Category Archives: fiction

The plate of memories

I run into the house, hands over my head to protect myself from the rain. It rains furiously; hot, burning rain. I step into the house, obviously there is a power cut, the darkness within is punctuated by candles. Somewhere, deep inside, a kerosene lamp burns, casting its dull faint glow across the corridor. I take off my sodden shoes and wet socks sitting on the floor. Throw my bag and catch my breath. I am tired, and I am late, they have already cremated her, being unable to wait that long. Everyone else seems to have left. And then I see her shadowy form within. Once she sees me, she starts wailing, crying and talking really fast. Complaining, scolding, shouting, crying some more. Then fully out of steam she calls me to the kitchen.

My aunt’s kitchen is not the stuff of modern, white, gleaming surfaces and shiny appliances. It is an ancient kitchen, built long ago, satisfying the demands of another age and time. Everything is dark and dingy. There are huge cuddappah shelves holding hundreds of old complan tins, full of the weird and wondrous. The floor is old mosaic, pitted and cracked, uneven now, after years of alternating fiery heat and tropical rain. Lizards scurry across the shadows. Water drips constantly. The sink is a huge depression on the floor in one corner, the ‘counter’ is the floor on the other corner. In my house, we sit down and cook; all the tools of our trade lying around us at easy reach, in disarray.

In the dim light I see cooking underway. She must have known I was coming, she would have guessed my timing. She wouldn’t have eaten for all this time and still she kept up a constant stream of complaints and tears, old memories sustaining her thin frame.

In the old pot, there is rice bubbling away. One another stove she lays another pot. She throws in some oil and turns up the flame. In go curry leaves, they pop and splutter wildly. Then mustard and something, something and something else. Turmeric and her bright red dried chillies. She works fast, all her attention towards me, barely glancing at the pot. Another flame is lit in a huge whump, and over it goes the old wok, unsteady and wobbling. Minutes later, greens go in, rain and dirt, steaming away.

I’m sitting cross legged barely a few feet from her smelling of wet rain. I haven’t spoken a word to her. I know despite her wailing and scolding, that this is the only way she knows to say that she loves me. After all she has to, we are the only ones left now. The smells from the pots and pans cling to me. I am already beyond hungry, beyond grief.

Presently she sets two plates on the floor, and the hurricane lamp in front of us. By tradition my plate has been thrown away with the dead ones possessions, I now have ajji’s old plate. It is oblong and magical, it fills the eater up with memories and stories. First, curry on both our plates, and then something dark green. Then rice, hot and steaming, and a dollop of ghee for me, oil for herself. I wait for her to eat a bite, and begin. We eat in silence. Brinjals and pupmkins, greens and potatoes. Buttermilk at the end.

Then I begin to cry softly and she hugs me with her other hand, a wave of sadness enveloping us both.

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The center of the world

I am standing at the center of the world. Part land, part air. Part earth and part sea. I am standing at the top our beloved lighthouse. I stand facing the sun, her heat sending birds screeching downwards into the cool water, and making strange mirages on the horizon. Below me is our beloved city, Mayyazhi. Ahead of me is our allMother the sea. In the far, far distance, if you squint hard enough, even though your eyesight isn’t as good as mine, you can see our glorious boats making their way to the little pearls. They are ten ten thousand islands, all bless our King! Gold Island and Silver Island, Agatti and Bammatti, Raarti, Chengathi, Kalpathi and Visatti, one island with a single coconut tree – the watching sentinel and one more with the blue mangoes. Then there’s temple island and God island (where nobody goes) and Death island (yes! Ifyou go there, you will die. Surely) and Moth island, Flame island and Fantastic Island – and hundreds of thousands of others! Beyond those is the open ocean – but I’m not done yet! The Open Ocean and father ahead – more islands. They have strange names Ulookuroo and Vaadhoo, Fulikadoo and Malookuroo all ooo’s and loo’s. Our great king has sent out our best warriors and engineers there, to show them the greatness of Mayyazhi. And beyond that, there are more islands! Can you believe it? With stranger names and stranger people no doubt, no doubt. Those people have orange heads and green eyes and they eat little children and old men like you. Fukafuka and Fakaravaka, Funafuti and Farafangana, Tranana and Wanana, Wasaya and Wayasewa. And beyond that – are our own Eastern mountains, because the world is round.

