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Yet, Forget Me Not…

Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta

Aparajita Ghosh

Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Rishi…

Today Rishi turned five. The slicing of the cake is celebrating that. This is to be followed by dinner.  Pulao*, mutton curry  and sweets. The four-five guests present all know each other. They are people who frequent this household. Snigdha kaki*, Pranab kaka*, and the young man Friday of this building. 

“Ananya, here’s your share of the cake, ” Bharati mashima* stretched her hand to offer it to me. How adorable she looks, this young lady of 70 summers! Red bordered white sari, a large bindi on her forehead, that endearing smile playing on her lips.  I took the cake from her and glanced at Rishi’s photograph. A chubby little boy, a headful of raven hair, happiness in his smile and sharpness in his eyes. He is in Hyderabad. In all likelihood, he is cutting a fancy cake in a bustling party. Probably he is not even aware that he has a Grandmother and a Grandfather. 

Holding on to the cake, I walked across the room to sit next to meshomoshai*. Long flowing snow white beard. A curious lack of guile marks  the face of this 84-year-old man. “Do you know dear,” he was telling  me, “Bharati has called so many times, to simply hear the kid’s voice. No one answered the phone. Not once…” 

That no one will pick up the phone is clear to everyone by now — save mashima and meshomoshai. After Kinkar da*‘s death, the day Kanchana left with Rishi, she had expressly said that no one should attempt to contact her in any way. She wanted to retain no link with this household in any manner whatsoever. 

Kinkar da was only forty then. It was the midnight of a sweltering July day. The call from the Police Station had come to our house. Later we got to know that ours was the last dialled number in Kinkar da‘s phone. Around 10 pm he had called to tell Maa that he had picked up a quality Hilsa, so we should lunch together the next day. Kinkar da‘s car was spotted on EM Bypass, crumpled like a tin toy car. Even before he could be taken to a hospital he had…

The post mortem report held the excess of alcohol in his blood to be the cause of death. Kanchana held Mashima and  Meshomoshai responsible for his death. “They not only put up with his bohemian ways, they even boasted about it.” And that was partly if not wholly the truth. They never objected to anything their son did. On the contrary, they took pride in their son. 

But, then, there was sufficient ground for that. Kinkar da was a renowned linguist. He was good at painting. His byline was a regular feature of many newspapers. Almost every week he was giving a talk on diverse platforms. All in all he was nothing short of a celebrity. In actuality he was a down to earth person. He would always dress in khadi kurta* and lose pajama. And always, he sported thick framed glasses. 

Kinkar da often took me out in his car. We would chat endlessly over puchkas*. Yes, he was senior to me by many years but he was more like a friend. He was my Confession Box. I looked up to him like my own elder brother, my dada. Even now I remember him on Raakhi* and Bhai Phonta*

“What’s the matter Anu? Why are you sitting still with the cake in your hand? You’re all right?” I was startled by Snigdha kaki‘s voice. “N-no no, I am fine,” I hastily replied. “Here, I’m having…” I was born in this very Suman Apartment, so all the elders in this building complex have a sense of belonging about me. And I love that. But this day is so very different that I am unable to enjoy anything. Haltingly I headed for the bedroom. A baba suit was resting on the bed — along with it, a Teddy bear and a pink coloured envelope. Rishi’s birthday gifts. 

Just like the four previous years, this year too these will be sent. I will myself courier them, and they will come back to me. Unlike the first time, that year it had been returned to the sender — mashima. Consequently, for three days and three nights, she did not utter a single word. Only, from time to time, she sat staring fixedly at Rishi’s photograph. The next time onward, I have been putting my flat number in the sender’s column. Like the last three years in all likelihood  this year, too, the gifts will lie hidden in my almirah.

I took out the letter from the envelope. mashima‘s handwriting. 

     Dear Dadubhai*,

Today you turn five. You must have grown in these years and learnt to speak full sentences. I hope you are learning Bengali too, dear child? Do master the language — your Grandpa has tons of books, you will read them all — some day. I have baked a cake for you today and cooked mutton-pulao for everyone. Don’t you be sad — when you come down here I will cook them again for you. We will also go out to visit all the attractions of this city. You have barely seen Kolkata. You just grow up fast and come visit us…

Much love and blessings to you shona*.

Lovingly – yours Thammi*

Just think! After all this I must lick the mutton pulao off my fingers. This day is to me no less than a punishment. So many times I have thought of going away somewhere to avoid the celebration. I don’t, only because of these two oldies. Take a look — they have put up balloons everywhere and done alpana* on  the floor at the entrance. Poor Rishi! He will never even hear about this. 

I did call Kanchana once. I had suggested that she come on a visit with Rishi. She had cut me short with her terse retort: “I will not let the dark shadows of that house spoil my child’s life. Spare me this request Ananya. If you do, I will be forced to sever all connections with you too.” I’m not sure what connection I have with Rishi and Kanchana. Still, I must admit, she does take my calls. But that is about all. 

“Ananya, don’t forget to courier the gifts tomorrow. ” I had not realised that mashima was standing by my side. I nodded in assent. “I had saved Rs 500 in my piggy bank, you know!” mashima continued to speak, “That’s why I could buy the Teddy. And don’t you like the dress? dadubhai is v-e-r-y fond of red!”

“How do you know that? You have not set your eyes on him since he crawled.” But the moment I had spoken, I bit my tongue in remorse. What’s this? What have I done! But mashima was offering an explanation: “Kinkar was very fond of red. Don’t you remember how many of his kurtas were in red? Rishi also…” the words trailed off as her voice choked with emotion. 

I held her in a tight hug. I couldn’t control myself either — I let my tears flow freely down my cheeks. 

It was well past midnight when I returned to my flat, after lending a hand in serving dinner and cleaning up afterwards. My parents are away at Santiniketan. So I permit myself this bit of ‘late night’ outing. Besides, I was having a tough time going off to sleep. Kinkar da, Kanchana, Rishi, mashima, meshomoshai — they kept crowding before my eyes…

Trinnng! Tring tring… T-r-i-n-ggg…. The constant ring of the calling bell woke me up. Is it for real or am I still dreaming in sleep? No, the bell is still ringing — and someone is also banging on the door. Must be Kamla. How many times I have told her not to wake me up early on Sundays? What is the tearing rush about? “Kamla come back later,” I was on the verge of telling the person on the other side of the door. I stopped mid-sentence as it wasn’t Kamla at the door, it was the young caretaker. Fear was writ over the face that was glistening with sweat. Before I could speak he said,  “Didi* please come up to the terrace right now!”

Before he had finished an unknown fear compelled me to race up the stairs. As I reached the landing I saw the two oldies, flopped on the terrace, crying away ceaselessly. I went across and sat down next to mashima. “See?” mashima turned towards me, “See how happy Rishi is?”

I could not make head or tail of what mashima was saying. I have yet to courier the gifts. So, did Kanchana make that elusive call?? mashima’s pallu* was all over the floor. Her hair was dishevelled. I can’t remember ever seeing meshomoshai so worked up over anything, not even on the day Kinkar da passed away! With her left hand mashima held me in a tight grip — and with her right hand she was caressing the red Rangan that stood in a pot at one end of the terrace. “See how it is bursting with flowers! This plant has never blossomed before, and today?!”

Three years ago, when this Rangan was planted, mashima had christened it ‘Rishi’. That sapling was smiling at the world today, with flowers on every leaf. Is it actually Rishi saying, “I am doing fine Thammi and Dadu. You too stay well!”

*Pulao — Indian fried rice

*Kaki — paternal aunt

*Kaku — paternal uncle

*Mashima — maternal aunt

*Meshomoshai — maternal uncle

*Da/dada — elder brother

*Khadi Kurta — a long Indian shirt made of homespun popularised by Gandhi

*Puchkas — savoury snack

*Rakhi — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties

*Bhai Phonta — Indian festival to jubilate brother-sister ties

*Dadubhai/Dadu — grandfather

*Shona — darling (Gold)

*Thammi — grandmother

*Alpana — designs made on the floor with ground paste of uncooked rice, traditional folk art

*Didi — elder sister

*Pallu — loose end of the sari that drapes over the shoulder

*Rangan — ixora

Published originally in Bengali in December 2017 issue of Batayan, a Magazine of West Bengal Motion Picture Artists’ Forum.

Aparajita Ghosh, an actor and television anchor has done her Master’s in Mass Comm. She writes stories, has written plays including #Life, which was staged at multiple venues in Kolkata. She has directed Dance of Joy, a documentary on Rabindra Nritya, screened in Dhaka and Singapore, besides India, and the feature film Mystic Memoirs, screened in Kolkata International Film Festival 2019. Dance of Joy been to 7 international festivals and won 2 awards. Mystic Memoir as of now has been selected for 5 International festivals and won one award.

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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This land of ours

Shevlin Sebastian captures man’s relentless struggle against unsympathetic forces of nature.

 

The rice is boiling in the steel utensil. Shamila watches as the white grains go left and right, up and down, and in circles. “Just like our lives,” she thinks, as she stirs the water with a wooden ladle.

It is a Sunday noon. 

Her husband, Suresh, is an electrician. He meets the family’s expenses, despite drinking a bottle of toddy every night. Shamila’s son, Pradeep, 22, works in a transport company in Mumbai, while her 20-year-old daughter, Reshma, is a salesperson at a cosmetics shop in a Bangalore mall. As for Shamila, she works as a maid in a house down the hill. But today is her weekly holiday.    

Shamila lives in a brick house of three rooms and a kitchen. It is modest: a wooden sofa, and two chairs in the living room. On the low centre table, there is the Malayala Manorama and a vase which has red plastic roses in it. In the bedroom, there is a wooden bed. The only ornamentation is a calendar hanging on the wall. In the children’s room, there is a wet patch at a corner where the ceiling meets the wall.

She takes a few grains in the ladle, presses it with her fingers to see whether it is cooked, and, when she confirms it is fully done, switches off the gas stove, and places a lid on top of the vessel.

Shamila walks barefoot to the living room. Clad in a blue nightgown, with white frills at the neck, she sits on a chair near the window and looks at the newspaper. She has tied her hair back into a topknot.

