10 Inclusive publishing houses for minority narratives in Asia

Diversity and inclusion in the literary landscape:
Publishing outlets for minority groups in Asia

Like all other things, the Indian literary landscape is a product of its times. And as an industry adapting to this age, publishing houses are moving towards a more accessible and inclusive horizon. We’re seeing feminist, LGBTQ+, and Dalit literature assert its expression; translations from rich regional literature finding a clamouring audience; and writing from indigenous communities and people of colour finding a more commercial market and academic market.

The ecosystem is changing – more rightly, it’s evolving to include literature beyond the dominant narrative, and fledgling independent publishing houses are dotting the landscape to cater to this demand. 

If you are a writer who identifies with a marginalised community in Asia, here is a list of independent publishing houses and media outfits that will nourish your ideas and give it the home it deserves. 

– Saumya K

 

PUBLISHING HOUSES


1Panther’s Paw Publications

Started by Yogesh Maitreya in 2016, the independent house is an anti-caste publisher. It is set to publish its seventh title this last year. The press carves a space for including the Dalit narrative and propagating Ambedkarite values.

Themes: Dalit literature, Ambedkar literature
Genre: Fiction, Non Fiction, Poetry
Mail: pantherspawpublication@gmail.com
Social media: Facebook, Instagram
Year established: 2016

“Panther’s Paw Publication is not merely a publication; it is a movement.”


2Stree Samya

The two imprints under Bhatkal and Sen focus on gender (stree) and culture and dissent (samya). It focuses on caste structures — looking at social movements and identity in the creation of Dalit writings.

Submission Guidelines

Themes: Gender studies, culture, and dissent with focus on caste structures
Genre: Academic Non-Fiction, Social Sciences: Cultural Studies, Dalit Studies, Women Studies, and Translation in English from Regional Languages
Mail: bhatkalsens@gmail.com
Social media: Facebook, Instagram
Year established: 1990
Published from: Kolkata, West Bengal

“…examining the roots of injustice from the point of view of an underprivileged.”


3Navayana

How does caste figure from an anti-caste perspective? The independent publishing house is on a quest to demonstrate that through its titles, with Ambdekarite values anchoring its literature.

Themes: Anti-caste literature
Genre: General and academic nonfiction, graphic books, poetry and literary translations
Mail: anand@navayana.org
Social Media: Website, Twitter, Instagram 
Year established: 2003
Published from: New Delhi

Founder S Anand in The Print: “We are a publishing house that has never been about business as usual, but about embracing the unusual.”


4Speaking Tiger

Speaking Tiger is home to over a hundred writers dotted across the South Asian landscape, and gives a platform to “new voices”. 

Submission guidelines

Themes: Anti-caste literature
Genre: Fiction, non-fiction, poetry in English
Mail: editorial@speakingtiger.com
Social Media: Website, Twitter
Year established: 2014
Published from: New Delhi


5Yoda Press

Yoda Press has been expanding its spectrum of literature, dotted with titles about LGTBQ+ communities, life and living in urban culture, Kashmir identity, amongst other voices on the fringe.

Themes: Sexuality, popular culture, alternative voices in history and sociology
Genre: Academic, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, graphic novels
Mail: info@yodapress.co.in
Social Media: Website, Instagram, Facebook
Year established: 2004
Published from: New Delhi

“…striving to mine the niches of alternative writing more deeply.”


Upcoming 2021Gutter Stars Press

A product of Signal 8 Press, Gutter Stars is a new imprint launching in 2021 that broadly focuses on LGBTQ literature and readership. They’re trying to carve a mainstream interest in queer stories.

Themes: Gender and sexuality
Genre: Fiction, Non-fiction, memoirs, personal stories
Mail: gutterstarspress@gmail.com
Year established: 2020
Published from: Hong Kong


6Zubaan Books

Zubaan’s titles are reflective of their diversity and inclusive literary vision. Besides establishing its credo as a feminist publishing house, it has claimed the Northeast writing landscape, allowing new voices to talk about years of conflict and identity in their works. Zubaan also publishes gender neutral children’s books. 