Behind me is all our Kingdom too. Green, green land. Forests and fields, paddy and coconut. The inland sea, and inmost islands, Tiger islands and the Heron marsh, and ten thousand canals: the teacher’s canals, the engineer’s canals and the boat canals. Canals so large two elephants could walk side by side in them and still have the King’s boat race them. And canals so tiny, I could jump over them, pissing all the way. Then there is the KingMothers village – Kollengode and beyond that Arikkode, and Chemanthi and Nellicheri. Those villages are all stone (because only the King may use metal) and they speak funnyfunny. But our KingFather, the old king, he married the queen of Kollengode, even though they speak funnyfunny and are so fair skinned that they burn in our summer. Our river Paramba also comes from there, from somewhere beyond our lands, beyond Kollengode, beyond the new lands, beyond even the forest people’s homes, beyond the large blackfruit groves and from within the dark forests of the Eastern mountains.

Then there are the eleven roads that lead to us, the North road and South road and the five East roads. But I’m still learning! I am going to see a map next week. I must recite everything perfectly before I can do that and I could tell you all in one go, but you keep interrupting me because you’re so stupid. Once I learn our land, I will learn the old stories. I’ll learn of allFather and allMother. And the queen of Qatlat, the rakshasi who was vanquished by the Godeess of Mayyazhi. And Mayyazhi is the center of our kingdom, with the King and her Queen, the city of brick and metal (the only one! all bless our King) and the city of a hundred canals. The only city on the treacherous coast, the only city where the King may live, the only city with the old tombs and the only city with a temple to allFather. Home of the Goddess, city of Black fruit and white pearls, city of stories, city of the most delicious, juiciest halva,  city of the most intelligent women, and  city of the darkest, strongest men.

I am standing at the top of our beloved lighthouse. It was built with yakshi magic and stands strong even in the stormiest of weathers. It lies on a spit of land jutting out to sea, our allFather meeting the allMother (Don’t tell anyone I told you that). The sea is our mother because she gives us fish when we are hungry, and pearls so we may look nice. But she is also our wife because when the women go out to fish, she keeps them safe.

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Change

It wasn’t merely the oldest street in the city. It was older than the city too. It was called bazaar street then, when the city was a village on the river ford. It existed simply as ‘the street’ even before that. It had birthed the city and it sat in the city’s edge, unconcerned with the chaos, like an old mother relegated to whispering shadows.

It always wore a festive look. Opiate Flowers continuously fell out of trees. They had fallen on the mud, long ago, fallen fresh as tigers trampled them, licked the soft petals and lay drowsily, and now they fell on the road beneath, through a haze of dust and heat, sunshine and noise. Vegetables were piled in heaps; huge green pumpkins meticulously stacked in pyramids, muddy yams rolling by their base, baskets of ripe yellow bananas, careless mounds of green leaves all looking the same, long gourds hanging from tree branches and banana leaves underneath everything. Scores of little shops stood by the street, under the watchful eyes of the drowsy trees. The little shops sold everything. And the large homes sat behind the little shops, all their people drunk on the flowers falling on their courtyard. Outside the street, a country revolted, men killed and women burned. Changes slowly trickled down time and space to reach the street. The fruit sellers came first; with their exotic cold apples from the Himalayas and dates from across the ocean, large cantaloupes form the north and walnuts and almonds from Afghanistan. A large woman sat one day with fish from the western sea and the fish never stank, since they were perfumed by the falling flowers. Traders from the hot plains brought tamarind and cashew and from the far north, they got delicate saffron flowers. The traders also set up a tandoor and passed around crisp rounds of bread dusted with sesame and browned onions. Then the South Indian women came to live in the big house at the end of the street and brought with them the alien stench of jasmine. Jasmine and almost-jasmine, roses and tiny green leaves in their hair. They drew the men wild, teased the women and even woke the comatose fishes. Their coming ripened bananas and brightened stone-pitted applies. Dates oozed juices and the bees came to live on the trees, dropping honey on the mud and the whole street was mired in a smelly, sticky mess of solid air and languid dust. Then the opium flowers conspired to sit on the women’s heads, and drove out the jasmines and the almost-jasmines and the roses and the little green leaves and the street became liveable again. It was to such a street that winter arrived.

