Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: THE STORIES



We are proud to present the ten stories workshopped by Out of Print at the Literature platform of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021.

The theme of the workshop was Love and Plurality. We asked writers for stories that explored love with infinite possibility, love across gender, language, community and religion, love in any and all of its shapes and forms. There was a wide and wonderful range of submissions.

The ten stories were selected from somewhere close to 200 submissions by the Out of Print team, Indira Chandrasekhar, Vandana Devi and Zui Kumar-Reddy, who also led the workshop.

The selected stories explore love in complex ways, engaging with the idea of plurality with an encouraging openness and range. It was a fine experience to work with them.

The workshopping process that involved both critiquing by the workshop leaders, and a peer review engagement that allowed writers to analyse and craft their stories in response.

Please read the stories by clicking on the story names.

Sophia Naz                 The Sea and the Cemetery 

Megha Nayar                 A Friendly Note to the Woman My Husband Is Dating 

Himangshu Dutta         His Father's Disease 

K Vaishali                         Floral Patterns 

Tanvi Chowdhary         Noora

Riya Mehta                 It Rains Rainbows in the Big City
Rebecca Vedavathy         Blood Oranges 

Ayushi Aruna Agarwal Behind the Glass 

Gitanjali Joshua                 Frog Totem 

Priya Sood                 The Spare Room 

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: SOPHIA NAZ

The Sea and the Cemetery 

Sophia Naz

Saira put down her pen, crumpling her writing into a ball and lobbing it across into the wastebasket. ‘Drivel’ she muttered, ’pure hackneyed crap’. She longed to conjure up worlds as visceral as Nin’s houseboat on the Seine but abstraction kept creeping in. If her mother was alive, she would have called it seelun; was there an English work for it? Sea-mold? It made everything rot. Perhaps the only way was to write herself into the story.


Hanging on at the fringes of the hive, their upside down lives nocturnal as bats, were subclans of beggars, destitutes, prostitutes, gamblers, addicts, mentally ill, mildly suicidal and moonshine-drunk racers of donkey carts, all flocking on Thursday nights to the seaside shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, who according to legend, still protected Karachi from cyclones some seven centuries after his death. For them, the Sea and the Saint were synonymous, potent opiates offering brief respite from airless hive cells plagued by daily power outages and toxic incense of burning trash. 

That day Saira had felt the grip of an inchoate longing pulling at her, as surely as if there was a real fist bunching up the loose fabric of her kurta at the breastbone and dragging her out of the apartment. It was not yet May but the heat was stifling, exacerbated by the throttling of the wetlands that accompanied each new land reclamation. The Sea of her childhood was an old woman’s hand, soft with mottled blue veins from which leapt the thin cursive of feathery grasses punctuated by clouds of white egrets and yellow lapwings. Karachi rested on the palm of the Indus delta. Unlike Lahore which boasted a Delhi Gate and Delhi which boasted a Lahore Gate, its urban radius began at the Khara-Dar, or Salt-Gate at its southern sea-edge and Mitha-Dar or Sweet-Gate where the Lyari river once flowed with life giving fresh water. Lyari rhymed with pyari; beloved, holding layer and lyre and lori, or lullaby in the lapping of its sediment rich waters.

Both gates had been torn down by the British when they conquered Sindh in 1860. All traces of them had been long obliterated but the names still stuck, like a piece of flesh-pink gum on the underside of a heavy jackboot. Since then the thrust of the City had been unrelentingly upward. Phalluses rose up as clock towers, bell towers and church spires. The conquerors marked their territory in edifices of piss colored sandstone. A classic case of subtext drowning out the message, thought Saira as she swerved through the chaos of auto rickshaws, minibuses, pedestrians and dangerously overloaded trucks at the Teen Talwar roundabout. All the traffic was trying to squeeze into a narrow orifice of road leading to Clifton Beach at the same time and nothing was moving. An old woman with her fingers repeatedly pointing to her mouth was at her left window and a youngish girl, perhaps thirteen, her daughter or granddaughter echoing the motion at her right. Saira sighed and reached in for loose change, taking care to only open the window a crack as she slipped them each a ten rupee note. 

A long time ago, prior to muscular stone, brick and concrete, before acquiring the manacles and the moniker of maleness, in other words before the many-headed entity known as the City; there was a She, a fisher village named Mai Kolachi; that old woman had gone underground a long time ago. Swept aside, pushed over, dismantled, bulldozed yet somehow clinging on like a marooned banyan root in a crack of sidewalk. The denizens of the new City were as tenacious as their motherly forebears. The last time Saira had come to Seaview the police had been busy demolishing so-called ‘illegal food stalls’ yet here they were again, row upon row doing brisk business all along the beachfront. Realising she was thirsty, she parked her car in the McDonalds lot, pressed a damp fifty rupee note into the attendant’s hands and hopped onto the low concrete sea wall to get some coconut water at the nearest shack. 

The late sunlight was starting to soften but she still kept her sunglasses on inside the shade of the flimsy blue tarp, barely anchored by bamboo poles and fraying polythene sandbags. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she noticed a man sitting in a plastic chair scooping out morsels of soft white coconut flesh and slipping it between his lips like tiny fish. A man so dark he appeared to be almost indigo. He could have been Sheedi but his hair was straight and silky. He was intent on extracting every last morsel from the coconut and did not look up when Saira sat down in the chair next to him. This itself was an anomaly in an environment where navigating the minefield of the male gaze was a daily hassle. Here it seemed as if he was the one avoiding eye contact. Saira stole a sideways glance. He was dressed in white, a linen shirt and pants. The shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows revealing prominent veins and long elegant fingers. If she spoke to him would he assume the stance and manner of every other male out to trap a female fly?

She was pondering this question when the stranger’s phone rang and he answered in rapid French. Perhaps he is Tunisian or Moroccan she thought to herself. When he got off the phone and she sensed that he was about to leave she finally asked. ‘Are you from North Africa?’ The man smiled slyly, ‘No, actually I am from Baluchistan.’ Saira could tell that the surprise in her face was an expression he had become accustomed to. ‘But I was brought up in Paris from the age of five. A French couple adopted me through a UN program.’ ‘A French speaking Baluchi! So how long have you been back?’ ‘About a year. I wanted to find my birth family as soon as my French parents told me where I really came from at the age of thirteen but they insisted I finish University first. Would you like to walk? I think these people want our chairs.’ 

The Sun was a blotchy pomegranate, the kind that sold for two hundred rupees a pop at fancy Defence Market fruit stalls. Swarms of people were crowding the beach. They walked side by side, the distance between them close enough that occasionally a gaggle of young men would make rude remarks in passing. ‘So did you find your birth family? What was that like?’ ‘To be honest it was very disappointing, all they were really interested in was money. I suppose I should have expected that but it still hurt.’ So what did you study in University?’ ‘Linguistics, philosophy and French literature, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Sartre, Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir, I am taking a gap year before I go back to the Sorbonne for my Masters. Do you always wear those dark glasses? The sun is going down. I would like to see your eyes before it does.’ Saira blushed, ‘I wear glasses to avoid eye contact with random men who harass me on the street, and it also allows me to scope them out without being noticed’ ‘I see, and were you scoping me out just now?’ Saira felt a warm quiver in her belly. ‘Perhaps’ ‘That’s refreshing, because mostly women have ignored me since I came here, I know it’s because I’m dark. It’s ironic, I was used to the racism in France and thought I would come back and find a sense of belonging here but instead one of the first slurs I heard was habshi, which brought me full circle back to the banlieues outside Paris where everyone mistook me for North African'' ‘I'm sorry it’s been such a disappointment. Once upon a time there used to be a Spring festival called Basant, people used to celebrate its advent by flying kites. It was a tradition to coat the strings with ground glass to cut down a rival’s kite. Basant has long been banned but the ground glass just migrated to people’s tongues’ They paused for a moment to admire the slow melting pomegranate sun as it disappeared, juice and dribble staining the sky. Saira realised she hadn’t thought to ask his name. As if reading her mind he turned away from the sunset and looked at her. ‘My given name is Bilal but everyone calls me Bijou, of course here they pronounce it Beeju,’ he laughed ‘What’s your name?’

