Fiction | ‘A Rotten Deal’ by Kanya D’Almeida | Issue 42, March 2023

A Rotten Deal 

Umeshi Uyangoda saw her husband, Udesh, off to work every morning with a heavily scented handkerchief pressed to her nose, and a sordid little secret coiled inside her chest. Both were sickening, but neither as sickening as the stench from the municipal garbage dump down the road. It was this abomination, she told herself—this gigantic purveyor of toxic gas and ill fortune—that necessitated her perfume and her treachery.   

Once Udesh was safely out of sight, Umeshi scuttled up to the second floor, ignoring the leftovers on the breakfast table, the swarm of black flies gathering over globs of egg curry that were soaking into her tablecloth. These were no ordinary insects. They were Dump Flies and they came in their dozens, clumped together like bunches of black mulberries, unafraid. Rolled up newspapers were no match for them, a curio from The Days Before the Dump. She’d taken to stashing electric fly swatters around the house. Neon-colored weapons shaped like toy tennis rackets, peddled by enterprising door-to-door salesmen in these parts. One swipe and zzzppp—her table was littered with tiny fried corpses.

But not today. She went directly upstairs to her daughter’s old bedroom, whose door still carried Umanga’s hand-painted sign: Beware! Highly Educated Woman Inside. Little had been touched in the five years since the girl left for college in the United States—wooden shelves still sinking under the weight of so many books, walls still papered with magazines cutouts of Umanga’s idols, all women whose names eternally escaped Umeshi. No matter. She had eyes for only two things in this room: the Sunday newspaper supplement and a bulky Windows PC. 

While the machine revved up, Umeshi spread out the Classifieds, using her thumbnail to crease down the centerfold of the BRIDEGROOMS section. The paper’s flat rate of 25 rupees per word encouraged brevity, which in turn exposed the base, unfiltered aspirations of an entire nation:

Govi-Buddhist parents seek obedient, fair girl for our son (5’10’’). He is Devoid of All Vices (non-smoker, teetotaler, hardworking), employed in leading bank, possessing Australian Permanent Residence (PR) and Significant Financial Assets. Desires immediate union with a slim and pretty bride. Reply with horoscope. 

One had to be vigilant about the fine print, of course—Divorced after brief incompatible marriage or, even worse, Christian parents seek—but Umeshi had learned quickly that these proposals were all of a pattern, reflecting a society clinging to old feuds and ancient bloodlines. While the profession or height of a future spouse might be negotiable, caste, community and color were not. It wasn’t quite to her taste; she and Udesh had shunned all such considerations in their own union, a true ‘love match’. But she was willing to overlook these families’ outdated notions in exchange for The Promise, the great offer of exchange that all the personal advertisements rested on: emigration. Dual citizenship for both bride and mother. A life abroad, overseas, elsewhere. Anywhere But Here. 

There were no names attached to the ads. Those, presumably, came later, when or had shuffled through their responses and decided that she—and Umanga—were worth their time. But that hadn’t happened yet. And it stung.

Umeshi refreshed her inbox. She clicked on ‘Spam’ and then, growing desperate, on ‘Trash’. She was new to this computer business, the mysterious world of the screen where things disappeared into black holes called Folders, never to be seen again. Not like real life, where everything piled up until you were forced to confront it. Here, On-Line, you pressed a button and started fresh—a new day, a New Window.

Udesh despised it. Having spent his life balancing the books the hard way, with a calculator and columns of figures, he viewed the machine as a cheat and a usurper. That he had consented to having one in the house at all was due entirely to Umeshi playing an expert hand. Against her wishes Udesh had urged Umanga to accept a scholarship from a university in Massachusetts. Against Umeshi’s better judgment he’d sunk their retirement savings into plane tickets, College Meal Plans, On-Campus Housing Deposits. Then—a slap in the face—he’d allowed the girl to take what she called a Gap Year after she got her degree. Umeshi held her tongue, totting up the offenses until they amounted to a decent trade: Udesh wanted their only child to remain at large, unwed, on a distant continent? Very well, then Umeshi would have Skype Video Calls and Google Hangouts and Facebook Chats and everything Udesh deplored. From the day it arrived, the computer transformed Umanga’s bedroom from the dwelling place of their greatest treasure to the terrain of their bitterest battles. Would this latest transgression, sharing her daughter’s sacred star chart with strangers over the Internet, be the breaking point?

Her neighbor Ganga dismissed such concerns as “bloody nonsense.” She had found the perfect husband for Her Chuppi after extensive email exchanges with a suite of suitors and was confident Umeshi could do the same.

“Men are useless when it comes to these matters,” Ganga said later that morning as they hung up their washing. “But wait and see, he’ll worship you when it’s done. So? Any decent candidates?”

Umeshi thought of her sparsely populated inbox.

“Don’t dilly-dally,” Ganga said. “After thirty, no one will want her.”

“What do you want me to do?” Umeshi  asked. “I’m not a magician, I can’t pull a man out of thin air.”

“Don’t get glorious with me. I’m trying to help you. If you’re not happy with the selection why don’t you put your own advertisement?”

“Are you bloody mad, Ganga? Suppose Udesh opens the paper and sees? He’ll massacre me.” 

“Can’t be helped.” Ganga wrung out a sock ruthlessly. “Anyway Udesh only reads the political pages.”

Aiyo here.” Umeshi pegged up a pair of her husband’s underpants. “Stop playing the fool.”

“What fool? You want to look up and wait until Umanga is barren? Mothers must take the initiative. Then you can control the situation, no? You ask the questions. You check the horoscopes. You be the one to send people packing.”

A shiver of pleasure danced down Umeshi’s spine, but still she faltered.

“How will I know what to write? Can’t men.”

“What Umeshi! I thought you studied English Literature in school? At last you can put your degree to good use!”

Umeshi managed a mirthless smile. There was a time when this morning routine had brought her solace, the communal clothesline an amusing nod to their shared domestic confinement. But Ganga was building a life raft. Her daughter Chuppi’s new husband was Doing Very Well, shorthand among the upwardly mobile for Making a Lot of Money. Soon Ganga would join them in their semi-detached London home while Umeshi was bound to this rotting municipality whose population was defined, demarcated and divided by its proximity to the city’s refuse. True, she was better off than the slum dwellers who lived at the foot of the landfill, whose gutters and gardens acted as a kind of sieve for the black sludge that ran from the dump at the onset of rains. It was these residents who bore the brunt of legions of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes that thrived in the filth. But parasites are discerning creatures. Not content with the meager offerings of poor people’s kitchens, they’d begun their march towards the bigger houses, where scraps were meatier, juicier, more plentiful. 

Even now a murder of crows kaak-kaak-ed menacingly at the women from a branch. These were the runts, driven from the dump by bigger, healthier flocks. Hunger had emboldened them. One slum dweller swore to having witnessed a stray dog carried off by the ravenous creatures; another said she’d seen a crow pluck out a baby’s eyes. No one could substantiate these reports. All they knew was that when the birds banded together in a blur of beaks and talons that cast the whole neighborhood into shadow, everyone took cover, venturing out only hours later to find their world coated in a patina of shit.


When they’d first moved into the neighborhood there had been nothing at the end of the lane but a wetland, a quiet, humid soup of mangroves and monitor lizards. The dumping began shortly after their daughter, Umanga, was born. It grew alongside her, she alongside it—a mountain arising abruptly from flatness; an odorless swamp spiraling into a festering tower. 

Umeshi could still recall the first time a truck discharged its contents in the area. 

The family were out on their evening stroll. Udesh pushed the pram while she held the umbrella. Umanga was awake but quiet, occasionally shaking her rattle which made a shucka-shucka-shucka sound like seeds inside a pod. 

They smelled it before they saw it, a streak of rankness in the air. The baby made a fussing sound. Umeshi clutched her husband’s arm as they rounded the corner. And there it was, a coagulated mess of other people’s filth bursting out of flimsy plastic bags, food waste and half-crushed beer cans, soggy, sloppy egg cartons and empty cigarette packets. A glossy black raven dipped its beak into a rivulet of rancid rice porridge, just as Umanga started to cry.

It had seemed monstrous at the time but not insurmountable. They were a civic-minded couple, respected in the community, so it didn’t take them long to assemble a team to gather up the rubbish—everyone wore gloves—and return it to the roadside. But that was only the beginning. Each day more trucks arrived, too many to count, and with them a squadron of waste pickers, who spent their days scavenging and their nights erecting a shantytown around the garbage. 

Udesh had tired of the whole thing in a matter of months, but Umeshi became like a woman possessed. She could think of nothing but the dump: the sight of it, the stench of it, the spread of it, inching closer all the time. She battled pests and fetidness with poisons and incense. She joined the Residents’ Committee Against the Dump, a group of likeminded, middle-class families who made appeals to municipal bodies and public servants. 

“What for, darling?” Udesh often asked. “You think those government bureaucrats will bother reading letters? They’re too busy scratching their backsides and drinking tea!”

Perhaps he was right but she stuck with it. If nothing else, it helped to pass the time.

That was twenty years ago. Umanga went off to college, while Udesh sailed peacefully on the still waters of a dead-end career at the finance company where he never ruffled feathers and never received a promotion. The dump grew from a single peak to a mountain range, its undulating form forever blocking Umeshi’s view of the horizon. So she’d done the only sensible thing she could think of: found herself a new hobby. The Bridegroom search was a reason to get going every morning. Tucked away insider her, it tingled deliciously all day long and allowed her to forget, for several blissful hours, the stinking reality of her surroundings.


Ganga was right about one thing: time was against her. Umanga was returning next month for her first visit in five years—The Gap Year having widened into a gulf—and the tide of longing she and Udesh had held at bay was now surging back. Udesh started marking off the days on the kitchen calendar, slanted rows of red slashes tipping towards the day of Umanga’s arrival.  

One thing did not bode well for Umanga’s visit, the protests at the dump. A schoolboy had died of a rat bite, ten years old and apparently beloved in the community because hundreds of people from the informal settlement emerged from their shanties waving signs and chanting slogans. A group of youngsters blocked municipal trucks from entering the town by burning rubbish in the streets. Plumes of black smoke darkened everything they touched. The old stench of decaying waste took on a new bouquet, the spice of singed rubber, the musk of melting polythene. A politician arrived to calm the unrest but crowds pelted his shiny white SUV with garbage. Someone hurled a coconut through the windscreen and it split the driver’s forehead right open. 

Ganga called it ‘slum behavior’ and Umeshi silently agreed. When they’d been part of it, things had been more dignified—letter writing and so on. But the Residents’ Committee had been replaced by the People’s Movement Against the Dump, which appeared to be directed entirely by members of the colony, hotheaded men and loud-mouthed women who wasted no time on pleasantries. 

“They’re so aggressive,” she complained to her husband. “Ugly behavior doesn’t get you anywhere.”

“I say, this is the only language politicians speak,” Udesh said. “Haven’t you watched the debates in parliament? Slinging garbage at each other is what they do best. Thugs respond to thuggery! Maybe now something will be done.”

While the neighborhood buried itself in the standoff, Umeshi agonized over the marriage proposal. What to say about Umanga, who had become almost unrecognizable to her? Take this latest Facebook post, a photograph of the girl dressed in a pair of shamelessly short shorts, her man’s haircut mercifully hidden by a gold-sequined cap. In one hand a sign that read, “Proud to be marching for #ImmigrantRights!” Her other arm was slung around someone who had begun to make regular appearances in the posts, a petite girl with flowing auburn hair and heavily tattooed limbs. Both Umanga and her friend sported pierced noses—not the elegant diamond studs Umeshi was accustomed to but thick rings of silver that hung from the septum. Their photos betrayed a closeness that echoed through strings of comments: Uma, you stunner, love those booty shorts and My fave LGBTQ cuties fighting the good fight! 

For the life of her, Umeshi couldn’t understand it. When Umanga had left for a university called “UMass”, she had wholly embraced her generation’s mission: to surpass their parents’ status in life at breakneck speed. Everyone was on the move; to be stationary was to fail. Old classmates with whom Umeshi had parted ways on more or less equal footing—poised for unremarkable lives—now boarded planes to visit their children in Toronto, Singapore, Melbourne, Dubai. Udesh chastised her for peering too closely at other people’s lives, but he didn’t understand. Her Homepage was addictive, a bottomless parade featuring all the participants in the Great March Abroad, which is to say, everyone except Umeshi and Udesh Uyangoda. For reasons they never discussed, their investment in the future had failed to bear fruit. Somewhere along the way Umanga—or Uma as the girl now referred to herself, pronouncing it Ooma—had gone off track. She took a job in a bakery called Doughs Over Bros. After the bakery it was babysitting, then a short stint in an office that ended prematurely, according to a Post that read: “Just not cut out for a 9-5, ya’ll. Down with wage slavery!”

