Fiction | ‘Palace on Fire’ by Susan Bloch | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

The fifth-floor suite at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stinks of sweat, semen, and coke. Exhausted after his London flight, Philip Johnson, a British banker, lies on his back on crumpled yellow silk sheets, his snoring ragged. Only five hours after check-in, an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker rests in Philip’s upturned palm. On the bedside table, a residue of white powder dusts a gold sniffer. He doesn’t do drugs at home, but Philip needed this fix after his wife Liz had brushed him off. Yet again. 

Maharajas, maharanis, mobsters, royalty, and escorts have had sex and slept under the canopy of this four-poster bed in a room where the vibrant pink and gold striped wallpaper fills the room with a soft pastel glow. Frangipani petals, their fragrance smothered by sin, float on water in a large copper bowl. Mimicking sentries standing guard, the floor to ceiling bay windows, framed by heavy velvet curtains and gold tassel ties, exaggerate the Moorish architecture. To the north you can see the Gateway of India—a tall arch monument in a public square built to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. A major Mumbai tourist attraction for foreigners and locals, the surrounding square is packed with lovers, families, vendors selling trinkets and sunglasses, and pickpockets. To the west the horizon is dark and obscure. Only orange and pink translucent rays peer above the menacing fog bathing the Arabian Sea. Madonna’s husky voice belts out to the rolling drum tracks. “Jump,” she chants again and again, as if she knows that soon Philip might have to.

Below, waves pound the jagged rocks that line the city’s southern peninsula, flogging hundreds of blue and orange fishermen’s boats anchored to wooden jetties. A murder of house crows patrol the shoreline picking at dead fish, banana peels, coconut husks, and plastic bags held hostage by the crags. On a nearby landfill ridge, a sliver of moonlight rests on the fisherman’s slums—shanties made of plastic sheeting, corrugated iron, and brick. Home to thousands, these shacks lean against one another as if looking for support. In the dull light their reflections quiver, stretching and shivering on the choppy waves. Flames outline a silhouette crouching on a ledge as smoke vanishes into the opaque sky. A man shouts. A bottle shatters. The drumbeat of a Bollywood song grows louder. A baby cries and a mother’s voice soothes. In the breeze the smell of ammonia from a public toilet makes eyes water and lungs burn. 

Half a mile down the shore a chain of streetlights known as the Queen’s Necklace flood the pedestrian promenade. On the gridlocked road tires screech and horns beep, drowning out the sound of the pounding surf. Children skip along the sidewalk and pester their parents to buy them popcorn, balloons, and ice cream. There is an aroma of potato samosas. Lovers lean in, whispering and laughing. A man dressed in a white turban, kurta shirt, and baggy cotton trousers perches on a flat rock where he practices pranayama yoga breathing. A deep breath in, then a long exhale. Guests at the five-star luxury hotels sip Kingfisher beer and dine on lentil soup, tandoori chicken, curried vegetables, and kulfi ice cream while they watch white gulls float in the depthless evening light. 

November 26, 2008, begins as many ordinary autumn Mumbai evenings, throbbing with crowded pedestrian sidewalks, traffic jams, and forbidding ocean tides. The city’s pulse is strong.

In restaurants, cooks chop onions, fry samosas, roll out chapati, and boil lentils. Waiters serve bowls of creamy black dal, curried vegetables, and creamed spinach with cubes of white cheese. At the train station thousands of commuters surge through the crowds to get onto trains bound for home. Porters balance bundles of newspapers, stacks of trays loaded with eggs, and suitcases on their heads. People shout into mobile phones. Vendors steady cups of chai on trays. Beggars squat in the middle of the platforms holding out a palm. 

In apartments mothers read bedtime stories, kiss their children good night, and settle down to watch Jodhaa Akbar on TV. Women young and old swoon over Hrithik Roshan, the handsome male actor. Later they’ll be unable to remember if he found Princess Joda, his true love. 

No one notices a dinghy—loaded with ten AK-47s; pistols; satellite phones; rucksacks loaded with rolls of ammunition, grenades, explosives, detonators; street maps; and ten men in black T-shirts—weave between the fishermen’s boats, sneaking toward a jetty. No one hears the chug of an outboard motor, an inauspicious sound at this time of night. 

The dinghy carrying the terrorists, members of the Pakistani Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, slows. The engine is switched off, the attackers using their bare hands to paddle to shore. One ties the mooring rope to a pole while another passes out the ammunition. A third whispers, “Allahu Akbar,” blessing each one with a hand on top of their head as they crawl onto land. They’re close to their primary target—the legendary Taj Mahal Palace hotel, where rich tourists stay when they come to Mumbai. 

At hotel entrances laidback security guards, batons tucked under their armpits, slouch smoking and chatting on mobile phones. The few policemen strolling among the evening throngs are on the lookout for pickpockets. No one would ever be able to comprehend how security forces and the Indian Intelligence Agency were so uninformed and unprepared, or have imagined that soon luxury hotels would become morgues. Glasses, mobile phones, laptops, and school satchels would litter the platforms at the main railway station, and red rivulets would dribble down the yogi’s white turban. For three days a ripe, acidic smell would engulf the city, blocking out autumnal aromas of charcoal-grilled corn and sandalwood incense. One hundred and seventy-four people would die. No one could have imagined that this jihadist attack would, coincidentally, be a coverup for murder in Mumbai’s simmering underworld.

***

In the Taj’s hotel suite Philip’s head slips off his pillow. He grunts himself awake, wipes the saliva drooling down the corners of his mouth with his thumbs, and raises himself onto one elbow and blinks. Rivulets of sweat trickle along the rolls in his belly. He runs his fingers through the few dark curls on his chest, checks his manhood is still in place, and yawns. 

“Ready for more, dahling?” a woman shouts from the bathroom in a sing-song voice.

Philip stretches out his arm to look at his gold Rolex and taps it to make sure the time is right. He’d been out cold for three hours. His mobile buzzes but he doesn’t answer. The screensaver photos of his twin teenage daughters with their golden blonde ponytails, slightly crooked smiles, and braces flickers. Lips pursed Philip kisses their foreheads. Texts flash enshrouding their turquoise eyes. 

Where are you? 

You’ve missed your payment again. 

You won’t get away with this. 

Philip’s mouth fills with a sour taste. He tries to moisten his lips but his tongue feels shriveled. Unwrapping a roll of mint Tums he chews on a couple of lozenges. Sweaty palms pressed together Philip jams his fingers up against his chin. The money. He owes ten lakhs for the last batch. Instead of sleeping, he should’ve been at the bank transferring the money from his offshore account in the Cayman Islands to Bijay, his handler. There is no way he can get his hands on this kind of cash now. The concierge, Raja, his go-between, warned him not to mess around with these guys. 

What if the board at Barclays found out that he is dealing coke and laundering money? This extra income affords the perks that keep his wife, Liz, from complaining that they don’t have enough. It’s never enough: the mansion in the Cotswolds with an indoor pool, gym, sauna, and five horses in the paddock; a yacht in Monaco; a box at Covent Garden; and twins in private schools. Now she’s made a down payment on a castle in Tuscany without even checking they had the cash.

“I promise I’ll give up my golf coach,” Liz said the morning he left, winding a strand of highlighted curls around her index finger. “We can spend the summer at the palazzo and I’ll make it all right. Promise,” she said, pecking Philip’s cheek then wiping her lips. Chanel No.5 lingered in his nostrils, reminding him of how he’d fallen for her on their first date, and how he kept hoping it would all come right. But Liz was always promising and now he was in this mess all because of her. He’d tried to extricate himself from the gang’s tendrils many a time, but they threatened to contact the bank and reveal his off-shore accounts. He couldn’t escape. 

God knows he’d tried to make her feel loved. But no matter how hard he tried, she loved the bottle and her golf coach more than him. He could see her now, in a grey cashmere sweater and Hermes scarf, perched on the bunk next to the chintz cushions in bay windows in the living room, twisting the cork on a bottle of chilled chardonnay. He stares around his hotel room. Except for the white powder and the Mumbai mistress it feels almost like home, right down to the navy velvet curtains with gold tassel ties. 

But now it’s not safe to be here. 

Philip decides to make a run for it. He needs a hideout from Bijay, his handler, until he can come up with the cash. Perched on the edge of the mattress, Philip pulls on a pair of linen slacks up to his knees, stands up, wiggles the pants higher, zips the fly, and pulls in his belly to close the button at the waist. He bends over to slip on a pair of Valentino sneakers, lets out a loud fart, and wrinkles his nose. Damn the dal and curried vegetables.

Bijay lurks in the hotel stairwell smoking a joint, waiting for housekeeping. When he sees the cleaner wheeling her trolley stacked with clean towels, soap, and shampoo for the evening turndown, he pushes on the fire door and steps into the fifth-floor corridor. He slips her a five hundred rupee note—almost a week’s salary—in return for the master room card and the Britisher’s room number.

***

Outside the hotel entrance, people laugh at what sounds like firecrackers. But when the glass door at the hotel entrance shatters, security guards armed only with flip-phones and truncheons run into the chaos. Children cling to their parents’ knees and waists; adults throw themselves onto the ground. 

On the fifth floor, double-glazed windows and air conditioning shut out the sound of the explosions. Philip swallows four Paracetamol with the dregs in the whiskey bottle and tosses the empty pill container into the bin. Striding to the window he twists the handle, but it doesn’t shift. Even if it opened, he wouldn’t be able to get out. There is no ledge to crawl along, and the wall is as sheer as the slopes on Everest. Self-absorbed in his own fiasco, Philip doesn’t notice the bodies lying in the square below. All he can hear is his jagged breathing. He chews on a torn thumbnail, lifts the receiver of the hotel phone, and dials seven for the concierge. No one picks up. “Why the hell am I paying twelve hundred dollars a night if the service is lousy?” Philip yells, slamming the table with his fist. 

Philip, unaware that Mumbai is under attack, doesn’t know that Raja, half his face missing, lies slumped over his desk in the reception area; that fumes from hand grenades fill the lobby, choking the corridor leading to the bar; or that hand-embroidered silk wall hangings in the lobby smoke and hiss as fire sprinklers release a white glutinous spray.

Philip grabs his phone, wallet, and passport, and is about to leave when the blast of a hairdryer comes from the bathroom. God, he almost forgot her. He gathers up her clothes and runs to her. Shweta’s long black curls roll onto her shoulders, and her hips shimmy as she turns toward him, running her tongue over her full lips. 

 “We need to get out now.” He throws her clothes at her. “Hurry!” 

 “What’s the rush? You have me until tomorrow morning.”

He doesn’t ogle at the way she holds her breasts or strokes her pubic triangle. He doesn’t lean over to caress her silky skin or smell her sandalwood scent. But when he hears footsteps in the corridor, he slams the bathroom door shut and yells, “Lock it! It’s not safe for you to come out now.” 

Bijay places the plastic key against the electronic door lock, waits for a click, slips into the room, and shuts the door behind him—legs apart, hands on hips, chin high. The turned-up collar of his Tommy Hilfiger jacket highlights the two diamond studs in his left earlobe, and his gold chain jangles against the buttons of his Versace shirt. Thin hair, tinted red and oiled, plasters his scalp and dilated pupils hide behind Ray-Ban aviators. 

 “The money. Where is it?” Bijay slides the Colt out of his crocodile-skin belt and points the barrel at Philip’s right knee. He releases the safety and rasps, “The money or your knee.”

Philip holds his hands above his head and steps backward, falling onto a purple satin cushion. The air-conditioner hums. Shafts of a greyish-yellow light sully the carpet. A trickle of warm liquid runs down his thigh. 

 “Tomorrow. Please. I promise. You’ll have it all,” Philip sputters. He struggles to sit up. 

Shweta peers out through a slit in the bathroom door. When she hears Bijay’s threat, she slips her Beretta out of her purse. She likes Philip. He’s gentle, makes an effort to pleasure her too, and pays more than anyone else. Enough for her three-year-old son, her mother, and blind sister to live in a modern flat in Juhu, a middle-class neighborhood. Shweta’s fingers stiffen. She struggles to loop her index finger around the trigger. But when she hears Philip blubbing Shweta holds her breath, eases the door open, and fires.

***

In the gift store five floors below a terrorist shoots a male guest in the back. The man slumps to the floor as blood spurts through the hole in his navy linen jacket. At reception, another guest takes a bullet in her shoulder as she hands her credit card to the check-in clerk. The receptionist grabs her forearm and pulls her around to the back of the desk. A British couple on honeymoon crouch under a table in the Taj’s patio restaurant clutching the white tablecloth. A pile of dishes tumbles on top of them. Bullets follow.

Four cooks hide behind a goat’s carcass hanging by a hook from the ceiling of the kitchen’s walk-in fridge, leaving the door slightly ajar. The ring tone from one of their mobile phones echoes across the kitchen, revealing their hideout. A terrorist throws a grenade into the chiller room and slams the door shut, then turns to spray bullets at a waiter sheltering underneath the chopping table. 

Flames lick the ceiling. Smoke surges up the stairs. Smoke detectors chirp and fire alarms clang. Guests barricade themselves in their hotel rooms, pushing chairs and tables against the doors. Armed with ashtrays, bottles of wine and whiskey, cans of Pepsi, and bedside lamps, they hide behind shower curtains and under beds. They stuff wet towels at the foot of their doors to keep out the smoke.

“They heard the gunshot,” Shweta, still unaware of the attack, rasps, “they’ll be up here any second.”

Bijay’s head lies in Philip’s lap. Blood trickles onto the beige carpet. Philip swallows loudly to make sure he is still alive. When he tries to shift Bijay’s head off his lap, his arms turn to jelly.

 “Dahling. Stand up.” There is a slice to her voice. “We have to get rid of the evidence before the manager comes. Hide him.” She rushes back into the bathroom, shoves her Beretta behind the toilet, slips into a bathrobe, and walks back into the room expecting to see Philip pushing the dead man under the bed. But he’s still on the ground. Catatonic. 

 “Either you help me hide this guy or I leave.” She can almost feel handcuffs cutting into her wrists and her beloved family on the streets. Shweta had often teased Philip that he was a softy. It was a side of him she liked—his genuine tenderness. But now was not the time. All those years at snobby Eton College had taught Philip how to be ‘posh,’ and have good manners, but not how to cope in a crisis. Growing up in a slum with her elderly grandparents Shweta had learned to beat off many an attempted rape, her bully of a brother, and sleep on an empty belly drenched in monsoon rains.

 “You can’t leave me now. It’ll look like I did it.” He rubs the bottom of his nose with the back of his hand and sniffs.

 “That’s what I’ll tell the cops. You, the Britisher, shot him.” Shweta slips on her shoes. 

 “But that’s a lie,” Philip bends his knees. 

 “And you’ve never lied in your life before?” She swivels around and faces him full on. 

 “No. I cannot do this.” He leans over and reaches for the house phone. “I’m going to call the manager. He’s a friend of mine. He’ll know what to do.”

 “I’m not taking the rap for this.” She turns her back to him. Hands shaking, she lights a joint, inhales and exhales slowly trying to steady herself, and stubs the end on the walnut bed frame. It seems to take forever for Philip to stand up and begin to drag the corpse across the carpet. When Shweta turns around a few seconds later, she notices flames and smoke billowing across the window. Only then does she sense something else is terribly wrong. Not this shooting, but something else. Something much worse. 

Philip, now fully alert, follows Shweta’s gaze. 

“My God, the hotel’s on fire,” he mumbles without moving his lips. Smothered in the stench of cordite mixed with sandalwood and shock, Philip gives the corpse a last kick under the bed. 

He picks up the receiver again and presses zero. But no one answers. He tries his mobile, but there is no reception. 

“Quick, we need to get out of here.” Shweta’s scream evaporates into the high-pitched sound of hissing smoke detectors and clanging alarm bells. 

Rushing into the bathroom she grabs her gun, and stuffs it in her purse. She douses two bath towels with water, throws one over Philip’s head, and covers her hair with the other. She tries to open the main door but it’s stuck fast. Sticking the sole of one foot against the wall, the stiletto heel digging into the wallpaper, she pulls the door handle again, and staggers back as smoke fills the room. Coughing and spluttering, Shweta grabs Philip’s hand. His palm is moist. Their hands slip and re-clasp. A wild smell of deep pervasive burning follows them as they charge down the corridor. Shweta rams her shoulder into the exit door and they race down the empty stairwell two stairs at a time to the lobby, unprepared for the blood-spattered walls, bodies splayed across the carpets, shattered china, and the stench of blood and urine. Shweta flexes out her tongue and wipes the grey flecks off her tongue with her upper arm. Panting, she pulls Philip toward the kitchen, thankful for the times when she’d had to make a hasty exit from the hotel through the maze of corridors.

“What is this?” Philip asks as he finally exhales the breath he’d been holding. “A war zone?”

Not bothering to answer Shweta rushes through the scullery. She slips on what looks like human intestines and her arms flail. Philip pulls her up just as an unexploded hand grenade hisses. They squeeze behind a tower of crates filled with cans of Pepsi. Shweta nods at Philip, slips the Berretta out her purse, eases the catch, and peers out to be met with a barrage of showering glass, white smoke, and the smell of charred tandoori chicken. A few minutes later Shweta steps out. 

One of the attackers has his back to her and she fires, grazing his neck. He runs off down the corridor as she tugs at Philip’s arm, pulling him down to squat behind an industrial size stainless-steel rubbish bin. Distorted images of their own faces look back at them. A greenish sock just like the pair she’d gifted her uncle for Diwali lies in the slop. Shweta’s breath comes in fast explosive gasps. 

An oil-filled pan sizzles. Shweta smells the burning before she hears the hiss. The cuff of Philip’s trouser legs turns black, scorched by a weak flame on the oily tiled floor. She bends down and smacks the scorched fabric with her hand even though they can still hear the voices of the terrorists shouting in Arabic. The fluorescent light twitches. A glistening grey film of sweat trickles down Philip’s forehead into his eyes. No clue what to do next, he closes his eyes and leans against Shweta. 

“Keep moving before these miscreants nab us,” Shweta whispers barely audible, but forceful. Dependent on Philip’s whims and money, she’d never minded that she’d always been the passive and submissive one. But this was different. 

 “Pull yourself together,” Shweta growls. “No time for silliness now.”

Gripping his wrist and trying not to stumble on the slick floor covered in pots, urine, convulsing bodies, and empty bullet cartridges, she leads Philip along, pushing her back along the wall. 

Screams echo down the laundry chute but Shweta keeps on despite the persistent gunfire. Only a few more yards. The delivery entrance is clear. Philip retches, spewing out a brownish-yellow slop and splashing Shweta’s ankles, but she keeps running. She’d stepped in worse at the garbage dump near her childhood shack.

In seconds they’re out. 

In the TV room of their London home in Millionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath, Liz sits on a floral chintz armchair, sipping Glenfiddich single malt on the rocks and watching the BBC’s ten-o’clock news, her nightly ritual. An interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown is cut off to report breaking news: the terror attack in Mumbai. When Liz sees flames engulf the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel she calls Philip on his mobile and leaves a message on his voicemail. She tries the hotel but all she gets is a constant busy signal. She longs to fling her arms around Philip’s neck and tell him she’ll be happy with what they have, that she will do what is right for their marriage, and keep her promises to stop drinking and screwing around. That he shouldn’t have to be away so much. That she’ll find ways, even go to therapy, to resume their sex life. Liz sets her phone onto redial, but Philip doesn’t pick up. She gulps down the rest of her drink and tops up her glass.

Shafts of light from the flames illuminate the empty alley just as a couple bursts out the stairwell at the back entrance of the hotel. TV cameras catch a man in his early forties, bare-chested and wearing only white blood-stained trousers with torn cuffs, and a woman in a grimy toweling gown, stumbling in red stilettos. Still ignorant that not only the Taj Palace, but the entire city of Mumbai is under siege, they hug, cry, and laugh. When Liz recognizes Philip in the arms of an Indian woman, she stands up and walks closer to the screen. She flings her cut-glass tumbler across the room as she sees her Tuscany palazzo go up in flames. She picks up the bottle of Scotch, pulls out the cork, and gulps.

 “They’re one of the few lucky ones,” the TV reporter shouts above the sirens. “One of the few survivors. True heroes.”

Helicopter blades comes closer. A policeman runs toward them, grabs the couple by their arms, and tries to shove them into the back of a police van. 

But Shweta kicks out. The sharp heel of her shoe smacks into his crotch.

 “You’re on your own,” she yells at Philip. She darts away and disappears into the smoke as he jumps onto the back bench of the van. 

“How the heck did you ever get out?” the cop asks Philip. The vehicle screeches out of the alley. “Do you even know what’s happening here?”

Philip swallows, and rubs his eyes with his fingers but doesn’t answer. A cocktail of old sweat, piss, and terror fills the van, and TV cameras and reporters stalk the vehicle. He ducks, hoping to escape the headlines about his moral bankruptcy. The vehicle, siren spinning and raging, speeds through streets that are quiet and noisy all at the same time. The sound of gunfire, car alarms, and flames have asphyxiated the chatter, laughter, honking. Rickshaws lie strewn at the sidewalk. Abandoned cars and buses litter the middle of the road, and street vendors’ haphazard stalls stand hushed.


An executive coach and writer, Susan Bloch is an eclectic author of non-fiction and fiction short pieces, as well as books and articles on leadership and board effectiveness. Her essays have won a prize in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Her short stories and essays have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including The Forward, Entropy, The Citron Review, STORGY, Pif Magazine, Tikkun, and HuffPost. A lifelong traveler, she lived in South Africa, New York, Tel Aviv, London, and Mumbai before alighting in Seattle. Visit her at www.susanblochwriter.com.
 
 
 

Fiction | ‘Manta Rays, a Massage Lady, and Love’ by James Roth | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

Carl, rolling himself a cigarette, said, “I’m thinking of getting another tattoo. Have any ideas?”

“None,” Willie said.

“Help me out here. You see beauty in everything.”

Willie said nothing.

“Want one?”
“I told you I was trying to quit.”

Carl lit his cigarette and blew some smoke across the table toward Willie. Willie told himself he wasn’t going to give in to Carl. He’d about had enough of him. 

“What about a manta?” Carl said. 

“For a tattoo?”

“That’s what we’re talking about.”

“Were we? Not the same predator motif,” Willie said.

“What?”

“You asked me.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” He drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke across the table.

“Go to hell,” Willie said.

“I probably will one day, but not today.” 

Willie and Carl had met in a tattoo parlor on Ko Samui and decided to travel together. Carl had gotten two tattoos of snarling tigers there, the head of each resting on his pectorals. They were the kind of tigers depicted in legends with disproportionately long claws. Willie had gotten a tattoo on his back, just above his waist, of Buddha sitting lotus style, his right hand raised in his iconic pose. 

Willie said, “When I’m in the water with a manta it’s Zen like. Timeless.”

“A timeless tattoo of a manta. Now to find someone who can do it. Probably no one on this island. Why did we come to Indonesia?” And at that moment Carl began to watch the young waitress who had just walked past them, taking drinks to a couple sitting at a table under a palm tree. She was wearing a blue sari with prints of blue and green tropical fish on it and a yellow silk blouse. Carl said, “Now I remember,” he said. 

Willie decided that he’d had enough of Carl for one day. He stood up. 

“Where you going?” Carl asked.

“The bungalow.”

“Sit down.”

“Why? You’ve got your mind on other things,” Willie said, jutting his chin out in the direction of the waitress, who was now standing in the kitchen, a couple of kerosene burning stoves behind a wall of split bamboo covered by a roof of palm fronds.

“Something wrong with having needs?”

“They’re gentle creatures,” Willie said, “mantas.”

“Hard to believe they eat this little shit. Not what I need.”

“Plankton,” Willie said.

“Have a cigarette. Sit down. Go to hell with me.”

Willie walked away and turned on his flashlight and found his way along the beach to their shared bungalow, a flimsy structure of thin wooden planks on pilings, and got in the hammock. Now he could enjoy the beauty of the island. A breeze coming in off the sea was making the leaves of a palm brush together. Waves were splashing up against some rocks. Over the mainland a quarter moon shone between passing clouds. Willie thought of a manta, imagining that it was gliding by him, as one had that afternoon when he and Carl had gone on a trip to see them. A sense of awe at the sight of something beautiful had come over him. Then he saw the beam of Carl’s flashlight down the beach. The beam neared the bungalow and then struck him in the face. He winced. Carl tripped and stumbled onto the porch, yelled, “Fuck!,” and grasped his foot. 

Willie could smell the stench of beer and cigarettes coming off him. “Go inside,” he said.

Carl continued to thrash around on the porch for a few minutes longer, holding his foot, and then lay still. Willie was thinking that maybe Carl was aware of his surroundings, and awed by them, too, and then he heard him snore.

Willie hopped down from the hammock and kicked Carl in his ribs and said, “Go inside!” 

Carl crawled into the bungalow. Willie got back into the hammock. He longed for someone to share this beauty with. 

***

Willie spent the next morning writing about mantas in his journal while lying in the hammock, occasionally looking out over the sea. Now and then a cloud would pass over the island, bringing a shower and rainbow. 

He had just finished his writing when a woman who gave massages stopped at the bungalow. She was perhaps twenty-five but looked much older. Her hair was done up in two braids tied off in red ribbons. She was wearing a boxy muslin dress, dirty at the hem, pink flip-flops, and holding a basket of massage oils and towels.

“You want massage?” she called to him. 

He was immediately suspicious. He knew her game. Asking a tourist for a massage was just a cunning way for prostitutes to get him inside his bungalow, where she would start off with a massage, only to use it to seduce him. Carl had invited several of them into their bungalows as they hopped from island to island. But there was something in her manner, perhaps her smile or the sadness in her eyes, which he couldn’t stop himself from giving in to. He got down from the hammock.

“Here,” he said, “on the porch.”

“Why here?” she asked.

He couldn’t tell her why. 

“Okay,” she said.

She spread a towel out on the porch. He took off his T-shirt and lay on the towel. She rubbed some oil onto his shoulders and, as she was kneading the muscles, said of his tattoo, “You not Christian?”

“I believe in all religions,” he said.

“Me Christian,” she said. “Do you like Muslims?”

