10 Inclusive publishing houses for minority narratives in Asia

Diversity and inclusion in the literary landscape:
Publishing outlets for minority groups in Asia

Like all other things, the Indian literary landscape is a product of its times. And as an industry adapting to this age, publishing houses are moving towards a more accessible and inclusive horizon. We’re seeing feminist, LGBTQ+, and Dalit literature assert its expression; translations from rich regional literature finding a clamouring audience; and writing from indigenous communities and people of colour finding a more commercial market and academic market.

The ecosystem is changing – more rightly, it’s evolving to include literature beyond the dominant narrative, and fledgling independent publishing houses are dotting the landscape to cater to this demand. 

If you are a writer who identifies with a marginalised community in Asia, here is a list of independent publishing houses and media outfits that will nourish your ideas and give it the home it deserves. 

– Saumya K

 

PUBLISHING HOUSES


1Panther’s Paw Publications

Started by Yogesh Maitreya in 2016, the independent house is an anti-caste publisher. It is set to publish its seventh title this last year. The press carves a space for including the Dalit narrative and propagating Ambedkarite values.

Themes: Dalit literature, Ambedkar literature
Genre: Fiction, Non Fiction, Poetry
Mail: pantherspawpublication@gmail.com
Social media: Facebook, Instagram
Year established: 2016

“Panther’s Paw Publication is not merely a publication; it is a movement.”


2Stree Samya

The two imprints under Bhatkal and Sen focus on gender (stree) and culture and dissent (samya). It focuses on caste structures — looking at social movements and identity in the creation of Dalit writings.

Submission Guidelines

Themes: Gender studies, culture, and dissent with focus on caste structures
Genre: Academic Non-Fiction, Social Sciences: Cultural Studies, Dalit Studies, Women Studies, and Translation in English from Regional Languages
Mail: bhatkalsens@gmail.com
Social media: Facebook, Instagram
Year established: 1990
Published from: Kolkata, West Bengal

“…examining the roots of injustice from the point of view of an underprivileged.”


3Navayana

How does caste figure from an anti-caste perspective? The independent publishing house is on a quest to demonstrate that through its titles, with Ambdekarite values anchoring its literature.

Themes: Anti-caste literature
Genre: General and academic nonfiction, graphic books, poetry and literary translations
Mail: anand@navayana.org
Social Media: Website, Twitter, Instagram 
Year established: 2003
Published from: New Delhi

Founder S Anand in The Print: “We are a publishing house that has never been about business as usual, but about embracing the unusual.”


4Speaking Tiger

Speaking Tiger is home to over a hundred writers dotted across the South Asian landscape, and gives a platform to “new voices”. 

Submission guidelines

Themes: Anti-caste literature
Genre: Fiction, non-fiction, poetry in English
Mail: editorial@speakingtiger.com
Social Media: Website, Twitter
Year established: 2014
Published from: New Delhi


5Yoda Press

Yoda Press has been expanding its spectrum of literature, dotted with titles about LGTBQ+ communities, life and living in urban culture, Kashmir identity, amongst other voices on the fringe.

Themes: Sexuality, popular culture, alternative voices in history and sociology
Genre: Academic, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, graphic novels
Mail: info@yodapress.co.in
Social Media: Website, Instagram, Facebook
Year established: 2004
Published from: New Delhi

“…striving to mine the niches of alternative writing more deeply.”


Upcoming 2021Gutter Stars Press

A product of Signal 8 Press, Gutter Stars is a new imprint launching in 2021 that broadly focuses on LGBTQ literature and readership. They’re trying to carve a mainstream interest in queer stories.

Themes: Gender and sexuality
Genre: Fiction, Non-fiction, memoirs, personal stories
Mail: gutterstarspress@gmail.com
Year established: 2020
Published from: Hong Kong


6Zubaan Books

Zubaan’s titles are reflective of their diversity and inclusive literary vision. Besides establishing its credo as a feminist publishing house, it has claimed the Northeast writing landscape, allowing new voices to talk about years of conflict and identity in their works. Zubaan also publishes gender neutral children’s books. 

Submission guidelines

Themes: Women’s writing, new voices, Northeast literature
Genre: Academic, Fiction, Non-fiction, children/young adult
Social Media: Twitter, Website
Year Established: 2004
Published from: New Delhi


7QueerInk

QueerInk broke ground in the previous decade as a one-stop shop — allowing curation, development, and promotion of narratives of and by the LGBTHQIA+ community in India. It works across print, screens, theaters and events. It’s vision for the next five years is to the change perception in popular culture.

Themes: Issues and perception of LGBTHQIA+ community, alternative voices
Social Media: Website, Twitter
Mail: info@queer-ink.com
Year established: 2010
Published from: Mumbai, India


8Blaft Publications

Blaft is all things out of the ordinary, in languages beyond the dominant English narrative. Its previous titles are dotted with crime novels, pulp fiction, Nigerian soyayya fiction, folklore, and weird fiction. It picked up the demand for regional literature whilst bringing genre like Tamil pulp fiction to the English-speaking reader.

Submission guidelines

Themes: Tamil/Urdu/Hausa pulp art, folk tales, regional languages underrepresented in literature, monsters, mathematics
Genres: Fiction, experimental writing, zines/minibooks, graphic novels, translations, comics
Social Media: Website, Instagram, Twitter
Mail: blaft@blaft.com
Year Established: 2007
Published from: Chennai, India


9Adivaani

For the 104 million indigenous people of India, Adivaani positions itself as an archiving and publishing outlet to preserve these under-represented voices. It chronicles the expression, identity, and experiences of adivasis from the Northeast and Santhal communities.

Themes: Cultural and social expression of Adivasi voices
Genres: Fiction, non-fiction
Social Media: Website, Twitter, Facebook
Mail: info@adivaani.com
Year established: 2012
Published from: Kolkata, India


 

Do you know of more publishing enterprises that we have missed? Drop the details in the comments below. This list is in no particular order, and will be updated regularly. 


Opportunity for new Dalit writing in English by The Bombay Review

Call for submissions –

Fiction (Min 2,500 words),
Essays (Min 2,000 words),
Poetry (Min 3) and Reviews

Payment – $10 – $15, per contributor
Looking to publish up to 20 writers
Deadline: 15th December, 2020
Email: submissions@thebombayreview.com
Email Subject: Submission: Dalit Writing: Your Name
Regular Submission Guidelines: Click Here

Fiction | ‘Amy Doesn’t Live Here’ by Minal Sukumar | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

The colour green has been maternal to me over the years. Or maybe soothing things are often some shade of green; things that know how to wrap bones in their unconditional affection. I think it probably started feeling that way to me on my second birthday when an aunt bought me a stuffed toy that soon became my best friend: a neon green monkey with floppy limbs and velcro palms that were designed to hold me. I named him Lion, and Lion the monkey still hangs from my curtain rod. As time scurried on, there were other such treasures in moss, sea foam, mint, but the most significant of them all is the forest green lake babbling in the heart of this city. I grew up in the embrace of the lake’s tranquility, often found on its embankments seeking advice from the water. I like to believe there is love between us. 

Today though, its glossy skin looks different to me as I sit here with my feet in the water. A sad tune floats to me from beneath the pensive surface. If I listen close enough, I can hear hope and farewell in the refrain. 

At the bend of the lake, a little girl is crouched in the dust drawing patterns with a stick, pigtails hanging lopsided behind her ears. She tilts her chin up and her sharp eyes lock with mine. I give her a small wave. Caught off guard, she hesitates for a second before returning the gesture with frantic enthusiasm. 

“Amy?”

The nickname scrapes against the scene in front of me, tearing into it as if it were a paper poster. I drag my gaze away and to a rigid face. The name, as well as the mouth uttering it appear to be pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with grooves that are all wrong for these spaces. He sits down next to me and takes my hand in his. I never got around to telling him how uncomfortable holding hands makes me. It’s probably too late to mention it. 

“Amy, are you okay? We should head back.”

“I was thinking,” I say, “you could call me Amrita from time to time. I get why Amy is more comfortable for some people back in London, but not necessarily for you, right? It is a simple enough name around here.” 

“I could,” he agrees, justifiably confused. “I didn’t know it meant that much to you and I thought you fancied being called Amy.” 

“I do. Sometimes.” 

He contemplates this and says, “I could even call you Ami.”

“No, not that,” I reply quickly. 

Ami is what my parents and siblings call me. Again, it is something that conjures a wholly different world than the one he comes from. I cannot explain this in any comprehensible way so I say nothing further. We sit in silence, watching workers prepare the gazebo across the lake for a wedding. The idyllic alcove with its stunning view of the water is held up by four intricately carved stone pillars and is a popular spot for wedding ceremonies. In high school, my girlfriends and I would come to gush over the decorations and if we were lucky to catch a glimpse of it, the bride’s finery. Now that memory is akin to something from a movie I may or may not have watched at some point. I try not to think about it that way, and instead recall the lick of a metal bench on thighs left exposed by a cotton uniform. 

“I am so happy we’re getting married here,” he says stiffly, tugging me away from the reminiscence, making me acknowledge that this time I will not arrive in a pinafore to admire the mandap from a safe distance, this time its fire will blaze at my feet.

Almost two years ago, I convinced my parents to send me to London to study art, a feat that still amazes me. Girls in my family do not leave home until marriage. It is simply not ‘a done thing’ as my mother would say, which is why there was a condition to my education abroad. And that condition is here sitting next to me. The right amount of tall and handsome, brought up in England in a wealthy Indian family and with a degree from the London School of Economics to boot. My father had him picked out even before the university orientation. 

The year after that galloped along in the fabulous whirl that London is famous for. He met my friends and accompanied me to art shows. The relationship was nice enough; we could laugh together on occasion. Back then, while alone and blissfully painting on the cramped balcony protruding from my kitchen, I often believed the deal had been worth it. I enjoyed being Amy, it was easy on days like those when I could come home to my studio flat and be anyone I wanted to be. And then, all too soon, the morning of my graduation rolled in with an opulent ruby set in gold. 

His proposal, and my acceptance, were both formalities dressed in romance. We found a bigger apartment, with marble countertops and a glass dining table. Our front door already has a mosaic sign that says Abhi & Amy. The wedding is tomorrow. 

“Amrita?” he draws out cautiously. 

“Abhinav.” 

“This place is as beautiful as you said.” 

“Isn’t it? I grew up here. Once I failed an exam at school and didn’t want to tell my mother so I came here after class and hid in the hollow of that tree over there.”

His laugh is stunted but sweet. 

“Were you discovered or did you go home yourself?” he asks. 

“My parents called the cops and they found me. But it still worked, they were barely angry about the exam,” I say. This time we both laugh, whole-hearted and easy. 

I have many stories that I would like to share with him while we are here and I can still find the words for them. Stories about this lake, these criss-crossing streets, the brightly coloured houses; they hold all the hopes I once had and the few I still have. There are so many stories he needs to know. 

“We should go. There’s a lot to get done and then the family dinner later. Mum tells me she has a present she wants to give you for tonight.” He stands up and offers his hand to me. Concealing my disappointment, I let him pull me to my feet and turn around to see the girl artist from before standing right in front of me.  

“Your mehendi is good,” she says to me in Kannada, pointing her stick at the intricate henna patterns covering my arms. She is wearing a frock, shabby from probably being in the heat and dust too many days in a row. Her curly hair is restrained with a yellow ribbon. 

“Thank you. Where are your shoes?” I ask her.

She peers down at her bare feet and shrugs as if she couldn’t be bothered to keep track of the immaterial things. There are more important matters to discuss. 

“Aunty,” she begins, wounding my ego, “do you want to play a game?” 

From the corner of my eye, I catch him impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his neon sneakers looking strange against this terrain. 

“Not today. I have to go home,” I explain gently.

“I had to go home one hour ago,” she says, surprising me with her blatant mischief. 

“What does she want?” he asks. I realize he doesn’t understand the language. 

I translate and his lips fall into a flat line. “Did you tell her we have to go?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s go.” He doesn’t waste a second, promptly striding away in the direction of our car and driver. I hurriedly root around in my purse for a chocolate bar and hand it to my new pal. 

She examines the foreign branding, mouth ajar in wonder, and snatches it from me. 

“Thank you, Aunty,” she says, giving me a grin.

I search for Abhinav, locate him as he turns off at the end of the path. It’s unclear if he is aware I am not in tow. 

“You don’t have school today?” I ask, deciding to indulge her a little longer. 

Her face falls and she shakes her head. 

“No school.”

I mentally kick myself for the question, guilt splashing in my veins. 

“What game are you playing today?” The attempt to distract is weak, but she perks up. 

“Drawing a house,” she replies. “What game do you like?”

I have to think about that; games have been a thing of the past for a while.

“I like swings,” I say, hoping it qualifies as a game. 

Her fingers curl around imaginary ropes and she moves them back and forth.

“Yes,” I confirm, laughing, “but there are no swings here.”

“I can show you. Do you want to go, Aunty?” 

“Maybe next time.” 

“It’s close by and there are two swings. We can both play.”

“I can’t come now. They’re waiting for me,” I insist, but she has already taken off to the lake’s wired fence, holding a sliced bit of it open. 

“Shortcut,” she calls out in English, brimming with pride. When I don’t budge, her fingers drop the rusted metal, shuttering the secret gateway. Dejected, she gazes down at grubby toes and waits for me to leave.  

“Shall we go in the car?” I blurt out, the idea recklessly somersaulting into my mind. “I’d like to see your swings. But only for ten minutes.”

The impish grin reappears and she rushes to take my hand in hers. 

“Amy!” The two of us turn to the sound of my name. Abinav is back in sight at the top of the path, upturned palms seeking explanation, eyebrows furrowed and seething. 

I can’t remember if he’s ever looked like this before. 

“Is that your husband?” she asks. And something hasty and compelling comes over me. 

“Run,” I tell my companion and she does not stop to wonder. She kicks up dust as we dash to the fence and squeeze through the gap in the fence. On the other side, there is a patch of stone and mud that tapers into a narrow lane. It leads to the village behind the lake, integrated into the city many years ago but still unapologetically itself. 

Together we hurtle into its maze, my heeled sandals rattling behind the thump of her soles. Shopkeepers stretch their necks out of shutters to watch us go by. We race past a lady with a vegetable cart, a series of run-down hardware stores, a cobbler sitting on the edge of his boxy metal workspace who, as soon as he registers the odd sight of us whizzing by him, jumps up and shouts, “Chaitra!” 

“That’s my father!” she yells over her shoulder, but doesn’t slow down. We keep running, around corners, up alleyways, past two modest temples and a church; running, running, running. Finally, she stops at a dead end. The ragged tar slides into dirt, the road has transformed into a sort of playground with two tire swings hanging from stout trees and a rickety see-saw. The place is deserted except for an elderly man selling ice gola from a cart. 

She folds herself into one of the swings, panting and sniggering at the same time. I do not have the oxygen required to laugh but I want to. 

“So this is the place,” I say after a few minutes of holding my knees. 

“Is it nice? Different swings,” she states.

