Humour Musings

Courting Controversies

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

When I read some short stories and found the writer dragged to court for writing bold stuff, I felt that the author created a larger ripple when slapped with a lawsuit. I was fully prepared to face any trial, waiting for a nerd or herd to feel offended and seek umbrage. The glorious phase of my literary career would begin once it gets caught in the legal whirlpool.

While they did not wish to be hauled up or put behind bars for their no-holds-barred writing, there exist a few brats who love to foment trouble at the drop of a hat. If only I could join their folds, the newspaper headlines should scream my name on the front page in bold font and accuse me of writing the most contemptible contemporary fiction. A liberal dose from the libellous story would generate further interest in my writing. Courting controversy would offer me the bliss of joining the august company of iconoclastic — and iconic — authors who served a sentence for writing those profane sentences.  

Despite more than a hundred short stories and articles published in various journals and magazines, not a single reader from any part of the world deemed it fit to charge me with obscenity or something similar. This is shocking and insulting for a writer who claims to command a global readership in the digital age. Forget the new generation of millennial readers, some old fogey somewhere should have pounced on me by now. I did forensic reading of my stories again but failed to gather why the sensibilities were not outraged with the intimate passages contained in them. I began to doubt whether these had been read by the right kind of people. I grew intolerant with the growing level of tolerance among discerning readers.  

I was sure that my content could trigger a wildfire, enrage some religious head or a fanatic to assign a big prize on my head. A new kind of literary prize launched for my prized head that scatters contagious thoughts of ruin. Despite the looming threat to my inconsequential existence, I would remain safe under my sturdy teakwood bed, studying and stirring up fantastic stories with gay abandon. In case the threat mounted, I would shift to my neighbour’s villa for extra security provided by his pets and home guards. Halt the train of evil thoughts and instead focus on lawsuits for the time being.    

I shared samples of short fiction with my conservative friends to create friction, urging them to forward the published links to their relatives and friends, with the fond hope that a case somewhere – even in a remote district court – would be filed against any of those stories. I could then highlight this achievement in the cover letter to the leading publishers who would merrily offer a three-book deal on the basis of the legal tussle, hailing me as the most controversial author in recent times on the book cover in order to launch a marketing blitzkrieg.

Unfortunately, my friends pronounced a favourable verdict. My writing was non-toxic and most unlikely to offend the prickly and hyper types spread across the planet. There was nothing potentially unsafe to mislead the youth, to create rebels or pollute their impressionable minds with dissent. They found my passionate stories layered with a good message in the climax. This relief was a disappointing confirmation that my literary output would never become controversial and sensational.  

I was almost convinced that the rugged path to great writing went through the dense jungles of controversy. I should think of something ahead of the times in terms of plot and narrative in my forthcoming collection of stories. I should ruffle feathers, shake the branches, and strike at the roots to raise a literary storm.   

When I showed the first draft of my new stories to a friend, she said there was nothing mildly, faintly, or remotely controversial. She said she had read bolder stuff and even those pieces were unable to stir any controversy. Becoming a controversial author, she suggested, was far more difficult than becoming a good author. Perhaps the surest way to raking up one was to do something controversial in real life instead of trying it on the pages.  

This feedback received further boost when I was told that I was a timid writer pretending to be a bold one. The person who diagnosed my frailties was my former English teacher and he advised I should give up the romantic notion of becoming a controversial writer as I did not possess that streak. I was advised to write what I enjoyed writing in a freewheeling manner, with large doses of humour.

The sight of a cop at the traffic light scared me. An open window generated fear of thieves and kept me awake the whole night. A person horribly scared of snakes and dogs was most unlikely to show symptoms of bravery on the page. No point visualizing myself being grilled inside a packed courtroom, in front of a battery of lawyers, accused and sued for hurting and offending sensibilities with my writings.  

I re-read some of the authors who hit big-time because their stories took them to court and thence, put them in spotlight. There was nothing derogatory or defamatory in terms of content that made them face the ordeal they did. So, there was a glimmer of hope that a lawsuit does come your way even if there is nothing objectionable or hurtful. Just as the writer is creative in weaving stories, some people turn creative in finding controversial elements. Such critics cross the writer’s path only if they are sure to gain something bigger for stoking it in favour of the wordsmith.

The desire to be hauled up and slapped with a lawsuit turned real and raw when a self-publishing project deal ran into rough weather recently, with the publisher demanding an upfront payment since the pre-orders for my book, despite sending the pre-order links to all my friends, relatives, and colleagues, failed to cross the agreed threshold number of copies. The publisher threatened to sue me for failing to shell out the money and I decided to shoo him away. To save my soft skin and all the vital organs I needed to lead a healthy life, I initiated the cancellation process but the advance paid was forfeited. The harrowing experience of writing an unpublished book and facing legal threats for non-payment jolted me. I realised there is no frisson of excitement in a legal battle as it rattles the mind and affects the writing output every day. The dream of being a controversial author was finally aborted after this nightmarish experience.   


Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  




Lost in the Mists of Time

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Before I ventured into the choppy waters of publishing and experienced what it means to have a book that sank without a trace, I had a somewhat condescending attitude of ignoring books that failed to acquire readership or impress critics. In the wake of my literary misadventure, I realised I should not feel ashamed of reading or holding an obscure book that nobody in my circle has even heard of.  

Being an unknown author, I have acquired adequate compassion for books languishing in anonymity. Instead of flashing best-sellers, I have overcome the shyness to identify myself with small-time, unknown writers. Now it is comforting to identify with their plight and feel I am also one of their kind.  

This transition happened when I tried something unusual last year. Call it an experiment to shape new thinking, to accommodate divergence, to stir empathy, to reboot my system. I must confess that the entire exercise turned out to be therapeutic in more ways than one.  

Inside a bookstore, I picked up a title lying upside down on the congested shelves, fighting for space to survive in the saturated market. The passport-size colour photograph of the author on the back cover made it look like one of the photographs clicked when he was applying for clerical jobs. As I checked out the year of its publication, it became clear that the title was resting there for more than a year. Some other queries bubbled in my mind. Was this the only copy left unsold? Or was this the only copy in stock? There was no way to know the facts so I had the freedom to imagine what I wished to imagine.   

It must have been a big high for the author when it was formally launched, when it found space on the shelves of the esteemed bookstore. As the failure of finding readers capsized the literary boat, the short-lived euphoria of the gift-wrapped copies stifled his spirits and expectations, pushing him into the morass of darkness, just as quickly as he was brought to public gaze. Left without any choice, he became another suitable candidate for the ever-growing club of authors who exist to launch another struggle to get rid of the stigma of commercial setback after enduring the long struggle of finding a publisher.   

Holding the book without any hesitation was the next step of boldness. An unfamiliar strength coursed through the hands as I began to rummage it. I felt overjoyed with this liberating and cathartic act – unable to recollect having done something noble of this kind before. While other readers around cherry-picked best-sellers and recommended titles, I held this one in my hands and continued reading it with seriousness. I was not conscious of the reality of reading an obscure book. If there was no sense of pride, there was no sense of guilt or shame either.  

After reading a few pages, I understood that readability was not the reason why the author failed or why the book collapsed. Probably the marketing apparatus was responsible for its dismal fate. Such mishaps do happen from time to time – almost forgotten like accidents that do not make any significant difference.

