was her dissertation director. She answered.

“Allison, did you hear? Bud Faber—“

“Yes, I heard. It’s on—.”

“All the morning news shows,” he said. “Terrible. Only 63. He was just here flogging his latest. Got to read it. Soon as I finish the semester.”

The novel he was struggling to finish while they were together, summer before last. She said, “Listen. I’m going down to Richmond for his funeral now. I’ll be gone for a few days.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Not a problem. I know you two were, ah, friends. One of the TAs can cover your class if you need.”

“Thanks.” She tapped him off. His hesitations said it all. She could be flattered by his interest in her but she knew better. Her ex had been like that in the beginning.

Allison turned her attention to the practicalities. She called Savannah.

“Oh, it’s terrible, honey, it truly is.” Savannah sniffed.

“How did he die?” Allison said. “Where?”

“A cerebral aneurism. In the middle of giving a talk. In front of a roomful of people. Oh, awful. Just awful.” Savannah was crying.

“Oh. Oh, no,” Allison said. Savannah was right. Awful.

Savannah said, “I’m so glad you’re coming down. You’ll stay with us, of course.”

As always, her first impulse was wariness. Joe and Savannah had been like family to Buddy and she didn’t feel like part of that family. And yet, there was the house.

Savannah said, “Oh please, Ali. Stay with us. It’d be a comfort to me.”

Whether she thought of herself as part of Buddy’s family or not, Joe and Savannah and Buddy thought otherwise. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be there before midnight.”

Within an hour she was packed, out of her condo and on her way south to Richmond. By the time her red Miata hit I-91 in Northampton she was already cruising at 90. About the time she picked up the Connecticut Turnpike the useless tears were dribbling out of her eyes again and snot leaking onto her upper lip.

Approaching Port Chester she thought about the weekend in New York she’d spent with him when he was there to give a talk at the 92nd Street Y. About Obituaries and Other Lies? What she remembered was the omakase at the sushi bar, just the two of them sitting hip to hip. Breakfast in bed at the Carlyle reading the Sunday New York Times, him the Opinion section, her the Arts. Only the sound of broadsheets rustling as they turned pages disturbed the quiet of their room.

She stopped for gas at the Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. It reminded her of the panel at MLA where the professor from Tulane insisted on comparing Buddy unfavorably to Walker Percy. As a writer and as a Southerner. She’d held her temper in check during the session but afterwards she practically screamed her anger to Buddy in the speakers’ room.
He talked her down, hands on her shoulders, eye to eye. “His kind don’t bother me,” he’d said. “Us Virginians ain’t Southern enough for some. And we Episcopalians ain’t haunted enough, either.” She thought that was pretty funny.

On I-95 below the Washington Beltway, she remembered the last thing he’d ever said to her, trailing the words over his shoulder as he walked out of the hotel room in Holyoke: “In a way, Tock turned out to be a love song to you, Allison.”

The book’s dedication was to her: “For Auburn hair everywhere, with love.” Damn. Her eyes were wet again. What did she owe him for that? The speedo of her Miata read 95.“Fuuuucccckkk!” she screamed into the windshield.

Should she have stayed with him instead of coming back to Amherst? And what if she had stayed? What would she have done? Settle into a domestic routine, learn to knit and cook, subscribe to Southern Living? Join him at Joe and Savannah’s place across the street for morning whiskey and eggs, go to the farmers’ markets with his sisters, maybe even bear a brace of little Fabers?

She’d liked Buddy. Really liked him. Admired and respected him. Maybe loved him. But making a home for a man wasn’t what she’d planned for her life. That’s what it always came down to for a woman, wasn’t it? Mother taught her that. And yet, without being aware it was happening, Buddy had burrowed a place into her heart though she wasn’t aware of missing him between their occasional get-togethers.

More than anything she didn’t want to feel torn between resentment and sadness. But she was.
Allison cruised into the Fan District in darkness and parked her car under the familiar maple trees in front of Buddy’s white colonial. The windows were dark. No porch light glowed. It looked frozen in anticipation. Like a dog waiting at the door for its dead master.

She shook her head. Merely a symptom of low blood sugar. A house is a house, empty or full. The rest is just chemistry.

Joe and Savannah’s place across the street was closed on account of Buddy’s death. She called to say she was out front and was instructed to come around the side. Allison pulled her rollaway out of the Miata’s tiny trunk, dragged it across the street and down the narrow walkway on the side of the bar.
Savannah was waiting for her with the old wooden screen door open. They hugged for a long minute, both of then sniffing back tears. “C’mon in honey,” Savannah said. The door banged shut behind them and they climbed the stairs.

