Fiction | ‘A Collection of Hearts and Ashtrays’ by Rishika Kaushik | Creative Writing Workshop

The sun was blaring as we finished practicing for our play. Even the pieces of overpainted furniture and overused props looked tired. Far too much Nescafe Iced Tea had been consumed to evade the heat. Amidst all this, Falak still glistened.

I mean, yes, she was sweating, one had to have superpowers to not perspire in an August Delhi afternoon. But it was as if the sun kissed her body and sprinkled golden water on it, while the rest of us got the commonplace – fiery – treatment. If I scratched my arms after a day like this, the sweat and dust would probably mix to create a marshy lowland, pokey hairs as vegetation. 

Everyone scurried around, picking the second-hand chairs and tables up, collecting DIY props and things, that comprised our Set, and quickly dumping it back into the Audi Lobby. Four hours of practice in this heat was enough to make them irritable and desperate to head home. Not me; I took my bag from the Audi Lobby steps and waited. 

She emerged from the Lobby, and smiled at me, ‘Don’t tell me you’re too tired for a smoke.’ 

‘Never.’ 

We headed out of the familiar lobby of the college; our home for two more years, with a name too grand to suit its compact area –  Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Sri Venkateswara College. Or just, Venky. 

The scene outside the college gate, is an image that will be imprinted onto my mind forever. Maybe it’s the emotional merit of the experiences of college, those that make one grow up. Or maybe it’s because I have spent my whole life on this street. I saw it all, the empty and the chaos. I went to Springdales, Dhaula Kaun; which lay further down this street, for twelve fucking years and then, just when I thought I had had enough of Satya-freaking-Niketan, it just so happened that I missed the North Campus cut-offs by 0.25%. What were the chances? So there we were, walking down Benito Juarez Marg, which held my entire fragile existence in its haphazardly parked cars and ever-changing restaurants. Though the landscape remained stagnant, the colours changed. Summer, winter, autumn, spring…it was always the same but never really. I had seen small restaurants and businesses open and close as frequently as a finicky South Delhi girl changes her clothes before a Saturday Night at Keya. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sick of this road. 

When college happened, I met her. I thanked God, for that 0.25%. 

She walked ahead of me, in her white kurta and printed palazzos. Her long, smooth, black hair was tied in a bun. The back of her silver jhumkas dangled as she jumped through puddles of sewage, asserting, ‘We live  in a fucking cesspool, Tara. What the HELL is this? Ew, I think some keechad just landed on my chappals.’ 

It was true. Just when I had thanked God for this road, God put it right into the hands of Satan. The Delhi Government decided to tear apart the entire region of South West Delhi and bury it under construction. If I were to die and the proverbial ‘life flashing before my eyes’ thing were to happen to me, I’m certain I’ll mostly see massive blue barricades saying Delhi Metro. Also, my mom yelling at my dad for never taking responsibility while usually being totally inebriated herself. 

But that’s besides the point. Satyaniketan was broken down for questionable Capitalism, dressed as an Underpass, a tunneled passageway underneath the street for cars and trucks to roll by smoothly. But all that remained was a ginormous chasm: a gaping hole in the centre of the street. Everything that used to be there — the eating joints, the shops, the cars, the people; were pushed towards the margins. Sewage now ran from everywhere to everywhere and as it so often was with margins, the lack of space squeezed life together like eggs slammed into a sandwich, leaving room only for resigned acceptance.

The only way to get from one side to the other was through this makeshift, dirty bridge which looked like it would break apart any moment. But just the way she had become the elastic thread which held her family together, the bridge held on. Some days, looking at it felt like staring at my own reflection, its frailty a testimony to my exhausted self.   You look like how I feel – said Zadie Smith in The White Teeth.

Things were better on the other side. There was more shade than sun. The smell of street food wafted through the air, leaving the stench of the sewage behind. Small vendors made Maggi and bread-omelette while students filled into Cafeteria & Co., one of the newer additions, it was brought straight from the North Campus of DU. 

Subway, Café Coffee Day and Jain Book Store were the three pillars of the locality that wouldn’t give away. Everything else came and went. Canteen till I Die was replaced by The Chai Story but Woodbox stayed put, even though it had been getting the eyeballs. JP was taken over by Burgrill; Falak, Karan and I loved that one. Now it housed some new Laping place. 

Streets gave way to more streets, to more intimate streets and that’s what Falak and I were all about. Entering the Satya lane, our mouths would already be salivating because of Chowinghee’s sinful rolls Bhaiya, 1 chicken tikka aur chicken malai tikka roll please

Falak had entered my life and changed a lot of things. She didn’t know that, of course. I mean, we were best friends. I’d spent enough time watching rom-coms to know that I couldn’t just go up to her and tell her that I was convinced she was my soulmate, that all I wanted to do, was lie down on the bed with her, play with her really long silky hair, and tell her all the ways in which she made me feel like time itself would stop to celebrate the explosion that our cosmic bond would create in the universe.

That would get me nowhere.

Those movies were mushy but they always seemed to work. Love needed an arc. The climax couldn’t happen at the introductory montage. Plus, we had plot lines to get past: her long-term, now long-distance, super cishet boyfriend from childhood. Not to forget, my own droopy-eyed, hilarious pothead boyfriend. 

Falak went to get  a bottle of Pepsi as I went to the cigarette thela

‘1 Ice-burst aur 1 Marlboro Light.’  

And further down, ‘Bhaiya, 1 plate chicken gravy momos.’ 

I lit my cigarette and took a drag. We did this almost everyday. It was actually the best part of my day. 

It reminded me of the times in school, when I would develop a crush in the school bus and spend the whole day in class just waiting to get back into the bus. I was reminded of the senile family therapist’s advice to the entire family. Try to unlearn, your pattern.

After blowing smoke into the Delhi air, already heavily polluted, I felt a little better. These days, I’d been feeling utterly hopeless. It wasn’t that the Chandra family was in shambles – when had it not been – because Dad hadn’t been home in a week and Mom’s crying bursts were reaching a hysterical pitch. It was that I was fixating on Falak. All I could do was think about her. About being with her. About running away with her. Upon another drag, I repeated what the therapist had told me in a private session, If you obsess, you cause stress. He loved working with rhymes. 

But then I would see her walking toward me, and my cheeks would go red. 

She lit her cigarette and exhaled. ‘I can’t believe the mid-sem break is right here. I’m so not ready to go home.’

Falak lived in Lucknow. The Naqvi’s were a big deal there. They had a lot of money, almost aristocratic, but she tended to dismiss it. She spoke about her family all the time, though. All the ways they differed from, didn’t get her—‘Tara, before I came here, it was like I couldn’t see any of it clearly. Now, every time I go back, the cracks become more and more visible. Their money makes them so ignorant…I mean I just cannot believe Abbu is alright with, like, the status quo, that he doesn’t care about things changing for our community. I mean, I’ve ranted enough about the diabolical ways of oppression to him. He doesn’t get it, how fast it’s all happening, and even if he does get it, his societal privilege keeps his discontent subdued. People are being slaughtered…openly, the judiciary is ridiculously biased and do not even get me started on the media—’ her voice trailed off for a moment. She took a drag. 

‘Fuck it, I’m going to get too pissed. Just…when Abbu tells me it’s not that bad, Fali and I bark at him saying that yes, it is, it’s so bad that it’s no longer safe to even rent a place all I get in return is silence.

Later, he tries to calm me down by saying he’ll take care of me regardless… I’m like it’s not just about that! It’s always the same when I go back…don’t go around protesting so much, we care about your safety, blah blah blah. I can’t. Are you even listening to me? Am I ranting again? Just tell me, I start and then I just don’t stop—’

The truth was, I never wanted her to stop. I had heard her speak about her doting — ridiculously protective — father many times. Initially, I was quite jealous. The constant calls, the sweet warmth of worry that escaped through his words, all of it. I knew their relationship was turbulent sometimes, they believed in doing things differently, but I’d pick a nagging presence over total absence any day. 

I was used to Falak’s voice going on.. But now, I’d started to focus on her tonalities, the peaks and troughs of her voice, so I could play it in my mind later. It was a personal cassette which I would plug into my head. It helped me sleep. I looked at her as she went on— ‘I’m excited for you to meet my parents though, when they come for the play. I’m going to miss everything at practice when I’m gone, ugh! Keep updating me!’ 

‘It’s only for a week, Falak. Plus, they’re not even focusing on your scenes right now.’ 

‘Yeah, but I mean like, still.’ 

‘How’s Saleem? You must be excited to see him?’ I slid that in as nonchalantly as I could. But I instantly regretted it. Slowly, everything I said to her felt like it was loaded with a sub-text. 

‘I don’t know. Am I? Truth be told, I think I’m just…bored of him.’ 

I wanted to stop myself from thinking that meant anything more than it did. The body, however, works differently. I felt my palpitations rise. I wanted to tell her how I felt. 

I took another drag— ‘1 Chicken gravy momos.’ 

Falak reached towards the vendor, taking a drag. She was one of those gorgeous women who made you want to smoke. The kind seen on the side of the street or in movies, the ones who hold the cigarette as an extension of their delicate hands. The ones who collect hearts like ashtrays. 

‘Well, maybe you should leave him.’ I said, stabbing a momo with the toothpick. That made me wonder, is the singular of momos, momo? I made a mental note to check it out.  Anyway, that seemed like a sound advice any friend would give to their best friend if she was bored of her boyfriend. 

‘I think I want to. But… I don’t know. We just have so much history. Do I want to uproot that? And we fit so well. He gets me, you know? I mean, he’s known me forever. But, do I feel like I’m limiting myself? Like I’m missing out on what’s out there, yes. I do.’ 

‘You’re just 19, Falak. You’ve just about stepped out of Lucknow. It would make sense if you wanted to take a break. Explore things. People. Relationships are complex.’ 

She stared at me for a moment. Then she almost said something but stopped. Is she nervous about something? My heart skipped a beat. As I watched her gasp and exhale, she brought her tongue in and out, after gobbling a steaming momo and then snorting. 

I wanted to say it. I love you. So much. But I was scared. Too scared of losing her. So I just stuck with making her laugh as much as I could. I knew that someday I would tell Falak I loved her. I had to wait it out. She would get bored of Saleem and we would go out drinking and spend nights in my house or in her flat and perform our play and make memories and she would love me back. She already loved me, so much, yes. I just had to make her love me that way. 

‘By the way, how are things with Karan? Are you guys okay?’ 

Maybe I was reading things, but her question seemed loaded with a sub-text too. Who knows? Maybe the universe, for once, was on my side and she was totally in love with me too. 

‘I think he’s slowly, just burning away like the hash he keeps smoking. Maybe it’s time I stub him.’ 

She laughed. She threw the paper plate into the already overflowing bin. I got up as well. It was time to go home. At the end of this lane, she would go left and I would go right. 

As we walked, something happened. On the dusty lanes of Satyaniketan, where Mom Hand Momos took over Grill Masters, where the wires — crisscrossing at loose, messy, unstructured junctures — told stories, where even the stairs that led to matchbox houses were drowning with memories; Falak held my hand. She entwined her long fingers into mine and squeezed them. I looked at her. 

Nervousness took over me.

It seemed like it was the perfect time to tell her.

We reached the end of the lane. I turned to her. She hugged me. 

Oh. My. God. She’s in love with me too. 

She looked at me and I could sense her mustering a ton of courage per arm. 

She sighed. 

We stood at the beginning of the street. Or the end. 

‘I think I’m leaving Saleem. I’m in love with someone else.’ 

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I nodded ferociously. I knew exactly what she was going to say. 

‘And I know you’ll understand because there’s no one in the world who loves me more than you do. I wouldn’t do anything if I thought you cared. But you’ve made it so clear that you don’t.’ 

‘What?’ 

‘Karan. I think I’m in love with him. And I think he may love me too, Tara.’ 


Rishika Kaushik, 21, is currently pursuing her Masters in English from the University of Hyderabad. Writer, Actor and Activist (in progress, of course), she aspires to explore the complex, flawed, inside patterns of human life. Based in Delhi, India, she finished her Bachelors from Sri Venkateswara College, DU and is now looking at higher education after finishing Masters in other parts of the globe. Published work can be found here.

Poetry | ‘Banana Boat Ride’ by Gandhali Sawant | Creative Writing Workshop

Daily dose of chai, sipping slowly

I slip through the blanket

And squint

at the sunlight trickling in

through the blinds.

I hear the sea before I see it.

Pushing away a branch poking in the ribs,

I pass a few logs; scattered

on my way to reach the shore.

Sand, greets me first, the tourists later.

A man asks

if I wish to ride a boat,

“Banana boat- top class” he clarifies with an air of pride.

I shake my head.

He understands the ‘no’

and moves to another tourist.

“Banana bo-” 

I hear him from a few paces ahead.

I suppress a laugh escaping my lips.

Yet another tourist somersaults in the water,

his friends chase him to the first wave.

An older man braces

for the approaching wave, the biggest

“It is the seventh wave” the boatman clarifies.

I agree.

The sea makes me more agreeable,

more than I would like to accept.

The boatman is happy with my agreement.

