Saturday, December 10, 2016

2016 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Winner and Finalists

DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction: The Winners


The entries for this year’s DNA-OUT of PRINT short fiction special were exceptionally strong and we had a difficult time narrowing down the lists at every stage of the reading. We are thrilled to announce the final four stories of the feature.

The stories on the final list not only have remarkable inherent merit but also, approach the theme of this year’s feature, Dissent, in different and interesting ways. In bhavani’s A Fragrance That Could Have Been, dissent is woven through the narrative: a child rebels, society does not follow quotidian rules, and the system is challenged as a sensitive young woman attempts to mentor across societal divides. R K Biswas’ The Rabbit, a story of rebellion, guilt and reckoning is skilfully worked around a father-son thread; memories and sentiments are brought to the fore by the manifestation of a rabbit from the past. Zui Kumar-Reddy the winner of the 2015 feature has the most direct approach to the theme in her 1977; dedicated to her grandmother, the iconic Snehalatha Reddy, and referencing the Emergency, the story examines the meaning and the repercussions of political dissent from a deeply personal space. Karthik Shankar’s Appa’s Scooter looks at the perturbations that tear at the fibre of a conventional family when one among them expresses their identity with uncompromising clarity. A trans grandson, an insular neighbourhood, and a neglected scooter drive this story.

Other stories stand out: Shabnam Nadiya’s Spin, a delicately rendered study of the tough moment when the seed of dissent is planted; Trisha Bora’s The Guests, with its subtle, personal complexities of multiple rebellions; Kulpreet Yadav’s story of a wild and symbolically bloody breaking free…. We are tempted to list every story on the shortlist … and many more. We thank every author who sent in a story, and congratulate the ones whose stories have been chosen for publication. 


bhavani
R K Biswas
Zui Kumar-Reddy
Karthik Shankar


Judges: Out of Print editors, Ram Sadasiv, Leela Levitt, Indira Chandrasekhar




2016 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Winner: bhavani

A Fragrance That Could Have Been
bhavani

I stood outside the houses next to the temple, wondering which one was hers. 

Mehak? I said tentatively. To my left, on a metal balcony, a woman came out of a doorway. By her side was a black and white mongrel barking furiously, peering down the steps, threatening me. The woman wore a crumpled nightie, her tobacco-stained teeth rivalling its faded orange-brown design. 

Chai? She asked.

No, I shook my head.

A large drop fell on my forehead. A leaking pipe covered with grime made its way down from the balcony. I wiped my forehead with my hand, shuddered involuntarily, took a deep breath and continued. 

‘Where is Mehak?’

‘Downstairs,’ she said, gesturing with her hand towards the ground floor. 

I removed my sandals, squeezed past two large plastic tanks, their water supply, and pushed open the dirty curtain hanging at the doorway. 

I’d met Mehak for the first time at her school; a programme identified students who needed special care either because they came from challenging backgrounds or because of poor academic performance. At the introductory session fifty children interacted with the teachers, interns and volunteers. It was my first week as an intern and her first day on the programme.
*
I stepped inside the room, about five feet by five feet with little furniture. The television was on at full blast, stuck on a cartoon channel. Mehak sat to one side on a haphazard pile of bed sheets, leaning on pillows piled against the wall. She turned towards me, briefly, then looked back at the television. I settled down on the floor. 

‘Hello Mehak. How are you?’

She increased the volume. I opened the sketchbook and started drawing. A few minutes later she was next to me, peering into my page. 

‘I can draw that better.’ She grabbed the book and began re-drawing the bunch of bananas. She chewed the back of the pencil as she worked her way through the bends and curves of what would become a dozen of bananas. Our one-hour session was spent drawing in separate books. We didn’t speak.

Go slow, the counsellor had told us. Get to know them and their families first before pushing our agenda. We want to change their lives, want them to dream big and let them know they can, with our help.
*
I met her twice a week after school and we walked to her house together. The walk made my heart beat doubly fast as she darted away, refusing to hold my hand at a busy crossing. After a few weeks, I met her only at home, avoiding the perilous walk.

One day, a month into our sessions, I taught her a line. I would say, see you later, alligator. She would reply, after a while, crocodile. The words stumbled from her twelve-year-old tongue, she stopped halfway, shook her head. I made her say it again with me. She smirked. I waved goodbye, a smile on my face, and made my way home in a rattling auto-rickshaw. At a large junction, the light red, the auto-driver increased his speed, I clutched the bar in front of me as we jolted across between vehicles. 

