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

Perspectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Collision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can look now!”

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

“Hello, Uncle,” Dhanya said, solemnly.

“Fuck,” Shrejal muttered, biting her nails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dhanya flinched and crossed her arms tightly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She texted Dhanya.

??? 

Needed some space.

Can u come by?

Idk.

Please?

Idk. Maybe.

Need 2 talk 2 u.

Why…

Just come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“After.” 

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

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

“I get it.”

Her uncle turned to leave.

“Why is she always complaining?” Shrejal asked.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’ll never do it on his own.”

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

Shrejal screwed her face up in distaste.

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

Shrejal rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How else are we going to get ahead?”

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

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

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

“But?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Just finished a double,” Yashmita said.

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

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

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

“What are you doing today?” Yashmita asked.

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

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

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

“Shrejal, what are you doing to yourself?”

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

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

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

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

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

Yashmita shrugged, seemingly unperturbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your auntie and uncle, then?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Piss off. I called you.”

“When you needed something.” 

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

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

“I’m just terrible, is that it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shrejal,” Dhanyati whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sir—” Rakhal attempts to protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God!” her eyes pop out. 

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

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

“You’re my girlfriend.” 

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

“I do care about you,” he says.

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

“I am telling the truth!” 

“No, you are not!” 

He is silent. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rakhal stares at her. Still. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She rises and starts towards trees where she appeared from. 

“Listen,” he calls out, “I’ll do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rakhal laughs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No customers,” she says. 

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

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

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

“Nothing there,” he sighs. 

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

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

“What?” he asks.

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

Her ribald humor touches him. Mariam sighs.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mariam turns to him. 

“How do I truly look?” he says. 

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

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

“Nah, you look rather hot.”

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

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

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

He says nothing.  

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

Rakhal is still. “It’s fine here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one comes here?” his voice nervous. 

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

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

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

“Ohh,” he lets out a suppressed breath.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I always ride on top,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s funny.” 

“What’s yours?”

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

“Mariam, you are some woman.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Jamal?” 

“Yes, that’s me.” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewer: 

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

Mr. Rasheed: 

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

Interviewer: 

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

Mr. Rasheed: 

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

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

Interviewer: 

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

Mr. Rasheed: 

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

Interviewer: 

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

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

Interviewer: 

Men in the Sun?

Mr. Rasheed: 

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

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

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

Interviewer: 

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

Mr. Rasheed: 

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

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

Interviewer: 

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

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

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


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

Fiction | ‘The Last Son of Majoun’ by Maha Kamal | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim, the emperor huffed under his breath as he brought the wine to his lips, tipping it slightly from the porcelain cup and allowing it to trickle down the caverns of his semi-rotted mouth. Khurram had mastered the art of wine drinking so much so that not a single drop splashed onto his black and silver mustache. He was slightly built, taller than most other emperors of his time, and kept a sharply-trimmed beard jutted out just inches from his chin. 

He was hiding away from his royal household in a secret quarter unknown to his wife, Sakina. He groaned quietly as the forbidden drink hit the back of his throat, swirling down as it slid into the smooth lining of his stomach.

He extended his right arm, revealing the light blue floral print of his peshwaz. He had recently issued a decree requiring the floral pattern to appear on all garments bought and sold within the kingdom. He was very fond of the floral print, as it reminded him of Sakina’s luscious flower garden that covered the family grounds. “No poppies,” he could hear her scolding the servants in the courtyard every springtime, “No pink or white, he is not to have any of it.” Khurram understood that she was referring to him. Sakina hated the emperor’s love for drinking wine and consuming opium, common pastimes amongst his generals. She went to great lengths to remove his access to them in her household.

Khurram’s hand hovered over a long plate lined with small, round clusters. He plucked off the first cluster, which stuck stubbornly to the tray, and observed as it began to melt between the ridges of his pudgy index finger and thumb. 

Khurram pulled the sticky orb to the base of his cracked lips, opening his mouth once again as he neatly tucked the mixture of ghee, opium, and sugar into the corner of his cheek. He sat back slowly as he felt the mix of bitter, sweet, and salt slowly puddle out onto his tongue. 

He closed his eyes, sitting still in the darkness. The air hung dryly around his face. The monsoon season had cleared, leaving the land parched and thirsty. This did not bother Khurram, who preferred changing seasons over non-stop days of rain and flood. He inhaled deeply, taking in the musky, sweet scent as he began fantasizing about his wife. 

A familiar figure suddenly emerged from the entryway, disrupting the emperor’s broody high. 

“Hiding away like a child unable to face the sober truth of an unforgiving Universe,” an old man called out steadily. Khurram’s ears widened slightly in response to the familiar voice. He peeked through his right eyelid, trying to focus on the man as the drowsiness began to percolate from his insides. It was none other than the infamous Mian Mir, the emperor’s spiritual confidante. Khurram furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. He had not remembered a time that he had disclosed his secret enclave to the sahib. 

Mian walked with a distinctive hunch: he was a frail type wrapped in white sheets, sprouting a white beard, and using a cane to pull himself slowly and intentionally towards the stoned emperor. 

Khurram fell back hard into his chair, his eyes rolling into his head. His arms fell out beside him. He was at the center of the chewy, sweet clusters on his dessert tray. 

The paralyzed royal struggled to focus on a white blurb forming over him. The old man had reached his desk. 

Mian cleared his throat.

“Stay close, my heart, to the one who knows your ways;

Come into the shade of the tree that bears sweet lemons.

Don’t stroll idly through the bazaar of the poppy farmers:

For he who goes astray will surely lose his crown.”

Khurram’s smile widened as he listened to the old man sing his poetry, pulling himself deeper into the lush folds of the sweet chew and melting into a state of tranquility. He squinted both of his eyes, making out a little more of the white blurb towering over him. 

“I’m drunk muhtasib. Chastise me on a day you find me sober,” he laughed. 

The old man stared hard at the royal, his eyes widening with surprise. “This is no laughing matter boy, your sinful fixations are drawing you away from Allah,” he snapped, raising his ivory cane up to the emperor’s desk and waving it wildly over the tray of opiate chews. “The Beloved has made it clear to me that you will either grow your family and your kingdom, or spend an eternity in hell if you remain astray. Choose wisely, for Allah is all-knowing of the unseen and the witnessed.”

Khurram sat up in his chair. He tensed as he struggled to follow the cane with his blood-shot eyes. It suddenly came crashing down on the tray, shattering the porcelain and smashing the chews against the wood. Khurram gasped as he grabbed the armrests of his chair. He felt a wave of nausea wash up from his stomach and into the back of his throat.

“Your family and your kingdom, or an eternity in Hell. The choice is yours,” Mian shouted as he placed his cane back down on the marble floor. He turned back towards the entryway, this time walking furiously while clicking the cane against the marble.

“Mi-an sa-hib, mian sahib? A s-s-son?” 

“Sahib?” he called out again, staring at the dark entryway. 

The old man was gone. 

***

Sakina screamed in pain from her bed. “Khurram, where is Khurram? Please, where is my husband?” the woman wailed as she clung tightly to her stomach. “And where is Mian Mir? Bring the sahib to me,” she cried out. Servants scattered left and right as they disbanded from the woman’s bedroom and in search of the emperor and the priest. While men were forbidden from entering the harem, Sakina’s state had temporarily disbanded the royal palace’s rules.

“Peace, ma, peace,” her daughter cooed as she entered the bedroom in a cream-colored dress that swiveled above the marble floor. “How many of us have you born life to already? Surely this one is no different,” she added as she sat herself down on the bed. 

Sakina felt her daughter’s cool fingertips brush lightly against her sweaty forehead. 

The old man appeared at her door, leaning heavily on his ivory cane. He stared out at the two women. Jahanara turned to him, keeping her mother’s head cradled in her hands. “Mian sahib,” Jahanara exclaimed. “Mian sahib, please come. My mother is unwell,” she added as she gently released her mother and stood up next to the bed. The old man nodded, approaching the bed slowly as he maneuvered his cane front to back with each step. 

When he finally reached Sakina, he cleared his throat and leaned over her ailing body.

“I should not make any promises right now,

But I know if you

Pray, child, pray, 

He will absolve all of their sins.”

Mian hung onto the last word of his prayer as he wavered slightly with his eyes closed. Sakina wept, clenching her teeth to steady the pain radiating from every bone in her body. 

“Something is not right, Mian sahib,” she sobbed. “Where is Khurram? Where is my husband?” 

The old man sighed, struggling to straighten his posture as he turned to walk back towards the door. Reaching the entrance, Khurram stumbled past him, grasping the door-frame to steady his walk. Behind the drunken royal stood two guards, eunuchs of considerably younger age, who were pushing him forward so that he would not collapse. The old man stared briefly, shaking his head, and moving past the trio as he disappeared down the hallway.

Sakina screamed again as she watched her husband jolt out of his high. “Sakina,” he cried out as he ran to her, pushing his eldest daughter aside and embracing the sweat-soaked mother-to-be. Sakina felt her lungs settle as she felt her husband’s arms slide underneath her plump body.

Jahanara observed wearily as her parents embraced. Her father had taken majoun again. 

“Where have you been? She’s been screaming for hours,” Jahanara interrupted. Her father slowly unclasped his hands from around his wife, turning to his eldest. She noticed that the hairs on his forearms were wet with sweat and tears. 

“I’ve been right here.”

“Papa,” Jahanara warned in a whisper. “This has to stop.” 

Khurram clenched his teeth, causing his temples to bulge out. His body was slumped between the two women. He exhaled deeply, closing his eyes and struggling to visualize the soft folds of his sweet chews. “What are you talking about?” he snapped back quietly, careful not to startle his wife, who had finally stopped her wailing.

Jahanara shook her head as she extended out her arms and soothed the crinkles in her cream-colored dress. “I must go, but please, for Ma,” she added as she hurried off towards the door and disappeared. Her father watched in silence, feeling a sudden wave of shame come over him. He grabbed his wife’s hand, squeezing it as he watched her drift off to sleep. He laid his head down on her stomach, feeling kicks push up against his right cheek.

“We’re having a son,” he whispered to her, “Mian sahib said we’re having a son.” 

He felt his wife wrap her fingers around his open palms. He closed his eyes, feeling a sudden rush come over him as the last of the chew loosened from his cheek and trickled down his parched throat.

***

Khurram stared at the naked woman. It was Sakina. She was floating on a cloud, which caused her skin to look soft and supple. He smiled as he reached for her. She smiled back at him. 

He noticed that her belly was no longer round, and he felt his heart sink. “Sakina, what has happened? Where is the baby?” he cried out. 

She started crying. 