Submission guidelines

Themes: Women’s writing, new voices, Northeast literature
Genre: Academic, Fiction, Non-fiction, children/young adult
Social Media: Twitter, Website
Year Established: 2004
Published from: New Delhi


7QueerInk

QueerInk broke ground in the previous decade as a one-stop shop — allowing curation, development, and promotion of narratives of and by the LGBTHQIA+ community in India. It works across print, screens, theaters and events. It’s vision for the next five years is to the change perception in popular culture.

Themes: Issues and perception of LGBTHQIA+ community, alternative voices
Social Media: Website, Twitter
Mail: info@queer-ink.com
Year established: 2010
Published from: Mumbai, India


8Blaft Publications

Blaft is all things out of the ordinary, in languages beyond the dominant English narrative. Its previous titles are dotted with crime novels, pulp fiction, Nigerian soyayya fiction, folklore, and weird fiction. It picked up the demand for regional literature whilst bringing genre like Tamil pulp fiction to the English-speaking reader.

Submission guidelines

Themes: Tamil/Urdu/Hausa pulp art, folk tales, regional languages underrepresented in literature, monsters, mathematics
Genres: Fiction, experimental writing, zines/minibooks, graphic novels, translations, comics
Social Media: Website, Instagram, Twitter
Mail: blaft@blaft.com
Year Established: 2007
Published from: Chennai, India


9Adivaani

For the 104 million indigenous people of India, Adivaani positions itself as an archiving and publishing outlet to preserve these under-represented voices. It chronicles the expression, identity, and experiences of adivasis from the Northeast and Santhal communities.

Themes: Cultural and social expression of Adivasi voices
Genres: Fiction, non-fiction
Social Media: Website, Twitter, Facebook
Mail: info@adivaani.com
Year established: 2012
Published from: Kolkata, India


 

Do you know of more publishing enterprises that we have missed? Drop the details in the comments below. This list is in no particular order, and will be updated regularly. 


Opportunity for new Dalit writing in English by The Bombay Review

Call for submissions –

Fiction (Min 2,500 words),
Essays (Min 2,000 words),
Poetry (Min 3) and Reviews

Payment – $10 – $15, per contributor
Looking to publish up to 20 writers
Deadline: 15th December, 2020
Email: submissions@thebombayreview.com
Email Subject: Submission: Dalit Writing: Your Name
Regular Submission Guidelines: Click Here

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. 

“Kangaroo?” 

“Kangaroos.” 

“Deer?” 

“Deer.”

“Reindeer?” 

“Reindeer.” 

“Fish?”

“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 | ‘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.

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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



13 LITERARY MAGAZINES
The Middle East
(English/Bilingual)
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


new-journal

Rowayat

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


Sukoon

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


Sail

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


Jahanamiya

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


Parsagon

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


Al-Madaniya

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 | ‘Abroad Alone’ by Annabelle Baptista

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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.

Top Indian/Asian Literary Magazines to submit your Creative Writing to.

Literary magazines are a catalyst to good publishing in any country, functioning as a parallel industry to traditional book publishing. A rich literary magazine landscape comments on writing being taken seriously, and also nurtures a reading market for aspiring writers. Stimulating intellectual conversations, niche catering, lending support to Creative Writing programs, and providing a platform to be heard, or well, read; surround the larger role of magazines.

In India, South Asia, Africa and certain parts of the world,  literary magazines may have another role to play. Support writing careers. The magazines are a pillar to graduates of literature, passionate readers, bibliophiles, hobbyists; lending them the shoulder to spring start a probable writing career. 

Here, today, we have curated a list of our favorite literary magazines of Indian/Asian origin, publishing steadily for a couple of years. Persons of words in this part of the world, or anywhere else, go ahead and submit your creative writing.

We, The Bombay Review, are also always open to reading your work, publishing your work, and commending your work. Details below.

By Team TBR

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: upto $50 for solicited entries
Editors: Kaartikeya Bajpai | Rochelle Potkar


30 
LITERARY MAGAZINES
(Established more than 5 years ago, as of 2020)
Short fiction, poetry, translations, reviews, screenplays, essays, and more.

