Poetry | ‘Drone’ & one other poem by Nilofar Shidmehr | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

Drone

Geese are flying
in perfect formation
when a drone appears.

If technology is an extension
of our bodies, as McLuhan says,
chaos is the extension
of the disturbance our technologies
cause in nature.

Taking the drone as a member
of their flock, the geese struggle
to get in formation
with its agitation,
their erratic flight and wild
honks, deranging the sky.

Their bewilderment grows
each time the drone changes
direction and speed,
whizzing with a different
frequency, leading them on
to no destination.


Succumb

Today, for his profile photo
he posted a slightly open French window
with ivy railings in the desert city of Yazd.

Behind the glass, two red candles
stand close to one another
each in a different pane.

Imagining this window the whole day
she pictures a bed
on the other side

holding together the bodies
of a man and a woman
who have finally met in real life.

This picture lures her
to climb over the virtual railings
push open the ajar window

and light the red candles
as day
succumbs to night.


Nilofar Shidmher, was born and raised in Iran and currently lives in Canada. A Ph.D., MFA, she is the author of two collections of short fiction and four books of poetry in English and Farsi. She also co-translated with Ali Azarang Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye into Farsi. Dr. Shidmehr teaches in the Liberal Arts Program and Adults 55+ program at Simon Fraser University.

Review Essay | ‘Vexing the Exemplary’ by Paromita Patranobish | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

on J.M. Coetzee’s recent novel, The Death of Jesus (2019)

From David Lurie to Michael K, J. M. Coetzee has shown a penchant for drafting commonplace protagonists who end up quite unexpectedly in the thick of extraordinary historical circumstances. To these fallible, unassuming characters falls the overwhelming burden of bearing witness to and reckoning with a newly discovered complicity in social and political processes beyond the self’s agency, and become accidental bearers of a certain socially imposed mark of exemplarity. In the trajectory of their diverse modes of resistance to this process, another narrative of exemplarity is produced, one that charts the full tragic implications of being human. Constrained by historical forces, these characters remain irreducible to available cultural frameworks, enacting deliberate, corporeally mediated engagements with precarity, destitution, shared animality, and the mutability of the flesh. 

In many ways, Coetzee has continued this basic idea in his trilogy about an orphaned child named David, the final installment of which came out late last year. The Death of Jesus despite its brevity upholds the patent standards of stylistic acuity and philosophical rigour that Coetzee has set in books like Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Age of Iron (1990), and more recently Slow Man (2005), all of which pivot around the provocative collision of individual life and private temporality with the density of historical change. 

The insertion of a singular life into the grammar of exceptionalism is effected in the very title of the book: ‘Jesus’ is not a character in the novel, rather he/it is a cipher, at once a cultural reference and a heuristic device, and thus an invitation, playfully and drolly offered to the reader, to embark on varieties of allegorical and speculative reading. The tantalising sparseness of the narrative, effective in sustaining what appears to be Coetzee’s reluctance to provide interpretive closure, is supplemented with a proliferation of multiple voices converging around the central enigma of David’s presence (and eventually absence) with minimal authorial interference. Hence, even though the novel uses an attenuated version of the third person narrative perspective, it takes us in and out of the minds of its characters as their separate paths and claims over David cross, creating a rich texture of partial, fragmentary, competing, and complementary variations on theological, ethical, social, pedagogic, familial, aesthetic, and philosophical questions.

The trilogy follows David, a young boy separated from his mother while crossing the border, and adopted by Simón, a gentle, peaceable man, and fellow refugee. Simón and his wife Inés move to the provincial town of Estrella, a fictional Spanish neighbourhood, but which could easily serve as an imaginative reconstruction of the gritty Cape Town suburbs of Coetzee’s own childhood. Here David grows up into a precocious, athletic, and highly imaginative adolescent excelling in dance and soccer. In this novel David, now ten years old decides to leave home to embrace his “orphanhood” in order to enroll in a soccer team that claims to play “proper football.” But his stint at Dr Fabricante’s institution with its dubious conception of charity and education, is short lived, as he contracts a degenerative neurological disease that affects his mobility and vigour. Confined to his hospital bed during his final days, David creates an audience around the telling of stories from his child’s edition of Don Quixote, a book that like the Biblical narrative functions as a meta-textual key to Coetzee’s own explorations. There is, of course, an almost caricaturish use of Christian symbolism in the allusion to the form of the parable (the novel’s clipped, stark style in fact, gives it a parabolic quality as well), and David’s own apotheosis from an ordinary immigrant child into a charismatic young intercessor between the Letter and the masses. 

Coetzee fully relishes the possibilities of the allegorical mode replete with a cameo lamb and David’s sagacious injunction to his dog Bolívar to not harm it, recalling Christ’s vision in Isiah of the wolf dwelling with the lamb (Bolívar sneakily disobeys while David is asleep). But much of the novel’s strength derives from the gaps and ruptures in this allegorical structure, in its exploration of the ways in which David’s story does not overlap with the symbolic logic of mythic archetypes, in Coetzee’s attempt to wrench from this symbolic order what Gilles Deleuze refers to as “an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life.” An underlying conflict between the sociological grand narratives of exceptionalism, victimhood, social justice, and salvation on the one hand, and life as a “pure event,” a dimension of autobiographical existence that is unclaimed, liminal, a remainder that erupts at the borders of identitarian constructs, is the source of ethical debate in this novel.

The Death of Jesus is roughly divided into two parts: the first deals with the impressionable David’s own ambivalent relationship with questions of personal identity and interests, and his entanglements with a maverick (and corrupt) pedagogic system that exploits his mental amplitude and athletic abilities while feeding him fantasies of his own grandiosity. The second part in the aftermath of David’s tragic death chronicles the attempts of his adult caregivers to weave his live into a cogent, meaningful narrative, the search for meaning being depicted as having less to do with the boy himself, and more as a futile and gratuitous exercise in assuaging the adult community’s insecurities and narcissism. Who or what is David, and more pertinently what is the meaning and value of a life that by normative standards occupies cultural margins: at ten David is a transitional figure between childhood and adulthood, he is an immigrant separated from the place and family of his birth too early leaving him with unreliable memories with which to weave a unified sense of self, the familial set up in which he finds himself is ad-hoc, contingent, made up of caregivers who do not share a conventional marital or sexual bond but are as Simón says, “companions” held together despite their mutual differences by a shared commitment to David’s well-being. This ambiguity of origins and family life is complicated further by the heterodox education he receives at señor Arroyo’s Academy of Music, where aesthetics and philosophy interpenetrate to produce a unique curriculum. David’s abstraction from the pragmatics of social existence is further exacerbated by his affinity for Don Quixote, a book meant to serve an entirely mundane function: to teach him Spanish, but becomes instead a site for activating the young boy’s wild fantasies and imaginative forays. Inés, the boy’s mother is the only person who seems to insist on the importance of providing David with the discipline and rigour of a quotidian, “normal” education. Even Simón’s, conversational, indulgent, overtly liberal approach to David is based on a desire to allow the latter the full expansion of his independent faculties without the imposition of adult will. This could be a fault, as Inés argues: a child needs to be given the occasion to be a child first, in the absence of which disaster might ensue. However, Coetzee’s novel is less interested in elaborating a case for an ideal pedagogy, and more concerned with the irregularities and contradictions that emerge out of this fraught space of guardianship and care-taking, and the implications that the irruption of these tensions might have for the geopolitical, discursive, and biopolitical contestations over individual identity.

Dr Fabricante’s orphanage is the first space of such contestation, and in the novel’s scheme of indirect indictment, perhaps the most dangerous as well. We are, of course, never offered any privileged access to the vantage of narrative omniscience; rather a critical perspective emerges out of Simón’s predicament, as he watches David swing between (a fairly usual) adolescent impulsiveness and youthful rebellion against perceived authority on the one hand, and Fabricante’s manipulation of the volatility of the child’s inchoate subjectivity intended to turn him into a poster boy for his social justice rhetoric. As David leaves home lured by the seductive appeal of the label that he desires to don, Simón is horrified to discover the hegemonic mix of insinuation, flattery, false assurance, and moral jargon at the root of David’s attraction for the orphanage. Dr Fabricante’s vision of victimhood and justice, as Simón finds out, is beset by deep hypocrisy and moral vacuity. His charity is soon exposed to be a carefully cultivated performance for personal power and political clout: the orphanage is a workshop for churning a cheap labour force out of vulnerable children, education and nourishment are curtailed to a bare minimum in the name of social rehabilitation, while bullying, dishonesty, retaliation, and violence are encouraged as justified means of addressing issues of deprivation and marginality. 

Coetzee’s reader of course is no stranger to similar scenarios in his earlier books dealing more directly with the complex social and ethical dynamics of Post-Apartheid justice, reparation, and anarchy and lawlessness in the name of affirmative action. Thus at a football match the team from the orphanage is unfairly set to play against a group of much younger children in order to boost the morale of the disadvantaged youth: aggression and foul play are projected as legitimate tactics in the service of the larger cause of leveling the social field, and David’s position in this community of misplaced, corrupted ideals is that of a model specimen, the exemplary orphan whose talents, earnestness, and sensitivity are exploited by Fabricante to further hegemonise his cohort of docilised subjects, and illustrate to Estrella at large, the necessary value of his philanthropic projects.

When David emerges from his stint at the orphanage both disillusioned and critically ill, the hospital turns out to be yet another Kafkaesque labyrinth of incompetence disguised as obfuscatory mythification. The hospital staff includes a kindly but inept pediatrician Dr Ribeiro, a former psychopathic murderer turned penitent janitor Dmitri, and a self-righteous resident teacher, señora Devito who treats David with alternating condescension and reverence, dismissing his cherished fantasies as “extravagance” while claiming to be David’s chosen confidante. The supposed “mystery” of David’s “atypical” illness is approached by Ribeiro’s staff through a confused patois of medical and mystical vocabularies, both serving to reinforce his status as exceptional, anomalous, and belonging to an altogether different ontological realm: his blood type is deemed to be extremely rare and without a successful match, his disease seems to have an etiology and prognosis without scientific precedent, in Dmitri’s quixotic hallucinations (which the novel does not dismiss but offers as a credible possible alternative) David is “the lord” and saviour communicating with his followers in a coded language full of hidden meanings, whereas for senora Devito, David becomes a psychiatric case study for which she opportunely engages him in private conversations. In keeping with the allusions to allegorical reading then, David often seems to emerge as the figure of the “homo sacer,” the unassimilated and politically disenfranchised “bare life” who is excluded from the frameworks of socially intelligible and recognised personhood in order for him to be collectively given over to death with impunity and without accountability, and whose exceptionality then is that of the sacrificial being and not the politically marked citizen.

David himself oscillates between performing the role of the exemplar– especially in his bardic capacity as the hospital’s unofficial storyteller– and questioning the logic of this arbitrary imposition. At times his fascination with heroic fantasy and his penchant for magical thinking settles in comfortably with the structure of adult projections. Yet at other times, especially as his treatment fails, the novel depicts his interiority ravaged by loneliness, confusion, and crippling physical pain. It is a measure of the moral bankruptcy of the community at Estrella that the only way in which an imaginative and energetic boy of ten can occupy the poetic and oneiric spacetime of daydream, reverie, and enchantment is through the appropriation, fetishisation, and commodification of his faculties. 

David in the throes of suffering rebels against his elevation to the status of the chosen: “Why do I have to be that boy, Simón? I never wanted to be that boy with that name,” just as Simón and Inés at other times have to demand “normalcy” from a society that wants to seek its redemption, material and spiritual by scapegoating a young boy. In that sense David is at once an adumbration and a refutation of his parallel with the figure of Christ, inasmuch as he shares Christ’s passion but with the resistance, hesitation, and ambivalence of an ordinary boy. In death David is further abstracted, rendered spectacular as the orphanage forcibly claims his body and turns the event of his death into a grotesque morality play, while all over Estrella and its neighbouring areas there are riots demanding justice and social equality in David’s name.

The saving grace in the midst of this macabre absurdist spectacle comes from David’s classmates at Juan Sebastian’s Academy: a dance drama celebrating David’s extraordinarily fertile imagination and the special place of the child’s edition of Cervantes in his life. It is the graceful and tender choreography, the simple yet attentively composed dialogue, and the frank depiction of David’s tragicomic incorporation into the Biblical mythos, that brings about a tentative closure to the grieving parents. The children’s play is in stark contrast to both the sententious symbolism of the orphans’ ceremonial performance at David’s funeral, as well as Dmitri’s letters to Simón claiming privileged knowledge of David’s preternatural identity and transcendental message. The open-ended, self-reflexive fabrications of art offer solace, to David, and later to his parents, in the aesthetic object’s capacity to accommodate multiple realities and afford expressive space to the play of possibilities without casting upon these the structural constraints of a totalising design. These polymorphous interventions of art occur in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the ideologically laden grand narratives through which a particular culture attempts to order, homogenise, and render legible the messy realities of social iniquities and interpersonal omissions. 

It is in this connection that The Death of Jesus provides a subtle but powerful critique of modern apparatuses of biometric profiling in which individual singularity is diminished to an arbitrarily assigned number. David’s conflicted relationship with numbers and his affinity instead for the illusionistic, promiscuous, rule-defying world of Quixote is an indication, later asserted by Simón, of Coetzee’s critical view of the conversion of human lives to the dehumanising logic of numbers and body counts.

Ultimately however, The Death of Jesus refuses to offer neat conclusions. Is David a regular albeit a bit excitable child whose message turns out to be a childish reworking of the instructions at the back of a library book? Is his anxiety about passing without imparting his message connected thus to an anxiety about failing to occupy and participate in the fictional constituency that he so strongly identifies with, by inscribing his own critical interpretation of Don Quixote? Is the literalism of a cynic’s perception a better approach to the world or must we take metaphysical/metaphorical recourse to address the horrors and enormities of late capitalist modernity? The book leaves this open to debate. 

David is an anti-Scheherazade, the crux of his tragedy being his unfinished narrative, his removal from the scene of storytelling and thus the truncation of his narrative autonomy. David’s creative redeployment of the outlandish scenarios of Cervantes’ book in relation to his own life and situation, like Simón’s private love of dance, Juan Sebastian’s music, Inés’ experience of maternal affect, is a particular form of linguistic and narrative inhabitation through which he is able to effect a partial recuperation of the singularity of his life from the regimes that seek to number and categorise him even if the latter is in the form of an exaltation. With the last book of his Jesus trilogy, Coetzee in the manner of the trope of the truncated message, has pared the novel’s moral, political, and literary intervention into a sparse yet densely textured structure, while gently admonishing our obsession with gleaning clear and unambiguous conclusions from the many sided fabric of reality.