‘How much for the banana boat ride?’ I ask.


Gandhali Sawant is a Mumbai, India- based poet, with a passion for children’s literature and science fiction. Her poems have appeared in ‘Love As We Know It’ an anthology of poetry by Poem Pajama and ‘Masques’ by CultureCult Press. She is currently pursuing Doctoral Research from the Department of English, University of Mumbai

Poetry | ‘Walk a Mile’ & ‘Home’ | Shefali Banerji | Creative Writing Workshop

Walk a Mile 

and then another mile 
as if you have undertaken the task of destruction 
into your palms. 

I sense my bones cracking, 
my feet skinned, 
my knees peeled off like an orange ripened to bitterness, 
all, only to know the truth 
of your heart,

to make excuses for your shooting of doves
all night 
in the backyard,

I know how they bother you!

Peace is for the faint-hearted, you say, 
and I know then whose body your gun will disfigure

next.

Now I see
in a hot gnarling flash,
thunderstruck into skies,
why I’ve forever seen white 
where it rains red.

How your shoes were a size too tough 
for my midget feet
glazed as they were 
with the blood of previous conquests.

The night shies away into the colours 
of your victory 

and I see white 
under your feet
walking the last mile
into your shoes,

one 
   last 
       sigh

before I step out 
into the sun, 

into happy oblivion.


Home

 

on the banks of river mandovi, the tides beckon
to sleep within the womb
and never return to this space
which has no place 
for us

 

here is a family that serves the perfect social excuse
to say i live in a happy home
 one crowded with silence, yet not efficient:
like an insurance policy.

 

There are familiar faces around but
i am alone – washed ashore the river
as it calls me back home 

 

an ensemble of happy faces
lined on the wall
leaves on the sidewalk, a furtive covenant with fall

 

mother, the soft ebb of water; father, the hollow between rocks
children, the gullible game of the ocean
soft crustaceans, lambs of the world, 
tumbleweeds on spiteful earth

 

in the tender blush of the rain
if you propped yourself on the ground
came a little closer, you’d see 

 

how home is nowhere 
and everywhere to be found

 

in-between the soggy earth and rebellious skies
amidst the rows of ants going to work,

 

the cluster of crickets playing cops
signalling daybreak and a caesura,

 

you would find the definition of home
in the suds of footprints on the shore:
a synonym
a sigh
a substitute

 

you would find the definition of home
somewhere between     the clefts in the river     and a heron’s hunting call


Born in Haryana, and brought up in Himachal, Shefali Banerji is a poet, writer and performer, currently residing in Calcutta. Having finished her Master’s degree in English at the University of Calcutta, Shefali works as a copywriter in a digital marketing agency and has had her work published in HeatherRigorousSnapdragon JournalCologne of Heritage: Incredible Bengal, and others.

Fiction | ‘Relief’ by Rati Pednekar | Creative Writing Workshop

There must have been about ten or twenty of Them, circling above the house like the beginnings of a tornado. Their smooth, steady flight was a stark contrast to the clamour within. 

Anxious voices mingled with footsteps, something clanged in the kitchen, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Of the twenty or so people in the house, some were grieving, some provided solace, while some were still in shock. A man sat huddled in the corner, unable to move. In the midst of it all was a wail, a cry that rose every few minutes from within the house and floated slowly outward. But They remained indifferent, a set of black wings and sharp beaks, dark silhouettes against the sun that had just begun to set. They flew round and round, while chaos reigned inside the bungalow. One of Them ruffled its feathers.

How did it happen. 

It was his liver, it seems.  

They never really take care of those. 

He knew it was coming. Smelt it on him for days. 

Didn’t he tell anyone?

No. 

Why not.

Didn’t have the words for it.  

***

A heavily built man walked out onto the bungalow’s terrace. His mass of gray hair and thick moustache fluttered in the slight wind. Standing by the edge, he fumbled for a smoke. As he struggled to light it, a priest walked to the main entrance of the house. He was welcomed by a woman in a white saree. She seemed to be crying and bowing her tear stained face, touched his feet. He blessed her with a touch of his hand. 

‘It’s chaos,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows what to do.’

‘He has left behind a vacuum. Great men always do,’ said the priest with a nod. ‘Come.’

They went inside, leaving the front door wide open.

The man on the terrace watched this exchange. He shook his head. A few moments later, the metal door on the terrace creaked open and a young man strode out. He had similar broad shoulders, and a thick head of hair. He ran a hand through it, and abruptly turned around when he saw his uncle; who had called out before he reached the door. 

‘Wait! I was just going downstairs.’

‘There’s no need,’ came the curt response. 

‘I know you could use the space, beta. We’re all going through a lot—’

‘No thanks to you.’

He paused. ‘Watch your mouth, boy.’ His voice wasn’t as sharp as it usually was while telling his nephew off. 

The young man looked up sharply. 

‘I saw you. Every night with your ‘one more drink bhai, just one more.’’

‘There was no way I could’ve known.’

‘But what was the need? To make him more like you? Or just to prove he wasn’t perfect? You can’t let go, even today, can you?’ He gestured to the cigarette still hanging by his uncle’s fingers.

‘He was a busy man…I just wanted to be with him.’

‘To be him. Well, now you can.’ The young man’s eyes were accusing, but were weighed down by the things he’d lost. 

The old man sighed and leaned against the terrace wall as his nephew walked away, slamming the door shut. 

Didn’t they use to be pretty close.

Oh yes. They used to have – what do they call it – piggyback rides.

Funny thing, what time can do.

Time’s got nothing to do with it.

It’s just people. 

Soon after, the man left and the terrace became empty. There was no other sound except for the piercing wails which escaped the house every few minutes. The cries seemed to be full of a profound emotion, something incalculable. When it reached out to the skies it even struck Them silent. 

***

A young boy ran out onto the terrace and began bouncing a ball. He tried to bounce it off the wall, but kept missing and then had to run after it. The sound of footsteps and low voices drew him to the edge of the terrace. , He stood on his toes and peeked over the low wall. A couple was leaving the house across the street. They were both dressed in white and looked as if they’d gotten ready in a hurry. 

The boy caught scattered bits of the conversation: ‘…how to cope…great man…maybe we can…’ He frowned on hearing his grandfather’s name. 

The boy’s mother banged the door open and exclaimed. Her hair was curled into a perfect bun, her forehead was creased with worry and her blouse stained with sweat. 

‘What are you doing here?! Come on, come down.’

‘Too many people,’ he whined.

‘I know, bachcha, but I have a lot to do and there’s no one to keep an eye on you here.’

‘But I want to play. Where’s Dadu? Jenny Aunty said he’s gone away.’

She used the end of her sari to mop her brow and cursed under her breath, not for the first time that day. Then she bent down and pulled her son’s cheek lightly. 

‘She’s right. I was going to tell you later, but yes, Dadu has gone away.’

‘He won’t come to play?’

‘No, darling. You know he really liked playing with you, no?’ 

He nodded.

‘He’s with the stars now. But he’ll always love you.’ 

He was silent for a few seconds and then said, ‘Will you play with me later?’

‘Of course. Now, come on.’ She nudged him through the door and they went inside. 

***

The heavyset man appeared again, this time a tall woman trailed behind him. She seemed to be in the middle of trying to say five different sentences at once. 

‘…throwing orders around, as if he’s in charge now. Don’t look at me like that, they both act like they’re above everybody else, forget that we are their elders, not the other way round. I’ve never gotten enough respect in this house, and your brother was another one like them. Kept you under his thumb despite everything he owes you—’

‘Owed,’ he corrected. 

‘Don’t be naive.’ 

He sighed and lit another cigarette. 

She took a step closer, her features softening in earnestness. ‘You’re just as much of a man as he was. Show them, show your nephew, what you’re made of.’  

‘He already blames me for this—’

‘He’ll get over it. He’ll realise that you can guide him equally well.’ 

‘But–’

‘You helped your brother get all this,’ she gestured around them. ‘And yet it was his name that was on the door. Now, it can finally be yours. Don’t shake your head at me, you know we need this.’ She prickled with impatience. ‘We have a wedding coming up next year.’

‘I know, I know. I’ll do it, you know I will. I just need a moment.’  

Satisfied she turned around and walked out the door before adding, ‘Come down soon, pandit ji must be ready by now.’

Half a cigarette later, a woman in travelling clothes and shoes walked out. 

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just needed some air.’

He dismissed the apology with a shake of his head. ‘It’s too crowded, na?’

‘Definitely.’ She laughed. ‘Papa didn’t even like half of those people.’

‘Nor they him.’ He was surprised to find himself being honest. 

‘Bhai’s been saying a lot of things,’ she said, slowly. ‘Don’t take it to heart.’ When he didn’t respond, she said, ‘Can I have one?’

He raised his eyebrows but passed her a cigarette and the lighter. ‘Haven’t had a chance to rest?’

She shook her head. ‘Didn’t sleep throughout the flight.’ 

‘Of course. How’s the job?’

‘Decent.’

‘Decent?’

‘Better than being married off isn’t it.’

‘When do you return?’

‘Two days.’

He nodded, he understood not wanting to be here. 

***

A slender woman stepped out on one of the balconies. Her hair was graying at the temples and she had lines around her mouth. Her phone rang. She told the person on the line that she was okay; she just had to see it for herself and yes, she’d be leaving soon. 

Is this the wife?

Oh, no. She’s not the wife. 

Ah.

On the other side of the house someone opened the door to a smaller balcony and helped a man in a simple kurta on to a chair. He rubbed his chest and his eyes roved wildly in every direction. He was still trying to grasp things, the truth, but was unable to swallow it completely.

‘Sit here for a while. You’ll feel better,’ he was told. 

Why do they always think problems can be solved with fresh air?

Because they usually begin within walls. 

He’s the servant isn’t he? 

The second most important person in the house. 

They glided in circles, eyeing the man in his tousled kurta at one end of the house and the woman in her clean, white dress at the other. How very different. How very similar. 

This man hasn’t lived a life of his own. 

The woman held the railing, leaned out, almost as if she wanted to escape.

Meaning?

Eyes shut, she let a slow breath out of her mouth.

He had served the old man since he was a teenager; followed his every rule, his every order. 

Her face crumpled as she struggled against the weight of the truth. 

Nobody left to lead him anymore.

She faltered and finally a sob broke out of her.

Now what?

Tears rolled down her cheeks.  

He’ll have to start living on his own. 

Her knees buckled. 

Must be terrifying. 

***

The sun was grazing the horizon when they finally left the house. The whole family, their friends, neighbours and priest walked alongside the soul, covered with a white sheet. The priest chanted, while everyone else held each other’s hands, as they walked towards the crematorium. The wail was let loose to the open skies. Its source, was the old woman, small and bent, at the very front of the procession. She was held by her son and daughter on either side, without whom she’d have probably collapsed in the street. Her cries punctured the air, startling all surroundings. A cascade of emotion that was finally breaking free. 

Oh. Said the oldest of Them. Interesting. It’s not grief.

Then?

Relief. 


Rati Pednekar is a writer based in Mumbai, India. She is currently working as a content writer. Some of her work has been published at KitaabGaysi, and Aloka. Her education includes a BA in English Literature from St. Xaviers, Mumbai and an MA in Creative Writing from University of Birmingham, UK.  Her stories focus on the everyday lives of people. More of her writing can be found at her blog and you can reach her on Instagram.

Fiction | ‘A Fragment of Royalty’ by Rahul Kanvinde | Creative Writing Workshop

Where’s the gold? He is famished. 

Waris Ali Shah senses a panic rising  from within his royal gut, like smoke clawing up the ramparts below.  Outside the palace, across the river; farmers burn stubble left over from the year’s harvest, and a thousand fingers of flame grope upwards as though in supplication, as though in surrender.  

Waris Ali Shah thinks of the Company and mumbles to himself, breathes in and out, and tries to mumble himself some more into at least a semblance of calm. He rubs his eyes; the air shimmers, and the heat stings. Yet, he can’t stop himself from looking past the walls of the palace, past the farms and the hearths and the smithies, past the irrigation channels, into a horizon that looks eclipsed. He closes his eyes, and places a hand on his chest as he continues muttering the roster of birds in the royal aviary. It’s something old Murtaza taught him long ago, a technique to puncture  anxiety as it balloons inside. Names roll off his tongue; darters and floricans, coots, rollers and hornbills, barbets and woodpeckers, and the cramp in his gut finally condenses into a sour resignation. 

Waris Ali Shah – he’s the son of Haider Ali Shah who won an impossible decree from the Mughal emperor in Delhi that transformed the Ali Shahs from governors to kings, from diwans to nawabs, and the grandson of Zulfiqar Ali Shah, Machiavellian diwan of the province of Doabi, dynast extraordinaire, most dependable tributary to the peacock throne, tracing his line back to the great Safavids of Persia, through Bukhara and Samarkand, to Khorasan.

Waris Ali Shah, the waris, or heir, with heredity his identity, lent existence for the sole purpose of continuing the line, the only son of his illustrious father. A trustee, a caretaker, a courier carrying the crown from the ancestor to the descendant, a vessel for the royal seed. Yet, here he was, the last of his line, a Waris with no waris of his own. Hence, a king to soon be without a kingdom, to be orphaned.

