Fiction | ‘Turquoise Secret’ by Salil Chaturvedi

Indrani is surprised that her breasts are still alert to the possibility of love, even now, when her love is permanently gone.

She stands in the centre of the room, clutching the laundry tight against her chest, feeling the hardening of her nipples against the cotton blouse while her eyes scan the skies beyond the French windows for the turquoise flash.

A pigeon with bright red eyes and a white spot at the base of its beak flies past the balcony, startling her. Almost immediately after, a cream coloured butterfly bobs past the lime tree. Just one more second to be sure, Indrani tells herself…one last second…okay, one final last second…one last ultimate second…

Has it, after all, just been a trick of light? The time is right, though. Winter is on its way out, giving way to the early buds of spring. Her husband’s words float up from somewhere deep inside her: ‘With so many species you can be sure, Indu, that an orgasm is happening on this planet at all times. Just imagine, millions of years of uninterrupted orgasm. I think the Universe might itself be one big orgasm. I mean, what else could a big bang be?’

There!

The turquoise butterfly appears over the ledge of the balcony and dips below, as if inviting Indrani for a game of hide-and-seek. Indrani rushes through the French windows into the balcony and watches the butterfly bounce up to the taller branches of a guava tree. She tracks the butterfly as it hops from one flower to another, going back to a flower it has already visited, feeling it all over, poking it softly with its proboscis.

‘Look at it, just look at it,’ Indrani whispers her husband’s favourite phrase as she traces the flight of the butterfly. The butterfly has ridden the powerful easterly wind, arriving at its destination, it seems to Indrani, almost by accident. She knows, thanks to her husband that it is a Common Banded Peacock.

How do you do it, blue one? How do you, with your paper-thin wings, take on such a mighty wind? How do you reach exactly where you want to? Or do you just pretend that that is where you’ve always wanted to go? Is that your secret? What do I do with my secret? Who do I share it with?

The butterfly floats upwards towards the Neem tree near the wall of the housing society. A flock of ten (could even be twenty) dragonflies dart around the tips of a branch. Indrani wonders what attracts them to it. Two bumblebees circle each other noisily near the hollyhocks. A smile forms at the corner of her lips. Then her expression changes and she says aloud to them, knowing that they’ll understand, ‘I’ve lost my bumblebee,’ and collapses on the balcony floor, her head resting against the sun-warmed railing.

***

It didn’t make any sense. No, it didn’t it didn’t make any…of all things, a sailboat? She had never been, nor had ever wanted to be on a sailboat. They were miles out in the sea on a dinghy with a sail. Blue dinghy, white sail. Then the dolphins had appeared, smooth, wet and purple, mystifying the waters. He must have wheezed. Or he might have tried to reach out for her in his sleep while she dreamt the crazy dream. It still bothers her. What was she doing on a sailboat? Did the dolphins mean something? It didn’t make any sense. You aren’t allowed to die in your sleep, suddenly, without warning, while your partner is dreaming of a sailboat beside you. How could he be so selfish? How could he slip away so peacefully, leaving her so unprepared? He could have at least given her some advance notice.

***

His absence is like the round muddy stain on the floor of the balcony where a flowerpot used to be. Everyone can see the outline of the missing flowerpot, but only she sees the flower that grew in it. Only she remembers the shape of the petals, the texture of the leaves, the curve of the stamens. Only she remembers the fragrance of the flower. That’s what she misses the most. The smell of his sweat in the lonely hours of the night.

***

‘But, it’s all out of focus!’ her daughter protests.

‘What is this focus-shocus? I don’t care about focus. I don’t need any focus. He’s got a nice smile in it and that’s all I care about. You take your focus and live your life with it,’ Indrani shoots back.

‘You’re not the only one who’s lost someone special,’ her daughter says under her breath.

What do you know? You’ll be going back to your man tonight, Indrani thinks, but she can’t bring herself to say it.

Mother and daughter sit looking at the photograph. It’s a special photograph, taken the day she was sworn to secrecy, but Indrani can’t tell her daughter that. In the photograph, her husband has the trademark sandal-paste tilak on his forehead and a cup of coffee in his hand. The steam from the cup curls upwards, giving his face a slightly ghostly appearance. Still, his mischievous smile sparkles through like a diamond. Over the photograph it says in capital letters: ‘C. RAGHAVIAN CHAUDHARY’, and below it, in bold type: ‘Date of Expiry – 12 October 2019.’

‘You don’t have to visit me everyday,’ Indrani breaks the silence, trying to keep it casual. ‘I’ll be re-joining office tomorrow.’

Her daughter picks up her bag and walks out of the room. ‘I will come whenever I want to, hear me?’ she shouts from the door of the flat. ‘And how many times do I have to tell you, don’t put cardamom in my tea, it tastes like payasam! If you have to put something, put ginger…I like ginger in my tea, or is that too much to remember?’ and bangs the door shut.

Indrani sits holding the picture of her husband.  She thinks of the time before the secret had entered her life. Their life. She is standing in the driveway, next to the tulsi shrub, drying her hair with sharp strokes of the towel when the movement catches her eye. She had initially thought that it was a tiny seed rolling with the breeze, but the thing had moved in a straight line at a regular pace. She had sat down to take a closer look but even while sitting down she couldn’t make out any body parts. She had bent closer to the ground, her nose directly above the insect, and followed its journey. Soon, she had lost all sensation of herself: of her eyes, of her nose, of her wet hair sticking to her waist and of her knees that shuffled on the driveway above the insect. When the insect burrowed under a guava leaf in its path, she, too, engrossed and inseparable with the tiny life, ducked her head. As the insect emerged from the other side of the leaf, Indrani had reached for it gingerly. ‘Don’t,’ her husband had called out from behind her, but it was too late. The moment her finger touched the insect, it burst with a tiny pop. All that remained was half-a-drop of something that looked like dew.

‘Tch, you’ve ended a long story,’ her husband had said.

‘What story?’

‘A story that stretches to the beginning of time! That little thing was part of a long, unbroken narrative. Its parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents to the power of ten, had successfully added a paragraph with each generation, and now you’ve ended the story.’

‘What about our story?’ Indrani asks the photograph in her hands. ‘Why must I bear the secret alone now? Couldn’t you have just listened?’

***

‘It’s easy, Indu. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me, we’ll be like bumblebees,’ he had said, sipping the coffee.

‘No, I won’t agree to this. What’s wrong with you?’ she protested.

‘But, no one will ever know. It’ll be our secret, I promise.’

‘You don’t know how the world works. Word spreads. I’m not agreeing to this. It’s a small place, people will get to know. Are you unhappy about something?’

‘Come on, Indu, I wish you gave it some serious thought. It’s a purer way of living…imagine being a bumblebee,’ he insisted.

‘No! We’ve been married only four months. Are you unhappy with something? Is there something that I do not do which you’d like me to?’

‘Why should I be unhappy?

‘Then why do we have to do this?’

‘Because…’ he said holding her hand.

‘No don’t! I forbid you to bring it up again. What wild thoughts, and we’ve been married only four months! If you love me, you won’t bring it up again. Do you understand?’

***

He had had his way. On the way back from the Registrar’s office, immediately after they had got the divorce, he had pointed out a group of turquoise butterflies in the small park outside the office complex.

‘Look, look, look at them, Indu, just look at them! Common Banded Peacocks!’

They had stood and watched.

‘Can you see how they’re mud-puddling? Look! You’ll see them releasing jets of water from their behinds. They’re actually gathering nutrition from the mud. The males will pass on the nutrients – sodium and amino acids – to the females for healthy children. Now we are free like these butterflies.’

‘Are we like butterflies or bumblebees? Make up your mind.’

‘Like both, actually, but if you like these butterflies better, we’re like them!’

‘God help us… I hope we don’t land up in the mud,’ she said walking ahead.

‘Don’t worry, He will help us, but we’ll keep it a secret from Him, too!’ he had said with that sparkle in his eyes that she misses so much.

Sitting in the sun-soaked balcony, she clearly remembers that afternoon so many years ago. The sun had emerged after a week of constant rain. The light was pouring into a tree, lighting it up from the inside like a lantern. It was quiet and they had sat on a bench in the park and she had felt, and it was the only time in her life that she’d had that feeling, that quiet, light and soft feeling that everything always was everything else and was always so and was forever and always absolutely right.

***

Indrani reaches for the balcony railing and pulls herself up. She searches the Neem tree but can’t spot the butterfly anywhere. She leans her torso over the black metal railing, enjoying its warmth on her stomach. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Her saree’s pallu catches in the breeze and floats up towards the flat on the third floor. She feels the tug of the pallu, which has ballooned out in the breeze like a sail. Oh, okay, she thinks as she leans far out over the balcony, eyes closed and smiling, so that’s what the white sail was for.

Glossary:
Payasam
: a type of pudding made by boiling milk and sugar with rice, and flaoured with cardamom.

Salil Chaturvedi writes short fiction and poetry. He lives on the island of Chorao in Goa. He is the author of In The Sanctuary of a Poem, and Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha, an award-winning Hindi poetry collection.

Fiction | ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ by Kruti Brahmbhatt

‘Where is the purifier?’ asked the assistant commissioner.

‘The purifier?’ the junior officer responded.

‘Yes, what else?’

‘Oh, the air purifier…’

‘I told you, a week ago.’

‘Yes, sir. I didn’t forget. By tomorrow–?’

‘No, not tomorrow. By evening, in the conference room.’

‘I thought he wasn’t serious,’ said the junior officer, returning to his desk.

‘Air purifier?’ the typist responded.

‘Yes.’

‘Is there such a thing?’

‘Yes, a purifier, an air purifier, and there exists such a thing.’

Glancing towards the main door, the junior officer spotted the peon sweeping the floor as if he was aiming a fast paced ball with his broom. ‘Kanu, come with me.’ Halfway down the stairs, the assistant stopped by the office of the scientist who was calculating some numbers on a brand new computer, almost the size of a window. He tapped the scientists’ shoulder.

‘Emergency.’

‘Where to find that air purifier?’

‘You told me only last week. I thought we had some time.’

‘No, no. Need to get it by this eve-’

‘The scientist is in Chandigarh.’

‘So we go there, check the instrument and get the damn thing by evening. Okay?’

‘But I need to come up with some figures. For the meeting tomorrow.’

‘Do it in the evening. Without that purifier, both of us won’t be here tomorrow. Still on probation, remember.’

The scientist joined reluctantly but didn’t seem to care about this unplanned trip to Chandigarh. He continued to scribble something, some numbers, in his diary even when they were in an auto rickshaw going through a bumpy road. Kanu sat with the driver in the front, two of them on separate ends in the back seat.

‘Sir, why are we going to Chandigarh?’

‘To get the air purifier, Kanu.’

‘Sir, is it so big that all three of us need to go?

‘Any problem? Do you have to present a budget in the parliament?’

‘No, no, sir. I was just asking, sir.’

‘Let’s look for the Delhi-Chandigarh bus at the station.’

The station was a mile away.

‘I have to derive numbers by tonight. Mr. Aurangabadkar need them for tomorrow,’ said the scientist, scribbling something in his diary.

‘This air purifier is also for Mr. Aurangabadkar and it’s also for tomorrow,’ said the junior officer.

‘Yes, yes. I know.’

They continued their journey, the assistant looking at the giant buses, one of them read Delhi-Chandigarh. They got out of the auto rickshaw and hopped on the bus, paid for their tickets and sat in the first row. The scientist occupied the window seat. He periodically stared outside at the gray sky and as and when a giant bus passed by their bus, covered his nose with a muffler. Twice, when the junior officer had looked his way, not for any reason other than to understand the reason behind the scientist’s heightened sensitivity for pollution.

Almost an hour later, despite witnessing its many manifestations – air pollution by trucks and buses, agriculture activities and mining activities, huge factories and little chulhas – the junior assistant remained unperturbed. They saw a group of farmers gathered on their farm to sprinkle pesticides – again air pollution. The scientist pointed his finger in that direction but didn’t waste words.

‘We work in the environment department but don’t be so sensitive,’ said the junior officer. ‘At least this pollution will kill people years later. If they don’t earn with whatever means available, they’ll die now. A dog’s death, you see. I am with Mr. Aurangabadkar on this.’

‘My cousin died of cancer five years ago and he was only forty-eight and when we asked the cause, the doctor said that constant exposure to pollution was possibly the culprit. And this is only going to get worse in Delhi.’

‘Which year was this?’

‘Almost five years ago, in 1985.’

‘I’d still say,’ said the junior officer who had taken upon himself the duty of justifying development at the expense of pollution, ‘It’s lesser of the evil.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all about the short run, my brother. In the long run, we are going to be dead anyway. Then, why worry? Think about now. This worked out for the west. Hopefully, it would for us too.’

‘But this is not a sustainable model. And, why do we need to imitate?’

‘No, we don’t. But, this is how the world works. This is how the business lobby thinks. And this is how the politicians think. And this is how Mr. Aurangabadkar thinks.’

At that moment the bus stopped for a break. All three, went outside to relieve themselves.

‘Now, don’t tell me we can’t piss next to the tree. That must also add to some kind of pollution, right?’

‘No, it’s actually good for the soil, for the tree. Kanu, don’t you people use urine in the biogas plant in your village?”

‘Yes, sir. They add cow dung, and urine and all kinds of things.’

At that moment the bus conductor called everyone. All three, stepped up and sat on their respective places one by one.

‘There, I see that fellow in green sweater, still drinking tea,’ the conductor shouted, pointing to an obese man drinking tea and chatting away with the tea-stall owner. He finally heard the conductor, paid money to the tea-stall guy and almost ran to catch the moving bus.

In exactly, four hours and thirty minutes, they reached Chandigarh. The greenery in the city pleased their senses. The junior officer ordered both of them to walk faster to the manufacturer’s shop.

‘Are you sure it was in sector 25?’

‘Yes. Two-minute walk from here.’

‘We have to be back to Delhi by evening.’

‘Shouldn’t be a problem, a bus is at two another one at three.’

‘Let’s aim for the first one. Leaves us an hour to close the deal.’

‘No more than thousand rupees.’

The shop owner cum scientist was cleaning some machine parts. When he saw the buyers, he left the instruments on the table and came up to the front desk to welcome them.

‘So where is the purifier?’ said the scientist.

‘Sir, here it is. The only piece I have,’ responded the shop owner. ‘It’s a futuristic invention, sir.’

‘What’s the price?’ said the scientist.

‘Only twenty five hundred rupees, sir,’ said the scientist, his back supported by the thick cushion on his chair. Everybody knew that these shops quoted double the price to begin with. But this was more than double.

‘Please quote the final price. At this price, no one will buy,’ said the junior officer.

‘Two thousand rupees for you, sir.’

‘We have no budget to go beyond nine hundred rupees.’

‘I can’t afford to sell at that price, sir. No, no. Not possible.’

‘Look, nobody knows about this damn thing. It will only rot in your shop.  It’s too early to be commercialised. You understand, right? We might be able to find ways to sell it in the future and at that time you will have an edge over others. First mover’s advantage, you know.’

‘Nine hundred and fifty, the final price.’

‘Okay, let’s see the instrument.’

‘Sir, you switch it on and it purifies the air in the room. Nothing else to do. Leave it on like you leave a cooler on in the summers.’

‘Here, take nine hundred and fifty rupees.’

The junior assistant and the scientist helped Kanu to carry the box with a shining blue ribbon around it. Kanu kept the box next to his seat in the bus. When they were getting off to Adhchini, a little girl came close to the scientist and asked if it contained a present for someone. The scientist smiled and shook his head before waving the girl goodbye.

It was close to seven in the evening. They rushed back to the office. The assistant commissioner’s office was quiet. The peons outside were moving chairs and tables to the conference room.

*

 The assistant commissioner was drawing some figures on the black board.

‘Sir, we’ve got the air purifier. It’s in the conference room.’

‘What’s the price? One thousand rupees?’ He turned around.

‘Yes, sir, one thousand rupees. We negotiated hard but it’s a rare machine so we had to pay what we had to pay.’

‘Don’t worry. Will get it reimbursed.’

‘Yes, sir. This thing will be useful to convince the NGO people. They can be stubborn.’

‘Never quite liked them. Bullshit arguments. Bring CNG, save environment, disrupt the economy. Stupid they are. You understand, stupid people.’

‘You are absolutely right, sir.’

‘Even if the boss tries to pass this bill, will he get the funding from businesses in the next election? Will he get votes from people who’d bear the inconvenience initially? People are interested to solve a problem only when it comes to their own backyard.’

‘Yes, sir, right sir.’

‘If they don’t want to pay the price, why should we?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Show that thing and finish the demo quickly.’

‘Yes, sir. I have it set up in the conference room.’ The junior assistant leads the assistant commissioner to the conference room on the top floor.

‘Sir, I will start the machine and talk about how it purifies polluted air. We can say if the situation deteriorate in the future, say in two decades from now, we can even subsidise the air purifiers for the poor.’

‘And-’

‘And that intervention will be better than disrupting the system now.’

‘What intervention and all, huh?’

‘Sir-’

‘Don’t use jargons and all.’

‘Sir, I thought it would impress the audience.’

‘Most ministers present tomorrow aren’t even matric pass, you understand.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Think of your audience first.’

‘Right, sir.’

‘You can’t hit six on every ball, you see?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But, don’t worry about the presentation. Let Ashok handle everything. You keep your focus on the air purifier. It should work. That’s all.’

‘Sure sir. I have understood it properly.’

 ‘Good. Good. Now send that Ashok in my cabin.’

‘Sir, he had also come with me. He might still be working on the numbers as he was on the way.’

‘He could have prepared the whole thing before a day, at least. Send him right away.’

*

‘Ha ha, so Ashok you went to Chandigarh as well?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where are the numbers?’

‘Sir, I am done calculating most figures. Pollution deaths per year, cost of implementing CNG, benefits of using the diesel vehicles–everything is ready.’

‘Do what you have to do. Get me numbers that can convince people. In fact, put up only those numbers which can help us maintain the status quo.’

‘Yes, sir. But I have a small objection.’

‘What?’

‘Sir, if we put up all the numbers. The decision is likely to be in favour of the CNG buses. We will save lives. We will save the environment. And, in the long run, everybody will be better off.’

‘Yes, we will save the environment. Sure. We will also save lives. But what about those lives which will be affected by this decision now?’

‘Sir, I know. CNG, unlike diesel, cannot be adulterated, cannot be siphoned off, and there is no money in its spot purchases.’

‘That’s why I got you on this job, Ashok. You are sharp. Sharp is what you are. Good. Very good. But what’s the point in backing the option which won’t get implemented?’

‘Sir, Environment Protection Act passed two years back. And it empowers the government of India to take all measures necessary for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment.’

‘Ha ha, you’ve become a textbook parrot. Academic knowledge is good but doesn’t work in the real world.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar walked upto the blackboard, scribbled something. ‘Now, read this out loud.’

‘Laws are symbols of intention and not of action,’ Ashok read without a pause.

‘See health, disease, and polluted air are not part of the public discourse right now. Convenience of commuters and transporters matter. The poor will suffer, but they’ll also have cheaper option to commute.’

‘Sir, unfortunately they are the ones who’d most adversely be affected in the long run.’

‘See, it’s not going to be that bad. The positives and the negatives cancel each other out.’

‘Sir, but what about their well-being?’

‘Look, you want your job, don’t you? Let this be somebody else’s problem twenty years from now,’ said Mr. Aurangabadkar, taking his seat. ‘It’s a shame, I have to explain this to you at this level. It’s not the world of Gandhi and Vivekananda we live in. A big animal eats the smaller one, it’s a law of the jungle. Period. Do you get it?’