J. M. Coetzee. The Death of Jesus. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2019


Paromita Patranobish is an academic and writer based in Delhi. She has a PhD on Virginia Woolf, and echoing the spirit of Mrs Dalloway’s walk, likes to think of her writing as immersive journeys through routes traversing multiple sites and sources of belonging and fascination. She has been a Visiting Professor at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her review essays and creative writing have been published in Scroll, Cafe Dissensus, Firstpost, The Assam Tribune, The Chakkar, and Feminism in India. Her camera remains a faithful companion of her itineraries. 

Fiction | ‘Piping Plover’ by John Tavares | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

I came to believe Anders never truly loved a woman, or a man, for that matter, but he loved the piping plover. He would die or kill for his beloved endangered species. He showed me a faded, aged video of the piping plover, chirping, and complaining on the lakeshore, the sandy beach along Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands. I helped him, virtually a computer illiterate, upload the video, duplicated from his original Betamax videotape, from his university research database to his smartphone. I thought the bird, with patches of grey, was slightly bizarre, rather ugly and unphotogenic, a squat, jerky creature, the size of a sparrow, overrated. I couldn’t believe Anders had devoted his personal life and academic career to learning the intimate habits, nature, and essence of this rare bird. What, I thought, if the piping plover did go extinct—would the world truly be a worse place? At an intellectual and moral level, I realize I am wrong in the grand scheme of things, but, in practical terms, which was how I lived my life and survived from day-to-day, I couldn’t see what difference the rare bird’s existence made to the world.

In any event, I served Anders in the coffee shop, The Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, his favorite café in Bloor Street West, not far from his house on Brunswick Street, where he lived alone. I thought he was a fortunate man to own and live in a house in the fine midtown area of Toronto, but he had been a tenured professor at the university and the cosmopolitan metropolis was his hometown. His career, while sounding rather boring, was a success, even, if, say, he didn’t have a spouse and children. In fact, he hardly ever mentioned any family to me, except in the context of an alcoholic sibling, who passed prematurely, and estrangement. I couldn’t see how a woman would be so interested in loving and living with someone who devoted his life to the piping plover, but I am a woman who loves people and urban adventure; I’m not an enthusiast of the outdoors and nature.

At the café, I always enlivened his evenings with my conversation, liveliness, enthusiasm, vivaciousness, and a bubbly personality—or this was how he described me. I possessed the endearing and fundamental features and qualities of a woman he had been indoctrinated to dislike, he joked, as an academic, a biologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, specializing in the piping plover. Even though he retired several years ago, those research efforts, the field work, and academic activities seemed to have occurred as long ago as a lifetime. Although he was a leading expert on the piping plover, he felt as if he had forgotten his academic papers, published in academic journals, and research papers, full of statistics, annotations, and footnotes, which I saw at his house, stacked in his home office, and even the university campus, when we dropped by the library and his former departmental office, which we visited at night, on the sly, with his old keys, which still fit the locks, and online when I happened to Google his name out of curiosity.

Anders started to blame his memory losses and the disappearance of a large bank of memory due to potentially premature dementia. He simply could not be certain, he said, whenever he spoke with me, at the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, located near the University of Toronto campus. He felt he could not deny he had experienced memory and cognitive decline. He also expressed worry about hand tremors, the twitching of his eyes, grimacing. Now he spent most of his free time on researching investments, as he built up a stock portfolio, moving away from bank savings accounts, with term deposits, and guaranteed investment certificate’s into riskier assets, technology stocks.

Meanwhile, he drank the finest coffee ever brewed, he said, alongside his favorite barista of all time, whom he tipped generously. I flirted with him, joked with him, laughed at his nerdy, geeky jokes. Meanwhile, I pondered how even he managed to remain single after all these years. Of course, I managed to provide myself with a ready-made answer; he was a leading expert on the nearly extinct and endangered species, the Piping Plover. Still, he reminded me he felt he had practically forgotten everything he had learned, remembered, discovered, and taught as a wildlife biologist and ornithologist. He blamed what he joked was senescence and potentially some form of premature dementia, or cognitive decline, memory disorder, or psychological disorder, although it was interesting to note his ability to learn, I surmised, hadn’t been impacted as he continued with passion and conviction to invest in the stock market.

So, I dismissed his concerns about memory loss, especially when he went overboard and bought with whatever cash he had available, declining stocks during a bear market, which then quickly rebounded, so that his paper profits were considerable. He seemed to be thinking straight; in fact, he struck me as still sharper than many of the academic types who dropped by the café and diner I knew. I said I thought if he could learn new subjects, then he probably wasn’t suffering from any form of dementia, but some psychosomatic phenomenon. “I majored in psychology,” I said, although I didn’t add that I dropped out because I couldn’t afford tuition. I enjoyed the study of psychology and I enjoyed the active social life, being popular among young men, in residence, because I was outgoing and had a womanly figure, but I wasn’t as smart as some of my friends—I didn’t have their sharp memories—beautiful people who could socialize and party and then sit down to write a complicated multiple-choice exam and score in the ninety percent range. 

I invited him to dinner at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend, who worked in investment and portfolio management for a public schoolteachers’ pension fund. I needed to be secretive about the invitation and dinner date, though. I told him not to tell anyone because if he found out he would kill me.

“Lynn, why are you with someone who will kill you for being with another man?”

“Because it’s the flaw in our society, it’s manly thing—because even in Toronto, even in Canada, in contemporary times, it’s what expected of boyfriends, to be overprotective of their girlfriends.” 

“And you have no problem with it?”

I didn’t explain how much I was in love with the man, despite his nagging jealousy and recurring bouts of simmering anger and paranoia, which boiled over into rages, during which he burst into violence and started breaking furniture, ripping, tearing, and cutting my clothes, and even spitting in my face, and hitting me and choking me. I didn’t want to burden him with my personal problems, my insane loves and passions; I didn’t want to explain I didn’t think I could afford to live in my own apartment. I was tired of renting basement or attic rooms from friends of friends or hard-working families, who didn’t speak English as a first language, good hard-working people with conservative lifestyles and cultural notions of privacy imported from overseas. Instead, I glossed over my own personal problems, even though I believe I had attained a certain level of intimacy with Anders.

“It’s the price you pay, if you want to keep the boyfriend who let’s you live in his big expensive apartment downtown for free.”

“You could live with me. It’s a big enough house, with three bedrooms, one I converted into an office.”

“You’d let me live with you?”

“I wouldn’t have made the invitation, if I wasn’t serious.”

“If he starts slapping me around again, I just might.”

“What?”

He was extremely disturbed to hear my boyfriend had been getting physical with me, even though I believed his psychological abuse was worse; but I tried to reassure Anders there was nothing that should leave him disturbed. Then I wished I hadn’t said anything; there was a time when I wanted our relationship to be strictly professional, since he was a generous tipper, the best customer in terms of gratuities, but that we were far past that stage and had become friends.

“Eat,” I encouraged.

We ate the best wholesome gourmet meal he had ever eaten in as long as he could remember. He took to the Madeira wine I served him, although normally he never drank, since his brother, who led him to being estranged from the rest of his surviving family, was an alcoholic, chronic, unremitting, whose abuse of alcohol eventually led to his premature demise and death. He vowed he would never take the route his brother took in life and became abstemious.

“Where did you get this Madeira? It tastes simply divine. I can’t resist its rich essence.”

“Drink up, connoisseur,” I urged and encouraged, “it came from Martim—he’s a native of Madeira. He was born on the island, but immigrated to Canada as a child. He thinks I love him because I treat him with respect. He’s a lawyer, the first person in his family ever to go to college. Despite his success, he’s abused and put down by his family, particularly his mother. He still lives with his mother and doesn’t have many friends. He doesn’t know the true meaning of friendship, so when he meets someone like me, who treats him well, he automatically falls in love. He thinks I’ve fallen for him because I show him the respect he deserves. I don’t know how to tell him how to back off and stop showering me with affection and gifts.”

“Does he do estates and wills?”

“I think he’s a jack of all trades lawyer.”

Since Anders insisted, I found myself in the awkward position of sharing personal information, Marti’s full name, phone number and business address, between friends, which, as a practice, I usually compartmentalized, and preferred to keep separate. I had to admit, though, the number of friends I had became fewer in number since I started living with my boyfriend. In fact, I carried a handbag Martim had given me, having told my boyfriend I bought the luxury accessory with tip money, and Anders happily accepted one of his business cards I found in a hidden compartment. He continued to sip the Madeira, when I invited him, slightly tipsy, into the hot tub.

“But I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”

“Naked is best,” I said.

With some encouragement and cajoling, he stripped off many layers of clothes, his blazer jacket, his cardigan, his button-down shirt, his t-shirt, and a wifebeater, and then his trousers, his pair of long underwear, his short underwear, boxer briefs—or were they cycling shorts?—and slipped into the hot tub naked beside me. He was well endowed, and when I joked “size matters,” he laughed so heartily he started sputtering and coughing, and I worried he was suffering an asthma attack or even a coronary.

“You’ve never been married?”

“No, for the umpteenth time,” he replied. 

“Why not?”

“Relationship with women have never been a priority,” he confided. He gazed directly in my eyes. “I was worried they would be a distraction or I would badly hurt a woman’s feelings.”

“You’ve so devoted yourself to the behavior and mating habits of the nearly extinct piping plover—you were married to your work—that’s the reason,” I said. “But now you’re retired.”

“Yes, I’m finished, at the endgame.” 

“And—don’t be offended—but you’ve never even had a boyfriend?” I asked.

“Why a boyfriend?”

“Sometimes boyfriends work better for men.”

“Agreed, but not this guy.”

I reached over across the hot tub to touch his private parts, but he recoiled. With my face turning crimson, I rolled back my eyes, and gazed at the poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger from “Pumping Iron,” which my boyfriend had taped to the ceiling. “Sorry,” I murmured. 

“No reason to be sorry. You’re the best,” he said, and gently touched my shoulder. “It’s like you say,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Warm water dripping from my naked flesh, I stepped out of the hot tub. With concealed pleasure, I noticed he was staring at my breasts, the soapy sudsy water dripping from my erect nipples and my pierced navel. I found the second bottle of Madeira, which my lawyer friend, my unrequited lover, had given me. I gave him the bottle of Madeira and urged him to take the fortified wine home since it was far too sweet for me.

Several weeks later, I scurried along a dark, abandoned Bloor Street, fleeing outside my apartment building past Honest Ed’s discount department store with its circus lights and bargain signs. I rushed down the side street of aging houses on Brunswick Avenue and visited Anders’ house. Earlier, Robert, ranting, raging, started slapping me. I feared he might close his fists and started hitting and punching me. Precisely that happened, as he broke one of my teeth, a molar, in the back of my mouth, near my wisdom teeth, and that was when I made the decision to flee.

“Robert was angry….” I said, my voice trailing off. 

Anders insisted on calling the police, but I seized the cordless handset from his hand and hung up the telephone, in the middle of his bumbling call. I protested the police would destroy my boyfriend’s career and reputation and disrupt and upend my life. He replied maybe my boyfriend needed to have his reputation ruined, if only as a deterrent, but he sadly acknowledged my problem.

“What triggered the whole episode?” Anders asked.

“He found out I had you over for dinner.”

“So? It was perfectly innocent.”

“But he set up a hidden GoPro camera above the hot tub and showed me the video after he started drinking.”

“You don’t need to explain.” 

Then, another time, yet again, I sought shelter at Anders’ house. In an oversized button-down shirt, cutoff denim shorts, and flip flops, I scurried out of the glow from the street lights in the drizzle, rain, and chilly wind gusts. I had bruises on my face. He again asked me if I wanted to call the police. Looking distraught, I said nothing, but when he started to dial the emergency number, I again took the phone from his hand.

Later, the police followed my boyfriend one evening, as he commuted home from an office tower in the financial district, after he had been drinking and flirting with the servers in short shorts and tight tank tops in Hooters. The police officers started questioning him, since he carried a fine bottle of vintage wine, which he shoplifted from the liquor store, in a brown paper bag from which he drank, as he commuted on the subway train to Spadina station near our apartment building. My boyfriend became even more suspicious and paranoid. He talked with his friend, my boss, who owned the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner, where I was gainfully employed as a server and maître d’. So, as if I had no choice, I felt compelled to give Anders the cold shoulder. 

Then, as Anders continued to research the stock market and financial news online, on his laptop, he noticed when he checked his e-mail, I had unfriended him on Facebook; I was perturbed, angry with everybody. But Anders was disappointed—far more than I ever expected or anticipated—I unfriended him on Facebook, at a time when he started to get the knack and gist of social media. My actions must have struck him as cruel, petty, and vindictive since I helped him set up a Facebook account, after I encouraged him to buy a smartphone.

I showed him how to set up a Facebook account, posting selfies of us together, which I snapped on his newly purchased smartphone in the bar and cafe. I gave him tips and pointers on operating the smartphone. He groused the smartphone would waste his time and money. I gently laughed since, as I subtly reminded him, he was retired, no longer preoccupied with the piping plover. Now I assumed he possessed plenty of time and money to become social with women, or if he preferred men, but, when I entered his name in the internet search engines, the extent of his devotion and research on the piping plover amazed me. 

“But I only want to be with you,” Anders said.

“I’m flattered,” I said.

One night I left my medication, antidepressants, and antianxiety medication, when I stayed over in his house on Brunswick Avenue. When he reminded me, I had forgotten my pill bottles at his house, I said, he could dispose of the medication, throw the tablets of impramine and lorazepam into the garbage. Besides, I admitted, I was trying to go pill free. I left unmentioned my fear I might sometime use the medication to harm myself or end my existence. Still, he sensed my vulnerability and trepidation, and advised me to seek counselling. He then asked me why I had unfriended him on Facebook, why I had given him the cold shoulder at work and wouldn’t speak with him at the café, which he continued to visit for early morning breakfast and evening coffee. I immediately responded to his fresh request, accepting him as a Facebook friend. He messaged me, “Can I come over?”   

That was so unlike him, taking the initiative with a woman, I said, yes. I had already told him my forever jealous boyfriend was away on business, having travelled to San Francisco to meet with the management of Silicon Valley companies in which the pension fund wanted to invest. Anders strolled his jaunty walk down Brunswick Avenue and Bloor Street West to my apartment building. I buzzed him inside the lobby through the intercom. I hugged and kissed him at the door.

He awkwardly tried to reciprocate, asking, “What happened?”

