Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: Peregrine

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

Margaret rather embarrassedly explained what Perry was short for, and she went on to explain what it meant, which, of course, a writer should know anyway!

I thought of calling him Odysseus, she said, but people would have called him Oddy, and that would be insulting.

Perry was black all over save for a white bib on his chest, and he had only one eye. Perry was a cat. He’d been re-homed with Margaret. Rescued, she called it. He’d been a feral cat. Nobody’s pet. He’d been living free. He’d lived in woodland, slept under a nearby shed, fed at a back-door saucer left out, until he was caught. The missing eye, luckily, had healed naturally, or at least, the socket had.

Perry had been neutered. He’d been chipped. He’d been well fed to bring him back up to health. He was a chunky cat, with a portly dignity and, despite the lack of a patch, a piratical tilt of the head. He ruled Margaret’s garden with a paw of steel. When he progressed through the flower beds or across the lawn, he was preceded by a fanfare of bird calls: Look sharp! Look sharp! Here comes the king.

She had him years but never as a chattel. Cats are never possession, but at best, guests, VIP ones at that. He deigned to stay and let her feed him. He tolerated her letting him in and letting him out, on demand, of course. Once or twice a year, usually in the spring, he’d take a trip away, simply vanish for a day or three. No warning. No explanations on his return. After a hearty breakfast he’d depart. There might be one sly backward glance before he went, but nothing more. Then, one morning he’d wander back, expecting food, cool as you like, meowing at the door, sauntering into the hall, looking to left and right to make sure everything was as it should be. Cats like to maintain their standards and expect the staff to be ready at any time of day or night to receive them.

At first, of course, Margaret worried about him going like that. She imagined the worst. She checked the local roads and verges. She called his name, both the shortened and the full versions, across the neighbouring fields. She searched the hedgerows. She lived amid farmland, down a gravelled lane, almost overgrown and with a strip of woodland across the tarmac road at the lane end. The nearest not quite village was more than a mile away.

Traffic was intermittent. It was nobody’s through-route. Farm vehicles were huge and thundered through taking up the whole width of the road, but at least you could hear them coming. Private cars came too fast, especially round the bends, and didn’t make much noise, unless they were boy-racers.

Eventually she learned to trust his luck and waited for his return, hoping for the best. I used to worry, she said, but now I know he’ll be back in a day or two.

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But then, one spring, two days turned into three and three into four, and four into five, and into many, many more. He was gone for good. She walked the fields again. She walked the roads. She even went through the strip of woodland, following its winding ribbon of path. She called his name. She left out food. Birds and mice, perhaps squirrels and badgers, even rats, came to eat it, but there was no sign of Perry.

He’d not been well for weeks. He’d been off his food. She’d taken him to the vet, crouched and bad-tempered in his travelling cage, claws out and hissing while they examined him wrapped in a towel for safety’s sake. He been prescribed a tonic, tablets that he wouldn’t swallow, even mashed into his food. Nothing had been diagnosed, and it was hard to know his age, what with that history. I’m sure, she said, he’s gone to find somewhere to die.

Two years passed.

Then one day, at the far end of the lane, she saw a black cat with a bib of white. She called out Perry’s name. It stopped. It turned. It sat down and looked at her. She took a pace towards it, and it was gone.

Next morning, from the corner of her plot, she saw for sure, the same cat stalk the hedgerow on the far side of the farmer’s field, and called again. Again, it stopped and turned, and looked. Could it recall its name?

Next morning earlier than dawn she heard him. It was Perry meowing on the back doorstep. She rose from bed, threw on some clothes, and went down. But he was already moving off, padding up the garden path. He must have heard the door. He stopped. He turned his head, then turned away and trotted on.

And then she thought that perhaps he was living as he used to live before; roaming the fields, foraging the hedgerows and the lane, hunting the woodland strip; taking mice and voles and shrews, perhaps even birds, knowing the back-door saucers for miles around. Circling like a stone on a string the place where he was saved, but nobody’s chattel, nobody’s pet, free again.     

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Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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

Categories
Lockdown Stories

The Arangetram or the Debut

By Sheefa V. Mathews

Pavithra skipped into the apartment wearing a mask of blue denim. Everything about her was quick and she seemed to be float on a restless bubble of energy. 

Amma! The dress rehearsal went very well! I can’t wait for tomorrow.”

Savitri looked at her daughter and could not help but feel a surge of maternal pride. Pavithra had worked so hard. During the lockdown she had continued working on Zoom with her teacher all for the arangetram which was to be the next evening. They had been through a trying two months of lockdown due to the pandemic, but restrictions had eased a month ago and she had resumed classes with social distancing. It was two weeks since all restrictions had been eased, and she had booked a big hall near their home. The tailor had made the beautiful peacock blue and orange costume with shimmering gold borders. All the jewelry had been bought and decorations and food had been arranged. What had seemed impossible two months ago was suddenly possible.

“How many of your friends are returning home with us for dinner?” asked Savitri smiling at her daughter preening in her golden nose ring studded with deep red stones. “Pavi you look ridiculous wearing a nath with your jeans!”

“Only five, Amma,” said Pavithra giggling happily as she removed the nath. “The others have not got permission. With school going at breakneck speed their parents are not happy to send them, but they will all come to the hall.”

“Now go shower and change. I’ve made your favourite roti for dinner.”

“Ma, you are the best!” said Pavithra as she rushed to her room to shower. 

Savitri heard her husband come into the sitting room and sit ponderously on the armchair. The next minute the television came on and the news reader was updating everyone on the latest about the nation.  Pavithra fresh from her shower dressed in light blue pajamas came and perched on the arm of the chair telling him about her day. Vishwanathan partly listened but most of his attention was on the news.

“We interrupt the news bulletin to bring a special announcement from Delhi,” said the news reader. The Prime minister came on the screen and said that as they had seen an unprecedented spike in the number of cases, lockdown has again been instituted barring only essential services.

The moment seemed frozen in time as the reporter took over and droned on reading a list of essential services.  A heartrending sob escaped Pavithra, and she rushed blindly to her room, eyes thick with tears. She lay face down on the bed and hot, angry tears flowed down her cheeks.

“It’s not fair,” she sobbed. “I’ve worked so hard! Just one more day just to do my arangetram that’s all I want. I hate this world!” Her mother and father sat beside her trying to calm her, make her feel better.

“Come and eat your dinner you will feel better,” said her Amma.

Amma, Apu, I need to be alone. I don’t want dinner. Just leave me alone. I’m okay now,” said Pavithra. “Please I need some space. Take that with you please,” she added, pointing to the shimmering peacock blue outfit.

All her friends tried calling but they were met with mechanical recording that the device had been switched off.

In the morning Pavithra came in for breakfast looking pale and a little shamefaced. She hugged her parents and talked a bit too cheerfully and loudly, but she was not fooling anyone. The doorbell rang and the mother went out to find a large packet of fresh jasmine garlands and some roses that had been delivered as arranged by the milkman. She had forgotten to cancel the flowers for Pavithra’s hair. She quickly wrapped them up and took them to the kitchen. She would cut it up and send it to the neighbours after Pavithra went to her room. The fragrance of jasmine hung guiltily in the air around her as she bustled into the kitchen.

The crisp ghee masala dosas were her favourite and Pavithra pretended to enjoy them as she knew that it was her Amma’s way of consoling her. It took all of her courage and strength to swallow down the second. “I’ve got to catch up on some project work,” she said and slipped into her room.

Savithri’s phone rang, and it was Angela, Pavithra’s best friend and neighbor.

“How is Pavi aunty? She won’t pick up her phone!”

“Give her time Angela. She is trying to be good about it, but the poor thing is devastated. Infact the flowers for her hair came just now and I have moved the package to the balcony as the fragrance will surely make her weep again”

“Okay auntie! Take care! Will try calling her again after lunch.”

When Pavithra came in for lunch she seemed better.  She brushed aside her Appu’s question with “I’m a big girl Appu. I got this!”

Her father knew that he could say no more on the subject. His heart was breaking seeing his daughter’s disappointment and pain, but he was also immensely proud that she knew how to pick her battles and accept hurdles and setbacks in her stride. He was dreading 6pm which was the auspicious time they had fixed for her arangetram. He wanted to discuss it with Savitri, but her phone had been ringing nonstop from the morning – all their relatives and well-wishers wanted to know how Pavi was.

While he was dozing in his favourite chair Savitri was busy with her phone. At 4pm, she went to her daughter’s room and knocked on the door. “It’s Amma,” she called out on hearing no response.

“Please leave me alone Amma, I’m alright — just need to be alone.”

“Open the door Pavi I want to ask you something.”

Pavithra opened the door. She looked miserable and was bravely holding back her tears. Savithri felt a rush of love for her brave child.

“Pavi put on the costume and flowers and dance for Appa and me. We will hold your arangetram at the auspicious time.”

Amma our little apartment has no room, and I will be bumping into things. “

“With the curfew there will be no one in the quadrangle stage of our building. You can dance there and Appa and I will watch you.”

“What about the music? I don’t have all of it recorded.”

“Your teacher has agreed to send it all. She will bless you through Zoom and sing the first half herself.”

Pavi’s eyes started gleaming. Yes, it could be done even if it was just her parents watching. With a smile her mother started braiding her hair carefully attaching the piece that would make the braid reach her hips. Row upon row of jasmine flowers interspersed with a few roses were carefully attached to her hair. Then the golden ornaments were fixed at regular intervals. Her hair was ready.

“Love you Amma,” said Pavi as her mother started lining her eyes with black eye liner. After the make-up, she got into her beautiful costume and leant down to tie her ghunghoroos. The time was 5.45 pm. She bent down and touched the feet of her mother and father seeking their blessing. Vishwanathan could not hold back the tears of pride and joy as he looked at his beautiful, brave girl.

From the lift they walked to the quadrangle. Savi set up the cordless speakers and the laptop. Dot on six Pavi’s teacher came on the screen. Pavi received her guru’s blessing with her head bowed low.

Tha, they, thith, they…  her teacher called out the opening notes and Pavi started moving her feet in the dark quadrangle. Suddenly a strobe of white light hit her hand, then another lit her face, yet another followed her feet. All around the residents stood in their balconies and at their windows aiming their bright, white phone torches at the dancing girl.

Pavi danced as she had never danced before. Her mother turned up the volume of the speakers and every pose was received with cheers and claps. When she finished Pavi bowed to her teacher, then her parents and finally did a twirling bow to all the people who were her audience. Plomp something hit her cheek. It was a rose, a zinnia landed near her feet, a Cadbury chocolate hit her ear, it was raining flowers and chocolates. “Love you all,” screamed Pavi as she blew kisses in all directions and collected her gifts. She had her arangetram and it was more special than she ever thought it would be.

Appu, Amma and Pavi walked silently back home, arms laden with gifts only to find many more gifts of food left at their doorstep. It is love that makes everything special said wise little Pavi as she hugged her parents.

Glossary

Amma – mother   

Arangetram – First debut public performance for Bharatnatyam dancers.

