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Stories

Too Much Light, Too Much Trouble

A Balochi Short story by Ghani Parwaz

( Translated by Fazal Baloch)

The moment he stepped into the office he was astonished to see the distorted features of his colleagues. Someone’s eyes were bulging out of their sockets. Someone’s ears were stretched out. Someone’s tongue was sticking out. Someone’s lips had swollen. He stared at them with bewilderment.

Aftab, the clerk, raised his head and bulged out his eyes a bit further and said: “You are looking at us in such a way as if we are creatures from some other planets.”

Imdad, the assistant, raised his ears a little more and asked him: “Why are you looking at us with such wonder”?

Zaheer, the cashier, stuck out his tongue and remarked: “I think he is not feeling well today.”

Muzzamil, the clerk, puffed his already swollen lips and said: “We need to bring him back on the track.”

He strolled ahead, stood right in their midst and said: “But why do you all look so strange today?”

First they looked at each other and then directed their gaze at him and asked him: “What is wrong with us, by the way?”

He smiled acerbically and retorted: “Someone’s eyes are bulging out. Someone’s ears are unusually raised. Someone’s tongue is sticking out. Someone’s lips are swollen.” 

Aftab, the clerk, instantly pulled out a small mirror from his pocket and looked into it.

“You damn liar,” he mumbled.

One by one they all looked their features in the mirror.

Someone lashed out at him, “Why do you fashion such big lie?”

“Is this the way to make fun of your colleagues?” Someone else expressed his displeasure.

Muzamil was not satisfied yet. He strolled over to the bathroom and thoroughly scanned his face in front of a giant mirror.

“Lies wouldn’t last long.”

Azhar sat on his chair and looked around and said: “Truth and lies apart, but your faces do not look as usual.”

Ms. Farhat, the secretary to the Chairman, stepped in.

“What happened? Why are you looking so flummoxed?” she asked them.

“Azhar says our features look distorted.” Muzzamal said while looking at Ms. Farhat.

She looked at their faces and said: “No. Everything seems to be as usual.”

“Look at yourself, madam,” Azhar said.

“What has happened to me?” Farhat was puzzled a bit.

“Your cheeks are swollen.”

“O my God!” She covered her face with her hands and scurried to the bathroom. She returned in a moment and blasted at Azhar: “You are a duffer. You don’t even deserve the slot of a watchman.”

“He thrashed at us and even didn’t spare you.”

Someone suggested, “We must take up the matter with the boss.”

“Don’t worry. Let the boss come. I will do the rest,” Farhat assured them.

A while later the door turned open and Zahir Ali, the Chairman, stepped in. He cast a cursory look at the staff and made it to his office. Farhat followed him.

“What is the problem, today you all look anxious?” The Chairman placed his sunglasses on the table.

“Today Azhar has lost his mind,” Farhat replied.

“How?”

“He is talking nonsense.”

“Just relax yourself I will see him.”

The Chairman pressed the bell and asked the peon to call Azhar in.

“Sir! Have you called me?” Azhar looked at him anxiously.

“Yes. Why are you misbehaving with your colleagues?”

“No, Sir, I haven’t done anything wrong. I just told them whatever I saw with my eyes.”

“By the way what did you see?”

“They all have distorted faces.”

“How? Any example.”

“Bulging eyes. Elongated ears. Puffed lips. Swollen cheeks.”

The Chairman asked him, “And you are also staring at me with amazement. Do you see any change in my features?”

“Sorry Sir! I wouldn’t be that rude. After all you are my boss.”

“Go ahead and tell me if you see something unusual in me.”

“As you wish Sir — you have a protruding paunch today,” he revealed in a somewhat trembling tone.

The Chairman walked over to the bathroom. He returned in a while and blasted at Azhar: “You rascal!”

Azhar trembled with fear and pleaded: “I am sorry Sir.”

“You don’t deserve any relaxation.” He looked at him with anger and pressed the bell.

The peon rushed in: “Yes Sir!”

“Call the staff in,” he commanded.

All the staff gathered in the Chairman’s office.

“Do you see any change in your own features?” The Chairman asked them with great concern.”

“No Sir,” was their answer.

“And something unusual in mine?”

“Not at all.” They replied.

“Then why on earth, is this knucklehead insisting that we have distorted features?” He was furious.

“Sir something must be wrong with his eyes.” Muzammil pointed towards Azhar’s eyes.

“Muzzamil is right; you must have an eye problem.” The Chairman looked at Azhar.

“Yes, indeed I had an eye-problem, but I have had them treated recently.”

“The treatment has further ruined your eyes,” the Chairman looked deep into his eyes.

“Anyway, what was the problem with your eyes?”

“My eyes used to twinkle,” he replied.

“What? Do eyes ever twinkle?” The Chairman was amazed.

“Yes, they used to twinkle and I felt new and brighter eyes were growing inside my eyes.”

“What was the nature of the treatment?” The Chairman asked him.

“I had an eye surgery.”

“I feel the surgery went terribly wrong.”

“It went wrong?” Azhar was confused a bit.

“Yes, it did,” the Chairman affirmed his statement.

“But now I have a much better and brighter vision than ever, Sir. Now even I can see the invisible things.”

“What do you mean by the invisible things,” the Chairman shot back.

“I mean that I can see what the bulging eyes are looking for. I can hear what the elongated ears desire to hear. I know what the swollen lips want to say. I know what the puffed out cheeks seek. And what the protruding paunch…”

“Shut your nonsense!” The Chairman cut into the middle of his speech. “Had you not been an old employee, I would have kicked you out of the office.”

“Have mercy on me Sir,” Azhar pleaded.

“I accept your apology but only on one condition.” The Chairman dragged his chair a bit forward and pointed his index finger towards Azhar.

“I accept whatever condition you set.” Azhar bowed his head in respect.

“I will get your eyes operated again and its expense will be deducted from your salary in nominal installments,” the Chairman gave the verdict.

“What do you think now?” Muzammil quipped with a sardonic smile.

“What can I say,” Azhar replied in a state of utter helplessness.

A few days after the operation Azhar resumed his routine in the office. Now everybody looked normal to him. He didn’t notice anything unusual in their features. He was standing by the door when the Chairman burst in.

The Chairman asked him sarcastically, “How are your eyes now?”

“As usual, Sir,” Azhar replied.

“Remember, too much brightness of vision is always disastrous. It can land you in deep trouble.”

“I will never forget your advice Sir.” A meaningful smile appeared on Azhar’s lips, “because I cannot endure too much suffering.”

Ghani Parwaz is one of the most celebrated Balochi writers. He has been writing Balochi fiction for the past five decades. So far he has published seven anthologies of short stories and five novels.  Apart from fiction, he also writes poetry and literary criticism. He received several awards for his literary contributions including “the Presidential Award for the Pride of Performance”. He lives in Turbat Balochistan.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated several Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2017 and Silence Between the Notes — the first ever anthology of Partition Poetry published by Dhauli Books India in 2018. His upcoming works of translation include Why Does the Moon Look So Beautiful? (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Naguman) and God and the Blind Man (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Minir Ahmed Badini).

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Stories

Flash Fiction: The One Rupee Taker

By Sushant Thapa

                                                                                                           

Every day he visits my home and takes only a one-rupee coin. Not more and not less. If I try to give him a two-rupee coin, he asks, “Do you want me to take this coin?” and he won’t take it. He is in the habit of taking a one-rupee coin from my home and perhaps many other homes. I can only see him coming to my home to take a coin. I do not care if he visits other homes and collects coins, for I care about his visit to my home because of his regular habits.

We see him in gatherings and ceremonies at other places. He sits flat on the ground. They serve him well in many social functions. Unconcerned, he sits politely and leaves in a well-mannered way. Yet, his daily habit of taking a one-rupee coin from my home worries me.

“How very forgetful of him!” says my dad if he is late.

His tension is unlike that of a housemaid who lights a single cigarette in the afternoon after finishing her morning chores. A single cigarette puts the maid to relief. But a single coin puts the man to unrest every day.

People say he is loosely wired. Decades have passed. But he has not changed his habit. Everybody in the town has ceased to talk about him now. They are not worried about his activities. He is dressed untidily in dirty clothes often.  He is well built, stout and tall. He seems to come from a healthy family. The only thing that concerns him is the daily collection a one-rupee coin from every home. He might have hoarded a vast amount by now.

He used to talk to my grandfather in those days when I was young. He would see my grandfather having lunch at the dinner table through the window, and he’d say, “Well, you are having your lunch, should I not be having my coin?” I used to be young but now I can write his story. I’m a grown-up man now, and I can write things about the one-rupee man.

Many times, I have placed a coin in front of the man myself. I would place it on the windowsill, he would murmur something, and I would say — “It’s there.” Silently, he would feel the coin with his hand and take it. He would say nothing to me.

Once, my little niece gave him a two-rupee coin. The man asked my dad, “Why do you create such confusion? Why do you give me two rupees instead of one?”

Once a day, we see him standing in front of the window of my house, but he is very careful not to visit more than once a day. Perhaps it bothers him, and that’s why he is particular about it.

