Fiction | Making Amends – John Tavares

When Elias arrived on the passenger train at Union Station, he had not expected anyone to greet him. Eager to stretch and exercise, he stepped off the transcontinental train, and strode along the dark platforms. He rode the escalators to the arrival and departures lounge and the corridor that faced the luggage carousel, which started to revolve shortly. Conscious he needed to shower and shave and change clothes after the day long journey, he stood waiting for his baggage to coming sliding and rolling along the conveyor. His former Humber College classmate and dormmate, Dalton greeted him and helped him with his battered suitcases.

“I’m just here to acknowledge your apology,” Dalton said, “and to apologize in return.” Laughing, Elias felt uneasy Dalton, forward, direct, felt the need to apologize. “But I have to admit: Returning to college in your forties? Is that a wise career move?”

“It depends upon what sort of career you have, or what kind of life you want to live. I justify the adventure with the sentiment you’ve but one life to live.” Elias felt grateful for the fact he helped him carry his luggage, lugging and trundling battered suitcases through the towering hallways and chambers of cavernous Union Station, up the stairwells and the steep escalators, which were motionless, and along wheelchair ramps.

“I understand, but you apologized for taking me to the campus pub Caps pub and the sports bar in the Woodbine Shopping Centre that Thanksgiving weekend when we lived in the Humber dorm. Then you dragged me out of Caps and brought to me the ER at Etobicoke General Hospital with acute alcohol poisoning, but I was partly if not totally to blame. After all, I didn’t follow your advice to drink moderately.”

“Yeah, I distinctly recall telling you not to have more than one drink, especially when you told me you never went drinking to a bar before. Still, you made it sound as if you were a seasoned veteran of the pit party and house party scene.”

“That was just teenage braggadocio. After that binge, I liked the experience so much I lost control of my drinking. If I had not lost my virginity things might have turned out differently, but I have to admit it was positive reinforcement.”

Then Dalton drove Elias, impressed by the electric car, to his new home, the student co-op apartment building, at Church and Gerard, inside the Red-Light District. Although two decades passed since he last lived in the neighbourhood, he was not at all surprised to see that the night trade workers still plied their wares and business on the boulevards.

“Didn’t the prostitutes creep you out when you lived here?” Dalton asked.

“No, they didn’t bother me. I used to have these fascinating talks with them. A group joked with me, asking me to take them out. I think they thought I was a nerd, but cool in a quirky way. One kept offering me free blow jobs. Yes, I have to admit, it felt a bit creepy at first, and I worried about pimps, that they would beat me up or kill me if I looked at the girls the wrong way, or said the wrong thing, but nothing happened—they were good neighbours.”

“Why did you move out of good ole safe rez—leave campus for downtown?”

“I loved Humber, and living in the dorm was convenient, but you could never escape college life in rez. Here, I lived right next door to downtown and I could find whatever stores, cafes, restaurants I liked nearby, or take the subway anywhere in the city.”

“Yes, the good old days at Humber College, when we didn’t have a care or worry in the world. Back to square one, eh?”

“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Young women in mini skirts, crop tops, thongs, and high heels lined the boulevards around the intersection of Church and Gerard Street.

“Looks like there’s prostitutes right outside your building,” Dalton said.

“Nothing’s changed, but I can live with them. They didn’t bother me then, and I doubt they’ll bother me now.”

Dalton pulled up to the entrance of the student co-op. “Wait: you piqued my curiosity? Didn’t you say you owed me an apology? Why?” Elias asked.

“I stole your Nike running shoes; they were a perfect and comfortable fit.”

“They were purple. I bought them on sidewalk sale from my hometown shoe store. That’s why I left them outside my door; I never thought anyone would steal purple running shoes.”

“Those shoes felt so comfortable.”

“But I had no other footwear. I walked around the residence bare foot after they went missing. When I asked at the front desk if they noticed a loose pair of purple running shoes lying around, security gave me sandals from the lost and found.”

“I also took your jean jacket and your camouflage khakis.”

“I guess it didn’t help we had the same height and build.”

Dalton felt the slight paunch at his stomach. “Not anymore. Anyway, I’m sorry.” After commenting about how he couldn’t understand how he would feel comfortable living in the red-light district, Dalton mentioned that Ida lived in the neighbourhood after she underwent a messy divorce. “Hey, you never told me what you’re studying.”

“I’m pursuing an education degree, to become a school teacher.”

“Good for you, even though there’s an oversupply of teachers in Ontario. You still blow your cool?”

As Elias fumbled with his luggage and shuffled through his travelling papers for his room reservation, he felt irked at the question. “I try to stay calm. I certainly can’t blow my cool if I become a school teacher.”

Then Dalton sped off and drove in his electric motor vehicle Gerard Street, narrowing avoiding a head-on collision with a cyclist. His former college dormmate and friend left him impressed by his generosity, graciousness, and the silence of his electric motor vehicle. Then Dalton squealed his tires at the traffic lights at the four-way intersection and went into reverse. He chatted with a young woman in a leather jacket and shorts and high heels, before she looked around and slipped inside his car.

The following morning, he took the subway train and the bus in North York to commute across Toronto to the north campus of Humber College in Etobicoke for his academic transcripts, so he could obtain advanced standing in his program and gain exemption from elective courses at York University. He filled out the forms and waited in line behind several students until Gary came to greet him. Gary, who looked impressive, dressed in a skinny suit, took him aside, shook his hand, and lowered his voice dramatically. “Listen, I appreciate your call to apologize for all the wretched excesses, those times we went drinking.”

“No, no worries; it’s just step nine in the Twelve Step program—make amends.” The long lines of students in the registrar’s officer made him anxious. He started to fidget and his eyes wandered, despite the fact he was focusing on reading his York University faculty of education course guide. He started to realize he still needed time to again adjust to the frenetic and frantic pace of life in the city, including long lineups and crowds. “Frankly, I sometimes feel now like I coerced myself into making false confessions. I also don’t believe in God anymore. I stopped attending church when I first went to college.”

“Listen, I know I tried to blame you for my breakup with my hometown girlfriend, the young woman I was supposed to marry. I think I even tried to blame you for flunking out of first year journalism, but you weren’t really to blame. I mean, I had a conscience and sentience of my own and my own volition.”

Gary handed Elias his transcripts in a white business size envelope on Humber College stationary. Then he led him to the huge cafeteria, located in the same building on the sprawling campus when he first attended Humber College two decades ago, where they often met for coffee and studied for electives and worked on journalism assignments. The institutional décor and cavernous interior appeared the same. Gary bought Elias a coffee—Irish cream. He remembered he always drank Irish cream coffee in the cafeteria and thought the Irish cream the cafeteria served was excellent.

“But it’s me who owes you an apology,” he said.

“You remember that long feature that Bette in feature writing only gave you a B for?”

“You mean Bette who hated me for constantly interjecting and interrupting?”

“Dude, she told me you were too enthusiastic in class for her. She’s still an instructor at Humber and was even head of the journalism department. I work here now, in administration part-time, but I also teach a few first-year courses.”

“Congratulations.”

“I’m the one who owes you an apology, dude. When I read that long form piece, that masterpiece you wrote on homeless and street youth, I was astonished, overwhelmed. It was the best student journalism I read anywhere. I thought you deserved an award.”

“I think that was what the journalism coordinator said then. Sounds like you read her notes. Anyway, I wish Bette didn’t grade me; she hated me.”

“Bette didn’t hate you.”

“She hated me because I went out with her daughter a few nights. Ida got really drunk, I took her home, but her mother tried to blame me for getting her daughter intoxicated and sick. Later, Bette tried to blame me for her daughter getting arrested on impaired driving charges because I was a passenger in her car.”

“That might explain it, but Bette is a fastidious and prickly person regardless. Nobody told me the part about Ida.”

Shrugging, sipping from a takeout cup of flavored coffee, Elias confessed this was the best Irish cream coffee he ever tasted—still. “But why do you owe me an apology?”

“I was about to get to that part.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “I totally plagiarized your story after I got kicked out of Humber. I flunked first year journalism at Humber, but a year later I applied to the journalism school at Ryerson. I attached the feature you wrote to my portfolio and application. I had seen you working on your feature in the newsroom and I was intrigued. When you first handed in your assignment, I took your notes and manuscript from the prof’s mailbox in the departmental office after hours. After I photocopied your notes and took the original manuscript, I checked the work stations in the computer lab, and I found your feature in a Word file on the hard drive of the computer near the radio and CD player, where you always worked. I saved your file to my floppy disk. I remembered how severe and draconian Bette acted when she marked papers and spotted mistakes, so I put spelling errors in the manuscript. Then I printed a copy off and replaced your original paper in the prof’s mailbox. That may have been part of the reason you got such a low mark, even though she liked what you wrote. I even took the cassette tape you used to record interviews.”

“Hmm. I didn’t think anything of it—I thought she kept the recordings or misplaced them.”

“Bette always deducted marks big-time whenever she found spelling errors and misspelled names. She warned us about those mistakes on countless occasions. When I finally got around to using your feature, the only thing I changed on your original manuscript was the byline. At Ryerson, they told me I got admitted because of that story; it was exactly the kind of hard hitting, inner city, participatory journalism they were looking for.”

“The school with the best reputation accepted you after a lesser known gave you the boot. That’s a bit ironic.”

“The irony is not lost on me—trust me. When I applied for a reporting internship in the radio room at the Toronto Star, they said my experience was lacklustre, but they hired me because of my feature, your work, on homeless street youth downtown.”

Elias felt tired but laughed because he wanted to be good-natured about school experiences he would sooner forget. He thanked Gary for his transcripts for his journalism grades, which he was reminded, were less than stellar. The document itself he was disappointed to notice was produced on a black and white laser printer, low on ink, so the printout resembled a photocopy of a photocopy.