Saira wondered if she should give her real name and decided against it. ‘My name’s Uljhana, Uljhana Zulf’ ‘What does that mean? My Urdu is threadbare.’ ‘Not going to tell you,’ she teased, ‘Not yet.‘ ‘A woman of mystery and a flaneuse to boot! Would mademoiselle like to ride a camel with me?’ She knew the camel ride was an excuse for Bijou to place his body in contact with hers and the thought filled her with erotic anticipation. He hailed the nearest camel driver and after a brief haggle they mounted the dromedary. As the camel rose, Bijou took her generous dupatta and wrapped it around both of them like a shawl then slid one arm around her waist in a slow sensuous snake like motion. ‘Yes?’ He breathed the question into her ear, Saira replied by taking his hand in hers; exploring the delta of its palm and the long riverine fingers that flowed from it. ‘The Sheedis would welcome you as one of their own, they’re migrants from Africa that settled here centuries ago. Visit Manghopir during their annual festival, there’s nothing like it, the ‘pir’ is an ancient crocodile, he’s fed raw meat by his devotees!’

‘Do you play an instrument?’ she asked ‘Several, but I have a favorite’ he whispered, bringing his fingers to his mouth, wetting them and slipping adroitly under the waistband of her shalwar. His fingers found the nub of her clit and began to stroke in the manner of a pilgrim circling a shrine, quickening his pace as she began to swell and silken. With his other hand Bijou reached in under her bra, fingers grazing one and then the other nipple. The hump of the camel between her legs adding to the sweet sensation, Saira gripped the swaying sides. A knot of pleasure was steadily tightening within her, fed by the electric tension of the precarious situation. She felt the wave crest, then break, in little electric sparks. The cloth saddle beneath her was wet. Bijou slipped his fingers out of her and slid them in his mouth. ‘You are a cat made out of electricity’ he whispered in her ear, ‘When can I get more?’ Before she could reply the camel driver stopped and ordered his animal to sit. The ride was over. ‘I must go home, it’s getting late and my father will get worried.’ Bijou reached into his wallet and took out a card. It read, in French ‘Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune’ - Charles Baudelaire, Fleurs du Mal. On the other side, below Alliance Francaise Karachi, it said, simply, Bilal Marri, French Instructor and below that a cell number. 

‘You can find me at the Alliance on Wednesdays. Private lessons too, I hope we can meet again soon!’

‘Thank you for the ride. I enjoyed it very much, à bientôt! ‘She began walking away from him, back to the parking lot. ‘But wait! I still haven’t seen your eyes!’ Saira turned back and answered without removing her sunglasses, ‘The moon’s just a cold dead rock, it’s people that make you homeless’ before disappearing into the night.

When Saira awoke the predawn sky was a freshly laid egg; daybreak was yet to usher in a yellow yolk of sun and frying frayed nerves. On her bedside table a large conch shell, emblem of her beloved sea, sat on top of an article about Bilal Marri. Next to it was her notebook in which an imaginary encounter with the handsome Baluchi Frenchman had taken her on a magical implausible ecstatic camel ride.

Saira’s home was an apartment on the fifteenth floor of Rimpa Plaza in the once coveted, now passé downtown. Her father had bought it as an investment during one of many real estate booms but they had been forced to move in hurriedly after their old apartment building adjacent to the Clifton Bridge collapsed during a particularly heavy monsoon killing seventy-four people including Saira’s mother. Death and the rains came so suddenly out of the blue, the last glimpse Saira had of her mother was her corpulent figure gently snoring as she took her daily siesta, she remembered closing the bedroom door softly so as not to wake her as she snuck out to grab an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins just down the street. 

What happened next was an odd mixture of soft and hard sensations. Screams sharp as an avalanche of knives. Panic in the pounding rain and then an odd pause, as if a giant was taking a breath before the next onslaught. A jumbled rubble mountain jigsaw puzzle of bewildering juxtapositions. LPG canisters next to a mangled bangled arm next to a hulk of jagged concrete and rebar next to a ribboned head, the whole human-animal-vegetable-mineral man-made mess a massive indigestible morsel. If an asteroid collided with Earth this is what everything would look like, was Saira’s one lucid thought before she descended into a shocked daze that would last for hours.

It took a week to recover the bodies. All that remained of Saira’s mother when they finally dug her out of the rubble mountain was a vague pulp, too broken for the ritual washing, they just cocooned her in muslin and buried her in raw earth, planting frangipani in lieu of a headstone. It was nightfall by the time they returned from the graveyard. All the plots in the city proper had been taken and on such short notice the closest ‘dou gaz zameen’ or two handspans of burial ground was more than eighty kilometers away in the scrublands beyond Malir, far north of her mother’s beloved Abdullah Shah Ghazi Shrine. The morning papers were filled with lurid headlines of the catastrophe; buried almost as a footnote among the small print was the detail that the builder’s whereabouts were unknown.

Buried also in the recesses of Saira’s purse for almost a month was a letter from Stony Brook University. It had arrived on the morning of the calamity. Saira had not wanted to open it until her father came home, had wanted to see the joy in his eyes if it was an acceptance and wanted the solace of his shoulders if it was a rejection. Now it was the opposite, she knew acceptance would mean separation from her father, sending him into a dangerous tailspin. On the other hand, if she didn’t go, knowing she had a scholarship, the graveyard of possibilities would haunt her forever. Saira felt envious of Bijou, going back to the Sorbonne, but then there was the loneliness so firmly entrenched in his eyes. 

Her mother had possessed an extraordinary talent at origami. She would close her eyes while folding paper into amazing delicate shapes. Irises, rabbits, antelopes and that enduring symbol of freedom, the crane, magically appeared out of the self-imposed blindness of her birthing hands. When Saira was eight years old her mother had taught her how to fold a sheet of paper into a boat in this tactile way. It was time. Saira closed her eyes, took a deep breath, reached into her purse and folded the unread letter into a boat. The tide was just going out. She knew a place by the big rocks to the east of the beach where the current was strong. The boat bobbed around for a while then began drifting out to sea. Saira watched it disappear into the horizon before heading back into the teeming.


