Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction: Winner and Finalists


When OUT of PRINT set the 2017 theme for the competition, it continued a subtle commentary from CHOICE that was held soon after the last national elections, to DISSENT, EROSION and now WATCHING.

The winning stories were picked not just for their strength but also for the way in which they interpreted WATCHING.

The first story, about a budding stalker evokes sympathy and an acute underlying sense of tragedy. The second plays with birdwatching to highlight a woman’s observations on her marriage and her husband as she inadvertently spots him. The third is the commentary of a young woman on her family with an increasingly paranoid mother whose kindness and humour are evident. Few of the works interpreted the theme in the sense of a universal watcher except the fourth that features a terrifying collector of data who is both subhuman and superhuman. Finally, story five takes the reader into the thoughts of a young woman who yearns that for once, a lustful gaze will fall upon her.

Judges: Ram Sadasiv and Indira Chandrasekhar, editors, OUT of PRINT



Bikram Sharma
Jyothi Vinod
Selma Carvalho
Sohini Basak
Bhumika Anand




2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Winner: Bikram Sharma

The Loneliest Man in Ward 11,  Physiotherapy
 Bikram Sharma

He glanced at the nurse for confirmation before unwinding the bandage. There it was. The swelling had reduced but the bruises remained; they were like a puff of sand underwater, swirling alongside his ankle and settling thick by his heel. The colours were the pinks, purples and greens of coral, reminding him of childhood evenings watching nature documentaries with his mother.

‘Hmm … can you walk?’ the nurse asked.

‘Just about.’

‘Okay. It’s not far. Come.’

He limped after her to the rearmost section of the ward where she helped him climb a ladder and sit atop a large steel cylinder brimming with water. ‘You have to put your ankle there, next to that.’ She pointed at a nozzle within the cylinder.

He hugged himself, feeling curiously naked with his trouser leg rolled up.

‘Don’t worry, we won’t blast your ankle off!’

He was heartened by her smile, by her ink-stained fingertips, and rubbing the bridge of his nose he acquiesced.

‘Ready?’

‘Yeah.’

She pushed a button and the cylinder thrummed while a jet of water surged against his ankle. At first unpleasant, it quickly soothed. ‘See?’ she said, taking a seat and cracking open a hefty medical textbook.

‘You’re studying?’

‘Have to, no?’

He dispiritedly thought about how he was on the cusp of completing his BCom and entering the family business. There would be no more textbooks in his future, only insurance, only his father’s constant supervision. As she underlined paragraphs his vision snagged on her greying stockings, stretched at the calves, and the small squares of skin exposed between criss-crossing threads. After a few seconds he averted his eyes. He had learnt it was one thing to look, another thing entirely to be caught looking.

*

Months before the injury he had been studying at home when he peered out the window and saw, in a balcony in the building across, a girl clipping laundry to a clothesline. A perfectly unremarkable sight except that her legs were bare. From behind curtains he watched her stand on tiptoes to reach the line, inadvertently exposing the white triangle of her underwear. His shoulders simmered with a heat which stoppered his breath. He had lost himself several times in the labyrinth of online pornography and had even experienced nights of darkness, fumbling and ragged breathing sharp from alcohol, but this was the first time he had seen, actually seen, the space between a girl’s inner thighs. Seen while he himself remained unseen.

*

After hot water immersion came wax therapy. He was led to a small room where he was made to take a seat and watch as the nurse deftly poured sizzling wax over his ankle. He gasped, recoiled. She held him in place and murmured, ‘No, no, no.’ The wax gradually cooled, hardening into a temporary cast, and she let go of him to flip through his records. ‘Torn ligament. Doctor prescribed…’ Her eyes scanned the page, brows knotting in confusion at the squiggly handwriting. ‘How did you hurt yourself?’

‘Oh, I was running in a park. I slipped and the ankle made this “pop”. After that I couldn’t even stand.’

‘And your nose?’

‘This?’ He covered it with a hand. ‘No, this happened years ago.’ He tried to forget the image of his mother’s face when he had returned from school with a broken nose and a letter from the principal.

‘Hmm … hmm…’

The nurse traced the lines of a technician’s report. Her lips were parted, aspirating unspoken words, and as she read he was struck by the idea that everything she was doing, the minutiae of her movements, they were all designed to help her better understand his body.

