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Stories

The American Wonder

                                          By Steve Ogah 

“Come and see the American wonder.” That was the one-liner the band of energetic kids sang. It was the song of an old city magician who had once come to fret coins out of villagers with old card tricks and die games. But the New Yorker thought the song would be useful for what he had to say at the drinking hut, so he had made the excited kids remember the song.  This was a raggedy bunch of kwashiorkor-colonized kids, mostly naked from the top up. They clapped, danced and repeated the line as though it were the sweetest song in the world. Ahead of them, and not far away, was the New Yorker. He too was clapping with all the might in his palms as though he held two cymbals in his large hands, his New Yorker T-shirt sticky with soft sweats of the early morning, moving his thin frame as though the wind would cast him far away from land.

The on-lookers had no idea what the American wonder was, but most were eager to know what the astonishing thing was about America. So, the New Yorker led this gyrating group of kids through rutted village paths, headed for the village square and a drinking shack, where he would exhibit the bare American wonder. Some in the crowd thought he was the one and only American wonder the village had. They felt no urgent need to join the swelling throng of admirers of the circus.

Yet, they were those who felt the man wanted to lay bare some exciting features of America. Two sets of people flowed into the mix: those who assumed the wonder was a man and those who believed the wonder was a thing that had not been sighted in the village of Nkang before. Everyone who heard the shrieking kids was willing to tail them. Anything American was like a commercial hit in the village at any time of the day.

This area of the village was known as the wine groove and some villagers thought the village’s best speaker of high sounding words had perhaps consumed too much fresh wine at the root of a friend’s tree. He wasn’t a known tapster of wine and could only have intoxicated himself through the generosity of other benign villagers. This was the thread of thought held by most villagers, except Pa Okeke. The hut owner had seen the New Yorker before he monkeyed up a palm tree and the New Yorker had told him he wasn’t going to taste any other wine except his at the shack. “Your wine sets my tongue dancing like no other,” he had confessed to the amused old man.

“My palm wine must have a conga drum then,” Pa Okeke returned, forcing the New Yorker to wave him off with a laugh seated in his stomach, as he scanned the groove for the tree to bore a wine hole in.

Up above, at the neck of a tall palm tree, he hung as though a thing woven out of spider webs. He too couldn’t nail what this latest act of the New Yorker was about. If it were magic the man wanted to perform at his shack, he would fail with honors. He wasn’t turbaned like most Indian magicians. He wasn’t dressed in the long tail coats of television magicians, and didn’t bear any resemblance to the famed professor Pellar of Lagos. He hadn’t been to India to learn from the gods of magic. His abracadabra would yield no awesome tricks tonight. That was the tapster’s conclusion. Having drained the tree of its latest intoxicating content, he descended the lanky black and well-juiced palm tree. He would take a shorter route to his shack and lay out his drinking horns for the New Yorker and his crowd of enthusiasts. The day held the fat promise of drama and laughter at the village’s favorite haunt. It would be the night of American wonder by the African New Yorker.

The New Yorker had trimmed his caravan of kids as he went on his way to Pa Okeke’s drinking place. It was too early in the day for kids to wander away from their mothers. He had finished exploiting them and they weren’t allowed to sit in the shack, in any case. He had said to some, “You, off you must go to your expectant mother,” he sprayed them with intense looks of reprimand. “Some of you have not fetched water from the stream yet.” He shooed the kids on their backsides as if they were chickens who had failed to return to their coops on time.

With the kids out of the way, the New Yorker crowded his mind with the wonders he was going to unleash on the swelling crowd at Pa Okeke’s place. The kids had done a terrific job of advertising his presence to the whole village. Though, he was a well-known village lay-about, the New Yorker had needed the kids for a reason.

He needed a fix of wine and the more the crowd at the shack, the greater his chances of free wine. The children had been his talking drum. And they had indeed talked well to guarantee him endless jugs of palm wine from the whole village. The more the wine, the sweeter the tale, the New Yorker believed that; and the greater the intensity of listenership. His captivated audience would be the one to make his tongue set sail on its voyage of storytelling.

The New Yorker sat down at Pa Okeke’s hut. It was on this day and at this time, thinly populated. Well, he had the company of fat green flies buzzing around wine-stained benches and tables and used cups and drinking horns. This wasn’t the sort of company he had dreamt up and desired. He was disappointed.

“The Americans have decided to build a wall through their border with Mexico.”  That was what the New Yorker revealed to his crowd of enchanted listeners. He was seated on a deep green hard bamboo bench, flanked in by drunken men on either side in Pa Okeke’s palm wine-perfumed drinking hut. The long wooden table in front of the gathering was dotted with plastic jugs of dirty frothy white-shy palm wine, and colorful plastic cups and rust-color calabashes circled with giddy giant green flies. Several of the insects were drunk and dead while others had just begun their round of alcoholic somersaults. In a little while, the men in the haunt would be like the insects, each one a mess of retched up gut contents and drunken odour. They would perhaps go home washed down in their own mess since the sky had darkened with impending rain.

The tale spinner had spoken and there was a collective gasp of bewilderment from the house which was by now crowded with onlookers and drunken bunch of villagers. Some kids who had strayed away from their parents had traced the New Yorker to his cherished hut. They stuck their bulging eyes and eager faces in the tiny spaces created between men at the windows, desperate to see some real American wonders. But all they heard was:  “Wall! A wall? A big wall?”

Those were the words that flew around the gathering. The kids were as confused as those who had palm wine floating in their senses. Those villagers who had cell phones with them had begun to call out to absent regulars of Pa Okeke’s place. The gist in town was about the presence of the village’s best story weaver in Pa Okeke’s house. They believed his newest tale was yet another fabrication from his deep well of stories. This can’t be possibly true, many held. Those who had left the village in past journeys to townships had never seen walls between borders of two towns or between Nigeria and her neighbor, Cameroun.  The only embankment many knew of was in the Bible, the walls of Jericho that they had heard about in Sunday schools and catechism classes.

“The Americans can’t do such a senseless thing!” That was the assertion that rose like the sudden burst of water from a pressurized pipe, from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man with a bloated stomach and face, who also wore the several litres of wine he had being drinking in his eyes. The words had come off his lips with some difficulty as they seemed to have mixed with the wine in his mouth. 

“What is it with these Americans? America, the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted summary. He shook his misshapen ageing head from side to side, laced his fat lips with a derisive laughter and swallowed a slug of sour wine. “America, America,” he laughed, after the horn of palm wine had freed itself from the claws of his salivary mouth.  He spewed a jet of wine between his legs. “Useless things,” he had chewed on a dead fly. He stamped on the already dead thing with all the might in his spindly legs.

There were some ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of revelers.  The wine was working its way slowly through veins. This moved the old man to action as he dug into his hidden drums of wine for the best fermented drink for the house. He went behind and re-emerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. Its embankment of security was made of fat green toilet flies that had found a permanent home in the drinking hut. They made sure no wine was wasted and knew which cup of wine intoxicated the most. They were the dutiful keepers of the shack and were rarely killed by the regulars. The people saw them as a congenital part of drinking in village huts.

“‘Americans are funny’, I once told us that.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Voices rose here and there. There were murmurs that the New Yorker couldn’t discern. Those who had been there when he made his revelation agreed that he was on point while those that hadn’t been there wanted to be told about the comic nature of all Americans, because they held the view that the Chinese were perhaps more comical than the Americans. The overwhelming view was that Jackie Chan was the most humorous and famous Chinese in the world. While Bruce Lee was another popular Chinese, he was seen as too consumed in his fights to want to grant the viewer some moments of humor.  Many had seen clips of the makings of some of Jackie’s movies, where he would fail several times at different acts, to his own amusements.

“Americans can afford the liberty to be funny,” That was Pa Okeke. His voice was aged with wine and his breath perfumed with sugar. “They have the life that we don’t have.” He had something for the gathering of drunken men and puzzled kids.

Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a dying and Chesnutt-coloured bench in the middle of the room. “This is on me,” he declared with that authority of one who truly owned the house. He rubbed his flabby chest down.  Many shifted on their seats with itchy throats, anticipating the flow of fresh palm wine that was to come from the owner of the hut. This was going to be a night like no other for many. And Pa Okeke was dead certain many of his customers would crawl on their bellies to their various homes when night time fell. Those who wouldn’t be able to claw their paths home would sleep on their vomits, then wake to curse themselves and his wine. He knew they would still return when the clouds of drunkenness cleared from their eyes, because the villagers had once tagged his hut the “home of happiness.” He had believed the tag and had scrawled that in misshapen letters above the door of the hut.

“You want to get us all drunk?” The New Yorker asked without really meaning every word he had spoken. “Isn’t this one much for a gift?” He shot his empty cup towards the table. He rose and reached for the fresh wine which was dotted with dead bees and tiny raffia palms and flies. He shoved the undesired baggage aside with the bottom of his cup. He dug into the liquid with the force of one who hadn’t had a life-saving drink in days. There was a smirk around his lips.

“I want us all to be happy.” Pa Okeke left the scene. But he would return with more palm wine from his seemingly endless drums at the back of the hut.

The New Yorker wanted to be inebriated. He had come to the hut to get himself some drink and reveal the newest brand of wonder to the house. Many had thought he wanted to perform some sleight of hand tricks of some old penniless magician. But this man was from another world from most of his contemporaries. He wasn’t a magician and he just revealed that to his listeners.  He was a moving cinema and a radio whose power never went down and out. And not few had been impressed in great measures. While he was a known village comic, he still had some ears for workings of the wider world. “America wants to cage itself in. Not cage the rest of us out.  She will build a circular wall round all of her borders with her neighbors.” That was the summation of the wonder, the meaty part of his story.

Voices rose anew in the gathering. There were those who thought that was outlandish.  America was a land of the wild and the free, a place where every dream came to life. That was a popular view in the hut. Why would free people want to fence themselves in? Would America erect a wall with her maritime neighbours? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who hadn’t been drinking much. “A wall inside an ocean?” That was his question. And before the New Yorker would say a word, the man bolted up and screamed: “Impossible!” He repeated himself.  He drank what was a long draught of wine. He smacked his thin lips and waited for the tale bearer to bear down the fleshy parts of his tale on the house. And talk the garrulous New Yorker did!