‘Sir, I am only suggesting that we could get all the data to the decision makers. That way at least we will have shouldered our moral responsibility.’

‘You are single, right?’

‘What, sir, yes, sir.’

‘That’s why so much idealism.’

‘Sir, I do have a family of six to support.’

‘In that case, Mr. Bhatnagar, it’s sorted. We have only one responsibility. To save our damn jobs. Do you get it? I don’t have any more time for this.’

‘Sir, I was only suggesting.’

‘Good. That’s good. Discussion is always good. But now focus on the data to present tomorrow. These NGO people should be on board. Do you get it?’ the assistant commissioner tapped his fingers on the table.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘If you can’t explain, what do you do?’ Mr. Aurangabadkar takes off his glasses and rubs them with a white handkerchief. ‘Tell me, what would you do?’

‘I will try to simplify things, sir.’

‘No, no. Wrong answer. If you can’t explain, what you do is you confuse people. Throw more confusing options. So the indecision remains. Status quo remains. Anyway, what’s your argument?’

‘Sir, we must carry on with the diesel buses. If the air quality deteriorates in a couple of decades, we can fix the problem through masks, air purifiers and even oxygen bars. That’s going to be cheaper than disrupting the transport business at this stage. Also, will highlight the difficulties in implementation.

‘But what’s the slogan? What will you put in the posters?’

Garibi hatao, desh bachao.

‘Excellent.’ The assistant commissioner stood on his place and began packing his bag. ‘I see you are a bright young man. You have a very promising future. Keep it up.’

‘Thank you, sir. Whatever I have learnt, I have learnt only from you.’

*

When the assistant commissioner reached home that evening and stood at his door he saw two giant boxes by the shoe rack.

‘Any idea when did these arrive?’ he asked his wife when she opened the door.

‘No. Nobody rang the bell. Who sent them?’

‘Long story.’

‘Let’s take them inside first.’

‘Tell me, is it a surprise gift for me?’

‘No.’

‘You are always busy on the phone, be aware of these things.  Such huge boxes they are. They were lying outside god knows for how long.’

‘But who sent them?’

‘They must be from Mr. Agarwal or Mr. Rana or maybe the Patel brothers.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know. Must be for tomorrow.’

Both of them uncovered the gift boxes and found a TV set and a music system. Mr. Aurangabadkar saw a card inside and it was from Mr. Agarwal and it said the gift was for their wedding anniversary next week.

‘How do they know these things?’

‘They know. They always do.’

‘What do they want from you?’

‘I know what they want.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar busied himself in setting up the music system in the drawing room. ‘I know very well what they want. Good, I like smart people.’

‘They were the ones who sent twenty boxes of Soan Papdi on Diwali last year. Didn’t they?’

‘Yes. Prepare an envelope with your calendar tomorrow. Those handmade ones made by the orphans in your organization. It would look good. Will give it when I see him tomorrow.’

Before Mr. Aurangabadkar could open the box of TV fully, their daughter scuttled down the stairs. The blue ribbons, extricated stapled pins and thermacol pieces scattered in the entire drawing room. When his daughter came running towards him, she got hurt by the stapled pins on the way. Mr. Aurangabadkar immediately got the first aid kit and put a Dettol on her toe. Before she let out a cry, he showed her the new TV set and the music system. The child forgot about the wound and began experimenting with the remote control buttons.

*

The scientist, was looking out of the window and saw a ragpicker collecting plastic bags, plastic bottles and other junk on the road side. He walked at a leisurely pace with his oversized jute bag, picking things on the way. After a few minutes, two beggar kids appeared out of nowhere and asked him for something. Before asking them to wait under a banyan tree, he placed his bag by their side and kept walking in an opposite direction, towards a shop. He came out with a packet of Parle G biscuits and distributed between them. The scientist kept staring the ragpicker until he disappeared with his jute bag. Somebody knocked at the time.

The peon asked if posters were ready to be put up. The scientists said that they’d be ready early morning tomorrow. He picked up posters, began filling them up with data and charts, compelling pictures and quotes.

‘Ashok sir, do you need tea before I leave?’ asked a peon.

‘No, you go.’

‘Sir, I have closed all doors. The watchman will close the building after you leave.’

The peon was certain that the scientist would not complain to the assistant director if he left the office before he did. He could not imagine leaving the premise when the assistant commissioner sat in the office working till late sometimes.

 ‘Ashok sir.’

‘Huh…What is it?’

‘Nothing…Sir, is it a very important meeting tomorrow?

‘Who said?’

‘I was just asking. I saw other peons running around with tables and chairs so I thought–’

‘Some people are coming, yes.’

‘I have been asked to serve fresh orange juice tomorrow along with tea, coffee and biscuits. That’s why I wondered if–.’

‘You’ll know tomorrow, if that’s the case,’ Ashok continued writing on the poster with a marker.

*

The junior officer was at the office early morning. The scientist came upto him and made a request to help him putting up the posters on the conference walls which he did, but his focus was on rehearsing dialogues he’d exchange with the assistant commissioner in the evening while talking about his permanent employment.

When the peon saw the pot-bellied man coming out of a white ambassador, he did not even wait for him to climb all the stairs. He alerted the scientist and the junior officer first and then went straight to the office kitchen to bring refreshments.

‘Mr. Aurangabadkar is not in,’ the scientist said, though he had entered the building and he could be seen heading towards the fourth floor. The junior officer and the scientist sat with the minister in the guest room. First came water, then tea, followed by crème rolls and wafer biscuits. The peon had standing instructions. More ministers, NGO heads and transport business tycoons joined in, and at last when the media representatives joined in, Mr. Aurangabadkar requested everybody to shift to the conference room.

The agriculture minister walked at a slower pace, left hand on his round belly, chewing tobacco on the way. Dressed in white kurta and pyjama, his gold rings shone in the sun light. The transport minister, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, caught up with him.

‘What is happening in this country? It’s unimaginable.’

‘Sad, truly sad.’

‘These foreigners have no respect for our values. And we are talking about liberalization, privatization, globalization. Don’t know how far it can help.’

‘We need policies that can help our farmers. Look at the number of farmers’ suicides?’

‘But the economy. You see the economy. It’s in distress.’

‘What were we doing till now? Sleeping, snoring away?’

‘Ha ha, I hope you are not referring to my nap during the parliament session. Are you?’

‘No, no, what are you saying?’

 ‘These media people are after me. You see, I had a high fever, was on medication that day. So-’

‘No, no. I was saying in general.’

‘But you can’t also ignore the deplorable state of our foreign reserves.’

‘Yes, yes. That’s also an important issue.’

Mr. Aurangabadkar requested the group of ministers to sit in the middle of the conference room, the NGO people on the left side, businessmen on the right side, the media officials all the way in the back.

After wasting few minutes on the introduction of guests and their achievements, Mr. Aurangabadkar said that his team had worked day and night to bring the most pertinent data for them. He carried on with his rehearsed speech until he was reading out facts and points from the posters. His tone changed when he read out points he hadn’t approved.

Mr. Aurangabadkar looked in Ashok’s direction, he wore a mischievous half smile. There were no words exchanged the whole day between the two men. That day Mr. Aurangabadkar tried to turn around the situation and played a card of being an unbiased presenter who genuinely thought status quo was the best possible option.

At the end of the meeting, neither did he acknowledge the scientist’s contribution, nor presence. He shook hands with the entire team, including the peons and watchmen on special duty but not with the scientist.

By the evening, when the scientists had packed his bag, he had also stuffed his parents’ photo stuck on his desk, the Bhagawad Gita and a box of pencils he had brought on the first day of the job. A day later, when a newspaper headline read, ‘Whose interest CNG is stepping on?’ the scientist chuckled sitting in a reclining chair at home, at that moment he knew that in the tussle between the positives and the negatives, at least now they won’t cancel each other out.


Kruti Brahmbhatt is educated in the U.S. and India and currently lives in Ahmedabad. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Forge Literary Magazine, the Stockholm Review of Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Canyon Voices, the Pangolin Review and others. She has also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is a 2014 Young India Fellow.

Fiction | ‘The Faber House’ by Peter Alterman

Allison stared at the screen of her cell phone, black letters on gray background. Buddy Faber dead? But she’d seen him only a few months ago. A reading from the new novel, Tock, at the Barnes & Noble in Holyoke. Then dinner along with the Chair of the English Department, her dissertation director and women from the bookstore. After that, just the two of them back to his hotel for a nightcap, sex and catching up.

He’d looked and sounded the same. Slight, sixty-ish, Southern. Still pounding back the Irish pretty good. And the sex was pretty good, too, a pleasant surprise after all the whiskey he’d put away. He’d said to her after their second time, stroking her inner thigh: “You know, when I was an undergraduate, gentlemen of a certain age weren’t allowed to entertain young women in their hotel rooms.” Not that she was, technically, a young woman any more. Not at 32.

Despite his hand’s promise she knew he was only a two shot man. So she slid his hand up to the warm place where she wanted it, guiding his fingers where she wanted them to go, do what she wanted them to do. “Then I’d say this is a real improvement,” she’d said.

Remembered: face flushed, pulse pounded.

In the morning he was up early packing, limo coming to drive him to Logan for an early flight to Atlanta. The next stop on his book tour. Still, he’d taken the time to make them both coffee from the in-suite machine. They’d sat on the edge of the bed together. “Come back to Richmond, stay with me this summer,” he’d said.

“Maybe I will,” she’d said.

And now this. Allison re-read the email from Buddy’s lawyer. He’d left her his house. The one on Strawberry Street next to the flower shop and across the street from Joe and Savannah’s bar. The lawyers could mail her the papers or meet with her after the funeral. Which was Tuesday. Of course she had to attend.

Why would he do that? What the hell did she need with his house?

It was almost summer and now she was going back to Richmond. But not to stay with Buddy. To bury him. It was cloudy and cold. The last of the dogwood blossoms blew in the air like reluctant snow. Allison looked at the mug in her hand and remembered the bitter K-pod coffee he’d made for her.

Buddy was gone. A spasm of grief filled her chest and overflowed in her eyes.

Her cell buzzed in her hand and she almost dropped it. It was her dissertation director. She answered.

“Allison, did you hear? Bud Faber—“

“Yes, I heard. It’s on—.”

“All the morning news shows,” he said. “Terrible. Only 63. He was just here flogging his latest. Got to read it. Soon as I finish the semester.”

The novel he was struggling to finish while they were together, summer before last. She said, “Listen. I’m going down to Richmond for his funeral now. I’ll be gone for a few days.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Not a problem. I know you two were, ah, friends. One of the TAs can cover your class if you need.”

“Thanks.” She tapped him off. His hesitations said it all. She could be flattered by his interest in her but she knew better. Her ex had been like that in the beginning.

Allison turned her attention to the practicalities. She called Savannah.

“Oh, it’s terrible, honey, it truly is.” Savannah sniffed.

“How did he die?” Allison said. “Where?”

“A cerebral aneurism. In the middle of giving a talk. In front of a roomful of people. Oh, awful. Just awful.” Savannah was crying.

“Oh. Oh, no,” Allison said. Savannah was right. Awful.

Savannah said, “I’m so glad you’re coming down. You’ll stay with us, of course.”

As always, her first impulse was wariness. Joe and Savannah had been like family to Buddy and she didn’t feel like part of that family. And yet, there was the house.

Savannah said, “Oh please, Ali. Stay with us. It’d be a comfort to me.”

Whether she thought of herself as part of Buddy’s family or not, Joe and Savannah and Buddy thought otherwise. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be there before midnight.”

Within an hour she was packed, out of her condo and on her way south to Richmond. By the time her red Miata hit I-91 in Northampton she was already cruising at 90. About the time she picked up the Connecticut Turnpike the useless tears were dribbling out of her eyes again and snot leaking onto her upper lip.

Approaching Port Chester she thought about the weekend in New York she’d spent with him when he was there to give a talk at the 92nd Street Y. About Obituaries and Other Lies? What she remembered was the omakase at the sushi bar, just the two of them sitting hip to hip. Breakfast in bed at the Carlyle reading the Sunday New York Times, him the Opinion section, her the Arts. Only the sound of broadsheets rustling as they turned pages disturbed the quiet of their room.

She stopped for gas at the Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. It reminded her of the panel at MLA where the professor from Tulane insisted on comparing Buddy unfavorably to Walker Percy. As a writer and as a Southerner. She’d held her temper in check during the session but afterwards she practically screamed her anger to Buddy in the speakers’ room.
He talked her down, hands on her shoulders, eye to eye. “His kind don’t bother me,” he’d said. “Us Virginians ain’t Southern enough for some. And we Episcopalians ain’t haunted enough, either.” She thought that was pretty funny.

On I-95 below the Washington Beltway, she remembered the last thing he’d ever said to her, trailing the words over his shoulder as he walked out of the hotel room in Holyoke: “In a way, Tock turned out to be a love song to you, Allison.”

The book’s dedication was to her: “For Auburn hair everywhere, with love.” Damn. Her eyes were wet again. What did she owe him for that? The speedo of her Miata read 95.“Fuuuucccckkk!” she screamed into the windshield.

Should she have stayed with him instead of coming back to Amherst? And what if she had stayed? What would she have done? Settle into a domestic routine, learn to knit and cook, subscribe to Southern Living? Join him at Joe and Savannah’s place across the street for morning whiskey and eggs, go to the farmers’ markets with his sisters, maybe even bear a brace of little Fabers?

She’d liked Buddy. Really liked him. Admired and respected him. Maybe loved him. But making a home for a man wasn’t what she’d planned for her life. That’s what it always came down to for a woman, wasn’t it? Mother taught her that. And yet, without being aware it was happening, Buddy had burrowed a place into her heart though she wasn’t aware of missing him between their occasional get-togethers.

More than anything she didn’t want to feel torn between resentment and sadness. But she was.
Allison cruised into the Fan District in darkness and parked her car under the familiar maple trees in front of Buddy’s white colonial. The windows were dark. No porch light glowed. It looked frozen in anticipation. Like a dog waiting at the door for its dead master.

She shook her head. Merely a symptom of low blood sugar. A house is a house, empty or full. The rest is just chemistry.

Joe and Savannah’s place across the street was closed on account of Buddy’s death. She called to say she was out front and was instructed to come around the side. Allison pulled her rollaway out of the Miata’s tiny trunk, dragged it across the street and down the narrow walkway on the side of the bar.
Savannah was waiting for her with the old wooden screen door open. They hugged for a long minute, both of then sniffing back tears. “C’mon in honey,” Savannah said. The door banged shut behind them and they climbed the stairs.

Joe and Savannah owned the building that housed their tavern on Strawberry Street and lived upstairs. “Buddy bought the building with proceeds from ICUCMe,” Joe told her two summers ago, “And gave it to us outright. Gave it to Savannah, really, when he saw how we were together.”

She surrendered herself to their hospitality. A vat of Joe’s chili simmered on the range. A cooler under the table was filled with bottles of local lager. Savannah filled their bowls. Joe popped the caps off bottles and passed them out. They sat around the Formica kitchen table long into the night reciting well-worn Buddy stories. That’s what Allison called them, Buddy stories, many new to her. It was the best kind of wake. The wake he deserved.

Savannah put her feet up on Joe’s thigh and wiggled her toes. “Did he ever tell you about the time Aunt Elizabeth kidnapped him from his crib and had him baptized in the creek before his mother could rescue him?”

“No!” Allison said. “Really?”

Joe laughed, massaging Savannah’s feet. “Yup. His Aunt Elizabeth was dunking him in the water like a donut in coffee. He came down with pneumonia and almost died.”

Laughing, Allison said, “If it were my kid I’d’ve killed the woman.”

“Buddy’s Ma did throw her out of the house,” Savannah said. “And to this day Aunt Elizabeth lives in the same shack by the river at the edge of the family estate. An eyesore the Country Club next door hates.”

“’Cause of the outdoor privies,” Joe said. Savannah laughed.

“No!” Allison said.

“Course not. It’s just a ramshackle cottage,” Joe said. “You know why the U awarded him an honorary doctorate but refused to grant him his bachelor’s degree, don’t you?”

“No. I’ve seen the fancy proclamation in his office,” Allison said. “How could he not graduate?”

“Failed to complete a no-credit phys ed requirement,” Joe said. “Tennis, wasn’t it?” he asked Savannah. She nodded.

“Why didn’t he finish?”

Joe said, “Because he had to go to Vanderbilt to accept a short story award. Five hundred bucks. The coach was a douche and wouldn’t excuse him or let him make up the classes. So he said fuck it and went anyway.”

Allison raised her bottle. “That was Buddy,” she said. They clinked bottles and emptied them.

Savannah put her feet on the floor. Joe collected empties and dropped them in a paper sack beside his chair. He said, “Honey, grab the bottle of Irish.” When they all had full shot glasses they raised them. Joe said, “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison and Savannah echoed him. “Here’s to Buddy.”

Allison downed the whiskey, hardly tasting it. Her throat clamped shut and her face turned red. She coughed and gasped. They waited patiently for her to catch her breath, then Joe handed out refills of beer and whiskey.

“He told you why he never cooked at home, didn’t he?” Savannah said.

Allison nodded her head, “Oh, yes. He was kind of, I don’t know, proud of it.” Though she knew that they knew the story better than she did, it was her turn to tell a Buddy story so she continued, “He said he was frying bacon in a skillet for breakfast and stepped away, got distracted by something. Next thing he knew flames were erupting from the skillet. So he grabbed it and threw it in the sink and turned on the water. Exactly the wrong thing to do, because greasy black smoke filled the whole apartment. Turned the walls black and gray. Billowed out the open windows. The fire department came. He had to pay ServiceMaster to clean it all up, then the landlord kicked him out.”

“Supposed to use a dry chemical extinguisher on grease fires, not water,” Joe said.

Savannah said, “You’re a cook. You know that. Bet he didn’t even have a fire extinguisher in the apartment.” After a heartbeat she said, “’Course he didn’t. How would he know? His mama didn’t cook.”

“Mine didn’t, either,” Allison said. “So I never learned.”

“Really? You don’t cook? Some of my best memories are being in a warm kitchen with my mama,” Savannah said.

Allison looked down. “I don’t have any best memories of my mother. She left when I was eight.” Savannah reached out and touched Allison’s shoulder. Allison smiled at her. “But we did make tea in the mornings, Buddy and me. Then he’d come over to your place. He insisted on eating whatever you made.”

“And you’d wander over eventually to drag him back to work,” Savannah said.

“Men expect that of us, don’t they?” Allison said. They laughed. It was a joke. But it wasn’t, really. Not to her.

There were more stories. Buddy’s life was a collection of stories. But then, everyone’s life was a collection of stories. This was one of her good ones, now.

In the morning Allison woke on the living room sofa with a crushing headache and a case of corpse mouth. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror with sunlight glinting off her auburn hair she said, “What do I need his house for?” She didn’t have an answer.

She dressed and went downstairs to the bar for coffee. Joe and Savannah opened every morning at six for the breakfast trade. When he was in town Buddy was almost always their only early morning customer and of course that was reason enough to open. After 10 things got busy with kids from VCU and locals on morning beer break.

Allison stopped in the open doorway. From behind her, perfect golden-yellow morning light flowed in, adding an oiled glow to every color, mahogany paneling, oak floor, shiny brass fittings, gleaming glassware, maroon booths. She was transported back to the summer she’d lived with Buddy.

His absence was an empty hole in the room. Behind the bar, Joe looked up. Their eyes met. He gestured to a stool in front of him and turned to pour a mug of coffee for her. He took down a bottle of Jameson’s and poured a generous shot into the coffee.

