Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Fiction: Sticks And Stones May Break Their Bones

This story was written for the second round of the ongoing NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015 with the assigned prompts being: 
Genre - Ghost Story
Subject - A statue
Character - A waitress.

A thump on the door startled Rima. She had just woken up and was dragging herself across the living room to the kitchen. She opened the door to realize that the thump had been the day’s newspaper, rolled-up, as the hawker threw it with precision towards the house while passing by on his bicycle. It was early in the morning in the Indian city of Lucknow. Even through the fog and dim light of dawn, Rima saw the headline.


Rima stomped back into the small living room with the paper and milk packets.

“Can you believe this, Amma?” She was fuming. “I lost my job over this! What a joke!”

She flung the paper onto the center table and stomped off into the kitchen. Her mother, Lakshmi, watched helplessly.

It had been three months that Rima had lost her job. She had been in shock the day she found out, barely able to speak when she came home. Lakshmi had been concerned, “Are you fine? Come, I’ll make you hot chai, you must be tired.”
“It’s closing, Amma.”
“What’s closing, child?”
“The restaurant. Koh-i-Noor.”
“What? Are you sure? That can’t be.”
“It is! They are demolishing everything on Mahatma Gandhi Road!”
“They can’t do that! That market has been there since before I was born!”
“It’s for a government project, Amma. Everything is going!”

Rima had cried herself to sleep that night. She had been angry over the next many days. “It must be some senseless government project that takes decades for completion! They cleared the whole market for it! Did they think about people like us?! What else can one expect from them?”

She had then hoped that it was all a mistake, that the demolition wouldn’t happen and everyone would get their jobs back. And when the newspapers had announced the start of the demolition, Lakshmi had watched as Rima went about her day mechanically, frequently staring into empty space. It was only after a photograph of the empty piece of land had appeared in the papers on the front page along with an obituary of the MG Road market that Rima had begun to gather herself.

One of those days the neighbouring Mrs. Tiwari had offered some sweet halwa brought from the temple, and a suggestion – that Rima continue Lakshmi’s work of tailoring from home. Rima had dusted the old sewing machine that day and reached out to Lakshmi’s old customers. That is what kept her busy and some money coming these days. But not enough, as they both had realized.

Presently, Lakshmi saw Rima switching on All India Radio and sitting down with the sewing machine to stitch blouses and salwar-kameez for ladies, and pretty cotton frocks for their daughters. The news came on after a while and they heard more details about the memorial project.

‘Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Smt. Jaya Devi, yesterday unveiled plans to build a memorial to social transformation in the capital, Lucknow. The memorial will include statues of social reformers and of Jaya Devi herself, as well as fifty statues of lions, the party’s election symbol. The memorial is estimated to cost 700 crore rupees. The proposed site on Mahatma Gandhi Road has already been cleared through a demolition drive that affected many old businesses and establishments.’

Rima continued stitching. Lakshmi had suffered the same drudgery for years after her husband had passed away, to make ends meet and educate Rima. Rima’s job had allowed Lakshmi to finally stop her work and tend to her own deteriorating health and increasing pain. Lakshmi hadn’t had much of an education. But Rima did and she was still doing the same work. Lakshmi couldn’t watch anymore. She decided to step out and visit the site of the memorial, a short walk away.

The last time Lakshmi had been to MG Road was when her husband was still alive. It was Diwali and they had wanted to buy earthen lamps, fruits and flowers, and show Rima the festivities and Diwali lights. At the end of the evening, they had eaten some chaat by the street, not far from Koh-i-Noor. They hadn’t been able to afford luxuries like restaurant meals, and Lakshmi had been happy to just see the restaurant from outside. Lakshmi remembered her initial hesitation in letting Rima work there when Rima had spoken of it.
“Amma, there was a job posting on the college notice board today.”
“Really? What job?”
“You know the restaurant Koh-i-Noor?”
“Of course, everyone does. Why did they post a job in a women’s college?”
“They are looking for Home Science graduates. They want to welcome women. Both in the kitchen and as waitresses.”
“And you want to work at that hotel? What will people say?”
“Amma, it’s such a respected and legendary place! And they want to hire women. This is not 1970!”
“You can work in a school or a bank.”
“I’ll have to study more or give exams for schools and banks. This is an immediate job and salary.”
“I don’t know. Do what you want.”

So that’s what Rima had done and got herself a job as a waitress at Koh-i-Noor. To make Lakshmi feel comfortable about her job and workplace, Rima had taken her for a modest dinner at Koh-i-Noor after being paid the first salary. Lakshmi had come back happy and proud after seeing the plush environs of the restaurant and the genteel crowd that dined there, as also meeting some others who worked at Koh-i-Noor.

