Fiction | ‘Consolations of Identity: Musings of a Pet Dog’ by Chandrashekhar Mahajan | Creative Writing Workshop

My name is Shoe – or rather, it was Shoe. Now, I am called… well… let that go, what’s in a name anyway. I sit here, on a soft rug in an air-conditioned apartment staring at the impressive skyline of the City. A bowl full of tempting food lies next to me. Despite my philosophical preference for freedom over material comforts, I must say, I like it. But I can’t claim that this kind of comfort has been a lifelong friend.   

I was born amongst a set of triplets, one of whom was claimed by this City’s winter. So it was me, and Hat, my stupid brother. We lived and roamed around what seemed to be a wealthy suburb of the City. Our colour, our fur, and our demeanour were all visibly different from the rest of those wandering around haplessly – our father must have  been of a high pedigree. That we didn’t know about our roots hardly ever mattered, for, a life that trudged with a primary aim of survival did not care about lineage. Onlookers couldn’t help but adore us and often extended the only thing we needed – food. Ha! We encashed our pedigree without ever knowing it. 

Usually, not one to curse my circumstances, I was however nagged by one aspect of life. Who lent us such mundane names? I envied my fellow canines, with their princely names like Bruno or Milo or Caesar. But then I also thanked the stars for the absence of a neck-strap that bound these princely-named to their captive lives. At least I was free. What would you rather have, name or freedom?

Speaking of names, I stretched my memory and traced the source of the link to the old woman who lived behind the main street. When young, Hat and I would find ourselves at the mercy of this old woman who threw us leftover food that she had collected from the backyards of the tall buildings. (Even this second derivative of rich people’s food had served us well.) It was this old lady who first called us by something, anything. For a  considerable amount of time, I didn’t know what our names meant, at least not until I noticed an adorable shop displaying flowery, colourful, round objects which beautiful ladies adorned on their heads and walked out of the shop asking their better halves, ‘How do you like my hat?’ 

For my own name though, it took Hat’s idiocy one evening; when hunger had harassed Hat for two straight days. When he couldn’t bear it anymore, he leapt towards a leathery object a man had just removed from his foot in order to get comfortable on a garden bench. No sooner did Hat mouth it and start biting, the man shouted, ‘That’s my shoe, get away you fool!’  

Hat was a bit of a boisterous boy. His spirit often led to him getting attention, affection and sometimes, being fed. I loved the third part, didn’t mind the second but surely, abhorred the first. Somehow, Hat and I fit the locality like a street juggler showed tricks on a busy street. But for how long? Who knew, so I liked to keep my face down and scout for the leftovers of restaurants and homes. Hat – that idiot, however – didn’t mind meddling into other people’s business and attempting to claim what he thought was his rightful place in the world.  

Amongst those, Hat really loved to meddle with a three-year-old girl and her grandfather. The duo had a routine of taking evening walks. The grandfather would buy the young one candies, lollies, cakes, sweet breads – things  childhood is made of. As Hat’s familiarity with the young girl increased, he began getting a fair share of those as well. And as generous children are excessively generous, I was extended some too. While Hat and the young girl kind of had a thing for each other, me and the grandfather seemed to have mutual feelings too: that of suspicion. If we had our own way, we would reduce the quartet to a trio. The irony was, if grandfather had his way, life would have become better for the trio whereas if I had mine, life would become far, far worse for the trio. 

One evening, the girl and her grandfather came to the rendezvous spot where we were busy playing with a soft drink can. 

‘Doggyyy…’ she shouted and jumped. Hat said something in reply, circled on his spot and wagged his tail in joy. I rolled my eyes and kicked the can aside.  

The girl dropped the paper bag at a distance and ran towards Hat. She knelt and hugged him. 

‘Careful, careful,’ said the old man. 

‘Doggy…how are you?’ the girl asked Hat. 

‘Woof,’ Hat answered. The girl giggled and started scratching Hat’s head and between the ears. Hat narrowed his eyes and sat still, wagging the tail. 

‘Easy, easy,’ a voice floated behind the girl. 

The girl took Hat in her lap and mollycoddled him. Usually, Hat enjoyed such affection but at one point this time, he yelped and tried to back away from the girl. I raised my ears. On the previous day, other dogs had chased Hat and a minor tussle had ensued; one of them ended up scratching Hat’s neck. The girl must have cuddled Hat near the injury. I barked at the girl to dissuade her. 

‘Careful Nina, these are stray dogs,’ the old man came very close to the girl, protectively. 

The girl, unmindful, pressed the spot harshly a third time. I retaliated instantly and barked even louder, closing in on the girl. Hat was in pain, and inadvertently  pushed her, ending up scratching her wrist. 

‘Nina!’ the old man pulled her back. The girl, scared by the cacophony of my barks, Hat’s yelps and the old man’s alarmingly loud shout, let out a wail.

‘These stray dogs, why doesn’t someone do something about them,’ the old man bellowed, picking up his granddaughter in his arms. Assuming the shout was meant for him, a security guard came running towards us with a raised baton. Almost immediately, the scene attracted the interest of onlookers who stopped in their tracks. It was time to flee, both of us sensed and ran.

We knew where we had to run to – the old woman’s dwelling. We eased ourselves into a pile of discarded truck tyres and didn’t dare venture out until the old lady returned. 

Upon returning, the old lady sat under a streetlamp with what seemed to be her day’s earnings.  A scrap collector, the old lady opened her sack, peeped inside and her face glowed. That’s when I decided to approach her – happy souls are more considerate. Hat and I stood in front of her, waiting to be noticed. 

‘Ohh…you have come. Where were you scoundrels? You seem hungry…wait, I have something for you.’ She took out a small plastic box, opened the lid and tossed it to us. I was amazed at my luck. It was almost as fresh a food as strays can get. The old lady must have made a fortune today. We smelled the food, found it appetising and got to business. 

‘Look at this’, the old lady pulled out a necklace from the sack. She adored it for a while and then put it on her neck, saying, ‘I always wanted something like this for myself, but it will fetch some good price too. Should I keep it or sell it? I will keep it, maybe, it’s very nice.’ Then she pulled out a container, the kind they use for tea. It was pretty looking, but broken. ‘How about this? We can keep warm water in it in the winter. What do you say?’ she poked me with a stick. I glanced at the kettle for a while and decided to go back to my slurping. The old lady kept pulling out things, examining them to decide whether to keep them or sell them, while we ate. She pulled out a strap from the sack next. 

‘Shoe, shoe, look at this.’ 

I looked up and instantly gauged that it was a dog’s collar. Oh no. Holy crap. 

‘Come here, come,’ she said  and held my foreleg. I detested those belts anyways and after the incident with the little girl, more so. Humans treat us as their property and these collars are symbolic of that. Every collar claims: I Own You. It can’t be, the old lady can’t make me wear that, I thought and tried pulling back but the old lady wouldn’t let go. 

‘Come here, come,’ her voice became more authoritative. I yelped and resisted.

It was then that Hat looked up at the commotion. A belt! A collar! He leapt into the old lady’s lap and stared at the belt adoringly, his neck bowed. 

‘You like it?’ the old lady asked. Hat’s demeanour clearly suggested that he did, and was eager to wear it. 

‘Nice,’ muttered the old lady, patting Hat. She looked at me, almost repulsively, and hissed – ‘See, you thankless rat. You want my food but you don’t like my belt. Run away from here.’ The next moment, she was putting the belt around Hat’s neck. 

‘Aha…you look nice’, she said and let him go. Then out of nowhere, she picked up a stone and hurled it at me. I couldn’t believe it. A moment ago, she wanted me as her pet and now she was hurling stones at me? Humans are strange. I fled.

The last thing I saw was the old lady tying Hat down with a rope, while he tried to get away from her hopelessly.

Stupid Hat. Idiot.