“In honor of Buddy,” he said. Buddy had started every day with Irish in his coffee.

“Of course.” Despite her hangover she smiled and drank.

Savannah came out around the end of the bar carrying two plates of toast and eggs in her hands and a copy of the morning’s Times-Dispatch stuck tucked beneath one armpit. When she saw Allison she said to Joe, “I’ll make you a plate in a bit.” He nodded. The women sat at the bar shoulder to shoulder and ate.

“You had no idea he was giving you his house?” Savannah said.

Allison shook her head. “It was only really that one summer. That and a few weekends here and there.”

“That’s all it takes sometimes,” Savannah said.

Savannah and Joe she could see. But her and Buddy? “God damn,” she said. And then, “God damn! What did he have to go and do that for? Did he expect me to drop my whole life and come down here to live and take care of his house for him? What the fuck?”

She pushed herself away from the bar and stormed out. Morning sun was heating up the cracked asphalt on Strawberry Street. Allison stood on the sidewalk just beyond the doorway and looked at Buddy’s house. “God damn,” she whispered. Tears filled her eyes. Something had been there. With him. With Buddy.

Savannah came up and put her arm around Allison’s shoulders. “Sucks he’s gone,” she said.
Allison leaned her head against Savannah’s. “I don’t know what to do.” They stood that way for a few moments.

“Want to go over and check it out?” Savannah said. “I got a key.”

Of course they had a key. She sniffed and wiped her wet cheeks with her palms. “Sure, why not.”

The air in the house was still, dust motes floating weightless in thick shafts of sunlight. The faintest hint of mildew rising from the basement, mixing with disinfectant from the powder room. Piles of books and papers covering every horizontal surface in the dining room and the parlor, even on chairs and sofa cushions. Bookcases on either side of the picture window were crammed with books and papers. His National Book Award lay on its side, abandoned atop one of the bookcases.

The silence pressed against Allison’s eardrums, a physical discomfort. She was listening for Buddy: his tread on the floor upstairs, the creak of the old wooden chair in his front bedroom office.

They walked through the house room by room. Evidence of Buddy’s unexpected death was everywhere, from the half-finished Times-Dispatch crossword puzzle on the kitchen counter to the towel on the floor in his bathroom to the unmade bed that Allison knew so well. And that Savannah knew well, too, before Joe. That made Allison smile. Ah, Buddy.

The doorbell chimed. Allison hurried down the stairs and opened the door. An old woman stood there ramrod straight, rail-thin, bony shouldered and white-haired, with a sharp nose and prominent cheekbones under reddened skin. She wore a shapeless ankle-length brown cotton dress that hung like a sack on her. Her eye sockets were deep and dark. Her lips were thin and cracked. There was something of Buddy in her face.

“Come in, Aunt Elizabeth,” Allison said, standing back. Savannah watched from the bottom of the stairs.

Aunt Elizabeth shook her head. She handed a set of keys to Allison. Through tightened lips she said, “It’s your house now.” Then she turned and walked away, stiff little bird steps, dress barely shifting.

“Whoa, she’s not happy with you,” Savannah said.

“I didn’t ask him for this goddamn house.”

“If I was you, I’d change the locks.”

Allison shook her head. “Nah. She’s a Christian woman. She wouldn’t break a commandment if her life depended on it.”

Buddy’s funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Joe and Savannah closed the bar and walked with Allison to St. Paul’s Church in the center of town. The street in front of it was crowded with all kinds of people, Allison recognized a coming-together of Buddy’s disparate families, the blood relatives, the literati, the press, the locals who knew him, the neighbors who lived around him, the friends he made family. Reporters crowded the concrete steps of the church trolling for celebrities both artistic and political, making it difficult for them to pass inside. Joe pushed his way through the mob, Savannah and Allison trailing in his wake. The vestibule was even more crowded.

Feeling awkward about Buddy’s bequest, Allison hoped to avoid his family altogether. But there they were, a receiving line, standing in front of the bronze double doors that opened to the sanctuary. There was no avoiding them. She walked the line, shaking hands and murmuring condolences: Buddy’s sisters Fern and Lily, who smelled a little of bourbon; Fern’s husband Mike and their two sons.

Allison smiled, seeing Aunt Elizabeth looking uncomfortable inside an Episcopal church with polished oak pews and plush red cushions, a massive pipe organ and gorgeous stained glass windows that spewed bright colors across the room. A church that could easily be mistaken for Catholic but for the absence of Jesus tortured and dying on the cross. Aunt Elizabeth offered a limp hand. Allison took it cautiously.

Once inside they settled themselves in a pew near the back. Hands waved to each other across the sanctuary. Many locals were there. Allison recognized two women wearing black whose flower shop was next door to Buddy’s house. She overheard a woman in the pew behind them whispering to her neighbor the details of Buddy’s death. Hearing it this time she could see it as if she’d been there, see Buddy standing at the podium talking, see the instant of surprise in his eyes, seeing him crumple, dead before his body hit the floor. The image drew a rush of grief that rose from her chest up her throat and splashed into her face. Tears traced lines down her cheeks.

She remembered the last words she’d said to him: “Maybe I will.” How cold that sounded. Allison sniffed and wiped her face with a handkerchief. She could be so unthinking.

The urn with Buddy’s ashes stood on a white and gold granite pedestal in front of the first row. So much gold: on the urn enclosing Buddy’s ashes; adorning the priest’s robes; the altar railing; the twin candlesticks that were lit during the service. Which was long. And hot. They stood. They sat. They sang together. They chanted responsively. Many around her lined up in the aisles waiting to take communion.

After the offering of the Host came the eulogy. The priest went on about Buddy’s contributions to American literature, his love of family and Virginia. No word about his drinking, a family trait, or his women—Allison and Savannah among them. The Mayor spoke of Buddy’s contribution to Richmond’s storied history. The President of the University thanked Buddy for the gift of his letters and the stipend he donated to fund a fellowship in his name.

Though Allison knew what to expect, she was still depressed by it all. It was so not-Buddy. But the funeral was for Fern and Lily and Aunt Elizabeth. For his readers and admirers and friends. For the reporters outside on the steps of the church. For his future biographers.

When the service was over they joined the line of people shuffling out. As they were about to exit the sanctuary there was a tap on Allison’s shoulder. It was Fern, standing behind her.

“Ms. Stone,” Fern said.

She felt Joe moved closer to her for protection. Allison smiled him away. “Mrs. Marshall?”

“Yes.” Fern smiled. “Do you have a few minutes to spare for us now? The family would like to discuss the estate.”

Savannah said, “We’ve already heard from the family, Mrs. Marshall.”

Fern sighed. “I’m sorry about Aunt Eliza. But please, over here. Just a few minutes of your time.”

Family business. Allison had put family business behind her years ago. But these people had just lost their brother. She should take time for them. “Of course.”

“We’ll wait for you right here,” Joe said. Savannah nodded agreement. They slid into the rear pew and sat, watching.

At the front of the sanctuary the priest shook hands with the family. Then he put a hand on the urn holding Buddy’s ashes, his priestly farewell. He turned and left through a side door. Fern led Allison to the family. Aunt Elizabeth and the boys stood apart. Handshakes again with Lily and Mike.

“It’s nice to meet you properly,” Lily said.

“You meant a lot to Bud,” Fern said. “He told us.”

A moment too slow Allison said, “He meant a lot to me, too.”

“He mentioned he’d seen you recently,” Lily said. “A few months ago?”

Allison nodded. “March. In Amherst. It was good to see him again. I had no idea.”

Lily said, “None of us did.” She shook her head. “Our big brother. Only 63. Would have been 64 next month.”

“Never even made it to Medicare, not that he needed government money,” Mike said. The women looked at him.

Lily turned to Allison. “So. We don’t want to keep you.”

“Yes,” Fern said. “We know Bud left you his house. The lawyers have been in touch. And, well, we’re sorry about the other day with Aunt Eliza.”

Fern said. “You see, before he’d changed his will in your favor he’d promised the house to Aunt Eliza.” Aunt Elizabeth glared at Allison from ten feet away.

“Oh. I see,” Allison said.

“Not a problem,” Lily said. “After all, it was Bud’s home and he had every right to do with it what he wanted.”

“But we’d like to know—,” Mike said.

Lily silenced him with a slash of her hand. “We were wondering if you’ve thought about what you want to do with it.”

“Do you plan on living in the house? Moving here?” Fern said.

Allison shook her head. How could she know? “I only just found out about the house,” she said, “and it’s come as a shock. So. I’m not sure. Maybe after? I don’t know.”

Mike spoke up again. “Bud left his literary stuff to the University library.”

Fern said, “Yes, there is that. All his papers, documents, awards, all that.”

Suppressing an impulse to resist, Allison instead said, “Of course. And heirlooms, too, they should go to the family.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Lily said. “We should agree on a time for us to go through the house with you.”

“So you don’t think we’re stealing anything,” Mike said.

“Mike,” Lily said sharply.

“I just mean–”

“Mike. Please.”

He frowned.

Misunderstood again. Allison imagined being married to a Faber woman could be difficult. Was she like them? A difficult woman? Was that why Buddy had loved her? Brandon-the-ex had said as much about her. But Brandon was an asshole.

Lily said, “How long will you be staying? When would be convenient for us to come over?”

She’d been hoping to return home after the funeral but the business with the house complicated things. She could set up her laptop in the kitchen and get work done. She had a bunch of essays to read.

“Well, I’ve got—okay, how about tomorrow morning at 9?”

Fern said, “That would suit me just fine.”

Lily nodded. “Thank you so much, Ms. Stone.”

“Allison.”

“Allison. Thank you.”

“And you,” Allison said. “My condolences.”

“Thank you.”

Another round of hand shaking, this time with the sisters only, and Allison escaped to Savannah and Joe waiting for her at the back of the church. They put their heads together.

“Well?” said Savannah.

“Could have gone worse,” Allison said. “Turns out Buddy promised the house to Aunt Elizabeth before he changed his will.”

Savannah giggled. “That explains it.”

Outside on the top step of the church they paused to look around. It was summer-warm and Virginia-humid in the heart of Richmond. The reporters were gone. The last of the funeral attendees were crossing the street to the Capitol’s park. Unheeding traffic crawled past.

Allison took a deep breath, blew it out, and said, “I need a drink.”

Joe said, “Amen, sister.”

Next morning at nine sharp Allison unlocked the front door of the house. She went through it, upstairs and down, opening shades and windows to let in morning light and morning air, then started water for tea.

She made a mental note to buy a Nespresso machine for the kitchen. Maybe replace the pine cabinets with cherry, put in a granite countertop, stainless steel refrigerator and oven. Allison stopped her racing thoughts. What was she thinking? There was a knock on the front door. She’d have to put in a video doorbell, one with Internet connectivity. Allison shook her head, frustrated with herself.

It was the estate lawyer. “Thanks so much for coming,” Allison said.

“After you explained what was happening this morning I felt it was necessary to supervise,” the lawyer said. “I also let the University know. They’ll probably show up, too.”

“Good. Thanks.” The kettle whistled from the kitchen. She led the lawyer into the kitchen. There was a knock at the back door. The Faber women.

“Come in, come in,” Allison said, unlocking the back door and standing back to let them in.

Fern, Lily and Aunt Elizabeth entered carrying canvas bags and cardboard boxes. Shifting them around, Fern and Lily shook hands, murmured morning pleasantries. Aunt Elizabeth sidled in and avoided looking at Allison. “See you got the lawyer here,” she said.

Allison ignored her and poured boiling water into two mugs. She dropped two tea bags into the mugs and gave one to the lawyer. Taking family heirlooms was fine, but she wasn’t going to let anyone claim the living room sofa was a family heirloom. Not that she wanted it, exactly.

When the university librarians showed up the lawyer went off with them. They sorted papers into careful piles, boxing them in labeled plastic bins, toting them out to a van waiting in the alley behind the house. The family gathered ceramic tchotchkes, photos in silver frames, paintings and prints off the walls. All day long people tromped through the house, their shoes clomping overhead and under foot, people shuffling in and out of rooms, climbing and descending stairs, doors banging as people went out carrying boxes and bags of Buddy’s things.

Allison sat at the kitchen table with her laptop open, unable to concentrate. Her hands rested unmoving on the pine tabletop. Seeing Buddy’s things carried away disturbed her but she couldn’t quite understand why. After all, she didn’t need what they were taking and God knew Buddy was beyond caring. But it was disquieting.

Around seven silence descended as everyone left. Allison went around the house closing windows and locking up. In every room there was evidence of pillage. The shelves in Buddy’s office were bereft of papers. His laptop was gone. His awards and trophies were gone. In his bedroom the walls were empty. The dresser top was bare. Even the open tube of toothpaste was gone from the bathroom sink: Aunt Elizabeth making a statement. Downstairs the parlor walls were empty. The papers that had been everywhere were gone. It was as if Buddy had been vacuumed out of his house, leaving merely a—house.

Trying to be considerate she’d offered the family Buddy’s things, not realizing the effect it would have on her. She wandered back to the kitchen and sat at the table in the chair where she’d spent many mornings drinking tea with him. Reading the paper with him. He’d do the crossword. She’d eat her yogurt and granola. And as he’d leave for Joe and Savannah’s he’d kiss the part on the top of her head.

Finally, in the emptiness he’d left she saw what she’d overlooked. An easy man to live with who asked nothing more of her than to be who she was. Men like that were myths, her mother had said, like unicorns. Only he had been real. A man who’d asked nothing of her, until he did, at the end.

Too late. Ah. What good was the house to her if Buddy wasn’t there? Maybe she’d just sell it. Take the money. Add it to the piles in her bank accounts.

There was a knock at the back door and Savannah came in. “Are you okay?”

Allison’s eyes were red and wet but she said, “Yes, of course. They took almost everything that was Buddy. Like a plague of locusts. So Biblical.” She sniffed. “God, I’m beginning to talk like Aunt Elizabeth.”

Savannah put a hand on Allison’s arm. She said, “With or without his stuff in it, this house will always be The Faber House.”

Allison laughed. “Sounds like a B&B”

Savannah said, “Hey! My mama runs a B&B in Charleston.”

Of course.

Of course.

Forget selling it. She said, “So how about turning this one into a B&B?”

“A great idea! And I’d love to,” Savannah said. “I worked in them growing up.” Her voice drooped. “We can’t afford it. We barely break even on the bar and that’s with owning the building.”

But Allison wasn’t going to overlook this opportunity as she’d overlooked Buddy. “I own the place free and clear,” she said, “And there’s something like ten thousand a year for maintenance and taxes. So what if I took out a mortgage and paid you and Joe to turn it into a B&B and run it? We can be partners. Fifty-fifty. I put in the money, you put in the labor.”

“If you’re serious,” Savannah said, “I’ll do it. We’ll do it.” She hugged Allison. “But I gotta talk to Joe.”

If Savannah wanted it, Joe would want it. They were that kind of couple. In the morning she’d call the lawyers. Family business.

Peter Alterman is a member of The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) and has published science fiction literary fiction, popular fiction and literary criticism. Recent fiction publications include “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Perfect Time for Morning Coffee” in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine #12, Spring/Summer 2020

Fiction | ‘Shabaahat’ by Sobia Abdin

Maryam

A dry loo blew over Maryam’s desolate courtyard, plucking a handful of pink bougainvillea hanging lazily over the wall of the verandah. She heard the soft clink of the bangles she had left out to dry, but the loo vanished as quickly as it had come, and for several moments, the buzzing of her grandmother’s table fan was the only sound that accompanied the hotness of the May afternoon. Maryam went back to her book, the English one. The words on the page were painstakingly difficult to read, but she tried hard to mouth them correctly. Hopes of a future when she could breezily read English, were not rare in her heart, and she was comfortably lost when her thoughts were interrupted again.

‘Mehr? Mehr?’

Maryam turned to face a man, probably in his late forties, with a yellow leather bag in his hand.

‘It’s me Mamu,’ she clarified.

‘Wallah! Sometimes it is almost impossible to tell you two apart.’

Her Mamu seated himself down on the chatai in front of her, crossing his legs with a moan, the first sign of his ageing, Maryam felt. On most days, one would believe him when he said he was thirty-five, as he often did. There was hardly any grey in his hair, and he wore crisp, straight pants with ironed yellowed white shirts. He looked like the gentleman he was, at least he was closest to one Maryam had ever known.

‘Ahh! Reading English again?’

Maryam nodded.

‘At this speed, you will surpass me I swear to God! Ask me what news I have?’ He did not wait for an answer, and continued. ‘Shabana’s older daughter is engaged. About time if you ask me. The girl has been sitting at home for three years… and doing what tell me?’

‘Aye, doing the work of men, as women in this house are doing.’

Her grandmother’s voice was muffled by the paan in her mouth, and Maryam wondered if she would risk ruining its flavour for another one of her soliloquies. The paan must have been exceptionally sweet, for she turned in her charpoy to face her table fan and went back to sleep. Maryam looked at her Uncle to see if he had a reaction, but from his expression, she gathered him to be disdainful, or maybe, indifferent. He sat there for what seemed like a long time, possibly searching for an excuse to leave, as Maryam thought, with the little self-esteem he had intact. When he finally left, the excuse was only slightly convincing, but Maryam had always known that her Uncle was not as intelligent as he wanted everyone to believe. Her mother often told her that he had been smarter, though never as smart as her, but time and poverty had done their work. She turned back to her book as another dry loo took over the verandah, rocking another bunch of pink bougainvillea to death.

***

Evening settled lazily in her small town. There were occasions when Maryam wondered if time even bothered to pass by them, or it did simply because it was made to by God. She woke up from her slumber, her head heavy with the reading and the heat. Folding the chatai, she went outside to her grandmother, who was sitting on a corner of the takht.

‘Where is Mamu?’ Maryam asked as she filled a lota from a bucket, cupping her hands under its snout and sprinkling the water it gathered all over the verandah.

‘Aye, why don’t you stop worrying about your precious Mamu? He is not made of glass, is he?’

‘I will when you stop with your hourly taunts. It gets too much sometimes, Nani.’

‘Aye, what else can I do? I will be dead before he listens. Who has ever listened to their old mothers… sons be damned… my feet can almost touch my grave now… soon…’ 

‘O-B-S-E-S-S-I-O-N…’ Maryam mouthed. That’s what her grandmother felt for death. Maryam had adopted this technique a while ago; learning difficult English words through the things she saw and heard around her, and since then, she had been able to memorise even extremely hard words with ease. She sprinkled the last drops of water across the verandah, filled the lota again, and climbed the stairs to her Uncle’s room.

‘Aye, that old man cannot even do a chidkao now… how difficult is throwing water on the floor… sons be damned one day I will be dead…’

The climb to her Uncle’s room was hardly a climb, a couple of steps haphazardly carved into the stone. The room itself was a work of haste and cheap labour, built up by gluing bricks together along the edge of the roof. If she searched for it, Maryam could still see the demarcation where the terrace boundary had been stretched to raise a wall. She had spent many fond days in the room as a child, when her Mumani lived there as a new bride, and even when she had left the house as a new bride. She remembered her red heels and red purse that she played with. Those were the only things she was left with, after her Mamu sold every piece of gold and silver from her trousseau to buy books. Maryam still remembered the clink of those heels and the flash of that purse, as her Mumani threw slurs at Mamu, and stormed out of the house, never to be seen again.

‘Oh Maryam, what would I do without you? It is so hot, a chidkao is necessary it seems. Do you know the science behind this routine?’

Maryam knew he wouldn’t wait for an answer.