“It’s very nice,” I assure her. “Thank you for bringing me.” 

Her sunken cheeks flush. Conscious, she spins her tire swing away with great skill. 

“Do you want gola?” I ask her arched spine. This piques her interest and the tire slowly rotates back. I buy the colourful crushed ice in plastic cups. She holds both as I climb through the gap in the second tire. It isn’t too much of a struggle for me and I am rewarded with an impressed bob of the head.  

“Your name is Amy?” she asks as we sit there slurping at the dripping flavour. She pronounces it carefully, balancing the peculiar sound of it on her tongue, offering special scrutiny to its extended tail. 

“Amrita,” I tell her. She brightens at this. “And you’re Chaitra?” 

“Chaitra,” she confirms. “But my mother calls me Cha.”

“You know, when I was younger, we used to stand on these. Can you do that, Cha?”

She smirks. “That’s easy. Can you still do it?” 

The challenge hangs between us. We discard our cups and hasten to uncurl ourselves from the swing, regarding the other warily in a moment of childish competition. To my surprise, I find I want victory. I fling my shoes off my feet before first balancing them in the cavity and then gingerly on the top curve, digging my toes into the ribbed exterior. Looking up, I come face to face with a wobbly Chaitra and chuckle. She beams back, swaying a little. 

“You don’t have to hold on so tight,” she says with unmistakable authority. 

I loosen my grip, easing my body away from the rope. My feet get reacquainted with the ring underneath them and I giggle in delight at the ground shifting below. For the moment, this could very well be the top of The London Eye. 

Chaitra pushes herself toward me and grabs my dupatta as her swing starts to slip back. It goes with her, leaving my neck naked. Without a second thought, she sends the cherry chiffon gliding through the air and onto a family of flat pebbles. The sun brushes against my collarbones. I have resolved myself to not checking my phone, so it is the only indication I have of time, everything else here seems to be unaffected by the minutes scurrying along. We stay where we are until the sun starts to dip, bundled in broken conversation. 

After we’ve polished off another gola each, she peeks at me with a satisfied smile and asks, “Why do you like this game?” 

“It feels like flying and that makes me happy.”

“Me too.”

She places her leg on the frame and pushes off, launching her tire into the air. 

“Flying,” she calls out. “Happy.”

I think of happiness and the glass around us cracks. 

“I should go. I’m getting married tomorrow.”

She slows down to stare at me, expressionless.

“And then I have to go back to England.”

Features remain passive, but she asks, “When will you come back?”

“I don’t know,” I say quite truthfully, my mind wandering to semi-packed suitcases patiently lying open in my childhood bedroom. 

The heavy silence between us presses against me. 

“When you do, will you come to see me? Our house is behind my father’s shop.”

“I will.” 

She registers this with a blink of long eyelashes.

“And I’ll bring you more chocolate.” 

“From there?” 

“All the way from there.”

Later that night I stand in front of the dressing table tying a gold saree around me when my mother knocks on my bedroom door with a velvet box in hand.

“Abhinav’s parents sent this for you,” she informs me. 

Inside lies a set of diamond drops hanging from a thick chain. 

“I hope your last minute shopping trip today wasn’t for a neck piece,” she says with an edge to her tone. Her eyes avoid meeting mine. 

“Shopping trip?”

“I told Abhi he shouldn’t have let you go off by yourself but he said you insisted.” 

I offer nothing in explanation, busying myself with lifting the jewels out of the box to place around my neck. She comes up behind me to fasten the clasp, her poker face studying mine in the mirror. I am struck by how alike we look tonight. 

“Well, you’re here now,” she says, content. 

The next day, I unhook Lion from his manmade branch and wrestle him into my luggage before marrying Abhinav in the gazebo on the lake, with lavish decorations, glittering finery and a sun setting over the last traces of green. 

 


Minal Sukumar is a writer, poet, and storyteller from Bangalore, India. She holds an MA in writing from the National University of Ireland Galway and currently works as a content writer in her hometown. Minal was eleven when she decided to get into the business of writing stories, a ‘phase’ some are still waiting for her to outgrow. In 2017, she co-founded the literary collective Mouth of Word to give more performing writers a stage. Her own work is often a portrayal of the exquisite and resilient journeys of women in India.

Fiction | ‘The Last House in Windhall’ by Carol Goodman

Rosland Windhall was worried about Hitler bombing New York City. John teased her about having a somewhat paranoid personality. 

“You mean practical,” she teased back, “like somebody I know who isn’t.” Yet it hadn’t taken much to persuade him to move away.  John had recently sold The Book Store on Madison Avenue.

He had sold it for a lot of money because it was distinctive. He had rare books and took chances on new authors. He put in comfy chairs for people to dip into the books and at the end was a coffee shop. “They should think of it as home,” he told his wife. 

John hadn’t been called to duty because of his flat feet and he was on the old side, thirty-five. He wasn’t disappointed. As for her, she was comfortable with her life the way it was, until the war haunted her more every day.  She had recently mourned with two of her friends whose boys had been killed.

He and Rosland had never had a serious disagreement in the twelve years of their marriage. Their arguments had been gun-shots in the air, little warnings; which were often accompanied with laughter at the ridiculousness of what had bothered them. The only disappointment was that they had tried to have children but never conceived. John was really the one who was most disappointed.  Rosland didn’t care as much. Her banker grandfather gave her grandmother six kids and her mother had had only one: her. More than one, she explained, was a sort of prison.  

She had always worked in the bookstore with John, or volunteered to read to prisoners, help in charity balls and when time allowed lunch with friends and dinner parties. The Windhalls were like them, of course, living in townhouses or Fifth Avenue apartments overlooking the park. 

Both of them grew up in the city, and attended the same private school in upper Manhattan.  That is where they met and they married after graduating from New York university. They knew lots of people, but now she wanted to get out of the city not only because of fear, but to satisfy a distant longing, some touch with the unspoiled. Back to nature. And he was always dreaming of adventures, light and colorful both,  as soon as the war was over. They confided in no one but each other, their emotions, longings, heartaches, though not similar in nature, he was more dreamy, a bookworm, and she was more about looking out towards the world.

“How about New England, I heard that houses were cheap in Vermont,” John said.

In Manchester, Vermont, where the train let them off, they stayed a few days in an inn and bought an old truck to wander into the villages. Gas rationing was on so they decided to look nearby. This whole idea was such a venture for them, not knowing a thing about country life.

As they wandered over the hills and into valleys, they came upon a tiny village that looked rundown and was not on their road map.  They stopped, glad to get out, from the jaw crunching muddy roads that hadn’t dried from the snow. It was May. ”I don’t think anybody lives here,” Rosland said.

As they walked slowly they realized the village consisted of one dirt street lined with twelve houses that had been abandoned long ago and were in disrepair. “A ghost town,” John concluded. 

One was about to crumble. Two houses were boarded up, others had torn curtains or shades drawn and a couple looked as if some windows had been smashed on purpose. “Maybe kids come in to have hanky-panky,” John said.

They walked in the front and the back where grass had grown knee high and tried some doors, all of which were locked.  

“I’ve never seen real New England Colonials,” she said.

“Beautiful lines.” John took some pictures. He climbed in one broken window and was able to open the door for her. Through the dank dust they found some furniture left, a sofa, some of the kitchen torn out and a mattress left on the floor of one of the bedrooms.  

“This is strange, a whole village abandoned? I wonder why?” she said.

“Such a nice location. Look how it cuddles in the valley, and the mountain views sure are spectacular.” He tended to be more enthusiastic than her. “What do you say we find a real estate office and try to know more about this place.” 

“What happened,” The real estate woman said,  “is that residents slowly moved away in the beginning of the Great Depression to look for jobs in the city.  And then, of course, some were drafted. The few that were left, I guess you might say, were lonely. You could probably buy the whole village. You would have to go to the tax office and find out.”

“But we only want one house,” Rosland said.

“You will have to talk to the tax office. The county owns the village since the people just left and didn’t pay taxes.”

The tax office wouldn’t be open until the next morning. They both agreed to go back to the village to look at it again. They broke into other houses and found bits and pieces left, an odd mirror on a wall, a picture of a snow scene, a few utensils, but most of the things had been vandalized, cupboards torn out. The wooden stoves that must have heated them were mostly untouched and the fireplaces made of marble were left. One had an old oriental rug curled into a corner and stained from what looked like dog or cat urine. Yet the walls had plaster, the roofs slate, and the wide worn maple floors.

“Let’s spend the night,” he said. 

“Spend the night? How do we do that?”

They had bought sleeping bags, back in New York.  “We could spend the night on that mattress in the house with the broken windows.”

Though a little frightened, Rosland agreed after looking around and finding no signs of mice or bats. That night they zipped the bags together into one large one. They were consumed with excitement and made love that night and once again in the morning. 

The tax office told them that yes, most of the owners had not paid for these from all years leading from 1935. “Actually you could buy the whole village for the sum of the taxes.”

“We just want one house. The one on the left side in the middle,” Rosland said.

“You would live with all the rest crumbling around you?” The tax lady asked.

“Wait, so what would the whole village cost?” John asked.

The tax lady began looking up the owners and adding them up. “Thirty-one thousand.”

Rosland said again,  “We only want one house.”

“We’ll talk it over.” John took her outside.  “That is great. Let’s do it.”

“What would we do with a whole village?”

“Maybe we could renovate them and sell them.”

“To whom?”

“Maybe some of our friends.”

John and Rosland had possession of the whole village in the next week and  moved into the house in the middle of the village. They had stayed up all that night after the talk with the tax lady to decide on a plan. She figured their friends in the city, with husbands and sons enlisted overseas, would want to get out, just as they had, to be safe and they might even have other friends interested to spread the word.  

“After the war they might use them  as vacation homes or retirement homes,” John said. 

They took a picture of each one with the layers of green mountains behind and the fields of wild grass, caught in the wind, swaying like rippling streams with a lone farm in the distance. The friends came to look soon enough. John met them at the train station. Within a few months they had promises for all but one. Nine in all. And one was in such bad repair that John would have it taken down.  He sold them for very little amount in fact, explaining he would hire people to renovate them, leaving all the lines and any good parts, and they could pick the paint colors with payment in the end. 

They all wanted John to be in charge though. John had hired men who were either too old or too unfit for the army, and he helped wherever he could, learning on the job. He had never held a hammer.  Rosland did the outside painting with two teenage farm boys and cleared the land for her first garden. They had never done anything this physical before in their lives, and the most gruelling was a horseback ride in Central Park a while ago. Their arms and legs ached terribly at night. They painted their house a soft red. Rosland said, “Like Vermont barns.”  And inside, he chose pine paneling for the dining room and she preferred a colonial print of tiny flowers for the living room. In seven months they were all finished. 

But there was one last house not sold, down the hill way at the end of the village almost a mile away and not far was a small town hall. 

After all their hard work they both were thinner and oh, they showed those muscles proudly to each other. He already had had  a face with submerged cheekbones, but now they had appeared and made him seem more handsome, his lips seemed more sexy on the thin face and his gray eyes looked larger.

Rosland retained her sumptuous body from the younger days, and now had stronger legs that would probably serve her well in old age. She wore blue jeans mostly, to fit into the country life. No more powdering or lip stick. Everyone agreed she was beautiful no matter what she did.

The nine houses were occupied before fall and John and Rosland had a welcome party in their house. Six of the women were already known to them and three were friends of friends. This time they came in their cars, ready with all their things. One brought her elderly father who turned out to know a lot about plumbing in case someone needed help. Six out of the nine brought children,  all seven but one were high school age and would get bused to school.  One was in college. They voted on what the town should be named and decided on Windhall since the Windhalls had started it. That brought tears of happiness to Rosland’s eyes.

John was bothered that the last house had not been sold. He only fixed the roof and left the rest for later when it would be sold.

That spring, Rosland started work on her first garden, as did many of the others. Victory Gardens, they were called and encouraged by the government as a promotional environmental concern as well. She was thrilled with the idea of perhaps canning and maybe making a root cellar for the carrots, potatoes and maybe even turnips, although John never really tliked turnips.

“I think I’ll put an ad in the New York Times for the last house,” he said.

“Good.” She never liked things left unfinished.

A few days later, a woman answered the ad and wanted to come and take a look the next day. She knocked on their door and introduced herself.  Katie Browcall was a tiny, thin young woman, probably in her late twenties, frazzled looking with solemn smoky eyes. From her cushy lips came very few words. In the car, she also had her young children: two, four and five. “My husband was overseas and I hadn’t heard from him for a month.”  John got in the front seat with her and they drove to the house. 

When they returned to John’s house she quickly wrote a check and after the closing that week, a large moving van arrived. It was all done very quickly. When a few days later, she was more or less settled, John told her he would paint the house if she chose the colors. Rosland couldn’t help because she had done something to her shoulder from all the gardening.

After the first day John said, “For lunch she gave me a very delicious soup that she had made. She also asked me if I knew anyone to babysit once in a while. She wanted a woman, not a teenager. I told her about the farm over the hill, that they might know. I found out she had little income, had put it all in the house and so wouldn’t be going back to New York, ever. She’s going to live here permanently like us.”

“Huh,” Rosland said, wondering if the frail looking soul was up to this rugged life, cold winters and short summers. 

John went down the half a mile in the truck with the ladder and the paint. He told Rosland the children were taken to the farmhouse for half a day when John worked on the house. 

“Why is it taking so long to paint her house?”

“Is it longer than you took?”

“Oh sure.”

“Well you had two helpers and I didn’t. She changed colors after I painted one room.”

“Does she feed you lunch every time?”

“Oh sure. She is a good cook. She has cooked since she was twelve. Her mother was sickly and she had two younger siblings she made dinners for.”

“What did her father do?”

“He worked for the sanitation department, did a few odd jobs I think. Katie and her husband owned a small condo, and she sold it just to pay for her house.” 

“And after the war she and her husband will live here?”

“I think she might be separated, like for good.”

“So just her?”

“Looks like it.”

One day Rosland walked down to see the house. The door was locked. Odd, she thought. Nobody locked doors in this village. She knocked and knocked again. She heard rushing down the stairs and John opened the door. “Why was the door locked?”

“Well, I think it’s because of her living in New York.”

“May I see how it’s coming?”

He opened the door and called out, “Katie, Rosland has come to see your house.”

She didn’t appear right away so John took Rosland into the living room and then showed the dining room. “She likes blue,” he said, “like lying on her back and looking at the sky.”

Katie startled them. She looked distracted.

“You’re shaking,” Rosland said.

“It’s cold upstairs.”

“What colors are you painting the rooms upstairs?”

“Yellow, Lavender and Pink.”

“Sounds nice.”

“My five year old Charlotte and four year old Liz will sleep in the yellow room and my two year old, Debbie will be in lavender.”

“And yours is pink,” Rosland said, “very feminine.”

“I’m planning on painting a second coat, so the walls can be scrubbed. You know, children’s hands,” John said, smiling.

A couple of weeks later Rosland asked him why Katie never came to the potluck suppers that the whole village attended in different houses.