“There’s good ones and bad ones,” Willie said. 

She continued with the massage for a few minutes, then asked, “You alone?”

“I have a friend,” Willie said. “But he’s gone somewhere.”

“When he return? Maybe hour?”

“No,” he said, “soon.” He really had no idea where Carl had gone, but he had his suspicions about why she had asked about him. 

She returned to the massage, digging her thumbs into his spine, all the way down it to his shorts. She didn’t bother to roll back the waistband, which came as a relief to Willie. He thought that maybe all she really offered was massages. He began to think of the few girlfriends he’d had and the great satisfaction there had been with them in shared experiences. He wanted to feel that way again, and so he decided to risk telling this massage lady about the experience he’d had with the mantas.

“Yesterday I went on a snorkeling trip,” he started off.

She was now pressing the heel of a hand onto his lower spine. He couldn’t stop himself from groaning.

“Pain?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

“What?”

“The massage.”

“How much you pay?” she asked.

“For the snorkeling trip?” 

“Tell me.”

He told her. 

She sighed.

“My friend and I went to the other side of the island,” he said. “There’s a small bay over there where the mantas feed.” He waited for her to say something. When she didn’t, he held his arms out, like they were the wings of a giant manta gliding through the water.

She laughed.

“They’re so beautiful,” he said. 

She kept on with the massage, working her fingers down along his thighs.

“Don’t you think so?” he asked.

“What?” she asked.

“Mantas.”

“I never see.”

“You’ve never seen a manta?” he said. “And you live here on this beautiful island?”

“Always working,” she said. “Need money. Tomorrow you want massage?”

“What about you going with me to see the mantas?” he said.

“Must working,” she said.

Willie had an idea. He rolled over, looking up at her, and she stared at him anxiously. “What?” she asked.

“I’ll pay for a massage,” he said, “but we’ll go see the mantas together. Okay?”

She had such sad eyes. All she knew was giving tourists massages. That wasn’t much of a life. 

“How much you pay?” she asked. “Only money for one massage?”

They agreed on a price, and Willie rolled back over onto his stomach. She continued on where she had stopped, working her hands down his legs to his calves and feet, until she had finished. She said, “You pay me now.”

Willie got up from the porch and went into the bungalow and found his money in a pocket of his backpack and counted out the amount, plus a little extra, and returned to the porch and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Willie,” he said. “My name is Willie.”

“Thank you Mr. Willie.”

Her name was Hendra, and she lived in Tomita, the only village on the island. 

***

The boatman tossed the anchor off the bow, it caught, and the boat, a simple canoe-shaped thing with outriggers, swung around, facing the wind. A cliff of black volcanic rock was now off the boat’s stern. Osprey circled in the updraft made by the abrupt rise of the cliff out of the sea. The land, except for an escarpment, was jungle. The sea was a dark blue, soupy with plankton.

Willie said, “This island is so beautiful.”

Hendra looked at him, seemingly a little puzzled at what he’d said. “You say you have friend. Where?”

“Back in the bungalow asleep. Too much beer.”

They laughed.

“Maybe he want massage?” she asked.

“No,” Willie said, “I don’t think so.”

“You ask. For me.”

“Okay, I’ll ask,” he said, knowing that he wouldn’t. He hadn’t wanted to lie to her. “Forget my friend,” he said. “You’ve lived here all your life, and you’ve never seen the beauty?”

“Sometimes I go to the mainland for shopping,” she said.

Willie had never known anyone so innocent. She had on the same muslin dress, and under it a ragged one-piece blue swimsuit, something a tourist had probably given her. The swimsuit had so many holes in it that she had worn a man’s white T-shirt under it.

Willie helped her put on a snorkel, mask, and fins. He got into the water, and she, with the help of the boatman, followed him over the side of the boat into the water. She and Willie began to snorkel along side-by-side in the plankton-filled water, searching for mantas. Soon one appeared, its mouth gaping open like a trawling net. The tips of its wings rose and fell ever so gently, exposing its belly, which was as white as a cloud. The manta passed by them, turned, and came back their direction again, and this time Willie followed it as far as he could until he could no longer hold his breath, to feel what the manta was feeling. 

When he surfaced the two of them returned to the boat and held onto the gunnel. They pushed their masks back onto their foreheads.

“So beautiful!” Willie said. “What a feeling!”

“So beautiful!” Hendra said. “What a feeling!”

Willie thought he would never forget this moment, bringing joy to Hendra. Life was supposed to be like this, sharing happiness with a woman, not traveling from island to island with Carl. 

Willie and Hendra snorkeled for another hour or so, until Hendra said. “I must go home. My family waiting.”

Hearing this, Willie wondered had if he’d gotten everything wrong about her. Certainly the gap between them had narrowed a little. He was sure she’d felt something. The experience of seeing the mantas must have narrowed the distance between them. 

“Family?” Willie asked.

“My mother and father,” she said, “to cook for them.”

“Yes!” he said. “You must take care of them.”

The boatman started the engine and guided the boat back to the other side of the island. During the short trip the engine noise made it impossible for Willie to talk to Hendra. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, so many things he wanted to know about her, too, but he couldn’t, not with the noise of the engine.

The boatman ran the boat up onto the beach, and Willie hopped out, taking Hendra by the hand and helping her step onto the sand. They walked along the beach to his bungalow. Carl was lying in the hammock, smoking a cigarette.

Willie said to Hendra, “You have a good dinner with your mother and father.” 

“You pay!” she said.

Willie paid her, and she walked off.

“How much was she?” Carl asked.

“It wasn’t what you think.”

“Sorry to hear that.” 

Willie entered the bungalow and went to the mandi and sat on the concrete slab floor and dipped out fresh water from a barrel filled with rain water to wash himself off. 

He dried himself and went out onto the porch. He’d go up to the restaurant later. For now he wanted to enjoy the sunset and the spreading darkness and the appearance of stars. He wished Hendra was there to enjoy it all with him. That would be the beginning of their long lasting love.

After a while Willie got his flashlight, turned it on, and found his way along the beach to the restaurant–unfortunately the only one on the island–and sat with Carl, who had finished his meal—spaghetti—and was having another beer. An empty bottle of Bintang was resting on the table. The waitress came to their table, and Willie ordered grilled fish and nasi goreng, something traditional. Carl had been staring at her while taking Willie’s order. She hurried off to the kitchen.

Willie said. “Can’t you see she’s not interested?”

Carl said. “I’ve had it with this boring island. I want off this rock.”

“I’m staying,” Willie said.

“You’re getting laid. How much was she? You probably paid too much. Bring me another beer!” he shouted, waving the empty bottle of Bintang. “You’d think she would’ve seen the empty when she was her, the bitch.”

Willie was overjoyed. He’d be rid of Carl. He began to think of how he would spend the following day with Hendra. Maybe they’d walk the beach together at sunset before she had to return to her family to cook, maybe sit under a palm holding hands as they watched the waves coming in.

The sound of the ferry arriving from the mainland brought him out of his fantasy. The engine chug, chug, chugged along. Then the boatman cut if off. A silence returned. The ferry rode up on a wave and came to a rest on the beach. Willie heard the excited but nervous laughter of some tourists. 

A minute later they had come up into the lights of the restaurant. One of the tourists was a girl traveling alone, a plump redhead with a green and yellow smear of a tattoo over her right breast. The tourists were met by the caretaker of the bungalows. He led them off to some vacant ones. 

“You’re leaving tomorrow,” Willie said.

Carl rolled himself a cigarette and lit it. He sat there smoking the cigarette. “Maybe not,” he said.

The waitress brought Willie his dinner and Carl his beer and rushed off to another table. 

***

When Willie woke the next morning he was disappointed to see that Carl’s backpack was still in a corner of the bungalow, soiled underwear and T-shirts spilling out of it. The only ferry off the island had already left. Carl was still on the island, and Willie had a pretty good idea where. He and Carl had reached their end.

Carl wasn’t at the restaurant that morning, which came as no surprise to him. For a change, Willie could enjoy himself. He had a banana pancake and coffee and drank the coffee slowly, under the fronds of a palm, listening to the waves falling on the beach. He could make out the sea in the distance, a deep blue in the deep holes, an aqua green up near the beach. Carl, fortunately, wasn’t there. Willie then returned to the bungalow and wrote in his journal about Hendra, and a poem about their time together in the company of the mantas. When he wrote, these experiences of his became more real. To not write was to not know them well, he thought. 

He was finishing up the poem when Carl surprised him by stepping up onto the porch. 

“What a beautiful island!” he said, and spread his arms out to more dramatically express what he had said.

Carl looked at Willie, seeming to expect a reaction, and when none came he laughed to himself before going into the bungalow to gather his clothes and stuff them into his backpack. 

Out on the porch now, his backpack backpack on his shoulders, he said, “Maybe we’ll meet up again.”

“There’s a lot of islands,” Willie said, “thousands.”

Willie lay in the hammock, listening to the splashing of the waves on rocks, and as he did he found himself thinking, more and more of Carl, who was now probably in bed with that redhead. He imagined that they were whispering to each other and sharing intimate jokes and laughs. He shouldn’t have been jealous of Carl–his was a passing sexual encounter–but he was, and to put an end to this irrational envy he had to go and see Hendra. 

He leapt down from the hammock, found his sandals, put them on, and left the bungalow and walked along the beach, hatless under a blazing tropical sun until he came to a spit of glistening white sand that made him squint. Just around this there was a small bay, some wooden fishing boats, blue and yellow, moored there, their bows lolling up and down against the incoming tide. 

He came to Tomita, a few homes made of bamboo and thatch, others of concrete blocks, all along sandy lanes. On the lanes there were a few shops which sold water, bananas, and cigarettes. The shopkeepers all called to him, but he pressed on, ignoring them. He saw that there was a church in the distance and further on a mosque. Tomita was divided into Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. The Muslims seemed to have it worse off. Their homes were made of palm fronds and scraps of plywood and plastic that they probably had scavenged from the beach. In the yards of some of the Christians there were vegetable gardens. 

Willie went over to an old man who was sitting on a log under a palm in front of one of the shops and asked, “Hendra? Do you know where she lives?”

The man squinted up at him, spat some beetle juice into the hot sand, and pointed at a home next to a pile of coconut husks left over from the making of copra. On the roof was a new satellite dish. 

Willie walked down the lane to the home, feeling his heart beating a little faster as he neared it. He stopped at the front door. Inside he heard a man and a woman talking, then the laughter of the woman and the crying of a baby. Willie wondered if this was the right home. He looked back up the lane in the direction of the old man, who nodded his head, to indicate that Willie was at Hendra’s house. 

Willie knocked on the door. The man and woman stopped talking. The baby continued to cry. The door cracked open. There was Hendra, looking back at him. He had expected her to be pleased to see him, but she clearly wasn’t. In a shaft of sunlight Willie saw a child crawling across a linoleum floor. He took all of this in and couldn’t stop himself from shouting, “You! You and I! I thought. . .”

The man had by now come to the door and knocked it all the way open. He said something to Willie in Indonesian and shoved him back with the heel of his hand. 

Willie stumbled and fell into the hot sand. 

Lying in the sand, he yelled back, “I hate you, Hendra! I hate you!”

The man slammed the door shut. Willie heard the bolt of a lock slide shut.

Willie pushed himself up and brushed off the sand from his legs, which only now did he feel was burning him.

He then heard Hendra and the man laughing. 

As Willie walked away the sand pulled at his sandals like tar, and, in the distance, the glare of the sun on the sea seemed to him like flames from hell.


James Roth, who lived and taught in Japan and China for many years, has written several nonfiction pieces, but this will be his first published short story in more than twenty-five years. He completed a historical mystery novel set in Meiji era Japan and looks forward to rewriting many of the stories that have been on his computer’s hard drive for years. Until the Pandemic struck, he was an English Language Fellow in the U.S. State Department’s Language Program at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, where he lived until recently. Now he is in Cape Town, South Africa, waiting out the pandemic, hoping to return to Zimbabwe to continue his fellowship.

Fiction | ‘The Straight’ by Sohrab Homi Fracis | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

Wnf saw the round rolling along the straight a while before they met. Time enough to weigh his options. The flat looked around, keeping it casual. Sunny and warm though the revolution was, he knew it could be his last.

They were the only ones on the straight. And the round looked too big to cover. Wnf flapped along a little slower. He felt the round, too, had slowed her roll. To one side of the straight were a few open highs, to the other a public broad. So she had enough opportunities to avoid him.

She took none, and the flat readied himself.

“Wnf,” he said, when they came abreast. She smelled like fluid.

“Mlp,” the round responded, wobbling affably.

“Hello, Mlp,” he said, encouraged enough to be up front with her: “Well, what do you think?”

“I’ve seen worse flats,” she said with a wobble. “But my found used to say one should always take the tour…. Show me what you’ve got, Wnf.”

The reference touched him. Past tense applied to his found as well, though he couldn’t recall a pithy saying of hers to bring her alive. He considered invoking Found’s Zkian accent and choppy speech, but discarded the thought in favor of taking the invitation.

He flapped a corner. “Your found was wise.”

And with that, he stretched every corner to the limit, and then he stretched some more. When he was done, he was big enough to cover Mlp. Exhilarated, he popped out his sharps and flapped them at her.

“So cool,” she said, wobbling like crazy.

But the display had drawn others. Another round, not as big as Mlp, rolled off the broad toward them. And a second flat, possibly bigger than Wnf before stretching, flapped out of the carved opening to a high.

“Rsj,” the flirty new round said.

“Wnf,” he said, talking over the other flat.

It didn’t work. “Mlp. I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“Gxh,” the rival flat repeated. “Nice to meet you, Mlp. And Rsj.”

Wnf’s sly flap barely moved the gas. “But not me, huh?”

Gxh just launched into an aggressive display. His sharps popped before he even stretched his corners. At full, he was bigger than Wnf. And he kept right on flapping. Then Wnf flapped too, harder and harder, directing it at both rounds. With every flap, the frequency rose until they were vibrating, putting out hums that wove over and under and around each other.

The rounds were rapt.

But Rsj, the smaller one, wanted more than just show. “Take it to the next level, guys. C’mon!”

Ready to go, chemical coursing through their tracts, the flats turned toward each other like buzz-saws.

“Wait,” Mlp screamed. “Retract first—retract your sharps!”

Rsj rolled. “Oh please. Let’s have it all the way.”

Mlp turned on her furiously. “Easy for you to say, you stupid twit.”

“All right, then.” Rsj rolled some more. “Let’s hear it from their cords: are you guys up for really settling this or not? ’Cause that’s what I want—a real flat!”

The flats had paused, their hums trailing off. But at that, Gxh fired up again, keening high over Wnf’s wavering drone.

“How about you, Wnf? You strong enough to be my flat?”

“Or dead enough for nothing.” Mlp’s tone switched from scorn to pleading. “Be smart about this, you guys, please!”

It got to Wnf. He retracted his sharps, stilled his flaps. The drone died, and he was at Gxh’s mercy.

“No backing out,” Gxh roared. “Use the sharps or I will!”

Fighting his survival instincts like crazy, Wnf simply lowered his corners. “Do what you want. I’m done.”

A period passed. 

Then Gxh trumpeted his triumph. The sound echoed off the highs and across the broad. Strollers turned to check. Dwellers peeked outside, seemed to recognize Gxh, and withdrew.

Rsj rolled over to him, wobbling seductively. “Let’s go, Gxh.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Forget these losers.”

And they disappeared into the carved opening.

Conflicted, his chemical still high, Wnf turned to Mlp. Taking her in again in the palpable silence, he felt better. Something about her was beautiful. To him, anyway, and that was all that mattered.

“That was exhausting,” she said.

He lifted a corner. “I’m glad, now, that you stopped me.”

“It was brave of you to stop. I was scared for you.”

They paused, still seeing each other afresh. He could smell her fluid once more.

“My found grew up in Zk,” he said eventually. “She didn’t say anything as memorable as yours did, but she had an endearing accent to her last revolution.”

Mlp wobbled at him. “I wish I could have heard it! Love to hear more about her.”

“Love to tell you.”

“Listen, I’m famished. Let’s go find a place where we can ingest some solid while you tell me about her.”

“Makes sense,” he said. “Can’t have you feeling exhausted and famished. Which way should we go?”

“I passed a small place a ways back. Nothing fancy, but it’ll do. Unless you have a better idea?”

“Nah, let’s do it.”

He put a corner to her as she swiveled close, so close he felt chemical shoot through him as they set out together along the straight. It stretched past the highs to a hazy horizontal. Wnf felt he could see the distance the straight would take them.

What was undoubtedly happening right now between Gxh and Rsj would also, sooner or later, happen with them. For all of Gxh’s machismo, he was not destined to stay a flat. Nor was Wnf. He and Mlp would get it on. In a high somewhere, he’d stretch to his utmost, flap like a demon, pop forth his sharps, and cover her. She’d absorb his sharps into the density of her fluid, deep, deeper, until they were humming warm surface to warm surface. The hum would become a keen as the sharps locked. Forever. At fever pitch, pods would fill with fluid and push out of his back, now their unified front.

Then, neither flat nor quite round anymore but at last a found, they—she—would roll out of the high and along the straight, ingesting way more solid to build her strength and feed the pods. Orbits would pass. The pods would expand and, eventually, split open. Little flats and rounds, inhaling their first gas, loudly exercising their new cords, would drop to the straight to be nudged and nursed by their found. Ingesting fluid like little gluttons, they’d grow. Soon they’d get on solid and grow some more. Flapping and wobbling around, they’d look up and say, “Fa?”

Almost bursting with pride, their found would yell, “Yes! I’m your found. Found. Can you say the D? Founduh. That’s right: found.”

More orbits would pass. She’d raise them to be good kids, keep them from wandering off the straight. She’d keep them safe. All the dangers pressing in from the highs, blowing hard off the broad, she’d keep those at bay. Inevitably something would get past her, and she would not be able to save them all. She’d have to get over that fast, put up her guard again, and keep them moving along the straight. Keep them fed. Keep them happy. Keep them learning. Until one fine revolution they’d be grown, the rounds as big as her, the flats bigger, protecting her now, all of them, fending off danger before she even knew of it.

Yet danger would sneak up on her from the one place they couldn’t guard: her insides. Right about then, with her replacements—Wnf’s and Mlp’s replacements—firmly in place, the universe would deem her superfluous. Built-in expiry dates would pass, self-destruct mechanisms would kick in, and she’d start to implode. Slowly. Painfully. Unstoppably. Her very fluid would evaporate, leaving her a weak, shrunken raisin, until one sad revolution they’d all gather around her, and she’d say her last goodbyes.

After she was gone, the brood would lose cohesion, spread out a little, maybe cross the broad, travel other straights. A few might even reach Zk. Her handsome flats would meet rounds along the way, her beautiful rounds would meet flats. They’d say, “You know, my found had the faintest trace of an accent. Not all the time, just some random word now and then that sounded a little different coming from Found. I could never quite place it. Until now! I honestly think, listening to you, it may have been Zkian.” Charmed, their new friends would flap or wobble encouragingly, then ask for the tour or give it.

And life would continue.


Sohrab’s first book, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, was the first by an Asian American to win the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His novel, Go Home, was shortlisted by Stanford University Libraries for the William Saroyan International Prize. An excerpt, ‘Distant Vision,’ in Slice was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He taught literature and creative writing at University of North Florida and was Visiting Writer in Residence at Augsburg College. He was an artist in residence at Yaddo and a Florida Individual Artist Fellow in Literature/Fiction. The South Asian Literary Association (that’s right, SALA) bestowed on him its Distinguished Achievement Award. His website is http://www.fracis.com.

Fiction | ‘Flat – Out Earth Moving’ by Mark Anthony Jarman | Issue 37 (Jan, 2021)

Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing;
Confederate season, else no creature seeing Lucianus, nephew to the king.

The stolen van was home to one thousand donuts, some laced with crimson jelly; some lacking.  My sister and I peppered our puzzled metabolisms, worked our jaws scarfing the contents of said donut van, spilt pounds of sugar dust in our laps.  Any pilgrim or fellow travelers we gave them some, jetting gifts at any mouths that murmured.  We had baking-sugar epiphanies and we employed retro rockets; fly and crash, fly and crash.
A rich person, a smarter person, might decide not to eat an Econoline full of someone else’s jelly donuts.  Is this solemn choice one part wisdom or two parts repression?  As when love, jealousy and hate break themselves over your head:  Can you read the true ratio of each?  So.  Can you cease consuming yourself like a cruller, cease being the less than exemplary creature you are?  Whose life is fuller?  Whose belly?

Often police are associated with donuts in a comic manner.  Not this time.  Well, later they were, later the RCMP were involved.  But we finished the donuts days before they found the van abandoned in the Okanagan hills where I picked cherries and apricots and peaches so many years ago.  The RCMP nailed us but they got not a single donut.
They did find the $10 receipt from the tollbooth.  A tiny white receipt lost on the slushy floor of the abandoned van and THEN they had the papers on us.  The Bauhaus tollbooth with its video-cameras killed us.  Evidence, dates, videotape, lenses, Desdemona’s handkerchief.  My sister borrowed money from the woman at the tollbooth and then later I paid the woman back.  Paying the money back was what actually sunk us.  My brilliant idea.  My brief stab at honesty, trying to be good just once.  Jails are stuffed full of people who have not thought things through, folks who are not clear on the concept.  This is no state secret.

Recounting my tale in Remand I saw others at the long steel table rub chins and say, I believe I have heard of your exploits, how you were caught.  These learned fuckwads chuckle into their dun sleeve and I know most of what that chuckle means.  They are in the same boat as me, exact same—Remand, Corrections, a bit less a day or the Feds if the judge is pissed off and adds a day or two and then you’re working toward Club Fed—but my snickering protégés have a need to feel superior to someone, to an idiotic other.  I’m their man, their buffoon.  I keep my mouth shut.  This much I know.

In the spring before this soap opera unfolded I had a pretty great job running a backhoe, a blade-runner working a sharp point of land, a tiny peninsula jabbing its nose into tricky ocean currents and sparkling riptides and shaking planes of light that moved me to sneezing fits if I did not avert my pale eyes.
The blandest of mornings demanded excellent sunglasses so first chance I steered my trusty prune-coloured Rambler under dusty trees and Tarzan ivy vines to the tiny drugstore to purchase a pair of Ray-Bans and inhalers.  Extremely fine real estate.  Gaze each way and step into another staggering view:  sheets of hazy ocean sailing off toward Seattle that direction and China many leagues that way and six sea lions following each other in a line like precise bulky Rockettes just past my backhoe’s knobby back wheels.  Your skin warm, eyes pierced.  A cancer doctor I know in Alberta froze his eyeballs climbing mountains: brutish pain for hours when the ice in his eyes melted but he could still see, his eyes still worked.

Twelve killer whales cruised by my backhoe one sleepy afternoon, a pod blowing water like steam trains and rolling their long black fins like nightsticks in the waves, harassed the entire time by whale-watching Zodiacs and sundry small craft and even a red and white floatplane carving circles above us.  A dog swam in the cove and I wondered would an Orca swallow a giant poodle.
My backhoe drove sharp shores, shovelled purple and orange boulders while crabshells and bivalves were dropped and broken by gulls and shearwaters for their delight, for their seafood buffet.
Seals eyed me with professional interest and paranoid herons (they flee from me) hiding around corners in orange poppies and east of these wild poppies a snowcone sits on a volcano and to the south-west glaciers spread spectral light on a range of American mountains rising straight out of the water that divides my two countries, snow glowing up there all summer in strange light like goldbeater’s skin and ocean all around us in a whispered charm and I worked the haul road listening to FM radio thinking of blue money and raising-Cain taverns in smoky American milltowns huddled under that washed India wall of mountains where the jukebox played Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard singing songs about life in prison.