Koh-i-Noor was gone now. With the market. There was left a bare piece of land waiting for stone statues instead of real people. The memorial had taken away more than Rima’s job; it had taken away the city’s memories.

Lakshmi had to do something. She just didn’t know what. For starters, she decided to visit the site every day.

The memorial soon began to generate a different kind of buzz.





It became the talk of the nation as well as the neighbourhood, creeping into Mrs. Tiwari and Mrs. Sharma’s late afternoon courtyard chat.

“What is with all these accidents at the memorial?”
“Very bad. It must be the Vaastu, wrong direction or something. Some of the businesses on MG Road were suffering, no?”
“Could be. They should consult an astrologer and pacify the planets.”
“What a curse on the city I tell you!”
“No doubt!”

Lakshmi had been spotting what was a semblance of satisfaction on Rima’s face when she picked up the paper every morning now. She herself kept visiting the site day after day. It gave her a sense of doing something, anything for Rima.

The prime time news on the national TV channel Doordarshan was playing as usual when Rima was cooking dinner that night. The accident-rife memorial made the headlines there as well.

‘The Prime Minister, today, expressed concern over the continued accidents at the site of the upcoming memorial in Lucknow and directed the Uttar Pradesh government to look into the matter. Chief Minister Jaya Devi is expected to visit the site tomorrow and take stock of the situation.”

And sure enough Jaya Devi came along. In her cavalcade of cars. Lakshmi was there, as usual, even before a crowd built up to get a glimpse of Jaya Devi. Temporary barricades were quickly erected and Jaya Devi stepped out of her car. As she started to walk towards the site, Lakshmi screamed out, “Minister Madam, this memorial’s foundation is made of skeletons and hungry stomachs! Stop this project before more people die!”

Jaya Devi looked to see where the voice came from and knew it was Lakshmi’s from the calm and determined look on Lakshmi’s face. Guards were angrily directed towards Lakshmi but she disappeared in the crowd. Jaya Devi collected herself and proceeded to survey the memorial site.

Only one statue had been completed with difficulty thus far, not the expected three. The bespectacled visionary father of the Indian constitution stood at one end of the site, with his right index finger pointing towards the future. Jaya Devi spoke to the workers at the site first and then proceeded towards the statue. As she looked up at the 18-ft tall statue, she heard a loud sound and saw the extended index finger of the statue crack at the knuckle and crash to the ground. Jaya Devi had jumped aside just in time but shards of sandstone flew at her from the fallen fragment. Within moments, she was whisked away by her guards.

Lakshmi had been waiting across the road for the visit to be over. Her eyes met Jaya Devi’s just as Jaya Devi got into her car. In that moment, Lakshmi found herself wishing she had a third eye like God Shiva to burn Jaya Devi to the ground.

The headline changed the next day.


Rima smirked.

“See, Amma? The government finally remembered us. What a change of heart!”

Lakshmi smiled ruefully as Rima walked into the kitchen to put the milk to boil. Whether it was her words or all those accidents that had made Jaya Devi take the initiative she didn’t know. But she saw a glimmer of hope for Rima now.

Jaya Devi had decided to visit people in their own homes and that had got people gossiping that it was to win support for herself in the next election. It wasn’t long before Rima heard a knock on her door and found Jaya Devi standing there, with the whole curious neighbourhood gathered outside the gate. Rima politely invited the minister inside, as a guest should be, and offered her a seat.

Jaya Devi was just about settling into a chair to talk to Rima when she suddenly stood bolt upright, staring at a photograph of Lakshmi on the wall, next to that of Rima’s father’s. She asked Rima whose photograph it was.

“My mother’s, Madam.”
“Where is she?”
 “Madam, it should be clear where she is, there is a garland on her photograph!”
“I’m sorry I didn’t…”
“She is dead, thanks to you! She had bone tuberculosis and the salary from Koh-i-Noor was paying for her medicines…until you closed it down. Her blood-and-bones were sacrificed for your statues of stone!”

Rima broke down, crying. Jaya Devi was already baffled when she saw Lakshmi appear near the door, saying, “How many more accidents must I cause? How many more lives must be sacrificed before you stop? Isn’t mine enough?”

The sight of a pale Jaya Devi fleeing Rima’s house fed the neighbourhood grapevine for days. Meanwhile, the papers announced the very next day:


Rima took the newspaper and stood in front of Lakshmi’s photograph, just like she had all these days, but had nothing to say. She just laid it on the table under the photograph, wiped a brimming tear and walked off into the kitchen with the milk packets.

