Saturday, July 26, 2014

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: The Stories

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction, 2014
The Shortlist

Congratulations to the winners and to the writers on the DNA-Out Print Short Fiction shortlist.
Links to the winning stories below and at DNA's Just Before Monday.
Links to shortlisted stories below and on DNA Online. Search for the author name to find the story!

Shruthi Rao
Tanuj Solanki
Deepak Unnikrishnan
Monika Pant
Ajay Patri
Manoshij Banerjee
Garima Goel
Sudha Mathew
Kulpreet Yadav
Hema Raman
Sanchari B
Sreejith Sukumaran
Nabina Das
Fehmida Zakeer
Mohit Parikh
Kennith Rosario
Gaurav Deka
K Sahasranaman
Rachna Kiri

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: SHRUTHI RAO

The Awakening
Shruthi Rao

One morning, Venkatesh decided to wear his wife's salwar-kurta.

One moment saw him sitting on the sofa, reading the newspaper, and the next moment, he was standing in front of his wife's cupboard, fingering her clothes.

A purple set caught his eye, the colour of the smoky blossoms of the jacaranda across the road. He took out the salwar, kurta and dupatta from the almirah and laid them out on the bed, one next to another. The dupatta was particularly pretty, like the carpet the purple flowers made on the ground before the morning traffic crushed them into the tarmac. 

Venkatesh took off his t-shirt and dhoti. He picked up the salwar first, and put it on. This was like his drawstring pyjamas, except that it was of a soft material that tickled his thighs. Then he slipped the kurta over his head and looked at his own reflection in the full-length mirror on the almirah. It was longer than his khadi kurta. This kurta's neck was round and large. His clavicle stuck out.  And the dress hung loose on him as if from a coat hanger. He frowned before he remembered. Of course, he had no breasts. He picked up the dupatta and held it in front of him like he had seen his wife do, and threw either end over each shoulder. The middle bunched up over his chest, and he was satisfied. The lack of breasts wasn't so obvious now. But his chest hair was visible, and he pulled the neckline upwards, and had a flash of memory of his wife doing the same thing when she thought her cleavage was showing.

He went back to the living room, sat on the sofa and reached for the newspaper. The dupatta slipped off his shoulder. He adjusted it and tried to read.  But the material of the dress distracted him. It was soft and smooth and he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. He stroked his own thigh, and noticed how bony it was compared to his wife's.

His fingers found a pink flower on the kurta, and he ran them over it, following the lines of the thread and seeing for the first time the delicate and intricate work that went into embroidery. He got up and went to the mirror again, and turned this way and that, admiring the dress, and himself in it. He felt at home in it. No tightness at the crotch. The sleeves didn't dig into his armpits. And the fall of the dupatta was particularly seductive.

Venkatesh toasted bread and scrambled some eggs for breakfast, and made himself a cup of coffee. The dupatta kept slipping off, and so he took it off and hung it on the kitchen towel stand while he cooked. He ate breakfast looking at his reflection in the glass door of the microwave oven.

An hour passed, and Venkatesh looked at his watch and grimaced. It was time for him to leave for his in-laws' place for the obligatory Sunday lunch. His wife would be there for two more months, until the baby turned six months old, and then she would come back home. Until then, he would have to go every week to see his wife and son. Otherwise, eyebrows would be raised. People would ask why the son-in-law didn't come to see his family. So he would have to go, and hold his child. He would have to grin and bear the gushes and the comments about how much the baby looked like the father. And he would have to tolerate the excessive obsequiousness and feeding from his parents-in-law.

Venkatesh went to the bedroom to change.  He chose a clean, ironed shirt and a pair of trousers, and laid them out on the bed. He stared at them for a while, and then put them back into the almirah. It made no sense to him, changing out of those comfortable clothes. 

He picked up his wallet and the keys of his bike, and automatically felt for a pocket in the kurta. There was none. He opened his wife's almirah again and found a handbag. He put the wallet and key into the handbag, and just because there was more space in it, he put in a handkerchief too.

As he bent to put on his shoes, he saw how incongruous they looked with the salwar-kurta, and considered wearing his sandals. They were marginally better, but since he had already gone this far ... he chose a pair of his wife's open-toed sandals and squeezed his feet into them. His toes touched the floor in the front, but he didn't mind. They felt right. 