Indian Literature: Sahitya Academy

  • Year established: 1954
  • Published from: New Delhi, India
  • Genres: Poetry, short fiction in English translation and English, critical articles
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital + print
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Dr. A. J. Thomas

Asymptote Journal

  • Year established: 2015
  • Published from: Taiwan
  • Genres: Unpublished translated poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama; original English-language nonfiction; visual art
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Lee Yew Leong

Jaggery Lit

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Fiction, poetry, essays, art, reviews
  • Submission period: May 1 to July 1
  • Type: Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: $25/piece
  • Payment: $100 for fiction, $25 for nonfiction/poetry/art/reviews
  • Editor: Anu Mahadev

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Could be defunct)

  • Year established: 2007
  • Published from: Hong Kong + London, UK
  • Genres: Poetry, Fiction, Creative Nonfiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Spark Magazine

  • Year established: 2010
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Short fiction, art
  • Submission period: On a break, currently not accepting submissions
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editors: Anupama Krishnakumar and Vani Viswanathan

The Indian Quarterly

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: Mumbai, India
  • Genres: Essays, features, essay-reviews, photo-essays, travelogue, poetry, fiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Print + Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Unknown

Reading Hour

  • Year established: 2011
  • Published from: Bangalore, India
  • Genres: Short fiction, poetry, book reviews
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Print + Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Unknown 

eFiction India

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: Gurgaon, India
  • Genres: Essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism, interviews, book reviews
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Nikhil Sharda

The Bangalore Review

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: Bangalore, India
  • Genres: Fiction, creative non-fiction, translations, essays
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: $3
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Suhail Rasheed

Himal South Asian Mag

  • Year established: 1987
  • Published from: Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • Genres: Long-form reportage, political analysis, essays and opinion, interviews, photo essays, reviews, fiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: USD 100-150
  • Editors: Kanak Mani Dixit

 Muse India

  • Year established: 2004
  • Published from: Secunderabad, Telangana, India
  • Genres: Poetry, short fiction, essays, conversations with writers, book reviews
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Atreya Sarma U

Helter Skelter

  • Year established: 2010
  • Published from: Mumbai
  • Genres: Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing: Short fiction, poetry
  • Submission period: Varies, usually November to January
  • Type: Digital
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Arun Kale

The Alipore Post

  • Year established: 2015
  • Published from: Unknown
  • Genres: Poetry, art, photography, comics, interviews, prose
  • Submission period: Check website
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee:
  • Payment:
  • Editor: Rohini Kejriwal

Open Road Review: (To be verified)

  • Year established: 2011
  • Published from: New Delhi, India
  • Genres: Poetry, Fiction, Creative Nonfiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Kulpreet Yadav

Cafe Dissensus

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: New York City, USA
  • Genres: Audio-visual (interviews, conversations), Political articles/essays, Photo essays
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Online
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editors: Mary Ann Chacko, Mosarrap Hossain Khan

Kitaab

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: Singapore
  • Genres: Short Stories, Essays on literary criticism, Poetry, Non-fiction – Travelogues, Memoirs, Personal essays, Book Reviews, Author Interviews
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Zafar Anjum

Wasafiri

  • Year established: 1984
  • Published from: London, UK
  • Genres: Articles, essays, journalistic prose, short fiction and poetry 
  • Submission period: October onwards
  • Type: Digital + print
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Malachi McIntosh

The Bombay Literary Magazine

  • Year established: 2013
  • Published from: Unknown
  • Genres: Fiction, poetry
  • Submission period: Varies, currently closed
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: Nil
  • Editor – Tanuj Solanki

The Mithila Review

  • Year established: 2016
  • Published from: Delhi, India
  • Genres: Fiction, poetry, non-fiction
  • Submission period: Varies, updates on website. Currently open for poetry, closed for fiction (opens August 2020)
  • Type: Digital + print
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: Nil to $10 for original poetry, essays, flash stories; $50 for original stories
  • Editor: Salik Shah

Nether (To be verified)

  • Year established: 2009
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Fiction, poetry, art, photography
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital (quarterly) + Print (annual)
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Avinab Datta-Areng

Vayavya (To be verified)

  • Year established: 2011, first published in 2013
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Poetry, prose on poetry, interviews
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Mihir Vatsa

The Little Magazine (To be verified)

  • Year established: 2001
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Essays, fiction, poetry, novellas, film and theatre scripts
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Antara Dev Sen, Pratik Kanjilal