Wage slavery. It was one of those utterly foreign expressions that now peppered her daughter’s Facebook Wall, the place where Umanga directed her mother for updates about her life. But the Wall contained none of the information Umeshi desired, such as where the girl shopped for vegetables, or what on earth had become of the unspoken agreement between all Sri Lankan parents and their children, that sacrifices made would be repaid with interest. The Wall did not communicate; instead, it blared slogans at her: “Abolish ICE” and “Black Lives Matter”. Once upon a time she had been able to peer over the Wall and catch a glimpse of her daughter, but every day it grew more impenetrable.


Her ad came out the following Sunday. Umeshi rose before her husband and intercepted the paper boy on his dilapidated bicycle. He had recently taken to wearing a surgical facemask during his rounds of their neighborhood. Ganga called it “the height of bloody cheek” that a person who would not be permitted even to cross the thresholds of their homes should be so offended by something they must live with. But Umeshi couldn’t blame him. It was monsoon season and lashing rains had disturbed the dump, loosening the topsoil and churning up older, fouler waste, so that the stench was an almost physical presence. 

The boy didn’t linger. He flung her the paper and sped off, shrilling his bell at a knot of pedestrians advancing up the lane. They were a motley crew. Some of the women wore burqas, some wore sarees or skirts. The men were all of a similar stature, that odd combination of muscular yet emaciated, which marked them immediately as labourers. Not until they were standing opposite her did Umeshi notice one of the women held an infant close to her chest. Whether it was asleep or comatose from the heat she couldn’t tell, but it was motionless in its mother’s arms. 

They said they were part of the People’s Movement Against the Dump. Would a member of her household attend a community meeting tonight? The residents were mounting a legal challenge against the city but they needed more support. Had she heard about the little boy, just ten years old? Was she aware of the dengue epidemic spreading through the slum? Or how the police shot water cannons at the protesters? Unless they joined forces to fight for their rights the municipal council would ignore the mess, death and disease would proliferate and—

Umeshi Uyangoda promised to pass the information on to her husband, the man of the house. She backed away from them, locked her gate, and hurried upstairs.  

Safe in Umanga’s room, she peeled open the paper with trembling fingers. She spotted it at once, her little square inch of text nestled among the other BRIDES, a gem in the gravel. A twinge of pride plucked at her. She’d never had anything published before and there was something thrilling about seeing her own words in print. For one reckless moment she was tempted to share the news with her husband. Had she been wrong to exclude him from this? How much sweeter it would be with him by her side. They would laugh together at the mismatches and when they finally made their choice, Udesh might even take her hand, or plant a dry kiss on the crown of her head. 

A hammering on the door crushed her thoughts. She shoved the paper into the bin. The doorknob rattled furiously.

“What the devil are you doing there?”

Udesh wore a towel around his waist. Wet hair hugged his egg-shaped skull and a trail of water tracked his passage from the bathroom. 

“You’re deaf or something?” he said. “How many times I called you!”

“Sorry darling. I was just checking on Umanga.”

“Your work is checking. Checking email, checking Facebook. Meanwhile no one is checking on the important things. Fridge is empty. Gas cylinder is empty. No soap in the bathroom even!”

“Wait. I’ll bring a piece of Sunlight from the kitchen,” Umeshi said.

“Are you bloody mad, woman? I can’t bathe with Sunlight.”

“So what do you want me to do? Bring some sand from the garden?”

“You think I’m a baas to be scrubbing with sand?”

“Why, you don’t have legs to walk to the supermarket?” Umeshi asked. “There is enough and more soap there.”

Udesh slammed his fist against the doorframe.

“One of these days I’ll smash that cursed computer,” he said. 

“Smash to see,” she said. “Then think of a nice story to tell the police when I call them, okay?”

He stood dumbstruck before her, beads of water dangling off his earlobes and

nostrils. “The devil has got into you,” he said at last. “That much I know.”

Fights like these were a new development. Theirs had always been an untroubled union: a chance meeting on a bus followed by a flurry of love letters which, Umeshi realized too late, would not translate into amorous encounters in the bedroom. They consummated their marriage once or twice, in the dark under the sheets, and when the act bore fruit they never spoke of it again. They settled into a steady life strengthened by a straightforward division of labor—he earned the salary while she kept the home and raised the child. But just as a single snagged thread can ruin a whole garment, Umeshi’s newfound obsession, which lay somewhere between the newspaper pages and the Internet pages, had become a ragged rent in the fabric of their home. 

Later Umeshi tried to earn clemency by pretending to listen to Udesh’s news. A great many people had been present at the community meeting, he said. The speaker was a young lawyer who’d grown up in the colony. He rejected the government’s plan to relocate poorer residents to high-rises in remote localities—called it a ‘rotten deal’. It was the dump that should move, he had said, not the people. They may not have much but they had their homes, their vegetable plots and their pets, their neighbors with whom they were now fighting shoulder to shoulder to stay together—

Must be nice, Umeshi thought, to feel such loyalty among neighbors. Not like Ganga, who was jumping ship after all these years of griping and giggling together, as though they owed each other nothing but a goodbye.

—and when they dared to speak up they were treated like cattle, the lawyer had said, bludgeoned with batons and threatened by plainclothes policeman in the dead of night. Was it right to ask thousands of people to accept poisoned water, putrid air and pestilence as a way of life simply because they were poor? Think about the children!

That’s what it all came down to, Umeshi thought, as Udesh droned on. Our children. When you realize that the road behind you is longer than the one ahead, you reach for those vessels into which you’ve poured so much and you try to add more, a little bit more, until you’re satisfied that some part of you will live on, a drop in someone else’s bloodstream, a faint pulse in their veins.  


The boy’s name was Ganaka. He was the correct height, the right age, the perfect breed. His mother, a Mrs. Sriyani Dissanayake, was sensible and well spoken, prompt with her correspondence and incisive with her questions. Would Umanga be willing to relocate to London after the wedding? When the baby came, would Umeshi be able to join the family there? Could Umanga drive? Because women in England were independent like that. 

Using a ratio of one-part memory to two-parts pure fiction, Umeshi served up a version of her daughter that surpassed even Sriyani’s exacting standards. Umanga’s barista job was translated as Head of Sales, her activism rebranded as Volunteer Work. Umeshi emailed a stream of photos from the days before piercings and politics, and Sriyani said she couldn’t wait to meet the girl. Ganaka was also due back for the Sinhala New Year, so they scheduled a tentative gathering of the clans, agreeing for some flexibility around the demands of the holiday season. 

With the technical details out of the way, their talk turned to more intimate matters: anticipation of their children’s return, joyful musings about grandmotherhood. One phone call at a time they stitched their dreams together until they were indistinguishable. They adopted the collective possessive pronoun: our wedding. Our future.

How you have kept this a secret from Udesh I don’t know,” Ganga kept saying. “You’re blushing as if you’re the one with a new boyfriend!”

It was true. With Udesh immersed in community meetings and Ganaka waiting in the wings, the situation was as close to ideal as it could be. Except for the bombshell that Umanga had dropped a week before her arrival. It came in the form of a Status Update on the Wall, a photograph of Umanga and her auburn-haired friend, their faces half hidden by a little blue booklet with a golden eagle on the cover. “Mo renewed her passport, ya’ll!” read a caption beside an icon of a plane taking off. “Island paradise here we come!” The destination was tagged as Bandaranaike International Airport. 

“Just say no,” was Ganga’s advice. 

“Udesh doesn’t know the meaning of that word when it comes to Umanga,” Umeshi said. 

“Then you do it, put your foot down. Can’t have an outsider here while you’re trying to settle the arrangement.”

“Apparently this girl wants to stay for a whole month. Volunteer Work.”

“My God! You better hope she finds something to volunteer for,” Ganga said. “Some big crisis that keeps her out of the house and out of your way so you can plan the wedding.”


They agreed that Udesh would fetch the girls from the airport while Umeshi made up for weeks of neglected housework. She attacked every surface with bleach and sprayed chemicals into every crevice. She scoured gecko shit off the windowsills and scraped rat droppings from the insides of cupboards. As she worked, the tiresome creatures squeaked and scratched, out of sight, on the roof, inside the walls, making a mockery of her efforts. 

In the end it didn’t matter. When the front door opened neither she nor Umanga had eyes for anything but each other. 

The girl crossed the threshold in a rush, stopping just inches from her mother. Her face was stormy with tears. 


The word broke them both. Umanga’s body crumbled like sand. On her hands and knees, she touched her mother’s feet. Umeshi placed a trembling palm briefly on the girl’s head before dragging her fiercely into an embrace. How long they stood sobbing into each other’s shoulders Umeshi didn’t know. She kept pulling back to press her lips to Umanga’s cheeks and search her body for signs of damage but no, nothing was amiss; miraculously the girl was whole. Each inspection washed away that ancient maternal terror that a child taken from the nest will disintegrate, waste away. 

It was replaced with a new awareness, neither better nor worse: her own obsolescence.

When they came apart at last, Umeshi’s eyes alighted first on Udesh, standing silently among a pile of luggage, and then on the stranger in their midst. 

“Amma,” Umanga said, wiping her eyes, “This is Mo.”

“It’s so great to meet you, Mrs. Uyangoda. Sorry, I mean Aunty! After all the stories Uma’s told me I feel like I know you guys already! And you have such a lovely home!” 

Mo’s smile was too bright. Umeshi wanted to close her eyes against it, and shut her ears to the nasal accent that also tinged Umanga’s speech. She wanted immunity from the electrified current that passed between the girls. 

“Please.” Umeshi gestured vaguely at the furniture. “Sit.”

But Umanga was dragging Mo around the room and Mo was saying “wow” and “totally” and “aww Uma, is this you as a baby? Cutie!” 

Udesh had disappeared with the suitcases, leaving Umeshi standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure where to put herself and overcome by the notion that she was now a visitor in her own home.

“I made crab,” she said uselessly. 

“Oh my God!” Umanga clutched Mo’s shoulders. “Just wait until you try my mother’s crab curry it’s, like, the best thing you’ll ever eat.”

A butterfly wing twitched in Umeshi’s chest. She said something about serving lunch and disappeared into the kitchen.

The flies were worse than ever today, thick on the crockery and the cooker. A discarded crab claw at the bottom of the sink looked blighted, pocked with black pustules. When Umeshi opened the tap they swarmed over her head, dispersing and regrouping as she waved them away, tiny bodies brushing her cheeks. She snatched up one of her murderous tennis rackets and swung it. Five in one go. She swiped again, backhand this time, and the satisfying smell of burning insects arose around her. But still they swarmed. She hit out at random, not troubling to avoid shelves, or vases, or teacups. With eyes closed she attacked blindly. Pots clanged, something shattered, a voice shouted “Ho, HO!” and then someone was wrestling the thing out of her hands.

She opened her eyes. Dead flies and dishware littered the floor and countertops. Udesh, Umanga and Mo stood around her, their faces a palette of shock. She tried to speak but could only stare down at Umanga and Mo’s interlaced fingers, the closeness of their bodies. Behind them, the front door loomed large, for someone was ringing their doorbell. 

It was the Dissanayake family, a trio of tentative smiles and fervent apologies for dropping in unexpectedly, but they were in the neighborhood anyway and Ganaka was so excited about meeting Umanga—and Aunty and Uncle, of course! They wouldn’t stay long, just a quick hello. They didn’t want anything, thank you, not even tea or a soft drink, really. So this was Umeshi’s husband? Udesh, right? A pleasure, at last! And where was the famous Umanga? I beg your pardon? This was her? Oh. She looked…different in the pictures. And this was her…friend? Visiting from America? How…nice. Yes, very nice. Well. So, anyway. Maybe they should get going, lots of relatives to visit. Sorry, again, for barging in like this, they never meant to surprise anyone. They thought…Umeshi had said…It was a simple misunderstanding. No harm done. Suba aluth avuruddak wewa, blessings for the New Year and for the future, which would no longer involve them, the Dissanayake family, whose son was just as handsome as his pictures and who was raking Umanga over with eyes awash in relief, like someone who has narrowly dodged a bullet, and whose father was shaking hands with Udesh in a bracing, consoling manner, as though to reassure a man humiliated before his own family, and whose mother was staring around her with pursed lips and scrunched nose, the face of a woman who has just caught a whiff of a rotten deal. 


