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

A Rotten Deal 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umeshi thought of her sparsely populated inbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the devil are you doing there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Udesh slammed his fist against the doorframe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Just say no,” was Ganga’s advice. 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I made crab,” she said uselessly. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Funeral of National Importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you?” she asked.

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hire?’ She was confused, ‘what?’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction | ‘Bus No. 102’ by Himani Gupta | CreativeWritingW-TBR

I was between eight and nine. I had all the right to be afraid of stories of death. There was not a single sinister object I did not fear; the monkey-carcasses hanging on electric wires, the headless doll on the rooftop included.

I did go out to play, but I retreated when games involved morbid objects. I loved speaking about ghosts, though. Because I was sure there were no ghosts, I could frighten the believers. When I was younger, my father had explained to me about their non-existence. Since then, whenever my friends told me that they did, I would run to my father, and from beneath the pile of papers he still had to file, I would urge him to confirm once again.

He did so with absolute faith in my faith in his words, ascertaining that there was no proof of the existence of ghosts. As a practice, when my sister, Dollie, brought me a head of a doll with a tousle of hair, I romped over her by mimicking scenes from ghost movies. She was cheerful, had a candid and naughty demeanour, with unapologetic bravery. She was a child meant for the living room, while I was meant to be in the study, where one barely spoke to the other. She was boisterous, and I was fiercely obedient. On a gloomy day, if a glass jar of chocolate powder slipped off my hands, I went into despondency. To jump on the washbasin and dash it against the floor was, for her, typical. Usually after this, she looked for something fresh to toy with.

In the house where we lived, which had more skylights than windows, our mother took over the daunting task of grooming us to welcome guests. This is how she did it. 

“Dollie! No overeating, no blabbering, no jokes on others. D-r-a-w a line.”  She said stretching her eyebrows tight, and then to me, relaxed, “There is no line.” 

The guests included aunts and uncles and their snooty children. They came unalarmed. I never greeted them despite mother’s constant prodding, and Dollie never goofed up at enthralling them. They knew us well enough to know whom to ask for a dance performance. Somehow, they always remained strangers to me. First time guests, however, had to get acquainted with the setting, and this happened with ease when I stood taut and Dollie stood moving her arms, trying to reach every dust particle around her.

There was little to look forward to in Khenjoy (its expanse was less than 10km in area), except for two movie theatres and a few historic buildings. This is probably why Khenjoyians whiled away their time by playing with each other’s private matters or bathing in the sun on their terraces. So did the children. They played hide-and-seek in houses not their own. 

When an aunt offered cookies or chocolates, Dollie didn’t hesitate. I found it irresponsible of her to eat grub without my mother’s knowledge. With a personal agenda to let her down, I ensured I informed mother, though she never bothered to have Dollie align with my nature. I was plaintive and perhaps, even depressing, which explains why I was the last one to show up when someone new dropped by. 

Now that I look at those days, I see that those guests were to me what ghosts were to Dollie. And I wished hopelessly that Khenjoyians kept to themselves.

I had no motivation to contest the affection of guests, until he arrived. The distant uncle, in bus number 102.

He was plump, with a proud paunch and a non-perfunctory hairdo that he evidently cared about. In a plain shirt tucked neatly and shoes that lacquered, he carried a valise for two pairs of t-shirts, one pair of pants and a Tibetan towel which he hung around his neck while groping for a soap or a razor in the dishevelled contents of his suitcase. He appeared erudite, using English words in conversations and asking us to spell apples, jaggery, and jackfruits. On the first day, he gave us chocolate bars, and on the following days, he gave us tiny toffees. 

He stayed with us for a purpose beyond our comprehension. Father had mentioned that he was here for business or work, or whatever. With time, we understood that he had been a native of Khenjoy and now lived in Bombay—a city we presumed was the most awesome of all in India. The first time he visited us, we had to cancel a planned picnic to the garden palace of Khenjoy. This was slightly more upsetting than usual for my mother who had potatoes boiled, mushrooms blanched and cucumbers sliced for sandwiches and puddings frozen beforehand. Eventually, she would serve a part of this to Uncle in china plates. 

I quipped, “Are we serving tea, or sherbet?” 

“Oh, just take whatever’s in hand!” She would never say ‘smash it on the table’. That was the decorum she wanted us to practice. 

Uncle did not ask us to sing or dance or even recite a poem. He began teasing us, knowing that was the easiest way to get children talking. It was no surprise that Dollie stepped up to tease him back. 

He asked her, “Why is your name Dollie?”

“Because I look like a doll.”

“What do you think is my name then?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Polar bear?”

 All of us cracked up.

We peeped into the skylights and watched mother keep him content by providing him food in a steady routine, almost like listless eateries serving their patrons. Mother had heard about him from my other aunts, and since he was in town for ‘work’ she had no interest in friendship.

In the evening, she served him tea and biscuits and tried to figure out if he had certain preferences for dinner. Uncle, however, was a simpleton who relished everything with almost equal interest. Mother cooked biryani and koftas for lunch the next day, and Uncle enjoyed it to the extent of discussing its recipe. To my mother’s surprise, he knew quite a bit about ingredients and discussed cooking tips with her. He knew how to bake a cake in a pressure cooker and offered to bake biscuits on his next visit. At night, mother questioned father out of curiosity, “Does he cook out of interest or is it because he has a lazy wife?”  

Sometimes, under the wreath of smoke in the kitchen, he guided mother on the amount of ghee to pour in the dough for doling out crunchy kachourees and helped clear the froth off gravies and curries.

He played carom with us and helped catch the ball when we played cricket, often becoming a player. One evening, he found me watching passers-by in front of the house instead of being out to play and perhaps, out of boredom, asked if I would accompany him for a walk. I could not refuse, despite having chosen to spend some time alone. 

Given his tall stature, I began taking abnormally long strides to keep up, but he slowed me down. He walked lethargically, relaxed and resting his hands in the pockets of his pants—he was always fully dressed and called us beta, the word for son in Hindi. 

“Which movie do we have at the theatre?” he asked. I asked him which theatre. When he mentioned both, I said I hadn’t noticed. He laughed, saying, “That’s the first thing kids your age notice.”

He began testing my general knowledge. The President, the Prime Minister, the first, the second, the state Chief Minister, the history, the geography, the last Viceroy of Independent India; almost everything that came to his mind for a junior student. 

I could not see his face, but only his large sleeves sagging near the pockets of his pants. He did not express any amazement or admiration for my all-correct answers, which I myself was not expecting. By the time his questions exhausted, we’d walked so long that we were about to cross the border to land in the grounds of the adjacent town. Since an expanse of lonely rice fields were about to follow in the dark, I felt at ease when he decided to return. 

“All right. Yes. What’s the plural form of cow?” He asked. 

“Cows,” I said. 








“Fishes.” My heart beat with pride but I could see that he thought I was too small to answer bigger questions. Still I was happy about an undisputed and immaculate victory until he corrected me that fish would be fish even if there were ten of them, unless they were different in kind. 

It was eight in the night and slightly cold, and he bought us Popsicles. And finally when he liberated his hands from his pockets to make the payment, I was freed of the fear that he was arm-less. 

I pitied the Popsicle that kept moving fast in and out of his mouth and dissolved almost in a minute. He kept asking, “do you want another one?”

“No,” I replied. “You can have one more if you like.” He bought two for himself.

“I have a son,” he said. “He can put two popsicles in his mouth at a time. But I can put three in mine.” He smiled.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“He is nine years and one day old.”

“One day? You didn’t celebrate his birthday?”

“His mother must have.”

He asked me something about a bus numbered 102, randomly. At that time I had no idea, so I said I didn’t know in a dispirited voice. 

He laughed a bit. “No, don’t be ashamed. It takes honesty to confess that you don’t know something.

I am not sure if I understood him. But my heart beat faster. And I must have been blushing. 

“It was one of the few buses that provided connectivity between our home and the railway station,” he said (I noticed that ‘our’) and later reminisced about his college days when he used to board 102, six days a week, mostly as a straphanger, getting to sit only on Saturdays. 

He gestured with his other hand while explaining. When winter shaded Khenjoy and vacations came around, he still hopped to the college library twice a week, sitting on the empty bus, clearing the fog from the glass of the window. Bombay called and he left in search of work, miles away, eventually settling down over there. “I can’t tell you how many memories I have.”

“What memories?” 

“Huh. Let it be. You are a child.” 

Mother always fed guests and children first, occasionally taking my service for passing on hot rotis from the burner to the diner’s plates. Uncle, however, disliked this and believed in eating together. So we began eating together and dinner time made me awkward due to my inability to acknowledge the friendship between us, unsure if he would mind it. He acted as if nothing had changed between us, or at least nothing had changed on his side. Expressing concern about the lack of electricity in the abandoned rice fields, he lauded the spicy food on his plate, talked about the fun he was having staying with us, but did not say a word about the time with me. 

At this moment, mother blessed me with an escape. The pile of rotis she had kept in the casserole before we began was now done with, so she asked me to get a few more from the kitchen. I brought the rotis, but they weren’t brushed with ghee, so she got up, mentioning I did not know how to do it and that she had always had to get up during meals. I sank into my chair. 

Uncle, with food in his mouth, said, “Now we can’t get her to know how to peel a bean and a jackfruit,” and then he tipped his head to the left. “For her age, she knows. Knows what she should.” 

He had not gassed a bit, though, I played amplified versions of his words in my head. 

That visit was especially short-lived after our inflamed camaraderie. He had left before we returned from school, and it pinches to have missed what could have been a memorable farewell. 

To keep us from wandering all day, mother asked us to sort old newspapers so she could bundle them up and sell them off to the local scrap dealer. The newspapers reminded me of all the general knowledge questioning done by Uncle.There were old, golden wrappers of chocolate bars that we had preserved and forgotten. Every month, mother hoarded such gibberish and swished the mess out the house. Our room had several shelves carved into the wall, each carrying important objects on a layer of newspapers. This was a task, given that shelves were loaded with books and magazines. Sociology, literature, politics, psychology—all sophisticated but subjects incomprehensible to me at the time. Still, my mother kept them clean, filling each corner with anti-rodent drugs and hung a thick curtain to keep them away from dust; somehow reasons made way for my mother to organize the cleaning process. 

She said, “Girls never learn what’s worth keeping and what’s not.” Once we set the books, we moved to the other two sets of shelves that held combs, hair oil, toys, and clothes. Easy and simple to pull, sort and dust. First, we threw away the base of the newspaper pad. She gave me a fresh one to be double folded and placed it on the shelf. It read: Only dead fish swim with the stream. It reminded me of fish and fishes.

I cropped it and slipped it between the pages of my drawing book.



With every visit he seemed less strange to me. He enjoyed his vacation, far from the noise of the city. He took us to the Maharaja gardens, where he said that his city had more skyscrapers than land. They create boulevards, unlike in Khenjoy, which, in his words, is not a town but a garden. We plucked hibiscus, violets, mimosa, marigold and roses from the terrace and when we needed lotuses, we scuttled to the muddy lakes behind several nearby temples whereas uncle bought it from the boy who sat by a tree or a pole and sold flowers wrapped in crumpled newspaper.

Often, Uncle called us after dinner to sit on the terrace under the moonlight. He loaded the chair with his weight as he tried to understand what I meant and I sat on the edge, preparing what to say or ask next. 

All this while, Dollie ran about the terrace and danced in the cold air. She often came to uncle, asking him if she could tie his hair in a pony, and he would agree. It angered me, considerably, that he called us both, that he was fair to both. He never seemed bored with us, never annoyed. I was at the point now where it wasn’t enough that he didn’t ask me to dance or sing. Sometimes I wanted him to say no to Dollie’s loud singing on the terrace.

I observed him closely. He and my mother spoke at length about our relatives, there were so many of them, food and cricket, among other mildly interesting things. My father couldn’t tell a shot of six from four, so he kept quiet when Uncle praised Gavaskar and mother raved about Kapil. 

“To speak of our family in sports. Every time my boy is on the ground, I am delighted. He is especially good at bowling. I would have sent him for training if only his mother let me.” Uncle said at this point.

“You are in a city of opportunities,” father said and laughed. “All you need is permission.” 

“You’d never come back, I know,” mother nodded, with a compassionate smile. “Even if your business booms here.” 

Uncle waited a few moments before saying, “There’s so much this city won’t forgive me for.”

In another moment, he started joking about Khenjoyians, “If you sneeze before them, they can tell you that you slept shirtless the night before. And if you lose weight, obviously, you have been starving and are advised to beg around. You know, I miss this gossip but can’t afford it.” 