Some say he was a rich businessman, and that his business partners deceived him and he lost every penny he invested. He got detached from the business world, but he does collect a one-rupee coin from everyone. He continued to have a relationship with the monetary world in as much that he would have his daily dole of a one rupee coin. He makes sure that he comes to collect a one rupee coin from us, and we get bothered about handing him his single one-rupee coin. The give and take process dilutes the tension. Yet, it seems to be a never-ending process that holds the burden for both parties.

Sushant Thapa is a recent post-graduate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. His short story “The Glass Slate” has been published in Kitaab.org from Singapore. His poems and essays have been published in Republica daily from Kathmandu. His short stories and poems have also been published by The Writers’ Club, New Jersey, United States. He revels in rock music, poetry, books and movies from his home in Biratnagar, Nepal. 

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Stories

Metropolis

        A short story by Avishek Parui

The day when his second novel was rejected in the same cold cursory manner the earlier one had been, Pavish Reuk decided to take a stroll across the city. He didn’t have much in his mind then, except a half-bitter tingling that always grew out of his failures.  As he stood at the crossing with a crowd of scared masked men waiting for the green that summons pedestrians to march across the throbbing cars, Pavish Reuk realized that his whole life had been a string of failures.

He had been a failure at the crucial points in his student-life, excelling in the unimportant exams. He had been a failure in romance, having lost the only woman he had loved, as he didn’t have enough courage to tell her. He had been a failure professionally, failing in all the career-oreinted competitive exams and ending up as a lowly clerk in a semi-nationalized bank about to go bankrupt. Most importantly to him, he had been a failure as a writer, something he had always wanted to become.

Now, at the age of thirty-nine, with his greasy glasses, shrinking legs, and balding head, Pavish Reuk was in a loveless marriage with a disappointed wife and two children, none particularly fond of him. And yet, Pavish thought, despite having failed in almost all aspects of life, failure still saddened him, it still gave him the feeling of being denied, still, after all these years. This thought surprised him; it touched him with something that felt like happiness. Perhaps it meant, Pavish thought, that he still bore some dream, some debris of optimism that was hurt each time it was not fulfilled. Sensitivity to failures is somewhat a success. Pushed by a restless young man who muffled beneath his mask, Pavish began to cross the street. It had turned green while the last thought crossed his mind.

It had begun to drizzle, and the March Kolkata evening glistened with lights of various shades, strangely silhouetted by the many masked faces that marched slowly down the boulevards on either side of the main street. As the rain swished across the twilight shadows with the gusts of wind, and the cars’ lights mixed with the shafts from the streetlamps on either side, Pavish Reuk began to walk, breathing in the mixed smell of rain, dust, and sweat that spread along the pavement. He was not carrying an umbrella and though his thin hair looked thinner and his small frame smaller in the rain swept crowd, Pavish felt something resembling reverie beginning to fill him in. Suddenly a big black police van with a dirty diesel smell screeched to a halt by the road. Two policemen got off and walked briskly into the by-lanes that flanked the corner of the pavement. The sight of the van made Pavish afraid, though he did not understand why. It seemed to have a sinister message stuck to its dented sides. That, and the sound of a lame dog wailing at a corner of the pavement, took Pavish Reuk to where he did not want to go this evening: the memory of his last, rudely rejected novel.

His last novel was about a shepherd boy who loses his way in a blizzard and discovers a magic stone in the cave he took shelter during the storm. The stone enables him to see the truths out of other people’s lives and create stories out of those. As the boy starts using the stone, he becomes a brilliant storyteller, famous in the taverns, enthralling the people in his valley and even beyond it, till the people realize he makes up his stories from the incidents in their lives, from the carefully hidden secrets that were somehow prized open by the boy’s imagination. In the end, the people gather together and kill the boy through a public execution, but not before he had swallowed the magic stone. The next morning, as they wake up, the people in his valley cannot remember anything that had happened to any of them. The novel ends with the oldest man in the valley breaking down in tears for a reason he did not understand, while the others gathered around him, looking at him wail with a blank expression in their faces. A blizzard with a deadly epidemic was about to set in.

Pavish had drawn the novel with many characters and had named his central protagonist Pratham. There was also a series of subplots that had carried the novel to three hundred pages. But the only publisher Pavish knew and could approach hated the idea of the novel. The editor had clearly stated that his theme was more like an old-fashioned fairy tale and would have no takers in the modern world. Pavish loved the novel as it grew out of the flesh of his imagination. He could particularly relate Pratham to himself and had taken care to give him the attributes of his own younger days. But both he and Pratham had failed and as Pavish entered the staircase that led down on to the metro station, he decided not to write any novel anymore. The raindrops had become fatter by then.

Not knowing exactly where to go, not sure why he entered the metro station either, Pavish Reuk stood in the long snaky queue before the ticket counter. When he reached the counter after what seemed an eternity, Pavish mumbled the name of the next station as he put forth the exact fare through the narrow slit. There was a growing commotion in the metro station. The ticket-punching turnstile had broken down and an increasingly angry crowd swore at the nervous crew that tried to fix it. There was something numbing and scary about the way the people looked now, as if all of them were dreading a disease to break out, a massive infection about to spread like a contagion. Most of them were wearing masks which made them faceless in Pavish’s eyes. The broken turnstile seemed to have triggered some collective claustrophobia of being trapped in a tunnel full of worms. Pavish looked at the group of masked men and women around him.

There was this big burly man in blue shirt with a wart on his forehead who swore the loudest at the incompetence of the crew. There was this very attractive woman dressed in a red top that reminded Pavish of an accident he had seen from close three years back, in which a young girl lay in a pool of blood after being run over by a speeding truck. If the girl had lived, thought Pavish, she would have been as old as this woman. Trying to figure out if the girl looked like this woman as well, Pavish saw the woman staring back at him with a knowing half-smile that scared him. She wasn’t wearing a mask.

There was this absent-minded young man of about twenty-six, already balding, with a brooding look of a jilted lover or a confused philosopher, or both. A group of teenaged schoolgirls chatted away about something funny that had happened in school. Pavish tried to eavesdrop but he was too far away. He had always been too far away, he realised, from the real centers of interest.

Trying to recall with difficulty the content of a long letter he had been asked to type in office the previous day, Pavish fixed his gaze at the wart on the forehead of the big man that seemed to grow in size with his focus. It grew till it was an orange-red haze and would’ve grown bigger had it not been for the sound that rose above the noise of the human voices within the station.

The turnstile handle had given way to the machinations of the metro-crew and people were about to gush in like a flood of insects set free to infect each other. Between the moment when the turnstile broke with a loud crash and the one that saw the long-waiting crowd rush in, something happened inside Pavish Reuk. A loud cacophony of conflicting voices sent Pavish’s mind in a wild disarray even as he tried to figure out where those came from. The breaking of the turnstile, with its loud noise of collapse, had ushered in strange voices that spoke very fast, like a group of jugglers performing simultaneously with colored balls and knives. The many marks from the many wet shoes and slippers spread like a maze across the platform floor, a testimony to the drizzle above, as Pavish closed his eyes to listen…

“That bugger Bobby, he was sleeping with the boss’s wife or else the old hag wouldn’t have favored him so much…kicked the bucket…road-accident…didn’t his sister die in a similar way…three years ago wasn’t it…what the heck…let’s see if I can make some inroads now…” “The new English teacher is cute, and I think he likes me… kept glancing back at me through the entire class… should be fun… I’ll wear my new ear-rings tomorrow…”  “How did she come to know where I was last evening? I had told her I was at an office meeting… like I do every time I go out… is she spying on me now?” “The film was crap…had to come along with him and waste so much money and time…as if this is a good time to come to a cinema hall in the first place, with all the scare going around… I should’ve stayed at home and completed the new problems of integral calculus…he’s so stupid sometimes… laughed like a fool at all the corny jokes during the film…don’t think we can stay together for much longer.” “She’s gone insane…bringing her mother over to stay with us…driven out of her son’s house…and bang she arrives in her son-in-law’s house like a pest…” “How am I going to pay back the loan? 50,000 a month…how…how…why did I let them talk me into it? I can’t…can’t…can’t anymore.” “A paper on The Waste Land…we are doomed…it’s so long…and so boring…can’t get anything out of it…Eliot’s personal grouse… why must we suffer…the other group got to do just The Dead…just a short story…it’s so unfair…” “I asked her specifically to take the pill every night…she’s so silly… can’t remember a damn thing…and now…who should I see now to get it done quietly…just before my promotion…the dumb bimbo…and she’s got such a rotting reek in her breath now…” “I think the complete work of Kafka would be a good gift…he’s 17 now…he should love it…it’s on the 16th…can I get a hard cover so fast…paperback would look cheap…” “Ma’s been having the cough for two weeks now…I must take her to the doctor tomorrow…she will never come unless I force her…with the scare now for old people particularly.. I will take a half-day tomorrow and pick her up from home…” “The shares of Safe-Life are crashing down…must sell out and get out of it fast…” “Everything will be shut down soon” … “Bobby is dead…alas…”        

It took Pavish Reuk a few seconds to realise that he had, by some long pent-up power that had chosen him now, gained access into the thoughts of the people around him. It was like being struck with a strange virus. He was hearing people speak inside their minds. The voices were criss-crossing the space between his ears like a buzz of busy bugs infecting someplace furiously. The words screamed out of the brains of the dwellers of the metro station, a group of strangers whose lives were now connected by this space-time, by the fear of a common contamination, by the wait for the next train. Pavish Reuk looked around to see if anybody could suspect what he was doing, but nobody in particular was staring at him. Relieved, Pavish walked to the centre of the platform and seated himself on a chair that was surprisingly empty considering the large crowd that had gathered around it. As he sank further deep into the monstrous melting pot of secret thoughts, Pavish remembered the one who could do the same, one he himself had created, and killed: Pratham.