“So, do you still blow your stack the odd time?”

“Naw. I try to keep my cool. It’s part of recovery, rehabilitation, the twelve-step program, I suppose. But I like to think I’m past losing control and temper tantrums.”

“I think Alcoholics Anonymous is a crock of shit.”

“Hey, be nice.” Elias gulped the rest of his coffee. “I stopped going to meetings, but I’m still sober.”

Elias caught a glimpse of paramedic students and gestured and motioned in the direction of the group, orally reviewing cardiology questions in emergency medicine, studying for summer term exams.

“Two decades ago, between classes, I’m having a coffee, hurrying to finish an assignment, and I see the ambulance students studying for tests in this very same cafeteria. I think then I should study with them, training to become a paramedic. I could have easily landed a job working in air ambulance in my hometown.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I actually believed then I could change the world—

make society better—through journalism. To think by now I could be looking forward to early retirement.”

“Regrets—I’ve had a few.”

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina, eh?”

“Anyway, nothing about the shameless and unabashed and righteous act of plagiarism–because then I’ll have to kill you. After all, it was for a good cause.”

“No worries. Journalism is the furthest thing from my mind these days. I don’t know how I convinced myself I could be a reporter, and I suppose my dreams of succeeding in the industry were unrealistic. I’m just glad someone was able to use the piece. All journalism school did for me was cause me regret and remorse; I actually believed I deserved a job for three years of worthless college education, instead of endless unpaid internships.”

Gary showed him his brand-new luxury wristwatch and, sounding like a college administrator, reassured him his education was a sound long term investment. He knew that was case; why else would be requesting his college transcripts, which would help him obtain advanced standing in the education program at York University. They both strode through the corridors and hallways and negotiated the plate and steel doors of foyers and stairwells of the building complex, on their separate ways across campus. Stern-faced, Elias headed through the north entrance into the massive parking lot and walked to the bus shelter on Humber College Boulevard, amidst the noise and clamour of car alarms and slammed doors. Twenty years later the parking lot was busier than ever, but the motor vehicle alarms didn’t create as loud a racket. He hoped to see this former Humber buddy, now a college instructor and administrator, sometime again soon, but the likelihood seemed small.

Several days later, during the orientation week in teacher’s college at York University, Elias walked to his apartment in the student co-op building from the subway station on Yonge Street. He came across a woman, who looked familiar, dressed in a nursing uniform, scrubs, and sneakers, comfortable and functional, strolling out of a large apartment building, which fronted Gerard Street. She did a double take, and he looked at her peculiarly. He recognized her facial features, her green-brown eyes, her thin, jagged chin, her slim athletic figure. Ida said she had to hurry to work at Toronto General Hospital, several blocks down Gerard Street. When he noticed she wore a hospital ID badge that said she was a registered nurse, he wondered aloud whatever became of her journalism career. She said she walked this route along Gerard Street to University Avenue and her job as a nurse in the emergency department at Toronto General Hospital everyday. Saying she heard he was back in Toronto, living in the high-rise student co-operative apartment building, she reached and gave him a hug. He wasn’t certain how to react to the warm gesture and familiarity, especially since two decades transpired since they last saw each other, the night before the June convocation ceremonies from Humber College, which he didn’t bother to attend. The timespan boggled his mind, but he was the person who called her last year out of nowhere to apologize.

“I still don’t know why you called to apologize,” Ida said. “I understand we were both drinking those nights and weren’t on our best behaviour. In fact, I got you kicked out your apartment for smoking pot and antics in your room.”

“The co-op didn’t kick me out; they fined me a month’s rent because they said I was supposed to be responsible for my guests’ conduct.”

“But you called me to apologize for what happened when I was responsible.”

“Let’s say partly responsible.”

“But I got drunk because I wanted to have sex. I tried to get intimate, forced myself on you—”

“I didn’t want to have sex because you were drunk, and I panicked. We had, after all, done those assignments on sexual assault and the whole business made me skittish and neurotic. I slapped you to try to knock some sense in you.”

Elias noticed then the tightness of her uniform and how her outfit fitted perfectly her shapely form. She looked like she had lost weight, or rather she was more fit, athletic, and muscular than he ever remembered.

“I just wanted to make out with you.”

“You were desirable, a dream girl, a fantasy come true.”

Elias was surprised to see Ida the nurse in tears. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re not so bad yourself.”

“Everything happened so fast, and I still couldn’t believe my senses. I was scared and impotent, and shaking, and my heart was thumping.”

“Well, that explains it. Sounds like you had a panic attack. I thought you slapped me because you were a mean drunk.”

“No. I wasn’t drunk, but I found you attractive.”

“Well, I kind of intuited those vibes.” Ida touched his shoulder, caressed his back, and kissed his cheek.

“And I’ve had many crushes, since and before, but you were one of the biggest.”

“Hah! The clinician in me wants to ask how you measure the size of a crush. The psychotherapist in me is amazed we’re talking about it like it happened yesterday.”

“Yes, that is kind of amazing,” Elias said, as he stepped on the boulevard to move out of the path of the group home workers, smoking cigarettes, returning to work inside the Covenant House. He gazed upwards at the weathered sign on the heritage building: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

“Anyway, I suppose I’m the one who owes you an apology.” Ida hugged him and pecked him on the cheek.

“So is that why your mom hated me?”

“You thought she hated you?”

“She acted that way.”

“When I showed up home that night drunk with a bruise on my face, my mother thought I had been raped. She drove me to hospital emergency department and insisted I tell them the truth or she would call the police.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t call the police.”

“She eventually did call the police and wanted to press charges. After the cops heard the full story, they said it sounded like you acted in self-defence—no evidence of anything non-consensual. In fact, they said I was the one who acted dicey, which totally infuriated my mother. When the cops, big blond women, asked my mother if she would fault me if I attacked someone who forced themselves on me, she went ballistic, and the police ordered her to calm down or they would arrest her.”

The line of cyclists peddling along Gerard Street grew longer and dense; definitely more people were riding their bicycles than when Elias lived in the neighbourhood two decades ago. “That explains some things, but I think she hated me the first time she saw me.”

“Forget about her. Bette was injured in a road rage accident–filled with frustration and anger. A few years ago, outside a supermarket, she stood in front of a car and started pounding on the hood and windshield with her fists. Her hand somehow got caught beneath the windshield wiper while the car speed away. The panicked driver, a teen mom, crashed into her, driving over her, like she was a pylon. She lost the arm—the hands she uses to write, ironically.”

“I sorry to hear that.” Elias didn’t want to express curiosity about the irony of her mother’s injury, but the same traits that compelled him to enroll in journalism made him inclined to ask. He was unsettled she seemed almost relieved at her mother’s loss.

“No reason to be sorry now. I’m a mother now, with one kid.”

“You look great.”

“Kids keep you in shape.”

Ida hugged him again. “Do you still lose your temper?”

“I don’t drink anymore, so my emotions are easier to control. What are you doing downtown, though?”

“I live downtown. I know you always liked living downtown, and I’ve grown to tolerate it.”

“Hmm. A journalist, in a nurse’s uniform.”

“I went to nursing school as a mature student. Journalism didn’t pay the rent, or let’s just say there was hardly any money leftover after the divorce.”

With the sunlight reflected off the rooftop of huge new condominium tower on Yonge Street, shining brightly into her eyes, she moved closer to him so she could smell coffee on his breath. “You do know that Mom named me after Ida Tarbell, don’t you? She mentioned at the start of every course she taught the crusading journalist was her role model.”

“That’s news to me. I must have missed that class. What are you doing living downtown, anyway? You seem like a thoroughly suburban girl.”

“Like I said, journalism didn’t cover much beyond the mortgage payments. The apartment I rent now is a mere walk from the hospital.”

Ida wrote her name and telephone number inside the cover of his huge heavy educational psychology textbook. She said she needed to hurry to work at the hospital before she was late relieving co-workers. Turning back, she winked.

Now she seems to be flirting, sending receptive signals, Elias thought, as he walked down Gerard Street to the student co-op apartment building. Two decades after he first lived in the neighbourhood, he was not surprised to observe the sex trade workers, members of the underground economy, still plied their wares on the boulevards. At the intersection, he came across a uniformed police officer slamming against the hood of a marked cruiser a young woman in a short tight denim skirt, a crop top, mesh stockings, and high heel shoes. “That’s no way to treat a woman.” Elias tried to place himself between the police officer and the young woman. Then he noticed the officer was a woman, attractive, with a strong athletic figure, whose narrow hips and lean muscular build initially left him with the impression she was a man.

“She’s a suspect under arrest, and you’re obstructing justice—a peace officer.” As if to prove her point, she handcuffed the younger, smaller woman and slammed her against the passenger door and blood spurted from the suspect’s mouth onto the windshield. Elias became outraged and enraged, as the police officer pushed and shoved the woman she had in custody, slamming her head against the cruiser’s hood, struggling to handcuff her. The suspect kicked back with her high heels and spit. Elias became involved in a wrestling match with the officer, after he tried to restrain her as she put her perp in a choke hold. As he struggled with the officer, her peaked cap flew off her head, revealing her French braid. The unveiling angered her, and she cursed and swore and drew her service revolver. She managed to jam the muzzle into his abdomen, and pulled the trigger. The muzzle exploded in a blast. As the blood trickled from the injury in his chest, so ended the making amends, apologies, aspirations, and attempts at a second beginning and career. The congested traffic moved slowly along Gerard Street in the early evening, as the motorists, starting, stopping, tried to obey the parking enforcement officer’s signals to move forward. Another police officer attempted to resuscitate the shooting victim, while an ambulance’s siren struggled to clear a path through the traffic jam. The few pedestrians who observed the incident lingered a few moments before they, reluctant witnesses, quickly strode away.