I imagined being a source of pleasure for the author who found no readers or very few readers. If he found me here reading his work, he would be thrilled to spot a live reader right in front of his eyes. I did think of clicking a photograph with the book and mailing it to the publisher who would hopefully forward it to the author. Maybe this small act to cheer him up would stimulate him and make him feel that his book actually created some difference in the life of a reader. Maybe, he will then pick up the pen and bangs out another book. I could be that spark to ignite his passion to write.   

I proceeded to the sales counter and the cashier gave me a strange look while trying to understand my choice. He appeared close to suggesting I should seek the assistance of sales staff. Without looking up, he said this title offered no discount. He billed me and dumped the copy on the desk without offering a carry bag. Before leaving, I asked him whether this author had any other release. He did not check the computer or bother to respond to my query.

I came out flashing the new purchase and planned to give it more visibility. I entered a nearby café and occupied a strategic spot from where it was possible to see the book cover. When nothing worked, I placed it on the table beside my cup of coffee, hoping the young couples seated nearby would cast a fleeting glance, raise a polite query or seek to hold the copy in hand out of curiosity. An hour passed. My best attempt to give exposure to the unknown author failed.

After coming out of the café, I took a bus and sat with the copy on my lap. The same response disappointed me and I returned home with a heavy heart. In the next few days, I read the book in the balcony. Then I displayed it on the tea-table in the living room, hoping that my guests would pick it up to read or at least flip through it. Perhaps the plain cover did not evoke interest. 

A week later, I posted the book cover on my social media handles, highlighting it as my current read. Only a few close friends and relatives pressed the like button without posting any comments. Finally, I donated the book to the public library in my neighbourhood — with the hope it would find some readers here.

Almost a month later, I ventured there and asked the librarian how many people borrowed the title to read. He was unwilling to dampen my spirit and said he had read it and found it nice. His words of fake praise did make me feel better and I thanked him warmly, behaving like the author of the work he had read. Such close identification with an anonymous author transformed my way of thinking, making it more collective in nature. I felt a sense of relief that I had done something good –- even if it was trivial for an unrecognized author completely unknown to me.   

Earlier, I loved to rummage through best-seller or recommendation sections inside bookstores. Now I realise how authors hire marketing and PR agencies to give traction to their books – both offline and online. As a result, I have lost interest in picking up such titles unless a reliable source refers it to me. I am far more comfortable browsing unknown writers from the shelves, looking for an occasional good pick that compels me to read beyond the first page. 


Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  





What Can Authors Do?

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Over years of reading, some authors are likely to emerge as your favourites for various reasons and occupy the venerated position forever. When an author enters your list of favourites, you tend to grow intolerant of criticism of his work or personal life, even on valid grounds. All the foibles are tossed aside as natural or unavoidable. There is no chance of losing respect once an author achieves that glorified status in the eyes of a reader.  

Authors of classics are favourites when you are growing-up. They are the first ones to grab your imagination – much before contemporary authors mesmerise you with their narratives and styles. Since they are no longer around, they are admired for leaving behind a wealth of creative assets.

Reading one book makes you eager to read more from the same author and you end up reading everything the author wrote during his lifetime. This fondness makes you curious to read books by the author and books on the author. You dig up the archives, read what his contemporaries wrote about him, what his lovers and friends disclosed about him. The process of unearthing the mysteries throws up shocking disclosures.

One day you discover writings from established names that project him as a brothel-visitor, sadist, voyeur, or sexual pervert. As these graphic details emerge from multiple reliable sources, you are left to wonder why such great, exalted writers had such a dark, kinky side.

Your adoration suffers a jolt as you fail to deify him further. Even though the creative side keeps you inspired to become a good writer, the shady personal life scares you like hell. You begin to wonder whether writing actually involves dilution of character. Is it going to make the lovely people in your life suffer at your hands?  

Favourite authors are often reread. They hold a special place in your heart and your bookshelf. If you are proud of displaying your acquisitions, books by your favourite authors will be displayed in front. In case you are secretive, you prefer to conceal your favourites – hide them in the back of the bookshelf to escape getting noticed by others. Many people would like to borrow such titles and you are not ready to lend it to any person – not even to your best friend.

You always prefer to buy books by your favourite authors in hardbound cover – the paperback edition is not meant for you. Your favourite authors are part of your treasured collection that you wish to leave behind for future generations.

Your favourite authors share an intimate relationship with you. You take them to your bed and bedside. You go to sleep reading their writing and wake up fresh. Their magical words would have a soothing effect on your senses.

Sometimes you think these authors should not be read casually. So, you prefer to sit straight in your study and relish the prose with all seriousness. This is also a shade of respect you accord to your favourites. You never dog-ear the pages of your favourite tomes and prefer to place roses, feathers, or bookmarks inside. The sepia pages smell fragrant even after years and you inhale the evergreen freshness and revive the pleasurable experience of reading the long cherished book.

You tell the world who your favourite authors are and the reasons why they hold this exalted status with the fond hope that the other people will agree instantly. You want all your acquaintances to know you have found your favourites and the names should make them feel proud of you.

When you want more people to read your favourite author, you behave like an influencer and hope to multiply the flock of admirers. Adulation expressed with logic or emotion – or with a mix of both – tends to surprise your family and friends who never thought it was easy to select favourites from the vast world of writing and it required some kind of scholarship to be able to do so.

As a reader, if you have simply enjoyed the prose without trying to understand what great literary insight they offered, you are likely to find your favourite authors with ease. The readability factor coupled with reader engagement. A stage when you simply restrict yourself to one concrete line of confirmed admiration: I just love his words. This closes further debate and discussion. No power on earth can stop you from loving their books.   

If any of your favourite authors happens to be a living one, anywhere in the world, you consider yourself fortunate to be living in the era of such great writers. You feel a strong urge to connect with them, wish them on their birthday, buy their signed, autographed copies and flaunt the edition.

You take printouts of their photographs and put them up on the bedroom wall just as teenagers treat their rock stars. You pick up the favourite quotes from their books and frame those in your study to inspire and motivate you to greater heights – to credit the source of enrichment of your understanding of the complex world. On many occasions you feel the urge to quote their lines and express your fondness.

Such adulation rarely turns critical because you have grown up loving literature through their works. Their esteemed position remains unchallenged even if the erudite critics have contrary views to offer. After several years if you do not manage to write brilliantly, you remain in awe of their magical powers of expression. 

Sometimes, you pick up a few favourites but they are not quite the famous kind. They have not written much but their output appeals to you. The inhibition to mention their names remains within you but your clandestine admiration also stays alive.

Having a favourite author who is not famous is not an aberration. After all, it is an intimate relationship between the author and the reader. In case your list of favourite authors comprises some lesser known types, you sometimes feel the strong urge to pronounce their name and make the world know these writers deserved to be on the top list but they could not make the cut.

Your repeated thrust on those names does not change public perception but if your voice counts, you can surely evoke interest in some people who visit their works to find merit in your observations. As a sincere reader, you have the freedom to get them back in the reckoning – even if the outcome fails to meet your expectations. Your homage and tributes certainly go a long way in reviving the long-forgotten authors who slipped into obscurity.  

Favourite writers from your familiar world – the world you live in – and from distant lands leave you with a similar set of experiences. Space and time cease to matter and the reading experience alone decides the worth. When you have favourites from both the worlds, it shows you have no borders in the land of imagination and you respond with emotional force depending on the power of the prose.