***

I was wrecked from within. I would have barked at him, for his stupidity, but that’s how Hat was. Who knows though, maybe Hat would have cursed me for my independent streak, because what’s really the harm in having a strap around the neck if it ensures timely supper. 

The ball was in my court – to try and seek the blessing of the old lady so Hat and I could stay together. But of course, I needed to sleep over it. Thankfully, the weather was perfect for a good sleep and I found a place on a rug near the shutter of the showroom. 

At dawn, I felt unusually heavy around my neck. I could smell it. It was Hat! Hat was lying on me and breathing in a slow rhythm. He must have missed me. His wailings would have driven the old lady nuts so she had to let him go. I opened one eye; the collar around Hat’s neck was still there. Truce seemed to be in order during the day. 

However, fate likes to play. 

Just before dawn, two men jumped out of a truck that had entered the street – a burly one with a large net and a pale one with a catch pole. They closed in on us. I sensed danger. I rushed towards Hat, but the men were already upon us.

‘These ones?’ The pale man asked. 

‘Yeah, looks like,’ replied the other. 

The pale man shot the pole at me and I ducked. I tried jumping left to find an escape route but the burly one quickly raised his net, blocking the path. In his second attempt, the pale man put the loop through my neck and tightened it. I jerked and thrashed and pulled, but to no use. The game was over. ‘Put the net on the other one.’

‘No, this one’s got a belt.’

‘He said there were two. This must be the second one. Just catch it.’

‘I am not doing it. It’s got the belt, you idiot. I am okay letting a stray one go but I am not taking chances with someone’s dog here. This area has got mad people, with connections everywhere. To hell with it.’ 

‘How could a domestic dog be sleeping on the road?!’ This one was seemingly losing patience.

‘Not my problem, you wanna do it, be my guest.’ The burly man said down in finality.  

The other one grunted and, considering the argument, pulled back. I didn’t have strength to stop a seasoned dog-catcher from dragging me to the vehicle. He threw me inside and closed the door. 

*** 

In the shelter, I was given a little cell, the first one from the door. When morning arrived, I saw all emotions known to dogkind on the faces of the inmates. Hope, despair, optimism, anger, dejection and even that eagerness to appease the provider – something I didn’t approve of much. And this appeasement was directed towards a man who had just entered the common area with a handful of bread loaves.

‘Shoe, shoe, here, take this,’ the man extended a loaf to me. I was surprised that the man knew my name. An acquaintance in the middle of a shelter! I did a somersault and caught the loaf. ‘Arf!’, I thanked the man.

He moved on, without acknowledging.

‘Shoo…shoo, here, take this,’ he said to the dog in the next cell. And then to the next. And then to the next. 

That’s when it dawned upon me.I was never Shoe – I was always a shoo. 

***

A day later, I was adopted by Shalini, my current mother. 

At home, it was comfortable. I got used to her, the home, and the strap. She looks like a very important person. She talks to me  too, a lot. My sumptuous food and the wonderful view from the balcony allow me my own philosophical musings. 

So; about my current name. When the shelter people told her the story of my capture, she laughed and said, ‘You little Hector!’

Who is this Hector?

 


Chandrashekhar Mahajan is a finance professional from Mumbai who prefers visiting the world of words in his personal time. He likes to weave stories around the emotions and questions humans try to grapple with throughout their lives. He would like his stories to leave the reader with something to ponder about while looking out of a window on a rainy day with a cup of coffee in hand.

Fiction | ‘Crossroads’ by Tushar G | Creative Writing Workshop

“Guys, can we please hurry?” asked Ritvik.

“We still have plenty of time, it’s only 2 in the afternoon,” Abhi replied. 

Ritvik never really enjoyed trips with too many people. But this college trip was a once in a while thing, so he came along. 

Even though all of them were from the same college, they divided themselves into small groups. The city folks hung around with other city folks, the dormitory guys hung around with other dormitory students. 

Ritvik didn’t have a group. He moved around with his roommates. But even they had their own subgroups. He was jumping from one  to another, that seemed to work at the moment. 

The city folks were busy taking each other’s pictures, and the hostel guys were trying to outsmart each other as the fastest climber on the trek.  

How amazing it would be if there weren’t so many tourists on the plateau, Ritvik thought. 

Aditya and his girlfriend were taking selfies for a long time now. Rashid, the tour lead had to remind them to keep moving every five minutes. Ritvik didn’t enjoy waiting.

This wait irritated Ritvik, and he confronted them. 

“Are pictures that important? I mean look around you, all that nature around is beautiful too,” Ritvik said sarcastically. 

Aditya didn’t take it well. He said, “You don’t have to take pictures if you don’t want,” 

People turned to look at Ritvik. He had nothing to say. He just looked down. 

“Let everyone enjoy their way Ritvik, why are you so pissed. You should try to enjoy too,” Hemant said.

“I am sorry,” Ritvik mumbled before going quiet for the rest of the afternoon. 

He wasn’t walking with them anymore. He didn’t really want to be with them. 

“I am just taking a stroll a little off track, I will catch up with you guys soon,” Ritvik told his roommate when he asked.  

The group planned to climb downhill towards the riverbed, but Ritvik started walking towards the hill point in the opposite direction. 

“Does this road go to the waterfall?” Ritvik asked a passerby who seemed to be on the way back from the point.

“The hill crossing spot, but it will be closed soon so no point in going there,” he replied. 

“Thanks!” Ritvik said and kept walking.

The narrow road frightened him a bit, but he didn’t stop.  

As if poised to surprise, an animal emerged from the trees and startled Ritvik. He sprinted, and stopped after a while. The panting made it hard to stand erect, as he took a deep breath and looked back. It was a buffalo foraging in the wilderness. It had returned into the trees and Ritvik heaved a sigh of relief, heading back to the road. He couldn’t see the end of the road. Now, he was walking on a small hilltop. 

The weather had been grey all day, and Ritvik wasn’t surprised when it started drizzling, and lightning struck. The thin rain seemed to add music to the atmosphere, a pleasant one. 

Slowly, the clouds moved away, turning the day darker. People were returning from their touristy spots, headed back to their hotel rooms. The lightning struck again, louder than before. He looked around and saw very few people around. 

“Is the valley crossing still on?” Ritvik asked a tall man, who looked like he was 60 plus.

“No, we just stopped because of the rain,” he replied. 

Maybe I should turn back.

But it’s still 3 o’clock, I will make it in time, Ritvik thought. 

It started pouring heavily soon after. Ritvik was wet now, so he looked for a quick halt. A hillside nearby was inclined inwards, creating a sort of temporary shelter. 

He waited for the rain to stop. 

There wasn’t a soul in sight, Ritvik decided to move on. He felt lost, but he had to reach the hilltop. 

There was a unique kind of satisfaction that comes with finishing an adventure, a quest. He was nearing the spot, and could even see the waterfall that everyone had talked about. He increased his pace and adjusted his shoulder bag as he climbed the rock.

It didn’t seem to work, so he threw his bag over it and tried again. He used the edges and holds on the rock to push himself up. 

The waterfall was in sight now, and the rain had stopped too. He could smell the grass, almost as if it had been mowed and watered seconds ago. It smelled different. Not like a city lawn but like an organic and country grass smell. The stream was piercing through heavy boulders around the hill. A small village was lit up towards the south. There was still no one around, but Ritvik didn’t feel that at all. 

With the music of a natural orchestra, the smell of earth and water,  and a sight that could  beat any Windows’ 98 desktop natures poster, he was not alone. 

Wish I had brought my DSLR.

To his surprise, and to an extent disappointment; he heard someone shuffling around.  Was someone else there? 

He went behind to have a look; some guys had a campfire going. They were probably sitting there for a while since the fire seemed to be dying. 

He didn’t talk; settled on a rock nearby and took the bottle and book out.