Some people said it was an earthquake. Others blamed it on a methane explosion in the heart of the dump. Whatever it was had the strength of a tidal wave. It crushed stone walls as easily as if they were made of cardboard; asbestos roofs became crinkled crepe paper. Shabby dreams got stuck under someone else’s filth, choked, and expired.

They said three people were dead. They said ten, twenty, thirty. Thirty-one…

News crews arrived before emergency response teams and filmed families digging through the debris in search of the missing. Morgues returned bodies wrapped in polythene to the bereaved. Someone remarked that life is cheap but coffins are expensive. 

Talking heads popped up behind microphones: Political corruption. Crime against humanity. They called for investigations; they called for arrests. Meanwhile, residents of the demolished colony braced themselves for a second deluge, not of filth this time but of charity—dry rations and used clothes and good intentions. The government declared a national day of mourning, which was observed by all but the pests, whose appetites remained monstrous. They stuck close, packs of strays and plagues of parasites, their noses and antennae assuring them that after the fuss died down, fresh mountains of rubbish would rise. Even as the funeral processions passed through the streets, skeletal men in orange vests hauled dustbins full of meat and plastic from the homes of the wealthy, grunting as they emptied their contents onto municipal trucks bound for the landfill. 

Udesh, Umanga and Mo joined the relief effort and Umeshi took advantage of their absence to double down on her own search and rescue mission. 

Umanga’s bedroom was now a mess of unfamiliar garments and smells, Mo’s clothes mixed in with her daughter’s, strands of auburn hair entangled in Umanga’s brush on the dressing table. But Umeshi had eyes only for her inbox. She sifted methodically through the responses that were still trickling in. It was harder this time around, with the debris of her recent failure strewn about her. Sometimes doubt bubbled up in her, a cold rush of hopelessness, but she quick to banish it. What good did it do to stand helplessly among the ruins? What use was a life devoid of plans? In the end everyone picked up the pieces and followed whichever compass pointed due north, to the future.

She was close to selecting a new candidate. His name was something-or-other, his profession was What It Should Be. She tracked him down on Facebook and spent many hours scrolling through his Wall. Each time she thought she’d hit rock bottom, the damn page refreshed itself. 

One evening, as she sat gazing at a photo of the boy leaning against a shiny new car, she heard voices downstairs. The trio had returned from their volunteer work earlier than usual. Soon they’d be cooking dinner, the girls teasing Udesh about something silly he’d said earlier. He would have a glass of wine with them. Later, when he came to bed flushed with drink and the satisfaction of public service, he’d reach for her clumsily under the sheets. When it was over, he’d whisper in the dark: Wasn’t it funny that just a few days ago they’d squabbled over something so idiotic as a marriage proposal? He forgave her, he’d say, for her deception; water under the bridge now. She must forgive herself also, she must come out and join the relief effort. Come out and rejoin her family. 

Umeshi guided the mouse to the top left corner of the screen and clicked the X that made the whole world disappear.

Kanya D’Almeida is a Sri Lankan writer. She won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her fiction has appeared on Granta, Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and hosts The Darkest Light, a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka. 

Fiction | ‘A Funeral of National Importance’ by Ciara Mandulee Mendis | Issue 42 (March, 2023)

A Funeral of National Importance

On the way back from the funeral of the Chief Incumbent of Bambalapitiya Maha Maya Viharaya, she asked the driver to stop at her favourite handloom saree shop. She ordered all the white sarees in the shop because she did not know which person of national importance might die in the coming month; she couldn’t possibly appear on national media in the same white saree over and over again.

Thankfully, a few weeks later, the Governor of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka was killed by an accident and she was thrilled. As soon as she heard the news, she left all her files stacked up on the table and quickly got herself driven to his house because she really wanted to be there for his family in this time of need, giving instructions on organizing a funeral of national importance through her recent experience of being in a dozen State Funeral Committees.

A funeral was in the air and she felt the true funeral spirit. She showed them where the body should be placed and from which direction the people who would want to pay respect should come. Although at first the family wondered who she was, despite how responsible and relevant she looked, they later learned that this new Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation (the official media for this event), only had their best interests at heart. She told them about the large number of Buddhist monks who would come to the house to pay respect to the body, pointing to the need of a large sofa with a white cloth laid over it. She saw that the photos and mirrors in the house were covered and the large wooden windows were open. She went to the son of the deceased and told him that there should be a table for all the awards his father had received because that was the highlight of a funeral. Then she stood in the middle of the living room and explained the roles she had played in other funerals of national importance. She made a sad but tired face when she said that although it was only March, this was the seventh important funeral she had to attend and see to, this year. However, it was difficult to run here and there in a Kandyan saree, and she was very tired in a few minutes. Though she almost slipped twice, once while helping a few men carry a cupboard, and once as she jumped up to see if someone tall could see the dust on the book shelf, she never really fell down and she was thankful. Since everyone was looking at her and up to her, it would have been such an embarrassment to fall down. She was sitting adjusting the headpiece of her saree when a servant came to her with a cup of tea. She looked up at everyone in the house looking at her, some with respect, some with wonder, some waiting for the next instruction and some waiting for her to just leave, and stood up.

“My driver needs tea as well, but you know what, let me take care of that” she said out loud. 

A second later, everyone was looking at the Director General walking to the kitchen, pouring half of her cup to another and coming back with two cups in hand. It was a small congested house in Colombo Seven with a very small living room. So everyone moved back and forth and gave her space to walk towards the driver, who was dazed, wondering if this is the same Director General who usually cannot even open the car door herself. 

After having tea, she went to the wife of the deceased. The wife, though grieving, was holding up quite well. She was discussing a possible Funeral Director with her daughter when the Director General came and sat close to her.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Alright,” the wife said with a forcefully drawn smile “so much to do, I’m trying not to miss anything.”

The Director General gave her a sympathetic smile and tilted her head to the left. Then she held the wife’s hand and said, “I know this is very very difficult for you, I understand this is the worst thing that can happen to a family, I mean it’s your husband who is dead! If it was you who is dead, it would have been kind of alright, but this is the father, the breadwinner, the backbone of the family!” she sighed. “And your children have lives of their own so you are the one who will feel this loss the most. You have to face life alone now. You will be lonely and sad, but, you have to be strong.” As she finished, the wife started bursting into tears which later turned into a ceaseless weep. Then the children hugged the mother and started crying. The Director General slowly walked towards the door with a satisfied face – her head, still tilted to the left. And as the driver drove her away from the funeral home, half of the people had joined the collective weep. Her work here was done.  

* * *

The next day, she wanted to wear a light coloured saree because she had to go to the funeral home after work. Since she expected to meet a lot of people from various walks of life, and she had her standards to maintain, she picked a rich-looking saree. No saree can look rich without a shining headpiece, she thought. So she wore the cream coloured one with a gold design in the headpiece. When she went to the funeral home, she took her crew with her. There, she pointed to the places which had be caught in the shoot – the award table, the certificate wall, the huge couch with a lot of Buddhist monks and the sofa with a few Cabinet Ministers. When the fall of her saree almost caught fire as she slinked out of the living room too close to the oil lamp by the body, she was startled. After that, she did not wander, but sat on the sofa next to the wife, nodding to everyone who entered through the main door. But she did not want to waste time just sitting there. So, she started guessing the prices of the sarees people at the funeral were wearing. She could not believe that the Chairman of The British Bank in Colombo chose to wear such a cheap saree to an event of national importance. She was sure it had nothing to do with money, she was the Chairman of a bank after all. And was it even a saree what that woman from that government thing which prepares the National Budget wearing? It looked more like a curtain from Yapahuwa period. Faded, rusted and almost torn. So stingy, she thought. Talk about National Budget.

On the way home, as she closed her eyes, she fell asleep within seconds. The car carefully drove her away from the traffic of Colombo. She dreamed that her saree was on fire. The pure white saree she was wearing was turning black; the blazing flames of the fire were crackling up the headpiece. As she touched her chest, she felt the saree jacket heating up and gradually turning brown. She was trying to put out the fire with pirith water from a little plastic bottle (which was one of the hundred thousand bottles chanted eighteen thousand times by the best monks in Colombo), but it only made the fiery flames that were roaring, come towards her face like a bat out of hell, shredding down smoldering irregular pieces of the hem one by one. In the air, soot had gathered into a cloud and had started singing. Then she saw a fireball dancer, a classic one from the Kandy perahera coming towards her, rhythmically swiveling a ring of fireballs to the melody of the soot cloud. She started to swing to the melody herself, but she suddenly saw that her feet were showing because the burnt pieces of the saree were falling to the ground. She almost had a fit; she could not show her bare feet to the world. Tensed, she looked around; the fireball dancer was getting closer. She saw a puddle in the middle of the road and quickly jumped into it. And her feet got stuck. Her heart was beating fast. The soot cloud was singing too loud and the fireball dancer was too close. She kept her hands on the ground and gained force to pull her feet, but her hands got glued to the lava on the ground. She could not breathe. The melody of the soot cloud was now deafening and it was burning. Suddenly, a crimson fireball came towards her face and she woke up. She was in Kadawatha. 

* * *

It was the day of the funeral. She came to the funeral home quite early in the morning. She had worn one of her new white sarees and everything; but not too high heels because she had a lot of walking to do. She was all ready to bid farewell to a man of national importance. First, she made calls to make sure the small small segments of the funeral were broadcast in her channel time to time. And when she discovered that they had done no special segment about the Governor, she demanded they immediately do a documentary about the service of this brave man who steered the economy of the country in the right direction. It was alright that they didn’t get the titles of some Reports he had written right, or, a few names of the Committees he had chaired, as long as they ran the feature before the funeral ceremony started. She also asked the designers to make a television banner just for him, with a few white frangipanis on the side and everything; and perhaps, play in the background Mala ira basina sande yaame, the classic song about death sung by Amaradeva. After all they were the official media for this event.

The State Funeral Committee had organized this prestigious event beautifully. She was proud she was a part of it. The body was brought from the funeral home to the cemetery in a procession of about thirty vehicles, under a canopy of sepalika flowers. There was a huge gok kola thorana at the entrance of the cemetery in the form of an arch. The either sides of the path that led from the thorana to the pavilion, were decorated with white gerberas, carnations and fern. The coffin was kept in the pavilion on a red carpet. Orchid petals were sprinkled on the coffin from time to time and the instrumental version of Mala ira basina sande yaame was played via loudspeakers. Drones were sent up to take shots of the bank-shaped funeral pyre. She could not expect anything less. A person of national importance was dead. 

She gave the signal to start the programme. As the best announcer of her channel came to the podium to begin, someone from the crowd started weeping aloud. It was a man. A middle aged man in a white shirt and a yellow sarong. 

“Aneeey Yasalalakathissa! Aiyoooo! Yasalalakathissa!” he wept in a shrill high-pitched voice, calling out the Governor’s name.

The Monks, the Politicians, the Government Officials, the Academics, the Bankers, the family, all looked around in panic. 

The weeping man slowly meandered towards the coffin and sat on the floor, sobbing. He never ever imagined the Governor would leave him this soon, he cried. Just as the wife and the children of the Governor were trying to get a better look at the man, another from the crowd started weeping aloud. This time it was a woman. Now who will tell her funny stories, the weeping woman asked from the coffin, wiping her snot off with her shoulders.

‘Did you hire these people?’ A member of the State Funeral Committee whispered to the Director General.

‘Hire?’ She was confused, ‘what?’.

‘Aren’t they hired mourners from Negombo?’ he whispered back to her. 

But the next second when the weeping woman said aloud how she would miss the way the Governor used English when scolding people at his workplace, the entire funeral crowd knew they were not hired mourners from Negombo. ‘Idiots…bloody idiots’ as the weeping woman imitated the Governor through tears, the staff of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka looked at each other in bewilderment. They really did not know what to do. 