Somewhere in my heart, I had decided that he was stronger than my father and capable of solving any problem, capable of cooking. I failed to see then that my father had little time to render us a closure. Since it was a given that a daughter loved her father; by offering a plate first to Uncle and by getting him the newspaper when he sat for tea, I was, in small ways, trying to confess my love for him.  

One Tuesday, I was on the terrace plucking a pink rose from the pot mother had been watering most of her life. Uncle was sipping tea from a large glass, basking in the sun, slicing eggplants into delicate, thin chips. He was in a good mood, and promised to make a cheese omelette with mushroom tops scattered in it the following Sunday. I held the rose carefully, and walked towards him when a neighbourhood boy we used to go to school with climbed the short parapet that separated our houses and snatched it from my hand. The thorns scraped the skin of my wrist when he did, This was very sudden, I was lost and hopeless and looked at Uncle for what might have been hope. He asked me to run after him. “Get it back!” he shouted. “Go get it!” 

Get what? I was wondering, and running behind the boy up to his terrace, trying to do it just for Uncle.

“Do not come back without the rose!” Uncle’s voice came streaming down the staircase where I was following the boy. 

A few minutes later, I went back to him with the rose in my scraped hand with barely a few petals on it. 

“Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s your rose.” 


Khenjoyians began wearing woolen shawls over sweaters and for hours they sat around the fire made by burning wood in a tin pan in their patios, and we knew it was winter. When the fire died, in the seething heat of the coal, we roasted sweet potatoes and then mashed them in milk for an evening snack. Sometimes, we even roasted bird shaped dough and ate it with a curry of peas and tomatoes, and in the morning we ate a preparation of sweetened yoghurt and flattened rice. We bathed from the water heated on the stove and even poured it into lavatory mugs. A month of vacation from school helped children reconcile with their busy fathers and severed relations with their mothers, most of whom worked on the wet floor of the scullery and fretted over rising electricity bills. When mothers bathed their long hair, they whined about the chill and rushed close to the fire, sipping glassfuls of tea prepared by their own freezing hands. Men who sat in their own shops and those who invited others over tea made small jokes about the winter and saw it propagate through the tiny town as though it were a firefly. Rickshaw pullers spat red after chewing betel leaves and cyclists who carried their children exhaled fog onto their tiny heads. 

One needed courage to weather the morning and as soon as there was a tiny beam of sun cracking in the sky, rooftop terraces became crowded with women and children and old men squatting on straw mats, soaking in the sun, sweaters suspended on a thin string attached to walls, sweaters too tight to slip into and too tight to escape from.  

Uncle had already missed all of this, because when he came, winter was on the verge of departing. Schools had begun.

On Sunday, we had to board bus number 102 to see his college campus and the huge gardens that accompanied it. Right before the journey, I had wondered, let’s see what this bus really is. He talks so heartily about it. 

Being the end of winter, the sun was light and warm and helped our bobs dry softly. Uncle was impatient as we waited for the bus, but kept looking around us and at the hoardings. An old bus with withering front designs and a loose headlight came to a halt before us, still red under the layer of dust. Uncle smiled and grabbed our hands, “Let’s go.” 

Evidently, he was rejoicing inside his heart as we slouched together into the last seats. His voice had a crackle now, a crackle that Dollie possessed. Wherever possible, he tried to play the guide. 

“There’s the place where we ate ice candies and salted raw cherries,” he exalted, “and water chestnuts. Boiled ones were costly. But finer in texture and taste.” 

We followed his index finger that pointed to a telephone booth. 

“There used to be barrows once,” he said petulantly. 

“I want candy floss,” Dollie cheerily pointed to a candy seller several meters away.
Classrooms and offices were closed but there were other attractions, uncle said. The library was open every day except on public holidays and standing in the gardens, was a dome shaped, museum-large hall housing a marble sculpture, about fifteen feet tall and standing on a ten feet high platform, blackened by the acid rains fallen from the openings in the dome. Khenjoyians could have written in any book, but they preferred these walls. They had, in the past, inscribed love and blasphemy here, so that the doors to this hall remained closed now, available for view only from outside the lancet windows. 

The sculpture was of a past Maharaja of Khenjoy. From the window, we could see that the Maharaja in his Nehru coat had a sword, high in his hand. In the massive hall, as I looked at the lonely sculpture, it grew on me like a ghost. Its colourless grandeur, surrounded by pale green walls, was a symbol of abandonment. Children near us threw chocolate wrappers and straws and even noodle strings through the window.

“Somebody has tried to attack the king!” Dollie cried. There were pebbles and stones around the floor near the sculpture, coming from the openings or perhaps hauled by nasty kids through the windows.

Although not ostentatious, the humongous nature of it all kept us hooked, and uncle had to pull our heads from between the beams and drag us out. Outside, too, there was sight to soak in; the gardens designed with care, befitting mimosa patterns flowering in the green grass. 

This wing of the campus was labelled Library but before the library was a room infused with the yellow rays of the sun, from tiny windows right below the ceiling, forming patterns on the pistachio green walls. Every wall and most of the  furniture was infused with the yellow sun: buzzing like music from these windows and doors. In front of the main door, on the opposite wall, was a fireplace — an unlikely piece of architecture in Khenjoy. Uncle later told us that the campus was a former King’s palace, converted into a college years before India’s independence.

The library was another grand hall, hosting an enormous number of books behind glass panels and beautifully carved, large red tables in shapes chiselled to fit the curving walls. 

“Can we get comics here?” Dollie asked, disturbing the few students who had lives boring enough to study on a Sunday.

“No.” Uncle replied. 

“What kind of books do you have in the city?” I asked.

“The same as you have here,” he scratched the skin under his moustache in a funny way and asked us to sit away from the students. “And more books are easily available. Dollie, the book jackets are more beautiful here.” 

Dollie rolled the newspaper lying on the table and began peeping through it. It did not go very well and the view did not appeal to her. She turned the pages and began cropping out a photograph of an actress. Uncle caught her and prodded us into walking out. 

The only small wing in the campus stood out for its insincere paint. As soon as we sauntered in, our nostrils experienced a gentle aroma of things that mattered to us the most. Tables and chairs filled three sides of this tinier hall while a wooden shelf stood on the remaining one behind which sat two men, one of them reading a newspaper. When they saw us, they leapt to their feet and flashed acknowledgement through smiles. We dragged uncle towards a table near the window where a girl and a boy were sitting quietly. He got us noodles with tomato ketchup and a pack of salted popcorn for our time on the bus. The bus was not empty this time, buzzing with children and elders, probably coming from a similar picnic. In the evening, he brought two orange flavoured chocolate bars. With an intention to munch on it later, I locked mine in the hind zip of my school bag and uncle left the next day. 

 Our swathing had begun to cause suffocation and sweat. Electricity power cuts followed in the night, and after twilight, men strolled about the terrace in undershirts and pyjamas while women still wrapped sarees. Amid all this, I discovered the orange flavoured chocolate in the forgotten section of my bag, holed by pest and rotten with time. Mosquitoes sucked on Khenjoyian’s blood, biting here and there, making them slap their own faces, spanking their own butt. We slept inside mosquito nets, scared that everything beyond was a mystery. The patios were burning dry during the day and among the hundreds of plant leaves on the terrace, mosquitoes bit the hands of those who plucked the beloved flowers. 

The government, or some official department, sent a man with gallons of pest control gases, and children ran behind him as though he were the Pied Piper of Khenjoy. Months passed, and pretty soon we had passed our class and the next class, too. Uncle did not even call. On questioning, mother wore a simper and then faced father with some whimper. 

Father asked us to forget him for his dishonesty in their friendship and for some other reasons that we did not comprehend. He refused to respond and my father cut off ties with him. It was more difficult than handling snooty relatives. I became tired of concocting evil tales about my uncle. We were earning fatter pocket money and buying chocolates by ourselves. There were all sorts of them, Swiss and Dutch, with raisins and nuts but it seemed like manufacturing companies were done flavouring them with oranges and nothing now tasted as it did before. Something that my tongue longed for was missing. 

Like all things, time passed.

We found ourselves ripening into teenage and learning to take life seriously. Girls in the class began flaunting boyfriends as our mother directed the tailor to bring the hem of our skirts down to the knees. Dollie was growing into a tall woman, easily passing off as my elder sister, whereas my growth graph was deceiving me. I felt dwarfed in her company. Her list of male friends kept on expanding whereas I began attracting boys who only needed my help in studies. I got used to ignoring the telephone numbers scribbled on the last pages of her notepads, though I wangled an idea that I bungled up while executing. I prowled through father’s telephone diary for uncle’s contact and every time a handful of guests ostracized me by placing themselves in our house, I unbearably rang him until he picked. There was no mechanism for caller identification then, and I had little guts to say my name.

It turned out that Dollie did not entertain anyone, only letting the boys meander to nowhere. One day, she came to sit near me and in her incessantly crackling voice, asked me if I had done something similar. I was taken aback by her question, more by her audacity than by her curiosity. I refused to answer but in the next moment, considered sussing out information about her. She politely confirmed my long-standing views about her and said, “I do flaunt. If somebody asks, I tell them I have a boyfriend in Bombay.” 

Even before I became curious, she declared that it was uncle’s son, whom she had disguised as her boyfriend, a fantasy built only to keep dunderheads away. 

I could have done that, I realised. That was a good shot but it angered me even more, the very thought of something that was close to uncle could be possessed by my sister and not me, hurt my ego. 

 The phone call that day killed all our doubts. The ever so venerable uncle called father to apologize for the broken communication, the lack of contact. He had travelled to Dubai to eke out some money to fund his business, repay debts and seemed to promise that the rest of the details would be furnished in due time. Matters, which to me were still oblivious and insignificant, were now settled. Everything was sorted seamlessly. There were further calls which assured that the old days were back. But it still took him several months to visit us, this time with his son. 

On that unfairly sunny day, I was coming back from school. My feet were aching so much that I wished not to walk on them. The belt wrapped around my waist swayed so many times out the last keeper that I wished the days when I wore a frock were back and I could simply tie a sash. Cursing the sweat dripping along my nape and the harsh sun, I reached home, and sought uncle’s presence, the fragrance of his shaving gel in the room, expecting him on a chair, with his towel around his neck, prowling through his suitcase. 

But it was somebody else playing carrom with Dollie. A young boy whom I immediately recognised as uncle’s son. I quivered, imagining him as her boyfriend. Uncle introduced us, mentioning that he, too, was about to finish schooling and was bright and diligent. Mother smiled broadly and pushed her eyebrows to swim in her forehead, suggesting I see a role model in him. His name was Tapas. I registered the smile Dollie put on when telling me the name. He wore glasses. None of us did, not even uncle. If uncle’s wife did, we didn’t know because he never carried any photo of hers, neither were we interested in knowing. But the fact that his son did, added some sort of class to him. When they stood up after the game, towering me, I told myself how well they complimented each other. 

During the lunch the three of us sat for, the question was which gender makes for a better cook. 

He said, “Men’s cooking is rather simple.” 

Understandable, I thought, since it came from someone whose father cooked enthusiastically. 

“Yes, perhaps.” I said, “They are also hesitant cooks at home,” I was wary of  sounding attacking. “The only man who has cooked for me is uncle.” 

“Mushroom omelettes,” I added. 

“Mushroom? Not possible.” 

“Why? I have eaten those.” 

He laughed first and then said, “Now that’s possible,” and winked at Dollie, who was biting a spoon. 

Both of them were busy eating, not looking at me. 

He continued, “It is possible that you’ve eaten that. But, but, but… My Papa must not have been the cook.” 

I was offended, more by the way he called him ‘my papa’ than what he argued about. I said, “You don’t know then.” 

“I do. He is so allergic he can’t even put one in his mouth.” 

“Are you sure? He’d made one for me. Delightfully.” I knew I was being insistent

“Don’t go on for longer, Tapas, else she’ll sulk through the night.” 

This was the thirteenth time she had called out his name. Tapas, Tapas, Tapas. Now I was irritated. I gobbled the rest of my food and walked out. 

The hair on uncle’s temples was now grey and his wrinkles conspicuous when he smiled. He was easily fatigued and preferred to sit most of the time. He had not had the time or opportunity to speak to me. I saw him spending more time with my parents, who had betrayed him back then. I, however, never had my affection for him diluted, I thought, I deserved him. I waited until the next day when he jolted and asked, “So have you learned to dab ghee on rotis?” 

“Come sit here, I haven’t talked to you since.” 

I beamed. I had spent the past nights imagining myself asking him why he left us without warning. Did he not wish to talk to me even once? He could have dropped a letter, maybe to my school address. But I couldn’t say anything.

At night, when they went to sleep, I opened one of my books, a tougher read that deemed my concentration necessary, and read with the doors of the room open, so I could cry out loud in case I heard a miscreant peeing in the balcony, all the while hoping that uncle should be the first to come to rescue me. 

