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THE CONTEMPORARY WEST GLOBAL VOICES FOCUS


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Deriving from the German weben—to weave—weber translates into the literal and figurative “weaver” of textiles and texts. Weber are the artisans of textures and discourse, the artists of the beautiful fabricating the warp and weft of language into everchanging patterns. Weber, the journal, understands itself as a regional and global tapestry of verbal and visual texts, a weave made from the threads of words and images.

TO HAVE ACCESS TO LITERATURE, WORLD LITERATURE, WAS TO ESCAPE THE PRISON OF NATIONAL VANITY, OF PHILISTINISM, OF COMPULSORY PROVINCIALISM, OF INANE SCHOOLING, OF IMPERFECT DESTINIES AND BAD LUCK. LITERATURE WAS THE PASSPORT TO ENTER A LARGER LIFE; THAT IS, THE ZONE OF FREEDOM.

— MK Gandhi, “No Cultural Isolation for Me,” Young India 1 Jun 1921

—SUSAN SONTAG, LITERATURE IS FREEDOM

[J]ust like Latin once used to be taught as an academic exercise, mental gymnastics with the aim of cognitive training, it has been demonstrated that people who know more than one language usually think more flexibly than monolinguals. Also many celebrated bilingual writers—such as John Milton, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Barclay Beckett, or Iosif Brodsky—attest that knowing a second language enhances the use of the first.

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

OUT ON THE EDGE YOU SEE ALL KINDS OF THINGS YOU CAN’T SEE FROM THE CENTER. ― Kurt Vonnegut,

Player Piano

― Michał B. Paradowski, Multilingual Living


EST

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THE CONTEMPORARY WEST

VOLUME 33 | NUMBER 1 | FALL 2016


EDITORIAL BOARD EDITOR

Michael Wutz GUEST COEDITORS

T. Vijay Kumar, Osmania University Kerstin Schmidt, Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt ASSOCIATE EDITORS

Kathryn L. MacKay Russell Burrows Victoria Ramirez Brad Roghaar MANAGING EDITOR

Kelsy Thompson EDITORIAL BOARD

Phyllis Barber, author Jericho Brown, Emory University Katharine Coles, University of Utah Duncan Harris, University of Wyoming Diana Joseph, Minnesota State University Nancy Kline, author & translator Delia Konzett, University of New Hampshire Fred Marchant, Suffolk University Madonne Miner, Weber State University Felicia Mitchell, Emory & Henry College Julie Nichols, Utah Valley University Tara Powell, University of South Carolina Bill Ransom, Evergreen State College Walter L. Reed, Emory University Scott P. Sanders, University of New Mexico Daniel R. Schwarz, Cornell University Andreas Ströhl, Goethe-Institut Munich James Thomas, author Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, author Melora Wolff, Skidmore College EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

Erin Seaward-Hiatt EDITORIAL PLANNING BOARD

Bradley W. Carroll Brenda M. Kowalewski Angelika Pagel John R. Sillito Michael B. Vaughan ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Shelley L. Felt Aden Ross G. Don Gale Mikel Vause

Meri DeCaria Barry Gomberg Elaine Englehardt John E. Lowe

LAYOUT CONSULTANTS

Mark Biddle and Brandon Petrizzo EDITORS EMERITI

Brad L. Roghaar Sherwin W. Howard Nikki Hansen

Neila Seshachari LaVon Carroll

EDITORIAL MATTER CONTINUED IN BACK


TABLE OF CONTENTS VOLUME 33 | NUMBER 1 | FALL 2016 | $10.00

CONTEMPORARY GLOBAL VOICES ART 6 The Artwork of Poornima Jayasinghe and Sujeewa Kumari

ESSAY 17 Saba Imtiaz, The Ground Beneath Their Feet 27 Bonnie Zare, Longing for Belonging: Who is a Cowboy and Who is an Indian?

POETRY 33 Kathryn Hummel, Shanti Bloody Shanti, Empty Track, Worli, Welcome Gentle Stranger 37 Debasish Lahiri, Ovid Contemplates Writing His Fasti at Tomis 39 Hoshang Merchant, For Yusuf and Ahmed, Both 19, Two Street Scenes . . . 41 Sadaf Saaz, A Hint of Nostalgia, The Journey Begun, Waves, Choices

Tsitsi Dangarembga...........................63

FICTION 46 56 63 74 77 94 106 113 119 126 138

K. Anis Ahmed, Beasts of Prey Meira Chand, Black Water Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Brick Siddhartha Deb, Schlumberger Sunetra Gupta, The Still Room Shabnam Nadiya, Ganja Girl Pranesh Prasad, The Hidden Imam Mahmud Rahman, Every Life is Precious Moazzam Sheikh, Mr. Samuel Visits Washington Murzban Shroff, Scent of a Meal Jameela Siddiqi, Her Highness’s Clothes

Siddhartha Deb..................................74

Sunetra Gupta...................................77

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THE ART WORK OF

POORNIMA JAYASINGHE


The moment an artwork receives a price tag, there is no escape from associating art with financial gain.

—POORNIMA JAYASINGHE

Poornima Jayasinghe doesn’t limit herself to any one genre, and her most significant art work introduces new possibilities in artistic expression, such as using alternative spaces both inside and outside of galleries. Her interactive public participatory art works, such as “Towards a Bright Future” or “Making History—A Process,” are highly acclaimed by both local and international art critics and curators. Through her art, Poornima reflects on broad personal, social, political, and cultural issues of contemporary society within a deep psychological context. Poornima is the Head of Art at the British School in Colombo. She is co-founder and director of the Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA) and has won numerous awards for her digital art and photography. Poornima has obtained Higher National Diplomas in Graphic Design, Photography, and Interior Design. Her work had been on display in various local and international exhibitions, such as the Colombo Art Biennale, Park Street Mews, the French Spring Festival, and Pettah Expose.

Pettah is the largest commercial hub in Sri Lanka. Located in Colombo, an array of consumers, goods, and traders are connected in a rapidly changing environment filled with a wide gamut of characters and social backgrounds. My artwork discusses, first and foremost, the lives of the people whom I have engaged with in Pettah. The focus of these works was their personal stories: their desires, sorrows, frustrations, aggressions, joys and dreams. During this point of my research, the act of marketing and selling was not a subject I considered. I am now contemplating the act of selling through my decision to place a commercial value on the works that represent the lives of these people. Contemporary art in Sri Lanka is often dominated by the

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Your Sadness is My Happiness, mixed media on paper, 42 x 60 cm., 2014

Package 53, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014


subjects of violence, displacement, cultural taboos, postcolonialism, gender issues, women’s rights, and human rights in relation to the artist’s outlook and opinion. Artists frequently mass produce works based on this assumption, and while there are positive social aspects of these representations this is also a way of opening doors to international art markets. This process of supply and demand is not unlike the trading in Pettah. The increase in supply of both high- and low-quality products in order to exploit one particular demand and thereby make profit is directly comparable to the art market. Intentionally or unintentionally, we are marketing and selling the human conditions, frustrations, and aggressions of others and ourselves. Can we escape this? The moment an artwork receives a price tag, there is no escape from associating art with financial gain.

In this exhibition, the subject matter captures the struggles and dreams of the people in Pettah from personal, political, social, and cultural angles. All this is represented with strong visuals to elicit intensified emotions and attract the collector to the work. Certain psychological states—cognitive, emotional and motivational—are activated when it comes to buying a product. In this exhibition, you can mix and match several works as you wish, to create the composite work customized to your taste or personality. When you purchase an artwork, you are in fact purchasing the representation of lives of people in Pettah. The collector becomes a part of the exhibition and trades him-/ herself, thereby representing my personal struggle with the commercial nature now associated with my artwork. My integrity as an artist is also “for sale.”

Package 56, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014

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Package 10, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014

Package 77, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014


Package 75, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014

Package 76, mixed media on paper, 21 x 14.5 cm., 2014

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This group of work explores aspects of duality: beauty and destruction, the body and the spirit, order and chaos, objects and relations (connections).

—SUJEEWA KUMARI

Sujeewa Kumari is a silent force in the contemporary art scene of Sri Lanka. She was educated at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, and then completed an MFA at the Dutch Art Institute in the Netherlands. Kumari has held solo shows in the UK, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. Kumari paints and draws and performs her art. There is something unusually free about her works: they exaggerate the presence of texture in objects and transform into tactile representations of femininity. In 2010, she participated in a wider project called Between Kismet and Karma: South Asian Women Artists Respond to Conflict, Leeds Art Gallery, U.K. The subject of Kumari’s work is based on her personal experiences and her research into postcolonial costumes of Sri Lanka, which are often juxtaposed to one another. Kumari continues to have a nonchalant attitude to her work, refusing to ascribe interpretation and intention, instead preferring the viewer’s personal interaction with her art. Mystery might be said to be the essence of her work.

Tinted Narratives II, digital print on archival paper, 30 x 30 cm., 2013


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The media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message.”  The Sri Lankan history of new media, including photography and video, is closely connected to encounters with the outside world, namely the West. Early photography has always played an important role in documenting and exploring foreign spheres by attempting to “picture the Other.” In contrast, the Orientals’ way is everything different from home. My influence comes from above and is based on and related to “picturing the Other.” I try to approach the screen the same way I approach my drawings. This group of work explores aspects of duality: beauty and destruction, the body and the spirit, order and chaos, Tinted Narratives III, print on photo paper, 30 x 37 cm., 2013 Tinted Narratives XIV, print on photo paper, 30 x 32 cm., 2013

Caption TK


Landscape II, mixed media on paper, 42 x 59 cm., 2015

LEFT: Untitled, mixed media on Chinese paper, 68 x 41 cm., 2012 BELOW: Tinted Narratives IV, print on photo paper, 30 x 33 cm., 2013

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objects and relations (connections). Without pre-planning I collect everyday objects. People and photos are the catalyst for my body of works. I use these photos as drawing tools. The juxtaposition of the images makes transparent layers of history. Layering one on top of another creates a depth of perspective, both visually and conceptually. They are multi-layered compositions, similar to classical paintings, and these hybrid images thereby surface, making references of truth and fiction. It is thereby possible to obtain a new comprehension of these narratives from an unusual vantage point.

Untitled II, mixed media on paper, 42 x 29.5 cm., 2015

Ordinary Souls, mixed media on paper, 42 x 59 cm., 2015


E S S A Y

Saba Imtiaz

The Ground Beneath Their Feet

O

n December 8, 1992, Kailash Wishram dived into the waters of the Arabian Sea and swam away from the only home he had ever known. Kailash is thirty-five now and has children of his own, but he can recall the day with the kind of vivid detail that perhaps is only imprinted in a child’s mind. He was twelve years old on that winter day, and he had been left behind at home with his brothers and cousins. Kailash and his cousin swam to a nearby bridge, clambered onto it, and watched as a mob ransacked his house. Perhaps Kailash’s home would have been spared if it was in a different neighborhood. He would not have grown up with the events of December 8, 1992, imprinted on his mind. But his family was one of seven that lived around the Sri Laxmi Narayan Temple, a historic Hindu temple by the banks of the Arabian Sea in Karachi, Pakistan. No one knows just how the family came to live in the temple, but on that day it was their home. On December 6, 1992, Hindu fundamentalists tore down the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, sparking communal riots in the country and beyond. Pakistan, where outrage over the destruction of the mosque still simmers, declared an official day of mourning. Angered mobs ran amok in Hindu neighborhoods and temples across the country, including Sri Laxmi Narayan. Kailash saw the police arrive at the temple and evict the mob. Officers said they would take Kailash and everyone else at the temple into “protective custody.” Instead, the men had to spend the night in the local police station’s lockup and were later left at a garbage dump in the center of the city.

The next morning, the families made their way back home. Their houses had been torched to the ground. The temple was destroyed. Government officials visited the site and promised support. The families wrote to legislators and officials about their claims and damages, documents they say are still lying—untouched and forgotten—in a government office. They never received any compensation. The families eventually rebuilt their houses. Kailash’s sisters married, set up house elsewhere, and began families of their own. Kailash began working as a clerk to a lawyer, a job swung by an acquaintance of his uncle. Kailash still lives in small rooms off the courtyard of Sri Laxmi Narayan with his young wife. He has spent his entire life in this temple, among the alcoves and rooms where statues of Hindu gods are kept. Incense burns in the rooms, and a few bulbs hanging from the ceiling light up the detailing on the statues. The temple’s open courtyard tapers off into a flight of stairs that leads down to a bed of rocks separating it from the sea. A foundation stone marked “1843” is inlaid in the pink-sandstone boundary wall of the temple, placed by the president of the Hindu Charitable Ghat Association. There is another sign for a “ghat”—a bathing place— declaring it as reserved for Hindu men. Almost everyone around the temple knows how to swim, having grown up with the sea lapping the edge of the temple. But Kailash could not swim to safety to escape a mob today. He would have nowhere to go. Of the two nearby bridges, one’s railing is boarded up, assumedly for the overarching reason of “security” that is cited to justify roadblocks and blast proof walls, and because it became notorious as a


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Saadullah Bhatti

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spot to commit suicide, a criminal offense according to Pakistani law. And the other, smaller bridge of Kailash’s vivid memory no longer exists. That bridge is now an entertainment venue called Port Grand. Designed to look like a pier, it is lined with restaurants and shops and offers a view of the open sea and port. It caters to Karachi’s upwardly mobile middle class, people who can afford the 300-rupee entry fee per person. Port Grand does not allow unaccompanied men to enter. One must be part of a “family”—i.e., a mixed-gender group—a requirement that effectively disenfranchises many but is routinely put into force at malls and fairs in the city. There are concerts on weekend nights. Visitors can choose from restaurants offering fresh barbecue to Chinese food, or snack on bubble tea and ice cream. There is a boat and jet ski service that operates in the creek next to Port Grand, which offers speedboat rides and a 1,500-rupee, ten-minute turn on jet skis. A small army of workers vigilantly picks up trash. Port Grand is always clean, a rarity in a city where piles of garbage fester in even the most upscale of neighborhoods. Port Grand is a shining symbol of the broken window theory. And it is the bane of Kailash’s existence.

Sri Laxmi Narayan is one of a handful of temples in Karachi. In the sixty-eight years since Pakistan and India were borne out of the colonial-ruled Indian subcontinent, Karachi transformed from a Hindu majority city to one where Hindus live in secluded pockets spread across the city. Their dominance as the richest, wealthiest community eroded and only a few Hindus are prominent social fixtures in the country. In the outlying province of Sindh, upper-class Hindus still work as merchants and traders and have a stronger social influence. But Hindus are a minority in Pakistan. According to the last national census in 1998, only 1.6 percent of the 132 million population was Hindu—a little over two million—with the majority in Sindh province. The months leading up to the creation of Pakistan and India saw the abandonment of stately homes and apartments with intricately carved balconies. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Zoroastrians migrated across the soon-to-be-final borders between the two countries, with Hindus and Sikhs going to India, and Muslim families migrating to Pakistan,

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which was designed to be a predominantly Muslim state. After the creation of Pakistan, fewer Hindu worshippers and the community’s waning influence meant that the Hindu temples began disappearing. Property developers seized on some, others were abandoned with no one to see to their upkeep. Sri Laxmi Narayan was not abandoned. It is built around an open, sea-facing courtyard. It retained its utility because it is one of the few temples in Pakistan that is near a source of water. This is essential for Hindu prayers and final rites, as Hindus scatter the cremated ashes of their loved ones into the open sea. Theoretically, ashes must be left in the sacred Ganges River in India, but in a compromise of sorts, Kailash and other Hindus have taken the waterways to which they have access to be similar to their holy sites. “These are our Ganga Jamuna,” Kailash said, referring to the rivers that flow in India. “It is all one sea, right?” This creek of sorts near the temple has a different kind of holiness, a sense of history that somehow, in a weird urban dysfunction, exists despite the rubbish floating on the water. Every week, dozens of people stand by the rocks that lead to the sea, or on the nearby Netty Jetty bridge (its real name is Native Jetty, but not even tourists call it that) and toss balls of dough into the water—an offering to the fishes in exchange for prayers being answered. This is an enduring superstition and urban legend in Karachi, but the offerings have been pouring forth for decades, even of the macabre sort. There is a rooster strutting around the temple which Kailash’s family saved after someone tossed it into the water as a sacrifice. Others visit to deposit items used in worship—such as lamps—that cannot be thrown into the trash. Sri Laxmi Narayan has its own devotees, people who are attached to the temple for reasons beyond a sense of religious duty. “I’ll tell you my story,” Shaam Lal says, as he waits outside the temple for his wife and daughters on a Sunday afternoon. “I was jobless. In Pakistan, you need a recom-

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In the sixty-eight years since Pakistan and India were borne out of the colonial-ruled Indian subcontinent, Karachi transformed from a Hindu majority city to one where Hindus live in secluded pockets spread across the city. Their dominance as the richest, wealthiest community eroded and only a few Hindus are prominent social fixtures in the country. mendation or a bribe to get a job. Poor people don’t have that—if they did, they wouldn’t need to work. My brother had my horoscope shown, and it said that there was some burden on me, and if I did certain things then my problems would go away. So I thought, my brother is telling me to do this, let’s try this. For seven consecutive Sundays, I left dough for the fishes here. And after that I got a job at National Bank without any recommendation or paying a bribe.” Shaam Lal has been coming to this temple since. Port Grand opened up in the summer of 2011, and for the first few weeks, first-time visitors flooded the faux pier. “The whiff of putrid sea air that hits you as you near the entrance of the highly anticipated Port Grand Food and Entertainment Complex is forgotten once you step inside the metal gate,” a reporter for The Express Tribune newspaper enthused in a story on Port Grand’s inauguration. The seven families continue to live with this putrid sea air, but their homes

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E S S A Y and space have been shrinking since the day Port Grand’s developers arrived at the temple. The story of Port Grand’s creation— which Kailash now retells with regret at not having taken legal action earlier, and accusations at Hindu community representatives who sold them out—is a foreboding one. In retrospect, it provided a template for how urban development amplifies the divisions between the minority and majority groups in Pakistan. In March 2007, the temple of Jhoolay Lal, built in yellow stone near Sri Laxmi Narayan, was razed to make space for Port Grand. The Hindu families of the temple protested the demolition and the alarming changes to the land they had occupied for generations. A wall had gone up cutting the temple off from the construction site, and the families feared that Sri Laxmi Narayan was next. At the time all Kailash knew was that the bridge was being developed as an “English Food Street.” But community representatives, including a Hindu legislator, promised Kailash nothing would happen. The families continued to protest the creation of Port Grand but the developers pressed on with the project. The wall remained in place, and Port Grand opened. The temple’s families began to cope with the strangers in their space: the valets parking dozens of cars, the hordes of families and teenagers, the city’s elite gingerly venturing to the neighborhood to see the newest spot to see and be seen. The lights of Port Grand obscured the temple and even now, few people know that a temple exists nearby. The fears of the Hindu families were not unfounded. In 2012, unidentified construction workers arrived and took a hammer to Sri Laxmi Narayan as Kailash and his family pleaded, begged, and yelled at them, trying to find out what they were doing. In the heat of the moment, as Kailash grappled with the foreman, he spotted a map in the worker’s bag: a layout of the temple, featuring grandiose plans for its reconstruction as a “museum” attached to Port Grand. The men allegedly worked for Mukesh Kumar Chawla, a Hindu community leader

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and a minister in the Sindh government cabinet. The community officials claimed they were rebuilding the temple, but Kailash believes that they colluded with Port Grand’s management to do this so they could encroach on the temple and expand Port Grand. Fearing the destruction of the temple and the family home, Kailash went to a lawyer, who asked him for any documents he could find. Even though everything had been lost in the siege of 1992, some of the families in the neighborhood had kept documents for safekeeping with relatives: among them, a ration card dating to 1973 and copies of electricity bills from the 1990s, valuable proof that the families had lived here for decades and had a valid claim on the property. Mukesh Kumar Chawla and community officials had been claiming that the families had only turned up on the site recently, but the aged scraps of paper were proof that their claim dated back decades. After years of contentious litigation, court-mandated surveys, threats and protests, Sri Laxmi Narayan has been spared the fate of being relegated to a relic of the past. Kailash recently received permission

The story of Port Grand’s creation—which Kailash now retells with regret at not having taken legal action earlier, and accusations at Hindu community representatives who sold them out—is a foreboding one. In retrospect, it provided a template for how urban development amplifies the divisions between the minority and majority groups in Pakistan.

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to begin restoring the temple. Donations from temple visitors have helped. The temple’s walls are now a salmon pink. New statues of Hindu gods have been placed in the temple’s rooms. Perhaps this is an attempt to restore the temple’s sanctity that was lost in the mob violence two decades ago. But the reality is that, while the temple rose from the ashes in 1992, it is now struggling to do so. One night in the fall of 2011, a wedding procession made its way through a snarl of cars at Port Grand’s entrance to the temple, the traditional procession drums drowned out by the honks of the cars. On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2015, music blared from Port Grand as it hosted a music festival organized by I am Karachi, a consortium of private citizens and civil society organizations. The event—which ran for two days—was meant to be a “step towards revival of musical culture in Karachi [to] reclaim the normalcy of the city.” And for those two days, Hindus worshipped with music echoing through the temple’s rooms. This is common now. The Hindu worshippers—silently, without protest—walk past the tall gates of Port Grand and down the lane that leads to the temple. In the evenings, members of the families living nearby lounge on chairs outside. Laila, a transvestite who has made this lane her base since 2012, sits outside and people silently give her money. The devotees of this temple have made compromises since the day Port Grand opened, from the small inconvenience of being turned away from the lane leading to the temple and being instructed by guards to park down the street and walk up to the temple, to the blaring noise that disturbs their prayer. Speedboats zoom past mourners carrying ashes; visitors to Port Grand gawk at the women visiting the temple; and the music—the loud, screechy tones of offkey singers amplified through a sound system—echo through the temple all evening and night. “There are kids here,” Pushpa, Shaam Lal’s wife, said during a visit to the temple on a Sunday afternoon. “No one says anything to them that there are people with families here, that they should move to the

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side and not keep standing there, we’re praying. This is the issue, nothing else. And it is a problem when our prayer is going on and there are songs playing because the timings at both places are the same.” Yet Pushpa has not complained. And neither does anyone else. “You can’t do anything alone if you have an objection,” Shaam Lal says, “not unless everyone does it collectively. What can one person do?” He holds up his hand. “This is one finger. When you combine all the fingers it becomes a punch, and when it hits someone it has an impact. But if one finger hits someone, then what difference will it make?” “Do you think they’ll act on my complaint? Do you think so?” Kailash repeats the question. He is bitterly accepting of what has happened. He still manages to laugh—albeit sarcastically—at the events of the past eight years, the wall, the absurdity and incongruity that is Port Grand, and his own life. Since Port Grand opened up, Kailash and his children have experienced a new side of the city altogether. “We have heard the best songs, songs we’d never heard,” Kailash retorts. “We’d never heard of VIP dance programs and catwalk shows, which we’ve now seen. We’ve seen lots of dance shows. Google Port Grand and you’ll see all of this. Port Grand is just a place for singing and dancing.” Port Grand is not merely a symbol of elitist entertainment Kailash and the lower-class are excluded from, or a source of inconvenience. The Hindu community’s failure to do anything about Port Grand, even as it continues to impact their daily lives or weekly temple routines, is just another sign of the helplessness, this inevitability that no matter how organized they get—or don’t—or how high up they rise socially, there is always a wall that keeps Hindus on the fringe. Fighting for a stereo to be turned off so one can pray in peace is probably not on the list of priorities. Discrimination against Hindus is widespread in Pakistan, where they were once rich and influential members of society. Employers discriminate against

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will grow up with the thumping bass in their ears, with an influx of strangers in their neighborhood, and without the ability to swim away to safety. Port Grand’s creation—the disregard for the sanctity of a religious place, the alleged collusion with community representatives—is also a prescient tale of how gentrification has begun to impact minority religious groups like the Hindus of Karachi.

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Hindu job applicants, or offer them menial jobs that they are overqualified for. Hindus are considered second-class citizens, not really Pakistanis, but actually Indians who are just living here. People refuse to accept water from Hindus, or eat food served on the same plate. Hindu temples have borne the brunt of rioters, raging against alleged acts of blasphemy and property developers. In recent years, local clerics in the Sindh province have encouraged hundreds of conversions of Hindus to Islam, including the forced conversion of Hindu girls to marry Muslim boys. Caste differences within Hindus prevent the formation of an organized front, and nearly every Hindu legislator is accused of having sold out the community’s interests. Pushpa cares about the temple, but her concerns are more immediate. She worries about her daughters, who she knows will not get the jobs they deserve. “It starts with our kids at school. That’s the first step. And then as they get older . . . we get them educated, we do so much but they’re still not getting anything out of it. Our parents couldn’t do anything. But we’ve done it for our kids. We’ve educated them so much. But it has not been as beneficial. There’s a difference of community that comes up between kids. Our community cannot progress because of this reason. Until the government supports it, thinks about it, what can happen? There’s no meaning, no benefit of educating our children. When they are older and they apply for a job they will be held back because of being Hindu.” There is no one to turn to. The gamut of people who don’t care is wide-ranging: apathetic legislators, advocacy groups, journalists that have forgotten about the temple’s plight, and a society that doesn’t need—or want—to see beyond the glare of Port Grand. The worshippers in this temple cannot go anywhere else. There are no other temples next to the sea in Karachi. Where else will they go to deposit the ashes of their loved ones? Wedding processions will continue to weave through the cars dropping off Port Grand’s visitors. Speedboat passengers will continue to gawk, or pop their head in the door. Kailash’s children

Three years after Port Grand went up, the ground beneath Shakeel Ahmed’s feet began to give away. Shakeel sells flowers on the pavement outside the Sri Ratneshwar Mahadev temple on Mondays, a day marked for worship by Karachi’s Hindus. The strands of jasmine and rose cost ten rupees each and are used as offerings. Behind Shakeel are the ancient, carved wooden doors of the temple and a flight of stairs that lead to the underground warren of rooms, an almost cave-like structure. Shakeel is twenty-two years old and spent his childhood on this pavement and outside other Hindu temples. Shakeel’s father was barely of age when he began working these pavements. He also sold flowers, and so did his father before him. Shakeel will also spend his life outside these temples, his earnings counted strand by strand, ten rupees by ten rupees. He knows that the ground beneath his feet is not layers of concrete and earth, but the rooms of the temple where worshippers are praying as people above them walk around, stomp, spit on the ground, and play music that will interrupt the devotional songs. Shakeel knows the regulars, and he can spot the out-of-towners. He was a child when he came here, when hundreds of people would descend on the temple— Muslims, Hindus, everyone—all here to pray before Shiva. He now spends the day politely telling non-Hindus to go inquire at the door if they can go to the temple and to move off the pavement where they have set up shop to gawk inside.

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This stretch of road has been walked on for hundreds of years. It is where Shakeel and his family found livelihood. This is the road Shakeel has taken for years to come to work, where he learned how to take orders for flowers in different languages—Urdu, Sindhi, Gujarati. Shakeel is also a Muslim who knows more about Hindu rituals than the average Karachi resident, and he cares more about this temple than the Karachi resident who looks at the construction around the temple and believes it to be a sign of prosperity. An unfinished skyscraper looms over the temple. It is being built by Bahria Town, a real estate developer whose exclusive gated communities and round-the-clock advertising—as well as their chairman’s public imbroglios—have lent it immense popularity and recognition. It is visible for miles, a lone aberration on a skyline devoid of looming skyscrapers. Once it is completed, it will be the tallest building in the city and a beacon of cosmopolitanism and commerce. But Bahria Town has already changed the neighborhood, including the ground beneath Shakeel’s feet. The company’s ubiquitous property developments had been chugging along for months, until one day Shakeel arrived at work to find the entire street had been dug up. Bahria Town’s grandiose plans for its tower, named the Bahria Town ICON, included building two underpasses and a flyover. But these signs of urban development caused a physical, social and spiritual upheaval on the stretch of road. Four years ago, when Bahria Town started construction, Shakeel’s father was still alive. “My father said they were building some park here, an aquarium at the most.” Instead, one afternoon, the ground began vibrating. In the bowels of the earth where the temple had been carved out, the statues of Hindu deities began shaking, and cracks formed on the walls. The temple’s management got the construction stopped, but the damage had been done. Shakeel was on the pavement when people began running out of the temple to complain about the construction. He is still here, bearing witness to the change on this

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Hindus are considered second-class citizens, not really Pakistanis, but actually Indians who are just living here. People refuse to accept water from Hindus, or eat food served on the same plate. Hindu temples have borne the brunt of rioters, raging against alleged acts of blasphemy and property developers. strip of land. “We have grown up among Hindus,” Shakeel says. “My father didn’t even have a moustache when he came here. Back then the gate used to be open and there was only one statue in the temple.” Shri Ratneshwar Mahadev was targeted in the Babri Mosque riots of 1992, the same riots that saw Kailash jump into the sea for safety. The temple was closed for a month while Shakeel’s father stayed home, unemployed, waiting for the Hindus to return to worship so he could sell flowers again. Shakeel will pass on this work of flowers to his children. But the pavement will be very different by then, and very different from the area his father inhabited. Once, the sea came up to the temple. It has been pushed back mile by mile as developers have taken over the land, perhaps just as the temple became more inclusive. While its doors were once open, now the temple is cordoned off, and a cop is stationed by the entrance, the sole protector of the historic site. The streets surrounding the temple are part of Clifton, one of Karachi’s most upscale neighborhoods. These streets are a bastion of exclusivity, with stately homes, prestigious private schools, and consulates housed in colonial buildings. But surprisingly, it also has a number of public spaces that seem oddly situated among

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E S S A Y barricaded buildings. There is the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, the temple built in honor of the Sufi saint and guardian of the city, a historic pier and a landscaped park. In the 1990s, a mall opened up, perhaps paving the way for obtrusive property developments. Successive governments and the military have green-lit, colluded, and supported the development of every kind of project in this neighborhood and the nearby seafront—from a revolving restaurant to selling off islands to private developers to granting land for malls. Some of the projects went by the wayside because interest groups like the local fishermen’s society—who would have lost their creeks and islands—were organized enough to pose a significant challenge to property developers. Others were abandoned for reasons unknown. Projects like the Dolmen City Mall—built near the coastline and down the street from the temple and shrine—are thriving and packed to the seams with boutiques, cafés, restaurants, and shoe stores. More restaurants and designer furniture stores have followed the tempting trail of crumbs left behind by the developers, setting up house in front of the shrine and expanding into residential neighborhoods. “Dolmen” is, like Port Grand, the place to see and be seen for Pakistan’s elite. But what land is it built on? What changes has it wreaked beyond its centrally air-conditioned halls? The land that these hubs of consumerism are being built on should have been public spaces, allowing Karachi’s residents—rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim—to access the seafront and the shrine and the temple. But with each development, from an underpass to a new hipster café, the space for people to visit the sea or pray before their gods has shrunk. There is no sense of self-awareness in Karachi, that the bridges and underpasses being praised caused deities to begin trembling underground, or that worshippers are troubled every day by these projects. There is an almost Stockholm syndrome–esque feeling to development in Karachi. Bahria Town promised a make-

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over for the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, giving it a new, bland façade. The shrine, in superstition and urban legend, is believed to be the city’s guardian angel that had spared it the scourge of cyclones. Bahria Town’s workers dug poles into graves in the shrine complex, perhaps eradicating any good karma that would have emerged from the saint’s grave Ligation against Bahria Town began and the construction was halted for months. The street resembled a disaster zone. The craters filled up with mud and trash, and men like Shakeel continued to walk for blocks to get to work. Visitors to the temple trickled off. People still trekked across the city—or took buses from the outlying province—to visit the shrine and temple. There are no roadside cafés or places to rest for these visitors: instead, they spilled out onto the mounds of mud, squatting on the road dividers that separated them from an upscale café whose walls are covered with faux graffiti, perhaps the same kind of graffiti that has defaced the walls in their own neighborhoods. Traffic was diverted through narrow alleys, buses trundled past the secured compounds of consulates, and the futility of it all began to sink in: now that the crater was dug, it would have to be filled up. Bahria Town created a problem, and they were now going to fix it. The flyover and the underpasses opened almost a year later. Antique-looking lampposts and futuristic street lights line the roads and bridge to the future of the gentrified neighborhood and Bahria’s tower. Criticism of the flyover is almost nonexistent. The misery caused by the dug-up road, the craters and the innerneighborhood traffic, and the loss of income to boutiques has been papered over by Bahria’s new roads. The view from the bridge is of the under-construction tower, and the new bland, beige concrete walls that hide the original vivid, aquamarine-tiled façade of the shrine, illuminated by the bright street lights. It obscures those who need to walk, who squat on the concrete pavement below, and who are being squeezed out of the neighborhood.

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Shakeel doesn’t think the tower should be built near the temple, but he knows the developers won’t stop. “They wanted to take the mosque away too,” he says. The locals intervened to have the mosque’s demolition stopped, but had it gone ahead it would have undoubtedly sparked protests, or charges of blasphemy. Removing illegally built mosques on appropriated land has long been a source of contention for the city’s municipal administration, but mosques are never demolished out of fear for backlash from Islamist groups. But perhaps using the cover of development and urbanization works instead: after all, a shrine—considered holy by many—has also been appropriated by a land developer who promises to clean and reconstruct it up. Bahria Town was not the first developer in this neighborhood, and it won’t be the last. The neighborhood is changing. The visitors are louder and more obtrusive, their stereos are turned up higher, they are more eager to find out what is in the temple. They spit betel nut juice on the pavement, they dance around on holiday afternoons, and they stop and crane their necks to peer inside the door. “Why don’t people care what is happening with Hindus,” Manji Naja Chanderapal asks. Chanderapal is seventy-two, and he is so desperate for the plight of Hindus to be heard that he wants to declare himself a spy, a traitor to Pakistan—anything that would help him expose the full scale of discrimination against Hindus. “Even if you execute me, I have become fearless. I am not scared of anything now.” His family is one of the seven that live around the Sri Laxmi Narayan temple. They moved there in 1964, though Manji remembers that some families had lived near the temple since before the creation of Pakistan. On the Hindu holiday of Raksha Bandhan, he manned a stall just outside the temple, selling imported threads from India called rakhis. On that December day that the temple was being destroyed, Manji took a boat to the port with his family, where they took refuge with people living there. He repeatedly asks why people don’t care,

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why they have relegated Hindus to this second-class status. And then he came up with the answer: “They think of us as less than ants,” he said, and looked at the flies and insects crawling around his sandalclad feet. He is right. Ants can be squashed out of sight, ants can be diverted away from a site, ants can be removed, and no one cares about ants. This is the reason why gentrification and urban development have begun to encroach on the sacred space occupied by Hindus, why cracks can form in the walls of ancient temples, and why the residents of Sri Laxmi Narayan sleep with pop songs echoing through their homes and the alcoves of the temple. It is because the people who can, or should, or can afford to care, don’t. There are no protests, and public interest litigation remains the domain of a dying breed of urban activists, who have filed petitions and campaigned against thoughtless commercialization for decades. Ardeshir Cowasjee, the late columnist and philanthropist whose involvement in public interest litigation made him the savior of Karachi’s public spaces, wrote a series of columns in 2009 outlining the way land in Karachi had been sold off. “Virtually every ‘ruler’ or administrator has left his mark on the exploding metropolis by giving away what was not his to give— public spaces and civic-use plots that were planned by experts for the common good,” Cowasjee wrote. “If the city government needs money to run its functions, it must be raised through taxes or other legitimate means, not through the illegal sale of land notified for amenity and public purposes. “My team and I are tired of battling increasing gangs of marauders determined to lay waste to Karachi as millions of citizen bystanders, who should know better, look on silently. Perhaps the superior courts will take suo moto notice of this rape of the city and ask why the applicable laws are being brazenly flouted. Perhaps the ‘silent majority’ will become ashamed of their apathy and act. “Is our city, and its open spaces, not worth saving?”

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E S S A Y None of this matters to the people who are now driving down the lit roads, thanking Bahria Town for its largesse, who have yet to step foot in Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine but know every inch of the nearby malls. There is no Spike Lee railing about gentrification. The reason no one cares—about the temples or the shrine or the inability to walk—is because they don’t need to. Kailash has never taken his children to Port Grand. “Perhaps they wouldn’t let me in because of the court case. I’ve been there for meetings but have never taken the children for an outing.” In the past few years, he has turned down bribes and offers to be relocated elsewhere. In a city where everyone is running after the light of commercialism, why is Kailash staying behind? “My conscience wouldn’t allow it,” he says. “And why should I take money?

And for what? I don’t want it. It would have been simpler, sure. They were even offering money. They said ‘Where do you want a house, what kind, do you want a car, how much money do you want, demand something.’ But I stood there pleading that I didn’t want anything. Not a single rupee. What is the importance of money?” If Port Grand hadn’t been built, Kailash imagines his life would have been the same. Nothing would have changed. And there is little chance of any upheaval, anything that would reverse the situation in favor of the Hindus. “Anything can happen but nothing will,” Kailash says, with an air of finality. “The reason is that these people are very rich, and we cannot do anything.” A speedboat whizzes by in the distance. As dusk falls, the lights of Port Grand are switched on. It is another day in Karachi.

Saba Imtiaz is a Pakistani freelance journalist and writer. She is the author of the novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! (Random House India, 2014) and No Team of Angels (First Draft Publishing, forthcoming), a non-fiction book that explores the conflicts in Karachi. Saba reports on politics, human rights, religious movements, and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and the BBC. She currently lives in Karachi, Pakistan. See more of Saba’s work at sabaimtiaz.com

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E S S A Y

Bonnie Zare

Longing for Belonging: Who is a Cowboy and Who is an Indian?

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here we love is home—home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Love and home: both four-letter words depend upon the other one for their meaning. After all, to love is to be wordlessly at home. Ideally, I would straddle two worlds I love, one foot planted firmly on the wildflowerladen high plains of Wyoming, the other foot on a busy street in Hyderabad. Both places embrace me. Yet, they could hardly be more oppositional. Wide open spaces and mile-long skies. Undisturbed wild animals and scenic vistas. Fresh clean air and lots of silence. These are the reasons people stay in Wyoming, no matter what brought them to the high, deserted plains. A swirl of activity, constant color and noise, the bombardment of the senses. Ornate buildings draped in chaotically twisted wire. Constant signals to the divine, the nonmaterial. These are the ways India claims its residents and visitors, demanding a response. How are those two worlds brought together? What does a first-time immigrant from one of the most populated areas in the world make of the long desolate moonscapes of Wyoming? How does a person from the rural West negotiate the fearsome and thrilling chaos of an average day in an Indian city? As a professor who routinely brings rural U.S. students to Delhi, Hyderabad, and Kadapa for a short course on social justice, these ideas

have occupied me for a while. Thus with great anticipation I opened the first ever fiction about family life for Indians setting up home in the Rocky Mountain west, Cowboys and East Indians (2013) by Nina McConigley. McConigley’s father is Irish, and her Tamil mother was the first Indian-born woman to serve in a U.S. state legislature (Wyoming, 1994). The winner of the PEN Open Book award (2014), the book, a collection of ten short stories, expertly captures human transitions of all kinds, and the contradictory and sometimes absurdist ways we seek to belong.

Michael Wutz

The streets of Hyderabad—Koti Market.