‘Yasalalakathissaaaa’ cried the weeping man again, emphasizing what a loss this is for the country. The Governor just knew so much, he said. Through his wail, when he said how the Governor asked them not to believe a word the media said about the pandemic, the Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation was stupefied. In a millisecond she dashed towards her crew and made sure the event was not being broadcast live. She gave the signal to start the programme and asked the sound operators to amplify the sound of the compere’s microphone. She was sure that the nineteen to the dozen talk of her announcer would take care of this situation. In a few minutes, things were settled and she felt as if the monsoon season was over. From there onwards, the programme flowed with no interruption. During the ninth speech, she looked at the family. The wife was staring at the far away sky with swollen eyes. The daughter was looking down, clutching a handout about the service of the Governor distributed at the funeral. She ordered someone to give the family some Smak mixed fruit drinks. After all the fourteen speeches were given, the wife had to deliver the vote of thanks. She foresaw that the wife was not in a good condition to speak which is why she asked her announcer to deliver it for her. The wife started crying convulsively as the announcer started delivering the vote of thanks and she was proud she saw that coming. And when the Minister of Finance came towards the family with the Official Message of Condolence from the President, she saw that the family did not want to look at the cameras, but the event was then going live and this was expensive air time. 

A few minutes before the end of the programme, she hovered around the bank-shaped pyre once to make sure everything was alright. Since it had rained the previous night, the ground was a little muddy. She was thankful only one member of the State Funeral Committee was with her to see her slipping slightly and bumping her head against a wooden plank used to support the pyre. She pretended she didn’t even feel it but she literally saw half a dozen zodiacs in that clear bright sky. Once the programme eventually came to an end, when everyone was pushing everyone, trying to gather around the pyre, she made sure they did not get to the family. But in a second there was a barrier of men with cameras around the pyre. She looked calmly at the way a man in a white sarong came towards the family, twirling a stick with a fireball up and down. He then handed over the stick to Governor’s son. She watched the pyre being lit by the son. And in a few minutes, the entire pyre was in flames. Irregular white pieces of clothes were falling to the ground one by one. An important man was burning. A man. A father. Father. And she was twelve years again. The girl who helplessly watched her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Burnt. Burnt by the State? He was brave, they said. That was the thought that always entered her mind every time she saw a burning pyre. Is being brave more important than being alive? He was a respectable man, they said. That was the thought which always followed the first one. Respect. She felt it was the most selfish word in the world. Is burning on the side of the road as respectable as a funeral of national importance? She did not know. 

It was hot, almost as if burning. And she could not stand the noise of the soot; it was louder than the loudspeakers. The State Funeral Committee had arranged a helicopter to shower chrysanthemum petals on the pyre over the flames. She looked up and then around. Amidst the heavy showers of white chrysanthemum petals, behind the flashes of the cameras, through the thick barrier of people speaking of the greatness of the respectable man who is dead, she saw his daughter, helplessly watching her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Annoyed, she rushed towards the men with cameras. 

Ciara is currently reading for her MA in English Studies with a special focus on language and culture, and is employed as Assistant Director (Literature & Publications) at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Sri Lanka. Her debut short story collection ‘The Red Brick Wall’ (manuscript) is at the moment shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2020, the most coveted award given for Sri Lankan writing in English.

Fiction | ‘I A Enveloped’ by Michael B. Tager | Issue 42, March 2023

I Am Enveloped

THE beeping keeps me awake, but I don’t mind. Metronomes relax me now. For a long time, I couldn’t tolerate repetitive sounds: toe-tapping, the ticking of clocks, even too-long choruses. “Hey Jude” is my enemy. Come to the point already. 

    Mabel’s asleep in a chair, her soft snores a different kind of comfort. She’s a good daughter. She wasn’t always. In her teens and again in her 30s, she made too many bad decisions, dated the wrong kinds of people. I don’t necessarily like her wife, but she treats Mabel well and that’s all I can ask for. 

    I sit and yawn. For the first time in months, I feel refreshed. I do the same body check that I started decades ago, when I first noticed a hurt that hadn’t been there the night before. I wiggle my toes, tense my calf and thigh, roll my neck. I expect quiet pain, part of me for so long that I think of it as a silent partner, holding me accountable. 

    When I realize I feel no pain, I grin and swing my legs over the hospital bed. Is this what it was like when I was nineteen? To have an ease with a body? 

    I carefully remove the IV and adjust the machines so they won’t indicate I’m flatlining when I remove the different apparatus from my chest and arm. I’m thankful I don’t have a tube up my nose anymore. All the little violations of my space add up. 

    In the hallway, the linoleum is cold and the walls a dull blue. I suppose it’s pleasant, but couldn’t the lights be less harsh? A clock on a near wall tells me I’m in the deepest part of night. My favorite time. 

    I shuffle along, passing the empty nurse’s station and a dozen closed doors. It’s quiet, but never void of sound. There’s always a mechanical burp or distant ringing. I go down some stairs, breathing the mild stink of abandoned sandwich crusts and years of sweat and savoring it because at least it’s something new. 

    Outside the stairwell, a floor down, I hear laughter coming from the door in front of me. I knock. “Hello?” I say quietly, my voice harsh and split. I haven’t had a cigarette since the diagnosis, but my throat doesn’t realize, filled as it is with scar tissue. To be honest, I miss it. At this point, would a couple drags even hurt? Mabel insisted I quit, so fine. 

    “Who’s there?” 

    There’s two children sitting at the edge of a bed, holding game controllers. The girl is thin, small. The boy is bigger, not so far into his chemo. Early teenagers, fourteen or fifteen. Hard to say. Their eyes are wide, obviously startled. I stay where I am and hold up a hand. “Sorry to disturb you. I’m a neighbor.” I point up and smile. It takes a second, but the girl nods and waves. “Can I come in?”

    “I guess,” the girls says, shrugging. “You’re not weird, are you?”

    The room is identical to mine, a typical hospital room. The walls are brighter than mine, a gentle mauve. I assume game systems are more common in children wards. 

    Pulling up a chair to the bed with some effort, I laugh. “I don’t think I’m weird. At least not in a creepy way, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “Wouldn’t someone creepy say that?” Her eyes narrow to slices. 

    “I guess so.” I chew my lip. “I can go if you’d like.”

    She sighs. “It’s ok I guess.”

    “Do you want to play?” the boy asks. He offers the controller. 

    The wall-mounted TV shows two celestial creatures frozen in mid-leap. They’re made of fractured stardust, all points and bright cascades. I don’t recognize the game but when the girl unpauses, I press buttons until I get the gist. We hop platforms and cross chasms together, eat plant monsters like a Thanksgiving dinner, try to save a universe. The plot seems incidental. Some of my friends in the retirement home have gaming parties. Mostly the oldies: Mario and Tetris and those. 

    “You’re pretty good,” the girl, Clea, tells me after we play for a half hour. “Pop-Pop has no idea about video games.”

    “Call me Jacob.”

    They introduce themselves. “My grandfather doesn’t play either,” Liam says. “My granny plays sometimes, though.”  

    Eventually I die, and Liam takes over and I see how much I’d been holding Clea back in her progression. They fly through the levels: desert and tundra and a sky castle. Their star-avatars grow and develop, evolving with experience. 

    Clea offers me the controller again and I shake my head. “Did you two meet here?” I ask. 

    “We met over at St. Agnes, actually,” Liam says. “We were both on the long-term ward a couple years ago.”

    “It was nice to see him here,” Clea says. “Everyone else is old as fuck. No offense.”

    I wave my hands. It’s true. I am old as fuck. 

    “How long have you been here?” Clea asks. The question makes her sit up straight and she looks nervous, like she’s about to be reprimanded. Maybe the question is verboten? I’m not sure. 

    “Awhile,” I say. “I’m supposed to go home in a few days.”

    “That’s cool. I’m theoretically in remission. Him too.” She jerks her thumb at Liam, who nods. 

    “We’re all lucky,” I say. “That’s good isn’t it?”

    Liam nods, his straight hair flopping in the moonlight that streams through the large window. “What do you think it’s like?” he asks. “To not be lucky?” 

    It’s an offhanded question that catches me entirely by surprise. To address the death elephant in the room so casually. When I was their age, I never thought about it at all. I just thought about girls and running and part-time jobs and playing games and school. 

    “Jesus, Li,” Clea says. “Keeping it light, huh?”

    “Sorry. I just thought he might have an idea.”

    “Because I’m old?” I ask, hiding my smile. 

    The boy flushes, but doesn’t apologize, or mince words. “Basically, yeah.”

    I think and watch them. They’ve clearly played before and now they fight giant monsters, statues come to life, beasts with fangs and claws for days. Their fingers are nimble and deft and they help one other, murmuring suggestions or even backing one another up without words, breathing fire and sprouting wings and digging holes to cushion their falls. 

    When I was a boy, if I thought of death at all, I thought of Jesus taking me into his bosom. I dreamed of winged, long-haired angels playing harps on clouds, just like the clichés. When I got older, I thought death was nothing at all, an erasure. After children, I prayed for the return of my belief and it came, but differently and I never could buy the idea of eternal pleasure or punishment. Doesn’t seem logical. 

    I would have thought that after years of sickness, I’d have come to some kind of conclusion. But no. 

    When Clea pokes me, I realize that I haven’t said anything in several minutes. I shake my head and dispel the fog. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think maybe it’s like going home again.”

    “Where’s that?” Clea asked, looking for my eyes to stare into. The game is paused and Liam’s head is down, his shoulders tense. They think about this a lot. 

    “The universe, I guess. We’re all atoms from the same stars, right? Nothing is ever destroyed, just changed. So why shouldn’t we change too?”

    Clea’s brows furrow and Liam’s head almost imperceptibly moves from side to side and I know this answer doesn’t satisfy them. Why would it? Why should it? Would anything?

    Suddenly, I a wave of exhaustion rushes over me. I feel my brief burst of energy drain away. I already miss it. Youth is so far away, and experiencing its facsimile is so welcome. 

    “I think it’s time for me to go,” I say. I stand and sway a little. I thank them for letting me share their time, my breath coming in little hitches. I hide it with a cough.

    “It’s cool,” Liam says. He shakes my hand. 

    Clea purses her lips and says, “It was nice talking with you, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I don’t see you later, you know?”

    I grasp her shoulder, “I hope the same.”

    As I walk back to my room, my eyes heavy with sleep, aches and throbs begin to come back to my body in slow creeps, I hear my name. I turn and they’re standing there and they say, “Would you mind if we asked for a hug?”

    “Hell no,” I say and for a moment, I am enveloped. 

    Back in my room, I tiptoe in the darkness and make my way to my bed. I am so tired I can barely think straight. At one point, I kick Mabel’s shoes and they skitter along the floor. 

    Over in the corner, she stirs. “Dad?” she mumbles. 

    “I’m fine, Mebby. Go back to sleep.”

    “Ok daddy,” she says and pulls the blanket under her neck. “I didn’t break anything, you know.” 

    I wonder what she’s dreaming. She hadn’t been a rambunctious child, though as I reinsert the IV into my vein with a wince and swing my feet from the floor, I chuckle, remembering the time she destroyed the entire back porch with a single unfortunate swing of a baseball bat. 

    Even at the time, I’d thought it was kind of funny. The tumbling, the roar, the release of dust and debris. How the umbrella had flown in a neat arc, landing in the back yard amongst the tulips like a javelin. Her open jaw, the flush spreading in his cheeks, the slow turn to me where I held the baseball. 

    “Dad?” she’d started.

    “Wow. Don’t even worry about it.”

    Her mother had been less amused, of course. But that was a different story. 

    I lay back on my pillow and yawn. I can’t keep my eyes open and I don’t bother fighting. I feel a soft heat spreading and my limbs get heavy, like gravity is a hand holding my wrists. It’s a caress and I ignore the pain bursting, because the hand strokes my head and whispers comfort. Here we go. 

    As I die, I step from my body, a loose spirit. I and the machines that were monitoring my life. My essence expands and envelops the bed, and touches Mabel and encompass her and I am part of her, experiencing her life. I feel her love for her wife and children and a bruised sort of love deep affection and healed-over scars for me. I feels the same for my own parents and within me, I feel traces of them too, and the painful memories of theirs and the love underneath and I know that I can go deeper and deeper. 

    Instead, I let myself grow through the hospital floor and all those sleeping bodies until I find Clea and Liam. They’re peaceful and happy and enjoy their nearness. They know that once they leave, they won’t see one another again because theirs is a friendship of proximity and specifically shared experience. But they they’ll keep each other in their hearts.

    No one can ask for more than to be carried on in someone’s memory.

    I grow past the ceiling and through the floorboards and walls and the roof. 

    I see the flat tar roofs of all the buildings. The treetops are wide and lush with green with the growing day. When my head touches the clouds, I turn my attention to the distant sky, the bright spear of the sun and the endless fountain of blue pouri from the horizon. My body-soul is as large as the county, a mountain range, an inland sea. 