I found his son pompous. Sometimes, when he played badminton with Dollie or helped her win a game of carrom against me or uncle, he would say, “See! I’m the saviour of all.” Then he would throw his hand in the air and grab a high five from her. Dollie had found a mischief maker in him, a partner in her crimes. Her hours at play multiplied, and it became impossible to stop her even for my father. 

When he could not bring her to study, uncle said, “Don’t let him spoil you. He isn’t as sincere as your sister.” His son frowned at the comparison. 

They continued to play and Dollie, on yet another day, exalted loudly, “Won’t you  take your son to the university like you took us?” She winked at his son and said, “slightly boring but good food.” 

“You children have grown up now. You can go by yourselves.” He advised Tapas to board 102. 

“The government shut that bus service now,” I told him. 

“When?” He asked, surprised. 

“Perhaps two years ago. The routes have changed, uncle. And all bus numbers were revised, and also painted blue. There’s a bus that now takes a different route, a shorter one, from Chironjee Marg to your university. It no longer passes by our door.” 

His shock came out clearly. He pressed his lips and pushed them up. Pinching his nose, which was now red, as if he were about to cry, and then passing his little finger through the corner of his left eye, he muttered. “O.K., O.K.” 

I could not understand how the revision of a bus number or its routes could hurt him. Perhaps neither did he. Tapas, in jest, impatiently, asked us to get ready. Uncle, I knew, needed some time to grieve the guilt of mistaking, now that bus 102 had turned its back to him.

There was a different bus now, and Dollie and  I were able to guide Tapas through the roads of Khenjoy. The new bus hosted seats in pairs, and as we entered, I moved away from them so that I don’t come in their way. But he called me out, “Vasu, let’s sit here.” 

I turned back and saw him standing and waving from near the last of the seats where all of us could sit together and noticed, only in that moment, a reflection of his father in him. Could it be true that good sons are born to good fathers? 

Things had changed, certainly. The wing where the library once stood was now a three-storey building with the library on the first floor and we were not allowed to get in without identification proofs. But the gardens and the hall where the sculpture of the king stood were open.

Upon knowing this, uncle, in a rather straight tone, said, “Nothing waits. Every individual and every object seeks its own growth.” 

He was young, enthusiastic for life and interested in everything. He had boarded the bus for another errand, bought tickets to the hardware store, and was waiting eagerly to finish the chores and get home to dinner. His station was nearing and he was prepared, standing by the open door for a smooth cruise. He saw a girl about his age walking faster than a child would run. She, terrified and breaking down, was being chased by two jackasses, who seemed naughtier than what fine character would allow. Uncle waved at her, signalling her to run towards him. She did, luck favoured and he helped her board the bus, quickly closing the door. 

“So did you keep in touch?” 

“We did. But in those days, to remain friends, you’d have to get married. It was thought of as something revolutionary in Khenjoy otherwise.” 

“Was she beautiful?” 

He was surprised that I could ask such a question. “You didn’t even watch movies, right?” He put the newspaper down, “After just a single meeting, I remembered the peace on her face for a long time.” 

When mother began trusting our maturity, she began talking, too. That uncle’s wife had divorced him some years ago, he had closed off all contacts with Khenjoy and left for Dubai. The divorce had been an end to a long going strife. Those days, there had to be substantial reasons for separation unlike today but mother did not discuss much and we didn’t question further. 

His cooking could have been out of necessity, too. His dedication at treating us all equally, his appreciation for anything that mother cooked and his ache for old memories. The lack of mentioning the wife and bringing his son to Khenjoy only in the aftermath; his son whose words, “See! I’m the saviour of all,” had meant something to him.

A TBR Creative Writing Workshop piece
Himani grew up in Mumbai. Her favourite writer is Clarice Lispector.

Fiction | ‘The Hijacked God’ by Salini Vineeth | CreativeWritingW-TBR

Before the humans hijacked me, my life was insignificant yet peaceful – just the way I like it. I used to sit on top of a termite nest, covered in creepers. I agree it wasn’t anything like that grand Kailash of Shiva. But I loved my modest reserve forest. Sitting there, I would often compare myself to the other Gods. Even though my divine status was nowhere near them, I still felt lucky. They had to sit all day inside a congested sanctum, in the heat of the oil lamps, choking on the smell of agarbattis and the Pandit’s sweat while I had all the air in the world. 

I don’t deny I enjoyed a little attention from time to time. I beamed whenever a passing villager paused in front of me, with his hands folded and eyes closed in reverence. I tried my best to shower blessings on them, even though I didn’t know if I had any such powers to grant their wishes. 

Being a demigod, it’s kind of hazy where I stand in the thirty-three crore pantheon of Gods. When the organization is this big, the hierarchy becomes a mess. I am a little disconnected from my organization anyway. It was almost a thousand years ago I attended their last meeting. I stopped going to meetings after I heard a few unsavory remarks about my mother being a ‘mere mortal.’ So, I don’t know the who’s who of Gods now. Earlier it was Rudra, Surya, and some other guys. Later I heard that Vishnu and Shiva had taken over. A few months back, there were a lot of heated discussions about nepotism. It seems like all the retired Gods are pushing their sons forward – Ganesh, Karthikeya, Ayyappan, and so on. I didn’t bother to take part in their discussions. They anyway consider me an outcast, a cross between man and God. I can’t completely blame them, though. Even I am a bit confused about my identity. Sometimes I get all angry and frustrated like humans, and the next moment I become aware of my folly. It’s quite difficult living such a conflicted life.

So, what was I saying? Yeah, I was content in my little reserve forest. How did I reach here? Who brought me here? I have absolutely no idea. All I can say is, from the beginning of the time, I am at this place. Initially, it was a dense forest with a beautiful river flowing through it. One Yuga gave way to the other, and I sat through them, oblivious to the passage of the time. For thousands of years, the forest was pretty much the same, and then the changes started. Too much happened too soon. People started inhabiting the forest, clearing it part by part, selling it piece by piece. Houses sprouted out in the distance. It worried me initially. Then I got accustomed to them. I often watched humans going about their day to day business. I often imagined what kind of life I would be leading if I was a human. Then I would laugh at myself, thinking about the whims of these humans. They run around chasing things that make no sense. Then they die one day, and that’s the end of it. I thought I was better off as a demigod. I was hugely mistaken. My fate was about to change.

It started when they decided to widen the mud trail, almost a hundred feet from my termite nest. One morning, instead of the chirping of the birds, I heard a strange whirring. It pierced my ears, and the vibrations almost shattered my fragile nest. There were at least a dozen humans at work, clearing the forest with an unflinching casual demeanor. I was afraid that they would knock down my termite nest and throw me away in the garbage but, nothing of that sort happened. Some of them came in front of me and gawked at my face. I tried to produce a glorious thunder, just to scare them. But that day, realization struck that my organization had revoked all my divine powers. It’s a lot of paperwork and even bouts of bribery to get them back, so I didn’t bother. 

Soon enough, they started asphalting the road. All that smoke and the pungent odor of the tar! Aargh! I had a taste of how the other Gods felt inside those temples. But, in case of the other Gods, they were doing it voluntarily, for the pleasure of having their egos massaged. But, for me, it was forced upon. Having my power to apparate being revoked, I had no option but to sit there and choke on that smell. I should have got that damn paperwork done. After a few days, to my great relief, the road work was over. Humans vacated, and peace returned. I kept wondering what that was all about. But, after a few days, I stopped worrying and went back to being the Nirguna Brahma I had once been. The peace didn’t last long. 

One day, I woke up with a start as something hit my face real hard. It felt like a small pebble, thrown from a long distance. I heard a distinct ‘clang’ as it hit me and fell on the ground. I looked down. It was a coin. 

Where did it come from? I looked around, up, and down. 

Maybe Indra envies me and has thrown a coin at me. I consoled myself. I don’t know what’s wrong with Indra. He envies everyone. The next day, the same thing happened again. This time there were a few more coins. It took me a while to understand what was going on – I am not very bright, you know. I shuddered when I realized what was happening. From the vehicles passing through the road, humans were throwing coins at me! What an atrocity!

As the number of vehicles on the road increased, so did the number of coins. Humans who were on bikes, buses, rickshaws, other wheelers, all threw coins at me. Sometimes they even threw stones wrapped with their currency notes. I started dodging the coins. Whenever I heard a vehicle approaching, I covered my face with both my hands and braced for impact. Dodging soon became the primary task of my daily life. I wished I had more hands like the other Gods to fight off the coin shower. And even then, I didn’t expect my life could become worse. It did. 

The heap of coins at my foot started growing. I was afraid that the coins would eventually drown me. It wasn’t impossible, either. People think that they can bribe Gods. Most of the thirty-three crore Gods have found employment in India; you can imagine the demand. People think we help them to pass exams, to get a job, to get married, to have children, and even to get a visa. Sometimes I think about it so hard, and I laugh until my tummy hurts. 

Anyway, the coins didn’t drown me. One morning, I woke up, and the coins were gone! I sighed in relief. It was then that I saw it. A steel box stood next to my nest, carrying a notice. I leaned forward and read it. 

Throwing coins is prohibited. To avoid Forest-Swamy’s fury, put coins only in the box.

Forest-Swamy! I am not any Forest-Swamy! In fact, it was the first time I had thought of my name. To the best of my knowledge, I neither have a name, nor a gender. I don’t even understand why humans have this obsession to put everything in little compartments.  I didn’t like this name – Forest-Swamy, not an ounce of creativity. On the bright side, humans did stop throwing coins at me. It was a relief, but it was just the calm before the storm.      

A few days later, as I was about to sleep at night, a few humans came by. They unlocked the donation box and emptied the coins into a plastic bag. They had broad smiles on their faces. So, they were the half-wits who had placed a donation box at my feet.      

“Thieves!” I wanted to yell. But seeing the axe and knife in their hands, I shut up. They cleared the creeper and the bushes around me. They made a small clearing around my termite nest. Then they brought a metal chain and put a small barricade around me. 

How dare they put me in a cage! I fumed with indignation. However, I was helpless in front of these mighty creatures of malice. Being God is of not much use in front of the humans. My life started to get worse with each day. The next week, they removed me from my termite home. I could only watch with tears when they struck down my nest. For centuries or even more, it was my home. The next day was a nightmare. Early morning, even before the sunrise, a few men clad in saffron arrived. 

“Today is the Prana Pratishtha, the day of consecration,” I heard one of them talking enthusiastically on his phone. Consecration meant slavery for the rest of my life. I had heard many terrifying stories of consecration. Remembering them, I shuddered. The ceremony began in earnest. They shoved pungent incense sticks on to my face, and the fire from the aarti almost burned my eyebrows. 

“Is it going to be like this every day?” I asked myself. A bitter realization came over me like a dark rain cloud. The humans had hijacked me! In the next few days, they built a tin shed around me, and with time, concrete walls replaced it. During the first few days, I thought those walls would smother me. They blocked the wind and sunlight. I sat there, inside their sanctum, trying to regain my inner peace. They appointed a Pandit to take care of me. 

He came every morning with a comical grin plastered on his face. His daily aarti and the incense sticks gave me a constant headache. I cursed my fate and prayed to the supreme being. Even Gods pray, you know. I prayed that I be released from the clutches of these evil humans and their workings. They pretend to be worshiping me, but I knew they were only interested in the bulging donation box.

Soon, they constructed four walls around me. 

The traffic on the road in front of me drastically increased. Next to the temple, these humans created a huge car parking. I saw them collecting parking fees as well. Only humans can come up with such wicked schemes! People queued up in front of me from early in the morning. I almost felt pity for those who had lined up in front of me. Poor creatures, they have no clue that they are wasting their time and money. If I had some powers, I would have made them understand that they were being tricked by their greedy fellow humans. After all, I had no powers. I was just a helpless God. 

The crowd only increased day by day. In addition to the morning Puja, they started an evening Puja as well. I had to go through long hours of what can only be called torture, every day.

“The Forest-Swamy is so powerful. Just come here. You should experience it first hand,” pulling out their mobile phones, the humans recommended me to their distant relatives. I had no idea what miracle I had performed in their lives. Did I have any secrete powers that I didn’t know about?  It’s difficult to understand these humans and their religious theatrics. The queue in front of me only got longer every passing day.      

They opened a few shops to sell flowers, coconuts, and that yellow powder. I think they use some strong and evil chemicals in that powder. My body itched whenever they covered me with it.      

They cut down the trees around me, widening the temple complex. They built a new building with an office room, a small kitchen, and a bedroom for the Pandit. I sat there, covered in a concoction of yellow and red chemicals, smothering in heat. I pitied their prayers. The constant ringing of the bell caused me a migraine. 