Khurram watched as the sky filled with thousands of lemons, showering down around their warm bodies. He peered over his cloud, watching each fruit hit the ground and expel rivers of lemon sherbet into the neighboring lands. The splashes stung his eyes like sharp daggers. Turning away from the rains, he looked over his cloud again to see fields of pink and white poppies emerging over bighas of land. He stared in disbelief, mesmerized by the pastel swirls. A piercing scream from his wife startled him. He stared back at her. The lemons had transformed into droplets of red wine, which fell upon her like acid, eating her skin as she began to dissolve in agony. 

Khurram stood up, steadying himself on his cloud to jump towards his wife. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the scenes of the mesmerizing poppy fields beneath his feet. He jumped towards Sakina. Landing softly next to her badly burned body, he quickly embraced her to shield her from more harm. Looking over their cloud, he saw that the poppy fields had been replaced with lemon trees. He stared again in disbelief. Looking over at his wife, he noticed she was smiling, this time enveloped in a cream-colored floral print cloth and cradling a small newborn. 

“Is that our son?” he cried out in a dazed state. 

Sakina extended out her arms, revealing the new babe to his father. 

Khurram heard another crash. He swung his head away from the baby and found himself sitting at his desk. The frail, white figure was emerging from the entryway again. 

“I had a strange dream,” Khurram’s voice trembled. The old man nodded and smiled as he continued walking. “A love letter from the Universe,” he replied as he studied the troubled royal. Khurram turned away from the old man’s gaze and glared at the tray of opiate chews. They had returned to his desk.

“My boy, I’ve been informed by the architects that there is a fountain to be filled with wine. It’s empty and waiting for the arrival of the new babe,” the old man interrupted his stare. “Perhaps you might consider filling it with something else.”

Khurram turned to the priest. His eyes fixed on the old man’s cloudy irises. 

“Lemon sherbet,” Khurram proclaimed. “I will fill it with lemon sherbet.” 

***

Khurram tapped his fingers nervously against his armrest. Sakina sat next to him, smiling as she gently rocked her pregnant body. Several weeks had passed, and the emperor had stood by his decree. He had not drunk wine or consumed any opium, instead committing his time to the royal household’s political affairs and day-to-day tasks. But he could not sit still, often waking at night drenched in sweat. At times, his wife would gently place her hand over her husband’s in an attempt to calm him. 

Sakina went into labor that summer. Khurram remained by her side as she pushed and screamed for thirty hours, finally producing their only son. The couple named the child Aurengzeb. Mian Mir declared the child’s birthday a holy day, and the kingdom began a week-long procession to celebrate. 

Khurram cradled the child in his arms as Sakina looked on from the confines of her bed. He watched as her eyes fluttered into a deep state of sleep. Seizing the opportunity, the emperor gently placed the baby next to her and quickly exited the harem. He made his way to the secret quarter, which had visibly collected dust since he had last visited it. He sat down excitedly in his chair, eyeing the tray of opiate chews that had gone untouched for several weeks. He plucked a second chew off of the tray, bringing it to his mouth. 

“Now I have my son and my wife,” he whispered gleefully to himself as he placed the chew into a corner of his mouth. “He may be all-knowing, but I am the cleverest.” Khurram could taste the familiar flood of salt, sweetness, and bitterness creeping over his tongue. He collapsed back into his chair, welcoming the high. 

A frail, white figure was emerging from the entryway again. 

“What have you done?” Mian Mir cried, exasperated by the speed of his walk. “What have you done?” Khurram pushed himself back up, staring dumbfounded at the old man. 

“She’s dead,” the old man cried, “She’s bled to death.”

Khurram could feel a tight knot forming in his throat. He felt a shock of electrical waves stun his heart. The old man stood, staring tearfully at the stoned emperor as he tried to steady his balance with his ivory cane. 

“Sakina,” Khurram cried out as he stood up, pushing his desk away violently and causing the tray of chews to fall and shatter on the marble floor. 

“Let Aurengzeb taste only the fruits of the lemon trees,” Mian Mir bellowed as he turned away from widowed father and began walking back towards the entryway.  


Maha Kamal is currently a 2020-2021 fellow of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop Book Project in Denver, Colorado. She is also a full-time attorney, meaning that she writes these stories late at night. Her website is www.mahakamal.com

Fiction | ‘The Heavenly Kingdom’ by Leanne Ogasawara | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

The Heavenly Kingdom
太平天囯

No one would guess that the chubby guy with the frizzy flyaway hair and the kung fu beard sitting at the blackjack table and smelling like a homeless man was China’s most famous international artist. But that’s who he was. A limo had brought him the eighty miles down from Manhattan to Atlantic City—not because he was Xu Fanzhi the famous artist, but because he was Xu Fanzhi the rated blackjack player. Casinos set him up with suites and booze, and for years all he had to do was make a call and a car would pick him up wherever he was in the City and drive him down for a night of gambling. 

That night, he was meeting up with his old blackjack buddy, Dingo the Kid. The two went way back to the days before Xu’s stunning ascent into stardom. Dingo had spent the last ten years behind bars with hardened criminals, because he was himself a hardened criminal. He was sharp and fast, and the ugliest guy most people had ever seen. While Xu was chubby with a face as sweet as a Buddha’s, Dingo’s was wizened and mean. Recently released from prison, Dingo had given his old friend a call, and they’d agreed to meet up like old times. 

Except it wasn’t old times– since now Xu was rich and famous. 

 “Are you trying to tell me a famous artist can’t buy himself a decent pair of jeans?” Dingo asked. “Christ, you stink. Why don’t you take a shower?”

They were sitting at a table in Xu’s favorite casino, Lucky Jim’s. The place was a dive. Around its rickety metal tables with grimy felt tops sat some of the grubbiest-looking gamblers in Atlantic City. It stank of $7 gin and cheap cigarettes. But what it lacked in atmosphere, it made up for in gambling. It was still early so the other five spots at their table were empty. 

Xu laughed. If anyone could see through his celebrity, it was Dingo. “Do you wanna play cards or not?” 

Dingo’s pock-marked face burst into a wicked grin. He placed a 10 chip down and nodded toward the dealer, an ancient looking guy who went by the name of Lucky Jim. No one knew whether he owned the place or not. 

Xu put down a 50 chip. 

Lucky Jim slapped down the cards in front of them. Dingo had a 3 and a 2. Xu a jack and a king. The dealer had a 10 showing. 

“Here we go,” said Dingo, tapping the table for a hit, drawing a queen. Dingo tapped again. Xu frowned at his friend as the dealer put down a seven. Busted. Xu stood, and the dealer turned over a 5. Lucky Jim busted with a seven and tossed a chewed up 50 chip to Xu. 

Xu rarely lost, and he probably would have become a pro if his art career taken off. The Europeans in particular loved his stuff –but so did the Americans. Xu found it ironic. When he first came to America in the mid 80s, everyone told him he couldn’t paint. He was practically living on the street before he found he had a knack for Twenty-One. 

He didn’t remember exactly how it happened, but one day in the early 90s Xu stopped painting and starting taking photographs. First, he’d traveled back to China to get the shots he needed. Then, returning to New York, the real work would begin. Digitally altering the photos, he played around with things. In one of his earliest pieces, he’d inserted old political slogans from back in the day: Have Fewer kids, raise more pigs, or Let a hundred flowers bloom, in the form of graffiti on the walls of the forbidden city. And in another early work he depicted the gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs at Tiananmen Gate being flown away by a gaggle of geese. Academics wrote papers discussing the way his juxtaposition of iconic images of Chinese culture with those found in Western art history worked to uncover the political and social upheavals of contemporary China. Before long, people were calling him the “Andy Warhol of China.” He wondered what Dingo would say if he told him that one of his recent photographs achieved a record at Sotheby’s selling for over $500K. 

Dingo eyed Xu’s stack of chips. “I’m supposed to believe you got famous for digitally tagging Chinese buildings with political slogans—and what, you sell the photos?”

“Yep.” 

Xu put down a 100 chip. He saw Dingo sheepishly slide a 5 chip into his box. The dealer looked bored. 

“But why would people pay thousands of dollars to buy that stuff?”

Thousands of dollars? More like hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thought better of telling that to Dingo, though.  

The dealer slapped down more cards. Dingo got a 7 and a 9. Xu drew 5 and a 6, and the dealer showed an 8. Dingo stood. Xu doubled down and drew a jack. The dealer showed his 10 card, collected Dingo’s generous bet for the house, and reluctantly pushed two gleaming 100 chips into Xu’s box. 

“I guess I just don’t get it,” Dingo said. 

“It’s not like I plan this stuff—it just evolves.”

When Dingo didn’t say anything, he added: “My old man was a well-known calligrapher from Hunan Provence.”

“What does your old man have to do with this?”

“He lost everything during the Cultural Revolution.”

“So, you got a problem with the Communists? At least they fed people.” 

They needed to place their bets, but Xu couldn’t help himself. “Yeah—when they weren’t starving people like my old man or shooting people in the head.” 

“Is that what happened to your old man?”

“No, but when I was a kid he was labeled an Enemy of the People, and we were all sent to live in China’s Wild West. He spent day after day practicing his calligraphy.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I guess he thought if he could just get the calligraphy right, then everything would be okay.”

“Was it?”

“Not really. Before he died, I flew back to China. He said, ‘Son, this is your country. Stop being so polite.’ So I decided to up my game and really DO art. For my old man, you know?” 

He knew he’d been lucky with his art. But there was passion behind his work. A convergence of forces.

“But lately, Dingo, I feel like my work is no longer making a difference.” 

“I’ll take you at your word that it ever made a difference.”

Xu decided to ignore that crack. “These days, it is the elite buying my stuff. And, well…it doesn’t feel like I am doing anything important anymore. I’m more of a corporation now than an artist.” He would never tell Dingo this, but he had just dropped a new signature dinnerware collection. 

 “Sounds like you need a new cause? Something to get you up in the morning.”

“Are you two here to play cards or not?” Lucky Jim had grown impatient. “There’s a bar around the corner if you want to yap all night.”

“We’re here to play, don’t worry about us” Dingo said. He glared at the dealer, daring him to say more. 

Xu was feeling lucky, so he slid four gleaming royal blue 100 chips into the box. Dingo might as well have whimpered as he offered his only 100 chip for the sacrifice. The dealer gifted Dingo with a 7 and a jack, Xu with two Aces and an 8 for his own up card. Dingo stood, Xu split, and the dealer’s face was stone cold as he gave up a face card for each of Xu’s hands. Double blackjack. After showing his own king, the dealer scooped up Dingo’s chip and constructed two perfect towers of six royal blues each, gliding them into Xu’s box. It was almost too easy.

Roxanne, the waitress who had been around the longest, arrived at their table with a second round of their usual. Dirty martini up for Xu, and a pineapple daiquiri, with an umbrella, for Dingo. 

