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 | ‘Abdul’s Roses’ by Ayushi Aruna Agarwal | CreativeWritingW-TBR

Arjuna wiped off a speck of dirt from her brow. She was sitting in a public bus, on a rusted metal seat with no cushioning, as horns blared all around her. Behind her, a poorly dressed old man wearing a skullcap was staring down at his withered hands. She looked out of the window. 

There was much to cause her displeasure currently: Arjuna had recently quit her job as a journalist with Samachar Today, a regional news agency in Maharashtra. Her parents were insisting for her to get a ‘proper’ job. She had pursued her ‘passion’ for on-ground reporting long enough now. Although she had graduated with a degree in Mass Communications from one of the top universities in India, she had decided to take up a job with a meagre pay so that she could live by her ideal of ‘showing the truth to the world’. All the quotation marks were added by her parents, who felt that there were no buyers for truth. 

Arjuna spent two years, working on stories in the smaller towns of Maharashtra – the Dalit who was forced to do manual scavenging and who died in the process, the farmer suicides that were never registered as deaths in the first place, the small women’s collective which was struggling to get certification to sell kolhapuri chappals. Eventually, she realized that she was too full of grief, and her purse was too light. She figured that if she really did want to pursue a Masters degree abroad, she’d have to start saving up, which meant that she had to start looking for a job that paid better. 

Two weeks ago, she had reluctantly joined a small advertising company in Gurgaon. Although she could afford to travel in a cab once in a while, she had decided to continue her use of public transport, a choice she had made as a field reporter. The stench of public buses and the jostling of crowds didn’t unnerve like most people working corporate jobs in India. In fact, she had a certain affinity towards it. It was a life-link that constantly reminded her of the possibility of going back and retrieving the Arjuna that she had had to temporarily abandon. 

“Sector 45! Sector 45!” the conductor shouted, raising his chin so that his voice reached the end of the crowded bus. 

Arjuna and the old man wearing the skullcap got off. As she walked towards her society, she felt with a tinge of suspicion, that the old man was following her. He would keep sufficient distance but make all the same turns. When she entered the gate of her society, he entered too. 

Arre, Abdul, how is your grandson?” The watchman asked the old man. The two stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Arjuna slowed down to listen in, and realized that Abdul worked in the same society and was returning from Delhi. He wasn’t following her, after all. Yet, Arjuna found that this strange encounter piqued her curiosity about Abdul. Later that evening, she casually asked the watchman about Abdul on her way to the supermarket, who happily regaled her with Abdul’s story. 

Abdul was born in Old Delhi when India was still a British colony. He had a small business that sold shimmery borders to be stitched onto wedding lehengas. In the courtyard of his family house that stood opposite a mosque at the intersection of two obscure Chandni Chowk lanes, he had a small rose plant. He knew that if he didn’t sell beautiful borders, he’d be raising beautiful flowering plants. So at the age of forty when his business went under, and he was forced to sell his home to fund his son’s education, he got a job as a gardener. After having moved nearly fifteen times in the last thirty-five years, Abdul had come to be employed as a gardener in Arjuna’s society in Gurgaon.  

Winter was slowly melting into spring, and it was Arjuna’s favorite time of the year. As she entered the park for her morning walk the next day, she almost bumped into Abdul, who was exiting with a shovel in one hand and a rake in the other. He seemed to be holding them with a certain comfort, despite his frail figure. 

“Sorry madam, sorry. Sorry.” Abdul said meekly. 

“No no, don’t worry about it. I saw you in the same bus yesterday.” Arjuna said, trying to make him feel comfortable. 

“Yes. I’m sorry if it seemed that I was following you. But I had to come to the same place. I saw you looking behind your shoulder. I hope you didn’t get worried.” 

“Not at all.” Arjuna lied. 

“I didn’t even give you a salaam, madam,he said while staring at the ground with a furrowed brow, looking visibly worried. 

“No, don’t worry about it. Is everything okay, though?” 

Abdul looked up with a slightly startled face. 

“Abdul, is everything okay?” Arjuna repeated. 

Abdul hesitated before he said “My grandson will start going to school soon, and my son needs money. I don’t know what we will do…” and his voice trailed off. 

“Oh. I’m so sorry. I’m sure something will work out.” 

Arjuna felt embarrassed that she had urged Abdul to share his worries, and all she had done was offer a few vague words of consolation. As she walked in the garden, she couldn’t help but admire the beautiful roses and the love they had clearly been receiving. Abdul seemed like a kind fellow, and he was clearly doing his job very well. She decided to try and raise some funds for his family. 

Arjuna’s phone rang. It was Amit, her elder brother who had moved to California, six years ago for work. He had a slight accent,  a marker of his changing identity.  

“Hey, Arjuna. Call sometimes, no? How are you? How is the new job?”

“Yeah yeah. It’s alright. I miss reporting, so let’s see how long I can survive here.”