William Head medium security prison, where I am incarcerated, looks out on the same view.  Club Fed, the taxpayers call it.  William Head has a floating pier where we are allowed hooks and glow hoochies to fish for chinook and coho and pinks and sockeye, where the Kokanee Bandit can’t find a choice spot to fish and goes nuts, yelling and pushing skinners and rats off their side of the wharf and into the freezing sea.  Cobalt seas moving on three sides and turkey vultures hanging overhead waiting for a good draft to help them cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca to another country.  He shoves hard at the skinners, nervous guests of the nation yelling and flailing like hopeless Morris dancers, then the Kokanee Bandit plunges in himself, feet-first and sloppy, swimming with a little kid’s thrashing stroke far out into Quarantine Cove, into the tugs and log booms and gloomy Indian burial islands and colonial leper colonies and American submarines hiding under the freighters in the strait.  Staff gallop excitedly past the Buddhist shrine and the native sweat-lodge and vandalized Wicca altar, confer at the wharf that lifts on wash:  now what?  This is a new one for most of them.  The bullhorn lifted to lips, Excuse me, you’d better hightail it back in here right now!
“Cold day in hell when I come back to that goof-joint,” he yells over the water, breathing hard, hanging onto a log as if waiting for a Haida war canoe to zip by like an Uplands bus, spiky islands ranged behind him in an infinite granite archipelago.  Swimming is harder than he thought.  We laugh, egg him on, but I also wonder what the staff will do.
A guard produces a trim little shotgun and jams in two shells.  What would that baby bring in a pawnshop? we think collectively and all of us jump as he fires one loud shot at the Kokanee Bandit.  A tuft of wadding flows out from the shotgun as we jump and water flies up beside the Kokanee Bandit.  He lets go of the deadhead log to swim like a sullen dog back to shore.  Okay people, party’s over.  How depressing.
Our friend has been dubbed the Kokanee Bandit because he lifted a case of Kokanee beer on the way out of the 27 beer and wine stores he robbed.  His signature act, his claim to fame.  He could do a very convincing Kokanee beer commercial when he leaves prison if they wish to employ him.
You better wake up, he yelled at us on the shoreline, a sodden seedy moralist, and he yelled the same in court.  People on this island better wake up!  Bunch of pervs here!  This is the animal kingdom gone bad.  I’ll take Kent over all these fucking skinhounds.  I’ll take maximum security.  I like Kent, I love Kent!  In Kent I can think straight.
He waded shivering surf, chattering, hardly able to ambulate, yet our sky open and warm, weird birds in it pushing where they wish to push.  He’s right:  there are too many sex offenders here now; it creates some tension.
The William Head prisoners staged a vampire play years back and at night a convict escaped on a coffin, floating rough seas like Ishmael on a stage prop coffin.  I don’t know if the screws ever found this cowboy.  You could be drowning and you’re all alone and pulled eight directions in razor-rock channels.  Maybe the guy with the coffin got away.  Just this month an inmate with one leg tried to swim out through the riptides off the maintenance shop.  The amputee was in the fifth year of a fifteen-year bit.  Ten more years.  He could not wait.  He didn’t have a coffin to cling to.
Walking along the foggy shore at daylight I thought I saw plastic bags floating toward me, but it was our amputee, something syphoned from him, neck limp, his face down in the misty sea, white hands brushing the rocky shores of our very private peninsula.  Peninsulas that taper and distant peninsulas that end in a pencil line and sink under the waves with seabirds squabbling and whistling, grebes with their skinny necks and beady eyes diving under the amputee, and white noise waves that drive us to this shore, waves in my ears rhythmic and endless—don’t hear them after a while.  A tug in the distance yanking a barge, seeming to get nowhere.  The amputee went away briefly but he came right back to our bored arms, his brain put on hold (we value your call), no pulse, no red flash.  What exactly was inside that head that has left the building?  Where did it go?  Where did he go?  Escaped:  here but not here.  I found what was left to float like a jellyfish, dead man float we used to do at the city pool.  The sun feels kind but freezing seawater seizes your buffed-out muscles.  You try to move but your limbs are jelly, torn sails, a jail.
People from the city drive out to the jail to stare at plays we perform; cling to the Kangaroo Road, purchase a ticket at the country store and an affable prisoner chauffeurs you the last stretch in a green Corrections schoolbus.  Past the conjugal trailers, under the towers and videocams.  The old driver sells his cedar cigar boxes and native carvings to the visitors.  He’s become a good carver since he’s been inside.  Inside we favour Beckett, Sartre, Greek tragedies.  Our prison productions are festive and paranoid at the same time.
At William Head we live in housekeeping units with four bedrooms and dishes and chores and forks and steak knives.  It’s a new approach in Corrections, preparation for life in the world.  We have to take turns cooking, though one guy refuses and gets someone else to cook his day, exchanges some favour.  Some of these men do not know how to open a can or turn on a vacuum.  We are being taught how to turn on a vacuum.
However, two tough older cons in our common-room, fueled on homebrew, start arguing over which TV channel to watch (I kid you not) and out come the rolling pin and steak knives supplied care of the Feds.  First it’s the rolling pin to the teeth, and that old guy drops with splintered molars, he’s gone, he’s history, but then, to my amazement, he springs back up, mad and fast with a flashing steak knife.  Now Rolling Pin Guy crashes and hinges down on the new broadloom and Smashed Teeth Guy cuts the writhing man’s throat open, slashes this giant new mouth on the front of his gargling neck, then starts slowly sawing Rolling Pin guy’s head off while he’s still alive, cutting in a bloody methodical rage through the man’s voicebox, cutting and cutting at the knuckled links in the man’s spinal column like it’s a hard corn cob.
The bloody beheading takes some time, some diligence to draw toward an end for you, sir.  Smashed Teeth Guy’s applying himself, he’s mad, but knows a hawk from a handsaw, knows he’s never going free now.  Covered in blood, head bowed as if in prayer, fight suddenly gone from him.  There goes the new broadloom (Shout it out), there goes the new approach, the Alternative to Violence Workshops.  Back to the drawing-board, back to maximum security, back to the hold for No Teeth Guy, and no more pastel condo by the ocean.  Location location location!  Just when he was getting healthy, his teeth filled, his shit together.  Several of us roomies stare at him in shock, the half-severed head drooling blood at his knees, then we silently slide (wanting to vomit vapourous chunks) over to the next building with the pool table and telephone and mortified red mailbox; pretend we’ve been hanging there the whole time.
One traumatized roomie immediately transferred out to another prison; he couldn’t deal with it.  I have had Technicolour nightmares about this murder.  In one version I’m being beheaded.  In the other version I’m doing the beheading.  Don’t know which I like least.

You know what is a pain about prison? No-one cares about your beef but they all assume you’d love to hear theirs.  Everyone beefs all day long:  at the meals, at the pool table, watching TV, writing puzzled letters, washing the steak knives, feeding the resident raccoons and cats and deer under the coils of razor wire, bitching about case managers or useless city lawyers or bragging about women (slept with Tina Turner I did) or how much smack they’ve beaten through their bent liver or protesting their innocence (wasn’t me what pushed her off the balcony).  Standing around at lockdown, our brains of pink coral breathing like tongues, you hear the crackling walkie-talkies and older guards’ voices calling out in the dusk over the concertina wire and you think of people downtown at Swan’s pub lifting a cool pint of Bavarian with art on the walls and women walking between oak tables in light bouncing from the harbor and no jukebox songs about life in prison and on this shore our collection of brains under the rain clouds, the cloud factory behind the American mountains, our addled brains, our puzzled brains:  How’d I end up here?

Doubtless I will find trouble at the border from now on; men and women in uniform, and me blinking on their baby computers.  Our summer camp that never ends.
From the seat of my Case 580 backhoe our city seemed small and harmless in the distance, a puppet city hovering over water with angelic seaplanes riding high past hills, log booms and tugboats, sawdust barges and sailboats pulling splashing dinghies, flat-bottomed Zodiacs zipping fast as coffee through tricky channels, ripping through rocky islands right offshore and me swiveling nearly to and fro in my Yellow backhoe.
A million views: one person can not take them all in.  And when his house sits on the earth, one man will own each view I knew.  Property—the first hard division of the mantle of earth.  Will we be invited, industrious citizens that measured and made the mansion, those that swore and dug and hammered full of grim percussion?  Will we be invited back to the house we built?  Don’t hold your breath.  And if it was my house would I do any different?

One morning on that backhoe job the water was so low—a negative tide—that I walked to an island, scrambled slippery rocks in my city shoes, climbed a cliff and on top of the steep chimneyed island a windy complaining rookery.
This is my island now, I yelled at the wheeling birds.  Pay me rent!  I’m your new landlord!  The warden!  I’m your puppet.
I made bird faces and stomped about but was secretly careful not to disturb any nests in the tall yellow grass.  For seagulls I was considerate!  Is there any shortage of gulls?  No.  What a fool.  This island trek, this parting of the water made me happy.
In this negative tide I saw a sailboat strike an underwater rock with its keel.  They swore mightily, late for their regatta and drinks.  They couldn’t back off and sat to wait grumpily for the tide to lift them, give them freedom.  They were not there fifteen years.  

On the haul road rock trucks came and rock trucks went, doing rounders, and neighbours in sun-hats grumbled and stared but often I worked by myself.  No one on my case.  The grader broke down and the clay punched out of the haul road, leaving holes that break your back, drive your spine into your skull, but that was a decent job.
In the rock we drilled holes the width of hot dogs and blasted and split and scratched to find the T-shaped foundation drawn on the blueprints.
An old Newfoundland dog wandered down each morning to stand in deep water, to ease his sore bones amid the sea sorting and cooling its gravel and glass on the sloping beach and trees blossoming like Salish sweaters.
Occasionally the land owner drove out to watch, climbing out of his V-12 Mercedes with a childlike smile, his white Scottish face flushing with pleasure.  From the Old French plaisir:  to please.  He waited years to knock down his farmhouse.  Now he’s a laird lifting up a glass pyramid full of native art and star blankets.  A chain crossing the driveway with fluorescent ribbons whipping in the sea breeze.  Private Property.  He owns private property all over this city, a hotel and pub, a bakery, nightclubs, gentrified apartments.  No flies on this silver-haired boy.  He has no wife, no family, no tollbooths.  He has real estate and dotted lines and silver glasses and serial lawsuits.
My machine touched each of his stones lightly, convincing each block of the glacier’s rock where it must now live in the seawall.  I was like a mother with a precious infant child.  That light a touch.
Children on the beach imitated me, digging with plastic dump-trucks and tin excavators.  Three boys studied me, my yellow backhoe, read out CASE 580K from the shovel of my machine.  Three children studied me and I studied the rich man, as if he was a blueprint you could read.

When I have monied moments with monied people I study the trim words living in their symmetrical mouths and I try to think as they think, be like they might be, but in the flesh I can’t pin down what transpires, what exactly they prove, moment to buzzing moment, to claim and deserve it.
Perhaps this is like trying to watch someone pray.

The guards (the furniture we call them) confiscated my cat, trucked it to the SPCA.  I trained it to hide under the bed during inspections but someone reported it and they raided.  Sometimes the female guards are the hardest cases, which you don’t expect.  But I have made my peace with lowered expectations.  Often I am happy as a clam just to tag along for the ride, a passive passenger, mobile in terms of miles put on, but stretched out lazily in back of a roomy American-made car, say early Paul Butterfield Blues Band on the tape deck, Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, Butterfield and Bloomfield both on heroin, both dead now from their smack, all of our heads empty of maps, empty of nitpicking neurons or knowledge, head empty of destinations or covered granite islands.  I leave that responsibility, THAT, to someone else.
I am a fast form flitting under cool underpasses and gliding finely engineered shoulders and curves, these nearly perfect roads, these garden paths.  I am a savage luge rider rocketing through the amazing system but I’m not entirely engaged, not actually plugged in so to speak.  What is peripheral is pointed and pleasant.
I am not a wheelman, not a triggerman, just a passenger glancing up past hills of ponderosa pine to appreciate fully, to murmur in a stoned voice, Cool cloud.  Data and stardust up there in files, possibilities.  Sky is the best blue.  Is there a better blue?
Not a wheelman, I insisted to the court appointed lawyer.  A passenger.
The Crown hoped to prove I was a wheelman in the Penticton and Kelowna robberies where the Chinese kid got shot in the ass or the one where Werner claimed fruit punch in a syringe was AIDS blood.
I thought Werner’s prank with the syringe showed imagination.  The legal question:  does fruit punch constitute theatre or indictable weaponry?  Imagine it’s your parents’ store and the silver needle with the tiniest eye is aimed at you.  The eye never closed and the Crown wants Federal time for provincial transgressions.
Sea otters close their eyes clutching onto kelp; they tie themselves to kelp and sleep.  I saw several otters while working by the ocean.  I thought of them sleeping peacefully in the coast’s swaying kelp while we were on edge in the mountain blizzard or knocking over nervous drugstores in the Interior, our heads full of snow, mouths full of powdered donuts.  The pharmacies wait for you now, resigned, stoic; you are part of the equation, you are overhead, a business expense they would love to deduct.

My pale sister and her boyfriend Werner boosted a white van full of donuts and the three of us rolled happily toward Hope and the expensive hot springs and the sudden sullen mountains.
My sister didn’t know about the tollbooth at the top of the pass.  I was not thinking clearly; clearly I was a passenger.  I liken myself to Switzerland in the war.  We climbed straight into blizzard echelons in a van from Van with skinny summer tires that made us feel hardly conjoined to the icy hills and climbs and tense tunnels and curves.  

We were lunar, on some frozen bulbous moon, on a lightbulb.  Cars down the ditches and every car in the ditch looking like it had flown off sideways in a big swath, a swath that the snow and light started filling immediately, leaving the fine sedan stranded, a melancholy nervous vista.
My sister failed to read the fine print on the tires before she boosted the van.  You wish the murderous journey had no corners, you could just go straight with some dignity.  With ice, contact is erased, the contract changed.  You’re alone, abandoned, out of real time; it can’t help but seem a warning.  Your stomach drops from your abdomen but it’s also fun.
It wasn’t snowing in Vancouver; why on earth is it snowing up here?  The snowy tollbooth looms above us like a bleak windmill, an icy guard tower in dark glass and concrete and coffee breaks, lemon lights and wheeling whipping gusts testing the smoked windows.
At William Head the guards hate pulling time in the tower; the furniture get so bored watching over us pilgrims, watching the mindless waves and the empty parking-lot.
Why is the tollbooth leaning up here in the middle of nowhere stormy mountains?  The government must have its reasons.  Likely this was the first part of the highway completed before Expo 86.  They put the tollbooth here to start collecting revenue, some dinero.  The staff drives hours to get to work, to stand guard where sharp fir and dark unfocused mountains dwarf our paltry line of vehicles huddled in snow and exhaust vapour and tail-lights, cars stopping as if at a cold war checkpoint and a camera hanging above, giving us the lubricated eyeball.
Werner!  You have any money for the tollbooth?  Nope.
Three losers who can’t come up with ten bucks between us.  What are we going to do?  

My sister was amazing talking to the woman working the tollbooth.  My sister rolled down her window, drew in breath, and soon she had ME believing that my mother was dead, that we were speeding to the funeral in Jasper, beside ourselves, no time to think, no time to stop by our bank, stunned by the terrible news, our loss, upset, grieving, moping misty-eyed at the thought of our sad bereavement.  Werner’s face beside me was both red and white like some European flag.
My sister was unnaturally good.  Our loss started to be real, and I began to pine for this imaginary mother whom I imagined as resembling an older Betty Crocker.
Hang on Ma!  We’re coming Ma!
My sister should be in Hollywood, she’s wasting her life (unlike the rest of us).  Depths and tempting green hallways in her eyes and a golden sensual tongue.  Definitely Oscar material.  The camera likes her, but it can’t catch her.
The woman working the tollbooth listened and considered, a tight mailbox of a mouth, then she paid our $10 toll out of her own pocket.  She handed my sister an empty brown envelope.  The clerk had written her own name and clerk number on the empty envelope.
On the way back drop off this envelope with the $10, okay?
The woman at the tollbooth (You’re a lifesaver!) also gave us a tiny receipt which my sister let flutter to the floor of the stolen van where it would be discovered later, after the robberies, by the RCMP who always get their man and where women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply.

In Remand my mind went back to my lazy excavation work, running the backhoe by the ocean with rusty Russian freighters and seals drifting past me.  Sailboats with the jib and mainsail down, a little toy engine pushing, tall naked masts moving the way giraffes on television move their long lonely necks, masts moving awkwardly past on slow rhythmic waves, and I’d be hitting a midden pile, crunching into the past, shells and bones and carbon stripes, my bucket grinding into some Songhees tribe with the white sea in their head, the white sea in my head.
My straw-boss made it clear:  you hit any middens or dead and gone tribes or skulls or bones or graves or native artifacts you keep digging.  Don’t tell a soul.
I dream of running the backhoe in sunlight off the sea, but I want to make this clear.  I don’t pity myself now.  I pity myself back then, whistling and working happily, not knowing that I was going to jail and fingered for a rat, that I’d come out of court and find a dead rat in a plastic bag on the front seat of my Rambler.  I was working on that seawall just as innocent as a baby with building blocks and the fact is no baby knows a thing worth a tinker’s damn, that’s how I feel right now.

The RCMP find the receipt.  They talk to the tollbooth staff.  We’re all there still on snowy video, every car rolling through like smoke is recorded on video.  They watch the clerk hand us a brown envelope, back it up, watch her hand it over again.
Why sure, she remembers, I lent them $10.  They gave me donuts for the whole staff.  And me trying to slim down.  A few days later they came through again going south and dropped off my $10.  Paid me back.
They paid you back?!  Brought back the $10?!  The RCMP are in shock.
The RCMP go back to the video, fast forward to the right day and see the taxi we took from Kamloops enroute back to Vancouver, the taxi with the plush purple upholstery and the East Indian driver who leased it.  I like cruising in those big V-8 American numbers:  Rollin rollin rollin keep those dawgies rollin.  On the video they can make out the cab’s number and company logo.  They call up the driver in Kamloops.
Yes yes, says the driver, yes I remember them:  I always insist on cash on the dash, pay up front and they did.  Much cash.  They were drinking alcohol, they were gunned, they were testing the portal vein.

–Mr. Driver?  You having fun?
–Oh yes.  I am having fun.
–We’re fun people!
–Leave him be.
–I want to talk to our chauffeur.  I want to make sure everyone’s happy.
–Yeah yeah right.  Good road.  Why is it here?
–It’s easier than the Hell’s Canyon route.
–And because the suntanned Premier and his suntanned friends bought a bunch of real estate up this way.

Here’s the address in Vancouver, the taxi driver tells the police.  One guy got out by himself near the Sky Train, but the couple I dropped off at this address.
They gave their own address!  Why didn’t Werner and my sister get out down the block?  Why give your own address?  Retards.
Everyone concerned remembers us.  They must all be taking those Dale Carnegie lessons.
If I hadn’t insisted on stopping to pay back the $10 we would not have been picked up.  I thought it would be a classy touch to pay the clerk back.  Bonnie and Clyde.
The SWAT crew put on their strangest black and yellow costumes and, hyped for door-wrecking, drove straight to my sister’s address in Kitsilano, knew exactly where to find them, so Werner and my sister become convinced I ratted on them, cut a deal with the narc squad.  All because we paid the woman in the tollbooth her $10 back.

The Crown decided I’m the wheelman, and not just a passenger.  As they say in the darkest fields of Texas, if you hang long enough you get used to hanging.

Werner tried to explain his idea to me by the orchard the bank had repossessed:  A thief steals something it’s because he put a value on it, but now a fascist takes something because you put a value on it.  Of course the net result is the same, he giggles.
Oh, thanks for clearing that up, Weiner.

In the backhoe’s worn out seat, I alone controlled the levers, pushed hydraulics like blood in an artery wall, I had power and vision, my back like teeth on a string.  I pretended I was a Pharoah’s architect piecing together a new tomb in the Valley of the Kings.  That time on the beach working for a rich man seems like someone else’s time now.  I was a puppy, a chicken; now I’m a new fish.

Pre-fish.  Trying to decide who to rob.  You assume the mellow neighbourhood grocery keeps a whack of dough around; they must be flogging hundreds of Lotto tickets when the jackpot climbs up near $17 million.  But the whole Chinese family comes running out to defend their stash, lay some chopsocky karate moves on Werner and my stunned sister.
Werner went down like a tree under this crazy family, his finger on the slim silver gun and his gun popped, action, reaction, and there’s a stray cap embedded in this teenage kid’s skinny ass and he’s okay but mama-san is freaking, ends up down writhing on the floor.  She has a bad heart.  The store has it on video.  Smile.  Cameras everywhere now.
Werner and sister exit stage left.  Obviously the kid’s not totally happy getting shot in the ass, but it’s nothing serious.  The mother, however, decides on a heart attack and in the voir dire the lawyers say this doesn’t look so good, they’re implying her heart attack is our fault, that her heart attack opens yet another can of worms.  $650 Werner paid for a clean gun.  Weapons charges carry a minimum four-year bit under the new laws.

While they were shooting this skinny kid in his skinny bullet-prone ass I was in the Toyota rice-burner waiting, parked by a school (grocery stores always by a school).  Toyotas are easy to get into.  I guess in Japan they don’t steal.
The donut van already history; we ditched it by an orchard near Naramata on that windy road by the repossessed orchard.  Werner and my sister thought it wise to change vehicles, take the Toyota, lose the van, get rid of evidence, links.  They thought they were using their brain.

When my day in court came I admit I was graceless trash, was less than articulate.  The Xerox in pieces on the floor and nowhere lawyers sweating and popping Rolaids by slabs of marble and coffee tasting like a foreign language.  Not my world.  I am not a rat, I decided looking around the courthouse.  I decided to say nothing in this world.
Clerk: You have to stand up to be sworn.  Please take the Bible in your right hand.  Please state your full name for the court.
Me: I’m not testifying.
Judge: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.
Clerk: Spell your last name.
Me: I’m not testifying.
Clerk: You have to stand up.
Me: Charge me.  Whatever you want.
Judge: I find you guilty of contempt in the face of this court.
Me: Up yours.
Judge: I sentence you to a period of incarceration of six months consecutive to any–
Me: Fuck you, you goof.
Judge: –time now being served or assigned.
Me: Goof.
Judge: Get him out of here.
Crown: I think the case has not been advanced by that witness’ attendance.
Judge: That would seem to be the case.
Crown: No further evidence to call.
I tried to demonstrate to an invisible audience that I am not a rat, not a performing seal, not a killer whale jumping through a hoop (jumping the waves that drive us to this shore).

The children play with plastic bulldozers and the children’s mother finds the dead otter on the beach and throws the otter’s limp carcass in the bushes so the kids won’t see something like that.  Her children play with bulldozers in the sand.  Why can’t you share? she asks in tense falsetto.  Why can’t you share?  A blond boy hammers together a raft from long driftwood logs, wanting to strike out, escape.
Some predator found the otter while it was dreaming tied into the kelp, tied up, while Werner’s arm was tied off, while we were driving the donut van in the Interior.  In the Interior we entered towns that consisted of FOR SALE signs where it seemed entire populations were herniated.  Sun-wrinkled dwarves in those orchard towns.  Repo men and tow trucks and bailiffs took away their most valued pieces.  There were sun-wrinkled dwarves in those orchard towns offered extended warranties, new roofs, earthquake insurance, Lotto tickets.  And we were the same, took from them just a little more.  How do you like them apples?

I picked apples here in these hot spicy valleys.  Plums too.  Peaches full of beetles but beautiful plump cherries, if the rain didn’t split them.  The Bank of Montreal owned the orchard on the hilly meadows that slanted down to the cliff above the lake.
Alive in aluminum, we shall gather by the trailer park, by the river, or we’ll sleep on the grass strip beside the beach until the programmed sprinklers come on in the middle of the night to soak us and keep us moving, keep us away from the beach, keep the tourists from seeing our bent figures dragging sodden U.S. army sleeping-bags.

The rich man with property wanted a channel carved, wanted real seawater to cut right under his palace of iron girder and glass so his suspect men friends inside the house will be suitably impressed gazing at a piece of ocean brought inside or maybe they’ll drop their sore ugly feet in the saltwater and wait for some rough trade equivalent of Mary Magdalene with her long convenient hair and questionable heritage.
I wondered if this channel idea was legal.  The rich man did not hold a gun to my head.  The children play, do not want to share.  The children’s paths are faint in the sawgrass and wildflowers.  The man’s property is above the high-water mark.  Below that is public land.  Below that belongs to all of us.

At the tollbooth I tried to do the right thing, pay the $10 back my sister conned, pay back the woman, and that $10 was the only link to us, the only evidence, and it sunk us, sunk me.  I did it and someday they’ll try to get me, maybe sink a sharpened toothbrush into my kidney.  That would be original.
I have my Class I with Air, my Dangerous Goods Certificate, my WHMIS card; I’ve built and destroyed, rattled up and down punched out haul roads with my sore back like a pinched-nerve concertina, climbed into black halls of mountains and into eye-piercing points of television light.  I’ve been an incoherent passenger lying over the gnashing gears and I’ve been a wheelman working rented reptile sides of my brain.  But I am not a rat.  I refuse to sit on the rat side of the pier.  I won’t fish on that goof-ghetto side of the pier.  I don’t want to be shoved in freezing Quarantine Cove or feel a sharpened toothbrush ratchet and maneuver between my ribs.  But really, who does?
Should I have dug that channel on the shore?  I wore cool sunglasses and ingested inhalers, a village idiot bombing my own larder, a shovel with hands crunching madly in middens, a stuttering machine with sugar and sand swimming in the gas tank.
The rich man does not own the shoreline.  I own the shore if you want to get technical.


Mark Anthony Jarman currently teaches at the University of New Brunswick and is the author of 19 KnivesMy White Planetamong others books. His novel, Salvage King Ya!, is on Amazon.ca’s list of 50 Essential Canadian Books. He has been short-listed for the O. Henry Prize and Best American Essays, won a Gold National Magazine Award in nonfiction, the Maclean-Hunter Endowment Award (twice), and the Jack Hodgins Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in WalrusCanadian GeographicHobartThe Barcelona ReviewVrig Nederland, and reviews in The Globe and Mail. A graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Yaddo fellow, he has previously taught at the University of Victoria. 

100 Notable/Best Books of Fiction from India – 2020: by The Bombay Review

2020 brings out a chorus response: Oh, what a terrible year this has been! It remains a claim undisputed in its fury and exhausted in its tone. Literature, in its characteristic ways, continued to persist. It captured India’s dalliance with the year of the pandemic. Some books probed the present, some turned to the past. Some won awards, some sold tens of thousands of copies, and some will gain acclaim a decade down the line. But they all are India.

So, when we sat down to pick the most notable Indian fiction of the year, we hoped to do justice to the layered, diverse and multicultural literary landscape of the country. It was a tough call picking the odd titles that, in our opinion, presented a whole-bodied picture of this year’s literary gale.

We tried our best to be representative and inclusive — of individual and shared identities. Some points to note are:

  • Translations make about 25% of this list here.
  • There are books from 26 different publishers: from Stree Samya and Panther’s Paw to Penguin Random House and HarperCollins.
  • The writing is from across the country: from Assam and Kashmir, to Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
  • Genres include a variety of forms – from mythology and folklore to science fiction and immigration; short fiction collections and novels.

Is this an imperfect list? Maybe. Curations of ‘the best’ literary works pack excitement and much-needed closure, but trying to summarize Indian fiction in one list seems, simplistic, to say the least. Our selections may not be your selections, but they are a good starting point to visit (or re-visit) Indian fiction in its plurality.

It is as the American-Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “If we have people with the power to tell a story, there will always be readers. I don’t think that human nature is going to change to such a degree that people will stop being interested in a work of imagination.” And herein lies a summary of that interest, and the pinnacle of our imagination.  

Note: Book love/choice/comfort is subjective and we like to believe we have kept an absolutely open mind. There is surely a possibility that we missed a book or two or three, simply because we have specific tastes and are relearning a lot of things. To that end, we have kept 5 spots open in this list – to accommodate and listen. Please let us know if you think a title should be on this list! We will update it accordingly. (Should have been released in 2020, from a traditional publisher) Looking forward to your comments!

Opportunity: Do you want to review a title or more from here? Write to us with a pitch, our website is here. Review copies will be sent to you, along with a modest commission subject to solicitation conditions. (Our 17k email subscribers receive each published review in their email – so, your review can light up someone’s reading list!)

