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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction | Jogi’s Behemoth – Anagha Unni

Picture credits: Author herself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom was costless. Justice too.

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

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

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

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

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

Jogi moved towards what he had grown to dread.

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

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

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

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

And Jogi tried again. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom was still costless for some.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it happened, the much-awaited milestone.

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

Then there was climactic exultation.

Privately, intimately and fervidly, freedom was briefly won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The night was still young. A jungle fowl cried.

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

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

Jogi’s behemoth roared.

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

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

Fiction | My Best Friend’s Wedding – Alina Gufran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hash?”

“Crying is cathartic, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you, you’re kind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction | The Alligator of Aligarh – Aditya Gautam

“Kalua finds a friend in the grey alligator he finds at his workplace, the sewers. A heartbreaking exploration of hunger, crippling poverty and human suffering. Gautam deftly runs through a gamut of emotions as he portrays a world in which compassion has to be conditional. His protagonist tries to exercise basic humanity by taking care of a helpless, injured animal. But the burden of his caste and his poverty forces his hand into brutality.” – Shreya, The Bombay Review

Kalua listened to his belly groan with hunger.

He mopped at the beads of sweat on his forehead with a gamcha1 and peeked over his wife’s shoulder into a pot wherein she was cooking some nameless concoction.

It was a homogeneous sludge, the color of mucus, with a few pieces of onion here and there, trying to drown themselves. The sight of it was enough to dull his appetite a little. But, to make things worse, there wasn’t nearly enough of it to sneak some off to Safeda.

His friend would just have to go hungry again.

He looked at Gudiya, his little sister, reading the scraps of a newspaper in a corner, and felt guilty about thinking of Safeda when he was failing to provide enough even for his family. Only last month, Gudiya had fallen sick and the doctor had advised Kalua to include meat in her diet at least once a week to make up for protein deficiency.

Despite this guilt, however, Safeda was also important to Kalua.

Like many other people in the world, Kalua had found his best-friend at his workplace. Only, the workplace happened to be a gutter, and the best-friend happened to be an alligator.

Kalua never knew how Safeda came to be there, only that it was hurt and starved when they first met, and so Kalua fed it his own lunch and applied cool mud on its bruises.

Because of the grey color of its skin, which Kalua thought unusual, he named it Safeda. The absence of sunlight in the creature’s life might have had something to do with it. Or, maybe it was just an anomaly. But in any case, the name’s contrast with his own amused Kalua to no end.

That was twelve years ago.

Kalua had not been married then and Gudiya hadn’t even been born. In those days, he used to go into the sewers only when his father’s cough was exceptionally bad. He hated every second of it and swore daily to himself that he would become anything but a jamadaar2.

That, of course, was before the world had explained the inescapability of his caste to him, and before his parents had died of tuberculosis, leaving him all alone to bring up his baby sister.

‘Ae, Gudiya, what are you doing reading in this bad evening light? You’ll ruin your eyes’, he called out to the girl whom he had managed to keep away from the sewers, and had even sent to school.
Up till now, at least.

Gudiya was now close to 10 but looked like she was only 5-6 years old. It wasn’t unusual in their neighborhood though—malnutrition made the kids all look younger there than they actually were, and the adults older.

Gudiya looked at him and threw aside the newspaper scrap she was reading. ‘Went to the butcher in the afternoon, but he had already gutted and skinned everything. He asked me to come only when my cut had healed completely.’

After her school, Gudiya often went to help the neighborhood butcher in his shop and he tossed her a few coins for it every now and then. Two days ago, she had cut herself on the side of her hand while slicing a piece of meat. It was an ugly gash, and Kalua had tied a clean piece of cloth around it, hoping that it would not get infected.

The butcher, Kalua knew, had sent Gudiya away not out of concern for her but because he did not want to risk her blood making the food impure for his customers.

‘It’s okay, beta3, don’t worry about it. This is just a temporary situation. Things will go back to normal soon’, Kalua told her with a conviction he did not possess himself.