When will they leave me alone? I kept wondering, shut behind the golden bars. 

Why do humans need so many temples? I kept asking myself. 

Months passed by. My modest reserve forest had turned into a sprawling complex. The road in front of me was almost always jam-packed with devotees. I thought I would spend the rest of my life as a slave of these thugs. I had lost all hope. Then one day, I saw a jeep coming towards the temple. It was late in the afternoon, the only time I got some rest. Cursing my bad luck, I readied myself for the smoke and sound. From the jeep alighted a young lady. Contrary to what I was used to, she didn’t fold her hands or close her eyes in devotion. 

She just glanced in my direction. “Who gave you permission to encroach the forest land?” I heard her asking the Pandit. 

“Who are you, madam?” The Pandit asked. 

“I am from the forest department,” she replied.     

“I see. What is the problem? As you can see, we are all devotees here. This is a temple,” the priest inquired.

“Please be careful about the way you talk to the DFO*,” a tall man, stated with an edge. 

I smiled and watched the tall man putting a notice on the wall of the sanctum. I looked at the young lady again. She had an unusual resolve on her face, an ethereal glow of an enlightened human. I don’t see them very often, but I can easily recognize them.

“Within two weeks, I need the entire structure to be knocked down. Otherwise, I will have to go ahead with the legal proceedings. Do you know what the consequences of encroaching forest land are?” She asked, her voice firm. I saw my Pandit shivering with fear and disbelief. I have never seen him so helpless. I almost felt pity for him. 

Freedom came after a month. The entire temple complex was bulldozed, and I was freed from my cell. They gave me shelter in the forest department for a few days, hoping that someone would lay claim on me. My older temple folks didn’t dare to show up. After all, I am a loner, and no one owns me. I sat in the forest office for a few weeks, gracing the lovely humans there. After a few days, they moved me into an archaeology museum. I do miss my old ‘reserve’ forest. But I like it here in the museum and don’t have to deal with people with folded hands, and their ridiculous prayers.  I only have to look down graciously at visitors who come in here for knowledge and entertainment. It’s a respectable occupation, the best possible placement for a demigod like me. Next to me, there is an idol of Goddess Durga. I often look at her and remember that young forest officer – the brave lady who freed this poor demigod.


*DFO – District Forest Officer.

A Tbr Creative Writing Workshop piece.

Salini Vineeth is a fiction and freelance writer based in Bangalore. She is an alumnus of BITS – Pilani, Goa. She worked for a decade in the electronics industry before turning to full-time writing. She has four books to her credit. Being an avid traveler, she incorporates elements of history, archeology, and mythology in her stories.  She writes on her website, as well as on social media. She is currently doing finishing touches to her debut full-length novel.

Fiction | ‘The Recruitment’ by Imaad ul Hasan | Creative Writing W-TBR

Sukesh looked outside the window, and stared for some time. There were dry hills at a distance; Bahava–the golden shower trees were in the middle and a few birds kept flying near the window; probably just to make sure that there were indeed humans inside, who were sitting so quietly. Sukesh wasn’t looking at any of them in particular. He was just lost in another one of his daydreams.

He was unusually happy today. One reason could be that he got a seat near the window, in this huge reading hall – fully packed and completely silent. Another reason could be a comment on his Facebook post. He admired Satyajit Ingle, a PhD scholar and poet. And when he wrote that particular comment, appreciating his post about farmer suicides, Sukesh felt a sense of achievement.

The first floor of the university reading hall is not usually this crowded around the year. But it was April, the harvest period, the time when the civil services exam is around the corner, and Sukesh was one of the millions who was about to give the exam this year. Again. He considered himself a realist; enough to know he cannot clear it this time either, and nor could most of the people in the hall.

He was still looking outside the window, a book open in his hands, when his phone started vibrating on the table. A boy sitting two chairs away with his head on the table woke up from his sleep, startled. Sukesh panicked, looked at the screen and immediately stood up. Pushing aside a chair, he started walking towards the door hastily, making more necks turn in his direction. He slowed down, and  had his eyes glued to the screen while passing through long rows of tables filled with books, kept in disorganized piles and thick bundles of murky rough papers.

He reached the door and received the call before stepping out.

“Haa Dada1? Haa aaloch!”

He came down the stairs as swiftly as he could and as he was about to exit the gate, he turned right, to go into the smaller and darker ground floor section of the building. He knew exactly where Shankar would be sitting now.

The canteen was just a few meters away, but he borrowed Shankar’s scooty to reach there. No matter how occupied the hall was, Shankar would always manage to get the same spot. He was always early and could be found there all day.

Sukesh rode through the main road of the university which was a favourite of many students and locals. It was broad with tall trees on both sides. The trees created a long canopy of branches over heads, stretching along the road. And beyond those trees, were gardens on either side. They were not well maintained and the trees were not very lush either. But perhaps, this place would not have been so comforting if they were.

However, the road was riddled with potholes, and when someone like Sukesh raised their accelerator and disturbed the peace, it would make their vehicle tremble.

After reaching the canteen, he dialed the last name in his call logs – ‘Golu Patil’.

“The person you have dialed is busy,” it said. It was surely an apt description of Golu. No one knew what he was busy with exactly. But he was always busy.

He received a call from the same number a few seconds later.

“Haa ye na, aat ye.”

It wasn’t difficult to find him. Golu was sitting, quite literally on the edge of his seat and talking to the man at the canteen counter from a distance of at least three tables. Next to him was a man, in full white clothes, sitting relaxed against the chair and busy using his phone. Sukesh recognized and greeted him before he could see Golu.

“Prashant Dada, Jay Bhim2,” Sukesh said, after giving a slight smile and a slighter bow to Golu.

“Jay Bhim, Sukyaa! Kasha ahes?” Turning he said, “Sachin! Teen golden chaha aan,” in a low voice but with conviction.

“Arre Nai, order only two. I’ll leave, I have some work,” Golu said, fingers tapping steadily on his phone and slowly got up.

Sukesh asked, hesitantly, “But aren’t we supposed to go? For my job. I thought…”

“I am not going to my funeral Mitra. I’ll come in about fifteen minutes. Got some urgent work,” he said as his phone rang.

“Hello! Arre please ask her to wait. I am coming! Five minutes tops. I am just outside the department.”

Turning he said, “It looks like I am going to my funeral. You have tea with dada. I am just coming and we will leave immediately.”


“Samasa ghenar?” Prashant asked Sukesh, sipping his tea.

“Nai Dada, I have just eaten.”

“So what else… How is the journalism department? Are classes still on?”

“No, they are over. The exams start next week.”

“Oh. Prepare well for it then.”

“No. I won’t be giving this exam. I graduated last year. Now I am preparing for the competitive exams. You forgot.”

“Oh haan… In other words, you are doing nothing these days.” He smirked.

“Exactly,” Sukesh replied after a brief pause.

“Are you sure you won’t have samosa?”

“No, I am fine,” Sukesh said hesitantly, thinking of something to say to keep the conversation going.

“Let’s go outside. This place is suffocating,” Prashant said, getting up.

Sukesh gulped his tea and walked outside after Prashant.


“Is this your scooty? Bring it here,” Prashant said, pulling his own bike towards an empty ground behind the canteen, not waiting for a reply.

He parked it under a tree and asked Sukesh to park his behind it.

In the afternoon sun of Marathwada, a small patch under the tree was the only shade on the ground. They both sat on their bikes, facing the hills with their backs towards the crowded canteen.

They stayed silent for a while, until Prashant lit a cigarette and asked, “What about you? How was the yield this year?”

“The crop is good this year. Not sure at what rate it will go. If it goes at all.”

“You didn’t go for harvest?”

“No…The questions of villagers never stop. For how long will you study? Who will marry you?”

“And they are right. For how long will this go?”

“I am trying Dada. I’ve applied to all the newspapers and websites. There is no opening, simply. I also had an internship experience for three months with a newspaper. Even they didn’t pay a single rupee.”

“You should have stayed at that newspaper for a while. They would have given you a full time job. Why are you always in such hurry?”

“They would never. There was a vacancy for a trainee reporter two months ago. They gave it to a junior of mine, who had absolutely no experience. He had never published a single story. And interestingly he himself admitted as much to our sub-editor. He said that was fine, and that he would learn once around.”

“What is his name? This junior of yours?”

“Ajay Kulkarni.”

“Hmm, Kulkarni after all. No need to discuss that further. And who is the bureau chief there these days?”

“Syed…Syed Riyazuddin.”

“There you go! I think I have said this to you before. These people have not left any space for us in media, or any industry for that matter. We don’t know who controls the whole ball game, and how it is controlling all of us in return. That’s why our voice is completely absent.”

“I remember you saying something like that.”

“Where is this Patil taking you to?” Prashant asked after taking a long puff.

“He didn’t give any details. But he said there is a vacancy in a PR agency which provides some services to different political parties. He said he knows some people there and can get me a job by recommendation.”

“I see…Look, we work for different parties, but I can’t deny that he is smart and more importantly, very helpful. Take advantage of that. But be careful as well.”

 After taking a last puff and putting off the cigarette, Prashant asked, “What do you think of him?”

“I wonder why a man that skinny can be named Golu. And how does he get those damn clothes, which are skin tight, even for him.”

They both laughed as if they were desperately waiting to.

“You know what I think sometimes?” Prashant said, staring at the hills. “That we should have never left our villages and come here. That we should have kept farming on whatever land we had, and remained happy.”

“But you know that things are not that simple there, or convenient I would say.” Sukesh said after a small pause. “There are all types of problems, and discrimination. There is no escape from humiliation either. And most importantly, we know who is controlling and dominating whom there. We would have had to live with all of this, for all our lives.”

“Correct. But at least we would not be trapped in the illusion that we can change it.”

“I think we can,” Sukesh said.

“By pointlessly preparing for civil services?”

“Not really. By working in the media for one. I know I am not able to work there now. But one day I will. Media has the power to bring change.”

“Fine,” Prashant said, smiling, and put the keys to ignition in his bike. “WhatsApp me when it comes. I need to go now. Patil has said he will just come, which means even you can go and wrap up a pending thing or two. Ani ya job sathi subhecha9.”


After waiting for a few minutes, Sukesh rested his hand and then his head on the handle of the scooty, stretched his legs towards the end of its seat, and pulled out his phone.

He scrolled through his Facebook wall and came across a piece of news: ‘55 year old dairy darmer lynched in Alwar. The incident took place on a busy highway. Video vira-’

His phone vibrated again and he got up. “Haan, Dada? I am outside the canteen, just coming.”

Golu Patil was sitting at the usual spot and had ordered tea already.

“Where is Prashant Dada?” he asked.

“He had some work.”

“Oh of course, he is very busy… Look, a friend is coming, and then we’ll leave immediately.”

“Fine. Here’s your pen drive. I edited the photos, and the movies you asked for are in the folder ‘MOVIES.’”

“Are wah! It looks your brother will have a new Facebook DP tonight. By the way, you seem to be having quite a time on Facebook, huh? I saw one of your posts had twenty shares or something.”

“Arre, it just happens sometimes.”

“Great. Will you have a samosa till then?”

“No. I am fine. I had lunch just a while ago.”

“Have one at least. He has started making really small ones anyway…Sachin! Don Samose! I don’t think you have met Nilin Deshpande. He used to work in the PR office I told you about. He has made some great contacts with politicians while working there. Now he is handling big projects for them. The day you told me you are looking for a job, I met him in the evening and spoke about you. He said you have the perfect skillset for the job. He had come here to the administration building for some work so I thought I should call you and take you to the office with him.”

“Thank you so much for this Dada! But to be honest with you, I wanted a job in the mainstream media. But I can definitely work here till I get that.”

“Exactly! What’s most important is having a job.”


“Are you sure you won’t have samosa?”

“Yes, I am full.”

“Sachin! Ekach aan Samosa!” he shouted and then said softy, “I think it’s better not to waste anything.”


A few minutes later, Sukesh left the scooty under the tree. The three of them left the university on Deshpande’s bike when Golu said his bike is at the office and Sukesh can come with him on their way back to the university.

Nilin Deshpande rode the bike towards the office, Golu Patil sat in the middle and Sukesh Kumar at the end, trying to fit in.

After passing through some narrow roads, they took the flyover. The newly built flyover with broad roads was, in fact, broader than the university road. But unlike the latter, it didn’t have gardens on either side. It had absolutely nothing. The road was smooth and would never make someone tremble, unless some sensitive soul realized that dozens and dozens of homeless are under their feet and starts imagining their plight.

They didn’t speak for long. In the middle of the flyover, Nilin seemed to have forgotten everything else and was enjoying the breeze on his face. Satisfied, he gathered himself and continued a short conversation they had at the university gate.