“The boss doesn’t want me chatting with you, fraternizing with you. He says it’s a distraction, affecting my productivity, but he’s close friends with my boyfriend.” I explained my boyfriend was close friends with my boss, going back to their freshman years at The University of Toronto, where they shared a room in residence and belonged to the same fraternity. Then my boyfriend helped my boss find the money to buy and run the café and diner, lending him money for the down payment, helping him obtain bank loans and lines of credit for upgrades, renovations, and operating costs. “So, he’s forever grateful. Anyway, I think my boyfriend’s jealousy has gotten the better part of him again.”

“You should leave.”

“Where will I go?”

“You can stay with me.”

We talked for hours about hope, dreams, and aspirations. Finally, he interrupted me, while I dreamed aloud about us living in a house together, in a small town, near Guelph or Peterborough, where we could enjoy the peace, quiet, the solitude, and a rural lifestyle, even a farmstead, with an apple orchard, and some goats. 

He said a certain issue was plaguing his conscience. He wanted to tell me about an incident that happened when he started as a researcher for the piping plover. The incident forever after changed his life and made him, partly, in effect, the person he was today. If he had the chance, to turn back time, he would have reversed his actions. In the early eighties, he said, he found a nesting area for the nearly extinct bird along the stretch of Hanlan’s Point Beach when he initially started his field research for his doctorate. He set up an observation blind with tripods and a thirty-five-millimeter camera, with a long telephoto lens, and rolls of high-speed color film, near the nesting area, which was clearly marked and delineated with warning signs and signs and information placards. He debated and argued with the city recreation staff about whether they should post the warnings since a park supervisor who observed plenty of vandalism on the island feared it might attract the wrong element. Then—then, he said, he realized he wasn’t ready to make a revelation. 

This issue must have been bothering him for some time, plaguing his mind. I urged him to drink more Madeira, and, eventually, he opened up to me, about the truth, leaving me astounded. After he set up an observation blind with camera near the nesting area, he observed towards sunset a solitary teenager exploring the nesting area. He assumed he was a local resident, a rare Toronto resident fortunate to find residence in a house on the island. But the youth totally disrespected and disrupted the nesting area and eggs, vandalizing the site. Angry, out of control, Anders attacked the teen, a college freshman, judging from his varsity jacket, with the tripod. He raged at the death of prospective chicks, since the delicate eggs were smashed, using physical force against the young man. When the youth retaliated and attacked him in return, he struck him badly with the heavy tripod, inadvertently injuring him, striking him in the head, knocking him unconscious. When he desperately tried to rouse him, he discovered he was dead, certainly not the outcome he desired, not what he intended. He ended up dragging and dumping the young man’s body in Lake Ontario. The youth’s death remained a mystery, although he felt a few islanders and park employees had their suspicions.

I didn’t know whether to believe him until he pulled out yellowing clippings he had glued into a scrapbook—articles from the Toronto Star, dated from the early eighties. He carried the neatly clipped and underlined and annotated articles in his leather portfolio case. 

“You see what the piping plover has meant to my life.”

How could I express skepticism and discord towards such passion and devotion? I marveled at his role as confessor and mine as confidante, yet fell asleep on his lap, as he tried to explain he was sorry for his impulsive, angry actions. When he woke in the morning, he realized he had never had a woman fall asleep on his lap before. Before he left, he carefully and quietly moved himself and gently covered me with a quilt comforter. He left me a note on the kitchen table and carried the Madeira home.  

When he arrived at his house, an hour later, at dawn, he felt serene, peaceful, blissful, grateful, and blessed for the life he had lived. He poured himself a glass of wine, the Madeira, as he sat on his comfortable chair on the porch. He swallowed the imipramine and lorazepam tablets, which I had forgotten at his house, one by one, as he sipped the entire bottle of wine leftover from our visit. He continued consuming antidepressant and anxiolytic tablets until he was drowsy and lethargic, and the wine bottle was empty. The pill bottle toppled over, spilling what little was left over of their prescribed contents. Feeling at peace, he listened to his favorite Motown songs from yesteryear on a vinyl record as the sun rose and the light flooded the patio. He drifted into a deep sleep as his finger twitched. Then his entire limbs and body flailed and convulsed in a rhythmic seizure.

When I heard from my boss Anders had passed, I had my suspicions about what happened, reinforced by the memory of the last time he saw me, about the issue plaguing his conscience. I felt cheated and at a loss; I wanted to see Anders happy; I wanted to take him to a night club and I wanted to dance with him. I thought it would be cool to make him giggle as I prodded him to smoke some pot. Time might have healed my wound and made me forget Ander’s demise, and I would have forgotten him; my experience as a server, where tips alone were sometimes enough to pay the rent, taught me there are dark and sclerotic places, scar tissue, in the most innocent hearts.

Several weeks later, Martim called me. Anders had indeed visited him, consulted him for legal advice, and drafted a will. Martim provided me with a briefing in regards to Ander’s death and his estate. Then he couriered me a copy of Anders’ last will and testament. When I took the will to Martim’s law firm, Martim told me that he felt as if he was in a conflict of interest position because he knew me personally and drafted Anders’ will. Martim urged me to seek legal advice from another firm, but he told me off the record he believed the will would pass scrutiny by a judge, in the unlikely event it ever went to court was or was challenged by a potential heir or beneficiary. He told me he had already made additional deeper inquiries, wanting to be certain no one was excluded unfairly—at least according to tradition. He went above and beyond the usual due diligence, since the circumstances were unusual. After he made further investigations, and phone calls, he discovered the retired professor had no other heirs, no surviving nieces or nephews, no cousins, nobody, who would come forward and contest the will, which he figured was valid, airtight. After probate and clearances and a decent interval, the red brick neo-Victorian house on Brunswick Avenue became my home, and Anders found a deep place even deeper in my heart.

The long-ago death of the youth, who vandalized the nesting ground of the piping plover, remained a mystery. When I tried to explain the situation to Martim he warned me to be careful and reminded me he didn’t want to hear about any cold case files. He feared I would ruin his career with my revelations. If I couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie, he urged me to find a more experienced criminal lawyer, who, he warned, would probably bankrupt me since I wouldn’t be eligible for legal aid. I realized I was severely challenging my friendship with Martim. I never mentioned the dark secret to him again. Instead, I researched the case alone extensively, tracing every lead, clue, and tip, often from blogs, databases, archives, and websites online, on the Internet. I even searched the archives and morgues of the Toronto Star, after I met a reporter who worked there, who became a regular at the Campus Circus Café & Gourmet Diner. But I could never betray the trust of my benefactor. In fact, to keep the peace Anders helped establish, I visited yet again Martim, who finally helped me with the paper work to take out a restraining order against my former boyfriend. 

Several months later, I visited Hanlan’s Point and the long narrow stretch of beach, to visit and explore the setting where Anders claimed his actions led to the inadvertent demise of the youth. I reenacted the scene he described, using a long stick of driftwood, a perfectly natural pole, I found on the beach as a substitute for the tripod. In the dawn along the lakeshore, before the sun rose above the horizon surrounding the abandoned beach, with the CN Tower barely visible through the tree line, I attempted to stage a reenactment. I went through the motions, feigning the blows he described, trying to gain some insight into his actions and the youth’s fate. As the morning progressed, I realized I had become obsessed and stopped from mental and physical exhaustion. Determined to relax and forget, I strolled to the part of the beach where I left my blanket and towel and picnic basket and backpack. I pulled off my top, since the beach was clothing optional. After I tanned and rested and felt as if my mind had cleared, I discovered I was sunburnt. I felt dry and thirsty and sipped from the chilled canned vodka cooler and juice boxes I packed, and then I became restlessness and energetic. I decided to take a stroll along the beach in direction of the island airport, near the site where Anders’ misadventure occurred decades ago. As I strolled along the shoreline, I came across what looked exactly like a piping plover, the rare, endangered, nearly extinct bird. I stalked the round, chubby bird, following along its erratic trail. I took out my smartphone and tried to takes pictures of the small bird with grey, beady eyes, and a short, stubby beak. But I could only get close enough after quietly and stealthily stalking the bird, with reddish-orangish legs, because the wide-angle sense of the smartphone and the diminishing light as sunset approached made photography difficult. I began to believe the piping plover was a reincarnation of Anders, mocking me, as he ran off and stopped, tweeting, before he jerked and jumped and scurried ahead. The bird, a dark stripe across his forehead from big beady eye to big beady eye, allowed me to approach nearly near enough with the smartphone camera before he ran and flew, taking off in abrupt short flight. Finally, when I thought I managed to take a final picture of bird I was confident was the rare, nearly extinct piping plover, it took off again. When I uploaded the pictures to my computer later that evening, no matter how I enhanced the images with photo editing software on the monitor of my desktop computer, I could never make the dark blurred images clear enough to positively identify the piping plover. I glanced at the bird identification handbook, turned to the section on the piping plover. My dripping tears blurred the blue fountain pen ink from extensive annotations in Anders’ handwriting.



John Tavares’ previous publications include short fiction published in various alternative magazines, literary journals, quarterlies, and anthologies, online and in print: Blood and Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone, Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Writing Disorder, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Round Up Writer’s Zine, The Acentos Review, Gravel, Brasilia Review, Sediments Literary Arts-Journals, The Gambler, Red Cedar Review, Writing Raw, Treehouse Arts, The Remembered Arts Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mgversion2>Datura, Riverhawk, Quail Bell, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Grey Border’s Magazine, Free Lit Magazine, Montreal Writes, Yarnswoggle, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Westview, New Reader Magazine, Event Horizon, IO literary Journal, Fishbowl Press, Otherwise Engaged Journal, Mobius, New Texas, Qwerty, Oddball Magazine, BlazeVOX, Celestal Review, Bombay Review, Nude Bruce. His short stories and creative nonfiction were published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. Following journalism studies, his articles and features were published in various local news outlets in Toronto, including community and trade newspapers like the East York Times, the Beaches Town Crier and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant.
 
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) and the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library and as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department and regional recycle association. He also worked for persons with disabilities at the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living.

Personal Essay | ‘Escape’ by Karan Madhok | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

I wore my favourite shirt on that chilly, September morning: button-up, collars, short sleeves, and coloured in a tie-dye chaos of reds, blues, greens, and oranges. My mother had purchased matching shirts of different sizes—one for me and one for my elder brother—from the Tibetan-refugee market in the Mussoorie bazaar. It was one of her many last-minute purchases before she and my father admitted us into boarding school in Mussoorie for the first time. We were left a thousand kilometres away from home. My brother was fourteen. I was ten. 

That September morning was also the day before my English exam. I put on my colourful shirt, stuffed in all the money I had—a soggy 20-rupees note—in my jeans-pocket, convinced the dormitory warden that I needed to go to class early for revision, and then, decided to enact my masterplan. 

I was going to escape from school.

 It was the mid-90s, and my parents were a middle-class couple from Varanasi, a city like many others in North India with a failed public-school system; to them, a boarding school in a Himalaya was a status symbol, a sign-post of some disposable income. The higher the income, the more extravagant the school. 

The Mussoorie Modern School, however, was low on the extravagance scale. I shared a large hall as my bedroom with 80 other elementary school kids. We were served meat once a week. All my clothes—including that tie-dye shirt—constantly smelt of mould. 

Years before my parents could even afford that boarding school, I remember being in Varanasi when I was much younger, small enough to fit standing in the space between the seat and the handle-bars of my father’s Bajaj scooter. My father sat on the seat behind me to drive the scooter, his two arms caging me in as he steered side to side and served as my protective boundary. My brother sat behind my father, his limbs wrapped in a tight embrace around my father’s waist. My mother sat behind my brother, squeezing herself into the last few inches of the seat cushion. On that two-seater scooter, the four of us were a tight, snug fit, carefully equipoised as my father drove us all forward. 

Over the next few years, I saw him graduate from owning that scooter to buying a van that carpooled me and my four cousins, to owning a couple more of his own cars, to moving our nuclear family out of the extended family home, to earning enough to send my brother and I off to boarding school in another part of the country. Like us, millions of other young Indian families rose after the economic liberalisation of the early 90s, going from lower-middle-class to middle, and then flirting with those on the upper strata, too. 

After a couple of false starts, my father had finally found business success to be able to provide us with a better education, a better life. And throughout this journey, he repeated the same adage to my brother and I, on the scooter, in the car, over the phone from Varanasi to Mussoorie. 

“This is nothing,” he would say. “You kids have to have the ambition to be better than me. To achieve much more than I have.”

A better education—studying and living away from home—was supposed to be the first step towards this future achievement. It was only years later that I understood my parents’ motivation to push us away from the comforts of home. They wanted us to have the opportunities they never had. No schools in my hometown or anywhere nearby would’ve offered that option, and they sacrificed family togetherness for our education. 

As an unhappy ten-year-old, however, I wasn’t concerned about the quality of my education or the lessons in self-sufficiency that boarding school promised. After my first two months in Mussoorie, I yearned for home, for the safety net of my parents, for my mother’s warm embrace. I wrote weekly tear-stained letters to my mother to bring me back home and sobbed with practiced self-pity in the hostel’s phone-booth whenever they called, glutinous snot forming crusts of sorrow over mouth and cheeks. They didn’t flinch, however, convinced that I would eventually settle down into my new reality.

But my parents had underestimated my ambition for freedom. It took weeks of methodical planning, and early on that morning of the English exam, when all the guards were still asleep, I ditched my classmates outside the dormitory, jumped off the ledge by the ramp rising up to the school building, fell into a steep jungle of devdar trees, muddied my favourite shirt almost instantly as I tumbled down the khud to the bottom of the hill, crawled on all fours under the barb-wire of the lower fence, and climbed over the ten-foot gate that was the final bastion of my imprisonment. 

I landed with a thud on my little feet on the road outside, ignored the pain of impact on my soles, and raced away from the school. 

I was free.

When I reached Mussoorie’s Library Bazaar twenty minutes later, the euphoria of freedom began to simmer down. I had only plotted an adroit escape out of the school’s boundary walls; but, now, with a measly twenty rupees in my pocket, how was I going to get home? A bus ticket on that budget could get me to Dehradun—a whole five percent closer to Varanasi from where I’d begun—and then leave me hungry, penniless and stuck in another unfamiliar city. 

As the sun rose into breakfast time, I decided to focus on my hunger instead. I spent all my money on packet of Lay’s potato chips and ten tablets of Hajmola candy from a store. Then, I returned to school, taking the more picturesque trekking path up, allowing the woods, the foliage, and the clean Himalayan breeze to calm me before the inevitable punishment. 