“What? You just joined and you’re thinking of leaving already? Listen, you need a well-paying job, in the private sector, which you finally have. Indian private sector is doing so well, thanks to our current government. You should see the kind of confidence Americans have in this government!” 

Arjuna sighed. “Of course, rich NRIs and white people in America love this government. The rising discrimination and communal violence in India since the current government came to power doesn’t affect them. Why trouble ourselves over laws designed to drive the minority out, or statements by leaders of the ruling part about putting Muslims in their place.

“Oh God, don’t start now!” Amit said, sounding fed-up already. “Anyway, call mom okay? Stop being such a loner, Arjuna.” And he hung up. 

Arjuna paid no heed. She loved her family, but she was tired of hearing the same things again and again. The job wasn’t so bad, but most people seemed to work like mechanized toys. They’d come in looking tired, smile only at lunch and start sneaking peeks at the boss’s door 6 pm onwards. As soon as the boss left, they’d trickle out hurriedly. At lunch the next day, when she knew her colleagues were more likely to be in a good mood, she announced to them that she was raising funds for her society’s aged and dedicated gardener, who wanted to send his grandson to school. She made a donation box with the sticker ‘For the gardener’s grandson’ and went from desk to desk, urging everyone to contribute some money. It was a clever strategy – no one could really say no, since she was asking for charity with the entire office watching and it was important to keep up appearances. 

When Arjuna came home and opened the box, she was ecstatic to see that she had collected almost four thousand rupees in an office of about eighty people. She decided to do this in her society as well. She went from house to house, giving a short narration of the gardener’s story, praising his work and then asking for a donation. By the time the sun set, she had collected over eight thousand rupees. She put in two thousand more as her contribution. Surely, ten thousand would be of help? 

She had spoken of the gardener so many times and with so much vigor that she felt personally invested in his cause, not unlike her field reporting days. The next morning, she went for her walk with the cash in her pocket. She saw Abdul sitting on his haunches and tending to a blooming rose plant. A coiled watering pipe lay at his side. 

Arre! Salaam Madam!” he greeted Arjuna, getting up on his feet. 

He was wearing grey pants, a shabby yellow shirt and torn socks with black slippers. Gesturing to his plant, Abdul said, “They grow up so fast, haina?

“Yes,” replied Arjuna, smiling warmly at his love for his plants. “I’ve got something for your grandson.” She took out the cash from her pocket and held it out for him. 

Abdul’s eyes widened and then his lower lip quivered, as he adjusted his skullcap. “What? No madam, no.”

“This is not from me,” said Arjuna. “The people in this society and in my office wanted to help you out. This is from all of us.” She held the cash further out and shook it, urging Abdul to take it from her. He remained quiet for a few seconds, then stretched out both his hands.

“Madamji, you are too kind. When he goes to school, I will ask his abba to take his picture and I will show that to you.” Abdul was finally smiling widely with his hands folded into a namaste around the cash. 

“That will be lovely,” beamed Arjuna. 

“I’m going to go to Delhi and give him the money this weekend itself.” It looked like Abdul’s face was no longer in the shadow of a huge dark cloud. 

“Oh, I’m going to Delhi for work this weekend too! I will be getting a company cab. You can come along. Where does your son live?” 

“He has a repair shop in Faisalnagar, he lives there. But, no madam, no. Please, you have done enough.” 

Arjuna tried her hardest to persuade him, but Abdul wouldn’t budge. Over the course of the week, they crossed paths in the garden every morning, and Abdul would flash his wide smile at Arjuna. 

***

When the weekend arrived, Arjuna pictured Abdul sitting in a bus, then in the Delhi metro, and then in a bus again, going home with peace in his heart. As her cab crossed the Haryana-Delhi border and inched closer to the capital city’s beating heart, she felt both familiarity and discomfort. It seemed to her that she knew the city as a tier-two friend: they had never become close enough for her to fully understand what upset her and what soothed her heart. She would often find herself lost trying to decipher Delhi’s personality, with her newly constructed flyovers lined with rickshawalahs and thelawalahs next to shiny BMWs, and posh malls that pushed the erstwhile small shops into forgotten corners. Power lay littered all across Delhi, snaking its way through the run-down monuments of the old Sultanates and the refurbished MPs’ bungalows until it emerged in its most resplendent form at the Parliament perched next to Rashtrapati Bhavan across from India Gate. 

The city had seen its fair share of contention; not just through political elections but also through assassinations, attacks, and riots. Arjuna had heard of what had happened in 1984 in the city, and her generation inherited its memories as an event that wouldn’t repeat itself. Her generation was to be wrong about many things, including this. Earlier that week, a senior leader from the party in power had peddled a blood-boiling slogan that several members of the far right Hindu faction received as a war cry. It had been Sikhs once, and it was to be Muslims in today’s Delhi. At first, there wasn’t even a murmur, and suddenly, that weekend, news broke out about attacks on mosques, merciless beatings on the streets and shootings. Twitter was flooded with carefully scripted lies and screaming truths from both the oppressors and the victims, and most people didn’t know who and what to believe. Perhaps that is the first element of a riot: to leave such confusion in its wake that it becomes impossible to trace its origin, such that even the inciters are able to argue with confidence that they were targeted first. 