Happy reading, onwards; to more books, more writing, and less masks.

by Saumya Kalia,
Jyotirg, Kaartikeya, Raashi,
and the entire team of The Bombay Review.

December, 2020

 

100 NOTABLE WORKS OF FICTION FROM INDIA – 2020

A Ballad of Remittent Fever: A Novel
By Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, Translated by Arunava Sinha
Aleph Book Company | Rs 591 | 304 pages

“Covering a span of 100-odd years from the late 19th to late 20th century, this novel about  medicine, modernity and medical heroism resonates with the times we are in,” JCB Prize for Literature jury 

About: In the early years of the twentieth century, Calcutta is grappling with deadly diseases such as the plague, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and kala-azar caused by viruses, bacteria, and other infectious organisms. The populace is restive under British rule, and World War I looms large on the horizon. Set against this tumultuous backdrop, is an indelible tale of loss, hope, love, and mortality. Distinctive and beautifully wrought, A Ballad of Remittent Fever is a stunning exploration of the world of medicine and the ordinary miracles performed by physicians in the course of their daily lives. Originally published in the Bengali as Abiram Jwarer Roopkatha, this is one of the most original novels to have come out of India in the twenty-first century.

Tags: Translation, Translation from Bengali, Pandemic


A Burning
By Megha Majumdar
Penguin Hamish Hamilton | Rs 599 | 304 pages

‘Megha Majumdar writes about the ripple effects of our choices, the interconnectedness of our humanity, with striking beauty and clarity. A stunning debut,’ Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom

About: This is an electrifying debut novel about three unforgettable characters who find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe. They seek to rise-to the middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies. One is Jivan, a Muslim girl from the slums accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. The second is PT Sir, an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, only to find his own ascent linked to Jivan’s fall. And the third is Lovely, an irresistible outcast who has an alibi that can set Jivan free-but at the cost of everything she holds dear. Majumdar writes with dazzling assurance, at a breakneck pace, on complex themes that read as the components of a thriller: class, fate, corruption, justice and what it feels like to face profound obstacles while nurturing big dreams in a country spinning towards extremism.


A Drop of Blood
By Joginder Paul, Translated by Snehal Shingavi
Penguin Modern Classics | Rs 319 | 122 pages

“Blood is an extended metaphor for class exploitation in this scathing satire,” – Irfan Aslam, for The Hindu (18th July, 2020)

About: Mohan Karan has been blessed with exceptional good looks-and a rare blood type. An orphan with few connections, he finds that his degree in English literature is unable to secure him a proper job. However, he discovers he can make good money by selling his blood to a private blood bank. This short, blistering novel launched Joginder Paul’s literary career, cleverly exploring the insidious ways in which the mighty habitually prey upon the vulnerable. Incisive in its observations, A Drop of Blood also ably tackles themes of female desire. Snehal Shingavi’s lucid translation makes this important work available in English for the first time.

Tags: Thriller, Women/Feminism


A Plate of White Marble
By Bani Basu, Translated by Nandini Guha
Niyogi Books | Rs 450 | 328 pages

This is the story of the evolution of the ‘new woman’ of an era that has seen the dawn of Indian Independence,” Ganesh Saili, for The New Indian Express (17th October, 2020)

About: First published in 1990 in the original Bengali, a plate of white marble tells the tale of the ‘new woman’ of the post-Independence an era that just witnessed the independence of a nation bandana, the protagonist, though grieves over her husband early death, never conforms to the social connotation and ideals of ‘widowhood’, thanks to her uncle. She dares to begin her life afresh in every possible sense. But naturally, the road proves to be full of thorns as she gradually faces bitterness from many quarters of the society. This first translation brings this significant Bengali novel with important social concerns to a wider audience.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Bengali, Post-partition literature, Women/Feminism


Amnesty
By Arvind Adiga
Pan Macmillan | Rs 699 | 272 pages

“A mesmerising, breakneck quest of a novel; a search for the true sense of self, for the answer to a moral dilemma which damns either way,” – Andrew McMillan, author of Physical and Playtime

About: Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an illegal immigrant in Sydney, denied refugee status after he has fled from his native Sri Lanka. Working as a cleaner, living out of a grocery storeroom, for three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself. But then one morning, Danny learns a female client of his has been murdered. Over the course of a single day, evaluating the weight of his past, his dreams for the future, and the unpredictable, often absurd reality of living invisibly and undocumented, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities. Propulsive, insightful, and full of Aravind Adiga’s signature wit and magic, Amnesty is both a timeless moral struggle and a universal story with particular urgency today.

Tags: Thriller, Booker Prize Winner Author,


Ahalya: The Sati Series
By Koral Dasgupta
Pan Macmillan | Rs 299 | 216 pages

“Koral Dasgupta gives voice, character, and agency to an enigmatic and fascinating female figure from ancient Hindu lore,” – Philip Lutgendorf, author of The Life of a Text: Performing the Rāmcaritmānas of Tulsidas and Hanuman’s Tale, The Messages of a Divine Monkey

About: It is known that Ahalya was cursed by her husband, Gautam, for indulging in a physical relationship with Indra. But is there another story to Ahalya’s truth? Who was Indra anyway? A king? A lover? A philanderer? The first book of the Sati series, Ahalya hinges on these core questions, narrating the course of her life, from innocence to infidelity. The five books of the Sati series reinvent these women and their men, in the modern context with a feminist consciousness.

Tags: Series, Mythology, Feminism/Women


A Tamil Month
By V Sanjay Kumar
Bloomsbury India | Rs 599 | 336 pages

An irreverent look at Tamil Nadu in which crime, caste, politics, and art come together to make an eclectic cocktail,” Mani Ratnam

About: Tamil Nadu – where there are more temples than pharmacies, where atheists have ruled for half a century provided they were atheists from the right caste. Tamil Nadu, where the young population is ripe for a revolution. At least this is what Nanban thinks, coming from the hub of Mumbai and well-versed in its Machiavellian political ways, he plans to shake things up. V Sanjay Kumar weaves a political thriller as compelling as it is incisive, about the human factor and the vested interests that spark change and about an Indian state which is older than time and just as stubborn.

Tags: Tamil Nadu, Thriller


A Bit of Everything
By Sandeep Raina
Context | Rs 599 | 272 pages

A novel driven by the need to confront, record and understand the never-ending tragedy of Kashmir,” – Tabish Khair, for The Hindu (5th December, 2020)

About: Varmull, nestled amidst the mighty Pir Mountains and the Jhelum River, with its small-town familiarity exchanged in quiet lanes, has always been home. Until violence overwhelms the streets, and there is no option but to flee. For six punishing summers in a sweltering Delhi barsati, Rahul, Doora and their young son try to push back their memories and their longing for Kashmir. It isn’t long then before Rahul flees again, this time to England, where he hopes he will not have to make these choices: Pandit or Kashmiri? Rational intellectual or wounded exile? Expat or refugee? As he struggles to survive his foreignness, stumbling from one accidental relationship to another, a series of bombings in London blasts Kashmir right back into his life. A devastating exploration of what it means to lose one’s home, A Bit of Everything lays bare the many ways in which the violence of a land tears apart the everyday lives of its people.

Tags: Kashmir


Analog/Virtual and Other Simulations of Your Future
By Lavanya Lakshminarayan
Hachette India | Rs 399 | 320 pages

“Lavanya Lakshminarayan has skilfully crafted a series of interwoven stories about a frighteningly plausible near future scenario, rooted in the extrapolation of today’s worship of technology and productivity…” – S.B. Divya, author of Nebula Award-nominated Runtime

About: The world’s nations have collapsed, and a handful of city states form the remains of civilization. Erstwhile Bangalore is now rebranded, ruled by the insidious Bell Corporation.Welcome to Apex City. Here, technology is the key to survival, productivity is power, and the self must be engineered for the only noble goal in life: success. Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s extraordinary debut sinks its teeth into this dystopian future, offering a glimpse into a world we may be dangerously close to inheriting. Brilliant, searing and imaginative, the stories in Analog/Virtual will make us question our choices and rethink who we want to be.

Tags: Dystopian fiction, Technology


Anamika: A Tale of Desire in a Time of War
By Lord Meghnad Desai
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295 | 232 pages

‘The novel is a page-turning potboiler, abound with beautiful, nubile women, valorous noblemen, aristocrats warring over power and riches, and princes drunk on the love of their women,” – Aradhika Sharma, for The Tribune (11th October, 2020)

About: It is the eighteenth century. Emperor Aurangzeb has fallen, the Mughal Empire is a shadow of its former self, and India is rife with civil war. When the beautiful Savitri, the only daughter of the Chief Minister of Purana Zilla, marries into a rich merchant household in Ranipur, she becomes Anamika. This powerful, magnetic stranger upsets the balance of her everyday life, thrusting both Anamika and Abhi into a newfound world of intoxicating freedom, conflicting desires and deadly deceit. Crossing paths with a wide and motley cast of soldiers, assassins, courtesans, eunuchs, princes and queens, Anamika must make bold choices and adopt many names for the sake of both desire and survival.

Tags: Fantasy, Thriller


Avasthe: A Novel
By U.R. Ananthamurthy., Translated by Narayan Hedge
Harper Perennial India | Rs 499 | 240 pages

A masterpiece that will continue to speak to generations,” – K. Satchidanandan, winner of Sahitya Akademy award

About: First published in Kannada in 1978, Avasthe is U.R. Ananthamurthy’s tour de force. In a nation struggling with corruption and the corrosion of human values, the Prime Minister is all set to become a ruthless dictator. From his sickbed, Krishnappa Gowda, revolutionary leader of the peasants, grapples with his conscience, the schemes of partymen and flattery from hangers-on. In Ananthamurthy’s hands, life’s cruel negations – caste, poverty, pettiness – are delicately balanced with its triumphs – the splendour of nature, the majesty of poetry, the delight of friendship, the deliverance of love. The quintessential Indian novel, Avasthe is a masterpiece whose meanings will continue to resonate and reveal themselves long after it has been read.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Kannada


Bhairavi: The Runaway
By Shivani Gaura Pant, Translated by Priyanka Sarkar
Simon & Schuster India – Yoda Press | Rs 399 | 208 pages

Shivani was probably not feted by the Hindi establishment precisely because she was popular, particularly popular with women — and not with literary-minded ones. Reading Bhairavi: The Runaway revealed the possible reasons for that vast popularity.’ – Firstpost, November 2020

About: A still, dense, ancient forest. A dark cave deep within. And in it a woman-child whose beauty can move the most pious to sin. Who is she and why did she jump from a moving train to land in the biggest cremation ground teeming with aghori sadhus? In this story spanning generations and redolent with Gothic imagery, Shivani urf Gaura Pant tells the story of a woman’s life, her moral and mental strength and her resilience. She also examines the choices women have in her beautiful, descriptive prose. With an erudite foreword by her daughter and scholar, Mrinal panda, and a preface by the translator, this book is Shivani for the 21st-century reader.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Hindi, Women/Feminism


Body and Blood
By Benyamin, Translated by Swarup B.R.
Harper Perennial India | Rs 499 | 240 pages

“Remarkable … closely reported, sharply insightful, richly readable,” – Ramachandra Guha

About: Amidst all this, where does the Christ who was crucified belong? When Midhun is injured in a hit-and-run incident, no one can anticipate that the minor scrapes and wounds he has sustained will suddenly turn fatal. But that is exactly what happens, and after his death, his organs are donated and end up saving several lives. Soon, however, his friends Rithu and Ragesh and his lover, Sandhya, begin to suspect there is more to the story than meets the eye. Following the lives of men and women caught in a web of criminally orchestrated accidents and medically induced comas, Benyamin’s latest novel Body and Blood is by turns introspective and thrilling a meditation on faith and God that also holds up a mirror to the power and corruption of organized religion.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Malayalam


Boons and Curses
By Yugal Joshi
Rupa Publications India | Rs 294 | 264 pages

About: It is said that Kunti fulfilled her desires and ambitions through her sons, the Pandavas, resulting in the bloodbath in Kurukshetra. And once the truth struck her she sought help from Krishna to get rid of her guilt. Krishna became Kunti’s moral guardian, a conversation began, from which emerged fascinating tales of women in mythology. In this brilliant retelling, Kunti is placed at the center of the novel. These are the stories of resolve, exploits, revenge, sacrifice and affectionately together they give us a deeper understanding of the legendary women in India.

Tags: Mythology, Feminism/Women


Boy in a Blue Pullover
By Ruskin Bond
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295 | 224 pages

About: In this collection, Ruskin Bond—the writer from the mountains—brings to life the many facets of the place he calls home. The people here may not have the big luxuries of life, but they are satisfied with the small joys because Nature provides for them in abundance. Just like the poor boy in a blue pullover, who is overjoyed at finding a coin with which he can buy himself a buckle for his belt; little Rakesh, who feels like God on having successfully grown a cherry tree in his Grandfather’s garden; or Binya and her village folk, who covet not money or jewels, but a pretty blue umbrella. Each short story, essay and poem in Boy in a Blue Pullover is like a whiff of fresh mountain air.

Tags: Ruskin Bond is a Tag, Mussoorie


Brink
By By SL Bhyrappa; translated by R Ranganath Prasad
Niyogi Books Pvt Ltd | Rs 500 | 420 pages

“…Brink demands that the reader, at some level, participate in the relationship as it unfolds between the main characters, by taking sides and attempting to think through its particulars,” – Karthik Venkatesh, for Deccan Herald (1st November, 2020) 

 About: The English translation of the epic Kannada novel anchu by the renowned author S.L. Bhyrappa, brink is a love saga between Somashekhar, a Widower, and Amrita, an estranged woman. The novel deliberates on the moral, philosophical, and physical aspects of love between a man and a woman. At the core of the story is compassion, and Somashekhar is the very personification of compassion. He brings love and warmth into Dr Amrita’s melancholic life. Packed with internal drama, tension, and flashbacks, the book promises to impart an aesthetic experience to the reader.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Kannada


Chaturanga (Baahubali: Before The Beginning)
By Anand Neelakantan
Westland India | Rs 399 | 320 pages

About: Political intrigue is astir in the land of Mahishmathi. After the failed coup staged by the Vaithalikas, Sivagami finds herself elevated to the position of bhoomipathi, from where she can more ably pursue her burning goal to avenge her father’s death. Meanwhile, there is a tussle between the two sons of the maharaja of Mahishmathi for the crown. And behind the scenes, a wily, skilled player of the political game moves the pieces to topple the king, Somadeva. Will the maharaja—usually able to match wits with the best of them—prevail? Set against a backdrop of ambition, love, loyalty, passion and greed, the second book in the Bāhubali: Before the Beginning series is a twist-a-minute page-turner—riveting and deeply satisfying.

Tags: Fantasy, Series


Chosen Spirits
By Samit Basu
Simon & Schuster India | Rs 499 | 234 pages

“Chosen Spirits … brings Orwellian dystopia and satire closer home …its vision of technological surveillance is as soul-chilling as it is brilliant; and the violence without being graphic is relentless on your peripheral vision,” – Diyasree Chattopadhyay, for Scroll.in (9th May, 2020)

About: Joey is a Reality Controller, in charge of the livestream of a charismatic and problematic celebrity in smog-choked, water-short, ever-transforming Delhi — a city on the brink of revolution, under the shadow of multiple realities and catastrophes – at the end of the 2020s. When Joey impulsively rescues a childhood friend, Rudra, from his new-elite family and the comfortable, horrific life they have chosen for him, she sets into motion a chain of events — a company takeover, a sex scandal, a series of betrayals — that disintegrates not just their public and private selves, but the invisible walls that divide the city around them. 

Tags: Thriller, Dystopian Satire


Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
By Deepa Anappara
Penguin Random House India | Rs 499 | 320 pages

“A profoundly emphatic work of creative genius that will stay with you forever,” – Sonia Faleiro, author of Beautiful Thing

About: Nine-year-old Jai drools outside sweet shops, watches too many reality police shows and considers himself to be smarter than his friends Pari and Faiz. When a classmate goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from TV to find him. But what begins as a game turns sinister as other children start disappearing from their neighbourhood. Jai, Pari and Faiz have to confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force and rumours of soul-snatching djinns. As the disappearances edge ever closer to home, the lives of Jai and his friends will never be the same again. Drawing on real incidents and a spate of disappearances in metropolitan India, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is extraordinarily moving, flawlessly imagined and a triumph of suspense. 

Tags: Thriller

Dalit Lekhika: Women’s Writings from Bengal
By Kalyani Thakur Charal and Sayantan Dasgupta
Stree – Samya Books | Rs 500 | 150 pages

“…bears witness to the lives of the oppressed women who write their own stories,” – Women’s Web

About: This selection from Bangla writing comprises of translated short stories and poems penned by Bengali Dalit women. Compelled to publish their own works in forms of literary journals, little magazines, and collected anthologies; which also offered space for fellow Dalit women writers to bring out their tales. Literary Magazines run by women played a key role in encouraging more writers. Kalyani Thakur Charal and Sayatan Dasgupta have brought together the focus on gender-caste and gender-class relationships with the language of Dalit Bengali women which has been overlooked and deliberately omitted for far too long.

Tags:  Bengali Literature, Cultural Studies, Dalit Literature, Feminism, Feminist Books, Gender, Gender Studies, Identity, Indian Feminism, Personal Writing, South Asia, Translation, Women


Delhi: A Soliloquy
By M Mukunda, Translated by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K
Eka Publishers | Rs 799 | 544 pages

“A gorgeous portrait of the lives of Malayali migrants in New Delhi during a turbulent period of India’s history. Simultaneously nostalgic and unflinching, evocative and savage…Mukundan is a writer of immense power and refinement.” —Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger

About: It is the 1960s. Delhi is a city of refugees and dire poverty. The Malayali community is just beginning to lay down roots, and the government offices at Central Secretariat, as well as hospitals across the city, are infused with Malayali-ness. This is the Delhi young Sahadevan makes his home, with the help of Shreedharanunni, committed trade union leader and lover of all things Chinese. As India tumbles from one crisis to another—the Indo-Pak War, the refugee influx of the 1970s, the Emergency and its excesses, the riots of 1984—Sahadevan is everywhere, walking, soliloquising and aching to capture it all, the adversities and the happiness. 

Tags: Translation, translation from Malayalam

Destination Wedding
By Diksha Basu
Ballantine Books | Rs 499  | 304 pages

“A witty and romantic novel perfect for all readers,”—Terry McMillan, author of It’s Not All Downhill from Here

About: When Tina Das finds herself at a crossroads both professionally and personally, she wonders if a weeklong trip to Delhi for her cousin’s lavish wedding might be just the right kind of escape. Tina hopes this destination wedding, taking place at Delhi’s poshest country club, Colebrookes, will be the perfect way to reflect and unwind. But with the entire Das family in attendance, a relaxing vacation is decidedly not in the cards. Infused with warmth and charm, Destination Wedding grapples with the nuances of family, careers, belonging, and how we find the people who make a place feel like home.

Tags: South Asia, Personal Writing, Feminism/Women


Estuary
By Perumal Murugan, Translated by Nandini Krishnan
Eka Publishers | Rs 499 | 256 pages

“Estuary is a free-flowing ride down a stream of consciousness that few authors can successfully achieve,” – Shrestha Saha, for The Telegraph (29th July, 2020)

About: Estuary brings alive the different ways—absurd and endearing by turns—in which a man and his young son navigate the contemporary world. In the process, it peels back the layers of Kumarasurar’s loneliness: the hurt of a married man whose wife cares only for the happiness of their child, the endless monotony of an office job, and the struggle of the salaried middle-class to give their children the best chance of success. Through a meditative exploration of a father’s emotional landscape, Murugan tells of a world wrecked by unchecked consumerism and an obsession with growth, where technology overrides common sense and degrees don’t guarantee education. And, with characteristic tenderness, he also weaves in a way to redemption.

Tags:  Translation, Translation from Tamil, Cultural Studies


Each of Us Killers
By Jenny Bhatt
7.13 Books | Rs 1,795 | 178 pages

“Ambitious, sensitive, this collection locates some essential Indian truths, especially its hidden violence,” – Prayaag Akbar, author of Leila

About: Set in the American Midwest, England, and India (Mumbai, Ahmedabad, rural Gujarat) the stories in Each of Us Killers are about people trying to realize their dreams and aspirations through their professions. Whether they are chasing money, power, recognition, love, or simply trying to make a decent living, their hunger is as intense as any grand love affair. Straddling the fault lines of class, caste, gender, nationality, globalization, and more, they go against sociocultural norms despite challenges and indignities until singular moments of quiet devastation turn the worlds of these characters–auto-wallah, housemaid, street vendor, journalist, architect, baker, engineer, saree shop employee, professor, yoga instructor, bartender, and more–upside down.

Tags: Cultural Studies, South Asia, Personal Writing, Feminism/Women


Future Tense
By Nitisha Kaul
HarperCollins India | Rs 499  | 308 pages

“A poignant meditation on young lives caught up in the sweep of history and politics. Nitasha Kaul is a fearless Kashmiri voice,”’ – Mirza Waheed, author of Tell Her Everything

About: The son of a former militant, Fayaz is an aimless bureaucrat whose marriage to his wife Zeenat has broken down. His nephew Imran is a young student, a misfit in Srinagar, hoping to join a new kind of spectacular resistance. Shireen, the granddaughter of a spy, discovers how her painful and divisive family story is deeply intertwined with the history of Kashmir. The paths of these characters intersect and diverge in Nitasha Kaul’s tour de force novel Future Tense, which traces the competing trajectories of modernity and tradition, freedom and suffocation, and the possibility of bridging the stories of different kinds of Kashmiris.

Tags: Kashmir, Women writing, Conflict writing, Identity


Goner
By Tazmeen Amna
Penguin eBury Press | Rs 299  | 248 pages

“Effectively conveys the few highs and many lows of a depressed mind,” – Preethy Ramamoorthy, for The Hindu (18th September, 2020)

About: She’s a young woman going through a mid-twenties crisis, trying to deal with the dark and intoxicating side of life with haunting memories of an abusive ex-boyfriend, remnants of a broken family and obvious mental health issues. With no job, a failing art career, months of expensive therapy, a cast on her leg and a mystery man in her life, will she be able to recover from her embarrassing wastefulness? Can she defeat her infamous trait of self-sabotage and manoeuvre her way through some hard-hitting truths?

Tags: Women, Mental health, Personal writing


Girl in White Cotton
By Avni Doshi
Fourth Estate India | Rs 399  | 288 pages

“Avni Doshi is a writer of surgical precision and sharp intelligence. This novel of mother-and-daughter resentments and the deep, intimate cuts of ancient family history gleams like a blade — both dangerous and beautiful,” – Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love

About: Antara has never understood her mother Tara’s decisions – walking out on her marriage to follow a guru, living on the streets like a beggar, shacking up with an unknown artist, rebelling against society’s expectations … But when Tara starts losing her memory, Antara searches for a way to make peace with their shared past, a past that haunts them both. As she relives her childhood in Pune in the eighties, Antara comes up against her own fears and neuroses, realizing she might not be so different from Tara after all. Girl in White Cotton is a journey into shifting memories, altering identities, and the subjective nature of truth. Tracing the fragile line between familial devotion and deception, Avni Doshi’s mesmerizing first novel will surprise and unsettle you.

Tags: Cultural studies, South Asia, Gender studies, Gender, Women, Feminism


Gravepyres School For The Recently Deceased
By Anita Roy
Red Panda | Rs 499  | 232 pages

About: As the latest transitioner at Gravepyres, Joseph Srinivas has a lot on his plate . . . practicing Cloudforming, studying Mathamythics, understanding Decomposition and learning how to ‘See’. But the only thing he really wants to learn is how to get home. Back to his parents and little sister. When he stumbles upon the secret of the Eternal Spring and the majestic vultures who are the custodians of an ancient knowledge, Jose thinks he might have found a way out. Hand in hand with his loyal, if rather scatty friend, Mishi he sets off for the mysterious mountains of Kozitsthereistan. As Jose and Mishi embark on the adventure of a lifetime, the very fate of the worlds hangs in balance.

Tags: Fantasy


Essential Items: and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown
By Udayan Mukerjee
Bloomsbury India | Rs 499 | 272 pages

“A collection set to become a classic of epidemic literature.” – Benyamin

About: It is the dreadful summer of 2020 pandemic, and India is in lockdown. A British climber stranded in the Himalayan border town of Munsiyari forms a bond with his host’s seven-year-old grandson. Two funeral workers at a Benaras ghat try to work their way out of the dwindling business of cremations. A domestic worker, sent on paid leave, grapples with the shifting landscape for people on the margins of an urban metropolis. Hundreds of returning migrant workers turn up unannounced at the gates of an erstwhile Rajbari in Kolkata in the wake of a devastating cyclone. In Essential Items, Udayan Mukherjee examines oft overlooked human attributes – resilience, faith, endurance – put to test by a pandemic-forced lockdown. 

Tags: Cultural studies, Pandemic


Girl Made of Gold
By Gitanjali Koland
Juggernaut | Rs 499  | 256 pages

“An evocative novel set at a time when devadasis still ruled over art, pleasure and love,” – Latha Anantharaman, for The Hindu (7th August, 2020)

About: Thanjavur, the 1920s. One night, the young Devadasi Kanaka disappears and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume that Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. Through the story of Kanaka’s disappearance, Gitanjali Kolanad gives us a beautifully realized world – of priests, Zamindars and devadasis, and of art, desire and their dark reverse sides. Girl Made of Gold is a mystery, thrillingly told, and also a moving human story of the pursuit of love and freedom.

Tags: Fantasy


High Wind
By Tilottama Misra, Translated by Udayon Misra
Zubaan Books | Rs 545 | 258  pages

“By focusing on a single family, and taking the story through this transitional period where Shillong went from uniquely cosmopolitan to hotbed of identity politics, Tilottoma seamlessly stitches together the personal with the political,” – Aarushi Aggarwal, for Firstpost.com (25th June, 2020)

About: Jeumon has a complicated story stuck in her head: her family. In the newly-drawn boundaries of Assam and Meghalaya in 1972 India, young Jeumon wonders how she should define herself. Is she Assamese, like her father, or Khasi, like her mother? In this moving narrative of change, Tilottoma Misra tells the story of one family to explore how lives are impacted by sweeping geographical partitions and how human relationships Morph under the weight of political turmoil. Tilottama is also the editor of The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India.