Sophia Naz is a poet, author, editor and translator. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize; in 2016 for creative nonfiction and in 2018 for poetry.  Her work features  in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Singing In The Dark, Meridian, Poetry At Sangam, Poetry International Rotterdam, The Adirondack Review, The Wire, Chicago Quarterly Review, Blaze Vox, Scroll, The Daily O, Cafe Dissensus, RAIOT, Ideas And Futures, Chapati Mystery, Guftugu, Pratik, Gallerie International, Coldnoon, VAYAVYA, The Bangalore Review, Madras Courier, etc. She is the author of three poetry collections; Peripheries, Pointillism, Date Palms, and Shehnaz, a biography. Open Zero, her fourth poetry collection, will be published from Yoda Press in 2021. Her site is

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: MEGHA NAYAR

A Friendly Note to My Husband’s Girlfriend

Megha Nayar

Hey! Hasn’t it been a while since you guys last met? I can tell, because today is the third day my our man is going without a bath. When he doesn’t have the incentive of meeting you, he doesn’t particularly care for how he looks or smells. I see him sitting at his desk right now, watching something on his phone and scratching the back of his neck with a ball-point pen. I can tell that his body needs a good rinsing. If he doesn’t make it to the shower by tonight, he is going to stink like spoiled cabbage. Even our dog – our geriatric Yoda with his predisposition for atomic farts – smells like roses compared to my unwashed husband. 

Did you two have a fight last weekend? I could tell from the look on his face when he got home that something was wrong. Having known this guy for almost a decade, I deduced that you must have clashed with him on something – possibly voiced a contrarian opinion or pointed out a miscalculation – and that must have ticked him off. If there is one thing this man hates more than showering, it is being disagreed with. He’s very Virgo that way. He won’t learn his lessons from anything other than catastrophic failure. Advice is a mortal enemy, even if (and especially if) it comes from his wife. Or, as in this case, his lover. 

You might find it comforting to know that he is petulant and snappish with everyone, not just with you. The other day, he got miffed when I reminded him that he was late with his Income-Tax returns. Yesterday, he took offence when his mother pointed out, over a video call, that his belly has started to protrude. Last week, he lost his composure when a client asked him to guarantee the accuracy of his export timeline. Anger and exasperation are second nature to this man. He wounds quickly and easily. It is a good thing his wounds are not physically visible, else he would be covered in scabs. 

I would have written this little note to you last week itself, had I not been suffering one of his moods. I do not know exactly what triggered it but I suspect he got out of bed on Monday morning at an ill-omened hour. The whole week went downhill thereafter. He was surly, he yelled at some associates in a meeting (and, I’m told, got yelled at right back), and eventually lost an important client to misplaced rage. Back home in the evening, he clashed with me on the need for using methi seeds in matar paneer, and when I insisted that my recipe was perfectly legit, he spent an hour describing all the ways I have blighted his life. 

Anyway, the point of this note is not to frighten but to enlighten you. Considering we are co-partnering this man now, let me share with you two techniques that I have found extremely useful, over the years, in tackling his whims. 

The first is mute resignation. Whenever you sense that he’s walking into a disaster – be it a bad hire for the office or an impulse purchase of pink pants – just nod your head thoughtfully, look sombre, and desist from commenting. Do not react, even when you know he’s headed for a free fall. If he prods you by asking questions, say nothing and fake-smile. He will know, from the look on your face, that you don’t quite approve of his plans. And yet he will not be able to take offence, since you wouldn’t technically have said anything. Argument averted.
The second method I use is called the B, not A technique. I learnt in the early years of our marriage that if you want this man to agree with you on something – say a restaurant, or a travel destination – you suggest something entirely antithetical. So, if you’re in the mood to watch a breezy sitcom, you propose The Conjuring instead. Basically, you give him an opportunity to say No, because No is his favourite word. It makes him feel powerful, like he’s steering the relationship. He will promptly disagree with you and suggest something contrarian. With any luck, the opposite of a spooky film will be the sitcom of your choice. 

Why am I telling you all this? Seems odd that I’m playing pally with the woman who’s bedding my husband, right? To tell you the truth, I was (obviously) mad at you at first. When I caught a glimpse of your half-naked derrière on his WhatsApp, I wanted to turn up at your doorstep with a hatchet. Like any regular wife, I wanted to grind you to a fine paste and feed you to feral cats. But once my fury subsided and I started thinking straight, I remembered that you weren’t the one I’d exchanged my vows with. In fact, I snooped around a bit and found out that you haven’t exchanged vows with anyone at all, which means you’re technically an untethered bird, free to be as promiscuous as you please. Whether it is morally appropriate for you to date a married man is undoubtedly a pertinent question, but it is much less relevant to me than the question as to why my married man is dating you. 
So, I do not plan to castigate or hound you, especially considering I know what you’ve gotten yourself into. 

Now follows the next question: do I want to confront him

Nope. I could have sent him scurrying to the lawyers long back, considering I found out about your little dalliance a while ago. I’ve had ample opportunity to collect evidence and plan a spectacular showdown. But, I don’t want to. 

The thing is, you haven’t really been intrusive. On the contrary, your arrival has substantially eased my life. You occupy his thoughts and keep him distracted. You compel him to divide his time between you and me. You have access to his body and mind in ways I don’t. All of this makes him feel pretty guilty. Result? In the little time that he spends at home, he treats me better than he ever has. 

He is calmer, quieter. With the exception of last week, we don’t argue as much as we used to. He has stopped badgering me to give up work in order to care for his ailing mother – in fact, he has finally agreed to let me hire a helper. He interrogates me much less than usual, and for shorter spans. Why, just last week, I was able to spend a whole evening with my friends without a single jarring phone call. He simply forgot to cross-check my whereabouts! I must tell you, this has never happened before – not in the eighteen years that I have known this man. It’s as if the weight of culpability is making him turn over a new leaf. 

In a nutshell, you have helped unburden me. 

How long will this tranquillity prevail? I do not know, but I am confident that at some point, he will return to me like a bad penny. He will never want to marry you, because he is a judgemental a**hat. He may well be the philanderer himself but he will deem you an unfit life partner for your decision to affiliate with him. You’re dating him, a married man, today – what if you date someone else as a married woman tomorrow? The thought will wrack him and put you out of the running. He will enjoy his short-lived affair, then promptly crawl back into our cave. 

I’m not looking forward to it. I do not enjoy being the sole recipient of his attention, and I do not want the spotlight again. It is a definite eventuality though, because I am not particularly eager for a separation either. Divorce is a complex beast. It involves reviving a long-buried version of yourself, starting over, and answering awkward questions forever. All of this comes with giant slices of scrutiny and pity, none of which I deserve. I will not put myself through this inconvenience, simply because I am not the reason this marriage is a mess. In the choice between leaving and staying on, the latter is socially and logistically a lot easier. 

So, stay on I will. 

About your tenure I can’t say much, but for now, you can gladly share my throne. I don’t miss my husband’s intrusions and investigations, and I’m glad for the lull of peace you have sent my way, even if it is only temporary. I like to live for the day, so I’ll happily take it. 
In return for my largesse, I have only one request of you – please ask him out on a date today, and on alternate days hereafter. 

It will, at least, compel him to take a shower. 


Megha Nayar was long listed for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. She teaches
English and French for a living, and writes to remain sane. Her work has appeared or is
forthcoming in Bengaluru Review, Gulmohur Quarterly, Bending Genres, Trampset, Variety
Pack, Versification, Burnt Breakfast, Brown Sugar, Rejection Letters, Coven Editions, Marias
at Sampaguitas, Kalopsia Lit Mag, Averse Mag, The Sock Drawer, Cauldron Anthology,
Potato Soup Journal, Interpret Mag, Postscript Mag, Ayaskala Mag and The Daily Drunk
Mag, among others. She tweets at @meghasnatter.