Advice doled out by your favourite authors is revered and followed if you harbour literary ambition. You know these literary heavyweights share pearls of wisdom and hope the worth of their words gets recognised by people across boundaries and generations. Some people tend to keep one favourite, some have many favourites and some keep adding to their favourite list from different genres and countries. Whatever be the basis of cherry-picking the favourites, the installation is supposed to remain rooted in the fertile soil of your creative mind.  

Sometimes you notice a trend to honour great literary names by picking on famous names and quoting them in your work. Sometimes you begin to like real people with same names as those given to characters of your favourite writer, and sometimes you rename them with those dear names. When a character becomes famous like the author, there is definitely more life in the creation.  

Talking about my choices and the kind of relationship I share with my favourites, I must clarify that the choice was made on the basis of reading comfort alone. I had no idea about how great writers are judged and the parameters to define them. It was purely on the basis of pleasure of reading. Pleasure sounds a petty, sinful word for enlightened minds – a basic urge not worth writing about. As I derived pleasure from reading certain authors, I began to read more of them and that is how the relationship grew over the years.

Apart from the pleasure of reading a good story told in a lively manner, in refreshing prose, no other factor made me return to any author. Indulgent writing to show off literary flair put me off. Simple writing appealed a lot. Some living authors entered my system for these qualities. I do not say these alone should be the reasons to select your favourites, but in my case these became the glue factor. When I read A Suitable Boy (less than half), I realised simple writing is not easy. When I read A Fine Balance (just half), I realised simple writing is not easy. When I read The Guide (more than half), I realised simple writing is not easy.

Being a writer you aspire to become someone’s favourite one day and you keep working in that direction. You want a reader to confess your book transformed his life or made him look at writing in a fresh way. The list of favourites will continue to occupy the same slot in my mind. Even if respect does not come out in glowing terms, I feel inspired to write a book with such amazing simplicity some day. More than the name of the author, the name of the book leaves a lasting impact.  

I do not foresee the expansion of the list of favourites any further even if there is genuine merit in doing so. Right from early years of my growth as a reader, they have fired my imagination. So I prefer to be guided by the benchmark already set high. Being far, far away from that, despite years of reading and writing, generates a sense of remorse within. The intent is not to surpass these great works but to produce something that celebrates the inclusion of the strengths these works carried. There is no sense of competition of any kind – just the desire to give a new life to the qualities these works were raised with.


Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  




Happiness: Heart in a Casket

By Rana Preet Gill

I look up to find the evening sky stretch out like a canvas with a multitude of hues, change like a kaleidoscope of colours. It is the like the work of an artist, our Creator. I have often been startled by the beauty of life amidst my own fake despair.

I do not have many concrete problems in life. Not the ones that could be touched with bare hands, seen with naked eyes. Not the ones that could be described with a flourish. Not as if problems could ever be explained.

The world is a living, breathing cauldron. A little whimper gets turned into a moan, a slight regret gets carried into a lament, an awkward glance becomes a fleeting affair and dissatisfaction with life snowballs into melancholy.  Disclosures of unhappiness are difficult to make. Affability comes with ease. Life is often dictated by societal norms. And the mind is in constant harmony as one amongst them.   

The evening sky beacons for an escape. The birds wielding their wings high up in the sky, pumping the air beneath their wings, soar high, up and up away. I wonder what it takes to be happy, to be alive for them. I wonder if they suffer the throes of existential chaos.  I wonder what life would be like, bereft of any problems, of any conflict, of misery. Why cannot it be a perpetual ride of ease and comfort?

I am not particularly unhappy. I am positive, rearing to go. I can talk endlessly about my dreams. My dreams about my life, my future, security, approval, turning the negatives into positive in times of lockdown and much more.

I have a privileged life. I have the money, enough to satiate the needs of my life. Enough to buy me clothes of myriad shades of colors and designs.

Yes, not the very expensive ones. I know my reach. Salaried middle class. But there have been days I have spent thousands of rupees on things I never cared to wear. The money trapped in my greed for something new had lain in the closet for months and sometimes years. It’s only when the cloth have aged enough, humbled by its disregard that I have picked it up and given it an audience.

My tendency has been only to hoard. I have not felt any concrete need or significance of that particular object in my life. My happiness has been short lived. It has dazzled me with its existence but it only turned out to be a mirage.

Happiness can never be found in what you wear. It gives you a momentary delight to be dressed in the choicest of clothes. But for that prolonged calm and poise clothes are a far cry. The closets are full of clothes new as well as old yet somedays there is nothing to wear.

The stark nakedness of the soul shines on those days. This depravity, the greed for more reflects on me. There are people who have nothing to wear yet brave life with a smile embarrassing us with their unseemly flesh on display. And here I am all covered in swathes of sequined clothes yet I am unhappy, grumbling, complaining about an imaginary chaos in my life. I will only be able to see clearly when the dust settles. But I never stopped spinning like a top around my axis. How will I ever see what my mind tells me to see? It’s the haze that whirrs around me unsettling me with the frivolous.

Food!  I wonder if that provides a semblance of happiness. We eat to live or we live to eat! Making a living to buy the essentials or splurging it all on mindless eating leading to flabs of flesh. How much meat do I need around my bones?

The aroma of food being cooked at home fizzles into my nostrils but when I sit down to eat I am not hungry at all. As if the very thought of food has inundated my palate filling it up to the brim.

I am often enamoured by the colorful paraphernalia of junk present on display in shops. The packet of chips, biscuits and other knick-knacks in iridescent colours; red, blue, green, neon, beckon with delusions. Just one wafer thin chip can bring dollops of pleasure with the crunchiness alone. As long as the packet tempts me I think about the buying it and parting with a few rupees from my wallet.

I keep on putting this momentary satisfaction away, of being able to possess them is madness. What food value does this frivolous entity have?  It is not the worth my money. But the temptation of the color and taste finally leads me to the shop.

The packet unopened, uncared will lie in the drawer for many hours before I decide to open it. I look for the promised happiness displayed on the cover of the packet. A smile of a nondescript man, so profuse, deep, enchanting, carrying assurances unbeknown. And yet the savory did nothing to fulfill the promise of that happiness.  

I grab the packet and give it away to the household help. Her children would be grateful for this treat. Food does not give comfort. When you do not have the means to buy it, it becomes the single motivating factor in your life. When you have the luxury of choice, the comfort of having too much on your plate, you lose the narrative. Enough money can buy enough food but not a healthy appetite.

I live in a big home. Big enough to the eyes of the outsiders who would often throw a casual remark just looking at the façade. There are two floors and a couple of rooms. I often do not have the place to keep my stuff which lies on bed and chairs, crying for my attention. There are not enough cupboards? I rue the lack of storage facilities. I take my home for granted.

While the homeless of the world scourge for a roof above their heads, I pompously shun the comfort of my abode to look for more privacy inside my home.  I need a snug home, like a kennel, something to wrap around myself. Something too close for comfort yet close enough to fill my senses.

Those with bigger houses are oblivious to the luxury of space while those with smaller homes keep on pandering about their desires. Life becomes a never-ending desire to escape from the real.

A mad dash to be somewhere else. In some other country, state, city, village, travelling to far off places — all the while contemplating the comforts of home. Comparing, making notes, concluding that life is best lived in the sanctity of home. And once back, the confined existence of home is repressive. Start another search, home if far away.

There is no comfort and joy to be found living in well-furnished big houses. Home is where heart is! And the heart needs to be molded to fit in a casket to be cared for a life time.

