Monday, May 21, 2012

My First Published Fiction!

I feel like a seasoned actor who suddenly develops a stage fright. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, this blog has been around for more than half a decade and I have been a journalist for just as long, used to people reading stories that have carried my byline. Yet, it is with a strange nervousness that I post the link below, that of my first published fiction story!

The good people at Himal Southasian, that very respected magazine published (only online now) from Kathmandu, Nepal published my story today. I cannot say I was happy with the editing, for I think they have completely messed up the style. But this is my first published story and I shall not crib.

So here it is. Do read and let me know what you thought. I called it A Cicada at the Door.

A friend, my best critic who I always show my stories to before I even read them myself a second time, told me that the symbolisms associated with cicadas were appropriate too. Confession, I had named the story thus because I liked how the word cicada sounded, and because we have hundreds of them back home. I did not have an inkling of the symbolism until he told me about it and I looked up cicadas.

Ok, I will stop squirming in my seat and leave you to read the story here or see below.

Postscript: My parents celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary today. Each of them jokes that they have managed to tolerate the other for all these years. But I know that there is their version of love and affection there. Happy anniversary, Amma, Appa. I wouldn’t have been me without you.

Edit: A disclaimer. The story above is NOT inspired by Aamir Khan's Satyameva Jayate episode. I haven't watched that episode and I don't follow his show, but a friend warned me that I would surely be asked about the reference repeatedly. So, again, I wrote this story many, many months ago and it has nothing to do with Aamir's show or any other living person I know.


The long wooden pestle hit her stomach for the seventh time. After the fourth, she had known that the baby had died. Once that thought had faintly registered in her mind, she had stopped crying. All her broken heart and damaged body could now do was grunt, with her arms loosely wrapped around her stomach as if to protect the soul of her dead girl from the fate she would have faced. She knew it had been a girl, for it was the reason the blows landed on her, now for the eighth and the ninth time.

She didn’t deserve a name, her husband had said. She had had one, though the name her mother used to call her by was long forgotten. In the language of their elders, there was no feminine gender. ‘She’ was a soulless, genderless ‘it’, standing in for all the ‘her’s. Womanhood reduced to diktats from the elders, to two-thousand-year old traditions maintained in pristine condition.

Not that her husband adhered to the rules. As a man, his slight excesses were dusted off to a corner behind the door. Excesses like the not-so-unusual social drinks with friends (from all communities!); like the affair with a pretty, long-legged twenty-something girl; like the videos stored on his phone. The affair did elicit frowns, but then his uncles laughed and forgave him. In the days of their own youth, girls had swooned over them too.

Someone handed her a glass of water. But where would she even begin to wash herself? What was she expected to wash away? The sins she had not committed, but that her unborn daughter must have? She looked up at the person who gave her the water. Maybe those eyes would say something soft. But they looked away. She watched those feet hasten out. They had been told not to linger.

The task of cleansing herself was hers alone. She sat leaning against the wall, cold like her husband’s stare that evening when he looked at the doctor’s report. The water was red, like bloody rivulets around her. If she could, she would love to disappear into the wall’s plainness, let its coldness draw away the heat from between her legs. It would get warmer, she knew, and there would be more pain. She had been here, in this room, in this numbness, against the wall before.

The pair of hands that had given her some water reappeared with a piece of cloth. She was not sure what she ought to do with it. Was it to change into? Or was it to wipe away the sweat from her brow? Or tears? But then, the tears had never stopped. She took the cloth, and held it to her breast, trying to decide what it could be for. That was where it hurt the most. She tried to stand up, but her body felt lifeless, a dead weight. Dead like the daughter she would have bought pink frocks and teddy bears for.

Would she die this time? She had long stopped praying that she did. Both the male and female gods had deserted her. But she would live, she knew, like the last time. Because her husband had promised, on her behalf, a new heir for the family. A man, who would grow up just like his father. With his own excesses. She couldn’t die just yet because her husband wouldn’t allow it. He wouldn’t even allow her to cry in this corner. Her weeping, however silent it was, irritated him. And that was just not allowed in their house.

She would have to pull herself up. There would never be any help. This was her fault, her sin. If she had not shown the report to him, wouldn’t he have found out later anyway? Wouldn’t he then have killed both her and her daughter? That would have been preferable. To die together, rather than leave the girl to do so alone. The water in the glass choked her. Just like the way every plate of food had stuck in her throat for days and weeks after the last time.