“The Americans will build a wall taller than the Berlin wall and longer than the walls of Jericho.” That was how the New Yorker further shocked his crowd of enchanted listeners. “Some other cities will mount individual city gates.”

There was a collective breath of wonderment from the house. Not even the quarrelsome Koreans had erected a wall between each other. Was America at war with all of her neighbours? A question jutted out from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man who sat with his jaws in his palms, stupefied by what he was hearing. “What is it with these Americans? America the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted conclusion. “They are crazy! Today it’s a border wall. Tomorrow, they will yank us off the visa lottery list. Has anyone offended these people? I don’t get it!”

There were more ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of drunken men. This ignited a move in the old wine tapper. He went behind and reemerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. The neck of the galloon was laced with fat green toilet flies that had attacked from all directions.

“‘Americans are funny,’ I keep telling people everywhere I go.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Some voices concurred while others demurred. There were grumbles that the New Yorker couldn’t understand. “And crazy too like someone has just told us, but Americans are not the only crazy people.” He drank some wine. “They will know what it means to be crazy when they finish that wall. Because some people will chisel that wall until it can let their bodies through. They will claw at it night and day. Sometimes it is better to die in a prosperous land than live in a wretched place.” Some heads nodded, while others drank up.

Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a bench in the middle of the room. “There is more to come,” he declared. There was a certain audacity to the way he stood, as though he meant to dare someone in the house to a drinking contest. Many experienced drinkers saw danger ahead. He had much of the stale wine in his drums that he wanted to get rid of.

Voices rose again in the gathering. There were those who thought that Pa Okeke wanted them to swim home in alcohol and have their wives lock them out.

Would America stop receiving visitors? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who had being processing this latest revelation from the story teller. He even asked the New Yorker the source of his latest news.

“How many of you have a radio?”  The New Yorker began. There was no response to his question.  People just drank wine and adjusted on their seats. He interpreted that in many ways. “These homo-sapiens called Americans are capable of the impossible,” the New Yorker fired at him. “They killed a president that they voted for. They put a man on the moon when others were sending monkeys and tomatoes to the clouds.”

Now, there was a blanket of shock that descended on the house. Many in the gathering didn’t know about that. The New Yorker nodded his head after having drunk some wine. He told them that brutal act of killing a president was akin to children killing their own father. He told them the word for that was patricide!

“Wetin be dat?” Pa Okeke asked. “your grammar don dey too much: homo…wetin, partri…wetin. Abeg small grammar. No be all of us go America like you.”

The New Yorker found that gratifying and funny. Then he explained what the words meant as the hut owner had just reemerged in the scene and leaned on the door frame, his eyes glassy with wine just as his stomach carried more weight than before. He rubbed it down and guffawed. “Now, I get you.” He rubbed his chin. “But how will you enter America if you want to go back there?”

Most people in the hut found that an interesting question. They adjusted on their seats. Some took their cups and drank some more palm wine in anticipation of the response the New Yorker would give. “You don’t belong here with us. You are the only Americana we know.”

The New Yorker was deadpan. He told his listeners that the walls of Berlin and Jericho had since fallen. And he believed the American wall would collapse should it ever be erected. Some in the house didn’t believe his prophecy. Many felt the New Yorker had been drunk all along. Someone even said that to his wine-soaked face. The New Yorker needed to convince the house that he had his memory in place. So he told them to see Joshua 6: 1-16. But no one had the virtue of holding a Bible in the house.

“You have not answered my question?” That was Pa Okeke. He wanted the New Yorker to respond to his question, since he had often boasted that he would return to America any time he desired.

“I will do like the children of Israel did.” The New Yorker shot back, fuming. “I will join with other people and sing and dance and blow horns round the wall.”

Now, Pa Okeke was convinced the story teller had lost it. There was a general wild laugh in the house. “Will you be the priest?” Pa Okeke asked. “There were priests in the Bible.” He shook his head in disbelief. He returned to his large drums of overnight palm-wine behind his hut.

A man who had been sitting with his jaws imprisoned under his palms, emptied his cup, and began drumming on it, singing:

The walls of Jericho fell down flat

When the children of God

were praising the lord

The walls of Jericho fell down flat!

He was now standing and doing a jig. Some other drunken men picked up the lyrics of the popular church song and sang along, the wooden tables serving as superb percussion instruments.  A circle was quickly formed in the hut. The gyration was infectious and had a shocking fraternal spirit, but the New Yorker didn’t join in the song. He just sat swallowing up all the happenings, the scene wavy and distorted in his eyes. He blinked rapidly and washed his face with his left palm. He dug into his trouser pocket for a crescent of kola nut which he popped in his mouth.

The sky had foreshadowed rain all day. Now it began to drizzle and those customers who were outside the hut hurried in and found spaces for themselves. The kids had since left the scene when they realised no magic doves were going to fly off the palms of the New Yorker. The story of the wall around some unknown borders sounded more confusing than a simple equation at school. With more people in the hut, the New Yorker thought this was the break he needed to break out from the hut. He had gulped enough free wine for one day.  He felt some wine didn’t want to go down his throat again. The veins in his eyes had bulged.

“I don’t want this rain to meet me here.” That was the New Yorker. “I left some clothes out on the hanging line.” He meant those words to no one in particular as he was already on his way out by the time he uttered the last word. “Make way, please.” He forced himself through cracks between people.

He had given the whole place a life of its own and many customers were disappointed to watch him go. Nonetheless, different words of farewell escorted him out. Pa Okeke emerged on the scene with two jugs of fermented palm wine in both hands. He said he had brought them for his favorite customer. He too was saddened to learn that the New Yorker had vacated the scene. He left the wine for the house, wondering why the New Yorker had fled his place without informing him.

As the New Yorker staggered home, the lyrics of the song at the hut returned to him. He didn’t sing it the way he had heard it. He made up his own version instead. He began by whistling and clapping his large palms, hopping from one side of the street to the other; then he sang about how the great American wall collapsed when immigrants from all corners of the world gathered round it singing and clawing at it with hammers and crowbars. Those who passed him by suspected Pa Okeke to be the man who brought out the singing talent in Akpan Okom. Many passersby laughed at the man, and went on to tell stories to others that Pa Okeke’s wine had turned the storyteller into an international music maker. Some villagers even embellished what they had seen, adding that the New Yorker had gone mad and was hopping to the market square.

Two weeks passed without the New Yorker at Pa Okeke’s hut. This was a strange thing. Many regulars believed he had gone to America, to the wall at the border. Some who believed the tale about the inchoate madness felt he had indeed made it to the market square. They feared for him because it was a well-held belief among the villagers that any mad person who entered a market would never be healed. Other people felt his absence was because he had drunk too much wine weeks earlier, and had gotten home, vomited and fallen sick.

But several regulars still frequented Pa Okeke’s hut hoping to see the New Yorker and hear about the great border wall. They hoped they wouldn’t have to wait for long before the story teller draped them with the latest tale about the great American border wall.

Steve Ogah is a fellow of the British Council/Lancaster University Crossing Borders online writing program and the Voicesnet USA Poet of the Month (Feb.2002).

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

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Stories

Stranger than Fiction

By Sushant Thapa

Old Mr. Bubble sat in his armchair and observed the passers-by. The city rose in the morning when the clock struck five. The silence gave way to morning sounds.

Women walked and talked on the footpaths about educating their daughters and little sons. They believed every lesson should not be taught more than forty-five minutes. The leader’s inability to rule the country became a conscience of some new job holders. The morning walk seemed to be all about venting such problems.

The road ran across the suburban sight. No cargo trucks were parked in the morning although, the day ran on wheels. The path was spacious, and the children played without being deterred. The road carried buses, vans, students cycling to school amidst flocks of sheep that strayed into the road as they grazed along the greenery that often lined the edges or some abandoned patch of grass under the supervision of shepherds.

The city felt like it had to be observed more closely and that is where characters like Mr. Bubble stepped in. Mr. Bubble was a high school teacher. He lost his son during the civil war period in the army. His son’s memories haunted him and every day he washed the memories with a heavy heart. Every evening Mr. Bubble took a walk on the highway. He had lost spaces in his life. Now he seemed to be filling merely a vacuum. The lack of action in his life made him realise the pauses. Fishes do not think of dying when they are safe inside the water. Mr. Bubble was in his bubble and he was still safe until things started getting out of his hands like the time when his son died. He couldn’t stop his son from dying and that did him no good.  

One evening while he was on his regular jaunt, he discovered a grassland beside the highway. There was a small pond which did not look dry although, the water was slightly muddy. The trees seemed to bear fruit and some looked burnt. The grass seemed to be smeared with chemicals so that they could not grow. If the place was meant to be abandoned why bother spreading chemicals on the grass so that they would not grow? Mr. Bubble was already inside that grassland and away from the road.

The evening sun was on its way to the dark land somewhere behind the moon. It was about to hide itself and let one part of the world be steeped in darkness. The sun knew when to get hot or when to get cold. Mr. Bubble thought that the world was a fabulous discovery till it was over-used by all.

One thing that Mr. Bubble’s pondered was why houses seemed deserted in the grassland? Perhaps nature took matter into its own hands when things were not cared for by humans, this was a fact and not fiction. Fiction, after all, had been manmade although it could contain natural ingredients. How we perceive every other reality can contain details like clockwork as even things have their hours, minutes and seconds that keep ticking. A beating heart has always been a clockwork before it could be forgotten for good.

Mr. Bubble was really alone after losing his son. When the closest people walk away or disappear, we really cannot make friends with inanimate things. There can always be a reality which engulfs the truth which is stranger than fiction.   

A lonely house and again a vast grassland where wind blew alone without a purpose, the sight of an old man and somewhere far, how tides hit the beaches lining the ocean went unnoticed.

Mr. Bubble just waited for another day and another lonely walk away from people’s sight, but he wasn’t running away from himself. Old age was a thing that one could not run away from because death came slowly — speed was only for the escapists. Those who have the time to wait do not worry about the passage of hours, minutes and days…

Sushant Thapa is an M.A. in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, who lives in Nepal. His poems, essays, short stories and flash fictions are published in numerous journals and books.

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

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Stories

The Solace

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Chela series by Ruis Pedros(2018) Courtesy: Creative Commons

Usually, it was a time for introspection and loneliness.