Home is valuable yet not valued enough, heartfelt desires often soar high escaping the restraints of one home. I have multiple homes in a surreal world and I often flit from one to another. Only there is no comfort grand enough to chain me to one amongst them. In the real world, home looks miniscule, a tiny room, a tinier closet, a heart in the casket. Some days I gasp for breath and rush out of my house.

I have often searched for the meaning of being happy. A comfortable home, lots of material comforts, oodles of tasty and expensive food, money in the wallet as having a limitless purchasing power is never a guarantee of bliss. It’s a reason for dissatisfaction for some.

Why we have it all when there are people who do not have anything and yet they are living with an aplomb, a carefree life?  Their remorse at living ill-equipped lives does not reflect on their faces somedays depriving me of the perverse pleasure which I derive while making comparisons. An absence creates a want, fulfillment of that particular need. The alleviation of it becomes the sole purpose of life promulgating happiness. But then what do I know about the needs of those who sleep on the roads with an empty stomach, search for shelters during the rain, garble for morsels of food, for them home is a distant dream.

I wonder if happiness is empathy. Only being sympathetic yet not taking any concrete steps to alleviate the suffering. But then I do not think about the destitute of the world all the time. My mind is crammed with my very own self. My own attempts at navigating my life seems gargantuan. My own attempts to find peace, hope, salvation outwit me into thinking as I assume that my problems are larger than life yet they are not.

As I sit in the verdant lawn in front of my home wondering about life and happiness, a world of silver oak trees, palm spruces, rose bushes, peaches and plums in full bloom, ripe with fruit, fecund, living, breathing reach out to me. The honey bees buzz around collecting nectar of flowers. The butterflies flit from one bloom to another.

For a fleeting moment, one with silken wings alights on my shoulder. It has pink and yellow wings, a combination so strange. It looks hideous and, yet, I wonder if it is blessed with the knowledge to castigate itself.

It is happy. And for a moment, just for that brief moment that happiness is transferred to me. Amidst constant movement the unassuming insect gives stillness to my mind.  Shrouded in the constant chaos of nature, my mind feels at peace. The butterfly on my shoulder with its fluttering motion lends me its momentary joy before making its way towards the evanescent dusk.

A brief snitch of happiness before I start the tireless journey full of recriminations. But I am glad there was a moment to escape. I wonder if the constant fluttering of its wings unsettles the winged one as it seems to be on perpetual move. A life in motion yet in peace. I spread my dormant wings to give myself a push. I make them flutter only to imagine myself taking that giant leap towards the sky.

It is constant work to keep myself above the ground but I guess this is what life is all about. Working, moving, flying, spreading your wings, striving to meet the horizon, dreaming, desiring the beautiful, happiness untamed. As I close my eyes to let myself soar I could see million butterflies let lose in the sky. Living, breathing, jostling to color the evening sky.

To give untamed hopes and dreams, wild desires, unleash the madness yet guide it with a serenity to halt that drive with a serene composure — what is it?

Happiness is above all a search, a thought, a way to live amidst constant contemplation.


Rana Preet Gill is a Veterinary Officer with the government of Punjab, India. Her articles and short stories have been published in The Tribune, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Statesman, The New Indian Express, Deccan Herald, The Hitavada, Daily Post, Women’s era, Commonwealth writers. org, Himal, Spillwords press, Setu Bilingual, Active Muse and Indian Ruminations. She has compiled some of her published pieces into a book titled Finding Julia. She has also written two novels – Those College Years and The Misadventures of a Vet.




A Renaissance Poet in the Twenty-First Century?

Dustin Pickering in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

He talks of love and religion and writes poetry that is often critiqued by some as similar to verses from the past. And his role model is from the Renaissance — Michelangelo. To some, he is a loyal friend in need, a person who whips up essays and articles on demand. He is often published within India, which could well be his second literary home. He is prolific with his writing and publishing. He also does paintings and sings songs with a guitar on you tube. Some might have guessed by now — he is Dustin Pickering.

Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press. This year one of their books, Neon Apolcalypse by Jake Tringali, has been nominated for the Elgin Award 2020 along with names like Ilya Kaminsky, Marge Simon and Brian Dietrich. Pickering is also the founding editor of Harbinger Asylum, which  was nominated for best poetry journal by the National Poetry Awards in 2013. That same year, Pickering participated in Houston’s Public Poetry reading series and was interviewed on 88.7 KUHF. He has been a featured poet for Ethos Literary Journal, a contributor to Huffington Post, and has published essays in Cafe Dissensus, Countercurrents, Borderless, Journal of Liberty and International Affairs, as well as reviews in The Statesman (India), Tuck Magazine, Lost Coast Review, World Literature Today, and Inverse Journal. He placed as a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal‘s 2018 short story contest, and was a Pushcart nominee in 2019.

His books include The Daunting Ephemeral, The Future of Poetry is NOW: bones picking at death’s howl, Salt and Sorrow, A Matter of Degrees, Knows No End, Frenetic/No Contest, The Alderman: spurious conversations with Jim Morrison, O’Riordan: spurious conversations with Dolores, The Madman and Fu, Be Not Afraid of What You May Find, The Red Velvet Robe, The Forever Abode, and a collaboration with Dory Williams called Imitations of Love Poems. He recently attended New York City Poetry Festival, and has been a reader at Austin International Poetry Festival many times. He hosts the interview and oddities for authors site He co-edited the anthology Selfhood: Varieties of Experience, and published its companion Epiphanies and Late Realizations of Love. He has written introductions for books by Amit Saha Sankar, Kiriti Sengupta, Bitan Chakraborty, and Jagari Mukhergee. He was given a Jury Prize at Friendswood Library’s Ekphrastic reading in 2019, and was awarded with honourable mention by The Friends of Guido Gozzano in 2019. He lives in Houston, Texas, USA. In this exclusive, Pickering reflects on his journey as a writer.

Why do you write?

Within me, there seems to be a deep passion and yearning for something inexplicable. I also write to combat doubts, leave a record of my thoughts for myself, and to tell the world whatever interior mysteries I uncover within my own mind and studies.

When and why did you start writing?

Very young. One boring day at home in 1st grade, I asked my grandmother what sort of activity I should do. She suggested I write a story about something I wanted but didn’t have. I wrote a children’s book called The Little Red Wagon about a child who loses a wheel on his wagon. He looks everywhere for it and finds it behind a tree where he least expected to find it.

What form came to you before — poetry or prose?

Prose, but poetry is always more natural to me.

Lots of your essays and poetry have to do with God or spirituality. What makes you weave these into your lore?

I was raised Catholic, and as they say, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” I model myself after an early hero of my teen years, Michelangelo. I consider myself a person of Renaissance nature. I also believe we are in a pivotal moment in human history where the guidance of God and Spirit is needed. I think poets are the best people to bring this message to the world, that science and faith are compatible.

You have a whole book dedicated on God, I believe, which did rather well — Salt and Sorrow. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Do you believe in any religion? If you are an atheist why do you write on God?

I counted myself an atheist for many years, beginning at age 13. I was probably led there by the punk band Bad Religion and may have inherited it from my mother whose father was also an atheist. Yet some part of me felt connected to the mysteries of Spirit I could not apprehend and did not want to. Something moves the world and the universe, but I believe that is something I am inclined to believe is sentient, not merely pure accidental motion. I believe this because my life has always felt purposeful to me. I also borrow from Christian humanists such as Erasmus, the Renaissance artists, Shakespeare, many others who share a love for humanity and a sense of purpose for our existence. Although Macbeth did say:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

The use of the word “signifying” is mysterious to me. It seems to designate a sense of randomness or entropy — perhaps humankind is the idiot? Yet life is a tale told, passionately!

