Poetry | Two Poems by Sam Cheuk | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

from a forthcoming collection on Hong Kong protests and their aftermath titled Postscripts from a City Burning to be published by Palimpsest Press in Oct 2021.

Nov 16, 2019

I used to be a teacher.
What am I to say
when a student responds,
after confessing I am
too chicken shit to stay,
“We’ll fight for all of us”?

They announce their names,
yelling “I will not kill myself”
while being dragged away,
in case their name is mistaken
for one fallen by mistake.

The student is still
messaging me via
an encrypted app, assuring
he’s safe for my sake.

If you were to die,
don’t die for my sake.
Die of old age, one
neither of us can envision;
die for love, die of earned
sadness, sickness, but
not this, not for this,
not now, wait it out
till my parents die,
till I die, stay.


Nov 27, 2019 (2)

Document the brief life I have
had with you. Note the contours
of my clavicles, times when I chortle
at your jokes, days when I retreat
into myself, looking for answers.

I haven’t found none, time better
spent with you, but I had to look,
to find someone worth your time.
We haven’t got much left.

This is what I will remember:
your outtie belly button,
your rehearsed fury at the waiter
the time when the food ran late,
knives and forks suspended in the air.
The way you snickered beneath
the orange-lit alleyway, taking off
your respirator to win a dare. ‘Twas fun.

Before we grow up into others,
remember our pulsing hearts
pressed against each other’s,
palm to palm. We were young.
Let’s not forget our errors.


Sam Cheuk is a Hong Kong-born Canadian poet and author of Love Figures (Insomniac Press, 2011), Deus et Machina (Baseline Press, 2017) and the upcoming collection Postscripts from a City Burning (Palimpsest Press, 2021) on the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and their aftermath. He holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University and BA in English literature from University of Toronto. He is currently working on the second half of the diptych, tentatively titled Marginalia, that examines the function, execution, and generative potential behind censorship. #香港人加油 #StandWithHongKong #MilkTeaAlliance

Poetry | ‘Front Camera’ by Sharvani H S | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Front Camera

The ceramic crown on your upper molar
Behind creamish, crooked enamel
Hidden by a pout.

Rounder, shorter noses
That flare and protrude
Like it’s not your business.

The common blackish brownish iris
Melanin flavour not in season,
Not seen as anything worth seeing into.

Ears are the same of course,
Nothing special, nothing unusual.
It’s not an Egyptian point of view.

Double chin. Double chin.
Hide it by raising or angling.
Pretend you’re a swan.

Shoulders are flexible things,
Hunched, straight, tensed, dropped
All purpose support, free of charge.

Then – Uh Oh. It’s adult content.
NSFW warning! Blurry stuff ahead.
Dim the screen brightness.

You turned. Why?

I see an arm. Strong
covered in layers. A wide canvas
to fill with an imaginative identity.

Then the mountain peaks are visible
The summit looks interesting
Why are you crossing your arms?

Then the smaller hills. Bounded
by ridges and valleys. An occasional plateau
whose altitude keeps changing.

Some terrain is hard to define
With irregularities, non-standard measurements
Harder still to live with and love.

Ok. I’ll stop now.
You can stop squirming.
The rest will remain hidden.

But you missed out on a lot.
A lush forest that hides a beautiful waterfall
That frequently causes floods unfortunately.

Nevermind. It’s all there for another time.
It was always all there as is, you know.
Just explore a little
by switching off.


Sharvani is an engineer living and working in Bangalore. She has been writing since school and hopes to become better at it soon. Her work has appeared in a few online journals like Enchanting VersesKrityaSpark and once in print in Reading Hour.
 

Poetry | ‘Reprise: A Confession’ by Molly Zhu | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Reprise: A Confession

Amir, I bet you don’t even remember this, but
I do. The day you told me you were a Muslim, we
were in the fourth grade and (forgive me) I was young
I didn’t know how to decipher the mass of your words quite
like I do now. I gashed the air around you with my tongue –
I delivered my disgust.
Light drained from your cheeks and the damage I had left
blotched in your skin.
(Suffice it to say) I am sorry now, as I was sorry then,
only seconds later, I immediately wished
I could take it all back, stuff a foam mattress once more into its
vacuum-sealed plastic casing, fish the sun from the Rubicon
and pull it back to sheltered earth.
(Of course, I could not do this).

Amir, I too, am a pawn in a poisoned America. I drink
from the groundwater where the hatred runs off to,
it swells under our homes and our gardens,
in our capillaries, in our swallowing throats.
Then it slinks out from the bottoms of our voices and back
into the air. So, I drink
the morality of the 24-hour news cycle
rolling on a whining hamster wheel, it
blares from the TV, the radio, I look up to what the
men in pressed suits are telling me, to what my parents tell me
in hushed tones whispering into cups of green tea,
I take what is dispatched to me, and
I dispatch that back to you… though sometimes,
(I tell myself) sometimes, I think twice.

Amir, I don’t know if you even think of me or that day,
here I am trying to answer to you, answer to me:
outlier or harbinger? I’m sorry. By the way,
I’m not like that now,
I’m not like that now.


Molly is a new poet and she lives in Brooklyn, New York. For her day job, she is a corporate attorney and in her free time, she loves thinking about words and reading and eating. She has previously published in the Rising Phoenix Review, the Ghost City Press, and 805 Lit + Art. Her work is forthcoming in Uppagus. You can find her on Instagram at: @mlz316.

Poetry | ‘Baldness’ by Romi Jain | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Baldness

 

Baldness defies adornment –

in its embrace of candidness:

whiffs of winds, gush of waters, torments of aversion

fall flat,

when in detesting artifice,

in the unembellished landscape of pride and self-esteem,  

boldness of pores prevail.


Romi Jain is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia, Canada. She earned her PhD in education policy studies from Cleveland State University, Ohio, and her MBA from San Francisco State University, California. Her poems have appeared in literary journals such as Off the Coast (Maine, USA), Penwood Review (California, USA), Transition (Canada), Journal of Poetry Society (India), The Tower Journal, Touch: The Journal of Healing, and Munyori Literary Journal, and in international anthologies such as Veils, Halos and Shackles (edited by Charles Fishman), San Diego Poetry AnnualFamily Matters (India)and Poems from Conflicted Hearts. Jain’s poem “India: From the Lens of History” appeared in Harvard Asia Quarterly (Summer 2014), Harvard University Asia Center. Her creative works include The Storm Within (2008; 2011), Poetry! You Resurrect Me (2011) and Voices of Rocks in the Dusk (2012)

Poetry | ‘Kong’ & ‘The View’ by Theophilus Kwek | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Kong

i.m. Emile Czaja aka ‘King Kong’
(b. Hungary, 1909; d. Singapore, 1970)

They called him King. Other names came later –
Samson, Hercules – but this one stuck, a name
he could twirl overhead as the crowd cheered,
one with its own weight class. No longer Emile,
they trembled at the thud as he took the stage,
made short work of the others (Tiger Ahmad,
Gorilla Wong…), the whole Great World rising
to their feet. Even Wildcat Hassan, who in ’47
had gone up against the star of the British base
was no match: everyone knew the ring belonged
to the boy from Budapest with the brazen hands.
Backstage, another world was being formed
in the sharp shadows of those stadium lamps,
each lock and throw an echo of the long night’s
hold, slipping surely into morning. By the time
he wound up at si-pai-por, pulled from a car’s
steel grip, his own gnarled fingers loosening,
the realm he knew had ceded title to another.
A clean flip, it happened right before his eyes.
Years later they said they hadn’t seen it coming.


The View
National Day, Singapore

Somewhere a flag is torn from its plastic.
A child ties the strings to a window-grille
and a blood shadow falls across the room.

There is red over everything. The chairs,
which were always beige, and also the floor
which is marble, and washes easily.

Even on television, the men seem
to redden as they troop into sight. Nothing
escapes. Close your eyes, and the darkness

takes on a pinkish hue, which gathers from
the sides like a flood. It’s hard to see now,
with all this red (that is, if you were one

to celebrate the view before), harder
to imagine how the room could have been
with its softer colours meant to set off

the coastal light. I think of it sometimes –
the low carved table, worn coffee-mugs, and
out our open doorway, the corridor.


Theophilus Kwek has published four collections of poetry, two of which were shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, The London Magazine, and Mekong Review, among other publications. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog, and his most recent collection, Moving House, is published by Carcanet Press in the UK.   
 

Poetry | ‘For Shahid Azmi’ & ‘Valentine’s’ by Iqra Khan | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

For Shahid Azmi

Those startling blue and yellow sheets
Of tarpaulins and toil;
They still appear like azure seas
And mildewed limestone walls still tease
The nostrils. Deonar glaciates
Under time and the cold
Disdain of Bandra-Worli. Still,
The wastelands swell beside your world,
And clammy moons on methane wane.
The only thing that’s changing here
Is this: beneath a spiteful sun,
From a poisonous ground
The children bloom
Into thorns in the mightiest sides.

Your people wake
Shahid,
With you, their morning star.


Valentine’s

On February the 14th,
The internet drips with Urdu
And its syrupy tropes
For romance.

The language of love,
With its endless supply
Of affection
Blooming in letters
Like lilies
Draped in syllables
Of gossamer.

Mohabbat. Mehboob. Jaan-e-jahaan–
Love. Beloved. Life of the world.

14 lives of the world
In which lived
Bilkis Yakoob Rasool.

Akhlaq, Asgari’s beloved,
Haunted memory.

49 brothers in Yogi’s kingdom;
Love,
Was not theirs to have,
Jihad,
Eternal struggle,
Their only bequest.

But you,
Your unencumbered mohabbat,
Your caste-blessed mehboobs,
Will never speak,
The impossible consonants
Of this language
That make your tongues limp
And your throats convulse.

ﺥKhe for khoon,
Our cheapening blood,
ﺥ Khe for Khudaya,
Our unheard prayers.

ﻖQaaf for qatl,
Slaughtered sunbirds.

ﻍGhayn for ghaayab,
Fading friends,
Forgotten Najeeb.

Mohabbat without justice
Is oblivion,
Jaan-e-mann.

So send no roses
To this gloom.
Here, is a graveyard
Where poppies bloom.


Iqra Khan is a law graduate from Gujarat National Law University, TEDx speaker and bilingual poet, who writes in Urdu and English. She hails from Bhopal, India, and her work is centered around social justice issues in her community and country.

Fiction | ‘Color Work’ by Tom Silva | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Shrejal spread a pearl of white paste on her palm with the pad of her middle finger. The paste smelled exactly like the corner of the room that her grandmother’s old cat had died in; ammonia and something floral to mask it. “It’s called Alabaster and Awesome,” Shrejal said to Dhanyati, as she watched the color dial out into a clear ointment. Her dark brown skin showed beneath the whisk of cream. In the other room, hidden under her bed, was the extra booster pack of niacinamide and bearberry to suppress her melanin. “Six percent hydroquinone!” 

“Six percent? How did you get six?” Dhanyati asked. 

Eggshell, linen, baby powder, seashell, white smoke, fog mist, picket fence, dove wing. Color sculpting is intricate, Shrejal thought.

The girls were both nineteen, though Dhanyati, with her round and innocent baby-face seemed younger. In the bathroom mirror, Shrejal watched Dhanyati anxiously grip herself like she was her own plush toy. Shrejal had always been bolder, braver, willing to take a risk. It was, perhaps, one of the few things she could say she actually liked about herself. 

She carefully oiled the dark caves under her eyes until her face glistened. Then, she squeezed out the tube onto the slope of her breast just above her black lace bra and worked the paste up her neck. New lace, corn silk, magnolia, flax, oatmeal. Her mind held a palette every time she uncapped a cream.

“Soon, you’ll be white like Neha Dhupia,” Dhanyati said. Even in Hackney, they knew their Bollywood. “My parents only let me use saffron paste, like I’m a chicken skewer. Not like yours who got you the real bleach.”

“You know they aren’t my real parents,” Shrejal said over her shoulder as the girls walked back into the bedroom. Shrejal’s real parents had died in a car accident when she was thirteen. She lived with Yashmita and Vaidyanath, her aunt and uncle. “My mum would never have let me put this mercury poison shit on my face. She used to say, ‘stay out of the sun and you’ll be okay.’ Besides, you don’t even need the acid. You’re warm beige, not espresso like me.” 

“How did you get that stuff, anyway?” Dhanyati asked.

“I’ve been using one of my auntie’s old prescription pads and forging her name.” Auntie Yashmita was a triage nurse. She worked most nights at the hospital, and during the day she sealed herself in her bedroom at the end of the hall to sleep.

