Books & Reading, Fiction

Top 9 opening lines in children’s literature

A response to Guardian‘s 10 favourite opening lines in children’s books because The Virgin Suicides? Rudyard Kipling? and no Harry Potter? That’s unacceptable! Here’s what I would have done if Guardian had asked me to list my favourite opening lines from children’s literature.

P.S.) Alice isn’t included because there’s really no need, is there? She’s the guardian angel of every piece of children’s literature written, ever.


“All children, except one, grow up.”

“There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.”
Cover art by Lesley Barnes for Vintage.

Cover art by Lesley Barnes for Vintage.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”
Cover Art by Mirjam Dijkema.

Cover Art by Mirjam Dijkema.

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
Cover art by M. S. Corley.

Cover art by M. S. Corley.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

“These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket.”
Cover art by Nicolai Sarbib.

Cover art by Nicolai Sarbib.

 “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Cover art by Ellen Raskin. First edition dust jacket.

Cover art by Ellen Raskin. First edition dustjacket.

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.”

Article, Fiction

A Literary Family for Book Lovers

Still reeling from the surprise of being Freshly Pressed and in honour of Banned Books Week, I put together what I thought would be the perfect family populated with characters from fiction.
persepolis grandmother

Mother: Marjane’s grandmother from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

There is a beautiful scene early in the graphic novel Persepolis where Grandma Satrapi undresses in front of Marjane, and wondrous-smelling jasmine flowers fall from inside her brassiere…That entire scene just oozes femininity and womanhood. Grandma Satrapi provides Marjane with a sense of identity in her formative years by plying her with stories of her family history. Gentle and firm, she dispenses solid real-world advice to Marjane: “In life, you’ll meet a lot of jerks… Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

atticus finch

Father: Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Because he’s really literature’s best father. He’s raising two kids on his own while trying to protect his children from a horribly pervasive small-town mentality. He speaks to Jem and Scout as adults, but still maintains his wry sense of humour. Atticus Finch is a good man with a fantastic value system, who remains honourable and honest in his profession and dealings with people. He’s gained an insight into the minds of the people around him, a trait that we see Scout developing over the course of the novel. And he’s full of these pithy little statements that are so utterly quotable. “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand”; “Try fighting with your head for a change”; “It’s not okay to hate anybody”.

(He’s also a sharp shooter. Wow. Can you imagine me chilling out with Dad on a Saturday afternoon, shooting beer bottles in our backyard?)

wise children

Siblings: Nora & Dora Chance from Wise Children by Angela Carter

This vaudeville pair of fraternal twins from Angela Carter’s kaleidoscopic novel are probably the most colourful female characters I’ve come across in my reading life. Nora and Dora are showbiz girls in every way: catty, wild and loud. They dress abominably – always a hit with me – and have a fantastic sense of humour. Because of their very public status as illegitimate daughters of a successful stage actor, they tend to take a light-handed approach to life. Through their joys and despite their tragedies, the two sisters stick together. What more can you ask for?

polgara the sorceress

Aunt: Polgara from The Belgariad by David Eddings

Can you imagine an immortal sorceress for an aunt? You wouldn’t have to worry about bullies ever. Polgara is rather politically inclined, a trait that is helped by a sharp tongue; she modernized her government, freed her serfs and trained her people in self-sufficiency. Imagine sitting down for a cup of tea and discussing the finer points of Machiavelli with Aunt Polgara.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series Sherlock (2010)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series Sherlock (2010)

Neighbour: Sherlock Holmes

I don’t really need to elaborate on the merits of having Sherlock Holmes as your neighbour, do I? Aside from his insomnia, coke habit and numerous other eccentricities, he’s… Sherlock Holmes. Witty, charming and eloquent, he is the benchmark against which all other detectives are measured. Having Sherlock Holmes for a neighbour is a fantastic way to gain a daily education in logic and common sense – qualities the world needs a little more of.

creative writing, Fiction


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.


17 Minutes


Last night I saw someone that I wanted to talk to
because he looked interesting
but I heard a snippet of an ongoing conversation
he was having and it sounded dreadfully dull.
Where do people get the drive to endlessly regurgitate
their epiphanies and why are they content
listening to the same drivel over and over
and over?