E S S A Y What is the nature of belonging? How do we know when we have attained it? Even amongst people of similar outward appearance, fences and enclosures are erected. American mythology locates prejudice between whites as a thing of the past, but it carries on today, whether, for instance, one is observing Italians and Eastern Europeans in Portland’s neighborhood of Lents, or Jews, Christians and atheists in the small town of Sheridan, Wyoming. Of course, physical and, therefore, visible difference only amplifies the difficulty of integration, of being individualyet-collective. On the surface, belonging to more than one geographic place could seem to be inclusionary, a gift of pluralistic knowledge. The politics can be exclusionary, however, as features of appearance lead people, unconsciously or consciously, to separate certain areas for “those Others” to represent. As South Asian American men are high-level executives of multi-national corporations in Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York, and elsewhere, Miss America 2014 is Indian American, and yoga is everywhere; being Indian in cosmopolitan U.S. cities means something very different now than it did in the 60s and 70s. For children in the rural midwest and West, however, the state of “being marked by difference” of the earlier time still goes on today. Called by Wyoming playground schoolmates (who seemed to think they were just being factual) “mino—short for minority,” McConigley writes stories that also bear witness to the reduction of the person of many identities: for American white kids in the rural West, her “brownness” trumped all. Furthermore, no matter where a person of more than one heritage resides, there is pressure to be sufficiently authentic, to give proof of the authority to speak. McConigley laughs as she says it, but confides that when she is about to read for an Indian audience she often wonders, “Will I seem Indian enough?” (personal interview). The productive concept of hybridity, originally a horticultural term, and used by Homi Bhabha, Benita Parry, and so many

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other postcolonial thinkers, helps us to fight essentialism or overgeneralizing on the basis of background. We desire to avoid collapsing identity into a “hegemonic plane of sameness,” as Ien Ang has said (141); yet we don’t encourage people to acknowledge unsettled identities either. Thus before long the phrase “happy hybridity” (Lo 2000) appeared to describe a certain feeling state foisted upon various communities. A name was needed for the requirement to embody a harmonious synthesis, a foundational “Kumbayah” moment of togetherness. As this essay will explore by tracing some of the stories in Cowboys and East Indians, happy hybridity is a myth, a longing for belonging remains, and a refusal to adapt stifles growth. Of course, as soon as the word happy appears, suspicion cannot be far away. As Sara Ahmed warns in The Promise of Happiness (2010), the state of excitability promised by the word happiness is an illusion, an invitation to feel dissatisfied with ordinary contentment and overlook the difficulty, for many, of achieving the economic conditions needed for such a state. In Cowboys and East Indians, characters do not strive for happiness but for balance. They try to straddle two worlds and keep losing their footing. The reader is forced to remember that resting in one place rarely works; when we fit in, it is often because we have compromised and accepted an idea that is palatable rather than true. Raema, in the story “Curating your Life,” is frustrated by the superficial ways people perform identity. Working as a volunteer at a non-profit in India with two white Americans, she criticizes the tendency to describe a PR version of life, whether occurring on her roommates’ elephant-bordered blog posts or in her own self-censored phone conversations with her parents in the U.S. As the main character rearranges herself to please her neighbors and resists being grouped with her U.S. white roommates in India, she finds herself on constantly shifting ground, seeking to feel stable and sophisticated and instead feeling imbalanced and querulous. As the story goes

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on, we recognize she is in pain: having been raised in an Indian family in Wyoming, she expects her brown appearance and cultural knowledge will help her settle in faster than her foreign peers. Yet instead, the other Americans’ fair skin and obliviousness is fawned upon by the landlady and employees at work, and she feels she is only a source of disappointment: after all, she neither speaks Tamil nor cooks Indian food. Near the end of the story we are let in on her true state: Kate bought an Indian cookbook and night after night tried to cook. I thought that would be me. But instead, I sneaked out to the Video Point every night and rented pirated American movies. I spent nights huddled in my room, watching movies on my laptop, eating potato chips from Nilgiris supermarket (192). Raema experiences a crisis when the office manager, the ultra-hip Shreya, turns out to have been pretending to be her ally. The discovery that instead Shreya has been blogging about her as a complete wanna-be Indian, “worse than the other two” white Americans because she is giving herself airs—while still thoroughly misunderstanding India—wounds her: the words, though harsh, contain some truth. While Raema was not consciously seeking to be taken as Indian, she was attached to a dream of easily overcoming her outsider status and attaining perfect understanding. As anyone might, she hoped ancestry could trump geography. She wants her culture of origin and place of upbringing to co-exist on the same plane of importance; she wants neither component to have to trump the other, but she can’t orchestrate others’ perceptions and assumptions. “Curating your Life” powerfully attests to our age of cross-pollination, of porous boundaries, of porous identities. As Ang asserts, “pervasive hybridity” could potentially soften the borders between people: “the encounters between them are as constitutive of who they are as the proceedings within”

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(147). But such a mingling of borders cannot occur when one still harbors the illusion, as Rae did, of needing “her own India” to make her own life more interesting, of seeing India as a “frieze” one could go and unfreeze by “helping them” (183). She has been unknowingly following the footsteps of A Passage to India’s Adele Quested, searching for a “real” India—as if understanding India were possible and able to be added to a list of accomplishments attesting to a person’s superiority. An unintentional neocolonial, Raema helps the audience explore the painful move from desiring mastery to accepting we start from ignorance. The desire to refashion oneself for different contexts is a repeated theme of the book. Young or old, short or long, visitors seek to legitimate themselves in “Dot or Feather” and “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.” Unlike the main character of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, who at least is humorously self-deprecating, both the Indian tourist and American tourist are fairly repugnant in these stories. High school student Sindhu of “Dot or Feather,” who steals from her American neighbors while babysitting, is obviously immature. Sindhu, who arrives to remake herself immediately as “Cindy,” shores up her identity by accumulating stuff, detritus from wasteful, sloppy U.S. houses that will go unnoticed as it disappears. Playing the role of overlooked child minder, she enjoys the power of knowing the intimate corners of strangers’ houses. Although she is eventually discovered and asked to leave, she departs with a satisfied air, emboldened by having somehow enacted revenge on her “pleasant and dumb” hosts and the careless treatment of property in American rural homes. By contrast, we cannot invoke youth to explain the adult Helen’s actions in “Washed by the Blood of the Lamb.” Financed by her church in Casper to bring back stories of their sister church to the congregation, Helen is really in India on a personal medical mission. Plagued with skin

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E S S A Y problems since puberty, she finds that the only way to afford the solution, Accutane, is to travel to India for a large supply. Helen’s instability is shown by her desire to pick up Xanax as well, and her breezy ignorance is on display throughout the story as captured in a moment such as this one: “She went from historic site to historic site. To Fort St. George, which she found dull. Who cared what the British did? She was glad to be American, to be well out of it” (100). The story unmasks Helen as an exploiter, not unlike a British administrator of the Victorian era. Not able to see any complicity in a contemporary neocolonial global system of exploitation led by American multi-nationals, the last scene finds Helen similarly not able to see she has taken advantage of a slowwitted Indian boy, the son in her host family, to gain a drunken kiss. In both of the above stories, we see how we are endangered by our refusal to adjust or modify. We lose our balance through our grim attachment to one mental place. In “Washed,” it is the place of white skin rule. Helen unthinkingly accepts that in India, as her host sister proclaims, “to be fair was everything” (101). We can believe she is getting positive attention for her light skin, but her assumption that this one physical marker guarantees some kind of long-term authority were she to live in India is horribly naïve. After the stolen kiss, we last see her frantically scrubbing—not at her decades-old acne problem—but at her legs. They are no longer white but a blood-red color, stained by the vegetable dye of her adopted Indian dress: India has found a way to stain and humble her, at least momentarily. In “Dot,” the attachment to one mental place is Sindhu’s fantasy of the U.S., a place where she can unquestionably become Cindy, not Sindhu, and belong to Riverdale High School in the Archie comics, where everyone is white, middle-class and has milkshakes purchased for them by adoring boys at Pop Tate’s. Giving up on that scenario is necessary, but feels unfair, so the visiting girl subtracts

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from what is on offer, stealing, for instance, a Christmas ornament from each family she babysits for. Her actions, though wrong, have some kind of logic to her. As the story ends, she thinks of the nametag in her carryon purse, and the constant need to establish one’s own name and place in the hierarchy before anyone else can do it for you. Perhaps, with time, her initiative will be used in more meaningful action. “White Wedding” addresses hybridity directly, giving the lie to a celebration of the “both/and” experience for all Americans. The story revolves around Lucky, who is in her early 20s, lives in Casper, and has never visited her family in India. She stopped college classes to help care for her dying mother; now the young woman works in a coffee shop and goes on the occasional and usually fairly disastrous date with a hunter. She has not come to any definite conclusion about her place in the world—geographically, professionally, or personally. Not having deliberately chosen to stay in her home state, her snarky elder sister likens her to the state of a prairie dog paralyzed by fear as to whether to cross in front of a car or not. The story unfolds as the sister, Asha, who has chosen a white man to marry, brings all her New York City friends to Wyoming

In Cowboys and East Indians, characters ... try to straddle two worlds and keep losing their footing. The reader is forced to remember that resting in one place rarely works; when we fit in, it is often because we have compromised and accepted an idea that is palatable rather than true.

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for a “Western week” of wedding fun with different themes on different days. This is best summarized by one line: “After days of playing cowboys, Asha was ready to play Indian.” As Lucky watches the guests ricochet from cowboy props by the campfire one night to Indian clichés and Bollywood décor the next, she questions how anyone finds clarity and transparency in a culture awash in movie clichés. A young immigrant Indian cook, who visits Wyoming from a Denver restaurant to cook for the wedding, for instance, rejects the idea that nature holds people to a place like Wyoming. To him, the hold could only be imaginary guns and the movie Shane—Wyoming’s magic was fabricated. Lucky’s physical appearance makes her seem not to be of Wyoming, and this sharpens the conflict she feels about deciding whether to make such a quiet and unambitious place her home. She assents to wearing a “happy hybrid cover” but then rips it off: When people asked me about being biracial, I had a pat answer. ‘It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be an American and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!’ But everyone knows you tend to be more like one world. And mine was Wyoming. I was just brown, so that made it harder. I hated the half worlds inside me, because that’s what made me paralyzed…. All the halves did not make my whole (128). Our last view is of a crushed prairie dog, accidentally proving its mortality under Lucky’s car wheels, affirming the peril of indecision but also her potentially liberating and newfound defiance. Just before this, during a quick escape to a local mountaintop, Lucky finally allows herself to mourn the way any physical place is reduced to a backdrop, an agreed-upon story. She may be about to play the role of doting sister at the wedding, but we sense a rejection of pretense is in her

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future. The shoring up of her own mature identity comes through acknowledging ultimate ambiguity. The props, backdrops and role-playing, whether in Cowboyland or BollyIndia, “wasn’t real. I didn’t know how you really knew a place at all” (129). We all of us fear being uncounted. Being a member of two nations, two homes, two races—as the author is herself—means risking someone overcounting or underestimating us, being questioned on one’s cultural identity, on one’s belonging. This double-sidedness can feel liberating at some moments and vertigoinducing at others. Like the character Lucky whose halves don’t make a whole, Faith, the main character in the last story I discuss, “Cowboys and East Indians,” feels nothing about her adds up. Her white Wyoming parents adopted her from an orphanage in Chennai, casting off her given name of Anjali to remake her as the All-American Faith, a girl who knows the job of farrier and large animal vet better than any Hindu deity. The story depicts her reaching out to newly arrived Indian students at the University of Wyoming who are seeking to furnish their apartments. The young women are a confident, competent bunch and are quick to correct any factoid about India Faith mentions. Alternately, her non-Indian community is nondescript and glib. Her boyfriend, Cal, earnestly assures her that he “does not even think of her as brown,” a comment worsened by his lame appreciation of her as “exotic.” The poignancy of the story is enhanced by the quiet way Faith is marginalized as unimportant at the Indian students’ small Diwali celebration. She mistakenly brings one of the few non-veg dishes and so no one can eat her food; none of the Indian members save her a space at their table; she realizes they regard her as only able to play “dress up” Indian. Of course, the pain she feels is greater than that of a white American who endeavors to integrate with Indian society in a long-term way. Yet the story’s exposure of the pain of permanent outsiderhood had me nodding

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E S S A Y my head. To repeat my words at the opening of this essay, ideally, I would straddle two worlds, one foot planted firmly on the wildflower-laden high plains of Wyoming, the other foot on a busy street in Hyderabad. It is an enormous privilege to even be in a position to desire that life: one must have financial resources, good health, a social network, etc. And though I try to stretch myself, I do make mistakes. As I try to live in India, I accept that people in Indian cities will constantly believe I am there for the first time, instead of having spent months there on yearly visits since 2002. Random men of all ages, for instance, will assume I know nothing about the goddess I am gazing at in a museum and will seize upon the moment to deliver a long lecture. Furthermore, my appearance will link me to an exploitive colonial history whose aftereffects are still very much alive. I will not be able to escape my association with Oprah, who reduces India to a land that needs saving, and Julia Roberts, who shuts down a Hindu festival to keep her filming schedule while increasing her

publicity by claiming she herself is Hindu. Although I work very hard to counter an upbringing surrounded by “first world = right world” ideology, both in my own work and among the students I bring to India, an Orientalist phrase or thought may still escape my lips or flash through my mind. T. S. Eliot asserted, “Home is where one starts from.” Though we all carry our foundation with us, home in Eliot’s phrase also suggests a point of departure, a possibility of embracing more than one world. Through Cowboys and East Indians, Nina McConigley moves us around, putting us inside a lonely Value 6 motel in Casper and the Pink Lotus Foundation in Chennai. Through these stories we know that embracing more than one world simultaneously is a difficult skill and a testament to those who manage it. Most importantly, we come to appreciate that people of more than one place have special strengths and help create the community we hope the world might become. This is the genius behind the American and Indian values of e pluribus unum and out of many, one.

Works Cited Ang, Ien. “Together-in-Difference: Beyond Diaspora, into Hybridity.” Asian Studies Review, 27:2. 2007, 141-154. Web. Lo, Jacqueline. “Beyond Happy Hybridity: Performing Asian-Australian Identities,” in Ien Ang, Sharon Chalmers, Lisa Law, Mandy Thomas (ed.), Alter/Asians: Asian-Aus- tralian identities in art, media and popular culture. Annandale, NSW, Australia: Pluto Press, 2000, 152-168. Web. McConigley, Nina. Cowboys and East Indians. New York: FiveChapters Books, 2013. Zare, Bonnie. “Personal Interview with Nina McConigley,” March 2014.

Bonnie Zare is a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming. Her work focuses on discourses of identity, feminism, and activism in contemporary Indian women’s literature. Her articles have appeared in Women’s Studies International Forum, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and South Asian Review, among others. With Nalini Iyer, she has edited Other Tongues: Rethinking the Language Debates in India (Rodopi, 2009). She directs the “Keep Girls in School Project,” which raises funds for children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

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P O E T R Y

Kathryn Hummel

Shanti Bloody Shanti Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you, bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you. —Anne Sexton As I came journeying, seeking brethren I arrived at the closed flap of your warren. Between the clammy hides of your soft-skinned cubs, the concentration of drawers rife with sloughing papers and oddments of treasures, it hurt every day to breathe and write these lines. The words emerging here do so in easeful measure from the furtive contortions and coded door knockings I have heard at the depth of the lair. There is no room for writers there—for writers or other deviants who scrape their nails along unknown paths daubed with moss, redolent of spoil. I admit I don’t wish my world to smell like anything worldly: my only talents are for poetry and escaping situations of my own concoction. Here I go searching for a lack of artifice in a locality preoccupied by artistry; so I come looming the outside threads of the city. That clack-clacking you hear is the joint of my right knee, worn from bending in a genuflection I always thought necessary. I cannot charm the shaman, though he tempts me to try by sounding his bell for others. I do not think it will peal for me. My brow, you see, has been furrowed by scholarship, the mask of intelligent failures. Yet I am a poet—is it clear? My scent is wild and grassy. I am a poet here and I keep myself inside while each act erupts on a surface freshly planed. With my knife and fork I fold salad leaves in French affectation. I apologise for any confusion. I was certain this concrete vault contained an unabstracted record of life. Such a slip might once have moved me, but the bitterness I’ve collected grows snug inside my cavity like a cyst; to cut it out would mean repairing oblivion. I look forward to tomorrow, when the grown dogs that fight on the street outside start forming words in support of their plight.


P O E T R Y

Empty Track The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. —Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge They appear on the highway cleared by low tide in their regular formation. No conversation. Let’s call him Ayan. His tracksuit is grey: his woollen hat sits upright on his head, lending him the quality of  straightness. She (given name Vinamra?) wears a kurta whose hem flaps at her ankles. From potential frigid air she protects her head with a muffler. Her steps follow his at a distance of thirteen paces.  Ayan wears sneakers; Vinamra’s black brogues make a more modest imprint. They keep their time in the silence of a vision. I have been here before, or in Lalbagh before dawn, when the damp press of air was green to inhale; black to look upon. Then were they there: a figure like his, followed at a distance by one such as hers, in silent arrangement. How neatly transplanted,  how fully regrown they came to this place. Sound is an  unnecessary application to the scene. There are no words to form or speak, in any case. Let us switch: I’ve been inadvertently trapping pigeons in the  sun room; they flap in mute panic against the glass,  unable to escape via the entrance they made.

FreeImages.com/Alessandro Puorro

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Worli I want to resist for a while the latitudes and arches of restless signs; the tendons that propel and shake nerves into damage. The rooms we inhabit on the border of life do not have air to taste. Why stay, complacent with memory, and delay the escape? Structures accommodate roots that spill from rococo mouldings like acid and brace themselves under the slow burn of rust. We pour chemicals through them, but stones survive. Turn into your pillar elsewhere and disperse like the dust that finely hews your skin. Chart the petals and paper tickets blowing out towards the clay-rich sea: following their articulation, form a fist to clench the water, a stream less conscious to release.

Welcome, Gentle Stranger My dear, it is not such a good idea to lean back in that way There may be snakes in the grass; bend forward too far and you may drop down amid your own scattered ash. Here is a box of mango wood to pace, with slats sympathetic to the view beyond: the wood apples and the cinnamon tree that sees colourless pigeons turn in and out like loose pages tilled by elegant fingers. At the heart of these confines, a tree FALL 2016

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P O E T R Y stands in place of the elephant. Around the discussion it provokes, suffer a month of blood and sun, whose rising and falling flushes saturate the sand of the road that opens to the hushing black band of the sea at night. Every lath has a face you attempt to match to one you devastated years before by carving. What cluster of roots grows now from the blade of your shoulder, stupidly twining the air? Go to the beach. Go to the beach, we tell you: write a verse on here. As if a different ocean’s solution or the grains of an alien shore can cut below the salt still allaying your pores or scour the ducts of your eyes. There is a correct method of preserving red oxide floors; roof tiles require changing every season. Earth goes to earth, somewhere. Aerial sounds chime from the distant hill where winds course persistently unlike over dim restaurants missing covers, wanting roubles. Child, child. Your lips are well-turned to blowing out the light. What remains is a desert. Can’t you see the dust banking up beneath the blue-green leaves? Kathryn Hummel is the author of Poems from Here (2014), The Bangalore Set (2015) and the forthcoming Broken Lines: Writings from a Disrupted Lifetime in Bangladesh. Her award-winning poetry, fiction, non-fiction and photography has been published and performed throughout Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and US, often in collaboration with musicians and fellow writers. During her travels in Australia, India and Bangladesh, where her doctoral research in narrative ethnography was based, Kathryn has completed residencies with Australian Poetry, Forever Now, 1ShanthiRoad and, most recently, the Kena Artists’ Initiative in Bangalore. Visit her at www.kathrynhummel.com.

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P O E T R Y

Debasish Lahiri

Ovid Contemplates Writing his Fasti at Tomis My poets visit me like the night, Every day. They obtrude When I can grip my iron quill And syllables grow warm on my tongue Like my fingers in rare fire-lit hours. They seem to know, Better than Caesar’s spies, When Nasso breathes and sighs, When he is reminded of verse By his own still-warm blood And its pulse inside his scarecrow bosom. Perhaps, they are of Caesar too, Or do I have snow-drift in my imagination? They will appear during the sunless hours Of the day, They will accost me like that legion Of minutes that jostle at dawn’s mouth Expecting the sun, Or at my cell door, singing in the wind’s borrowed voice, Prophecy the rage of frost and flint On Roman shin and skin. They used to whisper love’s caprices in my ears, Louder than the din near the Capitol. They proclaimed the wisdom of love, Silent, Like the fall of eastern silk And myrrh-laughter In alcoves and breathless covertures In great palaces.— Here, no shuttle of nectarine branches on a summer loom Weaves a curtain round love’s bower, Keeping Caesar from the greater voyeur, The sun. — No trees grow here To give Nasso a sense of perspective. The far and the near are far enough For my reach. My memories of Rome not near enough For verse. Time in Tomis is blizzard or the convict wind, Escaped from the warden of every quadrant. In my anguish, cold, eyes closed And a grimace curling my lips Like the slow, deliberate swell of the fog, I am a reed of memory: My every breath a semi-tone of time.—

Ettore Ferrari


P O E T R Y The gutted taper remains my only witness. I do not need light, Only my fingers. And then like the burning eyes And salt-snow, I suddenly lose everything, Love, memory, Rome, Tomis, everything, Except Caesar and my poets Who will make me talk when I crave quiet And empty me of words When my lyre-shaped heart is a-twang with babble Like a cup of libation drained before a thirsty god. My poets gag me when I read casual quotations Recorded in earlier encomium-days. My attempt at lament forgets this tryst with languor, This languor in ice. Instead I find a garden of burnt September grass And dark, hot shades, Jets of laughter and the murmur of brawling love Reciting its rites between the crush of leaves. Caesar, the poet’s gold, Is the pestilent dew in my ribs. My spittoon glows in the dark.— My poets know that, And from the soft spines of old books They stall my verse Like the promise of early spring That makes jealous winter furrow the land In angry gloom. I have written this journal of the interim, The interim of the day-to-day. Let Caesar and his poets have their day. Let me write the interim. (Tomis, C.7 A.D.)

Debasish Lahiri is a poet and academic working at Lal Baba College, Belurmath. His poems have been widely published in journals like The Journal of the Poetry Society of India, Muse-India, Inkapture (UK), The Poetry Salzburg Review, and others. His second book of poems, No Waiting Like Departure, appeared from Authors Press, New Delhi, earlier this year. He is also a reviewer and regular contributor to the Life & Letters Column of The Statesman, one of India’s leading dailies.

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P O E T R Y

Hoshang Merchant

Two Street Scenes 1 Isfahan (1980) While walking with my friend down Maidan-e-shah An Armenian boy approaches me: “I’m mad for you” he says in Farsi I don’t comprehend but my friend does Fearing scandal, he drives into a bookshop I walk straight on alone... the Armenian stands rooted A couplet comes to mind: “Such beauty, such radiance, such grace Even in crowds you are alone in your own place” 2 Bangalore Cantonment (1992) I am down South with my Quoi land: boy A Hyderabadi Irani walks by Turns, remembering, our earlier tryst I look away abashed But he looks back at my new boy And winks... My friend asks: Had you been with that boy? I pretend innocence: No... But he says you were the best...

For Yusuf and Ahmed, Both 19 Every name has a history Every history, a name Names stab into pain On a day a nation stands suspended between abysses of cultures, gulfs of not understanding Try to understand My beautiful friends

Nick Taylor


P O E T R Y Beautiful as the Prophet who came out of Egypt So women cut their hands peeling pomegranates In wonder as he entered the salon And even men fell to amazement... Which houri of India has ensnared you? What entanglement of history will you evade? Will a Harley-Davidson substitute a Prophet’s steed? What ages will you ride with your arts Or will Time ride on you? History’s repetition; our friends’ re-incarnations: Beauty sold in the marketplace again Love sold into slavery Youth blighted serving White masters Who will resurrect your dreams? What wilder shores do you glimpse falling asleep? —A paradise flowing with wine Peopled by houris? You drink and are not intoxicated You love and are not satiated You eat and there’s always from for more : Is there no Love short of eating? When three domes fall I loved a Moslem Yusuf has come back from Cannae Ahmed has entered the medina Weep no more...

28 September 2010 — Day of Babri Masjid Judgment for Saad Ahmed Yusuf Mirza Front desk, Park Hotel

Hoshang Merchant is India’s preeminent voice of India’s gay liberation. Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (1999) and Sufiana: Poems (2013) are among his best known books. His forthcoming publications include the second part of his autobiography The Man Who Would Be Queen, Pound Pastiches, and a volume of collected prose. For India’s 70th anniversary, he has been commissioned to write on 20 gay icons who’ve contributed to nation-building. A hundred of his 1000 poems are being re-published in a volume, and Prakriti Foundation is bringing out an art book of his poems on art. He retired from University of Hyderabad after 26 years of teaching.

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P O E T R Y

Sadaf Saaz

A Hint of Nostalgia A hint of nostalgia Comes his way Drums up that feeling inside… Jumping heart Like at the start Evoking how they once were Years gone in a blur Yet stretched out far in time Fused by lust, family and history Crossing all lines Meshed together No rules to who they are Who they have become Did they succumb? Complicated But, not so They are normal But, extraordinary This connection Searching for perfection It’s precious Fragile and rare Yet so strong This bond they share Their moments Tempests, tenderness … Soaring heights Soul searing pain Reincarnated again Back As husband and wife Love and life.

Yogita


P O E T R Y

The Journey Begun From English greens Cold grey drizzle scene Sprinklers under warm summer sun My childhood begun. Singing van with ice-cream cones Rolling hills with myriad tones Camaraderie singing school assembly hymns Netball matches and navy M+S gymns Idyllic cycling around mowed green Tanning gentle soaking up summer scene Playing marbles and conkers in school yard Excelling at O’s, school prefect star Forbidden parties of fags and boys 80s music through fake Walkman noise Totally in the crowd but not quite a fit Wanting to be alike but off by a bit. At home rice, keema, Rabindra and raags Loving hardworking parents in nostalgic past Fighting to put up JT on the wall Decent Bangalee girl wouldn’t do that at all. Hours on phone chatting with my girls Sometimes, somewhere racist hurls Never really part of upper crust whirl The folks wanting to go Back for a while Finally taking me with them, for good this time Finding myself in strange foreign land Jokes, ways of thought that couldn’t understand Felt out of water, a complete misfit Trying my best to make sense of all of it Summer mango luscious tropic humid heat Jackfruit hanging with lichu sticky sweet Fond memories of Dada and Eid clothes for me Hot and sour delights from the belumboo tree Brown pukoor ponds, dense foliage hills Missing the cold grey and organized drill Single channel reruns finishing after late night news Seen all through the ruling military dictator’s views Navigating Bangla, which I didn’t know Not wearing dupatta (orna!), for gossip on show Everyone knowing everyone and everything Long lost family embracing and loving Bucket baths and power cut days Savoy candy and Patenga beach waves Dodgy delicious chotpoti jhaal mix strong

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Finally learning classical and Nazrul songs Familiar Tagore favourites helping me belong Long days of stinky sweat in Chittagong college class No fan no ladies room, no creative tasks World of private sirs and rote science farce Math epics as left hand side equals right Cramming exams all through the night Disintegrating dista paper in flickering candle light New year celebrations red sari, lipstick and sonali glow Hating the displacement but surviving in the flow Wanting to go back from where I came Nothing seemed real, wanted things to be the same All things British were a sweet memory for me Transplanted to this place, never wanted to be Grapevine murmuring whoever you confide Enjoying little freedoms on breezy rickshaw rides Pungent smells and overloading drains Adjusting to the new life not thinking any gain In the privileged upper crowd Someone everyone wants to know Deep loneliness will never show Dreams of being something and someone Feeling stuck in nowhere with life just begun Couldn’t quench my drive and ambition within Despite abandoned in deep end and left to swim Slowly the language came to me That which was hard fought long before me Began to make good friends and converse Realized the strong bonds for better or worse Got used to grime muck and BD standard time Our music, philosophy and beauty sublime Came to love the people and place Felt we had solutions alternate for our space Pretty sari, jewels and joint family wife Knew there was much more for women and their life The world and its opportunity, part of women’s dreams To fill potential despite what life seemed That thing from within me Extraordinary driven feeling to set things free Coming up afore Wanting much more To change the tide of the lot women had Social norms and resilience to adapt

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P O E T R Y Mixed with notions of chastity Felt the urge to do and see What reality for women could be Wanted to stay in this new frustrating land And be part of the future at hand At a time when girls didn’t study away Wanted to go and have my way Fought Them to get an education at place of my dreams Best day seeing the thick envelope seams Finally on way to my goal Determined to go but come back for my role Back to the promise of what I have in store Knowing we as a people could do much more The dedicated hard working resilience of our lot Harnessing the creativity and spirit we have got What it takes and more To hold our heads high and be confident and sure To play our role and learn from our mistakes The senseless devastation of ‘91 tidal wave And the new chance of democracy saved Help bring the nation out and awake The light in ourselves So after finished at uni I left the dazzling path of western lights Coming back to the chaos, dirt and conservative sighs To bathe and coax and engender my way To believe and follow the talk that we say Back as a droplet of ocean under rising sun Joining up One by one With my journey just begun.

Waves Run high young waves For all let loose Fury unto you And even when you’re down Envelope your wrath Yet cometh what may Do not betray Run high young waves As the heavens beyond

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Drown fish deep down Till yonder storm is spent Remain floating above In the wind, sky, and rain To surface again Yet cometh what may Do not betray

Choices Should the choice be ours, Or yours, or mine, Or is there really no choice, But theirs—which, which really Is not one. Or is it? This web that is woven, so tangled That it isn’t any more. But it is. ‘Cause there is no way of escape Yet this big big con says there is. And does it say there is, or what??!!! Well, anyway, Back to Life, The great life That we all know and love, And live.

Sadaf Saaz is a poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist. She was born in the USA, grew up in the UK, and studied molecular cell biology at Cambridge. She now lives in Dhaka, where she is involved in various initiatives, including her travel and arts management company, Jatrik. She is also the festival director and producer of the Dhaka Lit Fest. Her debut poetry collection Sari Reams was published in November 2013 by University Press Limited. Her series of monologues, ‘That which cannot be said,’ based on Bangladeshi women’s expeTony Hisgett riences, has recently been performed in various locations in Bangladesh. She is currently working on a novel.

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F I C T I O N

K. Anis Ahmed

Beasts of Prey

I

n the hierarchy of food, nothing comes close to the supremacy of meat. To me, this is a self-evident truth. The fierceness with which its opponents try to proscribe its consumption is further proof of its unique, vital, primeval attraction. No one is campaigning to stop the eating of eggplant. No one minds the overreliance on grains. No one berates voracious eaters of fruit. Indeed, the inane and recidivist cult known as fruitarians, who wish to negate the arduous gains of civilization and revert to the scavenging origins of our species, are the new self-styled legislators of morality when it comes to food. Yet I see no virtue in returning to tree worship with ash-painted faces. On the contrary, I was raised in a culture where the ritual killing of beasts is a sacred duty. I was only eleven, I think, when I experienced my first slaughter. What I remember most vividly, after all these years, is the glint in my grandfather’s eyes, the broad blade of his butcher’s knife and the tremendous dust-swirling tussle between man and beast. That year it was a large, black ox, which my grandfather had purchased from the bazaar weeks ahead of the grand cattle markets in their pitched tents right before the Eid. Of the two Eids, everyone favored the other, fun one—Eid-ulFitr—which marked the end of the month of fasting. This one, Eid-ul-Azha, focused as it is on animal sacrifice, was a great embarrassment for most polished urbanites. Newly prosperous people like my parents wanted to flaunt their Western affectations: electric gadgets and carpeted drawing Johnny Automatic rooms, cocktail parties and suave conversation. The spectacle of thousands of dying beasts, thrashing on driveways with slashed throats, made a rude mockery of their modernity. However, people of ordinary means cherished the holiday. And so did children like me, who were fascinated by it, as they tend to be by all things unusual, especially the macabre. And my grandfather, too, inexplicably reveled in this ritual every year—inexplicably because my grandfather was not a terribly religious man. Like many Bengalis, he was as firm in his faith as he was relaxed in his practice. He prayed when the mood struck him. When I came to know him he was already a retired gentleman, marking time in a secluded verandah filled with books. That space in my memory is submerged in a sea-green light. Its air is thick with the smell of the past, due mainly to the bloated, misshapen files of newspaper cuttings. To this day I am partial to the scent of moldering old paper. My grandfather may have been without work, but he was not without occupation. To him, history was a great enterprise and he was its self-appointed actuary. His days


passed in a state of gentle diligence. But right before Eid-ul-Azha every year, he would suddenly shake off his torpor and announce that it was time to go buy a cow. I accompanied my grandfather to the bazaar and helped him choose the hapless animal. I remember that crooked sellers would knock off a couple of teeth from the beasts to present their fare as younger, thus more tenderfleshed than they actually were. But there was no fooling my grandfather, or his devoted valet, Rahmat. The cow or ox of a suitable age, once chosen, would be taken home and put on a special diet to fatten it up. Like most houses in Dhaka, ours had enough space in the backyard to tuck the cattle away under a tin shed stocked with straw. If the Abrahamic ritual were to be performed correctly, one really ought to cull a head from one’s own herd. But no city dweller commanded a flock; to care for the beast even for a week was the best one could do. My grandfather brought a noticeable assiduity to his husbandry. But what motivated him wasn’t primarily faith; it was something deeper and more mysterious, which to this day is not entirely clear to me. He would go to the shed thrice daily—morning, noon and evening—to make sure it was being fed properly. Depending on the season, he would even put a net around the enclosure to protect the cow from mosquitoes. One Eid day, as soon as we had returned from the mosque, my father took refuge inside the house; he normally would not come out for three days, if he could help it, until rain or indolent municipal trucks had washed the streets clean. But my grandfather, with me dutifully in tow, headed to the backyard. Rahmat coaxed the creature out of its bunker and walked it to the strip of green by the boundary of the house, next to an open drain. Being docile by nature, the ox came along without resistance. But no sooner had the men started roping its feet, than an animal instinct higher than any cerebral intelligence took over and the beast flared its nostrils and let out an eerie wail. The front legs and rear ones were tied separately. Once the animal lost its mobility, it could be flipped on its side. But the ox kicked up such a fuss that four men could not get the rope around its ankles with a proper turn. Instead, they got it into a great jumble. “Don’t strangle it!” shouted my grandfather. His eyes glowered from the deep well of his eye-sockets. I wished that one of the men would fall under it or at least suffer a kick to the shin. In such an uneven contest, it was hard not to want some modicum of vindication for the outmatched victim. Twice the men flipped the ox, and twice it flipped back to a half-risen position with only the immense strength of its gut. Once it was finally pinned down on its side, wheezing in panicked protest, two men held down its rear legs, and two men the front. The house-boy, only a little older than me, who had by now joined the fray, helped twist the ox’s head to one side. My grandfather approached the beast, and then turned back to look at me, and said, “Come.” His high cheekbones and white hair shorn to the size of stubble gave him a severe look, but I knew him to be essentially kind, especially towards me. Yet, in that moment there was such a force of intent in his voice that my legs pulled me forward even before I could think through

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F I C T I O N what I was being called to do. My grandfather motioned me to crouch down beside him. We were facing the ox’s twisted head. One panic-stricken wild eye of the ox shifted to the corner, casting a great accusation at us. Undaunted, my grandfather positioned the knife against the ox’s throat, and then said to me, “Put your hand over mine.“ I did as he said; my small, smooth hands clasped tightly his veined, freckled fist. As he uttered the customary prayers and pushed down, a hot jet of blood splattered against us, and I could feel the trachea crunch under the pressure of the blade. The ox shuddered with great force and nearly escaped the clutch of its trappers. Custom ordained that the slaughter be accomplished with one swift motion forward, one draw pulling back and then a final half-thrust. In the hands of amateurs, the precision of the strokes was not always sufficient to sever the thorax, but my grandfather did the job flawlessly. We stepped back, watching the muscles spasm even after the ox’s gaze fixed into a gray vacuity. Crows began gathering almost right away. Flies landed on the ox’s head and open wounds. The butcher’s assistants took over then, hacking away the limbs, skinning the torso and other parts, and cleaning out the gut. It was remarkable how quickly they could dismember a whole beast into the constituent parts. Our cook sat close by, chopping the big hunks of meat into smaller pieces and flinging them into a red plastic tub. When we walked back inside the house, my mother caught a glimpse of us and shrieked. She must have thought at first instant that I had been wounded. A second later, though, when she realized what had actually happened, it didn’t lessen her shock. Her face, usually calm and soothing as a pond darkened by rain clouds, contorted in a rapid succession of emotions: horror, repugnance, reproach. She was too polite in general, and with my grandfather in particular, to accost him directly. Or, in this case, she was perhaps simply stunned speechless. But my grandfather could read her thoughts clearly, and said, “There are things his father won’t teach him.” That was all the explanation that my mother could hope for. Not because my grandfather was too chauvinistic to make any apologies to someone younger, and in this case, to a daughter-in-law, but because he genuinely could not see what the consternation was about. Where my parents were too effete, he was providing the correction. My mother didn’t touch the meat. That was her form of protest, and no one said anything about it. It was served in the usual sequence, and enjoyed by everyone else with great relish. Lunch on the first day consisted of meat curry in a blazing red soup of hot chilies. At night came blackened beef, cooked with ginger and cloves. A separate presentation of the squishy muscles from the neck followed the next day. My father tried to show solidarity with my mother by skipping the first day’s servings, but by the time the real delicacies came out—spicy brain curry and braised tripe—he could no longer hold back. I had grown up eating meat, but had never really given it any thought before then. Now, something clicked inside me, and I realized that I liked the texture and the flavor of meat more than the taste of any other food. Every morsel filled me with a new frisson of delight and, unknown to me, my grandfather had sown in me the seeds of my eventual mission, my métier. 48

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§ “Kash, you up yet? Wake up, man.” “I’m up now . . . what the fuck?” I had been woken by the vibrating phone I kept tucked under my pillow. I didn’t like it to ring in my sleep, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing an important call. Adair calling early on a Saturday morning, though, was highly unusual. “C’mon, man, we need you up here. You gotta hurry.” “What? Where? What?” I mumbled, disoriented. “The farm, man, the fucking farm. Where do you think?” The urgency in Adair’s voice was unmistakable and unwelcome. “What the fuck do you need me there for? Isn't Kang with you? What the hell?” I tried to compress all my irritation into a hushed tone, so as not to awaken Helen. “It’s an emergency, buddy. I'll explain, but get your ass out of bed and into a car . . . ASAP.” A car? For Christ’s sake, I would have to find a car? Where did one even go to rent a car in New York . . . the bloody airport? In a week full of seventeen-hour days, even Sundays sacrificed to brunch crowds and the clearing of bills, laundry, and other engine-room chores of life, Saturday mornings were my one inviolate sanctuary. The day would be spent, pleasurably, with Helen. But the very early morning, before she woke up, before the world came calling? That belonged entirely to me. I’d saunter out in jeans and an over-washed T-shirt to the corner bodega to grab the weekend Times, and then park myself at the Black Dog downstairs from my place on Carmine, enjoying a black coffee and a lightly toasted olive bread. I would sit in comfortable, familiar surroundings and peruse all the distress of the world—a mine collapse here, a suicide bombing there, a bloody new suppression of the Uighurs—with a sense of calm, ignoring for a moment all the struggles of my own life. The struggles had in fact gone from bad to worse since the great collapse of 2008. It was just our luck that we had launched our wild game restaurant in September of that year. Investors and clients, smokers of fat cigars and masters of the we-have-no-shame laugh, turned overnight into brooding men who worried about their families, pitiful sods who were no longer too macho to shed a tear, who no longer conjured retro cool out of cock-fights or organic beef jerky. There was talk of the Feds. Talk of TARP and too-bigto-fuck. There was talk of an imminent bounce. Of this being the best time ever to buy. I didn’t care. I was glad to have quit finance when I did, and to have turned to something as basic and vital as food. When we first opened, it was depressing to go an entire night with only a single order that included a wine priced in the three digits. But little did we know in the first fury of the fall how lucky we had been to get any orders at all. The customers began dropping off one by one, quietly and without announcement, like men in a time of plague. One day they laughed and ran up a tab, the next they simply stopped coming. Men who were once their best friends suddenly didn’t

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F I C T I O N have a number or an email for the absconders. He’s gone to Florida. Oh, he’s waiting to get indicted. From weekends of hundred-plus covers we fell down to double-digit counts, ever cheaper tickets and finally, the indignity of having to offer Prix Fixes at the price of appetizers. The phone beeped. Text from Adair: GO TO JEFF’S. TAKE HIS CAR. Helen was fast asleep, looking small inside the duvet that enveloped her, her golden hair sprayed on the pillow like sea grass drying on a white sandy beach. I left a note for her, taped on the bathroom mirror, and took a deep breath. Jeff lived way over in the East Village. I could hail a cab, but on a morning like this, the air still unpolluted by fumes, I decided to walk. May was one of my favorite months. And the day was a clear, bright one. I ducked into the Black Dog to pick up a coffee to go. I liked this southern corner of the West Village. For all its geographic smallness, the Village was not a singular entity. It was divided into multiple sub-zones and many more communities. Bleecker belonged, still, to just enough second-hand stores, patisseries and crusty old gay men to feel authentic to the tourists. Washington Square Park was a trap for petty muggings, and to its south, MacDougal, Sullivan, and Thompson formed a grid of eateries that I feared were incubating the next Bubonic plague. The farther north one went, the sturdier became the houses. The cleaner and broader became the streets. Even the people became more relaxed, full of charming privilege and handsome disdain. I had no time for the preciousness of cultural doyennes, though. The pace of this new era, like it or not, was going to be set by the renters. The world belonged increasingly to the highest bidder. And, boy, had we bid high for our space when we took the spot for The Hide! Even in the microzone between the Village and SoHo, by the West Side Highway, where last-gasp warehouses still operated, the price was breathtaking at the market’s peak. So now, with investors pulling out just as revenues crashed, we had fallen behind on bills. We were running on credit, even after painful cuts. Boris, who had thrown us a lifeline, was growing impatient. We needed radical ideas to generate some fast cash. I could no longer make sense of what we owed Boris; it was like the national debt figure; it begged to be scrolled across a huge digital screen in some prime city corner. When at last I reached Jeff’s on 4th and 2nd, I found him sitting on the stoop of his apartment building. He presented himself bare-bodied and barefooted, but had thankfully managed a pair of shorts. As I approached him, I chucked my coffee cup into an open bin and shouted a bright “hello.” He rose without cheer. He was a tall fellow with Jesus-hair and hipster scruff on his face. “Don’t fuck up the car, man,” Jeff said, skipping any greetings or pleasantries. He held out the keys. “Where is it?” I asked, mimicking his matter-of-factness. He indicated a spot down the road. “The green one, after the fire hydrant.” “Anything I should know about it?” “It needs gas, a whole lotta gas,” Jeff said, turning around, I assumed, to go back to bed.