She had had the luxury of sitting against the wall for a whole ten minutes now. Her husband would walk in again, drunk no doubt. It was time she cleaned up. At the third attempt, she managed to hoist herself up, leaning against the cold wall. But at the first step forward, she stumbled and had to hold on to the long wooden pestle propped against the corner, the pestle that had killed her daughter. The irony almost made her laugh. The pestle was the first thing she removed from the room.

It took her half an hour to scrub the room clean. The last time she had asked for help, her husband had forbidden it, so that she would remember not to repeat her sins. This time, she needed none. Everything physical about her had stopped hurting long ago. Her husband, ‘her man’, as he wished to call himself, would walk in and expect her to be ready for him. Just like he had expected it the last time. Her body no longer hurt, so it didn’t matter what he expected.

In another half hour, she was in clean clothes. Her husband walked in. His presence didn’t reek of rage, or of alcohol. He was looking at her. His eyes were never the sort that told her what he was thinking. But then she was not allowed to stare too long. The rules said that an ‘it’ couldn’t look straight into a man’s eyes while taking his orders. Under his gaze, she began to feel nervous. Would he pick up the pestle again?

Or was he going to say sorry? Was he regretting it? Would he come towards her and brush the uncombed strands of hair away from her forehead? Would he then whisper that he had made a mistake? That it was his fault she was hurt? Would saying that make it all right? She had heard that some men were like that. Gentle towards their wives, whom they called by their given names. No, her husband was not about to do any of that. A man never made mistakes.

“Smile,” he growled at her.

She, trained to dance to his every whim, smiled slightly.

He told her that it was evening already, and that she should not forget to keep smiling. She nodded. ‘It’ wouldn’t have thought there was any other option available.

She had survived again, yet another day. Her daughter hadn’t. The doorbell rang. It sounded like a cicada and reminded her of monsoons at her mother’s house.

He had been made the managing director of the company he worked at. The happily married Mr and Mrs Varma were throwing a party that evening for their closest friends. They would click champagne glasses and celebrate his successes. And she would remember to smile.

~ Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Bangalore, but is plotting moving back to the hills. She blogs at

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Six Years Past

(Pic from the internet)

May is a month with dates I don’t want to remember. But then, that’s the thing about the mind, isn’t it? You always remember what you don’t want to remember.

Six years ago to yesterday, May 15, I came into this city, wide-eyed with wonder at the lights and the lives. The city must have sniggered then at my naivety. More than half a decade on, the city has had the last laugh and my eyes hold a jaded look. I avert my eyes from the faces of strangers on the road, I look constantly over my shoulder. I learnt to not stand with my face up to welcome the first drops of rain; I had an auto to catch (and a fight to pick with the driver) before the last one passed me by.

There have been many things the city made me learn, relearn and unlearn. But still, I hope that I have remained who I was. At least in bits and jade coloured pieces.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Rain, Rain, Don't Go Away!

I have many rain stories, just like how I have several, several snake and bird and animal stories. Most of these stories are of escapades in schools, the sorts that make the best anecdotes years later. Some are of waterfalls and walking in steep plantations, slipping and scrapping shins. Stories of leeches in the front yard, of warm sweaters and harsh winds and long drives. This Saturday afternoon, it is raining. As I sit with the door open, there is sugar in my black coffee, Angus and Julia Stone croon about a heart full of wine and I think of those rain stories told in the hills.

The first thing that springs to my mind when I think of the monsoon in the hills back home is the cold. Come May and we start preparing for the rains, the afternoons are usually rained up. We used to get the firewood chopped for the season, needed to heat water in a huge iron cauldron and buy coal to dry clothes under a big cane basket. Of course modern gadgets have robbed the house of the smells of fire and singed cloth collars now. Every time we watched a rain dance on the television, we would snigger, daring those little-clothed people to try it in Madikeri, where a single drop of the rain water can have you shivering violently. My grandmother says I love the cold so much because I was born in November in a year when the winter was especially harsh. The cold is what tops my monsoon memories.

