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

A Funeral of National Importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you?” she asked.

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hire?’ She was confused, ‘what?’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 



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?”


“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.

Short Fiction | ‘The Change I Want to See in the World’ by Anshika Kodukula | School Student Writing

“Congratulations! It’s a boy, Mr Rohit!” The doctor conveyed the good news to my Dad. That tall man looked quite like Iron Man with curly hair, a long nose and arched brows that seemed to make a rainbow. His delicate peach lips formed into a wide grin as I stopped crying upon seeing him. He slowly put me in my cradle when a stout two-year-old girl with a plump face appeared in front of my half-opened eyes. Her bulbous nose was grotesque compared to her beady eyes, soft lips, knitted eyebrows and fringed hair. She saw me and left. I missed that face as I lay awake for the next few hours.

At the age of two, my parents made the biggest decision of my life–enrolling me in school.

“Roshni, I think DPS is the right choice for Aadarsh. What do you think?” my Dad asked.

“That’s okay, but what about Aadhyaa? You can’t afford to send them both to such an expensive school,” Mom answered.

“Aadhyaa, do you like this school?”

“Yes Dad, of course! There is no other school like DPS in the city. I just love it!” my innocent sister answered.

“Oh, that’s really nice, Aadhu. I have a surprise for you! You’re going to join a new school, okay?”

“Really, Dad?” her voice choked. She stopped the tears from rolling down her cheek.

“Aadhi, you’ll be going to DPS from now! Are you so excited?” Dad asked.

“I can’t wait!” I said. Smiling hesitantly, I turned towards my sister. I’m sure she wasn’t pleased with what our Dad had done. She immediately went into her bedroom and closed the door. It was dark as I stepped into the room. She was lying on the bed, her tears flowing freely. As I switched on the lamp, she immediately wiped them away and said, “Hey Aadhi, nothing happened. It’s just dust. You’re happy right!” 

I asked, “Why are you crying? Shall I tell Dad you want to study at DPS?” She hugged me tight in response, barely leaving any space for even air to enter.


I know I was not good at academics and that Aadhya was the real gem. I told my Dad that one day but he simple defended me, stating: “If your sister can do something, so can you!” I hated the way they always put me on a pedestal and neglected Aadhya when she was the one with far more potential. 


“Aadhee, Aadhee! You sleeping donkey. Get up Aadhi!” She kicked me off the bed for reasons that elude me.

When I threatened to call Mom, she put her hand over my mouth and whispered, “movie” into my ear. I immediately knew what she was getting at and started grinning like the Cheshire Cat. We bunked school and headed straight to the cinema to catch the latest Marvel movie, still clad in our school uniforms, our heads hanging low in fear of being recognised. We got away with it that day and for the next six years until she graduated, it became our ritual. Aadhya was always better at sneaking around than me. She came up with the most believable lies on the spot and our parents never doubted her stories.

In the coming years, we made a lifetime of memories together; from staying up all night on the balcony and climbing trees to find the best mangoes to planting saplings and competing in cricket, Aadhya was my best friend.

She was also extremely popular in the neighbourhood. She wasn’t recognised as “Mr Rohit’s daughter”, rather he was recognised as “Aadhya’s father”. Her kind nature had won her a place in everyone’s heart—she was always ready to lend a helping hand. The children adored her for her playfulness and she would always patiently clarify any doubts they had from school. She was my role model in every sense.


“Aadhi, come on we have to go grocery shopping. Mom’s orders. You’re not getting out of this one,” she called out to me.

“Okay fine, let’s go. But I’m getting myself a Cadbury.”

As I trailed behind her towards the supermarket, I noticed that she’d taken an unusual turn. She never makes mistakes like these so I was sure that she had a trick up her sleeve.

“Aadhu, a surprise for me?” I asked curiously.

She just smiled in return, a twinkle in her eyes.

Soon we arrived at our destination: the local hospital. I learned it was to donate our blood. I was a little nervous at first and found myself slowly backing towards the door, but Aadhya assured me that it would be fine and I began to grow confident.

On our journey back home, we met with a small accident. Unfortunately, my sister was badly injured–her right hand was scratched up and bleeding. She covered it up with a cotton scarf so as not to attract our parents’ attention and lied, saying that all shops were closed.