Radios and televisions, too, announced the change to the nation.

‘In a move welcomed by the Center, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Jaya Devi has announced that a Commercial Complex will be built on MG Road to resurrect the shops demolished for building the now-shelved memorial. The employees displaced earlier will have their jobs back on completion of the project. In the meantime, a supporting pension will be provided for all such employees from the funds allocated for the memorial. The Chief Minister was unavailable for comment on the change of plans.’

Lakshmi knew then that she had done all that she could for her little girl and that Rima had a future that held more promise and possibility than Lakshmi’s life had.

Lakshmi could finally go away in peace.

Image courtesy:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Lies Within

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am not a morning person.

I used to wake up at 5:00 AM for years while training for Basketball; 4:30 in the summer. And then again for tuitions through junior college and first year of college. I’d wake up early to meet friends for morning walks or runs. But every time other than that, every chance I’d get, I’d sleep in.

I’ve tried a lot of things to make a habit out of waking up early on days that I have no need to. Who doesn’t like a few extra hours in the day? Plus our culture puts a big premium on it, shaming people who like to sleep late or claim to be night creatures. So there’s that. There is a lot of leadership literature about how it is the one absolute thing that matters for those wanting to lead, succeed. No one likes to think they are squandering away their potential by catching a few winks or being on a daily routine that is time-shifted by four odd hours. But most of all, it was the feeling of failure and defeat at being unable to wake up early if I wanted to. It disgusted me to think that I wasn’t in control of when I wanted to sleep, that my need for sleep ran my life. It was a constant exercise in exercising my will and failing.

The story was similar with exercise. And trying to eat more fruits. And leafy vegetables.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to exercise. But I’m not fanatic about it. I don’t miss it if I skip it. I don’t get an adrenaline kick out of it. I like to cycle and hike. I exercise if I have the right people giving me company, outdoors. The gym is the last place I will walk into willingly. Fruits are the last things I will pick to eat willingly. And leafy greens take too much effort to cook on a daily or even alternate-day basis.

So it was clear then. I was on my way to being a failed, fat but undernutritioned person. Until last year.

The last one year has been a gradual exercise in consciously crafting my life and making conscious choices in living, rather than letting my habits and preferences drive my life. And there was only one way I could get around the person I was to reach a new place in being.

Trick myself.

The first trick was in the nutrition department. A cousin introduced me to the concept of Simple Green Smoothies. Just take any leafy green vegetable, and any fruits, and bananas and a liquid base. Blend it all together. And drink! Simple Green Smoothies introduced me to the taste of raw Kale, Red Lettuce, Arugula among others, apart from Spinach! And my fruit consumption skyrocketed in terms of quantity and variety. It’s one of the best ideas that I have come across and it ensures that I get my daily dose of fruits and greens!

Next I tricked myself in the exercise department. So I couldn’t go out in the bitter cold and I hated the gym. But I had enjoyed aerobics when I had tried it in the past. So I looked up some free dance workout videos on YouTube. And finally found the key to enjoying working out – having fun and variety! I had always wanted to try Zumba and I found some great videos online. Dance workouts were fun. There were quick strength workouts too, needing no equipment! I tried kickboxing too and found it to be an extremely intense and fun workout. I now workout every day, sometimes for 10 minutes, sometimes for 45. I get my heart-rate up and finish with a good feeling about exercising (my will)!

The last challenge was the long standing war against the alarm clock. I had to find a way to trick myself there, too. I had tried other things like keeping the phone at the other end of the room, or even in another room. But nothing had worked.

What worked was an old-fashioned alarm clock purchased at Ikea, the kind I used to have when I used to train for Basketball. It didn’t have a snooze button and I associated its sound with my Basketball and school days…when I used to wake up early easily. And I kept it in the bathroom. Along with a good book, because I love reading. These days, once the alarm rings (usually before 5:30 AM), I have to enter the bathroom to switch it off, where I close the door, switch on the light and spot the book. Or some days I just sit myself down. I just lock myself in there. And that’s it. That’s what worked! It’s been nearly 5 weeks that I have kept this up successfully. I do go back to sleep some days if I don’t feel well rested, but only after having been awake for 30-45 min.

And just like that, by tricking myself in the right manner, I became an early-waking, exercising, fruits-and-greens eating person. There are obvious benefits to it. But the larger implication is this. We lie to ourselves about who we are. I had convinced myself that I am a night creature. I am yawning by 9 pm these days. That I don’t enjoy fruits and am okay without them (the greens I like, they’re just tedious). The fruits and greens aisles get more of my attention these days than anything else and it has percolated into the cooked greens department as well (hello, sarson da saag!). That I hate exercising. I hate skipping it these days. 

