Fiction | Cats, Murakami and a mystery encounter – Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma tries to create a Murakami-laced moment by outlining a late afternoon conversation between strangers. The protagonist, a filmmaker find a subject of instant interest in a coconut-seller who seems unnaturally knowledgable about Haruki Murakami. He tells an inspiring story of triumphing over evil and disappears completely (with his coconut stall) the next day. Sharma catcher his reader off-guard, drawing them in, warming their hearts and leaving them with a bewildered look on their faces. – Shreya, The Bombay Review

“Is that Murakami?”

The query is least anticipated and comes as a surprise, especially in a public beach.

The place is almost deserted. Only sounds that persist: the restive sea breaking into the ceaseless waves and the chattering birds that circle in the grey vault. The skyline of Alibaugh is blurred in the background—series of jagged lines across a vast canvas, dull and grey. It is early afternoon but alredy looks like late evening. The wind is rough and salty. The sky threatens rain, heavy rain, any minute. I watch the desolate shore stretched out to infinity; it is like a noir-film scene—somber and dark, in shadows and menacing; a stranger about to walk into a life, or a mysterious development that will turn everything topsy-turvy.

An upturned boat is under the three bent- and-intertwined palm trees, a famous landmark. Secluded partially from the popular beach, this particular patch evokes curiosity due to this bizarre natural creation. Whenever in the town, I come to this spot—to spend a few hours to gaze at the horizon, the sky and the sea, and, read a good book or listen to the classical music. Like carrying your own portable world, while in transit, on the move. Always, a fun activity. My way of relaxing in the din of the public places. And watching people and changing moods of the eternal sea heaving with an inexhaustible energy.

Rain excites me. Getting drenched brings back early-childhood memories of the lively holidays spent in the grandma’s village, where kids and adults alike were not afraid of the elements and enjoyed a good sun or rain.

All that is over in Mumbai. Folks avoid the rain or sun there. Forgotten the pleasures nature can give to its children. I am not the indoors type. Love the outside air and open spaces. And the sea that beckons always. Must have been a sailor or a captain in one of the previous births!

Normally, while outdoors, I plug into the ear phones and listen to jazz or some audio stories. In touristy places, part of the crowds, yet detached; enclosed in your own mobile sanctuary, transported into higher realms seen by the blessed only.

Today is no exception. Alternately, I sit on that boat, walk down few meters, sit and read—and compose thoughts on the current assignment or ponder over the complexities of the universe.

Meditation by the sea! I call this exercise that detoxes the urban mind and body.

Books, a water bottle, mat and red umbrella—my handy travel kit.

This time, Murakami is with me. I slow-read a passage from him and enjoy each word, the way you cherish good wine by sipping it leisurely, on a lonely table, in the evening, while it rains outside; occasionally, scan the gloomy horizon, and, like the thrill of being solitary, after a long time, on a beach.

Or almost alone—as this sudden question confirms another lurking presence. Might sound invasive but not this time. The reason: You do not expect someone asking about Murakami in the interiors, that too, in fluent English. Comes as pleasant shock. And a conversation opener on this wet day, unwinding gradually.

I turn around. A man in 30s; keenly peering at Norwegian Wood with the rapture of a hard-core devotee, over bifocals on a hooked nose.


I say a yes. He further beams, eyeing the novel as if it were a sacred artifact, found by accident in an unlikely location.

I do a counter query, “You know Murakami?”

“To some extent only.” The alien answers, a smile hovering on a thin face.

“Good to have a fellow admirer in this part of the world.” I say with a chuckle.

“Indeed.” He continues: “Fascinating personality!  Fond of the game of baseball, cats, undergrounds, wells, music, Kafka, Carver and Cheever, among many other passions.  Unusual guy, this Murakami. Runs for ten miles and works for five-six hours daily. Unspooling strange worlds for the explorers of such possible regions. Most important, makes the implausible plausible. Few people have such an uncanny ability.”

Impressive summing up of a rich career!

This mysterious encounter looks promising now.

I am intrigued by the stranger and his knowledge and ask: “You, a Murakami scholar?”

“No. I am not that intelligent.”

“A professor?”

He grins: “Not that smart, either.”

“Who are you then?” The bafflement shows.

He answers, “A simple seller of coconuts. I own that shack. Let us move there, it has started raining.”

We stroll down to the tiny hut, crammed with few plastic chairs, tables and assortment of coconuts on the counter, supervised by a sleepy lad in half-pants. We sit down and face the sea. The rain has started falling in fine sheets; its music rhythmic on the tin roof; the sea and sky fuse in a single instant…surreal feel.

The boy yawns and scratches his head. He is cross-eyed.

“Peter Cat.” The young man says. “Cats brought us together—Murakami and me. Our geographies collided, mental and physical and became one seamless land and unlocked a gate for an exciting journey over imagined lands.”

Not heard this type of articulation in recent memory. Real intriguing figure, this man! Fated to meet.

 “Same here. I, too, love cats. Beloved of the ancient Egyptians. Bit puzzling as well. Especially the Murakami cats. They have their own volition.” I state.

He agrees: “Like Murakami’s cats, mine act weird; keep on disappearing—and re-appearing—on their own free will. The only striking difference: So far the fish have not tumbled down from my sky.”

“Maybe one day, you can expect that also to happen.” I say with a loud laugh. His familiarity with the story-teller is indeed exceptional.

He observes in a soft tone, “Maybe. Who knows? Reality can turn out to be equally unreal these days. Not sure where one ends and the other starts. Times are turbulent. Post-truth, anything is possible. What matters is what one tends to believe.”

We become quiet. The rain drums the sheets and rattles off the tiles. The beach is covered in a mist.

“What do you do?” he asks me suddenly.

“A film-maker. Here, on an assignment, to film this coastal city on a monsoon morning. Searching for a good location and a theme for the half-an-hour shoot.”

“Have you found both? You can have plenty in this area. Good locations and ample talent.”

“Not yet. The search is on,” I say and add, “I might find both soon.”

“Want some coconut water, mister?” He asks me in a friendly tone, voice raspy.

 “Yes, sure. Thanks.”

He signals the boy for two big ones.

On a tray, the lad brings us coconuts with pink straws. We drink and watch the beach turn a shade darker.

A brown cat appears, out of the blue, rubs its back against the young man’s legs, purrs and then settles down, near the plastic table, eyes closed. Its owner is mightily pleased by the feline appearance.

“This documentary I am doing for a reputed travel channel. They want beaches in and around Mumbai covered for a global audience. A human-interest story.”

“Thrilling! You come to visit new places and talk to the people—and make money as well.”

“Yes. I enjoy meeting strangers and discovering new places. Love my job.”

He is easy-going and unpretentious, eager to talk. A bond starts developing between us, thanks to Murakami.

 “Are you from these parts?” I ask.

“Yes. A village nearby.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr…?”

“Prakash.” He offers his hand.

“Salim.”  We shake hands. The cat peers at us and purrs, expressing delight, then shuts eyes.

“Found a subject for my next documentary, just now.” I tell Prakash.

“What is that?”



“Yes. The theme will be Talking Murakami in Alibaugh. The highlight will be a coconut vendor talking shop on camera for the fans and scholars of the writer. Is it not interesting?”

Prakash laughs. “My gawd! You will make me a hero! By the way, how did you run into the author?”

“Well, I studied him for my paper on Fictionists and Cinema as part of my PG course on mass media. You? How did you find him in a village?”

“Through translation. My mother read a lot. She recommended him to me many years ago. She admired him for producing unseen lands.”

“Oh! I see. What is she?”

“A home-maker and an avid reader who would read in the afternoons and the nights, in the kitchen, when the household slept. Villagers retire very early. She wanted to know about other cultures via reading books written in other languages. Kept a small library at home and encouraged everybody to borrow from her. Passed on the same genes to me. I keep on reading a lot.”

“Great!” I say. “What is your father?”

“He was a farmer. Simple man. A Gandhian, a lost tribe now in India.”

“Pa was also inspiring like Ma. One of the trustees who built a school for the girls of the area. Was against early marriage of girls. Stood for the brick-kiln workers and their rights. A strong and well-built man loved by the poor and farmers. He would talk to the block development officer or the revenue officers on their behalf.”

“Real crusader!”

“Lucky to have such parents. Not much educated but always encouraging.”


We grow silent. One more cat appears and curls around Prakash’s side of the table. The wind brings in a strong gust of rain inside the shack. The sky is overcast. The sea hisses.

“Are you college-educated? Curious to know my new hero.”

“I am an electrical engineer.”

“A what?” my jaws drop.

He laughs loudly, amused by the expression of disbelief. “Most people react like that. Ha ha ha! They take a shack-owner to be illiterate, poor and ignorant brute.”

“Partially true, of course. You will hardly find an engineer selling coconuts at a public beach! Is it not unbelievable?” I ask him in a bantering tone.

“And quoting Haruki Murakami! Or discussing Coppola with an American tourist here. Yes, unbelievable, for some.” He says, eyes twinkling.

This time, I am not surprised by his wide range of cultural references. The slim man, although unremarkable in appearance, is indeed remarkable in his intellectual pursuits.

“You are real globalist, my friend, in your tastes.” I comment. He smiles but says nothing.

“Real pleasure meeting you, Prakash. In fact, never met someone like you in my short life of forty-five years, although I have met hundreds of interesting people, in my line of work so far. Most are one-dimensional. And mass-produced specimen only for the job market. Not very intelligent. Only skilled labour programmed to do certain tasks, to obey certain commands. You are a rare combination.” I say with genuine affection.

“Same here. I find you equally captivating. A film maker soliloquizing on an empty beach…”

“And talking to the airy nothings, wind and the sea. A crazy fellow! Not the usual 9-5 guy.” I add.

He laughs and takes out a cigarette packet, offering me one. I decline. He lights up and emits rings of smoke into the humid air outside. The rain increases in intensity. The cats purr in unison. The boy yawns. The wind rattles more tiles. Rain is getting furious.


After half-an-hour, harsh rain stops and we decide to go out for a walk. The sky clears. The sun peeps in. We listen to the sounds of the waves in the general quiet. “The music from the sea heals. Therapy, kind of, for troubled minds.” He observes.

We stand there for long, listening to the rustle of the waves. The sun light casts its magic on the dappled sea—looks lovely!

“How Murakami entered your life so deeply? I mean, how did he affect your life, the way only few thinkers can do?” I ask Prakash.

“Long story. Interested?” He asks, watching the gulls above, mind far off.

“I am listening. Please. Tell me your truth.”

He glances at my face, “Are you sure to know about an obscure engineer selling coconuts on a popular beach-resort? Few guys are. We all are busy doing instagam moments of our own life rather than engaging with a fellow human being.”

“Yes, as said earlier, I am truly interested in such a colourful character. You are now my present subject of inquiry.”

He becomes silent, starts walking at a brisk pace, on the sand. I follow him on the shore where waves are singing and I can see a mermaid sitting on a boulder, middle of the sea, on this afternoon, as strange as a Borges or Dali work. Few minutes later, he slows down and strats, “On certain moments of disjunctions, mostly unpredicted, your favouraite writer or text enters your life through these voids, crevices and guides you onwards.”

“Indeed. I agree with this interpretation of life and art, this interface between the two.”

He pauses for long, reflecting. The gulls circle over a watery patch in an agitated sea. He comes back from a dim past: “Certain moments—when you feel abandoned, let down, alone—can be very unsettling. Those testing moments open up as a portal for the inspiration to enter the individual life, almost unbidden and give you insights and strength to endure the sudden crisis or an unseen reversal. In my life, things went downhill quite quickly…and Murakami helped me out eventually. He showed me the light and made me emerge from the long tunnel as a whole.”

“Interesting!” I exclaim. “Go on.”

His face clouds over. “Painful to recall those events that ruined my life…or almost! I never thought it will happen the way it did. But you can never see future unfold clearly…in advance.”

I wait patiently for the story to unfold. We keep on walking on the shore, waves tingling naked feet. His cats follow for some time and then vanish.

“Well, it is an ordinary story full of struggles.”

“Carry on, please.”

“OK. It so happened that my farmer father asked me to return to the ancestral village and do farming on our small piece of land. I agreed to the idea. Sons do not question fathers in rural India. He told me, ‘You are not getting any decent salary anyway in the city. Come here. The land can feed all of us. We have a big house and we all will live as joint family.” I returned with my wife and kids and started working on the land. My brother and I worked hard. The results showed. We went for the organic farming and sold the yield directly to the city superstores through a startup called “village Greens”. Applied the best techniques of farming. Cultivated flowers in a nursery as well. After a few years, we did well and saved enough. We all were together and happy tilling our ancestral land, living with Mother Nature, in a house built by our forefathers. The joy was immense.”

“Hmm. Good to hear that in an age when farm distress continues to haunt our farmers the most.”  I say pensively.

“Our village is no different. Many farmers committed suicide over the last many years.”
“So sad to hear that! Huge loss to the nation.”

“Yes. They could not repay the heavy loans. Unseasonal rains ruined the crops. There is no support system for these hard-working people, still attached to farming existence and old values.”
“Yes. Extreme climate changes have destroyed many precious lives in the villages. Government must do something for them.”

He continues: “Everything was looking good. Then the storm hit us. Without any warning. It knocked us off.”

He stops. I wait.

After another painful pause, he reflects, “We never saw them coming, the tragedies, as a series. In one single sweep, the storm destroyed us.”

“The storm?”

“Yes. It destroyed us completely. My father got murdered. Ma grew quiet and faded away. My brother was assaulted badly. I lost my anchors. The entire village abandoned us during that dark time. Avoided contacts with us. Forgot us totally. We were left alone—so painful still!”

“Sad! How did it all happen?”

“Well, one fine morning, dad was returning from the local market, late morning, when he was accosted by a few brazen men who opened fire on a defenseless person in his early sixties and left him dead on the main street of the bustling village, yelling obscenities. Many villagers saw the killers but did not stop them from fleeing. Nobody dared step out of their comfort zone. The killers slowly walked into the forest, laughing and chatting as a bunch of carefree men returning from a picnic. Fired into the air repeatedly to put scare. It was a murder most foul. In the open and day light. Within an hour, our destiny changed. I became fatherless.”

“Who were these brutes?”

“The hired goons of a local politician-cum-moneylender who did not like my father speaking on behalf of the poor farmers, victim of his greed and lust. The village wanted father to contest the upcoming elections to the village council. The politician, a don, did not like challenges. Being low-cast further aggravated the situation. He felt insulted by the rising star coming from the other side. A subaltern speaking of rights and justice and law. The don was furious by the competition.”

“Oh! I see. So the don got him killed.”


“No action was taken?”

“No, nothing. At least, in the initial months.”
“Why? How can it happen? We are not living in a banana republic. It is a lawful country. A country where system works.”

“The rural scene is different, dear Salim. You know that. The system works…but for the rich. Not for the poor. The gangster owns the place. His writ runs large here. You are nothing. A zero. The cops were in his pockets. No witnesses to the murder. He terrorized the village further. Friends stopped talking to us. We were the new outcasts. The grocers would deny provisions. The neighbours turned their faces away. The doctor would not treat us. Excommunicated. Victimized again and again.”

“So bad it was! I am shocked! Thought badlands existed in some other place.”

He takes a long pause. Then recalls: “Hell! Things were getting worst. The goons began harassing the women of the family. When I complained, the cops threatened action against me. Horrible, it became!”

“My God! Terrifying!”

“Yes, Salim. It was. I went to the sessions court. A weak case was registered against unknown men by the police. The lawyers would not take our case except a young idealist who refused to be cowed down by the open threats.”

“Oh! What did you do then?”

“I went to the national media. There was huge clamour. One night, the cops picked up my younger brother and thrashed him in the lockup. Later, booked him for possessing drugs in the house…then, they came for the cousins and booked them in a murder case. The torture was becoming unbearable. The cops were out for our blood. The thugs were out for our blood. The village did not have the courage to stand up against the don. His henchmen openly boasted, ‘Those who oppose our leader will get killed.’ It was very frustrating. The darkest hour for us. We were in a sinking ship.”

“Real outrageous! Nobody supported you in your quest for justice?”

“No. That is real face of the rural India! The countryside is largely ruled by the mafia and criminals posing as politicians. If you oppose them, they are after you. One evening, goons attacked my brother, almost killing him, outside our home. My mother could no longer take it anymore. She stopped talking, withdrew into a shell and died of grief and sadness, few days later. Her loss was too much. We felt overwhelmingly crushed.”
“I can understand that overpowering pain and  crippling helplessness, bro.” I tell him and hold his hand.

He is quiet. The cat—the fat one with yellow-white stripes— re-appears and purrs. Prakash picks up the creature and strokes her arched back. Then deposits her on the sand. The sea gulls are again circling in the air. We keep on moving slowly. The wind feels refreshing.

Prakash resumes: “The final blow came when they tried to kidnap my younger sister in broad day light from her degree college. Somehow, the other girls came out and beat the goons badly with shoes and sticks; the entire degree college for women came out in support for my hapless sister that day, some ten kilometers from our village, it was so reassuring. But my sister was scared. My wife, too, wanted to go away from this daily torment, violence and abuse. All of us were getting deeply affected. Disillusioned, dejected, we gave up the cause for bringing justice to my slain father. Gave up our fight. Principles. Conscience—everything. Our survival was more crucial than the sustained fight. We decided to leave.”

“How did you plan that?”

“We were firm to settle down in distant Mumbai—forever.  There, among the millions, we would be just another statistics. Anonymity promised safety and survival. The village, anyway, had become an unbearable prison, a burning hell. Not much money left. No future in that oppressive system, feudal in outlook. Losers we became. Without dignity, value or respect, hounded by the thugs, jeered by the cops.”

“Is it? So terrible there in the countryside? How did you leave the stinking place?”

“Lot of planning was done. In the middle of the night, we decided to escape the swamp. A friend came down to pick us up in his van. We left stealthily. Locked the house.  With few valuables and clothes…and degrees. That was all we took on that journey.”

“So sad! What happened afterwards?”

He pauses. I wait.

“Well, Murakami enters our life at that precise time.”




“In a most strange way.”

“Tell me fast, please.”

He smiles. “Salim, you are an impatient listener.”

“Sorry, Prakash! No offense meant. Curious for the end.”

Prakash is mum for long. Then he recollects the sequence of the flight: “Well, Salim, it so happens, our van gets stuck in the thick forest bordering our village and a most solid storm hits there in that pitch-dark forest. Never thought of getting caught in a storm in the jungle. Odd!”

“Oh! Typically Murakami!”

“Storms teach.”

“It was a mid-summer storm. A violent one. Like the one faced by King Lear. Or the storm in the Tempest. Physical events of great intensity compelling you to change perspectives by re-appraising priorities and previous lessons. Natural occurrences but full of profound insights.”

“Oh, great!” I murmur. “How apt is your reading of the phenomena!”

He recounts: “We got stranded in the forest. Nothing was visible. We sat there, waiting for the fierce storm to get over. All huddled together. Frightened.  It was a dirt trail in the heart of the wilderness. The friend knew the topography well but even he felt lost there. The thunder cleaved the sky into fiery splinters. The wind was a ferocious beast. It was most terrifying experience! The wind uprooted strong trees, flattening them in seconds. The van was parked near a stream in a clearing but the fear of getting crushed by the trees was real. The jungle was filled with the sounds of the panicked animals. The lightning struck. We prayed for riding it out. It was like end of the world. We were ready to die. And then…”


“A most strange thing happens.”

“What is that?” I am hooked.

Prakash unspools memories, in measured tones, of the terror of that existential crisis undergone by the family, deep in the hostile forest; a bunch of folks, away from the civilization, in the womb of the deciduous forest, preparing to die any minute: “Here, I am cowering in fear. Totally distraught. Fleeing from my farms and ancestral home for good. Broken down.  Battered.  And trapped in that inaccessible woodland with deep ravines and whispering shadows and lurking predators and a killer storm…Suddenly my cell phone beeps and a message gets eerily delivered on the WhatsApp. It is striking in its immediate impact on my consciousness…almost electrifying.”

“What was that, pray?” I ask.

“I quote: ‘And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about’. It was almost supernatural, this edifying message coming as manna.”

“My God! That is classic Murakami! How come it got into your box?”

“Even I do not know. Somebody forwards that to me precisely at the moment when I am feeling very low and vulnerable, cooped up in that van, surrounded by darkness and an unexplained storm of severe intensity. All the truths taught by the democratic system turning out as lies for me at that depressing hour. No way out. Just running away from a brutal and cruel society. Then this inspiring insight pops up on my cell. Is it not weird?”

“It is.”

“I read it. Re-read it hundreds of time. And come out of my underground. After the storm subsides, at dawn, I ask my friend to return us to our village. ‘But why?’ he asks, bewildered. ‘Simple. I can run away from the goons but I cannot run away from fear. Let me return and confront the fear.’ He reluctantly agrees. We come back to that hell again.”

“Act of courage or foolishness?”

Prakash smiles. “I was no longer the same person who had walked into the storm. I was substantially altered, walking out of it. Radicalised. Scarred but changed forever! I called up few media friends and ran a campaign against the don. Social media helped galvanize that movement. The public anger started building up and soon became a national narrative of rage against the corrupt cops and don-politicians that terrorize simple folks in the third-world countries…with utter impunity. The media pressure worked. International outcry was there. Human rights agencies stepped in. People in the adjoining area, gradually, stood up against the tyrant and his thugs. The government woke up finally to the charged public opinion. The don got arrested. He is in jail. The goons were also caught. Another trial is on, in another court, in Mumbai, due to these combined developments.”