The house, on the slope of a hill in Thodupuzha, is in a scenic spot: surrounded by rubber trees and wet leaves. The only sound Shamila hears is the tap-tap of the raindrops hitting the asbestos roof. It is peaceful, although, in the newspaper, there are reports of murders, robberies and accidents. “No peace in the world,” she thinks and shakes her head. 

Soon, a sound rises at the edge of her consciousness. It puzzles Shamila. It seems like thunder, but she is not sure. What could it be? All at once, she hears shouts: it is a mix of fear and rage. Shamila’s intuition buzzes, and she experiences the first signs of panic: shortness of breath and trembling legs. The shouting goes on.  

Shamila opens the door and rushes out. Her neighbour, Parvathy, is pointing up, and screaming. 

Shamila glances upwards and sees an unimaginable sight. The top part of the hill is rolling down: thick, red mud, branches, roots, plants, leaves, tree trunks, stones, and bricks. The roar sounds as if somebody is shouting in her ears. “It is a landslide,” Shamila’s mind screams. “RUN, RUN, RUN!”

She turns and flees, forgetting all about Parvathy. Shamila takes the narrow mud path, a shortcut to the road below, that people in the area use all the time. “Oh God, please save our houses, I beg you,” she says, even as she concentrates on running on the wet and slushy surface. But in another part of her mind, she knows how deadly a landslip can be. At a sharp turn on the path, she loses her balance but grabs a tree trunk to hold on. 

Through the branches, Shamila gets occasional glimpses of the tarred road. At the back, the roar is non-stop. She is panting now, more out of fear than tiredness. Shamila notices an overpowering smell in the air and realises that it is of wet mud.

There is a cry of pain, the sound rolling down the hill like a shriek. “Somebody is injured,” she thinks. “Krishna, please don’t kill anybody.”

Shamila reaches the road, her mouth open, her chest heaving forward and backwards with the effort. She can feel the wetness of the road through the soles of her feet. Soon, dhoti-clad men run past her towards the hill. They don’t stop to ask her what has happened. They all know what the roar is and what it means to their lives.

Her thigh and calf muscles are hurting. She has never run so hard in her life. Shamila wants to look back but is scared to see the devastation. But she knows where she has to go — to her husband’s friend, Murali’s tea shop, a shack by the side of the road, a kilometre away. She has to inform her husband she is safe. In her hurry, she had forgotten to take her phone. 

At the shop, Murali is sitting behind a rickety wooden table near the entrance, a white cloth towel tied around his head, like a bandana. The two men, who worked for him, have rushed off to see what is happening. Inside, there are tables and benches, placed against the bamboo walls, with an open area in the middle. At one corner, a TV set, with rusted buttons, has been placed on a shelf of a wooden sideboard.

When Murali sees her, he nods, and says, “Good, you are safe. What about Suresh?”

She smiles and says, “He is at a worksite.”

She asks for his mobile phone. He passes it to her. 

Shamila calls her husband and tells him she is okay.

Murali goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Shamila sits down on a bench. She is glad to give her legs a rest, although she is still breathing rapidly. Her heartbeat has still not slowed down. “How does a landslide start, with no warning,” she thinks? The image of the river of mud coming down the hill flashes in her mind’s eye. Her body shudders involuntarily.

Murali brings the tea in a glass, and a white towel. She wipes her face, arms and hair.

She sips with soft slurps. 

After a while, she senses that Murali is staring at her. When she looks up, she notices that his eyes are focused on her breasts. He looks frustrated. Shamila knows that his wife is fat and ugly and nags him. 

Murali blinks and realises that Shamila does not approve of what he is thinking. Embarrassed, he moves away and switches on the television. Both spot the red and white band moving across the bottom of the screen: “Breaking News: Landslip at Thodupuzha.”

“These TV guys move fast,” he says, with a trace of admiration in his voice.

“Yes,” she says. “They are everywhere. Too much competition, I guess.”

The ticker changes: “Many may have died.”

“Who could have died?’ says Murali, as they gaze at the screen.

“Must be Rekha’s old and sick mother,” says Shamila. “She is bed ridden.” 

“What about Parvathy?” she wonders and feels a stab of pain. Was the yell she heard that of Parvathy? Should she have stopped, gone up, and tried to save her? But Shamila knows that if she did that, she would have risked her own life.

“This is a tragedy,” he says. 

Shamila nods. 

The first visuals are aired. The slope has collapsed. Nothing is left, except mud, thatched roofs, some beds and chairs which are embedded in the soil. The local men she saw on the road are now wading through the muck, pulling away the debris, trying to locate survivors. 

Murali looks at her and says, in a flat voice, “I am sorry, but you have lost everything!”

“I am alive,” she says, pointing a thumb at herself. “That is more important than all the possessions in the world.”

Murali’s eyes enlarge, and his eyebrows go up. To have property is so important these days. He does not know what to say. So, he remains silent and looks at the screen.

Time passes. 

It is a silent tableau. Both of them gaze at the non-existent slope. 

Her husband appears at the entrance. When Shamila sees him, she feels her heartbeat against her rib cage, like a hammer. Suresh’s eyes are wild, the pupils enlarged, and he keeps opening and closing his mouth.

She embraces him. And, like her own experience, she realises his body is shaking. And soon, the tears are rolling down his face.

“We have lost everything,” he says. “There is no land anymore. It has vanished. The house has collapsed. All the valuables are lost, including your gold jewellery. How do we live? What do we do? Where do we go from here? At 45, how do I start from scratch? We have no insurance. And what will this idiotic government do? These politicians are only making money for themselves. They don’t care about the poor. This horrible life that we live, always on the edge, always struggling to make ends meet and to keep our dignity, to give our children a chance for a better life. All this is ash now. Nothing remains. Ashashashash…”

Shamila knows that all what Suresh has said is true. But she does not have the desire to think about the future. She is trying to recover from her panicky run down the crumbling hill. Her mind is blank, but she is glad she is alive, and not buried under the mud. She feels happy that she had the foresight to run, instead of trying to save some of their possessions, knowing that there was no time for that.

“Our children are earning,” she says, in a soft voice. “You are earning. I am working.”

Shamila sees a flash of anger in Suresh’s eyes. He raises his voice, and says, “How much can we earn? Do you know the price of land these days? You need lakhs of rupees. It is beyond us. We are poor, Shamila. We have lost our dignity. That is how cruel God is. I shudder at the life ahead. How will we pay for our daughter’s dowry?”

This mention about his favourite child makes Suresh to cry. 

Shamila hugs her husband, trying to press a mother’s warmth to him. She inhales a peculiar smell: a mix of sweat and muskiness coming off Suresh’s body. It is familiar. During the earlier years of their marriage it was appealing, but now she is repelled. She thinks of it as the stench of defeat.

Suresh becomes silent but continues to sob. This shock has hit the deepest part of him. Shamila becomes fearful. “Will he find the will and strength to overcome this?” she wonders. Shamila is not sure at all. Her intuition panics once again. She caresses his face and head, like as if he is a child. She knows that, underneath their bluster, all men are Mama’s boys.

“Come, sit down,” she says and leads him to the bench. “Murali, can you make a cup of tea?”

Murali moves to the kitchen.

Suresh wipes his face with a towel, which Shamila extends to him. They both stare at the screen once again.

Suresh’s body is becoming calm, as Shamila can sense that the trembling is slowing down.

Murali brings the tea and places it on the table.

Suresh sips it. 

By this time, people troop into the shop. One of them is businessman Harish Raghunandan, who has a walrus-like moustache. 

He grasps Suresh’s hand.

“Suresh, you have to remain strong,” says Raghunandan. “The colony of ten houses has been destroyed. Rekha’s mother, Lalithamma, Parvathy and her daughter, Meena, are dead. But there is no confirmation. There are others still buried under the mud. The men are trying to pull them out. It is unlikely there will be many survivors.”

There is pin-drop silence. Nobody knows what to say. 

“It is great luck that Shamila survived, thanks to her quick thinking,” says Raghunandan, looking at her with piercing eyes. “If you had waited for half a minute, you would have died.”

Shamila feels grateful for this praise by Raghunandan. She acknowledges it with the faintest nod of her head.

Raghunandan sighs, looks at Suresh, and says, “You may have lost everything, but your family is safe. Be happy about that.”

Suresh wants to be grateful, but all he can think about is the loss of his property. Raghunandan reads his mood and says, “Once I owned a large farmhouse and it burnt down. I had to start from scratch once again. Life has its trials. It is a rare person who enjoys a smooth ride. Sometimes, the setbacks can be life-threatening.”  

Suresh stares at him in silence. Shamila knows that her husband will say nothing. In public, he is shy and discreet.

It had been a love cum arranged marriage. The fathers of Suresh and Shamila had been friends for many years and worked as tappers in the rubber plantations of Thodupuzha. Every morning before they set out for work, they would stop at a temple and say their prayers. The families would meet during festivals like Vishu and Onam. 

As Shamila grew up, Suresh found her attractive: the shining brown skin, firm breasts, and slim figure were eye-catching attributes. Shamila had a few admirers. But when Shamila turned eighteen, Suresh told his father he wanted to get married to her. Shamila’s father agreed. As for Shamila, she did not have any problems, although she knew her life would be difficult. Suresh was a school dropout, who had apprenticed to an electrician, and was learning the trade. “What can we poor people expect?” she had thought when her father told her about the proposal. 

The couple had struggled and bought a plot and built the house. And although Suresh drank every night, he was not a wife-beater, and nor was he abusive, like the husbands of her friends.

Shamila walks to the door of Murali’s shack and beckons to Suresh to come out. Her husband has a questioning look in his eyes, but she urges him out with a wave of her hand. She no longer wants to sit with a group of men, all ogling her. She wants some privacy now.

When Suresh comes out, Shamila says, “Come.”

“Where to?” he asks, looking baffled. Shamila keeps her face blank, although there is a trace of a smile on her lips.

They walk for several minutes. The rain has stopped. A cool breeze is blowing.

Several ambulances roar past, their sirens blowing. Two police jeeps, with khaki-clad cops in it, also speed past. Following them is a group of men crammed into a minivan. They look like political party workers.