Tags: Northeast, Cultural studies, Identity, Assam


Grandparents’ Bag of Stories
By Sudha Murty, Illustrated by Priya Kurian
Penguin | Rs 250  | 240  pages

About: It’s 2020 and children are stuck indoors as the novel coronavirus finds its way into India. A nationwide lockdown is announced and amidst the growing crisis, Ajja and Ajji welcome their grandchildren and Kamlu Ajji into their house in Shiggaon. From stitching masks, sharing household chores, preparing food for workers to losing themselves in timeless tales, the lockdown turns into a memorable time for the children as they enter the enchanting world of goddesses, kings, princesses, serpents, magical beanstalks, thieves, kingdoms and palaces, among others. Sudha Murty brings to you this collection of immortal tales that she fondly created during the lockdown period for readers to seek comfort and find the magic in sharing and caring for others. 

Tags: Translation, Translated from Kannada, children’s stories, pandemic, Cultural studies


Hijab
By Guruprasad Kaginele, Pavan N. Rao
Simon & Schuster India | Rs 499  | 304 pages

“Deftly uses the experience of Kannadiga doctors in the U.S. to examine issues of race, religion, gender, medical ethics,” – Bagashree S, for The Hindu (8th May, 2020)

About: Three Indian doctors find themselves practicing at a hospital in Amoka, a nondescript town in Minnesota, waiting for their Green cards. When a Sanghaali refugee woman refuses to deliver her baby via the caesarean section despite doctors’ advice, her act snowballs into a larger conundrum that brings to light cultural differences that may not be necessarily resolved with reason. Reality TV, immigration issues, and racial profiling all converge in this little town that is struggling to adapt to the demographic shifts around it. How does one conform in a culture that is itself made of remnants from other cultures? Is identity skin-deep, or does it go beyond one’s colour? And finally, what does being a migrant truly mean?

Tags: Translation, Translated from Kannada, Cultural studies, Women, Feminism, Migrant and displacement


Hunted by the Sky
By Tanaz Bhathena
Penguin | Rs 399  | 384  pages

“An epic adventure you don’t want to miss,” Tasha Suri, author of Empire of Sand

About: Gul has spent her life running. She has a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, and in the kingdom of Ambar, girls with such birthmarks have been disappearing for years. So when a group of rebel women called the ‘Sisters of the Golden Lotus’ rescue her, take her in, and train her in warrior magic, Gul wants only one thing: revenge. Cavas lives in the tenements, and he’s just about ready to sign his life over to the king’s army. Dangerous circumstances bring Gul and Cavas together at the king’s domain in Ambar Fort . . . a world with secrets deadlier than their own. Inspired by medieval India, this is the first in a stunning fantasy duology by Tanaz Bhathena, exploring identity, class struggles and high-stakes romance against a breathtaking magical backdrop.

Tags: Fantasy, Thriller, Women, Feminism, Gender


How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen tales from Assam
By Aruni Kashyap
HarperCollins India | Rs 399  | 248  pages

About: A former militant is unable to reconcile his tranquil domesticity with his brutal past. A mother walks an emotional tightrope, for her two sons a police officer and an underground rebel fight on opposite sides of the Assam insurgency. A deaf and mute child who sells locally brewed alcohol ventures into dangerous territory through his interaction with members of the local militant outfit. Written originally in Assamese, Bodo and English, the fifteen stories in this book attempt to humanize the longstanding, bloody conflict that the rest of India knows of only through facts and figures or reports in newspapers and on television channels.

Tags: Northeast, Cultural studies, Conflict, Gender studies, Assam


In the Land of Lovers 
By Sakoon Singh
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295  | 232 pages

The narrative has an extremely deep sense of place, and often takes you on a ride through Punjab’s towns and villages amidst snatches of Rawalpindi Punjabi,” – Neha Kirpal, for The New Indian Express (2nd August, 2020)

About: In the absence of her parents, Nanaki, a fiercely sensitive young woman, is brought up by her grandparents in a quaint Chandigarh neighbourhood. As Nanaki goes through the motions of an idyllic childhood and a difficult teenage love, her experiences play out against a haunting backdrop of Partition and her beeji’s turbulent personal history. Nanaki is brought face to face with the dark underbelly of contemporary Punjab when she takes up the cause of a consummate embroidery artist against a corrupt system. Meditative, rooted in location yet filtered through nostalgia, in the land of the lovers is a fable with interlocking tales that explore struggle, loss, longing and love with brilliant insight and luminous prose.

Tags: Punjabi literature, Partition, Gender, Gender writing, Communal, Cultural studies


Insomnia: Army Stories 
By Rachna Bisht Rawat
Penguin eBury Press | Rs 299 | 208 pages

“…turns the focus on human emotions – love, compassion, camaraderie, horror and trauma – that pepper the life of men and women in uniform and lifts the veil on their little-known personal lives” – Deepa Alexander, for The Hindu (4th November, 2020)

About: A retired General is haunted by voices of dead men. Soldiers from two enemy nations manning posts in freezing Siachen form a strange connection. A young Lieutenant dying in the jungles of Arunachal is watched over by three men, one of whom would have his destiny changed forever. What is the dark secret held by a Major and his men operating incognito in Kashmir? From the bestselling author of The Brave, 1965 and Kargil comes a book that will take you into the olive-green world of army cantonments, through stories that will delight and disturb in equal measure.

Tags: Ladakh, war


Jaipur Journals
By Namita Gokhale
Penguin eBury Press | Rs 499 | 288 pages

“Funny, insightful, mordant and moving in turn, Jaipur Journals is the work of a writer in full command of her craft. An unalloyed pleasure,” – Dr Shashi Tharoor

About: Told from multiple perspectives, set against the backdrop of the vibrant multilingual Jaipur Literature Festival, diverse stories of lost love and regret, self-doubt, and new beginnings come together in a narrative that is as varied as India itself. Partly a love letter to the greatest literary show on earth, partly a satire about the glittery set that throngs this literary venue year on year, and partly an ode to the millions of aspiring writers who wander the earth with unsubmitted manuscripts in their bags, Jaipur Journals is a light-footed romp that showcases in full form Gokhale’s unsparing eye for the pretensions and the pathos of that loneliest tribe of them all: the writers.

Tags: Cultural studies


Kintsugi: A Novel
By Anukriti Upadhyay
Fourth Estate India | Rs 499 | 224 pages

“Mesmerising, tender, yet unflinching,” – Amrita Mahale, author of Milk Teeth 

About: Kintsugi – named after the ancient Japanese art of mending broken objects with gold – is a novel about young women breaching boundaries, overcoming trauma, and challenging the social order. And about men surprised by women who are unconventional, unafraid and independent. Set between Japan and Jaipur, Kintsugi follows the lives of these characters as they intersect and diverge, collide and break and join again in unexpected ways. The result is a brilliantly original novel as profound as it is playful, as emotionally moving as it is gripping.

Tags: Cultural studies, Personal writing


Lallan Sweets
By Srishti Chaudhary
Penguin eBury Press | Rs 299 | 288 pages

“Chaudhary’s writing is crisp and refreshing, effortlessly spinning new characters in each city that she transports her readers to.” – Neha Kirpa, for The New Indian Express (6th September, 2020)

About: It is 1995. Tara Taneja lives in the small town of Siyaka, running Ultimate Mathematics Tuition Centre and working for Lalaji, her grandfather, at Lallan Sweets, his famous sweet shop. The laddoos sold at the shop are made using a secret family recipe that contains a magic ingredient known only to Lalaji.  When Lalaji chooses to retire, he decides that Lallan Sweets will not be inherited but earned. He devises a quest for his three grandchildren — Tara, Rohit and Mohit — to discover the magic ingredient. Whoever finds it first will get to run the shop. As the quest takes them from Mathura to Ludhiana, they must battle old secrets, family legacies and unexpected dangers. 

Tags: Cultural studies


Legend of Suheldev
By Amish
Westland India | Rs 399 | 352 pages

“Amish is India’s first literary popstar,” Shekhar Kapur

About: A Forgotten Hero. An Unforgettable Battle. India, 1025 AD. Repeated attacks by Mahmud of Ghazni and his barbaric Turkic hordes have weakened India’s northern regions. The invaders lay waste to vast swathes of the subcontinent—plundering, killing, raping, pillaging. Then the Turks raid and destroy one of the holiest temples in the land: the magnificent Lord Shiva temple at Somnath. At this most desperate of times, a warrior rises to defend the nation. King Suheldev. The ruler of a small kingdom, he sees what must be done for his motherland, and is willing to sacrifice his all for it. Read this blockbuster epic adventure of courage and heroism, a fictional tale based on true events, that recounts the story of that lionhearted warrior and the magnificent Battle of Bahraich.

Tags: Fantasy


Low
By Jeet Thayil
Faber & Faber | Rs 599 | 320 pages

“A novel of our times…. Low is beautifully written, intelligent and gripping, and elicits compassion for a character who is pitifully adrift, despite what some might see as his disqualifying privilege” – Spectator USA

About: Following the death of his wife, Dominic Ullis escapes to Bombay in search of oblivion and a dangerous new drug, Meow Meow. So begins a glorious weekend of misadventure as he tours the teeming, kaleidoscopic city from its sleek eyries of high-capital to the piss-stained streets, encountering a cast with their own stories to tell, but none of whom Ullis – his faculties ever distorted – is quite sure he can trust. Heady, heartbroken and heartfelt, Low is a blazing joyride through the darklands of grief towards obliteration – and, perhaps, epiphany.

Tags: Thriller, personal writing


Memory of Light
By Ruth Vanita
Penguin Viking | Rs 399 | 224 pages

“Ruth Vanita’s captivating novel of same-sex love reads like an exquisite and intoxicating prose poem,” – Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu

About: Preparations for King George the Third’s fiftieth birthday gala are in full swing in Lucknow. As poets and performers vie to be part of the show, Chapla Bai, a dazzling courtesan from Kashi, briefly enters this competitive world, and sweeps the poet Nafis Bai off her feet. An irresistible passion takes root, expanding and contracting like a wave of light. Narrated in the voice of Nafis, Memory of Light weaves an exquisite web of conversations, songs, reminiscences around a life-changing love.

Tags: Fantasy, Gender, Gender studies, Cultural studies


Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women
By Nabendu Ghosh, Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta
Speaking Tiger Books | Rs 350 | 208 pages

“Nabendu Ghosh takes you deep into an emotion that has been the pride of the cinema of Bengal, the cinema of realism and the romance of culture,” – foreword by Muzaffar Ali

About: In Mistress of Melodies, Nabendu Ghosh traverses the streets of the ever-changing city of Calcutta to tell the stories of women—courtesans and those who engaged in sex-work—across generations. There is the innocent Chhaya, a widow who elopes and remarries only to be duped by her new husband. The gritty Basana, who sees the highs and lows of life after being drawn into prostitution as an adolescent. Hasina, the alluring baiji, who auctions her adolescent daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder and lives to regret it…

Tags: Gender, Gender studies, Cultural studies, Women, Feminism


Mohini: The Enchantress
By Anuja Chandramouli
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295 | 240 pages

“…a dizzying roller-coaster ride through  the shifting sands of time. With amazing dexterity, she navigates the choppy waters of gender, love, lust and desire,” Ganesh Saili, for The New Indian Express (23rd August, 2020)

About: Distilled from the essence of Vishnu, Mohini the Enchantress is a part of him and yet she revels in the autonomy and extraordinary powers of beauty, magic and enchantment that are hers to wield. She is loved and desired by all in existence and yet, she is an elusive tantalizing temptress, traipsing her way across the topsy-turvy terrain of fable and myth. Set against the tumult and intrigue of a celestial quest for immortality, Anuja Chandramouli brings the extraordinary saga of Mohini to vivid life. She takes the reader on a dizzying ride through the shifting sands of time, expertly navigating the quagmire of gender, love, lust and desire, deftly untangling the threads of tall tales and terrible truths, while spinning a deliciously entertaining yarn for the ages.

Tags: Mythology


Moustache
By S Hareesh, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil
Harper Perennial India | Rs 599 | 360 pages

“A novel of epic dimensions … easily among the most accomplished fictional works in Malayalam,” – K. Satchidanandan

About: Vavachan is a Pulayan who gets the opportunity to play a policeman with an immense moustache in a musical drama. The character appears in only two scenes and has no dialogue. However, Vavachan’s performance, and his moustache, terrify the mostly upper-caste audience, reviving in them memories of characters of Dalit power, such as Ravanan. Afterwards, Vavachan, whose people were traditionally banned from growing facial hair, refuses to shave off his moustache. Set in Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region on the south-west coast of Kerala, the novel is as much a story of this land as it is of Vavachan and its other inhabitants. As they navigate the intricate waterscape, stories unfold in which ecology, power dynamics and politics become key themes.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Malayalam, Caste, Dalit Writing


Name, Place, Animal, Thing
By Daribha Lyndem
Zubaan Publishers | Rs 300 | 208 pages

About: In this novella, Daribha Lyndem gently lifts the curtain on the coming of age of a young Khasi woman and the politically charged city of Shillong in which she lives. Like the beloved school game from which it takes its name, the book meanders through ages, lives and places. The interconnected stories build on each other to cover the breadth of a childhood, and move into the precarious awareness of adulthood. A shining debut, Name Place Animal Thing is an elegant examination of the porous boundaries between the adult world and that of a child’s.

Tags: Northeast


Nomad’s Land
By Paro Anand
Speaking Tiger Books | Rs 350 | 256 pages

“A beautifully written story that captures the pain of displaced communities — and carries a message of hope, much needed in these times,” – Nidhi Razdan, journalist

About: Shanna and Pema, two girls growing up in a big city, meet at their new school. They come from displaced communities—people who had to flee their land to escape persecution. Shanna is a Kashmiri Pandit, and Pema comes from a nomadic tribe whose people called the high mountains beyond India their home. As Shanna and Pema become friends, they get to understand their own and each other’s stories. They discover new wells of strength within themselves and start to deal with the sadness and confusion of the adults around them. Searing and tender, Nomad’s Land talks about the effects of terrorism and displacement, and about the healing powers of hope, friendship and reconciliation.

Tags: Kashmir, Women, Identity


Night of the Restless Spirits
By Sarbpreet Singh
Penguin Viking | Rs 499 | 288 pages

‘…With this book, Sarbpreet Singh touches on the fragility of life, survivor’s guilt, mob mentality and the power of one’s conscience as well its fickleness, to bring out the best and worst of human nature,” – Ruth Dhanaraj, for The Hindu (26th October, 2020)

About: Stories from this heart-rending collection that evokes the horrors and uncertainties of 1984, through the tales of ordinary people caught in something bigger than themselves. Set during a time of monumental upheaval, Night of the Restless Spirits blurs the lines between the personal and political, and takes the reader on a journey fraught with love and tinged with tragedy, frayed relationships, the breaking down of humanity and resilience in the face of absolute despair. These stories tell us that people are capable of the best and the worst, but that ultimately there is always hope.

Tags: Punjab, Communal


One Arranged Murder
By Chetan Bhagat
Westland India | Rs 225 | 312 pages

the success of Bhagat is in his capturing of the minutiae of a certain class of Delhi – an ear for the sparring, sometimes humorous, often banal colloquialisms of a young, ambitious professional class,” Nikhil Govind, for Scroll.in (10th October, 2020) 

About: Keshav has set up an investigation agency with his best friend, Saurabh. Can the two amateur detectives successfully solve another murder case that affects them personally? And where will it leave their friendship? Welcome to One Arranged Murder, an unputdownable thriller from India’s highest-selling author. A story about love, friendship, family and crime, it will keep you entertained and hooked right till the end.

Tags: Thriller


Phoolsunghi
By Pandey Kapil, Translated by Gautam Choubey
Penguin Hamish Hamilton | Rs 399 | 192 pages

“..it is truly a delight to read and will transport you into a thrilling world of music, poetry, and love against the backdrop of colonial rule, the opium trade and nationalist politics,” – Francesca Orsini, professor of Hindi and south Asian Literatures, SOAS, University of London

About: When Dhelabai, the most popular tawaif of Muzaffarpur, slights Babu Haliwant Sahay, a powerful zamindar from Chappra, he resolves to build a cage that would trap her forever. Thus, the elusive phoolsunghi is trapped within the four walls of the Red Mansion. Forgetting the past, Dhelabai begins a new life of luxury, comfort, and respect. One day, she hears the soulful voice of Mahendra Misir and loses her heart to him. The first ever translation of a Bhojpuri novel into English, Phoolsunghi transports readers to a forgotten world filled with mujras and mehfils, court cases and counterfeit currency, and the crashing waves of the River Saryu.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Bhojpuri, Colonial rule


Prelude to a Riot
By Annie Zaidi
Aleph Book Company | Rs 499 | 192 pages

“A fearless novel that speaks incisively about the divided times we live in,”’– Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, for The Hindu (11th October, 2020)

About: Winner of the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Fiction Award 2020 Finalist, JCB Prize for Literature 2020. In a peaceful southern town, amidst lush spice plantations, trouble is brewing. In the town live three generations of two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim, whose lives will be changed forever by the coming violence. Quietly but surely, the spectre of religious intolerance is beginning to haunt the community in the guise of the Self-Respect Forum whose mission is to divide the town and destroy the delicate balance of respect and cooperation that has existed for hundreds of years. Told with brilliance, restraint and extraordinary power, Annie Zaidi’s book is destined to become a classic.

Tags: Communal


Principles of Prediction
By Anushka Jasraj
Context India | Rs 499 | 192 pages

“A fascinating collection in which the ordinary and the absurd collide…employs insight, imagination, and humour to craft thirteen unsettling and moving stories in this skilful debut,” – Amrita Mahale, author of Milk Teeth

About: There is in the short story the extraordinary ability to hold and enthral, to capture whole worlds with intensity and brevity. In the story that gives this collection its name, a weather forecaster tries to maintain her sanity while a storm threatens, literally and figuratively. In the award-winning ‘Radio Story’, politics and nostalgia come together to form a complex mesh of love and violence. In spare prose that heightens the impact of every little revelation, story after story – some of them subtly interlinked – draws us into the lives of sisters and friends, parents and daughters, men and women in relationships that casually shrug off easy definition. There is tenderness here, and bewilderment as well as reconciliation, as characters strip themselves bare to show us their most intimate fears and fantasies.

Tags: Short stories


Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu
By Jenny Bhatt
HarperCollins India | Rs 399 | 324 pages

‘Brilliant … an iconic voice,’ – Namita Gokhale, author of Jaipur Journals

About: The tragic love story of a village drummer and his dancer lover. A long-awaited letter that arrives too late. A tea-house near Darjeeling, run by a mysterious queen. Characterized by a fine sensitivity, deep humanism, perceptive observation and an intimate knowledge of both rural and urban life, Dhumketu’s fiction has provided entertainment and edification to generations of Gujarati readers and speakers. Ratno Dholi brings together the first substantial collection of Dhumketu’s work to be available in English. Beautifully translated for a wide new audience by Jenny Bhatt, these much-loved stories – like the finest literature – remain remarkable and relevant even today.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Gujarati, Short stories


Rising Heat
By Perumal Murugan, Translated by Janani Kannan
Penguin Hamish Hamilton | Rs 399 | 320 pages

“Rising Heat is a work of understated beauty, an elegy to the past, yet hauntingly resonant with our turbulent times,” – Somak Ghoshal, for LiveMint (3rd July, 2020)

About: Young Selvan’s life is no longer the same. His family’s ancestral land has been sold in order to make way for the construction of a housing colony. Now the verdant landscape of his childhood has been denuded, while Selvan and his family are compelled to move to much smaller lodgings. In the ensuing years, as the pressures of their situation simmer to a boil, Selvan observes his family undergo dramatic shifts in their fortunes as greed and jealousy threaten to overshadow their lives. Murugan’s first novel, which launched a splendid literary career, is a tour de force. Now translated for the first time, it poses powerful questions about the human cost of relentless urbanization in the name of progress.

Tags: Translation, Translated from Malayalam


Sarojini’s Mother
By Kunal Basu
Penguin Hamish Hamilton | Rs 599 | 288 pages

“Kunal Basu has created a modern-day fable that blurs the border between worlds familiar and strange.” — Vikas Swarup, Indian diplomat and author of the book Q & A: The International (bestseller Filmed as Slumdog Millionaire)

About: Sarojini-Saz-Campbell comes to India to search for her biological mother. Adopted and taken to England at an early age, she has a degree from Cambridge and a mathematician’s brain adept in solving puzzles. Handicapped by a missing shoebox that held her birth papers and the death of her English mother, she has few leads to carry out her mission and scant knowledge of Calcutta, her birthplace. Luckily, she has Chiru Sen, an Elvis lookalike, as her guide. Together, Saz and Chiru chase the mirage of a lost mother, helped by Chiru’s band members and his friend Suleiman, master bookie of the racecourse. 

Tags: Bengal


Savitrabai Phule and I
By Sangeeta Mulay, Illustrated by Malvika Raj
Panther’s Paw Publication | Rs 299 | 144 pages

“…a timely intervention in times of a global pandemic where social morality has hit rock bottom,” – Adv. Nikhil Sanjay-Rekha Adsule (20th April, 2020)

About: Savitribai Phule and I is a semi-historical fictional book aimed at young adults. Shabri is a shy Indian Dalit girl from a deprived village who discovers a diary written by Savitribai Phule (India’s first-generation feminist, a Dalit and first Indian credited with starting a school for young girls in India). The book details the evolution of the protagonist from a shy introvert who has faced discrimination and prejudice throughout her life to a confident feminist and activist. This book has been published by Panther’s Paw Publication. Panther’s Paw Publication promotes Ambedkarite literature and an anti-caste sensibility.

Tags: Dalit literature


Soar
By Amit Majumdar
Penguin Viking | Rs 499 | 256 pages

“Soar uses its absurd happenings to make a searingly satirical commentary on war, nationalism and religion. A witty novel that inspires us to soar over earthbound strife,” – Adhitya Bharadwaj, for The Hindu (9th May, 2020)

About: Bholanath and Khudabaksh are two soldiers in the British Indian Army, sent off to Europe to fight in World War I. One happens to be Hindu and the other happens to be Muslim, but that doesn’t keep them from being the best of friends. When a mission in a surveillance balloon goes awry, these two gentle soldiers-along with an exceptionally ill-tempered squirrel-are set adrift high above the Western Front. What follows is a grand tragicomic adventure, taking them into the heavens and across a continent gone mad with war. Together, they learn about the worst humankind can do . . . and how true friends, however unlike their identities may be, can soar above it all.

Tags: Communal


Suralakshmi Villa
By Aruna Chakravarti
Picador India | Rs 650 | 313 pages

“With the flow of the narrative, with its many layers and nuances, a panoramic view of Bengal, past and present, is revealed. A truly riveting read,” – Sharmila Tagore

About: Suralakshmi Choudhury, a gynaecologist based in Delhi, falls in love at the age of thirty-one, marries and has a son. Suddenly, five years after his birth, she abandons everything including the house gifted to her by her father and her flourishing medical career, to travel to an obscure village in Bengal and open a free clinic for women and children. Suralakshmi’s actions confound her relatives and it is from their accounts of the incidents, letters, memoirs, and flashbacks – from a more distant past – that the story comes together and the layers and nuances in the enigmatic character of Suralakshmi are brought to light. Aruna Chakravarti blends the narrative of the novel with history, legend, music, religion, folklore, rituals and culinary practices of both Hindus and Muslims, and creates a fascinating tapestry which reveals the syncretic nature of Bengal and her people.

Tags: Bengal 


The Cliffhangers
By Sabin Iqbal
Aleph Book Company | Rs 499 | 184 pages

“With The Cliffhangers, Sabin Iqbal marks an impressive literary debut through this coming-of-age tale set within a sleepy coastal village in Kerala, brought to life by a striking narrative infused with nostalgia, an awareness of fractured identities and characters who expose the frailties of our own humanity,” – Shashi Tharoor

About: On New Year’s Eve, a tourist is raped in Kadaloor, a tranquil fishing village on the southern coast of the country. The chief suspects are a group of teenage boys (called the Cliffhangers). As they attempt to prove their innocence, the boys also have to deal with the spectre of communal intolerance that is beginning to divide the Hindu and Muslim fishermen and villagers.The growing communal tension and the hunt for the real rapist intersect, propelling the village to the edge of disaster. In The Cliffhangers, Sabin Iqbal gives us a brilliant debut novel that illuminates hard truths about the religious fault lines that are dividing the country.

Tags: Kerala, Communal


The Curse Stories
By Salma, Translated by N Kalyan Raman
Speaking Tiger | Rs 350 | 192 pages

“Salma’s stories are about human suffering and empathy. The breath of her character is warm to the touch. Their cruel truth slaps us on the face.Their naked reality is astonishing,” – VOLGA, author of The Liberation of Sita

About: In The Curse, acclaimed author and poet Salma blasts through the artifice of genre and language to reveal the messy, violent, vulnerable and sometimes beautiful realities of being a woman in deeply patriarchal societies. Loosely rooted in the rural Muslim communities of Tamil Nadu, these stories shine a light on the complex dramas governing the daily lives of most women moving through the world. In six emotionally-charged stories that are at times humorous, even spooky, Salma crafts exquisite and contradictory inner worlds like Alice Munro with the playfulness and spirit of Ismat Chughtai—in a voice that is entirely her own. Available together for the first time in English—in a lively, nimble translation by Kalyan Raman—these stories will grab you by the throat and leave you fundamentally changed.

Tags: Translation, Translation from Tamil, Women/Feminism


The Dharma Forest
By Keerthik Sasidharan
Penguin | Rs 499 | 400 pages

“In densely wooded prose, this novel leads us into the thickets of an ancient human story of love and catastrophe, where moral ambiguity, psychological complexity and soul-darkness spin on the edge of sudden illumination, “ –  Arundhathi Subramaniam, author of When God is a Traveller

About: As the Mahabharata war wages on, it shows no mercy and takes no prisoners. In the midst of a world rendered unrecognizable by the lust for power, malice and the machinations of war stand Bhishma, contemplating the immeasurable death he sees around himself as a man who cannot die, Draupadi, above and beyond the chaos and yet at the very centre of it, trying to protect her husbands at any cost, wondering whom to trust, and Arjuna, beloved, conflicted and melancholic in equal measure, uncertain of the ultimate cost of the war he is intent on winning. The Dharma Forest is a magnificent first novel in a trilogy filled with complex characters, conflicted loyalties and erotic jealousies from India’s most beloved epic.