His wife joined them and put the cooking pot between them, holding it carefully with rags in each of her hands. She rotated it a few times on the circumference of its bottom, as though trying to pull off some magic trick that would turn that mixture of water, flour, and salt into real food.

There were only two spoons in the pot.

‘Aren’t you eating, bhabhi4?’, Gudiya asked.

‘I’ll have something later. You two eat now, and please–take care to wipe off everything from the pot.’

But, there was nothing to be had later, Kalua knew that well enough. It would be a week tomorrow since either of them had gone to work. This muck in the pot, this was the last of their rations.

He got up so quickly that his head swam a little and his stomach growled in protest.

‘I am sorry, I remembered just now–Varshney-ji had asked me to visit his house today. He wants me to help unload some stuff from his terrace. I’ll just go there and come back in some time, okay?’

‘But your dinner?’, his wife asked, not meeting his eyes.

‘You two finish it off. I’ll have some chai-nashta with Varshney-Ji.’

Kalua did not wait for her response, but at the door he paused for just a moment to look at her moving slowly to sit beside Gudiya. He came out of the shanty and took a few steps to the right so that they wouldn’t see him standing there.

Then, he let out a long, heavy sigh. It was a sigh that can crush those who hear it, and must therefore, only be released once you are at a safe distance from the people you love.

His wife must have seen through his lie. She knew full well that he wouldn’t even be allowed to sit on the curb of a baniya’s house, let alone invited inside and asked to handle their possessions. Not in a million years–a pamphlet of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan fluttered near his feat and Kalua spat at it in disgust–not after a thousand more Swachh Bharat Abhiyaans had come and gone, could that happen in their world.

The only place Kalua, or anyone from his caste, could go to in the house of someone from an upper caste, like Varshney-Ji, was the latrine. Straight in, straight out, and a few coins dropped on their palms at the door without a word exchanged.

Kalua and his kin were like elves. Shit-scooping, latterine-scraping elves. Invisible and inaudible to everyone else.

But still, even while wading through the literal and figurative shit in their lives, they had been going on, one way or another. Until a fortnight ago, when a saffron-robed rally had snaked its way through the Jamadaar Basti5 with bright posters that most of the residents couldn’t read.

Fat government men came in that rally with their sweat-shined faces, their saccharine smiles, their noses scrunched up against the smell of Kalua and his people. The fat men declared proudly on their loudspeakers that no one would be required anymore to lower themselves into a sewer. If anybody asked them to do so, the government would penalize that person and put him in jail.

They were told that the credit for all this went to their Chief Minister and the Prime Minister, both of whom cared deeply for all Hindus, including dalits like Kalua and his neighbors.

The fat men waved to the people from their vehicles and were careful not to shake hands with them. Among much fanfare, with satisfied smiles, they went out the same way they had come in and breathed freely once more in the clean air outside the slum.

As Kalua, his wife, and their friends realized a couple of hours later, the government men had forgotten to mention what would be their new employment, now that this one was illegal.

And so it was that the slum had begun to crawl towards starvation. They had held up until now on the tidbits saved over their lifetimes. A few had managed to get odd jobs here and there, but no one really wanted to employ a jamadaar in their shop or house, or anywhere that there would be a chance of being touched by them.

Kalua wondered where he could go to pass the time while his family had their dinner and decided upon the only place that felt a little like home. A horrible home, true, but still a home, with the comfort of an old friend.

Maybe he would also be able to catch a few rats down there and feed them to Safeda.

***
‘Do you think bhaiya6 will be able to get some work today?’, Gudiya asked her bhabhi, back in the house.

‘Yes, yes, of course, he’ll find some work. Don’t you worry about it.’

But, Gudiya did worry about it.

Just as she worried about the fact that her brother had not been able to feed his pet in the last two weeks and it was making him even sadder than usual. Gudiya had never met this pet, but she knew its name was Safeda because it had slipped out of Kalua once, though he had not noticed it.