“She doesn’t want to leave the children and the sitter won’t come at night. By the way my next project is fixing and painting the deserted town hall.” The town hall was almost a half a mile farther down the road from Katie. 

“What for?”

“We can have our meetings there and even the potluck suppers, it could be a town gathering place.”

The next Saturday, Rosland was in the grocery store over in Manchester when she heard a commotion. Children screaming and crying. She looked around the corner where the canned goods were staked on the shelves and saw Katie with the baby in the store carriage and the other two girls pulling the cans off and throwing them on the floor and Katie trying to stop them but seemed to have no control. As Rosland went out of the store, she saw the store manager swiftly going down the aisle after them.

Winter arrived, Rosland had come to the end of her gardening days and told John she could help him on the town hall, her shoulder was looking okay now, but he said, “Don’t bother. Stay here and keep the home fires burning. Catch up on all that reading you complain you never have time for.”

“Good idea.”

Yet, one day after a light snow shower, she put on her boots and tramped down to the town hall with cookies for him.  She looked in the window, just before opening the door and saw something out of a dime novel, something she could hardly believe. There was John with Katie, their arms around each other, kissing. He slowly picked her up and laid her on the floor with him.

Rosland ran home, her breath pouring out of her lungs. She threw open the door, rolled onto her couch, each breath was a struggle. She took off her boots, climbed upstairs and washed her face and combed her hair and waited for John to come home. Think. Think. The strangest thing was that she knew he had never done anything like this before. Where do they find the time, they used to say to each other, when they heard of a friend who indulged. And rolling around in her mind was a free, wild, country life an influence? A life she loved so much. She thought, and thought some more about what to do.  But when he walked in she said nothing. They ate supper with her telling him how she had learned to can the tomatoes that she had brought inside in the fall to ripen on the window sill, just before the frost. And he told her the painting work was going slowly.

The next day while preparing supper so she didn’t have to look him in the eyes,  she said, “You know I’ve been thinking, why should Katie be living there alone with the small kids and hardly any money. Let’s ask her to live with us, save on fuel and food.”

John paused to think, “Really?”

“Sure, we have the room.”     

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, absolutely. And why should she bother paying for a sitter. “ 

“Okay.” He smiled.

What was he thinking? Didn’t men always in their hearts want a three-some? A Harem?

 He said, “I’ll ask her or would you rather?”

“No, you can ask her.”

“I’ll tell her it was your idea.”

“That’s nice of you.”

Katie came the next day with her carload of possessions.  John helped set up the crib, assemble her beds and he continued to take up piles of clothes and set toys in the hall and living room where she was with the children.

“She is glad to be here,” John said.

“Good,” Rosland said. “Good, and you like children,” trying to keep her voice neutral.

Bedtime: the two year old, she was actually called Pisser, four year old Bitty and five year old Prima were put to bed, one after another, all screaming. And this went on for more than an hour. 

John said, “Let’s go into the living room and shut the door.” But the noise came through the floor too. Rosland tried to read her book and John his newspaper, but neither of them could concentrate.

At around ten o’clock, Katie came down, looking like a scarecrow. “Pisser likes to pull my hair.”

“My, oh my,” Rosland said.

“Did you bring a book to read?” John asked.

“No, when I left NYC I left all of them to my neighbor.”

“Help yourself to the bookcase,” Rosland said.

Katie looked and chose a crime book but fell asleep over the first page. 

The next day at breakfast, Rosland cooked a pot of oatmeal. Katie set the children around their breakfast table, the highchair next to John. Prima threw her oatmeal on the table, saying, “I don’t like the food in this house.” Some fell on John and the rest on the floor as she screamed and stiffened her body.

“What does she want?” John asked. “Isn’t she a little old for this tantrum?”

Katie didn’t answer.

Bitty had a cold and wiped her snotty nose on her hands.      

John ate quickly and disappeared into the living room.

Rosland stood to clear up and wash the dishes while Katie superficially wiped the mess off the children and then told them to go play while she held Pisser who wiggled and whined to get down. Katie left for the living room, and it was for Rosland to clean up the floor.

John came back into the kitchen. He helped Rosland wipe the dishes to the tune of yelling children.

The next day breakfast was chaotic again, the baby screamed and stiffened in the high until her bottle was filled and the other two drooled, and spit out what they didn’t like, kicking their feet up against the table and toppling their milk.

Wow, Rosland thought, it is even worse than I had hoped for. After breakfast, when the wind and snow were roaring, Katie took the children into the living room with some toys, which they paid no attention to. Instead they jumped on the couch, rocked in the rocking chair until it hit a lamp and broke the bulb and all screamed together with joy, while Katie just watched the whole thing.

John asked Katie, “Could they be a bit quieter?”

“They have a lot of energy,” Katie said.

“Let them play all they want,” Rosland said.

“But the spring is in the couch,” John said.

“Maybe we can get a new couch anyway,” Rosland answered.

John rose, took his book and went up to their bedroom, shutting the door. But that night in bed he said nothing to Rosland and Rosland said nothing to him.

The next morning Katie asked, “Rosland, I have a favor to ask, do you mind babysitting now and then, so I can shop and so forth. I would like to go today. Maybe if John came we could do it faster.” 

“Babysit. Of course,” Rosland said, “but only if John is here as well. I won’t do it alone because they are so young and the responsibility is too much.”

“But if I could go help Katie, that way it would be quicker,” John said.

“Sorry,” Rosland replied, “I won’t sit them alone.”

When Katie left, John said, “What should we do with them?  

“Let’s try some games with them.”

They took them into the dining room. John brought games like checkers and monopoly from a cupboard. “Let the baby run free,” Rosland said. But the others wouldn’t sit still either.

“I am going to try some games like hide and seek,” John said. But Bitty said she hated games and her sister echoed that. They went into the living room where the toys were kept. 

“Stop racing around,”  John shouted. They stopped to listen for five seconds and began racing around again. This time, up and down the steps, chasing each other, banging on the piano as John raced to put the lid down and Pisser began to cry like she was being stabbed.

“Are all kids like this?” John shouted to Rosland.

“I doubt it.”

“You better fix a bottle,” John said.

“Sure, you hold the baby.” 

The baby pooped in her diaper. John ran into the kitchen almost throwing the baby at Rosland. 

“I can’t change her now. I am fixing a bottle.”

 All afternoon, it went on and they didn’t stop. John badly wanted to spank them, lock them up and he told this to Rosland who waggled a no-no finger at him.

 “I think kids like this should be put in prison and tortured,” John said.

 Rosland smiled.

Katie didn’t arrive until late afternoon. 

“What in god’s name were you doing all day?” John yelled at her.

“I just had things to do, bought some clothes for them, that sort of thing.”

“It’s okay, John,” Rosland said.

Right after the supper, in the midst of chaos, John went up to bed with a book and slammed the door.  

“Why did he do that?” Katie asked.

“Got me,” Rosland said.

The next day Katie said,  “I’m putting the snow suits on them to play outdoors.” After she got them dressed she said, “John, why don’t you come out with us. I know Rosland will be making lunch.”

“Go,” Rosland urged, thinking about the fact that Katie hadn’t once helped in the kitchen.

As they started outside, she heard Katie say, “Doesn’t Rosland go anywhere alone?”

John didn’t answer. He reluctantly went out in the yard while Katie tried to get them to make a snow man and Rosland peeked to find John trying to roll the first big ball, when Bitty picked up a big snowball and threw it smack into his face.  For a moment John stood stunned. He rushed back into the house. He said nothing and climbed the stairs with his boots and jacket left on. Rosland heard a lot of noise, turned down her casserole and saw John dragging down the disassembled crib. She heard him bringing down more, banging against the stairs and throwing some down.  

 

When Katie came in with the kids full of snow she said, “What are you doing?” 

“Packing you up.”

“Are we going somewhere?” Her face lit into a silly smile.

“You are going home.”

“But I don’t want to go home.”

“Yes you do,” he said, continuing to bring down her things.

Rosland said to Katie, “I’ll hold Pisser while you help him.”

“I don’t want to help. Why should I? I don’t want to go.”

Rosland didn’t answer. 

It only took less than an hour to have everything in her car even though she didn’t help, and she was gone, never saying a word of thanks to Rosland but it was Rosland who thought she should have thanked Katie. It had worked. It had worked. It had worked.

After John took his snowy clothes off and went into the kitchen she said, “Supper is almost ready.”

He washed his hands. She lit candles in the dining room and set the steaming beef casserole on the trivet. He turned to her. “I will paint those rooms they used by myself. You pick the colors.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I think all white.”

              


Carol Goodman went to Bennington College where Carol majored in writing. A recipient of multiple grants and fellowships, she first told a story when she was five.

Poetry | By Gale Acuff | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Straight Dope

Miss Hooker is going to be my wife
one day, one day when I’m old enough to
qualify as a man, I’m just a kid
now, 10, she’s 25 but by the time
I’m ready she’ll be extra-ready if
she’ll stay single for me, she waits for me
until I’m up in years, too and though I
can never match her since fifteen years is
fifteen years, I can catch up by counting
not numbers but something else, I don’t know
what to call it but I mean the older
she gets the older I get, too, and vice
versa, until one day we’re both grownups,
adults anyhow, and I can ask her
Will you marry me, Miss Hooker?–I hope
I’ll know her first name by then but that’s not
absolutely necessary, not for
me, anyway, Baby will do fine, as
will Honey, Darling, Sweetheart, Sugarlips,
and like that. After Sunday School today

I practiced my proposing on my dog,
who couldn’t answer, naturally, so
I pretended that he was overcome,
which accounts for his slobbering on me
–maybe that’s how Miss Hooker’s tears will be
when I’m 21 to her 36
but I doubt she’ll kowtow or shake her rear
or lick my face or fall to let me
scratch her belly, but on the other hand
who knows what goes down on a honeymoon?
I ask around about that but my folks
just clear their throats and say, Well, you’ll find out
in all good time, just be patient, and friends
make fun of me because I don’t get how
babies are made even when they explain
–my friends, not babies–they must be putting
me on, and last week after Sunday School
when I hit up Miss Hooker for the straight
dope she suggested that I ask my folks
so I only hope that by the time we’re
spliced–I mean Miss Hooker and I, not my
folks and yours truly–I’ll know my duty.
But then again Miss Hooker’s a teacher
even if she’s really a bus driver,
I think that in a pinch she can show me
what my part is in our matrimony.
With any luck I’ll fall asleep before
the hugging and kissing begin to get
serious. Mother says that’s what Father
did on their honeymoon but he says nix,
she was the one who conked out, too much Schlitz.
If I have to choose, I believe Mother,
I’m not sure why, maybe because she’s
not one of us. But then neither am I.


Gale Acuff has had hundreds of poems published in eleven countries and is the author of three books of poetry. He has taught university English in the US, China, and Palestine.

Poetry | By Debarshi Mitra | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

On the right to plagiarise/subversion as an act of reading
/ a way of rejoicing in incoherence

Hold the pen,

turn the page

how does one write a poem,

where does it begin,

what shall the first word be,

the one gleaned out

of the subconscious

making itself amenable

to psychoanalysis.

Write it! the word I mean,

stain the white with ink

each letter a blot

on this vast expanse,

which reminds me

someone once said

poetry is a thirst

for more space

which further reminds me

I had once said

space is the absence of language,

which is of course

not very revealing

once it is subjected to examination,

but what is examination

if not of the wrong thing,

only a life unexamined

is worth living,

someone might have said

or not, I don’t quite know

which is not surprising

given that there is a lot

that I really don’t know,

what I do know however

is that knowing is not

the same as embodying.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

and that has made all the difference.

BTW I have been meaning

to ask, Carlos your plums

where do they come from?

I’m not sure I know what

a plum is, but somehow

the question feels familiar
if only slightly so,

anyway poetry is a fruit too

I think, they call it

the inaudible whisper

of the terra incognita.

I like to think of it as a fruit

with a particularly hard shell,

perhaps there is light in there

and mystery and more,

I went there once

in the days of my youth

but now that I’m here

in an unfamiliar room

at an unfamiliar time,

it is almost as if

I never went.


Debarshi Mitra is a 25 year old poet from New Delhi, India. His debut book of poems ‘Eternal Migrant’ was published in May 2016 by Writers Workshop. His works have previously appeared in anthologies like ‘Kaafiyana’, ‘Wifi for Breakfast’ and ‘Best Indian Poetry 2018’ and to poetry journals like: The Scarlet Leaf Review, Thumbprint, The Punch Magazine, The Seattle Star, The Pangolin Review, Leaves of Ink, The Sunflower Collective, Coldnoon, Indiana Voice Journal, The Indian Cultural forum, among various others. He was the recipient of the The Wingword Poetry Prize 2017, The Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize 2017 and was long listed for the TFA Prize 2019.

Fiction | ‘The Notes of Life’ by Somsubhra Banerjee | Creative Writing Workshop

Now…

His wrinkled, veins laden hands helped in thrusting him forward as he tried to get up from his sofa. Sending in the old springs inside into action, the sofa followed up with a twang sound; and there he was, looking out to the horizon. An orange hue welcomed his tired eyes, while a slight commotion of light entered the dilapidated room, caressed by specks of dust. His eyes bounced around the perimeter; starting from the gramophone, which had played a melancholic tune since eternity, the clay puppet dressed as a ballet dancer, that piano, accumulating tons of cosmic dust to his violin perched over. 

A strange tune played in his mind, one which stayed buried, or rather, was kept buried by him, since it needed both the violin and the piano. That tune was last played, ten years back! What was all this? Why was his mind playing tricks with him, convincing him to play that tune? 

This insurmountable urge to play the tune, drove him mad as he stood his ground, fighting within himself, to prevent his soul from reaching for the violin, it won’t be possible to stop himself after that. As beads of sweat started to form on his forehead, he gave in. His hands reached for the gramophone, turning it off, and went out to the violin. He picked it up slowly, and tingled the strings, carefully, assuring himself that they are in tune.After a few seconds, with his eyes towards the horizon now dotted with some migratory birds, waiting for the sun to set and the moon to take its place, he started to play. 

The first sounds of the bow touching the strings sent goosebumps all over his body, and as he got engulfed in the melody, he entered a different universe. Their universe. That universe where the violin and the piano played together, happily, ever after. Ever afters are a farce! There’s no such thing as Ever afters! It all ends and becomes a part of the cosmos from where it germinated. His half-closed eyes looked towards the piano stool, where she used to sit, and play along; her eyes on him, a smile across her face. How he missed that. How he missed her! 

Then…

She, her! Those kohl lined eyes with whom he fell in love instantly during the college days,and as with most first days of blossoming love, he couldn’t speak a word in front of her. But strangely, strangely enough, they bonded, over their love for Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, and philosopher from Iran. And then the discussions went on and on, and soon a  connection was built upon. 

Now…

His branching thoughts, returned momentarily to the present when his eyes fell on the dusty piano. Mixed emotions took over him, but his hands continued to play the violin. He imagined those fingers of her, thin but beautiful, hit the first note on the piano and it sent shivers down his spine. Almost as if on loop,  his mind traversed back to that day when he met her again after a gap of a few days. That was the day, the day he realised he cannot live without her.