“You could get in big trouble for that,” Dhanyati whispered, lying on her stomach across the bed and flipping open a magazine.

Shrejal shrugged. The two girls had been inseparable as children, and slowly a space started to open up between them in secondary school when Shrejal’s restlessness and Dhanyati’s shyness seemed to make it impossible for them to exist in the same place. Shrejal liked being out, where alcohol might take the edge off, and meeting boys could distract her from herself. Dhanya asked her about sex all the time, even though she wasn’t having any. If Shrejal was too caught up on her skin color, Dhanya was too fixated on her weight. She acted as though the proportions of her body were the first thing anybody noticed about her, not her face, which was beautiful by any metric. She hid her weight beneath baggy clothes. In summer, she rarely even went outside. In photographs, Dhanya could always be found standing in the back, or holding an oversized purse in front of her stomach. Shrejal thought her friend was far too beautiful to be so insecure, even with the extra thirty pounds that had slowly accumulated during the last three years, mostly sitting on her hips and bottom and breasts. She had tried to explain to her that it was trendy now to be full. Boys liked that look. 

Shrejal still had hope, sometimes, that Dhanya would loosen up. Maybe she would open herself to the possibility of letting a boy even get close enough to kiss her. After all, when they were children, they would practice kissing on each other and Dhanya had no fear then. Dhanya talked about their friend, Bjorn, a lot lately and Shrejal had been careful so far not to point this out. After all, Dhanya was her only friend as of late. It was a liminal time for Shrejal; all her other friends had left to go to real universities. She had barely graduated school after getting hooked on THC edibles and Carlings and couldn’t get in anywhere except the polytechnic which everybody said was for the thick. Dhanya was going to the uni next door so they had become close again. Shrejal hadn’t told Dhanya that she couldn’t wait to leave, and that the house she lived in had never really felt like home. Before her parents had died, home had meant a place that was an extension of her body, instead of this prim rooming house where she always felt the pressure to earn her keep.

Dhanyati got up and sat on the makeup stool to watch Shrejal in the mirror. This had become a ritual between them. Shrejal would be readying herself for a date or a party and Dhanya would watch her until Shrejal stood up, finally ready, giving her last looks in the mirror, and ask Ok, so how do I look? And Dhanya would look down at her feet, as though ashamed of something. Shrejal, you know you look perfect—you always look perfect.

“I wonder what I would look like with a baby bump,” Shrejal said, glancing at the Bollywood magazine in Dhanyati’s hands. Inside was a splashy array of photos of Neha Dhupia, eight months pregnant. Shrejal arched her back and stuck out her flat stomach as far as it would go.

“I heard that if you’re pregnant, you can pass the mercury on to your child,” Dhanyati said, flipping through the magazine.

“We’re fucked. All because of colonialism,” Shrejal said. “Just think, if Saif Ali Khan hadn’t chosen the fair girl in that ad — if he’d chosen Priyanka Chopra—I wouldn’t be doing this.”

“You’ve got to stop paying attention to that stuff,” Dhanya said, tossing the magazine away.

Shrejal laughed bitterly. Sometimes Dhanya was so naive that it made Shrejal want to hurt her. Not literally, but with her words. Ever since Shrejal had started watching videos online about  history and ethnic identity, her mind swirled with new information. Chromatics and the Construction of Race. Theory and Methods in Ethnic Studies. Survey of South Asian Colonialism. Lately, she had been reading about the Imperial project in India, carving up a civilization with the lightest at the top, and the darkest at the bottom. Indians had learned this, and even after the colonial rule was gone, they continued to divide up the population themselves—the proof was right there in her Bollywood magazines. She knew it was toxic. Still, Shrejal felt that she could not stop herself from wanting to lighten her skin. It were as though the way she felt about her skin had been decided for her within her very DNA, lodged so deeply inside her molecules that it could not be helped. 

The door swung open and Shrejal quickly crossed her arms over her chest. ‘What the hell!”

“See? I’m not spying.” Uncle Vaidyanath entered, his hand cupped over his eyes as he inched across the floor. He had a carpet of perky, dyed black hair. “Shrejal, Auntie wants you to get ready.”

Shrejal always felt his presence like dull obligation. He ambled blindly with his other arm in front of him like he was looking for a piñata. She slipped a robe on.

“Do I have to go?” Shrejal said. She felt her annual dread of the coming visits with their relatives for Onum, the Kerala harvest festival. A relay of visiting homes where Malayalee girls were expected to be obsequious to their elders and make conversation with melancholy cousins. Dull, dull, dull.

“You promised her. I can’t tell her no now. She’s leaving for her hospital rounds,” he said, helplessly. “This is our culture. Ah-yo, I sound like your aunt.” 

“You can look now!”

He took his hand from his face. “Dhanya…”

“Hello, Uncle,” Dhanya said, solemnly.

“Fuck,” Shrejal muttered, biting her nails.

“Ay, dirty words.” Vaidyanath wagged his finger at her. “Auntie doesn’t like that. Did you make the Pookalam flower arrangement?”

“No!” Shrejal bellowed and sat down at the makeup table.

For a moment, Vaidyanath’s eyes showed real fear.

“I’ll make you one,” Dhanyati said, propping her hand on Shrejal’s shoulder. “Don’t worry.”

Shrejal pressed Dhanyati’s hand and became flush with emotion. “Thank you, Chakka,” Shrejal said, using the Malayalee word for little jackfruit. Dhanya had done this kind of thing since they were children, taking responsibility for breaking something she hadn’t broken, or later, covering for Shrejal when she slipped away to see a boy. Dhanyati was the dutiful Indian girl who always put the grownups at ease.

“Thank you, betee,” Vaidyanath said, reaching to touch Dhanyati’s elbow.

Dhanya flinched and crossed her arms tightly. 

“Ah-yo.” Vaidyanath took a step back, looking confused. Shrejal glowered at him. “I don’t understand you girls. I didn’t grow up around women.”

Aunt Yashmita appeared in the doorway in a matronly frock. Her hair was pulled back tightly, her face like a brown, unlined pear. “I have to go to the hospital. I’ll be back to fetch you both,” she said. She pointed a finger at Shrejal. “You’re going to be on time.” Yashmita took a scan of the room and disappeared down the hallway. 

“Ay,” Vaidyanath whispered. “Get ready by six. Please.”

Shrejal looked in the dressing mirror and touched her glistening cheeks.

“What are you putting on your face?” he asked.

She handed him the tube. “Extra whitening cream.”

He twisted his head in acknowledgement and strained to read the ingredients. He opened the tube and sniffed. “Smells like a litterbox,” he said.

***

After the Onam event, Shrejal’s subconscious still buzzed with activity. She woke up in the middle of the night through a mist of sounds and freeze frames, like she was still at the party  – the shucked shoes in the vestibule; the Sadhya platter with rasam, butter milk and payasam; the heliotrope saris, and the smell of jasmine flowers in the neighbor girl’s hair. Too much, too much like India always was. Even when her parents were alive, the family functions had always made her embarrassed in front of her English friends. Indian gatherings didn’t abide by Western notions of taste. They were a promiscuous jumble, fragrant and unctuous. An assault on the senses. She never invited her friends over to the festivals for fear that they would see her dressed in the ridiculously bright saris. Especially Olivia Rowe who became prom queen and got a full ride to Bristol. Olivia and her crew couldn’t know about Sadhya platters or they’d never invite her to a party again.

As the images retreated, she righted up in bed. It was four. Semester breaks were restorative but also made her unable to track time. She turned on the side light and stepped to the mirror, hoping that the meridian would have been crossed. Every time, there was hope that the taint of dark skin would be lifted, even for a moment, and that she would look lightened and refreshed. She shut her eyes and positioned herself under the arch of the mirror. When she looked, she felt a momentary lift, and then her stomach plunged. She gasped and stretched her hand across her cheek. The skin had turned a dull gray like a rhinoceros’ hide. She switched on the task light above the mirror and looked closer. The dark bags under her eyes were gone but only because they had evened out with the freezer burn of the rest of her face. “Shit!” 

She sat back down on the bed and picked up a hand mirror to look in a different light. It was no different. Last time it went away in three days. Maybe it’ll go away in three days. She pulled out her laptop and stabbed the keyboard, filling the browser pane with a stream of words. How long hydroquinone discoloration wear off niacinamide bearberry poisoning dark girl emergency. She lay back on the bed with the laptop on her belly. She heard the bathroom door outside close. It was Vaidyanath taking his pre-dawn tinkle. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. She tapped on the keyboard with one finger. She needed the nuclear option. Glycolic acid very large batch fast free shipping. A gallery of plastic jugs and pitchers splayed across the screen. She held the quantity line with her cursor and shifted the pointer up and down, from five and then finally to ten. But, just then, things got hot and she needed a cry. That was when dark-girl hope caved in and she realized she was in the same place as before or even worse off. She was trapped in her body with no respite. She had one of those cries where mucus and tears create an estuary between the nose and top lip. She hit Save For Later and let it all out.

***

When Shrejal looked at Bjorn, it always seemed like part of him was facing inwards, which was totally weird. He had an eye that had lost its color because of a fist fight he had been in as a kid. Bjorn walked next to Shrejal, staring at the ground as she worked on her double-scooped ice cream cone. Dhanyati hung back a step as they walked under Swamp Cypresses and Upside Down trees in the park. Shrejal could see that Dhanya was tensing her body, hiding it behind an unnecessary tote bag, consigned to third-wheel mode. Of course, Dhanya didn’t have an ice cream. She would never eat that in front of Bjorn.

“I tried to read the book you gave me,” Bjorn said. 

“Which one?’ Shrejal asked, mouth full as she turned the cone over her tongue. Her face and neck were two shades apart, the former finished off in heavy stage makeup that gave her the look of a Kabuki actress. She could feel it beginning to sweat off in the hot afternoon sun.

“That comic book you gave me about that German bloke,” Bjorn said in his slow, neurasthenic rhythm. 

He meant the illustrated introduction to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant that she had lent him a few weeks before. Shrejal thought the pictures might make it easier for him to understand. She looked over her shoulder and waited for Dhanyati to pipe up—she had read it the previous semester for class.

“I just stopped reading when I couldn’t find a dictionary,” Bjorn said. “Too many big words.”

Shrejal ignored him. “Why do you always lag?” she asked Dhanya, frustrated. Dhanya rolled her eyes.

Bjorn talked about the Taste of London, which was coming up in June. Shrejal thought of Taste the year before, when she was still with all of her friends who had since moved away to school. These weren’t the starched-white Olivia Rowe girlfriends—Shrejal couldn’t look sloppy in front of them; these were the Jewish, Jamaican and mixed-race girls who poured cheap vodka into plastic water bottles to sneak inside their purses, and then bought virgin cocktails to booze up in secret. These were her fearless girlfriends who invited boys they met at the Taste to come with them to the bankside later on that night. Last year, Shrejal had made out with a white boy from a posh school. He had run his fingertips along her arm, giving her goosebumps, and said to her, “Wow, your skin’s like Wispa.” And she had replied, “Yeah, I’ve been going to the beach a lot, I guess,” and for a second she had believed her own words. For a second, she had set aside the fact that she’d lathered on SPF 150 every morning in summer since she was thirteen, and always wore long sleeves, even when it was ninety degrees outside. No, she didn’t want to go to Taste this year, or any year, again. Especially not with Bjorn.

“Dhanya wants to go to Taste,” she said. “I think you should take her. Show her a good time.”

“That’s okay,” Dhanyati said, shooting Shrejal a dirty look. 

“When do you get paid? Maybe you could take her somewhere fancier, like Le Bouchon,” she said, glancing sidelong at Dhanya.

Bjorn tightened up, but kept his eyes on the ground. “Yeah, maybe. It’s been really slow at the shop, though.”

Suddenly, Dhanyati’s presence was missing. Shrejal turned to see her walking swifly, and calmly, away from them.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Shrejal called out, but Dhanya never looked back.

Shrejal ditched Bjorn around the Tesco, telling him she needed some time to meditate. People always believe that Indians need to meditate. She walked through a jigsaw of train tracks and storefronts, careful not to look in any windows, worried that she might catch a reflection that made her Ben Nye foundation look like clown makeup. It was depressing feeling the greasepaint covering her rhinoceros hide, like she was wrapped up in a bag, marinating. Three days, they said. And then what if the Ben Nye oils clogged up her pores and gave her zits? Stupid ashy zits. I bet Katrina Kaif never had a zit in her life. She pictured that scene from Boom when KK snaked her perfect, light-skinned body across a boardroom table. Fuck Katrina Kaif, fuck Kareena Kapoor, fuck Shruti Haasan. 