    I escape the atmosphere and embraced the earth. My back is cold against space and the ball within my arms emanates the warmth of billions, of power lines and siroccos, of ocean currents teeming with life and the churning mantle. I let go. 

    My growth is exponential, impossible to calculate without sines and π. I encompass the whirling storm of Jupiter and all the moons of Saturn. I face the distant pinprick of light that is the sun and somewhere in all that space, I still feel my body, my bones and flesh and toes and teeth, all connected to the finest thread that I can sever with a tug. My soul will soar through the cosmos and end where it ends, if I just pull. 

    I pause and a single memory comes through. I’m a boy, lying in the grass of a baseball field. In the background, I hear my mother and father. I don’t understand the words, but I feel a safety that only comes from being within reach of love. The sun is warm, the wind is cool, the grass sharp on my cheek. I’ll take that one with me.

    Sighing, I pull and the thread snaps and I’m loose in the universe, rushing to what comes next.

Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based editor and writer. He is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press, an independent publisher of high-quality books. Publications include jmww, Uncharted Mag, Necessary Fiction, and Barrelhouse, among others. He is uncomfortable but not worried.

Translation | ‘‘A Woman’s Fate’ by Epitácio Pais | Translated by Paul Melo e Castro | Issue 42 (March, 2023)

‘‘A Woman’s Fate’ by Epitácio Pais | Translated by Paul Melo e Castro

António da Veiga made his way out from the vast railway station. Hardly had he emerged onto the avenue when a stranger approached and inquired if he needed accommodation.

Not quite middle-aged, the man wore a pair of smartly pressed trousers, an immaculate shirt and shoes that gleamed like polished mirrors. Around his wrist was a deluxe watch, his small moustache was neatly trimmed, and his hair had been carefully slicked back.

Veiga replied that his usual hotel was not far off. But as the man insisted on one close by at a reasonable rate, clean bed, freshly washed sheets, fan and mosquito net provided, hot water too, he resolved to pay this new establishment a visit.

Afterwards, the man asked whether he was satisfied, produced a gold cigarette case and announced his commission to be twenty rupees. A little steep. On his way out, the man recommended his own eating house in Jambul Wadi, renowned for Goan delicacies that drew their countrymen in from all over the city. He had other lines of business too. Palm and cashew liquor shipped in from home that sold like hot cakes. Well then, God bless, a pleasant evening to you.

That man’s life wasn’t bad, Veiga thought to himself, better than idling around, borrowing money and not paying it back, making promises and then breaking them. It seemed everything was going swimmingly for him.

A warm bath having washed away the fatigue of his journey, Veiga decided on a walk around that city which dazzled with bright advertisements and rang with the cries of street hawkers. He could then try that Goan place, maybe have some sorportel, a tasty dish that tantalised his stomach now he was so far from his native soil.

He found the restaurant in a side alley, its almost illegible sign blackened by smoke, four wooden steps leading up to a cubicle where eight tables and a sink by a stove filled the entire space. At that hour It was deserted but for a lone woman stirring pots.

Veiga asked her for a Goan speciality, didn’t matter which. Iscas? Sure. Chouriço? No problem. Sorportel? Why not. He left the choice up to her.

She brought him a steaming dish of delicious smelling food. As he ate he looked at the woman from the corner of his eye. She had obviously once been attractive. A vague tristesse emanated from her gaunt form, though broad hips confessed her fertility. Veiga said that he’d just met her husband, who had recommended this place to eat. She replied that by now he must be at the Ashtray Bar drinking with friends and would only be back for dinner. She worked alone because they couldn’t afford a cook, though the man made a good living. She told him she was from Goa without mentioning her native village. Her five children who were asleep in the loft had to rise early for school.

It seemed to Veiga there was something familiar about the woman, something that welled up in a swirl of half-forgotten memories. Those almost black eyes now with bags underneath, that gait from which all trace of elegance had not been entirely erased, that dark hair now intermixed with threads of grey, it was all was bound up with Veiga’s confused recollections. Where? Where? he demanded. But his memory refused to comply, stalling with every effort. Now the image of the man who must surely be her husband returned to mind, slipping in between a muddle of disconnected facts that seemed poised to converge before finally eluding his grasp. Veiga asked the woman why the restaurant was empty. She replied that it only began to fill around ten after the evening shift at the local workshops. Then she scarcely got a second to breathe and had to rush around serving customers until midnight before finally collapsing exhausted into bed, her head ringing with the yells, curses and foul language of the clientele. She asked if he was from Goa and what brought him to Bombay. Veiga replied he was there on family business and that thanks to her husband he had found a decent billet. For the first time she looked him squarely in the face and blushed.

Veiga returned to the hotel. His head weighed heavy and his eyes burnt with exhaustion. But once he gained his room and heaved himself into bed he was unable to sleep. The image of the woman from the restaurant cloaked in mystery wouldn’t give him any peace, appearing again and again in the darkened room until he was shattered. It was thus, his nerves shot to pieces, that he finally passed out.

But morning brought everything to light. The hazy enigma around the woman melted away, and every detail relating to that figure now passed clearly before his mind’s eye like a film, narrating her life from girlhood to adolescence, from innocence to a turbid whirlpool dragging her down into a fate she had only wanted to escape when it was no longer possible.

Time was Veiga had seen her childish figure cross the river each morning clutching a satchel full of books, returning home by the same route at the end of the day. Afterwards, when she was already an adolescent, he would see her grave-faced and wary, indifferent to the comments and catcalls of passers-by.

Sometime later, now mature in body and mind, she had continued to shun male advances.

Schooling complete, her family had wished to find her a good match in fine society. But she kept putting off any decision. She wanted to study further, to find an important role for herself locally or at a national level, to rout those so-called heroes, oh so callow in thought, who spouted platitudes at political rallies. Only then would she render up her hand to any prince charming who might come her way.

One day this prince charming inevitably appeared, elegantly attired, with a pencil moustache and the honeyed blandishments of a leading man. He followed her around like a puppy dog, many little strokes fell great oaks. The man had a restaurant in the big city, a favoured haunt of the crème de la crème whose society could raise her to the level of her dreams, allow her to rub shoulders with the great and good.

She let herself be taken in by these promises that sweetly caressed ambitions she had nursed for years. And one fine day she upped and left with her suitor, without a word to her mother, father or anyone else. They married before hired witnesses on Woodhouse Road before a brief honeymoon.

Now there she was, stuck in that Goan hash house in Jambul Wadi, four wooden steps leading up to a blackened cave, hunched over those pots beside a sink slopping over with dishwater.

Paul Melo e Castro is a lecturer in Portuguese and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. He has long-standing rearch interests in Portuguese-language fiction and intellectual production from Goa and has been a regular translator of this writing into English. His latest book-length translation is Vimala Devi’s Monsoon (Seagull, 2019). He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Epitácio Pais (1924-2009) was a Goan short story writer. He contributed short stories to the Portuguese-language newspapers and radio during Portuguese rule and in the decade following 1961. A collection of his stories entitled Os javalis de Codval (‘The Boars of Codval’) appeared in Lisbon in 1973 and a novel unpublished during his lifetime, Preia-Mar, was published in 2016 in Goa by the Goa, 1556 publishing house.

Poetry | ‘Story Room’ by Ajay Sawant | Issue 42, March 2023

Story Room

I love telling people about the pandemic in India
even before it’s over, like reading a dramatic note of past

like outbreak, that unfolds faster and faster, then milder
in uneven undertones, forming a suspense curve, in timely perks

I love to see them engrossed in alien land existing just outside the window
and the simplicity of all of it, brain stunts

So when I tell them about the contagion, I tell like it’s a hypothesis about shallow graves
like the plague existing in my mother’s lineage, beyond repair

plague underlined: the people who left never came back
coronavirus underlined: the cut that stored them alive within identity scar

so I say it’s the past, for a true story can be a dangerous weapon
for past is a language that cannot be altered and present another that changes the future

tonight I stay silent on the argument for it’s a sparkling papercut to the civilians;
that a voice might cut into streets, riots, savageries and six

this room is a chamber of dried cobbles and echoes of caves
this room is the only place keeping the secret of the lip remains intact to its place

Ajay Sawant currently serves as Editorial Director at Globalage Poetry and Editorial Intern at Five South Literary Magazine. He has previously also served as guest editor at Inlandia Institute’s Literary Review. He is an art activist and public speaker. His recent poems appear in Detester Magazine, VAYAVYA, America’s Art & Understanding Magazine, The Virgin Island’s – The Carrabian Writer, Hawaii Pacific University’s Hawai’i Pacific Review and forthcoming in Xavier Review, Inlandia: a literary magazine and The Louisville Review & Fleur-de-Lis Press Ajay can be reached on Twitter at Recent publications include pieces in Rattle, Lunch Ticket, Louisville Review, Leavings Magazine, Claw and Blossom, LiveWire India and Christopher Hewitt Writing Prize.

Poetry | ‘Kind’s Court, Bandh’ & ‘Mutations in scale’ by Ayesha Chatterjee | Issue 42, March 2023

King’s Court, Bandh

No cars on the roads, no tyres
rolling over the chalked squares
on the concrete strip between the
godown and the playground.
Tamarind was a paperback
on my mother’s bedside table,
a sketch in Singapore. Imli,
on the other hand, was everywhere.

In the silence, we ran relays
up and down the compound,
played cricket, played tapes
from England and America, bootlegging
sounds we reflected back like rooms
full of mirrors.

It was that sort of day,
exciting and deceitful,
sealed in a jar that smelt of vinegar
and eggplant, fried garlic and onion. Basic
like that. The radhachura branch
outside the dining-room window
glistening like an oiled muscle
flexed to strike. It must have rained.

Such happiness. Such sadness.
The dove-like softness of my sister’s hair.
The rhythm of hopscotch.
Over us the white carapace of history
muscular, marbled.


Mutations in scale

Try not to think of music: how blood sings
louder than machines, how solitude
scrapes the night. Substitute

instead a room
beyond the garden wall.
A lamp is on.

This is not our time, this time. The sound
of darkness is mechanical. Snow
drips. Instead of scales, here’s copper
hammered into moons.
Bubbled glass as counterpoint.

Note their silence.

Perseverance landed in a cloud
of dust. What stood out was
the pure nothingness of the colour red.

One day, we’ll breathe it in and break it.

Ayesha Chatterjee is a poet from Kolkata, India who has lived in the UK, Germany and the USA, and is now based in Toronto, Canada. She earned a BA in English and German from Smith College where she graduated cum laude. She has two poetry collections and has been published in journals across the globe including The Moth (Ireland),Magma Poetry (UK) and Exile Quarterly (Canada). Several of her poems have been recently set to music by Canadian composers in a range of genres, including classical, jazz and opera.

Short Fiction | ‘Migratory Birds’ by Minal V M | Issue 42, March 2023

Migratory Birds

I stand on the steps, watching Achamma draw stick figures in the rain softened, pungent earth. I sit behind you on your motorbike, holding onto you, the wind blowing away my words. I kiss you as we sit alone in the library, grimacing when your stubble scratches me. We are at the lighthouse, holding hands on the red cliffs as the waves crash noisily below; the wind turns colder, now it’s gloomy skies above white cliffs, and you aren’t there anymore. It’s the convocation, you are a blur, my heart races, my legs quiver, I want to sit down, I want to run away.

I wake up.

My nose running, my allergies triggered by the pollution, I stay in bed beside him, my scratchy sniffles mingling with the rhythm of his soft snores, the only sound in the otherwise quiet morning. 

When his father finishes praying, I get up to splash away my sleep with winter’s cold water. Downstairs his mother, also up at the break of dawn, waits for me.

“Did he sleep well?”

“Yes, Amma.”

As I make breakfast, the dosa batter sizzling on the pan, I wish it were an egg – golden yolk, its white encircled in crispy brown, fried in ghee as Achamma used to make for me in another place, in another time.

His parents sit in the verandah drenched in the morning sun: his mother, talking to no one in particular; his father, writing poetry, one every day for his next collection. When he wakes up and comes downstairs, he kisses me good morning in the kitchen before joining his parents with the day’s newspaper.

In the next hour I will wake up my son, feed him and send him off to school, before I set off to work myself.

“Will you be late today?” his parents ask me.

“No, Appa.”

“The boy’s mother should be there for him when he’s back from school.”

