Fiction | ‘A Rotten Deal’ by Kanya D’Almeida | Issue 42, March 2023

A Rotten Deal 

Umeshi Uyangoda saw her husband, Udesh, off to work every morning with a heavily scented handkerchief pressed to her nose, and a sordid little secret coiled inside her chest. Both were sickening, but neither as sickening as the stench from the municipal garbage dump down the road. It was this abomination, she told herself—this gigantic purveyor of toxic gas and ill fortune—that necessitated her perfume and her treachery.   

Once Udesh was safely out of sight, Umeshi scuttled up to the second floor, ignoring the leftovers on the breakfast table, the swarm of black flies gathering over globs of egg curry that were soaking into her tablecloth. These were no ordinary insects. They were Dump Flies and they came in their dozens, clumped together like bunches of black mulberries, unafraid. Rolled up newspapers were no match for them, a curio from The Days Before the Dump. She’d taken to stashing electric fly swatters around the house. Neon-colored weapons shaped like toy tennis rackets, peddled by enterprising door-to-door salesmen in these parts. One swipe and zzzppp—her table was littered with tiny fried corpses.

But not today. She went directly upstairs to her daughter’s old bedroom, whose door still carried Umanga’s hand-painted sign: Beware! Highly Educated Woman Inside. Little had been touched in the five years since the girl left for college in the United States—wooden shelves still sinking under the weight of so many books, walls still papered with magazines cutouts of Umanga’s idols, all women whose names eternally escaped Umeshi. No matter. She had eyes for only two things in this room: the Sunday newspaper supplement and a bulky Windows PC. 

While the machine revved up, Umeshi spread out the Classifieds, using her thumbnail to crease down the centerfold of the BRIDEGROOMS section. The paper’s flat rate of 25 rupees per word encouraged brevity, which in turn exposed the base, unfiltered aspirations of an entire nation:

Govi-Buddhist parents seek obedient, fair girl for our son (5’10’’). He is Devoid of All Vices (non-smoker, teetotaler, hardworking), employed in leading bank, possessing Australian Permanent Residence (PR) and Significant Financial Assets. Desires immediate union with a slim and pretty bride. Reply with horoscope. 

One had to be vigilant about the fine print, of course—Divorced after brief incompatible marriage or, even worse, Christian parents seek—but Umeshi had learned quickly that these proposals were all of a pattern, reflecting a society clinging to old feuds and ancient bloodlines. While the profession or height of a future spouse might be negotiable, caste, community and color were not. It wasn’t quite to her taste; she and Udesh had shunned all such considerations in their own union, a true ‘love match’. But she was willing to overlook these families’ outdated notions in exchange for The Promise, the great offer of exchange that all the personal advertisements rested on: emigration. Dual citizenship for both bride and mother. A life abroad, overseas, elsewhere. Anywhere But Here. 

There were no names attached to the ads. Those, presumably, came later, when or had shuffled through their responses and decided that she—and Umanga—were worth their time. But that hadn’t happened yet. And it stung.

Umeshi refreshed her inbox. She clicked on ‘Spam’ and then, growing desperate, on ‘Trash’. She was new to this computer business, the mysterious world of the screen where things disappeared into black holes called Folders, never to be seen again. Not like real life, where everything piled up until you were forced to confront it. Here, On-Line, you pressed a button and started fresh—a new day, a New Window.

Udesh despised it. Having spent his life balancing the books the hard way, with a calculator and columns of figures, he viewed the machine as a cheat and a usurper. That he had consented to having one in the house at all was due entirely to Umeshi playing an expert hand. Against her wishes Udesh had urged Umanga to accept a scholarship from a university in Massachusetts. Against Umeshi’s better judgment he’d sunk their retirement savings into plane tickets, College Meal Plans, On-Campus Housing Deposits. Then—a slap in the face—he’d allowed the girl to take what she called a Gap Year after she got her degree. Umeshi held her tongue, totting up the offenses until they amounted to a decent trade: Udesh wanted their only child to remain at large, unwed, on a distant continent? Very well, then Umeshi would have Skype Video Calls and Google Hangouts and Facebook Chats and everything Udesh deplored. From the day it arrived, the computer transformed Umanga’s bedroom from the dwelling place of their greatest treasure to the terrain of their bitterest battles. Would this latest transgression, sharing her daughter’s sacred star chart with strangers over the Internet, be the breaking point?

Her neighbor Ganga dismissed such concerns as “bloody nonsense.” She had found the perfect husband for Her Chuppi after extensive email exchanges with a suite of suitors and was confident Umeshi could do the same.

“Men are useless when it comes to these matters,” Ganga said later that morning as they hung up their washing. “But wait and see, he’ll worship you when it’s done. So? Any decent candidates?”

Umeshi thought of her sparsely populated inbox.

“Don’t dilly-dally,” Ganga said. “After thirty, no one will want her.”

“What do you want me to do?” Umeshi  asked. “I’m not a magician, I can’t pull a man out of thin air.”

“Don’t get glorious with me. I’m trying to help you. If you’re not happy with the selection why don’t you put your own advertisement?”

“Are you bloody mad, Ganga? Suppose Udesh opens the paper and sees? He’ll massacre me.” 

“Can’t be helped.” Ganga wrung out a sock ruthlessly. “Anyway Udesh only reads the political pages.”

Aiyo here.” Umeshi pegged up a pair of her husband’s underpants. “Stop playing the fool.”

“What fool? You want to look up and wait until Umanga is barren? Mothers must take the initiative. Then you can control the situation, no? You ask the questions. You check the horoscopes. You be the one to send people packing.”

A shiver of pleasure danced down Umeshi’s spine, but still she faltered.

“How will I know what to write? Can’t men.”

“What Umeshi! I thought you studied English Literature in school? At last you can put your degree to good use!”

Umeshi managed a mirthless smile. There was a time when this morning routine had brought her solace, the communal clothesline an amusing nod to their shared domestic confinement. But Ganga was building a life raft. Her daughter Chuppi’s new husband was Doing Very Well, shorthand among the upwardly mobile for Making a Lot of Money. Soon Ganga would join them in their semi-detached London home while Umeshi was bound to this rotting municipality whose population was defined, demarcated and divided by its proximity to the city’s refuse. True, she was better off than the slum dwellers who lived at the foot of the landfill, whose gutters and gardens acted as a kind of sieve for the black sludge that ran from the dump at the onset of rains. It was these residents who bore the brunt of legions of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes that thrived in the filth. But parasites are discerning creatures. Not content with the meager offerings of poor people’s kitchens, they’d begun their march towards the bigger houses, where scraps were meatier, juicier, more plentiful. 

Even now a murder of crows kaak-kaak-ed menacingly at the women from a branch. These were the runts, driven from the dump by bigger, healthier flocks. Hunger had emboldened them. One slum dweller swore to having witnessed a stray dog carried off by the ravenous creatures; another said she’d seen a crow pluck out a baby’s eyes. No one could substantiate these reports. All they knew was that when the birds banded together in a blur of beaks and talons that cast the whole neighborhood into shadow, everyone took cover, venturing out only hours later to find their world coated in a patina of shit.


When they’d first moved into the neighborhood there had been nothing at the end of the lane but a wetland, a quiet, humid soup of mangroves and monitor lizards. The dumping began shortly after their daughter, Umanga, was born. It grew alongside her, she alongside it—a mountain arising abruptly from flatness; an odorless swamp spiraling into a festering tower. 

Umeshi could still recall the first time a truck discharged its contents in the area. 

The family were out on their evening stroll. Udesh pushed the pram while she held the umbrella. Umanga was awake but quiet, occasionally shaking her rattle which made a shucka-shucka-shucka sound like seeds inside a pod. 

They smelled it before they saw it, a streak of rankness in the air. The baby made a fussing sound. Umeshi clutched her husband’s arm as they rounded the corner. And there it was, a coagulated mess of other people’s filth bursting out of flimsy plastic bags, food waste and half-crushed beer cans, soggy, sloppy egg cartons and empty cigarette packets. A glossy black raven dipped its beak into a rivulet of rancid rice porridge, just as Umanga started to cry.

It had seemed monstrous at the time but not insurmountable. They were a civic-minded couple, respected in the community, so it didn’t take them long to assemble a team to gather up the rubbish—everyone wore gloves—and return it to the roadside. But that was only the beginning. Each day more trucks arrived, too many to count, and with them a squadron of waste pickers, who spent their days scavenging and their nights erecting a shantytown around the garbage. 

Udesh had tired of the whole thing in a matter of months, but Umeshi became like a woman possessed. She could think of nothing but the dump: the sight of it, the stench of it, the spread of it, inching closer all the time. She battled pests and fetidness with poisons and incense. She joined the Residents’ Committee Against the Dump, a group of likeminded, middle-class families who made appeals to municipal bodies and public servants. 

“What for, darling?” Udesh often asked. “You think those government bureaucrats will bother reading letters? They’re too busy scratching their backsides and drinking tea!”

Perhaps he was right but she stuck with it. If nothing else, it helped to pass the time.

That was twenty years ago. Umanga went off to college, while Udesh sailed peacefully on the still waters of a dead-end career at the finance company where he never ruffled feathers and never received a promotion. The dump grew from a single peak to a mountain range, its undulating form forever blocking Umeshi’s view of the horizon. So she’d done the only sensible thing she could think of: found herself a new hobby. The Bridegroom search was a reason to get going every morning. Tucked away insider her, it tingled deliciously all day long and allowed her to forget, for several blissful hours, the stinking reality of her surroundings.


Ganga was right about one thing: time was against her. Umanga was returning next month for her first visit in five years—The Gap Year having widened into a gulf—and the tide of longing she and Udesh had held at bay was now surging back. Udesh started marking off the days on the kitchen calendar, slanted rows of red slashes tipping towards the day of Umanga’s arrival.  

One thing did not bode well for Umanga’s visit, the protests at the dump. A schoolboy had died of a rat bite, ten years old and apparently beloved in the community because hundreds of people from the informal settlement emerged from their shanties waving signs and chanting slogans. A group of youngsters blocked municipal trucks from entering the town by burning rubbish in the streets. Plumes of black smoke darkened everything they touched. The old stench of decaying waste took on a new bouquet, the spice of singed rubber, the musk of melting polythene. A politician arrived to calm the unrest but crowds pelted his shiny white SUV with garbage. Someone hurled a coconut through the windscreen and it split the driver’s forehead right open. 

Ganga called it ‘slum behavior’ and Umeshi silently agreed. When they’d been part of it, things had been more dignified—letter writing and so on. But the Residents’ Committee had been replaced by the People’s Movement Against the Dump, which appeared to be directed entirely by members of the colony, hotheaded men and loud-mouthed women who wasted no time on pleasantries. 

“They’re so aggressive,” she complained to her husband. “Ugly behavior doesn’t get you anywhere.”

“I say, this is the only language politicians speak,” Udesh said. “Haven’t you watched the debates in parliament? Slinging garbage at each other is what they do best. Thugs respond to thuggery! Maybe now something will be done.”

While the neighborhood buried itself in the standoff, Umeshi agonized over the marriage proposal. What to say about Umanga, who had become almost unrecognizable to her? Take this latest Facebook post, a photograph of the girl dressed in a pair of shamelessly short shorts, her man’s haircut mercifully hidden by a gold-sequined cap. In one hand a sign that read, “Proud to be marching for #ImmigrantRights!” Her other arm was slung around someone who had begun to make regular appearances in the posts, a petite girl with flowing auburn hair and heavily tattooed limbs. Both Umanga and her friend sported pierced noses—not the elegant diamond studs Umeshi was accustomed to but thick rings of silver that hung from the septum. Their photos betrayed a closeness that echoed through strings of comments: Uma, you stunner, love those booty shorts and My fave LGBTQ cuties fighting the good fight! 

For the life of her, Umeshi couldn’t understand it. When Umanga had left for a university called “UMass”, she had wholly embraced her generation’s mission: to surpass their parents’ status in life at breakneck speed. Everyone was on the move; to be stationary was to fail. Old classmates with whom Umeshi had parted ways on more or less equal footing—poised for unremarkable lives—now boarded planes to visit their children in Toronto, Singapore, Melbourne, Dubai. Udesh chastised her for peering too closely at other people’s lives, but he didn’t understand. Her Homepage was addictive, a bottomless parade featuring all the participants in the Great March Abroad, which is to say, everyone except Umeshi and Udesh Uyangoda. For reasons they never discussed, their investment in the future had failed to bear fruit. Somewhere along the way Umanga—or Uma as the girl now referred to herself, pronouncing it Ooma—had gone off track. She took a job in a bakery called Doughs Over Bros. After the bakery it was babysitting, then a short stint in an office that ended prematurely, according to a Post that read: “Just not cut out for a 9-5, ya’ll. Down with wage slavery!”

Wage slavery. It was one of those utterly foreign expressions that now peppered her daughter’s Facebook Wall, the place where Umanga directed her mother for updates about her life. But the Wall contained none of the information Umeshi desired, such as where the girl shopped for vegetables, or what on earth had become of the unspoken agreement between all Sri Lankan parents and their children, that sacrifices made would be repaid with interest. The Wall did not communicate; instead, it blared slogans at her: “Abolish ICE” and “Black Lives Matter”. Once upon a time she had been able to peer over the Wall and catch a glimpse of her daughter, but every day it grew more impenetrable.


Her ad came out the following Sunday. Umeshi rose before her husband and intercepted the paper boy on his dilapidated bicycle. He had recently taken to wearing a surgical facemask during his rounds of their neighborhood. Ganga called it “the height of bloody cheek” that a person who would not be permitted even to cross the thresholds of their homes should be so offended by something they must live with. But Umeshi couldn’t blame him. It was monsoon season and lashing rains had disturbed the dump, loosening the topsoil and churning up older, fouler waste, so that the stench was an almost physical presence. 

The boy didn’t linger. He flung her the paper and sped off, shrilling his bell at a knot of pedestrians advancing up the lane. They were a motley crew. Some of the women wore burqas, some wore sarees or skirts. The men were all of a similar stature, that odd combination of muscular yet emaciated, which marked them immediately as labourers. Not until they were standing opposite her did Umeshi notice one of the women held an infant close to her chest. Whether it was asleep or comatose from the heat she couldn’t tell, but it was motionless in its mother’s arms. 

They said they were part of the People’s Movement Against the Dump. Would a member of her household attend a community meeting tonight? The residents were mounting a legal challenge against the city but they needed more support. Had she heard about the little boy, just ten years old? Was she aware of the dengue epidemic spreading through the slum? Or how the police shot water cannons at the protesters? Unless they joined forces to fight for their rights the municipal council would ignore the mess, death and disease would proliferate and—

Umeshi Uyangoda promised to pass the information on to her husband, the man of the house. She backed away from them, locked her gate, and hurried upstairs.  

Safe in Umanga’s room, she peeled open the paper with trembling fingers. She spotted it at once, her little square inch of text nestled among the other BRIDES, a gem in the gravel. A twinge of pride plucked at her. She’d never had anything published before and there was something thrilling about seeing her own words in print. For one reckless moment she was tempted to share the news with her husband. Had she been wrong to exclude him from this? How much sweeter it would be with him by her side. They would laugh together at the mismatches and when they finally made their choice, Udesh might even take her hand, or plant a dry kiss on the crown of her head. 

A hammering on the door crushed her thoughts. She shoved the paper into the bin. The doorknob rattled furiously.

“What the devil are you doing there?”

Udesh wore a towel around his waist. Wet hair hugged his egg-shaped skull and a trail of water tracked his passage from the bathroom. 

“You’re deaf or something?” he said. “How many times I called you!”

“Sorry darling. I was just checking on Umanga.”

“Your work is checking. Checking email, checking Facebook. Meanwhile no one is checking on the important things. Fridge is empty. Gas cylinder is empty. No soap in the bathroom even!”

“Wait. I’ll bring a piece of Sunlight from the kitchen,” Umeshi said.

“Are you bloody mad, woman? I can’t bathe with Sunlight.”

“So what do you want me to do? Bring some sand from the garden?”

“You think I’m a baas to be scrubbing with sand?”

“Why, you don’t have legs to walk to the supermarket?” Umeshi asked. “There is enough and more soap there.”

Udesh slammed his fist against the doorframe.

“One of these days I’ll smash that cursed computer,” he said. 

“Smash to see,” she said. “Then think of a nice story to tell the police when I call them, okay?”

He stood dumbstruck before her, beads of water dangling off his earlobes and

nostrils. “The devil has got into you,” he said at last. “That much I know.”

Fights like these were a new development. Theirs had always been an untroubled union: a chance meeting on a bus followed by a flurry of love letters which, Umeshi realized too late, would not translate into amorous encounters in the bedroom. They consummated their marriage once or twice, in the dark under the sheets, and when the act bore fruit they never spoke of it again. They settled into a steady life strengthened by a straightforward division of labor—he earned the salary while she kept the home and raised the child. But just as a single snagged thread can ruin a whole garment, Umeshi’s newfound obsession, which lay somewhere between the newspaper pages and the Internet pages, had become a ragged rent in the fabric of their home. 