Her ex-boyfriend from years ago would write across the static wires enquiring after her in a solicitous way, which bespoke of his own alienation more than his feelings for her. He was always an empty cup; her friends would remind her. Chipped and cold.

Thank the Gods, she’d left him, just as she left her homeland and flung herself out there into the universe to be made anew. She didn’t want to take ghosts with her, she wanted to leave them in their glass cases to gather dust and be forgotten.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Every New Year she thought of the past. The ghosts of who we were hovered.  She wasn’t part of then and she wasn’t part of now. Somewhere in between. Something recreated and lost. She didn’t have a sure footing.

A New Year exposed all her uneven seams. The light got through but so did the dark. She thought of swapping them. Darkness would be her friend. Light, her anathema. But that didn’t work either. We need light to grow.

Maybe she needed darkness just as much. Maybe like the weed on the side of the street where people walked by unnoticing, every single day, maybe that weed thrived as much when the lights went out as it did in the hot sun.

Boy! Did she know about the hot sun? Moving to the desert, she watched the arroyo against the orange setting of the sun — life held its breath until light blurred behind the mountain top. She learned from that. Learned to walk on scalding sand without shoes and to survive without needing to drink … even as she was made of water.

Her boyfriend and her child, they were petrographs on red walls lost to dust storms. He moved on as he stayed still. She moved on as she was lost in a blur of motion. Even as she slept, her legs fidgeted with the longing to run on wet highways until the tarmac was replaced by dust. Her feet were bigger than the rest of her, as if they were just waiting for her to catch up.

The child didn’t even know about her. Maybe that’s why New Years were hard. Another year, another year without… not a death but a life. Somewhere in the world a part of her. Would her son prefer the sun or the dark like her? Would his eyes be coloured like hers or his father’s? Would he speak French or Arabic or …? Would he say nothing at all? And watch the clouds turn black and heavy with rain that never ever came.

He was a mirage to her, something seen in her peripheral. She worked all day like an ant, climbing, climbing, climbing and all the while it didn’t drown a bit of her need out of her. Just a swollen rag inside her chest replacing her charred heart, containing all the water she no longer needed. For she was made of water and she was without ancestors.

Her lovers were ochre and onyx, they held her as if she were made of pins and stars, they turned her when she grew lethargic, they tried to feed her but she remained starving, staring at the sky and its great reach of emptiness. Sometimes it felt as if that emptiness had been poured inside of her like a Long Island tea and turned to tannin and bitter root, not refreshing at all.

She dreamed of the sea. In her dream, the sea was land and land was water and she walked on hot air through the rising waves until she spied him and he ran to her, impossibly, impossibly, yet he did.

Every New Year she recalled his birth, the way he split her open like a song and they tied her back together with strings of sorrow. She played them with a crooked bow and lied about her age, because she wasn’t so old as to have forgotten, she wasn’t too old to have lost the smell of him. She just said those things so they would not ask anything else. Not one more word.

She was younger and she was covered with scars as silver as the night sky crossed with waves and his eyes were always watching in January because that was when he cried for the first time and she heard his howl across the silence and it broken everything in her that had been fractured but not yet crushed. His sound was her release. She played it over and over again until she didn’t know what she was listening to anymore.

The room was quiet, she sat alone on the expensive sofa and stared at the garden, fruiting with abundance despite the month. There is no frost except in my heart. She tasted salt on her lips and her hands clenched into fists beneath her skirts. Her stomach ached like it always did, seeking, seeking, seeking.

The doorbell rang. It might have been a food delivery. It could be flowers from a lover. A carol singer, although they don’t come around in this part of the world. She opened her mouth to say thank you but no thank you, and her mouth forms a perfect ‘O’ as the door let in the light and his silhouette.

How did she know? How did she know?

Their embrace began before they moved, each rooted to the spot in awkwardness, the stretch of years and unsaid things lying like drying guts in the sun. Her rows of flowers, bloomed to be reflected in his dark eyes. Her son.

When she looked down at her hands, there were rings on every finger, no marriage, no need. When she tucked her dry breasts into her brassiere, she felt the pinch of wanting to feed the grasping mouth of an infant. When she felt herself growing roots that defied time and place, she wanted to reach back into his crib, his making, his calcium.

A year later, they walked hand in hand. She was young enough — people weren’t sure. Was she, his mother? His lover? A pretty aunt? His back is straight like a determined waterfall. He’s inherited her thick hair and light gait. They are black swans on water, that mirrors the glitter of their glide as they reach the center of the lotus.

She has a puce birthmark on her breast. He holds her to him and water envelopes them both. She is shouting now, out loud, people are running, machines are bleeping, the crimson bed is losing focus.

She wondered what kind of voice he would have and how he would eat his dinner? With one hand gracefully holding a fork or would he become salt and shift like dancers’ feet through time?

New Year had always been hard but this year she would gather her skirts and bring together her ankles, still nimble and untouched by tears, and whirling around like a firefly raptured by light, find the pockets of heat still playing on the floor before night fall, where he would wait for her, a favourite solace.

Usually, it was a time for introspection and loneliness.

Now they remark at the young woman with prematurely grey hair, stretching down her back like a feral cry, and the bloom of her flowering skirts, edging her effort to be the first winter bird to turn homeward, where familiar things lay, like cast baubles in snow, to be dusted off and hung, beautiful and glittering.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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

Categories
Stories

The Doll

By Sohana Manzoor

A veiled woman, painting by Tagore. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Aronee closed the door behind her. Softly, very softly. She was always soft. “Soft”, “polite”, “quiet” were the epithets her friends and relatives used to describe her. As a child, a teenager, a young woman, she was always the good one, the sacrificing one. Now as a mature woman of forty-two, she is still considered a caring wife, a loving mother and a concerned daughter. As a teacher, she is excellent and well-loved.

She looked at the mirror in her bathroom. Her hair was still raven black. A slight frown etched her smooth forehead. But it’s her eyes that signalled that something was very, very wrong. Her eyes that are usually calm and reassuring were dark and stormy. Aronee could not remember that she ever felt so furious and mad in her entire life. She closed her eyes and counted up to 10 and opened her eyes again. It did not help.

She turned the tap and let the water run. She looked at the running water and tried to think straight. How did it come to this? When? How? What did she do wrong? She thought of herself as a toddler. She was the doll of her family. They always told her so. Sweet-tempered, Aronee never had a tantrum like her other siblings or cousins. She just stared at Ashik, her elder brother, who yelled at the slightest discomfort, or Alena, her younger sister who screamed incessantly when her whims were not fulfilled. As she grew older, she learned to be patient, accepting things rejected by Ashik or Alena. Sometimes, she did try to complain, but her mother told her reproachfully, “Aren’t you a good girl, Ronee?” Being a good girl sucked, she often thought, when Alena got away with the best things, and she had to do with the leftovers. But Aronee was beautiful. Whatever she wore, however she dressed, she appeared elegant, composed and lovely. And Alena was forever jealous of her elder sister.

Her only comfort was when she heard her mother say to others, “She is such a doll, my Aronee. She never complains.”

Her grandmother said, “Be patient, my girl. Allah will be good to you.”

What was the definition of good, and what was bad? Wondered Aronee unmindfully, trying to catch the running water in her fingers. But the water slipped away as did time.

*

“Ronee, Ronee,” the whimpering voice of her sister carried over from the past. She refused to call her “apa” as she was only 15 months younger. Aronee raised her eyes from the book she was reading to see a pouting Alena. “I can’t find my white petticoat. Can I borrow yours?”

“No,” replied Aronee swiftly.

“Why not? And you know Ammu will tell you to give it to me, if I tell her,” said Alena half-laughing. “She hates it when I screech and yell.”

Aronee looked at her sister witheringly. “The last time you took my blue jamdani, you tore it at the bottom. Aren’t you ashamed?”

Alena went quiet. And then she looked up at her elder sister smiling, “You are so good, Aronee. And you preserve your things so well. I just looked at the white starched petticoat of yours and felt that mine looks crumpled and dirty.” She changed her tone and wheedled, “Please, Ronee, can I have your white petticoat? Pleease?”

Aronee sighed. “Okay, go ahead. Just be careful, okay?” Alena jumped up and kissed her sister and ran off gaily, “You’re a doll, Ronee.” Aronee shook her head and concentrated on the mystery novel she was reading.

*

Ashik had gotten into the most horrendous possible mess. He got his cousin Shabanm pregnant while being engaged to his girl-friend Myra. He was not even particularly perturbed by it—putting the entire fault at Myra’s door. “Well, she said she would not sleep with me before marriage,” he had shrugged. “And Shabnam was available; more than willing actually.”

Then there was pandemonium.

Myra cut off from him, and for the first time in his life Ashik was forced into giving in. His father went livid, and Aronee heard him yell at his wife, “It’s all your fault. You never reprimanded him for anything. Now look what has come to your darling boy. If he doesn’t marry Shabnam, I will throw him out of the house without a penny. And I mean every syllable.”

Aronee’s mother tried to speak up, “Shabnam is not an innocent. She seems to have no …” she could not finish as her husband said ominously, “Don’t. Whatever you’re about to say, don’t.” He paused and added, “She is MY sister’s daughter. You wouldn’t have acted this way if she was YOUR niece. Just make sure that he marries her. If he does not, you too can move out of the house.” He stormed out of the room.

Aronee was listening to the hubbub and wondered at Ashik’s audacity. She had to agree with their father. It was always like this — he could get away with murder with his mother as his staunch supporter.

When Aronee approached her mother, she was in tears, “How can Shabnam be my son’s wife? And she got pregnant out of wedlock too! Oh, Allah, my poor son! How would I know that it is his even?” Then she turned to Aronee, “Ronee, tell your father that Shabnam has another relationship. He will believe you.”

Aronee stared at her wailing mother and realised how pathetic and unscrupulous she was. Would she have been able to say the same things if it was Alena, or her? Aronee felt ashamed. She said quietly, “Bhaiya has already admitted to his part in the matter. And even if he did not, I would not say such a blatant lie. Amma, how can you? What if it was me, or Alena?”

Aronee’s mother sprang up. “My daughters would never bring such shame on the family. I have raised them differently,” she said proudly. “It’s all Rahela’s fault. Like mother, like daughter.”

“And yet,” thought Aronee sadly, “Your son did it? How did you bring him up?”

But then he was a son, the only son of her parents.

