Creative Writing Workshop | ‘I Just Love You’ – Fiction by Madhurika Sankar

I Just Love You

Twenty years ago, I made a mistake. 

“You’re embarrassing me, and yourself. Stop hounding me. What’s the matter with you?” I’d said, and those were the last words I exchanged with Shahnaz. The sun was beating down and we sought shelter in the mangroves. Even there, she found an excuse to sidle up to me that afternoon. I erupted. Our classmates were watching. The crows were cawing. The cola drinks in our hands were fizzing. 

“You look beautiful, today,” she said, and I sprung back in embarrassment.

She didn’t know then that I was unhappy. She couldn’t possibly understand that it was not a rejection of her character, or her nature, but of her sex. I liked men. Back then, boys. And it was a rejection of her unfettered, gushing and blind adoration at the most awkward moments.

“Your girlfriend is here,” Sonal would tease every time Shahnaz came to the library and I had to endure her longing stares from above the textbook she pretended to read, the room cold with the air conditioning humming in the behind.

I longed to be done with the day at university and be back home, and listen to music. I longed to be done with my degree, and hated every moment of it; it unfolded like a slowly enacted, directionless, meaningless plot to a movie. No excitement, no momentum. Just drudgery. And slow decay. And Shahnaz, hounding me at every turn.

I don’t think I am unkind. I wished the watchman a good morning at our university’s gates, every day, and fed stray dogs during lunch. For the first six months, I even took the bus to campus so I would not appear privileged. I liked people and people liked me. But Shahnaz’s constant and gratingly overt expressions of affection were getting hard to bear.

“Give her a break, girl,” Sonal would say, even as she found the situation amusing. “This is India. And, on top of that, she comes from a community where it’s probably unheard of, to be, you know, like that. She probably, just doesn’t know how to handle it.”

And so, I did. When Shahnaz gave me a red rose on Valentine’s Day, I dug my nails into the palms of my hands and accepted the flower, graciously. When she was one of the first to email me, I wrote back politely. I never disparaged her or talked about her to friends with leading questions. But, coming up to me, several times in public, and saying things like, “I just love you,” were hard to take. 

I had my share of admirers in the university, but there is a way to express admiration for superficial things. One smiles, coyly. One opens doors. Besides, they were all men and I had my own romantic tragedy to deal with: I was in love with Jay, the mechanical engineering senior, who would stare at me longingly, too, but never worked up the courage, in four years, to ask me out. It broke my young adult heart. What could I do? 

“Just go up to him and ask him out,” Sonal suggested often, half-seriously, mostly just wanting to put me out of my misery. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about it; I just knew in my heart that if it didn’t come from him, then something was probably missing. I know, the feminists at university would balk at that but that was how I was wired in my youth, and probably, still am.

I waited. And waited. Like the mosquitoes that pestered us in the canteen, digging into our youthful skin, Shahnaz would flit around me. The day I snapped at her had been particularly brutal. I was waiting for Jay by the campus convenience store, working up the courage to initiate conversation. I’d heard he was an excellent guitarist and I wanted to take lessons. Why not? If learning an instrument meant I could, also, pluck at the heartstrings of my man, it was a win-win situation.

I’d worn my red dress, the one that I believe he stared at with particular intensity and admiration, blow-dried my hair at the parlour the evening before. Sonal and some other classmates were milling about, close by, and we were drinking ice cold colas. I didn’t want to sweat and ruin my makeup, which I had applied carefully, to appear nonchalant. 

Jay walked right past me, though he did smile at me, briefly. I froze. That is when the incident occurred, the one with Shahnaz, the one where she told me I was beautiful. I lost my temper. The murmuring of my friends stopped and there was silence as I hollered at her. “Why do you do this?”I screamed. Insensitive words poured out of my mouth as I fought hard to stave the tears that were surfacing.

Shahnaz looked crestfallen and scampered away, in tears. Even Sonal looked a bit disappointed in me, but well, we’ve stayed friends through the years. Sonal has three kids and I have none, having never married. My unrequited infatuation with Jay would prove to be one of my more successful ventures in the romantic realm. I don’t know what it is with me – I’ve seemingly been given all of the advantages that’d make the trauma of dating easier, but none of the skills.

Last weekend, Sonal called me and said, “You remember that lanky girl, Shahnaz, the one…with the pimples? You won’t believe this but she’s got, umm, cancer… stage three cancer. Breast. It’s metastasized. Poor thing.” I was shocked. Stunned.

In my mind, Shahnaz had remained nineteen, wearing spectacles and being picked up by her brother on his scooter after college hours. The rare occasion when I’d thought of her or anything to do with that college after we’d graduated; I’d imagined her to have been married and happily ‘settled’ as they say. When the shock subsided, I was grateful to Sonal for not alluding to my checkered history with Shahnaz. She continued. 

“It is actually quite bad. A sad story,” Sonal continued. “She was in an abusive marriage apparently. Now, she is with her parents who’re taking care of her.”

“Where is she?” I asked, mutedly. 

“Here, in Chennai, only. I hear they can barely afford the hospital bills.”

I’m a family lawyer, kind of successful too. I could have helped her, I thought randomly. For the rest of the day, like a thorn wedged deep into my shank, I was unable to shake off thoughts about Shahnaz. I was disturbed. 

I waited until dusk, when the heat had dissipated, to stop with the obsessing. I needed a plan. I opened my laptop and logged on to my old email account, from university days, which I never used anymore. I dug up the exchange I’d had with Shahnaz, twenty years ago.

“I just love you,” it says here, as well. I ignore the words, pause for a moment at the white light glaring back at me, and then, click Reply.

“Dear Shahnaz, 

Hi! How are you? I just thought I would drop in a line and say hello. I am in Chennai, these days. Do write and say hello, if you get a moment.

Best,

I hit ‘Send’. The email isn’t rejected, indicating the account might still be active. I didn’t want to ask for her phone number. Perhaps, it was the embarrassment over the last interaction I had with the girl – woman – twenty years ago, and the look of disappointment on Sonal’s face I still, so vividly remember.) 

The response came later that evening, bringing me to this moment. I disembarked from my air-conditioned car and entered the tiny stand-alone house, painted pink, in a narrow by lane teeming with meshes of electricity wires and scrambling cyclists. 

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by an old lady, she must be her mother. 

“She’s expecting you. Shahnaz has been so excited all day, I had to calm her down with a tablet,” her mother confided, and immediately, a familiar pang of emotion resurfaced in me after twenty years – of resistance.

I was taken past a curtain which served as a door into a small bedroom and I was greeted by the sight of Shahnaz, hooked up to various tubes. She was post-surgical, something she’d failed to mention to me. I grimaced. I felt like a shameful intruder. 

Shahnaz’s eyes welled up.

“You look so beautiful,” she says, that adoration unadulterated in two decades. Something in me stirred. No one had said these words to me in a long time. She brought me up to speed on her recent and tragic past. I was vague about mine, and I appreciated that she didn’t pry.

The fan was making a continuous, clicking sound. I noticed her desktop computer was lit up and my email stood open on the screen. Shahnaz saw that I had noticed. 

“Some things don’t change, eh?” she joked, straining to get the words out.

I was not uncomfortable anymore. That had been replaced with something else. She was breathing with greater difficulty now, and her mother politely indicated to me that it was time I left. 

It was all over in fifteen minutes. As I handed her the flowers I bought for her, she held me firmly by the hands. 

“We could have been happy.” She said.

I inhaled and looked at her. “Yes, we could have.”

By the time I reached home, I had changed. I look up stage three breast cancer on my laptop. 

I searched for sexual diversity in minority communities, and then closed the browser window.

I open my email.

“Dear Jay,

How are you? I hope this finds you well. It’s been forever. There’s no easy way to segue to this but I’ve been wanting to say something for twenty years and feel I might as well just go right ahead and do it…”


Madhurika is an impact investor (vistariventures.com) and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu Op Ed. She’s an engineer by training and holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write but lives for music. Madhurika is working on her first full-length novel. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India.