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The car was a 1970s-era Plymouth Duster. Trust Adair to know a Jeff, and Jeff to own a relic. It was a beauty though and looked in good shape. Its green paint job was accented with thin, black stripes running along its muscular sides. Now if it would only drive. I tested the lights and indicators, and stepped on the tight pedals of the old work-horse to propel myself forward with surprising gusto. It felt strange to be experiencing the city from the driver’s seat. In the back seat of a cab, one is captivated by signage and billboards, and the errant pedestrian. Behind the driving wheel, all pedestrians seemed errant. Luckily I didn’t have to contend with them for too long before I swung onto FDR. Traffic was light and I decided that if I was going to go on an unplanned ride out of town, I might as well enjoy it. I fumbled with the radio knob until I hit a station belting out classic rock and headed for Willis Avenue Bridge. As the AC didn’t work, I rolled the window down and my hair flapped violently in the wind. A weird muffled sound reverberated within the car, so I turned up the volume as a favorite, “Go Your Own Way,” came up. Though I rarely had the occasion to drive, I knew few drills as unfailingly liberating as speeding down an American highway. At such unfettered speed, my worries began to diminish. Boris and his threats faded. The mesmeric voice of Stevie Nicks gave way to another familiar, Michael Stipe. The slipperiness of the road called me to go ever faster. But no sooner had I exited the city limits than the phone, which lay beside me on the seat, rang and broke my trance. I felt miffed for a second as the DJ announced the next number, “Fast Car.” Then I noticed that it was Helen. “Hey, honey, what happened?” “It’s Adair. Something’s up.” “Isn’t Kang with him?” “Yeah, but they’re in some sort of fix.” “Can’t they do anything without you? Do you have to be the fixer for everything?” It was sweet of Helen to put things in such flattering terms. And while there might be some truth to her assumption, it was also the truth that she didn’t always see the things that Adair and Kang both did and did right. She mainly got to see what I was up to. “Oh, it’s not like that. It’s a crazy deal. Who knows what’s up?” “Exactly. What if they’re being held hostage by some crazy hillbilly?” “I’m quite sure it isn’t that.” Even as I said it, I had to admit I could not imagine what it could be. The errand they had been on was a rather simple one: find a peacock, buy it, and bring it back to town. “How long will you be?” “I don’t know, hon, it sounded urgent, and I didn’t want to wake you.” “It’s okay,” said Helen, in a small voice. “I’ll make it up, I promise.” “That’s okay,” Helen said with her open laugh. “There’s nothing to make up.” I could just see her standing in our little kitchen in the thick cottony white shirt she used in lieu of a dressing-gown. She would be holding a red

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F I C T I O N Cardinals mug in one hand, while the coffee-maker sputtered softly on the half counter that separated the dining space. “Get home safe,” Helen said. “All of you.” “Will do,” I replied, hanging up. I turned the radio up again, but now it blared a harsh metal number I didn’t recognize. Still, my mood stayed light after the call. My goal now was to get back to town as quickly as I could possibly manage. How many post-New Age men did it take, after all, to truss up a single peacock and ferry it back to the city? I had grabbed a wad of cash before I left the apartment, even though Adair hadn’t said anything about money. Kang knew people in Queens who could source virtually anything, given time and money. But this order had come to us just three days ago. The client was of course Adair’s contact. Father of a friend of a friend. The man was doing big business in China. He was hoping to cut a deal to build city-size residential blocks in eastern China. He wanted to impress a delegation of Chinese officials by treating them to one of their most prized treats: a peacock. Not a garish serving of the whole, with head and feathers. But cold cuts with sauce poivrade, and for the main course, prize parts glazed with orange. The client liked our angle. All we needed then was a bird, suitably plump and tender. Once I entered Westchester, the roads became more narrow and sinewy. I liked the small hilly undulations. I was always struck by how tall the trees were in this country. The leaves broad and thick. The land and the flora somehow felt more ancient here. Only the rivers back home held a similar majesty. Soon enough I was following a road that ran along a gurgling brook they deemed a river here. The road curved with every bend, and at one corner I spotted an old man, boots up to his thighs, wading into the stream with his fishing pole. I knew I was close to my destination as the river become more ferocious, and as I passed town names confirming the change—Fish’s Flood, Hale Eddy. Presently I rolled onto a dirt track nearly suffocated by over-growth. At times I had to push past thick knots of briars and nettles with the Duster’s front steel fender. A weather-beaten sign dangling lop-sided over a wooden gate finally confirmed arrival. The letters had all but washed away, but the battered board hung on to its clasps and hinges with the same dogged determination as the farmers who clung to such derelict places. There was a gray van in the driveway ahead of me, which, given its mint condition, I assumed must be Adair and Kang’s rental. Further ahead, a rusty, orange pickup hogged the driveway. A shed full of tools and tarpaulin looked ready to collapse on one side. Green shoots peeked out of the cracks of discarded engines. Deeper inside the garage I could make out, under heaps of junk, the contours of a giant Oldsmobile, cannibalized for its parts, resting peacefully as a sunken ship. I stepped out, pocketing the keys, and was struck immediately by a view in the distance of what I guessed must be a ridge of the Appalachians. Bluish mountain peaks shot into a low, slow procession of clouds cumulating to the north and the east: a rebuke to the squalor of the farm. I walked toward the small house ahead of me. A corner of the roof sagged, not that the rest of it was doing too well. Shingles had gone missing

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in patches. The wood siding seemed tattered enough to turn into drift. I cast about for signs of my associates, or anyone. Then a small boy peeked from one corner of the house and disappeared before I could say anything. I followed the little runaway’s footsteps, and soon as I turned the corner I found Adair loping toward me. He threw me an uncharacteristically big hug and said, “The Great North, my friend.” “No, it isn’t,” I said. “It’s not even upstate. It’s barely out of town.” “Where I come from, anything north of Westchester is upstate,” Adair said, rather pleased with himself. He waved at the vista in general, and at the mountains in particular, with inordinate pride, as if they were the result of his conjuring. “Smell the air, man, smell the air,” he continued, as two more figures began to approach us. I could smell wood-smoke, I thought. And a stink of compost and sodden earth that seemed universal to all working farms, including those in our ancestral village back home that I visited with my grandfather on winter holidays. Kang was sullen as ever and greeted me with a barely perceptible nod. Our host stopped a few feet away. He looked like Jeff’s twin: tall, scruffy hair, a beard. But Jeff’s look of insouciance was a cultivated affair, whereas Jessie’s stolidity was clearly inborn. “You met Henry?” I could not tell from Jessie’s accent if he meant “met” or “meet.” If met, I supposed he was confirming my encounter with the little mountain boy. If “meet,” by way of suggesting formal introductions with the child, the proposition struck me as confounding. Before I could respond, Adair spoke up. “Let's go to the pen.” Jessie turned around and, without bothering to exchange any greetings, led the way. We trailed across a small stretch of grass, far too overgrown to be called a lawn, to a broader open area with more sheds, mostly abandoned, relics of farm equipment and even the remains of a stone-walled water well. Jessie led us to the last of the enclaves, a wire-fenced area of about a third of an acre shadowed by a line of poplars along the right. The rest of it was dotted with undistinguished shrubs and bushes, and also thatched tin mini-huts, feeding troughs, water bowls. “Poplars?“ I asked Jessie, pointing at the tall trees, in a renewed attempt to establish a modicum of rapport. What he said in response sounded like “cuttinwood.“ Once again, his unique enunciation left me uncertain if he was offering a more specific name for the tree or suggesting a course of action for them. “So, where’s Henry?“ I asked, anxious to get the introduction over with so that we could proceed to the actual business. “Thar,“ Jessie said, pointing at a full-sized peacock. I looked at Jessie incredulously, then turned to Adair, who shrugged as if to say, I didn’t name the bird! “So what seems to be the problem?” I asked, digesting the confusion of the misplaced identity. “You can‘t take it live,” Jessie said.

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F I C T I O N “That’s true," Adair said. “It needs to be killed, quartered, and skinned before we can put it in the ice-bucket.” I looked at Adair again. “None of us can do the slaughter,” Adair said, matter of fact. “I raise ‘em and sell ‘em. I don't kill ‘em,” Jessie said. “You didn’t know this before you came up here?” I asked Adair. “I hadn’t thought to ask.” I turned to Kang. He stared at his toes. Adair supplied the excuse. “He’s never done it either. He’s afraid of mucking it up. We don’t want the flesh or feathers to get bruised.” “So, you figured, call up the Muslim?” “Don’t be ridiculous. That’s not why. But you’ve killed so many cows. And even chickens. You told me all those stories.” Boasting will always come back to bite you. I made a mental note of that. The thing is, the boasts were true. It wasn’t just the cows at Eid. Back then, chickens were bought live from the market for butchering in the backyard. And Rahmat, my grandfather’s trusted servant, proved a patient teacher. To stare into the eyes of the beasts as they expired, who would fill our bellies later, struck me even at that tender age as the most honest of transactions. “You have a knife?” I asked Jessie, as I began to roll up the sleeves of my blue Oxford button-down. Jessie hollered something in his vernacular and the boy, neither named nor introduced so far, came with a long butcher’s knife. The blade had a spot of rust on it. The corroded wooden butt confirmed the instrument’s vintage nature. But I touched the sharp end lightly, and found it true enough for our purpose. “You need to catch it,” I said to Jessie. He grunted in assent and the boy, a sprightly, dirty blonde who seemed to occupy an enchanted space between our own species and others, followed the older man into the pen. We approached the bird, which stood still until we got close enough. It took a few tentative steps and then it emitted a mild sound of protest. I didn't fancy this turning into a farcical chase, and asked Jessie, “You got some feed, or something?” He fished out a Ziploc bag full of pellets and handed it over to the boy, whose solitary approach seemed to be less disturbing to the prey. “Henry, Henry, choo-choo,” the boy kept saying as he tossed out the bait at measured distances. Father and son worked in tandem with practiced efficiency. I held my place and could sense Adair and Kang inching into the pen as much out of curiosity as out of a sheer animal pull, however shriveled up in men like them, to the gravity of the moment. Jessie’s boy led the bird close to a large bowl half-filled with water. Once the bird bent down to take a sip, Jessie nabbed it by the base of its wings from behind and at the same time pushed down on its back. The bird could not spring its wings or even run away. It could only let out its piercing scream, lacerating the air with its fundamental terror.

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I glanced up at the distance for a second; the mountains seemed placid and eternal. I motioned for Jessie to lay the prey on its side. Adair and Kang were crowding us now. The boy tied up the bird’s legs with a cord of rope pulled out of his pocket. To make the sacrifice quick and clean was the kindest act. I twisted its neck to stretch the skin, placed the knife-edge on the throat, and with one motion forward, one pull back, and a final half thrust severed its throat. The bird’s bleak, blaring cry turned into a horrific, gagged gurgle before it fell silent. It’d take a few minutes to drain out the blood, and I asked Jessie to wait until then. Kang would take over the carcass once the outer skin was peeled; he knew best what kind of cuts he wanted. And also which parts he wanted to keep. Even if he didn’t serve it to the guests, I could not imagine Kang passing up on the liver and gizzards of such a rare catch. I myself was now curious to know how its taste might differ from turkey or pork. I stood up and stretched. Adair‘s stare guided my eyes to the front of my shirt, and I noticed that it was finely sprayed with molecules of blood. The hem of my khakis, too. I could not recall if lemon zest was effective at removing blood stains. Helen would know. “You could have told me to bring an extra shirt,” I told Adair. He stared at me blankly as if I were speaking in tongues. “Good luck, taking it back,” I said, patting Adair lightly on the shoulder as I headed for the gates of the pen. “You taking off?” Adair asked, recovering from his rare spell of stupor. “You’ve buggered my Saturday pretty much already. Let me at least have the evening with Helen?” I never did learn the name of the little kid. I feared that, years later when I told this story to anyone, I'd call him Henry. The sun was high when I drove back and, despite all the troubles of recent days, I felt distant, light. The world seemed small from the high corners of the mountains and as it seemed to grow with my approaching descent, so did my confidence. It felt good to remember where I came from, to recall the depths of my training, my resolve. I also felt renewed in my confidence in our vision for The Hide: our mistake so far was not that we had tried something new, errant, but that we had not dared to be bolder. The Hide was not just about dishing out exotic meats; it needed to be about helping people remember a more vital, ancient way of being.

K. Anis Ahmed is a Bangladeshi writer based in Dhaka. His two previous books are Good Night, Mr. Kissinger and The World in My Hands. He is a co-founder of the literary journal Bengal Lights, and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, World Literature Today, and The Daily Beast. Ahmed studied at Brown, Washington, and New York universities. He is currently working on his second novel.

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F I C T I O N

Meira Chand

Black Water Synopsis Black Water follows the life of orphaned Sita, who is a child bride and then a widow in India, and who later finds herself in Singapore where she remarries. War comes, and during the Japanese occupation of Singapore she joins the Indian National Army, a force created and financed by the Japanese for anti-colonial purposes. Sita becomes a recruit in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, a women’s unit under command of the Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose. Sita’s life holds a mystery that many years later in Singapore her daughter, Amita, tries to unravel while dealing with traumatic events in her own life. Their two stories unfold simultaneously, one in the present and the other in the past. Separated by time and vastly different experiences of what it means to be a woman, they find that although much has moved forward some things remain unchanged, and come together in a new understanding.

Synopsis of Chapter 6 The chapter is taken from early in the book and describes the event of Sita’s first marriage at the age of twelve. Taken in by an aunt who has no interest in her, she is married off to an elderly widower who, in exchange for a young bride, has waived aside the need for a dowry.

The Wedding—India, 1936

H

e is so old,” Sita whispered that night, crouched at her aunt’s knee, remembering the visit of her future in-laws. She had been told not to show herself, but through an open crack of the door a stolen glimpse of her husband-to-be, moving in the shadows of the room, lingered with her. Kanta Chachi looked at her askance. “He is not yet fifty, and he is rich. His wife died only a year ago. His sons are grown and married; you will not be looking after small children. He is taking you without dowry in order to have a young wife. You are already thirteen years old— old enough for marriage. Some brides are so young they must sit upon their father’s lap at the ceremony.” Chachi gave an impatient sniff. Sita could not protest; she was dependent upon her aunt’s charity and without voice in the flow of her life. If she did not marry she could remain forever in her aunt’s house, no better than a servant, fetching, carrying, cooking, cleaning. “I have done all this for my brother, your father,” her aunt remarked stiffly, acknowledging the righteousness of her deed.


“What will I call him, what is his name?” Sita implored, pulling at her thick plait of hair, remembering the balding, large bodied man she had glimpsed. Chachi was shocked. “To you he has no name. To you he is, He. Out of respect a wife never utters the name of her husband.” Chachi frowned in disapproval. Sita’s hands and feet were painted with the intricate patterns of wedding henna, a net of flowers and birds and curling paisley leaves. The mehndi artists came to Chachi’s house, and her aunt and cousins also painted their hands. Only Sita, as the bride, was allowed to decorate her feet. All night she lay with her ankles resting on a small stool and her hands unmoving, careful not to smear the mehndi as it dried. When she washed the henna off the next morning, a glowing orange lace was left behind. She was told the name of her bridegroom was secretly etched upon her, hidden somewhere within the elaborate designs. What that name was she could not be told, for fear of bringing her husband bad luck. Chachi helped her dress in clothes gifted by her new in-laws. Sita was conscious of the silk sari with its crusty gold border, unlike anything she had worn before; she was only used to the softness of her much-washed cotton shift or salwar kamiz. The sari width was made for an adult woman, and draped about Sita’s undersized body all the excess cloth had to be tucked into the drawstring of her petticoat, making a thick wad about her waist. Usually, her unruly mass of hair sprang wildly about her shoulders, but now it was oiled and plaited and coiled high on her head, tamed for the life ahead. When at last she looked in a mirror, she did not recognise herself. The thin face and thick straight eyebrows, the bright eyes that her grandmother always said shone like two stars, her wide mouth—everything seemed changed. The severe hairstyle, the earrings and light necklace Chachi had given her, even if only gold plated, recast her in adult mould. Superimposed upon her childish frame she saw a reflection of the woman she would one day be. They piled into a horse drawn ghari for the journey to the wedding hall. Giggling with excitement, her cousins, Nitti and Neeta, squeezed onto the seat opposite their parents with Sita. Everyone was dressed for the wedding. Sita’s few belongings were bundled into a carrying-cloth and tied to the back of the ghari. Chachi, small and plump as a butterball, her deep-set eyes and determined chin resolute with purpose, took up most of the seat. Her husband, Ashok Chacha, his long thin limbs folded together like a bundle of brooms, occupied the remainder. It was his habit to appear to concede a greater share of the marriage ground to his wife. He seldom spoke,

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F I C T I O N controlling her in the invisible ways a man had the power to invoke, a grunt, a frown or a concentrated glower. His opinion was final and Chachi obeyed him. Sita listened to the clip of the horse’s hooves hitting the road, and felt the slight breeze on her face. Inside her everything had stopped. “He will give you a fine gold mangalsutra to put around your neck, to show everyone you are his wife,” Chachi announced. “He will give you also a new name,” Nitti smothered a giggle. “The old Sita will die; soon you will belong to your husband’s family. Maybe they’ll call you Pushpa or Rukmini,” Neeta laughed. “Or Avantika or Ranjana,” Nitti added. Sita was filled with panic. She did not want another name, imposing upon her fresh identity, killing that old self she knew so well. When her new family claimed ownership of her and her old self died, would her memories remain intact? Would she still recall her brother and grandmother? Would the image of her mother and father disappear with the death of her old personality? People swirled about them at the wedding hall, a blur of strange faces and voices. With her head and face covered by the veil of her sari, Sita could see little. Someone gripped her arm and steered her inside to sit in a dark corner, while Chachi and her family waited outside to greet the bridegroom’s family. Soon a commotion of drumming announced their arrival, the loud music and wild dancing of the bharat was heard. At last Chachi appeared and helped Sita to her feet, ushering her forward amidst the crush of people. The sari dragged about her heels and Sita feared it would catch underfoot, pulling free of the petticoat and her waist. Helped by Chachi she approached the priest, who waited to begin the marriage rituals. As she sat down beside her bridegroom, the flames of the sacred fire spurted up, the priest began his chanting, the words humming through scented smoke. Sita bowed her head, conscious of the great bulk of the man beside her; her head swam with the heat of the fire and the perfume of camphor and sandalwood. Eventually, the priest reached out to tie upon her wrist the sacred thread, and to daub her with the red marks of marriage—the carmine tikka on her forehead and the sindhur along the parting of her hair. An elderly woman approached and Chachi, who crouched behind her, leaned forward to whisper that this was her mother-in-law. The bridegroom heaved himself to his feet to open a blue velvet box his mother thrust into his hands, taking from it the gold mangalsutra. The old woman stooped to remove Chachi’s cheap chain from Sita’s neck, placing the weight of the wedding necklace upon her. Beneath Sita’s sari she fumbled with the stubborn clasp, unable to close it shut. The bridegroom stepped forward to help, his large hands groping Sita’s bare neck. She steeled herself not to draw away. At last Sita was helped to stand, and followed her husband around the fire in the symbolic journey of marriage. At last he placed upon her the wedding garland of sweet-smelling jasmine, pronouncing them man and wife. A similar garland was thrust into Sita’s hands. Her husband

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towered over her; she barely reached his chest, and the wedding sari, draped stiffly about her childish form, diminished her further. She reached up, struggling to loop the garland over his head. He bent towards her, lifting the sari from her face, and she glimpsed the dark fleshy contours of his face. Daring then to glance up at him, she stared straight into the dark tunnels of his nostrils, and at once looked away. He was an old man, grey-haired, as amply bolstered as the horsehair sofa that stood in Chachi’s house. His small eyes behind an upturned snout of a nose reminded Sita of the baboons that lived in the glade of swaying bamboo not far from Chachi’s home. The prayers were finished, the ceremony complete. Trembling now, she tried to back away but came up against the press of people about them and knew there was nowhere to go. Closing her eyes she appealed to the Devi for help, and saw again the goddess’ radiant face, the many weapons in her hands, and her tiger steady with burning amber eyes. Even as the image filled her mind, she heard a loud gasp, then shouts from behind her. At her side her husband staggered and clutched his chest, his eyes rolled up beneath his lids until only the whites were seen. He lurched against her, nearly knocking her over. Falling to his knees in his bridal splendour, he writhed about at Sita’s feet. The gold turban tumbled from his head, his face turned crimson, then blue. A convulsion of strangled sounds gurgled in his throat, foam bubbled from his mouth, he gasped for breath. The wedding guests surged forward shouting advice on how to handle an epileptic fit. Someone sat on her husband’s chest and held him down as he thrashed about, another thrust an old sandal beneath his nose, hoping the rancid odour of sweat and leather might revive the semi-conscious man, already choking on his own tongue. Sita drew back in horror until she stood behind the crowd, flattened against a wall. Sliding down to sit on the floor, she covered her head with her hands, peering through her fingers at the knot of people about the prostrate man. Eventually, there was silence. The crowd parted, and Sita saw her husband limp and still on the floor before her. The wedding turban had rolled away and she stared at the bald dome of his head emerging from a ring of grey hair, like an egg from the warmth of a nest. Everyone turned to stare at Sita as she shrank back against the wall. Then the women began a loud wailing and she knew in that moment her life had changed, and that she was blamed for her husband’s death. His body was placed on a bench and covered by a sheet. Beneath the shroud the mound of his belly thrust up; the gold wedding turban that had rolled from his head was placed again upon him. The jasmine garland escaped the side of the shroud, the flowers plump and fresh. “It has eaten her husband,” a woman suddenly shouted. People crowded about Sita, dragging her to her feet, refusing to give her gen-

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F I C T I O N der now that she was a widow. “As he lifted the sari, and its eyes fell upon him…” A whispering, like the rustle of wind in a tree stirred through the crowd. “…devil… shataan,” the words repeated about her, again and again. “Chachi,” she screamed, looking wildly about for her aunt, trying to twist free of the hands that gripped her. At last, through the crowd, she glimpsed Chachi with her husband and daughters, slipping hurriedly out of a door. “Chachi!” she screamed as they disappeared from sight without a backward glance. The wedding was over; Sita was the property now of another household. Fate may have turned her fortune from bride to a widow, but the bridegroom had choked to death in the moments after the wedding rituals ended, and not in the moments before. Chachi was free of responsibility for Sita, and a hundred witnesses were there to prove it; she knew the right moment to leave. Even as Sita cried out, the women of her new family took hold of her, dragging her from the wedding hall, pulling her the short distance up the road to the bridegroom’s home. Her hair was knocked loose, her plait unwinding down her back, pins scattering about her on the road. “You no longer need that,” her mother-in-law shouted, staring at the gold manglesutra about Sita’s neck. “No need for wearing jewellery ever again.” She pushed her face close to Sita, her eyes rolling wildly. The loose skin of her arms, as finely creased as ancient silk or tissue paper, brushed Sita’s jaw as she fumbled with the catch of the necklace. Her breath, thickened by garlic and aniseed, beat upon Sita’s face. In the shadows Sita glimpsed her father-in-law, slumped on a chair, silent with shock and grief. As the mangalsutra was lifted from her neck, Sita instinctively raised a hand to the beads and smooth gold, still carrying the warmth of her body. As she watched, the necklace was returned to the blue velvet box and locked with a tiny key. She imagined the ornament buried within the velvet, the heat of her flesh lingering upon it, leeching slowly away. “Witch! Devil!” Sita’s mother-in-law cursed and the women of the family chorused in agreement. “Most sinful of sinful creatures.” Someone grasped her arms. The coloured glass wedding bangles covering her wrists were smashed with a stone. They shattered about her, the ties of marriage broken with them as they fell, the shards of glass reflecting the light at her feet. “Now this, take it off.” The women advanced upon her, pulling at the red wedding sari, ripping it from her body, stripping her down to her core. Another woman stepped forward to throw at her feet a white cotton sari. “You’ll wear this now, until the day you die. A good woman makes sure she dies before her husband.”

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“Amma…mother…” she appealed to her mother-in-law. “Aie bagwan! What have we done that such a shataan should come to us?” Her mother-in-law muttered savagely, her eyes blue with cataract, dark with fury. Across the room Sita’s father-in-law continued to sit with his head in his hands. Someone took hold of Sita again, and with a rough wet cloth began rubbing at the marks of marriage, at the red tikka of carmine anointing her forehead and sindhur along the parting of her hair. Her palms were scrubbed repeatedly, but the intricate designs of bridal henna were already indelibly part of her, and would not be wiped away. “Now this.” Her mother-in-law rushed at her again, lifting the thick plait of hair off Sita’s neck, thumping it down against her back. Sita cried out in panic as once more the women surged about her. Pushed and prodded, half-falling, half-walking, she was propelled across rooms and down flights of stairs. The reek of sweat and attar of roses lifted off the angry women, the faint perfume of mothballs drifted from their wedding finery. Sita was dragged by the women out of the house and into the blaze of the sun. “You are nothing now, nothing,” they screamed as they pulled her along. In the courtyard the barber, already alerted to his task, rose from where he crouched in the shade of a tree and came towards them. A stool was found, a towel was draped about Sita’s shoulders, water was brought in an enamel jug and the barber opened his bundle of implements. “Careful,” Sita’s mother-in-law warned as the man’s scissors flashed in the sun. The hair must be cut in one hank as near Sita’s skull as possible, for it would be given as alms to the local temple. “Chachi!” Sita screamed again as they held her down, but her aunt was already long gone. Soon it was done and the dismembered plait of hair lay before Sita in a dented metal bowl. The wedding guests stood in a circle about her, watching silently as the barber set about shaving her skull. Her fatherin-law observed her from a distance, his lips tight, saying nothing. On the high wall of the courtyard monkeys sat picking lice from each other’s fur, a mangy pye-dog entered the courtyard through an open door and settled to scratch near the water pump. The smell of cooking suddenly pervaded the yard as in the kitchen caterers heated great tureens of food to feed the guests who still swarmed through the house, preparing now not for a wedding but for a funeral. At last, Sita put up a hand and felt the naked dome of her skull, sore and bleeding from the razor’s rasp. Pulling the cotton sari over her head, she was aware of the roughness of the cloth against her shorn skin. Immediately, her mother-in-law pulled the sari off again so that everyone could see Sita’s shame. Sita bowed her head, knowing she must endure this moment if she was to survive the day, and all that

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F I C T I O N now lay beyond it. She remembered her grandmother leading her by the hand to the temple on the banks of the river, and how in the dimness of that place, smelling of dank stone and incense, she had reached to touch the brass bell that called the gods; she remembered the sharp chime and how her grandmother pushed her head down in obeisance as she folded her hands before the Devi. Tears filled her eyes at this memory. At that first sight of her husband’s face, she had prayed to the Devi for help, and been miraculously heard. Before nightfall the bridegroom was cremated. The women waited at home as custom demanded. Sita’s grieving mother-in-law, lamenting and beating her breast, continued to shout shrill curses at Sita. “Die with him in those flames! In your next life may you bear only daughters, and never a son.” Sita stood by herself, apart. An evening breeze lifted off the river stirring a spindly tree in the yard; bats flew in and out of its branches. Her newly shaven skull was sore. In the dim light Sita held up her hands, gazing at the filigreed pattern of wedding henna on the palms of her hands and feet. The henna had darkened, and she remembered Chachi saying that if the mendhi took well it was a sign that your mother–in-law would love you. Beyond the shame of everything that had happened that day, she recognised also her relief. She would not now have to endure her husband’s touch. When he lifted the sari from her face and she glanced up at him for the first time, and saw his loose lips and nicotinestained teeth, all she could think of was that moment when they would be alone and he would move towards her. She wondered what would happen to her now; she was thirteen years old and a widow. Within the course of one day a husband had not only entered but also exited her life. She could never remarry, his departure had left her an outcast, bound for life to a state of perpetual mourning, and she still did not know his name.

Meira Chand was born and educated in London. She has lived extensively in Japan and also in India, but is now a Singapore citizen. Her multi-cultural heritage is reflected in her eight novels. In the UK, her latest novel, A Different Sky, was a book-of-the-month choice by the bookshop chain Waterstones, long listed for the Impac Dublin literary award, and on Oprah Winfrey’s reading list. She has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia and is involved in programmes in Singapore to nurture and promote young writers.

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F I C T I O N

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Brick

T

here is a green plastic plate of gnawed pig’s trotters and leftover sadza next to Baba Jo’s head. The bar maid is wearing black canvas shoes. The Thomys are without laces but this is the height of fashion. Even though the corn on her little toe grows out of a hole in the cloth, the bar maid feels good. “Hey!” the bar maid goes. Her name is Clarissa. She shouts at Baba Jo because she feels good. Baba Jo does not understand what the young woman wants. “Are you done?” she goes again. She flicks the plate with her thumbnail. Grease globs at the rim. Then it oozes, clinging all the way, past scales of paint, onto the rusty table. Baba Jo raises his head. Clarissa does not bother to move out of the way quickly enough. The plate empties over Baba Jo’s head. Alois Madya has never liked Clarissa. Baba Jo thinks she’s all right, but Alois doesn’t. He watches Clarissa shake Baba Jo’s shoulder to dislodge bits from his hair. Baba Jo thinks it’s a caress and smiles up at Clarissa’s breast. “Hm-hm!” Clarissa snorts quietly through her nose and swaggers off holding the plate, leaving a trotter under the table. Alois approaches his drinking mate. He wonders how long it will be until Baba Jo comes round sufficiently to buy him his first drink today. Baba Jo is one of the lucky ones. His daughter is a nurse at the mission hospital by the bald mountain. She does not come home that often but she sends money each month, regularly. And Baba Jo is a judicious drinker. Even when the e-cash beeps into the cell phone his daughter gave him, he sticks to traditional beer, despises the frothy, gaseous beverages that burst and foam to puddles around their bottles and cans. “Shake-Shake!” Baba Jo says when he is sober enough. “If it is not Shake-Shake, is that drinking? Never! Not without a beer pot amongst mates. There has never been drinking without any shaking.” And he always drinks the same amount in the same batches: enough to feel sleepy and for the food to soak it up; and then comes the waking, and another cycle, until his muscles quiver like gelatine. Alois likes to catch Baba Jo after the first batch of ShakeShake and first plate of strongly salted offal. The contents of the meal change according to the carcasses sweating in the butchery next to the bar at the dusty Business Centre. Hariadhi


F I C T I O N Baba Jo is most generous after a plate of pig’s trotters. Then he holds the hoof up and laughs and says, “Don’t laugh gentlemen! What were you eating when all you managed was those sons of yours—who don’t do anything for you! This is what I ate when I decided it was time for a daughter!” Alois Madya walks over to his companion whose head has sprawled back onto the table. What would it be like to have such a daughter, he wonders. The thought does not upset him this early afternoon, as thinking of his daughter, Kuda, normally does, since today Alois Madya is feeling good. Ba’Jo turns his head and the grease from the pig’s trotters smears his other cheek. “Ba’Jo, what’s up?” Alois greets his friend hopefully. Other than Clarissa being the first person he met in the bar, Alois is feeling strong. A little while ago, a matter of days, he admitted that he cannot drown, neither in his sorrows nor in his drink. The only way to drown, Alois saw, was a deep, smooth river piled against granite outcrops, with currents underneath that can drag a man down. He is not one to get on with water spirits. He has respect for those beings that spin into whirlwinds and dive into the caves of a cold, moving world. Alois accepts he is not the kind to visit deep, wet, powerful places. His place is on gravel and dry veld grass, where the water queen sucks dust into storms when she whirls on her travels. There is, on some days, idle talk of climate change, even here at the Business Centre. From time to time, drinkers look through broken windows and grimy panes at the sky. They, Alois among them, wonder how it can rain without stopping for three weeks and how the drought comes in the wrong season for another three weeks before restless spirits hurl thunderbolts again, and the earth starts shaking. Soil scientists at the Agricultural Research Institute suspect that soon there will be no more dust, no sand, only rock because people are scything out shrubs and going at the sides of mountains with hoes without terracing, and the rain has joined forces with the villagers so that it streaks over the earth like a rake, and the thin layer of soil, joyful to be on the move, rushes down to the river beds. But Alois Madya, having recently made peace with his life, does not think too long about these things. True, the rain took the new drought resistant seed that he and Mrs. Madya, and occasionally Kuda, had sewn during the last planting season. True, what the rain left the baboons took. But that trouble with the baboons came before Alois’ plan for change, when his idea was not yet formed, when his wife looked at him in a way that murmured, “A man or no man, here in my husband’s or there in my father’s house, what isn’t dying?” as she came scratching and sneezing from harvesting sorghum; and his daughter did not look at him at all when he passed, but giggled with her friends more intensely as days went by, and not once could Alois think up anything that should reasonably be said in answer to the young women. Without his being able to reply, all through the season of praying for rain when the sun shone scorching white light over the earth, all through

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the season of interceding for sun when the rain finally arrived as though from the age of Noah, the sharpness of his daughter’s laugh prodded at Alois’ heart every evening as he trudged to the fields down the path his wife laboured up after her day’s work there. But as this was the time when all was not well, and Alois’ plans were not as his plans should have been, he invariably fell asleep in the lookout at the edge of his maize field as soon as his buttocks rested on the plastic sheet, bright yellow, cut from an old seed sack, and his spine ridged against a pole. The baboons waited until he was asleep. Then they stood up to dance in the moonlight, like a band of villagers at a pungwe, urged on by former guerrillas and under-cover CIO informers, the people everyone knew had absorbed too many deaths and too many kinds of it to ever be sober, whether they drank Baba Jo’s Shake-Shake or water or anything else. In those days, when the baboons loped off with his last few maize cobs, before his plans came right, Alois did not go home when the sun rose. He waited, as a man should, until the mother of his daughter Kuda brought him breakfast. Ma’Kuda had a strange way of being unseen and seen when she brought the food: the shades of her skin blended into the earth with one step and threw her into relief with another so that she appeared first smaller then larger than anything mortal. When Ma’Kuda stepped forward, as though out of nothing, she loomed over Alois and the wasted field like one of those monsters people googled, and pointed at laughing, on the screens of their cell phones. On better days, Ma’Kuda reverted to herself as she approached, and became the woman Alois, with a distant flutter of triumph at resisting the huge apparition of her, knew he did not know. She walked slowly. Balanced on her head was a small wicker basket shaped like a pot. It contained a jug of tea and a plateful of sweet potatoes. On the best days there was also sugar and a few slices of bread, occasionally with a scraping of margarine. When she reached Alois, Ma’Kuda knelt and lifted the food out of her basket with slow, joyless movements. She was a wiry woman who did not expect satisfaction from anywhere any more. Accordingly, she tried with all her heart to avoid expectation. However, as this attitude was an expectation of sorts, Ma’Kuda lived in a terrible and bitter state of quandary. Alois did not look at his wife as he took his food. He recounted, between mouthfuls, how in the past night he had joined the dance with a fierce energy that should have intimidated anything or anyone, but the baboons kept on coming. Thus dancing until he was exhausted, he had managed to save a corner of the field. Alois seldom received an answer. He looked into his cup and over its rim at the mountains behind the village. He wanted his wife’s company but her presence made him jumpy so that he wanted her to leave him alone. He wanted and did not want to be as alone as a mountain. If there was absolutely no response, Alois put his hand in his pocket. It was his habit to move round the small allotment at daybreak, after the baboons left so that there was no danger of angering the invaders, but before his wife arrived

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F I C T I O N with his provisions. On this round, Alois nipped off a couple of ears of grain that the animals had broken and left hanging. Back in the shelter, he sat down and arranged a trouser pocket carefully against its holes. He put the sorghum inside. “If it’s like that, Baba, we can both stay here tonight,” his wife said once in that flat voice of hers. Since she generally mouthed formalities that neither of them paid any attention to, her utterances slid out in slow motion, leaving behind the unnecessary words an anxious trace, half aglitter with a wish, like the slime of a snail. On this occasion, Alois was moved to open his pocket and show her the couple of sorghum ears, and tell her what he intended to do with them, but he thought about it, and did not. When Kuda’s mother did not bring Alois his breakfast, it was his daughter Kuda who carried the wicker basket from the kitchen rondavel up at the homestead, across the yard, and down the slope by the cattle kraal, to the field. On those days, not a word was said besides the obligatory “good morning” and enquiring how each had slept. Kuda knelt down in front of her father and peeled off the brown paper that covered the basket. She lifted the cover carefully from where it was tucked between the containers and the wickerwork in order to use it again. She set the dish of sweet potatoes down before Alois and removed its lid. She arranged the enamel mug alongside. Finally, she lifted the tea canister out. When Kuda brought breakfast, the tea still steamed. On some days Alois thought this was because she walked more quickly. He liked to think his daughter was eager to bring her father his food. Another thing he liked to believe was that his daughter stood up from her bed a little earlier so that the kettle had ample time to boil, even for twenty minutes as the Ministry of Health taught, to kill carriers of disease. Alois liked to think this was why his daughter’s tea steamed fragrantly and the steam whetted his appetite with its scent before it reached his lips, whereas his wife Mai Kuda’s tea neither steamed nor sharpened his desire for anything. Pondering this difference, sometimes Alois thought it came of one reason. Sometimes he thought it was the other. On occasion, Alois liked to believe Kuda’s tea reached him hotter than his wife’s did for both of the reasons. Alois did not tell his daughter tales of his exploits with the baboons. He found it impossible to lie to her, for at the mere thought of it on his part, her smile grew sharper, more jagged and more dazzling like a lightning bolt flung by an irritated goddess. He sometimes wondered what would happen if he showed her the ears of sorghum in his pocket, but he never dared. When Alois finished eating, one of the women, whichever it was that day, threw the sweet potato peels into the field to rot. She carried the basket and dirty dishes away, with the load tucked under an arm as, its contents devoured, the basket was too light to balance on her head. Full, Alois, waited until the sun changed its position before he stood up. He did not want to bump into his wife or daughter if either delayed on the path talking to a friend.