Xu downed his drink while Dingo sipped his daiquiri.

“Time for my break, guys.” Lucky Jim left the table.

“Why does he get breaks? Doesn’t he own the place?” Xu asked.

“Probably doesn’t want the house to lose more to you just yet.” Dingo stood. “I’m going to hustle up some food and get another round of drinks started.” 

Xu nodded as his friend walked off. He was tempted to mess with Dingo’s pink umbrella when something across the room caught his attention. 

A flash of imperial yellow silk.

What the hell? No one else seemed to have noticed. A figure—was it a ghost?—dressed in imperial yellow robes like a mandarin from the Qing Dynasty was heading his way from the slot room. Xu stood and waved it over. 

  And with large, steady strides, it marched across the casino and sat down next to him. “Allow me to introduce myself,” it said. “I am Hong Xiuquan.”

Of course. Xu remembered reading about him as a kid. The leader of the most dramatic peasant uprising in all of Chinese history. 

It had happened in the mid-1800s, when China was under Manchu rule and the Europeans vultures were trying to nibble off as much of the Empire as they could. The British had even stooped to peddling in opium. But Hong had intervened: after failing the imperial examinations, he set out to transform China into a Christian theocracy. Twenty-million civilians and soldiers had died. And what was even more bizarre was that the man who started it all—the apparition who was now sitting right in front of Xu—had believed himself to be the younger brother Jesus Christ. 

You couldn’t make this stuff up. 

Not one to mince words or waste time in formal greetings, let alone worry that Hong had been dead for over a hundred and fifty years, Xu asked: “So, Jesus Christ, eh?”

“No, I am Hong Xiuquan. It is my older brother who is Jesus Christ.”

Xu’s eyes crinkled with delight. “Remind me, Brother Hong, how the hell you came to see yourself as Emperor of the Heavenly Kingdom and Son of God—the Christian God, no less. Mao might have loved you, but, most Chinese think you were batshit crazy.”

“I am not the slightest bit interested in what most Chinese think. Should heaven and earth pass away, even that would change nothing of what happened.” He gazed steadily at Xu. His features were as perfectly proportioned as Xu’s were casually assembled.

 Dingo was missing this—though maybe Hong had waited until Xu to be alone to approach him. “So what happened, Brother?” he asked. “You saw a vision? Or was it just a dream?” 

“Yes—visions and dreams. Unlike you, Brother Xu, I was born of a very humble background. A family of farmers, we were Hakka people from a village in southern China.”

“My father always held up the Hakka people. Like we Hunanese, there were many great Hakka revolutionaries.”

“Yes, Sun Yat-Sen, Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping…”

“The Soong sisters…”

“Yes, the Soong sisters. But my family were peasants. My father, however, got it in his head that I would become the first Hong to become a scholar. Mainly, it was for no other reason than because I showed such talent–teaching myself to read by the tender age of six. I was a small child. My head was so small my brothers teased me that surely my brain must be small as well… imagine everyone’s surprise when one night at dinner I recited the Four Classics from memory. “

“I bet no one called you ‘small head’ again after that.” Xu couldn’t stifle his laugh.

“Quite so. My father had little choice but to scrimp and save to hire a tutor. Aunts and uncles helped where they could. Before long I passed the First Degree.”

“You must have been way too busy to get tangled up with the Christians. What happened? Was it a foreign woman?” Xu thought of Miranda, an American woman he had met online. What a handful of trouble she was becoming, he thought. 

Hong smiled wistfully and shook his imperial head. “No, no. In those days, missionaries were not permitted to bring their wives to Canton. They were confined with the foreign merchants to a small compound located beyond the southern section of the old city wall, alongside the Pearl River. Strictly forbidden to preach outside the compound or to try and convert the native population, they did so on pain of death.”

“Well, telling a missionary they can’t preach is like telling a cat it can’t chase mice.”

 Hong nodded thoughtfully. “Verily, that is so. All it took was one or two local converts before these Chinese preachers were risking life and limb to ply the rivers and deliver the Good Word.”

Xu noticed Roxanne was coming with the drinks, but she didn’t seem to notice the apparition sitting next to Xu at the table. Instead she looked him up and down and said: “Dingo told me to tell you he’d be back in ten. He’s waiting for the food.”

“Food?” He popped the olive in his mouth.

“Yeah, he ordered two big steaks– said you are rich and famous now so you can afford it.” She eyed his hair with obvious distaste. 

Xu nodded, and after she walked away, he turned back to the apparition and said, “So, what happened?” 

The apparition took a deep intake of breath. “It’s hard to say. It was early spring, 1836. I was still deliriously happy after passing the qualifying exam six months prior in Hua, not far from my family village. It was like I had died and gone to heaven. The minute I put on my student robes, people treated me like a celebrity–the honor of the entire village was at stake. And, I was only twenty-two years old.”

 “You should have been busy studying all the time, so how the hell did you get tangled up with the Christians?” 

“In the city, Chinese converts would stand in the markets or outside pubs handing out pamphlets and preaching. And some handed their pamphlets to students. One day, I took one.”

“But how could a tract on a foreign religion make sense to a Confucian scholar preparing for examinations?”

 “Indeed, I scarcely glanced at it at first. But that day, it was hot. I had time to kill before my class, and waiting under an old banyan tree outside the examination hall, I opened the book and briefly read what was an altogether incoherent account of a terrible flood.” 

“So, you dreamed about this?”

“No, I thought it was foreign nonsense and promptly forgot every last word. Didn’t I have bigger fish to fry?”

“Certainly you did. What happened next? I read you failed your top-level examinations.” 

“I shamed my entire village. I was so dejected I was unable to walk home afterward. I had to hire a sedan chair to bring me back. By the time I arrived, I was delirious with fever. My condition was grave and my family scarcely left my side. It was then I saw the most miraculous vision. My family said it lasted three days and three nights. Of course, you realize the number three is significant to my tale.”

“Not really, but keep going…”

 “In my vision I saw a great sedan chair, covered in yellow silk. Attendants in black robes wore elegant Manchu-style satin hats with fur brims with peacock feathers adorning the backs. There were three of these attendants on each side of the sedan, and each carried Manchu bow and arrows. They indicated I should climb into the sedan, which I did. After a short distance, the chair was set down in front of a fantastic gate. With vermilion roof tiles decorated with gilded statues of dragons and phoenixes, the gate led into a garden of great refinement with flowering plum and apricot trees. Before I could feast my eyes on the landscape beyond the gate, however, the most supremely beautiful lady approached the sedan chair. Dressed in light blue silk robes, she had a lavender sash tied around her tiny waist, and she was bathed in a fragrance so exquisite that I suspected I had died and was now in paradise.”

“That certainly sounds promising.”

“Instead of addressing me as Brother, she referred to herself as my “Mother” and said that before my “Father” could see me, I must be cleansed. Her beautiful white hands then reached for her sash whence she removed a short sword. With a decorative handle covered in gold inlay tigers, the sword gleamed like the finest steel swords of ancient Japan. And as I watched in horror, two of the attendants gently held my arms while she plunged the knife into my belly.”

“So, you were in Hell, then, Brother?”

“No, I knew it wasn’t Hell because, though she slit me open like a dead fish, there was no pain, and more than anything, her fragrance was indescribably heavenly. I felt myself in a cloud of perfume– camphor wood, aloeswood, sandalwood, and roses. 

“Yes, that is more like paradise—except for the fact that she slit your gut open.”

“That is quite correct, Brother Xu. With her exquisite hands, she scooped out my dirty guts and plopped them in a wooden bucket for disposal. Glancing over to the bucket, I could see worms writhing in the dark mass of my insides. The stench threatened to overpower her delectable perfume. Then, replacing my organs with new ones, she reached for a ceramic vessel. At first it appeared like the most ordinary kind of storage jar people in my village often used to store wine or vinegar…”

 “Let me guess: it had a brown glaze with two dragons emblazoned on its surface.”

The ghost of Hong Xiuquan bolted upright as if he had also seen a ghost! “Yes. How do you know? Tell me what you know about this jar.”

Xu downed the second martini and took a breath. “Well, at the time I didn’t think much of it—I meet so many crazy women, you know?”

“Do you?”

“Being an artist –and a dissident at that– women often find me irresistible. Anyway, last year—it was mid-winter—this crazy American woman living in Tokyo emailed me. My old buddy who is a poet and literature professor at Peking University apparently had given her my email address. She said they had been lovers. She was extremely eccentric. And unhappily married. This caught my attention, of course.” 

“Yes, go on, Brother. I am most interested in this story.” 

Xu took a moment to scan the room and wondered where Dingo was. He had no idea how he would explain the apparition—or even if Dingo would be able to see it—but he could really use that drink. He should have asked for a double. The apparition was looking at him expectantly. 

“I’ll tell you what I know. The woman, her name is Miranda, was enmeshed with this online pervert. You know, he liked asking women to do things on a webcam and was kind of scumbag, promising to marry them if they did this or that?”

“I see…”

“But in addition to his online occupation, he also had a day job at a museum in Borneo.”

“Borneo?”

“Yes, at the National Museum of Sarawak in Kuching. The place is famous for its magnificent ethnographical collections—including heirloom jars and Chinese ceramics.  And it is this man Larry who discovered the jar.”

“Discovered it?”

“Well, yes. His wife owns the jar. It has been in her family for hundreds of years.”

“So Larry did not exactly discover the jar, then, did he?”

“No.” Xu conceded. 

“And what is Miranda’s interest in the dragon jar, exactly?”

“She studies tea ceremony in Japan. You know it?”

“Ah, the tea masters of Japan. Now those fellows really appreciate ceramics.”

“That’s what Miranda said. And it turns out that Larry is not only an insufferable pervert, but he has an endless appetite for bowls and jars. And this jar is the great object of his desire.”

“Yes, I have heard stories of the legendary jars of Borneo. The native peoples have long counted their wealth in the jars. They are said to have magical properties. Lining the halls of the great longhouses upriver, the jars are part of all the great ceremonies of life—from births and weddings to death. Some have even suggested they function as portals into unseen dimensions.”

Xu appreciated Brother Hong’s faith in the jars. “If you think about it,” Xu said, “those large high-fired water-tight vessels must have seemed miraculous when people began hauling them on their backs in baskets over the mountains or paddling them in boats upriver into the forests hundreds of years ago.”

“So then, what is the problem?”

“Not surprisingly given his proclivities, Larry’s wife left him and took her jar back upriver into the rainforest. He wants to get the jar at all costs and has some scheme of getting it designated as an important cultural property.”

“What does Miranda think?”

“She thinks the jar must remain upriver in the forest with Larry’s wife.”

“I see. And what do you think, Brother Xu?”