“Yes, Appa.”

I walk on the dirt track lane that once was tarred, till it joins the main road; now covered in dust and fumes, cars, buses and bikes blaring horns in a never-ending race.

I quit that race a while ago.

I take an auto rickshaw to the metro station, climb up the steps to the entrance, put my bag through the X-Ray machine as the bored security guard glances at the screen, and then make my way to the WOMEN box, where another bored security guard – a lady security guard – will pat me over. 

Finally, once on the train as it glides over the vehicles sputtering on the roads below, I put on my headphones and slip into my me time.

I am grateful that the train is air conditioned.


The pollution peaks in winter, there is no escaping it in the city – I sniffle, my eyes tear up all day. It wasn’t always like this; not when I first came over here many years ago, not when I first met him. We returned to the city after years in self-imposed exile. It was his idea: he wanted our son to learn Indian values, and there was a new government.

“They are not corrupt like the previous lot. They’ll drain the swamp.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“They are strong, decisive.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“Now is a good time to go back. Too many bearded immigrants here.”

Browsing online reviews of schools for our son, getting rid of junk – the detritus of a settled life – as I prepared to uproot myself once again, I taught myself to look forward to returning, as I had once taught myself to look forward to leaving.

Over there, it will be snowing this time of the year. Over there, I didn’t sniffle, my eyes didn’t tear up all day.

Back in the city, I re-learnt what I had un-learnt in those years outside: to be grateful that my commute was only three hours every day; to ignore the hands that felt me up when I made my way through the crowded metro train; to accept the blurred boundaries between work and home, weekday and weekend.

I found the lack of formality jarring: the ease with which old friends dropped in unannounced, or added me to WhatsApp groups without first asking me. 

I learnt to ignore the casual misogyny and bigotry that permeated those groups. Spouted by men, who were the boys I knew back in university; the twenty-something new adults I worked with when I first came to the city.

Standing all night in the queues outside schools for my son, I wondered if Amma – my mother – had done the same for me back home. I later realized that getting into a school was probably the easy bit; my son with his firang accent would become the target of bullying even as he struggled to fit in.

And then there’s his parents.

“She’s fair but… she’s not vegetarian.”

“She’s not from here. How will we adjust?”

Staying with them under the same roof, I took to inventing ruses.

“There was an emergency at work,” I told Appa after a night out with friends.

“Don’t tell Ajja and Ajji what you ate today,” to my son after I took him out for the steaks that he loved and which I used to grill over there, but had stopped grilling over here.

“You are not like the others… you aren’t vegetarian,” my colleagues over there used to tell me. I wonder how they will react if they knew that I pretended to be vegetarian in my own house.

“It’s actually my house,” I reminded visiting friends, apropos of nothing. “I bought it when I first came to the city.”

“They stay in my house,” I would add.

I convinced myself that returning to the city that I once loved was a good idea because Amma wasn’t far away. A six-hour drive through the meadows that led to the mountains, across its zig-zag bends, over the hundred-year-old bridge on the border between the two provinces – his and mine, down the other side, until I reached my hometown by the sea.

Where the salty air blew away my allergies; where the sea-bridge, that dilapidated pier that jutted out to sea, stood proud even if old; and where I was a child again, the only place I really thought of as home.


I was eighteen when Achamma passed away, the month before I went to university. 

I remember looking at Achamma and wondering if she was smiling in her sleep, as she lay in the ice box, her skin only a shade darker than the white sheets that wrapped her, or the balls of cotton that were stuffed in her nostrils. 

I remember wading through the crowd gathered around the body in our home, as I made my way away – because I didn’t want to see Achamma in the ice box.

I remember the Achamma sized hole that punctured my heart.


I was excited about going to university. My English speaking Achamma had been proud of me.

Mole, you are the first girl in our family to do engineering. You must not stop there, do a Masters after that. And a PhD too.”

Achamma! I just got in… I have 4 more years to go.”

I left my hometown for the first time – the university an overnight train journey away; in a town where they spoke the same language, probably ate the same food, but was still an overnight train journey away.

My proud English speaking Achamma had also been anxious.

Mole, you are not a child anymore. Be careful with boys.”

“Mm… hmm.”

Mole, stay away from the bearded ones. They will cover you up, make you like them.”


My first semester at university, I threw up after every meal.

I missed Achamma’s Mathi fry – brought in fresh from the sea by the scores of little fishing boats that went out before dawn everyday, fried crisp like a biscuit, glistening in its own fat. 

For me, the local beef delicacies of the inland university town, where the sea was unseen and unknown, couldn’t compare.

I missed the sea, the mellow rise and fall of the waves in the distance merging with the drone of my school. I missed the breeze that blew in from the sea, rushing through the corridors, seeding life in its wake. 

I missed the rains that arrived on the sea, the waves now roaring angrily, the tall, twisted coconut palms straining as they held onto the earth. 

I missed my friends, hanging out with them at the lighthouse in the fort, staring at the sunset, dreaming of the faraway lands that lay beyond, each vowing to one day cross over the infinite sea, seeking the adventures it promised, like the migratory birds that flew high above, belonging nowhere and everywhere.

I discovered the library, seeking refuge among its steel and glass shelves with the SILENCE PLEASE warnings in red pasted on them. Sitting amidst the students there, oblivious of their intertwined legs beneath the desks, I wrote long letters home to Amma, one every month, updating her with the happenings in my world. Each letter ending with an account of my carefully managed expenses.

I wrote longer letters to my friends.

Edi, people eat only beef over here. And freshwater fish. Who even eats freshwater fish??”

Edi, our computer prof is cute!”

I wondered why people spit as I gingerly made my way to the bus stand every morning, avoiding the tiny gelatinous puddles of grey sparkling like dew drops on a field. 

I didn’t write about that to anyone.


I noticed you for the first time when the semester exam results came and you stood first; the boy who sat quietly in the last row in that class of sixty, stood first. I thought you were a buddhi-jeevi: big brown eyes behind glasses, freckled face, brown hair and pink lips. 

I was standing behind you at the canteen when you ordered your lunch: fish curry meals with a side of fried fish, the same everyday. Your voice made me shiver.

I noticed how you dozed away in class in the afternoons, when the heat blanketed all and the old fans in the ceiling above went phir-phir-phir cutting through the sweat laden air.

I noticed how your fingers were long and slender, their tips pink.

You were behind me at the train station booking tickets for the same overnight train home, I was surprised to see you there. You asked me where I would get off; I was glad that you would be on the train with me for at least two hours of that overnight journey.

Those two hours with you, I spoke the most I had ever spoken with anyone. I didn’t want your station to come; when it came, I didn’t want you to get off. The rest of the journey to my hometown, I couldn’t wait to take the train back to university.

I never missed class; always among the first to leave the hostel in the mornings to catch the bus to class, to be there in class when you walked in, to smile and in turn catch your smile. In the evenings after class, we went to the Danish Cool Bar for ice-cream sundaes. On Saturdays, I sat behind you on your motorbike as we rode into town to watch a movie, any movie. Followed by dinner at the KTDC Motel on the highway outside town. 

I began to enjoy parotta and beef fry, to not miss my favourite Mathi as much.

You continued standing first in the examinations, I was close behind.

I wondered where this road led to, what would Amma say? I was glad Achamma was no more – you are one of those bearded ones, even if you didn’t actually sport one. I knew the drama that would ensue at home when I announced you to Amma – the emotional blackmail, the threats of suicide. I didn’t know if I could handle any of that. 

I was afraid to find out.

In our final year at university, you grew insistent, asking me again and again to introduce you to my family. You had already told your family about me; that wasn’t easy for you either.

But I needed more time.

It was on the day of our convocation – when you stood first and I was close behind – that you broke up with me.


I moved over here, to this city on the other side of the mountains, staying in a PG – its rooms stacked one on the other, like a tower of Lego blocks perched precariously on its tiny plot. Pictures of you – on the bus from the Study Tour, backstage at the Arts Fest – I buried deep inside the old tin trunk at Amma’s house back in my hometown.

Amma, I am so happy,” I lied every Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO down the lane from my PG.

I spent the afternoons in the Cyber-cafe behind the PCO, scanning the Yahoo group messages from our friends: “this company here (or maybe that company there) is calling freshers.”

I wondered if wanting a job wasn’t reason enough when the interviewer asked me, “Why do you want to work for us?”

Two months after I arrived, I got a job.

Amma, I have to join next month. I am so happy,” I did not lie, that Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO.

I learnt the city’s language, watched its movies, explored it with my new friends. I spent hours in my favourite bookshop, peering at the overflowing shelves before making my way – a pile of books in hand – to my favourite cafe. Sitting by the huge window, beneath the vintage photographs that hung on its walls, I fell in love with the throbbing city on the other side.

Alone and frightened when it burst into riots after its famous actor was kidnapped, I wondered if the city’s charms were deceptive, a veneer beneath which lay something else, somebody else.

I was still angry, the jagged edges of the void that you left behind still hurt. I nodded as my colleagues derided the bearded ones.

“They are troublemakers, up to no good.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“They are waging holy war against our women.”

Our women?”

I wondered if I was a victim of holy war, of any war. I laughed at the thought.

I wondered why I was the only one who explored the NON-VEGETARIAN section of the buffet table when my team went out to lunch.


I went abroad to the foreign land across the seas where I saw snow for the first time. I didn’t think the lighthouse on those white cliffs was as beautiful as the one in the fort back in my hometown.

Amma, strangers say luv to you in the shops,” I informed my mother using phone cards at 8 am on Saturday mornings.

Edi, they don’t spit on the roads over here,” I emailed my friends from university.

I saw him when I returned to the city. He was sitting in the cubicle near the exit door on my floor: grey eyes, a wispy brown moustache and no glasses. His fingers were long and slender, their tips pink. I saw his thread underneath his collar.

He said hello in the lift.

We went to the cinemas and the pubs, we went trekking in the hills outside the city, even spent hours at my favourite cafe. He was fascinated that I had learnt his language – often mentioning it to his friends. He read too, but while I worshipped Hannah Arendt, he preferred Ayn Rand.

I told him about Correa’s contribution to Brutalism after I made love to him in the hotel near Correa’s only high rise in the city, the two of us admiring its unfinished concrete surface and its periscopic tops through the window of our room.

We married two years after we first met in the lift. His parents didn’t approve – I didn’t belong, I wasn’t vegetarian. He put his foot down – it was me or nobody else.

We went abroad soon after. It was his idea – “I want to get away from here,” he said. “I want to make some money.”

Sitting in the foreign land across the seas, I watched as he scanned the internet for news from back home and raged against those who stole his river’s water, every time the city we left behind exploded into riots.

As the unbound river hops over lines on a map on its way to meet the sea, I wonder if it cares who drank its water.


Today the city is no longer the place I remember it to be.

The hotel where I brunched with him, is a shopping mall – steel and glass replacing the ancient halls surrounded by trees; the cinema where we watched movies straight from work, is a car showroom; the road in whose afternoon desolation we hung out with beer and oily potato chips, has traffic jams at 10 pm; the pub where he and I both fell in love with Jimmy Hendrix, now plays bhangra.

My colleagues who once ridiculed the bearded others discreetly, almost politely, now wear their spite openly. Our friends from university who once posted job openings on Yahoo groups, have now turned into WhatsApp uncles ranting about us and them.

I am not sure if they changed or I did. 

My favourite book shop and cafe remain unchanged, anchoring the city of my memory under dark clouds.

The wayward river still upsets him, now abusing drivers with number plates that don’t belong. When my friends drop by, he interrogates them, ignoring them if they can’t speak his language. He seeks out people like him – Facebook groups of those who belong, among whom he derides those who don’t.

I adjust into my new routine – cooking the vegetarian food of his parents before leaving for work, taking my son out every weekend for a treat of sausages and steak with fried eggs on the side, even joining Appa’s prayers once every week – not telling anyone that the last time I prayed was at my school assembly.

I wonder if this is what Achamma was worried about, I tell myself that at least I am not covered up.

I call up Amma every morning during my commute, speaking to her in the language of my childhood. “Amma, we are all fine here,” I am economical with the truth every morning at 8 am inside the metro train.

I fished out your pictures from Amma’s old tin trunk and digitized them. 

I wonder if I’m a migratory bird.