Joe and Savannah owned the building that housed their tavern on Strawberry Street and lived upstairs. “Buddy bought the building with proceeds from ICUCMe,” Joe told her two summers ago, “And gave it to us outright. Gave it to Savannah, really, when he saw how we were together.”

She surrendered herself to their hospitality. A vat of Joe’s chili simmered on the range. A cooler under the table was filled with bottles of local lager. Savannah filled their bowls. Joe popped the caps off bottles and passed them out. They sat around the Formica kitchen table long into the night reciting well-worn Buddy stories. That’s what Allison called them, Buddy stories, many new to her. It was the best kind of wake. The wake he deserved.

Savannah put her feet up on Joe’s thigh and wiggled her toes. “Did he ever tell you about the time Aunt Elizabeth kidnapped him from his crib and had him baptized in the creek before his mother could rescue him?”

“No!” Allison said. “Really?”

Joe laughed, massaging Savannah’s feet. “Yup. His Aunt Elizabeth was dunking him in the water like a donut in coffee. He came down with pneumonia and almost died.”

Laughing, Allison said, “If it were my kid I’d’ve killed the woman.”

“Buddy’s Ma did throw her out of the house,” Savannah said. “And to this day Aunt Elizabeth lives in the same shack by the river at the edge of the family estate. An eyesore the Country Club next door hates.”

“’Cause of the outdoor privies,” Joe said. Savannah laughed.

“No!” Allison said.

“Course not. It’s just a ramshackle cottage,” Joe said. “You know why the U awarded him an honorary doctorate but refused to grant him his bachelor’s degree, don’t you?”

“No. I’ve seen the fancy proclamation in his office,” Allison said. “How could he not graduate?”

“Failed to complete a no-credit phys ed requirement,” Joe said. “Tennis, wasn’t it?” he asked Savannah. She nodded.

“Why didn’t he finish?”

Joe said, “Because he had to go to Vanderbilt to accept a short story award. Five hundred bucks. The coach was a douche and wouldn’t excuse him or let him make up the classes. So he said fuck it and went anyway.”

Allison raised her bottle. “That was Buddy,” she said. They clinked bottles and emptied them.

Savannah put her feet on the floor. Joe collected empties and dropped them in a paper sack beside his chair. He said, “Honey, grab the bottle of Irish.” When they all had full shot glasses they raised them. Joe said, “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison and Savannah echoed him. “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison downed the whiskey, hardly tasting it. Her throat clamped shut and her face turned red. She coughed and gasped. They waited patiently for her to catch her breath, then Joe handed out refills of beer and whiskey.

“He told you why he never cooked at home, didn’t he?” Savannah said.

Allison nodded her head, “Oh, yes. He was kind of, I don’t know, proud of it.” Though she knew that they knew the story better than she did, it was her turn to tell a Buddy story so she continued, “He said he was frying bacon in a skillet for breakfast and stepped away, got distracted by something. Next thing he knew flames were erupting from the skillet. So he grabbed it and threw it in the sink and turned on the water. Exactly the wrong thing to do, because greasy black smoke filled the whole apartment. Turned the walls black and gray. Billowed out the open windows. The fire department came. He had to pay ServiceMaster to clean it all up, then the landlord kicked him out.”

“Supposed to use a dry chemical extinguisher on grease fires, not water,” Joe said.

Savannah said, “You’re a cook. You know that. Bet he didn’t even have a fire extinguisher in the apartment.” After a heartbeat she said, “’Course he didn’t. How would he know? His mama didn’t cook.”

“Mine didn’t, either,” Allison said. “So I never learned.”

“Really? You don’t cook? Some of my best memories are being in a warm kitchen with my mama,” Savannah said.

Allison looked down. “I don’t have any best memories of my mother. She left when I was eight.” Savannah reached out and touched Allison’s shoulder. Allison smiled at her. “But we did make tea in the mornings, Buddy and me. Then he’d come over to your place. He insisted on eating whatever you made.”

“And you’d wander over eventually to drag him back to work,” Savannah said.

“Men expect that of us, don’t they?” Allison said. They laughed. It was a joke. But it wasn’t, really. Not to her.

There were more stories. Buddy’s life was a collection of stories. But then, everyone’s life was a collection of stories. This was one of her good ones, now.

In the morning Allison woke on the living room sofa with a crushing headache and a case of corpse mouth. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror with sunlight glinting off her auburn hair she said, “What do I need his house for?” She didn’t have an answer.

She dressed and went downstairs to the bar for coffee. Joe and Savannah opened every morning at six for the breakfast trade. When he was in town Buddy was almost always their only early morning customer and of course that was reason enough to open. After 10 things got busy with kids from VCU and locals on morning beer break.