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: HIMANGSHU DUTTA

His Father's Disease

Himangshu Dutta

That morning, when Ranjit walked into their room, his elder brother Junti, and his wife Dalimi, were still sleeping. It was quite early; dawn was yet to break. The newspaper vendor, who usually arrived at six, was late. Ranjit stopped beside Junti and touched the end of the blanket that covered his brother’s feet. For a few moments after, he kept looking at his brother, trying to memorise his face. His only consolation was that, perhaps one day, his brother would lead a happy married life. Perhaps someday, he would have a son too, who would make the family proud. Ranjit looked at Dalimi now. These last few months, she had been like a sister to him, confessing everything, even his brother’s inability to consummate their marriage all these months. Many late nights, he’d heard her taking cold lonely baths, from across his room. How radiant and full-of-life she had looked, that first time when he’d seen her alighting from an auto-rickshaw. How her shy bride’s eyes had greeted and accepted him as part of the family that day. And then that night last week, when she had caught her husband sneaking back from Ranjit’s room, how she had turned to him with disgust in her eyes. He wondered where he’d seen that look before?

Dalimi hadn’t spoken to either of them since. He wanted to wake her, to ask for forgiveness. But she would not understand this step he was taking. She might even call him a coward and try to stop him. He quietly slipped the note which read, ‘Paarile khyoma koriba’ (forgive me if you can), under her side of the mattress. Next, he went to his room and sat by the edge of the bed, putting on the slippers his father would wear on his morning walks before he’d disappeared. He recalled the evening when Deta had run away. He was ten at the time. That evening, his father had put on a clean blue shirt and black trousers to go to the nearby pan-shop to buy cigarettes. While leaving, he had summoned his sons close and planted a kiss on each of their cheeks. Ranjit had kissed him back. Junti, who was fifteen, and didn’t like displays of emotion, had flinched and pulled away, embarrassed. Then their father had left. Disappeared from their lives. For as long as Ranjit could remember, his father had been a lost presence in the house, as if he were searching for some happiness that was elsewhere. But his physical absence now haunted them like an obnoxious companion, wherever they went. By then the neighbours had already started gossiping behind the family’s back. Junti started bunking classes and smoking cigarettes outside seedy cinema halls, to escape the demands and disappointments of their mother. But, Ranjit knew, things were different for her. Now with her sons gone to the neighbourhood school, the days turned lonelier and the evenings stretched on and on.... Sometimes his mother would hold him tightly in her arms and weep. And when he’d ask why Deta had run away, she would smile through her tears, ‘Your father contracted a deadly disease. He ran away so he wouldn’t give it to you two.’ He never told his mother how, while attending the evening prayers in his school those days, some senior section boys would be standing next to him, murmuring amongst themselves, ‘You won’t believe what happened! Can you see that dark boy there, he is the son.’ Neither did he tell her how they teased him at school, embarrassing him with questions like, ‘Why is your mother not wearing any sindoor? Has your father died?’ The senior section girls who always bullied him, would play-act his mother’s role, ‘Uff my husband ran away with his boyfriend, what should I do now?’

He recalled the past now, with the disappointing clarity of a man for whom life had come full circle. As the first light of morning filtered through his bedroom curtains, he packed his belongings in a bag, tied it with a piece of rope, and slung it over his shoulder. He did not want his elder brother to go through any of his belongings after he’d gone. Presently, he unlocked the front door without making any noise, let himself out, and stopped to look at the home he was leaving behind. For a second time. But this time, forever. He turned and walked wearily along the pucca road, which ran in front of the house, went straight for a while, and then forked away to the right, ending abruptly by the banks of river Brahmaputra a couple of kilometres away. On the way he ran into the local milkman who was cycling his way into the neighbourhood, with two containers of milk hanging on both sides of his cycle-handle. He exchanged a few pleasantries with the milkman, before moving on.  ‘I don’t know…. He just kept on going,’ was all the milkman could say, when questioned two days later after the police got involved. The neighbours had already declared him dead and were looking forward to the ceremony which marked the departure of the soul from earth and onwards to heaven. For weeks after, while strolling past the front gates of the house, Mrs Gogoi could be seen (if not heard) whispering into her husband’s ears, ‘Perhaps it was an affair gone wrong. He was particularly close to his elder brother’s wife. I’d seen them through the kitchen window, laughing over something silly. They were standing this close!’ She’d bring both her hands close. 


A week later, the police found his slippers along the shores of Brahmaputra. But the body was never recovered. In a few days, many relatives and well-wishers started pouring in, appropriately dressed in sorrow. They offered the family their heartfelt condolences. Ranjit’s photo, handsome and smiling, was garlanded and kept on a tiny stool placed at the house’s entrance. The neighbours attended the funeral in hordes and sat in the open space by the front yard. Overcome with guilt, Dalimi was too dazed and tired to cry out, and went about her days mechanically. But she was constantly at hand, looking after the guests lest they needed anything. Junti looked distant, smoking his way through the entire day. Later, Mr Gogoi, the next-door neighbour (who had swigged two pegs in mourning behind the backyard Tamul tree with his friends, away from his wife’s prying eyes) rose and gave a eulogy, which turned out to be so long that he had to be hushed with claps of approval.

Soon, the days rolled into one another till it was difficult to separate time. Junti realised that he never really understood his younger brother. 

He recalled one night from his childhood when they had been caught by their mother It had been four years after their father had left. That night, in their excitement, they had forgotten that hushed giggles and bed creaks travelled far and loud, especially when everyone else slept in the dead of night. And by the time they’d realised, light footsteps had already moved down the corridor and halted by the door of their room. Terrified, they had waited with bated breaths and pulled the bed sheet up to their necks. In the silence that ensued, Junti had imagined their mother breaking open the door, switching on all the lights, and throwing him out. He would cry and shout and bang at the front door, but to no avail. 

The footsteps had halted outside the door, and they heard their mother’s laboured breathing. 

‘Junti? Ranjit?’ Their mother had finally called out, ‘Are you sleeping there?’

‘Umff,’ Junti had mock-yawned, ‘What happened, Ma?’

For a few seconds, the footsteps stood undecided. The doorknob creaked once. Then, miraculously, the footsteps had retreated and the bathroom light had gone off again. The next morning, Junti had woken to find Ranjit’s bed empty. His younger brother was already seated at the breakfast table. Their mother eyeing him with disgust from across the table. Did the idiot confess everything? Junti had wondered, bracing himself to face his mother’s wrath. But their mother never confronted Junti about that night ever again. In a month’s time, Ranjit had been sent off to live with their mother’s brother’s family. Junti now wondered, why he hadn’t stood up for his brother then and had preferred to remain quiet? Why didn’t he protect him from those bullies at school? Ranjit never told him about them but he knew.

So many times, his younger brother had tried to talk to him out of their relationship and pushed him away, at times avoiding him for months. But then they had again ended up together. He tried to catch his wife’s eyes now, but she avoided his gaze for the next few days.