Setu Billingual

  • Year established: 2016
  • Published from: Pittsburgh, USA
  • Genres: Research articles, book reviews, interviews, poems and short fiction
  • Submission period:
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Anurag Sharma, Sunil Sharma

The Punch Magazine (formerly Byword)

  • Year established: 2016 (formerly Byword)
  • Published from: India
  • Genres: Articles (Non-fiction, Poetry, Interviews), Reviews, Photos, Videos, Fiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Online
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: Small donations are welcome
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Shireen Quadri

The Aleph Review

  • Year established: 2017
  • Published from: Pakistan
  • Genres: Prose, poetry
  • Submission period: January to July
  • Type: Digital + print
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Mehvash Amin

The Missing Slate:

  • Year established: 2010
  • Published from: Pakistan
  • Genres: Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography, visual arts
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital + print
  • Website 
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Moeed Tariq, Noah Klein

Out of Print

  • Year established: 2010
  • Published from: Mumbai, India
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Indira Chandrasekhar

Anak Sastra

  • Year established: 2010
  • Published from: Florida, USA
  • Genres: Short fiction, creative nonfiction, comics, poems, book reviews 
  • Submission period: All year
  • Type: Digital
  • Website
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: None
  • Editor: Kris Williamson

The Asian American Literary Review (Under construction)

  • Year established: 2009
  • Published from: USA
  • Genres: Poetry, Fiction, Creative Nonfiction
  • Submission period: Jun 1 to Aug 31
  • Type: Digital
  • Website Currently under construction
  • Submission fee: None
  • Payment: Contributor copies only
  • Editor: Lawrence-Minh Bὺi Davis and Gerald Maa

If we have missed out any literary magazine, which we surely have, please comment below with details and we will take a look. Do note, that we are not considering literary magazines/journals which are less than 3-5 years old.

The above list in not in any particular order.

Call for The Booker Prize Winners’ Reviews

TO PITCH OUR EDITORIAL BOARD

The Bombay Review, ambitiously so, plans to review all the Booker Prize winners, since 1968 when the Prize was first constituted. We welcome review pitches from professional and freelance writers, journalists, columnists, and book lovers. All submissions must be exclusive, and previously unpublished. To review a book for us, please send us a pitch between 200 and 500 words.

In case a book is not available with you, we will send you a copy if you are selected to write the piece.

Send an email to thebombayreview@gmail.com. The subject line of the mail should be – ‘Book Review : Book Name : Your Name’.

We are starting the reviews section with The Booker Prize winners, but we would love to have pitches for other books as well.

Due to the volume of submissions, we can only respond to those of interest.


 

PLease make sure to include the following information at the top of your pitch:

*Book(s) and/or writer(s) you would like to discuss in your piece
*Approximate word count
*Your bio
*Two relevant writing samples, preferably of reviews.
*Availability of the book with you. (Please note that we will be sending you books only in select cases)

You are encouraged to briefly explain any critical, historical context you consider relevant apart from the reason you picked the particular book. 


 

TO PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS (for books not in our list)

To have your book considered for review, send a pitch to thebombayreview@gmail.com; copies of books will be asked of you. This is a paid service. You can mail us for a quote.


ABOUT THE BOOKER PRIZE

The Booker Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Booker–McConnell Prize (1969–2001) and the Man Booker Prize (2002–2019), is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The winner of the Booker Prize is generally assured international renown and success; therefore, the prize is of great significance for the book trade. From its inception, only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African (and later Zimbabwean) citizens were eligible to receive the prize; in 2014 it was widened to any English-language novel—a change that proved controversial.

A high-profile literary award in British culture, the Booker Prize is greeted with anticipation and fanfare. It is also a mark of distinction for authors to be selected for inclusion in the shortlist or even to be nominated for the “longlist”.