Allison stopped in the open doorway. From behind her, perfect golden-yellow morning light flowed in, adding an oiled glow to every color, mahogany paneling, oak floor, shiny brass fittings, gleaming glassware, maroon booths. She was transported back to the summer she’d lived with Buddy.

His absence was an empty hole in the room. Behind the bar, Joe looked up. Their eyes met. He gestured to a stool in front of him and turned to pour a mug of coffee for her. He took down a bottle of Jameson’s and poured a generous shot into the coffee.

“In honor of Buddy,” he said. Buddy had started every day with Irish in his coffee.

“Of course.” Despite her hangover she smiled and drank.

Savannah came out around the end of the bar carrying two plates of toast and eggs in her hands and a copy of the morning’s Times-Dispatch stuck tucked beneath one armpit. When she saw Allison she said to Joe, “I’ll make you a plate in a bit.” He nodded. The women sat at the bar shoulder to shoulder and ate.

“You had no idea he was giving you his house?” Savannah said.

Allison shook her head. “It was only really that one summer. That and a few weekends here and there.”

“That’s all it takes sometimes,” Savannah said.

Savannah and Joe she could see. But her and Buddy? “God damn,” she said. And then, “God damn! What did he have to go and do that for? Did he expect me to drop my whole life and come down here to live and take care of his house for him? What the fuck?”

She pushed herself away from the bar and stormed out. Morning sun was heating up the cracked asphalt on Strawberry Street. Allison stood on the sidewalk just beyond the doorway and looked at Buddy’s house. “God damn,” she whispered. Tears filled her eyes. Something had been there. With him. With Buddy.

Savannah came up and put her arm around Allison’s shoulders. “Sucks he’s gone,” she said.
Allison leaned her head against Savannah’s. “I don’t know what to do.” They stood that way for a few moments.

“Want to go over and check it out?” Savannah said. “I got a key.”

Of course they had a key. She sniffed and wiped her wet cheeks with her palms. “Sure, why not.”

The air in the house was still, dust motes floating weightless in thick shafts of sunlight. The faintest hint of mildew rising from the basement, mixing with disinfectant from the powder room. Piles of books and papers covering every horizontal surface in the dining room and the parlor, even on chairs and sofa cushions. Bookcases on either side of the picture window were crammed with books and papers. His National Book Award lay on its side, abandoned atop one of the bookcases.

The silence pressed against Allison’s eardrums, a physical discomfort. She was listening for Buddy: his tread on the floor upstairs, the creak of the old wooden chair in his front bedroom office.

They walked through the house room by room. Evidence of Buddy’s unexpected death was everywhere, from the half-finished Times-Dispatch crossword puzzle on the kitchen counter to the towel on the floor in his bathroom to the unmade bed that Allison knew so well. And that Savannah knew well, too, before Joe. That made Allison smile. Ah, Buddy.

The doorbell chimed. Allison hurried down the stairs and opened the door. An old woman stood there ramrod straight, rail-thin, bony shouldered and white-haired, with a sharp nose and prominent cheekbones under reddened skin. She wore a shapeless ankle-length brown cotton dress that hung like a sack on her. Her eye sockets were deep and dark. Her lips were thin and cracked. There was something of Buddy in her face.

“Come in, Aunt Elizabeth,” Allison said, standing back. Savannah watched from the bottom of the stairs.

Aunt Elizabeth shook her head. She handed a set of keys to Allison. Through tightened lips she said, “It’s your house now.” Then she turned and walked away, stiff little bird steps, dress barely shifting.

“Whoa, she’s not happy with you,” Savannah said.

“I didn’t ask him for this goddamn house.”

“If I was you, I’d change the locks.”

Allison shook her head. “Nah. She’s a Christian woman. She wouldn’t break a commandment if her life depended on it.”

Buddy’s funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Joe and Savannah closed the bar and walked with Allison to St. Paul’s Church in the center of town. The street in front of it was crowded with all kinds of people, Allison recognized a coming-together of Buddy’s disparate families, the blood relatives, the literati, the press, the locals who knew him, the neighbors who lived around him, the friends he made family. Reporters crowded the concrete steps of the church trolling for celebrities both artistic and political, making it difficult for them to pass inside. Joe pushed his way through the mob, Savannah and Allison trailing in his wake. The vestibule was even more crowded.

Feeling awkward about Buddy’s bequest, Allison hoped to avoid his family altogether. But there they were, a receiving line, standing in front of the bronze double doors that opened to the sanctuary. There was no avoiding them. She walked the line, shaking hands and murmuring condolences: Buddy’s sisters Fern and Lily, who smelled a little of bourbon; Fern’s husband Mike and their two sons.