‘I will tell you. It’s evaporation. The water absorbs the heat of the ground and evaporates, cooling the cemented floor. Much like the perspiration of our bodies. You have studied this in school?’

Maryam nodded.

‘I will see if I can give you a book on this. Must be on one of the taaqs. Hahaha, what a use of taaq! We used to light oil lamps in them when I was your age, but who uses lamps these days.’ He said.

Maryam knew he would fall quiet now, as he always did after talking about his youth. Her mother said that it must remind him of his glory days, when he was the most intelligent man in all of town, if you did not count the women. Now he was just any man, even worse, he was a man living on a woman’s, his sister’s, money. She felt sorry for him at times, but her grandmother always told her she shouldn’t.

Maryam glanced over the wall to see if her mother had come back from work. It was almost time, and she always wanted to see Maryam first when she entered the house. Maryam placed the lota on top of the cement water tank and leaned over the terrace boundary, painted blue for some reason. Her Uncle’s room was plastered in naked cement and the rest of the house—the room downstairs, the kitchen, and the latrine—was simply brick and mortar. Her mother had promised she would get their room, shared by all the women, plastered this year, but Maryam doubted if she would be able to save the money. Looking back at that moment now, she would realise that God had answered her question then; a muezzin broke into the azaan and a pair of black eyes greeted Maryam from the door downstairs.

***

The moon rose in all its glory by the time the family settled for dinner. It was a humble spread for the intricately embroidered dastarkhan on which it had been laid out—sabzi, chapatis, and curry with hardly any chunks of meat. Mehr was humming a tune under her breath as she served her daughter a piece of meat, the biggest in the pot, and spread ghee on her chapatis.

‘If only you would tell me the hiding place of that ghee bhinno… these old bones need some care too,’ Mehr only smiled at her brother’s jest, but knew her mother would be prepared with a reply. After all these years, the exchanges had become synonymous with dinner time. By now, she had lost count of the number of times she had made her mother promise to stop with the casual nitpicking and insults, of the countless explanations she had presented to save her brother, urging her mother that it was after all, not his fault.

‘Aye, so do bones that grind all day at the office and school, and I see only two people here who do that… no, no just sabzi and adhi roti for me… what does this old body need food for… rotting in the grave? Bas, bas…’ 

Mehr

The family ate quietly after that, except for Mehr’s interrogation of Maryam’s day at school, to which her brother added uninvited snippets here and there. She had grown to love him somehow over the years, as the resentment in her gave way to pity and acceptance. On many nights, as they all sat down for dinner, her thoughts would travel to their dinner time as children, when their father was alive and their mother’s taunts were reserved for her. Then, she would eat ghee-less, dry chapatis as the one she was eating now, with the smallest piece of meat, while everything of worth went over to her brother. Sometimes she wondered if her mother’s sneers, now for her brother, were a way of apologising, or if the apology was heartfelt. But she never bothered asking her. That is what peace does to you, it enters quietly from the backdoor and leaves no room for complaints. And if anything, Mehr knew that she was at last, peaceful.

The electricity went out as usual after dinner, and the women of the house sat outside on the takht in the verandah, hoping for a breeze that wouldn’t come. Mehr and Maryam took turns with the pankha, a device of intricate craftsmanship. In the early days after her divorce, any object that was once in the set of her wedding belongings, would bring back memories of her marriage. A marriage, if one could call it that. For Mehr, it had been nights and days, one after the other. Nights of alcohol reeked beatings and rape, and days of cleaning the previous night’s mess.

It had been a long time now, since the day she picked up her newborn daughter as her husband slept reeking of liquor and piss, stole money from his wallet, took a rickshaw to the railway station and got on a train to Firozabad. It wasn’t a calm sail. 

As she directed the pankha towards her mother, she remembered the protest that had ensued at home that day. She and her father had called her husband almost intuitively, within minutes. Mehr had gone into the kitchen, clambering, and tied the bottle of rat poison lying below behind the gas cylinder, to her dupatta. Her eyes blazed when she threatened to gulp it down her throat, and her daughter’s. She would do that before she ever set foot in that man’s house again.

Her husband came with a tin box filled with some of her things, drunk out of his senses. He stood outside the house, while she stood inside, with her baby in one arm and the bottle of rat poison in another, its mouth inches away from her daughter’s lips. 

He only said one word, thrice, ‘talaaq, talaaq, talaaq’ and left.

That night still flashed in her nightmares, what mother would have come so close to killing her daughter. She did not know what it had been—bottled frustration, a moment of weakness, or madness, but she knew she would never be able to do it now, not in a million years, not until she was alive. 

Maryam was sitting in front of her and smiled warmly, almost as if she was aware of everything that was going on inside her mother’s mind. Maryam leaned in to place her head on Mehr’s lap, holding on to her pale dupatta. Mehr caressed her daughter’s hair for a long time, as the moon shifted its place in the sky, humming the lullaby that she had sung to her as a child.

‘She looks so much like you.’ 

Her mother’s words made Mehr smile again, as she looked down upon her daughter’s face, peaceful in sleep. She had heard this all the time over the years, and as Maryam grew older, even she could see the uncanny resemblance, the shabbahat that people often talked about. She was Mehr, the moon, and Maryam was her aks, a reflection of her light, they say. As they had said for her as a girl, Mehr, the moon, the light of the bangle town. Mehr, with the grace, the softness, and the beauty of her namesake. 

But Mehr was sure she had lost the beauty somewhere. In all these years, of escaping violence to fall into poverty, of days spent collecting, saving, and calculating every paisa, of lonely nights without a man’s warm arms around her; somewhere she had lost her beauty. But where would she go,  who could she talk to. She had vowed never to say a word, when her father had died leaving behind a divorced daughter and a son too proud to work for sheeshgars, and her mother had asked her how she would bring up a child without a husband. 

“Ek gareeb zindagi ek zaleel zindagi se behtar hai,” she answered. A life of destitution is better than a life of humiliation.

Never had the question arisen again, and never had anyone asked Mehr how she felt. She would tell them though, if they ever asked, that she had been right.

She shielded her daughter’s eyes from the dim light of the verandah bulb and said, “Isse mera aks hi mile naseeb nahi,” I wish she has only my face, not my fate.

Glossary:
1. Mat
2. The practice of washing the outdoors with water intended to cool down a place
3. An element of hyperlocal architecture, a taaq is an arched shelf that was previously used to light earthen lamps
4.
Urdu for table mat
5.
Endearment for sister
6.
A hand fan
7.
Glass workers or makers; while the term is occupational, it is often used to indicate Muslims belonging to a lower caste

Sobia Abdin identifies as a Muslim woman. This identity has been defined by her experiences of growing up in a patriarchal and Islamophobic society. While together her identity and experiences often find a voice in her writing, she also consciously makes an effort to ensure that her stories are informed by a universal feeling of humanness. Her writings, which include poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, have appeared in The Lookout Journal, Literary Yard, Hans India, Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Woman’s Era, and in an anthology published by Impish Lass Publishing House.  

Fiction | ‘The Feather’ by Pallavi Ghosh | CreativeWritingW-TBR

Pritha had never seen a feather as beautiful as the one in her hand. It was light, delicate and white. Ten-year-old Pritha had seen many feathers in her life. Her best friend, Mukul, had shown her one of his most valuable possessions – a peacock feather. 

It was more vibrant and way bigger than the white feather in Pritha’s hand right now but she loved the way it danced with the wind.  Its tip was pointed; Pritha fancied that one day when her feather’s body would get stiff and it won’t dance anymore, she would use it as a pen-like she had seen in some of the movies about writers.

Pritha hurried to tell Mukul all about this white feather that she had discovered. She wanted him to see its beautiful dance. She ran to his house and rapped the door like a mad man. Her incessant knocks woke everybody in the house. It was the weekend afternoon, after all. Everyone in their house took a good nap after lunch but not today. 

Pritha’s knocks and her loud calls of “Mukul! Mukul! Open the door, Mukul!” even had Zoozoo, the house dog who spent almost all his afternoons in deep sleep, wide-eyed.

The door opened and a visibly frustrated Mukul looked at Pritha. “Are you mad? Maa and baba are angry. Why are you shouting at the top of your voice? They were sleeping! What’s got into your head?” He thundered in a single breath.

Pritha pulled him outside and said, “I know. I know. But I have something to show you and I could not wait.”

Mukul threw a glance at her and saw that Pritha was hiding something behind her back. “What is it?” he asked.

Pritha slowly moved her left arm and revealed, “It’s a feather. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She said with what, Mukul thought, was the biggest smile she was capable of. 

“Woah! That’s great! Now both of us have feathers. This is good news, Pritha!” said Mukul and the two of them jumped with glee.

“Wait! Let me show you something,” said Pritha and then threw her beautiful feather up in the air.

“What are you doing?” said Mukul looking up.

“Just shut up and watch,” said Pritha.

The feather went up in the air and then began descending slowly. It quivered, once to the left, and then to the right. Left and right, left and right, it went until it settled on the ground with the softest landing possible.

“Did you see? Did you see?” said Pritha, catching hold of Mukul and shaking him.

“What! What did I see?” said Mukul rather afraid.

“The dance of the feather, stupid! What else?”

“Oh, yes! It was beautiful! It’s your feather after all.        

***

Sometimes, things and people lose their space as easily and abruptly as they earned it in the first place. The reasons are as chequered as those that had drawn us towards them. But nothing happens in one day. When Mukul fell out of love with his peacock feather later, it was because he came to know how the majestic creatures, whose feathers are a regular product in the market – a cheap and easy gift item for everybody, are tortured and how his feather could be a by-product of this big and bad illegal trade that happens pretty regularly in the country almost matter-of-factly.           

“What can be done? Nobody can catch the big fish,” Mukul’s father said when he shared his worries about this big, bad world. As easily as he had fallen in love with the feather, Mukul also fallen out of it, but he continued to love the bird, of course.     

Yes, he had shared all of this with his best friend as well and Pritha said, “To get and lose is all in the nature of things…”

She loved the feather alright, but the truth was, sometimes she didn’t as well. Like all things in the world, the feather was unpredictable. It was both sturdy and fragile! Sturdy because God knows what conditions it had survived — rain, storms, heat, humans too. Fragile because one snap, or one twist, and it would stop dancing.

Five years passed and lately, the feather was not dancing. It had also started losing its hair. One after the other, its strand would go bone dry and fall off. The leaner it became the less it could dance but Pritha still loved it enough. Enough to know that the feather had earned its way to her heart. And all she knew was that she needed to take good care of it so that they stayed together, however long that was. She did not know everything in the beginning but she got better with each day. First, she wrapped the feather in a cellophane sheet, then placed it between two paper sheets. 

This was kept inside the pages of a Famous Five book, which she carried to school every day. Pritha guarded the feather like a hawk. There were unavoidable circumstances though. A visit to the staffroom was rare but inevitable in the long run. Every two weeks, a new class monitor would be selected. Mostly, it meant catching hold of a different student to carry copies back and forth. The monitor’s face remained hidden behind a pile of some 40 notebooks while he walked behind a teacher. Staffroom visits came along with it. When Pritha took the role of the class monitor, she asked Mukul to keep a close eye on the book. 

Sometimes, during the lunch break, she took it out. A simple glance at it was enough to conjure the ghosts of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Quills in hand, they would hold the promise of lucid writing. “Will I ever be a writer?” she wondered.

She took it to her uncle’s house, which was just two blocks away from theirs. Uncle John, which was not his actual name but just what the children in the colony called him, said that the feather may have ticks. She would have to get rid of them if she wanted to preserve the feather. Pritha looked worried but uncle John placed his hand on her shoulders and said, “Don’t you worry, my child. I will take care of it.”

Uncle John went inside and came back with a zipped plastic pouch in one hand and a closed fist. He opened the fist in front of Pritha to reveal some kind of powder. Next, he asked Pritha to hand him the feather which she did rather reluctantly. “Come on, now. Put the feather in the pouch,” he said. 

Once Pritha had placed the feather in the pouch, uncle John emptied the powder inside it.

“What are you doing, uncle John? What if the feather gets destroyed?” she asked anxiously.

“Just wait, Putu Pritha. Have faith in me. Don’t you want the feather to be free of ticks?” he said. Pritha calmed down, still unsure. Uncle John shook the pouch. After a couple of shakes, he gave it back to Pritha and said, “Now, take this home and keep it someplace where no one will touch it for three full days. Keep it in your study table, in your room. And do not open or touch it for three days, okay?”

Pritha nodded.

“After three days, you come back to me and I will tell you what to do next. Okay?” He smiled at her with a raised brow.     

Pritha nodded again and went back to her home.

***

Soon enough, Pritha was back at uncle John’s, three days had passed.     

He opened the door and beamed.

“I see you remembered what I said to you. Can I also believe that you did not touch or open it in between?” he inquired. 

“Yes, uncle John. I did not open or touch it as you said,” she replied.

“Okay, then. Come on inside and we can take care of the remaining things,” he said. He took the pouch and sat down at the dining table. Taking the feather out, he flicked it lightly. Placing his left hand at the bottom of the feather, he used his right hand to stroke it between his index finger and thumb. He started from the bottom and moved upwards, doing this 6-7 times. And? The feather changed! It looked beautiful again. White, light and sporting a slight curve.

“See, doesn’t this look better?” said Uncle John.

“Yes!” said Pritha with a big smile pasted on her face.

“But there is one last thing we need to do,” he said. He went inside and this time he came back with a cellophane sheet and two sheets of paper. He wrapped the feather in the cellophane sheet first and then placed it between two sheets, just like Pritha had brought it to him.

“Now, this will last. You can keep this in an airtight jar to make it last longer but eventually, it will wear out. And if you intend to use it like you want to as famous writers of the past did, it will wear out faster,” he said while patting Pritha’s head.

“If it will wear out eventually, was all this for nothing?” said Pritha.

“Now, we did extend the time you get to spend with your feather, didn’t we? So, not for nothing but one day, my dear, it will. To get and lose is all in the nature of things…” said uncle John and Pritha nodded.

The feather did disintegrate with time and Pritha lost her feather, despite doing everything she could to preserve it. She did not even use it for writing. Not even once! She just couldn’t. It was too precious. There was the added issue of a fifteen-year-old writing with a feather, but Pritha didn’t delve too deep into that.        

***

This feather, her encounter with it that morning years ago, became something substantial in her life. Years later, when others asked why she loved the feather, she said many things. Sometimes it was the colour; white, sometimes it was the dance, which was a major pull. But deep in her heart, she knew that even if it did not dance, she would have still loved it. The feather and her feelings about it are a relic of the past today, but they had a transformative power over her back in the day. The feelings had become something else. They had acquired delicate power and become something larger than life. 

It amazed Pritha, in her twenties now, how the memory of a love, long lost, had endured the onslaught of time. She could still feel its warmth like the blood running in her veins. “Just get another one,” her friends would say.  

And it was difficult to explain something that hadn’t stabilized yet, it was growing with her every day. She tried explaining to people but most of the time, it was next to impossible. It was never about the characteristics or the body value, she said to them. She could easily get another feather–as white and as groovy as hers. There was something else to it, a pull — a strange pull towards an object she had genuinely considered to be beautiful, felt it to its bones and lived its beauty. It was unbelievable for most, intense and fantastical for others. 

Her love for the feather wasn’t one that might be considered otherworldly, it was just like any other love, for say, cars, jets, lovers or gods.

The idea of the feather brought peace to her, in an otherwise chaotic life. And to think,  she had lost the feather a long time ago! The fondness, the everyday leap of faith inspired by the one feather was to put it simply because she loved it the way it was. 

Aware of its flaws, subtle in its being, and bound by time; Pritha, loved her white feather. 

Pallavi was born in Siliguri, West Bengal and spent 10 years in Gangtok, Sikkim. Currently, she is based in New Delhi. A journalist for nearly 5 years now, writing for her is a reflective process. It’s a place where thoughts are churned and perspectives are born. More importantly, a writer must write – be it news articles, short stories or poetry.

Fiction | ‘Dump City’ by Ron Dowell

Juan Carlos Martinez sits high atop a newly bulldozed trash mountain, in Dump City Guatemala, shading his eyes from the muggy stench of summer. He hates work and will tell Mamá and Araceli once he descends. Until then, he uses a rusty screwdriver, pops the lid from the shoe glue tin, puts his hand in a plastic bag as if it is a glove, pours rubbery snot-colored content onto his hand, and turns the bag inside out. Damn bags. He must always find one without holes, unlike when he wants discretion and huffs paint thinner, for which toilet paper or any rag will do. One hand squeezes the bag tight against his lip rash with the thumb and the forefinger, back bent somewhat, blowing like a balloon until it’s as big as his seventeen-year-old head. His left-hand squeezes the bag toward his face, lungs expanding to their satisfied fullest, alucinógeno fumes going straight to his brain. He holds in the vapor until his eyes want to pop. With the screwdriver handle, he hammers the can shut, keeping the glue from spoiling. For a time, he feels no heat, no discomfort, and hardly notices when clouds of smoke from underground fires leave the air heavy. Thousands of guajiro, trash pickers, move like ghosts in el basurero, the dump; some jump on arriving dump trucks in search of food. Like Juan Carlos, many were born in el basurero.

Mamá had reminded him at sunrise, as her copper brown face showed fatigue wrinkles, exasperation in her Spanish-speaking voice, “You’re not making the weight, Juan Carlos. The cemetery people will dig up Papa and throw his bones in the basurero. We must pay twenty-five Quetzals every month to keep him. You know this.”

Juan Carlos sucks from the bag again.

Nag, nag, nag. That’s all she does, and Juan Carlos has grown weary and doesn’t want to collect plastic, metal, and old magazines from mounds of trash selling the booty to recyclers based on weight. They buzz around in their trucks like parasitic wasps outside steel gates of the city dump; they wait for loot from guajiro like Juan Carlos and his family.

Far below him; Araceli, his sickly thirteen-year-old sister whose skin fits tight against her sucked-in face, tugs at an American Flyer wagon loaded with a full five-gallon water bottle she’s filled from a fire hydrant. One wooden wheel is more significant than the others and causes the cart to squeak and lean. Pussyfoot is all she’s able to do these days; they have no vehicle and a doctor with medicines she needs, lives in lowlands on the other side of the volcano.

She leaves the Flyer in direct sunlight at their lean-to door just outside the basurero gates, even though he’s asked her time and again to park in the shade. The water sits halfway to boil there until Juan moves the heavy bottle indoors. They have no running water, and the container will last them several days before repeat after cooling. He feels a growing pressure to scavenge the dump for her as well as for his Mamá and himself.

Juan twists his neck, spying Papa’s gravesite in the cemetery perched above the dump. He draws from the bag again, helping kill his appetite for food, which, to him, is his sacrifice for Papa’s grave, and, coupled with provisions found in the dump, offsets meal expenses. However, his sacrifice isn’t enough, according to Mamá, and she has summoned Castaneda, the spiritual guide to silence the volcano, and help Juan make some money, or at least, find direction.

Juan Carlos uses his lips and tongue, suctioning more glue vapor. A kettle of vultures tears at a dead rat halfway down the dump mound where he sits. The rat reassembles, grows as big as a mangy basurero dog, and plunges its teeth into a vulture’s neck. His companions fly toward the graveyard above Juan’s perch. He strains his neck, following them to where Papa stands on his headstone, shouting something towards him. Juan cups his ears to hear his Papa’s voice once again. You can do better, my son. Go into real estate.