Later Umeshi tried to earn clemency by pretending to listen to Udesh’s news. A great many people had been present at the community meeting, he said. The speaker was a young lawyer who’d grown up in the colony. He rejected the government’s plan to relocate poorer residents to high-rises in remote localities—called it a ‘rotten deal’. It was the dump that should move, he had said, not the people. They may not have much but they had their homes, their vegetable plots and their pets, their neighbors with whom they were now fighting shoulder to shoulder to stay together—

Must be nice, Umeshi thought, to feel such loyalty among neighbors. Not like Ganga, who was jumping ship after all these years of griping and giggling together, as though they owed each other nothing but a goodbye.

—and when they dared to speak up they were treated like cattle, the lawyer had said, bludgeoned with batons and threatened by plainclothes policeman in the dead of night. Was it right to ask thousands of people to accept poisoned water, putrid air and pestilence as a way of life simply because they were poor? Think about the children!

That’s what it all came down to, Umeshi thought, as Udesh droned on. Our children. When you realize that the road behind you is longer than the one ahead, you reach for those vessels into which you’ve poured so much and you try to add more, a little bit more, until you’re satisfied that some part of you will live on, a drop in someone else’s bloodstream, a faint pulse in their veins.  


The boy’s name was Ganaka. He was the correct height, the right age, the perfect breed. His mother, a Mrs. Sriyani Dissanayake, was sensible and well spoken, prompt with her correspondence and incisive with her questions. Would Umanga be willing to relocate to London after the wedding? When the baby came, would Umeshi be able to join the family there? Could Umanga drive? Because women in England were independent like that. 

Using a ratio of one-part memory to two-parts pure fiction, Umeshi served up a version of her daughter that surpassed even Sriyani’s exacting standards. Umanga’s barista job was translated as Head of Sales, her activism rebranded as Volunteer Work. Umeshi emailed a stream of photos from the days before piercings and politics, and Sriyani said she couldn’t wait to meet the girl. Ganaka was also due back for the Sinhala New Year, so they scheduled a tentative gathering of the clans, agreeing for some flexibility around the demands of the holiday season. 

With the technical details out of the way, their talk turned to more intimate matters: anticipation of their children’s return, joyful musings about grandmotherhood. One phone call at a time they stitched their dreams together until they were indistinguishable. They adopted the collective possessive pronoun: our wedding. Our future.

How you have kept this a secret from Udesh I don’t know,” Ganga kept saying. “You’re blushing as if you’re the one with a new boyfriend!”

It was true. With Udesh immersed in community meetings and Ganaka waiting in the wings, the situation was as close to ideal as it could be. Except for the bombshell that Umanga had dropped a week before her arrival. It came in the form of a Status Update on the Wall, a photograph of Umanga and her auburn-haired friend, their faces half hidden by a little blue booklet with a golden eagle on the cover. “Mo renewed her passport, ya’ll!” read a caption beside an icon of a plane taking off. “Island paradise here we come!” The destination was tagged as Bandaranaike International Airport. 

“Just say no,” was Ganga’s advice. 

“Udesh doesn’t know the meaning of that word when it comes to Umanga,” Umeshi said. 

“Then you do it, put your foot down. Can’t have an outsider here while you’re trying to settle the arrangement.”

“Apparently this girl wants to stay for a whole month. Volunteer Work.”

“My God! You better hope she finds something to volunteer for,” Ganga said. “Some big crisis that keeps her out of the house and out of your way so you can plan the wedding.”


They agreed that Udesh would fetch the girls from the airport while Umeshi made up for weeks of neglected housework. She attacked every surface with bleach and sprayed chemicals into every crevice. She scoured gecko shit off the windowsills and scraped rat droppings from the insides of cupboards. As she worked, the tiresome creatures squeaked and scratched, out of sight, on the roof, inside the walls, making a mockery of her efforts. 

In the end it didn’t matter. When the front door opened neither she nor Umanga had eyes for anything but each other. 

The girl crossed the threshold in a rush, stopping just inches from her mother. Her face was stormy with tears. 


The word broke them both. Umanga’s body crumbled like sand. On her hands and knees, she touched her mother’s feet. Umeshi placed a trembling palm briefly on the girl’s head before dragging her fiercely into an embrace. How long they stood sobbing into each other’s shoulders Umeshi didn’t know. She kept pulling back to press her lips to Umanga’s cheeks and search her body for signs of damage but no, nothing was amiss; miraculously the girl was whole. Each inspection washed away that ancient maternal terror that a child taken from the nest will disintegrate, waste away. 

It was replaced with a new awareness, neither better nor worse: her own obsolescence.

When they came apart at last, Umeshi’s eyes alighted first on Udesh, standing silently among a pile of luggage, and then on the stranger in their midst. 

“Amma,” Umanga said, wiping her eyes, “This is Mo.”

“It’s so great to meet you, Mrs. Uyangoda. Sorry, I mean Aunty! After all the stories Uma’s told me I feel like I know you guys already! And you have such a lovely home!” 

Mo’s smile was too bright. Umeshi wanted to close her eyes against it, and shut her ears to the nasal accent that also tinged Umanga’s speech. She wanted immunity from the electrified current that passed between the girls. 

“Please.” Umeshi gestured vaguely at the furniture. “Sit.”

But Umanga was dragging Mo around the room and Mo was saying “wow” and “totally” and “aww Uma, is this you as a baby? Cutie!” 

Udesh had disappeared with the suitcases, leaving Umeshi standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure where to put herself and overcome by the notion that she was now a visitor in her own home.

“I made crab,” she said uselessly. 

“Oh my God!” Umanga clutched Mo’s shoulders. “Just wait until you try my mother’s crab curry it’s, like, the best thing you’ll ever eat.”

A butterfly wing twitched in Umeshi’s chest. She said something about serving lunch and disappeared into the kitchen.

The flies were worse than ever today, thick on the crockery and the cooker. A discarded crab claw at the bottom of the sink looked blighted, pocked with black pustules. When Umeshi opened the tap they swarmed over her head, dispersing and regrouping as she waved them away, tiny bodies brushing her cheeks. She snatched up one of her murderous tennis rackets and swung it. Five in one go. She swiped again, backhand this time, and the satisfying smell of burning insects arose around her. But still they swarmed. She hit out at random, not troubling to avoid shelves, or vases, or teacups. With eyes closed she attacked blindly. Pots clanged, something shattered, a voice shouted “Ho, HO!” and then someone was wrestling the thing out of her hands.

She opened her eyes. Dead flies and dishware littered the floor and countertops. Udesh, Umanga and Mo stood around her, their faces a palette of shock. She tried to speak but could only stare down at Umanga and Mo’s interlaced fingers, the closeness of their bodies. Behind them, the front door loomed large, for someone was ringing their doorbell. 

It was the Dissanayake family, a trio of tentative smiles and fervent apologies for dropping in unexpectedly, but they were in the neighborhood anyway and Ganaka was so excited about meeting Umanga—and Aunty and Uncle, of course! They wouldn’t stay long, just a quick hello. They didn’t want anything, thank you, not even tea or a soft drink, really. So this was Umeshi’s husband? Udesh, right? A pleasure, at last! And where was the famous Umanga? I beg your pardon? This was her? Oh. She looked…different in the pictures. And this was her…friend? Visiting from America? How…nice. Yes, very nice. Well. So, anyway. Maybe they should get going, lots of relatives to visit. Sorry, again, for barging in like this, they never meant to surprise anyone. They thought…Umeshi had said…It was a simple misunderstanding. No harm done. Suba aluth avuruddak wewa, blessings for the New Year and for the future, which would no longer involve them, the Dissanayake family, whose son was just as handsome as his pictures and who was raking Umanga over with eyes awash in relief, like someone who has narrowly dodged a bullet, and whose father was shaking hands with Udesh in a bracing, consoling manner, as though to reassure a man humiliated before his own family, and whose mother was staring around her with pursed lips and scrunched nose, the face of a woman who has just caught a whiff of a rotten deal. 


Some people said it was an earthquake. Others blamed it on a methane explosion in the heart of the dump. Whatever it was had the strength of a tidal wave. It crushed stone walls as easily as if they were made of cardboard; asbestos roofs became crinkled crepe paper. Shabby dreams got stuck under someone else’s filth, choked, and expired.

They said three people were dead. They said ten, twenty, thirty. Thirty-one…

News crews arrived before emergency response teams and filmed families digging through the debris in search of the missing. Morgues returned bodies wrapped in polythene to the bereaved. Someone remarked that life is cheap but coffins are expensive. 

Talking heads popped up behind microphones: Political corruption. Crime against humanity. They called for investigations; they called for arrests. Meanwhile, residents of the demolished colony braced themselves for a second deluge, not of filth this time but of charity—dry rations and used clothes and good intentions. The government declared a national day of mourning, which was observed by all but the pests, whose appetites remained monstrous. They stuck close, packs of strays and plagues of parasites, their noses and antennae assuring them that after the fuss died down, fresh mountains of rubbish would rise. Even as the funeral processions passed through the streets, skeletal men in orange vests hauled dustbins full of meat and plastic from the homes of the wealthy, grunting as they emptied their contents onto municipal trucks bound for the landfill. 

Udesh, Umanga and Mo joined the relief effort and Umeshi took advantage of their absence to double down on her own search and rescue mission. 

Umanga’s bedroom was now a mess of unfamiliar garments and smells, Mo’s clothes mixed in with her daughter’s, strands of auburn hair entangled in Umanga’s brush on the dressing table. But Umeshi had eyes only for her inbox. She sifted methodically through the responses that were still trickling in. It was harder this time around, with the debris of her recent failure strewn about her. Sometimes doubt bubbled up in her, a cold rush of hopelessness, but she quick to banish it. What good did it do to stand helplessly among the ruins? What use was a life devoid of plans? In the end everyone picked up the pieces and followed whichever compass pointed due north, to the future.

She was close to selecting a new candidate. His name was something-or-other, his profession was What It Should Be. She tracked him down on Facebook and spent many hours scrolling through his Wall. Each time she thought she’d hit rock bottom, the damn page refreshed itself. 

One evening, as she sat gazing at a photo of the boy leaning against a shiny new car, she heard voices downstairs. The trio had returned from their volunteer work earlier than usual. Soon they’d be cooking dinner, the girls teasing Udesh about something silly he’d said earlier. He would have a glass of wine with them. Later, when he came to bed flushed with drink and the satisfaction of public service, he’d reach for her clumsily under the sheets. When it was over, he’d whisper in the dark: Wasn’t it funny that just a few days ago they’d squabbled over something so idiotic as a marriage proposal? He forgave her, he’d say, for her deception; water under the bridge now. She must forgive herself also, she must come out and join the relief effort. Come out and rejoin her family. 

Umeshi guided the mouse to the top left corner of the screen and clicked the X that made the whole world disappear.

Kanya D’Almeida is a Sri Lankan writer. She won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her fiction has appeared on Granta, Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and hosts The Darkest Light, a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka. 

Fiction | ‘A Funeral of National Importance’ by Ciara Mandulee Mendis | Issue 42 (March, 2023)

A Funeral of National Importance

On the way back from the funeral of the Chief Incumbent of Bambalapitiya Maha Maya Viharaya, she asked the driver to stop at her favourite handloom saree shop. She ordered all the white sarees in the shop because she did not know which person of national importance might die in the coming month; she couldn’t possibly appear on national media in the same white saree over and over again.

Thankfully, a few weeks later, the Governor of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka was killed by an accident and she was thrilled. As soon as she heard the news, she left all her files stacked up on the table and quickly got herself driven to his house because she really wanted to be there for his family in this time of need, giving instructions on organizing a funeral of national importance through her recent experience of being in a dozen State Funeral Committees.

A funeral was in the air and she felt the true funeral spirit. She showed them where the body should be placed and from which direction the people who would want to pay respect should come. Although at first the family wondered who she was, despite how responsible and relevant she looked, they later learned that this new Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation (the official media for this event), only had their best interests at heart. She told them about the large number of Buddhist monks who would come to the house to pay respect to the body, pointing to the need of a large sofa with a white cloth laid over it. She saw that the photos and mirrors in the house were covered and the large wooden windows were open. She went to the son of the deceased and told him that there should be a table for all the awards his father had received because that was the highlight of a funeral. Then she stood in the middle of the living room and explained the roles she had played in other funerals of national importance. She made a sad but tired face when she said that although it was only March, this was the seventh important funeral she had to attend and see to, this year. However, it was difficult to run here and there in a Kandyan saree, and she was very tired in a few minutes. Though she almost slipped twice, once while helping a few men carry a cupboard, and once as she jumped up to see if someone tall could see the dust on the book shelf, she never really fell down and she was thankful. Since everyone was looking at her and up to her, it would have been such an embarrassment to fall down. She was sitting adjusting the headpiece of her saree when a servant came to her with a cup of tea. She looked up at everyone in the house looking at her, some with respect, some with wonder, some waiting for the next instruction and some waiting for her to just leave, and stood up.

“My driver needs tea as well, but you know what, let me take care of that” she said out loud. 

A second later, everyone was looking at the Director General walking to the kitchen, pouring half of her cup to another and coming back with two cups in hand. It was a small congested house in Colombo Seven with a very small living room. So everyone moved back and forth and gave her space to walk towards the driver, who was dazed, wondering if this is the same Director General who usually cannot even open the car door herself. 

After having tea, she went to the wife of the deceased. The wife, though grieving, was holding up quite well. She was discussing a possible Funeral Director with her daughter when the Director General came and sat close to her.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Alright,” the wife said with a forcefully drawn smile “so much to do, I’m trying not to miss anything.”

The Director General gave her a sympathetic smile and tilted her head to the left. Then she held the wife’s hand and said, “I know this is very very difficult for you, I understand this is the worst thing that can happen to a family, I mean it’s your husband who is dead! If it was you who is dead, it would have been kind of alright, but this is the father, the breadwinner, the backbone of the family!” she sighed. “And your children have lives of their own so you are the one who will feel this loss the most. You have to face life alone now. You will be lonely and sad, but, you have to be strong.” As she finished, the wife started bursting into tears which later turned into a ceaseless weep. Then the children hugged the mother and started crying. The Director General slowly walked towards the door with a satisfied face – her head, still tilted to the left. And as the driver drove her away from the funeral home, half of the people had joined the collective weep. Her work here was done.  

* * *

The next day, she wanted to wear a light coloured saree because she had to go to the funeral home after work. Since she expected to meet a lot of people from various walks of life, and she had her standards to maintain, she picked a rich-looking saree. No saree can look rich without a shining headpiece, she thought. So she wore the cream coloured one with a gold design in the headpiece. When she went to the funeral home, she took her crew with her. There, she pointed to the places which had be caught in the shoot – the award table, the certificate wall, the huge couch with a lot of Buddhist monks and the sofa with a few Cabinet Ministers. When the fall of her saree almost caught fire as she slinked out of the living room too close to the oil lamp by the body, she was startled. After that, she did not wander, but sat on the sofa next to the wife, nodding to everyone who entered through the main door. But she did not want to waste time just sitting there. So, she started guessing the prices of the sarees people at the funeral were wearing. She could not believe that the Chairman of The British Bank in Colombo chose to wear such a cheap saree to an event of national importance. She was sure it had nothing to do with money, she was the Chairman of a bank after all. And was it even a saree what that woman from that government thing which prepares the National Budget wearing? It looked more like a curtain from Yapahuwa period. Faded, rusted and almost torn. So stingy, she thought. Talk about National Budget.

On the way home, as she closed her eyes, she fell asleep within seconds. The car carefully drove her away from the traffic of Colombo. She dreamed that her saree was on fire. The pure white saree she was wearing was turning black; the blazing flames of the fire were crackling up the headpiece. As she touched her chest, she felt the saree jacket heating up and gradually turning brown. She was trying to put out the fire with pirith water from a little plastic bottle (which was one of the hundred thousand bottles chanted eighteen thousand times by the best monks in Colombo), but it only made the fiery flames that were roaring, come towards her face like a bat out of hell, shredding down smoldering irregular pieces of the hem one by one. In the air, soot had gathered into a cloud and had started singing. Then she saw a fireball dancer, a classic one from the Kandy perahera coming towards her, rhythmically swiveling a ring of fireballs to the melody of the soot cloud. She started to swing to the melody herself, but she suddenly saw that her feet were showing because the burnt pieces of the saree were falling to the ground. She almost had a fit; she could not show her bare feet to the world. Tensed, she looked around; the fireball dancer was getting closer. She saw a puddle in the middle of the road and quickly jumped into it. And her feet got stuck. Her heart was beating fast. The soot cloud was singing too loud and the fireball dancer was too close. She kept her hands on the ground and gained force to pull her feet, but her hands got glued to the lava on the ground. She could not breathe. The melody of the soot cloud was now deafening and it was burning. Suddenly, a crimson fireball came towards her face and she woke up. She was in Kadawatha. 