Allison smiled, seeing Aunt Elizabeth looking uncomfortable inside an Episcopal church with polished oak pews and plush red cushions, a massive pipe organ and gorgeous stained glass windows that spewed bright colors across the room. A church that could easily be mistaken for Catholic but for the absence of Jesus tortured and dying on the cross. Aunt Elizabeth offered a limp hand. Allison took it cautiously.

Once inside they settled themselves in a pew near the back. Hands waved to each other across the sanctuary. Many locals were there. Allison recognized two women wearing black whose flower shop was next door to Buddy’s house. She overheard a woman in the pew behind them whispering to her neighbor the details of Buddy’s death. Hearing it this time she could see it as if she’d been there, see Buddy standing at the podium talking, see the instant of surprise in his eyes, seeing him crumple, dead before his body hit the floor. The image drew a rush of grief that rose from her chest up her throat and splashed into her face. Tears traced lines down her cheeks.

She remembered the last words she’d said to him: “Maybe I will.” How cold that sounded. Allison sniffed and wiped her face with a handkerchief. She could be so unthinking.

The urn with Buddy’s ashes stood on a white and gold granite pedestal in front of the first row. So much gold: on the urn enclosing Buddy’s ashes; adorning the priest’s robes; the altar railing; the twin candlesticks that were lit during the service. Which was long. And hot. They stood. They sat. They sang together. They chanted responsively. Many around her lined up in the aisles waiting to take communion.

After the offering of the Host came the eulogy. The priest went on about Buddy’s contributions to American literature, his love of family and Virginia. No word about his drinking, a family trait, or his women—Allison and Savannah among them. The Mayor spoke of Buddy’s contribution to Richmond’s storied history. The President of the University thanked Buddy for the gift of his letters and the stipend he donated to fund a fellowship in his name.

Though Allison knew what to expect, she was still depressed by it all. It was so not-Buddy. But the funeral was for Fern and Lily and Aunt Elizabeth. For his readers and admirers and friends. For the reporters outside on the steps of the church. For his future biographers.

When the service was over they joined the line of people shuffling out. As they were about to exit the sanctuary there was a tap on Allison’s shoulder. It was Fern, standing behind her.

“Ms. Stone,” Fern said.

She felt Joe moved closer to her for protection. Allison smiled him away. “Mrs. Marshall?”

“Yes.” Fern smiled. “Do you have a few minutes to spare for us now? The family would like to discuss the estate.”

Savannah said, “We’ve already heard from the family, Mrs. Marshall.”

Fern sighed. “I’m sorry about Aunt Eliza. But please, over here. Just a few minutes of your time.”

Family business. Allison had put family business behind her years ago. But these people had just lost their brother. She should take time for them. “Of course.”

“We’ll wait for you right here,” Joe said. Savannah nodded agreement. They slid into the rear pew and sat, watching.

At the front of the sanctuary the priest shook hands with the family. Then he put a hand on the urn holding Buddy’s ashes, his priestly farewell. He turned and left through a side door. Fern led Allison to the family. Aunt Elizabeth and the boys stood apart. Handshakes again with Lily and Mike.

“It’s nice to meet you properly,” Lily said.

“You meant a lot to Bud,” Fern said. “He told us.”

A moment too slow Allison said, “He meant a lot to me, too.”

“He mentioned he’d seen you recently,” Lily said. “A few months ago?”

Allison nodded. “March. In Amherst. It was good to see him again. I had no idea.”

Lily said, “None of us did.” She shook her head. “Our big brother. Only 63. Would have been 64 next month.”

“Never even made it to Medicare, not that he needed government money,” Mike said. The women looked at him.

Lily turned to Allison. “So. We don’t want to keep you.”

“Yes,” Fern said. “We know Bud left you his house. The lawyers have been in touch. And, well, we’re sorry about the other day with Aunt Eliza.”

Fern said. “You see, before he’d changed his will in your favor he’d promised the house to Aunt Eliza.” Aunt Elizabeth glared at Allison from ten feet away.

“Oh. I see,” Allison said.

“Not a problem,” Lily said. “After all, it was Bud’s home and he had every right to do with it what he wanted.”

“But we’d like to know—,” Mike said.

Lily silenced him with a slash of her hand. “We were wondering if you’ve thought about what you want to do with it.”

“Do you plan on living in the house? Moving here?” Fern said.

Allison shook her head. How could she know? “I only just found out about the house,” she said, “and it’s come as a shock. So. I’m not sure. Maybe after? I don’t know.”