*

On her wedding day Alena winked from under her bridal veil, “Aren’t you happy now? I won’t be bothering you anymore.”

So, Alena was getting married before Aronee, at the age of twenty-one—to the man of her dreams. No, to the man of their dreams. Aronee had loved him in silence for years, but Alena was vocal, and she claimed him. Aronee did not know back then that Swaron also loved her, and not the sister he was getting married to. But since Aronee kept silent knowing about Alena’s infatuation with him, he did not know what to think. Meanwhile, Alena went on pestering him, and he gave in.

Aronee looked at her sister critically, “The make-up is a bit too much. They have virtually white-washed you!”

“Let it be. Let me be fair for one day,” Alena rolled her eyes. And then sighed, “You will always be the more beautiful one, Ronee.”

Aronee tsked, “You are getting married to the man you love. What more do you want?”

Suddenly Alena whirled around, “You,” she whispered. “I’ve always been so jealous of you, Ronee. Everybody loves you more. Even our good for nothing big bro thinks you’re an angel. Can you teach me how to be like you?”

Aronee sighed, “There you go again! You’ve been blabbering like this for the last three weeks. What’s got into you?”

Alena threw her arms around her elder sister and started bawling. “I’m so sorry Ronee. I know I’m a terrible sister! Please, forgive me. Oh, please.” It took a while for Aronee to calm Alena down. “Hey, you’re my li’l sister, remember? Annie, what’s wrong? We all love you so much… look at me. Your make up will be ruined in no time now.”

Finally, Alena calmed down and allowed Aronee to fix her make-up.

But the perky, lively girl that got married one summer evening lost her spirit soon. Everybody noticed the change. Whenever she came to visit her parents and, she seemed down and pale. No, Swaron was attentive. Never mistreated her or said anything nasty. But nor did he look at Alena the way he looked at her sister. His countenance lit up whenever Aronee was in the room. He gave Aronee the due respect of an elder sister-in-law. But Alena knew. She had always known. Only she thought that like everything else she could make Swaron love her. She failed miserably.

If Swaron was abusive and complaining, she could have said something. But he did everything correct. He paid her attention, took her to shopping, dinner. They had gone on honeymoon. And all the time, she felt that his heart was in an impenetrable glass box. She could see it but could not touch it. Once, she had pleaded with him, “Swaron, you married me. Not Aronee.”

Swaron looked at her, his eyes like glass, “Yes?”

“Can’t you love me a little?”

“I told you long ago that I love your sister, not you. Still, you persisted — you threatened to tell your family that I had compromised you. I warned you that I would never love you. Why are you complaining now?”

Alena looked at him helplessly. Yes, he had told her, but she thought time would change things. They change in movies. Now over a year into the marriage, nothing changed.

Yes, Alena confessed all these to her sister, finally, bitterly. By that time, she, too, like her brother had caused a huge uproar. Out of anger and frustration, she had run away with a neighbour, who had been trying to catch her attention for some time. Their father had a heart attack and became an invalid. It was Aronee who was strong during those days, who took control of the household. Her brother’s marriage also did not work out; after two years of stormy conjugal life, Ashik and Shabnam parted ways. And stupid Alena had said, “You can marry Swaron, if you want.”

Aronee shook her head, “Are you insane, Alena? Or do you pretend to be dumb?”

“Why not?” sniffed Alena. “You too love him.”

“Love is not the most important thing in the world,” retorted Aronee. “Can you imagine what will happen to our family? How people will talk?”

Alena just stared at her. Aronee had said simply, “The paths of heart and duty are not always the same.”

She never thought otherwise, until today. She looked at the woman in the mirror. “What did I do wrong, can you tell me?” she whispered.

*

Aronee married, of course, but according to her parents’ choice. Her husband Taufique was an engineer from a respectable family. They were not in love when they married, but they came to a good understanding. They even came to care for each other, had a good partnership—something most marriages lack. They had two children, Abeer and Trina.

Now, after 14 years of steady marriage life Aronee just realised that all she stood for had been  a sham. Wasn’t there anything called stability and truth in life?

*

Aronee waited. She sat in the veranda and looked calmly through the bright orchids she had planted and the ivy that ran down the red brick wall. The place she had called home for over a decade was not her home after all. The course of her life was crystal clear.

*

When Taufique came home late at night, the apartment was seemingly empty. There was no sound of Abeer and Trina, or even Aronee. He had informed that he would return after a business dinner. So, the lights in the dining room were turned off. Nothing unusual. But for some reason he felt something different. He stood at the door of the bedroom that he and Aronee shared. Yes, she was there as she always was. Suddenly, he felt guilty. He has been feeling uneasy for some time now. He realised that he needed to talk about Shuvra except that what could he say? That Shuvra made him feel like a man? That he felt like taking care of her? Or that Aronee was so strong and capable that she made him feel less than he was? The woman who sat in the middle of the room, looked up and Taufique’s heart gave a little leap. Her coffee brown eyes were calm, but there was a tremendous sadness in them.

Taufique walked in, faltered, and stopped. Didn’t he tell Shuvra that Aronee would be devastated if she knew? Instead, why did he feel so weak? And helpless?

Aronee looked at him steadily and he realized that no confession was necessary. He felt like a little boy caught at stealing jam.

“Why?” whispered Aronee. When he did not answer, she simply said, “Abeer and Trina are visiting their nanubari. I guess, it will become temporarily permanent.” She paused and said, “I stayed on to tell you that I am leaving. I will file a case for divorce. You can contend if you like. But considering everything I hope you won’t.”

“You’re taking Abeer and Trina? Just like that?” Taufique’s voice was a hoarse whisper.

Aronee was calm. “You want them with your future wife?”

“They are my children,” he choked, feeling completely unmanned. Aronee may not like Shuvra, but Shuvra was raising her two younger siblings by the hand. She knew all about children. But Taufique suddenly realised that the sentence he had been rehearsing for many months was pretty dumb.

“They are mine too,” responded Aronee.  “I certainly won’t allow my son and daughter to be raised by a whore.” The emphasis on the last word shattered Taufique. Why didn’t he ever think that Aronee would object to him having the children? Or maybe because he was so absorbed in Shuvra, he never examined his stance about them. Now he knew that Aronee would not budge from her position. Good girls like Aronee acquiesced most of the time. But when they finally take on a standing, they do not give away an inch.

“You can’t leave. Not like this,” he almost whimpered.

Aronee turned away from him and picked up her large brown bag. She was wearing a deep blue striped handloom saree. Her face betrayed no emotion.

“You can contact me at my mother’s house number. Just don’t try to call me on my cell phone. I don’t want any alimony. But Abeer and Trina still will need you. I hope you will act accordingly.”

The door closed softly. But to Taufique it seemed like a bang.

The doll was finally awakened.

Who exactly was Shuvra?

Taufique felt like a dead man.

*

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English and Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star. This story was previously published in Six Seasons Review.

Categories
Stories

The Boy

By Neilay Khasnabish

I suddenly woke up in the wee hours, hearing footsteps. Was it a thief? I held my breath and tried to listen for the footfalls again. Someone was walking outside the house. I slowly got off the bed and picked up the iron rod from the corner of the room. I kept an iron rod and a small Nepali kukri near my bed at night whenever I moved to a new place. I had a transferable job. I had come to this small village on the north coast of Assam a month ago to work at a school as a teacher. The village was on the bank of the Brahmaputra River.

I held the iron rod tight and folded my checked lungi up to my knees. The iron rod was very cold. I opened the window slightly. A cold stream of air hit my face. I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t hear the footfall again.

I silently opened the door and sneaked out of the room. I looked up at the gibbous moon and tiptoed over to the bamboo fence and, to my surprise, saw a small boy examining my plants in the kitchen garden and then stoop-walking over the stick on which an earthen pot had been set up to ward off the evil eye. He gently shook the stick with his left hand and looked up at the pot, his right hand on his head. He wore a red sweater and covered his face with a scarf. He was unmindful of my presence. I hunkered down so he couldn’t see me. He stood in the middle of the garden and looked around. He plucked a handful of coriander and squeezed himself out through the passage on the opposite bamboo fence. Who was he? I went into the garden. I went up to where the passage was. I made sure the only intruder was the boy.

*

On the third day, he came to the garden again. It was 4:31 A.M. Determined to watch him, I hunkered down at the same place. He wore the same sweater. He plucked some tomatoes and brinjals and put them in his plastic bag. He seemed to be in a hurry. Then he escaped like before. I immediately ran to the lane intersecting the main road. The village was covered in a blanket of thick fog. I couldn’t trace him after some time as he vanished into the fog. He must have been somewhere nearby. In such a short time, it was not possible for him to go far. He certainly lived in one of the houses in the neighbourhood. To catch him red-handed wasn’t my priority. My priority was to find the house he lived in. I felt a sensation in my throat because of the chill winds that blew into my nostrils. I wanted to find his house.

*

It was 9:45 P.M. I wore my woolly hat and grey shawl. I had a torch in my hand. I wrapped my face with the shawl so that nobody would recognise me. I had already become known in the village because of my sociable nature. I stepped into the road and felt the sharp jagged gravel under the soles of my thin flip flops.

The road was almost empty except one or two passers-by on their bicycles. I took the turn to go to the cluster of huts where the hard-working unprivileged lived. My colleagues had told me that illegal immigrants lived there and had warned me against them. Most of them earned their living either by selling vegetables or worked at construction sites in nearby towns. My colleagues had also told me that these people would steal things whenever they found a chance. I’d guessed the little boy belonged to them. It took me around twenty minutes to reach the place. I didn’t see anyone outside the huts.

I felt a spark of excitement in my body as an idea struck me. Unable to stop myself, I tiptoed into the compound of the hut where I’d first seen light. I found a cranny in the wooden window. I saw a young couple lying together. I slipped into the next compound. I found a small gap in the mud-plastered thatched-bamboo wall. I peered in. An old hurricane lamp, set on a squat wooden stool in the middle of the room, was burning.

A boy sat beside his mother, and his father was making the bed. I realised the mother was pregnant when she stood up to lift the lamp to help her husband with the light. She passed the lamp to her son, and I clearly saw his face. Was he that boy who had plucked brinjals and tomatoes at my garden? How could I conclude when I hadn’t seen his face before? And I wasn’t inclined to trust my assumption either.

“Today I couldn’t sell a single betel nut,” the man said.