John Tavares’ previous publications include short fiction published in various alternative magazines, literary journals, quarterlies, and anthologies, online & in print: Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone, Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Round Up Writer’s Zine, The Acentos Review, Gravel, Brasilia Review, Sediments Literary Arts-Journals, The Gambler, Red Cedar Review, Writing Raw, Treehouse Arts, Qwerty, Oddball Magazine, among others. His short stories & creative nonfiction was published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. Following journalism studies, his articles & features were published in various local news outlets in Toronto, including community & trade newspapers such as the East York Times, the Beaches Town Crier & Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant.
 
Born & raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) & the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library & as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department & regional recycle association. He also worked for persons with disabilities at the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living.

Fiction | The Wedding – Nishi Pulugurtha

I put the water to boil in the kitchen; eyes still sleepy as I looked around. Two cups were already set on the tray. Rita makes sure about that before she sleeps. I hear the sound of the cuckoo and see sunlight streaming into the living room. There is a thud in the verandah, which must be the newspaper boy tossing the morning’s newspaper. Rita opened the door. I knew she would walk slowly into the room glancing over the news. Tea was ready when I walked in. This had been our morning ritual for some years now.

As we sipped tea, her cell phone rang. “A call this early in the morning, I just hope it is not bad news,” she murmured and answered it. It was obvious from her side of the conversation, whatever bits and pieces came through, that it was definitely not bad news. I continued reading the newspaper, my tea done, the sugary end left alone.  It was her cousin’s call, and I was sure the conversation would go on for quite some time. They had grown up together, had been the best of friends and when they started talking, there was never any quick end to the call. It was a weekend and I decided to tend to the plants in the verandah and the ones inside as well, which I had a habit of forgetting.

I could hear Rita in the kitchen, rustling up breakfast, still on the phone. The heat had discoloured some of the leaves of the coleus. I liked that plant; a few months back I had just planted a small branch, and here it was now, nice and full. A few more cuttings were in order. I moved the plant into the shade.  The periwinkle was in full bloom too, both the white and violet. I removed the dead leaves, dug up the soil, and watered the plants. The hibiscus was growing well, though there have been no flowers so far. I think it needs some compost. Maybe I could get some the next time I go to the local nursery. I moved the indoor plants into the sun for a while as I tended to the ones in the verandah. As I was washed up, I could still hear Rita’s voice. She told me at breakfast.

The date for Didibhai’s daughter’s wedding had been finalized. We were expecting this for quite some time. Pupli had been working in Mysore for some years now. Her mother was keen to see her married. Didibhai was a single parent and Pupli was her first born. Tukun, her son was doing his Ph.D at an institute in Mumbai. Didibhai had always lived in Lucknow. Her parents were born there too. My wife, Rita, too was born and brought up there and only moved to Kolkata after we got married. Making fun of her accented Bengali was regular, the fun light-hearted. Rita loved Lucknow, she had fond memories of the place. Who wouldn’t after all, if your growing years were lived there. After her mother passed away, Rita’s trips became less frequent in comparison, but she still went at least once a year.  Her elder brother and sister-in-law also lived there, though their daughters had both moved to Delhi; initially to study and then they stayed on because of their jobs. And then there was Didibhai too.

A call from Lucknow or any news about the place made Rita very happy. This morning’s news made her even more so. “Didbhai was very worried about Pupli’s marriage, more so after things did not work out the first time.” Pupli had been engaged once before too, Didibhai had made all arrangements for the wedding. The wedding date had been finalized, the preparations dusted, when the young man decided to show colour, behave rather strangely. The marriage was called off. Didibhai, understandably, was upset for months; but she believed in Pupli’s determination and her decision. It was all for the best. Had things soured after the wedding, which they were bound to be, it would have been worse.

It seemed different this time. Pupli was happy with her decision, but so was she till the very end of the last time’s wedding as well. Didibhai was jittery. “Didibhai told me that she saw an astrologer for all this,” Rita said very sceptically. “I don’t really understand how she still believes in all this, the appeal of astrology, but I did not say anything to her. I think she is emotionally insecure,” she went on. Rita was sensible and practical, a shoulder Didibhai leant on to for support.

“Didibhai is insisting that I be in Lucknow at least a week before the wedding,” Rita told me that night as we sat for dinner. “They are having a civil ceremony followed by a reception,” she continued. “I like this too, and am glad this is the decision Didibhai and Pupli have taken,” she went on. I nodded in approval. As it so happened, I did not like all the rituals and customs of the Indian wedding. When we got married, 22 years ago, that is exactly what we did. Rita and I had a difficult time explaining it to our families. The arguments took their course, a long one, before our parents finally decided to do it our way.

“I agree, I do think you should go well in advance Rita. In fact, I will try to reach two days before the wedding too. I could help out maybe,” I said.

Rita was caught up with the wedding preparations the next few weeks, and was on the phone most of the time. Suggestions, advice, comments and remarks, all came out of her with conviction. Work kept us occupied. The wedding was all we talked about. “Didibhai is spending too much on the wedding,” Rita said one morning. “There is no reason for her to do so. I told her that Barun. I know she will not pay heed to me, but I felt she shouldn’t go overboard.” A week before the D-day, Rita flew in to Lucknow.

It was truly a grand affair. The guests were pieced in, the stage was set. The registrar came in at the appointed time. All the close relatives and friends were ready to see the signing of the documents, it was a first for many of them. Didibhai was nervous and happy at the same time. Pupli signed wherever she was asked to. The young man did too. It was now time for the witnesses. “Who all are going to sign as witnesses? Please come forward,” the gentleman said. Didibhai started to move forward, when Pupli said, “Tukun, my brother will sign as a witness.” She whispered something to the young man beside her. He signalled to his father and aunt to come forward to sign as witnesses. Rita and I turned around, to where Didibhai stood blank. She stopped moving, stood rooted. Her face turned red, I could see the water in her eyes rising. She saw us looking at her and tried to smile. Rita moved closer to her and held her hand. “I am not wanted,” she whispered, trying hard to hold back tears. No one noticed, no one was interested. The witnesses signed, the marriage was officially, formally sealed.

The photographer gestured with a flick of his camera. “Ma, come here,” Pupli called out to her mother, “let’s do the pictures!” Didibhai moved towards the bride. Didibhai moved towards her daughter.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in English and writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, ProsopisiaThe Punch Magazine (forthcoming), KitaabCafé DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea HouseThe Pangolin Review, MAD Asia PacificPrachya ReviewThe World Literature Blog, Tranquil Muse and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.  She is based in Kolkata.

Fiction | Crisis – Mrinal Rajaram

He is about to make one of the biggest mistakes of his life, but is well aware of it, and has reconciled himself to the fact. India Today had once carried out an in-depth study of the Escort market and its burgeoning effect on the new, developing India. It was just like the magazine had specified: ‘Type in escorts, followed by the name of your city on any internet search engine, and the results would be right there in front of you, by the thousands.’

Google’s rainbowesque letters stare gently back at him from the computer screen. The words, ‘Escorts in Chennai’, are typed out with a hint of trepidation in the fingers. And, as expected, the results are aplenty. Hundreds of hits as all-encompassing as ‘High Profile Escorts’, ‘Sexy Girls For You’, ‘Call Girls At The Click Of A Button’ and ‘Sunshine Ladies’ flood the search page. He clicks diffidently on one of the many links. It reads:

‘Dear Prospective Client.

A hearty welcome to XXX Escorts! We are a service that caters to the discerning gentleman. Our ladies are well mannered and highly trained in the art of romance. Be it for a dinner date, an overnight stay or a business trip abroad, we, at XXX Escorts, provide our clients with exceptional service. Our vast selection of models includes Indians as well as foreigners. Please contact the telephone number below to get in touch with our hostess, Suzie, for a booking. You could also email us in the event of any special requests or preferences. Client privacy is of utmost importance to our brand. So, please be assured that we will keep all correspondence with you strictly confidential.’

The list of contents on the site includes – ‘About Us’, ‘Gallery’, ‘Rates’, ‘Links to Other Sites’ and ‘Contact Us’. The bottom of the page contains a disclaimer that states, ‘We accept all debit and credit cards.’ The logos of MasterCard and Visa are displayed beneath it. He clicks on ‘Gallery’ and sees a bevy of young, gorgeous, lingerie-clad women with faces blurred out, posing provocatively. The sight makes him get an unexpected hard-on. The cursor moves to the rates section. Everything is clear-cut – no beating about the bush, whatsoever.

2 hours (Short time) – Rs. 15,000 ($300)

4 hours – Rs. 20,000 ($400)

 8 hours (Overnight) – Rs. 35,000 ($700)

* 20% extra on all foreign models

* We offer options for both In-Call and Out-Call

The rates make his eyes pop. The list of services ranges from blow jobs and vaginal sex to anal penetration and threesomes. A note makes mention that if there is anything specific a client desires, that may not be covered in the services rendered section, the person must make a request with the hostess during the process of booking.

He goes over more links as the minutes tick by. The big escort agencies are in a similar league and price range to the one he first encounters. While looking at some of the more obscure web pages, he stumbles upon an online advertising portal of sorts that places links of smaller escort services directly onto the page. The average range begins at 5,000 for an hour. A majority of the text in these links is presented in broken, crude English. One of the better ones goes something along the lines of: ‘We provide sexy college girls, aspiring models and air hostesses for your satisfaction. Our girls know how to show you a good time. Call so-and-so for a booking now.’ He notices that all the mobile numbers mentioned are outstation ones. He dials a few of these at random, but there are no answers forthcoming. He waits a few minutes before trying again. The call goes on for at least ten rings. Just as he is about to disconnect, a voice crackles at the other end of the line.