I turned myself to the guard at the main gate. A few hours later, I was back in the dormitory, where the PT Teacher unleashed a fusillade of canings on my butt, each strike delivered with his taut, efficient ferocity. I spent that evening nursing the stinging pain on my ass-cheeks, sobbing, studying for the English exam, and eating Hajmolas.  

My parents reacted more with concern than anger when they hear the story, and perhaps, my desperate act made them rethink their decision. A year later, they shifted my brother and I to a better boarding school in the same town. This one was more prestigious, cost them a lot more, and punished me with detentions instead of canings every time I bunked a class or escaped to the bazaar for lunch. 

I liked the new school, and I was older, too, suddenly weaned off from the necessity of home. I began to find my new comfort zone and a company of friends that quickly became akin to an extended family. I missed home occasionally—mostly when I craved home-food over the school’s bland rice and dal—but whenever I returned to Varanasi for the holidays, I yearned to be back in Mussoorie, to be back with friends and to my independence away from my parents. 

I spent my adolescence and teenage years all in boarding school, coming of age over seven years away from my parents. Then, I went off to college abroad, and was never homesick for Varanasi again. 

Mussoorie Modern School doesn’t exist anymore; the massive metal main gates that I used to find so intimidating as a child now stand bolted and shut. In a visit back to my old haunts recently, I recalled that day in the mid-90s again. I remembered that, days before my escape, I had approached my elder brother with my plot. He had advised me against it—but hadn’t taken my threat seriously. 

My brother didn’t run away with me that day, and I never would have expected him to. He took fewer risks than I did, and only as an adult, I understood why. Four years of separation between us meant that I had fewer years than he did on the family scooter. He viewed money as a necessity, I thought of it as a bonus. My brother listened to my father’s adage. His goals became my father’s goals: to follow in his footsteps, to learn and manage the family business, to aim to be more successful than my father was. 

I was different—and I continue to be. I looked at my father’s sudden success as an opportunity, a sort of freedom. While my elders were forced into their professions for economic survival, I could risk—with less fear of hitting rock-bottom—to follow my heart. Their ambition was out of necessity, mine could be a choice. 

So, I chose a different path that separated me from my family. I moved to a different part of the country, and later, to a different part of the world. But my parents weren’t happy with me: they blamed my education—the education they enabled—for encouraging my sense of independence and separation. It took many years for acceptance to creep in, and that process still continues today. In small doses of family reunions, my parents tolerate—somewhat—that I would be happier carving my own path than following theirs. 

When I look back, I know that my parents never changed. Their priority was always envisioning the best-possible life for us. They enacted whatever means necessary to achieve it.  

But me? I changed drastically. I was once a boy yearning to run back home. I’m now a man stubbornly running further away. And even the most ingenious plot couldn’t conspire of a way back. 


Karan Madhok is an Indian writer, journalist, and editor of the Indian Arts Review The ChakkarCurrently based in New Delhi, Karan‘s fiction, translation, and poetry have appeared in GargoyleThe Literary ReviewThe Lantern ReviewF(r)iction, and more. A graduate of the American University’s MFA programme, Karan is working on his first novel.

Poetry | ‘An Immigrant at Lake Ontario’ & one other poem by Golam Rabbani | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

An Odd Ode on the Third Skin

The third skin glows with an autistic smile.

The skin smiles
while the ego dystopic strife makes the skin blush,
creativity gives it pimples,
and the bile of Sphinx purifies it.

The skin smiles with its ornamented pointy teeth.
It turns white, brown and black with the changes of meditations.
The third skin meditates
as long as the exhibitionist mediocre rapes you through.

Genders have an infatuation with the skin.
They peel off their first skin to put on the third one.
It transforms the reptilian aura, even the lizards envy.

The skin allows them to hide
within the wreckage of sensibility,
within the chaos of divinity,
and within the delirium of intellectuality.

The third skin with its autistic smile
celebrates the hallucinations of love,
just like the green fairy.
It dives into its own glory of Yaba days.
It vaporizes the disillusionment like the smoke of weed.
Yet, crowds cheer to have the third skin and
to be the third skin.

You can see the blue veins of blood under the third skin,
the blood that changes color.
It turns red while being ambitious,
turns yellow while being traitor,
turns green while being insane,
and turns black when being celestial.

That’s how the third skin rocks and rolls.
and we dance with it.
We mimic it.
We intensify its doubts.
We laugh with its autistic smile,
and we become the smile.


An Immigrant at Lake Ontario

I smell the waves.
the wind blows through,
even though
I am in a glasshouse.

The sense of belonging
peels off the sense of past,
yet Lake Ontario
smells of Meghna.

The turbine blades of windmills
standing on the waves
cut through
the wind of memories.
But the serene waves
sing the songs of healing.

The lands, old and new,
shape and reshape the soul.
Destiny unlearns
the toxic stories of skin color
and finds the voice
in the chorus of humanity.

I smell the waves in the glasshouse.
And listen to the chorus
where
the river Meghna and Lake Ontario
sing the same tune.


Golam Rabbani is a settler immigrant of color in Canada, living in Kingston, Ontario. He grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. As an academic, he is involved in postsecondary teaching and research in Bangladesh, Belgium, and Canada for more than twelve years. At present, he is completing his PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. He holds a BA and two MAs in English literature and linguistics. His poems appeared in poetry collections, such as Monsoonletters: A Collection of Poems and 9th Edge. He is also a singer and performer trained in Baul folk music and Indian classical music. He has won SSHRC Doctoral Award in Canada, Erasmus Mundus Asia Regional Scholarship in Belgium, and numerous awards for music and performance. Details about his academic and creative contributions are available at www.golamrabbani.ca

Fiction | ‘The Naming’ by Vidya Ravi | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

It would be a short walk. One just had to step out the door, walk past the busy sounds of prayer, and find oneself in full presence of the divine, so Mr. Gopal Rajan told himself that he’d take a detour. He wanted to enjoy the early morning breeze rustling the peepal trees as he crossed the neighborhood over to the Santhome Cathedral, from where he would walk briskly along the sea, all the way to the Adyar Estuary, and back. 

Before he set out, his wife told him that he was a good man with a good heart. She said that, although she knew that when he returned, she would smell not piety upon his person but sea and salt, and the sachet of sacred ash he’d offer her would be from a vendor and not from the temple. But nevertheless, she told herself that she would ask him, upon his return, like she always did, “Did the priest do the ritual in Latha’s name?”, to which he’d reply yes. They both would then look towards the dark corridor at the back of the house, to an old room where one probably stored dusty furniture or defunct appliances that one didn’t have the heart to throw away. She would sigh and say that someday she would join him on his walk, but for now someone had to be home at all times, for Latha’s sake.

There’d been a storm the night before, and the sea was a study in contrasts. The breakers were stirring, while the Bay of Bengal, extending to a far horizon, was a sheet of glass. The fisherfolk were up and about later than usual. Mr. Rajan watched the strong, dark men arranging nets, dragging their catamarans, muscles straining with effort, pulling wet ropes and hauling heavy sails as they prepared themselves to go out onto the watery expanse. Mr. Rajan found himself wondering why Rama summoned monkeys to cross to Lanka when he could have done just as well with these fisher-people who looked like they could swim the Palk Strait with Rama’s entire army on their backs. 

When the men and their boats had gone, he walked some more and thought of how wonderful it would be to walk in the Theosophical gardens that ran along the banks of the estuary, to see how the mangroves, short and hardy like the fisherfolk, had withstood the storm of the night before. In his youth, he’d swum across the narrow bay where the Adyar river met the sea. In more recent years, a narrow sandbar had formed, bridging this stretch at low-tide. But he had little hope. After a storm such as this, it was likely the tide was high, the breakers restless, and he had little chance of wading or swimming across. He thought of his wife at home, and Latha, and wondered what would happen to them should he be pulled out on a rip tide and forever lost to the sea, or flushed into the river by the waves and drowned in the sluggish waters, heavy with sewage, of the Adyar river. 

His plan was to walk to the end of the beach, look across the bay at the mangroves growing on the other side, at the continuation of the sands beckoning to him like in a dream, then turn back. But to his surprise he saw a strip of the sandbar, a soon-to-disappear island, water lapping at it from all sides. And there was something on it. Someone had been there that very morning, earlier than him, for there, deposited in a heap was something bright and colorful, not trash but a prized possession, perhaps a ladies’ bag or a shawl that had been forgotten there by its owner. Mr. Rajan was feeling brave. He loved the world then and wanted to rescue this left item from the mercy of the waves, and return the object to the rightful person.

The sea was deeper than he expected. Before he knew it, the water was up to his thighs, and although he hitched the cuff of his trousers as high as was decently possible, he felt the garment become heavy as he waded across, and he worried about a sudden shelf appearing on the seafloor. He traveled inch by inch to the sandbar, growing steadily more ashamed at the thought of the hardy fishermen who were by then probably a mile away from solid ground, bracing themselves against the elements, while he couldn’t even keep his fear of danger at bay when there was a mere 20 feet of thigh-deep water to traverse. 

 He was so focused on the crossing, and on his fear, that he failed to look up at the object that had beckoned him over in the first place. When he finally planted his feet on the sand above water, he saw staring up at him a young girl crouching on the sand, her elbows on her knees. She was dressed in cheap bright colors, which was why he’d mistaken her for an item of clothing, and she had a smirk on her face as if she’d read his humiliation, his self-hatred at the cowardly way in which he’d crossed the short strip of shallow sea. 

But by then, all sense of self had fled Mr. Rajan, who exclaimed loudly at the sight. What was a child doing there, all alone, with the waves threatening to engulf her any minute? Had her mother tragically drowned? Had God himself pulled this girl from the sea and deposited her here at an opportune moment to be found by him? He didn’t know how old she was, for that skill at guessing children’s ages was not available to him, now that his own child was grown and he was without any grandchildren to speak of. He fell to his knees, no longer worried about his wet trouser cuffs or his wife waiting at home or Latha behind the padlocked door or even of the sea carrying him away should he remain on the fast-disappearing sandbar a moment too long. He scooped the girl into his arms and, somewhere in his subconscious, registered that her body was painfully thin and weighed nothing more than a shred of thin cotton fabric flapping in the wind. As unhesitating as he’d been gingerly, he hurried back to the Foreshore Estate beach and to the fishermen’s village to return the child to its family. 

All these years of beach-walking, he’d barely glanced at the settlement, keeping his face turned towards the sea, but now he noticed a row of huts punctuated by some modest dwellings and, rising behind the beach promenade which was lined with rubbish heaps and seafood stalls, towers of shabbily-built community housing, a vertical slum. There were no trees, the only green in sight being a small church painted the color of pistachio ice cream.  Some of the boats were already back, owing to the choppy seas, and the women folk were mending nets, sharpening knives, preparing the catch to be sold at the market. At first no one took notice of this Brahmin running towards them, carrying a small, bright object and flailing wildly, although it was rare that men like Mr. Gopal Rajan ventured into their midst. But once they recognized him as the man who walked past their village every morning and saw the bundle in his arms for it was, they shook their heads. 

None of them had laid their eyes on this girl before. The child didn’t understand Tamil, which meant she was not one of theirs. Maybe another colony would know, someone said, gesturing north, then south. The girl could be from anywhere. She could be anyone, the product of an illicit relationship, a child placed here by the beggar mafia, a burden that a poor, migrant family had cast away, a victim of sex trafficking, a runaway from abuse. There were so many reasons why a girl child would be abandoned in this country, someone said.

 Mr. Rajan looked around him at the squalor, the discarded fish scales, bloody entrails, and little sea creatures writhing on fishing nets. The admiration he’d had for the hardiness of the fishermen turned not to pity, for he wasn’t so outside caste society to feel anything so alien as pity. But what he saw was the evidence of a hard life, a life different from his own. It revolted him, but then again, hadn’t Gandhi himself marched to the sea and sifted evaporated salt with his bare hands? 

He imagined the fisherfolk shaking their heads, unwavering in their belief that he would exercise his birthright, passed down by ancient law and still operational in the minds of many. Wouldn’t the girl would be better off with him than she would be at any orphanage? So many girls, unwanted. Wouldn’t God punish him for sending another one to the same fate? He would continue looking for her family, but the chance to bestow upon her his home, his family, his caste even, why, that would beat a lifetime of visits to the temple. So taken he was by his plan that he didn’t consider what bringing this child into his household would mean for him and his wife, that there would be two helpless creatures in need of care. Latha was far from his worries when he, with joy in his heart and lightness in his step, walked home, the child beside him, her hand in his, ready to present to his wife not offerings from the temple this time, but their new ward, their new everything in the world. 

***

Even Mrs. Rajan couldn’t guess the age of the girl. She was small as a whisper and seemed to have no language to call her own, so they put her down to two, maybe three years old. Yet her large, knowing eyes were the eyes of an adult, the way they quietly observed the couple as they went about their day, how they bore into Mr. Rajan as he sat and read his paper, or how they followed Mrs. Rajan as she was fixing to go for her morning bath. But it didn’t seem to matter. They’d made up their minds that they would care for her for however long they were allowed to, to not have her want for anything in the world. 

But they kept some distance, if not between themselves and the girl, then between themselves and the idea that she was all theirs. Mrs. Rajan told the maid servant that it was a cousin’s granddaughter visiting for some weeks, and the old woman, who seemed to have little interest in anything beyond relieving the pain in her knees and her monthly salary, took little notice of the child. They didn’t allow the girl to leave the house even for a second. They told her it was to protect her from the sun, but actually they were fearful that neighbors might enquire about her and that the authorities would be notified. So the child spent all day indoors, where she was plied with toys and games and television—all kinds of distractions to ensure that she wouldn’t feel the need to go looking for pastime elsewhere. 

The truth was that there wasn’t much the Rajans had to do to keep the child’s presence a secret, so used they were to this sort of thing. But they told themselves that they were not trying to hide her like one would a hostage, held under lock and key, a silent victim in a corner of the house. After all, Mr. Rajan still took his beach walk every morning looking for answers. He nodded to the fisherfolk as he passed by, in the understanding that they had been inadvertently complicit in his decision to adopt, albeit informally, the child. He dropped in at the police station and checked thoroughly the missing persons report, not only for Mylapore but for the whole of Chennai. Every morning, after he’d come home, his wife would ask him, “Did you find out anything about the child?”, and he’d reply, “No, not today.”

The girl passively accepted all that was happening to her. She was quiet and tiptoed about the house, trying to make her presence unnoticed. She didn’t utter a word, as if afraid to let the sound of her voice carry in the air. She wouldn’t even say her name when they pressed her to, so they reluctantly continued calling her “child”, superstitious as they were to not give her a name of their own choosing lest one day her real parents came looking for her and they’d have to give her up. They’d wait to name her, they agreed, till she was fully and forever theirs. 

