Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Sowmya Aji

August 15, 2012
Sowmya Aji

I was standing on our cramped terrace, watching the moon, when I saw them. A group of five men in their early twenties walking up the main road, carrying torches and sticks.
Torches I understand, for no one can predict when Bangalore’s streetlights will go off due to a power shutdown. But why sticks? The street dogs are not that scary, they go away if yelled at or are ignored. No need to beat them off with sticks.
I watched as they turned down our small road in Neelasandra. They appeared to be headed for our house. Visitors for our antiquated landlady Rukmini Ramakrishna? At this hour? How very odd.
But the rattling knock sounded on our door. Priscilla was asleep, she leaves at 7 am for her job at a start-up IT company in Electronics city. I flew down the old stairs from the terrace, to stop the knocks from waking her, but there was a louder bang. As I reached our door, I heard Priscilla stirring behind me in our shared room.
‘Yaaru?’ I called out, asking who it was. I was not comfortable opening the door at 8.30 pm, despite the room light being on. Bangalore is safe, yes, and I have lived here all my life. But why take risks, especially when it’s a group of young men?
‘Open the door, we have to tell you something,’ said a voice. Priscilla was sitting up. ‘What is it?’ she asked me in her Assamese-clipped English. ‘They are saying they have something to tell us,’ I muttered. ‘But who is it?’ she asked again.
I didn’t like it, but if they continued yelling, Rukku, as Priscilla and I referred to the landlady, would come out of her house next door. She had warned us when she rented this room to two unwed girls that there should be no boys at all. And finding another room at this rent in Bangalore was filled with difficulties.
I opened the door a crack. ‘What did you want?’ I asked. The cool dude in front, in a dark, stylish kurta, pants and neon sneakers, held the incongruous stick and torch in his hands. ‘We don’t want to talk to you, we want to talk to her,’ he said gruffly. I frowned and turned to Priscilla.
Priscilla looked at me blankly. She swung her legs off the bed and came to the door. ‘What?’ she asked him, peering through the partially opened door, over my shoulder. All the young men on the other side of the door stirred. ‘This one’s a typical chinky only,’ said one. I bristled and glared, but luckily Pricilla didn’t hear him.
‘Medam,’ said the dude in front of me, addressing Priscilla in English, ‘We warn you. We don’t want your kind here. Leave Bangalore and go back to wherever you come from. And don’t come back. Or…’ he lifted his stick, uncaring of my presence.
*
This couldn’t be happening. Not in my city! ‘What are you saying!’ I hissed, furious. The dude ignored me and gave Priscilla a sneering smile. ‘Be happy medam. I am warning you, not attacking you. Go. Don’t be here when we come again tomorrow.’
I was shaking my head in disbelief. The young men behind him stirred again. ‘Why do we have to hold on now? Let’s show her straight away.’
My hands began to shake. I slammed the door quickly, and stood leaning against it. I was the born in the middle of the Cauvery riots in Bangalore, the riots which showed the world for the first time the simmering fascism under the surface of one of the most welcoming cities anywhere. Local Tamils were attacked by local Kannadigas, often their neighbours, over the release of scarce Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu. My mother went into labour just as the city erupted, and my parents had to walk down to the nearest nursing home. The fear and horror they went through that day, walking amidst hoards of bike-riding young boys shouting hate slogans, has scarred them for life.
Priscilla was speaking in rapid Assamese to someone on her mobile. We needed the cops. I grabbed my mobile, dialled 100. ‘Yes,’ said a languid voice after 10 rings. ‘Some boys have come and threatened my roommate that she should leave Bangalore immediately,’ I blurted out. ‘Which area?’ the voice asked, unperturbed. I gave the address, and more details about those young men. ‘Hmm, you should call Neelsandra police station,’ the voice said. ‘Can’t you help? Give us protection?’  I asked, my voice shaking. ‘Their jurisdiction no, ma? You call them,’ the voice hung up, without listening to my asking for the Neelasandra police station number.
I said sharply: ‘Priscilla, what rubbish. Let’s just go to the police station.’ She shook her head. ‘My mother wants me to catch the train right now and leave,’ she mumbled, digging out her backpack from under her bed.
‘But Priscilla you won’t get a booking on the Guwahati train at this hour!’ I said.  No response. ‘What about your job?’ I asked. She sent most of her money home, and the family needed it.  She couldn’t just chuck it away. ‘I will call and arrange leave tomorrow,’ she said. But did she need to go like this?
I tried again: ‘I am here na, Priscilla? I am local. They can’t do anything. Let us go to the police station?’ I don’t think she even heard me, as she packed.
We went to an ATM. She withdrew everything except the mandatory Rs 1000 from her account. She wouldn’t take anything from me. We found an auto, agreed to pay double meter and went to the city railway station.
The air was thick with fear, as the station overflowed with people from the North East, jabbering in languages that I didn’t know, some of which even Priscilla didn’t understand.  Priscilla looked around with tear-filled eyes. I held her hand tightly, as we waded through the mob to the long snaking queue at the ticket counters.
‘I will never get a ticket,’ Priscilla said, suddenly. I didn’t say anything. We could see the Guwahati train on the platform from where we were standing. It was already full and from what I could see, as packed as a Mumbai local. The train began to move from the platform. There were shouts, slogans, screams, as people jostled, trying to jump from the platform on to the train. The railway staff quickly announced that two more trains would go to Guwahati, and the panic halted.
A man approached us. ‘Ticket?’ he asked, business like. He was selling in them in black at Rs 2000 a ticket. My burning anger finally surfaced. ‘Yellargu ticket kot right helbidtira?’ I said through clenched teeth. He looked surprised, then moved away. Priscilla was uncomprehending. ‘What I said was rowdy-speak for will you kill everybody,’ I said.
Priscilla hugged me. ‘I will come back,’ she said. ‘Will you really?’ I asked, my eyes finally filling with tears. She held my hand. And we waited for the next train.