“Hello.”

“Hello, yes. I’ve been looking at your ad on the internet. I would like to make a booking,” he says, unable to mask the nervousness in his voice.

“Where are you calling from, sir?” the man asks.

He gives him the locality. The man tells him to come to a landmark in the middle of town, and call him from there.

“Wait a minute. What are your rates like? I don’t see anything mentioned on the site.”

“It’s 5,000 rupees for one hour. You are allowed only one shot,” he says, flatly.

“Okay. Is it possible for me to see a selection of your models by email?”

“No. You’ll have to get here and choose.”

“What exactly do you mean by one shot?” he asks.

“It means you can have sex only once,” comes the reply.

“All right. Let me call you back in five minutes to confirm.”

He can barely afford it, but he wishes to go through with the proposition, anyway. It’s not so much a physical need as one that goes a little deeper. It feels absurd, but he needs this to remain afloat.

He calls the number again. The phone is busy for a time. After he finally picks up, the man instructs him to get to the landmark and call him once there, before disconnecting abruptly. He puts the device down, stretches out lazily on the bed, and thinks awhile. It is only 5 pm. The family is away for the weekend.

*** 

It has taken him many a bad experience to come to this.

He is twenty-six. A conflicted character. The mere intensity of his reactions can scare people off sometimes. He is guarded with people he has met for the first time, reserving much caution before letting one in. There are several layers to the persona. There is also a strong predisposition for self-loathing and guilt. Scratch the surface, and he is more sensitive than he leads on. Fearing judgement and ridicule, that part of him seldom makes it to out into the light. Not one of his personality traits points towards the hatred of women. He has many female friends and acquaintances who confide in him often, actually. But there isn’t enough there to evoke in him a sense of interest. It takes him time to be drawn to someone. And the women he usually takes a liking to don’t ever seem to reciprocate his feelings. It is difficult to tell whether he is a bad man or just a disturbed one.

He has been in two relationships prior to this, but has never had the opportunity to have sex. He has been in love once and has come close to being in love another time – only to be crushed severely at the end of it. A sense of being cheated of a fundamental life experience often pervades the air around him. His world view on relationships is extremely bleak. It doesn’t help that his parents are still carrying on in a disastrous marriage.

He wonders why he must be plagued by such things. He is not the first person in the world to have gone through something like this, nor will he be the last, but the thought of it gnaws its way through him unrelentingly. No amount of wisdom has the power to answer these questions. This world is too full of irony for his liking. Decent people straddled with unfortunate circumstances all the time. And it only gets worse. Shame!

He experiences grave discomfort when being referred to as a great guy by the female sex. And, that tag follows him about like a nagging rash no matter where he goes. The day a woman starts mentioning you in those dreaded terms is the day you must reconcile yourself to the fact that you will be luckless in love, always. He is not some naive, lost puppy, in need of rescuing.

Not the most ideal way for someone to lose their virginity, to experience their first major sexual encounter. Sordid even, perhaps. But it cannot be helped. Not everything can be attained in the way it ought to be. Six years of not so much as holding a woman’s hand have resulted in this moment, this fall from grace. How long is he supposed to masturbate and get off on pornography? In the end, he’s only human.

Dealing with the emotional burdens of his parents’ explosive relationship has made him jaded. Besides, being an only child exposed to their problems of mental health and alcoholism from an early age, has left no room for even the semblance of a personal life. If he doesn’t move out soon, it is only a matter of time before the ship sinks with him.

There is no ambiguity around the moral repercussions of the choice he is about to make. He is aware of his questionable judgement here. But it isn’t as if loneliness has not had a large part to play with his decision. Whether that is excusable or not, is another matter entirely. Not all men who pay for straight sex with an adult are misogynists. But all men who visit prostitutes, contribute to trafficking, in one way or another, immaterial of how they wish to reconcile themselves to it. Loneliness impairs judgement; it makes you do things that are regrettable.

***

He sets out at half past six. The first stop is at the nearest ATM. A long queue greets him on arrival. He gets stared at on approach, but fails to notice the multiple sets of eyes on him. Unusually large stains of sweat cover portions of his shirt. There is still time to turn back, but he prods himself on. He is going through with this experience, for better or for worse. It doesn’t pay to be good in this life. His bank balance is reduced to a minimum after the withdrawal. He sighs at the prospect of being broke for the rest of the month.

The cool, damp autumn air of a November evening rushes at him as he speeds to the destination on his motorcycle. The eyes are not concentrating on the road and its ensuing chaos of headlights and wheels. His heart pounds wildly at the thought of what is to come; with fear, more than excitement.

He arrives at the landmark, just as the man has instructed him to. The silver Bullet is parked a few metres ahead of a bus-stop that overlooks the life-size, gaudy, bronze statue of a former Chief Minister of the State. A murky stream makes its tortuous journey across the pot-holed road towards a storm-water drain on the uneven sidewalk. The flicker of a smile spreads over his face for no apparent reason. The agent’s number is dialled, but there is no answer. He repeats the process twice over, but the result is the same. Seven-and-a-half minutes go by before his phone vibrates violently. He picks up and tells the pimp that he has been waiting at the spot for a while. “You will receive a call from my man over there in just a few minutes. He will give you precise directions to the place,” he says. He is told that the apartment isn’t far from his location. Scores of people move swiftly through the commotion of the pale Sodium-lit streets in the direction of some destination or other. As he waits for the call, his eyes gaze indifferently at a large billboard that features a popular Tamil film star peddling a fairness cream for women. Oh, what a country this is! Where being fair skinned is just another term people mistake for beauty!

Directions are confusing. It takes him nearly fifteen minutes to zero in on the right address. A heavy sense of dread weighs down on him as he approaches. The apartment complex is situated in an up-market slice of town. BMWs and Audis arrange themselves neatly across the parking lot. The building’s only Bentley enjoys pride of place in the central parking space. The security guard at the entrance lets him through, no questions asked. His heart beats faster, for a second time. He cannot actually believe he is going through with this.

The flat is on the third floor. He takes the stairs instead of the elevator. He wishes not to be spotted by anyone. There is no sign of a bell anywhere. The door has a large brass knocker attached to it. Three knocks pass before a bare-chested man wearing bright blue shorts opens…a wide smile spreading over his pudgy face. “Nice to meet you, sir,” he says, as he shakes his hand. “My name’s Abbas. I was the one who gave you directions from the bus-stop. Did you have any problems finding the place?” He gives him an indifferent nod that can be construed as just about anything. The house is predominantly empty, but for two fawn couches facing each other in the drawing room, and a fridge and a microwave in the kitchen.

The apartment appears to have two bedrooms. An average-sized table can be seen in the dining area. The walls are completely bare. Abbas requests him to have a seat on the sofa opposite him. He fidgets nervously as his host makes small talk. The money is handed over in a white envelope, as the conversation takes on an awkward note. Abbas counts it slowly, that half-smile of his constantly playing on his lips. His thoughts zero in on the percentage of cash that eventually trickles down to the person performing the service…after the agent and his kind have taken the lion’s share of the revenue. Clandestine or not, this doesn’t strike him as an easy business.

“We have a choice of two girls this evening,” Abbas says, waiting for a reaction that never comes. He calls them out for a viewing, one after another. Both the women appear to be in their early twenties; the first one is wearing an olive green top and a black skirt. She is dusky; her ample bosom stands in stark contrast to her slim figure. She smiles at him, as one would smile at a prospective client in this sort of trade. The second girl is called out, as the first retreats to her room. She has a more pleasant demeanour. Her clothes comprise of an orange shirt and light blue jeans. Her thick hair is left loose, allowing it to drop down to her waist. The same kind of smile flashes across her face as she tries to make eye contact with him. He acknowledges it with a diffident nod, not knowing what else to do. Facing Abbas, again, as she takes leave, he says, almost under his breath, “I think I’ll choose her,” while gesticulating in the direction of her room. Abbas gives him another one of those seedy grins. The man’s hideous baring of teeth suggests that a secret pact between two conspirators has just been sealed. “Do save my number. You can call me directly the next time,” he says, as an afterthought.

***

He enters the bedroom, a hint of nervous energy oozing off his person. The place is barer than he expects it to be. A comfortable double bed with ochre sheets, a split air conditioner, an orange lamp shade, and an ordinary wall-hanging are all that it comprises of. A vaguely nauseating scent of cheap room freshener pervades the air. She remains rooted to her spot, as she studies his face intently. Is anything supposed to be said in such situations?

He hopes that she hasn’t been forced into sex work. It doesn’t seem so when he looks into her face and eyes, but one can never tell. Could any of her past clients have had similar thoughts, he wonders.

As she runs her slender hand through her charcoal black hair, the faint whiff of some fruity shampoo or conditioner brushes past his nostrils. The bile rises steadily in his throat. He focuses all his energy on a dark spot on the wall, to keep from vomiting.

She begins removing her clothes in a detached, mechanical manner. She has on a red bra and black panties. It is regular underwear – not the lace and frills of good lingerie. She has an exquisite body. Her pubic region is finely trimmed. The only failing would be her extra small breasts. He divests himself of his clothing in an awkward, uncomfortable way, and places it over a chair next to the bedstead. Much to his shame, he has a raging erection. She puts on his rubber gently as she caresses his stiff, throbbing organ, looking at him all the while, a half-smile across her luscious lips. He instructs her to take him in her mouth. He closes his eyes, trying to fantasise.