Roti — flatbread

Apa/Appu – father

Dosas – South Indian salty pancake with stuffing

Ghungroos – Bells

Guru — teacher

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Sheefa V. Mathews is a professor of English Literature and enjoys writing. She is currently working on her first novel. 

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

Categories
Stories

The Crystal Ball

By Saeed Ibrahim

Rohit’s interest in star signs went back to his school days. His teacher, Professor Godbole, apart from being a Maths teacher, was also an amateur astrologer. It was from him that Rohit had learnt about the alignment and movement of the planets and their effect on a person’s life and character. Later on, with the pressures of his engineering studies and his subsequent employment as a software engineer, Rohit did not have the time to pursue a serious study of the subject. However, his faith in astrological predictions had remained.

Rohit was convinced that astrology provided an effective guide to steering one through life and planning one’s future. He regularly followed the “What the Stars Foretell” column in the newspaper, and it was the first thing he looked at each week in the Sunday magazine section. Not that Rohit’s current situation in life needed any particular guidance or reassurance. No dark clouds appeared to darken his horizon. For a twenty-six-year-old, he was on a fairly good wicket and not doing too badly by most standards. His job was paying him well and living with his parents, he had few overheads. He liked his work and was popular amongst a small group of friends.

Each Sunday, he joined his buddies for a game of badminton at a sports centre near his home. The four of them would take turns to book a court in advance and after sweating it out on the court, they would get together for a round of beer followed by a game of carom in the games room. On one of these Sunday mornings, Rohit and his friends had gathered together as usual in the clubhouse after their badminton game. His friends often pulled Rohit’s leg about his penchant for astrology.

“Hey Rohit, have you checked your weekly forecast today? You can’t afford to miss this one!” teased his friend Prakash.

Rohit had to take his elderly father for a morning blood test and for the first time in months, he had not had a chance to see the weekly horoscope column in the newspaper. Prakash pulled out the Sunday paper from his backpack and, clearing his throat, he read out aloud the prediction for Rohit according to his birth sign:

You may be required to take some tough decisions at work. Some of you may be walking on thin ice.” Prakash paused for effect and looked up at Rohit. A look of consternation appeared to cloud Rohit’s face. He leaned forward to listen more attentively to what his friend was saying. Prakash seemed to be enjoying the effect his words had had on Rohit. “Hold on folks – there’s more to come!” he announced, as he continued to read from the newspaper:

 “Avoid getting involved in any unnecessary conversations at work. There are hidden enemies who may be conspiring against you. The health of a parent may cause concern.”

Rohit hastily grabbed the newspaper from Prakash, wanting to verify for himself what Prakash had announced. His face turned pale as he read the ominous prediction.

“Is everything alright, Rohit?” Sameer asked with concern.

Rohit did not answer. He looked troubled and disturbed by what he had just read.

Prakash, guilty at having upset his friend, offered:

“Relax, Bro. Don’t take it to heart. We know how utterly unreliable these forecasts can be.”

“You shouldn’t be taking this seriously. These words are not targeted at you. If anything, they could be applicable to a thousand others,” Akbar tried to reassure Rohit.

But Rohit appeared distracted and preoccupied. He felt the need to be by himself and excused himself saying:

“Sorry guys I have to leave you. I have to check on my Dad. He has not been keeping too well.”

On reaching home, Rohit went up directly to his room, pensive and a bit shaken. He would not have given serious thought to the enigmatic warning in the week’s forecast had it not been for the fact that it seemed to strike home with accuracy. At his software firm things had not been terribly favourable of late. The economic slowdown had had its impact on the IT industry as well. Many of the smaller firms had been badly hit and there had been job cuts and retrenchments. Had the recession caught up with his company as well?

What tough decisions were in store for him at work and what was the meaning of the words “walking on thin ice?” Was his job at risk? Was he likely to be fired on account of downsizing as some of his friends in the industry had been?

The second part of the forecast was equally confusing and worrying. Who were the hidden enemies mentioned and was there a plot being hatched against him? Henceforth he would have to be on his guard all the time. And of course, as far as the health of a parent was concerned, it had hit the nail on the head. His father had been quite unwell recently and this had been a source of worry for both him and his mother.

With these disconcerting thoughts plaguing his mind, Rohit left for the office the following day. He had decided that he would try to be extra diligent in his work so as not to give rise to any complaints from his boss. Also, keeping in mind the warning from the horoscope, he would go about his activities keeping his ear to the ground, alert to any suspicious behavior around him.

Later that day, in the office corridor he saw a group of his co-workers huddled together in conversation and talking in whispers. As he passed by, he noticed that they had stopped talking. Was there some conspiracy afoot and was this the group of hidden enemies that he had been cautioned against? Maybe it was just his imagination. He dismissed the thought and went ahead towards his workstation. But the following day in the lunchroom, his doubts were confirmed when he saw the same group of colleagues sitting together at a table and looking meaningfully towards him. When they realised that he had noticed them, they quickly lowered their gaze and looked away in another direction.  Rohit was now convinced that the group was plotting against him. But what was he to do? For the moment he had no proof to support his doubts. Maybe it was best that he bide his time until he came upon some concrete evidence.

However, his peace of mind had been destroyed and his sleep that night was troubled and disturbed. Try as he would, he could not get the words of the forecast out of his mind. The following Sunday he avoided meeting his friends and remained brooding at home. With uncertainty and self-doubt plaguing him, he needed some sort of reassurance that these forebodings would not come to pass and jeopardise his career in any way.  He thought of consulting his astrologer friend, his former Math teacher, Mr. Godbole, but found, to his dismay, that his old mentor had passed away only a few months ago.

He had almost given up in despair, when on going through the classifieds, his eye was caught by the following ad:

“Worried about your future? Get your fortune told and find out what destiny holds for you. Contact psychic reader Madame Aishwarya”.

There was a phone number given beside the name and Rohit hurriedly noted it down before returning the newspaper to its usual place in the living room. His parents normally took a nap after the family’s Sunday lunch and Rohit decided to use this opportunity to make the call. He nervously dialed the number and with a beating heart he waited for the phone to be connected.

On the fifth ring, the phone was picked up and a tired, gravelly voice at the other end announced:

“Yes, who is this?”

“Good afternoon, Ma’am. Is this a good time to talk to you?” Rohit asked tentatively.

“Well, not exactly.  But go ahead. Tell me who you are and why you are calling”

This is not going to be easy, Rohit thought to himself, as he braced himself and stammered back:

“I am Rohit and …I… err… saw your ad in the paper today, and… err… I was wondering if I could have a consultation with you this evening.”

“Is this for yourself? If that is the case, you can come today at 6 pm. Call this number and ask for directions. I charge Rs. 1,000 for a fifteen-minute consultation.” A number was called out and the call was ended abruptly.

Rohit just about managed to jot down the given number. He felt a bit unsettled by the strangeness of his telephonic interaction and the mystery that seemed to surround Madame Aishwarya. Why hadn’t she explained the address herself and what was this other number he had been asked to call? He was in two minds about whether to pursue the matter and make the follow up call or just forget about the whole thing. He finally decided that having come this far, he may as well continue. He picked up the phone and dialed the given number.

“Royal Lodge, good afternoon,” a male receptionist’s voice answered.

Rohit was taken aback. He thought maybe he had dialed the wrong number. He had half expected to be put through to Madame Aishwarya’s secretary. But… Royal Lodge???  The mystery seemed to deepen.

“Royal Lodge, good afternoon,” the voice repeated.

“I was given this number by Madame Aishwarya,” blurted out Rohit. “I have an appointment with her at 6 pm this evening.”

“Yes Sir. Madame Aishwarya is a long-staying guest at our lodge. Would you like me to explain the address to you?”

The Royal Lodge, as it turned out, was a modest-looking guesthouse located in the centre of the city, close to the railway station and the main bus terminal. It was one of several reasonably priced lodgings opposite the city’s transport hub that catered mainly to budget conscious travelers, itinerant traders and salesmen and young employees entering the job market.

Rohit arrived early and was told to wait as Madame Aishwarya would only see him at the appointed time of 6 pm. Striking up a conversation with the receptionist, Rohit learnt that Madame Aishwarya was a clairvoyant who had once been sought after by princes and prime ministers alike for her amazing psychic powers and her ability to foretell the future. She had fallen upon hard times and was practically abandoned by her high-flying clientele. She now lived as a long-staying guest at the Royal Lodge. She slept for most of the day, saw clients by appointment in the evenings, and did a weekly horoscope column for a daily newspaper.

When it was time, Rohit was led up a narrow staircase and ushered to a guest room on the second floor. His discreet knock received a brief “Come in” in the same raspy voice. Rohit entered a small, darkened room lit by a single blue electric bulb that suffused the interior with an eerie half-light. One wall of the room was hung with a single, large portrait of a long-haired god man with a sandalwood garland adorning the frame. A strong aroma of incense pervaded the entire room and added to the other-worldly aura of the small, confined space. In the middle of the room was a rectangular table and hunched over it was the figure of a rather large woman in her mid-sixties, dressed in a black, ankle length kaftan and a spotted blue head scarf worn over a striking, though heavily made-up face, which could have once been described as handsome. Apart from a heavy, beaded necklace and large earrings, Madame Aishwarya wore no other jewelry.

“Take a seat, young man. You are allowed a consultation of fifteen minutes with three questions that you would like answered.”

In the centre of the table was a quartz crystal ball, of a size somewhere between a cricket ball and a football. The crystal ball was mounted on a small metallic stand and next to it was a lighted candle whose flame illuminated a number of tiny crack-like imperfections on the crystal, throwing up sparkling rainbow type images. Rohit sat transfixed, totally mesmerized by the sight in front of him. The lady now closed her eyes in concentration and after a few minutes she re-opened them, placed her hands over the orb and gazed intently into its depths.

Rohit had come with the idea that he would unburden himself of all that had been troubling his mind, but totally awed by the lady’s persona and the fascinating object that she held between her hands, he appeared to have lost his tongue. Forgetting about the three questions, Rohit, with some difficulty, managed to get across in a few words his concerns relating to his workplace and his fears about losing his job.

“Dark shadows are hovering over you at your place of work. Evil forces are at play to thwart you in your career. I hear whispers and see an open pit lying in front of you.” intoned Madame Aishwarya as if in a trance.  

Rohit gripped his chair and broke into a cold sweat.

“But fear not, young man. You will ward off your enemies if you wear a moonstone close to your skin. The moonstone is your birth stone, is it not? It will keep the evil forces away and draw only good vibrations towards you. Health-wise, don’t be afraid of sickness in your family. If a person you are close to is ill, he will soon be healthy again. Romance and marriage are in the air for you. Your parents will arrange your marriage and it will be a perfect match. I see several children.”

With these words, she rose from her seat, blew out the candle and covered the crystal ball with a square of cloth, indicating by her actions that the consultation was over.

“You may place the fees on the table here. I think you know your way out,” she informed Rohit in a tone suggesting that he was dismissed.