My school was on the other side of town, a whole 5.5 kms away. To catch the school bus, I had to walk a bit till a crossroad junction. In the monsoon days that I remember, the rain would fall from the sides, starting to lash out just when I had to leave to catch the bus. The driver had to make a second trip to pick up more children, so we of the first trip had to walk up a small hill to get to class. My school was nearly a resort, set on the top of a hill with a gorgeous view of valleys and mountains all around (and they expected us to study?). The walk up was when we caught up with friends from other classes, staying dry, I remember, never being a priority. I hardly remember a monsoon day when the lot of us sat in class completely dry; keeping the books dry was a pain though. Raincoats and gum boots were for kids in class 1 and 2, not cool enough for us grownups in class 5 upwards.

In Kodagu, we used to get monsoon holidays, for about 15 days, sometime in July-August when the rains were at their heaviest. It was meant for children in villages who had to help their families with ploughing and planting in fields. Almost invariably, it would hardly rain during the holidays, just what the doctor prescribed for us! The District Commissioner used to have the power to declare a holiday to schools if it rained too much on a particular day. I remember we had this one DC called Jayanthi when I was in high school who was terribly generous in doling out a holiday if it rained ever so slightly more. Perhaps she was overwhelmed by how crazy the monsoon can be in Madikeri; it tends to have strange effects on people the first year they try to survive through it. So what was a normal day of rain for us would have her hastening to declare a holiday very often. The morning radio news bulletin or the local newspaper Shakthi was where we heard of the day off. We of course loved her.

Another story from the monsoon I laugh at now is the time I and my best friend of that time, A, missed the school bus and decided to walk home. We had between us one flimsy umbrella. If you have seen monsoon in the hills, you know how laughable that is. We didn’t see why we had to tell anybody we were going home, of course. Two happy girls, skipping along the road, we soon gave up trying to shelter under one flimsy umbrella and found it better to get soaked to the skin. Her house came before mine. By the time we stepped in and sat near a nice, warm heater to dry off, we had heard an earful from her parents. In those pre-mobile phone days, our respective parents had called the school and freaked out when we weren’t found there. Dad came to pick me up and predictably we sat through another round of The Talk. The next day at school, ha! Round three!

I grimace at how it would have been now. We would have sent texts to our mothers and there wouldn’t be any such shocks. What fun would remain in such things then?

Afternoons after school would be of warm milk and something sweet to eat. It would be of non-stop rain for days on end; I remember a time when it didn’t stop raining for nearly 15 days! Monsoon would be of no electricity, no telephones and evenings spent listening to the radio in the drawing room, where it was the warmest. It would be of two thick blankets and very thick mist that I loved walking into. It would be of hurried walks about town, umbrellas whizzing past each other in a sea of black. It would be about the bell like jingle of raindrops on old red brick tiles. It would be the long drives to see distant waterfalls and getting soaked to the skin, of slippery paths and slimy creatures cold against your skin.

Monsoon would be about the walk to the library, along a long winding route that kept getting steeper after every turn. And never failing to stop to stare at the red brick house with ivy growing on its walls. It would be about wanting to pretend to have a stomach ache to skip school, and later college. It would be of ice candy lollies bought at Rs 3 each, about the cool guys in college charming their way under the girls’ umbrellas, too cool to carry their own. Of wet days and misty mountains and the inspirations.

I seem to do nostalgia best in these pages. But given the stories there and the uninspiring, filthy roads and clogged drains here, you just cannot fault me this longing, can you?

It is 7.30 pm and still raining, not having stopped since evening. After the nostalgia trip above, I thought of doing something very typical of monsoon and decided that I would make onion pakodas. I am not much of an oily snack person usually and had never made pakodas before. I had some besan, the only reason I buy it is to wash my face with (does better wonders for the skin than the best of face washes). Using what a friend calls visual memory, I remembered the evenings when ma made them for me after school on such evenings. Well, I wouldn’t call my first attempt a resounding success, but it wasn’t a disaster at all. And teamed with some cardamom tea with a hint of cinnamon in it, the pakodas were just right!

*Patting myself on the back* yeah!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Along a Narrow Lane

Along a lane, in a gorgeous little town I call my very own, I happened upon this charming house this past weekend. The road is one I used to take every day to go to kindergarten, those many years ago. After a very successful meeting that had me grinning like a Cheshire cat, not that I like cats, just this analogy, I was nearly skipping along the road when this house looked like it would fall apart to a deep breath. It looked like it welcomed all gusts of winds, all insects that flew by and all the freckles of sunlight within its cracks on the rooftop. It looked like this house had many stories housed within it, stories from a time when the world looked like this photograph does.
These are the kind of houses I most love.