The world can be a beautiful place
when you let go. Light falls in
perfect places, skipping across the surface
of things, and shines with a degree of shyness.
People hide behind their glasses of water,
flasks of whiskey, cans of beer, cameras, cigarettes, music,
conversation but their souls emerge
as if rising out of some darkness into the clear,
blue light of day. And voices are clearer,
insights sharper and words ring like a church bell
with an element of honesty.


At Little India, an old man was playing his sitar
to a gathered group of late-night shoppers
and the Chinese owners of the shop next door.
The street was empty and silent and every nuance of his plucking resounded beautifully.

I would love to meet someone
who can carry a conversation
like a melody, a musician,
the agent of divinity,
only to be left breathless and rejuvenated at the end
of seventeen minutes.


A History of Spices

Red Claw Press

Assuming that pots, knives, chopping boards, blenders and a functional stove are readily available, this is an experimental recipe for tomato soup. My mother used to say that one’s history informs the outcome of one’s hands. The kitchen I work in is gray and old but heavy with the memory of epic dinner parties, light breezy snacks and Indian gourmet. The surfaces of things are stained with the matriarch whose tremendous hands have have touched everything. The spices lined up in the fridge not unlike unquestioning school children who once rolled over the texture of her old lined palms, rubbed between her fingers, colouring the tips a dark brown and sticking stubbornly between the creased valleys of her hands. Cinnamon stands upright in a jar once filled with marmalade; aadrak she keeps in a wide yellow container next to skinned garlic; badi elaichi is special and precise, used always for a specific purpose and never as substitute (but I admit I didn’t always know what badi elaichi was – I stayed out of the kitchen as a child in an attempt to refuse the heritage of my gender, a heritage my mother so gracefully accepted in her own youth – yet I could almost always detect it when it was used in lentils and rice because its strong smoky flavour is unmistakable). The curry essential, garam masala, literally translated as hot spice, sits in a Nutella jar next to tumeric (I do not know any recipe this spice compliments except one that reflects the vanity of the maker – raw eggs and homemade yogurt mixed with tumeric, I have found, will result in thick yellow-orange raw-smelling paste which is then smeared carefully across the surface of skin to keep it glowing and fair), next to which is cumin or jeera, which is Mother’s favourite although in all these years, she has never admitted why that is so even while making no efforts to conceal its supposed superiority whilst reciting recipes over the telephone to various nameless aunties.

I know little of spices, even less of their uses, but I do know this – nine months after The Pisces was conceived, after seven years of trying, like a slippery, evading eel she was determinedly stuck inside the womb. It was a premature sign of her rejection of this world, reflecting only her later disapproval of everything she saw; Mother panicked and worried for what was to be her firstborn – there were previous complications and she had finally kicked the dry spell after many years of marriage. This was the sure-fire baby-expelling remedy – a boiled pot of cumin tea that she forced herself to drink and two hours later squeezed the baby out. I first heard this story in ’98 at which point the Pisces was eighteen and heavily made-up with gray liquid eyeshadow, maroon lipstick, torn jeans and old t-shirts. Mother’s youngest sister told me, we called her Dutch Masi. I got to thinking for a long time that my sister was distraught with the world in her early years up all the way to puberty because she was made to come out when she was not yet ready. Perhaps that was why she never liked being in photographs, those sticky reminders of the past (or maybe her aversion to photographs had to do with a bad break of acne which lasted for most of her teenage life). Perhaps that was why she wore awkward clothes, had gorgeous, outgoing friends, and never failed to make me look stupid whenever she found an opportunity. In her warm, wet cocoon of comfort, perhaps, in her baby hands, she was still holding on to the place from which she came; it could have been the last strands of a previous life or a paradise of souls waiting for bodies or maybe she was in the final stages of conversation with God, a conversation that was reaching resolution; it would, she thought, provide her with all the information and tools necessary for the Great Adventure of Life so that she could breeze through it familiarly, never get stuck for too long (unlike the rest of us); alas! it was a conversation interrupted all because of jeera.