There were five of them; two guys and three girls, around the fire. One of the girls was reading something. Ritvik didn’t want to stare. But his eyes connected with the girl just as she looked up. She was probably not expecting anyone, and looked up at him in bewilderment.  

She walked towards him. His heart started pacing. What I am going to say?

“Hey there, we didn’t think anyone else would be out here, you alone?” she asked. 

“Yes, pretty much. I thought I was alone here too. The hike is kinda dangerous, isn’t it?” Ritvik replied. 

She nodded, before asking, “What are you reading?” 

“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Ah nice! I have read it; I remember enjoying it. I like Scout, right? It was Scout, wasn’t it?”

“Yea, Scout, or Jean Louis Finch.”

“Oh ya, that’s her actual name,” she chuckled. 

“And what do you have?” Ritvik inquired.

“The murder of Roger Ackroyd,” She replied. 

“It is on my wish list, haven’t read it yet,” Ritvik replied.

“Hi, I am Disha.”

“I am Ritvik. Nice to meet you.”

“So how come you are alone?” She asked.

“I was with my college friends, then I took a brief detour.”

“I am with my friends too.” She pointed back towards the fire. 

“You from Mumbai too?” Ritvik asked. 

“Yes, Thane, you?”

“Borivali.”

She was wearing a blue sweatshirt and had a gray cap on her head. Perhaps she was cold. Her dimples made an impression on him, as she smiled. She had a wide face, skin smoother than chalk powder, and eyes, oh eyes. 

“Are you in college?” She asked. 

“Yeah, I am in my last year of engineering, IT.”

“So, you must be getting campus offers by now?”

“No, I am doing this content writing internship. I want to explore something around that field.” “Wow, an engineer doing a writing job!” She smiled. 

“What about you?” Ritvik asked.

“I am in the third year of my Electronics engineering. I am planning on doing a masters afterwards. Perhaps in the US. I might do my post-graduation in computer science, though. I am confused, but I feel that’s the way to go.”

“Do you like to read?” Ritvik asked, changing the subject. 

“I do; I enjoy reading fiction, especially sci-fi.”

“What’s your favorite novel?”

“I like the Dune series.”

“Oh how lovely. Mine is 2001: Space Odyssey,” Ritvik replied. 

“I enjoy hiking, do you?” she asked after a pause. 

“Ya, me too.”

“I like it because I think it helps me meet myself. It’s like being close to our  gene,”

“I like it because I like the isolation and peacefulness of it. Whatever problems you have, here it’s just you and present, and nobody is there to disturb you,” Ritvik replied. 

“Well, I prefer to be with a group. I like to explore it all with people; new people too. Like you, for instance, we would have never met in Thane, and even if we did, we would not have talked to each other.”

“You are probably right. I guess I just find it hard to meet and start a conversation with strangers. I am an introvert. At least that’s what I think,” Ritvik said.

“Really? I don’t know what you are talking about; you seem to be doing fine so far. You are talking to me, aren’t you?”

“I guess so.”

As her friends began to take pictures, he remembered how the day had begun. 

“Why do people need to take so many pictures? I don’t understand,” she said almost immediately. “I think people should leave all their electronics behind at the hotel. You can best enjoy something with your own eyes, what good is trapping it in a 16:9 frame for future.”

“I know right, I like to think that a camera should be used to capture moments, rather than people.” Ritvik said, looking at the village in the distance.

“Hmm, interesting perspective,” She replied in agreement. 

The conversation was slow, but paced right, and they lost track of time. He forgot about the rest of her friends and so did she. 

When one of them hollered for the round game, Disha introduced him to her gang. The fire was lit again. The sunlight was fading as the evening descended upon them. One guy suggested a charade game as Ritvik’s eyes found a guitar. That’s when one of them suggested, “Do you want to play? You look like you are itching to.”

Ritvik picked it up and started playing – Somewhere over the Rainbow. He sang the entire song and played almost all the chords correctly. Disha’s mouth was wide open. 

Ritvik smiled coyly. 

Disha smiled back and said, “You didn’t tell me you could sing and play the guitar too! What else can you do? Tell me more.” 

As the evening  took over, they began to prepare for the descent. 

Ritvik’s heartbeat jumped, he was about to ask her. Something he had never done before.

“I want to keep talking to you. Can I take you to coffee tomorrow? I know a nice café.”


A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop piece.


Tushar is an emerging young writer. An engineer trying to explore his artistic identity. A cinephile who gets inspired by stories and enjoys writing one. He also has a blog that covers financial investments and various niches. He graduated from VJTI Mumbai with an Electronic and telecommunication B. Tech degree. He lives in Ahmednagar Maharashtra, India. 

Children’s Folklore | ‘The Pea-Sized Girl’ by Suyasha Singh | Creative Writing Workshop

Once upon a time, a girl was born to a middle aged couple living in the hills, surrounded by evergreen valleys and brooks. She was very tiny, almost the size of a pea. The couple was blessed with a child after innumerous prayers and she was their jewel. They named her Xiao. The couple had always thought that Xiao would grow up in size some day, but even at thirteen she had only grown to be the size of their thumb. She was very lively, full of spirit, and quite intelligent for her age. 

Not a single chick would be left out of the coop and not a single egg was misplaced under her watch. Xiao had a way with money. Whenever she went to the local market with the eggs, she always got the highest price. Everybody knew Xiao in the village, and while she could be considered a bit different from the conventional, she was loved unabashedly. She was cheerful, and a thoughtful child. She always knew deep inside that she was different, right from childhood. And as her parents got older, she realized that she had to become their strength. She decided to go to the capital, to secure a more comfortable future for her parents.There was something out there that she was supposed to do, a destiny that she had to fulfill. 

The next day she told her parents, “I’m going to the capital.”

“But you’re so small. You won’t be safe,” her parents asked worriedly.

Xiao knew it wouldn’t be easy. Her size was indeed an issue, anyone could trample her, unknowingly too. As was being a girl. Tiny, girl, Xiao. But she was determined. 

The old couple sighed and watched their child set out on her journey; they could only give their blessings. Xiao’s mother packed her things in a new, shiny cloth tied at the top. Her father made her a fresh pair of straw sandals. The day to leave came soon. Xiao  bowed to her parents, looked back at her mountain home adoringly, and set for her journey. She shared a boat ride to the capital, excited and nervous about the new life that awaited her. 

The hustle-bustle of the capital was a stark contrast to her life in the mountains. Everyone looked busy. The mighty Wei River could be seen at a distance. It was the power of ‘words’ that had brought Xiao to the capital. She had heard of a learned monk who ran an academy which was open to all – boys and girls, rich and poor, and possibly – tall and tiny. She looked at herself. Xiao had enquired about the academy, it was at the centre of the city; but reaching there was a hard task in itself. She was practically invisible to the people walking around. The crowd pushed and shoved her. Xiao jumped over a straw sandal, and barely managed to survive a lady’s carriage procession. Next, she escaped the fatal fall of a toddler’s burnt sugar candy on her head. Xiao’s parents were simple folks, with kind hearts. They didn’t necessarily understand the depth of Xiao’s desire to learn; learn everything – from language to medicine, statistics to history. It wasn’t easy for her to convince them. Yes, there seemed to be millions of people out on the streets, it didn’t matter, because today she had to meet the monk! Xiao braced herself and continued onwards.

The Head monk sat in his study and looked at the unusual visitor who had come to his academy. Though the school had been long open, and to everyone; it was the first time a girl had come in to learn about ‘the power of words’. The girls usually came about to learn zither or embroidery. 

The determined girl, about the size of his thumb, calmly sipping tea was quite a surprise. The monk appreciated those who sought their own destiny. Xiao was special, and he gladly accepted her as his pupil.