* * *

It was the day of the funeral. She came to the funeral home quite early in the morning. She had worn one of her new white sarees and everything; but not too high heels because she had a lot of walking to do. She was all ready to bid farewell to a man of national importance. First, she made calls to make sure the small small segments of the funeral were broadcast in her channel time to time. And when she discovered that they had done no special segment about the Governor, she demanded they immediately do a documentary about the service of this brave man who steered the economy of the country in the right direction. It was alright that they didn’t get the titles of some Reports he had written right, or, a few names of the Committees he had chaired, as long as they ran the feature before the funeral ceremony started. She also asked the designers to make a television banner just for him, with a few white frangipanis on the side and everything; and perhaps, play in the background Mala ira basina sande yaame, the classic song about death sung by Amaradeva. After all they were the official media for this event.

The State Funeral Committee had organized this prestigious event beautifully. She was proud she was a part of it. The body was brought from the funeral home to the cemetery in a procession of about thirty vehicles, under a canopy of sepalika flowers. There was a huge gok kola thorana at the entrance of the cemetery in the form of an arch. The either sides of the path that led from the thorana to the pavilion, were decorated with white gerberas, carnations and fern. The coffin was kept in the pavilion on a red carpet. Orchid petals were sprinkled on the coffin from time to time and the instrumental version of Mala ira basina sande yaame was played via loudspeakers. Drones were sent up to take shots of the bank-shaped funeral pyre. She could not expect anything less. A person of national importance was dead. 

She gave the signal to start the programme. As the best announcer of her channel came to the podium to begin, someone from the crowd started weeping aloud. It was a man. A middle aged man in a white shirt and a yellow sarong. 

“Aneeey Yasalalakathissa! Aiyoooo! Yasalalakathissa!” he wept in a shrill high-pitched voice, calling out the Governor’s name.

The Monks, the Politicians, the Government Officials, the Academics, the Bankers, the family, all looked around in panic. 

The weeping man slowly meandered towards the coffin and sat on the floor, sobbing. He never ever imagined the Governor would leave him this soon, he cried. Just as the wife and the children of the Governor were trying to get a better look at the man, another from the crowd started weeping aloud. This time it was a woman. Now who will tell her funny stories, the weeping woman asked from the coffin, wiping her snot off with her shoulders.

‘Did you hire these people?’ A member of the State Funeral Committee whispered to the Director General.

‘Hire?’ She was confused, ‘what?’.

‘Aren’t they hired mourners from Negombo?’ he whispered back to her. 

But the next second when the weeping woman said aloud how she would miss the way the Governor used English when scolding people at his workplace, the entire funeral crowd knew they were not hired mourners from Negombo. ‘Idiots…bloody idiots’ as the weeping woman imitated the Governor through tears, the staff of the Capital Bank of Sri Lanka looked at each other in bewilderment. They really did not know what to do. 

‘Yasalalakathissaaaa’ cried the weeping man again, emphasizing what a loss this is for the country. The Governor just knew so much, he said. Through his wail, when he said how the Governor asked them not to believe a word the media said about the pandemic, the Director General of Sri Lanka Rugatha Corporation was stupefied. In a millisecond she dashed towards her crew and made sure the event was not being broadcast live. She gave the signal to start the programme and asked the sound operators to amplify the sound of the compere’s microphone. She was sure that the nineteen to the dozen talk of her announcer would take care of this situation. In a few minutes, things were settled and she felt as if the monsoon season was over. From there onwards, the programme flowed with no interruption. During the ninth speech, she looked at the family. The wife was staring at the far away sky with swollen eyes. The daughter was looking down, clutching a handout about the service of the Governor distributed at the funeral. She ordered someone to give the family some Smak mixed fruit drinks. After all the fourteen speeches were given, the wife had to deliver the vote of thanks. She foresaw that the wife was not in a good condition to speak which is why she asked her announcer to deliver it for her. The wife started crying convulsively as the announcer started delivering the vote of thanks and she was proud she saw that coming. And when the Minister of Finance came towards the family with the Official Message of Condolence from the President, she saw that the family did not want to look at the cameras, but the event was then going live and this was expensive air time. 

A few minutes before the end of the programme, she hovered around the bank-shaped pyre once to make sure everything was alright. Since it had rained the previous night, the ground was a little muddy. She was thankful only one member of the State Funeral Committee was with her to see her slipping slightly and bumping her head against a wooden plank used to support the pyre. She pretended she didn’t even feel it but she literally saw half a dozen zodiacs in that clear bright sky. Once the programme eventually came to an end, when everyone was pushing everyone, trying to gather around the pyre, she made sure they did not get to the family. But in a second there was a barrier of men with cameras around the pyre. She looked calmly at the way a man in a white sarong came towards the family, twirling a stick with a fireball up and down. He then handed over the stick to Governor’s son. She watched the pyre being lit by the son. And in a few minutes, the entire pyre was in flames. Irregular white pieces of clothes were falling to the ground one by one. An important man was burning. A man. A father. Father. And she was twelve years again. The girl who helplessly watched her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Burnt. Burnt by the State? He was brave, they said. That was the thought that always entered her mind every time she saw a burning pyre. Is being brave more important than being alive? He was a respectable man, they said. That was the thought which always followed the first one. Respect. She felt it was the most selfish word in the world. Is burning on the side of the road as respectable as a funeral of national importance? She did not know. 

It was hot, almost as if burning. And she could not stand the noise of the soot; it was louder than the loudspeakers. The State Funeral Committee had arranged a helicopter to shower chrysanthemum petals on the pyre over the flames. She looked up and then around. Amidst the heavy showers of white chrysanthemum petals, behind the flashes of the cameras, through the thick barrier of people speaking of the greatness of the respectable man who is dead, she saw his daughter, helplessly watching her father burning. Unable to get even a little close. Annoyed, she rushed towards the men with cameras. 

Ciara is currently reading for her MA in English Studies with a special focus on language and culture, and is employed as Assistant Director (Literature & Publications) at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Sri Lanka. Her debut short story collection ‘The Red Brick Wall’ (manuscript) is at the moment shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2020, the most coveted award given for Sri Lankan writing in English.

Fiction | ‘I A Enveloped’ by Michael B. Tager | Issue 42, March 2023

I Am Enveloped

THE beeping keeps me awake, but I don’t mind. Metronomes relax me now. For a long time, I couldn’t tolerate repetitive sounds: toe-tapping, the ticking of clocks, even too-long choruses. “Hey Jude” is my enemy. Come to the point already. 

    Mabel’s asleep in a chair, her soft snores a different kind of comfort. She’s a good daughter. She wasn’t always. In her teens and again in her 30s, she made too many bad decisions, dated the wrong kinds of people. I don’t necessarily like her wife, but she treats Mabel well and that’s all I can ask for. 

    I sit and yawn. For the first time in months, I feel refreshed. I do the same body check that I started decades ago, when I first noticed a hurt that hadn’t been there the night before. I wiggle my toes, tense my calf and thigh, roll my neck. I expect quiet pain, part of me for so long that I think of it as a silent partner, holding me accountable. 

    When I realize I feel no pain, I grin and swing my legs over the hospital bed. Is this what it was like when I was nineteen? To have an ease with a body? 

    I carefully remove the IV and adjust the machines so they won’t indicate I’m flatlining when I remove the different apparatus from my chest and arm. I’m thankful I don’t have a tube up my nose anymore. All the little violations of my space add up. 

    In the hallway, the linoleum is cold and the walls a dull blue. I suppose it’s pleasant, but couldn’t the lights be less harsh? A clock on a near wall tells me I’m in the deepest part of night. My favorite time. 

    I shuffle along, passing the empty nurse’s station and a dozen closed doors. It’s quiet, but never void of sound. There’s always a mechanical burp or distant ringing. I go down some stairs, breathing the mild stink of abandoned sandwich crusts and years of sweat and savoring it because at least it’s something new. 

    Outside the stairwell, a floor down, I hear laughter coming from the door in front of me. I knock. “Hello?” I say quietly, my voice harsh and split. I haven’t had a cigarette since the diagnosis, but my throat doesn’t realize, filled as it is with scar tissue. To be honest, I miss it. At this point, would a couple drags even hurt? Mabel insisted I quit, so fine. 

    “Who’s there?” 

    There’s two children sitting at the edge of a bed, holding game controllers. The girl is thin, small. The boy is bigger, not so far into his chemo. Early teenagers, fourteen or fifteen. Hard to say. Their eyes are wide, obviously startled. I stay where I am and hold up a hand. “Sorry to disturb you. I’m a neighbor.” I point up and smile. It takes a second, but the girl nods and waves. “Can I come in?”

    “I guess,” the girls says, shrugging. “You’re not weird, are you?”

    The room is identical to mine, a typical hospital room. The walls are brighter than mine, a gentle mauve. I assume game systems are more common in children wards. 

    Pulling up a chair to the bed with some effort, I laugh. “I don’t think I’m weird. At least not in a creepy way, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “Wouldn’t someone creepy say that?” Her eyes narrow to slices. 

    “I guess so.” I chew my lip. “I can go if you’d like.”

    She sighs. “It’s ok I guess.”

    “Do you want to play?” the boy asks. He offers the controller. 

    The wall-mounted TV shows two celestial creatures frozen in mid-leap. They’re made of fractured stardust, all points and bright cascades. I don’t recognize the game but when the girl unpauses, I press buttons until I get the gist. We hop platforms and cross chasms together, eat plant monsters like a Thanksgiving dinner, try to save a universe. The plot seems incidental. Some of my friends in the retirement home have gaming parties. Mostly the oldies: Mario and Tetris and those. 

    “You’re pretty good,” the girl, Clea, tells me after we play for a half hour. “Pop-Pop has no idea about video games.”

    “Call me Jacob.”

    They introduce themselves. “My grandfather doesn’t play either,” Liam says. “My granny plays sometimes, though.”  

    Eventually I die, and Liam takes over and I see how much I’d been holding Clea back in her progression. They fly through the levels: desert and tundra and a sky castle. Their star-avatars grow and develop, evolving with experience. 

    Clea offers me the controller again and I shake my head. “Did you two meet here?” I ask. 

    “We met over at St. Agnes, actually,” Liam says. “We were both on the long-term ward a couple years ago.”

    “It was nice to see him here,” Clea says. “Everyone else is old as fuck. No offense.”

    I wave my hands. It’s true. I am old as fuck. 

    “How long have you been here?” Clea asks. The question makes her sit up straight and she looks nervous, like she’s about to be reprimanded. Maybe the question is verboten? I’m not sure. 

    “Awhile,” I say. “I’m supposed to go home in a few days.”

    “That’s cool. I’m theoretically in remission. Him too.” She jerks her thumb at Liam, who nods. 

    “We’re all lucky,” I say. “That’s good isn’t it?”

    Liam nods, his straight hair flopping in the moonlight that streams through the large window. “What do you think it’s like?” he asks. “To not be lucky?” 

    It’s an offhanded question that catches me entirely by surprise. To address the death elephant in the room so casually. When I was their age, I never thought about it at all. I just thought about girls and running and part-time jobs and playing games and school. 

    “Jesus, Li,” Clea says. “Keeping it light, huh?”

    “Sorry. I just thought he might have an idea.”

    “Because I’m old?” I ask, hiding my smile. 

    The boy flushes, but doesn’t apologize, or mince words. “Basically, yeah.”

    I think and watch them. They’ve clearly played before and now they fight giant monsters, statues come to life, beasts with fangs and claws for days. Their fingers are nimble and deft and they help one other, murmuring suggestions or even backing one another up without words, breathing fire and sprouting wings and digging holes to cushion their falls. 

    When I was a boy, if I thought of death at all, I thought of Jesus taking me into his bosom. I dreamed of winged, long-haired angels playing harps on clouds, just like the clichés. When I got older, I thought death was nothing at all, an erasure. After children, I prayed for the return of my belief and it came, but differently and I never could buy the idea of eternal pleasure or punishment. Doesn’t seem logical. 

    I would have thought that after years of sickness, I’d have come to some kind of conclusion. But no. 

    When Clea pokes me, I realize that I haven’t said anything in several minutes. I shake my head and dispel the fog. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think maybe it’s like going home again.”

    “Where’s that?” Clea asked, looking for my eyes to stare into. The game is paused and Liam’s head is down, his shoulders tense. They think about this a lot. 

    “The universe, I guess. We’re all atoms from the same stars, right? Nothing is ever destroyed, just changed. So why shouldn’t we change too?”

    Clea’s brows furrow and Liam’s head almost imperceptibly moves from side to side and I know this answer doesn’t satisfy them. Why would it? Why should it? Would anything?

    Suddenly, I a wave of exhaustion rushes over me. I feel my brief burst of energy drain away. I already miss it. Youth is so far away, and experiencing its facsimile is so welcome. 

    “I think it’s time for me to go,” I say. I stand and sway a little. I thank them for letting me share their time, my breath coming in little hitches. I hide it with a cough.

    “It’s cool,” Liam says. He shakes my hand. 

    Clea purses her lips and says, “It was nice talking with you, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I don’t see you later, you know?”

    I grasp her shoulder, “I hope the same.”

    As I walk back to my room, my eyes heavy with sleep, aches and throbs begin to come back to my body in slow creeps, I hear my name. I turn and they’re standing there and they say, “Would you mind if we asked for a hug?”

    “Hell no,” I say and for a moment, I am enveloped. 

    Back in my room, I tiptoe in the darkness and make my way to my bed. I am so tired I can barely think straight. At one point, I kick Mabel’s shoes and they skitter along the floor. 

    Over in the corner, she stirs. “Dad?” she mumbles. 

    “I’m fine, Mebby. Go back to sleep.”

    “Ok daddy,” she says and pulls the blanket under her neck. “I didn’t break anything, you know.” 

    I wonder what she’s dreaming. She hadn’t been a rambunctious child, though as I reinsert the IV into my vein with a wince and swing my feet from the floor, I chuckle, remembering the time she destroyed the entire back porch with a single unfortunate swing of a baseball bat. 

    Even at the time, I’d thought it was kind of funny. The tumbling, the roar, the release of dust and debris. How the umbrella had flown in a neat arc, landing in the back yard amongst the tulips like a javelin. Her open jaw, the flush spreading in his cheeks, the slow turn to me where I held the baseball. 

    “Dad?” she’d started.

    “Wow. Don’t even worry about it.”

    Her mother had been less amused, of course. But that was a different story. 

    I lay back on my pillow and yawn. I can’t keep my eyes open and I don’t bother fighting. I feel a soft heat spreading and my limbs get heavy, like gravity is a hand holding my wrists. It’s a caress and I ignore the pain bursting, because the hand strokes my head and whispers comfort. Here we go. 

    As I die, I step from my body, a loose spirit. I and the machines that were monitoring my life. My essence expands and envelops the bed, and touches Mabel and encompass her and I am part of her, experiencing her life. I feel her love for her wife and children and a bruised sort of love deep affection and healed-over scars for me. I feels the same for my own parents and within me, I feel traces of them too, and the painful memories of theirs and the love underneath and I know that I can go deeper and deeper. 

    Instead, I let myself grow through the hospital floor and all those sleeping bodies until I find Clea and Liam. They’re peaceful and happy and enjoy their nearness. They know that once they leave, they won’t see one another again because theirs is a friendship of proximity and specifically shared experience. But they they’ll keep each other in their hearts.

    No one can ask for more than to be carried on in someone’s memory.

    I grow past the ceiling and through the floorboards and walls and the roof. 

    I see the flat tar roofs of all the buildings. The treetops are wide and lush with green with the growing day. When my head touches the clouds, I turn my attention to the distant sky, the bright spear of the sun and the endless fountain of blue pouri from the horizon. My body-soul is as large as the county, a mountain range, an inland sea. 

    I escape the atmosphere and embraced the earth. My back is cold against space and the ball within my arms emanates the warmth of billions, of power lines and siroccos, of ocean currents teeming with life and the churning mantle. I let go. 

    My growth is exponential, impossible to calculate without sines and π. I encompass the whirling storm of Jupiter and all the moons of Saturn. I face the distant pinprick of light that is the sun and somewhere in all that space, I still feel my body, my bones and flesh and toes and teeth, all connected to the finest thread that I can sever with a tug. My soul will soar through the cosmos and end where it ends, if I just pull. 

    I pause and a single memory comes through. I’m a boy, lying in the grass of a baseball field. In the background, I hear my mother and father. I don’t understand the words, but I feel a safety that only comes from being within reach of love. The sun is warm, the wind is cool, the grass sharp on my cheek. I’ll take that one with me.

    Sighing, I pull and the thread snaps and I’m loose in the universe, rushing to what comes next.

Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based editor and writer. He is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press, an independent publisher of high-quality books. Publications include jmww, Uncharted Mag, Necessary Fiction, and Barrelhouse, among others. He is uncomfortable but not worried.

Translation | ‘‘A Woman’s Fate’ by Epitácio Pais | Translated by Paul Melo e Castro | Issue 42 (March, 2023)

‘‘A Woman’s Fate’ by Epitácio Pais | Translated by Paul Melo e Castro

António da Veiga made his way out from the vast railway station. Hardly had he emerged onto the avenue when a stranger approached and inquired if he needed accommodation.

Not quite middle-aged, the man wore a pair of smartly pressed trousers, an immaculate shirt and shoes that gleamed like polished mirrors. Around his wrist was a deluxe watch, his small moustache was neatly trimmed, and his hair had been carefully slicked back.

Veiga replied that his usual hotel was not far off. But as the man insisted on one close by at a reasonable rate, clean bed, freshly washed sheets, fan and mosquito net provided, hot water too, he resolved to pay this new establishment a visit.

Afterwards, the man asked whether he was satisfied, produced a gold cigarette case and announced his commission to be twenty rupees. A little steep. On his way out, the man recommended his own eating house in Jambul Wadi, renowned for Goan delicacies that drew their countrymen in from all over the city. He had other lines of business too. Palm and cashew liquor shipped in from home that sold like hot cakes. Well then, God bless, a pleasant evening to you.

That man’s life wasn’t bad, Veiga thought to himself, better than idling around, borrowing money and not paying it back, making promises and then breaking them. It seemed everything was going swimmingly for him.

A warm bath having washed away the fatigue of his journey, Veiga decided on a walk around that city which dazzled with bright advertisements and rang with the cries of street hawkers. He could then try that Goan place, maybe have some sorportel, a tasty dish that tantalised his stomach now he was so far from his native soil.

He found the restaurant in a side alley, its almost illegible sign blackened by smoke, four wooden steps leading up to a cubicle where eight tables and a sink by a stove filled the entire space. At that hour It was deserted but for a lone woman stirring pots.

Veiga asked her for a Goan speciality, didn’t matter which. Iscas? Sure. Chouriço? No problem. Sorportel? Why not. He left the choice up to her.

She brought him a steaming dish of delicious smelling food. As he ate he looked at the woman from the corner of his eye. She had obviously once been attractive. A vague tristesse emanated from her gaunt form, though broad hips confessed her fertility. Veiga said that he’d just met her husband, who had recommended this place to eat. She replied that by now he must be at the Ashtray Bar drinking with friends and would only be back for dinner. She worked alone because they couldn’t afford a cook, though the man made a good living. She told him she was from Goa without mentioning her native village. Her five children who were asleep in the loft had to rise early for school.

It seemed to Veiga there was something familiar about the woman, something that welled up in a swirl of half-forgotten memories. Those almost black eyes now with bags underneath, that gait from which all trace of elegance had not been entirely erased, that dark hair now intermixed with threads of grey, it was all was bound up with Veiga’s confused recollections. Where? Where? he demanded. But his memory refused to comply, stalling with every effort. Now the image of the man who must surely be her husband returned to mind, slipping in between a muddle of disconnected facts that seemed poised to converge before finally eluding his grasp. Veiga asked the woman why the restaurant was empty. She replied that it only began to fill around ten after the evening shift at the local workshops. Then she scarcely got a second to breathe and had to rush around serving customers until midnight before finally collapsing exhausted into bed, her head ringing with the yells, curses and foul language of the clientele. She asked if he was from Goa and what brought him to Bombay. Veiga replied he was there on family business and that thanks to her husband he had found a decent billet. For the first time she looked him squarely in the face and blushed.

Veiga returned to the hotel. His head weighed heavy and his eyes burnt with exhaustion. But once he gained his room and heaved himself into bed he was unable to sleep. The image of the woman from the restaurant cloaked in mystery wouldn’t give him any peace, appearing again and again in the darkened room until he was shattered. It was thus, his nerves shot to pieces, that he finally passed out.

But morning brought everything to light. The hazy enigma around the woman melted away, and every detail relating to that figure now passed clearly before his mind’s eye like a film, narrating her life from girlhood to adolescence, from innocence to a turbid whirlpool dragging her down into a fate she had only wanted to escape when it was no longer possible.

Time was Veiga had seen her childish figure cross the river each morning clutching a satchel full of books, returning home by the same route at the end of the day. Afterwards, when she was already an adolescent, he would see her grave-faced and wary, indifferent to the comments and catcalls of passers-by.

Sometime later, now mature in body and mind, she had continued to shun male advances.

Schooling complete, her family had wished to find her a good match in fine society. But she kept putting off any decision. She wanted to study further, to find an important role for herself locally or at a national level, to rout those so-called heroes, oh so callow in thought, who spouted platitudes at political rallies. Only then would she render up her hand to any prince charming who might come her way.

One day this prince charming inevitably appeared, elegantly attired, with a pencil moustache and the honeyed blandishments of a leading man. He followed her around like a puppy dog, many little strokes fell great oaks. The man had a restaurant in the big city, a favoured haunt of the crème de la crème whose society could raise her to the level of her dreams, allow her to rub shoulders with the great and good.

She let herself be taken in by these promises that sweetly caressed ambitions she had nursed for years. And one fine day she upped and left with her suitor, without a word to her mother, father or anyone else. They married before hired witnesses on Woodhouse Road before a brief honeymoon.

Now there she was, stuck in that Goan hash house in Jambul Wadi, four wooden steps leading up to a blackened cave, hunched over those pots beside a sink slopping over with dishwater.

Paul Melo e Castro is a lecturer in Portuguese and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. He has long-standing rearch interests in Portuguese-language fiction and intellectual production from Goa and has been a regular translator of this writing into English. His latest book-length translation is Vimala Devi’s Monsoon (Seagull, 2019). He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Epitácio Pais (1924-2009) was a Goan short story writer. He contributed short stories to the Portuguese-language newspapers and radio during Portuguese rule and in the decade following 1961. A collection of his stories entitled Os javalis de Codval (‘The Boars of Codval’) appeared in Lisbon in 1973 and a novel unpublished during his lifetime, Preia-Mar, was published in 2016 in Goa by the Goa, 1556 publishing house.

Short Fiction | ‘Migratory Birds’ by Minal V M | Issue 42, March 2023

Migratory Birds

I stand on the steps, watching Achamma draw stick figures in the rain softened, pungent earth. I sit behind you on your motorbike, holding onto you, the wind blowing away my words. I kiss you as we sit alone in the library, grimacing when your stubble scratches me. We are at the lighthouse, holding hands on the red cliffs as the waves crash noisily below; the wind turns colder, now it’s gloomy skies above white cliffs, and you aren’t there anymore. It’s the convocation, you are a blur, my heart races, my legs quiver, I want to sit down, I want to run away.

I wake up.

My nose running, my allergies triggered by the pollution, I stay in bed beside him, my scratchy sniffles mingling with the rhythm of his soft snores, the only sound in the otherwise quiet morning. 

When his father finishes praying, I get up to splash away my sleep with winter’s cold water. Downstairs his mother, also up at the break of dawn, waits for me.

“Did he sleep well?”

“Yes, Amma.”

As I make breakfast, the dosa batter sizzling on the pan, I wish it were an egg – golden yolk, its white encircled in crispy brown, fried in ghee as Achamma used to make for me in another place, in another time.

His parents sit in the verandah drenched in the morning sun: his mother, talking to no one in particular; his father, writing poetry, one every day for his next collection. When he wakes up and comes downstairs, he kisses me good morning in the kitchen before joining his parents with the day’s newspaper.

In the next hour I will wake up my son, feed him and send him off to school, before I set off to work myself.

“Will you be late today?” his parents ask me.

“No, Appa.”

“The boy’s mother should be there for him when he’s back from school.”

“Yes, Appa.”

I walk on the dirt track lane that once was tarred, till it joins the main road; now covered in dust and fumes, cars, buses and bikes blaring horns in a never-ending race.

I quit that race a while ago.

I take an auto rickshaw to the metro station, climb up the steps to the entrance, put my bag through the X-Ray machine as the bored security guard glances at the screen, and then make my way to the WOMEN box, where another bored security guard – a lady security guard – will pat me over. 

Finally, once on the train as it glides over the vehicles sputtering on the roads below, I put on my headphones and slip into my me time.

I am grateful that the train is air conditioned.


The pollution peaks in winter, there is no escaping it in the city – I sniffle, my eyes tear up all day. It wasn’t always like this; not when I first came over here many years ago, not when I first met him. We returned to the city after years in self-imposed exile. It was his idea: he wanted our son to learn Indian values, and there was a new government.

“They are not corrupt like the previous lot. They’ll drain the swamp.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“They are strong, decisive.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“Now is a good time to go back. Too many bearded immigrants here.”

Browsing online reviews of schools for our son, getting rid of junk – the detritus of a settled life – as I prepared to uproot myself once again, I taught myself to look forward to returning, as I had once taught myself to look forward to leaving.

Over there, it will be snowing this time of the year. Over there, I didn’t sniffle, my eyes didn’t tear up all day.

Back in the city, I re-learnt what I had un-learnt in those years outside: to be grateful that my commute was only three hours every day; to ignore the hands that felt me up when I made my way through the crowded metro train; to accept the blurred boundaries between work and home, weekday and weekend.

I found the lack of formality jarring: the ease with which old friends dropped in unannounced, or added me to WhatsApp groups without first asking me. 

I learnt to ignore the casual misogyny and bigotry that permeated those groups. Spouted by men, who were the boys I knew back in university; the twenty-something new adults I worked with when I first came to the city.

Standing all night in the queues outside schools for my son, I wondered if Amma – my mother – had done the same for me back home. I later realized that getting into a school was probably the easy bit; my son with his firang accent would become the target of bullying even as he struggled to fit in.

And then there’s his parents.

“She’s fair but… she’s not vegetarian.”

“She’s not from here. How will we adjust?”

Staying with them under the same roof, I took to inventing ruses.

“There was an emergency at work,” I told Appa after a night out with friends.

“Don’t tell Ajja and Ajji what you ate today,” to my son after I took him out for the steaks that he loved and which I used to grill over there, but had stopped grilling over here.

“You are not like the others… you aren’t vegetarian,” my colleagues over there used to tell me. I wonder how they will react if they knew that I pretended to be vegetarian in my own house.

“It’s actually my house,” I reminded visiting friends, apropos of nothing. “I bought it when I first came to the city.”

“They stay in my house,” I would add.

I convinced myself that returning to the city that I once loved was a good idea because Amma wasn’t far away. A six-hour drive through the meadows that led to the mountains, across its zig-zag bends, over the hundred-year-old bridge on the border between the two provinces – his and mine, down the other side, until I reached my hometown by the sea.

Where the salty air blew away my allergies; where the sea-bridge, that dilapidated pier that jutted out to sea, stood proud even if old; and where I was a child again, the only place I really thought of as home.


I was eighteen when Achamma passed away, the month before I went to university. 

I remember looking at Achamma and wondering if she was smiling in her sleep, as she lay in the ice box, her skin only a shade darker than the white sheets that wrapped her, or the balls of cotton that were stuffed in her nostrils. 

I remember wading through the crowd gathered around the body in our home, as I made my way away – because I didn’t want to see Achamma in the ice box.

I remember the Achamma sized hole that punctured my heart.


I was excited about going to university. My English speaking Achamma had been proud of me.

Mole, you are the first girl in our family to do engineering. You must not stop there, do a Masters after that. And a PhD too.”

Achamma! I just got in… I have 4 more years to go.”

I left my hometown for the first time – the university an overnight train journey away; in a town where they spoke the same language, probably ate the same food, but was still an overnight train journey away.

My proud English speaking Achamma had also been anxious.

Mole, you are not a child anymore. Be careful with boys.”

“Mm… hmm.”

Mole, stay away from the bearded ones. They will cover you up, make you like them.”


My first semester at university, I threw up after every meal.

I missed Achamma’s Mathi fry – brought in fresh from the sea by the scores of little fishing boats that went out before dawn everyday, fried crisp like a biscuit, glistening in its own fat. 

For me, the local beef delicacies of the inland university town, where the sea was unseen and unknown, couldn’t compare.

I missed the sea, the mellow rise and fall of the waves in the distance merging with the drone of my school. I missed the breeze that blew in from the sea, rushing through the corridors, seeding life in its wake. 

I missed the rains that arrived on the sea, the waves now roaring angrily, the tall, twisted coconut palms straining as they held onto the earth. 

I missed my friends, hanging out with them at the lighthouse in the fort, staring at the sunset, dreaming of the faraway lands that lay beyond, each vowing to one day cross over the infinite sea, seeking the adventures it promised, like the migratory birds that flew high above, belonging nowhere and everywhere.

I discovered the library, seeking refuge among its steel and glass shelves with the SILENCE PLEASE warnings in red pasted on them. Sitting amidst the students there, oblivious of their intertwined legs beneath the desks, I wrote long letters home to Amma, one every month, updating her with the happenings in my world. Each letter ending with an account of my carefully managed expenses.

I wrote longer letters to my friends.

Edi, people eat only beef over here. And freshwater fish. Who even eats freshwater fish??”

Edi, our computer prof is cute!”

I wondered why people spit as I gingerly made my way to the bus stand every morning, avoiding the tiny gelatinous puddles of grey sparkling like dew drops on a field. 

I didn’t write about that to anyone.


I noticed you for the first time when the semester exam results came and you stood first; the boy who sat quietly in the last row in that class of sixty, stood first. I thought you were a buddhi-jeevi: big brown eyes behind glasses, freckled face, brown hair and pink lips. 

I was standing behind you at the canteen when you ordered your lunch: fish curry meals with a side of fried fish, the same everyday. Your voice made me shiver.

I noticed how you dozed away in class in the afternoons, when the heat blanketed all and the old fans in the ceiling above went phir-phir-phir cutting through the sweat laden air.

I noticed how your fingers were long and slender, their tips pink.

You were behind me at the train station booking tickets for the same overnight train home, I was surprised to see you there. You asked me where I would get off; I was glad that you would be on the train with me for at least two hours of that overnight journey.

Those two hours with you, I spoke the most I had ever spoken with anyone. I didn’t want your station to come; when it came, I didn’t want you to get off. The rest of the journey to my hometown, I couldn’t wait to take the train back to university.

I never missed class; always among the first to leave the hostel in the mornings to catch the bus to class, to be there in class when you walked in, to smile and in turn catch your smile. In the evenings after class, we went to the Danish Cool Bar for ice-cream sundaes. On Saturdays, I sat behind you on your motorbike as we rode into town to watch a movie, any movie. Followed by dinner at the KTDC Motel on the highway outside town. 

I began to enjoy parotta and beef fry, to not miss my favourite Mathi as much.

You continued standing first in the examinations, I was close behind.

I wondered where this road led to, what would Amma say? I was glad Achamma was no more – you are one of those bearded ones, even if you didn’t actually sport one. I knew the drama that would ensue at home when I announced you to Amma – the emotional blackmail, the threats of suicide. I didn’t know if I could handle any of that. 

I was afraid to find out.

In our final year at university, you grew insistent, asking me again and again to introduce you to my family. You had already told your family about me; that wasn’t easy for you either.

But I needed more time.

It was on the day of our convocation – when you stood first and I was close behind – that you broke up with me.


I moved over here, to this city on the other side of the mountains, staying in a PG – its rooms stacked one on the other, like a tower of Lego blocks perched precariously on its tiny plot. Pictures of you – on the bus from the Study Tour, backstage at the Arts Fest – I buried deep inside the old tin trunk at Amma’s house back in my hometown.

Amma, I am so happy,” I lied every Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO down the lane from my PG.

I spent the afternoons in the Cyber-cafe behind the PCO, scanning the Yahoo group messages from our friends: “this company here (or maybe that company there) is calling freshers.”

I wondered if wanting a job wasn’t reason enough when the interviewer asked me, “Why do you want to work for us?”

Two months after I arrived, I got a job.

Amma, I have to join next month. I am so happy,” I did not lie, that Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO.

I learnt the city’s language, watched its movies, explored it with my new friends. I spent hours in my favourite bookshop, peering at the overflowing shelves before making my way – a pile of books in hand – to my favourite cafe. Sitting by the huge window, beneath the vintage photographs that hung on its walls, I fell in love with the throbbing city on the other side.

Alone and frightened when it burst into riots after its famous actor was kidnapped, I wondered if the city’s charms were deceptive, a veneer beneath which lay something else, somebody else.

I was still angry, the jagged edges of the void that you left behind still hurt. I nodded as my colleagues derided the bearded ones.

“They are troublemakers, up to no good.”

“Mm… hmm.”

“They are waging holy war against our women.”

Our women?”

I wondered if I was a victim of holy war, of any war. I laughed at the thought.

I wondered why I was the only one who explored the NON-VEGETARIAN section of the buffet table when my team went out to lunch.