Minal V M is a writer from Bangalore, India. Or at least he thinks he is. He considers himself a late bloomer – having actually started writing fiction only in his 40s after his father passed away. He thinks it’s a coping mechanism, but if it helps why knock it. When he is not writing, he reads. A hell of a lot. While he would love to be published in all the great journals, until now it’s been mostly Twitter (@PPuzhu) and Medium ( and an archival site ( that he wishes he spent more time on.
He would also like you to know that he’s on the spectrum. Ever since he was late diagnosed – in his 40s, after his father passed away – he loves to drop that tidbit on his unsuspecting audience. That kind of explains a lot though, if you think about it.

Poetry | ‘For Yoshiko Uchida’, ‘Pumping Gas in Central Point, Oregon’ by Zack Rogow | Issue 42, March 2023

For Yoshiko Uchida

Not long after World War II,
when Japan was still rebuilding
its cities and its identity,
the young American writer Yoshiko Uchida
went back to the country of her parents’ birth
to study the great potter, Shoji Hamada.

One day, watching the agèd potter glaze
a ripe red line near the lip
of a new black bowl, she asked,
“Master Hamada, why
don’t you ever sign your pots?
You have so many imitators.
How are they going to tell your work
apart in the future?”

Hamada stared at his bowl. “My worst work
will be attributed to my imitators.”
He gazed at the young woman
through his circular spectacles
with their round, black rims.
“Their best work will
be attributed to me.”


Pumping Gas in Central Point, Oregon

Excuse me, sorry, state law!
You can’t pump the gas yourself here in Oregon.
Should I top it off with premium?

See from your plates you’re from California.
You’ve collected enough bugs on that windshield
to start a museum. I’ll clean it for you.

You here for Shakespeare?
Lotta people drive up for the festival.

Where you from in California?
Really? I was born right near there,
before the yuppies and the hipsters moved in
and the prices zoomed.
So I moved up here.
Plenty of folks in Oregon
hair as gray as mine.

Don’t speed, now.
The cops don’t even bother
with sirens anymore.
They pop a picture
and the ticket arrives in the mail
like you ordered it online.

Shouldn’t chew your ear off.
You got someplace to go.

Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.
You know I used to pump gas
when I was a teenager.
Never thought I’d still be doing that
at my age.

Zack Rogow is author, editor, or translator of more than twenty books or plays. His ninth book of poems, Irreverent Litanies, was published by Regal House. His play Colette Uncensored ran in London and San Francisco. He serves as a contributing editor for Catamaran Literary Reader. His degrees of are from Yale University and the City University of New York.

Short Fiction | ‘The Curry Cartel’ by Shyala Smith | Issue 42, March 2023

      Sathya was on the run. For the second time in her short life.


    The day had the usual melding between the last dark and first light, also known as ‘the time devils climb trees’. Sathya was wide-awake. The colonial house of her great grandfather was woefully quiet, even the wooden boards of the upper floor lay still. She should have guessed. It signalled what would be an unusual day.  

    Her morning itinerary included meeting up with a friend at the newly opened brunch spot. A round of ‘good boy, good girl’ to the twenty three mongrels gracing their sprawling city home was the expected ritual from the verandah leading up to the garage. She stopped at Appa’s blue metallic Mercedes Benz, her own white and less obvious Toyota Vitz parked beside it. Appa deemed it necessary every home should be graced by the two. One signifying wealth, the other for when the rest of their five vehicles broke down. Sathya chose the Mercedes Benz.

 “Hey Mercedes, take me to DELO,” she commanded.

 The Mercedes AI flared up the control panel, “You’ll arrive at your destination in 18 minutes.” 

“Hey Mercedes, turn on the radio.” The AI dutifully tuned on Gold FM. The morning bulletin was wrapping up.

   The import ban to continue with turmeric prices reaching an all-time high

    Sathya drove along their graceful tree-lined driveway as the security uncle opened the large wrought-iron gates. She floored the accelerator, only to be greeted by the first set of traffic lights. Cruising to a halt, she was about to command the car’s AI, when a man fumbled with the passenger door. Double-checking the lock, she accidentally unlocked the door. The tall, lean man’s reflexes were quick, connecting with the split second release. He struggled to get in mistiming his entrance and the low ground clearance of the vehicle. There was something paralyzing, yet soothing about the situation. 

“Drive!” the man commanded.

 Sathya did not ask where or why. Obeying, she hit the pedal as the traffic light turned amber. 

 “Take the next right. Rerouting. Make a U-Turn,” the AI’s prompt response. 

 “Crap! How do you turn this thing off!” Sathya waved her arms in front of the touchscreen, then attacked the dashboard. 

 “Aye, where’s your car?” the man spat out. 

 “How was I to know today would be the day we’d have to run?” Sathya testily retorted. 

 “Tch, every day is a good day to think it would be the day to run! Aiyo, you and your fancy cars!” he smirked and kept a steady gaze on the side mirror. 

 If she lost her calm, things would spiral into chaos. She fixed her eyes firmly ahead. There was only the present and the future. The phone ringtone filled the car with Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’.  

Eyes. On. The. Road. 

 A distracted fraction of a second was all it took as she averted her eyes from the road and onto the dashboard screen to check the caller ID. Dread seeped into her veins and the pit of her stomach churned – Appa was calling. The man whose loins failed to produce a male firstborn. His disappointment became her punishment; he relinquished the name he cherished for a son upon her. Relatives consoled – there would always be another. Appa was blessed abundantly; other subsequent attempts produced more vaginas. 

 He could be calling to yell at her for taking his favourite car. 

 He could be calling to ask if she’ll be home for lunch. 

 He could be calling to ask if she knew why the police were at their gate. 

   Sathya subconsciously touched the thick bangle on her right wrist. The one Appa placed there when she became a big girl. A party he so proudly threw to let the community know his daughter had come of age. The puberty party with zero shame. The most extravagant announcement besides a woman’s wedding, signaling to the community that ‘Sathya henceforth can bear children, infertility be damned!’ Wildly embarrassed, she begged her parents not to throw the party. Appa retorted she was their eldest, therefore it was something they awaited with grand expectation. 

 Appa was the richest gold jeweler on Sea Street. Her parents were eternally ashamed when she turned up at social functions with the single gold bangle. 

 The gold bangle now weighed heavily on her slim wrist.

 “Tch, they know,” the man said. Sathya felt the stab deep in her heart. Tears held up by a wall of black kajal. 

   Racking up kilometres, they soon left Colombo behind, precariously on the outskirts of the city, territory Sathya was unfamiliar with. The man hand signalled the course, and she dutifully followed every gesticulation. The area was populated with warehouses and crater filled concrete roads, not meant for a Mercedes. At an opening that bordered a canal, he gestured to stop. 

 “Vishan, is it safe to stop here?” 

Vishan was halfway out the door, hitting his head as he clambered out. Slamming the door shut with venom. She gently lowered her head to rest on the steering wheel, and contemplated many things. 

“Sathya!” Vishan shouted. “Aiyo! These number plates were for your car. Doesn’t fit!” 

 “I’m sorry!” she spat out, “Is it too late to go back? Appa can get the best lawyer!”

 “Tch, are you mad? You will go to jail! At least until your father begs, pleads, and pays the real crooks. Miss. Gucci, do you even know what jail looks like? Dumbass!”

 In the past, there had been two instances where an act of violence was administered. When Sathya’s father struck her on the face for having a boyfriend, and the other for failing a class. Vishan’s bitter words twisted in her bowels. Despite her father being the most respected businessman in upper echelons, he still has to grovel at the majority’s feet. 

   The air was laced with dust, was it cement? Sathya felt a familiar sense of panic. Her inhaler. Was it in her bag? Frantically fumbling into her handbag, she dumped the clutter onto the seat. The thought struck – of course, it was in her car! The only thing close to a punching bag was Vishan. He was blessed with a punchable face. The scars etched into his face and arms told the story of a brazen young man in and out of prison proving his worth with a million fights. She dumped her rage by feebly kicking the Pirelli tyres. Prison might not be such a grand idea after all. 

 The long-abandoned phone kept on vibrating. It hadn’t stopped once. The only option was taking it apart. Sathya hurled it to the ground, hoping for a satisfying end. The phone bounced back. 

 “Tch, the cover. Take off the cover,” Vishan said with his cigarette loosely hanging off his lips.

 “Argh! Should have thrown it into the lagoon!” 


Again in the driver’s seat.
Again fugitives. 


  Sathya did not possess fear; as a result, she hadn’t considered the probability of getting caught. She’d only been doing it for two years, ever since coming back from university. 

“Did you know they once kidnapped me!” Sathya proudly proclaimed. 

 Vishan squared his shoulders and sunk deeper into the seat. 


   The day she got her exam results. The men grabbed her and bundled her into a van. If there was fear to be experienced, there wasn’t time. The first thought her brain could faintly manage; she wasn’t properly attired – short skirt, tight tank and heels was not ideal. Even in the event of a bomb attack. The situation in the country was escalating; Sathya had spent a lot of her time considering her young life ending ‘death by bomb attack’. Her only deal with God – she shouldn’t be found barely alive and dismembered in a mess of severed bodies. 

   The men were not from the city. Their dialect had a distinct Northern drawl, punctured with lower jowl movements as if they were chewing betel. Thangachi was how they referred to her in fake brotherly affection and dropping it too frequently. They informed that they would not hurt her. Sathya used brute force and propelled her short legs towards them, soon realising how ineffective that was. Undoubtedly tired of her valiant efforts, they handcuffed her hands behind her back. And tied her legs together for good measure. Going about it rather carefully by not exposing too much, for which she was grateful. Mercilessly, she used her jaws to clamp down on some flesh, prompting the man on her right to yelp in pain. Having none of it, they gagged her and pulled a pillowcase over her head.  

  The mental time stamp was somewhere around the 3:30 pm mark at the time of her capture. With schools closed, there would be no traffic until the 5 pm work commute began. The roads in the city were dotted with military checkpoints. Surely they would get stopped. Instead, the van came to a halt after an eternal passage of potholes. The two men lifted her out of the van. 

 “Ey, what is that?” A man asked in the distance.  

 They propped her on a metal chair. An older man appeared and began yelling at the men in filth. The litany of apologies, comic. The dialect was too pronounced, and they were speaking too fast for Sathya to make sense. 

She felt his hand on her shoulder. He levelled his face over hers, the pillowcase serving as the only barrier. Maybe this was it. They were about to torture her.

 “There has been a misunderstanding. These bastards shouldn’t have taken you. We are going to take you back. Don’t worry, no harm will come of it,” he said. 

The men silently cursed and lifted her up and back into the van. The entire journey had them contemplating on where they should dump her. The word dump making her shudder. The van came to a jarring halt. The two men lifted her out and set her down. 

 “Take off the rope on her legs, idiot,” the driver yelled. Sathya stood rooted to the ground, mostly because her heels had sunk into the mire. She waited until the air was still. Removing the pillowcase from her head wasn’t of much use. The place was dark as an abyss. Giving up the attempt to take off the handcuffs, she concentrated on taking off the wretched shoes. There was a house in the distance. This is probably what people mean when they say ‘God knows where’. The middle-aged woman of the house stood petrified. Screaming out the names of her entire brethren to point out the spectacle in front of her eyes; the short girl in a short skirt and handcuffed hands. 

 The household was still gaping when she conversed in their language. They could tell she was of the other kind. The woman empathetic enough let her use their land phone, diligently inputting the number she provided and helped her to a glass of water. 

 Appa answered the phone on the first ring. He howled hauntingly. 

 Sathya had to wait over an hour. During the elapsed time, the village had gathered. She repeated her story as a new one took the other’s place. Them marvelling at her broken vocabulary. She wondered how they seemed rather comfortable in her presence, still in handcuffs with no check for any concealed weapons. If this happened in the city, the prompt response would have been running inside, locking all doors and calling every single police unit in the country. Sathya thanked her outfit. 

  Appa arrived with the police, along with her uncles and cousins. She expected no less. Sathya was the recipient of a gracious hug from Appa, counting it as her eleventh.  

   Back in the safety of their mansion, Appa was still an inconsolable mess. He later revealed that a faction of the terrorist organization had repeatedly asked him for funding. Appa wasn’t politically motivated. Keeping a low profile, he politely declined. The ploy for funding was the kidnapping. He elaborated, the group were goons and acted on their own to gain favour with one of their leaders. As soon as Appa was alerted about the kidnapping, he pleaded with a few prominent figures in government. They located Sathya, the goons, the boss, and came to an amicable settlement. 

   They had gone almost ten kilometres when Vishan ventured, “Ah, that’s why you were sent to America!” Sathya was ordered not to return. No one expected the end of the war.  Sathya returned with an Arts degree and a drug habit.