Leaning forward in his chair so as to catch the thoughts better, Pavish looked like a slanted antenna as more and more stories buzzed inside him. Pratham had had a magic stone. For Pavish the sound of a turnstile breaking catapulted him into the belly of a super-sensory universe.

The stories grew out from fear, from secrets, from thoughts never put into words and Pavish Reuk knew right away he was inside the triumph that all artists crave for. He felt like an old typewriter suddenly brought back to life by an incessant clanking away of keys, in this crowded contaminated metro station as a drizzle fell on the floors above. Meanwhile, the two policemen near the signal crossing were walking back to their van. They had been informed of an infected man. One who could spread the disease. And hence had to be captured before it’s too late. Below them Pavish Reuk stood up as he heard the train coming in from a distance. He was full of stories now. He had stolen it all. Triumph, of the purest kind, had finally touched him and he knew he must win this time. Maybe that would redeem Pratham, his death, his failure.

As Pavish Reuk stood up he looked around and saw what he knew he would see. The people around were all looking at him. With sad, infected eyes. Gloomy, masked faces, waiting to slowly die. He was the chosen one now. Despite his unpublished novels, despite his balding head, despite his shrinking frame. The touch of that gaze made him surer of his purpose. He could not go back to failure now. To his loveless home of lack and disappointment. He must win from here. Genius, he had read somewhere a long time ago, lay in the ability to take an infinity of pain. With the smile of a sure man, Pavish Reuk walked to the edge of the platform. The yellow light sped along the rails and became a train. Pavish Reuk jumped into his triumph and disappeared. Outside, it continued to rain.

                                   

Avishek Parui (PhD, Durham) is Assistant Professor in English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He researches on storytelling, embodiment, and memory studies and is the author of Postmodern Literatures (Orient Blackswan).

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Stories

The Savage

By Sunil Sharma

The Common Tiger butterfly (D genutia) lured him into the deep of the scrub jungle. The orange wings with black veins; double row of white spots of a Danaus genus can be as alluring for a camera-n-backpack-laden young birdie from Mumbai, as a call of the sea for a sailor!

Marvellous!

He began clicking the cluster of the butterflies perched on dry twigs as the afternoon advanced rapidly. Like a protective dark drape over a blue canvas, a cloud had partially covered the sky; the shadows had further deepened in the heart of the wilderness.

Hours ceased afterwards!

A time-sensitive honcho from urban Mumbai, Sandeep had deliberately not worn his wristwatch. He wanted a total disconnect with time and civilisation on that ordinary Saturday that was to prove extraordinary.

Life-changing events start with ordinary beginnings and contexts.

His bearded Guru Ananda Swami once told him.

Mighty oak in a tiny seed!

As he quietly clicked the colourful spectacle of the butterflies clinging to twigs in that green patch, Sandeep — Sandy for friends due to dull hair that looked like sand — recalled, in another part of his over-active brain, the last conversation with the Guru, in his expensive ashram.

I have reached the breaking point! I am burnt-out!

The Guru, surrounded by a bevy of the female white devotees, had smiled benignly.

I want to quit the rat race! Sandy had almost screamed in the morning session.

The Guru had turned his hypnotic eyes and fastened them on Sandy’s bulging face.

Calm down! He commanded in a sonorous voice.

Sandy did.

Go and find your inner self—in the jungle.

“In the jungle?” Sandy was incredulous.

“Yes,” the Guru said. In the jungle!

“But how?” Sandy persisted.

“Follow them,” came the order.

“Whom?” Sandy was lost before starting this Paulo Coelho-type quest across the unfamiliar terrain for selfhood and meaning.

“The butterflies!” The Guru said smiling, while the white babes smiled.

Butterflies? In the Jungle? 

Sandy thought an execution warrant was being read out to him in that small audience of the troubled super-rich of the world, in that cool and aesthetically designed mud-room of the ashram.

Yes. Somebody is waiting there for you. Predicted the Guru and then moved on to another disturbed soul in a Savile Row suit.

Although the young and handsome Guru was, few months later, arrested as a suspect in the murder of a sanyasin from Colorado, USA, his words had continued to ring as the guru-mantra.

Then one rainy Sunday, he enrolled for a five-Sunday- afternoon crash course from a freelance naturalist and butterfly-aficionado for a huge sum of money. Subsequently, equipped with a camera and backpack, he started on a solo journey to discover the Other.

That Sunday, indeed, proved to be a life-altering experience for a man who had plotted revenge and mergers on the board-rooms of many corporate houses in his rapid but short career as an e-entrepreneur and head honcho of another successful start-up for a hungry Indian market.

Somewhere, as destiny would have it — his Other was waiting.

The Jungle!

It was a wrong concept!

Rohit Mistry, the naturalist, told him in his studio in south of Mumbai.

“How?” asked Sandy over coffee and sandwich.

“We think of the jungle as a kind of space that is dangerous due to the predators and lack of human laws.” Mistry had taken on the colour and sanguinity of an oriental sage, while meditating on his common topic with his favourite student.

“The truth is,” Mistry continued softly, looking at the Arabian Sea in the background, “the jungle is an independent eco-system, much better than human society and civilization.”

Their denizens do not kill, pillage, destroy, for profit.

Mistry had chuckled. “They do not drop bombs; do not create wars for selling arms or for oil. No innocent gets killed for being the Other.”

“A frightening jungle is our conception, our collective invention. We call it wilderness. It is NOT. We call it dreadful place where we can, urbanites, get lost. No, we can NOT.”

Sandy was speechless by this reversal. This was pure revelation to the MBA from Harvard.

“We have created this strange myth, this urban legend — the Jungle as a killing field full of reptiles and other predators. Fact is — we are the mercenaries marauding that sacred place created by nature!”

Mistry’s tone was low, reverential, eyes far off. A priest speaking to a disciple!

“Jungle is much better than the society!” Mistry had passed his verdict. And left Sandy bewitched.

He wanted to explore that exotic place on his own— just to validate the sanctity of this credo of a post-modern pagan.

An opportunity came his way sooner than expected.

Sandy, after a huge fight with his wife over a trifle, decided to leave home stealthily. Next morning, he slipped out early and took a rickety public bus to this remote jungle and got down at the last stop and then trekked miles inside — on a relentless search for the kind of the Mistry-Jungle.

In fact, he wanted to escape from a screaming wife and kids and colleagues, all tucked inside his brain.

The Jungle! The pathway to Truth.

It is an expedition for inner transformation!

That was the text message to Mistry sent by Sandy; composed, while perched on a boulder.

Do not go with hyper expectations! came the warning from Mistry. In fact, do not go with any expectation. Let the jungle take over.

Follow the butterfly trail— to Truth — Mistry.

That was the last. Then, Sandy had lost the signal to all civilisation.

Butterflies took him to another land; another reality of this overcrowded planet.

And to Truth as well.

In the timeless zone, with a cloudy sky, butterflies hanging together as a happy large family, he lost his way—and found the real one.

Here is the how of it:

By late afternoon, Sandy got startled by an apparition—a semi-naked ghost. A ghost that walked and talked. No, not the masked phantom of Lee Falk but a real one.

A savage!

In his short and unhappy life of 32 years, Sandy never understood folks that survived on low wages and few clothes in a mega-city that constantly thrived on hunger for more. Born into a moderately successful merchant’s family in small-town in India, Sandy had followed the same career trajectory of middle class everywhere: a passion for higher education and hard work. Academic labour gifted him with failing eyesight and a bifocal. But, undeterred, he worked consistently and proved his brightness in chosen fields. Like rest of the working India, he, too, revered money. The very sight and sound of money turned him on. He aspired for obscene salaries and managed to get them. He bought apartments in Delhi and Mumbai. A fleet of cars and army of drivers waited. Naturally, the other India of slums and low-income households was beyond him and often invited derision.

“Their Karma!” Somebody once remarked over drinks.

“Phew!” Sandy spat out. “Their sloth and wanton ways.”

So, anybody with meager salary and a tiny room as a house in a bustling shanty town somewhere up on a degraded hill in Mumbai or Delhi would qualify them as the sub-species for Sandy.

And a semi-clad thin-as-reed-man would not qualify for even that.

Savages! He had observed, while watching a National Geographic documentary on the Aborigines of Australia. The underlying contempt was withering.

A representative of the same hated species was staring at him.

“You are lost!” The man said simply. “You cannot find your way back.”

Now that was too much!

Being led by a savage.

Impossible!

Sandy looked at the creature and did not like what he saw—sunken cheeks, bushy eye brows, matted hair, flat chest and belly, and, rippling arms. He wore old shorts and sandals—the only gesture towards modernity. And carried a catapult in hands. A striking contrast to his counterpart from the city — every inch customized or branded. Perhaps, thought Sandy, the savage does not know what a Ray-Ban Aviator is!