“I think Borneo is in trouble. People say the forests will be long gone in another two or three decades. From logging and mining to palm oil—and now art, Borneo is being picked clean by vultures.”

“Just like the China of my time, brother.”

Xu was getting worked up: “The tribal art market alone, is worth over $100 million a year. And so people are stealing everything they can get their hands on. I have heard stories of priceless treasures being traded for a Swiss Army knife or a bit of cash only to be sold later in America or Europe for millions.”

“In my day, thieves stole right out of graves.”

“Nothing has changed in the world, has it?” Speaking these words, Xu realized how angry he was at the state of the world. A world where absolutely everything was for sale.  Something had to be done about Borneo. After a pause, he continued: “I suppose Miranda wants me to lend my weight –that is to say, my great wealth–to help keep the jar safe in the rainforest.  She’s mobilizing all of her ex-lovers to help.” Xu then began to laugh. It started off slowly—like far off thunder—before picking up volume and speed, and before long he was doubled up in laughter.

 “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Brother Xu?” 

“The jar?”

“I say, you travel to Borneo and meet this pervert.”

“And do what?”

“Make sure that the emperors lose this particular battle.” 

 Xu was thinking that this was just the cause he had been looking for. Like Dingo said, something to feel excited about. “You’re on,” he said.  

The ghost stood up and bowing deeply said, “Farewell and safe travels.” And without another word, the ghost of Hong Xiuquan silently walked back into the slot room.

Dingo the Kidd finally returned with more drinks. “Sorry it took me so long. Steaks are on the way now. And here’s your drink.” He put another dirty martini in front of Xu.

“No problem buddy, I managed to amuse myself,” Xu said. He took a sip.

They spent the rest of the night drinking and playing twenty-one. Dingo managed to win a few hands, and Xu didn’t feel the need to explain his art anymore. In the morning, he would book a ticket to the city of Kuching, on the northern coast of Borneo. 

Yes. He was anxious to get this show on the road.  


Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, documentary film, and poetry. Her creative writing has appeared in Gulf Coast Journal, the Kyoto Journal, River Teeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, Entropy, the Dublin Review of Books, and forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine. She has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily. Her short story “Bare Bones” won the 2020 Calvino Prize, judged by Joyce Carol Oates.

Fiction | ‘Spring Snow’ by Anukrti Upadhyay | Issue 41 (May 2021)

‘Hey, Lady! Is the snow wet?’ A small, high pitched voice trilled close by. 

It was my day off from work and I had decided to visit the Nezu Museum. Before I could enter the building, a minor magic had happened – spring snow had begun falling. Small flakes came drifting down to rest in the open faces of camelias and peonies and hung like bits of feathers on cherry trees studded with tiny, tightly closed buds. It was difficult to imagine that the bare black branches would soon be laden with white and pink, silk-crepe flowers. I looked down at the two-toned pink umbrella blooming next to me at knee-height. It was decorated with a cartoon cat motif that was popular right then – shaped like a sugar-loaf and white like sugar too, large-eyed and mouthless, with a prim bow over one ear. Most girls in the international school I taught English at, had bags or jackets adorned with it. ‘Why don’t you hold out your hand and see?’ I said.

The umbrella shook vigourously. ‘No, no, I don’t want my mitt to get wet.’ 

The mitten on the little hand holding the umbrella had the same cat design. ‘Ok, then how about you look at me and decide for yourself whether the snow is wet?’ I said, ‘I have been out here in the garden ever since it began to snow.’

A round, dark- haired little face peeped out from under the umbrella. She fixed her eyes at me. The pink shade cast by the umbrella trembled on her cheeks like water-shadows. ‘You are not wet.’ She announced after examining me, ‘but your hair looks funny.’ The damp air had brought out waves in my loose hair. She touched her straight fringe with a cherry blossom finger and continued to gaze earnestly at me. ‘Do you live in Tokyo?’

‘Yes,’ I smiled.

‘Do you like living here?’

This was a difficult question to answer. It involved figuring out whether I missed everyone and everything I had left behind, whether I thought trading it all for a lonely freedom had been worthwhile, a question I looked away from every day as I boarded the train to work, anxiously scanning the flashing station-names so as not to miss my stop and every evening returned to my tiny apartment, carrying a pint of milk and an apple in a brown paper bag for my breakfast. ‘There’s lots to see in Tokyo.’ I answered.

She rounded her mouth and sucked in her cheeks. ‘I rode on a train, mommy and daddy and Rio and me, all of us. I ate two mochis, one pink, one white. I liked the one with the powder on the outside the best.’

‘I like those too. I also like the ones filled with sweet red bean paste.’

Her gaze relaxed. ‘I was good on the train so mommy got me this umbrella and the mitts. I like Hello Kitty but Daddy doesn’t like her. He said he didn’t bring us to Japan to buy cheap trash and Mommy shouldn’t have bought the umbrella.’ She widened her eyes, ‘but this umbrella is not cheap, Mommy gave so many Yen coins for it, more than the mochi but Daddy says Mochi is my Heritage. He says I am lucky to have Heritage, he never had any, he was always just plain old American.’ I followed her glance to the glass fronted lobby of the museum. A man and a woman sat at one of the low, round tables, a pram by their side. The man, small, fine-limbed, had the museum’s catalogue and a thick guidebook open on his knee and was reading intently. Wispy, ash-blonde hair fell over his high forehead and hollow temples. The woman, dark-haired and smooth-complexioned like the little girl, was sitting upright. She bowed politely as our eyes met. ‘You know there are only funny old cups and boxes inside and things to hang on the walls. There are no games or anything.’ She said, her small mouth beginning to form a pout. ‘Daddy says we must see everything because we are going to another place soon to see the cherry flowers.’ Her pout became pronounced. ‘I don’t want to see old boxes, I want to go to Disneyland. Sally’s going to Disneyland for the holidays. She will see Elsa and Olaf and sit in a tea cup that goes round and round. Her Mommy has promised to let her eat as many popsicles and candy-floss as she wants.’

‘But you saw spring-snow falling in the camelias and the plum blossoms today and ate mochi. Sally won’t see all this in Disneyland.’ 

Her gaze became cautious again. ‘But the snow is not falling any longer. And I ate mochi long ago, at the train-station.’

Snow had indeed stopped falling. The air glittered with points of light as ice-crystals spiralled and fell. Swallows had emerged from under the eaves of a pavilion in the tiered garden. We stood watching as they swooped and turned and rose like so many small boomerangs, their wings flashing a deep blue.

‘What funny birds!’ She commented. ‘Why don’t they sit on a branch and sing and then people will give them nice things to eat!’

‘These are swallows, they don’t need anyone to give them food. They catch their own food and they sing to please themselves, not anyone else.’

She pulled off her mitten and put her finger into her mouth.  Her eyes followed the swallows. ‘I like to sing.’ 

I smiled. ‘And do you like to fly?’

She continued sucking her finger and spoke in bursts. ‘We sat in an airplane to come to Japan. I saw clouds but no birds and the nice lady on the plane gave me an extra ice cream but Rio cried so much and Daddy scolded Mummy all the time.’ 

‘Oh, that couldn’t have been nice. But flying like a swallow must feel different from flying in an airplane, wouldn’t it?’

She nodded doubtfully. ‘We have birds back home, not like these, different ones. And lots of crows. I have a new swing-set and Mommy lets me camp in the yard with Sally.’ She took her finger out of her mouth and examined it. Its tip was quite wrinkled. She leaned towards me. Her hair swung against her round cheeks. ‘I don’t want Daddy to call me Yoko-chan. Everyone laughs at me at school. They call me Yoko-loco. Mommy doesn’t want to go to Osaka. She says she doesn’t know anyone there anymore.’ She squeezed the tip of her finger and put it in her mouth again. Her lips rounded and her cheeks worked. ‘I don’t want Heritage.’ She said, finger still tucked in the corner of her mouth. ‘Mommy doesn’t want it either. She said so. She said she’d give all the Heritage in the world if only Rio would sleep. And it is really hers, not Daddy’s, she lived in Osaka when she was little, not Daddy.’ She looked at me gravely. ‘Heritage is really just old things and weird places. Sometimes it is also things you can eat but mostly it is just things you see. It is not fun like camping or Disneyland or anything,’

The sky was opening up. There were patches of blue here and there and the wind was sharp and cold. The man stepped out of the museum’s lobby. The woman followed, pushing the pram before her. ‘Come on, Yoko-chan, let’s go.’ He called out. The little girl hastily took her finger out of her mouth and slipped her mitten back on. She looked at me solemnly. ‘When I am big, I will run away and change my name and no one will know I have Heritage.’ She took off towards the man and woman walking in single file. I watched her cross the garden and pass under the old weeping cherry by the gate. A late flake of snow drifted down upon her from the old weeping cherry tree. It brushed her dark head gently and settled into the collar of her jacket. There it lay, white and fragile like a cherry flower.

 


Anukrti Upadhyay writes fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. A collection of Hindi short stories, titled Japani Sarai, and a short novel, titled Neena Aunty, have been published by Rajpal and Sons. Three books in English, two short novels, Daura and Bhaunri, and one novel, Kintsugi, have been published by HarperCollins under their prestigious literary imprint, Fourth Estate. A volume of short stories in English will be published by HarperCollins in July 2021. Short stories in both and English and Hindi have appeared in prestigious literary journals.

Anukrti has previously worked for Goldman Sachs and UBS in Hong Kong and India. Currently she is working with Wildlife Conservation Trust, a conservation think-tank. She is an Indian national, and divides her time between Bombay and Singapore. She has post-graduate degrees in Literature and Management, and a graduate degree in Law. She also wrote a doctoral thesis on human relationships in post-modern Hindi stories in a past life.

Fiction | ‘My Favorite Uncle’ by Suman Mallick | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

A muggy, summer Calcutta afternoon in 1986. On the way back from school, a fifteen-year-old boy and the driver of his father’s company car are stuck in traffic. The road has no lane markers, and shows its age with every pothole, crack, dip and slant. Just ahead, a No. 2 bus—also ancient—exhales passengers and black exhaust. On its roof, fastened by jute rope: a yellowish oak almirah and matching rocking chair, crates full of lychees and mangoes (then in season), and also crates full of live hens, feathers flying. Behind the car, passive-aggressive auto-rickshaw and car drivers wait, unnecessarily honking their horns, while aggressive-aggressive bicyclists ride past the car, squeeze by the bus, and disappear out of sight.

“What’s happening up there?” Uncle Prakash says, pointing to my head, in between drags from his No. 10 Filter. He smokes only when my parents are not around, and always with the windows open, this habit of his being a secret between us.