Gudiya liked to imagine that Safeda was a fluffy white dog like one of her classmates had at her house. Only, her bhaiya kept it in the sewer instead of the house. To a 10-year-old’s mind, this did not seem all that strange because she knew that bhabhi would never have allowed bhaiya to keep the dog in the house, not when they never had enough food or money even for the three of them.

Like most kids in the neighborhood, Gudiya knew that the last couple of weeks had been especially bad for everyone.

It was evident in the way that people she had known all her life to wake up at dawn and go to work now spent their days sitting desolately in front of their shacks, waiting for something to happen. They reminded Gudiya the days when she was a toddler and had kept waiting for the ice-cream man who, somehow, never went through their gully.

The worst of it all was the change in her bhaiya.

No matter how bad things got in the past, he had always had a joke tucked away somewhere in his head, ready to be called and released to laughs when things began to look too grim. He did things instead of waiting for them to happen. Like, when Gudiya had waited, and waited, and waited, for the ice-cream man, he had gone out one day and had brought back three orange ice-creams from God knew where.

These few days, however, he hardly talked to her at all.

Some days while taking a bath, Gudiya moved her fingers slowly underwater in the bucket and watched them for minutes on end. That’s how her brother looked these days. Like a man living underwater in his head; walking around in a bubble of vacuum and space where no one could really reach him.

Except for his pet, maybe. It might cheer him up if Gudiya brought it to the house and surprised him. Anyway, she was sure that it would cheer her up!

So, after her bhabhi had put her to bed, and went to sleep herself, Gudiya put on the robe that Kalua wore while going into the sewers. He had made it by stitching together discarded polythene bags.

It was too large for her, of course, and fluttered behind her like a superhero’s cape. The multicolored polythene bags shimmered in the weak light leaking inside from a streetlight and looked like an undisciplined rainbow.

She also put on Kalua’s yellow safety helmet and his brown leather boots.

Quietly, Gudiya stole out of the house and closed down the door behind her. She walked up to the open manhole down which she had seen her bhaiya disappear many times.

Then, with a look at the moon overhead, she lowered herself down into the darkness, down the iron rungs of the sewer.

***

This manhole into which Gudiya had lowered herself was connected to other manholes in the city through large pipes constituting Aligarh’s sewage network. As Gudiya descended further down the hole, she could hear the water splashing at the bottom and her guts contracted a little with the inherent fear of invisible damp things.

The stench of sewage was overwhelming and made her feel a little faint.

To steel herself, she looked up at the circle of the night sky through the open manhole, but it looked so far away suddenly that she thought it better to concentrate on her descent.

Finally, after a few moments, or minutes, or millenia, her boots found mushy ground.

A small part of her mind wondered how a dog could live in a place where the water came up to her ankles. But before she could give it a thought, there was a sound of water splashing nearby.

It sounded like she wasn’t alone. Someone else was also taking a night walk here. Or, maybe it was just the sound of her heart tumbling out of her mouth and falling into the sewer.

Gudiya moved forward, putting one foot after the other, like a little soldier in large boots. Her polythene robe made an almost-but-not-quite-silent slithering sound behind her.

A few more steps and the darkness would be absolute. Gudiya pressed a little wire in the helmet and the bulb-battery combination that Kalua had taped together jumped to action.

The feeble light threw long shadows on the sewer’s walls and Gudiya saw that the pipe turned sharply to the left a little way off in the distance.

Again, she heard the sound of water splashing. Despite an instinctive urge to run back with her tail tucked between her legs, she kept walking in the direction of the sound. And then, as she stood at the pipe’s turn she saw in front of her a man tossing something into the water at his feet.

No, not into the water. Tossing something to a creature on the ground.

A creature that definitely was not the fluffy white dog from Pinky’s imagination. White teeth glinted in an evil grin at her. A pair of dull green eyes with black slits for pupils measured the flesh on her bones. In the wavering light of Gudiya’s helmet-bulb, she saw a ripple of excitement pass through the monster’s dirty rubbery-white body.

The man standing beside it, startled by the light, turned to face Gudiya. It was her bhaiya, of course, and how shocked he looked!