Creative Writing Workshop | ‘Bollywood Menz Salon’ by Vaibhav Srivastava

Disclaimer: “This story is part of The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop. Changes and edits to the plot and theme of the story, suggested by The Bombay Review instructors were not accepted by the author.”

Bollywood Menz Salon

 

Gabriel and Peter were regulars at the Bollywood Menz Salon run by Jafar and Junaid. Gabriel and Peter were two competitive, business partners in the fast polarizing posters and billboards industry. So, while one was drawn to left leaning advertisers the other was meeting clients from the right. Jafar and Junaid were brothers, sons of a dead couple who had once fled Karachi over a murmur that Hindustan was going to be democratic and secular. 

They inherited the shop from their father and called it Bollywood Menz Salon, maybe it was destiny. Both their parents were crazy about cinema. Classics,  big-budget summer releases, animation, musicals, even merchandising: like posters, tapes and collectibles. They were fanatics when it came to movies and movie stars. They met Gabriel and Peter when they were looking for the top quality graphic decoration options for their barbershop. The collectibles they found and the posters they were able to put up in their shop really made the salon look every bit worthy of its name. From the walls to the windows their barbershop was a colorful montage of Bollywood. Love songs always played on the stereo whenever the shop was open for customers. 

***

Jafar – the careful – was sweeping the floor. It was an early Saturday morning. Glued to the TV set, Junaid was skipping through channels.

Gabriel and Peter were not really ‘frequenters‘ at the shop because, well, Peter’s hair took  longer to grow and frankly Gabriel had almost lost his hair. They entered the shop, deep in discussion, something about the growing intolerance in the neighborhood. 

“Everyone is equal and some are more equal than others, huh?” Peter said. 

Jafar looked at them like he would at any other first customer of the day. He was hoping that it would be a pleasant, non argumentative day. But what Gabriel and Peter were having was something which resonated with most people today, at least most with thinking minds and Jafar couldn’t help but get drawn in. He was a listener. 

Gabriel’s voice was loud when he replied, “Let it be, what have you got to do with all of it? Put your flag on the staff?”

“Brother, if this isn’t the tone one takes with an enemy then what is it?” Peter asked Jafar.

“People need adversaries so that they can get a sense of belonging with those they consider their own kind,” Jafar said.

“Such unity of the people! Dear God, we might as well be living in the United States of America,” Gabriel taunted.

“No nation is ever perfect,” Jafar added. 

Junaid got up after finally finding a decent movie to watch on the Sahara channel. “Come, sit,” he told Gabriel. They moved near the counter. Gabriel kept his mobile, glasses and wallet on the marble slab and sat down. Junaid began with his usual hair-cutting routine.

“We are witnessing ghettoization, I’m telling you,” said Peter. “This whole world will become a ghetto, divided into labels people themselves wouldn’t be able to tell apart. I feel existential myself. Wonder what category of people I fit in.”

“Poor, probably,” Gabriel laughed.

“What did you say?” Peter asked. “You called me poor? I’m doing okay for myself. I don’t need to hear anything from you about it.” 

He reached for the newspaper, sat back on the sofa in the corner of the shop and began to read. As Gabriel was getting his haircut, Peter would marvel loudly at happenings around the country mentioned in the daily, critiquing them, criticizing them and worrying on behalf of the world. 

“If the liquor ban was to ever get imposed here, I wonder how you’d survive a single day, Gabriel,” he said mockingly. Gabriel was fuming but he didn’t utter a word. He just sighed. 

Jafar didn’t like this banter and intervened. “Why do you always pull poor Gabriel’s leg, Peter? Brother Gabriel, did you bring those posters I asked you to?” Gabriel nodded quietly. Junaid was almost done with him.

“Here.” Peter said and produced a roll of posters from his side. Jafar reached for them carefully.

He stood there with the unrolled posters, mesmerized. “I like this one the most,” he said smiling. 

“Which one?” Junaid asked childishly, wrapping up with Gabriel. He came near Jafar and peeked at the poster in front of him. “It’s beautiful”, he exclaimed.

It was a burnt-out graphic print of the Bollywood megastar, Shahid Kapoor. In the poster, he was smiling, but there seemed to be some pain in his eyes. The duo considered the poster, it was pure art for them. Junaid washed his hands and went out to put up the poster on the window by the front door. In the meantime, Peter said to Gabriel, “You complain a lot. Did anything happen? Everybody knows things are bad, why can’t you  cut it out once in a while. The world is fighting like it always does, but how are you fooled by the show, the show all these political parties put up. What is this? Is it wrestling? Is this a sport? Stop being an invested spectator.” 

Gabriel was the kind of man who was always on the lookout for a fight. Gabriel knew who his enemies were. He was threatened and hurt and he never forgot about that.

“Who’s in the mood for some comedy? Let’s switch the channel to something light.” He rummaged through the channels till he found something worthwhile. Govinda was dancing in front of what looked like a multi-million dollar set. Surely, things don’t get better than that. Everybody loved to dance in Bollywood.

***

That was quite a weekend for Gabriel. Three of the clients he had been talking to had said no to him, until they agreed to sign a contract with Peter. That made him really sad. After a few months, he came to the barbershop, alone. It was almost closing time. Leaning against the outside wall, Junaid, wearing a Burman hat, smoking a cigarette, saw Gabriel come in. The weather was cold; Gabriel kept his golf jacket on the side table. His hair was a real mess, and he was as drunk as he could be, swinging-swaying. He sat down in front of the mirror and started rubbing his palms together for warmth.

“Peter,” he sniggered. “Thinks he is bigger than me. One day he will vanish. He’ll come calling after me then.”

“You’ll be in a grave by then if you keep drinking at this rate,” Jafar said. Suddenly, he noticed an injury on the side of Gabriel’s head. Blood was dripping down the right side of his face. All the way down to the floor. 

“Junaid, bring the first aid box here,” he said.

“You must be wondering how it happened. Don’t worry I’ll tell you,” Gabriel struggled to put his words together. “I went to Peter to tell him he was stealing all my clients. He said that all the connections were his own. He took my cut away from me. How could I not fight for what’s mine? He messed my head up.” 

Jafar and Junaid were shocked. “When I was leaving the office this afternoon, a group of men attacked me and shoved me to the ground. They kicked me, swore at me. I knew Peter sent them… Anyway, hey, Junaid! Get to my hair already! I’ve to be home. My wife is waiting for me.”  Jafar bandaged the side of his head before the haircut.

Peter and Gabriel remained drinking friends though. Month after month, for almost a couple of years now, Jafar and Junaid had seen the two show each other down over money issues but the drinking continued. The barbers were sure that the root of their problems was money.

One Monday morning, Peter came to the salon without Gabriel. At first he didn’t say a word, or act strange. He kept his eyes shut till the cut was nearly done. Jafar – the careful – asked him “Came all by yourself today?”

“So? You think of me as Gabriel’s dog? I can’t go anywhere without him?” 

Jafar eased, and explained to him that that was not what he meant. Peter calmed down immediately as well, and admitted that he had overreacted. 

“He’s been wasting my time and my money,” Peter told them. A Kavita Seth song was playing in the background softly. “Mind if I use the tap real quick?” he asked Jafar. Wiping his own hands in the towel Jafar signaled him to go ahead. 

“That day he said he was hungry, and asked me to buy him fruits, and sure! I paid for them, but you know, he is the kind of guy who is always looking to take advantage of one’s kindness. He bought more than he could eat, way more. And what do I see three days later? A cloth bag is hanging in the office, flies circling around it, and all the fruits had gone bad.” 

“He had hardly even touched them. And you know…..ah…. Sorry, I’m bothering you.”

“No. This is your home. You are our brother too. These things happen,” Jafar said. “Don’t mind Gabriel, I know he is foolish. Don’t let him take control of the business. He will only fail you again.” He added.“What did you say that to him for, huh?” Junaid asked.

“What?” Jafar looked at him plainly. “It’s business.”