In a way, they were glad for the child’s quietness, for that meant they could keep her separate from Latha. Mrs. Rajan still entered the corridor that was kept in the dark, she still opened the Godrej lock barring the steel door and let herself in to clean or air or change the bedding, but all concern for Latha, all the fretting done all those years, faded. It was true that since the arrival of the girl, life within the four walls of their home had taken on a new meaning for them. Every morning, Mrs. Rajan bathed her in sandalwood and rose water and dressed her in fresh, sweet-smelling clothes. They worried about her thinness, so they encouraged her to drink cups of warm milk sweetened with honey and fed her almond cakes and creamed rice. They made a bed for her in their own room should she be visited by night terrors in the middle of her sleep and need a comforting touch. They wanted to right whatever wrong had been done to her in the past and hoped to erase any unpleasant memory. 

By and by, the child started to change. Her eyes lost the haunted look, and when she started gaining fat around her middle, on her thighs, on the apples of her cheeks, she started resembling a chubby toddler. She also started making sounds in a language of her own. There were giggles and chortles, and soon her feet could be heard pitter-pattering around the house. Mr. and Mrs. Rajan delighted in the change, joyful to have a baby they could pull into their arms and rain their kisses upon. They were given a chance again to love a creature and mold it to their own liking, in their own image, and this time they weren’t going to let anything go wrong. 

As days passed, Mr. Rajan stopped roving the beach listening for news of a missing child. He felt that if he stopped looking for the child’s parents, they would stop looking for her. Mrs. Rajan wanted to name her and had some names picked out, and once they felt comfortable enough that she wasn’t going away anywhere, he resolved to bring her out of the house, to introduce her to neighbors as a child they’d adopted, perhaps from a faraway place like Bihar or Jharkhand. Perhaps they could even make some legal documents appear, but it would probably have to be through paying some fat bureaucrat a hefty bribe so as to bury the fact that he’d actually abducted her (it was debatable whether Mr. Rajan thought of himself as a kidnapper, but he was aware that what he had done was illegal, even if his own sense of moral law had ordained him to do so). And once that was done, the girl could start school, make friends, come home with stories of how her day was as she sat with them and ate her dinner. While the road to that life lived in the open felt long, they were confident that they could achieve that with focused effort, and just from the fact that they wanted it so much. 

Meanwhile the child was growing up. She became curious, feisty, like children who get a lot of care and love often are, and she started exploring the house with some gusto. She got into Mr. Rajan’s drawers and scattered paper clips all over the floor, opened Mrs. Rajan’s closet and pulled out all the saris, let herself into the bathroom and splashed water everywhere so that all the towels were found sopping wet. Her antics only brought smiles to Mr. and Mrs. Rajan’s faces, slightly teary-eyed smiles, and they told themselves to enjoy this phase, that it wouldn’t last for long. 

But something worried them about the child’s adventurous mind, her roving feet. It was the fear that one day she would discover the dark corner of the house. Although Mrs. Rajan kept the steel door under lock and key, she worried that the child might slip into the room during unguarded minutes. Mr. Rajan once caught her wandering alone in the corridor that they deliberately kept unlit, to ward off any spying eyes. He gave a start to hear a sound behind him, thinking the worst, but it was only the girl, feeling her way by touching the walls around her and inching towards the locked door. He swooped quickly towards the child, picked her up in his arms and nearly gave her a smack to warn her of the danger. He shuddered to think what would happen to their precious little girl. 

Children being what they are, the girl’s curiosity only increased with this admonishment. Mrs. Rajan caught her the following week back in that corridor. This time, the girl had made it to the door and was fingering the latch. She lifted the heavy brass Godrej padlock and let it fall back onto the door, and Mrs. Rajan jumped from the unearthly clang of metal upon metal, and felt her soul escaping her body. She fell upon the girl, placed her onto her hip and ran into the main, well-lit part of the house, happy that there had been no reaction to the sound, yet her pulse racing like the devil itself had been chasing after her. 

The child, clever to the reactions of these two people, caught on to the game. She ventured into the dark part of the house whenever she had the chance, for in her mind, the richest of sweets, the prettiest of silks, the most coveted toys were all stashed in there. She learned that Latha was in possession of these precious things and felt mounting resentment to the person who lived behind that door and was given the most delectable things in life. Perhaps Latha got laddoos and halwa for every meal whereas she was only allowed boring things like rice and vegetables and lentils, and Latha was presented with a new sequined silk dress every day while she wore simple cotton. Why, couldn’t she start calling herself Latha? That ought to make the people understand that she deserved no less than Latha, that they were equal and should be treated the same, fair’s fair.

Imagine Mr. and Mrs. Rajan’s distress when the girl started referring to herself as Latha! They wondered how she got that name into her head and panicked, thinking that at some unsupervised moment, the two girls might somehow have communicated through the closed door. They wondered what had been said. They blamed themselves for not having named her much sooner, and started calling her Shanti, peace, for that’s what they wished for her. But the little girl’s mind was set. She refused to take to this unasked-for name, for now she was Latha. “Latha wants ice cream”, she said, leaving her lunch untouched on her plate and fixing her eyes upon the two adults. “Latha wants the party dress,” she insisted when Mrs. Rajan tried to put a cotton frock over her head. “Latha wants to watch more TV,” was her response when they tried to coax her to go to bed. How horrifying they found this appellation! Did that mean that nothing in their life had changed? To avoid feelings of discomfort, they let her have whatever she wanted, and that reinforced the girl’s conviction that whoever was named Latha got everything good in life, whereas the unnamed were cheated out of what was their due. 

No one knew how it happened. Perhaps it was a moment of forgetfulness, a misplaced key, a loose screw in the latch. Mr. Rajan was out that day buying a new toy for the child Latha, for by now the girl’s chosen name had more or less stuck, and a box of the buttery almond squares she liked so much. Mrs. Rajan was alone at home, the servant having left after her chores, and she hummed to herself as she prepared the morning meal. Latha, she knew, was splayed out on the living room floor practicing her ABC’s that Mrs. Rajan had started teaching her. She felt that since Latha had started getting what she wanted whenever she asked for it, the girl’s fascination with the dark corner of the house had waned. Mrs. Rajan was starting to relax and let the child be on her own for short but regular times during the day to instill a sense of confidence and self-worth, all of which she felt would serve her well when she started school. 

She kept telling herself that it was only a matter of time before they could venture out with Latha, take her to the cinemas, sit with her at a restaurant and order tomato soup with fresh cream for her, even bring her to all the famous music recitals and tell their friends of the precious gift God had bestowed upon them in their middle age. But until then, the girl, like her predecessor, had to remain indoors, just as they themselves were forced to.  

Mrs. Rajan, thinking of the two Lathas, suddenly noticed that no sound was coming from the living room. A slow sickness came upon her and she raced through the house, entering the corridor that looked like a long, musty canal in the dead of the night. The worst had come to pass. She saw that the steel bars were opened, the door ajar. A slim sliver of pale light shone forth, illuminating the shadows around her. She didn’t know whether to run and barge into the room or to creep forward noiselessly, both seemed impossible in this situation, but she somehow made it across to the other side, and, for a split second, an unexplained second, the curiosity of a bystander overwhelmed her human concern for the safety of the child. She peered in, unnoticed, into the room, and the terror of what she saw would stay with her for the rest of her life. 

When Mr. Rajan came home later that morning, he saw the child Latha on the floor, still with her pencils and papers. She sat tracing out the outlines of the alphabets and he felt proud of her abilities. There was a sense of delight in his heart as he bent down in front of her, about to share the presents he’d brought home, when he saw the ashen face of his wife confront him from across the room. Just looking at her, he saw what she’d seen, he knew what had happened, and an unspoken exchange coursed between them, and he knew what he had to do. 

***

The beach in the mid-day sun is not a place where anyone wants to be. Mr. Rajan, though, kept walking, determined to make it past the fishing village, to the end of the strand where land met the waters of the estuary. None of the fisherfolk were in sight, and he imagined that the men at this late hour had come back with their wares, that the women had sold whatever they would sell for that morning and then had closed up shop. He dragged the girl along, and she ran behind him breathless and confused as to why she was pulled out of the cool, comfortable home to go wandering about in the heat under a cloudless sky. If she recognized anything about the place, she gave no clue of it, and simply said, “Where are we going, Appa? Why are we here?” That was the first time she’d called him father, and Mr. Rajan’s heart broke. He wanted more than anything to wrap her in his arms and tell her that it would all be alright. 

When they reached the edge of the beach, he picked the girl up and waded with her across to the sandbar. The water barely tickled his ankles and he felt they had some time to figure things out before the tide rolled in. He set the girl down where he’d found her all those months ago and wondered with astonishment how she seemed to have no recollection of the spot, no memories whatsoever of anything except of the life she’d been leading with him and his wife, and of the dark corner of their home where the other Latha was kept. How was that possible, even in such a young child, that she would not remember? 

He got down on his knees and held her by the shoulders, marveling at how much they had fleshed out since he’d felt them, bird-like, under his hands, at this very place. He looked into her eyes and said, “Latha, tell me. Where do you come from? Is your home that way?” He pointed north-west, to the fishermen’s colony, and she nodded and pointed in the same direction. He breathed a sigh of relief. So, she was one of them after all. He’d solved the mystery. But he felt he had to try something else. “Is your home that way?” he asked again, pointing, this time, south, towards Besant Nagar beach, and Latha nodded again and pointed there along with him. “Is it there?” he asked, pointing to the mangroves, and he got the same reaction. “Is it there?” he pointed back to where they’d come from. “Is your home there?” and she nodded. “Yes.” Finally, he pointed towards the wide waters of the Bay of Bengal. “Is that your home?” and she laughed, said yes, and held her hands out to the sea. 

She soon grew tired of the game, as children tend to do. She shrugged from his grasp, sat on her haunches and started digging in the sand, taking great wet handfuls and piling mounds upon mounds to make some towering structure—a wasted effort, he thought looking at her. It would soon dissolve when the waters moved in. A great weariness coursed through him just then and he straightened. He knew that they’d have to leave this place soon, leave before everything from all corners of the world came crashing at their feet.


Vidya Ravi is a writer. Her work has appeared in Slow Trains, in the Bangalore Review, and, most recently, in the Spring 2020 issue of Out of Print magazine. She spoke at an event organized by the Bangalore International Centre on writing sexuality in contemporary India, and her story in Out of Print will appear as part of a short story anthology later this year. She has a doctorate in English literature from Cambridge and worked in academia for several years; however, she is currently training to teach high school English. Vidya is from Chennai, India, but is based in Bern, Switzerland.

Poetry | ‘Miriam’ & 2 other poems by Sujash Purna | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

Miriam

She is a mystery
with her belly out on her bean bag.
She tells me:
“I got almost raped by the guy
I met at the orientation
and dated for a month or so.”

I shouldn’t have bent her fender
when I knew that the grocery bags
from Walmart would be awkwardly
staring at us, when we didn’t have
anything more to say.

An intruder from the pages
of Truman Capote,
she allows other Miriams like her in my room
to haunt her and take her space,
to take her place;
they sit with me to paint with watercolors,
let out post break-up angst over coffee cups
full of pinot noir. I remember once

Miriam took a jumbo pitcher of sangria
from the bottom shelf,
breaking the residence rules of her dorm.
Watercolor paintings slept in around her shelves
full of dead writers and haiku books.
The tiny hearts around Basho’s words
screaming her love that hides behind.

In Kansas City, they say, she is a great bar-
tender now, tending old folks with grey
Boulevard Pale Ale, sprinkling mustache.
Sparkled eyes see her glide underwater,
under a sea out from time and society-
she doesn’t age after all these years.
Through the crystal rocks of ice
you can see she is
in your room after all these years
behind these words, Miriam.


Clotilde

I feel sick all day long from not being with you,
I just want to go out every night for a while — AIR

Chesterfield cigarettes turn into Marlboro,
for the pursuit of their American dream.
The two French girls
set up the only olfactory battle on the air
between the garam masala flavored chicken curry
and their French perfume.
They cook chicken curry in France too,
just the way I do.
Only they add sour cream in it. Says
the girl with the hardest to say name,
with a silver bracelet made back in Paris.

They tell me the French say cats and dogs are a cowboy’s lasso,
when they talk about heavy rain in the land of Gaul.

The girl with the hardest name
and the silver bracelet eats
with her hands for the first time,
rice and chicken curry on her plate,
and as her jeweled fingers clasped
a cube or two maybe,
as Renoir’s love walks
out from the frame.


Green Genteel

She wore green;
green lipstick,
green eyeliners lining green,
eye lashes deigning a mien,

quiet, a glass of water
in hand, she looks around
the room full of bastards
and godly children.

She decides not to judge
just as her water
genteel she keeps
in her green.

On St. Paddy’s Day
she remembers him
then she leans in
forward and grins

at a selfish me.
I am sorry but listen
I have to be in
the house by fifteen

I will keep the water
I say.
I need to hydrate
I say.

She keeps herself still
and silent
just as if her water
and she

swapped
their skins.
A green genteel
both coloring.


Bangladeshi-born Sujash Purna is a graduate student at Missouri State University. A poet based in Springfield, Missouri, he serves as an assistant poetry editor to the Moon City Review. His poetry appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Kansas City Voices, Poetry Salzburg Review, English Journal, Stonecoast Review, Red Earth Review, Emrys Journal, Prairie Winds, Gyroscope Review, and others. His chapbook collection Epidemic of Nostalgia is coming out soon from Finishing Line Press.

Fiction | ‘Mixtape’ by Vrinda Baliga | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

“Here Chotu, xerox everything up to the folded page. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Keep it ready.” 

The student slapped the notebook down on the counter without as much as looking at Sunil and rushed out to catch up with his friends. 

Sunil frowned at the pages full of sloppy, spidery handwriting. The student had obviously skipped class, but couldn’t he have at least got some better notes to copy? He opened the lid of the photocopier, pressed the notebook flat on the glass and pressed the copy button. With a click and a whirr, the machine came to life. With practiced ease, he offered A4 sheets into the machine’s maw, which it regurgitated, covered with mathematical formulae and equations. 