So who was that person with those false assumptions? And who am I now? Whoever I may be, growing is WHAT I am.

And that is what lies within me.
A new me.

This post about starting a new life was inspired by the new Housing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Little Wing

Everything was bare when I landed. 

There were no leaves on the trees. No grass on the ground. There were no familiar faces around, save for my husband’s. There were no small streets, no pedestrians, running in and out of small shops, buying soaps or shampoo sachets or 500 gms of an ingredient missed on the grocery list the previous day. It was empty. Many might have called it a clean slate, a fresh start. I wasn’t so sure. While there was an entire lifetime to look forward to, there was nothing in my immediate future, the every day, that I was waiting for.

I wasn’t to wake up every morning and get ready for work; I had quit that while moving to this new country. I couldn’t even look forward to stepping out of the house, the explorer that I am; the weather was sub-zero and bitter and I wasn’t tolerating it very well…I wanted to curl up in a ball and hibernate till spring. I had no friends around to go meet in the evening and share a few laughs with. In fact, I couldn’t even drive, what with just having learned to drive and there being snow all around…so how could I go anywhere? The only reason I got out of bed in the morning was to make lunch since my husband comes home for lunch. His being home for that one hour or in the evening was the only thing I looked forward to. But once he was back at work post-lunch, I had a long insufferable afternoon all to myself with no work, no one to talk to and none of my favourite things around…just the television and junk food. No wonder I loaded up on pounds very quickly.

Things got a little better with summer coming around but a feeling of despair when my husband wasn’t home never went away. I kept thinking of the life and friends I used to have and just what a contrast life was in this new country. I was trying, maybe too hard, and failing to make peace with this complete isolation from everything I had known as my life before. Before long, it was winter again and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to cope with another one with the way I was feeling.

One day I noticed the patio of one of the apartments in our complex. It was filled with birds hopping on and off it. Sparrows, mostly.  I wondered if it was because the patio was located right above some shrubs that had managed to hold on to their green needles through the merciless winter. Were the residents putting out food for the birds? Just out of curiosity, I scattered some rice grains on our patio that day. No birds showed up. I had been wrong. And I was deeply disappointed. A small flutter of hope, the hope of having a similar patio filled with birds, had been nipped. I drew the blinds shut.

A solitary sparrow showed up the next day and pecked at the deck. I assumed it had just lost its way and landed up at our door, unexpectedly spotting some food. But more came the day after. At dusk we nearly had 20 sparrows hopping on our patio pecking at grains that we had strewn. I was giddy with happiness and couldn’t stop smiling!

I’ve never been a bird person; it was always furry animals for me…cute little mammals. But the amount of joy I derive from seeing the sparrows making their regular rounds for bird food is pleasantly surprising. Some days, there are boisterous Starlings that make a stop. On snowy days, even birds like the elegant Blue Jay and flaming-red Cardinal pay us a visit. My days don’t seem long or lonely now. All I have to do is look at the patio and see the sparrows happily hopping around. I cannot talk to them, I cannot touch them but somehow them just being there makes me feel happier and less lonely. What’s more, they have taken my despair away on their little wings, leaving me lighter, brighter and happier.

In the face of things that cannot be changed or controlled in life, sometimes just one thing…some thing…to wait for and look forward to brings hope and lets one carry on from one day to another. Sometimes, that thing is a few sparrows on the ledge…hopping happily and chirping as if to say…you’ll be okay!

This post was inspired by Lookup by Housing, enabling people to look up to a better life.

Monday, February 23, 2015

In Search Of Closure

We were waiting for Bombay Tikki Chaat…not by the side of some street cart in India, with the right sights and sounds to accompany the taste, but at the table of an eatery adjoining the Indian store in our little American town.  It was our weekly grocery shopping day. We had just stocked up on our Indian groceries – The daals, the masalas and the vegetables that hold more memories than nutrition…karela, drumsticks, methi, kundru, lauki, gilki, munnga – and were indulging in some Indian delicacies that were rare in our part of the world.

It was during this time that my eyes were aimlessly ambling around the place, taking in what I had seen so many times for the want of anything better to do, and I spotted her. She seemed new in the kitchen. I knew that the eatery had lost a young employee, who used to man the counter, to marriage; she had been around the previous time, when we were savouring our Bhel, saying her goodbyes to the aunties who had taught her so much and working with whom had been so much fun…she would try and come by whenever she was in the area. The fall in numbers seemed to have been made up for by bringing in this clearly experienced older lady.