Rohit was speechless and stunned by the clairvoyant’s words. He put the money down on the table and stumbled out of the room confused and bewildered. He had expected some comforting words of reassurance, but the lady’s sinister words had only served to re-enforce his misgivings. His father was already well on the road to recovery and his health was no longer a matter of concern. As for marriage, it was the last thing on his mind right now.

Dejected and disillusioned, he trudged to the office the following morning. He had not got over his dark and depressing frame of mind and he found it difficult to concentrate on his work. Mid-morning, he was summoned to the manager’s office. This was what he had feared all along. It was only a matter of time before the death knell would sound, and this was it.  Today he was going to be given the dreaded pink slip.

On entering the manager’s office, he was surprised to see that he was not alone. There was his immediate supervisor, the manager, and the CEO of the company, all of them seated in a row. He would have preferred to be given the bad news by just his supervisor, instead of being humiliated in front of the entire senior management team.

“Good morning, Rohit. Do take a seat,” the CEO called out in a cheery voice. Why did he have to sound so cheerful? If only he knew how nervous it made him to have to face all three of them together.

Rohit barely managed to return his greeting and with a weak smile, he sat down in the chair in front of the manager’s large desk.

“Your supervisor and manager have been telling me…” the CEO began to speak, and Rohit swallowed hard and lowered his head, waiting for the axe to fall.

“They have been telling me how happy they have been with your work and the additional responsibilities that you have undertaken. It has also been a year since you have joined the company. It is now time for you to get a promotion and an increase in your emoluments. Congratulations, Rohit! You have been made a team leader and you will henceforth report directly to your manager.”

Rohit could hardly believe his ears. The three stood up to shake hands with him, and the manager informed him that the human resource department would give him his new terms of appointment sometime later in the day. Rohit struggled to his feet, mumbled his thanks to the trio and left the room in a daze. It took several minutes for reality to sink in and before he could breathe a sigh of relief. When finally, the impact of what he had just been told dawned on him, a cry of joy escaped his lips as he pumped his fist in triumph. With a spring to his step, he returned to his desk, barely holding back the temptation to immediately call his family and friends to announce the good news to them.  

With renewed self-confidence and a restored belief in himself, Rohit returned home that evening with the realisation that his fears and misgivings had after all been totally irrational and unfounded. So much for crystal balls and astrological predictions!

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Saeed Ibrahim is the author of “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India. Saeed was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and later, at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. His short stories and book reviews have earlier been published in the Bengaluru Review. 

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

Categories
Stories

Mr Dutta’s Dream

By Atreyo Chowdhury

Mr Dutta’s dream of travelling around the world died with him. He was seventy-seven; an old lonely soul, who until the very end, never gave up his desire to see the world. 

Like any other day, that morning too, Mr Dutta sat on the balcony with a cup of steaming tea placed within his reach as he witnessed the sky turn bronze. His fading eyes stared fixed at an apartment building across the street. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular; his mind was already engaged.

The images swam in his head.

The Egyptian Pyramids—the mighty structures that housed the tombs of the great Pharaohs stood amidst an undulated sea of golden sand under a clear blue sky. A caravan moved leisurely with the wind breathing against them, bringing with it their presence; the faint tinkle of camel bells in an infinite ocean of silence. Mr Dutta closed his eyes. He inhaled the parched air and smiled.

His mind stretched next to a summer evening in Paris, the sun dipping, the sky turning scarlet-blue. He was in a café at the edge of a narrow cobblestoned lane, where a young couple stood kissing, a musician played the accordion, a group of girls giggled past, and a man walked his dog.

Bonjour, Monsieur, Merci, Au revoir,” Mr Dutta said aloud, taking his time, articulating each syllable in the best manner he could. This was all the French he knew.

A silly chuckle left his mouth, and he reached forward. His hands trembled as he held the teacup. He sipped the milky-brown liquid with a long slurp and closed his eyes once again. He was now in the land of the rising sun, walking barefoot along a trail flanked by delicate pink cherry blossom trees.

Mr Dutta’s dream was born on a mushy summer evening sixty-seven years ago. He was at his friend’s place, hunched over a photo-album, looking agog at the photographs from across the globe. Every single picture captured his imagination, and in his mind, he began replacing his friend’s father—a stout, balding man having a pencil moustache with a tall, handsome young man, which he had no doubt he would grow to be.

His friend’s father, Uncle Jodu was in the merchant navy. Listening to him speak about his journeys, and watching him bounce about the room like a clockwork toy fetching little souvenirs; a key chain from London, a bottle of Vodka from Russia, a purple hand-fan from Japan, set Mr Dutta’s heart pounding furiously. He felt a flutter in his guts and knew in that precise moment that he had no other option than to join the merchant navy and sail as far as the seas stretched.

Since that evening, all Mr Dutta could do was daydream. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t study or even speak. He was lost in a world of his own; travelling places, tasting exotic dishes, speaking new languages, making friends… Every day, he sat by his window, reading travelogues and maps, scribbling itineraries in a little red notebook, which, when he slept, found its place tucked safely under his pillow.

After finishing school, Mr Dutta went to college, still with his little red notebook in his pocket, and with the photos of that photo-album riveted into his memory. But he hadn’t planned against the misfortunes of life. His father’s business, which was small but sturdy until then, plummeted, and in the process, his father’s health faded too. With his father’s death, after a year of doctors and medicines, Mr Dutta had no other option but to drop out of college.

For months, he wandered through the city with letters of recommendation and found a position in a bank as a clerk. Years tumbled by, and one afternoon, while he sat at his desk chewing the excess of his fingernails, he remembered the little red notebook that had been gathering dust in his drawer all these years. The photographs flashed in front of his eyes like the spring sun, and he jumped from his seat, took out his little red notebook, and went to the branch manager’s cabin, to quit. The branch manager blinked at him curiously. Mr Dutta took a deep breath, and the moment he was about to utter the words, the phone rang. It was for him.

His mother was taken ill, and she had expressed her desire to see her son for the last time. Mr Dutta hurried to attend to his ailing mother, unaware of the consequences. The old lady, breathing heavy, took hold of his hand and whispered into his ear her death-wish. In a week, Mr Dutta was married—with his mother totally recovered, alive, with a mischievous grin.

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Mr Dutta had known his wife since their childhood. Their families were close, and as a kid, Mr Dutta had always heard them reiterate how perfect they were for each other. So married life didn’t offer many surprises, apart from the fact that his responsibilities mounted and that he could barely save any money or time for his unfulfilled dream.      

A year later, his wife gave birth to a son, and Mr Dutta holding that tiny creature in his arms felt immense joy. But deep within, he was confounded by fear. He struggled from that moment on, juggling his role as a father and simultaneously maintaining his identity as a wanderer. It was exasperating to be rooted and possess a soul that wanted to expand limitlessly. He woke up often in the middle of the night, weeping; thinking of abandoning everything and running away. But something held him back.

As Mr Dutta’s son showed promise academically, he wanted his son to go abroad for higher studies. He revisited his dreams once again and expressed a desire to accompany his son. But the expenses were too high; he had already taken a loan to support his son’s expenditures, besides he couldn’t dream of going without his beloved wife. The day his son left for the USA, Mr Dutta pressed his forehead against the glass window at the airport watching the flight take-off; consoling himself that at least a part of him was off to see the world.

The year Mr Dutta retired, his son completed his education, returned to Calcutta, found a suitable girl, married, and announced his decision to settle in the USA. Mr Dutta had been awaiting the news secretly and knew it was only a matter of time before his son would ask them to join him.

He waited.

Each evening, as the old couple sat on the balcony expecting their son’s telephone call, Mr Dutta would fetch his little red notebook. He would announce his plans of travelling across the Americas—from Alaska to Argentina—with a must-do list:

  1. Watch the sunset at The Grand Canyon
  2. Gamble in a Las Vegas Casino
  3. Take a boat ride along the Amazon (catch a glimpse of an anaconda)
  4. Walk barefoot over the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.
  5. Experience the lost world of the Incas
  6. Visit the Galápagos Islands…

His wife would listen, smile assuredly, but make no comments.

One evening, as Mr Dutta extended his plans further south to Antarctica, his wife suffered a stroke. She died a few days later.      

At her cremation, his son hugged him and said that it would take another year before he could come and stay with them. He appointed an attendant for the old man and left. Days turned into months, and months turned into years. Mr Dutta’s vision was fading now, and in his knees, gout had set in.

The telephone rang as Mr Dutta finished his evening tea and an extensive tour of the central African rainforest. The attendant received the call and handed it over. Tears trickled down as he listened to his son. He couldn’t speak; so unbound was his joy. Finally, he was going across the Atlantic.

The sun had now set, and Mr Dutta sat still.

In the distance, a figure was appearing out of the mist. Mr Dutta strained his eyes to discern the outlines of it—the Statue of Liberty. He grinned. A flock of seagulls circled overhead, and the waves crashed against the ferry. A crimson sun was dawning against a greyish-orange sky…

Atreyo Chowdhury was trained to be a mechanical engineer and has a postgraduate degree from IIT Guwahati. Besides writing, he shares an equal passion for music and travelling. He can be found at https://atreyochowdhury.wordpress.com/

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If at all

By Shobha Nandavar

The purple Jacaranda flower perched on his snout did not arouse the familiar playful instinct. A friendly woof from his Doberman buddy was greeted with little cheer. It was straight third day Mani was looking for his lost master in vain at the open-air crematorium.

Abhay, a blue-eyed college going lad was my parent. He was living with his mother in an upscale Sadashivanagar apartment in Bangalore. Two years ago, he adopted me, a sprightly, cute, brown little Mani, as they called me. His mother a lady of few words, in her fifties was a  good – natured home maker. Amma was fearful of dogs though. After much cajoling, Abhay was permitted to bring me home. I was allotted a separate room, and was allowed only into Abhay’s room. Amma remained aloof and was not happy about the non-vegetarian dog feeds brought for me, as she was a vegan.

My ears could hear Abhay’s KTM bike from quite a distance when he returned home from college. I would hide behind the door and pounce on Abhay and lick him, unable to control my excitement, at his arrival. I liked his soft hand caressing my forehead. I would close my eyes and daydream on his lap.

Fast forward one year, Abhay landed a plum job, was seeing his highschool sweetheart Anju. Amma liked Anju as she was a fine blend of the traditional and modern. Anju looked adorable to my doggy eyes too. The moment she entered the house, it was as if a thousand diyas (lamps) were lit. The house became a home filled with much joy and warmth. She would ask for me if I was not around. The invite was enough for me to catapult into her arms and cuddle up to the exotic fragrance of Miss Dior.

I always looked forward to Sundays when Abhay and Anju took me out for long walks. The Naagasampige flower was Anju’s favourite. Abhay would pluck and tuck it into her long hair. It was very enticing for me to prance around Anju and prey on the undulating, heavily scented Naagasampige in her hair. But I remembered Abhay admonishing me in the past, when I tried to hang on to Anju’s long plait which tantalizingly oscillated like a pendulum while she walked.

The stroll under the canopy of pink Tabebuia and the scarlet Gulmohar looked surreal and culminated in  a stop at the Baskin Robbins for ice creams. I was fed with ‘strawberry jelly paradise’ by my pet parents against a backdrop of Alan Walker’s ‘End of time’ number. Time stands still….