Tags: Mythology


The Endgame
By S Hussain Zaidi
HarperCollins India | Rs 299 | 240 pages

[A] prodigious chronicler of the underbelly of the maximum city,” Adrian Levy, author of The Siege: The Attack on the Taj

About: It’s been three years since Shahwaz Ali Mirza and Vikrant Singh foiled dreaded terrorist Munafiq’s attempt to leak State secrets from a naval server in Lakshadweep. Now posted with RAW, they have the task of providing security for BSF Special Director General Somesh Kumar, on his way to visit former Prime Minister Parmeshwar Naidu, who has been hospitalized after a car accident. However, Kumar’s convoy is attacked by terrorists. They manage to kill him before being gunned down themselves. Just when it looks like things can’t get more difficult, Major Daniel Fernando gets in touch claiming that there is more to Naidu’s accident than meets the eye. Soon, the entire team from the Lakshadweep operation finds itself getting together for a new mission…Hussain Zaidi is back with his irresistible cast of characters in this sizzling story of politics, betrayal and unimaginable terror.

Tags: Thriller


The Final Adventures Of Professor Shonku
By Satyajit Ray, Translated by Majumdar Indrani
Puffin | Rs 299 | 256 pages

“Ray had been a life-long fan of science fiction and nowhere is this evidenced more than in his creation of Professor Shonku,” – Shunashir Sen, for Mid-day (2nd May, 2020) 

About: In this last volume of Professor Shonku’s escapades, the brilliant and benevolent scientist travels around the world once more to face near death situations. Each nerve wracking experience is faithfully recorded in his diary. Join the incredible Shonku on his many exhilarating adventures accompanied by his two long-time friends, his feline companion Newton, and his faithful retainer, Prahlad. Presented in a brilliant translation by Indrani Majumdar and the late author, this volume brings alive the wildly imaginative world of the weird and wonderful Professor Shonku.

Tags: Series, Translation, Translated from Bengali


The Heart Asks Pleasure First
By Karuna Ezara Parikh
Picador India | Rs 699 | 324 pages

“…blends folklore and facts, politics and poetry to create an intoxicating and immersive exploration of the forces that shape our world and relationships…I will return to this book again and again as a talisman for dissenting hearts,” Lisa Ray, author of Close to the Bone

About: It’s a sunny day in 2001 and Daya, a ballet student, is sitting in a park in Wales far away from her home in India. Unbeknownst to her, she is about to meet Aaftab, a young Muslim lawyer from Pakistan, and fall inexplicably in love. Even as Aaftab battles his heart, their relationship transcends the divides of religion, nationality and language. Set in a world of students but breathtaking in its expansiveness, The novel is a spellbinding first novel that speaks urgently to the frailties of our times. Karuna Ezara Parikh humanizes the big themes of friendship and family, migration and xenophobia, with the deftness of a poet and the magic of a born storyteller.

Tags: Migration, Displacement, Debut novel, Religious tension


The Henna Artist
By Alka Joshi
MIRA | Rs 499 | 368 pages

“Eloquent and moving…Joshi masterfully balances a yearning for self-discovery with the need for familial love.”- Publishers Weekly

About: Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own… known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel. 

Tags: Women/Feminism, Debut novel, Social inequality


The Homecoming & Other Stories
By Sri M
Penguin | Rs 299 | 200 pages

About: What happens when a lifelong disciple finds out a dark secret about his guru? Can a thief ever reform his ways? How do you solve a murder with no witnesses? Padma Bhushan awardee and bestselling author Sri M sees the world in a different light. He sees the good, the bad and sometimes the supernatural. In his quintessential no-holds barred style, Sri M’s The Homecoming and Other Stories urges you to delve deep into the human spirit and get a glimpse of why people do the things they do.

Tags: Horror, Padma Bhushan awardee


The Loneliness Of Hira Barua
By Arupa Patangia Kalita, Translated by Ranjita Biswas
Penguin | Rs 450 | 200 pages

“…is an instance of the Assamese author’s memorable depictions of ordinary lives in the shadow of terror,” – Amit R. Baishya, for The Telegraph (30th October, 2020)

About:  Hira Barua, an ageing widow living in a conflict-ridden region of Assam with her beloved Tibetan spaniel fears she is beginning to resemble a lonely Englishwoman from her past. A vicious sexual assault by the invading military drives a group of women into a shelter home. In these, and thirteen other piercing, intimate portraits, women navigate family, violence, trauma, ambition and domesticity with caution, grace and a quiet resilience. Written in a variety of styles, from gritty social realism, folklore to magical realism, The Loneliness of Hira Barua is a modern classic of Indian literature.

Tags: Translation, Translation from Assamese, Assam, Short Stories, Women/Feminism


The Lost Heroine
By Vinu Abraham, Translated by C.S. Venkiteswaran and Arathy Ashok
Speaking Tiger Books | Rs 299 | 176 pages

“It infuses life into the world of early Malayalam cinema and presents the people that pioneered it and also offers an insight into the way society refused to come to terms with cinema, at least in its early days,” Gautam Chintamani, for The New Indian Express (29th November, 2020)

About: Growing up in a district in Kerala, spinning idle dreams as she worked in the fields, Rosy had never been to the cinema. So when Johnson Sir, her well-to-do neighbour, asked if she would like to play the role of heroine in a movie his friend Daniel was making, Rosy could scarcely believe it. In a matter of weeks, Rosy, a poor Dalit Christian girl of the Pulaya caste, was transformed into Sarojini—the beautiful Nair girl who lived in a grand tharavad, wore mundus and blouses of the finest silk and gold jewellery from head to toe. Rosy’s dreamworld comes to an end when the last scene is shot. This poignant translation by C.S. Venkiteswaran and Arathy Ashok brings alive the world of early Malayalam cinema and the people who pioneered it, weaving within it a universal story of ambition, desire and the faultlines of caste and religious bigotry.

Tags: Translation, Translation from Malayalam, Kerala, Caste/Dalit


The Lion of Kashmir
By Siddhartha Gigoo
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295 | 268 pages

Searching for truth, hope and a peaceful home, it takes the reader through a turbulent journey to see what Kashmir has been like for the last three decades,” – Pradeepika Saraswat, for The Wire (21st January, 2020)

About: Commandant Abdul Aziz, Special Forces, Kashmir is a legendary police officer in the valley, albeit not always for good reasons. And then one day he disappears. His daughter, Zooni, a human rights activist has to return home for her missing father. Bizarre events unfold in the ensuing night at a safe house where she’s forced to stay and where she comes face-to-face with the most disturbing truth of her life. Through the eyes of the daughter are seen the dilemma and the moral crisis of a legendary police officer torn between his past and present, duty and desertion, loyalty and treachery, and right and wrong. It is not just a story of a father and daughter’s intrepid struggles in Kashmir, but also the story of present-day Kashmir itself.

Tags: Kashmir


The Machine Is Learning
By Tanuj Solanki
Macmillan | Rs 499 | 256 pages

“…A keenly observed and nuanced portrait of the working life, this novel tells you what it must be like to be part of the Tinder generation,” –  Jerry Pinto, author of Em and the Big Hoom

About: Saransh works at a life insurance company, as part of the Special Projects Group (SPG). Their current project is top-secret: the development of an Artificial Intelligence system that will leave 552 branch-level employees redundant overnight. Thus begins a cycle in which Saransh travels across the country, interviewing the very people that his machine will replace soon.. The Machine is Learning is a novel about twenty-first-century workplaces, love and the impact of technology in all of our lives. It interrogates a world order that accommodates guilt but offers no truly ethical course correction.

Tags: Thriller


The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could Not Land
By Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, Translated by P.J. Mathew
Hachette India | Rs 450 | 336 pages

“It hardly matters that Kottoor village exists or that KTN Kottoor never did. Within the space of 328 pages both are clearly alive, walking the walk and talking the talk—at the leisurely pace befitting nostalgia,” Madhavi S Mahadevan, for The New Indian Express (18th October, 2020)

About: Born into a family of rural wealth and near-feudal influence in a village nestled in British Malabar, Koyiloth Thazhe Narayanan Kottoor knows little of want. But as a patriotic fervour grips the country in the last decades of the Raj, a veritable avalanche of new ideas and ideals shapes the young KTN. As he grows from a boy who takes to writing not only as art but also as a tool of social change, to an activist enamoured of varying philosophies and enmeshed in India’s freedom struggle, he grapples with hardship, love, lust and a search for meaning in a reality that forever disappoints. His is a tale both deeply personal and political – tracing a web of caste, sexuality and ideology, while also navigating the struggles of a man coming to terms with himself as a writer and as an individual. 

Tags: Translation, Translation from Malayalam, Kerala, Colonial period


The Phoenix
By Bilal Siddiqi
Penguin eBury Press| Rs 299 | 240 pages

As Bilal Siddiqui sets out to tell this dystopian tale of espionage and global terror…He gives a character that has a message of hope and love for his family and country in his heart,” – Snigdha Kacker, for Indiatimes (23rd October, 2020)

About: NAME: Aryaman Khanna. PROFILE: Ex-intelligence officer, Phoenix 5 division, Intelligence and Research Wing. CURRENT LOCATION: Last seen heading to Mumbai in pursuit of his wife’s attackers and on a top-secret comeback mission. MISSION: Foil the bioweapon strike an international terror group has been planning to carry out in Mumbai on the anniversary of 26/11. The Phoenix tells a dystopian tale of espionage and global terror, of sleeper cells and double agents, of biological warfare and suicide attacks. But at its heart there’s a message of hope and one man’s love for his family and country.

Tags: Thriller, Mumbai


The Plague Upon Us
By Shabir Ahmed Mir
Hachette India | Rs 550 | 264 pages

“A fierce evocation of the political as well as the existential, The Plague Upon Us is an extraordinary and circuitous fable about the dehumanisation of Kashmir,” – Feroz Rather, author of The Night of Broken Glass

About: Kashmir in the 1990s, a setting not very different from today… As blood drips from the pellet-stricken eyes of young men, Oubaid watches a plague of blindness spreading through the streets of his homeland, Kashmir. A voice in his head tells him that he knows who brought this plague, but acknowledging it would mean Oubaid must confront his past and the horrors he has witnessed. As the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fall into place, there unravels the full tragedy of a people looking for solace and a place to call home. 

Tags: Kashmir, Conflict


The Princess And The Political Agent
By Binodini Devi, Translated by Somi Roy
Penguin Modern Classics | Rs 399 | 344 pages

“The novel tells the story of a forgotten albeit dramatic chapter from Manipur’s history, drawing out characters who were otherwise hidden behind old, forgotten records and historical documents,” – L Somi Roy, for Firspost (23rd May, 2020)

About: A poignant story of love and fealty, treachery and valour, it is set in the midst of the imperialist intrigues of the British Raj, the glory of kings, warring princes, clever queens and loyal retainers. Reviving front-page global headlines of the day, Binodini’s perspective is from the vanquished by love and war, and the humbling of a proud kingdom. Its sorrows and empathy sparkle with wit and beauty, as it deftly dissects the build-up and aftermath of the perfidy of the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. She recovers its little-known history, its untold relations with India and Great Britain,and a forgotten chapter of the British Raj.

Tags: Manipur, Translation, Translated from Manipuri


The Rickshaw Reveries: Dark Dazzling Delhi Stories
By Ipshita Nath
Simon & Schuster India | Rs 350 | 240 pages

The collection is bold and fierce, with stunning metaphors, just like each reverie. Nath’s Delhi showcases a side of the city often unexplored; a Delhi quivering with desire, filled with contrasts, waiting to be let loose,” – Varsha Ramachandra, for Scroll.in (6th June, 2020)

About: A rickshaw Puller’s feral lust will lead him to a metamorphosis so bizarre no one will believe him. A scrap metal collector’s life is changed dramatically by a piece of metal. A local perfumer holds the power of love, lust, death and life in his attars. A gay man finds himself being drawn to a djinn in the ruins of an old Delhi fort. A sculptor brings his dead love back to life, but with unexpected results. With stories that are both terrifying and enticing, the rickshaw Reverie takes one into the bizarre and fantastic, while exploring Delhi’s many subterranean truths. Delinquents, drug peddlers, rickshaw wallas, and Khan market diplomats – all find themselves at home here. 

Tags: New Delhi 


The Vault of Vishnu
By Ashwin Sanghi
Westland India | Rs 399 | 400 pages

“As with all Ashwin’s books, the research is meticulous and the technical(ese) leaves one gasping as ‘The Vault of Vishnu’ takes the reader through the highs and lows of history, myth, physics, warfare technology, AI and biochemistry,” – Vasudha Chandana Gulati, for The Times of India (28th February, 2020)

About: A Pallava prince travels to Cambodia to be crowned king, carrying with him secrets that will be the cause of great wars many centuries later. A Buddhist monk in ancient China treks south to India, searching for the missing pieces of a puzzle that could make his emperor all-powerful. A Neolithic tribe fights to preserve their sacred knowledge, oblivious to the war drums on the Indo-China border. Meanwhile, far away in the temple town of Kanchipuram, a reclusive scientist deciphers ancient texts even as a team of secret agents shadows his every move. Welcome back to the exciting and shadowy world of Ashwin Sanghi, where myth and history blend into edge-of-the-seat action.

Tags: Mythology, Series


The Wall
By Gautam Bhatia
HarperCollins India | Rs 399 | 420 pages

The Wall comes across as a deeply imagined, stylish, and confident debut of an author who has introduced one new world to us, and will hopefully introduce many more,”’ – Omair Ahmad, for The Wire (3rd October, 2020)

About: Mithila’s world is bound by a Wall enclosing the city of Sumer – nobody goes out, nothing comes in. The days pass as they have for two thousand years: just enough to eat for just enough people, living by the rules. But when Mithila tries to cross the Wall, every power in Sumer comes together to stop her. To break the rules is to risk all of civilization collapsing. But to follow them is to never know: who built the Wall? Why? As Mithila and her friends search for the truth, they must risk losing their families, the ones they love, and even their lives. Is a world they can’t imagine worth the only world they have? 

Tags: Science-fiction, Debut novel


The Woman Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories
By Nisha Susan
Context India | Rs 499 | 232 pages

‘Stylishly and intrepidly covering a range of human experience, these stories announce a bracing new sensibility in Indian writing in English.’ – Pankaj Mishra, author of The Age of Anger

About: The stories in this dazzling debut collection tap into the rich vein of love, violence and intimacy that technology, particularly the Internet, has brought to the lives of Indians over the last two decades. Two decades that transformed India’s digital landscape, where would-be lovers went from cooing into cordless phones to swiping right on cellphones. Whimsical in its telling and brutal in its probing of the human mind, these stories breathe unexpected life into the dark and joyful corners of a country learning to relish and resist globalisation.

Tags: Women/Feminism


These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light
By Dharini Bhaskar
Hachette India | Rs 599 | 336 pages

‘With a poet’s easy grace with language and a philosopher’s comfort with ambiguity, she traces how each one of us contains multitudes – and shows us, in a way we can never forget, how family is both the greatest fact and fiction of all.’ – Chandrahas Choudhury, author of Arzee the Dwarf

About: Until now, Deeya has found an unquiet contentment in the memories of her affair with an older man and in a spare but tolerable marriage. Then, Neil comes into her life, offering a heady romance and a new identity. Will Deeya give their fledgling relationship a chance? As Deeya confronts their stories, she must decide: Will she upend her family’s history and build a narrative of her own? Or is she – as are all of us – destined to carry forward the concessions and mutinies of our ancestors? Refreshing in its vision and assured in its craft, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light is a remarkable debut about (un)sanctioned memory, uncommon love, and the claims of familial history.

Tags: Women/Feminism, South India


Those Delicious Letters
By Sandeepa Datta Mukherjee
HarperCollins India | Rs 299 | 264 pages

“Food here is about courtship, how children remember their mothers and grandmothers, the changing seasons and how people rediscover themselves and find a new calling in their lives, all of it through their memories and love of food,” Sharmishta Gooptu, for Scroll.in (29th August, 2020)

About: Soon after her fortieth birthday, Shubha starts receiving letters with traditional Bengali recipes from a mysterious lady in Calcutta claiming to be her grandmother. As Shubha tries to find the mysterious writer and her own life begins to unravel, the notes from a bygone era give her courage to take a second chance at life. Torn between the taste of success that the letters bring her, and the need to save her marriage, Shubha must find the perfect recipe for love.

Tags: Food, Letters, Fiction


Three Impossible Wishes
By Anmol Malik 
HarperCollins India | Rs 299 | 372 pages

“Totally cheeky, completely hilarious and endlessly charming!” – Ayushmann Khurrana

About: Nineteen-year-old Arya Mahtani has been accepted to the University of Westley. But does she really belong there, or is she occupying a seat that would be better warmed by a more deserving student? Plagued by self-doubt, Arya begins her college life. They say life is a celebration. And Aryas daily joys include (but are not limited to): her doomed crush on South Delhi ka Drake, aka Sahil Mahlotra, the ego-crushing lectures of her self-made Barclays top gun Dad, and Keeping Up With The Kardashians of Connaught Place and Cuffe Parade. Funny and endearing, Three Impossible Wishes is a heart-warming book about finding love, and learning to love yourself.

Tags: Coming of age, New Delhi


Timeless Tales from Marwar
By Vijaydan Detha, Translated by Vishes Kothari
Puffin Classics | Rs 250 | 208 pages

“Stories which travelled centuries to come to you–please read them soon–because they still have centuries to travel. These folk tales from Rajasthan slither like serpents in the mind of the reader and tickle the imagination,” Gulzar

About: For centuries, Rajasthan has been a gold mine of oral traditions and histories with Padma Shri Vijaydan Detha being one of the foremost storytellers of all time. Timeless Tales from Marwar gives a new lease of life to his folk tales. It is a hand-picked compilation from the much-celebrated Batan ri Phulwari–‘Garden of Tales’–a fourteen-volume collection written over a span of nearly fifty years. Retold in Detha’s magical narrative style complete with imagery, this selection offers some of the oldest and most popular fables from the Thar Desert region. 

Tags: Rajasthan, Folklore, Translation


Twilight in a Knotted World
By Siddhartha Sarma
Simon & Schuster India | Rs 599 | 296 pages

“Siddhartha Sarma offers not just a tale of crime and punishment, but also glimpses of life in 19th-century India,” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, for Hindu Business Line (9th October, 2020)

About: Far from the great games of the East India Company, Captain William Henry Sleeman is content to administer Jabalpur district and dig for remnants of petrified bones with his charming and knowledgeable wife. Until he is tasked with investigating the activities of an obscure group of criminals who are said to strangle their victims. As Sleeman uncovers the many layers of the Phansigar problem, he finds a language unlike any other, and a set of beliefs, lore and superstitions seemingly drawn from the soul of the countryside. Through the prism of caste, the consequent web of intricate social and cultural relationships, and the nature of travel in the hinterland, he will see the real face of India and come across its uncomfortable, bleak truths. But to unravel such truths is not easy…

Tags: Bengal, Partition, Caste 


Two Plays
By Chandrashekhar Kambar, Translated by Krishna Manavalli
Penguin | Rs 299 | 240 pages

“Kambar employs subtle strategies to create a counter-modernist theatre brimming with poetry, humour, irony, suspense … Krishna Manavalli has found the apt idiom to translate Kambar’s plays into a language with an ethos and a syntax radically different from those of Kannada,” K. Satchidanandan, for Outlook Magazine (1st June, 2020)

About: In Chandrasekhar Kambar’s timeless classic The Bringer of Rain: Rishyashringya, a village afflicted with a deadly famine eagerly awaits the arrival of the chieftain’s son, whose homecoming promises the return of rain. As the death toll rises, age-old secrets are unravelled and mythical forces step out of hiding. Will the sky relent? Power and bloodshed run hand in hand in Kambar’s latest, Mahmoud Gawan. Alluring and sublime, Two Plays is a must-read for anyone hoping to dip their toes into the rich waters of Kannada folklore and theatre.

Tags: Folklore, Translation, Translation from Kannada


Undertow
By Jahnavi Barua
Penguin Viking | Rs 499 | 256  pages

“Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow weaves threads of displacement, kinship and politics into a layered novel,” Anodya Mishra, for Scroll.in (13th June, 2020)

About: Loya is twenty-five: solitary, sincere, with restless stirrings in her heart. In an uncharacteristic move, she sets off on an unexpected journey, away from her mother, Rukmini, and her home in Bengaluru, to distant, misty Assam. In her quest, she finds an understanding not only of herself and her life but also of the precarious bonds that tie people together. A delicate, poignant portrait of family and all that it contains, Undertow becomes, in the hands of this gifted writer, an exploration of much more: home and the outside world, the insider and the outsider, and the ever-evolving nature of love itself.

Tags: Assam, Northeast


Uttara Kaanda
By S.L. Bhyrappa, Translated by Rashmi Terdal
Eka Publications | Rs 599 | 356  pages

About: In Bhyrappa’s Uttara Kaanda, Sita looks back on her life—abandoned at birth and abandoned again by her husband. Her entire life has been a quest for home, a sense of belonging. When they return from their long exile, Rama is anointed king of Ayodhya, but a pregnant Sita is sent away to live in a forest. Uttara Kaanda is Sita’s soliloquy: O Rama, I loved the pure man you were in your youth, not the man you have become—not this man who is shackled by the royal throne. A master of detail, Bhyrappa mines the ancient epic to humanise characters who have, for centuries, been looked upon as gods beyond reproach, bringing us as close as we’ll ever come to understanding them.

Tags: Mythology, Translation, Translation from Kannada


Victory Colony, 1950
By Bhaswai Ghosh
Yoda Press | Rs 499 | 260 pages

“…brings the past vividly to life, and tells tenderly of tragedy and hope, of heartbreak and love, survival and resilience,” – Namita Gokhale, author of Paro and Jaipur Journals

About: Victory Colony, 1950 is the story of the resilience of refugees from East Pakistan, who found themselves largely unwanted on either side of the border following the partition of India in 1947. In the face of government apathy and public disdain, the refugees built their lives from the bottom up with sheer hard work and persistence, changing, in the process, the socio-cultural landscape of Calcutta—the city they claimed as home—forever.

Tags: Partition/Communal, Bengal


Waiting for the Dust to Settle
By Veio Pou
Speaking Tiger Books | Rs 397 | 224 pages

“Veio Pou opens up a forgotten world in his moving debut novel…This brave book presents a very lucid picture of the Indo-Naga conflict, and the destinies of those caught in the tragic web,” Easterine Kire, author of When the River Sleeps and Son of the Thundercloud

About: Set in Manipur during the 1980s and 90s, this novel follows the shared destinies of 10-year-old Rakovei and his family and community. Life is peaceful in the Naga villages around Senapati, until the spring of 1987, when cadres of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attack the Assam Rifles outpost at Oinam Hill, and brutal retaliation follows. Deep disillusionment sets in as Rakovei begins to understand how his people suffer, caught in the war between the Indian Army and the Naga underground. Waiting for the Dust to Settle provides a poignant, often searing, glimpse into the realities of life for ordinary Nagas in the turbulent final decades of the twentieth century. 

Tags: Manipur, Northeast


What’s Wrong with You, Karthik?
By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
Picador India | Rs 599 | 288 pages

“.. a warm, minutely detailed evocation of boyhood. Vaidyanathan writes with passion and deep fondness for a bygone time. This is a novel whose parts are in alternation stirring and cheering, and thus textured like life itself’ – Samanth Subramanian, author of A Dominant Character, This Divided Island and Following Fish

About: Twelve-year-old Karthik Subramanian has just been granted admission into St George’s, an elite boys’ school in Bangalore that has supported the academic lives of ‘four state cricketers, one India captain, tens of professors, hundreds of doctors, engineers and scientists, thousands of chartered accountants …’ In this most exalted of institutions, Karthik yearns for recognition as an academic superstar. Brilliant in its observations of a motley cast of characters, and finely calibrated for humour and sadness, What’s Wrong with You, Karthik? is a poignant, exuberant debut from a writer of rare calibre.

Tags: Thriller


Women, Dreaming
By Salma, Translated by Meena Kandasamy
Penguin Hamish Hamilton | Rs 499 | 384 pages

“In Salma’s splendid telling, even those who appear to remain static resist through words and silence. Meena Kandasamy’s effortless translation is imbued with the fragrance of Tamil,” -T.M. Krishna, Carnatic vocalist, writer, activist and author

About: In a tiny Muslim village in Tamil Nadu, the lives of four women are sustained by the faith they have in themselves, in each other, and the everyday compromises they make. Salma’s storytelling-crystalline in its simplicity, patient in its unravelling-enters this interior world of women, held together by love, demarcated by religion, comforted by the courage in dreaming of better futures. Women, Dreaming is a beautiful novel by writer and activist Salma, translated exquisitely from the Tamil by Meena Kandasamy.

Tags: Translation, Translation from Tamil, Women/Feminism


Written on the Wind
By Anuradha Kumar-Jain
Rupa Publications India | Rs 295 | 256 pages

About: Set in pre-partition Lahore, from the turn of the century to the time of independence, this is the story of two women, both strong and willing to challenge the limits of the acceptable, but in their own way and under very different circumstances. The book explores their relationship against the backdrop of the growing Hindu-Muslim divide, and the politically turbulent times they are living in. The other protagonist, Amiya, born out of wedlock to a British Army Officer and a Brahmin girl, is married at nineteen to Ishwar Chand, a Clerk at the Postal Department in Lahore. Author Anuradha Jain provides a powerful account of desire, love, society and politics, and takes a probing look at the struggles and aspirations of a nation and its people.

Tags: Partition/Communal


You Beneath Your Skin
By Damyanti Biswas
Simon & Schuster India | Rs 399 | 392 pages

“Biswas’s masterful You Beneath Your Skin is an intelligent page-turner that mixes a thrilling murder case with a profound psychological and sociological study of contemporary India,” – David Corbett, award-winning author of The Art of Character

About: Indian-American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt — an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives. Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be. Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all … in a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. 