“That is so stirring! A man turning the tide, a lone man.” I say in admiration.

“You see, Salim, the most difficult part is getting up and walking out into the light.”

“How is that, Prakash?”

“Mentally and physically defeated, you tend to often give up. Then rise up again. Take unsteady steps. Sit dazed. Then, alone, you tend to re-purpose your new life, re-think a new mission, by giving the struggle, a fresh goal, a new destination.”

“Yes, you are right.” I agree.

“I wanted to revive my failing spirits. I was determined to fight for justice for father in that indifferent system. Litigation is costly and protracted process. I mortgaged my land for this cause. Hired top lawyers. Keen to fight till the end now. For me, the received truths proved to be tissue of lies. I want to prove lies as truths again and will not tolerate, in true democracy, the utter mocking of a common man by the powerful and the corrupt. Message from me, a dispossessed man can fight the corrupt system by its own weapons, and ultimately win, if not totally dismantle the citadel. Although the costs are too high, the satisfaction for standing up for truth and higher values is truly uplifting feeling. You feel vindicated by your conviction and courage to stare tyranny and injustice in the eyes. And defeat the hydra.”

My reverence grows by seconds for this slim man, taking on the thugs and the don and the rogue cops, “Yours is a real rousing story. I salute you for your innate heroism—one man standing for certain fundamental principles and not caving in to fear and terror, muscle-n-money power. Proving that democracy works.”

We become silent for few minutes. I mull over the extraordinary saga of this ordinary man and feel elevated by it.

“I learnt a life lesson from this trial by fire.” Prakash says, tone low.
“What is that, please? Want to learn.”

“When God fails, the system fails, you have to generate resources within. There is no easy way out. We have to confront the devil…and fight till finish, like the boxers in a ring. Period. But never run away.”

I say, “Absolutely correct, buddy. Very motivating, your story that mirrors thousands of such stories in a system tilting towards the rich and powerful…and the corrupt. It generates hopes in a hopeless system.”

He smiles. After few minutes, continues the thread: “Life is often full of surprises. It is not like math. Things do not turn out the way as planned. In such situations, during such deepening darkness, you have to find the internal well from where primeval life instinct leaps up in spring- torrents and animates your whole being and soul. Re-discover your centre, your anchors. Those who fail doing that often commit suicide or run away—to die incognito, in some distant place, disheartened. Another way out is drugs and early death. Not acceptable to a soldier of life.”

“Very appealing wisdom! You sound like a life coach now. A real guru.” I exclaim with pride, “I have found my real hero for the documentary.

He smiles and goes on: “Another experience. Some situations, crises, they are physical for some, metaphorical for others. Sometimes, they are both physical and metaphorical for select ones. For others, they are neither. The resigned ones. The passive.  For the active, the focal point is coming out into the light.”

“True. Very philosophical, indeed!”

“Also, there comes the most trying time when you fall silent as there are no answers to your questions from God. That is the most difficult time—the faith under trial. Prayers unheard. Certainties crashing down. And a desperate struggle to cling to some solid belief-system. For me, the most challenging phase of life.”

I absorb each word delivered with anguish by this sensitive survivor of a war unleashed by the unscrupulous men of power. The feeling of being rejected and forgotten, stripped of worth as a human and self-respect. Orbiting solo in the universe. Searching for stability, order and normalcy in a world gone mad! Traumatic!

He seems to be reading my mind and offers: “Shipwrecked. Searching for moorings in a choppy sea.”

“Very true!” I concur. He is superb in analysis and critical observations. “You have earned my respect for being so brave. A life in shambles. A man adrift. Then reassembling all the pieces! Incredible!”

We shake hands. My idea of doing a documentary on Prakash is final. Such an uplifting narrative of stoicism and optimism, in a bleak scenario!

We decide to part.

“One more interesting tid-bit, Salim.”

“What is that?”

 “You know,” Prakash says with a mischievous smile, “whenever one of my cats disappears for long, there is some crisis hitting us for sure.  Sure sign of coming tragedy!”

“Is it so? Odd, is it not?”

“Yes. And once the crisis is over, they re-appear. Strange but true!’

I am astonished by this coincidence. We linger on. Clouds begin gathering again. We then say goodbyes and decide to meet tomorrow at 1 pm, same spot. I have to film him in another three days. For that work to begin, have to write the script. My small crew is waiting in the hotel. They would be happy with this development.


At the appointed hour, next day, I reach there but find no shack, near the bent three palm trees.


How can it happen?

Where has it gone?

I get disoriented by the unreality of the thing.

Have I dreamt up the whole thing?

I search for the hut but there is no trace!

It has vanished. That spot has got only sand and some cacti.


I scout the long stretch—no coconut seller. Nothing except the expanse of sand and a beach glittering in the lazy sun of July, 2019.

Disappointed, I walk back, dragging my feet.

“Are you looking for someone special?”

Startled, I look sideways—a bespectacled man, selling tea on a wooden table in a makeshift stall, asks me in a friendly tone.

I tell him about the last-day’s encounter with the engineer turned vendor of coconuts. He says there is no such hut or such a person— for last many months.

Something about the tea-seller is intriguing. Yes. It is his voice that is very familiar.

Where have I heard this voice?

As I am about to leave for my hotel, a sudden purring sound alerts me to a brown-white cat lying curled up on the table, near the cash box.

It is the same cat I had seen the previous day! The cat of Prakash!

The fat one—with the startling streaks of yellow and white—and big eyes and whiskers.

I stand still in my tracks. And look at the unassuming tea vendor, in his early 30s, who, concerned, asks me in that familiar tone, that raspy voice: “Want some tea, mister?”

Stunned, I look at the cat. She grins and winks at me, reminding me of Alice and the Cheshire cat, in another age.

I look at the tea seller. He is reading Kafka on the Shore. The same bifocals. Over a hooked nose.

The cat meows.

The unreality of the reality can be baffling!

I am left speechless by this turn of the events; events in a freefall.

Sometimes, something cannot be rationalized.

Intuitively experienced.

Dazed, I start moving.

It starts raining suddenly, without any warning or earlier sign, in slanting torrents. Thunder claps. Massive clouds cover the sky. A heavy curtain falls. And complete darkness engulfs immediately, obscuring the beach. The whole thing looks like Rembrandt coming alive there, in real-time.

Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-freelance journalist from the suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 21 books so far, some of which are solo effors and some joint. He edits Setu:

Fiction | Sahai Sahib goes for a ‘Delhi’ party – Avantika Mehta

Jagmohan Sahai, a man born in poverty and clawing his way to riches must deal with a business partner born into ancestral wealth. When Sahai is invited to a party at his partner’s mansion, he suffers painful anxiety at the thought of being considered “provincial” by Delhi’s high society. The part becomes a minefield for Jagmohan and his wife and culminates with a hilarious disaster. In the process of becoming nouveau-riche, Jagmohan’s desperation is perfectly penned – desperation to make money, fit in, and, of course, show women their place. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

Holding a crisp one Rupee note just acquired from the bank, Jagmohan Prasanna Sahai was tickled pink. A tall-ish, stocky man, body and face the colour of desiccated hay, pink wasn’t a colour he’d often associate with himself. Today, however, was an exciting day for him and his.

“Hurry, you fool. I’ll give you the whole thing if you do.”

Bhaiya, traffic hai. Airplane nahin, Auto hai.”

Jagmohan tapped his foot against the steel floor of the auto rickshaw, which was navigating through Yamuna Nagar’s zigzagging lanes at an excruciatingly slow pace. He’d taken the auto to avoid looking disheveled when he met his business partner Sohaib. He could’ve walked the distance from his house. It seemed to him that would’ve been quicker.

“If you don’t hurry then you’ll get nothing. I’m telling you now.”

The driver floored the accelerator on his rickshaw, making the rickety vehicle speed up to all of twenty kilometers an hour. It wasn’t much, but it got him to his destination in time, just as Sohaib was pulling up in his shiny new ’87 model Ambassador.

As he hurriedly disembarked Jagmohan deposited a few paisas into the hands of the auto driver. “Where’s the rest?” cried the driver. “If you actually thought I was going to give you a whole rupee, you’re mad.” said Jagmohan, already distracted by the site before him. “But you said…”

Tearing his eyes away from the large vacant lot he’d come to assess, Jagmohan turned towards the driver. “You’re crazy to believe what everyone says, I can say I want to go to the moon and back if I want. Now fuck off or I’ll take my money back!” He took a step towards the driver, a man quarter his size in both length and breadth. Just as he expected, the driver backed down.

The driver got back into his auto rickshaw, cursing under his breath as he started up the motor. Jagmohan turned around once more, “What did you say you low life? What did you call me?” If he had been annoyed before, now he was flat out furious.

“Oye, J.P.” shouted Sohaib, distracting Jagmohan and affording the rickshaw driver an opportunity for escape. The little box on wheels backfired several times as it rushed down the road. Jagmohan watched the hasty departure disdainfully, and thought, ‘If the jerk had moved that fast on the way here, I might have given him the whole rupee!’

“Still sweating small change I see,” Sohaib said while shaking his head. “Why didn’t you just drive here? Just bought yourself the 800 haven’t you?”  And when Jagmohan didn’t answer, Sohaib added, “Didn’t want to spend the 8 rupees on fuel?” Jagmohan’s economic piety seemed to be a constant source of amusement for Sohaib.

It bothered Jagmohan when Sohaib made light of his spending — no, his saving habits. He wasn’t from an old and respected city family like Sohaib’s, whose family had settled in Delhi much before 1947. Jagmohan hadn’t lived comfortably through and after the partition in one of the huge bungalows near respected localities like Aurangzeb Road. Jagmohan’s family had been uprooted and migrated to Kurukshetra where his father had spent the last of his days tending to the small plot of land the government had given them, in lieu of the thousand Multani acres they’d been forced to abandon. Jagmohan’s inheritance had been scraped-together money, just enough to pay for engineering college in Delhi. He knew what it was like to start from scratch.

Given his circumstances, Jagmohan thought himself rather generous.

“The bloody fool was trying to cheat me,” he said defensively, “Everyone is always trying to cheat you in this city!”

Sohaib shrugged, that grin still spread over his whole face, only just camouflaged by a thick beard that covered half of it.

“What’s the point of buying a car if you’re going to break your head with auto drivers everyday, I ask!”

Jagmohan didn’t really care to answer anything Sohaib asked, he could never understand. His father had probably bought him his first car, which was definitely long forgotten by now. Sohaib’s fresh white Ambassador was parked by the side of the road; the driver, in his perfectly starched white uniform, was leaning carelessly on the hood as he waited for his master. Jagmohan wanted to shout at the driver to stand up straight, mind that he didn’t scratch the polish but Sohaib didn’t even seem to notice. Sohaib didn’t blink twice while forking out five lakhs — the amount he’d paid to buy into what was now, much to Jagmohan’s dejection, their construction company.

In front of them, was a vast flat land covering practically the whole block. Jagmohan imagined the rows of flats that would cover it soon enough and the pile of contracts such a project would bring. As if reading his mind Sohaib said, “This is just the beginning bhai. My friends in the government have promised that many such projects will come to our company.” He laid stress on the word our, which was the exact word that Jagmohan liked to blur out.

“But before all that,” said Sohaib, “for this project they’re offering thirty lakhs.” When Jagmohan opened his mouth in ready protest, Sohaib quickly added, “Out of which you’ll get to keep six, give or take expenses.”

‘Six lakhs could go far right now’, he thought. It could mean a nicer house in a more respectable locality, savings for future marriages, education. “I’ll have

to think about this… Thirty lakhs for a project as big as this one….” he spoke slowly, letting his voice taper off as if wholly dismayed.

“Well, we will have to tell them soon. We’re not the only company in the running for this. Most of them would jump on it so we can’t dilly-dally about it. Honestly I don’t even know what you’re thinking about. Seize the day J.P! Carpe Diem, my man.”

“What sort of deadline have they given?” asked Jagmohan cautiously eyeing the land; he didn’t give a shit about Carp or Ediem, and knew not what they stood for together. Then came the kicker. “Well yes, they do want the whole thing up and running by next year.”

“Next year!” cried Jagmohan whipping around to face his partner. “No bloody way we can do this in one year. Did you tell them that we could? Sohaib?” He watched his partner’s confidence crumble; it always started with a furrow by the forehead, then a sagging of the cheeks. “Just think of the labour cost alone. Sixty. At least. You tell your friend — if he is, even, your friend. Sounds to me like he’s taken you for a bloody fool”

And there it was. Sohaib’s whole face had collapsed. The man was soft, unaccustomed to standing out in the summer heat, or fighting to get his way. “Fine. Sixty lakhs then.” said Sohaib.

Jagmohan’s eyes narrowed into near slits. “That was quick. Don’t you want to talk to your friend first? Or are you keeping something from me?”

Sweat was now trickling down from under Sohaib’s turban and snaking down past his proud Ludhiayanvi nose. “Don’t be silly man!” cried Sohaib slapping one hand unto Jagmohan’s shoulder. “I just see your point.” When Jagmohan continued to glower at him, he added, “Isn’t that what my part is in our company. To take care of these little things? You focus on how to build these apartments and I’ll make sure we get paid for it.”

“Sixty lakhs is not a small thing,” muttered Jagmohan under his breath but he relaxed his stance. “Fine, fine. Tell them we’ll do it — If, and only if, they agree to our price. Tell your friend I’m not running a charity here.”

Sohaib chuckled as if he’d heard some sort of joke, “Then it’s settled. I’ll come into office with you right now and make the call.”

“You’re coming to office today? Wah!” Jagmohan had his sources of amusement too.

“You know as well as I do, JP. Business deals don’t take place in an office.”

With that, they left the site and started back towards the office. There were other matters on Jagmohan’s mind. For one, he couldn’t help but wonder if Sohaib was shorting him on the deal. Such thoughts were the reason he remained quiet during the car ride. The same could not be said of Sohaib, who prattled on about the project and how much money it would make for them in the future.

“I want to meet these officials,” said Jagmohan. “It seems only fair since we’re partners that I should meet them as well,” he added when Sohaib’s eyebrows shot up. If this demand — and indeed Jagmohan’s tone made it clear that it was more a demand than a request — bothered Sohaib in any manner, neither his face nor mannerisms betrayed it. He suggested that Jagmohan come over to his house for a dinner party his wife was throwing this Friday, which was in two days time. The official in charge of the tender was an old friend of the family’s and would also be there. It seemed as good an excuse as any and they could all meet in a sort of cordial atmosphere. “Delhi is all about being social my dear man!” was how Sohaib ended that conversation.

Jagmohan couldn’t help but wonder at the last minute invite. Surely if there was going to be a party at Sohaib’s house, Jagmohan, his business-partner, should have been one of the first to be invited. This not being the case, he wondered if Sohaib was slightly ashamed of him.

This liquid thought was made all the more concrete when Sohaib came into Jagmohan’s room in their offices later in the evening. “I spoke with Leela, she’s said yes.” Why was there any need to ask his wife?


“Will you be bringing the Mrs. and your son?” Sohaib asked him in a manner Jagmohan thought was guarded. Was he afraid that Jagmohan’s family would embarrass themselves in whatever eminent company Sohaib’s party was catering to?


“Yes. Of course. I don’t know about Shashwat, you know how children are these days. Kalavati will come with me, I’m sure.” He replied while barely looking up from the building plans he was studying. It was his way of diminishing some of the higher ground he felt Sohaib had over him at this point. After all, if the man was ever going to be a success in this business, he would need Jagmohan and he should know that.

“Good…Good…” Sohaib said distractedly, “Bring Shashwat as well, my son Bonny will be there too. They can keep each other company amongst all the old men.” Jagmohan made a noise with his throat that could be taken for affirmation and with that, Sohaib went home for the day.

As was his habit after his partner left the office, Jagmohan pattered about the small space for a few hours by himself. Usually, he checked the work sheets, the accounts, some days he even checked Sohaib’s papers, as the man never locked the door to his room. Today he walked back and forth the two hundred square feet in agitation.

He felt consumed with irritation at Sohaib’s last minute invite. If he thought about it, Jagmohan could not remember ever visiting Sohaib’s home or meeting his wife. Had he been younger he would have imagined such small details did not matter but these last years in the city had taught him better. Sohaib’s words haunted him — “Business deals aren’t made in offices.”


Before going home, Jagmohan decided to take a detour to Chandini Chowk market. The familiar smell of cow dung, sweat, and sugary jalebees calmed his mind a little, but not entirely. Usually he would have stopped to indulge in a deep-fried radish-stuffed parantha, or some pomegranate juice. There was no dearth of delicious food stalls in the nimble lanes that snake through the market. But today his goal was different. He looked around for what seemed to be the largest and most expensive clothing store. He immediately knew which one to go into from the displays outside — the one with the most gold ornaments and zari work on their saris. Such was the opulence of this shop that it seemed to yell that whoever bought its wares had declared themselves to have ‘arrived’. This was exactly the sort of message Jagmohan wanted to convey.

It was late when he finally reached home. Shashwat, who at his father’s insistence was preparing for medical school entrance exams, had already gone to bed. Only Kalavati was waiting, sitting crossed legged on a sofa in the small living room that also doubled as their dining room and kitchen. For the first time Jagmohan felt as if his house were suffocating.

She had probably been watching for him through the window. Even as Jagmohan came through the door, Kalavati got up to ready dinner for him. “You’re late today,” she said rather than asked. Women like Kalavati would never ask anything of their spouses, or so Jagmohan thought.

They had been together twenty years now. Twenty years, in which time her body had filled out from the slender pear shape it used to be to resemble the over ripe mango it now was. He nodded and grunted at her, no explanations were needed. He glanced towards dinner. Yellow lentils, oily cauliflower soaked in turmeric, and a stack of thick rotis; same as any other day and on any other day it would satisfy him. Tonight it left him wanting. If someone had asked him, what for? Jagmohan, whose only dietary variation was that some days Kalavati switched the cauliflower for potatoes,  would not be able to answer. So perhaps it was a good thing that Kalavati hadn’t yet developed the habit of asking questions.

As he sank down on a dining chair and the packages slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor. He picked them up carefully but then threw the packages on the dining table and toward Kalavati. He watched as she merely shoved them aside and went about her usual supervision of his every bite, filling his glass with water, giving him that look she gave whenever he came home late, half approbation — at him, half pity — at herself. Nevertheless, she’d been raised properly; she kept spooning thickly cut slices of cucumber and onions onto his plate, her mother had taught her that it helped aid a man’s digestion.

But was she stupid? She couldn’t really think that the package, tied with a golden gauze bow that had taken the shopkeeper almost five minutes to perfect, was meant for him. He brought back gifts for her often enough — thread so she could mend his shirt, plums and guavas when he could get them cheap.

Arrey, look at least, they’re for you, silly woman!” cried Jagmohan, only after his hunger was satisfied and not before. He enjoyed this time with his wife. Not that he’d ever admit it to her. “Or should I take it back? I guess you don’t want new clothes.”

Kalavati’s lips spread out into a toothy smile. “For me?” she said with no little amount of incredulity. Immediately she grabbed the bags, as if terrified that he would act upon his threat to return them.

“Of course for you. You see any other women around here?” he replied and then said somewhat grudgingly, “Be careful. Don’t lose or tear anything. I don’t have money for replacements.”

Kalavati was barely listening. Her hands were greedily tugging the ribbon loose, tearing at the brown paper packaging, and her eyes wide with excitement. When she unfolded the length of the sari, however, she did so judiciously.

“It’s beautiful! I love it!” She stood up, and held the clothe against her body. The sari Jagmohan chose, after no small amount of thought and convincing by the shopkeeper, was made of chiffon; burgundy just like his 800; with tiny gold, tinsel stars embroidered on the paper-thin fabric. Against Kalavati’s olive complexion, its colour took on an intense hue. He was pleased with his good taste and so beamed as much as his wife.

“Careful!” he warned her again and so gently Kalavati placed it back unto the brown paper packaging, though most of it was torn now. Silently, and with undying dimpled cheeks, she filled his empty glass with water.

“You’ll need a blouse and all that to go with it,” he said and she nodded excitedly. “That Mrs. Gonde, she knows a good tailor, she’s always saying. I’ll go over the weekend.”

Jagmohan shook his head, “No, No. You have to wear it on Friday, this Friday,” and then to answer Kalavati’s questioning eyes he told her as little about Sohaib’s party as he possibly could. He left out the parts about the contract and his thoughts of the day. Those were not matters to be discussed with wives.

“Just get something made quickly. But look nice. I don’t want people wondering who this villager is, who’s walked in with me!” Kalavati’s smile dwindled ever so slightly but she remained, as she was taught to be, soundless. She stroked the featherweight material of the sari and played with the gold star embroidery.

Over the next two days Jagmohan prepared himself on dual fronts. Arrangements had to be made for the project Sohaib and him were about to embark on. He spent a great deal of time crunching numbers and familiarising himself with the ins-and-outs of the deal. This didn’t stop him from fretting about the party. So high-strung was he on the subject that Shashwat commented that he was behaving like a woman. This earned him a good boxing on the ears, for Jagmohan wasn’t averse to doling out corporal punishment as and when he deemed it necessary.