And then there was Vishu, the new year. They were in two minds about celebrating Vishu. The Covid forecast for the upcoming months for Bangalore was grim. Nonetheless they decided to go ahead with the celebrations as a small family affair. Four of Abhay’s friends, Anju and an aunt with family were invited for the calebrations.

 Although they lived in Bangalore for long and even spoke the local language Kannada, the culture and traditions of Kerala, their ancestral state were followed. Their home was a melting pot, the true spirit of contemporary India. Vishu was the time when the sun enterd the tropic of cancer. Mythology tells us the festival commemorates the day when Krishna killed Narakasura, the demon. The  ‘Vishu Kani’ , an auspicious bowl which has to be the object that needs to be seen first on waking up to herald a good year, was placed by Amma the night before, after all the guests and Abhay went to bed. A shallow bell metal vessel was filled with rice, fruits. The photo of Krishna was adorned with flowers. The arrangement was replete with auspicious articles like mirrors, combs, gold coins, new dresses, betel leaves.

Waking up at 3 AM, they walked blindfolded to the prayer room and saw the kani first for a propitious new year. All of them received kaineettam, the first gift of the year given to the children. Nilavilakku, the bronze oil lamp dispelled the darkness and gave a golden yellow tinge to the ambience and everything around took on a divine hue. A couple of devotional songs by Anju added to the ethereal quotient of the unearthly hour. The day unfurled with pooja and was followed by the sumptuous Vishu Sadhya for lunch. Suddenly I could smell millions of particles twirling around and they were precariously moving around in the hall and entangling all the guests, while they were busy with the various board games. None of them were masked; all caution had been abandoned. I tried to warn them by bawling in a different manner to catch their attention. Alas, they mistook it for hunger and started feeding me!  I could sense something amiss, but the group unmindful of this, happily had more fun and frolic and rounded off the day with masala tea and pakodas or fried fritters.

Three days later, Amma developed fever and cough. Abhay attributed it to the evening showers. Nevertheless I could sense imminent danger. I had never entered Amma’s room before. Today I felt a strong urge to get into her room and inform her of the dark shadow looming large and I howled. A petrified Amma shooed me away and tried to thrash me for misbehaving. I was duty-bound to inform them that I could smell something ominous, the same smell which emanated from a neighbour who was ushered into an ambulance and never made it!

Early next morning Amma fell unconscious in the washroom. Abhay panicked, picked her up, carried her in his arms like a baby and rushed to the hospital in his car. The telephone rang unabatedly, if at all I could pick up the receiver and reciprocate! Hours dragged on and I trudged across the empty house. It was dusk; I was hungry and decided to feed on the milk packet left at the door by the milkman.

I was never left alone this long ever since my arrival into this house as a pup. I meandered into the grilled balcony. The neon street lights shone bright on the deserted road below. Overnight the garden city had been transformed into a graveyard. Ambulance sirens ruled the roost. Roads wore a solemn look.

My heart skipped a beat, when I saw Abhay’s black Scorpio in the driveway. He dashed in and left the main door ajar and slumped into the sofa sobbing. He was oblivious of my presence or whimpers. He made hasty calls to Anju, his voice quivering. I could not make head or tail of things. I stood at the doorway awaiting Amma.

I could smell the same, strange, noxious smell, time and again, the COVID smell in human parlance. It was unmistakable. Abhay soon slipped into a deep slumber. I had to alert my hero. I paced up and down the room, I licked his childlike face and tried to open his eyes, but of no avail. Abhay was getting breathless, flinging his limbs violently; he was making a desperate attempt to breathe. The Covid stink was getting stronger and more and more dangerous. My pet parent became livid and limp.  I wailed, yowled and yelped. My leader was sinking and something sinister was on cards.

A vigilant good Samaritan walked in and took charge of the situation. An ambulance was summoned. Anju hastily arrived, her heart pounding. The medical crew examined Abhay and declared him dead! It was a bolt from the blue. The life saving ambulance sped away to make way for the hearse..

Anju was shocked beyond words. She swooned. She woke up and walked around as if in a trance. She looked aghast, lost and turned into a stone. Tears flowed incessantly.

I was not allowed into the hearse. I ran after it until my legs gave way, possibly a kilometre or so.

If at all, I could speak…

If at all, my master had heeded my advice….

If at all, humans had acknowledged my olfactory prowess, which was easily fifty times theirs..

Here I lie down on the green grass, which smells sweet no more.

The moonlit night without Abhay and Anju in tow, has lost meaning. I fall asleep, subdued, to the distant lullaby of “Diamond Heart” by Alan Walker….         

Shobha Nandavar is a Neurologist and Stroke Physician based in Bangalore. She writes during her leisure hours. She has about 40 publications in medical journals. She has contributed articles to Deccan Herald, Live Wire and Indus Women Writing.

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First Lady

A short story by Rituparna Khan about Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, the one of the first practising lady doctors of British India and South East Asia.

“New Eden Hospital for Women and Children, Calcutta,” an engraving, 1882

It was 1894, Eden Hospital, Kolkata. A young, married woman was brought to the hospital by her husband and mother-in-law. They were in a state of confusion and plight. The young woman was smarting with acute abdominal pain. The lady doctor present in the emergency department was asked to look into the matter by the Hospital Super.

“What! A lady doctor? Is she a doctor or just a mid-wife?” exclaimed the arrogant husband of the poor, suffering wife. “So many doctors have checked my wife and tried to diagnose the cause of her pain and bulging abdomen. They couldn’t understand how to operate the tumour. They all failed. Now, what will this woman do? Does she have a proper degree?” He almost created a scene at the reception.

The poor wife lay quietly on a bench, suffering in patience.

Disturbed by the din and bustle a lady came out. Attired in an impeccable, sober get up she tried to understand the reason for such a cacophony in the hospital corridor. In a while, she came to know that she was the reason of that humdrum and confusion. Hardly paying any attention to the arrogant husband, she asked the attendants to take the woman inside a cabin to examine her thoroughly. After proper examination she was certain that the woman was pregnant. Though there were some complications, it was far from a case of a tumour.

She came out of the cabin to share the good news of motherhood of the arrogant husband’s wife.

“Chatterjee Babu, you might have doubts on my medical abilities and degrees, but the fact is, your wife is not suffering from any tumor. She is going to be the mother of your child. Though there is some complication in her pregnancy, it can be sorted with proper treatment and regular checkup.” explained the lady doctor with her usual self composure.

The mother-in-law was elated to get the news. After so many years, her beloved bouma (daughter-in-law) would be giving an heir to the family. The husband was befuddled, yet happy to gather the news.

“Take her home now. I shall visit her every alternate day for check up, if you really believe that a so-called mid-wife like me can be any good to your pregnant wife Chatterjee Babu,” she spoke with composed and authoritative demeanor.

The embarrassed husband fell short of words to apologise for his misbehaviour. He was inquisitive about the identity of that lady doctor. However, he felt it would belittle him to ask her for her name openly.

The lady could read his mind from his inquisitive eyes. She invited him to her chamber to remove his doubts. The she began another story:

“A girl was born in 1861 in Chandsi, in Bengal’s Barisal district (now in Bangladesh). A born protagonist in a family of five siblings and guided by a very stern and orthodox mother, she was the apple of her father’s eye. A few years after she was born, the family shifted to Bhagalpur district of Bihar and settled there. Her childhood was strongly influenced by the Bengal Renaissance and her father, Braja Kishore Basu, was a renowned champion of the Brahmo Samaj. He was the headmaster of the local school and a dedicated soul to female emancipation. He was also the co-founder of Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti in 1863, the first of its kind of women’s organisation in India.

A steadfast, straight forward, fearless girl from the early days of her life, she was always at the forefront of all social services in her village for which most of the time she received brickbats rather than bouquets. But that couldn’t curb her indomitable spirit. Much to the society’s annoyance, her mother’s dismay and much to her father’s ardent belief in her, this little girl wanted to be a doctor, the first female doctor who could serve people, especially, women.”

After delivering this short yet mesmerizing monologue, she paused. She asked the husband to follow her to the cabin to see his wife. Happy, yet befuddled, the man followed the stately lady.

Chatterjee Babu was relieved to find the real reason for his wife’s ailment. He comforted his shy wife and asked her to rely on the doctor’s advice.

“Madam, please continue with the story,” he pleaded.

“Yes, I shall, and I wanted to share this other half of the story with both you and your wife. So, I asked you to come here. Please sit there on the chair.” She instructed.

Again, she began: “The little girl reached adolescence. She was more determined than ever to go for higher studies to become a doctor and serve her nation. All were against her rebellious ideals except her father, who supported her.

“It was 1875. The village and its vicinity were badly infected by cholera. This young girl along with her brothers went from door to door providing required aid to the poor, hapless patients. That was not all since more challenges awaited her.

“One fine morning her cousin, Braja Babu’s niece, was dropped off in her uncle’s home because she was suffering from cholera. Her orthodox in-laws were not ready to keep her in their house. Braja Babu’s family members, including the mother of the ailing girl were not prepared to accept her entry into their house. The poor girl was given refuge in the shabby cow shed. She was left to die in grief. This young girl couldn’t bear the plight of her cousin sister. She asked the family members to call a doctor for her treatment. In those days getting treated by a Saheb (British) doctor was a sin. It was considered to be more glorious to die than get touched, examined and treated by a male British doctor.

“With no other options left, the younger cousin hatched a daring plan. She went to the British doctor at the local dispensary and asked him to visit her cousin in disguise of a female mid-wife. She also requested the doctor not to touch her sick cousin. She requested guidance to help him examine her cousin. She wanted to be his hands effectively. The doctor was stunned at the courage and self-confidence exhibited by the young teen. Half-heartedly, he went to the patient. The girl examined her cousin exactly in the way the doctor instructed. To his utter surprise, the girl could successfully diagnose that her cousin was not infected with cholera. She was just pregnant. Later, the family members came to know the truth. Though they were angry to start with. As a result of her father’s intervention and the doctor’s certification about bravery and wisdom of the young girl, she was spared. In a few months her cousin gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

“That was also a story of a true diagnosis of a pregnant woman. After eighteen years, this is also a story of diagnosis of pregnancy of another woman. In both the situations, the examiner who could make the proper diagnosis was and is this lady, sitting in front of you, a lady doctors at this hospital. That day also no one wanted to believe in her, a young teenager from a village. Today also the scenario has not changed much. Why should you believe that an Indian lady may be competent enough to be a successful doctor! But you believe it or not Chatterjee Babu, the fact is that I am a lady doctor with proper degrees and am interested to treat your wife if you allow me to do so.”

Ashamed of his earlier arrogant presumptions, the man apologised. He was certain that his wife was in safe hands under the treatment of this lady. Happily, he came out of the chamber with his wife.

At the next instance he exclaimed to his wife, “Oho Monorama, I forgot to ask her name. Who is she?” With these words he turned towards her chamber again.

Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, FRCS, LRCP, England: the board at the entrance of the chamber blinded his eyes with utter befuddlement.

“How stupid of me! She is Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, the first practising lady doctor of India and South East Asia. How could I be so blind, arrogant and prejudiced? Who could be the best option for my Monorama and our family than this magnanimous human being and a great doctor? Oh God! I have no face to stand in front of her and beg an apology. You please forgive me.”

Ref:

  1. https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/kadambini-ganguli-india-s-first-female-doctor-who-made-calcutta-medical-college-start-admitting-women-1570858-2019-07-18
  2. https://www.thebetterindia.com/113789/kadambini-ganguly-one-of-indias-first-women-graduates-doctors/

Rituparna Khan is a creative writer. “Tales told and Untold” is her collection of short stories. “Melting Thoughts” is her collection of poetry. By profession she is a geographer.

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Neembu Ka Achaar or Maa’s Lemon Pickle

Flash Fiction by Suyasha Singh

 I loved Maa’s lemon pickle. The blazing temperatures of Delhi and inedible hostel mess food, both made me long for that lip smacking sweet-sour delight. When we were little, Adi and I would tip-toe towards the kitchen in the afternoon as Maa took an occasional nap and scoop a spoon or two from the glass jar. Placing it back in the exact position without a chink was the hard part, where my little brother’s agile-as-a-cat skills came in handy. And by chance if they didn’t, I was already far, far away from the crime scene.

The thought of our childhood shenanigans made me smile.

When her call came in the evening I whined about the nightmarish aloo in the dinner, the only dish no one could go wrong with, even the ones who leap two feet away while launching the vegetables into bubbling hot oil. She patiently listened with intermittent consolation as I continued my grumblings about how she would never understand the torture I was going through. And how I wished I had her lemon pickle with me to make it all bearable. When I got off the phone, I realized Maa was awfully silent throughout.

Semester exams ended and I arrived home. I didn’t even enter the gate when Maa took my bag and asked if I had eaten on the journey. Of course I had. But the sight of Maa-made thali evaporated any residual food in my belly. I washed my hands and changed clothes in a hurry. Along with soft steamy roti and curry, there was one other condiment on the plate. I drooled. After the dinner was done papa and I went for a walk. And I came to know why she sounded different on the call that day — Naani had passed away. Nobody told me, my exams were still going on at that time. She thought it was better not to tell. I pushed back a sob in my throat. As I entered through the door I observed Maa, her eyes seemed puffy. I slept koala-hugging Maa that night.

Later Adi told me the story behind the heavenly condiment that magically landed on my plate. Maa had picked the freshest and ripest of the lemons for the pickle almost one month before. Washed and dried them when the sun was at its brightest in the day. Sat beside it on a dari like a watchman and glared the crows and monkeys away.

She had prepared the garam masala and kept it ready beforehand. Nothing in the market smells or tastes authentic, Maa lived by this belief. In the month’s ration she had specifically added more of daalchini and laung. The day sun-dried lemons were cut into smaller pieces and smeared with black pepper, garam masala, chili powder and a little sugar; papa went to office with previous night’s curry in the tiffin dabba. She kept the huge glass jar filled with the pickle to bathe in the sunlight covering it with one of papa’s old unusable cotton handkerchiefs. Maa said, it was because lemons were breathing, you couldn’t just suffocate them with a plastic lid.

Some of the days she would dash leaving her puja in the middle to make sure sun had not given way to an overcast sky. It was extremely important to shelter pickles from the moisture. Other days a faint thud would wake her up from her nap and the jar would be cradled inside. The pickle had softened just to the right extent with the sweet-sour flavour permeating through the delicate membranes of the lemons. Black pepper created the perfect zing and the garam masala added that burst of flavours in every dab. It also kept the stomach well during the hot, dry summer days, Maa believed. The lemon pickle was ready just in time for me to return.

I was glad I had the whole of the summer vacations to stay with her. I could not even imagine what she might be going through. She had the habit of calling Naani around noon every day, now Maa and I spent that time sharing our stories with each other. I felt sad but it seemed inconsequential against the grief of a daughter.    

After I had licked the whole of the pickle jar dry, one night while we sat with our cups of milk in front of the cooler which seemed of no use in such humidity, I asked Maa to tell me the exact recipe, without overlooking even a tiny detail. She smiled and took out from the drawer which was stuffed with various recipe cuttings from Grihshobha and hand-written final versions of sweets and curries, a tattered moth-eaten pale yellow diary. She opened a page, carefully caressing in the process every leaf with her gaze, the title said ‘Neembu ka Achaar’ and she narrated it to me step by step.                                                           

 As Naani had done thirty years ago… 

The day I packed the bag for my return, she handed me a plastic tiffin, wrapped and double-knotted in a plastic bag. This time, I securely placed it along with my belongings without the flurry of complaints of how it would leak and spoil. It was not just a lemon pickle that I was taking with me — it was boundless love of mothers, warmth packed in time capsules of food, an affection passed down that swept me in its folds…it was magic that transcended everything…

A plate of Lemon Pickle. Courtesy: Creative Commons

 Glossary                                                                                                  

Aloo (as they appear on the mess notice board): Potatoes

Thali: a large round platter

Roti: chappatis

Naani: maternal grandmother

Dari: a cotton carpet/ mat

Garam masala: a mixture of ground spices such as cumin, coriander, cinnamon (daalchini), clove (laung) etc.

Puja: prayer

Grihshobha: a biweekly magazine for women

Neembu ka Achaar: Lemon pickle

Suyasha Singh spent her formative years in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, before moving to New Delhi. She is a graduate from Miranda House, Delhi University and is currently pursuing her Master’s from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her short fiction has been published in The Bombay Review

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Elusive

By Sohana Manzoor

Bishti poray tapur tupur, nodaye elo baan

(The raindrops fall drip drop, the tide rises in the river.)

Ratri looked at the small nakshi kantha on the wall. The letters were uneven as if they had been stitched by some unsteady hand. But the bright green leaves and the blue droplets were neatly embroidered. She never remembered it in the last seven years, and yet it had been so much a part of her childhood. She recalled tracing the letters on a small piece of cloth and bringing it to the old lady who was her great grandmother. She had given her a needle with dark red thread and Ratri had made her first embroidery. Her Boro Ma had stitched the leaves and raindrops. The piece had yellowed slightly over the years; Ratri felt numb and stricken.

Why didn’t she remember it all these years? Is it because she always avoided the prospect of coming home? Now the only person who loved her was gone. She looked around the room of her great-grandmother—it still had her smell, faint but it was that intoxicating smell of jarda, incense, and contentment. She noticed her prayer beads hanging by the clothes rack. She took in the peeling green distemper which the old lady preferred to any other colour. The walls of her room were always green. Once it was painted white by mistake and her Boro Ma was furious. “Are they planning to make me blind or something? I need the green to soothe my eyes.” Two days later the walls were repainted.

When Ratri was young, she always felt safe and happy around her great-grandmother. Her mother was a classical dancer with a busy rehearsal schedule and frequent performances. Her parents had separated when she was an infant. Her grandmother had a big family and was busy fussing around the household. Everybody was too busy—only Boro Ma had time for Ratri.

Ratri did not know how her mother smelled—that is, how she really smelled. She saw her from a distance when she was dressed to leave the house or returning from a show. When she entered a room, everyone noticed her, and she wore a tantalizing perfume that Ratri thought was mysterious—just like her. Many years later she recognized the perfume in a famous fashion house in London as Miss Dior. Sometimes she petted Ratri absentmindedly, in the same absent-minded way she petted the house cat Minni. She practiced early in the morning in a room downstairs. She had a beautiful figure and Ratri thought that she danced divinely. Her grandmother often joked that they must have had a baijee in the family tree, and her daughter Nazma had inherited the talent.

Even though she had been married before and had a small child, she had no dearth of suitors. Ratri clearly remembered the bevy of men who came to court her—as one courts a queen, without any expectation of return. They often brought presents for Ratri too. Nazma had a charming smile for everybody, a smile she used to practice before the mirror in her room. She was a consummate artist—everything she did was practiced and trained. Dancing was the only thing she cared about. There were times when Ratri tiptoed to the room where her mother practiced and stood outside the door to listen to the ringing of her anklets and the tak dhin dhin dha – tak dhin dhin dha—na tin tin ta—tete dhin dhin ta that accompanied the music her mother danced to. Some evenings, there were other dancers who joined her, and they danced together. Ratri remembered one night they were all rehearsing a Tagore dance-drama. She thought her mother was some princess or queen and she was ordering her attendants to summon somebody:

Bol ge nogor paley mor naam kori, Shyama dakitechhe taray.

(Tell them at the town centre taking my name that Shyama is calling out to you)

Ratri did not understand the words but was enchanted by the rhythm and the spectacle of the performance.

She did not notice Naina Auntie approaching. Her aunt found her entranced by the door and dragged her away. “What are you doing here, Pichchi? You know that your mom doesn’t like to be disturbed during rehearsal. Come with me!” Ratri turned toward her aunt, “She is sooo pretty! Is she a princess?” Naina laughed, “No, she is who she is. A court dancer.”

When Boro Ma heard about the incident, she looked at the child and commented in a stern voice, “Nazu should spend some time with Ratri. She needs to make time for her daughter.”  Naina Auntie replied, “She looks so much like her father that Apa does not even want to look at her.”

Boro Ma shook her head. “She should have allowed him to take her then,” she said. “What is the point of keeping her and then neglecting her?”

Neglect.

Ratri had not known then what the word meant. But over the years, she grew up learning all its nuances. She survived because of Boro Ma, the only one person who actually cared. And yet, Ratri would eventually take her for granted, imagining that the old lady would always be there. The years went by so fast—the rainbow years of childhood, the reckless years of youth, and she wondered what she did with them.

*

Boro Ma!” the little girl came running. The old woman was just done with her midday prayers and had opened her large closet. “Yes, my darling?” she smiled at the upturned face of her great granddaughter.

Usually, Ratri loved to sniff around her Boro Ma when she opened her closet. There were things from the past like her bridal sari that dated from before the Partition, and old embroidered pieces that she had made as a young woman. Curious little sandalwood boxes, and dainty silver trinkets tarnished with age. And there was that mysterious and intimate smell of incense and naphthalene. But today Ratri was too preoccupied to notice.

“Toton Uncle says that I cannot take on a big journey because I am a girl.” Ratri had a frown on her small forehead. “That’s not right, is it?” she asked.

“What do you think?” asked her great-grandmother.

“I think he is wrong. I plan to look for my prince rather than the prince searching for me,” pouted Ratri.

“A ha,” smiled Boro Ma, “so that’s what the journey is about!”

“Yes, but I want to take on the journey. I don’t like that the prince finds the sleeping beauty. Why can’t the princess go in search of the prince herself?” asked a rather peeved Ratri.

Naina, who was poring over a dense medical text, snapped the book shut and laughed out loud. “I guess you do have to look for your prince, Pichchi. No prince will be happy to find you. You are so dark!”

Boro Ma barked, “What kind of talk is that Naina? There are a lot of girls who are dark.”