Mike spoke up again. “Bud left his literary stuff to the University library.”

Fern said, “Yes, there is that. All his papers, documents, awards, all that.”

Suppressing an impulse to resist, Allison instead said, “Of course. And heirlooms, too, they should go to the family.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Lily said. “We should agree on a time for us to go through the house with you.”

“So you don’t think we’re stealing anything,” Mike said.

“Mike,” Lily said sharply.

“I just mean–”

“Mike. Please.”

He frowned.

Misunderstood again. Allison imagined being married to a Faber woman could be difficult. Was she like them? A difficult woman? Was that why Buddy had loved her? Brandon-the-ex had said as much about her. But Brandon was an asshole.

Lily said, “How long will you be staying? When would be convenient for us to come over?”

She’d been hoping to return home after the funeral but the business with the house complicated things. She could set up her laptop in the kitchen and get work done. She had a bunch of essays to read.

“Well, I’ve got—okay, how about tomorrow morning at 9?”

Fern said, “That would suit me just fine.”

Lily nodded. “Thank you so much, Ms. Stone.”

“Allison.”

“Allison. Thank you.”

“And you,” Allison said. “My condolences.”

“Thank you.”

Another round of hand shaking, this time with the sisters only, and Allison escaped to Savannah and Joe waiting for her at the back of the church. They put their heads together.

“Well?” said Savannah.

“Could have gone worse,” Allison said. “Turns out Buddy promised the house to Aunt Elizabeth before he changed his will.”

Savannah giggled. “That explains it.”

Outside on the top step of the church they paused to look around. It was summer-warm and Virginia-humid in the heart of Richmond. The reporters were gone. The last of the funeral attendees were crossing the street to the Capitol’s park. Unheeding traffic crawled past.

Allison took a deep breath, blew it out, and said, “I need a drink.”

Joe said, “Amen, sister.”

Next morning at nine sharp Allison unlocked the front door of the house. She went through it, upstairs and down, opening shades and windows to let in morning light and morning air, then started water for tea.

She made a mental note to buy a Nespresso machine for the kitchen. Maybe replace the pine cabinets with cherry, put in a granite countertop, stainless steel refrigerator and oven. Allison stopped her racing thoughts. What was she thinking? There was a knock on the front door. She’d have to put in a video doorbell, one with Internet connectivity. Allison shook her head, frustrated with herself.

It was the estate lawyer. “Thanks so much for coming,” Allison said.

“After you explained what was happening this morning I felt it was necessary to supervise,” the lawyer said. “I also let the University know. They’ll probably show up, too.”

“Good. Thanks.” The kettle whistled from the kitchen. She led the lawyer into the kitchen. There was a knock at the back door. The Faber women.

“Come in, come in,” Allison said, unlocking the back door and standing back to let them in.

Fern, Lily and Aunt Elizabeth entered carrying canvas bags and cardboard boxes. Shifting them around, Fern and Lily shook hands, murmured morning pleasantries. Aunt Elizabeth sidled in and avoided looking at Allison. “See you got the lawyer here,” she said.

Allison ignored her and poured boiling water into two mugs. She dropped two tea bags into the mugs and gave one to the lawyer. Taking family heirlooms was fine, but she wasn’t going to let anyone claim the living room sofa was a family heirloom. Not that she wanted it, exactly.

When the university librarians showed up the lawyer went off with them. They sorted papers into careful piles, boxing them in labeled plastic bins, toting them out to a van waiting in the alley behind the house. The family gathered ceramic tchotchkes, photos in silver frames, paintings and prints off the walls. All day long people tromped through the house, their shoes clomping overhead and under foot, people shuffling in and out of rooms, climbing and descending stairs, doors banging as people went out carrying boxes and bags of Buddy’s things.

Allison sat at the kitchen table with her laptop open, unable to concentrate. Her hands rested unmoving on the pine tabletop. Seeing Buddy’s things carried away disturbed her but she couldn’t quite understand why. After all, she didn’t need what they were taking and God knew Buddy was beyond caring. But it was disquieting.

Around seven silence descended as everyone left. Allison went around the house closing windows and locking up. In every room there was evidence of pillage. The shelves in Buddy’s office were bereft of papers. His laptop was gone. His awards and trophies were gone. In his bedroom the walls were empty. The dresser top was bare. Even the open tube of toothpaste was gone from the bathroom sink: Aunt Elizabeth making a statement. Downstairs the parlor walls were empty. The papers that had been everywhere were gone. It was as if Buddy had been vacuumed out of his house, leaving merely a—house.