She texted Dhanya.

??? 

Needed some space.

Can u come by?

Idk.

Please?

Idk. Maybe.

Need 2 talk 2 u.

Why…

Just come.

When she got home, Vaidyanath was standing in her room, holding an urn-sized box banded in a long mailing label. 

“What are you doing?” Shrejal asked, annoyed. She picked up her underwear off the dresser.

He set the parcel down and looked at a portrait of a woman near the makeup kit. “Are you trying to look like your Mummy?” 

She glanced at the picture of her mother tucked in the dressing mirror frame. “No.”

“I tried Snow White Enamel and Milk of Roses when I was in India,” Uncle Vaidyanath said.

Shrejal sat down on her bed, surprised. “You did skin whitening? Before you got married?”

“After.” 

“I thought us Indians only did it to find a partner. Like those matrimonial newspaper ads in India Weekly—eligible, college-educated EU citizen seeking fair-looking, wheatish girl.”

“Sometimes being dark feels heavy. Always your auntie complaining, shouting at me. It made things heavier. So, I started to lose hope. I just wanted to do something new for myself. Make things lighter. Freak, right?”

“I get it.”

Her uncle turned to leave.

“Why is she always complaining?” Shrejal asked.  

“She just wants things done properly. I used to be fair looking,” he said. He sighed.

Shrejal lay back and felt the quicksand moods that recurred during her semester breaks. The month-long summer interregnum always started with a swell of hope: there would be unstructured time to withdraw from the world and try a new procedure—microdermabrasion followed by a course of steroids like kojic acid. But now, the time was slipping away, and she was wearing clown makeup to navigate a trip to the corner shop. It was exhausting. She thought about her post-colonialism videos. Fuck all the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the Mughals. And, finally, absolutely, fuck the British Empire. 

Dhanya finally came by after a length of time that Shrejal knew was meant to express irritation. Shrejal heard her stomping down the hall before she opened the door. She wouldn’t look at Shrejal. When Dhanya bent over to set the big tote purse on the floor, Shrejal slapped her butt. She cried out.

“Come on, you can’t stay mad at me,” Shrejal said, playfully.

“Why do you have to be such a bitch?” Dhanya said. She flopped down on the bed, wiping her runny nose with the back of her hand. 

“Sorry. I was just trying to get Bjorn to ask you out.”

Dhanyati lay with her hands crossed, coffin-style. “Who said I wanted to go out with him?” 

“He’ll never do it on his own.”

Dhanyati expelled a sigh and clubbed her hand down on the sheets. “He likes you. He wants to go out with you. You see how he acts around you.”

Shrejal screwed her face up in distaste.

“Why don’t you like him?” Dhanyati asked.

Shrejal rolled her eyes.

“You’re putting rat poison on your face to look beautiful and there’s someone who wants you just the way you are,” Dhanyati said. “You treat Bjorn like shit.”

Shrejal gripped Dhanyati’s hand. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

“I’m not in love with him. Maybe I just want someone who pays attention to me.”

Shrejal got up and went to the window. She studied her quiet street, each house studded with attic lights and the glow of televisions. The air conditioning ticked on. She felt trapped in her room, in her house, in her current life. “Bjorn’s marked, Dhanya.”

“What do you mean? He’s got clear skin. He’s beautiful.”

“No. He’s racially marked, just like any other immigrant. Like Polish maids and gypsies. He’s white, but he’s poor and uneducated, which does me no good.” 

She took a moist towelette from the pack on her dresser and began to wipe the foundation away from her face. 

“You’re mental,” Dhanya said, getting up to go to her. 

“How else are we going to get ahead?”

“Get a degree. Get a job like a normal person,” Dhanya said as she stood over Shrejal. She pressed her finger against Shrejal’s neck, and rubbed her fingers together. She held up her thumb which was greased with makeup. She pressed it between Shrejal’s eyes like a bindi. “Now, you’re marked.”

Shrejal laughed, locking her arms around Dhanyati’s rump and scooping her in. 

Dhanyati stroked her cheek and looked into her eyes. “You have such a pretty face.”

“But?”

Dhanyati touched Shrejal’s laugh lines, which were dry and sloughed off on her fingers. “But please don’t poison yourself anymore.”

Shrejal pulled her arms tight around Dhanya’s body, knowing that she was the only one in the world that her friend let touch her like this. Sensitive Tentative Dhanya.

That night, Shrejal locked herself in the bathroom and unwrapped the shipping box that Vaidyanath had left. It was a gallon bottle with the words Alpha hydroxy on one side and seventy percent glycolic acid on the other. She sat on the toilet seat and read the warped instruction booklet. The directions for use were like a roadmap for life. AHAs have a smaller molecular structure and travel deepest into the skin to dissolve excess sebum and dead skin cells—not like weak hydroquinone or stearic acid. This was the real stuff, heavy duty—formula C2H4O3—to make collagen grow and reform dullness. That’s what she had wanted her whole life—to reform dullness.

Nine more gallons would be coming in the mail over the next two weeks. She had to space it out so Vaidyanath and Yashmita Auntie didn’t get wind of the plot. Then she’d build a glycolic bath that would wash away everything so she could start over. 

***

After a week of waiting, Shrejal woke up in the morning and the dry skin was finally gone except for a penny-sized crust on her chin. She picked at it, and decided she had to wait it out at home a little longer because exfoliation would make her skin sensitive to the sun. She slumped on her bed for most of the morning, reading CLR James and Toni Morrison. Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze, she underlined in heavy, blue ink.                                               

Mornings were hard during the month-long break, marked by the oscillation of the ceiling fan and the advance and retreat of sunlight through the cherry drapes which came all too quickly. She kept social media always open on her browser, hoping for posts from people feeling the same sadness. Instead, she saw updates from the starched-whites and the not-quites from their dorm rooms and college towns. It was more than she could bear. There were a few who posted a new profile photo each and every morning like university was a daily act of reinvention. Some were group photos where they were the only ones poised and meeting the gaze of the lens, like they now held a deeper knowing about something. 

Usually, the house was empty during the daylight hours – Vaidyanath would be doing on-sites with his IT clients, fixing LANs and supervising air-cooled mainframe rooms, and Yashmita would be at the hospital, pulling as many shifts as she could. When she needed to get away from the sting of missing out that came through her social channels, Shrejal lay on the living-room sofa and watched Family Fortunes. Today, as she ambled her way downstairs, she was surprised to find Aunt Yashmita rubbing the range with a gingham towel as she warmed sweet pala milk on the stove. She was in a house-coat with her hair hanging loose. The rolls of fat under her upper arm peeked out. 

“Mo-le,” she said, sounding out the Malayalee word for daughter.

Shrejal always liked the way Malayalee words created a comfort bubble around her. The soft consonants and bending vowels. Shrejal slid into a seat at the dining table. A foil of white appam pancakes lay unwrapped on a plate. “I didn’t know you were home,” she said.

“Just finished a double,” Yashmita said.

When she was a child, Shrejal would occasionally sit in the A&E and watch her aunt work. She still remembered being parked in a plastic bucket chair in the corner of the nurses station as Yashmita yelled a series of dry commands to the team assembled around a gurney. “Thirty seconds of silence for the EMT report!” Yashmita would bark as the nurses ran around with defibrillator pads. She projected expectations on everyone around her, and this was what made her good at her job. Yashmita, in her mossback way, never allowed moments of weakness or failure, and saw the world as a data set of problems and solutions. “Protect better outcomes in the future!” was her mantra.

Yashmita dressed the appam in the white cream. “Somebody brought in a dog with an eyeball hanging out last night. Nothing wrong. We just comped together a pressure dressing and then called the vet.”

Yashmita said these things matter-of-factly, without fear or disgust, really without much emotion at all. Shrejal watched her aunt’s beautiful hands form each mouthful of appam like a sculptor. Her fingers were very long and tapered, and her nails were even, always unpainted, the ends like little white half-moons. It was a little unbelievable to Shrejal that these were the same fingers that pushed compresses against bloody, open wounds. Fingers that could set bones and do stitches. Shrejal had asked her aunt once if she ever worried about making the wrong decision at work, because everything could change in an instant. Yashmita had replied that five-tier triage got her to stop worrying about making any wrong decisions. If you didn’t know something, you just had to pretend like you did.

“What are you doing today?” Yashmita asked.

Shrejal hated the question because it always sounded like a judgement. She held up the book in her lap. “Subaltern studies,” she said.

Yashmita squinted at her for a moment. Then, she reached across the table and touched her long fingers against Shrejal’s cheek. “Hyperpigmentation.”

Shrejal turned away and pushed her hair forward to cover her face.

“Shrejal, what are you doing to yourself?”

Shrejal stayed silent. She knew how Yashmita worked – her Fabian gambit of asking unanswerable questions to decenter a person. Yashmita sighed and shook her head.

“And what is this subaltern studies?” she said.

“It’s about the postcolonial movement in India. Our history is only written in the shadow of whites. We have been othered, and we need to establish our own rules. Our own history.”

“Well, we’re Brits now. We live in Hackney, Mo-le.”

“Even here, we’re othered. Don’t you care that you’re different? That we’re all othered? 

Yashmita shrugged, seemingly unperturbed.

Shrejal shook her head. “You have no self-awareness. None. Your entire generation.”

“Uh-huh,” Yashmita said, looking at her tartly.

“I mean, why do you even stay married to Uncle? You’re never happy with him. You’re always riding his arse.”

Yashmita clucked her tongue. “He’s okay. We are Nayar women. We are raised as tribal chiefs and masters of our households. If this were my parents’ generation, I would have six Vaidyanath’s —one for every shift.” She smiled sweetly at Shrejal. “Don’t forget that.”

“So, you never think about being a brown woman. I mean, like really brown?”

Yashmita crumpled her brow. “You’re a very clever girl but you’re doing it all wrong. Nayar women aren’t supposed to care what people think.” Yashmita’s pager rumbled like a bee trapped in a drawer. She sighed and left the room.

Shrejal retreated from the table and bolted herself in her room. She took a long breath. Four more bottles and she would be able to take her bath. The absolute ablution. Life would be crisp and free. Like for Olivia Rowe, the world would open its bounty to her, and she would have a hard shell of beauty able to withstand anything life threw at her. She looked at her coffee-bean face in the dresser mirror, and wondered what on earth it had to do with her roving spirit, with who she really was inside. The photograph of her mother, tucked in the mirrors frame, looked back at her. Her mother was smiling, standing carefully in the shade beneath a large tree. Her skin was perfect. Victorian pewter, macaroon cream, water mist, muslin, snowbound, milkshake perfect. She had long auburn hair, and wore a luminous, white sari. An angel. For years, Shrejal had harbored the thought that if she hadn’t defied her parents by playing outside and becoming a dark little girl, they might still be alive.

She heard the floorboards creak and then a set of feet came up to the door frame so that the light in the crevice went dark. Dhanyati appeared, stacked high with boxes.

“Your packages,” Dhanyati said as she lowered the green-cellophaned load on the bed. She looked a little sad, but she didn’t say anything. 

There was still a rawness between them so they were both observing an upspoken agreement: Shrejal didn’t press Dhanya to go out, to get dates with Bjorn, or fool around anymore; Dhanya stopped telling Shrejal what to do with her skin. Maybe if they stopped fighting with each other, eventually they would stop fighting themselves. Besides, today was not the day for fighting. Today, she would take her bath. She looked at the shipping boxes spread on the duvet. That was itten of ten. 

“Glycolic acid wash. After this, we’ll look like sisters,” Shrejal said.

The girls unwrapped the gallon bottles and lined them up on the floor like bowling pins.

“What about your auntie and uncle, then?” 

“They’re at work.” Shrejal stripped off her layers until she was in a tee shirt and her knickers.

“Are you sure this is safe? “ Dhanya asked, as she pressed the ball of her foot against one of bottles.

“It’ll be thirty percent. That’s what they do at a spa.”

“This says seventy percent. I read about a Tamilian girl who got third-degree burns,” Dhanya said.

“That’s why we’re going to run the bath, aren’t we? Get all nice and diluted.” Shrejal bent down and laced her fingers around the necks of a couple of bottles.

Dhanya kept still. “Would you have asked Olivia Rowe to help you with this?”
Shrejal stood back up. “What are you talking about?”

“There was one period last year—I counted—when you didn’t call me for seven months.”

“Piss off. I called you.”

“When you needed something.” 

Shrejal sat on the bed. “I said we should have lunch and you kept saying no.”

“Because nobody has lunch at ten-thirty or dinner at four-thirty. Because that’s all you could spare away from those girls.”

“I’m just terrible, is that it?”