It arrived at night when the men slept and the women lay tossing and turning. The opiate leaves fell as usual but landed on a hard white surface.  In the morning the mists hid the white ground from everyone, until a child unexpectedly screamed, running on the street and shattered the veil. Frost and hard dew, clouds and knife-cold air. The ghosts of the tigers fled, and the ghost of old men that sat near the banyan tree fled. The cats turned to stone, the bees fell solidly, like so many fruits and the dogs ate the dead bees and died. The fish stank and bananas decayed, spreading death up and down the street. Only the opiate flowers still continued falling. In the winter when this land turned cold, and the trees were bare, there were no vegetables and no fruits, no gay festoons over the houses and shops, and the street still came alive. It lived in the vapours from the kitchens and on hot coffee from the little shops, bloomed by the old tandoor of the traders and moved about on gossip that circulated urgently and died by the smell of decaying fish.

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Profusion

The house itself seemed to be radiant with prosperity. And at the centre of it was Radhika. The girl with the pretty smile who dropped coins everywhere. No one remembered when it began, it was as though she had always been dropping them. When she stood, coins fell out of her dress.  When she woke, she would find herself surrounded by coins. When she lay down to sleep, coins rolled out of her hair, rolled across the mattress and spun in lazy circles on the floor. At other times they fell furiously, loud plink-plonks on the hard tiles. When she walked in the courtyard they fell with muted thuds on the hard earth and lay there reflecting sunlight. They ceaselessly fell: nimble, bright new one rupee coins, chipped almost polygonal two rupee coins and dull, fat five rupee coins that thudded threateningly. One morning at the washbasin, expired coins started falling out of her mouth as she brushed. Fifty paise and twenty fives, small ten paise coins and rhombus fives, all covered in spittle and foam.

In the beginning the coins were swept off with brooms, brushed under beds and stuffed under mattresses. Eventually the falling coins did not touch the floor but fell on their older cousins, metal striking metal. The rooms began to be covered in sheets of live coins with minds of their own: some hot, some cold, some bright and reflective, some old and corroded and some that changed colours when one squinted at them. Then the mother of the house had the servants store the coins in buckets. The old bathroom was dusted and the buckets were shoved in, brimming with coins, their pale plastic cracking.

It was then that everyone knew that Radhika had been seeing the cable-boy. One night as he prepared to jump back over the wall after their furious, restrained passion, his pockets began to jingle wildly. His shirt was pulled down by an immense weight and his pants seemed to poke into his legs. Then the mother of the house had him undress and leave all the coins in a tidy heap by the door. So it was that by the heap of coins, everyone knew that he had come and gone.

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Fire

His mind has often burned. With single minded passion: anger, jealousy, loneliness, with unbounded ferocity. His mind has even burned with regret and guilt. And once, on a clear cold night, the very sight of the plump full-moon sent him burning with madness. Hence he knew all the ways in which his mind burnt. He recognized the onslaught. He knew the signs. He sensed the seed of the fire, the manner of its catching flames. He knew the marks it left upon his heart. For days the fire would burn steadily, consuming him from the inside. Eventually it would explode within, without warning in a bloom of torment. Outside he maintained his passive disposition. Walking among fallen yellow flowers, the walls of his heart wilted and walking over cackling dried leaves his arteries surged with red hot blood. He even knew who was burning within. Jealousy simmered. Anger flared. Loneliness waxed and waned, came and went, lingered when he was with company and mercilessly assaulted him in his solitude. Then there was the dragging flame of guilt, with ashen embers flaming suddenly, poking him in private corners of his heart, uninvited.