Prakash appears in my life during Class Nine—after Uncle Jaswant, his predecessor, catches pneumonia and dies—and comprises one-half of the status symbol my parents cherish the most, the other, of course, being the car itself: an Ambassador Sedan, in powder-blue, with dark-blue checkered terry-cloth upholstery. It is not German-made, but that will change with my father’s next promotion, I’ve been assured. Baba’s department has come up with another new curative that makes vulcanized rubber even less sticky, which apparently makes tires a little safer and will consequently help his multinational company steal even more market share from its competitors. The bigwigs all the way in Birmingham, England, know who my father is.

We start moving. In between shifting gears and nimbly navigating traffic, Prakash turns his head momentarily, raising his mirrored sunglasses to wink at me.

“I was asking you about your problem.”

“You know, Ma thinks that you drive too fast.”

“I drive too fast? Half the drivers on the road don’t even have licenses, and your mother thinks I drive too fast! You’ve seen this, right?”

He reaches across and pats his license inside the laminated package taped to the dashboard. As he does this, his bell-bottom gabardine trousers and unbuttoned-to-the-belly, tight-checkered, silk shirt make scratching, squishing noises, and the gold chain and locket that are normally nestled within his talcum-powdered chest hair dangle like a jhoola swing.

“Your proudest accomplishment–I know! It took you years to acquire it, during which you had to do all kinds of odd jobs. But Ma still thinks that you drive too fast.”

He lets out an exasperated sigh. “You know what? Forget your mother, let’s talk about you. Come on! I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Yaar.”

“Maybe I’m pissed because Baba will miss my birthday again this year.”

“You mean when he’s traveling next week? When’s your birthday?”

“Wednesday.”

“Ok, I’ll get you something.”

“He did this last year too,” I vent, “when he made his big speech at that conference. Got me the new tennis racket and jeans from New Market as an apology.”

“Your parents really like that place, don’t they? What brand jeans?”

“What the hell difference does that make?”

“What brand jeans?”

 Prakash Mandal comes from Mohanpur Village near Bardhaman; his is a respectable farm family—he insists—that fell on hard times during the great floods of 1977, which is why he had to leave home. Now he wears his hair like Amitabh Bachhan, the famous movie star, and arrives at our house early mornings to pick up Baba for work (when Baba is in town), then comes back to take Ma to the radio station and me to school. His afternoon routine runs in reverse: dropping me off first and then going to pick up Ma, and finally Baba again. In between, apart from taking Baba to meetings and lunches, he claims to spend the time on his hobbies, which are activities I can only fantasize about: checking out the latest hit movies, betting parlays at the race track, catching matinee football games, and attending workers-union rallies.

Turning left into our street, now ambling past corrugated-iron fenced homes with manicured lawns and gardens, he exhales languidly, and shakes his head sympathetically while making a “tsk, tsk” sound by pressing his tongue behind his teeth.

“Home is not just a place, I say. It’s nothing if not for the people you grow up with.”

We pull up to the house.

“Uncle Prakash, where do you get all this communist bullshit?”

“What? There’s no such thing! Why would you even think that?”

“Ma says you’re full of it and has asked Baba to fire you and get another driver.”

***

Thereafter, Prakash washes the car every morning, refrains from speaking around my parents except deferentially, and never leaves pamphlets or ash inside. 

By the time a new wave of riots envelope the city an year later, my father has risen like a streak to the post of General Manager of his company’s largest tire manufacturing plant in India, and my mother has been appointed Secretary of the Calcutta Chapter of the OPW–the Organization for Professional Women. We now get around town in a jet-black Mercedes, but somehow, our driver remains the same.

The morning the news of yet another violent massacre breaks, Ma fumes during breakfast. Pushing aside the newspaper in disgust, she says, “Okay, not putting us on the front page—I understand. But not even the back page? After me repeatedly reminding them that it’s Mother Teresa we’re raising money for tonight! And yet, they have us buried here on page seventeen, next to some disgusting construction announcement that no one cares about.”

Baba, about to go out of town that morning, starts to say something, then stops. Letting out a slight sigh, he adjusts the knot on his tie instead.

Ma grunts and roll her eyes. “I forget sometimes,” she tells me pointedly, “you do not achieve as much success in your career as your father has by not learning when not to speak.”

“My mother taught me that to be a virtue,” Baba replies.

“Your mother is a housewife who’s spent her life catering to an imbecile of a man. Your wife, who is just as educated and smart and successful as you are, on the other hand, thinks of this so called ‘silence-is-golden’ gimmick of yours as nothing more than a weakness.”

“Can one of you please explain to me,” I intrude, “what happened? What were those people protesting? And why couldn’t the police stop so many people from dying?”

“Don’t you worry about what’s going on,” my father replies. “These things happen all the time, all over the world. Let the shopkeepers, the office peons, and everybody else get hysterical about them, but there’s no need for you to do so. You just worry about your grades.”

Anjali Auntie, our maid, pokes her head in the dining room to tell him the driver is there.

Baba gets up. Resting a palm on the table and gently pressing my back with the other, he says, “Once again, let the common man worry about these common things, right? You, on the other hand…now you are supposed to be the real future of this country. Just focus on school. And speaking of which, do you know what Ashok’s father told me when I ran into him at the club last week? Ashok can already recite The Triumph of Life from memory, Kumar!”

“Well, Ashok told me that you told his father I can already do calculus, even though I can’t. I know you’d like it if I could, but calculus, really?”

“Then shouldn’t you finish eating and work on your math?”

He tousles my hair and leaves.

***

Naturally, it is Prakash I turn to for an explanation later that afternoon. Nonchalantly blowing smoke out the window, he says, “Class warfare – it has happened since the beginning of time, and it will happen until the end of mankind. We are all merely playing different roles depending upon the situation in which we find ourselves.”

“That makes zero sense to me. Will you cut this crap and explain plainly what’s with all these riots?”

“What if I told you that people are protesting the fact that they are underpaid, have nothing to save and little to eat, while just a few like your…well, you know, get more and more rich? Why else would you think thousands of people would go march the streets every day?”

“Every day?”

“Every day. There’s a protest happening right now–you bet. I don’t even need to read tomorrow’s paper to tell you that.”

A strange excitement seizes me. “I want to see it. Let’s go.”

“No, Kumar. No! I’m not going to lose my job. Forget it, okay?”

But I haven’t watched my mother’s relentless needling of my father for years to have learned nothing from it. It takes some cunning words and wily facial expressions, but eventually Prakash agrees that this is precisely the type of field trip that I need if I am ever to acquire his kind of street smarts. He parks in a spot behind a dinky bar near Park Street, leaves the car running and asks me to wait while he runs inside. A few minutes later, he emerges with a smile and bad breath.

“I’ve never downed a beer that fast,” he says, “but we’re good to park here.”

We walk the last kilometer or so to the Maidan grounds. Prakash wasn’t lying–there are thousands of people here. They spill over the sidewalks and onto the streets. They carry their placards and banners, chant slogans, march toward the parade ground. The buses, the lorries and the cars have come to a mutual misunderstanding with them and stand idle, belching smoke.

Prakash guides me up three flights of a rusty, wrought-iron staircase on the side of a bank building. The rooftop is full of other bystanders. We elbow our way through for a better view of the action below. The air is clotted, and the smell of sweat of the people surrounding us makes me gag. From near the edge of the roof, I watch a sea of men foaming at their mouths. Their raw energy takes my breath away. Something very important is happening, I know, but what that is seems just beyond my grasp, like the pre-calculus that my private tutor tries to teach me during our weekend sessions.

Then sirens blare, and the marchers below comes to a complete standstill. At the end of the street where we cannot clearly see, a melee breaks out. Loud bangs are heard.

“Teargas, already?” Prakash laughs. “Pull out your handkerchief and cover your nose.”

Now we see the policemen. Rapidly they disembark from a pair of vans, take up their positions and form a barrier across the entire width of Park Avenue, three columns deep. Some of them are in all-white uniforms, others in khakis, but they all wear dark blue helmets, and they wield batons in one hand while holding a shield with the other. They march slowly, deliberately, toward the protesters.

The protesters chant with more intensity. Rocks start flying through the air toward the policemen. Some of the policemen pick up those rocks and hurl them back into the crowds. Then one, then two, then a mass of protesters rush the policemen and pandemonium breaks loose. The protesters try to break the barriers. The policemen start swinging their batons, they push the protesters back. But at least one protester breaks through the barriers and runs to the other side like a streaking meteor, policemen giving chase.

Then one of the protesters slips and falls. Immediately he is surrounded by a swath of policemen. They swing their sticks at the man as he cowers on the ground, arms covering his head.

The bystanders around me gab excitedly. “There goes one,” a stranger says.

This is where I lose consciousness.

When I come to, Prakash is splashing water to my face, patting my cheek. A woman holds a bottle of water, while other faces leer at me.

“Weirdo,” someone says. “There’s not even that much blood on the street.”

Prakash helps me sit up. He uses his handkerchief to fan me.

***

I am finishing up Class Ten when my parents separate, but they do not divorce. The separation happens passive-aggressively, not aggressive-aggressively. Baba takes a posting at company headquarters in Birmingham. Ma does not move with him, but a friend of Baba’s—someone I’ve known for a while as an Aunt Megha—will discreetly join him in a few months. Before Baba’s move, a decision is made that it is best for me to attend high school in Calcutta’s most prestigious boys’ boarding academy, which in turn will prepare me for all the top colleges in the world. I take an admission test, the mathematics section of which lays bare my ineptitude in pre-calculus, and in the essay section of which I pen a venomous rant against the world at large. But a discreet, sizeable gift my father makes to the school still ensures that I get in.

My parents never get a divorce.

“There’s no need for scandals now, is there?” Prakash says in between blowing smoke circles into the air. “This way, everybody wins. Like I say, scandals are for vandals, Yaar!” 

I have never heard him say that before, but I do not tell him that. Instead, I mutter, “Fuck them. Just fuck them.”

“Language, Kumar!” He grins and winks. “But don’t you worry. I’ll get a new boss now, yes, but I’ll still come visit you in hostel whenever I can.”

***

“I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, Yaar,” Prakash says.

It’s Sunday, his day off, and having spent the early afternoon catching Amitabh’s latest blockbuster at the Metro, we are now seated on the dilapidated bleachers of Curzon Park, eating bhel-puri bought from a street vendor and watching a spirited pickup cricket match, killing time.

“I got into a big argument with Uncle Kalyan last week,” I tell him.

Kalyan is my mother’s brother, my real uncle, with whom and whose family Ma and I spend our holidays and count our blessings during our countless Bengali festivals.

“About what?”

“You know, the usual. He didn’t like something I said, so he called Baba some sick names and made it sound as if by virtue of being Baba’s on, I’m the same.”

Prakash lets out a soft whistle. “Asshole! What was the point of telling you that? What else did he say?”