Waris Ali Shah, nawab of Doabi, sighs as he turns away from the jharokhas, their multifoil arches reaching up three-man-high, and returns to his sanctuary, cool and curtained. His sofa is made of weathered rosewood and carved ivory and inlaid emerald. It is surprisingly lavish, he concedes, as his fingers brush against the polished armrests. A gift from the austere Aurangzeb to his equally austere father, who once sucked the joy out of all that was beautiful and exquisite and fragile in his childhood by insisting on duty and piety, always. He can still hear the man, now in the company of his maker, booming over the flails of his scared little son who would rather play with the butterflies in the royal gardens than rote his statecraft lessons or practice sword-thrusts. 

Waris Ali Shah strokes his beard with one hand and the velvet on the sofa-cushions with the other. His knees are stiff from arthritis, his ankles inflamed with gout, and his stomach tender from last night’s kababs of minced lamb in oyster-and-mustard. He drops himself on the sofa without so much as bending a single joint below his waist and falling back, bumps his head against the headrest of black marble.

“Aah!” cries Waris Ali, partly in pain and partly in irritation at that unknown craftsman who has used marble when he should have used cotton and silk and rabbit fur. Who makes headrests of marble?

His attendant scurries in, a mole of a man, half the size of the nawab. 

Jee huzoor?” he squeaks.

“Go check if lunch is ready,” snaps Waris Ali and waves him off, reluctant to let him linger and start with his usual litany of petty complaints.

Today, he wants peace; today is a tragic day, today is a historic day. That bastard Cornwallis will be here today. The Company will devour Doabi today.

But not before Waris Ali has immortalized himself. 

His stomach grumbles. Maybe he should go check on the kitchen himself.

The kitchen is two floors below his chambers and just one wing away, and as he climbs down the steps, he remembers the day of his coronation. What a day, he smiles; within the first hour of the grand ceremony, to the bewilderment of all his officials, he had dictated that the royal kitchen be moved closer to his private quarters, closer than even his court. Since then, the pull of the kitchen has grown ever stronger – nearness makes the heart grow fonder. If it were up to him, Waris Ali would spend all his time in his beloved kitchen, with his khansamas. So talented are they that they can take one single look at their nawab’s face and, like djinns from the Arabian Nights, conjure up magical delicacies that transform his mood, lift his spirits. So unlike his courtiers, talentless and boring, utter sycophants all, incapable of thinking a single new thought even if their lives depended on it. 

As he comes upon the first floor, he can already imagine the scenes in the kitchen, and he hurries. The rest of the establishment he has allowed to be pared down to the bone; in any case, he doesn’t have much choice, with the Company approving the purchase of so much as a muslin towel for his bath. But he has insisted on running the kitchen, full capacity. He had to fight that bastard Cornwallis for it, and Cornwallis had to give in.

The sweet sounds of the kitchen swarm up to him as he nears, of copper and iron and brass, of ceramic and crystal and china, clank and sizzle, clink and splatter, a veritable orchestra. 

And then, the smells. They grow more robust – scents of garam masala and turmeric and chilly, aromas of exquisite marinades that take days to prepare, of sauces and chutneys, with ingredients sourced not just from all over the sub-continent but also from Central Asia and Tibet, of zaffran from Persia and zaitoon from Andalusia, of fenugreek and cumin and asafoetida, of basil and cardamom and curry leaves. All expertly wielded by twelve cooks hand-picked over a lifetime (a couple even poached from the Mughal kitchens) and especially Murshid, his Murshid, who elevates food to an art-form, always eager to caress all  his senses, and seize him in a heavenly embrace, here on earth, paradise indeed – Jannat!

If there is a heaven, it is here, it is here, it is here, in the kitchen of Waris Ali Shah. 

Murshid is the son of Murtaza, the grand old khansama who once served under Waris Ali’s father. Murtaza, who always saved the little Waris Ali from the senior Ali Shah’s fits of rage, letting him hide in the spice cabinets, always giving him a scrumptious jalebi to munch on while the father-nawab found something else on which to rain down his anger and it was safe again for the boy to venture out. Murshid, roughly the same age, often joined him inside the cabinets then. They played together, safely ensconced in the pungent darkness  of the cabinets. 

“What’s for lunch, Murshid?” asks Waris Ali, as he enters the kitchen.

“Mutton Rezala, Waris,” Murshid replies. 

Murshid understands him like no one else. Mutton Rezala is the nawab’s favorite – lamb in a creamy curry of cashews and poppy seeds, an aphrodisiac for the soul, to be had with the classic dum biryani, of long-grained basmati rice with cloves and cinnamon. Of course, this is only the main course; the nawab’s meals usually comprise three.

“And what sherbet?” asks Waris Ali, looking forward to his sherbet of the day, chilled concoctions that Murshid stirs up, from watermelon and berries and mangoes and mint, in crushed ice. 

He loves to go over the menu of the day as he does through the meal, strolling through the courses as they are brought to him. But today, he is impatient. “And is the desert…,” he begins before Murshid can reply. It is then that they are interrupted quite unceremoniously, by his wazir barging in, panting. 

“A million apologies, huzoor, but he’s here,” the wazir says. 

“What? How?” 

That bastard Cornwallis was supposed to have arrived by sun-down for the handover ceremony, but just like the surprise that the East India Company has sprung upon the whole sub-continent, Cornwallis too has turned up unannounced, wrecking expectations, overturning plans. 

“The Company,” mumbles Waris Ali, with a sigh.

As much as he wants to avoid thinking about the Company, it haunts his thoughts like a ghoul. An inheritance, like most everything else, the Company was an accursed presence during his grandfather’s court, and his father’s as well. And while these warrior-guardians busied themselves in whispered intrigues of the imperial court in Delhi, the Company kept chipping away at Doabi. Company agents extracted trade concessions, set up trading ports on Yamuna’s tributaries, and fortified the ports with arms and men imported from across the seas, while buttering up the Ali Shahs with flattery and sweet deceit. The previous Ali Shahs, though, statesmen and  military minds, had kept a lid on Company shenanigans with their armies and heirs, and the backing of the emperor. 

But today, the Mughal emperor is a puppet himself in the hands of the Company and Waris Ali, neither statesman nor warrior, is already its  vassal. Further, the Doabi army is little more than a marching band, and there is no heir. 

Yet, the Company’s appetite is not sated. The more it gets, the more it wants.

It claims over Doabi the dreaded doctrine of lapse – no male heir, no princely status, hence assimilation into empire, annihilation from history. 

So, today, Waris Ali, seventh in the line of the magnificent Ali Shahs and also the last, is to sign off on the abolishment of his princely state of Doabi and surrender to the Company all his territories. Doabi is to be integrated into the North-East Provinces and administered by Cornwallis, the provincial Governor. Today, Waris Ali is to step down as nawab and accept exile in Calcutta for the rest of his life, in the shadow of Fort William, to subsist on a meagre pension promised by Cornwallis.

But Waris Ali  has extracted one concession from the Company – he can still keep his kitchen and his khansamas in Calcutta. 

Huzoor?” asks the wazir, always hesitant to interrupt the nawab’s long and silent reminiscences.

“Take him to his quarters,” says the nawab. 

“Let him wait,” he adds, and dismisses the wazir

He doesn’t care enough anymore; let them all feel insulted. He is going to be an ordinary pensioner from tomorrow and doesn’t have to keep up the pretense of aristocratic courtesy.

But he knows; Cornwallis is not one to stay in his quarters for long. That man is always in a hurry and will be down here in no time, breathe down his neck, and make him sign all of the handover documents and treaties. As if he were a spice merchant, here to land himself an annual contract for saffron. 

Waris Ali loses whatever appetite he came with. He knows that there is often an inevitability to history that even the most kite-eyed fail to catch; the wheels of destiny thwart any individual attempt to steer them, and the tiller throws off any hand placed on its beam.  But to be reminded of this, of the end of it all, right before the high point of his day, and in such a vulgar rush, is a bit much.

He will skip lunch, he decides, only have desserts; he has ordered the special one made today. 

“Is the dessert ready?” he asks.

“Yes, Waris, but…,” replies Murshid.

That reminds him; he calls the wazir back. 

“Is the gold here?” the nawab asks. 

Jee huzoor,” says the wazir

“What are you waiting for then, the apocalypse?” asks Waris Ali Shah. 

“A million apologies, huzoor. I’ll have the gold brought here, immediately,” says the wazir and hurries off. 

“Hmm,” says Waris Ali. He pulls Murshid along as he hobbles towards the dessert-khana, “let’s go see how our dessert has come about.”

It is a dream dreamt by the nawab himself, seeded during his long  conversations with Murshid  in the dead of night, on the nature of the world and of life itself. He has named it the Shahi Tukda,  a royal fragment. Murshid argued for a more grandiose name, but Waris Ali wants one that can be easily remembered and pronounced by prince and mendicant alike, to go with a dessert to be enjoyed by prince and mendicant alike.

And today, at his insistence, Murshid has given his fantasy life, sweet life. 

That the rest of the khansamas don’t get it, Waris Ali knows. They are amazed and disappointed that their chief has consented to such a simplistic, gaudy dessert and even more appalled that their nawab has been behind the whole endeavour. After all, he has the most refined of tastes, the most discerning of palates, and is one who can distinguish between a dozen flavors of tea just by sniffing in the direction of a kettle. He, who can recognize honey adulterated with caramel by tasting only the tiniest of drops, a gourmand the likes of which the Mughal empire has not seen. That Waris Ali Shah, nawab of Doabi – has in his heart such a crude preparation makes his khansamas shake their heads and rue on their inability to understand their nawab – one who is on the verge of giving up his kingdom and yet cares on this very last day of his kingship, for a dessert. 

But it is here in his palace that he is still the nawab, and if this is his last memorable act, so be it. Waris Ali has decided; what could be more worthwhile than to be immortalized in a dessert? Kingdoms come and go, empires rise and fall, kings taste glory and then bite the dust of oblivion, but food is the eternal blessing of the almighty, and an exquisite dessert the very essence of a gastronomic universe.

As they reach the dessert-khana, the rest of the khansamas stand silently by, a little hesitant, but Murshid presses the nawab’s hand, and a renewed assuredness flows into Waris Ali. 

He stands with Murshid, looking at the row of a dozen silver plates before them, each with a single Shahi Tukda – a fried slice of bread soaked with sugar syrup, saffron-infused and spiced with cardamom, overspread with sweetened cream, and garnished with mango and strands of saffron.

Memories of  jalebis and spice cabinets well up inside Waris Ali, and he brushes off a tear.

Murshid watches the nawab and places his hand around him, holds him. 

There is a commotion at the door. The wazir is back.

Huzoor,” says the wazir, “the gold is here.” 

Aah, the gold!

Waris Ali turns around and walks to the dining table.

Murshid follows, carrying a silver plate, picked up from the dozen plates. As Waris Ali takes a seat at the table, Murshid presents the nawab with the Shahi Tukda, takes the box of gold from the wazir’s man, and places it before Waris Ali. It is a wooden box, with red and gold lacquer and a lid on top, hinged. 

He opens the box. 

They all wait.

Inside are a set of gold leaves, each sandwiched in fine butter paper, made by hammering a small gold nugget between thick wads of calf leather, by smiths working in shifts, without a break, over six days and seven nights. Only one establishment in the whole of Doabi can create such gold leaves, thinner than silk, and Waris Ali has had a dozen made, costing him a small fortune. 

He picks up the first two sheets of butter paper, with the gold leaf between them, and places the set on his palm. Then he holds his breath and gingerly peels away the upper layer. The leaf below is so thin that it is impossible to lift up from the base paper; one risks crumbling it to gold dust at the lightest touch. Waris Ali carefully places the paper on the slice of bread, leaf down, lets it adhere to the cream, and lifts up the paper. 

Huzoor, should I…” the wazir begins to talk, but Murshid holds him by the arm and silences him. 

This is a sacred moment for Waris Ali.

This is the moment that will be recorded in his Waris-nama, the chronicles of his life, and will reverberate for generations to come, every time someone helps themselves to his creation.  

But first, a taste.

Waris Ali takes a soft bite, into sweet cream and saffron-cardamom, and turns towards Murshid, his lips aglitter.

A hush falls over the entire kitchen. 

Waris Ali Shah, at long last, has an heir, a fragment of him, the last fragment of royalty. 


Rahul Kanvinde is a consulting professional based out of Bombay, and has had one flash piece published in a magazine called The Chakkar. 
 

Memoir | ‘The Homeland’ by Ashima Jain | CreativeWritingW-TBR

“Hello, India!” I yelled, and thousands of echoes bounced back. 
India – the land of my birth, called out with seemingly open arms, “I am here for you, welcome back!” 

From London to Bangalore – it’s been a year, a seismic change that transpired from our desire to live ‘the big Indian dream’. A dream came true when I returned to India after 11 years, with our British-born child, bringing a million memories back to life. 

The transition has been smooth, and I didn’t feel out of place for a single moment. The initial days of uneasy curiosity are long forgotten now with the mind calmer and routine resumed. We still have a lot to see and explore of this mystical land, but there is no rush, in fact there is an opportunity to savour as this time we are here for long.  