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West

The drive to the Western Fire Temple is a long road.  Especially if one is driving from the plains. Leaving at sunrise, it is possible to keep driving into lengthening shadows for the better part of the day, before the trees start closing in. The road goes on straight, west among rice fields and mango trees, flaming gulmohars and solid neems. Eventually, the road loses its ambition and bends a little. Then a little more, a slip here, a curve there and finally, abandoning all sense of direction, it entangles itself in complex knots. It is at this point that you really begin to notice the trees, the sinister ones, if you have been looking. Huge banana trees stand at regular intervals. Larger than normal, with a skirt of old tattered leaves covering their trunk. Tall coconut trees rise in between.  Fat tees with large, flat, poisonous white leaves rise above the mists and large jackfruits threaten to fall onto unsuspecting cars, squishing little children.  Sometime later there will be a marked sense of ascending, and the mists rise with you, passing through you and playing with you. Tendrils of wild mist will snake across your windshield. Thick trunks of mist will appear at will, on the road.  Through the mists, headless horses will rise as mountains. The lady of green mists may bring rains upon you. Soft rain that dries up before it can reach the ground, or piercing rain that sends cars screeching into hungry ravines lurking around corners.

Wild coffee shrubs roll down hillsides, pepper plants nimbly climb up coconut trees suffocating them, their dark fruit falling like raindrops all over the forest. If you get out of your car to pee on the roadside, you will be scared. It is not silent, or eerie. On the contrary it buzzes with indistinct life. You may hear growls and soft thuds. You may hear the high pitched screeches of birds. If you hear his growl, get back in and start driving again. You still have a long way to go. Sometime in the afternoon, for even though the sun disappears and twilight hangs about uninvited, it is still noon, you will see an old temple. It used to tower over the forest once, when the kings walked. Now it lies in resignation, one with the forest. It would appear like women in colourful sarees are peeking out of the tall windows of the temple wall, singing desperate songs of longing. Keep driving, for those women are bewitching but vile and lure the careless traveller into their mystic mazes.

If you do not fall prey to these yet, then you have journeyed further than I. Somewhere across an invisible boundary, the forest turns benign. The mists leave.  Bright moonshine reflects off lively rivers. The smell of impending dawn lingers in the air. Pay your dues to the Rakshas at the gate, and you shall pass in.

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Practice

He strode down the street, magic following in his wake. It is a strange thing, this magic. Abstract yet very visible in its effects. It is also not in his control. The first time he had nearly jumped out of his skin; producing a fireball out of nowhere. That ball of flames had hovered in front of him and none of his hand movements could do anything to it. Then seemingly of its own accord, it moved straight, and crashed into a wall, dissolving into nothingness. Later he thought about it. He hadn’t touched it, felt it or gone anywhere near it. He soon gave it up as a dream.

The second time it was water. He managed to raise a ball of water from the commode. Repelled and curious at the same time, he froze. The ball of water hovered there, as if waiting for a command. He dared not speak. Tentatively he held out a finger upwards. The ball still stayed there irresolute. He half thought of leaving it there and making a run for it. What would anyone else make of it? And just like that the ball crashed into the commode splashing everywhere.

Concentration, that’s what it is , he thought to himself. Maybe focus was what kept up those elemental balls (why only those shapes though?) up in the air. Convinced that it was not a dream anymore he started looking for signs of magic more consciously. He concentrated on mundane objects for log times, unblinking till the tears came unbidden. He wiggled his stubby fingers in various motions. He mumbled nonsense words and one fine morning, a fine ball of dust rose to meet his face. He was terrified. He ran, not once pausing to look back. Only after he turned two corners did he pause for breath. But it is magic! he thought to himself. Surely it could turn corners. Apparently the dust ball could not turn corners. In a daze he spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly.

He knew air was next. Air or what was the fifth element? An air ball wouldn’t scare him, but the fifth element bothered him. He had given up trying to control whatever this magic was, yet he wished he knew what he was doing. Somehow when the air ball came, he knew it would. He was wandering, and between his hands air began to whirl about. He felt a tightening of his gut and moved his hands. The air ball moved with it. Not believing, he gave his hands a shake. The ball wobbled. In a moment of excitement, he raised his right hand and forcefully pointed the palm outwards. The air ball whooshed out, eager to do its bidding. He expected it to crash into a wall and … the ball went straight for the wall, but instead of exploding, it split into two in with the impact. Every surface it hit, it split again. Within minutes there were a dozen small air balls the size of marbles, whirring around. He watched them with a dazed fascination. He came to consciousness suddenly and the air balls dropped to nothingness with a dozen tiny swooshes.

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