Sandy shrugged off and went on clicking against the light that began fading quickly due to the increased cloud cover. After five minutes, he looked up and saw the ghost. The man was still there — stock still.

“Yes,” he demanded, very much a CEO. His staff resented this particular tone. It was reserved for lower species of the corporate world.

“You are lost!”

“So?”

“You are lost.”

Sandy went through a series of emotions—anger, irritation, helplessness and finally, resignation.

“What to do with this forest sub-species?” he thought.

“Come on,” said the savage. “After evening, it becomes an unsafe place for the city folks.”

Then, as if to reinforce that grim warning, thunder rolled, and clouds raced across the sky.

Sandy, never-led, understood his precarious position: “The savage is right! I am not a jungle-man or the Mowgli-boy!”

Thus, planned by the gods, began an epic journey in a darkening forest for a butterfly-seeking, western-educated corporate tzar, in a most unfamiliar territory full of brooding trees and a gurgling river nearby, while cool shadows hugged him and a chill was experienced by the city slicker, despite the expensive jungle gear worn by him.

The jungle has its own mysteries! Mistry had revealed. It is a great leveler for humans.

As Sandy quietly followed the Other, he felt strangely calm. It was a state that had evaded him for last two decades of his waking existence. Now, being led, he felt free — of his responsibilities and roles and other allied urban burdens.

“I am feeling free!” Sandy exulted.

Then, he experienced a growing rapport with the savage.

As they entered deeper, the jungle revealed its mysteries that, alone, might have frightened him but, in the company of the savage, he felt no panic.

“I am in safe hands!” Sandy thought gleefully. For the first time, I am not guiding but being guided.

The jungle pathways were twisted and dusty; some places were strewn with carpet of leaves and twigs. As the two walked on those ancient trails, one after another, in silence, the citified member of the odd pair heard clearly and distinctly, what he had heard on the plasma TV so far–chatter of monkeys; breath of wind whispering among tree-tops; the bird song mingling with the dulcet notes of a river running nearby, in deep gloom, and the voice of the old jungle in that solitude!

“It is a magical world out here!” Sandy thought.

Birds of various hues were coming to roost. Then the savage shot a fowl with his catapult. After offering a silent prayer, kept it in an old bag strapped to his thin waist — a waist that shot a pang of envy in Sandy right from the beginning of the relationship.

“Why prayers?” He asked.

The man smiled. “Our way. We offer prayers to the departed soul. We never kill for the sake of killing. Just to meet our basic needs.”

Sandy was shaken to the core.

A fresh draft of wind shook the trees and made the leaves fly off, and, kissed their faces with cold hands. Its purity was oxygenating. Sandy felt a strange surge — kind of electrifying energy.

It was, in fact, another world.

“You live here?” Sandy asked and then realized his foolishness.

The savage smiled. “Yes. My home.”

“How many generations?” Sandy asked, as if interviewing him for an entry-level job.

“Many.”

“You do not remember?”

The savage smiled. “Can you give me the name of your great-great grandpa?”

Sandy, of course, could not. He could not even recall the name of his dad and grand dad during stressful situations!

“We are the children of the forest!” The savage declared. “We are the inheritors of the spirit of the jungle.”

“Spirit?” Sandy, the skeptic, asked.

“Yes. The spirit.”

“Can you show me that?” Sandy was the playful civilized man again, teasing the tribal.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Come on.”

And they both entered the mysterious!

In the heart of the wilderness, stood a cluster of seven huts made of straws and mud. They were bare except for a few baskets, pitchers and a bare minimum of utensils. The savage was greeted with smiles by the rest of the “village” as he called it. The big fowl was handed over to the elders. Two more men had brought fowls and birds for the collective feast.
“We share all things,” said the savage. “It is like a big family.”

 Sandy nodded. Co-operation for him was, so far, a biz buzz only. Here, real-time, it was happening as a daily practice. The women started skinning the birds and some began open-air fires for cooking the meat. The naked kids gamboled in the clearing, while the male elders of the village sat in a circle and chatted.

“Open-air party!” thought Sandy.

“Come!” said the savage as gloom gathered around the huts overlooked by a wooded hill and surrounded by trees of varied sizes.

“Where?” asked the city slicker undergoing a culture shock of different kind.

“To our sacred grove,” said the savage, in the role of a teacher.

“Okay,” agreed the disciple.

The sacred grove!

It was nothing spectacular or Hollywoodian in scale or visual effect. A tiny shrine—crude and humble with a stone tablet smeared with daubs of orange and red—under a tall banyan tree. All around were trees and shrubs. A few meters away sang the river, now sparkling under a full moon.

That was all.

The savage bowed down to the ancient tablet –“our goddess”– in an act of deep reverence and chanted some incantation in a dialect beyond Sandy. As the shadows thickened, and the moon climbed further in a sky now bereft of clouds, a hush fell over that patch, Sandy started feeling sudden but subtle changes inside. Cut off from civilization, in the midst of nowhere, he lost bearings of place and time. The brooding jungle and the solitude never experienced earlier caused a hypotonic spell on his citified imagination. He started retreating to a different dimension. The savage finished his mumbo-jumbo and then waved a hand before sandy’s brown eyes fitted with blue lenses.

And everything altered.

Looking at the surroundings, Sandy felt a change happening within at a breakneck speed. Suddenly, he was hurtling down a tunnel of time — only to emerge a most fantastic scene before his reverential eyes:

In the moon-lit night, he saw, along with an ancient tribe of worshippers, spirits of the trees –dryads, a part of his subconscious rooted in anglicised education recalled, dancing merrily on the grass, while a nymph-like goddess came out of the sparkling river and joined them in this divine play. Trees bent down to kiss her feet and spirits squealed at the sight of the goddess willing to be their companion on earth. Every blade and bough emitted a strange fragrance that overwhelmed Sandy’s senses completely and left him intoxicated.

He was a mute witness to the tribals — mostly elders led by a stern priest — offering flowers and leaves to the goddess and singing hymns in her praise. They then went into frenzy and began swaying wildly, as if possessed. They were whirling around in that scented area, eyes crazed, hair swirling, hands raised in supplication. Sandy clearly saw them communing with the goddess. Everywhere he felt the presence of the sacred. That piece of the jungle had become a vast stage, an arena, for the gods and goddess to make their appearance and intermingle with the adepts and the chosen. The intensity of the spectacle was so intense that he, Sandy of the New Millennium, rational and goal-driven, felt his veins would burst.

Then the vision changed.

He saw, in that heightened state, a river dying a slow death due to poison and trees being cut down by the brute machines. The entire pantheon slowly disappeared, and the goddess died gasping for breath. Afterwards, rains, mudslides and famine followed.

Then, darkness returned.

Badly shaken, Sandy, much chastised and sober, guided by the savage, returned to the tiny village. There they all drank the rice wine and ate the meat roasted on the open fire. The savages then sang a song and danced in a group — for their city guest. The camaraderie was great. He enjoyed their openness, trusting nature and hospitality.

In that closeness, despite a sharp contrast in backgrounds, Sandy found a family.

Family!

Decades ago, it meant growing up in a joint family for Sandeep, in a small north Indian town, off Delhi-Amritsar highway. Three floors of a big house, at least 100 years old. Grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, guests. A crowded place with joint kitchen. His ma and other aunts took turns to cook meals for a large family. They were always busy. A big shop in the main market kept the family together, despite differences and fights. But it stayed on, like other families.

In the 1990s liberal India, Sandeep Gupta found a new direction and mantra. He earned degrees and combined education with ancestral knowledge to begin ventures in the virtual world for a hungry middle class that had, like Sandeep, changed as well. Feeling restricted in that old township and starved of space in the joint family — they owned only two rooms in the property and four siblings adjusted with mother and father for years — the brilliant Sandeep left the town — and the tearful family — forever, never to look back.

As he rose up the ladder, the contact with family shrunk down to few e-mails, SMSes and occasional calls to ailing parents. His siblings were not that successful, and Sandeep thought they were resentful of his hard-earned success and money and status.

“Jealousy!” His wife would say. For the siblings and parents and the rest of the joint family—it was betrayal, pure and simple!

“I have every right to be happy! To lead my own life! To take my own decisions!” Sandeep would argue, fortified with this new Me-only philosophy, a new cardinal principle of faith for entrepreneurs like him, in a globalised India. Naturally, the two — Sandeep and his family –drifted apart.

“I am on my own,” he declared. “Family means feuds!”

So, he junked them.

While watching the savages dance in harmony, each timing their steps with the other in perfect sync, bodies bending forward and then resuming an erect position, Sandeep, deep down, remembered his aged father and a very frail and ill mother. They had suffered huge losses due to the competition posed by the e-retail and were surviving somehow in that old place and because of the joint kitchen. But Sandeep had hardly bothered about them.

I will call up Ma first thing in the morning! He resolved.

After a long dance, the savage came back to the spot where Sandy was sitting.

“How do you feel?” The forest dweller asked, eyes shining.

Sandy looked into those eyes and found himself reflected as the Other.

“You are my brother!” Sandy blurted.

The savage smiled and held his guest’s hands in warm clasp. “We all are connected.”