Shamila ignores them all, and, holding her husband’s hand, she turns left from the road, down a mud path, which leads into a forest. They carry on walking. Suresh says nothing. Instead, he is immersed in his thoughts. After walking for 20 minutes, they arrive at a pond. It is surrounded by large trees, with overhanging branches, on all sides, so the pond is hidden from view. Frogs are croaking at the edge of the bank and green leaves float on the surface.

“How did you discover this place?” says Suresh, and his voice echoes in the silence.

Shamila says, “My friend Ashwathy showed it to me one day. Isn’t it nice?”

He nods as they both sit on the bank, next to each other. 

They stare at the still water.

They can hear bird calls, and the chirp of a squirrel following by a few quick barks. And under all this, there is the ceaseless call of the crickets. The leaves are a shimmering green thanks to the monsoon showers.

Nature was undergoing its annual rejuvenation.

Minutes pass.

Then Shamila turns to Suresh and says, “Let’s always remember what Raghunandan said. If he can come back from disaster, then we can. It is very important that we stay positive and develop a fighting spirit.”

Suresh looks at her, and presses her hand…  

Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Flash Fiction: Nameless

                                                                                                                 –by Bhumika R.

Ira watered her tiny patch of kitchen garden for the third time that day. The tomatoes were clearly wilting and the cucumber had even given up trying. But Ira ensured that they were watered and checked on them, caressing their almost dead leaves and stem. Delhi’s summer was ruthless. It scorched everything that seemed alive, leaving behind a faint smell of smokiness in the air that her people breathed.

Ira’s relationship with this city had always been a little too complicated. She felt she belonged and unbelonged simultaneously. Loneliness was a constant, loyal companion. She had once laughingly told her colleague that loneliness was a certainty in an otherwise uncertain terrain of her life. It lived within her and to think of its absence caused her discomfort.  She moved with that certainty in her everyday life. The pendulum swung with an almost even rhythm between her teaching job, her home and her little daughter Charitra.  A decade ago, in Delhi’s harsh summer, something snapped within her, leaving behind a never to fade kind of burnt smell.

That year when Delhi’s summer had scorched her, everyone seemed suspicious and paranoid about some strange creature that they said had been loitering around in the city. Some claimed that they had sighted it here and there. The description of those who had sighted matched that of the terminator. Children playing with their toy guns and shrieking in joy on having killed the creature was a boringly regular sight in almost every colony and society complex.

The authorities went around on foot and on motor vehicles, announcing on a screeching microphone that residents must stay indoors until further instructions from the competent authority. It was so like a fairytale, thought Ira. Who or what was this creature and what did it even do, was a question that remained unanswered.

Everyone she met or spoke with, had a different description of this creature. She smiled inwardly at the different narratives that piled up around the creature. Perhaps, she could turn these heaped up narratives on the creature to bedtime stories for Charitra when she was little older. Ira felt a strange relief thinking that perhaps Charitra could draw the creature with crayons and colour pastels when she would be old enough to understand the narratives.

Ira gazed at Charitra, sleeping in her cradle, unperturbed by the screeching sounds emerging from the microphone. Caressing her daughter’s forehead, Ira stood in her balcony, gazing at the spider, weaving its web beneath the cane chair. The spider seemed unperturbed by her presence and continued busy. Ira felt uneasy. She had a strange discomfort about believing anything about the creature. Any thought of believing it, made Ira uneasy.

It all happened a week after that announcement from the shrieking microphone. A news channel flashed a news about the sudden ‘disappearance’ of some people in the city. News anchors argued and screamed, banging their fists about the connections of the ‘disappeared’ people with the strange creature which had turned life upside down in the capital city. Narratives about the creature got funnier and weird with each passing day. Her student had messaged to say that the old rickshaw wallah had been lynched by the residents’ welfare association committee members of a colony, near her college. They alleged the poor man had connections with the strange creature

Two months later, a lot of people were taken away by the authorities for their connections to the mysterious creature. Her old classmates, Aman, Riya and Shweta had also been taken away for investigation.  

Ira never heard from any of them after they had been taken away for further investigation. A decade later, the authorities still claimed that the creature was still lurking around somewhere. All invitations to neighbourhood tea and snacks parties, children’s birthday parties had stopped. Everyone in the city only wanted to eat, talk and party with their families. Outsiders were strictly prohibited from being a part of any kind of party that each family almost routinely hosted for themselves.

Ten-year-old Charitra disliked crayons and drawing. For Ira, the creature remains an abstract, strange and unbelievable thing.

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Bhumika R completed her Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 2019. She has taught English in Surana College, Bangalore and in IIT Jammu and plans to resume teaching soon. Besides her academic publications, she has also contributed articles to Cafe Dissensus Everyday, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. She also writes poetry and short fiction in English and some of her poems have been published in the Visual Verse. She is currently translating Mizo author Malswami Jacob’s novel Zorami into Kannada. She lives with her husband in Jammu. She may be contacted at patrika.bhumika@gmail.com.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Flash Fiction: The Carpet

By Niles M Reddick

Three years into our marriage, we purchased our first ranch home with no down payment thanks to help from a bank that gave us two mortgages; one was for eighty percent and the other for twenty percent with an extremely high interest rate. We stayed there five years, owed as much as we did when we bought it, and replaced the flooring, roof, the heat, ventilation and air-conditioning unit, kitchen countertops, and even the landscaping.  Fortunately, the value increased, mostly because of a growth explosion in the city, and we sold high, netting a thirty percent profit, which we plunked onto the next house.

We didn’t have a lot of time to look for that first house because of start dates for our new jobs, so we had driven the realtor crazy looking at more than forty houses in three days, putting in a contract on the fourth day, and solidifying the deal on the fifth. There were things Beth had wanted I could care less about: fresh paint, no wallpaper, and the three bedrooms on the first floor. I, on the other hand, felt an office, fireplace, and wood floors were the most important things. The house we both finally agreed on had a long laundry room that could double as an office for me, except when the washer was on the spin cycle and vibrated the computer on my desk. I did get a fireplace, and Beth got the fresh paint and no wallpaper. Unfortunately, I lost out on the wooden floors, but Beth got all the bedrooms downstairs in case we had children.

Because we had an antique rattan sofa and chair set Beth’s dad had given her as a college graduation gift for her first apartment, it was more chic than comfortable, so I often lay on the carpet in front of the television to watch movies on the video player or episodes of Seinfeld or Friends. Before we went to bed, I thought a mosquito had bitten me on the outer upper thigh area. A red bump felt irritated and warm to the touch. I put a little antibiotic cream on it and went to bed. The next morning, I didn’t even think about the bump, but the second day when I was taking a shower, I noticed the bump was darker, larger, and there seemed to be rings around it, like someone had tattooed my upper thigh with an image of Saturn and her rings. I decided I would stop by the clinic for a check since I’d never had a mosquito bite look that way, I feared the West Nile virus since it had just found its way to the states, and whatever it was seemed to be spreading fairly close to my genital area.

The nurse took my vitals, temperature, and didn’t give any non-verbal communication hints when she had a peak, but the doctor came in, looked at the chart, mispronounced my name, looked through his bifocals he wore on the tip of his nose, and said, “Looks like a Brown Recluse got you. Still early and not a lot of damage, but it’s killing the tissue. The rings give it away. We’ll get you on an antibiotic.”

Brown Recluse Spider

“Brown recluse? A spider bite?”

“Oh yeah. Could be anywhere in your house. They often live in dark places, cracks and crevices, and under carpet.”

“Carpet? I knew we shouldn’t have bought that house with carpet everywhere.”

“Yes, well, I’ll look at it again next week after you’ve been on the meds. Hopefully, we won’t have to take any skin.”

 After the bite healed, I had the ring for some time, but that didn’t stop me from having the carpet ripped up and wooden floors installed throughout the house. I insisted on being there with bug spray, but never saw a Brown Recluse. Beth washed the linens and I had an exterminator come monthly.

I still check my skin if I have an itch and scratch. It seems to take a lot of time to do so, and at times, if I’m in a conversation at work, I have to excuse myself to check. Co-workers see me going to the restroom more than usual. Once in a while, a co-worker might find me in the restroom with a pants leg pulled up to the knee, my sock down to the shoe, or my button down shirt open, my using a flash light to check my skin closely in the mirror, but at least they know I don’t have diarrhea, a bladder issue, or am hiding alcohol to drink. 

Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, two collections Reading the Coffee Grounds and Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in thirteen anthologies, twenty-one countries, and in over three hundred publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIFNew Reader MagazineForth Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction MagazineWith Painted Words, among many others.

Website: http://nilesreddick.com/

Twitter: @niles_reddick

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/niles.reddick.9

Instagram: nilesreddick@memphisedu

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/niles-reddick-0759b09b/

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Nostalgia Stories

How Blue is your Sapphire

Relive the terror of the 2008 Taj Mumbai attacks in this gripping nostalgic retelling by Bhavana Kunkalikar

I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Turn it back to the days before the nightmare began; a nightmare that lasted three dreary days.

It was my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. To mark the occasion, I booked for them a special dinner and an overnight stay at the Taj Hotel.

Over the last few days, food and water and sleep ceased to be the needs for survival as I sat glued to every fragment of the television news which named all the victims of the hostilities. My parents were famous local authors and often in the news, but this was probably the only time I did not want to hear their names on television.

Also, over the three days came numerous phone calls from all my relatives, asking whether we all were safe from all the inhumanity. Unable to face my parents’ absence, I reassured them.

“How sad is all this! These terrorists will be cursed to hell, I tell you. What have we Mumbaikars done to these Pakistanis? A three-day siege! How sad is that! I haven’t even eaten anything since this has started, you know.” said an aunt as a pressure-cooker whistled in the background and I hung up.

Today was the third day of the siege. The early morning news promised the capture of the attackers. A ray of hope finally. I obviously knew that this would have an end but the feeling that it was all happening and finally I would meet my parents was heartening.

As our troubles now seemed bleak, I made a much-needed cup of coffee for myself.

According to my mummy, coffee was a wonder-drink. It worked again.