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Before the day proceeded, he considered his affairs carefully. This avoidance of his family had been Alois’ main experience with planning. Once, on the way home from the field, the daughter Kuda had met Tabitha, a young woman who, like Clarissa, worked at the bar at the Business Centre. Kuda set the wicker basket down on a boulder by the path, threw her arms around her friend’s shoulders and the two young women started speaking, both at once. They laughed at this and carried on a double conversation. They stepped with small lively steps here and there, touched each other’s hair and shrilled out laughter, going “He-he!” They held hands as if to shout “our merriment is so great it will make us fall down this slope beneath my father’s cattle pen if we do not support each other! See if it doesn’t!” Alois came upon the two young people as he rounded the bend by the musasa grove. Kuda’s father knew they were not laughing at him, but he could not get the idea out of his head that he was the reason for their hilarity. For Alois knew people in the village did that, and imagined so it was with people everywhere: they constantly looked for something to savage with a burst of mirth; and, with people like that, it was most pleasing if the something was someone. In spite of this knowledge, on that day, with something like hope, Alois slipped his hand into his khaki trouser pocket. He grasped an ear of sorghum and started to pull it out. He wanted to tell Kuda why he carried them. Even though the friend Tabitha would hear also, Alois was on the point of speaking, for his flesh did not curl from Tabitha as it did from Clarissa. With Clarissa his body congealed into itself and each of his hairs quivered like an antenna. So that morning, on a fatherly impulse, Alois made peace with telling his daughter about this part of him that he knew women would laugh at if they saw, for no reason he understood, in the presence of one of those laughing young women. Kuda watched her father’s hand in his pocket and thought of the village drunk. His name is Skoforo. Drink has burnt up Skoforo’s brain. The liquor that has engulfed Skoforo’s mind is distilled from tyres generations old. Over many months, the tyres are changed from a new vehicle to an older model. This happens further and further from town, until finally the rubber is useless for transport and skids foolishly over the road, instead of running smoothly to its destination. At this stage the rubber is cut up into flaps and strips of different sizes. These are twisted into sandals, cheap at two dollars a pair: bargains to thin young men in baggy shirts who congregate on the city’s margins. The sandals hold out for a few months. The most anyone has ever got out of them is three. In the fourth month, the owner throws them onto one of the dumps that gently leaks up gases. Or else the young man quietly sells his worn out sandals to the distiller. Skoforo begs five rand from the odd big man from the city. When he gets it, he haggles a discount from the distiller, unscrews the lid from his bottle and sips the thinned down futures. Kuda sometimes goes to the Business Centre to buy a bar of lye soap when her mother has a bank note from a relative. When Kuda runs her

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F I C T I O N mother’s errand, she passes Skoforo lolling by the bottle store. When Skoforo sees Kuda, he puts his hands in his trousers. Kuda sees that she is powerful. She can move the drunkard’s body. Now, on the road, Kuda wonders why her father is standing like that with his hand in his pocket, and that look in his eyes that is so unfamiliar and curious. Her eyes gleam. Kuda pulls Tabitha away by the arm, without taking leave of her father. “He-he!” Tabitha laughs in her high pitch as she stumbles behind Kuda up the slope to Kuda’s home. “Let’s go, Kuda! Someone’s coming to see me tomorrow. I want you to plait my hair nicely!” Alois watches. He sees the girl who brings hot tea, who has not laughed. His heart immediately forgives his daughter. The two young people look back over their shoulders. Alois stands still. His hand remains in his pocket. “He-he-he!” Tabitha lets out another high shriek. This time, Kuda laughs also. Alois is glad he has not told anyone about the two ears of sorghum in his pocket. He decides not to follow his daughter up to the yard. Instead, he goes into the bushes to relieve himself. Urine hissing over the earth is a cleaning. His priorities are ordered now. There is no need to wash as he usually does in the morning. He must go to the bar and find Baba Jo as quickly as possible. The path from his home to the bar runs over a riverbed. The place is a stretch of sand now, which has a firm belief in dryness and retains no memory of a stream. On the far side of the riverbed, the Village Headman’s family has put up a barbed wire fence. This fence, sagging here and there now after several years, surrounds three big trees. It is the headman’s family cemetery. This area where the Headman buries his ancestors is holy, therefore the surrounding bush is holy too. No one in the village dares fetch firewood from here. Children do not clamber over the fence to pick the trees clean of matamba or matunduru. Alois was frightened here once when he heard rustling in leaves fallen to the gravelly earth from bushes close to the road. His tongue furred like the hide of an animal. Bile bit his stomach with many teeth. Breathing like a marathon runner, although he had merely meandered down the road as usual, Alois kept his eye on a pile of leaves and twigs. Every time the heap shifted, he stood still. Each time he came to a halt, his heart beat faster. When the pile was still, Alois circled it cautiously. A small head with a red crest moved slowly to and fro, like Baba Jo’s head on the bar table. When he saw this, Alois jumped back, fearing a snake. As soon as he was still, but watching, a spotted wing swept weakly over the leaves. Alois shook his head and burst out laughing. It was a guinea fowl. It had come off the worse in a fight with another. Watching the bird hop and flutter, Alois’ eye shone with a light it seldom had. The taste of meat was on his tongue. It was flavoured with tomato, onion and garlic, was pungent and strongly-salted. The meat’s texture would be slightly tough, which would make it wonderfully chewy. Alois’ stomach gave a grateful rumble. Bending over he crept forward, hands 68

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tense but ready by his sides to catch and wring the bird’s neck. “My Man, thank you my man! Thank you, Chihwa, you who only eat what is standing up!” Mai Kuda would respond in her flat voice as he handed her the bird. The sound of a villager chopping wood in the distance was the clap of her hands. He saw his wife plucking the bird and cutting up an onion. A trickle of saliva seeped from the corner of his mouth. When she was happy, Mai Kuda’s cooking could make a man cry for his mother. As Alois dreamed of a delicious meal, the guinea fowl raised the hoods of skin that hid its eyes. In spite of its wounds, the bird hobbled chuckchucking away from danger. Alois stopped in his tracks when the bird moved. After a moment he followed the hurt creature slowly. He allowed nzambara brambles to snare him so that he paused to disentangle himself. Spear grass pierced and fell through the holes in his trousers. He stooped to pull out the long filaments. Alois was as aware of the thing that alarmed the wounded bird as the fowl itself was. The thing was always there. When he slept at the lookout, it lurched with long herbivorous fangs around the edge of the field. When he drank Mai Kuda’s tea, or even Kuda’s, it smacked its lips at him. When he walked to the bar it slouched, and when he zig-zagged home it jumped behind him. When he fell into a stupor it stretched out its arms and engulfed him. Each time, he told himself he would spin around or open an eye. He told himself he would confront it. They were small: a man was used to the size of a hen’s, Alois told himself, to explain why he did not see the guinea fowl’s eggs in time. He was surprised but grateful he stepped on only two. All the same, it was a waste whichever way a man looked at it. Alois carefully withdrew his foot from the hollowed out nest and wiped it on the undergrowth. There were speckled grey and white feathers around the nest, and a little blood. Twentyseven eggs nestled in the blood orange yolk that ran from the other two. He thought of settling half a dozen eggs carefully in his pocket. But there was blood on some of them, which made him think better of it. Disappointed, Alois waved away the bush, the fowl and the nest with its eggs with a movement of his hand, and resumed his walk to the bar. The following day Alois was surprised to find his feet turning off the road again once he was past the river. The guinea hen puffed its wings and screeched at him as he approached the bush that hid the nest. That night Alois settled at the lookout as usual. During his round after the baboons disappeared, he snapped off a few hanging ears of sorghum. Later, at the clump of bush after the river, he walked a few steps into the brambles and grass until he approached the nest. Rubbing the sorghum to dislodge the grain, he threw the kernels close to the nest. The hen watched him and he watched her and then they left each other to continue their business. Alois visited the nest every day for some time, on his way to sit with Baba Jo at the rusty table. When the keets hatched, Alois offered his little sacrifice from a greater distance. Papapishu

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F I C T I O N A hawk was counting each day, one, two, three and so forth, on its claws and beak and then on pebbles on the ground, up to twenty seven days after half a dozen guinea hens laid their eggs in the nest, and all but one decided they were done with motherhood. The hawk began tightening its high, sharp-eyed circle at around three weeks, a few days before the keets smashed their way through their shells. This morning that Alois is walking to sit with Baba Jo at the bar where the insufferable Clarissa will serve them, there are only nine keets left in the scrape. Alois drops the grain as usual. He knows soon all the little balls of feathers and meat will be taken. Alois realises then he will stop bringing the sorghum and no one will know he did so. “Look! Sorghum is growing in the bush!” someone will say, and invent stories concerning the beneficence of an ancestral spirit or the morals the village girls have discarded. Thinking of it, Alois decides to get drunk quickly. There is no point labouring over a life that cannot give anything to anyone, not even a small ear of grain to a family of creatures with beaks and short red helmets. The latrine, a hovel of clay and straw, with stick figures drawn in lime depicting on the right side a man and on the left a woman, stands between the beer hall and the parking bay at the Business Centre, where trucks to and from Mozambique park. That girl, Tabitha, is leaning against a truck door. Pulling a length of cloth out of the truck window, she turns to Kuda who stands close by, arms folded across her breasts. The cloth is a dress. Tabitha, shakes it out and holds the garment against her body, laughing. Kuda shrugs her shoulders, an awkward, unwilling movement, as though she would rather not be there. It is the awkwardness of his daughter’s movement, an in between attempt at something, neither weak nor strong, filled with indecision, without the definition in the temperature of her tea, that does it for Alois. If she would simply laugh, “I am a whore. That’s how I get my clothing and airtime for your cell phone, Baba!” that would not satisfy Alois, but it would silence him with gratitude if not respect, with a sense of acceptable equity. But Alois realises he and his daughter are not there yet and may never arrive. Kuda is stretched between two poles. Perhaps she is waiting for something from someone, an order possibly, that will not be given. Alois steps over Skoforo, who sprawls at the bar’s entrance, and keeps on going towards the parking bay. “Kuda!” he shouts softly. “Kuda, my daughter, you do not listen to me! Get away! Go home now!” Kuda neither sees her father nor hears him. Tabitha laughs loudly and drapes the dress over her shoulder. The driver gives a long, deep chuckle. Skoforo comes to investigate the noise. He sees Kuda and puts his hand in his trousers. Alois does not notice this. He continues shouting softly, “Why are you standing there like that! I have told you that I do not want you to play with these truck drivers and bar girls!” The two young women do not see Alois. The truck driver laughs at the drunken man who veers towards the toilet. When Alois comes out, the driver, Tabitha and Kuda have left. Skoforo is back in the bar doorway. 70

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In his seat at the metal table once more, Alois accepts Baba Jo’s ShakeShake. By mid afternoon, he is drunk enough to go home. This is part of Alois’s new plan. He will drink enough to bear the looks his wife and daughter give, but not become so drunk that he rages and flails his arms at Kuda and Mai Kuda. Alois’s plan is to contain his despair and not futilely attempt to wash it away in the hours spent at the beer hall. Beginning the next morning, he will also sit in the yard until noon, observing the women as they go about their chores. For he knows women love to be watched by the man of the house even when they pretend to want to be alone, and he recognises his deficit in this matter. He will do it again in the evening, watch them come up from the garden with some leaves of sweet cabbage, or go into the bush for kindling. The important thing is that Alois sits properly upright on the mud foundation around his sleeping room and be seen to be seeing what is going on in his home. Once in a while, as he watches, he will throw out a word of encouragement or surprise the women with a joke. “Mai Kuda! There’s this story people are saying about that Government Minister, the one who died.” Mai Kuda will look up in astonishment and for once a spark of interest will flare in her eyes. Alois will continue, “They say that Minister went to see his mother one day. She was watching the television, but when the Minister walked into the room and saw what the old woman was doing, he began to cry. ‘Mai!’ he sobs, watching the television, with water running down his cheeks like that. ‘Mai, everyone laughs at me!’ ‘Why do they do that?’ the mother asks. She cannot believe that anyone can laugh at her son, the Minister. ‘They say I am the ugliest brute that ever lived,’ the Minister replies. ‘The TV is always showing the ministers, so the people see me and are always laughing!’ His mother dries her son’s tears and says, ‘Don’t worry about that, my son!’” Just as she turns back to the television the news begins and the same Minister comes on. “There!” the mother tells her son triumphantly. “Didn’t I tell you? You can’t be uglier than him, my son, the one who has just come onto television!” Alois can see the little family, all three of them, laughing out in the yard. Nevertheless, as he takes leave of Baba Jo, thanks him for the beer, and starts towards home, Alois cannot keep his hopeful mood up. Instead, he fills with doubt. The two women have no idea how much it takes a man to simply live these days. Day after day he must go on, keep breathing, tasting, hearing, seeing and knowing. He does so every day, but nobody recognises this feat of endurance. Will they recognise he is doing it for the three of them this afternoon, when he begins his new plan? The frustration stirs up the Shake-Shake in his stomach so that its strength doubles. By the time Alois sinks his feet into the sand of the river-bed and pulls them out, he feels more drunk than his plan allows. Alois Madya feels each step he takes over the stony road. But his feet have grown rubbery and the stones have grown bigger since he walked to the bar. They fool him with their new dimensions and trip him but do not

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F I C T I O N hurt him. Alois tries to remember. Do the boulders do that every time he walks from the bar? He gets up again and again, ranting at the stones that deceive him by shrinking back to their pre-fall size. When they have done this, they mock him with their smallness. Alois tells himself he will not be like the Government Minister: he will not cry. He will make it home without tears even though his daughter does not respect him, and his wife likes him so little she has not taken her daughter to task about the way Kuda behaves. All Mrs. Madya has bothered to do is to give her daughter a few half-hearted admonitions: “Hear what your father says. After all he is the man of this house!” The afternoon air is hot on the short coils of Alois’ hair. The shafts drive the heat to the roots and deep into his skull. There it shimmers and scorches like the sun on the hard village ground. The glare blinds him. In the yard at the Madya home, Kuda is standing by the dish rack. Fingers of pale grass push out of the ground around the girl’s feet, nurtured in some fashion by the soapy water and bits of sadza the women throw out of the tub when they have finished washing the dishes. She is bent over another young person. Kuda’s fingers work busily and expertly in the other girl’s hair. Alois enters his homestead and sees his daughter. He commands the ground to be still and it obeys him. Alois finds he can plant his feet firmly apart. He nails his centre of gravity to the air. The air holds. Alois does not topple. He stares at his daughter. “Kuda!” says Alois. The young woman does not move. “Kuda!” Alois says again. When his daughter does not look at him, Alois succeeds in raising his right arm, but the finger at the end of it disobeys him and droops down limply. Kuda’s companion steals a glance around her friend’s body and giggles. It is that girl Tabitha. She is wearing the yellow dress. “Iwe!” Kuda reprimands Tabitha with a tug on the extension she is plaiting. Kuda looks her father over without raising her head. His trousers are dry. Kuda sighs. She dares not tell him Tabitha will pay her a dollar for doing her hair so that she has a hair style worthy of the dress from the flea markets in Mozambique that the lorry driver brought in. Kuda is afraid her father will want the money. If he says, “give it to me,” she will have to do so. But she wishes he would take more interest in what she and her mother do to keep the home running. She gives her mother money for food. She is also saving to buy her father something. Perhaps for Christmas. She thinks it should be a cell phone, like Ba’Jo has. “What are you doing! You’re hurting me!” Tabitha complains. She slaps at Kuda’s legs too hard for play, too softly to hurt, somewhere in-between. Kuda relents towards her father. “Good afternoon, Baba” she says. Her eyes are a tight, thin sheet of metal, through which nothing leaks.

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“Who is that?”says Alois, although he knows well it is Tabitha. Kuda does not answer her father, nor does she tell him what she is thinking. She is wondering whether her father is right. Since Tabitha disappeared with the truck driver in the morning and came back demanding and getting a dress, Kuda is not so sure of the young woman she walks with. She has asked Tabitha to bring more young women to have their hair done, from the other side of the Business Centre where Tabitha lives. Tabitha has promised to bring many, but has not brought anyone, not even Clarissa with whom she works. Kuda is thinking about ending the friendship. Alois approaches his daughter. He picks up a brick when he is halfway there. “Kuda!” Alois says again. “Everyone knows you do not respect your father. You play with people who laugh at me. You do not respect what I tell you.” “Everyone is asking about this respect,” replies Kuda. She remains bent over Tabitha’s hair. “They are saying, who can say anyone should be respected? They are even saying there is no use in any of that respect thing, because what is it? Can you taste it? Is it nice? Can you eat it?” Alois strikes Kuda on the head with the brick. Kuda falls down, struggling feebly. Alois drops to his knees beside her. He brings the brick down on his daughter’s head again and again. Tabitha runs to the kitchen rondavel to call Mrs. Madya. Mrs. Madya comes out and understands what is taking place. She sits down on the raised foundation around the kitchen in silence. Tremors run silently through Mai Kuda’s body. Finally Kuda makes no sound and does not move. Although he promised himself he will not cry, Alois takes his daughter’s head onto his lap. He cradles the girl’s head and stretches out his legs. Kuda’s mother sits silently. Alois cries. He cannot stop.

Novelist, playwright, activist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga wrote her first novel, Nervous Conditions, at the age of twenty-five, hailed by Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. She published her second novel, The Book of Not, in 2006. Her third novel, A Mournable Body, is forthcoming. She is currently writing Sai-Sai, Watermaker, a dystopic speculative fiction for young adults. Critically acclaimed, her films and literature have received various international awards.

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F I C T I O N

Siddhartha Deb

Schlumberger

I

n the first month of his move, Kabir took refuge in War and Peace. It was the one novel his sister had left behind. But even Tolstoy’s voluminous work could only last him so long, and eventually he had to venture into the town he had found himself in, the town that his parents had chosen, it seemed, with utter arbitrariness, to live in, the town where he would remain until he got into college somewhere, many months from now, or the town he would live in until he grew old and it was time to die. He began exploring the place, walking along the haphazard arrangement of muddy streets, warehouses, markets, and tropical vegetation. He felt as if he had stepped into a time warp of sorts, into a town that was an island unto itself. He was desperate for signs that the place belonged to the rest of the world, but it did not seem to be part of anything. No bookstores, no music stores, no restaurants, no tea stalls, no Calle Eklund/Vivo cinema halls, no libraries, no parks, no cricket playgrounds, no pretty girls—nothing that could give pleasure to a young man. What did people do with themselves here? Everything was seemingly unchanged from a hundred years ago. And yet everything was unpredictable, from when cooking gas cylinders would be available to when bank payments would be made. After weeks of walking around the town, Kabir had found only one thing that did not seem to belong with anything else in the town, a single item that was mysterious, foreign, and a little menacing. It was a tower visible beyond the edge of the town, a tower that rose out of the trees and distant farming plots that surrounded the settlement. It was sleek-looking, painted an industrial white. It resembled a chemical tank in an oil refinery or one of those grain silos they had in the American west and that were unheard of in India, as far as he knew, especially in this part of India where the peasants still harvested paddy with handheld sickles on tiny plots of land that could barely sustain them. Yet here in this place there was a tower that looked like a rocket—minus the sharp nose. It changed the sleepy landscape around it, the timeless town he found himself wandering in. It was mysteriously, menacingly, deliciously alien. This was not just because it was a modern, sleek-looking tower, although even that might have been enough. It was because on the white background of the tower, painted symmetrically and efficiently in blue letters, was a single, undoubtedly foreign, word: SCHLUMBERGER.


Kabir took to going running early in the morning, around dawn when the sun and the humidity had not yet had time to overwhelm everyone and everything. He ran out of the town, as if he were running away from it, and he ran towards the tower. He ran past unpaved drains, past ramshackle huts made of mud and thatch, past the carcasses of old jeeps and buses being repaired at evil-smelling workshops that lay in cesspits of engine oil and foul rags, and as he ran, in front of him stayed that tower with the single word, SCHLUMBERGER. Over the days and weeks, Kabir increased his distance. He took to carrying water to drink as well as money for a cup of tea and a shingara at one of the roadside shacks for when he needed a break. He began running past chickens and goats and cows and pigs, past paddy fields and warehouses and plantations, and he got closer and closer. As he got nearer, the trees began blocking off his view of the tower. The word SCHLUMBERGER became SCHLUMBERG, then SCHLUMB, then SCHLUM. He was running longer and longer distances, but even though he had reduced the word to SCHL, the tower itself was still beyond reach. In his sleep, he sometimes saw it rising over the fields, looming over the town, the tower peering back at him at night even as he peered at it in the morning. LUMBERGER, UMBERGER, it boomed and echoed in his sleep.

§ He had to turn his mind to other things, like applying to colleges in mainland India, a college in a big city where he would have more to do with his life than running every morning towards a tower with a foreign word painted on it. Kabir tried to find a Xerox shop where he could have his high school certificates photocopied. But although Kabir looked everywhere, it seemed that the technology was yet to arrive in this town. Then, one day he found a shop, a hybrid of a distributor for newspapers and a photo studio that claimed in its window, with a sign so small as to be almost invisible, “XEROX.” Kabir, who was carrying his certificate, went in. There was indeed a photocopying machine inside, but it was curious looking, kept in the darkest corner of the very dark shop. If it had not been so large, Kabir suspected, the dhoti-clad owner would have denied that he had a photocopying machine. But he saw Kabir eyeing it and he reluctantly admitted, as if under oath in court, that he did have Xeroxing facilities. The price he quoted for making copies was exorbitant, and even then he insisted that Kabir should not expect the copies to be perfectly accurate. He made it sound as if he would be copying the certificate out by hand in some act of delicate calligraphy, but Kabir was so intrigued by now that he insisted on getting five copies. The man took the certificate with a show of ill temper. He held it gingerly and placed it somewhere inside the cavernous machine. Kabir tried to peer over his back, looking at the array of levers and pulleys, wondering where the electric connection was and how the man could possibly know what he was doing in the dark.

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F I C T I O N There was a sudden explosion of noises and light. A rumbling sound filled the room and a fluorescent white light began pulsating in the darkest corner of the dark store. Kabir felt the floor shaking beneath him. It was as if he was looking not at a photocopier but at a homemade time-machine that would spin him and the dhoti-clad man round and round before spitting them out into some other century. When the copy emerged, the owner gave Kabir the sheet and bent down to clean his machine with a rag. He caressed it with the cloth as if it were a sick child or pet, a loved creature that had been forced to exert itself beyond its capacity, and all because of Kabir’s unreasonable demand for getting his certificate copied. Finally, he turned and looked inquiringly at Kabir. “But,” Kabir said, “you can hardly read anything. I can barely make out my own name.” “It won’t do, then?” “Of course it won’t do,” Kabir replied. “You can’t see anything in this copy. It’s hard to know what it’s a copy of.” The man let out a suppressed but distinct sigh of relief. It was as if he had expected no other answer, as if his photocopying service was more a litmus test of faith than a routine transaction. Kabir was about to throw the barely legible copy into the waste basket, but the man grabbed the sheet of paper back from him. Kabir watched with astonishment as he took a wet rag and wiped the faint print off the sheet and returned the paper carefully to the pile he had taken it from. Then he went around the counter and pulled out what looked like a bedsheet. This he proceeded to drape over the photocopying machine. When he had finished, he took the sign, XEROX, from the window and put it deep down under the counter. When Kabir had left the shop and crossed the street, he turned to make sure that it was still there. It was still there, with its old wedding photographs and its advertisements for pocket cameras, but it no longer displayed the sign that had said “XEROX.” He saw the owner looking at him from the doorway, his expression inscrutable. Kabir turned and began walking back home. In the distance, the tower rose into the sky. From here, he could read the entire word, SCHLUMBERGER.

Born in northeastern India, Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and The Beautiful and the Damned, a work of narrative nonfiction that was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award. He is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Society of Authors in the UK, the Nation Institute, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University, and the Howard Foundation at Brown University. His journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times,The New Republic, The Baffler, The Nation, n+1, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is a columnist for the "Bookends" section of The New York Times Book Review.

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F I C T I O N

Sunetra Gupta

The Still Room

New Line Cinema

H

e said he would meet me at the train station in Montauk, and indeed there he was, dressed as I had seen him many times before in a worn, waxed jacket and jeans, a cap covering much of his face but the hair spilling out from its edges a final, resolute silver rather than the grey that I had once known. His face had not altered much; it was not an old face yet, and the eyes were still that piercing blue that could catch and toss a person’s worth up into the skies and straight down to the scrubby earth before they knew what was happening to them. We embraced and took stock of each other. Well, well, haven't you grown up to be a pretty lady, he said. Buick, I'm almost forty-two years old, I reminded him. Well, I'm poised to be sixty-five in the summer, he said back. And what has your wife planned for you this time, I wondered, remembering that it was a fiftieth birthday present from her that had brought him to the remote island in the Inner Hebrides where I first made his acquaintance. An exclusive shooting holiday— just the six of them, all experienced hunters—hosted by the Laird himself in his elegant Georgian home, with a five-course meal promised every evening after a strenuous day of hunting and fine whiskies before roaring fires to close the day. Sometimes, and I don’t know why except that perhaps I still wish to be kind to him for no apparent reason, I see him perusing the brochure—Tobias Buick, just turned fifty—I see him turning it over and over in his beautiful long hands and wondering how it came into his wife’s head that this was what he would prefer to be doing at that time of the year instead of spending Labor Day weekend with his brother in Montana. But he would not have had the heart, then, to tell her so. And so he had come, Tobias Buick, without many expectations, on his bespoke shooting holiday in Scotland. There was a car waiting to pick them up at Glasgow Airport,


F I C T I O N and he had found, to his surprise, that his companions were perfectly agreeable. They were all older than him mostly, by at least a decade. Their love of hunting appeared neither an affectation nor an excuse to absent themselves regularly from their families; they were who they were and nothing else. They had pale ales on the ferry and were met at the harbour by their host, Harry Lindsay, and before long he was whistling to himself as he unpacked his bags in the room he had been assigned in the grand old manor—nicely proportioned if not very large and with a good view of the walled garden. There was a bathroom for his exclusive use and time enough for a decent soak before dinner in the deep old tub it contained. I can certainly live with this, he must have thought, as he slipped his broad frame into the warm water. He had even taken the risk of scenting it with the charmingly masculine bath salts that he had found by the pile of very precisely folded towels on the slatted wooden bench under the window. I can most certainly endure this for a week, he had thought, as he dressed himself in his new heavy-structured salmon-coloured shirt and jeans, and took himself down the stairs to see what else was there to please him. First, in the hallway, he encountered a painting of a woman standing very straight, dressed in tweed, a dog by her side. Her expression intrigued him, full of barely submerged resolve. Was this not the woman he had been looking for all his life? Who can you be, and how long have you been dead? he had enquired silently of her. Harry Lindsay walked in, dangling a pair of rowlocks from his heavy fingers. That’s my grandmother, he said. I am deeply in love with her, Tobias Buick had confessed. She had that effect on a lot of people, said Harry, now come into the kitchen and get yourself a cup of tea. Buick followed Harry through a curved corridor into a large room which had only recently been converted into a kitchen from a billiards room, where upon the repurposed billiard table—baize ripped off and slate exposed, rail cushions uprooted—I was vainly attempting to make a mayonnaise sauce to accompany the grilled lobsters we were serving that evening. Do you want me to help you with that? he asked me, observing that I was making little progress. I'd be most grateful, I replied. He took the bowl from me and poured in a quantity of extra-virgin olive oil from the bottle that was standing on the dresser. I was instructed to use that sparingly, I told him. And what instead? he asked. I showed him the bottle of sunflower oil that I had been given, and he laughed. That would never work, he said. I know nothing about cooking, I confessed to him. And why would you? Being—I'm guessing—from such a part of the world where meals are served to you and briskly cleared away afterwards, I bet you had never actually stepped into a kitchen until you came to this country for whatever reason that brought you here.

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That's certainly true. And where is it that you come from then? he persevered. I'm from Calcutta, I told him. You know, you don't sound Indian. I lived in Canada until I was ten years old. I suppose I retain some of that accent. Canada, he said wistfully, I wish Canada would claim me. Whatever for? I was born and raised not far from the Canadian border. I did not understand what that could have to do with it but decided not to probe any further. You seem to be making progress with the mayonnaise, I said instead. Taste it, he said, offering me the bowl. It's very good, I confirmed, just a bit more salt perhaps. The name's Buick by the way, Tobias Buick, he said, suddenly aware that no introductions had yet been made. The poet? How did you know? I did my homework, I replied. They don't teach me at school in Calcutta, then? No, but I do recall reading something about you in SPAN about ten years ago. SPAN? It's a United States Information Service publication, possibly unique to India. You were in a feature on upcoming American poets. I suppose I might have been upcoming then, he conceded. But not anymore. I've still a long way to go. To get where? To get where I want to get, he had said.

§ How long has it been? asks Buick. Fifteen years? Something like that, I reply. And what have you been doing with yourself all this while? Plying my trade, I suppose. Successfully? I can't complain. And, indeed, I cannot, for we make a very decent living in Delhi as artists, my husband and I, far better than we had ever expected when we decided to commit to the profession. Our son has the advantage of being the only grandchild of two retired men of ample means—both still living in Calcutta—whose primary sport is now to compete in furnishing him with an ideal upbringing, so we have been spared some of the anxieties that having a child on such an uncertain income could have brought. Both had been keen to take the boy for his summer holidays when I was offered, at rather short notice, a

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F I C T I O N residency in New York, the artist originally chosen for it having suffered a nervous breakdown. I was reluctant, however, to send him to my father-inlaw as I did not trust the servants there; I once caught the cook holding an ice-lolly under a tap to get rid of some insect stuck on it and had only just managed to stop him returning it to my son. I’d rather he’d swallowed a fly than the germ-filled sludge of those ancient water pipes. So it is with my father that my son is staying, although it has been agreed my father-in-law will take him for lunch and a swim at his club every day. My father does not have a membership at any of the clubs; my mother would never have allowed it. I'm glad you don't have much in the way of bags, says Buick, we're travelling by motorbike, I'm afraid. We only have one car between us at the moment. Melissa's broke down as she was driving back from the city yesterday. I'm used to motorbikes, I tell him. Not this kind surely, he says with absurd pride as his Harley comes into view. I think of the trivial machines on which I rode side-saddle in a sari all through the 80s, clinging on to the various young men who felt it their privilege to transport me this way through the streets of Calcutta. No, I've never been on anything remotely like this, I confess to Buick. He slings my bags into some kind of luggage rack and then pats the seat that he expects me to mount. Aficionados of this vehicle call this the bitch pad, he says. Charming, I reply. I thought it might amuse you, he says almost apologetically. It doesn't offend me at any rate. Of course, you're above all that, aren't you? he says.

§

We do not attempt to converse as we speed along the deserted road, I have not been in such close proximity to him since that last day on the island when he carried me across the strand because my shoes were thin canvas and the tide was coming in fast. I still remember that great grief of his thudding against me as he bore me towards dry land, for he had just come to realize that his feelings for Harry’s sister, Serena, were not of the ordinary kind that he experienced on his many travels away from home, and to which he had already mastered the art of making concessions. Certainly, his breath had been taken away by the sight of her, her copper hair loose, entering with a bag of subdued crustaceans into the kitchen where he was helping me make mayonnaise, but at the time he had simply catalogued her beauty among all the other elements of the trip that were turning out to be very much more satisfactory than he had hoped. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to meet you when you arrived, she had said. The oyster-man was drunk when I got there and I had to wait for his wife to come and get him all sober again. And then Harry forgot the lobsters!

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Buick smiled. Our fault—we distracted him. I’m very sorry, he said. You are Tobias Buick, aren’t you? said Serena. I recognise your voice from a reading I heard of yours on radio. I am, indeed. And who are you besides Harry’s sister? She held out her hand, Serena Moncrieff, she said. He shook it, then took the bag of lobsters from the other. Where should I put these? he asked. Oh, anywhere. They’ll be cooked in the next hour. My goodness, when will I have time to change for dinner? Should I change for dinner? asked Buick. She eyed his salmon shirt and jeans with a certain amusement. As you wish, she said. I’ll go and put something a bit smarter on, said Buick. He raised his hand in some form of temporary farewell and disappeared. Serena looked around her in a state of high tension. Where is everybody? she asked me. Don’t worry, I told her, Sylvia has everything under control. Sylvia had been hired to do the cooking, and two young women were to come every evening to help her and serve the food, but they also ran the island shop and could not get away until they had closed up. Where is Sylvia then? asked Serena. She’s gone to pick some wild garlic for the salad, I replied. How utterly unnecessary! Anyway, I must go and make myself decent. Could you, my darling, start sorting out the champagne? Of course. If you tell me which glasses to use. I hope this is not too much hard work for you, she said. I didn’t realise it would be so chaotic. Not at all, I assured her. I am so very grateful you are here, said Serena. She kissed me on the cheek and disappeared. I wondered whether I was expected to wear something more elegant to dinner. I could have brought some saris up with me if Serena had warned me. It had all happened in such a rush, a last minute desperate request from Harry to help him out, his volatile Italian wife who usually took on the role of hostess to the shooting party having packed her bags and left after some domestic dispute. My brother’s in a bit of pickle, Serena had said to me. He needs me to come up to help him look after a party of Americans who are coming to shoot on the estate. I was wondering if you might come with me? To Scotland? You'll love it, my darling, she said. It's a magical place—and if you want to paint, there’s my old studio in the Still Room. And indeed, I did spend much of the day there in the Still Room, so called because at one time it would have held the apparatus for distilling essences and cordials, I was told when I asked about its original purpose. It was also where the house-keeper and the Still Room maid would have prepared pot pourri, preserved fruit, and made tea and coffee. Its high windows let in a perfect light, and in one corner, Serena’s easel still stood, and there were tubes of old paint in boxes that gave a smell of old theatre make-up,

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F I C T I O N some caked solid but others still serviceable. The room was mainly given over, however, to the drawing and plucking of the dead birds, some of which would be frozen and internationally freighted back to the hunters’ homes at their own great expense. A young man from the butcher’s came in every morning to do the job, but I did not mind his presence. I made several sketches of the piles of game that he would take over to hang in the shed, bringing back those birds that had been hanging already for varying lengths of time to clean and prepare for either immediate consumption or storage. We worked together in comfortable silence. For some reason the smell did not bother me, and I had even an idea to ask him for some entrails to draw when suddenly Serena had to return to London because her youngest daughter had broken her arm falling off a swing. She left, handing me her duties, just forty-eight hours to make sure that nothing went wrong, and nothing did except that my shoes were too thin to walk back across the strand after visiting the ruins of the priory that lay beyond, an excursion that had been scheduled that afternoon for those who wanted a break from hunting and for which Buick had opted, no doubt in the hope that this would give him some time with Serena. My shoes were too thin and he carried me across, a broken man. How I trusted in his emotions then, and how strongly they would frame my expectations of my own life thereafter, how religiously they would command my attention, long after he himself had forgotten what the whole thing was about.

§ It does not take long to reach Buick’s house. It is not by the shore as I had expected; no, it is entirely inland. It is pleasant enough to look at, despite its shingles, which I have always abhorred. We draw up by the porch, and he helps me dismount. Melissa must still be at her yoga class, he says, gesturing towards the empty carport. I wonder how it will be to meet her, Melissa Wheeler, Buick’s childhood sweetheart and wife of over forty years. I remember the photograph that Buick had taken out of his wallet to show me of her as we sat by the fire with our glasses of brandy after that first dinner on the island. He had eagerly shown me a photograph of his beautiful blonde-haired wife. He told me that she was a very successful therapist, that it was on her income that they had first barely survived and now lived in considerable comfort, dividing their time between the Manhattan apartment that she had inherited when her mother died and a little house in Long Island that they had just purchased for him to get away from the city and write. Your turn now to tell me about yourself. How is it that you find yourself here? he had asked me, putting her photograph back in his wallet. I told him that I had come to London on scholarship to study for a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art, that I was lodging with Serena in their house in Notting Hill under an arrangement they offered of free accommodation in exchange for help with childcare in the evenings and school holidays.

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And do they treat you well? Of course they do. Are the children here? No, they are with their father in London. Glad to hear that. I hate children. Well then it’s a good thing Harry’s are away at boarding school. And where is Harry’s beautiful Italian wife? How do you know that he has an Italian wife? The brochure is full of pictures of her—a big selling point, clearly. Well she’s had to go to Milan very suddenly—and don’t ask me why, because I don’t know—which is why Serena and I have come up to help Harry. Surely that is not part of your contract! No, but I have always wanted to see the house where Serena grew up, this island. She talks about it all the time… So you have become close friends, then? said Buick, allowing his gaze to drift over to where Serena sat, conversing with a man from Texas called Harris, twisting her copper hair in her tired fingers. We watched as she choked briefly on her whisky, which caused Mr. Harris to give her a generous thump on her back. Did you enjoy the Harris pat? I asked her as she came over to say goodnight. What a very educated girl you are, said Buick, after Serena had passed on to the next guest. I grew up listening to Cole Porter. My mother is a big fan. Your mother? In Calcutta? She is a professor of music, I told him with pride. And is she musical herself? She sings. Cole Porter? No, only Tagore songs. Tagore wrote songs? A whole thick volume of them. As well as poetry? And drama, and novels, and essays—he painted as well… But I may as well have been speaking to an earless mute, for in that moment Serena set down her tumbler with a thud, kissed her brother on his bald head, gave a final wave to the rest of us, and then was gone. And Buick looked on as she turned into the corridor, he looked and looked, as if he had suddenly come to some awful realisation like she was the woman whose dog he had accidentally run over, and I sat watching him, my heart already beginning to break in spite of a strong desire to also ridicule him, in spite of my mother’s voice echoing in my head telling me to beware of him, to beware of his feelings towards her, so easily formed, and as easily likely to be dispersed. You’re not leaving? he said to me as I got up to go. I’m very tired, I told him. But weren’t we about to drink to something?

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F I C T I O N What? I don’t know, Cole Porter? Tagore? Tomorrow, perhaps. Tomorrow then, said Buick collecting himself. Tomorrow, I repeated, suddenly fearful of what the day would bring.

