Category: Bits and pieces, complaints (mediocre writing in the short form)

Midsummer in the Midwest

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That summer afternoon, I persuade The Lucky One to take a walk with me, after ignoring his protests that centered on trivial concerns such as the temperature and relative humidity. Immune to the heat and the thing I see in his eyes, which looked like suspicious sharp objects he wanted to fling at me, I find I am in a chatty mood. I decide to tell him the story of my near death from many summers ago.

It was a legendary Chicago snowstorm, I begin. A white world with no vehicle and no human being in sight. After a bit of foolishness that involved wanting to go see an apartment, and tuning out the weather forecast, I found myself to be the only one left in a sea of snow. The resourcefulness was soon replaced by a helplessness and I started to cry.

“And then?”

I give a dramatic pause here, to sustain the interest of my audience. Continuing:

When I tried to cry, the tears froze on my eyelashes. I tried again, and my eyes froze shut.

He knows to make sympathetic noises. He also knows not to warn me about being careful, about staying warm, about Windy City dangers.

The finish was anticlimactic, I tell him. My friend picked me up about thirty minutes later.

The Lucky One takes my hand in his. There isn’t much to say, so we walk on in silence, past dilapidated buildings and unloved furniture on sidewalks. The moment seems precious, and as though we want to preserve it for later, we go quiet. We record in our minds the smells, the sounds, the particular bent of evening light as it is refracted by the river we walk along. The water carries our secrets. It sees who we are, and who we pretend to be to each other. It allows us our petty indiscretions, and doesn’t mock us as we engage ourselves in a frantic search for true meaning in everything we undertake.

We return home, since the sweat threatens to trickle from his neck all the way down his back, and start cooking. In the midst of chopping carrots into cubes of the same size, because I like them that way, and trying not to get annoyed by how I keep cleaning the counter, he tells me: That isn’t dying, that is what we call living.

We will fold away this moment and place it in a box of our memories, we will unpack it when we want to remember how we used to be. Years later, I will recall this day, and I will talk about it to others, the details morphing every time. I will speak of a time when we were young and free, swimming in narcissism and ideology, captivated by the idea of what we thought to be romantic love, fuelled by an optimism that was lost later.


Top three on the fiction|poetry grid this week. Thank you for the votes!

P.S. There used to be a time when a Top Three finish would have been the high point of my week. Now, I am disappointed I didn’t get an Editor’s Pick. I think this is a good sign though, I kept this blog going so my writing improves. Hopefully, I don’t sound too immodest while I’m at it.

Our neighbour, our enemy

My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.

Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.

It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.

The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.

She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.

I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, “I am amazed by her courage.” Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.


Written with the prompt: I am amazed at her mountainous courage. Crowd favourite this week on the fiction|poetry grid – thank you for the votes!

Women and (popular) culture

When Nicki Minaj forgot she was an empowered woman:

I feel conflicted when catchy songs have terrible lyrics. If they worked so hard to make sure their song stuck in your head, they could have spent a little more time on their project and written better verses.

Take a look at this song Hey Mama by David Guetta Ft. Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha and Afrojack:

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Yes I be your woman
Yes I be your baby
Yes I be whatever that you tell me when you ready
Yes I be your girl, forever your lady
You ain’t never gotta worry, I’m down for you baby

Best believe that when you need that
I’ll provide that you will always have it
I’ll be on deck keep it in check
When you need that I’mma let you have it

You beatin’ drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Yes I do the cooking
Yes I do the cleaning
Yes I keep the nana real sweet for your eating
Yes you be the boss yes I be respecting
Whatever that you tell me ’cause it’s game you be spitting

Best believe that when you need that
I’ll provide that you will always have it
I’ll be on deck keep it in check
When you need that I’mma let you have it