I moved back to the armchair with my coffee and covered myself with mummy’s blanket. This armchair was dad’s “favorite place to be” and was hence out of bounds for anybody else. Thus, in his absence, I and mummy would take turns to sit on it. Not because the armchair was anything special but probably because forbidden fruits are tastier.

And even today in his absence I had spent a good three days on this chair. Only half-hoping to see dad storm through the door and ask me to “leave the chair alone!”

And the blanket smelled heavily of mummy — as if it still had a piece of her in it.

Soon but not enough, the TV headlines blared “It’s over!” signifying the capture of the last of the attackers.

Well, it wasn’t over, was it? Uncountable lives and families were disrupted in a matter of three days by a bunch of men who claim to do this in the name of their religion. A war they started to “protect their God”. It really wasn’t over.

But now wasn’t the time to deal with that. Now was the time to leave the warmth of this house and face the heat of those enemies. It was time to confront the destruction suffered by the city I grew up in. It was time to finally discover the voices behind all the screams I heard those nights. But all this was what I was frightened of.

And yes, it was also time to get my parents back home.

I changed from my pajama suit to the ever-duty jeans and t-shirt and shut the television in what must be the first time in three days. Gulping down the cold coffee in one sip, I rushed to the door.

The slight sway of the armchair just before I locked the door shut, made me feel the armchair was worth nothing without them. The house could never be my home without them. I was nothing without them. We all needed them.

And I did not need to spend another night enduring those screams without them.

As I hit the road with my scooter, a gloomy winter sky welcomed me. At 8.30am, the sun did not shine as brightly. It somehow seemed as if it did not have the need to shine anymore. As if the happenings of the previous nights had left it all hopeless. It seemed to rise only because it had to, not because it wanted to. Even the sun had run out of options.

This train of thoughts ended abruptly as I brought the scooter to a sudden halt. I had nearly missed hitting a dog as it scampered away screeching.

My gasp of surprise stayed stuck in my throat. Hurting another innocent being even unintentionally was a shuddering thought.

And there they were. Having a “well-deeded” massacre.

After twenty minutes of what seemed to be an obstacle-less ride, I reached the hotel. And the sight there was spine-chilling.

One of the floors of the building stood ablaze. Ablaze not in fire, but in smoke. The pictures of the burning building doing their rounds on the television news left little to the imagination.

One couldn’t help but wonder. What must it have been like to be there? Enjoying a lovely meal and to be suddenly attacked and shot at by complete strangers? What must it have been to realise that this would be the last minutes of one’s life? A topsy-turvy life to be ended by a reckless bullet?

What would it have been like to shoot all of them down? Did the attackers not think of how those ‘hostages’ had a family to go back to? Could they not imagine how it would feel if a bunch of strangers were to kill one’s family?

Tearing away my gaze from the day-old smoke, I saw a group of khaki-clad men trying their best to protect the building’s entrance. Policemen.

Another group of people, a definitely larger one, were trying to force their way in. A wave of immense grief seemed to run through this crowd. Crying and howling with sudden angry outbursts, they appeared to push against the policemen with all their strength but not quite. The victims’ families.

More hopefully, the survivors’ families.

The atmosphere was tense with these opposing forces. Even with all the noises around, the air weighed heavily of deafening silence.

It took me a moment or two to realise that I stood surrounded by striking contrasts.

As I stared wide-eyed at the scene around me, I noticed a young lady in the crowd. Must have been about the same age as me. She had just stopped in her attempts to be heard, to catch her breath and wipe her rolling tears away. As she did so she caught my eye. Something about my face made her give me a sympathetic smile before she continued with her protests. Instinctively, my hands searched my face.

I was crying.

With my spent tears I made for one of the benches. With my back to the Gateway of India, I knew that this bench, like most people, had experienced happier memories; much unlike this new one.

Quite a few years ago, when I was ten years old and when we were financially not so comfortable and when even a breakfast in Taj would be an unaffordable luxury and when mummy’s coffee obsession had just started, my parents and I had come to visit this place. It was their twelfth wedding anniversary then.

I loved balloons. And I still do. And a visit here bought me loads of them. When I say ‘loads’ I mean one each for me, mummy and dad. I had then thought that they would get those balloons for themselves because they liked playing as much as I did. The fact that I was the only one who’d play with all those three balloons was a different matter.

That particular winter evening, the winds were at their strongest. A few gusts later, the balloon in my hand flew away and drifted away into the wind. I ran after it as my parents ran after me. But the balloon turned a deaf ear to all my yells and was soon out of sight.

As I gave up the chase and stood in sadness, a hand with another balloon came in front of me. I looked up to see it was dad with his balloon.

“Take this,” he said.

“But it’s yours,” I replied.

“We’ll share it then!” he said immediately as his twinkling eyes closely resembled his sapphire finger ring.

Being under the impression that dad too must love his balloon a lot, this offer seemed like a big sacrifice to me. I mean, there was no way I would share my balloon with anybody. This made dad’s action a generous one for me then.

That’s probably what they meant when they said, ‘sharing is caring’.

The sapphire ring? Dad says he inherited it from his father who got it from his father. As I was the only child, the sapphire would next be mine.

“You’ll have it when the time is right,” is what Dad would say whenever I’d ask him about the ring.

Dad had his own unique way of seeing things. To him, everything and everyone had some mysterious air around them. To me and most people who knew him, Dad himself was worth a secret or two.

The sapphire ring was amongst the many objects of fascination for me.

“This ring, you see? It dates back to my great-grandfather. Some say he was gifted the ring by a king of his times. Others say he won it in some gambling game. But no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that sapphires of this shade are quite rare. Worth a fortune maybe. They say that darker the stone, the heavier it is. And impure too. The brighter it is, the lighter and purer it gets; that goes without saying. It’s pretty much like our conscience, you know.” Dad would often say.

Holding back my response, “No Dad, I don’t really see”, I would simply nod and further admire the ring.

It was beautiful. And it was indeed a spectacular blue. A blue so bright that it would put the best of skies to shame. And the cuts at the stone’s edges only helped the brightness furthermore. One could see directly through the stone which was considered a proof of its purity. But it also would reflect some amount of light. It truly was beautiful. But in no way did it represent the “conscience” to me, no way.

As a tiny smile lit up on my face, a harsh cry snapped me back to reality.

After another thirty minutes of unyielding wails, the crowd dispersed and settled down on the benches around me. As minutes passed, the cries reduced to occasional sniffles.

On the nearby benches sat a man in a prayer topi while another elderly woman was fiddling nervously with her rosary beads.

But that makes no sense, does it? Those terrorists and their organizations have always claimed that their “works” were to protect their God, their Allah. Attacking people of his own “clan”, like that topi-wearing fellow’s family, is what makes no sense at all.

In fact, I think this whole discrimination thing is all nonsense. Discrimination amongst religions and castes, I mean. But no — I’m not against religions, not at all. My religion makes me who I am; our religions, faiths make us who we are. The problem, I daresay, is that we tend to think that our religion is better than any other.

Because it’s not.

Everyone’s religion is just as good, or as bad as any other. That’s probably what they meant when they spoke of ‘equality’ then.

Yet another howl brought me out of my trance. Except this howl was a happy one.

The policemen had finally given us way inside the Hotel.

We all ran towards the entrance but were suddenly halted by the scene inside. The usual cheerfully well-lit area was replaced by a dull, bloodshot scenario. The air in here was even heavier.

One step at a time, the crowd dispersed, following its own direction.

Detaching from the crowd, I wandered pointlessly amongst all the expensive debris. It was then that I noticed it.

A few feet away from me on the floor something sparkled brightly, reflecting most of the light that came through a broken window.

Half-knowing what it was but half hoping it wasn’t, I walked towards it. And I picked up the sapphire ring.

Just then a scream echoed in my ears; the scream that’s been haunting me the following three nights. Only then did I realise. It was my mother’s scream.

I looked around to see the members of the crowd wandering as pointlessly as I did. Neither of them even showed any signs of having heard anything.

The heart denies what the brain already knows.

Pocketing the ring, I wordlessly left the building and came back to my scooter.

After one thoughtless moment, I wore the ring on my left index finger. This was NOT the right time I was waiting for.

Like the conscience, he’d said. Our conscience shouldn’t be impure, to say the very least. If the conscience has its taints it gets heavier, which makes living quite uncomfortable. Agreed. One’s conscience should be transparent, yes. Nothing to show, nothing to hide. Very true. But reflective? By taking inside all the goodness and also giving back the goodness received. Maybe that’s what he meant. Maybe I do see.

As the noon sun now poised itself, the warm winds ruffled my hair and tears on my ride back home. All I could do now was to keep hoping; hope that I’ll live with a gaping void, hope that justice will be finally served, hope that I would never let the sapphire darken.

Because that’s what mummy and dad would want their Afreen to do.

Bhavana Kunkalikar, a pharmacy graduate, juggles between writing and her career.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Stories

When Two or Three are Gathered

By Tan Kaiyi

“Are you sure it’s safe for us to be this close?” Anushka asked.

“I don’t know. They said it’s not over,” Rizwan said.

“Who says it’s not over?”

“It’s all over the radio,” Cheng said.

“All over?” Rachel asked.

“It was on every channel I was scanning this morning.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear.”

“It’s from the Ministers. The 6Gs.”

“We don’t even know who they are. All we hear about them is from the radio,” Anushka said.

“But everything they said had turned out to be true.”

“We aren’t sure of that. All we hear is the numbers of people who disappeared from some voice who claims to have the mandate to govern,” Rachel said.

“The voice had been right about the virus,” Rizwan said.

“If it’s a virus.”

“I don’t know what else to call it. It makes logical sense that the government would have a continuity plan, some kind of team after things fall apart.”

If the government was smarter, it wouldn’t have needed a continuity plan, Cheng thought. But then again, no one has seen anything like this. Who would be smart enough to know that people would start turning when two or three were gathered. Physical contact seems to be the main trigger, but reports had come in of people mutating even when they were near each other.

“Hey, watch the distance!” Anushka yelled.

“Sorry, let me move a bit,” Cheng said.

“I don’t want to become one of them, not at a time like this. Sorry, I don’t mean you have it.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Are you sure this is going to work though?”

“I don’t know,” Cheng said.

“We have to hold hands. I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Rizwan said.