One night, Junti could not sleep. Around midnight, once his wife was fast asleep, he sneaked into Ranjit’s room. He had remembered an old album, stashed inside Ranjit’s cupboard. He rummaged through the cupboard, and took out the album. He took it back to his own bed and started flipping through the pages. One particular photo caught his attention. It was from the evening their father had disappeared. In it, a smiling Ranjit stood at the centre, with their mother’s almirah, where she kept her sarees, in the background. Their father had just gone out to buy cigarettes, and they, Ranjit and Junti, had started playing some silly game inside the almirah. While fighting, as they had hugged and kissed each other, they had felt an attraction far beyond brotherly love. With a flushed face, Junti had felt funny butterflies tingling inside his stomach. And when their mother had called out ‘Where are you both?’ From the kitchen, they had hurried out of the almirah and giggled uncontrollably. Junti had picked up the camera lying inside the almirah and pointed at Ranjit. After all these years, he could still hear his heart beating fast, as his younger brother had whispered to him, ‘I will always love you, bhai, no matter what.’


‘But what if mother finds out.’ He had added.


‘She won’t.’ Junti had giggled. ‘We will hide inside the almirah.’


Junti turned to look at his sleeping wife now. He had never wanted to marry. But his mother had been persistent. Finally, he had relented. It was as if his mother had been waiting all these years just to see him settled, for she had died soon after. He remembered their marriage day now. It had been a low-key affair, with only the necessary people present. After the ceremony got over, Junti’s friends had stopped an auto-rickshaw and shoved them inside, with Raja, one of his friends, shouting over the din of traffic to Junti, ‘Everyone must be waiting. So, take nobou straight to her new home.’ Sitting on the rickshaw seat, Junti had suddenly panicked, will he be able to keep her happy? But a shy Dalimi, with her head wrapped in the bride’s stole, had placed her warm hand on his. Finally, when the rickshaw had stopped by the front gate of the house, they were greeted by a smiling Ranjit who had been standing in the sun since the morning to greet the newly-weds. There was a hurried shout of ‘They have come’ from inside the house, followed by a frenzied shuffling of feet till their mother had appeared carrying a bevy of steel utensils. They were laid in a single line before the bride, who had then pushed them over with her right foot as per the custom. All this while, Junti recalled, Dalimi’s hand had been locked into his.

He looked at his sleeping wife again, and promised himself that things would be different from now. She had suffered a lot.

Meanwhile, as Junti sat looking at his sleeping wife, a dream, that had been tormenting her for days now, was troubling Dalimi again. In the dream, Ranjit is standing beside her bed, with a note held in his hands. He hesitates there for the longest time, and then slips the note under her mattress. She realises he is going away and will never come back. But she keeps her eyes shut and pretends to sleep. After some time, he walks away, and her hand instinctively reaches out for her husband. But he is not there. She jumps up and starts searching frantically in every room. But her husband and Ranjit are nowhere to be found. She reads the note and realises that, finally, they both have run away with each other. Now what will happen to her? Will the same story from her husband’s childhood repeat itself?

She wakes from the dream with a start, and holds her husband tightly. Junti looks into her watery eyes, surprised, and notices how they resemble the Brahmaputra in monsoons, at places where the rising water hits the cliff, the dark brown of the soil mixes with the blue overflowing water. He sighs and wonders, where to even begin? what now? 


Himangshu Dutta currently lives in Chennai, where he works as an auditor in a multinational company. He is a member of The Bangalore Writers Workshop. Originally hailing from Guwahati, Assam, he was born at a time when a language revolution (called the Assam Movement of the 1980s) was brewing across the state. Through his prose, he hopes to capture the smell and feel of those times, and relive his childhood. He loves going out on long walks, mountain treks, or simply cruising along aimlessly on his motorbike.

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: K VAISHALI

Floral Patterns

K Vaishali

I was at the mall with my girlfriend Koko, who needed a new hoodie. I held her hand on the escalator, and watched her panic. She avoided my eyes and glanced nervously at everyone around us, in what looked like an attempt to communicate that it wasn’t her idea to hold my hand. I let go. 

I had been dreaming of holding her hand in the mall since I realised I liked her and was waiting for her to realise that she liked me too. We held hands in our hostel room all the time. She had baby-soft hands that I was always aching to hold. Why not at a mall?

Was she uncomfortable with folks thinking we were lovers? She was twenty-five, and it was her first relationship. She probably needed time to adjust. But who would really think we were lovers in Hyderabad? They’d probably think we were sisters, even if we told them we were lovers. Maybe she’d be uncomfortable if I were a boy and held her hand too. I asked her why she was being weird. 

‘I don’t want to have private emotions in public.’      

Koko was a private person. If she could go through life pulling no attention to herself, she would. She was at the university studying Painting and I was studying English. In six months, she had read everything I’ve written, even my novel, but I hadn’t seen any of her paintings. I know artists can shy away from showing a work-in-progress, but she won’t even show me the Madhubani painting she made when she was in high school. Or the portrait of a dancer she made during her bachelor’s degree that she has described to me in great detail. She won’t show me any pictures of herself from before we met. Or pictures of her family or her house in Nepal. When I ask her to see photos from her past, she says, ‘It’s not worth seeing.’

We spent all day and night with each other and to my surprise, even after six months, her company never bored or annoyed me. We loved each other’s company, but we loved our own company too, and we respected that. Sometimes we talked into the night like we were the only two people in the world. Sometimes we stayed in the same room and went hours without talking. And sometimes we stayed in our own room all day, giving each other space to paint and write. It was all the goodness of being alone but with a brilliant woman near me who listened to my feverish ramblings about plot ideas, distracted me with funny videos when I was stressed, and played old music and held me when I felt sad. It was great. 

Before we met, we both had elaborate plans to live as spinsters. Koko thought she was asexual and was considering a life as a Buddhist nun. My ex and I were the only women who love women that I knew. I waited four years for her to tell her family that she liked me, but instead she said she’ll marry a boy. I was convinced that I’d never find love again. I was writing a cookbook that had measurements for single servings of traditional south Indian dishes and pro-tips for spinsters who can’t be bothered. Maybe I won’t need to finish writing it.

Koko adored her parents. She looked cute holding her mobile phone in hand, waiting for their call at ten every night. The rest of the day she didn’t know where her phone was. They talked for hours every night in Nepali, while I listened passively and read or did assignments. I know the Nepali words for rain, early morning, afternoon, dinner, brinjal, potato, meat, plenty, and a few more. Half the words were the same as in Hindi, so it was easy. 

The more I understood Nepali, the more I realised how one-sided their conversations were. Her parents talked about her siblings, their extended family, and their worries. She mostly just talked about the food she ate that day. She didn’t even tell them when she was sick. I felt silly sending a picture of a thermometer flashing 100 degrees Fahrenheit to my mother to get her to call me twice a day and say nice things. 

The moment we kissed, I called all five of my friends and told them that we were together. Two of them had wagered that my love won’t be reciprocated, and I especially enjoyed telling them. I even hinted it to my homophobic mother by saying I was going on a date with her. 

‘Does she know you are going on a date?’       

‘Yeah, Mom, I’m not a creep.’      

When I asked Koko if she was going to tell anyone, she said, ‘There is no one to tell.’     

‘Are you scared that someone will tell the police and we’ll go to jail?’ I asked. ‘I know it’s illegal, but I doubt anyone will report us –’     

‘No, it’s not that, I’m just not that close with anyone,’ she said.

‘Your parents?’

‘You think they’ll be happy about us? Nobody in our village knows about same-sex relationships. If I tell them now, they’ll just panic and ask me to come back home. I’ll tell them when we leave university and get jobs.’

‘That makes sense.’


Koko and I went to the mall again to shop for a hoodie for her, for the eighth time. Hands to ourselves now. It got annoying shopping with her, with all the problems she found in every piece of clothing. 