Born with a natural curiosity about everything under the Sun, Xiao excelled in all her studies: mathematics, poetry and governance. It wasn’t easy of course. The brush everyone used to write and paint was too heavy for her. The more her colleagues pointed out that it wasn’t fit for her, the more she felt that herself. She decided to make a brush with her own hands, from a young bamboo shoot. Her learning and her calligraphy got better. However, the problem was the brush. Writing itself was not hard for her; there were just no brushes which she could call her own. Xiao decided to make her own brush, by hand. She adjusted all the gigantic letters to her size and mastered the strokes. She copied scriptures and interesting books from older texts in the academy and wrote them by hand, adapting her style to them. Her tiny calligraphy started getting famous in the night market of the capital. People appreciated the strong, yet flexible calligraphy style that she had mastered.  Notebooks and scrolls with her writing began circulating around. 

The eldest son of the minister and the fourth son of the renowned merchant couldn’t take this news lying down. A thumb sized girl tried to steal their glory? She needed to be taught a lesson. They tip-toed in to her study room, opened Xiao’s desk drawer and poured half a bucket of colored water on her written submissions and scrolls. Seeing the dregs of paper floating around, they snickered and were smug. Early next morning, when Xiao went to the study to collect her work and head to the bookstore of the night market, she saw the mess. Although she was prepared for all kinds of obstacles, this incessant bullying by her own classmates disheartened her. Weren’t they all supposed to support and care for each other? She couldn’t understand what she had done to warrant such treatment. Still, she continued to persist.

After three years of her education and all the hard work she put in, Xiao passed the Imperial examination, only one of the two to get selected from her academy. The head monk blessed her and said, “You had a destiny to fulfill Xiao and you have successfully done that. You can now chart your own course, child.”

Xiao knelt in front of her shifu and kowtowed three times with tears in her eyes. If not for the monk who cared about all students, irrespective of any divide, it would have been a long, winding road for Xiao in the capital. 

The top three scholars of the national examination were invited to the palace banquet by the emperor. Everyone at the banquet was excited to see this year’s top three students. Upon the entrance of the last scholar in the room, everyone quieted down, and in the middle of the huge hall stood Xiao, a thumb sized woman. How could a woman pass the imperial examination and such a tiny one at that? No one could believe their eyes, even the emperor strained his eyes to make sure he wasn’t mistaken. 

The Emperor was intrigued, and asked Xiao, “You are a woman; what made you give the Imperial examination?”

Xiao was standing in the middle of the banquet hall, head slightly bowed.

“Replying to Your Majesty, there are no rules against women appearing for the examination. Anyone who passes the exam is a national scholar.”

The Emperor continued, “But women have never held any court positions.”

Xiao stood before the piercing gaze of the Emperor and replied, “Just because there haven’t been any in the past doesn’t mean there can’t be any in the future, Your Majesty.”

The hall burst into muffled whispers – a woman in an official position? This was unprecedented. Suddenly, the hall’s quiet shattered with the hearty laughter of the Emperor, who thought that this girl was indeed courageous! 

Xiao stood her ground, among so many courtiers, and the Son of the Dragon eventually went on to become the Prime Minister of the Right. Her life is remembered in stories and in songs, which the people of the kingdom sung and narrated in classrooms, in theatres, on the streets, and even across the great land. This story of the thumb sized girl from the mountains and the first woman minister in His Majesty’s Court paved the way for more such stories of more such women who came after.

 

 

A Modern Folklore*

(*It is the thought behind the piece that’s modern here, written while remembering Ruth B. Ginsburg and Isher Judge Ahluwalia, stalwarts in their own fields and inspiration to women worldwide.)


Suyasha Singh spent her formative years in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, before moving to New Delhi. She is a graduate from Miranda House, Delhi University and is currently pursuing her Master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Fiction | ‘When Remnants Speak’ By Swapnil Mayank | Creative Writing Workshop

In coastal provinces, the way shocked windows gape at an impending tornado, I, too, was astounded when I discovered my long dead uncle’s casket of letters. They seemed to imperishably confab with my heavy sighs at their sight. It was the longest day of the year, in June; when the sun had nearly fried me in the city and I decided to go to my late grandmother’s house. It is difficult to essay the beauty of that place, the house was by the cotton fields on ebon soil. A rill that had parched to floury whiteness passed through it. The Dandeli woodwork provided the house’s exterior a look of rich, worn out embroidery – the art of which had joined in the frigidity of its decline. Couchant tussocks around the wood-engraved house lent to it an appearance of swollen graves of vassals. In their eternal midst, the lord seemed to be entombed in the shape of the house, coolly asleep. From the early days, I visited this ever-unpeopled house as a repose from the harshness of the school. Little did I know then, a day would arrive that would convert this house into a crypt of a sad past. 

I was discomfited at the discovery of the handsome billet-doux in a casket, prized by Akroor, my uncle, like honey to a bear. It lay wearing a dusty affair of cobwebs in the corner. Like me, he also loved to browse for his broken pieces, to arrange and mimic completeness. I wanted nothing of him to remain but this somehow escaped his descent. A gulf of thirty years lay between us, yet he never felt older to me. We were friends, however, there would still be an unsaid solemnity that governed our limited interaction. We talked like equals but I would speak less when he was sagacious. It was unendurable at times to hear him open up in manners reserved only for tragedians. Regardless, he never lost the capacity to enlighten me with his philosophies. 

Akroor’s name might not figure in the martyrology of famous lovers who ranged against Heavens and Fiends and odds to achieve union, but, to me, each time I remembered him, my heard distended. Not everybody was his devotee, as his melancholic musings would become too ponderous for others. While some were vexed by his depth and would pray for him to just be a mathematics professor;others, like Akroor’s mother, held no opinion regarding his musings. She personally treated it as a moment of apocalypse when Akroor’s heart bled with melancholia. For me all of this didn’t mean much until I got used to Akroor and what we as a family were: uncaring of others. He was only adding those fugitive hues of sadness that had escaped our alienation from one another. Or in other words, he was summoning the nakedness of reality before us. 

He wasn’t happy with the turns that his journey with Anita, his constant companion and lover, had taken. Akroor was suffering from clinical depression and arrhythmia when Anita waltzed into his life as a ‘blood brother’, as he would come to call her. She knew what he wanted. As a Ph.D scholar in Social Work, she was on a visit to the Hospital on behalf of her NGO. The same, where Akroor had been meeting his therapist. Anita got closer to him, because she wanted to study him, as a specimen. One of the reasons why they drew close was their undeniable mutual interest in poetry. Not knowing that he was a mere prop, Akroor was overtaken by Anita’s steady interest in him and had made several proposals which were all turned down, of course. Anita never gave fodder to  any form of union in their friendship. I remember when he cried in front of me for Anita, for the first time. His welled up eyes glinted like the dewy inside of a fresh coconut.

In December of 2004, there was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that hit the coastal rim of the subcontinent and beyond. Anita was on a mission to Pondicherry, which was greatly affected by the tsunami. The death toll was steep, and oceanographers, aid workers, and missionaries across the globe stuttered to play a role. Anita had contracted pneumonia in a ward where children affected by high pyrexia were bedded. Her condition was stable in the beginning but worsened on 27th of December two days after the Christmas that was swallowed by raging waves. On the next morning, she didn’t wake up. Akroor received the word only later in the week and was astonished to silence by the news. Seven months of pain, and when he couldn’t take it anymore, he overdosed on his medicines and gulped phenol over it.          

Before her death, Anita had returned many of his letters to Akroor unanswered. It did not bother him initially because he deposited all the letters into a casket, perhaps, never to look back at them again. I discovered these letters in this dirt-caked casket. Here, I bring some of the fragments from his letters where he wrote of a spiteful raja who would lose his kingdom. Since many of his letters are missing, these parts are indecipherable to me now. Still, Akroor does write a gloss in each letter for Anita; to read the career of this raja.