He looked at the symbols they have set up for the ritual. Five stars and a moon drawn in blood and white chalk on the ground. The four of them had seen it in their dreams, a city of glistening mirror colossi, glistening with the reflected sun under clean blue skies. It was so vivid that they could smell the aroma of the air and the soothing embrace of the heat. And the people! None of these horrid mutations that flailed and shrieked about. What they would have given to just walk down the street without the risk of getting mauled by their twisted limbs or infected by their touch! If they did the ritual right, that’s where they would be — or at least that’s what they thought.

“We don’t even know if it’s going to work,” Anushka said

“You’ve seen it. You’ve seen it in the dreams,” Rachel said.

“It could be that. Just dreams. Nothing more.”

“We’ve come this far, we’ve got to give it a shot.”

Rachel looked at her friend from secondary school. She wanted to tell her that it was alright, that once it was done, she was sure that the ritual would open up a better world for them. But she wasn’t sure. The legend had been circulating after the mutations spread throughout the world. The sickness was biological, but it was something more. There was talk that it could bend reality, which explained how the virus warped human physiology. When this idea spread through the airwaves, it led to several theories about a hidden gateway to a parallel world — similar to theirs but with a brighter fate.

“Lots of people have died to come to this place. We got lucky, we’re here now,” he said, remembering the many moments in their journey when they narrowly escaped death. Mid-way, Cheng had caught a bad case of fever and breathlessness, and he felt that his body was turning inside out. It was the most fearful experience he had in his entire life. Just put a bullet in my head, he told Anushka. He heard her refusals through her soft sobs, but he didn’t want to end his life as some kind of inflamed monstrosity. No one dared to go near him, and that sense of isolation fuelled his anguish. He didn’t know how they got through it but the fever faded after a week. It delayed the entire journey, and depleted their rations ahead of time.

Johnson, one of their original companions, died of hunger a few days after that. Since then, Cheng hadn’t been able to sleep well. Even if they succeeded in getting out of this place, he knew his feeling of partial responsibility over Johnson’s death would continue to demonise him for the rest of his life. The four of them readied the items. The candles were set around the six symbols painted.

“It looks a bit like our flag, isn’t it?” Rizwan asked.

“A little,” Cheng said.

“What do you think we saw?”

“I don’t know. But it sure looks better than here,” when those worlds rolled out of Cheng’s tongue, he realised how absurd it sounded. It didn’t bode well for hope. He was beginning to think that this was all a mistake. He tried to comfort himself by thinking that that the distance between them and freedom was that one metre which prevented transmission, but his heart began to tremble and he prayed that his fear wasn’t showing.

“That’s it. All we need to do is to hold hands and close our eyes,” Cheng said.

“How long?” Anushka asked.

“I don’t know. What did the stories say?” Cheng asked.

“They say you will hear crackling in the air and the stench of death will be gone,” Rizwan said. He was haunted by hesitations, but they had come this far. If ahead lay death, it was nothing better than what they were leaving behind.

“Are we ready?” Cheng asked.

“I don’t know,” Rachel answered.

“Let’s start with the first step.”

The first step could be the deadliest. They stared at each other for what seemed like lifetimes, before they slowly reached out with their hands. When their fingers touched, an icy sensation crept up their arms and spine. Cheng cursed. The foul words released the tension from his shoulders and throat like a magical incantation.

“We’re still normal,” Cheng said.

“That’s a good start,” Anushka said.

“Okay, then we just keep repeating the chant?” Rachel asked.

“Yes,” Rizwan said.

And they begin to sing. The words and melody filled their minds and the room. The lyrics and music were familiar, they sang it every morning before school started — though the tune of this version was slightly distorted.

Eyes closed, it was hard to tell how much time had passed.

They were lost in the words. As they became more absorbed into the verses, they felt themselves dissolve. But without opening their eyes, they couldn’t know what was going on. A thought came up in Rizwan’s mind. He felt removed from the entire process — like a disembodied eye that watched over them. They were still in the room, he felt.

 There was nothing left to do but to carry on. And so they continued — drowning in the sea of words and time, waiting and waiting, only coming up to grasp the scent of fresh air.

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Tan Kaiyi is on a literary odyssey to unearth the wonders and weirdness within the mundane. His poems have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. He has also been published in Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018), an anthology of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories from the region.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Humour Stories

The Return of the Dead

By Gita Viswanath

For the first time in the history of the universe, God and the devil were on the same page. Their domains were getting filled up with an influx of souls tarnished by a virus. To maintain social distance, they decided it was time to throw all inhabitants back on earth. God had it easier. Gravity helped him in ejecting his inmates. The devil had to shoot them upwards and that was tough on him.

“What’s your worry? We are dead now; we can no longer spread disease.” The souls chorused in a last-ditch attempt to stay back.

God in his wisdom said, “This virus has flummoxed me. It’s a never-before situation. So, let me play safe. My ministers and I can’t take a risk.”

“You can’t risk us, can you? Won’t we fall ill? Haven’t we had our fair share of pain and suffering? Won’t we overcrowd the planet and create chaos? We were always taught God is a kind and benevolent being. Trust in him.” 

The infallible God had no answer. He was forced to think. God condescended to consult with the devil and both decided that only those who had died in the past twenty-five years would be ejected. The rest had attained salvation; so, they were not a threat. Ultimately, being the almighty, he had his way with his herd. The devil in his turn entertained no questions. He simply kicked them out or rather up.

The souls of the animal Heaven were tickled at the sight of the exodus. “Our time has come! Down below, our compatriots have been restored to their spaces; they roam like emperors of all they survey, and our enemies are finally locked up. And here, we rest in peace,” the animal souls sang delightedly. 

The day arrived. Hundreds of souls were released. As per the decrees of God and the devil (they seem to work in tandem for once), they landed in the places from where they had last departed. As a result, those who died in road accidents were found loitering on the streets of places as far apart as New York and Nagpur or Los Angeles and Latur.

They were promptly arrested by the police and kept in custody for not maintaining social distance and on top of it, not wearing masks. When they were questioned, they honestly replied that they were thrown out of heaven or hell as was the case.

The situation at Versova police station in Mumbai turned bizarre. The poor cast-outs were laughed at and branded as pagal – mad. At the same time, most were so lucid that the police were totally confused. They gave their home addresses and phone numbers without any hesitation. The ones who died several decades ago gave their landline numbers which were now defunct. Some of them said they were homeless but were able to name the localities where they used to sleep on footpaths. One even tried to appease the police by saying, “Call my family immediately. They can give you chai paani and even samosa* right away.” He had, after all, died while over speeding in his BMW, no less. At this, the homeless ones got enraged and lunged at him.

“Hey, we’ll handcuff you,” yelled the police while trying to prevent a bloodbath.

“Sir, he’s the one who drove over us,” two of the homeless defended themselves.

At this, the inspector on duty called his senior and requested him to come over as soon as possible. Or else, there were bright chances that he would need to be rushed to a psychiatric ward. 

Hospitals, which were as it is bursting at the seams, suddenly saw new patients arguing with the existing ones that it was their bed. One patient suffered a heart attack as soon as he saw a woman appear out of nowhere in front of his bed. She was trying to pull out the intravenous drip and insert it into her arm. At that point, the patient passed out. Hearing the thud of a human body on the floor, a nurse rushed in only to pass out herself on seeing a stranger fitting the drip on her own. The dead woman calmly completed her task and lay on the bed wondering why the staff looked like figures from outer space. When the nurse did not return to her bay for some time, a doctor walked in to see her collapsed on top of the patient on the floor and an unknown woman resting on the bed. She rushed out screaming as if bitten by a rabid dog. 

Mammaaa, Papaaa, bhaiyya ka bhoot*,” Aastha began crying. The family was barely recovering from the suicide of their son, a sixteen-year-old teenager who hanged himself a week ago in his room because his father scolded him for spending too much time on his cell phone. The father, still fuming with rage, rushed out of his bedroom on hearing Aastha and stood there as though struck by lightning. “Oye, what’s happening?” he stammered.

The mother, who followed, began shouting in joy, “My son is back, my son is back.”

The father went out to get a broomstick saying, “Bhoots go away when beaten with a jhaadu*.” Finally, the dead teenager, a little amused, a little embarrassed, spoke: “I’m back. Even God didn’t want me. Where else could I think of going?”

Aastha and her parents fainted one after the other and the dead-living living-dead boy got into his bed and fell into a deep sleep; not before posting a picture of himself on Facebook and Instagram, with the caption, ‘Thrown out by God’.

In Vadodara, in Gujarat, an electrician landed on a light pole and was sent back to God immediately. God was stunned and looked at him furiously.

“What can I do? When you sent us, you said we would land at the spot where we died. That damn pole is still unrepaired and I died instantly.”

Some ministers burst out laughing. “Hmm …” God scratched his head while thinking deeply about a condition such as this. For the first time, he doubted his efficiency.

“Fine, this is no excuse for you to return. You will now land at the spot you were last seen before you climbed that goddamn (oops!) pole.”

As God finished his sentence, the electrician felt himself going down in a free fall like a skydiver. He landed on his Hero bicycle which he had parked next to a tea stall on the road before climbing the pole. The stall was closed. There was an eerie silence. Not a vehicle, not a human anywhere in sight.

Seeing him appear out of the blue, a frightened dog came up towards him. The dog looked so weak with ribs poking out that he could barely bark, let alone bite. Thanking God for providing him with transport to reach his home, he mounted his cycle and pedalled his way feeling elated to be back.

He kept thinking about how happy his family would be to have him in their midst. After all, he had died so tragically just a month before his second baby was to be born and his first child, a girl, was just three years old. He wondered if the second was a boy. He wished it was. At least his mother would stop taunting his poor wife. Whistling his favourite song, he kept cycling, finding the way a little confusing. He was returning after eleven years.