‘Isn’t the colour too bright?’

‘The sleeves are puffy.’

‘It’s too long for my height.’

‘I don’t like the fabric. It’ll get rough after one wash.’

She had a specific vision of what she wanted and never compromised. It amazed me, the precision with which she analysed an outfit. If I found her a hoodie of a sober colour, I’d forget to check if the sleeve was to her liking, or the length, or how big the hood was, or if the zipper was too sharp, or if the cloth was soft or if the cloth would keep her warm enough. Not her. One look at a hoodie and she’d analyse all these fifty parameters and figure out what was wrong with it. In a second. It was amazing to watch, till it got annoying after a hundred hoodies and I’d get distracted looking at t-shirts for myself or complain of heel pain.  

‘I’m surprised you have any clothes,’ I said.

‘My dad bought most of my clothes,’ she said.

‘It figures.’

‘What figures? My dad has the best taste in clothes.’

‘Oh yes, but I was just wondering how you have tops with puffy sleeves, now I know,’ I said.

‘Don’t you say anything bad about my light blue top,’ she said, frowning.  

‘Why would I? You look great in it.’

We went home without buying a hoodie, again. She wore an old hoodie of mine till we could find one that suited her taste. 


I walked into Koko’s room and caught her sketching. Red-handed. I said, ‘Hand me your sketchbook, I have to see it.’

She was sketching a still-life of my Suzuki scooter. We both loved the scooter. On days we didn’t have class, we’d get on the scooter and drive to the old city. At every turn, I’d ask Koko if I should make a left, a right, or go straight, and we navigated that way, stopping only to take photographs of old buildings. Koko would say left six times in a row and we’d be driving in circles on a busy road, wondering why all the buildings looked the same, till we realised it. Her sketch captured the scooter from behind, near a tree, with magnolia flowers on the ground and on the scooter’s seat. 

‘I want to frame this,’ I said.

‘It’s just a sketch, not even a good sketch,’ she said.

‘Are you kidding? The form is perfect, the lighting is perfect, the shadows are perfect, it is almost as exact as a photograph.’

‘Yeah, it is just like an ordinary photograph,’ she said.

‘No, that’s not what I meant. You have captured the form as exactly as a photograph, but your sketch is so much more beautiful,’ I said.

‘It’s okay, I guess.’

‘Send it to your parents and I know they will say it is really good.’

‘No, they won’t say anything,’ she said.

‘How can they not say something about this beautiful sketch? Just send!’

She sent a picture of the sketch to her parents while I browsed through the rest of the sketchbook. She had sketched the park bench we had once sat on and had a long conversation about our childhood. There were sketches of flowers, teacups, a faint sketch of my lips. 

‘You are talented! And I’m honoured to be your muse,’ I said, pointing at the sketch of my lips.

‘You have nice lips.’


It was Koko’s birthday, and she told me not to mention it.  

‘I’m not giving up a legitimate excuse to eat cake, I don’t get that often,’ I said with a butterscotch cake in my hand. 

I was expecting her to get angry, the way she easily did when she was misunderstood. But she smiled, a brief smile, that told me she wanted cake too. And perhaps more. 

The cake came with tiny candles that I lit. I asked her to make a wish. We cut the cake and as we took a bite, she said, ‘This is my first birthday cake.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘My parents never got me cakes,’ she said.

‘Not even when you were little?’

‘I don’t think so. There are pictures of my brother and sister with cakes and birthday caps, but not me.’     

‘Maybe they forgot to click pictures,’ I said.

‘Maybe they forgot my birthday,’ she said. I could see her eyes well up. 

‘I promise, for as long as you live, we will always have cake on your birthday.’     

She smiled.

We had leftover cake and no refrigerator in the hostel to keep it. 

‘If you don’t want to smell a rotting cake, I suggest we distribute it in the hostel,’ I said.

‘But they’ll know it's my birthday!’

‘Yeah, so?’

‘I don’t want anyone else to know,’ she said.

‘Why? Is it a secret? Or is your birthday on a different day, and you lied to eat cake?’ I joked. ‘Show me the birthday on your college ID.’       

‘I just don’t want others to know,’ she said.

‘Should I tell them it is my birthday?’     

‘Can’t we just give them cake without an explanation?’

‘What if they ask who’s birthday it is? Should I lie?’ I asked. 

‘If they ask, you can tell them it's mine.’

We placed a slice of cake on a piece of paper and took it to our neighbour's room. They asked us whose birthday it was.

‘Hers!’ I exclaimed, pointing at Koko. 

‘Happy birthday!’     

‘I told her not to get a cake,’ Koko said, ‘What’s the need for cake and celebrating a birthday at this age –’     

‘You don’t need to apologise for getting some attention on your birthday,’ I said when we were alone.  

‘I am just not comfortable with them thinking I made this fuss for a birthday,’ she said. 

‘Aren’t you going to send a picture of the cake to your parents?’ I asked.

‘No, they won’t care.’

‘Did they say anything about the scooter sketch?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I told you they won’t care. It wasn’t a good sketch, I shouldn’t have sent it.’     

‘Do they ever say anything nice about your paintings?’     

‘Not really,’ she said, her eyes welled up again.


We rode on the scooter to a different mall, hoping to find the hoodie Koko wanted.  

‘I don’t want to pressure you or anything,’ I said, browsing through H&M for hoodies. ‘But, I still think you should tell someone about me. You know – in case something happens –’

‘In case what happens, exactly?’ she asked.

‘Like maybe something happens to you and everyone suspects me. And I can’t prove we are lovers in court so they lock me up,’ I said, thinking on my feet, wishing I had thought of a better scenario.

‘Why? Lovers never hurt each other?’ 

‘Okay, that was a terrible scenario,’ I said. ‘Let’s say you become this famous painter and die, and I want to use your fame to become a famous writer, but no one would corroborate the fact that we were lovers, except my friends who you never talk to, so they think I am lying too, and I die unfamous. Or everybody thinks I am mad for making up the story and I become famous for the wrong reasons!’

‘You lost me at the part where I became a famous painter.’

‘I’m just saying,’ I said, thinking hard. ‘Okay, let’s say you leave me and in sadness I drop my phone and I lose your contact number and our messages. You are too good to be true, and I already doubt all this is part of my imagination, so I’ll doubt you ever existed. Imagine how stark raving mad I would go! But if you were to tell a friend, I could ask them if we were really together. And they’d say yes, and I’d know it was real.’           

‘Why don’t you take a few days to think of a sensible scenario?’

‘Okay. Did you like any hoodies?’


‘Great,’ I sighed, ‘Let’s get out of here! I want to buy underwear.’

We went to a Jockey showroom. At the underwear counter, I told the salesperson my size and asked them to show me hipster-styled, plain underwear. 

The salesperson rummaged through boxes in the glass cabinet and laid out a few underwear. I picked out dark colours and asked them for a bill. I already had the same colours and liked how easy it was to rub blood stains out of dark colours. 

‘Wait! There is no way I am letting you buy the same colours you already have,’ Koko said. ‘I am sick of seeing you in these! Why don’t you wear colourful underwear with floral patterns?’

The salesperson stopped short. She widened her eyes and exchanged glances with the other salesperson.  

‘Show us underwear with floral patterns, please,’ Koko said. ‘And no grey or black underwear, thank you!’