I went abroad to the foreign land across the seas where I saw snow for the first time. I didn’t think the lighthouse on those white cliffs was as beautiful as the one in the fort back in my hometown.

Amma, strangers say luv to you in the shops,” I informed my mother using phone cards at 8 am on Saturday mornings.

Edi, they don’t spit on the roads over here,” I emailed my friends from university.

I saw him when I returned to the city. He was sitting in the cubicle near the exit door on my floor: grey eyes, a wispy brown moustache and no glasses. His fingers were long and slender, their tips pink. I saw his thread underneath his collar.

He said hello in the lift.

We went to the cinemas and the pubs, we went trekking in the hills outside the city, even spent hours at my favourite cafe. He was fascinated that I had learnt his language – often mentioning it to his friends. He read too, but while I worshipped Hannah Arendt, he preferred Ayn Rand.

I told him about Correa’s contribution to Brutalism after I made love to him in the hotel near Correa’s only high rise in the city, the two of us admiring its unfinished concrete surface and its periscopic tops through the window of our room.

We married two years after we first met in the lift. His parents didn’t approve – I didn’t belong, I wasn’t vegetarian. He put his foot down – it was me or nobody else.

We went abroad soon after. It was his idea – “I want to get away from here,” he said. “I want to make some money.”

Sitting in the foreign land across the seas, I watched as he scanned the internet for news from back home and raged against those who stole his river’s water, every time the city we left behind exploded into riots.

As the unbound river hops over lines on a map on its way to meet the sea, I wonder if it cares who drank its water.


Today the city is no longer the place I remember it to be.

The hotel where I brunched with him, is a shopping mall – steel and glass replacing the ancient halls surrounded by trees; the cinema where we watched movies straight from work, is a car showroom; the road in whose afternoon desolation we hung out with beer and oily potato chips, has traffic jams at 10 pm; the pub where he and I both fell in love with Jimmy Hendrix, now plays bhangra.

My colleagues who once ridiculed the bearded others discreetly, almost politely, now wear their spite openly. Our friends from university who once posted job openings on Yahoo groups, have now turned into WhatsApp uncles ranting about us and them.

I am not sure if they changed or I did. 

My favourite book shop and cafe remain unchanged, anchoring the city of my memory under dark clouds.

The wayward river still upsets him, now abusing drivers with number plates that don’t belong. When my friends drop by, he interrogates them, ignoring them if they can’t speak his language. He seeks out people like him – Facebook groups of those who belong, among whom he derides those who don’t.

I adjust into my new routine – cooking the vegetarian food of his parents before leaving for work, taking my son out every weekend for a treat of sausages and steak with fried eggs on the side, even joining Appa’s prayers once every week – not telling anyone that the last time I prayed was at my school assembly.

I wonder if this is what Achamma was worried about, I tell myself that at least I am not covered up.

I call up Amma every morning during my commute, speaking to her in the language of my childhood. “Amma, we are all fine here,” I am economical with the truth every morning at 8 am inside the metro train.

I fished out your pictures from Amma’s old tin trunk and digitized them. 

I wonder if I’m a migratory bird.

Minal V M is a writer from Bangalore, India. Or at least he thinks he is. He considers himself a late bloomer – having actually started writing fiction only in his 40s after his father passed away. He thinks it’s a coping mechanism, but if it helps why knock it. When he is not writing, he reads. A hell of a lot. While he would love to be published in all the great journals, until now it’s been mostly Twitter (@PPuzhu) and Medium ( and an archival site ( that he wishes he spent more time on.
He would also like you to know that he’s on the spectrum. Ever since he was late diagnosed – in his 40s, after his father passed away – he loves to drop that tidbit on his unsuspecting audience. That kind of explains a lot though, if you think about it.

Short Fiction | ‘The Curry Cartel’ by Shyala Smith | Issue 42, March 2023

      Sathya was on the run. For the second time in her short life.


    The day had the usual melding between the last dark and first light, also known as ‘the time devils climb trees’. Sathya was wide-awake. The colonial house of her great grandfather was woefully quiet, even the wooden boards of the upper floor lay still. She should have guessed. It signalled what would be an unusual day.  

    Her morning itinerary included meeting up with a friend at the newly opened brunch spot. A round of ‘good boy, good girl’ to the twenty three mongrels gracing their sprawling city home was the expected ritual from the verandah leading up to the garage. She stopped at Appa’s blue metallic Mercedes Benz, her own white and less obvious Toyota Vitz parked beside it. Appa deemed it necessary every home should be graced by the two. One signifying wealth, the other for when the rest of their five vehicles broke down. Sathya chose the Mercedes Benz.

 “Hey Mercedes, take me to DELO,” she commanded.

 The Mercedes AI flared up the control panel, “You’ll arrive at your destination in 18 minutes.” 

“Hey Mercedes, turn on the radio.” The AI dutifully tuned on Gold FM. The morning bulletin was wrapping up.

   The import ban to continue with turmeric prices reaching an all-time high

    Sathya drove along their graceful tree-lined driveway as the security uncle opened the large wrought-iron gates. She floored the accelerator, only to be greeted by the first set of traffic lights. Cruising to a halt, she was about to command the car’s AI, when a man fumbled with the passenger door. Double-checking the lock, she accidentally unlocked the door. The tall, lean man’s reflexes were quick, connecting with the split second release. He struggled to get in mistiming his entrance and the low ground clearance of the vehicle. There was something paralyzing, yet soothing about the situation. 

“Drive!” the man commanded.

 Sathya did not ask where or why. Obeying, she hit the pedal as the traffic light turned amber. 

 “Take the next right. Rerouting. Make a U-Turn,” the AI’s prompt response. 

 “Crap! How do you turn this thing off!” Sathya waved her arms in front of the touchscreen, then attacked the dashboard. 

 “Aye, where’s your car?” the man spat out. 

 “How was I to know today would be the day we’d have to run?” Sathya testily retorted. 

 “Tch, every day is a good day to think it would be the day to run! Aiyo, you and your fancy cars!” he smirked and kept a steady gaze on the side mirror. 

 If she lost her calm, things would spiral into chaos. She fixed her eyes firmly ahead. There was only the present and the future. The phone ringtone filled the car with Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’.  

Eyes. On. The. Road. 

 A distracted fraction of a second was all it took as she averted her eyes from the road and onto the dashboard screen to check the caller ID. Dread seeped into her veins and the pit of her stomach churned – Appa was calling. The man whose loins failed to produce a male firstborn. His disappointment became her punishment; he relinquished the name he cherished for a son upon her. Relatives consoled – there would always be another. Appa was blessed abundantly; other subsequent attempts produced more vaginas. 

 He could be calling to yell at her for taking his favourite car. 

 He could be calling to ask if she’ll be home for lunch. 

 He could be calling to ask if she knew why the police were at their gate. 

   Sathya subconsciously touched the thick bangle on her right wrist. The one Appa placed there when she became a big girl. A party he so proudly threw to let the community know his daughter had come of age. The puberty party with zero shame. The most extravagant announcement besides a woman’s wedding, signaling to the community that ‘Sathya henceforth can bear children, infertility be damned!’ Wildly embarrassed, she begged her parents not to throw the party. Appa retorted she was their eldest, therefore it was something they awaited with grand expectation. 

 Appa was the richest gold jeweler on Sea Street. Her parents were eternally ashamed when she turned up at social functions with the single gold bangle. 

 The gold bangle now weighed heavily on her slim wrist.

 “Tch, they know,” the man said. Sathya felt the stab deep in her heart. Tears held up by a wall of black kajal. 

   Racking up kilometres, they soon left Colombo behind, precariously on the outskirts of the city, territory Sathya was unfamiliar with. The man hand signalled the course, and she dutifully followed every gesticulation. The area was populated with warehouses and crater filled concrete roads, not meant for a Mercedes. At an opening that bordered a canal, he gestured to stop. 

 “Vishan, is it safe to stop here?” 

Vishan was halfway out the door, hitting his head as he clambered out. Slamming the door shut with venom. She gently lowered her head to rest on the steering wheel, and contemplated many things. 

“Sathya!” Vishan shouted. “Aiyo! These number plates were for your car. Doesn’t fit!” 

 “I’m sorry!” she spat out, “Is it too late to go back? Appa can get the best lawyer!”

 “Tch, are you mad? You will go to jail! At least until your father begs, pleads, and pays the real crooks. Miss. Gucci, do you even know what jail looks like? Dumbass!”

 In the past, there had been two instances where an act of violence was administered. When Sathya’s father struck her on the face for having a boyfriend, and the other for failing a class. Vishan’s bitter words twisted in her bowels. Despite her father being the most respected businessman in upper echelons, he still has to grovel at the majority’s feet. 

   The air was laced with dust, was it cement? Sathya felt a familiar sense of panic. Her inhaler. Was it in her bag? Frantically fumbling into her handbag, she dumped the clutter onto the seat. The thought struck – of course, it was in her car! The only thing close to a punching bag was Vishan. He was blessed with a punchable face. The scars etched into his face and arms told the story of a brazen young man in and out of prison proving his worth with a million fights. She dumped her rage by feebly kicking the Pirelli tyres. Prison might not be such a grand idea after all. 

 The long-abandoned phone kept on vibrating. It hadn’t stopped once. The only option was taking it apart. Sathya hurled it to the ground, hoping for a satisfying end. The phone bounced back. 

 “Tch, the cover. Take off the cover,” Vishan said with his cigarette loosely hanging off his lips.

 “Argh! Should have thrown it into the lagoon!” 


Again in the driver’s seat.
Again fugitives. 


  Sathya did not possess fear; as a result, she hadn’t considered the probability of getting caught. She’d only been doing it for two years, ever since coming back from university. 

“Did you know they once kidnapped me!” Sathya proudly proclaimed. 

 Vishan squared his shoulders and sunk deeper into the seat. 


   The day she got her exam results. The men grabbed her and bundled her into a van. If there was fear to be experienced, there wasn’t time. The first thought her brain could faintly manage; she wasn’t properly attired – short skirt, tight tank and heels was not ideal. Even in the event of a bomb attack. The situation in the country was escalating; Sathya had spent a lot of her time considering her young life ending ‘death by bomb attack’. Her only deal with God – she shouldn’t be found barely alive and dismembered in a mess of severed bodies. 

   The men were not from the city. Their dialect had a distinct Northern drawl, punctured with lower jowl movements as if they were chewing betel. Thangachi was how they referred to her in fake brotherly affection and dropping it too frequently. They informed that they would not hurt her. Sathya used brute force and propelled her short legs towards them, soon realising how ineffective that was. Undoubtedly tired of her valiant efforts, they handcuffed her hands behind her back. And tied her legs together for good measure. Going about it rather carefully by not exposing too much, for which she was grateful. Mercilessly, she used her jaws to clamp down on some flesh, prompting the man on her right to yelp in pain. Having none of it, they gagged her and pulled a pillowcase over her head.  

  The mental time stamp was somewhere around the 3:30 pm mark at the time of her capture. With schools closed, there would be no traffic until the 5 pm work commute began. The roads in the city were dotted with military checkpoints. Surely they would get stopped. Instead, the van came to a halt after an eternal passage of potholes. The two men lifted her out of the van. 

 “Ey, what is that?” A man asked in the distance.  

 They propped her on a metal chair. An older man appeared and began yelling at the men in filth. The litany of apologies, comic. The dialect was too pronounced, and they were speaking too fast for Sathya to make sense. 

She felt his hand on her shoulder. He levelled his face over hers, the pillowcase serving as the only barrier. Maybe this was it. They were about to torture her.

 “There has been a misunderstanding. These bastards shouldn’t have taken you. We are going to take you back. Don’t worry, no harm will come of it,” he said. 

The men silently cursed and lifted her up and back into the van. The entire journey had them contemplating on where they should dump her. The word dump making her shudder. The van came to a jarring halt. The two men lifted her out and set her down. 

 “Take off the rope on her legs, idiot,” the driver yelled. Sathya stood rooted to the ground, mostly because her heels had sunk into the mire. She waited until the air was still. Removing the pillowcase from her head wasn’t of much use. The place was dark as an abyss. Giving up the attempt to take off the handcuffs, she concentrated on taking off the wretched shoes. There was a house in the distance. This is probably what people mean when they say ‘God knows where’. The middle-aged woman of the house stood petrified. Screaming out the names of her entire brethren to point out the spectacle in front of her eyes; the short girl in a short skirt and handcuffed hands. 

 The household was still gaping when she conversed in their language. They could tell she was of the other kind. The woman empathetic enough let her use their land phone, diligently inputting the number she provided and helped her to a glass of water. 

 Appa answered the phone on the first ring. He howled hauntingly. 

 Sathya had to wait over an hour. During the elapsed time, the village had gathered. She repeated her story as a new one took the other’s place. Them marvelling at her broken vocabulary. She wondered how they seemed rather comfortable in her presence, still in handcuffs with no check for any concealed weapons. If this happened in the city, the prompt response would have been running inside, locking all doors and calling every single police unit in the country. Sathya thanked her outfit. 

  Appa arrived with the police, along with her uncles and cousins. She expected no less. Sathya was the recipient of a gracious hug from Appa, counting it as her eleventh.  

   Back in the safety of their mansion, Appa was still an inconsolable mess. He later revealed that a faction of the terrorist organization had repeatedly asked him for funding. Appa wasn’t politically motivated. Keeping a low profile, he politely declined. The ploy for funding was the kidnapping. He elaborated, the group were goons and acted on their own to gain favour with one of their leaders. As soon as Appa was alerted about the kidnapping, he pleaded with a few prominent figures in government. They located Sathya, the goons, the boss, and came to an amicable settlement. 

   They had gone almost ten kilometres when Vishan ventured, “Ah, that’s why you were sent to America!” Sathya was ordered not to return. No one expected the end of the war.  Sathya returned with an Arts degree and a drug habit.


   Sathya and Vishan covered the West Coast in silence. Vishan on his eighteenth cigarette. The window on his side was down and flecks of ash settled into her curly hair. He casually directed her with hand gesturing, though the gestures became infrequent. The road was long and dusty, with occasional stops for buffalo crossings. They had become too comfortable. 

“Vishan! Is that a checkpoint?” 

He crouched low for a better look, a military checkpoint. Sathya checked the dashboard, she was driving at 100km/h when the speed limit was 60km/h. 

Vishan let out a low whistle and relaxed, his eyes on the side mirror watching the checkpoint disappear behind a cloud of dust. Of course, they wouldn’t dare stop a Mercedes. She thanked Appa’s car. 

Appa would have called every high-profile lawyer in town. Her mother would have contemplated the questions of the nosy neighbours and composed her answers. Her sisters probably updated their social media handles in a desperate bid with #missing to elicit the sympathy of their followers. 

They know. Sathya Ramalingam is a dealer. 


   The country was a different place when Sathya returned. Everyone seemed to have a false sense of freedom and an empty volume of happiness. Piety had set in amongst the returnees to prepare for marriage into the next wealth index and spawn a generation ready to be inculcated into life on a complex island.

 Sathya’s relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend was based on drugs and sex. If that was love, she embraced it. Her mother tried palming Sathya off to a wealthy heir of a garment manufacturing business. As each day blurred into the next, her drug experimentation gained momentum. One night her boyfriend picked up a man called Vishan from Hulftsdorp. Smoking up they made their way to Club Voodoo, an establishment Sathya on any other day would avoid. Vishan remained quiet throughout the journey. As soon as they entered the place, Vishan pointed her towards the bar. Before she could clarify, they disappeared into the haze, leaving her behind in a dimly lit, smoke-filled environment. Fifteen minutes had elapsed before they reappeared with happier moods and flowing wallets. Vishan and Sathya had nothing in common. Vishan had a strange candour that she soon appreciated. Vishan’s father a drug lord in a neighbourhood bordering the prison, Kalu Pol as he was affectionately called was a charming man, always ready to spare a dangerous story. It drew Sathya into their world. Where in hers there were closed doors, hushed voices and outward impeccable records; the ghetto was open about their illegitimate children, affairs and misdemeanors. Even the advice was wholesome – Never Do Drugs!

   Vishan occasionally had a joint or two. His vice- gin and tonic and two packs a day. Having studied in a prominent city school, he pursued higher studies in India. Vishan’s foray into drug dealing was purely accidental. His father’s friend roped him into delivering a package. Caught with 1kg of marijuana, a crime so insignificant yet he served the same sentence as a hardened criminal. Even after all these years, you could tell the bitterness still churned in his mouth. 


  The journey to the north was uneventful. They didn’t risk it by stopping to eat. Besides, there was no desire to. They stopped to top up the tank, and empty their bladders. More Vishan’s than hers. 

 “Ok, stop!” Vishan commanded. This time the silence was different, unsettling. Vishan seemed at war with his thoughts. Sathya watched him intently, his sharp jawline set, his brows furrowed. His curly locks framing his face. 