A surge of pleasure shoots through his body as she sucks on his penis and starts moving it in and out of her mouth, in a slow, steady fashion. Two minutes pass before he lays her onto the bed, and gets on top. He attempts kissing her, but she avoids his face deftly. His clumsy efforts at penetration make her smile at him, again. She takes his rigid organ in her hand and guides it inside with ease. He can see clearly that she knows this is his first time. He sucks and kisses her soft nipples as he goes in and out of her slowly. The nipples aren’t as erect as they ought to be – so this is obviously not arousing for her. She makes a faint moaning sound while digging her fingers into his back. Even he knows that the whole routine is a charade. Just when the pleasure begins to rise, the release takes hold of him. He hasn’t lasted very long. A little embarrassed, he changes into his clothes as quickly as he can. She lazes in bed, playing with her necklace of orange beads. He meets her eyes, says a short thank you, and leaves. Much to his chagrin, he runs into Abbas in the hallway. But he manages to keep the encounter short.

***

It is a forgettable experience from beginning to end. The whole act is very business-like…a transaction of sorts. No passion to speak of, whatsoever. What exactly did he expect from the whole thing? There is a nagging feeling of an error of judgement on his part, once everything is over and done with. But the emotion of remorse eludes him completely.

All along the ride back home, he thinks of her business as usual manner. Survival mechanism. Has to be. The tip of his penis starts to sting, as the motorcycle negotiates a speed-breaker. There is also a low-grade pain emanating from the region of his abdomen. His eyelids begin to droop on a surprisingly clear stretch of road. The lethargy forces him to stop by the wayside and steady himself. The last thing he needs is an accident to top off such a lousy evening. He gathers all his strength and starts up the engine. The air has turned warm and sticky.

The darkness of his empty home takes him unawares. A sense of loss fills the large, gloomy place. He wishes that his folks were back from their short holiday. After fixing himself a quick supper, he gives into the feeling of exhaustion. Lying in bed, trying his best to blot out the experience from his mind, a solitary tear rolls unexpectedly down the side of his cheek, into his ear. A strange sensation. It’s not as if there were any guilt to deal with. Loneliness, then? Maybe so. These last few hours have brought about a change in him, somehow.

He wishes desperately to drift into a heavy sleep, but the larger thoughts of life keep him awake for many hours. When all hope of drowsiness fades, he steps out of the house and goes for a long walk…in the off chance that it might clear his head. It is still not time for the humdrum of newspaper boys and milk vendors. Even the crows haven’t begun their annoying racket yet. There is an uneasy calm in the wee hours of the naked streets. Everything seems almost peaceful, still. Why is his mind so perturbed, then? Oh, what he would give to have the answers!

Mrinal Rajaram is a writer and freelance journalist from Chennai, India. His fiction has appeared in The Madras Mag (March ’15), The Madras Mag Anthology Of Contemporary Writing (October ’15), and Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature (March/April ’16). His nonfiction can be found within the pages of The Times Of India, The Economic Times, The New Indian Express, and Firstpost.

Fiction | My Time at Boyonika | Uday Kanungo

I’m talking of a long time ago, when I was the youngest boy working under Alok Babu in the sari shop he owned at 72, Hatibagan market. If you turn back from the Boys’ School, walk towards the statue on the square, and follow the tram tracks till they turn left into a lane, you will find yourself facing Boyonika Sari Emporium. I remember how, in my first days, I used a dent in the brown tracks, followed by a particular pothole on the street, as a marker for my mind to stop my feet and think ahead to the day’s work. Alok Babu would be sitting on his seat at the counter, checking accounts or writing a postcard, a paan tucked into his teeth, a ribbon of smoke from the incense sticks wafting past his oiled hair to reach the garlanded portrait of his late father from whom he inherited this business. I would greet him with a bowed head, he would nod, and I would fold my jute bag in a faraway corner and go to wash my feet from a pail of water. After this point, any sound of someone’s footsteps would be impossible to hear, for Tutun would spread open those thick rug mattresses that swallowed every sound that fell on them, and only thin strips of cracked cement were all that remained of the original ground. Tutun started half an hour earlier than me, restocking blouses or climbing ladders to find a missing item from the higher ledges. I would move about the shop aimlessly, eyeing the blocks of clothes stored end to end in rigid stacks and always lose count of the soft, almost imperceptible black lines on the shelves which meant, simultaneously, the beginning of a sari and the end of another.

Gradually, with the passing of days, I was made familiar with the kind of clothes Alok Babu sold in Boyonika. He claimed the shop was named after a special kind of silk spun only in certain villages in lakeside forests along the coastline, but I never could find if this was true. Anyways, whatever it may be, Alok Babu kept all kinds of cotton, a healthy range of silk, a wide variety of rather garish chiffon, a selected stock of Sambalpuri saris, and some thick-threaded handloom pieces. Dhiren, the man in charge of all saris, initially moved me around the shop on his whim, sometimes downstairs to fetch some old rows of forgotten cotton, at other times ordering me to ransack some long-unopened, cobwebbed cabinet from whose dark depths I had to rescue a matching blouse. For nearly a year, this went on, a time in which I never knew what my job was, and yet when it seemed that anything at all could be asked of me. Sometimes, just when I thought there was time to sit still, or stare at the streets outside where the sounds still new to me would come, his hand would fling a folded sari across the air, which I had to store in a stack according to its color, type and price. For the longest time, I could not make out why he never mentioned a specific task to me, but one day, suddenly when it dawned on me that there was no stack of saris that I hadn’t run my hands through, no cabinet of clothes I hadn’t opened, no corner of the shop I hadn’t climbed till on the ladder, did I realize with silent respect that my first year of hustling here and there, as if rebounding from wall to wall, was nothing but me being slowly stirred into the air of the shop. We were quiet men, and neither needed to say it to the other. We both knew that I was now a part of Boyonika. 

Soon it was time for Dhiren to teach me the first few things about showing a sari. On certain Mondays, when the shop would shut earlier than usual, he would call for Tutun and me, and momentarily make us the women whose gaze we had to guide, step by step, to the clothes we wanted to sell. There were some things on which we had to lose, he said – the kind of cloth, the cut, or maybe even the color of pleats – but all around this illusion of choice, the seller must start erecting, by deft, diplomatic words and some controlled promises, the borders of his kingdom. He would pick at random one of the many saris beyond the glass, their shapes stiffened by time and looked as rigid as bricks to the eyes. Upon the first touch of his fingers the fabric would emit a crisp crackle, and swiftly he would fling out the piece of shabby cardboard plaque that was the spine around which the sari had been wound many times. Keeping most of the sari still asleep in its thick folds, he would pry open a corner with a fingernail, and awaken a square slice of its print to our eyes. He would trace its intricate patterns of embroidery, running an index finger along its fringe in such a way as to call your eyes to the subtle borders that ran thinly till the end, where it died out in a few frail wisps of thread. Tutun and I would stand and glance from one fabric to the other, our little lips sealed, our eyes absorbing the turn of colors, our ears alert to his choice of words. After an hour or so of such demonstration, he would collect the different saris splayed on the tabletop into a mass, give them a slap, and announce with ironic ceremony in his voice, “Today’s training is over. To be continued.”

This was not all. Dhiren kept us close when the women waded in, parting the plastic curtains on the doorstep with their bangled arms, already eyeing the shelves. From the very first, Dhiren would have the task of gathering their gazes together and bringing them to the table. Then, feigning anger on me and Tutun, he would raise his voice to a rasp and tell us to fetch this or that batch of saris in sharp phrases. Sometimes, even Tutun would join in and add orders of his own to Dhiren’s original lines, and being the youngest, I would have no choice but to absorb these commands all by myself, with no one after me to continue the transfer of tempers and vent my heart out. As a result, towards the end of the busiest of days, I could be seen working with puffed-up cheeks, and would move through the shop with downcast eyes, as if within me lay all of Boyonika’s discontent. I was always a thin boy with rickety legs, and arms that knew no ambition, and this was the impression that many women would have carried after their humid haunts spent in the summer evenings on the streets of Hatibagan. Now that I think of it, I wonder how many slices of that single boy still live on in some unplumbed attic of their memories, and if my bony shoulders and lanky frame are forever doomed to fringe their treasured recollections of the time when the saris they wear so fondly, own so proudly, were first unfurled for their eyes, under those dim brown bulbs on the white tabletops of Boyonika Sari Emporium.

Day by day, I started to see how Dhiren was slowly handing me the reins of the sari department. After spotting a naive customer, who would sooner or later settle into a choice, he would cajole her through a play of colors, make her consider a few glazy designs, and then cloth by cloth withdraw back towards the blurring row of saris, making me suddenly become the only person between her and the blinding delight of so many saris on offer.

At first, I only showed cotton. I would proceed from where Dhiren had left, spreading the surface of those colorful pieces, outlining the frills with my fingers before moving to milder, more subdued designs. I would show floral prints first, then the ones with dotted artwork, followed by the filigreed embroidery that made subtle patterns, and finally saris that came embossed with abstract shapes and inexplicable signs, and at which I would inevitably become tongue-tied and thus, completely at the mercy of the woman’s taste. In the initial days, I had my share of insistent ladies whose whims I could not cope with. Boyonika was bustling enough to keep Dhiren and Tutun simultaneously busy with other customers, so that my stumbling failures could not even be muffled by their experience. I would have to endure the disheartening sight of those women pass through the shelves, slip into their sandals while leaning on the shoe-stand, and leave the steps of Boyonika, perhaps never to return. After ten at night, behind closed shutters, while we folded back the unchosen saris and swept bits and pieces of paper along with the day’s dust, I would confess in a low tone the chances I missed, and fear the worst from Dhiren. But invariably, by the time we opened our steel tiffin boxes, he would never get angry on me, but only string together a few sentences of advice one after another, we would all have a good laugh about the day, and I would be sent to sleep, my weary mind soothed by the thought that in all of time to come I’ll always remain the youngest boy working in Boyonika.  