Trying to be considerate she’d offered the family Buddy’s things, not realizing the effect it would have on her. She wandered back to the kitchen and sat at the table in the chair where she’d spent many mornings drinking tea with him. Reading the paper with him. He’d do the crossword. She’d eat her yogurt and granola. And as he’d leave for Joe and Savannah’s he’d kiss the part on the top of her head.

Finally, in the emptiness he’d left she saw what she’d overlooked. An easy man to live with who asked nothing more of her than to be who she was. Men like that were myths, her mother had said, like unicorns. Only he had been real. A man who’d asked nothing of her, until he did, at the end.

Too late. Ah. What good was the house to her if Buddy wasn’t there? Maybe she’d just sell it. Take the money. Add it to the piles in her bank accounts.

There was a knock at the back door and Savannah came in. “Are you okay?”

Allison’s eyes were red and wet but she said, “Yes, of course. They took almost everything that was Buddy. Like a plague of locusts. So Biblical.” She sniffed. “God, I’m beginning to talk like Aunt Elizabeth.”

Savannah put a hand on Allison’s arm. She said, “With or without his stuff in it, this house will always be The Faber House.”

Allison laughed. “Sounds like a B&B”

Savannah said, “Hey! My mama runs a B&B in Charleston.”

Of course.

Of course.

Forget selling it. She said, “So how about turning this one into a B&B?”

“A great idea! And I’d love to,” Savannah said. “I worked in them growing up.” Her voice drooped. “We can’t afford it. We barely break even on the bar and that’s with owning the building.”

But Allison wasn’t going to overlook this opportunity as she’d overlooked Buddy. “I own the place free and clear,” she said, “And there’s something like ten thousand a year for maintenance and taxes. So what if I took out a mortgage and paid you and Joe to turn it into a B&B and run it? We can be partners. Fifty-fifty. I put in the money, you put in the labor.”

“If you’re serious,” Savannah said, “I’ll do it. We’ll do it.” She hugged Allison. “But I gotta talk to Joe.”

If Savannah wanted it, Joe would want it. They were that kind of couple. In the morning she’d call the lawyers. Family business.

Peter Alterman is a member of The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) and has published science fiction literary fiction, popular fiction and literary criticism. Recent fiction publications include “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Perfect Time for Morning Coffee” in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine #12, Spring/Summer 2020

Fiction | ‘Shabaahat’ by Sobia Abdin

Maryam

A dry loo blew over Maryam’s desolate courtyard, plucking a handful of pink bougainvillea hanging lazily over the wall of the verandah. She heard the soft clink of the bangles she had left out to dry, but the loo vanished as quickly as it had come, and for several moments, the buzzing of her grandmother’s table fan was the only sound that accompanied the hotness of the May afternoon. Maryam went back to her book, the English one. The words on the page were painstakingly difficult to read, but she tried hard to mouth them correctly. Hopes of a future when she could breezily read English, were not rare in her heart, and she was comfortably lost when her thoughts were interrupted again.

‘Mehr? Mehr?’

Maryam turned to face a man, probably in his late forties, with a yellow leather bag in his hand.

‘It’s me Mamu,’ she clarified.

‘Wallah! Sometimes it is almost impossible to tell you two apart.’

Her Mamu seated himself down on the chatai in front of her, crossing his legs with a moan, the first sign of his ageing, Maryam felt. On most days, one would believe him when he said he was thirty-five, as he often did. There was hardly any grey in his hair, and he wore crisp, straight pants with ironed yellowed white shirts. He looked like the gentleman he was, at least he was closest to one Maryam had ever known.

‘Ahh! Reading English again?’

Maryam nodded.

‘At this speed, you will surpass me I swear to God! Ask me what news I have?’ He did not wait for an answer, and continued. ‘Shabana’s older daughter is engaged. About time if you ask me. The girl has been sitting at home for three years… and doing what tell me?’

‘Aye, doing the work of men, as women in this house are doing.’

Her grandmother’s voice was muffled by the paan in her mouth, and Maryam wondered if she would risk ruining its flavour for another one of her soliloquies. The paan must have been exceptionally sweet, for she turned in her charpoy to face her table fan and went back to sleep. Maryam looked at her Uncle to see if he had a reaction, but from his expression, she gathered him to be disdainful, or maybe, indifferent. He sat there for what seemed like a long time, possibly searching for an excuse to leave, as Maryam thought, with the little self-esteem he had intact. When he finally left, the excuse was only slightly convincing, but Maryam had always known that her Uncle was not as intelligent as he wanted everyone to believe. Her mother often told her that he had been smarter, though never as smart as her, but time and poverty had done their work. She turned back to her book as another dry loo took over the verandah, rocking another bunch of pink bougainvillea to death.