It confused Junaid that his brother could say that and overlook the theft from another man’s pocket. When he was a boy, like a rag picker, Junaid would bring home tiny pieces of metal waste from the road. For him, it was a meaningless act but the perseverance with which his younger brother collected scrap impressed Jafar. To make his job easier Jafar tied a magnet to a yardstick for Junaid to take with him on his little hunts. Once he had collected enough pieces, with a blowtorch, they would melt them all down one by one and watch them change shape. Nothing could ever be permanent, they were told by their father, everything was temporary. One day when Junaid brought home a bronze coin he had nicked off a blind woman’s antique store, for his crime Jafar gave him a severe beating. He wanted his brother to know that greed was a terrible thing and stealing was truly vile. Junaid reminded his brother of that once Peter was gone.

“You are right. I cannot say such things so casually. People’s lives are their own, private.” Jafar admitted. “You know, I look around, and I feel grateful for the life I have. Our parents left us all of this. How can I not feel grateful for it? I feel indebted. I know things are tough, that is why Peter and Gabriel quarrel, but when the time is right, we will all be at peace, and happy. There is no guarantee it will be beautiful, but it will be peaceful.”

“I understand that. Just don’t interfere in the lives of others like that, that was almost the seeds of poison that you probably slipped into him today. You never know when you might disturb someone so much they set out to hurt you,” Junaid said, concerned for his brother. Times were hard.

Then one day what Junaid feared took place. Peter had come in to get his usual haircut and shave. Halfway through, a gang of men bearing party flags came flocking the narrow road outside Bollywood Menz Salon chanting absurd communal slogans. Their roar drowned the tune from the radio. From that crowd appeared Gabriel with a knife in his hand. Barging into the shop he tried to pierce the shiny silver blade through the chest of Peter. Jafar caught his hand at the right moment and the knife fell to the side. His eyes seemed to be troubled with a thirst for Peter’s blood, his jaws clenched so hard he could have bitten off his own tongue and made a mess of his mouth. Words failed Gabriel, vigorously shaking with hate his gaze turned to the mirror and caught a glimpse of his reflection. How could he not feel remorse? Carefully observing the pace of time slow down Jafar shoved and threw Gabriel out of his shop at once and told him never to come back again.

“You coward!” Peter screamed from over Jafar’s shoulder. “You tried to kill me. Sin has gotten the better of you. I thought you were my brother. Coward, come at me again, I dare you!” “I will strike you down. You are my enemy.” screamed Gabriel like a madman in the street outside Bollywood Menz Salon.

“He is not your enemy, doesn’t he have a right to live?” Junaid innocently yelled back as he stood behind the half-shut door, shivering.


Vaibhav Srivastava was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in 1995. He now works and lives in New Delhi. He experiments with various forms of writing like plays, poetry, prose, essays and journal. Find him at https://inkcircle.blogspot.com/

Feature of this piece on the TBR website is in line with our initiative to encourage new writers, and is not a part of the regular issues or publications of the magazine.

‘H4’ – Fiction by Vineet Deshpande | Creative Writing Workshop

H-4

Let’s meet at Mainland China, the one on SB road at 8 tonight. My Aai and Baba are coming and I would like to invite your parents as well. Is that alright? Please ask them to come.’ 

Rekha saw the text from Lakshman in office just after lunch and wondered why he had called both of their parents for dinner. They had decided to go to her favorite restaurant tonight but it was going to be just them.

Maybe something good had happened in Lakshman’s meeting with his manager. He was going to meet him today for his annual appraisal. Perhaps he had got the pay hike that he had talked about. She really hoped he had. Although Lakshman downplayed it in public, she had sensed there was a slight hint of anger and jealousy in him when their friends pointed out how Rekha was in a more senior position in her company than Lakshman. He never said anything directly, but she found him patronizing when he used clichés like “big fish in a small pond” to describe her company. They had not discussed their salaries; which was good for her. She did not want more awkwardness since she probably made more money than him. And yet,  he was good at his job and it would be good for him to get a pay rise. But that did not sound like the kind of news that one announces to both sets of parents. No, there must be something else.  

Rekha was still pondering over the text message while having lunch at her desk. Her team had gone to the canteen to have lunch and they would probably go for a walk or for some ice cream after that. She joined them once a week, on Fridays, to be a part of the team but on other days she enjoyed thirty minutes of solitude with her food at her desk. After lunch she started working again so that she could leave office in the evening around 6. She preferred this way of working than that of some of her male colleagues who spent a lot of time at lunch, tea breaks, smoke breaks, playing carrom and then stayed up till 10 in the night to cover up for lost time. She and her colleague, Fatima, were generally the first ones to reach the office. Fatima worked extremely hard and left at 5.30 to pick up her kids from daycare after which she went home and made dinner for her family. The same male colleagues were the ones who made snide jokes on Fatima taking a half day when she left in the evening. Rekha knew very well that Fatima worked more than others and managed her time extremely well in office. Luckily, being a team leader, she was able to highlight this to her boss. In most cases, the boss would have been impressed by employees who sent emails late at night to paint a picture of “hard work.” Of course, without knowing the whole story.

Rekha reached home shortly after 6. A big advantage of working in a smaller company was that they could have an office in the city and not in the far away Special Economic Zone. She was glad she didn’t have a 1–2hour commute like Lakshman every day. She entered the living room to find her parents fully dressed. “Get ready soon so we can leave,” said her mother. 

“Aai! We need to reach the restaurant at 8. It is not even 6.30 yet. Why are you both dressed already?” 

“We like to be prepared and punctual,” said her father.

“More like paranoid if you ask me. Anyway we will leave at 7.30. We will avoid traffic and the restaurant has valet parking”.

Rekha and Lakshman were getting married in December. They had met on an online marriage portal, a couple of months ago and had connected instantly. After meeting thrice and exchanging many text messages, and phone calls, they were pretty sure that they wanted to get married. They even had similar professions, and interests. However, Rekha was convinced by Savi, a friend, to take more time and get to know him more. Her mother was not pleased about this at all. She did not like Savi and thought the woman was a bad influence on Rekha. 

But the two friends had been inseparable, since a few years now. Rekha could always count on Savi to be completely honest with her.

In the car, on the way to the restaurant, Rekha’s parents were speculating why Lakshman had invited everyone for dinner on such short notice. They usually met once a month for lunch or dinner, but these meetings were planned by either of their mothers. 

***

Lakshman’s parents were there already. The five of them waited for him to reach. Both the mothers were talking about the wedding shopping. Their fathers were discussing politics. Rekha was more interested in politics than the shopping conversation, but she was a bit afraid of the argument which was slowly heating up. It was inevitable, always happened. Lakshman’s father was a staunch supporter of the ruling right-wing government while her father tilted towards the left, and hated the right’s divisive ideology. 

In their initial meetings her father just nodded along and was silent, but as they got more acquainted, he then argued, sometimes vehemently. Rekha tried to play peacemaker. She hated this divisive ideology too but knew from experience that Lakshman’s father was not going to back down on anything. She was just about to interject when she saw Lakshman entering the restaurant. Great timing, she thought as everyone stopped talking and greeted him. 

“Sorry sorry, the traffic was horrible,” said Lakshman, taking off his laptop bag and sitting down next to Rekha.

“That’s always the case on Fridays. Many people who have come to Pune for jobs go to their hometown for the weekend. So Nagar road is always packed on Friday evenings” explained Rekha.

“They should just stay in their hometowns. Why do they have to come to Pune to steal jobs and add to the traffic,” Lakshman’s father said, clearly still angry about their discussion earlier. 

“Didn’t Lakshman do the same thing when he was in Mumbai for his first job? In fact, you shifted from Nasik to Pune, yourself. What if someone tells you to go back to Nasik?” Rekha asked with an exasperated sigh.

“All this Nasik talk makes me thirsty for Sula Wine. Why don’t we order a bottle for the table?” said Lakshman.

“That’s a good idea. Then we can toast to whatever good news you’re going to give us,” Rekha smiled.

“How do you know it’s good news,?” Lakshman asked, looking up.

“Why else would you call everyone for dinner?”