*

In the subsequent weeks he found himself drawn to the window. Often he was disappointed by the sight of clothes dried stiff, clinging to the line and crowding the balcony with their unwelcome presence. But sometimes he spotted things of interest.

Like the open balcony door revealing a carpet
Like movement behind windows
Like the girl leaning against the balcony railing and meowing, trying to grab the attention of a cat on the street
Like the girl stretching and revealing the darker pigment of her armpits

During such moments he felt submerged, the sounds of the world drowned out, holding his breath as he observed tidings and waited for something momentous to bubble into existence. It came to the point where he slept with the curtains open. Until he noticed the drying clothes were mostly green skirts, green ties, white long-sleeved shirts and matching stockings which were all unmistakably part of a uniform. A uniform worn by girls who attended a nearby school.

*

Once the wax cast was removed he was led to a curtain-partitioned stall and instructed to lie down on a narrow cot. She rummaged through some equipment and powered on a machine with a hammer-like device attached to its end.

‘What’s that?’

‘Ultrasound,’ she said, squirting gel which was cool against his skin. She placed the head of the hammer against his ankle and slowly moved it in circles around the ball of his joint. ‘This is okay?’

It was a curious sensation he likened to a rumpled bedsheet being smoothed of wrinkles, filling him with the contradictory feelings of yearning and contentment. He thought of nights when his mother massaged coconut oil into his hair, humming a tune while he sat still, eyes closed, immersed in darkness and concentrating on his scalp, on the points of contact which glimmered through him like shards of light in a pool.

His skin burst into goose pimples.

Apart from his mother, no woman had touched him in such a tender way. What if his life were a different one? One in which such acts of caring were ordinary and embodied by a wife or a girlfriend or a woman and all the complexities that entailed.

*

He took to going for afternoon strolls which led past the gates of the girl’s school. On one such excursion, after the final bell had rung and students thronged the pavement, he caught a glimpse of the girl embracing a boy. The two clasped hands and hurried towards a park. Once within the park they visibly relaxed; the boy untucked his shirt and the girl slung her blazer over her shoulder. The path they were on wound its way through clusters of bamboo to large flat rocks upon which couples of different ages were seated. There were no public displays of affection. Just women and men talking, laughing, sharing food or blinking in the fading sunlight.

Standing behind a tree, pretending to be on his phone, he realised there were other men like him, standing behind their own trees and gazing at these couples. For a moment he was indignant. His mother liked to walk in this park. Who were these men? Some were staring with such ferocious intensity. Were they driven by lust or by something more like an innate desire to see, and in the process imagine, what it felt like to be the object of someone else’s affection? When he left the park he was unable to control himself and mentally undressed every woman he passed.

*

The nurse wiped his ankle, tossed the tissue in a bin, then palpated his heel. ‘Painful?’

‘No,’ he grunted.

It was and it wasn’t. At times she prompted a jarringly violent throb which made him shudder, but mostly the sensation of her fingers on his foot, a body part neglected for the majority of his life, made him feel something hard to describe. Not sensual, not sexual, no, but something which carried weight – a temporary yet implicit trust.

‘This type of injury takes time to heal. And the ligament will be weaker and therefore more likely to tear again. You’ll have to be careful. Take it easy. None of your running about, okay?’

He smiled at her parental concern and was surprised to find his eyes burning, tears threatening to spill over. ‘It’s my mother’s birthday,’ he wanted to say, just so he could confide in her. It had been so long since he had last surrendered his body to someone else’s hands.

*

Standing behind a cluster of bamboo, like the other men standing behind clusters of bamboo, he had been pretending to look at his phone when he realised the girl had noticed him. Her head was cocked in an angle of recognition.

His heart skipped a beat.

A part of him asked, ‘What was he doing that was so wrong?’

Then the boy looked at him.

In his mind a multitude of scenarios played out: parents, police, prison. Would his mother’s face once again drain white as it had when she read the principal’s letter? He remembered the life he had led and envisioned the lives he might lead and made to nonchalantly stroll away but in fact jogged, then ran, as hard as he could. Wind in his ears, heart beating behind his eyes, he tripped over tree roots and fell into a gutter. He clutched at his ankle, already ballooned to twice its size, and whimpered not from the pain but from a depthless panic. Had she seen? Had she decided to follow? Too terrified to check, he swayed to his feet and held a phone to his ear. Keeping his eyes on the ground, he pretended to be in the middle of a conversation and forced himself to limp towards the nearest auto.