Juan inhales deeply from fume remnants; sweat soaks his grimy-white Carlos Ruiz soccer jersey. Juan Carlos stands and holds the inflated bag in a fist above his head. He defies the squalid basurero, which multiplies the misery of guajiro below. Guajiro Juan’s in no hurry to join. He feels the corners of his lips turn up. “Ola Papa—— yes, we can.”

***

That evening Juan Carlos, Mamá, and Araceli hole up inside their unusually cold shack of corrugated metal and old tarpaulins within a warren of garbage choked alleyways. Casteneda’s dressed in his evening clothes, an ordinary white shirt with brilliantly colored Pantalones and a chaqueta.  The last time Juan saw him, Mamá invited Casteneda to say a few words to aid Papa’s canoe journey to the Underworld. Juan Carlos has bandaged his hand covering a fake injury sustained in the basurero on which he’s sprinkled low odor paint thinner. From the grimy gauze and his jersey collar, he’ll sniff as needed.

Casteneda sits on an inverted bucket, a long machete in hand, and mumbles gibberish Juan Carlos can’t quite make out. Alberobello? Maybe it’s Maya Ki’che’ language. 

“Not enough to live the day,” Mamá says as she sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their one-room shanty, her bare feet crusted charcoal black. “I received Papa’s eviction notice from the cemetery.” Her huipil, with colorful cross-stripping and angular designs woven into the cloth and heavily soiled, a brocaded wraparound corte reaches her dirt-caked ankles. “If I pay the cemetery bill, we can’t afford tortillas—what say you, Juan Carlos?”

“Um, uh—uh,” is his best explanation.

“It concerns me your eyes always look bloodshot, son. You look more and more like Resistoleros—sniffers. Have you no hope?”

“Nag Mamá——that’s all you do.”

“Qué” Are you sassing me, Juan Carlos?” Posture stiff, broom in hand, she steps toward him. “I birthed you in el basurero, and I’ll take you out here also.”

Juan Carlos raises his bandaged hand to his collar, bends his head slightly, sniffs, and glances over to Araceli curled into a ball and wasting away on a mat. She drags up her head and gazes at Juan Carlos. “I’m hungry, brother. I need medicine, but you bring snotty glue.” She slumps back onto the floor mat, raising a dust cloud. “You insult me, dear brother.”

Her words penetrate his fog partly, “Don’t worry, Araceli, everything will work out.”

Sloe-eyed, she drools onto the floor. Her lips fall in and out of synch with the sound of her words. “Help me, Juan Carlos.”

Slowly, he processes Araceli’s words. He throws a sideways glance at Mamá, sniffs at his collar and bandaged hand, which helps his body lessen the pain from family problems, and basurero nails, splinters, and other sharps which pierce. He didn’t want to think or feel anymore anyway.

“To help us, you must leave us, Juan Carlos. Casteneda will ask our Lord Maximom to help you,” Mamá says. “He’ll chant and pray to silence the volcanoes for your journey.”

Juan Carlos makes odd noises in his throat. “No. I don’t want to leave.” He swipes the bandage under his nose, chest tightens. “I’ll change Mamá—I will.”

“Upon your return, you will have answers, my boy. Things will get better. Maximom will guide your moccasins,” she says. “Our survival depends on you. Have courage.” She turns to Casteneda.

Casteneda rises on cue from the bucket on which he quietly sits. His quickness surprises Juan Carlos. Machete in hand, he scuffs to a corner shrine that’s half surrounded by sandstone pebbles and waves the sharp blade furiously above his head. He chants to invoke the spirit of the Maya God Santiago Atitlan Maximom.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

“Oh, Great Grandfather Maximon, we ask you to protect Juan Carlos from witches and evil beings, guide him to work—for money.” Casteneda points the machete at Juan Carlos, stabs the dirt, and prostrates himself before the deity, which wears a sand-colored cowboy hat. He crawls close to its carved ebony wooded face, removes the sacred Cuban cigar from its wooden lips, and places his right ear against them. He closes his eyes and nods his head as if receiving instruction from Maximom. “Gracias, gracias, Oh Mighty One.”

Jesus! Juan Carlos wants to run out into the night. Instead, he raises his collar and sniffs fading thinner. The ceremony is way too complicated.

After several minutes with his ear pressed to the deity’s wooden lips, Casteneda pinches up his face, then smoothes out the many colorful scarves placed around Maximom’s wooden neck. He sits and slides on his butt back and away. He faces Juan Carlos, who shivers in the cold. Three candles on the wooden crate illuminate the space next to a windup clock—the stink from rotting things ever-present. 

“He says you must seek Him yourself to receive guidance that will clear you, find work for gravesite payment, medicine for Araceli, and protect and bring you back safely.”

Juan Carlos stutters, “B…B…But where will I go?” So far, he was quivering in the evening’s cold, but the direction of Casteneda’s conversation heats him. “Maybe I’ll leave next week?”

Casteneda raises his eyebrows and glances at the candles, and then the clock. “Maximom says you must leave now — head west around the volcano toward the city.” Casteneda winks at Mamá, who manages a sly grin. The scent of melting wax is stable. “Your answers will come to you once you find HIM.” Casteneda points to the door flap.

“Prisa Juan Carlos,” says Araceli.

Juan Carlos’s empty stomach feels rock hard, water forms behind his eyelids. He’d only imagined what dangers could exist beyond the boundary of Dump City even though dead bodies turn up in the basurero quite frequently, and drug gangs provide the only rule of law within its gates. He seldom leaves Dump City; garbage truck drivers and recyclers being his primary contact with the outside world. On rare occasions, a trucker rolls down his tinted window and glares at Juan Carlos. Less often, one will toss him a Quetzal or two as payment for sweeping out his dumpster. And now he’s getting kicked out into that world of complexity and madness.

Casteneda resumes his chant.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

“But what meaning have your words, Casteneda?” Juan Carlos asks.

“Oh—those. Possible vacation spots I saw in National Geographic. I might visit—buy a parcel or two.”

“You don’t say?” In Juan Carlos’ mind, the spiritual guide business must be good.

“Hold him safe, Mighty Grandfather,” Casteneda says and places his hand on Juan’s shoulder. He lobs Juan Carlos an unopened can of sardines. No doubt scavenged from the dump. He raises his tone to a level which startles Juan Carlos. “Now, GO!——FIND HIM. Know that Maximom has the power to shape change.”

Juan rolls his eyes up to the rusty tin ceiling.

Mamá, who has been a silent witness, suddenly breaks and sobs, and Araceli follows. Araceli forces herself to her feet, huddles together with Mamá and Juan Carlos, and the three of them weep, “boooo hooooo.” Casteneda drops to his knees, exhausted.

“GO!” Casteneda says again, even more firmly.

“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.

Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta.”

Juan Carlos breathes faster, and there’s a pain in the back of his throat. He doesn’t want to leave but leave he must. He’ll seek the fate Maximom holds for him and his family.

He pockets a new glue tube and wears a red bandana exiting the hut into the dark alley. He’ll follow the trail around the volcano.

***

The night’s incredibly dull and much blacker than he had experienced before, even when he scavenged without moonlight. Juan’s stomach growls to remind him of how he hasn’t eaten in some time. He walks for a few hours until he reaches narrow, dimly lit streets, a place with buildings, big ones like he’d heard recyclers describe. No one was out at night, but he heard voices from inside buildings made of bricks, like bricks discarded in the basurero. A rat scurries by, dogs tethered to stakes growl and bark at him. He keys back the lid and drinks the juice before scarfing down four of the ten sardines. He inverts the glue tube cap and pierces the foil membrane. His heart pounds faster when he unties and lays his head bandana on the cobblestone walkway. He squeezes the tube and, while spreading the glue into semicircles, massages the cloth, holds it before his mouth with a closed fist, and sucks.

At daybreak, Juan Carlos happens upon a woman in a corte intricately woven with birds, clouds, and sun designs. Her huipil has bright yellow and blue horizontal and vertical stripes. She balances a basket of avocados on her head, but several falls and Juan Carlos kicks them away. 

Juan Carlos tells her about Dump City, his Papa’s grave, Araceli’s sickness, everything. “Can you tell me where to find Maximom, Donã?”

“Maximom may be closer than you think. But no, my job is to procure avocados for my family, not to help lost boys find God.”

Juan Carlos scrunches up his face and curses the woman, “bitch.”

Juan then tramps through the small village into the rainforest, his clothes soaked from the heat and humidity, and his mouth grows dry. He wrestles through dense sun-blocking vegetation, and he jumps when monkeys whoop and roar in the trees.

He sees an older man in a small clearing struggling to pick berries from bushes and off the ground. Juan squashes them with his soles.

“Where can I find Mamimom sénior?” Again Juan Carlos explains his dilemma, how he hates scavenging in the basurero, how he’s always hungry, how his Mamá kicked him out. He sniffs the rag, but the fumes are faint, hardly enough to get a fly high. He’s almost out of glue—his hand trembles.

“I do not discuss religion with lost boys. Besides, my job is to pick berries falling from the bush, take them home so I might eat later, and no, not to help young boys find God.” The monkey howls grow louder, and Juan’s head begins to hurt. Turkeys cloaked in iridescent bronze-green feathers scamper in the brush. He offers the man sardines as a bribe, but the older man waves him off. 

Juan Carlos curses, “old bastard.”

Parrots feathered in brilliant blue and yellow group noisily high in the trees. He is deep into the rainforest. Vapors are gone, his glue tube empty.  

He eats half the remaining sardines leaving him with three. His sweating becomes excessive even for the humid rainforest, muscles cramping, he flashes back to Mamá, and Castenada is sending him away, which causes him to grind his teeth. He fantasizes about Araceli dying on the floor mat, and he has difficulty seeing what’s real before him when he comes upon a young woman about his age.

She appears to crack open nuts with rocks under a sign which she stops and points to. “Chukox Aq’oom is my village. I, Izabella.” She returns to work, and her two long black braids bounce with each blow to the nuts, her corte clings to her lithe body soaked with sweat. Her name means pledged to God, and with new knowledge, Juan Carlos believes he’s in the right place.

He explains his quest to which the girl instantly replies, “Yes, yes, I know where you can find Maximom.”

This brightens Juan, and he offers Izabella the last of his sardines. They sit on the ground, knees touching. “Eat.” She shares some nuts which, at first glance, look like macadamia but upon closer inspection remind him of coffee beans. “Drink.” He shows his palms and shrugs. “It is atol, a corn drink with secret ingredients, Juan Carlos.” She smiles, and so does he.

They talked for a long time; him about life in Dump City, about the thousands and thousands of people living off the basurero, about how they compete with buzzards for food, about glue to help curb his appetite. After all, that’s all he knows. She, about life in the rainforest, howler monkeys, jaguars, and leaf-cutter ants. She knows a lot. She touches his leg, and Juan Carlos believes the girl is in love with him. His stomach flutters, he’s hard.

He ducks away from a large butterfly with bright blue wings edged in black, shadows loom in the overgrowth. Another monkey howls, Juan’s body shakes, and his heart beats faster. His mind sees Araceli curled up on the floor mat, remembers why he’s in the forest, and clears his throat. “Dearest Izabella, tell me the location of Maximom.”

Izabella goes silent for a long time. Has she been putting him on? Maybe she’s a witch, a shapeshifter like Castaneda had warned. 

Nauseous, Juan Carlos stands, bends over, and grabs his stomach. He retches as if half his gut is ready to take leave of his body. Up come nuts floating in gray bile.

Izabella gives a quick shoulder shrug. “Your glue habit caused your body imbalance.”

“What’s the shit you gave me, witch? I’m dying!” Juan Carlos retches again but only emits a greenish puss. He falls writhing in the dirt, the pain sharp like tiny knives.

“No, Juan Carlos. Your glue is the poison—herbs and seed will help your body equalize itself. Devil mushroom prepares your mind for your journey home. It’s what I do. I’m the curandera, the Person of Wisdom for my people.”

His body purges stored glue to rebalance itself. He sits up and presses his palms into his eye sockets before he stands in his moccasins.

Izabella shapeshifts into Castenada.“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta,” she says in her female voice. She seems to float from the ground into a standing position in front of him. “Make-believe Juan Carlos, my hand is a mirror.”

In her palm, he sees a familiar reflection he’s seen in broken mirror shards his mother and sister collected in the dump, his shoulder-length hair greased back with pomade he’d found. His wispy mustache, medium brown pitted skin, dark, sullen eyes, mouth rash, blistered lips, and off-white teeth.

His reflection in the girl’s dirty hand is Maximom. The avocados woman was right. Maximom was all along closer to him than he’d thought. His mood boosts, and his thoughts turn to a new situation, considering how he can best move forward. Juan Carlo’s world now extends beyond the limits of Dump City. Inside, his body feels lighter, his mind somewhat brighter. He’s seen the face of Maximom, his own.

The image of Castaneda changes back to Izabella. “To help yourself and your family, it is up to you to create the opportunity to do so.”

“But how? What should I do for money? Sell drugs in the basurero?”

Izabella touches her slender fingers to his forehead, flattens her lips before the corners turn up, “Have you thought about real estate?”

Juan opens his mouth, but nothing comes out at first. “Are you sure?”

“Psyche!” Izabella whoops loudly. “First, get a truck, Juan Carlos.” She gives him plantains and a bag of cornmeal for his journey. “I’ll pray for you.”

Juan Carlos Martinez will try to get back home.

***

Juan Carlos is nearly out of the rainforest when he happens upon the berry picker. The older man struggles with several full bags of berries and winces when he sees Juan Carlos.

“I found God, sénor.”

“Humph,” the old man sputters. Sweat rains off his face .

“Let me help your load.” Juan Carlos throws bags over his shoulder and hoists one atop his head.

“God is great. I thank her every day for blessings, for sending me help like you, Juan Carlos.”

They reach the older man’s home, a shack with palm leaved walls and a thatch roof. The old man is so grateful that he gives Juan Carlos a large bag of berries. “For your family,” he says. 

Juan Carlos travels onward, losing track of how often the morning star rises; he hardly notices the heat, the weight from plantains, cornmeal, and berries. 

He happens across the avocado woman again, laboring with a basket on her head and the four bags she drags behind her. She sees him coming and turns away from him, but he catches up.

“I found God, Donã.”

“Psshh,” the woman sucks her teeth, her huipil drenched with sweat.

“You were right, Donã. Maximom was close to me. Let me help you with your load.”

Juan Carlos balances two avocado bags on top of the berries and plantains and drags the other two with his cornmeal to the woman’s tiny home.

 “Thank you, my son. I’ll pray for your safe journey home.” She hands Juan Carlos two bags of avocados. “For your family,” she says.

 Juan Carlos walks all night, and at daybreak, he’s in the small city with narrow streets, dim lamps, and brick buildings. He trades some avocados and berries for medicine, granulated antibiotics to mix with herbs, which Araceli will need.

By twilight, Juan Carlos is on the trail leading around the volcano to his village. He feels more energetic, better than he has in some time. He can’t recall a time he’d felt better. Halfway around, the volcano spews dark gray clouds of smoke high into the air; the earth rumbles below him but does not erupt. Juan Carlos answers Castaneda’s prayers when he reaches their corrugated metal and old tarpaulins shack sitting across the street from the basurero. He drops his booty of plantains, berries, avocados, cornmeal, and antibiotics inside the door flap. 

Mamá sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their hut. Castaneda prostrates himself in front of the deity. Candles flicker on the floor mat, where he left Araceli. His eyes meet Mamá’s.

“Dead.” She drops her broom, stares at empty hands, and walks toward Juan Carlos. “Waiting for three months was too long for her, Juan Carlos. Araceli’s death meant less for food and more to pay for Papa’s coffin. I buried them together, and the cost does not change.”

Arceli can’t be dead, oh, fuck. Juan Carlos bites his lip and recalls the wooden wheel wagon, Araceli’s out of sync words, her telling him to hurry. He cups his mouth. Castaneda places a hand on his shoulder, but Juan Carlos’ jerks it away. Please, God.

Several days later, Juan Carlos sweats atop a newly formed basurero trash mountain, shades his eyes, and tries to focus on Papa and Araceli’s gravesite in the cemetery above him. He sold avocados, berries, antibiotics, and plantains for a small truck parked at the base of his trash mound. He’ll recycle, cut out the middleman. Below him, thousands of guajiro mill about dancing in ghostly repetition.

Real estate?

He sucks a deep fume-filled breath from snot-colored glue at the bottom of a plastic bag.

Ron L. Dowell holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories or poems have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages, Rain on Rooftops Review, Writers Resist, Stories Through The Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2018, and in The Poeming Pidgeon. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. Ron resides in Los Angeles California, USA, and is African (American).

Fiction | ‘Voice’ by Madhavi Johnson

It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in New York City. A young African American hostess prepared the audience gathered in the warmth of the Harlem Repertoire theatre for a ‘smooth and joyful voyage to unknown lands’ aboard Celebrity, the infamous slave ship, sailing out of the Ivory Coast. The hostess urged everyone to sit in an orderly fashion, ‘fasten their shackles,’ behave themselves and not sing, talk or play drums. A background display of murals and images of slaves shackled to the ship’s hold, transported passengers across choppy seas to distant, unknown lands. The accompanying vocals by the hostess and her companions; a mixture of folk, blues, soul, and jazz, set the mood for the journey.  

‘Coloured Museum’s’ opening show was totally sold out that night. This was the first time an off-Broadway show had engaged the spectators to this level of partnership during the performance. We were all high on adrenaline, having received a standing ovation from the audience.

I walked over to the green room afterwards, and stepped out of my hostess costume.

“You were great tonight Ruby. So confident, and poised,” Cyrus said to me. “Your skin is a heady mix of bronze and beige. It glows,” he continued as I started removing my makeup without saying anything. 

“Are you nervous?” He asked; I had expected him to read my tension. I would be meeting my birth father for the first time tonight. Of course I was nervous. 

In hindsight, I wondered if my pursuit of truth had been a mistake. Mum had told me I was adopted when I was young. I had tried to probe over the years, in sudden bursts of curiosity. Mum and dad did not have much to give me, and I can understand that. If I was in their place, I wouldn’t have offered much myself. I had set out wondering and being inquisitive about my birth when I turned eighteen. It took some effort, and I managed to locate one surviving parent in Belize City three years later. The woman who had given birth to me had died a few years after she had left me with a lady from Louisiana. 

“I should have let things be,” I turned to Cyrus.

“Don’t be silly. You will not regret one minute of this. I am sure you will look back and know you did the right thing.” Cyrus reassured. 

“Thanks, Cyrus. Will you walk with me to Calypso? I asked Mr. Satuye to meet me there.” I could not bring myself to refer to the visitor from Belize City as ‘father.’ 

Joanna and Manuel Jordan were the only parents I had known in my life. Joanna had arrived in Chicago from Poland with her parents and older sister when she was three. Manuel came to the US from Barbados with his aunt, as a teenager. Mum had defied her family to marry dad. Manuel’s request for Joanna’s hand had been soundly rejected by mum’s father, Lech Kowalski, the local butcher. They were glad he had not brought out his shotgun that night! 

To say things were dramatic, wouldn’t be an understatement. Mum smuggled her possessions, packed in two trunks, out of her house with the help of a friend and eloped with dad by stepping out of the bedroom window and sliding down knotted sheets.

I was two years old when dad brought me home and handed me to Joanna. He was posted in Belize with the narcotics unit of the United States Military, assigned to monitor the border with Guatemala for the trafficking of drugs and contraband. One Sunday morning, he walked into an orphanage in Belize City, run by a kind lady from Louisiana. He spotted me there, “with bright eyes and a ready smile,” he said. He spent the rest of the day playing with me, feeding me, putting me to sleep. The next day he filed the papers to formally adopt me. 

