creative writing, Fiction

“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565)

Beaten down by a merciless winter, the dogs, lean and hungry, chased after something darting across the snow. All they found was a skinny rabbit. We had been gone since sunrise and nothing to show for our efforts but this one catch. The animals were hiding, or else dead – whether from the elements or some other predator, we will never know. We hung the skinny rabbit on my spear and trudged home through the deep snow, boots sinking into the ground, the cold reaching through the hide and under our skins. We passed Thelma and her children, who were feeding fuel to a blazing fire. Did her husband bring home something more substantial than a mere rabbit? Was there a deer hiding inside the home? She eyed the rabbit on my spear and nodded at me as if to say Fate, eh?

“The children are young,” Abe said in a hard voice, “They only know hunger and games, they do not see themselves growing thinner with cold.” Abe was married to my sister, as I was to his. We lived as neighbours on the bridge above the river. From the hill beyond the hamlet, I spotted Abe’s wife gathering firewood, a black smudge on the landscape. We decided the day’s catch would become stew for the children. There was the question of the dogs, too. How could Abe and I afford to feed them, keep them alive, so they in turn continued to feed us and keep us alive? I tossed them bones too hard to chew. They chased down birds on occasion but even the birds were becoming wary, soaring the open skies and coming to rest on high branches, away from desperate jaws.

Abe was right about the children. What happens when there is not one skinny rabbit left? Hannah is already looking out for mice. Last night she told me how our last loaf of bread was chewed up in a corner. It’s a good sign, she sighed, her voice an odd mix of hope and despair. “I can lay out the traps and cook them while the children are out to play. They won’t know the difference.” I held her hand in the dark and closed my eyes. “Abe and I are to hunt tomorrow. Maybe I will bring our boy with us. You will not have vermin for dinner.”

Advertisements
Standard
Books & Reading, creative writing

“Portrait of a Woman” by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi

Portrait of a Woman (1881), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837–1887)

“Portrait of a Woman”, by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837–1887)

The ruffle collar of her dress tickled her neck, the light shone a little too bright off the white pages of her book and her back ached from sitting in the same position for too long, but the lady bore all her discomforts with stoic determination. The painting, she told herself, would only take a few hours more – and then no more. She would not see the painter after this day. It was her last sitting and then — back to that dreadful routine of illness and medicine and endless sleep. Her grandmother’s dazzling sapphire ring, which fit a little too tight, had to be returned to its rightful place in the drawer. She had enjoyed wearing it. It was a blue of the oceans she read about in books, the endless, frightening deep blue of death and oblivion. She longed for more sittings with the painter. Her nurse stood behind him by the lady’s bed, alert to the smallest sign of fatigue. This was truly the last and final one – Ah! The lady tried not to let her misery show on her face. Oh, but it was just too dreadful to think about! The painter was the only man who, despite her handicap, thought her capable of something important, even if it was just to keep still. After him, her days would go no further than this dark, gloomy room with its one lonely window through which shone the light of that distant star, illuminating the farthest corners of her misery. But there were books, the lady reminded herself gently, holding the one in her hand closer and tighter, eyes swimming across the words. She blinked back the tears from the glare of the light, too harsh this afternoon. There were always books.

Standard
creative writing, Food & Culture

An Ode to the Gol Gappa

I sing a thousand praises in your name, O Inventor of Gol Gappa*. Were you aware that with this one humble recipe from your Benarasi kitchen, you had changed the innocent landscape of India’s street food scene forever? That long after your death, children would be pestering their mothers for a round of gol gappay from their favourite panipuri wallah**? That after leaving for greener pastures, Indians in every corner of the world would fondly recall this unassuming, humble snack and pine for it the way a lover pines for his beloved? And somehow, even Indians who never knew that motherland would discover a recessive gene that mysteriously craves for an explosive combination of sweet and sour? After all, what is a gol gappa? A hollowed out shell of a mini puri punctured at its crown, stuffed with a tangy mix of potatoes, meethi^ chutney and shudderingly sour tamarind water; small enough to be eaten whole and big enough to make the whole exercise an example of how food can be such delicious fun. Did you name it yourself, knowing that gol, meaning round in Hindi, refers to the shape of the snack, but is no doubt also a description of the delightful O your mouth needs to shape into to accommodate it?