Lastly, there is no kesar in the fridge but this is hardly surprising because while saffron was used traditionally in Persia as a curative for bouts of melancholy, Indians feared it as an aphrodisiac; they exploit the spice but once – on the nuptial night, a veiled bride presents affron milk to her husband; he drinks the potion and slowly, tenderly, unhooks the clasp of her blouse and lifts up the veil while the camera focus dims and the audience groans inwardly. But assuming your kitchen is a fully equipped one and assuming it is not as laden with history and prone to inducing long bouts of musings as mine is, I finally have a recipe for you:

In a pot, put some water to boil. Add semi-cooked potatoes and carrots. Throw the sliced tomatoes and yogurt into a blender. Blend. When the water level the pot is halved, add the blended tomatoes and stir. Lower fire. Simmer for twenty minutes. Throw in some cream butter, Italian spices, pepper. Add salt according to taste. Switch off the fire and serve warm with toast bread.

Published by Red Claw Press in an anthology, Crave It: Writers and Artists Do Food




A dreamless night, that night. My eyes buzzed and itched. I rubbed them while waiting at the void deck. For five pitiful minutes I watched as the last buses deposited late-night commuters. Then an old friend picked me up, and we drove up and down highways, like bums with nothing better to do.

I must have closed my eyes, because I didn’t notice when the neighborhoods disappeared and the big roads appeared, roads which were bright as daylight. The hum of the air conditioner masked sounds of cars zipping by. Rushing to funerals and anniversaries, they must be, for nothing else could account for such dangerous speeds. All ahead the road stretched, yawning across tar and smoke and plume, like a scene from a nineteenth century industrial novel, only now the factories were invisible erections on a landscape made to look like a permanent green garden planted with luscious artificial trees standing tall and endlessly waiting in vain for a new cycle, a new Armageddon, a release from this mechanical setup. In a bubble of safety from the humid air without, a pleasant lull occupied the cool silence of the car. Someone was telling a story or a joke on the radio. Three men in a bar: an Indian, a Malay, and a Chinese. My eyes buzzed some more. I brushed my hair, feeling for a rough bump of the occasional dry skin and pulling it out of the soft strands. Cramped for space, the bits of skin pushed out and became tiny dandruff hills. I wondered if my keys were in the bag. Then I wondered about the Portuguese author and his story where death disappeared for seven months and the old age homes were full of the stench of scented powder and urine, which is exactly what old people smell of. I know this because an old man had fallen asleep next to me in the library the day before, and I wasn’t sure whether he was sleeping or dead, he looked so peaceful, and I was just on my way to alert a librarian when he stirred or snored—I can’t remember—so I continued reading. But I remember his smell, like newspapers left out in the rain. Below that a lace of ammonia.

Outside, glaring headlights pierced brightly, and their heat penetrated the glass windows. The afternoon rain had left a mist hanging over trees and under street lamps, gathering flies in a tropical nighttime ritual. As my hand moved mechanically within the maze of my head, I wondered if we had suddenly, unknowingly, crossed over from that world to this one. There is something uncanny about being protected in the cushion of a steel shell. I wondered if it might not be that we were still and the world, instead, moved and maneuvered about this car as though our destination were the center of all activity, the penultimate motivation for the existence of this world and its occupants.

“Look,” he said, pointing upwards while he rounded a sharp bend. At first I didn’t see. His voice had sounded strange and frightened me, so I stared at his face instead and tried to recognize this stranger. And then I looked up and saw her, mighty Diana brighter than all the earth. Gathered around her were oddly contorted fluffy battleships with holes in their masts and husks, sailing in the wind, the wind tattering their sails. Her glittering pupil shadowed the perfect circle of her eye, and hurt mine. The moon had stolen the glory of her brother, and on the edges of her wispy outline, I could see the Antipodes walking, hard-shelled turtles crawling on soft bellies, rounding up their affairs or just beginning them. I wondered if we mightn’t be on the other side of things, the world up there and us floating about the stars, such that our lights appeared like dying fires by the time we reached them there on the moon.

Published in Eclectic Flash‘s September 2010 issue. You can buy a copy of the magazine.