Love your neighbor like I’ve loved you, he reminds.
So you say nothing when your boyfriend
says he wants to talk to her.
What he really means is he wants to fuck her.
Talk and fuck are synonyms.
Just like God and Boyfriend.
You prepare a candle-light dinner and
invite your neighbour over.
Then you lie down like a red carpet, waiting
for the VIPs to arrive.
Your boyfriend walks over you once
when he enters
God reminds you to turn
the other cheek.
So you let him walk over you
once more on his way out
and this time your neighbor walks over you too.
Her pointed heels piercing
your flat chest.
It was only when Mom caught me
meeting his gaze did she tell me-
Nectar doesn’t reside in between
thighs. It resides in eyes
so you have to become blind.
How can you lose your nectar
to someone as unworthy as him?
A virgin’s iris, full of nectar, is the most
tempting of traps…I promised
to glue my eyelids shut.
When she wasn’t looking, I stood out
in our garden. Cried my eyes out
hoping the dripping nectar
would attract the right guy
before it was too late.
The man I’m falling for
has long hair like Jesus.
When I twirl his curl
around my finger,
I ask him about the story behind the length-
Was it to attract a girl like me?
He tells me about his vow
to Mother Mary of Velankanni.
A girl child, exactly 9 months later
and since then his hair hasn’t been shorter.
And that I should meet his daughter.
This makes me want him
Michelle D’costa is a writer and editor from Mumbai. She is the co-host of the podcast Books And Beyond With Bound. Her poetry has been published in Berfrois, Eclectica, Vayavya, Guftugu, The Alipore Post, Visual Verse, The Bangalore Review and more. Her fiction has appeared in Out Of Print, Litro UK, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Coldnoon and more. She loves to interview writers. She also enjoys drinking tea, doodling and dancing to Bollywood music. https://michellewendydcosta.wordpress.com/
My partner turned to me and said, ‘Do you hear something?’
No, I replied, I do not hear anything.
“Yes. And isn’t that strange? It has been so silent here since yesterday. Leaf-drop silence! Haven’t you noticed it?”
Now that he mentioned it, I had and I hadn’t. I had been too busy feeding my children to stop to think about it, but one part of me must have noticed it. We live next to the largest garbage dump on this side of the city, and we often squeeze through the barbed wires to scavenge in it. We also live next to a four-lane highway that is usually thrumming with traffic, so much traffic that most of us dare cross the highway only at night. We live – squat, you would say – between this dump and that highway.
I scrambled up the ridge that hides our dwelling from the highway and saw a surprising sight. The highway was bare. And usually, at this time of the morning, there is what they call the rush hour, so that the paved highway is a liquid stream of metal. And it is repeated in the evenings, when the lights make it look like a river of quicksilver flowing both ways, beautiful and deadly. But there wasn’t even one car on it at the moment. Not one.
I could see many of us were already down on the other side of the ridge – littered with cans, plastic, bottles, paper, rubber tyre strips, hub caps – and a few had clambered up to the highway, something they would seldom dare to do at this time of the day. I looked behind me at the garbage dump, usually congested with trailer-bearing cars; the place was deserted. I could not even spot the hefty guards who chase us away with curses and sticks if they see us scavenging in there.
My partner had followed me up the ridge. He saw what I was looking at. ‘Locked,’ he said, ‘The gates are locked, and it is not a Sunday.’ Then he let out a wild yell. I hate it when he does that, as if he was a wolf or coyote or something wild like that!
‘Cool, isn’t it?’ he said, ‘I have to see what Robin says about this.’ And with that he was running down the ridge and into the clump of trees on the left where Robin and his pack of useless bums hang around, lapping up anything that drips, tongues lolling at any female who passes. There was no point saying anything. Nothing can keep him away from his mates in any case. And at that moment, I was distracted by a bird song that I, even with my sharp ears, had never heard before.