“But not princesses,” said Naina. “Princesses are pretty and fair, while Ratri is—”

Before she could finish, the old lady intercepted coldly, “Draupadi, the most sought-after woman of ancient India was dark. And Ratri will be no stupid princess, you heard her. She has a mind of her own and will make her own choices when the time comes. Now get out of here before you utter any more nonsense.”

Naina left the room meekly, but Ratri was looking at her arms and legs which were rather dark compared to Naina’s and most of the people in the house. Even her Boro Ma was very fair despite her wrinkled skin.

She looked up at her Boro Ma. “Does dark mean ugly, Boro Ma?” she whispered. She hesitated a little before adding, “Is that why Ammu does not love me?”

“Who told you that your Ammu does not love you?” asked the old lady with a gleam in her eyes.

“Nobody,” replied Ratri. She looked at her feet and examined her toes. She did not want to say that she overheard one of her uncles talking to his wife. She said lamely, “Naina Auntie says that’s why I was named ‘Ratri,’ meaning ‘night.’”

Despite the arthritis in her joints, Boro Ma bent down and grasped the little girl’s face with both of her hands and lifted it toward her. Ratri looked at the liquid grey eyes of her great-grandmother. They were bright and somber.

“Listen, my pet, you are very beautiful. Your skin may not be as fair as your mother’s, but you are lovely just as you are. But even more important is that you are also very brave. You have a beautiful spirit. You want to make a journey of your own—how many little girls want to do that, do you think?” She got up slowly and smiled. “Now, run along and play. Don’t worry over silly things. And don’t listen to Naina.”

Ratri walked out into veranda with her coloring books. It occurred to her that Boro Ma did not actually contradict the notion that her mother did not love her.

*

A week after Ratri’s eighth birthday, her mother married again. She thought her mother had gone on some tour, but Nazma had actually left for her honeymoon, and then to live with her new husband. She had married a business magnate and launched a new life. Nazma had not informed Ratri and had not of course considered taking her to live with her and her new husband.

Ratri’s grandmother thought it odd that the girl did not ask even once about her mother. But Ratri already knew that her life would be different from all her cousins who lived with their parents and siblings. Most of her maternal uncles and aunts had married and moved out by then but visited frequently with their children. Only Toton Uncle and Naina Auntie still lived in the sprawling old British-era house in Lalbagh. Ratri lived there too, along with her grandmother and Boro Ma. She kept mostly to herself, held court in a sun-drenched roof top, and laughed with the birds. She had few friends at school. The only person she could actually share her thoughts with was her Boro Ma. And she did not miss her mother much even though she often wondered why her mother was not like other mothers. But the mysteriously beautiful woman she used to admire from a distance soon became a faded memory.

*

“Ratri, come down. You have a visitor,” yelled Naina from the bottom of the stairs. Their two-storied house was built in the 1920s and large enough to have once housed all six of Ratri’s uncles and aunts.

Ratri did not hear her the first time. She was buried with a pile of books, several guavas and pickles in the attic. The red tabby Minnie with her two kittens dozed nearby. It was afternoon and she was diving under the deep seas with Nautilus and Captain Nemo. She planned to make a painting of the blue ocean and Nemo’s submarine at some point. She was looking for more details when her aunt Naina called to wake her up from her reverie.

Naina yelled again, this time from the first-floor landing. “Ratri! Where are you? You have a visitor, I say!” Ratri thought she must be mistaken. Who on earth would come to visit her? “I’m coming!” she yelled back and dragged herself out of the sea.

She went all the way down to the ground floor. The drawing room, which was usually locked, was now resplendent with the light from a chandelier. Her grandmother and Toton Uncle were talking to somebody. They all turned to look at her and the visitor exclaimed, “Oh, there she is! She does not look like her mother at all.” He sounded surprised but not vexed as people usually were after finding that she did not resemble her gorgeous mother. She never told anybody about her mother, and nobody at school knew that the celebrated classical dancer Nazma Nehreen was Ratri’s mother.

Ratri looked at the stranger. He had a kind face, a slight stoop, and a touch of grey at the temples. She wondered if she had seen him before as his face seemed faintly familiar. He smiled and beckoned her, “Come here, child. Do you not know me?” Ratri made no reply but continued staring at him. She heard a voice behind her, the very familiar voice of her Boro Ma. “How can she know you when you never came to see her once in thirteen years?” She sounded brittle and hostile.

The gentleman stood up. “Nanu, you are still here, I see,” he said with a nervous smile.

“Yes, I am alive and well,” came the answer. Boro Ma entered the room and placed her hand on Ratri’s shoulder. “Why have you come? What do you want?” she asked.

“He has come to see Ratri, of course,” Toton uncle intervened. He smiled and looked at the stranger. “And perhaps take her with him too?”

Ratri was totally confounded. Why would an unknown man come to take her away? Who was he? He wasn’t her mother’s husband, she hoped. She did know that they had a daughter. Nazma came with the child once, a very pretty child in a frilly baby-pink dress. Ratri had seen them from afar and taken refuge in the attic. She wanted no part of their life. Perhaps her Boro Ma had said something stern, and Ratri never saw the child again. Even Nazma rarely visited anymore. She often sent her daughter costly dresses, but Ratri never even tried them on. Did they want her as a baby-sitter? she wondered.

Now she concentrated on this stranger who looked at her earnestly. At length, he said, “I am your father, Ratri.”

At first the words did not make sense to Ratri. Then she suddenly realized that this man was her father, her very own father whom she had never seen, not even in a photograph. A sudden sense of unreality seized her, and she was not sure who she was, or where. She seemed to be somewhere outside her own body.

Boro Ma spoke up, “And where were you all these years, Mahtab? Why are you here now?”

“I—I live in Cyprus,” Mahtab mumbled. “I have a small business there. I only returned to Bangladesh last week. But I came here as soon as I could.”

Ratri’s father seemed to diminish before her Boro Ma’s withering gaze. “I wanted to come before but couldn’t find the time. The business was growing …” He did not finish his sentence but looked at Ratri with an agonized expression. “Nazma made it clear that she did not want me to see Ratri…. But I have finally come. I want to re-establish a relationship with my daughter.”

Ratri could not understand the tight feeling in her chest. She whispered, “Abbu!”

“Yes, yes, I am your Abbu,” Mahtab took off his glasses, his eyes bright and wet with unshed tears. “Ma, you look exactly like my mother.” He held out his arms to Ratri and she found herself ensconced in arms full of love and longing.

They all sat together, and for the first time in her life Ratri felt that she might have a normal life like her cousins and classmates. She may not have her mother, but now she had her father. She suddenly realized why her father’s face seemed so familiar. It was because she looked like him.

Her grandmother cleared her throat and asked, “So, you have come to take Ratri away?”

Mahtab was still misty-eyed, and he said, “I have to figure out how to take her to Cyprus. She will need a passport first.”

Ratri looked at her Boro Ma and said falteringly, “I cannot just leave, right? I live here.”

Her Boro Ma said nothing. But her grandmother and Toton Uncle said in unison, “Come on, he is your father. And you need a proper family.”

When Mahtab left after dinner that night, Ratri felt very strange. Her father! Where was he all these years? And would she really be able to live with him? Like a regular child? She looked up Cyprus in an old atlas that belonged to her late grandfather. She imagined the blue waters of the Mediterranean, and warm sand between her toes.

When it was time for bed, she turned to her Boro Ma and asked, “Boro Ma, what are people like in Cyprus?”

Her Boro Ma did not say anything. After a while she said in a hoarse voice, “I don’t know. Let’s see how things go.” She turned on her side to face the wall and pretended to go to sleep.

*

Mahtab did not come the next day as he promised, but two days later. He seemed disheveled, but Ratri did not notice. She was overjoyed to see him. She sat beside him holding him by the arm and smiling broadly. And then her father said, “Ma, I’m afraid I can’t take you with me. You have to stay here for the time being. Maybe when you grow a little older…” he stopped seeing the ashen face of Ratri.

“Why?” asked Ratri. “Why can’t I go with you now?”

“You are too young,” said Mahtab lamely. “I will take you when you become eighteen.”

“But why?” asked a bewildered Ratri again.

Her father seemed to be on the verge of tears, “I have a family in Cyprus.”

Ratri snapped up to look at her father who seemed to have shrunk in stature. He looked at her imploringly, “Ma, I re-married and I have two sons. Since we don’t have a daughter, I thought Amalie would not object. I told her about you before and that I came to see you. She did not seem to mind then.”

Ratri sat stonily for a few seconds and then slowly disengaged her arms from her father’s. She slowly picked herself up and walked out of the room without looking back. She went straight to the attic.

She heard her great-grandmother on her way out, “That was cruel, Mahtab. Did you have to get her hopes up? Her mother never even looked at her. And you came to tell her of fatherly love, only to abandon her? Shame on both of you.”

Mahtab sat with his head bent.

Ratri never answered any of the letters she received from Cyprus. Even when her mother had cancer and wanted to see her long neglected daughter, she felt no urge to visit her. They were both strangers to her.

She was a rootless tree, she thought. She preferred to remain that way.

*

Ratri made it to the College of Fine Arts thanks to her Boro Ma. She loved that part of town with its tea stalls and flower shops, the imposing façade of the National Museum, and the mystique of the World War II era crater just behind the College itself. It was another world, quite apart from anything else in Dhaka, and even set apart from University of Dhaka’s main campus. By the time she was 17, she was sure that’s where she wanted to study.

Her uncles and aunts thought it was a terrible idea. “What is the point of studying art? Will she become an artist?” Ripon Uncle had asked disdainfully.

“I didn’t ask for your permission,” retorted Ratri.

“Sure,” jeered Maliha Auntie. “Who will pay for it do you think? It’s quite expensive—I hope you know that!”

“And all sorts of weird people go to Art College,” supplied a giggling Naina. “Do you know they often have nude models? And drugs too.”

Ratri felt indignant, but also helpless. “I will pay for her education,” her Boro Ma said quietly.

“You?” Toton Uncle gaped at her.

“Yes, I still have the money Ratri’s great grandfather left me. I also have some property in Faridpur. I will sell it all, if necessary,” she said with determination.

Suddenly, the room went quiet. Nobody missed the old lady’s use of “Ratri’s great grandfather” rather than “your grandfather.”  Ratan Uncle, who was the eldest among his siblings and had been listening quietly to all arguments so far, finally said, “I think we all should contribute. She is our niece, after all. We have a duty toward her. Also ask Nazma. She has neglected Ratri too long.”

Ratri wondered why Ratan Uncle suddenly felt responsible. Didn’t they all think of her as an outcast and burden? She felt an immense gratitude toward Boro Ma. She was the one who always stood up for her. Ratri tried to swallow the lump in her throat. She did not cry when people humiliated or hurt her. But love was something she rarely had. And that made her cry.