It never occurred to me how young Dhiren also was till one evening Tutun whispered to me that there was talk of his marriage. Alok Babu announced that very night that Boyonika would close for four days on account of Dhiren’s wedding preparations, in which Tutun and I were told to lend a hand. A Calcutta wedding was too expensive for the groom and bride alike. So we went, the three of us, to the girl’s place in Asansol in an all seater, intercity, foul-smelling night train, and in between two small town stations whose name I had not heard, he told us he would be leaving Boyonika soon after the marriage. It was part of an unsaid understanding, he said. His in-laws owned two wholesale godowns there in the countryside, and had promised him the job of storekeeper in one of those as dowry. It was a place that paid twice the money Boyonika did in a town in which everything cost half as much as in Calcutta; indeed the whole affair had been planned around this promise that the father of the bride had made. We alighted in Asansol with heavy hearts, and the three days that Tutun and I spent there – pitching tents, lugging bags, carrying drum-full of water and fruit-laden plates from everywhere to everywhere, neither could coax out of our hearts a cheerfulness proper to the scenes leading up to a marriage. On that night it was very windy, the girl sobbed endlessly. Me and Tutun slept under the half-unwinded tarpaulin tents, and when some cleaner with a broom woke us up the next morning, we realized we had only an hour to make it to the station.

Dhiren was there briefly at the gate where a rickshaw was waiting. He had to give us a set of keys to the basement that he had kept close to him all this while. “Before I forget”, he said, and kept pointing to each key while telling us what all it unlocked. “This here is for the September set of cotton ones, and this one has Ray Babu’s wholesale maal, this is for that old stock of white chiffon, got it? And well, the rest you know”, he trailed off, as I climbed the rickshaw’s foot-pedal.

“Take good care of the shop, okay, and both stay good-good!” he said, his hand neither waving nor still, but just gently rising and falling, as if blessing the air around him, and I watched till his body was borne away by the distance between us.

I returned to Boyonika as the man in charge of all saris, and found that the days did not slow down for my sake. I made many mistakes in that time of my life, staying silent too long to questions, losing my attention, confusing clothes of one kind with another. The women kept coming and going, flinging sharp questions at my silence, a malignant twist in their faces, the last of their words laced often with insult. All of Hatibagan’s shopkeepers would know of me as the inept showman of saris from Boyonika whom Dhiren trusted foolishly. I found, however, that there was no one to turn to. I was an orphan from a faraway village from across the border, thrust into this city years ago, and for our kind only our work can save us. So I buried myself into my duties in Boyonika. In six months, I could handle all the cotton stock by myself. At the end of the year, knowing no one there, I travelled to Jorhat, through countless rain-soaked paddy fields, to collect our batch of Assamese silk saris, all on my own. By the second year, I could tell by the touch of a single thread if the stack of red and white Korial saris were from Bengal or faked elsewhere. And a few days before it would be three years to Dhiren’s marriage, I managed the shop alone on the busiest Sunday in the history of Boyonika, seeing to more than a hundred women, selling a total of hundred twenty two garments, including ten Sambalpuri saris. This is all a man’s life is, I thought – smile through the pain and feign a greatness.

Soon, my marriage was also decided. My father’s elder brother, who I met once every two years and on whom had fallen the responsibility of ensuring that I further the family line, came to Calcutta one day, and told me over food how a family that a neighboring village had been asking around if there were any young men for marriage in our house.

“‘So I told them about you. Works in Calcutta’, I said. They are ready”.

One has no choice in these things. I’d known this since a long time, I’d seen too many men and women leave their houses in white and red, to think that anyone does these things willingly, so I said yes.

The bride wore red – a Benarasi brocade sari with intricate, antique designs gilded in golden thread. That was the first time I saw her, guided by a web of women towards the fire. I remember thinking that her face was only eyes, with brows dotted in white sandalwood paste beaming past all other colors and jewelry so large and so many that they almost eclipsed her face under the harsh, moth-crossed lights. I think we have some photographs. Brides and grooms are the worst ones to ask about their own wedding, they barely know what is going on themselves, but one thing I do remember was how ruthlessly I was teased for being the groom who sold saris for a living. The slightest talk of clothes that would happen around me would arouse a fit of laughter in the groups of girls that escorted the bride. “Do you know something about Henna too?’, they’d ask, flashing their palms after hours of inking designs on them, “or is it just saris you have advice for?” Or sometimes, pausing for a moment in their frolic, they’d taunt with a knowing smile that comes to those who know the torture of the words they are about to speak, “What’s this? No saris for us or the bride? Here we were sat thinking, ‘here comes the groom, from his big shop in Calcutta’, and no new clothes! Is such the life after marriage, tell?” Just a couple of hours before the ceremony, they were particularly excruciating, surrounding me from all sides and pinning me to my seat, saying they won’t let me go to the pandal till I agreed to their conditions. They shook out a few promises from me, one among them being that within the first month of marriage, I have to present a brand new Boyonika sari to my wife-to-be. Although then I said yes to everything they asked, for some reason, this promise did not leave my memory. Even as I returned from my marriage, watching the plains pass beyond the windows in the night-train, I was already thinking of what colors and patterns will be on the sari that I should gift my wife.

On the first Monday of married life, I took her to Boyonika. On the tram, I felt the slightly shivering thrill of taking someone through the things that made up my life, and how difficult it was to divide my attention between her and keeping one eye open for that twisted electric pole that was my personal signal for getting down. Alok Babu and Tutun met her. I told her about Dhiren in such grand words that she must have thought I was talking of a legend who had passed away but whose spirit hovers here. Tutun took her towards the spot where we sat cross-legged waiting for the women. There was no shine in her eyes when the glass cabinets slid apart to show the saris on all three sides around us, and never did her hand move towards a stack of clothes in spite of herself. Instead, she kept sticking close, her head covered at all times, her eyes rarely raised. When I started shuffling and gathering the mess of saris on the white table, no special sign of appreciation for a particular piece escaped her, but a calm smile smothered just a moment before anyone could notice it would let me know that perhaps her hands had passed through something she liked.

“You can see for yourself. If you would like something…maybe this one, hmm?” I said after a while, keeping a single finger on a khadi piece as green as a betel leaf. “Like these?”

“No, no, not for me”, she shied away, her voice thinning.

I came close to whisper. “Look, Alok Babu, gives us some of the stock at the end of the year, some leftover ones that remain here. If you see something I can try to keep it.”

“You know much more about saris here”, she said while walking back home that afternoon, after hours of my coaxing to pick up something she liked. “Something simple, anything that is not too much. Rest, you know.”

“And color?”, I remembered to ask just before shutting my eyes for the night. “Else you’ll say, ‘don’t like the color’

“Anything…whatever you like best,”, came from the other side of the bed, and there was nothing for some seconds, till some more words spilled over to my side, “white will do…”, followed by nothing but a second silence that I slowly felt blend with the dark of night.

It was indeed Alok Babu’s custom, like most shop-owners, to gift us a few saris that went unsold over the year. Whenever this would happen, me, Tutun, and the whole community of men who worked in Hatibagan and lived on the whimsical, momentary mercies of women, would realize with a shock how clueless we become when left alone with the very things we sell, and how perfectly useless the clothes and colors become to our eyes and hands the minute there is no one to tell them about, as if our entire business was a dream that has just departed our minds, leaving behind things that we can’t make sense of in the real world. Married men would eventually take some for their wives or in-laws, but the others would spend days roaming the streets and markets of Borbazar, hopping shop to shop and slashing the prices in half to get rid of the saris they carried like abandoned babies. Tutun and I had never eyed any sari for ourselves in the year before, but in those days, at the end of the year, something changed. In idle moments in the shop, between folding the clothes and chatting with Tutun, I could sense myself lingering over a line of clothes, and thinking if one of them could indeed stay till the end of the year, untouched and unbought, so I could fulfill my promise. I would remember her words, and my eyes would scour through the shop in search of a simple white one. A few days before X-mas, I finally found it.

It was a jute cotton sari shipped a few days ago from Digha, where we all had heard stories of weavers working. If not for a few crisscrossing lines on its upper body, it would be a piece of absolutely spotless white. It felt at first like paper in my hands, as if with a single crunch it could crumble to dust, and if you held the fabric to the light for a few seconds, it seemed everything beyond the cloth would become beautifully muffled and each fine thread would rise up to the fore, ready to be traced by a keen eye. Only after unfurling it further did I see its exquisite edges bordered in blue, with a thin, dark, long-running indigo thread woven in many circles to create an illusion from afar of chariot wheels. Many times I turned it over and around, inside out, but each time I swept a patch of the cloth around my fingers to check for tears or stains, I found myself newly pleased, as if with every touch a little more of its simple beauty was floating up to its milk white surface. I kept it in the third row in the cabinet of cotton things that stood to my left, knowing well that it did not belong there neither by color or kind, simply because it came within a single swing of my arm, and hoped hard that no woman would want it.

Ten days remained till the end of the year. Just for ten more days I have to wait and take every woman who comes to me away from the sight of that sari. I recalled Dhiren’s words and ways – how he kept saying that no matter what happened in the center of the shop where choices were made, we three were the ones who made the edges of the shop, we were the frame that makes the picture of Boyonika possible. I kept these thoughts close as these last days began. On the ninth and eighth day before the New Year, my time at the shop was fairly eventless. Most of the day I was made to tally accounts in Alok Babu’s ledger, and at other times I either chatted with Tutun or watched Azharuddin bat through two days of a test match. Till lunchtime on the seventh day so little had happened that I asked Alok Babu if I could quickly go to eat with my wife and come back. Over a day-old pot of rice I talked to her about all that was happening in the shop but not my plan. She asked me to bring Tutun over for lunch on Sunday, or send fried fish to Alok Babu’s home. I kept blindly nodding, thinking to myself how good it will be if the next six days were kind to me. So badly had I begun wanting the future to be exactly how I wished it, that while walking back to the shop I started to think of the ways in which I can escape the shop with a sari in my hand. My thoughts began splitting into many paths I could take. Maybe I can open the shutters this Sunday with the spare key, I thought, but the sight of Tutun waiting with his chin on his hands, and the way his eyes brightened for a moment as he said, ‘even Jadeja has hit 100’, made me shrink in shame that such thoughts had ever crossed my heart. Visions of me and my wife being paraded through the streets with all kinds of names being shouted towards us, or begging on busy footpaths chilled me to the bone. Could I ask Alok Babu for the piece, risking a slap and maybe even a months’ pay, depending on his temper? Or do I do my job and watch six days pass?