   Sathya and Vishan covered the West Coast in silence. Vishan on his eighteenth cigarette. The window on his side was down and flecks of ash settled into her curly hair. He casually directed her with hand gesturing, though the gestures became infrequent. The road was long and dusty, with occasional stops for buffalo crossings. They had become too comfortable. 

“Vishan! Is that a checkpoint?” 

He crouched low for a better look, a military checkpoint. Sathya checked the dashboard, she was driving at 100km/h when the speed limit was 60km/h. 

Vishan let out a low whistle and relaxed, his eyes on the side mirror watching the checkpoint disappear behind a cloud of dust. Of course, they wouldn’t dare stop a Mercedes. She thanked Appa’s car. 

Appa would have called every high-profile lawyer in town. Her mother would have contemplated the questions of the nosy neighbours and composed her answers. Her sisters probably updated their social media handles in a desperate bid with #missing to elicit the sympathy of their followers. 

They know. Sathya Ramalingam is a dealer. 


   The country was a different place when Sathya returned. Everyone seemed to have a false sense of freedom and an empty volume of happiness. Piety had set in amongst the returnees to prepare for marriage into the next wealth index and spawn a generation ready to be inculcated into life on a complex island.

 Sathya’s relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend was based on drugs and sex. If that was love, she embraced it. Her mother tried palming Sathya off to a wealthy heir of a garment manufacturing business. As each day blurred into the next, her drug experimentation gained momentum. One night her boyfriend picked up a man called Vishan from Hulftsdorp. Smoking up they made their way to Club Voodoo, an establishment Sathya on any other day would avoid. Vishan remained quiet throughout the journey. As soon as they entered the place, Vishan pointed her towards the bar. Before she could clarify, they disappeared into the haze, leaving her behind in a dimly lit, smoke-filled environment. Fifteen minutes had elapsed before they reappeared with happier moods and flowing wallets. Vishan and Sathya had nothing in common. Vishan had a strange candour that she soon appreciated. Vishan’s father a drug lord in a neighbourhood bordering the prison, Kalu Pol as he was affectionately called was a charming man, always ready to spare a dangerous story. It drew Sathya into their world. Where in hers there were closed doors, hushed voices and outward impeccable records; the ghetto was open about their illegitimate children, affairs and misdemeanors. Even the advice was wholesome – Never Do Drugs!

   Vishan occasionally had a joint or two. His vice- gin and tonic and two packs a day. Having studied in a prominent city school, he pursued higher studies in India. Vishan’s foray into drug dealing was purely accidental. His father’s friend roped him into delivering a package. Caught with 1kg of marijuana, a crime so insignificant yet he served the same sentence as a hardened criminal. Even after all these years, you could tell the bitterness still churned in his mouth. 


  The journey to the north was uneventful. They didn’t risk it by stopping to eat. Besides, there was no desire to. They stopped to top up the tank, and empty their bladders. More Vishan’s than hers. 

 “Ok, stop!” Vishan commanded. This time the silence was different, unsettling. Vishan seemed at war with his thoughts. Sathya watched him intently, his sharp jawline set, his brows furrowed. His curly locks framing his face. 

 “Are you going to kill me?” she asked, penetrating her brown irises with his black murky ones. 

 “Dumbass! Aiyo, I want to ask you. Is this what you want?”

 “What choice do I have?” 

  Sathya had never heard him laugh. He had a laugh deep in the soul that bubbled forth to the surface with childlike innocence. 


 “This is funny, no?”

 Sathya didn’t see the humour. 

 “Give me the keys,” he said.

 She tossed it over to him. “I’m sorry, Appa,” praying the words would linger in the air long enough until the police returned the car back to him. 

  Sathya slung her handbag over her shoulder and walked to the edge of the makeshift dock. The evening faded. She watched the southern coast of India turn on their lights. The dock was enveloped in a brilliant beam. Sathya cleared her eyes in quick succession to rid herself of the circles in her vision. A trawler edged close. Vishan and Sathya waited in silence. The men clambered onto the barely there dock and unloaded the goods.


  First, large amounts of fish. Second, huge chunks of ice blocks.

 Laughing at their crude jokes while hacking at the ice chunks and harvesting an assortment of drugs and Turmeric. Sathya was fascinated, having never seen it happen before. 

 Vishan threw Sathya a packet. She sneaked a look at the dull yellow powder. 

 “Splendid stuff. Worth a lot,” Vishan said jovially.

  Sathya hurled the packet at him. She remembered the day its quality impressed her mother and aunts, and the rich golden hue it cast on the curries. The men had finished unloading. Nodding in her direction. Sathya gingerly placed her right leg onto the unsteady trawler. As her leg left the ground that bore her, she chose never to return.

Shyala Smith hails from Sri Lanka. Transitioning from her 17-year career in advertising, she is now pursuing screenwriting in London. She also works for an orchestra producing content for digital platforms. Shyala writes young adult, picture books, and adult novels. Her debut picture book, published by Tate Publishing, UK, will be out in 2023.

Excerpt | from ‘Story of the Sikhs’ by Sarbpreet Singh (Penguin, 2021) | Issue 42, March 2023

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India
Chapter 12 ‘Immutable’ (Partial)

There is great joy in Amritsar today. Women of modest means but rich in happiness walk the streets bearing baskets laden with flowers. Men and women, dressed in their best clothes, are buying flowers by the basketful. Some women twist flowers into garlands. Others pluck the petals to create colourful, fragrant mounds. The men decorate their shops, and the bazaars resound with the joyous sound of laughter. Men, women and children frolic in the streets, running hither and thither in excitement. People from the surrounding villages are flocking to the town.

The Har Mandar Sahib is teeming with the faithful, lost in the melodious sounds of hymns being sung. Is a King approaching? No! The master of the three worlds himself is nigh. Is it a tyrant? Who builds prisons and uses force to oppress the people? Far from it. It is the Emancipator. The one who shatters the gates of prisons. The one who believes in the reign of love. The one who provides relief and sanctuary to the poor, the orphaned, and the weak. Not a king who rules by fear, but one that is lovingly seated on the throne of every heart. They revere him, not because they fear his power or because they seek to benefit, but because the vastness of his heart makes their hearts swell as well. Yes, he bears swords, but these are not to be feared, for they are instruments of liberation from tyranny.

Today, the fount of love, who provided shelter from the chilling rain of oppression, is returning to Amritsar. As he nears the city and beholds the golden glow of happiness that suffuses it, he dismounts and continues on foot. He sees the throng of the faithful approaching. On one side Baba Buddha, Bhai Jetha, and the other Sikhs shine like stars in the firmament as they sing hymns of joy. On the other, Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Saindas, and other Sikhs, heads bowed in humility, eyes shining with love, approach to the sound of hymns, their hearts affixed on their master. The joy of reunion is indescribable.

The cavalcade proceeds directly to the Har Mandar Sahib. A beautiful service concludes with the Ardas or the communal prayer, and then the Guru ventures out into the town. The streets are packed. Women fill all the balconies along the streets that the Guru walks. A rain of fragrant petals falls everywhere. The Guru walks through the joyous crowds, drenched in love like a regal swan. Finally, he reaches his home where his mother, Mata Ganga, awaits. Mata Ganga who has patiently and serenely waited for her son and her Guru to return for years. The Guru respectfully bows to his mother who clutches him to her chest and then tries to salute him by bowing. The Guru smiles and stops her. Who can understand the ways of these exalted beings?

The conversations continue into the night, until it is time to return to the Har Mandar Sahib. After so many years, the Guru is present again as the melodious strains of the Asa Di Var fill the serene surroundings of the Har Mandar Sahib.

This is my translation of Bhai Vir Singh’s imagining of the Guru’s return to Amritsar.

A Sikh trader from Kabul, Bhagmal, had heard that Guru Hargobind was fond of fine horses. He searched from Kabul to Bukhara until he found a steed worthy of his master and purchased it at great expense. He bought several more horses, intending to sell them, and hid the Guru’s horse, covered with tattered rags, in his herd, as he made his way towards Amritsar. He was of course fearful that such a fine animal would attract the attention of Mughal officers, who might try to appropriate it for their own use, or as a gift to curry favour with the Emperor Jahangir or his sons.

When he reached Lahore, the provincial capital of the Punjab, much to his chagrin the horse caught the eye of the Mughal Governor, who decided to acquire it for the Prince Shahabuddin. When Bhagmal protested that the horse was not for sale, the governor simply confiscated it! Bhagmal hastened to Amritsar and angrily told Guru Hargobind the sorry tale, who quite unperturbed, advised him to be patient.

There was much consternation in the royal stables. The prince’s new horse refused to eat! He developed quite an attitude and would stand on three legs, as though the fourth were injured, angrily whinnying if anyone tried to approach. The prince’s mentor, the Qazi Rustam, was summoned and the horse was handed over to him, in the hope that he might be able to calm the animal down, perhaps by reciting a few sacred verses! 

Of course, nothing the Qazi tried had an impact on the horse’s temperament. Aware of the fact that the horse had been intended for Guru Hargobind, he decided to sell the horse to the Guru. Once the horse was in the Guru’s stables, his health and temperament were restored, and his strength and beauty attracted attention far and wide. The Qazi was annoyed and felt that he had somehow been cheated, having parted with the magnificent horse for a pittance!

Rustam had a young daughter named Kaulan, who was extremely devout. She was a follower of the Sufi saint Miyan Mir, who had been a dear friend and beloved follower of Guru Arjan’s. Kaulan would spend hours at Miyan Mir’s compound, listening to discourses and recitations of Guru Arjan’s hymns, which she would memorize and continue to recite when she got home. Her father, of course, was incensed! ‘How dare you! You are Muslim and the daughter of a Qazi! It is an offence to recite the writings of the infidels!’ Kaulan would calmly ignore his rantings and continue with her devotions, angering her father even more.

Once Rustam realized that his daughter was intent of defying him, he grew irrationally angry and sought the counsel of his fellow Qazis. It was determined that Kaulan was an apostate and the only appropriate punishment was execution. A fatwa or decree was issued to that effect.

Kaulan’s mother, terrified at the prospect of her daughter’s execution, rushed her to Miyan Mir. The old sage was much saddened but could find no way out of the dilemma. But then a solution presented itself. He summoned one of his attendants, Abdullah Shah, and gave him these instructions: ‘The girl is in danger and I cannot protect her. Since a fatwa has been issued, the Qazis can have her seized at any moment. Make haste and take her to Amritsar. The Guru always provides shelter to the needy. Besides, nobody can dare to forcibly bring her back if she is under his protection.’

Guru Hargobind received Abdullah Shah and Kaulan with great courtesy out of respect for Miyan Mir, and when he heard the whole sorry tale, offered her shelter without hesitation. Kaulan was given clothes and provisions from the Langar, and a room was prepared for her. Pleased with her humble demeanour and devoutness, he said, ‘There is no reason for you to be fearful anymore. Even if the Emperor himself came here, he would be unable to take you away by force.  This is your home now and nobody will ever harass you or interfere with your devotions again.’

Thus Qazi Rustam’s daughter Kaulan came to live in Amritsar.

In the Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Giani Gian Singh offers this account of Kaulan after her arrival in Amritsar.

Kaulan started her new life with great joy, spending her time in prayer and service, getting even more intensely attached to the Guru. While her connection with the Guru was intensely spiritual, she was completely in the thrall of her master and slowly her feelings began to change. One day, she visited the Guru’s private quarters and had a wonderful time playing with one of his young sons. As she was playing with the lad, she found herself thinking, ‘What if my relationship with the Guru were different? What if I bore him a son?’

After returning to her room, Kaulan fell into a daze. She stopped eating and drinking and affixed her mind on the Guru. Just as the Hindu God Ram visited the aboriginal woman, drenched in his love, and Lord Krishna visited Draupadi, who was intensely enamoured of him, Guru Hargobind visited the home of his devotee, and was surprised to find her senseless.

When Kaulan was revived, she bowed to the Guru and sat at his feet, obviously distraught and miserable. ‘What is the matter Kaulan? Why are you in this state? Did someone insult you or try to molest you? Have you been robbed? Or perhaps you are unwell?  Tell me! Truthfully!’

Sarbpreet Singh is a writer, podcaster and commentator. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Night of the Restless Spirits and the bestselling The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, and the writer-narrator of the Story of The Sikhs podcast which has listeners in over ninety countries.