You have published Salt and Sorrow in India. Was there a reason for that?

I connected with publisher Kiriti Sengupta a few years ago after publishing the acclaimed Indian poet Usha Akella’s masterful work The Rosary of Latitudes. He saw a lot of my Facebook posts at the time concerning spirituality and asked me to write a collection that brought out “the God of the Bible.” For some reason, perhaps my sensibilities, I have developed a strong presence in India. I have never visited, but I hope to someday!

You often refer to fossil in your poetry, especially in your upcoming collection, The Skin of Reality, you have a poem that says, “I stare but see an empty fossil:/ what is final is never the end.” To what purport do you see the fossil? Is it a relic from the past? Why do you use the image of fossil?

The simple answer is I am fascinated by rocks, fossils, embodiments of history. What came before. It is still present in the very earth we walk on. I believe the human genome is a record of where we have been, and it also records where we are individually and contains a lot of animal history. Jung’s archetypes and collective consciousness seem to indicate this as well. As a child age 5, I used to sit on the playground where there were a lot of rocks. I picked them up, observed them. I kept some but the teacher told me I could not take them home. I told her they were fossils. She examined them herself and agreed, surprised. She allowed me to take one home. I still have it. That line seeks to illumine the truth I see that death is not final—who we are leaves an impression on the world irrevocably.

Where will you be bringing out this collection? In India or US?

I don’t have a publication plan right now. It is still in its infancy.

Where do you find/seek your inspiration?

Most of my ideas come from a lot of readings and thought. I don’t even entirely understand a lot of what I read, but it shapes my creative impulse in an extraordinary way. I am very forgetful too, so I have to continuously reinvent myself and how I choose to express my ideas. A lot of my imagery comes from life, including my long battle with mental health struggles.

Which writers fascinate you the most? Have any of them influenced your writing?

I cite as my primary influences in thought and writing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and The Holy Bible, particularly The Old Testament. I also am intrigued by mystical writings from the Kabbalah, St. John of the Cross, sacred Hindu texts such as The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, St. Francis of Assisi, and the endless list of mystics. I also found metaphysical poetry interesting in my college years. I accidentally stumbled upon John Donne and found him interesting. Milton influenced me in my teen years as well. My senior yearbook quote was, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.”

I love the surrealist poetry of David Gascoyne. I read all of William Blake, W H Auden, and a long list of others, but those seemed to have left the strongest impression. I’m also interested in psychoanalysis and have read a lot of Anthony Storr, Freud, Jung, Kay Redfield Jamison, and several others.

I appreciate philosophy too, and enjoy works by Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger, Sartre, Emerson, Burton, and many others. Among fiction writers, I enjoy Henry James, Tennessee Williams, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Hermann Melville, Dostoevsky, and many others. I especially love Dostoevsky’s psychological acumen in The Double. I tend to prefer short fiction but have read all of Joyce. Nietzsche has invaluable insights into the art of writing, but you have to mine them.

You bring out a popular quarterly, Harbinger Asylum. Did you start that? When and why?

I founded the journal in 2010 with my longtime friend Alex Maass who sometimes writes the “Not Quite a Political Column” and suggests themes. I started it after a poetry gathering at University of Houston-Clear Lake. I was invited by my new friend at the time Dru Watkins, who was an early contributor, and after coming home I thought about how I could better serve the literary community. The journal started with an anarchist bent and I published a lot of libertarian writing. I also included writing by friends. Over the years, we’ve had submissions from highly regarded poets such as Simon Perchik, Joseph Bottone, and others whose names I ran across before getting their submissions. Later on, we acquired two new editors Z. M. Wise and Stuti Shree. Z. M. is my good friend and business partner, and Stuti is a university student in India.

You run a blog that belongs to Transcendent Zero Press. It is a strange name. Any reason for calling it as such?

Transcendent Zero Press is the company through which I publish Harbinger Asylum, as well as other books. It’s the name of my publishing company. Years ago, it was my punk band that never happened. I liked the concept. So, I re-made it into the publishing company.

It began with a word I read in the dictionary combined with the popular song “Zero” by Smashing Pumpkins. I thought it had a distinct conceptual flavor. Ultimately, I also designed the logo to be conceptual. On one side of the zero, there is a dark crescent. The other side has a bright crescent. This symbolizes Ultimate Nothingness, the idea that all is in harmony. Essentially my own mystical concept. Then a “T” crosses it, symbolizing the axis of the universe. I also conceived of God as having the qualities the Tao ascribes to great leaders. A person who does nothing yet let’s all happen. Lao Tzu wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.” Zero signifies such an approach to life.

What are your future plans as a writer, editor and publisher?

We recently expanded into publishing literary criticism. So far, the books have dealt with Indian works in English. I would like to publish more literary criticism but about literature in other countries. We will soon have an anthology of Albanian poetry released. I’m interested in Southeast European literature as well. I may publish a broad collection of Edgar Lee Masters’ lesser known work. I have a friend, Dr. Ryan Guth, who plans to work that out for us.

Any message for aspiring writers?

My English teacher in high school Mrs. Teltschik used to say, “Write because you have to.” Something in you must answer a call. Write to contribute but write for yourself. It is hard to break in at all. Don’t shoot high if you are young unless you have exceptional talent, connections, or both. Work your way through. Don’t be afraid to learn. Be thankful and mindful of all your successes, and consider failure and rejection an instructor, not an obstacle. Don’t fear revision. Stay focused. Write a lot. Read a lot. Find what makes you spin rapturously and write about it. Keep a journal, especially if you are young. Don’t throw away your writing. Mine old material or edit when you are dry on inspiration. Most of all, learn to enjoy! Live as well as write. Travel!




Write in the way you love to write…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

I had never felt the need to move out of the city. Let me correct myself here. I had never felt the urge to move out of the city. All my friends were determined to leave the city after completing their studies. They had convinced themselves that there were no opportunities here. A better future, a dream career was only possible elsewhere. I did not buy this sentiment. I was not swept by the tide of majoritarian thinking. I was a loner marooned on the tiny island of my hardcore beliefs that withstood the winds of change.  

I had always felt that a writer does not necessarily need to move out except for commercial compulsions. If he moves out, it does take him away from his roots and the intimate world he belongs to. He writes wistfully of the lost world and tries to draw a connection.

If I wish to write well, I have to read well. This can happen in the small town as well. Why should I leave the city I had grown up in? This was the kind of idealism that restrained me. I was convinced to hear this reassuring voice urging me to lock myself down where I was and just read and write. I listened to it and stayed back. For almost two decades.  

While they moved at a frenzied pace made more furious by their ambition within, I was the one who remained out of this race, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, finding bliss in buying vegetables from farmers, plucking guavas and mangoes, having long walks to breathe in the fresh air, and listening to birds and their different voices. Something must be terribly lacking in such a person who opts for things nobody cares about. Must be a nervous chap afraid of failing who refuses to participate.

Relatives and family members came down heavily, suspecting the lack of the seeds of ambition. Inspirational stories of success abroad were narrated. When these did not push me hard to go out and compete, they realised the futility of it and dismissed my cowardice and lethargy as a tell-tale sign of impending doom. A person who lives to commit professional blunder. Such abuse came my way. I brushed it all aside. Nothing went deep inside to stir me, to jolt me, to make me feel insulted, to feel challenged, to come out and fight the usual survival wars of middle-class existence.   