The next day, a flock of a few ladies, belonging certainly to some big family, descended on Boyonika and just in a matter of a few footsteps, stood facing me with intention in their eyes. They needed both cotton and silk, for they were buying a batch of saris to gift the groom’s family before the marriage. Tutun and I started by offering some usual choices, we threw on the table some gauzy greens, reds and yellows, knowing well that none would make a mark, for this was a custom so crude that even buyers do not bother. After this, I showcased some khadi material, some standard tasar silks, and a few specimen of red and black Sambalpuris, hoping to end the game right then. They lingered long over the clothes, went back and forth amongst themselves, but whenever I felt the threat of their gaze going towards the simple thing I valued most, I’d fling under their eyes this or that cloth, hoping that either the price or the patterns on it would lure them astray. To this end, I never spoke of jute cotton either, fearing they’d force me to show every last piece of that variety we have.

But time solves everything. It’s mysterious how a piece you whisked away supposing it would never suit you begins to grow wings in your mind. Maybe you hear something good from the person you came with, and now all of a sudden your friends are pasting it to your body like a sheet, measuring shoulders, and turning you around. Who knows what god sees over things like these, but I was lucky that day. As me and Tutun gradually started showing different styles, and moved up towards the higher ranges and subtle colors, they grew fond of certain designs. Whenever they became unsure I tried to calm the group by alternating between saying ‘pure cotton’, and ‘pure silk’, as the case may be. The fact that they wanted the groom’s family to not think of them as mean misers played in my favor – they picked many gilded, glitzy ones and feared that giving bland things of a single color could make them look like people who think too much before spending. It’s a strange thing to say, but sometimes the cost of being rich ends up helping us poor.

But if there’s anyone worse for us than the rich, it’s the rich with taste; it’s a lethal combination. After dealing with simply the rich for the next day, just as I was beginning to think that I could swat away anyone, in came a young woman.

She was dressed in a baffling mix of all things – a chunni thrown over shoulders in abandon, brown glasses paired with a nose ring, shoes that were half-sandals, half slippers – she seemed the wrong halves of two people fused together. She was silent for as long as two minutes, but her eyes were hopping from stack to stack, studying and rejecting saris, it seemed, simply from the look of their spines. At last, with god knows what in her mind, she approached the table and stated. “What all do you have in cotton…..show simple, not too flashy”

Hearing these words, I silently turned back to face the same shelves that I had seen a thousand times, but never with an anxiety I was now feeling. Taking a few seconds to steel myself, I squatted down to bring out in three multicolored pieces – red, purple and sandalwood shades and all without any designs on them. Just as I was beginning to talk about the first one, how pure its cotton was, how it had travelled through the hands of many weavers in Benares, she stopped me with a shake of her head –

“No, no, not all this. Don’t you have any light colors?”

“You mean, well, in silk we have…”

“No, no, in cotton only…don’t have?”

“Let me see again, madam,” I said, and sat down cross legged, motioning her to sit as well. I shouted for Tutun and told him to look for the kind of thing madam wanted in the basement. We both stood in two minutes of silence, nervous for me and awkward for her, till Tutun ran back up and unfolded a handful of saris on the tabletop. They were all very mellow – light brown, pale peach, a soft sky blue – all such colors passed under her fingers one after one and yet her face showed not a sliver of interest. As if out of mercy she pressed her palms upon the last of such saris, a soft piece the color of turmeric, and said that this was, at least, “a certain kind of sari”. God knows what she meant by that. I showed her some variations of that color and print which held her eyes for some time, but I was fearing that soon she would want something simpler. I made an attempt, through a mention of discounts, to guide her towards silk, but she did not even hear my words. Instead, she pointed to my left, where it felt I had hid my very heart. I turned and placed one finger, weak with fear, according to her gaze on the stained-glass.

“This?”

“Down.”

“This?”

“No, down.”

“This?”

“No, even more down, the grey one, with those blue-blue designs”

I breathed in relief. My white jute sari was merely four fingers away. I took my time spreading the piece around, thinking to myself how to sway her away. I could see two ways before me – either to taker so far away from that stack of saris that there was little chance of her returning, or to convince her so well of the brilliance of the grey piece that she buys it then and there. Perhaps I could talk her towards a few black and red sambalpuri pieces? Meanwhile, her hands had clutched one of the sari’s corners, the opposite end of the edge I was holding, and in a few moments I had lost the cloth to her hands.

“Hmm…this is quite good, this color is nice.” She drew a long breath of admiration as she ran her fingers over the cloth turning its borders inside and out. “What price?”

I named a price much lesser than what that piece deserved, and what it would have doubtlessly fetched if not for my dilemma. It was hard to tell whether I was getting more nervous or angry. “Just take it”, I could yell with my eyes, “what more do you want, it has a good print, it doesn’t shine in the light, it is simple, and just take it.”

“Well, lets see what more you have like this….move to this side a bit! I want to look what other things there are..”

“Over here, we have good..”

“Let’s look at that white one..”

“Yes, this is a good piece, you’d like this…”

“No, no, not that row, over here…”

“This one, you said?”

“Arey no baba, this , this, look at where I’m pointing.”

“This?”

“The one below”

“This?”

“More below, yes near that….under that pink one”

“Oh, this one?”

“Yes”. I see that it has come to this.

Nowadays, I think about that moment a lot. Every now and then, on her behalf, I imagine entirely different lives for that girl, which would have led her to thoughts different from the ones she had when she made her choice. Maybe in this way I can make her not pick this piece. In another story I told to myself, I had convinced her that this sari is too plain to be worth her, showing its widow-white pallor and its cheap borders in blue thread, till her tone blended with mine, saying, yes indeed, it is. Since when had they started to like simple things too, weren’t the simple things meant for us? And of the rest, what to tell. My insisting on her not having the sari, her surprise and taking offense at my words, Alok Babu rushing from his chair upon hearing her raised voice, her leaving the sari and the shop in a fit of anger and self-esteem, Tutun, over whom these things passed like a cyclone, standing speechless beside, Alok Babu landing an ear splitting slap on me, my leaving Boyonika, my not telling my wife what the matter was till three days, and after telling, her not talking with me for four, all these are rather long-long stories that should be cut short. But best as I might try, my mind wanders back to the image of that sari sleeping in a stack, and I begin to wonder what fate has befallen that piece, which stack it lies in now, and how unaware that woman is whose body it is destined to drape, of the history of the hands and eyes that have passed over its prints.

Here I am on the platform with my wife, and again we wait for a train. Soon we will board the intercity to Digha, where I plan to meet someone who might need a salesman of saris. Now and then I think of writing a letter of apology to Alok Babu but one day over food, her face melting in anger and tears, crying only like a woman like her could, she said we will never spread our hands for what that man throws. “And if you do, do so alone, because I’m leaving everything and run away that very moment…you listening?”, she said. I am. I have written a letter to Dhiren, telling him everything and asking if he knows someone who might hire someone like me. Maybe he will write back in a few days. It is tough, but I think everything will go fine, maybe I’ll soon have a sari shop like Boyonika to my own name. I know one thing for certain. Every month, a thousand saris are shipped from Calcutta to the coast, who knows, maybe it will be one among them, hiding between blues and greens and one day, wherever I’m working, I will open a carton to find that it has returned to me.

Uday Kanungo has completed his post graduate studies in English Literature and currently works as a writing tutor at Ashoka University. He writes fiction in English while translating prose and poetry from Odia to English. His writing has been published in Pif Magazine, City Journal, Eleventh Column, and The Assam Tribune

Fiction | The Wait – Sudeepta Sanyal

The alarm rang at 5 a.m. on a cold October morning. Norbu woke up to the deathly silence of the house interrupted only by the ticking of the clock. Tick tock tick tock. He had to pick up Nathan and Grace at the airport. They were visiting Ladakh for a 12-day trip and all preparations had been made. It was still dark outside; he was tempted to go back to sleep for another fifteen minutes. But what was the point? He would eventually have to leave the warmth of his bed; unravel the ubiquitous layers of the bed cover, blanket, quilt and the sheepskin to wash his face. Fifteen minutes would hardly make a difference. Also, it was unfair to keep guests waiting. He twisted the tap open and a splash of icy water jolted him awake.

By the time Norbu was outside the airport, the sun had floated above the horizon. Drivers and guides waited outside to welcome tourists by the morning flight from Delhi, wrapped in mufflers and cardigans. The policemen in their sharp uniforms overseeing the arrivals and the armed military men unflinching in their stand, added gravitas to a situation which would otherwise feel like any other tourist welcome gig. He spotted Grace from a distance and Nathan came behind her, carrying a backpack, fiddling with his phone, sporting wayfarers, chewing gum. They both nodded as they saw Norbu. “Julley,” he said, flashing his smile. Always with a smile.