Why did you break the signal?

Everyone does.

And that makes it right?
*
Today it had taken me one and a half hours to reach her house. The traffic had been insane. I sat in that small room, Mehak refusing to make eye contact. Do you want to play? What do you want to do? 

Silence. 

Then a sudden, why are you here?

I pulled out books filled with bright pictures of fruits, vegetables, dogs, monuments and people. 

Just go.

I walked down the lanes out of the slum. The houses were squeezed together, even air seemed scarce. Outside on the road, the traffic had piled up. Autos, cars, even a large van, sped down the wrong side of the road, intent on beating the jam. 

Don’t do that, I told my auto-driver. Stay in this lane. 

Madam … we will be here forever. Seeing the traffic?

That’s fine. Why break rules? The system is designed to make our lives smoother, otherwise we would collapse into chaos and anarchy.

He looked at me in the mirror, his eyebrows scrunched on his forehead, shaking his head.

Tears chased down my cheeks blurring the red tail-lights that whizzed past.
*
I’m not able to do much with her, I told the counsellor in my review meeting after three months. The sessions are a study of silence.

She is a difficult child, the counsellor pacified, tough family background.

Mehak’s parents had fallen in love – he a Muslim, she a Hindu. They eloped, so her family disowned her. They came to Bombay from the village to build their paradise. It could have been a beautiful story. The father drank every night, rumour had it that he slept with women in the slum. 

What about the mother?

He doesn’t let her out of the house. Suspects her. He doesn’t think Mehak and her brother are his. Outside the window a group of parakeets were shrieking, tumbling in the air, weaving through branches. I looked back into the counsellor’s eyes, they weren’t cold but lacked emotion. Life had failed Mehak so the system attempted to intervene. She craved something else.

A group session was organised that weekend. All the other volunteers and interns showed progress. Mehak sat away from me. I wanted to reach out, but knew she needed to come to me.

How’s your kid?

Good.

Mine just cannot stop talking. We worked on her dreams’ chart.

Already? Thought that was the goal after six months.

The volunteer shrugged her shoulders, tilted her head and gave me a crooked smile.

I went to look for Mehak. She’d gone downstairs to play during the break and refused to come back.
*
Hey, I’ve brought a lantern. Do you want to learn to make it? 

Her father was lounging to one side of the room in a thin baniyan and badly tied lungi, the bottle of local liquor hardly hidden from my view. His right hand curled around a glass.

Mehak agreed. She was chirpy, engaged but looked at him every few seconds. He stared straight at the television. Bed sheets lay crumpled on the floor, pillows strewn everywhere. I wondered if he’d had someone over the previous night. Had Mehak ever chanced upon him with one of his women? How did they explain it to her?

Don’t venture into a conversation on values, the counsellor warned, it gets murky. Talk about how she can make her life better. Period.

Once there was a man sitting in the room with Mehak and her mother. He was young, dressed in tight pants and a shiny black shirt with a sly smile on his face. Mehak calls him Mama.

She takes a thick sketch-pen and writes on a piece of paper, decorating carefully, then shows it to him. He laughs looking at her mother who raises her eyebrows. It read ‘I love you’. Mehak smiles and says Mama, I love you Mama.
*
I’m going cycling she shouted, six months after our first meeting, just as I reached her home. 

Do you know how to cycle?

Of course, she said. Come. Her eyes were lit, mischief rippling through her thin frail body. 

I tried to keep up, my big bag full of books thumping against my side. I now carried storybooks, drawing books and a range of crayons and sketch-pens to entice her. I was still the Little Prince waiting patiently for the fox to come closer, but unlike in the book, she only ran further.

I lost her quickly in the labyrinth. Mehakkkkk…. A little girl at a corner said, pointing to the right, go towards the ground, behind the Police Station.

There was a large clearing between a few government-built apartments in a compound adjacent to the slum. 

The ground was as crumbly as the buildings themselves; dust rose and hovered like a low cloud. Sewage pipes leaked, streaking the walls with black grime, as they made their way down into the ground where garbage hurled out of windows lay in piles. In the distance, Mehak was running. Her pink and black kurta fluttered, her dupatta trailing in the wind. In one session, she’d announced with a smile, my favourite colour is pink. She was wearing a pink kurta and had showed me her pink pencil box with Dora on it. 

