Stories from Southasia
By The Editors
13 March 2014
An eclectic range of fiction.
Our fiction takes the reader on a journey through the places and imaginations of the region: from digital spaces to mountains of Afghanistan, narratives of LGBT life to a meta-narrative of a woman’s agency, and gushing rivers to winding roads. This sample, from both established and emerging authors, provides a sense of the Southasian creative imagination. Take a look; Himal Southasian is a good read.
Umbra by Farrukh Dhondy
A story of an eccentric college-campus guru.
The young shadows gather.
They have come to listen to the greatest of their seers, the philosopher, eschatologist, metaphysician, mathematician, psycho-historian, stainologist, and, alas as the world knew, serial philanderer, the feigningly meek Umbra, ‘U’ to everyone on campus.
They sit at his feet, leaving respectful light between them.
(Another story by Dhondy, ‘Jesus in the throat‘, was published in our quarterly At the Cost of Health.)
A heart of stone by Abu Taha
“The mountains became my patience stone, and I hoped they could hold my secrets and sins.”
I take long walks in the mountains, talking to them. Once you become their friend and gain their trust, they will take the enemy’s bullets and shells for you. I am sure many before me have confessed their sins and regrets to the mountains. It might have worn them down a little. They listen to the most intimate, heavy stories, keeping them close. Mountains are strong but they are also very sensitive; there is a limit to their patience. When the burden becomes too much, they may open their mouths and pour out the liquid fire of secrets.
Before the light by Gaurav Deka
A young gay man in Assam recounts two stories of infidelities.
Niloyda had the same green vein on his left temple. During the time before he had met Hiya Das, I’d often visit him at the department. He’d either call or send a junior to my hostel room. On one of those days, I’d look at him from the corner of my eye at the lab, spilling excessive Carbol-Fuschin on my TB specimen slide. He’d be leaning over a microscope and staring intently into a cluster of germs, adjusting the screws on both sides of the instrument. I’d be staring at him, to which as if by clairvoyance, without raising his head, he’d say softly, “Concentrate on your slide. You’re ruining the culture completely.”
Spinach soup and Abbottabad by Yudit Kiss
Negotiating the tremors of global politics in the privacy of one’s living room.
The day Osama bin Laden was killed my mother ate spinach soup with a fork. In Hungary, where I come from, we often prepare vegetables at home in a stew with soupy consistency, which is eaten with a spoon. That day, I was late for lunch to my mother’s. There is always so much to do when we visit her in Budapest that meal times are the least of my considerations. As I ran towards the metro, I felt hassled. I collapsed on a seat and tried to catch my breath.
Ummuselma neglects to revise by Rihan Najib
“If I am living it, then does it not follow that I am intervening all the time.”
Vyasa groans in bored disgust. “No, you women don’t know there is a difference between authoring a life and finding yourself caught in one. It’s not entirely your fault. You are taught to be footnotes in your own narratives. You can extract what is epic, but you don’t dare create it.”
Ganesha sniggers from behind a shelf. Ummuselma rises; a martyred silence fills the air. “I’ll teach you to revise that,” she says, and snatches up her manuscript.
So, India just won the cricket World Cup by Niyantha Shekar
Almost finding love, over a game of cricket.
I walk towards the Members Stand entrance where Anita and I are supposed to meet. I notice a policeman blow his whistle and then fall back when a firecracker bursts by his feet. Various chants overlap one another. Music blasts out of parked cars. Fans stand atop waving their flags. Traffic is at a standstill, but no one cares. This night has been a long time coming. Half the people walking around, including me, weren’t even born the last time India won the World Cup.
The fish market by Amlanjyoti Goswami
A man goes to the fish market.
This new catch was great. His fish tasted like childhood, when my father brought the day’s best, probing the gills with thick bloody fingers. “Red is good, brown bad, black very bad,” father would explain, his eyes deep inside the fish, the half-opened gill pulled out like a flap, before being pounded. The smell mattered too. A good fish wouldn’t rot. Even a kid knew that.
Community leader by Safia Siddiqi
A short story about a Pakistani immigrant in the UK.
Chaudhuri Sahib loosened his tie for the fourth time and looked around at the guests who had started to come in. He checked his outfit: this was the first time in his life that he was wearing such expensive clothes and he was feeling a stranger to himself, but he held his head upright, proudly. He jerked his coat straight, brushed the imaginary dust from its sleeves and began thinking that, even if he were to give five pounds less to his wife for the weekly expenses, it would take twenty weeks to cover the cost of the suit alone, but he had also spent a lot of money on the shoes, shirt and tie. Oh God, so much money has been spent.
Hunger by Farzana Ali
While in their sleep, the daughters had smiles on their faces. When awoken, their eyes opened widely thinking it was all a dream. Finding it real, they dived into the food. Then, her husband took her hand, almost dragging her to the next room. This was their cattle room. Long ago, her husband had sold all the cattle to buy drugs for himself and now it was a room reserved for her husband. A filthy, fleshy and bald middle-aged man smiled at her when she entered the room. He was waiting as if for an animal. She realised and tried to resist. But the bird in the cage can do nothing except rapidly move its wings, a token struggle for freedom. Her husband closed the door behind them. Rukhsana surrendered to hunger.
Apples and mangoes by Mohammad
A frank depiction of a man’s love for another man, and an Afghan refugee’s love for a Pakistani. Full story is available in both print and digital format in our fifth quarterly, Reclaiming Afghanistan.