When Norbu built his family home after toiling for fifteen years at his travel agency, with the Ladakhi business partner, he factored in a spare room to welcome guests who wanted to experience the local life. It was quite a delicately honed homestay experience in Ladakh, with the comforts of first world life; an attached toilet, block-out curtains, hot water, bed side reading lamp, a room heater and a rocking chair in the right-hand corner beside a bookshelf that he engineered on the porch. Books from all over the world rested on its uneven edges, most of them gifts from past occupants of the room who left them behind, these little keepsakes. The room was also a much-beloved oasis for his friends from all over the world, who came to spend a week or two with him. Fifteen years of dealing with tourists did leave one with a handful of people who became brethren despite being separated by geography, economics and culture. Everyone at home was happy with this arrangement. Especially Jungnay, his wife, because the guests kept Norbu at home more often, which gave her more time with him, and more importantly, for Leki and Tara.

The phone rang in the afternoon. It was from the monastery where Ama, his mother, was volunteering at a month-long Meditation retreat. Norbu had his hands full with the twins who were busy clamoring for his attention when the call came. The call wasn’t a happy one. His mother had been nursing a cough for the last month. While they thought it was due to the change in weather, she had a violent fit last night with no recollection of the entire episode. The fasting, which was part of the retreat ritual, didn’t help with the situation. “I think you should take your mother to the hospital. She refuses to listen to us” The nun whispered on the phone. Tick tock tick tock. Norbu untangled himself from the set of limbs that the twins had entwined around him. “I am on my way.”

The road meandered up a leisurely mountain. The monastery stood perched atop, far removed from the world below; a dot of white and red set against the magnanimity of the Himalayas. Brown sand washed the slopes that led up to the monastery. Smooth stones were piled up near the gate like an ancient cult ritual. It seemed like prayers and demons haunted this valley, alike. The clouds dotted the sky intermittently, offering a distraction to the bright blue. At the monastery, Norbu seated himself in the waiting room. Sunlight came cascading in, illuminating the frescos on the walls and ceilings. The reds, greens and blues whirled in a fluid pirouette, he had a moment to marvel in amazement.  In about half an hour, Ama appeared from the stairway. Although stooped with age, she floated into the room with an ethereal grace, as if she was the healthiest person in all of the Himalayas. Norbu reminded himself why he was there. “The nuns like to fret over things, my child. I am fine. I have a slight cough, who wouldn’t, in this weather?” Ama offered him a walnut and a prayer flag. “Take this for the terrace.”

The stubbornness was a family thing. Norbu and her had had their share of disagreements over the more serious things: moving to Delhi to study, grow his hair, date a Hindu girl, and almost weekly, the arguments about the days he would disappear with his motorcycle boys. But when he needed her the most, Ama was always there. When Norbu wanted to start his travel business, he partnered with a Chogyal, a Ladakhi, because Tibetans are prohibited from owning businesses in the country. He was never a business owner on paper but he paid 50% of all dues, took 70% of the responsibilities and brought home 50% of the profits. This was done purely on the basis of trust. “We left everything in Tibet to come to this land. We live on borrowed land and borrowed time.” Ama often told him and this kept him steady, this kept him strong. While the world warned her otherwise, she believed in her son. And he tried, he really did, to never let her down.

“Mother, please, would you listen to me?” Norbu’s mother looked at the monk who was sitting at the reception desk with a prayer wheel in his hand. He hummed while he swung it gently, as if in a trance. But his eyes were open to the world. “The doctor will have to do a test. He has been asking us to get this examination done for a while, but you have never taken it seriously. Please come to the hospital with me.” She shook her head. “Mother, please?” She grimaced. The monk softly spoke, almost like a song. “Your duty towards your son always comes first. The nuns are here to take care of things. Get well and come back. We will be waiting for you”. Ama was perplexed. She knew she didn’t have an ally in the nuns, and here Norbu had come with his car to pick her up. Eleven minutes later, she arose and said “Alright, son. But remember I have to be back by sunset. We have our evening duties.”

“What exactly is an endoscopy?” Grace asked while sipping a lemon tea with shreds of ginger in the bottom of the tumbler. “It’s a camera that goes into your food pipe.” Nathan said, between gritted teeth, while cupping his palms to light a cigarette. “It takes pictures of what’s going on inside. Generally used to aid biopsies.” He blew out the smoke and immediately realized how insensitive he probably sounded. “I am sure it will amount to nothing,” Nathan volunteered, knowing very well how empty it seemed. Especially to someone who had spent the day with his mother in the only medicinal facility in this mountain town, sending biopsy specimens to the capital city for a diagnosis without knowing when the results will come back. He remembered his days in the hospital with his father. He had not been so lucky with the diagnosis.

The promenade was awash with the golden light of the street lamps where souvenir stores on either side of the street sold their wares to curious tourists. Imports from Kashmir such as Pashmina, walnut wood furniture, and such, sat smugly with their cousins from the cold desert; coins, silver jewelry, flasks, prayer wheels, Thankas, and tea sets adorned in turquoise. It was a treasure trove of wondrous objects from another world. A world that they felt fortunate enough to get a peek at, but was a regular of any street in India to be fair.

Next morning Norbu woke up at 6 to prepare for the couple’s trip to a village, Diskit. As he stepped out to his porch the purple haze of the horizon warned him of bad weather. A call was made to the mountain station which was on their route for the day, and the driver confirmed his fears. The news of the delay in the travel plan was doled out alongside cups of consolatory tea to the couple. This streak of bad weather continued for four days. Four long days. While he devised clever plans to keep the tourists busy, it also meant that Norbu had to spend a considerable amount of time with them. He reminded himself to call the hospital to check on the status of the report. Tick tock tick tock. His mother had refused to return home despite his repeated pleas. “It is my duty to be here with the students, son. The nuns are here to take care of me,” she reasoned.

Grace and Nathan had gotten used to the rhythm of the house, and they found a way to be around, without intruding, yet partaking in daily chores. They eagerly went to the market with Norbu to get the day’s supplies; the meat shop, the vegetable vendor, the fruit seller and the juniper hoarder became familiar territory. They found comfort in Jungnay’s thukpa and Norbu’s post sunset brandy. Along with the mountains, they waited.

 A phone call from the monastery woke Norbu up from his autumn reverie. “Your mother suffered another fit last night, Norbu.” The five minute call ended in chaos, as Norbu tried his best to explain what they clearly thought was a lack of apathy. The nuns didn’t understand why he could not come to fetch his own mother and take her home, despite her protests. “She coughs all day, so much so that the Rinpoche has got her a spittoon. She is obeying all the fasts despite her health.” Norbu felt helpless. Ama refused to yield to his pleas and he could do nothing. Tick tock tick tock. Repeated questions from Nathan and Grace about weather forecasts and internet speed were not helping him either. He just about managed to smile the last time. Tick tock tick tock.

It had been a week since the test and Norbu still hadn’t heard back from the doctors. No matter what he did to distract himself, the thought kept needling him. He decided to go and visit Ama at the Monastery. Jungney made him a stock that he could take: a bowl of goodness with pulses, stock, bone marrow and vegetables, stewed to give her strength. The rickety mountains that lead him there reminded him of the picture of Tibet that Ama still kept pinned to her mirror. The photograph was fading into sepia but the images were still fresh in her head and she would relay stories to Norbu as a child and now to Leki and Tara.

Ama lived a very different life in Tibet. It was all shades of lemon and apricot. A cold desert that would thaw only after spring. But everything changed one summer. They packed everything that they had into a few bags and fled, with their closest friends. These mountains made for formidable barriers. They reached Chitkul on the other side and meandered northwards. Ama says the landscape in Ladakh was comforting and the cold harsh winters had a reassuring familiarity. Except for the refugee camps, everything else was the same. Refugee camp homes were a lot different from her house in the orchards. All the families stayed huddled together in a narrow strip of cultivable land. Water was scarce, electricity was doled out in structured time frames. People were simply grateful to be safe. Home was longed for.

Ama smiled when she saw him in the waiting room, relished her broth, kept some back for later and gave Norbu a few walnuts to take home. It was a quiet meeting, very few words spoken. An hour of savoring creamy soup together, felt like ten minutes. Norbu, satiated to see his mother looking healthy, let down his guard.

While he drove away he marveled at Ama’s calm despite her illness, however meek it was. The retreat gave her a purpose and she saw her cough as a little impediment on the way. She didn’t let it define her. He found comfort in that, and hope. Winding roads took him back to the familiarity of home and the thought of Jungnay carrying Leki and Tara on her back, standing by the window made him smile.

The next day brought some good news as the sun yawned into the valley. The Manali-Leh highway had opened a few hours earlier. Nathan and Grace could now leave for Tso Moriri Lake and the village. Travel bags had been packed for four days, so it took them a few minutes to get ready. Norbu bid the couple goodbye, as Jungnay came and stood beside him with a cup of tea. “Thank God, the roads opened. I wonder why they were shut for this long, it rarely happens. I felt bad for the girl” she said.

“Doctor Sonam did not approve the samples”

“The air strip was closed for two days due to the weather, no samples have left Leh”

“The laboratory in Delhi is closed for Diwali this weekend”

The sunflower wilted in the garden. The stream trickled slower. The trees grew scrawny. The afternoon winds got gustier. The clock struck one. Days faded into an endless dusk. The prayer flags got tattered. The moon became more solitary. Things were walking around as their course lay.

Norbu received the call one crisp Wednesday morning. Leki and Tara were playing ball in the other room and a Chukar landed on the branch of the apricot tree.

Sudeepta Sanyal is the Founder of Blueberry Trails, which creates alternative holidays throughout Europe. She has been featured in GQ, Elle, CNBC and Bloomberg amongst many more. She is a musician, songwriter and blogger for Moonlitekingdom. Sudeepta is a Dumpukht 2019 alumni. She lives between Bandra and Siolim with her dog and partner. 

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