Then…

The audience clapped as he looked across the hall. The lights sharpened slowly, the audience gradually became visible. The claps echoed, bringing in a strange humming to his ears. His eyes searched for another pair of eyes. Eyes that had long been lost, eyes that he hoped to see today, sights that would give his play a meaning; eyes, which are the inspiration behind all this.

It’s so silly of him to search for her in the crowd of over a hundred people. A hundred people! That is actually a fantastic response. The capacity of the hall hovered around one hundred twenty. Those extra seats were for critiques from the eminent art societies of the city. He hoped they liked the play too.

The play is the same old story. A boy and a girl who fall in love, things become complicated, and it doesn’t end up in a happily ever after. But what he has tried to bring into it is inspired by his own life, the real and raw emotions.

It is because of Rumi that he had met her. The mutual love for the philosopher gave birth to their own love story, which grew stronger with time, and probably became too strong for its own good, shattering really hard thereafter.

Shattered the heart, yes. Wounded, too. And the wound is the space where the light enters. He grieved for a while, but his love for directing plays continued. Anything that you lose comes back in another form, Rumi says.

As the audience dispersed, he stood by the corner. He was happy with the play. He looked towards the set he had built on the stage, that would now be broken down. All the world’s a stage, we are just some players, having our own entries and exits. He smiled.

She probably did not come. But he had a tinge of this hope, a belief that despite everything that had happened, she would come. This was the first time his play had gone public, with a larger audience.

His thoughts played along, his heart tried to make him believe that yes, she had come; definitely, it’s only his eyes that can’t see her.

Soon, the hall, which was filled with claps a while back, turned eerily silent with only a handful of people left, closing down the premise.

He heard a knock. Faint. And then another, a little louder. On the wooden window frame to his opposite. The sepia lights spread a strange hue throughout the place, and he didn’t quite understand what it was. He went closer and stopped at a distance, bewildered.

***

She saw him. Standing on the stage. Humbled by all the applause. But his eyes. Seeking for something. Someone. Somewhere. Was it her his eyes were seeking? Did her eyes seek him back?

Should she go and tell him how beautiful and heart-wrenching the play was. She knew the draft version, which was in the making a few years back, when they were together, but never imagined that to develop into something like this! She felt really proud of him.

She knew he was sure she would come. What if he saw her?After all these years? What will she say? What will he say? What if the barriers break and her tears talk instead? That cannot happen. Things that are buried, times that are long gone, should stay as is.

He was her gentle ruin. And Rumi says, where there’s a ruin, there’s a chance of finding a treasure. And she doesn’t want a treasure, not now. She doesn’t want him to distract him when he’s doing so good!

What if he does better upon being distracted? What if he did this play only for her to see. To come back. To meet him. But lovers don’t meet somewhere, they are with each other all along. 

She managed to get out of the hall quietly. Through the glassy wooden window, she saw him standing in the corner, his eyes, still searching. The sepia lights swayed, his face darkened momentarily, and then the light came back on it. 

She stood still for a couple of minutes, looking at him. Knock, and he’ll open the door. Vanish, and he’ll make you shine like the sun. Fall, and he’ll raise you to heaven. Become nothing, and he’ll turn you into everything.

She went closer to the window.

There was a moment. When time slows down, when longing eyes meet after a long, long time; realizing the very next second, that this meeting was temporary, that it will pass on as fast as it arrived. 

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there’s a field. I will meet you there.”

Now…

A cold wind sweeps through the open window, and in a whisker, his mind returns to the melancholic tune the violin made him play. His hands continued to play, and his ears kept hearing those imaginary fingers dance on the piano. It made his heart beat faster. This tune, which they loved to play together, which he avoided after she left, wary of the auditory hallucinations that would punctuate each note of his violin, sent another round of shivers down his spine. The memory of when their marriage broke, that fateful day when they were in court for signing the divorce papers, pulsated stronger shivers all over him.

Then…

The typewriter made the clickety click noise as the typing continued. A strange kind of sadness engulfed him. He thought, what if the typewriter could resist whatever was getting typed. What if, it could harden the keys so that hitting the buttons ended up nullifying everything with no words written. But that won’t be possible. 

Just then, that tinge of pain, on her lower abdomen, crept up, threefold with a vomiting sensation near her throat. It was unbearable, to the point of not being able to stand properly. The Judge, already tired of the day’s proceedings, gave them a look of dismay, when they requested him to stop the process then and there, before calling a taxi, to urgently rush to the hospital. Later, it turned out to be a case of food-poisoning. She couldn’t decide whether she should blame the Chicken Roll from a roadside eatery last evening, or not.

***

That incident, somehow made them forego the divorce process,  deciding to stay separately, meeting sometimes, if needed. They did not have any child in those three years that they stayed together. Slowly,work kept them so busy, communication started to lessen, probably in the best interests of both and a moment arrived when they didn’t know where the other person was.

Now…

How strange is the mind? It can make one travel to those intricacies of life, which were left behind, in some dark hole, thinking they won’t be dug anytime again. And yet, the violin and the mystical sound of that piano coalesce, managed to sprung open those memories.

He kept in sync with the notes of his violin, despite his mind wandering, another memory suddenly came in, it was of that day, when he received a letter after five long years of not staying in contact.

Then…

Barman woke up when the bell rang. It was almost three in the afternoon. Winter noons have made him lazier than ever. He drove off the quilt with considerable reluctance and got up; the bell was still ringing. He held his stick and answered the bell with a sharp voice and slowly went towards the door scanning through piles of furniture stacked up in his house. 

There was a postman outside, yes, a postman. He was middle aged, seemed a little irritated and as he opened the door, handed him the letter and rode off in his cycle without speaking a single word. His side bag dangling on his left shoulder and his cycle bell ringing at the shrillest possible tone.

***

Hari stood in front of the Chief Operating Officer.

“Sir, this is the bunch I got the other day. A few of these letters were lying in that almirah for a lot of years. Somehow they had not been delivered. Most of them couldn’t stand the test of time; except one, which is still readable to a large extent. I was thinking of giving it another chance and delivering it to the intended recipient. If the address could be tracked, that is. I needed help with the address since it’s almost invisible over here.”

“Show it to me.”

Hari forwarded the shambled, yellowish grey piece of paper.

“How on earth is this still readable? This is unbelievable.” The Operating officer was bewildered. He then looked closely at the address, and in about thirty minutes managed to have it out.

“Hari, just go and drop it off without saying a single word. We don’t know what this letter holds. Anything can happen.”

“Yes, Sir.” He took the letter, put it in a fresh envelope and left.

***

Barman opened the envelope. He was going to throw it away but changed his mind at the last moment. It had a yellowed piece of paper, which looked really old. He searched for the specs and went into sunlight and tried to read it. 

His hands shook as he finished reading. His heart started beating faster, and he felt like the earth would open and suck him in. Bringing his microscope to see if the handwriting was what he thought it was, and it was; he sat there, a blank expression criss-crossing his face., 

The letter lay on his shawl covered body and his trembling hands held the microscope, which, due to the instability, fell into the ground and broke into multiple pieces of mirror. Barman could see his tear-stricken eyes, some part of them at least, in one broken piece. He started to re-read the letter, dated around a year and a half back.

Dear Barman,

I am in shambles without you. My hands tremble as I type this. You know very well, that we are inseparable, we are not meant to be without each other. Yes, you might think of this as a cheesy monologue, but I mean it, really. I went to your home, at the address I had but you were not there. Did you ever try searching for me? Or has your heart hardened to such an extent, that you have stopped feeling anything about me? Can we meet, please, when you’re back? I need this. You know where to find me.

Yours,

Tilottama 

He didn’t hesitate for a second, and took the next train to his city, to his love. He cursed the post office for all the delay. A shock-wave went through his body. Why did she not contact him after that, why? Trying hard to shove away the negativities, his eyes remained perched on the fields as the train chugged its course, to his destination.

Barman stood in front of Tilottama’s house, it brought back many memories. The house was locked.  He sat on the doorsteps, at the verge of tears.He didn’t know how long he remained shocked, but he instantly regained his senses when a hand touched his shoulders. He looked up, explaining to him everything. That man, in his late 30s probably, handed him an address, which Tilottama had given him before she left. 

She knew he would be coming, didn’t she? Borun ran again, towards the address which seemed a bit off to him. His eyes remained perched on the hoarding when he reached the place. As lumps coagulated inside his throat, he reached the reception area, and asked for her. After a few questions, to and fro, the person asked him to follow her to the garden slowly. 

There she was. She looked sick, and sad. Her skin seemed to have aged so much in all these years. Tears formed around his eyes, blurring his vision momentarily as he reached towards her.

Tilottama  looked at him, her eyes full with love and surprise. She simply  couldn’t believe he was standing before her; she touched his forehead, caressing his brown and white hair lovingly, he could see her eyes go from moist to generating blobs of tears, zigzagging through the creases old age had brought on her face. 

Time stood still, and so did they, not speaking a word, just looking into each other’s eyes. They couldn’t believe this, both of them in the middle of the street

Before he could say anything, Tilottama  spoke first,”Listen, it’s raining outside, please don’t venture out cycling. Please stay indoors.”

“Dementia,” came a voice from the back. It was from a nurse.

“She remembers almost nothing. It’s deteriorating too.”

As the others took her away, she looked at Barman, smiled the Tilottama smile and disappeared inside.

Barman knew he had to ease her pain anyhow. Now was the time. Time for redemption. At least try to ease the pain she had been carrying with her all her life. Maybe stay around her. 

He looked on towards the bustling street, a tram car passed ringing its bell.And he stayed back, near her, for her. With all that was going on with her, he wanted to be by her side,and try to help her. 

Now…

He stopped playing his violin for a while. Panting, he felt a sharp pang jolt throughout his body. But strangely, the sound of the piano seemed to increase threefold, reaching for that final climax, before the audience would clap and the stage lights would slowly come back. His mind played with the memories; this time around, about the last major incident involving them. It was from one of those days when she had recognised him momentarily. And that day was the best in his life! 

Then…

“Do I know you? Why have you come to meet me?”

These two questions reverberated in loops inside his head as his eyes kept staring, blankly at the pine trees, fluttering in the wind. Slow, steady winds which then increased their pace, making the pine trees sway vigorously, and along with them his mind swayed to the two questions. He remembered those tiny specific details of what she liked and what she didn’t. How she loved it when he made hot garlic soup for her every day. How he cleaned up the room, every single day. How he made her wear her shoes and even tied her shoelaces before their evening walk to the garden nearby. How he wiped her face after she ate her food.

He strolled down to his room, their room which was now devoid of her presence, something he immensely missed. Everything seemed empty; he only wished to hear her laughter, his heart longed to hear it more so now, in this eerie silence. Her smile had always been a breath of fresh air, like when a stream of flowing water gushes down the waterfall, her smile evoked that kind of energy. How he missed it all.

He looked at their photos, carefree, happy, content and funny! The photo albums stayed open on his bed as she slept.

He woke up and looked at the calendar; it was February 14th. Today’s the date of  the visit. It was raining heavily and with a flower bouquet in hand, he stood in front of a huge signboard,which read,”National Institute for Alzheimer’s studies and Hospitals”. 

Tilottama, his Tilottama is here for three more months. And she has failed to recognise him even once. He still feels he should have been careful enough to understand the onset of this disease in its nascent stages. Slowly it dug deep into her till one day she failed to recognise him! It was the most shocking thing he had ever heard. It shook him. And then they were here.

He clutched the bouquet hard, and he moved towards Tilottama’s room. He remembered that even during his visit last week, as he was tying her shoelaces she looked at him, a bit irritated, and said,”Who are you?” He had smiled sadly,looked down and tied her shoelaces.

He had been tying them  for her since they got married. She never did that herself. And every single time after the shoelaces were tied, she complained that it was too tight and Borun had to re-tie it again! This was a regular routine. Borun loved it! Always.

He kept his positivity going. That day, being the day of love, he wished for something happy from her! He prayed!

Tilottama was sitting in her room, staring outside. Her lips moved to an unknown prayer or even a song. She turned towards Borun as he entered but her expression stayed stiff. Borun smiled happily and handed her the bouquet. She took it, smelled the flowers and kept it aside. Borun kept looking at her. Her face seemed crooked and criss-crossed with lines, but her eyes, still beautiful, were searching for something, like always.

Borun sighed and took out her shoes from the closet. It was time for their walk. He pulled her legs towards him slowly, putting socks on her right foot and then lovingly, pushing them into the shoe. He then tied the shoelace, his heart beating faster.

“Do I know you? Why have you come to meet me?” Tilottama said, a little irritated! Borun stopped for a second, and continued. It has become a habit now, listening to that sentence. He pulled her left foot towards him now. Her face was affixed at him.

“Why do you always fasten the shoelaces so tightly, Borun, I can’t even walk properly.”

Borun looked up at her.

Now…

As a group of men barged through the room, on the ground, lay this old man, his face on the floor, broken particles of an instrument splattered around the room, and a thin line of blood flowed across to the corner where a piano lay still, watching over the room. Soon the old man was in an ambulance, and as the siren slowly faded into the horizon, an eerie silence took over the entire room, which, minutes earlier, had enjoyed the concert of an artist, playing the notes of his entire life, probably for the last time. 


Somsubhra is an IT engineer, finding time, rather trying to find time to scribble something every day. He loves the smell of fresh rain and staring into the sky and old buildings. He has a small WordPress blog where he writes fiction sometimes, and has published some poetry on Medium. You can find him on: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
 

Fiction | ‘Two Girls and a Promise’ by Shreya Iyengar | Creative Writing Workshop

The rain came down in blinding sheets, drenching everyone and everything to the bone. The sky was leaden; and the sun was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, Bombay was a kaleidoscope of sounds: vehicles honking at different pitches, so that it sounded like an out-of-sync orchestra, rain swooshing, thunder rumbling, drivers cursing, children shrieking with delight as they splish-splashed around knee-deep puddles.

Himani watched it all through a window on the first floor of her apartment building, munching on carrot sticks. As she usually always did during this time of the year;, she felt a mixture of awe, revulsion, and fascination. This was her third year in the city, and she adored it even as it annoyed the hell out of her. The Bombay monsoon was the stuff of legend; it spared no one.

Five feet and three inches tall, with shoulder-length hair the colour of chocolate-chip brownies, deep-set eyes and a creamy complexion, Himani’s slender frame belied her twenty years. She could have passed off, still, as a schoolgirl. She had a particularly arresting look about her: diffidence, with a barely discernible strand of self-assurance. Her face was like a touch-me-not flower which turns its petals inwards: it was, in a word, inscrutable. Or perhaps it just was.When she cracked her knuckles in an empty room, it was like dropping a bomb. Her glasses were tortoise-shelled; the frames were dark green with black dots. ‘Like a green ladybird,’ she always thought to herself.