Sowmya Aji is a journalist with the Economic Times in Bengaluru and the author of Delirium, Harper Collins India, 2013.



2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Pravin Vemuri

The Last Rain
Pravin Vemuri

It poured on Monday. And Tuesday too. It had been pouring every day since New Year’s Eve. On the sixtieth day Mumbai broke from the mainland and floated off on the Arabian Sea. Which seemed like quite a joke on the meteorologists. They had predicted that Mumbai would simply drown.
The tourists were the first to protest. They now needed to pay for the extra boat ride or plane ride to get back. Both more expensive than last year.
But the wind didn’t pay attention. Nor the sea. The Arabian Sea, in its defense, is a very calm one. It wouldn’t do much change your opinion. It would just knock on the front door over and over again in a gentle way. Like it’s saying, ‘Hey how are you doing? Wanna come out for a smooth ride?’ with reggae music in the background and the smell of sweet rum in the air.
The trouble started when the elements, against their character and form, conjured up a storm that pushed the island further and further out. The international flights got more delayed. Kite flying took on the aspect of an artform. Sometimes the island jerked so much that we would fall down right where we were standing. And even though we got used to it with an improvised version of a Zumba step, it always felt as if we were getting rushed. More than usual, that is. And, of course, the fish we caught was of a different variety.
But it got really bad when there was a twitter campaign to ‘Save Mumbai!’ It started with everyone tweeting: ‘Mumbai, please turn back!’ with the hash tag #SaveMumbai. It trended all week and got a billion hits.
But Mumbai didn’t stop. Despite some girls hooking their twerking videos to #SaveMumbai.
Of course, the newspapers called it ‘Nature’s Conspiracy’ although the joke on Whatsapp was about how it was all in an effort to get the city way right of center. (Needless to say, there are just too many commies in the show business and among the taxi drivers).
Yes, they shipped food in. And deodorants too..
Then, of course, the big rumor broke on Facebook that the city was drifting towards Pakistan. That made everyone tense. Some of the righties started walking right up to any news camera they could find and threatened self-immolation. And a couple of them even shaved their heads off. In absolute protest. The army chief flew in, the defense minister and the prime minster too. They promised to do everything in their power to ensure the city is protected. Then the hunger strikes started. The actors joined the fast. The sportsmen too. Which was followed by the million-people march. About 2 million people walked to Siddhi Vinayak every day. Barefoot. In the evening they burnt effigies of every Pakistani they could recall. Most of the time it was Shoaib Akhtar. And then of Americans too. The intellectuals on TV concluded that it was a grand scheme to equalise the economies of the two nations. On the other hand, a broad consensus was beginning to form that maybe there is a true religion after all.
But the city shifted while it was still raining.
It circled towards Oman and then sped towards Madagascar. That’s where I got off and took the first boat out.
Madagascar was a fascinating island too. It hadn’t stopped raining on Madagascar and the cats and then the rats had been wiped off. It was the third country in the world to lose them both, the ninth to lose all rats and the fourteenth to lose all cats.
Personally, I preferred a country without the feline. Although a lack of cats and heavy rain had a strange effect on people. It made them suicidal. We had people offing themselves at the rate of sixteen per day. And that’s only in the city I was in.
When the horses died out, Madagascar began to float too. And not with a sluggish start like Mumbai. Madagascar just took off so quick, we had to change time-zones.
In three days we were in the South Atlantic but it had emptied out. The Sandwich Islands had rammed into Falklands. And from a distance we could hear Brazil split up.
It felt like Judgement Day. Either God or Skynet had taken over. This was death of the planet or maybe the universe was collapsing in on itself. Or maybe we had killed the earth ourselves, ravaged its clean air, water, land and beauty. Perhaps this was the ultimate gamble of nature. So that it could start again. And launch its next revision. Like a recursive loop, continuing until it succeeded in creating the perfect species that would rule it forever in complete peace and harmony. Which has to be Nature’s core objective, right?