For his part, Shashwat was not wrong. Jagmohan harangued his family on the proper protocol for such high-class affairs, as he put it. Kalavati was told to speak as little as possible since she knew no English and Jagmohan had the presentiment that speaking in any other language would make them seem provincial. Shashwat was taken to the market to fit him for a proper collared shirt and a pair of new black shoes.

So it happened that Friday came before Jagmohan even realized, and as his family got ready that night, for all his planning and plotting, he felt unprepared and thus tremendously insecure. Even as he turned the ignition of his Maruti, which had been washed and polished by Shashwat for the occasion, he reminded Kalavati to stay near him and checked to see if their clothes were in order. His wife and son underwent his inspections with little complaint, at least none that were voiced.

Jagmohan’s fretting only gained traction when they reached Sohaib’s home — which was less of a house and more of a mansion. An old but straight-backed guard in a primly starched uniform let them through the mammoth wrought-iron gates. A white Ambassador had arrived just before them. The government plates on it suggested that it belonged to Sohaib’s contact, whom he was supposed to meet that night.

Excited to see whom he was to deal with, Jagmohan followed the car through the driveway and till the front entryway. The man who alighted from it looked to be well over-sixty, balding, and dressed in white kurtapajamas. There was little adornment to him, which comforted Jagmohan temporarily till he noticed the fat diamond gleaming audaciously on the man’s petite pinky finger.

Another uniform clad guard approached Jagmohan’s car. He held the door open for Jagmohan and then held out his hand for the car-keys. No servant was going to park his precious car, and no amount of insistence could convince Jagmohan otherwise. The guard told him how to reach the back of the house where all the other cars were parked. In the driveway stood several imported cars, all of them with drivers waiting by their side. The Maruti now seemed not so impressive. As they trudged to the front of the house, which was built to resemble a Mughal palace, Kalavati clung to Jagmohan’s hand.

Sohaib’s house was even more impressive from within. The three of them were led through the long corridor, their footsteps echoing on the pristine marble flooring. On either side the walls were covered with oil paintings of proud, tall Sikhs in full battle garb. Jagmohan guessed they were ancestral portraits. If the haughty stares frozen in these frames weren’t enough to make him feel small, entering the living room where the entire party had gathered convinced him that they were not ready for Delhi society in the least.

There were ten people standing about the living room in total. Men and women in equal number and the party seemed divided by gender. Men standing by the mahogany bar or sitting on the plush leather stools placed by it and the women perched daintily on sofas by the raw silk curtains. The room spoke of luxury without screaming it. The framed art on the wall, an elegant black-marble fireplace (which in these moments of summer heat was not being used) Kashmiri carpets, filigree lace table runners – all whispered about it.

With the exception of the older man that Jagmohan had seen entering before him, the rest of the men were dressed in their weekend best; shirts with crisp collars and satin scarves tucked into them. He could not see Sohaib but almost as soon as they entered, a pretty woman in a pastel apricot coloured sari approached them.

Her smile was malleable and her eyes almost as hard as the diamonds that dripped from her wrists and ears. Jagmohan held Kalavati’s hand to stop her from self-consciously playing with the gold bangles she had on. These were the very best that Jagmohan could afford but now they looked nugatory. He squeezed her hand to show support as she pressed herself closer to him, almost hiding behind him. The room fell into a momentary silence when they entered as if everyone was accessing the newcomers.

Out of nowhere came Sohaib and greeted them with exaggerated gusto. Introductions were made. Leela looked at Kalavati from head to toe in a disconcerted manner. “What a lovely sari!” she exclaimed in a way that suggested she was too polite to say otherwise. When Kalavati’s blank expression gave away her ignorance of the Queen’s language, Leela repeated the same in Hindi. Taking the hand that Kalavati wasn’t using to hang onto Jagmohan, Leela led her, like one would lead a child, toward the rest of the women who all looked at her with the same, muted disdain.

Kalavati, looking very much the sacrificial lamb smiled bravely at Jagmohan who found that he felt surprisingly lost without a wife’s hand to hold unto. “You should have told me it was such a big party, we didn’t realise and have come quite casually dressed,” he said. Laughing, Sohaib threw his arms around both Jagmohan and Shashwat to drag them towards the bar.

Standing at the bar, Jagmohan assessed the pack of men that had congregated around it. Each holding a highball filled with amber liquid in one hand and several with lit cigarettes in the other. When offered a drink — “Have a Scotch, man.” — Jagmohan confessed to being a teetotaler and pointed to the recent deaths in Karnataka in support of his choice. Ascending chimes of laughter let him know what an unheard of idea that was, “That was Karnataka!” said one portly man, “This is Delhi and this is Sohaib’s house. It’s all imported yaar. I can bet my life on it.” He took a generous swig from his glass to prove his point.

The conversation amongst the men ranged from the latest sporting activities to the upheavals in politics. After a while, Shashwat and Bonny disappeared, no doubt similarly bored of the company of old men. Jagmohan hoped that his son wouldn’t try and surreptitiously smoke the cigarettes, which he thought his father was clueless about.

Meanwhile growing impatient to speak to the official as Sohaib had promised, more than once Jagmohan tried to nudge his business partner and each time he was rebuffed, “Arrey J.P., later, later. This isn’t how one does business. Let the man enjoy himself. Enjoy yourself, have a drink. The business will take care of itself.” Any attempt of Jagmohan’s to speak privately with the official, who had been introduced to him as Patelji, was also negated by Sohaib who seemed to be watching his partner with hawk’s eyes.

It then occurred to Jagmohan that if he wasn’t going to get some work out Patelji then he might try to find productive means elsewhere, or amongst the other men at the party. He knew from his introductions that these were all men of means. Not that he needed such preambles or knowledge of family trees to make that out. He had right before his eyes, (and he was the sort of man who saw everything when it suited him) evidence in the form of heavy bejeweled watches and the cavalier manner in which they discussed the collapse of the Rupee. “Anyone who’s smart has invested in gold by now,” sneered the same portly man, whose name Jagmohan had learnt was Surjeevan Rai. He was the owner of several woodwork showrooms and residential plots around Delhi.

Jagmohan’s ears perked up, and immediately he began to press Rai for a good contact from where to procure gold. “The best are the Saudis,” he was told in a way that also informed him that this was not confidential information; it was something everyone knew. Certainly everyone gathered at this party seemed to know for they nodded in ready agreement. “I have my man in Dubai, I don’t know how he does it but you can call on him for any amount you need or want, he sends it through the hawala system. Prompt too!”

Upon hearing this, Jagmohan started to work on Rai. Where did he find this man? Was there any way for Jagmohan to contact him? Of course, there was, but Rai wasn’t particularly helpful. In fact, his information grew shadowy once intruded by Jagmohan’s probing, which wasn’t light or casual by any stretch of imagination. Eventually Sohaib had to interject the twosome’s conversation and thus it was steered towards the latest movies. Jagmohan hadn’t seen Lawaaris yet, though everyone else seemed to have. When questioned as to why and still stinging from what he considered Sohaib’s untimely interjection he said, “I just haven’t found the time. Some of us have to work for a living you see.”

The pointed and bitter accusation bought him a few minutes of joy, if only because it allowed him to vent for that time. The party lapsed into a brief silence at his comment, everyone watched him with displeasure as they sipped from their heavy crystal glasses. This was when Shashwat and Bonny returned from the garden.

“Have you seen Lawaaris my boy?” Rai asked him as he approached. To this Shashwat, with no idea of what had unfolded in his absence, nodded delightedly, “It’s a wonderful film isn’t it? I saw it just a few days ago, with a friend.”

“Oh, a friend. Do you mean a lady friend?” inquired Sohaib gleefully. Jagmohan pursed his lips and crossed his arms over his chest. “Shashwat doesn’t have time for lady friends at this age. He’s in medical school, I’m going to make him a surgeon.” That his son was not entirely comfortable with these plans was obvious to everyone surrounding them but for Jagmohan, Shashwat’s education and future potential were a matter of deep pride- As evident from the twinkle in his eyes as Shashwat’s reluctance to participate was from his silence.

“Oh but everyone needs a lady in their life,” interjected, rather suddenly, the voice of Leela. Her voice sounded as amused as she looked, it seemed she’d been listening to the discussion for some time. “Surely you wouldn’t deny your son some happiness in his life.” Turning to Shashwat she continued, “Who is this lady friend? Tell us about her, Dear. Is she pretty?”

That there was indeed an illicit friendship hidden in the folds of Shashwat’s life and away from his father’s eyes was confirmed by the sudden onslaught of ruddy colour on the young man’s cheeks. “Well…” he began nervously though smiling, but he wasn’t allowed to complete the sentence. “Not meaning to disrespect madam,” interrupted Jagmohan, “but it’s not any of your business how I raise my son.” He gave Shashwat a look daring him to defy, which the boy didn’t. Then pointing towards Bonny, who was helping himself to some Scotch, Jagmohan added, “Anyway I hardly think your son is the best example.”

Once again the group fell into an uncomfortable silence. Only the giggling of the women on the sofas by the corner of the room, who were neither in ear-shot of what was being said nor did they care to participate, was audible. Leela looked as if she had more to say. Jagmohan prepared for a standoff, though he would have been surprised to be in one. He had, after all, correctly informed this woman of her place.

Then as quickly as the tension had arisen it was broken by Sohaib’s laughing voice, “My, my, I must watch it. Let me not have to choose between my business partner and my wife. Come now dear man, she was only joking. Wasn’t she?” He said this last question while staring meaningfully at Leela, who immediately transformed the expression of irritation on her face into one of complacency.

“Of course, I didn’t mean to interfere Jagmohanji. I was just thinking it’d be a shame for your boy to be alone. He is after all, so handsome. I just came here to tell you men that dinner is served. Please, come to the dining table.” she said gesturing towards a built-in enclave from where the smell of roasted meats and fresh bread wafted towards them.

Jagmohan didn’t reply in kind, he was still annoyed. The husbands made their way towards their respective wives, to escort them to the table. Sohaib hung back with Leela while Jagmohan walked to where Kalavati was sitting by herself.

It had been no more than an hour since they had arrived at the party but from Kalavati’s haggard face one might have thought decades had passed. Jagmohan knew the expression well —she was famished. He, too, been nervous the whole day and as a result of that, neither had eaten a bite. The aroma coming from the dining area played havoc on Jagmohan’s senses; his mouth watered, his stomach thundered and a maelstrom of hunger threatened to sweep him off his feet. With a gentle nod, he helped her up from the sofa and took her towards the round dining table, also made from mahogany.

Everyone sat in pairs, as god and the hostess had intended. The latter’s design made apparent by dainty name cards nestled in the swan shaped napkins. Jagmohan sat next to Kalavati, opposite Sohaib and Leela. Shashwat was placed next to his father. Much to Jagmohan’s chagrin, Patelji sat by Sohaib’s left and Rai by Kalavati’s. How could he talk business to them now?

It was this thought that was racing like mice through Jagmohan’s mind when a delicate china plate topped with an equally delicate, charred carcass of a small bird was placed before him. Other sides such as potatoes that had been creamed out of any discernible shape and green salad with large, uncut and oily leaves were already sitting on the table. Presumably the sides were for communal use while everyone got individual plates with a dead bird on it.

Kalavati was delighted. “Titar!” she whispered excitedly to Jagmohan. “Ah! roasted Pheasant!” came another happy sigh from right next to her. Mr. Rai’s eyes were sparkling with an extra voltage now. Leela smiled in a gratified manner as if she could not have wished for more apposite praise. “Sohaib hunted them himself Mr. Rai. There’s hundreds at our farm you know.”

Everyone on the table made suitable sounds to indicate how impressed they were. Jagmohan would have too, but he was busy giving Kalavati a look of pointed admonition. She’d picked up the pheasant with her hands, as she had so many times in her village. She was just about to sink her teeth into a muscle-filled area that she knew would be sweet and soft, when Jagmohan’s elbow poked her hard in the ribs! “OW!” she yelped, unceremoniously dropping the bird back into her plate.

She gave her husband a questioning look and also, he saw, a silent entreaty — ‘Let me eat in peace.’ This was not to be the case however. Silver forks and knives had been laid out next to every place setting. Jagmohan was holding up his pair so she’d see the proper way to eat here. The cutlery was heavy; silver with ornate carvings around the handles. Kalavati turned the fork over to admire the work. These were larger and infinitely more beautiful than the steel set she’d bought with her dowry, used still in the Sahai house.

Jagmohan felt the weight of Leela’s horror at Kalavati’s blatant obliviousness. Beautiful or not, she had no idea what to do with this cutlery; she’d never used either before to cut through meat on the bone and Jagmohan was painfully aware of this. With the deliberate and slow actions of a mime, he showed his wife how to place the knife in her left hand and the fork in her right. She watched as he made exaggerated gestures of securing the bird with his fork and cut a bite for himself with the knife. He jerked his head to indicate that she should follow suit. She did as was expected of her but it was clearly a struggle.

The bird was roasted to a much tougher consistency that either was accustomed to, and Kalavati miscalculated the precise pressure point at which to start. Jagmohan watched, mortified, as the dead bird flew right out of his wife’s plate, did a brief pirouette in the air and plopped loudly into the bowl of mashed potatoes. Leela’s delicate sari was ignobly splattered with a generous helping. Much more than the tiny toothsome of buttery purée that she’d daintily served herself.

The entire incidence must have taken seconds but for the Jagmohan, it lasted a lifetime. Silence followed. Kalavati’s eyes grew saucer-like with horror; Jagmohan remained speechless, all the while looking to and fro between Kalavati and Leela. The latter could have dissipated the tension with the smallest of smiles but none seemed forthcoming. The quiet was finally broken when some of the mash, which had landed on Leela’s neat and shiny hair, fell onto the table, and leaving a trail of potato pulp on the left side of her face. Then, a loud booming laughter was heard.

Jagmohan turned towards the sound to see that it was Mr. Rai who was convulsing over, holding his belly. His mouth stretched out in an expression of uncontrollable mirth and his eyes flashing more than ever. Sohaib hastily joined in and shortly after the entire party mimicked these two men.

“Please don’t worry about it!” Leela assured Kalavati who was already mid-profuse-apologies; only a hint of half-heartedness could be heard in her tone as she got up from the table to clean herself up. Mr. Rai wiped the tears rolling down his face as he turned towards Jagmohan, whose heart was filled with the nauseating feeling of humiliation.

“Please madam, don’t worry too much about it. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen.” When he noticed Leela’s annoyed expression, he laughed some more and continued talking to Kalavati, “It’s not your fault at all. The cutlery set here is all wrong, too big for such a small bird! Leela, of all people, should know!”

As if the irony was too heavy for him, Rai doubled over in another fit of laughter. This time Sohaib didn’t join in, but he didn’t venture a defense for his wife’s service sensibilities either.  The little respect Jagmohan had for Sohaib was eroded by this tactical muteness.  Yet, when Leela came back from cleaning herself up, face washed spotless and hair made slick by water; Jagmohan found himself taking on a similar role. “I’m so sorry about my wife!” said he, before Leela had so much as a chance to sit herself back on the table. Shashwat glared at his father, but Jagmohan knew not why.

After that, dinner was eaten in near silence, only occasional small talk was made. For all his previously raging appetite, Jagmohan barely touched his plate. Fearing repercussions and a repetition of her misadventure, Kalavati followed suit. Only Shashwat ate hurriedly — appetites of young men are barely affected by brief embarrassments. Once the last of the dessert, an extremely English trifle, was polished off, Sohaib invited the men into the garden for cigars. “Genuine Havanas boys!” Jagmohan and Shashwat were the only ones who declined.

The women returned to their sofa seating and gossip, accompanied this time, with some coffee and mini-chocolates and Jagmohan. Shashwat tottered around his mother, who wore a morose expression as she watched Jagmohan’s continued apologies to Leela. Yet, he thought, what else could he do?

When Jagmohan saw Shashwat sneak out, he knew instantly it was to smoke a cigarette behind his father’s back. Another one who would humiliate him? Unable to stomach anymore, he quickly excused himself to follow his son.

He’d only just exited from the drawing room door that led into the grounds; he could see Shashwat’s back slightly ahead of him. Shashwat, too, was still hidden from the group of men by lack of lighting at the entrance of the lawn. “Really Sohaib, where do you find these guys?” Jagmohan heard a male voice, which he could not yet identify, say.

He knew Sohaib’s deep chuckle though and heard his partner say, “Arrey he’s an excellent worker Patelji. You’ll see. Those apartments will be made in less than a year and for half the estimated cost. Good for you and good for us! They’re new, raised on that desi ghee. They’ll grow into Delhi, you’ll see.”

“Still,” replied the voice he now knew as the government official he’d wanted to impress. “His wife and son are okay but what a boorish, obnoxious man he is!” All the men broke into a gale of laughter. Jagmohan’s cheeks burned, stinging as much as his pride. Before Shashwat could turn around and see him standing there, Jagmohan quickly retreated back inside.

Later when the party broke up, and during the entire ride back home, Jagmohan lectured Kalavati. Pontificating about the importance of table manners he said to her, “You embarrassed me tonight! Just like I was afraid you would.” There was nothing Jagmohan could say to drown out the memory of the condescending laughter he’d heard coming from Sohaib’s garden. In the rearview mirror, he caught sight of Shashwat’s expression — disappointed for and by his father.

~ The End ~

Avantika is the founder of ‘The Ladies Compartment’ (TLC); and a Winner of Women’s Economic Forum 2019 Iconic Woman Making the World Better Award. Her bylines have appeared or is forthcoming in: Hindustan Times,, IndiaSpends, QZ, Business Standard, Vogue India, Bennett- Coleman, The Sunday Guardian, Tehelka Magazine, Legally India, Live Law, Brown Paper Bag etc. Fiction published in Asia Literary Review, Out of Print Magazine.

Fiction | Procrastination – Alok A. Khorana

Exhaustion drives a surgical resident to what many would consider criminal behavior. In a bid to avoid reprimand and unsavory consequences, Aamir convinces a homeless patient to cover for his negligence, leave a wound uncleaned for a week, and tries to make his patient disappear. This story promises to raise eyebrows and leaves the reader with some confusion about who to blame. – Shreya, The Bombay Review

            You – you, Aamir, no-not-the-movie-star-just-named-after-him, lowest person on the surgical residency totem pole, lackey of the surgical unit, drudge, grunt, lickspittle, slothful ignoramus– you, on only the twenty-second day of the first year of your surgical residency, begin this succession of screw-ups.

            You can’t claim that you didn’t know better. Even a medical student on first surgical rotation knows you have to be error-free on Monday morning rounds with your senior residents and Unit Professor: every overnight problem has to have a solution, every preoperative workup has to be complete, every wound has to be debrided, every dressing has to be done perfectly. If you fail at even one task, your senior residents lose face. And if your seniors lose face, they’ll make sure you don’t scrub in on the next several major surgeries. And if you don’t scrub in during those first few months, you’re labeled inexperienced and who wants an inexperienced first-year to assist on the “real” operations? You might as well commit to a lifetime of hernia repairs now and leave all the “real” surgeries to the “real” surgeons.

You know all this. Yet, on only the twenty-first night of your training, tired and post-call, you give in and sneak in an hour of sleep. You don’t just fall asleep, tired – you deliberately, consciously, decide that you are tired, find an empty patient bed, set an alarm for one hour on your cheap imitation black Casio wristwatch and fall into a restful sleep for that amount of time.

It hits you, of course, when you wake up in a daze to the low-key beep-beep sounds emanating from your left wrist. Your heart swells with an impending sense of doom as you mentally catalog how much is still left to do: write all your notes, incise and drain two patients with particularly pregnant abscesses, and, worst of all, debride and re-apply dressings on all the chronic wound patients under your care.

            As the early hours of morning tick-tock into dawn and you re-run your mental checklist, your desperation mounts. You have managed to scribble half-hearted notes- you’ll get into trouble for the quality later, but at least they are done. You’ve drained the two abscesses – it took up more time than you had originally budgeted for, but your seniors won’t know or care as long as the tasks are accomplished. But as the sun starts to peek from behind the tops of the century-old banyan trees outside your government-run hospital and the morning-shift nurses begin to cheerfully stream in, you realize exactly how costly that one-hour error has been: you now have less than thirty minutes to remove dressings on, debride and re-bandage five chronic wound patients. Impossible, you whisper to yourself. A feeling of irrevocable blunder makes it hard to breathe- in less than a month into your first-year training, you will have missed making the deadline for wound dressings by rounding time. Why, just one of them – Syedbhai, the homeless pavement-dwelling beggar with a massive cricket-ball size ulcer on his forearm, gooey with resistant bacterial pus – will take at least twenty minutes.

            Unless. Unless you buy yourself time by simply wrapping a fresh set of bandages over the original, and save the actual cleaning and debridement for later. (You will claim later, when you are safely a senior and able to brag in front of obsequious juniors hanging onto your every word that this was your own idea but rumors of such “shortcuts” have circulated for years). If you do it just for the worst wound, you get an extra twenty minutes to do the other wound debridments properly. And Syedbhai – homeless, family-less and grateful for a bed to sleep in – is the least likely to get you in trouble. You tell yourself that there is no real harm done here- you’ll get to it later in the day and he will be simply delayed by a few hours in getting his wound cleaned. Of course, this plan needs the patient’s active cooperation – one slip of his tongue and you will be exiled for longer than your Hindu colleagues’ favorite Lord Rama himself.