“Um, we didn’t talk much after that. But come on, Uncle Prakash! Don’t you feel the same way about Baba? You just don’t say it to my face, that’s all. Tell me the truth.”

He does not. Instead, he stares straight ahead, his eyes hidden behind those mirrored sunglasses, but the rest of his disposition—the pursed lips, the clenched jaws—make him look as handsomely angry as Amitabh in the movie we just saw.

A small cheer goes up on the field and a ball—its covers frayed, seams breaking—rolls up near us. Someone must have hit a four. Instinctively, I jump down from the bleachers to reach for it so that I can throw it back to the pitch. But as soon as stretch my back, I feel the pain from the scalding lines that has been lying dormant. It makes me wince.

“So, nothing else happened, right?” Prakash asks. When I turn around, he’s taken off his sunglasses.

I’d like to tell him that more than words were exchanged with Kalyan. But what holds me back is the knowledge that despite all his bravado, Prakash can do nothing to Kalyan, who has a thriving medical practice, a chair at the Medical College, a vice-presidency at a prestigious private club. While Kalyan, on the other hand, can cause all sorts of problems for Prakash: quite possibly have him fired, or at least put on probation (he does belong to an union, after all), and perhaps even evicted from his tenement building.

“Hmm, I see,” says Prakash. “So what about your Baba? Is going to live with him not an option at all? It’s just that you’re so miserable here! I mean, I’d hate to see you leave this place, of course, but going to finishing school in England would be quite something, yes?”

“Wasn’t it you who said beware of the evil you don’t know more than the one you do? Or am I thinking of that line from that movie Silsila?

“You’re right, you’re right!” Prakash replies. “Forget I brought it up.”

It’s a pleasant February afternoon, the winter chill tempered by a sizzling sun. All around the park, families and friends are congregated in boisterous groups. They eat bhel-puri and kati-rolls and chana masala and jhal-muri, and drink Gold Spots and Thums Ups and Limcas and lassi and tea. The two teams playing in front of us are made up of boys my age. They play cricket with a frayed ball, in raggedy clothes and without pads and gloves and shoes, and they argue vehemently over wide balls and bouncers with unsettled judgment.

“Nice way of avoiding my question, Uncle Prakash. I’m sixteen! You don’t think I can handle it?”

“Look, it’s been years since I’ve even seen your father. I only drove him places, kept my eyes on the road, tried not to think too much and be grateful to have a fixed pay each month. That’s the honest truth.”

“I read in a story that whenever someone feels compelled to say he’s being honest, he’s being dishonest.”

“You’ve been reading too many books, and like my mother always said, there’s no better way to ruin a perfectly healthy young man for life than with too many of those book things. That’s why I still try to take you out to have some fun whenever I can. Look, I think you and I both know that your father is an ambitious fellow, but what’s wrong with that?”

“Apart from the fact that he abandoned his wife and son to pursue his ambition and take up with another woman, nothing, I suppose.”

“You see what’s happening here…see this game you and I are playing? It’s even more intricate than cricket, it is! You’re trying to bowl past me the fact that your uncle lashed your back, and I’m trying to bat away uncomfortable facts about your father that aren’t worth dwelling over. We’re each playing hard to not let the other lose.”

“I’m tired of this bullshit game. Let’s talk about something else.”

“Yes, let’s.” He gets up and dusts off the back of his pants. “But let me get something from the car first. I was saving it for myself for later tonight. But I think you’re ready to try some Kingfisher Lager. There’s a bottle of it in the back seat, wrapped up in newspapers. It’s probably warm, but you won’t know the difference, trust me! Let me grab it and some smokes, and then I’ll tell you all about how Saint Brezhnev is going to squash the Mujahedeen guerillas in Afghanistan once and for all, and would have already done so if not for the great Satan—that’s Reagan, by the way—arming them to the teeth.”

***

I’m in Class Twelve when Prakash starts pestering me about my future. We’ve continued to see each other at least once a month, always on Sundays. Prakash has just treated me to a sumptuously spicy meal at a truck-stop dhaba, which we have washed down with a ludicrously potent homebrew. Any dinner out is infinitely more preferable than eating at the hostel cafeteria, especially one as authentic and evil as the one we just consumed. But now I have the hiccups. It’s time to make curfew.

Walking toward the car, he cups his hands to light a cigarette, then asks, “So, what’s next?”

“I have to put the finishing touches on an essay due tomorrow.” We ignore the truck drivers, the peddlers and pimps eyeing us suspiciously as we pull out of the joint in a shiny black Benz. “It’s on Molière’s Tartuffe, about hypocrites who pretend to be virtuous. I have to dissect Louis XIV’s proclamation banning the play, in which the King acknowledges Molière’s genius, proclaims that he gets it, but fears that his subjects—somehow less capable than him of telling vice from virtue—might succumb to it and riot. So he orders it banned, while expressing grief over having to deprive himself of the pleasure of enjoying this brilliant comedy. I am supposed to draw the conclusion that such a proclamation made Louis XIV himself a Grade-A Tartuffe.”

Prakash turns and blows a mouthful of smoke in my face. “What the hell do I care about Louis XIV? I warned you to take it easy with that malt; it’s gone straight to your head, I see.” We stop at an intersection, and he whistles, a la Amitabh, at two giggling young women crossing the street. “I meant what’s next after school, wise guy!”

“Oh! I am not sure, Uncle Prakash. I may end up going to St. Xavier’s. Baba did his undergrad there. Or go to America.”

“America??”

I had momentarily forgotten the leftist bend of his politics—the monolithic set of ideas upon which rests his worldview. Realizing I am drunk, I lean my head back against the seat. The street lights haven’t come on yet. A school of thick, black clouds scud the fading sky, and I feel the faint rumbling of a headache marching in.

“Kumar, have you forgotten how distasteful you find your wealthy family?” He takes off his sunglasses and reaches across to poke my chest with his index finger. “Do you know how rare you are? Someone who appreciates us? People like me, who come from nothing? If you didn’t even want to think about England all these years, why America now?”

“I’m just trying to find a place to study and get away for a while. I have no family in America, that’s something.”

“But America will change you! You wait and see. It always starts with going to study, and then nobody wants to come back. It’s called brain drain, my friend. Tsk, tsk,”—that old familiar tongue-pressed-against-his-teeth sound—“our best and brightest minds going there and getting sucked into their selfish culture. That’s what’ll end up happening!”

I look at him, his face flush with sincere disappointment, and do not have the heart to tell him that the application process is already well underway.

“Tell you what…come with me to Presidency College one of these days,” he says. “I want you to meet some student leaders, leaders of tomorrow, those who will shape the country. People like you. I want you to hear what they have to say.”

“How do you know them?”

“I’ve attended their rallies and meetings. Just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I don’t know intellectuals, you know. And they are working for change, Kumar. Change is happening as we speak.”

“But right now I’m getting ready for the finals, Uncle Prakash!”

“Look, you do take a break sometimes, right? Like now? How about next Sunday? Just once, and then you can attend some more meetings after your finals.”

***

A week later, he escorts me past rows of old bookshops on College Street, and into the dank halls of Presidency, where it’s a lot cooler than outside. The walls are covered with multicolored, vicious looking graffiti. The place reeks of urine. A couple waits there; the man raises his hand and waves.

“Meet Kajal and Suparna,” Prakash says. He smiles victoriously. “And here’s my prized protégé, delivered as promised.”

Kajal stinks of cigarette smoke and has chapped lips. His hair is like a mop, poking through the gap above his glasses and over his eyes but that does not seem to bother him. He takes my hand, leans in close and whispers, as if he is letting me in on the gravest of state secrets, “The fight continues, Kumar.” He then proceeds to bum a cigarette off Prakash and light it, while I wonder exactly how much these two know about me.

Suparna, a spindly number with a considerable number of gray hairs for someone in her twenties and a craggy, round face, takes over from there. She does not shake my hand, wastes no time on greetings or perfumed chit-chat, but immediately launches a longwinded soliloquy about the origins of her cause: landless sharecroppers rising up in revolt in Nakshalbari up north. She imparts the history lesson with the sternness of a salty spinster, which I imagine her turning into, if she hasn’t already.

In between puffs, Prakash nods. “Like my family, Kumar…”

Suparna says, “And now let me tell you about our Charuda, about how they butchered him in the Alipore jail, those monsters…”

“America? Capitalists?” Prakash adds.  “What was it that Marx predicted? That the last capitalist to be hung would be the one that sold the rope?”

“That’s right. You know Kumar, capitalists mock the government and get along when the getting-along is good, and then scream for help as soon as they’re in trouble. Heck, Lincoln even gave a speech about it. 1837, I believe. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? See, we read stuff, we know things too. I’ll get you a copy of it next time we meet.”

“Do you think these brilliant young minds enjoy meeting like this? In this smelly hallway and the underground bookstores and pamphlet presses and cutlet stations to drink tea from clay pots? It’s all they can do to think of ways to fight for the poor like us…”

Suparna hands me a severely dog-eared, falling-apart-at-the-hinges copy of Communist Manifesto, and orders me to memorize it before our next meeting. 

I’ve been quiet for a while, and briefly entertain the idea of debating them by flaunting my elite, private school education. Maybe bring up Glasnost and Perestroika, now underway and threatening to topple communism in the Soviet Union itself. Maybe even throw out a few done-to-death Orwellian observations. But of course, I do no such thing. I am here to humor them, not offend my favorite uncle; and my stomach is already growling in anticipation of the wicked dinner to follow our meeting. The truth is that even though I appreciate Prakash, I just cannot imagine spending my life fighting for the common good. What I believe, or desperately want to anyway, is that circumstances do not define us as much as how we respond to those circumstances. I’ve noticed that belief to be the fundamental character trait of every hero in every formula movie I’ve ever seen with Prakash, so naturally I’ve adopted it as my own. That singular notion has kept me going these last few years. And try as they might, the Kajals and the Suparnas cannot shake my one resolve: to prove to myself that I can build a life of my own despite how miserable my family made me.

 All this by way of saying in a shamelessly self-promotional and classic Tartuffian way that the only question that remains once the admission offer-letters begin to arrive is: where is this bad boy going to get his party on?

***

Prakash does not believe me at first, and then predicts I’ll change my mind by the end of summer.

“I don’t think so. It’s settled, Uncle Prakash.”

“Nothing’s settled until you die,” he says, thumping my chest, “and even then, if you’ve done anything meaningful at all in life, others will continue to dig up memories of you, instead of merely storing them in picture frames and tossing them in a shelf, and locking them up at the back of the head with a label marked ‘grief.’” Then, with a wink Amitabh would approve of, he announces, “I plan to unsettle you, my friend. Get ready.”