She loved many things: the rain when she was indoors, staring into space, the smell of coffee, the minty aftertaste of Colgate toothpaste and the way her teeth tingled when she drank cold water immediately after brushing, the inside of a bookstore. She also loved scribbling mindlessly in her many notebooks that lay scattered around her room. And daydreaming about Marine Drive, her favourite spot in all of Bombay.

She didn’t have many friends; two, perhaps three at the most. The loneliness eased, when she thought of Sanchita, her soul sister – ‘Sanch’, as Himani had always called her. Sanchita, the rainbow. Sanchita, the girl with the wide grin, whose guffaw could be heard from miles away; who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. She’d bumped into Sanchita during her first lecture in college, reading Indian Poetry; it would always be fresh in her memory, because the professor had been completely riveting. Himani could never forget her thick black curls spilling down her back like a waterfall, her denim midi dress, neon green tote bag, and her French-manicured fingernails which were adorned with outlandish silver rings. The diamond sparkling on the right side of her nose. The sapphire-painted toenails and the kolhapuri chappals. And how, when Sanchita spoke, she was a headmistress commanding absolute attention. The girl was a born thespian, someday meant to take the world by storm with her acting prowess.

Chance by Chanel had always been her signature perfume. Sanchita was everything Himani was not – she loved meeting people, could mingle effortlessly with all kinds of crowds, and was a master storyteller at parties. She lived in a room where a bright, purple Bluetooth speaker blasted upbeat music all day. She loved going to the park nearby, to play with the stray dogs, helping differently-abled children at the Make a Difference foundation, strumming on her guitar, effortlessly slipping into different characters at the National School of Drama, and exploring pubs and disco bars – but always with a trusted group of friends.

Even her room décor was a contrast to Himani’s, whose one-room flat, tiny as it was, radiated a characteristic serenity: pale cream walls, diffuser lamps, strings of fairy lights, gauzy curtains, books at once scattered artfully and arranged neatly, clothes stacked in her cupboard, a pile of books teetering on the bedside table. Sanchita’s room, on the other hand, was the very definition of an Arty Party Animal. Living two streets away from Himani, Sanchita’s was a shared accommodation into which she’d moved into three years ago, when they were both just starting college. There was an orange bean bag in the middle, usually surrounded by leftover boxes of Domino’s Pizza that never went to trash. Patterned floor cushions made for comfortable lounging. There were no curtains; and natural light flooded the room during the daytime. A rickety table was pushed into a corner, on which Sanchita heaped absolutely everything: clothes, jewellery, books, stationery. And, of course, there was her prized Bluetooth speaker – music was to Sanchita what books were to Himani. Every time she visited, the jarring white tube light made Himani squint.

***

15th July, 2017

“Hiiimaaaaniiii!” Sanchita’s voice echoes from the entry gate. 

‘The hurricane cometh,’ Himani thinks to herself fondly. She props up her glasses, which have an irritating habit of slipping down the bridge of her nose while she is reading. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches sight of her best friend.

Gently placing a bookmark between pages 110-11 of The Awakening, Himani stretches like a cat and beckons to her. 

“Yo, Sanch. Why haven’t I heard from you – or seen your face – in one whole month? Have you checked your messages and missed calls at all?” For the girls, joined at the hip as they are and living so close to each other as they do, a month feels more like a millennium. Himani’s tone is gentle; entirely non-confrontational.

Sanchita pauses, a curl escaping her bubblegum-pink scrunchie and falling into her eyes, and bites her lip. Her turquoise kurta accentuates her carefully-lined, almond-shaped eyes and big silver jhumkas. 

“Well, actually, Himani…”

“Yeah, babe?”

“The thing is…”

Himani’s emotional alarm starts blinking in her head. This isn’t the Sanchita she knows. To hesitate before speaking. If anything, Sanchita makes effective communication look spontaneous and confident. 

“Sanch? Why don’t you come and sit?” Himani pats the pillows next to her.

“I will. Just… give me a minute.” Sanchita appears to struggle for composure; something that – in all the time that she and Himani have known each other – Himani has never even imagined, let alone seen.

After two very long minutes (during which Himani simply looks at her and Sanchita’s eyes are as skittish as those of a particularly vulnerable horse), she walks over to Himani and plops herself down on the bed. As she’s done countless times before, she pushes the pillows aside and lays her head on Himani’s lap. She closes her eyes, feeling the familiar tightening in her chest and an itch in her throat.

“Sanch? Honey? What is it…?” Until she feels Himani’s gentle fingers on her face, Sanchita hasn’t even realised that a stray tear has made its way out of her eye and run down her cheek.

Suddenly, the whirring of the fan seems too loud. Himani has never known Sanchita to be anything but self-possessed. Inexplicably, a line from The Little Prince runs through Himani’s mind at that moment: ‘It is such a mysterious thing, the land of tears…’

“Sanch. Talk to me.”

In those few seconds that it takes from propping Sanchita upright and getting close for a cuddle – the two of them have always sensed each other’s needs for physical affection without saying anything – Sanchita seems to fold in on herself. 

Tears stream down her cheeks, smudging her eyeliner. Her shoulders shake. But she does not make a sound. She simply weeps, soaking the front of Himani’s Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Himani holds her close.

A few more minutes pass. The shadows lengthen on the walls. The clock says that it is 6 p.m.

Sanchita meets Himani’s eyes. In them, she sees nothing but love and concern; not even a trace of judgement, surprise or shock. 

“You seem unsurprised, Himani.” Her voice is hoarse from crying.

“If you want to tell me what all this is about, I’m here.” She squeezes Sanchita’s hand.

Sanchita takes a deep, shaky breath.

***

“It’s so difficult to say this, b-but,” – here, she sniffles and blows her nose before continuing – “I haven’t been feeling like myself lately. I’ve been doing all the regular things – theatre practice, music class, that volunteering work – but I feel as though I’ve… crashed. Just like that. Like I’m suddenly on a snowy mountain peak and am skidding downwards, without any sense of direction. I haven’t slept in weeks and find it hard to even get out of bed to do everyday work. The tears threaten to pull me under. I lock myself in the loo and cry for hours. I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, Sanch. I can see that you are in pain.” Himani leans closer, rubs Sanchita’s back.

“Y-yes. Absolutely anything can set me off. Like right now. And I don’t look at my phone because the notifications trigger anxiety. My appetite is non-existent. I’m having a hard time being…just normal.‟ You know how I am, I like people around me; can you imagine how much harder it must be? I mean, look at me. I feel like I’m losing my sanity. The other day, I saw the bottle of toilet cleaner on my window sill… and… and all sorts of thoughts came into my mind…” Sanchita swipes at her eyes and looks at Himani.

Himani takes Sanchita’s hands in her own. “Sanch. What led to this, was there anything particular that set this off?”

“I… don’t know, Himani. I can’t think of anything specific. Everything in the past two weeks has been going well, on the face of it. But… I suppose my mood started to plummet when I got three rejection emails in quick succession from three of my top preference universities. And I don’t want to keep going over my break-up – the last thing I want is to fixate on it – but flashes of it come back to me over and over again. This is what I ruminate over all day long. I can’t confide in my parents or family because they have no idea about any of this at all. And I don’t want to be another cause of worry. See, this is why I’ve been incommunicado.” Sanchita’s eyes well up again.

The news of Sanchita’s rejections comes as a surprise to Himani. Sanchita is one of the most talented thespians she’s ever known – but the competition is indeed very stiff. Sanchita must have been heartbroken to share the news with anyone, even her close ones. Himani also knows how badly Sanchita had taken her break-up – it had been an emotionally toxic relationship, one that was extremely manipulative, which resulted in her being cast aside for someone else. She had dated one of her classmates for two years. 

With all that in mind, she tries to muster the courage to ask something she’s never asked Sanchita before. She has never needed to – not up until this moment, with Sanchita in tears and Himani as her confidante. In Himani’s experience, it is usually she who struggles to get a solid grip over her feelings; not Sanchita. Now, listening to Sanchita makes Himani’s heart ache.

“And… d-do you know so-something? Whenever people ask me how I’m doing, I say I’m fine. I’m fiiiiine.” Sanchita stretches out the word like chewing gum; sings it with as much resentment as possible. 

“Two little words that are Band-Aids, covering up so much inside because if I admit to feeling the most miserable I’ve ever possibly felt in all my twenty years, I will come across as weak. People will come up with their own interpretations and solutions: ‘Oh, you must exercise! You must go out and be around people! You must engage! You have everything that you ever need; you simply cannot be depressed! You must be positive!’ As if one needs certain reasons to feel this way. As if I don’t engage enough already. As if my feelings are a tap that can be turned off at will. Damn it.” 

Sanchita is stiff as a ramrod. Her nails are digging into her palms. Her kurta is askew. Her eyes glitter; two wet onyxes, black as the night sky and bottomless as the ocean. Her heart-shaped face is tear-stained, but her voice is steely. In that moment, in Himani’s eyes, Sanchita is the most beautiful person in the world.

***

“Sanch. Look at me. Will you do something for me? For yourself?” Himani is fully aware that she is treading delicate waters. She tries to ease her breathing, which had accelerated. Empathy always triggers physiological responses in Himani. It’s been that way for as long as she can remember. She keeps trying to tell herself that it is a good thing. She is not – in fact – being ‘oversensitive’.. She looks at Himani, and says after a pause,“I will do anything. You know that. Just… please tell me how I can put an end to this mental agony…” 

Her voice – theatre-trained and usually pitched to fill an entire auditorium – is so soft and tremulous that Himani has to lean forward to hear her.

“I need you to do one thing. Will you come with me if I make an appointment with a psychiatrist?”

Sanchita’s eyes light up like forest fires. They blaze, and then they die out.

The only sound in Himani’s room is that of the wall clock.The room has darkened. Outside, the wind howls and lightning flashes. Somewhere in the distance, dogs bark themselves hoarse. Himani leans across Sanchita and flicks on a diffuser lamp, and warm yellow light fills the room. It makes patterns on the wall. The girls’ silhouettes, like lines on a canvas.

Fifteen whole minutes. Nine hundred seconds go by. Neither of them says anything. 

Sanchita stops fidgeting with her silver butterfly ring. She looks up at Himani through a haze of tears. “Will that help? Will you come?”

Himani does not hesitate, not even for a fraction of a second. “Of course, it is no big deal. I’d do anything in the world for you, and this is the least I can do.”

***

One year later

Sunlight spills through the patch of sky at Prithvi Café, which is curiously empty for a Sunday afternoon. The polished wood tables gleam. Indoor plants line the window sills, and classical music plays softly. At a corner table, Sanchita sits with a notebook and pen in her lap. Her legs are curled up under her. A mug of hot chocolate sits untouched. She has been here for a half-hour but it feels like it has been days.

The wind chimes clink as Himani pushes the door open. “Sanch, sweetie! How’s my favourite girl?” Himani’s voice is as familiar to Sanchita as her own. Sanchita tears her gaze away from her notebook and jumps up to greet her.

When they hug, they never want to let go. It has been far too long since they have seen each other. But even though it has been a difficult year for both of them, they feel closer to each other than ever before.

Shortly after that night in Himani’s room, Sanchita was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. When the psychiatrist told them, Sanchita did not waver. She had Himani’s hand to hold through a critical part of her life. And for that, she has never stopped feeling grateful.

Amidst an almost frenzied exchange of questions and answers – neither of them could get the words out fast enough; and time is slipping by sooner than they would like it to – they fill each other in on the minutiae of their lives.

“And that book, Himani? Have you been writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your drafts about the journey with your best friend in the world who is legitimately mentally ill?” Sanchita’s tone is playful, but her eyes are serious.

“Yes, my love, I have. It is a struggle. But I’m so glad that I know the details inside out –  and that I have the reason for the book sitting right in front of me.” Himani reaches across and gives Sanchita’s hand an extra-tight squeeze. “And you? What about that production of King Lear that’s to go on floors in three months? How is your Cordelia shaping up?”

“Oh, you know. It’s the usual. My job is to find calm in the chaos – which, mercifully, isn’t very difficult, if I just take time to breathe. Apart from that… my body is a cocktail of antidepressants, but who’s complaining? After a hellish ride, at least I know what keeps the depression at bay. I’ve been going for therapy sessions, too” – she makes air quotes as she says the word “therapy”, but she’s only kidding about the implied sarcasm – “and trying to establish a yoga and meditation routine for myself. It’s a lot of effort, and I’m taking it slow, but I’m starting to feel at ease with myself again.” Sanchita takes a sip of her hot chocolate.

“Do you know how proud I am of you, Sanch?” Himani was always emotional with Sanchita; but had been even more protective of her ever since that day, and being there with her as she waded through waves of depression so debilitating that they’d both instantly nicknamed it The Black Cloud – took a breath to steady herself. 

“You’ve come so far from the girl hunched over on my floor, who was at her wit’s end. You’ve started sleeping through the night; you’ve started eating properly. You’re taking your medicines. You’re seeing your psychiatrist. You’ve found purpose by doing what you love the most. There’s a glow to your face that I haven’t seen in a long time. Most importantly, though, you’ve come through this with so much strength..”

Sanchita smiled. “It’s not just me, Himani. Look at you. Look at the sparkle in your eyes, I am sure it comes from working on those drafts. And as for it being my journey…it was you who took me for the appointment, and you who has sat with me. How can it ever be just my journey? I like to think of it as our journey. Haven’t we always been that way, right from that first day in college when you made a face at my neon green tote?”

“You always did know how to make me cry. Stupid.”

“I might say the same for you, too, my darling. Whom do I have to thank everything you did for me during that difficult time in my life – when I didn’t want to see your face (that’s the depression, by the way, not me) but you still sent me adorable little notes and reminders; called me, even when I refused to answer the phone – and came over to clean up, nudged me to get out of bed, have a bath, and cooked for me? 

***

Once upon a time, there were two girls. And there was one shared story.

Glossary:

Chappal: a slipper
Jhumka: a traditional Indian bell-shaped earring, worn by women
Kolhapuri: of – or from – the city of Kolhapur, Maharashtra, western India
Kurta: a long, loose-fitting tunic which usually reaches the knees


Shreya holds an MA in English from the University of Delhi. She is a lifelong bibliophile, book hoarder, daydreamer, and (over)thinker. Her work has appeared on Elephant Journal, Quiet Revolution and The Punch Magazine. If she’s not daydreaming, she’s writing; and if she’s not writing, she’s reading. She needs paper and ink like a fish needs water. 

Fiction | ‘Shall Breathe Now’ by Rinu Antony | Creative Writing Workshop

Cooking in the humid, sultry weather was pure torture. Mikhila turned on the exhaust fan and waited; a pearl of sweat hung from the tip of her nose precariously. Another slithered through the side of her face. Without warning, the salty drop of sweat dropped in her coffee mug in front of her. She closed her eyes and felt the heat pressing on her from all the sides. Her landline phone rang in  the living room. Mikhila didn’t move and the ringing died down. 

She peered over the windows shadowed by the curtains and struggled with the idea of opening them and airing the room. She stepped back as steam came off of the saucepan with oats. Mikhila was suddenly irritated, and wondered why she continued to eat oats for breakfast since she never liked it in the first place. Like most others, she preferred to eat Indian food for breakfast, which was anything but sweet. 