“I think you didn’t understand quite well what kind of job this is,” Nilin said while riding the bike down the flyover and turning his neck slightly. “This is a proper media job, Sukesh. Just like the one you wanted. You have to write sufficient content – reports, opinion pieces, analysis. You will have a good graphics team to turn your piece and opinions into clickbait and visually friendly content. In fact, this is better and bigger than any media house you know.”

Golu was busy with his cellphone and Sukesh nodded along with little confusion.

“The readability of the content you will write or even a small tweet would be sharper than what most of your big editors sitting in Mumbai and Delhi produce,” Nilin continued.

Sukesh found these words amusing and was wondering why Nilin was making such exaggerations. It was only a matter of minutes before Sukesh would realise that these words were quite the understatement.


The building seemed to be newly constructed. One could smell the fresh paint the moment one entered the building. The office was on the third floor and the elevators were not functional yet. They started climbing the stairs.

Nilin waited for Sukesh to come forward, put his arm across his shoulder and said, “They don’t usually allow this. But I thought I should show you the office and tell you more about the work. You will have to face an interview and if you clear it, which I hope you will, there will be a training period for a couple of weeks. And don’t worry; you’ll get a stipend for that as well.”

Sukesh kept listening with his head bowed, matching the speed of the much taller and broader Nilin, while climbing the narrow and steep staircase.

“And as I told you, the power of opinion making we hold is unmatchable. We have the support of the established authorities. Or maybe, they are authorities today because of our support. In fact, we are bigger than anything else in this country if I may say so myself. We control everything, because we make the narrative. We decide what the Prime Minister will say and what he will not. We decide what the media will discuss on Prime Time and what arguments will take place at the tea stalls tonight.”

Sukesh remained silent, unable to understand what to ask next. When they reached the corridor, Nilin asked him to switch off the phone. Golu had already switched off his. Walking through that silent corridor, they opened a thick door and entered a huge hall, fully packed, and noisy. Nilin walked towards the manager’s cabin at the other end of the room and Sukesh followed.

There was a lot going on, all around. Bewildered, he slowed down and kept staring at one of the many screens to understand what was happening here. Upon realizing that Nilin has gone much ahead, he walked faster, passing through long rows of tables filled with neatly arranged mobile phones and laptops. Each person had at least six mobile phones and a laptop in front of them.  All of them appeared to be of the same model with different serial numbers stuck on them in dark and bold letters.


They spent fifteen minutes in the manager’s cabin and all the confusion in Sukesh’s head was gone. He came out and walked towards the door, but this time without looking at the tables and those screens. He saw Golu standing in the corridor.

“Nilin Dada?” He asked after looking at Sukesh.

“He said he will stay and asked me to leave if I want. And I definitely want to. Immediately.”

Golu dusted his bike with a cloth from the next bike, while Sukesh turned his mobile on and they left for the university. The sun was still blazing fire and the roads were empty.

“You knew what that place was?” Sukesh asked after a few minutes.

“I don’t know the exact details of the job. But of course, I know what they do there.”

“You told me it is a PR agency!”

“Of course it is”

“No it is not…”

“It is a PR agency, for a party, for their senior members. I didn’t lie to you.”

“Lie? The very foundation of that place is lying, and spreading those lies. And their lies destroy the lives of people on a daily basis. It is a bloody IT cell! Their job is peddling hate and anger. Nothing else.”

“A lie depends on which side you take. You have been told that look, this is the only truth and you keep believing it. And now whatever is on the other side, is a lie to you.”

“So you knew about them and still brought me here?”

“I knew about them, yes, that is why I brought you here…Look you are talented, and if you wait for those newspapers to hire you, you will be waiting forever. Even if you get a job, they won’t pay you even half of this.”

“It is not about money…”

“It is about money! I am surprised you didn’t understand this till now…”

Sukesh’s phone rang.

“Yes Shankar… Yes, I have the keys. I am coming in five minutes. I am just outside the university.”


Sukesh sat on a slightly elevated platform near the administrative building, lost in his thoughts. Golu’s bike was next to him. Golu had gone inside the building to check on the progress of the application Nilin had submitted before the lunch break.

His phone threw up another notification – ‘Man lynched in Alwar dies in hospital. BJP MLA defends mob, blames the victim.’

Slowly the fragrance of sand disappeared and the smell of beedi turned bitter.

“I don’t know why such useless people work here. They forgot about the application that was given just hours ago. And when I reminded them, they asked me to come after two weeks,” Golu said sitting next to Sukesh. “What about you? Did you decide something?”

“About what?”

“About working there”

“Why do you still think I will work there?”

“I don’t understand why you are overreacting.”

“Overreacting? You are asking me to be a an enabler, almost a killer.”

“You don’t know anything about this world. Do you?”

“What I know is that the innocent people who are victims of this horrible crime have a life. They have a family.”

“What crime, what family? How is any of that that related to this?”

“Read this…It says the cow vigilantes had no weapons with them. Well, that is wrong. The weapons of this murder are WhatsApp forwards and tweets. And I know from where this organized misinformation and hate come from.”

“You really think one or two WhatsApp forwards or an article you might be commissioned to write might result in these kinds of lynchings? It is just a part of dhanda, business. The cattle traders need to pay some protection money. It has been going on since years. If they fail to do so, there comes a need to create fear among the community. Even if they pay the money on time, sometimes they feel there is a need to establish dominance. This is done for business, plain and simple. Some silly WhatsApp forward does not kill.”

“But it definitely kills the conscience of the people, it makes this normal, justifies it. It stops us from asking the tough questions and allow this to continue.”

“You are too naïve and charged up. I don’t know who teaches you all this, is it the same WhatsApp university you were berating sometime back? But it is totally up to you, I need to go now. You have their number, you know what to do. Think it over, calmly, not about this, but about the job, the future.


Sukesh read poetry in his room–his go-to activity to deal with every kind of emotion. The faint colored walls of the small room had just two things on it – a tiny plastic mirror and a big poster of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

A little past eight, he went to the terrace of the hostel building. It was a full moon night. He stood near the edge and enjoyed the view of how his university was reflecting the tender moonlight. He saw Shankar returning from the reading hall on his scooty. A big tiffin in hand, he came up and stood next to Sukesh.

“So you are saying you finally found a job and a job with more salary than you had imagined. But you don’t want to do it?”

“Yes,” Sukesh said after a pause.

“What is wrong in working at an IT cell? You are just helping a leader and a party to win…”

“But at what cost?” Sukesh interfered while opening the tiffin box. “They will ask us to demonize Muslims, communists, journalists and everyone who speaks against you-know-who,” he continued.

“You don’t understand why this is important. You have not read any history of how we were dominated, humiliated, but still fought back for our pride, for our dignity. If that happens again, this time we will not have a chance to even defend ourselves.”

“But look at what is happening because of that. Have you not seen about the lynching that is happening, in the media?”

“Media? Seriously? You think they are unbiased? Violence should no doubt be avoided. But do they ever speak about the violence on cows, which is happening every minute in our country? And when such isolated accidents happen, they immediately start erupting. They clearly have an agenda.”

“These are not isolated incidents, Shankar. They are increasing every day”

“They will stop, when the slaughter stops.”

At some distance, a few students had gathered, some ladders were put up on the walls of the hostel, and nails were being hammered. The university was being decorated for 14th April.

“I think I know where all this is coming from. You think these people, with their jholas and daflis and red and blue flags know anything?” Shankar continued.

“I hardly ever go to their protests and rallies.”

“But you go to their seminars and attend lectures of their professors. They have different ways to brainwash everyone. Now look, they will do all kinds of programs for the Jayanti  but will hardly read his books. They will portray themselves as the greatest flag bearers of equality, while all they do is create differences.”

Sukesh was looking at the going ons downstairs but turned to focus on Shankar and asked, “You think they don’t believe in equality?”

“Not in reality. You will see that in the next two weeks. Most of their speeches will not be about teaching Babasaheb to the people. It will be about teaching hatred towards the other leaders of his time and their organizations. They will keep pitting Babasaheb against Veer Savarkar and the Sangh. What do they know about it? Did you know Babasaheb had regular meetings with the top leaders of the Sangh?”

“No. A…”

“Neither do they. Or even if they do, they don’t tell it because it doesn’t suit their agenda. In 1939, or 1940… when Babasaheb was invited to the Sangh in Pune, he was greatly impressed with the discipline and equality of the uniformed men. He saw the untouchables were eating with the upper caste in the same plate, just like you and me. They worked together for the same goal all their lives. Instead of telling this, they will flaunt the posters of Gandhi next to him, against whom Babasaheb had written and spoken enormously. They have also put names of Mohameddian speakers on the posters this time. What do they have anything to do with him?”

“I have heard once, somewhere…When Dr. Babasaheb left Hinduism, he asked some of his followers to accept Islam as their relig-”

“That’s the problem with you. You just take in partial information. Read what he wrote in the books that he especially wrote about them. You will know what he felt about the beliefs and the loyalty of these people towards our nation. As I said, these jholas and daflis have different ways to brainwash and you got caught in one of them.”

Sukesh remained silent for a while and continued eating and then suddenly said, “I may or may not have been influenced by the people you are talking about. But I simply cannot work like Nazi propagandists there.”

“Again. They said Hitler was a crazy man who just wanted to kill all the Jews and you believed them, like all of them did. There is always a reason for a man’s action, a justification. You will never read and listen to what the Jews did.  Hitler did what he did to protect the dignity and purity of his people. He wanted to save his country from getting destroyed by the outsiders.”

“Did you just justify state murder of six million people by one man wanting to pure, or whatever you called it, the lineage? You cannot, you did not.”

“Where is the evidence of it all, or of that number? And who?”


Golu was restless after having waited for this long outside the Registrar’s office in the administrative building. He saw Nilin coming out of the office finally and stood up to greet the Registrar from the slightly opened door.

“What happened?” he asked Nilin.

“Wasn’t approving the tender. But I did what I had to. Will be cleared within a week hopefully. Don’t worry.”

“The last time they had asked me to come in two weeks, and then they took more than a month. It is already May. If it is gets cleared quickly this time, we can start the work in June.”

“Don’t be in a hurry all the time Patil. We will get that tender eventually. We cannot expect anything better from these people who are not appointed by merit but some charity. Come let’s have chai.”

They entered the canteen and saw Prashant in his usual white attire.

“Arre Prashant Dada. Jay Bhīm! Khup diwsa nantar darshan dile,” Nilin said in a loud voice.

“Are tumich yet nahi gariban kade.”

“Did you have tea? Even if you did, you have to take another one with us.”

“No, no. I have to leave. I just came to…eh… visit the university.”

“Where are you going in such a hurry dada?” Golu asked.

“To my village.”

“Are wah. When are you returning?”

“Hopefully never.”

All of them laughed as Prashant left.

“He reminded me of that Sukesh. Have you talked to him recently?” Golu asked.

“Did a few months ago, but not recently. Give him a call,” Prashant replied typing on his phone.


Sukesh was sitting in a chair near the window, trying to look outside, but was unable to. The view was blocked. He continued to read when his phone vibrated on the table and he immediately stood up to walk towards the door. As it kept ringing, his pace increased. He passed through long rows of tables, filled with neatly arranged mobile phones and laptops. They had sharp stickers of dark and bold serial numbers on them. He pushed open a thick door and picked up the phone in the silent corridor.

“Haan Dada?”

1 – Dada – brother (used for someone older or respectful)
2 – Jay Bhim (greeting used by mostly Dalits or followers of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar)      
3 – “How are you? Sachin! Bring 3 golden tea.”
4 – Are Nai – Oh No
5 – Mitra – Friend
6 – “Somasa ghenar?” – “Will you have samosa?”
7 – “Are nai Dada,  Jevan zhala attach” – “No brother, I just had my lunch”
8 – Kulkarni – Name of a Brahman (or most superior as per the caste system)
9 – “Best of luck for this job”
10 – Sachin! Two samosas
11 – Birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar
12 – Birth Anniversary
13 – “Prashant Sir. Greetings. You showed up after many days.”

14 – “You are the one who is not ready to meet this poor thing.”

Imaad ul Hasan is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. He hails from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Imaad writes fiction and non-fiction on human rights and conservation of environment and historical monuments.  He is currently studying at AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Milia Islamia. He can be reached on Instagram and Facebook.

A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop story.
July, 2020

Top Middle Eastern Literary Magazines to submit your Creative Writing to.



Here is a new list of magazines to submit your work!

We, at The Bombay Review have a special focus on emerging and established writing from the Middle Eastern region. So if you are from or write about the region, and wish to have your work published with us, submit away! Our themed editions, published or forthcoming are on: Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, and Egypt. While submissions for these open regularly, we sure look for great writing all year round. Details below, along with the list of other literary journals/magazines. We are constantly working to update this list, if you know of a publication that can be here, drop a comment below. The list is in no particular order.