The dead rats dangled by their tails in his hand like the balls of the neighborhood butcher, who had shown them to Gudiya last week and had given her 20 rupees just for touching them.

She looked from her brother to the monster at his feet and she opened her mouth to scream but found the sound missing. She closed her fists so tightly at her sides that the cloth Kalua had tied as a bandage came off and two tiny drops of blood dropped down from the open cut into the water.

The starving alligator, half-blind, but no less a predator for it, caught the whiff of fresh blood like a drowning man catches a rope thrown at him out of the rescue ship.

***

Kalua’s mind tried to make sense of the situation and failed irrevocably. His thoughts came to him only as snatches of the self-evident truth. Must do something. Quickly.

His friend, whose primary trait in the last twelve years had been laziness, was now paddling furiously towards his sister, who stood rooted to the spot.

A large stone brick, dislodged long ago from the sewer’s wall, was lying near Safeda’s tail, and Kalua picked it up.

‘Gudiya! GUDIYA! Run. NOW!’

But, Gudiya’s eyes were locked on Safeda, as though hypnotized, and she looked like she could not even hear Kalua.

Kalua moved toward Safeda, stumbling in the water and almost falling down. In a couple of strides, however, he was near the alligator’s head. Safeda turned to look at him and for a moment Kalua thought he could see the trace of human intelligence in the green eyes, a hesitation in moving towards Gudiya.

But, hunger is hunger.

It turned again towards Gudiya and with a flick of its tail almost hit Kalua, as if warning him to not meddle with its dinner.

Kalua raised the brick in his hand, stepped forward, and brought down its corner in Safeda’s left eye. He wanted only to buy enough time to send Gudiya away, but it was as if the violence had unleashed something inside him which he did not know existed.

So, before Safeda could turn towards him, he crossed his leg over its back and brought the brick down once again. And then again, and again, until there was no movement left in the body and the light had gone out of Safeda’s eyes. It felt a little like the final cleaning away of the shit that other people had flushed his way. Regular work, nothing odd. A frightened little giggle escaped Kalua’s mouth at this thought.

He did not know what made his hand stop finally. Maybe, it happened when Gudiya managed to find her voice again.

‘Bhaiya, please. Enough’

Her face looked so small, so fragile, in the half-light-half-shadow of the bulb in her helmet. It reminded him, strangely enough, of how little Safeda had been when he had found it starving in the sewer.

‘Come, let’s go.’

Kalua crossed his other leg over Safeda and took Gudiya by her hand.

He took one last look at the body of his friend before turning his back on it: an eyeball, dislodged from its socket, dangled from the destroyed face by a thin string of flesh. Even as he watched, the eyeball gave up to gravity and fell down to the sewer floor. ‘Plop!’

Kalua bent down for Gudiya to climb over his back and like that they walked to the manhole’s iron rungs before they climbed out of it.

***

In her cot, tucked down by her brother, the monster in the sewer seemed little more than one of her regular nightmares to Gudiya.

With half-closed eyes she watched Kalua put on the polythene robe she had taken off–he had thrown his own in the street, blood-stained and grimy as it was–and pick something from the kitchen shelf before going to the door again.

Fear crept back into her heart. ‘Where are you going, bhaiya? Come to sleep, please?’

As he put the thing that he had picked up from the shelf into his pocket, Gudiya saw that it was the knife she took with her when she went to work at the butcher’s shop.

‘Don’t you worry, I’ll be back up in no time at all’, he said with a tired little smile. Then with a little hesitation, he added, ‘And maybe tomorrow, we will have meat again for lunch. It’ll be good for you, the doctor said.’

***

Glossary:

1. Gamcha: A cloth used sometimes as a towel and sometimes as a scarf of sorts in various parts of India.
2. Jamadaar: A sweeper or manual scavenger.
3. Beta: A way of addressing a kid.
4. Bhabhi: Sister-in-law.
5. Jamadaar Basti: A neighbourhood, or ghetto, in which mostly sweepers and people of lower castes live.
6. Bhaiya: Elder brother.