In a few days, we were so used to the silence and the absence of people that we almost forgot about them. Once in a while, a car or a bus would go past on the highway, but the dump remained chained and locked. Even the highway was empty for such long stretches of time that many of us started going up and squatting on it: this was late winter, and the concrete of the highway was warmer to sit or lie on than our moist, shady dwellings. Our children started playing on the highway all through the day and sometimes even at night, though I never allowed my children to do so. The first and only time I saw them playing with friends on the highway, I did not just forbid them to do so. I dragged them down the scree by the scruff of their necks.
My partner laughed at me. ‘Can you see any cars up there?’ he asked, ‘Ghost cars, maybe?’ I shook my head. It is so easy to forget: a few days back, not one of us would have dared to play on the highway, and we would have crossed it only if we had no choice, and as quickly as we could. But now, well, not only were many of us taking the sun on the highway, some were even going up there to sleep during the nights. Not me though, and not my family.
But Robin and the boys? They were up there, up there on the highway. Strutting around. They had marked out their territory, sleeping up there – the concrete was warmer during the night, as it slowly released the sun it had soaked up during the day. In a few weeks, despite the occasional reminder of a bus or a car, they had come to believe that the highway essentially belonged to them.
How long did it last? It was many weeks, months, maybe years? I lost track. We all lost track. Even I had to remind myself that once the highway had been a river of hot metal, which ate one up like acid, leaving only shreds of flesh, bits of bone scattered on it. It lasted so long that I started listening to that rare birdsong out of habit. Every morning.
It ended as suddenly as it started.
The gunshots woke us up. They were coming from the highway. We ran up to the ridge, hiding behind bushes, for no one runs blind and brave into gunshots. There were vehicles up there on the highway. There were uniformed men with guns.
There had been a massacre.
Robin and his boys, and many others, many, many others, were lying on the warming concrete, scattered around, some even on the scree, shot down as they had tried to flee. The uniformed men were dragging away all the carcasses and throwing them into a van. I could see that Robin was still alive. He was near the edge of the highway. Robin is a big mongrel cur, and his thick, bushy tail was thumping on the concrete. A man bent down to drag him and Robin snapped at the man, barely missing his hand. Another man came up and shot Robin again.
‘Fucking wild dogs,’ he said. ‘I had no idea there were so many.’
The man who had almost been bitten by Robin looked sad.
‘I don’t see why we had to shoot them,’ he said, ‘I mean, the traffic would have chased them away.’
‘There would have been accidents,’ the other man replied, ‘We cannot afford any further losses, man. The economy has to be revved up. Damn, it’s time to put your shoulder to the wheel! No bloody games anymore. Don’t you want to get back to normal life?’
‘Yes, I suppose it’s for the best,’ the sad man replied.
I pricked up my ears. I swear I could hear the traffic building up as if it was the tide creeping up on us. I saw it in my mind’s eye: the city lighting up, like a volcano, and a river of molten metal flowing from it towards us, a torrent of acid consuming everything on its way, humans, humans, humans.
I listened hard. I listened very hard. But I never heard that rare bird song again.
[Note: This is the FULL version of the short story that was later edited, in order to fit the time slot, by the author and read out by the brilliant Shabana Azmi for ‘The Decameron 2020,’ an You Tube channel envisioned by the renowned Italian writer, Erri de Luca.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrVkZMUK3Yk]
Born and educated in the town of Gaya, in Bihar, India, TABISH KHAIR is the author of various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet (Penguin, 2000) and Man of Glass (HarperCollins, 2010), the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (Oxford UP, 2001), The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (Palgrave, 2010), The New Xenophobia (OUP, 2016) and the novels, The Bus Stopped (Picador, 2004), Filming (Picador, 2007), The Thing About Thugs (Harpercollins, 2010; Houghton Mifflin, 2012), How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Interlink and Corsair 2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (Periscope and Interlink, 2016/17), which was published as Jihadi Jane in India (Penguin, 2016), and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018). Other Routes, an anthology of pre-modern travel texts by Africans and Asians, co-edited and introduced by Khair (with a foreword by Amitav Ghosh) was published by Signal Books and Indiana University Press in 2005 and 2006 respectively. He has also edited or co-edited other scholarly works.
they knew when they dried – leaves wrinkling, the foliage thinning.