Deuta, I’ll help you tomorrow,” the boy said.

I pressed my ear against the wall. The cold mud-plastered wall touched my clean-shaven cheek. The surface of the wall was rough.

“No, Appu. You’ll stay home. You need to look after your mother. She needs help. And she shouldn’t be left alone at this stage,” the man said.

“I can stay alone. I know my time. The cow dung cakes are ready. It’ll be better if Appu goes to market with cow dung cakes tomorrow. If he can sell them, some money will come. At this stage, we need money most,” the mother said.

The man nodded and lay down.

Aai’s place is occupied,” Appu said.

“Go to market early tomorrow,” the man said.

“We’re thankful to the new schoolteacher. He gives our Appu vegetables from his garden,” the woman said to her husband.

She thought the thefts to be gifts! I momentarily forgot to breathe.

“People say good about him,” the man said and turned right.

“If our Appu had gone to school, he would’ve learned a lot from him,” the woman said, looking at Appu.

Appu was silent.

You’ve heard what you never expected to hear. Now go back home.

I listened to my inner voice.

*

The next day, just after school, I went to the village market to buy Appu’s cow dung cakes which I knew I’d be able to grind into manure. The sellers were sitting on either side of the dirt road. Some were shouting to attract customers. Smells of fried pakoras wafted through the air. Fine dust particles, raised by people’s movement, were on the air. My eyes were scanning the sellers like a policeman. I found Appu. He was shabbily dressed. His shorts were darned. His half-sleeved shirt was torn near his left elbow. He arranged the cow dung cakes in piles on the ground. They were round and small. He was looking around to find customers. He gave me an uneasy look as I suddenly stood in front of him. Fear crept into his eyes. His lips were trembling. He then burst into tears.

“I want to buy the cow dung cakes,” I said gently and sat on my heels, not caring about the tears he tried to wipe with the his small hands.

Aman, seemingly in his sixties, came up and said, “Appu, he’s the new schoolteacher. Why are you afraid of him?”

Appu stared at my face through the remnants of his tears.

“I’ll buy the cow dung cakes, Appu. I’ll buy the entire cow dung. How much do you want to get for them? I won’t bargain. Just tell me the price you charge.”

Appu didn’t speak.

“Will you sell them for two hundred rupees?”

Wiping the remnants of tears off his eyes, he nodded.

“Will you carry the bags to my home?”

He nodded.

“I will buy it for two hundred rupees. Okay?”

He looked astonished.

I put a one-hundred-rupee note in his hand and said, “I’ll give the remaining money when you bring it to my home this evening. Now you go home”

He examined the note, fondled it, then touched it to his forehead before stashing it the inside pocket of his shorts.

We started walking. He was heaving the heavy bag on the way to his home, which fell between my home and the market.

“Do you go to school, Appu?”

He didn’t answer.

“If you’re interested in learning, you may come to my home every Saturday and Sunday. You’ll have new friends at my place.”

He didn’t speak.

*

In the evening when I woke up, I was shivering with fever. I dragged myself to the kitchen and warmed a glass of water. The doorbell rang. I opened the door.

It was Appu. He had the bag with him.

“Leave that bag outside and come in.”

He came in.

“Take the money from the center table,” I said and, with my chin, pointed at the hundred-rupee note.

He picked it up, cast a look at me, and said, “Sir, you’re shivering. Are you ill or something?”

“I’m ill with fever,” I responded.

He immediately ran out of the room and vanished. I shut the door. I returned to my bed and wrapped myself in the blanket and fell asleep. I would’ve perhaps continued sleeping but I woke up because Appu was banging wildly on the door while calling out to me. I stumbled out of bed, angry and annoyed. I answered the door and found Appu standing on the veranda, a plastic bag in his hand.

“Why are you again here at night, Appu?” I asked, my voice shivering with cold.

He came in and put the bag on the center table.

“What’s this?”

“I told Aai about your being ill with fever. She’s given me food for you, sir.”

My eyes fixed on his face, I kept standing, unable to speak.

Glossary:

Deuta: Father.

Aai: Mother.

Neilay Khasnabish is a fiction writer from India. His writings were published in Evocations, Finding the Birds, The New North, The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel.

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

Categories
Stories

Folklore from Balochistan: The Pearl


Created from Balochi Folktales by Fazal Baloch



Once there lived a man who had three sons. He buried three pitchers full of gold coins in his home. Beside the gold coins he put a pearl into each pitcher. He was too old and eventually passed away. His sons knew about the pitchers. One day, thinking that his brothers were unaware of all the contents, the youngest son secretly stole a pearl from one of the pitchers.

Sometime after their father’s death, the sons decided to distribute their paternal inheritance amongst themselves. When they opened the pitchers, they found one pearl missing. “There must be a thief among us. Father must have distributed the wealth equally,” said the eldest brother. But all of them declared, they had not seen the pearl. At last, they decided to take the matter up with the king.

On their way to the palace, they noticed some footprints on the road. “It must be a woman”, said the eldest brother.

“She must have left her house after a quarrel,” said the middle brother.

“And she must be pregnant”, concluded the youngest brother.

After having covered some distance, they heard a man shouting behind. The man drew close and inquired if they had seen someone around. “Is she a woman?” asked the elder brother.

“Yes, she is,” replied the man.

“Did she leave her house in anger?” Asked the middle brother.

“Yes, she did,” so came the man’s reply.

“Is she pregnant?” asked the youngest brother.

“You are absolutely right. She is pregnant”

“We don’t have any idea where your wife has gone,” they told the man.

The man was shocked. “You know everything about my wife, you must have seen her.”

He warned them that he would drag them to the king’s court. As they were already on their way to the king’s court, they were willing to take up this issue too.

After covering some distance, they came across the footprints of a camel.

“I think there is honey in the basket the camel is carrying on its back,” remarked the eldest brother.

“I think the camel is pregnant.” So guessed the middle brother.

“I believe she is blind in one eye,” said the youngest brother.

In the meantime, a man came up to them and asked them if they had seen a camel.

“Is your camel carrying honey in a basket?”

“Yes, she is,” replied the man.

“Is your camel pregnant?” asked the younger brother.

“Of course, she is,” retorted the man.

“Is she blind in one eye?” asked the youngest brother.

“Yes indeed”, said the man.

“We haven’t seen your camel. Go and search for her yourself,” they told the man.

“How come you know each and every thing about the camel unless you have seen her? You must have stolen my camel.” He warned them that if they did not tell him the truth, he would drag them to the king’s court. As they were already on their way to the king’s court, they agreed to resolve this issue too there.

At the king’s court, the three brothers told the king the purpose of their visit and so did the two men. The king decided to give a hearing to the three brothers though it was late in the evening. At first, he turned to the eldest brother and asked him how he managed to identify the woman’s footprint. He replied: “A woman has a peculiar seating style on the ground. From the marks she left on the ground I assumed that was a woman”.

Then the king asked the middle brother that how he conjectured that the woman was pregnant. He replied: “I noticed the marks of her palms on the ground. She put her hands on the ground to stand up on her feet. I assumed she was pregnant as a pregnant woman always needs support to get up on her feet.”

Then the king turned to the youngest brother and asked him that how he concluded that the woman had left her house after a quarrel. He responded: “From her footprints, it was evident that after every few steps she turned back to see if somebody was following her. Hence, I speculated that she had left her house in rage.”

The king told the man that those three brothers possessed enormous wealth of wisdom and they asked him questions about his wife on the basis of their insight. He thus concluded that they were not the culprits.

Then the king asked the three brothers how they could precisely describe the features of the camel even without seeing it. The eldest brother said: “I noticed bees were buzzing on drops of honey along the track. Thus, I conjectured that the camel was carrying honey in the in a basket”.

The middle brother said: “I observed the branches of the trees along one side of the track were nibbled while the same on the other side remained untouched. Hence I concluded she was blind in one eye”.

The youngest brother, who had surmised the camel was pregnant, said: “A pregnant camel always has a frequent urge to urinate, and I noticed she had urinated at many spots. Thence, I concluded accordingly that the camel was pregnant”.

The man as well as the king were struck by the wisdom and insight of the three brothers. The king told the man to leave the palace and search for his camel.

Then the three brothers requested the king to help them settle their own dispute. The king kept quiet for a while and then said that his daughters would sort that one out. The king had three daughters, and each was wiser and more sagacious than the other. Thus, he put forth the details before his daughters. The eldest daughter said before identifying the thief she would want to determine how wise and shrewd they were.

She sent a messenger to the three brothers to ask them that what would they like to be served at dinner. They said that they wanted to be served pulao with meat. The food was prepared accordingly. The princess sat beside them. When they were done with the food, she asked them if they liked the food.

The eldest brother replied: “It was not too bad”. After a pause he continued, “The meat tasted like that of a dog.” The princess was taken aback. Without saying any word, she got up and strolled out.

She summoned the shepherd and asked him about the very goat. In reply the shepherd said, “At the time of birth, its mother eventually died, and I had it suckled from a bitch”.

Upon hearing this, the princess thought that she might not be able to tackle their problem. Hence, she informed the king that she couldn’t identify the thief.

Thenceforth, the king entrusted the task to the second daughter to detect the thief. She prepared food for them and sent seven loaves, seven pieces of meat and purified butter. She conveyed a message in an encoded language meant for the three brothers: “Seven worlds, with seven stars while the sky is covered with haze.” Midway through, the maidservant ate two loaves and the whole meat and the purified butter and handed over the reminder to the three brothers. She conveyed them princess message as well.

They ate food and asked the maidservant to convey their good wishes and kind regards to the princess. Moreover, they asked her to tell the princess that there were five skies, all clear and without stars. Upon hearing their message, the princess scolded the maidservant and asked her why she had consumed two of the loaves and the entire meat and purified butter meant for the brothers. The princess proceeded to the king and told him that the three brothers were amazingly clever and wise, and it was quite difficult for her to identify the thief among them.

Next day the three brothers went to the king’s court, The king was sitting with his youngest daughter, viziers, emirs and emissaries. The youngest princess turned to the three brothers and addressed them:

“Before trying to identify the thief, let tell me you a tale. The tale goes thus:

 “Once the daughter of a certain king was roaming about the garden. The gardener presented her some flowers. The princess asked him what she wanted in return. The gardener replied that he harboured no greed or lust in his heart. He just wanted her to pay him a visit before she would see her husband on her wedding night. The surprised princess looked at the gardener and after a little pause she said that she would surely see him.”