§ Buick takes my bag from my hands, I'll show you your room, he says. I follow him up two flights of stairs. What do you have in here? Your grandmother’s ashes? he asks, surprised by the weight of my small holdall. Much worse than that, I promise him. He opens the door into a cheerful attic room furnished in various shades of white and hung with old photographs. I stop before them, fascinated. My mother, he points out to me straight away, rubbing his fingers along the edge of the frame. And this? I ask. Our house in Cheektowaga, he says. That’s the town near the Canadian border? Canada, he says, spitting the word like bitter seeds from his mouth, I’m through with Canada. What do you mean? Canada has been fucking with my mind from the day I was born, he says. Really? Anyway, I may have been born in Cheektowaga, but my mother ran off with a guy from Florida when I was about six years old, and she took me and my brother with her, so that’s where I was really raised. Florida? I repeat, feeling confused. He has never mentioned Florida before. Now, don’t you get all dismissive about Florida, he replies. I just about cut my teeth on everything there in Pensacola, including poetry. I try to imagine Buick as a boy with a poetry book in his hands and cannot—when did you know you wanted to be a poet? I ask him. Oh, I’m not sure I ever thought I would be anything, says Buick. It was Melissa who convinced me I should be a poet; she said I put words together like nobody could. She lived in the house next door to my father’s in Cheektowaga, and I only saw her when I went to visit in the summer. My god, how passionately infatuated I was with her. I didn’t dare tell her, though. She was taller than me then and just so beautiful, and the town guys were flocking to her already, and I just stood by gaping. We were good friends, and that was all as far as she was concerned, spent every minute of our time together, a lot of it on the water, and then one summer—the summer that I was sixteen—I went up to Cheektowaga as usual and she was not there. They had moved and I did not know where. It took me three years to track her down, and by then she was a freshman at Bryn

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Mawr. I always knew she was smart, but didn’t know just how smart. Anyway, there I was aimlessly working my way through college in Florida and Melissa was at this fancy school getting fantastic grades and wowing everybody. I didn’t know whether I had a chance, but I told her straight off that I wanted to marry her, and marry her I did the summer after we’d finished college. She knew by then what she wanted to do and I did not—so she told me, you should be a poet, Tobias, she said. You should be a poet. All of this I have already heard before, or read in various shapes and forms among the interviews he was so fond of giving, always experiencing a sense of utter disbelief that but for Melissa Wheeler, to whom he had given his heart at the age of thirteen, he might never have been a poet at all, might have ended up working in a filling station in Pensacola for all we know. We hear a car rumble into the driveway—that’ll be Melissa, says Buick. You come back down when you are ready. I won't be too long, I assure him. He smiles. You know it is so good to see you, he says as he leaves, gently closing the door behind him.

§ I fling myself upon the bed and lie there for a while, inhaling its fragrance. I can see, through a small window, the red shed beyond the orchard where he writes these days—Tobias Buick, inclined more and more towards his words as a sensitive carpenter would be to pieces of wood floating up towards him from great and unknown depths, and producing in the end a thing of such cleverness and beauty that angels would weep to pass their hands over such a surface. Fifteen years ago, his poems had rougher edges to them, small splinters that would drive under your nails. I don’t like them at all, Selkirk has pronounced as we sat reading them together on the sofa in the kitchen of the Moncrieffs’ house in London. He had borrowed a copy from the Bodleian on my request and had arrived with it from Oxford that afternoon to take over the feeding of their various pets. Serena was already on the island, and her husband had gone to fetch their daughters from their grandmother’s house near Toulouse. I had stayed behind to look after the animals, and her cousin Selkirk had agreed to fill in the gap between my departure and their return. Selkirk and I had become good friends in the eight months since I had first met him on New Year's Eve, having just flown in from Calcutta on that sort of extraordinarily cheap ticket that obliges you to spend the very last day of the year on an aeroplane. I stood on the doorstep of the house in Notting Hill, already feeling homesick, wishing I was still sitting with my mother at the dining table and talking late into the night, the fish curry that she had so quickly rustled up after we'd returned from the theatre drying on our fingers, and my father emitting occasional sounds from the sitting room to encourage us to wash our hands and join him in watching the sports highlights of the day. I stood on the doorstep, wondering if anyone could

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F I C T I O N hear me knock above the noise within, when the door was opened by a man with curly black hair, wearing eyeliner. Are you the cook from Osaka? he asked. No, I am not the cook from Osaka, I said. Oh, how annoying, he said. Nonetheless, he took my suitcase from me and offered me a glass of champagne from the tray that stood unattended on the table in the hallway. I stood there in my ill-fitting overcoat, hesitating for some reason to accept the drink. Well, take it, he urged me. You certainly bloody look like you need it. I've just spent most part of a day in the Moscow airport, I told him. Then at least you won't mind how atrocious the hors-d'oevres are, said Selkirk, politely shooing away a waiter who had suddenly appeared with a slab of slate, carrying various contortions of pickled beetroot upon its pitted surface. I was hoping you might be the cook from Osaka, he continued. I was promised sushi; I would not have come otherwise. I’m Serena’s cousin. I hardly ever see her these days, but she always invites me to her parties, even though she knows I can't bear them. Another hired hand appeared with a vessel of pasteurised almonds. Selkirk waved him away as well. I'm hungry, you know, I protested. The only meal I've had in the last twenty-four hours is what my voucher afforded me in Sheremetyevo 1. Where were you flying from? asked Selkirk. Calcutta, I told him. I spent the first six years of my life in Calcutta, he announced proudly. Really? Yes, really. How extraordinary. Never been back since, though. Where do you live now? In Oxford. And what do you do there? Nothing exciting. Oh, come on. I’m tired and jetlagged, and I’m actually genuinely interested in what you do. I’m an evolutionary biologist, said Selkirk. In those days, he held a much coveted fellowship and had few teaching duties, and his ability to produce brilliant papers upon a single afternoon of thought left him with ample time to do anything he liked—read and go to the theatre, temporarily take up Buddhism, participate in police lineups, regularly drink enough alcohol to indulge in such dramatic deeds as covering the Conservative Club on Iffley Road in red paint. In a few years, all this would change, he would gain a permanent post and crumple under the strain of tutoring, resign his position and move to Edinburgh, where further catastrophes would eventually occur, but in 1995 he was still in delicious limbo, and I often found myself heading to Oxford on nights when

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Serena could spare me, or being dragged by him to some lecture somewhere in London where there would be free drinks afterwards, and the oddly restorative company of those of his fellow professionals whom he could abide. You must be joking, Selkirk had said when I had told him that I had agreed to go up to Scotland to help Serena play hostess to a party of middleaged American hunters. I’m not joking, I assured him. Are you out of your mind? You will hate them all—you will hate Harry, I can guarantee it you will hate him at least as much as I hate him, and you will hate these Americans, these takers of live quarry… There is one among them in whom I am interested, I had told him. Whatever for? He is a poet. How do you know? I have heard of him. Perhaps it’s just someone who shares his name? Perhaps. But you are going anyway? I want to help Serena. That’s why I am going. You’re obsessed with her, he said. So are you, I replied. She is my cousin. I love her. Anyway, can you borrow some of his books for me from the library? Whose books? The poet. What poet? The one whose shoes I might possibly be cleaning next week. Oh, that one—what’s he called? Tobias Buick. Not a bad name, Selkirk had conceded.

§ But Selkirk had not liked Buick’s poems. There’s something suspicious about them, something phony, he had said as we sat reading them together in Serena’s kitchen. I did not agree. I like how they move towards utter kitsch and then suddenly withdraw. I like the risks he takes, I told him. They are careful, calculated risks. Isn’t all of good literature a careful risk? Careful, perhaps, but not calculated, said Selkirk. He stood up suddenly from the sofa where we were sitting in Serena’s kitchen and assumed a partially yogic pose. My mother’s just sent me some money for my birthday, he said. Let’s go out to dinner. That’s very kind of you, but there’s plenty of food here that needs to be eaten, I replied. Fine, then, I’ll go out and get some serious booze, said Selkirk.

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F I C T I O N He had returned with various bottles, including one of moderately expensive champagne. We need to celebrate, he said. After all it’s not everyday that one gets introduced to a lousy American poet… He did win the Pulitzer Prize last year, I reminded Selkirk. Selkirk snorted and raised his glass. To Tobias Buick, he said. To Tobias Buick, and the town of Cheektowaga, Selkirk continued. Cheektowaga? Where he was born, or so it says on his book covers. I see. To the town of Cheektowaga for producing such a genius! To Cheektowaga, I echoed, suddenly in the mood. We drank far too much that evening, and none of the three different alarm clocks I had set for the following morning managed to wake me. When I did finally open my eyes, I realized straight away that it was too late to get to the airport in time. Selkirk, I said to him, shaking him awake from where he had fallen into deep slumber on one of the children’s beds, wake up—I’ve missed my flight. I don’t know what to do. I need to be at the ferry terminal in Oban by five o’clock today. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll drive you there. Drive me to Oban? Yes, I will. Now? Yes, starting right now or we’ll never make it, he said rubbing his eyes and looking at the nursery clock. Well, I’m certainly all packed. Just make me some coffee, will you, and then I’ll be ready to go. I made a strong pot for both of us and packed a precautionary flask. I also took some of the cold cuts we were supposed to have eaten the evening before and threw them into a plastic bag in case we needed to eat on the hoof, so to speak. Right, let’s go, he said, downing his coffee in one rapid gulp. What is it like up there? I asked him, as we sped along the motorway in his wholly untrustworthy vehicle. Haven’t been for years, he said, his eyes fixed on the endless road. Did you fall out with Harry? Not directly, but we never got on really. After my grandmother died, I used to go up to them for my holidays. Then you know it well? There are parts of that island that no one knows as well as I do. I had a desire, you see, to make my name by the discovery of a new species of insect or plant unique to the island. I used to bring back all these specimens and they let me have a room to store them in. It was where Serena had all her painting things, and we would be at work together with the rain pouring outside, me writing down my natural history notes in the old game ledger that my uncle had bequeathed to me, and her painting away. That was when Serena was still Serena and was destined for other things than to marry that Moncrieff man.

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You did not find your new species? I did not, says Selkirk, but I amassed a great many splendid things. We reached Oban, rather miraculously, with half an hour to go before the ferry sailed. What will you do now? I asked Selkirk as he stood with me in line, waiting to board. Don’t worry about me, he said. It was clear he did not want to talk, yet he would not simply say goodbye and leave either, just stood waiting with me, gazing into the maw of the big ferry that he had once regularly taken himself to the island, all those school holidays and long summers, while his mother picked up the pieces of her life that she was in the regular habit of smashing apart mercifully somewhere else. He had been ashamed of her then, of the life that she lived, of her blowsy good looks that caught the attention of so many undesirable men, and that had, indeed, in youth captured the heart of his own father—a bachelor man in his fifties, living in Calcutta, still loyally serving the company he had joined before Independence, a quiet man who kept his connections to the minor Scottish aristocracy well hidden, neatly folded in his sock drawer. How he had suddenly come to take this woman as his wife was a mystery, but he had been happy with her in the seven years they were together. But then he had suffered a fatal heart attack, and Selkirk and his mother had returned to England where he had been promptly dispatched to boarding school, and his mother had gratefully returned to her former life. How wonderful it had been to be able to come to the island where his father’s cousin Robert Lindsay commanded a large estate, to roam at will upon its magic shores and heathlands and unexpected bogs, their faithful hounds often at his side. Selkirk’s father, William, had grown up in this house, for Thomas Lindsay had allowed his sister Amelia, Selkirk’s grandmother, to return to them with her infant son after the impoverished schoolmaster she had run off with had died of TB within a year of seducing her. Amelia had served as a sort of secretary to Thomas for several years, and then as a nanny to Robert when he was born, but eventually she had quarrelled with Thomas’s wife and taken a job as a lady’s companion in Edinburgh, and William had left to work for a steam navigation company in Calcutta. Selkirk had never heard of these relatives until his grandmother died. All through her funeral he had wondered where he would be going afterwards, but then a man had emerged from the crowd of mourners and laid a hand upon his thirteen-year-old shoulders. I am your grandmother’s nephew Robert, he had told him, and you will be coming with me. Selkirk had not known what to expect as they drove off the ferry. Would it be an old farmhouse he was being taken to, or a modern bungalow perhaps? Robert certainly looked and spoke as if he was a man of some means, as far as Selkirk could judge, but when the great Georgian house had come into view, he had gasped, Is that really where you live? he had asked. Yes, said Robert, and that is where your father grew up. I still have many memories of him, being taught to play cricket and going out on boats. I could not understand why he suddenly disappeared from my life. Robert’s wife, Anthea, came out to welcome him, Harry and Serena were still at the seashore with some friends, and over the years he would develop a

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F I C T I O N particular fondness for Anthea, who was endlessly loving and wonderfully quirky and had a beautiful unstructured devotion to the arts. She would drag out their gramophone into the loggia to play preludes from Wagner, or whatever else had particularly taken her fancy, while they took their lunch, and had installed a 32mm projector in the cellar to play films, the reels of which she had delivered regularly and illegally from a friend at the British Film Institute. Everything was provisional. Everything was spontaneous, and even his lack of really belonging there was an oblong asset to him. Selkirk, sitting in the dark before the flickering images of Blow-Up, Alexandra’s warm hair and sweet lips brushing his ear as she whispered silly comments to him, and Harry sitting dutifully upright in front of them, bored out of his brain. Do me a favour, will you, he asked, just as I was about to board the ferry. Look in the back of the bottom drawer of the dresser in the Still Room to see if the jar of seal excrement I put in it is still there? The Still Room? I asked. Yes, that’s what it’s called, he said. Why? How would I know, said Selkirk. I boarded the ferry, and came out onto the deck so that I might wave good bye to him. Selkirk, small now on the ground, shivering in his black jumper, his coat still in the boot of his car, I thought he would go back straight away as I retreated from the cold and went back inside but he did not. From the windows of the ferry I could see him, fixed upon the dock, and I put my face in my hands and wept, overcome not just by fatigue and disbelief but the feeling that I had left him behind. I wept and wept until a kind hand fell upon my shoulder and someone said, don’t worry, my love, it’s not the end of the world.

§ I can hear them talking downstairs and ice tinkling, Tobias and Melissa. I rise from my lovely nest and unzip my case and take out the pen and ink drawing that I have brought, framed in a hurry so as to qualify as a gift. I stare at it for a while and then set it down, take out my toiletry case, and visit the bathroom to make myself presentable before descending to where that cocktail pitcher awaits, with Buick still stirring, stirring, stirring with his old and beautiful hands. And there she is, Melissa, frighteningly well preserved and exuding genuine warmth. I know all about you, honey, she says, offering me a tall glass stacked with mint and ice and certain other significant substances. You should have let us know before that you were going to be in New York. I didn’t have an address, I say to her with a smile, but I found you eventually— How did you? Through X-, I explain to her, naming an old friend of Buick’s. We haven’t seen him in a while, says Melissa. Not since he got famous, says Buick, an uncharacteristic bitterness in his voice. I knew that X- had last year been the recipient of a fairly important prize, but Buick himself had received it twice already, so I could not understand why he should begrudge this to a younger poet who was still very much a champion of his own work. But it’s a good thing that he got famous, insists Melissa.

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It would be a good thing if the poems were any good, says Buick. So why don’t you like them? she asks. Poetry is about paying attention, and these poems pay attention to nothing other than their constituent words, Buick replies. Now, now, says Melissa, it’s too early on in this visit to disagree. You are right, sweetheart, says my host. I hand over my gift to Melissa, unwrapped, but framed. She looks it over and smiles. How very thoughtful of you, she says. It’s nothing, I protest. Just something I felt the urge to draw the other day. Well, it shall take pride of place here, says Melissa, taking down a recent photograph of Buick receiving an honorary degree from a fairly wellknown university. I guess you never liked that photograph, says Buick to his wife as he tosses some scallops in sizzling butter to serve as a starter for our evening meal. It’s the kind of thing that belongs in your study, she says firmly. Well, put it there then, he says gruffly. So I will, she says and walks off with it, her slim legs swinging under her elegant linen trousers. Like a refill? Buick asks. Yes, please, if there’s some left, I answer. Oh plenty left, he says. He comes over and fills my glass and then turns to look at my drawing, established now by his wife in place of the unflattering photograph. He surveys my artwork, first in stunned silence, and then looks back towards me. You fucking bitch, he says lovingly. It is a rough thing, done with pencil, and then run over with pen to declare its firmer qualities, but it is of the Still Room of the house on the island, where he had first dared to lay his hand upon her hand. She whom he had not known for more than forty-eight hours, yet for whom he felt in that moment that he could lay down his life. I had seen his hand edge along on the marble slab where the dead birds lay. I had seen his hand move until it lay painfully close to hers. I had stood petrified in the doorway, having stepped out of my muddy wellingtons already and travelled down the long porch in my socks with the bag of mixed fowl that Harry had instructed me to take over to be sorted and made ready for hanging. They had not heard me come, and I did not know how to leave, and so I stood there watching as he finally took her hand in his and ran his thumb one by one from the base of each of her fingers to its tip, and their eyes prepared to meet. I stood there until—unable to bear it any longer—I pushed open the door and declared my presence, threw them a rope by which to lift themselves off the edge of the precipice, and thus denied myself also of the beauty of their fall. I had thought Buick would leave instantly but he did not, and we set about hanging the birds, the three of us, from the endless rows of hooks, all by the neck, and the one or two rabbits left on the slab to be prepared the next morning by the man who came in to do such things. Eventually,

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F I C T I O N one of the young women who was to serve that night came running to say that Serena had a phone call, and Buick and I were left with the rhythms of the room, the damped oscillations of the still-warm birds, and the autumn shapes of the shrubs brushing against the high windows. We worked without speaking, swiftly and sorrowfully, until the last bird was strung up, after which he sat down at the table and put his head in his hands. Do you think they would think it odd if I said I was feeling unwell and would not be at dinner tonight? he asked me suddenly. I don’t see why they should, I replied. Will you tell them from me? If you like. I’ll just take the back stairs up then to my room. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Do you want something sent up? No, I’ll survive, he said and then was gone. And so I was left, on my own finally, in the Still Room, to which I had come bearing birds, thinking that it would be empty by then, the other dead fowl hung. It was very dark now. It struck me that we had done all our grim work in the gloom, not one of us daring to turn on a light. I remembered suddenly that Selkirk had urged me to look for the jar of seal faeces that he was sure was left in one of the dresser drawers, all his other specimens having been cleared out, without any warning, by Harry Lindsay many years ago when he set up his little enterprise of providing luxury shooting holidays to help keep the estate solvent. Offices were made out of the dairy and game and fish larders, and a great big printing machine installed in the salting room, and the Still Room had been set aside for the processing of game, although Serena had been allowed to keep a corner of it for her painting. That summer, when he came to visit, Serena had met him at the harbour, anxious that she should be the first to tell him of the changes. Selkirk had just finished his first year at Cambridge, done tolerably well in his Part I exams, and now the summer stretched ahead, bright and empty. The invitation to the island had been slow in coming, and several times he wondered if it would come at all, now that Robert had mainly handed over the running of the estate to his son. But he needn’t have worried; Serena was adamant that he should come for as long as he liked, and even Harry sent him a polite note to say that they were hoping he would join them for a few weeks. He had descended from the ferry wearing a Canadian Mountie rain cape and the type of umbrella that straps to the head, leaving the hands free for butterfly nets and the like. You really do go out of your way to look ridiculous at times, don’t you? Serena had said. I thought you’d approve. I do, I do, she had reassured him. In the car, she had prepared him for the changes he was to find, the restructuring of the kitchen corridor and his laboratory now converted into a wet larder. What has he done with my things? Selkirk asked. I really don’t know, said Serena. I really don’t know.

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And later, he had entered the Still Room and found indeed that everything was gone except the jar of seal excrement cowering in a corner behind rows of plum jam. He had first reached to extract it, and then had changed his mind and left it there.

§ Melissa apologises for having left us, replaces the telephone receiver in its quaint cradle and takes her place at the table. Buick brings over the scallops and opens a bottle of white wine. I’m sorry I never asked, but you do eat everything, don’t you? he says to me. Yes, I eat most things, I assure him. Don’t worry, honey, we won’t be serving anything too peculiar, says Melissa. The scallops are a little chewy now, having stood too long on the warming plate, but the cauliflower puree that accompanies it is divine, with tiny slivers of black pudding running down its spine. I had no idea you were such a good cook, I tell Buick. Perhaps I should have been a chef rather than a poet, he says. You were born to be a poet, his wife reassures him. Sometimes I wish I did have a day job. Wallace Stevens said that having daily contact with a job gives character to a poet, says Buick, munching thoughtfully. That’s because he couldn’t bear to quit his precious insurance company, says Melissa. With not such good consequences for his poetry, in my opinion, pronounces Buick in agreement. I thought you were devoted to Wallace Stevens, I say in surprise. I still do like him, but some of it sounds as if it could easily have been written by some minor Edwardian poet. I can’t imagine what you mean. No man can serve two masters, says Tobias Buick.

Sunetra Gupta is the author of five novels: Memories of Rain (1992), The Glassblower’s Breath (1993), Moonlight into Marzipan (1995), A Sin of Colour (1999) and So Good in Black (2009). Her novels have been longlisted for the Orange Prize and DSC Prize. She is a graduate of Princeton University and has a PhD from the University of London, and is currently Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. In 2009 she was named the winner of the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific achievements and used these funds to create a website on women scientists for children: http://www. shooting-stars-women-scientists.com.

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F I C T I O N

Shabnam Nadiya

Ganja Girl

I

'd texted him: 6:30 p.m.@Mega Pizza. Now here I was, over an hour late. I'm always scrambling to catch up and can never leave on the dot of five. My manager had decided at the last minute he wanted the intern shortlist today, and then traffic moved so slow I could have sprinted from Mohakhali and reached Shukrabad earlier. Tanvir is punctual. Always. He was sitting in a booth reading a dog-eared Monstrous Regiment, unfazed by the neon sign outside his window strobing every few minutes. I'd see him clear as day for a few moments and then all light-stripey and varicoloured for a few. Enough to give me a headache. I'd told him to read that book months ago. I was his full-time book recommender, he always jokes, ever since years ago I told him to read Brihonnola and he fell in love with the supernatural detective guy Misir Ali. So here he was, his phone flashlight poised, ilWarszawianka luminating the page. He looked handsome in his creamcolored shirt and tailored navy trousers. I can't imagine Tanvir going to work in jeans and tees, although so many people—even university lecturers like him—seem to be doing so. I felt bad for making him wait but he never seemed to mind. We hadn't seen each other in weeks, and, although I had an ulterior motive tonight, it was good to see him. Tanvir was so engrossed in reading he didn't notice me until I sat down. He'd put in a full day's work, like me, and still he looked like he'd just stepped out of the shower. Beside him I always felt dishevelled and messy and sweaty. “Hey! You're here,” he said, stowing his book in his satchel. He needed a haircut. His hair curls at the temples whenever he lets it grow out, and he hates that, though I like how it makes him look. “I've already ordered,” he said. “Thought I'd save time. It's almost eight.” “It's okay,” I said. Meaning it was okay he'd ordered ahead (he knows what I like), and okay it was getting late. I wasn't going to let my usual curfew of nine apply. I would ask Tanvir to hang out late and then drop me home. I hoped by then the coast would be clear, and although I'd have to face my mother's wrath, I could avoid meeting the “friends” my parents had invited for dinner. Why they still thought they could trick me into these encounters, I have no clue. “How've you been?” I asked. I'd changed my hairstyle since we last met, but trust Tanvir not to comment. I had chopped off my waist-length layers, and now had a blunt cut framing my face. More frustration for my mother: Why reject my one physical asset, my lustrous Bengali hair? Tanvir, of course, has had the same hairstyle since we were fourteen.


“Oh, fine. Busy—midterms ahead. You?” My cell phone rang. My new ringer is a ridiculous song the IT assistant had downloaded for me. Tanvir raised his eyebrows as my phone shimmied and shook to the edge of the table, and a tinny male voice asked in a fake-southern-Bangla-accent, “Hey, do ya love me? Wrong number? But can I still know, do you love me?” and then began a treacly crooning about love happening even with a wrong number. I put my phone on silent and stuffed it in my bag. I didn't even want to know when it rang. “Irene, wasn't that your mother? You're not picking up?” Damn. My phone screen displayed caller photos. “Yes, it is, and no, I'm not.” Tanvir touched my hand. “That bad, huh?” After a few moments he added, “You'll have to talk to her eventually.” Whatever. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to describe— again—how I had become an embarrassment to my family. It was an issue, my unwedded state. I was twenty-nine. Most of my girlfriends were mothers already. And—the elders noted repeatedly—I was kaalo, dark-skinned. I should be quick and eager in accepting whatever fate offered. Time was neither waiting, nor being kind to me. Twice a month, aunts and cousins showed up to condole with my mother, lamenting my spinsterhood, and to leave me with skincare tips (and, on one memorable occasion, a twelve-pack of Fair and Lovely skin-whitening cream). So far I had refused any organized bride-viewing ceremonies. I had my pride. I knew how these would end; I knew my tally sheet. Pluses: tall, good hair (though now, alas, short), master's degree, a steady Dhaka-based job (not like those NGO girls tromping around the country); civil servant father, small family (only one brother, so although daughters didn't get half, I was still destined for a chunk of my father's wealth). Minuses: too outspoken, too many friends in general (and male friends in particular) and too dark. Skin that couldn't be called a sweet shyamla even by an optimistic mother. I was definitely kaalo. And I didn't even have doe eyes to salvage my darkness—Tagore wouldn't have composed that song if it was me he had come across in a lonely field. That's why I didn't want to go home now. Or talk to my mother. I wasn't fooled by her overly casual mention of old friends coming to dinner tonight, friends who had a nice son with a nice job. It's not that I didn't want to marry. It's just that I wanted to marry the right guy. Isn't that what everyone wants? I was sure none of the bankers or corporate types my family was dredging up would be too happy to discover that my friends had dubbed me Ganja Girl. Don't get me wrong. I'm not hooked. I can and do go for months without. But if the mood's right, if the people are right, sure, I'll climb aboard the smoky express. Ganja usually makes me ravenous; no other buzz hits me quite that way. I'd tried other things when I was younger. Liquor makes me woozy, dyle brings awful hallucinations (of oversized frogs) and the pill combos we popped with such abandon in the past

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F I C T I O N make me throw up once I hit ground. I've never tried the hard, though— no coke, heroin, yaba. Ten years ago I would've added that I'd like to, but not anymore. No, I've passed the experimenting age. I know what I like and stick to it. Getting ganja these days is hard. Seven years ago I was still a student. Five years ago I was still studentish: I possessed slim hips and hip friends. These days, one was expanding, the other disappearing. I'd always depended on the kindness of friends for this particular need. I knew the places and people they sought: the garbage-stink alley at Katabon, near the grave of some holy guy in Gulistan, the men who walked nights in Chankhar Pul and the aptly named Parir Bhumi in Mirpur. Parir Bhumi was Fairyland indeed. From there came the most wonderful readymade sticks: smooth and creamy as Tanvir's silk shirt and, oh man, the sweetness! I suspected they mixed in a bit of charash or something with the ganja. Yeah, I knew it all, but I'd never actually been to any of these places. There was usually someone to take care of the supply aspect. I guess most of the guys I'd hang out with when we were so much younger found it exciting to have a girl with them and fell all over themselves to be my supplier, free of charge. My girlfriends disapproved, and were occasionally snobby, but although none of them went beyond the occasional puff accompanied by a lot of feminine coughing and desperate waving away of odours, they didn't do badly by me and mostly left me alone. Our pizzas arrived: Hawaiian for me, sausage and mushrooms for him. We concentrated on getting the slices onto our plates and then into our mouths. I told him what I wanted. “I need a favour,” I began, but the minute I broached it, Tanvir rolled his eyes. “Irene, just drop this faltu shit, you're not a teenager,” he said. “Look, it's been ages.” It was ages since another itch had been scratched too, but I couldn't very well ask Tanvir for that. “The last time was Iffi's farewell, remember?” Iffi and Naheed were my ganja-buds. Both had gone off to the US, leaving me high and dry. Which brings me to my present predicament. I still like the stuff, but my companion likers have wafted off in different directions. I guess the novelty of having a live young woman sitting in your midst inhaling from the same stub you've just put to your lips wears thin after a while. Everyone has bills to pay, family responsibilities, bank loans. It was different for me. Or so my male friends told me. Being female, I didn't have to work. This sentence, I noted, always began with “No offence, but…” Of course it offended. For one thing it demeaned the fact that I was capable of supporting myself. For another, they didn't understand how desperately I needed my income—the one thing that allowed me to slam down the various marriage proposals my family kept tossing at me. “Oh. Iffi's farewell.”

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The aridity of Tanvir's voice reminded me: he'd seen Iffi and me kissing that evening. Iffi had clumsily pulled me onto his lap, but, although it had been nice, I hadn't let him go any further. The surprise of Tanvir walking into the bedroom had snuffed my ladyboner. Tanvir had never asked about it, and why should I explain? I could kiss whoever I wanted. Or not. In theory. I mean I don't fool around with anyone that easily even if I want to. That I'm Ganja Girl is bad enough. One reason I'm treated okay and with respect is that none of the guys made it past first base with me, even when we were all flying high. I had to be strict about that. I'm sure Tanvir knew; I'm sure it's been talked about. This is also why the girls weren't snotty to me. But the way he spoke, the downward curve of his lips saddened me. “You're being so judgmental. You've known me for fucking ages…” I felt tired. “Tanvir, this is what I am. This is me.” He opened his mouth to say something, and although I'd been looking forward to this evening and definitely didn't want to go home, I walked. Leaving him to pay the bill. I can be mean—sometimes.

§ I rickshawed it home. Where else could I go? The “guests” were about to leave. They were standing on our porch saying goodbye, the whole scene lit green by the wedding gate outlined in hundreds of chilli lights at the Mohammadi Party Center next door. I paid the rickshaw wallah, while my mother said, “Oh, here she is. We were so worried! And you weren't picking up the phone!” The hardness in her eyes assured me there would be hell to pay later. Whatever I felt about these guests, I couldn't be directly rude. I apologized for being stuck in a “meeting” and “forgetting” to turn my ringer back on. My mother invited them back in for another round of tea, but thankfully they declined. They seemed a nice couple actually, assuring me they quite understood the rigours of a corporate job, and they would come another day to meet me. I might have liked them; but their possession of a son with a nice job stopped me from seeing them with anything other than mute suspicion. Although I braced myself for my mother's anger, it never came. I guess she was as weary as I was. All she said was, “You could at least have picked up the phone.” I walked off. Perhaps a shower would wash away the day.

§ Tanvir called two days later. I was getting seriously pissed off. I mean, I take umbrage and stalk out, right? He doesn't come after me—and then no news for two days? I was as cold as I could be on the phone. A girl's got to salvage some self-respect. It was hard to stay angry though: he had a contact, some dealer in Khilgaon, and he'd take me to

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F I C T I O N get some. None of my ganja-dostos had ever offered to take me along. Eventually I thawed enough to ask for details. It was a wonder that Tanvir had sources for scoring ganja, people we didn't have in common. “Remember Atiq, my cousin? His journalist friend has friends who know this guy.” Quintessential Dhaka, that. There's always a cousin with a friend with a cousin who knows someone. Tanvir told me we'd go that weekend. We would meet around three at our usual Road 32 fuchka eatery and take a CNG scooter from there. I was excited. One more day. Come Friday, I would reclaim my old nickname. I loved being Ganja Girl, such a ring to it. Sweet and salty. And it bugged the shit out of Tanvir, which is of course why I encouraged everyone to call me that. He's the only guy I know who uses the word “cannabis” when referring to the stuff. He's always been a good boy. Sometimes I can't figure out why he's friends with me at all. But I know Tanvir has a bit of a thing for me, has had all these years. I don't mind; it's a good thing for a girl to have a friend like that. The kind who will do that extra thing for you, but won't moon around you like a lovesick cow. Not bad for the ego either, especially since I've never been on the A-list to be asked out on dates. Usually I'm the female equivalent of a bhaiya, the sympathetic one on whose shoulders all the others actually in relationships unburden their sorrows. Bhaiya isn't just brother anymore, it's sort of become de-gendered. I mean, I'm a girl and I still qualify. What's required to be a bhaiya is a calm, sympathetic, oh-you're-so-great-and-it's-all-good manner. Most of my friends have come to me at one time or another; I'm a good listener, although Tanvir has rarely come to me with his troubles. I've bhaiya’d Tanvir twice so far. Once at seventeen, and then six years later. The first time was nothing, though that was the guy I lost my virginity to. It was more sexual curiosity than love, I guess, although I imagined myself in the throes of a grand, tragic passion (one needs dramatics at that age; isn't that half the fun of being a teenager?) and sobbed on Tanvir's shoulder. The guy had dumped me after seven months. I was heartbroken for various reasons including that I had just redone my wardrobe for him. While browsing for used textbooks in Nilkhet (or so he claimed—hindsight and a vaster knowledge of both those secondhand stalls and the male mind makes me believe the browsing was occurring in the Bangla porn section), he had come across a badly bound, whiteprint book called Kaalo Meyer Shoundorjo—the Black Girl's Beauty. According to the book, dark girls should only wear maroon or pink, since these colours reflect off and minimize the blackness of the skin. It seemed particularly unfair that he decided he wasn't in love with me after I had spent several months' worth of my allowance to get clothes in the approved hues, but life sometimes hands you wardrobes full of pink and maroon, and you do your best.

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The second bhaiya-time was different. That was the real sugar: at least while it lasted. Like me, the guy was at Dhaka University, although older. Our departments—mine, International Relations and his, English Lit—were neighbours and shared classrooms. Although that was about all we had in common, I fell for him big. Shalla, when I fall, I'm like a brick. I was heartbroken when I dumped him. Yup, I dumped him and was heartbroken. We had begun talking marriage. Or he had. The youngest, he was the only unmarried one among his siblings, and the bride hunt had begun. Then he mentioned all his sisters-in-law were fair. I have skin like tamarind seeds, which meant his mom might take some convincing. So I said, kind of jokingly, “Well, moms like that are usually swayed by convincingly real jewellery and furniture, and say, a Premio. A spot of dowry never hurts.” And he replied without batting an eyelid, “A car's too much. I'm not greedy. But the other gifts should do the trick, yes.” What a fool I was to think love was remedy enough against this world. I still loved him, but it was making me loathe myself. So I took him out for fuchka by Dhanmondi Lake one afternoon and told him three things: he should marry a phorsha girl; he should ask her family for a car (preferably a Premio); he should drive the fucking car into the fucking lake. I walked away. I don't think Tanvir minded that I'd bhaiya’d him. He once said he preferred the “known darkness” of my doings rather than the “imagined abyss of ignorance.” It's funny when he talks pompous and poetic, not quite matching with his usual self. He never calls me Ganja Girl or AnjuGanju like the others. His pet name for me is aamloki. The fruit bitter to the tongue, but where there is sweetness to be found.

§ Friday arrived. Tanvir took me to a field beside Khilgaon High School. That figured; high school kids smoking the stuff, good locale. The man we were to meet was called Blue Mijaan. Our instructions were to make a call to his cell phone, let it ring three times, and then wait under the big jackfruit tree to the west. I'd thought it would be deserted. Why would people be here on the weekend? But they were. In the last twenty years everyone and their damn uncles had become cricket connoisseurs. I watched boys in white trundle on the pitch to the desultory clapping of the audience. Under the tree stood the obligatory jhalmuri wallah and ice cream vendor. As soon as we stopped beneath the tree, the jhalmuri wallah approached. We waved him away. He gave us a broken-toothed smile and went back to chatting with the ice cream guy. A young man walked up to the jhalmuri wallah and asked for five takas' worth. The seller didn't seem particularly excited about his customer and picked up the plastic container he used as his shaker in a bored fashion.

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F I C T I O N Tanvir made the call and disconnected after three rings. I watched the jhalmuri wallah toss the white muri, the mustard oil and gobs of other condiments in the container. He scratched his butt with eyes closed, seeming to extract the maximum pleasure from the act, before continuing his preparation of the spicy snack. I could hear the jangle of coins as the young man untucked his lungi waist pouch and felt around to locate the hexagonal five-taka coin before clanging it down on the aluminium cashbox. The jhalmuri wallah poured out the now-yellow muri into a paper cone and handed it over. He said something to the ice cream guy and giggled. The young man wandered back to the game. The smell of mustard oil was making me salivate. I'm rabid about jhalmuri, and this guy's endless row of pots and jars in his wooden cart promised a build-your-own-flavour cone of it. “Tanvir, jhalmuri?” He frowned. “We're waiting for someone.” Tanvir's single-mindedness is both an asset and a liability. It is probably what had us standing here—how else did he find this Blue Mijaan? —and it is also what makes him an idiot sometimes. “So? I can just get some while we wait?” “Why draw attention to ourselves?” Actually, I'd thought the same thing, which is why I'd asked him in the first place, but now that he had brought it up, and now that he'd given me that you-be-a-numbskull look, I couldn't drop it. “Any potential attention to be drawn has already been drawn. We're waiting in front of a school for no obvious reason, and we're not remotely interested in the cricket match. And there's me—see another girl anywhere?” Tanvir looked around and looked back at me. I was right, of course. People had been ogling us off and on, some more obviously than others. But Tanvir wouldn't come out and say I was right. It was then, just as the ice cream guy carolled the last lines of a sentimental song about some long-tressed beauty he left behind in Raypurhat to the enthusiastic head-banging of the jhalmuri wallah, that a denim-clad man appeared. And when I say denim-clad I mean completely: cap, shoes, even the wristband of his watch, blue denim. I couldn't help wondering about his underwear. A giggle trembled in the pit of my stomach. Tanvir nudged me. This was serious business, so I shut it. The ice cream guy had stopped singing and he and the other vendor were studiously not looking our way. Denim Dude stood before us and spat on the ground. Tanvir cleared his throat and brushed his palm against his cheek; he hates public spitting. The man stood there working his jaws. What did he have in his mouth: chewing gum or a glob of paan? Perhaps a strip of blue denim? Giggles threatened again, and I focused on the spittle on the ground to control myself. Tanvir cleared his throat again and said, “Err, are you Blue bhai?” Blue bhai? I mean I know the bhai is to show solidarity, respect, etc., but seriously, Blue bhai? What if the guy didn't like being called Blue Mijaan? Many of these sobriquets have not-very-nice stories attached to them.

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Just as I had feared the guy seemed offended. He spat on the ground and rumbled, “What Blue? I'm Mijaan. Who the hell are you?” Tanvir looked like he was going to throw up. Denim guy found this amusing and he laughed and horked on the ground again. I thought it was time I stepped in. If I couldn't handle my own ganja transaction, what good was women's lib? “Bhai,” I said firmly, “I want four puriyas.” He looked me up and down. It felt like a grubby hand traveling the length of my kameez. But hey, I'm not Tanvir, I'm not a cleanliness freak. I don't even mind public spitting. “You want puriyas?” Blue Mijaan looked at Tanvir, then me. I was pissed off. I was going to pay for the stuff. What was the problem? “Yes, I want puriyas. Why the hell are you called Blue Mijaan?” I could hear the hiss as Tanvir drew in his breath. The man chuckled. “Why do you think?” I replied without missing a beat, “You're really into watching blue films? You always wear blue jeans? Clearly it's not because you star in blue films. I've watched enough to know.” The man laughed outright. “Four puriyas—a hundred and twentyfive taka, apa. I'm throwing one of my specials in for you, no extra charge.” He scratched the back of his neck while I brought out the money. His fingers touched mine when I handed it over. Tanvir was playing statue: motionless, without breath. I'd expected Blue Mijaan to hand me the stuff immediately and was worried about how to complete the transaction without those vendors noticing, but I should have known better. Mijaan stuffed the money in his pocket without taking his eyes off me. I made a point of not dropping my gaze. “Wait here,” he said. “Bhai, take good care of this one, she's a fire blossom.” He left. I heard Tanvir gradually let his breath out. “Holy. Fucking. Hell.” The pauses between every word allowed me time to regain my composure. Blue Mijaan had shaken us both up, in different ways. A cell phone trilled nearby. The jhalmuri wallah stared at me as he extracted a cheap-looking mobile from his shirt pocket and had a brief conversation mostly punctuated by nods and “Ji, bhai.” I turned to Tanvir. “You…” he began and I dreaded what was coming. I was saved by the jhalmuri wallah, who had walked up to us again, this time proffering a small paper cone. His ingratiating smile irked me and I snapped, “Bhai, I told you we don't want jhalmuri.” But Tanvir was quicker. All in one fluid motion he grabbed the cone, said, “Thank you, bhai. My salaam to Mijaan bhai,” grabbed my hand and began walking towards the waiting rickshaws. It was only when we were on the rickshaw that I cottoned on. The paper cone held the puriyas; Blue Mijaan was the real deal all right, he didn't do deliveries. Tanvir unfolded the cone. “There are six in here.” I ventured, “The jhalmuri wallah made a mistake?”