–  Editor, The Bombay Review

The Bombay Review
Year established: 2014
Published from: New York City & Mumbai
Genres: Fiction, Poetry, Essays, Art, Reviews, Interviews, Culture pieces
Submission period: All year
Type: Online + Print
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: None
Payment: Ranges from Nil to $50
Editors: Kaartikeya Bajpai | Rochelle Potkar

The Middle East
Short fiction, poetry, translations, reviews, screenplays, essays, and more.

The Bosphorus Review Of BooksThe Bosphorus Review of Books

Year established: 2017
Published from: Istanbul, Turkey
Genres: Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry, Book reviews
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Luke Frostick and Thomas Parker



Year established: 2013
Published from: Egypt & Kent, United Kingdom
Genres: Short fiction, Flash fiction, Poetry
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Sherine ElBanhawy


Year established: 2013
Published from: Dubai, UAE
Genres: Poetry, Short fiction, Essays
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Rewa Zeinati


Year established: 2010
Published from: Dubai, UAE
Genres: Articles
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Iman Ben Chaibah 

ArabLit Quartlerly

Year established: 2018
Published from: Unknown
Genres: Poetry, Fiction, Essays
Submission period: Rolling basis
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil to $500
Editor: M Lynx Qualey

Pin by IAA Libraries on Books from Around the World | Literature ...Banipal

Year established: 1998
Published from: London, UK
Genres: Translations
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Margaret Obank


Year established: 2017
Published from: Saudi Arabia, Michigan, USA
Genres: Poetry, Fiction, and Non-fiction writing
Submission period: Rolling basis
Type: Digital
Website | Instagram | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Ahd Niazy

Al Jadid Magazine

Year established: 1995
Published from: California, USA
Genres: Essays, Features, Reviews, Interviews, Translations
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital + Print
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Elie Chalala

Rusted Radishes

  • Year established: 2011
  • Published from: Beirut, Lebanon
  • Genres: Comics, Artwork, Translations, Fiction, Creative nonfiction, Poetry
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website | Instagram | Facebook
  • Submission fee: Nil
  • Payment: Nil
  • Editor: Rima Rantisi

Untitled design (1)Pars Times

Year established: 2002
Published from: Iran
Genres: Interviews, Articles, Poetry, Short fiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Unknown


Year established: 2013
Published from: Iran
Genres: Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Drama
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Unknown


Year established: 2018
Published from: Yemen
Genres: Essays, Short fiction, Nonfiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Hamza Shiban

The Istanbul Review

Year established: 2014
Published from: Istanbul, Turkey
Genres: Poetry, Fiction
Submission period: All year
Type: Digital
Website | Facebook
Submission fee: Nil
Payment: Nil
Editor: Hande Zapsu Watt

Fiction | ‘The Realisation’ by Aninda Mukherjee


By mid-March, New York had called in sick.

            When the Director of Programs interrupted Sandy Hartman’s mid – morning class on ‘History of Jazz’ for a brief announcement, Riya knew intuitively that it couldn’t be good news.

            Juilliard was temporarily suspending all courses in view of the unforeseen situation which had overwhelmed the city. With immediate effect, The Meredith Wilson Residence Halls were to be converted into a COVID specific hospital. The boarders had a week to vacate. The faculty regretted the, unfortunate turn of events. The school looked forward to welcome the students once the situation improved.  A technical team was putting together an online course apparatus, even as he spoke and the travel desk would work closely with international students.

            All around, things had changed. The rushed world of ambition and velocity had been reduced to a surreal stagnant space of quarantines, isolation wards and ventilators. The plummeting Brent subordinated itself to the spiraling rate of positive cases of this new dreaded virus, now in the city. New York was fighting …but at the moment the novel virus seemed to be winning by a mile, and then some.

            She took the elevator to the Cafeteria and took a seat in the far corner. Bill Blasio was all over the giant screen explaining a complex containment strategy that his team planned to execute over the next 72 hours. As he came to the part spelling out details of essential services in the locked down environment, Riya reached for her phone nervously.


Rajiv Bakshi was lost in thought as he took a sip of his after dinner Pierre Ferrand Abel. He leaned against the railing of his fifteenth floor sit out and stared aimlessly across Cuffe Parade into the emptiness of the Arabian Sea. He remembered the day in the non-descript year in mid 90s. As a young banker back from Singapore with a FOREX lead with the then Chase Manhattan, he had put all his savings into the down payment of 15B Casablanca. A few months later he had moved in with his wife Rini, and made it home.  His favourite corner since, had always been the balcony with a view of the sea to the distant right and the wondrous green Colaba Woods to the near left. Up front, beyond the World Trade Centre, were the Ambedkar Nagar slums reminding him of the characteristic homogeneity and benign acceptance of the Maximum City.

            He smiled to himself as his mind travelled back to that warm summer afternoon when he had driven back a glowing Rini and a little pink – wrapped Riya from Breach Candy to Casablanca. Eighteen years was a long time. Yet it seemed like yesterday…

            The phone rang yet again. This Work-from-home thing was turning out to be a terrible inconvenience!


The Delta out of JFK, one of the three airports in New York City, was the earliest option out. The itinerary was waiting in her mail box. Rini had called up with her usual last minute pep.  Pack light…Keep yourself hydrated…Don’t forget Cetrizines for the allergic rhinitis…Do drop a mail to the Indian Mission in NY…

            She gave a long hug to Sara, her roommate, promising to stay in touch over the forced break. Both knew their world was changing….the world was changing…. Nothing would possibly be the same again.

            Out in the corridor, old Tom, the floor janitor, lowered his mask, touched his cap, smiled and wished the really nice Missy from the Freshers class of Piano Jazz….. Godspeed!


Parimal Mondal balanced the bag near his feet, and started his Scooty. He had come to collect some grocery from Sahakari Bhandar, near Colaba Post Office, his weekly routine for many years now. The local kirana was never well stocked, and marginally expensive. As he turned right from Afghan Church, the Anglican Church in South Mumbai, to drive towards his rented room at Ganesh Murti Nagar, he saw a group of Jawans spraying disinfectants near the Colaba Military Station, which was the residential area for personnel of the Western Naval Command. There was a new disease called Corona. People said that it was a deadly virus which had killed thousands in China. Now it was spreading all over the world. There was nothing else on TV these days. Yesterday, Parimal had recalled those distant nights in his village near Canning in Bengal when his grandfather spoke of the terrible time the village had been attacked by the plague. Almost every family had lost a member, the stench was unbearable when the wind blew inland from the river… the Doms, fearing infection refused to help in cremating the dead.Muted sobs and muffled groans of pain and helplessness hung in the air. He could not sleep the entire night and lay awake next to Arati staring at the ceiling in horror. Thankfully, the morning arrived through the grills of the small window and his fears vanished into the early morning basti bustle.

Shortly after he had filled the water drum from the BMC tap, Bakshi sa’ab called. Riya didi was returning from America this afternoon. He had to pick her up from T2.

Parimal had worked for the Bakshi family for years now and had grown to be both loyal and rather fond of them over time. He had watched little Riya grow up…driving her to school and piano classes and birthday parties. He had been sad to see her go to college abroad but she seemed so excited at the adventure! But now he was a little surprised at the suddenness of the move though. The Bakshis had visited their daughter during Christmas, and Parimal had gathered that the girl was not due to return to India till much later in the year.

He dropped off the stuff, told Arati not to wait for him for lunch and hurried towards Casablanca, a couple of minutes ride from his place. Parimal had been idle since the boss had stopped going to his BKC office and was working from home. Occasionally, he had been called to run an errand, but mostly he had been free at home. He remembered that the car needed to be cleaned and there wasn’t much time. He tied his handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose, adjusted his helmet and set off. He had to get hold of a proper mask soon. Everyone had one these days.


As Parimal eased the Q5 into the Western Express Highway, Riya picked up the Times of India. The Prime Minister had addressed the nation the evening before, and had urged all to stay indoors the following Sunday. He had cleverly called it the Janta Curfew, making it sound almost voluntary. She knew though, the model of operation from the establishment was following a standard pattern: “Please stay in,” “It is highly recommended that you stay in,” and then “You MUST stay in.” Wuhan did that, Milano followed, New York caught up, and it would dawn onto Mumbai soon. Her world today operated on familiar templates…scaled models, bell curves, Big data, AI and Python!

On the surround, Bose softly played Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell from the legendary opera Dido and Aeneas.

Riya felt like a child again,fragile, unsure, and vulnerable. She reached for the controls and retracted the sun roof, peering out into what looked like a still frame from old Bombay. Speeding through the empty roads, the Worli sea face, Haji Ali and Mahalaxmi passed her by like a collage of colourful pastel sketches. The clear sky met the blue sea in the distant horizon. And somewhere in between was delicately placed the fancy brick and mortar like those cardboard models from kindergarten craft assignments. There were no people, no life, just the ‘automated blinking red lights at a distance…impersonal, indifferent, non–committal, aloof.

Parimal accelerated past Pedder Road and Babulnath and turned left on the Chowpatty.  Riya settled back on the soft leather and reached for her knap sack. She took out a bar of Baby Ruth Crisp and broke it into two.

“Parimal bhaiya, yeh lijiye.” Take this, Mr Parimal.

“Ji, didi.” Parimal reached back with his left hand, took the chocolate, deftly found a gap in the kerchief, placed it in his mouth and returned to the wheel in one swift, smooth motion.

Riya took the other half and savoured its sweetness. They were racing past Brabourne Stadium and heading south. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon at one of the world’s most popular promenades…but the Marine Drive, today, was deserted. A lone policeman sat under a tree and stared at nothingness.


Parimal and Arati had settled into the numbness of the containment routine, like most others at Ganesh Murti Nagar. Essentials were available at the small grocery store down the lane, the only shop which had remained open. For Arati’s medicines, Parimal had to go to Colaba once with a pass issued by the local municipality staffer.  Many of their neighbours were migrant labourers, who were anxious to go back to their villages. The construction sites were down and the future looked bleak. Parimal was lucky. He had a steady salary and hot meals. This was as close to the home he and Arati would dream of. Sometimes, though, he admitted to himself that he missed the haunting tunes from the far away fishing boats drifting along the Matla River. It carried him to a land of salted fish and panta bhaat and the sweet- sour cholai which lightened the head and gladdened the heart. But he always tore himself away from the fancy reverie and quickly got back on rails.

Babloo Naskar hadn’t had a drink for a month. He was used to his regular quart of Haywards XXX for as long as he could recall. But now the Sarkar had shut down all the wine shops. Babloo had purchased a pauwa now and then for a premium from the local bootlegger….till he couldn’t afford it anymore. So it was a very thirsty Babloo who knocked on Parimal’s door early one morning. A queue was already forming in front of Swastik Wine Mart as the State Government eased restrictions to permit liquor shops to reopen.

“Ki hola re Babloo?” “What’s up, Babloo?”

“Aaz maaler dukan khulse re Pari! Zabi naaki?” The liquor shops have reopened! Want to come?

The idea was tempting. Parimal wasn’t much of a drinker. But today he could do with a tipple. Like every other month his salary had come to his account and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend a little on a bottle for the evening.  These days there was no duty anyway. He quickly put on a shirt on his netted singlet and followed Babloo out on foot.

The area around the liquor shop was a chaos, an unmitigated disaster. There were hundreds of people jostling and cursing in their effort to get ahead. The duo tried to figure out where the serpentine queue might lead to but after walking to the far end of the road near Badhwar Park, simply gave up. Near the Charagh Din showroom, the line had branched out. One led to the Macchimar mohalla on Cuffe parade, the other headed towards the Causeway. No one knew how or when it would move….if it did, that is.

Babloo hadn’t come this far to return empty handed. He was determined to get his quota and planted himself firmly in the queue which turned towards the causeway. He would wait. Parimal had had enough. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. He struggled out of the melee and headed home, silently cursing himself for listening to Babloo and wasting his morning. He was drenched in sweat by the time he reached home. Quickly grabbing a gamcha, he headed to the sauchalay a few hundred feet from his door. He wasn’t feeling too well. Must be the exhaustion from walking in the scorching summer sun.


The situation in Mumbai was deteriorating with each passing day. The Chief Minister of the State, was under tremendous pressure. Fadnavis, whose party was in the opposition, left no stone unturned to show the coalition government in poor light. Dharavi, the slum conglomerate, was collapsing under the weight of its positive cases. Govandi was critical. Cases were spiraling all over the city, the doubling rate was worsening, the death toll climbing. The latest fiasco of the migrants causing stampede at Bandra, generally considered a posh locality, had brought the Uddhav Thackeray led Government much embarrassment. Kasturba Hospital was bursting at the seams. The other hospitals barely coped, wereover burdened, under staffed, and logistically crashing. And recently, the decision to open liquor outlets had led to riots and lathi charge – a complete failure of social distancing norms and prevention of transmission. The civil administration seemed ineffectual and helpless.