“Okay, okay, since you are all so impatient, let me spill the beans. I had the annual performance review with my boss today. He was very happy with my work this year. In fact, he is so happy that he has selected me for an on-site project in the States! And the timing is perfect. The project starts in three months so Rekha and I can move there immediately after the wedding!”

“Wow, that’s such wonderful news. Congratulations beta!” roared Lakshman’s father.

“I’m so proud of you. All your hard work has paid off,” his mother said gushingly.

“How long will the project be on for Lakshman?” asked Rekha’s father.

“Can’t say Uncle. It should be three years at least but it can get extended to four depending on other factors. Maybe it will extend a lot and I can get my Green Card too!”

The rest of the evening passed in a daze for Rekha. She spoke very little and tried to focus on the food. But her usually favorite dishes seemed to have lost their taste today. She listened to everyone around the table bombard Lakshman with different questions about the USA interspersed with high praises. Her mother began discussing the shopping again with Lakshman’s mother; only this time the conversation had moved towards things which the couple would need  in the USA. 

Lakshman’s father started discussing American politics. At least this time both fathers seemed to be on the same page. Later, they planned a trip to the USA to see the Fall next year. Lakshman clearly enjoyed being the highlight of the evening, while everyone, unknowingly, ignored Rekha.

***

Rekha hardly spoke in the car on the way home. Her mother was on a high, discussing the news and the great adventure that awaited Lakshman and Rekha. Her father was listening, but soon enough he noticed that Rekha was unusually quiet since a long time.

“Everything okay Rekha? You’ve been very quiet all evening.”

“Yes, Baba. I’m just processing all of this.”

“What’s there to process? It is great news. Didn’t you always want to visit America? After seeing so many of their movies, sitcoms, and reading their  spy novels?” her mother asked.

“Aai, there’s a big difference between visiting for a month and moving for three or four years. Sure, I like to travel but this is different.”

“A lot of things change after marriage. But this is a good change. Anyway, you were going to move to Lakshman’s house right. Now you both get to live in a new house and a new country.”

“Rekha, I understand this is a lot to process right now. As with all big decisions and events, I find it best to sleep on it and think about it the next day,” said her father.

“I agree Baba. I am also tired. It has been a long week at work. I will be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I’m also meeting Savi after a long time and I always feel better after meeting her.”

“Don’t let her rebellious ideas get in your head. She’s the reason for this huge delay in the wedding. I don’t want her spoiling this too,” her mother retorted immediately.

“Savi’s my best friend and she’s an extremely smart and kind person. I wish you will see that someday Aai.”

“I’m sure your mother didn’t mean it like that, though Savi’s ideas are rebellious indeed,” said her father.

They reached home; Rekha wished her parents a good night and went into her room. She was tired but sleep eluded her. Her mind just would not shut off. 

Her phone chimed and she saw a text from Lakshman: ‘Good night my dear… Sweet (American) dreams!’. Rekha did not reply. She knew Lakshman was on a high and didn’t feel like deflating his enthusiasm with feelings which she was unsure about. Plus, looking at the blue screen late at night was guaranteed to make falling asleep even more difficult. She switched off her phone and wished that she could do the same with her thoughts.

***

Next morning, Rekha reached Savi’s apartment earlier than planned. As she was about to ring the bell, she saw a text message from Savi – ‘Rekki! I’m having a session with my therapist on Zoom. I’ll be out in 15 minutes. Let yourself in with your key. Sorry!’

Rekha entered Savi’s cozy apartment with the duplicate key which Savi had given her with an open invitation to crash there anytime she wanted. Rekha loved Savi’s apartment. It had a wonderful vibe to it and was tastefully decorated. She always felt at home there. Savi’s ever increasing book collection was lovely to browse. There were so many books there that she had never even heard of in her circle of friends, family, and colleagues. She was browsing through “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson when Savi came into the living room.

“Hey Rekki! It is great to see you after so long. How have you been?” said Savi, giving her a warm hug.

“I’m okay. How’s it going with you?.

“I am well. We are a bit short staffed currently at Beans & Books so it is a bit hectic. A bookstore cafe means double the work. On weekends, the counselling sessions keep me busy.”

“That sounds like a packed week indeed! Hope you can hire someone soon. So, that was your therapist on the call now, right?  I am surprised that you continue meeting her even though you counsel so many others yourself.”

“Well, my problems are different from others. And it is hard to work on your own problems yourself. One needs a different perspective, and it helps a lot when it comes from professionals. I have seen so many people avoid seeking help for their mental health. They will go to the doctor for a simple cold but refuse to seek help or even acknowledge minor mental health problems. Anyway, I can understand from your tone that something is troubling you. What’s up?”

Rekha gave a wry smile to her perceptive friend. “Can we make some coffee first?”

Over a cup of strong, steaming hot filter coffee Rekha explained the previous day’s events to Savi. It had been a difficult evening and night for her, but she felt better after talking about it.

Savi waited for Rekha to finish and said, “I hope you’ve talked to Lakshman?”

“Not yet, I am going to meet him later.”

“How do you feel about moving to the States?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I know I will like some aspects of it and my mother is right. I have always dreamt of going there having grown up on American pop culture. But Lakshman’s project is not a short one. It will go on for 3-4 years at least. Plus I am really enjoying my work right now. This was my first job after 4 years of Engineering and today I am leading a very talented team. It is hard work sure but I love it. It will be tough to leave all of this.”

“Those are very valid concerns Rekki and you should discuss them with Lakshman. You have studied and worked very hard to reach this point in your career. So I understand why you wouldn’t want to quit your job right now. Can you search for a similar job in the USA?”

“No, not in the near term. I will be going on a dependent visa so I am not allowed to work till Lakshman’s visa category changes.”

“In that case, you really need to give this a lot of thought and consider some other options too. Can you postpone the marriage? You can continue working and get married after he comes back to India. That way you get more time to know each other.”

“Impossible Savi. I have somehow managed to convince my mom to postpone the marriage by 6 months. More postponement is out of the question. They’ve already finished most of the shopping, the venue is booked, even the invitation cards are printed. Plus, I know Lakshman really wants us to move there. You should have seen how happy he was yesterday. And his parents too!”

“But why do you care that much about his parents? I mean, this should be about you and Lakshman firstly. Everyone else is not a party to this.” Savi said, her voice shaking.  “I’m sorry, Rekki. I didn’t mean it that way. But I’m really worried for you and the fact that you and your career seem to be the last priority for everyone else right now. At least, you should not do that maybe?”

“It’s not that easy Savi.”

They talked for a long time over multiple refills of filter coffee. Rekha felt better after discussing with Savi but was tired as well. She knew that Savi was probably right, and had sound arguments, theoretically. But there was no question of postponing the marriage. It was now written in stone. 

“Oh my! Look at the time. I must leave now, have to meet Lakshman” said Rekha, thanking her friend for the coffee and the conversation.

“Anytime! Please be blunt with him and discuss the option of postponing the marriage. You never know, he might surprise you.”

“Impossible. Let us see how it goes. But I must go now,” she said and hugged Savi goodbye.

When she was at the door, Savi asked her “Hey! What’s the visa category that you will be applying to?”

“H-4.”

***

It had been 8 months since then. Rekha often thought of that day and wondered how different her life would be, had she done what Savi suggested. She had met an elated Lakshman that day who could not stop talking about how this opportunity was a dream come true for him. He had talked about all the places they could visit in the USA, meeting friends, and how this project would be a great addition to his resume. 

Rekha did not get a chance to talk much but did broach the subject of postponing the marriage which was shot down by Lakshman with the explanation that the wedding juggernaut was already in motion. It really felt that way as the next couple of months passed by in a blur. The wedding shopping, pre-wedding rituals, relatives, lunches, dinners took up all her time and space. She could find neither the mental energy nor time to speak plainly with her parents. As the days passed and the wedding date loomed closer, she convinced herself that this was what destiny had in store and rationalized that it was better to look at this move as an adventure. No one apart from Savi had talked about her work situation with her. She had quit her job and was given a grand farewell by her colleagues. Her manager told her that she could return to her current position whenever she came back to India. She missed Fatima the most.