They gathered honey when the earth got angry
with wild wind knots in their women’s hair.
It was time for the rain to let down her tongue,
that she always kept in reserve.
They knew their forests by tigers, leopards, macaques, langurs,
hornbills, and cane turtles.
Their river was a lifeline on their palms.
They didn’t know how metal dragonflies could descend from sky.
The sky – as empty as a grieving mother’s chest.
And men came on cycles in shirts and trousers,
that everyone fled from.
They would build a dam here, pour concrete into waters.
Some days the sea ran into the old sweet river,
spiraling green noxious that grew beside her.
They had to leave their cows.
They had new roots now,
under another mahua tree.
They got looms, but no roofs, and no thread.
When the rain broke her lip
their money evaporated like sweat.
Their poultry died of sickness.
Each road was an island
turning bare the walls of school, center, shop.
Some went into the mouths of the forest.
Some lay as still as mud.
Some left for city shanties.
And some like Kalu sat outside their homes
rowing a boat gently
over the new river
stopping right at its center.
There were no fish there,
where many, many feet below
his village, home, and fields still lay.
He talks of the past … haltingly.
remind us of a village with its doors open, resisting a bridge
noon siestas with no iron locks
a sea with fish but no postal code or hospital,
of a city on a rig in the Caspian sea – 120 kms of road,
a town at the base of a volcano, where people lived with gas masks
or a ship-city that never left canal, with football fields
even dwarfs living in a pink tutus with a miniature police force, political system, fire brigade.
The walled city in Kowloon up-rooting from anarchy
not imploding on itself and
another city built on scrapes and salvage, with a
clock tower of garbage.
A town built around a conspiracy of a
devil’s statute at the gates holding holy water.
Make what you want to make of these,
as tourists flock like keep-savers,
A town in Brazil for only women,
started by a banished adulterous now encircled by rainforest,
its epicene dwellers not kissing a man
These strange kibbutz allowed flakes to flutter,
crossroads to move like sun dials, wheels to jive time
over bubble-wrappings of disharmonies,
chrysanthemum blurs of blueprints
like another city: Auroville
that doesn’t exchange money and has no sets of rules
with factories for cloud-making
giving us the notion
that strange people in strange cities
is a very normal thing.
The secret life of a roll
In rectangular wilts of tendu leaves
crushed in gold powder, thambhakoo appeased,
rolled by fingers of women and
children of chalk-dust fallacies.
Big Brother watching with hundred eyes
of a 40-crore industry
not all of them shut all the time,
baking in a furnace without a helmet.
One end of a thread tied,
tapping potent dust –
pension schemes of respiratory ailments.
Where does all the smoke go? All the tendrils?
Rejected beedis into the maker’s lap.
Sold, unbranded on the streets.
Gutka and low wages
competing in the market of
Smoldering at the other end
heavy levels of nicotine
fires stolen by Prometheus
in a reed from Olympus and the sleeping Jupiter.
Heavens to earth,
inhaling light and keeping shut.
A professor of health
trivializing secondhand smoke –
independent scientist – stooge of green lust,
connects it to lifestyle and the entertainment industry.
When the cameras are on
the whistle-blowers are always judged: mentally unstable.
That’s what happens to radiance
or fire-givers chained to cliffs,
a wrathful vulture eating livers
growing mutating cells
for a cancer-from-tobacco
500 crore industry.
Fictionist | Poet | Critic | Curator | Editor | Translator | Screenwriter Rochelle Potkar’s poetry film Skirt features on Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. Her book of haibun Paper Asylum was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020. Bombay Hangovers, her collection of 16 short stories is due very soon.
Amidst the row of empty light pink and cream yellow walls, his door was an enlightened green. It soaked you in, through the wood. His house opened up into a courtyard where I never went. There were too many mosquitoes, or weeds. In front of the window bars that almost looked like prison gates, he was housed. A corner room on the ground floor, smelling always of sandalwood incense sticks, he cohabited with books and music. On other days, he would be housed in a room in her daughter’s apartment with plywood partitions segregating his worship room from his living space. Here too the smell of sandalwood incense hung with a synaesthetic texture. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell which was which.