“What is your name?” Sandy asked, hands linked.

“Ananta.”

“What does that mean?”

“The Eternal One!”

“Oh!” Sandy said.

“One of its meanings,” Ananta replied.

“You went to school?” Sandy blurted out but regretted instantly.

“The jungle is my only school. Besides, there are no schools for the poor!”

Sandy felt the sadness of the tone.

“You are comfortable?”

“Yes.” Sandy said, “Very relaxed.”

“Does the jungle look dangerous?”

“Not at all now. The one I left behind…well, compared with that, this looks very comfortable.”

Sandy was telling the truth.

“You can sleep here under the stars?” Ananta asked softly.

“Will there be any snakes?”

“No.”

Who was the savage? His mind was debating. Then the wind stirred in the valley and rose.

He felt lulled by the cool wind fanning his face — the man from the mega city and slipped into soundless sleep, after years, without taking any drugs or alcohol…

When he woke up, next morning, there was no camp, no village, no hamlet to be seen around. He was sleeping on the sand, a few feet from the river that was gurgling lazily, as a baby sun peeped out from a bank of clouds.

Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: Strangers

By Tina Morganella

The African man selling trinkets looks less out of place than me. In jeans and slippers he lopes over the sand, going between beachgoers calling out, “Signora, buon prezzo”, promising a “good price” in an accent that will never sound Italian. His smile is docile but nervous as he approaches three elderly Italians, plump and soft, golden and wrinkled, walking along the sand in their bikinis. He calls one of them by name. Regulars. They pluck at the jewels on offer – great hoops of gold-coloured earrings, chunks of necklaces with matching bracelets. They slip them on and turn their wrists this way and that. They gently prod each other and admire or admonish. The trinket seller senses a sale. He nods and offers other similar items. He’s gently insistent, but there are also unnerving silences that sound to me like desperate appeals for help. 

One of the ladies starts to haggle over the price of a bracelet. She halves the number and he looks betrayed and disappointed. He offers her another number in return and she shakes her head. She’s starting to move away now, waving her hands dismissively. He tilts his head to one side, holding out the bracelet, willing her to take it. She hesitates and takes it in her hands again. But then she makes a decision and brusquely hands it back to him. She says once more, sternly “No”, and walks away. One of her friends lingers for a moment, still listening to his appeal, trying to be kinder and smiling at him apologetically. But then she too turns and joins the others.

He looks angrily after them, “What do you want lady? You talk and talk and talk….” He rearranges his wares, shrugging them on his shoulder, over his forearm, around his neck, and lopes on. “Signora, buon prezzo, buon prezzo.” The call is woeful. The sun forces him to squint as he forges on.  

When he approaches me next my sympathy melts in the sun. I barely glance up from my book, my mouth a line, my eyes unsmiling, avoiding contact. When he, in English, offers me matching sets, I say no, no, several times, loudly, clearly. Annoyed. And as he walks on I’m immediately ashamed. Forgetting that in front of me was a man earning a living.  A man who felt the sting of “no” like anyone else would, and who perhaps heard it ring in his ears long into the night, disturbing his sleep. I watched him move slowly down the beach, hovering gently between groups, being waved away, sent on.

Under a hat and glasses, shaded by an umbrella and mostly clothed, the trinket seller had immediately recognised me as a fellow foreigner. I am overdressed, over cautious. On my own. Pale and cloudy, not sharp and strongly outlined like the Italians. They are minimally dressed, drowsy and lolling in the direct sun – professional couples on holidays feed morsels to small dogs; couples stroll hand in hand, slick with love and affection; and teenagers scoff and jab at each other, all bluster and swagger. The murmur of the ocean is a gentle and lulling hum, still discernible over the laughter and chatter. But behind me violent cliffs loom skyward, the blue sky presses down, heavy and suffocating. I’m half way between the wide expanse of blue, both sky and sea, and the menace of the earth.

Someone asked me earlier whether my beach at home looked out to the ocean or the sea. I had no idea what he was talking about. Confused I kept asking him to repeat himself. Voices were raised. When I finally understood what he meant, I faltered – I didn’t know the answer. What does it matter? He smiled patronisingly at me: “Never mind.” But what does it matter? I want to know. He wouldn’t say.

A shadow falls over my book. Before I can even look up an elderly woman is saying, in Italian, “Scusa signorina, can you look and tell me if my ear is completely covered by the bathing cap?” She assumes I will understand, and I do understand enough. But I still stare at her for a moment, processing. That she assumes I will recognise her words, her request, pleases and puzzles me. She has a sweet face and a patient smile. She is very plump, and is very pale for an Italian. Despite her obvious age, her eyes are lit with youth. She is standing quite still, waiting for me to get up and check her bathing cap.

“No, it’s not….,” I tell her, “wait”.

“Oh thank you. I’ve had an ear infection and my doctor said not to get water in it. But I have to go for my swim, of course.” She is serene.

The nape of her neck looks damp, threads of silver hair escape the cap. I try to tug the plastic over her ear. Her skin is soft and hot. I realise I have to tug reasonably hard and she braces herself and nods encouragingly. I touch her earlobe, brush her cheek. Then I gently nudge her to turn, so I can check the other ear. She obliges; it’s ok. She seems unmoved by the intimacy but I shiver at touching a stranger. Not in revulsion, but breathless and moved by her trust. 

I tell her, “You’re ok now,” in English. She pats her covered ears, satisfied.

“Come ti  chiama signorina?” she asks.

“Mi chiamo Serena.”

She nods once and smiles, “Grazie Serena.” Then turns towards the sea. I sit down again and watch as she shuffles slowly towards the water, wades in up to her thighs and then pushes herself under. I see her arms move rhythmically, her cap peaking above the gentle waves. I watch her until she becomes a pinpoint and I can no longer recognise the stranger.

Tina Morganella is a freelance writer and copy editor with an MPhil in creative writing from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Tina is most interested in short fiction, memoir and travel literature and has most recently been published in Rush (US), STORGY Magazine (UK), Tulpa Magazine (Australia), Sky Island Journal (US), Entropy (US) and Sudo (Australia). She also has nonfiction articles published in the Australian press (The Big Issue, The Australian, The Adelaide Advertiser).

Categories
Stories

The Wooden Horse

Short Story by Naguman

Translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch

It was his first flight. The first flight in twenty crawling years. He sat at the Departure Lounge of the Quetta airport waiting for the final boarding announcement. He was delighted but at the same time a bit nervous too. He feared that the plane would crash. He sat impatiently on the sofa.

In extreme poverty, where he could hardly bear the expenses of his studies, air travel seemed a distant dream to him. He always traveled by bus. On the Quetta-Turbat dirt road, he covered a distance of eight hundred miles in forty hours. Amid the dust of the road, smoke of cigarettes, earsplitting music, cacophonic rattling of the old bus, coughing, sneezing and vomiting passengers, the tedious journey was no less than a nightmare. His head almost exploded from a headache, his feet were swollen, and his bottom ached from sitting too long in the bus but there was no trace of his destination as yet.

Whenever he was on the bus, he felt like a worm crawling ahead. At times when he happened to see plane tags on the bags of his friends, his heart quivered like a caged bird. He wanted to ask them how it felt to fly in the air. But he never mustered up the courage to ask. “Such senseless questions! Everybody would mock me. Poverty does not mean you get yourself ridiculed.”

At such times he would often curse his poverty. After all, for how long was he supposed to crawl like a worm? Was he not destined to soar in the air like an eagle? Voiceless poverty had no answer. Rather silence was its answer.

One day destiny favored him. The government announced scholarships for deserving students. He too was awarded a sum of five thousand rupees. He used half of the money to pay his college fee and, with the other half, he bought an air ticket.

He looked at the clock. There was still some time to left for the flight. He picked up the newspaper and began to read. The headlines read:

‘An American plane crashed killing all passengers on board.’

He froze with fear and couldn’t read a word more. If the planes of the world’s superpower could crash, then how would these old Pakistani planes survive?

He put the paper back on the table.

“Thank you, Holy Lord.” He turned around. A white bearded man clad in white, was telling his rosary on a nearby sofa.

“I reckon, like me, he also fears that the plane may crash.” He felt a little relieved and with sympathetic eyes looked at the old man. But there were no ripples of fear or anxiety on his face. He sat relaxed flicking his rosary. He was not afraid. He thanked the Holy Lord by way of habit. Just to while away the time.

The shades of sympathy he felt for the old man evaporated. For a moment, he wanted to tell him to thank God when He stopped taking lives. In a moment, He took lives of millions in the world. And yet the old man extended his thanks to Him. And to the One who ceases life in the living. Mullah you are supposed to know that submission before a brute isn’t a sort of worship. Rather its sycophancy; its fear.

“Thank you, Holy Lord. You’ve blessed me with everything.” The old man reiterated.

“He is showing too much gratitude! As if God has promised him that He would never take his life. And he affirms you have blessed me with everything. The best of all blessings is life. If He snatches it from you then what would you do with the ‘everything’ you have been blessed with.”

Again, he was alone and anxious. In an attempt to divert his attention, he unintentionally picked up the newspaper but the moment his eyes fell on the headlines he dropped it. Then he took out the ticket from his pocket and began to scan it. When he was done with it, he turned around and glanced at his co-passengers. They were so calm and composed as if they were sure that the plane would never crash. For a moment he decided to read aloud the news about the crashed plane; so that everyone would tremble with fear and panic and resolve not to fly again.