You adopt the swaggering, bullying gait of your seniors as you walk over to Syedbhai’s cot in the verandah of your ward. Your tired but healthy frame towering over him as he looks up at you, simultaneously fearful and pleased at the attention. He pauses mid-breakfast, scrawny body scrunched over the chipped plate. His head is bigger than his ribbed torso as he ingratiatingly looks up at you. You find yourself adept at persuasion that first day- telling him how you want to do a really, really good job and today’s dressing will just have to wait until later, but if he insists you will do it now. Syedbhai agrees, as he knows he must, although he manages to win an extra meal in his negotiations. You hold your breath during rounds as the group pauses at his bed but the patient doesn’t complain and neither your seniors nor your Professor ask to look at the wound.

            This could still have been a one-time mistake, a temporary blip in your efficiency. But you compound the error by letting the day pass without cleaning Syed’s wound. Procrastination always was your weakness, you were well-known as a student for turning in projects at the last minute although somehow you managed to always pull it off. Looking back, you know that afternoon was your one chance to get back on track but you passed on it. Syed reminds you, of course, but you placate him with a cup of chai and win another reprieve – this one for twelve hours, before tomorrow’s rounds. The next morning, however, a perforated appendicitis upsets the schedule and rounds are canceled- you put off wound cleaning again, now into Tuesday afternoon. A “VIP” patient’s urgent admission for an incarcerated hernia alters your day once more, and you end up putting off cleaning and again simply re-bandage the wound Wednesday morning. By Thursday you are actively avoiding Syed, sneaking him off to unnecessary X-rays right in the middle of rounds so none of your seniors see him. The long week runs into Friday, then Saturday, when he starts up with high fevers – the infected ulcer, now buried under two inches of “fresh” bandages, is likely gushing antibiotic-resistant bacteria into his bloodstream, You catch your senior resident at Syed’s bedside in the middle of the day, looking at him worryingly. He asks if you’ve been diligent in cleaning his wound through the week. Luckily for you, the exchange is in English so Syed is unable to understand. Although even if he had understood, by now he is too sick – frail body shaken by chills and rigors and drenched in sweats – to really participate in a conversation. You reply in the affirmative, obviously, but it takes all the limited acting skills you can muster to hide your panic when you’re told to prepare him for surgery “first thing Monday”.

            This is when you realize that you’ve gotten in over your head, and seek advice. The only person you can trust is another first-year, a former classmate of yours. He listens patiently, then shoots down your admittedly desperate idea of a stealth operation on Sunday. A week without wound care – you sisterfucker, there are probably maggots crawling under those layers of bandages. You swallow hard, silently cursing yourself for basically committing career suicide, imagining your parents’ reaction if you get kicked out of residency – the shame, the ignominy. Your friend offers the only way out. Get rid of him. If there’s no patient Monday morning and he didn’t die, it can’t be your fault. Patients come and go all the time. Bursts of practical advice lead to a plan. Put him on the train to the next city, he can go to the hospital there. They’re better equipped than we are, its best for him. Make sure you use a goods train, not a passenger train. The passengers will smell the infected wound and not let him on. Ask the ward boy for help, he’s done worse things for residents before. Don’t give him too much, you’ll raise his fees for all of us.

            You approach the “ward boy” – really, a balding middle-aged government employee with a paunch and a scraggly mustache, but old British terms die hard – with the plan. You are hesitant at first, but the ward boy doesn’t bat an eyelash at what you are asking him to do. He is more interested in negotiating his “fee”. He asks for two hundred and fifty rupees but, mindful of your friend’s advice, you negotiate it down to two hundred. The ward boy goes over the train schedule and the two of you settle on the train departing early Sunday morning at six o’clock – you should be out by five o’clock, when most patients and their families are asleep and there are far fewer nurses.

            The plan goes well early that Sunday. The ward boy loads Syed onto a stretcher and brings him down to a waiting rickshaw, driven by a “friend”. Another seventy-five rupees for the friend, negotiated up from fifty after the driver smells the wound, but you are too nervous to argue. You follow them on your scooter. At the railway station, the rickshaw driver and the ward boy magically procure a wheeled rusty metal stretcher, placing an uncomfortable and weakly protesting Syed onto it. You had placed another fresh bandage over the last one before you left the hospital, but the stench from his wound is nauseatingly unmistakable. You shush the patient as you walk alongside, telling him how you’re arranging for him to be transferred to a different hospital for better treatment. Syed resignedly accepts your words at face value, his sickly body shivering on the cold metal stretcher as the two men push it up the incline and onto the open air platform.

            The three of you walk alongside the stretcher toward the sloped end of the concrete platform. The rust-colored goods train is already there, carriages extending past the edge of the concrete down the tracks. You and the ward boy had planned this final step last night – deciding to place Syed in one of the half-empty goods carriages after the train starts to leave so he doesn’t scream and draw attention to himself until it’s too late. The last thing you want is for Syed to be discovered. Someone this sick would be sent right to your government hospital and, if he recovered, would he have a story to tell.

            It’s been a while since you were at the railway station but little seems to have changed.  Your gaze runs over the familiar sights as you wait for the engine driver to signal departure – the same old open tracks, large rats scurrying between them, the paan-stained walls, hawkers selling chai to early morning travelers. The television sets appear new – large, dusty sets enclosed in rusted black cages, hanging from the ceiling along the length of the platform. Just as you hear the clocks chime six, the screen closest to you flickers to life. In most public spaces, morning programming is confined to classical morning raagas, but the railway employee running the show this morning seems to have other ideas. Madhuri Dixit’s ethereal beauty graces the soot-smudged screen as the familiar opening tremolo from her hit new song Mera dil bhi kitna paagal hai, my heart is so mad interrupts the quietness of daybreak. The stretcher comes to a complete halt, as all three of you look upward, transfixed watching the disabled poet played by Sanjay Dutt limp on crutches next to Madhuri in the morning mists of the Himalayan foothills. Too shy to tell her character how much he loves her, wishing she knew him to be the anonymous poet whose verses she adores and sings. My heart is so mad, even as it loves you, Sanjay Dutt mouths, whenever you come in front of me, it fears to tell the truth. Even Syed feebly props himself up on the stretcher with his rigoring good arm to get a better look, empathizing with the handicapped hero silently in love with the heroine the whole country is in love with. No matter how much I tell my heart, no matter how much I try to make it understand, it’s naïve, it’s innocent, it doesn’t comprehend, all day and night it sighs in anguish…

            The horn from the engine rudely interrupts the music as the train driver signals pedestrians and hawkers to clear the tracks. Slowly, majestically, ponderously, the carriages start to roll forward. The rhythmic clanking of metal wheels on metal tracks is your starting whistle. You nod quickly at the ward boy and the rickshaw driver. The three of you get the stretcher rolling down the slope at the end of the platform, parallel to the slow-moving carriages on the tracks just as Syed finally realizes what is going on and opens his mouth to protest. Ignoring his cries for help, you grab Syed by the shoulders while the ward boy yanks him up by his feet and the rickshaw driver keeps the stretcher moving – a makeshift relay team of sorts. You swing his body between the three of you, picking up momentum with each swing, getting ready to launch him through the half-open side-door of the carriage.

It’s only the twenty-eighth day of the first year of your surgical residency and, yes, you have screwed up, but you didn’t get this far by accident – you are smart, you are resourceful, you are hard-working, and by God you will fix this procrastination problem right now.

Alok is a physician currently based in Cleveland, Ohio, USA  but originally from Gujarat, India. His prior narrative works have been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Annals of Internal Medicine and Health Affairs, anthologized in Narrative Matters and included in the Best American Medical Writing 2009.

Fiction | Aral – Tushar Jain

 A brilliant, precocious girl, deemed accursed by her father, grows up to become a celebrated writer and creates a life with everything to live for. Jain gives us plenty to be optimistic about with his heroine until she is struck by a debilitating illness that renders her paralyzed. A rags-to-riches-to-death story crafted with subtlety and perfect pace, Jain’s handiwork leaves us all with a lump in our throats that will not disappear for days. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

Aral is born with nine toes instead of ten. The odd number displeases her father. In the village, nine is the number of the witch, the demon, the cursed. From the day she is born, her father distances himself from her. Nothing good can come of nine toes, he grumbles. The girl is marked, he says. Ill fate will follow her like a shadow, he rages. His wife listens quietly and tends to Aral in her lap. She isn’t that concerned about the nine toes. She worries more that Aral is dark like her father. Darker. A groom will be hard to find.

Aral is three when her brother pushes her off a cot on the terrace of their small house. Her head finds the floor before her hands can. By the time her panicked mother picks the wailing child off the ground, she knows the wound will scar. In the evening, when Aral’s father returns home, he doesn’t react much to the bandaged head of his young daughter. He looks at the child coiled up next to her mother, glances briefly at her feet, and then, walks into the bedroom.

Aral’s mother worries. What is wrong with this child? She catches her six year old daughter staring at a wall for hours. The bare, tattered wall holds the girl in thrall. She’s seen Aral look at everything so wondrously that it’s worried her out of sleep. What’s so spectacular about a mynah? A mirror? Is the child dull? Aral looks at a wildflower and laughs. She talks to her shadow. She catches and releases butterflies over and over. Smiles at the puddles of color in their wings.

When Aral comes home with a letter from the school, her mother grows anxious. Aral’s brother has never come home with one. What has this nine year old troublemaker done? When she pulls Aral’s ear, the girl begins to cry her innocence. I’ve done nothing, she shrieks. To settle the matter, to end the suspense that has begun to press against her chest, Aral’s mother hurries to her neighbor. Gangalata may be a nag and reek of fish but she can read.

The letter is brief. Aral’s mother has been called to the school for a meeting, Gangalata says ominously. Called for a ‘meeting’? repeats Aral’s mother, dabbing at her perspiring brow with her chunni. She returns home and tries to harry the truth out of the child. I’ve done nothing, Aral insists again.

The next day, Aral’s mother arrives at the school after hours. She’s dressed in her best suit, but is a bundle of nerves sitting across the much younger, sprightly, slim-waisted teacher. Aral’s teacher, Miss Nathmohan, smiles warmly and asks Aral to leave the room while she talks to her mother. Aral glares at everything in her way as she stalks out.

So many words assault Aral’s mother. Brilliant. Precocious. Gifted. Prodigy. Aral’s mother makes little sense of what is said. Pieces of paper are pushed in front of her to survey. Though she cannot make out what’s written there, she recognizes the precise, natty script of her daughter’s handwriting. The teacher is babbling, gushing. She finishes, dramatically, in a word in which she appears to lose her breath. Extraordinary, the teacher says, curling both her hands into fists. By now, Aral’s mother knows her daughter isn’t in trouble. And that is enough.

Rumors rustle amongst the young of the village. All the twelve-year-olds know. On Sunday nights, the teenagers gather at the dilapidated shack next to the peepul. There, they do things. What things they do, Aral doesn’t know. But she does know that all her friends have been to the notorious shack at one time or the other. They have done these things. Every time Aral thinks of the shack, she feels a smile come on. And something turns, flops, jumps inside her belly.

One Sunday night, Aral tiptoes out of her house. As she’s closing the door, her father groans from his bed. She pauses. When no other sound follows, she closes the door gently.

The streets are lit by the smolder of the newly installed street lights. Aral hurries to the shack, wondering all the while if she’s perhaps too early or too late. When she reaches, she realizes she’s neither.

The shack is indeed old and ruined. Though Aral never heard of a fire, the place looks burnt from the inside. Plus, it carries a scent. Murmurs cluster all over the place. There are more people in here than she could’ve guessed. Eyes blink at her from the darkness. Ignoring the stares and the sounds, full of scandal, Aral slinks over to the staircase and sits down. There, she waits for something to happen.

Almost fifteen minutes pass before she feels the warmth of another body next to her. She glances to her left to see it’s a boy. Unlike her, he is definitely not twelve. Moonlight is all that illuminates the inside of this ravaged place. And in the silver of the light, she can see his whiskery cheeks. Eighteen. The boy must be at least eighteen.

The boy stares at Aral unabashedly. After a moment, awkwardly, she stares back at him. Aral wonders if he can see how dark she is. A thing of bones wrapped in more night. Or if he notices the small, disfiguring scar at the side of her head. Before she can speak, say anything, he presses his lips to hers.

The kiss isn’t intimate or tender. It’s hungry. After a few seconds of this, Aral pulls away and leaves the staircase, the place in a rush. On her way back, she stops under a street light. She touches her lips, smiles. There’s warmth there. She hurries home, something in her pleased. As she gets in bed, Aral believes that she has a secret. That she’s no more a child.

The scholarship comes as no surprise to Aral’s mother. After all the prizes, accolades and beautifully inked certificates her seventeen year old daughter has collected over the years, this is something she expects. The discussion for Aral to attend college in the city is a brief one with her beleaguered father. Aral’s father has had misfortunes pile up one after the other in the recent years. Among other things, he’s wracked with a rare neurological disease that has pain throb like a heart in his ribs constantly. Though he hasn’t mentioned it in years, Aral’s mother knows that he silently blames their ill-fated daughter. So, when she proposes to send the girl away, he sighs, momentarily claws his aching, pulsing chest, and agrees.

Fleet-footed, a few months march on. Aral is in love with Bombay. It is unlike anywhere she’s been. The hubbub excites her. It’s a city in a hurry. Everyone needs to be places. Aral watches a flurry of people climb buses, crowd beaches, unfold out of autos and fold into tall buildings. She wears jeans, shredded at the knees, everywhere. She wouldn’t have dared wear these back home.

Back home, Aral read about college in smudged, tattered books she borrowed from friends. In movies, she saw it as a mad place, a frenetic world full of song, color, and manic energy. While her college in Bombay cannot match all this expectation, it does take her breath away. There are all kinds of people. She’s seen a boy with all his hair clumped and spiked in the middle of his head. She’s seen two girls kiss outside the canteen openly. She’s heard rumors about her professors hooking up. At times, to her shock, with students.

Aral is in her final year when she meets Dbek. Dbek has long hair, can quote Sufi poets from memory and has a slight stutter that you miss until you don’t. He is also a year younger to Aral. They meet, bizarrely, in the comment section of a blog. Their disagreements are so strong that they’re forced to meet, to confront. Later that week, Aral experiences her second ever kiss.

A year later, Aral moves in with Dbek. They rent a small, compact flat that is somewhat luxurious by Bombay standards. Dbek writes copy and Aral teaches; there’s enough to make do. Aral also begins work on a heartsong of a book, a pearl of an idea that has taken shape in the back of her mind over the years.

News of the move-in somehow reaches home. When Aral calls, her mother talks in a strained voice while her father yells in the background. Obscene words fall from his mouth more than Aral has ever known or imagined. Her mother abruptly cuts the call or perhaps her father snatches the receiver and slams it down. Later in the day, Aral weeps into Dbek’s shoulder. Nothing he says, nor his usual daffy humor, is enough to calm her.

At a friend’s behest, Aral publishes an excerpt of the novel she’s working on in a literary journal of some reputation. The next week, to her surprise, she’s flooded with calls from agents and publishers. She has no idea how they even got hold of her number. And surely each call surprises her more than the last. Everyone seems to want a piece of her. They call the almost ten thousand word excerpt ‘sublime’, ‘heart-rending’, ‘exceptional’ and more. They call Aral ‘a star’ and that loaded word again, ‘genius’. Aral is overjoyed but also, a smidge overwhelmed. In the end, she makes Dbek take the calls. In the end, she agrees to share the novel, when it’s finished, with quite a few very insistent people.

Aral is in the second year of writing her novel when something happens. The work is only two-thirds of the way done when a strange stiffness takes hold of her hand. On an afternoon when sunlight coats her windows and sears the tulsi in her balcony, crouched on her writing desk, Aral finds it impossible to unclench her left hand. Aral struggles until she lets out a shrill cry. But her hand refuses to unlock.

Had it not been for their insurance, Dbek and Aral couldn’t have possibly afforded all the tests that follow. In order for the medical insurance to cover the bourgeoning charge, Aral is admitted in Breach Candy hospital for a day. Though young and healthful, Aral is taken around for comprehensive tests in a wheelchair. She’s backed up against X-ray machines and swallowed up by CT scanners. They drain bottles of blood out of the wrecked hand with syringes that remind Aral of pictures of needle-nosed mosquitoes from her school books.

After all this, when they approach the doctor, they are startled by his solemn expression. This will grow, he says without waiting for them to sit down. This is just the beginning, he says without waiting for them to ask.

Three weeks. Just three run-of-the-mill weeks. That’s how long it takes for the whole of Aral’s left arm to stiffen. Aral is grinding chickpeas into a paste in the kitchen at the time when it happens. Her arm freezes at the shoulder, bent at the elbow. And nothing she does makes the slightest difference. Though the doctor had warned that the best medication would only delay it, Aral had imagined having much more time. That night, Aral is inconsolable. Dbek calls her home to inform her parents of their ill luck. It is Aral’s father who picks up the phone. He listens silently and hangs up the receiver when Dbek pauses for breath.

The next time it happens, it is all-consuming; it resembles a thunderbolt out to raze a city. Aral is keying passages into her novel with her right hand when the doorbell rings. A glance at the digital table clock reveals that it could only be Dbek. Aral is excited; she cannot wait to show him a sentence of hers she’s grown attached to in the last hour. She leaves the desk and makes a run for the door. And on the way there, she freezes.

She cannot move a muscle. She cannot produce a sound. She looks like something stopped in time, someone who’d forever be on her way to the door. The doorbell rings again. And again. After about ten minutes of this, when the ringing has grown worried, Aral hears footsteps recede from the door. She imagines Dbek rushing to the Katyals, their neighbors, to ask for the spare key they keep with them. When Dbek manages to finally open the door and enter, the sight stuns him.

Aral’s eyes move in their sockets. She hears all the sounds Dbek makes. There are gasps, then a strangled cry, then more noises. In the end, there’s crying. Aral watches him frantically bring out his phone. He scrolls through his contacts with trembling fingers. In seconds, he’s on call with their doctor. And from where she stands immobile, Aral can hear the doctor comfort a raving, stuttering Dbek. The doctor sounds patient and kind. But, to a terrified Aral, he does not sound surprised.

After that, as they would, things change. In the beginning, whenever Dbek returns from work, he makes an effort to talk to Aral. He asks questions and answers them himself. Where do we keep the salt-shaker we bought last Diwali? My bad. It must be in the cupboard. Have you seen the remote? Wait, it’s right here. Shall I try and cook something for us tonight? No, too much hassle and I’ll probably burn the place down. And, then, for no reason whatsoever, in the middle of a question, he dissolves into tears.

As months go by, Dbek forgets, more and more, to change her clothes. To clean her unmoving limbs with a damp cloth. To comb her swirl of hair back in place, out of her eyes. On occasion, he forgets to slip water and food between Aral’s still lips. Moreover, slowly, the one-sided conversations ebb away, too, like morning light withdrawing its shapes with the coming of the dark. And now, almost every day, Aral sees Dbek come home drunk. More often than not, to senselessness.

One of such days, he stumbles towards her stilled form in a haze. He stands there awhile, reeking of rum, gazing into her eyes. Then, with the immediacy of the starving, he begins to paw at her body. At her breasts and her thinning waist and her bony behind. He tries to pull her to him but is unable to shake her. He comes to her instead. He nibbles her collar bones, bites tenderly here and there. He presses his mouth against hers. And when, for the first time ever, Aral doesn’t respond, he stops. No, he says, taking a step back. No, no, no. He repeats. No, no, no, no, no. He goes on incessantly, until he staggers out of their home.

It is the last time Aral sees Dbek.

As more days pass, Aral’s stomach finds an emptiness that cries out to the silent room. It growls its lonely appeal. Her bones creak in the dead of night. Her sore muscles have been lulled to sleep. Soon, a quickness, a suddenness grips the way Aral sheds weight, the way her arms grow lean or her face sinks and pales.

A new season breaks. Autumn mats everything in leaves. And in her apartment, over and over, Aral stares at the same things. The door, the couch, the T.V., the stained rug where she or someone else spilled their drink, old newspapers – Pioneer, Statesman – gathering dust on the coffee table, the cordless telephone that has rung all of once since Dbek left. Aral, patiently, lengthily, imagines the rest of the house. Her cherished balcony with its moldering black and green lawn chairs. The kitchen, spare and unpretentious, that has always had room for everything she’s ever needed. The bedroom where, time and again, Aral and Dbek have desired each other both timidly and fiercely like something much younger. Lastly, her study. Where sentences, paragraphs, a world sits, waiting to be touched by senses other than hers.

Aral thinks of all this. She lets her thin breath slip in. Slip out.

Slip in. Slip out.

In. Out.

Tushar Jain is an Indian poet and writer. He is the winner of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize, the Raed Leaf India Poetry Award, the Poetry with Prakriti Prize, the DWL Short Story Prize, the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. His first play ‘Reading Kafka in Verona’ was long-listed for the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award. His work has appeared in various literary magazines and journals such as Aaduna, Papercuts, The Madras Mag, Vayavya, and others. His debut collection of poetry, Shakespeare in the Parka, was published in 2018.