Venkatesh walked out of the house, slightly self-conscious, and he half-wished, half-feared that somebody would see him. But there was nobody around. He hung the handbag on the bike handle and put the helmet on his head. He straddled the motorbike, started it, and cruised out of the gate.  

The roads were comparatively empty. The wind caught the dupatta, and it fluttered behind him in the wind. He laughed loudly, wildly. What a glorious feeling! He surged forward, the wind ruffling his loose clothes, the dupatta like Superman's cape. 

As he parked the motorbike outside the gate of his in-laws' home, he felt the first twinge of hesitation. But only for a moment.

He went in and remembered to knock at the door and not ring the bell, in case the baby was sleeping. There was a bustle inside in response to his knock, voices raised in expectation.  He adjusted his dupatta, and straightened his shoulders.

His mother-in-law opened the door with a smile, and then immediately, her jaw dropped. She stepped aside without a word, and Venkatesh entered. His father-in-law had been in the process of getting up from the sofa, and he froze, his bottom poised a few inches above the seat. But his old legs couldn't balance him for long in that position and he plonked back on the sofa. 

Venkatesh sat down nonchalantly on the single-seater sofa that was his by unsaid understanding whenever he was visiting. He placed the handbag on the side table next to him, and adjusted his dupatta as he sat, so that he wouldn't sit on it.

His wife came out of a room, all smiles. She looked at him and gave a start, as if somebody had jumped out from a corner and said ‘boo’. She gave a thin laugh, and made a questioning gesture with her hands. When she saw no mirth on Venkatesh's face, she froze, her face registering puzzlement, shock and then finally, understanding. 

She backed into the room, and came out clutching the baby to her bosom, as if Venkatesh were a monster and she was protecting the baby from him.  As if everything was a dream, and she needed to hold her baby to assure herself that he, at least, was real.  As if she knew that things would never be the same again, and she needed the support of her baby to withstand the change. 

There was no conversation. Just a vague babbling by his in-laws, and hesitant questions about what the joke was.

Was it a prank? A dare? His father-in-law offered Venkatesh his own clothes to change into. But Venkatesh ignored him.

Then his wife found her voice. ‘Please change,’ she said, a steeliness in her voice that Venkatesh didn't know existed. ‘Please change, now.’

‘No,’ said Venkatesh.

‘Change, right now,’ she repeated, but Venkatesh shook his head. ‘If this is the welcome I get,’ he said, ‘I'm leaving.’

‘You're not going out like that again,’ said his wife, her voice hardly audible.

Venkatesh stood up, and made as if to leave. His father-in-law blocked his path, muttering soothing appeasements, touching his forehead as if checking for his temperature, but Venkatesh brushed him aside.

‘If my own wife doesn't understand my wish to wear comfortable clothes, then I can't hope for anything else,’ he said.

‘Your pyjama-kurta is as comfortable,’ said his wife, her chest heaving, barely able to speak. ‘Why women's clothes?’

‘If women can wear men's clothes, why not the other way round?’

‘Oh God, he's gone crazy!’ She sank into a chair.

Venkatesh didn't answer. He went to the door, and paused. His heart was bursting. With fear, with excitement, with exhilaration, with the knowledge of the enormity of the moment. If he turned and admitted to a moment of craziness, and blamed the heat for it, the three people in the room would forgive him immediately and the matter wouldn't be mentioned ever again. And life would go back to normal. 

But if he stepped out, he would be venturing into the unknown. He would be leaving behind life as he knew it.

His wife sensed his hesitation. She made a move towards him, held the child out to him, as if to remind him of the stakes.

But Venkatesh knew that he couldn't go back now. He didn't know what compelled him to do this in the first place, but the moment he stepped out of his home dressed in his wife's clothes, the wheels had been set in motion. He was now a part of something greater than him, something he didn't quite understand, something inevitable. It didn't seem like he had a choice any more.

Venkatesh opened the door, and stepped out.

Shruthi Rao is a writer of short fiction and non-fiction. A post-graduate in Energy Engineering, she worked in the IT industry for a few years. During a break that she took from work to care for her child, she discovered that all she wanted to do was write. She quit her job, and hasn't looked back since. 