Most of the friends became journalists and editors and rose to the eminence of the kind they had visualised. I was still reading and writing and undergoing the angst of creative puberty, waiting for the first novel to burst out of me. When they heard of my long, endless struggle, they advised me to become flexible and practical, move to a cosmopolitan city and build contacts.

I knew from my college days I had chosen a path less travelled. Okay, I was late in meeting them at the thoroughfare of success. But does it mean I have to change my chosen path now? Their words did not persuade me. I still believed in what I had chosen long ago. I was ready to face the consequences. My experiences of failure kept me grounded. I never thought I was desperate to meet success, never pleading for the gates of success to let me in.    

The hectic pace of life never made me change my languid pace. I followed my speed, never rushing into anything. I had the time to stand and absorb the beauty of flowers blooming all around, I had the time to sit by the riverside and watch its languid flow. I had the time to sit under the shady tree and distance myself from the world around me. I had the time to observe hordes of people in the market.

While I did work in advertising as a copywriter for my bread and butter, I stayed away from the stressful world and chose to work from home. It gave me a flexible routine, offered extra time to think and write for myself. I felt I was going to lose this fine balance if I went elsewhere. The ideal state of composure would be lost forever.

A compromise would scuttle my romance with nature. I was convinced even if I had to write for any other medium, I would still do it from my hometown. If the creative output was impressive, the terms and conditions would be made flexible. I was not going to relocate for career gains.  

The world is full of stories of people leaving homes for jobs. In the creative world, such stories of migration and struggle are also common. I was perhaps the uncommon kind who was convinced of the lack of the need to go anywhere else. Perhaps, it was true that the urge to make pots of money was not there. Or maybe I always believed big money was going to come if I wrote big stuff. Location was immaterial. Nobody really cares to know where the writer wrote the story so long as his work was good. When I read about respected authors who were grocers, postal clerks, and ration-shop owners, the entire perspective changed.

If I make it, I will be proved right. Perhaps I am wrong to think so. Sometimes, I wonder why I have this stubborn streak.

Is it because I love the city? Or I am afraid of finding myself fighting the same predictable battles as others do? Is it that I hate to come out of my comfort zone? Hurl any such reasoning. I am unruffled.   

This makes me think hard again. Is it the love of people and places? Why don’t I try once to leave and see how it pans out? As I tell myself to change, something tells me not to get distracted. Stay on the path I have been following. Do not think like others, say no to herd mentality. But when others question my present life, they do not think I chose it. They think I could not secure a better one. It is a defeat when I have nothing to tell them, to show them, to silence them.

The world I live in is relatively small, but it is nurturing my system well. While the city-based people have also suffered a lot, their success hides everything else. My failures strip me of the barest cover to defend myself.  

Take the counterpoint now. If life is so good here, why is your creativity not blooming and booming in the small town? Those city-based ones are writing best-sellers and you make tall claims of being a good writer. When it does not show in terms of success, isn’t it a wasted life?  

More important to find out is whether the writer in me feels exhausted or wasted. I have a word with the writer within every morning. He says he is still connected and happy to be here, not regretting the choice I made long ago.  

Agreed, creativity did not blossom here for me, but what is the guarantee it would have flourished elsewhere? They argue the chaos of survival, the urge to prove would have brought out my creativity. This slow life did not let it happen. They mean creativity comes out under stress. Well, it is an opinion and a possibility. But for me, I never like to write a single sentence under pressure.  

At this stage in life, with nothing worth to showcase as a fancy badge of success, I have no regret for not moving out, of being content with whatever creativity I could muster to tell a few stories. Did I wait too long for creativity to bloom instead of trying to force it? So long as I can create something decent even if it is not conventionally successful, I am happy for myself. Nothing else matters – not even the harshest criticism of my choices.   

The creativity I see around is non-competitive and complete in itself. Only humans want their creativity to become competitive, get acknowledged and recognised. I am happy to blossom the way my world wants me to bloom. Even if I do not, absolutely no regrets. Many creative folks have already gone down this path. I am not the first one to disappear without leaving behind a substantial body of work.

But the belief that brilliant stuff does not always have to come out of a metro-centric environment remains firm. All creative folks are not bound to create great art during their lifetime. Much of their existence is dedicated to the admiration of creative beauty in various forms. Forget the charm and trappings of success. Write in the way you love to write. This harmony is more important for the seeker within.      


Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short fiction and essays have been published in Kitaab, The Bombay Review, Deccan Herald, The Assam Tribune, The Sunday Statesman, Earthen Lamp Journal, and Readomania. Pal Motors is his first novel.


When Corona Becomes a Memory

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

The world of advertising is already getting creative to give a positive spin to the image of corona virus. Digital media is flush with out-of-the-box renditions. These wonderful interpretations indicate we have the rare ability to mutate this symbol into something exciting.  

Despite its malevolent impact on human lives and livelihood, the image does not look threatening in isolation. When we look back a year or so later, we are likely to remember a lot regarding the pandemic including the lockdown. By that time, the image of the corona virus will be present all around us in a myriad of forms, a living memory eliciting a host of conflicting emotional reactions ranging from anger to awe.

The world of art is certainly going to get busy, with a slew of contests and competitions to promote the novel corona virus in various forms of art, to serve as useful reminders to the global community. A framed post-card size photograph of the corona virus on my writing desk – just like a photograph from a memorable holiday – is my idea of remembering the Covid-19 times.   

Amusement parks are going to have a giant, bright-looking corona virus installed right in the middle. With crowds milling around to get clicked against this backdrop and post it on their social media handles. Installation art inspired by the corona virus is likely to be treasured in museums and other exhibition spaces, with connoisseurs and dilettantes standing in front of these majestic creations to eulogize the arty assets. Expect painters to mount something novel about the corona virus for us in art galleries, perhaps something profoundly abstract to wow our imagination. Writers and poets immortalise the virus in their inimitable verses and voices – through engaging stories and soulful poems. Photographers comprise the only disadvantaged cabal of creative honchos fully deprived of the chance to shoot the invisible virus.  

The pitch is perfect for marketing wizards to capitalize on the corona virus. It will be a tasty surprise if bakeries come up with corona-shaped cakes and pastries for gastronomical delight. Corona ice-cream sounds cool to beat the summer heat. Melt away your fears with yummy sticks and cups of frozen flavours. Bite into a corona chocolate to feel like a warrior who survived the pandemic. Relish traditional Indian sweets like corona laddoo or gulab jamun. Gobbling up the virus in its sweetest form infects you with a vicarious sense of invincible power.

Corona stickers and magnets on the fridge door refresh memories every time you pull the door. Keeping it full of essentials had become quite a challenge – how the booze rack looked deserted during those dry days. Corona lamp shades near the bedside remind you of how widely you read during the lockdown phase. Let imagination run wild to think of where and in what form the corona virus can be immortalised.  

Apparel brands are sure to launch a new line of clothing. Winning the big fight against the corona virus creates heroes everywhere and they need visual celebration of their grand conquest. T-shirts emblazoned with corona virus on the back or right in front for chest-thumping. Caps, handkerchiefs, and several other accessories carry the imprint wherever possible. Jewellery makers roll out a corona collection of ear-rings in gold – those dangling pieces remind women how the virus battle kept oscillating between hope and despair. Expect watches to become trendy for youth again. A corona watch shows what times the world has been through – the immense suffering of lovers who could not meet for months during the lockdown. 