 “Are you going to kill me?” she asked, penetrating her brown irises with his black murky ones. 

 “Dumbass! Aiyo, I want to ask you. Is this what you want?”

 “What choice do I have?” 

  Sathya had never heard him laugh. He had a laugh deep in the soul that bubbled forth to the surface with childlike innocence. 


 “This is funny, no?”

 Sathya didn’t see the humour. 

 “Give me the keys,” he said.

 She tossed it over to him. “I’m sorry, Appa,” praying the words would linger in the air long enough until the police returned the car back to him. 

  Sathya slung her handbag over her shoulder and walked to the edge of the makeshift dock. The evening faded. She watched the southern coast of India turn on their lights. The dock was enveloped in a brilliant beam. Sathya cleared her eyes in quick succession to rid herself of the circles in her vision. A trawler edged close. Vishan and Sathya waited in silence. The men clambered onto the barely there dock and unloaded the goods.


  First, large amounts of fish. Second, huge chunks of ice blocks.

 Laughing at their crude jokes while hacking at the ice chunks and harvesting an assortment of drugs and Turmeric. Sathya was fascinated, having never seen it happen before. 

 Vishan threw Sathya a packet. She sneaked a look at the dull yellow powder. 

 “Splendid stuff. Worth a lot,” Vishan said jovially.

  Sathya hurled the packet at him. She remembered the day its quality impressed her mother and aunts, and the rich golden hue it cast on the curries. The men had finished unloading. Nodding in her direction. Sathya gingerly placed her right leg onto the unsteady trawler. As her leg left the ground that bore her, she chose never to return.

Shyala Smith hails from Sri Lanka. Transitioning from her 17-year career in advertising, she is now pursuing screenwriting in London. She also works for an orchestra producing content for digital platforms. Shyala writes young adult, picture books, and adult novels. Her debut picture book, published by Tate Publishing, UK, will be out in 2023.

Excerpt | from ‘Story of the Sikhs’ by Sarbpreet Singh (Penguin, 2021) | Issue 42, March 2023

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India
Chapter 12 ‘Immutable’ (Partial)

There is great joy in Amritsar today. Women of modest means but rich in happiness walk the streets bearing baskets laden with flowers. Men and women, dressed in their best clothes, are buying flowers by the basketful. Some women twist flowers into garlands. Others pluck the petals to create colourful, fragrant mounds. The men decorate their shops, and the bazaars resound with the joyous sound of laughter. Men, women and children frolic in the streets, running hither and thither in excitement. People from the surrounding villages are flocking to the town.

The Har Mandar Sahib is teeming with the faithful, lost in the melodious sounds of hymns being sung. Is a King approaching? No! The master of the three worlds himself is nigh. Is it a tyrant? Who builds prisons and uses force to oppress the people? Far from it. It is the Emancipator. The one who shatters the gates of prisons. The one who believes in the reign of love. The one who provides relief and sanctuary to the poor, the orphaned, and the weak. Not a king who rules by fear, but one that is lovingly seated on the throne of every heart. They revere him, not because they fear his power or because they seek to benefit, but because the vastness of his heart makes their hearts swell as well. Yes, he bears swords, but these are not to be feared, for they are instruments of liberation from tyranny.

Today, the fount of love, who provided shelter from the chilling rain of oppression, is returning to Amritsar. As he nears the city and beholds the golden glow of happiness that suffuses it, he dismounts and continues on foot. He sees the throng of the faithful approaching. On one side Baba Buddha, Bhai Jetha, and the other Sikhs shine like stars in the firmament as they sing hymns of joy. On the other, Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Saindas, and other Sikhs, heads bowed in humility, eyes shining with love, approach to the sound of hymns, their hearts affixed on their master. The joy of reunion is indescribable.

The cavalcade proceeds directly to the Har Mandar Sahib. A beautiful service concludes with the Ardas or the communal prayer, and then the Guru ventures out into the town. The streets are packed. Women fill all the balconies along the streets that the Guru walks. A rain of fragrant petals falls everywhere. The Guru walks through the joyous crowds, drenched in love like a regal swan. Finally, he reaches his home where his mother, Mata Ganga, awaits. Mata Ganga who has patiently and serenely waited for her son and her Guru to return for years. The Guru respectfully bows to his mother who clutches him to her chest and then tries to salute him by bowing. The Guru smiles and stops her. Who can understand the ways of these exalted beings?

The conversations continue into the night, until it is time to return to the Har Mandar Sahib. After so many years, the Guru is present again as the melodious strains of the Asa Di Var fill the serene surroundings of the Har Mandar Sahib.

This is my translation of Bhai Vir Singh’s imagining of the Guru’s return to Amritsar.

A Sikh trader from Kabul, Bhagmal, had heard that Guru Hargobind was fond of fine horses. He searched from Kabul to Bukhara until he found a steed worthy of his master and purchased it at great expense. He bought several more horses, intending to sell them, and hid the Guru’s horse, covered with tattered rags, in his herd, as he made his way towards Amritsar. He was of course fearful that such a fine animal would attract the attention of Mughal officers, who might try to appropriate it for their own use, or as a gift to curry favour with the Emperor Jahangir or his sons.

When he reached Lahore, the provincial capital of the Punjab, much to his chagrin the horse caught the eye of the Mughal Governor, who decided to acquire it for the Prince Shahabuddin. When Bhagmal protested that the horse was not for sale, the governor simply confiscated it! Bhagmal hastened to Amritsar and angrily told Guru Hargobind the sorry tale, who quite unperturbed, advised him to be patient.

There was much consternation in the royal stables. The prince’s new horse refused to eat! He developed quite an attitude and would stand on three legs, as though the fourth were injured, angrily whinnying if anyone tried to approach. The prince’s mentor, the Qazi Rustam, was summoned and the horse was handed over to him, in the hope that he might be able to calm the animal down, perhaps by reciting a few sacred verses! 

Of course, nothing the Qazi tried had an impact on the horse’s temperament. Aware of the fact that the horse had been intended for Guru Hargobind, he decided to sell the horse to the Guru. Once the horse was in the Guru’s stables, his health and temperament were restored, and his strength and beauty attracted attention far and wide. The Qazi was annoyed and felt that he had somehow been cheated, having parted with the magnificent horse for a pittance!

Rustam had a young daughter named Kaulan, who was extremely devout. She was a follower of the Sufi saint Miyan Mir, who had been a dear friend and beloved follower of Guru Arjan’s. Kaulan would spend hours at Miyan Mir’s compound, listening to discourses and recitations of Guru Arjan’s hymns, which she would memorize and continue to recite when she got home. Her father, of course, was incensed! ‘How dare you! You are Muslim and the daughter of a Qazi! It is an offence to recite the writings of the infidels!’ Kaulan would calmly ignore his rantings and continue with her devotions, angering her father even more.

Once Rustam realized that his daughter was intent of defying him, he grew irrationally angry and sought the counsel of his fellow Qazis. It was determined that Kaulan was an apostate and the only appropriate punishment was execution. A fatwa or decree was issued to that effect.

Kaulan’s mother, terrified at the prospect of her daughter’s execution, rushed her to Miyan Mir. The old sage was much saddened but could find no way out of the dilemma. But then a solution presented itself. He summoned one of his attendants, Abdullah Shah, and gave him these instructions: ‘The girl is in danger and I cannot protect her. Since a fatwa has been issued, the Qazis can have her seized at any moment. Make haste and take her to Amritsar. The Guru always provides shelter to the needy. Besides, nobody can dare to forcibly bring her back if she is under his protection.’

Guru Hargobind received Abdullah Shah and Kaulan with great courtesy out of respect for Miyan Mir, and when he heard the whole sorry tale, offered her shelter without hesitation. Kaulan was given clothes and provisions from the Langar, and a room was prepared for her. Pleased with her humble demeanour and devoutness, he said, ‘There is no reason for you to be fearful anymore. Even if the Emperor himself came here, he would be unable to take you away by force.  This is your home now and nobody will ever harass you or interfere with your devotions again.’

Thus Qazi Rustam’s daughter Kaulan came to live in Amritsar.

In the Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Giani Gian Singh offers this account of Kaulan after her arrival in Amritsar.

Kaulan started her new life with great joy, spending her time in prayer and service, getting even more intensely attached to the Guru. While her connection with the Guru was intensely spiritual, she was completely in the thrall of her master and slowly her feelings began to change. One day, she visited the Guru’s private quarters and had a wonderful time playing with one of his young sons. As she was playing with the lad, she found herself thinking, ‘What if my relationship with the Guru were different? What if I bore him a son?’

After returning to her room, Kaulan fell into a daze. She stopped eating and drinking and affixed her mind on the Guru. Just as the Hindu God Ram visited the aboriginal woman, drenched in his love, and Lord Krishna visited Draupadi, who was intensely enamoured of him, Guru Hargobind visited the home of his devotee, and was surprised to find her senseless.

When Kaulan was revived, she bowed to the Guru and sat at his feet, obviously distraught and miserable. ‘What is the matter Kaulan? Why are you in this state? Did someone insult you or try to molest you? Have you been robbed? Or perhaps you are unwell?  Tell me! Truthfully!’

Sarbpreet Singh is a writer, podcaster and commentator. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Night of the Restless Spirits and the bestselling The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, and the writer-narrator of the Story of The Sikhs podcast which has listeners in over ninety countries.

Short Fiction | ‘Wretched’ by Anuja Chandramouli | Issue 42, March 2023


         She felt miserable. It was how she felt on the best of days, so it would be accurate to say that she felt more wretchedly miserable than was usual even for her. It wasn’t only the strands of silver that grew atop her head in an increasingly dense thatch, the burgeoning waistline from all the comfort eating she was prone too, her non – existent life or career prospects at the ripe old age of thirty-something or even the fact that she lived with her evil grandmother in a shoebox on a desolate stretch of a shitty little town which might as well have been nowhere. 

         The achy sinuses, scratchy throat, leaky nose, throbbing temples, rising temperature and sneezing fits that plagued her as she sat hunched miserably over her laptop on a wet and foul night struggling to find the words that were hopelessly lost to her for the manuscript, she had been working on for what felt like a century and a half might have been the obvious cause for the heightened sense of angst, but there was more. It was the encroaching sense of hopelessness that had crept up on her and she no longer had her grandiose, extremely improbable dreams to fend them off.

         Ordinarily, she tried not to encourage her tendency to feel sorry for herself, but since she was suffering from a wicked bout of the flu (could it be some mutant strain of the dreaded Covid – 19 virus that was likely to wipe out all of humanity in a single fell blow?) she had given herself permission to wallow in a bottomless abyss of misery and self-pity. So, she ate everything in sight (not even the bubonic plague could curb her appetite it seemed), swallowed down the self – prescribed antibiotic and paracetamol with cough syrup while pondering morosely about lost dreams, unfinished manuscripts and a wasted life that might as well have been flushed down the toilet from the get-go. 

         Such dreams they had been… before they had been relegated unceremoniously to the trash heap of her existence. Big, beautiful dreams that featured her living a glorious life and loving every single moment of it. In the realms of fantasy, she was a fabulously wealthy, award winning, bestselling author who never ran out of words or ideas, living in an opulent beach house exactly like the one Tony Stark had in Iron Man. 

         There were lovers aplenty in La La Land, of the sporty as well as arty variety. Some of them had even been resurrected from the dead or brought to life from fiction to fuel her sex – soaked fantasies. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Richard Burton, Oscar Wilde, Raja Raja Chozhan, Prithviraj Chauhan, Kobe Bryant, Rhett Butler, Aragorn, Legolas, Sherlock Holmes… How she had loved in those dreams! And been loved back! It was all very intimate, memorable and simply marvellous. Sometimes, it was nasty. Entirely devoid of anything but pornographic value. A fornication-fest of orgiastic bliss with her afloat on a sea of seminal fluids. Which was even better.  

         She was effortlessly skinny in her dreams and always impeccably groomed. She travelled the length and breadth of the world on carefully curated book tours where her admirers hung on every word she uttered, begged for her autograph and clicked selfies with her. Publishing houses fought over the rights to her books and the chance to enrich her even further. Ivy League colleges begged her to address their students, tempting her with indecently fat cheques. Studio executives began a bidding war to buy the movie rights to her books and begged her to star in them. 

         Of course, she acceded. But only after they had agreed to pay her an arm and a leg. Soon she was accepting the Academy award and delivering a witty speech togged out in haute-couture duds specially designed for her by some hotshot couturier accessorized with some classy Cartier diamonds and those high – heeled shoes made by sadistic men who believed walking should be a painful experience and running, next to impossible. 

         It wasn’t always about books, money, fame, art or sex. Sometimes, she was a criminal psychologist/profiler who put serial killers behind bars. Or an explorer and intrepid traveller like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, journeying to the remote reaches of the cosmos and seeing all the marvels there were to see!

         In those mesmerizing dreams, where she could be anything and everything, she sang, danced, acted her heart out, and made love with wildly fascinating people. Sometimes the fabulous folks who wandered into her dreams became her closest friends who held her in their arms and listened to whatever shit popped into her head and spilled out of her mouth. They had the best conversations about everything and nothing over steaming cups of milky coffee and cake. She went wherever her whims led her and was delirious with joy. For in her dreams, she was never afraid. And always happier than she could bear.

         If only she could have really lived in her dreams! But it was hard to carry on dreaming. Especially when reality with its unvarnished ugliness forced its way into her system like an unwelcome virus and refused to get lost. Thanks, or no thanks to the heart-breaking beauty of her dreams, her singularly dismal existence had become even more so and there was no escaping it. Slowly but inexorably, she sank into a quagmire of depression and despair.  

         Past hurts and losses resurfaced to keep her company in her sorrow, and she kept the painful memories close. She had lost both her parents while still a child. Wicked grandmother had kindly taken her in. Only to hold her captive forever more in the aforementioned shoebox, where the old bat had resided ever since her own husband had kicked the bucket, a long time ago. The harridan had never forgiven her only son for marrying against her wishes, compounding his error by dying young and foisting the fruit of his loins on her. Grandmother had hated her daughter – in – law, whom she considered ill – omened. Since she was an uglier version of her mom, grandmother dearest hated her too. 

         She continued her studies in a cloistered all – girls school chosen and grudgingly paid for by the matriarch. Later, grumbling incessantly, grandmother shelled out for a seat in an all – girls college, the only one in their god-awful town. She used to dream of running away to greener pastures with a handsome stranger but no handsome strangers crossed her path. Or even sleazy slime balls, would – be rapists or others of that ilk. 

         The belligerent bitch was fully committed to preserving her virtue, so there were no men in her life. Unless you counted the crusty old chauffeur who was loyal to the old fart and her ancient manservant, who hoicked up his lungi to expose his colourful underwear and spent the days pretending to sweep and swab the shoebox when in reality he did little more than sneakily smoke his beedis, hawk up phlegm and spit it out in a grotesque projectile onto their veggie patch. 

         Her life would have been even more pathetic if it hadn’t been for her late father’s collection of books, carefully preserved by his grouch of a mum. The nag encouraged her to read to her heart’s content and even ensured that there was a steady supply of snacks for her to munch on as she swam across entire oceans of words. Only belatedly did she realize that the harpy had figured that chubby girls with their noses buried in books were less likely to elope with the first member of the opposite sex who was ready, willing and able. Too bad she wasn’t a lesbian. It would have given the old crone the cardiac arrest she so richly deserved!

         There had been a few marriage proposals. But the tyrant had rejected them all. Even the somewhat decent looking neurosurgeon who lived in Switzerland. Thereby, depriving her of a lifetime spent stuffing her face with gourmet chocolate and getting hopped up on sugar and fondue while gambolling in snow – clad mountain slopes. She had never forgiven her for it. 

         How dare the old crow reject a neurosurgeon from Switzerland? Everyone said it was because her evil grandmother had gotten used to bossing her around and needed her granddaughter around to nurse her through the advanced stages of old age, decrepitude, and the rest of it, till death did them part. She had a bad feeling that the ancient one would outlive them all. Even if the apocalypse struck and took everything including the cockroaches, the ornery Ogress would live on forever, parasitically feeding on anyone and everything in her immediate vicinity. 

         Admittedly the good doctor had been the only good prospect. The rest were mostly losers with blood – shot eyes, balding heads and bulging paunches. She felt only mildly bad for appraising them on the strength of their physical attributes given her own shortcomings in that department. 

         Soon the offers dried up when word got out the martinet had handed over all her land and jewellery to her evill-er daughter and shameless son – in -law who never visited except for that one time when they arrived with stale murukkus and a lawyer in tow bearing truckloads of deeds and documents for the old fool to sign. She could do nothing about it except fight the temptation to burn the shoebox with the lot of them in it and run away to the Himalayas and live among those naked yogis in the bracing cold. 