The CM summoned the Chief Secretary to Matoshree, the home of the Shiv Sena family, who was now in power after a long dull stretch. Hard decisions needed to be taken.

At midnight, Pardesi was relieved of his duties as the BMC chief. It was around 0115 that Iqbal Chahal chaired his first meeting as the Civic Chief. The numbers were frightening.12,000 odd positive cases, 793 deaths, not enough recoveries. His city was the epicenter, not just another dot on the red zone! The entire city of Mumbai had become a huge containment zone in Lockdown ++. The plan had to be two pronged. Aggressive testing and expeditious creation of medical infrastructure. Testing kits were reallocated from districts, resources deployed, critical clusters listed down to the last detail.

Ward A chief, Shambhurao Agashe was told in no uncertain terms to deploy the ‘Bhilwara Model’ in two main slums in his area, Ambedkar Nagar and Ganesh Murti Nagar, south of Cuffe Parade bordering the Navy Nagar area. He was sweating as he walked out of the BMC conference hall. It was 0335. He sighed as he typed a short post on a WhatsApp group simply named BMC_A.  He repeated the message to the SHOs of Cuffe Parade and Colaba Police Stations.

“Meeting. All members. 0530. Ward A office. URGENT.”

Around 9 that morning, there was a knock on their door. Arati opened the door to be greeted by two unrecognizable men and a woman dressed in personal protective clothing. One of the three spoke from behind his face shield. Parimal Mondal was on their list of individuals whose swab sample was required to be collected for testing of COVID. The names had been sampled randomly from the latest Electoral Rolls and reports would be available in 24 to 48 hours. There was nothing to worry.

The lady stepped forward, lifted Parimal’s face slightly by the chin and inserted the probe to take a nasal sample. Sample preserved and a label stickered, the group moved on to the door indicated against the next contact on the list. A band of enthusiastic onlookers followed them paying no heed to the objections of the lone policeman from the local police station.

Still in a haze, Parimal looked around to find Babloo leaning against the garbage truck at a distance. With deft sign language, Babloo Naskar indicated that his sample had also been taken and all was fine! Parimal just stood there, lost in thought.


Rajiv was sipping his second cup of Darjeeling while leafing through an old copy of The Economist. Rini put the oven to pre-heat in the kitchen and walked in to the living room. Riya had retreated to her room after breakfast to Face Time with an old school friend. It was getting unbearably hot in Bombay. The air conditioners hummed in tandem ad infinitum. Rini lounged on the recliner and opened the New Yorker pdf on her tab. She had barely read a few lines when the landline suddenly erupted to life with loud jarring rings. They hardly used this phone anymore. So both Rajiv and Rini were startled at this unfamiliar disturbing noise. Rini was the first to recover and padded across to the teak corner table on which the receiver was placed.


Rajiv took off his glasses and looked at her. Who was it?

“Parimal’s wife…” she placed her finger on her lips to indicate that Rajiv should be quiet.

As she listened to Arati, occasionally contributing monosyllables to the conversation, her face changed. Rajiv could see indifference turn to curiosity, then concern, then anxious nervousness and real fear. After about five minutes, Rini hung up but did not move.

The news was worrying. Parimal had tested positive for COVID-19. There was some random testing in his neighborhood and the reports had come in the night before. The positive cases were checked for symptoms by the BMC doctor. Parimal had a sore throat and fatigue but nothing more serious. Thirty seven from the Ganesh Murty area had tested positive. Only three had severe symptoms and had been shifted to the Kasturba Hospital. The others were taken to the make shift quarantine facility set up at the local Corporation school. Parimal was among them. Their families had been isolated in situ, which simply meant that they were not to venture out. Rice, dal, potatoes, onions, a tetra pack of oil, a bar of soap and a bottle of sanitizer had been placed outside Arati’s door in a large cardboard box. She was given a number to call in case she developed cough or fever, however mild.

But did he go out much? Where did he get the virus from?

The dam burst! Arati was furious! That rascal Babloo Naskar had lured her good man to the daru ka dukaan the other day. There was big maara maari. Parimal bechara was caught in the crowd. Anyone could have been infected under those circumstances!

And what about Babloo? Was he tested?

That is the anyay, madam. God is blind. There is no justice! Shaala Babloo is negative and my poor Pari is dying of this Corona! May Kali’s curse be on that bastard!

There was silence in the room. Rajiv slowly walked to the dispenser and poured himself a glass of water. Rini was about to say something when Riya walked into the room, looking lovely and radiant.

“Riya beta, did you wear a mask in the car when Parimal drove you home from the airport?”

“Dad, of course! Was sort of uncomfortable though…nose gets itchy all the time.”

What a glorious view! Riya slid open the glass door a fraction and walked out into the balcony.

A million thoughts crowded the Bakshi minds. Did the driver keep the keys on the hook? Or did he hand them over to Rajiv after parking the car? What about the floor? He did walk in that day, didn’t he? And the luggage! He had carried the luggage all the way up. Rini…yes, Rini and Riya had unpacked a while later! What a mess!

Rini knew exactly what Rajiv was thinking. Trust these damned slummies to go out and invite the dashed virus! And for what! Half a bottle of cheap bloody alcohol! And now all of us are in a spin, a royal soup! I mean do these half wits need to be told to be responsible? Wrestling with ruffians around a bar at 10 in the morning.

The western sky was incandescent with the sun setting on the Arabian Sea. A gentle breeze blew in from the Colaba Woods. It was a mellow evening, just a little humid. But Riya was puzzled at the behavior of her parents. They seemed to be lost in thought, constantly brooding over some problem in their heads. Both hardly touched their food during lunch. When she asked, they stone walled her. It was nothing. You know how it is, Rini told her. The economy is nose diving, business is bad, clients are getting anxious, NPAs. Not the best of times for the bank! It’ll be alright dear, don’t worry! These things happen…

Oh, okay then!

 Retreating to the comfort of her room, Riya heard the familiar double beep of a message on her phone. She reached for it to find a message from Sara Blinov, her half Russian roommate from Juilliard.

“Hi R! Terrible news. Self tested positive post return from school. Quarantined for three weeks at mamma’s place at Ithaca. Not too bad but BORING!!!BORING!!!BORING!!!Thank God. Asymptomatic! Miss you girl!”

Aninda Mukherjee is a marine maintenance professional who, when not measuring tappet clearances of a diesel engine, spends his time with his favourite three R’s.  Reading, Writing and Running.

Fiction | ‘Abroad Alone’ by Annabelle Baptista


Corrine hadn’t really thought through her visit to Germany, after the Christmas holidays, other than the fact that she wanted to see her grandmother’s childhood home. Her funeral preyed on Corrine’s heart. Days before Thanksgiving, she had sat with her mother and sisters and brother, reminiscing about the woman at ninety, who had buried her husband four years earlier. They spoke of her tenacity and love.

Now, Corrine wondered how she would explain her blackness to her German host.  At the moment, she felt too tired, suffering from jetlag and busy processing a quaint, family-owned inn. She conversed with the only English speaker at the Inn, trying to frame the right words to say if anyone asked about her reason for being in the small German village.

In broken English, the innkeeper’s teenage daughter welcomed her, mentioning briefly that she had English in her studies, and showed Corrine to her room.

“No central heating. Every room have fireplace.” The daughter explained and handed Corrine a rough, white towel to use in the shower.

Corrine didn’t understand what the other guests said when they gathered outside the communal bathroom. She’d showered swiftly, under a trickle of water, contemplating washing her hair twists in the toilet because there was more water over there, and then settled for dampening her hair with wet towelettes which she had packed to clean her hands once she walked back to her room.

Feral eyes looked out from every available wall space. As if someone had gone hunting on Noah’s Ark, they all looked wide eyed. She could sense them saying something, Run.


Dora picked up Corrine from the guesthouse the next morning.

“I have always wanted to go to the U.S., but I never got the chance,” Dora said starting up the engine of her Smart.

Corrine had met Dora through a travel app that provided guides for city visits, people who volunteered to show you their city.  Corrine wasn’t due back at work for a few days so she had plenty of time, to explore the city her grandmother called home.

Corrine directed Dora to take her to the village cemetery.  It was a small cemetery, like everything else in the village, and it didn’t take her long to find the headstone she was looking for.

“Do you know anyone from the Ashe family?” Corrine asked, thrilled that she’d found the headstone.

“No, can’t say I’ve ever heard of them.  What about you, how did you come hear from them? I thought you’ve never been to Germany. How do you know this old, very German family?” Dora asked..

“Does it surprise you?  Well, I…have known a few Germans in my lifetime,” Corrine said, as she stood in front of the cool, gray stone and appreciated the fresh winter air.  Dora didn’t prod her further and she didn’t want to tell Dora that these people were her great grandparents. Her grandmother had mentioned them quite regularly, and shown Corrine an ivory and lace photo album, with a family tree drawn inside its pages, which was all she‘d chosen to take from her family home. Corrine wished she had brought some flowers, but the grave had a slate covering; they seemed to have had no expectations.


On New Year’s Eve, Dora had a concert inside a monastery. Corrine’s heart was full as she looked down on Neuheimstal from the hill.  She stood outside watching the provincial concert goers, almost marching, one after another into the church.  She imagined her young grandmother here, thinking of the man she would marry. Open to whatever the future had planned for her.

The monastery’s massive door had heavy oak and ironwork; Corrine had never run into anything as solid in Boston. With concerted effort, which took longer than she expected, she opened the door. It wailed on its hinges, as if releasing a spirited ghost. A monk walked the aisle wearing a black robe and swinging a metal censer suspended from a chain. Corrine’s throat seized. She began to cough. Mindful of making a scene, she moved aside from the crowd, leaned against a cold marble column hacking and sneezing. Four people noticed, and moved as if to help, but Corrine waved them away.

She spotted a back room under the nave and ducked inside, thankful that no one followed her. She hadn’t seen Dora since she started preparing for her choral production. Corrine took great gulps of air and let out a “Thank God.”  The room felt warm and damp, but it didn’t smell of incense. Her eyes adjusted to the obscure light, which came from a small window on the opposite wall.  She caught sight of a figure moving beneath a blanket on a velvet couch from the corner of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here,” Corrine started reopening the door.

“Come in, come in.” Herr Tinnermann motioned with his hand as he sat up. Corrine shut the door.

“I have to get up anyway.”  Herr Tinnermann reached for his jacket lying on the back of a camel back chair.

“I felt ill from the smoke,” said Corrine, adjusting to the light. She’d met Herr Tinnermann at a brunch held earlier that afternoon by Dora.

“Take all the time you need.” Herr Tinnermann said, “You know I do this concert every year and it never stops filling me with wonder.”

“Did you know Ditmar Ash?” Corrine felt an alarm go off in the room. Her heart started pumping as if she were revving an engine to go from zero to a hundred depending on his answer.

“Yes, I knew Ditmar and Klaus, they had a lovely daughter.  I cannot remember her name. I remember her angelic face. Their daughter moved to the U.S…, why? Did you meet her? Did you know her?”

Corrine felt her heart break. “Yes, I knew her. Their daughter, I mean.”

The odd tuning of the instruments in the orchestra began to fill the room with whining exhalations.

“I must go. See you after the concert,” Herr Tinnermann said.

“Yes, I look forward to it.”

The smell had begun to dissipate, as a stream of fresh air came through the opened door.  Corrine could breathe freely again; the tightness in her throat disappeared.

She wanted to escape to the comfort of her hotel room and skip the evenings’ New Year concert and celebrations with the lie of a headache. But it was not possible to be alone, not at the guest house. What had made her think she could fit in in this strange place, with strangers who did not speak English? Yes, she had found them, her blood, her ancestors, but deep inside she knew they would have rejected her. Her heart ached.


The singer’s voice warmed the hall, the band’s shadow dancing on the walls around them. Herr Tinnermann informed, rubbing his hands together, that he would play a piece on the pipe organ. Corrine swiveled her head. Suddenly, the room filled with a confluence of sounds; otherworldly. The heavy dirges expressed through the music was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, said the program’s prospectus, but Corrine had first heard it played by Count Dracula when she was twelve, sitting in her Grandmother’s living room with popcorn. They had watched it together; a Friday night horror movie and she had been allowed to stay up till ten that night. Her grandmother had told her Romania was a beautiful country, not at all scary. Now, Corrine was sure her grandmother had been looking for snapshots that might remind her of home, because why else would she love Count Dracula so much.