You beatin’ my drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Whole crew got the juice
Your dick game the truth
My screams is the proof
Them other dudes get the deuce
I might speed in the coupe
Leaving this interview
It ain’t nothin’ new, I been fuckin’ with you
None of them bitches ain’t taking you,
Just tell them to make a U (Make a U)
Huh, that how it be, I come first like debuts, huh
So baby when you need that, give me that word
I’m no good, I’ll be bad for my baby

So I make sure that he’s getting his share
So I make sure that his baby take care
So I make sure mama, toes on my knees
Keep him, please, rub him down, be a lady and a freak

You beatin’ my drum like dum di di dey
I love the dirty rhythm you play
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)
Banging the drum like dum di di dey
I know you want it in the worst way
I wanna hear you calling my name
Like hey mama mama mama hey mama mama (Hey)

Be my woman, girl, I’mma
Be your man
Be my woman, girl, I’ll
Be your man

Lyrics taken from Google Play Music

I find it problematic that Nicki Minaj, who is an influential woman of colour, would participate in the creation of such a song, which is propaganda for the unequal power structures that women have been trying to get out of. I could say a lot more about how younger girls might take these distasteful lyrics to heart and apply it to their own relationships, wasting time being concerned with “keeping their vagina sweet” while they should be out conquering their world.

When a love story fizzled out on Bigg Boss Tamil:

I was embarrassed to admit I watched Bigg Boss Tamil regularly, but that was a month ago. I feel no shame now, and I don’t seem to find it necessary to justify my voyeuristic tendencies by pretending to be interested in behavioural sciences. There is much to observe though, mostly along the lines of how vile and repugnant people can be, but we knew that already. I would like to discuss here the “love story” that was shown to us.

Girl and Boy find each other attractive, flirt a little, share some intimate moments. One of them possibly gets more involved than the other. For reasons the Boy doesn’t wish to divulge, he wants to call off whatever has been happening between them. Girl refuses to acknowledge his rejection and pursues him with more vigour than before. She follows him around, announces her affections and demands his attention.

Initially, I found it funny. At one point, I even thought he must have led her on for her to aggressively declare her intentions now. “Serves him right,” I thought. Later, I started growing uncomfortable. Assuming he had given her reasons to believe what they shared was real, once he admitted he wasn’t interested in furthering the relationship, it seems prudent to put the issue to rest.

And then I looked at the memes, that praised Girl for her true love, for refusing to take No as an answer. In this age of women dumping men and calling their lovers Anna [Brother] within moments, here is a woman who understands the meaning of True Love, they claimed. This frightened me a little, because these are also the people who will support a man’s True Love when he harasses the woman who ignores his advances.

As a people, we get carried away with categorizing women as sluts and goddesses. They are either the kind of despicable creatures who indulge in a bit of sex for their pleasure, or they are the respectable human beings from whose nether regions we sprung forth. We often forget women are everything in between too.

Thirst

There is a river that flows with blood, ferrying people to hell, it is said. It carries broken bones and animals hungry for human flesh, birds that feast on the dead and insects that carve out the eyes. Maybe they were trying to say hell is a journey, not a destination. In the old man’s imagination, the river frothed and bubbled, it was the colour of rust tinged with crimson. But he didn’t want to frighten the little ones who were his audience for the night, so he told them it was a river of blood and no more.

Nobody knew where he spent his days, or how. He only appeared at nights, bartering a story for a plate of food, if someone felt sympathetic. His body was always a dirty brown, his head shielded from the sun by wispy strands of white hair, and he carried in his hand a bottle of water. There is a drought coming, he would have said, if he was asked. He wasn’t.

There is an animal that lives in the cracks of the earth, it is said, its tongue so long and so powerful. It knows instantly when a bead of water appears, even miles away. Its tongue slithers out, throbbing with need, in search of that orb. Its succulent limbs covered in thorns, it protects itself from those encroaching on the oasis that is its body. But he didn’t want to frighten the little ones, so he told them about the tongue and no more.