What’s the best part of the gol gappa? Is it that first crunch that shatters the crispy fried dough? Is it the moment the sour tamarind floods your mouth while your eyebrows shoot upwards in response to that first shock of taste? Or when the meethi chutney’s sweetness cuts through the tamarind like a blessing and brings relief to your molars? Or could it be – and this is my favourite bit – that frantic journey the gol gappa makes from plate to mouth, the way you move extra quick when there are holes in the puri, how your lips stretch extra wide, knowing how absolutely stupid you must look, the self-consciousness bringing an inevitable grin to your face so you end up smiling with your mouth in a great big O?

Oh, what a riot.

Glossary

*Gol gappa is what this snack is called by in Delhi. Gol gappay is the plural of gol (round) gappa (something that is eaten in one bite).

** In Mumbai, gol gappa is known as pani (water) puri (fried dough/bread). A panipuri wallah is a street vendor who sells the snack.

^ meethi = sweet

Edit: I am so thrilled to see the response this post has gotten from gol gappay lovers all over the world! Thank you for sharing the locations of your favourite gol gappay wallahs and joining in my celebration of this super chaat. 

Standard
creative writing, Fiction

1993

Winter in a rural Punjabi village in ‘93; there is an angel in the house facing my aunt’s.

He must have been fifteen or so, with the grayest eyes I had ever seen – overcast clouds and milky asphalt. I stole glances at him, obvious and unashamed, on a windy December day. His parents ran a kite shop from their porch. My aunt sold yoghurt and rice from hers. The houses faced each other, separated by a dusty road leading to open fields that transformed into puppet theaters on warmer evenings.

Every morning, when they open the wooden doors to display dragons with long tails and spotted butterflies, I am there, behind my counter, pretending to swat flies. (December, despite the biting cold, is a popular time for kite-flying and ice-cream yoghurt.) His white skin is dotted with moles and in his eyes a turbulent winter brewing trouble. I think to myself, You are a farishta out of a Sufi parable. I think so loud that I am sure heard me. I blush crimson and stand by the door or behind the shop counter and spend whatever time I have between bouts of diarrhoea admiring him; thinking farishta farishta.

One week later, in the dead of the morning, we pack our bags for New Delhi. The rented van’s motor makes sputtering noises like an old man’s hacking cough. I wait for him in the middle of an empty street. His eyes crowd my head and become snowflakes. I think about the storms in winter that never quell.

He never came.

Standard
creative writing

Battleground God

Photo by puuikibeach. CC-SA. http://www.flickr.com/photos/puuikibeach/

Photo by puuikibeach. CC-SA. http://www.flickr.com/photos/puuikibeach/

The air was still with silence as we muttered hellos and slipped off our shoes. The TV was paused in the middle of a Star Trek episode, Data frozen in mid-sentence, a look of mild surprise on his face. The house smelled of cat shit and kibbles.

I followed them past walls decorated with Arabic quotes into a messy bedroom. Crushed cans of Tiger and Guinness littered the floor, someone’s half-eaten plate of dinner on the bed. I settled at the dining table when there was no where else to look.

After dinner she poured sparkling grape juice into ceramic and glass cups. There were big ones and small ones. One said “Best Father in the World”. I wasn’t sure which glass to take without appearing obnoxious though it was only juice but the thing I remember most clearly in the aftermath was the cup I eventually carried to the room. It was black with a comfortable handle. I held it in my hand for the most of the night.

***

I like springy mattresses. They remind me of dingy motels, the thin walls and screaming sex from next door. I test the bed a few times to make sure it lived up to my cheap-mindedness. The room smells of old books and carefully documented religion. Someone tosses me Dostoevsky. I pronounce it Doss-tov-sky. Who is he? I am halfway through the summary, en route to the first page when I have a talk with myself.

Me: This book is huge.
(Silence)
Me: How can anyone find so many things to say?
(Silence)
Me: Am I supposed to say something intelligent about this guy?
I: Imagine you’re having a conversation with God.