A few minutes later the final announcement was made, and the passengers began to proceed towards the plane. He had his eyes fixed on the plane. What the eyes see, the heart at times refuses to believe! The thing that appears like a bird in the sky looked like a mountain on the ground. If this giant took off, wouldn’t it crash? Again, fear overwhelmed him but now he had set his foot on the stairs. As he stepped into the plane, he heard a woman voice:

“Assalam o Alaikum!”

The beautiful air hostess standing by the door was greeting all passengers smilingly. He was reminded of the untidy and messy conductors and crew members of the bus who never show any sort of respect towards the passengers. On the other hand, the beautiful air hostess warmly greeted the passengers on board. Even though her smile didn’t spring from her heart and it was just lip-deep, but to steal a look at her lips was something enchanting unto itself. Her voice was a melody. The fake respect he got in the plane was much coveted than the genuine disrespect in the bus.

When the plane was picking up speed up on the runway, he felt that he was running to prepare himself to soar in the sky. Suddenly, it dawned on him that once the God of heaven also lived on the Earth. And one day running on the Earth, he soared into the sky and never returned.

The plane was moving away from the Earth. Astounded, he looked at the sky as of it was the first time he was seeing it. It was the first time, it occurred to him that the sky was more beautiful than the Earth. He wondered whether it was due to the distance between the Earth and heaven or was it just an illusion of the eyes? He couldn’t make up his mind, but he assumed that it was beautiful because God lived there. It also had an ambience of eternity. The Earth, despite all its colours and shades, was unbearable because it housed graveyards. He realised why God wouldn’t return to the Earth.

When the plane soared above the clouds, he found them more enchanting from the sky than from the Earth. Patches of clouds lay scattered in the sky and appeared like cracked crusts of soil in a dried out plain. In essence, the heaven and the Earth were no different. It was all just an illusion of the eyes. He knew that his eyes were telling lies. But he was amazed to see how the heart often believed in the lies of the eyes.

Now the plane had soared to the required altitude. The thought that he was flying above the clouds sent ripples of fear in his heart. Caught between belief and incredulity, he fancied he was the prince of the old legends and the plane was the magical wooden horse. When you twisted its right ear, it took off and when you twisted its left ear it landed on the ground.

“Excuse me”!

The voice of the airhostess juggled him out of his thoughts. The beautiful lady with the platter of the food stood smiling beside him. The fairy of the Mount Qaf was kind to the prince and the Wooden Horse was soaring high in the air. He looked at the fairy-like airhostess and smiled over his prince-like-thoughts.

When he put the first morsel in his mouth it occurred to him that if Earthly foods were taken in the sky, they would taste like the forbidden fruit of the paradise for which Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command and became mortal.

After the meal, the air hostess served him cold drinks. He picked a glass of his favourite drink. It reminded him of the elixir of life. A silent prayer sprung out of his heart. He wished he could forever stay in heaven. The gorgeous lady would remain at his service with ambrosial food. But there shouldn’t be the Forbidden Fruit among them and nor the transgression of Adam and Eve.

After having done with the meal, he took out the booklet from the seat pocket and began to read it. It carried guidelines about emergency situations and about how to put on the life jacket. Again, he was reminded of the plane crash.

Before he took the flight, he had been overwhelmed with such fear and thoughts. But now in those moments of delight and fancy when he was flying in the sky, he thought about the plane crash — the heavenly end of the Earthly life. It was more beautiful than all forms of death. Much desired than illness, bullets, road accident, water, fire, poison and hanging. Better than all.

In the meantime, the plane shook. Something ran down his spine. It was a wave of fear. He looked at the other passengers. Everybody’s face was pale with anxiety. At the very moment, it was announced that the plane flew over a mountain. There is nothing to be worried about. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.

With this single turbulence that shook the plane, his desire for a heavenly death disappeared. He thought that death in any form was frightening — be it in heaven or on Earth. Death was just death. Heavenly end of the Earthly life, these are mere words. Words placed in a beautiful order. Glorification of death wouldn’t make the road easy.

“Thank you, Holy Lord, the Creator.” The voice of the old man jolted him out of his thoughts. He turned back. Seated nearby, the old man was looking for something in his hand bag. He pulled out two strips of pills and took one from each strip with a glass of water. He drew a large breath and wiped out the driblets of water from his beards. Again, he thanked God and began to tell his rosary.

“This old man is afraid of illness.” He felt sympathy towards the old man. Whether it’s the fear of illness or plane crash both have the same upshot. Both roads led to the same destination. The destination of death and everybody ran away from it. Everybody sought life. A life that has no end. An eternal life — that is the hallmark of God — but everybody longed for it. They all want to remain eternal like God. They all want to become God.

A sudden thought flashed like lightning on the horizon of his mind. “God is a horse man has carved out of the wood. Yesterday’s wooden horse is today’s plane and today’s God is tomorrow’s man.”

He trembled and quivered. He was so excited as if he had run into a treasure. For a moment he felt like calling out at the top of his voice:

“O, people of the world! I’m very familiar with God. The kind and compassionate God. God is a dream man’s heart has dreamt with its wakeful eyes. One day this dream will come true. How beautiful is this moment of my life. This moment seems eternal. How enchanting it is to understand God! If I cease to exist now, I wouldn’t lament. I’ve discovered my God—my companion.”

He was all excited and delighted. He felt an ocean of delight in his heart where his fear of death had capsized like a shipwreck. Happiness. Absolute heavenly happiness. No fear at all. Only God could experience such happiness because he had no fear of death. He felt the storm of happiness would burst out of his chest and sweep away the entire world.

“Do you know what is God?”

All of a sudden, his voice resonated in the plane. He was standing on his feet. Everybody was looking at him with surprise.

“I’m going to tell you who actually God is,” he touched the zenith of excitement. “God is a horse man has carved out of the wood!”

People were all ears. Wrinkles of their hearts had appeared on their faces. But indifferent to all, he was speaking without a pause.

“Man has made this wooden horse just because he wants to reach out to the Mount Qaf. He desires for the most beautiful fairy of the Qaf. Do you know what does Qaf mean? Qaf means absolute power. Once you reach the Qaf you would overcome on each and everything in the world. Qaf is the land of miracles. Nothing is impossible there. Whatever you wish for, you can do. Moses’ rod, Solomon’s flying throne, Aladdin’s djin, all are found there. You may not know but this plane is heading for the Mount Qaf.

The travelling prince was narrating the legend of the Mount Qaf to the bewildered Earthly folks and the wooden horse was flying high in the air.

But it had a big flaw. Its left ear was missing. And neither the excited speaker knew about it nor the bewildered audience.

Naguman is an eminent name in the world of Balochi fiction. So far, he has published one collection of his short stories under the title Dar ay Aps (The Wooden Horse). Most of his short stories are based on human aspirations, their relationship with fellow human beings and various elements of the nature. His lucid and flowing prose stands him out in the realm of Balochi short story.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated several Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2017 and Silence Between the Notes — the first ever anthology of Partition Poetry published by Dhauli Books India in 2018. His upcoming works of translation include Why Does the Moon Look So Beautiful? (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Naguman) and God and the Blind Man (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Minir Ahmed Badini).

Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: A fight

by Eduard Schmidt-Zorner

winter’s arrival means fight

he does not knock on the door

he smashes it

A line of rocks marks a ridge overgrown with heather which leads down to a sandy bay at the headland. On an elevation, behind a patch of marram grass, a dilapidated cottage.

The walls are made from natural stone, the roof shingles are covered with moss, the frames of the small windows are jammed and swollen having been exposed over years to moisture and rain. In the nearby water bobs an open boat with fishing lines and nets. 

Close to the house stands a rusty fish trap and a few lobster pots.

There are remnants of red paint on the door. Next to it leans another door, freshly painted in blue.

The shed is open and shows shelves, barrels, carpenter equipment and fishing tackle.

Across the forecourt, covered by weeds, lies a broken mast and next to it an anchor.

The fishermen have moved away from this area, left with memories of the rattling and ringing of the rigging, the whispering wind and the lashing, roaring surf, the rubbing of the oars against the rowlocks.

The sight of the lonely, ugly and abandoned neighbouring house fills him with melancholy. The absence of sounds of other people does not bother him.

There is only the clinking of the aeolian harp hanging from a sycamore tree.

He steps outside the door and smokes his pipe. A tame magpie hops beside him. She has only one wing. He found her and took her in. He is her protector.

She jumps around and uses her remaining wing as a crutch. She hopes that he will unfasten his boat and row out on the water, because this would mean fish for her meal.

But on this day, he does not row out. A storm is forecast.

The sky shows a display of all shades of grey, from light grey, through dark grey to deepest dark grey.

Gusts blow sand and loose grass over the shore stones.

He pushes the door further open. It jams, the house has settled. He had smoothened the blue-painted door and made it fit to be installed when the paint has dried.

Inside a table, two chairs, a cupboard, an unmade bed, logs stacked up next to a round iron stove. On a side table an old-fashioned radio running on batteries, no television, in the corner a heap of books.