He drank carefully, small furtive mouthfuls, while the others made fun of him. Their days melded into one, they couldn’t imagine how they lived before the sweat took residence on their necks and the itch became a permanent guest in their mouths. They bought water in tankers and bathed themselves everyday, even as their plants gasped. They detonated the earth until they struck a shallow pool, and rejoiced in mindless ways, splashing each other.

There is a plant that has never died, it is said. It bides its time, braving cyclones and aridity, closing upon itself when the winds howled. It is small, but hardy, its leaves a dull green as though anemic, its stem stout, its roots snaking in crevices and over rocks, building strength for when the time came. But he didn’t want them to step on this plant, so he told them a new leaf sprouts every twelve years.

One day, they could spot the river bed, hissing at them in anger. They stood at its banks, confused, the sand settling on their grimy bodies and their hair limp even as the air shook. The drought was here and the old man couldn’t be found.

There is a man who drank the sea, it is said. He took great gulps of that salty infusion, until he ballooned and floated away on a bed of weeds and debris.


This week’s prompt: “There is a drought coming.”

Crowd favourite this week for Fiction|Poetry! Thank you to everyone who voted for me.

Small talk

I am always curious about a foreigner’s perception of India. Where did they go, what did they eat? Did they see the colours and sights? Did they see the chaos and dirt? One or the other or both? Do they know how different it is from my city? I worry they may not look back fondly on their holiday, and I am angry if they exoticize the country of my birth – the one which suffocates and sets me free in turns.

The tall white man and I are both waiting for our pizzas, and when he agrees to answer my question, I do not expect the response I received. “The most interesting thing I did,” he starts, in the singsong way that is at once a question and statement, “is going to India for my friend’s wedding.” And suddenly, I am more invested in his story than I should be. I offer him one more question. “Where in India?”

Pathankot. “It is a small town in the northern part of the country,” he tells me. “Close to the Himalayas. We went on a trek too.”

“I haven’t been there.”

“The wedding was so colourful!” he says now. “And long. Three days, can you believe it? One ceremony went on for ten hours.”

Oh..

“The groom arrived on a horse!” he continues after a moment’s pause, collecting more interesting details to give me. “I tried eating goat curry – that’s something I’ve never had before.”

He slows down. “People came and went however they wished. The entire village I think. It looked like only the couple stayed for the entire wedding.”

I want to tell him for all the differences among her people this country may bear witness to, this wedding is almost generic. All the food, the people nobody seems to know, the congratulating and the smiling that go on for hours. I can sense myself getting into one of my moods, ready to launch lectures on unsuspecting individuals – about our collective obsession with the wedding as the focal point of one’s life, about inequalities, and our pan-Indian preoccupation with the white skin. Which is when he adds, “I don’t think they had seen a white person up close before.”

Our pizzas are ready. We say goodbye before I have a chance to overwhelm him. Did they treat him like a white demigod? Did they rush to pull out chairs for him and give him second helpings? Did they look at his blue eyes? Did he fall sick from the food? Did his trip change him?

But what I really want to know is, would he go back, even though it shouldn’t matter.


I was at a creative nonfiction writing workshop this past weekend, and one of our activities was to go up to a stranger during lunch break and ask them what was the most interesting thing they did in their life. This is what I wrote in twenty minutes after my conversation. While I can see all the ways in which this piece could be better, I think both talking to a stranger and writing about it helped me with my confidence.


Top three on the nonfiction grid this week!

For summer

I want to bottle this green smell of summer. Fresh and ripe, with possibilities maybe. Pollen and tiny yellow flowers that we trample, sweat and the moist air, the harsh light that sometimes makes way for unexpected rain, and the darkness that makes everything clean. I smelt it again, after many years away. It took me back to when we had the yellow of the street lights for company, when we were unaware we didn’t have much else. A drop fell, on our palms and thighs, on the leaves beside us, into the soil beneath us. The dust settled as more drops fell. We willed the rain to stop. We thought the night-time world belonged to us, as we wandered from street to street. We weren’t lost, we were finding each other.