Unlike when in the UK, I have chosen to work part-time from home here, giving myself the luxury of time to recharge and indulge in my 4-year old. We live within a gated community, colloquially referred to as a ‘society’, in an apartment overlooking green spaces, water fountains, and an outdoor swimming pool. No doubt, it’s a life of privilege. While the society has all the amenities that one can find in a developed city, it has us wrapped in a warm social fabric akin to the 80s and 90s. Everybody knows everyone, kids mingle with careless abandon, the elderly share stories and the rest of us indulge in all kinds of chatter. No one seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere.

Our apartment, located across a dilapidated lake, is unhindered by high-rises and accentuated by swaying coconut trees. And when the night skies are clear, we feel closer to the heavens as we gaze in awe at the stars and the occasional planet. It is a secure bubble for a peaceful existence while just outside the gates, the road teems with life as local traders and shops go about their business briskly – ‘the India that is busy, noisy, eager, and chaotic’. Roads lined with a colourful melange of tiny shops; people squatting on the ground selling fresh flowers, fruits, plants, and pots; aromas of fresh-fried snacks rising above; the clamouring at shrines and small temples; all of this constant din is characteristically Indian. My ‘society’ is really an oasis, a contrast.

Our suburban life as a young Indian family in Kingston-upon-Thames feels light years away in a span of only a year. Sometimes, I feel flashes from that time pass before my eyes, the freshness of a November morning or a stuffy commute back on the District line. The satisfaction of end-of-week work drinks, the delight of catching a play at the West End or simply taking a walk by the Thames with only the quacking of the ducks to break the stillness around. My morning commute on the suburban train into London Bridge, the sharpish nursery drop-off, a coffee-to-go at Pret’s, a lunch-time stroll to Borough market, early bedtimes for the little one and late night BBC binges for us. There was no dearth of these innumerable small and big moments that are now encapsulated in a scroll of memories. I feel the uncontrollable urge to hold, touch and feel those memories, all but in vain. I loved London, will always do, there isn’t another one like it. We had our reasons and things were said, but I am glad we parted as friends, and I would love to return some day to say to the city, that it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Here in Bangalore,  the purposeful yet mindful mornings deserve mention. The day starts with alerts, the arrival of my housemaid, milk and the daily newspaper delivered to the doorstep, some rigorous exercise or a game of table tennis before a hot breakfast and a fresh brew. I find it hard to complain when the weekday mornings are spent like this. I have come to draw unequivocal joy from such small things, probably more than I would like to believe. The smell of sun-soaked laundry or painstakingly chosen plastic-free fresh fruit and veg. From the sheer idleness of midday naps on summer days to just being more spontaneous and less planned; it is the little things, I have realised, that have the power to make a real difference to each day. 

Off late, due to the ongoing pandemic, we have had to change some of the routine that we were gradually settling into. The school run has been swapped with online classes and the office ‘dabbas’ with hot lunches. As a family that eats together, we have no doubt become a more cohesive unit.

In Bangalore, the time or ‘pahar’ of the day is clearly evident in the changing colour of the sky. The bright-blue morning sky turns to a glaring metallic in the afternoon. From the orange evening hue to the inky blue night sky, I can feel the mood of those around me tracing these changes in the sky with me. I remember how I would agonise over the sameness of the ‘pahars’ in London, as the morning, afternoon, evening would often fuse together in a block of 12 hours, with the day plunging into darkness suddenly at 4.30 pm on a winter’s day and night arriving fashionably late after 9 pm on a summer’s day. Now, my body clock is at one with nature once again. 

However, not all changes have been that easy to adapt to. Despite my Indianness, I don’t think I could become used to crossing the menacing roads on foot, or indeed get behind the wheel anytime soon, life in the UK has clearly got the better of me in this respect. The fact that I used to be able to drive and roam about carefree in Delhi when I was 21, seem like fiction. 

Upon arriving in Bangalore, I expected to find an uber-modern and world class city befitting its name and reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’. Instead my rose-tinted shades were rudely knocked off the eyes, both figuratively and literally,  by the crumbling infrastructure across the city. Potholes, dusty roads, and rough traffic etiquette, all barged in. In many ways, the city didn’t even match up to the civic standards that I was used to from my recent trips to Delhi. I expected Bangalore to be better than Delhi but turns out that with recent development Delhi has outpaced this alluring city of the South.  

People, animals and cars, all navigating the treacherous city roads, jostling to move ahead of each other, hurtling towards a seemingly indefinite goal. . The notorious two-wheeler drivers who appear and disappear swiftly like shadows, and their fearlessness fill us with dread. But the one thing that stood out was the curious network of wires aloft the electric poles, dangling ominously over the busy junctions and roads, jumbled and tied up in knots, brightly illuminating the city lights in spots. 

I think I now know why so many people here express that ‘once you come to Bangalore you will never leave.’ A tall claim at plain sight, but somewhat realistic when seen with an open mind, as what the city lacks in form it makes up in spirit. 

The weather is my biggest comfort factor here. Weather that is stable and predictable, warm during summer and mild and breezy through the rest of the year. The sun is clearer and sharper than in Delhi despite a lower heat index, but comparable in altitude and visibility like in the UK. As I now bask in the assurance that tomorrow too shall be a glowing day, I reflect back on days that were spent anticipating that one warm sunny weekend. No doubt, I loved London on such days and made the most of ‘the sun’ whenever it did appear. But somehow, I never could enjoy that warmth in my own time, it was always fleeting.

As I write this, Bangalore is in the throes of the monsoon season, the mornings and evenings are interspersed with thunder and rain showers and the afternoons are quieter and sunnier in comparison. The rain makes the all familiar pitter-patter sound (unlike the quiet and inconspicuous rain in London) and the air fills with the sweet aroma drifting from the wet soil. Moreover, the rainy weather matched with the unique taste of ‘jamun’, a type of sharp tasting indigenous plum that signals the arrival of monsoon, truly hits home. Enough said about the weather for now though, I think.

As a devout vegetarian, South Indian cuisine has always been my go-to comfort food, although admittedly my exposure has been limited to the popular tiffin items served across eateries in Delhi, Mumbai, as well as the UK. The intricate differences in food preparation and tastes across the various southern states/regions are unraveling only now. Regardless of the provenance though, some of the local food that I have come to savour is unmatched. From the soul quenching Onam Sadhya to the hearty Udupi vada sambhar, from the indulgent thali with the many flavours at a highway canteen to a simple rava idli at the iconic MTR cafes, I have tasted and eaten platefuls in the knowledge that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much of this popular yet distant culture that I still have left to explore. I am trying in earnest to bring the best of all these flavours in to my kitchen, learning and cooking meticulously with a hope that the same aromas shall also fill up my home.

Given the variety and ubiquity of the traditional cuisine across the city, one could be forgiven for not realising that Bangalore is also famed for being the original pub city of India, a melting pot of people from around the country and from abroad. Pubs with in-house breweries are somewhat in vogue which, when combined with an array of cuisines and garden restaurants pack a punch. The city owing to its vast base of young IT professionals has a cosmopolitan vibe, but pledges it to the proud generational Bangaloreans who lend confidence with their deep-rooted and rich culture.

My heart swells with pride when I see my son relishing this new setting every bit as much as me.  How he has come to adapt has left us, the adults, looking pale in comparison. The boy has always been the inquisitive kind, curiously knocking at surfaces, almost as if wondering what it was made up of. My husband liked to say, “Smart and handsome both! Just like me.” It was true; he had big gleaming eyes, that shined and analysed at the same time. Of course, the black, lustrous hair; I believe came from me. 

Bangalore became home because of my son. A moment now etched in our hearts was when he went purposefully around a supermarket and came back looking inexplicably delighted upon discovering a box of laddoos, a type of Indian sweets, while we contemplated a box of blueberry muffins. Other times, like when he adapted to our interim abode or when he was screened by teachers for school admissions or when he met relatives and distant cousins; he displayed such composure and maturity that I couldn’t understand if it was a result of just shaking things up a bit. Or maybe there was something more intangible, probably even divine that came about from being connected to one’s roots. He has since grown into a confident and expressive boy, never shying away from meeting new people or embracing a new hobby/activity. From our perspective, outcomes such as language skills, better eating habits, rigour in upholding traditions and festivals, and overall wellness, are the other positives that come from living in the home land. When I weigh up, the loss of his sweet British accent is the one thing that I have come to miss the most.  

Life has transformed itself into a joyful ride, shared with friends, grandparents, and cousins, each one adding a different shade to the canvas. Learning in a formal setting and from play with others from evening till night, exploring new sports and traditional games alike, impromptu visits to friends’ homes to rummage through toys, eating together without invites, all this and much more is now weaved in the fabric of my child’s life.

Unsurprisingly, my son’s love for travel and ‘holidays’ has found a new meaning; he now likes to conjure up plans to tag along grandparents and others with whom he has already forged a close bond. He wants to explore, share, and express everything about his new finds and make others a part of his ever expanding world. For a child who has been to some exciting destinations and seen impressive things in the West, the way this relatively low-key city of Mysore had him enthralled, is rather fascinating. He has promised every family member a trip to Mysore since. 

As a traveller, exploring new places across Europe and further afield was no doubt very enriching, there was so much of new culture and history to soak up. The modern environs entwined with the old made every holiday picture perfect for us as a couple and later as a family of three. Prepared with our backpacks, comfortable shoes, and a list of things to do, we would head out to experience the new places and cities with eagerness. Such trips were a recipe for rejuvenating the mind and the body. 

In India though, travelling has a new dimension, a degree of ease or ‘sukoon’ which bodes from familiarity. Sharing journeys with loved ones, telling stories through the night, looking out for one another, and debating heartily about what to do next, all makes for a fulfilling holiday. Our trip around the mystical state of Rajasthan, via Indian highways and trains was quite the  experience, and one that completed our homecoming journey. The palaces, the ‘havelis’, and the ‘bazaars’; riding camelbacks at sunset; enjoying the folk music and local cuisine; made for a sensorial treat. It was those moments with parents, grandparents and others, by our side that made all the difference. Each one contributing a different perspective, a different interpretation, and setting a different mood. 

As a parent, I am glad to have been able to give the gift of such an experience to my child, one that would hopefully stay with him forever and beckon him to his roots, regardless of where the world takes him.

A childhood full of similar stories, of travel and family, is perhaps what tugged at our heartstrings, bringing us home


Ashima Jain is a consultant project manager based out of Bangalore. Born and raised in Delhi, she has rediscovered her childhood love for creative writing. This is a personal essay chronicling her relocation journey back to India from the UK. She writes at https://grandmainspires.blogspot.com/ and can also be found on Medium

Fiction | ‘Moodstream’ by Yash Daiv | Creative Writing Worksop

On a cold December morning, a melodic Pekin Robin cut through the sunlight-hewn mist. It flew among the stone arches and the cusped, tall corridor windows of the British-era college, where students were gathered in cliques, bantering. The bird steered clear of the murmuring, mostly pregnant with one name — Aalam, a second-year English grad with a ‘reputation’. He would only have to walk into the corridors for the ridicule to begin. 

That high-headed recluse.

What is wrong with him?

Queer.

These remarks had mutated into rumours, like:

He is a cocaine addict. He sources his stuff from the Beach Town, and it comes stuck between the bindings of a book. 

The part about the drugs is true, you know! I tried to score some weed from him and guess what, he had it on him! Twice! 

And was he generous enough to give?

Gave it, but did not utter a word.

The mockery had affected him previously, steadily reflecting in his slouch and the tired gaze. Over time, he had toughened. His posture straightened, imbued with an air of indifference that also spilt from his almond-shaped, jet-black eyes lined in kohl every day. He mostly kept them lowered, although his chin would always be slightly raised. Whenever he would look up from the ground, his eyes shot an array of piercing expressions ranging from condescending to pure evil in a matter of a smile. This transition into this toughened stance had its roots in his teen years.

It began when Aalam hit puberty. He was a late bloomer, almost 14 when his body showed signs of change. Apart from the awkward limbs, and hair sprouting in the most unexpected bodily ravines, a spectacular thing was happening in his mind.

It was an overcast day in July when he experienced the reverberating effects of his mood  (swing). 

He was eyeing a pair of football studs in his native town, where an exclusive sports shop had just opened, adding to the novelty of the ever-growing urban shroud. Aalam had been saving money for the pair; and as soon as he had all of it and change, he scooted off to the store only to find that the shoes were sold out. 

It had resulted in an initial wave of disappointment, that subsequently turned into anger. The wrath seemingly streamed out of his mind — an invisible, ethereal sheet that shined on the edges — and translucently fogged up the store. Almost as if it had touched the people around, they too had started showing signs of  anger, talking in raised voices, slamming objects in arguments. 

The moment continued to be livid till Aalam’s mood receded into calm. Subsequently, people too calmed down — unsure what had caused the sudden outburst.

The switch bewildered Aalam, for somewhere inside, he felt that his wrath had taken control of the surroundings. He instantly berated himself. Over time, he lived in the paranoia that he had been afflicted with an unknown sickness that in turn affected others.