In the background, a popular Hindi track was playing: 

“Dil hai ke maanta nahin…Mushkil badi hai rasm-e-mohabbat yeh jaantaa hi nahi…”

It was a slow melodious number, but one would never have guessed, playing as it was at comic speed on the shop’s dual-deck tape recorder. The shop was L-shaped and the back was an alcove whose walls were lined with audio cassettes—Bollywood songs, ghazals, bhajans, some international pop and rock. There was always music playing in the shop, except you couldn’t actually listen to it, since it was always running in high-speed dubbing mode, being copied to the blank tape in the other deck. 

Up front, along the side wall was a row of benches leading up to a small glass-paneled phone booth, where every evening, students lined up to make STD calls back home. The STD booth, the photocopy machine, the cassette alcove, and the milkshake counter near the entrance manned by his mother– these formed the four branches of their family business, all run from within the confines of the 800-sq-ft shop. His father had planned the enterprise well, meaning for each element to complement the others. The students coming to photocopy notes or call home would inevitably order a milkshake or be tempted into buying the latest audio cassette.  At twelve years, Sunil was already as adept at handling all four businesses as his parents. He enjoyed working in the shop after his school hours. Through the long summer months, the university campus had lain silent and deserted but for the occasional elderly resident professor riding along on his bicycle at a glacial pace that seemed to suit the mood of the slumbering campus. But now at last, a new semester had begun, the students were back, and the campus was abuzz with voices and laughter and heckling and fun and games and all manners of activity again.

“Excuse me, can you please copy the first chapter of this book?” 

Sunil glanced up at the slightly accented Hindi. A South Indian. And the polite tone only meant one thing. “First year?” he asked. It never lasted, that tone. Soon, the first-years too would be calling him “Chotu” and ordering him about with proprietorial tones. 

The bespectacled boy who stood at the counter nodded absently, looking around nervously. New students often had hunted look, always on the lookout for predators – the seniors, whose main recreation during the first months of the new academic year was ragging juniors.   

Sunil took the book. “Microprocessors. This is fourth year, no? Why do you want to copy it?”

The boy looked at him in surprise, and Sunil felt a twinge of smug satisfaction. His memory trick always caught them by surprise the first time. Now he had the fellow’s full attention. 

“It’s not for me,” the boy said. “You know this book?” 

“I know them all,” Sunil said grandly. “First-year or fourth-year, every book on campus comes here once at least in its lifetime to be Xeroxed.” 

The boy smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Vikas. I’m studying Computer Engineering here.”

Sunil shook his hand, feeling important. “Sunil,” he said. He wondered how long the boy would bother to remember the name. Most didn’t. ‘Chotu,’ the all-purpose name for any kid his age, sufficed for them. He hated the name. 

He finished with the notebook and began photo-copying the first chapter in the Microprocessors book. 

Vikas strolled over to the back of the shop and gazed at the stacks of audiotapes in the wall racks in the alcove. 

“Quite a collection you’ve got here,” he said. 

“They’re all for sale,” Sunil called from the photocopy machine. “Or you can choose songs, and we can record a mixtape also for you.” 

“Nice…” Vikas said, busy browsing through the cassettes and plucking out a few to check the songs listed on the back cover. 

“Hey, there he is! Fresher, come here!” 

Vikas spun around and Sunil saw him visibly blanching. He turned and sighed inwardly when he saw them—Siddharth Arora and his cronies, Rishi and Purab. Over the past three years, these three had built themselves quite a notoriety around campus. They liked nothing better than to pick on nerdy toppers, easily identifiable from their ID numbers which were based on their ranks in the entrance exam. Other seniors soon tired of ragging and often became good friends with the juniors they had ragged, guiding them and helping them find their way around campus life. But with these three it was different—they hooked onto some poor soul and hounded him all year just for laughs, until the next year when some other unfortunate newcomer would replace the victim.

***

The older boys went over to the back and surrounded Vikas. Rishi smacked Vikas on back of his head, knocking his spectacles awry. 

“Hey Sid, didn’t you give the boy some work to do?”

“Sure, I did. And here he is, loitering around like a useless duffer.”

“So, what should we do with him?” 

“I…,” Vikas stuttered, pointing vaguely at the photocopier. “I came for that only…”

 “So, you’re saying we’re wrong?” Siddharth knocked him on the head again. “You’re not a useless duffer?” 

Vikas kept his eyes on the ground. 

“Okay, I suppose we should remind you once again about the three golden rules of this great institution?”

“I r-remember.”  

“Good! Recite them for us, fresher. Let’s hear them. Rule number one?”

“Seniors are always right,” Vikas mumbled. 

“Louder, please. I can’t hear you.”

“Seniors are always right.” Vikas said.

“That’s better. Rule number 2?”

“Juniors are always wrong.” 

“Correct. And Rule number three?”

“What’s going on here?” Sunil’s father had entered the shop. He headed towards the back, looking at the boys warily. “I’ve told you before. I want no trouble in here.” 

“Yes, sir, Sharmaji!” Sid said, giving him a mock salute. “No trouble, Sharmaji! We’re just having a friendly chat here.”

“Then take your ‘friendly chat’ out of my shop,” Sunil’s father said. 

Sid sighed dramatically, then stood aside and swept his arm towards the entrance of the shop with a flourish. “After you, fresher.” 

They followed a terrified-looking Vikas to the entrance of the shop. 

“I didn’t quite catch Rule number 3,” Sid said, prodding him from behind. 

“When in doubt, refer to Rules 1 and 2,” Vikas muttered. 

“Good!” Sid plucked a glass of milkshake from the counter and upended it on Vikas’s head. “Remember not to answer back next time.” 

***

Sunil had always been told that the year he’d been born – 1982 – had been lucky for the town. That, in his opinion, should have made him the most important person in town. However, that position belonged to A.K. Agarwal, the late multi-millionaire industrialist whose traced his humble origins to the town. For a long time, however, all that had existed of that connection had been the Purani Haveli, the family mansion, on a sprawling estate, both going to ruin from neglect because the Agarwal family was now spread all over the globe and rarely visited their ancestral village. But the year Sunil was born, the family had decided to donate the estate to a deemed university they wished to start in their father’s name. The foundation had been laid when Sunil was a suckling infant, and by the time he was a toddler, several department blocks had come up and the first students were starting to arrive. Over the last decade, the university and its prestige had grown by leaps and bounds, the most popular being its affiliated engineering college that had always managed to stay at the cutting edge of technological advances. It was one of the first in the country to introduce a new degree course in the foundling field of Computer Engineering a couple of years ago, and students flocked to it from all over the country. 

The university had changed the fortunes of the town, too. It had morphed from a modest agricultural village into a bustling town, growing around the university and catering to its myriad needs. Sunil’s family had benefited too. The university marketplace was just coming up – a dozen or so shops in a corner of the campus that catered to the food, tailoring, grocery, stationery, and other needs of the students in the university hostels. Sunil’s father, who had hitherto eked a living working a few rocky acres of land, had sold the unproductive land and with the money from the sale, he had taken up the lease on a shop in the market square. He had been running the shop successfully for more than eight years now, and Sunil had been helping for the last four. 

Yellow mustard fields stretched out on both sides, as Sunil walked down a narrow lane from school on his way to the shop, whistling a tune from the latest Bollywood hit Baazigar. The cassette had arrived at the shop a few weeks back with the latest stock his father had ordered. And Sunil had listened to it incessantly till the movie itself had finally arrived in town to be screened at the small makeshift theatre rather grandly called Sri Hanuman Talkies. The theatre essentially consisted of a projection screen and a few rows of plastic chairs, and was run in a pretty ad-hoc manner by Surajchand chacha. Tickets were priced at Rs.15 each (The usual price was ten rupees, but this movie commanded a premium because it was a box-office hit). Sunil had been delighted to have gotten front-row seats for the movie, but minutes before the movie started, people started streaming in, bringing their own chairs. Surajchand chacha was happy to let them in as long as they bought a ticket, and by the time the movie had started, there were three new rows of seats in front of Sunil, blocking his view of his favourite star, Shah Rukh Khan. 

Sunil was shaking his head at the grave injustice, when he spotted a familiar figure wheeling a cycle up on the road ahead. 

He hurried to catch up. “Vikas bhaiyya, what are you doing here?” 

“Sunil!” Vikas said. “You gave me a start!” 

Sunil was happy to note Vikas still remembered his name. 

“I had just come up here to do some reading,” Vikas said. “But then, it looks like my cycle tyre had a puncture. All the air’s gone.”  

Sunil wondered why he had to come all the way out here to the fields to read when he had the entire campus to do it. But he kept silent. 

“Are you going to the shop?” Vikas asked. “Then, you’re just the person I wanted to meet.” With his free hand, he pulled out a sheet of paper. “I’d been planning to come to the shop for a mixtape, but now that you’re here, can I just give you the list?” 

Sunil took the list and looked at it. “Forty rupees for an empty cassette, and fifteen rupees for recording,” he said. “The forty rupees for the cassette has to be paid in advance.” 

Vikas nodded, fumbling in his pocket for his wallet. “Do you have all these songs?” 

Sunil looked at the sheet. “I know only Hindi songs,” he said. 

Vikas looked at him. “Those are Hindi songs.” 

“Oh,” Sunil said, reddening a little. “But they’re written in English.”

“You can’t read?” Vikas asked, surprised.

“Of course I can,” Sunil retorted, with a flash of anger. “I can read Hindi perfectly. That’s what they teach at school.” 

“Of course, of course,” Vikas said quickly. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that…in the shop, you knew the books…”

 Sunil looked away, still red-faced. “I know them by the covers.” 

“You know the names of all the books, and which course they’re for, and in which year the course is taught?” Vikas asked, amazed. 

Sunil shrugged. “I’ve grown up around those books. I see them all the time.” 

Vikas gave him a long look. Sunil walked on in silence. Vikas knew he had hurt the boy’s feelings but didn’t know what he could do to make things right. They had reached the campus gates by then. On an impulse, he said, “Have you seen all the university buildings?” 

“I’ve known them since the time they were being built.” 

“But now? From the inside?” 

Sunil shook his head. “My father says to stay away from them and not cause trouble.” 

Vikas grinned. “But would you like to see? I can take you.” 

Sunil’s eyes brightened. He nodded eagerly. 

“Come on, then.” 

It was the first time Sunil had entered the main university blocks. They seemed like a portal into a different world. 

Everywhere there were vast, dignified spaces, walls covered with the words and pictures of the wise, and it seemed like every nook sported some model or sculpture. And the library! Three levels of wood-paneled rooms, their walls all lined with books. Sunil gazed at them, in wonder. To think he had lived in the vicinity of all this all his life, and never been aware of its existence! 

The classrooms were nothing like the ones in his school either. They passed one which had seats rising on all sides around a semi-circular dais where a professor was explaining something Sunil couldn’t comprehend. 

“That’s one of the popular courses,” Vikas whispered, as they walked past. Sunil’s eyes lingered on the rapt students. The seating reminded him of the movie theatre he had once been to in Delhi with his parents. And he had always assumed that it was only at movies that people paid attention like that. It had never occurred to him that studies could be so interesting too.

Vikas smiled, seeing him pivot this way and that and take everything in. “You can come in here anytime, you know. If anyone asks you questions, just say you have some delivery for Professor Alok Pandey. No one will stop you then.” 

Sunil grinned. Everyone knew Professor Pandey. He was among the senior-most professors on campus, involved in every major management committee. He was also Chief Warden of the university hostels. Known for his no-nonsense strictness and mercurial temper, he was feared by students and staff alike. Not many would believe Sunil if he told them the Red Panda, as he was nicknamed by the students, was a music lover. Certainly, it was hard to imagine him listening to Rafi or yodeling with the Kishore Kumar cassettes he purchased at the music shop. 

They now came to a set of blocks with labs—Electromechanical lab, Digital electronics lab, and on and on— large rooms filled with machines and gadgets and electronics and all sorts of equipment. 

“Mine is the newest block,” Vikas told him. 

Everything about the Computer Science block looked new and shiny, air-conditioned unlike the other blocks. But when they reached the lab, the security guard outside gave Sunil one look and said stoutly, “Only students allowed inside.” 

Sunil glared at him. The man lived in the village, an acquaintance of his father. 

“He’s with me,” Vikas protested. “He only wants to see what it’s like. We won’t take more than a minute.”

The guard would not budge. “Only students,” he repeated. “That’s the rule.”

Vikas sighed and led Sunil back outside. “You know, the days when technology could be fettered and kept within four walls are fast coming to an end,” he said. “Things are going to be very different very soon. The world is going to be different. Computers will break all barriers and emerge from these closed-off labs and into the hands of ordinary people. Just you wait and see.” 

Sunil looked at Vikas, noting how his face changed as he spoke of technology, the passion palpable in his tone. 

Could it really be true, what he was saying? 

They walked down a tree-lined avenue towards the hostel blocks, Vikas still wheeling his cycle. Sunil was familiar with the hostels since he often came to deliver mixtapes and photocopied notes to the students’ rooms. The hostel blocks were all named after thinkers and philosophers. But if the university blocks were spic and span, the hostels were anything but. The corridors were littered with buckets, basketballs, cricket bats, shoes and what-not, and the rooms were usually the same, if not worse. 

They passed a graffiti-covered compound wall of one of the boys’ hostels. 

“What does it say?” Sunil asked. 

Vikas glanced at the wall.  

Born Free—my dad’s an obstetrician.

I can change the world, just give me the source code. 

Schrodinger’s Cat—Wanted Dead or Alive. 

Hey girls! You don’t have to be nuts to ask us for a screw—

“Um, nothing important,” he said. “Come, my hostel’s that way.” 

But by the time they reached Vivekananda Hostel, Sunil noticed that Vikas’ mood had darkened perceptibly. His infectious sense of wonder and excitement during the campus tour was gone, and the hunted look was back in his eyes. 

***

Sunil sat at the small desk near the STD booth, doing his homework. 

“Dad, really, I need the money urgently for a project!” 

The glass of the STD booth was broken and the conversations from within were audible for all to hear. Sunil found them very entertaining as he worked. 

“No, it’s not like last time, I swear. This one is 100% real. It is part of my elective course.”

Sunil grinned. The student meanwhile was frantically glancing at the billing meter whose red LED digits scrolled at an alarming rate, much like a runaway taxi meter. 

“No, I swear my grades will be good this sem. Just send the money, dad. At this rate, I won’t even have enough to cover this phone bill.”

Sunil shook his head in amusement and turned his attention to the English workbook. A couple of days after they had met, Vikas had come to the shop and handed him a small bundle of books. They were basic English language guides for Hindi speakers and a few children’s story books. 