“March 11th 2002 

Some parts of me refuse to believe that stargazers don’t really tell the truth. Our philosopher-king here erred in devotion to the gods and lo what he seeks; a tempestuous kingdom for himself: 

The Koyli Rajah – 2

 

What cinders we belong to

It’s hard to tell

What gods we wrong so,

I script on shell –  

 

“Oh oceans, you there!

 Choose me as thy heir

 To love thee, and guard thee,

 Offer me the sovereign chair

 That once was of Poseidon. 

 

 Cast me as your own 

 For mercy is thy throne

 And bounty your life-giving face

 To us, all this is sure known

 As is the starry arm of Orion.” 



April 04th 2002

The sloganeering has it: ‘On this carcass of mankind, monarchies are the deliberate praises of their own rot.’ I don’t quite grasp Anita, what is the hubbub all about. Our philosopher king is so confused, about whether or not he should log out of his kingship and join the hoi polloi. Read on: 

The Koyli Rajah – 11

 

‘Such then were my temples,

Where priesthood was on sale

Angry the gods got and spanked

My little face with a sturdy gale

That shoogled me altogether,

Toppled me from my throne.

 

Blackberrying boys broke laughter

At the state of my rout and cheered,

“To commons the power must descend

To cages the fuehrers must depend!”


April 10th 2002

Like a dove-destroying hawk, revolt had seized our retiring king and Anita, I trust that you are unrivalled in thought. The philosopher king doesn’t have your tact. Read and compare:

The Koyli Rajah – 12

 

My empire now is the size of a postage stamp

I beg somebody there to guide me by a lamp

To the cold earth newly hollowed for me 

Damp house, morose and free of glee!

Where I must hide and rest 

Until eternity plans my rise 

Until the diadem is again a prize 

Only for me, the elect, the best. 

 

April 14th 2002

Philosopher turned fuehrer, our nasty king, with all his tricks has dug his own pit. What a passenger to a Hell-bound journey! Observe his decline as you read.

The Koyli Rajah – 14 

 

Underworld is at my doorstep

Collect me and carry me anon;

You! infernal agents do prep

To seal my fate – bid me gone. 

 

Mark my chest with a grapeshot

Or set me next to a boulder;

Charge towards me like Lancelot;

Or some fierce condottiere, 

May rifle my head that thus begot

More evil inventions than tyranny, 

And deceptions worse than simony.

 

Axes and machetes rain over me 

As I parade in my own capital

Dogs woof while courtiers carp:

‘We sound shame on this bugle!’ 

 

“Fie and decay!

Clear you away! 

False king as you were,

Grizzly shall be this stir,

To oust thee and remove thee

From the dominion of our sight:

Citizens! rap on his faux might!”

 

“Tear his gums! brand those lips

That suckled on deceitful bloodline,

 Char his face and slash his hips!”

– A lot of pain, and all of it was mine. 

 

Gibbets and guillotines – 

Don’t make for a featherbed 

From Earth to North Star

No sprite could hurt my head

Come are the pitiless days now, 

That I am the aim of each arrow.

At this thought all senses stunned, 

Each vein thus, infirm in sorrow.     

       

April 17th 2002

The ring in your voice Anita is divine, it softens me towards the king and his good shall return. But what should welcome him back because he has lost all memory of his glorious past. Think you then, of your demesne, where I am in eternal submission! And, read to know the king’s fate as he surveys his present condition.

The Koyli Rajah 15

 

My eyes are now met by a stygian realm 

Where fondness lacks everywhere; 

Dun is the sky, horizon a gunmetal hem,

Sticky is the ground like a quagmire

Just so sad are all whether youth or sire.

 

A dale, I espy, out in that fenny yonder

Where sinners go at last one after another.

But I am inhibited as conscience strikes me,

With full force, Virtue engirdles my sanity,

On the vast regiment of rheumy sea,

God’s image shimmers again so fitly.

 

June 20th 2002 

In the demesne of your elfin powers, Anita, I am but a mere glaucous shadow hiding behind a rock to witness your allure. Dismount from this dove-driven car, cast this shape of the huntress away and resume your native sorcery.  Read on this truth and learn:

The Koyli Rajah – 20

 

Dirt is the fate of a life,

Which becomes the gospel of the meek 

Painful like the work of knife

Useful yet like quartered thighs of teak 

It is so the good man’s journey 

That rings in immortality of the beast – 

‘Firstly is to famish, thusly is the feast’. “ – Akroor

Akroor’s words shall never be complete nor his creations but so aren’t Sappho’s. In the dim reaches of antiquity all become hazy, awry, tottery and yet like a grandmother’s house stand lordly. 


Swapnil Mayank is a post-graduate in English Literature from Delhi University. He has been working on a project that he hopes to develop into a book soon, tentatively titled – A Pamphlet on Beauty. He is based out of Lucknow, India, currently; where he is preparing for the Civil Services Examinations. Swapnil looks forward to being a diplomat in the near future. His work is forthcoming in Tiny Seed.

Poetry | ‘Villanelle of Lies’ by Prakhar Sharma | Creative Writing Workshop

A feral mourner catches sight of his bliss,

With ardour he reaches out to it,

Aglow with lies it responds with a gentle kiss. 

 

Pleading justice yet the world judges amiss.

He arrives at the mountain, of regret,

A feral mourner catches sight of his bliss.

 

A wicked reality, it is.

A life of love, its warmth turned to threat,

Aglow with lies it responds with a gentle kiss

 

The mourner wishes to seek justice,

Adjourn this curse,

he frets.

A feral mourner catches sight of his bliss

 

Unknown amongst the known is mourner’s remiss.

His mourned son now rests easy, yet the mourner protests.

Aglow with lies it responds with a gentle kiss.

 

The tired mourner now lay and reminisces,

A faint whisper – the voice is unfit.

A feral mourner catches sight of his bliss,

Aglow with lies it responds with a gentle kiss.


Prakhar Sharma was born and brought up in India. He currently resides in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. His work has appeared in various anthologies and he is a certified co-author under Penbrew publishers; currently pursuing Mechanical Engineering from Vellore Institute of technology.

Poetry | ‘Epiphany’ & ‘Roll the pebble Sisyphus’ by S V Rao | Creative Writing Workshop

Epiphany

The car halted

raindrops on the windshield

Crystals necklaced

against  the ink of the sky.

he rolled the window down,

saw the cafe distant, bright,

Lights and decibels streaming through,

The laughter and gaiety too,

Faces; naked and unconcerned.

 

His breath choked afresh,

recollection dawning

of struggles to free

himself of the blue cocoon.

The mirror not just reflecting

his face, a maze of 

mask inflicted furrows,

But the etched memories of

the intubated, now

tragically lost.

He was drawn again to

the night’s untrammelled celebration

while his mind live-streamed 

the epiphany,

Both didn’t care,

one unknowingly 

beyond consciousness. 

The other wilfully so.

The car started.


ROLL THE PEBBLE SISYPHUS

I wonder at the thought, what

if ever, a meteor of revelation

Had streaked  through his imagination

The unravelling of the solution, overriding 

the fear of the Gods

The slow but enticing circling of a premise 

The unfreezing of the mind bringing

The thought of a lever, pressed against,

 All while they told him it’s destined

 Hey roll the pebble Sisyphus 

 Roll it

S V Rao is a postgraduate geologist from Mumbai University and a roving resident of the city. Freshly minted scribbler of merakian aspirations, with well-wishers alluding to his attempts more as a product of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Poetry | ‘Raga Megh Malhar’ by Pooja Joshi | Creative Writing Workshop

Raga Megh Malhar

Tansen, one of the Nine Jewels of Akbar’s court,
has a legend about him.
As spring approached,
and the monsoon prickled in the sky,
waiting to be set forth from its cloudy shell,
he would sing the melodious pakad of Megh Malhar,
and demand the presence of those heavenly waters,
And the monsoon would have no choice but to oblige.
In those days, the mystical Megh Malhar was a dream,
Beautiful, fantastical, awe-inspiring.