*

Boro Ma was ill when Ratri got the scholarship to England. She was more than 90-years-old, and her body was starting to betray her. Ratri wondered if she should turn down the scholarship and stay with the old lady. But in her heart, she was already soaring high and wanted to get out of the old house which had become more prison-like than ever. Her uncles and aunts jeered at her artistic talents, her irregular habits and idiosyncratic tastes. Naina Auntie thought she could join a hippie camp. It was the early 2000s, and she wore kurtas and jeans instead of sarees or salwar kameezes, and hardly wore jewelry like other young women her age. She was good looking in her own way, even though she did not have her mother’s exquisite features or complexion. If anything, she tried to distance herself from her mother in every way possible.

Can one grow up and flourish somewhere without feeling any kind of attachment? Boro Ma was her only tie to this house. But even she was not enough to keep her here for the rest of her life. Her life would not really begin until she left, and her great-grandmother seemed aware of the fact.

“Go, my pet,” she said. “This is the chance of a lifetime. Don’t waste it.” She smiled as she added, “We’ll meet again when you return.”

Nobody came to see her off at the airport except their old driver. And Ratri was glad because she was not used to expressing emotion. She felt happy and free. Her palette and paintbrushes were all she needed. She had a new canvas before her, gloriously open to the sky and the horizon, and she would paint to heart’s content.

*

The next four years were the happiest in her life. She met people who took her as she was. There were no expectations except that she excelled in her work. She learned different techniques, experimented with various media, took part in contests and exhibitions, and even won acclaim as a young artist. Mahzabeen Nishat Ratri, the talented young artist from Bangladesh, she thought with pride.

That’s when she met Irfan. They often travelled together and participated in exhibitions jointly. Sometimes they were competitors, but eventually he became her adviser as he was twelve years older than her. She didn’t mind him being older—she felt he was more mature as a result. He had been through a lot in life, just as she had herself. When Irfan proposed, she readily accepted. He had told her about his previous marriage and why it had not worked. “I badly wanted a child. But all Shila wanted was her career,” he said.

Ratri understood. Her mother too only thought of her career. She had heard that even her half-sister, the baby girl she saw with her mother, had had a tough life. Nazma was too much of a careerist to give up anything for children. She sent her daughter to Shanti Niketan at the age of eight.

“O my pet! How are you? When will you come home?” She could hear Boro Ma crowing with joy and longing.

“Did you get my letter, Boro Ma? The one about getting an artist’s residency in France?”

“Of course! I’m so proud of you. But aren’t you coming to see me? I’m getting old,” she sighed.

“I’m planning to.” Ratri paused. “I will bring Irfan with me. We are getting married.”

The phone went quiet on the other end.

Boro Ma—I told you about Irfan, remember? He is a great guy. You will like him, I promise.”

“He’s too old for you, my pet.” Boro Ma’s voice suddenly sounded like that of a stranger. “And he looks like a catfish. You won’t be happy with him.”

Ratri was dumbfounded. She had always been supportive of Ratri, not hurtful like the others. She tried to reason with the old lady. “Boro Ma, do looks really matter? I am not pretty either. But he is loving and supportive, and he genuinely cares.”

Her Boro Ma was unmoved by Ratri’s remonstrations. She said that she felt in her bones that Irfan was not to be trusted.

The next couple of days Ratri felt lost and depressed. Finally, she decided to tell Irfan about the conversation. Irfan was taken aback, but then he laughed out loud. “I think your Boro Ma is jealous,” he said.

Boro Ma jealous?” Ratri thought that was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. After all, Boro Ma would no longer be the center of Ratri’s life, and perhaps it was natural for her to feel jealous. Poor Boro Ma!

Ratri felt awful, but proceeded through with the wedding plans, which she felt was her one chance at happiness.

She returned to Dhaka with Irfan and took him to see her relatives. Her uncles and aunts now appreciated her since she was starting to make a name for herself. The Bengal Gallery had invited her to take part in an exhibition later in the year, and she hoped to get a spot at the Alliance Française as well. One of her younger cousins even took her autograph. They all congratulated her—except Boro Ma. She simply looked at her and then turned to face the wall.

Ratri remembered the night after her father’s first visit. She had turned to face the wall at the prospect of Ratri’s departure. For the first time, Ratri wondered about the nature of Boro Ma’s love. Did loving someone mean to possess them, and not let go? She wondered if all love was like that.

*

A couple of days before their wedding, Irfan asked Ratri to take a walk with him and share a plate of fuchka at Shahbag. It was February, and the weather was cool and pleasant.

“I want you to meet someone very special,” he said smiling. On the grassy lawn in front of the College of Fine Arts, he beckoned to a young girl of about twelve. Ratri was sitting under a champak tree wearing a green saree with yellow sunflowers. She did not usually wear a saree, but that day she did.

“My daughter, Laboni,” he said. “She is the light of my life. And Laboni, this is Ratri. She is the lady I told you about.”

Ratri stared at the lanky young child-woman who stared back at her with open hostility. The girl turned to her father. “She is not pretty like you said, Papa,” she said.

Irfan apologized after Laboni had retreated into the Central Public Library that she frequented. Irfan and Ratri were walking from the TSC toward the Kala Bhaban. “She is young and sentimental. I hope you understand.”

It was early spring. Around them, the krishnachura trees blazed their vermilion blossoms, and the shonalu flowers hung like molten gold. They would be imprinted in her soul forever. The sound of her mother’s anklets flitted through her mind. Tak dhin dhin ta, the tablas intoned. The pain of rejection, the elusive happy family.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Laboni?” she asked.

“I was afraid. I thought you would not agree to marry me.”

“So, you deceived me.”

Irfan laughed a little uneasily. “You’ve missed so much love in your life, Ratri! I am sure you will understand her pain.”

“Yes,” Ratri agreed. “I do understand.”

Irfan was relieved. “I knew you would.”

“But you don’t understand either of us, Irfan. That’s the problem.” Ratri took a deep breath.

“What do you mean?” Irfan was taken aback.

“I was in her position once. That girl wants her father. But not her father’s new wife.” Ratri paused. She turned to look at Irfan. “And I want a man to love me wholeheartedly. Without being deceitful.” She took another deep breath and said, “Our marriage is off.”

“No!” Irfan gasped. “The wedding has already been announced, and all my friends and family have been invited. I cannot call it off now.”

“You are not calling it off. I am,” replied Ratri calmly.

“You are insane, Ratri!”

She shrugged. “All the more reason for you not to marry me.”

*

Nine years had passed since then. And she had tried not to remember.

Ratri sat in her old hole in the attic. The night sky was clear, and she could see stars even though tall buildings loomed over their old home. Buildings that had risen while she was away. Towering apartment complexes had replaced many of the old and crumbling homes. But a few remained, including this one.

Ratri had not gone back to live in the old house in Lalbagh after the breakup with Irfan. She taught at the College of Fine Arts and lived in a women’s hostel nearby. She withdrew into herself like a snail. She ate, slept, and worked like an automaton. If people gave her odd looks, she did not notice. When she won a scholarship to France two years later, she broke all her ties with her family.

Only last month she met an elderly lady at one of her exhibitions. “Your work is very moving, you know,” she said. “Oui, très émouvant. It shows your knowledge of the human soul.” Ratri was drawn into the pool of her liquid grey eyes. “You have a beautiful spirit.”

Ratri thanked the woman politely, but her world was crumbling. What knowledge did she have of the human soul or of its depths? “You have a beautiful spirit.” The words echoed from the faded corridors of the past. “Boro Ma!” the child in her cried out. And Ratri could hear her incessant sobs.

“She cried for you a lot during her last days. She kept on asking for you,” said Toton Uncle sadly. “She wanted only you. We did not have any contact information, Ratri. I understand you had no reason to remember us. But how could you forget your Boro Ma?”

Ratri looked at the small nakshi kantha. Boro Ma had asked that they give it to her when she came back. “She said she knew you would return, and she asked us to give it to you.”

Yes, of course, thought Ratri. Boro Ma was the mother she never had. How could she forget her? She whispered into the nakshi kantha, “Boro Ma! I am sorry. I was angry. I was so hurt. I am sorry, Boro Ma.” 

She held the small nakshi kantha close to her chest and thought of the days when they did so many things together. Her body shook as spasms of overwhelming grief engulfed her entire being.  The raindrops in the nakshi kantha melted before her eyes and finally Ratri cried.

Glossary

Nakshi Kantha: Embroidered quilt

Boro Ma: Great Grandmother

Jarda: Tobacco

Baijee: Professional dancer

Pichchi: Little one

Apa: Elder sister

Ammu: Mother

Nanu: Grandmother

Abbu: Father

Ma : An affectionate way of addressing someone younger, technically, mother.

Fuchka: A savoury snack

Oui, très émouvant : Yes, very moving. French

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. she is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star. “Elusive” was first published in an anthology, It’s All Relative, in 2017.

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Stories

Flash Fiction: The Husband on the Roof

By Carl Scharwath                      

The black star-filled evening seemed ready to flow into the horizon, down a gaping hole.

There was a time I was a loving husband. I know that was years ago but sometimes my memory is not capable of verifying this.

The escape I desired was in front of me all the time, or should I say above me? The oasis of being alone at home could only be accomplished by taking to the roof.  The journey was transparent, open the window of my 3rd floor bedroom and the small, shingled cover would accept me with all my faults like the summer grass of my youth. This would be a new sanctuary: I could read, have my coffee, wave to the neighbors or simply close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.  The roof shingles would be the canvas in my memory garden. Why would I spend mindless time watching television, surfing the internet, or worse having an affair or drinking? My view was like a virtual reality movie unfolding in front of my eyes. You might by now ask how the hell I got here: an old married man, alone and searching for any hope or happiness in what could be the last days?

My marriage after 35 years was falling apart, like my body, cars, house, and life. I know it is my fault that she is no longer happy and constantly, from morning to night, complains and blames me for everything and every choice I make. I always believed in the cliché only you can make yourself happy and I pray my wife will find peace. I feel I need to take to the roof and speak directly to heaven for God to hear me and that is another reason I sit here.

The neighbors I am sure would have another opinion of me. Why is the man sitting on the roof for hours on end?  My neighbors as they were out walking would not make eye contact for fear of being brought into a higher decibel conversation. Most just waved and nervously smiled while walking into their perfect lives and marriages. I silently meditated on what their thoughts might be and if their own lives were absolutely perfect or just a façade?

Out in the distance, gray clouds were growing, and hot flashes could be seen and were complimented with a far-off roar. This brought to me a thought: to sit through the storm, right here in my safe place and if the lightening killed me, then I would have eternal relief.  The start of winds awoke me to an epiphany, a sadness that this was the first time I ever thought of wanting to die.

At that moment, I became totally immersed with thoughts of the past. I was happy, each day a miracle of life for which I was grateful. I remembered my first date with the woman I would marry. The way we held hands, with the music like a background soundtrack to our jazz-infused love. The late-night conversations ending with hugs and whispers of I love you. I saw us both young and in our first year of marriage, I heard my wife tell me she was pregnant and remembered the joy we shared for the future as a family. The realization of the horrible husband I had become awakened me as the rain softly filled my face with cloud tears.

Down the street, a familiar car was finishing its journey home, holding my wife in its closed interior with her unknown emotions. The rain was increasing its intensity along with my apprehension.