“Mikhi, look at the amount of oil that goes into making most of the Indian food!” Tanveer had grimaced at the parantha she made the day after their marriage. 

“Consuming excess oil on a daily basis can do damage to your body. Let’s decide one thing. We’ll eat oats for breakfast daily, and we can have Indian meals for lunch and dinner,” he said.

Mikhila’s face and voice couldn’t contain her displeasure, “Daily? Oats?”

Tanveer looked at her, squinting and with pursed lips. “Fine. On weekends we’ll have whatever you want to eat for breakfast. Come on now, give me that smile I fell for.”

Tanveer!

Mikhila’s eyes darted towards the draped windows once again. If she opened the window and saw the bright sun, people moving around in their perfect world, a part of her might yearn for all of it and that would be a betrayal to her mourning, she chided herself. Sighing, she turned off the heat. Grabbing her mug, she walked to the living room and sat on the couch. 

“I am lucky anyway, that I do not have to be outside in this sweltering heat. I could die of sunstroke.” Mikhila reasoned aloud pitifully and surprised herself. 

It was the first time she heard her voice in the last six days. Thirty-seven days had passed since the death of her husband. Thirty-seven days since he was lost to the sea. Thirty-seven days since she last saw him or his body. For four days she waited eagerly for the call to inform her that Tanveer’s body was recovered or even by a hopeful miracle that he was somehow alive. But after a month, her hope turned to despair and she shut herself in their house, refusing to attend any calls. By then she dreaded the idea of identifying his body or what was left of him. To see him and yet not to see the face she loved dearly would kill her. She  lost her sleep and would wake up screaming in the middle of the night. She would dream of the police knocking on her door and dragging her to a morgue to identify her husband. She would always wiggle out of their hands and scream to let her go because she knew her husband was just a stinking, swollen mass of flesh now. The recurring nightmare made her dread sleep altogether.

Mikhila sipped her coffee reluctantly and breathed in the musty smell hanging over the house. Setting the mug on the glass table, she closed her eyes and imagined how her life would have turned out if she had a child. Unlike some women who claimed to have always wanted to be a mother, she never had such thoughts, not until the third year of their marriage. That’s when she noticed the subtle changes in his attitude towards her. Tanveer never wanted a child but Mikhila had hoped that he would change eventually. Even the sound of children playing in the neighbourhood, annoyed and irritated him. As the year passed by, she lost all hope and even became weary of bringing up the topic of having a child. 

Mikhila began to sob when she opened her eyes. 

“If only I had a child, I wouldn’t have felt so lonely”

***

Navigating in the dark by touching the familiar objects around her, Mikhila switched on the bathroom light and entered inside. The woman looking back at her in the mirror was a mess. She had a pale skin, sunken cheeks, two dark pouches under the eyes, unkempt hair and a heart desolated by the loss.

Mikhila tugged at the loose, dry chapped skin on her lips, drawing a bead of blood. She turned the faucet and splashed water over her mouth. She sucked at her bottom lip and felt slightly nauseous at the metallic taste of blood. 

Mikhila was startled when the silence of the house was once again broken by the vexatious, familiar sound. 

Her stomach rumbled and she ambled towards the kitchen and switched on the light. Though she knew she wouldn’t find anything edible in it, she opened the refrigerator and peered at the empty shelves. Groaning, she closed the refrigerator door. Looking over her kitchen cabinets,  she suddenly felt tired and rejected the idea of cooking. 

As she was about to turn off the light she noticed, to her delight, the saucepan with the untouched oats. Grabbing a spoon she gobbled up the cold oats and found it tasty for the first time. Just as she swallowed the last of it, the ringing started again. A tear fell from her eye and she started trembling. 

“It’s time you faced the truth.” She choked on her words. 

She felt as if her feet would give away but she managed to walk to the living room without bumping into anything and lifted the receiver with her sweaty palm. 

“Hello?” The woman on the other side sounded breathless.

Mikhila didn’t respond.

“At last! You picked!” the voice on the other side exclaimed, then unsure if Mikhila was still on the line, she repeated, “Hello? Hello?”

“Who is this?” Mikhila asked, bracing for the worse.

“Ha,” the woman laughed, “Mikhila? Mikhila, it’s you, right?”

Mikhila wanted to answer in the negative, “Hmmm.”

“I have been trying to reach you for almost a week.”

“Who is this?” Mikhila was confused now. 

The woman didn’t reply right away, and then said, “If I tell you who I am, you won’t hang up, will you?”

Mikhila didn’t feel right about the whole conversation. She said no, reluctantly.

“Veena.”

“Who?”

“You don’t remember me? Me? Right, well it’s been almost six years now. How time flies!. You seriously don’t remember me? I’m Tanveer’s—”

Mikhila slammed the receiver down and on second thoughts, replaced it on the table. Her breathing became faster and finding the couch, she slumped on it and buried her face in her palms. Despite the humidity, a chill ran down her spine and she struggled to calm her breathing. 

“You are the last person I want to remember,” Mikhila muttered inside her cupped palms.

***

Bleary eyed, Mikhila went through all the stuff of Tanveer to keep her head off the phone call from two days ago. Sleep had been elusive since Tanveer’s death but she couldn’t sleep a wink the past two days. Her head was drumming and she felt nauseous since morning. 

She opened Tanveer’s wardrobe, and felt some of his shirts and t-shirts. She took out a burgundy shirt, his favourite and holding it tightly to her chest, she cried. She wished to feel Tanveer against her. Wanted his arms around her. But that can never happen.

Later, Mikhila made coffee and drank it in Tanveer’s coffee mug.  She sauntered through her memory lane as she sipped, remembering the first time they had met. 

Mikhila, a dental receptionist, was twenty-nine when she first met Tanveer Katri.  Before meeting him, she was a woman determined to remain single for the rest of her life. She firmly believed that one could only be happy by remaining unmarried and experiencing the beauty of life alone. Her parents got divorced when she was thirteen. She lived with her mother till she turned 19, around the time her mother remarried. 

Neither of her parents kept in touch with her, and as the year passed, she estranged herself from them.

On a chilly, late November morning, Tanveer asked her to get the dentist’s appointment. He had to wait for thirty-five minutes for his turn to come. Since he was the only one in the waiting room, he struck a conversation with Mikhila, asking her about her life and family. Even though Mikhila didn’t ask him anything in return, he did tell her about himself. He was a thirty-eight year old financial advisor, married to a travel agent, had no children and was living a very comfortable and happy life except for the bothersome toothache. After he was checked by the dentist, before leaving, he stopped in front of her desk and asked her if she could have coffee with him someday. Impulsively, Mikhila nodded. It didn’t take them long to go out more often.  

Whenever she was with Tanveer, Mikhila always knew that her actions were wrong and she was voluntarily causing discord in a couple’s marriage. 

After around nine months of dating, Tanveer proposed to her one day. Her suppressed guilt unveiled itself, all at once. Mikhila refused to meet him for a whole week. Not only was she whacked with guilt but staying away from Tanveer hurt her even more. On his insistence, she agreed to meet him one day, glad on the inside. He convinced her that he never loved his wife as much as he loved her. He was filing for a divorce and it was good for all three of them. 

***

Mikhila sat cross legged on her bed. She glanced up at the wall clock. The bedroom walls were mostly adorned with her and Tanveer’s photographs. That was one of the things he loved; taking their photos. Whenever they travelled, he would request a passerby to take their photos. Mikhila’s gaze travelled from one photo to another till it stopped on one.

It was her favourite. Tanveer’s too.

In the photo, Tanveer was cupping her face with his lips touching her forehead. Mikhila’s arms were draped over his neck. Groves of coconut trees lined the  background. Though their faces weren’t visible, it was undoubtedly their most beautiful photo together. The photo was taken in Palolem beach in Goa. Though widely promoted for its dolphin-spotting tours, Mikhila and Tanveer did not spot a single dolphin during their stay.

Mikhila heard the sound she dreaded. And yet, she sprinted towards it and this time the receiver was lifted on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

“What do you want?” 

“See, I knew you’d hang up the moment I told you who I am but…”

“Vee…”, Mikhila could not even bring herself to utter the name, “Veena, why are you calling? And how did you get this number?”

Mikhila heard another laugh on the other side, “From your husband. My ex.”

Mikhila thought she didn’t hear it right. “What? Tanveer?”

“I know it might enrage you but he…”

“That’s not possible! You are lying!”

“Sure. You are entitled to think whatever you want, but Tanveer called me about eight or nine months ago, crying…”

“You are lying,” Mikhila whispered, her hand shaking in disbelief.

“No. He was crying about a lot of things, his dreary and monotonous life. How he wished to escape from it and if only he could press the right button on the remote to change his life and transport him to another world, he would have done that. I have no idea what ‘remote’ he was blabbering about. Like I mentioned, the first time he called me was around nine months ago. He called me from the number I remember. I didn’t bother to answer it. Then two days after that I got a call from an unknown number and it happened to be him. The moment I realised it was him, I disconnected the call. Just a few weeks after the second call, I got a call from another unknown number. It was him. But before I could disconnect, I heard him crying. That’s when he started complaining about his life. The last time he called me was from your landline number. He didn’t say much. Simply apologised for calling me thrice before and hung up on me.”

Mikhila drew the receiver away from her ear and held it against her hip as tears spilled from her eyes. She really wanted to break the phone, go to the comfort of her bed and sleep away this nightmare. Instead, she wiped her eyes with her other hand and brought the receiver against her ears.

“Hello? Hello? Mikhila? Are you there?”

“Mmm.”

“Are you okay?” asked Veena. 

Mikhila knew Veena was not a bit concerned. In fact, if she closed her eyes she could see Veena grinning. 

I can’t blame her, thought Mikhila.

“Why?”

“Why did he call? For one, he sounded drunk as a skunk and second, he’s a rascal.”

Mikhila winced. “Don’t. He’s…”

“He loses interest in his women as fast as people lose interest in their clothes.”

“He passed away.”

The silence on the other side was profound. So much so, that a tiny part of her thought the whole phone call was a fabrication of her imagination.

“I know. A friend of mine told me.”

Mikhila suddenly felt weary but felt companionship in Veena. There was no reason to, but she felt she needed to tell her everything.

“I see. So, he left a suicide note on the dresser and by the time you returned from the market, he was gone with what seemed like an intention to end his life by drowning. How convenient! Do  you concur with all this?”

“Please…”

“You didn’t find his body,” Veena stated. “They didn’t I mean, right?” 

“No.”

“You will not find his body anytime soon, at least not until he actually decides to end his life.”

Mikhila was perplexed. But at the same time she didn’t want to know what Veena had meant. I should hang up before it’s too late, thought Mikhila. 

Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. 

Despite her mind cautioning her, Mikhila asked the question that was nagging her since the revelation, “Veena, could you give me the numbers he called you from?”

“Gladly. Just a second.” In the brief silence that ensued, Mikhila heard a child’s shriek followed by a giggle in the background. She wondered if Veena remarried and had a child. Instantly, the pain of being childless tugged at her heart. Veena’s voice came over and she read the numbers.

“Two of them are his number. The last one is not his.” Mikhila said.

“Well, it is his. He hid the number from you. And I know why.” Veena said.

Mikhila felt sick, her hands were clammy and beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. She held the headrest of the couch tightly. 

I must lie down, she thinks.

“A week after I heard whispers of his suicide, for no reason, I dialed those three numbers. Two were switched off, the ones you said were his. The last one was answered by a woman. For a few seconds I was too surprised to speak. I didn’t expect it to be answered at all. When I asked for Tanveer, the woman hung up on me. After that I tried twice, with the same result. The number was switched off. And probably discarded immediately.”

Mikhila slammed the receiver down. Heaving, she tore the extension out of its socket and hurled the landline across the room.

She crumpled on the floor and wailed.

***

Sitting on the front steps of the porch, Mikhila nestled the coffee mug in her hands. She was wearing her favourite outfit, a mustard kurta and sage green palazzo. Tanveer hated the outfit. 

It was drizzling outside and a cool breeze ruffled her cheeks and swayed her damp hair at temples. A plate with half eaten paratha lay beside her. All the house windows were wide open. 

***

A THE BOMBAY REVIEW CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOP PIECE

Rinu Antony works as a content writer in a digital marketing agency in Nagpur, India.

Review | J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’| 1999 Booker Winner | by Abhinita Mohanty

Spoiler alert.

published1 July 1999
AuthorJohn Maxwell Coetzee
Original language: English
GenresNovel, Domestic Fiction
AwardsBooker Prize

The postcolonial period in South Africa saw the end of apartheid and the beginning of an escalating civil war and violence. The suppression and exploitation had created fragmented identities coupled with uneven development. It led to white privilege and relegated the blacks as ‘second class’ citizens. The brutal conflicts and violence that haunted the country during the 1990s had its roots in the colonial legacy of apartheid. 

J.M. Coetzee’s work ‘Disgrace’ is an attempt to tell the implication of such violence in the lives of ordinary, white and black citizens of South Africa. The beauty of this fictional work lies in crafting the emotions of individuals in the backdrop of their political situation. However, ‘Disgrace‘ goes further by bringing out the psychological nuances of the victims without deifying them. 

The protagonist David Lurie is an adjunct professor of communications at Cape Town Technical University. The middle-aged professor’s attitude to life is the first sentence of the book. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. Lurie is not the hero, but a detached soul whose world wombs around his mind, beyond that is an abstraction. This solipsistic existence makes him a ‘flawed’ human being. In the beginning, the reader meets Laurie on his Thursday noon escapades. He loses himself in the arms of Soraya, a prostitute. He looks at his relationship with Soraya as uncomplicated as his desires. He pays for a service and enjoys the perk of a good company without complexities of being in a relationship, and he does not have traits to be in meaningful relationships.

Laurie’s character is neither textbook evil nor heroic. He is human, and often the book looks like a journey into his mind. Coetzee writes most of the events in the book, as interpreted by Laurie. When Laurie seduces his reluctant student, Melanie to have an affair with him, and he justifies it with a “a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it”. Melanie does not resist, but “all she does is avert herself”. The relationship between a professor and a young student shows the stark imbalance of power between the two and the lines between consent and rape gets dangerously blurred. It is interesting to imagine what kind of response ‘Disgrace’ would elicit if it was published in recent years and not in 1996. Such affairs were not uncommon in academia, intelligentsia, arts and other related fields. People barely took notice, until recently. 

However, in the novel, Laurie is disgraced. It is the South Africa of the 90s and white men like Laurie no longer have power and control. Laurie believes that as an old man, he has the “right not to change”. His subsequent trial proves futile as he does not yield to the pressure of public repentance. Instead, Laurie blurts out to the press that he was “enriched by the experience”. He voluntarily resigns from his position and leaves for his daughter Lucy’s rural farm holding.

He retreats and adapts himself to the rural life, and develops a calming relationship with his daughter. Lucy lives the life of a ‘farmer’ in a small landholding. Laurie works in the farm and volunteers in an animal shelter, where his main job is to dispose of the bodies of euthanized dogs. At some level, he relates to these dogs and ensures that they get a proper farewell. 