The dupatta dropped to her side as she reached a boy on a cycle. After a brief conversation, she took the cycle from him, jumped on and went off pedalling. 

Careful. 

She went down a slope then came back up, cycling with great speed toward me, jumped off and gave me her dupatta. 

Hold! 

I held on. She went down the slope but lost control and fell. I ran towards her, reaching just as the boy who owned the cycle yelled, it had better not be scratched.

You ok? I asked. 

She got up, dusted herself and nodded dismissively.

I looked at the boy. Before I could intervene she turned and said, on my birthday, when my dad gives me my new cycle, I’ll give you a ride. She jumped on and sped away.

Mehak, my father will get angry … Be careful … he yelled after her.

After an hour spent watching her, I gave the dupatta back and said bye. 

Should I come back next week?

No. Never. She yelled as she ran home.
*
It had been a long day that faded into a smog-filled night with no moon or visible stars. I sat on those metal steps, the dog barking somewhere behind me, watching the slum wind down. I had reached at five pm for the regular Wednesday session only to find Mehak missing. Since when? Her mum shrugged as she continued to make some chai.

How can you sit still?

What do you want me to do? I’ve looked. Police will register the case for a missing person only after twenty-four hours. 

Mehak’s brother had gone missing before. They found him after months, with a group of teenagers in a desolate place nearby, living in abandoned furniture and autos. Addicted to cheap drugs, he refused rehab, refused to come back.

I want you to do something. She’s a girl. She’s thirteen!

Her mother shrugged. 

I looked everywhere, sweeping the tiny lanes with matchbox houses that sunlight bypassed, knocking on random doors, that girl who came to the doorway, the boy with the cycle, outside on the streets and that dusty ground.

It had been ten days since her birthday. My father is getting me a new pink cycle she’d said for weeks leading to it. I came by on her birthday with a strawberry cake, large balloons and a twenty-four crayons colouring set. There was no cycle. Not on that day or for days after.

When it was ten pm, too late for me to stay, I walked to my car. The streetlights were blazing, headlights bright, everyone headed home. As I neared the signal, it turned orange and then red, the car beside me accelerated while I braked. The countdown on my signal had reached twenty seconds when a car behind honked, two rickshaws to my right inched forward blocking moving traffic, a group of two-wheelers darted across, one narrowly missing a BEST bus. The signal said ten seconds. Honks reverberated down the line. An auto went past my right, the driver yelled, gesturing at me. The junction was busy with people and vehicles converging from all directions, the law abandoned, the common man deeming his method better, faster.
I closed my eyes. I’d tried. The system had tried. We’d reached out but she squirmed, thrashed, refusing to be held and slipped deeper into the pit. That large cavernous one which opened up and sucked everything in.

See you later, alligator.



bhavani is an independent fiction and non-fiction writer. Her fiction has won contests at Women’s Web and made it to the 2015 Out of Print-DNA shortlist. She has over 70 non-fiction articles published in leading national and international magazines, newspapers and netzines. In a dedicated relationship with her husband, chocolate, her puppy and lower case, though not necessarily in that order, bhavani lives in Mumbai and loves working from home though she misses a regular dose of office gossip.



2016 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Finalist: R K Biswas

The Rabbit
R K Biswas

The night he died, Ratnankur Roy-Dewanji saw the rabbit he had killed more than sixty years ago. His head was not playing tricks. He was not dreaming. Nor was it the effects of the drugs they’d been feeding him. His mind was lucid. Clearer than it had been in the past two years. He was certain. The rabbit was real. He saw it as clearly as he had first seen it hopping across the road in front of his father’s car on that long ago rainy night. Ratnankur had just learnt to drive, and often used the excuse of running errands in order to take the car out for a spin.

Ratnankur’s father had bought the Rover from a Scotsman departing from a newly independent India. The car shone like a new penny and purred like a just fed cat on a warm lap. Ratnankur’s father always gave his long and luxuriously bushy moustache a twirl before turning on the ignition. And another when the car hummed into life and rolled forward. Ratnankur merely sat straighter when he was behind the wheel; he didn’t have his father’s moustache. And the car didn’t purr as much when he drove.