There was a dream that hovered. Behind my shoulder, above my head, in my heart, always a little out of reach. One day, I held it in my hand. It was lighter than I imagined, it fluttered, it was alive. It made my chest ache and it set me free.

I am curious about happiness. Is it contentment, is it finding out that the hurt of the past suddenly feels far away? You remember its outlines, but the ache is dull. You allow yourself to pierce and pick at the scab. The resentment seems to be making a graceful exit, but you do not want to let go of it all, because you do not yet know who you are without it. But there is joy to be discovered, on other summer nights like these, when we realise that the sadness sometimes creeps away without us noticing. The night whispers to us ancient stories of love and longing, watching us as we write our own story, calling the fireflies to witness.

The night is infinite and wise, she said to me she knew I would be back to bottle the heady smell of summer.


This short prose was published in the Summer 2017 issue of Panoply, a literary zine. You read it here first! Do take a look at all the other prose and poems that have been published.

The gifts of childhood

Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. Neon green with yellow patches. Was it a key-chain?

Remember, it was our first sale. We went to an adult whom we didn’t think of as an adult, and we told her to please buy it. 5 Rupees only.

Whose is it, she asked us. We didn’t know.

It had been lying around. Maybe given to us by an aunt visiting from abroad, with cheap toys made in China and bought at 50% off elsewhere, reminders of people who liked us for three months in a year but not much for longer than that.

What will you do with the money, she wanted to know. We will donate all the money to kids who don’t have anything. There is this place where they stay. They go to school and pray and someone gives them clothes and maybe toys. I read about it in the paper.

She bought it and then we were off. We collected everything we didn’t like, had no use for, stopped playing with.

We took a plastic bag from the kitchen, and a pouch for our earnings. We went knocking on several doors. Just the building at first. The street next. Then two streets over. Until an old lady asked us if our parents knew where we were and offered to call home. We didn’t wait for her to buy anything from us, we ran back the way we came.

A week later, when the afternoon heat put everyone to sleep, I took out the pouch. Two hundred and fifty six rupees and some paise, all in coins. I walked to the post office and asked the man behind the counter how to send all this money to someone.

Do you know their address, he asked. Yes. I wrote it down. Yes. I know my address too. He counted the coins again. He wasn’t very quick and I stood on my toes the whole time, trying to peer in. Quick, before they wake up. Count faster.

After a month, I received a letter. Thank you, it said, in many big words most of which I did not know. They were happy. They told me they would buy school books and stationery. But I was upset. They called me Mrs.

I was eight and my sister was six. We hid that letter and we lost it too.


Editor’s Choice and Top Three this week!


This is what Rowan had to say:

I’ve often been accused of valuing construction over content. Fine. I value construction over content. I’d rather read a well-written essay about walking a dog than a poorly written one about saving that dog when it fell over a cliff and then later it went on to rescue five kids from a burning building. Of course, this essay has both solid construction and charming content, and they fit well together. You already know the content – right? you did read all three grids, right? – so I’m going to focus on the details of construction that made this a pick for me.

Three techniques really stand out in this essay: the hook, the dream-memory feel of the writing, and the way it all ties neatly back to both of those things at the end. I often say that your readers will remember the first and last paragraph of your writing the most, and this essay is a perfect example of that. Today I will call my sister, and ask her if she remembers the soft giraffe toy we had. (For you grammar mavens out there, the comma is optional in that sentence but I think it functions well to create a little breathing room, like the comma in the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House.) Throughout the essay there is dialogue, which is handled without resort to quotation. This is a careful and deliberate choice to make the dialogue as much part of the story-memory as it can possibly be. Another option would have been to italicise the dialogue as well, but here the parts of the story that someone is saying are clearly and precisely flagged with language, and there’s no need for it. The final lines wrap the story back to what you thought it was going to be when you read that hook: lost and found. That’s the nature of memories, and of little kindnesses that peek out between the lines.