Dhanya slowed her breathing. “Olivia Rowe doesn’t have to do anything but you’d still drop everything if she called.”

Shrejal stood up. “Forget it.” Her face was drained. She bent down and picked up a pair of bottles and went through the door. Dhanya heard her stumble down the corridor. She picked up a jug and sat it on her knee, reading the warning label. “Burning, erythema, vesiculation, scarring,” she slowly sounded out.

They lugged the bottles in pairs to the bathroom. They knelt by the tub, shoulders touching, and tipped the jugs one by one into the tub. Halfway through, the emetic stench started to build. Shrejal kept pouring and stirred the liquid with a loofah brush. It foamed slightly, and 

Dhanya drew back. “I can’t breathe,” she said, squinting as she tipped another bottle over.

Shrejal brought her tee shirt up to cover her nose. She turned the faucet to full gush. 

“I’m going to throw up.” Dhanya clambered over to the toilet and dry-heaved.

Shrejal raised the window sash and turned on the exhaust vent. “Let’s give it a minute. It just needs to air out.” 

Dhanya batted her eyes like they were burning. Shrejal helped her up and to her bed. Shrejal stumbled over to the Almirah and picked up a water bottle. She wet a hand towel and pressed it to Dhanya’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Chakka.” 

Shrejal touched her palm to the side of Dhanya’s face and felt her spirit course through her bones. Dhanya’s breathing eased as she looked at Shrejal.  “Move over,” Shrejal said. Dhanya slid down to clear a place by her side. She lay on the pillow and watched, wide-eyed, tucking her hands under her cheek.

“Turn around,” Shrejal said as she lay next to her.

Dhanya turned, shifting and adjusting to free herself from the tangle of sheets. Shrejal brought her arm over Dhanya’s shoulder, and her knee up so it rested on Dhanya’s hip. Shrejal remembered when they did this as children. Two squibs under the covers. Those first feelings they shared when Dhanya lightly ran her fingernails up her back; when they practiced kissing in the dark as little girls, laughing with their mouths pressed shut. Shrejal closed in like it was that first coup de foudre she’d felt as a little girl. They were one skin, a territory of ochre and umber tones bound together a subcontinent and an immigrant journey of parents. Shrejal held on. 

“Shrejal,” Dhanyati whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

In that moment Shrejal knew what Dhanya felt and wanted to say but couldn’t. What they both knew and perhaps had always known. She slowly, carefully pushed Dhanya’s hair back away from her neck and looked at the rectangle of perfect brown skin at the back of her friend’s neck, and then she kissed that place.

They passed into a brisk sleep, the sort when you don’t know if you’ve slept or laid awake, when time doesn’t seem to have passed. When Shrejal opened her eyes, she heard the floorboards and shot up. Dhanyati stirred, still volte face on the pillow like a sleeping lover. Shrejal slipped on her pajama pants and stepped out. She heard the toilet flush and gasped.

Uncle Vaidyanath came out of the bathroom, wringing his hands dry. “Ay, what are you doing?”

“Nothing.” Shrejal shrank against the wall. “I thought you were working late.”

“They cancelled the contract. Bastards deserve to crash.” For a moment, his timorousness lifted, and he looked like a free man as he walked to his room. “By the way, good job on the disinfectant. I drained it because it was smelly.”

Shrejal stepped into the bathroom. The porcelain was blinding. All the calcium and limescales had been dissolved leaving a ghost-colored pit, wide open and empty, where you couldn’t tell the bottom from the sides. She stood over it silently.

“Looks like we start from scratch,” she heard Dhanya say. She stood in the hallway, her hair rumpled, rubbing her eyes still misted with sleep.

Shrejal waited a moment and then stepped out. She pulled the handle and shut the door.


Tom Silva studied Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. As a filmmaker, his work has been showcased at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Art Institute of Chicago. His film, Silhouettes, was acquired by NY-based Dreamscape Media and is now available internationally through Amazon Prime. His publishing credits include stories and articles in The Nashwaak Review, Film International, and London-based Hot Topics.

Essay | ‘Kāli’s Cleaver’ by Michael David Sowder | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

I’m standing in bright June sun on a landing above the stone steps of a temple to the Goddess Kāli, staring at a portico where her black statue stands covered in garlands of flowers. My partner Jennifer, our two boys, and I have just had darśan, “sight of the deity.” We approached her in a crowded line, people crushed together, sweating.  Excitement rose among the devotees, many on pilgrimage from distant places, bells ringing, priests chanting, everyone shouting, “Ma! Jai Ma!” We bowed and threw roses and came down to where I’m standing, looking back at her. 

Beneath her garlands of jasmine, hibiscus, and marigolds, she wears a necklace of human skulls (fifty—one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet). Her upper left hand holds a bloody cleaver, and her lower left hand a severed head. Her upper right palm is open in the abhaya mudrā, which means, No fear, and her lower right hand offers boons. A bloody tongue sticks out of her mouth. Her eyes are bright, almond-shaped, child-like, dancing. 

Today is June 24, my birthday, and Jennifer has brought me and our boys to Dakshinesvar, India, north of Kolkata, to this temple, where Sri Ramakrishna, my favorite guru (after my own guru), lived and served as Kāli’s priest and devotee. Ramakrishna’s words introduced me to Kāli. I wondered how this playful, ebullient guru could be in love with a goddess wielding a bloody cleaver and wearing a belt hung with severed arms. Now I wonder how I, too, have fallen in love with her. Sachi, our guide for the day, Jennifer and the boys, are waiting for me to come down the steps to continue our tour of the temple complex.

The problem is that I don’t want to move. 

 

The temple stands on the east side of a red-stone courtyard, wide as a cricket field. To the north is a temple to Kṛṣṇa, the avatar made famous in the Bhagavad Gītā.  Along the west side, twelve temples dedicated to Lord Śiva overlook the Ganges River. Śiva, Kāli’s husband, is the Lord of Yoga and the God of Destruction. Himalayan ice and the snows of Mount Kailash are his favorite abode. Winter his season. He and his followers, sadhus (holy men and women) and wild bands of ascetics, kapālikas, hang out in cremation grounds using skulls for drinking cups. Below Śiva temples, the Ganges River spreads wide, close to the delta where it pours into the Bay of Bengal.  The river, itself, like Kāli, is a manifestation of the Divine Mother. Every part of India is sacred landscape.

The temple complex is enclosed by high red walls, and along the base of the north wall runs a veranda supported by red and white columns. Ensconced behind them are shaded rooms where priests, workers, and officials have offices, stores, and lodgings. In the northwest corner sits the room where Śrī Ramakrishna lived his entire adult life. Meditating there today will bring a dream to life for me. Here on the temple landing, I ask Sachi if the temple priest could bless the māla beads I wear around my neck. The priest takes a moment out of his ritual and touches them to Kāli’s feet. Sachi returns, handing the beads to me, saying that this was a great and rare honor.  He seems anxious for us to get on with our tour. 

 

When I think of Ramakrishna (1836-1886) I often think of his contemporary, the American poet Walt Whitman, about whom I wrote a dissertation and book. The two have a lot in common. Their ecstatic, playful personalities mirror each other, and the Indian guru’s teachings about oneness and diversity would have resonated with Whitman, though Uncle Walt would have envied Ramakrishna’s being labeled an Incarnation of God. It’s easier, of course, in India than anywhere else on earth to be called a Divine Avatar. In the Tantrik tradition Ramakrishna partly represents, the whole world is Divine. In a sense, we are all incarnations, our divinity hidden by our overriding egos and ignorance. How to make manifest that natural, intrinsic divinity is what Ramakrishna, Whitman, and Kāli, come to shows us.  

Born in a small village outside Kolkata, Ramakrishna had his first enlightenment experience at age six, when he gazed on a sedge of white cranes lit by the setting sun in flight before a dark bank of clouds. He fell into an ecstatic trance and had to be carried home. Family and teachers recognized him as spiritually gifted, unusual.  Given to reveries, he had little interest in studies or worldly goings-on, and what interest he did have dwindled away after his father died. He preferred the company of the saffron-robed ascetics passing through the village on their way to a famous Kṛṣṇa temple in Pūri to the south. At twenty-two, he was invited to come here to Dakshineshvar, north of Kolkata, to assist his older brother, who had been made priest of the temple. Though poor since the death of their father, the family were Brahmins, of the highest, priestly caste. Brahmin priests, unlike homeless sadhus, can marry and live a more or less comfortable life. But notions of caste were irrelevant to Ramakrishna. In fact, the temple complex was built by Råni Rasmani, a wealthy śudra, or lower-caste woman. Ramakrishna ate food cooked by lower caste persons and fed sacred temple offerings to stray cats.

People thought he was insane. In love with Ma Kāli, he spent hours decorating her statue. He would dance before her, sing to her, put on women’s clothing, remain night and day weeping at her feet. At one time, inspired by the monkey god, Hanuman, he took to leaping around her like a primate. In reveries and ecstasies, which might last for days, he had to be hand-fed by assistants. But Rasmani suspected that his madness was a kind of divine intoxication. She called a symposium of Vedic scholars to determine who or what this creature was. At the conclusion of the convocation, the pundits unanimously agreed that he was not only a saint, but a living incarnation of God. (This is reminiscent of the Council of Nicea (330 CE) where a synod of bishops, determined, by vote, the true nature of Jesus. The vote was: “One in Being with the Father.”) During his early years at the temple, three gurus, of different traditions, came one after another and lived with him, teaching him the doctrines, stories, and ritual practices of the scriptures—outward expressions of inner truths he already had experienced. 

He prayed unceasingly for a vision of the Divine Mother, and Kāli granted him visions many times. He experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest enlightenment experience, in which the human soul merges in oneness with God and the Universe. He said that in such experiences the universe melts in a quicksilver sea of endless bliss.  He disappeared, and only God remained. Ordinary mortals give up their bodies in this experience, but Mā Kāli told him to remain on earth for the benefit of others. 

Like us.   

Luckily, during his last years, a devotee named Mahendranath arrived and transcribed his talks and recorded his activities. After the Master’s death, Mahendra’s writings were published in Bengali, and an English edition came out in 1942, titled, The Gospel of Sir Ramakrishna. This is perhaps my favorite book. Not only are Ramakrishna’s words transcendent, they’re also funny. A disciple asked, “Master, if the whole world is filled with the God, if God is in everyone, then why do you tell us to keep the company of sincere seekers and not mingle with decadent persons?” Ramakrishna responded with a story.

Once there was a disciple whose guru imparted the same lesson. That evening, walking home through the jungle the disciple saw an elephant charging down the path. The mahout on top of the elephant was yelling, “Get out of the way! This elephant has gone mad!” The disciple thought, well, if the elephant is God, why worry? He continued up the path. The elephant rushed upon him, slammed him into a tree with his trunk and hurled him into a mass of thorns. Seriously injured, the disciple lay moaning that night in bed. The guru had heard what had happened and came to see him. After the doctor left, the guru softly asked, “Why didn’t you just step off the path?” The disciple moaned, “But you told us everything was God! So the elephant was God. Why should I have moved?” The guru replied, “Yes, yes! The elephant was God! But the mahout was God, too! And he was yelling for you to get out of the way!”  Funny like that.

Authentic gurus are frequently funny, because they don’t take so seriously a lot of the things we take very seriously, like ourselves. Ramakrishna’s metaphors for the spiritual path come from nature, from rural and village life. Often as you read this book, evening is falling, jasmine in the air, a bulbul or magpie sings outside. Ramakrishna pauses in his talk, in a sublime mood. A disciple sings a spiritual song, and he goes into the vision of samadhi, standing still as a post or collapsing in ecstasy.   

Now, a hundred-and-forty years later, Jennifer, my boys, are going to sit in the room where this avatar, this incarnation of God, lived and taught. The room where Swami Vivekānanda sat entranced, the disciple who founded the Ramakrishna Society and became the first yogi to set foot in America.  

 

All these thoughts are going through my head as I stand here gazing at Kāli. I need to get going, but I feel that she is holding me. I remember having a feeling like this once before, an evening when I was standing in the rain in the hills outside of San Ramon, California. I had just come out the front doors of a lodge-like temple, having been embraced by a female guru, Māta Amritanāndamāyī, affectionately known as Amma, “the hugging saint.” Amma’s darśan is expressed by hugging people. In the U.S., hundreds line up to receive what many call a life-changing embrace. In India, thousands stand in lines snaking down dusty roads outside their villages. Amma hugs each person, one after another—some crying, some laughing, all clinging to her. She doesn’t get up, eat, or go to the bathroom for twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours. 