Sunil had never told anyone, not even his parents, about his longing to learn the language, to decipher the conversations of the students in the shop, the words on the notices and posters all over the campus, the pages he photocopied all evening. He knew what his parents would say – that he should not get too big for his boots. What was good enough for everybody in town was good enough for him. But Vikas had not only guessed at his interest, but also tried to help. What surprised Sunil even more, though, was that the books were not difficult at all. Once he had got started and deciphered the symbols and sounds of the alphabet, he found he had an instinctive feel for the language and was making rapid progress with the books. Already he had built up a small vocabulary of words.

He had just begun reading one of the children’s storybooks when his father came in. He collected the money from the student who had finally finished his STD call and put it in the cash register. Then, he went to the back of the shop to look over the orders for mixtapes. Soon, music was playing at the back of the shop at the usual double speed. 

“Sunil, did you go to the university buildings last week?” he asked, coming over to where Sunil was working his way through the English-language children’s book. 

Sunil did not answer. 

“Ramcharan was saying you were trying to get into the computer lab.” 

Sunil gritted his teeth. 

“I don’t want you going and poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, do you understand? If you break something there, who will bear the cost? God know how expensive all those machines are. All those things not for people like us.”

Sunil looked up, eyes flashing. “Why not?”

Arrey, it’ll only cause trouble. What do we know about those things?”

“If we don’t know, we should. The world is going to be a very different place soon, Baba.”

 “Oh, so my son is going to start lecturing me, now?” He bent and looked straight into Sunil’s eyes. “I am thrice your age and I am telling you nothing’s going to change. Not here anyway. Real change takes lifetimes to happen. Look here, Sunil, I don’t want you going there anymore. I don’t want any trouble.” 

Sunil looked stubbornly down at his books and didn’t respond. 

***

“Vikas bhaiyya, I’ve brought the mixtape you ordered,” Sunil said. 

Vikas’ room in Vivekananda Hostel was tidily kept, the books lined up against edge of his study table, the clothes folded and stacked in the cupboard, the bed made, the razaai rolled up. 

“Oh, hi Sunil,” Vikas looked up, with a smile. He was at his desk, working. A small sheaf of A-4 sheets filled with his neat handwriting was at his elbow. 

He took the tape, looked it over and popped it into his Walkman. “It’s come out well. You want to listen?” He held out one of the earphones. 

Sunil shook his head. “I hear them all the time.”

“Yes, you do,” Vikas laughed. 

Sunil took a stack of books from his schoolbag and proudly put them on the table. “I’ve finished with these.”

Vikas stared at him. “You managed to read all of them so soon? I only gave them to you a couple of weeks ago!” 

Sunil shrugged, hiding his pleasure. 

“I always knew you’re one sharp kid. I couldn’t find much here, but I’ve written home and asked my mother to send more books for you. They should be coming soon.”

Sunil grinned, delighted. “Thanks, Vikas bhaiyya.” He looked at sheets on Vikas’ table curiously. They were in English but did not look like normal notes – the writing was indented and punctuated with parentheses and square brackets and semicolons which seemed all out of place. 

“What’s this, bhaiyya?” he asked, never one to hold back a question. 

Vikas smiled at him. “It’s a computer program. We use programs like this to speak to computers and make them do what we want them to do.” 

“You speak to computers? And they do what you want them to do?’ Sunil was intrigued. 

“Yes. Just like us, computers have languages they understand, too. This one I’m using here, for example, is called C.” 

‘And you learned this language like any other?”

“Absolutely,” Vikas said. “So can you, for that matter. In fact, given your flair for learning, it should be pretty simple for you.” 

Sunil looked away, hiding his blush. Vikas always managed to make him feel intelligent and special. 

Suddenly, the door banged open, startling them both. 

Sid and Rishi entered the room. Vikas rose to his feet slowly, warily. 

“Hey, what’s up, fresher?” Sid looked at Sunil. “Making friends with the locals now? Rather desperate, no?” 

“Hey, it’s Chotu from the photocopy shop,” Rishi said. “I think we sent the fresher there once too often, eh, Sid?” The two laughed. “Too bad Sharmaji doesn’t have a daughter, then things could have gotten interesting.”

“Speaking of photocopies, fresher, did you get those notes I wanted from Prakash and xerox them?”

“I’m sorry,” Vikas said. “I was planning to go, but I have this assignment I have to hand in tomorrow, so…”

Sid stepped right up to him, his face inches away from Vikas’. “So…? Are you saying you didn’t do it?”

“I…I didn’t have the time.”

Siddharth’s eyes hardened. “Ok. If you haven’t got them photocopied yet, maybe you should write them by hand, instead. If you get started right away, you’ll have just enough time to do three copies for Rishi, Purab and me. What say you?”

Vikas said nothing. 

“I didn’t hear you, fresher.” 

“I have this assignment—”

Sid looked at Rishi in mock astonishment. “Hey, what’s this we’re seeing? The fresher has grown a pair overnight.” He turned back to Vikas. “I completely understand, of course, fresher. You’re busy. You don’t have the time to help your seniors.” He picked up the sheaf of papers from the desk. “But we’re not like you. Here, let me help you. This is the assignment that’s keeping you busy?” He tore the sheets in halves, then quarters, and flung them into the air. “See, assignment done. Easy!”

Vikas stared at the sheets in dismay. His mouth worked, but he didn’t say anything. 

“Fresher, you know, I’m getting really tired of explaining how things work around here.” Sid reached out and took off Vikas’ spectacles and folded them neatly on the table. “When are you ever going to learn?” 

“Leave him alone,” Sunil rushed forward, mustering a courage he didn’t know he had. 

Sid looked at him annoyed, as though only then remembering his presence.

“Chotu, you stay out of this if you know what’s good for you.” He gestured at Rishi. “Get him out of here before he gets hurt. We don’t want any trouble with the locals.” 

Rishi stepped forward and grabbed Sunil by the collar and pulled him out of the room. Sunil struggled hard, but Rishi kept a tight grip on him and hustled him down the stairs. 

***

Sunil raised his hand in greeting from the back of the shop, but Vikas avoided his eye and went straight into the STD booth. 

He spoke softly into the receiver, conscious of being overheard. But gradually, his voice increased in volume.

“No, Amma, I’m telling you, I can’t stay any more. I want to come home…No, nothing’s the matter…no, no, I told you nobody said anything, I told you a million times, it’s the coursework, I can’t cope with it…yes, I know that, but that was school and this is college, things are much harder here.” There was a long pause. Then, his voice raised further in alarm. “No, NO, Amma, I don’t want either of you to talk to anyone here. Just convince Appa, okay. Please make him understand. I want to come home.”

He put the phone down with a bang, and rushed out of the shop, leaving the money for the call on the counter. 

Sunil ran after him. 

“Vikas bhaiyya!” 

Vikas didn’t stop. “What is it, Sunil?” he said, not looking back and walking at a brisk pace. 

“Your change…”

“Keep it!”

“Wait, you can’t just leave!” Sunil ran forward and caught up with him. “You can’t… can’t you complain or something?”

Vikas let out a laugh. “Complain to whom?”

“I don’t know. The warden, maybe?”

“Hah! The warden!” Vikas gave a bitter laugh. “And who’ll back me up? How many people are willing to cross Sid? Nobody. It’ll be his word against mine, and he’ll have enough people to back him up, you can be sure of that.” 

“So, what’s your plan then?” Sunil demanded, tears of frustration filling his eyes. “To leave everything and run?”

Vikas turned on him, his face flushed with angry humiliation. “What’s it to you, anyway?” he snapped. “You’re just a kid. This is none of your business. Go back to your shop.” 

Sunil turned and ran back towards the market square, knuckling the tears from his eyes furiously. 

He found his father in the shop. “Where were you? Why did you leave the shop unattended?”

Sunil did not reply. He went inside and pretended to root in his schoolbag for his books.  

His father followed him. “I have told you time and again, don’t get involved with any nonsense that does not concern you. The world of those city boys is very different from ours. Remember, they are only here for a short time. Four years later, they will be gone. But you and I have to live here forever.”

Sunil said nothing. 

“Sunil, do you understand?” his father demanded, in a tone that Sunil knew meant business. 

“Yes, Baba,” he muttered, sullenly. 

***

It was a week before he saw Vikas again. He was at the back of the shop, recording a mixtape of Kishore Kumar songs when Vikas came in, a bundle of books in his hand. 

“Hi Sunil,” he said. “Here are the books I was telling you I’d asked my mother to send. They arrived in a parcel from home yesterday.” 

Sunil took the bundle of books and looked at the titles. The joy he would normally have felt, however, was muted. 

Vikas sighed. He put a hand on Sunil’s shoulder. “Look, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I know you were only trying to help.” 

Sunil looked up at him. “So, you are leaving, then?”

Vikas shook his head, ruefully. “My father won’t allow it,” he said. “In fact, that call home did more damage than good. It appears my father called up Professor Pandey and spoke to him. Thank God I told them no names. But yesterday, Pandey called all the seniors in the hostel and read them the riot act—” He stopped abruptly, his face going pale. 

Sunil turned to see Siddharth, Rishi and Purab enter the shop. Siddharth’s face was a mask of barely concealed fury. 

“There you are,” he said, striding into the back of the shop. The other two followed, blocking off the exit. 

Sid pushed Sunil out of the way, barely noticing him.

“It was you who squealed, wasn’t it?” He caught hold of Vikas’ collar and hauled him up to his toes. 

“No…I haven’t done anything…” Vikas stammered. “I didn’t—”

“Just when I was thinking you’re finally beginning to grow a pair, you go squealing to daddy dear. Did you really think you would get away with it?”

He backhanded Vikas across the face, sending his spectacles flying. 

“Hey, hey, Sid,” Rishi said, looking over his shoulder nervously. “Take it easy. And no marks, remember?”

Yes,” Sid said, menacingly, “I’ll remember to leave no marks at all.” 

He balled his fist and punched Vikas hard in the stomach. Vikas doubled over with a grunt and crumpled to the ground. 

“Sid, come on, man,” Purab said, his tone too betraying nervousness. “Not now. Not here. There are too many people around. Somebody will see—”

“I’m not letting this little snitch get away so easily.” Siddharth kicked Vikas’ curled up body, once, twice. 

“Shit!” hissed Rishi, suddenly. “It’s the Panda! He’s just stepped out of the grocery store…shit, how did we not see him.” 

Purab grabbed Siddharth by the shoulder. “Come on, Sid, we have to go. He’s headed this way.” 

“This is not over, you understand?” Sid gave Vikas a final contemptuous kick and followed his friends out of the shop.  

Sunil hurried to Vikas’ side. “Vikas bhaiyya! Are you alright?” 

Vikas groaned, still curled up in a fetal position.

“Hello? Anybody there?” A voice came from the front of the shop. 

Sunil rose to his feet and peered around the wall of the alcove. 

“Hello, young man. Is your father around?” 

Sunil shook his head. 

“Oh, should I come later then? I had ordered a mixtape…” 

“Yes, the Kishore Kumar tape,” Sunil said. “It’s ready, Pandey-ji.” He took the tape out of the recorder and headed to the front of the shop. 

By the time he returned with a glass of water, Vikas had managed to sit up on the floor, leaning weakly against the wall, his brow furrowed with pain. He sipped the water gratefully. 

“Are you okay, Vikas bhaiyya?” Sunil asked again.

Vikas nodded. He managed a weak smile at Sunil, then looked away. Sunil could see he was struggling to hold back tears. 

Sunil sat beside him in silence till he had pulled himself together somewhat. Finally, he said, “Vikas bhaiyya, you said it would be your word against his if you complained. But what if there was proof?”

“Proof…?” Vikas said absently, gingerly probing his side. 

“Like it was all recorded on a cassette or something?”

Vikas let out a short laugh and winced in pain “You think Sid would just stand by and let me record what he was doing? What do you—” He stopped abruptly, staring at the open deck of the tape recorder on the wall behind Sunil. Eyes widening, he said slowly, “Did you just…?”

***

“Thank you for talking to the campus news channel, Mr. Sharma,” the young Mass Communications student said. 

“My pleasure,” Sunil said, with a smile.

“I heard you spent the day with students at the local school?” 

“Yes. I enjoy mentoring the students there. Someone did it for me once, and it’s only right that I pay it forward.” 

“It isn’t every day we have a CEO on campus. But this is the fourth consecutive year you’ve come in person here for your company’s campus placement interviews.”

“Oh, I never miss a chance to come here,” Sunil said. “You forget, this happens to be my hometown.” 

“Yes, of course. And it’s such a wonderful coincidence that this coffee shop we’re sitting in happens to be run by your family.”

“Yes,” Sunil said, with a laugh. “Though this must be the nth avatar of this shop. It was a photocopy and STD shop once, then it sold CDs, then it became an internet café. But even that became passé. Finally, my father decided that the only thing technology can’t change is the appetite of young adults and converted the whole place into a coffee shop.” For someone who had once claimed things would never change, his father had been quick to adapt to change.

The student laughed. “Sharma aunty,” he called. “Is it true that milkshakes were once sold here for ten rupees each? Can’t we go back to those good old days?” 

“Why not?” retorted Sunil’s mother from behind the counter. “Just as soon as you children return to the good old days without Internet, Wifi, mobile and all those things you’re always hooked to.” 

“Touché,” grinned the student. 

Sunil laughed. “It’s hard to get the better of my mother. I have tried all these years and failed.”

“Oh, he was always such a precocious child,” his mother said. “Always talking big, dreaming big, beyond his years. We were always worried about what would happen to him.” She looked at Sunil affectionately. “As for the university, we always knew he had some special connection with it, though we never dreamed he would one day graduate from it. It was started the year he was born, you know.”

The student smiled and turned back to Sunil. “Mr. Sharma, your music-sharing platform has grown exponentially in the few years since its inception. There are millions of users on the platform by now. MixTape is among the first tech unicorns to emerge out of the Indian startup ecosystem. Where did it all begin?” 

“I guess you ould say it began right here.” Sunil got up and walked over to the wall at the rear of the shop where his father had preserved the racks of audio cassettes and the double-deck tape recorder to add to the retro feel of the coffee shop. “We used to make mixtapes here once, you know. The original mixtapes. On audio cassettes.” 

The student followed him to the wall. “MixTape, unlike many startups, managed to scale up at a rapid pace that matched the growing interest in the platform. Would you say the turning point came when top angel investor Vikas Swaminathan backed you with such a big investment in MixTape?”

Sunil grinned. “Vikas has always been an astute technologist, always able to sense the direction of the future. He picked up the stocks of today’s tech giants when they were going dirt cheap, when no one believed anything would come of them. That’s how he’s made his fortune, you know, apart from being an entrepreneur himself. And I daresay he’s not regretting his investment in MixTape.” 