I saw her peeking out from the kitchen once, walking up to the counter another time. She was looking curiously at a special child and her family, who were waiting for their food. The next time she came over to the counter, with no warning and no consideration for the place or the people around, she asked the mother of the special child aloud, “What has happened to your daughter?” The only response she got was, “Nothing at all!” She smiled in embarrassment, the mother looked away uncomfortably. She returned to the kitchen.

It is common for parents of special children to be harrowed by questions, mockery and snide remarks. Some people are plain curious, but not concerned. Some have no understanding. Some are uncomfortable to be around them and ask questions or end up making inappropriate remarks because they don’t know what else to do. Her question sounded like neither of those. It did not seem to carry any mockery in it. Her tone was not that of someone looking for some cheap kicks or trying to make small talk out of pity. She did not seem to mean harm. There was something deeper that one could sense in her question.

That sense took us back to the eatery later that evening. It was closing time and the lights were out at the front. We feared the door might be locked and we might not get to speak to her but the door opened when we tried. A ghostly glow from the fluorescent lights in the kitchen dimly lit the eatery. There were chit-chatting voices and close-of-business noises coming from the kitchen. We called out and an elderly man came out. We explained that we wanted to speak to the new lady; we had heard her question earlier in the evening and were curious why she wanted to know.

The lady came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron as she walked. We didn’t know how to even start the conversation; just that it was one that needed to be had. So we asked her why she was asking about the special child in the evening. She seemed to hesitate, as if we were trying to incriminate her. We tried to make her comfortable by asking our question differently, respectfully. And then she told us.

She had had a husband once. They were set to migrate to the USA from Punjab. The visas had been stamped and the bags had been packed when her husband died of cardiac arrest a day before their scheduled flights. They had sold everything. They had packed up and closed the India chapter of their lives. With no husband by her side, what was she to do in India? So she travelled to the USA anyway a few months later to start a new life.

Her daughter was with her. Within a few years of being in the USA, around the age of 15-16 years, her daughter developed a condition that rapidly incapacitated her. Within a shockingly short period of time, a teenager that was full of life was reduced to a disabled person completely dependent on her mother for everything. The girl couldn’t walk, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t eat by herself and she was completely relegated to the bed, nearly a vegetable. The lady cared for her daughter for nearly 3 years before the daughter died at 19 years of age. The doctors never had any answers and nobody ever found out what had ailed the girl.

She saw her daughter’s face in the face of the special child that evening. She was happy to see that this girl was around, alive and happy. And she was looking for answers, for why her daughter might have been taken away from her.

She was looking for comfort. For a clue. For closure. Maybe some compassion.

I see the lady sometimes at the Indian store or the eatery now. I do not know her name but I know a part of her story…one that has taught me to look beyond my own pain, to show compassion and to choose life in the face of great loss. And for that, I will always remember her.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Relationship Rasa

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. Pungent. Astringent.

Shad Rasas. Six Tastes. 

The Sweet. 
To build, to calm, to satiate. 
The Sour. 
To cleanse, to increase absorption, to stimulate. 
The Salty. 
To lubricate, to digest, to improve other tastes. 
The Bitter. 
To detoxify, to lighten. 
The Pungent. 
To clear the passages, to aid circulation.
The Astringent. 
To promote healing, to absorb, to tighten. 

Six tastes. More than nutrition. An experience. A sign of completeness. An indication of wholesomeness in nourishment. No element too important. No element unnecessary. Too much of any and the balance is lost.

In Moderation. Whether it is in a Meal or Marriage.

Image Source:

We idealize relationships without conflict. We idolize people who never disagree, never fight. We want to be like them. And we feel guilty when we face conflict with those we love. 

But conflict, disagreement, difference of perspective among individuals is natural, even healthy. It makes for variety and diversity. It steers clear of tunnel vision. Even siblings brought up under the same roof do not always see eye to eye. How can two individuals coming from different households always agree with each other? The style of conflict resolution may vary from plain denial and suppression to blame, manipulation or a peaceful discussion. But to expect no conflict to arise at all in any relationship seems unnatural. Just like one needs each of the six tastes in moderation to make a meal complete, wholesome and nourishing, I believe that one needs all six tastes in moderation in a marriage to make the relationship complete, wholesome and nourishing.