An old woman who could barely walk struggled to find her way. So much had changed in the twenty-five years since she left; she could hardly recognise a single house. Suddenly, she heard a whirring sound up in the sky and as she looked up, a shower of red rose petals fell from the skies. Rows of men with little children on their shoulders and women with bundles of belongings on their heads were the only denizens of the streets. They all had masks on their mouths like Jain munis*, the old woman thought. They rushed to gather the petals, tried to squeeze some juice into their dry throats, and made the children nibble the petals. The old woman joined these masked men and women. When she told them, she had come back from the land of the dead, they thought they were hallucinating. Since she didn’t look threatening, they let her walk along with them. After walking for eternity, they found some people distributing poori bhaaji* and pouches of water. They let the old woman join the queue.

The news broke out on television. Excited reporters screeched into their microphones. Some enterprising ones even managed to reach the dead and interview them. Some went a step further and visited the homes of ones who were receiving their dead, some happily, others not so. Amid a pandemic, the reporters created a virtual pandemonium.

Anup Gohain, who headed the channel that could get an award for the most hysterical of them all, chose his flavour of the day — conspiracy. The dead couldn’t return; he shrieked, this is nothing but a conspiracy of our enemies from within and without. Pakistan, China, the opposition, leftists, pseudo-secularists, the tit-bit gang, Anup Gohain enumerated in rising intonation. And then for dramatic effect, he lowered his voice to a whisper. Tell me, all you so-called scientific people, what else is this if not a conspiracy? They have been sent out to contaminate millions of Indians and destroy this glorious land of ours. All this and more in Debate Number One, once again he screamed. During the debate, he yelled out to the participants on the other side of the fence, “the nation wants to know. Today, you have to give them an answer.”

The police inspector rushed to the station after receiving his constable’s call. He had heard the news. He took charge of the situation that was turning chaotic by the second. Calmly, he ordered that all addresses and telephone numbers be noted down. Then, he personally oversaw the despatch of all those held in the lockup to their homes. The homeless were dropped off at the pavements which were deserted now. They slept peacefully. No hafta* to the police, not even to the local don.

The screams of the doctor echoed down the corridors of the hospital just as the day duty staff was handing over charge to the night duty staff. The television was on in the recreation room of the medical staff and they were staring at it open-mouthed. Of course, they had heard of ghosts and unusual movements in mortuaries but beyond laughing, had never given it a thought.  Could they now dismiss something that was happening on a global scale?

All channels — Indian and foreign — were reporting bizarre episodes of the return of the dead. The screaming doctor barged into the room, huffing and puffing, “Come with me, look at what I just saw.” When they reached the ICU, they revived the nurse first and then questioned the woman who had displaced the patient. She was able to even recall the names of doctors who had attended on her. So eloquent was she, she even told them that she was admitted for a hysterectomy. “Such a routine procedure for women my age – why did you have to kill me?” She asked them indignantly.

The truth was a rookie anaesthesiologist had given her an overdose; resulting in the tragic and untimely death of an otherwise healthy woman. She went on to plead with the doctors to set right their mistake and send her back home to her loved ones who were surely missing her. In response, the two doctors and the nurse passed out! The dead woman pressed her hand to her mouth trying hard to suppress a laugh.

When Aastha and her parents came to in the wee hours of the morning, they found the sixteen-year-old in deep sleep. Still reeling under shock, they stepped forward gingerly to check if he was for real. “Bhaiyya, Bhaiyya,” Aastha called out gently. No response. The mother, who was convinced about the return of her son, sat beside him on the bed, stroking his head, pushing back the lock of hair from the forehead. Standing by the bed, the father wondered aloud, “Yeh kaisa ho sakta hai – how can this happen?” The boy stirred. The mother shushed the father and pretended that the cremation and the besna* never happened. They all shouted excitedly, “Welcome back!” With no one entering their home and they not going out, the return of their dead son needed no explanation. They all lived happily ever after until …

The electrician reached his home. He left the cycle leaning on the wall and entered through the tiny gate which was the same after eleven years except for a louder creak. His wife was swabbing the room. She looked through the half-open door, left the pail and the duster on the floor, stood up, smiled, and said, “Ahh, it’s been a long time.” The electrician was stunned. Here he was, returning from the land of the dead after eleven years and this woman, his wife and the mother of his children was inhumanly calm. On the wall, he noticed his framed photo with a plastic garland with dust in the folds of the petals.

“Salma, aren’t you shocked to see me?” he asked her.

“Why should I be? You were always with me. You think you could go away so easily?”

“But you used to not see me, hear me, you couldn’t touch me, see, see,” he grabbed her hand saying, “You are not dreaming, Salma, I am really here in front of you.”

“Who said so? I used to see you, hear you, feel you, all the time.”

The electrician was flabbergasted. What could he say to her?

“Where are our children?”

“Sleeping. Come inside, see …”

The electrician was surprised to see four. Disturbed by the sounds, they woke up. The youngest of them, four years old, was the first to speak, “He looks like Abba.”  When the electrician died on the pole, his parents got the widow married off to his younger brother, Ahmed. In a short while, Ahmed returned with a basket of vegetables, took off his mask, and stood rooted to the ground on seeing his brother.

Bhai, have I lost my senses?”

“No, you haven’t, take a bath and come. I’ll explain,” said Salma in a soothing voice.

Ahmed went in never to return (he exited through the back door) and the electrician was restored to his home and family. Salma laid out all the vegetables next to the sink and began washing them with soap.

“What are you doing?” asked the stupefied electrician.

Han, that’s how it is now.”

Shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head from right to left, left to right, the electrician replied, “Chalo, kuch tho badla — okay, something has changed at least.”

The old woman found it extremely hard to find her way home. She walked endlessly in the scorching sun with one group of workers only to realise she was on the wrong route. Then she turned at a fork to join another group. After three days of repeatedly joining different groups, she finally reached what she remembered as her home. Alas! The people who now lived there were not her family. They wouldn’t let her in. Once again, she was stranded. Totally exhausted and unable to walk anymore, she settled down under a neem tree, cursing God for harassing her, and set up her home with a snake and a monkey as her neighbours.

For almost a year, the dead and the living blended seamlessly. They lived, loved, fought, cast out, oppressed, forgave, made up like humans always did. In the meanwhile, the invisible virus continued having a field day in the world, upsetting many apple carts. God and the devil began missing their flock. They realised the stupidity of their thoughts and actions. By dying and returning to them, the souls had completed a journey. Why then were they made to resume their earthly voyages?

God addressed his ministers in a cloud meeting, “My creations respect death and the dead. Never speak ill of the dead, they say. They keep them forever in their memories. They equate the dead with me. They offer flowers and incense to them the way they do to me. They tell children that the dead go to God.” The ministers nodded gravely in agreement. “Then, why have I betrayed their trust in me?” God asked shamefacedly. “Who am I without my flock? How can I erase the ultimate truth of life, that is death?”

God and the devil summoned back their herd. As suddenly as the dead had appeared, they disappeared.

*chai paani… samosa — tea, water… savoury snack

*Bhaiyya ka bhoot — Brother’s ghost.

*Bhoot — ghost

*munis — sages

*Poori Bhajji — food.

Gita Viswanath is a Baroda-based writer. Her novel, Twice it Happened, was published last year by Vishwakarma Publications, Pune. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems have been published in Kavyabharati No 28 and Coldnoon. Her short story, Paper Gods, was published in the May 2020 issue of Muse India.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Humour Stories

Pickled Pink

By Sudeshna Mukherjee

Peerless Ponchu Da* had a peculiar problem.

Panchanan Da, often fondly called Ponchu Da, had a humongous paunch which made a person standing two feet away feel quite close. It felt as if they were touching each other inappropriately. His protruding paunch was a combined result of taking siesta immediately after having a plateful of maach bhaat*, total lack of any form of exercise and a genetic predisposition to fill up in all the wrong places. Mischievous kids would often purposely pronounce Ponchu da as Paunchy da much to the protagonist’s displeasure who would wag his forefinger threateningly knowing fully well that he was incapable of doing anything beyond that.

Hailing from Poschim Bongo*, Ponchu da had a penchant for punjabis* (not to be confused with the people of Punjab of the five rivers fame, not that they were not worthy of his fondness). These punjabis, especially made from muslin, is the most proffered favourite of many pedigreed Bengalis. Come summer and you will notice such punjabis (of the garment fame) in every possible hue with exquisite embroidery covering differently (or is it indifferently?) shaped torsos of babu moshais*.

Now coming back to Ponchu da, who was the most ordinary of human beings in his ordinariness, had the most pallid and poker face. Nothing but nothing could bring a flicker of animation on his podgy pudgy face. The only time his eyes would have the glazed look would be when his wife, Putul di*, would call him to partake of his food at the dining table.

Ponchu da‘s preference for pickles could not be ignored. He just loved licking and smacking his lips while gently slurping, running his tongue lovingly over the tart pickles of any and every variety. Drooling over them with a particular ‘Tthat! Tthat!’ sound that his tongue made while smacking the roof of his mouth with it!

Though he gave the impression, he had never ever actually been pregnant his entire life. He became like a petulant child when the dinner table was not adorned by an assortment of jars beaming proud pickles in their glassy splendour.

Now it so happened that one day, Putul di saw our home grown Ponchu da drubbing his forehead. Now this was a gesture that denoted that dear Ponchu da was taxing his fast depleting grey matter to recall something and those gooey cells were playing hooey with him. Often his poor head would throb at such a herculean task and poor dear Putul di would have to spend an entire half hour rubbing half a jar of Tiger balm till dear Ponchu da would deem it fit to doze off into an apocalyptic sleep , often tiger-grunting inaudible gibberish in a feverish manner much to the chagrin of his wife who wanted absolute quiet after such an exhaustive exertion .

Coming back to the drubbing of forehead, Putul di had a premonition that her afternoon nap was hanging in balance on the outcome of the drubbing. To avoid looking at the tension filled scene she escaped to her pantry trying to potter around taking stock of the things stored. It was almost the end of the month and she would have to replenish her stock in a week.

Suddenly, she heard her husband calling her, “Ogo shunchho*”(now this is a very watery sort of a word, but it assumes its colour and dimensions from the tone used). Hearing her placid husband’s insistent high-pitched call Putul di stopped her pottering around.  She rushed out to see Ponchu da‘s face turning purple.