He tries, he really does. But in the end, he is no Amitabh, and my life will never make a Bollywood blockbuster in which the hero ekes out heroic success against seemingly insurmountable odds. There is little he can actually do. I am eighteen, old enough to vote for whichever crooked politician can fool me the most, and therefore also old enough to do pretty much whatever else I want, and be charged as an adult if caught doing one of those things. I have been taught in the English medium, finished my higher-secondaries at the most prestigious school in the state, and have scholarship offers from a few of the more well-renowned universities in the world. Unlike a lot of my fellow citizens, I have a record of all my shots. I also have no record of STD, due to the fact that until now, I have only been making imaginary love to my many imaginary girlfriends, and consequently always practicing safe sex. The visa is thus rendered a mere formality, especially since I am able to show (thanks to my father’s bank statements) ample proof of funds to cover room and board, and also, as it will turn out, killer hangovers, an occasional stick of feelgood, and a low-mileage, slightly-used Honda Prelude.

After the formalities of the visa and a ticket are dispensed with, I simply vanish for a month until the departure date. And in a city with so many tea shops and cutlet houses, bookstores, movie theaters, libraries, museums, cabarets and football stadiums, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to not be found, especially during a generous monsoon season.

But I’ve also made sure to spend a Sunday afternoon with Prakash just prior to my departure. We meet at a crowded restaurant. He wears a wide grin, seems at peace and is remarkably affable, and proceeds to order enough food and beers for a squadron. I eat and drink until becoming almost comatose.

“I know you will call it a cliché, but I will miss all this, you know,” I say.

He nods. “It is a cliché. But come to think of it, I will miss all this too.”

“You can come here whenever you want.”

He flashes a cool smile. “Oh, didn’t I tell you that I’ve decided to move back home?”

“What! When did you decide that? Details, Uncle Prakash, details!”

“It’s just time, that’s all. I’ll put my body and mind into that blasted family land in Mohanpur, then see what happens,” he says casually, although I can clearly see that he is savoring this moment of stunning me more than he savored the tandoori. “There you are, moving to a place where you know nobody and nobody knows you, and here I am, moving back to where I know everybody and everybody knows me.”

I think of the technical flaws in that statement, but just sit there, mouth still agape.

“Good luck then. I’m never going to see you again, you know.”

Those words strike me as melodramatic and irksome. I let out a shrill laugh. “It can’t be! Give me your address, I’ll write to you. Besides, I’ll come back from time to time. And when I do, surely we can visit?”

He smiles benevolently while scribbling down his address. Then he pulls money out of his wallet and places it on the table, pulls down his sunglasses from atop his head to over his eyes. “Someday you’ll learn that the way you just laughed is people’s most natural response to life’s unwanted, uncomfortable realities. Then will you start recognizing an end even as it is happening in front of your eyes. And then, and only then, maybe you’ll realize that it is much better to acknowledge and accept an ending, than to pretend otherwise.”

Before I can even think of anything else to say, he shakes my hand with the formality of an ambassador acknowledging an adversarial counterpart, gets up and walks out.

***

After settling into my dormitory, I go by the post office one afternoon. Business inside is slow, and I exchange pleasantries with the gentleman behind the counter. He enquires about my origins, tells me he was in Nam, and pulls out a set of stamps wrapped in plastic.

“This, my friend, is this year’s commemorative set. What we call a collectible. You’ve got the perfect introduction to America right here: four classic films, all Oscar nominated, celebrating their golden jubilees. A Pulitzer winning poet. And this lady here? Part of the black heritage series. Born a slave, fought discrimination her whole life, helped start the NAACP,”—the look of confusion in my face gives him a momentary pause, before he clarifies—“that’s the national association for colored people…like you and me, my friend.”

I do not want to alienate my new-found friend by pointing out that the stamps I need to mail letters to India will have to be for more than twenty-five cents. I’ll just use two at a time, I think, walking out of there with envelopes and the set of stamps, a little perturbed with myself for having been talked into something I don’t really need.

I write rambling letters to Prakash every few weeks, documenting my new life for him. He never writes back. With each no-reply, I grow a little more despondent, and my next letter grows a little shorter. Then I get busier, make new friends, discover beer-bongs and special brownies, and shortly thereafter this thing called the GPA requires something else called a CPR. Eventually, memories of him recede to a small black spot in the back of my soul.

***

Two decades go by, and home becomes somewhere else, although it hurts the head to recall just how all that has come about. I am married to an orthodontist named Mina, have twins, a job that has somehow morphed into a career.

After my mother’s passing, I fall into a long spell of malaise that I can’t seem to shake out of, which is inexplicable because I was never that close to her, nor to my father, who still lives with Birmingham with Megha.

Mina is supportive, to a point. She enjoys her work, and as luck would have it, people in this great country love to laugh. Often times, their number-one criteria in choosing a mate—higher than integrity, education, or even wealth—seems to be the ability of a potential partner to make them laugh. And as long that remains the case, Mina will always make a good living. She reminds me of the flexibility that affords us, assures me that I am just going through a phase, and encourages me to “find myself.” And I try to do just that. I finally quit coffee and pick up tea, grow a beard until it gets scratchy. I learn to roller-skate with my children. I experiment with a crème brûlée recipe acquired from an ex-girlfriend and think that I’ve perfected it by adding four threads of saffron to it.

Then Mina confronts me one night when the children are asleep.

“You have to promise me you’ll stop being so down, and tell me what you’re going to do to get help,” she says. “Tell me what I can do to help.”

We discuss soul-cleansing endeavors like teaching, mentoring, working for non-profits. She is even open to the idea of my opening a corner bakery to capture the market for saffron-flavored crème brûlée. On our bedside table, the digital clock blinks two red dots every second and lurches forward in one-minute increments.

“I want to get a new clock, one of those old-fashioned ones. I love everything else you’ve done to this place, but I hate that clock, always have.”

It tries to break up time and then recapture it in small fragments.

“Kumar! Now is not the time! I’m trying to have a serious discussion here, because I can’t live like this, and there’s no way I’m raising my kids with a manic depressive.”

Will she take the kids and move closer to her parents in New Jersey? And shouldn’t I know better than to mess with someone who grew up in New Jersey? Besides, I really don’t want to lose the little ones, be an absentee father to them. Come to think of it, I don’t want to lose Mina either. Half of all marriages end in divorce—everyone knows that; and the best that can be said, if at all, about half of the other half, is that they are alliances, ceasefires, embargoes, stalemates, surrenders, treaties, truces or withdrawals. Having seen them all, I’d made a doughty resolution once upon a time that if I ever stumbled into one of my own, I’d never allow it to be described in the language of war.

That night, I have one of those dreams that, when they happen to those who believe in gods and miracles, are easily explained away as epiphanies or some other form of divine experience, but dreams that, when they happen to someone like me, are doubly disjointing, because on top of being intense, they belie the rationality which we proclaim to be the very foundation of life.

In my dream, Prakash, smoking and smirking, spits at me lurid pieces of his mind. But exactly what he says, I can’t quite hear.

***

Now Mina is perplexed. We used to go to India every other year before Ma died, using those perfunctory visits as the basis to undertake more adventurous excursions to exotic locales. But a village in Bengal?

“What are we going to see there, rice paddies?” she demurs. “You said he never stayed in touch. What makes you think he’d want to see you now?”

“Didn’t you say I needed inspiration?” I counter. “I’ve never had the urge to pursue anything with this kind of zeal since you gave up and agreed to go out with me, you know.”

Quelled by honeyed memories, she agrees to set aside three days in an itinerary full of more vacation-worthy spots. The day after arriving at my hometown, we board a train at the Howrah Station for a two-hour journey to Bardhaman, to be followed by a thirty-minute bus ride to a one-stop village.

The kids are hungry and a little cold, but a passenger’s goat keeps them entertained in the train compartment until they and Mina all fall asleep.

We reach Mohanpur Village—beyond the square that houses the Uttam Market, the Union Bank ATM, and the Petrol Pump Station, lush yellow-green maize fields stretch out to meld into the blue, blue sky. At the pump station, I give the attendant the address, and he starts giving us directions by mentioning an ashvattha tree, a deserted mosque, and a popular jumping-off spot for suicides as turning-point landmarks. Eventually, it occurs to him that a rickshaw might be a better idea. 

He sends the three boys loitering outside on an errand to call for our ride. When it arrives, Mina and I pile a child on each of our laps. Behind us, the boys follow on bicycles. If they have a county paper, we’ll likely make the front page, I tell my family. The boys stop where the concrete road ends, but a black pariah leads us the rest of the way, barking incessantly under an azure winter sky speckled only with a chattering of mynahs flying low, along half a mile of unpaved bullock-cart pathway past the farms toward a cluster of thatched-hut homes.

By the time we disembark and I finish paying the rickshaw-cyclist, the front door to the farmhouse has already flung open. The young man that steps out needs no introduction. I’d recognize that face, that hair, anywhere. He is sixteen, if that; a fuzzface, almost as old as his father was when he’d left this village.

It feels as if the young man has been expecting me, as if even the mere mention of my name is unnecessary. His face breaks into a wide open, disarming grin, and letting us in the front room, he folds his hands in a namaskar. A woman, hurriedly pulling her sari over her face, scuttles through the side door.

“Please tell your mother not to make anything,” I say. “We had lunch on the way.”

It takes a little convincing, but he finally relents and calls out to her.

“Well, they’ll at least drink tea then,” comes back her terse response, followed by a defiant proclamation: “and no child is leaving my house without having a sandesh first.”

“We don’t get visitors from out of town,” he says by way of explanation, before playfully sticking his tongue out at the kids, who immediately bury their faces in our shoulders.

“Your father?” I ask.

Two years ago, he says. It was painful, but quick. No. 10 Filters tend to do that.

For a few minutes nobody says anything.

Then he raises his finger, motioning us to wait, and retreats into the back room. We hear shuffling, pots and pans being moved, fabric ripping. He emerges, wearing a spider web on his head like the hair-net on a short order cook and spots of soot everywhere, holding an old shoebox. He shakes it in a feeble attempt to dust it off before placing it in front of me. Inside are yellowed airmail envelopes, neatly sliced on the left, the right corners of each bearing two identical stamps: miniature posters of Stagecoach and Beau Geste, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, portraits of Ida B. Wells and Marianne Moore, and…and I have difficulty seeing the rest, as if I’ve suddenly developed a cataract or something. I feel Mina’s hand rubbing my shoulder, and catch my son staring at me with tears on his own face; my daughter has suddenly crawled into the crook of my arm.

“Home is not just a place, my Baba always used to say. It’s nothing if not for the people you grow up with,” the young man solemnly states, wrapping the letters with an elastic band and handing them to me with a quiet, steely resolve that belies his age and makes it clear that refusing this particular gesture will not be quite as easy as refusing lunch. Then he looks me straight in the eye, brings back a touch of smile to his face, and adds, “He also said that you’d have to come back to look for yours someday, just as he did.”