The Sweet. 
To build bonds, to calm the mind, to satiate the soul. The tender moments. The light caresses. The thoughtful deeds. The sharing. The understanding. The sweet surprises. The smiles. The stuff that memories are made of.
The Sour. 
To cleanse the mind, to increase absorption of each other’s perspective, to stimulate conversation and debate. The disagreements, the disillusionment, the disenchantment. To help extract valuable insights into the other’s mind, heart and soul from it all.
The Salty. 
To lubricate life, to digest everything easily, to improve other tastes and make light of the heavier emotions. The naughtiness, the jokes, the laughter. The fun that brings a smile back on the face.
The Bitter. 
To detoxify the relationship, to lighten the weight of unspoken words and unexpressed emotions. The anger that masks hurt. Better said than not. The vent that prevents clogs in the relationship.
The Pungent. 
To clear the passages and allow fresh air to flow through the relationship, to aid circulation. The spice in the relationship.
The Astringent. 
To promote healing of the hearts, to absorb love, to tighten bonds. The cooling touch, the soothing words, the sorries, the special gestures for making up. All the stuff that makes you fall in love all over again.

A Sweet base with a hint of Sour, a dose of Astringent, a sprinkle of Salt, some sprigs of Bitter and a dash of the Pungent and there you have it!

With Moderation. The perfect meal. A memorable Marriage.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Friday Fiction - Lotus Pond

This piece was written for the first round of the ongoing NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015 with the assigned prompts being: Genre - Romance, Subject - Gluten-Free, Character - A Single Mother.

The sun had set on Mumbai. Most people were beginning to think of home and hot dinners, as was Krishna. It had been a long day and he had been standing for nearly twelve hours. His tired feet craved respite. And his throat, sore from uttering hoarse cries all day, craved some hot tea.

The red light district of Kamathipura was coming to life after dusk. Notes of Bollywood songs wafted through the air. Colorful lights brought on the semblance of a festival upon the lanes, a daily festival of carnal pleasures. Brazen girls dressed in bright, skimpy clothes and caked with make-up waited on the sidelines. They looked fresh at this evening hour and a lot like Krishna did in the mornings with his saree and make-up and flowers that he clipped to his short hair. A hijra, one of the millions of eunuchs in India.

His saree was creased now, his hair disheveled and his make-up streaked with sweat as he walked home through the evening bustle. He reached his house and unlocked the small brass padlock. It was a room, really. But it was his world, his home. He switched on a single fluorescent tube light that came on lazily after a few blinks, and sat down on the foldable cot, letting out a big sigh.

He felt fairly rested in a while and proceeded to wash his face with cheap local soap, change from the saree into a pant and shirt, and do his hair afresh minus the flowers. Sometimes he felt like he was playing a part in a play, this daily switch between a woman’s attire and a man’s. Presently, he made himself some tea on the kerosene stove and settled to examine his bag for the day’s gains.

There was cash – coins and notes of denominations paltry and significant. Enough to let him and his mother survive, day-to-day, month-to-month. There were a few other things, too, in the bag …things people gave away in fear and just to get rid of a hijra cursing and bothering them on the local train. Today it was some pictures of Gods, some coconut pieces that had been offered at a temple, a string of holy beads that Krishna immediately kept at the altar in the room and a packet of biscuits. He had never seen these biscuits earlier and they looked expensive. Different, too. He didn’t much care for biscuits and knew that Ma despised expensive indulgences. His thoughts immediately went to Rani. He would give the packet to Rani.

Krishna cooked some porridge and then left to get Ma from the brothel where she did some odd jobs. Today he was carrying the pack of biscuits for Rani, who was sitting with her dolls in a corner in the inner quarters of the brothel. He went to her and said, “Look Rani, I have got something for you!” The child’s eyes brightened when she saw the packet in Krishna’s hands and she grabbed it eagerly, squealing, “I’ll show it to my Ma and come!” Krishna followed her. Some of the prostitutes stood chatting in the small hall, waiting to be called by Madam for a customer. Sweety was one of the quieter ones. Krishna didn’t know her well, just the fact that she was Rani’s mother. Presently, he saw Rani showing the biscuit packet to Sweety with a lot of excitement. Sweety looked at Krishna and started walking up to him, packet in hand. She asked, “Where did you get this from?”

“On the train.”
“On the train?”
“Yes, from a gora. You know, foreigner?”
“Oh. It must be good if it is from foreign.”
“Initially the gora wouldn’t give me anything. But I didn’t budge. He gave me some loose change and this packet.”
“It does not say biscuit anywhere. What is it?”
“How do you know? What does it say?”
“I read it. It says right here, see? Trader-Joe’s-Gluten-Free-Crispy-Crunchy-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies.”
“You can read? And I don’t know what it is then.”
“Looks like biscuit only. And it has some free gift also. It says gluten free no?”
“Like those free stickers Rani got with the bubble gum?”
“Yes. She will like it. She has never got a foreign gift before. Thank you.”
“Oh it’s nothing.”