The maturity, drawn over five years was laced with hurdles, awkward social situations and doubts. The occasional foray into those memories was fraught with fear and panic. Consequently, the burden of his own sentiments slouched his confidence.  

Alcohol had then arrived as a pacifier. Along with it came the reputation. By then, he could not care less, as intoxication had turned into a habit.

On that cold December morning, he had craved for alcohol since 4 am. He had gulped down a nip of neat vodka with lemons and readied another flask, just in case the craving prolonged. And, it did. At college, as he waited in the corridor after having walked past the regular ridicule, he felt for the flask in his bag out of compulsion. The Pekin Robin, fleeting through the corridor, swooped in and perched itself on the arch above him. The bell tolled; the bird flew away and the students entered the classrooms. 

The General English class of the morning was boring, creating room in Aalam’s mind for the urge to drink. He was perfectly hidden from the professor’s view to retrieve the flask. 

Aalam gave up scourging through his bag to hold on for a while — an addict’s discount. He checked his phone. There were 15 more minutes to go, every second of which passed painfully. He started breathing deeply, possibly even attracting glances from neighbouring desks. 

When the bell tolled, Aalam rushed to the grey stone wall at the rear-side of the college. It was punctured with a large membrane functioning as a salacious portal to the outside world, breaking the discipline of studies; it was thrilling for some. 

Aalam slipped through the crack and scaled the dense patch. He sat under a dewy pine tree and started drinking. Same vodka, same warmth and same sanity.

Few moments on, he heard the crackling of leaves. Aalam’s first impulse was to hide the flask. But on second thought, he continued sipping. The footsteps stopped right behind, compelling him to turn around. It was Simi from his psychology class. She had a smirk on her face. More rumours, Aalam thought.

Much to his bemusement, she sat right in front of him.

“Care to share?” she asked.

“Going to drink this by myself. Thank you for your offer?” Aalam said, looking her in the eye. 

“Pretty rude!” 

“Haven’t heard that one before,” Aalam guffawed, and continued. “So, what are you going to tell others? Aalam lives for the vine — no puns.” He said, raising eyebrows in shock.

“Referring to yourself in the third person is… odd,” Simi said.

“Well, the unconventional can make you stand out — in a good way or a bad one.”

“Is this why you do it? For attention?”

Tipsy, Aalam impulsively spoke his mind.

“Well, there is a bizarre reason and nothing about it would sound believable. It would probably give you more ridicule to chew and well, what’s the harm?” Aalam said. 

“Go on,” Simi said, trying to suppress a nervous laugh.

“I have mood problems,” he said.

“Alright? And?” she asked.

“Well, the doctors have ascertained that I do have a mood problem, medicated me and whatnot. What they have not done is found a solution to what happens after,” Aalam said. He stopped drinking to take a good look at Simi. 

In an inebriated stupor, he figured that she was listening passively.

“Get lost, Simi. This cannot be your entertainment,” he said.

She walked away.

***

For the weeks following the forgettable encounter, Aalam battled the urge to drink on the college campus or visit the woods for two days straight. The voluntary rescind was, however, troublesome — like a needle threatening to burst the ballooning mood. The withdrawals also regurgitated the fear of bodily ailments devised by alcohol and medicine. Shivering and bad stomach took him to Google, who was his symptoms whisperer and a nihilist at that. As it directed Aalam towards the looming possibility of cancer and liver problems, he got worked up and without much thought, relied on alcohol to calm down. 

He fell back into the routine of drinking at the dawn. There was nothing new about crossing the chasm of the stone wall into the slanting woods of pine. On one of those days, he was once again joined by Simi — a déjà vu, albeit with a small modification. She had brought a flask this time. 

“Jokes are funny when they are not on you. And this one is way below the belt,” Aalam said, eyeing her flask, and then looking at her.

“This is a real joke because I am having lemonade,” Simi replied.

A moment passed by before they spoke again.

“What happens when your mood changes?” she asked finally.

The conversation left in the woods a month ago was incensed, perhaps out of curiosity. 

“A freak… a spectacle,” Aalam said, adding, “Do you want to hear a story?”

“Tell me,” she said.

It was on a lazy spring Sunday when Aalam’s parents decided to watch The World is not Enough. His interests were far away from the Bond, having not understood the adult fascination, and so, he had perched himself behind the sofa, from where he could see the television screen from between his parents’ heads.

At one point, Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau broke into sex. For the first time, Aalam felt a surge of vibratory warmth rattle his nerves. It gathered at his groin, forming his first cognisable erection. Overwhelmed, he lost control over his erotic disposition, which cascaded out of his mind into the surroundings affecting his parents, who — before he could realise — were trying to be intimate. 

Shocked by the blatant groping, he ran out of the house in shame. That did not go well, for the mood. Imbued with a sexual aftertaste, the guilt and the anxiety rained onto the neighbourhood. 

Everything seemed to be engulfed in a shade of lusty scarlet: The sunlight was dim red, the sky wasa pinkish-bloody hue, beating like a heart and the neighbours, those who were out doing their own business, appeared shocked by what they had suddenly felt. Some started crying, the others seemed like they were holding their heads to repress a migraine and yet others just mourned. The scene inflicted some deep sadness in Aalam. It escaped through hot tears. 

He begged himself to calm down, to stop. He ran away from the neighbourhood, affecting everybody in his path, to a lake. He plunged into the pool of halcyon. 

When he was done narrating this incident to Simi, he realised that she was anxious. Aalam immediately regretted his intoxicated revelation.

“Go away. Just, please don’t make fun of what I have told you. I was drunk, okay? Because it affects me, more than it affects you. I deal with it in spirit. No puns here?” he said, giggling.

They continued drinking for a good 15 minutes. Simi broke the silence.

“You know, Aalam, whatever you have said might be tough to believable, but not untrue. A prolonged mood in any person, especially that of sadness or even ‘the swings’, affect the people around the suffering person,” she said, adding, “Yours, might be a different case, an overtly sensitive one if I may put it that way, but very few people understand what is happening. You are lucky that way.”

“There is nothing positive about this,” he snapped.

“Then, have you ever tried working it out the other way,” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“How drunk are you?” she asked.

“Quite, for this time of the day,” he said.

“So, follow me. No questions,” she said and pulled him up.

They ran to the central avenue of the college, where they attracted glares from a couple of students. Aalam was embarrassed by the conscious attention. Simi looked around.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Aalam asked. “If this is a joke, you will pay for this.” 

“Wait, you fool,” she said, surveying the surroundings. 

Then she added, “Now, it is a cold, sad morning, with some people gawking at us. If you don’t already know, people are curious and nosy and do not mind their own business. Maybe they are not very happy or derive their happiness by having fun at others’ expense. I believe they are sad and not introspective. They need a moment of extreme, pure joy. And if you claim, what you do. You are capable of doing this.”

“Wait. How?” he added, now curious himself.

“Recall a happy memory.”

The slight tap was enough for Aalam to instantly relate to a personal emotion. He was a young teen,  along with parents to part take in their social occasions. They were headed to a friend’s place, who had recently lost her partner. A quiet afternoon was planned for him, a dear college friend, whose grief was a matter of concern for Aalam’s parents. At his home, things were awkward due to the lack of conversation and the subdued mourning.

Aalam went around the living room, where a set of neatly framed pictures caught his attention. Two of these pictures had evoked something personal in him — one of which had the couple on a beach, sitting apart looking at the horizon. In the next picture, they were in the same posture, looking in each other’s direction. A sense of warmth flooded him and naturally the mood, sneakily, wafted out from his mind. In the next moment, glazed in warm sunlight, he saw his parents and their friend in an understanding embrace.  

The sentiment took hold of him at the central avenue; his ethereal mood slithered out powerfully, coiling the campus in a warm net. 

He sensed a new lightness of being that dissolved gloom on his mind, almost instantly.

“This makes a whole lot of difference,” he said under his breath.

“Maybe. It is about how you choose to see things,” Simi said with a smile.

Aalam looked around.

No one was gawking at him or Simi; and instead, they were engaged in their own banter.


Yash Daiv is employed with Pune Mirror, Times Group as a senior copy-editor. Here, he has written feature pieces on mental health, human-interest stories and curated book lists as well. He has also pieced together longform essays/features for online literary magazine, The Curious Reader, pouring over the vanity of Bookstagram, the grief in a Stephen King novel and the importance of acknowledging settings. As a proofreader, he has been aligned with Hachette India. If it matters at all, a short story of his was published by Pomegranate Private Limited (2011) in an anthology of new writers, chosen through an all-India competition.

Fiction | ‘The Errand Man’ by Arshiya Sharda | Creative Writing Workshop

“Beta be careful.” These were the first words he ever said to me; a general concern for an enthusiastic kid trying to climb walls as if she were at a boot camp. 

“Who are you?” I squinted, and retorted. He calmly explained that he was there to see my grandmother and I should tell her that Bhola uncle is here. A series of events unfolded after that. I hopped over to convey the man’s message to my grandmother; she stepped out in her crisp, cotton salwar kameez and after exchanging pleasantries, the man got to work as I hovered around nearby. 

This man, who called himself Bhola uncle, proceeded to mix a crimson coloured powder with water, which resulted in a liquid mixture that was the colour of volcanic red. His deft hand movements, and the colourful mixture that they produced was magic to my 5 year old eyes. His greasy face cracked into a smile at my wide-eyed fascination, as he painted all the flowerpots in our garden with the same red paint. After that first visit, Bhola uncle became a regular at our house. He was famously called the ‘odd jobs man’; his skill set being exactly what his popular title denoted. He was the man to call whenever an odd job came up; from cleaning the buckets to digging a hole in the garden, from painting pots to planting a tree. 

My childhood is interspersed with his affable presence. There I was at 7, playing while he pruned the rose bushes in our garden. There I was at 11, reading a book on the patio while he washed the car. There I was at 13, watching him being in an earnest conversation with our elderly neighbor.

He was in the middle of narrating what appeared to be something hilarious to our neighbor, his eyes lit up and his voice paced with the beats of the story. I say interspersed because his presence, just like his job, was never regular, it depended upon our requirement. I discovered later that he lived all alone, on the edges of the town, in one of the shanties where people who couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else, lived. Having seen him around from as far back as I could remember; I had erroneously assumed that he lived closer, and was a part of this town as much as I was. My wrong assumption was corrected by my grandmother one day as she explained that Bhola uncle was originally from a state on the eastern flank of the country, and often returned to his village to spend time with his family. 

“So he has kids and a wife who live somewhere else, why doesn’t he live with them then?” A troubled me asked. The idea that there were families who lived apart, of their own will was terrifying news to me. My grandmother then explained, as gently and patiently as she could, the cold fact that money was a powerful driving force, it could push people to act in unfathomable ways. What my 9 year old brain was struggling to grasp at that time became increasingly clear to me over the years; people twist and contort themselves; their lives, all to survive. 

Over the years, I began to see less of Bhola uncle, partly because his visits became rare and partly because I was spending less and less time at home. Entire days would be spent with friends and I would return home exhausted and spent, living the typical life of a teenager, slowly coming of age.

Once I left town for college, my memory of Bhola uncle, along with most other memories of childhood started to recede to the background of my mind, as a new city and new challenges jostled for space at the forefront. But I would often see men who reminded me of him. Men who had left home and heart behind to make a living; men who prided themselves on earning an honest living; men whose faces lit up with joy when they got on calls with loved ones back home, wherever the homes were. Men who wore both determination and weariness on their faces; men who fight to live another day. 

I did see Bhola uncle again, perhaps for the last time; he was no longer the athletic young man from my childhood, but was a paler version of his earlier self. Back bent, a gaunt frame, lines across his face numbering far more than my memory had led me to believe. I called out to him, he stopped and looked at me, the lack of recognition in his eyes clear and apparent. 

“I am Kamla Devi’s granddaughter, house no 21, Model Town?” I blurted out. The old twinkle came back in his eyes. 

“Ahh, I remember, you’ve grown up a lot, beta,” he finally responded. 

After some pleasantries, I inquired about his health and his family’s well being. 

“Bas chal raha hai,” was his simple response. Things just are. 

He was not the sort of person to air his grievances in public but he did let slip that he had recently developed a recurrent pain in his back. It was from all those years of lifting and bending and contorting, the heavy work, and he was consulting a doctor regularly. 

“You should come by the house sometime,” I said, not knowing what else to say to this man who meant both so much and so little. 

“Yes I will come sometime, maybe in a few weeks.” 

I offered to drop him home. He glanced surreptitiously at my car seat and then back at his clothes, and just as his eyes were about to catch mine, I looked away pretending I hadn’t seen his doubtful glance. He swiftly declined and told me that he had a few errands to run in the vicinity and would not want to keep me waiting. 

“Okay, but do come by the house, grandmother would like to see you for sure,” I told him and drove off. 

I was at home a lot these days, far more than usual. I was in between jobs and had decided to spend the time in my hometown. It had been seven years since I was here, and everything in the town looked different. The roads were wider, some of the shops had faded away, some of the people had passed away. I felt like an impostor at times, barging in and trying to claim some part of this town as mine, when both, the town and I had moved on irrevocably  in different directions. 