 

The Complete List of Man Booker Winners

 

2018
Milkman
by Anna Burns
United Kingdom / Northern Ireland

 

2017
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
United States

 

2016
The Sellout
by Paul Beatty
United States

 

2015
A Brief History of Seven Killings
by Marlon James
Jamaica

 

2014
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
Australia

 

2013
The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton
Canada / New Zealand

 

2012
Bring Up The Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
United Kingdom

 

2011
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
United Kingdom

 

2010
The Finkler Question
by Howard Jacobson
United Kingdom

 

2009
Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
United Kingdom

 

2008
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
India

 

2007
The Gathering
by Anne Enright
Ireland

 

2006
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
India

 

2005
The Sea
by John Banville
Ireland

 

2004
The Line of Beauty
by Allan Hollinghurst
United Kingdom

 

2003
Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre
Australia

 

2002
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Canada

 

2001
True History of the Kelly Gang
by Peter Carey
Australia

 

2000
The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
Canada

 

1999
Disgrace
by J. M. Coetzee
South Africa

 

1998
Amsterdam
by Ian McEwan
United Kingdom

 

1997
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
India

 

1996
Last Orders
by Graham Swift
United Kingdom

 

1995
The Ghost Road
by Pat Barker
United Kingdom

 

1994
How Late It Was, How Late
by James Kelman
United Kingdom

 

1993
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
by Roddy Doyle
Ireland

 

1992
Sacred Hunger
by Barry Unsworth
United Kingdom
and*
The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
Canada / Sri Lanka

 

1991
The Famished Road
by Ben Okri
Nigeria

 

1990
Possession
by A. S. Byatt
United Kingdom

 

1989
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
United Kingdom / Japan

 

1988
Oscar and Lucinda
by Peter Carey
Australia

 

1987
Moon Tiger
by Penelope Lively
United Kingdom

 

1986
The Old Devils
by Kingsley Amis
United Kingdom

 

1985
The Bone People
by Keri Hulme
New Zealand

 

1984
Hotel du Lac
by Anita Brookner
United Kingdom

 

1983
Life & Times of Michael K
by J. M. Coetzee
South Africa

 

1982
Schindler’s Ark
by Thomas Keneally
Australia

 

1981
Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie
United Kingdom / India

 

1980
Rites of Passage
by William Golding
United Kingdom

 

1979
Offshore
by Penelope Fitzgerald
United Kingdom

 

1978
The Sea, The Sea
by Iris Murdoch
Ireland / United Kingdom

 

1977
Staying On
by Paul Scott
United Kingdom

 

1976
Saville
by David Storey
United Kingdom

 

1975
Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
United Kingdom / Germany

 

1974
The Conservationist
by Nadine Gordimer
South Africa
and*
Holiday
by Stanley Middleton
United Kingdom

 

1973
The Siege of Krishnapur
by J.G. Farrell
United Kingdom / Ireland

 

1972
G.
by John Berger
United Kingdom

 

1971
In a Free State (short story)**
by V. S. Naipaul
United Kingdom / Trinidad and Tobago

 

1970***
Troubles
by J. G. Farrell
United Kingdom / Ireland

 

1970
The Elected Member
by Bernice Rubens
United Kingdom

 

1969
Something to Answer For
by P. H. Newby
United Kingdom


Books will be made available to reviewers whose pitches are accepted.

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

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

“Is that Murakami?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange!

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

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

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

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

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

Impressive summing up of a rich career!

This mysterious encounter looks promising now.

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

“No. I am not that intelligent.”

“A professor?”

He grins: “Not that smart, either.”

“Who are you then?” The bafflement shows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Yes, sure. Thanks.”

He signals the boy for two big ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Are you from these parts?” I ask.

“Yes. A village nearby.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr…?”

“Prakash.” He offers his hand.

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

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

“What is that?”

“You.”

“Me!”

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

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

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

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

“Oh! I see. What is she?”

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

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

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

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

“Real crusader!”

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

“I am an electrical engineer.”

“A what?” my jaws drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting!” I exclaim. “Go on.”

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

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

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

“Carry on, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

He stops. I wait.

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

“The storm?”

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

“Sad! How did it all happen?”

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

“Who were these brutes?”

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

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

“Yes.”

“No action was taken?”

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

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

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

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

“My God! Terrifying!”

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

“Oh! What did you do then?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you plan that?”

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

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

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

“So sad! What happened afterwards?”

He pauses. I wait.

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

“What?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“In a most strange way.”

“Tell me fast, please.”

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

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

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

“Oh! Typically Murakami!”