Ratnankur took the short cut to town past a quiet stretch with thickly growing deciduous trees on either side. The rabbit hopped ahead, and kept at it. Not once or twice, but almost every time. It had an unmistakable coat – brown with a large scalene triangle of white fur on its back. There was a spot of white on its left haunch, and its tail was brown on top and white underneath. The rabbit ran ahead, then stopped to twitch its whiskers and look at Ratnankur provocatively, with a gleaming black bead of an eye, before kicking its hind legs backwards and vanishing into the undergrowth. The rabbit was challenging him, perhaps even calling him names in his cheeky lagomorph way.

Ratnankur was not sure when the idea first came to him. It was a thought that quickly translated into desire and then into strong need. Before he even realised it he found himself chasing the rabbit whenever their paths crossed. He reasoned that the rabbit had thrown a silent challenge at him. He began driving down the rabbit’s road regularly only for an opportunity to blossom. But the little fellow was always a step ahead. In rain or shine, windy weather or sultry stillness, the rabbit stayed ahead.

Ratnankur grew angrier with every failed attempt. Initially he had thought to only scare the rabbit. He had read or heard that rabbits were easily frightened and could even die of heart attacks. The thought of his tormentor freezing into shock and then toppling over with the quick twitch of rigor mortis sent a thrill down Ratnankur’s back. But the rabbit was proving to be too fast. Or plain lucky.

Fate favours the patient. And Ratnankur managed to get the rabbit one day. Perhaps it had grown tired of the game. Perhaps it had grown old. Or injured. It did look like it was slower than usual, and Ratnankur thought he detected the hint of a limp in its gait. Whatever the reason, the rabbit could not hop away from the Rover’s wheels in time. A mini fountain of blood shot up staining the wheel.  A few drops reached the fender and one of the headlights. When Ratnankur returned home, his father asked him about them. The old man shook his head disapprovingly, saying that now, since Ratnankur had given the car a taste for blood he had no desire to drive the Rover or even sit in it. Ratnankur was welcome to drown the damn machine in the Ganges for all he cared. Ratnankur was pleased that his little tryst with the rabbit had ended up making him the car’s de facto owner.

Ratnankur reached for the bell. He was thirsty. The night nurse took her own sweet time to respond. And when she did come in she was sloppy with the water and spilled some of it on his quilt. The room was air conditioned so the damp patch became almost instantly cold. She tucked him in a little roughly. Then she turned away without making eye contact, and shut the door after her with an insolent click.

Ratnankur rolled the cold part of the quilt away from him. But he felt chilly. They hadn’t bothered to adjust the temperature to his liking. Ratnankur pulled up the quilt again. The rabbit hopped around in the soft smoky blue of the night light. It sat down and scratched an ear with its hind paw. Then got busy grooming itself. It fixed an insolent black stare upon the prone man once it finished.

Ratnankur wished he could prop himself against his pillows. He felt certain he could have had a conversation with the animal. He wasn’t sure what they would talk about though. Ratnankur, at that moment, had no intention of apologising to the rabbit. Nevertheless, he did believe that given the same circumstances today he would not have killed the poor creature. He would have merely scared it off the road. He made an effort to prop himself up. But he had no strength and did not feel like another visit from the night nurse. He closed his eyes and hoped it would be morning soon.

He woke up to the sound of soft snorts and snuffles. It was eerie in the gloom. The wall clock’s phosphorous-coated hands told him that it was two hours past midnight. Ratnankur was certain it was the rabbit again. Maybe it had never left at all. Why was the rabbit after him? What did it want? After so many years? Did rabbits have spirits?

Ratnankur sat up in bed without effort, surprising himself. He felt around for the light switch, pressed the wrong one and set off the red light outside his room. Ratnankur groaned. Now one of the attendants or ward boys would bungle in. They would insist on giving him the plastic urinal even if he protested; there wasn’t any urine left in his bladder. The doctors encouraged him to drink as much liquid as possible, and he tried his best. But his bladder, which had acquired a will of its own these days, was decidedly disobedient. He lay back in bed and waited for the rabbit.

The rabbit peeped from behind the curtain. It was wearing a collar with a leash attached. Ratnankur was surprised. Whoever saw such a thing? It looked cute and funny though. He was sorry he had killed it all those years ago. The sorrow welled up in his heart, which had so far preferred to pump only blood. The feeling pushed its way into his throat. His hands that lay limp against the bedclothes began to shake. His lips trembled.