Although Arjuna was geographically far from the hotspot of the violence, she could still feel the tension and heat as it radiated outwards into all the indifferent nooks of Delhi. The pictures she saw online were gut-wrenching. There was rising discomfort in her heart, and as she scrolled through Twitter, she realised that she was subconsciously trying to figure out the exact areas of Delhi in which the violence was unfolding. She kept scrolling when she suddenly found words that made her stop. Her throat went dry as she read, ‘Rampant and unchecked violence breaks out in Muslim dominated areas of Chand Bagh and Faisalnagar’

Arjuna had never asked for Abdul’s number. She called her society’s maintenance office and asked them if they had the old gardener’s number. When she rang the number, no one picked up. She started pacing nervously in her hotel room. Did she have any journalist friends she could call and get updates from? Arjuna rang up an ex-colleague who was now working in one of the big media houses here. He picked up after just one ring, as if he was eagerly awaiting a call. 

“Ravi? Arjuna here. We used to be colleagues…”

“Oh! Arjuna. I thought the call was from one of our field reporters. I’m sorry I’ll have to cut short at the moment. The situation is very tense, and I have to remain available to receive the updates. There’s no police at the site, and it’s a rampage… I can’t believe it is happening in our capital city!”  Ravi cut the call immediately. 

Arjuna was unable to fall asleep that night. What if she had given him the money next week and he hadn’t come home right now? But then, what about his family—his son, his grandson? Did he have a wife? Did she accompany him to Delhi too? She had never asked him any more than what he volunteered himself.  

She kept looking up the news continuously, hoping for some kind of affirmation. When she returned to her society two days later, she went to the watchman first, who had seemed to be Abdul’s friend. He told her that he too was wondering why Abdul wasn’t back yet, and promised to let her know if he found out anything. She continued to call his phone number and entered the park with nervous anticipation every morning, only to find the shovel, the rake and the watering pipe lying neglected in one corner. 

***

Abdul returned a week later, looking like he had aged a decade in a few days. Arjuna spotted him in the garden from her balcony and ran downstairs. His back was bent, his hands shook involuntarily and he walked like his knees would give way any moment. He wasn’t wearing his skullcap today. 

“Abdul! Abdul you’re fine! Your family?” Arjuna asked. 

“They are good, they are alive. I hid under a blanket with my grandson, and my daughter-in-law locked the door. But my son was already outside when they came. They beat him until they thought he was probably dead. He has broken bones, but he is alive. He is breathing…”

Arjuna didn’t know what to say. She knew from experience that silence was often enough, because no words could offer any respite from such trauma. 

“I had to come back to work. My son’s shop is completely destroyed, my house is destroyed, our neighbourhood is destroyed. My son has started receiving treatment with the money you gave me. I guess there will be no school for my grandson this year. I’m sorry madam.”

Arjuna shook her head, trying to convey that he owed no apologies to her. She was numb with all this information, but she could feel the onset of a wave of grief building somewhere inside her. It was in the news that the death toll was ‘not significant’. 

“But we are alive, that is what matters, no madam? I have no hatred towards anyone. If there are people like them, there are also people like you, no madam?” Abdul said, crouching down with some effort on his haunches, and gently stroking his rose plant. “No one can stop these roses from blooming, if only we decide to give them our love.”

Glossary

  • Abba – Father 
  • Arre – An exclamation
  • Haan – Yes/an exclamation 
  • Haina – Yes/an exclamation
  • Ji – Signifying respect  
  • Lehengas – Traditional wear consisting of a blouse, a skirt and a long drape
  • Namaste – Greeting/salutation 
  • Salaam – Greeting/salutation
  • Rickshawalahs – The pullers of three-wheeled passenger carts 
  • Thelawalahs – Very small and temporary open shacks selling fruits/vegetables or other food items

Ayushi Aruna, known officially as ‘Ayushi Agarwal’ is a lawyer and human rights law academic, who studied at the University of Oxford and National Law School, Bangalore. She currently teaches at Jindal Global Law School. In her legal writings, she focuses on women’s issues and has published articles and blogs in The Hindu, The Wire, Oxford Human Rights Hub, among others. Now in her mid-twenties, she has finally embraced her love for writing, although she has been dabbling in poetry from a young age. She has adopted the middle name ‘Aruna’ after her late maternal grandmother, who she never got the chance to meet, but who had her own creative ways. This is her first attempt at a short story, and it weaves her reflections on the social issues of the day with her understanding of human fragility. Ayushi tweets at @ayushi_aruna; and puts up her poetry drafts on her instagram blog (@ayushiaruna_).