Tags: Thriller, Crime fiction 


You People
By Nikita Lalwani
Penguin Viking| Rs 599 | 240 pages

“Enthralling as a thriller, yet also a beautiful human drama, and a serious enquiry into the possibility of goodness,” –  Tessa Hadley, author of Late in the Day and The Past

About: The Pizzeria Vesuvio looks like any other Italian restaurant in London – with a few small differences. The chefs who make the pizza fiorentinas are Sri Lankan, and half the kitchen staff are illegal immigrants. At the centre is Tuli, the restaurant’s charismatic proprietor and resident Robin Hood, who promises to help anyone in need. Nineteen-year-old Nia, haunted by her troubled past in Wales, is running from her family. Shan, having fled the Sri Lankan civil war, is desperate to find his. But when Tuli’s guidance leads them all into dangerous territory, and the extent of his mysterious operation unravels, each is faced with an impossible moral choice. In a world where the law is against you, how far would you be willing to lie for a chance to live?

Tags: South Indian diaspora, Thriller 


Yesterday’s Ghosts
By Nikhil Pradhan
Harper Black | Rs 299 | 248 pages

About: It’s been three decades since Black Team disbanded in the wake of a disastrous war in Sri Lanka.The four men, now in their fifties and sixties, have moved on with their lives, and have no intention of returning to the place where it all went wrong. However, when each of them receives a mysterious message, written in a once-familiar code, they realize that their secret has followed them home. From the author of Cold Truth, comes a terrifying story of secrets that come home to roost.

Tags: War, Conflict, India


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Publishers in the list – 26

Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Aleph Book Company, Rupa Publications, Westland, Context, Bloomsbury India, Yoda Press, Stree Samya, Speaking Tiger Books, Hachette, Tranquebar, 7:13 Books, Niyogi Books, Simon & Schuster, Eka Books, Red Panda, Juggernaut, Panther’s Paw Publications, Juggernaut, Zubaan Books, Faber and Faber, Puffin, Picador India, MIRA, Macmillan

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Poetry | ‘Reincarnatic Raga’ by Amit Majmudar | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

Reincarnatic Raga

    Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
    What are the names that I’ve been called?
    Emmet, Ahmet, Ahmad, Amos—
    Amit by any other name is
    Oblivion redivivus, né Oblivion.
    Rebirth ain’t much, but it’s a living.
    Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
    Show me the bodies you recall….

A hazeleyed Chickasaw humming Brahms while spitshining his hatchet,
Hybrid highbred Injun even then:
                                                      Identity a polyhedral
A black boxer whom Tommies a world & a war away named artillery shells for:
                                                      Identity under construction now but someday my cathedral
Aurungzeb’s easygoing Sufi brother, translating into Farsi
The Isha Upanishad out of ishq:
                                                      Identity the selfhell’s watchdog Cerberus-cerebral
A five-foot pigtailed indestructible Cantonese laborer
Perforating the Sierra Nevada with staccato headbutts:
                                                      Identity that puts the hole in wholly writ
A Jesuit worrying his crucifix while Cabeza de Vaca trotted on ahead:
                                                      Identity the problem that I have a problem with
A Kilkenny clergyman on neither the Cuyahoga nor the Nore, his gaze
In a blue flux between fleabane and wild phlox:
                                                      Identity knit unknit reknit to naught
A mongrel whelped by a minor Mongol in entourage of Hulagu:
                                                      Identity a net in which only the water is caught
Goethe, for love of Shakuntala, dancing with his shoe on his head:
                                                      Identity branding its numbers on the forearm of this river
A Norman fiddler in a forest north of New York
Teaching the eager Onondaga gigues and gavottes:
                                                      Identity kaleidoscopic improvising patterns out of inner slivers
A movie producer, born a Belorussian Jew,
Who gave Kansas a wheatblond mythology of Kansas:
                                                      Identity a simulacrum crumbling into something real
These are my forebears, né, my forebirths, my ten avatars, atavisms all
                                                      Identity this sentence I cannot appeal
Throat-singing this twelve-tone hip-hop calypso qawwal:
                                                      Identity this holographic hollow that I step inside to feel


Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf/Penguin Random House India, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). His fourth poetry collection is forthcoming in the United States, What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His novel Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) was shortlisted for the HWA/Goldsboro Crown Prize for Historical Fiction and was named Best Debut Fiction of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and his second novel, The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio Program.

His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to LiteratureThe New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. His first poetry collection, 0′,0′, was shortlisted for the Norma Farber Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his second collection, Heaven and Earth, won the Donald Justice Award. He also edited an anthology of political poetry, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now (Knopf, 2017). Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio’s first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.

Poetry | ‘Amygdala’ & ‘Traffic’ by Bishnupada Ray | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

Amygdala

the sound of a hooter
comes from the very depth
of my brain gorge
like a skyward red alert
coming from a city street
mystique with night lights
as we see in a Hollywood film

is it a police car chasing
or an ambulance
or is it my own amygdala
scouting for new images
of unmitigated death?

the gong of my tears
raises a spectre of hell
but the water has
no quality of redemption.


Traffic

a set of gnashing teeth
is on the tail of a holy cow

holier than thou
and looking like a beak
in the company of prig

shining after morning brush
and flaunting, like fun
as if brighter than the sun

the point of crossing
is a level of attrition
where the upper and the lower
meet in a civil war

over who will take
a malicious peck
a racist dig
to put off the other
and get ahead.


Bishnupada Ray is an Associate Professor of English at the University of North Bengal, West Bengal, India. His poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Indian Literature, New Quest, Makata, Brown Critique, Muse India, Shabdaguchha, Revival, VerbalArt, Phenomenal Literature, The Challenge and A Hudson View. He won a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2009.

‘Raw Deal’ by C. Christine Fair | Translation of Balwant Gargi’s “Kaani Vand” | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

Balwant Gargi’s original short story – ‘Kaani Vand’ was written in Punjabi.


Rulia arranged his sons’ weddings for the same day.  The brides-to-be were sisters. The older son would marry the older sister and the younger son would marry the younger one. 

Both families were happy with this relationship. It would save money and strengthen relations four-fold. The brothers would become brothers-in-law and the sisters would become sisters-in-law. Moreover, the wife of the older brother would be both bhabi–the wife of a brother—and saali, a wife’s sister

The older son, Balauri, was simple while his younger brother, Kishauri, was cunning. Only two years separated them: one was 19 and the other 21. However, it appeared as if Kishauri was the elder because everyone did as he ordered.

In the family’s wholesale store, Balauri would clean and weigh the grains while Kishauri collected the customers’ money.   Balauri was tall and lanky, with an unsightly cyst on his left eye, but was very conscientious. Kishauri was very handsome with sharp features, clever in conversation, but was irascible and angered easily.

Kishauri was habituated to his place of privilege, but when it came to their wedding preparations, in every respect the older brother, Balauri, was put first.  Balauri mounted the bridal mare first. The wives of his kinfolk applied kohl to his eyes first. The priest congratulated him first on his nuptials. As the younger brother, Kishauri was forced to countenance the fact that Balauri would be first to undergo the various wedding rituals. 

When the brothers’ marriage procession reached the village Bhuccho Mandi to pick up the brides, there was a single wedding band and one golden umbrella to celebrate their arrival. They would spend the next three days enjoying the hospitality of the brides’ family together. 

After bathing, the elder sister, Dwarki, and the younger, Godavri, were draped in capacious and elaborately embroidered shawls which hindered their ability to walk. The girls’ maternal uncle, per tradition, picked them up and placed them comfortably in their house.  Their girlfriends and the nain–who was the sisters’ attendant, coiffeuse and chaperone throughout the course of wedding rituals–braided their hair, dressed them in silken suits; covered their faces and heads under long veils heavy with embroidery; applied makeup, and draped the delicate chains supporting their cumbrous nose-ornaments across their cheeks and affixed them behind the ears. First Dwarki was seated upon the ritual reed mat and then Godavri. Both brothers were joyous. Later when the wedding procession set out to return to the brothers’ home, the same nain came along to take care of both brides.

Both brothers and their brides were seated in the car. Kishauri pinched the nain’s arm and placed a five rupee note in her palm saying, “Please have the veil removed.”

The nain looked at him askance and quipped, “What’s the hurry? You can’t drink scalding milk until it’s cooled off a bit!”

Kishauri thought to himself that this nain is very clever. He whispered in her ear “You won’t always be here to keep an eye on her. Just show me what she looks like!” Then he put another five rupee note in her hand.

Balauri sat in the front seat of the car gazing out and watching the jand and kicker trees flicker past. He deeply revered the marriage rituals and ceremonies and was even amenable to not seeing his wife’s face until the suhaag raat— the night when they were expected to consummate their marriage. For now, he sat aloof in the car looking out at the jand and kicker trees passing by as they drove on. 

Clutching the ten rupees tightly in her fist, the nain whispered into the ear of Kishauri’s bride that she should peek out from under her veil.  The bride moved her head nervously. The nain said softly “Why are you embarrassed? I am the one asking you to do this.”

Inwardly, Godavri wanted to see her husband but also wanted to maintain the appearance of modesty. As she turned her head and lifted her veil, Kishauri’s jaw dropped in shock. She had a fat nose, small eyes, was as dark as an eggplant, and her cheeks were pockmarked. “This is my wife?” Kishauri asked himself. His heart sank to his ankles. He felt as if his business had gone bankrupt and he was forced to auction off his home to pay his debts. “I have lost everything in a toss of the dice.” His head began to spin.

Balauri, blissfully unaware of his brother’s ruses, was bemused by the simple pleasures of watching the trees glide by.

Kishauri quickly wrestled his emotions under control and grabbed the nain’s feet with his hands in desperation, pleading that she “give me a flash of my sister-in-law’s face.” 

The nain turned her shoulders away to rebuff this wildly inappropriate request. Kishauri took a one-hundred rupee note from his pocket and placed it in her lap. The nain considered the demand briefly, then tucked the note into the purse tied to her skirt.  She  huddled up next to Dwarki in front, and whispered in her ear to ever-so-briefly glance back. Whereupon Dwarki slightly turned her shoulders, lifted her veil, and peered directly in Kishauri’s direction. He glimpsed her round, dark eyes, and searing beauty.  Beneath the nose-ornament, her pinkish lips glimmered. Dwarki quickly beshrouded her face once again with her veil. Kishauri quivered on this brief glimpse of her face. A dark shadow of connivance spread across his forehead as he weighed his options. Suddenly, his nerves settled, likely because he had decided how to fix this predicament.

Both brothers, with their wives in tow, reached their home. All the women and girls of the village gathered to ogle the new brides. The girls sang while the baraat band played very loudly.  Hearing their arrival, the sons’ mother came out of the main gate of the family haveli and began the paani vaarna ceremony, in which she vowed to take upon herself all the problems of her sons and their families. Standing at the main gate with a silver garvi containing water infused with grass, waved it over the heads of the couples, and drank from it. She repeated this seven times as the rituals demanded.

As the two sons stepped across the threshold of their home, the dhols began to beat loudly. The loud band and boisterous singing created pandemonium. Availing of the madness and the fact that no one in his home knew which bride was his, Kishauri forcefully pushed his wife Godavri away towards Balauri, then yanked Dwarki towards himself and announced, “This is my wife!”

The mother sprinkled the water upon the couples as the sons entered the haveli with the switched wives. Everything was lost in the clamorous singing. Balauri wanted to say something to voice resentment of his brother’s bullying, but his mother was already caressing the heads of Kishauri and Dwarki, while Godavri stood next to him with her head and face covered with a long veil. Both brides had identical makeup and were wearing identical embroidered shawls and velvet slippers.  None of the onlookers could have suspected that the wives had been switched. But Balauri knew. He felt as if scissors were stabbing his heart. His eye with the cyst began to twitch. He had no idea how he would endure this indignity. 

Both brothers, with their swapped wives, began the ritual wedding game of kangna khedna. In a large flat bowl, a mixture of milk and water glimmered. The nain was seated nearby and tossed a ring into the basin. Dwarki plunged her hennaed hand into the milky water while Kishauri immersed his manly hand into the same.  Duaarki found the ring and clasped it tightly in her fist. Kishauri hurriedly grabbed her hand and squeezed it, forcing the ring to slip from her grasp.  Both felt a titillating tingling as their hands met beneath the pearly water. With this innocent yet intimate game, their relationship blossomed.

When Balauri’s turn came, the nain again tossed the ring into the milky water. Godavri immediately found the ring and cunningly hid it. Then the simple-minded Balauri thrust his hand into the water searching for the ring.  When Godavri pulled her fist out of the water, Balauri tried to pry it open. Her face flushed red with bashful discomfort and he let go of her hand. From their inability to play this silly game, Balauri concluded that the hand he found belonged to a stranger, not his wife.

That night the brothers’ mother decorated their marital beds in separate rooms on the top floor of the haveli.  Balauri remained outside, quietly sitting on the garden footpath pondering whether, inside that room, his bride was waiting for him.  Finally, he resolved to go inside.

An oil lamp was burning in a niche inside the room, and Godavri was sitting on the floor. When Balauri took her hand, she cowered to one side. From under her veil, he heard her say “Do not touch me.” 

With those words, Godavri made it abundantly obvious that she was not his wife.  Meanwhile, in the other room, his little brother was merrily consummating his marriage with Dwarki, rather than his own wife.

Godavri’s words felt like a hot knitting needle piercing his chest. Balauri felt oddly helpless and could not see clearly through the foggy haze before his eyes. He began to tremble and sob heavy tears.

Balauri left the room and went outside to sit upon the garden footpath once again. He sat on that footpath throughout the night even as celestial constellations migrated across the sky. Hundreds of thoughts crossed his mind. All the injustices he’s suffered throughout his life appeared before him. 

His younger brother had oppressed him throughout his life. When the boys played marbles, Kishauri would always snag the ones with beautiful colors. When they played shells and walnuts, Kishauri would toss the shells into a pit or throw them across the road while keeping all the walnuts for himself. When gathering plums from the trees, Balauri would climb the tree and shake them free. The ripe plums would fall to Kishauri standing below, ready to fill his lap with the choicest plums, while leaving the worm-eaten and unripe ones for Balauri. Balauri tolerated all these outrages because Kishauri was his little brother. Over time, his little brother increasingly got the upper hand in every matter. 

Little by little, Balauri acquiesced to play second fiddle in the household. He was given second place in each and every matter. When their father divvied up sweets, Kishauri always had first dibs on the piles. For all intents and purposes, their parents considered Kishauri to be the head of the household. By acquiescing, Balauri’s sense of self slowly but surely withered. Because of the cyst on his eye, no one in the household ever regarded him as attractive, or even a sentient person with feelings and emotions. 

Balauri spent his entire life with this inferiority complex. But now, after his little brother snatched his bride as if she were yet another pile of sweets, he could suffer no more affronts. He couldn’t even bring himself to speak of this litany of tyrannies much less complain about this most recent indecency with his wife. This was the ultimate assault on his very existence. It was the final debasement which shattered his spirit into myriad scattered shards.

Balauri abruptly stood up from the footpath, descended the stairs, unlocked the main gate, and left the premises.

Dawn was breaking when the mother went upstairs with two covered glasses of milk and found Balauri’s marital bed empty and Godavri sitting on the floor.

The entire household was in turmoil over where Balauri had disappeared.

Two days passed, then five. Balauri had still not returned. His parents asked relatives whether they had received letters; they dispatched a man to visit the in-laws; they even sent telegrams to two or three of his old friends. Finally, they notified the police station. His panic-stricken parents searched high and low but there was no trace of Balauri to be found.

After ten days, a police constable appeared at the door and informed them that a man’s body had been discovered in an abandoned well in Rohi. A goat-herder had smelled a wretched stench emanating from the well. It was Balauri’s corpse.

Neither sister knew which one had become a widow.


About Balwant Gargi: Balwant Gargi (b. 4 December 1916 – d. 22 April 2003) is perhaps most known for his dramas in the Punjabi language as well his theater direction. However, he was also a scholar and prolific novelist and short story writer. In 1962, Gargi was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award, which is the highest Indian literary award, for his play Rang Manch. In 1972, he received the Padma Shri (1972). In 1998 he was bestowed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Punjabi Playwriting in 1998. Gargi is one of the few artists who received both the Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. In 2017, the Government of India officially released postage stamps to commemorate the birth-centenary of Balwant Gargi (1916-2016). 

About the Translator: C. Christine Fair is an Associate Professor within the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.  She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008).  She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Clementine Unbound, Awakenings, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Sonder Midwest, Black Horse Magazine, Furious Gazelle, Hyptertext, Barzakh Magazine and Bluntly Magazine among others. Her visual poetry has appeared in Awakenings, pulpMAG and several forthcoming pieces in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Indianapolis Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine and PCC Inscape Magazine. She causes trouble in multiple languages.

Acknowledgements: The translator is grateful to Galwant Gargi’s son, Manu Gargi, for giving me permission to translate this story as well as for providing thoughts about how his father may have translated this story. I’m also grateful to my long-time friend and collaborator, Gurdit Singh, for being willing to discuss aspects of translating this story. I’m also grateful to my various Punjabi instructors over the years, especially Seema Miglani of the American Institute of Indian Studies program in Chandigarh.

Fiction | ‘The Ballad of the Almost Cancer’ by Craig Loomis | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

My harbour days are full of a sameness that, secretly, I enjoy. Old women holding their grandchildren on their laps while the mothers and fathers swim, snorting, blowing bubbles like river horses. I listen as Grandma talks to a grandson of two, maybe three years old, as if he’s an adult. “And what are your plans for today? Shouldn’t be fearful of the water, you know. Learn to swim. Important, don’t you think?” And he, nodding a little too fast—more a bobbing than a nodding—says, “Yes, Gama,” as hand in hand, they move back into the shade, under an umbrella the size of a small car.

Meanwhile, a parade of eager tourists ambles by. The Germans and the English own the same body type, fleshy and red with a splash of tattoo here and there, the men shouldering strangely small backpacks, as if they are on a trek, a journey, and will most certainly need supplies.

Two Russians stop in front of my table to argue: red-faced, more tattoos, pointing to the sky, as if this particular argument is up. Mysteriously, it isn’t long before they both seem to run out of argument at the same time, their red draining away, moustaches quivering; they continue on their way, one that way, the other this way, while the one with the biggest tattoo tries one last time to make a point. I hear the word Crimea, a finger pointing straight up, but the other will have none of it, and shrugs, walking faster.

When he begins his screaming, his older sister takes his toy from him and walks off to stand in the shade under the palms. The punishment is simple enough and he crumbles to the ground, wailing. But this elder sister is a good one, and patiently she waits for him to right himself. Meanwhile he continues to squirm on the pavement, rolling in and out of the grass, red-faced, the noonday sun relentless. She waits in the shade with his toy. In the end, slowly, painfully, he loses the struggle, this clash of wills, and like some old man, rights himself piece by piece, one leg at a time, before making his way towards her, tear-lines streaking his cheeks, along with assorted snot. When he finally arrives at her place in the shade, she does three things: wipes his nose, gives him a drink of water, and picks him up. Immediately, as if this play acting is not as easy as it looks, he lays his head on her shoulder. And she smiles a smile that has nothing to do with victory.

Like always at the old harbour fort there are tourists who think nothing of spending five euros to walk around a square mud building that, in places, might have once been painted red, maybe orange. Men step out of the shade to offer their services as guides, to show them the hidden secrets of the fort. ‘Aphrodite slept here, her brother there. A roman general was assassinated there, and look,’ pointing at a hole in the wall, ‘a pirate’s cannon ball struck here. See that? See that?’

As I get ready to leave, the dark-haired woman, with cigarette and beer two tables over, turns to give me a look that says you aren’t as important as you think you are, which hurts my feelings, but never mind because I smile anyway, even though by now she is looking somewhere else, blowing cigarette smoke into the air.

In the beginning, when I didn’t know any better, I walked to the harbour and back every day. It took most of the morning and was exhausting, leaving me weak, sore-legged and unhealthy for days. However, they say that’s a good sign, sleeping muscles waking up, being used. Now, I walk to the harbour three times a week, and the vendors know me and no longer urge me to buy, to come closer to take a good look at their seashells and sponges, special all-day fishing trips. ‘How about a seat on a glass bottom boat?’ Now when they see me coming, they look the other way, at the newlyweds behind me. Although in the middle of the day, the outdoor cafes are too hot and windy and squirmy with cats, when the sun sets they are almost perfect, except for the cats. The cats have no problem clawing one another over scraps that the children throw down, thinking it is all good catty fun. At sunset the lanterns are turned on, big yellow globes necklacing the harbour rim. It is quite a sight, and families will come from miles around to see the twinkle of electricity. 

It all started in the hills above Paphos, in the village of Tala. The telephone I had inherited from Mrs. Agnes Collar, who, at 85, died of a stroke, doesn’t ring like other telephones; it sounds something like a tinny clatter, as if something isn’t quite right, or getting ready to be wrong. And when it does ring, the neighbor’s dog howls, and nearby crows swoop down to see what’s what. Its metallic chattering sets off an aching in my chest, a throbbing in my wrist.

The call is from Dr Khan’s assistant, who, I remember, as being strangely long and tall, who has perfectly square white teeth and clawy fingernails, whose purple lipstick leans off her lips. I secretly wondered why any doctor would have someone like that all dressed in blue working the front desk, saying things like ‘Good morning’ or ‘May I help you?’ or ‘Do you have an appointment?’ 

 “Hello, is this Mr. Courier? James Courier?”

“Yes, of course, but it’s John. Who is this. . . ? But wait, I know this voice.”

“Of course, John. Yes, you are in Cyprus now, is that right?”

“Yes, yes, but I know this voice. Who is this?”

When she tells me, I say, “Yes, that’s right,” and she thinks that’s funny and I can see her laughing in her long blue uniform. “Anyway, Dr Khan would like a word with you.”

That’s what she said ‘a word’. And I am almost certain I answered with a ‘Fine,’ or ‘Good’ or ‘Yes”, maybe even an “OK.’ However Dr Khan’s word turned out to be many, and it was not pleasant news. He had just gotten around to taking a look at my test results of three weeks ago and there appears to be something like a cancer with a small c. That’s what he said, “with a small c.” I could tell he’d practiced that with others, this, ‘with a small c,’ as he waited to see if I thought it might be funny, reassuring, comforting. When I answered, “Tell me more,” I could also tell that that wasn’t what others had said. And so he told me what it meant, and in the end I grew weary of hearing about my own body and wanted him to stop, but what I really said was, “I see.” Of course I didn’t but there is only so much a man can take at one sitting, with one long distance phone call, as I watched the big yellow cat walk across the patio, a cat that nobody seems to own, take credit for, but everybody feeds. After I say my good-byes, I immediately stretch out on the cool marble Cyprus floor and go to sleep—if not real sleep then something like it. When I wake, the room is still a warm yellow afternoon, and I have to remember why I am on the floor, and when I do I don’t believe it, thinking I must have dreamed Dr Khan’s words; some dreams are like that: more real than the stuff of dreams. I look at the telephone: harmless, the clock on the wall, the window and beyond, the summery saffron of Cyprus in June, and by now a cat-less patio. All I can think is: That was a close one. Even saying it out loud, “A close one, like, dodging bullets or a near car accident.”

Later, the sun now in the trees, a shadowy porch, I call Doctor Khan just to be sure, to double-check, but by now the time is all wrong, and I hear her dull citation, “Dr Khan’s office is closed right now, but if you care to…” 

That night there is a fire in the hills. I can see the blush from the porch. That, and there is a light mist of ash, not even ash but a grainy falling, and that brings my neighbours out of their houses to point, to look into the far off treetops to see which way the wind is blowing, to call their children to come outside and see this. The Russian family with the poodle think nothing of the fire that has grown from blush to glow. They are in their pool with the poodle splashing, laughing at what can only be some kind of Russian joke.

My neighbours have bigger, greener yards than I do, and whenever I walk by they are busily grooming, watering, raking, weeding, snipping here and there. We say Good Morning, mentioning how hot it has been, will be, could be. To talk sports and politics means I would have to slow, even stop walking, and we are not those sorts of neighbours. And so I stride on, as they, wiping the sweat from their brow, go back to watering, trimming; all the while their dog watches me suspiciously, as if I have all the makings of a potential enemy. 

With night and fire in the hills, I have more time to think about my ‘cancer with a small c’, and the more I think about it the more I recall what Dr Khan said: ‘Not serious now, but could become serious and dangerous. It’s a small c now and you want to keep it that way, know what I mean? Keep it that way. Of course there are medicines to take, exercises to do.

Exercise is important, you know. If nothing else, walking. Everybody knows this. In fact, some studies indicate walking is the key—always has been. That, and fasting. Fasting and walking. Hello? Are you still there? Exercise is everything at your age. Exercise, walk, swim. Can you swim? Never mind, something like a dog paddle is good enough. Three, four times a week. Over the long run it can make a difference, you’ll see. Make a difference. So, is there anything else?”

I answered, “No, that about covers it.”

“Right, Ok. Until next time, or not.”

I try rereading the newspaper, but my heart is not in it, so I turn off the light, and with Dr. Khan, the fire in the hills and the big yellow cat crowding my thoughts, toss and turn until the whiskey-light of dawn.

When I awake, the cat is on the patio statute-like, waiting. As a reward, I toss it a piece of yesterday’s ham, and we are friends for another day. 

This is the day I decide to ignore the harbour and go the other direction, to the top of the hill. At the top of the hill is a small shop that sells candy, newspapers, cigarettes, bottles of water. Not even a shop really, more like an outpost on the edge of the wilderness. The man who sits there all day, every day, has some of the yellowest fingers I have ever seen, and when he smiles it has nothing to do with being happy. There is a small plastic table with three plastic chairs under a nearby olive tree and as I sit, his radio playing, I watch the lizards that are minding their own lizardly business and lazing in the sunshine. I watch an ant dragging the carcass of a bumble bee, three maybe four times its size. How does it do that? It has latched on to the bee’s body, pulling it over pebbles, dirt and sand, stopping every now and again to catch its anty breath.