“Storms teach.”

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

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

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

“Then?”

“A most strange thing happens.”

“What is that?” I am hooked.

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

“What was that, pray?” I ask.

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

“Act of courage or foolishness?”

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

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

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

“How is that, Prakash?”

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

“Yes, you are right.” I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True. Very philosophical, indeed!”

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

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

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

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

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

We decide to part.

“One more interesting tid-bit, Salim.”

“What is that?”

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

“Is it so? Odd, is it not?”

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

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

.

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

Unsettling!

How can it happen?

Where has it gone?

I get disoriented by the unreality of the thing.

Have I dreamt up the whole thing?

I search for the hut but there is no trace!

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

Weird!

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

Disappointed, I walk back, dragging my feet.

“Are you looking for someone special?”

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

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

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

Where have I heard this voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat meows.

The unreality of the reality can be baffling!

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

Sometimes, something cannot be rationalized.

Intuitively experienced.

Dazed, I start moving.

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

Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-freelance journalist from the suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 21 books so far, some of which are solo effors and some joint. He edits Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given his circumstances, Jagmohan thought himself rather generous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ The End ~

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

Fiction | Befriending the Scum of the Earth – Joshua Britton

Britton’s story is a conundrum come to life. A legally convicted pedophile moves next door to the protagonist, and the latter finds himself drawn into a somewhat reluctant friendship with him. As the friend of a child molester, he understandably finds himself being shunned by the rest of the world, and yet does not quite manage to abandon his new-found friend. The reason is for the reader to decipher. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

I believe in forgiveness. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. In theory, I have faith in the justice and rehabilitation system. I do not, however, want to be friends with a pedophile.

Vince bought the house between the nuns and me. On moving day, the neighborhood residents formed a receiving line and Vince shook hands with each of the parents from across the street, the middle-aged divorcees, the nuns, and the Elder Statesman. The Elder Statesman gathered everyone and gave a speech, not only to offer Vince his gracious hospitality, but also to speak of the long-standing tradition of high character and moral fiber exuded by the residents of his beloved street.

Perhaps Vince should simply have taken advantage of the gathering to make one announcement and get it over with. Instead, he shook everybody’s hand, told jokes, laughed at theirs, and accepted fruit baskets and plates of brownies. Not until the following week did he go door-to-door to inform everybody of his record.

I was slow to react, having had zero prior experience listening to a man found guilty of diddling little boys. When he finished his court-mandated speech, he stuck out his hand. I hesitated, as if his arms and hands were covered in slime or crawling with parasites. But I resisted the urge to back away, and, because social convention says so, I shook it. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.

Compared to the reaction of the rest of the neighborhood, I might as well have said, “You and I are going to be best friends.”

At first, I was one with the neighborhood. Neighbors complained to me as much as to anyone. “There ought to be a law.” “How can someone like that be allowed back into civilized society?” “We should send them all to an island where they can rape each other to death.” “If nothing else, we need to pray for him.” That last was from one of the nuns. The nuns and I were showered with pity for having to live on either side of the offender.

The Elder Statesman had inherited his home when his own parents died thirty years earlier, decades after he was born in that same house, in the same bedroom he slept in now. He polled interest in holding a neighborhood meeting to discuss how to oust Vince from the zip code, but the general feeling was that nothing legal could be done. And, because of the moral fiber of the neighborhood’s residents, nothing illegal was even suggested.

I happened to be on my porch, reading, when Timmy lost control of his soccer ball and it bounced into Vince’s front yard. Vince wasn’t outside; I don’t think he was even home. Timmy ran across the street to retrieve his ball. From inside the house his mother glanced out the window and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Timmy, get out of that yard right now! Timmy, do you hear me?! Come inside! Now!!!”

In less than a week Timmy’s house was on the market. The family moved not long after, before the house was even sold.

Our only other family couldn’t risk taking on a second mortgage. They installed a full-perimeter fence instead.

“I’m grilling burgers,” Vince said to me on Saturday. I was still half-asleep and didn’t have a shirt on. “Come on over!”

“Uh, ok.”