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

Fiction | ‘Unborn’ by Arsheen Kaur

When Shashi reached home that evening, the sun was shriveling behind a huge tree. The sky looked like a large stretch of land spilling shades of crimson and amber. Birds had begun returning home, just like Shashi. She got down from the auto-rickshaw, relieved to have reached home before dark; paid the fare and took her trolley bag tucked beneath the seat. Her eyes struggled to match the composed clothing of her face. She opened the familiar iron gate and saw her mother standing near the water cooler, coiling the water pipe. Shashi smiled and ran towards her. Her mother stumbled a little at the sudden weight, gleamed with teary eyes and held her tight, “I was thinking about you, I made your favorite daal khichdi with jeera aalu.”

“How was the bus journey? Did you get a nice seat?” She asked.

“Yes, it was alright.”

They went inside. Ravi was cramming the table of 9, looking at his notebook, as if it was reading back to him. On hearing her voice, he got up and ran towards her. “I passed with a distinction, didi!” He said, hugging her. Shashi bent down and kissed his forehead, “Very good. I’ll take you to the fair next week and we will have your favorite vanilla ice-cream.” Delighted, he took her bag and dragged it inside, keeping it next to his cupboard in the hall. 

Shashi greeted her father, who was busy cleaning his spectacles. He didn’t seem too exhilarated at the sight of her. 

Didi, will you tell me stories of the city?” Ravi asked with excitement. 

Shashi walked towards him, plucked his cheeks, and said, “Yes!”

After all, like a hawker on his routine round through the streets, she, too, had many stories of the city (un)settled within her, waiting to get out of her head. Stories about creepy neighbours, tall buildings, buses brimming with people, streets lined with cars, nights lurking with insomnia, unforgiving traffic, and about her mother-in-laws’ friend who burps after every bite and every glass of water. She knew that Ravi would laugh all night listening to these stories of the city he had never seen. Human fascination with things not seen has a different kind of indulgence. 

***

This was the second time in less than two years that Shashi had come home after her marriage. The last time she did, she was mourning the loss of her first child. Emotionally distressed and wrecked from the miscarriage, she was left at her parent’s home by her husband at the behest of his dear mother. In those three months, she thought about never returning to the marriage, innumerable times, but that was never considered even a remotely practical possibility. She felt as if she was clambering her way into forgiving herself for letting this horrible accident happen to her and to her child. 

Every day, she would curse herself for being naive and ignorant and stupid, and for losing her child. Every moment was a gnawing silence since then. Every night, she found herself drowning, further and deep, in the guilt of not being able to raise her voice –  she had almost forgotten how she sounded. For a woman, to not know the sound of her own voice is ominously closer to her not knowing what she wants to be. 

How could she forgive her mother-in-law? The woman who had plotted to terminate her pregnancy after knowing about the gender of the child! Shashi believed the doctor she was taken to, did the tests, and was swept away by the amount of care bestowed on her by her mother-in-law. She thought she was being cared for because she was pregnant and was going to give birth to her grandchild. She took the prescribed medicines given by her twice a day, there was not an iota of suspicion. Why would there be? Her mother-in-law was educated and looked sensible. She worked at a clinic. Her husband said he loved her, be it a boy or a girl. There was nothing to be suspicious about. Why would she doubt anything at all then?

It was such a deplorable thought! How could she? She was her husband’s mother. How could she!

At her parent’s home, she remained busy doing household chores as everyone left for work. Her father left at about 10 am to open his convenience shop, her mother left at 7 for the school where she worked as a cleaner, and Ravi left with her. Shashi would be alone, and all it took was a bare, silent moment for her to drop on the ground weeping for her dead child. Her hands would go numb with fury, and her heart would split into peas. 

***

Ravi jumped on the bed and tugged at her to tell him stories of the city. “How big is it? How many people live in a city? How big are the houses? Are there any birds there? They don’t have carts like us, do they? Do they have cars like in my science book?” He asked all at once, the excitement for some dream fodder flitting through his eyes. 

Shashi looked at him. She thought her story is definitely not one he would understand at the tender age of seven. She stroked his hair and promised herself to tell him her story someday so he won’t become like the men she knew. 

“There are huge buildings, you know, as high as the sky. About 10-15 floors, even more in most buildings. Every building is taller than the other, every road leads to a new road, and everyone seeks comfort in the noise of traffic and the motion of days.”

***

For many families in India, having children, many children is a matter of tradition. Having many boys is a matter of pride. Who made this the way it is? I questioned myself when I first heard this from a neighbour who would get pregnant, year after year, only in the hope of a boy. 

“After all, sons will light the pyre at my funeral. They will enlighten the generations and they will do us proud. Girls are never really our own. They never belong to their parents, they are born to be given. They add aesthetic beauty to the world, what else? Expensive upbringing aside!” Meena aunty would say with her typical paper-skinned conscience. 