The old radio is only there to hear the news and weather forecast. He is not interested in talk and sermons.

In the country which he had left behind, he had hated television. He hated all those newsreaders, all those and other types of “teachers” with their eyebrows and forefingers raised, who all rebuke those who think differently, giving marks or awarding points.

The exclusion of TV was part of his fight against the system.

It becomes stormier.

A new fight is waiting for him.

He hastens to pull in the boat and turns it over so that the storm cannot catch and lift it. He carries the blue door into the house. He is particularly worried about the shed gate. It is exposed to wind and weather. A hinge is broken.

Inside the shed he pushes a heavy chopping block against one wing of the gate.

Outside the storm blows up its cheeks. A gust runs against the shed. Light falls into the shed for a moment because the gate gives way. He braces himself against it.

The magpie, he brought to safety, jumps excitedly back and forth on a shelf. In the lower shelf she has a wooden box in which she sleeps and rests.

The storm begins, it roars and rages.

He battles against the wind force, holds the gate with one hand and fetches a lumber to prop it up. He nails a batten right across the two wings to the frame on both sides thus strengthening the gate.

It works, the gate is not moving an inch.

The fight against the element, this old battle of mankind against wind and severe weather conditions is won, for the moment.

The house gives shelter, the storm’s voice is less audible. He lights the stove to make hot water for a tea, which he will thin down with some whiskey, and to boil a few mussels.

The magpie follows him into the house. He caresses her plumage. Poor little bird, he says.

He lights a candle in a lantern. The cottage is not connected to the mains, that means no bills and no visits by the meter reader, who would disturb his seclusion.

Making frugality the purpose of life.

For re-collection. Re-flection. To spell nature, to give nature its meaning back.

Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories.He writes in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose.

Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany.

Published in 76 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in USA, UK, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Bangladesh, India, France, Mauritius and Canada.

Writes also under his pen name: Eadbhard McGowan

Categories
Stories

Parul and the Potato Prince

By Sohana Manzoor

I.

Parul sat on the narrow bench of the veranda looking at the two potatoes in her hand. They were small, brownish, and round — very ordinary potatoes. But Parul looked at them endearingly. One bore her name, while the other was inscribed with a heart-shaped hole. Parul’s body and soul were enraptured with feelings she had never known. She felt like singing and dancing. Saleha was busy in the kitchen and there was nobody else at home. That meant there was no one to obstruct her from enjoying a little respite from her daily chore of sweeping the floors of the sprawling fourth-floor apartment that had been her home for the past two years.

She looked intently at a particular window of the building behind theirs. The young man whom she had often seen looking at her was not there. But Parul’s heart whispered to her that it was he who had sent her the tuberous missive. “My Potato Prince,” she said softly. She remembered the story of the Frog Prince that Dadi Amma often told her two younger grandchildren. And here was her Potato Prince. She giggled. She felt like Cinderella, a cartoon she had watched along with Rumee and Rehan. Of course, Parul considered the girl somewhat foolish for not revealing her identity sooner. But that was a fairytale, and Parul was more bold and intelligent than her. But Cinderella also swept floors and washed dishes like Parul, and now she too has secured a prince for herself!

Parul got up from the bench and strutted to the edge of the veranda. There were several crimson roses blooming in the flower pots. She plucked one and inhaled its fragrance. She was tired of sweeping and scrubbing floors. She had learned to read and write; not because she loved it, but because it was necessary to be somewhat educated to become a lady. She would be a housewife, so learning to read and write was good enough. She inhaled the fragrance once more. Where was her prince? She wanted him to see her with the rose. She wanted him to know that she might dress as a servant, but she was beautiful and charming enough to don the attire of a princess, and become his. Parul coyly twirled the flower between her fingers, unconsciously imitating an actress she had seen in an old Hindi movie.

A shrill voice from inside the house rudely interrupted her reverie. “Pa-rul! How long does it take to sweep the verandah? Hurry up and come back to the kitchen!”

Parul refrained from making a face. She continued looking earnestly at that other fourth floor window. Hearing a second summon, however, she picked up the broom and reluctantly went back inside.

II

Parul found Saleha  standing with arms akimbo in the middle of the dining room. She glared at Parul. “What the hell is wrong with you, girl? It’s already 11:00. You still aren’t done with the sweeping? Never mind the sweeping for now. Chop up the onions and garlic. I have to finish cooking. Taleb bhai is going to be here at 12:30 to pick up Dadi Amma’s lunch. Hurry up!”

Saleha turned around and cursed the cat who was nuzzling at her feet. Parul laughed and said, “You’ve grown a temper, Salu bu.”

“Of course, because I have to work with a knucklehead like you,” Saleha snapped back.

“Take it easy,” said Parul, sauntering after Saleha into the kitchen. “What’s the hurry? Nobody in this household ever yells at us.”

“Don’t take it for granted,” Saleha grumbled. “I try to work by the clock. Dadi Amma is really ill, and her food needs to reach the hospital on time. Khalamma is very even-tempered, but if we disappoint her, she might get angry. Since Khalujan is away, everyone is tensed about things going wrong.”

“Relax,” Parul purred, “we won’t be late.” Saleha looked at her suspiciously, but said no more. “It’s okay, we have time,” she again said confidently, taking out the blender from the cupboard.

Saleha turned back towards the pots on the burner. She had lately started worrying about Parul. After all, it was Saleha who had brought her from the village. She hoped the girl would not fall into any mischief. Parul was only 15, but she looked 18, and Saleha had noticed that men had started looking at her differently in the last couple of years. Saleha always hovered protectively near Parul whenever the driver Taleb Miah was around. Not that either Parul or Taleb had shown any real interest in each other, but men and women are like fire and ghee, as her mother used to say. And Saleha had seen too many unpleasant things in her thirty years. Lately she had noticed Parul daydreaming a lot.

Suddenly she whirled around and asked, “Parul, have you been talking to that guy on the roof?”

“What guy?” Parul was startled out of her thoughts.

“That bloke with the beard.”

Parul stared blankly. Saleha twisted her face as she said, “Remember that young construction worker I told you about? He asked me about you once. Don’t talk to any of them, okay?”

A look of disdain crossed Parul’s delicate features. “Construction worker? What would I want with a common laborer?”

“That’s good.” Saleha concentrated on her cooking. “Just don’t pay any attention to them. These guys talk sweetly, but I’m sure they all have wives and kids in the village. Don’t be fooled, and don’t linger in the veranda.”

Parul laughed. “Don’t worry, bubu. I have no interest in any construction worker whatsoever.” She started humming to herself. Saleha was too relieved to notice.

III.

Sharmin stared at the single raw potato under the small jasmine shrub in the veranda. What was a potato doing there? Her mother had a green thumb and liked having flowers and small shrubs in their veranda. But certainly not sickly-looking potatoes. She picked it up gingerly. It was greenish, and wrinkled on one side. It must have lain there for some days. She didn’t like to yell at the servants from the veranda. Besides, her mother was probably taking a nap, being tired from staying with Dadi all night at the hospital. She turned the potato around and almost tripped on the threshold. “I LOVE YOU” it proclaimed in bold capital letters. Sharmin looked around at the neighboring apartment complex and the adjacent construction site where another apartment complex was being built. There was nobody in the vicinity. The construction workers were probably off to lunch. And no one was out on the verandas in the blazing midday heat. She decided to have a word with Saleha.

Saleha’s eyes went round as she saw the potato in Sharmin’s hand. She had been with this family for over six years, and had never seen such a thing. Sharmin spoke calmly: “Please ask Parul if she knows anything about this. It might be one of those laborers.”

“Apamoni, it might just be a random potato.”

Sharmin looked at Saleha with irritation and amusement. “Are you saying that the potato grew out of our flower pots bearing this inscription? Saleha! Are you dumb? Obviously it was intended for someone. And I think it’s for Parul. In case you haven’t noticed, that girl is getting out of hand.”

Saleha remained silent. She felt warm with embarrassment. She suspected the same, but didn’t want to say so in front of Sharmin. “I’ll ask her, Apa.”

IV.

To Saleha infinite annoyance, Parul refused to utter a single word about the potato. She grew scarlet with rage, and Saleha surmised that this was not the first such messenger to have alighted on their veranda. Raising her voice she said, “I don’t know what you are up to, you wretched girl, but at least tell me that you are not sending out potatoes too.” Still no reply from Parul. Saleha grew exasperated. “Parul, try to understand. They will send you back home to the village if this continues.”

This time Parul raised her eyes and looked defiantly at Saleha. “Why should they send me back? I haven’t done anything.”

Saleha heaved a sigh of relief. “Do you know who it is from? Have you talked to the person?”

Parul looked outside the window. “I have not talked to anyone.”

Saleha started cursing the construction workers. “Those scoundrels, those scheming lowlife ruffians. Why do they disturb decent girls? They are universally immoral, those good-for-nothing laborers.” Then she stopped and looked at Parul again. “You are not to go to the back veranda anymore, okay? From now on, I will sweep that veranda myself.”

“On whose orders?” Parul shot back angrily.

“On my orders, and you shall obey.” Saleha’s voice was dangerously calm. “Or I will tell Sharmin Apa that you have been talking to the guy.”