But if you think about it,
that ability of man to manipulate the skies,
is nothing special today.
We all do it, every moment of every day.
Every car ride.
Every meal.
Every lightbulb.
Man wrangling Mother Nature to do his will.

So when you hear re ma pa,
and call it magic,

Tell that to the Hosseins in Bangladesh,
now living underneath two cardboard boxes,
held together by aluminum foil,
because the floods chanced upon their village.

Tell that to Rhonda in New Orleans,
whose sons went to protect their store,
but never came home,
swept into nothingness by the waves of a hurricane.

Tell that to Felicia and Javier in Bolivia,
who walk to school every morning,
passing an American ‘natural spring water’ bottling factory,
but are scolded for dirty uniforms,
because there was no water for laundry,
only mud.

So when I hear Megh Malhar,
I yearn for a time when,
The audacity of humanity,
To bend nature to its will,

Was a wondrous dream,
and not a nightmare.

 


Pooja Joshi is an Indian-American poet currently working as a management consultant in Atlanta, GA. She graduated in 2019 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Poetry | ‘Goodbye’ by Sri Ranjani R | Creative Writing Workshop

Goodbye

 

To be here,  at the edge of the cliff

taking a deep breath, realizing what I will miss

being still 

and watching thoughts all rush,

changing the striking incidents, to memories in a hush

I can’t stop; my eyes tear up

not knowing when I would smell my pup.

 

Gazing at the fields of my patti’s tea

to feel her touch with a nosh for me,

the rides and tricks with my dad

making me laugh, tears too; a tad

drama at dawn, stories at dusk

braiding hair with my confidant’s musk

a best friend’s.

 

Little did I know about pain, this hard

makes me shiver – a piercing shard,

“You’re going for good,” they say

as if what I am going through is nay,

never been in a place like this, never had to face

Yet, I bow down, and tie the lace.

 

I turn back now, to see the turf

preparing myself for the journey – to surf,

tomorrow, it’s all going to change

with the old man’s truck – rustic and orange

 

no more doubts or the whys,

all that’s left, all that stays – is my goodbye

 


Sri Ranjani R is a 19-year-old South Indian and an International English Olympiad silver medalist. She is currently pursuing her management studies at the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak, India.

Fiction | ‘Salma-n’ by Zakir Aatish Khan | Creative Writing Workshop

Moulana-Sahab had taught us to pee sitting down on our forefeet. He said Allah will have our balls chopped off if we pee standing up. The day we got this lesson, we stopped playing with our pee trails. We no longer made big ‘W’s on walls. Inside our pockets, we kept a small piece of red brick so that the last drop of our pee was absorbed in it. Moulana-sahab taught me how to do it perfectly, everyday. He didn’t use the red brick I had in my pocket, but instead used his thumb. This is a secret lesson – he’d say, and forbade me to share that with anyone. I didn’t even tell Faizan, lest Allah be pleased with him more than me.

I didn’t sit the way we were taught to. Back in the days, and before we got lessons from Moulana-sahab; I saw Zeba, Rukhsar, Amina, Puja and other girls in our basti squat to pee. I found that posture more comfortable. Whenever I had an extra glass of water, I peed endlessly and resting my body upon my forefeet for longer stretches used to become unbearable. The shame that followed, restricted me to do my business publicly or in broad daylight. I lost all my pee-buddies one after another, but in the playground we still played together. Once when I and Faizan were flying kites, he pointed at a new girl who had recently joined our basti; he picked up on every newcomer. If he found them smart then he’d make friends with them, otherwise worse would follow. We approached. 

‘Wanna fly Kite with us?’ He asked.

‘No, I’m playing kitchen-kitchen,’ replied the girl.

‘Can you let us play with you?’was my stock reply. I even wanted to add that I pee like her but before I could open my mouth, Faizan giggled and burst into laughter. 

‘You wanna be her sister or what, playing with vessels and stove?’ 

‘I was just trying to help you.’ It was a lie. The tiny vessels and pitchers were placed beautifully inside a cardboard box and all her fingers were covered in dust. I gazed intently, such that my imagination dwarfed me inside the cardboard-kitchen where I was engrossed in household chores. Afterwards, I didn’t yield to Faizan’s pestering request to play chor-police. I played kitchen-kitchen instead, keeping my eyes on Faizan all the time.  

‘Faizan is not a good boy, he stinks and his gums bleed like monsters. Stay away from him for your safety,’ I told her. I didn’t want her to befriend Faizan and I hated the idea of him playing kitchen-kitchen with her. When we were done playing, she left with the cardboard box, and I rejoined Faizan. We flew kite until dusk.

Assalamwalekum Salma baji,’ Faizan mocked. It was the first time that he called me Salma instead of Salman. Our kite was high up and Nizam’s kite was approaching fast. I held the latai while Faizan took control of the thread. He was sweating, shouting and cussing all the kites up in the sky. I loved a mad and frustrated Faizan more than any other. We lost our only kite and he blamed it on me. Dawn drove in and we returned home.

***

I stole coins from Ammi’s purse at night. After returning from school the next day I bought a kite and went to Faizan’s. He wasn’t home, so I sat outside and waited. An hour passed, and I went to check the ground. There he was, having a good time with boys older than himself, some were smoking cigarettes and some slapped khaini on their palms. I felt dwarfed in front of them. They were checking out girls and bhabhis who were filling their water vessels from the community-well. Faizan didn’t notice me until I yelled his name.

‘See what I’ve got for you.’ He took that bitterly and gestured with his hands – go away. Back then, I often found him evasive. Although he was two years older, the way he pushed himself to act beyond his age would end up making him seem more childish. 

I kept away, till all of them left, one after another, leaving Faizan alone.

‘Let’s go fly kites.’

‘No,’ he said, without even looking at me. I followed him to his home. He hadn’t even noticed me, and only saw me when he turned to close the door at his home. I was let down, and since I had nothing else to do that day, I went for a stroll.  

Summers came and went; in the intervening years, Faizan and I interacted even lesser. Until one day, I was returning from work, when I bumped into Faizan. He didn’t spend too much time on catching up, or even asking how I was doing. He wanted a favor – money, the heavy stone of most people’s helplessness. A lot about him had changed, except for the brooding eyes, that seemed to hold the secret of my exile.

‘Just two thousand rupees and I’ll be content. Mother is sick.’

You don’t have to lie to me Faizan. I know the brothel girls are being more generous to you lately. In  any case, I don’t have that much money with me right now. But more than that? Please stop wasting your life like this. Your cheeks have hollowed, what have you done to yourself?’

‘I’ll be a good man after a week, pakka. Please give me some money.’ 

‘Money? Wait! Tell me, are you okay? And no, no money. First, go and eat something. Just look at yourself; bones and skins.’

‘What are you, my mother?’

I wanted to slap him and hug him at the same time. Instead I calmed, and gave him a hundred rupee note.

Since I was young, every Eid I waited not for my dress but for Zeba’s. My sister’s clothes would always excite me more. When her dress became old and no one was around, I would try them on. We didn’t have a large mirror. I had to place it on the floor against the wall to check myself from a distance. When Zeba got married, she left with all her dresses. A few years later,  when I started working, the first thing I bought was two sets of salwar-kameez, one for me and one for Zeba. It was difficult to hide it in my small flat. I told Ammi that this was for Zeba too, in case she needed an extra dress for her stay. With that I was saved.

Fridays were special for me, a day to be myself –Salma.