I had such questions and more. So I went island hopping. In search of answers. Now we had over 5,000,000 islands floating all over the planet. Some of them still had drones over them.
And it was still raining.
When I reached Cambridge, I started looking for the smartest man in the world. But whenever I came close, he would speed away on his wheelchair. I chased him through streets. Through late nights. Through dorm halls and strange board game sessions. When I finally caught up to him, he confessed that he was, as the rest of the world believed, a complete asshole.  
So, at his house, we ate boar and drank mead. And we talked about stories from the older earthen days.
On the other side of the planet, actors started claiming countries of their own. As did golfers. They skipped from one neatly created golf course island to the next.
The man in the wheelchair and I drank for four days and nights. For the last twenty hours, we didn’t even speak. We just played ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (my desert island top 5) and ‘Revolver’ (his ‘top 3 albums to carry to the end of the world’) on repeat.
It was still raining.
When we woke up, he told me to go find answers among the saints or the philosophers. ‘All I can say is that the gravity may have weakened. Just a tad. And that’s all you need to behave like a bacterium. To keep splitting ad-nauseum,’ he said while parting, ‘If I were a sentimentalist, I would tell you it’s happening because the connection between us and the world has weakened. That the earth is doing to us what we are doing to ourselves. In a much more rapid fashion and irreparable fashion. The point of it all...’ And since he wouldn’t stop, I shoved him back into the house and slammed the door on his face. So close that I heard his spectacles break.
Meanwhile, some islands had formed a coalition, which guaranteed automatic inclusion of any new ones created as a result of splitting. They spent a lot of their meeting time just tracking changes in membership.
Satellite pictures suggested that the earth looked like it was suffering from a bad case of acne
Around the spot where the Cape of Good Hope used to be, there were now sixteen pleasure islands that had named themselves ‘Las Vegas’.  Until they got together and decided to number themselves such that they could advertise correctly.
These islands had everything. Casinos, brothels, amusement parks, sports stadiums, whole swathes of land to simply shoot each other with semi-automatics if it pleased us.
They even had a drink they gave you when you were exiting any of the islands. It basically wiped out a few days of memories. Such that what you did there, stayed there.
It was on Las Vegas XVI that I found the Zen Buddhists. ‘You’ve got to party like it’s the end of the world man!’ they told me. They were high all the time. And even when they weren’t, they looked like they were at peace. In that brilliantly charming way they had about them.
‘Son,’ they told me almost immediately, ‘We don’t know if it’s the end of the world. But there is an old Chinese saying: if it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck and it smells like a duck, you should boil it and make chop-suey.’
I didn’t know what to do with that.
But I decided to stay with them. They shaved every day. Every hair on their body except their eyebrows.
And so did I.
Every day we partied. We played craps. We sang karaoke. We stayed up late. We stared at the stars. We wanted the aliens to come out finally. ‘Here were are now. Entertain us!’ we screamed at the sky. After two weeks we went back to Las Vegas I. It was a two weeks per island sort of an arrangement. And everywhere we went, we went with absolutely fresh memories. So much so that we would enter places for what we thought was the first time. But it would have our photos on the wall. It was like a never ending but pleasant déjà vu. The ‘circle of life’ effect the monks called it. We laughed at that every single time.
It has been six months, six days and six hours since the New Year’s Eve. It hasn’t stopped raining.

Pravin Vemuri is a technology marketer from Bangalore. He dabbles in fiction, sports writing and app design. He doesn’t believe in heaven or angels or God. But he is mortally scared of ghosts in all their forms and is convinced that there will be a second coming of Jim Morrison.