The first few months in America had been fun and eventful. Lakshman had come earlier and had found a house in the suburbs, but it was barely furnished. He just slept there and spent most of his time in the office and had take-out for dinner. It took some time to find the right furniture, kitchen equipment, and so on but at least it kept her busy and engaged. She was happy with the way the house looked and felt. She would have liked some more artistic touches but Lakshman kept complaining about how expensive everything was on a single income. The initial months also coincided with the best weather. She enjoyed summer and loved Fall even more. 

Now however, things were different. The cold gray winter was a different beast altogether. The days were shorter, and trees bare. She tried to go out during the few hours of sunlight, but it was not easy. All she could do was stroll past silent empty houses. They had only one car and that was used by Lakshman for his daily commute. Public transport was non-existent. Lakshman left for work early to beat traffic and worked till late. 

She tried to use the few overlapping hours with India to speak with parents or friends. But the distance was taking a toll on her relationships. Her friends in the States lived far away and as much as she tried, they couldn’t plan a trip to meet, not yet at least.  She spent a lot of time planning, preparing, and cooking meals. Initially she had fun cooking different cuisines but now the daily minutia of cooking was getting to her. It did not help that Lakshman had zero involvement in cooking apart from going grocery shopping with her on weekends.

No one had explicitly defined it, but the arrangement was that Rekha would do the cooking, cleaning, washing and all household tasks. Lakshman worked long hours during the week and played cricket  with his colleagues on Saturday. Sunday was his day of rest. He rarely cooked and when he did, he treated it as a monumental achievement and left the kitchen in a big mess. While Rekha understood that due to his hectic work schedule she would be the one doing more work in the house, the lack of acknowledgement and involvement left her irritated and resentful. She had not made any new friends, and it was not for lack of trying. She had been to many get-togethers hosted by Lakshman’s colleagues (all Indian men) but she got thoroughly bored. The colleagues grouped together to discuss either cricket or politics while the women gathered in the kitchen organizing and cooking food. Mostly discussing their kids or recipes. Rekha just did not connect with them. They all had one thing in common though. Almost all of them were working in India and had moved to America after marriage.

***

Rekha was in a very contemplative mood today. She had spoken with Fatima in the morning and had been brought up to date on how things were progressing in her previous company. Fatima was doing very well and had been promoted. She was happy though some of her male colleagues kept sniggering whenever she left home every day at 5.30. But luckily the decision-makers knew better. Rekha was feeling very happy that Fatima was getting her due and that the company was doing well. But that mood did not last for long. It dawned on to her again how much she missed her work, handling responsibilities, contributing to the organization’s success and being financially independent. She had good savings in India, but it didn’t make sense converting them to dollars. It was better to keep investing in India but that meant that she was dependent on Lakshman for all her expenses in the USA. She used to joke about how Lakshman gave her ‘pocket money’ every month but it really felt like that. Lakshman had not mentioned this at all but it was a huge change for Rekha, for someone who was as financially independent as her for many years. 

Rekha kept replaying the last eight months in her mind. She did not realize how the hours ticked by. It was already late evening when Lakshman came home. He immediately walked into the kitchen and paused as he realized there was no dinner prepared. 

“Haven’t you made anything for tonight? I didn’t know we were going to have take-out today.”

“Order something,” said Rekha in a deadpan voice.

Lakshman seemed quite hungry, but he realized something was amiss and did not want to stoke the fire by complaining.

“What should we order? Pizza? or Thai? or Sushi?”

“Whatever.”

Lakshman ordered 2 pizzas and wondered about Rekha’s mood, and what he could do to change that.

“Oh, guess what! We reached a major milestone in our project and the client was extremely happy. I have invited my colleagues and their family to our place on Friday evening to celebrate. Let’s plan the menu now?”

“Are you serious? Friday evening is just 2 days away and you want to call 10 adults and 5 kids home on such short notice? Also, you choose Friday evening which means that you will have no part to play in the preparation since you will be at work the whole day. Couldn’t you discuss with me before inviting them over?” 

“But there was no option. We have the cricket tournament on Saturday till late evening and no one wants to party on a Sunday evening, because, well, Monday,” said Lakshman defensively.

“Wow. So basically, your work and sports take priority over everything? Do you realize the amount of work needed to get the house ready for so many people and cleaning it the next day?”

“Let us not cook much at home. We can order Biryani from Royal Indian Kitchen. So we just need to worry about the starters. I can mix the drinks. And I will help in clearing up afterwards,” said Lakshman.

“That’s not the point!” 

“Then tell me what the point is. You were in a bad mood even before I brought up this topic. What happened?” Lakshman asked, resigned.

“Do you know that I have not been able to work for the past 8 months and what that means to me? And that will most probably continue for at least 2 or even 3 more years?”

“I know that but what choice do we have? You want to work? Maybe you can  volunteer at an NGO? Many of my colleagues’ wives do that.”

“That’s not the point. I can do volunteer work. I was doing that in India too, but that is not a replacement for the work that I used to love and was really good at. The work that I have degrees for, the work I was a professional in.”

“Maybe you can do an MS at the State University? A post-graduation degree from the USA will be great for your resume.” said Lakshman.

“We have talked about this before. I do not want to do a MS or MBA right now. I might think of it in the future but doing post-graduation just because I cannot work makes no sense whatsoever” said Rekha, throwing her hands in the air.

“Then what do you want to do? We must think practically. I have told you before that I couldn’t let go of this opportunity. You knew that before we moved here. Some sacrifices have to be made in marriage.” 

Rekha lost it at this point.

“Sacrifices? What sacrifices have you made Lakshman? I am the one who had to give up her job. I am the one who goes days without meeting people. I am the one who is cooking, cleaning, washing the whole day and trying my best to keep myself occupied because there is nothing else that I can do at home. You went from your parents’ house to this house. You still get home cooked meals, go to work every day, meet colleagues, play whatever you play, get money and appreciation for your work. You talk about opportunities. What about those that I have lost?”

Lakshman was at a loss for words. Everything Rekha said was true.

“But do you know what hurts the most Lakshman? I knew all this before. I knew I would not be able to work. I knew it would be really hard. What hurts is that no one apart from Savi thought about this. Not even my parents and especially not you. Not once did you ask me if I would be okay with giving up my job in India and not being able to work here. You, my parents, your parents, and everyone else just assumed that I would make these sacrifices for our marriage. No one thought that maybe you need to make a sacrifice instead of me.”

“So, what do we do now? We can’t change the past,” said Lakshman quietly.

“I will figure something out,” muttered Rekha.

The doorbell rang. It was the pizza delivery guy.

***

Rekha woke up late and enjoyed her coffee leisurely. She was thinking about what to cook for lunch and narrowed down on fried rice since they both loved it. 

The doorbell rang. It was a lovely bouquet of flowers. 

“Delivery for Rekha, care of Savitri” said the delivery person.

“That’s me. Thank you very much!” she said closing the door.

Rekha sat admiring the bouquet for a while and then hunted for a vase in Savi’s apartment. She had moved to Savi’s apartment 3 months earlier. She had spoken to Lakshman extremely calmly about her decision to leave the USA. 

It was unfair that she had to give up working, her blossoming career, financial independence, and her happiness just because he did not want to let go of his opportunity. She was not walking out of their marriage, but just out of that country. She hoped that he would understand. Lakshman hardly spoke that day. He asked her if she was sure. 

“A 100 percent.”

It had been a tough couple of months for them, but things were improving now. She found an ornate vase for the bouquet sent by him and continued preparing the fried rice.

Rekha’s return had not been taken kindly by either Lakshman’s parents or her’s. She had anticipated that and was glad that she could stay with Savi instead of at home. 