Several of her stories have won awards (Sunday Herald Short Story Award (twice), Unisun-Reliance TimeOut fiction for children contest, Tagore-O’Henry short story contest.) An award-winning children’s story was converted into a picture book, The Story Lady, by Unisun Publications. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Open Road Review, Earthen Lamp Journal, Papercuts and eFiction India, and have been included in print and online anthologies such as Helter Skelter New Writing, Two is Company and Across the Ages. Her articles on travel, education, lifestyle and parenting have appeared in Mint Lounge, Deccan HeraldThe HinduComplete Wellbeing and Women’s Web. She is also involved in developing content for children's books, and translates from Kannada to English.

Shruthi lives in Bangalore with her family, and likes books, food, and trees.

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: TANUJ SOLANKI

The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh
Tanuj Solanki

The never-to-be-famous writer Dilip Singh died of his own hand in the winter of two thousand and six. He was twenty-nine. His mother returned from her grocery rounds on the unfortunate day of his death and found him hanging from the ceiling fan, one of her plain widow’s saris wrapped tightly around his strained neck. In the hope that her son still had some life in him, she drew a chair (the same chair that Dilip had toppled earlier) beneath his feet and mounted another to untie the noose. Failing to do that, she noticed the loosened plaster around the hook that held the ceiling fan, and in her panic she began to pull the body downward. Some plaster and cement fell on her face, but the body could not be set free. It never occurred to her that had she managed to free it, the heavy ceiling fan, which was from an era when it was made of metal, would have crushed them both.

Dilip’s choice wasn’t something that the circumstances, or my understanding of them, added up to. To say that he was a writer is not to say much, for the label is a problematic one. He had started writing when he was twenty-three. He wrote poems initially, and the only people who ever read or heard these were his close friends, who did so only reluctantly, for the poems spoke of a coming apocalypse or a love long lost or the inescapable misery of life, and Dilip’s friends, all as young as he was, could not find in them anything to connect with. The more sensitive ones liked to point out that Dilip’s poems were dishonest, for he had himself never experienced anything traumatic, and so when he talked of ‘grey skies that gave out a grey piss’, or of ‘love’s half-life’, or of ‘a beggar’s prayers for no rains that season’, he sounded phony. I was a friend of Dilip’s, probably closer to him than the others, and I too had similar feelings about his early poetry. In one-to-one conversations I would ask him where he was getting his ideas from. His answers were never satisfactory. He would say that a poet’s primary condition is to be ever-sentient of death, or that a poet who doesn’t know love’s loss is not a poet, or that misery is the automobile that rams us into the wall of death, et cetera. With hindsight, I have come to understand that phase as one where he was struggling to find his feet in the quagmire that is literature. I also suspect that it was all under the duress of some broken love affair that none of his friends had ever been aware of.

But Dilip and his work changed. Between two thousand and one and four he was excited about writing prose poems of the sort where a collection of seemingly disparate paragraphs hint at an elusive core (these might be his words), and although he continued to write of death and misery and betrayal, his work now combined a sense of privacy with all that. The prose poems registered in one’s heart as having been written by a suffering individual. They had in them the scratches of defeat, a defeat not felt or read or imagined, but a defeat experienced in the real. Perhaps this is an effect that he created by simply turning to a first person voice that was more nuanced than his earlier voices. For example, the grey sky did not give out a grey piss any more. It went like this: ‘After it rained, I walked on the road looking down, but the vision didn’t change even if I looked up to the sky. Everything was the colour of my mind.’

The reasons of this apparent melancholy still escaped me. I tried to talk about it, which was easier now as Dilip was far less obnoxious than he had been earlier. We sat on the seafront at Marine Drive on many occasions, where he would read his latest work to me. Even though the subject of his writing was almost always too serious, I assumed he was happy, for he did give off a certain confidence that stemmed from the improvement in his writing. Conversely, he told me that the grave nature of what he wrote about surprised him as well, and might just be a by-product of the grave voices of the writers that he was reading in those days. I remember how this statement had calmed me, and also how honest it had seemed to me, simply because it had in it the elements of a confession. Whether his work of that time could be called original or not, I do not know. Although I do feel sad that no one will ever be able to give an authoritative answer. The little that I have quoted is from what I have remembered over the years.

And then, almost as if out of a perverse logic, Dilip was struck by real pain: his father died of a massive heart failure. I and other friends went to Dilip’s house to express our condolences. There I saw Dilip, standing in a corner of the living room where he would eventually end his life. He looked stunned rather than distraught. He did not utter a single word to any of us, and so we all considered it better to leave and allow the family to grieve for their loss.