This made her furious then, when she was a young girl who was made to drop out of school to cut expenditures at home. This made her furious and miserable, again, when she was expected to paddle silently, for the sake of a marriage that did not deserve a second chance. 

She was told by everybody – repeatedly – with accents – a mother without a son, a wife without a husband, and a woman without the two is incomplete.

Two days ago when Shashi found out about her second pregnancy, she didn’t want to stay back in the house where her first unborn was murdered. She called her mother and told her about her pregnancy. Her mother asked her to take the morning bus and come home, without asking any questions. 

This time she made the decision for the life of her unborn. That was no way to be, in a city, in a house where girls remain unborn. Shashi knew she wanted to change this. She knew only a mother could change this. Mothers are brave. For her child, Shashi had to learn to be brave. 

***

The next evening, her husband came to take her back. “Stop throwing tantrums and come back to your home. You have no right to refuse to go to the doctor with my mother,” he told her.  She was shocked at his shamelessness. Saurav sat in the centre chair, his shoes shining as if he had just given them a fresh polish. He pushed the tray with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits kept on the table with his hand, looked at Shashi’s mother and raised his voice, “If she doesn’t come with me right now, I will never accept her back. That is my child and I have the right to know if it is what I want it to be.”

She knew she couldn’t let her daughter go back to the marriage where she and her unborn didn’t feel safe. In that moment, in the absence of her husband, Shashi’s mother felt empowered, for the first time in her life, to speak for her daughter. 

Leave and don’t come for my daughter again.” Her mother said, her voice steely, as she closed the gate. 

Standing by the door, Shashi screamed, “How can he ask me to return to his house, let his mother kill my own child, again, and become a corpse, again?” Her face, mirroring shock and disgust at  his audacity. Her mother hugged her tight and said, “Should I make some tea for both of us?”

***

That night while serving hot chapatis, Shashi’s mother told her father about Saurav. And before she could complete, he got up, furious.

“Why are you trying to break her marriage? Why are you teaching her to be a disobedient wife? Who will take care of your daughter?” he asked her, washing his hands. 

“You know what they will do to her if it’s not a boy,” she said looking at him in frustration. He wiped his hands with his lungi and sat in the chair looking outside.  She went and stood near him and continued, “You know what they did to her first child. How could I have let her go back to that house, after knowing everything?” her face straining with assertion. 

When he didn’t say anything, she continued. “Shashi will stay here. In her own home. She won’t go back to that house nor that marriage where she is expected to produce a son only.” 

He got up and blurted, “Your daughter is not a princess. This is how it is. She cannot change a curse into a blessing. Send her back to her home.”

“What curse? Shashi is our daughter. I cannot send her back to that hell again.” She said while collecting utensils from the floor mat where they were eating earlier.

He stood near her and folding his arms in anger, said, “Are you out of your mind? I cannot allow you to break her marriage. Shashi has to adjust. Everybody does. Didn’t you?”

Repulsed, she turned to look at him, “Adjust to grief? To guilt? To loss? Shashi will not. I don’t want my daughter to become another sorry story of a woman losing everything to sustain a broken marriage stinking of loss.”

He took his shirt off from the hook and tucked the buttons in fury. “How can we have our married daughter live here? What will people say? What we earn is barely enough for the three of us – how are we going to take care of Shashi and her child?”

She folded the floor mat and shouted, “Ravi, come here. Make space for Shashi didi’s clothes on your shelf.”

Shashi waned behind the kitchen wall. 

***

Five months passed by. 

Every morning, Shashi packed the tiffin for Ravi and her mother before they left, then cleaned the house. In the afternoon, her father returned home and the two of them would have lunch together. She knew it would take a few weeks for her fathers’ reservation to subside. He won’t be convinced – men are taught to be this way – to be brash husbands and stern fathers. 

That day, her father didn’t go to work, he felt feverish. She made him her mother’s proven home remedy, a medicinal drink with crushed black pepper balls, turmeric, and grated garlic in lukewarm water. Her mother used to make this for her everyday, also tossing in a lot many other dry and leafy ingredients, when she was home the last time. Shashi has many painful memories from last year that drag her back to grief.  

Her father continued to feel unwell and the fever didn’t go down even after taking the concoction and trying to sleep it off. Worried, Shashi took him to the hospital where he was prescribed a Widal test for typhoid and a few painkillers. The result would come in about 48 hours. Shashi bought the medicines on their way back home. She hadn’t called her mother yet, there was no point in making her worried. After taking the medicines at home, he dozed off. 

By evening, her mother and Ravi returned home. Shashi had just finished chopping onions to make lauki for dinner. She prepared tea for both, and a slice of toasted bread for each. 

“Papa didn’t go to the shop today. He wasn’t feeling too well,” she told her mother, in a conversational tone. Her mother paused and looked at her. “What happened?”