Later in the early night, she met Dora, standing on the monastery’s expansive grounds staring up at the fine gauze draping the moon. The New Year’s Eve celebration had begun. The people ooh’d and ahh’d at the fireworks displays which lit the sky.  At midnight, all the church goers kissed one another on both cheeks and wished each other well, with the church bells ringing in undulations. Corrine hugged Dora a minute longer.

“Thank you for inviting me to your home. I have something to tell you.” Corrine said, pausing briefly before continuing. “I am half German” She waited for Dora’s response, trying to read her face for signs, which in her head were either of horror or disappointment.

“You are half-German, then you are German,” Dora proclaimed happily, almost jumping up and down.

 “You have home in Germany now, come back soon,” Dora said.

“Es war wunderbar. Ich gehe Morgan, aber du bist im Herzen” Corrine balled her fist tight and placed it over her heart.

She planned to take a cab to the airport in the morning, but at this moment, she felt already at home as she said her goodbyes to people who she felt she knew, like Herr Tinnermann and Dora. Their singing faded behind her as she left the monastery’s grounds on her way back to the guesthouse.  They would have killed her grandmother if they had known so many years ago, her Grandmother had told her, it was not allowed. She had feared for her life, loving a black man. She would have been an outcast. Her grandmother had also dealt with people who were racists, had hated her color and everything she represented, in Boston, but she had made a home for her family there. Corrine opened the window and breathed in the crisp, fresh air, and reflected on what her grandmother had taught her, love will make a home for you wherever it resides.

Annabelle Baptista is a poet and short story writer born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She currently teaches English as a second language and lives in Neckargemuend, Germany with her husband. She has been published in Coloring Book: An Eclectic Collection of Fiction and Poetry, Andwerve magazine and Families: The Front Line of Pluralism.

Short Fiction | ‘A Long Journey Home’ by Teevranshu Vashishtha | Student Writing

Raman and Prakash were sitting on the side of NH30 brooding over the setting sun. They had left Lucknow with a meagre ₹1000 each. The last full meal they had had was three days ago when they were leaving the city. They had been surviving on biscuits and water since. Raman was a native of the village of Umarpur in Amroha. He had been working in a construction site in Lucknow for the past few months alongside his cousin from his village, Prakash. On the morning of March 25, the two came to know of the nationwide lockdown due to the spread of the novel COVID-19. They both hurried to the bus station hoping to catch a bus home, but all transport services were already suspended. So, they both decided to embark on their journey home on foot. They were anxious to reach their homes for it had been 6 months since Raman last saw his 1-year-old daughter, Neha and Prakash his 3 years old son, Raju. Raman and Prakash had been walking for the past 12 hours, without any food. That night, they fell asleep on the roadside, the tormenting hunger lulling them. The journey was a laborious one and they still had a long way to go but were adamant and went arduously forward. The next morning, their prayers were answered for they found an open eatery. They had a hearty meal and bought some takeaways for the journey before carrying on. That night they reached a small settlement after a long and exhausting journey and took shelter under a tree on the roadside.

On that ominous night of the 28th, Prakash suddenly felt an acute pain in his chest. Raman was awakened from his slumber by the painful cries of his brother. Prakash had a known history of hypertension and Raman feared that it was a stroke. They were on the highway near the city of Bareilly that night. They couldn’t call for an ambulance because they had both sold their mobile phones before the journey in exchange for some extra cash to send home. The nearest settlement was 2 kilometres away. “I’m going to go get help Prakash,” said Raman, frightened yet sturdy. Raman rushed to the nearest house in sight and upon reaching there, rapped on the door of the house like a madman. A sexagenarian man answered the door. “Sahabji, my brother is in danger, he has had a stroke. Can you please help us Sahabji!” The man who answered the door with a stoic look on his face was Suresh. Suresh Sharma was a retired cardiologist from one of the most prominent hospitals in Delhi. Mr Sharma spent his childhood in the city of Bareilly and after the completion of his service, had decided to spend the rest of his days in his native city and bought a quaint little house on its periphery where he lived with his wife Radha and their cute little beagle, Mojo.

Fate had brought Raman to Suresh’s house for he was to be their saviour. 

“Who are you? Where do you come from?” asked Suresh with a vigilant look.   

“I am a construction worker in Lucknow. I am travelling with my brother towards our home in Amroha,” replied Raman with a broken voice.

Suresh took a moment and thought about whether he was telling the truth. He had heard stories of robbers who played out the same scenarios to rob people. Suresh took a good look at the man standing at his door and convinced himself of the veracity of the man.

“Where is your brother? What happened to him? What is his condition?” asked Suresh with the air of urgency you find in a doctor. 

“He is down the road 2 kilometres from here. He was fine when we went to sleep tonight but suddenly in the middle of the night he complained of having chest pains.”

Mr Sharma thought for an instant and then went inside his house. He returned with the keys of his car.

“I am a heart surgeon, let’s go and bring your brother back here.”

In an instant, both Raman and Suresh were on the road fleeing towards Prakash. It had been 20 minutes since Raman was gone and Prakash was unconscious when they reached him. When Prakash woke up the next morning in the house of Suresh, he saw his brother by his side with his sleep-deprived eyes full of tears of joy.

“Where are we Raman?” asked Prakash.

“We are in the house of this Sahabji who has saved your life,” said Prakash pointing towards Suresh. 

Suresh had indeed saved his life, for the stroke that Prakash had was a life-threatening one and needed the care of a brilliant doctor.

“You are going to be perfectly fine my friend,” said Suresh to his patient. “For how many days have you two been walking?” asked the doctor with a curious look at Raman.       

“We have been walking for 3 days straight, Sahabji,” came the doleful reply. Raman told Suresh all about their heart-wrenching journey of the past few days. Suresh’s heart commiserated with the two of them. 

“We are finally here,” said Raman full of mirth after stepping out of the car. They were parked near the Banyan tree underneath which the two brothers had spent their childhood playing. Their toilsome journey was finally at its end. Who would have thought that only 3 days ago, one of them was in a life and death situation?  “I hope you both are happy now,” said Mr Sharma coming out of the driver’s seat of the ambulance. Only 4 hours ago they were in a hospital in Bareilly, lamenting their misfortunes. The sagacious doctor had pulled a rabbit out of the hat to make their dream of reaching home come true.

The doctor had sworn to personally make sure that the two brothers reached their destination. He had planned a meticulous plan to carry out his intentions. 

“There are no adequate facilities here. I need to take him to Meerut for better treatment,” said the doctor intensely to his acquaintance.

“But he is perfectly fine Mr. Sharma,” said a doctor in his early thirties. 

“No, he is not. He is my patient and I want to make sure he gets the best treatment.”

“You stopped seeing patients a long time ago, Mr. Sharma. Why the sudden zeal for this one?” asked Dr Aggarwal with a cunning smile. “From the looks of him and the man he is with, he doesn’t strike me as the type of a person who can afford your treatment, Dr Sharma.”

This was factually true–Suresh was renowned to be one of the best and costliest heart surgeons in the country.

“He is my old childhood friend,” replied Suresh with a voice full of affection.

“Very well Dr Sharma, but you are going to have to acquire a written letter of transit from the DM.”

Suresh had forgotten that this document was almost impossible to obtain in such times of crisis.

“Yes, I have it with me, Vinod,” said Suresh with a little fear in his heart.

“Ok then, I will provide you with the referral certificate in 10 minutes.”

When Suresh reached the room of his patient, he told Raman all about his plan. Raman fell to the feet of the Doctor crying and weeping, saying that he was an angel of God sent to their aid.

“Yes, Radha I’m going to take him personally to the hospital in Meerut,” said Suresh lying to his wife on the phone.

“All the commuting in the country is at a full stop. How do you propose to take him there?” questioned the anxious Mrs Sharma on the other side.

“I have all the required documents for the journey. I am going to leave with him early in the morning,” he replied.

“I know there is no point in convincing you to not do this but please think about it again. The deadly virus is spreading at an alarming rate. Think about that too.”

“I know all about that Radha but they both need me too. I am fully prepared, don’t you worry, take care of yourself, I’ve got to go now!”

“Just be careful and be safe, goodbye!” replied the anxious wife.

The doctor ended the call and went to prepare for the journey. At the dawn of the first day of April, an ambulance was seen on the roads of Bareilly speeding towards Rampur.

“I am taking this man to a hospital in Meerut officer,” said a man dressed in a white dress sitting at the driver’s seat of the ambulance to the police officer at the checkpoint for leaving Rampur.

“For what reasons?” asked the officer.

“To be admitted there, he is going to have surgery there.”

“Where is this doctor Suresh Sharma whose name is written here?” asked the police officer looking carefully at the referring certificate signed by Dr Vinod.

“Here I am,” came a voice from the back of the vehicle. A man dressed in a doctor’s robe stepped out from the back of the vehicle.

“Hello, officer my name is Suresh Sharma, I am the doctor of this patient,” replied the man with an air of haughtiness.

“Hello, Doctor I am SI Sandeep Pal, the officer in charge of this checkpoint. So, you are taking this patient of yours for surgery in Meerut?”

“Indeed, I am, Officer.”

“What kind of surgery is he going to have?”

“He is going to have coronary artery bypass surgery.”

The reply was made so astutely that it put even Suresh in a dilemma whether the man portraying him was a doctor in real life or had he lied to him in the first place. Suresh had decided not to take any risks and took matters in his own hands, he became the driver of the ambulance so as not to leave anything to fate. He had made Raman an acquaintance in his plan and made him portray himself as the doctor and even taught him a few scientific notions related to cardiology to be used in a state of emergency so no questions would be raised to his veracity as a doctor and no objections at the presence of another person being in the ambulance apart from the patient as it was opposed to the law.

“Doctor, do have you the requisite papers for the transit of this patient to the hospital in Meerut?”

“I have them with me, Officer. Would you like to see them?” came the confident reply.

“No, I believe you, you are good to go, Doctor,” replied the officer after a moment of deliberation.

“Ok then, Driver let’s go,” said Raman suppressing a big smile on his face.   

Suresh said a little prayer under his breath and after closing the door of the ambulance, drove the vehicle towards its destination.

“Phew! that was a close one, you did a good job back there, ‘Doctor’,” said the ‘Driver’ with a cunning smile.

“Thank you, Sahabji,” replied the man wiping the few drops of sweat from his temple. Fortunately, it was the only time they were questioned throughout the journey.  

 It was at 10 in the morning when the ambulance reached the village of the two brothers. The plan of the doctor had worked miraculously, the brothers were finally at the end of their journey.

“You are going to have to take good care of Prakash for the coming days, Raman,” said the doctor to the man who was standing under the tree crying of joy. Raman took Prakash’s stretcher out of the ambulance and brought it under the shade of the tree and woke him up.

“Do you know where we are now Prakash?” 

“Am I hallucinating or are we really under the old banyan tree?”

“You tell me, Prakash.”

“It is the old banyan tree Raman. Are we home Raman?”

“Yes, yes, we are finally home, Prakash.”

“But how did this happen? When did you do this?” asked Prakash with a bewildered look.

“I didn’t do this, it was Sahabji who brought us both here,” said Raman pointing towards the doctor. He told his brother the full story of how the doctor had carried out a dangerous plan and brought them home.

“You must be God! You must be the almighty Sahabji!” said Prakash with his eyes full of tears.

“No, I am just a man who carried out the will of God,” said Suresh holding the hands of his patient. The doctor then helped Raman in taking all their luggage towards their home.

“Baba!” came a sound from Raman’s little cottage. It was Neha who upon seeing her father return home, let out a cry of joy. Raman took his little angel in his arms and held her tightly.

“I am here my child,” said Raman as tears rolled down his cheeks.

The wait was finally over, they were finally at the end of a harrowing journey. The doctor helped Raman in taking Prakash to his home. Raju was happy that his father was home with him. The doctor gave all the requisite medicine to Prakash’s family and informed Raman that Prakash would be fine in a week or two. The doctor then took his leave and went towards the ambulance. Just when he was about to leave, he heard someone calling his name.  

“Doctor Uncle! Doctor Uncle!” It was the sound of little Neha and Raju who had come to give the stranger a gift. It was a little clay statue of Goddess Lakshmi, the God of good luck. They wanted to give it to the man who had brought good luck to their family. Suresh accepted their pious little gift and went on. When Suresh said his last goodbye and left for his home, a few tears rolled down the cheeks of the man who was known to be emotionless.

Teevranshu Vashishtha is an 18-year-old student. He is a graduate of St. John’s Senior Secondary School, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. He is a dilettante writer who mostly pens short fiction and poems. His favourite writer is Ernest Hemingway.