Different tactics had been deployed to make her go back to the USA or at least start considering it. But all their guilt, drama and emotional blackmail had been in vain. Recently though she had noticed progress on part of her parents as they could clearly see how happy she was, working again at her previous company. They would have still preferred her going back but did not dwell on that for long when they met. Lakshman had changed in the past few months too. After realizing that he could not convince Rekha to come back, he decided to accept her decision and tried his best to make their long-distance relationship work. He started cooking a lot and called Rekha for advice. That made him realise how difficult it is to cook for more people alone, and apologized for that fateful day when things had changed. They talked about their stalemate situation, and both secretly wondered about sustaining this long-distance relationship for 2 or 3 years more. 

Rekha was just thinking about how her life had changed for the better in the past three months despite all these difficult circumstances when suddenly her phone pinged. It was a WhatsApp message from Lakshman.

Hope you liked the flowers? 🙂 Can we talk about how our future will bloom, tonight at 8  India time?’

Wow, cheesy! But yes, the flowers are lovely, and we can talk tonight. Skype?’ replied Rekha.

Nope. There is this wonderful restaurant – Mainland China, it’s close to you. I will meet you there 🙂


Vineet Deshpande is an aspiring writer and software professional currently living in Vienna, Austria. He has done his Bachelors in Computer Engineering from the University of Pune in India. After 32 years of living in the most livable city in India, he moved to the most livable city in the world to support his wife’s PhD in Austria. He maintains a blog where he writes about issues which he feels strongly about.

Poetry | ‘Export Quality’ by Rashi Rohatgi | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

“a quivering sensation in the right arm was supposed to prognosticate union with a beautiful woman” – monier monier williams

Menaka, my mother, was parentless but beautiful. They pulled at their hair,
in dreams, pretending it was someone else’s: hers. They didn’t have to ask –
she appeared in the churning. Full grown and looking – daddy? – but no takers, risk
too great. Better to wait and see if anything was wrong with a girl stuck in heaven with
too many uncles.

++++++++++++++ They think they are so different here: wise and unused
to luxury. Fresh air is free and the costs of their presence invisible and when Kanva
needs to feel beloved by smarter faces he leaves me amongst them and their staid
advice. The big joke? He says he can’t remember his past, nada until he got to the woods
and looked to the stars and understood himself to be nothing more or less than.

The uncles love my Real Dad: they chant his mantra as though it will bring them literally
into the light. He knows what there is to know. Still, he is starving himself in case there is
more he might need to know, later, and so is too busy for visitors. Durvasas asked. What a
fanboy. Fan Uncle.

++++++++++++++You can’t live here unless you are a million years old. Forty, at the very
least: sons educated, daughters married off, wives tired. But no one says no to Real Dad, plus
Kanva had enjoyed the part where I mewled and then, later, when I broke my nose jumping
off the scarecrow. I’d thought I was a blue jay, mostly, until my body pulled at me and I
recognized myself in the statues of women lapping at one another, ignoring all

surrounding uncles. It wasn’t as though I didn’t understand about Menaka, who while not
exactly human was by no means a bird. I just. Well. What if we were the first family to give
birth to beings in the form that suited them best, that was beautiful to whoever was doing
the most beholding? They’d tried to christian me (hm) Gayatri, after Real Dad’s Greatest Hit.
So when I saw a boy by the fire I introduced myself before anyone else could get a word in:
Sakuntala.

++++++++++Unforgettable, he said. I raised my left eyebrow: are you planning to forget
me? There are verses about bent eyebrows: you’d think they’d be more abstract, similes
rooted in geometry, fractals, but quite a bit of it is bent eyebrows and the way no one can
quite figure out where the wind is going to end up when it leaves the ashram. Dusyanta, he

called himself, like the crown prince: there was a lot of energy around that fire. His bow’d
been snapped clean in two and he told me all about his lack of desire to eat our animals and
offend the surrounding uncles. I liked our animals and I liked the efficiency of the break. I
have a hut to myself, I told him. Kanva, who fathers me, is off being congratulated for his

hymns elsewhere. The thing is, he said, I’m not supposed to – Jesus, kid. Are you set to
inherit your father’s bow factory or something furiously banal? I know all about good
families and I promise not to bring a kid into yours. It was a teeth-bared lie (I knew nothing
about good families save the uncles’ regrets), but:

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Don’t you want, he asked, to marry
first?

++++++I don’t want to get married after! Dusyanta, so-called (self-called), was beautiful
the way my mother was beautiful: the lines of his face were so simple I thought I might have
traced them into the earth with a snapped twig, the plane of his chest broader than prayer
can bring about. I had something of my father in me, or else the birds had given me form,

all knobs and bones and if I jumped again, I half thought, I might really take flight. Every
memory I’d been passed about village life repelled me. Kanva had done it properly, pukka.
Later I’d find out he’d had two daughters before me but I never once knew their names.
I took my pallu off my shoulder and bared my breasts and kept going with the unwinding

until the boy’s jaw was at his balls and I tied the end of the pallu to his wrist. Wait – he said –
and since I’m not my tragic mother I did. He untied his loincloth – o! – and tied one end to
my wrist. After the fourth rounding of the bases I figured it out, refused to switch direction,
pleas useless.

++++++++++Come on, he said. Actually I’m really the prince. For real, for real. I was just
playing it cool before. If we get married you could come raise our kid in a huge castle and we
could make things fresh: fuck caste, fuck colonialism – we could divest the place from
everything, make the whole thing like this forest.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++So he’s nuts, I thought, but we were
already naked, and after all: I liked the forest and if he had shown himself to be not in the
least efficient at least he had good taste. After the third homer I veered off and he began
to follow – should we douse the fire? Nah, an uncle will be by soon enough, probably – and

wow. It was fast, and he got redder-faced after, so I took down my hair and let it fall across
his shoulders like a pet shadow and explained that it had been great and should he be
interested in taking a fake hunting trip to this part of the woods again I would be interested.
Aren’t you coming with? he asked. This is the part where I rescue you.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++For real, for real?
He nodded. So then I know when you live, I said, in farewell. After my Real Dad found out my
mother had motives of her own for stopping by he cursed her so she could never see him
again, but I had no motives, so I was safe. I wasn’t going to give it all up for a man.

 


Rashi Rohatgi is an Indian American in Arctic Norway. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in, amongst other venues, Best Small Fictions 2021, Midnight Breakfast, and Crossing Borders. Jaggery Lit called her novella, Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, “fearless and breathtaking.” She is currently at work on a novel. Formerly a reader for The Rumpus, she has been an intern for Ayesha Pande Literary, Reviews Editor for Africa in Words, and Fiction Editor for Boston Accent Lit, where she convened the Accent Prize. Rashi is also a former AWP and Binders mentee and a Bread Loaf, VONA, and Tin House alumna.

 

Book Excerpt | ‘The Play of Dolls’ by Kunwar Narain | Penguin Random House India | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

from The Play of Dolls by Kunwar Narain (Penguin Random House India – 2020)
translated from the Hindi by John Vater and Apurva Narain

Fear

Like some scary and dirty insect, it crept into the room and, settling over my papers, sat down, maybe with the intent to nibble at them, and eat them up. I had a mind to pick it up and throw it outside. But it was unimaginably grotesque. I thought, I’d ask my helper to toss it out – and if one helper wouldn’t do, then several. Maybe it sensed my plan. But, surprisingly, it seemed completely unafraid, and undeterred by this too. I was looking at that weak little thing, unable to fathom the source of its audacity.    

Despite the expression of anger on my face, there had been no change in its arrogant composure. On the contrary, its crude daring seemed to take on even greater proportions. It was looking at me as if I was powerless to do it any harm, whereas, if it wanted, it could destroy me all in a moment with a mere flick of its fingers. That a beast like it should hold in its hand the power to destroy a human being like me – the very thought filled my heart with aversion, and my spirits sank. 

Until now, it had displayed none of its power; but even then its mere existence was slowly taking on the form of an inexplicable terror. There were only two beings in the room – me and it, but I got the feeling that only ‘it’ knew who posed the bigger threat to the other. If it were up to me, I would have liked for it to stay away from me at any cost, because there was no relation at all between us other than that of loathing. Its sheer proximity to me was itself a warning that I should guard myself against some unforeseen danger. 