The princess continued, “On her wedding night she told her husband about the promise had made to the gardener and expressed her desire to see him to keep her word. The husband generously granted her permission, and she took the route to the garden. On her way she ran into a thief. He held her hand and told her that he would not let her go unless she gave him all her jewels. The princes pleaded with him that she was on her way to fulfil a promise, and if he would allow her to proceed, she would come back to see him. The thief too granted her permission and waited for her return.

“The princess visited the gardener and told him that she had come to keep her promise. The gardener showered her with prayers and good wishes for keeping her words. He gave her two gold coins as a gift and saw her off with affection.

“The princess made it back to the thief and told him to do whatever he liked to. The thief said that he would never think of robbing someone who kept their words. The princess at last made it back to her bridal chamber where the groom was waiting for her.”

The king, viziers, emirs and emissaries all attentively listened to the tale. When the princess finished the tale, she turned to the three brothers and asked them a question: “Of the three characters of this tale — the bride, the thief and the gardener, who do you think deserves appreciations the most?”

The eldest brother replied: “I think the bridegroom played the significant role in the tale by allowing his newly-wed bride to visit the gardener to keep her promise.”

The middle brother said: “I believe the gardener deserves eulogies as he gifted the princess two gold coins for honouring her promise.”

The youngest brother said: “I think thief’s role is duly praiseworthy because he refused to rob the princess bedecked with costly ornaments.”

After hearing the answers, the princess turned to the king and addressed him thus: “The thief has been identified. The eldest brother is a dignified and well-mannered man. He can never think of stealing something. The middle brother is a decent man with a kind heart. It is the youngest brother who committed the theft. He is obsessed with wealth and riches that is why he praised the thief. His words mirror his mind.”


(This is an assorted version of two Balochi folk tales “Barin Dozz Ke Beet” retold by Ghulam Jan Nawab and “Qeemati Gohar” retold by Wahid Bux Buzdar in Urdu from Shay Ragam’s Balochi version. These two tales are included in “Cher Andaren Neki” by Ghulam Jan Nawab and “Balochi Lok Kahaniyan by Wahid Bux Buzdar.)

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies.

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Stories

Dinner with Bo Stamford in Hong Kong

By Steve Davidson

Vew from Victoria`s Peak, HongKong. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Recently I happened to be in Hong Kong for a cognitive education conference, and at day’s end, like many people, I took the spectacular funicular Tram and click-clacked up to the top of Victoria’s Peak to have dinner.  The charming restaurant staff nicely seated me at a small table where I could gaze out over Victoria Harbour, which was slowly descending into indigo blue, as the multicolored lights of Hong Kong and Kowloon gently transformed the city into fields of jewels, linked by the diamond tracks of the much-loved ferries cruising back and forth across the dark water. 

As I sipped my cold San Miguel beer in the warm evening, the restaurant began to fill up, and a pleasant looking gentleman was seated at the table next to me.  He also soon was gazing out at what must be one of the most stunning views in the world, Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak.  “Beautiful”, he remarked.  “Yes”, I replied.  And so began my conversation with Dr. Bo Stamford, one of the chief architects of what might be called the “Singapore System”, the principles underlying the globe’s most successful city-state.

Bo appears to be a clone of Buddha.  Warm, unpretentious, calm, respectful, broadly well-informed, shrewd and quick, and quietly amused.  Dressed de rigueur for the territory in pale yellow cotton polo shirt, pale blue cotton trousers, and Tod’s suede driving loafers.   His doctorate is in economics from a prestigious London university.  As we dined on shrimp dim sum, I had a chance to interview him about the amazing, numerous successes of his home, Singapore.

I:  Would anyone ever have predicted that a small British coaling station at the foot of the Malay Peninsula would morph into one of the world’s stellar communities, a model city-state?  How did it happen? 

Dr. S:  Naturally, there are the obvious sources.  An ideal location for international trade.  A convenient intersection of magnificent cultures—India, Britain, and China.  Vigorous, ambitious citizenry from Malaysia and Indonesia.  Water from river and rain, fields for planting, and copious sunshine. 

I:  But those elements are true for numerous neighbors of yours.  And many of those neighbors are struggling to build roads, schools, and hospitals, make money, and keep the peace.  How are you different?

Dr. S: (Bo looked at me with a gentle gleam in his eye, then looked about, as if checking to make sure no one were listening from Hello! Magazine, or the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, and finally whispered his answer.)  Causality . . .

I:  CAUSALITY?

Dr. S:  Not so loud!   

I:  Okay, okay.  So, what is this—thing?

Dr. S:  Academia . . . slides . . . over the concept of causality.  It’s there, but it isn’t.  It’s critical, but it’s neglected.  It’s a necessity, but it’s inconvenient.  It’s the holy grail of knowledge, then it’s Wednesday’s child. 

I:  Singapore, I take it, took a different tack.

Dr. S:  The very thing.  In every area of endeavour you can name, causality is the key

I:   I’d like to tell you that I completely agree with you, and that your insight is doubtless excellent.  However, a couple of examples, would . . . you know . . . clarify a little bit. 

Dr. S:  Naturally.  Regard, for a moment, these topics:

Leadership.  Leaders are supposed to control events in a desired direction.  That’s causality.

Government.  Administrations are supposed to manage society so that civic conduct falls within a highly admired range, so that all have jobs, medical care, housing, food and water in a beautiful, safe setting.  That’s causality.

Financiers.    Accountants and bankers are supposed to carefully analyze monetary systems, then invest in the ones likeliest to bring prosperous returns to the citizenry.    That’s causality.

Civic Designers.  Creative engineers are supposed to plan and build roads, buildings, parks, and breakwaters so the city continues to be dry, efficient, convenient, and attractive decade after decade.  That’s causality

Students.  Members of the educational community are supposed to acquire world class knowledge and skills, so they can provide world class service, resulting in world class incomes.    That’s causality.

I:  Yes . . . that’s what I thought you meant . . . 

However, how do you know if something is causal?   Isn’t there a lot of controversy around that issue?

Dr. S:  There’s confusion and, if I dare say, ignorance, about causality, but perhaps not so much true controversy.  The importance of causality is radically grasped all across Singaporean society, top to bottom. 

I:  How did that occur?  Why so?

Dr. S:  Nothing bearing such value was left to chance!   

I:  No, that doesn’t sound like that would be very Singaporean.  But, what did you do?

Dr. S:  First, our scientists provided us with a clear model of causality.  Then, that model was adopted by our educational establishment and taught to students from a young age, as well as continuously publicized by our media.

I:  Am I going to get confused here?

Dr. S:  Not necessarily.  It is, as a magician might say, tricky but simple.   

I:  I’m listening.  I think. 

Dr. S:  The key concept is comparison.

I:  I knew I was going to get lost.

Dr. S:  Look down below.  Ferries shuttle back and forth, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula.  It costs money to buy the fuel to keep the engines running.  Hong Kong is in the tropics, where sunshine is copious.  It occurs to someone that if ferries were equipped with solar collectors the sun might provide enough power to run the ferries. 

I:  Ah, I possibly see where this is heading.

Dr. S:  Yes, yes.  Good.  Take ten average ferries.  Spit them in half.  Equip one half, five ferries, with solar collectors.  Leave the other five, the “control” half, just as it was.  At the end of a year, compare the fuel costs.  If the ferries with the solar collectors cost much less to run, that’s probably because of the solar collectors. 

I:  You know that because the solar collectors were the only difference between the two groups of ferries.

Dr. S:  Right.  That’s a controlled comparison.  A test group compared to a control group.  That’s how you test for causality

Not exactly obvious, but once you get it, you’ve got it.

I:  Okay, maybe I am starting to.  So, when Singapore has an idea, it puts the idea into a controlled comparison to find out if it works or not.  If it works, it becomes a part of the Singapore System.  If not, it’s put aside. 

That’s why everything in Singapore works so well.  It’s been causally tested! 

Dr. S:  There it is.  We pilot ideas—test them out.  If they work, then we implement across our city-state of Singapore.

For example, we’re piloting a new leadership training program in the financial sector.  We chose ten matched banks, and broke them into two groups of five each, five in the test group, and five in the control group.  We taught the new leadership style to the managers in the five test groups, and said nothing to the managers in the five control groups.  In one year, we’ll compare the two sets of banks, and see which is making more money.  If our idea works, the five banks in the test group should be doing better than the five banks in the control group.  If so, then we can think about implementing the new leadership style across the whole financial sector.

There’s some guesswork involved in all that, here and there, naturally.  But that’s our basic approach, our basic causal schema.

His espresso coffee all gone, Bo checked his Patek Philippe watch and announced, “I have a meeting scheduled this evening at the Peninsula Hotel, in Kowloon, therefore, unfortunately, I must depart.  It has been a pleasure speaking with you.  Please enjoy the conference.”

As we exited the restaurant to all the splendor of nighttime Hong Kong viewed from high above, a green Rolls Royce, piloted by a strikingly attractive woman, switched on its lights and rolled silently forward, stopping in front of Dr. Stamford.  As the car door opened, he turned and made a final comment. 

“Plutarch told the stories of numerous men who made Athens, and similar city-states, eternally eminent.  We draw those stories into our hearts, into our minds, into our culture.  If Athens can . . . make it happen, then, Singapore can . . . make it happen.  It’s all a process of . . . causality!”  Then he smiled, bowed, slipped onto the beige leather seats, the door quietly closed, and the good doctor ghosted, in his shiny green Wraith, away down the dark hill.   

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Steve Davidson is a psychologist from California, the author of the clinical textbook “An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy”.

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Stories

In Search of a New Home

By Marzia Rahman

Refugees: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Migration is tough, littered with blank memories and a bleak future. It’s not something you ever hope to do.

Yet, you find yourself standing in a long queue, with a tiny bundle in hand, despairing to do or not to do? Fleeing a country that you naively thought yours. Stepping on a country that you know nothing about. That would never accept you as her own. Non-belonging is not a breezy concept, a topical topic in a critical theory. It’s an unnerving parable of human condition that no human ever yearns for.