Blacks are in the majority in the countryside, including Lucy’s employee and caretaker Petrus. Underneath the tranquility of rural life, brews the uneasy repercussions of shifting power balance in the country. Though Lucy has leased a part of her landholding to Petrus and his family, Petrus’ intentions do not seem to be honest. The reader is thrown off balance along with Lucy when she is raped by three black men, who also try to burn Laurie, alive. Laurie survives with minor burns, but the assault leaves scars in Lucy’s psyche forever. This incident of violence disrupts their lives. It complicates the fragile relationship between Laurie and Lucy. The father-daughter seems to fall apart as Lucy goes into depression and refuses to report the rape. 

The rugged Lucy, who breeds dogs, manages her farm, is single and a lesbian, reports the robbery and shooting of her dogs but hides the rape. Despite her father’s insistence to file a report, she simply says that it is her life and her choice. She will not let anybody to write her story as they intend it. The reader might wonder what makes Coetzee swiftly turn a fiercely independent Lucy to a meek position. In reality, Lucy is capable of making her own decision even as a victim. The author perhaps alludes to the slipping away of power from the whites to that of the blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. Perhaps Lucy feels that a complaint will not help her case. Instead, she enters into a deal (with Petrus) to save herself from being disposed of her land and home. Lucy thinks, “What if rape is the price one has to pay for staying on”? 

This history of apartheid and its violent past is summed up by Laurie when he consoles his daughter. “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may seem personal, but it was not. It came from the ancestors”. It is the most quoted sentence of the book. Lucy too feels that “They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors”. Today, the personal is political is a slogan by feminists. In ‘Disgrace‘ it is vice versa too. 

The already frayed and delicate relationship between the parent and child breaks down. Laurie, whose lust had preyed on vulnerable, young women, is unable to accept that his daughter is not even interested to pursue her case legally. The event takes us back to Laurie’s trial by the university committee and his fall from grace. A trial and the repentance of a perpetrator is always a public act. The motive of a trial is not just to punish the guilty but also yield an appropriate delineation of the perpetrator’s repentance and the victim’s suffering. Laurie’s unwillingness to repent publicly and Lucy’s lack of desire to carry the stigma of victim-hood mocks the legal and socio-political situation in 1990s South Africa.

Nature, rural imagery and animals are often added as props to probably give a a peppering of cynicism and hopelessness. When Laurie volunteers in an animal shelter, run by Bev Shaw, it is evident that Shaw euthanises crippled dogs that are incapable of living life, gracefully. She puts them out of misery. Laurie, whose existence is defined by disgrace after the scandal, feels a connection to these dogs. He gives them a proper burial which comforts him. His daughter Lucy’s dignity goes into tatters after her rape. “Like a dog”, she says. 

Petrus, the black man who works as a labourer, calls himself the “dog-man” early in the book. In the aftermath of Lucy’s rape and pregnancy, she agrees to marry Petrus (or become his concubine) in exchange for staying in her farmland. Despite Petrus’ probable collusion in the crime, he transforms from “dog-man” to almost a landowner. Laurie (and Lucy) who is among the few whites left in the countryside, becomes a “dog-man” falling in grace not just from his profession but also in the new dawn of shifting power bases. Dogs are metaphors for ‘privileges of the whites’ who mostly owned them. Whites owned dogs to protect their property in a conflict-torn South Africa. So, the men who break into Lucy’s house shoot her dogs too; symbolising the destruction of ‘privilege’. David Laurie relates to the dog at a deeper level for his desires or ‘Eros’. Just like a dog would instead be shot than fixed himself or forced to ‘deny its true nature; “he would prefer to be shot than take counselling”. He would rather become “servant of the Eros”. Thus, the portrayal of dogs and their nature corresponds to the human characters in the book. It reflects their moral gaps and racial violence in the country. A white protagonist, such as Laurie asserts and justifies his moral conscience through the nature of the dogs, whose carcass he is supposed to dispose of in the incinerator. Lucy, despite her loss of strength, refuses to let go off her chosen and home but accept her condition. 

The book is pessimistic, and at the end, it leaves us confused as we make futile attempts to take sides and peer into our ethics in a brutal society. In Coetzee’s story, there is no distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ because only the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ rear its head. The perpetrators, and a flawed character, such as Laurie both seem humane and disparaging at the same time. The criminals are neither punished nor judged. There are no perpetrators but only, human beings who let themselves shaped by the fluctuating socio-political moralities of their times. 

 For those who dare to probe deeper into ‘Disgrace‘, it offers no answer about our nature of existence. Some of the events and behaviour resonate with ‘nihilism’. Friedrich Nietzsche once stated that “there is no objective structure to the world except what we give it”. Authors, such as Albert Camus in his work ‘The Stranger’ have drawn attention to the futility of both crimes and human moralities. 

Laurie’s world views form through the subjective meanings he gives to his often questionable actions. Coetzee does not explicitly mention the intentions behind Lucy’s decision not to report the rape. Behind all these actions, there is no meaning, similar, to the circulation of violence through history.

In her controversial work ‘banality of evil’, Hannah Arendt believed that one is capable of perpetrating violence without any meaning or motive. The lower rung Nazi officers who took part in the ‘final solution’ may not be anti-Semitic but did so without question as a duty to their fatherland. They never questioned their morality but submitted to social conventions and the political situation in the name of loyalty and duty. Arendt said that evil lacks depth; it is banal, often, perpetuated without reason. Unlike ideology that requires some depth, evil can be meaningless. Though Arendt’s proposition is debated by many others in political theory, at some level it has influenced Coetzee. 

Violence, circulates through history. In Coetzee’s book, nobody owns violence. The colonial whites, who profited from it during apartheid, were haunted by it in the aftermath. Violence does not belong to ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ or any particular class. Instead, it is connected to the conditions of human history and shapes subjectivity through time. The moralities, ethics, and social rules we value so much are, after all, based on coercion and stigmatisation. These are all subjective entities that threaten to inflict violence upon those who trample over it. Thus, a slight unhinge in power balances; political upheavals can tear down structures in second. Coetzee’s characters, in the end, accept their powerlessness and the knowledge that violence is as an unsolvable condition in their world. The book shows that human beings, irrespective of their class, race, ethnicities and even victims are very much capable of inflicting brutalities; once they believe that they would go away with impunity. However, Coetzee’s motive behind telling the tale is to elucidate the complicated relationship and uneasy proximity of the two races in his native country, South Africa. It is a fictionalised reality of South Africa in the 90s and the ethical dilemma of its ordinary citizens. The book doesn’t have a closure; the readers remain wantingfor more just like the characters. The poignancy of the story and emotional subtleties in its tone may provide hope at some point, only to rudely snatch it away in the next. 


Abhinita is a research scholar in the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. She has a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad and a diploma in Print Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism. Passionate about writing, her work has appeared in Outlook Magazine(website), The Tribune newspaper, New Asian Writing, Feminism in India (FII), Burgundy Balloon and Trouvaille Review (upcoming). 

Fiction | ‘The Evening Walk’ by Aditya Venkataraman | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

I

The story of how Francisco ‘Frankie’ D’Souza and Krishnamoorthy ‘Krishna’ Iyer became the best of friends in their twilight years is improbable everywhere but in modern India’s latest attempt to cram in more people than ever into its overcrowded cities: the IT Township. A walled-off cluster of sky-high towers overflowing with apartments; the Township also included a pharmacy, a supermarket, two tennis courts, a library, token green spaces, and even a community hall for hosting the residents’ birthday parties. Originally intended for the IT boom’s nouveau riche, the township now housed every strata, color, smell, hairstyle, and car model of urban life.  As the original IT crowd began to immigrate to the occasionally welcome shores of Australia and the US, their apartments began to fill up with their aged parents, ‘the FaceTime grandparents’, who had every Apple gadget but their grandchildren rarely connected with them.

Concrete and mud walkways snaked around and through the township. Every evening the towers’ aged residents, sporting ill-fitting tee shirts and slacks, would descend upon these serpentine tracks for their daily walk. In the township, walking was a communal affair. The walkers, mostly well-known to one another, would quickly coalesce into their usual cabals and each crew would begin its slow circuit around the township to the accompaniment of laughter, gossip, and non-veg jokes. The women had their own cliques too – each one with riveting internal-politics. Lastly as in any social structure, there were the stragglers: group-less, gossip-less walkers, often sporting earphones (or AirPods that jutted out perilously) and these were the only folks actually trying to walk for exercise.

The day after he moved into the township, Krishna found himself a straggler: in life and in the evening walking scene. Janaki, his wife of 40 years, had gone to bed six months ago and never woken up. His son, Ambareesh (or Ambi as he wanted to be called now, that’s Ambi like the Ambi in Bambi) flew in from the US to attend to her last rites (“Sorry, Suma and the kids cannot take off from work and school in this time of the year.”). After the thirteen days of mourning, Ambi wondered aloud why his father had to struggle with managing his large, independent house, with a vast garden. Before Krishna could emerge from the daze of his wife’s demise, urgent meetings were had, hands were clasped, paperwork were signed, possessions were packed, flight tickets were booked, and Krishna found himself all alone in a strange new 1 bedroom apartment on the 6th floor of ‘Ecstacy Sumanta’, the IT township. (“Appa, can’t take any more days off work. Hope you understand.”)

In his second week at the township, Krishna finally mustered the courage to enter the evening revolutions of his neighbors. He slipped into his pair of Bata slippers, Janaki had always selected his footwear, and descended into the bustle.

“Sita, did you watch yesterday’s episode of Rama’s Sita’s Lava Kusa? Isn’t Lava so…”

Arrey, I tell you, there has never been a better spinner than E. Prasanna but these two-bit millennials…”

“HAHAHAHA, abey yaar Pandey, what will the missus say?”

Conversations floated all around Krishna but he couldn’t find a place to dock in any of them. His feeble attempts at making eye-contact with a few turned futile. Circling his block he hurried back home, resolving to never try this again.

And yet a week later, Krishna tried it again. And failed once again. Just as he was about to turn into his block, a voice boomed behind him, “Hey-O! You look new. Hi, I’m Frankie, what’s your name?”

Krishna swiveled to find a tall, wiry man, with balding white hair and a fashionably tailored tee shirt, extending his right hand. He clasped the hand and asked, “Frankie…? Like the roll?”

“Hahaha… you are too much! I was Frankie long before those darned guys started selling paratha rolls as Frankies. Francisco D’Souza – Frankie. Now tell me your name.”

“Krishnamoorthy,” said Krishna, shaking the man’s firm hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offense. I misheard you with all the noise around.”

“I know right? When I came to examine the property as it was being built, the builder sold it to me as a place of serene reflection surrounded by the chirping of birds and flowing water. Since the crowd moved in, it is like the crossing of the wildebeests every evening!”

“Wilde.. what?”

“Wildebeests. They are these cow-like deer in Africa. They breed a lot and once a year the entire clan migrates across the plains in one big thundering herd. Wave after wave of the beasts. The lions and hyenas have a field day picking off the slowest, but most of the herd survives. Strength in numbers sort of a thing. I saw it on National Geographic.”

“So are we the lions among these wildebeests?” Krishna asked coyly.

“Hahaha, so there is some steel underneath after all! Come, let’s grab some coffee at my place.” He grabbed Krishna’s arm and guided him towards his block.

And that is how Frankie came into Krishna’s life – breezy but with a hint of coercion. He was a widower too; he had lost his wife decades ago. Childless but with a child-like spirit, he fancied himself the consummate gentleman.

II

‘Krishna, do you know those young girls who stay across my flat?” Frankie began on one of their daily walks around the township.

“Yes. I have seen them around.”

“Last Friday they had a small shindig at their place. Some boys and girls, food, music, drinks too. They weren’t making too much noise so I didn’t mind despite the late hour. In fact the food smelled so good, I was wondering if I could pop in for a bite. But the music stopped suddenly and I heard some shouting. When I opened the door, Mahadevan… you know Mahadevan, the association president, him and some security guards were screaming at the girls.”

“Screaming? Why?”

“They were waving a notice around that said unmarried girls are not allowed to have male guests after 9 pm. Those crazy guys were demanding the girls throw out their male guests.”

“I mean, with these bachelors… you know…” Krishna sighed.

“What bachelors? Don’t behave like a Neanderthal. These girls are majors and if they want to have their boyfriends over in their own homes, that is their business and nobody else’s. Least of all, that stuck-up Mahadevan’s! He was threatening to call the girls’ landlord in the US and have them ejected for public indecency. I tell you what is indecent? It is Mahadevan walking around the township in his dirty lungi and bare chest. His chest has more foliage than the township.” Frankie fumed.

Krishna chuckled at the image of Mahadevan’s hairy chest. Krishna was known for his chest hair too, but even he had to concede to the association president’s hirsute gifts. 

“I know Mahadevan can be assertive, but he has a tough job. Youngsters can easily get carried away and that gives the township a bad rep. Youngsters these days have no discipline.”

“You know who had no discipline? Our generation. My brother was married at 19 and by 25 he had had three kids. Not a penny to his name, but every year another kid to take his name. Things got so bad that my mother had to make him and his wife sleep apart. What about you Mr. Youngsters these days? Didn’t you get married at 20?  I’m sure you were no Sadhu back then. It’s the age, Krishna! It’s their age to fall in love, make mistakes, drink too much, and get hangovers. We elect association members to keep our gutters clean and lawns mowed but they assume they are the guardians of the township’s morality.”

Krishna flinched at Frankie’s full-frontal assault at his youthful escapades. He knew it had been a mistake to share such intimate details with him, but Frankie was skillful at inviting confidence and liberal at dishing out his own life’s savory details. But Krishna wasn’t willing to concede this point.

“If the girls were married, nobody would have a problem, least of all, Mahadevan.”

“Who is Mahadevan to care whether the girls are married?”

“He is the association president! He cannot be a bystander to indecent activities in his township. Lots of families live here with kids and elders, what if they see this kind of behavior and…” Krishna stopped mid-flow when he saw Frankie turning a darkest shade of purple. He sensed an outburst.

“Outside in the streets, we have democracy. Inside the township’s walls we have a junta. From the decibel levels in our living rooms to the hanky-panky in our bedrooms, from the cooking smells in our kitchens to the cleaning schedules in our toilets – the association pokes its nose into everything. License Raj may be dead outside, but it is alive and kicking within these walls. From hiring a new maid to keeping your shoe rack outside your door, you need to get permission from the association.”

Pausing for breath, Frankie continued, “I remember a Sunday some time ago. A few college kids were shooting a dance video on the lawn. There wasn’t even any music. Sundaram, that other association coot, saw this from his balcony and screamed down at them threatening to call the cops and demanding a written consent letter sanctioned and signed by two association members. Who the hell does he think he is? Under what law is it prohibited for a few kids to take a harmless video in their own backyard? Do you know what’s the source of their power? Apathy. Nobody wants to deal with the malfunctioning CCTV cameras, the leaking pipes, and the broken gutter lids, so they hand over their autonomy to these goons.”