All of the sudden, it moved from its position and reached the door. The door was closed. It felt relieved at this. Its manner of movement struck me as incredibly ominous. Amongst its legs, one seemed to suffer some defect; it moved a bit lop-sided, like a crab. From its movement, it was as if all the surroundings moved too, and, for the first time, I sensed that its entry had filled the room with a strange kind of fleshy, carnivorous odor – a smell that I was not used to, and which intimated, in some context or the other, violence and inhumanity. And also this, that it had dwelled among mostly bloodthirsty beings, and could be completely unaware of human attributes like pity and compassion. Its method of dealing with situations must have just involved primal impulses like either attacking or saving itself from attack. Its first response toward any foreign object must have been the same as that of every feral animal’s – that is, for its ears to jerk up in distrust; to become wary of that object, and to gauge its strength. If felt to be weak, then to very deviously, with padded footsteps, leap upon it and finish it off, or bring it under its control; and if stronger than itself, to flee with all its might.       

Returning, it dominated the papers again. I noticed it was only showing interest in pages that had writing on them, not in the blank sheets. From this it seemed that its gaze was actually on the ink, not the papers. It examined each letter by licking it, but it seemed most letters were not to its liking; it wasn’t finding material to its taste in them. I was watching its red and fierce eyes very attentively, which were almost fastened up against the page. From those eyes, it didn’t seem that they were nourished by paper or ink; because the single-mindedness with which it stared at the writings was one with which, not written things, but things about to be slaughtered, are seen. 

It wasn’t as if it didn’t find even one paper to its liking. It was separating some of the papers from the rest, for some unclear reason. It’s possible it wasn’t especially pleased with these papers either; just that, in the absence of anything better, it may have decided to make do with them.

By now, one thing had become completely clear: that in reality it wasn’t as weak, as it appeared. Its shape and size might not have been especially large, but it definitely possessed some hidden power, on the back of which it was sitting so haughtily in front of me. Poisonous fangs inside its mouth, or concealed claws that were sharp and lethal, like a wild cat’s. It is equally possible that, like a rhino or boar, it trusted its thick skin, or, like snails, had some thick shell it immediately withdrew into when attacked. But I quickly discarded this possibility, thinking that no one would have come to me expecting an attack. It was more likely that it would be the attacker. Then, from its entire conduct, it didn’t seem to be afraid of me. On the contrary, its entire demeanor was such that I should fear it.    

Undoubtedly, it continued to act so as to agitate me into assailing it, and thereby give it a chance to reveal some secret strength it had. It scattered the papers around with such callousness that my mind fired up with unbearable rage. I was trying hard to estimate its true strength, because by now I’d almost accepted that, by viewing it as weaker than myself, I’d made a fatal error somewhere. This conclusion had a negative effect on me because, for the first time, I sensed how intensely nervous I was. Until now, I believed I was safe from things like it, because I stayed far from them – but now I found that keeping my distance from those things held no meaning. It was only if they kept their distance from me that I would be safe…

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.



Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), an iconic figure in Indian literature, is regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of modern time. He read widely, across literatures and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. He has written in diverse genres of poetry and prose, including three epics recognised as classics of Indian literature, poems across eight collections, translations of poets like Cavafy, Borges, Herbert and Rózewicz, two short story collections, criticism, essays, memoirs, and writings on world cinema, ideas and the arts. His oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, has evolved continuously and embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex. After over five decades in Lucknow, where a major part of his writing was done, he moved to Delhi. Widely translated, his honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award; Kabir Samman; Warsaw University’s honorary medal; Italy’s Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; India’s civilian honour Padma Bhushan; the Senior Fellowship of India’s Academy of Letters; and the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award. A reclusive presence, he has published selectively; some works remain unpublished.

Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain’s son and translator into English. His first book of translations, No Other World, was published from India and the UK. A new volume of poetry translations is due this year. His work has appeared in several literary journals. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also consults in the international development area, and has had interests in ecology, public health and ethics. He writes in English. Well travelled, he has lived in India and abroad, and is now based in Delhi.

John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. He lived in India while researching Hindi literature as a Fulbright-Nehru student scholar, and in 2018 was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in Ploughshares, the Asia Literary ReviewWords without Borders and Exchanges. He currently works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.

Poetry | ‘Perspectives’ & ‘Collision’ by Paul Connolly | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Perspectives

The suburban station’s mawkish, chocolate-boxed
its lights cast a feeble Christmas through the dusk

of late summer on the mock-Tudor waiting-room,
where that morning he’d seen a black work suit

close on fake tan and gym slenderness,
elegant hair, scarce-distinguishable threads

of white-blonde in the warm, all bowling confined
in tight stillness, breakers that will never find

their break, which didn’t disguise haggardings of birth,
nurture, toil, menopause, things unearthed

in a single furrow, which made her Line Lady
in its breadth across the brow, though artistry

would reject the snaggle, its open clumsy jag
of thickness, pause black as space, a brand

which upset composition’s spirit-level edge,
unlike this Hopper on the tracks, where the bridge

is sanded sharp with dark and shadows chapelling
the disused substation crane the bridge, swing it

up and turned, then pull it forward in a balcony,
the substation’s a hotel visited before, though he

is standing above the hotel in sideroad hills
and he never visited the hills above it, and the bridge

he knows is at right angles in front of the substation
bike shelters and a car park between them

as its stairs bend and the bridge grows fanciful,
temples on giant glasses, a sidebar swells

for an enormous pushchair. Bach’s invention streams
his headphones till lone-voiced, foreshortened as beams

he tries to spy round past the eye into darkness,
it ends on a corner, where


Collision

She walked in, so normal to be there
as though there’s normality in being anywhere,

the room’s expected thick aroma,
cigars, coffee, books, hours.

She smoothed her skirt, scratched her calf,
sat and smiled generally for the class,

while somewhere a note held softly,
flatted a half-tone, sharpened by three,

she barely noticed him, the new student.
But this is the collision of worlds, bent

constantly across each other’s paths,
mostly swerving, occasionally they dance

on the event horizon, sometimes collide
smash together, shattering their life

and shattering other lives into newness
from catastrophes mapped later, which bring us

births in rough hands nursed
from horror by forced forgetfulness, cursed

beyond hatred to the phoney indifference
of ‘I never think about’. She smiled, yet

he didn’t look up. Not yet. She scrawled
to make her ink run, and yawned.

He looked up, hated what he witnessed
everyone’s positions relative to his,

repulsing poles, orbits adjusted.
Destruction would do. She looked. He hid

in a dart for coffee. Pleats bladed
his ill-fitting trousers, the nylon basted

then glued the tucks and folds of his legs.
The tutor stirred. ‘Let’s begin,’ he said.

Paul Connolly’s poems have appeared in Agenda, The Warwick Review, Poetry Salzburg, The Reader, Scintilla, Dawntreader, Takahē (New Zealand), Dream Catcher, Orbis, The Journal, FourXFour, The Seventh Quarry, Sarasvati, Envoi, Obsessed with Pipework, The Cannon’s Mouth, Southlight, Foxtrot Uniform, Guttural, The High Window, Nine Muses, Eunoia Review (Singapore), The Honest Ulsterman, Canada Quarterly, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Littoral Magazine, Northampton Poetry Review, and London Grip, and will soon be published in Quadrant (Australia), Stand Magazine and Chiron Review (USA). Shortlisted for the Bridport and Charles Causley Prizes, he was highly commended in the Sentinel Quarterly and third in the Magna Carta Competitions.   
 

Poetry | ‘Dear Captor’ & ‘74,013’ by Gina Williams | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Dear Captor

Madison Hemings was the second of six children now known through DNA evidence to be the offspring of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.

How does one address owner / father at once—
sir? master? mother’s rapist?

How did you address my mother / your
property, who bore six of your children

in a sooty, windowless room, waited on—
you at your deathbed, helped dig your grave?

My mother, who when pregnant at sixteen with a future president’s child—
negotiated her offspring’s freedom, but not her own, never her own.