That evening, I had received my hug and sat and watched others receive theirs, and then I was standing outside in a light drizzle, gazing at the green California hills. I just felt that I could stand there forever, held by a sense often emphasized by meditation teachers that there’s nowhere you need to go, nothing you need to do, no one you need to be. This same feeling I’m having now, but it’s one suffused with sweetness, a sort of tenderness I can’t let go of. I don’t want to leave Mā Kāli, the child-like goddess with the raised and bloody cleaver. It’s as if she’s holding me, like Amma, in a kind of embrace. 

 

How does a Westerner, raised with eleven years of formal Catholic education, come to love a goddess decked out in a garland of skulls? The churches I grew up around were decorated with bloody scenes, but Jesus, the Incarnation, was suffering the violence. He wasn’t doling it out. How does a Westerner make sense of Kāli’s cleaver?  

The Indian spiritual traditions we lump together as “Hindu” acknowledge the suffering, horror, and death that surround us every day. There’s a god of creation and a god of destruction. It’s an expression of clear seeing, like Kāli’s eyes. Everywhere in nature, in our daily lives, beauty and horror exist side by side. In Nature, everything is beautiful—and, everything is eating everything. The West has struggled with this paradox. Nietzsche said the world can be justified, if at all, only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Given the world’s many horrors, the best you can say about it is that it is beautiful. In Europe, before the end of the eighteenth century, wildernesses, stretches of uncharted forests, unnamed peaks, were known as wastes, deserts.  New England Puritans called nature a howling wilderness—the home of devils, wolves, and (American) Indians. But by the end of the eighteenth century, Westerners began to see beauty in wilderness, or, perhaps, the wildness in beauty—or began to be able to hold the two together. 

Poets and artists sought out wild landscapes to have experiences of the “sublime”—views that inspired not just appreciation but awe. In his work, A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke clarified the difference between “the beautiful” (as in, flowers, butterflies, cultivated parks) and “the sublime” (cataracts, ice-cloven peaks, lightning storms). A landscape can be called “sublime,” he wrote, only if it exhibits an element of danger, terror.  A sublime landscape both draws us and repels us. 

We all know this feeling. We like to stand at the lip of the cliff, but not too close. We love the thrill of roller coasters, horror flicks, true-crime podcasts, and rope-less ascents of El Capitan. We crave the “little death” of orgasm and escape the strictures of self with alcohol or oxycodone. It may seem at first that Kāli’s cleaver is too strange, too morbid, but we find something like it—a fascination with death—thanatos—in Western culture, too. 

We find it in Western religion, though we have to look to the mystical, contemplative traditions. Sixteenth-century John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Doctors of the Church, for example, speak of the death one must pass through before attaining Union with God. St. Teresa cries out, “I die because I do not die!”  The Sufis, too, the mystical wing of Islam, including poets like Rabia, Rumi, and Hafiz, speak of fana, the ecstatic annihilation of self, undergone before entering the Oneness. 

And it’s there in Walt Whitman. In his great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, “the father of American poetry reminisces about one night in his childhood when he walked the beaches of Long Island, with moonlit surf swirling around his ankles. He hears a mockingbird sing what sounds like a sorrowful melody and gives voice to the song with an aria of lost love.  He says, “a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder, and more sorrowful . . . / . . .  . started to life within me.” In a climax of emotion, at dawn, he demands of the sea, the great old mother, to give him the final answer. “O give me the clew! . . . / . . . Are you whispering it, and have been all the time you sea waves?” And the sea, answering,  

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word, death,
And again death, death, death, death, 
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart, 
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over, 
Death, death, death, death, death. 

Which I do not forget  . . .  
My own songs awakened from that hour, 
And with them the key, the word up from the waves, 
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word, which, creeping to my feet 
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending 
aside,)
The sea whispered me.

 

When Whitman calls “death” the “word of the sweetest song and all songs” we are not hearing a Romantic poet in philosophical reverie one evening by a window. As a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospital tents, Whitman cared for young soldiers with traumatic injuries, assisted in amputations, held them through screams of pain, and wept over their uncountable deaths. He speaks of a deeper, perhaps inarticulable, mystery at the heart of death that few of us can fathom. 

 

The twentieth-century monk, Thomas Merton, in the final chapter of his book, Seeds of Contemplation, describes the culmination of a life of prayer in terms Whitman would understand. He says that after years of deep meditation, you come to an edge, to a moment when you feel that with the next step, you may find yourself flying in interstellar space. But what you actually find, he says, is that  

The next step is not a step. 

You are not transported from one degree to another.  

What happens is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom indistinguishable from Infinite Freedom, love identified with Love. 

 

There are myths and stories in Indian religions to account for Kāli’s cleaver, but on a deeper level, it is this mystery of death that she lifts before us. With childlike eyes, she comes like Whitman’s sea-crone to sever the bonds of what we know as our self, our socially-conditioned identity and ego. She will lift us, through our own death, into that Freedom, where we are, in yogic terms, united with the Transcendent, sometimes called Śiva, the Formless, Unmanifest, Absolute. In the traditions out of which Kāli arose, when we have direct experience of that—then we realize that this whole world is Divine—every child, every crane, every elephant, hibiscus, mockingbird, and wave. We realize then that there never was any place to go, anything to do, anyone to be.  

I come down the steps, not knowing if I will ever stand before her again, the Goddess who ravished Ramakrishna, Whitman’s brother, spiritual genius and holy fool, childlike guru and Incarnation of God.

Sachi, my family, and I walk barefoot across the hot brick courtyard.  We enter the Master’s room and sit on the hard tiled floor. Sweat pours rivulets in down my back, drips down my front. I look around. His bed, his divan, photos of gurus and disciples. I close my eyes and my mind quiets, simply stops. It opens in a vast emptiness. Just breath moving in, moving out. Like surf. My heart melts in love for Ramakrishna, for Whitman, for my family, and full of gratitude flows out into a silvery sea of rejoicing. 

The boys are restless, suffering in the heat. We don’t stay long. 

As we leave the temple complex, we retrieve our sandals and carry them down the ghats to the Ganges to fill our bottles with water. I look across the river, so wide near the delta, waves like platinum in the afternoon sun, and think of Emerson, so influenced by Indian philosophy, who said that every view of nature is a thing complete, a picture never seen before and never to be seen again. A woman in a green and purple sari, gold brocade, hip deep in water, motions for our bottles. She gives them to a boy who dives with them like a fish. I think of Heraclitus, how we never enter the same river twice. Each moment death, each moment birth. The boy rises from the water, body glistening, with child-bright eyes and bottles full. We thank him with rupees and namastes and screw our caps on tight, to carry home water of the Goddess, tucked safely in our bags. 


Michael’s first poetry collection, “The Empty Boat,” was chosen by Diane Wakoski to win the T.S. Eliot Award, and his recent most collection is: “House Under the Moon”. His study of Walt Whitman’s poetry was published by Routledge as, Whitman’s Ecstatic Union. In 2014 he lived in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, one of the six stays in the country. 

His work has appeared in American Life in Poetry, Five Points, The New York Times OnlineLion’s Roar, Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Sufi Journal, New Poets of the American West, Sow’s Ear, Pilgrimage, and elsewhere. He used to write a religion blog for the Huffington Post. A professor of English and affiliated faculty member in Religious Studies and Yoga Studies at Utah State University, he lives at the foot of the Bear River Mountains with his wife, the writer Jennifer Sinor, and their two boys. 

Fiction | ‘A Day in the Life of Rakhal Roy’ by Rahad Abir | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

One morning Rakhal Roy wakes up in bed and finds himself completely bald. 

It is not a bald patch or a bald spot. It is complete, clean baldness. Sleek, silky, smooth. He runs a confused hand over his head, back and forth. He feels nothing there. Not a single hair. He remembers sleeping as usual on his left side with his arm under his head. He wonders if he is having that tormenting dream again. For months, he has been having a recurring nightmare that he was going bald. He has got so used to it that he has started to believe it.

Is he drifting between sleep and wakefulness? He senses this time it’s no dream: the sounds and smells are familiar. He turns his face to the only window in his small room. Outside, the morning sun of Dhaka shines brightly. The alarm must have gone off a while ago. He has about an hour to take a shower, have a large breakfast and get ready to go to the office. He works as an insurance salesman. Today’s assignment is at the head office of a bank. It will be a long day. His boss has arranged everything for him. And they are expecting ten to fifteen fresh, first-rate policies from there. He must not call off work last minute for any reason whatsoever, even for death itself. 

What’s to be done? He rubs his head again. It’s as slippery as mustard oil. Why has the bad dream—the nightmare—come true? He curses himself. There is no mirror in the room. So he has no idea how enormously his old look has changed. Why doesn’t he simply jump out of bed and start his regular activities? Maybe no one will notice? 

It is already 7.55. Rakhal tries to block his thoughts. He gets up, opens the door a little and scans the hallway. There is no one there. He does a quick calculation. His unemployed, busybody elder brother is still in bed. Father is out for morning air, and mother is in the kitchen. He puts one foot out of the doorway, and then scuttles to the bathroom. 

The instant his eyes fall upon the mirror, he almost loses balance. The image staring back looks so unlike him. His heart stops beating until he is certain it is really himself: Rakhal Roy. His bare head looks as if there has been no hair from the day he was born. He feels older than a very old man. And he notices his ears stick out from his bald head: from each side they look like elephant ears. For God’s sake, how could this have happened to him? he thinks. He is too young to be old. He tries to recall when his hair disaster began. It started, like a waning moon, with a thinning widow’s peak. Then at a snail’s pace the balding moved backward. But however good or bad or ugly the situation was, he still had hair. Until last night. Until he woke up this morning.  

For a moment, he is under the impression that he has lost not only the hair on his head, but all his body hair. He feels more naked than ever. Looking in the mirror, he touches his face. He still has facial hair. A great relief. He needs a shave. But he decides not to. He will grow a beard. He takes off his clothes. Being a man of twenty-three, below average height, he looks younger than his years. He has a bit of hair on his chest. A small trail of hair runs down to his belly button and continues down. His hand caresses his lush, lavish and vigorous pubic hair. A smirk grows on his face. What if the world turns upside down? Then he does what he is often used to doing: a woman appears naked in his mind. A naughty smile flickers across her lips. He feels her warm breath. His breathing quickens. He groans.  

He turns on the shower. His hand from regular habit reaches for the shampoo. This one came from New York. He immediately realizes that it will be no use for him. Not anymore. In the basin cabinet more things will go unused. Baldpate hair tonic, organic shampoos, dusty hair gel tubes and much more. He cries.   

As he comes out of the bathroom, he hears a shriek. It is his mother in the hallway.

“Ma, it’s me, Rakhal,” he says quickly.

“Huh?” She gapes at him, staring in disbelief. 

“I’m running late, Ma. Is breakfast ready?” He makes for his room. 

“Oh God, you scared me!” she says. “Where’s your hair gone?” 

“I shaved it,” Rakhal says, slamming the door behind him. 

He wears a white and blue striped shirt, pleated khaki pants, and a flat, charcoal cap to cover his head. As he sits down at the dining table, he hears the click of the door. His father walks in. 

The old eyes squint. “Who’s this?” Holding the door half-open father studies him. “Ah, Rakhal! What happened to your hair?”

Rakhal does not reply. His mother does. His father claims he looks comical in the cap. 

“No one in my family was bald. Not even on your mother’s side. How did this happen to you?” Father says. 

Rakhal gives his father a stern look. The old man is right though. His sixty-five-plus skull is clearly ageing, but with no sign of balding. 

**

The bus stop is a two-minute walk. At a hurried pace, Rakhal keeps his head low and his eyes on the street. He thinks everybody is staring at the naked spots showing beneath his cap. 

By the time he arrives at the office, the clock has struck 10:22. He makes no eye contact with anyone as he walks past. His heart starts thumping the moment he approaches his boss’s room. Just outside the door, he tries to gather his composure. The boss gazes at him with a fierce frown as he enters the room. 

“Who the hell are you?” The boss sits erect in his chair. His shirt has no creases, nor his pants. His shoes are glossy enough to reflect one’s face. And his individual scent accents his big boss cologne. Everything about him is distinct and distinguishing.  

The boss has recognized him, Rakhal can tell from his eyes. Before he opens his mouth, the boss snaps. 

“This is an insurance office, not a fashion house. Why this metamorphosis?” 

Rakhal answers that he has had his head shaved. He sneaks a glance at the to-grey-or-not-to-grey hair of the boss, which looks brainy with his olive skin tone. 

“Fair enough,” the boss says. He looks Rakhal over from head to toe. Then in a strange, steady voice he tells him yet again the gravity of good looks, especially when it comes to being a terrific salesman. He finds Rakhal’s hairless head and hairy face totally unacceptable and unlikable. Therefore, in no way can Rakhal continue working for the company. 