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F I C T I O N He looked at me. “These people don't make mistakes.” He paused and said, “Blue Mijaan must really have liked you.” I shut up for the rest of the trip.

§ The only place I could think of to go to with my stash was Tanvir's house. Both his parents worked and anyway, his room was his domain. I didn't even have a room to myself—my four-year-old niece slept with me. For an unmarried young woman, even one who was almost thirty, privacy is not an option. That room also doubled as our guest room and at the moment we had a visiting aunt. But even without the aunt, there's no way I could've taken Tanvir home and smoked up a joint in our house. I needed cigarettes, which I could have done myself, but I was feeling bitchy. So I made Tanvir go. I usually prefer Bangla Five tobacco for my ganja; Bensons are too smooth. What is sweet without salt? But Tanvir came back empty-handed. “There's no deshi Bangla Five. You get Benson or Gold Leaf.” I sat in the middle of his room and rolled the cigarette between my palms, gently loosening the tobacco. The ganja lay in a small heap on the cover of a glossy, where an underfed brownish girl with pert breasts looked up at me in smug disapproval. I made a little tunnel of my left fist, positioned the loosened cigarette in it, and smacked down in one smooth gesture with my right palm. The tube of tobacco slid in and down. Some of the tobacco fell out making it easier to empty the cigarette. I emptied the rest right on the girl's tits. At least the cover girls were sometimes dark-skinned these days. Maybe there was hope yet. Tanvir watched me in silence. He'd never actually seen me in action before. Usually—if he deigned to remain in the same room with all these illegal and morally reprehensible activities—he would sit away in a corner reading, or at someone's computer. He watched as I scrunched the ganja and tobacco in my palm, refilled the hollow paper tube, tamped the mixture with the head of a matchstick, twisted the open end shut. And then finally, blessedly, lit it and brought it to my lips for the first puff. Well, hello, lover. Tanvir reached his hand out suddenly. “Give me a puff.” I laughed. “Yeah, right.” “No, I'm serious. Let me try.” I stared. This was Tanvir. I've known him for over a fucking decade. He doesn't even smoke because tobacco may be injurious to one's health. He carries an umbrella all through the rainy season—who does that? And here he was asking, quite seriously, for a taste. At our age. Shocking. But I didn't stay shocked for too long: the ganja burned. I gave it to him. “Inhale properly,” I instructed. “Try holding it in your throat for a while, that's when I get the first buzz.” He coughed, and I could see his eyes water. I tried taking the stick back from him, but he resisted. The smoke poured out of his mouth.

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“Take your time,” I said gently. “You're not supposed to hog the thing, you bhodai, let it make the rounds.” He looked at me uncomprehendingly. I explained, “Give me some while you get into what you have in your throat now, idiot. I'll give it back.” Tanvir handed me the stick and I pulled at it as deeply as I could. I usually close my eyes when I do this. It gives me a lovely floating feeling. I can feel the smoke swirl inside me, a caress that never fails to please. When I opened my eyes, Tanvir was looking at me with narrowed eyes. “What?” I asked. He shook his head. But I'm insistent. He sighed and said, “Anju-Ganju…” Another first. The afternoon was verging on evening, and the sunlight in the room had thinned, lending shadow to where there had been brightness. I was intensely aware of his presence. Tanvir has kind of a hooked nose, which gives a funny cast to his face in profile. He has smooth skin, better than mine actually. He had nicked his jaw while shaving and the scab showed against his cheek in an abrupt line. My fingers itched; I could never resist picking at things. “Well?” “Just something I remembered,” he said. “Look, if it's about Iffi and me kissing, I …” “Oh that. That's none of my business. You can kiss whoever you want.” I hate it when he does that, throws me off my stride. “Well, what then?” “Remember Tumpa's friend, the photographer?” I remembered: this really short guy with massive gold earrings. He'd asked to photograph me, which I point-blank refused. I'm not comfortable with being photographed and anyway, why would he want to photograph me when someone like milk-skinned Tumpa was present? I suspected him of nefarious designs, ha. I remembered another detail and giggled. “Yeah, I remember him; his tits were bigger than mine.” Tanvir laughed. “They were, actually.” We giggled together like third graders. Then I asked him, “What about him?” “Nothing, just… I think it's time you got over yourself.” I wasn't sure I'd heard him right. “What the fuck do you mean?” “You're way too old and too intelligent to keep hanging on to these… things you have.” “What?” “These… ideas you have about yourself, and about other people. Do you remember how rude you were to that guy? And you can be mean.” That hurt. Yeah, I'd been pissy, but I'm not mean. That's how Tanvir thought of me? Mean? That asshole was acting as if I should be grateful that he'd asked to photograph me. All I did was ask him about his other assignments. Well, I guess I did lecture him about the objectification of

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F I C T I O N women by the media. Especially people like him representing what I call glam-scam, the glamour industry. When I asked him why he wanted to photograph me, he said he'd never photographed a “dark model” before and wanted to try it out. I was supposed to take that shit? I was a curiosity, a freak? Suddenly I felt stifled. “Your point?” “You don't need to prove anything to me. Or to anyone else. Or to yourself.” “Prove what?” “You're too uptight about things, aamloki, you need to relax.” Tanvir was telling me to relax. “Tanvir, I'm Ganja Girl, how much more relaxed can I get?” He cocked his head to one side and said, “Being Ganja Girl isn't as rebelliously cool as it once was, is it?” I hated Tanvir. He has always had a way of seeing too much. Before I could frame a response, he said, “People aren't judging you. I'm not judging you. It's time you understood that.” We'd finished the first stick. In silence I handed him the second stick and he lit it with a serene confidence I'd never noticed before. It was nice, us sharing my smoke. But I could never let things be. What Tanvir would leave subterranean, I needed to dig and spread out to dry in the sun. “That ganja guy this afternoon?” He laughed. “That he was smitten by you, 'fire blossom'? That you were playing with him? That's just you. That's just your salt and your sweet.” I exhaled slowly. It was fine; there was nothing I needed to say. But then he floored me again. “You didn't let that guy photograph you because you think you're ugly, don't you?” It was like being savaged by a jellyfish: just because they look like translucent jello doesn't mean they lack poison. “Well, I'm not good-looking, I know that.” He sighed again and rapped out, “Eyes?” “Too small.” “Nose?” “Too flat.” “Lips?” “Too thick.” He looked at the features just described with a critical gaze and shook his head. Then he laughed. “And, of course, you think you're kaalo.” I couldn't stand it. “Well, I am kaalo.” “And this makes you unattractive?” “I've never said that!” He looked at me. Then he did something he'd never done before: he leaned forward and delicately tucked some loose strands of my hair behind my ear. He said something he'd never said before. “You're beautiful, aamloki, you're the most amazing woman I've ever seen.”

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I couldn't breathe. I had known for years how he felt about me, but I suddenly realized that something inside me had never quite believed it. Why would any guy be nuts about me? I was just thinking to myself this was the most unnerving conversation we'd ever had, when in one fluid motion, he ground out the ganja butt in the ashtray, placed his index finger and thumb under my chin and guided my face towards his. Iffi I had resisted; Tanvir, amazingly, I didn't want to. Tanvir's hand had slipped under my kameez at some point, soothing and smoothing. After a while I realized his hand was experienced enough to have undone my bra without me noticing, glued as I was to his lips. He moved away just farther enough to ask, “Can I take this off?” What could I say? Still, it's good for a girl to retain some control of all situations so I helped him. When he finally entered me we were as smooth as silk, as rough as rain, dizzying each other in that honey sweat game. Afterwards I lay there looking at the shadows on the ceiling wondering whether we should get up and when his parents would be coming back. Tanvir's weight on me was slick; this is the only time I can stand a sweaty man. His head was tucked into the crook of my neck, and his hair tickled me. I squirmed under him, so he sat up. I wish I could say at that moment I realized that I had been madly, desperately in love with him all this time. But nothing that defining happened. I loved him, I knew, but we didn't talk about love. There was no need. It was there between us, ripe and ready, waiting. I watched myself, the rise of my breasts dark and taut against his ivory hands. I felt like renewed terrain, my body spring's earth, heavy with promise. I looked at his familiar face, the smoothness of his neck, the graceful slope of his shoulders, wanting it all. I watched my hand stroking the flat of his bare stomach. He knew how to bring me the good stuff, the real sugar. And trust me, I'm not talking about ganja.

Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator from Bangladesh. She completed her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2012. Currently she is working on her collection of stories titled Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories and a translation of Shaheen Akhtar’s novel Beloved Rongomala. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction International, Law and Disorder: Stories of Conflict and Crime, One World and journals such as Five Chapters, Amazon’s Day One, Words Without Borders, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, and Arsenic Lobster. Her work can be found at www.shabnamnadiya.com.

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F I C T I O N

Pranesh Prasad

The Hidden Imam (an excerpt)

I

went around the bend and quickly turned right. I stuck to the wide and slightly slippery main path even though I had the fleeting urge to drift into the forest. When the forest had turned into young woods and it was less grassy, I knew I had almost reached the farmlands, and most importantly, there were people in those buildings located on the farms. I knew then I had survived the encounter with the child ghost. The sense of Michael Wutz space which I had sensed in the forest—despite the fear—was no longer overwhelming. The impression was then of occupation. The smoke coming out of the chimney or a vehicle moving was testimony to the setting being settled. It then became possible for the fear which had accompanied me till then to dissipate. So, when I had walked past the farmlands and the fences, past the buildings, past the stables, past the horses and finally past the tractor which was parked on the embankment of the largest farm in the area, I became my usual confident and measured self again. And with that came the feeling of abundance, so much so that the ghostly sighting in the wilderness was as much an illusion as the idea that the past had been lived in New Delhi and I could just move on without being conscious of it. When I had almost reached our home that day, it was the first time that I really noticed in detail the neighbour’s property. The land was distinguished by the careful division into several paddocks. On the first paddock, there were a few small farm buildings. I could clearly see a timber barn and a red pen. A run-down vehicle without number plates and with shattered windscreens was parked next to the timber barn. Corrugated iron which was rusting and bulky metal were piled away from the red pen. Green moss had appeared on the fertile soil. There was a herd of cows busily feeding on the ample grass and they were distant from the timber barn and the red pen. Away from the herd of cows was a black cat. It was sort of sleeping next to a big decaying log under a fruit tree. There were pieces of crumbling timber scattered on the farm, providing signs of much effort and unfinished projects. A small, fenced, spring-fed dam was located on the second paddock. There was also an aviary a few metres away from this where a wide array of native birds were visible. I was bothered by the sight of caged birds. The idea of freeing the birds came to me then and I wished for a moment that I had the guts to act.


On the other side of the aviary and on the second paddock were some old trees. A blue and green boat in poor condition was parked underneath one of the trees. On much closer inspection I saw an insignia: Sea Princess. There was a flag of the Waikato Chief’s on the mast. Like the decaying timber throughout the farm, the boat had not been used for a long time. Halfway between the aviary and the boat was an open silo. There were bales of fodder stacked in defined loads and covered with see-through plastic. The fodder had been acquired several seasons ago. It had grown hoary and was decomposing—it was no longer brown but jet black. The fodder used on the farm was uncovered and deliberately kept further away from the covered ones in a separate shack next to the silo. The fodder in this shack looked recent, as it was shiny and golden and was spread on the paved ground on which the shack had been built. The neighbour’s cottage was situated on the third paddock—alone and away from everything else. The cottage had walls made from brick, unlike all other houses in the area. The roof was tiled. I imagined concrete floors given that the terrace was concrete. All around the paddock on which the cottage was located were oak trees of similar height—they must have been planted at the same time. If the aim had been for the oak trees to dwarf the cottage then it had not been achieved, as the sunlight burst through and covered the cottage splendidly. The ground, however, was mossy, moist, and wrapped in shadow. I could feel the dampness even from where I stood. It was clear then that the oak trees had been planted to keep the wind out. I wondered if that had been the objective, then why was the cottage not built on the second paddock to start off with? Adjacent to the cottage was a gazebo. The driveway from the gate to the cottage was concrete too and it took a turn leftwards into a gazebo which I imagined to be the neighbour’s refuge on a tough day. The gazebo may have been built for hosting parties and get-togethers originally but the life had gone out of the property long ago; it was simply a guess and I could only do that given that all I saw as far as people were concerned was a single visitor on the neighbour’s property and that too was hired help—an elderly man who laboriously tended to the farm and diligently spent time with the cows. I did not see the neighbour that day and even for a long time after that. Much later in the night, Khalid told me that the neighbour had once had enormous potential as a rugby union player; he had made it to the All Blacks bench rapidly and was seen as a future star. The death of his wife—the rumours being that she had committed suicide—had turned him into an alcoholic. He was dropped after turning up to match practice once too often with the smell of alcohol. He quickly sunk into irrelevance and stayed mostly inside his cottage wasting his days. He would only come out at night to feed his animals and to make that trip to the supermarket for grocery shopping in his jeep. When on that night I retired to bed hoping to fall asleep, I was bothered by the neighbour’s fate. I wondered what his wife would have looked like. I also pondered the reasons that may have driven her to end her life. I tossed and turned. I knew Khalid was fast asleep for I could hardly hear him breathing. I got up. I wore socks and went to the kitchen. I did not

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F I C T I O N turn the light on. I drank a glass of cold milk. I stood by the window. I saw the neighbour’s light was on. I continued to gaze at the cottage for a while. I thought of the isolation of the neighbour. I thought of his loneliness. I thought of his wasted life. Then I returned to bed and fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning Khalid had already left for the day. I had a migraine. I brushed my teeth and went to the kitchen. I opened the fridge door and poured orange juice in a glass. I drank it in three gulps. I placed the glass on the sink and thought I saw a figure in the distance. I looked through the window. I was right. I saw that there was a man walking to and fro on the neighbour’s property. He was rather large, had curly hair and looked middleaged. He was in shorts and a singlet. That was the first time I had seen the neighbour. I did not know his name then. When I asked Khalid, he blinked, looked down and spoke with his face turned away, “His name is Peter. We have conversed thrice in my time here.” “You mean in ten years?” “Yes.” The response from Khalid said a whole lot about Peter’s peculiarity. It also told me a lot about Khalid; about his life in remoteness and how that had overtaken him and made him aloof and distant. I had no inkling of this aspect of his personality in the beginning but rather had thought that he appeared to have been hurt by someone or something. Where many would have exercised caution and perhaps sought another, I felt given what I had gone through in the past in New Delhi, that being in a detached relationship with a damaged person was the only way I could survive a marriage. This way of looking came to me with such great force that when I met Khalid I knew I had to somehow get married to him. Yet, I must say that that way of looking is not something I would encourage my child to have, if ever I had one to nurture and spoil, if like me they either through circumstance, design or fate end up marrying a person who is not the love of their life. To then live with Khalid was to continuously make an attempt to understand his idea of failure and displacement. It should not have been that way, for he had been born in New Zealand and was in many ways a gora; he himself had said he could not be “anything but a gora.” But he was displaced. And it was something I had to deal with, having had no clue about him being as such, when I saw a photo of him dressed in black trousers and a black shirt that had been posted to my parents. He appeared Indian in features and that was enough for me to have the first conversation on the phone with him, with my mother listening on the other line not because she wanted to but because of my insistence that she did so. I immediately liked the sound of his voice —low and soft—and the manner in which he dragged the sentences—which gave me the idea that Khalid thought about what he said and which gave my mother the idea “that he would think about what he would say” to me. That first phone call enabled me to make my mind decisively, though I did not convey my thoughts on the matter of a possible marriage to Khalid to anyone. Thereafter, I found myself waiting for his calls on Sundays. He would begin and end the conversation by saying “Happy Sunday” and throughout it he would laugh from the very recesses of his heart. I must say that I found

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his laughter to be infectious. And afterwards, I felt sort of anchored to him so much so that whenever some man flirted or stared at me I no longer felt disgusted but rather lowered the gaze of my eyes towards the ground as if by doing as such I had made it clear that I was thinking about Khalid. But I knew I was at times unconventional and that was something I needed to express to Khalid, particularly when he had said that “he had taken” to me. It was pleasing to hear such kind words, but I wanted him to know that I was very much satisfied to live in my own world and that he should visualise this oddity in making his decision: that even in a married life I would have the need to spend a lot of time by myself. It was something I had to voice to my mother first when she asked whether matters should be finalised. Naturally her response was typical. “Are you out of your mind?” “I am not,” I had replied. “Why are you bent on ruining this prospect?” “He should know.” My mother was fuming. “If he found out he would also want to know why you are like this,” she had said. “I will tell him. He deserves to know.” That is when my mother stormed out of the room. A few minutes later my father knocked on the door. He was calm as usual. He sat on my bed. He placed a palm on my head and gently stroked my hair. He asked me about my day. “It has been good so far, Abba.” He then talked about his tenant: the one who was running an amusement parlour. “The fellow has been giving me some trouble. He has not paid the rent for six months now.” “You have to tell him to vacate.” “I gave him the notice a few weeks ago.” “So when is he leaving?” “Well, I should tell you that yesterday… some thugs came and threatened me.” “What? How dare these rubbish people?” “Well, every dog has its day.” “Abba, you may need to use your contacts.” “Yes, but the elections will be held in six months.” “Do you think all this is a political ploy?” “I am not sure. Maybe they want to put pressure on me.” “What are you going to do about it, Abba?” “Things are getting difficult for us because these days everyone is jumping on either the nationalist or religious bandwagon in an effort to prove that they are worthy bigots, but let’s see what can be done.” “Be careful.” Abba then held my hands tightly. “What do you think of this Khalid fellow?” “He seems alright.”

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F I C T I O N Abba released my hands and asked, “What do you want me to say to his parents?” I looked at Abba and said decisively, “We can proceed.” “Are you absolutely certain?” “I have no doubts.” Abba held my hands again. I saw tears in his eyes. “I know this is not going to be easy for you or us, especially with what has happened to you in the past,” Abba said. “But if you are happy then so are we.” “Don’t cry Abba. I will only be a phone call away. And you can always fly.” He smiled then and said, “You will have to fly. I am too old to take such a long journey but if needed I will be there, even if I am on one leg. You know that, don’t you?” “Yes I do, Abba.” So the idea of conveying my unconventionality remained with me and when I started living with Khalid I discovered quickly that his unconventionality was far greater and more damaging than mine. Where I had withdrawn into my own shell due to a single circumstance, Khalid’s displacement was a sum of his personality, upbringing and surroundings; something which had always been attached to him and, consequently, was what defined him. It was strange that Khalid was as he was. He was only connected to the future—where his entire present involved making plans and contingencies for what could eventuate on a later day; unlike me— where the connection to the past was alive and accessible and the present was being lived as if the primary purpose of it all was to provide relief from the past. Everything I noticed during those days, as I became accustomed to Khalid and the country living, everything I spotted through Khalid’s behaviour, when people were around or when there was just the two of us, made that realization of his displacement even more severe. And considering that our immediate neighbour was also rooted in his own dereliction, I wondered every now and then whether the point of my presence in that setting was part of the process of realising how blessed I had been with the upbringing and certainties given by my loving parents in New Delhi. When Khalid arrived at our house with his parents, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, I saw him as he was actually not: rooted, certain and confident. We were left to our own so that we got to know each other and I suggested a walk to the recently opened coffee shop down the street. He moved measuredly and from his demeanour I could not have guessed that it was the first time he was visiting India. We sat facing the window. He talked and smiled a lot. His genuineness was visible and I took delight in it. The arrogance which I had normally associated with many persons of Indian origin who were born abroad was absent in him. He seemed very comfortable in his dealings with people and situations around him. What a contrast that was from my observations of him in New Zealand—how uncertain, disinterested and aloof were his interactions; it was as if the person in New Delhi and the one in New Zealand were two different beings. It did occur to me,

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when I rested in bed one night and recalled the image of ourselves in Hauz Khas village, that perhaps Khalid had been acting all along in New Delhi in an effort to please me and my folks. I took in the walk to the coffee shop, the long conversation while sipping beverage, the viewing of the artefacts in the village, the interactions with my parents and relatives, the way in which Khalid patted a stray dog on the street despite my caution of it being a possible rabies carrier, the shopping trips and the visit to the old city. I concluded that it was not possible to act what one was not in so many situations. It occurred to me just like that, that Khalid was rather more suited to living in India then he was in the country where he had been born. I wanted to say precisely that to him but feared he would become upset. But when one day there was a documentary about the Himalayas on TV One and I saw how glued and happy he was seeing India on screen, I made it known to him that I understood how he felt and perhaps it would be better if we went to India for a bit. He became excited and told me he would not mind living with me in any city in India one day but for now he had to be in New Zealand for reasons which he did not specify and which I did not ask. “Then you are wasting your time,” so I said. “Am I?” “You need to seize the moment.” Khalid did not say anything after that for a while. He stood up and made himself a cup of tea. He did ask me whether I wanted one too. “I have already had three cups,” I told him. When he had taken a sip he said, “The mortgage has to be paid first.” I was shocked. I had thought that the property had been out-rightly his. When I pointed out that we could downsize, he snapped. That was the first time I saw him angry. It seemed he was more livid with himself than me. I found out then he could raise his voice too so I did not press him. He did not finish his tea. He got up again and went for a walk. I wondered what I had said wrong. When he returned he complained about the weather like he always did. I did not ask him why he had become so angry. I thought he must have had his reasons —valid or otherwise. The night before our wedding, I had been a mixture of activity and excitement. I had spent the whole day helping Abba—who had been looking increasingly worn out—with the last minute arrangements. All the relatives from out of town and overseas had finally arrived: lots of greetings, conversations, music, and blessings. Some also offered advice based on their experiences abroad. There were a few who marvelled at my decision to marry and settle with a foreign born and brought up “Indian.” And there were those who smiled but hid the fact that they were envious that I would be leaving for New Zealand. Prior to the wedding I thought I had put on weight, especially with the copious amount of sweets I had consumed due to the multitude of Hindu festivals which were around in August. But I was assured by others that I looked remarkably measured and beautiful. The black and pink henna on my hands and feet were intricately designed. My female cousins, aunts and friends took turns to hold my palms and offer lovely words. Then I was

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F I C T I O N dragged by my younger cousins from the chair onto the floor and we danced into the late hours of the night. When the commotion stopped, the mattresses were lined on the floor side by side till they covered the entire room. My female cousins lay next to each other and soon sleep overcame me despite the waves of heavy and annoying snoring emanating throughout the house. During the wedding I saw Khalid as I thought I would always see him: whole and perfect. In his traditional red patterned Sherwani which was not his conscious preferred choice—for he had desired to wear black but when told that bad luck was associated with it, if worn in a wedding and which had made him change his mind—he looked every bit a nawab. When I was asked by the moulvi whether I was willing to accept Khalid as my husband, I had no hesitation in saying “yes.” The intermittent nerves which I felt till then magically dissipated. I was a semblance of contentment thereafter. I celebrated the rest of the ceremony and the wedding reception without much thought or care. I saw Khalid smiling and mingling with ease with the well-wishers. He even talked at length with those whom he had not met prior to the wedding. There was nothing to suggest that he was out of place. But at night, in our own room in the hotel, he looked forlorn and tired. I was surprised when he said, “It was really hard to mix with so many people.” “That is understandable,” I said, “but you seemed as if you had been enjoying yourself.” “Not really. They are all so different from me. I did it for you and your folks.” I really wanted to ask him what he meant by that. But rather than asking I kept quiet, for I wanted to capture and cherish the precious moments of my wedding night. I lay on the bed in my wedding attire. I saw Khalid moving forward towards me. I closed my eyes and waited for him to touch me. He did: on my cheeks. I thought he was about to kiss me. So I relaxed my lips. Instead, he placed his nose on mine. I felt his breath and the perfume coming from his clothes. He moved his nose around my lips, then my cheeks and then my neck. I wanted him to kiss me. I waited and waited. When I could no longer control myself I grabbed him. I pulled his head towards my face. I moved my lips onto his. He did not let go. And nor did I.

Pranesh Prasad’s debut novel, The Ultimate Laugh (2011), launched at the Ubud Writer’s Festival in Indonesia, explores issues of identity and terrorism. His second novel, A Half-Baked Life (2013), delves into the consequences of the 2002 Gujarat riots, human trafficking and the recent whittling down of the right to free expression. The current extract is from his forthcoming novel, The Hidden Imam, which is set in India, Iran, and New Zealand, and examines contemporary caste, religious, and gender inequalities.

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F I C T I O N

Mahmud Rahman

Every Life is Precious —an excerpt from The Fiction Factory—

T

hough she wished she could sleep in longer, Dipika knew she had to rise. It was Sunday, the first day of the work week, and she had promised Yasmeen she would come in early. And since that Shantona felt more obligated to her otherworldly God than her employer with this-worldly needs—no doubt to make amends for getting liquored up on Saturday nights—it fell to Dipika to make breakfast on this day. She rose from bed only to collapse back on the pillow at the memory of the dishes from the party still dirty in the kitchen. After lying there in a half-conscious state, a noise, distant but somehow meaningful, woke her up. The dishes could wait ‘til evening. First things first: she had to make breakfast for Russell and herself. She swung her legs down to the floor, yawned twice, then Bisawarup Ganguly went to check on Russell. Why did he have to drink so much last night? His door was open, but he wasn’t in there. She checked the bathroom and drawing room. No sign of him there either. Now she remembered the sound that had woken her up; it had been the front door slamming. Russell must have rushed out. Couldn’t he have had the courtesy of letting her know? He knew how difficult Sunday mornings were for her. But he didn’t care. Since she would not be able to make it to work early, Dipika decided to take her time. A red spot burned inside her chest and she rubbed it with the heel of her palm. If she let it smolder, her day would be ruined. In the shower, she persuaded herself to turn her thoughts to what lay ahead, away from her husband’s antics. She made a quick breakfast: a piece of toast, some warmed-up chicken, two cups of tea. She found herself thinking about the new girl that Yasmeen had mentioned. Would she be open to Dipika, or hostile? No, revise that thought. How hostile would she be, and how long would it take to break through? Dipika prided herself on her ability to make a connection with most of their wards. Perhaps raising Kajol, who had been fussy and prone to wild mood swings as a child, had something to do with that gift. Outside, she hailed a rickshaw. “Shukrabad, near the bus stop.” When they neared the bazaar, she directed the man to a side street and asked him to stop outside a four-story building. The outside of the building, along with the streetside wall, had once been white


F I C T I O N but was now stained by years of grime and rain. On the wall, the paintedover slogan of an opposition candidate was still visible. The landlord had whitewashed over it, but the paint had been too thick to cover up. A signboard above the wall—its letters in bold white over a red background—announced the occupants of the first two floors: Protyek Jibon Mulyoban Asroy. And below, in English: “Every Life is Precious Refuge.”

§ Dipika had first looked up at that signboard five years ago. She had laughed out loud, quickly covering her mouth in case someone inside spotted her. The name of the organization, so natural sounding in Bangla, transmuted upon English translation into something that sounded like an herbal tonic from China. Others mistook it for something else. After she was hired, she would learn that they frequently received envelopes in the mail from America, sometimes with dollar bills enclosed as “love offerings.” The letters would come in batches, each time from a single town; some were in children’s handwriting while others were neatly printed out. The letter writers would proclaim their solidarity with the difficult work the refuge was undertaking against abortion and so-called family planning in a heathen country. “Hang in there,” they urged. “You are doing God’s work.” Dipika had come to interview for a counselor position. She was familiar with similar shelters that took in street children, survivors of acid attacks, kids rescued from traffickers. The weekend magazines published features on such places and she had often wondered what it would be like to work in one. She had a psychology degree, but it had never come into use in any of the part-time jobs she had until then. Then soon after Kajol left the country, an old university friend told her of this new shelter aimed at rescuing child victims of political violence. “Dipu,” the friend said. “You’ll love the director, Jahanara Khan. She’s so passionate, a fearless fighter.” Inside the director’s office, Dipika had been awed by the huge posters on the walls that showcased the faces of strong-looking children in Palestine, Cambodia, Haiti, or Bosnia. Before getting around to the shelter’s purpose, Jahanara Khan spelled out their philosophy. Every month, she said, someone or another died because of political violence. It could be a protest by the opposition; it could be a riot by workers. If the person left behind a family, there were children at risk. The parties might make a martyr of the dead person, but no one cared about the children who were left orphaned or abandoned because the surviving parent could no longer care for them. For a few months, perhaps even a year, the parties might send funds to the family, initially the money might even reach the families, but after a while, they were left to fend for themselves. This was how it had been with the poor people who fought for the liberation of the country—it was still the same story. Thus was born the idea of the Protyek Jibon Mulyoban Asroy. “Lives,” she said, “should not be measured by what class you were born into.” They would take in the orphans of political violence. They would raise the children in an environment free of bitterness and political rivalry.

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“Are there that many children like this who need shelter?” Dipika had asked. “More than we can handle,” Jahanara Apa replied. She too had been surprised. They had a person on their staff, Yasmeen, who maintained a database of victims of political violence. Six months after an incident, a field team would check on the family of the victim. Each time they brought back a child. Sometimes they got referrals soon after a death occurred. Three children had been dropped at their doors after a village of Hindus had been burned down after the last elections. “You must then also believe,” Dipika said, “that lives shouldn’t be judged by what religion you were born into.” Jahanara Apa smiled, looked straight into her eyes, and asked, “Did you watch CNN after 9/11 in New York?” Dipika shook her head. They didn’t watch anything in English. “If you had, you would have heard something that finally convinced me I was on the right track. Back then, if you remember, they were saying 6,000 people had died in the World Trade Center. The actual number turned out to be smaller, but no number is acceptable. People everywhere simply want to live and love in normal lives, and all people deserve that. Americans too. And other lives are worth just as much as American lives, not in some grotesque ratio like 55,000 to 2 million—those were the numbers of dead on each side in the Vietnam war. But a few days after 9/11 a poll was taken in America and 70 percent — that’s nearly every third person in four—said they wanted retaliation ‘even if thousands of civilians die.’ What do you think of that? Doesn’t it make your blood run cold?” Dipika had mumbled something like, “That’s terrible, but what can you expect? It was just an emotional response, not a thinking response.” She had learned to distinguish human beings in their calm and enraged states. There had been no other choice—how else could she and others like her live in this country with the memory of relatives killed in riots, at the hands of rampaging neighbors stirred up by news from far off places in India. She’d seen it as a child back in 1964 in the Pakistan days; she’d seen it again in 1992 in Bangladesh time. “No, my dear, we can’t excuse that so easily. Since then, that poll’s been proven accurate. How many thousands, hundreds of thousands, of civilians have died in Afghanistan and Iraq? Such events confirmed in my mind that we need a vigorous global campaign to emphasize that ‘every life is precious.’ I was going to start this shelter anyway, but the name just came to me as a bolt of inspiration.” Then she described what they actually did as she gave Dipika a tour of the two floors. In day-to-day affairs, they operated as a small orphanage and primary school. Even before the organization had been launched, Jahanara Apa had taken in an abandoned street child herself and educated her through high school and college. This gave her the confidence that she could do more along the same lines. The same girl, Madhabi, now worked as her administrative coordinator. Dipika had met her on the way in and was impressed by her efficiency.

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F I C T I O N Back in the office, Jahanara said, “You start small, but you must combine philosophy with action. One without the other is useless. Marx’s name is maligned these days, but he was spot on when he said, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.’ What do you think?” “So much to think about. But it makes sense. There’s way too much talking when it comes to us Bangalis. Not enough action.” “Precisely. I think you’ll make a terrific fit here. When can you start?” Dipika had been taken aback. Jahanara Khan had not asked her any questions about her background. When she had started to offer, the woman had dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “I already read your resume. What’s the worst that can happen? If you don’t work out, we’ll look for someone else. Don’t expect me not to tell you how I feel. I believe in being direct.” When she went home that day, Dipika had remained undecided. She’d been moved by Jahanara Apa’s eloquence, but she’d also felt ignorant and stupid next to the woman. She wondered if the big words were matched by tenacity. Or was it simply a hobby for her, taken up today, tossed aside tomorrow? It almost seemed as if the philosophy was more important than the actual work. The conversation with Russell later that evening convinced her. She had mentioned her response to the English version of their name, and he had laughed with her. She had gone on to explain what she understood of Jahanara Khan’s philosophy. Russell said, “Typical Bangali. You want to start a little orphanage, fine. But no, these days, you have to make it sound so much more grandiose.” Dipika protested. “But anyone can start an orphanage—even though it seems only the madrassawallahs do it. This one’s part of an effort that seems broader in scope. I like the fact that there’s a philosophy behind it that’s not based on religion. Every life is precious. Such a simple phrase, but so much is packed into it.” She told Russell about the poll from America after 9/11 and how Jahanara Khan had responded to it by adding to their credo, “Lives should not be judged by the wealth or poverty of the country you happen to be born into.” “So clever.” He chuckled. “I love it.” He clapped his hands. “I don’t understand.” “You don’t see it?” “See what?” “Don’t you think that she added that with an eye to guilt trip Western donors?” “And what if she did?” “Arrey, don’t get so worked up. I said I liked it. It’s brilliant.” “Shouldn’t the organization be judged by how they spend the money? Is Jahanara Apa stealing the money for herself?” She told Russell about the simple cotton sari she wore, how the furnishings in her office were minimal, how there was no air conditioning, how everyone ate the same food for lunch, and how she had taken in a sex worker’s child and raised her to be her assistant now.

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“Where’s the greatness in that? She just acquired a life-long slave. Look at Shamsu upstairs—he too was raised by a wealthy man who lives in Gulshan. The man threw a fit when Shamsu didn’t want to work for him as his assistant, when he wanted to study something else in university. He cut him off right then and there. If it wasn’t for our company, Surma Foods, Shamsu would have been back on the streets.” “I’m not sure Shamsu did the right thing. One should have gratitude. There is a limit to independence.” Dipika then changed the subject. “She used a term I’d never heard before—she referred to prostitutes as ‘sex workers.’ I don’t know how I feel about that.” Russell nodded. He said, “It seems to be the favored word these days among the intellectuals and NGO types. Makes sense to me.” Dipika was taken aback. He usually scorned that crowd. Now, as if he himself was one of them he began to lecture her about how it was natural that men have needs and there was a profession that existed from time immemorial to serve those needs. “Do we judge waiters and cooks for the service they provide? Why should we make a moral judgment?” He went on to say that if the red light districts in Narayanganj and old Dhaka had not been destroyed, perhaps there would be fewer frustrated men looking for a quick trip to otherworldly houris. She countered, “And what about women’s needs?” “Oh, women are better at controlling their needs. They can channel it better.” So much for Mr. Enlightened Writer. He had double standards like any other conservative male. Later, Dipika wondered what Russell’s comment had signified. There had been an eagerness with which he had taken to the sex worker designation that disturbed her. He had once confessed, back in the early days of their marriage, that he, like his classmates in college, had enjoyed pleasure with street women. He claimed he had only done it once, scared off after a friend had a painful bout with gonorrhea. Now their marriage was sexless; it had been this way for years. Was Russell back to meeting his ‘manly needs’ from whores? His dismissal of ELIP bothered her more. She had only shared her experience at the interview tentatively with him, just as some facts about the place, but he had not discerned that she was attracted to the place. All she wanted from him was some word of encouragement, not cynical pontificating. She had made up her mind; she would take the job.

§ Sitting across from her in their conference room, Yasmeen looked more harried than distraught. She told Dipika that she had been at the shelter till late last night and had come in early this morning. One of the two house mothers had been on holiday, the other one could not handle a new child who was proving disruptive and difficult. “She was dropped off in front of the gate very early yesterday morning. She had an envelope in her hand. Read the message.”

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F I C T I O N Dipika opened the folder. “I hear you people raise orphans. Here, take Mala. By the time you get this, she will be an orphan. Her father was Mohit Biswas. When he came out of jail after serving five years, he was going to help me take care of Mala. But he did not survive a single day of freedom. That very night, he was taken away in a white pickup and killed in crossfire. You can read it in Friday’s newspapers. I cannot go on taking care of Mala. I am too exhausted. I can no longer carry on. Here, take her. By the time you read this, I will have become food for the fishes in the Buriganga.” Dipika said, “The handwriting’s quite good, and the language literate. She must have been an educated woman.” “Why say ‘have been’ so quickly? There are no reports of corpses in the river. Nothing in the morning papers. Nothing from the police. But one Mohit Biswas was indeed a victim of crossfire last week. You can see the Prothom Alo report in the folder.” Dipika read from the newspaper clipping. The Dhaka West unit of the Mongoose Force announced that the vicious terrorist Mohit Biswas, also known as Blackie Biswas, was killed last night in a crossfire. An MF squad had picked up Blackie for questioning at noon, shortly after he was released from Central Jail after completing a 5-year sentence for armed robbery. He was wanted for questioning in several unsolved murder cases. He agreed to take the MF squad to the secret place where he had stored his cache of weapons. When the MF arrived, Blackie’s comrades, who had been waiting, opened fire on the security force, and Mohit Biswas was killed in the crossfire. The other miscreants managed to escape. The MF squad retrieved a one-shooter gun, one bottle of Phensydil, and three bullets. “The usual,” Dipika said. “Did you expect something more colorful?”

Mahmud Rahman was born in Dhaka and came of age during the upsurge of the late sixties that led to the creation of Bangladesh. During the 1971 war, he was a refugee in Calcutta. In his adult life, he has lived mostly in the U.S. A resident of California today, he writes fiction, essays, and translates Bangla fiction into English. He is the author of Killing the Water: Stories and the translator of Bangladeshi novelist Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice. His first novel The Fiction Factory, set in contemporary Bangladesh and centered around themes of violence, image making, and propaganda, is seeking publication.