Sweety then went to Rani and announced that only if she got good marks in the exams, she would get to open the packet and take the free gluten gift. Rani immediately took up the challenge and ran away to study.

Sweety resumed her place at the back of the group of girls while Krishna made small talk with them. He had always felt safe there in the brothel. He was a eunuch and was no threat to the girls. They were bodies for their customers but around Krishna they felt like people. Krishna, too,  felt like a person in their midst instead of a fearsome, loathsome hijra, since some of them treated him like a friend…talking to him about his day, teasing him, sometimes even sharing their fears and worries in the garb of jokes. It was the closest Krishna had to a social life and friends.

As Krishna and Ma walked back to the room that night, Krishna noticed Ma’s deliberate pace and put his arm around her protectively and to support her.
“Tired, Ma?” he asked.
“Oh no, just the usual.” Ma dismissed him.
“Why do you still work there, Ma? It’s not too much money and it tires you.”
“It’s all I know, son. I came to Madam very young. It’s a wretched place but it’s familiar.”
“Ok Ma, tell me how did this Sweety get to Madam?”
“Why do you ask?”
“No, generally. I found out today she knows to read. What is she doing here?”
“Poor girl. She used to be married in the village once. Seems to have studied upto eigth standard before getting married, too!”
“Her husband’s family had always troubled her and one day they attempted to burn her for dowry. She fled with an infant Rani in her arms and took the first train that stopped at the station. The last stop was Mumbai.”
“But how did she end up here?”
“Pimps. They can smell girls who are lost from a mile. They brought her to Madam. Her name used to be Swati but Madam thought Sweety was better for trade. That’s how that innocent girl got caught in this web with little Rani. God! My back hurts!”
“We’re almost home, Ma. We’ll eat some porridge and then you can get some rest, ok?”

Krishna was aware of the challenges a single mother could face in Kamathipura. Ma had been one and she had struggled to protect Krishna at every step. And there was only so much protection a prostitute could give her child.

Krishna remembered the string of holy beads that he had got while begging that day. Krishna was not religious but Ma believed in God and His power. So the next evening, Krishna took the beads along and gave them to Sweety for Rani’s protection and studies. He wanted to help Rani and Sweety somehow. For some reason he felt like protecting this quiet girl who had got trapped in the flesh trade and was working so hard to give Rani a decent life.

Two gifts in two days was enough attention for Sweety to make her curious. In the tired hours of the next morning when Madam sat massaging her arthritic legs, Sweety asked her if she knew anything about Krishna. Madam’s manner in these mild morning hours was quite unlike her sharp-tongued demeanour during business hours. Sweety was massaging pain balm on Madam’s legs and soothed by that, Madam started talking softly.
“Some people are just born with bad luck, I tell you. Like our Krishna.”
Sweety continued the massage hoping that Madam would continue talking, afraid to interrupt.
“First, he was abandoned outside a temple as an infant. That’s where Soni, his mother, found him. Now how can a woman walk away from a crying, hungry child, tell me? So she took him as her son and brought him here. You see, she was also one of my girls back then.”
“Oh really? I didn’t know that, Madam.”
“Then what! Rub some more balm on my left leg. So yes, the boy started growing up here spending time inside the quarters for most part. Never went to school. I tell you, Rani is lucky to go to school.”
“That is true, Madam. I want her to study very hard.”
“That she will. Krishna never got the chance. As if it wasn’t enough to be abandoned on the streets, he got kidnapped from these lanes one day when he was playing with the slum boys. Didn’t come back for two days. Two days later, he turns up castrated and in very bad shape.”
Sweety let out a sudden gasp and her nails nearly scratched Madam’s legs.
“Oh! What are you doing? My legs are already hurting!”
“Sorry Madam! It’s just that it’s so horrible.”
“What to do. No one knows who did it but I think it was the local hijra mafia looking to add numbers to their troupe. Krishna must have fled. Soni was heartbroken but she didn’t give up on Krishna. She has always considered him to be her son, a man, but God knows what he is.”
“He has truly suffered a lot.”
“Worse, he couldn’t find any work when he grew up and was forced to join those same gangs of hijra beggars to make a living. Now he begs with them on trains every day, dressed up as a woman. And at other times, he dresses and behaves like a man to be Soni’s son. What a life, what bad luck.” Madam said as she began to rise to retire to her quarters.