You shudder, clasping the tiny bundle, containing your entire household, your sixteen years of life. Behind you, in a burnt house of a burnt village, your parents, your old grandmother and your two young siblings buried under the ideological beliefs of the state. Too complicated to grasp. Too easy to elude. “They don’t want you”— a clear and loud message the government sent to your people through army, arson, and atrocity.

Where is God? Your silly query swirls in the smoky air of a plundered village where dead people shrouded beneath dead humanity.

Tears fall on the tiny bundle, too small to carry so much misery. How can you leave your home where every dusty road is filled with memories, stories and songs? Where once a young man presented you a handwritten poem and a lotus flower. Where is he now? Dead or alive? Will he search for you?

The long queue gets smaller, some move forward, a few cries looking back at the village while boarding the boat.

Your turn.

They ask for money.

A gold chain, a few coins, a nose pin?

You have none.

Yet, the duo, one boatman and a middleman let you in. They have other means to usurp the debt. 

You are crammed between a family with five children, an old woman with acne and a little boy with a broken toy. There are others, men, women, children—your people—hunched and twisted in a small, shabby boat in silence.

Hours after hours, you travel in an opaque night under a livid moon. The endless sea stretches endlessly. What is the name of the sea? No one knows. Your people are poor farmers, illiterate housewives. None of you have ever read history, geography or geology. Ever stood in front of the Taj Mahal or saw any of the seven wonders. You have no idea of its existence. How would you know the glow of the sea is called sea sparkle? How would you grasp that it’s not magic but the phosphorescent waves lighting up the night?

Soon, you and your people would reach a new place. A new country with fresh troubles. Maybe, a new hell. Yet, each of you pray earnestly to reach there safely and soundly. You have no desire to be part of the global headlines. To be found lying face-down on some unknown beach. 

All you want is a new home. To build new dreams.

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Marzia Rahman
 is a Bangladeshi writer. Her writings have appeared in several print and online journals. She is currently working on a novella. She is also a painter.
This story was first featured in the Writing Places Anthology.

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Floating Free

By Lakshmi Kannan

 Harshavardhini sat on the swing, like a still, motionless figure. The birds were still around, for it was not too late in the evening.  After the revelry  and the din of an entire  day spent in the Disney Land, Harshavardhini needed the quiet space of this community park at Irvine, California. Her friends pulled her into one last trip to Disney Land before she would leave for Delhi. She spent the day taking thrilling rides, watching shows, shaking hands with a friendly Mickey Mouse, eating endlessly, winning games and losing, all the time looking at things through the eyes of her children. She longed for their company. They would’ve doubled her joy.

Perched on the swing, she looked at the children playing around in the park under the watchful eyes of their parents. On the lanes around the edge of the park, people were walking briskly, some were jogging on a steady pace. Harshi, as she was called by most of her family and friends, counted the remaining days she had in Irvine, before she would take her flight back to home in Delhi in four days from now. I should come to this park again before I leave, she told herself, pushing the uncomfortable thoughts about tidying up the apartment before handing it over, packing clothes, books, and things from the final shopping trip.

 She would miss Susan Green, who had not only enrolled for the same course, but also shared Harshi’s nice apartment on the campus. Susan offered to share the rent and  both of them could put the money saved to good use. They each had a room of their own and met only in the living room, the kitchen and dining room in that comfortable, sunny and spacious two-bedroom apartment. Sure enough, Susan spelt her name as Hershey, after the famous chocolate in the US  and justified it by saying it sounds much the same as ‘Harshi’. She became Hershey to everybody else in her course, including the professors. It was a happy surprise to find that Susan was equally earnest in giving her full focus to this rare course on Hermeneutics for which the university had hand-picked a galaxy of faculty from the rest of the US – some of the best minds from Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Chicago and a culturally diverse bunch of participants both overseas and American, whose paper publications were the main criteria for selection.

Before the program started, Susan, Harshi and the others were in awe of the professors and their fame. All of them were star academics whose books they had read and admired in print,  and who had influenced their methods of teaching and thinking. Now they were going to see them in flesh and hear them. What would they look like?  And their voice, would it touch them?   

The professors arrived like a proverbial breath of fresh air and put them through a breathless pace of course work. Susan, Harshi and most of the others loved it, every moment of it.

Harshi bought some of the books written by these academics, got them inscribed by the authors and sent them home by surface mail, as most of the books were heavy, hard back editions. It was unlikely that she would find them in the book shops in Delhi. Now she was left with  only a few light paperbacks to pack along with her clothes and the shopping she had done for Siddharth, her husband, and their children. She was anxious to return home and relieve him of all the additional work he had taken on. It was so brave of him to take care of their kids and home in her absence.

 If only her mother had been around, she would’ve been the first one to reach their home to take complete charge of running the house and managing the kids who got along with her very well. But Amma left this world and for the first time in their lives, Siddharth and Harshi had to manage their travels out of the country and other professional contingencies without her. It was tough. As they struggled hard to cope with their work, their home and kids, they realized how much Amma had taken upon herself selflessly, to let the two of them function smoothly and peacefully. Harshi couldn’t have got her Ph.D., made some career moves, pursued creative writing and taken Indian writing to other parts of the world without her. Thanks to Amma, both Siddharth and Harshi could be away from home with a sense of security that their children were looked after by their doting grandmother. 

 Now, there was the reality of the next few days. The apartment had to be thoroughly cleaned before she handed it over, and there was the packing.   

 Let me not think of that, let me just listen to the restful sounds of this evening, thought Harshi, closing her eyes. She continued to sit still on the swing when she heard a faint buzz near her face. Oh God, that was probably a honeybee! It would surely sting! Slowly, she opened her eyes to avert the bee. It was a hummingbird fluttering its delicate wings that had caused the sustained drone. It now hovered very close to her face, almost making eye contact with her.  It can’tharm me, I’m wearing my specs, so that’ll protect my eyes. Rather, I shouldn’t harm this darling little bird by my hard stare. Let me just pretend that it’s not there, even though it’s hovering near my nose now. Let me not scare it away by my jerky movements. I’ll sit absolutely still and just listen.

Harshi froze like a statue. This dainty little bird with tiny feet, it doesn’t seem to sit anywhere to rest, but just hovers around so joyfully. It’s blowing gusts of happiness on my face with its small wings. It’s telling me something.  

She closed her eyes to absorb the beauty of the moment. It was only in California that she got to see the famed humming birds. It was also interesting to read about them. She recalled a legend that was wrapped around this bird. The lines came across as sheer poetry!  

                                             Humming Birds

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

 Slowly, Harshi opened her eyes. The bird flew away from her, made a large arc to hover over the flowering plants nearby, and then returned to circle around her face. It  moved close to her ears and was saying something with its flapping wings. Harshi nodded.  

 I know, little bird. I know you’re my Amma who has come back from the other world to talk to me for a while,’ whispered Harshi, her eyes going moist. Amma, I know this is you, flapping within the tender little body of this humming bird. Yes, I hear you clearly. You’re my fragile, underweight Amma with innumerable health issues that were unmatched with your immense reserves of strength.

 “A hummingbird being small, it’s logical that its egg is also small, it’s just the size of a pea,” said an article in National Geographic. But Amma, to everybody’s shock, you gave birth to me, an overweight baby, 4 kg. 536 gms (10 lbs.) at birth,  instead of the usual 3 kg. 175 gms (which is 7 lbs.)! The doctors and the family found it miraculous that a thin, emaciated, undernourished, underweight young woman like you, who never kept well for long, would deliver a baby like me. You told me that the newborn baby dresses that were made for me wouldn’t fit, that new dresses were ordered and that there was a permanent mark of black kohl on my left cheek close to my ear that my grandma had applied, to remove kann drishti.

You raised me without a nanny, although I gave you a tough time. I was naughty, adventurous, but you saw me through all that and more, and those were my foraysinto sports and athletics. You never once forgot to alert me that I shouldn’t slacken in my studies. Your frequent spells of illness, your inability to eat, or retain anything you eat, cast a shadow on our lives. You continued to lose weight, yet your unconditional love for me and for your family throbbed on your little feathered bird breast.

 You gave me a baby brother at great cost to your life and health. The doctors were amazed to note your high pain threshold. My grandparents were furious that you should have risked your life with another pregnancy, but you pacified them by saying your husband and in-laws craved for a male child.

 When the doctors diagnosed a serious malfunction in your small intestine, you had to go through a surgery. I was in primary school then. I would rush to the hospital as soon as I returned from school and you sat up on bed to butter those long, crisp golden hued imported biscuits for me to eat. Eyes shining, you would ask me about my day and if I had played games after school. As if on cue, you would apply butter on one more crisp biscuit and put it on my plate…and one more… until I couldn’t eat any more.

Post- surgery, the doctors put you on a liquid diet that was to continue for the next fifteen years! Naturally, you lost more weight and became this frail packet of indefatigable energy, love and selflessness that astonished all of us. Still, there were some cruel people in our extended family who took you for granted. I seethed with anger, one of the many other spells of anger I was to experience as a growing girl child. Later, I had to learn a lot about anger management, as did my friends. Some of my anger was directed against you as well. “You’ve internalised patriarchy and that’s regressive!” I would argue hotly, while you looked bewildered by my feminist pedagogy, a new burden I carry now, along with my peers. We fought over issues, like mothers and daughters do, until I realised that you too were quietly evolving as a clever feminist-in-the-making, unbeknownst to the family.  Wisely, you didn’t squander any feminist vocabulary on the resistant family. Instead, you used strategies to grow your wings independently, right under their nose!  

What blossomed through all these travails was your stunning talent for painting. You were a natural! Noting this, my grandfather enrolled you in a professional course on painting in a Fine Arts College. He ordered for the branded imported paints, Windsor & Newton, specially flown all the way from England. Their superior quality glows till date in the rich tints behind the glass of your framed paintings. While your diet was liquid,  your output was solid. In a prolific abundance, you did landscapes, still-life, thematic triptych and portraits that won accolade from your teachers and art critics for their intuitive depth. The water colours, charcoal sketches and oil on canvas drew the attention of visitors in art galleries. Your high point was portrait. You were counted as one of the best artists for your haunting portraits of well- known personalities  such as Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans, his consort Sarada Devi and the lovely Shobhana Samarth. As for Mahatma Gandhi, commissions rained on you for painting his portraits. Art critics were quick to observe that you excelled especially in portraits of elderly people, and made the wrinkles on their face speak eloquently of all they had endured in life. Portraits became your unique selling proposition. To everybody’s utter surprise, you chose to paint me. Why me, a mere frisky ten-year old, an odd misfit in this gallery of ‘the famous’? I sat for you, thrilled beyond belief, while you chided me for fidgeting on my chair. When an artist, a scion of the Tagore family visited our home to buy two of your paintings, you sat demurely in a far corner with a shy smile on your face, and let my father completely monopolise the conversation with the distinguished gentleman.  