Her grade 10 exams started in three days. Despite her injured hand, she was sure to do the best among her peers. I was enjoying myself in grade 7. Not putting in any effort, kicking back and relaxing as my sister spent sleepless nights with her nose buried in her textbooks.

Weeks later, she finally received her grades and they were just as good as I had predicted.

“Papa! I topped my class,” Aadhya screamed.

“Oh, congratulations, Aadhyaa,” he said without looking up from his newspaper.

It was a proud moment for us all. Being the daughter of a middle-class family, it was no easy feat to top such a competitive examination. She was working hard towards improving our parents’ future but they didn’t even bat an eyelash.

My academic performance, on the other hand, was in the gutter. All the money they had invested in me was down the drain. Yet, I was the one to be enrolled in an international college while my sister at a local one.

Though they continued to ill-treating her time and time again and gave me their utmost importance, she never treated me with any viciousness or jealousy. Whenever we went to a temple, she wished for the wellbeing of my parents and I, never once thinking about herself.

One day, in a fit of rage, I finally plucked the courage to ask her the question that always weighed on my mind:

 “Aadhya, why do you bear all this? Why don’t you tell to parents?”

 She gave me a glass of cold water, “drink first,” she muttered, her cheeks red from embarrassment.

The cold water calmed me down and I settled down on her bed. She caressed my head and smilingly said, “You are all mine!”


The day finally arrived when Aadhya received her grade 12 exam results. She’d secured an unbelievable 98% and her future looked bright. My GPA, on the other hand, started with a one. Although my parents were dejected upon hearing that, they didn’t acknowledge any shortcomings in their ways.

Aadhya approached my father with the hopes of becoming a civil servant.

“Papa, I want to become a civil servant. I need to study in a big city to secure a better future. Will-“

Dad interrupted her, “What? A big city? A civil servant? What are you talking about Aadhyaa? Are you okay? Have you gone mad?”


“Look, you’re intelligent, I know, but stop being so absurd in your demands. You’re not going to convince me. Take these and relax,” he said as he handed tickets to Chomu to her. Chomu was where my aunt lived and where my father had decided Aadhya would pursue her bachelor’s degree.

With her dreams crushed, Aadhya was off, leaving me all alone.


“Hello, Aadhyaa! It’s a decade since I’ve seen you! Look at you all grown up now. How is everybody doing?” said our aunt with a wide smile.

“Hi, Auntie! We’re all doing good. Hope it’s same with you all too!” My sister answered.

“Yes, we’re all fine! Come inside!”

Auntie and she got along well. She loved the home. But told me that she majorly missed all our mischief.

A few days into her stay, Aadhya finally told her aunt, her true desire:

“Auntie, I’m interested in civil services but Papa is forcing me to pursue an insignificant bachelor’s first. I need your help to prepare and train for the exam—you know how tough it is. Please help me out and don’t tell Papa at any cost.”

“Aadhya, you can’t make such a major decision without telling your parents and seeking their approval. It’d be better for all of us if you let go of this dream. I hope you understand where I’m coming from,” she replied with an incredulous look on her face.

“Auntie, please, I’m not at all interested in what Dad is forcing me to do. I only came here without a single word of protest because of you. I was sure that you’d understand and help me out. You’re my only hope for a brighter future. I could study in Jaipur–it’s right here and so much better than this village. I’m a good student, please trust me. I can do it but I need you!”

Auntie got emotional at her words and agreed to it. “You’re exactly what your Dad was three decades ago!” she exclaimed.

I’d been sent to California to complete my higher education but my grades didn’t budge in the new environment either.


After dedicating a year to her preparation, she received the first “fail” of her life. The constant back and forth between Jaipur and Chomu, the long bus rides, the sleepless nights…they’d amounted to nothing. Aadhya’s resolve was in shatters.

Our aunt stayed strong, though. “Aadhya, you have to fail before you succeed. No one cracks it in their first attempt. Look how far you’ve come, you can’t give up now. Don’t worry, I’m here for you. I know you can do it, I’ve seen your dedication. Don’t stop now!” That proved to be the need of the hour. Aadhya wiped her tears, sat up straight and fervently returned to her routine.

Finally, Aadhya got the letter she had desperately hoped for! The state emblem was printed on top of the envelope and she felt just as strong as the lions in it. Incidentally, her first posting was as a collector for Bhanswara, my father’s native home.