Lovers will remember the unbearable pangs of separation just as couples will remember how their marriage plans were stalled. There will be a new term entering the dictionary – coronafied in love. To hint at forced separation due to an extraordinary situation like pandemic.   

Players will kick corona virus-shaped balls in the playground. Workers will have corona virus-shaped punching bags to vent their frustration of losing jobs during the crisis. Building entrances and residential complexes will have a dedicated corner for the corona virus where visitors will offer donation and bow down prior to entering the elevator. A precautionary step to appease the demi-god, to keep people safe. Corona virus-shaped dust-bins in every street corner will remind us of sanitization and hygiene drives. Corona virus-shaped bottles of hand sanitizers or room fresheners inside washrooms will serve as quick reminders of the harrowing past. 

Just like individuals and corporate entities deliver something innovative to keep the memory of the corona virus alive, nations should also come up with something novel – erect memorials where people can go and pray for the peace of departed souls who lost the battle against the corona virus. 


Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short fiction and essays have been published in Kitaab, The Bombay Review, Tehelka, Deccan Herald, The Assam Tribune, The Sunday Statesman, Earthen Lamp Journal, and Readomania. Pal Motors is his first novel.


Observer at Home

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

During the lockdown phase, I started taking interest in what did not interest me earlier. As a writer fond of observing people and the world outside, my operating space was restricted now. Everything inside the house began to draw my attention. The small, minor issues and objects assumed greater importance than they actually deserved. My appetite for keen observation was evident every hour of the day.  

I had no memory that the ceramic mug I drank coffee from every morning was chipped. Quite like the small scratches you do not notice when they first appear. I held it close to my eyes to check whether it was fresh. Unable to reach a definite conclusion, I shared my observation with my partner to see how she reacted. My words did not elicit her glance in my direction so I placed the coffee mug on the table without making the slightest noise.  

After a long-drawn silence in which I had forgotten my query, she confirmed the coffee mug was chipped due to an accidental brush against the gushing steel tap in the sink almost month ago. Since it was emblazoned with her favourite motivational quote, she decided not to discard it. Maybe the coffee mug supplied her with the daily dose of positivity when I sat in front of her, holding it in my hand. A visual meditation with open eyes.  

It was amazing to discover the curtains of the windows in my study had two colours. Unwilling to blindly trust my vision, I walked to the window, held the fabric and double-checked it. What I had considered beige had a tinge of pink as well. I resisted for a while the urge to ask my partner to spell out the colours. I framed it a bit differently soon: Is the curtain in my study room baby pink?

Her reply was prompt this time: The curtain has been washed so many times that from fuschia pink it was now turned into pale baby pink. The presence of subtle elements in everything surrounding a writer is always elevating. Subtleties make art richer. And writers always look for possible signs of it. After this observation, I was filled with the joy of imagining a reader who finds a new shade of meaning in my stories years later. Maybe someone who reads my works with great passion is the one who locates fresh sensibilities in my writing.

On the top of my bookshelf, there had been a miniature terracotta elephant and a horse. I do not exactly remember when I last saw them there. But I remember seeing them whenever I looked that side. I found them missing for the first time in three years since they were purchased from the local arts fair and placed right on top. I needed an update regarding their present location. Had they been shifted elsewhere recently? I asked my partner about the elephant first. 

Thank God, you noticed that.  When they came, they were small. Now they have grown up. How can they fit in there?  

I was not getting what she was trying to imply through her sarcasm. Finding a blank expression on my sullen face, she said she had moved them to the terrace last year. For one year I had not noticed this change of location. It showed how unfamiliar I was with the house I was living in.

I know the rooms of my characters very well. Every nook and corner is vivid in my mind. When the world of fiction becomes so real, the real world the writer lives in tends to grow distant. Something of this kind had happened in my case.

While shaving during the afternoon, I noticed the mirror was not square anymore. The mystery of how it had become rectangle deepened. Various implausible plot angles took shape in my fecund mind. Laying them at rest because thrillers are not my genre, I rushed to seek clarity regarding my visual disturbance from my spouse who was ironing clothes.

Holding the hot iron in one hand like a shield, she looked vexed with arched eyebrows. She dismissed my repeated attempts at observing more inside the house and clarified that the square mirror fell off the wall last winter. Maybe the lizards engaged in combat had toppled it to gain more space. 

I realised this tendency would continue in this manner for weeks. Many striking differences would come to my attention and it was useless to irritate others with my queries. Instead of trying to update myself with the changes I was observing quite late now, I should ignore them all and give more rest to my frenzied brain during the lockdown phase.    

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  



The Mask

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Green all around, shades of green actually, that seemed to smile at her as she looked out. The tall moringa tree that seemed to reach up high, its small leaves dazzling in the play of sun and rain. That tree that met her eyes each morning as she looked out of that large window always made her feel nice. The rusted iron grills, the wooden window shutters broken here and there, did not shut tight, the latch rusted too, some bit of concrete laid bare a little of the masonry – her eye moved along.


Bimala arrived in this house after her marriage. It was an arranged one. Baba and Ma looked for a suitable groom for their youngest born and the marriage was solemnised in the traditional way. Dida (grandmother) wanted it to be done just that way. Dada (elder brother) was working by then and just a few years before this they had moved into an apartment on the eastern fringes of the city.

It was a modest one and Bimala took great pains to do it up — from choosing the colours of the wall, the upholstery, the curtains, the fittings in the bathroom, almost everything. Bimala had a keen taste for the aesthetic and visitors to their home always made it a point to refer to it.

Baba had worked with the state government and retired a year after her marriage. They were a middle class family, and a very happy one at that. Bimala was never pampered, Ma and Baba were strict disciplinarians who made sure their children had the best in life.

Anupam, Bimala’s husband, lived with his mother in a neighbourhood in the southern part of the city. Anupam had his education from some of the best institutions in India, he obviously had been a very good student. He had been working with a multinational company for some years now and everyone knew he would soon rise to the top. Kumar Kaku (uncle) knew the family well and vouched for Anupam. He and Kakima (aunty) always said, Anupam was a wonderful person, soft spoken and reticent.

“A reserved lover, it is said, always makes a suspicious husband,” Kate Hardcastle’s line from the play she read in college had come to her mind. She spoke about it to Ma and Baba. Baba said, “You can surely talk to him. If you don’t approve, we will not go ahead.”

She remembered Ma’s reply, “Kumar is distantly related to the family. We have known him for years, he is our family friend, we can trust him completely. When he says the boy is good, we could go along. I see no reason why we need to have doubts.”

She did talk to him a few times before the wedding and Anupam came across as a decent guy. They met up too a few times. She did not want to rush into it, she wanted to take some more time, but Kumar Kaku was insistent. “I know the family well. They are decent people.”

“That is alright,” Baba said. “It is a question of Bimu’s life, let her take some more time before she decides.”

Kakima too waxed praises galore, “Anupam was such a nice person.” She spoke highly of him and his family and called up Ma regularly. For some days, this was what went on in the household. Dada also agreed with Baba.

“Bimala could be given time to decide,” she heard Baba tell Ma. That was all the kind of conversation that went on at home, these days, she thought. As days went by, Kumar Kaku’s visits to their house increased. Bimala said yes after some thought. Kakima and Kumar Kaku were jubilant.

“I know both families and this is what is best for our Bimala,” she could hear his words as he spoke to Ma.