What would you—
say to her now?

Say it—

Say her name.


74,013

When Nonna was a bird,
she could smell the best
figs from miles away.

This is the old story she tells
in her kitchen as she readies
the fruit, runs her tiny thumb

along soft, purple curves—
pierces the flesh, blade’s flash
from end-to-end.

“When I was a bird, long ago, before you
and everything else, even before time—
I flew to this tree for the best figs.

“Sweet and plump, soft as summer rain,
smelling of bee’s breath, swollen with
sugar and sunlight…”

She pauses to stir syrup
in a copper pot, scent of orange
zest, honey, cinnamon rising.

“I was a bird until your grandfather
called me to earth
with a song.”

I can see the fig tree beneath which
they were married swaying
in a light breeze.

She places the heart-shaped globes
carefully in a terra cotta pan,
pours golden liquid over the top.

As Nonna wipes juice
from her hands, I notice the smudge
of numbers staining one small arm.

While the figs bake,
we rest on the garden bench.
I take her hand,

place my palm over her wrist—
feel her heart warble and throb,
preparing for yet another escape.


Gina Williams is a freelance journalist, gardener, former wildland firefighter, and visual artist. She is the author of An Unwavering Horizon, a full-length collection of poetry published in 2020 (Finishing Line Press). Her writing and visual art have been featured most recently by The Inflectionist ReviewCarveLa Piccioletta BarcaMossRiver Teeth, and Electric Lit, among others. Gina lives and creates near Portland, Oregon USA with her best friend and fellow poet, husband Brad Garber. Learn more about her and her work at http://www.GinaMarieWilliams.com
 

Poetry | ‘A Courtesan’ by Mandakini Bhattacherya | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

A COURTESAN

Tum-ta, ta-thaiyya,
the ghungroo resonates;
the floor is the chandelier
that breaks into myriad pieces of light.
The green of my zari gown
tugs at the green of my envy
as I watch the naaz, kham,
lachak, every graceful move
of the trainee courtesan.
Mornings are now a sharp peck
by the parrot on my finger
that draws blood, the only
red I’ll ever know.


ghungroo – a dancer’s heavy anklet bells
naaz, kham, lachak – grace of movement
In India, wearing red signifies a married woman.

Mandakini Bhattacherya, from Kolkata, is currently an Associate Professor of English at Fakir Chand College, affiliated with the University of Calcutta in West Bengal, India. She is a multi-lingual poet composing in English, Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali, literary critic and translator. Her scholarly articles have been published in international and national journals, and also in books. Her poems have been published by international and national journals like Better Than Starbucks, The Dotism Journal, The HyperTexts, Poetry Nation, Mad Swirl Magazine, Setu Magazine, Muse India, Hayati, Sahityanama, Different Truths and LangLit. She was invited by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi and participated in the All India Young Writers’ Meet organised by it in February, 2020. She is Associate Editor of the MUSE OF NOW PARADIGM anthology published in 2020.

 
 

Poetry | ‘house-held-things’ by Sonali Pattnaik | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

‘house-held things’

linen:

she flaps the sheet like a mast
the bed a ship that she does not sail
she beats the dust out of the pillows
the mattress she heaves to the open
she spreads a garden of flowers every morning
and at night she is crushed, the flowers stain,
she will clean them out the next day,
a ship that never sails, a garden abloom by day

dust:

she dusts with rags and with ragged hands
the settling of days gone, upon things owned
wipes clean ceilings, fans that hang, low and high,
surfaces seen and unseen and from the corners of eyes
she spreads out stars on the skies of her children’s wet faces
dusts away anger in case it settles in their hearts
and tells them that it is a boat on a sea which they
think is the moon’s arc
sometimes they tell her she is wrong

milk:

she stirs and stirs like a witch all day
but has none of the potion’s power
she stirs sweetness into glasses of milk,
milks the goats, the packets of skimmed, she milks
her body thin till there isn’t a drop left
and fills emptiness anywhere with the warmth
of a fluid, bluish white
as she stirs and pours, and cuts and kneads
and kneels and burrows and fills
and the cream that is meant for her feet
remains untouched
feet go unnoticed on floral sheets,
feet, unlike milk, curdle from beneath

thread:

she weaves through space, she ferries bodies across
up and down, she moves round and round
the chairs are for arranging, not for sitting on,
even when she’s the only one playing
and the music has long stopped, she doesn’t win
she weaves laughter into her aching fingers
as she braids hair in the mornings,
coursing them through the tangles,
untangling pain, stitching up the hurts and wounds
in the evenings, embroidering the sealed skin
with a flower or two, unspooling
and then reeling in threads yet unbroken
tearing out others from the hem of a long day

scent:

she fills her hands, her nose, her nerves
with the scents of turmeric, oil, fish, wet earth,
rotten food, watery stools, neem leaves, curry leaves,
antibiotics, cooking gas, bathroom cleaning fluid, dung
soap and ink during the day and searches her memory
for the scent of dreams that she bundled into a knot
in the corner of the pillow she rests her head upon at night
the scent is something like dried tulsi leaves
She remembers to use a special concoction to rid her hand
of the smell of labour before he comes in
and locks the door from within. a scent of him
takes over everything

cups:

she builds the worlds that you win but when
she dusts the trophies that you brought home
having conquered that which you already own
she cannot recognize her face in the reflection-
it is deformed, caving
she gathers those silver and golden cups
and places them on shelves, the duster and keeper
of your history and while you engage with one of your kind
about histories myriad vagaries, they twinkle and shine,
and she rises to set the cups for tea

jars:

she pickles the small onions as they do
in fancy Chinese restaurants (where
only her husband orders the food)
and finds a jar to keep their red-purple within
and out of nowhere she often hears
her father’s praise of her mother’s cooking
she makes room for the relish on the table
she wipes her hands on a muslin and then
places the jar at the centre of things,
visible, insignificant, a parenthesis
jars do not reflect, only hold,
that which will soon be served as side-dish


Dr. Sonali Pattnaik is a poet, academic and visual artist based in Ahmedabad, India. She has an MPhil in English from Delhi University and a PhD in English  from Mumbai University and is (former) permanent Lecturer in English at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College. She is currently visiting faculty at St. Xavier’s College Ahmedabad. Her poetry and artwork have most recently been published in The Kali Project (Indie Blu Publication, Pennsylvania, USA, 2021). Her poems have found homes (in print) in Journeys (Sampad, UK, 2010), and in online journals including, CafeDissensus, Muse IndiaWordgathering and Writer’s Asylum and her art most recently appeared in ‘Canvas Calling’ (The Shout Network, 2019).
 
Her academic publications include “Adaptation as ‘Becoming Other’. A Deleuzian Study of the film Omkara (V. Bhardwaj)” in In/dependence of Indian cinemas: Cartography of forms, genres and regions ed. Amandine D’Azevedo and Térésa Faucon, Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2016 and ” A Dramatic Film: Performative Politics in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata” in Narratives of Indian Cinema ed. Manju Jain, PRIMUS, New Delhi: 2009 among several others. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in journals including The Book Review (Harper Collins, India, 2016), Intersections (Murdoch, Australia), Tehelka and Women’s Web among others. 

Poetry | ‘Domestication’ by Tabish Nawaz | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Domestication

Bumping into each other
after a hiatus, we realized
how tamed now
the menagerie is within us
our goats no longer graze our hearts
the birds have flown out of our eyes
the foxes no longer think
the tigers chew the leaves from our hands
even our critters sleep peacefully at night.
We wonder how wild
everyone was back then – pang-ridden, hungry
devouring our timid selves.

(The poet dedicates the poem to Wislawa Szymborska)


Tabish teaches Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. He has recently published his first short story collection Opening Clouds, Fermented Rain (Hawakal). His poems, essays and short stories have been published in The Critical Flame, Shimmer Spring Anthology, Ethos Literary Journal, The Punch Magazine, The Conversation, Indian Review, The Bangalore Review, Flash Fiction Magazine among other venues.