“But sir—” Rakhal attempts to protest.

“Let me tell you the harsh truth,” the boss cuts him off. “Over the last six months, the number of policies you have brought in for the company is not impressive. I don’t think you’re a good fit for this profession. You’re simply not an insurance sales kind of guy. You’d better make a career change.”

“But sir, I’m trying, and I’m not doing that bad.” 

Speaking of selling policies, the boss always presents himself as a stellar example. He is a perfect insurance man in every way. He said that no one in the office has been able to break his record. Rakhal believes the secret to his success is his attractive looks rather than his powers of persuasion. 

“Listen, the bottom line is, I can’t send a baldy agent to my clients. Simple as that,” the boss concludes. He tells Rakhal not to worry about today’s assignment and points him to the door.  

Rakhal does not go to his desk. He slips into the restroom, turns on the faucet and looks in the mirror. The image of a forlorn and beaten soul stares back at him. He thinks. Should he go back and see the HR and payroll office to sort everything out? Or should he wait a few days to see if the boss changes his mind? No, nothing will change. Rakhal knows it. He is fired. 

An hour later, sitting in a roadside tea shop, Rakhal watches people in the street. They have hair. They have jobs. They have destinations. What did he have? He sighs. At one o’clock he can go to meet his girl if he wants. He wonders how she will take him. 

**

His girlfriend works at an elementary school. At first glance she takes him for a stranger. When he waves at her she shrinks back as if a phantom has appeared before her. 

“Oh my! Is it really you?” she cries.        

Rakhal notices the same frown as the one he saw on his boss’s face. The same question mark on her perfect arched eyebrows. “I shaved my head,” he says. 

“I see,” she says. “We need to talk. Let’s go to the park.” 

On the way she doesn’t say a word. Under the June sky the park and its visitors are in siesta. They sit by the lake. 

“Now, look at me,” she blurts out. And without warning she seizes his cap. 

“Oh my God!” her eyes pop out. 

Rakhal allows her time to absorb it, makes no haste to get his cap back. 

“Okay, who am I in your life?” she asks sharply.      

“You’re my girlfriend.” 

“Am I?” she says. “You didn’t even bother asking me before doing this…this… circumcision! You don’t care about me at all.”

“I do care about you,” he says.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me the bald truth.” 

“I am telling the truth!” 

“No, you are not!” 

He is silent. 

“Okay, here is my baldest truth. I can’t stand baldies. So we are done! Right here, on this bald spot!” She is red, breathless with anger. 

“You know—” Rakhal stammers, “it just happened.” He takes her hand.

“It just happened?” she shouts, shoving his hand away. “This is not the first time. You never share anything. You never care about my opinion. I’m sick of you!” 

She sounds like a stranger. She says she’s warned him several times. He watches her flaming lips move. He even has a sudden impulse to plant a kiss there. But he doesn’t. And says nothing. He wonders how a short, bone-thin woman can have such a piercing, potent voice. 

“I tell you what, I’ll return the favor. This time I’m not going to bother listening to you. I’m done with you. Goodbye.” The words gush out from her mouth in one breath.

She springs to her feet. Without waiting for any reply, without looking back, she strides towards the street. Rakhal attempts to stop her but it is in vain. Her dark hair flows behind her, rising and falling with each angry step. His eyes become blurred. His chin trembles. A warm wave of memory flashes through him. She has ended as she began. He looks back on the day they met. About a year ago, after school, she said, “I need to talk to you. Let’s go to the park.”

**

Rakhal wakes up with a start. He finds himself reclining on a bench. The park is darkening. Has he been sleeping long? He thinks and yawns. After his girl walked out on him, he didn’t leave the park. He bought a newspaper and read every article word by word.  

He feels achy and lethargic. His stomach growls. Then he remembers he didn’t have lunch. Instantly an instinct tells him that something is missing. He touches his crown. The cap is not there. He looks around, but there is no sign of it. He rises and checks his pants’ pockets. His wallet and phone are fine. Someone must have walked off with his cap while he was asleep, he figures. 

The dark is now deeper. The presence of people around him is light. A hawker passes him carrying a flask of tea. Rakhal calls him over. He has two buns with two cups of tea. Afterward, he fires up a cigarette and gets on his feet. His body unjams. In the cool night breeze, he sniffs the smells of some familiar flowers. He avoids the walkway and wanders over the pristine grass. It saves him from embarrassment in the low lighting Victorian lamp posts. And from the few kissing couples who might have noticed his cap is missing.  

Once upon a time, not many years ago, he had hung out with his friends in this park. He had a full head of hair then. Hair that was dark, healthy, and suitable for his Facebook profile picture. Ever since he started losing his hair, he hated running into old friends. With a funny look at his head, they taunted: “Seems we can call you Uncle Rakhal now.”

Rakhal tries not to look back. He tries not to think of so many things. Family, friends, work, his woman or his hair. He rests on a shadowy bench. The park has emptied out. He lights another cigarette, puffs in and out. He watches the rising smoke with intrigue.

Something moves in the darkness of the trees. Little by little a human figure emerges. A woman in black. She advances with hesitant steps, then stops. She eyes him in silence and comes close.

“You need?” she says in a near whisper. 

Rakhal stares at her. Still. 

“All kinds. It’s safe here. No police.” 

He likes her wording. “How does it work?” 

“First time?” The woman sits at the corner of his bench, keeping a distance. “Well,” she says, “it depends how you wanna do it. Sitting, standing or lying? Sitting or standing fifty. For lying a hundred bucks.”

Rakhal controls himself so as not to explode with laughter. All day this is the only moment something amusing has happened. “If I try the full course? All three?

The woman narrows her unthoughtful eyes. “You kidding, right?”

“Nope.” Rakhal looks at her intently. She is kind of pretty, and younger than him. Not wanting to spoil the charm of the night, he adds at once, “Yes, I was kidding. I’m sorry.” 

She rises and starts towards trees where she appeared from. 

“Listen,” he calls out, “I’ll do it.”

She stops short, turns her head a little and gives him the once-over.  

“Here’s the money.” Rakhal holds out a hundred-taka bill. 

She comes back. “You wanna do it right here?” She slips the bill into her bra. 

He asks how much time he will get. She says fifteen to twenty minutes. 

“Could you simply talk to me for that time instead?” he says. 

“You not gonna do it?” She squints and surveys him. “Are you a virgin?” 

Rakhal laughs. 

“Yeah? I knew it.” She says with a friendly grin. “No worries, man. I know how to take care of a virgin.”

“Listen, night queen,” he says. “I had a bad day, the worst of the worst of my life. It’s a life-and-death situation. I just want you to talk to me for a while.” 

“Ahh,” she says. “Now I get it. Okay, okay, I’ll give you half an hour.” She smiles a sweet smile. 

Beneath her cheap makeup he sees a compassionate face. Black eyes penciled with kajal. Sad lips with flattering red. All a little exaggerated. Short and stout, she has dark hair and dark skin. He asks her name. She says Mariam. He wonders what else he can ask. He checks his phone, ten minutes to ten. He turns it off. Mariam talks about the park. She talks about the police. She says they rarely visit this place. When they do, they only ask for money or a free fuck; sometimes both. “They’re the nastiest creatures on the planet,” she says. He agrees. 

Mariam keeps him company for over thirty minutes. Then she disappears into some trees. Rakhal feels a desire to follow her. But he sits unmoved, and for a long moment stares in the direction she went. He sighs, scratches his stubble and takes a walk. After a time, he returns to the bench. Mariam who was right here, Rakhal reflects, has gone to another man now. “Slutty bitch,” he says to himself. He pictures a paunchy man with a big ugly face and stinky mouth cupping her breasts and enjoying her night’s virginity. Rakhal rubs his head a couple of times, his breathing ragged. His jaw tightens. He gets up and paces back and forth. And the minute he decides to go find Mariam, he sees her walking up to him. 

Rakhal blinks, breathes a big sigh, and beams at her. “Ah, you are back?” 

“No customers,” she says. 

They sit at the bench. He offers her a cigarette. She takes it. He lights up hers and then his. They smoke together. They puff together. They both try to blow smoke rings. Neither of them is good at it, but they keep trying and failing. She giggles. After the fun is over, Mariam stands up to make another round on the lookout for customers. Rakhal proposes another hundred bucks for a second time, to buy another half hour. She hesitates. He insists. So she accepts. They begin to chitchat about this and that. Over cigarettes and smoke.  

“You know what,” Rakhal turns to her, “it’s great to have a cigarette together.”

Mariam tilts her head a little. “Aren’t you going home tonight?” 

“Nothing there,” he sighs. 

Mariam wraps a strand of hair around her index finger. “I’m going to get some food. Ya wanna eat?” 

Rakhal nods. Mariam leaves for a street shop. She comes back with some chapatti and beef fry. They eat hungrily. Her face is so close to his. It is then Rakhal notices that she has a beauty mark on her left cheek. He brushes her cheek with his fingertip. It gently moves over to her redder-than-red lips. She neither stops him nor says anything. His fingertip grazes her full lips. She giggles and shakes her head. 

“What?” he asks.

Mariam shakes her head again. “Men suck so bad. They don’t kiss, they bite. Their mouths stink. They’re horrible.” She spreads a Mona Lisa smile. “But you’re a good-ass anyway.”

Her ribald humor touches him. Mariam sighs.

“Okay,” she says. “Enough. Time for business.” She stretches out her arms and yawns. “And you, good ass, don’t be miserable. Your girlfriend left you? Forget it. There’s no love in this world. It’s all sex, dirty sex.” She gets on her feet. 

“Mariam,” he looks up at her. “Why don’t you spend the night with me?” He pauses. “Let me check how much I’ve got.” He pulls out his wallet and counts his cash. 

“Are you serious?” she cries. “Well, I don’t mind as long as you can afford it.”

Rakhal hands her all the bills. Mariam counts them twice. She curls her lip, bites it and after a moment says yes. Then she folds the bills and buries them in her bra.  

“Uhh,” she grunts as she sits down. “My nipples burn.” 

“What?” 

“It’s a girly thing,” she says in a nonchalant manner. “My period’s coming.”

Rakhal regards her, an uneducated, uncomplicated and unpretentious woman. “You’re interesting,” he says.

Mariam snorts with laughter. “You men are dickheads. You think women’s bodies are all hush-hush. C’mon, it’s an open book. It’s on sale, you see. Damn cheap.”

Rakhal takes out a cigarette, holds it between his fingers, leaving it unlit. 

“You don’t want to know how I became a night queen? Everyone does anyway.” Mariam says with a shrug. “Men are bastards. All the same.”

Rakhal gives her a long look. This woman is not what she seems. He listens to her talking about the beginning of her tragedy. With a strange naturalness she tells him how she lost her virginity. It was her no-good drug-addict stepfather. The abuse began when she was fifteen. A year later she ran away from home.  

Rakhal is at a loss for words. Mariam asks for a cigarette. He opens the pack before her. She plucks one out and plants it between her lips. She lights it up herself. He lights his. They smoke together in silence. 

“Mariam, can you give me an honest answer?” Rakhal says.

Mariam turns to him. 

“How do I truly look?” he says. 

She eyes him thoroughly, gives two glances at his top. “You look what you look. Like everybody else. You just have a shaved head. That’s it.”   

His jaw goes slack. “Nothing odd? Or horrible?”  

“Nah, you look rather hot.”

His eyes glimmer. “Thank you, Mariam. You’re a nice person.” 

Mariam suppresses a shy smile. She wraps and unwraps a small strand of hair around her finger. It strikes him that his ex-girlfriend who’s just broken up with him has the same sort of smile. Mariam yawns. He yawns back. 

“I’m bored.” She takes one last puff on her cigarette and then tosses it. “C’mon, let’s do it.” 

He says nothing.  

She stands up. “Come, I’ll show you my little secret spot.” 

Rakhal is still. “It’s fine here.”

Mariam rolls her eyes. “Hey, good ass, you got any problem there? Why don’t you wanna do it?” She pauses. “You take me as sleazy, huh? Go, fuck your mommy then.”

Her stabbing voice surprises him. He draws a deep breath and says, “Okay, let’s go.” 

He walks with her. She leads him to a mini-topiary garden where the plants are all at chest height. This is a real privacy hedge. A natural bedroom. A heart of darkness. With a magician’s hand, she whips out something folded from inside a hedge. She rolls it out on the grass. It is a poly mat. Rakhal sits there beside Mariam. He can smell her armpit odor mixed with cheesy perfume.  