Fiction | Dolls – Subhravanu Das

A disturbing piece of absurdism in which a doll making competition becomes the site of conflict, resentment, madness and eventually murder. Doll maker Gamak seems to be overtaken by a silent madness accompanied by visions, while organiser Murki overlooks the dangers she is delving into. She favours the glory that the competition’s success will bring, and her myopic approach results in catastrophe. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

The floor is covered in arms. The table, legs. Gamak hadn’t tidied up last night. He leaves the mess intact. He goes and sits by the window, and looks through his telescope. Clouds cover the other hill. The single hut on its peak is lit up. The hut blinks. Meend is already inside the blinking hut, working with her scissors. If she were to look up, she would see him at the top of his peak. She looks up.

Gamak leaves his telescope. He goes and sits at his table. He pushes all the legs to one corner, and pulls out a doll from the drawer. The doll can turn its head, twist its arms, swivel its hips, and bend its knees, like any man. Like Gamak. The doll is almost complete. Gamak picks up his chisel and hammer, and starts going tak-thak, tak-thak at the left thigh of the doll. He carves out a line, and then an indentation, and then a bulge; he runs his thumb over the doll’s hamstring muscle.

There’s a thak-tak – from the door. It persists. He answers. It’s the man selling milk.


Murki rings the bell on her desk. Her three secretaries troop in – all bald, all clutching handkerchiefs.
“Madam, the contractors for the ropeway project are here.”
“Did you take them to the top of both the hills?”
“Yes, madam. They all seem confident. They can get the cable cars running again.”
“Now show them this proposal. Along with cable cars, they need to get a whole house to dangle from the ropeways. And that house has to be big enough to accommodate all the attendees of our Annual Doll Competition. Whichever contractor, if any, stays back, bring him in for a meeting.”


Meend sinks into the sofa. She unties the dupatta from her waist, and drops it on the floor, next to her feet. Her ankle bells stay on. She picks up the folded piece of paper from the coffee table – ‘All homeowners of Infinity Greens Apartment Complex are hereby notified that the garden within the premises will be no longer be let out for weddings, birthdayparties, and other celebrations and events that involve catering. You are expected to coperate.’ She gets up and walks. The ankle bells follow.

The inner bedroom is swarming with dolls; there are dolls on the shelves, on the stool, on the bed, on the pillows. A bag sits on the table. Meend pulls out a stack of costumes from the bag. Up in her hut, these costumes had shone brighter than the sequins with which she had adorned them. After their journey to her home at the foot of the hill, they have lost their sheen; they are more pliant, though. She picks up the bag and the costumes, and climbs into bed. She pulls out a piece of white cloth, a pack of white cotton, and a white thread attached to a needle from her bag. She stuffs the cotton into the cloth, and sews up a torso, four limbs, and a head. She stitches these pieces together, and slips the resulting amalgamation into a silk robe; she lets loose yet another doll upon the room.


“Tirobhav? Tirobhav?”
The man whose job is to help around the house has a tendency of disappearing at every moment of need. But when the ganji-clad set of rotten teeth finally appears, he does so carrying a cup of Murki’s favourite vanilla ice cream.
“Madam, today in the market, everyone was talking only about you and your decision to build us a hanging house. The pandit selling bangles even distributed bangles for free. ‘Devi’s blessings are with us. The sky will be in our grasp’, he kept saying. The doll competition is in six weeks, no? What all needs to be done in that time, madam?”
“Along with getting the old ropeway running, we’ll need to set up two new ropeways. All three will be side by side. The central ropeway will then serve as a fixed cable, from which will dangle the house, while the other two ropeways will ferry people to and from that hut. The doll competition will carry the tagline – A Celebration in the Clouds.”
“Wow, madam. No issues in getting the necessary permissions, no?”
“Definitely not. Your master has taken care of all that. What would be the point of him being a High Court judge if he didn’t?”


The wheel they roll up is small. The people rolling it are smaller. Together, they fit into Gamak’s telescope. The newly laid ropes, don’t. The ropes travel all the way from the other hill, and disappear before they reach his. Meend’s hut is a flick of his shoulders away. The people congregating outside her hut appear fixated on the ropes. Only a few of the ropes are managing to remain straight. All of them remain below Gamak.

“Let’s build a house in the clouds, they say. But can’t they see, we’ve been here for years already?”
The doll sits by the telescope. It has its hands out, as if it’s holding up an invisible serving tray.
“But if they want fancy, we’ll give them fancy. Wait and see what I have in store for you. You’ll have new hands, new legs, and a new hip. You’ll run, jump and move, better than any man or any woman. You’ll dance your way into their hearts, and win it all.”

Gamak plugs his power drill in. He picks up a cylindrical block of wood, rests the tip of the drill against the centre of that wood, and presses down on the trigger. The sound splits the hill into two. His hands don’t waver. Only once the drill has gone clean through the wood, his fingers ease up. He pulls the drill out, and shakes the hollowed out wood clean. He reaches into the open drawer, takes four shiny beads out, and drops the beads into the hole in the wood; two beads go right through and land on the floor, while two refuse to fit through the hole.
“See. Old ball bearings, but a brand new you.”


“I thought you had started working as a translator for the contractors. Now you’re their messenger as well?”
“These people are like this only no, madam. When their truck toppled over, just the orange paint got spilled on the road. Should they proceed with the other colours, madam?”
“They might as well.”

Tirobhav picks up Murki’s teacup from her armrest, and sets it down on the table. He has swapped his ganji for a shirt. His trousers remain the same, but his new belt must be causing him immense discomfort while he squats on the floor.
“Is your back feeling any better today, madam?”
“Not really.”
“I’ll go get the hot-water bag in a minute. I heard some troubling news while I was out, madam. Two plantation workers have gone missing.”
“What are their names?”
“Ati and Kan. You wouldn’t know them, madam. Two days back, they were seen leaving work together. And then they never showed up at their homes. Police have started looking, but there’s no trace of them.”
“Sooner or later, there will be. Not like we can do anything more.”


Meend remains wedged into her bus seat. Those standing insist on looking down at her. She only smells them. The woman sitting next to her is busy knitting a cap. The woman sets the paraphernalia aside.
“Didn’t I see you on TV? You were in that kathak performance, no?”
“You were great. I remember because you were the only one with short hair.”
“What’s that in your bag? A baby’ sweater?”
“No. That’s my doll.”
“So cute. Did you make it yourself?”
“You should come to my daughter’s school and teach the kids how to make their own dolls. I’m sure they’ll love it.”
The bus jumps up. Meend’s bag never slips out of her grasp.


The adjacent room is dotted with people. Their lips move, but the only sound which emerges is of the hammer hitting the rods; again and again. Even the fire submerging the rods is silent.
“Gamak, look, you have won the competition each time for the last three years. It’s obvious you’ll win again.”
“No, no, no. There’s a new venue now, which floats in the air. Have you seen it? It indeed floats in the air. Now the competition will attract dollmakers from afar. These dollmakers could bring dolls more advanced than any we have ever seen. My best will not automatically trump theirs.”
“Just be sincere in your dollmaking.”
“The limbs of my dolls are too small to accommodate all the ball bearings I have taken from here, brother. I now need to build larger limbs, and hence, a new, larger doll. Only then will I have a path-breaking doll, which will be more man than toy.”
“Great. Get started.”
“But those ball bearings will need constant attention. The more I understand what impact they’ll have on my doll’s movements, the more I’ll need to alter them. That I can’t achieve sitting inside my home up in the hill. I might have to come down daily to your kiln.”
“Come whenever you want. Where is the problem in that?”

Gamak steps out into the dust, and sees again. After waiting for five minutes, he flags down a jeep, opens the door to a packed back seat, and shoves his butt into his co-passenger’s thigh. He holds on to the shut door as the jeep navigates through traffic, picks up another passenger, and starts winding up the hill. The dust reduces, Gamak’s lungs relax, and his fingers regain their numbness. He traces the curve of the front seat, and the rod which connects the seat to the shuddering floor of the jeep. The jeep avoids a number of oncoming cars, overtakes two cyclists, and goes past a tea stall. The jeep often veers close to the precipice, but keeps turning enough to avoid falling off into the scenery. A shadow whizzes past them, knocking back Gamak’s hair; the shadow was huge, and fell from the sky. The rattling of the jeep’s engine takes a minute to die down. The jeep rolls to a stop, and everyone gets out. Gamak follows them onto the grass, walks up to the railing, and looks up; the dangling house is gone, as are the cables.
“Did you see something fall?”
“No. You heard something, no?”
“Look. Those trees down there are shaking.”
“Something must have fallen into the forest.”


All the men, who are standing before Murki’s desk with their heads bowed, have slept well. Their eyes are not puffed up, their skin isn’t hanging loose, and their bodies don’t emanate any additional odour. They have had a good breakfast, a hot shower, and the time to unfold a newspaper. She is the only one who has been deprived of all these luxuries; she is the only one who has been cursed.
“Do you have a solution or not?”
“Yes, madam. We’ll need to drastically reduce the height of the ropeways. We actually have to go low enough to provide support to the cable from the ground. We’ll build two steel towers, which will help the cable withstand the weight of the house. We’ll make the towers as tall as possible, madam.”
“I should hope so. Build ten steel towers if needed.”

The men fold their hands and troop out. The door doesn’t shut, and Tirobhav re-enters; he now has a watch to go with the rest of his costume. He comes and stands by Murki’s desk.
“There’s some more news, madam.”
“Out of the two workers that had gone missing, one has reappeared. Kan was found unconscious in the construction site behind the right hill. His left leg has been amputated from the knee down, and he has no recollection of how that happened. In fact, he doesn’t remember anything from the time he went missing till the time he was found. Also, whoever cut his leg off has done a very neat job of stitching the wound up. There is no trace of any bleeding, and there’s no pain as well.”
“Stop wasting my time.”
“Sorry, madam.”


Gamak stands under the shelves. He looks like a white sack, left under the shelves. Meend sits up, and starts drumming on the table. The sack doesn’t stir, nor does it crumple. Meend smacks the table. Twice. The sack jumps up, and comes and sits across the table from her.
“Welcome, Meend. Welcome to my temporary abode. Till when can you apply?”
“A month from now.”
“That’s good. The process is strict, okay? Along with a recommendation from me, you’ll need to submit another one. I had submitted three recommendations with my application, but that was not mandatory. It’s been almost five years since then. That residency taught me a lot about French people and French food. It didn’t teach me much about dollmaking. There’s only so much technique you can learn in three months. But you’ll learn a lot, I’m sure. I’ll be able to focus on writing your recommendation only once our local doll competition is over.”
“You know that they have had to start again on a new venue, right? They might not get it ready on time.”
“No. The competition will happen for sure.”
“Hopefully. I’m more focussed on my application. I don’t know if I’ll get the residency. Only one out of hundred applicants get accepted.”
“It’s all in the head. If you think you’ll succeed, you’ll succeed. And you have been doing quite well here. You have been submitting your dolls regularly to the competitions. Your dolls show promise. And the costumes you make for your dolls have always been highly praised. Do you have anything for this year’s competition?”
“Thank you. Yes, my doll will have a long coat that showcases miniature Madhubani and Pattachitra paintings.”
“My doll isn’t ready. I’ve had to fit three ball bearings into each joint in its body. As a result, the doll now has heavily swollen knees, elbows, wrists and ankles. Though the doll might move a little more like a human, it looks a lot less like one.”
“This is a brand new concept. You’ll probably win again this year.”
“I’ve had to padlock my house at the top of the hill and move into my brother’s kiln down here to dedicate all my energy into this. I’ll need every precious second of the next two weeks to get my doll ready in time.”

Meend enters her apartment, doesn’t take her shoes off, and goes straight to the inner bedroom; she finds the green, embroidered coat laid out on the bed, right next to the white, pillow-like doll. She takes a pair of scissors from the table and some pins from the cupboard. She cuts the coat up into pieces, and pins every last piece onto the doll’s body. She doesn’t spare an inch, but leaves the head alone. The two eyes, which she had sewed on a week back, shine bright like the buttons they are. She rips the buttons out; she blinds the doll.


Shards of glass are strewn all over the floor; some have even made it to the carpet, and are hiding from Murki. She shakes her slippers off. Tirobhav, with a broom in hand, waits at the doorway.
“Do people consider the house being set up now to be high enough?”
“Of course, madam. There is one silver lining in all this, no. The ropeway system is now low enough for you to make a gigantic ladder available for the public to climb up to the house.”
“Excellent idea. Genius. Once all this is done, we’ll turn the house into a castle. Our little girls will then finally have some place to go and play princess-princess.”


Kan walks down the orange line defining the road. His new leg keeps clinking against the gravel. Every passer-by turns to look. A few start limping like him.
“How many times did I tell you? You should never have gotten a prosthesis made of glass.”
“You know it’s not made out of glass, no. It’s made out of simple wood, and has then been covered in mirrors.”
“But it’s still as brittle.”
“Only from the outside, dear.”
“Whatever. But why did we have to leave home at this time in the afternoon?”
“I wanted to see this new house they are building that stays suspended from above.”
“What is it to you? You are not an architect.”
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t tell you earlier because I didn’t want to scare you. In the doll competition that will be held in that house, I have been invited to be the chief guest. And I have accepted. I just want to get a feel of the layout in advance. Please.”


Meend steps out of her building, and sees the house dangling in the air. After walking for two minutes, she reaches the ladder leading up to the hanging house. The house is no higher than her sixth-floor apartment. The ladder is wider than her building, but, and is guarded by the same frail man.
There’s no one else climbing the ladder, and Meend starts taking two steps at a time. She leaves the empty right-hand side of the ladder alone, and keeps her head tilted upwards. There are three men harnessed to the cable above, slathering white paint across the underside of the house; they cough repeatedly, but nobody sends any water down. Meend stops to smoothen the grey jacket of her doll. She resumes climbing, and the wind picks up. Though the ladder doesn’t shake, she grabs onto its handrail with twice as much force; she continues climbing. The house hangs still, resplendent in its red, blue and green stripes. She reaches the end of its ladder, and enters through its door.

She stands by a window. The volunteers flock around the entrance. Two other dollmakers scurry from one wall to the other, their heads buried in conversation. The volunteers’ revelry ceases when Gamak enters, with a big suitcase loaded on his head. The volunteers help him set it down, and he pulls a doll out. The doll is as big as a ten-year old boy. Gamak runs his hand once over the head of his doll, before surrendering it to the volunteers. He looks at Meend. He walks up to the window she stands by.
“Do you think they’ll get the cable cars running in time for the competition tomorrow?”
“They better. Climbing the ladder will be impossible for many.”
“It was tough enough for me. Look. That tiny, idling jeep down there, will take me back home. I’ve been away for too long.”
Gamak persists in pointing out of the window. Meend follows his gaze. The ground is distant. The sky, even more so.


Gamak has his fingers wrapped around the telescope, and his eye stuck to its lens. The darkness of the night makes no exceptions for him. He can’t see his doll. He can’t see the hanging house where his doll is. He can’t see the other hill behind the hanging house. Not even a forgotten bulb burns in the valley below, in the valley that still presumably is. The bulb in his room is on. He gets up to switch the bulb off, and there’s a flash and everything gets buried in light. Everything inside and everything outside bursts into life, into an explicitness they never possessed before. Gamak puts his head out of the window, and sees the other hill; he sees the hut on its peak; he sees the hanging house at the foot of the other hill; he doesn’t see his doll. He sees the things he sees, without the aid of his telescope. He sees a hand descend.

The hand descends from the sky. The hand is as big as the two hills put together. The hand looks like his doll’s hand. But the lines on the descending palm are a lot longer, and a lot deeper. The hand doesn’t twitch, goes all the way down to the hanging house, and unhooks it from the ropeways. The hand slowly lifts the house up, carries it past Gamak, and disappears. His doll doesn’t peek out.

The light remains intact. But no person emerges onto the roads, nor does any dog start barking. The hand returns, tearing through the sky, with the house lodged between its fingertips. The hand again dives to the bottom and hooks the house back onto the cables. The hand immediately pulls out, and disappears. Everything plunges into normalcy – the houses, the hills, the dead trees. The day instantly transforms into the night, and everything disappears. The light from the bulb in Gamak’s room also disappears.


“Eighteen dolls were submitted yesterday, but only seventeen dollmakers are present today.”
“Who’s not here?”
“I’ll have to check, madam.”
“Don’t bother. One of you cover for the missing dollmaker.”
That’s all Kan can overhear, as the din inside the house culminates into an uninterrupted shriek. Murki leans back into her chair, and the retreating kid shields himself from the glare of Kan’s leg. The dolls, on the other hand, have no problem staring at Kan’s leg. The first sixteen, all similarly built and similarly clothed, have nothing to say to him. The faceless, naked one is less discriminatory in its silence. The tall one, who’s thrice as big as the rest, smiles at him.

Murki raises a hand and silences the crowd.
“The judging of the dolls will now begin.”
Her husband, the judge, gets up, and walks up to the dolls. The judge picks them up, runs his hands over them, twirls them, wrestles them, and returns. The judge sits down, and leans into his microphone.
“The winner of this year’s competition is doll number seventeen, the braille doll, by Prati.”
The faceless doll, with no clothes on, is brought up to Kan. The crowd screams, and spills forward. Kan holds the doll up. The crowd halts.


The hanging house is no longer swamped; only the dolls and a chosen few remain. Murki is busy accepting their accolades, when her husband comes and takes her by the arm. He doesn’t let her collapse, and continues to prod her as she labours past the bent faces. He guides her into a corner that is secluded, but for the towers of boxes which extend from the floor all the way to the roof.
“Why did you tell me to pick such a weird doll as the winner?”
“Your honour, because it’s path-breaking, a game changer. It’s a doll for the blind. Instead of being shown, the eyes, nose, ears and mouth have been written in braille on the doll’s face. The colour of its skin and of its hair have also been written in braille. On top of that, the clothes that you would imagine the doll to be wearing, have also been written in braille. And most importantly, this doll was made by none other than a blind man.”
“Prati was not blind.”
“The one who received the award was not Prati. That was Prati’s agent.”
There’s a screech from outside. Murki looks up. The farthest window is the only one still open. A cable car comes hurtling towards the house. The cable car is empty.


Subhravanu Das lives in Bhubaneswar, and has a degree in law from Bengaluru. He has just finished writing his first book, and is now delving back into the form of the short story. His work has appeared in Muse India.

Fiction | Hungry Season – Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

The story always returns to hunger, and how it can drive a man to madness. 15-year-old Nahin kills his fisherman father’s otters to satiate his hunger, and his father suffers the brunt of having to buy a new one each month. This cycle of bloodshed and loss comes to a head as Nahin is caught in the act, and suffers a horrific punishment not of his father’s doing. As always, the story depicts that the horrors wrought by human deprivation far outweigh anything made up in the supernatural imagination. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

In the initial years of catching the addiction, it took Nahin around 10 minutes to kill an otter. Now, it took the fifteen-year-old boy only five, at most. Years of practice made him the master of that skill—claiming firm grip on a shimmering, slippery, puppy-faced, squealing, smooth-furred, brown otter with one hand and showering on it blows with a sickle, or at times, an axe or machete, with the other as the alkaline of its blood salivated his mouth.  His father, Abdul, always wondered where his otters had disappeared, that too, ritually. Finding no other plausible answer every time one went missing (even though they remained chained in a hutch mostly), he soaked up the treacherously credible words of Nahin with utmost belief. Nahin would tell his father that sometimes it had been the work of the elusive grey wolf that ventured into their compound at the dead of night and sometimes the ubiquitous monitor lizard; he would tell him that he had witnessed the horror of the fictitious abduction all the time.

Abdul did not have an inkling of the fact that his favourite otters—aqua puppies that helped him catch fish from the wildly snaking, precarious, mangrove-poked rivers of the Sundarbans—always ended up in his son’s digestive system. They disappeared, true, but they did so in perfect deception, in close proximity to Abdul, roiling among the fleshy insides of his son, sliding away into complete non-existence. His otters, their smoky souls to be specific, caressed Abdul without his knowledge, and said countless “Fuck you”s to his son, before taking their flight to another world.

Nahin killed only one otter a week because the population of fish in the zigzagging rivers was dwindling and Abdul was not a rich fellow; Abdul had to depend on his otters to catch those tricky, scaly, silver beings hiding in the skin of the Sundarbans—that much Nahin understood. Although his conscience was claimed by an unsettling fixation for an unsettling act, it knew its limits. It knew that daily disappearance would mean the birth of unflinching suspicion in the heart of his father. Even one disappearance per week was somewhat enough to get Abdul riled up, since he had to empty his pockets at the end of every month to buy a new otter. Nearly hunted to extinction, otters were not readily available, which is why he had to depend on smugglers who brought them from West Bengal for a hefty price.

A frustrated, bony man, denuded of strength and energy, ultimately accepted the ritual of weekly disappearance. After all, he did not have a companion — only a young son —, came home late and went out to work very early in the morning. He needed enough sleep. Lack of sufficient sleep always messed with his head and digestion; he knew it very well. He could not let them risk his already-at-risk job and starve his little family of two. Even though enough measures were taken to safeguard the otters’ hutch, one went missing every damn week. Abdul had no hint that Nahin owned a pair of keys to the hutch.

Owing to the disappearances coupled with the diminishing population of fish, Abdul always remained drowned in the waters of a morose state, his worn-out mind pregnant with exasperation and despondency. Why couldn’t his otters stop vanishing? Why did he have to keep buying a new one every month? Couldn’t the grey wolves and the monitor lizards have mercy upon him? Didn’t God understand that without the otters his livelihood would crumble to dust?