He took me to Chicago a few months later. My mum vied with my dad to shower me with love even after my two siblings arrived. 

Jazz music, cigarette smoke and a low buzz welcomed us as Cyrus and I walked into Calypso Bar and Grill. Tony and Ginny were on a jazz routine on stage with a new player on the saxophone. He wore a neat blue suit. His dark skin gleamed under the bright lights.

Cyrus hurried towards the bar to meet up with an old buddy. His presence and his high pitched laughter was comforting.

The trio finished jamming to a smattering of applause. 

“Thank you for this wonderful music. Once again, let us welcome our guest from Belize City, Mr. Joseph Satuye,” The DJ announced.

Mouth dry and hands clammy, I stood rooted to my spot. Mr. Satuye got off the stage and headed towards me.

“Whiskey on the rocks, please.”

He had a sing-song drawl, a mixture of accents from deep south and the Caribbean. 

“Don’t just stare at me,” he smiled. “Say something, and surely you will have a drink with me?”

I was startled by his directness. 

“Hello, Mr.Satuye…”

I held out my hand. He leaned forward instead, drew me close to him, and gave me a bear hug. It was confusing and reassuring.

“You look just like her. Like Camelia. The same liquid brown eyes, smooth skin, lovely hair. You are a replica of your mother.” He took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his eyes. 

We sat in a corner table, deep in the shadows of Calypso with our drinks and his memories.

“I still remember the night I met Camelia. She came to the bar where I worked, in Belmopan, along with her friends. She was sparkling and full of life. I was an understudy to the saxophone player, and he was sick that day. I stepped in to take his place and stood in front of the audience, fearful, painfully shy. Until Camelia showed up. She sat right in front, close to the stage, and clapped for every single note I played. She got through my shyness. By the end of the week, we were seeing each other every evening. She told me, ‘Joseph, I love every single note and nuance of your music. I want to hear it all my life.'”

I nodded, taking a sip.

“We became inseparable. Spent time together, day and night for over four months. That’s when it got complicated. She vanished. Just like that.” Mr. Satuye’s voice sounded far away. “I was shattered. I heard about her from others. Someone saw her in a bar, drunk; she was at the church praying. I wanted her back in my life. I was not willing to give her up that easily.”

I could see the pain in his eyes. His love for that woman was surely undeniable. But I needed much more. 

“How could you not find her in a small place like Belmopan?” I asked. “Did you even bother to look far, and deep enough?” I sounded cruel. My way of protecting myself, I justified.

Mr. Satuye was patient. He continued.

“Camelia had moved to Belize City. I gave up my job at the bar and followed her over there. I just could not locate her. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. It was around then that I heard she had given birth.”

She rolled off his tongue as if she was there in the room listening to us. 

The music stopped. The bartenders and bouncers left. Calypso was closing for the night. Cyrus left with his buddy, his voice receding as he said goodbye to me. 

The bulb above us threw a circle of dull, violet light. 

“I got desperate. I knew this baby was mine. I was concerned. For her. For you.”

Listening to him drained me. I was tired and impatient, this was coming from someone who was still a stranger to me. I didn’t know what to believe. 

Mr. Satuye was in a trance.

“I was broke and exhausted. I decided to go back to my village in Dangriga to stay with my mother and my Nanna Marcela. I had to recover my health, my sanity.” 

“Let us catch up tomorrow. It is late. You must be tired.” I interrupted him.

“Sorry, Ruby. I hope I have not upset you,” he said.

“No, not at all, I will call you tomorrow.” I got up and hurried away from him, from the dim light, the lingering smoke and the story from the past. 

“How was it last night?” Joanna called early the next morning. I had spent a disturbed night, unsure about the man who called himself my father and the tale he had recounted.

“It is ok to feel this way, Ruby. After all, he is still a stranger to you. Give it time.” Joanna was her usual generous, comforting self. 

‘Why did I delve into the past if I am unable to accept it?” 

I did not expect an answer.

When I hung up, I noticed several messages from Mr. Satuye.

Sorry, I may have been too forthcoming last night.

Hope you will meet me again.

You are my one chance to somehow connect with Camelia.

Please, where shall we meet and when?

I got dressed, brewed coffee, and opened my computer. I wanted to find out where on earth Dangriga was.

Cyrus and I walked out of the theatre after the show that evening, high on the reception we had received from the audience. He persuaded me to contact Mr. Satuye again. I was fearful of my emotions and resisted the idea. We hugged, said goodbye, and I walked towards the subway station. 

Mr. Satuye stepped out of the shadows. I jumped. 

“I left a lot of messages for you.” His voice was gentle and persistent. 

“Mr. Satuye, I don’t really want to know about your past, or about the woman who you say was my mother. I am sorry I made you come over to New York needlessly. Now, if you do not mind, I have an appointment and I need to go.” I spoke rapidly. “I want to meet you again. I am here until the end of this week before I return to Belize City. Here is my card. I will be at Calypso every evening. Please…” He pleaded.

I grabbed the card from the man who called himself my father and walked into the subway station quickly, running away from him and my emotions. 

The lump in my throat remained for a few days. 

‘Coloured Museum’ continued its unbeaten run till the end of January. We were on Time Out’s list of New York’s top ten off-Broadway shows. When the season was over, we left on our separate ways. 

“Mr. Satuye mentioned a place called Dangriga. I think his grandmother and mother live there. They are singers.” I was back at home, relating my encounter to Joanna and Manuel.  

“We visited Dangriga when dad was posted in Belize,” Joanna paused. “It used to be called Stann Creek Town. Don’t you remember our visit there Manny?”

“I remember the sunsets there. The place itself was pretty basic. Lots of shacks, fresh fish, and… it was my first experience drinking bread wine.”

“What? How was that?” I was curious.

“I only remember the splitting headache he got after drinking that wine. Must have been the heat and the fermentation…” Joanna chuckled.

“The people in Dangriga.” Manuel was still on the topic. “They are descendants of slaves from Africa shipwrecked on those shores. And inter- mingling with the caribs.” He was taking a walk down memory lane.

“Come on let us chat over dinner. Don’t want it to get cold.” Joanna had cooked my favourite stewed beans and rice dish.

“Punta music… ah… now I remember. Garifuna music is feisty…” Manuel continued reminiscing over a glass of port once the table was cleared and we settled in the living room.

Joanna got up as if she just remembered something. She went into the study, rummaged, and brought a disk out, a CD of music by Garifuna women. 

“This is not like Punta. Maybe more layered, soulful,” Joanna handed the CD to me. I looked at the cover, a woman looking at the sunset by the tropics. The tape was quite a mix. Stories of hurricanes that swept away homes and livelihoods, the pain of childbirth, a son murdered in a remote village, and struggles of daily life. Personal narratives of mothers and daughters passed on through songs to future generations. The CD was titled ‘Umalali.’ The woman on the cover was Marcela, the name rang a bell.

Awake late into the night, I googled the word ‘Umalali,’ the Garifuna word for ‘voice.’ I scrolled through stories about the Garinagu and their journey to Dangriga. They inhabited the land, which is now St Vincent and Grenadines, before the British laid claim to the island in 1672. I read about their trials upon landing in Stann Creek, about Joseph Chatoyer, the Chief of the Garinagu, who fought bravely against the British and died defending his land, language and culture. 

‘Umalali’ the ‘voice’ of the Garifuna women. The music Joanna had played defined their identity, language and culture. I knew that I, too, could connect with it if only I let it enter my me, take over me. 

***

Stone Tree Recording Studio in Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize buzzed with activity. Silvia and the other singers from the Garifuna Collective arrived from Dangriga. Everyone was waiting for the rehearsals to begin for a new CD of their latest music collection. Mama Marcela had not travelled with them this time. She was 92 now and had become frail since her last trip to the studio five years ago. 

Director Ian had spent time with them in their villages then, capturing their soulful voices. The women had then visited his studio to record ‘Umalali.’ He had blended the rich vocal textures of the women’s voices with echoes of rock, blues, funk, African, Latin, and Caribbean music.  ‘Umalali’ had made them famous beyond Belize and Central America. The women were far more confident and relaxed on this trip. After a month of rehearsals and recordings, the women began their return journey to Dangriga. Easter was around the corner, and busy days lay ahead of them as their bus took them towards their families, partners, parents, children. 

Silvia’s anxiety about Marcela increased the closer they got to Dangriga. She was feeble, with a sharp mind and a barbed tongue. Silvia wondered about Aunty Helen, who was kindly helping out with Marcela in her absence. She got off the bus in Dangriga and walked through the town, the orange hue of the spectacular sunset guiding her home. The front porch, framed with bright pink bougainvillea, looked warm and welcoming. Silvia clicked the gate open and entered the path towards the house, calling out to her mother and aunt in Garifuna, “Hello… buiti binafi.,” she said as she entered the doorway.

Marcela was sitting in her armchair, facing a young woman wearing a green and blue dress. The young woman stood up when she saw Silvia. 

“This is Ruby. From New York,” Aunty Helen introduced her to Silvia. 

***

Silvia looked at me searchingly. 

“Hello. I am Ruby. Sorry I came here without letting you know. I was visiting Belize City on holiday and thought I could come over to Dangriga. I have read a lot about this place – lovely beaches, punta music, great fried fish! I also heard Umalali, my mum has a CD, and wanted to come in person to tell you how much I admire your voices, your singing.” I blurted it all out in one breath.

“Camelia’s daughter?” Silvia asked, out of the blue.

I stood in the middle of their living room, flushed and embarrassed. 

“Ha, I can see the resemblance now.” Marcela peered at me. “You are an exact copy of your mother. The same eyes, the skin, the hair. Come close to me,” Marcela held out her hand. “Sit here.”

I felt weak-kneed as I sank to the floor near her. Just one month ago, I met a stranger in a bar in Manhattan. Now I was in someone’s living room in another country and could not even remember why I had decided to come there.

“I know of Camelia. But not much.” I sounded lame. 

“Thank you Aunty Helen for preparing dinner. I missed homemade beans and rice.” Silvia smiled and turned to me. “Camelia came here in search of Joseph when you had just turned one. She returned to Belize City the same day when she did not find him here, she wouldn’t even stay the night. Joseph had left for Chicago by then. We begged her and promised to take care of her and you. But she left. We never saw her again.”  

Marcela was making loud chomping noises and nodding her head. I remained silent and stared at the food in front of me. I was annoyed with myself for having been so naive to think I would get away with the excuse for my visit.

Morning dawned, and it brought some clarity. I would tell my hosts the real reason I was there, apologise and leave town soon after. 

“Your father was named after Joseph Chatoyer.” Marcella said as soon as I entered the living room. “Chatoyer was our big Chief who fought the British. Your father was the first boy born in the family after a long line of women. He is a seventh generation Chatoyer, the British version of our family name. Over time we took on the original family name Satuye.”

I forgot my apology and sat down at Marcela’s feet again. 

Marcela talked of the bravery of Joseph Chatoyer and his followers, the Carib wars against the British, the struggle of the Garinagu to keep their language and customs intact against colonial oppression and invasions by other tribes. She explained the origins of the Garifuna language, their story-telling prowess, their powerful voices, and their indomitable spirit. “Our Umalali, our voice, is special,” she declared. “You must learn our language. That’s the only way this culture will flow in your blood.”

Over a meal of fried beans and fish with rice, I tendered my apology for visiting them knowing who they were. They were confused. 

“You have every right to come here any time,” Silvia told me. “What is the problem? Stay tonight, and I will show you around Dangriga.”

“You must watch the sunset on the beach. They are spectacular,” Marcela insisted. 

Silvia and I walked through the town to the beach in the evening. I was introduced as Nibari to every person we met. I was Nibari, the grandchild Silvia had been waiting for, for a long while. 

I had heard the song Nibari on the CD that Joanna had played. 

We sat on the beach as the orange hued sun descended over the blue waters. This was my last night in Dangriga; I would be returning to Belize City tomorrow to catch the flight back home. I yearned to stay longer, to be near Nanna Silvia, to hear stories from Nanna Marcela.

“Stay as long as you want. This is your home. You belong here.” Silvia said as though she had read my mind. “We were not in touch all these years. We can still make up for all the lost time.”

“I have to be back in Manhattan. Rehearsals start in a few days.”

I lay back on the sand with the breeze blowing gently across my face. The two women had welcomed me with unquestioning warmth and generosity. I was one of them. I was the daughter of Camelia and Joseph, a Satuye. 

“Camelia was already deep into drugs when she came here. Her arms had syringe marks, she looked thin and sick.” Silvia was drawing fistfuls of sand as she looked into the horizon. “I refused to give her money but told her she could stay with us as long as she wanted.”

“Joseph was away. I did not tell him anything about her or you. I kept track of Camelia for a while until she disappeared. I had no idea what she had done with you.” Silvia’s said, her eyes moist. 

I listened to her quietly. I was still hesitant to voice my claim to a connection with her. But I slept better that night. 

We made our way to the bus station slowly with Marcela insisting on walking all the way, holding my hand. The two women stood at the bus shelter and watched me board the bus. Silvia had packed some food for me. As I waved goodbye to Nanna Silvia and Nanna Marcela, I wondered if they would tell my father about my visit to his home.

Cyrus beamed when I recounted my adventure in Dangriga.

“I told you, you had nothing to be afraid of. I hope you are planning to keep in touch with your Nannas and will return sometime?” 

I didn’t answer.

The second season of ‘Coloured Museum’ opened this time in a theatre close to Times Square. The show was expanded and more sets and actors were included. 

My voice carried loud and clear through the theatre as I sang Nibari, trying to recreate the soulful voice of Silvia. Yes, I had managed to convince the director to add a cameo on Garifuna people. Dad smiled through my performance, and Mum sat straight with an unwavering gaze on me.  

“Let us go to Calypso. It has been a long time,” Cyrus was full of energy after the show. A West African band from Mali was playing on stage as we entered. We settled down to a meal of fried beans and fish that brought back memories of Nanna Marcela and Nanna Silvia. 

“The gentleman over there sent this complimentary drink for you.” The barman placed a Margarita with lots of ice in front of me.

“A secret admirer?” Cyrus teased me.  I looked up. 

A man in a deep blue suit greeted me from the bar, “Buiti Binafi!”

I kicked the chair behind me as I rushed towards him. I wanted a proper hug from my father this time.

Glossary:

Garifuna, also known as Garinagu, are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and subsequently moved to Belize. Garifuna mainly live on the coast but are also very present in towns and villages.

Dangriga, formerly known as Stann Creek Town, is a town in southern Belize, located on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the North Stann Creek River.
Punta is a Garifuna music and dance style performed at celebrations and festive occasions. Created by the Garifuna people of St. Vincent best known to derive from Honduras, Belice, Guatemala, and parts of Nicaragua, so Central America.

Garifuna words:
Umalali – Voice
Nibari – Grand child
Buiti Binafi – Hello (general greeting)

*

Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson was born in Chennai and spent her early career years working as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her into an interesting career in international development/humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia and USA (New York). She now lives in Ballarat, in the Victoria Region of Australia, hosts a blog and mentors young men and women from developing countries on organizational skills and self-development.

Fiction | ‘The Train and the Tunnel’ by Dhananjay Singh

for Navneet Sethi

My father lowered his neck, dipped his shoulders, and emerged out of the tin door, a foot lower than his height of five feet two inches. A broad and muscular chest straightening itself on a sturdy waist stepped out to the parched yard.  

Sweat beads dribbled down my cleavage, making a half-circle around my navel, before slithering downwards, cooling my pubic place.

His fifty-year-old wheatish face was dry and stretched tightly between the temple and the jawbone. Years of bitterness had given the oblong face a rough surface. No warm emotion either for his wife, his daughter or his mother ever brightened it for the better. 

The brittle hot soil broke under his dusty feet. He bowed to the Seven Wise Men, who willfully took no notice of him and his bowing. The dust gatherers, the villagers, waited for the verdict anxiously. With their inconspicuous murmuring, the Seven Wise Men played on the impatient nerves of the crowd like a team of shamans. 

The matter was severe. Had they come to dispense their sense of justice for the regular, routine and often illogical issues, the situation would have been different, and loud. Thundering shots from the Wise Men’s mouths interspersed with bombastic farts released through the bulging asses would have withered down whatever strength was left in the half squatting, half-standing villagers. 

The Seven Wise Men sat in a semicircle under an old mango tree, having grown giant with time. Its sprawling branches sagged under the scalding sun as if to eavesdrop on these proceedings.  

***

Under the same Mango Tree, thirteen years ago. 

The Seven Wise Men summoned my mother. 

The scandal had been reported a week before. 

She was sleeping face-up. My father held a bulky pumpkin over her stomach. It dropped quietly, on her navel area. I squirmed in her womb.  

She flinched while coming out of the shack; but her right hand was a hand of conviction. It rose angrily against the sky, and at the same time, her left hand caressed her painful stomach.    

“The child isn’t his, so!”    

The Seven Wise Men were astounded.  

 Hands and legs tied, to be thrown into the river!

All rose abruptly drawing a cloud of dust under their hips.   

Though the verdict was as expected, my grandmother broke off from other women who were sitting inside their shanties, sad and helpless. She ran through the men like a thunderstorm tearing apart a gathering of gloomy clouds. Roaring like an old tigress, she ground her teeth in anger and leaped around in the yard. She waved sideways, left and right in the air, the sickle in her left hand like Imli, the tribal goddess of destruction, while repeatedly slapping her right palm on her raised right thigh as a mark of challenge to the men. 

The Seven Wise Men wisely settled for an alternative.  

Alright, if it’s a girl, she lives! 

***

Early in the morning, today                        

Mother pulled me up by my hair. I sat motionless in the bed with my legs stretched. A sunbeam slid through a chink in the roof, fell at the corner of my neck, and diagonally connected my left breast to my right toe. Under the red frock, tiny, blood dots appeared between my inner thighs. She saw them, paused briefly and went out hurriedly. I resumed breathing. 

I was a rabbit afraid to come out of my hole for the fear of being hunted down by the preying eyes.  

Grandmother was the strongest woman in the village, bigger than any man, bigger even than the village chief. Her breasts hung like two gourds on her broad tummy. She rushed in and coiled her arms around me. 

“You are going to be fine, my child!”

She kissed my cheeks. 

If that wasn’t enough, she pulled me closer to her fat and round body. Her face caressed mine. I felt as if her wrinkles were my own.    

She sang.  

Oh, rose-like lips 

Beware of the sting of your lover’s teeth.

She giggled. 

I thought of the carpenter’s son. That tall and dark boy, with whom I daydreamed about running away to a wonderland on a black horse along secret, cobblestoned streets, that began and ended in my heart. He lived only a few shanties away, but we rarely met openly. A year older than me, he had started talking like a worldly-wise man lately. We lived on the edge of the village. Our shanties were quite shabby, like most in the area, unlike the colorful brick houses in the central parts of the village. His sweet purple lips were of the real world though. He had kissed me eleven times since the night of the village fair a year before.

***

Under the Mango tree, now again.

A mango dropped. A thud on the dusty ground. Ripe yellow juice oozed out onto the dust like a breath.

The Seven Wise Men addressed my father, who stood obsequiously bent, while the audience squatted down under the tree in three arched rows.

“What a great prospect for a good-for-nothing man like you!” The leader of the Seven Wise Men, the chief said.  

“And he is an old bridegroom!”  

It was my uncle this time, who spoke patronizingly. However, he immediately conjured an indifferent, official frown on his face, one befitting that of a trusted assistant to the Seven Wise Men.  