The salesperson rummaged through the boxes in the glass cabinet again and laid out floral-patterned underwear. She picked three she liked. I nodded at the salesperson to pack the underwear, paid for it, and got out of there. 

‘Did you like the underwear I picked out?’ she asked. 

‘You know you just came out to that salesperson, right?’     


‘You literally said you prefer to see me in floral-patterned underwear.’

‘Shit!’ She facepalmed. 

‘Can’t believe I’d have to drag an underwear salesperson to court if I ever have to prove our relationship,’ I said, laughing out.

‘I am so embarrassed! Shit!’ she said, going red. 

‘Are you okay? Are you feeling shame or something?’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Just awkward.’

‘Awkward is okay,’ I smiled.


K Vaishali has a masters in communication from the University of Hyderabad. Her publications include a novella by Leadstart Publishing and short stories by Sahitya Akademi's Indian Journal, and Asian Extracts. Her day job involves writing user guides about cloud computing for Salesforce.


The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: TANVI CHOWDHARY


Tanvi Chowdhary

She had given the man who was bleeding out of his mouth and nose a doll to keep him company, and that seemed to have worked. He still spent all his time rattling about the kitchens on the third floor landing, but had ceased the moaning and the crying. He wasn’t an unreasonable ghost, and she counted the business as a success.  

That day she’d been called to Gomti Nagar for another spirit, so she had an excuse to drop in on Noora. She took her scooter out and sighed before jamming the key and bringing the vehicle to life. 

Ghosthunting was a ridiculous business to be getting half her income from, but it was even more ridiculous to look forward to meeting a ghost

She determinedly left Noora for the end, finishing all the jobs on her list – picked up groceries, the book that Arnav had asked for, and even finished her work with one of the most malevolent spirits she knew. The owner of the house gratefully paid her a thousand rupees because the spirit had been breaking all his windows. 

Noora lived in Vijay Khand, in a small home with kai on the walls, fitting for a ghost (she had a touch of drama, after all). When Laxmi arrived, Zainab opened the door without her needing to ring the bell. ‘Thank god you’re here,’ she said, ushering Laxmi in without invitation. 

‘You didn’t call me, though,’ Laxmi said, shaking off her windcheater. 

‘You always seem to know when Noora is distressed,’ Zainab said absently. 

Laxmi shrugged uncomfortably, unsure of how to feel about her secrets being placed in the middle of the room so thoughtlessly. ‘What’s up?’ 

Zainab sighed. ‘I … don’t know. But I had a request, Lux…. I have to go home to Allahabad. Ammi’s been unwell, and I…’

Laxmi waited. Zainab chewed her lip. ‘I don’t want to leave her alone. It’s her death day soon, and … look, could you stay? I’ll pay you to stay and keep her company, and we’re stocked for a week so you don’t have to worry about food either.’

Laxmi turned around, and sure enough, Noora was standing by the bookshelf. And because the winter light was already thin, it barely fell on her – she was musty and dusty and barely breathing, but she was beautiful. All ghosts were beautiful – even the ones scarred and charred, like the one on the fourth floor of her building, Ajanta – but Noora had to be the most beautiful ghost Laxmi had ever seen. Her hair fell in soft waves, and Zainab was right – she was distressed: her hair was pooling close to her feet today. Light seemed to come through her, leaking from the scar on her lip. 

‘You are so strange, Zainab,’ muttered Laxmi. Zainab had always been like this – she had wanted to know why Noora was haunting her, whether she had unfinished business, whether Noora would like company for things that she did not remember – like her birthday, or her death day. ‘Sure, I’ll stay. But I have to go and pick some things up.’ 

‘Okay,’ said Zainab. ‘Give me – is it okay if I make you some tea?’

Laxmi nodded. Zainab needed to give her hands something to do, or she fretted. Laxmi watched Noora – when she sat down on the sofa, she saw Noora mimicking her from her spot in the bookshelf. ‘If you want to sit, why don’t you sit?’ Laxmi offered, her eyebrows raised. 

‘Hmm?’ said Zainab, from the kitchen. ‘Why were you here, anyway?’ 

‘Business in Gomti Nagar.’

‘A ghost in Gomti Nagar?’ asked Zainab, distracted. 

‘You have one,’ Laxmi pointed out. 

‘But Noora is weird,’ said Zainab. 

That was true. Ghosts didn’t come naturally to Gomti Nagar - it was spacious and rich, no good for ghosts to live. Noora might be from before, but Laxmi struggled to remember a time when Gomti Nagar wasn’t rich and Hindu. Even Zainab had rented her home from a friend of her family’s. What this Muslim girl had thought before haunting the only small house in the area, Laxmi didn’t know. 

‘I think it’s the pandemic, actually,’ said Laxmi. ‘I’ve never had this much business before.’

Zainab sighed, pouring milk into the tea. Laxmi wasn’t lying: the pandemic had excited all the ghosts from everywhere. You noticed more in apartments and in cramped living quarters, which was why there was a ghost on practically every floor in Ajanta. Laxmi wondered if it was the slowness of time or the pile up of resentment. All of these feelings of heartbreak and anger, generally swept away with the business of every day, had dominated [the atmosphere] lately. Spirits that had been dormant for centuries were waking up – they lived more in kitchens than anywhere else. Kitchens stored resentment like no one’s business. 

Laxmi smiled encouragingly at Noora, who smiled back, radiant. Noora had to have been her age, and she never spoke, never rattled the windows, never bothered with anything, really. Laxmi sometimes wondered how Zainab had even found her, but she had, and she’d found Laxmi which spoke only of Zainab’s tenacity. 

‘When will you come back?’ asked Laxmi, taking the teacup from Zainab. 

‘Three days,’ promised Zainab. ‘Thank you so much, Lux.’

By the time people came to Laxmi, their problems were usually already exacerbated. In homes with a lot of anger, ghosts became violent and loud – that was when they were noticed. At times, Laxmi was called when there was ill will in the air, when something was wrong but you couldn’t tell what. Zainab had called her before any of these things had happened. She had done research on Noora, found her history for Laxmi. Her name is Noora, I found her records in the public archives, I don’t know how she died, I don’t know what she wants, but can you bring her to talk? No one else treated ghosts in this way. People generally called her when they wanted ghosts gone, or wanted to cohabit peacefully with their resentments. Zainab had called her to understand Noora better. 

Ghosts didn’t work that way: they were rarely very dramatic, they never seemed to want vengeance for the wrongs done to them. They just buried themselves in half feelings and manifested by destroying something or the other. You had to manage them; give them dolls and manacles and ease their pain, make them feel loved. And Laxmi was very good at it – she understood every ghost she had encountered. She could tell what they wanted. Everyone in Ajanta said so; that she could always tell what a ghost wanted. 

She went home to Ajanta in the evening to drop off her groceries and the first person she encountered was Arnav. He was standing outside their apartment looking cross. ‘The ghost on the fourth floor is always dragging the manacles around above my room,’ he complained. ‘Can’t you tell her off, Sabun di? The dust gets on all my books.’

‘Then stop reading,’ said Laxmi, pointedly, stepping into the apartment and taking off her windcheater. ‘Don’t complain about her now, Arnav. I only just got her to stop screaming. We’ve all got sleep to catch up on.’

Arnav pouted at her. Someone needed to tell him that he wasn’t ten years old anymore and that sort of thing didn’t work when you became twelve. ‘You should read more. Then you’d know why I call her Mrs Goon.’