Nahin could sense that; the hands of misery choking his father. But he could also sense the need to satiate his addiction; this tentacled addiction of hunger that governed his psyche, held him captive with its tentacles. Once, Abdul came up with a pilot plan of keeping the hutch under the bed that he shared with his son for a few days. The plan failed; the stench of shit and body odour of the creatures, alongside their constant murmur and buzz annihilated the possibility of a healthy sleep. Nahin was in a fix while the plan breathed, which was approximately for five days. He was worried he would not get an otter that week because the possibility of getting caught red-handed while taking out an otter from the cage loomed large then. But after the plan’s bones withered away, he found peace in the bubbling prospect of an afternoon feast.

On a hot July morning, when the tide was low and the air was suffused with birdsongs and an orchestra of smells emanating from various leaves that the Sundarbans had to offer, Abdul, alongside Jashim, a fellow fisherman, ventured into an inlet with high hopes of catching scores of Telapia and Maagur fish.

“Why do you buy a new otter every month?” asked Jashim as he and Abdul released their otters into the emerald waters and they started working their ways through the grey, soggy banks detecting the presence of a miniature civilization of fish.

Abdul turned to him, squinting at his dark figure against the fiery sun, and replied, “What can I say? One disappears every week, bhaijaan. Every week!”

Jashim grew suspicious hearing his reply, as anyone would. How could an otter go missing every week from a locked cage?

“How so! It sounds impossible. I mean, look, it doesn’t happen to the rest of us. Even if it does, it is usually once every two months or so,” Jashim said, a frown plastering his sweaty face, the din of the otters at work growing loud in the background.

“I don’t know. My son says he has seen monitor lizards and grey wolves taking them”

“Did you ever see it?”

“No, I cannot manage to stay awake at night. I have to rely on my son’s information.”

“Keep the cage inside your house then, instead of that hut!”

“I can’t. They smell like shit.”

Their conversation was leading nowhere; it was a fruitless interaction. The only thing fruitful was the otters’ work. As they hopped on the boat, their mouths full of silvery fish, light reflecting off their scaly bodies as though they were heavenly blessings, both Abdul and Jashim forgot about the dilemma at hand. Today, they would glean an impressive earning from the market.


Rivulets of sweat gathered on Nahin’s skin as he pinned a black otter to the ground. Witnessing the unfolding of scenes, the rest kept shrieking from inside the cage. Nahin pressed its belly with his knee, exerting significant force so it would stop clawing at his skin. Blobs of sweat slowly dripped off his forehead and crashed into the otter’s gaping eyes steeped in pain. It flinched. He reached for the rusty sickle with his right hand, and then, after momentarily wielding it in the air for reasons unknown, ran it through the otter’s throat. Splotches of dark blood splattered his face and shirt, his hands were catching the wild frenzy of a deluge flowing out of its throat. Then he amputated its limbs and skinned it for his weekly, raw feasting. A few minutes rolled by, and, as if with divine intervention, Abdul stormed in, a long, thick stick in his hand, with a motley crew of armed neighbours.

He, like the others, stood shocked witnessing the scene: his fifteen-year-old boy eating the meat off an otter’s bones, his face smeared with its blood, its furry skin lying on a bloodied patch beside him, its eyes and claws here, its muzzle there.

“Hay Allah, what is this? How is this possible?” some screamed. Some threw up. Some simply ran away.

But Abdul stood motionless, glassy eyed, his mouth gaping.

He had decided to come home early that day, since he felt feverish whiling away his time in the fiery hotness of the bazar. As he approached home, he heard the shrieks of his otters inside the hut — where the otters stayed. Fearing that it might be a dangerous animal that had intimidated the otters inside, he ran to his neighbours’ houses desperately and formed an armed mass before storming in. He could not fathom that the animal he had been fearing would be no one else but his own son.


A few months later, Nahin passed away as a result of a long, vicious illness. Of course, it had a lot to do with the fact that his diet included otters. He died a painful death. Rapid convulsions followed by vomiting throughout days and nights. It was not known why his body decided to act up suddenly, though. He had been a popular consumer for a long time, why had there been no illnesses or anything before? No one knew, no one cared to know.

Perhaps, when he was foaming at the mouth in the hospital bed as Abdul screamed his heart out, the phantoms of all those otters that he had feasted on mocked him and worked their ways inside his body (like they did in rivers for catching fish) to yank the shadowy hint of life out of him. Perhaps, they cried a little for Abdul, whose grief would aggravate leading a solitary life without a family. But the joy of witnessing their killer’s death overpowered their glum sentiments for Abdul, the one who had trained, fed and adored them for their brief stint on earth.

The day Nahin was surrendered to the belly of the copper earth, to another world which shared no bridge of coexistence with this one, Abdul, pulverised by grief, killed his otters. The remaining seven of them.

He ate one each day. For a week. Living the secret life his son had led and finding solace in the shadowy presence of Nahin that came with the act.

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a freshman studying International Relations and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune, The Aleph Review, Kitaab, Daily Times, The Metaworker, Penmen Review, and Six Seasons Review. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

This piece is also forthcoming in “Critical Muslim: Artificial” from Hurst Publishers.

Fiction | Arguments and Doubts – Nivedita Barve

Illustration: Debu Barve

Barve explores friendship through the lens of everyday argument and eerie magic. Two old men Bhau and Appa discuss the mundane occurrences of everyday life – tiny spoons, a stolen scooter, the right way to make tea. They are overshadowed by the grief of Appa’s wife’s passing and haunted by the apparent supernatural qualities of medicine packs belonging to the deceased. This story doesn’t attempt to make a larger point. Rather, it gives the reader a break by just giving them a puzzle drenched in the light of the comforting camaraderie of two cribbing men. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

It was always late morning in the house, no matter how many windows were open, no matter what was playing on the television, no matter how stale the newspaper felt in his hands. His chair was right by the window. For a moment, he looked at the shabby Umbar tree in the yard and thought about why time behaved erratically in his house. It was an interesting idea because he knew he would never find an answer to it. He was not the kind of man who saw such things well. Then Bhau, his friend of forty-seven years, entered the house, carefully placing his left foot inside the doorsill, and Appa thought ‘What a hypochondriac’ and forgot all about the nature of time.

            ‘What did you bring bananas for?’ Appa said.

But Bhau would not speak before he had survived the dangers of the doorsill. Twelve years back, he had fractured his left femur, and even though it had healed well, he accorded great consideration to the injury.

            ‘Does the leg hurt even now?’ Appa said.

‘I don’t know. But I am sixty-three years old. I am not taking any risks. And the bananas are fruit,’ Bhau said.

‘What do you mean? I know bananas are fruit,’ Appa said.

‘The wife said, take some fruit if you are going to see Appa. So here take it, fruit.’

Bhau held the thin plastic bag in front of Appa’s face.

‘And your choice of fruit is banana? Since you have to keep on harping about it, I am sixty-one, and I have diabetes.’

‘Don’t keep talking about your diabetes forever. I’ve read somewhere that bananas are good for the bones, and they are also fruit,’ Bhau said.

            Appa grunted, pulled the newspaper closer to his face and started reading. Bhau left the bananas on the teapoy and sat in the opposite chair. He picked up the supplement of the same paper. The house was littered with papers because Appa didn’t know what to do with them. What he knew was that Kumud would have hated the clutter if she had been around. His foot ruffled a sheaf, and underneath he noticed dust had collected like it does in abandoned houses. He raised his hand and looked at it. He wanted to see if his fingernails had grime, but there was none.

            The house was one half of a twin bungalow. Vinu lived in the other half and she, of course, did not live alone. She had two boys, three and five years old, a quiet husband, and a talkative mother-in-law. Kumud used to make frequent trips to that side, to give a bowl full of something, or for a word of gossip. Now it was Vinu who made numerous trips to this side of the bungalow.

            Appa remembered Vinu had once tried to go around the house stacking up all the newspapers, but she had not succeeded. A few days later, the papers had appeared again on all the flat surfaces in the house. Now Vinu had taken to complaining about the Umbar and how it was invading the bungalow and how its fruits were leaving streaks on her husband’s new car. ‘Vinu is just like her father,’ Appa thought. The man had been Appa’s cousin, now dead, but he was well remembered for his acidic tongue.

            ‘So where are you going to live now?’ Bhau said.

‘What do you mean where?’ Appa said.

‘The wife was saying now you will go and live with your son. I hadn’t thought of it like that. But the wife knows these things,’ Bhau said.

‘Your wife seems to know far too much than is required,’ Appa said.

‘Yes, it’s true. She is wise like that. She says, right now you are not thinking of these things. You are still grieving. It’s been only two months. But later, you will feel lonely. Also, how will you keep the house? She says it’s not easy for men,’ Bhau said.

            Bhau was looking at the newspapers on the floor. Appa thought the mess was perhaps too much for Bhau. If it kept piling up like this, one day it might bury Bhau under the paper mound. He was a short man, after all. The thought was oddly satisfying. Perhaps Bhau was thinking about it too. He pulled his legs up and sat cross-legged on the chair. Then Vinu walked in with two cups of tea and Appa forgot about the possibilities with the newspapers.

            ‘I saw Bhau Uncle come in, so I brought tea for both of you,’ she said.

Vinu talked for a few minutes with both of them, and in that time she tried to dust the TV and the showcase in a single wave of the dust-cloth which she always seemed to carry with her. Then she reminded Appa that she was going to Mumbai for a few days since the kids had summer holidays, but the cook would still make lunch and dinner for Appa. When Vinu left, the two men put their cups down without drinking. Appa went into the kitchen and came back with the sugar-tin. He added two spoons to his cup and to Bhau’s cup as well.

            ‘Do you mean you are going to live here all by yourself, buying groceries and doing all those

other things that go with it?’ Bhau said.

‘Why? What’s the problem?’ Appa said.

‘Do you know anything about it? Can you at least make tea?’ Bhau said.

‘Why do you need tea? You are already drinking one,’ Appa said.

Bhau shook his head as if he was talking to a stubborn cat.

            ‘Your son will force you to live with him. When Wahini fell ill, the wife thought he was going to ask you both to go live with him and your daughter-in-law. Cancer is not a simple thing,’ Bhau said.

‘Why should we have left our house and gone to another city? The boy has been asking us to do it for a long time, but I like to live here. I was going to look after Kumud. Look at the table. Those are all her medicines. I had prepared a bag for each day and marked them with time and food instructions and everything. I know cancer is not simple. I had prepared for that,’ Appa said.

            Bhau nodded his head. Both of them dropped their newspapers. They drank tea and did not speak for some time. Appa thought about the time when he had waited outside the ICU hoping they would let Kumud out soon, but he had gone on waiting. She had died of post-operative complications. Gone, just like that. He remembered the glass windows of the ICU had faint smears on the outside. He had pressed his forehead on the glass thinking about the smears, without realising that it had to be someone like him who had been here before, who must have left these signs behind like documentations of grief.

            ‘What are you going to do with these?’ Bhau said.

He had gone to the dining table and was looking at the little bags of medicines.

            ‘What is there to do?’ Appa said.

‘You might want to throw them away before you move out of the house,’ Bhau said.

‘Get lost Bhau. Don’t show me your face again,’ Appa howled.

The next morning, Appa and Bhau met outside the Udupi joint, which was drowning in young people. It was dreadful that people had started labelling old things as retro. Appa and Bhau had to wait for a table to become free. They complained loudly about having to stand and hoped to drive away a pair of college girls from their table. But the girls did not budge. The two men kept standing.

            ‘A strange thing happened yesterday,’ Appa said.

Bhau raised his eyebrows. Appa fished out a little plastic bag from his pocket and held it up for him.

‘Look,’ Appa said.

‘Little spoons. I have never seen such little spoons before. What will you eat with them?’ Bhau said.

‘These are not for eating. These are the tiny spoons they put in the kitchen spice box. I know because I was looking for turmeric to put on a paper cut and Vinu said I will find it in the kitchen. But forget that, look at the bag,’ Appa said.

Bhau stooped a little and made himself shorter as he peered into his friend’s hand.

            ‘It is one of your medicine bags,’ he said.

‘Not mine, Kumud’s bag. I haven’t touched these things, since, you know, she left,’ Appa said.

‘So these are Kumud Wahini’s spoons?’ Bhau said.

‘I don’t know. I just saw this in the middle of all the other medicine bags. What do you think it means?’ Appa said.

‘I don’t know. But I can ask the wife,’ Bhau said.

‘No! Don’t bring her into it,’ Appa said.

‘Have you not understood anything about marriage yet?’ Bhau said.

            Before Appa could say anything to that, one of the girls who had been hogging the table began weeping. She did not make any noise, but her shoulders seemed sad, her eyes were bloated, and her sorrow somehow felt like a sound. The two men looked at the girls, bewildered, unsure about what they should do. But the girls dropped some money on the table and left, one of them still weeping and the other holding her hand. So just like that Appa and Bhau got their table.

            They sat in silence. Bhau opened his mouth a couple of times to say something but didn’t actually speak. Appa looked at him but couldn’t think of anything to say either. Maybe it was the money the girls had left on the table which was making them uneasy. Appa looked at the entrance with a vague expectation of seeing the girls again, and he did see two girls, but these were not the same ones. These two were laughing. Then a notion came upon him.

            ‘I think the medicine tablets have turned into these spoons,’ he said.

‘You are going mad, Appa,’ Bhau said.

Appa shook his head. He stopped the passing waiter and asked him to get a plate of idlis and a cup of filter coffee.

‘The same for me,’ Bhau said.

            ‘What about that time when your scooter got stolen?’ Appa said.

‘What about it? I got it back, didn’t I?’ Bhau said.

‘Yes, but how did you find it? Seventeen days later, under the bridge with a garland of hundred rupee notes hanging around its neck. So many people must have passed it by, and no one seemed to see the money,’ Appa said.

‘That was a bad time. It is true. There was that long strike in the factory, half a month’s salary gone, and on top of it, the scooter was stolen. And then I found it just like that with all that money. Now I think, what if it never got stolen? What if my mind had been wandering with all those troubles?’ Bhau said.

‘And now it’s screwed on tight in its place?’ Appa said.

            The waiter deposited the idlis and coffee on the table and took away the notes the girls had left. The two men ate. Appa tried to remember Bhau as he was in school, then later in college, in his forties and his fifties. But he could only see him as he was now. No matter how much he tried, Bhau was always sixty-three years old in his mind. Then he tried to think of how he himself had looked and realised he didn’t remember that either. It jolted him, and he spilt his coffee into the saucer. He felt remorseful, and when the bill came, he paid it with great vehemence even though Bhau kept pushing his hand away and tried to pay it himself. By the time they had stepped outside the restaurant, it had become late morning.

            ‘OK, Appa, I owe you one,’ Bhau said.

‘For a plate of idlis and coffee? Now you have started keeping tab of such things?’ Appa said.

‘No, no. I owe you for the scooter. You never questioned me on what happened with it. I will believe the medicines have turned into tiny spoons,’ Bhau said.

Two days later when Bhau came by the house, Appa was holding a plastic bag with buttons in it, and such buttons as they had never seen in one place before: gold plated ones, simple white ones with four holes, black ones, silver buttons with carving on them, and pearls pretending to be buttons. Bhau took the bag and peered into it. Then he went to the dining table and examined all the bags. There were fourteen of them, twelve contained tablets and capsules and other complicated medications, one bag had tiny spoons, and the last had these buttons.

            ‘Maybe Kumud Wahini’s stuff got mixed up with the medicine things?’ Bhau said.

‘Not possible. Kumud would never use such extravagant buttons in her sewing. She was not that kind of a woman. She was rather neat,’ Appa said.

            Then Appa started thinking, was Kumud really so neat? He went into the kitchen and looked

at the pots, pans and things. He had not moved anything in the kitchen either. It was like how Kumud had left it. Yes, she was neat, the kitchen corroborated. Then he thought about that one time they had gone to Alibaug on a trip. On the beach, Appa had become terrified when he saw Kumud fall into the water, but when he rushed to her, he saw that she had just been playing in the waves. Her saree had gathered sand, her hair had sand, even her eyes were watering with it. But she had kept on laughing.

            He looked back at Bhau and saw he was still lost in admiring the buttons.

That night Appa woke up at an empty hour. He didn’t know what had woken him, but he saw a glow of light on the dining table. He was frightened. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He wished Kumud had not gone to the doctor for her stomach ache. Everything had been OK before that. The doctor had turned the stomach ache into something malignant. He wished she were here now. She would know what the light in the medicines meant, and she would know what to do with all those newspapers. Then he thought he was thinking just like Bhau. That made him furious. But he also remembered a teenage boy in khaki pants and a white shirt bicycling down the old wooden bridge, shivering in the early morning cold. Then another boy pedalled behind him. He didn’t remember their faces, but there was a relief in the memory, which was only an image and not a story. It brought him peace and sleep.

The next day, Appa ignored the bags altogether. But when Bhau came in the evening, he headed straight to the medicine table.

            ‘Hmm, never seen anything like this before,’ he said.

‘I think none of it is happening. We are imagining it. Let us throw it all away,’ Appa said.

‘Are you moving to your son’s house then?’ Bhau said.

            Appa turned his back to him and went to sit in his armchair. He unfolded the newspaper and began reading. Bhau picked the supplement of the same paper and sat in the opposite chair, but he could not focus on it. He kept fidgeting and making waves in the newspapers that had gathered by his feet.

            ‘OK. I will not talk about your son’s house. But I am going to stay here tonight, and we are going to watch the bags and see it happen,’ Bhau said.

            ‘What? I don’t want to see anything. What if it is dangerous?’ Appa said.

Bhau thought about it for a moment. He passed a hand through his hair which was still as black as it had been when they had been in school.

            ‘I am sixty-three, and you are sixty-one, maybe its time we started seeing things for what they are?’ he said.

            Then he began arranging the bags in a neat row, making sure all of them were visible. Then he returned to his chair and now really started reading the advertisements in the supplement. Appa fidgeted in his chair for some time, and then he began reading too. What else was there to do?

That night they turned the two chairs so that they faced the dining table. They looked at the bags in silence, their eyes darting from one to the other. The house had grown shabbier in the last few days,

now that even Vinu was away. The dining table was the neatest spot in the whole house. Then Bhau started talking about that time when he had gotten his leg fractured, and that made them sleepy, and they dozed off.

Next morning, when Appa woke up, he saw Bhau staring at the third bag from the left. He went to him and saw what was in the bag — a piece of fresh ginger. He hesitated for a moment then he took it out and smelled it. It was ginger, alright. He felt exhausted. He thought the late morning was such a lonely time. It keeps stretching, and there is nothing left to do in it but to lose yourself into the goings-on of the world, which was nothing but bad news anyway. Then he thought it was something about this particular morning which felt ambiguous in some way, or maybe it felt like that because the kids weren’t screaming next doors, or perhaps it had gotten ambiguous even before that. He didn’t want to think further back. It was better to lose yourself in the bad news of the world instead. He looked at Bhau, who was still baffled by the ginger. Appa knew Bhau was going to insist on bringing his wife into the discussion. But that would not do. It was a matter between him and Kumud. Perhaps Bhau also came into it in an oblique way with his arguments and doubts. Appa kneaded his eyes as if it was essential to see clearly for what he was going to say.

            ‘Let’s make ginger tea,’ he said.

            Bhau looked up in surprise but did not argue. They hunted for the pan that Kumud always used for boiling the tea. They discussed at length the amount of water and milk that should go in it. The only thing they agreed upon was the sugar. At the very end, they grated the ginger and added it to the tea. When they poured it into the cups, they saw that it was over-boiled, watery and dark. They carried their two chairs outside, away from the newspapers and put them under the Umbar tree. Then they enjoyed the tea, inhaling the smell of fresh ginger, and argued about what the next bag of medicine was going to bring them.

Nivedita Barve lives in Hyderabad, India, where she is working on her first novel. She is a software engineer by profession, who loves writing fiction as much as she enjoys writing code. She has a Masters in Multimedia Applications and Virtual Environments from the University of Sussex. She is a member of ‘Bangalore Writers Workshop’.

Fiction | Pandit Hindutva Or: How I Learned to Start Lynching and Love the Beef(not!) Cow – Ayan De

Speculative fiction meets dystopian musings, as Ayan De explores a violent world that shares plenty with our current existence, Lynching, right-wing convictions, and the indoctrination of a young boy provide fodder for visualizing a scary new world. De plays havoc with linear time, challenging the reader to follow a chaotic timeline that perfectly characterizes a cruel, messy society. When cloning technology meets fanatical politics, a magnificent story is born. So are terrifying possibilities. – Shreya, The Bombay Review

Note: This piece was written in April, 2019, and Ayan De, is a pen name.

Three years into the future, I will watch a pirated copy of a film about the man-with-no-name and discover the cowboys of the Middle American Old West; until then, I shall remain a true saffron Cow-Boy. 

I joined my local chapter of the Youth Swayamsevak Corps five years ago, mostly because, as I will be told once I become a father, my parents wanted to delegate the responsibility of enlisting me in various activities to a single umbrella organization. They were not wrong in doing so. I could either have played football on a grassier field across the city, or I could have attended an art class in the interim two hours spent in the traffic–even the ten-year-old-me understood the economics of the situation.

We went camping in the Shri Narendra Modi National Park three years ago. An old man with a white, boxed beard and potbelly had addressed us at the YSC centre before we got on the bus. He spoke mostly in Hindi, but always referred to the country as “The Republic of Hindustan.” He told us that Hindustan belonged to the public, and that we were its future; I recalled this yesterday, prior to a “special meeting” in the basement of the centre.