Mariam holds his right shoulder and pushes her breasts against his back. And before giving him any time to swallow the bubble of these moments, she strips off her tunic. 

Mariam hugs him from behind. Rakhal feels the fullness of her breasts on his back. This time more intense, sharp. He grows stiff. Warm air blows over his neck. 

“Let me take off your shirt,” Mariam extends two hands from both sides. 

“No one comes here?” his voice nervous. 

“There are three other night queens in the park. But this is my territory.” 

Rakhal lets her unbutton his Egyptian cotton shirt. He scans the surroundings one more time. Without looking over at her, he knows she has unhooked her bra. He shudders when her bare breasts touch his bare back.

“How does it feel?” she presses her hardened nipples into his skin. 

“Ohh,” he lets out a suppressed breath.  

Mariam stretches out her feet. He is now between her legs. She cups his chest. 

“Uhh,” he grunts in pain as she twists his nipples. 

Mariam giggles. Her hands softly rub his pecs, move down a little, stroke his stomach. Then her fingers inch down. His youth responds. The youth that has been pure, untouched. 

Suddenly the wail of a baby breaks the stillness of the night. Then a dog barks. Then the noise of screeching brakes. And in the topiary garden a mosquito hums around four ears. 

Now naked, the nude limbs, the lonely nude bodies, are face to face. Despite her cheap perfume, despite her sweaty, unappealing figure, despite her low life, Rakhal crouches over Mariam. He crouches over her chocolate breasts and drinks the mangrove taste of her ebony nipples. Drinks as noisily as a child does. She caresses his head.  

Rakhal sees Mariam diving down between his legs. She squeezes him, tastes him. Then she pushes him down on his back. She climbs over him.  

“I always ride on top,” she says.

When he disappears inside her, when the two bodies melt into one, he cannot think of anything. He gets wild. He gets violent.  

The air is soupy, yet serene. Long after it is over, they smoke, facing the sky. Naked, side by side.  

“It feels wonderful to stay like this!” Rakhal says.

“Yeah, free, like animals. Sometimes I feel I should wear no clothes.”

He puts one hand on the back of his head. “Mariam, I’ve had the best day of my life. The happiest day ever. I have no woes left. I think I can die.”

Mariam smiles. The same shy smile. “Do you have any wishes?” 

“Nah,” he says. “Oh! Hang on—yes, just one. I want to see every man bald.”

“That’s funny.” 

“What’s yours?”

“I want every man to sleep with me. Every bastard. I want to fuck them, not to be fucked.”  

“Mariam, you are some woman.”

She laughs aloud. A laugh that shatters the night. “I’m a bad girl.”

“You’re one of the nicest girls I’ve ever met.”

Mariam peers at him. Then closes her eyes. “I hate myself.” She cries in silence.

Rakhal feels an ache in his chest, his eyes stinging with tears. “I hate myself too,” he says.

They both cry in silence. Over nothing. Over everything. 


Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Wire, Himal Southasian, TSS Publishing, Brick Lane Tales anthology, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from Boston University. He received the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Currently he is working on his first novel and a story collection.

Fiction | ‘My Time with a Censor’ by MK Harb | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Date: 08/10/2019
Location: Multaqa
Format: Mixture of field-notes and interviews 
Interlocutor: Mr. Rasheed Al-Muthafar 
Recorded: Yes
Begin transcript 

So commences my first evening in Multaqa. I arrived towards the end of the night. However, the city, from what I could discern from the plane was wide-awake with vengeful and florescent eyes scattered across its landscape. At ten pm, I entered the arrivals terminal and watched clerks dressed in all shades of burgundy approach clients with fanciful merchandise. From Iranian saffron packaged in gold-inlaid boxes to a frivolous assortment of perfume. A man with sea-green eyes approached me and asked with a soft Lebanese accent: May I offer you a Tom Ford perfume customized for Multaqa? The perfume blotter was small though the scent lingered on it in a spectacular manner and I felt transported to a Damascene wedding hall covered in gardenias and jasmine. 

I could not afford this olfactory experience and as I looked around, I wondered if I had enough grant money to guarantee a year of decent living. The University of Michigan awarded me thirty thousand dollars in doctoral research money, half of which I already spent on rent. Multaqa is not easy on the pockets for a researcher. In the past twenty years, it had become one of the richest city-states in the world, sitting over wells and wells of natural gas. When I lived in Kuwait during my father’s time as a US consular there, Multaqa had just gained its independence. Kuwaitis often ridiculed Multaqa, viewing it as a provincial town with ramshackle buildings perched over turquoise beaches. Not anymore. A small town that slept through the Gulf War is now a metropolis entrenched in all sorts of politics and wealth. 

Exiting the airport, I waited in the taxi pickup line as a number of locals headed to their Bentleys. The options were numerous though none was affordable. One representative offered me a chauffeured BMW service and another offered me a cheaper option, which was a Mercedes. In the U.S., I promised myself never to take an Uber though now I succumbed to my financial pitfalls and saw it as a last resort. I ordered an Uber, which was a Toyota Corolla and it arrived in a manner of seconds. I sat back in the car and a metal screen separated me from the driver. A few minutes in, a video played and a woman with a British accent spoke in an assured tone: Welcome to the Multaqa of all, we wish you a pleasant journey. Your driver’s name is Adnan and he is from Morocco. For your safety and convenience, we ask that you do not converse with the driver. In case of an emergency, please press the burgundy button on your left. 

Sitting back, unable to converse or introduce myself to Adnan, I thought about my upcoming research on censorship. I fidgeted with my phone as a small panic began to take hold of my body. I needed to ensure the government was not alerted to the more investigative scope of my research, which on official records was “to put the systems and literature of Multaqa on the international stage.”

I arrived at the hotel and a man in a light brown jellabiya greeted me: Asalamu Alaykum. Some coffee with cardamom? The hotel was Burj Eleganté in Porto Arabia, a district designated for foreign arrivals conducting short-term business or research in Multaqa. A dull beige color oozed out of every inch of the tower’s exterior, making it indistinguishable from the sandy shore that lay outside of it. The Burj’s lobby had a hugely circular fountain adorned with hundreds of purple orchids and a strong scent of jasmine filled the air until I sneezed. A tall woman dressed in a jet-black suit breezed through the lobby and introduced herself to me, “Hello Mr. Jamal. I am Maysa, the happiness controller at Burj Eleganté. We have been awaiting your arrival and put you up in the nomad room,” she said as she waved at the bellhop to take the bags. “Well I am quite happy to be here,” I said. Maysa did not offer a smile indicating that she was not very appreciative of my joke. She escorted me to my room, which was small, but comfortable. It had a view of the towers, sitting in a vast and multi colored sky. One was shaped as a needle covered in different geometric patterns and another was designed as a tornado covered in blue glass. There were about twenty of them, staring back at me like cloaked guards. 

I woke up the next morning at 4 A.M. overcome with jetlag. I decided to jot down notes in preparation for my first interview of the day with Mr. Rasheed Al-Muthafar, the head of the censorship department. I anticipated the interview with a mixture of glee and dread. It was a great opportunity for research, but I had to tread with caution in order not to jeopardize the project itself. 

After finishing breakfast, I decided to walk to my meeting. Burj Eleganté was located a short walk away from the Ministry of Culture though Maysa insisted that a five-minute walk “is an eternity in this heat!” The street was lifeless, but grand. I navigated a vast avenue in which different marble colonnades shaped and shaded my pathway. Arriving at the ministry, drenched in sweat, I realized that I should have taken Maysa’s advice. As I combed the moisture out of my hair, I was struck with the architecture of the ministry, which towered over me like a vengeful god. A short and rectangular building lay in the middle as two arches, covered in glass, emerged from each side and met at the end, forming a half circle. In the middle of it, a number of swords spelled out the name “Multaqa” in a sunk relief. Four smaller beige buildings surrounded the ministry with and with their staired exteriors created the allure of a Mayan temple. The buildings were labeled as “security lots” with assigned numbers. 

As I inched closer to the entrance, a robotic and nasal voice asked me to stand back. The screen then kept flashing in red as the phrase “await authentication” appeared. A raspier voice creeped its way through the screen and said, “Visitor 12, the authenticator will be right with you and grant you access.” A few minutes later, a man in a crisp navy-blue suit emerged as he hovered an access card over the screen and said:

“Mr. Jamal?” 

“Yes, that’s me.” I answered.

“Welcome to the Ministry of Culture! I am the floor authenticator, Omar. Mr. Rasheed is eager to meet you. He is currently in a meeting and will be with you shortly. I will escort you to our Buraha garden where your interview will be held.”

“Garden? It’s a bit hot to conduct an interview outside no?” I inquired while trying not to sound too presumptuous. 

“Oh don’t worry. We built our Buraha with ‘cool pool’ technology. It is currently 46 degrees Celsius in Multaqa, but in our garden, it is 26. We have our engineers to thank for that and Allah. In the meantime, make yourself comfortable on our couch. Can I get you a drink?” he asked.

“Some water would be great. May I ask, what is a floor authenticator?” I replied. 

“Ah yes, it must be a strange term to you. It means I am in charge of authenticating any visitor entering the ministry and ensuring that all the workings are in line with our country’s vision. Nothing to worry about,” he replied as he gestured at a waiter to get some water. 

I sat in the lobby and felt columns rising in my chest. I pressed in the middle of my left palm and attempted to calm my breath before the interview. Looking up, a number of metal rods resembling tree branches hung from the roof. Glass birds colored in yellow, red and white sat on each branch. The branches came together in the middle and formed the Arabic phrase Bismillah, in the name of God. In front of me was a large hologram of the Minister of Culture planting seeds in a pot that spelled the word Thaqafa on it. The seeds then blossomed into a scene of little kids with some running around and others reading books. The black carpet under my feet had various Arabic words embroidered on it in white. From Almajd to Almustaqbal, which together in their delicate and intricate calligraphy alluded to a glorious future. The upper floors of the ministry were laid out in the form of transparent cubes. Looking up to my right, I saw a number of men convening a meeting and looking up to my left, I saw service staff cleaning a room. Omar interrupted my staring and said, “All our offices were designed with transparency in mind. Our Minister, guided by the truth, did not want anyone to be behind closed doors.” “Wonderful,” I said. “Mr. Rasheed is ready for you now in the Buraha, shall we?” Omar asked.

Entering the Buraha, a fresh breeze caressed my cheeks and a cool mist followed my motion. The Buraha was grand in a ritzy manner and had five luscious banana trees growing out of its gray concrete. The weather was just perfect like a Californian afternoon in February. A sound of water created an atmosphere of serenity, as it flowed out of a sculpture shaped like an open book. Mr. Rasheed sat in the middle of the Buraha under a canopy of fumes emitted from his cigar. He wore a white thobe, which revealed from its upper left pocket a silver Montblanc pen that shimmered in the faint garden light. Next to Mr. Rasheed, sat a woman wearing a light pink abaya that covered her body up to her shoulders. She tapped her fingers on her laptop as she watched me approaching them and sat tall in a way that indicated her provenance. My heart raced as I deflected my gaze away from her attempting to admire the lush greenery around me. As I got closer, Mr. Rasheed whispered something to the woman next to him and then looked at me and said “Mr. Jamal, the Lebanese-American researcher! To what do we owe this pleasure?” His voice was cavernous and confident indicating to me that he had a bit of demagoguery in him. 

“The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much Mr. Rasheed for granting me this opportunity. I appreciate it,” I said as I firmed up my handshake. I sat down and Mr. Rasheed offered me a glass of water and said, “Coconut water from Zanzibar, where one of our food security projects is running. This is as pure as your intentions. It will hydrate you.” He laughed and his chuckles reverberated across the Buraha. The woman also laughed and so did Omar, but their laughs were nervous and rushed. Omar stepped on my foot as he hurried to move the ashtray, which was made of crystal and had a light olive tint that reflected our palms. He placed it next to Mr. Rasheed’s arm as he ashed his cigar, which emitted a woody and rubbery fragrance that interrupted the gardenia-like aroma of the Plumeria tree that towered over us. I relaxed into the scent as I remembered winter afternoons with my father in Kuwait, when he would smoke his cigars on Saturday. The woman noticed my brief daydreaming, clearing her throat and introducing herself, “I’m Katrina, the ministry archivist. I will be taking some notes as we speak.” “Sure thing,” I said as I took out my own notebook.  