***

Evening settled lazily in her small town. There were occasions when Maryam wondered if time even bothered to pass by them, or it did simply because it was made to by God. She woke up from her slumber, her head heavy with the reading and the heat. Folding the chatai, she went outside to her grandmother, who was sitting on a corner of the takht.

‘Where is Mamu?’ Maryam asked as she filled a lota from a bucket, cupping her hands under its snout and sprinkling the water it gathered all over the verandah.

‘Aye, why don’t you stop worrying about your precious Mamu? He is not made of glass, is he?’

‘I will when you stop with your hourly taunts. It gets too much sometimes, Nani.’

‘Aye, what else can I do? I will be dead before he listens. Who has ever listened to their old mothers… sons be damned… my feet can almost touch my grave now… soon…’ 

‘O-B-S-E-S-S-I-O-N…’ Maryam mouthed. That’s what her grandmother felt for death. Maryam had adopted this technique a while ago; learning difficult English words through the things she saw and heard around her, and since then, she had been able to memorise even extremely hard words with ease. She sprinkled the last drops of water across the verandah, filled the lota again, and climbed the stairs to her Uncle’s room.

‘Aye, that old man cannot even do a chidkao now… how difficult is throwing water on the floor… sons be damned one day I will be dead…’

The climb to her Uncle’s room was hardly a climb, a couple of steps haphazardly carved into the stone. The room itself was a work of haste and cheap labour, built up by gluing bricks together along the edge of the roof. If she searched for it, Maryam could still see the demarcation where the terrace boundary had been stretched to raise a wall. She had spent many fond days in the room as a child, when her Mumani lived there as a new bride, and even when she had left the house as a new bride. She remembered her red heels and red purse that she played with. Those were the only things she was left with, after her Mamu sold every piece of gold and silver from her trousseau to buy books. Maryam still remembered the clink of those heels and the flash of that purse, as her Mumani threw slurs at Mamu, and stormed out of the house, never to be seen again.

‘Oh Maryam, what would I do without you? It is so hot, a chidkao is necessary it seems. Do you know the science behind this routine?’

Maryam knew he wouldn’t wait for an answer.

‘I will tell you. It’s evaporation. The water absorbs the heat of the ground and evaporates, cooling the cemented floor. Much like the perspiration of our bodies. You have studied this in school?’

Maryam nodded.

‘I will see if I can give you a book on this. Must be on one of the taaqs. Hahaha, what a use of taaq! We used to light oil lamps in them when I was your age, but who uses lamps these days.’ He said.

Maryam knew he would fall quiet now, as he always did after talking about his youth. Her mother said that it must remind him of his glory days, when he was the most intelligent man in all of town, if you did not count the women. Now he was just any man, even worse, he was a man living on a woman’s, his sister’s, money. She felt sorry for him at times, but her grandmother always told her she shouldn’t.

Maryam glanced over the wall to see if her mother had come back from work. It was almost time, and she always wanted to see Maryam first when she entered the house. Maryam placed the lota on top of the cement water tank and leaned over the terrace boundary, painted blue for some reason. Her Uncle’s room was plastered in naked cement and the rest of the house—the room downstairs, the kitchen, and the latrine—was simply brick and mortar. Her mother had promised she would get their room, shared by all the women, plastered this year, but Maryam doubted if she would be able to save the money. Looking back at that moment now, she would realise that God had answered her question then; a muezzin broke into the azaan and a pair of black eyes greeted Maryam from the door downstairs.

***

The moon rose in all its glory by the time the family settled for dinner. It was a humble spread for the intricately embroidered dastarkhan on which it had been laid out—sabzi, chapatis, and curry with hardly any chunks of meat. Mehr was humming a tune under her breath as she served her daughter a piece of meat, the biggest in the pot, and spread ghee on her chapatis.

‘If only you would tell me the hiding place of that ghee bhinno… these old bones need some care too,’ Mehr only smiled at her brother’s jest, but knew her mother would be prepared with a reply. After all these years, the exchanges had become synonymous with dinner time. By now, she had lost count of the number of times she had made her mother promise to stop with the casual nitpicking and insults, of the countless explanations she had presented to save her brother, urging her mother that it was after all, not his fault.