‘I am sorry,’ he said at last. ‘I really didn’t mean to hurt you. Kill you like that. I’m sorry. My father disapproved. At that time I didn’t realise what he’d meant by rejecting the Rover. That was his gentle protest. Yes. That’s just what it was.’

Thinking of his father brought tears to his eyes. He wished he had been a better son. But when he had the chance it had seemed like a daft idea to do things simply to please his old folks. He had never taken much interest in his own progeny, but when they grew up and left him alone, he felt affronted. He had never stinted on their education and other things. Spent fortunes on their marriages and bought cars and jewellery for them. But the ungrateful wretches had no time for him.

Ratnankur grimaced. He tried to stop the flow of tears. What was wrong with him? Why was he suddenly splitting up into two different personalities? One sentimental and maudlin, and the other his usual practical and hard headed self. But the memories came trooping in. They were not the remembrances of his victories and conquests in business and love and life in general. They presented events and occurrences he had never given a second’s thought to before. They, the squeaky little losers, now twitched their whiskers and pointed their thin furry paws at him accusingly.

Ratnankur remembered with a start that he had forgotten to scatter his father’s ashes into the Ganges at Gaya a year after the cremation. It had been his father’s wish. The small clay pot had stood in a corner of the old man’s prayer room, gathering cobwebs. Ratnankur couldn’t remember for how long.

‘Why didn’t anyone remind me?’ He muttered in anger.

His wife was the one who should have. But she was missing. Worse, he could hardly remember her face. It occurred to him that he had spent his whole life with a strange woman. And now she was nowhere to be found, and he was too helpless to go out and search for her. He tossed his head about on the thin hospital pillow. Was she dead already? He didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. He tried to visualise his children’s faces in the dreary air of the room. But the images faltered. He thought of his father again, the Rover and the rabbit. They were as real as the pain crawling about inside his torso.

Ratnankur’s father looked at him and shook his head sadly. He lit his pipe and walked over to the car, still shaking his head. The right headlight had some blood splattered on it. The rabbit sat impudently on the car’s bonnet. Ratnankur hobbled after his father. A part of him was surprised that he could move at all when just moments ago he could barely lift his hands up. It occurred to him that a hospital room was an unusual place for a Rover or any car to be parked in. But he dismissed the thought. He was still a powerful man, and the room and medical treatment his money had purchased was the best the country could offer. His sons knew how much he treasured the old Rover, much more than his other cars.

‘Baba wait. I didn’t mean it. Look the rabbit is sitting on the car. Please just stop and turn around. Baba please.’

The older man stooped to examine the blood on the headlight. He took out a spotless white handkerchief and began to wipe off the stain. Soon the headlight, fender and wheel were clean. He shook the now no longer white piece of cloth and smoothened it with both hands, pipe clamped between his teeth. He folded the handkerchief and replaced it in his pocket. He then got into the Rover and backed it out of the room.

Ratnankur stared. The car, his car was gone. He returned to his bed feeling petulant. What kind of a father, on the pretext of visiting his sick son, makes off with his car?

‘It was my car,’ said Ratnankur to the rabbit who now sat on the floor exactly where the Rover had stood seconds before. ‘Baba said he would have nothing to do with it. He did. That makes it my car for I am his son. You know that don’t you?’

The rabbit flopped its ears back and did a complete about turn. It kicked its hind legs towards Ratnankur and hopped out of the room. Ratnankur felt an uncontrollable rage bubble up inside him. He snarled at the rabbit’s twitching tail. Something solid and stone smooth rose up from his throat and rolled into his tongue. Involuntarily he coughed and then spat with as much force as he could muster. The thing shot out like a bullet. The rabbit vanished instantly. The lights began to dim around Ratnankur as he watched a small and curiously circular black body hit the floor where the animal had been seconds ago, before dissipating into the darkness.


RK Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows, Lifi Publications and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women, Authorspress. Her third book Immoderate Men is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger Books. Her short fiction and poetry have been published worldwide, notably in Asia Literary Review, Eclectica, Per Contra, Etchings, Markings, Pushing Out the Boat, Muse India, Out of Print and Nth Position. She won second prize in the 2016 India Currents Katha Literary Fiction Prize for her story It Comes from Uranus. Her novel was listed as one of the 20 most popular books published in 2014 by The Readers’ Club, Delhi. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer's Retreat Short Story Contest. The recipient of numerous other awards and accolades, she blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com.