In his backyard the charcoal grill was already fired up. He threw on two patties as I walked through the gate. He gave me the choice of several cheeses, recommending the Gruyere. I sat in front of one of two placemats set on his new patio furniture. I was either the only person invited or the only one who had accepted. Also on the table was every condiment I’d ever heard of and a half-dozen flavors of Lays potato chips. I loaded up and took a bite. With blood dripping down my chin, I gave the chef my compliments.

I spotted the nuns sitting in their sun porch next door. I waved, and after several seconds one of them reluctantly waved back. Mrs. Hafenrichter, my next-door neighbor in the other direction, stepped outside to refill her bird feeder. She glared. For a moment I felt bad for Vince before I realized she was glaring at me.

About this time in my life, Maria and I had the awkward but ultimately pleasant conversation in which we agreed to date each other exclusively. This was exciting since she was my first serious girlfriend since my ex-fiancée had ended our relationship a while back following our miscarriage. Suddenly, Maria was coming over several times a week, and it was inevitable that she and Vince would meet.

“This is a heck of a spread, Vincenzo,” I remember saying. When he had suggested we come over to watch the playoff game and “get something to eat,” I had assumed he meant ordering a pizza. But, no, his entire dining room table was filled with sandwiches, salsa, queso, chips, veggies, microbrews, and cocktail wieners.

“Thanks for having us,” Maria said, giving him a half-hug and kissing him on the cheek.

“Is anyone else coming?” I asked.

Nobody else was coming.

Later, when I was home alone, I googled him. He’d been accused and found guilty of molesting two boys, brothers age six and eight. He adamantly denied the charges throughout the trial and into his incarceration. Actually seeing this in print made my heart flutter. He looked horrible in the pictures, too, as twisted as the descriptions made him out to be, like a real-life monster. But he did his time and was even released early. Not long after, those same two brothers were in the news again. This time, though, it was their father who was found guilty of molestation and sent to jail.

#

Vince talked me into going out to lunch one day. He came to pick me up from work, but he was early and I had a few things to finish up, so he sat nearby hobnobbing with my co-worker, really hitting it off. Then my co-worker’s wife and four-year-old son arrived for his lunch. Vince stopped joking long enough to say, “Ma’am, when knowingly in the vicinity of a child I am legally obligated to inform you that…” It was downhill from there.

When I got back to work after lunch, my boss approached me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day. Did y’all realize it’s Bring a Pervert to Work Day? If I’d known it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day, I would’ve gone over to the penitentiary and picked me up a pervert so he could mingle with these fine people and their families. But I didn’t know! Why didn’t somebody tell me it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day?”

It took some doing, but finally I was able to convince him that it was not Bring a Pervert to Work Day.

“Don’t you be bringing a pervert here, man. I don’t want no perverts in this office. Nobody else wants no perverts in this office. You want to hang out with perverts, you do it on your own time. But keep your pervert away from here.”

Ever since then people have been keeping their distance.

#

I come home and Vince is outside, and he waves hello so I wave back, but I’m really thinking, “go away, man, you disgust me”. He calls for me to come over but it’s windy, the leaves are rustling, and a car drives by, so I pretend not to hear him and I go inside.

But he comes over and suggests we “watch a movie or something”, so I tell him I have plans and I have to get ready to leave. I don’t actually have plans, though, and Maria is busy, so I go to Barnes & Noble and read until it’s time to go to bed.

But Maria likes Vince, and she invites Kristen over to meet him. Kristen likes him, too, and next thing I know the three of them plan and rope me into double dates. Vince makes elaborate three-course meals, spending entire days on prep work, refusing Kristen’s and Maria’s help, though unofficially appointing me sous chef. Sometimes he makes name cards so we don’t sit at the same places every week: men on one side, women on the other; Maria and me on one side, Vince and Kristen on the other; or pairing himself with Maria, and me with Kristen.

In the living room we sit around and play games, talking late into the evening, until Kristen and Vince hint that they’re ready to be alone, leaving Maria and me to walk the twenty feet from Vince’s front door to mine.

The Elder Statesman knocks on my door and invites himself in. Along with the rest of the neighborhood he is concerned with my budding friendship with Vince, when “What we want to do is make him feel unwanted. We want to be hostile. We want to drive him away.”