The sound of her car excited me, closer and closer she would come to our new happiness. I hoped to welcome my wife home to the change she would see. I worried I was not too late, and our marriage could be saved. She looked up at me with wide eyes of amazement seeing me still on the roof with the impending storm whirling around in its uncertainty. I timidly ambled to the edge of the roof as she was walking swiftly to the front door now ignoring me, the way I did our marriage the last few years. Looking down at her my new love filling my eyes as my feet slipped over the edge and carried me home to her.

I felt free in my fear, my destiny awaited as she screamed below me. The scream grew louder and louder and I as drifted closer and closer, I closed my eyes before the impact knowing we would become one again.

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Carl Scharwath has appeared globally with 170+ journals selecting his poetry, short stories, interviews, essays, plays or art. He has published three poetry books.

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Stories

Pothos

By Rakhi Pande

Money plant: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Shireen carefully placed the unwieldy pot on the dining table. She checked again to see if she had inadvertently damaged the lush green and tall money plant she had just bought on impulse. Her very first one, though, growing up she always had seen at least one if not more money plants at home, so, not technically her first however, her first very own money plant for her apartment. Company leased of course. 

She was fascinated and charmed by it. The plant naturally caught the eye as a new focal point in the room. Glossy emerald green leaves – darker than the emerald embedded in her ring, its marbled texture never repeated on any leaf; unique and different. The leaves looked like they had been coloured in with oil pastels.

She marvelled at the fact that a simple acquisition like that ensured that she did not immediately swipe on her phone screen to check her messages or indulge in the endless and somewhat mindless scrolling through social media posts, once home. She could stare at the plant for hours, seemingly, to observe the graceful curves of the stalks swirling upward around the moss stick.

Shireen had no idea a towering money plant with such gigantic leaves could grow out of a diminutive six-inch pot. It was possible because of the moss stick. That it could hold twenty times its weight in water, was a fact she had just learnt from the attendant at the plant shop. None of the leaves of the ubiquitous money plants she remembered from her childhood in every home been quite this size.

The little label stuck on the pot listed its scientific name – Epipremnum aureum, but the attendant at the store had called it Pothos. For a brief second, Shireen had misheard the name as Pathos. That very day she had made her high school students apply the persuasive technique of ethos, logos and pathos in their written assignments. She realised her error almost immediately. Both the scientific names didn’t sound right to her – she preferred calling it simply by its colloquially popular name — money plant.

This was purely an impulse purchase – having accompanied two of her colleagues, Min and Lena to the flower shop to select a bouquet to be sent to their dean who was hospitalised for a knee replacement surgery, she had spotted the large section containing various money plants under the enticing fifty percent off banner. That was a big deal in Singapore.

She had moved there two years ago on a work visa that included accommodation – a real coup. Her hectic work life ensured that the idea of getting a plant hadn’t even crossed her mind – until now. Min who was Singaporean Chinese, Lena from Russia  and she had struck up an easy friendship.

The informative leaflet displayed on a stand stated that the money plant would not require much watering or maintenance. It could be placed anywhere indoor, as long as it was exposed to some light. A balcony or windowsill was not a prerequisite.

“You need to steal it,” Min giggled, “for the money part of it to work.” Amused, Shireen imagined herself trying to attempt something like that in a city with probably the strictest penalties for crime. Good luck trying to explain the principles of feng shui* as a defence. Her expression made them all laugh, and Shireen spent a few careful minutes selecting one with the lushest foliage. 

Once home, she put some thought into where to place it. She decided to do some research about her new acquisition and read many interesting articles about the pothos. Some of them contradicted each other as was the norm with the internet. She had not even thought about her bedroom as an option – having absorbed the adage or warning that plants should not be kept there – a belief oft heard over the years.

However, one article strongly proclaimed that since the epipremnum emitted oxygen at night, it should be placed in the bedroom to improve sleep quality; that it was a myth that plants should not be placed there.

She tried to look for information supporting the Asian belief with some scientific reasons to back it up but couldn’t find anything online that forbade plants in the bedroom, not even on the myriad vastu shastra* sites that popped up in response to her search.

They all agreed in one aspect, that the plant should be placed in the South East direction. She decided to leave the money plant on the dining table for the time being and then, choose a spot the next day.

*

The next evening, having carried a lot of work home, she was too tired to do anything more than drop into bed early. However, remembering how the money plant’s presence had enlivened her sitting room, she forced herself to roll out of bed and bring it into the bedroom. She placed it on the dresser for the time being, vowing to figure out a better placement over the weekend.

She fell asleep almost immediately after and awoke refreshed, crediting the plant for this, even though she had no real scientific idea about the quantities of oxygen a plant that size gave out.

The weekend arrived soon enough and once Shireen had completed dusting, vacuuming and mopping her apartment, she looked around her bedroom for likely spots and found an ideal one — just below her window. It was designed to mimic a French window, with glass panels nearly all the way down to the floor. This would place the plant quite close to her bed as well, all the better to imbibe oxygen. The window was South facing, so it wouldn’t get direct sunlight but a lot of bright, indirect light.

She was determined to do all she could to ensure that the plant stayed healthy. She went to bed that night smiling over Lena’s comment that she was getting obsessive about the plant just like one does with a new pet. Just because she had bought a plant tonic for it despite its exorbitant cost.

*

She struggled awake from a deep sleep saying, “Do you need something…?” Fully awake moments later, she could have sworn it was Lena standing by her bedside to ask for a duvet.

Min and Lena occasionally slept over just like she did at theirs, especially on weekends they planned an early morning trek or outing.  Not this weekend though.

Feeling a bit uneasy, Shireen couldn’t fall asleep for quite a while.

It was probably the silhouette of the money plant that her subconscious had registered, she told herself. It was nearly four feet tall and she was not yet used to its new placement.

“I guess I did get some sleep,” she thought wryly as she awoke comfortably later than usual for a Sunday morning. In the bright light of day, she looked over at the money plant which was diagonally adjacent to her bed, not directly beside it.

She stood looking at it, thinking about that funny dream. Did the leaves look a darker green already? It had already grown, as one of the tips had curved even higher. The pointed leaf at the tip had unfurled itself, too. She couldn’t resist touching its shiny surface which resembled a plastic leaf.

She had sprayed the plant tonic just a couple of days ago – its recommended usage was once a week.

I’m just imagining this, she thought, but she secretly felt like a proud mother who’s noticed significant progress in their offspring.

*

Shireen tried to wake up, to move, to speak, but something was stopping her. She felt something flowing from the money plant – something glutinous, yet luminous, which was trying to envelop her. Some unconscious resistance that she managed did not allow that to fully occur, however.

She opened her mouth to call out, make some sound, but the words were lost in the ethereal white light that didn’t allow any sound to pass through. This sent her into a full-blown panic and she made one last concerted effort to resist whatever was happening.

Shireen awoke with a start, wide-eyed, stiff and scared. It took a few seconds for her brain to process that she had just had a bad dream.

One that seemed very real though.

In the dream, her room, her surroundings had been exactly the same. Must be from the MSG or food colouring in her takeout, she thought. She had often had vivid dreams after eating out, especially after anything which had orange food colour added to it. Like Schezwan or chicken tikka.

She found it difficult to fall sleep again – and stayed awake for what seemed like hours. Only when daylight dispersed the complete dark of the room, she fell into an exhausted sleep.

*

In the morning, for some reason, she could not bring herself to look at the money plant. “You are being ridiculous,” she admonished herself.

Had it always appeared this dark and forbidding? Weren’t most money plants a brighter green with more of a white marbled effect? Hers was mostly completely green. How had she not noticed it before? Only a few leaves had the white marble streak.

She caught herself avoiding walking by it too. The rational part of her brain mocked her for even entertaining a supposition that what she had ‘dreamt’ should impact her actions in broad daylight. “Shame on you, a supposed role model to students!” she scoffed at herself.

Shireen went online and put in a specific search request for why plants should not be placed in the bedroom. To her immense frustration, not one piece of content appeared. She couldn’t believe it. This was the internet. You could type literally anything and there were tons of articles or threads about it. Nothing in this case, though. Some posts that turned up as a result of her search warned against growing a peepal plant at home. These posts originated from Indian sites. She had some vague memories of hearing stories from her grandparents about spirits residing in the peepal tree. However, as was wont with the internet, most of the articles stated that this tree was sacred for many cultures. But this was a money plant, not even closely related to the peepal. She gave up the search.

*

Lena and Min trooped into Shireen’s place for dinner on Friday eve. They would stay the night, sleeping on the comfortable bed that appeared magically from the wall in her sitting room neatly settling itself over the couch – just by pulling on one lever.

It was only when they had all finished dessert that Min noticed. “Where’s your money plant?” Lena was astonished that she hadn’t noticed its absence. “Even you couldn’t kill a money plant!”

Shireen had already planned what to say when the topic was broached and smoothly replied that she had gifted it to her elderly neighbour downstairs, Mrs. Tan, as a gesture of goodwill when she had admired the plant. Mrs. Tan’s helper, Wei, often brought by a meal for her, sent by the kind, old lady.

Shireen didn’t want to delve into the reasons why she simply was not comfortable with the plant anymore. Not just in the bedroom; anywhere.

She had caught herself thinking about the unsettling and uncannily lucid dream and knew that she could not spend another night with the plant in the same room. She hated that she had hesitated to even touch the pot to lift it and bring it back into the sitting room in the morning. She would never ever admit the real reason for getting rid of it to anyone, not even Min and Lena, but she distinctly felt that she’d had a narrow escape.

She caught herself wondering if the reason plants should not be in the bedroom had something to do with what she had experienced in her dream. Could it be that some unknown and undiscovered interaction between plants and humans was possible? Was it a friendly, symbiotic exchange of energies she had mistaken for something sinister, a transference, or… a takeover?  

Shireen shivered and firmly blocked this line of thought.  It did, however, give her an idea for a written assignment for her students on traditional cultural beliefs impacting modern existence; ingrained spiritual beliefs or superstition, affecting day to day life – it would be interesting to read essays from over forty nationalities. She got to work on her laptop.

*

Mrs. Tan looked at her overcrowded but beautiful house. Though spacious, nearly every nook and cranny occupied with years of acquisitions.

She wondered where to put the money plant that young girl upstairs had gifted her. She was pleased as the money plant was a symbol of luck and prosperity. An auspicious gift. She called out to Wei to carry the plant.

No, her living room had no space at all.

That left only the bedroom.

As instructed, Wei placed the plant on Mrs. Tan’s broad, antique bedside table.

Glossary:

*Feng shui — A traditional practice originating from ancient China, which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment

*Vastu shastra — An ancient Indian system of architecture integrated with nature, incorporating traditional Hindu and Buddhist beliefs

Rakhi Pande heads the English department at a British curriculum school in Dubai, UAE. She segued into this profession after quitting her erstwhile post as General Manager in the field of brand management in India. An avid reader and award-winning educator, while dabbling with blogging and other creative pursuits, she tries to write whenever time permits.

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