“Mr. Swaminathan is an alumnus of this university, too. Did that connection help?” 

“Yes, of course it did.”  

“But you couldn’t have known him from his college days? He must have graduated years before your own batch, right?”

Sunil laughed. “You forget again that I used to live here. I’ve been here as long as the university itself, as my mother never tires of reminding people.” 

“You knew him when he was a student here?”

Sunil nodded. 

“Still, at a time when the startup ecosystem in India was almost non-existent and every small company was starved for funds, it must not have been easy convincing Mr. Swaminathan…” 

“Oh, it wasn’t I who convinced Vikas. It was he who approached me with the investment offer.” 

“Mr. Swaminathan approached you…?” the student repeated, confused. “How come?”

 “Well, I always answer that by saying Vikas saw the potential in MixTape right from the beginning,” Sunil paused and ran his fingers over the contours of the old double-deck tape recorder, “but if you ask Vikas he might say it was because he owed me one.” He turned back to the student with a twinkle in his eye. “Like I said, we go back a long way.”


Vrinda Baliga is the author of the short story collections ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ and ‘Arrivals and Departures’. Her work has appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab International, Singapore), Asia Literary Review, Himal Southasian, The Indian Quarterly, New Asian Writing, Commonwealth Writers adda, Coldnoon, India Currents and several other literary journals and short fiction anthologies. She is the winner of the 2017 Katha Fiction Contest and has also won prizes and recognition in the FON South Asia Short Story Competition 2016 and New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2016. She is a Fellow of the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency. Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India, with her husband and two children.

Fiction | ‘The Woman’ by Henriette Rostrup | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

(Translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee)

She was sitting on the stoop when I got home. It must have rained while she sat there because her hair and shoulders were soaked. She sat all crumpled up with her head between her knees and her arms slack at her sides.

I stood for a second wondering if I should ignore her. Maybe just try to walk around her, let myself in quietly, and leave her sitting there. If she woke up early the next morning to find she hadn’t been let in, then she’d probably just go home.

But maybe she needed help. It was hard to tell.

I walked onto the stoop still not sure what to do. I had my key in my pocket and slowly drew it out, to keep the keychain from making any sound. But as I placed my left foot on the stoop, I very nearly stepped on her, and the change in the air around her made her body list to one side. Her head hit the wall, not hard, but her body just didn’t stop falling until something stopped it. Her head was tilted back and I could see the white in her eyes underneath her eyelids. She had a bit of drool in the corner of her mouth, and crooked, yellow teeth.

But she didn’t wake up. I squeezed in closer to the door, carefully, so I could reach the keyhole. The door opened with a little click, and for a moment I stood quiet as a mouse so as not to wake her. Then I slipped inside as quickly as I could and gently closed the door behind me.

I figured the family that lives below me would take care of her if she was still there in the morning.

Once I got into my apartment, I opened the bedroom window and carefully leaned out. She was still sitting there, propped up against the wall. I took off my clothes, brushed my teeth, shut off the light, and climbed into bed. 

At two in the morning I got up to pee. As I was coming out of the bathroom, I stopped to look at the sky, but then went back to bed. The next time I was up it was four o’clock. I crept over to the window and looked down. It was raining again. A heavy downpour that splashed against the asphalt driveway. She was no longer there, but you could tell that she’d only recently gotten up because there was still a dry spot where she’d been sitting. I scanned the garden to see if she was out there. But I couldn’t see anything besides tree shadows. I stepped away. I wasn’t sure if she was maybe standing there staring up at me.

I couldn’t sleep. Maybe they’d let her in downstairs. Maybe she was sitting on their couch, that very moment, with a towel around her head and wearing the dad’s bathrobe while the mom ran her clothes through the dryer. I perked my ears up. Wasn’t that that a rumbling noise in the basement? Maybe at that very moment she was getting up off the couch and heading for the bathroom, saying she had a stomach ache. Maybe she was locking the door and opening the medicine cabinet. Maybe she was talking about me.

The next morning I slipped down to my neighbors. I put my ear to their door but couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel like knocking, so I slipped out to the garden then around the house so I could peek in the kitchen window. All four of them sat at the breakfast table in their bathrobes. The children laughed, the dad monkeyed around, and the mom stood over by the stove fiddling with something or other. There was no trace of the woman. But maybe she was still lying on their couch, maybe they figured they’d let her go on sleeping before calling the authorities.

The family hadn’t seen or heard anything at night. Had there really been a woman sitting on the doorstep, an old tramp? They looked at one another with concern. What did she want, was she someone you knew? I shook my head. I’d just seen her out my bedroom window when I got up to pee, but just as I was about to call the police, she’d vanished.

I went out to get the newspaper from the mailbox, and on my way back I took a walk around the garden to see if she was lying somewhere, passed out in her own vomit. It’s a big garden with tall spruce trees that hog most of the sunlight in summer and attract mosquitoes. At the far end there’s a small, steep hill that slopes down to the lake. Each time I got close to one of the tall trees I had to stop for a second and catch my breath. I didn’t have anything with me, no pepper spray, no stick. I scanned the ground to see if there was anything I could use. A branch creaked. I spun around but didn’t see anything.

I stood at the top of the small hill and looked down at the boathouse. What if she was hiding in there? Maybe she had a boat hook raised over her head and was just waiting for me. I gathered my bathrobe around me, turned, and ran stumbling back to the house.

The first time I saw her she was sitting on a bench in front of the grocery store where I do my shopping.  I knew right away it was her because she was such an obvious drunkard: booze in a bag, greasy hair, oversized wooden clogs. I walked over to my car and drove away. I don’t know why, but when I’d left the parking lot and rounded the corner, I had to pull off to the side. My heart was racing, and I saw dark spots dancing in front of my eyes. It was as if she’d been sitting there waiting for me, not that we’d looked at each other or she’d said anything to me, but there was something in the way she sat and stared. She sat with a beer in her hand and constantly shifted her gaze between the clock over the watch shop and the windows of the grocery store.

That wasn’t the only time I saw her in front of the grocery store, so I quit shopping there. Instead I started shopping at store close to where I work. I could fit it in over my lunch break, then stay at work later. 

But one day she was sitting on a bench in the park that I pass through on my way to the station. I always take the same route, even though I don’t feel entirely safe there. Especially now that it gets dark earlier and earlier, and I’ve started to leave the office and go home later and later. There are rumors of all sorts of things happening in that park at night, and even though I’m not someone to go around worrying all the time about getting raped, I don’t exactly feel like witnessing anything ugly either.

And there she sat, just like before, with a bag at her feet and a beer in her hand, looking like she was waiting for someone. I saw her several times in that same place, not every day, but frequently. I tried walking down a different path, but then she showed up on a bench along that one.

One morning I headed off to work as usual, but even before I reached the station I noticed something was wrong. Several times I turned around because I was sure I saw her sitting behind a hedge or on some garden stairs. Down at the station, an elderly man came up to me and asked me something. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I only saw his mouth, full of bad teeth, opening and closing like a fish gasping for air. He grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and I suddenly realized it was her.

I don’t remember much else. All of a sudden there was a crowd off people standing over me. A lady bent down, touched my shoulder, and said, “Just relax now, we called an ambulance.” 

I was in the ER for only a short while. Nothing bad had happened to me, and once they’d run an EKG they released me with a handful of meds a referral to a psychologist. 

I called in sick to work and haven’t been back since.

Yesterday I saw her for the first time in weeks.

I am sitting in the front seat of a taxi holding a sack of black currant rum, whiskey, and four cans of strong beer between my legs. They clink together each time the driver goes over a bump, and it makes me feel jumpy. I stare out the window, not wanting to talk or explain things to him, but still feeling his eyes on me every time the sack makes its clinking noise. She is sitting in the back with her head slumped against the window. Her mouth is open and she’s snoring a little. She stinks. I can smell her sweaty, old-person body odor even though I’ve rolled down my window. I let her drink half of the whiskey before we got in the cab. And I’ve promised her that when we get to where we’re going she can have the rest. She just stuck the bottle to her lips and guzzled half of it. Then she stood for a moment holding the bottle before giving it back to me. “You’ll be wanting the rest of it now, won’t you?” she said. “Else you’ll get mad.” I nodded, took it out of her hand, and screwed the cap back on. Then I got her to sit on a stoop while I tried hailing a taxi.

The driver and I had a hell of a time getting her in the car. All of a sudden she didn’t want to go and resisted us by making her arms and legs go slack—like a sleepy child who refuses to get into her snowsuit. Like a ragdoll. She only got in when I let go of her and grabbed the bag of booze, tempting her with it. The driver said, “If she throws up in the car, I’m gonna be pissed.” I promised I’d pay for the cleaning.

We headed south on the freeway. I’d found a place down that way. We’ve been on the road now for an hour and she hasn’t woken up yet. I don’t know what I’ll do if she wakes up and starts acting funny again. I’ll probably have to give her the rest of the whiskey.

There’s a big wrought iron gate where we turn in, then a long avenue of linden trees. Leaves fall off and tumble to the ground like little helicopters in the autumn wind. It’s starting to pick up, and the sky behind the main building at the end of the lane is dark and threatening. I turn around in my seat, and she’s still sleeping. She woke up for a second when the driver stopped for gas, mumbled some nonsense, then sprawled herself across the seat. There’s a dark spot in the upholstery under her cheek where she drooled.

The tires crunch over gravel in front of the next iron gate. You can see the estate in the background.  A long, tall wall of boulders surrounds it. In the wall next to the gate there’s a speaker system, and above that a laminated sign screwed into the wall. It says that the gate won’t be opened unless you have an appointment and give your name. I don’t have any appointment, and I’m not giving my name. I don’t want to have anything to do with this place. No one even needs to know I’ve been here.

I ask the driver to wait for me while I have a look along the wall. I don’t know what I have in mind—that I’ll find a hole in the wall where I can stuff her in? I make it halfway around before it occurs to me that it’s asking too much. The driver is sitting in the car with his door open having a smoke. “What do you want to do?” he asks.

I tell him I’ll tip him an extra five hundred kroner if he helps me out. We maneuver her out of the backseat and over to the gate. I put the bag of booze beside her and tear a page out of my diary. I write, “I need help” and stick the note halfway under her coat, so it can still be seen. 

Even though the driver has aired out the taxi, I can still sense her presence when I get back in. Her smell lingers in the seats, my hair, my clothes. The palms of my hands feel strangely filthy, and when I pull out a moist toilette, the driver asks me if he can have one too. He says something else, but I’m not really listening. I sit and stare out the window at the trees we passed by a half hour ago. As we near the main gate, I’m suddenly aware that my breathing is freer and easier than it’s been in weeks. 

The driver turns to me and says, “You don’t have to give me the extra five hundred. It was nice of you to help her. Who was it anyway? Someone you know?” I shake my head.

I think it was my mother.


Henriette Rostrup is a Danish writer of both adult and children’s fiction. Her novel – A YEAR OF FUNERALS (2015) was longlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016 and chosen as Aller Favorite in 2016. The graphic novel The Lake was nominated for best debut at the Ping-prize in 2018. Henriette’s short stories have appeared in Coal Hill Review, Parhelion Literary and The Write Launch. Her short story The Final Chapter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Poetry | ‘You bring out the Dilliwali in me’ by Ravneet Bawa | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

The slow growl of a simmering brawl
The gut of an adopted ruse
The broken fort.
The “What will you have for dinner?”
as we sit down for lunch.
You are the one I’d shamelessly lie for,
with you I’d roam nights
under Pandara Road lights
allow you the occasional loud belch
as I sit beside reading Ondaatje
Maybe. Maybe.
For you.

You bring out the Arvind Kejriwal in me
The foolish idealism in me
The par-aise-kaise in me
The behenchod-jaanta-hai-mera-baap-kaun-hai in me
The band-baaja-baraat in me
The whiskey tipped bullet in me
The glint of gold and diamonds in me
The slight of trivial pursuits in me.
The zubaan-ki-churri in me
The ho-hai-halla in me
The pata-hai-kal-kya-hua in me.
The shards and smoke of ’84 in me
The screams and grit of Nirbhaya in me
The fear of bhakts in me.
Yes, you do.
Yes, you do.

You bring out the bureaucrat in me
The entitlement of lasting love in me
The avarice of Aurangzeb in me
The grandeur of Mahabharata in me
The wayside jamuns on Lutyens roads in me
The heat of golgappe ka paani in me
The mist of the desert cooler in me
The frost and fog of December in me.

Mere dost, mere yaara
I am the pink spun sugar melting in your mouth
I am the fragrance of wet mogra by your bedside
I will lay kerchief on you
make you mine for this journey
I want to scar the side of your neck
show you off to the neighbors
ward off evil spirits with red chillies all day
burning slowly without odour, the cackle
of this dilli kaure in me
hain ji?

You bring out the banjaaran in me
The songstress and the seductress in me
The helplessness of Yamuna in me
The undulations of Aravali in me
The heartache of partition in me
The UP Bihar Punjab in me
The heretic and the spiritual in me
I could walk barefoot on burning tar and
bring you the nectar of the gods, make you
whole, in sickness and in death
in this city of djinns. Oh,
I am evil. I am the wrath of Kali.
I am the keeper of secrets.
The kama and the karma
of dynasties past. You bring out
the fossils of dead queens in me
The my many children in me
The devious and the innocent in me
The making of tunnels in me
Gainda. Gulab. Gulmohar. Shehtoot.
Khus. Langda. Dasehri. Amrood.
Pirs, fakirs, poets of now and yore
in the name of God and unholy verse
I invoke you.

“Hazarron khwahishei aisi…
Mai tumse phir milungi, kab, kahan, pata nahi”


*This poem is inspired in form and tenor from the 1994 original by Sandra Cisneros, “You bring out the Mexican in me”, from her anthology titled “Loose Women”.
**The last two lines of the poem are a medley of a line each from Ghalib and Amrita Pritam, my favourite poets, and both from Delhi, to conclude with the sense of dead poets living in me.


Ravneet Bawa lives in Bombay, India and spends her time between writing and working as a independent consultant and research in branding and consumer culture. She is the host of the conversational poetry podcast, ‘Ellipsis’ which has just concluded Season 1 with 50 episodes. She has previously published poetry in Asia Writes, DWL’s magazine Papercuts, Coldnoon, Literally Literary and in the journal Eksentrika. She was shortlisted for the Poetry Society of India’s All India Poetry Competition 2016 and published in the anthology Voyages. She is currently working on her first book of poetry – Is/Isn’t.