And then, on a day like no other, the virus that had wreaked havoc all around the world finally made its way to our shores. TV channels blasted minute details from the relevant to the absurd about this new virus; caller tunes were replaced by a steady stream of precautionary public service announcements, masks and sanitizers soon became a household staple and life changed.

One Saturday, news rang in that we were entering a phase of lockdown. 

“No one goes in or out”– magnified, and imposed over an entire country. Staying at home was the only way to win the pandemic; this virus was sneaky, proclaimed the TV overlords.

“Stay at home”

“All businesses to shut effective immediately”

“Caps on supplies to be introduced”

“Please buy only what you require” 

War had been declared overnight and we were no more than deer in blinkers, caught unaware, flailing around in an attempt to cope. 

I forgot about Bhola uncle’s promise of visit, in fact I forgot about anything that didn’t have to do with immediate coping with the virus, and survival by extension. 

“All people who are from out of town are now walking back to their homes.” blared the TV headline. I sat in front of it, dumbfounded, and the massive toll of the tragedy unfolding right that very moment, suddenly dawned on me. 

Thousands of workers – “men who had left home and heart behind to make a living; men who prided themselves on earning a honest living; men whose faces lit up with joy when on calls with loved ones back home” were now treading on foot, over 100s of kilometers to reach ‘home’, unable to make ends meet. All jobs had dried up during this state of ongoing war. I scanned the faces of these people on the TV. 

My heart thumped loudly, an uneasiness developed in my chest and made its way up to my throat, sitting there for a long time afterwards.

Each day brought with it new tales of woe. 12 died enroute to their village; exhaustion, starvation and apathy continued to hunt day and night. On a spring day, 10 days into the lockdown, as I sat chopping vegetables with my grandmother, we got talking about Bhola uncle. 

“Do you think he has left Bhimgarh,” she asked, a shadow of fear and sorrow crossing her face. 

“Maybe, maybe not,” I replied, with resignation. 

“Don’t you think we should try and find out?” asked my grandmother, her capacity for hope untarnished by age.  

None of the weariness and cynicism that is a regular purview of the elderly had seeped into her. In contrast, my pessimism, made me seem older than my years, an old lady in young age. The ridiculous thought of myself pottering around as a tiny old lady made me smile. Joy was both a scarce and plentiful commodity these days. 

“What do you suggest we do? We don’t have any contact details, we don’t even know where he lives.” My grandmother reasoned that the only course of action was to call this guy, Nandu, who knew another guy who had been occasionally seen with Bhola uncle in the past. 

I agreed reluctantly, I wanted to make sure Bhola uncle was ‘okay’, but I also did not want to give my grandmother and myself false hope; by undertaking a quest that might not ultimately lead anywhere. But figuring there was no harm in making some calls, I set out to call Nandu, tracing the weave of relations that could lead us to Bhola uncle. The weave turned out to be slightly more complex that I had anticipated. 

Nandu led us to Ashok, Bhola uncle’s friend, acquaintance, and fellow worker all rolled into one apparently; I did not seem to have a clear grasp of their relationship. But Ashok led us to Meeta who then led us to Bhola uncle’s home in Bhimgarh. Home is a term I use loosely, they say home is where the heart is, where Bhola uncle’s heart was, I wondered as we approached the shanty that was  his house for the past 10 years. 

The place showed signs of recent abandonment, an odd silence hung over the homes all around as well; the smell of desertion heavy in the air. One could almost feel the presence of life hastily discarded, shunned and snuffed out. After about 10 minutes of surveying the area, we found someone – a woman. 

“Are you here with food,” her eyes lit up. When we told her that we were instead looking for an old man, who went by the name Bhola, she reluctantly decided to give us some information. It was barely a scrap of information, but it was something. Bhola uncle had left 5 days back with a group of people from his home state. She could not give us anything beyond that. 

“One of them had an autorickshaw,” she mentioned in passing, a glazed look passed over her eyes and we were no longer sure if she was talking about Bhola uncle anymore. I walked into my home with a sense of loss that day, an unfathomable, indefinable loss. 

What was I grieving for? The hordes of people walking with only hope as company, starving and maybe even dying en route? The fear that Bhola uncle might be one of them? Days passed and then months passed soon enough too. The March spring gave way to the sunny and bare blue skies of April and May and then we found ourselves in the humid pall of July and August. Month after month rolled by and life moved on. 

It has been two years since then. The landline rings. I pick up. 

“Hello beta,” the voice on the other end says, cracking and patchy. My heart leaps with hope. “Sorry I think I dialed the wrong number.”  


Arshiya Sharda is a writer and lawyer based in New Delhi. She makes sense of the world by writing about it. You can read more of her work at arshiyashrd.

Fiction | ‘The Chit Fund’ by Sivaprasanth M. | Creative Writing Workshop

It was that time of the evening when the sun began to disappear into a line defined by trees, some buildings, and mountaintops in the far west. It was also the time of the day when the villagers, once farmers but now mostly construction workers, returned home. When the rain had finally stopped, and the sky had cleared, a not-so-old man with a sharp nose and malnourished jawline dragged himself from the bus station to his bicycle, on a road paved mostly with potholes and only occasionally with asphalt.  

His name was Rangan. 

Rangan wore a white checked shirt that had turned greyish-yellow from splattered concrete mix. When he folded up his lungi to knee-height; his twisted, enlarged varicose veins ran for almost the entirety of his thin legs. Like his nose, he had two sharp eyes, capped by a thin forehead. 

His walk to the bicycle was a short one. With his blistered palm, he dabbed the seat of his bicycle. Dust fumed towards the sky. 

Then he did his routine check. He pressed the front tire. The tire was stubborn enough. He pressed the back tire. That tire was mushy. He walked his bicycle to a nearby petty shop, where an air pump hung on the outside wall. Fixing the end of the tube to the tire valve, he hopped up and down on the pump. The tire bulged with muted hissing sounds. 

“What, Ranga? How is your wife?” the shopkeeper asked authoritatively emerging from a small room within his shop.

“No improvement, Swami. She is drinking all my wages as medicine now.” Rangan addressed the shopkeeper with utmost respect. “Swami” in English is Lord, a traditional for one such as he when addressing a member of an upper caste. He continued, “I took her to the doctor last week. Doctor said she would die soon if I am not taking her to the town hospital.”

“I see. How much cost is the doctor estimating for the treatment?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Doctor is saying it could cost up to twenty thousand rupees, my lord. Where will I get that much money? I have two small ones to feed now,” Rangan said, throat dry. 

“How are your children?”

“The girl is fine, and she studies well. But the boy,” he choked, “the boy is sickly. Just like his mother. He resembles his mother when he coughs.”

“I see. And how old is your daughter?”

“Ten, Swami.”

“When she reaches puberty, marry her off to someone quickly. She won’t be your trouble anymore. And you should do something about the boy immediately.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The conversation was briefly interrupted by a stout man, who asked for a half-fistful of cardamom from the shopkeeper. 

The shopkeeper went inside his shop and scouted for a box of cardamom. 

Looking at the new man, Rangan reflexively said, “My lord,” and obediently distanced himself from the man.

“Ranga. How is your wife?” the stout man asked, as the shopkeeper began packing a dozen cardamom pods in an old newspaper page.

“Not well, my lord. Doctor said she would die soon if I am not taking her to the town hospital,” he replied, exactly in those words, as if he had rehearsed it several times.

“I see, and how are your little ones?”

“The girl is doing fine, but the boy is the trouble, my lord.”

The shopkeeper came back with the loosely wrapped cardamom. He placed it on the lid of one of the big glass jars, arranged serially towards the front of the shop. The man took the cardamom and laid five rupees in return on the same lid and left.

Looking at the jar, Rangan asked, “Can you give me four of these candies?” As Rangan could not touch the jar himself, the shopkeeper removed the aluminum lid, dipped his hand inside the jar, and picked a few orange-colored candies. He counted them with his hand still inside the jar. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. He dropped one inside, and handed the remaining to Rangan, “Here.”

Instead of taking the candies directly, Rangan made a cup out of his palm. 

The shopkeeper dropped the four candies inside the cup.

Rangan put them inside his half-torn pocket and fished in his underwear pocket. Taking out a few coins, he started counting. One. Two.

“Keep them for yourself,” the shopkeeper stopped him, and said, “Don’t lose the candy.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Rangan said. 

***

He was welcomed home by another bout of heavy coughing from Chinnama. He was not tall, but he had to bow his head to enter the front door of his hut. The structure was made of dry, braided coconut tree leaves. The walls, all of them and the roof as well. The eaves were held up straight on the sides and slanted on the top by moderately thick bamboo canes. In the monsoon season, the floor would flood with water. Chinnama, when she was able to move and talk, which had been at least a year ago now, would bark at Rangan for his incompetence in not being able to afford a decent roof. 

There was a rope bed at the center of the hut with no mattress on it. Upon which lay Chinnama, half-dead. Her life was affirmed only by the coarse wheezing sound of her breathing.

Towards the left end of the hut, his girl was writing something in a neatly maintained notebook. School homework, he guessed. She was small for a ten-year-old, but everything about her was neat. She had neatly combed hair. She was neatly dressed, though old and overly worn. She did not wear any jewelry on her. On the other side of the small hut, his boy was playing with an old, half-torn plastic toy. The boy was sickly, with a distended stomach and thin body. His nose constantly oozed mucus. He sat naked on the sandy floor, and had a red rope tied around his hip. A tradition.

“Here.” Rangan offered the candies to his children.  

The boy left the toy, and hopped over with a sense of innocent happiness. The girl, put down her pencil, stood up, and also walked over to Rangan. Both of them held their palms in the shape of a cup, just as he had done at the shop earlier. He dropped two candies into the girl’s hands and two in the boy’s. The boy’s hands were so tiny that one of the candies fell to the floor. He picked it up immediately, blew off the sand around the edges, and popped it in his mouth. 

“I will be back after I take a bath,” Rangan announced, and left the hut.

***

The girl sucked at the candy. The boy, with enthused delight, put both candies in the mouth together. Though made up of 99 percent sugar and one percent Food Safety Administration-prohibited orange-flavored chemical, the candy had a peculiar property. Just sucking it wouldn’t yield the sugary juice. 

Impatient as the boy was, he bit into the candies and started chewing. He gulped the mouthful of now sugary saliva, and the taste went with it. 

The girl returned to her homework. She sucked the candy until it was reduced to a size of penny; then she bit and swallowed the very last bit. As she was about to pop the other candy, she noticed the boy standing in front of her. 

He stretched out his hand and asked, “Half?”

“Where is yours?” she sighed. 

“I ate it. Aaaah…” he said, and opened his mouth wide to prove it.

She could see all twenty teeth in his mouth, and a tiny bit of candy stuck at the deep end of his right lower jaw. She sighed again and offered her last candy to him. “Here.”

Rangan came back to the hut after a short bath, refreshed. He was bare-chested now; his stubborn hair was wet and loose. He moved his fingers fiercely on the hair, and droplets of water splashed around. Meanwhile, Chinnama slowly starting coughing again. This time, it was longer and louder. He could feel her rugged breaths and coughs, like those of a whimpering child.

With hair half-dried, he walked to the bed and sat on the floor next to Chinnama’s head. “How are you, Chinnama?” he asked gently. 

She replied with a heavy cough. 

Next to her head, on top of the rectangular bed frame, she kept a small bottle of balm which had the fragrance of eucalyptus. He removed the drape around her torso and unbuttoned her blouse, revealing her upper body.

Her chest was thin and sickly; the stomach fatless than ever, and her breasts shrunk to half their size in a single year. Rangan opened the plastic lid on the bottle, gently ran his right index finger over the surface of the balm, and rubbed it over her chest and between her breasts. 

She thanked him with another heavy cough. The coughing went on for five whole minutes, and the spree ended only due to her inability to produce anymore cough. 

“Did you have the porridge?” he asked, looking at her stomach.

She did not reply. Her eyes were still closed, and she breathed with titanic effort. His caring expression turned to pity. He could not bear to see her struggle for something as simple as breathing, so he turned to the boy and the girl and said, “Let’s go outside.”

***

He had a chair that he had picked from an old store for free. He sat on the chair, the girl on his left leg and the boy on his right. It was the second night from the full moon, so the moonlight lit the place well enough for him to see their faces.

“Is Mother going to be alright?” the girl asked. 

“Yes, of course,” he said, and gently squeezed her cheeks. She smiled and blushed.

“When are you going to get me the earrings?” she asked, squeezing her right earlobe. 

Until that point the boy had been silent. “When are you going to get me new toys?” he demanded.

“I will get new stuff for both of you tomorrow. Okay?” Rangan said confidently. 

“You always say that, but you never get them,” the girl, almost breaking down.

“I promise. Tomorrow these ears will have new earrings.” He continued, looking at the boy, “And for you, I will get a remote-controlled truck. Do you know how to drive one? It is very difficult and dangerous,” he said, his voice playful yet serious. 

Now the boy blushed.

“Now go and play inside,” he said abruptly, sending them off.