It was on one of those Fridays, that my life turned upside down. To my cursed luck, that day I even had my face made up. The lipstick, kajal, mascara – the blue one, my favorite – were all applied perfectly. I could proudly say, I was a perfectionist in that area. When I was checking myself in the mirror, I sensed I was being watched. I felt naked, the type when a  goat is skinned by a butcher. I felt skinned and hung through an S-shaped rod in a butcher shop. Through the window-gap I saw the eyes that held the secret of my exile. Right at that moment I could have robbed a bank and given him all the money he wanted. If only that would erase what he just saw. I sat on the edge of my bed to calm down. I was numb and  had even forgotten to bolt the door. It was unusually early for my father to come. When he entered I froze, my dupatta flew down from the left shoulder. He gazed at my chest, perhaps wanting to see which fruit was hidden under my kameez. There was none, I never liked taking those make-believe games to their extremes. I sucked my lips and tasted the red lipstick. That was the last day in my home. 

The slight changes that had been dawning upon me since my earliest days didn’t evade Abbu’s sharp gaze. There were times when he would observe me intensely, and I’d feel like a land being hit by a hoe. I didn’t exactly remember the day he stopped talking to me. But it was then that he gave me his last verdictChinal

Now, after all those years, when I reflect back on those days, the only thing that bothers me is why my reasons were always misconstrued. I’m now a twenty eight years old being, and every night a new question burps in my head. Like undigested food, the questions remain stuck until I puke them out. I wonder if my balls had been on either side of my chest and if I had one of those syndromes where scrotum enlarged; I’d have been content with whatever would follow. A handful of semi-inflated, saggy skin, grown out of my chest would have been considered breasts by many. But I doubt if I’d be able to arouse Faizan like girls with ample breasts did. Would he love me for that? 

I wanted to give myself a fresh start in the ‘City of joy’, and arrived in a hope for a little of that joy for me too. The first thing I did was use a double ‘a’ in my nameSalmaan. I liked that slight stretch after ‘m’. For a fractional second, it sounds the ‘Salma’ and then ends up at ‘-an’. 

If only English would let me add a couple of more ‘a’s; people would have to stretch it a bit longer and end up calling me Salma instead of Salman, perhaps to save time. But there is nothing like Salma from outside. She hides under my denims, leather jacket and comes out only on Fridays. But an extra ‘a’ helped little, as later on I realized a dash between the last two letters of my name. A dash, like a river  in rage, withSalmaan on one side and Salma on the other. I’m sailing in between, assuming a shipwreck. 

 The beginning was affected by my lack of knowledge in worldly affairs. I was blessed to have a job in a beauty parlor, as a makeup artist. I’m really good in that field. I felt at home with others of my like. We always had a great time, except on Sundays when they went out to party and I keep myself busy by running door to door, delivering my service. Whatever time I had after work, I spent with one of the mehendi-artists we had in our parlor, learning a handful of techniques from him. After a few months, I had learnt a new skill.  There is a thing about rich people, tell them they are beautiful, that you can make that beauty eternal and they will empty their pockets out for you. 

Within a few years, I emptied out many generous pockets to loan a one room apartment nearby. It was peaceful to know it was all mine. Not fancy at all,  it had enough windows to drive out my miseries and stress. From one of the windows, I could easily see the glimmering dawn arrive from the horizon. I even had access to the rooftop from where I flew kites.

I called home the day I shifted there; they immediately doubted the source of my income. I invited them over too. They didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes either. Things moved.

I got a call from Faizan one day, after seven long years. He wanted to see me. The mere thought of him flooded my brain with happiness.

I bought a dress, an expensive perfume and visited a small Mazaar located close by. I offered a chaadar. It was Friday. While returning home I bought halwa for Faizan and a roll of holy thread to tie around his wrist.

 I recognized him from a distance. He looked heavier that he did earlier, but also, much better. 

‘Kaisey ho?’ How are you? I asked from behind. He looked stunned.

‘Hey, how are you?’ Not looking into my eyes, his gaze wandered around the tea shop for a place to sit.

‘Let’s go home.’ Two dogs barked in the distance, muffling my voice. The dogs ceased barking just as I had raised my voice to repeat what I said. Eyes turned to me…

‘I’ve someone here with me.’ He said, motioning the girl behind him towards us. She had been standing there waiting. After introductions, Faizan fidgeted. He didn’t say much, and just wanted me to see her, know her name. Less than two minutes later, he asked her to sit on the chair around the corner. She gave a brief smile, nodded at me, and walked towards the chair.

‘We got married yesterday. It wasn’t as beautiful a wedding as we had both planned. A few signatures, a hasteful niqaah and we were done. We couldn’t even hold a proper ceremony. She is a Hindu, you see. They have been creating problems throughout, and now they are hunting us! I don’t know where to go Salman. I want to… ask you for one last favor. I am close to finding work, I know I am. Please, could you arrange a place for us to stay? For a week or two, I will repay this in kind, I promise.’

Through the course of their stay in my apartment, I hardly spent any night under the same roof. I always had excuses to stay out. I spent the days working overtime and at 5:20 PM, I would board the Coalfield Express from Howrah to Dhanbad. Many nights, I wandered about the platforms only to board the same train to return in the morning. I was fined too because that’s what they do when you have nowhere to go, you have to pay for it too.

I was almost asleep when they approached me. The thunderous clap and bitter sweet voice seemed violent at first. When I opened my eyes, her nose was just a few inches away from mine. I could see the withering foundation of cheap quality. The rosy lipstick, applied imperfectly failed to conceal the black lips underneath. Her breath carried the smell of cheap pan-masala. Teeth were all black due to excess consumption of tobacco. But overall, she smelt of Rajnigandha. She was dressed in a red sari and when she turned her head I saw a safety pin mindfully placed on her shoulder strap to size down her bra. On her left shoulder, another safety-pin of a bigger size was pinned to affix the pallu. 

Babu kuch de, give us something, son.’ I gave her a fifty-rupee note and slept again. They blessed me every night. And I loved the way they touched my hair.

Faizan got a job soon enough and earned enough to take care of his little family. Shruti was really sweet and loved him dearly. I loved the way she called me Dabang in jest. Surprisingly, I didn’t have much to talk with Faizan, but with Shruti I was on great terms. Her family wasn’t mad at her anymore, apparently.

 One night, Faizan brought a small jar of mango pickle and we tasted it, at least in the beginning, before we picked at it one by one until it halved. The day after next, I saw a Prega-news strip in the bathroom; it was positive.

Rashida and her group arrived late. They didn’t ask for money from me now. And Rashida never missed touching my hair. Sometimes, we would converse late into the night. It was one of those nights, when I ended up telling her the story of my exile. As I wrapped it up, she closed in towards me with her hand stretched. The handkerchief she held had a Sun embroidered on it. I broke down.

After taking an early leave from work, I went to the market, bought a kite, a black marker and headed home. Home hardly had any trace of me. or my touch. Shruti and Faizan had ingrained to the very foundation. Even the air smelt of them. I saw them everywhere.

I had a trunk by the bed, where I kept a lehenga. I had bought that sometime before the fateful call from Faizan, so I never had the time to try that on myself. I picked it up, looked at it for a few seconds and gifted it to Shruti, asking her to change. 

I wrote on the kite:

Dear Faizan, 

I once wanted to rob a bank for you but wasn’t courageous enough. Below this kite, you’ll find the legal documents of this apartment. It’s yours now. Don’t worry about the installments either, I’ll pay them off too. A gift from me, to your child.

Salma-n’

I wrapped the kite with the other papers and sealed it with duct tape; Faizan in block letters on the cover. I left without seeing Shruti. 

 

 


Zakir Aatish Khan is a short story writer, based in Raniganj, West Bengal, India. He is a graduate in Political science and has also learnt Creative Writing at the British Council. He writes for his Instagram handle – Bookboozer.