Like always, once at the harbour, I take a left at the scuba diving club and do my short walk to Andre’s café at the end of the street. Andrei is the waiter who works there, who never seems to have a day off, who sits in a chair in the shade, under a red umbrella, reading a magazine, who will only come to your table if you motion to him. I am the only one who seems to appreciate Andrei, and by now once he sees me, he brings me black coffee with bread and cheese, and we don’t have to say a word.

 The town of Paphos is thataway, a dusty sprawl of wheat-colored houses and sometimes buildings, fields and olive trees, next to the bluegreen Mediterreanean that stretches hazily to the edge of the world. Over there, beyond the goaty hills and olive trees, in the shallows, is Aphrodite’s birthplace, and someone official has placed a sign at the foot of the gigantic rock that asks you please not to climb the rock, the goddess’s sacred birthplace, the goddess of love. Of course people swarm over the rock, a dusty path zigzagging to the top.

And so, to keep this cancer with a small c small, even smaller, I walk. When I return, the yellow porch-cat is usually waiting, watching me huff up the drive, watchful, as if wondering what took me so long and oh by the way, what’s to eat?

It has been weeks since Dr Khan’s phone call, and of course right in the middle of thinking this, that afternoon, the telephone rings and two crows almost immediately swoop down to the porch. Dr Khan says hello, asking how I am, how’s the weather, what’s the exchange rate, “I need a vacation myself,” until finally, he asks, “You know, we all make mistakes, James, right? Human nature.”

“John, my name is John.”

“Yes, yes, of course, John.”

“You said something about a mistake?”

“Yes, a mistake. It happens. It happens to us all, you, me, everybody.”

“A mistake?”

When the neighbour’s dog starts barking, the crows step off the porch, flapping loudly.

“About this cancer stuff. The lab people tell me it’s never happened before, you know. This is the first time. That’s what they said: ‘first time. First time for everything, right?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“Well, long story short, they tell me your tests were wrong. About you and cancer, they got it wrong. Said it was a computer glitch. A misreading. That’s the word they used ‘misreading,’” Happens to the best of us, you know. So sorry about this, James, and that’s why I am calling to give you the good news. A good mistake, right?”

There is a harsh crackle of long distance static that eats up his voice, and so I ask, “Sorry what? One more time.”

Laughing, as if there is something funny with having to repeat himself, ‘I said they got it wrong, you don’t have anything like cancer, never did. Imagine that, never did.”

The yellow cat is at the screen door, peering in, its tail flicking like a second pulse.

“Can you hear me? Hello, James, you there?”

“Yes, I hear you. Yes. A glitch you say, misreading?”

Suddenly, Dr Khan is no more and his long, blue assistant is on the line, saying, “Hello, who is this? James in Cyprus, is it? James, is that you?”

I have not stopped walking. In fact, if anything I do it more often. Even when I feel terrible and have headaches, sore legs, back spasms, never mind his cancer with a small c I trudge down to the harbour. And so the next day when I am at Andre’s and he brings me my coffee with toast and jam and I say, “Nice day. Clear sky, beautiful sun,” he stops to look at me and then up at the blue sky and then back to me, shrugging, before returning to his chair under the umbrella with a magazine.


For the last sixteen years Craig Loomis has been teaching English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City. Over the years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, Sukoon Magazine, The Maryland Review, The Bombay Review, The Absurdist, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review, Five on the Fifth, The Prairie Schooner, and others. 

Fiction | ‘Tamamushi’ by R. Sebastian Bennett | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

TOKYO, JAPAN 1990

“Japanese business ees very different,” said Hamaguchi, president of Japan Publishing Company. He was a portly man in a light green double-breasted sport coat. He spoke in a low voice, as stern as a priest. “Japanese system ees very relaxing, but you must work hard. You must work seexty seconds of every minute.” 

I sat in Hamaguchi’s office with the other new salesman, and we nodded enthusiastically. 

“I promise you all unlimited salary,” Hamaguchi continued, spreading his hands wide as if he were offering the pearls of heaven. “You will each determine your salary with your sales quota…” He paused to let this sink in. “You must learn sales technique. I will explain eet.” He picked up a copy of Tokyo Time magazine and held it up in front of each one of us so we could get a good look. “Companies which already advertise are thee best possibility.” 

“I bought a new Tokyo English Yellow Pages so I can look for prospects.” I took the phonebook out of my briefcase and flipped through the pages. The display ads flashed and disappeared. 

Hamaguchi ignored me. He slurped at a cup of tea and wiped his mouth with his fingers. “Now we are all part of the company. And I am company president. What is best for the company is best for all of us. And we have company pin, and meishi! Business cards for each one…” From another drawer, Hamaguchi took out four boxes and handed one to each of us. “In Japan, you must have meishi to be professional.” 

I opened my box, pulled out a card, and read my name in katakana, with the first and family names reversed. Below was my title: “Advertising Director.” I felt a quiver of excitement then. The other new salesmen seemed equally pleased. 

The cards were printed in English on one side and Japanese on the other. In the lower left corner of each card was a red and black J.P.C. symbol, a stick-figured body with a smiling round face gazing at a magazine—very un-Japanese. But it didn’t matter. I had a good job now, a real Tokyo business job. 

“I wish all of you good luck,” said Hamaguchi, clenching his fists like a boxing coach. 

“You must work hard. You must push beeg for sales. You must be… persistent. Then you will be a success.” 

Hamaguchi had dictated to us exactly what to say when we telephoned a prospect company. He had made each of us write out a script, the “sales pitch.” I sat down at my desk and scanned through my phone book. On page eleven was a full-color advertisement for Sako Department Store with a photo of three happy foreigners buying a kimono from a bowing Japanese salesgirl. I dialed the number and read my lines directly from the sales script: “Good Afternoon. This is Japan Publishing Company—” 

“Mushi mushi??” asked the telephone girl. 

“Yes, I am calling from Japan Publishing Company and—” 

“Mushi mushi??”

I saw that Hamaguchi was watching me, assessing my performance. This was the first sales call by one of his new employees. 

“Please may I speak with the advertising manager?” I continued, reading the second line of my script. 

“Mushi mushi?”

I didn’t answer. 

I heard some clicks on the line. Evidently I was being transferred to an English-speaking manager. Now I was getting somewhere. I gave Hamaguchi a nod to indicate good progress. 

A new voice took the call. “Mushi mushi?”

“Yes, I—

“Mushi mushi?”

This was ridiculous. Almost a Monty Python gag… So I switched to Japanese to tell the girl what company I was calling from—I hadn’t studied two years for nothing: “Kochira wa Nihon Shuppansha desu,” 

“Hai!” She acknowledged. 

“—You must speak English!” Hamaguchi interrupted. He stepped closer and pressed his fingers like the teeth of a rake onto the top of my desk. I covered the mouth piece and whispered, “But they don’t understand.” 

“Then you must hang up.” 

“Thank you,” I said, and hung up the phone like like an obedient little boy. “I was just going to use Japanese to try to get the advertising manager on the line.” 

Hamaguchi shook his head. “I know this must be… dee-fi-cult for you to understand. You must speak only English. Japanese are very impressed to get call from foreigner. You must expect that they will speak English.” 

I was getting a little tired of Hamaguchi’s use of the verb must. “Well what happens if they don’t understand and keep repeating ‘mushi mushi mushi’?” 

“Then you must say Thank You and make other call.” Suddenly, Hamaguchi turned around to face the rest of the office staff. “I weel be back at three o’clock,” he announced, as if declaring a summit meeting. And without another word, he walked out of the office. 

I sat perfectly still for a moment. I didn’t like this “English-only” rule. I didn’t like it at all. I had come to Tokyo to speak Japanese. To learn about the culture. Not to speak English to people who didn’t understand… Did Hamaguchi know from experience that only companies which had English-speaking staff would want to advertise in English-language publications? But that didn’t make sense. Sako Department Store had that huge ad in the Tokyo English yellow pages… 

With a glance to my right and left to make sure no one was listening, I dialed Sako again. I disobeyed Hamaguchi, spoke again in Japanese, and requested to speak with the advertising manager: “Senden bu no senkininsha onegai shimasu?” 

Instantly, the line was transferred to the advertising department. I explained about Tokyo Time and set an appointment with a “Mr. Arisaka” for that afternoon. Then I couldn’t keep a smile from starting. I bit my lip to prevent it. I slipped the advertising samples into my brief case and stuck the company pin through my lapel. It was my first appointment, my Japanese corporate baptism. 

On the ritzy Harumi Dori, land values were the highest in the world. It was said that you could lay a thousand-dollar bill on the sidewalk and the ground below it would be worth ten times more. I walked past a number of swanky department stores, glittering jewelry stores, high-fashion retailers and, of all things, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, complete with a picture of the smiling myopic Colonel. KFC customer lines stretched out the door and into the street. Then I saw it—SAKO DEPAATO! It wasn’t quite as big as the other department stores but looked classier, with polished brass trim around the windows. Two enormous gleaming doors opened automatically to let me in.

A sparkling chrome and gold perfume counter stood close to the entry. It was staffed by two picture-perfect Japanese girls, exactly the same height. They stood at attention, hands clasped, posed still as mannequins. 

Excuse me,” I said. 

Together, the girls swiveled their heads to look at me. They gave automatic bows. But one of them seemed to be smirking. Was this just my imagination? Was I just nervous?

I spoke Japanese in slow, solemn tones. “Where is Arisaka-san’s office? He is the advertising manager. We have an appointment.” 

At the mention of Arisaka’s name, there were rapid inhalations. Both girls’ expressions changed. Their eyes opened wider. They leaned forward, utterly alert and completely respectful. Now I was royalty. I was anointed. I knew Arisaka-san! 

“Hai!” said one of the girls. I wasn’t sure which one had spoken. She bowed and asked me to “sho-sho omatte”—to have a short, honorable wait. Then she bowed three more times and ran over to another counter. Clearly she knew that I wasn’t just a stupid tourist looking for smelly perfume. I was a revered advertising executive with keys to the city. 

Three more clerks bowed at once. “Hai! Hai! Hai!” they said and escorted me, the esteemed manager-meeter, to a chain of private offices in the back. I was ushered to a green leather couch and given a cup of tea for another honorable wait, while the receptionist made a few frantic phone calls involving frenetic whispers and worried glances, as if I might buy the entire store—building, property and all—right out from under her feet. But when she looked up again, I gave her a calm smile, a reassurance that she needn’t fret. 

Then a younger man escorted me to another office and introduced me to two salarymen. Slowly and deliberately, as if in a Zen ritual, I pulled out my business card and offered it with two hands in the polite Japanese way, so the printing faced the receiver. The men stared at the cards. The one on the left tilted his head in a parakeet’s twitch and then slid a business card out of his jacket pocket, which he offered with only one hand. It was a gesture soon duplicated by the other man.

I studied their cards. I had read that after careful consideration, the higher-ranking person’s card was supposed to be placed above the other cards on the discussion table, available for easy reference during the meeting. But I couldn’t tell who was in charge here, so I lay the cards side-by-side. Really, I could tell only one thing from these cards: Neither of these men was Arisaka. My abdomen tensed, and I fought back the queasiness in my stomach.

The first man spoke in halting English. “We are… very sorry. But Mr. Arisaka-san had emergency meeting. He has asked us to listen to your proposal.” 

Thank you,” I said, and bent my head forward in a little “seated bow” which I had designed myself, but seemed appropriate. I took the advertising samples out of my briefcase and lay them in front of the men. There were copies of the last two issues of Tokyo Time, a letter from one of the big Japanese hotels expressing how much the guests liked the magazine, a notarized statement from U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield which said he had read the magazine, and a pamphlet detailing the number of copies distributed per month.

Then I started my sales talk. 

The Japanese men nodded. They gave a big nod when I showed them an ad in last month’s Tokyo Time from Seibu Depaato, one of their competitors. And they nodded again when I pointed to the distribution list and tapped my ballpoint near the list of hotels. I might actually sell an ad, I realized. Yes, I could do it! 

I forced myself not to talk too fast. I Japanized my English with throaty syllables, so the men would be sure to understand. I nodded a lot and made earnest expressions and shook my samples. Finally, I brought out the contract and showed all of the different ad spaces and types…

But the men nodded enthusiastically at each space—and I knew it was all fake. I knew I had no chance. They were nodding mechanically, agreeing automatically like yes-men sidekicks of an inane talk show host. Their nods were not signs of acceptance; they were signs of understanding, validating each point of my presentation. There was no consent. But I thrust my big question, anyway. I was tired of all this nodding and grunting. Now the men had to choose. “So what advertisement size would be appropriate for Sako department store?” I asked bluntly. 

“Yes,” said the English speaker. “We are… very impressed by your publication. Our advertising budget will start in July. We shall consider your Tokyo Time.” 

My cheeks burned. My shins perspired. It was stupid of me to think that I could convince them to buy. The Great Arisaka wasn’t even there. And Japanese businessmen were famed for making decisions very slowly. All facets of a proposal had to be considered by all possible members of the organization. All aspects had to be analyzed and re-analyzed. Then there was a concerted hgroup action. Of course I shouldn’t feel too bad that I hadn’t gotten an immediate decision, right? 

But there was another possibility. Maybe the men simply weren’t interested. Maybe they were just stalling for three months under the guise of “consideration.” Pinpoints of heat flashed on the back of my neck. I took a deep breath. “Thank you for considering my proposal,” I said. 

“Oh, you are most welcome. It ees our pleasure.” They smiled at me, then at each other. “But don’t you need more customers before July?”

The men’s faces fell, sagged like leaking water bottles. “Yes… of course,” said the speaking one. “We will consider your proposal, very carefully.” 

I was beaten. “Thank you,” I said, and felt the blood rush to my temples. 

We all stood up. The non-speaker bowed first. He must be the lower-ranking one. The higher-ranking English speaker bowed afterwards. I made sure that I bowed last, but started my bow just after the English-speaker so my presumptuousness would be more subtle. 

***

On the top floor of the NDD building, the company cafeteria was surprisingly spacious. Ferns and paintings dotted the walls. A panoramic window offered spectacular views of the city. I sat with Mr. Otosaki, a middle-aged advertising manager and his assistant Miss Kawano, highcheek-boned and high-breasted. A pair of heavy reading glasses covered Miss Kawano’s eyes. 

After our meeting, Otosaki had insisted that I “enjoy” an NDD lunch even though it was 3:30 in the afternoon. I wasn’t hungry. Actually I was a bit ill, but I agreed with an artificial smile and a compliant bow. 

The waiter brought our bowls of rice and a plate of tsunomono bean appetizer.He gave me a curious glance.

“Do you like Japanese food?” asked Miss Kawano, as if to take my attention away from the waiter. She closed her mouth in a round, lipsticked smile. 

Before I could answer, Otosaki clarified the question with a hearty laugh and a slight lean forward. “Do you like Japanese rice?”

“Yes oishi— delicious,” I said. 

Miss Kawano nodded in quick, jerking motions and shot a fast look at Otosaki, as if my answer had proven something which they had discussed before. 

“Yes Japanese rice is best,” said Otosaki. “Japanese rice is sticky rice. Sticks to chopstick. Better to eat. Better for taste,” he explained.

When the waiter served a chicken plate to each of us, I decided to ingratiate myself as much as possible with my possible new clients. I spread both hands over my plate. “I like all Japanese food,” I said, “Sashimi and bean candy and natto,” which was a particularly smelly fermented bean paste that I’d never tried, but was known to make most foreigners puke.

Kawano and Otosaki exchanged another glance, almost an “I-told-you-so” look. But I really wasn’t sure just what they were affirming. 

“Miss Kawano has traveled a lot. She has lived in Bu-ritain and Fu-ransu,” said

Ototsaki. 

“Good.” I tried to give a lively nod. Of course we had to know each other’s entire 

background before we could do business. That was the Japanese custom, right? Business partners had to have total knowledge about each other to engender trust. And in my case, they had to know the exact degree of my love for Japan. They would exhaust all other topics of conversation and then maybe, just maybe, Otosaki would mention the contract. I would wait. I knew how to wait. 

“I had Furenchu boifurendo,” offered Miss Kawano, wide-eyed and breathless as if I would be eager to hear this. 

“Oh, great. Congratulations…” What the hell was I supposed to say? 

“Are you married?” asked Otosaki, inhaling a piece of chicken. 

“No.” I shook my head. 

“You are single?” he persisted. 

“Yes.”

Otosaki laughed and ordered some beer from the waiter. “For better or for worse, Miss Kawano is single, too…” This time Otosaki didn’t look me in the eyes. He pinched a big pile of rice with his chopsticks. Miss Kawano rearranged her napkin and gave me a suggestive, heart-shaped smile and a slight lift of her eyebrows. 

I was embarrassed. My thighs were hot. Of course! I was being set up. Like on The Dating Game. Miss Kawano had lived abroad and had foreign boyfriends. She was known to desire Western men. Her only option was to find a Western boyfriend, like me, who just happened to be there at the right place at the right time. And Otosaki, like a favorite uncle, was helping her out. 

Otosaki gave Miss Kawano another optimistic nod and a soft grunt, and she adjusted her napkin again. “Do you like music?” he asked me. 

Now they were closing in… It was time to be aggressive. Time for an affirmative defense. I would ask Miss Kawano a question. “What kind of music do you like?” I inquired. 

She quivered and lay a hand on the table to steady herself. Her new suitor had put her to examination. Now she had to perform. “Oh…” Her chest rose. “Oh I don’t know…” She had a dazed look as if I had asked her about the wonders of the universe, the fabled Spring of Youth or the Mouth of Eden. Shaking, she set down her chopsticks. “It ees, difficult, to eat and to speak, English.” 

“Ummm…” I made an understanding grunt and nodded consolingly. I glanced at Otosaki. He was fully engaged in eating chopsticked mounds of food, and for all intents and purposes seemed to have left the two prospective lovers, Miss Kawano and I, to our own devices. Otosaki was indeed our chaperone—but a permissive one… His duties were finished. Now he was convinced that his two kindlings were mature enough to go at it alone. 

The beer arrived and Otosaki filled a glass for me, then poured one for himself as well. Miss Kawano wasn’t given any beer. “Drink, please,” said Otosaki. Simultaneously, we each took a sip of the frothy beer and lowered our glasses. But a millisecond before Otosaki’s glass met the table, he spoke. “I’m sorry, we are not interested in your advertising proposal.” Then in almost a continuance of the same sentence, he asked, “How was your lunch?” 

I was caught by surprise. I managed to mutter, “Oh, very good… Thanks,” and reached for my beer again. It was a sudden grab to cover my blush. 

Not interested. The words echoed through my head. Not interested in your proposal. Obviously Otosaki had waited until the beer was served, as if we were all out drinking in the evening. Only in the presence of alcohol was it possible for him to speak frankly. So he had engineered an entire replica of an evening out, complete with female companionship. When businessmen went to drink together, often the biggest deals were made—or unmade. One of my Japanese guidebooks advised that you literally pour your drinks on the floor (spilling them discreetly, of course), so you wouldn’t be too drunk to catch the flicker of business revelations, quick and fleeting as falling stars. 

Well, if this was an evening out, and we were all drunk and candid, I could speak openly too, right? I would try. “Your competitor, KTT, Kokusai Telephone, already advertises in our publication,” I said. 

Otosaki held his chicken bone down with one chopstick, and began to scrape off the fat with the other. 

“Their market is exactly the same as NDD’s,” I continued. 

With two fingers, in a gentle slide, Otosaki moved his beer glass so it was precisely spaced between the beer bottle and his plate. Then he swiveled it so the grease mark from his mouth faced him directly. 

I stopped talking. I sat perfectly still. It was no use. I was being ignored. They had given an answer already, and no amount of evidence would change their minds. If I kept talking, I was only alienating them, convincing them that I was a rikutsuppoi, a “reason freak” who speaks in repulsive cold logic. 

At that moment, in a surreal epiphany, I saw myself as forever separate from the Japanese, like a lumbering cauliflower-eared boxer in a stadium of slim, agile karate champions wearing matching gi… Yes, I could learn Japanese ways and I could understand the language, but would I ever really fit in? 

After lunch, I escaped the moist lingering eyes of Miss Kawano with a series of bows, all the way to the elevator. There I was saved by the whirring, humming close of its doors. 

***

At my first Nissan appointment, Tokyo Time magazine had only gotten a lukewarm reception. I was given a tamamushi-colored decision. Like the tamamushi beetle’s iridescent back, this kind of response reflected a different color depending upon which way you looked at it. Miss Ishi, the early-thirtyish advertising representative with an odd face but a very curvy figure, had told me that she had to discuss my offer with the “Advertising Team.” But I had pressed her to meet with me again in two weeks. And now it was time. It was the final moment.

I stepped off the elevator on the sixth floor of the Nissan building in Ginza. In front of me lay several partitioned corridors, maze-like and circuitous. I turned left but soon found myself wandering through unfamiliar offices. These were huge wide rooms crammed with tiny desks and mounds of paper work. I turned around and paced toward the elevators—or where I thought the elevators should be. There was only a dead-end corridor. So I headed back around the other way. Finally, a bowing young Nissanite tapped me on the shoulders and, polite and contrite as a choir boy, pointed me down the right passageway. He followed me until I was safely seated in just the right place, behind a potted tree, and brought a cup of dark green tea. 

The tea was bitter, absinthian, which I took as a compliment. Nissan assumed that I was Japanized enough to like strong ocha, green tea, and that I wouldn’t demand only coffee like a pushy foreigner. 

Miss Ishi hurried over, rushing as much as she could in a pencil skirt which forced her into a knock-kneed trot. Her lower lip pouted a bit as she said, “Ummm… We are very sorry that after, considering—”

“—Oh!” I interrupted. “I brought something very interesting to show you.” I wasn’t going to give her the time to reject the contract. 

“You did?” she asked, cocking her head. 

“Yes…” I opened my magazine to a glossy Mercedes advertisement, rolling back the pages and spreading them like a sacred scroll. 

“No.” Miss Ishi shook her nose. “We have already seen this.” 

“You saw this two-page ad?” 

“I theenk you showed us smaller one.” 

“Oh, because I wanted to show you the large ad,” I stalled—then I had an idea, a grand idea. “This is the advertisement size that Toyota was very interested in…” 

TOYOTA!” Miss Ishi twitched into instant alertness. She stood very still and even seemed to stop breathing. 

“Yes,” I said again, trying not to laugh, “Because with Toyota, we had discussed the full-size, two-page ad.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I did have an appointment with Toyota’s advertising company and they had given me the usual answer: They were considering it. But if the Japanese used tamamushi decisions with me, I would use tamamushi statements back at them. Fair is fair. 

“Toyota will advertise in Tokyo Time?” Miss Ishi asked.

“Well, we’re just finalizing negotiations, but Toyota is interested for the next… period.” “Just a 

minute purease,” she said and walked away again… 

I waited. I could feel the tingle on the fishing line now, the jiggle at the end of the pole. It was a “we-too” fish! Whatever the competition does, we must do it too… 

Soon Miss Ishi came back. She was walking more relaxedly now, clicking along like an off-duty shop girl. “Okay, so please you will let us know if Toyota will advertise.” She closed her notebook. 

But I wasn’t finished. “Yes… I will do that. Do you think that Nissan would like to advertise next to Toyota advertisement?” 

“Eet it is very possible.” She gave me an encouraging smile. 

“Oh good. Only—” Here I frowned, creased my forehead as if the notion pained me terribly, as if I were reporting a death in the family. “I cannot promise you that we will still have advertising space. Our magazine is very popular now you know, what with Toyota and so on. All the spaces may be filling up.” 

Ah!” Miss Ishi’s look got intense again and she let out a small gasp. “Just a minute, purease…” And I got to watch the walk once more. 

When Ms. Ishi marched back again, I tried to appear as nonchalant as possible. I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my chin. That was what you did when you made ten-thousand dollar deals with Toyota and Nissan everyday. 

“Wheech space was Toyota interested in?” she asked again. Now she was talking. 

“Well, we had promised them the center two-page spread, but still we have available C-

space, single-page. That was the space I discussed with Rolls Royce, Japan. But I told them I could not reserve it without payment.” 

Miss Ishi was studying the page like a designer dress—flipping it back and forth, holding it up to the window, rubbing its surface with her index finger and sighing. Finally she spoke. “All right. Nissan will take C-Space.” 

I nodded and clenched my teeth so my smile wouldn’t be too wide, so my cheeks wouldn’t glow like airport landing lights. “Yes, very good. Excellent decision… Nissan and Toyota. Let me just get the paper work.” 

I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the yellow contract sheet. Then Ms. Ishi squinted as if to shield her eyes from a blazing desert sun. Japanese didn’t like contracts, hated them in fact. They much preferred oral agreements, thinking that anything which purported to force two parties to rigid conditions smacked of deceit. Just one last push was necessary. 

“So a copy of this paper we give to our printer, then he knows exactly what size to reserve, and we will have space for Nissan ad.” I clicked out the ball point of my pen and wrote “Nissan July” and checked “C-space.” Then I offered Ms. Ishi the pen. 

“Just a minute purease,” she said again, and stood up. 

Dammit! Just when I was so close. Just when I could see my co-worker’s jealous smirks. Just when I could feel Hamaguchi’s pat on the back, recommending me for a promotion… Shit. 

When Ms. Ishi came back, I didn’t look up from the table. 

Then she spoke. “Here,” she said. “I have hanko now.” A hanko was a Japanese stamp used in place of a signature on important documents. It was a traditional seal of approval. 

I guided her hand to just the right spot. There… Finally. Finally, I was a success. 

And bending the truth to sell the ad really didn’t matter, right? 


R. Sebastian Bennett taught Fiction Writing at the University of California – Los Angeles, the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and directed the Creative Writing program at Muskingum University. His writing appears in Columbia Journal, Fiction International, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH, Texas Review, George Washington Review, Los Angeles Review, Oxford Magazine, Tulane Review, Paris Transcontintental – Sorbonne (FRANCE), Modern Literature (INDIA), and Alecart (ROMANIA), among others. He was the founding editor of THE SOUTHERN ANTHOLOGY. The story, “Tamamushi,” is from an unpublished collection, SEASONS OF YEN, which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award.