The girl was right. In the past, he had made several promises, a new dress, bangles, bracelets, and whatnot. In spite of  his genuine efforts to keep those promises; everytime, before planning to go to the shop, or on his way to the shop, or at the shop, something urgent would come up. For some reason, the matter could only be attended to with the money he had in his pocket. When he returned home empty-handed after attending to it all, the girl would be standing at the door waiting nervously. When she asked whether he had bought it, he would say he would the next time — only that next time never came — and offer her a conciliatory goodies like the orange candy, or a pencil. But this time, this time, when he said he would buy earrings and a remote-controlled truck, he meant it with utmost surety. He had already selected the truck and earrings in the fancy store down the block. 

He could get at least 2,500 rupees, if not more, if the Chit Fund auction tomorrow went according to his calculation. Two thousand five hundred rupees was a worst-case scenario. He could even get up to 2,800 rupees if less number of people participated in the auction. Two thousand five hundred or two thousand eight hundred, he had plans for all of it — a premium to pay at the pawn shop, medicine for Chinnama, earrings for the girl, a new toy for the boy, chappal for him, and some unadulterated rice to eat, finally. 

The premium payment would be 1,600 rupees. He definitely had to pay that this time, or the pawnbroker would not return the jewelry. Medicine for Chinnama was running out. He had to get the medicine for the next month, as his salary would not be coming any sooner. Medicine for a month would cost 300 rupees and the earrings would cost 200 rupees. The boy’s toys were at least a year old, and all of them were disjointed, in pieces; and moreover the boy, to Rangan’s surprise, had grown a lot in the last year. Lately, he showed little interest in the toys he was playing with. So he would get a remote-controlled truck for 100 rupees. I hope he will be careful with the toy. These remote-controlled toys are delicate bastards, he thought. 

Lastly, he would buy a chappal for himself. He was working barefooted at a heavy construction site, mixing concrete in ratios not allowed by any safety standards in the world. He’d already gotten two small stones lodged in his foot. That defined his walking in the last few weeks – vaulting with his forefoot without letting the heel touch the ground. I will get that thick chappal like the one Rama was wearing the other day. I need to keep it safe, else it will be stolen like last time. That would be another 100 rupees. 

He calculated the numbers for about 2 minutes, he would be left with 200 rupees. He would be left with 200 rupees. The last batch of ration rice had a lot of worms and was adulterated with tiny white stones that were difficult to spot with the naked eye; and only identified by the crackling sound in the mouth when they got pulverized into tiny pieces. Let’s get some unadulterated rice from my lord’s shop. 

***

The working of the village’s chit fund was simple. It had three fixed things: a fixed number of members, a fixed set of terms and a fixed amount per term. Every month, every member put a fixed amount in a pot. Once everyone had dropped their share of money, the pot was auctioned. A member in need of money would bid for the pot. Others, who are also in need of money, counter bid. Whoever bid the lowest money won the bid. The lowest bidder was then awarded the money he bid from the pot. The remaining money would be put in a common vault. Once a member won the bid, he was not allowed to bid again till the end of the chit fund. His turn was over. Every month, the same bidding and awarding process  continues with one less bidder than previous month. At the end of the last term, all the money gathered in the common vault over the lifetime of Chit Fund was divided equally, excluding a salary for the chit fund’s host. It was a common knowledge that the member who bid in the first always lose money mainly because of stiff competition. The one who bid at the very end profits the most as there would be no one to counter bid his’. Then why would someone bid the initial times in the first place? Firstly, banks won’t provide loan to the villagers as they did not have any security to turn in. Secondly, in the time of need, Chit Fund was the only source for the villagers to raise any fund at all, whether it may for daughter’s marriage, elderly’s operation.

The chit fund took place under a banyan tree, which was at least a hundred years old. It had mushroomed in the middle of a large empty area, where Kandan’s daughter and son sometimes came to play with other kids. On the other side of the tree was a modest temple, seating the Elephant-head God inside. 

It was a bleak morning when everyone gathered under the tree. The chit fund group included 30 people, and the fixed amount was 100 rupees. This was the sixth month of the fund. Last month, the final bid amount was 2200 rupees. It was a common knowledge that each month, the final bid amount was higher than the previous month. The very first month, six people bid for the pot and it closed at 1600 rupees. Second month, 1800 rupees. Third month, 1800 rupees. Fourth month, 2000 rupees. And the fifth month, the last month, it was 2200 rupees.

In the worst-case scenario, the final bid had remained the same. If that was the case this time, Kandan wouldn’t be able to get the unadulterated rice that he had planned for. A thin man, Kumar, walked up to the crowd. He wore a plain white shirt and a white dhoti. Walking slow and steady, the golden chain around his neck did not move even slightly. On his right wrist he wore a golden bracelet, and on the left a gold-painted watch with writing on it: Rolec. He carried a purse in his armpit whose contents were a well-known secret: the remaining amount from the last five months. He held a silver-painted bronze pot in  his hands. 

“Are we missing anyone?” he asked the crowd.

Everyone glanced around and mouthed No with their lips. 

Rangan glanced around and shouted, “Kandasamy is yet to come.”

“I am here, I am here,” Kandasamy said from behind, raising his hand and establishing his attendance.

Rangan turned back and located Kandasamy. “Ah,” he said, and laughed at his own  negligence. Kandasamy followed suit.

“Is anyone missing? Everyone here?” Kumar asked authoritatively.

Nobody said anything. 

“I assume that is a yes.” He rested the pot on the stool and took the purse from his armpit, then laid it on the stool next to the pot, before continuing. “Well, then. You know how this chit fund works. But I am going to explain for anyone who does not know. We have 30 members. Each will put a 100 rupees in this pot. We will then auction this pot. Whoever bids the lowest amount wins the auction. They will get the amount they bid from this pot. The remaining amount will go into the common vault, which will be divided equally among all, including me, at the end. Is everything clear?” 

But for the villagers, this format of the chit funds was more than a process. It was a tradition followed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers and even the generation before. All 30 members nodded in agreement.

“Well, then. Put your share in the pot now,” Kumar said. 

Everyone lined up, walked to the front, and handed over their 100-rupee bills one by one to Kumar. Kumar, as he naturally did with matters of money, checked the bills carefully, and dropped them inside the pot. He then took a notebook from the purse, and marked the names of each member with a tick. Rangan was the third one in the queue. He walked up to Kumar and handed over his 100-rupee bill. Kumar held the bill to the now-awakened sun, saw the smiling Gandhi within the white space in the bill, and spotted the glittering dashed lines next to another portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. He dropped the money in the bucket and marked a tick next to the name “Rangan” in his notebook, which looked very similar to that of Rangan’s daughter. 

That notebook reminded him of his girl. When he had left home that morning, the girl, still sleepy-eyed, had asked again for the earrings. He had replied with absolute poise, “I will have a surprise for you when I come back.”

Kandasamy was next in line. He walked to Kumar and handed over the money. Kumar held the bill to the sun; Gandhi was smiling, and the glittering dashed line went from top to bottom. Kumar dropped the bill in the pot and marked a tick next to the name “Kandasamy.” 

“Are you bidding this week?” Kandasamy asked. 

“Yes. You?” Rangan asked.

“If too many people don’t bid, I will. I can always use some money.”

Kumar repeated his process for all the members — check for a counterfeit bill, drop the bill in the pot, and put a tick next to their name in the notebook. 

“All right, now. Everyone has dropped their money, I think,” Kumar said, and verified whether all the names had tick. Thirty names. 30 ticks. “Let’s start the bidding now. We start with the maximum amount, 3000 rupees.”

“3000,” Kandasamy shouted.

“3000 one,” Kumar started the countdown.

“2900,” Rangan counterbid. 

“2900 one. 2900 two,” Kumar started again.

“2800,” Kandasamy shouted.

“2800 one. 2 …”

“2700,” Rangan shouted.

“2700 one. 2700 two.”

“2600,” shouted a voice from the left end of the crowd. It was Murugan. 

“2600 one. 2600 two,” counted Kumar.

“2500,” Rangan shouted. At this point, he had reached the expected amount of money that he would return home with. But he expected the auction to be more crowded than usual. The Festival of Light was around the corner: one week, to be exact. People would need money for buying new clothes, sweets, crackers for the family.

“2500 one. 2500 two. I am going to close the bid with one more count. 2500 thr…”

“2400,” a deep voice came from behind. Everyone including Rangan turned to the back to see the bidder. It was Arjun, a twenty-one-year-old boy who got married two weeks ago.

“Newlywed is trying to impress his wife,” Kandasamy said.

“Or his wife won’t allow him inside the house without the money,” another said.

The members around Kandasamy laughed, except for Rangan.

“2400 one…”

“2300,” Rangan counter bid.

“2300 one. 2300 two…”.

“2200,” Arjun shouted again from the back.

Now the bidding had officially reached last month’s amount. That also officially ended Rangan’s dream of buying unadulterated rice. To win, he had to bid at least 2100, which meant he would be left with money only to buy Chinnama’s medicine, pay the premium at the pawn shop, buy earrings for the girl, and buy the remote-controlled truck for the boy. It also ended officially the dream for a chappal to wear to work.

Unable to hide his disappointment, he stopped Kumar when Kumar was counting, “2200 one. 2200 two,” and said “2100.”

Without waiting for Kumar to start his countdown, Arjun shouted, “2050.”

Now Rangan had to give up either the boy’s truck or the girl’s earrings. But he quickly devised a Plan B. I still can buy that set of 100-rupee earrings I selected first, instead of the 200-rupee ones. To be honest, the 200-rupee set is too big for her ears. Plus, they have red stones embedded in them. It completely ruins the look of the earrings, whereas the 100-rupee ones are simple and elegant. If the girl saw both sets of earrings, she would prefer the 100-rupee ones. “2000,” he shouted.

“2000 one. 2000 two…”

“1900,” Arjun shouted.

This meant it officially ended Rangan’s plan to buy either the toy for the boy or the earrings for the girl. For a moment, his face exposed a deep sense of sadness and pity for his daughter and his son. In a mild voice he said, “1800.”

“1800 one. 1800 two. I am going to close the bid with another count… 1800 three. The auction is over now. The auction closes at 1800 rupees. The winner of this month’s auction is Rangan. Ranga, come here.” 

As Rangan approached Kumar, Kumar dipped his hand inside the pot, plucked a chunk of 100-rupee bills, started counting them and arranged them neatly at the same time. Rangan reached Kumar. Kumar counted his last few bills. One thousand seven hundred. One thousand eight hundred. He dropped the remaining bills back into the pot and said, “Ranga, congratulations. Here is your money. Use it properly.” Without touching Kumar’s hand, Rangan took the bills, put them in his trousers, and said, “I will, my lord.”

“You won the auction as you wanted. Happy now?” Kandasamy asked from behind him, patting Rangan’s back gently. 

Rangan turned back and smiled. Without uttering a word, he left.

***

When he entered the hut, the girl was doing her homework and the boy was playing with his chicken doll, just like the previous night. Upon seeing Rangan, both of them stopped, ran up to him excitedly, and hugged his legs. The girl the left one. The boy the right one. 

“Did you get my earrings?” the girl asked.

“Did you get my truck?” the boy asked. 

He dipped his hand inside his shirt pocket, took out four orange-colored candies, and stretched his hand out to them.


Siva, short for Sivaprasanth Masilamani, is a native of India but currently lives in the bicycle city of Utrecht, The Netherlands. A fan of “Chicago Bulls”, he is binge watching “The Last Dance” at the moment. He enjoys playing Squash, arguing with friends about controversial topics and beer tasting in the micro breweries here.

Fiction | ‘Kanhaiya’ by Saman Rizvi | Creative Writing Workshop

Kaun hai? Kaun haiiii? Who’s there? Who’s thereeee?

It is too late for Amanpoor, half of the village is already leaking drools and snores. The dogs are barking at a distant place, their sound thin through the air. The banging and thrusting continue. Yasmeen enquires loudly, an undercurrent of fear lacing her voice. Sweat beads circled around her neck and the folds of her skin, forming little dunes at her temple. 

The banging gets louder, sending a terror shock through her body. Aftaab had warned her against any such visits. He is not home and ‘Kanhaiya’, their newborn, is fast asleep. Kanhaiya got his name from his now favorite aunt and also, neighbor, Supriya. Supriya found it apt for him because of his fondness for butter froths on the top layer of his milk-bottle. It never occurred to aunt Supriya or Yasmeen or Aftaab, that there might be a religious association of the name. Supriya’s and Yasmeen’s in-laws had been living together under the jostling walls of their house since they all knew living. Their lives grew intricately intertwined, like that of a cucumber and money plant at each of their walls. 

The welcomed encroachment of each climber is still hard to determine. Yasmeen was happy with the name. Of course, she never wanted Supriya to be bereft of the little joys of motherhood which she could have provided for, unlike God. 