Two weeks later I received a phone call from him. He sounded excited, which confused me. He told me that he had written a large prose poem that a magazine of national circulation had decided to publish in their upcoming issue. The impropriety of such a reaction only two weeks after losing a father bothered me, but I nevertheless congratulated Dilip wholeheartedly. He wanted me to meet him at Marine Drive the next day, so that he could read this poem to me. I agreed.

The poem was about a ten year old boy who had a world of his own, a lush strange world full of the most esoteric notions. It was difficult to understand, not merely because of the complexities of language. Then there came a revelatory passage, in which the child watches his father hit his mother with a rod, and then a sequence where the mother shows the mark of that violence to the child. The details of the mother baring her thigh to the child to show him the mark were unnerving. Without a doubt, this was a personal experience, although the end, where the child buries that rod under a tree, might have been fabricated. Initially, after Dilip had finished reading, I was hesitant to show any reaction at all. But then I told him that what he had written seemed to me like something that had happened to him. Dilip grew silent and stared at the horizon for what seemed a long time. When we resumed talking it was on an entirely different topic, and then we got up and went to a nearby café to have some cold coffee. The poem was deliberately forgotten. Although I remember how in the taxi ride back home that day, I had thought of it as a veritable masterpiece.

Dilip called me a couple of days later. It was quite late in the night, and I could only hear an incoherent blabbering from the other side. It was as if he was heavily intoxicated, which was strange because I knew that Dilip never drank. I could not think of anything better to do than to cut the call and reach out to him later. Next morning, when I visited Dilip’s house on my way to work, his mother told me that he had left the previous night. He has gone to the Himalayas for some time, she said, and also added something about how disturbed he had been since his father’s demise. I was confused, but then I shrugged my shoulders and got on with my life. What else could I do?

I did, of course, retain some interest in my friend, and so the next month I got a copy of the magazine where his work should have been published. It was not there! My confusion regarding him was now mixed with guilt, for I thought that maybe he chose not to publish the poem because I had found it to be so personal. I rang his house, but his mother told me that he had still not returned. She had no contact number or address, and had no clue about the poem due to be published in the magazine. For a while I wondered if Dilip had lied to me about being accepted for publication. But why would he do that? To make me view his poem with respect, with approval? It made me ask questions of myself: had I thought of the poem as a masterpiece because it was due for publication? This would mean that Dilip had conned me, and that I had conned myself too. Now I wasn’t even sure if his father had really hit his mother with an iron rod. And if that wasn’t true, was the poem then a masterpiece because it had appeared so real and personal?

It was six more months before Dilip finally returned to Bombay – with a large beard and webby eyes. He had decided to be jobless, he told me on our first meeting; apparently his father had left behind a large sum of insurance money. We got into the habit of meeting at Marine Drive every Saturday evening, where he would read some of his writings to me. I kept my distance emotionally and never broached the topic of the unpublished poem. He was writing short stories now, short stories that seldom had more than two characters who met each other for the first and the last time inside the story. Either he never sought publication or was never accepted by anyone. I felt that he didn’t have anything substantial to write about, and was therefore writing about the transitory nature of human encounters, how we grow intimate with strangers and then part without much ado. While this template persisted in general, the settings and the tones and the timelines changed dramatically from story to story, and the intensity of the connection that the two characters felt for each other also varied substantially. Sometimes there would be a third party, or an object or an idea that was important to both the characters. As weeks passed, as those weeks became months, September October November, as life settled into a routine for me and probably also for Dilip, I began to enjoy these weekly rendezvous and came to be excited about knowing the identities of the two strangers that my friend would set in a story next. And then that Friday morning in late December – I was at work, probably toiling on a presentation or a spreadsheet. There was a tiny suicide note, in which he blamed himself and nobody else. In the days that followed, I took it upon myself to comfort his mother as much as I could. I would visit her every other day. It was in one of these meetings that she narrated her struggle with Dilip’s strangulated body. She eventually came to tell me that Dilip had burnt all his writing before hanging himself. She told me that she had noticed flakes of ash drifting on the living room floor before she had looked up to find her son. Then she cried, and then I cried, and the crying went on till it exhausted itself, at which point the silence became so oppressive that I ran out of the house.

Tanuj Solanki is a fiction writer based in Bombay, India. His work has been published in large and small magazine, such as The CaravanOut of Print, netherelimae, and others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one of his stories featured in wigleaf magazine's list of best online fiction 2012. You can write to him at . His twitter handle is @tanujsolanki .