*

It was during this moment when he felt most exposed – the nurse’s touch stirring memories of his mother giving him a bucket bath and tucking him into bed –  that he was enveloped by an acute sense of loss. When was the last time he and his mother had done something together?

He ran his fingers along his nose, knowing the answer lay in its ruins. How bold he had been, how stupid. In school he had squeezed a classmate’s ass in an attempt to impress his friends. It was only a dare, that’s all, but later the classmate’s brother had beaten the shit out of him. At home his mother had held an icepack to his nose and rubbed his back, her face pale from reading the principal’s letter. ‘Not my boy,’ she said, ‘he would never do such a thing.’ His father hadn’t been concerned about the truth but had raced to meet the principal and explain it was ‘Just boys being boys, some harmless fun.’ Money exchanged hands, promises were uttered, and the matter was quickly smoothed over if not forgotten, though his cartilage remained irreparably damaged.

‘There,’ the nurse said, interrupting his thoughts and signing a sheet. ‘All done. See you on Wednesday, okay?’

‘You’ll be here?’

‘Me only. I’ll fix your ankle, don’t worry.’

He smiled at her ink-stained fingertips. ‘Thank you, Sister.’

Body humming from the attention it had received, he hobbled out the ward and paused at a temple to offer a prayer to the goddess Durga. He contemplated what to do next. Since the injury he had avoided temptation, steering clear of the school and keeping his curtains drawn. He had not seen the girl. But it was difficult; already he was slipping into the habit of standing in the darkness of his room and peering through the curtains at her balcony, waiting for signs of movement.

Inspecting the goddess’s features, he decided he would buy a cake for his mother. It would make her happy. Perhaps she would cup his chin like she used to, her affection manifesting in the smallest of gestures. He hailed a bus. Climbing aboard, he winced at a stab of pain and remembered how his father used to say pain was just weakness leaving the body. After what he had experienced, he didn’t want that. No, as the bus swayed and passengers tilted right, then left, their faces illuminated by oncoming traffic, he pushed himself deeper into the crush of bodies, his mind awash with the idea that a lifetime of injury could guarantee a lifetime of intimate contact.

***


Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He was the 2016 Charles Wallace India Trust Writing Fellow and completed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His writing has appeared in various literary magazines including The Suburban Review, Writer's Digest, and Out of Print

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Finalist: Jyothi Vinod

Monotony of Hornbills
Jyothi Vinod

The thin white tent wrinkles and flutters ever so lightly, microbes dying under it this very instant. The heirloom brass coffee filter teases me with laughing mirror images. Seventy to thirty is the ratio he swears by – coffee beans from Coorg and chicory from … some root? It’s incredible how I’ve gone about my life accumulating questions.

Milk from oxytocin injected cows or buffaloes – denied to hungry calves. Piped water – now UV irradiated – from the river where people spread ashes of dead kin. Trees and dinosaurs buried over millions of years ago – reborn as blue LPG flames. Salem steel utensils scoured by maids for twenty-five years with lemon-scented soaps. Cherry red ceramic cups bought off craftsmen at a handicraft melas. Sulphur-free, bone char-free demerara sugar from the pricey organic store. How can anyone drink a cup of coffee in peace?

The white tent billows, buffeted by an internal storm. Shekar’s physics can, no doubt, provide equations for the square dimple forming on the surface. A dome rushes up with a hiss, hovers a few micro seconds and tears apart.

I fumble with the stove’s knob, grab the milk vessel with tongs, and slam it on a wooden coaster. I snatch a kitchen towel, and a whole bunch of them tumble out of the drawer. I staunch the milk dripping off the counter, and the tongs drop on my foot. The velocity of hot milk is definitely higher than that of cold milk.

‘Not again! Weren’t you watching?’ Shekar is at the kitchen door, with a frown that goes well with his dark grey night suit. ‘I’ve lost count. Is this the second time this week, or third? You might as well cut the milk packet into the drain.’

With the care I’d reserved for experiments involving concentrated acids in the laboratory years ago, I brew two cups of coffee. He arranges four Marie biscuits on the tray beside the cups.

I remove two biscuits and my cup, and set them back on the counter. He takes the tray to the teapoy between two old cane chairs in the balcony, and shakes the Sunday newspaper open.

Five rinses and multiple wrings later, the kitchen towels still release cloudy water. I mop the floor and wipe under the stove again. Burnt milk is a nasty give-away; every time I use the stove today, everyone will know.