‘I don’t have to know,’ said Laxmi, handing him the book he had demanded [she bring him. OR asked for.]. ‘Children’s books.’ 

‘They’re mystery novels!’ said Arnav angrily, but his lip was wobbling. Laxmi pursed her lips, yet she didn’t apologise. She found it hard to apologise to anyone during the pandemic – her faults kept piling up, and the list of owed apologies even longer. 

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Can you tell your parents I have to stay at a friend’s for a few days?’ 

‘Oh … who?’ 

Laxmi hesitated. ‘Zainab.’

‘You’re going to visit Noora,’ said Arnav. She met his eyes – and because he was twelve, he hadn’t mastered the art of searching her with his gaze. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Can I come to your room?’

‘No!’ said Laxmi, annoyed.

Laxmi locked her room for good measure when she left. Arnav’s parents wouldn’t have let him in anyway, but it was important to draw the boundary. It wasn’t as though there was anything of importance in her room. Still, renting a room came with the expectation of privacy.  

By the time she reached Gomti Nagar, Zainab had already left – keys in the potted plant by the doorway, and a dish of daal ready. 

Noora’s light was everywhere – she herself was nowhere to be found. She did that sometimes; settled into the walls of the house with her light shining through the cracks. Laxmi rolled her eyes. ‘Come on, don’t trouble me.’

Noora was at the dining table then, having finally gotten her body together to look at Laxmi. 

‘What have you been up to?’ asked Laxmi, rolling out the aata from the fridge. ‘I don’t think you want to know about my boring day.’

Noora pressed her fingers to the table and white light leaked out of her like streams. 

‘It’s one of those days, isn’t it,’ murmured Laxmi. She threw a roti on the tawa. 

Noora was the most people like of ghosts she’d ever seen. ‘You’d be good at scaring people, do you know?’ Laxmi flipped the second roti and waited. 

She left feelings hovering all over her home instead of sounds and fear – if you didn’t know what you were looking for, it was infinitely scarier than a woman moaning with manacles on her shins. There was something wistful that Noora left in her wake – something bitter sweet and forgotten, like a sense of being lost. 

Noora grinned at her. Laxmi rolled her eyes, and finished the second roti. She served her plate full of food and sat at the dinner table. ‘You want any?’ 

She scoffed. Movements that weren’t facial expressions were difficult for Noora, but she managed to jerk her head towards Zainab’s photo of her family. 

‘Well, I … no,’ confessed Laxmi. ‘I didn’t have time to visit them, and I didn’t…’ Noora waited. ‘I don’t want to,’ finished Laxmi. ‘Not everyone has Zainab’s wonderful family. Besides, I like Ajanta, and I’d never get any signal in my village… what happens to my classes then?’

She wasn’t lying. She liked the small, cramped building, and all her neighbours – even Arnav. They were the reason she had so much business. Yet it was difficult not to feel envious at times. it was different for rich people, was what Laxmi thought uncharitably from time to time. Zainab came from a good family – they had called a friend and rented her a home in Gomti Nagar. Laxmi was squashed in a tiny room in Ajanta, and every time she went home to her village, her parents insisted she get married. 

‘I just … don’t want to marry yet,’ said Laxmi. 

Noora’s fingers slipped between hers, and Laxmi felt warm and cold at the same time. 

Before she fell asleep in Zainab’s bed, she opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. ‘Goodnight, Noora.’ 

Something whispered in the air. It might have been the ghost of Noora, flitting about in the kitchen as she often did, or it might have been the distant sound of wind hissing through the cracks in the windows. 


Zainab’s home always got a lot of light. Everything was clean and airy, but Laxmi was determined to do her part. She cleaned and tidied, reorganised the washing rack for dishes, and began her classes. Noora haphazardly threw oranges at her to remind her to eat. They managed quietly for most of the day – that was the nicest thing about Noora. She listened and helped and always did it so gently. It was also one of the first times Laxmi had seen Noora in the mornings, and somehow, the morning light made her look even more beautiful. 

Since she was in a better mood, her hair had reached a reasonable waist length, but it still fluttered everywhere. You’d find strands of Noora’s hair in every corner of the house. They dissolved into bits of light as soon as you touched them, which meant that Laxmi couldn’t stop trying to find them. 

They had dinner together, and Noora held her hand – more light dripped from her than ever before, and Laxmi knew. This was the last time. 


The next day, Laxmi was careful. They made breakfast, she didn’t touch Noora. She went through classes, they didn’t touch. Night came, and they didn’t touch. Laxmi felt forlorn in bed, all alone. 

On their last day together they decided to watch a movie. Noora hadn’t seen a lot of English movies, so Laxmi had come prepared. She had picked a romantic movie, with a sappy sound track. They curled up at the tv in Zainab’s home. She felt Noora’s hair drifting on her, settling on her fingers and back, dissolving into light the minute she became aware of them. Noora was sitting next to her, but she flickered. She disappeared when there were miscommunications between the hero and heroine, reappeared when they started falling in love. 

The woman and the man danced on screen, late at night and so in love. Laxmi’s heart clenched – Noora was sitting right next to her. She looked at Laxmi inquiringly. 

‘I don’t dance,’ said Laxmi. 

Noora flickered out of existence and appeared in front of her. Her fingers were held out expectantly, and Laxmi sighed. 

‘I don’t like this,’ she informed her. 

Noora smiled. Their fingers should go through each other, but they held – at times, Laxmi’s fingers dipping into Noora’s – cutting through, pouring out bits of light. The music was ringing in her ears, and they spun around the room – light and more light dripping from Noora, like water. 

Laxmi watched, mesmerised, as Noora guided her through the room, around the sofa, and as the music ended she watched Noora more carefully. 

Noora quirked a brow. 

‘You look beautiful,’ offered Laxmi. 

Her cheeks coloured light. 

It didn’t make sense – but her heart was beating a mile a minute, and Noora was looking beautiful, and light was everywhere. ‘If I kiss you again,’ said Laxmi quietly. ‘You won’t survive, would you?’ 

Noora bit her lip. She bled light. 

Laxmi could feel her throat closing up. 

They shouldn’t have fallen in love. There were forty years of death that lay between them, of resentment that had allowed Noora to come back. You love ghosts too much, they disappear – they weren’t meant to live in happy hearts and happy homes, they weren’t meant to be cared for by people like Zainab and kissed by Laxmi. Perhaps that’s why Noora had been such a quiet ghost – living in the richest neighbourhood of Lucknow, where resentment was bred more carefully. Perhaps that’s why such a listening ghost had come to life here, someone who had paid her attention when practically no one at home had.

Noora held her hand again, and despite the light bleeding through, Laxmi wanted to kiss her. ‘I love you,’ she said quietly. 

With all the effort in the world, Noora laced their fingers together. 

Noora should go. She should rest, sleep, and never return to this half of the present. 

Laxmi touched her cheek, and light stained her fingers like oil. 

I love you too, mouthed Noora. 

All the movement had already sapped her – she only had some time left. Laxmi did the only thing left to do and kissed her. 


Tanvi Chowdhary is a student of English Literature and did her Master's from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research is primarily concerned with an odd combination of nineteenth-century literature and reading practices associated with fanfiction. She graduated from the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, and has subsequently been published in their anthology, Multitudes. She has also been published in Muse India, Alma Magazine, and Asterism