Shashi continued, “Oh it is alright. I took him to the hospital when his discomfort increased. They did some tests and the results will come in two days.” 

“What did the doctor say? Did he take the medicine before sleeping?” asked her mother, worried, looking at her husband sleeping. 

Shashi nodded.

***

In the morning, later in the week, at about 11, a mini-truck halted in front of their house and a tall guy called out for Shashi’s father. Shashi hurried out, she did not want to disturb her father. He had been sleeping till late into the mornings these days, partially out of fatigue and partially due to the sedatives in his typhoid medicines. 

The man was a vendor from whom her father bought the stuff for his store. She told him about his health and that he won’t be able to open the shop for a few days. 

“But he has made the advance payment for this and if I take it back, my manager might not refund any amount. So, it would be better if you take your delivery.”

Shashi went back inside and pulled out the shop’s keys from her father’s shirt. She went to the shop, a ten-minute walk from their house, and supervised as he unloaded the truck and set the boxes in the godown just at the rear side of the shop. 

“Tell him, two cartons of detergent along with some other items are pending and everything else is delivered,” he said while taking out a piece of paper from his pant pocket. He passed it to Shashi and asked her to sign it at the bottom. 

She read the quantities written opposite the stuff delivered and signed on the wrinkled piece of paper. 

“What is your name?” she asked him as an afterthought. 

“Vijay.” 

***

The next morning, Shashi took the shop keys and left for the shop. She opened the shutter. The counter had a layer of dust, she wrote – S H A S H I – with her index finger. She could write a few words in English and full sentences in Hindi. But she could do some math, really well in fact, on her fingers. Her mother taught her basic mathematics – addition/subtraction/division – since she left school after class V. 

She covered her face, making a mask from her dupatta and began sweeping the floor. Then she took a shabby piece of cloth from below the counter and cleaned the entire thing. As she washed her hands using water from a marred bottle of water, two women from the neighbourhood came and greeted her. They had known Shashi since she was a little girl and now when her baby bump had begun to come out, they congratulated her and blessed her with a baby boy. 

Shashi, completely disinterested in their blessings, asked them if they wanted to buy anything. “One small packet of jeera, a big Parle G. And one kg of chana daal.” She turned around to get these from the shelf behind her. 

That evening when her mother and Ravi returned from school, Shashi told her that she had opened the shop and she thought she did a decent job running it, even making Rs 150. “And Savita aunty and Raj aunty came to buy some stuff. They were kind of surprised to see me there. They blessed me for a son.” 

Her mother looked at her, her worrying eyes stayed at her daughter’s face. “You should stay home. You should not exert yourself at the shop. When your father gets well, he will open the shop.”

“I like it. I need to keep myself distracted. Plus I like the idea of running a shop, selling things of everyday importance,” Shashi said with a smile. 

In that smile, her mother, quietly, reminisced about the time when Shashi saw her school uniform for the first time. She was excited, her eyes beaming with dreams. But here, education for girls is too early, too enough. 

Her father, pretending to have just woken up from his sleep, got up from the bed. “Ravi, get me a glass of water.”

He looked at Shashi as Ravi filled the glass with water from the jug. “Why do you have to sit at the shop? Stay at home. I will open the shop in a few days when I am well enough.”

“I like going to the shop, papa. Let me.”

“If you say so. I guess Vijay might come tomorrow, tomorrow is Thursday, right? Ask him to shift some cartons of spices and lentils to the front for you.” He coughed, and added, “Holi is coming. He will come to deliver colors for the festival. I usually make some good money during this festival time,” while sipping water from the glass. 

Shashi nodded.  

***

Next day while Shashi was cleaning the counter, the mini-truck arrived again. Vijay got down and started unloading the truck. 

“I have got the pending items. 2 cartons of detergents, 1 carton of cosmetics, 2 sacks of rice, 1 carton of biscuits…” he began unloading and continued listing the list of items, “1 carton of maggi, 1 carton of milk chocolates and jelly toffees, and 4 boxes of pencils and pens.” 

“Keep the biscuits on that shelf,” she pointed towards the middle rack on the left side, besides the lentils. “And, the cosmetics here at the display. Rice over there. And give me the chocolates, toffees and pencils, these should be set here at the counter.”

“How is Ram Bhai?” he asked while adjusting the Abidas cap on his head. 

“Papa is fine. He will come to the shop in a day or two.”

“He told me you will get the colors for Holi. Bring a few extra packets, he said. When will you come for the delivery next?” 

“I don’t know. Not this week for sure. I have lots of pending deliveries in another town,” he told her, rubbing the dust from the cartons off his shirt. “I will try to come next week.”

“Want some water?” 

“I don’t mind. Your name is Shashi?” 

“How do you know my name?” 

“I read your signature that day. Here, please sign this paper today.” 