Mr. Rasheed drew deeply on his cigar and as he exhaled a long and musky breath, he took on a serious tone, opening his eyes as his forehead lines became more pronounced and said, “Anyways, shall we get down to business? I can give you an hour for the first round and then I have to head out to meet the minister.” “Of course, I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” I replied. I explained the scope of my research, asked if we could record the session and began the interview with Mr. Rasheed. The interview lasted a little over an hour, but it felt like a day spent in gripping conversation. His spellbinding rhetoric, wanton humor, and his steadfast belief in his country’s system, while problematic, captivated me. I had come here expecting a rigid interview with a bureaucrat. Instead, Mr. Rasheed often calmly paced across the Buraha and spoke with a cool assurance. I believe my readers at the University of Michigan will read this interview with utmost curiosity: 

Interviewer: 

Can you tell me more about your work in the censorship department? What is its history and what is its main function now?

Mr. Rasheed: 

Well, the department was founded in 1972 under the patronage of Minister Hameed at the time. His vision transcended his time and he knew that our country was destined for a life beyond its blue shores and sandy dunes. When Minister Hameed stared at our humble corniche adorned with tired palm trees, he did not see Multaqa. He saw the future. He knew that one day our small coastal peninsula will carve out a metropolis so advanced that even Singapore would be envious. In his vision, Minister Hameed understood the importance of safeguarding tradition as we evolved into modernity. He asked the perennial question, what do we want our generation to read? You see, this office was a dusty and drab one back then, where bounded books were submitted to the censors and they would either annul their publication or omit harmful lines. I feel bad for the Egyptian men of the time who probably developed arthritis from the years they spent omitting lines by hand! Now, with the grace of God and with the wealth of our country, we have a much more robust and advanced system in place. I still review a small number of books, but most of our work is done through artificial intelligence. Manuscripts are submitted electronically and an algorithm reproduces a new version of it that we call “Multaqa-ready.” In the process, we remove illicit words, harmful rhetoric and discourse that contradicts the national vision. If the publisher agrees to the “Multaqa-ready” version, we happily sell and endorse it in all the government run bookstores. We have, thanks to god, worked and cooperated with publishers from across the globe from London to Taipei. A few weeks ago, I approved a “Multaqa-ready” version of The Count of Monte Cristo along with an exquisite Arabic translation. Nothing brings me more pleasure than providing my country’s people with culture and the truth. 

Interviewer: 

Fascinating. Tell me more about the “Multaqa-ready” prototype. What defines illicit words and unlawful rhetoric?

Mr. Rasheed: 

Mr. Jamal, let me ask you this question. What belongs to you? Often, for us in this line of work, we ask ourselves what belongs to us. The ‘us’ here is my country’s men and women. I believe what belongs to them is a religious harmony, a trust in the national vision and a culture that has not fallen ill to sexual deviancy. Now you might look at me here, coming from the US and think I am a tad bit archaic. Though I will say this, what cultural benefit or progression occurs when we show a Netflix series that promotes homosexuality and pornographic encounters? I recently discovered this Vietnamese-American author called, Ocean Vuong, a strange name in fact. He has a new book of poetry called In this Space We Tremble. I read it and one of the poems was an elegy to interspecies love and fornication! Imagine if we put that in our bookstores. Trust me Mr. Jamal, our people themselves will rebel against it. They simply know it does not belong to them. Words are an authentication of the manner in which we live and individuals like Mr. Vuong represent a life that is not for us. 

Mr. Rasheed often went on long tangents. I have edited the transcript here to highlight the key points from his interview. About thirty minutes in, Mr. Rasheed took a break to drink some water and light his cigar again. He asked Omar to get us some tamarind juice and stood up informing me that it was time for noon prayer. At a frenetic pace, Omar emerged again from the lobby, bringing with him a prayer mat and tamarind. Mr. Rasheed stood angling towards Mecca as Omar turned on a hologram of an Imam. The Imam led the prayer, speaking Arabic with a beautiful Syrian accent as I watched, perplexed. The Imam was quintessentially Aleppan and for a brief moment, it was as if I was transported to the Umayyad Mosque in Syria. He had deep blue eyes and pale white skin as smooth as porcelain. He spoke with a gentle fluidity pronouncing his Bismillah with a soft elegance. When he neared the end of the prayer, his voice took on a virile tone, praying for divine providence with a sincerity that made it seem that we were in some sort of immediate danger. Throughout the prayer, Katrina did not bat an eye, proceeding to work on her laptop. When it ended, Omar turned off the hologram as the Imam vanished into the thin air creating a poof sound. Mr. Rasheed wrapped up his prayer and his face wore a more serene and thankful look as his forehead lines eased and his eyes widened. He returned to his seat, drank a bit of the tamarind juice, and said, “I am not always able to make it to the national mosque due to work. However, that does not mean I will skip my prayers. A few years ago, our Ministry of Religious and Family Affairs issued a fatwa in which registered Imams can have holograms of themselves leading prayer. We are lucky to be living in such pertinent times. Now where we?”

Interviewer: 

Of course, I understand. You asked me what belongs to me. That is not an easy one to answer. I believe a confluence of worlds belongs to me. However, I want to bring this back to Multaqa and the future generation. How do they fit into this system? Do they inquire on why the publishing industry is administered in the way it is now?

Mr. Rasheed: 

I would not worry about our generation if I were you. We have given them everything. In fact, I would say we have given them the American dream, with an Arab flair. A villa, a free college education, a car and an abundance of utilities. We have over ten universities for a city of six million and the finest faculties of science and liberal arts. Our country’s people are not lacking in needs fulfillment. They are lacking in nurture. The latter we are still working on. Now, not having a copy of Lolita or a performance by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila does not mean we are teetering on a generational loss. It simply means we are putting our kids on a path in harmony with their traditional values and one that guarantees their fiscal success. You are an academic yourself and I am sure you know American history and the great strides the Protestants achieved in education. The Protestants often worried about society’s vices, family collapse and the impact moral deprivation has on culture. Would you have universities such as Harvard University without them? I believe not. Hence, we are on a similar path, but with the grace of God, we are charting it our own way. 

Interviewer: 

Right, I see your point. Tell me more about yourself. You are clearly a cultured man and have a familiarity with the US? How did your background lead you to your current position?

Mr. Rasheed chuckled, adjusted his posture, took out a piece of paper and wrote Men in the Sun on it. He wrote it with a vigor as if this note intended to intensify our current reality. He then stared at me expecting an answer. 

Interviewer: 

Men in the Sun?

Mr. Rasheed: 

Yes, that is the title of my favorite novel by the late Ghassan Kanafani. It is a treacherous and cruel journey in a desert on the outskirts of Kuwait. The whole novel feels like one constricted breath. So fast, so mechanical, it consumes me each time! You have to remember Mr. Jamal in order for me to censor I have to read. Hence, it should not surprise you that I am well read. Now, I have to stress that this is not an act of hypocrisy. My reading, even if enjoyable, does not pose a threat, though opening up a novel such as Men in the Sun to an entire society does. We are not interested in promoting books that incite discord and romanticize radical thought amongst our youth. It takes one flicker for the men in this city to parade around in their land cruisers and wreak havoc on the roads. I do not want that flicker to come from my department. Maybe twenty years from now, they will be ready to read it, arriving at it unharmed due to the trust they built in us. However, with our region being on the cusp of change on so many levels, it is not the time to be lazy with thought. We are orienting towards a tidal wave of success not towards pangs of defeat.

In terms of my life journey, well that is a long story, but I will give you the summary. In the eighties, I received a scholarship from the ruler at the time to pursue higher education in the United States. My family lived on the outskirts of Multaqa, in a border town, the Sekanniya, that no national government had demarcated as its own. It did not have much beyond small mud houses, some cattle and a shop that sold produce and Bahman cigarettes. One day a government official arrived and decreed that if the tribes of Sekanniya accepted to be under their rule, they would fund the men to go on educational expeditions in the U.S. It was at the same time that Multaqa was declaring its independence and demarcating its borders. Hence, it was important for them to cultivate the tribes’ trust. 

My father accepted and by the grace of God, look where I am now! Now mind you my scholarship to the US was to study engineering at Arizona State University. However, while there, a Syrian professor by the name of Hamza took a fond interest in me and began introducing me to the literature of the Arabian Peninsula. I am ashamed to say that at the time, I did not even know we had writing coming out of our cities. Exploring the vast library of my university, I was particularly struck by Abdulrahman Muneef’s Cities of Salt and its commentary on oil and abuse of power in Saudi Arabia. Muneef is a true intellectual I must say. He does not write words or fables. Rather, he writes trajectories and builds epochs. Later on when I matured, I realized the dangers of Muneef’s writing for our insular societies and I disagreed with his ill-thought commentary on oil. Without our energy supply and the wisdom of our heads of state, you would not be sitting here in a building designed by Rem Koolhaas and my family would have remained idle, smoking Bahman cigarettes. So that is mainly it my friend. 

Interviewer: 

Wonderful, thank you for that. I do appreciate your frankness. Now I am quite cautious of time and I will ask you this one last question until we continue the interview another day, if you agree. This question might be a tad bit technical, but I will ask it anyways. You are fortunate enough to be in an affluent country and surely, there is a segment of your society that is entrepreneurial and might be interested in opening bookstores. How do you reconcile their needs?

Mr. Rasheed: 

You are not an easy man, Mr. Jamal! I cannot divulge the information on our licensing and distributor practices in Multaqa. However, I will give you one example, in hopes that by the grace of god, it will suffice. Recently, a young girl came to me asking for a license to open an independent bookstore. I reminded her that we only have government run bookstores in Multaqa: Amana Books. She came back, all flustered, informing me that she has a degree in English literature from Duke University and that it’s the government’s duty to nurture her career. I kindly reminded her that we paid for her degree and that she has other pathways to fulfill her heart’s desires. Though I must say, I was in a pleasant mood that day and I decided to meet her half way. I gave her the option to ask the municipality for a café license. Then, I would authorize her café to have three shelves, which she can use to display books. After some hesitation, she agreed. A year later, she visited me to thank me for guiding her on to the right path. Not only did her cafe bring her more financial success than a bookstore, but she also had the honor of being one of the first to present books at a coffee shop! The café, Biblio Latte, is quite beautiful. You should visit it out while you are here! I recommend their specialty drink, the turmeric karak. 

Mr. Jamal, I am sorry to say that I must head to a meeting soon and I will need to prepare my notes. It was so singular to chat with you and I look forward to the remaining parts of the interview. If you can please send the transcript to the authenticator, so I can review it later on. Now before I go, I must insist on hosting the next interview at my place. You cannot come to Multaqa without trying our famous Balaleet for breakfast!

Interviewer: 

Thank you so much for your kindness. All of this will be quite helpful for my research. If it is not any trouble, I will gladly come to your house for our second session.  

I thanked Mr. Rasheed and as our eyes locked for a fleeting moment, I witnessed a certain opacity in his hazel eyes. He firmed his handshake and a little flame tingled my palm and then transformed into a fire that coursed through my body. Katrina interrupted us, giving me her email where I could send the transcript, for which I thanked her. I walked out of his office and saw Omar holding a bag in the manner of a Catholic school pupil. He gave it to me, patted my back and said, “A little welcome bag for you.” I thanked Omar and asked him for directions to the Biblio Latte cafe. 

Sitting in the Uber, Mr. Rasheed and his absorbing personality gnawed on my mind. I fidgeted with my phone as I thought about every word he spoke. How can so much charm mask so much deceit? He had the seductive allure of an autocrat and the cadence of a fascist. With an uninterrupted ease, words flowed of his mouth and he rarely attempted to take a moment to breathe. At the cafe, I examined the bookshelf Mr. Rasheed licensed as I waited for my turmeric karak. The shelf had a copy of The Quran, The Count of Monte Cristo, an abridged Arabic version of Harry Potter books and a number of business and finance guidebooks. I sunk into my leather couch, opened the welcome bag, and found a traditional thobe with my name embroidered on it. Under the thobe was a book that had a portrait of Mr. Rasheed’s face as the title Hope is a Discipline hovered over his bushy eyebrows. I trailed the details of his face with my fingers as I stared back at his eyes and said: I cannot wait to encounter more of you.  


Mohamad Khalil (MK) Harb is a queer writer from Beirut, Lebanon. He received his graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2018 where he wrote an award-winning thesis on escapism in Beirut. His research practice lies at the intersection of architecture, literature and ethnography. MK currently serves as Editor-at-Large for Lebanon at Asymptote Journal, commissioning and writing pieces relating to Arab literature in translation. At Asymptote, he has worked on a range of topics from the queer lives of Arabic literature to ecological images of the desert in North African literature. His work has been published in BOMB Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, Art Review Asia, Asymptote, Scroope Journal and Jadaliyya. He is currently working on a collection of short stories pertaining to the Arabian Peninsula. All his writing is available at mkharb.com