He exuded passion. We, boredom. A chaperone had introduced him as the founder of the YSC, here on his occasional visit; I will come to think of it as an attempt at sowing an idea in our minds before a night spent in the wild, undisturbed by influences he deemed inappropriate.

A century-and-quarter have passed since Hindustan began rebuilding itself after it gained independence from the British, yet, as we will be told in the next week’s “special meeting,” it still carries today the burdens of the colonial past–poverty, illiteracy, Muslims, and the like. And that we, the future, will need to find the solution.

Fifty-two years after next Diwali, I will be diagnosed with dementia. To keep my memories intact, my sons will sponsor an implant that will retroactively store and let me let me flip through my memories like flipping through my grandmother’s childhood photo album compiled by her mother. I will agree only because it will allow me to remember my wife. She will have passed away two years prior.

I promised a friend last week that I would accompany him to yesterday’s “special meeting about the country’s history for the ‘big boys.’” My parents had no problem with a history lesson at YSC. Three months from now, I will call it the stupidest thing I had ever done. Tomorrow, I will wake up with a newfound sense of pride.

A fortnight after the previous Independence Day, a car bomb exploded outside Siddhi Vinayak Temple, killing forty-two people. Charred beef was found along the interior remains of the vehicle, but only after twelve years will the public be informed of the traces of hog fat used in the primer, through a leaked forensic report.

Seven summers have passed since the pure-clone of Narendra Modi reached his adulthood. His genes were sequenced from a strand of hair preserved in the National Museum, New Delhi. The embryo, as I will learn in Biology, was synthesised in a lab and later placed in the womb of an anonymous virgin surrogate. Some criticized this exact process to be offensive to its biblical parallels. Some have argued about the philosophical and ethical implications. Most were just happy that there will finally be another great leader.

Today, Modi II is the country’s youngest Prime Minister. In his campaign to be re-elected, he made promises that he could not keep–some exactly the same as his progenitor kept making during his four successive terms. His critics blamed these hollow promises for frustrating the groups waiting for benefits, leading them to bombing the temple. I will be told in the third “special meeting” next month that a radical Islamic group in its nascent years was responsible, having claimed their credit in a private message to Modi II and had the public found out Muslims were responsible, there would be riots.

Protests twenty-eight years ago led to a ban on the government cloning a figure from the past to gain political favour in the future. Fifty years later, the ruling party will use a similar procedure to produce an heir to a kindling dynasty, but this time using a separate ovum–an elegant leap through a loophole hidden in the vague language of the law. The donor will request to be paid an undisclosed “negative amount.”

The Neo-Modi dynasty will thrive in the right, at least until moments after I will look at my five grandchildren for the last time. I will be proud of all of them, and will hope that the twins don’t mind me confusing them for each other.

In that moment, I will look back to my wife closing her eyes for the last time. She will look peaceful. I will ask for the kids to be ushered back outside. I will not want them to remember me as a distraught old man, worrying that I am not as peaceful in the arms of death as my wife was.

Two years prior, my wife, her lips chapped more than she would have ever liked, will tell me that I am yet to forgive myself. My futile protest will only prove her point. She will remind me that she still has more hair on her head than I do. Not believe it when I say I have accepted my past.

By the ninth meeting, the number of attendees will increase fourfold and our mentor will be known to the public as Pandit Hindutva. My wife will later suggest that even Hitler had the self-awareness of not calling himself “White-Supremacy, PhD.” Anti-Islamic sentiments will be high, fanned by rumours of the radical Muslims we will have unwittingly spread.

Sixty-five years ago, some Pakis had terrorized the streets of Mumbai. Sixty-five days from today, we will terrorize Muslims on the same streets. Pandit Hindutva, will inform us of something highly distressing–Muslims trading beef. He will ask us, the apparent future of the nation, to do something. History told us that protests have been a decisive part in leading us here today. He will encourage this, but demand that we be careful of the dissident media and those feral Muslims. We tell him that we are prepared. He will call us true saffron Cow-Boys.

The week after, a man beaten to a pulp, will lie naked on the street, his lungs begging for air. He will have woken up that morning looking forward to the biryani his wife had planned for the dinner with his in-laws. He will go to the market to buy mutton, oblivious to the brewing crowd on what one calls the Meat Street.

I will first taste beef on my honeymoon in the backwaters of the State of Greater Travancore. The hot sun will warm my drink and the slight breeze will carry with it my napkin, but I will be lost in the exotic texture enrapturing my tongue. It will also be the first time I use the word “enrapture.”

Someone will incite the crowd, claiming that the red meat in the plastic bag is that of his Mother Cow. After a moment of frozen panic–a deer in headlights–this unsuspecting Muslim will be hit with the force of a thousand vegetarians.

We will trample the signs we made, like any Muslim in our way. We will show them what years of satyagraha builds up to, every strike flashing them back to the pressure cookers that blew up our trains, every fall reminding them where the temple was built, and every slur proclaiming who Hindustan belonged to.

My bride will have succumbed to food coma, affording me a moment of solitude, something I won’t seek on the trip, but appreciate nonetheless. This will be the first time I will face my guilt by eating it, and it will be one of the more cathartic experiences yet.

After moments of vitriol, something will pull me back from the crowd. A crowd of savages. I will barely be able to see the sobbing shopper, bleeding on the ground, tattered clothes covering nothing, and rush back home. I will not tell my parents of my involvement, avoiding them when I rush to the bathroom as they watch the day’s events unfold on the news. Riots will break out throughout the city as I sob under my shower, trying to wash away blood and bile.

Some weeks after receiving my implant, I will look back to the time I first fractured my arm. My mother comforted me, calling me a brave boy for having climbed the tree I fell off of. A very peculiar thought that will come to me on my deathbed as a fickle form of reassurance–perhaps I will have been brave for just trying to confront who I was, regardless of how I come out on the other side. Ma will have to be proud. Though that will not be enough.

The night after my oldest is born, guilt will swallow me whole and give me a panic attack. My exhausted wife will have to nurse two bawling bags of meat after I lose my sense of being. I will hold her close as she reminds me to let go.

One-hundred-and-eighty-two casualties. Three arrests.

When I first tell my future-wife about my hindutva days, she will tell me about the skeletons in her closet, in her chest of drawers and under her bed. She will deem the incident, though a significant one, not momentous enough, unless I actively try to convince myself of it. A literal skeleton from my youth will not haunt me for the rest of my life if I don’t want it to.

This immature interpretation will then be overhauled by the wisdom one finds under the deathbed of a partner–I will finally realize what my wife meant. However ineffable this revamped insight may be, I will never be able to act on it until I lose my ability to care about the syntax.

Progress will grant me the ability to look back at the events of my past that I will not have remembered without the implant. Ma believed in me trying. My wife will have believed in me accepting. So, I will look back for the last time. I will find the day I most rue and relive it with a sense of foresight.

Today, I chose to attend the coming meetings of Pandit Hindutva. Today, I am a naive boy eager to learn the Hindu history of a formerly secular country. Tonight, I will sleep with a smile. On my deathbed, I will let go; with my dying breath, I will forgive myself.

  • Hindutva: an ideology that seeks to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, highly critical of the secularism.
  • Satyagraha: Sanskrit for ‘Truth-Force,’ non-violence.

Ayan De, a student of aerospace engineering, can be found wandering the city with a camera, entranced by a movie or curled up with a book whenever his head is not in the clouds. Sometimes, he picks up a pen.

Fiction | Jogi’s Behemoth – Anagha Unni

Picture credits: Author herself

A withering man from a forest-dwelling tribe lives in a dying world in which “development” has crushed the lives of his land and his people. Jogi reflects on a once fertile, happy world that has been devastated as he sits in the reservation that his tribe has been crowded into. In this heartbreaking description of a dying Earth, Unni is able to offer her protagonist a few moments of freedom but never lets the reader forget how bad things are. – Shreya, The Bombay Review

The evening sky over Runool’s Kimthi Colony was crimson onto turn purple. After hours of faceoff with the sun, tin-sheet roofs were cooling down and the tin-huts yet again sufferable. Noises of children skipped through and glided to curl around the shanty huts, all in rows of six. Their undue mirth echoed against the skimpy pith of the refugee settlement.

Kimthi colony was the aftermath, a miniscule portion as it may be, of the damming of a river, of the eradication of a valley. The colony was fabricated, with tin-huts and creaky water pumps, on the fringes of the once abundant valley of Runool. Valley of Runool was nestled in the uttermost region of the Indian southeastern ghats, a grand mountain range. Apart from a whole world of bees, bugs, beasts, birds, serpents, trees, flowers, clay, dirt, goats, cows, pigs, chickens, laughter, love, hopes, dreams, words, songs, tales, children, babies, and half a million people, the valley also was a paragon of what the world ought to be. A blameless, peaceful, warless land; where the trees stood for centuries, where the river flowed eternally, an idealistic reality and an improbable truth.

And then it was reversed, remade. The nemesis blew in like a deadly storm to shock, to terrorize, to leave in its wake a morass of devastation. A decision was made, an ultimatum without a negotiation. A river was to be dammed. A forest was to be eliminated. A people were to be extirpated.

Like a mean neighborhood bully, the incorporeal enemy with its infinite forces, snatched away cherished pleasures, loved homes, essential earth, one after the other, then all at once. He sniggered as the bullied howled. He was ruthless, a real threat.

The valley of Runool was inundated by power, by brutality, by the impending submergence by an exorbitant dam. Its forests were felled. Its creatures crushed. A haven was wiped out, a heaven helled.

Kimthi colony was set up for nineteen chosen families from the valley. They were one hundred and nine number of people, indigenous, noble. They were plucked off their roots by grisly fingers of a faceless clout, and discarded into what was imperiously, generally, called rehabilitation settlement.

It lidded a doomed people. It muffled their despairing pulse, stripped their rightful skins and shrouded them in ceaseless contempt. It seemed to crumble and die every night, over and over again. Its inmates corroded.

In the land sitting pretty and unthreatened by the prospect of submergence, the Indian Army had come to roost. To protect, to defend, they said. A stray bullet, from their restless rifles, often caught a tree, or a squirrel, or a bird. Like ripe fruits they fell dead, gutter-classed collateral damage.

People of Kimthi witnessed their homes wrecked, stripped, smashed. They subsisted on jobs that killed them, torturously. Farmers they were, but now scavengers, menial laborers. Their knowledge of the earth, the saps, the seasons, and the skies, ceased to matter. Their cries were muted. They drudged for the ones that wrested their lives away, and quelled their kernel.

That evening as the sky turned purple from crimson, as any other bedeviled day in Kimthi, the women returned as a crew after a tiresome day of grind. They were all clad in sarees of colors tainted with building grime. The men of the colony were still awhile away. They only arrive in the dark, one by one, drunk and deadbeat. In the openings in front of tin-huts, frail oldies crouched and hunched in clusters like troops of chimps.

The colony was ostensibly trite but in its lair, in the hearts of its timid people, dwelled numerous behemoths, hydra-headed. They raged and roamed in the subdued people, a force laid dormant.

One of the behemoths, unseen but berserk was in Jogi, a hoary old man. He was an enduring member of the one hundred and nine (minus fourteen, dead). He had twig-thin legs and arms that suggested bygone wiriness. His saggy skin, shiny black, lay in folds on his gaunt belly, like women’s after birthing. His sunken eyes held in them a slight unaware leer. His lips were partly buried under a royal mustache. His age was revealed everywhere especially his face, which seemed like a sculpture that was melting.

Away from the other elders, the troops of chimps, in solitude Jogi was perched atop a stump. He suffered constipation. He was indisposed. And that evening, his desolation had ratcheted.

Months ago, since the period the valley of Runool with its forests and river and creatures were in totality closed off and razor wire fenced, Jogi’s functioning, his equanimity, eluded him. His biological clock crashed. His bowels eschewed movement. And, it was not in the least a mode of protest.

The trouble was that, for all his life he defecated in the open, in bucolic surroundings of the valley of Runool. It was a mundane bit of life, as it should be; he hardly considered it blessedness. While he had it, he was unsuspecting of its fragility. It never occurred to him that it was plausible to be wrenched off of that plain, primitive routine. Never in his wildest of nightmares did he apprehend it becoming a harbinger of death. Until the doomed day when he was forced to attempt shitting indoors, he was utterly oblivious of the sacramental bond his bowels, the nexus of his core, shared with the earth.

In retrospection he continually relived the act he had feebly come to so dearly miss, the intrinsic freedom it bore. To strip, to be still, to be close to the earth, the blades of grass and their shades of green, to watch the enchanting scurrying bugs, to twiddle dead leaves, to crunch red ants, to sniff the smell of their unjust death, to spot spider webs, to count their strands, to choose a leaf for a wipe when done, to listen to the birds, the toads, the crickets, the thoughts. And like a wild animal, to be intimate for a while with one’s land.

Perched on the stump under the crimson sky turning purple, Jogi stared over the faraway barbed wire that he could only faintly see. The distance diminished its menace; it looked like a work of weaved threads, each quadrangle a motif of downfall.  

He ached for the felled forests, the choked river, and its raped lush. He felt a throe as he recalled the once verdure land, the variety of food they had, and the skies that upheld essential promises of rain and sun.

He was purblind towards the emerging engineering, the patrolling soldiers, and the exterminated old world. He failed to understand the language they, the powered, spoke, the papers they showed. They were strapping men, in clean clothes that smelled like crushed flowers. They made chicanery promises for the benighted. They had force and they wielded it. They bought valleys and rivers with fishes in it. They had a purpose and the audacity to carry it.

At a time when Runool was an outlying valley, it was intact and sheltered by Chittal, Goromat, Lethi and Aachim, all mountains and remarkable. No road was laid, no visitor probed, mainland was only a notion. Food grew on the banks of the river, beloved Yaami, one of eternal flow. Large groups of wild gaur roamed, muscular beasts that traversed the terrain, they invoked myths of forest and man. Up in the mountains so did the big cats, tigers, leopards. Vultures were aplenty; at the scent of death they shot to the spot like arrows from ether. Dead cattle vanished as soon as they died. Dead people too, if they were out in the forests. People were few, clans of tribes. There were brawls but no wars. Jogi remembered from his youth, long nights of celebrations for full moons and espousals, of dancing and singing, drinking and feasting.

Men didn’t cower as they did now, they walked light, they sweat, and they laughed. Women were inviolable unlike now, they were unabashed, and they were proud. Children that survived were hearty and they were green. Elders had their voice, they didn’t waste away in corners of grime, stooped and omitted, hanging wretchedly for death. Wisdom was real.

The trees had the right to their leaves, their twigs, and their fruits. The river had the right to its lull, its rage. The sky had the right to its sun, its blue. The earth had the right to its seeds and its roots. Animals lived as people lived, and people lived as gods did. None owned another, inconceivable thoughts for the now. 

Freedom was costless. Justice too.

The sky over Kimthi had turned purple. Jogi heard faint water sounds; the women were washing themselves in the toilets. The toilets in Kimthi were government-initiated, pursuant to one of its sinuous spawns, Mission Clean. Missions were many, but Jogi knew, had learnt the hardest way, that their blows were all the same. Nobody escaped, some perished.

They, the show masters, combed through forests and valleys and villages, tidied their contents, the trees, the rivers, the cattle, the people, and their beliefs and vestiges of dreams. They collected the treasures, discarded the surplus. They tiled over the grass. Built over the hills. The poor were brushed aside like dust, they lay in a pile waiting to be scooped up and dismembered. But during the wait, the ones in Kimthi had the toilets and the tin huts, a refuse-lump universe.

Before the river was forbidden to its people, the women used to flock to the river to bathe, they took the children too. There they sang between laughs, there they reveled in gossip, and spent hours together. And back home they came radiant, robust at heart.

Jogi slowly stepped off the stump; he had stiffened from the sitting. He floundered along the rows of tin-huts. Some women were hunched out, cooking. Evening smells of meager meals permeated the air. Boiled lentils, rice.

Mangoes, cucumbers, bottle guards, tomatoes, potatoes, fish no more. They too were combed away, uprooted, erased.

Jogi moved towards what he had grown to dread.

They were stodgy concrete structures shaped like ugly boxes, four feet long, five feet wide. For the nineteen families of Kimthi, there were four such boxes. They had drains but no taps. On days when the water pump squeaked without water, (an irony, as it was on the peripheries of the dam, which plighted more water, not less), the boxes stank with swimming shit and bubbling urine. Their sources of light were narrow vents, four slits like squeezed giant eyes. Strips of light pierced them in the day and at night, only absolute darkness.

Jogi entered one of the toilet-boxes, in the dark, he was as good as blind but his nose flagged up to the reek. He breathed through his mouth, stripped and squatted. Over the months of his blocked bowel syndrome, his stomach had hardened as a rock. He was desperate to loosen it – to retrieve his appetite for food, to sleep, and to breathe easier. It was his very own version of Mission Clean. It was not out to kill.

He grunted with the effort of trying, of pushing. It brought him recollections of Prabata years ago, his wife, pushing out their son. She had grunted and wailed for hours before his birth.

He had been grunting for months, a wail was brimming too. Somebody was banging on the door, he called out to wait and the banging stopped.

And Jogi tried again. Nothing.

Runool was first infiltrated with roads. It was years of ordeal, to mutate the terrain in ways that nobody prior it had thought possible. They sliced, carved and bent familiar acreage. Through the sliced up gaps, like molten lava, in seeped the mainland and its tumult. Language altered, demeanor too. Money came in, biases too. Greed was tapped, woken up and tested, proved.

The careen towards ruination of Runool and its people, for a long time was kept under the guise of reform. It dazzled, people believed, really believed. Until it seared and then it was quite too late.

Lethi and Aachim were quarried and finished. Goromat, the tallest, was touristic. After years of ransack, Chittal was a declared reserve, and its kosher foresters expelled. Jogi’s behemoth, Runool’s people’s behemoths took roots and sieged their hearts, first as fury, then fear, and as dying men’s vehemence.

Jogi settled in front of his hut. Lilly, his son’s wife was stirring a pot of Kanji, rice gruel. Even after the wash, her cracked heels retained the dirt. Her hair was wet, and dwindled. She had borne two, both girls. They were running about, both were still young, seven or eight or nine. Like the other young men, his son would appear drunk in a while. Some nights he beat his wife. Some nights he didn’t. Jogi never raised a word; he presumed it not his place to meddle.

Soon after the toilets were built, even before the valley was altogether barred off, the women began their use of the toilets. In the valley unlike before, lurking dangers hid behind bushes. They pounced on women, and they devoured girls. Women were no more inviolable; they harbored fear.

The aroma of Kanji was making him sick again. A shooting pain cut through his innards. He clutched his gut and sat still for it to pass.

Beside the hut, and before the adjacent hut, Lilly’s black dog, Kaki Kaki, spun around and round. His four feet spry and tail stilled. Like two dense mountains, his ears stood tall. Golden marble eyes rapt and mouth clasped shut, he whined. His brown-back a convex; on the earth he snuffled holes. His cold dark nose trembled. After about a dozen spins, he froze. Legs apart, posed like a squirrel, he pooped. There was climactic exultation. He buried his deposit with sand in a few swift hind-leg kicks. He bounded about like a hare. Then he jogged away.

Freedom was still costless for some.

Lilly offered Jogi a bowl of gruel, which he declined. She muttered something. She was always vexed. The girls ate, Lilly waited for her man to arrive. Jogi unclutched his gut, the pain had passed, and the urge was back again.

He walked back to the box as fast as he could. It was not very fast. Not fast enough. Inside, in the dark, he was back at it. He trembled with chagrin.


From the reek he stepped out. For a moment he was pacific, but soon sheer impulse overran him. His desolation had summited. He moved like a reigned horse, an old lurching horse. His berserk behemoth was the jockey.

It was a reckless resolve, not steely, doltish. Nonetheless, the resolve was set. Jogi was going to trespass. He was going home. To the dammed, cemented and raped river valley. He was going to walk the land, and to rest on the soft earth.

There was an utter lack of plan. The soldiers might deem him an infiltrator, an insurgent. They may shoot to kill. He may die. He was willing to die, he realized as he walked. He had lived a long life, a pathetic one for the most part. Death was welcome.

Behind the tin-huts, it was a swamp, and piles of rubbish lay in heaps. In the dark, he walked over strange textures. Soggy, squeaky, supple, sharp, he was barefoot. Few feet away a street lamp was lit, it was over the fence. The barbed wire looked as uncompromising as ever. The gut-cramp returned and tightened.

Exhaustion swept over him and he waded like he was under water. It was after an unreasonably long plod that Jogi found a passage. He could hear voices of men. Soldier men. Leader men. Men who smelled of crushed flowers.

Over the fence, in forbidden territory, in the wrenched homeland, he sought darkness. He slinked as he could, away from the risen buildings and voices of missioned men, from the lampposts with lamps lit, from felled trees that left gaping stumps, from alien-like transformers, from thrumming current generators, from smells of fumes. Jogi was steered to the heart of the valley. Fading, moribund spaces of Runool’s core, where the moonbeam was bright, and owls watched over. Where the fireflies romanced, the bats too.

Jogi knew, his bowels too. He was home. Altered, broken, perhaps dying, but home after all. And that was monumental.

Beneath a silver oak that crooned to the night sky, Jogi stripped, squatted and stilled. The crickets grew loud; their social ousted all other noise, all vibrations of babel. The blades of grass had dew on them, little beads; each cradled a moon. A ladybug was spotted, and another. The lovers in polka dots, they scurried along over their earth.