That morning next week was laden with sunshine. Shashi opened the shop and saw a good amount of sales. By noon, she had started feeling tired but waited for Vijay to come with the delivery of Holi colors. She sat on her father’s chair, limping on one side. She dozed off for a few minutes, and woke up on hearing the screeching sound of the truck. Vijay got down and told her that he has got 5 cartons of colors. She took the bill from him and went to the counter to get money. 

Done for the day, she decided to head home early. She picked the keys from the drawer beside the counter. 

“Are you going back home?”

“Yes.”

“I can drop you.” He opened the door of the truck and adjusted the seat for her, “Come, sit.” 

Shashi got in as she was too exhausted to walk anyway.

“You shouldn’t sit at the shop for so long. Especially in such a condition. It’s not good. I have seen my sisters, they usually rest during this time.”

Shashi looked out of the window. 

In a few minutes they reached her house and she got down. “Thank you, bhaiya.”

She opened the gate and saw Saurav and her father standing near the gate. 

“I have come to tell you that I am marrying a beautiful girl from Calcutta. So don’t think of coming back ever,” Saurav told her. “You can continue romancing your delivery guy.”

In that moment, Shashi drowned back to the times when she desperately tried to be an obedient wife and an obedient daughter-in-law but was never acknowledged for either. She felt sad for constantly trying to wade through the hearts of her in-laws and her husband. She didn’t have to. Why was she always expected to be obedient?

Saurav left, without waiting for her to answer, thrashing the gate to its hinges and screaming at Shashi as a good-for-nothing woman. The neighbours came out hearing him scream and looked over their walls desperately wanting to know what had happened because everything outside their own house was a circus. 

Her mother and Ravi returned from school just around then and saw Saurav leaving. She looked at Shashi standing there with tears in her eyes. She closed the gate and walked towards her, held her and took her inside. 

“Men are taught to walk out of marriages as if the institution of marriage is their property and women can never do the same, however toxic the marriage is, What kind of a dungeon is this?” she said agitatedly, while hanging her purse on the hook of the almirah. 

“Don’t think about him, that house or anything about there, Shashi. You are here and you are going to live with us. I am waiting to play with my grandchild.”

***

That night, when Shashi was tucked in the corner of the bed, her parents came and stood next to her. 

“Saurav came threatening me to find out if it is a boy or a girl. That man is shameless and not worthy of you. They will not accept you or your child if it is a girl. I told him you are not going back to him either way,” said her father, with affirmation, consciously brushing off any reluctance from his mind. 

Shashi, with tears in her eyes, got up and couldn’t stop crying. “They killed my child. They would have killed this one too.”

“You don’t have to worry about anything now. You are here at your home. You are running my shop, better than Ravi would have,” said her father with a gentle, dry tap on her head. “Do you want to have some fish curry tomorrow? I can bring some fish from Ashu’s shop.” 

They switched off the bulb and went back to their room. 

That night, Shashi couldn’t sleep. She kept looking at the ceiling that needed repair before the monsoon. She remembered the time when she was young and how her parents would save to get the ceiling repaired before monsoon. How certain things require repair every time!

She heard a dog squealing near her house. In the middle of the night, as she got up to go outside to see the dog, Ravi woke up, too. Both of them opened the gate and found a dog with a swollen belly laying on the road. “She might be hungry!” Ravi quipped. “She is pregnant.” Shashi said. 

Shashi went inside and brought some leftover chapatis for the dog and kept them near her gate. The dog came slowly, cautious at first, and began eating, uninterruptedly. She followed them to their tiny garden. Ravi found a bowl and filled it with water from the tap in the garden. Shashi went in to get an old sheet and spread it for her inside the shed. The two sat there, caressing the dog and looking at the starry sky.

They woke up to the sound of birds at sunrise. 

***

In a few weeks, the dog gave birth to beautiful black-eyed puppies, all of whom lived in their shed. Every morning, Ravi would feed them biscuits before going to school and every evening after returning from the shop with her father, Shashi would pet them and imagine her daughter running around the house playing with the puppies. She prayed for a daughter, all the more. 

One Saturday morning, Shashi and her mother left for her doctor’s appointment. It was a school holiday for her mother and Shashi told her father she would be back at the shop by noon. On their way, Shashi saw some girls and boys going to school. Boys riding bicycles and girls walking behind them, crossing fields, rivers, and lands with tall trees. 

“I will teach my daughter to ride a bicycle,” she told her mother, with gleaming hope. 

“And I will sit on the carrier seat and she will drop me to the market,” grinned her mother. “Have you thought of a name for her?”

“I will call her Roja.” 

She looked at the flowers outside an old building on their way, red roses, defiant, growing out of fence borders with their bodies breathing golden light and breeze.


Arsheen Kaur is a writer and poet based out of Delhi and Toronto. She works in the development sector. Some of her areas of interest are identity, memory, and feminism. She is a film studies and English literature graduate from AJK-Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. She aspires to be a novelist. Her work has been published in The Wire, Cafe Dissensus, Live Wire, Hindustan Times, The Quint, The Alipore Post among others.