An ‘unreal’ husband, who if he also happened to be old, paid twice the fixed rate for a virgin wife. 

The scalding rays of the sun dug mirages out of the dense crops across the railway line, seemingly cutting the panorama of maize fields into two halves. Mother put my bloodied frock that she had cut out of her old sari into an old, half-broken clay pot. 

She went down the grassy path that vanished into the pond beyond the mango tree, to offer the pot to water and earth gods. Its placid surface swayed in the breeze as the pot sank into the water. Its ripples were deep green from the reflection of the dense bamboo, with coconut and banana trees all around it.  

Grandmother emerged from the grove with a bucket of pond water mixed with coconut water and a sackful of cracked shells containing the fleshy white fruit inside them.  

“Here, drink some before I give you a sweet sacred shower of the coconut water. And then you can go and give the shells to your father. The shells keep the water pure, goes the old saying.”

Women from the shanties flocked at our home with more coconut, some honey and a lot of wheat flour as wedding gifts. They went around in the evening giving sweet balls at the door of each shanty, singing and seeking consent from the men. 

Grandmother was the lead singer. Mother matched her note upon note, with great precision. The other women sang as a chorus. They sang about my sharp nose, my dark eyes and my long flowing hair. My name in the song gave me goosebumps. It resonated from the hedges, the branches of the mango tree, and the grove that surrounded the pond. My blood, swimming in the pond, was rolling on the tongues of earth and water gods.         

Father’s sister, my aunt, who was now a ‘really’ married woman, arrived by a rickshaw. She scurried into the group, singing passionately, stretching out her dark neck like a nightingale.  

“Rein in your heart, till you get a ‘real’ husband,” said my aunt. 

 “You are too young now for that,” said my mother behind her. 

 “And when does one become a ‘really’ married girl?”

I was thinking of him, whose purple lips had made my heart dance rhythmically.

“When a man from the community marries you, for life!” My mother was sterner this time. My aunt winked at me. Mother was not letting her speak and Aunt was eager to give her piece of advice.

“And when rich men from the city or beyond the seas marry you for their fixed time, you are not ‘really’ married,” my aunt said smiling, and hugged me again.  

“Your aunt came through fifteen ‘unreal’ husbands, without the Seven Wise Men ever coming to us and knocking at our door!” said my mother, both to praise my aunt and give herself some credit as well. 

  My aunt nodded, proudly this time. She took my hand, and we strolled towards the pond.

“Not an ordinary man, this one. He owns three factories in the city.”

  “Why does the chief so welcome these husbands?” I asked out of curiosity. 

“Because he gets his cut. And this man? He is a celebrity in the village, because he has promised to take some of our boys to work in his factories in the city, where they eat all three times a day.”

“But listen here, child. Don’t you ever let a swollen belly come on you. That is the most disgraceful thing that can happen with an ‘unreal’ husband! Remember, how Reshma was thrown into the river, because she let her belly swell? How stupid of that poor girl!”

“Yes, I remember this as clear as day; her swollen body stuck in the bushes under the bridge. It was her mother who later pushed it away again.” I said, looking towards the Chief’s mansion beyond which the river curved away from the village. 

“How beautiful were those days! The three of us roamed on dusty roads, and climbed on mango trees until the day she became a woman and was married off to that rich man across the seas.” She remembered, and her eyes moistened. 

“She was sent back by an aeroplane six months before the contract period ended because she let herself become pregnant.”

“And then only after she arrived, did the Seven Wise Men convened to settle the matter,” I reported to her.

A voice whispered my name behind the banana grove, a sweet, almost musical tune kissed my inner ears and my heart started racing. 

My aunt understood, and retired to the shanty.   

“Run away with me!” His voice sounded hurried. It meant we had to decide either way, urgently. They called him the carpenter’s son, the powerful people. I never called him anything, but he meant the world to me.  

“You want to go away from the village, with me? Come to the city for an amazing life! Come to me, where I live a royal life in a rented tunnel?”

“In a tunnel? A rented tunnel!” I quipped, with half disbelief. 

“Yeah! A tunnel of freedom, in the outskirts of the city, out of use, discarded by the corporation, but I am sure the police would let us rent it, and we will have a beautiful, undisturbed good time together. Not one Wise Man to intrude into our lives. We would lie in the curves of our arms, look at the stars, and marvel at the brightly-lit tall buildings of the world kissing the Moon. We will kiss our lips without fear. Come with me?”  

We chirped inside a cozy nest of soft monosyllables. He kissed me. I kissed him. He was fast. I was slow. We parted with quiet cravings.  

The sun had dropped behind the chief’s mansion on the bank of the river. We were not supposed to be anywhere there, none of us, not even the older people, except during an ‘unreal’ wedding. 

Somewhere inside there was my first ‘unreal’ husband, an expensively dressed old man with a wrinkled face; his slack thighs wobbled, as his feet slowly moved towards me in my mind’s eye. I dropped on my cot like an electrocuted bird. He was on me; the cot screeching, he galloping like an old dingy horse.  

  Hordes of clouds constellated around the Moon. The trees around the pond resonated with the nocturnal sounds of frogs, grasshoppers and owls, and girly ghosts, whose bodies had floated round-bellied in the river with dead embryos inside their wombs.    

On the porch, father sat down on the earthen floor eating roti with boiled potato. A rusted lantern reluctantly glowed in front of him. The feeble flame sprouted red sparks in its dying moment for lack of oil, and dimly lit up the coarse features of his expressionless face. Mother sat beside him. The Moon had come to the foliage of the mango tree.  Father was chewing when I walked out. Naked.  

My mother produced the most horrendous whimper she could, suppressed within the walls of her mouth, afraid to wake the neighbors up. Grandmother and aunt came running inside.  

Father chewed another morsel, more slowly this time, like a calm buffalo disinterest, and having no concern. He worked his mouth on the roti without looking at us at all.   

They came after me quietly, through the maize crop that was dense across the railway line. The clouds had covered the Moon making it dark all around. I was lying sprawled full-length on the ground. They were panting near me, but I was as invisible as the Moon.  

  “Child, O child! Where are you? They will kill us! Please, let’s go home?” 

  She appeared to be a different grandmother, a terrified and miserable old woman, not the one I knew.

They searched for me. 

“What’s the matter? Are you okay?” Grandmother prodded my mother who slipped and was unable to get up. She then saw the spiky stubble that had gone deep into her left foot, and pulled it out.

I heard my mother’s controlled groans.

“Let’s go back. You are badly limping as well. And she may have crossed the river by now. The carpenter’s son may be behind all this,” said my aunt.

 My mother sobbed. Perhaps, my name choked her throat. I longed for her. If I hadn’t been born a girl, she would have been dead for thirteen years now. 

Grandmother cried too, softly. Mother and aunt placed their heads on her bosom. She spread her arms and hugged them. The three of them then, as she-wolves, let out a united wail looking at the dark sky. It was obvious, I had run away. 

I knew in the heart of my heart that my mother, and also my grandmother were half-pleased thinking I had escaped. 

They walked back wishing me good luck.    

The Moon moved across the clouds. I saw dust smeared on my breasts, hips, and thighs. The soft dewy grass fondled my hips. The breeze blew cool from the pond with shreds of heat from the shacks. The breeze brought the boy I loved, the carpenter’s son. 

   I had seen him grow up with me, but knew a different him on the night of the fair, when his purple lips caught my pink lips in a juicy knot. 

The breeze felt sweet. His tongue shook my breasts, his sweet breath puffed my hair, and his hands caressed my hips. His piercing eyes felt the warmth of my heart. I looked at his dark face.  He filled me with new love.  

Besides our unified breaths, only a nightingale cooed in the bamboo grove. But at that very moment, something happened. Leaves rustled behind us. He got up with a start, and sprinted, far from the fields. 

The Moon moved behind the clouds again.  

“Who is the one who did you?”  

“Are you not ashamed?” The most powerful of the Seven Wise Men, the Chief shouted at me. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but his hoarse voice was familiar. It was the same voice that had declared when I was in my mother’s womb, Alright if it’s a girl she lives!

“No Sir, we only kissed. He loves me,” I said with fear.

“No Sir, I am thirteen, and he is fourteen, but we only kiss. We are going to be married when we grow up,”  I said with more fear.

“Kissed! Without your parents’ permission and the Seven Wise Men’s approval? Shameless girl, do you become a woman for free, like this!”

I crouched. They shoved me further down; I turned my face to the soil. They struggled to grip my thighs. I convulsed like a sacrificial animal moments before being slit in the throat by the butcher’s axe. The bigger man bumped onto me, his hanging tummy smashing me into the earth. 

When the second man substituted for him, the Moon reappeared. My eyes expanded. I called, “What, you shameless brother of my mother!” The chief waited for him to finish. 

The breeze still blew. The maize leaves still fondled my navel. A tuft of grass still swayed between my thighs.  

   Dawn was spreading out on the horizon. I plunged into the pond, and swam to its deep end like a hungry fish. The pot, with my skirt in it, was half-deep into the mud; yellowish grasses all around it, like a foliage around a fruit. 

He was on the bank with a tattered sari. I wrapped it around from my chest to my knees. I didn’t look at him. My love for him had sunken like water in a deserted well. If he had not fled from the spot, we could have fought the Chief and my mother’s brother, and left for the city before anyone knew about it.  

I ambled along the fields aimlessly.  

A hand waved above the maize crops below the railway line. It was my mother. She was waving at me to come towards her. I ran towards her, with a limp. The pain in my thighs and hips shot up. I leapt up dreaming to drop in my mother’s arms and cry. 

A train screeched and stopped. They usually swept past. The whirr of the engine was invigorating the stillness of the dawn.  

With a start, I looked at the train, and forgot my mother completely. 

   I ran through the dense maize crops. When my desperate hands touched the train, I looked back. The fields were silent. 

A woman and a boy of my age on the first seat looked at my cleavage with conflicting ideas. I ignored them, walked up to the toilet, and sat on the floor beside the door.   

The train began moving. 

It was only later that I found out about the incident. A woman had thrown herself off in front of the running train and dropped dead into two uneven pieces. The passengers huddled to get a glimpse of her through the window grills, as the bogie slowly passed by her. In two parts, she rested quietly on a stone bed someone had assembled. The two pieces brought close. The last stream of blood was flowing from the rift. Her face was tranquil.

I looked at my mother’s lifeless pieces, shedding tears for fate, pain and gratitude. Years later I thought I must have hallucinated. Because, even with her body in two halves, I saw her eyes were closing and looking at me, eyes of a bleeding and drained mother who was now dead. Two lines of tears rolled down the corner of her eyes that had gone cold.  

The train gathered speed. In no time, it was running towards a different world, the city of my dreams, where I will find my own tunnel to live a free life in. 

Dhananjay Singh teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research and teaching are focused on aesthetics, philosophy of language, comparative literature, English poetry, and modern Irish literature. His columns have appeared in The Indian Express, The Times of India, and The Pioneer. His poems have been published in Muse India. He is currently working on his debut novel. 

Fiction | ‘Barna’ by Kanishq Banka

Like a despondent autumn leaf, Barna’s feet carried her forward. Her body moved, while her mind sank deeper into the puddle of anxiety. She clutched the small cloth purse with both her hands and paced along the sidelines of the deserted road. 

Her feet hit the curb, making her lose her footing and the slipper slid off her right foot. She wobbled and eventually hit the road.

The skin of her left elbow had crumpled into a wrinkly mass and hung like a saturated rain drop. Looking at the lump of her skin, she quickly gathered her saree, picked up her slipper and still clutching her purse tightly, walked off the road.

She didn’t look at her elbow but could feel the stinging sensation and the stickiness of the blood on her skin. After walking for half an hour, she vanished into the unending labyrinth of narrow paths; laden with sewage waste and the garbage of the overflowing bins and half-naked toddlers playing in the dirt while their mothers eyed them indifferently, before stopping in front a rusty-brown painted tin shed. 

Surrounded by empty drums and plastic canisters for storing water, was a narrow iron ladder with one side of the rails missing. She climbed up ten steep steps and pushed another tin sheet inwards, which was the door, hooked in with a couple of wires to her home. Her small square piece of a dwelling. 

She stepped inside and sat down; the room was too small for her to stand upright. On the wooden floor, over a thin plastic mat, slept her husband and her two-year-old daughter. She looked at them and closed her eyes, her head resting on the cool asbestos sheet which acted as the wall.

The coolness didn’t soothe her. She opened her eyes after some time and emptied her purse. Two crumpled notes of five hundred each looked back at her dolefully. She looked at her husband. He was still fast asleep, his snores light but audible. She picked up one of the notes and tucked it inside her blouse. She crawled to the corner opposite to the entrance of the room and moved the lid from over the saucepan. It still had a handful of cooked rice resting at its bottom. 

Barna turned back to find her daughter stirring. She was about to turn two but looked like a six-month-old. Too small, too fragile. Her whole body shook with each breath. Barna picked up a small mug, half-filled with water and splashed it on her face, took a deep breath and turned to shake her husband awake.

‘What happened?’ Her husband mumbled, covering his eyes with his hairy forearm. 

‘They didn’t give the full money.’ Barna picked up her daughter and put her in her lap.

‘What do you mean?’ Her husband opened his eyes and gave Barna a confused and irritated look. He then moved slowly and sat up, cross legged. She looked at his red eyes and smelled alcohol on his breath. 

‘Couple of them said I am not working at their house at the moment and since the lockdown could continue, they can’t pay the advance. At other places, I was not even allowed to enter the building.’ She rocked her daughter gently, hoping that she would continue to sleep. A sleeping child ate less.

‘How much did you get?’ He yawned, exposing his stained teeth. She stared at him. He was older than her; he didn’t know how old, but she remembered the time when she was married to him in their village. He had just got a job in the city and her mother was eager to get rid of her. He didn’t drink back then, but now in the city, he was someone else. 

She slowed her rocking as Tusu’s eyes closed, and showed him the purse with the folded five hundred rupee note.

‘Just this?’ He looked at her in anger. She kept quiet. He grumbled and stretched his hand towards the mug and drank the remaining water. Buttoning his shirt, he grabbed the five hundred rupee note from her bag and stepped down the ladder.

***

Barna sat at the last stair and waited for something to happen. An hour later she saw her husband hurrying towards her. To her surprise, he was not drunk.

‘Where were you the whole night?’ Barna spoke stiffly as little Tusu started crying in her arms.

‘Baru, I met my friends and sorted out everything. Listen…’ He looked around and saw two of their neighbours listening intently.

‘Did you spend all the money?’ She cut him short. 

‘Come up.’ He walked up the ladder to their room. She followed him after wiping the tears off her daughter’s cheeks.

‘I will get money. There is this job. They need drivers who can transport vegetables in the lockdown. I have to make six trips and then we can go back.’ He kept his arm on her shoulder and whispered.

‘Back? To Barhaniya? How? There are no trains.’ The thought of her village, her home, freed her from her worries for a moment. She remembered the moist morning air of the Subarnarekha river, after which she was named. She could smell the blooming of the sweet mahua flowers. 

‘The goods trains are running. I have found a way. We can get inside one of them in about a week. We will come back when everything is alright.’ He smiled.

‘What about the rent?’ Her mind started working again.

‘It is just a matter of ten days. We will find some way. Don’t worry.’ He moved towards the mat and lied down.

‘I need to buy food. Give me money.’ She placed their daughter next to him.

His fingers went inside the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a hundred rupee note.

‘What did you do with the rest?’ She asked him furiously.

‘I will get it back. Now go.’ He closed his eyes.

***

Barna spent the whole evening sitting as usual, at the foot of the ladder, waiting for her husband to come back. He returned at around midnight.

Sidho climbed the ladder and sat at the entrance of the room. He looked exhausted and pulled out a bidi and lit it with a match.

‘Bhau came. He has given us time till tomorrow for the rent. How much did you get today?’ She looked up.

‘One fifty. How much do we have to pay Bhau?’ He exhaled the smoke in the night sky. 

‘Eight hundred. And six hundred for this month. So around fourteen hundred.’ She felt despair clouding her up again.

‘How much have we saved?’ He threw the half-burnt bidi down on the street.

‘Two hundred.’ She felt her fingers inevitably touching her blouse and tracing the hidden currency note.

‘So, we give him two hundred and ask him for a few more days.’ He moved inside the room. 

Barna looked around. The heat was oppressing even at night. There was no breeze. The whole street was quiet, except for a dog, which kept whining and licking the wound on his back leg.

***

‘Two hundred?’ Bhau asked, chewing on his toothbrush, as the white foam of the paste hung around the corner of his dark lips. He was a stout man, with a shrill voice. 

‘Yes.’ Sidho nodded.

‘Show me.’ Sidho looked at Barna who handed him the money. 

‘You owe me another twelve hundred,’ He spat the foam out and tightened the towel around his waist, ‘By today evening, you will empty the kholi. If you don’t, my men will kick you out. I don’t trust you people. So don’t even think about hiding or running away to whatever forsaken adivaasi village you came from. I will find you. Once you have paid everything you can come back.’ He looked at his brush and shook it hard. 

‘Bhau, it is all locked down. Where will we go? We will pay you slowly. It is a difficult time for all of us.’ Barna pleaded.

‘That is not my concern. You should have told your man to not spend all the money on booze and women. Now get going.’ Bhau smirked at Sidho and left.

Barna turned towards Sidho.

‘If you had to chase women and drink all the time, why did you drag me here with you? Do you even think about Tusu? Have you seen her? She is so weak, she needs food. And we need this room. But you…you just…do whatever you want to do.’ She stomped up the ladder and shut the tin door behind her.

Sidho found the eyes of half a dozen neighbours on him. Judging him, mocking him, shaking their heads in disappointment. He searched his pockets and found a bidi. He took out the matchbox, but it was empty.

***

After a couple of hours Barna peeked outside and found that Sidho was gone and everyone else had vanished into their homes as well. She packed up their meagre belongings into a bundle, wrapped it around a sheet, tied Tusu on her back with a back wrap made of one of her two sarees and stepped down and walked away.

The midday sun was harsh, and the curfewed streets looked desolate. Shops were all closed and Barna felt as if the city was dead. She ensured that she kept away from police checkpoints, and took long detours, navigating her way through. Her elbow itched as the scratched skin started drying up.

She stopped in front of a house on the ground floor of the chawl and knocked. Binni opened the door after a minute .

‘I need your help.’ Barna looked at Binni with desperation.

Binni looked inside her house, stepped out and closed the door behind her quietly. ‘What is the matter?’

‘We have to vacate our room today. There is no money to pay the rent. I don’t know where to go, so I came to you.’ She dropped the bundle on the muddy floor, untied Tusu and sat next to Binni’s door, taking the support of the wall. Binni sat down next to her.

‘Where is Sidho?’ She took Tusu from Barna’s hands and held her, resting her face against her shoulder.

‘I don’t know. He said he found some work to drive a tempo. He will take at least ten days to get the money. He said we could go back to our village in a goods train or something. And I have barely enough food for Tusu.’ Barna’s eyes welled up.

‘There is an old municipality building in Bhavani Nagar. I think I might have something. You can come with me. I am sure you will find some work there. They are stingy people, but you can still make some money. Right now, everyone needs maids more than ever.’ Binni’s words felt soothing.

‘What about this lockdown? Can we go?’ Barna asked.

‘Just wrap a cloth around your nose and mouth, and if someone asks anything, just say that you are going to get medicine for the little one. That is what I do. Time to use these babies.’ Binni smiled just as Binni’s son started crying inside. And soon enough, the voice of Binni’s husband came through, summoning her.