Yasmeen, with her strong motherly instincts, tucks Kanhaiya tightly in his wrappings and puts some clothes over him, leaving a small gap for him to breathe. Convinced with the temporary arrangement, she moves forward with faltering steps, arranging her dupatta on to her head instinctively. She tries to peep through the crevices of the old, weary door which had a small ‘786’ written on it. It never occurred to them while writing that this little sign could be a cauldron of bubbling hatred in the times to come. She is peeping, that a sudden jolt breaks the creaking door open. A mob of around ten stood in front of her, their eyes inebriated with aversion, faces painted red with hatred and teeth gnashing desperately for flesh. Yasmeen froze and let out a desperate, retired sigh, “Ya Allah.”

***

A year ago. Yasmeen was frantically waiting, rubbing her moistened palms against each other for Yumna, her sister, who’ll tell her about Aftaab. Plastic chairs were being dragged, children were running around with the left-over snacks, marking the guests’ departure. Undisturbed by the chatter between Fahad and Aliya about gulab jamuns, Yasmeen looks out from the rustic bars of the window. Her smooth, coal-black hair illuminates her skin, occasionally slipping from their designated place revealing a mole behind her ears. Yumna runs back to Yasmeen and spurts out every little information she could gather about Aftaab.

“What does he do?” Yasmeen enquired.
“He leases out vehicles.” Yumna replied.
“Is he good? What is he like? Is he ill-disposed?”
“He seems to be a fine person. He is pleasant in his manners Yasmeen, unlike Abba. I think he will support you in your further studies too.”
“Oh, that’s all I have been wanting, you see. I want to escape this life, Yumna. If he lets me study, it will all be good.” 

Saying this she fell back on her pillow, exhilaration hit her, and after such an assurance from Yumna; Yasmeen embarked on a journey of weaving her home in her head with the ardour and precision of birds. She knitted every fibre of her new life, with threads and twigs of warm promises. She furnished a room with a little corner for her books and a fountain of euphoria gurgled inside her heart. 

Eventually, the day arrived and the nikah took place amidst a bustling and packed aangan of complaining relatives and wailing babies. Rukhsati, was executed in the shadow of Quran, a distant cousin held it above Yasmeen’s head. Yumna dried her eyes, crying at the departure of her beloved sister. Yasmeen, who was experiencing a mixed feeling, reciprocated Yumna with a few tears of her own, flowing down her cheek. She sat in the car and was mostly silent during her first meeting with Aftaab, preferring to look outside the stuffy car. Mohammad Rafi’s song played in the background, a favourite of Usmaan chacha who was regally occupying the front seat. Usmaan chacha was Aftaab’s uncle, and the sole guardian of Aftaab,after his parents passed away, one due to dengue and the other due to cholera. Usmaan chacha now and then adjusted the volume according to his mood. His presence seemed to make Aftaab hesitant and all he did was hold Yasmeen’s hands silently, receiving a surprisingly tender response from her, who pressed his hands softly. An understanding was established and warm, silent glances affirmed their will for what would be a blissful life.

***

It was a humid day. After steering clear off Kanhaiya’s erratic mood and finally laying him down to sleep, Yasmeen settled herself suitably on the cot in the aangan under twinkling stars, armed with a kerosene lamp to study for her upcoming exams. Aftaab had eaten his food, and to his content and slept peacefully beside Kanhaiya. 

She was mid-sentence in an interesting Manto chapter – “itna musalman hoon ki hindu-muslim riot me mara ja sakun”, I am enough of a Muslim to be murdered in Hindu-Muslim riots, when there was a knock at the door. Yasmeen asks through the door.

“Kaun hai?” Who’s there?

“Bhabhi, please ask Aftaab to come out. It’s me, Devandra this side.”

“Oh okay, I am sending him. Hold on.”

Yasmeen unlatched the door and asked him to come in and take a seat. She moved back and woke Aftaab, who woke up at once hearing her voice. Being aware about the matter, he got up, and took his shirt that was hanging on one of the four pillars in their verandah. At the sight of Aftaab, Devendra started speaking.

“Maaf karna Aftaab Mi’an. The matter was such, and I had to come to you at this hour.”

“That’s okay, Bhaiya. What’s the matter?”

“I need your vehicle to transport the carcass of a cow from Shantipoor. We had fixed a person from there itself but he ditched us at the last moment. I have to bring it here, and then the people from the factory will come to collect it.”

“Okay. I would have been more than happy to help you, but the mini-truck’s driver is on leave.”

“Oh ho, couldn’t you do this small favour? Can you help me by driving to the place yourself? My elder son, Balua, will accompany you to make sure everything is smooth and hassle-free.”

“Bhaiya, Yasmeen is alone and she will have to handle Kanhaiya all by herself, it gets difficult.”

“Bhabhi, wouldn’t you bestow your dewar this little favour, and convince him to go?” Devendra looked at Yasmeen expectantly. 

She said, “You go Aftaab, if it gets too late, I’ll call Supriya bhabhi.”

Finally, the matter was agreed upon. It was decided that Aftaab would leave home early next morning after namaz. He left the house and Yasmeen went off to sleep.

***

It was a hot day, and shirts sweltered with sweat; little sweat drops just like the artificial dew drops stuck on plastic flowers, sat on him below his white skull cap. Balua was giving away tiny information nuggets at every speed bump and juncture. Aftaab listened patiently, sporadically getting lost into thoughts of Yasmeen and Kanhaiya. He asked Balua a few questions, to pass time.

“What do you do in your free time?”

“I try studying. I had to leave school because the headmaster didn’t want me to pollute the school.”

Aftaab couldn’t think of enough words to construct a sentence and drove silently for about a kilometer. Tension seemed to hang in the suffocating air inside the truck. He then mustered enough courage to enquire about the business that was taking them to Shantipoor.

“Whose cow is it?”

“Oh it’s one of the farmer’s, you must be knowing him, Sunil.”

“Which Sunil, the one who lives at the outskirts or the one in the lane beside the maidaan?”

“The one living beside the maidaan.”

“Oh, okay. Have they constructed roads up till his backyard?”

“Yes, half of it has been done, and the rest has been levelled up by the villagers using red soil.”

“I see, I hope this mini-truck is able to reach the place without getting the tyre stuck before.”

“Yes! Yes! It’s quite levelled.”

They both paused as if satisfied with the words that had been exchanged so far, melting away the awkwardness left behind by the previous conversation. At the outskirts of Shantipoor, a group of men wearing saffron bandanas and dark glasses were sitting at a line dhaba, laughing and harassing a dog cowering under the table. They were luring him by showing a kulhad that was half-filled with water and poured in left-over chai; and throwing stones at him when he did not respond. Balua and Aftaab were hungry and running short of water, but the scene at the sole line-dhaba on the way prevented them from stopping or getting down. Aftaab was aiming to vanish by employing mechanical assistance, by accelerator just like smoke which dissolves in air leaving no trace.

At fifteen past two, they reached the door of Sushil’s place the tyres crackling from the grit which were loosened from the road made this summer. Monsoon tends to hit hard at such soft undertakings by the government. The backyard door was an iron gate painted in orange, the colour flushed by rain and sun giving the gate a rusty look. Three men came out, barefooted, with the carcass at the signal of the horn. One of them was wearing a saffron vest with a few holes on the right side of his naval and the remaining two were donning a white one. Their feet trudged in mud up to the knee, and had acquired a coffee color after being dried in the course of their work. They assisted Balua in loading the carcass in the mini-truck. Aftaab didn’t get down almost as if he had resolved to not waste even a minute. He wanted to wrap things up as soon as possible and return. He made a call to Yasmeen.

“Assalaamoalaikum”

“Walekumassalaam! You reached?”

“Yes, I reached. I will get back soon. We will leave in an hour or so. I will be home by night. How is Kanhaiya?”

“He’s fine, ate well and is now sleeping in the lap of his favorite, Supriya Bhabhi.”

“Oh you called her? Ask her to stay with you till I come.”

“Yes! Yes! Don’t worry. Come back soon. I don’t think I will have to disturb her, you’ll be home soon. Kanhaiya and I are waiting.”

The call dropped, and it was after an hour that they left for Amanpoor. The sun was still sharp in and scathing, and Aftaab was happy about reaching well before darkness fell. The trees sprinting backwards on either side of the road, calmed Aftaab and gave him a feeling of swiftness. The hot air knocking and entering the windows was acting as a coolant when passing through their sweaty bodies. Having found some respite from the piercing heat, Balua drifted off to sleep. Aftaab drove, enjoying his last paan and thinking about the dinner with Yasmeen. It was a long day and he hadn’t carried anything from home due to the immediacy of the plan. He was planning to get down by the line dhaba and grab something to eat, but Balua was deep asleep. Aftaab was suddenly reminded of the intimidating glare of the group at the dhaba on the way. 

He brushed off the disturbing picture from his mind as a convocation of eagles caught his eyes in the sky. It was clear blue with scattered clouds, almost like the smoke rising from incense sticks in the side mirror of the truck, where Aftaab caught sight of the same group of men with black glasses and saffron bandanas speeding up towards him. 

A rush of anxiety seized him and he didn’t know how to respond. In panic, he reflexively speeded up and in no time things got complicated and charged up, for nothing. The saffron-clad group felt they, had been challenged by a man in a skull cap. While, the man in the skull cap was panicking. In his mind, he was racing for his life, for his wife and son waiting for him back home. Two men overtook the truck from the left side, almost cornering his mini-truck.

Aftaab hurriedly looked away. As they went past, hooting and blowing horns incessantly, Balua woke up from the clamour and Aftaab felt relieved. He was thankful about having someone to share this horror with. Balua was befuddled with the sudden and noisy chaos, and took a moment to clear his mind. In the meantime, Aftaab pushed on the accelerator to run away from the uninvited trouble. They chased him with their advanced vehicles, those that have advertisements boasting about having a high pick up blaring on TV. A man in white skull cap can never overtake a man in a saffron bandana. Aftaab had unknowingly trampled on this rule. After about a kilometre, two policemen were waiting at the next post for Aftaab. They waved and Aftaab halted the truck with a sudden blow.

What’s in the back? The one with a thick moustache asked. Sir, it’s the carcass of a cow.

They pulled Aftaab and Balua out. One policeman seized Aftaab from the neck and the other towered over Balua pushing him to the ground. Balua and Aftaab looked at each other in terror, finding strength in the lines of each other’s temple and consolation in each other’s eyes. The men in the saffron bandanas arrived.

***

The men entered the house and pushing Yasmeen to the corner, locked the main gate behind. The chaos made the hen and chickens run helter-skelter for safety. A bleeding Balua was being dragged by some men in the group. The men went inside the house as if looking for something beyond Yasmeen to tamper with. On entering the kitchen, they see food kept on a crooked slab, its gravy seasoned with fresh coriander leaves. The kitchen was shadowy with thin rays of light streaming in through the square blocks made of kuccha bricks and mud, facing the verandah. A few of the blocks were stuffed with clothes and old papers. The men open the discoloured refrigerator’s top and threw away the bottles as if angry about not getting what they were looking for. The floor was powdered with aata, the gravy making a small pool of oil. As Yasmeen tried to enter the kitchen, a man held her by her hair from behind as if to uproot it from the scalp. 

The men, having found nothing, went back to Yasmeen. They tear away a piece of her kameez to stuff in her mouth. They wanted to avoid the screaming. They tore her clothes starting from the head; dupatta, kameez, shalwar…until nothing, not a thread is left on her. Yasmeen stops her stifling groan, it would wake Kanhaiya, and her heart sank. Her body turned cold slowly, with each jolt, her soul melted away, leaving behind lumps of flesh, stitched together by wrath. Satiated with their anger and heat, they left after giving a final blow to Balua. Dying was a better alternative that night. The blood that ran down from Yasmeen’s lower body made estuaries in the aata spread across the kitchen floor while Balua’s blood absorbed in the mud. The hen sat quietly in a corner, hiding her chicks under her wings. Two battered bodies lie under the sprawling night sky.

***

A sweet smell pervaded the aangan, exactly the way Yasmeen used to like it. It arose from the incense sticks placed at the top of the two bodies that lay parallel to each other. Clean white sheets with blots of blood are wrapped immaculately. Women sat in a circle, reciting the Quran. The men have planted themselves on the cot near the entrance, a few of them reading and the rest of them speculating.

Kanhaiya is playing in the arms of Supriya. Who says God doesn’t answer? At last, God had answered, just with some little amendments.


Glossary:
Aangan- courtyard
Dupatta- a piece of clothing used by women in a three piece dress i.e. Kameez (shirt/kurta) and Shalwar (lower) and Dupatta (stole)
Kulhad- earthen cups used for serving chai (tea).
Bhabhi- Sister-in-law
Bhaiya- Brother
Gulab Jamun- a variety of sweet
Nikah- Muslim marriage agreement
Rukhsati- wedding tradition of bride and groom leaving with elders for groom’s place
Dewar- brother-in-law
Maidaan- open field
Dhaba- roadside restaurants / tea shop
Kuccha- non-concrete
Aata- wheat flour
Paan- betel leaves

A TBR Creative Writing Workshop Piece

Saman Rizvi is a student of English Literature, currently pursuing her Masters from Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The distressful contemporary issues that trouble her, make their way into her writings. She hails from Gaya, Bihar and also writes Ghazals in Urdu. She has participated and has won various poetry competitions. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Literary Yard and Erothanatos.