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.”

“Right.”

“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.

“Sure.”

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?”

Glossary:
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

Poetry | ‘Next time I’m on a train’ | By Sanjukta Ghoshal

There are a few who rhyme as well as Sanjukta Ghoshal, as she not only rhythms it, but has well-timed meaning with each of those lines. A difficult feat made to look as easy as her girl-next-door bio note – a clever deception I tell ya! 

Next time I’m on a train

Next time I’m on a train and I get a window seat,


I’ll not try to fit the engine’s sound into rhythmic beats.


Next time I’m on a train and the winds ruffle my hair,


I’ll not try to tell the balmy country breeze from the dirty city air.


Next time I’m on a train I’ll not think of munching snacks,


I won’t scramble for the leftovers with hands inside my bag.


Next time I’m on a train, I will not follow the tracks with my eyes,


And see them meet, and then separate, like a game of cats and mice.


For next time I’m on a train, I’ll always be reminded why


It ran over more than a dozen men, who did not wish to die.


Next time I’m on a train, I’m sure I’ll be able to hear


their muffled screams as the wheels pressed their lungs all loud and clear.


Next time I’m on a train, I’ll remember to say my prayers and be thankful,


that I don’t have to walk five hundred miles to reach home for food.


Next time I’m on a train, I’m sure to get panic attacks


what if the train derails with the wheels slipping from blood on the tracks?


Next time I’m on a train and I fall asleep dreaming of barbecued kebabs on a plate,


I’ll have a nightmare about those rotis roasting under the sun on the track.


Next time I’m on a train I’ll be thankful I’m on it and not under,


For I was lucky enough to be not born as a poor migrant worker.


Next time I’m on a train, I’ll remember that movie that had,


Something about death making more cents than life. (That’s sad!)


Who should we blame? The driver, for he failed to stop in time-


or the train, for it didn’t listen to its master and did not toe the line?


or the workers, why had they to fall asleep on the tracks?


Couldn’t the poor bastards just sleep on the roads, on mats?


Yes, it’s convenient to blame the poor and these were dead poor; these were the poor dead who took the blame;

Their kin wouldn’t have money to sue you for defamation, because they were never in any hall of fame!

Sanjukta Ghoshal is born, brought-up and living in Kolkata, India. Her profession is engineering, the last place where you’d expect to find poetry, but then, there’s poetry inside everyone and we only need something to trigger it. Her trigger was the universal episode – heartbreak. She’s been writing on and off since school, and more frequently now since there’s this collective compulsion to keep mum and toe the line in all fields of life, but a rebel needs to speak. While she likes to get lost in abstract poetry that paints a picture of another world, she find herself writing more about things that you can relate to yourself, or your best friend, or that seemingly innocent girl-next-door.  

Poetry | ‘Portrait of a bastard’ & ‘On the way back’ | By Ajmal Khan

Ajmal Khan’s title ‘Portrait of a bastard’ made me sit up straight, where layers of racism from being Asian – the accent of a Dravidian governed more than religious divide, and yet the overlaps with ethnicity brought out an unpeeling of facades for the unison of humanity –same pain, displacement, ideas of home – made for an informed read.

Portrait of a bastard

Your collarbone protrudes like a Somalian Child
and the arm muscles anemic
but the Lungi, from the Malabar Coast. 

Texture of your skin is the mixture of Pulaya and Chandala
converted to Islam
sweat with a scent from Dubai, Abudabi or Muscat.

How can you speak English this well?
You guys rebelled against them
and boycotted their language.

How did you get this resilient yet deep eyes
and rage? Somewhat similar to Palestinians or Kashmiris —
You weren’t occupied.  

Your chin remotely resembles
a clever North Indian Bania man
that disappears like a mirage.

They murmur, you are a bastard
in the confluence between the Arabian Coast
and the Malabar before Portuguese and Dutch mastered maritime. 

***


On the way back 

Staring at stars, cosmos and beyond
We went to colleges and universities like curious children
following constellations.
Some of us – the only one of our kind
The rest had something similar – their surnames, parent’s jobs
Or the names of the cities they hailed from
The kind of dress they wore, the way they spoke English
The brands of cigarettes they smoked and the scent of their sweat. 

Some dropped out
Few missing
Others came home as dead bodies like Shambuka
Those survived were picked up and
the remaining-untouchables in the job market
On the way back to the village
The road is long with the heavy burden
of degree certificates. 

***

Ajmal Khan’s poems have appeared in the Muse India, The Bangalore Review, The Sunflower Collective, and Firstpost among others. His poems also appeared in anthologies such as GOSSAMER: An anthology of contemporary world poetry by Kindle Magazine and recently in the ‘100 poems are not enough’ by Walking Bookfairs and Macmillan.