‘Can you do me one more favour? Just let me sleep here. I won’t ask for food or anything. If I make money I will also pay, but just let me sleep here. Or at least keep Tusu with you at night.’ Helplessness crawled back in Barna’s voice.

Binni patted Barna’s palms and placed Tusu back on her lap, ‘Have you eaten anything?’ Binni asked as she got up. 

Barna shook her head.

***

‘I have heard that they are running a train to send us home next week. From Bandra station. By that time, we will have the money to buy the tickets.’ Sidho spoke cautiously as Barna avoided looking at him. He had come knocking at Binni’s door late at night.

‘I am staying at Gajju’s house. Bhau won’t find me there. Just be patient for a week. I will sort everything out.’ He continued, even as Barna ignored him.

‘How is Tusu?’ He asked.

‘Sleeping.’ She replied curtly. He nodded and left.

***

Over the next four days, Barna felt a sensation close to hope, germinating inside her. Tusu, for a change, was getting two meals a day. Her husband came every night, sober, and handed her half the money he earned. She had managed to find work in the housing society where Binni took her and the savings were now adding up.

Late in the afternoon on the fifth day, Barna was washing the utensils in the house of an old couple and Binni was working on the fourth floor; when suddenly a lot of activity came about in the society. A police van and an ambulance entered the compound, blaring their respective sirens.

Barna looked out of the kitchen window, trying to make sense of all the chaos. She continued washing the dishes when there was an urgent knock on the door. Barna wiped her hands and opened it. There were two uniformed men, wearing masks and gloves and another man, dressed from head to toe in some kind of white overalls, holding a plastic stamp and a small box.

‘Mr. Naik?’ One of the police officers asked Barna, who signalled him to wait and hurried to the bedroom of the couple.

The old man emerged, slowly, coughing, holding his dear walking stick.

‘Sir, a courier delivery executive who had delivered a parcel to you three days ago has tested positive. As a precautionary measure, we are sealing the building and all the residents must stay under self-quarantine for two weeks. How many people are there in the house?’ The masked officer asked, moving a couple of steps back, as the man in the protective gear pulled the old man’s hand and stamped the back of his palm.

‘My wife and me.’ The old man looked shaken.

‘And her?’ The officer pointed towards Barna.

‘Oh, she is the maid.’ The old man turned back to see his wife, a short woman with extremely grey hair standing expressionless behind him. 

‘There is no reason to panic. The three of you need to be home quarantined for ten to fourteen days, just for safety. Everyone in the building is being tested. We will take your cheek swabs and get back with the results. There is nothing to worry about.’ The man in the gear moved towards Barna and stamped her hand, and then did the same to the old lady. He then opened the box and pulled out three cotton swab sticks and collected their samples. 

‘Please do not step out. And call the helpline numbers in case you feel sick, or if there is a health emergency of any kind.’ The other officer handed the old man a leaflet and the three of them left, closing the door behind them.

Barna looked at the old couple cluelessly. The couple stared at each other dazed. She waited for a few minutes before clearing her throat to remind them she was still there.

‘What does this mean?’ She pointed towards her stamped hand.

‘You can’t leave. None of us can. For fourteen days you will have to stay here.’ The old man collapsed on the sofa.

‘I can go to my…house.’ Barna couldn’t understand the implication of the stamp.

‘They won’t let you. There will be policemen outside the building.’ The old man said, breathing heavily.

Barna stood still, unable to make anything of all this when Tusu started crying. She went back inside the kitchen and sat down on the floor. She made Tusu lie down in her lap and started humming softly in Mundari, her native language.

‘Close your eyes little one, 

For the crows will come,

And peck at the whites of your eyes,

Thinking that they are steamed rice.

Close your eyes little one…’

Tusu sucked on her thumb and looked at her mother before her eyes closed.

***

Barna’s days became one in an unending loop. She would sleep in the old couple’s kitchen, use the common washroom on the ground floor meant for outsiders, clean the house all day, cook, eat, sleep and watch television with the couple. Tusu on her part was content at being regularly fed. Barna would meet Binni every morning when she went down to clean herself up. 

She spent hours at the kitchen window, thinking about her family, her village and to a much lesser extent about her husband. She remembered picking up the mahua flowers every morning with her mother and sister in the village. The burning red flowers of palash and the festivities of sarhul. She wanted to run away and see her village and breathe that free air one more time, away from this urban mess of constant struggle and fight for survival, where nothing was ever enough for anyone.

A week later, the test results came and none of them tested positive. That evening Binni knocked on the couple’s door and pulled Barna out.

‘We are leaving tonight.’ She whispered.

‘How? There are police outside.’ Barna suddenly felt that her current state of existence was the most peaceful one, ever since her marriage three years ago.

‘Yes, but at night there are only two of them and they sleep a lot. We can sneak out.’ Binni sounded excited.

‘What if they catch us?’ Barna wasn’t so sure about the plan.

‘Then they will send us back. But they won’t catch us. Trust me. And if they do, we can always give them a couple of hundred rupees and then they would let us go happily,’ Binni shrugged her shoulders, ‘Stay awake, I will knock once when it is time. You can tell your madam if you want to or not, it won’t matter. No one wants a servant around them all the time.’

A little after midnight, Binni knocked and the two of them walked towards the entrance with the kids. As Binni had said, the policemen were sleeping. The gates were chained. Binni handed Barna her child and squeezed out from the narrow gap. The chains clinked, but did not disturb the sleeping policemen. 

Barna passed the children one after another to Binni and then squeezed herself out. She was nervous and her bangles hit the gates. The glass shattered immediately and Barna froze for a second. Binni pulled her out and handed Tusu over before the two of them broke into a run.

Breathless, they reached Binni’s chawl. Sidho was sleeping outside her house. Binni knocked on her door. Her younger son opened it and upon seeing her mother after a week, clung to her. 

Barna looked at her husband. His face was swollen and there were several cuts across his lips. She woke him up.

‘Baru, you are back. Binni’s husband told me that you were locked down.’ He mumbled in half sleep.

‘What happened to you?’ Barna looked at him in concern.

‘Bhau’s men found me at Gajju’s house. I escaped somehow. They took everything I had saved while you were gone.’ Sidho’s eyes stayed closed.

‘You need someone to take care of the bruises. Is it too painful?’ Her fingers cautiously touched the bruised cheeks of her husband.

‘It is better. I have things to tell you.’ He opened his eyes slowly. His right eye was too swollen, and it hardly opened. 

‘The trains are starting to take us back. From day after. I found us a place near Bandra. It is not much, but we just need to spend a few nights there. I have to drive the van a couple of times more and the pay is good. I will be able to buy tickets for us after that.’ His words were slurred, coming out from his cracked and swollen lips. He took support of the wall and asked for Tusu. Barna gave him the child. 

‘She looks better.’ Sidho spoke softly.

‘Yes.’ Barna smiled weakly.

***

The sky was bluish black, when Sidho stopped under a bridge. Barna looked around, not sure what to expect. 

‘This is just for two or three nights.’ Sidho led her and Tusu under the bridge where there were a dozen auto-rickshaws parked and the rest of the place was occupied by a few other people, homeless surely, and dogs. 

 Sidho read the number plates of the autos and found the one he was looking for. 

‘This one belongs to the guy who got me the job. He said we can sleep in it. At night you two can sleep here and I can in the day. The station is five minutes from here. And for food I have a little money left, we can manage with that. Once I get paid, I will get the tickets and soon we will be on our way back. Safe.’ Sidho’s words had a forced layer of earnestness in them. 

Barna nodded quietly.

***

Sweating, Barna impatiently waited for Sidho to come back. He had said that the train would leave at two in the afternoon. Tusu was crying, and in just three days, she seemed to have shrivelled again. 

As the sun shone brighter and harsher, Barna got up with Tusu and walked towards the address Sidho had given her. It was of the man for whom he was driving the vans. There was no luggage anymore, everything was sold off.

Completely drenched in sweat, she reached the address after walking for fifteen minutes. 

‘I am Sidho’s wife.’ She told the tall man who opened the door.

‘I have no money to give you.’ He answered roughly.

‘I am not here for money. Where is he?’ She asked.

‘That bastard! Police caught him. He tried to sell my liquor on his own. He is in jail somewhere. I don’t know.’ He looked at her angrily as if it was all her fault.

‘Can you tell me the time?’ Her face stayed passive.

‘Huh…’ The man looked at her and then at his watch, ‘Eleven thirty.’

Barna turned back and started walking away. She took out the single crumpled and moist five hundred rupee note from inside her blouse and clutched it tightly. 

She was left with twenty rupees after buying the tickets, two bottles of water and three packets of glucose biscuits. She settled down at a window seat in a compartment which was overcrowded and stank of sweat and unwashed bodies all around her. It got noisier as the other travelers, mostly all migrants, kept filtering in, anxious and fearful about their fate. They fought over the limited seats and the ones who lost, ended up sitting on the floor of the train. 

After a delay of over two hours, the train finally moved. Barna took a deep breath and let the motion of the train lull her and Tusu to sleep.

The long journey seemed longer, with random halts and unexplained delays. By the second morning, a hushed murmur filled the compartment. Those who knew the route claimed that they were heading elsewhere. Barna heard them and looked outside. Bushes and trees and barren fields flew past her window. She closed her eyes and tried imagining her home. But no image formed behind the darkness of her eyelids. An apprehensive nervousness clouded her heart. The home she had been craving for suddenly disappeared from her consciousness, leaving behind a cold and foggy uncertainty.

In panic, she opened her eyes and looked at the people around her. Most were from her region. Many were from her community, not surprisingly. But she didn’t talk to anyone. She heard her language being spoken, but she felt a distance between herself and the others.

By the time the train finally stopped, it was almost noon and the passengers were shouting angrily. Instead of Tatanagar in Jharkhand, the train had reached Balasore in Orissa.

The passengers got off the train and rushed towards the railway office. A bunch of them headed towards the driver’s compartment. Everyone was shouting, everyone was confused.

Barna was the last one to get off the train. She looked at the board with the name of the station. The letters made no sense to her. Wherever she was, it was clear that it was not her home. She looked around and found three men arguing with a man wearing a black coat. She stepped closer towards them.

The man in the coat was a railway officer and through the angry abusive interjections he informed that Railway was trying to organise another train, though when would that happen was not certain.

She filled the empty water bottle from a tap and resting Tusu on her shoulder, sat down in a corner of the platform. Her eyes stayed on the train she had just disembarked from. Her mind wandered. From village to the city, to what end? For money, which had failed to buy her the feeling of being home?

‘Are you coming?’ Barna blinked and looked up on her right and found a bulky man staring at her and Tusu.

‘Where?’ Barna asked.

‘Some of the passengers are hiring a van. I am the driver. We are going to Mednipore, Bengal.’ The man looked around, searching for more potential passengers.

‘Barhaniya, near Ghatshila.’ Barna stared at the sweating man.

‘I can leave you near Dantan at most. You have money?’ The man was now rotating the key chain in his index finger as a family of four caught his attention.

‘How much?’ She asked, whispering, aware that her twenty rupees were hardly going to be hardly.

Mednipore, five hundred, till Dantan, you give two hundred.’ The driver had now turned towards the other family as they stepped outside the station.

‘I have twenty.’  She untied the knot at the loose end of her saree and pulled out the last twenty rupee note. The driver looked at her and the sleeping Tusu for a long moment, laughed, and rushed after the family.

The platform soon emptied. Most of the passengers had stepped out in search of some other means of transportation. A few groups stayed back, huddled together, hoping, and waiting for the next train.

Barna stayed seated, staring vacantly in the void when Tusu started crying. She tried feeding her daughter a biscuit, but the child vomited.  Barna washed Tusu’s mouth and headed to the station office.

‘Is there a doctor nearby?’ She asked the man behind the barred windows. Tusu kept groaning and crying.

Chandipur. Go straight. It is around ten kilometres from here.’ The officer looked at her briefly and got back to his papers.

She stepped outside the station, asked for directions, and started walking. Tusu’s cries started getting inaudible as their shadows elongated. By the time they reached the Chandipur, the sun had slipped below the horizon.

The small town was empty. Barna found an old man with three dogs sitting outside a small closed shop who told her that everyone had left as a storm was approaching. When she insisted, the man gave her the directions to the doctor’s house.

Holding Tusu close to herself, Barna hurried towards the address. All the houses were locked. She sat outside the locked house of the doctor for a while, singing softly to Tusu.

When the shadows merged in the darkness she got up. She was afraid to check the heartbeats of her silent daughter as she tied her gently on her back and started walking aimlessly. Soon, she heard the waves of the ocean.

Her mind was thoughtless, and her numb feet stopped feeling the pain. The straps of her worn out slippers gave away and she took them off and left them on the sand.  As the night grew darker, her feet became wet and stung with the salt of the rising sea. She walked away from the ocean and slept on the sand, holding Tusu close to her, who never moved.

She woke up the next morning by sunrise and resumed walking. The day was hotter than usual, and the winds were stronger. By nightfall, clouds had gathered. The waves in the ocean were angry. The almost full moon would appear momentarily before vanishing behind the dark clouds. Barna could hear the growling rumble of the thunder and the flashes of lightning deep in the belly of the clouds.

She stopped walking and sat down on the beach. The waves would race towards her and kiss her swollen and bloody feet, and then move back.  She finished the remaining biscuits and water and lied down on the beach with Tusu resting over her breasts, who felt lighter than a feather. She held her tight and close and looked at the sky above her. The wind started hurting her skin. The thunders were now longer and louder and closer.  

The rain on her face felt the same as it did when she lived in her village. She heard the bells tied to the cattle walking on the narrow mud paths along the fields. She felt the cool soothing water of the river. She smelled the fish curry her mother used to make. The steamed rice that always looked like the whites of the eye of a new-born baby. 

She closed her eyes as a strong wave completely drenched her.  The skies opened up and rain drops hit her skin with force.

Where was her home, she wondered. Was it her village or was it in the whites of the mahua flowers? Or was it just an imaginary place she believed in, where she could belong?

Sweet rain drops mixed with the salty ocean water entered her mouth and she closed her eyes.

Where was her home? 

She didn’t know.

Glossary:
1. Barhaniya: A small village near the river Subarnarekha, in the extreme south eastern part of the state of Jharkhand, near the border of the states of Orissa and West Bengal.
2. Subarnarekha: An Indian river, which flows through the Indian states of Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha. Traditionally, gold was mined near the origin of the river and thus, it got its name, which means streak of gold.
3. Mahua: A tropical Indian tree, known for its small, white, sweet smelling flowers which are edible and used to prepare local alcohol and for medicinal purposes. The flowers bloom in the months of March and April.
4. Bidi – Small hand-rolled cigarettes made of tobacco and wrapped in tendu or temburni leaves.
5. Kholi: A very small room, with hardly any facilities.
6. Adivaasi: It is the collective term often used to refer to the tribes and indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent. At times it is used as a derogatory slang, to refer to a person as backward, dull, and primitive
7. Chawl: Usually a large building divided into many separate tenements, offering cheap, basic accommodation to poor but gainfully employed labourers and migrant families. Common in the western part of India, especially in the city of Mumbai.
8. Mundari: It is a Munda language of the Austroasiatic language family spoken by the Munda people in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal.
9. Palash: A dry-season deciduous tree, with bright red flowers, blooming in the months of March and April. It is also the state flower of Jharkhand.
10. Sarhul: A colourful spring festival, which marks the beginning of Santhali new year.

Kanishq Banka, 30, is a Mumbai based writer and traveller. He has finished his double master’s degree in Sociology and Journalism & Mass Communications. He has published three novels (The Inferno-A Thought Fire, The Black Barrier and Let’s Get Married) and stories in The Bombay Review (Mahua) and in the two anthologies by Dastaan and White Falcon Publishing.(Lierati 2018 and 2019). He is also the co-writer of the story of the movie ‘Namdeo Bhau- In Search of Silence’, produced by Jugaad Motion pictures and directed by Daria Gai from Ukraine. He is presently working on a couple of scripts and on his next novel about a poet from Kashmir. 

Writing Competitions and Awards to Submit Your Work for

the bombay review
annual CREATIVE WRITING awards (2021)

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS

The Bombay Review is now inviting applications for the Annual Creative Writing Awards, a series of international literary prizes for both emerging and established writers. The winner(s) for both categories : Regular (Open to all) and Upcoming (Writing Workshop pieces) will be judged by an eminent panel and will receive a cash prize of $350 each, with total cash prizes up to $1,000.

Write India Season 3: Short Story Contest by Times of India with ...
Write India by Times of India
Hosted by Times of India, Write India is an annual writing competition in its third season. Prominent authors provide a writing prompt.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction. Specific writing prompts announced every month
Prize: Publication in the annual Write India anthology
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Commonwealth Short Story Prize
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize brings together writers from 10+ countries, including India. Translated entries are also eligible, as are stories written in the original Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil and Turkish.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: £2,500 for the regional winner; £5,000 for the overall winner.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Will open on September 1


The Indian Short Story Content on Juggernaut
A few years old, the publisher Juggernaut hosts regular writing contests on its website.
Themes/Genres: Multiple, check website
Prize: 10 entries get editorial feedback, 3 win an exclusive publishing contract with Juggernaut books.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Story Mirror
Founded in 2015, StoryMirror is a tech start-up offering everyone a platform to launch themselves in the field of literature. They host regular contests in English and various Indian regional languages.
Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: Certificates and publication on the Story Mirror website.
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Dastaan Award
The Dastaan Award was set up by Ali Azfar Naqvi and Afia Aslam to support new writing. Writers from all over Asia are invited to submit their writing.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: PKR 50,000
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Check website (as of August, 2020)


Kitaab – The Best of South Asian Stories

Kitaab’s The Best of South Asian Stories series of anthologies aims to celebrate the Asian short story as a constantly evolving, innovative and vibrant mode of literary expression.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction with a focus on climate change and migration but other themes will be considered too.
Prize: Publication in The Best of South Asian Stories anthology
Submission Fees: $20 per submission
As of August 2020: Closed


The Wordweavers 2020 Contest
Wordweavers is an online magazine for short stories and poetry. They regularly host poetry and short fiction competitions.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction and poetry
Prize: Publication in the Anthology
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


An Asian Tapestry of Colours
This contest invites writers from the Asia Pacific region, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India to share stories specifically for readers between 13 to 17 years old.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction
Prize: Publication and $50
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Closed (as of August, 2020)


Muse of the Month: Short Story Contest by Women’s Web
Women’s Web is dedicated to encouraging women to share their stories. Since 2014, they host a monthly short story contest.

Themes/Genres: Short fiction on the prompt “For a long time I was scared I’d find out I was like my mother.”
Prize: Publication in the annual anthology and INR 500
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Call for Entries: Architectural Poetry Competition Series, 2nd Cycle
Architectural Poetry Competition Series
This competition is hosted by the Architectural Journalism & Criticism Organization. It is in its second cycle.

Themes/Genres: Responsive poems: We respond to the world and weather. We respond to ourselves. We respond. We.
Prize: Publication on several web architectural portals and anthology.
Submission Fees: INR 500
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


Sharpen the Saw: Summary Writing Contest
Pencil is a community-based app to discover stories; you can share your own and read others too. Their various contests help new writers gain traction.

Themes/Genres: Summary on a book of your choice
Prize: INR 10,000
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)


The Asian Writer
Bookouture, in association with The Asian Writer and Dahlia Books, is inviting commercial fiction submissions from writers from BAME backgrounds.

Themes/Genres: Commercial fiction. First three chapters.
Prize: Editorial feedback
Submission Fees: NIL
Status: Open (as of August, 2020)