On enquiring what the matter was she learnt that her husband was unable to recollect where he had kept his favourite but well-worn out faded pink punjabi (of the garment fame). They both searched for it. Putul di in her best placating voice telling that even if they couldn’t find it, it was no loss as it had long outlived its time. Its shapeless sagging form doing nothing to elevate its position in the hierarchy of punjabis. Ponchu da‘s wail almost lead to both of them having respiratory spasms leading to the stopping of the pump, I mean their heart. “You don’t know how comfortable and how soft it had become,” wailed Ponchu da. At her wits end she told her husband to search his cupboard while she volunteered to search the clothesline and alna*.

In the midst of this, a sudden bolt of lightning struck our dear Putul di. She rushed to her pantry and stopped dead in her tracks. Like a flashback her mind unspooled the happenings of the previous week. Upon her invitation her Punjabi (of the five rivers fame) friend, a pro in matters of pickling, had volunteered to teach her by demonstrating step by step method of pickling mangoes, tamarind, lemon, jackfruit and various other vegetables. They had spent two afternoons pickling all these items. In front of Putul di‘s eyes danced various jars and ceramic containers in progressive stages of pickling. Their mouths neatly tied with the cut pieces of ‘the faded pink ‘ punjabi (of the garment fame)!

Putul di remembered her personal supervision in cleaning the perspiration out of the worn punjabi and repeatedly dunking it in Dettol to sanitise it. She would have swooned had not the pungent gases released by the various jars in various stages of pickling stopped her spell and acted as smelling salt.

Our Putul di‘s, mind whirred like a new fan. Immediately she left for the market saying loudly to no one in particular that she would be back in an hour. Her afternoon siesta went out for a toss. She headed straight to the punjabi (of the garment fame) store, eyed the only available pink punjabi with purple embroidery without pernicious prejudice, bought it, gift wrapped it and left for home.

Her mind doing mental acrobatics trying to adjust the purse handed to her for mashkabari (monthly expenses) for our dear paunchy Ponchu da was parsimonious in pecuniary matters.

Preparation was always the key for Putul di to counter Ponchu da’s insistent persistence. Putul di knew from past experience that she had to create an opening by leading from the front and then seize the moment by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake till it hung limp and pliable. Patience but no passivity and only frontal attack to tide over the fraught situation.

The scene that hit her on entering her bedroom stirred certain primordial primitive emotions while her bosom heaved passionately. Mounds and mounds of clothes lay haphazardly piled high. The cluttered room looked frighteningly overstuffed. Even Putul di’s almirah was emptied in the hope of finding ‘the elusive faded shapeless punjabi‘ (of the garment fame).

Ponchu da was nowhere to be seen. Putul di with the posture of a Pitbull terrier hollered, “Ogo shunchho*!” Out of the corner of an eye she detected a certain mountainous mound move. It was Ponchu da trying to extricate himself from layers of clothes with a woebegone expression plastered on his face. “Eta ki*?” gnashed Putul di gesturing at the scene of devastation of their room. Seeing that his wife was on the warpath Ponchu da tried to placate her by saying in a mollifying tone that his favourite punjabi (of the garment fame) could not be found.

Seizing the momentous moment Putul di took her turn of pointing her forefinger at him wagging accusingly and saying, “You have done this now you will sort them out just the way they were” in a frightfully frightening tone that shook the nebulous core of Ponchu da.

Poor Ponchu da broke out in cold sweat. Casting a look all around the tornado hit room he started scratching his head. His head as such didn’t feel it belonged to him. It felt too heavy and too woody. What with all the physical activities of throwing out the clothes randomly from the cupboard and heaping them up, in his quest for his well-worn shapeless punjabi he felt totally without life’s bubbling stream flowing in him. Trying to find an escape route from rearranging the mounds of clothes he plonked himself down on the heap nearest to him and said pitifully that he would not until his punjabi was found. Hearing this Putul di quickly closed the gap and hissed in a dangerous undertone much to the surprise of Ponchu da who was having difficulty processing the fast-paced happenings around him. He never had a stomach for anything that was paced fast. He heard his queen’s hissed proclamation that she had snipped his favourite punjabi and thrown it in the gutter and if he didn’t organise the room to its old cluttered self all the pickles, pickled and pickling, would meet the same fate.

Psychedelic nightmares flashed through his slow-moving dome. He was quaking and wobbling like a jelly as visions rose of jars and jars of pickles lying abandoned and broken in the filthy gutter mixing up their divine aroma with that of the unbearable stench.

Well to cut a very long story short, Ponchu da took the entire evening and a substantial part of the night to do the bidding of his wife under her expert but severe glance and guidance. His paunch too reduced by a few decimal points and sagged at the exertion.

At the late dinner hour, he was thankfully pleased to see quite a few new types of pickles adorning the dining table and next to them was a gift-wrapped rectangular packet. Not daring to speak he began the ceremonial ritual of opening each jar and heaping a spoonful of it on his plate. He had built up a very good appetite. After finishing his meal his wife siddled up to him, giving him the credit of a job well done and thereby mollifying her, she handed the shiny rectangular packet to him and said with coyness that it was a token of appreciation from her for doing a yoeman’s job.

Theatrics at short notice was Putul di’s forte. A Prima Donna of melodrama.

*maach bhaat – fish curry and rice

*Poschim Bongo – West Bengal’s new name, a state of India

*punjabi- a fine cotton loose garment ideal for summer

*Babu moshai – Gentleman

*alna – An open wooden bracket for stacking clothes

*Ogo shunchho – Darling are you listening or darling come here

*Eta ki – What is this

*da – brother

*di- sister

Sudeshna Mukherjee‘spoems and stories deal with varied human nature. A keen observer she chronicles the happenings around her and writes with a tinge of humour. She is the recipient of The Golden Vase award for her humorous and satirical writings and many of her short stories and poems have been published in e-zines. Mélange and Meanderings of the Mind are her published book of poems.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Humour Stories

A Day at Katabon Pet Shop

By Sohana Manzoor

It took more than an hour for Rupa to reach her destination. After paying the fare she started walking past the pet shops in Katabon. The first one had birds and fish and aquariums of different sizes. She also noticed some curious looking cages. After three shops she found one sporting caged dogs. Two black ones were sleeping, a white poodle dozing, while a big wolf continued eying her wearily. Obviously, they too felt the heat. She stopped to see if there were cats too. An elderly, wiry looking fellow was smoking. He came forward and observing Rupa’s frowning face, extinguished his bidi by tapping it against the top of a cage. Then he pushed it over his ear like the tailors tuck in their pencils. Obviously, he planned to smoke later, and not waste his precious bidi*. He grinned and Rupa could not help noticing a single gold tooth that glittered among his nicotine stained set of dark brown teeth.  “What would you like, apa*?” the man asked. “We have very good dogs here—a poodle, a German Shepherd… all pure-breed. We can get you more…” There was something very obsequious in his manners that made Rupa grit her teeth.

She shook her head, “I am actually looking for a cat,” her eyes following a thin white cat that had just popped out from behind some boxes. The guy immediately picked it up and said, “You can take Minnie; she is a great mouser.” He looked at it and beamed, “Aren’t you, Minnie? You’re such a darling!” His ‘darling,’ however, turned her snout away from him as if something in his breath bothered her, and struggled to get down, while whining and trying to scratch him with her hind legs.

Rupa looked at the rickety form of the cat the man was holding. She could tell that even though she looked small, she was quite old—at least two to three years. She felt sorry for poor underfed Minnie, but not enough to adopt her. So she asked, “Do you have any other?”

The man let go of Minnie unceremoniously and said a little peevishly, “No. We did have a few more, but they have been sold.”

As Rupa turned to leave, the guy said, “Minnie is a real hunter. She caught a mouse even last night.”

But Rupa was not particularly interested in a hunting cat; she wanted an adorable kitten. This guy probably thought that the only use of a cat was to catch mice. At the next shop a young couple had just bought a pair of white rabbits. As they stepped out of the shop with the caged rabbits in hand, a man balancing on a bicycle cried out: “O bhai*, what have you got in there? Surely not rabbits? Your entire house will stink like the cages in Dhaka zoo!”

Rupa along with the couple stared at the man blankly. What was he babbling about? Probably, some crackpot up to his antics. You can trust the people of Dhaka to offer unsolicited advice at any time. But as Rupa went inside the shop the couple had just got out from, she detected a stench that was worse than all the other shops she had passed by so far. She wondered if it was because of the rabbits. The shopkeeper and his assistant showed her three black kittens claiming that they were Siamese cats. Rupa could not be sure if they were Siamese, but she was willing to bet that they were previously owned by some evil witch. They glared at Rupa with open hostility, their bright eyes burning like green fire. Rupa shook her head negatively and walked toward the next shop.

A boy of around 12 or 13 years of age beckoned her to a box like cage where she saw the kitten. It was small, surely not more than a few weeks old. The orange tabby looked up at Rupa with its large brown eyes and sneezed. Rupa held out her hand gingerly to feel it when she heard a faint mewing sound from elsewhere. She looked inside the box and saw another kitten, a black and white one, whimpering. She continued meowing piteously as Rupa turned to look at the tabby and took it from the boy. Dirty and malnourished, the tabby yet seemed absolutely adorable to Rupa.

“How much?” she asked.

“Five hundred taka, apa. It’s pure breed.”

What breed?”

The boy mumbled something unintelligible. Another guy spoke up, “You can see the stripes. It’s a foreign cat.”

“Sure,” Rupa grimaced. “It’s just a regular deshi* cat, mixed breed at best.” The other kitten was still crying for its friend. Rupa calculated something quickly, and said, “Okay, I will accept your price, but I want that other kitten for free.”

The shop keepers started arguing, “But you won’t get two cats for 500! And they are first rate kittens.”

“Then I am not taking any,” she placed the tabby in the cage and turned away, even though her heart cried out for the poor kitten. She had not taken two steps when she heard the elder guy, “Okay, okay, they’re yours.”

Rupa took out a five hundred taka note and asked, “Do you have any box I can carry them in?

“No boxes. But we’ll wrap them up for you.”

Wrap up living cats? Rupa waited to see what kind of wrapping they provided.

After about 5 minutes she was staring dumbfounded at the boy holding out the kittens in two brown paper bags. How he got them inside the paper bags so quickly, and without any tearing was a mystery to Rupa.