When Sweety saw Krishna the next day, she felt tenderness that she had rarely experienced before. What was his fault? What had he done to deserve being abandoned and then castrated? She felt compassion for him and smiled with kindness when their eyes met. She saw surprise in his eyes but then he smiled back with admiration.

Over the next many months, Krishna started to actively collect knick-knacks for Rani, sometimes even buying them and passing them off as gains from the day’s begging. He wanted to see Rani happy. He wanted to see Sweety happy. Sweety, too, started to talk more with Krishna. It was nothing in particular but Krishna had never felt so happy just making small talk. They talked about all kinds of things - Bollywood films, Mumbai, people Krishna saw on the train…and about Rani. Sweety’s eyes lit up every time she spoke about Rani. She wanted Rani to study a lot and be able to leave that place for a better life. Krishna really enjoyed seeing her gleam like that.

Once in a while, when no one was watching, Krishna managed to hold Sweety’s hand. It had taken a lot of courage the first time. He didn’t know if she would like being touched by a eunuch or if she would feel repelled. He had tried anyway. That first brush of their elbows had only elicited a shy smile from Sweety and Krishna had known – she would be the only one after Ma who would see him for a person. They had continued talking and it had been Sweety who had placed her hand gently on his knee as she laughed at his description of a fat priest he had seen near the temple. They held hands every chance they got now, and those few stolen seconds made life worthwhile for Krishna. He had found a companion to talk to and to give whatever he had to offer – a hand to hold and a shoulder to lean on.

It had also been Sweety who had asked, “Will you be my family? Rani’s and mine?” Krishna had drawn his hand away, whether in surprise or shock he did not know himself. He couldn’t find the right words.
“I am a eunuch! Not a man! How can we come together?” He had never considered the possibility. He was happy to just have a nameless something between them. A sense of solace maybe.
“Man? Man! What good did it do me to marry a man, Krishna?”
“Sweety, I…”
“Was he man enough to protect me?”
“But Sweety…”
“And what about the man who tricked me and brought me here?”
“Sweety listen…”
“And what about the men who use my body every day here?”
“Sweety, what about Rani?”
“What about her?”
“What will she tell people? Am I her father or mother?”

Sweety felt weak. She leaned against the wall on the terrace of the building and said, “All I know is that you have been more fatherly to Rani than her own father, Krishna. You care about her, make her laugh, help her grow. Remember the holy beads you brought for her? And that packet? She studied so hard for those cook…cookies and the free gultan…gluten gift, that she got third rank in class! There was no gift in the packet by the way. It was a trick, these foreign companies. For the first time I feel there is someone other than me who is watching over my child. If that isn’t family, what is?”

Krishna said, “Sweety, I love you and Rani. But I am a eunuch and I don’t want the two of you to be hurt because of a eunuch’s love!” Saying this, he walked away and Sweety saw him disappear into a blur brought on by her tears.

Krishna did not believe in God but he had a personal God in Ma, who had saved him, protected him and loved him. That night, his thoughts fought a battle so furious that he was forced to pray to his personal God. He told Ma everything that had happened but instead of being horrified at the idea, Ma had smiled.

“Do you know that your name was not always Krishna?” She said. “I named you Krishna the day you returned after the kidnapping because Krishna, the beautiful dark God, had once taken the female form of Mohini and fulfilled a devout warrior’s wish to be married before he died in battle. That day when you returned maimed and stripped of your gender, I decided that you were that God…man in spirit, woman in body.

“If you decide to make Sweety and Rani your family, it will be a divine union. You both will be everything to Rani, and Sweety will not have to bear the burden that I had to. I am happy that you have a chance at experiencing the happiness that a wife and child can bring. I never thought you would. Think about it, son.”

Krishna stopped at the temple the next day, on the way home but didn’t go inside. He had no need. He changed clothes in a hurry that evening and went to meet Sweety before the day’s trade began. When he saw Sweety, he saw hurt in her eyes. He dragged her aside and pulled out a lotus from his bag. She looked perplexed and asked, “What is this?”

“Will you and Rani be my family?”
“You brought a lotus flower to propose?”

Krishna smiled and said, “Ma always says the lotus is a flower that grows and creates beauty even in a dirty pond. That is what we will do. We will come together like lotuses in a pond of dirt…this pond of dirt…and create beauty. Ours is a divine union and this lotus is my offering.”

Tears streamed down Sweety’s face as she took the flower. Krishna wiped her tears and they both smiled warmly. Just then Rani came running from the room and saw the lotus. She squealed and took the flower from Sweety’s hands. And Sweety and Krishna watched together as their child began prancing around, humming to herself with a lotus in her hand.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make sense.