I reheat the coffee, and carry my cup to the balcony. Shekar has already left, dressed in his Sunday morning best: khaki pants, olive green shirt, brown baseball cap—though most of us have no clue how baseball is played, sneakers, and two pairs of binoculars. Last week, Diya, the single mother who lives in the building across the road introduced herself at the vegetable market and thanked me for the use of my pair. I’d no idea Shekar takes them for her.

Three techie couples dressed in greens and browns greet Shekar at our building gate with high fives. After sun-less weekdays of slog over their laptops, these youngsters run or cycle – in fluorescent gear marketed by the best in the world – on the fringes of busy roads. After Shekar’s passionate speech during the New Year celebrations of our apartment complex, they armed themselves with binoculars and Salim Ali’s, The Book of Indian Birds, and joined him on Sunday mornings. I’ve given Sunday morning walks a miss.

Call me naïve or stupid, but when Shekar asked me if he could join me on my walks last January, I really believed we were rebuilding bridges. He referred to the egret on the buffalo’s back as ‘duck,’ and was astonished to learn the ‘parrots’ squawking in the guava tree were parakeets. Over the year he learned the name of every bird I stopped to watch. Once home, he researched and updated his new blog. My sister chanced upon it and called to ask, among other things, if Shekar’s new hobby involved only birds of the feathered kind. Afterwards she remembered to laugh and assure me she’d been joking. I’ve realised in my twenty-five years of marriage there are myriad ways of framing that question.

When Shekar refused to see how unwise it was to publicise the green pocket, I resumed my walks alone, taking my old route through a goatherds’ settlement. Luckily, I’d never trusted the fragile friendship between us enough to take him there. And so my secret remained – mine.

I’ve counted twelve adults in Shekar’s bird watching group, and there are rumours he’ll start a winter camp for kids and teens. How much longer before a signboard pops up, and hordes of noisy families descend to gawk at the birds? The nests will empty, and the birds will remain only in blog posts and the techies’ SD cards. But he’s resourceful; he has started reading about butterflies and trees.

I promised my third year chemistry honours students I’d be back in a few minutes when the peon interrupted my lecture on acyclic stereochemistry that afternoon. I never returned. I reached Shekar’s room in the Physics Department unsure what to make of his unusual summons. He had just put in his resignation papers, and sat on short fuse. What was the point staying on, if after twenty years of service, the management readily institutes an investigation based on allegations by three girl students, and pointedly suggest he resign? Shekar wanted to know. I resigned too. And for the first time in my fifteen-year teaching career, I left a syllabus incomplete.

It took us only two months to wind up twenty-five years’ worth of memories in Calcutta, and relocate to Mysore. Those months will remain the only time in my life I was relieved that our son, Vikrant, lived so far away.

Vikrant claims he chose to study Japanese because ‘all through his childhood we’d explained the principles of physics and chemistry in daily life to puke point.’ Did mathematics, biology, statistics and law also bring about nausea? Shekar had shouted. Vikrant replied he was thankful blinkered vision wasn’t hereditary.

In the initial photos Vikrant e-mailed us, we saw cherry blossoms and buildings in his university campus in Tokyo. Now we see him with his girlfriend, Akiko, backpacking through Europe. Five years ago when I sent him pictures of our new neighbourhood in Mysore, he gifted me a pair of binoculars and wrote an encouraging note.

Maybe I should set the facts right. This is no bird sanctuary. Sparrows, robins, rollers, kingfishers, bulbuls, bee-eaters, babblers, tailor birds, mynahs, parakeets, and a whole variety of tiny birds have fled the city to the woody expanse near our apartment block.

The doorbell rings, and I let the maid in. While she works, I bathe and get dressed. I eat a bowl of cornflakes. Shekar breakfasts with his disciples every Sunday. When she leaves, I step out with her and lock the apartment. I’ve three missed calls from the Senior Citizen Day Care Centre where I volunteer from 11 am to 5 pm every day. My cellphone rings again. The centre is closed today. One of the patrons has organised a day trip to Brindavan Gardens, and I’m invited too. I mumble excuses.

I unlock the door, and let it bang open. I throw my handbag and hear it strike the plastic water jug on the dining table. It’s childish, but I don’t want to stay home. I kick off my sandals and put on my walking shoes. I take my sling bag with my note book, and stuff a bottle of water inside it. I lock the door again, and walk briskly in the direction of the woody area.