 Amma, you were here, there, everywhere, flying around, looking after us and the large extended family selflessly. You were like seven women put together. And when you left, all seven of you went out of our lives on a single day. The world around me shrank to a miserable little size. Something vital went out of my life. And now Amma, you’re back in the body of this small hummingbird that just doesn’t let me go out of its orbit. Like this bird with its tiny legs, you with your small fragile frame, were a strong woman. Ephemeral, yet eternal. You float on time, so I will always wait for you. You’ll come when I need you, I know. You’re untrammeled by body mass or messy emotions that weigh us down. You lived life the simple way – with love, joy, service and acceptance.

 The bird hummed on near Harshi’s ears.    

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Glossary                                                                                                    kann dhrishti  An Indian belief that one can remove ‘the malevolent eye’ of people by applying a black spot with kohl on the face of a healthy child.  

kohl: Dark substance that people apply around their eyes to make them look attractive.  

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Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name “Kaaveri”, has published twenty-five books till date that include poems, novels, short stories and translations.  Wooden Cow (Translation, 2021) Sipping the Jasmine Moon: Poems (2019) and The Glass Bead Curtain, Novel (2020, c 2016) are her recent publications. For more details, please visit www.lakshmikannan.in  

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Stories

Driving with Murad

By Sohana Manzoor

“Go, go, go, go, go! What are you waiting for?” yelled the man sitting in the passenger’s seat. I was at the wheel wondering if it was my turn, or if I should allow the car coming from my left to go forward. At his urging, I plunged forward and turned left. Murad shook his head in frustration and spoke with his thick Russian accent, “You are thoo afraid. Why are you so afraid? What dho you think will happen, huh? If you dhrive like that, you will never go anywhere.”

Murad was my driving instructor. He was a great fellow, full of fun and humour. He was quite motivating and without a doubt, an excellent driver too. Unfortunately, I am an awful learner and possibly also the worst pupil he had ever had to teach driving. I busted one of the front tires of my best friend’s car the very first day I dared to be out in the streets. I sat behind the wheel for the first time in my life in August 2015. I was as nervous and frisky as a kitten and the instructor from the Driving School in Newton made me drive around a parking lot. He suggested that I practice at the parking lot with a friend, and preferably in some streets with less traffic before signing up for my next session.

I did as he had suggested, but only in the parking lot. My best friend and housemate, Nausheen, was terrified of my driving skills, and naturally, did not dare to accompany me in the streets!

My second session was with Murad. He was a little late, and came cursing under his breath. Apparently, he got the wrong address from the driving school, and realised the mistake only after calling me. I still remember him not only as a great instructor, but a great entertainer as well. He was in his mid-fifties, good looking and in very good shape. He also talked incessantly. Every time I made some blunder, he yelled in a good-natured way.

“Next time, I will bring my shoth gun,” he told me once, after I made a frantic turn ignoring all other drivers on the road amidst a jumble of hooting and honking. “I can shoot all those people down, and you won’t have to worry about running them down, you know,” he said grinning.

“You have a shot gun!” I gasped. “What do you do with a shot gun?”

He was nonchalant. “I’m a licensed fire arms instructor.”

“Fire arms instructor?” I blanched and stepped on the gas paddle instead of the brake. Murad quickly pressed on his safety brake and tsked, “Don’t do that. Take it easy. You have to learn to converse while driving.”

He guided me to a rather quiet area in West Newton. I was driving very slowly, and cautiously. Murad suddenly coughed and asked, “What’s the speed limit?”

“Er…thirty-five.”

“What’s your speed?”

“Twenty,” I replied sheepishly.

“It’s like riding a donkey, you know,” he held out both his hands in front of him as if he held the reins of a donkey. Something told me that he had ridden on donkeys too.

*

After two successive sessions with Murad, I found myself with Arthur, a veteran from the Vietnam War. Retired and in his early sixties, he had the airs of a consummate playboy. He was not bad, I suppose. I would probably have fallen for him if I was a teenager. Arthur would flirt and praise how pretty I was. So, at one point I said a little too sweetly, “But I’m an awful driver, don’t you think?”

Poor Arthur looked flabbergasted. He belched, and then admitted that I was not the best driver in the world. Satisfied, I switched the topic to Murad, saying that I really liked his techniques. As you can probably guess, Arthur immediately turned around in his seat. “Yeah?” he peered over his sunglasses and asked, “And why is that? What’s so great about Murad? He’s shell shocked; I hope you knew that?”

“Is that so?” I glanced sideways, as I was driving through an intricate intersection. The drivers of Massachusetts are awful; little wonder that the people of the neighboring states were terrified of them. Perhaps, just because of that reason I would get my driving license in the long run, I tried to convince myself.

“Murad had worked with the Talibans at one point of his career,” said Arthur.

 I gulped and exclaimed, “Talibans! You are not serious, are you?”

“I wouldn’t joke about something like that,” replied Arthur very casually. “He used to work as a spy for the American Government. He is originally from Turkmenistan, you know. And he is fluent in six languages. So, yes, he was the perfect man to be recruited.” He paused dramatically and added, “I guess at some point they suspected his secret and hence tried to cut his throat and left him for dead.”

I gulped again.

*

When I told Nausheen and the rest of our housemates about Murad, they were all shaking uncontrollably. Nausheen was noncommittal, “No! This is unheard of! He was really with the Taliban? I have to see this guy!”

So, there she was standing with me the next day as I waited for Murad to show up. He looked at Nausheen carefully and he asked, “Have you seen her drive? Do you trust her with your life?”

Nausheen laughed, “I don’t trust her. But I trust you! Surely you won’t let her do anything so drastic?”

Nausheen can be absolutely adorable, and Murad melted. “Hop in,” he yelled. “It will be fun.”

After passing through the busy traffic of Newton I asked him, “Hey, I heard that you worked with the Taliban. Is it true?”

He turned his bright eyes on me and lifted his left hand drawing my attention to his middle finger.

“You see this moonstone?” he asked, displaying a ring with a yellowish stone. “The Taliban gave it to me. I stayed and prayed with them for three entire years. Crazy fanatics. I almost died.”

“It’s true then, that they tried to slit your throat?” I asked horrified.

Murad shrugged. “Nah, I was not referring to that. I almost died because there was no woman.” And then he shouted, “Look where you’re going. Eeks, you’re something out of this world! But yes, if I have you driving with me, I won’t need to go for parachute jumping any more. I have already given up my morning coffee!”

“You go for parachute jumping?” I asked wide-eyed. What an interesting fellow indeed! Nausheen exclaimed “Wow!” And we both asked at once, “Why do you go for parachute jumping?”

He nodded. “Life has become so boring! I need adrenaline rush. But yes, with you, it almost seems like I am in the middle of a battle field. God knows when and where you’ll turn next. . .  Look where you’re going! That’s a grandmamma! She will kill you if you scratch her car.”

I blushed. And at the back seat I could hear Nausheen laughing her head off. He was so blunt, and yet he was great company. He kept on shaking his head, “Please don’t make that kind of a turn. I’m not so young any more. I might break my neck. My wife is 25 years younger than me. Do you know what will happen, if I break my neck?”

I just stared at him. Why in the world would he have a wife who is 25 years younger than him?

“I will have to divorce her,” Murad confided. I wondered why. Then I hit the brakes again. Hell, this man was outrageous!

*

In the evening, Elizabeth, our favorite housemate asked, “So, this Murad—is he as amazing as Sohana made him sound?”

We were all in the kitchen and I had tilapia and asparagus baking in the oven. Nausheen said gleefully, “One hundred percent and more. I think I will go with them on the next session too. I have never met anyone like him. My driving instructor was great, but this guy is just CRAZY! All Sohana’s karma,” she winked at me. “I don’t know how she comes to meet all the crazy and entertaining people.”

Elizabeth shook her head and smiled, “So what did Murad do today?”

I listened half-smiling as Nausheen went on regaling our friends with Murad and his outrageous comments.

“You know, now I know why Gary never listens to us,” she said laughing. Gary was another housemate, loud and raucous. During our house meetings his behavior was irritating and sometimes disruptive.

“And why is that?” Asked Lizzy.

“Because he is an arborist. He works with those noisy instruments, and has lost his hearing. His ear-pipes are jammed and he can’t hear anybody else.”

By now my tilapia fillets were ready. I pulled the baked fish and veggies out and announced, “Dinner is ready. And yes, that’s what Murad said: ‘keep away from those guys with big machines in hand. They never listen to your honking because they are making too much noise themselves.’” I paused and added with a mischievous wink, “He also advised to keep away from grandmamas. Apparently, they are the worst drivers.”

Donna, another sweet lady who lived on the second floor, was chopping her root vegetables on a table at one corner of the kitchen. Both Elizabeth and Donna were in their mid to late sixties. Both replied hastily, “well, we are not grandmas yet.”

Nausheen and I grinned. It seemed everybody wanted to be in Murad’s good books.

*

The day of the road-test was approaching. I was nervous. To make things worse, Murad was gone. He had left for home in Turkmenistan to visit his elderly mother and children from a previous marriage. I was working with another instructor. To be honest, he was not bad at all; did the usual drilling and practices. But as I got down from the car one day, I felt sad and down. I realized that I missed Murad. Being away from home and country was taking its toll. He was supposed to be back two days before the test. But he wasn’t.

On the morning of the driving test, I suddenly realised that even if I failed the test, it did not matter. Murad had taught me something vital, much more important than driving a car. He has actually shown me how to go on with life, to enjoy it to the fullest, regardless of all that is negative. Driving an automobile is only one little particle in this vast line called life.

I looked at the mirror, at the surprised face staring back at me. I smiled. Finally, I was ready.

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Sohana Manzoor teaches English in the Department of English, ULAB. She is also the literary editor at The Daily Star. This is a revised version of another publication in the Dhaka Tribune in 2017.

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