As quickly as the outburst began, it subsided. 

“It’s time for a change,” Frankie said softly. “Mahadevan and his buddies have to go. Time for some new blood.” Frankie stopped mid-stride, looked into the distance and announced, “I am going to contest for the post of association president.”

Krishna grinned at his friend’s solemn pronouncement and burst into laughter. “Have you gone crazy? You probably know five people in this township. Who will vote for you?”

“The youth. That’s who. I will be an anti-establishment candidate. Down with the stodgy relics from the past,” said Frankie raising his fist in the air.

“You are a relic from the past!” Krishna exclaimed.

“Age is a function of the mind. I connect with the youth, I tell you.”

“First of all, nobody calls it the youth anymore…”

“Hush! We have to strategize, and plan. You will, of course, be my campaign manager. We need to reach out to the young and bring them to the voting booths. The problem with elections these days is that only the old vote, and they inevitably vote for a fellow ancient: by age or by thought.”

Krishna silently shook his head and continued walking. He knew his friend’s mind was set and there was little he could do to budge him.

In the month that led up to the election, the duo began a door to door campaign, visiting every one of the township’s eight hundred apartments. From arthritic uncles to soap-opera obsessed aunties, from workaholic middle managers to free-loading relatives, from school-hating children to college-hating youths, the campaign appealed its case. After a few mishaps, Krishna talked Frankie out of his newfound habit of lifting every baby he encountered and kissing it sloppily on both cheeks. Despite his initial reservations, the electoral fervor quickly caught hold of Krishna too and he bloomed into his role as the campaign manager.

“You have to win me the lady vote. Only you can convince the women.” said Frankie one day.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Krishna asked.

“You are religious. Organize a sloka chanting session on Saturday morning, talk me up. I am hosting a Friday evening party for young voters so don’t expect my attendance.”

“So you get the young crowd and I get the old ladies?”

Leaflets with Frankie’s balding head in smudged blue ink were printed on cheap pink and yellow papers; below his head was his election motto in bold ink, ‘Change. Hope. Youth.‘ Krishna was assigned the pre-dawn duty of intercepting the morning milkmen and attaching one leaflet to every packet of milk.

Frankie began attending every association meeting and badgering his rival Mahadevan for a debate. He even attempted to have it televised by the local news channel but his fervent calls and mails went unanswered. A high-schooler from Block B became the lone member of the campaign’s IT cell and was tasked with the role of sending ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night’ messages to every resident along with a picture of a beaming Frankie flashing a thumbs up. Soon followed video clips of Frankie helping out fellow residents with carrying groceries or playing cricket with the township kids that always ended in a freeze-frame of a smiling Frankie and the campaign slogan. A Facebook page was created on which a daily video series debuted, ‘If Frankie were the president, he would…’. Text messages flurried to encourage residents to follow his Facebook page.  

When Krishna wondered aloud whether this might seem too intrusive, Frankie demurred, “Scorched Earth, Krishna. We have to get our message out at every opportunity. B When was the last time Mahadevan said as much as a good morning to anyone? Since we started this, he suddenly bent over backwards with best wishes for everyone. The ruling elites are shuddering in their shaky thrones, my friend.”

On the day of the election Frankie procured a handheld loudspeaker and beseeched the residents to vote, “Voting is your birth-right. Vote for me coz that’s right!”

The voting booths were in the community hall. The lines seemed unusually long that year. Even some of the oldest residents in wheelchairs had come to vote. Even as the day was winding down residents trickled in to vote, stopping for a moment or two to talk to the candidates who waited outside. When voting ended, the campaign observers, including Krishna, gathered the ballots and huddled inside to begin counting. A smattering of idlers assembled outside to await the results. Someone started an FM radio and Mohammed Rafi crooned, ‘Aisa Mauka Phir Kahaan Milega…’.

“Frankie sir, I voted for you. All the best!” said someone. 

Frankie smiled weakly, too hoarse to talk. From the corner of his eye he noticed Mahadevan who nodded grimly at Frankie. The results were expected any moment now. 

Krishna emerged from the counting room, shaking. Frankie moved expectantly towards him; he tried to suppress the uneasiness inside. Tightly gripping the bannister Krishna descended the two steps from the hall and whispered, “We won. By a landslide.”

Visibly speechless, Frankie hugged his friend and smiled, tears welling up in his eyes.

III

“Sambar is truly in the Goldilocks zone of South Indian cuisine,” said Frankie one Sunday morning, wiping his plate clean off sambar with the last morsel of a dosa. “Simmer it too less, you are left with watery rasam. Simmer it too much, dal is all you get. Simmer it just right and you get sambar.”

Krishna generally avoided engaging with his friend during his meal soliloquies, but sambar was too close to home. “Sambar is as different from rasam as Goa is from Delhi. The spices, the vegetables, they are all different. Considering the number of times you have eaten my sambar and rasam, either you are an ignoramus or you are being frivolous,” lectured Krishna, waving the dosa flipper like a teaching stick.

“You really are a fantastic cook, my friend. I have never eaten better South Indian food. What’s your secret ingredient? Love?” Frankie grinned.

“All credit goes to my grandmother and mother. As a kid in Kumbakonam I would spend hours in the kitchen watching them grind the spices, boil the herbs, and prepare the finest delicacies one can imagine. No recipe books, no measuring cups, nothing. Everything was done by instinct, and backed by generational memory. Such cooking has been lost, I tell you.”

“Why so?” asked Frankie, waiting at the dining table for another dosa.

“People think traditional cooking takes too much time and it puts on too much weight. I don’t know what gives them that idea. My mother would wrap up cooking by 8 am sharp and my grandfather lived till the age of 102 and was reedy like a needle in a panjakaccham. I advise Ambi and Suma to expose the kids to our foods, but it’s always salads, pastas and sandwiches. Can you even imagine that?”

“Ghastly,” shuddered Frankie, even though his own dinner at home prominently featured sandwiches and salads.

“It’s such a pity. The kids don’t even know their own foods, or the variety and unique tastes they offer. If parents don’t take the initiative to teach their kids about their traditions, who will?” asked Krishna, placing a crispy hot dosa on Frankie’s plate. “Take more chutney, there’s plenty.”

“Why don’t you?” quizzed Frankie, tearing into the dosa.

Krishna snorted, “As it is I have to beg and bribe the kids to talk to me for a few minutes before they run into their rooms.”

Frankie scooped a liberal dollop of chutney into his mouth and said, “The problem is the medium. Nobody wants to listen to a lecture over FaceTime. I am sure if you can package your message in some other way, they will listen.”

“Medium? Like cinema?” Krishna sat down beside Frankie, “Pass me the sambar.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe, YouTube? Kids are always on their smartphones watching YouTube.”

“I don’t know how to operate that.”

“You don’t worry about all that. I can be your producer and cameraman. You just worry about the content.”

“But what will I talk about?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that this generation doesn’t know about traditions. Talk about traditions.”

“You can’t just talk about traditions in the general. It’s always as a part of other conversations that you segue into traditions.”

“Figure it out man. What are traditions? Stories, cooking, habits, etc. Talk about each and every one of them. Or may be just one. You are an excellent cook, why don’t you talk about the recipes for your traditional items?”

“I am not starting a cooking channel. That will be strange.”

“What’s strange about it? Because you’re a man?”

“No, no, not at all. Why would anyone watch an old man cook?”

“My friend, you and I are at an age where anything we do starts looking exotic. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman running a 5K! Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman riding a bus. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman wearing a suit. Once you reach a certain age, the world expects you to be helpless, so anything you do, even something you have done every day for the past 50 years, starts looking refreshingly exotic and worthy of praise. If you start a cooking channel, trust me, people will watch.”

“You think so?”

“What’s the harm in trying? I can shoot it on my phone. The most important thing is finding a suitable name for your YouTube. Branding is everything.”

“Krishna’s YouTube channel?”

Frankie groaned, “Think bigger, my friend. The name has to excite people into watching. I presume you will be cooking your traditional Iyer foods. Perhaps something with Iyer in it? Iyer Recipes? Iyer’s Kitchen?”

“I think the name could convey that it is an Iyer man doing the cooking.”

“Good point. How about Krishna Iyer’s Crazy Kitchen?”

“I am not crazy about the Crazy. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen sounds better.”

“Deal. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen, it is. I want you to come up with a list of ten recipes by tonight. We get the groceries tomorrow and start shooting from the day after. We can shoot in your kitchen, but it could do with a good scrubbing. So get started with that.”

“Could we start from Friday? It’s an auspicious day.”

The next Friday, Director Frankie emerged with a borrowed tripod from a kid in the township. The kitchen was rearranged to make for a more pleasing frame and the first episode of Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen was shot with the chef preparing his delectable ginger chutney. What would have normally taken him twenty minutes took them over three hours that day.

Midway through the first take, Frankie yelled, “Cut! Cut! This is terrible. You are talking into the dish. You have to face the audience, and keep talking to keep them engaged.”

“But I have already described that I am about to peel the ginger! I can’t keep repeating it while I do that.”

“Obviously not. Talk about something else while you peel. We are shooting in real time, so you have to fill in the spaces with conversation.”

“Do you expect me to lecture about Ramayana when I am peeling ginger? It’s ridiculous.”

“How about I carry a conversation with you from behind the camera? The audience doesn’t have to see me. I will assume an Iyer name too and feed you with conversation. Look at me while talking and it will appear like you’re talking into the camera.”

Krishna broke into laughter, “I have heard that directors go crazy with time, but you are a little ahead of the curve.”

“Just humor me. Give me an Iyer name.”

Krishna shrugged, “Okay, how about Ramamoorthy? We can be Krishna and Rama.”

And that is how ‘Krishna maama’ and ‘Rama maama’ – as they would be affectionately called by their millions of future viewers – were born.

Scene

Krishna maama peeling the ginger.

Krishna maama: “It is important to peel the ginger skin thoroughly to avoid any bitterness.”

Rama maama, from behind the camera: “Is it true that ginger boosts immunity?”

Krishna maama: “Yes. As a kid in Kumbakonam, my paati would make us drink a glass of hot water with ginger on winter mornings to prevent colds. It is a miracle food!”

Rama maama: “The biggest miracle in that story is that Kumbakonam once had a winter.”

Krishna maama: “Frank… Rama, you are too much. Now that the ginger has been peeled completely, dice it into small bits. The consistency doesn’t matter because…”

The second recipe, Arisi upma for which the ginger chutney is a fantastic accompaniment took less than an hour. The crew broke for lunch after and dug into the prepared delicacies.

The views trickled in. Two in one day, three the next, four on a Sunday. Dejected, Krishna wanted to quit, but Frankie pushed on. “Let’s try ten videos before calling it quits.”

Every two or three days the team would come together to shoot. For Janmashtami, Krishna came up with topical dishes appropriate for the festival. 

It occurred around then; the event. Frankie forever came to call it the ‘The Great Sambar Miracle’; unclear about their exact clientele, Krishna suggested a quick-fire Sambar recipe that might be useful for office-goers. And hence was born the video that Frankie named ‘Krishna Iyer’s Sambar In A Jiffy’. The views galloped in almost immediately. Every time Frankie refreshed the browser, the viewership ticker would climb up a little more and later a lot more. The video soon made it into the WhatsApp forwards circuit. By Thursday, it had come home, to Frankie’s own phone.

The comments began to pile up:

“Both maamas are so cute! Krishna maama reminds me of my grandfather.”

Maama, where is maami?”

“Now sambar isn’t the only thing you can make in a jiffy! Earn Rs. 5000 per hour, call Susie at 99111 12123. ”

“Tried this recipe today. Was reminded of my mother’s cooking! Thank you maama!”

“Rama maama is so funny. We want to see his face.”

The viewers came for the sambar and stayed for the other dishes in the channel. Ginger chutney had a field day. Mango sadham emerged a late bloomer. Semiya payasam became sweeter with time. Ambi discovered the exploding channel when his kids stumbled upon it. The desire to be acknowledged as relevant, is strong in everyone, particularly in the aged. Under this newfound attention, Krishna’s spine became more erect, he began to laugh more easily, and to stand up for himself. He no longer had time to pine for Ambi’s or Suma’s phone call. His viewers demanded more of him. Live sessions and Q & A clips began to appear on the feed. And then the cheques started arriving; every month a bigger amount. 

“YouTube ad money!” gushed Frankie excitedly. 

And then the marketing managers started calling, “Namaskaram maama. Could you endorse our brand of Ayurvedic soaps and shampoos? For some remuneration of course.”

“We are selling Deepavali lekyam in powder form. Could you try it and talk it up if you like it?”

Strangest of all, Krishna found himself approached by frantic parents trying to find a bride or groom for their children, “My son has done MBA in the US and is working in Chicago. We have been trying for two years to find a girl. Could you please help through your contacts? Thank you maama. Namaskarams.”

“How can I find boys and girls for all these people?” mused Krishna.

“Krishna, my boy, you are now a pillar of the community.” chuckled Frankie.

IV

Initially, it was just a lapse of concentration. The camera was rolling, Krishna was answering one of Rama maama’s questions when suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and stared into the camera. An awkward moment later, he resumed. A week later, it was a slip in his step; Frankie held him before he fell. The next day Frankie noticed the tremor in his hands as he held a ladle. The slurring in his speech was also getting more pronounced.

Hospitals and doctors; the verdict was unanimous – Parkinson’s. Krishna forbade his friend from disclosing the condition to Ambi. 

“He will put me in a hospital. I don’t want to go there right away.” 

So Frankie moved into his friend’s apartment and the two became the oldest roommates in the township. The YouTube channel began to dry up, ‘Where are you maama?’, ‘We are missing you!’, read the comments now.

The friends kept their tradition of evening walks alive. When Krishna could no longer step into the elevator comfortably, they walked up and down the corridor gabbing as usual about meaningless nothings. 

One day, Frankie came home with two walking sticks, “I got you the nicer color.” he said. When walking through the corridor became too difficult, they walked up and down their living room, listening to music on the radio. 

And then Krishna fell. Ambi arrived shortly after, followed by a male nurse who became their third roommate in that tiny apartment. When Krishna could no longer leave his bed, Frankie arranged for a chair beside it to give company during his long days and longer nights. 

A few weeks later, a few men heaved a huge box into Krishna’s room and began unpacking it. Inside were strangely shaped equipment in black and grey, that they assembled into a treadmill that faced Krishna’s bed. Frankie beamed by the door, “I was missing the evening walks. Miracle of technology! One can now walk where one stands!” 

Once the men departed, Frankie switched on the treadmill. Slowly walking towards Krishna he said, “Remember that time we ran for the township association?” Rendered mute by now, Krishna raised his fingers to acknowledge his friend and smiled. 


Aditya Venkataraman is a software engineer at Apple Inc. in California. He is a graduate of National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirrappalli, and a post-graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While his day-job revolves around computers, his passion lies in the world of letters. He enjoys reading and writing fiction and is currently working on a short fiction collection centered around the immigrant experience.