         The dastardly dame did not think it was a good idea for her to accept the teaching job offered to her from her stupid school. Whatever would people say if she actually worked for a living like some grubby peasant? So, she had tried to make it as a writer and failed spectacularly. Not that she had expected anything else. It was only in her dreams that she had ever managed to succeed. Life had always been a less than stirring litany of abject failure. Some of her stories and articles were published in modest to respectable publications for embarrassingly measly sums and sometimes just for ‘the honour of being published’ but there was no steady work for her. 

         She would have probably made more as a hooker in the red-light districts. But she looked even more hideous with her clothes off and doubted her sojourn as a whore would be any more successful than her writing career. Although it was worth considering, if only to piss off her old fashioned, ridiculously moralistic grandmother who nevertheless took the time to leer at her manservant and insist he massage her neck and feet, every single day, moaning and groaning like a porn star as he ran his grubby paws over her. 

         Eventually, she did land a soul – sapping gig with an entertainment website. Now her job was to stalk celebs on social media and write gossipy/click bait crap about them for a pittance. It was the best she could do, so she looked at pics of the glitterati living it up in exotic locales, wrote about their affairs, boob jobs, drug habits, adorable kids, diet secrets, fitness regimes, current projects and wished all the while that she were dead. Death by envy, frustration and bitterness. A suitably wretched ending to an existence, shorn of all things worth having. Or maybe a rape and robbery gone wrong, ending in her murder would be a better way to go. 

         In a bid to distract herself from thoughts of dying, she had taken a stab at writing the great Indian novel. The ideas were there but for the life of her she couldn’t find the fracking words to express them with anything close to literary merit. She recalled that the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and Danielle Steel wrote compulsively for a few hours every day and she was determined to follow in their footsteps even if it killed her. 

         She made the time to write when she was not taking care of the old curmudgeon who had rescued her from the frying pan only to toss her into the fire or trawling through social media to see what the celebs were up to, sometimes staying up all night to pound away at her laptop, praying it would churn out gold. Or silver. Or something. Or anything at all but the endless nothings. 

         There were glorious days when she managed as many as twenty pages of pure, unadulterated brilliance. But when she re – read the damn thing, it was always the same. It was bilge. Garbage. Utter drivel. Sewage. It was true. The entire thing was worthless. So there was nothing to do but to delete everything. And start over. Over and over. Till she got it right. If she got it right. Ever. Then she would agonize over why she had nothing to show for all that effort. So much wasted effort. It was her fate. A slow death by the endless expenditure of exhausting, unrewarding effort. 

         She didn’t think she was properly suicidal. It was true that on some days, she did go to sleep thinking it would be a blessing if she didn’t wake up in the morning. But the funny thing was, she thought a lot about dying without ever getting off her fat butt to do anything about it. Not surprisingly, like everything else in her life, her suicidal tendencies had the dubious distinction of being half – arsed. She probably ought to see a shrink, but nobody believed in shrinks in her neck of the woods including herself. Crazy grandma who could have probably used a shrink herself believed there was nothing a visit to the temple and a dose of castor oil couldn’t fix. Even bad genes inherited from an ill – omened daughter – in – law. So, they visited one too many temples and she tried to shit away her overall dissatisfaction. 

         It was all very hopeless. But she continued to muck her way through a life she didn’t want. Sans the dreams that had made it worth a damn. She forced herself to crawl out of bed every day, remembering the brilliant pages she had written the previous night and so heedlessly deleted promising herself that she would never again delete a single word she wrote, even if it was utterly worthless, knowing that she would not, could not keep her word to herself. 

         Then she would shrug aside the self – loathing with difficulty and get cracking with her dull routine which included making coffee and breakfast, lunch, dinner for the old lady and herself in addition to dusting, sweeping and swabbing. Her evilness had always been parsimonious and did not believe in hiring maids or cooks, especially since her granddaughter could be counted on to take care of cleaning and maintenance with a little help from her manservant who had the unique gift for making a place dirtier as he pretended to clean it. Before the crone fell in the loo and dislocated her shoulder and smashed her hip bone, she had lorded it over in the kitchen and produced many a delicious if fattening meal but now that her withered body was on the verge of quitting, urged otherwise by a will of steel, it fell to her to take care of meals as well. 

         So, she cooked, cleaned, wrote her abominable articles on the glam brigade, worked on her book, deleted her efforts almost as soon as they were laboriously expended and saw the rest of her life play out in this unchanging spool of utter meaninglessness. And it would have gone down that way too, if she had not been hunched over her laptop on that bitter night, groping for the words she would eventually erase with the brutal click of a button. She wished the damn flu would ease up. So, she could slip into the always troubled slumber from which she hoped never to wake up. 

         It was while rubbing her eyes in weary frustration that she espied the real witch, complete with the warty, hooked nose, unkempt hair, cracked fingernails, and shapeless garments, helping herself to some food from the fridge. The foul fiend had even got her claws on the chocolate caramel brownies she had intended to devour later, to feel better about the state of her writing. 

         She did not have the energy to scream in horror like those big – breasted women with disproportionately tiny waists in scary films, as she watched the wicked witch chow down. Her head was throbbing from the depredations of a hostile viral takeover and was not up to dealing with the ramifications, if delusions and hallucinations were the latest symptoms of the life – threatening illness she was most certainly dealing with. 

         So, she sneezed into a tissue, examined the contents with mounting irritation and hardened her resolve to do absolutely nothing to save herself even if it meant being dragged down to the fires of hell and getting sodomized with a pitchfork. The part of her that wanted to somehow survive hoped that whatever it was would fade away into the shadow realm even as she turned back to her unforgiving screen and searched blindly in the hollow pit of nothingness for the words that would not come. 

         The witch cackled. It was such a cliché, but she jumped, hoping that the creature would settle for her grandmother’s soul, sucking it out of her desiccated husk of a body, after it had been drained of the blood and fluids that were surely past the expiry date and leave her alone. Perhaps she should try her hand at horror.

Perhaps you should. The witch said. And cackled again. 

Why are you here? I doubt you are here to grant three wishes… she whined, not bothering to ask how the witch knew what she had been thinking. What if she was granted three wishes? She would ask for success, fame, and romance, she decided. If those choices weren’t safe as shit, she didn’t know what was.

         Mercifully, the witch did not cackle for the damn creature was engaged in licking her claws (talons?) clean. I am not a lumbering genie in a lamp, in case you are confused, the abomination sneered. But I can give you everything that pathetic little heart of yours ever wanted in return for something that you would gladly part with. 


 Almost everything. The witch smirked. At the end of our little transaction, you will have a completed manuscript which will be a bestseller and later, your precious script will be made into a movie, the culmination of a record – breaking deal if you play your cards right. Hell, you will even recover from the ailments that plague your mind and body, spared from the infernal angst and melodramatic agony that has been your lot in life. In return, all I ask is that you give me the only thing of any worth you have. Your worthless old grandmother who already has one foot in the grave. 

         She was surprised when she hesitated. It sounded too good to be true and therefore, it was almost certainly too good to be true. Wasn’t it? But what did she have to lose? And the witch was right. Her grandmother was at death’s door even though she insisted on clinging to life with her gnarly old hands. Still, she paused.

I haven’t got all night! What will it be? Your dreams in exchange for your grandmother who is already as good as dead or not? The witch began to fade like an amateurish CGI job.

Wait! She said quickly. I will find the words to finish my novel, won’t I? My book will go on to be a massive bestseller and a gargantuan blockbuster? (She wondered if she should insist that her book win critical acclaim as well and a slew of prestigious as frick awards) You can guarantee that? 

         She was glad that the dreams were back. Though it sucked that she had the worst of colds even in that state of sublime fantasy which had formerly been sacrosanct, free from interlopers who wanted to damn her forever. 

Of course! The witch rolled her grotesque eyes. I give you a personal guarantee though you will do well to remember that nobody can predict the future. Not even the countless Gods out there. But with my help, you, who have always had nothing, will finally have everything you have ever wanted. If you are willing to get off that well – fed backside of yours and do the needful that is.  

         She recoiled. Was this monstrosity expecting her to snuff the life out of old flatulence with a pillow or something? Or maybe poison her? Or stick a knife in her heart? Was she supposed to get her hands dirty?

         The demon spawn laughed out loud. You don’t have to do anything of the sort. The creature looked at her appraisingly. All you have to do is agree to trade her life which is almost at an end in exchange for the fulfilment of your desires. Just say the word and we will have a deal.

           She did not hesitate this time. I will do it. You can have HER. She flinched inwardly. Deals made under duress when you were experiencing what was clearly a fever dream did not count did they?

         Wise decision! The witch cackled one last time. And it does count

         The dispenser of desires disappeared in a puff of green smoke. Of all the fricking clichés, this one was the worst!

         She wrote thirty pages that night. And it was good. Even better, she did not feel the irresistible urge to delete them all before she fell asleep. Because it was genuinely good. For the first time in forever, she fell asleep with the merest hint of a smile on her lips.

         When she came to, it was not in her own bed, but the one in the guest bedroom downstairs. Grandmother’s family doctor was long gone but his handsome son ministered to her needs now and he was talking to the old she – devil who was looking better than ever and leering lasciviously at Doc Handsome, who was assuring her that her granddaughter would live now that she had been fed intravenously and the fever had broken. She felt the needle in her vein and resisted the urge to pull it out and stick it in her eye. 

         Of course, it had been a fever dream! Too bad the crushing disappointment on seeing the old hag, hale and hearty would not kill her. Handsome was telling the bitch that if she came for weekly check – ups as per usual, there was no reason she wouldn’t live forever now that her hip and shoulder had mended perfectly. She did not doubt him and sighed aloud. 

         Doctor Handsome heard her. You gave us all a scare, he scolded her gently. The kindness in his eyes made her want to bawl. He was always nice and made her feel like a real person and not the sack of shit she always saw in the mirror. At that moment, she loved him with all her heart, and would have gladly become his whore, if he wished to cheat on his wife. You really shouldn’t self-medicate, he told her mock – severely. He handed her a bar of white Toblerone. And winked at her. 

         She was touched he remembered her mentioning that it was her favourite. Most folks would have nodded and glanced meaningfully at her corpulent form but not Handsome. He told her he had a weakness for the stuff too and despite Doc’s orders he continued to indulge his taste for it. She tried to croak her thanks, but he merely shook her hand, smiled his kind smile and was gone, with her stupid ass grandmother in tow. 

         To her surprise, she made a speedy recovery. To her relief (and only mild disappointment), grandmother dearest was in fine fettle too, spinning like a dervish, cooking and baking up a storm. She had more time to write and to her surprise, the words did not elude her. Thirty pages became three hundred and eighty pages, as she worked with a joyful abandon that was the best of boons. She was so busy writing; she forgot to hate herself and fill the aching emptiness inside with all the food she could eat. 

         The months rolled by in a haze of profound euphoria as the floodwaters of her creativity spilled forth in a merry rush. And she wrote and wrote and wrote. Who needed fricking witches and their contracts that demanded signatures of blood? Not her, that was for sure. All she had needed was confidence. When she finally, typed the last word of her manuscript she thought her heart would explode with happiness. In fact, she was so glad it was almost possible to ignore the unease that was lurking just by the periphery of conscious thought and bounded rationality. Besides, her wonderful grandmother was looking positively robust.

         As for herself, she looked great and felt great. For once, stalking celebs paid off and she got the name of Priyanka Chopra’s literary agent. She emailed the guy, following the submission guidelines down to the very last letter. Ordinarily, she would have died off anxiety, but she was now an inhabitant of the top of the world and she knew no fear. Of course, he replied and said that it was WUNDERBAR. He was confident they would get a decent advance. And she did. More than fairly decent. Her happiness was now complete. It was even more complete when the big studios expressed more than a passing interest in her manuscript and began a bidding war for the rights. 

         There was more. The old dear had been working on finding a match for her with a vengeance and soon her efforts paid off and she was engaged to a software dude, (what exactly did those chaps do anyway?) based in Singapore. He was bald (in the manner of Jason Statham) and charming as frick. Not only did he buy her one of those ridiculously expensive Android phones, but he also patiently taught her how to use it. If that were not enough, he sent her flowers, chocolates, perfumes, soft toys, Anokhi Kurtas (anarkalis, which flattered her form) and sparkly thingies in classy, gift – wrapped boxes. He flew down every once in a while, to take her out to lunch and make out with her in his car (A silver Audi, he had rented). 

         He was proud as frack that he was marrying an author and was almost as excited as she was since the book was scheduled for a summer release, just after their honeymoon (they were going to Europe for three glorious weeks!) It was all too magical for words. Her beloved grandmother famed for her parsimony, showed her the trousseau she had put together for her wedding. It was a Queen’s ransom. There were silk saris, silverware enough to fill a truck and so many diamonds, it was indecent. This was in addition to the prime property the wonderful soul had bequeathed to her and an apartment in the city which was being rented out at present. She was officially rich now!

         It was all too perfect for words. So perfect, it was easy to brush aside the stray tendrils of encroaching dread. What happened in fever dreams did not count, she assured herself. And witches were merely a figment torn loose from nightmares. The way fairy godmothers did not exist outside of fairy tales. She devoured a second helping of roast chicken placed before her by the old sweetheart, who smiled encouragingly and said that a healthy appetite produced healthy babies. 

         She swallowed and said nothing. They went for grandmother’s hospital visit together. It was reassuring to note that the grand dame did not need the assistance of a cane. Dressed in one of her finest silks and dripping with diamonds, she might well have been visiting the Queen rather than her doctor. 

         Handsome was waiting at the entrance, waving cheerily at them. He didn’t have to, of course, but it was just like him. They were inside when grandmother pulled her aside. I am getting forgetful dear, will you run down to the car and bring back that gift box of assorted nuts and treats? It is the very least I can do for this nice boy who has restored me to full health. A good boy! Just like his father before him.

         She didn’t have to be told twice. There was a skip in her step as she made her way down the winding path to the parking lot. It was best to hurry, if she wished to make it to the car before the chauffeur took off on one of his ridiculously lengthy tea breaks.  

         She felt the explosion before she heard it. When she turned back, the hospital was still standing but it had lost entire chunks of itself.  She took in the gaping holes, billowing smoke, flying bits of concrete, sudden sparks, ear – splitting shrieks and the distant wail of a clanging alarm, praying that it was a nightmare which would dissipate the second she woke up.

         In a daze, she ran towards the scorching inferno. Her grandmother was afraid of dying alone. She needed to be there for her. It was the very least she could do. A Good Samaritan, tried to hold her back with a surprisingly fierce grip for such an ancient crone, her cracked, soot – stained fingernails digging painfully into her flesh. Prising herself free and shoving the do-gooder aside with violence borne of her terror and guilt, she was running full – tilt towards the remains of the hospital when the second blast tore through the barely standing hospital, obliterating it and all in the immediate vicinity entirely. 

         The witch did not cackle. It was such a pity after all. But these things happen, the termagant mused to herself as she cast one last withering look at the scene of utter ruin and devastation, before simply vanishing from the scene. 

Anuja Chandramouli is a bestselling author and new age Indian classicist widely regarded as one of the finest writers in mythology, historical fiction and fantasy. She followed up her highly acclaimed debut novel, Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince, which was named as one of the top 5 sellers in the Indian writing category for the year 2012 by Amazon India with Kamadeva: The God of DesireShakti: The Divine Feminine, Yama’s Lieutenant and its sequel, Yama’s Lieutenant and the Stone Witch.  Her articles, short stories and book reviews appear in various publications like The New Indian Express, The Hindu, and Femina. Some of her other books are Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s SonPrithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of HeartsPadmavati: The Burning Queen, Ganga: The Constant Goddess and Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant. Mohini: The Enchantress is her latest work of mythological fiction and winner of the prestigious Popular Choice AutHer award. Her books are also available as audiobooks and have been translated into Hindi.

An accomplished TEDx speaker and storyteller, Anuja Chandramouli, regularly conducts workshops on creative writing, mythology and empowerment in schools and colleges across the country. Her Mahabharata and Ramayana with Anuja storytelling series is now available on YouTube. She is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. This mother of two little girls lives in Sivakasi, TN, India.

Fiction | ‘Dog Days’ by Vivek Santhosh | Creative Writing Workshop

“I will marry George.”

Paru’s words echoed through the living room as RK grasped the armrests of a wooden chair and sat down with a thump. Bhagyam, his wife, rushed towards him with a rising wail, almost like an approaching ambulance siren.

She wiped his temple with the end of her saree. He winced when the coarse bleached cotton scratched his skin.

“Oh, stop it!” RK said, pushing her aside. “I’m not dying.”

He turned and glared at his daughter.

“But I might as well!” he continued. “Are you listening?”

Paru stood by the sofa across the room, staring at the floor, studying the pattern on the dim mosaic tiles.

“Please don’t say such inauspicious things,” Bhagyam pleaded, her eyes welling up.