***

God smokes.

He rolls his own cigarettes stuffed neatly with store-bought tobacco and lights it himself. This is probably what they meant in religion class when they told us about being hardworking and self-sufficient. About being God-like. He cracks a joke about X-rated comic books. This explains a few things, cigarettes and all:
1. God is capable of sin.
2. God has a sense of humour.
3. Religion is a fantasy.
4. This is a simulated reality.

“Imaginal, that’s the word. It’s not imaginary. It’s a simulated reality that means something,” he says.

God rolls another cigarette.

I am interviewed although I don’t remember half the answers I give. They come as quick like vodka shots and I am drunk on a simple “What is” question. She writes fast, her letters are circular and they float off the lines in her book. She writes in cursive. As a child I used to think the most intelligent people write in cursive because only the truly intelligent are capable of beauty. I bounce on the bed and steal a few looks off the dirty comic.

God passes cigarettes around.

We are talking about meditation. About thinking about thinking about thinking, counting steps and breaths, chanting vowels. We’re talking about purpose and reason and the reasons for. Funny how ever since that was asked it’s been deemed unnecessary to justify any given action. If you take people out of space and time, the universe will collapse upon itself. If you take people out of space, time and religion, God will collapse upon himself.

No Buddha, no Jesus, no nihilism, no rules, no moralities, no obligations. It’s really quite simple. You pop a pill and you’re in heaven.

Standard
creative writing

This Breaks My Rule

Jack magazine

After the Taj was completed, each of the builders, twenty-two thousand men, had his thumbs cut off so that the structure could never be built again. It is just a legend, they say, but the thought of it haunts me. I never thought that love’s ultimate portrayal could be as powerful and pure as a tombstone built entirely in marble. A tango between both worlds, the greatest expression of divinity and obsession; what sort of a lover was the goddess Mumtaz? How great a lover, how fanatical was he to have built a marker of death for his beloved. A cross between this world and the next, I see beauty and death in this gravemarker – a transcendent equation that parallels only the other.

If beauty and death equals eternal love, I must be forced to concede that all lovers never die because death is omnipresent and beauty is subjective (hence allowing it to be the only constant). Do they live on in hushed whispers in the dead stillness of the night, ghosts humming their tales of trial and tragedy? But if beauty is perfection and death is the one undefeatable, inevitable force that drives one age on to every consecutive one, then I must be mad because there can never be a love that rises to such overwhelming magnitude, the thought of which is smothering enough. I am equating names of places I have never seen except in snapshots on postcards from countries I have long forgotten to intangibles like emotions and the absurdity lies in that I am hoping to draw links between the two like an expert blind philosopher who has never seen this madness except in dreams and the short spaces between the passage of time.

What is greater than time? No other, for the only available, logical alliance between infinity and transience is time alone. Nothing surpasses time, not love nor death nor life nor any other thing that has a beginning. Time has no past, present or future. It needs no distinction nor titles, it is one long line which we break up into simple comprehensible abbreviations we call seconds, days, months, eons. Does that scare you – that we are always living our past and future in the present?

I want to learn how illusions work. The magician that made the Taj disappear for two minutes, how did he do it? If an illusion is an erroneous perception of reality, I want to make it my actuality. It is not until realities clash jarringly that a discrepancy is produced and translated. Until then any illusion could be a reality. Perhaps reality itself is an illusion – just an appearance of truth but nothing more than an appearance. If we were to unveil our versions of reality what lies might we uncover? Perhaps all this is a conspiracy, perhaps none of this exists. But if reality is always an appearance, what good does unveiling an illusion do? It could be a cover-up for another fantasy beneath another beneath another.

I want to know where it stops or if it even stops. These facades of legitimacy are leaving little pockmarks on the soles of my feet so I don’t forget to bring them everywhere I go. It is getting painful and tiresome and I wish it’d stop. Why is the best policy often the one that leaves the most scars behind and hides behind sideway shifts of our eyes, acting like the liaison between telltale and tale?

Published at Jack Magazine.

Standard