Life at the goatherds’ hamlet has the permanence of a picture postcard. Ten huts are huddled together. An old man sits outside his hut smoking a beedi. He stopped making conversation and grew resentful after he realised I had no influence of any kind to secure government jobs for his sons. The women are always busy with chores. Some smile, while others probably envy an older woman the luxury of sitting under a tree, writing or gazing into the distance. Sprightly chocolate brown goats leave trails of pebbly droppings everywhere.

I sit under the Peepal tree with my notebook and pen. The goatherd’s dog shakes off sand and ambles to sit at my feet. I pluck a blade of grass, tickle his nose, and watch it twitch. Two goats bleat, and engage in playful head-butting. Eucalyptus scented smoke swirls out of chimneys.

I crane my neck to look up when I hear raucous cackling, ‘Kyah, kyah, kyah.’ He’s there, right amongst the shiny heart-shaped leaves, preening his grey wings. Soon he’ll pop figs into his long orange beak and fly into the thicket. On a page in my notebook I’ve written ‘Monogamy of Hornbills,’ under ‘Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).’ I stare at the words till they blur. I’ve grown dafter with age: I envy the female hornbill imprisoned in the cavity of the Gulmohar tree with her chicks, secure in the knowledge her mate will be back. She shed her feathers to make a bed for her chicks; if he doesn’t return, they’ll all die. How does he know that?

Initially I’d followed the hornbill into the thicket with my binoculars. He’d perch outside a walled cavity in the Gulmohar tree, and regurgitate food into a slit in the wall he helped make with droppings and mud. He has probably never missed a day since the beginning of April. I dread coming here one morning and finding them all gone.

Is fidelity hard-wired in the genes, or in the brain? And how do experts confirm the identity of the hornbill pair?  

It can’t be! That’s Shekar’s voice when he’s having a good time. I watch him lead his group towards the huts. They must be stopping by for a drink of water. The old man stubs his beedi and rises to meet them. I stand quickly and sidle behind the wide trunk.

‘Kyah, kyah, kyah,’ chuckles the hornbill as if sensing my dismay. The bird watchers exclaim when they train their binoculars to the tree. The treacherous goatherd talks volubly, gesturing in the direction of the thicket. Shekar strolls casually towards the Peepal tree and looks up. He picks my red notebook lying on the grass and reads the page where the ballpoint pen is clipped. He doesn’t look around for me. He tosses the book back on the grass and strides back to his friends.

‘It’s our lucky day. We can see the monogamy, sorry, the monotony of hornbills.’ Amidst loud guffaws, he repeats the sentence. They exclaim over the absence of the casque on the hornbill’s orange beak. The female has a yellow beak, somebody reads aloud. Can’t we see her, asks another. She won’t be around now because she’ll be doing her duty, Shekar replies.

Much like a goatherd’s herd, they follow Shekar into the thicket. I take my book and leave. I mustn’t worry. It’s now the last week of May, and the nest will be cramped with the grown chicks. If her feathers have come back, she’ll peck away at the wall, and fly to her freedom before the next weekend. Last year, for weeks the couple had held insects to entice the hesitant chicks out of the nest.

The couple stayed together even after the chicks flew away. Why? Why not?

Are there anomalies in the hornbill world?

What drives her to stay without wind and sunshine for sixty days when she knows the wall was never invincible – only made of mud and poop?

What will she do if he finds another mate? Eat figs and be merry, or find herself another too?

It’s time to face my answers.

I call the Senior Citizen Centre to inform them I’m sorry, but I’ve changed my mind. It’s no problem, really. I can reach the Brindavan Gardens on my own.

***

Jyothi Vinod is a writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction. A post-graduate in Electronics and Communication Engineering, she taught undergraduates in Jaipur, Chennai, and Bangalore for about ten years. During a break in 2013, she chased her childhood dream of becoming a published writer, quit her job, and hasn't looked back since.

In the annual Katha short story contests conducted by India Currents, she won second place in 2015 and third in 2016. Three of her stories were selected for anthologies in 2017. Several 'middles', humour and travel articles have been published in Deccan Herald. Her short stories have appeared in Good Housekeeping India, Femina, Woman’s Era, Spark, Reading Hour, Open Road Review, DWL-Papercuts, and India Currents.

Jyothi lives in Bangalore with her family, and likes books, travelling, birds, and trees.