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F I C T I O N

Moazzam Sheikh

Mr. Samuel Washington Is Ready

D

on’t gimme that look man hell no don’t don’t this so bad so humiliatin’ Jesus Christ hep me somebody dear Lord oh Lord lemme live ‘nother day with dignity. Lemme live, dear Lord . . . eyelids heavy dust of disrupted dreams and broken wings . . . light a crack . . . daylight filtering in sheepishly the rising river of noise . . . open motherfuckah you eyelids lemme see . . . the miniature world twirling through a haze of blankness the eyes closed the comfort of nothingness crawling back, the recognition . . . ovah slept again lil dude . . . eyes open . . . violence . . . froze . . . the rush hour missed again? For Christ sake! I could still catch the tail end of it if I can manage to uncoil mahseff . . . Painfully aware inadequacies a quick afterthought no quickness of action that one-mindedness a warrior, things of the past roll ovah Beethoven an pull yourseff togethah . . . in pain not in pain didn’t have any booze last night eaten a decent dinner though on the late side . . . Why this flatness, man? Metabolism slowed down over the years groggy in the morning cold an unusually cold cold nights between days this swing of weather hot and cold hot and cold and hot a bit more than a pooh man’s skeleton can take bad for the immune system too I’ve heard not that young an strong anymore that’s news to me. Accepting it painful this knowledge of being human weak a mere mortal left to the whims of the world now all by mahseff . . . tragic when youth and strength gone then instead of making plans doing real things dreaming big now barely surviving surviving another day just one more ball-freezing night youth and strength and desire gone a mere bag of bones, shriveled skin so, my friend, what’s left of you your desires your soul? Nothin’, I reckon! But I can still desire. Well if it’s any consolation is it? Oh man oh Jesus what’s gonna happen to me? What if I take another fall like two summers ago? Do I slowly bow outta life? I ain’t got no skills and I ain’t got no money stuffed in my pillow am diggin’ a hole for mahseff, naw, am already in one, sir. I can’t get up early enough in the day to catch the crowd and I can’t get to places on time. What am I gonna do? Sad suddenly wanted to cry but didn’t, cyclical nature of thoughts feelings like watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas on TV—same scenes dialogues, nothing changes, nothing will, even in mah dreams. Shut the light shut his eyes but couldn’t block street noise reminder ring ring ring missed opportunity. A brush with the morning crowd . . . surprise . . . a golden opportunity. Why didn’t I try it before? Couldn’t blame no-body-told-me haven’t got the brains of a flea should’ve thought about it doesn’t take a rocket scientist I haven’t done justice to my head. That’s right, bro! Thoughts spun around head like it washing machines a million different sounds a churning pot of chaos warning his room on the third floor the decrepit Hotel Good Luck Patel Sixteenth street between Mission and Valencia against his will of nerves the rattling march of boots concrete pavements heels clicking thrust speed force, the seduction of their tapping the cluck cluck of a tongue conjuring images the sizes of the rumps curves of legs of women hips torso swing of shoulders, waving of hair bangs braids necks eyes expressions skin color responses the call of a new day festival human masks languages and every bit ethnic make up Chinese Bengali Vietnamese Urdu Spanish mating Persian French Swahili Arabic Jesus Christ This goddamn country has changed so


F I C T I O N much, I don’t even know if it’s mine anymore. Aw sorta crazy people keep on comin’ keep on comin’ in don’t know where we gonna fittem all man you can’t even keep your head straight Oh no I am sorry mah mistake so you are from the Philippines the pee-peeing land not Timbuktu no no not tryinna be funny, ma’am, now you say Palestine, is that next to India? How ya like your urine cola? Oh I must apologize for you seem offended, but really no reason to I meant no offense ‘cause there’s nothing wrong with it see I mahseff been peed on by mah crazy ex-girlfriend – yeah, this weirdo from a sorry place called Kansas City pee right on my head, dude, some kind of kinky pinky thyang she insisted on love had tied mah hands. Now now you little China-man you say you ain’t a Jap I beg your pardon aren’t you the same as other dog-eaters? Heck, I can’t tell the difference. You all look factory-made dawgs what can I do to educate mahseff me a racist pig? whadja say? Come on, I can’t hear ya! Well, jee, thank you so much, and you’re certain you ain’t gonna blow up mah goddamn country and I should just let you hump my women folk with that cut cock of yours! should juss respect your freedom to be weird with them funny looking beards believe you you ain’t no fucking commie and no mother-fucking hater of our precious darl star spangled freedom so fucking precious gee thank you you love American flag so much you’re willing to roll it up an shove it up your ass an you all fine and dandy and cool folks who just here as peace lovin’ folks from all ovah the world to step on me an climb up your ladder yeah right. Awrighty, awrighty! How did I end up this way? Think mixed up banged up twisted torn an everyday thing this act of recollecting life bits and pieces no coherence broken china of jagged memories events turning points an injury, some injustice done when little, locating a cross-hair to pin the blame on . . . person . . . persons . . . men . . . women . . . really, what went wrong, Sammy boy? Mr. Samuel Washington, are you even listenin’? The film the head the scenes childhood down South jumbled up moments of fun teenage boys school neighborhood buddies . . . the flashes come and go . . . I see mahseff in a black n white footage, there I’m staggerin’ gettin’ mah teeth knocked out by Eddy because I asked for another cookie an the next I’m racin’ with Lenny gimme a penny, yousonovabitch gimme me a penny, but he’d gone down the block on his wobbly bicycle he’d fixed up hisseff with hep from his dad an shit wished I had a dad mighta hep me later on to fix up other broke things in life an heck mighta helped me get mah ass outta bed right now . . . hard times a grown up boy snapshots mishmash plenty of good days adulthood an so on somethin’ went wrong, terribly wrong, sir. Where the fuck did pa go? I can’t figure that out. Like he was there one day and the next I open mah eyes like from a dream he isn’t there no more an not one niggah tell me anythin’ an I’m mama’s good boy shut his mouth good behavior neighbors never ask old man disappearance acceptance Tom substitute wanker from next door screwing mom neighbor’s lady (opportunity employer he was!) gotta act cool keep on smiling someone’s looking, always looking an I’m lookin’ at Tom and his dick all big ‘cause mom’s bent over folding the laundry but I’m keeping my cool lookin’ away naw amigo I wasn’t cut out for that. Hey look at me I can’t even remember when I took to drinkin’ and smokin’ shit ma tried to intervene but I wouldn’t listen to, plus she was busy raising Todd and Jill I felt ignored man felt ignored. Was it Joe the shmuck who introduced me to weed? It don’t matter no more can’t blame them for mah apathy and misery, for mah loneliness can’t even blame women for dumping me into the trash can! Lizzy be glad to

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know that I have stopped blamin’ people for mah fucked up seff but that’s the problem with folks who walk out on you they stop carin’ about your sorry ass . . . It don’t matter . . . I’m done complainin’ an I get strange idears too like though I been done gone for so long p’haps I can still return an p’haps ma is still alive an pa’s come back all old and broke an cracked an I can see him before he dies, p’haps I can still knock his teeth out for ditchin me when I needed him the most. Once you fall you fall realization mama and family teach nothing how to get up fucked fucked up. A man take hit stand up wobbly knees . . . most can’t. I’s among the most. Is that what they call the center comin’ loose? Like things fallin’ apart? Losin’ gravity and shit? Goin’ crazy? Can’t expect a lending hand in today’s world . . . if big if a helping hand a true friend like some others like some guys stories friendships back home . . . didn’t believe the suckers but I liked the story about the Paki dude hangin’ around us bums last year told him about his childhood pal back home about how the friend brought a chick over to his place an then begged her to fuck the Paki dude too. That still makes me shake mah head. The world . . . screwed up? Shakes his head asks repeatedly, Is the whole world gone bonkers? Some Muslim Brotherhood. P’haps I should convert ain’t a good Christian anyway, never really bought the line about the immaculate conception an a man bein’ the son of god bit may be true, but ain’t buyin’ it, aint’ buyin’ it. Arriving vaguely remembers San Francisco Greyhound moons ago silver afternoon. Remembers bones aching smell of shit toilet lingering forever can’t forget Judy cut him loose too soon. Heart-broken knocked him down at a loss lonely nights Hollywood movies happy endings in one piece . . . no happy ending . . . forever . . . made friends difficulty meeting women back tasted brown sugar and kimchi rolled into one landed himself among the born losers disowned discarded, empty crunched cans of beer wasn’t Judy’s fault didn’t know how to hang on to a nice gal. Wasn’t that during the Iran-Contra scam? Me and Judy gettin’ into arguments Judy gettin’ all defensive boy that’s a strange time everybody lyin’ left n right an no one remembering what the heck them lyin’ about juss thinkin’ them lyin’ for the President an the spiritual leaders of the country dressed up in expensive suits dining at the White House an playing golf gettin’ their balls close to the Lord’s hole fucked up times no wonder can’t remember why I left Atlanta that shit hole of a place before I was too deep into becomin’ a petty thief hot wiring cars breaking into friends’ homes that’s real low mah man. A few years in jail lesson well taught confess turn over a new leaf so many blacks in one place prison worse than Atlanta. Thieving not right all shook up lazy bones the fact no one showed a friend a relative no visit no ma Todd or Jill all hell pure hell rotting away there emotionally mangled a condom filthy used up no washing drying no repair damage permanent. But a man still gotta roll up his sleeves an stand up for the fight. I was out on the streets thrown to the dogs . . . Then no call backs no hiring work out life put things in order straighten out the mess . . . It seemed to mah half-dead brain the world had turned against me, all humanity declared war on this sorry ass Sam. I guess I coulda joined the army when I was younger, but to tell you the truth seein’ Josh in his wheelchair and Peter with the left side of his mug gone and fuckin’ and dopin’ and drinkin’ rotgut to hang on to a strand of life frightened me made me sick every time I thought about it. Plus mah country was messin’ around everywhere in the world using us pooh white and black folks as fodder. I was no Mr.

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F I C T I O N Clean but I wasn’t dumb either . . . a short while pimping hooked up Teresa from North End white trash ghetto . . . good days Teresa good money white boys too but realized selling pussy not easy not selling peanuts wasn’t cut out this hard work. Teresa gone met Judy Judy at Abe’s Breakfast place waited tables love at first sight . . . her knockers banged into mah face as she slipped on some coffee an before we had barely known each other she stole money from the cash register and we’re on Greyhound goin’ west singin’ bye bye I’ll follow the sun an we soon out of the state like Bonnie and Clyde. Thank you, goodbye, ciao baby, no bullet holes, please! The first night sleep street San Francisco kicked out thinking wouldn’t last and before long a place permanent place shit happened so many years ago now seemed someone else’s life finally a roof over head so much changed things worse much worse the last time a girlfriend? When was the last time someone trusted me with work? Deep down he a good person didn’t believe in the sexist and racist diatribe it a self pity nothing else turned venom directed at others . . . wasn’t dumb often reflected on the idea of having to leave your place your family your friends your neighborhood for a new place. Getting up packing up stuff head off an alien land no easy thing missed home . . . them people they brave traveling across seas! Uncle Sam create those conditions thinks got all sorted out in his head. Often feels apologize racist slurs all remains stuck like a frog in throat. I ain’t a bad person deep down even saved someone’s life a geek a stuck up bastard so ungrateful I shoulda just let those wets beat the crap outta him but I rushed and spoke to the dudes in their lingo and they let him go but the rotten turd wouldn’t even shake mah hand nor tell me his name after I told him mine, that fucking piece of shit! All he kept sayin’, ‘These criminals should be in jail.’ Still, I told him as he walked away, ‘Just don’t make eye contact. It a turf thing, buddy.' God knows, I am not a mean person. I may have stolen things, but that’s as far as I’d go. I even treat hookers nicely, tipping them over their price. Heck I am grateful they even consider fucking me. How do I get out of this mess? Oh Lord, hep me! Although I don’t believe in you, I don’t mind the hep you may offer. I guess if you for real, then, you the God of everyone including the homos and the commies and the children dying over there from our bombs and mines and the fuck ups like me who won’t think twice before takin’ a leak by the walls of a place of worship. You can’t be the God of a handful of fools . . . ma said, How could God love pa who ran off and left his kids? Could you? Oh God how did I end up like this mah thinkin’ all messed up the way I think an speak why why did it have to be this way why do I even speak like blacks why do I imagine mah past in this way it ain’t my life where’s mah life where’s mah family thought I was from Pakistan but from where in Pakistan who do I ask did they really die in a crash p’haps they juss abandoned me where’s my relatives back home? Who adopted who? Oh what the heck let it be Sam let it be don’t hurt your head no more let it rest let it be. Onslaught street sounds cooled; an occasional honking, a

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screech, revving of buses, shoes and boots and sandals, each strike conjured up a fleshed up human head to toe his mind waking, evoking dust storm of desire, a nagging itch to live. He rolled over and felt fire in his groins. Cool it, take it easy, no sleep anymore. Wide-awake, the ceiling, a constellation of dust motes shapes angel faces . . . dust to dust . . . mumble jumble. Refusal a mere dust mote life living constant checkmate a slicing shaft of light. I exist also when it’s dark because dark things exist too. Things need to change, man. Wanted change . . . the settings of his life. His life not his his thoughts not his gotta clear head. By saving money and then moving the hell out of this town. No other way. Cut down on booze and weed gotta wake up early to net the crowd gotta hit the sack early save energy think clearly think cleanly gotta look clean shaven groomed gotta have a sense of humor stead of bitterness. You can’t make people feel bad. Stop acting like someone else.

§ Sitting on his bed now, legs limp, searching for slippers. Things got to change. Remembering his old buddy Jeff’s refrain You lazy lima beans, first you go out and get all liquored up and then you think the world you’re living. I don’t know how you can even live with yourself . . . . He could never understand the entire limerick, but he liked the sound of it. They all did. That lucky bastard, shacking up with his tongue-pierced whore good enough to be his daughter! Man, I came so close. His heart broke anew thinking of that night within inches of screwing her was clear she wanted to do him was already fondling his material when Billy whisked her away enticing her with candy. She wanted me to come along too, but I knew Billy wouldn’t have liked it and that shit scared me anyway. But his heart ached whenever he reminisced the missed opportunity. Perhaps his mind liked to explode that minor anecdote. His life nothing but a series of missed opportunity. He yawned and stretched and was finally up on his feet, walking around in his dingy room. He tossed a few crackers in his mouth. He grabbed a leftover piece of meat studded with grains of white rice from a gaping styrofoam to-go container and shoved it in his mouth. He nibbled some more felt energized now gladly went in for a quick wash up. His shirt had holes his undergarments too and socks was glad they all hidden from view the shirt collar clean, and a worn tweed jacket given him by Ramon from Orlando the wasteland a young wanna-be-writer, from the neighborhood, good thing sympathy for a down-on-luck now was ready to face the world a bit reassuring! He walked down the street towards the underground train station called that his head office of the entire chain he owned and had employed millions of people all over the globe on the other side of the street he spotted the usual crowd by the city trashcan outside the Deli Ramallah corner store assumed they all Mexicans even if they weren’t never bothered about it liked them all since they good people friendly towards him providing him with a sense of protection, an occasional cigarette or a beer or a Mexican pastry. One of them noticed him hobbling towards them on the other side of the street and pointed him out to the rest of the crowd, shouting Amigo, she

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F I C T I O N is waiting for you followed by a volcanic laughter caused a smile on his face too waved back at them but didn’t cross over. What’s up dawg! Am late gotta head down to my office first an make sure the secretary’s not messin’ around gotta be on top of everything these days you know including your bitch smiling and waving. He wasn’t always this friendly with these shits, you gotta be careful in this world; there was a time he thought the whole gang was out to gyp him. But they’ve took a liking to each other. One of the guys waved his can of beer partially hidden inside a paper bag and yelled over a passing car Yes tell to her I love her. The men laughed, one of them doubling over, pointing at him. And bring back the money, mucho dinero . . . dolloro, Señor Burro. You bet you wet ass on it, my friend, moving on the men soon distracted by a tall Asian woman approaching one of them passed a comment she hurried past without comeback without noticing they present. Entered a Mexican bakery on Mission Street fished out loose change a cup of coffee an oily muffin. The Chinese-from-Mexico owner helped by his energetic Latina wife counted the change his mind somewhere else exchanged greetings distracted asked after the business and family before walking away from the counter to take a small table by the wall right above hung a calendar Jesus and Mary and the Holy Ghost unattractive bright colors felt a fire beginning to scorch his stomach devouring coffee muffin anger calming down calm down yo, gentle sips of coffee steam in eyes. Started his march on firm steps toward the underground station holding his coffee cup and sipping from it. Consider a modern day Napoleon defeated but resilient reaching the ground level entrance where the stairs and escalator led you underground by the ticket machines downed the rest of his drink by the time he climbed down the last steps came to the middle of the lobby stepping away from the ticket machines took up his position like a Janissary of words noticed and recognized the fair-skinned black ticket agent with straight hair in station booth. Awright, you may not take a likin’ to me but you one of us! What a weird thought! She glanced up and noticed him with a disinterested look in her eyes she not supposed to worry about his presence or others who took up the same position at different times of the day. Couldn’t deny the pull he felt towards her was in an awkward position almost a tug of war a classic conflict of interest. “How you doin’, sir,” addressing a young man stepping off the escalator. “Fine, thank you,” the young man replied dropped a quarter the empty coffee cup extended to him. The bitter-sweet sound of the quarter’s drop fully awake now the hand. An older woman the station a padded up grandchild in toe. “Buenos dias, Señora, could you please hep me out?” She responded to the Spanish part nodding blocked out the English part moved ahead without handing out any change. He just smiled, “Have a nice day anyway,” concentrating on the next person charging in. “Hi, young lady, hep me with a cup of coffee?” She smiled and gave him some loose change.

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Awrighty folks Mistah Samuel Washington the illegit son of George Washington six degrees removed is ready for the day! Hummed What a wonderful world . . . addressed a few more passengers without much success a part of the job taught you perseverance at the end of the day a bit wiser more experienced, if that didn’t really translate into higher earning, it taught you tricks that gave you a competitive edge over young guns guessing correctly he’d be edged out eventually, but try and last long as possible the population of our tribe’s growing fast! “Could you please spare some change, man?” “Hey bro, could you spare a dime?” “Pretty one, you gotta boyfriend?” “Spare a quarter, hey handsome?” “Thank you so much. God bless you.” “Fuck you!” Sonovawhore cursed the guy under breath. “Howdy, guys, really, I ain’t lyin’ need money for a burrito.” I’m sittin’ on a dock of a bay watchin’ . . . I ain’t a blue-eyed devil mother-fucking sonovabitch. “Thanks, dude. God Bless you.” “Namastay, lady!” “Cool it, dude, no sweat. Thanks, anyway.” Shook his head then eyed a woman as she walked out seen her before is she . . . ? That can’t be who cares! “Thanks brother. Soon as I get my bus ticket, you won’t see my ass here no more.” “Thanks, anyway.” “Why don’t you just keep walking.” “Thanks, ma’am.” “Smile, please!” “Hi, beautiful!” “God bless you!” “Asslamalaykum!” Hep me somebody dear Lord oh Lord lemme live ‘nother day with dignity. Lemme live, dear Lord . . . eyelids heavy with the dust of disrupted dreams and broken wings . . . light a crack . . .

Born in Lahore, Moazzam Sheikh makes his home in San Francisco, where he is a librarian at San Francisco Public Library and a lecturer at City College of San Francisco. He has published two collections of short stories. He is also the editor of A Letter from India: Contemporary Short Stories from Pakistan and the translator of Circle, and Other Stories by Intizar Husain. He translates across Hindi, Urdu, English, and Punjabi. He writes on literature and film regularly for The News International, Pakistan.

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F I C T I O N

Murzban F. Shroff

Scent of a Meal

I

t was that time of the night when the city had hung up its boots, when the traffic had thinned out, when the signals blinked routinely, intermittently, arresting the night in a fog of yellow. It was that time of the night when pedestrians crossed cautiously, for drivers took their chances speeding. Maneuvering his JCB under a tree, Sikander drew on his cigarette and exhaled slowly, watching the smoke disperse in the streetlight. The light Alex Ranaldi illuminated the garbage on the main road, outside the bazaar that had long fallen silent. At the entrance to the bazaar was a bookstore, its blue wooden doors bolted. On the side wall of the bookstore was a blackboard, on which, in chalk, was scribbled: “Evil is truth misplaced.” Below that: “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,” giving full respect to the Father of the Nation. Parallel to the wall was a long parapet on which young urchins slept. During the day, these boys would be rushing cups of tea to the vendors or playing coolies to the memsahibs, who struggled with their heavy shopping loads. But right now the urchins slept the thick dreamy sleep of the fatigued, their mouths open, their bellies rising and settling. Sikander’s eyes fell on the pile of garbage before him. Maneuvering the JCB, he had to crush the pile and pulverize it, so that it made an easy pick-up for the dumper that would follow. He had been doing this for years and would, probably, do so until he retired. As a crushing machine, the JCB was effective. Armed with a fender in front, a claw at the back, the bright yellow JCB could go anywhere it wanted. It could climb over piles, scoop with its front fender, crush with its back claw, and flatten mountains of debris with its huge, wide tires. Its motion was slow, awkward, and jerky, but the work it did was enormous. Not for nothing was it called the haathi, the elephant. A bark! A yelp! The dogs had arrived. Sikander liked dogs, particularly these ones. The dogs were half-famished mongrels. They came sniffing at the pile, looking for leftovers. Most nights they got lucky; their excavations would throw up something. When they didn’t, Sikander would jump down from the JCB and, using a rake, would drag out what he thought was edible. The white one was Faltoo, the black one Kala Katta. Those were his private names. He told no one about them and he never called them out aloud.


Faltoo was half-blind, her eyes red, swollen, and reproachful. She barked a lot, straining her neck and raising her head skyward. She did this to mark out her territory, and would exercise this right each time a ragpicker came by, dragging his sack behind him, or each time a passing car would honk sharply, or a motorbike would whiz past with a roar. Sikander suspected that Faltoo got kicked around a lot because people would think her to be diseased or rabid. For that, he blamed those posters on the train, which showed a red-eyed dog under a headline that said: Rabies Kills! Faltoo was low on intelligence, but affectionate. As a pup, she could not even get her food from the pile. She would stand near the pile, looking at Sikander fearfully. Then he would dip into his pocket and bring out a packet of biscuits. And while she wolfed the biscuits off his palm, he would struggle with a funny feeling in his chest, a proud fatherly feeling. There were things about Faltoo that would delight Sikander even today. The way she would come up after eating and sit at the foot of the JCB, her tongue hanging, her eyes trustful. Then he would stick out his bare foot, and she would jump up and try to lick it, and he—he would dodge her, until she managed to confer those licks of affection. Now Kala Katta, the black one, was a real matlabi. He would not wait a moment after eating. He would simply trot off, eyes and ears alert. But Faltoo would wait while Sikander rolled the JCB over the pile, working it down to a mash. Then she would trot alongside the haathi as it set off on its journey. She would accompany Sikander up to the traffic signal, where she’d leave off, lest she crossed into the territory of other dogs larger than her. Sikander pulled away at his cigarette while the two dogs probed their dinner. They were sure to find something of interest, he thought. But he wasn’t going to help them today; he had a long night ahead of him. He had to crush the garbage in several places before heading back to the municipal compound, where he would park his JCB. After a small chai break, he would drive a truck loaded with garbage, all the way to the city dump. He would drive with his foot on the accelerator, clattering over speed-breakers and manholes, the garbage heaving in the back like a giant omelet threatening to leave its pan. A whistle! Too loud, damn it! Damn that watchman! Did he have to do this every night, as though his job depended on it? The watchman had it so cushy. All he did was keep watch at the construction site where a tall residential tower was coming up. He stood at the gate, blowing his whistle each time a truck came in or went out. Sikander was sure that the watchman had fun with the female construction workers. Well, why not? He was a young and pleasant-looking fellow, full of energy. Surely the women would fancy him. In comparison to the watchman’s job, his own job in garbage collection appeared dull and monotonous. What future did he have? What respect? He earned out of waste, out of kachra. He helped clean the city when no one was looking, no one was even aware. Often, Sikander felt his own life to be a pile of waste that could be crushed by anyone, even a stranger in the dark.

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F I C T I O N The gloom of the hour settled on his shoulders. Well, thank God at least the JCB was a smart-looking vehicle, he thought. Sitting in it, he felt some status, he felt elevated. The ragpicker Hyder Ali approached. He was the filthiest creature Sikander had ever seen and across his back was a sack yellow with age. The ragpicker had a limp; he dragged his right leg with effort. His right foot was swollen and on his ankles were large pussy sores. “Kya re, Sikander,” he sneered, “slacking in your job because your pets must eat?” “What’s it to you, O’ gardaloo?” growled Sikander. The ragpicker’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me gardaloo,” he said. “I don’t like it." “What else are you then?” said Sikander. “You are addicted to the stuff you smoke. You live only for that shot of poison that keeps you alive, until you get your next dose, and your next. And you go on like this, day after day, with no respect for life. Look at you! The very face of death you are. No decent person can bear to look at you.” The ragpicker pretended not to have heard Sikander. A sly look came over his face and he said, “You haven’t heard then, have you? No, it seems not. And perhaps it is better I don’t tell you. Why should I do you any favors? Who are you to me, Sikander? Not my brother! Not my rishtedaar! Not even my friend!” Sikander made as if to get down, and the ragpicker fled some distance, then came back laughing. “If you bribe me, Sikander, I might share some important news with you,” he said. “Nice try, Hyder Ali, but I will not be the one to fund your habit and rush you to your grave,” said Sikander firmly. “Ah, but perhaps you will be standing over your pets’ graves soon,” said Hyder Ali, slyly. “Perhaps, when you hear how your pets have been put to sleep, you will wish you had listened to me. I am told it takes only a few minutes for the injection to work.” “Hah, who would dare try that? There are laws . . . strong laws, these days. And, besides, there is that minister in Delhi who will kick up a ruckus. She will bring the heavens down on the offenders.” “You haven’t heard then, have you? No, I think not. So I had better be the first to tell you. One of the strays, it seems, bit a minister’s son, a young boy who forgot to tell his parents. After some time the boy began to act strangely. He began to act like a dog, barking and snapping at people. First they thought he was trying to draw attention to himself, and they weren’t surprised, for his father, too, was like that: he craved attention. Then one day the boy bit off a good part of his father’s ear. And that’s when they realized that the boy was very ill. So promptly an order was issued that all strays had to be rounded up. It had to be done quietly, not through the municipality, but through a private party who, in turn, have asked us ragpickers to help out. For this, they will pay us well.” Shuffling in his pocket, he brought out a small packet of biscuits wrapped in a transparent polyurethane film. Holding it to the light, he squeezed the packet, saying, “See this, Sikander. See the liquid oozing from these biscuits.

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Know what this is? The liquid that will put your dogs to sleep. Just enough so that the vans can come and pick them up later.” Sikander jumped off his seat. “Give me that packet,” he ordered the ragpicker. “Not so fast, Sikander,” said the ragpicker. He looked at Sikander. A man of average height and firm build. Good looking, yes, in a rough sort of a way. Couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, forty. Married? Probably not! Otherwise why would he be so crazy about those dogs? “Twenty rupees to see the packets, and two hundred rupees not to feed the dogs. I promise your dogs won’t be drugged by my hands, Sikander. I won’t have that on my conscience.” Sikander dipped into his pocket and brought out two tenners. The ragpicker grabbed at them with dirt-hardened hands. Holding the packet, Sikander pressed it with his fingers, and at once an oily liquid appeared. Raising it to his nose, he sniffed at the packet. A strange smell! Not floury, not biscuity, but sickeningly fragrant. “It will cost you two hundred rupees if you want me to spare your pets,” said the ragpicker. He smiled at Sikander, who noticed for the first time how black and swollen his gums were and how yellow his eyes and teeth. Sikander had no problem about paying. He earned a good salary, more than what he would have ever expected. But how could he be sure that Faltoo and Kala Katta did not venture into another neighborhood and meet some other ragpicker who would drug them? He said to Hyder Ali, “Let me think!” not quite sure what he wanted to think about. He knew he was buying time; but then he had to! These dogs were everything to him. They were the ones who waited for him at the end of the day. They, with their faithful eyes, their eager bark, their frantic wagging tails. There was no way he could afford to lose them. But how could he trust the ragpicker? How could he believe him? The ragpicker was, after all, a gardaloo, a brown sugar addict. He would do anything to get his nasha, his high. Lie, cheat, steal, even kill, if necessary. What if this was one of his tricks to fund his habit? Sikander struggled with himself, then said, “Okay, Hyder Ali, you win. I will give you the money. Hand over the other packet! But, by God, if I find these dogs missing, I will come looking for you, and then you know where I will send you. To your grave!” He fished in his pocket, brought out a wad of notes, and handed over two hundred-rupee notes to the ragpicker. Promptly Hyder Ali held out the second packet. “All yours, Sikander. I don’t know why you care about these dogs so much, but this I can say: You are a good man, a better man than me, and may the moon be witness to that!” Gleefully he hobbled away, singing: Pyar hua, ikrar hua....” He is mad, thought Sikander, clearly, clearly mad. All that gard has affected his mind. The next day, Sikander couldn’t wait to start work. He reached the spot early and waited for the dogs, waited to see them. Meanwhile, he distracted himself with the street life. To his right was an all-night chemist shop with its

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F I C T I O N shutters down. But, through a small window in the shutter, the chemist gave out medicines. The chemist was a strange-looking fellow: heavily bearded and bespectacled, with long gray hair falling over his shoulders. He looked like an artist, thought Sikander. Sometimes cars and cabs would cruise up, and women would emerge—ladies of the night, in jeans and shiny blouses or in low-backed sarees—and the chemist would attend to them. The ladies would be pleased with their purchases; they would hurry back to the vehicles with a brisk flamboyance in their gait. Farther ahead, a giant skywalk curled between buildings, its steel facade gleaming against the dark gray sky. At the crossroads, a chaiwalla on a cycle poured glasses of tea for waiting cabbies. On scraggly pavements slept families of gypsies, the men drunk and disheveled, frowning in their sleep, the women snoring, hands over their eyes, the children half naked. On his way past them, Sikander would eye the women, their partly exposed breasts and thighs. Sikander loved the night. He always had! He could work quietly and efficiently at night. But tonight he was tense. Could he trust that gardaloo? Where was he and where were his dogs? For thirty minutes he waited. He could not even start the JCB, lest the dogs arrived, craving their dinner. Sinister thoughts flooded his mind. Perhaps the ragpicker had drugged them and sold them to a roadside kebabwalla. Sikander had heard things about dogs disappearing and ending up as dog meat. But, no! He shuddered. An hour passed, and yet no sign of the ragpicker or the dogs. Now a wild panic set in. Leaving the JCB, Sikander started pacing. The pile stared him in the face, but he barely saw it. After some time, he crossed the road, walked over to the watchman, and asked if he had seen the ragpicker. “No,” said the watchman, “and anyway I wouldn’t have noticed him because he is such an insignificant fellow.” Then Sikander asked about the dogs, and the watchman looked at him and said, “You are pulling my leg, aren’t you? Why would I keep track of stray dogs? You think I have all the time in the world?” And Sikander said, “Yes, I am pulling your leg. But if it was one of those female workers I had asked about, you would have surely known.” The watchman froze and said stiffly, “You better watch that tongue of yours, my friend. You forget that I am not from the same social class as you.” And Sikander said, “Sorry, brother, I meant no offense. In truth, I envy you. It’s a fine job you have.” He smiled at the watchman, who said gravely, “Fine, yes, but I can’t slack. Can’t go talking to fellows like you. I have to guard the site and all the material. Now buzz off!” And Sikander walked away, after requesting the watchman to keep an eye out for the dogs. Soon the dumper arrived, and Sikander had not yet crushed the pile. The four dumper boys who jumped down from the back found him scraping at the pile with a rake. From it he had extracted a small cluster of bread pieces and meat bones.

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One of the dumper boys asked Sikander softly, “Kya re, what’s wrong, Sikander? Not well or what? Tell us, so one of us can take the wheel and finish your beat for you.” But Sikander did not answer. He simply stared at the empty sack which he had just drawn from the pile and which was dangling from the rusty prongs of his rake. Then slowly he said, “Yes, I am not well, my friend. I am feeling sick, very sick. Please take this round for me. I will be much obliged.” That was the first time in his career he had handed over his haathi. Through the week there was no sign of Hyder Ali or the dogs. On his rounds, Sikander would stop and inquire of other ragpickers, but each time he drew a blank. “Hyder Ali? No! And I don’t care. Maybe he is dead, fallen in some gutter. I sure hope so! The bastard owes me money. He is a liar and a snake.” By the end of the week Sikander was convinced that he had been tricked by the ragpicker. From his friends in the municipality he had learned that there was no campaign against strays, no plans to eliminate them. In which case, where were the dogs? Surely they would come to him. They would be miserable without him. One day when he was at the spot, about to raise the JCB onto the pile, he heard a voice from the pavement ask: “Would you be Sikander, the crusher of garbage, the lover of dogs?” He was startled. It was more than two weeks since the dogs had disappeared and it hurt to be reminded of them. Every time he would see a dog, any dog, he would slow down, stop; then, feel a wave of dejection wash over him. Now someone was reminding him of his loss. He reversed the JCB and the owner of the voice came into sight. A plumpish pleasant-looking man, in a white shirt and dark gray trousers, wearing chappals. “Would I be right in thinking you are Sikander?” asked the man, and Sikander said, “Yes, but who are you? And how do you know about the dogs?” “Sikander is a fine name,” replied the man. “I was looking forward to meeting you. I believe you would be looking for your dogs, and might also be looking for Hyder Ali, in whose possession you left them.” Sikander jumped down from his seat and stood before the man, fists clenched. “Yes, I am looking for my dogs. Where are they? As for that gardaloo, why, when I get my hands on him, I will make him remember his mother.” The man shook his head and said gravely, “I am not sure you will do that. You seem to be a good man, a kind man. But right now you are angry. And right now you also have work to do. And duty always before pleasure, I say. So I request you to come and meet me later, when your work is done. You see, I am like you. I work nights. I work at that hospital down the road, looking after patients who can barely manage themselves. And I get no time to eat. Which is why I must eat now. Then later we can meet. And by the way, my name is Vishwas Apte, and I am here to relieve you of your tension. But first you must believe me, trust me.”

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F I C T I O N The face before him was calm and tranquil, devoid of guile or manipulation. Looking into it, Sikander said anxiously, “Where would you like to meet? And will you promise to tell me about the dogs? I need to know, please.” He was surprised how desperate he sounded. “We will meet on that skywalk there. Right there, in the center! It is a good place. We can talk uninterrupted. It is eleven p.m. now. So, say we meet at one a.m? That will give me enough time to eat and you—you can finish your work.” That night, Sikander worked furiously. He brought the claw down on pile after pile, not caring that the sound would wake up people in the neighborhood. Later, he drove the truck like a man possessed, not minding that some of the garbage spilled from the open back. Not my fault, he thought. How often had he requested his bosses to close up the back! How often had he drawn their attention to the stench! But had they listened? “Why do you want to disturb the system?” they had asked. “The citizens are not complaining. So why do you want to stir a beehive?” The skywalk ran from the railway station all the way to the crossroad, where it branched out into a series of exits. Already its supports were rusting, Sikander noted, treading in uneasy silence. Along the way he saw figures sleeping, huddled under worn-out blankets, and he wondered how long before the whole skywalk became a dormitory. It was the fault of a lazy government, he thought, that does not provide enough shelters for the homeless. Vishwas Apte was already there, seated in the center, on a large piece of cloth. As Sikander came up, he said, “Brother Sikander, you have come here for a reason, out of great concern for your dogs. So I do not wish to prolong your agony. I will give you the answers you seek, and for which you might have suffered. Yes, you will know all that you wish to, but you must give me a patient hearing and you must not judge Hyder Ali or condemn him until I have finished. This you must promise me.” He gestured for Sikander to sit. Once Sikander was seated, Vishwas Apte began: “Hyder Ali was once a boy like any other. There was hope in his eyes, strength in his movements, and goodness in his heart. He was born to parents of average means, in the village of Bhusawal, in Jalgaon. His mother was a housewife, his father worked at an arms’ factory in Warangal. He was the youngest among four siblings, all sisters. “When his father retired, he got Hyder a job at the arms’ factory. It was a good job, and the boy, who was eighteen then, worked hard. He would visit home once a month and make sure that he made his family happy. To his mother he would give half his salary, and for his father he would bring gifts like a shirt or a razor, and for his unmarried sisters he said he was saving up for their wedding. “Then, one day, a gun went missing from the packing department, and the suspicion fell on Hyder. His bosses called him and drilled him, they asked him to confess to the theft and, for all his denials, refused to believe him. He felt they had condemned him because he was a Muslim.