The Elder Statesman is a nice man, but with his long white beard he resembles an ancient Greek philosopher and I feel inferior in his presence.

“I don’t know,” I mumble. “I try to treat others the way I’d like to be treated.”

“That’s admirable, son, and you have fine character. But a monster should be treated like a monster.”

“But he’s a nice guy, if you get to know him.”

“No, son, he’s not a nice guy. He’s the lowest of the low. Less than dirt. I hate to think of what he’s doing to that poor girl he’s brainwashed into coming over all the time. Please don’t trap yourself into defending the scum of the earth.”

“But he didn’t do it. It was the father. Vince was framed; I’m sure of it. He always denied it. But he did the time, and now the father is doing his.”

“Is that what he’s been feeding you? You’re a good boy, son, but you’re naïve, and I’m sorry you fell for his tricks.”

“But it’s in the papers.”

In truth, Vince has never once talked about it, and I sure never brought it up. Even when he went door-to-door when he first moved in, instead of saying “I’m a child molester,” he said, “I was accused and found guilty of –” which is not actually a confession. And if little boys really do turn him on, what’s he doing with Kristin all the time? I generally choose to have faith in the legal system, but if what they say is true, then I am friends with a pervert.

I hear Maria pull up to the curb but several minutes pass and she still hasn’t come inside. I go outside to investigate and I see her two doors down, out of earshot, but having what looks like a serious conversation with the nuns. One of the nuns notices me first. Then Maria turns around, wide-eyed and in shock.

“Is Vince a pedophile?” she demands. She won’t come inside, and the nuns are watching. “They said he raped all these kids and went to prison for it. They said there was a family across the street that moved away because he was preying on their children.”

“Vince never touched the kids across the street.”

“But you knew and didn’t tell me?”

I put my head down and stare at the ground. Lying never does any good.

“I knew, yes.”

“And you let me go inside his house?”

I shrug and softly nod.

“You let me hug him? Kiss him on the cheek? You left the two of us alone in the same room?”

“It was little boys, not grown women,” I mumble.

“Ew! Gross!” She shudders. “You’re his friend!” she accuses. “Why wouldn’t you tell me? You even let me set him up with Kristen. Oh my God, Kristen!”

She backs away from me as if I’m infected by pedophilia by association. She rushes for her car, dialing Kristen as she goes. I know this will be the end of Vince and Kristen. And a phone call the next day finishes off Maria and me.

“Maria left me,” I tell Vince.

“I too am single again,” Vince replies matter-of-factly.

I buy the beer, he the rib eyes, and we console each other.

“Did I ever tell you I was engaged?” I say to Vince.

“No, I didn’t know that. What happened?”

“It shouldn’t’ve happened, really. This was a few years ago. We started dating in college, and after graduation she got a job down here and moved. We kept it going, long-distance, but to be honest it wasn’t going that well. But then she got pregnant so we decided to get married. I got a job down here real easily, and we made an offer on a house. But then she miscarried. Everything happened so fast. She was twelve weeks in, maybe only ten. So we decided there was no need to rush into marriage anymore. But I’d already started my new job, and I liked the house, so even though she broke up with me pretty soon after that, I bought this house anyway.”

Vince puts a hand on my shoulder, caresses it with his pinky, and squeezes. “Sorry to hear that.”

“I still like this house, “ I say. “And I like this neighborhood. I plan on staying here for a long time. I’m glad you moved in.”

“You’re a good friend,” he agrees.

“So that’s my story,” I say. “What about you? Do you have any long-ago tales of sorrow and woe? Any deep dark secrets?”

This is as blunt as I can be. He stares off into the distance, as if he’s thinking really hard, before turning to me with a smile. “Can’t say that I do,” he says. “Life’s been ok to me.”

“Huh,” I say.

That’s it. We finish our steaks. Later, I go home.

A graduate of Florida State University and Roberts Wesleyan College, Joshua Britton has published fiction and non-fiction in Tethered By Letters, Cobalt Review, Bodega Magazine, Steam Ticket, Typehouse Literary, The Tarantino Chronicles, and Spank the Carp. A native of Rochester, NY, Joshua now lives in Evansville, IN, where he is a freelance trombonist and teacher. Contact Joshua at Joshua_ britton@yahoo.com.