We did not talk about what ails me for the first few months. He was in no rush to heal me. He never attempted to.
Twenty years ago:
I sit cross-legged on the revolving chair, imagining the sun. Outside the wooden door, my family sits, waiting. I see a gush of me running across the oval mirror hanging at the corner of the room. Outside, it is spring.
I look up and speak nothing.
Tears roll down the cheek as I sit there, and he asks me how do I feel. I howl. I can feel my family’s white cheek soaking through the wooden door, looking at me with vacant eyes. I rush past them. I can feel eyes following me everywhere, pricking my skin with the gaze, spilling blood all along the way.
“The tiny room has strange tiles”, I overhear myself saying. I see forms, moving, in swirls and brown lines. He asks in a quiet voice, “What do you want to do today?” The swirls are now flying , reaching out to my fingers holding on to the hand-rests of the revolving chair. I look up and see Ganesha sitting on the bed, now reduced to a pyre of books.
Nothing, I whisper.
We sit there doing nothing. I watch him close his eyes as he sits in the cross-legged posture. Elephant ears burst out of his little ear lobes.
“So, what do you think?”, he asks as he puts the bookmark at the juncture where Yama is talking to young Nachiketa. Yama has agreed to give three boons to Nachiketa.
I stand before the god of death , asking for the third boon.
I am waiting as he crosses over.
L. Subramanium’s violin commences and I feel my rib cage being strummed. Each note wrings something inside- something from the navel, rising and bellowing, howling a quiet ruckus. The music became droplets and escape me. I can’t feel my limbs. I am not crying. He doesn’t yet know that I can summon the rains.
On days when the volcano erupts, a cloud of wasted dreams climb up with cupped hands, praying. Ort clouds fall off, the universe quivers.
I look at my nails.
I don’t bite my nails. They don’t give away my anxiety. I ruminate inside- what it is to tremble with all that force that unsettles you. You want to run across the brick borders of the balcony. But then, you are caught, by life, once again. It flips you over and lays you down, holding down your heart by a gravity that is four point six times more than that of earth.
I survive the bruises and the bumps. Once more.
There are crow’s feet appearing all over my body, I complain. And we talk about crows for the next hour or so.
I miss my flight these days. I paint vehemently and cautiously, alternating the brush strokes to create sunsets, and mango blossoms in my neighbour’s mango tree. I can never bear a mango tree I rue. They don’t survive harsh winters covering all wounds with white-washed snow. Mango gains the kernel in the tropical heat, seething with rage, procreating anger into an edible fruit. I can never bear a mango tree. Neither can I become the kernel ever.
The swirl is but fluid and cracks are but mere bends. You heal that which is broken and erupting. You swim through a vacuum, a nothing that envelopes you, that is tangible and yet sand in your palm. Trepid steps sink into the sand that seems to be the boundary of the ocean. You look up and the horizon looms, unending, elastic, bending.
If only you can take a dip and let the droplets slide along your mortal skin, bobbing up and down, you can feel the ripple, the wave, the tsunami happening. The endless sand sneaks away under the ocean carpet, making you feel it is but an effervescence. It is but a seamless stitch, the neatness of the top takes away our eyes from the crafty underbelly at the back.
There is no healing, of the gold bursting through the ceramic cracks. There is an unravelling. A gift wrapped in layers. Onion peelings, shredding like cloaks of mortality.
It is not a luxury product that I advertise. It is strewn with rat faeces and smells of dying lapdogs. It is quailing with unflinching negativity. It is doom.
However, the next time you meet it, if you do, try to remember that the moon has craters and we cannot see it whole. It needs our crutches to wax and wane. Crutches be not your cross. Crutches be simply crutches, condemned to dare.
Susmita is a creative writer and independent scholar with bipolar mood disorder with schizophrenic potential. She writes in English and Bengali and is published in “Headline Poetry and Press”, “Montauk” and “Learning and Creativity”. Her published books are Poetry in Pieces (2018) and Himabaho Kotha Bole (When Glaciers Speak) (2019). She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Pine Cone Review. Her personal website is www.susmitapaul.org