“Congratulations, Aadhyaa, I always knew you’d do it. I’m not a normal woman anymore, no, I’m the aunt of a state official!” she gleefully shouted.

Aadhya had a different expression on her face. She was pacing nervously and her voice was trembling, “But what are we supposed to say to Dad? I’m terrified of how he’ll react. I don’t want to leave them, especially not Aadhi! I need your help.” The urgency in her voice was growing, “Oh, his dislike towards me will only grow!”

Our aunt reassured her and invited my parents and me to Chomu on the pretext of the opening of her new boutique next month.

The 30 days passed quickly and soon I would be able to see my sister in person.

We were on our way to what we thought was my aunt’s shop but the car pulled into a huge government building. The place was riddled with security guards that all saluted us as we entered. We were confused, to say the least.

We were soon led into a cabin by my aunt.

“Ma’am, may I enter?” my aunt asked, knocking on a blurred glass door.

“Yes, please, come…Oh my god!” my sister exclaimed upon seeing us. “All of you are here? I just can’t believe this!”

We were in shock. Our eyes were wide and jaws hanging open. She was here for university but was now the collector of an entire district! A government official! Mom and Dad were overjoyed; they finally saw her true potential. The four of us hugged after a long time and even my father got misty-eyed.


A daughter is not a tension.

A daughter is equal to ten sons. 

I know that there are many girls like my sister who don’t get the education they deserve. This is the twenty-first century, and women can do anything. I hope that girls with circumstances like my sister’s are rare and few.

I now miss the late-night movie sessions with my partner in crime!

Anshika Kodukula, 13, lives in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. She is a student in grade 9 at Slate, The School. She is an avid reader of mystery and adventure novels. She loves travelling and is a travel photographer. She admires Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murty.

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

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

“Is that Murakami?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Impressive summing up of a rich career!

This mysterious encounter looks promising now.

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

“No. I am not that intelligent.”

“A professor?”

He grins: “Not that smart, either.”

“Who are you then?” The bafflement shows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Yes, sure. Thanks.”

He signals the boy for two big ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Are you from these parts?” I ask.

“Yes. A village nearby.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr…?”

“Prakash.” He offers his hand.

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

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

“What is that?”



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

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

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

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

“Oh! I see. What is she?”

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

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

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

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

“Real crusader!”

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


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

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

“I am an electrical engineer.”

“A what?” my jaws drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting!” I exclaim. “Go on.”

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

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

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

“Carry on, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

He stops. I wait.

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

“The storm?”

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

“Sad! How did it all happen?”

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

“Who were these brutes?”

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

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


“No action was taken?”

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

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

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

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

“My God! Terrifying!”

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

“Oh! What did you do then?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you plan that?”

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

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

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

“So sad! What happened afterwards?”

He pauses. I wait.

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




“In a most strange way.”

“Tell me fast, please.”

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

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

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

“Oh! Typically Murakami!”

“Storms teach.”

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

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

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


“A most strange thing happens.”

“What is that?” I am hooked.

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

“What was that, pray?” I ask.

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

“Act of courage or foolishness?”

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

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

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

“How is that, Prakash?”

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

“Yes, you are right.” I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True. Very philosophical, indeed!”

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

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

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

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

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

We decide to part.

“One more interesting tid-bit, Salim.”

“What is that?”

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

“Is it so? Odd, is it not?”

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

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


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


How can it happen?

Where has it gone?

I get disoriented by the unreality of the thing.

Have I dreamt up the whole thing?

I search for the hut but there is no trace!

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


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

Disappointed, I walk back, dragging my feet.

“Are you looking for someone special?”

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

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

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

Where have I heard this voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat meows.

The unreality of the reality can be baffling!

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

Sometimes, something cannot be rationalized.

Intuitively experienced.

Dazed, I start moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given his circumstances, Jagmohan thought himself rather generous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ The End ~

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

Fiction | 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_

Fiction | Procrastination – Alok A. Khorana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction | Aral – Tushar Jain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the last time Aral sees Dbek.

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

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

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

Slip in. Slip out.

In. Out.

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

Fiction | Dolls – Subhravanu Das

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

Fiction | Hungry Season – Shah Tazrian Ashrafi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you ever see it?”

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

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

“I can’t. They smell like shit.”

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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