Fiction | ‘Dots’ by Ruby Singha | Creative Writing Workshop

She confined herself to her 68 square feet room, erected books in a delectable manner, with a table lamp close by that was barely enough for her reading. When it was time to sleep, she rolled out the mat that was earlier upright, rolled and coiled it in concentric circles – the symmetry of which could bring about a hallucination. Today she has picked up the least scary book from the shelf, reading it for the 3rd time, ‘Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa’. She had picked it up years ago from a book fair with her mother. 

Mother was never interested in novels or any books for that matter. She was interested in cookbooks though, which she read visually and with some help in humming and crooning along with the alphabets. Reading in this single genre, had become a routine that she had committed to follow. She had made herself promise to be wholly consumed by ghostly spirits, unseen, in darkness. The day her mother died, she was not present and when she arrived, she was grateful to her relatives for waiting. The pot-loiba ritual (annihilation of the body elements – fire, water, wind and earth) was previously decided to be performed in her presence, but she was quite late, and they completed the pot-loiba without her. 

Avri was flustered, as she tried to recount that, and that short memory was a haze, blurred under unconfirmed chronology. Fragments of her memory speeded back and forth in her mind. One uttered, “Your mom had nail marks on the neck, pointed: certainly not of human.” Another hissed, “The house had seen paranormal activities since some time. Your mother often complained of running noises from the terrace, some women wailing.” 

All these little things seemed to frame a common, underlying plot of a horror story or film. Though her mother died of arthritis and also due to her frequent respiratory problems, she couldn’t ignore all the voices that caged her.

People’s voices. Whose?

Ever since she had arrived, all the voices seemed the same. Olivia, the tall, model cousin clawed her fingers around the glass, pouring alcohol in the backyard secretly, murmuring something. Little Sana’s round glasses which looked more like an old granny’s pair than those of the pretty kind looked very offplace on her.

“Sanarei, come in. It’s your dinner time.” The girl’s mother called. She slept early, and so had to be fed and tucked into bed.

Olivia hid the cigarette and hummed to a hipster song. She was considered ‘spoilt’ for a small town person. After the aunt left, the girl took the liberty to position her cigarette again, and headed back to her chain of thoughts. Blank. A blank stare. To the empty land spread out of the house’s backyard boundary. Avri couldn’t help but transport herself into the horror scenes on TV. The scenes where the characters tend to go out around midnight and seemingly welcome fear to take shape through ghosts. But it seemed justified here, it was winter, and the verandah was vast and the fire across the grill kept them warm. 

It was the perfect opportunity for Olivia to indulge herself. However, the grill was empty; a family can’t eat non-vegetarian food for 12 days after a person’s death. The fire, though, burned non-stop, battling the winter chill. 

When all the rituals were dusted away, lasting several days, when people started to leave, they all seemed to eye her strangely. A strange commiseration. There was a similar, sensitive and emotive phrase everyone appeared to convey. Some through their eyes, some through a bidding embrace, a tap on the shoulder and some via a rub on the back. 

Everything seemed to lead to one question for her. A peculiar tongue. For the first few days, the people buzzed in and around her, while her mother’s images flashed now and then. In her sleep. It continued for nights. On some days, her mother would be standing by the unfinished painting. She had worked as an art curator and was a painter too. She had projects filed under the desk, but she chose to paint with her mind. A reminiscence, that was too hard for her to form at the moment. She couldn’t differentiate; what was real and what wasn’t. She picked up her notes on Hilma af Klint art. Her eyes stared down the lines and circles and shapes that she admired. She smiled briefly, she knew her mother’s appearances were a mockery of her illusions. Her grief and guilt were assaulting her with images of someone gone. 

She walked back to the room, and saw a man in plaid button up shirt, tucked in grandpa trousers. She smirked and tried to avoid him. 

“Avri,” someone muttered under her ears. She was fearless at this point; and dressed up in a new, white linen sweater and a pair of beige tapered pants. She dug for the most scary book, but they were becoming too regular for her now. Like the neighbors clattering around next door. At times, in a serious demeanor, she thought of herself as one of ‘The Five’ and performed her own attempt for communication with the dead, an area of self-acclaimed expertise.

“Did she return? For real? Am I the one rejecting it? Can the dead come back for real?” She pondered.

“Did the folktale turn out to be true? Did a cat cross over my mom’s body and now she has turned to a hiyangthou (a ghost in Manipuri folklore)? She doesn’t haunt me, but has she somehow retained her soul in this house?” 

Her brain couldn’t carry weighted thoughts anymore and her eyelids, dropped to sleep. 

She woke up briefly, half sleepy, and saw her mother by her side again. Very calm, her hair combed and face made up well. Her lips were scrubbed a well-balmed pink. She was definitely not a ghost. Is that how she died, peacefully despite of all the mongering whispers of people? It was probably better then, if she passed that way. 

The next day, she rolled the mat over her, capturing herself in sleep, the floor was littered with books, warped chart papers and half drawings. She felt a sudden urge to throw up, and headed to the washroom. Her eyes went almost blind at that time. She could just see black everywhere, as though it was the only color that she knew, that she painted with: the one color that comprised her world. 

She slept randomly for days, woke up at odd hours but, also remained fed and full.

The man and her mother talked by the bedside. Her condition had become untreatable and she had to be sent away for advanced care, which her mother hesitated to do. 

She held the painting that lay unfinished, it was a pencil outline of a photograph within a photograph. There were dots. Like puzzles. But who would join them correctly? 

Alive or dead, who’d vouch for which? Within the 68 square feet room, what she had created was her own story. The dots of their story, her and her mother’s, were disconnected but also proportional to the years they had been apart. 

Avri reached home, clutching suitcases and neatly packaged paintings. She was already being called a mad woman at her workplace and in the neighborhood where she stayed. Three days before she arrived home, on the computer screen, words were chaotic. The lines, the letters, all scattered, and a message popped up from a person whose name quite correctly read as Dr. Ghosh. 

“Mother is dead.” 

Ah, the arthritis! Poor mother, bastard daughter. She gulped down some tablets, one after another, keeping a 10 min gap between each. 

Mother had maintained the house economically and skillfully. Seven years was just like yesterday. And just like yesterday, she had the same meal her mother had cooked for the two of them after hunching on the kitchen stove for a fair 40 minutes; after coming back from the Sunday market. The kettle was still boiling, fresh on the gas, the cat purred in from the window, the camphor wafted down from the top of the cupboard, a familiar smell of roasted puntius from the backside grill – her mother’s favourite side dish, came bearing down as well. Were these the smells from before, remnants? The agarbatti smell of the morning puja dived in too, the ones from the usual packet, with Shiva on the cover. A faceless man had accompanied her till home. She didn’t recognize him. She couldn’t recognize herself too. She was losing her identity apparently; she touched her face and slathered her hands on a smooth, flat board. But she could paint whatever she wanted there as well. She speeded to the room upstairs, to the sacredly stored books and childhood elementary memoirs of art, and rummaged along the torn and wretched spine of the art book of class 2. The faceless man, or Dr. Ghosh, was it? He told her to draw a piece of her fondest memory, which she could relive. She held the pencil, sharp as a knife and teared through a surprise parcel box. But she had lost it. She has lost herself in a riddle. A riddle of dots. In the rudimentary art books, students were made to join the existing dots and form the shape of animals, things and figures. One incorrect seam would make the art drawing go wrong. 

25th February: a mad woman, with a name tag, red-faced, black sparse straight hair, and skinny physique, died of a sudden cardiac arrest, an old klonopin clawed in her hand hermetically. She had diseases, many of them.

Avri’s dots had aligned to a straight line, and found way to afterlife.


Ruby Singha studies English (MA Literature) at Delhi University. A poetry, prose and pizza aficionada who, when not writing, reads up on Neapolitan pizza and keeps trying to make one. Born in Silchar, Assam, she considers Shillong as another home.