Baba did not say much. “Are you sure, Bimu, you want to go ahead with it? If you have even a little bit of doubt, any questions, anything, let me know. I am sure I can talk with your Ma about it.”

Bimala just smiled, “Na, Baba, it is alright.”

So in about less than twelve months, the marriage was finalised. A flurry of activity – arrangements were done, invitations sent out, so much taken care of. Kaku and Kakima took an ever more eager interest in everything. Things moved real fast after she had agreed. A modest wedding and soon her new “life” in the new house began.

The ‘mask’ came off in less than six months. “Don’t touch that.” “Don’t do this.” “This is my house.” “Do not try to show off your learning.” “All your ideas are worthless” – they just kept coming at all times.

“Why do you need appliances? My mother did all these by herself. “

“But Khokha, things have changed now. Certain things are needed these days. Had they been available earlier on, my home would have been so very different.” Anupam’s mother had been the voice of good sense, not that she had much say in the house.

He would just stare at her. Bimala felt nice talking to her. A year after the marriage, a massive heart attack ended that life. They had been talking when the end came and Bimala was in a state of shock for weeks after that incident.

In summer months the house was unbearable. Bimala had not been used to this heat. Anupam had said that he would make provisions so that life could be nice. That was before the wedding. Kumar Kaku and Kakima too had said that he would do all that was needed to live life well. Nothing happened. Bimala tried to reason with him, he ignored her. That day, about a year and half after they had been married, the television was blaring and Anupam was watching the news. She tried speaking to him about getting an air conditioner, he turned away. She again tried speaking.

This time she switched off the television. He shouted at her. She tried keeping her cool, he refused to listen to anything. Suddenly he caught her with his two hands, he held her neck. He held her that way and pushed her from the living room to the bedroom, she tried to break free, but the grip was too strong. Bimala was so taken aback by the whole think that she could not utter a single word. He pushed her on the bed, holding her neck in his hands, shaking her. She struggled and struggled. After a while, he eased the grip, went into the living room, switched on the television.

She lay on the bed, crying in pain, in hurt, in humiliation, insulted. All for some cold air, to live life well. After some time, she got up, there were marks on her neck. Who should she turn to, she felt so lost. She called up Kakima and told her what had happened.

“Such things happen in marriages. Don’t pay much attention to them,” she said.

Bimala could not believe what she said, “Things will be alright now, you see.”

After the conversation was over, she took out her suitcase and started packing her things. The next morning she left.

Anupam did not say a word.

Baba told her, “You did just the right thing.” Ma was upset with the turn of events but they were both happy with the decision.

Bimala never went back.


It has been five years since then. Restricted by the lockdown, amid reports of an increase in domestic violence cases, she got talking about it that evening. I knew that was a traumatic period in her life. She had tried picking up her life little by little. I have known her for years and have seen her as she tried to begin things afresh.

“As I look at the masks that we are to wear these days as precautionary measures, I am so reminded of the masks that people always wore.” We were chatting online, and Bimala said, “Kumar Kaku and Kakima’s masks fell off after I walked out of that marriage. All those years of friendship with my parents ebbed so quickly. They never ever got in touch with us, never again.”

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is an Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.


COVID claims jobs

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Covid-19 seems far away from the district I live in. But deprivation has already set in. On my way home with a bag full of grocery items from the nearby kirana store (minimart), I was stopped by two masked women outside the park. One of them flashed a weak smile that disappeared as soon as she measured from my bag and body language that I was not the person she was waiting for. She asked me whether the distribution of food grains was scheduled in the park – whether they should queue up and wait. Being absolutely clueless regarding any such distribution plan and feeling a sense of remorse for carrying something these women were eagerly waiting for, I chose to suggest the adjacent house for reliable information in this regard.

I replayed her question in my head to assess her plight. Her voice did not quake with any sentiment of doom. But her face did carry a disproportionate mix of hope and worry. From her readiness to wait, it appeared she was expecting recovery and normalcy to return soon. Just like her, the entire nation was pregnant with hope of a turnaround. Except the corporate world that had already aborted it.  

Despite chanting mantras of positive mindset and chewing the motivational gum year after year, there seems to be a well-orchestrated unanimity in the prediction of business slump. Salary cut sounds a pretty neat term – quite like a bearded guy choosing to become clean-shaven and still looking dapper. Nobody seems to grudge pay cuts and there is a smile on every face if you mention it, as if it is an increment or Diwali bonus.

Weighed against the other alternative of job loss, this seems like a life-saver. While we are still a long away from finding the vaccine, it seems we have already found the cure that keeps us immune from lay-offs. Thousands of employees and workers are going to serve with renewed motivation because they have families to feed and regular debts to service. The vicious cycle continues.

It is barely a month of lockdown in India and companies are feeling the heat. They have to pay salaries when there is no cash flow. It pinches them hard. This comes as an ideal opportunity to downsize the workforce. Instead of waiting for two months to see how the situation evolves, companies have already started communicating their new human resource policies through email and phone. Seems there is no contingency fund to tide over the crisis and emergency credit lines will not meet their requirement.  

Before the Covid-19 crisis set in, I met my employers for a raise and the first draft of their script was ready. Every single line suggested they were waiting for the pandemic to blow up before they unfolded their mega plans in front of employees. It was a clear indicator that they were going to release a voluntary retrenchment scheme, or they would come up with a revised plan of salary packages.

After the 21-day lockdown ended and the extension happened, the advertising agency began its trial run on me. To be honest, I had an inkling that this exercise would begin with me. The owners communicated their decision to flatten my salary curve – slash 50% of it from next month. It was cold, insensitive, and brutal. The email exuded the same indifference. Since I was not ready to accept the new offer, I communicated my decision to quit my job in the next three months and served them my notice period.

Some friends called me to know about my job status. Did you get hit? The urban workforce hides its collective shame in this clever expression that helps salvage pride and dignity by playing the victim card — as if it was an enemy bullet that hit us while we were serving our corporate dukes in the battlefield.    

During Covid-19 times, the chutzpah to leave a job is certainly not what any employer would expect. A meek, timid acceptance would have warmed the cockles of their hearts. What I delivered was a bitter pill of gross insubordination and rebellion. I knew all their domestic clients were on board, and several of them were government clients. This was a temporary setback and the clients would resume operations after the lockdown. What was the tearing hurry then?

Imagine what happens to hordes of employees in the private sector in the coming months. People are going to suffer heart attacks, strokes and even contemplate suicide. And the organisations have no humanitarian approach or policy to address such a major problem. If they do not wish to utilise the resources acquired over the years of operations for the benefit of employees, it shows their rank opportunism and insensitive disposition in such trying times. 

Most of the companies operating in India have not existed since 1971. The corporate boom is a fairly recent phenomenon that arrived after liberalization was introduced in 1991. They have not seen wars or famines during their lifetime. All they are busy doing is axe, axe, and axe. As if jobs are like overgrown branches that need to be pruned from time to time.   

Corporates have a fairly typical mindset: expand hiring processes when business grows and contract when business shrinks. Remember the faces of those animals that perceive the slightest danger and curl up for protection – corporates are like that. Unreliable, fair-weather friends you can go on a date with provided you carry an umbrella or a raincoat of your own. When it starts pouring suddenly, do not expect them to take you under their umbrella.

Covid-19 crisis is yet another eye-opener that reveals the real predatory nature of corporate entities. Sadly, this realisation will soon be forgotten as the corporate juggernaut resumes its roll.   

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.