‘Aye, so do bones that grind all day at the office and school, and I see only two people here who do that… no, no just sabzi and adhi roti for me… what does this old body need food for… rotting in the grave? Bas, bas…’ 

Mehr

The family ate quietly after that, except for Mehr’s interrogation of Maryam’s day at school, to which her brother added uninvited snippets here and there. She had grown to love him somehow over the years, as the resentment in her gave way to pity and acceptance. On many nights, as they all sat down for dinner, her thoughts would travel to their dinner time as children, when their father was alive and their mother’s taunts were reserved for her. Then, she would eat ghee-less, dry chapatis as the one she was eating now, with the smallest piece of meat, while everything of worth went over to her brother. Sometimes she wondered if her mother’s sneers, now for her brother, were a way of apologising, or if the apology was heartfelt. But she never bothered asking her. That is what peace does to you, it enters quietly from the backdoor and leaves no room for complaints. And if anything, Mehr knew that she was at last, peaceful.

The electricity went out as usual after dinner, and the women of the house sat outside on the takht in the verandah, hoping for a breeze that wouldn’t come. Mehr and Maryam took turns with the pankha, a device of intricate craftsmanship. In the early days after her divorce, any object that was once in the set of her wedding belongings, would bring back memories of her marriage. A marriage, if one could call it that. For Mehr, it had been nights and days, one after the other. Nights of alcohol reeked beatings and rape, and days of cleaning the previous night’s mess.

It had been a long time now, since the day she picked up her newborn daughter as her husband slept reeking of liquor and piss, stole money from his wallet, took a rickshaw to the railway station and got on a train to Firozabad. It wasn’t a calm sail. 

As she directed the pankha towards her mother, she remembered the protest that had ensued at home that day. She and her father had called her husband almost intuitively, within minutes. Mehr had gone into the kitchen, clambering, and tied the bottle of rat poison lying below behind the gas cylinder, to her dupatta. Her eyes blazed when she threatened to gulp it down her throat, and her daughter’s. She would do that before she ever set foot in that man’s house again.

Her husband came with a tin box filled with some of her things, drunk out of his senses. He stood outside the house, while she stood inside, with her baby in one arm and the bottle of rat poison in another, its mouth inches away from her daughter’s lips. 

He only said one word, thrice, ‘talaaq, talaaq, talaaq’ and left.

That night still flashed in her nightmares, what mother would have come so close to killing her daughter. She did not know what it had been—bottled frustration, a moment of weakness, or madness, but she knew she would never be able to do it now, not in a million years, not until she was alive. 

Maryam was sitting in front of her and smiled warmly, almost as if she was aware of everything that was going on inside her mother’s mind. Maryam leaned in to place her head on Mehr’s lap, holding on to her pale dupatta. Mehr caressed her daughter’s hair for a long time, as the moon shifted its place in the sky, humming the lullaby that she had sung to her as a child.

‘She looks so much like you.’ 

Her mother’s words made Mehr smile again, as she looked down upon her daughter’s face, peaceful in sleep. She had heard this all the time over the years, and as Maryam grew older, even she could see the uncanny resemblance, the shabbahat that people often talked about. She was Mehr, the moon, and Maryam was her aks, a reflection of her light, they say. As they had said for her as a girl, Mehr, the moon, the light of the bangle town. Mehr, with the grace, the softness, and the beauty of her namesake. 

But Mehr was sure she had lost the beauty somewhere. In all these years, of escaping violence to fall into poverty, of days spent collecting, saving, and calculating every paisa, of lonely nights without a man’s warm arms around her; somewhere she had lost her beauty. But where would she go,  who could she talk to. She had vowed never to say a word, when her father had died leaving behind a divorced daughter and a son too proud to work for sheeshgars, and her mother had asked her how she would bring up a child without a husband. 

“Ek gareeb zindagi ek zaleel zindagi se behtar hai,” she answered. A life of destitution is better than a life of humiliation.

Never had the question arisen again, and never had anyone asked Mehr how she felt. She would tell them though, if they ever asked, that she had been right.

She shielded her daughter’s eyes from the dim light of the verandah bulb and said, “Isse mera aks hi mile naseeb nahi,” I wish she has only my face, not my fate.

Glossary:
1. Mat
2. The practice of washing the outdoors with water intended to cool down a place
3. An element of hyperlocal architecture, a taaq is an arched shelf that was previously used to light earthen lamps
4.
Urdu for table mat
5.
Endearment for sister
6.
A hand fan
7.
Glass workers or makers; while the term is occupational, it is often used to indicate Muslims belonging to a lower caste

Sobia Abdin identifies as a Muslim woman. This identity has been defined by her experiences of growing up in a patriarchal and Islamophobic society. While together her identity and experiences often find a voice in her writing, she also consciously makes an effort to ensure that her stories are informed by a universal feeling of humanness. Her writings, which include poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, have appeared in The Lookout Journal, Literary Yard, Hans India, Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Woman’s Era, and in an anthology published by Impish Lass Publishing House.