“Are you mad?” she spluttered. “I am going home in an auto-rickshaw. Those two will tear out of the bags in minutes. Get me at least a net bag or something.”

The boy put the paper bags of cats in a large fluorescent green net bag. Rupa took the bag cursing herself as well as the shopkeepers and hopped on a CNG auto-rickshaw for a hundred taka extra. She should have come the next day with their driver.

Surprisingly, the kittens were quiet in spite of all the noise emitting from the auto-rickshaw and the vehicles in the surrounding streets. Rupa suspected that they were just too weak to protest. After about 10 minutes, however, Rupa heard a rustling sound, and she saw a small orange muzzle tearing from a brown bag. “Baghu,” thought Rupa. “I’ll call him Baghu.” It was a male cat, she had already noted, whereas the black and white one was female. She could be Nishi. Nishi made no sound at all, but Baghu kept on rustling and clawing at the paper bag until half of his body came out. Then he was pushing against the net. “He does have spirit, after all,” thought Rupa. But she certainly did not want him out of his bag right now. So she put the bags and cats all on her lap holding on to them tightly, praying all the while that they didn’t pee on her. And she hoped that she got home without any trouble.

bidi* — a tendu leaf cigarette

 apa*— sister

bhai* —brother

deshi* — local

(Published first in Daily Star Literature)

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Categories
Stories

The Monkey on Her Chain

By Supriya Rakesh

 “So what do you think?” she asked, eyes shining with enthusiasm. “Do you like it?”

On the floor besides the sofa lay the proud conquests from her trip to the shopping mall, still wrapped in their plastic packages. It had been a great shopping day for Priya. She had found everything she was looking for — a pair of slightly faded ink blue jeans, skinny fit as were in fashion; a lime green tunic with a fresh floral print, very ‘spring-summer’; and a pair of open-toed beige sandals, perfect for all occasions, casual and formal.

Yes, it was important for Priya that all things be perfect, every decision be correct, all events occur as planned, and their outcomes unfold as predicted. All purchases were made after thorough research and well-planned lists. So it was quite unlike her to buy something on an impulse, especially the kind of thing she now displayed proudly.

It was a monkey on a chain (quite literally) — a neckpiece designed as a long golden chain, with a monkey-shaped trinket dangling in the centre! Brought to life by its large green gem-eyes, a coiled tail and an ear to ear monkey-grin, it looked unfettered by the chain-leash trying to hold it captive. She twirled it between her fingers with child-like glee.

It was two and half months ago that Priya had first set eyes upon the little devil. It was a humid April afternoon, she remembered. It had been an early day at work, so she had driven with her friend Rita to the mall to grab some iced coffee, and just look around.

Rita was her co-worker and a good friend, especially great to shop with — the perfect combination of strong opinion and good taste. Her spreadsheets were as confidently put-together as her outfits. Unlike Priya, who was annoyingly indecisive on both fronts.

 “You think too much!” Rita was always telling her.

So, on that particular day, the careless window-shopping amble had taken them next to an eclectic junk jewellery display, when the quirky animal caught her eye.

“How cute!” Priya had laughed out, playfully pointing to it.

“How freaky!” Rita had replied alarmed, her raised brow signalling disapproval. And that was that.

But the love affair with the monkey would not end there. Well, does it ever?

The following month, Priya went to the store twice, discreetly and both times alone. The first time, she noticed the grinning little fellow again, but cautiously avoided eye contact. She couldn’t explain why her heart was beating just a little bit faster. But clearly, if he was still there, nobody else had picked him either, she reasoned.

But the heart wants what the heart wants.

The next time, she couldn’t help but approach the counter again. The monkey’s eyes were mischievously gleaming in her direction, drawing her in. She picked up the chain in her hands, and after a long lingering moment, placed it back on its hook. The movement caused the monkey to sway back and forth, as if teasing her.

Later that night, she pondered over the day’s events.

 “Good that I didn’t buy it” she rationalized with herself, thinking of Rita and her raised brows. “Who wants to own a freaky piece of jewellery? I couldn’t carry it off anyways, it’s just not who I am.”

But today, Priya was in a particularly good mood. Next week, she would fly with her husband Rishi for their two week Europe vacation. Their very first trip together since the honeymoon, their very first trip abroad. And Europe was her dream! Ever since she was a child, even before she met Rishi, ever since she watched her first Bollywood heroine being serenaded against the Swiss Alps.

Promises of a romantic getaway had somewhat lowered her inhibitions. Unable to resist its charm any further, she decided to bring the monkey home. Now he dangled from her fingers, turning to face his first and most forbidding adversary.

So what do you think?” she asked again.

Rishi shifted uncomfortably in his seat; two years of marriage had taught him something about being tactful.

“It’s…different.” he managed after a long pause, avoiding looking her in the eye.

“What does that mean?” Priya glared at him. “Good different, bad different?” she prodded further.

“Just different,” he replied, his tone as non-committal as possible. “I mean, I haven’t seen anything like it before.”

There are some moments in life when tact fails against a woman’s intuition. Rishi learnt this the hard way that night. Just ten minutes later, they were deep in tense argument.

“Why can’t you just be honest with me?” Priya cried out in exasperation. “If you don’t like it, just say so!”

Rishi took her word for it, and admitted that he found the monkey, “err…somewhat scary”, and “kind of weird to wear as jewellery”. The conversation ended with her storming out of the room in a huff, slamming the door shut behind her.

 “Why do you even ask me?” He called out after.

Yes, why did she even ask him? Priya thought furiously, fighting away tears as she put away the new purchases in her closet. Because he was her husband, and his opinion was important to her. Why couldn’t he just say it was nice? Now she could never wear the damn thing on their trip; he clearly hated it.

Distressed, she put away the monkey in her drawer. He could not seem to stop smiling, proud of the trouble he had managed to stir up.

It was now three days since the big fight. Rishi had done all the right things to forge a reconciliation- bought her flowers, sent her sweet texts during work, and ordered dinner from her favourite Italian restaurant. Just a small precursor to the vacation.

He had also made some very logical arguments in his defence — he understood nothing about fashion and hence, his opinion was not to be taken seriously. Why didn’t she ask Dee?

That seemed to make sense- Disha or Dee (as she preferred to be called) was Priya’s baby sister. Fresh out of college and all of twenty, she had recently assumed the role of the family fashionista, bestowing unsophisticated mortals with her new-found wisdom.

It took a fifteen minute phone call to explain the context of the emergency.

“I won’t know what you are talking about till I see it!” Dee finally said. So she received a picture, the contentious devil grinning happily . “Uggh… It’s a little creepy. Its eyes- why do they shine?” Dee was not one to mince her words.

This rejection was the very last straw. The dalliance had to end — it was ill-considered, and ill-fated from the very beginning. It could not withstand the disapproval of others, especially others she cared for. With a heavy heart, Priya decided that the monkey would have to be returned to where it belonged. As she went to bed that night, she put it away in her handbag, glancing at it longingly, one last time.

But sometimes, destiny has other plans.

Over the next few days, Priya was swamped with work- all the tasks to be completed at the office before her long break. Then the final packing list, rechecking the bookings, last minute arrangements- to make sure everything would be just perfect. So, the trip to the store had to be postponed till the very last day. That evening, with a hundred things still left to be done, she drove towards the mall through the early July rains.

Her thoughts inevitably returned to the impending decision. Was it a good idea to return the chain? She liked it, but clearly it was a stupid buy. Everyone seemed to think so. What was decided was decided.

But she had failed to account for fate, or the store’s exchange policy.

“No returns on jewellery!” even the shop girl seemed to stare in amusement, while explaining this.

Dejected, Priya drove home in silence. With so much work pending, she had wasted an hour on this. This was not the mood she wanted to be in right before her perfect holiday. She could feel tears rolling down her chin as she honked impatiently at the slow-moving rush hour traffic. The monkey, perched on the seat besides, looked least perturbed.

It was now the sixth day of their trip. After soaking in the Mediterranean sun in the south of France, they had taken a train to Paris last night.

Some things had gone as planned, but most had not. Yet, somehow, it had all turned out okay. On day one, they found out that their ‘bed and breakfast’ didn’t offer any breakfast- but soon discovered a quaint bakery cafe down the road. A forgotten camera-charger led to two hours of panic, till they realised that the phone camera worked just fine, and had additional beautifying filters.

The bottle of SPF 50 sunscreen was lost on the train, so Priya now had a rosy glow. She was worried she looked too tan, but Rishi loved it. As if to prove he meant it, they had spent the last few hours making love. That meant skipping some of the museums on their itinerary — but no one was complaining. Feeling quite upbeat, and on a whim, she decided to throw on the monkey-chain.

In her last minute rush, she had absent-mindedly packed it along. All the deliberation and the thinking, all the stress had diminished the charm of the monkey. But today, proudly displayed around her neck, he looked rogue as ever. As they walked out of the hotel lobby, hand in hand, Rishi noticed him and gave a chuckle.

“I told you” he said, relieved to see her happy, “If you like it, you should wear it.”

As they walked towards the subway, the passers-by seemed to glance at them, all three of them — some with wonder, some with amusement. Priya tossed her head and smiled at them as she walked, seeming not to notice.

She stood in the middle of the alley blocking traffic, to point at a funny-looking hoarding. With a playful glint in her eye, she pulled Rishi closer and whispered flirtatiously in his ear. She laughed with wicked abandon, as he turned away, red with embarrassment. The wide grin stayed on her face as they rode the subway together, holding hands.

The monkey had never looked more befitting on her.

Supriya Rakesh is a social researcher and writer from Mumbai, India. Her work engages with the notion of ‘storied selves’ in multiple ways- biographical research, community theatre, and writing fiction. Her stories are often set in urban India, exploring the lives and choices of young adults in a society-in-transition. Her work was recently published in Kitaab, Active Muse, Culture Cult magazine and anthologies titled ‘The Other’ and ‘Rapture’. She is a Visiting Faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; and the Editor of ang(st), a feminist zine. She loves the Mumbai rains, strong cups of cappuccino and stories of unrequited love. You can find out more about her at www.supriyarakesh.com

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