RK ignored her. His tailbone was hurting from the hard landing.. Both of them knew that an interfaith marriage would be social suicide in their small town of Vittoor. A bony, wrinkled finger wagged in front of RK’s eyes, that of his long-dead father. “Don’t put the family name to shame, son,” the old man rasped.

Bhagyam thrust a glass of water in RK’s face. He took big noisy gulps, all the while watching Paru, tracing shapes with her big toe. So nonchalant.

Shiva, shiva! Did she just draw a heart sign?

 “Paru, have you thought about us, your parents?” he asked slowly. “What this means for us?”

“This is the twenty-first century,” Paru said, not looking up. “You’ll be just fine.”

But this is Vittoor, RK thought, not the big city, or any city for that matter.

“But more than that,” Paru continued, “we’re in love.”

 “Isn’t there,” RK tried again, “a slight possibility you haven’t thought this through?”

“Jesus, Dad!” She looked up, incredulous. “I’m not a little child.”

Bhagyam gasped at the mention of the Messiah.

“I’ll ask his parents to give you a call,” Paru said, and went upstairs to her room.

Bhagyam collapsed in the chair next to him, sobbing. RK stared at the ceiling blankly. The leaves of the fan turned slowly, circulating the oppressive summer heat within the four walls.

Caesar, their chocolate Labrador, padded into the living room. Grass from the front yard stuck out of his fur like antennae. He studied the devastated couple with his large brown eyes.  Probably sensing something bad had happened, he curled up at RK’s feet and shut his eyes.


A light mist hung over Vittoor park that Saturday. After days of being cooped up at home in shame, RK had ventured out on his morning walk. He avoided the usual east loop. Being closer to the temple, that route had a lot more foot traffic. In pre-George times, RK had used his morning walks to meet neighbors and friends. But word had gotten around rather quickly about Paru’s ‘affair’ with a non-Hindu.

Caesar raised a hind leg and rained on a rose bush. How unabashedly the dog went about his business, RK thought. Who society, what society, he could care less.

“You’re the bad influence in this family,” RK told Caesar. “Paru’s just like you, you know. She couldn’t care less about what others think, least of all her own parents.”

As they passed the peacock fountain, RK spotted a huddle of men on the lawn. Ramanan was dealing cards onto a white cotton cloth laid out on the grass. RK’s heart jumped instantly, and he pulled at Caesar’s leash to make him turn around. Caesar barked, his disagreement carrying through the quietness of the garden.

Ramanan looked up. A wide smirk swept his face.

“Look who it is,” Ramanan said loudly. His friends looked in RK’s direction.

The men hauled themselves up and walked towards him.

RK pulled harder at Caesar’s leash. The dog obeyed this time. He turned around and broke into a light jog the way they had come. Ramanan and his friends followed, half-running, half-walking.

“Treasurer-e!” Ramanan called after RK. “I haven’t forgotten what you called me three years ago.” His belly heaved like a sack of rice. “A traitor to Vittoor, wasn’t it? What does that make you now?”

RK was the sitting treasurer of the temple committee. Ramanan had been Secretary when his son eloped with a Muslim girl and the committee had ousted Ramanan on the grounds that only ‘exemplary devotees’ should be allowed to hold office. RK had been the most vocal one on the issue then, calling for rapid and decisive action on the matter.

RK’s cheeks flushed. His ears burned. Beads of sweat ran down his back.

“Leave me alone, Ramana,” he said, not breaking his jog.

The men launched into a breathy, winded version of a popular Malayalam mass. RK stopped and turned around. He brought Caesar in between him and the men.

“I’ll let go of the leash,” he threatened.

Caesar, meanwhile, eyed another rose bush for potential relief. The men watched warily as the big dog sniffed his way towards them. They didn’t know what was really on the big dog’s mind.

After a few tense moments, they backed off. RK hurried back to the safety of his home. 


“I’ll be in the hall, you take the extension,” Bhagyam said.

“Don’t agree to anything just yet,” RK reminded her.

He pulled up a chair next to the bed stand, and stared at the moss-green instrument. The numbers on the rotary dial had faded; there was a crack on the faceplate as well. So what if you had to guess the numbers, he thought. It did what a phone was supposed to do.

Two years ago when she was in the sixth semester of college, Paru had asked for a cellphone. It’s very useful to coordinate group projects, she had said. RK had reluctantly shelled out five thousand precious rupees from his retirement savings for a Nokia phone. If only he had known what it had really been for.

When the phone finally rang that day, RK picked it up in a half-ring, immediately regretting coming off as overeager.

“Hello? Hello, I’m Radhakrishnan, Paru’s father. My wife, Bhagyam, is on the line too.”

“Hello,” the voice cleared his throat. “Yes, Thomas and Annamma here.”

RK noticed his leg was shaking during the initial exchange of pleasantries. Would they ask for dowry? But this was a love marriage, why would such a question even arise?

“Look at what the kids have done,” Thomas chortled. “George tells us he cannot live without Paru. Imagine if we had told such a thing to our parents,” he laughed.

RK agreed with him on that. He found the whole love business ridiculous. If there was one being RK couldn’t live without, it was Caesar.

“Paru’s our only child, as you know,” RK said. “While we would have liked her to marry a Hindu, she has fallen for your son.” RK covered the mouthpiece and let out a long exhale. “We welcome your son George into our tiny family.”

“Thank you for that, we weren’t thinking it would be something like this either.” Thomas said, before adding, “By the way, Radhakrishnan, we Christians aren’t bad, you know. Your daughter will be the princess of our home.”

And that’s where she will be, RK thought. Gone away from them forever.

“Even when Thomas and George are away in Munnar,” Annamma said. “I’ll be at home. Paru has nothing to worry about.”

“We’re so glad to hear that,” Bhagyam replied.

“Well, then,” Thomas said, “let us not delay anymore. Shall we drive down or would you like to visit our home?”

“We’d be happy to host you at our humble home,” RK said.

It was decided that George and his parents would drive down the following weekend for a formal meeting between the families.


At the temple committee meeting, the president pulled RK aside before the session started.

“I heard about your daughter.” His tone was grave, like an oncologist delivering bad news. “It’s a damn shame.”

“That’s no big deal, Menon Sir.” RK waved his hand in the air, as if dispelling the president’s concerns. “We raised her to be independent, after all.”

“Did her upbringing include disrespecting one’s own culture?” asked the president sternly.

RK averted his gaze from the bulbous eyes staring down at him. While RK had joined the temple committee after he retired from a long career as a bank officer, the president was a career temple administrator. He took the temple, the working, the administration – all of it very seriously. He shook his head in disapproval, just like how RK’s austere father would have reacted to the disgrace he had brought upon the family name and their little community.

“But everyone finds their own these days, Menon Sir,” RK said, trying again but this time with a line borrowed from his wife. The night Paru broke the news to them, Bhagyam had consoled herself saying many of her friends’ kids had married outside norms. But why did she have to find a non-Hindu? RK had said. Why did you have to put her in a Catholic college? Bhagyam shot back. RK was incredulous. Because they provide great education. Not so she could go around with guys!

The president smiled sympathetically and hobbled into the meeting room, leaving RK alone in the hallway as he fought back tears of frustration. For the first time in his life, he craved a sense of anonymity that a big city gave its people. His little town was too claustrophobic – to answer every person he met on the street, to receive their contempt or sympathy, to not be able to tell them to mind their own business. In a city like Mumbai or Delhi, he could have maybe moved houses, even if it was just a couple of bus stops down, and dissolved in an ocean of  millions of people. Lacking the energy to field any more questions or concerns, he skipped the meeting and went home.


“What is this nonsense, Radha?” RK’s elder sister was on the phone from New Delhi. Calling from the national capital in her bossy voice, her calls always felt like the Central Government ordering a state to clean up its mess.

“Paru has made her choice.” RK had repeated this so many times in the last two weeks he said it without thinking. “What can we do?”

“It’s a problem with her upbringing, don’t you think?”

“What? That is not fair! We brought her up just right.”

“You didn’t beat her enough.”

His sister went on about the flaws in Paru’s upbringing, about things that RK and Bhagyam should have done differently; starting from when she had been born. After a couple of minutes, RK set the green earpiece down on the pillow and left the room.


The family from Pala arrived in two gleaming-white vintage Contessas. Thomas, tall and rugged, was clearly the kind of man who spent much of his time outdoors, probably working plantations. He was dressed in a white mundu and golden-yellow silk shirt, with a thick gold chain around his neck. When RK shook hands with him, he noticed the gold watch and two diamond-studded rings on each hand. George stepped out of the driver seat. Tall like his father; he was slim, wore glasses and was clean-shaven. He wore a navy-blue shirt and a white mundu. RK was dwarfed by the two men.

George’s aunts and grandaunts had come along as well. Once they settled down in the living room, Paru stepped out of the kitchen with a tray of tea. She wore a blue-green saree, the same that Bhagyam had worn on the day she first met RK’s parents twenty-eight years ago.

RK noticed Thomas stealing looks out the window into his backyard. After tea and snacks, while the ladies talked in the living room, RK invited Thomas for a walk around the property. 

Thomas surveyed the four coconut palms and ten banana trees. He draped an arm around RK and asked, “Will you be gifting your daughter any gold?”

RK eyed the rings, forever trapped in the fat between Thomas’s knuckles. How much would be enough for such a man? He thought.

“Of course,” RK said.

“How much?”

RK couldn’t conceal his surprise.

“I’m joking,” Thomas grinned.

RK laughed politely. Like every girl’s parents, Bhagyam and RK had saved up money and gold jewelry for Paru over the years. Though asking for dowry was a punishable legal offence in the country, the practice of receiving ‘gifts’ from a girl’s family had never been outlawed.

They walked among the banana trees, trying to keep to the shade as much as possible. It was a hot day. Big sweaty circles grew around Thomas’s underarms.

“We would like to have a church wedding,” he said.

“After the ceremonies at the temple?”

“Yes, yes, afterwards. Paru would have to be baptized though.”

RK’s heart sank. There went the grandchildren too.

“I hope that’s okay with you,” Thomas said. “Of course, it is,” he added without waiting for RK’s reply. “What is this, the eighteenth century?”

Right back at you, RK thought. He managed a smile.

Things moved quite fast. That afternoon, the families decided on a date for the Hindu wedding, giving RK and Bhagyam four months to make arrangements. The church wedding would take place shortly thereafter in George’s hometown of Pala.


It was a rainy night. RK parked his LML Vespa outside the temple, flicked on a torchlight and ran into the administration building. He was fifteen minutes late to the board meeting. He burst into the room, interrupting the president’s speech. All eyes turned to RK. The president shook his head in irritation as RK excused himself and took his usual spot next to the Secretary, wiping water from his face and hands with a handkerchief. He looked around the room; Ramanan was watching him with a self-assured smirk on his face.

RK was incredulous. He nudged the Secretary and pointed in Ramanan’s direction. How did he get back in? The Secretary held up her hand to RK, shushing him, and turned back to the president.

“… and ensure every devotee feels welcome in this humble abode of Lord Shiva,” the president was saying, “so he can share his joys, sorrows, and grief without fear or shame.”

RK’s mind raced to make sense. About a week after the last board meeting, which he had skipped, Bhagyam had handed him a handwritten note from the Secretary announcing a special committee meeting that night. He had chosen to meet with the wedding caterers over the committee. Not once in his seven years as Treasurer had he missed two consecutive meetings.

“Three years ago, we made a hasty decision against an exemplary devotee, whose family has played an integral part in the smooth running of this temple for three generations. I cannot emphasize how fortunate we are to have him back.”

Ramanan rose, beaming at the room. Everyone smiled in appreciation.

“Today, I would like to right that wrong and welcome Ramanan back to the executive committee.” The President shook Ramanan’s hand to a round of cheer and applause. RK felt a lump rising in his throat.

“As you know, our beloved RK has urgent family matters to attend to, a decision the committee fully understands and supports.”

RK raised his hand in protest. “No, no, Menon Sir, I can manage my responsibilities just fine…”

“That’s alright, RK. At this time, you need to concentrate your time and energy on the state of your family. Ramanan will take over as Treasurer immediately.”

RK’s cheeks were crimson.

“We will continue to look for,” the president concluded, “your enthusiasm and dedication in temple activities as a proactive volunteer.”

After the meeting, the President whispered a few words to the Secretary and left immediately. RK went over to her.

“You cannot just decide things in my absence.”

“You cannot just abscond from meetings.”

“Did you vote on this? Or was it one of his,” RK jerked a finger at the president’s chair, “executive decisions?”

“The president suggested and all of us agreed. It was the right thing to do, RK.”

“Just like that,” RK said. “After having worked together for so many years.”

“I’ve to go home and feed my kids,” the secretary said; impatient.

He heard a familiar whistle from behind him. Ramanan hummed the Malayalam mass he had sung in the park, not looking up from the temple’s books; a permanent grin plastered on his face.


“It’s just you and me now, Caesar.”

RK sat in a reclining chair on the front porch and petted the dog, listening to the rain pattering on the roof. The southwest monsoon was in full swing already. The sky would be mostly overcast for the next three months.

A month had passed since Paru’s wedding. The Hindu ceremonies had gone as planned. The only close family member who was missing had been RK’s elder sister, who refused to attend. Most others who attended came to eat and criticize the food afterwards. Paru had left with George to Pala the next day, where she was baptized. They called her Rebecca. RK and Bhagyam traveled to Pala the following day for the church wedding. Walking her down the aisle, RK had been conscious of his ill-fitting suit the entire time. He had never worn one before. He tugged at his pants whenever the minister wasn’t looking. But it didn’t matter; his daughter was the happiest he had seen her since the time he had gifted her the damned cellphone.

A few days later, Bhagyam had left for Munnar for two days with Paru, George, Thomas and Annamma. She had a way of dealing with things as they came, a sort of naïve optimism that kept her going. When he had lost the temple job, Bhagyam had reminded him about the reason he had taken it up six years back – not as a source of sustenance, but to keep his mind occupied in retirement. RK, had excused himself from the Munnar trip saying the monsoon and the high altitude in Munnar would wreak havoc on his sinuses. The truth was he needed some time to himself.

He got up and paced around the house. Caesar followed him, sniffing things at his level, lapping up leftovers or bits of food from the floor. RK dreaded how life would be from now on. He feared boredom the most. He hadn’t realized how busy the temple activities, and lately the wedding preparations, had kept him. These days, he read the paper from end to end – even the sports section of which he had no interest in – took Caesar out for walks, or played fetch with him. Boredom, yes that was what killed most old people, not disease. The second leading cause of death was insignificance.

RK noticed a leak from the ceiling in the corner of the living room. He sighed. Another expense, he thought and made his way up to the terrace one level above. The torrential downpour had given way to a light drizzle. Caesar followed, hesitating at the terrace entrance. He liked to stay as dry as possible. Then, curiosity got the better of him.

RK walked on the wet floor carefully. There was a crack in the cement between the low, two-foot-high parapet and the floor.A mason would have to be called for this. He proceeded to check along the edge for other cracks.

Then he noticed the sliced banana Bhagyam had set out to dry on a newspaper out in the front yard. She had asked him to bring it in before the rain. It was drenched. 

“Oh, no!” he exclaimed to himself, stepping forward. He slipped, tripping on the parapet, and fell.

The wind whistled in his ears for a fraction of a second, ending as soon as it began. He screamed in agony as pain erupted through his body. Caesar barked from the edge, then ran down the stairs and out to his groaning, writhing master lying on the lawn. He pulled at RK’s shirtsleeve in an effort to sit him up. After a few attempts, Caesar sprinted off, leash trailing behind him.


When RK came about, he felt as if his skull had been sawed open. His torso was stiff and heavy, his eyelids heavy from the sedation. Bhagyam sat next to him, her hand on his, her eyes puffy. “Why would you do such a thing?” she said.

“I was… Caesar…”

“Caesar called the neighbors, who brought you here to the hospital.”

RK squeezed his wife’s hand in response. He thanked Caesar in his mind, his true best friend.

“Was the temple job that important?”

At first, he thought he didn’t hear her right.

“Or was it Paru and George?” she continued.

“No, Bhagyam,” RK said. “I didn’t try to… I slipped…”

“Shh, life isn’t so bad. Look,” Bhagyam pointed to the glass window on his left looking out into the thickly populated hallway. He recognized a lot of faces. Paru and George, Thomas and Annamma, even the president, were all waiting outside to see him.

Of all the people, he hadn’t counted the president as one of his well-wishers.

“I genuinely slipped,” RK repeated.

“Did you?” Bhagyam’s eyes narrowed.

RK pressed Bhagyam’s hand.

“Anyway,” Bhagyam said, still not convinced. She leaned closer. “As I was leaving for the hospital, the President came by with a job offer.”

“I.. what?” RK blinked, confused.

“Turns out,” Bhagyam whispered, “the Secretary’s sixteen-year-old daughter is pregnant.” 

Vivek Santhosh‘s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Litro Magazine and India Currents. He lives in Sunnyvale, USA and is currently working on a novel.