And it happened, the much-awaited milestone.

Jogi’s bowels moved. His heart raced. It was sudden, the long suspension of months, the indisposition, simply vamoosed. He waited for more. There was more.

Then there was climactic exultation.

Privately, intimately and fervidly, freedom was briefly won.

A Bakula leaved wipe, and sand burial later, Jogi walked further into the night. He was elated. It felt right to be home.

He glided towards the sound of water. His feet pressed against little stones and waned leaves. He had found a slender stick, smooth, primed by the wind. He swung it as he walked to clear the cobwebs in the path, to tenderly stroke the tall grass. His body capered to the familiar rhythm, to the ingrained melody.

Way before he caught a glimpse of the water, the mammoth engineering loomed over him. The massive dam was higher than what Jogi could perceive. It barred the moon’s shine. He walked and walked until the water surfaced. It was inaccessible, walled, barred.

Jogi lingered, he was pleased to be near it, trammeled as it might be. It was not Yaami, he was certain, but its morphed avatar. The dam was a macabre tomb of a once worshipped river.

He wondered if the water was cold. He wondered if the water was still brisk. Jogi lay back on the soft, wet, weeping land. The sky above was cloudless, clear, stars were scattered. The sound of water against concrete felt thick to his ears. No crystal clear pebble rocking was heard.

After months, he was hungry. He craved for millet roti and spicy onion chutney, for fish; fried Pearl Spot or curried Tilapia. Some rice beer and few long drags of smooth chillum. Some banter, some laughter, and a promise for a new day, full of sun and happy sweat. His youth. His valley.

Then inevitably cleaved in the thoughts of the tin-hut, of the rice gruel. His son must have arrived. He may have thrashed his wife. Jogi closed his sunken eyes; they fluttered under the lids, two shaky globes.

They were demolished people, Jogi knew, he and his children. Their minds were in disarray. Inside out. Upside down. Ulta-pulta. Life was going backwards. The world was imploding. Turning vacuous. Men were infantile. Children were greying. Rivers were entombed.

The night was still young. A jungle fowl cried.

Jogi wouldn’t go back to the tin-hut, to the refuse-lump universe. He would breathe through the night, dance to the rhythm of his ephemeral freedom, sing to the trees, and fondle the breeze, wander, wonder, fly, and away.

As long as he breathed, he would be free. As long as he breathed, he would be human. And then he would become a bug, or a pebble, or a fish, or a cloud. He would become an improbable truth.

Jogi’s behemoth roared.

Anagha holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication and a Diploma in Screen and Media Studies from Sydney Film School, where she won the Best Screenplay Award for her work titled Maya, which later she directed as a short film.

Anagha is a documentary filmmaker who currently lives in Kerala, India. She is a writer by night and hopes to work her way to becoming a writer by the day.

Fiction | My Best Friend’s Wedding – Alina Gufran

Alina flies down to attend her best friend’s wedding, and it becomes a backdrop for introspection, anxiety and finally, epiphany. Battered emotionally by the sparkle of wedding festivities, she stumbles through multiple moments of exhaustion – a scenario familiar to the more decided introverts among us. However, all is not lost. Alina finds a semblance of resolution towards the end of her tale, “I begin to understand why it’s hard to let go of old friendships even when they distinctly seem to have run their course, why I would take the time and energy and money out to wear a saree and a smile each time my best friends expected me to, if it meant making them happy.” – Shreya, The Bombay Review

The airplane felt stuffy, too hot, the seats too cramped, the aisles reeked of pickle and mustard oil, the air hostesses’ make-up wasn’t blended right. Everything was overdone, stereotyped, wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I realised the vowels of the foreign tongue grated my nerves; foreign yet within my own country. I found my tired brain jumping to hateful clichés when I heard a man sitting behind me on a phone call. My education prompted me to ask him to shut up; the flight was about to take off. Exceptionally irritable, I’d been feeling little of the snugness that a best friend’s wedding is supposed to bring. I felt anxieties and fears – familiar and new – sitting at the base of my navel, sitting as tightness in my chest. Inhale, exhale, repeat the steps, go through the motions until I can manufacture some of the heady happiness I’m supposed to be feeling. I suspected that the discontent stemmed from me.

Chennai seemed familiar and alien all at once. The weather was balmy, the air smelled of a pungent, tired sea, knock-off designer perfume and cocktails made with cheap alcohol. What was it about this over-the-top, bourgeoisie wedding nestled in the posh but ultimately, trite quarters of a boutique hotel by the beach that summoned my inner critic? Was it the expensive, rather gauche bar where a highly mediocre Negronis cost 800 rupees? Was it the attractive North-Eastern sommelier’s disapproving brows, disappearing into his hairline when I chose the least expensive wine on the menu? Was it the oblivious American working-class hero from Wisconsin with his steady diet of greasy cheeseburgers and coke, or his Asian-American girlfriend, with a sixth-generation Chinese father and first-generation Chinese mother (the right degree of exotic?), who steered every conversation towards herself and her modern-day immigrant inconveniences? Why was I trying so hard to disassociate?

At Radio Room, the bar where everybody congregated for an informal ‘meet and greet’, I finally saw Naina, my childhood best friend, who’d been sending me increasingly excited voice notes in the weeks leading up to this. Despite warm greetings and liquor trying its best to smooth every social interaction, I was out of place amidst the throng of guests making small talk. I missed my former best friend, even though she was right there. The cruelest distances are the ones with people next to you. She was my first real friend, at a ridiculous time of unshaven legs and acne and crushes on boys with dull personalities. At fourteen, she’d chucked my first packet of cigarettes out of the window of my eighth-story home and in retaliation, I’d thrown her phone to the floor. She was everything I wasn’t. Charming, warm, open, loving. I was everything she wasn’t. Assured, aloof, unpopular, slightly feared. Best friends have an interesting way of complementing each other.

We’d taken to each other without judgment, Indian schoolgirls in Dubai, and fallen into our own groove of friendship. We’d stalked young Arab boys in libraries, walked by the beach in a strange land where we didn’t know the language but couldn’t get enough of the exotic sights, sounds, smells and strange social hierarchies. Together we’d understood what it meant to be cool or rich, to live in a particular pin code, to have the means to pursue a PhD abroad, to allow yourself the freedom of studying philosophy. We’d been through our first heartbreaks and first major bouts of depression together. Most cultures attach so much significance to romantic relationships that we easily forget how for many of us, the first real adult foray into love comes through our closest friendships.

I moved from event to event, cocktail dress to Indian attire, with a lingering sense of nostalgia and an abject lack of pathos. I was there for Naina, but I didn’t feel the need to be charming or friendly or approachable or distant or sexy, I didn’t feel the need for anything. I found myself imagining how, decades ago, my parents had their whirlwind romance that spanned continents and religions. I know how that turned out. I wondered if I had believed that I, too, would meet the right person at 16 and marry them and live out the various boring but ultimately safe rituals of a high school romance turned life-long partnership. Well, now I felt an immediate discomfort with anything not characterised by the brand of cynicism and hopelessness that had marked my twenties. Increasingly, the idea of a wedding, of a marriage, of a life shared with one person was beginning to look like some other girl’s dream. At a bar called ‘The Library’, its name legitimised by a wall lined with first edition hardcovers locked behind a glass panel, doused in angled mood lighting, their dusty sadness proving they’d never been opened, I sat across from the American couple. “Do you meditate?” Wisconsin boy asks me. I catch myself before an audible groan can slip out. He briefly tells me about his brush with drugs, how he’s debating selling his DJing gear since he’s been unemployed for four months, how it’s beginning to take a toll on his Brooklyn life. We discuss siblings, growing up Catholic and their desire to move to New Orleans. The Asian girl wants to get married at Monterey Bay Aquarium and only asks me questions about film because she works as a copywriter in New York. I marvel at their easy, almost simplistic relationship, the blind spots that come with growing up with an American passport, the myopia that comes with believing the country you’re born in is the only world you’ll ever need to inhabit. The girl whips out her phone and shows me her Chinese family in LA. The genteel, shrewd looking grandmother, the grandfather with an oxygen tank, the conspicuously masculine pit bull, the buff younger cousin, the straight-edged ‘work hard, play hard’ second cousin, the matching Christmas sweaters. I realise her ease with her dissonant identities and her doting boyfriend make me slightly jealous. We smile widely at each other, we take sips from each other’s drinks, we exchange antique silver and gold-plated neckpieces for an event later and hug goodbye. Away from the wedding bedlam, I feel a grudging affection for her.

The sangeet begins with all the aplomb one would expect at a fancy Indian wedding. Copious amounts of liquor, a lavish buffet, a DJ spinning house remixes of Bollywood classics from the 90s, generations and nationalities brought together by the blend of tradition and intoxication. I hadn’t been eating well since my break-up. Food was mere sustenance, but that meant I couldn’t keep up with the drinking. Naina’s eighteen-year-old brother grabs me by the wrist and pulls me towards the bar. A pale, lavender liquid in a shot glass materialises, and I clutch it with desperation. The brother’s eyes glazed with a post-charas haze, he bounces on his toes as a group of people – including his parents – form a circle and clink shot glasses. I slip away, handing the shot glass to the bartender. “Hide it.” My best friend finds me through the crowd and makes her way to me. “Are you not going to dance to shitty Bollywood songs at my wedding?” I shake my head vigorously, accompanying her to the dance floor despite my inability climb out of my head and be present for her.

Naina’s family were diamond merchants from Gujarat who’d immigrated to Dubai – the erstwhile land of opportunity, lack of taxes and material abundance. Her father had chalked up enough money to raise three kids in a palatial beachfront home, send them to one of the better schools in Dubai, and finance their move abroad for their respective universities. The kids, all said and done, possessed a certain humility that others our age conspicuously lacked when thrust into the obscene power of new money. The shots were a celebratory indulgence, an attempt to impress overlaid onto their endearing Gujarati simplicity. The husband’s family hailed from Tamil Nadu and Punjab respectively. His father was the CEO of an Indian airline fast fading into obscurity. Despite more access and exposure than the average Indian, the acute consciousness of their own class led to a gnawing lack of acceptance of what they deemed to be a lack of sophistication from the other side. Religion wasn’t the divisive factor here, but their different backgrounds and predilections were.

Naina’s father’s best friend’s son makes his way to me across the carpeted dance floor, his face streaked with red and green neon. A flash of a house party in Friedrichshain at 5 AM on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. Neon lights, spindly bodies snaking across a makeshift dance floor, my then boyfriend behind the decks, me whispering into his ear, trying to convince him that Eric Andre was at the party. Life’s displacements were like tectonic plates shifting beneath you, the heart and mind struggling to create and conquer old meanings in new contexts. The boy went by Nemo and complimented me on my hair, my moves. I smiled a sincere smile and excused myself. My initial response to compliments was now to accept them and then look away. This wasn’t a tactical move, nor a sly maneuver meant to elicit a reaction. Maybe it was shades of discomfort, that slight consciousness at being put on display and yet aching to be put on display. Either way, I really just didn’t know what to say.

Outside the basement ballroom, an oxymoron in itself, I light a cigarette and observe the flames across the expanse of water flanked by Grecian columns on either side. I lie down on the cold marble, lehenga askew, hoping to see some stars in the sky. A whiff of Versace. I chuckle inwardly at the contours of my hyper-capitalist upbringing as a slender boy with impeccable sartorial sense slides in next to me. 

“I cried this morning after three years. It was so beautiful,” he says in a distinctive drawl, his diction chiseled with private education as he begins to roll a joint.


“Crying is cathartic, isn’t it?”

“Yes, anti-depressants don’t ever allow for that sort of release.”

I’m unsure how we’ve slipped so easily into such an intimate conversation. I find myself drawn to his pale skin, freckles and eyes with schisms of empathy and impenetrability. We smoke lying on the freshly trimmed grass, discussing the merits of the male contraceptive, the current political climate in the country, and raising puppies. I find myself withdrawing slightly as he showcases a certain shade of martyr complex, placing himself at the centre of the nation’s political turmoil. He pulls me back in by telling me about his mother’s internalised patriarchy, and how hollow victories feel when they’re against your parents. Our effortless conversation is interrupted by a local gentleman who’s down a few drinks, slurry as he shakes our hands. Arnav gets up to address him. I feel a familiar flicker of irritation despite the pot’s pleasant haze and excuse myself yet again.

Back inside, hearing about some perceived insult by the groom’s father, I wonder why institutionalised marriage even exists anymore. Why is the bride’s father’s identity inexorably tied up with the grandeur of his oldest daughter’s wedding? Despite coming from a fairly regressive North Indian family, my father only ever mentions marriage as an afterthought, a private joke shared between the two of us on a phone call late at night, the thought only really occurring to him in passing when I say I want to shift jobs or cities or continents. I remember him threatening me with marriage when I failed my 11th grade exams. I remember regarding it as an act of betrayal – succumbing to the idea of women as property to be passed on from the father to the husband. Perhaps his intended outcome was what happened next year, with me acing my school graduation exams. After my parents decided they wanted different things and that more importantly, they didn’t want them with each other, he could never use marriage as a threat. We all developed an almost sinister sense of humour to deal with the separation. All talk of marriage faded into sardonic jokes about how they should have expiry dates, feeding into my fatalistic assertion that being alone is the only constant.

I was sharing a room with Naina’s other best friend, who I’d methodically avoided despite years attending the same school. She’d lost her voice on account of spending the last two months attending a slew of weddings. When I returned to the amber-lit darkness of the room, I found myself unable to focus. The girl was snoring like a truck while I tried not to breathe too loud, lest I wake her up. Later, she helped me tie my saree almost perfectly as I took my place beside her in front of the bathroom mirror. We both lined our faces with powder in silence, me conscious of the music playing from my laptop. She wants to borrow my eye shadow palette; I apologise for only having nude colours. She laments the weight she’s put on through her adult years in Bangalore, working through late nights with erratic food schedules. I glance at her sideways.

“You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you, you’re kind.”

“I’m not being kind, I’m only being honest,”

She meets my eyes and smiles – a genuine warmth filling up her eyes. That’s all it takes. One sincere interaction after years of avoiding each other, not having much in common except a best friend and suddenly, I feel the warm rush of winning somebody’s favour when you least expect it. Over the next couple of days, when I find myself slinking out of parties early or hiding behind marble columns to smoke, I often receive texts from her, checking in. I reply with platitudes but don’t go back.

The next morning, I managed to steal an hour or two for myself. The wedding was done, after a hazy sequence of ceremonies and rituals. Still, there was a drunken brunch and some sort of reception to follow. I go for a swim, savouring the solitude of the cool water, until my thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Mariliria – the chubby Greek girl with no understanding of personal boundaries and a propensity for flattery. She tries to make conversation with me as I continue my swim. It is a strange dichotomy; how comfortable I can make others feel in my presence and how quickly I tend to withdraw from them if they reveal anything true about themselves. Mariliria wants to talk to me about the guy she hooked up with last night. I passively notice the tension between them as he comes out to the sun-beds. I vaguely wonder what sex looks like when Mariliria has it, how conscious is she of her body, what the boy finds attractive about her. She says she thinks I’m the most beautiful girl at the wedding, after the bride. I’m flattered but later bemused by the off-hand comment, as though beauty superseded anything else, I might have to offer as a woman; as though such a compliment was anything but definitive and entirely suffocating.

Later that morning, Naina and I get a few moments to ourselves. All her friends flock around her, air kisses and goodbyes one hopes would be finite ones. I observe her cycle through the hugs and the pleasantries with the ease and charm of a politician and I laugh to myself. I think of how I’d always been a bit of a ‘back pocket friend’ – neatly tucked into the compartmentalised folds of somebody else’s life, my value increasing with the need to be hidden, preserved and I could settle into the backwash of somebody else’s limelight. I wonder what I can ask her that will not be weighed down by shared histories or stories. A couple of evenings earlier, I’d immediately asked if she still planned on pursuing her PhD, my head swaying and my eyes brighter than usual with the wine. I want to ask if she thinks of a time where she might not want to be with Tarun anymore, if she plans on only doing this once, if she knows what the moment was when we drifted inexplicably but surely from being attached at the hip to living such different lives? Did she know or remember?

 Instead, I find myself faltering when she wants to know about my love life; my mind turning over the various threads of romance resistant to definition, paling in comparison to the weighty, resounding certainty of marriage. I lay my head on her shoulder and we take a few selfies – ephemeral moments to be captured and stored. Moments that make sure that once I recede into the comfort of my solitude, I can still reach out and indulge in a past that no longer exists.

To everyone’s surprise, I had made a concerted effort to dress up for the brunch. Something about being away from the mundanity of Bombay made me want to exploit the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, hoping that this physical transformation would enable an emotional one. Instead, as I bitch on the phone to my other best friend while she mocks my privilege, I’m overheard by Naina and Tarun. “You’re just a pretentious writer who’s entirely self-involved,” he tells me as his face cracks into a self-satisfied, silly smile. I’m disconcerted but nod along to his assertion. The day’s too bright, the conversation’s too dull for me to defend myself. Naina breaks out of her post-wedding haze, the unremitting lull of satisfaction only some of us can afford, to defend me. “Alina has a tendency to agree with anything negative said about her even if it isn’t true.”

I wonder why I’m there, why I missed the memo and turned up overdressed to this event, why my facades are so brittle, why I haven’t slipped away to meet an old friend who is in Chennai – a cinematographer I know through my ex who’d once advised me on a script that never went anywhere.

Slipping out that evening wasn’t difficult, given everyone’s exhausted mental and physical state. After a forty-minute rickshaw ride I found myself at a rundown rooftop bar overlooking a beach, barely visible under the night sky. Advith was a good listener, unafraid to wear his limitations on his sleeve, leading a wilder life than his slender, non-threatening frame and kind eyes suggested. We’d last met years ago at a quiet, nondescript wine bar in Neukölln, and I worried about the unsaid discomfort of knowing each other through my ex-boyfriend, the longest relationship of my life that almost felt imagined at this point. Yet, I found myself relaxing in this presence, the tension in my shoulders and back receding as my tongue loosened with the wine. The conversation went from film to collective anxieties – the lack of money in attempting to pursue an artistic life in a developing country, the possibilities for art in a nation on the brink of outright dictatorship, his brother’s pending wedding, the absurdity of legal contracts and gold bands meant to bind people together. Despite all the wine, it was ironic that I felt more comfortable talking to somebody I’d barely known three years ago than to my best friend who I’d known for decades.

The attendant baggage of old relationships is that people tend to want to pull you into directions they remember you from, into patterns they constructed with you. If, like me, you have a habit of wanting to give before somebody can ask, relationships can often exist in eternal limbo, in a space where finding words to express exactly what is it that you need becomes harder each time you nurse the idea of expression, and then reject it. Physical distances can often make way for emotional ones and as women grow up with the idea of being somebody’s somebody, the phone calls taper out, continents change, text messages are few and far in between, time zones and husbands and kids (I’m told) get in the way. Childhood friendships are now defined by making the effort to turn up at each other’s engagements, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries – the gradual, inevitable shift into ‘acceptable’ constructs. I can barely wrap my head around the present, much less the deceptive nature of the future. I find comfort in Advith’s uncertainty, in the humility that comes from not pretending to know all the answers, in the shared identity of being an outsider. 

We finish our drinks and walk through empty Chennai roads towards the main highway, dodging stray dogs, lazy bulls, parked cars and buses. We stand by the highway as he calls me a taxi. We chat absent-mindedly about the incoming rise of right-wing supporters in Tamil Nadu. I argue that the state’s political mechanics would never agree to a largely north Indian political party gaining and exerting majority control; he’s dubious – the fast deteriorating state of the nation relegated to an intermediary chat before the taxi arrives.

Inside, I feel a pang of longing for the private jokes Naina and I share, how easily my dumbest comments make her laugh, how widely I grin when she’s impressed by my most transparent ploys and most ordinary expressions. I remember how often, at social settings, she rolls her eyes at me after running out of patience or charm, how often I’d called her up beset with tears, hiding in my room as a teenager, fruitlessly attempting to drown my parent’s rising voices with some insipid pop album, how she’d defended me against bullying senior boys when I refused to grant them the respect they felt entitled to. I begin to understand why it’s hard to let go of old friendships even when they distinctly seem to have run their course, why I would take the time and energy and money out to wear a saree and a smile each time my best friends expected me to, if it meant making them happy.

I remember, vividly, the moment from two nights before, when all the girls – the loud ones from New York, the shy ones from Dubai, the conventionally pretty ones from Chennai, the rich Gujarati aunties with large hips and larger jewels – congregated in the bride’s suite, attempting to help each other with the folds of our disintegrating sarees, charming and laughable in equal parts. I remember Naina, decked head to toe in a bejeweled lehenga that weighed over 10 kilos, her skirt unnaturally starched, standing across me, arms akimbo, against the setting sun, a complete silhouette, asking me how she looked. Her hair perfectly coiffed, swathes of make-up across her elegant face, her expression as vulnerable as the text messages I hid behind. In that moment, she was all of twelve years old again and I couldn’t help but smile.

Alina Gufran is a fiction-writer and poet who writes about urban alienation and female identity based out of Mumbai. She is an alumna of the 2019 Dum Pukht writing workshop and her work has appeared in The Bangalore review, The Swaddle and Sister-hood magazine.