You will never be an enemy. In fact, I sometimes feel more Pakistani than Afghan. I know, too, that I will probably never see you again, and that there would be nothing to say if I did. We might have wives and children, then, proof that we’d both settled, that it had only been an aberration, a brief moment when I was not thinking. That was before I learned what it meant to be practical, to love narrowly, like a stream that separates properties, countries. You can cross it with a walking stick, and cross back easily when you must.
Get Out Quick, Inc. by Ross Adkin
Mr White continued: “Gentleman, we are in the United States and therefore Mr Crain is the home player and will select the rules of the game we are to play. From the almanac, please pick one sir.”
“Oh I don’t need an almanac,” Summers replied. “It’s got to be poker.”
Suleiman’s heart sank. He would have preferred to play something quicker, like Albanian Xing, or a game that used the 40-card Spanish deck like Rocambor, which he had perfected during his exile in Bolivia. Poker was for dull, ponderous Yankees who did not possess the intelligence or patience for chess, and could not count quickly enough to be successful in the quickfire card games of the bazaars and roadsides of the world. He felt like he had been deprived of a treat.
Question Marks by Fehmida Zakeer
“She read the lines again:
‘I think it would be best to stop sending messages. It has been good to reconnect with you after all these years, but our lives have moved on and thankfully things are good for you as well as for me. Let us just leave it at that.’
A whistle shattered the silence of the house, jerking Reema’s eyes away from the screen of her laptop. She jumped and dashed to the kitchen. Was it the fourth whistle or the fifth? She had lost count. As she turned off the flame, she decided not to open the lid of the pressure cooker. Better to let the heat simmer inside…….”
Freak by Manjula Padmanabhan
“‘You’re too young!’ snarled the tall Australian with the one-word name: Hunter. Her bright blonde hair blazed in the sunlight streaming into her suite at the Kathmandu Hilton. Months in the jungle had left her with a strip of jute across her chest and a pair of filthy shorts tied onto her hips with bungee cords. Only her combat boots were intact. ‘You can’t know the historical significance of this moment!’
The ramblings of an inhabitant of Darjeeling whom I often happen to meet. They are the words we have been hearing in the hills since the beginning of the Gorkhaland agitation in 1986.
“I am 30 years old now. Yet I look 40. I stay in a small hamlet near Darjeeling. It is basically a hamlet made up of tea garden workers. No, I do not own the land; they say it belongs to the tea garden. I am the driver of the Manager and hold a special position among my fellow workers.”
A new translation of Manik Bandopadhyay’s ‘Namuna’ by Madhusree Mukerjee.
“……..A daughter had died as well, of ordinary malaria. This kind was Kesab’s intimate, resident enemy. The weapon against it, quinine, he also knew well. When she hadn’t the strength to swallow a tablet, he’d mixed it in water to make a paste like glue.
Sadai-doctor had remonstrated, ‘You foolish man, that’s very good quinine, a new variety. Very effective. Else, would I charge you extra?’
When she died the doctor got angry. In a stentorian tone, like a judge stating his verdict, he declaimed, ‘You killed her. Can quinine alone save her? Doesn’t she need food? You killed her without giving her food, just food!’ ……..”
Excerpt from the novel 2012 Nights.
“…….Abdullah approached the drunkard, who was by now on his feet. As Abdullah got nearer, the man turned around and beamed a glorious smile – like the radiance of the sun breaking through on a cold winter day – full into Abdullah’s face. Abdullah was taken aback. This was not his mental picture of deadbeat drunks, beaming beatific smiles, their skin glowing.
The man had long grey hair, donned a flowing dark robe, and displayed prominent wrinkles on his face and crow’s feet around his eyes. And yet, there was a dash of impishness about him, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, which made his age seem very uncertain.
The man said: ‘I know of a treasure so great it will boggle the mind of any man. Would you like to be led to it?’” ……..”
The story of a ‘natural’ death in the generals’ Burma.
“The phone call was frantic and not clear. It sounded as if the cell phone’s batteries were failing. My friend’s voice quavered. He sounded as if he was going to cry.
‘Bring all the guys and your mother,’ he said. ‘Come quickly.’
I could not get anything out of him except where he was. He needed help getting to the hospital.
It was 2 am. It was raining……..”
“……..’Come on, baba. Ma was ill for some time. The river has nothing to do with it. It’s just this rain and the damp, monsoon Kolkata night,’ she said, clutching at the straws of his waning reason.
‘The river must have come through my memory and entered your mother’s heart, freezing it in the water’s chilled embrace. Both our mothers, swallowed by the river. Because of me. I am the one cursed by her – the greedy, ravenous raksashi, Padma! Will you never forgive me for my exile?’ he wailed into the night. ……”
“The long wooden pestle hit her stomach for the seventh time. After the fourth, she had known that the baby had died. Once that thought had faintly registered in her mind, she had stopped crying. All her broken heart and damaged body could now do was grunt, with her arms loosely wrapped around her stomach as if to protect the soul of her dead girl from the fate she would have faced. She knew it had been a girl, for it was the reason the blows landed on her, now for the eighth and the ninth time. ……”
“……I could see us then, Tara and me, close and familiar, stumbling to rest by the water-side, the wind in our hair. At intervals further down the bank, on rocky outcrops and ragged grass, other couples sat two by two. The small-town boys with their overly slicked hair, the girls in their gaudy jeans, but it was I who was wrong to notice. They shunned scrutiny in their quiet knots, creatures of nature at home in her lap, drinking deep of each other……”