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“Not knowing what to do, he called up two of his friends in Bhusawal, Jehangir and Shaukat, who advised him to get away as soon as possible. They advised him to go to Mumbai and stay away for a few months. If the police were brought in, he could be jailed and tortured. “So Hyder left Warangal that day itself. Before going, he transferred all his money to his mother’s bank account and asked Shaukat to explain matters to his father. His father might be able to speak to his bosses and convince them. Maybe then he could return home, he said. “He came to Mumbai with five hundred rupees. And no sooner had he arrived than two men approached him and asked him if he wanted a job. They said there was a job going in a recruitment agency that sent people to the Middle East and, if he proved himself, in a few months he might just find himself on a plane to Bahrain or Dubai. “They made him fill up a form and helped him with the details. And they sympathized when he told them how he had to flee from Warangal. They said they knew the moment they had seen him that he was in trouble and that they wanted to help him. Then they asked him for two thousand rupees. Not for themselves but for the manager who had to be taken care of. “When he said he didn’t have that much, they laughed and said that he was very brave, coming to Mumbai with so little money. And they said that they would advance him the rest of the amount but once he had gotten his first salary he should repay them. Meanwhile, they took the five hundred rupees from him, promising to return in an hour or so. “There was no sign of them, and Hyder had to spend the night at the railway station. He said the foyer stank of urine, the announcements kept him awake all night. He did not have the money to call home or to call Jehangir or Shaukat, and for the first time in his life he felt a bitter taste in his mouth and hunger pangs in his stomach. “The next day he wandered around, wondering if he should return home by traveling in the toilet of a train. His head hurt from the noise of the traffic. He stopped some strangers and requested for a bit of money, only to get stared at and refused. “At that point, some urchins befriended him and shared with him their food. And they told him where he could get a regular meal and where he could find himself a job, pointing to an eatery called ‘Sadanand Thali.’ “The owner hired him after taking a ten-minute interview. He would be a table-cleaner, a waiter, and a washer-boy, all rolled into one. No pay for three months, during his probation period, but he would get two meals, two cups of tea, and a place to sleep and bathe. For that he would have to put in twelve hours of work every day. “The owner’s name was Suresh Babu. He was a religious man. He did puja three times a day. At other times, he had a foul temper. He would not hesitate to abuse the boys or to cuff them on the ears or to pull their hair until tears sprang to their eyes, and every night he would make them massage his body for two hours non-stop. “The eatery was very close to the railway station, and it so happened that one day Hyder spotted the two men who had cheated him. Incensed,

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F I C T I O N he ran after them and brought one of them down with a tackle. He began to pummel his opponent, even while the other rained blows on him. In the fight he broke the nose of his adversary, who began to bleed profusely. “Soon a railway constable arrived and pulled them apart. Hyder’s shirt was drenched with blood. Meanwhile, Suresh Babu arrived on the scene and negotiated with the constable for Hyder’s release. “Because he had to pay the constable, Suresh Babu refused to pay Hyder his three-months’ wages. And Hyder had pleaded. He said he needed to call home, needed to speak to his parents, who would be sick worrying about him. But none of that served to convince Suresh Babu. Hyder then begged for some money to call home, but that too Suresh Babu refused. “And then Hyder does something he shouldn’t have: he abuses Suresh Babu and calls him a cheat, and he curses him and his family. “Seeing that a crowd had gathered, Suresh Babu started shouting, ‘Look, look, brothers, what an ungrateful fellow this boy is! I give him a job. I give him food, clothes, a roof over his head, and what does he do? He abuses me and my family. He says he will teach me a lesson. Arrey, what other lesson can I learn, when I have seen such ingratitude from him?’ “Hyder begins to protest, he begins to say what a great liar Suresh Babu is, when he sees something in the faces of the people and realizes that they weren’t going to believe him. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a voice in his ear. ‘Come! It is time to leave; to move, before things get out of hand.’ And because that was the only kind voice in the crowd, Hyder obeyed and followed his well-wisher, who turned out to be a man named Idris. “Idris Khan gave Hyder a place to stay, gave him food, clothes, and money to call home. Speaking to his parents, Hyder learned how bad things were at home. His father was driving an autorickshaw, but had to stop on the road ever so often, because he was highly diabetic and had to urinate, and this got his passengers furious. Daily they fought with him, and daily he came home in a foul mood. His sisters had stopped going to college—there was no money for their fees. His mother wanted to start some business, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. “His father felt that Hyder shouldn’t have run away; he should have stayed, gone through an inquiry, and cleared his name. Hyder said it wouldn’t have been so easy, but his father wasn’t convinced. He said that Hyder had shamed them: the police had visited their home and questioned them before all their neighbors. Hyder realized he couldn’t return now, and his parents, too, agreed with him. “And now our Hyder does what a thousand other boys do when they come to the city: he falls into temptation. With Idris and his brother Bilkis, he embarks on a life of petty crime. “The brothers were engaged in a fraud called Double Dollar. They would approach a man outside the railway station and, pointing to a woman, ask him if he would be interested in a night of pleasure. If the man agreed, one of them would walk up to the woman and speak to her; then, returning, they would tell the man that she would meet him at a particular hotel. Of

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course he would have to pay them in advance. This Double Dollar con was foolproof, because the men who got cheated couldn’t take their complaints to the police. “Travelling the late night trains, the boys would steal the luggage of sleeping passengers. And they would also steal from those who’d be sleeping in the foyer of the station. Soon, they were joined by a boy named Shamsher, who had earlier led a gang from Madanpura. Shamsher had seen harder times than them. He had also spent a couple of years in prison. This had made him cynical and tough. He had no sense of right or wrong, and had very little patience with those who did not think like him. “The Double Dollar gang now turned to larger crimes. They would cheat tourists at Bandra and Colaba, saying they’d get them cocaine and, instead, sell them low-grade heroin. Hiring motorcycles, they would go to the Borivali National Park, where they would threaten and rob young couples and picnickers. “As the money poured in, they developed new habits. They began drinking, began visiting brothels and gambling dens, and began to dress showily. In all this, Shamsher took the lead. “The first time they took Hyder to a brothel he felt shy and refused to go with any woman. Then Shamsher got angry and said, ‘If you don’t go, I will lose my mood,’ and Bilkis and Idris too said he shouldn’t act like a spoiler; they were brothers in everything, after all. “And so began our Hyder’s corruption. Many times he thought of breaking away from the gang, but did not know how. He sent money home regularly, but did not visit, not because he was scared of the police but because he knew he couldn’t look his father in the eye. “He began drinking heavily and began smoking hashish from a chillum. He also began to see a young prostitute called Rashmi, to whom he had lost his heart. “Rashmi, too, liked him. But she had seen more life than Hyder, and did not want him to waste his youth on her. So even while entertaining him she would urge him to marry a decent girl and settle down. When she saw that he had no intention of taking her advice, she lay down with Shamsher, just at the time when Hyder was to visit her. “And then our Hyder went mad. He cursed Shamsher, threatened to kill him. In his anger, he told Shamsher that it was he who had led them into sin; he was the Satan in their lives. “Shamsher was not the kind to take insults lightly. He whipped out a knife and slashed Hyder on the chest. Then, while Hyder was in hospital, getting stitched up, he gave Bilkis and Idris an ultimatum—they could either continue to work with him or go their own way. “By now the lifestyle of the gang was too extravagant to forsake. And there were huge expenses. Bilkis had to pay fifty thousand rupees to an agent who had got his cousin a job in Oman. As for Idris, he was trying to get his mehbooba out of the sex trade, for which he needed seventy-five thousand rupees. Besides, Idris had developed a liking for the horse races. And Bilkis had his eye on a motorcycle. No, they had their temptations, which

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F I C T I O N were far greater than their ties with Hyder. Besides, Hyder had been foolish; he had been ungrateful. For the sake of a whore, he had insulted a friend. “And so Hyder found himself alone and homeless. The fool that he was, he had not saved a rupee. He would send half his money home and spend the rest on Rashmi. Now he would get some daily wage work like washing the pier at Chowpatty Beach or washing vessels after a wedding. Some days, he would join the workforce that paved the road leading to the Haji Ali Dargah. There he would think of his father reciting from the Quran: He who is saved from his own greed, Allah deems him to be most successful. “But, alas, now it was not possible for Hyder to tread the path of righteousness, for poverty and vice had stolen his judgment, it had made him angry and bitter. Besides, he still craved for Rashmi, and he still went to her, running up debts at the brothel, which he was unable to repay. “After a while the pimps forbade him from coming, and yet he would turn up, drunk and pleading. When he heard from Rashmi’s own mouth that she did not want to have anything to do with him, he did not realize it was because she feared for his life. Instead, he went crazy. He started doing gard, and in no time at all he became addicted.” “But why are you telling me all this?” said Sikander, half rising. “All I want to know is where my dogs are. I am not interested in Hyder Ali and how he went to his ruin.” Vishwas Apte reached out and caught Sikander by the wrist, and Sikander felt a tremor pass through him, a warm tingling sensation. “You promised, friend,” said Vishwas Apte solemnly, and Sikander sat down again. Now Vishwas Apte continued. “Why did he do it? Take to that vile habit? I think it was because he wanted Rashmi’s sympathy. He wanted her to tell him to stop. He wanted to hear that she would do anything to make him stop. He wanted to know that she would fight the pimps and all her customers to be with him. Sometimes, Sikander, a man needs to know how important he is to the world and how far the world will go to save him. That is what happened to our friend. He pledged his life to Rashmi, not realizing that she wasn’t in control of her own life, and whatever little control she had, she was using it to save him from the pimps. “The pimps were already talking to Shamsher, asking him to do something about his enemy, who was making a nuisance of himself, who, by his loud drunken rants, night after night, was damaging their business. “Hearing this, Rashmi opted for a transfer to another brothel. She begged the pimps to send her away and to spare Hyder’s life. “But nothing could save our friend now. He had made a pact with the devil. To feed his habit, he would steal road signs and gutter tops; he would go into the railway yard, at night, and take whatever he could find: brakes, cables, window shutters, fans, handgrips, sleepers; and he would sell these to buy gard. Soon smoking and inhaling it wasn't enough; he took to injecting himself. He would mix the gard with lime juice and water and shoot it in his veins, saying, ‘Ab jaan mein jaan aa gayee.’ And sometimes he wouldn’t find a vein, and then the flesh would rupture, causing terrible burns and sores, and sometimes when he ran out of gard he would get stomach pains, convulsions, runs, and severe vomiting.

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“One night the police waited for him in the railway yard; they caught him and cut a nerve at the back of his foot. And they warned him that the next time he would not be so lucky. They would book him for peddling and put him away for ten years. “His career in crime was finished, his one leg was useless. So he took up the goni, the sack, in order to survive. In the waste of the city he lost himself. After all, he had so much to forget: his family, his friends, the fact that he would never attend his sisters’ weddings, or see Rashmi again. “The only thing that kept him going was the thought that there were others like him, others like you, who did their duty, and like the dogs, who scraped for their meal. And he enjoyed his nightly skirmish with you, and the fact that you waited for the dogs before going about your work. He felt you had some decency. You were everything he believed was human. “And now, Sikander, let me tell you why I am sharing all this. Our friend was dying. He knew that, and he knew, also, that he had to do one good deed before he was gone, so that one good man would remember him. And that man was you. He wanted you to know about his life. Wanted you to think well of him. So, from the money he got off you, he took your pets to the animal hospital in Parel, where the white one’s eyes were treated. And having done that one good deed, he came to us at the hospital and got himself admitted. But before that he gave up his sack. He knew he would have no need for it. Not in the place where he was going. “Oh, yes, and in the days that followed, he suffered, Sikander, really suffered, and when he was conscious he would tell me about his life, making me promise, at every stage, that I would convey it to you. “So come, Sikander, join me in saying a small prayer for this hapless man, and let us wish a better life for him. Either in heaven or, the next time, here, on earth.” With that, Vishwas Apte gripped Sikander by the shoulders and helped him to his feet, and Sikander felt something leave him, a cloud of doubt, of hatred, of anxiety, all that the city had thrown up and accumulated.

Murzban F. Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. His fiction has appeared in over fifty literary journals in the U.S. and UK. He is the recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. His short story collection, Breathless in Bombay, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and rated by The Guardian as among the ten best-set books in Mumbai. His debut novel, Waiting for Jonathan Koshy, was a finalist for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. Shroff can be contacted at murzbanfshroff@gmail.com.

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Jameela Siddiqi

Our House of Extras: Her Highness’s New Clothes (an excerpt)

A

Monica Linford

longside many equatorial pests, our house has been infested with extras for as long as I can remember. Apart from our family of four, there’s any number of visitors and unspecified hangers-on at any given moment. Some of these people have been here for yonks—so long in fact that they probably don’t even remember ever having been anywhere else. There’s this young lad called Mohammad Reza—some sort of Iranian or Turk, he may even be an Afghan-Patthan, who knows? He just turns up every morning and busies himself with various things in the garden although, mostly, he just gets in the way of the gardener. When he’s shooed away from the garden, he proceeds to tinker with all our electrical gadgets and attempts to fix anything and everything—particularly if it doesn’t require fixing. One just has to mutter that something is slightly off keel and he just leaps at it with a hammer or screwdriver—or both. That doorbell, for instance. Actually, we only had it put in because my mother wanted a nice chime. But nobody ever rings the doorbell because, in this part of the world, doors are always kept open. Even so, Mohammad Reza insists on getting the chime to work properly and now it keeps going off at regular intervals for no apparent reason. Satisfied with his work on the doorbell, Reza turns his attention to one of those shelves that had been put up for some of my father’s larger-sized books and decides it was not quite straight, meaning it wasn’t exactly parallel to the skirting board. He spends a great


deal of time producing large clouds of dust to take it apart and refit it. He stands back to admire his handy work, nodding to himself in satisfaction although the shelf now slopes at an acute angle akin to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But the young Irani-Turk-Patthan maintains that this is a much more stable position and he finds it aesthetically pleasing. He proceeds to stack the books back on the shelf, but they keep sliding off. Now he has another reason to appear at the house nearly every single day and put back the books that have fallen down. When he’s done with these odds and ends, he presents himself at our table at lunch time, genuinely believing he’s earned his daily bread. He munches his way through our food while we’re still not quite sure who he is—except that he’s a useful sort of guy to have around. My mother assumes he’s one of my father’s English pupils while my father believes he's one of my mother’s many adopted extras. She has a habit of collecting anybody who looks even remotely in need of a wash and a meal. Over the last couple of years, among other weirdos, our house has had a Russian woman sheltering from an allegedly brutal African husband, a young African woman on the run from an abusive Indian lover, a Saudi preacher who failed to find a job, and a white American VSO guy hooked on Indian food. I had never seen anyone put away so much food, but when I pointed this out to my mother, the inevitable culture-lecture followed: “Listen to you! You think you’re English or what, just because you’ve read all those books about the British Empire? Guests are God, don't you know? God visits us in the guise of guests. That is our culture.” She always resorts to some notion of Indian culture but my otherwiseAnglicised, English-Literature-teacher and borderline-atheist father is no better. He regularly turns up with four or five people he’s just found—some known, some unknown—because they looked like they could do with a hot meal. The only time we get an inkling that he’s probably bringing extra mouths to feed is when he is late.

§ Just as our house has many comings and goings—mainly comings—our country, too, seems to attract the uninvited. Landlocked on three sides and with one end placed on the shores of Lake Victoria, we are quite used to the wanderings of displaced, dispossessed people. Sometimes they sailed up from Zanzibar. At other times they came from the interior of our continent. In 1960, for instance, we’d had an influx of refugees from The Congo. Our land of plenty was politically stable and peaceful with the added bonus of breathtaking scenery and plenty of food available free on the trees. Naturally, it was a magnet for all and sundry, especially those who could just walk in. As the table was being laid for lunch one Saturday and we were all wondering where my father had got to, he entered the house with an unusually tall, dignified, milky-coffee coloured lady of perhaps some thirty

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F I C T I O N years. She was in a long dress of a brightly printed African-style cotton fabric with a matching scarf that covered her head. The scarf was tied in a fashion that added some twelve whole inches to her height. “This is the Princess of…err…I mean the daughter of the King of…err…I mean the former King of…the rightful King of…” His face clearly shows that he doesn't have a clue as to which deposed king and which country. Luckily, the tall creature comes to his aid: “Just 'Her Highness' will do,” she cuts in impatiently and puts a hand forward, obviously expecting my mother to bow down and kiss it. My mother does no such thing and gives her the same look that she reserves for all the other lame ducks who seem to lie in wait for my gullible father. Also, my mother’s attitude is not really surprising because it’s no secret that North African kings—or kings from anywhere for that matter—generally tend to have sons and daughters all over the place. Meals are usually eaten in silence in our house, except for essentials like “Can you please pass the pickles,” so no more is said as we chomp our way through lunch—except for the odd remark from my father expressing concern that Her Highness may find our food too spicy. My mother maintains a grim silence but her look says it all: Don't think I’m going to produce bland food just because someone calling herself “Her Highness” expects free meals. The tension is really mounting for me but I’m not allowed to ask questions. Gradually, I notice that my mother is no longer giving the Princess those disdainful looks she reserves for all of my father’s lame ducks but is now treating her with respect and reverence and paying a great deal of attention to her plate. Later that afternoon, my mother whispered to me: ”She is real! You can tell by the way they hold their fork and knife and also how she keeps her mouth closed while eating. That shows extremely good breeding and is a clear sign of royalty. You’d better learn from her. How many little girls are lucky enough to have a real Princess to study?” In time, it emerges that my father had found her at the Kampala bus station approaching various people for money so that she could, she said, collect the train fare to Mombasa from where she would work or beg for her passage by sea to the European country that had propped up her father's ancient kingdom long after the population had begun clamouring for a democratic republic. I was vaguely aware of the news that there had recently been a military coup—somewhere on the Northern coast—or was it in western India? I must admit I take a great pride in being a bit vague about things outside of our region. If people are stupid enough to live elsewhere then they’ve got it coming to them. There’s this perfect place on God’s earth—my country—yet other people choose to live in dangerous places totally devoid of greenery or charm, where ancient, God-given kings get deposed with alarming regularity. The King was said to have fled to Europe—out of the frying pan and into the fire or what—while nothing was known about his many relatives,

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dependents, and hangers-on. Her Highness claimed she was his youngest daughter by his first and only permanent wife. The other wives, she informed us, were contracted on a temporary basis—often only for a night—as was the custom in certain sects of Islam—and only her mother was the real Queen. Therefore, as child of the real Queen, our Her Highness was supposed to have more of a claim to royalty than the many pretenders who swarmed all over Kampala, Nairobi, Freetown, Accra, and Lagos, claiming to have sprung from the loins of the old rascal king. And she was in real danger because most of her half brothers and sisters had been lined up and executed by a firing squad. They were small fry, though. It was her head that was the main prize. On seeing the woman at the bus station, my father had gone into his usual reformist mode, dissuading her from begging and inviting her, instead, to come home to lunch with him. He had convinced her that she needed to sit down and eat while having a think about her future plans. It must’ve been the longest lunch in history because although he had imagined she would stay for a meal and possibly a bath followed by a cup of tea—and, at most, perhaps also a night’s rest, Her Highness actually showed no signs of budging. Not only did she stay put but also managed to throw our household into complete disarray. What’s puzzling is this: My mother, for once, is quite uncomplaining, cowtowing to royalty in what seemed to me to be a big U-turn. She waits on her, hand and foot, and loses no time in informing all and sundry that we have a royal guest—although my father had cautioned her against such bragging for fear that the King’s enemies might well come looking for her since the whole family was under the executioner’s orders. Her Highness was certainly the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen— very tall and muscular but extremely graceful with it. She didn't walk so much as glide from place to place, leaving a cloud of pungent scent wherever she went. She may have been homeless and penniless but it seemed that before she had escaped her executioners, she had somehow managed to stash away a lifetime’s supply of rosy-woody-musky scent—a scent that she now splashed by the gallon, perhaps to make up for the loss of bathing facilities while she’d been on the run. Her voice was deep and polished and her English was quite impeccable, although, as she informed us, her main European language was French while her mother-tongue was Arabic. The minute she said that, my mother seemed to be looking at her with renewed respect. My mother, although a Catholic convent-educated Indian-Muslim, had a kind of reverence for Arabic that I found very hard to grasp. I would have thought that the Catholic nuns back in India would have beaten all that out of her—the notion that God, actually, only spoke and understood one language in the whole world: Arabic. I gazed at Her Highness in awe. I’d never ever seen a real princess before and I made up my mind there and then to model myself on her— learn as much as possible—using her style, her voice, and her words. It’s from the Princess I first learnt to say “Really? Is that so?” and didn’t stop saying it for a good few years, although my habit of saying “We” instead of “I,” as learned from her, quickly bit the dust as too many eyebrows were raised.

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F I C T I O N Her Highness loses no time in appraising my mother of her daily dietary requirements. Apparently, she is on some highly scientific, brand-new diet from the United States of America which forbids one to eat rice, bread, or anything made of wheat. Salads—tons of it—and well-cooked red meat and eggs drowned in thick cream, it would appear, are the order of the day. My mother is mega-impressed and loses no time in putting herself on the same diet—although she's even slimmer than Her Highness. Even worse, she thinks it would be a good idea for all of us to go on the same royal diet. But I hate meat—and salad is my least favourite of edibles. As luck would have it, I just adore all the things we’re not allowed to eat at the moment: bread, rice, cakes, potatoes, jam, cassava chips, bread pudding, sweet potatoes, sweets… and err… sweets. To this end, I have one unexpected supporter, our grand and equally regal cook, Ibrahimu. I cosy up to him in the kitchen and, using his own rations, he fixes me a slice of thick white crusty bread covered in butter and slathered with raspberry jam. He urges me to go into the pantry and scoff it down quickly before my mother catches me breaking the royal diet. As I’m wolfing it down, he informs me he’s planning to prepare an illicit rice-pudding for me, topped with pineapple jam, which I was to consume in utmost secrecy later that day. I’m thrilled! I’d always been a little scared of Ibrahimu because of his haughty, arrogant ways. But now, it seems, he really understands children and has no time for adults embarking on faddish American diets. A nice friendship develops between Ibrahimu and myself during which he reveals: “She might fool everybody else, but she don’t fool me,” he announces, grandly. “A very bad person. Very bad!” “Why? Why is she bad?” “Pretending to be an escaped princess. Very good story and you Muhindis might buy it, but we Africans don’t. Everybody knows she’s looking for a man to keep her. But since no man has shown an interest, she’s taken refuge with our family.” I love the way Ibrahimu refers to this place as “our” family. He clearly considers himself part of our family.

§ Our neighbour, the prim and proper cookery teacher Behroze Chopriwalla, whose lips are permanently pursed in disapproval over something or the other, is quite taken with our royal visitor. Like my mother, Miss Chopriwalla has a morbid obsession with blue blood—perhaps that’s why they are such close friends. Of course, she would’ve preferred our guest to be an English princess or even an Indian one, rather than a dark-skinned North African. But any princess is better than no princess. And when she learns that the Princess is French-speaking, she appears to completely forgive her for being a black African. Chopriwalla just loves anything French and claims to speak that language fluently.

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“Oh, it will be such a treat to listen to you and Her Highness conversing in French,” my mother remarks. Chopriwalla looks most doubtful before saying: “But that will be rude. Nobody else will be able to follow the conversation…” Miss Chopriwalla has taken to baking all kinds of fancy cakes and pastries for our guest. She turns up at our house, even more frequently than she used to, with plates of pretty-looking things: little fairy cakes with cherries on the top, butterfly buns with light-green icing, cream horns filled with vanilla custard. I’ve never seen so many cakes in my life! My mother intercepts the arrival of the first of such plates of fairy cakes: “Oh, Behroze, didn’t I tell you that Her Highness is on a special diet? A very special, brand new, American one.” Miss Chopriwalla looks dismayed—all her efforts, butter, sugar, and eggs, gone to waste. But Her Highness is quick to step forward and take over from my mother. In her special, deep, haughty regal voice she says: “How kind, Miss err…Chop…Chopri… Chops. I think we’ll call you Chops. Our favourite dog back home was called Chops. They’ve probably executed him by now. Poor Chops!” She fights back a sniffle and continues: “Now, Chops, as it’s a Friday—our holy day, today we will allow ourselves to eat your sweet, unhealthy things.” Chops is in heaven—or its Parsi equivalent—having heard the royal we for real with her own ears while Her Highness quickly proceeds to scoff all eight cakes. Not even the decency to offer one to my mother or at least to the greedy children—kid brother Majju and me—watching every movement of her jaw as she squeezes the cakes with her full lips and, with one tightpressing of the mouth, makes them disappear into her washboard-flat tummy. My mouth is watering and toddler Majju has just produced a nice thick string of spittle hanging down from his mouth. Once the cakes are savoured and swallowed, Her Highness issues a royal command. “We would like some new clothes. Owing to the circumstances of our escape, we were unable to pack our gowns. What is required at this moment in time is a new set of clothes—perhaps even two sets. Can you see to it, Chops?” Although Miss Chopriwalla’s sewing skills are legendary, her jaw is dropping. Her Highness’s preferred costume is a full-length dress with long, flared sleeves topped off by a full three-yard scarf tied around the royal head. How’s she going to get all that fabric? And who would pay for it, since the Princess never had any money and, in any case, it wasn’t done to ask royalty to pay for anything? While Miss Chopriwalla dithers over the Royal Command, my mother steps in: “Your Highness, of course my friend Behroze here can sew— expertly—but we have a professional tailor in town—the best. His name is Ramzani and he works in Diamond Textiles.” “A tailor? A man-tailor? We are a good Muslim and men are not allowed to touch us. Not even on the pretext of ascertaining our dimensions.”

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F I C T I O N “Oh, please don’t worry about Ramzani or any other man. He is closely supervised by Shamsu the book-keeper. Anyway, I'll be in attendance, Your Highness.” Shamsu is actually the shop-owner’s lodger. His real job is school teacher, but he has always dreamed of being a shopkeeper and spends most of his time hanging around at the shop, under the pretext of doing the accounts. “Then summon them here—the tailor and this err…this other man,” orders Her Highness. “They may present themselves to us, here, tomorrow morning and do the needful.” She stifles a yawn before announcing: “Those cakes were quite delicious, Chops! We are now going to our room to rest a while.” I’m furious. When she says her room, it’s actually my room. Whereas our other hangers-on simply sit or sleep wherever they find a vacant corner, I’ve actually been turned out of my room—without prior consultation—so that Her Highness can have a private room of her own. I’ve been put in a small, narrow bed in my baby brother’s room. My mother is all of a fluster at Her Highness's latest edict: “Err…Your Highness…you see, Ramzani the tailor doesn’t really leave the shop. Neither does Shamsu. I’m afraid we have to go over there. Also there’s the matter of buying the fabric. You can choose it there, of course, but, begging your pardon, it will come to quite a hefty sum, even without the making up charges. Are you…have you…the…you know, money?” “Money? How vulgar! Don’t you know we never carry money?” “Jewelery, then? What about that necklace you’re…” “This is an heirloom! Bearing the royal insignia! Are you mad, woman? You’ll have to tell your friends to put it on our account. When our Kingdom is returned to its rightful rulers, everybody will be rewarded—everybody— including you, for being such a good hostess and for helping us in our darkest hour. We will not forget you. We will reward you with titles and land. All our helpers will be rewarded!” “Okay, let’s first go to Diamond Textiles and choose the material. Let’s see how much it comes to.” The afternoon turns out to be a deliciously different departure from the usual. A taxi pulls up in our compound and the driver honks his horn to announce his arrival. My mother’s usual trips to Diamond Textile are on foot—it’s just a twenty-five-minute walk, but Her Highness had flatly refused to walk: “What if our enemies should see us?” My mother, Miss Chopriwalla and Her Highness squeeze into the back seat. On an impulse, I jump into the front, hoping nobody will notice me and ask me to get out. The purchase of materials and the measuring process is a treat I don’t want to miss. I just love it when Ramzani measures women and calls out the numbers for Shamsu to write down. I love the way they argue over fractions and whether a dress needs six or eight buttons. Or whether the belt should be plastic posing as leather or covered in the same material as the dress.

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I’m in luck. They’re so preoccupied chatting about fabrics and styles—and shielding Her Highness against a sighting by potential enemies—that they haven’t even noticed I’ve tagged along uninvited. Some five minutes later, my mother pays the taxi driver and we troop into Diamond Textiles. The dignified stature of Her Highness causes a hush to descend over the shop. One or two customers are looking at fabrics they have no intention of buying, while Ramzani the tailor is deeply engrossed in the hypnotic rhythm of his sewing machine. He stops and looks up. At the same time, the shopowner, Jena Bai, becomes aware of new arrivals. On seeing my mother, she greets our group with open arms: “Welcome, welcome! This is your shop. Please come in. We are here to serve you!” My mother explains what is wanted and Jena Bai is beside herself—both with the quantity of material that will be required and the royal nature of the purchaser. A chair is hastily produced for Her Highness to park herself while the rest of us remain standing. “Coca Cola or Fanta Orange?” asks Jena Bai in her sweetest, most servile voice. “We shall be requiring tea,” replies Her Highness, “with hot milk. And a biscuit or two, perhaps.” The servant, Joseffu, who has appeared from within the house behind the shop in a state akin to sleepwalking, turns around and goes back into the house to see to the tea, while Jena Bai throws open roll after roll of brightly printed fabric, every single one of which appears to leave Her Highness deeply unimpressed. Several dozen rolls later, she finally fixes her gaze on a white and purple dogtooth check in a kind of mock-tweed. It’s in the more expensive section of fabrics and she will need a full eight yards with another three yards of plain purple poplin for the scarf. Jena Bai yells at Ramzani to stop whatever he's doing and start measuring Her Highness. Ramzani gets up languidly from his sewing machine and without so much as a “pardon me,” addresses Her Highness without mincing his words: “That is not a very suitable fabric for your style of dress. Too stiff. It is really for a two piece suit—like a short skirt and buttoned jacket. Now, may I suggest…” Jena Bai descends on him like a bomb on Hiroshima: “Did anybody ask you whether it was suitable? You just do your job and take the measurements.” Joseffu arrives with a large tray bearing four cups of tea and a plate of Marie biscuits interspersed with some pink wafers. No sooner has he put it down than he’s ordered to go back into the house and get Shamsu. No measuring may take place without Shamsu’s attendance because, it is believed, Ramzani has no head for figures. Shamsu emerges from inside the shop, all agog. When the customer is introduced to him, he bows his head low—so low that, for a moment, I feel he’s never going to straighten up again. “Royalest Highness! Your wish is my command,” he says in a highly forced and synthetically posh voice.

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F I C T I O N Her Highness gives him a haughty smile and holds out her hand, which he proceeds to kiss. Just as well she held out a hand. He looked like he was just about to kiss her feet! After that, Shamsu metamorphoses into an Army Commander, barking instructions at Ramzani: “The measuring tape, quick! No, not that one, boffu, bloody shenzi! Can’t you see it’s all frayed? Fetch the brand new one—the one I keep in the plastic cover…” “The one you keep hidden from me? But you said that’s for special occasions—” begins Ramzani, batting his eyelids a little too much. “So what do you think this is? If this isn't a special occasion—that’s what I hate about you people. Always arguing back with no logic. Pardon me, Your Highness, but these black people of Uganda still have a lot to learn and we’re doing our best to teach them. But they are very slow learners, as you can see. I hope the peasants and workers are better behaved in your country?” He’s being unnecessarily chatty to Her Highness, determined to prove his superior brilliance to the “common people of Uganda.” She looks on, bemused while Ramzani wears the same expression as our very grand and somewhat aloof cook, Ibrahimu. Ibrahimu has always been weary and watchful when Her Highness is around. It seems Ramzani has the same theory about her. Jena Bai watches gleefully. It’s all going to add up to lots of shillings and she’s clearly expecting it all to be settled up front, in cash. “Now, Ramazani, first across the shoulders,” begins Shamsu, bossily, as though Ramzani had never ever measured anyone before. Ramzani is about to place the tape in position when Shamsu grabs it from him and starts doing it himself: “Inches, you idiot! Always inches. We never use the other side. That is centimetres. How many times have I told you?” “In our country we only use centimetres, little man!” Her Highness informs him. Shamsu promptly turns the tape over—then realises the paper-patterns are always mounted and cut in inches and that it might lead to endless confusion, so reverts back to the inch-side of the tape. With both Shamsu and Her Highness standing erect, it’s graphically obvious that she is a full eight inches or so taller than he is. This places Shamsu’s head somewhere near what would’ve been her cleavage had it been visible. Under her full dress, her breasts stick out in conical fashion with a fine, sharp point at the end of each breast. “Bust—36,” calls out Shamsu. Ramzani tries to write it down but in the next moment the pencil is swiped from him and Shamsu records the figure himself. “Can’t expect you to get it right! You might put 63 and then where will we be?” “Don't know about we, but you will certainly be in heaven, with a bust that size!” mutters Ramzani under his breath in Luganda. I catch his eye and stifle a giggle. He winks back at me. “Waist—27, allow for 28,” continues Shamsu.

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“If you’re going to be writing it down yourself, then why on earth are you announcing the measurements for the whole world to hear?” scolds Miss Chopriwalla. “Her Highness’s measurement are not for everyone to know. Note them down quietly, you stupid man!” The measurements taken and noted, Her Highness then chooses a second fabric for an additional outfit: “One to wear around the house, another one to go out in,” she announces. “Begging your pardon, Your Highness,” my mother says, “I thought you weren’t supposed to go out? There could be enemies, just waiting to take a pot-shot.” Ramzani raises his eyebrows while slowly shaking his head. The events of the next few minutes took everybody’s breath away. Jena Bai tots up the bill, including the stitching and places it, discreetly, in the hands of my mother. My mother, in turn, points it in the direction of Her Highness who merely looks away. Persistently, my mother then lets the bill brush against Her Highness’s elbow while Her Highness goes on fingering other fabrics, seemingly oblivious to the bill. My mother might have been about to say something when Shamsu jumps in: “Madam! Please! Whatever are you thinking of? Here, give it to me. It’s mine!” “Yours? What do you mean yours?” “I have longed to serve royalty. Please let me make this humble contribution in times of such trouble, please. These are very difficult days for them and let me do what little I can, in my own humble way, please…just a small gesture.” While he’s putting on the full show of generosity with its verbose rationalisation, Her Highness seems barely aware that there’s a bill to pay or that somebody else—a complete stranger like Shamsu—is fighting to pay it for her. But the rest of us, Ramzani included, are standing there open-mouthed at Shamsu’s gesture. The man’s never ever forked out even five cents towards sweets for anybody. So why the hell does he want to pay a full 750 shillings to kit out the Princess with a new wardrobe? The answer to that conundrum was to become all too obvious with the dramatic events that unfolded over the next few weeks…

Jameela Siddiqi is an award-winning broadcaster and a leading commentator and lecturer in Indian Classical Music. She has acted as a language consultant for Oxford University Press and contributed to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Hinduism and the Penguin Rough Guide to World Music, especially on the devotional music of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, on which she has also written a chapter in The Intimate Other – Love Divine in Indic Religions (Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005). She is the author of numerous short stories and two novels, The Feast of the Nine Virgins (2001) and Bombay Gardens (2006).

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read-ing [from ME reden, to explain, hence to read] – vt. 1 to get the meaning of; 2 to understand the nature, significance, or thinking of; 3 to interpret or understand; 4 to apply oneself to; study.

DIVERSE VOICES AND FESTIVALS More than 30 years ago, the Folk Arts division of the then-Utah Arts Council organized the Living Traditions Festival. It was intended as a celebration of the over 50 distinct cultures which have made Salt Lake City their home. The Living Traditions Festival is committed to celebrating and presenting Salt Lake City’s diverse authentic ethnic and folk arts and their respective communities and cultural traditions . . . by presenting them through the performing, crafts & culinary arts, and showcasing them in a festive, educational, and respectful manner. Source: http://livingtraditionsfestival.com/

CHERRY BLOSSOMS The Cherry Creek neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, contains hundreds of cherry trees. The first Japanese cherry trees were planted there in 1937. However, the trees were subsequently destroyed following the outbreak of World War II and the widespread animosity against U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. In the decades to follow, the local Soka Gakkai International-USA Buddhist Center led efforts to replant cherry blossom trees. Soka Gakkai International-USA considers itself the most diverse Buddhist community in the U.S. Within the Rocky Mountain Zone are 4 SGI-USA Buddhist centers – 3 in Colorado and 1 in Utah. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Buddhist scholar Charles Prebish, Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies Emeritus at Utah State University, reported that: . . . Japanese officials visited [Utah] territory in 1872, that the 1910 Census showed more than 2,000 Japanese residents in Utah, that a group created the Young Buddhist Association in 1923 because children of the Intermountain Buddhist Church were being excluded from extracurricular school activities, and that, during World War II, many Japanese residents of Utah and other Western states were held at the Topaz internment camp near Delta. It was at Topaz in 1944, Prebish says, that the Buddhist Mission of North America officially changed its name to Buddhist Churches of America, “in hopes of sounding more acceptable to the American people.” Today, Utah boasts some 21 Buddhist groups: six Zen, three Theravada, three Pure Land, three Tibetan, two Soka Gakkai, one Vipassana and three non- or multidenominational. Sources: http://cherryblossomdenver.org/; Stack, Peggy Fletcher, “How Buddhists and Mormons are Alike,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 March, 2010. http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/lds/ci_14649041


CHERRY BLOSSOMS AND ART The second largest annual April Cherry Blossom Festival outside of Washington, D.C., is in San Francisco. Beginning in 1967, the festival now spans two weekends and attracts more than 200,000 people and, beginning in 2015, partnered with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The museum—the Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture—describes itself as: . . . uniquely positioned to lead a diverse, global audience in discovering the distinctive materials, aesthetics and intellectual achievements of Asian art and cultures, and to serve as a bridge of understanding between Asia and the United States and between the diverse cultures of Asia. Source: http://www.asianart.org/

MANY VOICES Dual language programs, which provide instruction in both English and a second language, are flourishing in elementary schools across the country. Their mission is to promote bi-literacy and positive cross-cultural attitudes in an increasingly multilingual world. According to the Harvard Education Letter: In 2000, there were about 260 dual language programs operating in U.S. schools, according to Richard Riley, who was serving as education secretary at the time. That year, he called on the nation to increase the number of dual language programs to 1,000 by 2005, saying our nation would be stronger with more biliterate citizens who could read and write in more than one language. “We need to invest in these kinds of programs,” said Riley. “In an international economy, knowledge, and knowledge of language, is power.” Over the past decade, however, dual language programs have grown tenfold, with an estimated 2,000 now operating, including more than 300 in the state of New York alone, according to Jose Ruiz-Escalante, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. The dual language classes are taught predominantly in English and Spanish, though programs in Chinese, Haitian Creole, and French have cropped up in urban districts. Source: Wilson, David McKay, “Dual Language Programs on the Rise,” Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2011; http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_2/helarticle/dual-language-programs-on-the-rise#home

PRESERVE RARE LANGUAGES TO BENEFIT MULTILINGUALISM Languages on the brink of dying out should be preserved in the light of evidence that multilingualism is good for the brain, according to Antonella Sorace, the founder of the Bilingualism Matters centre at the University of Edinburgh. Sorace stated: “If we can find a way of persuading people that these languages are actually a resource, rather than a problem, or folklore or something that belongs to the past, then we can help these languages to survive a little bit longer and children can have the benefits of bilingualism.” Research into bilingualism has identified the following benefits: • Bilingual children are better at understanding people generally, not just via the language they speak • Bilingual children and adults are better at focusing their attention and less easily distracted

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• Healthy people who are bilingual have slower rates of mental decline in old age. It is thought that compartmentalising the languages and switching between them at the right time exercises the brain and has a protective function If policymakers could be encouraged to retain less common languages, it could have a beneficial impact on health, Sorace said. Source: “Preserve rare languages to spread benefits of multilingualism, says expert,” The Guardian, 14 February, 2016. http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_2/helarticle/dual-language-programs-on-the-rise#home

DUAL LANGUAGE IMMERSION IN UTAH Utah’s Dual Language Immersion program offers a rich bilingual experience for young learners when their minds are developmentally best able to acquire a second language. Instruction is divided between two high quality, creative classrooms: one English and one in the Second Language (Chinese, French, German, Portuguese or Spanish). In 2008, the Utah Senate passed the international initiatives (Senate Bill 41), creating funding for Utah schools to begin Dual Language Immersion programs in Chinese, French, and Spanish. In addition, then-governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., initiated the Governor’s Language Summit and the Governor’s World Language Council, both with the goal of creating a K-12 language roadmap for Utah. These groups aim to address the needs for language skills in business, government, and education. Source: http://www.utahdli.org/

Source: Utah State Office of Education, Deseret News

EDITORIAL MATTER

ISSN 0891-8899 —Weber is an international, peer-reviewed journal published biannually by The College of Arts & Humanities at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, 84408-1405. Full text of this issue and historical archives are available in electronic edition at https://www.weber.edu/weberjournal Indexed in: Abstracts of English Studies, Humanities International Complete, Index of American Periodical Verse, MLA International Bibliography, and Sociological Abstracts. Member, Council of Learned Journals. Subscription Costs: Individuals $20 (outside U.S., $30), institutions $30 (outside U.S., $40). Back issues $10 subject to availability. Multi-year and group subscriptions also available. Submissions and Correspondence: Editor, | Weber State University 1395 Edvalson Street, Dept. 1405, Ogden, UT 84408-1405. 801-626-6473 | weberjournal@weber.edu Copyright © 2016 by Weber State University. All rights reserved. Copyright reverts to authors and artists after publication. Statements of fact or opinion are those of contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or the sponsoring institution.


©1998, Kent Miles

ANNOUNCING the 2016 Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Essay Award

to Wilfried Wilms

for “Mountains Ablaze: The Alpine War 1915-1918” in the Fall 2014 issue The Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award of $500 is presented annually to the author of the best essay published in Weber during the previous year.

Dr. O. Marvin Lewis passed away on February 8, 2015, after a long and productive life. We would like to extend our condolences to the family and acknowledge the longstanding generosity of the MSL Family Foundation for supporting Weber’s annual Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Essay Award.


EST

1983

WEBER

Nonprofit Org U.S. POSTAGE PAID PERMIT No. 151 OGDEN, UTAH

THE CONTEMPORARY WEST

Weber State University 1395 Edvalson Street Department 1405 Ogden, UT 84408-1405

www.weber.edu/weberjournal Return Service Requested

Spotlighting personal narrative, commentary, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that speaks to the environment and culture of the American West and beyond.

FALL 2016—VOL. 33, NO 1—U.S. $10 ESSAYS

Saba Imtiaz, Sultan Somjee, Bonnie Zare

FICTION

K. Anis Ahmed, Meira Chand, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Siddhartha Deb, Sunetra Gupta, Shabnam Nadiya, Pranesh Prasad, Mahmud Rahman, Moazzam Sheikh, Murzban Shroff, Jameela Siddiqi

POETRY

Kathryn Hummel, Debasish Lahiri, Hoshang Merchant, Sadaf Saaz

ART

Poornima Jayasinghe, Sujeewa Kumari

https://www.facebook.com/weberjournal

http://www.weber.edu/CAH

Weber—The Contemporary West | Fall 2016 | Global Voices  
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