Parul knew she had crossed the boundary, so she withdrew sullenly into the servants’ quarters without another word.

V.

That afternoon Saleha gathered two more potatoes with inscriptions. On one she saw the name of Parul. There was no longer any doubt about whom the potato missives were directed towards. When Saleha went back to the kitchen, the intended recipient of the messages was busy chopping cauliflowers, green beans and carrots for dinner. She was about to open her mouth when the door bell rang. Saleha went to answer the door. On opening the door she saw their next door neighbour, Rokeya Khalamma. “Is anybody home? How is Khalamma doing?”

“Nobody is home except the children,” replied Saleha courteously. “Both Sharmin Apa and Khalamma are at the hospital. They are going to be bring Dadi Amma home tomorrow.”

The visitor’s face brightened. “Excellent,” she said, nodding. “We have good news too. Our Nipa got engaged yesterday. The gaye holud is in two weeks’ time.” Saleha now noticed that Shipa, Rokeya Khalamma’s second daughter, was standing behind her mother, and held a large box wrapped in golden paper. Rokeya Khalamma handed the box to Saleha. “I will come again,” she said. “Just don’t forget to tell them, okay?” She turned to her daughter. “Come, Shipa. We have to visit the Ramzanis.”

Saleha noticed that Shipa had another box, but it was smaller than the one she just received. Khalu held a high position with an international organization, and therefore, Rokeya Khalamma was always extra courteous to them. After they left, she put the box of sweets in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, Parul had come out of the kitchen. “Was that the fat Rokeya Khalamma from next door?” she asked.

“Yes,” Saleha said, hiding her irritation. “Nipa Apa is getting married.”

Parul peered at her. “Bubu, that girl is younger than you. Why do you call her Apa?” She giggled as she added, “Have you noticed the way she simpers? I suppose she will simper all the more now that she is getting married.”

Saleha looked at her sternly. “That’s the custom, Parul. Don’t forget your place. It’s high time that you learn some things.” Saleha paused. “I’ve noticed the way you answer back to Apamoni. She is older than you and the daughter of your mistress. Take care, girl.”

Parul shrugged. “I think you are too subservient,” she said and then gave a little cry of surprise as she felt her left cheek burning with a sharp pain. “You slapped me, Salu bu?” her eyes went wide with shock. Saleha had a look in her eyes that Parul had never seen before.

“Yes,” replied Saleha. “But I should have slapped you way earlier, when you first started to show these signs of disrespect. Sharmin is right. You’ve gone out of hand.”

Even in acute pain and shock, Parul noticed that Saleha, the epitome of propriety, had dropped “Apa” from Sharmin’s name. Saleha shook her head, “I don’t know what you’re up to, girl, but I can sense that it’s no good. Probably the best thing would be to send you home.”

VI.

The atmosphere of the house felt very different after Dadi Amma came back from the hospital. She was still very weak from the ordeal she has been through, but everyone was relieved as the immediate danger was over. Saleha was off to visit Reba, a girl who worked downstairs, in the household of the famous actress Chandrima. Surely she will bring back some savory tale, thought Parul. Reba came not from their village, but from the same district. Parul did not like her much. She was always smiling and everybody liked her, which irked Parul.

When Saleha came back, Parul was busy filing her nails. She tried to keep them as she has seen Sharmin do them. Rather than using the cheap nail polish that other girls like Reba or Romela used, she glossed coconut oil over her nails. It was something she learned from watching beauty tips on TV. They used olive oil, but coconut oil would have to do for now. When she married the prince of her dreams, she would use better things than olive oil. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t have a drop of olive oil from Dadi Amma’s bottle now and then. She still remembered the one time she pinched some from Khalamma’s bathroom. Sharmin had almost caught her red-handed. The bottle of oil was an innocuous thing though, because she had permission to take it to rub on Dadi Amma’s feet. And the bottle in Dadi Amma’s room had run out that day. However, Parul had not only taken the olive oil, but also a bar of soap hidden in her shalwar, a fragrant bar that Khalujan had brought the last time he came home. Both Parul and Saleha received some trinkets when he returned, but not any of those fancy soaps. There were many of them tucked away in the cabinet in Khalamma’s bathroom. The fragrance was simply otherworldly. Even though Sharmin eyed her all over, she didn’t say anything. Parul pretended she didn’t notice. She still had the soap in her box as she did not dare to use it. If Saleha found out, she would kill her. Parul made a face. She still couldn’t understand why these little things were so important to Saleha. But then she had the soul of a servant. What would she say when she found out about the guy next door? Parul giggled to herself when she heard Saleha’s voice in the hall:

“Nipa Apa is getting married to a boy next door. Have you heard, Apamoni?”

“I heard he’s an engineer,” came Khalamma’s voice. “Who told you? And which next door?”

“Reba told me the whole story. Apparently, they used to communicate through the windows. He lives in the building behind ours.”

“That’s horrendous,” Sharmin exclaimed. “I thought Nipa had better sense than that.” She added something else in a lower tone that Parul could not hear clearly. But she heard Saleha’s voice protesting, “That’s not true, Apamoni. Parul never talked to any of those guys.”

“Sure,” came Sharmin’s jeering voice. “That girl is not just insolent, but a damn liar as well.”

When Saleha entered their small room, her face was flushed. She glowered at Parul, but did not say anything. Parul put away the things and asked in a pleasant voice, “So, Nipa’s is a love match? I am sure that Sharmin will never make one. She is pretty, and considers herself clever. But men don’t like her type,” she concluded.

“What do you know about men’s likes and dislikes?” Saleha was more surprised than annoyed.

“I know what I need to know,” said Parul with confidence. “I intend to marry well, bubu. I want to be a lady.”

Saleha gaped at her. Parul went on, “So tell me, who is this guy?”

“What guy?”

“Ugh, bubu! The guy Nipa is marrying, of course.”

“He lives in the apartment complex behind ours. You might have seen him. Shamim Bhai—a cute looking guy.”

Parul stared at her. “What?” she whispered.

Saleha spoke wearily, “I don’t know what has gotten into you, Paru. These days you talk and act so strange! Anyway, according to Reba, he is extremely nice, even though he has a squint. So sometimes when he looks at you, it seems as if he’s looking at somebody else. I hope she will be happy. She is very unlike her mother—always very nice to helping hands. Roshida is always full of her praise….” Saleha rattled on, but Parul sat staring at the wall. He lives in the apartment behind ours. He has a squint.

Was there any other guy in that house? And Parul knew his name too—Shamim. She had often whispered that name in her reveries. But how could this be? Shamim was her Potato Prince!

VII.

Parul sat on the veranda looking forlorn. She had an English magazine in her hands. She only knew some basic English, which Khalamma had taught her despite the misgivings of Sharmin and Dadi Amma. Parul had often carried it to the veranda to impress her Prince. Now it seemed that he had never looked at her, but at that simpering Nipa. Who sent the potato missives then?

Right then another potato fell at her feet. Parul turned her head swiftly and saw the young construction worker. He was looking at her adoringly. “Parul,” he called softly. Parul just stared at him. He was a youngish man with soft beard, and a gamchha around his neck. He looked at the magazine in her hand and smiled. “You know how to read English?” Parul was lost for words. “I studied up to class six,” the man said again. “Then my father died. I had a step-mother, and I had to leave home.” Parul got up very slowly and walked over to the side facing the construction site. “Did you throw the potatoes?” Her voice was so hoarse that she barely recognized it herself. The man nodded.

“How did you know my name?” she asked.

“I heard them calling you. I’ve been watching you for quite some time now. I asked the other girl about you.” He grinned. “But she probably thinks I’m a lout.”

Parul kept on staring.

That’s how Sharmin found her standing on the veranda: as she later on described it, “lost in each other’s eyes.”

VIII.

Her boxes were packed. Khalamma was very liberal. She had to dismiss her, but she still gave her three months’ salary. “We can’t take on such a responsibility, Saleha. Especially since the master of the house lives abroad. She is a teenage girl. What if some untoward incident takes place?” She shook her head. “She also looks more developed than a 15-year-old should. I think her parents should try to get her married.”

Saleha just nodded. Considering everything she also thought that it was a good piece of advice.

“If they can arrange a marriage, we will contribute. And please, when you come back, see if you can find another girl. Someone more manageable.”

Nobody said anything to Parul. This was her last night in Dhaka. She had not uttered one syllable since Sharmin had discovered her talking to the construction worker three days earlier.

Now suddenly Saleha found the girl lying beside her shaking convulsively. Parul was crying at last. Saleha tried to comfort her, “Hey, it’s not so bad. You are good looking, you know. I’m sure your parents will be able to find a good husband for you. Come on, surely you don’t like that ‘mistiri’ guy so much?”

Parul kept on sobbing as though her heart was broken. But she did not speak. How could she tell Saleha that she was not crying for the construction worker? Her vanity was terribly, terribly hurt. While Saleha blabbered on, Parul wept bitterly. She felt her heart would break for the Potato Prince that never was.  

(Published first in Bengal Lights and republished with permission of the author.)

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She has a PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her area of experties is nineteenth-century British fiction. Her short stories, non-fictions and translations have been published in Kitaab, Asiatic, The New Age, The Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Bengal Lights and Six Seasons Review. Currently, she is also the Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Review pages.