The last train to Calcutta leaves shortly after six. On our way back, Mina and the children all fall asleep again; the little ones huddled on our laps, three faces worn from a day of adventure in a strange countryside. Outside the window, daylight settles its daily dispute with darkness, then an invisible hand sprinkles a saltshaker full of stars across the pristine sky.


Suman Mallick’s debut novel “The Black-Marketer’s Daughter” was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize, and published in October, 2020. His debut short story ‘Disorientation’ was published by The Gravity of the Thing. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Under the Gum Tree, and received his Master of Fine Arts from Portland State University, where he also taught English and Creative Writing. Website: http://www.sumanmallick.com/

Fiction | ‘Under a slice of the Bombay sky’ by Hema Nair | CWW

Nandini Barve was 36 years old in 1982. She worked for a transport company in their secretarial pool along with six other girls, two of whom were stenographers. The stenographers, who were younger and prettier, were chosen to go into the cabin of the bosses to take down their dictation. Nandini would then type them out on her Godrej typewriter, filling reams of paper. Some would get cyclostyled, some got filed away and yet others would be flown off to a distant city in a buff envelope with a transparent window. 

As soon as the 5 pm siren sounded, she put the paper in the appropriate tray and tucked the typewriter in for the night; in a pretty embroidered cover. She grabbed her bag, put in her lunch box which she had left to dry under her table and got up to leave. On her way out, she exchanged small talk and pleasantries with some of the other girls as they all joined the exodus moving out of the building. Nandini and Preeti found each other near the gate and fell into step with each other. They lived in the same neighborhood and kept each other company during the long commute home. Enroute they stopped at the local market for vegetables. Preeti prepped them during the train journey, while Nandini preferred to read. At home, she would not be faulted for chopping vegetables but if she whiled away time reading, that would be another matter. As the train pulled out of the station, Preeti pulled out her newspaper and a knife. The potatoes and brinjal were diced expertly and wrapped separately. Onions were not chopped there in deference to fellow commuters.

“The harami came late last night too,” Preeti said as she snapped the beans into bits in her vehemence, then looked up to see Nandini focused on her book. She nudged her.

“I said, he came home late last night too,” Preeti repeated.

Nandini sighed, put down her book.  “And did you ask him why?”

“What’s the use. He’ll just say he was working late and shout at me for something else.” Preeti tossed her head.

“Maybe he was,” Nandini ventured mildly.

“Ha! I could smell the sandalwood on him a mile away. Bhadwa saala.”

“Wasn’t it Navratna hair oil?” Nandini asked, puzzled.

Preeti gave her a look. “That was a year ago, Nandini. Don’t you remember? I took him to Siddhivinayak and made him swear on Dolly’s head. He had stopped seeing her then.”

Preeti looked down at the brinjal in her lap which was once whole, but now lay in pieces.

Thankfully Dolly’s head was still all right, Nandini thought. If her head was to explode at every instance of her father’s indiscretion, it would have been mighty inconvenient for Preeti. She stared out of the window at the hovels and advertisements ripping past. All the solutions for the problems of the world were on these walls. ‘Unable to grow a beard? We have the solution! 21 din me paisa double’. Bald patches, skin pigmentation, cheap housing, dance bars, sexual dysfunction and astrology. There were no answers for her, though.

The house was dark when she entered. She switched on the lights and lit the oil lamp in front of her Gods. The light streaming out of the house brought her daughter home like a fluttering little moth. She came up from behind and wrapped her arms around her mother. Nandini smiled, clasped her small hands with her own and turned around to look at her. Varsha, all of eight and the light of her life. Her husband and son would return home soon too and the day would wind down. After dinner, she found herself alone in the kitchen cleaning up. She relished these moments of solitude in the small, almost box like room and hummed to herself as she scrubbed and wiped. The rest of her family spread out over what remained of the flat. Four souls in 400 square feet of precious real estate in Bombay. The streetlight spread a warm glow on the world outside and she watching the moths clustered around the lamp, while her thoughts rambled aimlessly over the landscape of her life. She didn’t quite process that she was delaying the inevitable repose with her husband that was a ritual of the nights. Unlike Preeti’s husband, hers did not crave liaisons with assorted bottled fragrances. He only sought one scent. Chandrika soap – hers. When every steel surface shone and the floor was cleared of litter and grime, she ran out of excuses. She turned off the lights and tiptoed around her sleeping children in the small hall and made her way to the bedroom and her waiting husband.

Sunday was her favourite day. She woke up later than usual and drank her tea sitting down. Even though she was home all day and didn’t have to pack lunch, she preferred to cook lunch alongside breakfast, so as to be done with all the cooking in a couple of hours. Just like she would on a working day. On Sundays, it took longer, since she played the radio and was wont to sing along or swing to the beat sometimes, which seemed to delay her. The children were around somewhere, and her husband left to play cricket after breakfast. 

After cooking, she took the radio into the bathroom and hung it from a nail on the back of the door. She undressed and united her hair. A few strands fell over her breasts and tickled her dusky nipples. She looked at herself in the mirror and could only see her face and shoulders. Taking the mirror off the wall, she placed it on the wash basin supported by her bundled up clothes so it wouldn’t fall down. Now she could gaze at her body while she teased the strands of her hair. The tips of her nipples played hide and seek with those dark strands and her skin puckered into goosepimples. A shiver, like a low voltage electric current spread through her body. Her hands took on an urgency now – stroking, pinching, searching her body for that perfect burst of ecstasy. She eased down on the floor and poured water all over her body from the bucket. Hands moved faster across her body, now slick with moisture. Her fingers skimmed her lips, her breath fanning her fingers in short bursts of gasps and muted whimpers as she climaxed explosively around her hands.

It was evening when the children and their father came home. Nandini woke up from her weekend afternoon nap, and she was in the kitchen boiling chai and making bread pakora when they came. She dipped pieces of old bread in a curried batter of gram flour and deep fried them in oil. A clever combination of recycling and creativity that surprisingly transformed into a decadent taste. After a boisterous round of snatching the pieces of pakora and downing the chai, the children left for their neighbor’s house to watch TV. Her husband was sitting in the balcony, a small one, but it gave a slice of the Bombay sky. Nandini brought in his chai and a plate of pakoras and joined him there. Conversation was slow, as they sipped the chai. Dusk deepened and the air changed from blue to yellow. The streetlights came on. Her husband took the last pakora, broke it into two pieces and put one half into her mouth. Nandini looked at him and smiled as she chewed on it. She looked up at the sky and saw the few stars that could be seen through the haze of the Bombay skies.


Hema Nair took to writing fairly late in life. Her desire to study literature was thwarted by a predetermined career in medicine and better prospects. She is now a cardiac anesthesiologist and juggles her day job of taking children through heart surgery, with ungodly hours spent writing prose and poetry.

She has been published in The Hindu, and online magazines like Confluence, Madras Courier, Spark Magazine, Kitaab and The Good Men Project. She writes short fiction, essays, art review, book review and poetry. She lives in Bangalore, India.

Iranian Edition (Vol II) | Poetry by Roger Sedarat | Issue 40 (2021)

5 Poems
By Roger Sedarat


Bani Adam

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other,
Having been created by one essence.
When the calamity of time affects one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If you have no sympathy for the calamity of others
You are unworthy to be called by the name of Human.

“Children of Adam,” Sa’di

In the days of hope we had poetry.
Lines of Sa’di inscribed
on the entrance of the United Nations
almost convinced us we belonged
to each other, children of Adam
with a president reciting this verse
to our siblings on their new year
and a foreign president who reciprocated
by rhapsodizing about the origins
of the younger, enterprising nation.
Enemies of the first called him “Muslim”
like it was bad, his message going back
to the Qur’an as source of universal love
just as enemies of the second called theirs “Western”
shaming him for aspiring to such values.
Despite differences we related to the idea
of the 13th century sufi mystic.
Sometimes we experienced it as love
though we couldn’t quite explain it,
which is why we needed poetry.


On the woman’s chador…

a picture of a woman
wearing a chador on the
woman’s chador a picture of a woman
wearing a chador on the woman’s chador…

I couldn’t stop looking at her face,
superficially obsessed with the picture
of a woman wearing a chador
on the woman’s chador…


Persian Carpets

Spread out on floors of a house
bought by my father’s Iranian-
American dream
which continues to unravel
the free market
metamorphosis
of his rags to riches myth
into a moth
gnawing on fibers
holes in the thread
faceless kings turned
to empty tea trays held
by servants kneeling
on nothingness
the great empires
pulled out
from under
mane-less lions
with withered spines
slouching back
toward their maker
in Shiraz.


Iranian Sanctions

“Censorship is the mother metaphor.”
–Borges

Awaiting parts, 30 grounded airplanes
turn into a simurgh.

Denied medicine, Bijan blooms
roses in his diseased blood.

Numbers from the SWIFT payment system
regress to nightingale eggs: OO

Mr. Molani’s metalwork melts
down to a few faceless coins.

Rotting threads of the unsold carpet
expose the lion’s rib cage.

So many rooftop satellites—
waves of the Caspian rolling toward the west.

Our mothers in chadors spread their arms,
a blizzard of bats transcending the Muslim ban.

Oil inevitably seeps through Chinese barrels,
blanketing Beijing in smog.

How’d the rich kid get an iPhone?
(The iPhone is simply an iPhone).


Persian Drunk

Well, I got the fever down in my pockets,
The Persian drunkard, he follows me.
–Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan made his muse a Persian drunk
Is that okay? Let’s ask the Persian drunk.

How come no Nobel for my country songs?
My baba was a far worse Persian drunk.

I saw the six white horses, sweet Marie,
When you put me in this prison, drunk.

You’ve tried the transplanted Australian wine.
Here’s real Shiraz. Now, that’s a Persian drunk.

Hafez did not go to the mosque for God.
He found divinity in Persian drunks.

Raised in America and really shy,
I find I bravely speak great Persian drunk.


Roger Sedarat is the author of four poetry collections: Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s 2007 Hollis Summers’ Prize, Ghazal Games (Ohio UP 2011), Foot Faults: Tennis Poems (David Robert Books), and Haji as Puppet: an Orientalist Burlesque, which won Word Works 2016 Tenth Gate Prize for a Mid-Career Poet. A recipient of the Willis Barnstone Prize in Translation, his rendering of classical and contemporary Persian verse have appeared in Poetry, Brooklyn Rail, and Michigan Quarterly Review.

His most recent academic book, Emerson in Iran: the American Appropriation of Persian Poetry, is the first full-length study of the American poet-philosopher’s engagement with the classical verse tradition of Iran. He teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York.​